Aia lifted her low shoulder as high as she could and let her weight fall against it.

Aia lifted her low shoulder as high as she could and let her weight fall against it. The young beech was still slender enough to shudder in protest, but lacking leaves it could not sigh.

Once the tree had settled, only the wind moved, wuthering over the whorls of Aia’s pointed ear, hissing through the twigs and thatch, and blowing in deathly silence over the wide wooden door of the man.

The baby did not make a sound.

The fire Aia had built that morning had long since sunk too low to crackle, if it had not gone out. The baby did not make a sound.

Aia waited until her slowing breath no longer made the merest puff of frost beneath her nose. Her elven immobility almost steadied the tree. Then she pushed herself off.

Then she pushed herself off.

The tree clattered its branches in alarm, and the frosty bracken scuffled noisily with her skirts. Louder than these were her stumbling feet: thump drag, thump drag, through the weeds and across the patchy turf to the door, as fast as she could run, or could be said to run. Even a man could have heard her then, but Aia had heard no men.

With her last step she threw her weight against her high shoulder, and the door swung open beneath it.

Even a man could have heard her then.

The beads and bits of glass, the bent copper coin she had hoarded for many winters – all the valuables she possessed – all were still atop the barrel where she had left them. To Aia it proved that no one had come. No one had taken the baby away. But he was so still!

To Aia it proved that no one had come.

She staggered between the barrels and climbed the few stone steps – thump drag, thump drag – such an obstacle they seemed to her in her panicked haste!

As always the skirt and shoes of the dead woman were the first things Aia saw. She swung herself around the corner and threw her high shoulder against the wall, saving herself at the last from falling in a sprawl across the body.

She threw her high shoulder against the wall.

As always, for that first horrified instant, the woman’s face was the only thing Aia could see. The bruises the man had left on the woman’s neck were beginning to fade – not because she was healing, but because she had been dead long enough that the blood was sinking away. Now her face was most marred by the nibbling teeth of rats.

Her bruises were beginning to fade.

This first horror past, at last Aia could look up. She saw a pink knee in the cradle, a pink thigh. The baby was still there – but he had kicked the blankets off again. Oh! he had died of cold!

Aia sobbed and staggered in, kicking the dead woman’s arm out of the way as she passed. She had lost all her dread of dead things, now that her beloved one was dead.

His little eyes were sunken and tightly closed! His little brow was so cold! Those scabs – the rats had been already been nibbling his feet and fists!

At her touch he lifted his arms and gave a weak cry.

But when she slipped her hand beneath his body to pick him up and cuddle him dead, she found a nest of warmth cradling his fuzzy head, and at her touch he lifted his arms and gave a weak cry.

He was alive! Aia laughed for joy.

Aia laughed for joy.

She might have picked him up at once, but Aia was an elf who liked to save the best to be savored last, though in her lonely life she had had very little even of the good.

Instead she spoke to him without cease as she shuffled around the tiny room, telling him how she was adding wood to the fire, how she was putting water to boil, how she was heating and mashing the smidgen of stew she had saved from her own dinner.

Instead she spoke to him without cease as she shuffled around the tiny room.

She told him anything that came to mind, simply so that he would hear her voice, and know his Aia was nigh, and know that his sodden diaper would soon be changed, his rashes bathed, his rat-​​bites soothed, his little belly filled and warmed, his little face kissed…

Awake he soon would be, and crying for warmth and food and love.

When she had done all of those things there came the best part: simply holding him, warm and drowsy in her arms, until he slept. But this was the last part, too, and her heart was freshly broken every time she laid his sleeping body down and snuck away.

Tonight, though, he was slow to sleep, and he watched her face with a breath-​​taking solemnity. Even now that he was warm and clean and fed, his eyes were nearly as sunken as the dead woman’s. Even now that she held him close to her face, he did not smile and squeal and play with her hair and lips as he loved to do. Even now the rats considered him food.

He watched her face with a breath-taking solemnity.

The night would be very cold. The evening stars hid behind snow clouds. The wisdom of an old man seemed to look out of the baby’s shrunken face. Perhaps he was staring at her so strangely because he knew he was seeing her for the last time.

Aia’s sister had always told her that one could not begin to change matters until one had faced them as they were. At last Aia admitted to herself the baby was dying. At last she admitted she could not care for him in secret and alone.

Aia already knew that she could not take him home with her. He was a child of men, and she would not be allowed to keep him. He was a boy, and he would not be allowed to live.

Aia already knew that she could not take him home with her.

Outside Aia heard nothing but the wind rattling the branches and rustling the thatch. No elves called from near or far. Only Aia was abroad. It was the one night of the moon when even she, stumbling and staggering, would not be stopped or seen.

Once Sela had helped her climb a rock to see it, and she had pointed it out to her: at the summit of the high hill that sloped down to the river there stood a tower of the men, made all of stone.

In all her lonely life Aia had never walked so far, but as her sister must have done soon after that afternoon on the rock, at last she admitted to herself it was time to go.

At last she admitted to herself it was time to go.