(This story is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
Websmoke vaulted the rotten log in their path. The she-wolf's landing jolted her riders, and ripped a cry of pain from Fletcher. The injured elf began to slump dangerously, and riding double behind him, Farscout tightened hold on his cousin, keeping Fletcher astride.
**Pryn!** Farscout sent, ablaze with urgency. He had expected his soul-brother to have reached them by now. **Cloudfern! Where are you?**
**On my way!** came the healer's desperate response, accompanied by the chaotic feel of riding a strange wolf at full speed. Cloudfern's old wolf Chaser had died of old age earlier that season, and the tribe's healer, like his patient, was forced to ride double.
The party of hunters had encountered a small bachelor herd of branchhorns only half a day's ride from the Holt. Normally, the hunters would have let the powerful and dangerous bulls go in favor of weaker game – but it was rutting season, and the beasts preoccupied with sparring one another. The results were two meat-heavy kills – and Fletcher trampled into the forest loam. The hunter had a cracked skull, a dislocated shoulder, and bad contusions to his chest. Riding scattershot for home wasn't helping the injured elf – Fletcher was coughing more blood now, and was fading in and out of consciousness. But Blacksnake had wagered Fletcher too badly injured to wait for the healer to reach them – and since Websmoke was the youngest and strongest of the wolves accompanying the night's hunt, it was Farscout's job to carry Fletcher to that necessary rendevous – and keep Fletcher alive to get there.
Fletcher began to mumble something that sounded suspiciously like “…forgot to warn Flash… itchleaf leaves…”
“Warn her yourself,” Farscout told his cousin, trying to hold Fletcher steady across Websmoke's back.
Fletcher chuckled painfully at that. “You think I hurt now?” Fletcher said, having sense enough at the moment to brace himself against Websmoke's laboring shoulders. “Just wait until she figures that one out!” Then the chuckle turned into a groan, and fresh blood bubbled from Fletcher' nose and lips. The archer went slack in Farscout's arms, and Farscout had to struggle to keep the other rider astride as Fletcher slumped heavily against him.
Websmoke didn't break stride, her lungs working like Goldspice's bellows as she ran. **Pryn!** Farscout sent in growing desperation. **He won't last! Promise me you've brought goo-bugs!**
**Coming!** Cloudfern vowed, somewhere from the forest trail ahead of them. **I've got Muckabout and Berryflop.**
“Hang on, we're close,” Farscout promised, while Websmoke's ears swung up and forward in anticipation. Moments later, Sunlight and her wolf-friend Sneak came galloping over the top of the far ridge, with Cloudfern clinging to Sunlight's waist. When the path swung wide, young Sneak plowed headlong through the bracken in a straight line for Websmoke. The two wolves nearly collided, and Farscout swung off Websmoke's back, dragging Fletcher with him and laying him out for the healer to attend. A heartbeat later and Cloudfern was dismounted as well. He landed on his knees beside Fletcher, hands busy as he took the measure of the young elf's injuries.
“What happened?” Sunlight asked, her golden mane tousled and coming loose from its hasty braid.
“A branchhorn bull didn't recognize it was dead yet,” Farscout said. He found himself panting nearly as hard as Websmoke. “It went right over the top of Snowfall and Bearheart to dance on Fletcher' chest. Took a couple more arrows to bring the bull down, and then we had to dig Fletcher out from beneath it.”
Sunlight winced. Her clear blue eyes were intent on her nephew and his work; Cloudfern was pressing Fletcher's side, eliciting a deep moan from his patient. Sunlight frowned at what she saw, then turned her steady gaze on Farscout, taking in the hunter's blood-strained leathers and the crusted-over gash across his chin. **Fletcher's just about bled out,** Sunlight locksent. **If you or I had slower wolves, we'd be carrying him home cold.**
Farscout nodded agreement and reached out to Websmoke, who stood with her sides heaving, tongue lolling as she sucked for breath.
Their tribe's most skilled herbalist healer had come to the same conclusion. Cloudfern reached suddenly to detangle bright wings from his trailing mane; Berryflop clung to his fingers like glue. “Make wrapstuff!” Cloudfern said, his voice uncharacteristically sharp.
Berryflop made a questioning trill, while Muckabout climbed up from behind Cloudfern's shoulder, blinking as if shaken awake. “Feather-cutter Highthing? Make wrapstuff for Feather-cutter Highthing?” Berryflop said.
“Highthing broken inside, can't be fixed,” Muckabout said. “Hurry we-things hurry.”
Both brightly-colored Preservers swept into action, knowing their grim job. Fletcher was aware of what they were doing, but he seemed too far gone in his shock to understand. Sunlight dropped to kneel at Fletcher's other side, murmuring words of comfort to the young hunter, while Cloudfern held his tribemate's hand tightly until he was forced to let go.
Farscout turned away, unable to watch as the Preservers finished making their cocoon.
They built a stretcher and prepared to walk the miles home; long before they reached the hometrees, Chieftess Easysinger and Fletcher's parents, Beesting and Snaptwig, found them. Cloudfern and Farscout gave over the weight of the cocoon and stretcher to other grieving hands. One after another, other tribemates joined them for that long walk, seeing Fletcher back home.
Farscout didn't follow after the others into the Child Tree when Fletcher was carried down into the central den-rooms, where the three most helpless of their tribe were kept in their deathless sleep. He turned away instead, feeling sick at heart and impotent. There was nothing more he or any of his fellow hunters could have done that would have saved Fletcher, but the heart and mind couldn't agree on that.
Websmoke had followed her elf-friend back to the Holt, exhausted and gone stiff from her hard run. Farscout opened his arms and embraced her roughly, murmuring nonsense syllables of affection. She bathed his face with her tongue, probably already having forgotten most of their desperate ride. Farscout only wished he were so simple-minded. His long coat was crusted dark with Fletcher' blood, and he knew his tunic front was in no better shape.
The gash across his chin was tender and needed tending. It was deep enough to scar, and Cloudfern would want to stitch it closed. The wound needed to be cleaned, and rot it all – Farscout could smell the blood-stink on himself and knew he needed a bath. Farscout released Websmoke and headed toward river.
It was a long walk for someone shaky-kneed. Farscout matched his pace to Websmoke's sluggish limp, resting one hand on her shoulder for the comfort of her solid companionship.
The den-room where the sleepers' cocoons were kept would be too crowded. Farscout used that as his excuse not to join the others in seeing Fletcher's cocoon laid to rest. Young Fletcher's friends and family would be consoling themselves with the fact that beneath the layers of wrapstuff he wasn't dead – mortally wounded, yes, but not dead. Someday, they reassured themselves, someday the tribe would have another healer, not a herbalist like Cloudfern or Dreamberry, but a flesh-mending healer whose hands and magic ability could snatch back any patient from death's jaws. Blacksnake and his hunters would be back before midday, carrying the prey which had caused Fletcher's injuries. The tribe would feast and honor their injured tribemate with a howl, sharing memories with each other of Fletcher's cheerful, friendly manner and stories of his clever tricks. Those memories would have to last them until their awaited healer arrived, if and when that would ever be.
Luck was with them. Fletcher wasn't dead. There had been too many other tribemates who had not survived similar injuries long enough to be wrapped in a life-sustaining cocoon. Farscout looked up at the limbs of the trees that he passed as he walked down to the river. Each tree, each branch passed, every stride over the ground of this place so long occupied by generations of the tribe was thick with the memory of those now gone. The tribe had been more than twice their number now when he had been a cub. Time and attrition took its toll on the tribe, and elf-minds which favored the simplicity of the wolf-Now were prone to forgetting those whose luck had failed them.
Farscout looked at the silent trees, remembering the faces and names of tribemates lost since his own childhood, and suddenly, he again felt the same crashing desperation which he'd felt earlier that night, during the wild ride with Fletcher. It gnawed at his bones was that the tribe was too few. That certainty haunted him, as he was sure the spirits of his kin haunted the empty branches of the leaf-bare trees around him.
‘Do the hometrees feel the weight of all of the spirits of all of our ancestors?' he wondered. ‘Sometimes I imagine I can almost sense them. They're like a mist I can't see, but I can feel cool against my skin. If they were to all speak to us at once, would we hear them? Do they howl with us when the pack sings at the moon? If they were all to cry out to us in warning, would our ears hear? Are they aware of the drift of seasons, or do they continue on in a Now of their own? And our kin who only half-exist, surviving only because of the wrapstuff their – are they kept company and comforted by the spirits of our ancestors? Or are they trapped in the moment that their cocoons are sealed, each of them alone?'
The last question had haunted him for more years than he could count. He had never asked the question aloud. There was simply no one alive who knew, and somehow, he feared giving the thoughts shape. Speech gave a power to a thing, so it was safer to leave the fear unspoken.
Farscout let Websmoke pick their way down to the riverbank, walking silent at her side as he struggled to gnaw the meat of memory off of the bone of that question, and feeling in his gut the same, aching fear of time. Time was like the river at flood – you could not hold it back, you could not control it. The tribe was increasingly fewer and fewer, and only the return flesh-healer like old, crazy Owl could change that. Sometimes, when feeling this anxious desperation, he yearned to simply lose himself in the flow of Now. The simplicity of Now was addictive. It made memory fade. It made fear fade. To lapse into the embrace of Now was to escape from the burden of time itself. Farscout yearned for it and fled from it equally.
Websmoke's slow amble reached the river, near where the arching winter-ford bridge had been shaped. Farscout stood and stared sightlessly at the smooth, calm surface of the water while Websmoke lapped up a drink and then laid down heavily on the cool bank to rest. The wolf sighed in a heavy, weary gust of breath. She was done, Farscout knew. He caressed her hip, knowing she would sleep the sounder if she had her elf-friend sitting watch. Websmoke gusted another sigh and thumped her tail twice before closing her eyes. Farscout knelt and scooped up some water. He drank, then washed his face. The gash in his chin opened and stung. The mild pain was bracing, and he welcomed it. He wiped his face, and his hand came away streaked with blood.
His thoughts strayed, as always, to his own lifemate. He felt Brightwood's absence like One-Leg did the ghost of his missing leg. And he wondered about their child, trapped in time in her frozen womb. Did Brightwood hold the spirit of that cubling close, or was the child's spirit carried in the embrace of the ancestor-spirits? There was no way to answer those questions – no elf alive had senses sharp enough to know.
There was a crackle of sound from across the river, and two hunters came rushing out of the brush. Whitestag and Flash. Farscout rose to his feet even as they spotted him. Both of the hunters faces fell, as they saw how much blood stained the scout's longcoat. Whitestag stopped entirely and turned away to struggle with his grief, while Flash ran for the ford.
“Mother says he lives!” Flash cried, her beaded braids swinging around her face as she rushed to reach Farscout. “Is that his blood? Tell me my lovemate lives!”
Farscout reached out for the young huntress and gathered her to him in a careful embrace. “He lives,” he said. “But Cloudfern can do nothing for him. He's gone into wrapstuff, to wait for a flesh-mender to be born.”
Flash was trembling in his arms. He felt the tension in her body, and knew gut-deep the anger and the grief. For a moment, he expected her to break free and rush on toward the hometrees. But instead she pressed her head against his chest and embraced him hard, like a lost child seeking comfort. “I can smell him on you,” she whispered, her voice broken. “I can still smell him.”
Whitestag had picked his way across the ford to join them. “Tallow sent to us, warned us there'd been an accident, and that we should get back as soon as we could. Couldn't Cloudfern have waited for us?”
Farscout regarded the young storyteller soberly. “No. Fletcher couldn't wait.” Farscout shivered, and unbidden, imagined the cheerful prankster's spirit joining the ghosts in the trees above them.
“He's gone. He's gone. We've lost him. He's gone.” Flash had begun to weep in great hard sobs. Farscout kept holding on to her, stroking her back in comfort, knowing he had never seen the laughing, fearless huntress shed tears before for anyone or anything.
“Don't say that. He's not,” Whitestag said, grief making his voice fierce. “Fletcher's not dead!”
“He might as well be,” Flash retorted, just as sharp. “How long will it be before he shares either of our furs again? How long until he makes us his arrows, or how long before he can tease you for your silly cub-stories? You could be growing facefur and I'll have forgotten his scent before we've a healer again who can save him!”
She burst into fresh tears and buried her face against Farscout's blood-stained chest. Whitestag was weeping too now, and looked hopefully at Farscout for some wisdom to counter Flash's angry words. Farscout stared back at the storyteller miserably, having no words of comfort in him. Fletcher was functionally lost to them. The tribe no longer had the strength of Fletcher's bow during the hunt, or his skilled arrows made for their quivers. And more, Farscout knew, the tribe had lost the promise of his very body, the promise of new life he might father and bring to the tribe. Someday, eventually, they might reclaim that promise. If they ever found another healer. But Farscout knew in his heart that it was possible that Owl's bloodline had died with the crazy healer. The two children who had survived him, Dove and Raven, had never developed his magic. Neither had his grandchildren.
“Fletcher's just sleeping. That's all it is,” Whitestag said. His voice cracked at the last; he swallowed with difficulty and when he began again, his voice was stronger. “Fletcher just sleeps, like Brightwood and Newt. And someday, we'll have that healer born to us. Flash, maybe you and I will even make that cub together, who'll grow up to be that healer. But we will have that healer who can bring out sleepers back to us. We will, and then we'll laugh together again and share dreamberries, and it will be as if no time has passed at all.”
Whitestag spoke with conviction. Flash shuddered, then self-consciously pushed herself away from Farscout, wiping her eyes violently as though she could hide her tears. The two young hunters stood close again, drawn together by their grief. Whitestag nodded to Farscout as he took Flash's arm, and then the two headed up the trail that led back to the hometrees.
Farscout watched the two younger elves go, finding comfort of his own in the sight of them together and in Whitestag's words – ‘maybe you and I will even make that cub together.' He hoped they did. He wished a Recognition upon them, and conjured for himself what their child might look like – saw a small, round treasure with Whitestag's white hair and Flash's brilliant eyes and infectious smile. And with that daydream to sustain him and nurture his hope, Farscout squatted down on his haunches and plunged his hands into the cold river. He drank his fill, then settled in beside Websmoke to guard his loyal friend's sleep.