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To free his hands for whatever may confront, Zhera’ rigged a carry- net for the child, who counted and made play-speech with his mother behind. As the day passed, they pressed up the path into the towering walls, cool and wet with recent rains and leftover dew. Through night they struggled on, away from the dread of the Northplains, toward home, stopping for brief rest and to assess the way, altered as it was by starlight and shadow. Before dawn they reached the small out-carved place that hid them from the strange men, and there they slept until the sun was high over head.

When Izilba awoke to nurse Dyacôm, who had slept as she slept – a blessing that held forth safe travels to come – she listened in the dark for the steps of Zhera’, beyond the cavern outside. Only the suck of Dyacôm echoed off the arching stone, as water falling into a shallow basin. The child cried out, and soothing him with soft words and a sleeping song, her other hand felt for the sword, again hot, but black; a shadow amid the holes of Arda. Approaching voices could be heard, whispered, halting as if listening., and footsteps could be heard descending the path, heavy but careful, booted perhaps and unskilled in stealth.

With a whip of rope, a sound like the strike of a viper, the footsteps became screams, rising, and she smiled. With child on hip, Izilba crept out of the grotto, nearly bumping her head against a man hanging upside down, gagged and hooded. He was tied one-half of a bandit’s bounty, head to tail, with a second, heavier man; both facing out, but neither able to see nor speak.

“Caught our dinner, O witch-master,” he said, signaling her to pinch Dyacôm. “Man-fat to follow the man-baby I’ve already prepared,” and the child sent out a shriek of pain. The men wiggled and fought against their bonds, while Zhera’ examined their packs and holdings, finding in them fire-starters, a sling, small shafts for a light bow, rope (poorly wound), and other common fare of plainsfolk on a walkabout of no distinct purpose. Enough dried meat for a day, a little water, fruit and nuts, he added to their store. Feeling them as if a butcher designing a feast, along the seams of muscle and bone, Izilba spoke Adunaic to them and bade them thrash twice if they understood, thrice for dissent. She asked if they had come from the northward plains, and they dissented, being, she learned by tedious inquiry, of further inland, originally. “Laborers on a jaunt,” she explained to Zhera’ in their own colloquial Westernesse.

She learned from them they had fled a spectral form, a “Shadowlending,” before the onslaught of fog in the middle of the night, three days previous. From a hiding place in the falls of rocks on the hills northfacing the range of mountains, they’d heard horror- shrieks, cutting and hacking, screams, battle, and then a dreadful hum-chant, as the sound of bodies stacked and (slap) sliding carried on til dawn. Enough fog passed to let the men wander up the way, which they held had brought them to this descent, on the far shore; seeing not the circle they had drawn, that would pull them out again whence they fled.

She whispered to Zhera’. He consented, suddenly screaming as if run through by a treacherous sword. Then Izilba, child on hip grinning at his father’s game, cut the bonds at the wrist (tied with their own poor lashing), and then swung Makhamôd [Makmahôd] under their heads, and drew it slowly down each man’s legs, halting briefly at the crotch, and poking gently each stomach in turn, all while Zhera’s shrieks died out; and he took Dyacôm, to stand upon a small, high perch. She asked the men if they served the shorefolk, bringing them flesh to burn, or slaves to work or ship east. She asked if they knew any among the fold they had fled who did so, and after brief searching out, one man revealed he knew of several women that had been lost recently, and their men said naught of it. At this, Izilba cut them down, warning them to run or be eaten by the witch- elf of Stoneway, web-spinner and maker of undead.

She and Zhera’ might have laughed at the flight of the men, relieved of their lower garments, a-sprint down the way as the day grew less bright, but the lore of their captives troubled them.

The urgency of return to the throng on the sea grew as they hiked, and the cove was made several hours after the stars had come out to brightest. They found bestride the “sea-traps” three Elves, who called to them in familiar voices, to fear not, friends. Thus the family again arrived at the mountain holes of the Onodrinlim, who secured the throng and concealed it on the rocky strand, with Zhera’s help, agreeing that for a short time they would again suffer the rude life of exiled star-folk, winking as he pulled the ropes taut. “Well, having slept in the sea-traps of mankind,” one replied, “for two nights, we admit your great condescension,” returning a wink to Izilba. “And, moreover, we have need of man-traps,” said the other, “and a good sword,” the final adding, “for we’ve heard news of a hill- witch new come, and well fed.”

“Let me carry him,” said the first elf, taking Dyacôm, and they led the mortals under starlight.

In the home of the Onodrinlim the couple lingered through autumn, venturing further out together and alone, while Dyacôm remained in the keeping of the elves. Zhera’ sought news of the Southlands, and learned little that gave him cause to rush thither, or sure peace in his heart, either. Izilba seemed at times driven by the cords of fate, alone or with her man, hunting for the spectral shades, or for their servants. By wintertime she’d learned the secret way to the southern strand and for days would depart, hunting. Zhera’ often trailed her at a distance, watching as she made herself appear frail, decoying vainly any slavers or trappers of womenfolk. Seldom did any predator strike out for her, and before Zhera’ could defend her or snare the men, she dispatched them with a stroke of blazing metal. Thence she’d return to man and child, speaking of self-consoling strolls, and learning of the speech of bird-song, and so on.

In this warmer winter, moreover, she fell again ill, and all understood they would remain among the stone-elves for many months longer, for Dyacôm would have sibling in the late summer. Still she hunted on the shores, though now conceding to the watching-over by Zhera’ or Imeldir, afar off. No longer did any wayfaring men come upon her, nor did she learn any else of the scenes, though repeated often through the winter, less so as spring came, and summer arrived.

Now it was said among these elves that one child was a blessing, and two a “twessing,” punning among themselves in words only guessed at by man. Their humor suited both child and, amid news of rising wickedness around the mountains holy, it could take on subtlety and bleak-perspective, never without true-hope, however. The “twessing” indeed came, and Dyacôm found himself outnumbered, two brothers more.

Content to delay departure til spring, Izilba’s heart softened, and the hunter was put aside, as the deft gardener and drawer of honey came to full measure in the terraces and hives of the mountain elves.

Mahah’ and Gilga’ they were called by the father, who carried his firstborn on gaming ventures with elves, whose herb-lore and snare-craft he learned much, teaching them in turn to track by blowings in the wind, a turned branch, and by the dust of the earth. The twins were nursed to roundness, and glowed under sun and star, in the fields of herb and pea, stone fruit blossoms and the buzzing of hives at honey. “Light” and “Crafty” she called the twins, and from the frequent attendance of elf-maids, they learned first the ancient, worn words of grey elves of the Stone White Home. [Fall 3314]

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