Unhesitantly, Lirilen scooped the girl up and leapt onto Silverwing's back, who took off immidietly, just as one of the human mercenaries ran up, a knife in hand. His face went deadly pale as he saw a great bird flying off with some sort of eldritch creature on its back, and he fainted dead away.
The girl, meanwhile, was screaming. Lirilen clamped a hand over her mouth as Silverwing headed off to the other side of the lake. "Quiet!" she hissed. The girl tried to struggle, but Lirilen kept a tight hold--not hard to do, since the girl was very small, even for an elf.
She landed a few seconds after Silvasrith. Shouts were still floating from over the lake, but it seemed to be mostly the leader's voice, the words undistinguishable.
"We've got to go back," Silvasrith said. "And make sure we gave them the right impression." Then he suddenly noticed the elf girl. He stared for a long moment at her, then at Lirilen. "Kark. What's she doing here, Lirilen?"
"As you can see," she answered, "we have a small complication. This girl was one of the prisoners the other humans had taken."
Silvasrith stared at the girl. Finally he asked, "What is your name? What is the name of your holt?"
The girl stared blankly.
Lirilen tried. "Who are you?" she tried.
The girl looked at her, but there was no hint of understanding in her eyes.
Silvasrith and Lirilen sat in silence for a long moment. "I don't get this," Silvasrith finally said.
Lirilen had one last idea. "Wait," she said the Silvasrith. Then, she spoke to the girl again--in the human tongue. "What is your name?"
This time there was understanding. The girl looked at Lirilen with big eyes, but she finally said, "Siari."
"Where is your holt, Siari?" Lirilen asked.
Siari looked at her, puzzled. "What is a holt? And who are you?"
"What do you mean, 'what is a holt'?" Lirilen asked, now her turn to be puzzled. "You know, the place where you live."
Siari shook her head. "I lived in the village of Tryka, with my mother and father. What is a holt? What are you?"
Lirilen stared in silent amazement. "I don't believe this," she said to Silvasrith, then translated for him what Siari had said. "An elf living amoung humans, with no idea of who or what she is? It's impossible!"
"But that would seem to be the case," Silvasrith countered.
"Yes, it would," Lirilen murmured. She turned back to Siari. "Where are your parents now? Were they with you back across the lake?"
Siari bit her lip and her eyes started to fill with tears. "The soldiers killed them," she whispered, almost inaudibly. "They came in the middle of the night, and burned all the houses down, and killed everyone but me and...and the others that you saw."
Lirilen closed her eyes to block out the pain of what Siari must be feeling and then translated for Silvasrith. She had known humans could be very cruel, of course, but this was the first time she had ever witnessed just what they were capable of. We should have just killed them all, she thought, but then pushed the idea away. That would be becoming just as bad as them.
"How old are you, Siari?" she asked.
"I'm eight," she answered.
Eight. Wow, the girl is tiny, Lirilen thought. Even knowing that she was an elf, Lirilen never would have guessed her more than six.
Silvasrith suddenly snapped into the leader's role again. "There's a lot here we don't know," he said, "but we don't have time to find out more right now. Lirilen, you've got to get back across the lake and make sure we got the right idea across to the humans. Leave Siari here. We'll have to depart tonight--it's too dangerous to risk waiting until morning, they could decide to come around to the other side of the lake. I'll check the fish traps we set earlier today while you're gone, to bring back whatever we caught. We'll take Siari with us and explain the whole thing to my mother. She can decide what to do."
Lirilen nodded. "Listen, Siari," she said. "I'll going to go back across the lake, but I'll be back soon. You stay here, okay?"
"Good," she said. "This is Silvasrith. Stay close by him--don't wander away and get lost."
She gently set Siari on the ground. Silverwing spread his wings and launched into the air.
A few minutes later, Lirilen was hiding in the tree above the humans camp, where they had rebuilt the fire. But none of them were sleeping now.
The leader was pacing up and down, calling everyone else idiots and trying to pin what had happened on them. Cwist, who had been the one on watch, bore the brunt of most of it. But Agnor seemed to have gained a lot of support--even from Choste.
"I saw one of the great birds taking off!" Choste was saying. "It was ridden by a horrid creature with eyes that glow like a cat's, carrying one of the prisoners with it! I saw it!"
"All the prisoners and horses are gone," one called Vame said. "They must have all been carried off like that."
"I can only guess what horrible things are going to happen to them all," said another.
"I told you this land was haunted!" Agnor said. "But none of you would listen to me! This is all your fault!"
"This is ridiculous!" the leader snapped. "We'll keep double watch until dawn, and the first man to see anything remotely suspicious give a shout. Once it's light, we'll look for tracks. You may all be too supersticious to see the truth, but I'd bet two silver pieces that we'll find the tracks of all ten horses, ridden by the prisoners, heading off toward Baron Veshter's lands--not the bloody remains of an eagle's human dinner. Eagles don't eat people, anyway."
The speech may have been intended to calm the other men, but all it did was make them even more nervous. Lirilen quietly crept away, seeing that the argument was going to last a long, long time, but sure that it would be even longer before most of the men ventured back this way. She only hoped that Lord Joktan was as supersticious as Agnor. Otherwise, there could still be trouble.
Half an hour later, Silvasrith, Lirilen, and Siari were on their way back to The Gathered. Siari rode with Lirilen on Silverwing. Silvasrith got to carry the fish
Lirilen and Silvasrith made good time and reached The Gathered just as the sun was sending its first rays of yellow light over the horizon. The eagles landed in front of the entrance to the holt, a small tunnel behind some bushes in the side of a low hill. An ordinary passerby would not even take notice of it. Silvasrith dismounted as Alaara emerged from the holt, followed by Aroyan and Vaeren. Lirilen stayed mounted, not wanting them to see Siari just yet. The girl was so small that she was comepletely hidden from view while on the eagle's back.
"Lirilen!" Aroyan said. "And Silvasrith, my son. You have returned. What news?"
Silvasrith and Lirilen glanced at each other. "Where do we start?" Lirilen asked retorically.
Silvasrith finally stepped forward and handed his mother the fish. "Good news first. The lake is chalk-full of fish. We made this catch in a matter of hours."
Aroyan smiled. "Good. But I assume that this means there is also bad news."
**Okay, Lirilen you're the expert on humans,** Silvasrith sent Lirilen.
Lirilen groaned inwardly. Of course, he would leave the difficult part to her. But she wisely rose to the occasion.
"Chieftess," she said, using Aroyan's formal name, "we encountered a group of humans while we were at the lake."
Aroyan's eyes widened. "Humans?!"
Good, Lirilen thought. At least I don't have to start by explaining what they are.
Alaara looked curiously at Aroyan and then Lirilen, obviously not so knowledgeable on the subject. Vaeren, on the other hand, looked grim.
"Did you get that close to them?" he asked.
"We did, in fact, but we took care to make sure they didn't see us."
"I've had some experience with humans. Describe their actions to me, and I'll try to determine what they were up to."
"I've actually had some experience myself," Lirilen answered. "They were a raiding party, from human lands off towards sun-goes-down, coming back from a raid on human villages at sun-goes-up. They certainly weren't planning on sticking around, but if war breaks out between the humans' two groups, this area could become very frequently traveled. We did try something to scare them off, but I doubt it will be permanent." She told him of Silvasrith's plan and their attack, excluding the part about Siari. She wasn't ready to bring that up yet.
Aroyan was looking worried--afraid. "And if it does become frequently traveled?" she whispered. "What would that mean?" She knew what humans were, but had had no encounters with them. She hadn't known there were any within any particular distance of travel from The Gathered.
Vaeren and Lirilen exchanged glances. "At best, it would mean nothing except that we would have to be more cautious," he finally said.
"And at worst?"
"We would have to leave this land, and establish a new holt, someplace else."
Aroyan became very pale at this announcement. She knew full well what that would mean. But she kept her demeanor. "Well," she said finally, "there's nothing we can do about this for now. Every few days, we'll send scouts to the lake for more fish and to look for signs that humans have come recently." She turned to Alaara. "Spread the word throughout the holt that no one is to stray out of sight of the holt by his or herself. It's too dangerous."
Lirilen bit her lip and looked away. This would seriously limit her wanderings. She hoped that this was only a temporary rule, or there could--would--be problems.
"Is that all?" Aroyan asked.
Lirilen and Silvasrith looked at each other again. This time Lirlen knew the responsibility really was hers.
"There's one more thing, Chieftess," she said.
"Yes?" Aroyan answered, curiously.
"The humans. They were a raiding pary. They were carrying prisoners."
Aroyan looked puzzled. "Yes?" she asked again.
"One of them was an elf."
Aroyan started. "An elf!? But...how?"
Lirlen slowly slid to the ground, taking Siari with her.
"I don't know," she said. "This is Siari. She has no idea what she is. She was apparently living with human parents, both killed by the raiders. She only speaks the human tongue."
Aroyan, Alaara, and Vaeren all stared bug-eyed at Siari, who looked almost terrified to be the center of so much attention. Lirilen first glanced at Silvasrith, who was looking worried, obviously over the reactions of his mother at this new arrival. Then she glanced at the other three.
Alaara, thank goodness, was giving Siari the 'mother bird' look. Vaeren looked grim again, but showed no animosity. Aroyan simply looked comepletely taken aback. Lirilen silently breathed a sigh of relief.
"Well," Aroyan finally said, "I suppose there's nothing to be done but take her inside and see if can't figure this thing out."
Lirilen nodded and ushered Siari inside the holt, followed by the other four elves. The two eagles flew away to the eyrie. **Good luck,** Silverwing sent to her.
**Thanks,** she sent back. Then she spoke to Siari again, in human speech. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right."
Lirilen sighed, looking down on The Gathered from one of the nearbye clifftops. It had been two days since she and Silvasrith had brought Siara there. The girl was taking her situation...anything but well. Lirilen could hardly blame her. Siara had suddenly been snatched away from everything she ever knew. The girl had seen her 'parents' killed, been kidnapped by a war party, rescued by the strangest people she had ever known, and then was told she wasn't even human herself.
As a result of it all, Siara was listless and unhappy. She was also refusing to eat, although, judging from her tiny size, that might have been more of a habit than a symptom of her present circumstances. No one knew what to do with her--in neither the short nor the long run.
Lirilen abruptly decided to go foraging. She called Silverwing to her and they headed off, slightly to the right-hand side of sun-comes-up. Lirilen spent most of the time well and came back with a great many blackberries tied up in her cloak from a clump of bushes about half an hour's ride away.
As she entered the holt upon her return, she saw an unfamiliar elf talking to Aroyan in one of the corridors. Upon seeing Lirilen, Aroyan called to her. "Lirilen! There's someone here that I think you should meet!"
Lirilen walked over to be greeted by the strangest-looking elf she had ever seen.
The elf had long hair that was somewhere in between dark blond and light brown, one yellow and one red eye, an old gray hat that looked like something a human would wear. His clothes were made from a great many bits and pieces of brightly-colored cloth.
He immidietly swept his hat off his head and bowed to Lirilen. "Hello--so nice to meet you. I am The Traveler--I wander from place to place, from one holt to another, staying no more than a few days. I have not been to The Gathered in many, many seasons. The place is changed, I see!"
Lirilen was not sure at all how to take this odd person, but smiled anyway and said, "Nice to meet you, too." She was also intrigued by the way he claimed to lead a holtless life, as she herself had for so long.
"I was telling The Traveler about our present...situation with Siara. He believes he has a theory that might explain a few things," Aroyan said.
"Really?"Lirilen raised an eyebrow and turned to The Traveler expectantly.
"In the course of my journeys," The Traveler began, "I have come across certain holts where...where there are elf children who are, for one reason or another, not wanted. It is the common practice amount holts such as these to--and this may shock you a bit--leave these children in the hands of humans."
Lirilen stared in abhoration. She'd never heard of anything so...terrible, so preposterous. Yet she sensed no deceit in The Traveler.
"Leave an elven child in the hands of humans?!" she exclaimed.
"Sadly, yes. Sometimes they will simply leave the child on a doorstep, sometimes even exchange a human child for the elven one. These children are called changelings. And it seems to me that this is the most logical explanation for the enigma you are facing with this girl, Siara."
Lirilen couldn't believe it. It was so awful. And if it was true, then not only were Siara's human parents dead, but her elven parents did not even want her.
The Traveler could offer no other information or advice, saying that what they did with Siara was their own choice. He left, on foot the next morning, heading off to nowhere. But an idea was forming in Lirilen's head.
She can't stay here, Lirilen had decided. She thinks she's human. All she's ever known is human. But her parents are dead!
Lirilen shook her head and went outside to take Silverwing for a ride. She needed some fresh air to clear her head.
Somehow, once she was in the air, she found herself steering Silverwing towards the human village, the one Siari had come from. She didn't know why she was going there, or what she expected to find, but her instinct told her to go ahead and instinct was something she'd learned to trust. Telling Silverwing to fly high so they would be less likely to be noticed, they headed off.
The village was a blackened pile of ashes. Lirilen grimaced. The raiders had burned it all to the ground. She doubted if anyone was even left alive. So...she had found nothing. Why did she feel the unmistakeable compulsion to keep on flying?
Shaking her head, Lirilen shrugged and she and Silverwing stopped circling and started off again.
**Stop!** she told Silverwing.
**What is it?** he asked.
**A town,** she answered. **I think this is where we're headed.**
**Don't you know?** he asked.
**No. I'm just trusting my instinct.**
**Are you sure it's safe?**
**I'll be careful.**
Lirilen could sense Silverwing's dissaproval but he circled downwards anyway.
I don't believe this. I must be crazy. Yeah, that's it. I'm insane. I'm commiting suicide for no reason. I'm going into a human town. I'm going into a human town!
These thoughts, and other similar ones, occupied Lirilen's mind as she slipped along the bottom of a stone wall at the edge of the town. There were no humans about, but she was still extremely cautious. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, but she figured she'd find something if she kept looking.
Crying. Lirilen blinked and then stiffened. Someone was nearbye. Someone crying. Who? Why? Despite her curiousity, Lirilen was very careful. One wrong move would get her killed. She couldn't afford to be seen at any costs.
Lirilen followed the sound, still ducking behind the low wall. She couldn't even tell what the wall was there for, or what was on the other side, but she wasn't about to stand up and find out. Lirilen waited until she found a tree to shield her, then slowly rose.
The wall bordered a big, green, open expanse. Trees rose in cultivated rows, and flowers grew here and there. The whole scene was quiet, exept for the crying, but...sad. Lirilen noticed stones rising from the ground here and there, with writing carved on them. She shook her head. What did it all mean?
Then she spotted the sourse of the crying. A human woman, sitting on the ground, sobbing as if it were the end of the world. She had laid a fistfull of roses in front of one of the stones, and now sat looking at it as the tears ran down her face. Lirilen stood there and watched her until, at last, she arose and went away. Only then did the elf venture cautiously over the wall.
Lirilen stooped to read the writing on the stone where the woman had sat. "Kria Hessim. Aged 4. A beautiful angel."
Lirilen sat back, her mind racing. A tombstone--a graveyard. A woman who had lost a daughter...
"Don't you see--this is the perfect solution!"
Aroyan stared at her. "You're crazy. It could never work."
"It will! I'm sure of it!"
"You want to take an elven cubling and place her in the care of humans?!"
"An unwanted cub who thinks she's human and has never known anything different," Lirilen reminded the chieftess. "Even if we could afford to take in another elf, with the times as hard as they are, she'd never fit in here."
"And what about her memories of this place?!"
"We can make her forget."
"I still say it won't work."
"Leave that to me," Lirilen answered.
Lirilen returned to the town the next day, to look for the woman she'd seen the previous morning. Lirilen found her in the same place, in front of the small grave. She did not cry today, but just sat there for over two hours, staring off at nothing. When she left, Lirilen followed her.
Lirilen had been deeply worried about going even further into the town, but as it turned out, the woman lived in a small cottage on the outskirts. Lirilen made sure she could find the place again, then returned to the holt. She would be back that night...with Siari.
Lirilen looked down at the sleeping form of the small elf cubling.
"Are you sure she won't remember anything?" Aroyan whispered to Vaeren.
"Her memories of this place are buried deep inside her mind," Vaeren answered, also in a whisper. "She should never know a thing--unless something drastic happens and brings them to the surface. We'll just hope it doesn't come to that."
Aroyan nodded. "All right, then. Good luck, Lirilen."
"Thanks. I'll need it." Without another word, Lirilen whisked Siari off into the night.
About an hour later, Lirilen laid Siari, still asleep, on the doorstep of the woman she had been following. The girl stirred for a moment, but didn't wake. Lirilen took a deep breath. She could only hope the woman would take pity on the child. If not, she didn't know what would happen.
Lirilen smiled down at the sleeping form in front of her. "Good bye, little one," she whispered. "May all go well with you." Then she dissapeared back into the night.