Lar could see Pima peering out through a rent in the curtain.

Lar could see Pima peering out through a rent in the curtain just before he pulled it aside. He did not doubt she was hoping to see Ilal.

He had said it was to indulge Ilal that he had come with his four instead of sending some of the others.

Lar had said it was to indulge Ilal.

Still, down in the depths where his own unadmitted truths swam, he knew that it was because Pima would probably have refused anyone besides Ilal, and Lar could not bring himself to order her rape. He was already letting Imin have a fourteen-​year-​old girl.

He was already letting Imin have a fourteen-year-old girl.

Ilal asked, “Need me?”

He had eyes only for Pima, but it was clear the question was addressed to Lar, since for Pima there could only have been one answer to the question. The two were ecstatically, ridiculously in love, and his many trips to this village were bound to get Ilal killed someday.

'Need me?'

“Need you?” Lar grunted. “I wish you’d get out of here before you make the rest of us sick with your kissing and cooing.”

“Thank you, Lar,” Pima murmured.

“Thank me, thank me,” Lar sighed. “Thank me in the morning if you’re still thankful!”

Pima turned her head and smiled as Ilal led her out. Lar winked at her.

Alone among the other ladies there assembled, Pima had lived beneath the earth with them for a time. She and Ilal had a strong young son. But Ilal’s wife’s jealousy had driven her away.

Jealousy.  That would be worse now, too.

Jealousy. That would be worse now, too.

Lar turned back into the room only to come nearly nose-​to-​forehead with Palina. He was still grimacing from the thought of jealousy, and she seemed to take the look as intended for her.

'Nice to see you again, too.'

“Nice to see you again, too,” she sniffed.

“Palina,” he sighed.

“I see I could have stayed home.”

“I’m only here for the kid.”

“If you’re going to take one, you ought to leave one in exchange,” she smiled.

Llen sighed mightily. “You never learn, do you, Lina?”

Lar muttered, “I’ll have kids the day I can let them run around the forest without my sons getting slaughtered and my daughters getting raped.”

'I'll have kids the day I can let them run around the forest.'

“But you expect us to let ours be?” Imin cried.

“That’s why we don’t let them run around the forest, isn’t it?” he hissed.

“Then keep yours underground with ours! ‘We need sons,’” Imin sneered.

'We need sons.'

He was quoting Lar’s own muttered refrain of the past several days, though Lar had not realized until then that he had repeated it enough to make it quoteable.

“How am I supposed to lead you all if I’m worried about two or three elves above all others, just because they’re mine? I need to keep my mind clear.”

'I need to keep my mind clear.'

“It’s not your mind Lina wants between her legs, Lar,” Imin cackled.

“If I kept my mind where you do, she would.”

They all laughed, even the little girl, and Imin pressed himself against her as if his mind had just been reminded.

They all laughed, even the little girl.

Lar turned away. These tiny huts were unbearable; it seemed as if everywhere he looked there was something he did not want to see. He was accustomed to broad, high-​ceilinged halls—halls which were growing emptier with every passing moon.

“Let’s see him,” he said gruffly.

'Let's see him.'

Rakha began to whimper as she bounced her baby. She had been standing with her back to them all since they had entered, as if she could hide.

Before Lar could think of a way to gently force her, he heard a shuffling at the door, and Llen groaned, “Sacred Mother! It never fails!”

“She smelled you coming!” Imin laughed.

It was Aia, bobbing her head and cringing, almost bowing before Llen.

It was Aia.

“What was I just saying?” Llen cried. “You bitches never learn!”

“Go on with you,” Lar sighed and waved her away. Here was something else he did not care to see.

“Go on home, Aia,” Palina said.

“I just—just wanted to say goodbye to the baby,” Aia mumbled and ducked her head.

“Sure you did!” Llen said. “Nobody else here tonight, Lina?”

'Nobody else here, Lina?'

Palina snorted. “Sorry, Llen. You and Zodi and Sinarr were very thorough this summer.”

“Teodru too,” Imin added and glanced up at Lar.

Lar could not afford to grimace now, but his heart plunged down into the cold depths where his unadmitted truths dwelled. Dead, dead, dead; all dead but Llen.

“Got any sisters, sweetheart?” Imin purred.

'Got any sisters, sweetheart?'

“Just younger,” Llia giggled.

“How old?”

“Forget it, Imin,” Llen growled.

“What?” Imin cried. “What are you going to do? Go home to your wife? Shit! You can’t do that anyway—she just had her baby!”

“In that case I’ll go home to your wife.”

'In that case I'll go home to your wife.'

“Better stick with Aia if that’s your only other option!” Imin laughed.

Lar snapped his finger’s beneath Llen’s nose to turn his attention away from Aia. “You can just come home with me and carry the baby if his mother doesn’t want to come with us. And you,” he added, shooing Aia away with the back of his hand, “Go on! Get!”

“I just… want to…” Aia reached a hesitant hand towards the baby, though she had not dared come far enough into the room to reach it.

“Get out!” Llen snarled. “You heard him!”

'Get out!'

“Shut up!” Lar hissed. “You—get out! You—shut up! You—keep your hands to yourself or take her out where I don’t have to watch!”

“What?” Imin wailed.

Lar turned his back to the four of them and barked, “Rakha, where is that baby?”

'Rakha, where is that baby?'

“Come on, Rakha, let’s see him,” Palina sighed.

Rakha turned, but she still guarded the baby on her shoulder. She wiped the tears from her face with the back of her free hand.

“Come on, Rakha,” Lar pleaded. “You can come too. Come with us. It means a lot to a boy to be raised by his own mother.”

“You know what you’re asking, for an elf with air nature to live beneath the earth,” Palina said.

'You know what you're asking.'

“In the dark…” Rakha whimpered.

“In the dark!” Lar groaned. “We have torches, girl! We even have magic lights—almost like the moon. Didn’t Pima tell you how it is?”

“Pima also tells her how nice it is to see the sun every day since she came back,” Palina said.

“You don’t miss it after a while,” Lar muttered. “Who’s the father, anyway?” he asked Palina.

'Who's the father?'

“The elf Llosh.”

Lar had moved to take the baby, but his arms dropped in despair. For a moment he believed all the rest of him was about to drop to the floor.

“Llosh is dead,” Llen said.

'Llosh is dead.'

“Llosh is dead,” Lar repeated. “Sinarr is dead. Zodi is dead.” His arm came back to life and waved his hand in time with his chanting. “Teodru is dead. Yimel is dead.”

“Lar,” Llen interrupted.

“Unan is dead. Val is dead…”


'Unan is dead.'

Lar fell silent, and his arm dropped again. He could have gone on.

“How many are left?” Palina whispered.

Lar only stared at the back of the baby’s head.

“Twelve old enough to fight,” Llen said.

'Twelve old enough to fight.'

Palina gasped and mouthed soundlessly, “Three teams?”

“Not even,” Llen said. “I’m the last water nature left.”

“Only eleven left anyway, Lina,” Imin said, “if you mean for something besides fighting. Since we can’t count Lar. At least not when the counting counts.”

'Since we can't count Lar.'

The contempt in Imin’s voice was unmistakable, but Lar could not defend himself. He could not argue with him. It would have meant arguing with a ghost.

“What’s his nature?” Llen asked.

Lar’s hand came up automatically and touched the baby’s head.

Rakha smiled through her tears. It must have seemed a great honor to her that Lar himself should have come to take her baby away, and her too, if she would go.

But Lar could feel nothing.

Lar's hand came up automatically and touched the baby's head.

The nothing was filling him like a slowly swelling fog. Already he no longer felt pleasure in anything. He would not have wanted Palina even if he could have been assured she would not have a child.

“Water,” Palina said when Lar did not reply.

“Won’t you name him, Lar?” Rakha asked shyly.

'Won't you name him, Lar?'

Lately it was worsening. His food no longer tasted of anything. He could laugh when he knew something ought to be amusing, but he no longer found anything funny. He no longer dreamt, and sleep was no solace; and nevertheless he thought he could have stayed in his bed from dusk to dusk.

He had surprised himself that morning when he had cut himself shaving and discovered he could still feel the sting. Perhaps pain would be the last thing to go. Then he would be dead.


Rísh,” he said.

Everyone fell silent. Even the infernal girl stopped her giggling, though she did not keep her infernal mouth shut for long.

“What a frightening name,” she whispered.

'What a frightening name.'

“Shh!” Imin scolded. “It was his sister’s name. His mother’s name was ‘Agony’, you know. He named him for his sister, that’s all.”

Lar did not correct him, but it was not all. He had not thought of his sister; he had merely done as the Shalla did when she named her people. He had tried to feel out the child’s nature.

He had named him for what he felt. He felt nothing at all, not even pain. He felt Death.

He felt nothing at all, not even pain.