(This story is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
The world was still new and exciting to Flash, only three hands of years old. She ran around the den trees, delighting in the indulgences of the adults. She was an only cub, and her closest agemates were Finch and Sunray, almost three times her age. They had no patience for her antics and chose to spend their youthful energy in different pursuits than she did. She spent most of her nights alone, enjoying the last few seasons of childhood. She was growing, and she hadn’t quite figured out just what to do with herself. She was losing interest in the soft toys and silly games she’d been fascinated with only a year before. She found exploration to be much more exciting now, and although she was cautioned against straying too far, she found plenty of things to stick her nose into closer to home.
The evening found her exploring the lower dens of the holt. The Preservers fluttered nearby, and discouraged her from opening inviting-looking cocoons in the stores with their shrill voices, even though she knew they held food and she was hungry.
“Wrapstuff for white-cold,” Foamspray scolded. “Plenty of food outside! Little-wild high thing go get own food!”
Chased out of the store-dens, Flash poked her head into an adjacent den. The quiet, sombre one that held the two of the largest wrapstuff cocoons she’d ever seen. She knew this place; those were Newt and Brightwood, elves she’d never known. They slept here, waiting for a healer to be born. Her mother Tallow had brought her here a few years ago and explained it all. They were both hurt, very badly, and would die without a healer, but because wrapstuff keeps things safe, they could simply sleep, undreaming, unknowing, until one was born. It was all so confusing and strange. Why hadn’t they wrapped Tumble when he’d lost that fight only a few turns ago? He was a wolf and not an elf, yes, but Flash had felt that loss keenly. They could have wrapped him, if they’d wanted to.
Flash sat in the opening to the den, quietly looking at the cocoons. They were white and pristine—Berryflop hovered nearby, not saying anything but watching. The cocoons were large and indistinct. She could tell where the elves’ heads would be, but not the positioning of any of their limbs. Were they on their sides, their limbs relaxed and soft, as though they merely slept the years away? On their backs with their arms at their sides, stiff and still as stone? Flash wished she could open one, just to see, but knew it would never happen. All she could do was all anyone in the tribe could do: wait and hope.
The cocoons were lying on raised slabs of wood like strange tree-trunks, raised from a thick root of one of den trees by plantshapers, gently curved as though cradling their precious bundles, near each other but not too close. Around them on the slabs and down the sides, however, was what Flash liked to look at: each cocoon had a halo of colour, handprints of all shapes and sizes and colours, four-fingered flowers splaying around them, overlapping each other and making it look for all the world like the cocoons were held up by all-but-invisible kin, nesting in beds of colourful elf hands, safe and protected.
Flash’s sharp ears twitched. Someone was coming down on soft feet. She breathed in through her nose, but there was no breeze to bring any telltale scent. She smelled woodsap and wrapstuff, and... does quiet have a scent? It should. If it did, it would smell like this place.
Her silent companion stood behind her for a moment, and her presence filled Flash’s nostrils. Chieftess Easysinger. She turned her head and smiled at her chieftess, who returned her greeting in kind and settled down beside her. “Having a quiet moment?”
Flash nodded and turned back towards the cocoons. “It feels weird that I’ve got tribesmates I’ve never met,” she said.
Easysinger nodded, her eyebrows raised. “You’re right,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that, from your point of view. That would feel weird.”
“You knew them, right?”
“Of course. I could tell you all about them.” It was more an offer than a statement.
Flash didn’t take her up on it, though. “Everyone already has. I think I know as much about them as I can without meeting them. I’ve heard all the stories.” She cocked her head and looked at the walls. “Except... why do we decorate the den like this? It’s not as though Newt or Brightwood can appreciate it.”
Easysinger smiled, her expression somewhat sad, but calm. “It’s not for them,” she said. “It’s for us.” Flash looked at her quizzically. “Let me explain.”
It should have been over. Easysinger felt weary, like she’d been a skin stretched over too large a frame. The difficult part was over, the decision had been made. All she wanted to do was crawl into her den and sleep for three days straight, curled around Oakhand and allowed to be a simple elf for a time rather than Chieftess of the Tribe.
Newt slept undreaming in one of the lower storage dens, cleared out of all else. It had felt wrong to many of them to keep him in with the cocoons of deer meat and summer berries, so with the Preservers buzzing worriedly overhead they moved all the supplies out of the storage den and cleared it of stray clutter. Tallow lamps were placed in sconces shaped by Cedarwing, and he raised Newt’s cocoon from the ground to better keep it in tact, to protect it from clumsy feet and make it easier for the Preservers to monitor and maintain the cocoon. The storage-den turned into a sleeping-den for one who was not truly asleep.
The tribe had been locked in a fierce battle over Newt’s fate for at least three hands of days. Easysinger couldn’t remember exactly when the idea to keep a mortally injured elf wrapped indefinitely had first occurred to her, but she did know she hadn’t shared the thought with anyone. No use starting a debate when none was needed, she’d thought. Now she wished she had, so that this terrible arguing would have been long over and done with. Newt had been wrapped initially out of habit, of course. The poison was coursing through his young body, and the Preservers had done their jobs, as they’d been taught to do when Owl was still sane and among them and the injured was too far away. It had given them all time to think about what was implied by that. Think and talk and argue. It was not the Way, some said. Poison was such a trivial thing to heal, someone had pointed out. Owl never had trouble with it. It was a shame that something so treatable would take someone so young. It was a tragedy, but life is harsh. Mercy, others cried. It would be a mercy to let him go, someone else countered.
Nights and nights of it. And Easysinger had kept quiet through it all, listening to the arguments, the debates, the quiet discussions, the tears, the rage and the fury. There were a few times she feared the tribe would be torn asunder over it. Blood ran hot when it came down to the life of a treasured cub and the keeping of the Way.
In the end, knowing that she steered the course of her tribe for now and for centuries to come, fearing that she’d make the wrong choice for them all, she closed her eyes and plunged ahead. She had made her decision. Newt was to be kept in wrapstuff, waiting for a healer. It might take decades. Centuries. Lifetimes. She wondered privately if she made her decision based on the fact that Newt was already wrapped and safe, and to decide to let him go would mean opening the cocoon and watching him die—a purposeful act she could not bring herself to do. Not after having had to take Owl’s life so purposefully. She never wanted to do that again. That also made her wonder again, too late, if she should have wrapped Owl rather than kill him, in case another healer would be born who could bring him back to sanity when no one else could. She pushed those thoughts aside. A Chieftess couldn’t afford to dwell on what-ifs or should-haves.
The decision to keep Newt wrapped was one of the most difficult she’d ever made, but it was done. Given the heat of the arguments that had arisen and the lines that had been drawn, she was surprised but relieved to find her tribe fall into line behind their Chieftess. They trusted her. They followed her. They obeyed her. The decision was made and the tribe adhered to it.
It should have been over. She should have been able to rest then. She wanted to put down the mantle of leadership for a while and catch her breath. A season or two lost in the Now was all she wanted.
But her tribe still needed a chief.
Namely, Strand, Turtle and Lacewing needed their chief. They had been keeping vigil over Newt’s cocoon since the whole thing started. They sat in the newly-cleared den and watched over their son. They slept beside him on the hard dirt-packed ground, between the thick roots of their home-tree. They would not leave. It had been moons.
Mutterings rumbled through the tribe. See how it affects them? They cannot grieve, it was whispered. They cannot get on with life. This cocoon steals lives from three tribesmates, not just the one. It’s not good. It’s not natural.
Easysinger agreed with them on one count, at least. This was not good. As hard as it was, Newt’s parents couldn’t let this dominate their lives. They had a very long wait ahead of them, they all knew that. They could not keep this up forever. She had to put their minds at rest, somehow.
She sat with them in Newt’s new den among the foundations of their home. “Come out and eat with us,” she urged Lacewing. “Hooksharp has brought in a fresh catch of your favourite.”
Lacewing’s smile was wan, put on for her chieftess’ benefit. “You could bring me some here,” she said. “I don’t want to leave.”
“You can’t live the rest of your life in here,” Easysinger said, resting her hand gently on Lacewing’s shoulder.
The distraught mother gave Easysinger’s hand a gentle squeeze, but made no move to leave. “I have to keep him safe,” she whispered.
Safe. She had to keep him safe. Easysinger left the den and paced back and forth, breathing in the fresh air and watching the stars wink at her through the leaves up above. He was safe—that was the whole point of keeping him in wrapstuff. But she had to think of a way to help them believe it. She watched her tribe. Blackberry and Bearheart wrestled each other, cheered on by young Nettle and Doeskin. Leather held up his latest batch of greens to the light of the moons, judging their quality. Farscout and Brightwood sat with their heads bent together, talking quietly to each other the way lovemates do. Lynx draped himself on a branch, absently plucking some strings on his instrument and lost in thought.
Her gaze returned to Leather. “Have you any green dye left?” she asked.
He blinked at her, surprised at the question. “Lots,” he answered. “Why?”
She ignored his question. “How many other colours have you got right now? That you can whip up a bowl of quickly?”
He thought for a moment, counting them in his head. “At least six or seven,” he said. He was puzzled as to what she was getting at. “Why?” he asked again. “Do you want them?”
“Yes,” she said. “Get them, please. And bring them to me here. Quickly.”
**Lynx,** she sent, her tone insistent. He was deep in his own mind and she wanted his attention.
His eyes locked on to hers expectantly.
**The whole tribe,** she sent. **Bring them.**
He nodded once, and then stood up on the branch, his lean form silhouetted in the night. He threw back his head and howled a summoning—his voice clear and strong and carrying to the farthest reaches a voice could get. Home—now, the call said. No arguments. No delays.
Those already there, Easysinger included, joined their voices to his, making the call stronger, louder, harder to ignore. There were no large hunting parties ranging far. In an hour or so, maybe more, the whole tribe would be gathered. Even Turtle emerged from Newt’s den, although neither Strand nor Lacewing answered the call.
Before long, the tribe stood before Easysinger, some with open concern on their faces. Leather had come through on her request; at her feet were several bowls of bright dyes. She picked one up and handed another to Oakhand, and another to Lynx. Others picked up the remaining bowls and she led them all down into Newt’s den, thankfully the largest of the storage-dens and big enough for her tribe of forty-four... forty-three now... to gather in.
“When we chose to keep Newt wrapped in the hopes of a healer being born someday, it was a momentous decision,” she said. She sent her words as well as spoke them aloud, to both give them the weight they deserved, and to make sure they reached all ears. Maybe even Newt’s. “One that would change our tribe and our future forever. But we also must understand that this was not a decision of only the moment, of the Now. Nor was it a decision only for the future. Newt’s time is not over now, and it will not magically begin again. He is still here, and we have made a commitment to guard him and watch over him and keep him safe. He is not gone—he is still with us, and is still in need of our love and protection.
“This is a difficult balance, I know. We must let him go and continue our lives without him, for however long it will take. But he is still a tribesmate, and is still with us. He is in our hands now, all of our hands. We must all pledge to keep him safe until the time comes to awaken him.”
Easysinger dipped her hands into the dye—she chose red. Bright, strong, vivid. She moved to Newt’s wide pedestal and looked down on his cocoon, resting on the roots and foundation of their home. She planted her hands on the slab, fingers splayed, on each side of the cocoon. “He is in our hands,” she said. “We will take good care of him. He is in all our hands.”
Oakhand followed his lifemate with the blue dye, and urged everyone to follow suit. He dipped his own hands in the blue, and planted his handprints next to Easysinger’s. “He is in our hands now,” he said.
One by one the entire tribe filed by and placed their own handprints in green, red, orange, white, yellow, purple, blue, and black. Each elf pledged to watch over Newt as they did so, and then left the den to allow Newt’s parents some privacy when their turn came. The ring of hands around Newt grew into a nest. Lacewing, Strand and Turtle watched the procession with wide eyes. Large, sobless tears fell down their cheeks.
When all who were left in the room were Easysinger and Newt’s three parents, it was Turtle who first approached a bowl of dye and slowly dipped his shaking hands.
“You are in the tribe’s hands,” he whispered as he placed his handprints lovingly on either side of his son’s death-still cocoon. “You are in good hands.”
Strand and Lacewing followed, although only Lacewing managed to speak while placing her handprints. After allowing them a few more moments to drink in the sight of the results, Easysinger gently led them out of the den, and up into the moonlight, into the waiting (and dye-stained) arms of their kin.
Flash listened. It was likely the longest she’d ever stayed still and quiet without actually being asleep. When Easysinger finished her tale, Flash stood and walked carefully over to a cocoon, placing her tiny hand inside a long-dried handprint easily three times the size of her own. She didn’t speak—the moment didn’t seem to call for words. She looked back at Easysinger, her hand still planted on the wall beside her ‘agemate’ born centuries before. Easysinger nodded, and rose from the ground on long legs, disappearing up to the open air beyond the wrap-den’s opening.
She returned in short order with a bowl of bright orange dye. Flash approached quietly, as though asking permission.
**Go on.** Easysinger’s mental voice was soft and warm. **You’re a member of the tribe, too.**
Flash dipped her hands in the dye, bright as sunlight on a season-turned tree, and judged where best to place her own prints. The colourful handprints overlapped each other for the most part. She reached for a space emptier than most—
**Not there,** Easysinger cautioned, with a touch of apology. **Those prints are his parents’. We’re keeping them as they are... for when he wakes.**
Flash nodded, and chose a spot farther down, on the sides of the slab. As she pressed her palms to the smooth wood, she said solemnly, “I will help keep you safe.” She stepped back and then over to Brightwood’s cocoon. The handprints here were still old, but a bit fresher than those around Newt’s. She placed her own beside Brightwood and said, “You’re in good hands.”
Easysinger’s eyes were moist as she led Flash up out of the den. Flash felt proud that she’d been allowed to pledge herself to her tribe’s task, but part of her wondered how long it would take to get the dye from out under her fingernails.