Paks stretched out his moon-colored wings, flapping them slowly and filling the air with their dust. His rider patted his bristling head, smiling down at the tired moth- their shift was almost over, and the little beast could sleep safe in his stall at last. Alana had riden Paks since he was old enough to fly, and Aygernesse had approved them, binding their lives at the silver moth's hatching. He had shot left and right all night long, moving by the light of the moon alone.

Normal elves couldn't see at night, but Alana had gained something with binding to Paks as much as he had gained by binding to her- he had gotten a massive extention on his life, and she had gotten his night-sight. Now, the sun was begining to rise over the hills, and though she didn't usually notice the transition as anything but a change from light to dark, she saw the whole thing from the highest leaf on the tallest tree in the forest. It was beautiful, in an intimadating way- the sun was huge, bigger than a thousand deer combined- at least, that was what Aygernesse said. And why shouldn't they listen to the sentient diamond? They risked their lives to protect it.

That's what Alana and Paks had been doing all day, after all- flitting about after packs of wolves and tracking them, reporting when packs got close to the underground complex of the elven society. The wolves were one of the few sentient species on Earth, and just as ignorant as the rest- like humans and gorrillas, they thought themselves the only intelligent species on earth. Pathetic. The elves knew better, but they couldn't speak wolf and didn't want to learn, not the way the giant dogs crushed their tiny kin.

But as dangerous as wolves were, they weren't the tip of the iceburg. They wanted Aygernesse because they had to save their kin, who were mudered by the humans for their coats and to make into- she shuddered- trophies. No, they wanted the diamond for noble reasons, but they couldn't manipulate the earth with it. The humans- even thinking about what they would do with Aygernesse was appalling. The gorrillas were way out of the way, and even if the dolphins weren't, they weren't a problem- they wouldn't think of hurting the earth any more than the elves would.

At last, a shout caught Alana's attention, and a rugged looking elf drove his thin, ethereal mosquito mount to the leaf below and to the left of Paks. She slipped from the saddle on the moth's back and hailed him, and he drove the buzzing, whining insect to Paks's side. The moth, who didn't much like the loud bugs, shifted away, but didn't leave- he was bound to Alana and couldn't if she didn't want him to. The smaller elf waved to the larger, more muscular warrior, his bee-sting pike strapped to his back.

"'Ello, then, Alana," he said, slipping from the mosquito's back and patting what little bit of her head that wasn't eye or jaws. One look at those blood-sucking mouthparts made Alana bless Paks's probithisis all the more.

"Hi, Brek," she said, smiling at the other elf. The mosquito's mouthparts quivered, appearing to smell her blood, and she started forward, but Brek brained her with one swift motion, and she froze.

"Whoa, there, Set," he scolded, and turned back to Alana. "I wanted a male- they don't suck blood, you know, they drink pollen, but this damned girl wants to go after everything she smells. I'm starting to wish I had waited for an egg to survive that was male, but no, I was in a hurry. Well, I imagine Paks is getting tired, then. Have anything to tell me about the wolves moving and all that?"

Alana filled Brek in, then turned back to Paks, who was nearly asleep and stuck to the ground with dew. She kicked some of the thick liquid from her boots and swung onto the moth's back, kicking him lightly where his head connected to his thorax. Annoyed, he took off towards home.

When the moth landed, Alana swung off his back and took off his saddle, hanging it on the wall inside his stall. She led Paks into his little home, feeling him calm and sleep beneath her hands as she ruffled through his sparce, bristly fur, scratching off dead skin from his scaly flesh. Then she turned and left the bark-and-leaf stables, passing stalls with fireflies, horseflies, honey bees and mosquitoes, the last stall being the wild, flashy butterfly that the elf Queen rode when she had to make speeches or apperences.

As she left the little stables, she walked down into the elven city. Guady-dressed coaches drove lethargic lizards with crowds of people lined down their backs, unable to afford the high costs of insects but wanting to go from place to place. Little mushrooms were lined up with goods put on their heads, elves sitting on the plush tops and waving goods around, from bits of deer-hide leather to beetle eggs. A young man cursed as his killer bee tugged on it's leash, trying to chase an older lady's pet flea. A little river flowed through the town, with water-beetle pulled barges going up and down, and dragonfly-taming riders gave children rides for pennies.

The rich lived in moonflowers that were closed during the day, and they slept down in the stems. The poor lived in little holes in the ground, dug by workers and their worms. Alana, however, lived in the Tree of Aygernesse, with the rest of the army. The huge tree dominated the city, it's roots digging far into the earth, where the elves hid the sentient diamond. Alana waited impatiently for a lizard to drive by, then dropped three pennies into the driver's hand and told him where she wanted to go. He cracked a long, leather whip and shouted to the lizard, who plodded along in the exact same direction at the exact same speed, bobbing his triangular head in time to his walking.

He stopped beside a moonflower at the bank of the river, with a long, black ladder leading to it's blossom. A well-dressed young lady thanked and tipped him, sliding off the lizard's back with a grateful pat. She could probably afford an insect if she wanted one, maybe even a flying one- she most likely didn't like the little things. Some elves could be particular.

As she settled down, the hairless tail Alana sported began to twitch with impatience, moving like an extra, boneless arm. A young man with a caged dust mite slipped from the lizard's back without a word to the driver and ran to his hole-home, crying out at the top of his lungs. A brawny man hopped off the beast with a armful of beetle grubs at a mushroom that looked ready for wares, and walked confidently up to it, already waving away excited kids.

At last, the lizard plodded up to Alana's home, and stopped at a shouted word from the driver. "You're a warrior, then?"

"At night," she replied, giving the reptile a grateful pat on the spine before hopping from his back, and nodding to the driver. Only when she got to the tunnel leading inside the living tree did it occur to her to tip the driver, and by then he had plodded along.

She slid into the tunnel, falling to the earth with a thud. There were four different, wider tunnels leading away, lighted by huge, human matches. The first led into the barracks, where the footsoldiers slept, the second to the beetle-stalls, where glistening war-steeds were housed in colors varying from copper to silver, green and blue to a vivid red. Their shed shells were used for jewelry and expensive furniture, and their eggs were incubated or sold. The third tunnel was the one Alana took, which led into the common hall, from which someone could get anywhere or find just about anyone. The fourth she rarely gave a second glance, for it led only to a locked door. Only two people had the key for that door- the King and the Queen. Inside that locked room was Aygernesse, guarded by the fierce and untamed Jormungandr, who could only be approached by the royal elves, and whoever they brought with them. When either one rode to war, they rode Jormungandr, the only time he could be seperated from the diamond.

When Jormungandr rode to war, the elves of Aygernesse always won.

Alana entered the common hall, wincing at the sudden noise. When she rode Paks, it was silent but for the sound of wind, and even the common bustle of the town was nothing compared to this. Early scouts waking up for duty, night-scouts returning from long days on wing, soldiers coming in from knocking back a few armies of ants, who were nuisenses to the elves because of their damned recklessness and mindlessness. A drunk-looking soldier sized her up, decided it far from worth the punishments, and turned back to his fifth pint. A hairy young man described a battle with a ravenous sparrow to awe-struck girls who stared up at him in utter facination. A smiling lady spooned a thick, meaty stew into a wooden bowl and pushed it to Alana, with a cup of strong-looking ale and a slice of wheat bread. The elves got their bread in excess, being able to make entire loaves from single grains. The meat was probably harvested from an already- dead animal and harvested in vast quantities, loaded onto beetles and brought back into the stores. Alana counted her blessings- the army supplied decent food, even though they had small rooms. Some people had to eat mites, which were supposed to be frankly disgusting,

"Thank you," she said to the serving lady as her ears adjusted to the babble and she chose an empty table. Made of a strong oak bark, the little tables were well-carved and durable, despite smelling faintly of old ale.

Alana allowed herself to become completely involved in her food, enjoying the faintly gamey taste to the meat in the stew- venison, she was pretty sure- and was trying to discover what kind of vegtable was in it when she noticed the babble of the common hall settling down. She turned to see a thin young man at the head of the hall, holding a harp out to catch the firelight in the hall. A bard. He was dressed in soft leather with beetle-shell dressings making it sparkle in the flickering light, and was tuning his intrument with great care while the hall waited tencely. At last, he plucked a few strings, and began to play, a slow but rich tune that had absorbed Alana before he even began to sing. His voice was deep and beautiful, as he began a lovely ballad about a warrior and a maiden, the warrior taming a fox and coming to the lady's rescue at the last second.

i"The graceful vixen's gleaming gaze
The maiden glowed so fair
The warrior rode home that night
With the lady's hand to bear."/i

She swallowed the last bite of her soup and chewed on the wooden spoon, transfixed by the bard. At last, he finished the tune, and she pulled the ruined utensil out of her mouth and dropped it into the bowl, drained the last of her ale, and put both on the counter, walking as quickly as she could to the third tunnel to her right. The serving lady might had shouted at her for the spoon if the bard hadn't struck up a louder, faster jig, forcing the poor wench into another little trance.

Through the tunnel she walked, this time blinking at the quiet. Even the silence of the crowds waiting for the bard to begin hadn't been this absolute.

Speaking of the bard- if she concentrated very hard, she could hear him, ending the merry jig and starting up a baudy melody that he STILL managed to make sound wonderful, despite mentions to parts of the anatomy with names that shouldn't be beautiful. Men- who seemed conspicuously immune to the bard's obvious witchery- cried out in joyous, drunken euphoria, and Alana turned away from them and walked further down the tunnel. The earth stopped, giving way to the tree's living root, excavated carefully as to not harm the living plant. At last, she came to a set of doors, and selected the second from the left, letting herself into her own room. A very small piece of flint lay by a tiny fireplace, and she struck a flame and let it burn, warming up the freezing room. A little standard- quality bed lay in the corner, and a oak desk lay with pieces of parchment and charchol, in a record of the movements of humans and various wolf packs.

Her eyelids drooping, Alana nevertheless walked faithfully to her records, noting down special movements of specific packs. She would probably get humans tommorrow night- they were an easier job, never being on the move, though they demolished forests easily to build the odd human- flowers that they couldn't grow within the wood.

All in all, an unsatisfactory assignment- but what could she do? She wasn't a soldier, and had no high hopes to be one, she wasn't a saleman, a bee-hawker or a breeder, she was a scout. Humph.

At last, the various charts of wolf-movement were finished, and after completing a quick sketch of the current leader of the closest pack, she pushed her papers aside and fell into her warm bed. After a moment of lying there, she reluctantly rose again, pulled the beehive grating over the fire, pulled off her leather armor and threw it on the ground and then carefully removed her softened birch-bark clothing, lying them across the floor to get washed by dirt-eating dustmites. She went ahead and stacked her records, pulled her bee-sting pike from it's sheath connected to her armor and propped it against the wall, hanging her armor up to wear the next day.

Only then did she burrow under the quarter of a rabbit's hide she had as a blanket, put her head on an overstuffed dove-dawn pillow, and fall asleep. _______________________________________________________________________

Skark the bard hadn't expected this reaction- far from it. The entire common hall had gone silent as he had begun his last song, a stirring adventure about a young warrior. They gasped as the ant army caught his scent, and cheered- CHEERED- as he defeated the queen and ate her eggs. When he had rescued a beached fish and rode it into the river, they cried out in delight, and they cried out in rage when the pair were set upon by an osprey. Were they making fun of him? Back at the bardic school, sometimes they did- he set to his songs with too much zeal, and even in the best bardic school in the world, there were still people willing to make fun of you.

However, when he was appointed a Journeyman status, and sent to the Tree of Aygernesse, he thought it was a tremundous offer.

Until headmaster Liki told him the REAL reason he was being sent off.

In his rage, Skark almost faltered in his playing. His voice had, as it always did when he got himself into a wroth, gone on without him, but he had to catch up with it or he'd repeat a lyric or two. Let's see- he had killed the bird, and swam on until the ocean spread before him....

With that out of the way, he turned back to his song, trying to shove all thoughts of Liki from his mind. He wrapped up the song, cutting out the fight against the shark, and played a long and graceful trick on his harp to make up for it. The little bronze instument was a miniture version of the huge, graceful things the ladies played in their rooms. The Blackbirds were expert at making instruments, and though Skark had never shown talent there, he respected that branch very much.

The common hall erupted into cheering again, and Skark, bowled over by the enthusiasm, turned back to the people here. They were great people, which only made him angrier- how could Lki have expected him to do that?

At last, he looked around. It was getting near the evening, and people had been filing in and out all day. He looked around, seeing quite a few tunnels leading further into the Tree, but he wasn't sure which ones led to the quest quarters.

"Third to the left," said a burly young man, throwing a wet rag over a recent cut on his shoulder and wincing as the cold water rushed over the wound. "If your staying the night, though, you might want to take a bit of caution- the fourth tunnel in the entrance chamber is the one you stay out of, hear me, bard? I know the leader of the Blackbirds, and if I catch you near there, it'll be your head."

Skark shook his head. "No- I know she wants the diamond," he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. Pretending to be ignorant would do nothing, now. "But I'm hear just to get passed up to a master, I'm not stealing anything."

The warrior measured up the bard, then nodded, hesitantly. "I'm Brek," he said, simply, throwing himself into a seat and grabbing at someone else's abandoned pint. "I was out on scout just now. Set- my mosquito- took a chunk out of my shoulder, here- and learned what happens when a bound insect hurts it's master." A smile spread across the elf's face, and he patted Skark's shoulder. "So, what's your name, bard, and what takes you to our humble little town?"

"I'm Skark, and I'm just a journeyman, not here for a specific reason. Except- your people here seem to like my music!" Skark skated over this lie with as much guilt as he had the other one. To think that this cheerful warrior could trust him this much tore at his sinner's heart.

"Do they? You must be good, then- we're kind of picky, here!" He grinned, and took another drink. "You seen Alana here? It's her turn again- she's on human patrol, tonight, and it's starting early."


"Yeah. She's probably still asleep-poor girl. They put these shifts too close together these days. Oi, I'd better wake her. Here, you finish this, then go down that tunnel and to the left, and you'll come across the guest chambers. Maybe I'll see you later, Skark."

"I'm sure," the bard said, slowly, and left his friend and the half- full pint to go to bed. _______________________________________________________________________

Alana woke up at the sound of footsteps- the heavy ones of Brek. He walked over to her bed, bent down, grabbed the sheets she lay across, and pulled. She fell from her bed and onto the root floor with a thud, shivering at the cold air. The unbanked fire had gone out, and the room had gradually frozen with the air of any underground barrack.

"Goddammit!" she shreiked, scrambling to her feet and crossing her arms over her breasts. "Great lord, Brek!"

He laughed, not at all put off by her nudity. "Sorry, Alana, but you overslept, and you wouldn't wake up no matter what I did, so I did what I had to. Now, what- ah!"

The last part was when Alana snatched up her pillow and hurled it at him, and he had to back away before it nailed him in the head. He snatched the first thing that came to his fingertips to throw back, which, luckily enough, were her clothes from the night before, cleaned and folded up carefully to prevent the bark from getting rough. The cleaning ladies were much, much kinder to her clothes than Alana was.

She snatched them from the air as they flew towards her, pulled on her shirt and yanking on her pants. Only then did she notice the long cut down Brek's shoulder.

"Set," he snarled when he saw where her eyes were. "Damn that bug- she'll get what's coming to her soon."

"Didn't she feel it, though?"

"Yeah," was Brek's reply, "but it's still stupid of her. Ah, well."

Alana hesitated, wondering what Brek would think when she asked, but as he leafed through her wolf pack records, she gave it a stab. "Brek, have you heard that bard?"

He didn't pause, only asked, distractedly, "Skark?"


He paused, then, and shook himself awake. "I met a bard today, named Skark. Didn't hear him, though. Why, is he good?"

He hadn't heard him, but he expected Alana would be able to describe it? She hesitated, then said, "Wonderful." Caught in the memory, she walked to the door, but Brek caught her arm as she walked past.

"Alana- he's one of the Blackbirds. Stay away from him, please."

"A Blackbird? You were a Blackbird, Brek, before you came here. What's wrong with them?" She pulled her arm away from him, trying to get her temper under control. The music was just so beautiful, though... and he wanted her not to hear it anymore?

"Just... please, Alana-"

"No!" Let him digest that! "It's wonderful music, Brek. You don't understand, and you never will! Listen to him, and then make judgements! You can't judge unless you hear his music!"

She didn't hear him as she stormed out of her room. She was in too much of a wroth to listen to him mutter to himself- but she would have heard him say, "No, I can't."

She marched from the underground complex, upset at having missed Skark's preformance. Upset at Brek for trying to run her life. Upset at the world for giving her the first shift of the evening. Only the reassuring presence of Paks at the stables calmed her down. She looked at his full pollen-tub, then patted his head, stratched around his eyes, and pulled his saddle down from the wall to hook it around his abdomen and thorax. The patient moth waited for her to be finished, then he was let out of the stall to be bridled. The harness hooked around his probithisis, then behind his eyes, and formed a loop for the reins. Alana climbed onto Paks's back, grabbed his reins, and gave him a light kick at where his head met his thorax to get him going. He ambled out of the stables and took off, flying into the fading light to the west, where Alana steered him.

The humans were expanding into the woods to the northwest, but the first round would only take them through about half of the complex. The other half would have to go to whatever scout took over from midnight to daybreak.

Alana enjoyed the night air; it gave her energy and a kind of thrill that the day could never produce. She leaned over Paks's head, scratching his scarce fur and whispering to him as he darted haphazardously through the air. She never would have noticed the kids if it hadn't been for the glow of flame right below her, as the giant humans piled wood up on the ground.

"I've seen dad do this before," one of them assured the other, leaning over the twigs with a smile on his face. The loud roaring of the human bowled Alana over, and the stench of the smoke overwhelmed her. Attracted by the glow, Paks tried to fly into the fire, and was thrawted by a panicking Alana. The human children pressed the lighter flame to the top twig, which slowly caught. The one who had spoken turned to grin smugly at his companion, while the flame gradually grew, unhindered by stone that usually surrounded human fires. As they looked down at their suddenly three- foot pyre, the children shreiked and bolted, running from the swelling flame. Paks went mad, trying to reach the glow, and it was only by cursing and kicking him that Alana kept him from suiciding. She turned him to fly back home, but the moth and his rider were too confused by the smoke to find their directions in the darkness. They never saw the silver death-trap that waited for them until the strands of silk-fine steel caught them and stuck, keeping them fast in a glistening spider web. _______________________________________________________________________

Skark crept down the fourth tunnel, an small, bark-cast model of the key in his right hand, his harp in his left. It was a long, almost vertical tunnel, and was getting smaller as he walked. For a second, be thought he heard one of his footsteps echo, and froze- but the sound of the steps stopped with his, and he continued down. He was getting paranoid- what if he was caught down here? It wasn't like 'getting lost' could explain the key in his hand, far from it, if they tried it in the lock.

At last, the tough door stood before him. It looked like wood, but when he pressed his hand against it, it felt like the elven coins...

Was it made entirely of metal?

Metal was expensive- this must have cost a fortune for the tiny elves of Aygernesse! Skark paused to admire it, and this hesitation let him hear impatient, frantic scrabblings inside. The millipede. Trying not to curse- he thought it would be asleep- Skark slid the wooden key into the lock and turned it, letting the bar slip from the wall and into the door. When the metal construction didn't swing open, Skark pushed it, and found it reluctant to open. It grated open slowly, and a band of light came from the room.

Where was the light coming from? Skark pushed his head inside, and cursed.

The sound alerted the huge monster inside the room. A thousand spindly legs connected to a segmented, bloodred body, the last segment a triangular wedge and the first a gruesome head, with a pair of blood-shot, compound eyes, a huge, glittering mandible, and two whip-like antennae.

An arm hit Skark, pulling him away from the door and shoving him into a wall. The bard gasped, hitting the dirt with a thud, the air knocked out of him. The harp hit the ground and rolled away, one of the strings snapping at the fall.

"I told you to stay away from here!" snarled Brek, glaring down at Skark with eyes filled with rage and tinted with regret, in a face contorted by his anger. "What the fuck do you think you're doing, you fucking songbird?"

Skark drew back against the earth, feeling a chill creep through him that had nothing to do with the cold ground. Brek's arm was shoved against the bard's throat, and he was scared to move it, lest there be permenant damage. But- "Jormungandr!" hissed Skark, wriggling in Brek's grip. Just then, the huge milipede crashed against the copper door, it's mouthparts snapping at open air. The door was pushed open by Jormungandr's writhing, and the huge, two-foot monster began to squeeze through. Brek cursed and let Skark drop, grabbing for his pike- though there was nothing he could do to hurt the guardian of Aygenesse. Skark hit the floor in a slump, grabbing for his throat. There was no pain, but it felt as if it had been pushed back, into his spine.

He sat, slumped over for a second, while Brek shoved his pike at the giant millipede, and cursed as it failed to frighten the huge beast. Then the bard's eyes fell on his harp, not too far away. He dove for it, not wanting to but watching the warrior fall back in his fight against the milipede. Jormungandr lunged, his mandibles slicing through Brek's skin, and the pained cry tore through Skark's heart.

"Hey!" he yelled his scratchy voice coming out barely louder than the way one normally talked, despite how loud the bard had wanted to yell. Skark winced at the ruined tone, then forced his pain down and grabbed his harp as Jormungandr turned to him and Brek cursed and fell back, clutching his shoulder.

The tune came out of the harp faltering and hesitant at first, as Skark had to force his fingers to remember how to play- but in a second, it was flowing as music should, and was as beautiful as it was supposed to be. Jormungandr's glittering eyes clouded, and he relaxed, moving slowly and hesitantly back for where he belonged. Skark continued to play until Brek closed the door, using his right shoulder while he clutched his left with his right hand.

"You little fucker," he snarled down at Skark, but pain took away most of the venom of the bite. "Come on- we'll let someone else clean up after you for once."

"Brek!" Skark didn't want to listen to the wreck the warrior had made of his voice, but he had to. "The diamond. It's-"

"Our's. Keep your filthy little theiving fingers off it, songbird. Come ON."

"No. It's gone."

These words took a long time to dawn on Brek, and for a long minute he stared at Skark in sheer horror. Then he spat, "Play!" and grabbed the key from the lock, turning it and shoving the door open. Skark began to play as fast as he could, trying to get Jormungandr in his trance before he could attack them.

A hole let sunlight into the crater, a hole that stretched up and up and up, where dog claws had torn roots in half and pulled away dirt. Perhaps three times the length of Jormungandr, longer than any tunnel Skark had ever seen. Gray fur was caught in several of the roots, and Aygernesse was gone.

Brek cursed, vividly and loudly. Skark played as long as he could, while the warrior stood and stared into the room. Then he faltered, and Jormungandr began to stir, and Brek backed out and cursed again, shoving the door back into place. He grabbed Skark's arm, pulling him behind him as he ploughed through the tunnel.

He paused as they came out of the tunnel and into the entrace chamber, as he ran into a throng of people. He shoved past them, trying to get to the common hall, but there was no way another pair of bodies could fit in there. Skark felt a surge of clausterphobia, and tried to fight it down unsucessfully, shaking his head in dizziness.

"Brek! Sir Brek!" A child, small and nimble enough to get through the crowds and obviously being used as a messager, pulled up to a halt in from of the warrior. "There's a fire spreading through the forest, sir. The army is making a wall of dirt and rocks to keep it from the town, but everyone's coming in here just in case. I have to tell the Queen you're here, she was worried-"

Brek cursed, loudly and vividly. "Kid." Brek grabbed the kid's arm with his left hand, turning him round. "When you see the Queen, tell her a message for me, okay? Tell her 'he's gone,' okay? Can you tell her that?"

The messager gave him a contemptful look for treating the kid like such a CHILD. "Of course I can."

"And take Skark here, will you? He'll give Her Highness an accurate report on what happened." Brek gave the bard an obviously threatening glare, and looked him straight in the eyes. "He knows that we'll know if he lies, don't you?"

Damn. There was no way out of it! Skark felt himself filling with the same fear he felt when he watched Brek fight Jormungandr, only this time, the harp he still clung to would do no good.... unless he could distract the Queen, and make a getaway...

No. She would have at least one male bodyguard, and as he learned the night before, he had no power over men. He hadn't distracted Brek, after all, had he?

"Sir Brek, where are you going?" the child grabbed Skark's hand, intent on his mission- and in this crowd, there was no way Skark could escape even a weak kid. "Brek, you can't survive out there. Alana, our best scout, was lost out there, she was out there and didn't return... you can't go out there alone!"

Brek hesitated at the part about Alana, and stood, perfectly still. Then he turned around, grabbed Skark's arm, and pulled him along behind him. "Dammit," he hissed, wrestling against the traffic. "You are so lucky, Songbird."

They got out, and walked to the stables across the city. Already, preparations were being made to keep the fire away- a bank of rough dirt particles was growing splendedly added to by loaded lizards, mice, beetles and moths. Brek pulled Skark along by his arm, dragging him along the roads. They got to the stables, which were mostly evacuated, most of the insects being let out to come back to their riders. Set was still there, however, and Brek walked straight for her, pulling her bridle on one- handed. Skark watched him carefully, then said, "You won't be able to ride her one-handed, you know." His voice reminded him sharply of the fight that took it's toll on both of them.

"Shut up and get ready. You'll be walking."

"I have my own beast, you know," was Skark's smug reply. "And I believe you might have to ride on him with me, if you don't want to fall because you lost your grip with your right hand."

"Shut up," growled Brek, but he looked at Set's complicated reins, and hung her harness back up. He opened the door to her stall and shoved her out, letting her fly into the air and hoping, Skark could see in his eyes, that she would return.

"Now what are we riding?"

"Boichi," was Skark's calm reply, as he selected his long, tough saddle from the display on the wall, and his oblong bridle. Both were bigger than most of the equipment, though they hardly stood out when Jormunganr's tack was around.

A large stall at the end of the stables rocked back and forth, and only Skark's, however ruined, voice calmed down whatever was in it. The bard walked up to the door, opened it, and whistled. A huge insect, bright and pale green, lept from it's confines, looking back with a long, almost intelligent-looking face. It wiped it's eye with a bristling leg, but the first four were hardly what caught the attention of anyone seeing Boichi or his kin for the first time. It was the hind legs that caught the eye, long, sharply jointed, thick and powerful.

"A grasshopper," said Brek, calmly, as Skark put on Boichi's saddle and pulled on his bridle. The little bug chirped, it's own little song that contradicted Skark's old voice wonderfully.

A few minutes later, the two men and the grasshoper flew through the air, landed, wriggled through the grass, and lept again. The grasshopper was an exilerating thing to ride, and though the traces of fire were intimidating, Skark found himself enjoying it.

"I'm sorry about Alana," he said, softly.

Brek was quiet for a second. He was most likely still a bit angry at Skark's attempt to steal the diamond, but at length he replied. "She's not dead. She doesn't die this easily."

He sounded rather certain. "How do you know? Everyone dies someday."

At this, Brek laughed. "I know my friends, Songbird. Alana doesn't die if all you do is throw some fire, wolves and humans at her. Nah, you have to personally hack of her head, then cut it into tiny pieces or it'll fuse back on. Even then, you have to be cautious."

Skark blinked. "I think you might be exaggerating."

"She's like a sister to me. I'd know if she was dead."

"Like a sister? I thought- you two-"

Brek gave a short bark of a laugh. "I shouldn't get very intimate in this conversation with the guy that turned traitor on an entire civilization- an entire planet- but no. Nah, I don't have eyes for women, see."

Again, Skark blanched. "Oh."

There was a scream above them, and at a sharp command Boichi stopped in mid-leap and fell to the ground. Both men looked up in unison, seeing, far above them, a silver gossamer web shining in the firelight from far away. A moth and a girl were caught in it, trying to wriggle out while the spider climbed up the trunk, returning home.

Brek, oddly enough, laughed again. "See? I told you!" He gave the grasshopper a kick, and at another word from the bard, Boichi jumped and clung to the tree, climbing up as fast as he could. The spider reached it's nest when the three rescuers were halfway up the trunk, and began for Alana and the moth, pausing to pick it's way slowly along it's web. Brek cursed and began to kick Boichi, trying to get the bug going faster- but by the time they reached the web, the spider was already wrapping the moth and the elf in a tight silken coccoon.

Brek paused, and gave as loud a shout as he could catching the spider's attention and turning the monster around. Skark looked around in Boichi's birch-bark saddle bags, pulling out a length of foxfur rope. He tied it to the branch beneath his feet by letting it drop, hooking it with his harp, bringing it back up, and tying it around the branch as tightly as he could. He then put the harp into Boichi's saddle bag, and pulled out a vial of oil that kept the steel strings from rusting. He poured most of it out into his hands, and rubbed it along his arms, through his fingers, and all over his clothes and boots, until he smelled collectively like oil and was terribly flammable- but the tuning oil served his purpose, and he grabbed a strand of spider silk without being stuck to it. While Brek drew his pike and fought to spider, he grabbed his rope and climbed up the web. He reached the coccoon that held most of Alana and her moth, and tied the rope around it, drawing his wasp-stinger knife and slicing through the spider's silk. It was tough, for so little a knife, but it parted, and the coccoon fell. Before it had fallen far, though, it reached the end of the rope and hung from the branch. The spider fell after them, a hole in the place of a good half of the ugly monster's face, it's legs bent below it. Brek took in the situation, smiled, and began to pull Alana and the moth up, letting them lie on the branch while Skark climbed down.

The warrior took the bard's knife the set to cutting the elf and the moth out, then put the weapon into a pouch hanging from his belt.

"Give that back," protested Skark, not even noticing how Alana winced at the sandpaper tone to his voice.

"You're being arested, Songbird," Brek reminded him, though there was a definate sad tone to the warrior's voice. "You don't get to keep your weapons."

"He's being arrested?" asked Alana. Then she looked from one to the other, to Boichi and back to Brek. "Where's Set? What the hell happened to your arm? There's- a fire- does everyone know?"

Brek shook his head, and filled his old friend in on all that had happened. She looked horrorstruck at the thought of Aygernesse missing, and Skark felt a rush of guilt at what would have happened if Brek hadn't been there, and the wolf hadn't taken the stone first.

"Come on," said the warrior, noticing Skark's guilt and not commenting. "Alana, you ride Paks, we'll be right below you. We have to find the wolf." _______________________________________________________________________

Queen Seria pulled her long, golden hair back with a beetle-shell comb, trying to pull on a robe at the same time. She couldn't let her people see her as the wreck she currently was, but Brek's message had hit home with force, and she had worked herself up with worry.

'He's gone?' That could only mean that somehow, Aygernesse was stolen. She knew, courtesy of Brek, that Liki of the Blackbirds wanted the jewel- had Skark stolen it? She knew what the ladies of the army were saying- he had a talent, the bard, and it might get him past Jormungandr, if he could open the door. He was certainly missing, but the messager had described someone quite a bit like him going with Brek- dragged by Brek, in fact.

She shook her head, clearing it. It didn't matter- she had to ride Jormungandr out, and follow Brek's tracks. If he had taken Set, it would be impossible, but the stablemaster had informed her that Skark had brought a grasshopper, and that would be a lot faster than a mosquito, as well as leaving tracks for Seria to follow.

The copper key hung around her neck, and she reached for it now, pulling it from where it was nestled in a most secure place indeed, inside her dress. She burst into the crowded entrace chamber, parting the crowds with her presence alone and beating for the fourth tunnel. The soldiers who were herding the mormal citizens inside froze, understanding what this meant- their Queen was riding Jormungandr into war.

The babble died slowly as the idea spread like wildfire, and every eye was on Seria when she started down the tunnel, running as soon as she was out of eyesight. There were definately footprints in the mud tunnel- Brek's broad steps, and another pair, less hesitant pair. At the door, there was a scuffle, as the mysterious person fell backwards, Brek backed up, and Jormungandr came out.

Well. This answered something. Whoever was in here with her warrior was planning to steal Aygernesse, and Seria was willing to bet it was the bard. Why Brek had wanted to drag him behind on his mission to find it- which made no sense, wouldn't he have it if he was with the bard?

She got her answer when she pushed open the door. She quieted the milipede inside with a word as she looked around in astonishment, and understood- a wolf. A wolf had found this place, and dug up the diamond.

"Jormungandr," she whispered, reaching over to touch the guardian of Aygernesse. The milipede pushed against her hand, for all the world like a human's dog. "Come on, Jormungandr. We have to go, now. We have to get Aygernesse back."

The millipede couldn't nod, but assent poured from every crevice of his body. Seria swung onto his bare back, then shouted a word to get him moving and pushed her fingers into a chink in his body. He set off at a quick scamper, moving through the dank tunnels with ease. _______________________________________________________________________

Alana held on tight to Paks's bridle, watching the bard and the warrior below her. She couldn't help it- she found herself smiling. Neither one knew it, but they were the best thing to happen to each other in a long time.

iAnd let's not forget what good they were for me./i

From the air, she was looking for the tracks of the closest pack, from where they were before. In fact, she had seen where the leader had left his pack, and come back later in their journey. The night was ending fast, however, and soon Paks would have to rest. The thing with the spider couldn't really be called REST, and he hadn't stopped for hours, poor bug.

Three times they had lost the trail where the ground had been scorched or they saw the pyre themselves, and every time Alana sent up a silent prayer that the city was safe. She felt the change in temperture as they got too close to the fire, but the tracks never faltered. Dammit!

Alana closed her eyes- then opened them again quickly as Skark cried out.

The ground beneath them had suddenly burst into flames as the pine needles had dried out in the heat and exploded into fire. Boichi had chirred, panicking, and sprang to the side. The bard clung to the saddle with a gasp, but it was the wrong side for Brek, and his left arm turned on him. He flew backwards off the grasshopper's back, and fell towards the flames...

Skark cursed and reached back, turning so fast that Alana couldn't quite see it. He grabbed the warrior's shirt, pulling him back onto Boichi's back while his oil-covered shirt burst into flames. The grasshopper landed, and the bard dropped Brek, tearing off his burning shirt.

"Dammit!" he snapped. "Covering my fucking clothes in oil seems a hell of a lot less clever now."

Brek smiled, checking all over himself for burns. Boichi impatiently stamped out a little flame that caught on one of his feet, then chirped. The outburst of flame burned itself out as quickly as it had appeared, burning down to embers then smoldering to ash.

"Thanks for that," Brek said to Skark, not looking at the bardic theif. Alana urged Paks to the ground, then hopped out of his saddle to check both of them for lasting damage.

Skark looked away as well, knowing that there was nothing he could do to take away his crime. "I- I owed it to you, I guess," he said.

"Yeah," was Brek's reply, and he was blushing now, and so was Skark, and Alana, kneeling next to Boichi to examine his leg couldn't take it any more. She got up, walked over, and slapped both of them across their faces.

"Gah!" cried the warrior, grabbing at his cheek. "What the hell was that for?!"

She shook her head, unable to believe their masculine thickness. "Kiss," she commanded them. The reaction was comical- both bard and warrior drew back, their faces turning redder by the second. Alana sighed, shaking her head in a long-suffering fashion. "If I didn't know better, I would suspect both of you were thirteen-year-old boys, do you know that? You're both infaturated, and everyone and everything can read that except you and the other one, because he's too busy pretending not to be attracted to you! Even Boichi can tell, for the gods' sake! Brek, you think he's not fey, while you, Skark, think Brek must already be taken, but kiss right now or I'm not moving another step!"

For a long second, nothing happened- bard and warrior stared at each other, unable to comprehend what they had heard and unwilling to meet the other one's eyes. Finally, Skark moved his gaze up and locked it onto Brek's, and in the next moment they had fallen into each other's arms under the critical and smug watch of Alana. _______________________________________________________________________

The wall was getting higher- it was half Jormungadr's height and surrounding the entire town when Seria rode the milipede over the hill and towards the stables. A young woman driving a dirt-loaded lizard confirmed that she saw two men riding a grasshopper speed away from the stables, going towards the fire. Mostly, the wall was being built by lizards and mice, with a good deal of beetles pulling huge carts full of dirt grains and small rocks. A handful of moths were flitting out to the pyre itself, armed with thick mud. When they were over the fire, the rider would pull a rope that would open the crate, sending the mud to land on the flickering flames. It wasn't doing much, but smaller fires were being put out by the teams.

This wasn't Seria's concern, however- no matter how much she cared for her kingdom. No, she was going to bring down the wolf that stole Aygernesse, and bring the diamond back home.

If there was a home.

Jormungandr was fast, for such a huge insect- he moved faster even than the mice that were loaded with dirt for the wall, streaking down to the stables. Indeed, the grasshopper's tracks were obvious, standing out among the tracks made by landing flying insects.

Quickly, Seria urged Jormungandr to follow the tracks, keeping one eye on the ground and one straight ahead. The tracks, after all, led straight towards the pyre. _______________________________________________________________________

Brek would never understand women.

iI was right, of course. They were never worth my time./i

Oh, he appreciated Alana's interference, to a degree- but she had screwed it all up, messed everything up, and now he had to arrest his hopeful lover or turn traitor on his Queen- and all that after getting back a huge diamond from a giant wolf.

No one ever said life was easy.

Oh, well fuck that. He was pretty sure that someone in history once said that it was. Someone had to have had an easy life. Especially compared to his.

Boichi was flying through the air, toward the wolf tracks that were getting more and more fresh every jump. Alana had to have been leading them right- look how close they were!

"I see the wolf! He's alone, for some reason- I think he sent his pack ahead of him to escape the fire. And- I see it, Brek! Aygernesse!"

At last! With a word, Skark had Boichi flying, nearly, shooting three or four feet at a time, landing and running a few paces, and shooting into the air again. With a gasp, Brek held tighter to the front of the saddle, trying not to fall off backwards this time. They sped forward, until in the distance, Brek could see the gray form that was the still wolf, the glittering diamond in his fangs. The already big beast was growing closer way to fast, and his size was all the more apparent. Her had to be four feet tall, his shaggy coat long and tough. He was old, and wise, and the leader of the pack.

With a single leap, the wolf had eliminated the ground between the two, and growled as he buried his claws into the ground where Boichi was a moment before. As the grasshopper lept to the side, Skark had grabbed his harp and jumped from his back to the other side, missing being torn apart by the wolf's claws by inches. Alana and Paks dove down to distract the wolf, and as his head rose, Skark could see his stomach.

He wasn't a he at all....

Skark began to play, just as he had played to quiet Jormungandr. Though it was too dark to see the strings, the bard's fingers knew them by heart, and the song flowed, haltingly at first and then as sweet as it ever had. The wolf looked down at him in amazement, then her wild brown eyes calmed, and her jaw went slack. The giant diamond dropped from her fangs and into the dust below.

"Aygernesse!" Alana, the clever scout, had stuffed her fingers into her ears when Skark had just started to play, and now she urged Paks to the ground with gentle kicks to the back of his head. When the moth landed, she ran to the diamond and began to push it away from the wolf with her shoulder. "Help me!" she called the Brek, perhaps louder than nessicary given she couldn't hear her own voice.

The warrior, however, had already started to climb up the wolf's chest, grabbing at her fur and pulling himself up. His bee-stinger pike glittered as if telling the world of Brek's plans. Skark would have yelled at him to stop, but he could barely mutter while he was playing, so instead he commanded Boichi to push and continued with his music.

Brek climbed as fast as he could, his gaze on the wolf's right eye. She had tried to steal Aygernesse, and that could NOT be allowed. He left the chest, working his way up the wolf's neck, then the fur that sprouted long from her face, then onto her muzzle. The dog didn't seem to notice him, not while Skark was playing, and she didn't care when he pulled out his pike and aimed for her eye.

Likewise, Brek didn't notice anything in that moment, either. He didn't notice when Jormungandr appeared, the Queen sitting regally on his back. He didn't notice when Alana and Boichi managed to get Aygernesse to the milipede, or when Seria and the scout began to tie the diamond to Jormungar's back. He didn't notice, though the wolf did, when the music stopped.

Those brown eyes lost their soft tone, widening back into the feral madness she had before- and now the diamond was gone from her jaws, the last chance she thought she had to redeeming her pack. She tossed her head, trying to get at the elf on her nose, but before she could the pike was buried into her eye.

She howled in pain, though it wasn't deep enough to kill her- she tossed her head and sent Brek flying. Once he was on the ground, she would stamp the life out of him...

He hit something moving long before he would have hit the ground, and was flying up again. He grabbed at the new surface, finding himself clinging to the bristling hairs on a mosquito's abdomen.


With a cry of delight, Brek rolled over, sitting on the mosquito as she flew over the wolf, and gave her a light kick to get her to dive. The bug dove without too much urging, wanting the blood that flowed in the wolf's veins.

As they flew past the wolf's face, Brek gave the end of his pike a good kick.

It still wasn't deep enough to kill her, but the wolf cried out in pain and whirled around, running from the elves and their prize. Suddenly tired, Brek and Set landed, and the warrior stumbled over to where the Queen, the bard, the scout and their mounts were hidden in a thorny bush.

Skark gave a little cry to see him still alive, ran without thinking about it ran into Brek's arms. For the second time that day, the warrior pulled the bard close and kissed him.

Seria cleared her throat, and Brek belatedly fell into a bow, pulling himself from Skark's arms reluctantly. The Queen shook her head and motioned him up, her eyes closed tightly in esasperation.

"Which one of you will tell me what you were doing in Aygernesse's tunnel?" she asked, curtly. "I saw two sets of footprints, and an obvious fight."

"I thought he was going to steal the diamond," muttered Brek after a hesitation, looking at the floor. "I followed him in and stopped him, and he saved me from Jormungandr."

Seria looked over her most faithful warrior, as he sunk to the floor to sit down, quite obviously fighting himself. "And what was he doing in there in the first place, Brek?"

"He heard the wolf steal the diamond, and went down to see what he could do," said the warrior, still averting his eyes. A silent Skark fell beside him, pressed against Brek's side.

Seria sighed. "Could the fact that you two haven't seen more than a coin's width apart indicate the reason you are lying through your teeth, Brek?" she asked gently. "Alana, would you tell me what is going on? Or would you like another chance, Brek?"

Unexpectedly, Skark took a deep breath and bowed. "I'll tell you," he said, and began to explain everything- Liki sending him to steal the diamond, Brek suspecting him, his going to steal it and being stopped, putting Jormungandr under his spell, seeing the jewel missing, and being taken to the entrance chamber by the warrior. He told about what happened when they went to the stables, when they rescued Alana, being hurt by the fire and saving Brek, finding the wolf's trail and hunting it down. Up to the part where the Queen came in.

Seria took a deep breath, and let it out in a long, drawn out sigh. "There have been quite a few elves who have tried to steal the diamond," she said, softly. "And every one of them were killed. It is an evil thing, to want to control the earth, and the world does not permit these people to live. It is law, Skark. If there was something I could do, I would do it, but there is not."

There was silence in the little room, then they all filed from the bush. There was a clearing to the east, where the fire had left it's scars, and for the second time Alana watched the sun rise. _______________________________________________________________________

It had taken a long time, to dig the tunnel that the whole city crowded in front of, but luckily, Seria had found someone who had a pet mole, or it could have taken much, much longer. Alana watched as Aygernesse was rolled down into the pit that was dug especially for him, deep into the earth. The roots of the tree quivered, and the crowd behind her murmered their excitement. Most of them had never seen Aygernesse, not even when Jormungandr had brought him back. However, it hadn't taken long for the rumors to spread.

Brek was one of the people pushing the diamond. He had vollunteered for a great number of things since Seria let Skark off with only having to help dig the pit- as had Alana, for it hadn't taken her long to become friends with the bard. It hadn't been easy for the Queen, to break one of the most steadfast of elven laws, but by common vote Skark had been let off, and the job had been easier with the extra pair of hands. And though he couldn't sing, he could still play, and he and Boichi had found their places pretty fast.

If Alana thought back to a time before Brek had become... comfertable with himself, she would feel a little bit of jelousy towards the bard that soon became Brek's lover- but not too much. He was still a good friend, even if he did bring back the past.

It took a few minutes for Brek and the other soldier to roll Aygernesse down into his new home, but no one left, or looked away. The Queen was certain that the diamond would be more safe than ever in this place directly under the tree, though no one knew why. If a mole could reach it, couldn't a wolf?

At last, the diamond hit the bottom. Seria, who stood beside Alana with Jormungandr by her side, awaiting HIS new home, as well, smiled and bowed to the diamond. The roots of the Tree of Aygernesse stretched down, the smaller ones rooting inside the diamond, the larger coiling around him, holding him securely in place. Gasps from the crowd and from the two who had pushed the diamond into it's new home echoed into the tunnel, and to their immense surprise, the whole tree began to shake. Eyes moved from the diamond to the oak, watching as it began to grow, it's braches stretching out, a sentinel over the fire-scarred forest and the diamond at it's root.