cost

“I will come back,” the Wolf Boy stated. There was no bravado in him. He spoke as ever: without fear, without doubt, without understanding the weight of the word.
“You must never come back here.”
“I will come back, and I will free you from these chains.”
The Witch’s hands, which had risen with sharp defensive motion towards her hood, sank slowly to her sides again. “You cannot free us from chains we have chosen.”

almost

“My brothers are in the trees,” The Wolf Boy said. He did not use either his voice or his face as humans did, to show feeling; but the Witch saw his eyes. 

After a time, he said: “I will take vengeance. Vengeance is when things are made equal.”

“The black ones are dead now, Little Brother. Death makes all things equal.”

He burst out, “They were not afraid when they died!”

we have spoken

“What were we?”

“Slaves.”

“What is a slave?”

“To hunt for another, and get no meat. To work for another, and get no gain. To fight for another, and win no glory.”

“What are we?”

“We are free. We are The People. We are not slaves!”

“What is freedom?”

“To hunt for our own gain, and eat of it when we are hungry.”

“To work for our own good, when it pleases us, without whip or chain.”

“To fight when we choose!”

“–where we choose!”

“The spoils are his who is victor! This is freedom!”

“Will we stay free?”

“To our last breath, to our last blood, with our knives broken and our teeth locked in our enemies’ throats!”

thrice

Ondimee was barely more than a child, as slender as one still, so light-footed she seemed to make no noise when she moved. When the doors shut she counted ten slow, deep, shuddering breaths; then she gathered up her skirts and ran as never she had before. At the long cross-corridor where the guards waited she cried out shrilly: “Guard! Guard! Captain! Jalra–Jalra–Jalra! He has slain my lady! He has slain my lady! He has killed my lady! We die, we die, we die!”

epigoni

It was called the King’s House; it was twice two thousand years old. Its original builder was long-dead, buried in the eastern wing. He had been buried standing: his tombstone alike with the squat, tapering pillars that ran in long double rows down the spine of the building, and half-lost among them. 

Each part of the house branched off that low-ceilinged gallery, opened up into it. The shape of the house formed an eight-pointed star, its rays of unequal size. The feasting-hall was one of the more prominent ones. The elf-ambassador stood by the arched doorway, so still that, with his hood up and his head bowed, in the candlelight, he was little more than a thin gray image among the tall gray stones. He leaned on one long hand against the columns, and looked down on the dark and empty hall.

“I remember when this place was bright with feasting. A company met and made merry, one hour before the cold winds came.” He spoke their names, then, softly: the names of the living great houses, and the fallen heroes. “Morath. Drakonysches. Nishtar. Brandu. You know their names, you have heard them. They were young. They were strong. They laughed, they drank, and they boasted. And they rode into the north, into cold and to death, knowing they were heroes. That men would remember their names. That they would not see their wives or their children, or their homes, or this place, again.

“Perhaps–” and now he pushed back the shadowing hood. Elves did not age as humans: but he, who had seen this place before the walls crumbled and were remade; before the grinding ice had crawled out of the north and torn the world as it had once existed, was old. “–Perhaps it is fitting, then, that now young men ride out of the north. They will come here! A time of heroes again….”

“We are Whole Men. We are civilized. We have no need of heroes.”

The ambassador half-smiled and now made to fade away, shadow into shadow; but his half-murmur drifted back. “Have you no enemies?”

self-imposed

An old man from the village, standing on the far bank, hailed the Witch’s isle. The summer-dry stream was low in its banks, and she crossed over the stones to meet him. She did not let down the knotted-up kirtle, but one hand automatically rose to check the cowl and veil that were bound across her head, showing nothing but her eyes. In her other hand she bore a small bundle wrapped in a linen cloth.

The old man paid no heed. He was one of the fathers of the village, a man with wives and many children, cattle and a house built of stone in two levels. He was a man of wealth and influence. He had lost his cattle, which were wealth, to wolves; they were no friends to him. Such men did not come often the isle where those who fled found refuge. His eyes rested briefly on the motionless bundle in her arms, speculatively on the covered door of her hut, and returned to her shrouded face.

He said: “This forest is not for men. The ground does not yield to our plows. The trees turn upon us when we hew them. The ditches we dig run dry while the wild streams burst their banks to flood our fields. The boar drag down our fences, and the deer eat of our grain. We fear the wolf and the brown one. This forest is not for men. We are not wanted here nor welcome.”

The Witch stooped, and setting her tiny, gray-wrapped burden down, drew a knife from her girdle and dragged its point through the earth. She raised a handful of dirt and let it stream between her fingers. With her other hand she held the knife out, point-down.

The old man said, “We are not warriors. We fled from the open lands. We did not think to find unwelcome where no men were. We did not come here to fight. This forest is not made for men!”

The Witch flung her hands down, hurling the knife to the ground. She caught her left wrist with her right hand, circling it, turning it slowly.

The old man bowed his head and said, “Perhaps they will not chain us if we come back to them willingly.”