The wind had polished the snow on the hillside to a rippled crust.

The wind had polished the snow on the hillside to a rippled crust that crunched and shattered beneath Llen’s feet like fallen leaves. No one had come before him tonight: he did not see so much as a rabbit’s tracks as he climbed.

He stopped just short of the trampled snow of the yard.

He stopped at the edge of the trampled snow of the yard. He heard Aia pause inside the cottage, listening, then carelessly return to her murmuring and giggling. Her calm at his approach told Llen everything he needed to know.

He took a slow breath and turned his head to blow it back over his shoulder in a cloud. His tracks meandered like a rivulet of shadow over the blue snow, down to the dark woods where his horse was tied, and up as far as the last two holes in which he was standing still.

Aia’s out there with a man in every hole…

Llen snorted and crossed the yard in two strides. The door cracked beneath the weight he flung against it and flew open as it rebounded. Like a predator he charged through and whirled around to meet the first moving form he saw.

He charged through and whirled around.

“Not who you were expecting to see?” he snarled.


“So, you can still tell an elf when you see one, can you?”

“Llen, I just—”

'Llen, I just--'

“Thought I was a man?” He grabbed her upper arm and shook her until her breasts and her pigtails bobbed. “Disappointed, are you?”

He pulled her past him and shoved her towards the bed. She staggered on her crooked leg and tried to steady herself by dragging at the small table and the mattress as she flew by. Llen kicked a stool halfway across the room and followed.

Llen kicked a stool halfway across the room and followed.

“That’s what you like now, is it?”

“No, Llen—”

“Isn’t it? Haven’t you been having men visiting you up here? Haven’t you?”

“No, Llen—”

'No, Llen--'

“Haven’t you, bitch?”

He lunged at her and caught her by the collar of her dress. His knuckles bruised her ribs, but the backs of his fingers sank into a startling softness. He blinked his eyes and widened them and stared, but he still saw double—the full breasts and the lips and the body of a grown elf he scarcely knew, and the pig-​tail braids of the ten-​year-​old he had known so well.

He blinked his eyes and widened them and stared.

He shook her. He grabbed her wrist and crushed it in his other hand. He did everything he would have done in cold-​blooded calculation, and still his blood was growing hotter.

“Are you lying to me? Have you been seeing men up here or haven’t you?”

For a brief, bright instant, clear as trackless snow, he saw that it had all been lies—the lies of the jealous bitches of the village, no doubt, who begrudged her every crumb she had eaten in the eighteen years she ought to have been dead…

'Yes, Llen.'

“Yes, Llen,” she quavered. “I just—”


He hurled her against the wall and listened with cold-​hearted satisfaction to the crack of her humped back, the grunt of the breath he had knocked out of her, and the muffled scraping and crumpling of her gown as she slid towards the floor.

He hurled her against the wall.


He picked her up by the sleeves and slammed her back against the wall again, both shoulders evenly. Her gasping mouth was wide, and he stared down past her pink tongue into the velvety wet depths of her throat.

Aia’s out there with a man in every hole…

He caught a handful of hair behind her neck and pulled back her head until he saw only the roof of her mouth. He pressed his other fist into the pit of her stomach to find his mark and drew back his arm.

Aia choked and arched her crooked back away from the wall as she fought to breathe through her constricted throat. Her hips writhed against Llen’s hips. He realized after a paralyzed moment that he had lost his aim.

He carefully pressed his fist against her stomach again and found the muscles of her abdomen tightened defensively into a rippled band. She knew what he was about to do.

He clasped her pigtail braids behind her head like the ears of a rabbit. Her feet scuffled helplessly on the floor. Llen drew back his fist. Her velvety black eyes stared up into his: unreadable, though her face was a mask of panic all around.

Her velvety black eyes stared up into his.

He could not do it. He had coldly calculated everything he meant to do, whether he found her with a man or found her alone, but now his heart was pounding as wildly as hers. Llen could not be a monster when he was in a passion.

“You got a baby in there or not?” he panted.

“No, Llen, I just—”

He pressed his fist deep into her belly again to warn her. His knuckles slid smoothly over the arched bone of her pubis.

“Are you lying to me?”

“No no!”

“Are you certain!”

“Yes yes!”

“Because if I come back here in the fall, and I find you with a little mongrel brat, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to pick it up…”

What would Llen do?

He paused to ask himself what Llen would do.

He glanced down at the baby in the withy cradle: an ugly, piggish little man-​child. It sucked determinedly at its thumb, weirdly still for all its eyes were wide, as though well-​accustomed to scenes of violence being enacted over its head.

Llen turned back to Aia.

“…pick it up by its ankles and bash its brains out against a rock,” he snarled, startling himself. “That’s what! So if you’re smart, you’ll get this over with now.”

'No, Llen, no--I'm not lying!'

“No, Llen, no—I’m not lying!” she pleaded.


He cast her off like an old cloak. She grunted softly as her back hit the wall again.

Llen brushed off his hands and sleeves, and then brushed a hand down the front of his cloak, trying subtly to straighten the awkward knob that was swelling beneath. He had feared he would not be able to do this at all, and instead he found his body was already that far ahead of him—and he was afraid.

“I’m not too late, then?” he muttered.

'I'm not too late, then?'

“No, Llen…”

“Good. And I’m not too early, either.” He turned away and fumbled through the folds of his cloak in search of the trailing end of his belt. “Take off your dress. Let’s get this over with.”

“Yes, Llen, I just… I just…”

“Just what?” he snapped.

“I just…”

He turned to look at her. Her dark eyes shone up from the level of his waist, like the ten-​year-​old girl’s.

Her dark eyes shone up from the level of his waist.

“I just… the light…” She lifted a shaky arm and pointed off beyond the lamp on the table towards the door.

“What? What light?”

“Outside. I just…”

'Outside.  I just...'

Llen remembered there had been a lamp shining over the yard and its trampled snow—over the scuffs and drags and stumbles that her crippled feet left instead of tidy holes.

Aia’s out there with a man in every hole…

“Is that what that is?” Llen bellowed.

He grabbed Aia’s arm and pulled. The ligaments of her shoulder twisted and strained in the crooked socket until her body sprang up and followed after.

“Is that your signal to your new lovers or what?” he demanded as he dragged her to the door. “Come on in! when it’s lit! And when it’s dark come knocking!”

'Is that your signal to your new lovers or what?'

He banged open the door with his shoulder and grasped the bracket of the lamp as he stepped through. One downward tug of his strong arm, and the nail ripped out of the wood and plaster with a grating pop like a tooth wrenched out of a healthy jaw.

He hurled it away in an end-​over-​end arc down the hillside. The flame winked out over the blue snow like a falling star.

“That’s the last time that lamp will be lit! Do you hear me?”

'That's the last time that lamp will be lit!'

“Yes, Llen—”

“That’s the last time a man will come to this house! Now get inside!”

He shoved her through the doorway ahead of him and pulled the door closed behind. Aia stumbled and staggered almost into the fire. Llen dashed after her and caught her arm before he recalled that she was not likely to be hurt even if she fell in. He flung her off and snarled.

He flung her off and snarled.

“Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”

“No, Llen…”

“Then why did you do it anyway? Just so you could have a—”

His breath stopped in his throat. Aia turned to him with the very eyes he had just been imagining. In eight years the face around them had grown thinner, but the eyes had not changed.

The eyes had not changed.

“Well, you can have your baby now,” he muttered, trying to sneer. “That’s why I’m here. An elf baby.”

He turned away from the reproach of her eyes and unbuckled his belt.

“Bet you never thought I would be the father,” he chuckled uneasily. “Bet I was the last elf—”

He stopped laughing abruptly as he realized how much truer were his words than he had meant. Had Zodi or Sinarr or any other elf of his nature still lived, he would have sent him tonight in his stead.

His heavy cloak slid down his limply hanging arms. “By my mother,” he grumbled to himself. “So I am.”

'So I am.'

He slipped his hands out of his sleeves and tossed the cloak onto a barrel. Its warmth dissipated at once, and the humid chill of the room sank like water through his sweaty clothes and down into his skin.

He had not heard Aia take a shuffling step in any direction, neither following him nor fleeing him nor even pulling off her dress. She was still watching him with those eyes.

“What is all this?” he demanded.

'What is all this?'

Aia said softly, “That’s my food.”

“I can see that. What is this shit? Man food!”

He swatted at the nearest offender: a leather sack hanging from a hook. He was startled to find that it was no sack at all, but solid all the way through, and hard and heavy. He had to stop it with his hand to prevent it from swinging back and slamming into his face. He grunted in surprise.

'That's a ham.'

“That? That’s a ham, Llen.”

“A who?”

“A ham. It’s the haunch of a pig,” she explained as she stumped and dragged her way across the floor. “They hang it up over a fire for days and days and let the smoke take the water out. You want a taste?”

She was at his side.

'No I do not want a taste!'

“No I do not want a taste!

“Sure you do,” she chirped. “You always used to say how you would steal some food from the men someday so we could have a feast and taste them all.”

She remembered. Of course she remembered—he had ten-​year-​old children of his own by now, and knew that they were far from the unthinking, unfeeling, unremembering little dolls or animals he had sometimes told himself Aia must be.

'Come on, Llen.'

“Come on, Llen. I won’t tell. I know you want to,” she whispered.

“I do not!”

Nevertheless he did not stop her as she picked up a knife and sawed off a sliver of the ham.

“Try it.” She held it up to his face. The bit of meat was a dark rosy color, and oddly soft and flexible for all it appeared dry.

“Is this some kind of poison?” he growled.

She sighed and pinched off a piece for herself. She popped it in her mouth and moaned deliriously, “Mmmm, so delicious!” as she chewed. She held the other half up to his lips and cooed, “Open up, baby birdie!”

Llen snatched it out of her fingers.

Llen snatched it out of her fingers.

“I am not a—”

“Baby birdie?” she giggled.

“A child!”

She laughed softly as if at her own private joke and stumped around him, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder to steady herself as she went by.

Llen sniffed the piece of meat and stuffed it into his mouth. It was dry at first, but grew wet on his tongue, and the first metallic taste of salt melted into a warm meatiness unlike any dried game the elves knew. There was something almost lifelike about the dead flesh—a flavor of another tongue sliding over his tongue—and beneath it all the intoxicating taste of smoke and fire.

He swallowed it and sighed. He was ready to take her to bed. It would not be difficult after all.

But Aia tapped his shoulder and pointed at a brown lump on the table when he turned.

'Remember that time you brought me a bread?'

“Remember that time you brought me a bread? That one was no good, Llen,” she scolded. “It’s supposed to be soft inside, not hard all the way through. Look.”

“How was I supposed to know?” he protested.

“I’m showing you now. Look.”

With her knife she sliced a hunk from the round loaf and then pinched a small handful of pale spongy stuff from the inside of its crusty shell.

“Soft as a feather pillow,” she said proudly. “The one you brought me was too old.”

“How was I—”

She stuffed the wad of bread into his mouth, risking his teeth with her fingertips. Llen stared at her in shock. Aia giggled and plucked a bit of bread from the loaf for herself, which she pertly chewed in full view, like a naughty child.

“Don’t chew with your mouth open,” he mumbled around his bread.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” she countered. “Good, isn’t it?”

'Don't talk with your mouth full!'

Still chewing, she picked up a cup and stumped into the corner to a barrel that was turned over onto its side.

“If you like bread, you’ll love this.”

“I never said I liked it.”

She stooped beside the barrel and fiddled with a small plug on the lid. Llen heard liquid splashing into the cup.

“It’s bread you can drink!” Aia announced.

“I am not thirsty for bread.

“You have to at least taste it, though.”

She staggered back to him with the perilously full cup. Llen reflexively grabbed it before it had a chance to spill, and thereupon found himself with the cup in his hand.

“Taste it!” Aia grinned.

'Taste it!'

Llen sniffed warily at the rim. A scummy foam clung to the edges of the cup, and a few pale flecks rose and sank in the murky golden depths.

“It looks like piss and smells like puke.”

Aia sighed in impatience and stole the cup away just long enough to take a lip-​smacking sip. “It’s ale! It tastes good, once you get used to it. Try.”

Llen tipped the cup up only far enough to wet the tip of his tongue. He grimaced.

“And it tastes like you washed my socks in it,” he concluded.

Aia laughed wordlessly for a moment as though she had simply found it a funny joke. Llen felt himself slightly smile.

“You can’t just sip at it like an old lady,” Aia told him. “You have to drink it all down in one go, without stopping for a breath.” She clasped his wrist, and pushed the cup up to his mouth, and let go. “Can you do it?”

“Do I want to?” he grumbled.

She laughed again. Llen lifted the cup and began gulping down its contents before he had quite made up his mind not to. Aia clapped her hands and chanted softly, “Drink! drink! drink!” as fast as he could swallow.

When at last the cup was empty, Llen bent double and gasped. His tongue flailed in his mouth, trying to escape this sour-​tasting reminder of various decomposing things he had eaten in the worst winters of their starvation.

“That is rank!

'That is rank!'

Aia laughed. “You get used to it!”

“Why would you want to?”

“Because, it’s as good as a meal. Here, if you don’t like ale, I bet you will like cider…”

She snatched the cup away and turned back to the barrels.

“Just wait!” he shouted. “I don’t have time for this!”

Aia stopped where she stood. In its cradle the little pig-​baby paused in its thumb-​sucking to listen.

Aia stopped where she stood.

“Are you going to visit someone else later?” she asked softly. Her dark eyes seemed to grow darker.

“No!” he groaned. “That’s not—it’s just—”

“Then we have time!” She bustled past him. “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to have that feast of man-​food we always said we’d have!”

“That is not why I came!”

Aia was already poking among the pots and jars on the laden table. “I’m going to heat up some ham and pea soup, and we can taste all my breads and cheeses and jams while we’re waiting for that…”

'We can taste all my breads and cheeses and jams.'

“I do not want any ham and pea soup! Listen to me—”

“Ham you can drink!” she laughed. “But mostly peas. Here.” She shoved a plate into his hand. “Go sit down.”

She hefted an iron pot and turned to carry it to the fire. The lid clunked with her every staggering step. Llen held the plate between his hands and helplessly watched, winking one eye shut and then the other as she bent over the fire.

Eight winters had passed them by since he had last been alone with her. She spoke to him and touched him as though nothing had changed—but she was no longer that ten-​year-​old girl. Through one eye he saw a stranger, and through the other a lady he intimately knew.

“Sit,” she commanded as she scuffled back. “You’re in my way.”

“I am not here for this!”


Llen clenched the plate between his hands until the narrow edges cut painfully into his palms. Aia took the cup and stumped over to another barrel in the corner.

Llen listened to the liquid trickling into it and tried to visualize all his muddled memories and murky emotions leaking out of him, leaving him empty and cool-​headed and cruel. He had been fearing that he would not be able to force his body, and now he feared he would not be able to force her.

Now he feared he would not be able to force her.

Aia snorted with impatience when she turned and found him still standing there. She shooed him ahead of her with the back of her free hand, and Llen finally took his plate and headed for a stool.

“Sit! I want you to try this.”

“What is it?”

“Apple cider. Made from apples,” she winked.

'Made from apples.'

“I guessed that,” he grumbled.

He peered into the cup. It was darker than the other stuff, but much the same color. “Looks like morning piss.” He took a tentative sip. “Tastes like…”

“Apples, what else?” she groaned. “You can’t just sip at it! Drink it down!”

“This too?”

“It’s the only way to learn!” She began clapping her hands and chanting, “Drink! drink! drink!”

Llen brushed his hair to the side and tipped the cup slowly back until he had poured the last of it down his throat. The liquid was faintly but not unpleasantly sour, and as he drank he remarked most notably that it was cold. It was only when he banged the cup down and took a gasping breath that the heat tore through his mouth like a backdraft of fire.

“What was that?” he wheezed.

'What was that?'

“Cider! You get used to it.” Her hip jerked startlingly near his face as she turned to stagger back to the table. “Let me get you some bread and cheese and another ale…”

Llen nearly protested, but the cold cider and warm ale did not seem to be getting along in his stomach, and he decided it would be wise to add something solid to settle the dispute.

“Don’t you have any elven food?” he sighed.

“What would be the fun in that?” Aia asked.

“I’m not here for fun…” Llen grumbled to himself.

He glanced back over his shoulder, nourishing a faint hope that she would agree, and say she understood, and simply volunteer. It would be so much easier then. It occurred to him that it might even be fun.

But Aia bustled innocently around her big table, slicing and scooping and gathering, and humming a sweetly sad tune.

Llen rubbed his arms and thighs and looked uneasily around the dirty little dwelling. Nothing in the place was familiar to him, but everything seemed to be reminding him of something. He was hot and beginning to sweat again.

“That’s one of your sister’s songs!” he blurted as she leaned over him to plant a pitcher and mug on the table.

'That's one of your sister's songs!'

He regretted it immediately. Aia stopped humming in mid-​phrase. Her sister’s voice—joined with Imin’s—had often carried up into the hills or down into the dales into which Llen would carry her, to “keep her out of the way.” Nothing could be more likely to awake in her the memories that he could not clear out of his mind.

But if she was reminded, she only shook her head smartly and said, “No!” before picking up the tune again and stumping away, almost inviting him to guess—almost, he thought, inviting him to follow.

Llen drummed his fingertips on the table in time, trying to remember. Aia staggered near with a loaf and a cup, and away empty-​handed… near again with a pitcher and a wheel of cheese, and away—

He grabbed her wrist. “That’s one of your father’s songs.”

Aia smiled one of the rare mysterious smiles she substituted occasionally for her mischievous. She shook her finger at him until her wrist slipped free of his hand. “Yeees…”


Llen smiled to himself, glowing with the comfortable sense of being right.

“The blessed poet!” he sighed to the accompaniment of her humming and her chopping. “Now there was an elf!”

Llen smiled to himself.

In truth, Llen had scarcely known the elf at all. A twinge of jealousy tweaked at the corners of his mind—of Imin, who had known him better. He would have liked to have had stories to tell her.

But no one who had once heard the outlaw poet sing could forget that otherworldly voice. No one who had seen him could forget his noble height, his long mustache that looked as silky as a lady’s hair, his breathtaking black eyes…

Llen caught Aia’s wrist again as she shuffled near, and this time, he decided, he would not let go.

“Sit with me,” he commanded.

'Sit with me.'

Aia stopped humming, and Llen tugged lightly on her arm.

“You look like him,” he pleaded, as though it were a reason for her to sit.

He pulled harder, and Aia stumbled. He tried to catch her, and though he was squarely seated, he somehow managed to stumble too. His shoulder wedged itself briefly in her stomach, startling him with memories of the times she had been so unbearably naughty that he had thrown her over his shoulder and carried her home, to the tune of her wicked laughter and the fists she beat upon his unyielding back.

Then she fell away and thumped onto her stool: a grown elf, and not the little girl. Llen imagined himself carrying her to bed that way.

Then she fell away and thumped onto her stool.

“You’re so beautiful,” he blurted. “I always thought you were the beautiful one. Your eyes…”

He reached out a hesitant finger and touched the curling end of her braid. Even on her larger-​than-​life father, he thought, nothing male could be so soft.

She shook her head, and the braid darted away. “That’s my hair, Llen.”

“I know, I was just thinking…”

'I know, I was just thinking...'

She stuck out the corner of her tongue and stretched across the table to reach for the handle of the pitcher. Llen pushed it as far as her hand and watched it slide across the wood as she sat.

“What’s that?” he asked warily.

“I saved the best for last,” she whispered eagerly. “This is called wine. Give me your cup.”

“What’s wine?”

“It is made from a fruit you don’t even know. It is made from a fruit that does not even grow in this valley. What do you think of that? Did you ever think we would eat or drink a thing that came from outside this valley?”

'What do you think of that?'

“Is it any good?” he frowned, wondering whether it was even allowed.

“It’s good, but it does burn a little as it goes down.”

“Oh, so this time you admit it!” he laughed. He wiped his sweaty hands on his thighs and rubbed his arms. His muscles felt hot, as if he had been fighting, though his limbs felt prickly and tired. He wanted to lie down on the bed beside her.

“Give me your cup,” she ordered.

“No, thank you!” he chuckled. “Last time already burned a little—this time what? I’m going to char my tongue?”

'I'm going to char my tongue?'

She sighed and poured a splash into her empty cup. The glimpse Llen had of it was dark like venous blood.

“It’s fine, Llen.” She emptied her cup in one swallow and grimaced. “It hurts a little going down, but it takes away all your other pain for a while.”

“Aia!” he whispered. “Are you in pain?”

Even at ten she had seemed to him as annoyingly achy as an eighty-​year-​old. He had often carried her even when she had not misbehaved.

Then he remembered how he had slammed her against the wall, aiming for the hump of her back, aiming for her crooked shoulder…

Then he remembered how he had slammed her against the wall.

“I didn’t want to do it, Aia!” he whimpered. “I didn’t want to hurt you! Lar made me do it! There was no one but me… I wouldn’t have let anybody else… I mean, I wouldn’t have done it myself…”

She tried to pull his cup closer, and he clutched at her arm.

“They don’t know, Aia! They think I don’t have no feelings because I never cry—but I can’t cry—can you? I never saw you cry.” He stroked her sleeve up and down with feverish hands. “So I do the cruel things so they don’t have to. You know? It’s all I can do.”

Aia nodded slowly and reached for his cup with his hands still attached to her arm.

Aia nodded slowly and reached for his cup.

“And you never cry, do you?” he begged. “You’re just like me. We’re just alike. Look at me, right now—you see me crying?”

His jaw quivered. It had not been so many years that he had forgotten how it felt to cry, but in all those years he did not think he had ever been as close to it as he was now. His stomach was in a fluttering turmoil. His breath was short, his throat tight and his hands sweaty and limp. He even saw Aia in double as if through tears: the image of a beautiful, black-​eyed girl wavering beside a beautiful, black-​eyed lady.

He even saw Aia in double as if through tears.

He swallowed. He felt oddly light, almost buoyant, almost drifting off to sleep, though his mind was startlingly clear. He had held enough dying friends and brothers to know that this was how it felt to bleed to death. He knew they had felt oddly, tragically happy, and so did he. He knew that they had understood everything at the end, and so did he.

“Aia!” he gasped.

“Shh!” she whispered. “Llen, drink your wine.”

'Llen, drink your wine.'