Savah, the Mother of Memory, forgets many things. She does so on purpose. It is the nature of immortality, she knows: the mind can bear only so much of forever. The Wolfriders tell of her contemporary, Lord Voll of the Gliders, and how his apathy trapped him in something darker and crueler than the sleep brought by Preservers' webs. Savah understands that apathy was merely the symptom of his malaise. Memory was the cause.
She also knows the cure: shed the pain, remember the pleasure. Not too much of the former, of course, or one may never learn from mistakes. But keep too much pain and it collects within the soul, like sediment at the bottom of an untended well. It ferments. Savah was not nearly as surprised as the others to find that a monster like Winnowill existed. She marvels only that there are not more such monsters: one for every sorrow this world has inflicted on their race across ten thousand years.
The Wolfriders have the way of it, she thinks as she watches them howl one night from the steps of the Palace. The "now" of wolf thought; yes. Amazing that these children understand by instinct something that Savah took centuries, millennia, to master -- but then, perhaps that should not surprise her, either. Perhaps mortals are just wiser.
She is still contemplating this when she looks away from the Wolfriders' howl and spies two figures sitting a ways apart, half-hidden by the mountaintop's boulders. Timmain's white coat is unmistakable from the distance, as is Skywise's white-capped shadow beside her. They watch the howl too, their eyes reflecting the light of the bonfire, though they do not join in.
On impulse Savah circuits the howl and sits beside the pair, and the three of them watch until the Wolfriders are done. (Savah does not include them in "the Wolfriders" in her mind. She does not say this aloud, however. Skywise is not ready.) While the others murmur amongst themselves and disperse in twos and threes, Savah turns her gaze on the pair nearby, reading the subtle changes in each as deftly as she reads the Scroll of Colors. Timmain meets her gaze with something more than the unblinking stare of a predator. There is less of the wolf and more of the High One in those yellow eyes today than there was a few days before, and more than last week. Soon the wolf will be nothing but a shape for Timmain, the latest of many.
Skywise is harder to read. He has draped himself across Timmain's back, gazing up at the stars as usual, but his mind is plainly not where his eyes rest. Savah senses that he is aware of her -- Wolfrider or not, his ears and nose are still keen -- and so she waits. Presently, as she expected, he speaks.
"I hear the howl's echo," he says, with uncharacteristic softness in his voice. "I hear it all the time, but here beside the Palace it's clearer."
Savah nods, though he's not looking at her. "The spirits of the Palace sing with the Wolfriders. Even the ones who weren't Wolfriders themselves can feel the ritual's power."
Skywise shifts, rolling to lean back against Timmain. There is no lessening of the sky in his eyes, Savah realizes -- but she spies more wisdom in him now than there was last week. "It isn't just Wolfrider voices I hear," he says, and there is something troubled in his normally open, cheeky face. He's been listening to the Palace too much. The "now" of wolf thought; is he still capable of it? Savah worries for him. "It's more than the Gliders, more than the Go-Backs and Sun Folk. Tribes whose names I haven't heard yet; voices that must be those of the High Ones who faltered along the way."
"There were thousands in this place, once." Savah gestures toward the Palace. "Even if only a few survived, that means hundreds of elves out there, somewhere. Down all the generations..."
Skywise nods. She senses he has something more to say, but he seems to struggle before bringing it up. "Some of the voices, Savah..." He hesitates. "They howl for you."
Savah sighs. "Yes," she says, and against her will a memory returns. Something she forgot because she wasn't ready to deal with it at the time. That the memory returns now means she must face it now; that is the way of such things. But she does not like that it returns so easily. In the future, she will try to do a better job of forgetting.
Skywise's eyes, keen from years of hunting and focusing on tiny pinpoints of light, pin her where she sits. "They're angry, Savah. Angry with you. Did you know that?"
And Savah can only nod. "Yes," she says again. She is tired. "I know."
They were nearly dead. A whole tribe, dozens of members, reduced to just six. That -- the loss -- was their only problem, in the beginning.
(Already Savah sees Skywise frown. She knows why: he has heard that the Sun Folk were founded by five elves. Oh, this will be a difficult tale to tell.)
Of course, they had had other worries in those days before the desert. Fleeing humans, they had wandered into the Hot Cloud Mountains, a land of strange tiered slopes and steaming gray pools, where mist made phantoms of the distance. There were no humans here because they feared the place. The humans claimed -- so Linsai claimed to have overheard them say -- that a god slept here. A bloodthirsty, angry god, who would one day wake and kill everyone in his path.
It was difficult not to believe the human nonsense, as they wandered in search of an easy trail that would take them past the mountains. The earth rumbled frequently here, and sometimes cracks would open in the ground, belching forth steam and gases that burned Savah's nose. There was no sun; it could not breach the mist. They wandered through periods of light and less light, each punctuated by a pale hazy disc in the sky. They bathed in the warm pools that dotted the rocky landscape, but they had to be careful, because sometimes the pools were hot enough to boil meat. Yurek, thankfully, could feel the worst of the shakes and cracks coming. He steered them away from danger -- but there was a look of deep worry on his face while they climbed, Savah noticed. He often looked away, toward a great flat mountaintop that they could see in the distance whenever the mist cleared for awhile. But whatever he feared did not come to pass, so they traveled on.
They were not alone in the mountains, however. They saw the first sign of this near a pool one morning: a footprint, light and barely visible even in the soft mud. The adults had all drawn together at this, their eyes wide. It had fallen to Savah to confirm the suspicion they all felt. She took off her fur boot and put her own slender foot down in the print. The print was a bit longer, but the shape was unmistakeable -- as, of course, were the faint shapes of four toes.
Skywise sits forward, his eyes wide. "Another tribe? But I thought the Wolfriders were the first tribe of elves the Sun Folk had ever met!"
Savah shakes her head. "We were not the Sun Folk then. We were barely even a tribe at that point -- the Rootless Ones from whom we'd come had been destroyed. There were only the six of us left, and we had nothing, not even a roof to keep off the rain."
"But you told us -- " And Skywise frowns, falling silent and narrowing his eyes. Realizing, perhaps for the first time, that Savah has trimmed the truth here and there, like old tattered leathers, to make it fit as she pleased. Timmain is looking at her, too. Savah has to look away, for guilt.
"These elves called themselves the Glass Knives," Savah says. She gazes into the fire that the Wolfriders used for their howl. It isn't their way to set fires, but a few of the Sun Folk and Go-Backs joined them for the howl; they adapt themselves to new times and people. A few members of the tribe linger nearby, letting it burn down enough that they can snuff it with minimal smoke or steam. The embers still glow incandescent; Savah can see fire rippling and dancing within the shape of the wood. Moving, molten, like hot metal, or glass that is ripe enough for blowing. Or like --
"They captured us the next day," she says.
They appeared out of the mist slowly, fading into view. Most of them were white as steam rising from the heated pools: white hair, skin so white that it couldn't possibly have seen recent sun, eyes so pale that Savah could not tell if they were blue or gray or some other color, or just white pitted by pupils. They wore white tabards, just simple panels of tapestry tacked at shoulder and hip, made of near-white cloth that had been meticulously embroidered in patterns that made Savah think of her parents' tales of the Lost Palace. All of these new elves had the same thin, curling, inkvine hair, though most wore theirs hacked short.
Most -- except their leader, a woman as tall as Savah's mother Hassbet, though broader and with a longer, more rawboned face. Her hair fell to her ankles, though she had tied it off at the nape of her neck, and down its length at handspan intervals. The severe style only made her face seem harsher, nearly skeletal. That, Savah decided, was probably why the woman's smile left her chilled. She hoped that was the only reason.
"You're in our territory," the woman said. In each of her fists was a short, triangular knife of black shiny material, like rock formed of liquid darkness. The knives stood out starkly against her whiteness.
She was looking at Linsai, Savah's uncle, who had once been the music-maker of the Rootless Ones. Savah did not understand at first, because she was still a girl and had never even taken a lovemate yet -- but she knew what she felt in the ringing, silent space between Linsai and the strange elf. Linsai had gone almost as pale as the strangers. Sweat beaded his face, and his hands, usually ready with either a harp or a bow, hung slack. The woman leaned forward and he leaned away, but the connection between them was as tight as dried sinew.
"I am called Besum the Fire-Shaper," said the woman, never looking away from Linsai. "And you belong to us now."
Skywise inhales. "Recognition?"
"It is not uncommon when two long-separated tribes come into contact." Savah speaks with only a little irony. The story is not happy enough to bear irony. "Usually it is the strongest, most gifted members of each group who are stricken first, as you have seen, though other Recognitions soon follow. Linsai was an artist; his soul made beauty. And Besum..."
She does not mean to trail off. That will only make Skywise more suspicious of her. But the memory comes, fierce, fresh as if the events had occurred weeks and not millennia before, and it is hard for her to assimilate. She doesn't want to, either, which makes it harder.
"Besum... had other gifts."
The strange elves took them into a cave, which turned out to be the mouth of a tunnel wending down, down, into the earth. There were torches for the first part of this walk, then sconces full of strange glowing things: mushrooms and bits of moss and something that Savah eventually realized was a fat grublike insect that had been tied to a stick. Still alive, to her horror: wriggling and glowing helplessly for the strange elves' pleasure.
The strange elves did not speak to them, and after Dreen was clouted in the head for trying, neither did Savah's group. Only Besum made noise, whistling as they trekked through the dark, a merry tune that echoed from the pitted, gray-black walls.
The passage grew warmer as they wended down, and after a time, Savah noticed that the light had changed. Less green; the wall-sconces grew more sparse, then stopped altogether. But by this point there was plenty of hot ruddy light coming from somewhere near the end of the passage -- and a sound that reminded Savah vaguely of waterfalls in the forest that had once been her home.
It was not a waterfall.
The passage opened into a vast, vaulted cavern, like nothing Savah had ever seen. Stalactites, their surfaces carved with in the same swirling motifs as the strange elves' clothing, hung from the distant ceiling. Each served as the support for dangling rope-bridges, railed platforms, and hanging baskets large enough to hold even a bulky human. The walls of this cavern had been carved too, into long linked stairways and flat ledges occupied by round huts and other structures whose purpose Savah could not fathom. Ladders linked the ledges -- but none of this caught and held Savah's awe for very long. This was because at the center of the bizarre elf village, pouring down the cavern's far wall, was a steady stream of red, searing-hot, seething viscous lava.
Besum laughed, and Savah realized the woman was watching her, drinking in her awe. Once she had Savah's eye, she held up a hand. A long, whiplike tendril of lava uncurled from the falling stream, stretching across the cavern in an unbroken line. Like a tame bird, the lava reached them and began circling a few inches above Besum's hand. Even from where Savah stood, a body-length away, she could feel the heat of the stuff. She had no idea how Besum endured being so close.
(An image suddenly flashes through Savah's memory: Yurek, staring at this display of magic as intently as a hunter stalking prey. He had not yet come fully into his rock-shaper gift at that time, but something in his blood had stirred, plainly, at Besum's display.)
"You have a simple choice," Besum said, with a red-hot crown of fire dancing above her hand in dire warning. "Obey us, or die burning."
Of course they obeyed.
"I don't understand," says Skywise. He does, Savah knows. He just doesn't want to. "They wanted you to... what? To help them do something?"
"To work for them," she explains. "To serve them in whatever capacity they demanded. They made us collect guano in their bat-caverns, which they used to tan leathers and grow mushrooms. We had to climb walls in the sparrow-caverns to collect spit-nests, which they made into soup. They tried to make us farm the mushrooms, too, but none of us were any good at it. They beat us when the crops died."
Skywise is silent for a long, painful moment. "The humans," he says at last, softly. "The ones near our first holt. They did this to each other, sometimes. They had a word for it: slavery." He stumbles over the word, which he speaks in the thick, guttural human tongue. "But I can't believe elf would enslave elf."
"Before your great quest for the palace," Savah says, "did you ever believe elf would kill elf?"
Skywise flinches, as he should.
"So yes," she says. "The Glass Knives enslaved us. And for a time, we endured it. We had wandered over half the earth, or so it seemed, since the humans drove us from our forests; we were committed to doing everything we could to survive. But there was a problem."
"Linsai." Skywise frowned. "This Besum -- she even enslaved the elf who was meant to father her child? How could she?"
"Quite easily." Savah leaned back with a heavy sigh, looking up at the sky since Skywise had opted not to do so. "The Glass Knives had lived in their caverns for as long as elves have been on this world of two moons, you see. Longer than the Rootless Ones dwelled in their forest. Beneath the earth is safe from humans, and not wholly lacking in beauty -- but it is also a desperate, terrible place to live. I wonder that the trolls bear it so easily. No sunlight -- and the Knives could not bear it anymore, after so long without. Not much food. They wasted nothing, because that was the way they had survived for so long. They did not abide weakness."
"Well, that is the Way," Skywise said, but even he sounded dubious. And he started when Savah glared at him, full of rare, fresh anger.
"It was not the Way," she snapped. "Do wolves eat their dead? Do they simply kill or drive off their weak ones, or do they torment them endlessly for their own pleasure?"
"They..." Skywise has gone as pale as a Glass Knife. "What?"
Savah leans forward. "The Knives had been in the dark too long."
There were times, at the end of the day when they were finally allowed to rest, when Savah had enough time and privacy and energy to think.
Those first few months, thinking was all she could do. After a day of hard labor and blows and cruel words, she had nothing left for pleasure or conversation -- or to rebel, which was perhaps the Knives' intention. After those first few months, however, she grew stronger. Her slender arms became tight with muscle, her hands callused and quick. The Knives did at least feed them. Not much, but Savah and the others had been used to greater privation in the long time of wandering. Regular meals made them sleek and strong.
(Savah remembers: the Knives never gave them meat, just mushrooms and roots and cakes of pounded beansprouts. Thin, tasteless fare -- but they were glad for this when one day they saw the Knives bring a dead human who had been caught in one of their traps. The man had been skinned and gutted, with arms and ankles tied to a carrying-stick. The aroma of roasted meat wafted through the whole cavern that night, and afterward Savah would never eat meat again without nausea.)
Curled up with the others in the basket-cage that passed for their home, Savah reflected that hers was a terrible life, but at least it was life. She had lost nearly everything to the humans' sticks and spears; surely being a slave was better than being dead. Wasn't it? It was not in her to give up.
But the same could not be said for her companions. Her mother, Hassbet, had tried to comfort Savah during those first few weeks. As the labor and suffering ground down her spirit, however, Hassbet spoke less and less. They all did that. Talking and comforting one another were luxuries that they shared sparingly, and only when necessary. Usually, they saved what strength they had for themselves.
Yurek struggled especially hard. "The stone here speaks to me," he whispered to Savah one night, when the guards weren't paying attention. "It's all so much faster, hotter, than any stone I knew before -- and it wants to move, Savah. It wants to move so much. I dare not shape much of the rock here, because it would take only a shift of the wrong slab, a crack in the wrong place..." His eyes glazed for a moment, and his hands shook, to Savah's alarm. "The Knives must know this! They're fools to live here." And then he rolled away and curled in on himself, muttering -- to the stone, Savah gathered. The magic had always made him strange. Captivity only exacerbated the problem.
But the one who suffered the most was Linsai. On many evenings, the Knife guards would take him away. Savah would watch them prod him up the steps into the puckered bubble-in-cooled-lava that was the chief's house. Besum would send him back in the morning. He did not work well on the days after these visits. They left him stumbling and clumsy, which caused him to earn more than his share of beatings from the guards. Savah thought at first that he was simply tired from resisting the effects of Recognition, or from staying up all night talking when he should've rested. She assumed, of course, that Linsai would not yield -- because what elf would form a lifemating under such conditions? Not willingly. Who would choose to make a child with someone who treated others as chattel?
Gradually, however, they noticed that Linsai stopped bathing. They all reeked; the Knives did not allow them to bathe often. But even when they were permitted the chance, Linsai just sat there, looking at the water. And he began to behave oddly, jerking away in terror whenever one of them touched him, huddling alone and holding himself as if cold despite the ever-present heat of the Knives' cavern. When they asked him about it, he told them nothing; indeed, he stopped speaking altogether. Then stopped eating. They tried to persuade him to keep up his strength, but he refused, and grew dangerously thin.
By then, they had also noticed the bruises and small burns on his body, though they were half-hidden by dirt. And a few months later, when Besum passed Savah and Savah got a good whiff of her scent -- in those days, her nose had been nearly as good as a Wolfrider's -- she understood at last. Besum was with child. Recognition had been served months before. But since then, Besum had used her hold on Linsai's soul to add to his torment. He could not escape her, not even within his own mind. She was destroying him. And apparently, enjoying every moment of it.
Skywise abruptly gets up and walks away from Savah. He stops a few feet away, facing the cliff-edge and the forestscape below. His fists are clenched, his shoulders tight and heaving; he is half bent over, as if ready to vomit off the cliff.
Savah is glad to see this reaction from him. It is how any normal elf should react upon hearing of something so un-elven -- and Skywise in particular, who reveres the joining of bodies as the High Ones did, must be revolted by such a perversion. It is why Savah has worked so hard to forget this story, because some memories are a kind of taint. Better to forget that their kind are capable of such things. The humans have a word for this evil, too -- but better to pretend she does not know it, in the failing hope that innocence will keep her safe.
Timmain utters a low, strained croon and puts her head down on her paws, watching Skywise mournfully.
While her companions try to purge this poison from their souls -- Savah is sorry, so sorry, for inflicting it on them -- Savah closes her eyes and searches amid the thousand aethers of her kin in the nearby Palace. Linsai's spirit touches her, a gentle acknowledgement -- but then he instantly skirls away. There is too much of old sickness in her thoughts, and he is long since healed of what happened. He rejects the burden of flesh, and memory, as he should.
She envies them, sometimes. The ones who have gone on.
"Are we really any different from humans?" Skywise's voice is soft, barely audible on the night breeze. "We're supposed to be so much wiser, so far beyond them. And yet..."
Savah cannot answer his question. But Timmain, who knows the answer more intimately than any of them, rises and goes to him, pushing her head beneath his tight-clenched hand. As Savah watches, he draws a deep breath, then another. His hand relaxes, then sinks into Timmain's fur. His pain fades. Timmain is a healer, among other gifts.
"We asked ourselves the same question," Savah says, at last. "The answer is that we, our ancestors, chose to be different. And we must fight to stay different -- especially on this world where so many things press us to become less than what we are. We must take on its trappings, to survive." She looks at Timmain, who does not react. Savah cannot tell whether Timmain understands or is simply ignoring her. "But we may choose to remain elves, underneath our outermost shape."
Skywise looks down at Timmain for a long moment. Then he looks at Savah, and Savah almost flinches at the death in his face. Beneath his skin, he is a killer. That she must never forget.
He says: "These Glass Knives no longer exist, I notice."
Savah nods. "Long gone."
"That's your doing? You and your companions?"
Savah hesitates. "Not in the sense you imagine. We did not kill them."
His lips draw back from his teeth, wrinkling his nose. The expression distorts his whole face into something not quite elven. It is unnerving, watching him do this, because it is not something he thought about: the silent snarl is as natural to him as a smile. There is nothing of the wolf left in him physically, but his soul is another matter.
"Slavery is something humans do," he snaps. "Turning joining into torment, stealing flesh and sanity from another, twisting children with hate rather than nurturing them on love -- all human things. Those Glass Knives weren't elves anymore, Savah. They were meat to be wasted."
Savah nods slowly. She does not disagree. But she attempts to explain why she and her companions were loathe to fight back at first. He is so wise, perhaps he will understand.
"Everything had been taken from us," she says. "Our homes, our tribe. Our future, so far as we knew. We told ourselves, throughout our captivity, that at least we had some food; better than none. At least we would not freeze to death. At least they had left us alive, and together. And our captors were fellow elves: perhaps if we worked hard enough, proved ourselves worthy of their respect, they would someday see that we were all one people. They would embrace us, and remember themselves."
Skywise's white head shifts side to side in flat negation. "The low wolf cannot ask for respect. She must fight for it, and sometimes kill for it. Prove she would rather die than continue to live low."
Timmain's gift is truly powerful. Savah is a little envious.
"Yes," Savah says. "We began to understand that, and plan our escape, at last."
Hope was a feast after long starvation. They dared not partake of too much, lest it curdle within them. But Savah could see a new eagerness in her companions' faces, and as they worked on that fateful day, she marvelled that the nearby Knife guards could not feel the change in their souls.
But after so many months of unquestioning compliance from their slaves, the guards had grown complacent. And so when Linsai, exhausted and clumsy, faltered with his basket of mushrooms, the guards moved perfunctorily to hit him with their sticks. They did not see Savah, the gentlest of their slaves, pick up a rock -- not until she smashed it into the back of the man hitting Linsai. And they did not see Hassbet, who had been a fisher among the Rootless Ones, dart forward to snatch their sticks -- not until the sticks were already in her hands.
Maalvi, who had been chief hunter, rushed forward and smashed his fists into the second guard's face. Dreen and Savah, half-grown though they were, descended upon the dazed first guard with more rocks and small furious fists. When a third guard ran in, drawn by the cries of the first two, Yurek touched a wall and made the floor rise up to swallow his feet. Hassbet stuffed a scrap of cloth into his mouth; the other two were unconscious.
(They did not strike to kill, any of them. That was what the Knives would do, but they were elves. They did only what was necessary, and no more.)
In the end, escape proved easier than they'd expected. That was largely because of Yurek, whose magic had grown since he'd had the chance to study fire-shaping. Once they found the tunnel that had brought them down from the surface, he sealed it behind them. It was not a permanent sealing; Besum would be able to bring lava from below to melt the way through. But Savah and the others meant to be long gone before that happened.
The mist seemed almost painfully bright when they finally came aboveground, and the pale disc of the sun was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. Linsai was the first of them to burst into tears at the sight. "Free," he croaked, speaking for the first time in months. "Free." They gathered 'round to weep with him and hold each other, and remember what it meant to be truly alive.
Savah falls silent here, gathering her strength. Skywise does not press her. When she is ready, she continues.
"The Hot Cloud Mountains began to rumble on the day we escaped," she says. "Yurek urged us to hurry. He kept looking at the great flat-topped mountain to the north; he said it had a terrible fire in its belly, and that if it blew, everything for miles around would die. But though the earth around us cracked, and smoke and choking gases often came forth, the great mountain remained untouched. I suppose it was beyond Besum's power to ignite that one -- or perhaps she wasn't wholly mad. Just mostly so."
Skywise's eyes narrow. "She was trying to kill you?"
Savah smiles thinly. "No. Not us."
None of them slept, those nights as they traversed the mountain of the Glass Knives. Some of it was fear that their captors might somehow emerge from within and come after them. Some of it was because the mountain kept shuddering like a sick, fever-wracked beast. Most of their restlessness, though, was because even the least-magical among them could sense the waves of death that followed every paroxysm of the earth. Somewhere below them, it seemed, the Knives were venting their rage at the loss of their slaves... on each other.
One morning they reached the crest of the trail between the mountains just as a fresh breeze cleared away the worst of the mists. As they stood there, marveling at the sight of the trail sloping down into a perfect, cup-shaped valley carpeted with trees and spars of rock, Linsai suddenly gasped and whirled, drawing his knife. Savah had already guessed what she would see before she turned -- but even so, she put her hands to her mouth to stop the bile that rose at the back of her throat.
Besum stood behind them, grinning. At least, Savah thought it was Besum. She could only guess by the twin obsidian knives in the chieftain's fists, because nothing else of her was immediately recognizable as elven, let alone a specific person. Her banded white hair was gone, save for a few sparse, heat-curled strands. They could not tell if she was naked, because everything they could see of her was black and raw-blistered red; any cloth on her body had been charred and bloodied to match. Only her eyes and teeth still shone white.
But the gleeful malice in those eyes confirmed it: the Knives on the whole had been cruel, but their cruelty was mostly tinged with indifference. Savah's people were not people to them, just objects to be used. Only Besum had ever seemed to think of them as fellow elves -- and hate them for it. Only she had enjoyed the cruelty.
"Leaving so soon, lifemate?" Still grinning at them -- belatedly, Savah realized the woman's lips were gone -- Besum took a step closer. Her eyes were fixed on Linsai, who stared back, frozen. "But we weren't done."
Maalvi hissed and prowled forward, interposing himself between them -- as did Hassbet, and Dreen, and Savah herself, all of them drawing weapons to protect their tribemate. Only Yurek stood aside. Later, Savah would realize why: because he feared that Besum would somehow try to use magic against them. If she did, Yurek -- the only one with the magic to fight her -- would have been the logical first target.
A sensible precaution -- if logic had had anything to do with Besum's actions.
But before violence could erupt, Linsai took a deep breath. "Let me see her."
"You don't give a rabid beast a chance to bite," snapped Maalvi.
The days of freedom had done Linsai great good, Savah would later recall. He had always been the tallest of them, with flame-red hair caught in a tail at his ankles, and long fingers that had been expert at drawing a bowstring or playing a flute. He had never been the strongest of them -- but Besum's torments had not broken him, it was clear. Indeed, there was something new and dark in his eyes as he stepped forward to face her: something that had been tempered, hardened, by her cruelty. This hardness was not a good thing, she felt instinctively. It was too much like the fire-honed sharpness of the Glass Knives themselves...
...And Linsai knew it, she saw, when Linsai's eyes met hers.
"It's all right," he said, looking past her. "I'll be fine." At the assurance in his tone, even Maalvi gave way, and Linsai stopped in front of them, facing Besum.
(Savah remembers: she raised a hand toward Linsai's back as he passed her. Then she let the hand fall. She does not tell Skywise this.)
"We are done and done again, Besum," he said. His voice had never quite recovered from his time in the caverns; it was rough now, permanently hoarse. He would never sing another note. "Have you succeeded?" Savah frowned in puzzlement, and then she realized Linsai was gazing at Besum's not-quite-flat belly. She was not even halfway along.
"By the High Ones!" Hassbet's face was pure horror. "You mean... she..."
"Not yet." Besum's smile finally faded; it was hard to tell on her ruined face, but there was bitterness underneath. "Not for lack of trying. When I filled the caverns with fire-stone, the heat should've cooked this creature out of me. But as I waited there while my tribemates screamed and died, this kept me alive." She pointed at her own belly angrily, hatefully. "Its magic pushed back the heat. I tried to leap into the lava, and it wouldn't let me!"
"Yes," said Linsai. "Our child is more wholesome than you. It has no death in it, no hatred of itself or others, despite carrying your blood. Will you not let it live? We'll care for you, as best we can, until it's born. Give it to us and leave if you don't want it."
Quick as fire, Besum's mood went from bitter to furious. "I don't want it now. I don't want you, songbird, or anything of your soft, useless, wholesome tribe." Her fists clenched so tightly on the handles of her glass knives that Savah heard the rubbing of her skin. But there was something like sorrow in Besum's face as she spoke again. "I look at you and see what we could have been. I feel you, bright as fire in my mind -- " She hissed, shaking her head, and the earth around them rumbled alarmingly. Savah gasped, bracing her feet; the others reacted with equal alarm. Except Linsai, who stood motionless, and Besum, who bared her teeth. "Fire is mine to do with as I please!"
Linsai shook his head as well, and there was sorrow in the gesture. "No hope for it, then." He turned back to Savah and the others. "Hurry down the mountain, and don't stop in the valley below. It's too close, if she manages to survive."
Hassbet caught Linsai's arm. "No. You can't mean -- " But she fell silent as Linsai gently pulled away.
"She can't kill herself," he said. "But she can kill me." And for the first time since their captivity, something of Linsai's old self returned. He flashed a gentle, knowing smile at all of them. "Don't let Dreen try to replace me. He can't carry a tune to save his life."
Dreen shook his head in hollow, stunned negation. And Hassbet, who alone among them had borne life within herself, began to weep. "But Linsai... your child..."
Linsai shook his head. "She's too full of death, sister. Even Recognition can't get life out of that. And can't you feel it? All the other Glass Knives... she's killed them."
Yurek cried out, putting a hand to his mouth. Dreen uttered a low moan. Savah, who even then had been able to touch spirits in ways that others couldn't, only closed her eyes.
So she heard rather than saw it when Linsai sighed, turned to face his erstwhile lifemate, and began to walk toward her. And she felt it when, all around them, the rocks began to shift and shiver.
"Down!" Yurek grabbed Savah, pulling her and Dreen and herding the rest before him, his face full of terror. "Get down the trail, now, quickly! Oh, High Ones, we have to go -- "
They ran. What else could they do? All around them the rocky ground split apart, cracks opening practically beneath their feet. Seething, red-glowing pools welled up from the deepest of these, like springs out of nightmare. As the heat rose and noxious gas engulfed them, and the very ground grew ominously warm beneath Savah's pounding feet, she could think of nothing, feel nothing but terror -- but she did look back, once.
Then they ran beyond the haze of gas and steam into cooler, clearer air, onto blessedly cold ground, leaving the Glass Knives' funeral pyre to collapse in on itself behind them.
Silence is the only ending fit for such a tale.
Timmain, who settled down with Skywise while they listened to the rest of Savah's telling, rises after awhile. She comes to Savah and sniffs at her hand, then licks it. Bemused, Savah strokes the High One's soft, dense fur. To her own surprise, she feels better. Whether this is magic or just the power of compassion, she may never know.
"The Glass Knives' spirits are the angry ones you feel," Savah says at last. "Some of them, anyhow. Many were too twisted, too off-true from what we should be; their souls simply disintegrated rather than come here when the Palace called to them. Some of them could have made the transition, but chose not to. Perhaps it was pride, or perhaps it was genuine hatred of any elves other than themselves..." She shakes her head. "No one can fathom their intentions, now."
"The few who did come here, though." Skywise cocks his head oddly, his eyes growing distant and unfocused. She knows this pose well; he is listening with more than his ears. "Why are they angry with you? It was their own chieftain who killed them."
"She killed them because of us, and the other Rootless Ones are all dead. I'm the only one left for them to blame."
But that is not the only reason, Savah knows.
Stifling this thought, she lifts a graceful hand to brush away her veils, which waft in a sudden night-breeze. She continues: "I've had many years to consider the matter, afterward. I believe that on some level, by meeting us, Besum realized what her people had become. It frightened her, shamed her, and so she tried to take control of her fear by controlling us. By controlling Recognition, which cannot be controlled. One can only control life by destroying it. This contradiction was what broke her."
"That's too kind, Savah." Skywise scowls. "A chieftain who slaughters her own tribe... an elf who wounds and kills her own lifemate... She was as evil as Winnowill, and I'm glad she's dead. I just hope her soul doesn't come back to haunt us someday."
Savah shakes her head. "There's no danger of that. Besum's soul is not among those that came to the Palace. It no longer exists."
"Is it?" When Skywise glares at her, she gazes back steadily until his anger turns into consternation. Only when he capitulates and lowers his gaze does she relent. She has not spent the past few years among Wolfriders without learning a few things.
"At the end," she says, "I think Besum tried to become an elf again. She didn't know how -- but the fact that she tried makes her worthy of something. Your pity, Skywise, if not your respect."
There is a moment in which Skywise's bottom lip juts out; he has a petulant streak. Typical of a child. But it fades quickly, because he's too intelligent to maintain a sulk for long. He's growing up fast. Timmain will be pleased to have a mate again so soon.
"I don't get it," he says though, because he is stubborn and no amount of intelligence can overcome that. "After all she did, Savah, you pity her? What about Linsai? His suffering? What she did to him is -- was -- unforgiveable."
Savah nods. "It was. And pity is not forgiveness. But if you had seen her, Skywise, in that final moment -- "
This memory, too, comes unbidden, but it is more welcome than the rest. She closes her eyes for a moment and sees them again, Linsai and Besum, facing each other at the top of the mountain-trail. Long, glowing tendrils of lava swirl about them, constricting gradually, a whirlwind of death that will consume all three at once. And yet --
Savah cannot see Linsai's face in this memory. His back is to her. She sees Besum staring up at him, though, her eyes locked on his, her expression for once open and free of hatred or fear. Indeed, there is a strange, yearning expression on her face. She wants something from him that no one else will ever understand -- yet Savah nevertheless witnesses the moment when she receives it. In that breath of time, Besum's eyes well with tears. She opens her mouth to whisper two words -- I'm sorry --
-- and then the red hot whirlwind takes them.
Savah folds her hands. "Linsai was not a healer," she says, gently. "Even if he had been, he had his own wounds to bear -- deep ones, and terrible. But I think he did what he could, in his own way, for both of them. The deepest wounds can only be healed by cautery."
Beyond them, the Wolfriders extinguish what's left of the bonfire. Skywise watches them work for awhile. Timmain moves back to him, settling down against his back and half-curling 'round his body -- but her eyes are on Savah as she lays her great wedge-shaped head down on her paws.
<This is why I wait,> says a deep, echoing voice in Savah's mind.
To her own pride, Savah does not flinch at Timmain's sending. She understands, too, what the High One means. <For Skywise?>
<He must be strong enough to remain himself, no matter what I become.>
At this, Savah does flinch.
But Skywise himself has named the stakes. At one end of the lodestone's arrow: Winnowill, the healer turned to harmer, mother of madness. The things she has done make Besum's cruelty pale in comparison. But at the other pole lies Timmain herself. If she should ever go wrong...
Timmain's great yellow eyes drift shut. She has leaned nearly her whole weight on Skywise, Savah notes -- and he bears her easily. He has no magic, Skywise, and he is a child even compared to Savah's years, let alone to Timmain's. Yet they support each other, he and she, already. That is a lifemate's privilege, and duty.
"Thank you for telling me all this," Skywise says softly. He is still watching his tribemates, oblivious to Savah's wonder. "I needed to hear it."
She composes herself. "Will you tell the other Wolfriders?"
"Eventually." He sighs. "It'll make hard telling. Most of us want to believe that Blue Mountain was... an aberration. Two elf-tribes gone so wrong means the potential is in all of us."
"But that has always been the case." They have all seen the Scroll of Colors, with its tales of the High Ones' warlike past.
"Yes. So I'll tell them, because they need to remember what we can be. For good and for ill." He folds his arms, rests them on Timmain's back and lays his head down. "But not tonight."
He closes his eyes as Timmain has already done. Savah waits until both of them have grown still, their breathing deep and even, and then she rises. She is still capable of moving as quietly as she did long ago in the forests of her childhood. They don't even stir as she leaves them to return to the Palace.
But she pauses on the steps of the ancient edifice to gaze back at them, before she goes in.
"Remember," she says softly. Speaking to both of them, and to herself. "Never forget who you are." Then she turns to face the Palace interior. "And I will not forget you again."
With that, the anger of the Glass Knives fades. Savah exhales with its passing. Then she continues within to her meditation chamber, where she sits awake for the rest of the night. Remembering.