(This story is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
It hurt a lot. A lot lot. But Newt knew that moving too much would make the venom move faster through him. He sat still up against a tree away from the rivershore where he’d stepped on the snake. Blood seeped from the two tiny bite marks. He tried as best as he could not to cry, but still his cheeks were wet.
He felt like his leg was burning up. He could see dark red lines crawling up his veins where the moonlight was no longer bouncing off his pale skin. The swelling moved ahead of the line, and the lines moved ahead of the heat. In their wake they left his nearly colorless skin discolored, a villainous mass of tiny violet dots. It was amazing and scary all at the same time. He also knew that if someone didn’t find him soon, if he stayed here too long, the sun would come and burn him too.
If he lived that long.
But Newt didn’t panic! He did as a good cub should do! He kept whistling the cub-alarm and sending as hard as his little head could. But all too soon the pain in his leg got to the point that he couldn’t send anymore.
‘I just have to keep my head above water,’ he told himself – it was his favorite phrase, and it gave him comfort now to say it. ‘Someone will find me! And take me to Sunlight! Sunlight can fix anything! Cause she’s an herb-healer and a plantshaper so she can make the best plant-medicines ever! It’ll be just like all the times she fixed the sunburns on my skin. Only this time the burn is purple!’
He whistled and counted his blessings. He had three parents after all, one more than most in the tribe, so he had a better chance of someone hearing him. His vision not the greatest of his senses on a good day, he focused on the sounds rushing toward him. He did not want to fall asleep, but he was not really able to fight the growing urge to close his eyes and fall into some place away from the pain that was now crawling into his hip.
When he woke up, everything would be better. Just like that time with the sunburns.
Beesting and Snaptwig were the first to reach the boy, his white hair a faint beacon along the riverside trail.
“Newt!” Beesting dropped her bow and lunged the final distance to the boy’s side. Newt lay slumped at the base of a tree, blowing soundless breaths through his pursed lips as though struggling to whistle. His violet eyes were glassy, and jerked sluggishly toward his elder as she knelt beside him. Beesting reached for the boy, then froze when she saw his distended leg. “Snakebite,” she hissed at her mate.
Snaptwig looked over Beesting’s shoulder as she gathered the boy up in her arms. He, too, saw the swollen, mottled wreckage of the boy’s leg. He turned away from the sight, casting about them for the venomous creature.
“Hurts,” Newt whimpered in a small, ragged voice. “I never saw him, I swear I didn’t, I wouldn’t have stepped on him if I had, but oh, it hurts!”
“Hush, child, I know,” Beesting said soothingly, as she gently stroked his sweat-damp hair. **Chieftess! We have him! He’s been bitten near the ankle by a snake –- snowmouth I bet, this close to the water. We must hurry, it’s bad,** she sent, seeking calm as she showed the boy’s leg in that send, the purpling skin swollen tight as an inflated bladder, and the lines of poisoning running up the limb until hidden from view by the boy’s pants at the knee.
“Look,” Snaptwig said, stabbing at something with his spear. “Fairly good sized striped panfish here. Looks like it got snakebit. I’ll wager you a snowmouth struck this first and was about to enjoy its own dinner when Newt came along and startled it.”
Another figure joined them, this one swooping down from the sky above the river. “I’ll take him,” Stormdancer said, hovering like a hummingbird, her bare arms outstretched.
Beesting rose and carefully transferred Newt into the glider’s arms. “Stormdancer is taking you home, precious cub,” she whispered, kissing his moist brow. “The chieftess and Sunlight are waiting for you there, they’ll make you well.”
“Hurts,” Newt protested, only semi-conscious of the exchange. “It’s burning me up, it hurts so bad!”
Beesting stepped back and hugged herself tightly as Stormdancer drifted back among the trees to the open expanse of the river, then soared up and out of the lifemates’ view, streaking away toward the Holt.
“Sunlight and Easysinger will do their best, and that’s nothing to shake a stick at,” Snaptwig said, embracing his lifemate.
Beesting knew her soulmate’s heart, knew he had seen as much of the wound as she had, and knew that Snaptwig had spoken those words mostly to provide himself with comfort. So the dark-haired huntress simply hugged her mate tightly, and kept her anxious reservations behind sealed lips.
Glint had gotten the summons while near the top of Bluespear Hill; later, he would find himself unable to recall that long run for home –- in his memory, there seemed only frantic heartbeats between the horror of Lacewing’s sent summons and his approach to the Dentrees, where a somber crowd of almost a dozen tribemates had already gathered near the archway closest to the Chieftess’s den. That silent crowd parted respectfully to make way for his passage, and Glint paused only long enough to sling the brace of rabbits he carried toward Autumntide as he rushed past.
“How is he?” Glint demanded as he ducked through the hanging door-curtain and into the Chieftess’s den. “How is my brother?”
The expressions on the familiar faces which turned his way were grim. Newt lay on the chieftess’s own furs, his head pillowed on Lacewing’s lap and surrounded by the rest of their immediate family. Strand and Turtle sat at either side, close to the boy’s shoulders, while Glint’s half-brother Birdcatcher knelt near Newt’s feet. Easysinger was crushing a mix of herbs in a stone mortar nearby, while Sunlight was adjusting the knots on a pressure bandage on the boy’s left leg just below the knee.
“We’re doing everything we can for him,” Sunlight said quickly. Beneath her hands, Newt’s thigh was grossly swollen and distended. The exposed skin around the bite wound was the purple of a deep, ugly bruise, while the bite itself had gone black and pitted. Aghast, Glint stared at the horrible sight.
“Your brother is going to be just fine,” Lacewing said, her voice taut and brittle with challenge. Newt’s face was grey and damp with sweat. His eyes flickered open at the sound of Lacewing’s words, but closed again without looking in Glint’s direction.
Glint sank down to sit beside his father. Turtle’s dark eyes were darting anxiously from face to face, anxious not to miss lip-reading anything that was said aloud. That was a chilling sign. Turtle had lost his hearing after a raging fever during the years of Glint’s childhood, and everyone knew to open-send conversations around him. Either someone had already forgotten to send, or had deliberately avoided that intimacy. Glint glanced at his half-brother Birdcatcher, hoping to meet Birdcatcher’s eyes, but Birdcatcher was staring fixedly at his hands, clutching impotently at a bone hide-scraper he held in his lap. Foamspray and Muckabout hovered miserably near the curtained window-arch, silent and wide-eyed observers to the enfolding drama.
“What’s going on? What’s happened?” Glint demanded, sending that question as well.
“It was a snowmouth,” Strand said in a strained voice. “Snaptwig and Beesting found Newt near the mouth of Wolfjaw Creek, and Stormdancer flew him back here.“
“The snake had already bitten its prey,” Lacewing said firmly, a fierce note in her voice which was utterly alien to the delicate, sweet-tempered beauty. “Newt was spared the entire dose of its venom. He’s sick now, but he’ll pull through this—“
“Lacewing,” Easysinger began to say, her voice gentle. “You must—“
“He will!” Lacewing barked, cutting her chieftess off. She shot a glare at Easysinger. “I know my son! He’ll beat this. He will!”
“Lacewing,” Easysinger said again, her voice remaining gentle and patient. “We’re doing our best for your son, but Newt is not getting better. And wishing otherwise won’t save him.”
There was a heavy silence after the chieftess’s words. Birdcatcher refused to look up, while stormclouds brewed on Strand’s face. Glint caught the solemn glance that passed between Easysinger and Sunlight. “Lacewing, please listen to me when I say this again—“ Easysinger added then. “We can’t accomplish with herbs what Owl could do with his healing touch. We can’t—“
“Do not tell me my child is dying!” Lacewing snarled, with a fury Glint had never seen in his mother before. “Newt is strong, he’s always been stronger than he looks! He’ll pull through this! He will!”
“No!” Strand barked. “Love, don’t be a fool! It’s a snowmouth bite! The poison is eating away at the meat of his leg even as we sit here and watch. And it’s spreading, the longer we sit here! We can’t afford to sit like toads on a stump, we’ve got to take off the leg now, if we want to give our boy a chance to live.”
“No!” Lacewing glared daggers at her Recognized. “You will *not* maim my son! We won’t do that. We can’t!”
Newt moaned and his eyes flickered open again. He reached for his mother’s face, and Lacewing seized his hand in both of her own.
**Stop this shouting at once,** Easysinger commanded. **The child is suffering enough, don’t hurt him further with this!**
Newt’s eyes closed again, and for a moment, the den was quiet, except for the sound of Easysinger’s mortar and pestle.
**No,** Lacewing sent then, her sending thick with her raw grief and rage. **Newt will survive this. He’s strong. Whirlwind was bitten, that summer after the plague. She survived, and we didn’t chop off her leg!**
**Whirlwind is a grown huntress, and it was a near thing then for her,** Strand countered, his sent thoughts equally fierce with distress. **And she’s got a hole in her leg the size of a crow’s egg to show for it! Newt’s just a boy, he can’t survive this.**
**We’ve got to put him in wrapstuff,** Turtle interjected. **We’ve got to do that, and sooner better than later--**
**No!** Lacewing eyes cut toward her other lifemate, and her sending was like the slash of a whip. **Absolutely not! That’s as good as being dead!**
**No wrapstuff!** Strand agreed, his sending rich with horror. **What, put Newt aside like a slab of venison? Not that, not for a child of mine!**
**Newt is my son, as much as yours!** Turtle cast miserably at his two lifemates. **I want him to live! I want him to have a future, happy and whole!**
**I am not going to lose him!** Lacewing hissed at Turtle. **I will not lose my son, and I will not put him aside like last season’s catch of fish!** She turned on Strand next. **And I will not let you maim my child! I will not let you turn him into a cripple!**
**Even if that’s the only way to save him?** Strand sent. **Look at him! He’s dying, right here in front of us, and you’d rather let our son die than save him?**
**Putting him in wrapstuff will save him!** Turtle insisted. **Just because we haven’t a healer today, doesn’t mean we won’t tomorrow. Raven or either of Owl’s grandsons could yet develop the ability, they could just be late to bloom--**
**Stop it!** Lacewing cried in disgust. **Mate, don’t be a fool! You’ve been saying that since the morning you went deaf! Raven’s not a healer! Axehand and Blacksnake are never going to be healers! When will you accept that?**
Turtle wilted at that brutal send, and Glint felt his own heart breaking with pain for his father. He looked to Birdcatcher, and saw the stark fear and dismay on his brother’s face. They held each other’s gaze, sharing the same fear –- not only were they losing their beloved youngest brother, but the sharp animosity between their parents was raw and dangerously unforgiving.
“We need to do something,” Sunlight said quietly. “If there’s a decision to be made, it needs to be made now.”
**Put Newt into wrapstuff and wait for a healer. There’ll be one, someday,** Turtle insisted, his sending defiant hope. **That’s the best choice. Newt will live, and he’ll live whole and unscarred.**
**No! That’s no life at all!** Lacewing rejected that fiercely. **Newt will be as good dead to us if we do that! And what if we should die first, and leave him all alone and without us? I’ll not orphan my child, not like that!**
**Then we’ve got remove his leg, now, before the poison spreads any further,** Strand argued. ** It’s that, or do nothing and watch our son die, or stuff him into a spider’s egg and pretend there’ll come a day when we’ll see him again and a healer will save us all.”
**No!** Lacewing burst into angry tears. **Newt is strong. We keep treating the wound, we put a hot poultice on the bite to draw out more of the poison, we cauterize if we have too – but we don’t maim my child, and we don’t put him aside in some Preserver-cache like some summer salmon!**
Newt roused again, moaning in pain and clutching after his wounded leg. “It hurts,” he whimpered. “It hurts.”
**Enough,** Easysinger sent then, her thoughts as cold and hard as brightmetal. **You three cannot agree, and I’ll not see you tear one another apart for it. So you’ll abide by my decision on this matter.**
The three lifemates looked at their chieftess in dread, and Glint found himself holding his breath in misery. Easysinger’s expression was grim, and she stared at Lacewing, Strand and Turtle in turn until each looked down and away. Turtle folded at once and with an expression of gratitude; Strand did so only after several heartbeats and then only with an angry set to his jaw, while Lacewing held her chieftess’s eyes in desperate challenge until she at last was forced to look down and away. When the chieftess looked his way, Glint found himself unable to even meet Easysinger’s eyes.
“What will you do?” Birdcatcher whispered miserably.
Easysinger’s expression remained grim. **There’s no easy choice. There’s no good choice. But we do what’s best for Newt. He can survive this – whole and hale – if we give him the chance to do so. Turtle is right. We have no healer today, but I refuse to believe that ability is lost to us. As long as Owl’s children and grandchildren live and breathe, there’s hope. Newt goes into wrapstuff. And ancestors pity us, but I fear he’ll only be the first.** The chieftess gestured for Foamspray and Muckabout, and the two Preservers fluttered to her hand at the summons.
**Say your goodbyes,** Easysinger sent firmly to the gathered family. **Tell the boy how much you love him, and by Wolfsister’s courage, let’s all trust that this won’t be for the last time.**
Sunlight was streaming in through a curtain, striping the room in golden light through which motes of dust danced like flameflies… He was lying in unfamiliar sleeping furs, redolent in the scent of Easysinger and her lifemate Oakhand. There were hushed voices, and beneath them all, a steady sobbing. Newt drifted in and out of awareness, time and again rousing just enough to realize that it was his mother who was weeping.
His father Turtle was gathering him close in an embrace (which hurt, anything which caused him to move or which touched his leg hurt, but Newt was a big enough cub to bite back his whimpers, when he was aware enough of himself to do so). He blinked his eyes for what felt like a heartbeat, but when he opened his eyes again it was Strand’s hard arms around him.
“Sleep, precious cub,” Strand said as he eased Newt, as gently as he could, back among the chieftess’s soft furs. “You are our treasure, we’ll be waiting for you every day.”
Newt stared up at his father’s face, bewildered by the tears he saw there. Had he ever seen Strand cry before? “Sunlight will make me well,” he tried to reassure his father, reaching out to pat Strand’s arm but missing on the first try. He made it on the second, but then Birdcatcher had ahold of his hand and had drawn it up to his face.
“Sleep sound, little brother,” Birdcatcher said, tears gleaming in his blue eyes as well. “Sleep sound and without dreams, and we’ll be waiting for you when you wake.”
Newt found the strength to turn his head toward the sound of weeping. Lacewing sat with her arms wrapped tightly around herself, sobbing wretchedly. Newt realized then what was happening. Sunlight wasn’t able to fix him. Not this time. So he was dying, wasn’t he? That explained his strange lassitude, and the numb sense that he was floating away, winning some distance from the agony of his poisoned leg. If he were dying, shouldn’t he be afraid? He didn’t feel afraid – just tired, really. Tired, and terrible that everyone around him was so very very sad.
“Don’t cry,” he wished them. “Please, please, don’t cry. Don’ worry. I’ll wake up again soon… and then I’ll be all better."
“Brave cub,” murmured the chieftess, who moved to sit down next to Lacewing. “You’re a brave, brave cub, and we all love you. But it’s time to sleep now, Newt. The Preservers are going to wrap you now. They’re going to wrap you up, snug and safe until we’ve a healer who can fix your leg and make you better.”
“Oh.” Newt struggled to digest Easysinger’s words. Sometimes a hunter who was hurt bad while a long ways away from the Holt would get wrapped up and carried home – only Newt was already home, wasn’t he? “Will I sleep for long?”
“We hope not,” the chieftess said. “But maybe.”
That made sense, Newt thought. “Where’s Brook?” he asked, trying to sit up enough to look for himself, but he was too weak. He had only just bonded with the young she-wolf. It occurred to him that if he weren’t awake, then that as a yearling, the rest of the pack might be mean to her and drive her away like they sometimes did to unbonded young wolves. “Don’t let them chase Brook away, it’s not her fault I’ll be sleeping.”
The chieftess nodded solemnly. “Brook will be fine,” Easysinger promised. “Now we have to get started. Newt, don’t be afraid. Know we all love you, and that we’ll keep you safe until it’s time to wake up again.”
Newt nodded shallowly as he saw Easysinger gesture to the two Preservers. Muckabout and Flutterby set to work instantly, spitting their webs around his feet. Newt lifted his chin, then tried to sit up, wanting to better see how it was that they were wrapping him – it was interesting, as strange as he supposed he should feel about it, and it was strange too that Muckabout, his favorite of all of the Preservers, should be one of two called on to wrap him up like an elder salmon.
Glint moved in, blocking Newt’s view of the procedure. “Little brother,” Glint murmured, tears shining in his eyes as well. “You will be all right.”
The Preservers looked like they were working quickly – the constant throbbing ache of his poisoned leg suddenly went numb. “It stopped hurting!” Newt exclaimed.
Glint embraced him quickly, his embrace hard enough to hurt. **Little brother, I am Ness,** he sent, his locksend a fierce roil of grief and hope. **I am Ness –- know that I love you with all of my heart and soul, and keep me close to you. You do not sleep alone, know that I will always be close by.**
It was a shock to receive his brother’s soul-name like that, and as wonderful as it felt, it was terrible too -– Newt didn’t yet know his own soul-name, so he had nothing to give back. He wanted to apologize for that failing, but it was too late -– Glint was releasing him and settling him back among the chieftess’s sleeping furs, and his mother Lacewing was there, pressing kisses against his face. “Oh child, oh my son!” she wept. “We love you so much, I love you so very very much—“
Newt was conscious that he could no longer feel his arms, and that Preserver wings were fluttering very near his face now. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, trying to smile for his loved ones and show them how very brave and strong he was. “I’m just going to sleep for a little while. Keep…” his throat seized and suddenly he was finding it strangely difficult to form words. “... your heads…your heads above…”
“We’ll keep our heads above water,” Turtle said, as he pulled Lacewing away so that the Preservers could finish their cocoon.
His sight fading, Newt smiled to his family, nodded an affirmative, and let his weary eyes ease closed. It was easy to sleep, now that there was no dreadful pain, and the boy drifted asleep to the feathery touches of silk against his face, knowing wouldn’t be long until…