“Hey now,” One-Leg called out in welcome. “Here comes the mighty hunter!”
“Ha ha,” True Edge snorted as he limped his careful way down the riverbank. It was a crisp, cold spring evening, after the first day without rain for an eightday. The Holt’s River was running high from spring melt, and big elder salmon had been leaping the stone weir since the new moons had turned. True Edge leaned gingerly on his crutch, careful of his balance on the rocks that flanked the river. “Wind blowing up at the hometrees says you’re hopeless and helpless, so I figured I’d take pity on you, and come on down to hold your hand awhile.”
It was One-Leg’s turn to snort at a gibe. He stood on a broad, flat rock at the river’s edge, a fishing spear in hand. A cluster of reed baskets was nearby, and the largest was already nearly full with salmon. “Watch yourself, it’s slick going there,” One-Leg warned, his eyes never straying from the river before him.
It was a timely warning – True Edge staggered badly as his crutch slipped beneath him. He caught himself before falling, but the effort earned a hiss of pain as he put more weight on his injured leg than he had intended. True Edge recovered and limped the last several steps necessary to reach his goal, a length of fallen log that had washed downstream during the winter floods, and cast up against the encircling arms of the weir. A splash of water at the far side of the broad, smooth reach of the weir caught his eye, and he looked that way to see young Otter surfacing from a dive. The boy floated on his back as he pried open a longclam with relish. On the shore beyond Otter was another large basket, full of fish from the boy’s own afternoon efforts.
“How’s the leg?” One-Leg asked, his attention barely straying from the water in front of him.
“Good enough,” True Edge answered. “Swelling is down, and there’s still no sign of it going bad.” True Edge had taken the injury while hunting, more than a week ago now, when an elk cow had trampled him and his she-wolf down during the chase. Charm had come away from the encounter with badly bruised ribs, while True Edge’s left calf had been cut nearly to the bone. The hunting party had been two night’s ride from the Holt and the healer, so after cleaning the wound with a wash of boiled whiteroot, Blacksnake had stitched the wound up in the field with his usual meticulous care. As bad as the laceration, if not worse, was the bruising and stiffness which had followed. The elk cow had left hoof prints up and down True Edge’s side, and the bruises had changed through every color in the rainbow. His cracked ribs were still aching. “The wound doesn’t seem to want to mortify.”
“Blasted stubborn trouble for you if it does,” One-Leg said. “You should still have Willow take care of that.”
“I’m no frail cub,” True Edge grumbled. “I don’t need to run to Willow and have her to kiss my scrapes and make them better. I didn’t sit through the pain of Blacksnake’s careful stitching just to have Willow make my fine new trophy vanish.”
“Girl can use some practice,” One-Leg countered.
"Save your breath,” True Edge scoffed. “Windburn's already said that. So has Blacksnake. And my mates."
“You’re a fool to put yourself between two women, and then not listen to either of them,” One-Leg said with a snort. “Besides, didn’t the chief tell you to get that wound seen too?”
“Windburn did,” True Edge answered. “And I talked him out of if – after all, it’s my leg, and so long as it doesn’t begin to rot off, it’s my choice as to whether or not I let the healer touch it.”
“Stubborn fool,” One-Leg said, shaking his head in disbelief. He stabbed savagely into the river, and, muscles bulging, he hefted out an impaled elder salmon. The struggling fish thrashed violently, flinging a spray of silvery water droplets. The big fish was easily heavier than an elf-cub; late in the spring, sometimes giant elders twice as heavy as the heaviest of elves leapt their way upstream, toward their favored spawning grounds on the Clickdeer, Snowcat and Brownbear rivers to the north.
“Stop making that look so easy,” True Edge said with good-natured humor, admiring the other elder’s easy prowess and knowing few, if any, of the rest of the tribe could match the strength of One-Leg’s broad shoulders. There was a distant splash, and Otter went back under, diving for another mollusk. “You’re lucky an elder fish that big doesn’t break your spear,” True Edge observed. “This time of year, you’re better off using a harpoon-spear on those big ones.”
One-Leg hoisted his catch over toward his basket. The glance he cast True Edge’s way was one of sour amusement. “You just can’t help yourself, lad, can you? At my age -- you really think I need your advice?”
“I think you’ll break your spear,” True Edge countered.
One-Leg leveraged the fish carefully off of the brutally-barbed head of his spear, then shoved the salmon toward True Edge. “If you’re going to sit there and flap your lips anyway, make yourself useful.”
True Edge needed both hands to hold the fish. He laid it across his lap, then reached for his knife and began to carve off the salmon’s head. “Pity to lose one of Greenweave’s good spears needlessly.”
“I’m too wise a wolf for that,” One-Leg countered. “I know what size fish my spear can handle, and I’ve passed up a few this morning because they were too big.”
“One of Suddendusk’s harpoon spears is still best, this late in the season. You use one of those, you don’t have to pass up the big ones.”
“Is there anything you don’t think you know it all about?” One-Leg asked gruffly.
True Edge cast aside the fish head, then split open the silvery belly, exposing a wealth of ruddy roe. “Let me think…” he said, scooping out a handful of the glistening eggs in their jelly. He spotted a deer’s stomach, suspended from a nearby branch and slightly bulging. He followed his nose there, confirmed that it was already partially full of roe, and deposited more of the delicacy into the container. Farther out on the river, Otter was climbing up onto the stone weir above the deepest part of the river. The boy dove into the water as clean as a knife. “What don’t I know? I don’t know Greenweave’s secret for smoking roe. Yes. There’s that. He kneads it into perfection, and while I haven’t figured out his trick yet, I will. Just give me time.“
One-Leg chuckled to himself as he retook his position; spear in hand, eyes scanning the river. “We used to wager on when you’d outgrow knowing it all, but you? Too stubborn to outgrow it, too stubborn to ever trust that your elders might actually know what they knew.”
“Too smart, you mean,” True Edge countered. It was an old argument between them, worn as smooth and comfortable as a good pair of buckskin breeches. “I’ve never been willing to accept someone else’s mistakes as what-for. And don’t forget all the times I’ve proven you wrong.”
One-Leg snorted in disbelief. “Can’t recall even one.”
“No? What about when you were going to prove to little Finch that bees won’t sting you if you’re holding your breath.”
“Pffffft. Bees can’t. Not my fault the girl threw her rock at a wasp nest instead of the beehive,” One-Leg. “Good thing she could run so fast.”
“She only needed to run faster than you,” True Edge laughed. “You were packed in mud for an eight of days after that.”
“For a whelp who’s never wrong, I remember a winter afternoon when you were so sure it was safe to ride across Big Slide Hill after a heavy snow. We all told you it was too soon, especially on top of a moon’s snow pack. Even your she-wolf knew better, and wouldn’t follow you out on that slope.”
True Edge finished cleaning the roe out of the fish’s belly, and cast the guts aside into the waiting bait-basket. “That was a hard one to forget, wasn’t it?” he said ruefully. “I never said I’ve never made a mistake. Only that I learn from ‘m when I do.”
“Have to, in order to grow some face fur.” One-Leg shifted a glance away from the river for a brief moment. “And yours is coming in fast now, isn’t it?”
True Edge smiled and rubbed at the blond hair that had, over the past year, grown on his chin and along the ridges of his jawbones. “Kestrel says it reminds her of my father.”
“Aye, that it does,” One-Leg agreed, then added wryly, “And makes your nose look cold, too.”
True Edge laughed longer at the gibe than it deserved – but he did enjoy trading jabs with the old fisher. The moons would always turn and the seasons would always change, but he could count on the easy, bickering banter with One-Leg to stay always the same. True Edge finished cleaning the fish he held, and tossed it into a basket. He reached to pick up another and, out of habit, stretched his wounded leg to balance that physical extension. The stab of pain that resulted brought tears to his eyes and a hiss of protest to his lips.
Even focused as he was on looking for his next salmon, One-Leg was too sharp an old hunter to miss anything. “Hurts, huh?”
“Like skyfire,” True Edge admitted without shame. “I keep forgetting I’m even injured, but then I go and remind myself.”
One-Leg snorted and nodded slowly. “Some things you never forget,” he muttered cryptically. “But even if bloodroot sets in, chances are you’ll avoid the bone saw. You should save yourself the fuss and just let Willow put hands to it.”
True Edge frowned. “I’m not going to fall into that lazy habit. The tribe survived for years without a healer, we’d be fools now to go running to the healer for every little cut and scrape.”
That earned a momentary, wry glance from One-Leg. “As if you could run on that leg.”
“It’s healing clean. I’ll be riding to the hunt again within a eightday, and running on it again just fine, without having to beg for the girl-cub’s magic touch to fix me. Don’t take me wrong. I’m grateful Willow’s found her talent. Her magic will renew the tribe. But as I’ve told the chief, we run the risk of letting her magic weaken us, soften us up. Pain and hurt are as much part of life as joy and pleasure, and I for one refuse to get soft.”
One-Leg nodded amiably, but the lines of his mouth had gone hard. True Edge braced himself for a rip-snorter to come, knowing that the older elf was never nothing but opinionated, and that True Edge had just handed his friend a platter with an invitation to argument—
One-Leg’s rejoinder never came.
**HELP!** Otter’s sending blazed like skyfire, raw and ripping with desperation. **Help help help trapped can’t breath help--** Along with the words came the sight of murky water shading up toward light, and the horrible sensation of lungs close to bursting with anguish for air.
One-Leg’s spear clattered to the rocks as the old fisher dived into the water. True Edge himself was on his feet and, for two strides at least, running for the river as well, his eyes near the center of the river where a disturbance deep beneath the surface had begun to mildly roil the water. Two frantic strides, his heart in his throat and his mind tangled with Otter’s frantic blasting send—
A third stride, and the wounded leg failed him, buckling beneath his weight. True Edge fell, and for a heartbeat, the agony of his own body and the boy’s sheer terror were indistinguishable.
Sudden sendings in response to Otter’s open panic-send crowded the air like a panicked flock of birds. Then the chief’s stubborn-strong mind swept over the rest, crowding out the up-swell of a tribe’s confusion and focusing the response like a narrow shaft of ice-blue flame. **Who is closest?**
**Here,** True Edge replied in a pulse of thought as he clawed his way to his knees. One-Leg’s response was a wordless open send, sweeping every mind within in range with a sensorally-layered sharing of place and sensation as he dove through cold icemelt dark with silt and the debris of a season’s salmon migration. True Edge half rose and by sheer force of will alone, lunged the remaining distance between himself and the river, flinging himself into the water.
**help trapped trapped help help drowning drowning drowing** Otter’s panic was blinding now, and with it came the sudden, brutal taste of water flooding his lungs. **!help!**
The cold numbed True Edge’s torn leg. He drove off of it, kicked and found a strong swimmer’s stroke. He forced his own physical pain aside and cast out a thread of thought for One-Leg.
**Got him!** came the old fisher’s send. Otter was trapped down near the wide base of the stone weir, where each spring flood’s debris gathered. Something held the boy’s head trapped; One-Leg had time enough to discover that, even as the panic-blind child wrapped himself dangerously around his elder’s chest and shoulders. **Gotta breathe for him, sort this out,** came One-Leg’s fragmented thoughts.
The elder’s send orientated True Edge like a bat’s near-silent call. True Edge surfaced once, drew in a powerful breath, then dove. He saw them through the murk only heartbeats before reaching them. One-Leg was struggling to free himself from the youth’s panicked embrace and was tugging at the boy’s hair. True Edge reached them as he realized the source of the tragedy – Otter’s long hair had gotten snarled in a submerged tangle of deadwood. He seized the boy’s shoulders and dragged the youth away from the other elder, then planted his mouth over the boy’s and blew out the air from his own lungs. Otter’s arms clung to him in a shift of panicky embrace, and beneath the crush of the boy’s hug, he felt the child’s thin chest expand.
One-Leg was jerking on something, then clawing after the knife at his waist. True Edge continued to breath out into the boy, mostly blind in the swirling murk of the silty water. Of a sudden, the tension that held Otter in his downward arch evaporated. **Go!** blasted One-Leg. The elder was shoving powerfully for the surface, one burly arm around the boy’s waist. True Edge matched his fellow elder’s stroke, and carrying the boy between them, they broke the river’s surface.
True Edge gasped for breath and slewed the boy’s body around, making sure the child’s nose and mouth were above water. Otter’s eyes were closed and he was choking for breath. “C’mon, boy,” One-Leg said urgently, hoisting the child’s slender form in order to drive a shoulder into Otter’s belly. True Edge struggled to help hold the boy up above the river’s surface as Otter coughed and retched a terrible amount of water.
“Shore,” True Edge said, stroking awkwardly for the riverbank. One-Leg added his efforts to that goal, and within a few strokes, they had reached the shallows. Between them, they propped themselves upright and dragged the boy up onto the rocky riverbank, both of the elders staggering badly.
Others were racing to join them as True Edge and One-Leg laid the boy down and rolled him onto his side. Otter’s skin was a terrible shade of grey, and One-Leg cursed and pounded on the boy’s back until the child coughed up another horrible gout of water.
“C’mon, lad, c’mon, lad, breathe –- rot you, breathe!” One-Leg muttered fiercely, pounding the boy’s frail back hard enough to crack bone. “Breathe!”
Otter’s brown eyes flickered open, and obligingly, the boy took in a rasping, raw swallow of air. One-Leg gave a triumphant bark, while True Edge sank backwards onto the slick stones of the river bank and sucked in a shaking, grateful breath of his own. Nightstorm reached them first, and then Beetle was there as well – with others inbound as well, the two elders let other rescuers take over the boy’s care, as Otter coughed and vomited up more of the water he had ingested.
“Deer dung,” True Edge said as he noticed how badly One-Leg was trembling. A moment later, he realized he was shaking just as badly in the raw aftershock of near-disaster. Had he and One-Leg not been where they had been on the river’s shore… he knew Willow’s healing magic would not have been able to save Otter today. Luck had had him and One-Leg both in the right place at the right time, to be able to save one of the tribe’s precious cubs.
“Fish guts and bloody dung,” One-Leg muttered, turning a triumphant blue gaze toward his old friend. One-Leg crawled the narrow distance toward True Edge to collapse at True Edge’s side. “Tell me. You still fearful of getting all soft and weak?”
True Edge wiped a wet fringe of hair from his eyes. His thoughts were as scattered as spilled seeds, and he wasn’t sure but if acknowledgment of that might be perceived as bending to One-Leg’s side in an argument which now seemed suddenly farther away than the evening clouds overhead.
“Don’t know if you saw it, but I sure ran on this leg,” he countered. “Where there’s a will, there’ll be a way. The sore leg only slowed me down a little bit; you’d have been swallowing my wake, otherwise.”
One-Leg laughed wearily at that, and let his head fall back against the riverbank. “You’re never in the wrong, are you, pup?” he said as he patted True Edge’s shoulder with blind approval. “Never in the wrong, and never too stubborn for your own good. And don’t you dare change.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” True Edge agreed, knowing he had – for once between them – the uncontested last word.