Lar glared.

Lar glared until the smiles on all the upturned faces below him had begun to waver. In fact he had nothing to reproach these elves, but he had just spent an hour with Seven, and afterwards he was always a little surly. He did not know why. At least it kept them guessing.

“What’s going on in here?”

'What's going on in here?'

He did not know why he asked. From the moment he opened the door, the acrid air clung to him like an old cloak, filthy and familiar. The stale smoke thickly flocked his throat.

“Nothing that would interest you, Lar,” Imin said breezily. “Just talking about our kids.”

'Nothing that would interest you, Lar.'

“And our sisters,” Llen added.

Lohamel turned back to the circle and grinned. “And our wives.”

“What?” Lar protested. “I’m interested in your wives and sisters.”

He stepped down into the room and paused just long enough.

Lar stepped down into the room.

“In my bed.”

Surely they had all seen it coming, but they laughed, perhaps relieved that Lar was not in such a foul mood after all.

He winked at Llen and turned away to take off his coat. His hand slid up along his dagger belt until his fingers just met the buckle.

“And our kids?” Imin cooed.

'And our kids?'

The buckle lay just over Lar’s heart, and it kicked beneath his hand.

Already he no longer dared sneak away to sleep on the rug beside the boy, though nonsensical bedtime stories were the best cure for sleeplessness he had found—his and Seven’s. Soon, he thought, he would no longer dare see the boy at all. Already he felt sick and surly afterwards—already he wondered why he went.

Nevertheless, he knew that was not why.

“They aren’t kids forever,” Ilal said. “Sisi’s old enough to go.”

“Sisi won’t get the chance,” Imin snapped. “She’ll be in Khoww’s bed this winter. Or was it Ri’s?” he asked shrilly. “Lar, I don’t remember who you’re breeding my daughter with this year.”

'Lar, I don't remember who you're breeding my daughter with this year.'

“Shut up, Imin,” Llen grumbled. “You know how it is.”

“I know it, and I’m sick of it! I’m sick of crawling into bed with girls who get sick at the sight of me, and now it’s Sisi…”

“You always used to like it,” Llen said.

“Well, now I’m sick of it! When you get to be my age—”

Lar had his coat in his hand, so it was his coat he hurled against the wall.

“Nobody ever gets to be your age!” he roared. “If we all got to your age, we wouldn’t be doing this at all! If we all got to your age, Llosh would still be alive!”

“Take it easy!” Llen bellowed.

Lar fell silent and tried so hard to breathe normally that he got all out of breath. Imin tried to smirk and only grimaced. His pale lashes fluttered in feverish agitation.

Lar fell silent and tried so hard to breathe normally.

“Take it easy, Lar,” Llen said said more gently. “Come get a pipe started for us. We’re all pawing around down here like we got mittens on.”

Lar knelt behind the circle to unlace his boot. “How many have you had already?” he grumbled to hide his gratitude.

“Enough to kill a lesser elf,” Llen chuckled. “Like Sin here.”

'Enough to kill a lesser elf.'

He reached back and patted Sin’s chest with a heavy hand. Sin only grunted.

“Heave your hindquarters out of the way, old goat,” Llen commanded. “Lar wants to light another.”

“Lar’s here?” Sin quavered.

Llen pounded the dazed elf’s breastbone with his fist. “Stinking mother! Go back to dead!”

The others laughed in their gullets like foxes. Their eyes were all flashing and feverish, their cheeks red and wet.

The others laughed in their gullets like foxes.

Lar stood and slipped his feet out of his boots: boot-​toe to heel, sock-​toe to heel. Then he picked up Sin’s stockinged feet and turned him around on the rug. Sin spun round-​backed and docile as a turtle. Lar laughed through his teeth like a wolf.

“Talking about your kids!” he sneered. “I bet!”

He kicked his boots behind him and dropped onto one knee before the pipe. Sin’s knife lay forgotten beside his foot. Their knives and swords were sprawled all over and useless, like their torpid bodies.

“Mostly about other elves’ kids,” Imin corrected tartly. “Like who’s Suhena going to marry now Surr’s dead?”

'Mostly about other elves' kids.'

“Give it a rest, Imin,” Llen warned. “Lar doesn’t want to talk about that now.”

“He never does!” Imin spat.

Lar tapped gingerly at the side of the bowl with his fingertips. It was cold. The coals were dull with a lightless, torpid heat. He plucked them out one by one.

“What do I look like?” he muttered. “The Shalla?”

Ilal and Lohamel giggled like twin girls.

Ilal and Lohamel giggled like twin girls.

Lar emptied the brittle ash of the bowl and wiped it clean with a rag wrapped around his finger. His head bowed to this task, he could hide his wary eyes behind a thin veil of drooping hair, transparent to him alone.

Imin said loudly, “I think she ought to marry Tiv when he’s of age, instead of that twit Sarishea.”

His speech was so slurred he pronounced it Sharishea.

Llen pounded his palms on the rug and leaned in to bark, “And I think you ought to shut up!”

'And I think you ought to shut up!'

Imin insisted, “We owe it to Khoz!”

Lar dropped the bowl back onto the pipe with a faint clink. “Owe what?” he asked softly.

His murmur silenced Imin more effectively than all of Llen’s roaring had done. Imin sucked in his breath and stared uneasily at the rim of the bowl. Behind it Llen’s face twisted into a snarl, and he punched his fist menacingly into his hand.

Lar said with feigned incomprehension, “I don’t see why a daughter of Khoz deserves anything more than a daughter of—”

'I don't see why a daughter of Khoz deserves anything more than a daughter of--'

His act was spoiled by his genuine inability to remember who Sarishea’s father was. Perhaps she did not know herself. Still, Lar suspected that was precisely what made her an undeserving twit in Imin’s eyes. He merely wanted to make him say it.

“You wouldn’t,” Imin muttered.

“Quit your bickering, you two!” Llen groaned. “I come here to get away from that shit.” He thumped the back of his hand against Lohamel’s chest. “Why don’t you tell Lar about Aia?”

“Oh, yes, Aia!” Lohamel giggled.

“Aia?” Lar worked up a chuckle. “Don’t tell me she limped all the way here looking for Llen.”

'Don't tell me she limped all the way here looking for Llen.'

Sin piped up, “If anyone can pound a girl’s legs straight it’s Llen.”

Lar took advantage of their laughter to glance back at Imin. Imin was still staring up at him, unamused, mute and overruled, but unwilling to let matters drop. Lar watched coolly as a bead of sweat slid down the old elf’s neck and disappeared into his shirt.

Llen grumbled, “I usually pound them crooked, but it’s worth a try.”

Ilal and Lohamel hooted until they nearly toppled over.

Lar scooped up the coals and held them out to Imin in his fist.

'Why don't you make yourself useful and light these,'

“Why don’t you make yourself useful and light these,” he whispered.

Imin opened his hand beneath Lar’s. Lar felt the sweaty heat of it radiating against his skin. He heard the tiny coals plink into his palm. He saw nothing of hands or coals, however, for he was staring into Imin’s glittering eyes.

He was staring into Imin's glittering eyes.

He swore he would make him say it, and he would make it soon, for the marrying time was almost upon them. He would make Imin say that an elf whose parents were married was better than an elf whose parents were not, and then Lar would storm and rage and declare that there would be no more marrying at all. It was the step he had to take. He needed Imin to help him take it.

Suddenly he realized Lohamel was gabbling on about Aia.

“Wait!” Lar barked.

They all looked at him.

“Start over. I missed that first part.”

To present an excuse for his inattention he straightened the bowl on the pipe and reached behind his back to grab a thin sheaf of dried grass from the dish. He began coiling and twisting it upon his knee with fingers that were still nimble, and listening with ears that were still alert.

He began coiling and twisting it upon his knee with fingers that were still nimble.

Lohamel sighed wearily. “I was just saying, Lar, how Aia is living with the men now—”

Lar gasped, “What?”

His hands fell limply upon his leg. The work of filling a pipe could not offer an excuse for having missed such an astounding “first part.”

His hands fell limply upon his leg.

“With the men he said!” Llen groaned.

“Just like her sister,” Imin whispered.

Lar felt his gaze on his cheek, searing him, as though it were his face Imin was trying to set ablaze and not the coals he clasped. Lar began to sweat, in a sudden, oozing rush.

Lohamel continued, “They gave her a little man’s house and an orphan baby—”

'They gave her a little man's house and an orphan baby--'

“A baby?

Lar shuddered with a surge of outrage before the meaning of “orphan” sank into his mind, and he remembered furthermore that Aia’s belly had been flat enough the last time he had seen her, not three moons before.

He pressed his crudely twisted knot of grass into the bowl of the pipe and fumbled at his side for the precious jar.

“That’s all she ever wanted,” Llen grumbled. “A damned baby to love.”

“That isn’t all she wanted…” Sin said suggestively.

'That isn't all she wanted...'

“And she’s getting it now!” Lohamel laughed.

Lar lifted the heavy lid and dipped the tip of Sin’s knife into the velvety dark powder. A moment later the odor reached his nose, and his throat convulsed in disgust as it always did. The dank smell of fungus reminded him starkly of the darkness of caves and a childhood spent in starvation and fear. It also reminded him dimly of older horrors his mind had forgotten and only his nose and throat recalled.

Once he opened that jar there was no hope for him but to pile a heaping scoop of the dust upon a bed of twisted grass and burn it, and breathe it, and forget everything with all his body—and for all he knew become for a few hours the nameless thing he feared.

Once he opened that jar there was no hope for him.

“She has a man or two or three in there with her every night,” Lohamel grinned. “Sometimes at the same time.”

“I reckon it takes three men to equal one elf,” Ilal said wickedly.

Lar smiled reflexively at the sound of their laughter, but he sat stunned until he felt a fist prodding his thigh. He looked down, and Imin solemnly held out his hand with something for him to take. Lar almost reached for it before he remembered what it was.

He hissed, “Nice try!” through a thin smile.

Imin snorted and took the bowl from his hand. He passed it beneath his nose and breathed deeply and appreciatively of the odor before nestling the hot coals inside. Lar was the only elf whose stomach it turned.

“How do you think Aia knows that?” Lohamel asked Ilal.

They all pointedly looked at Llen.

“Don’t look at me!” he groaned. “I don’t want those stick legs wrapped around my hips!”

'Don't look at me!'

“This is all your fault, Llen,” Lohamel snickered. “If you’d ever given her what she wanted she never would have gone begging to the men. You’ll notice it’s always the virgins that go.”

Eight eyes flashed as they turned together to look at Imin.

Imin ignored them all but Lar’s. He held out the fuming bowl impatiently. Even behind the haze of smoke his eyes still glittered like embers cracked open.

“You think Aia still was a virgin?” Sin asked dubiously.

Llen muttered, “I doubt it. Aia would fuck a dog if she thought she could have puppies.”

'Aia would fuck a dog if she thought she could have puppies.'

Lar lifted the bowl from Imin’s fingers. Already it was hotter than the blood-​heat of their hands. He hurried to cradle it upon the shaft of the pipe, but when he looked back at Imin it was too late.

Imin’s eyes had gone glassy and stared dully up at the fuming rim. Without asking and without offering, he had picked up the carved mouthpiece to relieve Lar of the duty of sucking the first acrid, grassy smoke through the pipe.

Already Imin's eyes stared dully up at the fuming rim.

Lar was grateful and angry. He glanced around the circle in search of a target.

“How do you know all this anyway?” he demanded of Lohamel.

Their laughter faltered. Lohamel glanced quickly aside at Ilal.

“Palina told us, last time me and Khoww went out that way. Say, Lar—”

“That was—days ago,” Lar interrupted. “And you’re just telling me now?”

Lar saw another nearly imperceptible glance pass between Lohamel and Ilal.

'I forgot to tell you before now.'

“I forgot to tell you before now,” Lohamel said softly.

“Aia’s out there with a man in every hole and you forgot to tell me before now?

Lar looked down at Imin in search of a companion in outrage. Imin was sucking placidly on the pipe in short, sharp puffs. His unfocused eyes gazed vaguely upon something over the heads of all.

Lar looked back at the others in time to see a swarm of nervous glances flicker from face to face, short-​lived and sparkling as ant wings. He knew they all knew something he did not. He knew they had not known about Aia for days if they could still joke about her so readily and so rudely.

Lar looked back at the circle in time to see a swarm of nervous glances flicker from face to face.

“It never seemed like the right time,” Lohamel explained.

Llen added darkly, “We don’t want to give any of the other girls any ideas.”

Slowly Lar shifted his weight from his knee to the balls of his feet. Their senses were all so dulled that none noticed. Perhaps Imin alone had; he chose that moment to lay the mouthpiece solemnly on the platter before Lar.

Lar no longer wanted it, but Imin was watching. His eyes glittered again like the tips of crystals.

Lar no longer wanted it, but Imin was watching.

Lar lifted the pipe to his mouth and lightly breathed. He only meant to hold the clean air deep in his lungs and let the smoke swirl over his tongue and out his nose, but his throat convulsed as it always did, and it was swallow or choke.

He gulped a great lungful of smoke, and his vision brightened like embers in a gust of air. For a moment he saw with his eyes the web of secrets strung between the bodies of his elves, revealed as if by dew. It clung most thickly to Lohamel and Ilal.

The smoke hissed through Lar’s teeth as he bared them in a wicked smile. “Aren’t we giving them what they want?” he breathed. His vision faded.

Lohamel said, “My wife and sisters don’t complain.” His own slow smile was sharp and curved as an elven sword.

'My wife and sisters don't complain.'

Watching him, Lar could not understand why an elf maiden would chose a man’s crude ugliness over an elf’s grace, any more than he could understand why anyone would choose to fight with the men’s stubby, stabbing swords.

He held the pipe to his lips again and breathed. His throat clenched only briefly before allowing the smoke to slide down.

They were all so very beautiful, these elves. Their heads glowed like the heads of angels. Ugly, imperfect Aia was an exception, he told himself, an outcast. Aia ought to have been killed at birth, so it was no loss if she was dead to them now. He did not care what became of her.

He laid the pipe upon the platter.

“It’s husbands they want,” Imin said softly.

Lar exhaled in a gasp, and his hand clenched around smoke. Not now, not now, he thought. The inside of his head sparked and scintillated with darting stars.

Imin looked up at him.

Imin looked up at him. His eyes were dazzling as the tips of daggers. His pale hair glowed translucent in the firelight like smoke, and Lar saw through it to his ugly, imperfect face: to his deep scar.

“I think my wife would be glad to give them hers,” Llen muttered, trying to shatter their stare.

“If she gave you to Aia though?” Lohamel asked with a giddy laugh.

Llen tried to silence him with a look. Lar saw the last flashing instant of it recoil into Llen’s stony gaze like a whip. Llen picked up the pipe.

Lar saw the last flashing instant of it recoil into Llen's stony gaze like a whip.

Lohamel looked aside at Sin’s dozing body for no apparent reason other than worry at Llen’s failure to answer and the others’ to laugh. Ilal rocked his weight nervously between his hips and hands. Lar could almost see their web of secrets straining between them.

“You saw Palina you said?” he asked breathily.

Llen blew a cloud of smoke between Lar and the others, blocking his view of any glance that might have passed between Ilal and Lohamel.

“Just for a moment,” Lohamel said.

“I suppose so,” Lar murmured, “since I didn’t think you two were out long enough to make it all the way there and back.”

'I suppose so.'

Lohamel shrugged. “We went fast.”

“Where did you ford the river?”


He glanced helplessly at Ilal, but Ilal’s eyes were closed, and his lids fluttered like dying birds.

Ilal's eyes were closed.

Lar eased his weight off his knee entirely. “Don’t remember, do you?” he asked softly.

“Uh, well…” Lohamel fumbled, “I was just following Khoww.”

“Oh, right. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just step out and ask Khoww…”

Lohamel yelped, “No!”

Lar leapt over the pipe, gulping an unfiltered lungful of torrid smoke as he ripped through it. Lohamel spun away on the rug, but Lar’s feet thudded down before Ilal. He grasped the elf’s shirt in both hands as he straightened and dragged him to his feet.

“Where did you ford the river?” he howled in his face.

'Where did you ford the river?'

Ilal blubbered like a child.

“Where did you ford the river?”


Lar sensed the other bodies rising and moving around him, but they seemed no more than a shower of sparks cast off by his own rage.

Lar sensed the other bodies rising and moving around him.

“I sent you out scouting on the other side of the lake, and you went to see Pima instead! So now you want to get not just you killed but all the rest of us too!”

“I went out scouting for him, Lar,” Lohamel said. His voice was soft but high-​pitched with fear.

'I went out scouting for him, Lar.'

“Then I’ll deal with you later!”

He shook Ilal menacingly by the collar. Ilal’s back stiffened.

“You know what I said would happen to her if you went out there again,” he growled. He could feel the other elf’s heart kicking against the back of his fist.

Ilal whispered, “I won’t let you.”

'I won't let you.'

“We won’t let you!” Lohamel bleated.

Sin said, “We won’t do it, Lar. Not one of us will.”

Lar felt Ilal’s shirt slipping through his sweaty grasp. He felt Imin panting at his shoulder.

“Then I’ll do it myself!” he shouted.

“We won’t let you,” Ilal said coldly.

“Who’s going to stop me?”

Imin punched his shoulder hard enough to knock Ilal out of his hands.

“I’ll stop you!” he shrieked.

He grabbed the back of Lar’s shirt and pulled his head down.

He grabbed the back of Lar's shirt and pulled his head down.

“I’ll put myself in front of her,” he whispered, “and you can get to her when I’m dead. Now, is it worth killing an elf over?”

“He’s going to get himself killed if he keeps going to see her!” Lar snarled. “He’s going to get us all killed if he can’t even do his duty! If he wants to see her he can bring her here, and here he can do what he wants with whoever he wants—”

'We tried that!'

“We tried that!” Imin cried. “She couldn’t bear it down here! A little sparrow like Pima down underground! It isn’t natural! None of this shit’s natural, what you’re asking us to do! Don’t love anybody, because love just gets in the way! Maybe that works for you, Lar, but we’re not like you!”

“I love you all,” Lar whispered hoarsely.

“Like cattle!” Imin spat. “That’s what we are—just breeding stock to you! Why not just call it that, like your people do: no marriage among the ass-​licking kisór dogs, just mates!”

'Why not just call it that, like your people do?'Not now, not now, Lar begged in his reeling mind. Imin was unsaying Lar’s storm and rage before it had even been said.

“You are my people!” he wailed.

Imin jabbed him painfully in the breastbone with his stubby, stabbing finger.

“My people never made a heartless monster like you, Lar. You live apart from us and over us. You won’t even take one of these poor girls for wife.” He leaned close to whisper, as one leaned close to slash with a hidden dagger: “Even when you did you wouldn’t dilute your precious monstrosity with her gentle blood and have a child.

Overflooded by anguish, Lar’s last furious defenses weakened and buckled, allowing the smoke to enter him fully. His hands and feet felt fat and clumsy. The taut strength of his limbs was melting, sinking into him, and pooling into a twitching nausea in his gut. His last clear consciousness was smothered. He would remember nothing that came after until the morning.

“What do you want me to do, Imin?” he slurred. “Get married? What’s that going to solve? That’s eleven wives instead of ten. What are you going to tell all the ten-​dozen-​hundred others?”

'What are you going to tell all the ten-dozen-hundred others?'

He held up his open hands, vaguely aware that he had ten fingers and was talking about ten.

Imin scowled sourly at him. “How can you pretend to be the father of us all if you’ve never been the father of even one little baby elf? You don’t even know what it is to love anybody more than yourself.”

“I love you all,” Lar said stubbornly.

“You love us because we give your precious self a reason to live.”

“Isn’t that how love works?” Lar protested. “Don’t you live for your sons?”

'You got that backwards, Lar.'

“You got that backwards, Lar,” Imin muttered in disgust. He turned his face away as though—at last—he wanted to let the matter drop.

Lar spun the question around and around in his mind like a twig in an eddying stream. He could not guess by which end it ought to be grasped. The idea infuriated him. But Imin would not, would not, would not look at him.

Behind him Llen let out a great sigh and cracked his knuckles, relieved that the storm appeared to be over. Then Lar remembered Aia, and he found a target for his thwarted rage.

“Where’s she living?” he growled.

'Where's she living?'

Imin glanced up at him, but his face had softened into an expression of startled curiosity. Lar’s storm had already passed beyond him.

“Who?” Llen asked warily when he saw Imin would not. “Aia?”

“Where is she?”

Lar heard Ilal take a shuddering breath, hesitant to answer.

“Quit your bawling and just tell me what Pima told you. Where is she?”

'Where is she?'

Lar did not turn his head to look at him. When he spoke with his voice of command, his elves always knew exactly to whom he was speaking.

Ilal said, “She’s got a little house up on the hill near where the village of the Shena-​elder used to be. The men gave it to her. And she found a man-​baby whose father killed its mother and they let her keep it.”

'The men gave it to her.'

“And now they’re… visiting her there,” Lar said delicately.

“That’s what Pima said. They tried to get her to come home, but she wants to keep that baby.”

“And have a little man-​baby of her own in the autumn?” Lar breathed.

No one dared answer for fear of the wrath that would follow.

“What would you call that, Imin?”

Imin was before him, so he stared at Imin.

Imin was before him, so he stared at Imin.

Imin swallowed. “An abomination,” he whispered.

Lar nodded sharply. “Llen?”

He could command with no more than a name. He waited until Llen had stepped up behind him.

He waited until Llen had stepped up behind him.

“Suppose you paid that bitch a little visit.

Llen took a deep breath and blew it out evenly through his nose. “If you want.”

Lar turned. “I just want you to show her the difference between men and elves. Turn her off of men forever, if you see what I mean.”

'Turn her off of men forever, if you see what I mean.'

“Any way in particular?” Llen asked gravely.

“Whatever it takes. I have faith in your creative… powers of persuasion.”

Spasms of submerged horror shuddered in Lar’s belly, deep below the pristine, velvety dark surface of his drugged mind. Llen’s powers of persuasion were ordinarily saved for last resorts. Lar regretted ever having learned what they could be. But by morning he would have forgotten he had ever ordered their use.

“Tonight?” Llen asked.


“No. Any time between now and before it’s too late.”

Llen said grimly, “I understand.”

Lar felt his pulse pounding in his wrists as though they were in the grip of invisible hands. His flushed face glowed with feverish malice like the face of a demon.

“Anyone going to stop him this time?” he asked coldly.

No one answered.

“Good. We don’t want any of the other girls to get any ideas.