But we own nothing, nothing is ours
Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars
But this poverty is our greatest gift
The weightlessness of us as things around begin to shift

Remember everything I told you
Keep it in your heart like a stone
And when the winds have blown things round and back again
What was once your pain will be your home
Everything in its own time

--Indigo Girls, "Everything In its Own Time"

There comes a time when everyone needs to die.

It was Gregol who helped him outside. Ik'sen was very old and feeble, his eyes milky and pale, hair wispy and fine like the strands of a cloud. He walked but slowly, no longer the quick, commanding strands of a teacher but the hobbling steps of someone whose legs don't seem to reach as far these days. He clung to Gregol's arm as they worked their way up the sloping aisles and corridors of the clanhold, up to where there would be a seldom-used cave that led to a ledge that would face the setting sun.

"Tensae," Gregol said awkwardly, "maybe you should--"

"Nah," Ik'sen grated out, and coughed, the insides of his chest bubbling and grating. "Not gonna die in some stinking hole. No dragon should die indoors. S'not right."

Gregol remained unhappily quiet. "Tensae--"

"Don't be gettin' sentimental on me now, boy." Ik'sen had made a point to wear his sword, although it was clear that the added weight only impeded his movement. "My time's up. I know this, you know this." He held one hand against the wall as they went, the other one clutching Gregol's shoulder. "I appreciate this, by the way," he added. "Not a lot of guys would want to hang around an old ruin of a man." He felt Gregol's protest before he actually voiced it, and cut him off. "Nah, nah, don't say anything. I know what they're probably sayin'. Good thing that old bat's finally gone. All he does is hang around and be a burden. Not even good enough to go out and fight with the rest. Shoulda gone a long time ago." He chuckled wheezily. "Yeah, guess I shoulda. Best time to go is when you're young and fightin'.

"Remember that, boy!" he said as they negotiated a set of shallow steps that spiraled vaguely upwards. "Don't live too long. Nasty thing, old age. It's cold all the time, everything hurts, and you can't even see the sun anymore."

It seemed to take forever to get outside. The steps had been the last obstacle, but small and shallow as they were had proved almost too much for the ailing Ik'sen. Gregol seriously considered simply picking the old man up and carrying him, but Ik'sen was nothing if not stubborn.

Finally, they made it. The sun seemed watery and pale, this far into winter, as it fell toward the horizon, and its glare off the snow was almost painful. Gregol had to squint as he looked out over the blinding expanse; surely even Ik'sen had to feel its pulse against the darkness that his eyesight had become. But he looked straight ahead, a serenity and peaceful acceptance on his wrinkled face that had never been there before.

There was a tugging at Gregol's sleeve, and Gregol obeyed it automatically, sinking down slowly and helping Ik'sen down with him. They sat there side by side on a patch of the ledge that was relatively free of snow, Ik'sen's breathing a ghostly rattle deep inside.

"Now, listen to me, boy," Ik'sen said. "You never listened to me before, but maybe you'll start now, as I haven't got much longer. I got a lot to tell ya." Infuriatingly enough, it was here that he stopped and closed his eyes, tilting his head just slightly, as if listening for something. Gregol forced himself to wait patiently; the best way to get Ik'sen to shut up was to demand for him to go on. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the old man opened his eyes again. But when he spoke, it was to ask a question that had apparently nothing to do with anything.

"What're they saying out there nowadays?" Ik'sen asked. "My ears aren't so good anymore. But I'm hearing things about war, again."

Gregol nodded. He didn't pay much attention to the word that trickled in from the outside, although the others did, because such word often meant work and duty for them. "Spies have reported that the demons are marshalling for another attack. They're stronger this time. There are more of them, and they're more organized."

Ik'sen nodded, his breathing deep and even as if preparing to go into sleep. "Glad I won't be around to see it. It was scary enough the first time." He turned his attention to the ground in front of him, studying it intently as if he could actually see it. "And what're they fighting over, huh? Land? Power? Just to fight?" He made a sound that was pale mockery of his old derisive snort. "Let me tell you now, this doesn't belong to any of us. None of it." And he made a sweeping gesture that somehow managed to encompass sky and land and mountains and snow. "It belongs to Them. And so do we, really. Everything we've got They've just kinda loaned to us, temporarily. So don't be afraid when they come to collect. It's just an old debt that should've been repaid a long time ago. And a good thing, too, because that means you don't have to answer to anyone but Them."

To Gregol's alarm, Ik'sen began to get up. Gregol scrambled to his feet to help, but the old man waved him away. Gregol watched anxiously, biting his lip, as Ik'sen staggered clumsily to his feet, swaying like a newborn foal. He stared downwards, at a point about four inches in front of his feet. "How far's the edge, boy?"

"About three steps, sir."

Ik'sen took three small, shuffling steps. "'bout there?"

"Another step, sir."

Ik'sen took another step, and now he was perched on the edge like a watchful hawk, ready to fly. "Ah, yes, I can feel it." He tilted his head up as if he could feel the wind and inhaled deeply. "You can guess what I'm going to do, right?" He went on as if he had felt Gregol's nod. "And I don't want you to look, in case I don't make it. Life's ugly enough as it is. So what're you waiting for, boy? Get inside."

Gregol did not move.

"What did I tell you? Go back in. Scram. This isn't a holiday picnic, and it's not a journey anyone's going to accompany me on."

Gregol turned reluctantly to go, but did not enter the cave fully. He stood uncertainly at the lip of the cave, waiting. Soon enough he heard it, the focused spring of an old man putting all his energy into one last flight into space, and then the sound of wings spreading to catch the air. He stood there for long minutes after, listening, but heard nothing more than his own heartbeat.