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Wildfire!

Part II: The Learning Years


Newdawn leapt down the steep embankment, keeping his balance without even thinking of it. As he half-ran, half-slid down the treacherous slope, Nightblade looked up from her hide-scraping. "Good harvesting, I take it?" she asked, grinning.

He returned her smile with a tentative one of his own, breathing easily. "Well enough, I guess -- we could have filled a drag-carrier, if we'd both gone."

She shrugged, lowering her head until he couldn't see her face. "I wanted to hunt deer, and you have more patience for plucking grain-heads than I have. We can both go tomorrow, if you think it's worth it."

"I saw some likely white-root plants on the way back," he said. "I'd like to collect them, if nothing else."

"Fine. Why don't you clean up and make some flat-bread, while I finish scraping this hide? I want to get this finished."

The young elf nodded, watching the black-haired woman for a few moments before walking into the cave. Setting aside the spear, he pulled off the heavy bags with a grimace, rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks. Carrying the bags one at a time to the shaped-rock storage bin, he thought about his day as he poured the seed-heads out of the leather sacks. He had been left completely alone, he realized. Outside of sending range, even. Alone. No one to watch him. No one to keep him from slaying himself. Nightblade had suggested he harvest grain while she hunted, and had left before he could even say yes or no. She hadn't bothered to remind him of his promise. Nightblade trusted his word.

Hanging up the last sack, Newdawn stared down at his knife, then drew it. He ran his thumb down the keen edge. He hadn't once thought about killing himself, he realized. The meadow had been so peaceful, the work so monotonous, he had simply stopped thinking, and just been. He hadn't felt any sense of time, until he had nearly fallen over the filled bags in the dark. Realizing how late it was, he'd hurridly emptied his panniers, hefted the heavy bags to his back, and started for the cave, expecting any moment to find Nightblade anxiously searching for him. But she hadn't even looked worried. Even though she knew how much he wanted to die ...

The clawing pain and desire spasmed. Ten years! Slamming the knife back into its scabbard, Newdawn pulled it from under his breechclout and threw it away before he could give into temptation. Ten years, and he still could not imagine ever wanting to live! The memories still hurt so much! How could anything ever wipe out the truth of what he was - an elf killer--!

Fighting tears, Newdawn struggled to breathe deeply, invoking a calming ritual Nightblade had worked out with him that first season. Slowly his muscles relaxed as he went through the mantra - Vaerrain loved him. Spring loved him. Joy loved him. Goldensong loved him. Tyl loved him. Jest liked him. Found liked him. Farseeker liked him. The Elders liked him. Nightblade trusted him.

Sighing, the fire-haired elf opened his eyes, feeling twice as tired as before. He ached, inside and out. But at least he was in control, now. And the external ache was good. He had accomplished something today. He had harvested food to feed himself and Nightblade. Food he wouldn't have to force himself to eat--

Shutting away that thought before it could remind him of his other source of misery, Newdawn walked briskly toward the second, smaller 'room' of the cave, removing his hair-tie as he did. Discarding breechclout and sandals, he stepped under the shower Nightblade had painstakingly created, gasping from the cold water. Shivering, he grabbed a handful of pounded soaproot and began scrubbing his sweat-soaked hair, dancing in place to warm up. After a few moments, though, the cold water began to feel good. Gathering grain meant wading through grasses that varied from knee-high to shoulder-high. It was a hot, dusty, itchy job. The cold water sluiced away the dust and dried sweat, and soothed the myriad leaf-scrapes and insect bites. Finally feeling clean, and even a bit refreshed, Newdawn stepped out of the shower. Wringing the water out of his shoulder-length hair, he reached for one of the thin, absorbent leathers, once again regretting the loss of almost everything they'd brought with them to that flood six years back. After that catastrophe, he had assumed that Nightblade would take them back to the Isle after fresh supplies - or at least would ask Farseeker to have someone bring some stuff out.

She hadn't. He might have known, Newdawn thought wryly, as he pulled on a fresh clout, leaving his sandals off. Anyone who could convince his mother to let him travel well outside her reach would not be stopped by anything as simple as a flood. And, it was rather embarassing to admit, even to himself - one of the best things about being out here was that his mother was nowhere around. He was far out of range to feel her fussing and concern. Out of range of anyone's fear or worry about him. There was only Nightblade. And if she feared his unwanted ability, she kept it hidden from him. Well hidden.

Newdawn shook his head free of his wandering thoughts. Supper, he reminded himself. Going to the built-in hearth, he raked away the coals from the lidded stewpot, setting it aside before building up the fire. When the fire was flickering merrily, he set a flat-rock on top of the hearth, then went to the shelf where the utensils were kept. If Nightblade had not been a rock-shaper, he wondered if she would have been forced to return to the Isle. Certainly, without her ability, they would have had to forego such amenities as showers, shaped hearths and bowls and cups and spoons. Not, he suspected, that that would have made any difference to Nightblade. He'd heard plenty of stories about her - and her father - while he was growing up. And if her teaching partner hadn't been crippled during the Years of Sorrow, he almost certainly would have had her and Sandpainter for mentors when he first went outside. And then, if what she had said ten years ago was true, tragedy might not have happened.

Behind-sight was a waste, he reminded himself firmly. Think about something else - anything else. Like why Nightblade refused to let him attempt any kind of magic except a rare sending. Why, for the first four years especially, had she driven him to physical exhaustion, day in, day out, giving him no time to think about anything except the immediate task. Not that he minded, in a lot of ways. He had been skinny, grub-white, and unable to keep up with her for a candlemark when they'd left. Now, he was almost brown from all the time he'd spent in the sun. He was able to keep up with Nightblade all day, and had learned enough about gathering and fishing that he could probably keep himself alive by himself, if he must. He could probably even hunt and defend himself, if he could force himself past the sickening fear the thought of doing so caused him. He had at least been able to brace himself enough to accompany Nightblade on the extensive hunts she'd made after the flood destroyed their blankets and winter clothes. He'd thrown up, more than a few times, but to his profound relief, his terrible gift had never even stirred.

Nightblade came in as he slid the last of the flat rounds of bread onto a platter, dragging the skin frame with her. They ate quickly, Newdawn pretending he couldn't taste the small lumps of meat in the stew. Together, they brought the racks of drying meat inside, lashing down a wood and leather frame to block the entrance. It wouldn't stop a determined grizzly -- or humans -- but it would last long enough for the two elves to grab weapons and escape through their bolthole.

Lighting two small lamps, Newdawn banked the fire while Nightblade went to clean herself and the dishes. Sinking down onto his hay-padded pallet, the young elf groaned and rubbed his temples. His head ached. His eyes burned, and his skin was hot. Too much sun, he decided. He should have been more careful. But it had been so peaceful picking grain, that it had been easy just to let his mind drift, to not think at all. And now he'd probably have nightmares -- sunburn always triggered his nightmares.

Nightblade walked back with the silent steps of a hunter, water drops glittering on her unbound hair. Sinking gracefully to a seated position, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Newdawn shivered a little as he sensed her ascent into a sending trance. After a few moments, very faintly, he sensed the response. This far away from the Isle, Farseeker would not even try to project his presence visually. Would the far-walker have been able to contact one not as close kin-blood or sending-strength as Nightblade, Newdawn could not guess. He didn't particularly like the idea of daily contact with the Isle. It was a reminder of things he'd rather not think about. However, it was extremely unlikely that his mother would have consented to Nightblade's plan without it.

Though he wondered, sometimes, if she knew the full terms of the bargain.

Nightblade let her breath out with a long sigh, opening her eyes and grinning at him. "Your mother has found herself a distraction with Stormbear. Uncle didn't say, but I expect some collusion. Eveningstar bet Treebolt that she could pick as many berries as he could; she lost by half a basket." She continued, describing all the events of the previous night and day transferred to her by Farseeker. In total: an average summer day for the Isle. "And I told Uncle that you spent the day practicing for grain-picking contests."

Newdawn shifted his weight a little, not wanting a reminder of Nightblade's unspoken expectation that he would one day return to the Isle. "Nightblade," he said, "why haven't you made me work on my magic all these years? I thought - I thought that was why you brought me out here."

She went very still, unsmiling, eyes intent. "Ahh." A small smile crossed her face. "I was wondering how long it would be."

Her statement made no sense to him. "Well?" he demanded.

Her smile quirked on one side. "Why don't you try to tell me? Why would I tell you not to use any magic at all?"

He had been thinking. Newdawn thought some more, then shrugged. "I don't know."

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Would I make you run on a broken leg?"

"Not if you could help it. Doing that would only make the leg worse. But, I don't see..." Nightblade continued to sit very still, her eyes dark amber in the light, unwavering in their scrutiny. He shifted uncomfortably again, trying to guess the answer she was obviously waiting for him to come up with. "I suppose ... you thought my magic was ... broken?"

"Not your magic," she said. "Your soul," she continued, when he didn't speak. "If I presented you with a pile of wood and said to make fire, that first year, could you have?"

Newdawn thought back to that first year, of the nights spent awake, filled with fear that the next day, or the next, she would tell him to make use of that terrible, horrible part of him. Nights filled with pain and nightmares, when it had taken all of his will not to search for something - anything! - to end his physical existence. "I - don't know," he said finally. "I - I would have tried."

"And failed." She waited for him to look back up. "Newdawn," she continued softly, "when I brought you out here, your mind, heart and soul were as near-mortal wounds, raw and bleeding. Wounds my sister could not reach, could not Heal. Put pressure on that broken part of you, and not even your word would keep the knife from your heart."

"But I don't understand why you wouldn't even let me glide."

She shook her head. "I judged you needed an absense of magic. You needed time, Newdawn. Time to let the sharpest edges of pain fade a little. Time to let a little scar tissue grow. Time to heal."

"But I'm not--"

"Of course not," she interrupted. "If you gained full control of your magic tomorrow, you wouldn't be Healed for years, even with Silvertree's help. Mind wounds, soul wounds - there's nothing harder to Heal. A Healer can help, but the final healing comes from within yourself." She paused a moment. "In your case, final healing won't come until you can forgive yourself."

Newdawn looked down. He could not imagine ever forgiving himself of having killed Silverbranch, or of having nearly killed five other elves. His acts were unforgiveable.

"Now that you've finally asked the question, we can start on the real work." His head snapped up at her cheerful statement. Nightblade grinned. "You can't out-stubborn me, Newdawn. You're too young. I knew that eventually, you'd be strong enough -- and impatient enough -- to ask me that." Her grin broadened at his expression, eyes dancing. "However, despite your probable expectation, I am not going to start off working you on fire-magic."

He blinked, taken aback. "You're not?"

"No." A certain fierceness overcame her expression. "Even out here, I doubt very much that you'll have any trouble calling fire, Newdawn. Calling fire isn't your real problem. Your problem - and what we're going to work on - is your sensitivity to other's emotions and thoughts. Before you learn anything else, Newdawn, you're going to learn how to block out other thoughts, other emotions from your mind. You're going to learn how to separate you from everything else."

Nightblade was as good as her word. The next day, as they guarded the drying meat and threshed the gathered grain, the lessons began. The huntress locked-sent long enough to show him how to block. **Blocking can be used as offense, to keep another from using magic at all. But you will learn it as defense at different levels. Sometimes you may wish to keep everything out of touch with your mind. More often, you will want to keep able to hear sendings with the surface of your mind, while keeping your inner thoughts and your emotions protected.**

But the learning was not easy, and often painful. Newdawn had neither the instincts nor the skills to block even the lightest sending. **You're as bad as the stories say Liria was,** Nightblade commented more than once in exasperation. **Now don't act ashamed,** she added the first time, tousling his hair as he looked away. **Our many-times grandmother was a courageous and lovely woman, Newdawn. If you stand closer to the Firstcomers than the rest of us, there is no shame in that fact.**

The reminder made learning no easier, though it gave Newdawn fresh reason to grit his teeth and try. Summer fled into fall and then buried their cave and mountainslope in snow. After every blizzard, Nightblade and Newdawn would tunnel their way outside to hunt wood and fresh meat, or on rare occasions, when the mood hit them both, to frolic like children. Most of the time not spent taking care of themselves, however, was spent in practicing, until Newdawn broke down into tears from exhaustion, pain and frustration. At such times, Nightblade would hold him like a child, reminiscing most often about her youth spent wandering with her father. "I sometimes think that Wolf must have been nearly as sensitive as you are, though mother says it was losing his parents and uncle as a young child that made him so mind-shy. I know he hated staying within the Isle, even in winter."

Half-asleep as willow-bark tea eased his headache, Newdawn murmured, "Then when did he have time to sire you and Silvertree?"

She laughed. "Oh, Mother can be very persuasive." A thought wisped from her mind. So can I, if I ever dare.

Newdawn pretended he didn't 'overhear' that thought, and did his best to forget it.

Seven and eight marks glinted in the wall above the hearth the winter morning that Newdawn woke to find Nightblade seated crosslegged on her furs, holding a rock sphere in her hands. He sat up, sensing a change. Her sending touched the surface of his mind, and he let her in. **You need more practice, but it's time to take the next step in your learning.**

He tensed. **Fire-making?**

**Not quite. Lock with me.** She extended a hand. Newdawn clasped it, opening his mind to hers. He found the by now familiar lock, but then she drew him deeper. Much of her mind remained barriered against him -- thoughts and memories - but he drew close to the deep gold, shimmering core of her. For a moment, he sensed another name singing in the depths, and flinched. The name faded away, veiled in light. **Come,** she invited, slowly drawing him into the warm, bright core. **For most, to do magic beyond simple sending is to feel a flow of power; from the inner self, from the stored magic of the Isle, and for the most sensitive, from the faint traces in the earth itself. We tend to describe, or project, the flow as tinted by the physical senses. My sister's touch is lit with moonsilver and scented with pine. I perceive mine as the bright gold of the setting sun and the warmth of heated rock. As so.**

Her eyes opened, focussing on the sphere that glittered faintly to the inner eye. Power flowed, and the rock changed. It became as liquid, pouring between her fingers, touching the floor and growing upwards. It formed a pillar, then twisted back on itself, reforming to a crude image of a howling wolf.

The crude shaping flared with power as a choked cry broke from Newdawn's throat. The statue shed its crudeness like melting wax, becoming a perfect miniature, down to the texture of fur. It held thus for only a moment before wings sprang out and it became a hawk. More shapes followed - a stag, a crouching cat, a drinking cup. Then still another form - exquisite, perfect and terrible - Silverbranch, screaming, enmeshed in flames --

Nightblade's hands shook as she picked up the tiny statue. **Shaper's soul.** Newdawn looked up from the circle of his arms. She met his gaze, as pale as he. **Forgive me. I did not know why your belief you were a shaper ran so deep.** She hesitated a moment. **Would that I could give you my magic, and take yours. It would be a trade with no regrets.**

He turned away and continued to cry.

Shaken though she was, Nightblade gave Newdawn little time to grieve. Before long, they were outside. They hauled wood from a dead tree she had marked during the summer, then checked the trapline. Hanging their catch inside the cave, Nightblade collected an armful of dry wood and had Newdawn do the same. Outside the cave, she pushed each piece into the snow about half an elf-length apart. Brushing bits of bark off her sleeves, she walked back to Newdawn. **Now what we're going to do,** she told him, **is like we started this morning, except opposite. You're going to set fire to each of these logs, one at a time. I'll be locked with you. All right?**

He looked up at her, pale and nauseous. **I don't know if I can do this,** he sent, shaking. **I could hurt you.**

Nightblade cocked an eyebrow. **You could,** she agreed quietly. **And if the rock-shapers back home make a mistake in their Hall-shaping, they could kill everyone in the Isle. Ever think of that?**

He shook his head, unable to look away. **You could hurt me, but you won't,** she continued. **First, the only magic you can touch is what is in you. We're not in the Isle, we're not standing on top of a magicked massacre. Second, there's nothing out here to disturb your control, and even if there was, I will be holding a block about both of us. Third, you are not going to hurt me, because I know you are not.**

Her eyes were deep golden orbs striving to reach deep into his soul and send him assurance he didn't feel. Fighting down a whimper of fear, Newdawn closed his eyes, still shaking. He couldn't go through with this! He couldn't! Hands grasped his shoulders, then slid down to wrap arms around his waist. The young elf swallowed another whimper. If he called the fire and it took him, he wouldn't mind. But not with Nightblade pressing against his back. He couldn't risk calling the fire again. He couldn't risk hurting -- killing -- someone else. High Ones - why couldn't they have just let him die?!

**Take a deep breath, Newdawn.** The sending brushed gently against his thoughts, carefully insinuating into his mind. **And another. Now let me in. Lower the inner wall.** Still shivering, Newdawn managed to make himself lower all his barriers, and felt her golden core drifting slowly towards him. **Keep breathing. Try to relax. Now. This is just an exercise. Say that. This is just an exercise.**

"Th-this is - is just an e-excerise."

**Say it again.**

"This is just an exercise."

**All I am going to do is light a log. Say it.**

"A-all I-I am going to do is light a log."

**Again.**

"A-all I am going to do is light a log.**

**This is a very simple exercise.**

"This is a very simple exercise."

**Nothing will go wrong.**

"Noth -- Nightblade, I can't!"

**You can. I believe you can. Share my belief, Newdawn.** She moved deeper into the lock, warm and glowing with confidence. **Nothing will go wrong, Newdawn. Say it.**

"N-nothing will -- Nightblade, I could kill you! Don't make me try this!"

A snort, in his ear as well as his mind. **You're talking to one of the Isle-shapers. By myself, I'm hardly one of the strongest shapers. But in the merge, I'm usually one of the leading wills. And maybe you don't know, but we shapers have a game called Power-Snatch. I can snatch power from just about anyone except Wallmaker. I've even snatched power from Silvertree, and in its way, Healing can be as dangerous as Fire-making.**

**Oh.** The shaking eased. He gulped a quick breath - too quick, and coughed against the frigidity. More carefully, he breathed through his nose, reaching up to make sure the thick, clumsy scarf he had knitted was still secured over his lower face.

**That's better. Now let's start over. Say, This is just an exercise.**

She took him through the recitations twice more. **Now, open your eyes, and focus on the center log. Just the one. See it? Now, breathe in, slowly. Now out. Now light the fire.**

Newdawn froze for a long moment, strung on terror all the calming words had failed to lessen. Then, before the terror could consume him, the elf mentally grabbed some of the 'fire' simmering within him and flung it outward. Light exploded before his eyes. Newdawn screamed and flung his arms up, and would have fallen but for Nightblade's strong arms. The magic stirred restlessly within him, responding to his fear, but before it could ignite, a hand seemed to reach out and snatch it away. Shaking, Newdawn waited to feel the pain of burning hands and arms. Nothing happened. Slowly, he pulled down his arms and opened his eyes. The center three pieces of wood had disappeared. The next pair on either side were lying full length in a concave puddle of ash-flecked water, burning fitfully. Two more pieces were canted over the edge of the snow-melt, burning brightly.

**Well.** Nightblade's chin dug into his shoulder. **It looks like I should have placed them further apart.** Her sending -- of all things -- sounded amused. **Now that you know you can overcome your fear enough to at least call the fire, let's see if you can call it with a little more finesse.** She shifted her position. **Let's try that next piece on the left.**

He burned three pieces on the second attempt. On the third exercise, it took three attempts to burn anything. The remaining attempts resulted in either an explosive burst which turned the log to instant ash, or barely caused it to smoke. During it all, Nightblade continued to watch through his eyes; encouraging him to repeat the confident statements, and telling him which piece of wood to concentrate on, but making no effort to seize control of his power. After the last piece literally exploded after five attempts left it smoking, she started to withdraw from the mind-lock. **That's enough for today, Newdawn. Take it easy and relax, while I go back in and build up the fire.**

Newdawn shuddered as she left him alone. The fear he had battered back all afternoon swept over him. Crumpling to his knees, he was sick, vomiting again and again even after nothing was left to come up except bile. He sobbed, knowing he couldn't go through another day like this afternoon. It hurt. It hurt so badly. If only he could die. If only he could take back his word and die.

Sick, numb, and cold with exhaustion and despair, Newdawn barely felt the strong arms that helped him to his feet and led him into the cave. He did not resist the hands as they pulled off his outer furs and cleaned his face with a damp leather. When he was pulled to a seated position and a cup pressed against his lips, he drank without protesting, though the taste was at once too sweet and too sour. But it was warm, racing down to his stomach, and some of the numbness began to disappate. When a second bowl was held to his lips, Newdawn found the strength to reach up and take it. This one held a thick vegetable broth that held no hint of meat-taste. That went down easily. Setting the empty bowl down, Newdawn leaned forward, opening his eyes to look at the bowl between his hands.

"Feel better?" The voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. Newdawn found the strength to raise his head. Nightblade had shifted to her own bed, her face calm and unreadable.

"Tired," he said at last.

She nodded. "That's not surprising. Doing magic away from the Isle can be exhausting. And you were fighting yourself, besides. It will be easier next time."

Newdawn closed his eyes, turning his head away. "I don't think I can do it again," he whispered. "It hurts too much. I just want to die."

Nightblade did not answer. Standing up, she took the bowl from his limp hands. When she returned the bowl, it was a on a tray she placed across his legs. "Eat, Newdawn. And listen." She folded her legs and resumed her seat as he watched. Her face was very somber.

**I think that there is nothing more difficult than fighting fear, except fear that is mingled with guilt. But, if you don't fight your fear, no matter how difficult, it will eventually consume you.** She paused a moment. **I know you think it would be easier just to lie down and die. Maybe it would be, on this side. But it would mark your spirit, forever, as being that of a coward.**

Despite himself, Newdawn flinched. He stared down at the bowl, spoon clenched in his hand. "But I am a coward," he whispered. "What difference does it make, if I die now, or a few years from now?"

**A coward is not one who is afraid, Newdawn. It is one who is afraid of his fear; who refuses to face it. However hard it was for you this afternoon, the fact is, you faced your fear. You overcame it at least enough to touch your power, however unskillfully.**

"That doesn't change the fact that I killed Silverbranch. I deserve to die."

"Would you say that of another elf, who had done as you did?" she asked softly. He looked up. Nightblade's face was as compassionate as he had ever seen it. "What if it were--Spring, say--who had triggered the wildfire which killed someone. Would you then believe, that she should die, as well?"

"No! But she wouldn't have done it! She'd never have lied to herself, never have, have pretended to be something she wasn't!" With a sudden sob, he swept the tray from his lap, falling over onto his side to curl into a tight heap of misery. "Just let me go, Nightblade!" he wailed from behind protective arms. "Please!! I'll kill you if I keep doing this! I know I will! Father's right! I'm a misborn, the magic is wrong in me, kill me, before I kill you!! I beg you!"

**You cannot kill me.** Arms reached around him and pulled him into an embrace. **What countless humans tried and failed will not be accomplished by an elf who has never wanted to harm anything. Listen to me, Newdawn. You know I cannot lie.**

"But I can't live like this!" he cried, trying to push away. "I c-can't -- it hurts! I-I just want it to go away--I want to die!"

**I don't deny your pain,** she returned calmly, refusing his efforts to win free. **But I do deny that your magic--or you--is misborn. An elf who makes a mistake with magic is not misborn, anymore than one who makes a mistake with a physical tool. When mistakes are made, sometimes elves suffer. Sometimes the elves who make the mistake die. Sometimes it is other elves who die. Like Swiftlance, who died when I sent him into an ambush, when I thought the humans were ahead of us, instead of to the side. Do I, then, deserve to die?**

"But it isn't the same!" he whispered hoarsely, through his sobs. "Not the same! You-you knew the risks--he did--y-you all kn-knew you could die! Silverbranch, she -- she--"

**And elves have never died while hunting?** she cut him off with a hint of derision. **I know Vaerrain has kept things from you youngsters, but surely even she would not be so stupid as to let you go ashore ignorant of all peril.**

"But it's not the same!" he repeated. "Not the same ..."

**Did I say it was?** She ran fingers through his hair and pulled his head into her shoulder. **You killed Silverbranch. Without intent, without awareness that you could, but you did. No one else has done that, not in living memory. But other elves have caused elvin death, by inattention or accident or misjudgment. And those responsible have hurt inside, sometimes enough to want to die. But they didn't. Ask yourself why they didn't. Think about it.**

He didn't want to think about other elves. He didn't want to think about reasons to keep living, after what he'd done. He didn't want to think at all. He only wanted not to feel.

He roused to find himself still in Nightblade's arms. Blinking, he looked into her shadowed eyes. "Nightblade? Didn't you sleep?"

She gave him a weary smile before shaking her head. "Why not?" he demanded. "Nightblade--I'm not a child anymore." He straightened up, pulling away. "I don't -- I don't need coddling."

"How do you feel this morning?"

Newdawn started to snap a reply, then hesitated as he remembered the night before. "I don't feel ... the pain, it's only an ache..." He tensed, anger flickering in his gray eyes. "What did you do to me?!" he demanded, glaring at her. "I didn't ask for healing!"

Nightblade sighed, her figure slumping with exhaustion. Newdawn felt a stab of guilt, but she sent before he could decide to apologize. **The truest healing comes from within, not without, Newdawn. I but gave you what I felt you needed--the warmth of an embrace by one who trusts, and a voice in your dreams, that told you again and again, that you are loved. That you are worthy of love. What healing was wrought ... was done by your own self.**

The anger drained away. "Why?" he asked. "Why are you doing this for me? Even though you believe I can't kill you, there's all the other risks of being outside. And we're so far away from the Isle, if something happened, there's no way anyone could get here in time to help you. So, why?"

She scrambled to her feet, swaying until she caught her balance. "Compared to the Years of Sorrow, this is a pleasure trip, my lad," she said lightly, turning towards the fireplace and the banked coals. Newdawn sprang to his feet.

"I'll do that." He pulled the slender rock shaft from her hand. "You're exhausted--go lie down." She did not resist, curling up in the discarded furs as he brought the coals to life and added wood. "You haven't answered my question," he observed, as he poured a measure of cracked grain into the kettle. "Why are you doing this?"

"Questions, questions," she mumbled sleepily. "Isn't it enough that I am?"

"No." He looked over his shoulder. "I really would like an answer, Nightblade. You gave me one reason, back in the Isle. But the way you said it ... there are more."

Yawning, she sat up, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "There are. You're not going to get all my reasons yet, because you're not ready to hear them. But I'll give you two--first, your mother is a very good friend of mine, even if we do argue a lot. She needed someone to help, and I'm one of the few who can stand up to her and give her that help whether she thinks she needs it or not. Secondly ..." Eyes darkening with pain, she clasped her arms about her knees, looking down. "Newdawn, I did things during the Years of Sorrow that would sicken any sane elf. I hated humans with such passion that I willingly killed them--and laughed in the doing so. I hardened my heart, so that the pain of watching friends die would not break it. When Farseeker nearly died to bring some sanity back ... I hated myself, for what I'd done." She paused, eyes closed. Newdawn hesitated, then set the kettle aside. Dropping to a seated position beside her, the lad hesitated again, then touched her shoulder. A tiny smile flickered over her lips. Patting his fingers, she looked up.

"I'm--tired--of death, Newdawn," she continued. "The magic didn't bless me that night of Healing. But you six are all as precious to me as my own offspring would be. And I can't--I won't--stand by and watch one of you suffer. Not when there's something I can do about it."

He grimaced and pulled away, scrambling to his feet. "We've really gotten tired of that, you know," he grumbled, reaching for the water jug. "Being considered special, just because we were conceived that night. It isn't fair." He added water to the grain and put the kettle back over the fire.

She snorted. "Newdawn, my lad, just when did anyone promise that life would be fair?"

He winced, and made no reply.

They did not emerge from the caves until late afternoon. This time, Nightblade took over, locking their minds together, manipulating his firemaking gift herself. When she finally released the link, she fell back into a snow drift with a loud 'whoof.' He peered at her over his shoulder. She eased her fingers under her hood to rub her temples. **Newdawn, I don't wonder that Tinar couldn't teach you better control. Your abilities to call on magic are as different as ...ummm... starting a fire with flint and sunrock, and starting one with a firebow.**

**Does that mean you can't teach me?** he asked, sinking into the snow himself. She sat up on one elbow and skewered him with an amused gaze.

**Your mother will tell you that when I put my mind to it, I can be as stubborn as old One-Ear himself. You are going to learn to make fire, my lad, whether it's in a piece of dried grass or a water-soaked log, and I am going to teach you.**

**But what good will it do, really?** he asked, forlornly. **The Isle doesn't really need a firemaker, even one who has it under control.**

**Newdawn, it could be argued that the Isle doesn't need plantshapers, either. Or a Healer. Or gliders. Or hot water pools. Or built-in hearths. Don't worry about what you'll do with your power, until it's under control. Then we'll figure out some uses for it. Agreed?**

**Agreed,** he sighed. Then puzzled himself, wondering why the question had ever occurred to him.

Nightblade worked him mercilessly, day after day, driving him to mental and physical exhaustion. Almost against his will, the control of the restless fire within him came. He wanted to believe that it was her will controlling the flame, for she still linked to him. But she proved that it was not. The snows melted, and he thought that surely the lessons would cease, so as not to endanger the new growth. He was mistaken. She forced him to learn use his gliding ability to hold objects aloft without touching, then taught him do two things at once. As summer faded into fall, she returned to the earlier lessons on shielding, and in that winter, added still more lessons.

He learned what he had never imagined could be learned. From the restless power within him he learned to draw not fire, but heat. He melted snow, gold, even rock itself, then learned to heat a pot of stew and warm a set of furs.

Yet all of that did not change his fear. Did not change the nights he lay staring into the darkness, dreading the thought of returning to the Isle. His successes did not change his nightmares, where Silverbranch died again and again, or the Isle itself went up in flame...