The winged-elves were leaving the fortress. In a silent, eerie procession, they flowed from every room and out of the doors, which stood open for this one day. The humans barricaded themselves in their apartments, trembling with fear as the throng swelled.

Nobody tried to stop the elves. There would be no point. The humans were outnumbered, and no matter how many winged-elves were defeated there would be more. Nothing could stop this pilgrimage. Besides, they would be back when they had done their duty to the tree. They had been slaves for so long that they wouldn't know what to do outside the walls of the fortress with no master to drive them.

Every once in a while, one winged-elf would begin wailing, and a chant of lament would be taken up by the mob. The combined voices of all the slaves shook the foundations and caused small human children to whimper and cry with fear. It was a song of loss, but it was also a song of anger and rage at the death of such a noble tree.

Tocasshe, huddled in his cell, drew his wings tight around him and stared as the procession swept by his door. His ears pricked up. There was a familiar voice singing in counterpoint to the rest of the chant. Kaatosshe's melodic, keening wail caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand up but also sent him scrambling over to his barred window just in time to see his blood sister sleepwalk past.

"'Tosshe!" he hissed.

Kaatosshe walked on.

"Kaatosshe!" he said, slightly louder, and tossed a small rock gently at her. She blinked and seemed to wake up, looking around herself dreamily. Tocasshe waved frantically.

"Kaatosshe, what's going on?" he asked plaintively. A tear trickled down Kaatosshe's face.

"Oh, Tocasshe, you wouldn't understand…"

"'Course I would. What's wrong?"

Kaatosshe took a deep, shuddering breath. "A tree fell," she said simply. Something in those three words conveyed such deep sadness that Tocasshe wanted to weep. "We're going to pay our respects and claim our right."

Tocasshe unlocked the door hastily and stepped out to stand next to her. "May… may I come?" he asked timidly. He knew that this giant crowd was his chance to get out of the fortress unnoticed, but he didn't want to intrude on the private grief of the winged-elves, if you could call it private when it extended to a whole species.

Kaatosshe simply nodded, seeming touched. "I… thank you, Tocasshe. Nobody besides us has ever wanted to pay their respects to one of the trees before."

Feeling slightly guilty at having misled her, Tocasshe fell into step beside his sister and ducked his head slightly, feeling that he stuck out like a sore thumb in this crowd. Kaatosshe almost immediately went back to her sleepwalking, so Tocasshe felt even more isolated.

He knew that the life force of the winged-elves was tied into the trees, so that one could not survive without the other. Kaatosshe had explained it to him once. Winged-elves drew heavily on the life force of the trees; more strongly on the ones that were closer to them at the moment of their conception and birth. Drawing on this extra energy augmented their energy intake, which by itself was not enough to support the energy expended in using their wings.

Tocasshe's species, which called themselves angel-cats, had been an experiment to replace the winged-elves, so they had naturally needed to be tied to the trees. The experiment had failed partly because the angel-cats, ironically, were more of a success in some areas than the elves; they were more energy-efficient and, since they rarely used their wings except for balance, didn't need much extra energy for that purpose. They felt only a mild twinge if a tree died and could live perfectly well without them. While he was naturally sad about the death, Tocasshe just didn't feel the same depth of grief that the winged-elves did.

The silent procession marched on, and Tocasshe felt a tiny thrill as he passed out of the doors of the Maeia fortress for the first time in his life. He quickly hid his elation, however, and kept his head down and his wings folded tightly. Nobody would notice that he wasn't another winged-elf, as long as they didn't look too closely. He just had to keep walking, act natural, and not draw attention to himself, and he would be completely unnoticed…

"Hey! You there! Hold up!"

Tocasshe glanced upward frantically. Of course. The humans would have anticipated something like this and mounted a guard. To his dismay, the guard wasn't looking at some unruly winged-elf in the crowd; he was glaring right at Tocasshe.

Tocasshe glanced around frantically. Nowhere to hide, and he couldn't stand here much longer. He was drawing attention to himself by holding up the crowd. He fought down a wave of panic and took a deep breath.

All right, man, calm down. Examine the situation and assess your options. He couldn't dash off through the crowd; they were packed too tightly. It was too much to hope for that if he just kept walking that the guard would let him pass. Guards of the Maeia fortress were skilled archers, and Tocasshe would have a bolt between his wings before he could make a move. Or the man might miss and hit Kaatosshe, and he couldn't let that happen.

He couldn't blend in to the crowd; he was half a head taller than anyone else in the vast mob was. Which left him no options… or did it?

There was one other path left to him, but one that he had been hoping not to use. It was an option that he had blinded himself to long ago because of a deep, ingrained, genetic fear, but it was nevertheless an option.

By now, the elves ahead of him had moved on, but the crowd hadn't yet flowed in to the space, which left him a perfect runway. Tocasshe took a deep breath, bracing himself for what he was about to do. Then he took another, then thought about taking another before he realized he was stalling. He had never done this before, but it was what he was literally made to do, so trusting to instinct he closed his eyes, rushed forward into the empty space, and leapt into the sky.

His powerful wings unfolded to catch him before he began traveling down again. With one powerful stroke after another, they propelled him higher and higher, faster and faster. Tocasshe opened one eye a slit and glanced downwards at the elves, hair tossed by the wind of his downstrokes, getting smaller and smaller and farther away… Tocasshe firmly fixed his eyes on the horizon before that line of thought lost him his meager lunch.

Tocasshe's keen catlike ears picked up a whistling noise, and another, closer. The guards were firing at him. Between the arrows that were now coming thick and fast and his terror of heights, Tocasshe almost broke down and crashed then and there. Instead, feigning courage he didn't feel, he circled around and made a rude gesture at the guards, then skimmed low over the heads of the crowd. Gathering speed from the momentum of his dive he was quickly out of range of bowshot. If the guards had been armed with archaic guns or rifles, he might have been in trouble, but that technology had long been outlawed. Tocasshe silently thanked the pacifist ruler who had made that law.

It was dusk when Tocasshe landed. He had kept his sister's bright wings in sight through his entire flight, and made his way through the crowd until he was standing next to her. She didn't seem to have noticed he was gone, and she certainly didn't acknowledge his return. Tocasshe had mixed feelings about this, but before he could say anything, he was startled by Kaatosshe's grip on his hand.

"We're nearing the tree now," she murmured. Tocasshe fought down rising panic.

"Um… will I be expected to do anything?" he questioned nervously. Kaatosshe shook her head.

"All you do is go over and touch the tree when it's your turn. Just put a hand on it, and kneel down, and think about the tree, and…" she struggled for words for a moment. "Well, it's hard to describe. Just think of how sorry you are that it's fallen, and pay your respects. Kind of like a funeral. Then, when the tree feels you're ready, it will give you your right."

"My… right?"

"Yes. The tree gives up a part of itself to everyone who comes to pay their respects." She smiled slightly at Tocasshe. "Even you. In the past, even humans that have come to pay tribute have been rewarded."

Tocasshe felt both surprised and relieved to learn that he wasn't the first outsider to have made this pilgrimage, though he was curious as to why a human would care that a tree had fallen.

The throng thinned in front of them, and Tocasshe couldn't suppress a gasp. The tree was huge; he had never seen anything so massive. There were wrinkles in the grooved bark that he could have hid inside, and the size of the trunk was so great that, lying down, it could have easily fit the Maeia fortress and two more like it across the width. Tocasshe couldn't see the branches from his vantage point near the roots; it made him dizzy just imagining the heights this thing must have reached. He craned his neck upwards, trying to picture how this great tree must have looked when it stood. Kaatosshe nudged him, and he hastily shut his mouth.

Pushing and jostling, the crowd was starting to push them farther along the trunk, and Tocasshe could see up ahead a section where the bark had been stripped off and there were deep grooves in the underlying wood. A winged-elf would walk reverently up to this area and kneel, palms and forehead flat against the tree; some mouthed silent words, a few smiled faintly, and many wept openly, tears coursing down the tracks in the wood. After a period of time, the winged-elf would stand and pull back, holding something, and join the crowd that was beginning to move back towards the fortress.

It was Tocasshe's turn. Following the example of those around him he knelt, a bit awkwardly, and laid his hands flat on the wood. He looked around nervously. Kaatosshe was praying silently; no help would come there.

Shrugging inwardly, Tocasshe closed his eyes and touched his face to the wood, breathing deeply. He was surprised; he had expected the tree's scent to be dead, inert, or else something like the musty odor of a rotting log. Instead, it had a deep and heady aroma that tugged at something deep inside Tocasshe's heart.

He inhaled again, trying to identify it, or at least compare it to something. Words failed. It smelled… like life. The fresh, green, vivacious joy of a sprout splitting its seed prison and sending roots thundering into the earth as branches unfolded and stretched joyously to the sky, drenched in sun. The calm blue shining serenity of a mother-like being, cradling its frail and short-lived children within its branches, pulling harmful poisons out of the air and gently breathing a fresh breeze onto them, watching with love as they tried their wings and soared, laughing in the sheer joy of motion. The old, slow, brown calm of an ancient being, reveling in the slow flow of shared life beneath its gnarled bark and sparkling golden within the winged-elves' hearts, the joy and sorrow it felt as they lived out the pageant of their daily lives beneath its protective canopy.

Tocasshe was startled. He had never known a scent express so much before. Yet… there was something… more than a scent, something that perhaps was conveyed in the smoothness of the wood beneath his hands, in the silence of the weeping crowd around him. It was a lingering memory; the memory of a bond, the bond between tree and elf, and the welcoming love that the tree longed to share with anyone who would accept it. Tocasshe felt himself becoming a small child again, crying and alone and reaching out and wailing yes, I want it, I want to share that, please, let me be a part of it…

Yet he knew, as he cried, that this noble being, this great tree whose heart ached for him, because it could not take him into its branches and love him, could never do so. It was fallen. Its life spent, its joy lived, it had fallen, with a great cry of pain and sorrow that had called out to the hearts of its children even as they cried back.

Tocasshe felt that he would never underestimate this great bond again, and nor would he look upon it as an outsider. Even as he rose, he felt the wood splintering under his hands, felt something come away in his grasp as his fingers closed around it. This was the tree's gift to him, the last thing it could do; it was a statement that he would be welcomed among the winged-elves all of his days. And yet, there would be a price, for it was something more than that…

He looked at the object in his hands. It was a staff, perfectly straight and of polished wood better than any craftsman's hands could have made. At the end, revealed as the wood splintered and fell away, was a design of an outstretched hand, surrounded by strange, ethereal marks like wind-blown clouds. The whole was flanked by a pair of powerful, feathered wings.

A ripple of silence spread out from him. He was aware that next to him Kaatosshe had come away with two such staffs, one topped by a blazing sun design and the other by a crescent moon surrounded by a delicate framework of stars. On his other side, a winged-elf about his own age but with broken and crumpled wings was coming away in wonder, staring at the staff he held that bore perfectly carved branches and leaves, like a miniature of the tree, and beyond him a female with red-and black wings was staring in wonder at the fluid, flame-like design on her own staff.

The whole crowd was staring at them as they turned. Whispers chased through the mob as the four stared around.

"…five staffs…"

"…elements of the prophecy…"

"…promised ones…"

Then the cry of "The Promised Ones!" was taken up, flowing through the crowd and bringing awe in its wake. Winged-elves knelt everywhere Tocasshe looked. A slight flutter of panic welled up inside him. What was going on?

Beside him, Kaatosshe solemnly gazed at her staffs, then threw her head back and raised them in the air.

"The prophecy!" she cried.

As one, the mob let up a great cheer, wings beating the air as they screamed their approval.

"Promised ones! The prophecy! Save us!" they roared triumphantly. Behind him, Tocasshe heard a startling noise; the great tree was groaning, the branches moving with the last vestige of life it had left, then that too died. Tocasshe thought he felt something twine around him, soft as a breath, whispering courage, child. His heart swelled, and he too raised his staff, followed by the two others. This was met with, if possible, more thunderous cheers. Tocasshe heard a soft noise and realized, with a shock, that Kaatosshe was weeping, tears of joy, sorrow, and bewilderment coursing down her face. Tocasshe reached out and took her in his arms, and there, in the midst of the chaos, he whispered to her as he had done for so many years. Even as he told her it would be all right, however, he couldn't help but wonder who he was reassuring.