Seeing as it takes me so long to write each chapter, I've decided to change my posting policy. Each chapter will now be posted in two or more parts, however those parts will still all be the same chapter. This is chapter three, part A, not the whole of chapter three. I apologize for the time it takes me to write. This story is complex and strange, and I need to be in a certain frame of mind when I continue it, so sometimes I leave it for a long time. Please bear with me if you enjoy this story. I will try to post more often.

You may notice a change of style and mood near the end of this part. It's intended build-up, and the style will change back when the chapter is over.

Disclaimer, notes on dialogue: see prologue.

Notes on further reading concerning the themes will be posted with the next part. I hope you found my previous recommendations interesting.

Finally, notes on the Abodean Elf-speak: "Tyree" indeed means "sky's gift", as evident in the names of Tyleet ("healer's gift) and the Chosen Eight. The High Tongue is the language common to all Elf tribes, and there'll be more of it in the next chapters.





Chapter Three: The Dream Hive





1.1.1.1.1 "Ask yourselves, all of you... What power would Hell have

if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?"



Neil Gaiman, "Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes"





The next morning the sun shone brighter than ever, loving and caressing. The land stood quiet and beautiful, covered in sparkling dew, green, fresh and inviting. The forest, so frightful in the night, was a beloved lush shelter and the sea a blue gem stretching away into infinity. If there were ever fear, anger or pain, they were all but forgotten, melting away with the clouds.

Skywise was woken from a strange dream by the sound of laughter. Blinking, rubbing his eyes he sat up groggily and smiled. On the grass in the outskirts of the wood, Scouter and Dewshine were chasing Tyleet, laughing. The two lovemates did not even seem shaken by the previous day's events, but it was impossible to be upset in any way under the sun, and seeing how Dewshine and Aroree both made a splendid recovery. The stargazer yawned and stretched, forgetting the days and distance ahead, content in the knowledge that for the while, he could rest.

Just as he was looking around at his mostly sleeping companions, Dewshine noticed he was up and about and rushed to him, beaming. "Good morning to you! Is it true that you were my other savior?"

"You could say that," Skywise replied slyly, enjoying the expression on Scouter's face. "Are you sure you should be running about like this?"

She laughed, dismissed his worry with a shake of a hand. "Nonsense! I'm fine, and so are Aroree and Tyldak for the matter. Fine and eager to go on!"

Further, Pike turned over and blinked at them as he tried to push himself up on one elbow. "Wha - ? So soon? We've been on the water for five days, for Freefoot's sake. Don't we get to enjoy the forest a while? I'm sick of raw fish."

"Aw, you're going soft, Wolfrider!" Krim laughed. Skywise grinning teasingly.

"You want to hunt, then?" he asked. The others voiced their agreements, rising, grateful and looking forward for the chance to finally put their muscles and senses to use again after five long days. The forest was beckoning – the forest of the Old Land, on all its familiar and new wonders.

Soon thereafter, Pike and Scouter were each leading a hunting party into the woods. Five Elves in each, eager and smug, spears and knifes and swords held firmly, ready to draw first blood. They were in their element now, and the woods seemed to acknowledge that. The shadows danced but did not pounce or trap, birds sang and little animals shuffled between bushes. The smells were clear, sharp and good. Normally, the Wolfriders hunted at night, but now they were hungry and weary of inaction. The sunny afternoon will have to do, and it did nicely.

Progressing deep into the greenery, headed Southward, Scouter's group came across the sweet and familiar scent of a deer, swept toward them by soft wind. Dewshine and Tyleet were uncomfortable without their wolf-friends, but Venka enthusiastically took on the tracking task, happy to find the well known in the mess of newness the last days have been. Skywise trailed behind lazily, sniffing at flowers and playfully wondering how Aroree and Tyldak might be enjoying themselves.

Slowly they progressed, probing the trail, seeking out the quarry with quiet relentlessness and a thrill that gradually built with every mark and whiff of the faraway scent. Carefully they made their deliberate way through the undergrowth. The forest was starting to take on the distinct image of autumn. The leaves on the low bushes were turning a brown-red taint, fruits and berries hung ripe and fresh, just short of dropping off the heavily burdened branches. Sweet smells of flora and cool breeze hung in the air and the sound of running water came from the distance. The last remains of dew caught the sunlight. The woods celebrated life and wild freedom, and the autumn joy of the last few fiery days before the first snow falls.

Scouter stopped in the shade of a thick oak, halting the others behind him with a lifted hand. He sniffed at the wind and strained his matchless eyes. The four hunters tensed, sensing their leader's sudden, intent concentration. Then he blinked. Pike's joyful open sending rang in the five's minds.

*(Any luck? For ourselves, we have us a lovely deer here…)

Four eager gazes shot up to meet Scouter's in a silent, disgruntled protest. "That's got to be ours," Tyleet muttered through clenched teeth.

Scouter seemed to agree, but actually looked amused. *(Pike, you Troll, we found it first.)

*(Is that so?) A tease of a sort entered the Howlkeeper's mind-voice then. (We'll let you have it, then… if you're there in time, of course.)

He faded; Scouter didn't consider the challenge one moment.

"In time?" he growled. "I'll show him time! What are we waiting for?"

And as one they sprung into the forest as an arrow from a bow, swift and intent, tore through the maze of fair trees and tangled bushes. Dry gold, brown and red leafs rustled under their feet, the cool air brushed against their faces and they were running for determination and joy. The scent was carried on the kind wind, they needed but to breathe deeply to ascertain they were dead on track. It wasn't more than a few quick moments before they noticed the large form of their quarry dancing the dance of hunter and prey between the trees. Pike's band was already closing in on the magnificent beast, but for all their greater number, they were taking on a foe beyond their abilities. The stag – tall, heavy and with horns the height of an Elfin child – won't be felled by five Elves and no wolves.

The hunters seemed to have acknowledged that. They were trying to surround the huge animal but with little success. So long as the beast kept its distance, they were enjoying the mere attempt, but any moment now, someone might be hurt.

Scouter let out a chilling hunting cry and stormed into the fray, the other four close behind. For a few beautiful minutes, the world was hoof and horn, stone and metal, rushing blood, wits, speed and sinew. There was the quarry, the blade and the high noon sun, and the smell of grass and flowers and sweat and fear. There was first blood; sweet and sparkling mad fire in every heart. Shouts and cries and gasps of thrill, and the red shine of the razor's edge and the wild dance of life and death.

It lasted a few exhilarating moments – then without warning the stag kicked low and its stony hoof found Skot's chest and flung the Go-Back ten feet away. The moment it took his nine companions to make sure he was still breathing was also all it took the wounded and exhausted beast to storm away far into the shelter of the trees.

"Curses on your empty head, Skot!" Krim yelled in frustration as Pike and Tyleet helped the dazed and grudgingly shameful Elf to his feet. "One moment's wait, and - !"

"Patience from a Go-Back? High Ones forbid," Venka answered wearily, sinking to the grass. Most of the others nodded in disappointed agreement. But Aroree took to the air, and was gazing downward from a great height. An audible chuckle escaped her. The others looked up, tired and grumbling now that the battle-rage had left them and in no mood for any more startling discovery. Aroree huffed at their disregard and descended.

"It hasn't gone far, if you would like to know," she said with a dismissing wave of her hand in the direction their prey fled. "And it hasn't the sense to hide well, either."

And then she had a good laugh as the hunters scrambled to their feet and fell over each other in their hurry.

"Where?" Pike gasped.

"Follow me!" In one smooth motion, the Glider was in the air, leading her hungry yet hopeful friends on a short and eager run between the trees. They now approached the area of thinly spread trees at the edges of the forest, where there was no hiding for small or large game. Here was their escaped quarry, looking around wide-eyed. Blood was pooling to the ground, and the smell of blood roused them and awakened their predators' hearts and minds. With wild howls and flashing metal, they were upon it.

For the beast, it could be said it fought well, but injured and worn out and confronted by ten starving Elves determined not to lose it again, it never had any chance to begin with. They encircled it, pushed it away from the protective trees and into the open and thrust and struck at it with bloodstained blades until the proud stag, bloody and torn, kneeled and staggered to the ground. Venka pinned its neck and landed the killing blow.

The silence of death fell, and the triumphant Elves laughed and cheered in its face. They stood round the fallen lovely beast and howled long and hard.

Yet in the midst of the sweet victory, a shadow seemed to suddenly cover the face of the sun. Tensing, the ten glanced up, nervously clustering around each other – and then Tyleet gave a shriek, for the shadow was at once upon them.

A great white bird of prey, claws extended and beak open in a threatening cry, fell like lightning from the heavens and snatched the torn body of the stag away into the sky.

Though it had been eight eight eights of turns since last they were under such an attack, the fear it struck into them, the instinctive scattering, running as fast as their feet would carry them, was all too similar. Gasping and cursing they dived into the grass to escape the deadly outreached talons. The air whooshed and dust and leafs were flung away under the rising wind of the beating of huge wings. But one moment did they have to flee and already the claws touched ground and closed around their prey, nearly impaling Pike and the Go-Backs. The Howlkeeper hurled himself against Skot and they rolled away at the very last second, but when the bird was soaring away and they stumbled to their feet, breathing hard, Krim wasn't with them.

Skot gave a cry that broke halfway through. Wide-eyed and trembling the two scanned the field, sending frantically to their companions. Scouter was helping the shaken Tyleet up, farther away, Venka was kneeling by Skywise and Dewshine, Tyldak and Aroree gazed longingly after the bird that stole their kill. But Krim was nowhere to be seen.

"She's not with us!" Skot choked out, grabbing Pike's shoulders. He glanced up, meeting the others' eyes with a look of desperate anxiety. "Krim! She's not here!"

"What?!" Skywise screamed out, not even trying to appear calm. Tyleet and Dewshine erupted in cries of shock and despair. Once in the quest the group had already almost lost two of its members to the unknowing cruelty of the world. Almost, saved narrowly by friendship, determination and magnificent pure luck, but those cannot abide forever, and then what? Nine small bodies trembled as their minds raced with the most horrible of possibilities…

Ever the calm, Venka lifted her head and thundered out her friend's name in an open sending, and the Elves held their breathes, praying…

*(All right – I'm all right! Look *upward!*)

Krim's voice was strong and exuberant in their minds, not a hint of fear in the hardy Go-Back's words or tone. With an overwhelming sense of relief clashing with renewed anxiety and strangely chilling confusion, they threw their heads back to glance at the blue sky, squinting at the sun. The immense hawk was flying low, dragged down, albeit slightly, by the weight of its catch, and on one of its great legs, Krim was holding on to dear life and laughing as the wind swept through her hair.

"Timmorn's blood!" Scouter and Venka shouted, their eyes growing wide. Pike gave a wail and pointed aimlessly at the bird while Skot was cheering, both relieved and, after a Go-Back fashion, proud of his courageous lifemate. Tyleet, despite herself, turned around and buried her eyes in Skywise's chest. The stargazer stood spellbound by the sight, absently he heard Tyldak gasp as if in pain. Dewshine tugged on Aroree's sleeve, and the Glider kicked off the ground and slid into a graceful flight by the bird that carried her companion away.

Krim didn't seem the least frightened, she was having the time of her life, freely up in the air. A Go-Back to the end, she gave no thought to consequences, and as he looked at her Skywise couldn't help but think she was right to do so. He knew he would never be as reckless and foolish – and thus never as carefree and joyous as she was now, in deadly danger and laughing, laughing…

Now he saw the pathetically small and yet swift and intent form of Aroree as she streaked through the sky, following the bird, and realized with a pang of terror that they will soon be out of sight. Calling out to the group, he broke into a wild run through the high grass and scattered rocks and between the trees. They followed instantly on his heels and soon past him, struggling to keep their eyes on the way and on the bird at the same time and not always succeeding. The sun had risen high, blinded them and made them sweat and pant as the crazy chase went on and on. They stopped one moment to help Dewshine up from a vicious fall when Aroree's voice rang out from above in a thrilled cry:

"Ayooah! Behold! It's a bond-bird!"

"A – huh?" the news did nothing to ease Skywise's confusion, and he simply didn't have the breath or time to shout back. He tried to send, but Aroree wasn't responding, and soon the others were already running again in the all but useless attempt to keep up and he had no choice but to pursue, with the anxiety still eating at him. His precious lovemate, up there…

After what felt like forever in hot pursuit, Aroree finally admitted to herself that she was getting tired. Long turns in the Holt, surrounded by trees, did not prove well on her flying skills. Yet this shocking find, this heaven-sent gift, a bond-bird of Blue Mountain, gave her strength to continue whenever she thought she'd be forced down by exhaustion. Gasping with effort she strained herself just enough to catch up with it and fly by its leg, where Krim was perched, reaching for her knife.

"I'll teach this big wench to steal our kill – and that's good meat for everyone," she said casually, giving the Glider a wolfish smile. "You ready to catch me when it drops, fawn-eyes?"

"Krim, don't! Have you a rope?"

The Go-Back seemed surprised at that, but reached to her belt. "Found one in the boat. Why - ?"

"Give it here!" This was dangerous, Aroree knew. She will have to be quick and vigilant as she was not sure she could be. But already she was falling behind, and glancing below she saw some of the group were also unable to keep up with the pace. If she was to work her mad plan, it had to be now.

Fear overtook her momentarily, but she buried it. Skywise was not afraid, why should she be any different? No, she will not back down, the moment was hers.

With one smooth motion, she reached and snatched the rope from Krim's belt. The Go-Back gave a cry of startled alarm but could not stop her companion. Then, in a maneuver that could not have been sleeker or more exerting, Aroree passed over the bird's back, caught its other leg in the rope and hurried down to her friends. The rope flailed behind her and Krim was shouting and cursing, the Glider's face was awash with perspiration and her chest ached, but she tossed the end of the rope down.

"Grab hold!" she cried out desperately. "All of you!"

"What?? You can't possibly – !" Pike screamed, but Skot shoved him aside and lunged for the dangling rope, gritting his teeth as it scraped his palms but not letting go. Scouter and Dewshine soon followed, dragging the line low enough for Venka and Skywise to grab and pull it down with all their strength and weight. Tyleet missed the rope but threw her arms around Venka's waist, while Tyldak cursed loudly and somehow managed to grab the back of Skywise's tunic. Eight strong bodies moved by steely wills held onto the rope that had become a friend's lifeline, and that sufficed.

The bird was halted violently in mid-flight. It gave a shriek and shook its tangled leg, flapping its huge winds wildly. Krim muttered something that was both curse and prayer and let go before she could be thrown down.

For one moment, the world was open air and the ground coming close at a terrifying speed and the beat of her heart like drums in her ears. And she thought it can't be like this, this wasn't how it was supposed to happen, not like this, not like this…

Then slender but strong hands caught her, and she was safely in Aroree's waiting arms.

She gasped, coughed and managed to sputter. "By the great ice wall! You and your silver-haired friend… where do you find these ideas??"

The Glider simply smiled.

Gratefully she descended, feeling her breath grow stable and deep. Krim's legs only touched the firm ground and she already hurried to the group and caught her own share of the rope. Bit by bit, groaning and trembling with raw physical effort, the ten Elves forced down the great bird. After felling the sea snake, the new challenge was welcome, looked in the eye; once again the civilized, resourceful, intelligent and creative was put to the test against the bestial and untamed. Once again it – they – shall emerge triumphant. That was what the quest had become all about.

Bit by bit, they dragged the king of the sky from its realm.

The bird wasn't fully grown yet, Aroree noticed as it came closer. If it was fully adult she had no doubt they would never have succeeded, it would simply have been too big. 'Ah well, it's a start! And small loss so long as it can carry us into the air… me and Tyldak!'

Through the mess of grunting Elves clinging to the ground she caught Skywise's eye. He, too, had seen the almost obsessive passion the Winged Elf had put into the task, and nodded at her in merry acknowledgement. Soon, the sky will not be denied to any of them, no more.

The great hawk was grounded; its massive body resting spread out on the Earth. The ten of them had climbed on its back and wings and made sure it won't try to escape them. Aroree stepped forward, to their catch's head, and stroked its neck in defiance of the snapping beak. Pike, who was sitting on the head, snickered.

She looked into the creature's eye, as she had into her beloved Littletrill's so many ages ago, and gently sent. *(Shall I let you go? Perhaps we could be friends…)

A gasp rose from the gathered ten as the immense bird relaxed. Aroree petted its head fondly and it made a strange, soft sound. At the Glider's nod, they slid off its body and gazed in wonder and excitement, yet did not dare to come close to the mighty beak, nervously suspicious. "This easy?" Scouter whispered to a frowning Dewshine.

But there was one among the group who seemed neither untrusting nor afraid. Tyldak's eyes were wide with amazed joy and he was smiling strangely as he came forth and slipped one misshapen talon on the smooth feathers. Aroree beamed at him.

"A bond-bird!" He breathed, drinking in the sight of the beast. "She's magnificent! I had thought… well, seeing as Blue Mountain… one would think they died out!"

"They have not, as haven't we," Aroree replied. She couldn't possibly be smiling any wider. "Let her be a sign of hope for you, my friend. I wanted to catch her for you."

The eight others hesitantly began to approach the bird. It had stood up and was looking around it in what appeared to be discomfort, but it let them stroke its mighty wings and legs and beak and encircle it in quiet wonder. They were fascinated, ignoring the two Gliders. But Skywise, concerned for lovemate and friend, and Dewshine from the corner of her eye kept their own watch. They saw Tyldak's large eyes go wet, saw him reach to Aroree with the one healthy wing, he seemed lost for words.

"You mean that? Truly?" He said softly. "For me?"

Aroree merely nodded, the glow of joy on her face. She took one step back, left him to admire the new prize with all the awe and delight she feared he had lost forever.

"It needs a name," Pike said abruptly, glancing at the others from beneath the mighty tail. The Elves stopped their stroking and admiring, exchanged glances uncertainly. "If we're keeping it… it must have a name," the Howlkeeper insisted.

Eight pairs of questioning eyes shifted to look at Tyldak and Aroree.

The Winged Elf smiled faintly at them, then turned back to the bird. "Her name will be Tyree," he answered in the High Tongue, "Tyree sky's-gift. She is ours now."

The bird lifted its head and made a loud sound again. Wolfriders and Go- Backs jumped back in fear, wide-eyed and uncertain, reluctant to come close again and wondering if catching the thing was a good idea in the first place. But the two Gliders simply laughed at their fear and climbed up the broad back with experienced ease.

"Stand back!" Aroree declared, and huge wings began to spread, wider, wider, as if the cover the sky, stretching away white as snow flecked with brown as the earth and, up close, beautiful beyond compare. One, two strong thrusts and the immense bird was suddenly lighter than air, hovering up to the faraway blue and the clouds. The Elves shouted and ran, throwing their fists into the air and cheering with mouths and minds. Sand and leafs were blown away at the great wind, the sun played a moment on the bright feathers and then there was nothing but a fleck in the heavens far above their heads.

"High Ones keep you, Aroree!" Tyleet shouted after them, and Pike sent: *(Don't we get a ride?)

*(Yes, you two cloud-heads, what are the rest of us to do?) Scouter added, though he was smiling broadly.

*(Walk on!) Came Aroree's sending, which had a dreamy quality to it, distant and airy. (We shall fly ahead and see where the way leads. We'll be returning soon, I promise, don't worry for us!)

"Would that we could," Dewshine muttered, and did not take her eyes off the sky.

But they did go on, occasionally glancing uncomfortably at the sky yet soon giving in to the sights of the land. First they had turned, sought and found the prey the great hawk had snatched away from them and then dropped when attempting to free itself. The body was crushed and dusty, but after five days of fish, they'd have eaten it alive as well. They had a merry feast under the bright sun between the bushes and trees and went on their way with stomachs full and hearts light. They marched in a tight, quick- paced group and sang.

The day passed uneventfully. Far away were distant peaks, growing nearer as they went. The two Gliders had not returned or sent to inform the group of where they were, but a strange peace overtook Skywise. Tyldak and Aroree were well in their element, and knowing of what was ahead soothed the worry that relentlessly troubled his mind since the incident with the sea snake. He walked silently with the others. Tyleet and Venka were staring wide- eyed, trying to take in every bit of their ancestors' land with their curious, childlike gazes.

The sun was beginning to descend. The travelling Elves, hungry and exhausted, sunk to the ground to rest a while. The shadows were lengthening, stretched long dark fingers across the plain, and the earth was bathed in a red glow patched in the shade of the clouds. Above their heads the two moons started to appear, as if awakening, and pools of velvety darkness gathered beneath the trees. Night was announcing its coming with all the sunset's glory; the world seemed to have turned into either a flowerbed or a killing field.

Scouter stood a few feet away from the rest of them, staring away to the distance, and Skywise rose to join him. For a moment they stood silently, then the sharp-eyed Elf lifted one hand and pointed to the faraway mountains that now stood stark and foreboding well within their vision, close enough for the snow on their tops to be seen.

"If I understood you correctly, we'll be crossing those," he said quietly. Skywise nodded.

"Yes," he replied, trying to make his voice light. "But it'll be a while, so we all have time to get used to the idea." Scouter smiled, and the stargazer continued, relieved. "We made good progress. It's so strange to see how the old land… didn't really change all that much."

Scouter crossed his arms, bowed his head gravely. "Not as much as you'd think it ought to, right? The world goes on without us. It… frightens me, in a way, that the forest is still here, and the mountains are still here…"

"And they'll still be here long after we're all gone," and the two of them sighed, feeling heavy and old, and strangely insignificant. Scouter looked back up.

"No change," he softly said. "The shore, the woodland, the plains, and beyond them…"

And he paused, as if afraid to add anything more.

Skywise shuddered inwardly, unnerved by the other Elf's sudden silence. "And beyond them…"

Scouter was still a moment more; there was a haunted look in his eyes as they charted the horizon, where within an hour's distant, there was something strange about the ground.

"Blue Mountain," he whispered.



*****************



"Ah, I've missed the wind!"

Aroree flung her head back and loosened her long hair, letting the rushing air take it. She had no idea how important to her was that part of her life. Eight eight eights of turns in the Holt made her tough, independent, quick-witted – even somewhat wild. But for all those gifts she never renounced, she had paid with her one pride, the outmost ecstasy of flying free, high above the earth.

After the first few decades, it got easy. There were other things to do and so much to learn – she had to find a whole new life, after all, and it took time. She learned to be a Wolfrider out of necessity and in time, out of love. She thought she didn't miss the open sky, was content with tearing across the ground on a warm, furry back. Yet when they first came out of the woods to stand on the shore where the heavens were wide open, a sweet, painful yearning rose in her, a call back to the true home of her race. Now high in the air, her heart sought to burst with joy.

Behind her on Tyree's wide back, Tyldak was sitting in silence, looking down at the ground rushing beneath them, a patchwork of forest-green and earth-brown. The joy he virtually radiated when they took off was replaced with a distant look, something that was not quite sadness but not exactly satisfaction, a hazy thoughtfulness she couldn't decipher.

Her mind wandered, and she no longer looked at the view. She thought about long turns past, her life in the New Holt and what he could possibly have been doing all that time. She wondered about Kahvi. When they were both in the Holt together she came to know the Go-Back chieftess well, even like her in a way. But when the tough, outgoing snow Elf and the adventurous yet timid Tyldak flew away together, she was as surprised as the rest of the tribe who knew both much less well.

She found herself wondering, how powerful must love be to survive all these years, how must it feel to lose it.

"I never asked for your pity."

Aroree was startled; Tyldak wasn't looking downward but straight at her. There was no pain in the large brown eyes, an eerie calm she was slightly frightened of.

"It's freely given," she said softly. "I thought, after all that happened…"

He laughed bitterly. "You thought I'd want it? How about this, then: I am not the poor freak you remember from Blue Mountain. I've been with Kahvi for more turns that you've been alive, we had harder times than you know, but she'd *never* gave me pity. And I'd be dead before I ask for it from anyone," he stiffened and stared into her eyes, challenging. "Not even you."

She tried to avoid the piercing glance, but found she couldn't. "Strength then, I've to spare. Reliance. Please…" abruptly she realized how the scales have tipped, how the terms have changed. They were talking on a different level now than they had with the others, down on the ground, and there was much more between them, left from days long gone by. "Let me help, let us help. Skywise and I, we're both here for you."

"What does the Wolfrider have to do with any of this?" He shot back defiantly. Aroree was almost certain he flinched.

"He worries for you. He can't bear to see you break. Not you too, after Cutter and the tribe…"

"So now I carry the weight of his world as well?" And with that they've come full circle – resentment, anger and now again bitterness.

"Not as you may think."

"Don't lie to me."

Aroree was taken aback – the terms were different indeed.

"This isn't what I was out for," there was pain in every word the winged Elf uttered, only partially conquered before and now bursting, hot, focused pain, and heavy tiredness. "I didn't know I'd be giving hope to that entire cursed tribe. I didn't know I'd end up out here pursuing dreams, and not even my own dreams. I wanted to heal somewhere; I don't know what I'm doing here. The quest is a good one, and High Ones know I'll abide by Skywise's cause, but why must it be me to guide all of them on it?"

Suddenly, Aroree felt the pain reflected in her own soul. Tenderly she reached out to touch her old friend's hand, feeling the bond between them she long thought dead strengthen and wake. The giant hawk soared higher toward the sun, the ground was so distant it barely seemed real. "You never wanted to come, did you…"

"What choice had I? What choice had Skywise? Dreamer's curse, Kahvi called it. We can never stop dreaming, though we know what we dream will never come true."

Defiance lit up inside her. "Not so!"

"And how would you know?" His voice oozed cruel sarcasm, not a hint of understanding it in. By now, she expected none. "You've known me long, but you can't know me well enough, not when it comes to that. When it comes to dreaming, I dream alone, and Skywise as well, and maybe that little hatchling Tyleet, but they're young, the two of them, they don't know the price yet." He gritted his teeth. "And with what they know, they want to help me."

Aroree huffed long and loud. "And if you don't take their help, you're the biggest fool that ever lived on this world!"

"Maybe so – but what good will it be, if I do?" There was anger in Tyldak's voice now, that Aroree was both surprised and somehow pleased to find. "Dreamer's curse, dreamer's pain. Nothing can ease it."

To her horror, she found no reply to that; whatever did she know about dreaming? For all she knew, he may be right.

The next few hours they spent flying in silence. The taste of it seemed to have gone sour.

When the merry light of the afternoon sun was starting to take on a darker, redder shade, Aroree abruptly stopped her mount. She squinted as she studied the distance, and something seemed to have frozen in her gut. She turned to Tyldak, but he looked away, He too realized where they were headed.

She became frightened, in a way. She didn't want to see what was coming, not alone.

'Am I alone…?'

"I want to turn back," she whispered into the wind.

Form the corner of her eye, she saw him shiver momentarily. "Yes, do so."

They were riding without reins, but this was not Aroree's first bond-bird, not even her tenth. With the ease of experience she whistled to it and guided it. Soon they were backtracking their path through the air until the rest of the group could be seen from above, seated to rest awhile. When the shadow of the great bird was upon them, Skywise leaped to his feet and soon was waving one hand in the air and sending to them in relieved glee. A smile crept to Aroree's lips.

They landed smoothly and slid off Tyree's back. The hawk won a pat on its immense neck and free reign until called back, then rose into the air again. Tyldak went to stand by Scouter, who still was staring at the horizon, while Aroree and Skywise exchanged meaningful glances. The stargazer was outraged.

"You've been gone half the day! We were worried!"

"I can take care of myself, as well you know," Aroree shout back playfully. Skywise refused to relax.

"You, maybe, but…"

For a moment he was silent, then his voice dropped to a whisper. "How is he? Did you talk, up there?"

The Glider nodded heavily, making Skywise cringe. "More than was good for either of us, I think. He… isn't as well as you may think, but I can think of nothing we can do about it, save perhaps go on and see what the way has for us."

The stargazer stood considering a moment, then sadly nodded and turned back to look aimlessly at the mountains. After a moment, he gave his head a firm shake and started walking among the seated group, encouraging the tired Elves to their feet. Aroree watched him with silent admiration. Memories lay heavy on all of them in that place, but Skywise seemed to be constantly thinking only forward, wondering of the future rather than dwelling on the past. A strange strength was revealed in him now among his uncomfortable, worn companions, the very strength they seemed to need. At the moment they didn't need a chief, not the firmness of tradition and familiarity to hold on to, but a visionary who could see the way ahead when the ways already walked were pulling harder than ever before.

She smiled, recalling a distant day a long week ago, when they stood in the rain and Skywise, with nothing but his unconquerable eagerness and love of the quest, rallied them on. Then she was concerned that his leadership could not last, that eagerness and curiosity would never get them as far as pure authority would. She was nothing but joyful to find herself mistaken.

In minutes, though Pike and the Go-Backs didn't think twice about complaining as loudly as they could, they were on the road again. Tyree flew high above, tracking their path. Skywise took the lead along with the ever-ready Tyleet, and the stargazer seemed to be enjoying her constant chattering about how the Old Land was different from what she imagined.

As they walked on, the way became harder. From flat ground dotted with scarce trees, the earth became rocky, cracked in places and hard to march quickly on. The tired Elves were panting and dragging their aching feet along, but yet not feeling inclined to stop and sleep. It was not a friendly place, shadowy and with the strange formations of hard rock all about it, twisted shapes high and stark against the night sky. Farther down the trail were trees, and among those they knew they'd feel safer. And beyond the trees… none of them cared to think about that.

But getting to the trees, they found they did not estimate correctly the size of the forest patch. Within minutes of walking the group emerged into the open once more and with horrible abruptness, the view was clear ahead.

There on the cold ground, under the unforgiving dark sky, Aroree and Tyldak screamed out in pain and horror at the dreadful visage that loomed over them, suddenly realer than anything they remembered. Before their fearful companions the two Gliders collapsed, weeping and covering their eyes, unwilling to face the sight. For there on the road before them lay the ruins of Blue Mountain.

In all the countless turns that have passed, that gaping wound in the heart of the land did not heal the least. Rather the shattered rocks still lay as they had when the Wolfriders left the Forbidden Grove, more seasons ago than any could remember. Now they were covered with moss and dark rot and thin vegetation, but not in a pleasant way, one that would have perhaps soothed the hurting remnants or blended them with the view in a quietly venerable manner. The plants were twisted, ill-shaped, sending long dark green and muddy brown fingers across the rocks, seeking to devour and crush them. The debris were colored a shade of brown that seemed to turn dark red with nightfall, and their edges were jagged, raw, like rotten teeth or broken claws. Farther into and up the pile, where the peak of the mountain once towered, the ruins formed a crumbling hill, as high as the Father Tree, but no more. Of the pride of the Mountain nothing was left, nor of the tragic grace of the ruins, and darkness was upon it like a blanket, treasuring the horror it caused.

Before it the ten companions stood lost for words, unable to move, unable to think, unable to even breath until the sun disappeared and the darkness turned the tormented scene into a mass of indiscernible shapes. Only then did they drop to their ground in their exhaustion and a sudden feeling of weight pulling on their souls, of age and despair and weariness. Long into the night, the tears of the two Gliders were spent, and hidden under trees but bare and aching before the might of time, the Elves finally found rest.



*****************



Tyleet slept.

It wasn't a relaxed sleep to be sure; in dreams she was back at the Holt, jumping between trees, laughing as she twined flowers in her hair. Back in reality her small body shivered, and she gave a soft moan of anger and discomfort, moving and seeking out warm bodies next to hers. For many turns she had not treed with her mother and father, but back home she and Venka shared a den, and something warm, breathing and soft was always with her when she closed her eyes.

The memory of the Holt and warmth and peace disturbed her like a beam of bright light against her eyes, and she cringed and shifted. The ground was hard beneath her and somehow she could feel the shadows. She wanted something to snuggle against, she missed her mother's voice, she wanted to go home.

And yet no, not yet. True enough, she was very tired, and the sight of the ruins of Blue Mountain didn't make her love the Old Land any better, but as taxing as the journeying days had been, they also felt beautifully *real*. All her life was spent peacefully in the Holt, with little risk or danger or any variation from the normal routine. But she grew up on stories of the quests of the Wolfriders, the legends of the tribe, intoxicating, strange and exciting. Countless times she played making up such adventures, and now, she was living one.

… And it didn't turn out to be as she expected, not at all.

Would she have done any differently, had she known? Would she have forsaken her dreams if she knew to tell them apart from reality?

She drifted in and out of sleep, memories of her mother and father and Little Patch luring her to long forgotten days.

In dreams, the scenery changed abruptly, and she blinked her dream-eyes trying to see more clearly in the fog that suddenly appeared. Something was calling; something wanted her to come.

As if enthralled, slowly she followed it, the call that came from nowhere, in wonder and strange glee. In its way, the call was sweet as honey, and clear as water, and she followed it willingly, marveling at where it may take her, for a moment all her troubles forgotten. She was free, and she was dreaming, and in dreams… in dreams, all was possible yet.



****************



Tyldak slept.

Finally, he slept, worn out in body and spirit, though sleep did not come easily. With his injured, disabled wing useless and all but sagging, it was hard enough to walk, and lying down was nigh impossible. Every few moments, turning in his sleep, a sharp pang of excruciating pain tore through him, sometimes bad enough to make him wake in tears, praying that this time it was really a nightmare, this time he'll wake up.

Never in all his long life had he been so miserable, miserable enough not to even care that he was wallowing in self-pity. Bitterly he recalled a wondrous night merely six days before, when he, Skywise and Tyleet were enthralled by the idea of crossing the Vastdeep Water, a night spent in fellowship, song and stargazing. It was better back then when there was something to distract him, and it was better yet when they captured the Bond-bird and he had thought his imprisonment on the ground was over. But flying on a mount's back served nothing but showing him how much it paled in comparison to true flight, the purest delight he lost forever.

Flying… if only he could fly, everything would be all right, nothing else would matter. He would give up the quest, whatever new, still tender bonds he had formed with his companions, the chance for another view of the glittering faraway "metal Holt". High Ones, he would give up Kahvi, truly he would, if only he could fly again.

But he could not, not now, maybe not forever.

The full weight of *forever* landed on him out of nowhere.

He shifted uneasily in dark dreams, and waves of pain surged through him again. He thought for a moment he had been once more jolted awake, and yet somehow he was still sleeping. Something was calling to him from the darkness… something was waiting there…

Unwilling yet broken, as if crushed by the weight of eternity, he found that he was following the call. Now he knew he was dreaming, and in dreams, the dark felt comforting somehow.



****************



Skywise slept.

His breath was deep and rich; there was a smile on his face.

In dreams he was in the Holt, and the skies were starry, and Cutter was lying on his back by his side upon the soft green grass of the hill, gazing up, telling some old story in a sleepy tone. In his dreams, the chief hadn't aged a day.

The dreams were good and sweet and peaceful, he didn't know why he was dreaming of peace at this night of all nights. But his heart was heavy with the weight of the sights and the passing days, and for but a few hours, it felt good not to care…

Just for a little while…

Everything could wait for the morning – finding a way around the ruins and through the mountains, keeping the group fed, keeping Scouter's new trust in him, facing Tyldak… everything that he knew he will have to handle sooner or later.

It was not the stargazer's place; it had never been. And yet there he was, where he knew none else could be. How long could he remain on the edge between the two callings, the leader and the dreamer?

Of what may happen if he gave in to other side, he dared not think.

He wanted to go home – home, where he would need but to give advice, not to decide fates, where he was free to dream, without burdens, without waking.

Home… where he could do none but dream.

Where did the stargazer belong?

Pain seemed to appear out of the darkness, pain of uncertainty and self- doubt, the pain he was sure he conquered. The comforting illusion of dreams faded, was fleeting between his fingers like sand, like time.

Yet out of the void that remained, something else seemed to call him.

It was no voice – not in the usual sense of word, but not quite like sending, gentler somehow and not quite sentient, similar to Timmain's simple mind-voice if any. Soft it was and yet firm, most of all, if he were aware enough to compare, he would have thought it to be an echo of sorts, issuing forth from someplace deep and dark, voices lost long ago…

Quietly, ever so softly, it called him. He could do none but obey.

In a twisted way that would have frightened him if he was awake, he became aware of standing, of walking. The dark seemed to change, the shadows shifted, the air became danker, then clear and cool, though all of that he seemed to know rather than feel. As for feeling, he felt nothing but the lure of the voice that was no voice. Slowly it drove him on.

It was cold now, no longer pleasantly cool. The air stung in his throat and lungs and the ground was slippery under his feet. But it did not matter, nothing mattered, because he was still dreaming, he was still asleep. He will wake to warmth and light, dawn over the earth…

The sweet, luring voice ceased with frightful abruptness, and Skywise stopped, frozen in his track, his mind focusing at once. Slowly he opened his eyes, very slowly, then blinked several times. A cry tore from his mouth and was returned in a sharp, deep echo.

He was no longer with the group, and darkness surrounded him.





To Be Continued in Chapter Three, Part B