The clouds were so thick and low that the sky seemed to be sliding almost over their heads.

The clouds were so hurried and low that the sky seemed to be sliding almost across the crests of the hills. Beyond the dark hedges, the young flax was laid flat by the wind, showing the silvery green of its under-​​leaves. The fields sloped shining and slippery all the way to the river, smoothing the way, and above Lor’s head, the new leaves of the old trees shivered in dread of their first real storm.

“Is this elf certain we should be doing this now?” he asked uneasily. “This storm is coming up more quickly than I expected. The elf could come any time to take her back to the castle.”

“Right, so make it quick,” the little elf snapped.

'Right, so make it quick.'

“I don’t want him to see me…”

“He won’t! Get in, get her away from the door, and I’ll handle the rest.”

Lor glanced up at the dark face of the house.

“Go, you fool!” Imin growled. “She’ll never let a gnarled little troll like me into the house, or I’d do it myself! She likes her elves tall and pretty,” he snorted.

Lor did not like the gnarled little troll either.

Lor did not like the gnarled little troll either. He almost wished Lar, son of Nidala, had come himself. At least he appeared to be an elf who knew how to get things done. At least he had magic.

Lor knocked on the front door, and he heard the woman’s boots come clattering across the wooden floor as she ran to open it.

He was startled past speech when she appeared. She looked so very harmless: small and pink-​​cheeked, and as bouncy in her movements as a child. His mother’s and his sister’s vicious contempt for her had made her seem a monster in his mind.

Lor was startled past speech when she appeared.

He saw that she was frightened, and he hurriedly said, “Good afternoon. Are you Catan?”

“Aye…” she squeaked. She laid a hand on the doorframe as if she meant to pull herself inside if he made a move.

“My name is Lor, and I am the son of Paul’s father’s sister, Madra.”

She smiled in relief.

“Oh! Oh!” She smiled in relief. “Lor! Paul has told me about you, and when you were boys together. And some of the naughty things you did,” she added with a sly giggle.

Her relief was in contrast to his own rising panic, for he could hear a second pair of boots descending the stairs. It was not the elf Paul, for Lor would have recognized the fire in him. The steps were light enough to be those of a second small woman, but the presence of anyone besides the woman Catan seemed an impossible obstacle to their plans.

The presence of anyone besides the woman Catan seemed an impossible obstacle to their plans.

“Flann! Come see who’s here!” she cried. “No – wait! Why don’t I simply grow some manners and invite you in?” She laughed and took him by the elbow to lead him inside. “We can’t offer much hospitality yet. We haven’t even brought the furniture down. My sister and I were here thinking about where everything will go. Flann! Look who’s here! Paul’s cousin, Lor.”

'Flann!  Look who's here!'

Flann said something to her sister that he supposed was in the Scot language, and the two of them engaged in a brief, hushed argument. Catan seemed to win, and she led her sister up to meet him. Her sister did not, however, offer her hand to be kissed as Cat had.

Her sister did not, however, offer her hand to be kissed as Cat had.

“Good afternoon, sir,” she said coldly. “I hope you haven’t far to go, for I think it will rain quite soon.”

She seemed to want to offend him, but Lor was only too delighted to be offered an opportunity to make his escape as soon as possible. He had to get outside to tell Imin that they couldn’t go ahead as long as there was a witness here.

'In fact, I can't stay long...'

“In fact, I can’t stay long…” he began.

Catan took his arm again and swung him around nearer the fire. “I hope you can stay at least a little while. Paul should be along any time, and he would be so very happy to see you again, and so sorry to miss you!”

'He would be so very happy to see you again, and so sorry to miss you!'

She smiled broadly, but there were tears in her eyes – so happy was she to think of making her husband happy, and so sorry to think he might be disappointed.

“Paul says you’ll be getting married in a few days, isn’t it so?” she asked. “To the sister of him?”

A gust of wind shook the trees outside, and a moment later it somehow found its way into the house to stir Lor’s long hair. The first drops of rain slapped against the windows, and their clatter echoed strangely in the empty wooden room.

Lor’s pulse too reverberated in his ears. He feared he would be trapped here by the rain, and he could only hope Imin would have run off by now and abandoned him. Then he could simply pretend he had come to visit his cousin…

“Yes…” He smiled weakly. “But – I’m sorry, but – ”

“That means you’ll soon be my brother-​​in-​​law-​​in-​​law!” she laughed. “And, Flann, he’ll be your brother-​​in-​​law-​​in-​​law… in-​​law!”

'And, Flann, he'll be your brother-in-law-in-law-in-law!'

Flann rubbed her hands briskly before the fire and said nothing.

“I wish I could see him,” Lor said, “but it’s beginning to rain. You’ll kindly tell him I… came…”

Lor felt both a rising urge to vomit and a tightening in his throat that would have prevented it. The little base-​​born elf had crept into the house and was standing directly behind Catan. He must have seen the other woman there, but he seemed entirely unconcerned.

The little base-born elf had crept into the house and was standing directly behind Catan.

Lor tried to shake his head subtly in a warning, but the elf pounced on Cat from behind.

“Good afternoon, sweetheart!” he crowed. “Remember me?”

'Remember me?'

As soon as he heard the shriek that followed, Lor knew that he could not be a part of what was about to happen. He had not understood the horror of it until now. The woman was not a monster. He, however, was turning into one.

He was turning into one.

But the little elf seemed to find the shrieking more exciting than not. “Good girl!” he laughed. “Scream for me this time!”

Her woman’s strength was so little that the elf was able to run his hands obscenely over her body even as she fought to free herself from them. Indeed he seemed to find her struggles too more exciting than not.

'Good girl!'

Lor was an elf suddenly stricken with tree nature. He wanted to flee, but his feet were roots twisting into the earth. He wanted to fight, but his arms were stiff branches that could only plunge and sway, and never bend, and never grapple. He wanted to protest, but his voice was stifled in his own hollows.

He wanted to fight, but his arms were stiff branches.

“Watch out, fool!” Imin cried in the elven language. “She has a knife!”

Lor the tree did not understand until he felt the blade slip through a chink in the bark into the soft, green wood beneath his ribs.

The young woman seemed so horrified at what she had done that she left the knife embedded in his side and fell sobbing to her knees.

She fell sobbing to her knees.

But she looked up and saw him looming over her, and she must have realized that her one weapon was now effectively in his possession. Though she sobbed and pleaded with him all the while, her hand darted up to clasp the hilt and pull it free.

Even in his horror and his pain, his own hand lashed out with the reflexes of an elf to stop hers before it reached the knife.

Lor was a tree suddenly stricken by lightning.

Lor was a tree suddenly stricken by lightning.

The instant his hand closed over hers, there was nothing in the world but a white light. It seared his eyes open and deafened his ears with its white blare. It filled his nose and gushed down his throat, replacing the air with a light that had nothing to do with air. It forced apart his teeth and stripped away his shriveled tongue, and gusts of light sheared off his skin like the papery bark of birches.

As soon as he released her hand, his body was restored to him, but his eyes were still blind. Blindness was not an unrelieved darkness as he had always imagined it. Even when he closed his eyes he saw nothing but light.

“I’m blind!” he howled. “I’m blind!”

'I'm blind!'

In his language the word also meant “damned”, and the little elf could not have known which he meant. Perhaps Lor did not either.

He felt the woman tugging on his belt. He could not understand why, for her knife was still buried in his flank, still gnawing at his insides as he struggled away from her. But he dared not strike her or swat her away.

But he dared not strike her or swat her away.

He only knew what she meant to do when he heard it: the sound of his sword slipping free of its sheath. She had been tugging on the hilt.

He knew what was coming, but he could not know from where. He threw up his arms to protect his face and neck, so it came to his belly. The force of her awkward blow knocked the breath out of him, but it did not cut him until she laid her weight against the blade and spun away with it, ripping him open with his own sword.

One did feel such a wound. It was a pain as all-​​consuming as the light of a moment before, entering him through all his senses. He was hearing and smelling and tasting pain. He felt pain in all his body. He saw only light.

The first gout of hot blood fled over his hands and spattered onto the floor.

The first gout of hot blood fled over his hands and spattered onto the floor before he could stop it. There was nothing he could do about the rest. It was all the more horrifying not being able to see what was happening to him. He could only feel knots of warm, slippery rope coming unbound, unraveling, slithering over his hands.

The elf Lar, son of Agony, had foretold it. Lor could stop the bleeding, but he could not stop his guts from falling out all over his feet. He could have told Lar that being dead felt like pain and looked like a fading light.

He could have told Lar that being dead felt like pain.