The moon was round and bright.

The moon was round and bright, perhaps perfectly full, perfectly balanced between lightening and darkening.

Llia had thought it normal that it should be so on this night of the year, when the hours of darkness were perfectly balanced by the hours of day, but Palina had told her it happened seldom. She had said that Llia was too young to have any perspective, to know what was normal and what was rare. She was too young to have paid attention to such things.

But she was paying attention now.

The elves came as silently as owls, and Llia was a mouse in the grass.

The elves came as silently as owls.

She had seen males before, but only in single eyefuls stolen by peeking through cracks and rents, before her grandmother yanked her away by her hair. She had heard them, though: their voices deep like distant thunder, and their laughter that was more frightening than funny.

Now they were silent, and she looked her fill. There were four of them. One could have held her arms, one could have held her legs… The thought made her arms and legs tremble.

The head of the tallest blotted out the moon, darkening her.

The head of the tallest blotted out the moon, darkening her.

But it was the smallest who stepped forward.

“Hello there, sweetheart,” he said softly. “Waiting for someone?”

She recognized him by the wash of silvery hair. There were several girls in her village with such hair, and everyone knew who their father was.

Llia was too awed to produce anything more coherent than a giggle. She felt a fluttering in her belly, almost as if a baby were already within it. Perhaps she would have a silver-​​haired child in the summer. Suddenly what was about to happen to her seemed very real.

Suddenly it seemed very real.

“We heard you had one,” the tallest elf said low.

Llia gasped. She realized then that if this was the elf Imin helping her to her feet, then it was Lar himself who had come. The shadow of Lar had lain over her body. She would tell all the girls.

“We have one,” she blurted. “I’m supposed to take you.”

'I'm supposed to take you.'

“What’s your name?” Imin asked her. “I’m Imin.”

“I know!” she giggled. “I’m Llia.”

“Llia? That’s a sad name for such a smiling girl.”

“I know!”

'I know!'

The massive, red-​​haired elf beside Lar asked dubiously, “How old are you?” His voice was deeper than thunder. She knew he must be Llen.

Llia was trembling all over. It was more than she could bear: Lar’s shadow on her face, and Imin’s hand lingering on hers, and Llen’s voice surrounding her.

“Fourteen,” she chittered.

“Go back to your mother,” Llen frowned.

“My grandmother sent me!” Llia protested.

“Leave her be,” Lar muttered as he headed for the bridge. “We need her. Just keep your paws off her till she takes us up, Imin.”

'Just keep your paws off her till she takes us up, Imin.'