“There was a sound like distant thunder, but it came up from the ground under our feet. Our legs shook and gave way under us, and the very earth heaved up like a living thing and threw us down. Some tried to climb to safety, but the earth had the trees by the roots and shook them until the great trunks split with terrible cracks and sent the elves in their branches flying. The wolves cried in fear and confusion, and some deep instinct drove them to scatter, and we followed their example, not knowing what else to do. All around us the world shook and trembled, roaring with no voice, and as suddenly as it started, it all fell quiet and still. Not a breath of air stirred, not a single bird or insect called. All we could hear was the beating of our own hearts, so loud and fast that it felt like the terrible earth-storm still shook us. Slowly we got to our feet and took account of ourselves. Two wolves had been swallowed whole by a crack that had opened in the ground and caved in, and Redmane had almost gone with them, had he not grabbed an exposed root and held on for his life. We had to dig him out; he was buried up to his waist in loose earth. Cubmaker's leg had been broken where she'd been pinned by a fallen tree. None of us escaped without some injury, however small.
“And after that, there were still more earth-storms, each one smaller than the last, like ripples in the water, until finally, a handful of days later, the ground once more fell asleep, and shifted no more. We left that place, and never returned.”
The small bowl of dreamberries was almost empty -- this had been an old story, an incident that happened on their long journey to discovering the Holt, and Greenleaf had to dig deep to uncover it. Blackbird sat next to her father in rapt attention, absorbing every detail of one of the tribe's very first stories.
In Blackbird's lap sat her young boycub, his limbs gathered close to himself, wide-eyed and silent, and quietly, privately, terrified.
"It's like having... another eye," he tried to explain. "No, that's not right. It doesn't really see, it feels, so... another hand, maybe."
Owl smiled indulgently. Flint had died a birch’s age ago, and his son only now displayed his rock-shaping magic, too late for his father to have taught him anything. It was up to him, Ivy and the boy's mother, Blackbird, to try and train young Strongback, though none of them were rock-shapers themselves. "Yes, I can see that. I usually think of it as hearing, though. I hear the body, what's wrong with it. It tells me." He looked at the plant-shaping women for confirmation.
Blackbird looked thoughtful. "I never thought to compare it to another sense," she finally admitted. "It's something else entirely. I don't hear plants or feel them or see them any differently, but I do sense them. It's closer to sending than it is to seeing or hearing, I think, even if only because it's almost entirely in my own head."
Strongback nodded eagerly, pleased to be a part of so important a conversation. It was so good to have people to talk to about this; nobody else seemed to understand the magic. He was new to it, definitely, but it was thrilling and fascinating. He held a smooth river stone in his hand, and was slowly shaping it into a tiny bowl, simply by pressing his thumb down into its centre. He could feel his arms tingle with the magic and he got a small thrill every time he thought he saw his fingers glow with it. His power was weak, yet, but definitely there.
"So you can feel, or sense, the plants?" he asked Blackbird and Ivy. "And you, Owl, can sense what's going on in the body?" His mentors nodded. He frowned at the stone at his hand. It didn't seem fair. "But nothing happens in a rock," he protested. “What could I possibly sense?”
Owl patted the ground itself. "There's more to rock than rocks," he said. "Sand is rock, just lots of little pieces of it. Dirt, too, is rock, at least partially. I bet there's lots to feel under your feet."
Strongback stared at the earth, his eyes wide. "But... there's so much of it!" He really didn't see how in the world he'd be able to cast his senses into the very ground. It would be like trying to drink the entire river.
"Look around you, little one," Ivy laughed, and threw her arms out as though to encompass the whole world. "The forest is just as vast, with plants everywhere. I know how you feel." She looked at her arms and legs, and with a teasing tone, added, "Bodies are quite small and self-contained, comparatively. I think Owl has the easiest job of all of us."
Owl's only response was to throw her an unamused look through bushy eyebrows and harumph.
Strongback found the lowest valley he could. He wanted to feel surrounded by earth and rock. Finding a nice dry spot under an overhanging cliff, thick with clay and soil with the occasional black rock jutting from the ground, he lay down and spread his limbs wide, digging his fingers into the earth. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to feel as one with the ground beneath him. Blackbird had described, as best she could, the feeling of sending her senses into the forest, the plants, receiving what was out there, what was working, what was wrong. Owl described 'hearing' disease like a discordant whine of the blood, and health like a strong and steady song. He imagined his back growing tendrils, like roots of stone, and digging deep into the ground, exploring and probing, trying to feel around, trying to sense what there was to sense.
Over the next several moons he continued this, in various places. On top of rocky hilltops, in the bottom of vales, along long-traveled paths between the two. He lay on the ground, sometimes on his back, sometimes face-down, his limbs spread out as though to hug the earth, his eyes closed and lost.
He once yelped with excitement when, on a hunting trip near Knife Peak, he cast his rock-sense down and found an underground spring, only an elf-length from the surface. It wasn't truly the water he'd felt, but a curious void of rock where he knew rock should have been, and the temperature surrounding that void was colder than the rest. He'd had to guess that it must be water, but he'd been right. He managed to coax the rock to bring the water to the surface, much to everyone's delight and gratitude. The water had been deliciously cold and fresh and clear. He hadn't managed to kill much on that hunting trip, but nobody thought it a waste to have brought him.
Over the turning of three seasons, however, a growing sense of unease started to gnaw at him. There was tension, a building of something, under his feet, and it unsettled him. He could not sense far enough to find the source, and he felt that he could only brush his fingertips against it no matter how he stretched his magic. It was like he was able to feel only one small corner, perhaps a handful of long wolf-leaps at most, of something that might well stretch from Elder Peak to the Bounty... or beyond. He tried to describe it to Ivy and Owl, but they were at a loss to understand what he was talking about. The closest Owl could come was describing cysts in the body that sometimes built up pus inside and caused pain. "They have to be drained," he said, "Or they will build until they burst on their own."
Strongback knew of the geysers. His sister Cloudchase had brought him to one not long ago, and he'd felt the pressure building up under the rock until the water shot up out of the ground. This was very different. Wider. Bigger.
Then it hit him. The earth-storm.
Panicked, he ran to his mother. "We have to leave," Strongback blurted out. "We have to get as far away as we can."
Blackbird blinked in surprise. She was used to her steady-hearted son, his strength of body lending constancy to his mind. The frightened elf that stood before her now looked haunted and tense. She'd never seen Strongback so desperately serious before. "All of us? The whole tribe? What's wrong?"
Strongback swallowed hard and tried to keep his voice steady. "An earth-storm. Like Grandfather Greenleaf told us about. I can feel it, it's building." He put his hand on one of the large flat sitting-rocks that scattered the area around the Dentrees. "I know."
Blackbird bit her lip. Her son was new to his powers, and untested, but this was serious. She did not remember either Flint or Clayshard ever talking about such things, but... "Let's go tell Foxsly."
The Chieftess listened to young Strongback's warning. Move the tribe? Even a temporary evacuation was a serious undertaking. But they only had one little one, Wren, who was almost two hands of turns already and hale as any cub twice her age, and wouldn't be too much of a burden. And there was still a sizeable hunting party out, far out of sending range, which would have to be warned.
Foxsly realized she'd already made her decision when she noticed that she was preparing herself for the swift flight to find them. She was the fastest, and it would be dangerous, with an earth-storm on the way.
“Do you know how far we'd have to go? Or for how long?”
Strongback shook his head. “I don't know,” he had to confess. “But I'll be able to tell by the feel of the ground when we're safe.”
Foxsly had never heard of a serious earth-storm in this part of the world. The ground was stable but for the rare barely-noticeable tremor, which had never worried any of them before, not even Clayshard or Flint. They'd said it was perfectly normal, just the ground settling a bit. The worst they had to worry about were floods and windstorms. But Strongback was a rock-shaper now, and he seemed so certain. Foxsly had no idea what could cause an earth-storm, but if Strongback felt one coming...
"We have to get as far away as we can, as quickly as we can,” he urged. “There's no more time to waste!"
Much to Strongback's relief and the sudden alarm and confusion of the rest of the tribe, Foxsly stood and howled an urgent summoning, and started giving orders for an immediate evacuation.
The Dentrees fairly exploded in action and activity as elves grabbed only what tools and provisions they could easily carry. The supplies in the lower dens were abandoned, although Streak did sneak down for skin or two of wine. The wolves were gathered, and Foxsly jumped on her wolf-friend Skysinger's back.
**I go to find the hunting party,** she sent to her tribe. **We'll meet at Razor Ridge and continue towards sun-comes-up from there, if we need to. Ambergold, take care of them. I'll be as quick as I can.** Before she ran off, she asked Strongback, “Do you know how long we have?”
Strongback bent and placed his palm flat on the ground. “I can't tell,” he said, the tension in his voice palpable. “Not long. The pressure is incredible, I can't tell how much more can build, I—” he gave a startled cry and gripped the earth with both hands. **Something broke!** the panic and fear in his sending pierced all doubts. **It's too late! I can't hold it back! It comes!**
Elves gripped each other and their somewhat confused wolves as they braced themselves as much as they could for a world about to be wrenched violently around them. Wren tried to bury her face in her mother's arms, but Feather took her and carried her up off the treacherous ground.
Strongback was helpless to stop it, or even change its course. The ground under him heaved with more force than he thought possible. The sheer power unleashed under his fingers would have awed him, had he not been so frightened for the fate of his tribesmates. He gripped the ground, squeezed his eyes shut, and held on for his life. The earth-storm lasted only a few brief heartbeats, but it felt like days to Strongback.
When it had at last subsided, he reluctantly looked up to assess the damage, and saw the tribe, exactly as they had been moments before the quake, staring at him with wide-eyed confusion. After a heartbeat, the chatter started.
“Was that it?”
“Did you feel anything?”
“I think so.”
“Well I didn't feel a thing.”
“No, there really was something, I'm sure of it.”
“I felt it, too. I've felt it before. Was that really what Strongback got so worked up about?”
“I can't believe we were about to evacuate the Holt over a tremor.”
Foxsly slipped off Skysinger's back and asked Strongback, “Was... was that it? Has the danger passed?”
Strongback, feeling more foolish than he thought it was possible for elf to feel, looked at the ground. The pressure had been released. That really had been it. He was astounded. “But... it felt so powerful,” he insisted.
With that, Foxsly couldn't help herself and threw back her head in laughter. Blackbird tried hard to hold herself back for her son's sake, but couldn't quite manage it either. Those elves who found themselves more amused than annoyed with Strongback joined in, and Blackbird knelt beside her inexperienced son and hugged him close even while her shoulders shook with mirth.
“I'm so sorry, Strongback,” she said, sincerely sorry for finding such humour in her son's humiliation, but unable to help herself. “It's such an easy mistake for a new magic-user to make.”
“Your mother's right,” Owl said kindly. “The first time I hurt myself as a cub, I wailed like my limbs had been chopped off, because I could feel that something was wrong, and it was the very first time. I had nothing to compare it to, so I thought it was the worst thing that could possibly have happened to me.” After a moment, he added, “I am sorry I didn't warn you. I should have thought of that.”
“Father should have told me!” Strongback blurted out.
“He probably did,” Cloudchase pointed out, a bit more sympathetically than their mother or chieftess. “But you were young and didn't know if you'd ever even show the power. I never listened to him, either. I probably would have made the same mistake had it been me and not you that inherited his gift.”
Foxsly, having regained control of herself, wiped her eyes and said, “Well, I hope this won't stop you from giving more warnings, in case a real earth-storm comes around. In spite of this, I'm glad you're with us, and I'm glad you're trying to keep us safe, Stoneback. Thank you for that, at least.”
She then went to shoo away the less amused members of the tribe who were waiting to grump at the young rock-shaper for the false alarm. Strongback just stared at his chieftess for a heartbeat, confused. A fish? Why had she just named him for a fish? He was a rock-shaper, not a stoneback.
Whether it was a slip of the tongue or a deliberate renaming, Stoneback never did figure out, but the play on words stuck, and he found he didn't mind.