The Face of the Enemy

Part One


Melati sat on the Bridge of Memory, overlooking the great stronghold the elves called Oasis. Seen from a thousand feet above the city looked like a giant stone honeycomb, with rough hexagons of flat ground set between defensive walls and spire-shaped towers. Once a simple refuge for some forty-odd elves, Oasis had grown along with its population. Recognitions and migrations had brought the nation’s number to nearly five hundred elves – many the survivors of the original Flight from Sorrows and their descendants, others the children of the scattered elfin nations. In the central flats the Sun Folk kept their gardens, as they had for untold millennia. Beyond the rows of crops stood the dairy and the pens of zwoot mares waiting to be milked. To the east were the hunting grounds of the Pride, the elite riders of the fierce tuftcats that brought in fresh meat and guarded their borders. To the west the Jackwolf Riders maintained a strange community they called a Holt. To Melati they seemed a relic of an earlier time, something to be studied from a safe distance.

Melati’s own sire had been a Jackwolf Rider once, they told her. She found it hard to believe. The Riders were hunters who gloried in the bloodsong, the heady dance of life and death. Her sire had a special terror for spilled blood. He always had done, even before Melati’s birth.

She preferred to look to the center of the honeycomb, to Tallest Spire, the heart of their beehive. That was her home, not the caves or the adobe huts. The artisans and the Gliders inhabited the smaller towers of stone, but the Spire was reserved for the elders and lorekeepers of their nation. Their lord lived in the highest chambers, just beneath the summit, and it was there she had grown up. It was there she could find her true parents, always ready to greet her with a kind word and a gentle touch. Her own blood might have abandoned her, but Lord Haken and his lady had welcomed her into their family with open arms.

Yet now her sire had decided to return to Oasis. Why? To make amends for his betrayal? To curse her very existence to her face, lest she forget just how unwanted she was? To take stock of her growth and issue judgment? That prospect disturbed her the most. She was used to studying others, not being studied herself.


With a barely suppressed sigh, she turned her head. The silver-haired youth had climbed up to join her on the bridge. “I was wondering what was keeping my shadow,” she said tartly.

Puffing for breath, Yosha threw himself down and fumbled for the waterskin slung over his shoulder. “What – what are you doing up here?”

“Waiting. Watching the sun. It’s almost time.”

“Don’t you want to be down there? Meet it when it arrives?”

“Why? So I can go running into his arms? ‘Oh Papa, Papa, I missed you so much!’ He’s not Cricket.”

The youth flushed at the mention of his own sire. He was well aware Melati had always viewed their emotional reunions with thinly-veiled contempt. Melati took care to let him know whenever she disapproved. It simplified their relationship immensely.

“I know he’s not,” Yosha muttered. “But you must be curious about him. You’re always curious about everything!”

“I am. Intensely. Why is he coming back now? What has Grandmother been saying about me? My lord wouldn’t so much as tell him if I was alive or dead, but I know she sends to him all the time.”

“Maybe she’s been telling him it’s time to come home to you.”

Melati glared at him from behind her curtain of hair. He could really be quite insufferable at times, her soul’s brother. She put it down to his blood and the circumstances of his birth. The elves called his kind tyleets – healer’s gifts. Born of a pseudo-Recognition forced by healers, they invariably turned out as chipper optimistics. So many good wishes went into making them, went the saying, that they could not help but be filled with cheer.

At least Lady Spar had a self-serving streak that Melati respected. Yosha would bend over backwards to accommodate another’s desires. But then his own father had offered to attempt Recognition with a casual lovemate, simply because he knew of her intense longing for a child. Sharing his very soul with her – handing over such power – hadn’t troubled him in the least, and he had taught his son to be just as careless with his affections.

Not that she wasn’t often appreciative of Yosha’s hovering presence. As much as she enjoyed her studious life in Tallest Spire, she was glad for the company of an agemate. And he was one of the very few, besides her adoptive parents, who had always loved her without reservation. Not once had she caught him looking at her with eyes clouded by suspicion or fear. Never had she tasted the acrid flavor of pity in his sendings. She was grateful for that.

Sometimes she wished she could love him better. But then he was always content with so little.

She felt a sudden vibration in the air. “It’s here,” she whispered, a moment before a blinding flash lit up the largest hexagonal field below.

“Well, let’s get this over with.”

* * *

The Palace of the High Ones appeared in Oasis at its appointed time. A few Sun Folk looked up from their work in the gardens with vague interest, but most did not pay the giant crystal structure a second glance. After six thousand years of faithful transit between the many nations of the World of Two Moons, it was as a familiar a sight as the rising sun.

There were three elves who waited eagerly on the edge of the landing field. The Palace visited Oasis once every moon-dance, bearing travellers and trade goods. But this day it held one whose return had been long awaited.

“My son – my eyes see with joy!” Leetah the Healer cried.

Pool strode out onto the sandy plain, a gentle smile on his tanned face. Leetah raced up to embrace him. “My hands touch with joy – oh, what’s this?” She fingered his pointed chin-beard.

“We’re all getting older, Mother.”

She held him back at arm’s length, her keen healer’s eye taking in the fine laugh-lines beginning to form at the corners of his eyes. “Oh, Pool, you must do something about that,” she chided gently.

“Not again,” he warned. At over five thousand, he was already the oldest wolf-blooded elf living. His sire Scouter had lived some four millennia before he had given up his withered and broken body. Leetah had reluctantly come to accept her lifemate’s choice to live and die as a pure-blooded Wolfrider, but she never gave up hoping that Pool’s much thinner wolf-blood would leave him more inclined to choose immortality.

Behind them, the Palace disappeared with a faintly audible pop.

“Always in such a hurry,” sighed Maleen, the tuftcat rider.

Pool shrugged. “You know Rayek doesn’t like to tarry. No one is planning to leave Oasis this month, and the Palace has four more stops to make before it returns to the Great Holt.”

Leetah shook her head. “And Rayek cannot bear to play – what do the Islanders call those little boats again? The ones between villages?”


“He cannot bear to play ferry-lad for a moment longer than he must. You would think he would not begrudge serving our kind one day a month.”

“He serves, Mother. In other ways.”

“Well, enough of Rayek,” Leetah said. “Tell me you have returned for good!”

“We have much to discuss, Mother. Soon enough.” He turned to the third elf. “Cholla,” he said, and his apprehension was evident in his voice. He and Ekuar’s white-haired daughter had been first mortal enemies and then fast friends as children, and while the centuries had done much to deepen their bond, the tragedies of the last few years now threatened to tear it apart.

“My hands touch with joy,” Cholla said with a hug, then dealt him a friendly punch to the arm,  just hard enough to sting. Pool winced, and Cholla shook her head. “Oh, don’t flinch!” she warned, and gave him another punch, a little harder. So she hadn’t forgiven him for running away after all. He didn’t blame her for that. He doubted he would ever forgive himself.

“How have you fared?” he asked.

“Well enough. I’m always busy. We had a fire in the kilnworks last year, as your mother probably told you, and it’s been a nuisance getting everything up and running again.”

She would make him spell it out; so be it. “And your heart?” he specified.

“Oh Pool, you’re the only one who still fusses about that. Well, you and my brother. I would think after all this time you could trust that I have it under control.” She looped her arm through his and led him through the fields towards Tallest Spire.

**Are you ready?** she locksent. **Truly ready? I swear, if you open this wound and then run away again….**

**I’m ready,** Pool insisted. **Is she…?**

Cholla pointed to a tiny red figure descending the sheer rock wall. Pool squinted and raised a hand to shade his eyes. Moment by moment, the figure grew larger in his sight; at length he made out a long fall of auburn hair, slim legs bared by the slits of a red silk dress, and nimble sandaled feet that leapt down from rock to rock, scarcely seeming to touch them.

“Is she… an airwalker?”

“Airwalker, healer, rockshaper… Haken hopes to teach her firestarting next.” At Pool’s incredulous stare, she shrugged. “You know our lord. ‘Magic is the birthright of all our kind.’ He means to prove that everyone can learn the skills, if they only apply themselves. And Melati has a remarkable aptitude.”

“Is that Yosha?” Maleen asked, and Pool looked again. Another elf, silver-haired and hesitant on the rocks, clambered down slowly behind Melati. It had to be Maleen’s boy; the only other silver-haired elves in Oasis were descendants of Door, and all Gliders from the cradle.

“How many times have I told that boy….” Maleen grumbled.

“High Ones,” Pool breathed as Melati touched down on the golden sands. “How old is she now? Eight-and-five?”

“Eight-and-six,” Cholla said.

“So long… so many lost years.”

“They weren’t lost for her,” Cholla said, a little sharply. “She has been well cared for.”

“I owe you all a great debt.”

“I hope you aren’t expecting a warm welcome. She has not been pining for you.”

“I can only ask for forgiveness.”

“I doubt you’ll have that either. Melati!” Cholla made her voice light and welcoming. She waved the young elf-maiden over. “Come greet your sire.”

Slowly Melati advanced, nervous as a cat. Pool was struck at how much she had grown. When he had last seen her she had been a chubby little child, her features still soft and unformed. Now she was a lithe adolescent, poised on the very cusp of maturity. Her dark red hair hung down her back, straight as a waterfall. He studied her face intently, looking for some trace of his lost lifemate in her features. She stared back at him, eyes narrowed to turquoise slits. He wondered if she in turn was searching for evidence of herself in his face.

“You… you look so much like your grandmother,” he said at length, trying his best to conceal his disappointment.

 Melati nodded. “They call me her ‘little mirror.’”

“Who calls you that?”

“Many elves. Jarrah. Thamia. Mirith. Others. I don’t know who else.”

Her face, framed by the rain-straight locks, was indeed the very image of Leetah’s; she had the same high cheekbones, the same steeply arching eyebrows, the same uptipped nose and pointed chin. Even their bearing was similar – the lift of the head, the seemingly unconscious hauteur.

But of Ruffel, he could see nothing, save for the blue in her eyes.

 “Well, no matter,” Pool said gamely. “You’re growing into a beauty. I imagine you have all the lads chasing after you.”

She blinked at him skeptically. “I don’t want to be chased. I’m no one’s prey.”

“No, of course not. But... every maiden likes a little attention, now and then.”

He felt Cholla flinch at his side. She released his arm and gave him a little nudge towards his daughter. “Why don’t you two walk together? Oasis has changed much in the last few years. Melati, show your father around.” **And Pool, you rock-skull, shut up about the lads before I box your ears!**

Pool held out his hand to Melati. She stared at it a moment, as if contemplating a pricker bush, then looked away. “I will show you to your chambers. Grandmother has had them kept the way you left them.”

“My thanks.”

They walked in silence towards Tallest Spire. Pool paced at her side, stealing glances at this stranger he had sired. She seemed determined not to look in his direction.

“Do you live in the Spire?” he asked her.

“Yes. On the eighth level.”

“Haken’s chambers – of course. I had forgotten.”

“Why would you remember? I was still living with Maleen when you last visited.”

“Your grandmother told me. In sendings.”


They passed under the arching doorway of the Spire’s main gates. A trio of Sun Folk saw them coming and quickly reversed course. Melati led Pool along the once-familiar hallways towards the healers’ chambers. He noted the many subtle changes: new glowstone mosaics adorning the curving walls, different carpets laid on the smooth stone floors. Oasis was always in a state of change, like some great insect in perpetual metamorphosis.

“I spent several years in the Great Holt,” he said to fill the silence. “It’s like an Oasis in the trees. Things are constantly shifting there, but not by any elfin hand. No one treeshapes – at least, not like Spar and Meerkat do. It’s considered insulting to the Grandfather Tree. If you want a new house, you simply make a framework of dead branches and prop it up in the trees. The tree will grow around the frame, make it part of itself. It’s fascinating. It feels so… so right, elf and tree living his such harmony.”

“I hear it’s very wet in the Great Holt.”

“Oh, aye. During the storm season it will rain for days on end, and the whole forest floor floods when the Green River overruns its banks.”

Melati made a sound of distaste.

“Maybe you would like to come with me and see it,” Pool offered. “We have cousins we can visit with.”

“I don’t think so.”

“It would do you good to see some more of the world.”

“I don’t need to. I can see all I want through the Little Palace.”

“It’s not the same, child.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Pool fell silent as Melati turned down a hallway and opened a door.

Melati had not lied; Leetah had kept his old rooms just as he had left them. The same faded tapestries hung on the walls; the same bowls sat on the sideboard ready to be filled with fruit. The mosaic Ruffel had begun on the wall remained unfinished. As he studied where the plaster had dried around the colored pebbles, he could just make out the ghost of her fingerprints.

He walked over to the sunken chamber where their bed had once rested. Someone had disposed of all the stained linens, the mattress stuffed with zwoot hair. Pool ran his fingertips over the enameled edge of the pit-bed. “This is where you were born,” he said to Melati. His fingertip brushed a discoloration on the enamel that might well have been blood. “And where your mother died.”

He regretted his words as soon as he’d said them. The child did not need reminding.

“Many animals die after giving birth,” Melati remarked, her voice distant, impassive. “Fish when  they spawn, spiders once they lay their egg sacks. Several kinds of desert lizard will guard their nests and starve to death, waiting for their young to hatch. If scavengers do not consume the mother’s body, the hatchlings do. It is quite… efficient in its way.”

“Oh, daughter…” Pool said despairingly. “Is that what Haken’s been teaching you?”

Melati bristled. “I could not ask for a better father than he has been.”

“You choose that word to wound me.”

“No I dont. It is the only word that applies.” A ghost of a cruel smile touched her lips. “Wounding you is… incidental.”

“You’re angry with me. You have every right to be. I was not ready to be a father to you. When I Recognized your mother, I could think only of the joys of fatherhood. I was not prepared for sorrow. When your mother died… something in me broke. Something I could not heal. I tried. I wanted to love you, for her sake. But I could not, and so I left you with those who could.

“But now?” she asked. “At last you are ready to love me?”

He flinched at her tone. Haken had indeed taught her well.

He gestured her to sit with him on a bench. She positioned herself gingerly on the very edge, poised for flight.

“My sire and I didn’t always get along,” he said. “In truth we fought like jackwolves and tuftcats.

Melati frowned. “The wolves and the cats don’t fight. They don’t even cross paths most of the time.”

“Well, they used to. In the early days of Oasis, when I was growing up, we were all living on top of each other. And my father and I were like those beasts – two very different animals forced to live together. I always had his love. But once I came into my healing powers and abandoned the hunt, I seldom had his approval, and it pained me greatly. His love was not enough to feed my soul. I wanted his praise too. But you… to hear my mother tell it, you can do no wrong in Haken’s eyes. And I am glad for it. I know you have no need of love from a near-stranger. But it would please me if you would accept it, all the same.”

“And why should I? After all these years?”

“Because… even if you cannot feel love for your sire… perhaps you could feel pity. Please, daughter. I look into your eyes and I try to see Ruffel. I hear your voice and I think of hers. You are all that remains of her.”

“That’s not true,” Melati said lightly. “Her bones are buried in the south fields. I can show you where.”

He stared at her, wounded and dumbstruck. And that was how she left him. The little rattles on her sandals hissed like snakes as she withdrew.

* * *

He would not go to his mother yet. He could not face her smothering affection and her maternal disappointment. But he sent to Cholla, seeking company. Presently she arrived at his door bearing a long wicker cylinder. “I brought you some supper, since I knew you wouldn’t have restocked your larder yet.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean for you to trouble yourself–”

“No trouble. Klipspringer’s gone to visit Skylark at Blue Mountain, but I’m so used to cooking for two.” She set the wicker basket down on the low table and began to remove the small ceramic pots stacked within. “I’m surprised you aren’t eating with Leetah tonight.”

“Not now. I need to build up my courage.”

“Ah.” Cholla nodded sagely. “Well, this will help.” She spread out the pots, lifting the lids to reveal freshly baked flatbread, spiced pottage, grilled locusts and sliced rockpeppers. Pool’s spirits began to lift at the aromas.

“It didn’t go well,” Cholla remarked as Pool sat down and helped himself to a piece of flatbread.


“I warned you.”

“I know you did.” He took several spoonfuls of pottage and a few of the bright red peppers, but passed over the locusts. Cholla clucked her tongue and murmured, “I forgot.”

“How did you do that?” Pool raised an eyebrow. It had been a mountain’s age since he had given up eating meat, but the Sun Folk still remembered the screaming matches it had provoked between father and son. Pool had practically lived at Cholla’s hut until Leetah had brokered a shaky truce.

“Well, it has been years since we saw each other,” Cholla pointed out. “And besides, hoppers are hardly meat. There are some Sun Folk who still can’t bring themselves to eat ravvit or zwoot – but they wont turn down a honey-coated sting-tail.” She took a fat locust and crunched it between her teeth.

Pool made a face.

“How did you survive in the Great Holt? I thought they have nothing to eat there but fish and waterfowl and treewees.”

“I managed. I stayed in the Palace, mostly.”

“With Ruffel.”

He nodded. “Though she is not as… present as I had hoped.”


“Not all spirits talk. Some you can only feel. I would send out my feelings and Ruffel’s would embrace me in turn… but it’s not the same. Not at all. After a while I couldn’t bear it… being so close yet so far. So I went to see Aurek in the Painted Mountains. I found… some measure of peace there.”

“That’s right, he’s moved west, hasn’t he? Rayek was telling me. Some new project with his Eggs?”

**He wants to found a school,** Pool sent, in consideration of his mouth full of food. He swallowed and went on, “A school for magic-users. Where any elf can learn their chosen discipline. He wants Lord Haken’s help to build it.”

“What sort of help?”

“Haken’s daughter once tried to use the powers of the ancient Gliders to build an Egg of Eight Spheres – a vessel of living stone, like the Palace. Her experiment failed, but only because she was stopped by Swift and the Wolfriders before she could complete it. Aurek hopes to recreate the experiment.”

A veil seemed to fall over Cholla’s eyes. “So that’s why you’ve come back. To ask Haken for rockshapers.”

“And to see Melati,” Pool insisted. “But she seems to have no use for me.”

“She’s hurt. She’s angry, and she’s at the age when passions burn brightest. You must be patient. I warned you, Pool. You can’t just give up because you find it difficult.”

“I know that! I just… I just hoped for a chance to explain. I thought… if I could share with her – if she understood what it did to me.”

“Share?” Cholla’s hand hesitated over the rockpeppers. “You mean… locksending?”

“No elf should ever have to feel what I felt. And yet I cannot explain it in words. What the birth did to me. Why it broke me. Maybe, if she could see through my eyes, and if she let me see through hers, we could come to some sort of… truce.”

Cholla shook her head. “That takes trust. And she has no reason to trust you yet.” She pushed the pot of peppers away and said, “Pool, what happened at the birth that… broke you, as you say? Maleen’s told me… but I still don’t understand. It was a great sorrow for all of us, but that sorrow was tempered by Melati’s arrival.”

“Not for me. For me, it was sorrow compounded with…” he grimaced as he forced himself to say the word, “… hate.”

“Show me,” Cholla insisted. “Help me understand.”

Pool hesitated. Cholla was his oldest friend and his harshest critic. If he could not share the truth with her, how could he ever hope to with his daughter? Reluctantly, he reached out with a sending star, seeking her own, binding them together until she shared his thoughts, until she was walking in the shadows of memory with him.

* * *

Recognition – the great mystery, at last revealed….

His whole life, he had waited for it. His mother had always said true Recognition could never be chosen – that to try to force it would only weaken its bond. Yet Maleen had so wanted a child, and Cricket had been willing to father it. To Pool, who spent his days preserving life – fighting that great Enemy called death –  it struck him as a chance to practice the purest healer’s art: to create life where there had been none.

It hadn’t been easy – how could he force something he did not understand? He labored for months, until at last, eyes met eyes under the aura he cast. He staggered from the hut, exhausted yet consumed by the bloodsong… and saw Ruffel hovering outside, anxious for news. Eyes met eyes twice that night.

He had known Ruffel all his life, yet now it seemed she had been a stranger to him all those years. Now he saw her for who she truly was. All this time, she had been meant for him.

“Maleen has been my other half for so many years,” she warned him. “I meant to raise her child with her.”

“And now you will have a child of your own to raise.”

“Maleen mustn’t be left out….”

“She won’t be. I’ll cherish her first for herself, and more because of you. And we will raise both children together – the three of us!”

For two years he had lived in a dream of blissful anticipation. Each day for two years, his love for Ruffel grew stronger, until it became a dizziness, like the finest dreamberry wine. He was drunk with joy.

Maleen birthed her child three days before Ruffel. A boy, with his mother’s brown skin and his father’s silver hair. They named him Yosha, and Maleen swore he would be there to see his soul’s sister  born. As Ruffel felt her pangs begin, she and Maleen laughed together, imagining that their children would be the next ones to Recognize.

When all was well, their kind felt only satisfaction in the work of bringing life. So it was with Ruffel. She chatted with Maleen between contractions, and sipped squatneedle juice, and swatted Pool’s hands away when he sought to relieve the birthing pangs. “Great Sun, let me do my work, lifemate!” she chided gently.

At last it was time. He felt it in the change of her breathing, in the way she braced her legs on the edge of the bed-pit. “The child is ready!” he cried. “Ready to come forth into the world.” He looked up into Ruffel’s eyes, expecting to see them shine with the same excitement. But instead a strange half-frown crossed her face.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, in a voice no louder than a bird’s peep. She sounded more surprised than anything.

The blood….

He was used to the smells of birth. He had helped deliver enough kitlings, Maleen’s most recently. He was used to a little blood, sometimes more than a little if the afterbirth was slow in coming. But this was something else. The blood was everywhere: on her legs, on his hands, on the cushions and birthing cloths. This was a slaughter.

He was a child, weeping at the sight of a butchered zwoot.

He was a terrified youth, watching a crescent-horn die, feeling the animal’s pain for the first time with his newfound healer’s senses, hearing the creature scream in agony.

It was Maleen screaming, followed quickly by her infant son. Ruffel could only ask “Is it all right?” her voice already fading as her life’s blood poured out of her.

Death was in the room. Pool could feel the Enemy stalking him.

He roused himself from his panic. He laid hands on her belly, feeling for the womb, feeling for the child. He reached out with a sending star to probe for the damage and felt it brushed aside.

The child….

The afterbirth was torn, hemorrhaging. He had to shrivel it, to cut off its blood supply. But he couldn’t while the babe was still inside its mother.

He had only an instant to make his choice.

“Forgive me!” Pool cried, as he reached inside his lifemate. His fingers closed over a head, and again he felt the unborn’s sending star, trying to swat him away. It burned in his mind like a bee’s sting, but he pushed onward, hooking his fingers around a shoulder.

Ruffel screamed as he began to draw the child out. The head was born, covered in a bloody caul. Pool had no time for gentleness. He forced his hands around the crowning infant and turned it roughly, until its shoulders were freed with an audible crack. The child slithered out in a torrent of fresh blood, and Pool let it fall to the cushion as he turned his attention back to his lifemate.

**Mother!** Pool sent. **Come now! I need your help!**

He sealed off the blood vessels that were feeding the torn afterbirth. He poured his magic into her womb, forcing it to contract. Ruffel screamed again, then sagged back in Maleen’s arms.

**Ruffel,** he begged. **Lifemate, stay with me.**

She couldn’t leave him. She was all that mattered in the world.

Her heart stopped. He felt the sudden stillness rock her body. He reached out with his magic and squeezed the muscle until it began to beat again.

It beat pourly. It fluttered like Cholla’s used to, when she was having a “stampede.”

It stopped again.

Again he restarted it. Again it failed. Leetah was at his side now. He had no idea when she had arrived. **Mother, she’s fading. You have to help me.**

“Oh, my son….”

**It’s her heart, you have to get it beating right. Like you always did with Cholla.**


**Why aren’t you helping her? Just do what you did with Cholla. We have to get her heart beating!** He placed both hands over her breastbone, focussing his magic into her. He pumped down with his hands, harder each time, trying jostle her heart into action.

 “Stop, now,” Leetah said. “She’s gone.”

“No! No, we can heal her! We just need her heart pumping.”

**Pool, there is nothing for it to pump.**

He heard the truth in her blunt sending. He looked down and saw the sea of red all around him. His mother was right. Healers could do much, but they could not replenish lost blood. Only time could do that, and Ruffel had none.

He had lost her. The Enemy had taken the only soul he could not live without.

Then he became aware of a movement on the bloody cushion. The child. It lived. He felt a curious disbelief that the infant could have survived all that had happened. He remembered how he had crushed its little bones in his haste to deliver it.

He let his magic out, to probe the wounded newborn. His healing aura ran up against another.

It was a girl, as Ruffel had predicted. And she was completely unharmed. The broken bones had already knit together. Instinctively, the baby’s magic had protected her.

She had protected herself… but she had done nothing for Ruffel.

Worse, she had rebuffed Pool’s attempts at a healing.

He had always hated and feared the unseen Enemy. But now at last it had a face a swollen, bloody newborn’s face.

 **Lifetaker!** he exploded.

The baby started to cry, a thin, indignant howl.

Leetah scooped up the child, wrapped her in a fresh cloth. “A daughter,” she whispered. “Ruffel gave you a daughter.”

She gave me death! he wanted to scream. She gave me this curse! A healer who takes life!

* * *

Cholla broke off the communion abruptly. She sprang to her feet, shaking her head at the residual connection. “You can’t…. Pool! You can’t believe Melati’s to blame for all this!”

“I don’t. Not anymore.”

“But you do. I feel it. Your head knows better, but your heart… you regret saving her!”

Pool struggled to stand. “I couldn’t save them both. If I had only forced Ruffel’s blood away from her torn womb, she would still live.”

“But Melati would have died!”

“We don’t know that. She had a healer’s power even then. She was strong enough to block my magic. You shared with me – you felt it! I was trying to heal Ruffel. And she stopped me.”

“Because you would have killed her. It was instinct, nothing more.”

“I know that now. But then – the blood, the pain – it was too much! Ruffel was my whole life. When she died, I lost the best part of myself.”

“I know,” Cholla said softly.

“You can’t know! Not until you know Recognition! It’s more than love. It’s like finding a piece of yourself you never knew was missing! You learn you were never complete until that moment. For two years I was complete. And now… now I will never know that peace again.”

“You cannot share this with Melati!” Cholla insisted. “Promise me you’ll never lay that burden on her. To know her sire hated her for being born… better she think you were just too grief-stricken to look at her.”

She tried to brush past him. He caught her shoulders.

 “Tell me you understand – at least a little,” he pleaded.

“No. No, I can’t. I might have forgiven your madness had it lasted a day, a moon-dance, even a year. But fourteen years, Pool? While others were raising your child, you were wallowing in self-pity. I thought you had outgrown holding grudges – but youve let this fester at you! Youve let this grief and this rage own you! And now you want to give it to Melati? Why? To punish her?”

“She deserves to know. I – I cannot bear this alone anymore.”

“Do you think you’re the first elf to know loss? Great Sun, think of your own mother!”

“It’s not the same. She always knew Father would die.”

“And Maleen? She’d been Ruffels lifemate far longer than you.”

Pool waved away Maleens name dismissively. “They weren’t Recognized.”

Cholla slapped him.

“You haven’t grown up at all!” she snarled. Her face flushed as she fought for breath. With her blood racing in her veins, her heart struggled to keep up. Pool held out his hand in offer, but she spurned his healing magic. “Keep the food!” she snapped as she spun on her heel and stalked out of the room.

* * *

Pool paced impatiently outside the council chamber, deep inside Tallest Spire. He had asked for an audience at noon, but by the sundial in the antechamber, Haken had decided to keep him waiting.

The antechamber was built like a giant chimney, its walls tapering upwards until they ended in an open smokehole nearly twenty elf-spans overhead. Curling glyphs decorated the walls; the elfin script invented by the Islanders and eventually adopted by all but the Wolfriders of the Evertree, who kept their own, far more complex writing system.

Pool read the names carved into the walls: Savah, Dodia, Shushen, Yarol, Ilshen, Rosh, Kislek, Malkah, Ohler. The names of all the elves who had died to make Oasis what it was – the martyrs of the Flight from Sorrows, riders who had fallen in the hunt, explorers who had been lost to the ruthless rocks. Haken called them the Heroic Dead.

Pool’s sire had not been listed among them, for all Leetah’s pleading. In Hakens view there was nothing heroic about dying of old age.

As Pools eyes passed over the most recent name chiseled into the clay, he recoiled.

“Pool?” a voice prompted. Pool turned to face the blind elf waiting at the door.

“Ruffel – why is her name here? She is not one of the Heroic Dead.”

Sun-Toucher looked confused, as if Pool were speaking another tongue. “She fought off death long enough to bringing forth new life. There is nothing more heroic.”

You’re wrong, Pool wanted to shout. There is nothing more shameful. My shame and Melati’s. Ruffel put her life in our hands, and together we killed her.

“They will see you now,” Sun-Toucher said, reminding him of his task.

He followed the blind seer into the council chamber. His sire, who could recall the days of Blue Mountain, had once sneered that Haken had simply rebuilt its throne room in Oasis on a much-smaller scale. Still, the room had always seemed massive to Pool.

Haken and Chani sat on the two largest thrones, rockshaped to resemble giant birds with outstretched wings forming their backs. Pool dipped at the waist and spread his arms in the ceremonial bow of their people.

To the right of the High Ones sat their great-grandson Door and his lifemate Spar, both arrayed in  feathered robes that marked them as Oasis elders. Sun-Toucher took his seat in a more modest stone chair beside them. To Haken’s left sat Ahdri the Daughter of Memory, and Grayling, still wearing his chief’s lock though he had surrendered active control of the Jackwolf Riders to his son Fennec many years before.

“Welcome home, healer,” Haken said. His measured tone gave away nothing. For all Pool could tell, the High One might be wishing him dead, or be overjoyed at his return.

Probably not. Haken could be satisfied with much, but little genuinely pleased him.

“Thank you, lord. It is… good to be back.”

“Then have you come home to stay?” Chani asked, with a polite smile.

“Not quite yet, I fear. I come on an errand from your grandson Aurek.”

Chani brightened; her courteous smile filled with genuine warmth. “Aurek! What has that dear boy been dreaming up now?”

Pool drew out a small piece of stone from the folds of his cloak. “In the western mountains of the New Land, he has found this stone. Seedrock, he calls it. It is the most magically-receptive stone he has  encountered on this world – closest in character to the starstone of the Palace.”

He shared a open sending with the council. In their combined vision, the golden walls of the chamber became an ever-shifting latticework of gray stone, with myriad symbols moving slowly across its rotating surface.

**His new Egg,** Pool explained. **Eight spheres, each nested inside the other, forever in motion, drawing the power of magic-users to convert seedrock into a Scroll of living stone! Aurek tried to create such a thing once before, under the command of Winnowill. She meant to use it as a new palace-ship, to escape this world. But Aurek means to recreate it as a place of learning. He has completed seven spheres, merging his seedrock with precious shards of the Palace itself.**

Haken scowled. **What are the Palacemasters thinking? The Homeshell is not a lode to be mined! They have already chipped off too many pieces. I saw the Palace yesterday – it looked… reduced.**

**Skywise has created a smaller shell to explore the nearby stars,** Pool explained. **He does it quite often nowadays.**

**And if he should crash it one day? That ‘starstone’ is all that remains of our homeworld! We cannot simply make more!**

**That is another reason for the Egg,** Pool insisted. **Hear the truth, lord. From Aurek’s own memories. The seedrock of the first seven spheres is changing! Already it is beginning to take on the properties of the starstone. It is growing… breathing – alive!**

**Fascinating,** Chani sent. **Then perhaps one day we can manufacture our own starstone. Imagine, a second Palace, one strong with this world’s own magic.**

**This world has no magic,** Haken sent dismissively. **This world kills magic. That we have recovered even a fraction of the old powers is testament to elfin endurance – in spite of this cursed soil.**

**Aurek believes there is power here,** Pool went on. **Soon he will begin the Egg’s final shell. And when it is complete, it will stand as a wellspring of our ancestral powers. All elves who wish to master magic can join Aurek in his... college.** The word was new to the elfin vocabulary, but his sending conveyed its meaning in a succinct word-thought-concept.

“Wondrous…” Sun-Toucher breathed.

“A worthy vision,” Haken said, when Pool had finished. “Though I won’t deny I am skeptical of his faith in this stone.” He held out his hand and Pool relinquished the pebble. “Mm, yes, I see. It is… malleable. But it will never be more than a frail imitation of true starstone.”

“Surely once starstone was humble soil as well, my lord,” Chani said. “Give Aurek a High One’s lifetime and he may yet succeed. Especially if he draws on the powers of his new students.”

 “Very well. What does Aurek wish of us?”

Now came the delicate moment. “The High One, Timmain… she has been helping him raise the spheres. But she is best suited to shaping flesh, not rock. Aurek requires the aid of another rockshaper to finish the last sphere. An elder among our kind.”

“He wishes me to join him?” Haken hesitated. Pool could imagine the thoughts going through Haken’s head. The High One had never once set foot outside Oasis since his rockshapers had finished raising the walls. He brooded over his people like a nesting hawk. And to work with Aurek meant working with Timmain. The shaky truce between the two feuding High Ones had only held so long because an ocean separated them. If placed within reach of Timmain, who knew what might scores Haken might choose to settle.

“I will go, Grandfather,” Door spoke up. “It has been too long since I’ve seen my uncle.” He turned to Spar. “You won’t mind, will you, my precious?”

“Mind?” Spar gave a snort of incredulity. “Not as long as we stop at the Great Holt. I’ve been itching to see the old tribe again. Come to think of it, Yun still owes me some troll-gold.”

Haken appeared visibly relieved that temptation was out of reach. “Then it’s settled. When will you leave?”

“In a moon-dance, when the Palace returns,” Pool ruled. “We will disembark at the Great Holt for a spell, then journey onward to the Egg. The final shell should take no more than a year, Aurek says.” Pool hesitated, wondering how to approach the next matter. “It… is my wish that Melati come with us, Lord Haken. The choice is hers, of course, but I hope to persuade her – it is past time we get to know each other.”

“Well past time,” Chani said, all the warmth freezing out of her voice. “But better late than never, I say.”

“Melati is still a child,” Haken said. “And you surrendered your rights as her father long ago. The  choice is mine whether she goes with you or not.” He glanced at Chani, reading her expression. “But… if Melati wishes it, we can discuss the matter further.”

Pool knew he had to tread softly. His cheek still smarted from Cholla’s slap; he had intentionally delayed healing it as a reminder to choose his words with care. He gave Haken a respectful bow of the head. “Thank you, lord.”

Haken made as if to speak more, then stopped and cocked his head to one side. “What is it, my lord?” Chani asked, her voice all smoky concern.

“A sending. From Sust. They’ve found–” his golden eyes widened in horror. “A human! The fools have captured a human and they’re holding it at the Sun Gate!”

On to Part Two

Elfquest copyright 2014 Warp Graphics, Inc. Elfquest, its logos, characters, situations, all related indicia, and their distinctive likenesses are trademarks of Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Some dialogue taken from Elfquest comics. All such dialogue copyright 2014 Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Alternaverse characters and insanity copyright 2014 Jane Senese and Erin Roberts.