(This story is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
The smell of death and bloat on the crisp winter wind were what brought the tribe's scout down to the water's edge. Kestrel hovered for a moment there, shocked at what she found. The body was elf-sized, and for a moment, her heart froze in her chest with fear that it might be one of her kin. But in the next moment, her keen eyes recognized the sodden clothing as being human-woven and human decorated, and that fear evaporated. Human. A child then, with skin that had been that dark shade before its death. Kestrel swept both directions of the dark riverbank with a sharp glance, making certain there were no other humans to be seen, then allowed herself to drift closer, until she touched the ground. There she knelt at the ice-crusted edge of the riverbank and just looked at the water-logged corpse, loathe to get any closer than this.
The body lay face-down, caught in the eddy of a fallen tree that fell out into the river. The corpse's arms were outstretched into the water, and short strands of its hair waved in the icy current. One leg was bent at an angle. The body was dressed in a heavy sodden tunic, once-bright colors now muddied, breeches, and a coat of some unfamiliar hide. The patched and water-logged soles of the corpse's booted feet bobbed at the surface, facing the star-dappled sky. Ice formed where it could, adding a glitter here or there that mirrored the stars overhead.
Kestrel nudged the corpse with the butt of her spear. The body's flesh was pliant beneath the heavy clothing; the boy had been dead long enough that early rigor had passed. With cautious reluctance, Kestrel edged out onto the fallen tree, stripped off her fur-lined gloves, tucked them safely into her belt, then reached for the child's shoulders and turned the body over. The corpse's bloated face was purpled beneath the water-logged skin. Kestrel knew that blood pooled that way, when a body lay undisturbed for any length of time.
Fair hair, swirling in the current. Drowned eyes open and white, unrecognizable. Raven wings beating storm-dark as the birds fought over their meal--
The grief rose unbidden, as dark-tasting and bitter as bile. More than a decade flashed away in that instant, returning her to another stretch of the river, and to another body, fished out of the water after another winter storm and the mudslide it had spawned. Her only child, her golden son Bowflight, had been found along a similar stretch of the Bounty River - but not before the scavengers had had him. She shuddered at that grim memory. Death was part of the Way, and any wolfrider knew that the body was just meat, once the spirit had fled. The scavengers would have this human child, just as they had had the only fruit of her womb. Kestrel turned the child's body back over, face-down in the water, then rubbed her hands against the thick leather of her winter breeches as if she could rub away the memory of cold dead flesh. .
Kestrel took to the sky again, trusting to the night to hide her as she skimmed above the treetops toward the west, her chosen stretch of the Rushwater River a steady landmark below her. This was supposed to have been just a routine scouting trip, just like any hundreds of others her chief had dispatched her on, to spy for a day on the two human settlements and assess their numbers and activities. In the three decades since the arrival of the dark-skinned Amber Hunters, the humans had done many strange things, and Kestrel was too wise to grow complacent and think them harmless. The late-coming paleskins were keen hunters, but so far the Holt's thornwalls and the humans' fearful reverence for the tribe's wolf pack had kept them away from the Holt itself. And although they were softer and far less canny in the woods, the dark Amber Hunters had shown themselves to be fearless explorers. At one time or another, the darkskins' clever boats had sailed up and down all of the rivers in the area, save for the Holt's River itself. Starskimmer had taken to doing what she could to keep the river course impossible to navigate for the boats, and so far her clustered boulders had managed to block the Amber Hunters' passage from where the Holt River split away from the Rushwater. But the Holt was always wary. Kestrel knew that Chief Windburn understood that it was only a matter of time before one or the other of the human tribes discovered the elves and their hometrees. And elder though she was, Kestrel was not comfortable trying to imagine what her tribe would have to do when the humans did - that sort of dark plotting and planning was her old friend Blacksnake's gift, and she was satisfied at leaving him to it.
The glider pulled her gloves back on as she swept through the cold, crisp night. It was only a few hours before dawn. The Holt found itself in the lull between winter storms; it had been a winter of chilling rainstorm and high winds, but it had yet to snow more than a few harsh flakes. The bitter wind kept the sky above her swept clean of clouds, and the stars glittered in a brilliant display. The stars always felt more distant during the winter months, although Kestrel knew that in truth, they shone no less bright. It was simply that during the cold nights of winter, the stars overhead could leave her feeling lonely, even isolated, in a way they never did during the warmer months of the year.
Cold winter nights were made for snuggling with family in a shared nest of furs, sharing stories of the tribe's ancestors, and for sitting snug in a den with friends, passing the time with winter crafts. Cold winter nights were made for sharing more private furs with a lover or a lifemate, passing the hours in tender pleasure. Cold winter nights were not made for gliding alone like an owl above the trees, at the mercy of the bitter wind and icy rain. She would welcome the snow when it finally arrived -- she hated freezing rain, and how most often it forced her to take shelter when it fell, so that what should be a two-day journey stretched itself out into several.
As she flew, Kestrel could not shake the pathetic sight of the dead human child, or the memories it dredged up of finding her own son, washed up on a riverbank to feed the ravens. It had been more than a decade now since Bowflight's death. He had been caught on the rocky slopes of a ravine above the Bounty River during a heavy rainfall. Her granddaughter Willow had narrowly escaped the mudslide which had swept Bowflight away, down the ravine and into the river. The tribe had spent a night and a day of frantic searching before Bowflight's body had been recovered.
Over the long centuries of her life, Kestrel had lost her parents, both of her sisters, nearly all of her close kin, and more friends and lovers than she could count. The shock of the loss of her Recognized mate Boar had been soul-numbing and had shaken her to the core. But Kestrel had never truly wanted to lay down and die of grief until that ugly moment when she had found her own child lying dead, reduced to nothing more than food for the crows. If Bowflight had not left behind his own two children, Willow and Pathmark, orphaned and heartsick and in need of their grandmother's love, Kestrel might well have laid down there on the cold stones of the riverbank, closed her eyes, and simply chosen to die there next to her son's scavenger-ravaged corpse.
The grief of that loss was still raw in her heart, and Kestrel knew it always would be. Her son had been part of her flesh once; now that he was gone and his spirit crossed over that shadowy vale which parted them from the living world, it was if a part of her were missing as well. One-Leg suffered at times with an ache in his missing limb; he swore that he could still feel the whole shape of his amputated leg, and that the worst of it was when the ghost-leg would itch with an itch he could never scratch. One-Leg could laugh and joke about such a thing, but now that Kestrel was haunted by that feeling of part of herself forever missing, she found herself unable to laugh along with him. Not anymore.
And it was not just Bowflight's memory that left her feeling raw... as she put distance between herself and the corpse, Kestrel could see more of what moved her. Had it even been a month now since her grandson Pathmark had nearly been killed? Only Willow's near-miraculous intervention had kept Pathmark clinging to life after a savage mauling by a black bear sow. The thought of losing either of her grandchildren was beyond bearing. She would rather die herself that have to face the grief. Bad enough, now, to have to stand witness to Willow's difficulties with accepting her newfound ability, and to have her granddaughter push away her every attempt at comfort or counsel--
The breeze shifted suddenly, demanding a scout's immediate refocus of attention. Kestrel breathed in deep and tasted the distant scent of snow. She cast an assessing glance at the dark sky, seeing no clouds yet but knowing that within hours they would be scudding into view. Snow would soon begin to fall, and then rivers would begin to freeze over. Another week or so and the human drownling would never have washed ashore; the creature would have spent his winter frozen under a layer of ice. What had he been doing so far upriver in the first place? Kestrel worked that question over for a time as she continued to glide above the winter-bare tree tops. The dark-skinned Amber Hunters seldom traveled anywhere alone. When they did venture into the forest, they traveled in rowdy loud packs, hugging the riverways navigable by their carved boats. But this lone child had been a good two days upriver from his people's settlement. Kestrel would have been less surprised to have found a boy of the pale-skinned hunters so far afield. Sometimes the Painted Faces, male and female alike, wandered far into the forest, but in her three decades of spying on the darkskins' village, Kestrel had never seen an Amber Hunter's child alone, so far from home.
Then, in the distance, Kestrel smelled woodsmoke. She glided to a halt, tasting the cold air carefully. The human villages were too far away yet for the stink of their hearth fires to have reached her. No, this was something else.
Her ears caught the whisper of sound next. She drifted toward that sound of distant cries, working her way slowly. The moons were both in half-phase, and they cast enough light in the night sky that even human eyes could spot her if she were not careful. Kestrel glided down among the branches and made her way carefully closer, too wise to give herself away. It was not long before she found the glow of torches through the trees below. She concealed herself carefully among the winter-bare branches above the riverbank, and stayed silent and still to watch.
A group of humans came into view, a mixed group of darkskins and paleskins both. An older scar-faced paleskin was clearly in the lead of that group, with a hand of his hunters bringing up the rear. And in their middle travelled a large knot of the Amber Hunters, male and female alike, their vividly dyed clothing like a trick of the eye against the muted, half-frozen shades of the forest and river shore.
Kestrel drew back only the slightest, wary of the sharp eyes of the old archer and his kin. They appeared to be following the cold flow of the river, although all five men were paying close attention to the forest floor around them, as keen for tracks as even Pathmark or Farscout. Their stouter, brightly-colored companions looked worn out and weary, clearly having travelled farther by foot than they were accustomed. But they kept moving steadily, calling out into the night in their fluid, multi-syllable language.
Not for the first time, Kestrel wished she understood the humans' words. But one word was repeated often enough, and with enough anxiety, that it didn't take a mother's grieving ear to understand what this group must be searching for.
Ehr-ah-lee-low. That's what it sounded like. Ehralilo.
The dead child's name.
There were more shouts in the distance, to the northwest. Another search party, repeating that name in their calls. Kestrel thought of the flow of the land here, in this stretch between the sea and the thickest of the forest. These humans were likely following the larger waterways. It was an uneasy thought, knowing that if they persisted by foot, three or maybe four days' walk would bring them to the thornwalls that protected the Holt. Even as the humans were making their way past her hiding spot, Kestrel skimmed a fast warning to her chief, notifying him of the dead child and of the searchers. She continued to watch, holding to her position until their torchlight was only on a bare flicker among the trees; their weary and worried voices continued calling out, even as Kestrel lost the last whisper of sound from the other search party.
Then she sat for a time, remaining still and unseen, and gazed up through the naked branches at the dark spill of stars above her. They remained cold and brilliant, and as forever out of her reach as her own lost child.
The two settlements were working together in their search for a missing child of the Amber Hunters. That was interesting -- but certainly not the first time the elves had watched the two groups of humans cooperate. So much for Blacksnake and Windburn's first hope, that the two strange bands of humans would tangle over territory to some bloody, final solution. No, they seemed peaceable enough as neighbors. Kestrel wondered if maybe one of the paleskin children had been lost as well, seeing as they were far more likely to wander far afield. But no, it sounded as if only one name was being called for.
What was the boy doing alone, and so far upriver? The river ran to the sea, not away from it. But the Amber Hunters were clever with their boats, and in recent years, she had seen them build slim, sleeker craft, boats that rode high in the water and could be paddled by as few as one or two men. Maybe the boy had stolen a boat and paddled upstream, in this season of shifting currents and winter floods that his elders knew better than to brave?
Whatever the reason, the slow-traveling party of searchers would find what they were looking for. The moons were already setting; dawn would begin to creep across the sky soon enough, and by noontime, maybe -- if they didn't break their steady pace -- that party of searchers would find their lost Ehralilo.
What was the relationship between the drownling and the searchers? Kestrel couldn't help but wonder at that. Uncles? Aunts?
Older brothers? Older sisters?
Kestrel sat and watched as the stars began to fade above her. Dawn was coming. And she knew that with the dawn would come the ravens.
The heartache remained, glittering in her chest as cold and bitter an ache as ever.
Bad enough to find a loved one dead. No parent should have to find their child a feast for the ravens and other scavengers. Not like that.
Not if Kestrel could help it.
Kestrel reached the drownling again just shortly after sunrise, and found the scavenger birds already beginning to gather.
She found herself a hiding place among the trees, where she had a good vantage on both the body, and on the curve of the bank downstream, in the directions she knew the humans would be coming. Then she eyed the flock of ravens. The great, storm-black birds were always the first to a kill, and they would contest even a stinkbear for its dinner, be the meat fresh or rancid. The birds hadn't yet tried to test their weight on the floating body, but even as she watched, several of the boldest hopped from the shore onto the nearest limb of the fallen tree that emerged from the river, and worked their way closer to the branch which had snared the waterlogged corpse.
Kestrel hissed to herself. She glided a number of small stones up off the riverbank, and with a sharp wave of her hand, flung them at the ravens. The startled birds rose up in a clattering outrage and sought safety in the trees across the river -- for a short time, at least.
Kestrel looked downstream, and knew she would have to wait until the humans had arrived. She selected several more stones and drifted them into a low pile there near the water's edge, making sure she had ammunition enough to last. A scout for a local band of crows had watched all of this, and seen its larger cousins sent packing. It eyed her, eyed the dead child, saw the ravens begin to regroup, and kept a wary eye on the mystery of the stones that rolled themselves into a pile on the riverbank
When Kestrel was satisfied that she had enough stones, she turned her attention to the body itself. From her safe vantage, she struggled to lift the corpse from the water. The body was startlingly heavy, waterlogged and weighed down by its sodden woven cloth. It might have been a human child, but in life the boy had outweighed her by a fair amount, more heavy-boned and heavy-muscled than any elf child could be. Moving the body was an effort, but she still took care as she let it drift down to a gentle rest on the stony riverbank. The ravens swooped in, seeing their feast having moved into easier reach, and Kestrel hurled a quick battering of wind and rocks at them, chasing them into a second retreat.
A little time later, the ravens tried a third go after their meal, and Kestrel sent them packing again. The crow called in its kin, and the flock of smaller birds proved equally stubborn. A fox crept out of the brush, in the lull between feints from the birds, and Kestrel skipped a rock into its head and sent it away in a terrified scatter of paws. The fox didn't return, but the birds never gave up hope, and after a short while, were clever enough to connect Kestrel's presence to the strange rainfall of pursuing stones. One dived at her; she backhanded a gust that blew it wildly sideways, and none of the birds attempted a second assault. They simply gathered in increasing numbers and waited, hoping to outlast her, while every once in a while the youngest among them tested her vigilance by trying to land near the body again. One after another, she cast stones at them and sent them back to the branches to wait.
The humans arrived late in the morning. She heard them long before they made their weary way into view; it was the Amber Hunters who continued calling out, turn and turn about, with voices cracked and breaking with exhaustion. One of the paler hunters was first to spot the body, while the party was still some distance downstream. The archer caught at his elder's arm, a silent call to attention that reminded Kestrel vividly of Thornbow and Windburn. The scar-faced elder called something out and pointed, and the whole mixed party stopped in their tracks--
One of the Amber Hunter women shrieked. That one broke away from the rest and ran up the riverbank, slipping on stones in her frantic race. She reached the child's body and swept the corpse up into her arms, her pleading expression a mother's willful denial of the obvious. She clung to the body, stroked the cold face, and then began to wail with brutal grief.
The rest of the searchers joined her. While the Painted Faces hung back respectfully, the other Amber Hunters, male and female alike, clustered around their kinswoman and raised their voices in an ululating keen, eloquent in the shared language of grief. Kestrel shivered to hear the sound, and remembered vividly the voices of her own kinfolk, howling together for Bowflight.
'These creatures are so strange, and so different,' the glider mused as she watched the heartbroken reunion before her. 'In so many things, we are so different from these humans. But in this most private and horrible of things, in our grief for a lost child... how very, very the same we are.'