It had taken an extra measure of craftiness, but Iylaine had managed to get away.

It had taken an extra measure of craftiness, but Iylaine had managed to get away.

Wulsy knew that she must not be allowed to play alone outside the castle walls, but she couldn’t bear to be shut up today. She had distracted him by pretending to hear one of the animals crying in pain, and once he had gone to look, had dashed away.

It was the first day of spring, he had said. The first day of spring – Vash had told her that was her birthday, and his. Her real birthday.

She was now really, truly eight years old. It had seemed so big when it had been Bertie who was eight! Now Bertie was almost ten, and Malcolm already was, and she felt as small as she ever had.

But she had changed a lot in the two years since she had been six and Bertie eight. She had grown wiser, she thought with satisfaction. What a little fool she had been when she was six! And even when she was seven, and thought that she could ride all the way to Lord Hingwar’s castle by herself on little Blackie. All the same she did not regret that. It had taught her she was not the only good elf. She was not truly alone.

Suddenly she realized that she was not alone at all.

Suddenly she realized that she was not alone at all.

It did not seem possible for anyone to have come sneaking up on her – her ears were too good for that. And yet suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, a pair of long legs had appeared behind her, and she fell flat on her back in her surprise.

“Don’t bother getting up!” an unforgotten voice laughed from far overhead. The long legs folded themselves gracefully, and Vash came to sit on the grass beside her.

“Vash!” she cried, overjoyed, and she sat up and threw her arms around his neck.

She sat up and threw her arms around his neck.

He laughed and squeezed her. “And I was wondering whether you had forgotten me.”

“Oh, I told you I would never, never forget you!”

“A year is not yet never never, but it’s a good start.”

“Did you know it is our birthday?” she asked breathlessly once she had let go of him.

'Did you know it is our birthday?'

“Certainly I know it! Why do you think I am here? It is my birthday gift to myself.”

“What will you give me for my birthday?” she asked coyly.

“This,” he said, and he bent his head and kissed her.

He bent his head and kissed her.

“No, I mean something to keep!”

He sat back and picked a stem of grass, which he began to twist around his finger. “You can keep that kiss, cousin. For now, anyway. I shall expect you to give it back to me someday.”

“No, but I mean something from you that I can keep and hold, so I can know you are real.”

He cocked his head and smiled at her. “You are still a child, aren’t you?”

“I’m eight years old.”

“You are only halfway to sixteen.”

You’re not sixteen either.”

“That’s true, but by the time you’re my age, I shall be grown.”

“Then you won’t want to play with me any more.”

“I might. Tell me, how is your father?”

'Tell me, how is your father?'

“Oh, he’s so much better! He was so sick for a whole month, and then he got better. He is still not as strong as he was, but he will be soon, I guess.”

“You were worried about him, weren’t you?”

“I thought he would die,” she said in a tiny voice.

“Are you happy now, then?”

“I am happy about that. I guess I would die if my Da ever did.”

'I never see you playing in the forest.'

He nodded and picked a few more stems of grass, which he proceeded to plait with the first. “What about you, Iylaine? I never see you playing in the forest.”

“Do you look for me?”


“I am not allowed to go by myself any more. ‘Cause of the kids that don’t like me.”

“The children that chased you into the pond?”

“Aye. You saw them, didn’t you? You dried my dress.”

“I couldn’t help myself,” he said, smiling ruefully. “I know how you hate to swim.”

“And you did dry my tears, too, didn’t you?” she asked, a little shyly.

'And you did dry my tears, too, didn't you?'

“That is because I hate to see you cry.”

“I wish you would do it again, when I cry.”

“I wish I could. I also wish I would never need to.”

“Why didn’t you come out that day? Why didn’t you? I wanted to see you.”

'Why didn't you come out that day?'

“I mustn’t,” he said, his eyes intent on the grass he was braiding. “I shouldn’t be here either. But it’s my birthday, so I deserve to do what I like, at least for a little while.”

“Oh, but you’ll stay a while with me, won’t you?”

“I cannot. I cannot stay at all. If any of the elves were to see me with you, I should be in terrible trouble.”

“Don’t go!” she whined.

“Don’t cry now. Since I have sat down, you have only begged and complained. I was hoping to see you smile.”

“But I don’t want you to go! Can’t I see you sometimes?”

“There will come a day when you will wish I would leave you alone, in peace, I think. Enjoy it while it lasts, cousin.”

'There will come a day when you will wish I would leave you alone, in peace, I think.'

“Oh, never! I wish we could be friends.”

“Aren’t we?”

“Aye, but – ”

“No ‘but’. It would be worth getting in terrible trouble only to hear you say that, but not if you add your ‘but’ at the end.”

“We are friends, but I – ”

“Iylaine…” he warned. “Now, this is for you, since you asked for something you can hold.” He held up a tiny circlet of plaited grass. “It is even something you can wear.” He slipped it onto his finger to inspect it. “It fits my finger now, but I believe that it will fit yours perfectly when it dries. Shall we see?”

'Shall we see?'

She nodded, and he removed it from his finger again and held it up again before her. Almost at once the green stems had faded into gray-​​gold, and the tiny plaits had tightened as the ring shrunk and dried.

“Let me see your hand,” he said, and when she gave it to him, he tried the ring on her finger. It did, in fact, fit perfectly. “There. That’s to keep, for as long as you can. Take care of it, for it will be a long time before I can give you another.”

He tried the ring on her finger.

“But it’s only grass. It will break.”

“Then you must not wear it every day. Only put it on when you think of me.”

“But I think of you every day.”

“Hearing that is worth terrible trouble,” he smiled. “The ring is not important. The kiss will last longer, you will see, but you are still a child and don’t understand that yet.”

She was sorry he thought she was too young to understand, and looked away.

“Don’t pout, cousin.”

“But I wish I could see you sometimes.”

'But I wish I could see you sometimes.'

“Iylaine, you are getting too like the men: impatient, and wanting things you can’t have. However, I do admit I have that flaw as well,” he sighed. “I have been watching them too long. You shall see me again. I don’t know when, because if I do see you soon, then it means that I am a disobedient son, and I don’t like that about myself. But even if I am a good boy and wait, we shall certainly see one another again someday. Meanwhile I shall be watching over you. I shan’t be far.”

“Will you come for my birthday, when I am nine?”

“If I do not, it is because I could not. How is that?”

'If I do not, it is because I could not.  How is that?'

She shrugged.

“It is the best I can do. Now, Iylaine, I must go. I am growing nervous that we might be seen, and if we are, I certainly shall not be able to come next year. May I help you up?”

'May I help you up?'

Once they stood he leaned over her and brushed her hair back from her ears. “You’re prettier like this,” he said.

“Do I look like your mother?”

“More than ever. Now listen. Be a good girl, and do one thing for me. Of course you must not tell your father – or anyone else – that you have seen me, but you must take care of him. You must not make him feel that because he is a man and you are an elf, there is something keeping you apart. He is your father, and that is more important than being a man or being an elf. Do you understand?”

'Do you understand?'

She nodded.

“You don’t, but you must think about it later, and you will. And you must not frighten him into thinking that the elves will steal you away, or that you will run away to us and leave him behind.”

“I could never leave my Da!”

“You should make sure he knows it – but do not tell him you have spoken to any elves. It is difficult, isn’t it? You must do your best to make him understand without telling him.”

“I will try.”

'I will try.'

“Good! Now, let’s give your cousin a hug, and then I shall leave you for a while.”

She reached up and put her arms around him, but she could not stifle a sob. He had only been there for a few short moments. The clouds she had been watching when he came had not yet crossed the sky.

“Don’t cry,” he murmured.

“If I do, you can dry my tears,” she suggested.

'If I do, you can dry my tears.'

He chuckled. “Just this one time. I don’t want you trying to cry. Now close your eyes and count to ten, as you do when you play with your friends, so I can hide.”

She nodded, sniffling, and closed her eyes, and he laid a hand on each of her shoulders and kissed each of her cheeks. She heard a rustle in the grass, and then nothing – only the wind that blew the clouds by and rattled the leaves.

She did not wait for ten counts, she thought, but when she opened her eyes he was already gone. She looked around frantically for a moment, but of course there was nothing to see.

She did not need to try to cry – the tears came on their own. But they dried just as quickly, barely tickling her cheek, and leaving it cool. He wasn’t far.

He wasn't far.