Chapter One

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The sun was just beginning to dispel the soft greyness of pre-dawn, backlighting the early mist with hints of pink and gold. Sleepy twitters from waking birds were gradually augmented until the full dawn chorus was filling the air.

Nemeth ducked under the tent flap, wiping the sole of his left foot hard on the grass as he came in. "If there's one thing I can't stand about going out barefoot in the morning," he said to no-one in particular, "it's treading on a snail."

Jevann turned over, rubbing his fingers through his chestnut hair. "I don't even like treading on snails with shoes on," he replied sleepily, sitting up and glancing around the tent at twenty-plus still-sleeping Children half-buried under an assortment of furs and hides.

Nemeth gave him a steady look and raised one eyebrow, grinning. "I don't think I've ever seen a snail with shoes on, let alone trodden on one."

"Idiot," said Tarke affectionately, handing him a steaming mug and throwing her waist-length almost-black plait back over her left shoulder. "Did you go to look for Sherath, or just to admire the sunrise?"

"Both," said Nemeth, sitting cross-legged next to her in one easy fluid movement. "He's on his way back – could be a while, though."

He didn't sleep too well, Nemeth added strictly for Tarke's Hearing.

I noticed. Painful dreams, said Tarke softly. And you were dreaming about that sword again.

– Yes, agreed Nemeth, but how did you know?

– You were mumbling in Southern Elvish again.


Sherath paused in his uphill climb to shift the weight of the alp-ox calf, easing it on his shoulders. He had gone out as much in search of solitude as of food, but at this point some company to share the burden would have been appreciated. ... it's the kind of morning Shiyeth would have loved, he found himself thinking. He switched the memory off with a soft coldness that buried it along with all the rest, and walked on again, aware that just because a twin was dead some three-hundred-odd years didn't mean he was any the less missed. It was a while since memories of Shiyeth had intruded on his waking thoughts... probably something to do with last night's dreams, he reflected.

He made another minor adjustment to the weight on his shoulders before striding out again up the mountainside path. The early morning breeze backed round capriciously, blowing tendrils of Sherath's streaky ashy blond hair into his eyes as he walked.

It also brought him a soft, suppressed, pain-filled sound, as of an animal in desperation. He dragged his Awareness sharply out of his inner thoughts, a quick frown briefly furrowing his brow. Wallowing so much in memories that you miss something that obvious? he reprimanded himself, extending the Awareness out in the direction of the sound, and quickening his stride.

Animal, herbivore, large..... alp ox, his Awareness ran the identity across the surface of his mind quickly, and then qualified it with ... female, in labour. A moment's hesitation. She's not going to be overly receptive if you approach her carrying a dead calf.

He grinned to himself, sighed, and put the dead calf down, dragging it under the cover of a bush. Not that that's going to hide it from anything with a nose.... He approached the clearing cat-footedly quiet and from upwind, pausing in the cover of the trees.

The alp ox was lying with her back against a fallen tree, her head turned back along her flank, her coat dark with sweat, and the whites of her eyes showing. She was breathing rapidly and shallowly. As Sherath watched, she strained again, her legs stiffening and her eyes bulging with the effort. Sherath closed his eyes and ran Awareness through the animal, feeling for the calf.

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