Malcolm was convinced that he was being followed.

Malcolm was convinced that he was being followed, and he cursed himself in several languages for not having taken his sword.

There were not likely to be brigands in the woods between the castle and his home, but if that had been his only danger, he thought his knives alone might have sufficed. If Iylaine had been nigh, he would have joked about goblins, but the truth was that he feared meeting elves.

The physical strength of elves was no secret to him now. His own little wife was stronger than he when he could not use his advantage of weight, and when he had struggled with Vash he had learned that his strength was that of a child to the elf’s.

He had also seen the hatred and – more chilling – the disdain in the elf’s eyes when they had met at Egelric’s castle. The elf believed that Malcolm had stolen his wife from him, and he also clearly thought himself so far above such creatures as Malcolm that he would probably not hesitate to kill him if they met alone – if not to reclaim Iylaine then simply for the satisfaction.

At the thought of Iylaine, Malcolm hurried on.

At the thought of Iylaine, Malcolm hurried on. He did not fear death for his own sake, but he could not bear the thought of the elves coming after Iylaine, and still less when he thought of them coming after their child. Perhaps the elves would treat her half-​​elf child as being no more worthy of respect than its father, and then–

He truly could not bear the thought.

For all he had sworn to Iylaine that he had given some thought to the idea of being a turtle papa, he realized now that he had not then begun to imagine. One could not, until one had felt one’s child squirming beneath one’s hand or cheek – and even then, he had the suspicion that this was only the beginning.

Some nights he would wake from a terrifying nightmare believing that there was a creature growing inside of him as well, only in his case the creature was the man he would be when the baby came, and he feared that his body would never be strong enough to bear it.

He often cursed his own impudence in several languages for having believed that he was ready at seventeen to be a husband and a father. He only hoped that Iylaine and the baby would be fooled long enough for him to grow into the role.

He only hoped that Iylaine and the baby would be fooled long enough.

The moon was bright on this night and full, or nearly so. Nevertheless he had brought a torch, and he was glad of it now. He knew he could not hope to sneak past elves, but he also knew that elves saw far better in the dark than he. With a torch he was not quite blind before them, though he could not hope to use it as a weapon.

He was not far now: he could not have heard Iylaine shout, but she could have heard him. Soon he would be seeing that faintly glowing spark between the trees that was the candle she left in the window for him. Soon he would see the smoke rising from his own chimney, and soon he would be home: he would kiss his wife, and he would take off his cloak and boots while listening to her prattle on about her quiet day, and to Mother Curran cooing and clucking in the background. Then there would be supper – perhaps a pea soup, which Mother Curran loved to make in order to see them both laugh – and then–

Malcolm heard nothing.

Malcolm heard nothing. The first thing he noticed was a tug on the torch he held: a hand had reached out from behind him and closed over the flame, extinguishing it at once.

He drew his long knife even as he spun around to face his attacker, but the elf caught his arm before he could raise it.

The elf caught his arm before he could raise it.

Malcolm never forgot a face, and even in his terror, even in the dark, even at such proximity to his own, he knew the face for that of the young elf he had met in the cave, who had seemed a friend of Vash.

In a few quick movements of his arms, the elf had pried Malcolm’s knife out of his hand, tossed it away, and drawn his own. With one sudden, upward stroke he had sliced open Malcolm’s sleeve, and with another, downward, his forearm from wrist to elbow.

“I believe you have something here that is not your own,” the elf whispered.

'I believe you have something here that is not your own.'

The elf held his wrist in a grip that hurt him more than the wound, which, after the initial pain of the knife, only felt like an ache with fire or ice at the edges of it.

Malcolm had not had the time to move for his second knife. It was in his boot, and his boot seemed miles away. The elf’s arms could move there and back again in the time it took Malcolm to make up his mind to move.

His blood was as warm as his skin, and so he felt nothing as it drained away. Soon his heart began to labor as if it meant to hasten the matter.

He struggled briefly with the elf, but it was no more than a rabbit’s struggles against the tightening snare. He thought of crying out, as the rabbits did, but he knew Iylaine would hear it, and she would be frightened and might run into danger in search of him.

There was nothing to do.

There was nothing to do. The elf himself was grimly silent, and he did not loosen his grip even as Malcolm’s strength sank. He would hold Malcolm’s arm up until even gravity would be stronger than his heart, and then it would not matter if he let go.

“Please don’t hurt her,” Malcolm sobbed. The effort of speaking exhausted him, and he began to pant. He realized that he would never catch his breath again. It would merely run away from him until it had quite escaped.

He felt neither cold nor warm.

He felt neither cold nor warm as a man was supposed to feel by turns when bleeding to death. There were only occasional, brief, shuddering convulsions that could be neatly timed by the beating of his heart. He thought his body was fighting on its own, like the rabbit’s last twitches after its eyes had already glazed over. He realized that the rabbit too must be aware of its death as it came, even after it had lost the will and the strength to struggle, as he had, and seemed nearly dead already, as he was.

He would never see his baby, he thought. The last thing he would ever see would be the knees of an elf who hated him and a pool of his own bright blood.

The last thing he would ever see would be the knees of an elf who hated him and a pool of his own bright blood.