"Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
A whisper of sound woke him. Cloudfern blinked awake, seeing from the shadows on the wall of his den that it was maybe mid-day, although the sound and smell of rain falling through the Child Tree’s leaves made his judgment of time uncertain. Greenweave was sound asleep, sprawled across the couple’s bed, his sleeping body a solid weight against Cloudfern’s back. Cloudfern gave a muzzy glance toward the bedroom window, with a hazy thought toward the winter rain and rising waters along the riverbank. Then he saw Spirit’s head rise from where the she-wolf lay stretched out across the floor of the bedroom. Spirit’s ears pivoted, tracking sounds too faint for Cloudfern to hear, and her tail thumped the floor twice. Cloudfern roused enough to lift his head, and saw a small basket near the door which hadn’t been there when he’d gone to sleep.
Cloudfern sat up and swung his legs out of bed. It was winter-damp and his skin prickled in the chill. **Seth?** he sent as he reached after his doeskin robe.
Farscout’s sending brushed his mind in return. **Sleep. I don’t want to disturb you.**
Cloudfern stood and stretched, then took a wide step over Spirit’s still form; the she-wolf looked at him lazily and thumped her tail again in greeting, but didn’t bother to follow after him as he slipped past the room’s curtain door and down the narrow, curving stairs to the Gathering Den, and toward the storage dens below. **You’ve been away for nearly a full turn of the moons,** Cloudfern retorted. **If I don’t come down and see you now, what are my chances you’ll still be here by dusk?**
Farscout did not answer that question, and Cloudfern knew him too well to have expected one. And Cloudfern did not need to ask to know where to find his soul-brother.
The tiny, womb-like room was shaped deep among the roots of the towering old tree; the stairs opened into the room a few lengths beneath the forest floor itself. Moonmoss had been nurtured to grow among the latticework of roots that made the room’s ceiling, and gave off its pale, blueish glow to illuminate the chamber. Cloudfern stood in the doorway and looked in, knowing already what he would see.
Farscout stood there, dark hair dripping like rain against his bare shoulders, naked save for a breechclout. He had bathed in the Mother River upon his return; his leathers would be hanging to dry in the hollow niche near the Child Tree’s central door outside. He stood beside the bier, one hand resting on the cocoon that lay there so fully blanketed in wrapstuff that there remained only the vaguest outline of the figure within.
“Come on upstairs,” Cloudfern said. “You know you’ve got a good warm bed waiting for you in our den. It’s chilly down here.”
Farscout shook his head and settled instead in a pile of old furs which were piled on the floor. He pulled one around his shoulders and rested his shoulders back against the side of the bier. “I’m comfortable here,” he answered, his voice a whisper gone rusty from disuse.
Cloudfern snorted at that. “It’s your bag left to shrivel back up into your belly; you’re a fool not to enjoy a warm bed when it’s offered, instead of this badger hole. After all, it’s not as if she knows you’re here.”
Farscout hardly glanced up at that gibe; it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that Cloudfern would goad his soul-brother on the matter. He had long ago lost tolerance for Farscout’s morbid obsession. “Come on up, join the land of the living.”
“I’m comfortable here,” Farscout replied, using an absorbent rabbit skin to rub the water from his hair. “Go on back to your own bed. Your toes are going blue.”
Cloudfern wriggled those digits experimentally. “Haven’t seen you in nearly a month, and you’re already shooing me off like a wayward cub. Seth, you spend too much time alone. Winter’s arrived. There’ll be snow soon enough. Promise me you’ll tuck in and winter over with us. Windsong’s cub is due. Stay around until the newest little sprout is born. Put some meat on. You’re all bone and sinew.”
Farscout dropped the hide he had been using as a towel. “Maybe I will ,” he said. “My boots have worn thin enough to see through.”
Cloudfern nodded and looked around him at the walls. Many long years ago, they had worked together to paint the uneven walls with a mural of the forest and rivers. The dry ghosts of that forest still remained around them, echoes of memory in the false blue moonlight.
“It doesn’t matter what we do. Wrapped up as she is, my sister doesn’t know us from her dreams. Brightwood doesn’t know when we’re here. She can’t hear us when we speak or send. She’ll sleep forever and outlive us all, even this old tree here,” Cloudfern said sadly, patting the curve of the arching doorway as he spoke. “She certainly won’t begrudge you the soft bed that’s waiting. You’ve patrolled the woods long enough, you’ve earned a good rest.”
“I know,” Farscout said, but instead of rising to follow Cloudfern from the room, he just settled back more comfortably in the pile of furs, one hand reaching out to brush away a bit of moss that had fallen onto his Recognized’s cocoon.
“Seth,” Cloudfern said. “It’s been nearly 400 years. It could be another 400 until the tribe has another healer who’s strong enough to help her.
“I know.” There was no argument in Farscout’s voice, just a weary acceptance.
“Come on,” Cloudfern said sadly. "My sister never would have wanted this for you, the way you’ve chosen to live your life."
“I know,” Farscout replied, his tone unchanged. He stroked the side of the cocoon gently, and Cloudfern could tell from his soul-brother’s expression that Farscout wasn’t seeing the shroud of wrapstuff he was staring at, but was instead staring through it into memory. “She’ll set me straight someday.”
Cloudfern sighed and raked a fall of pale gold hair from his eyes. Short of hiding Farscout’s buckskin leathers, there was little he could do to influence his soul-brother’s behavior. There had been no resting for Farscout, not since the tragedy that had mortally injured Brightwood. Cloudfern knew that his sister’s cocoon was Farscout’s lodestone – it drew him like a magnet, yet repelled him as well. He couldn’t live in the Holt with his beloved trapped in time as she was, but nor could he let her go. Cloudfern was ever so grateful that Greenweave’s spirit wasn’t similarly broken. Greenweave’s Recognized Honey had been cocooned only a handful of years ago, but Greenweave had done his grieving and then decided to keep on living, rather than trapping himself in a similar half-life.
“Easysinger was right, you know,” he said gently. “When the chieftess told you that we should let my sister die, Easysinger was right.”
It was an old argument between them, one which Farscout would invariably walk away from with Cloudfern’s demands left unanswered. His soul-brother ignored Cloudfern’s words now, clearly too worn from his travels for a fight. Farscout slumped back, gone boneless with exhaustion, and closed his shadowed eyes wearily.
‘It would have been a mercy,’ Cloudfern thought to himself, but instead of saying the ugly truth, he stepped forward and pulled another fur up off of the floor. He knelt and draped the quilted rabbit skins around his soul-brother’s shoulders. “Sleep safe,” he said, pressing Farscout’s shoulder through the two layers of furs. “Greenweave and I’ll save some honeycakes for you for breakfast; just send for me when you wake.”
**Thank you, Pryn,** Farscout sent.
Cloudfern retreated for the door and the stairs, and for his own warm bed beyond. “It would have been a mercy,” he murmured to himself, futile last words in that postponed argument. “Maybe not for my sister, but it would have been a mercy for the rest of us. And you, most of all.”