Newt was wet. Newt was miserable. This was not the way his Very Long Walk was supposed to begin. This was it; this was to be the first day on his journey to becoming an adult. He had turned this moment over and over in his mind his whole life. This was the time that he would prove his worth, to push back the cub he had been and embrace the adult he would become. Whatever he would be, a fully-fledged scout, a more capable fisher, or even a word-hunter, it all began here. He had anticipated a cool, clear fall evening for their departure, perhaps with a crisp bite to it. He had even practiced in his mind drawing in the fresh air and feeling it blaze through his nose like a promise. He had expected there to be a sense of excitement in his bones, and a feeling of adventure in the pit of his chest. But the only thing that shivered through his ribcage was a moist, clammy chill.
A clear line of droplets were making their way down his hood and were collecting on his nose while he waited for Cloudfern to finish packing the last of his supplies. Newt shifted the weight of his own pack, trying to fight back the impatience he was feeling. Cloudfern had not been his first choice for a companion on this venture; his natural instinct had drawn him to Greenweave, the gentler, more easygoing of his adopted fathers. But Newt had chosen Cloudfern, partly in the hopes that this journey would strengthen their bond, and partly to pick Cloudfern's brain about woodlore while in the field. The past few days had been filled with nothing but excitement. Until now.
Cloudfern was a herbal healer, an exceedingly wise one, that Newt had developed a deep fondness for. Even so, the planstshaper had packed, un-packed, and re-packed the same bag more times than Newt's eight-fingered hand could count, and the lad's patience was running thin. It seemed that every time they had been almost ready to go, Cloudfern had thought of one more medicinal herb they couldn't find this time of year or one more anti-toxin that they couldn't do without. Newt had begun to wonder just how many injuries and poisonings Cloudfern expected them to encounter. He had thought that waiting outside might spur the older elf to finish his endless preparations, but that plan had only succeeded in soaking his travel clothes before they had even set foot outside the Dentrees.
He blew out a thread of steamy breath and ran a hand under his nose. He looked to his side, where Browncoat had been waiting patiently, only to see an empty patch of wet ground. Even his wolf had given up on the idea of leaving and had gone on to a drier place. A soggy, flame-colored leaf smacked him in the face, sending a shower of droplets up his nose. He snorted and flicked the offending bit of autumn away.
"Are you still here? I've already said my goodbyes to you twice!"
Newt turned about to behold a strange, amorphously furry figure standing behind him. What must have been the head lifted up to reveal two large grey eyes peering out from beneath the massive otter-skin blanket.
"Not by my choice, Fadestar. I'd have us halfway to the Vastdeep by now, but…"
Not wanting to give in to complaining, Newt finished with a shrug. A small hand appeared from within the folds of the water-resistant blanket and pulled him to a shaped root seat. Fadestar unwrapped the blanket and threw half of it about the shivering boy. They sat together in the gathering dark and watched Cloudfern's busy shadow dart back and forth across the candlelit denflap.
"He just wants to be prepared, that's all," Fadestar said. "He must have been so honored you asked him to go with you. He's just making sure that nothing will happen that you aren’t ready for."
"I know," Newt mumbled. "But really, how can everything go wrong on one trip? The way he's preparing we could withstand the skies falling."
Fadestar giggled and pulled her friend closer.
"Once you get out there, none of this will matter, I promise! My Walk was nothing like I planned it, but I wouldn't change a moment of it. You'll see."
Newt was about to ask her what she meant, when the denflap finally pulled back to reveal Cloudfern, packed and dressed for the rain. He looked about for his charge for a moment before locating the huddled pair.
"You've been waiting about in the rain this whole time?" His eyes flew wide. "You must be soaked! You can't start the journey like this; you'll catch a cold long before we even get to the coast. Come inside, we have to get you…"
"I think he'll be fine." Greenweave poked his head outside. He winked at Newt. "You've made sure he packed two full changes of leathers, and I think in your own pack you'll find every herb for the sniffles there is. You're ready to go, and so is he."
Cloudfern hesitated, but then inclined his head in grudging acceptance. Newt sent for Browncoat, and threw his arms about Fadestar. She squeezed him tightly.
"Be careful, you," she whispered.
Newt patted the back of her head and turned to Greenweave. Having already said their goodbyes several times during their false starts, the two only touched foreheads before Newt swung himself onto Browncoat's back. Cloudfern, already perched atop Crowsong's back, circled about to meet his lifemate's gaze. Newt could tell a sending passed between them. Greenweave stood on his tiptoes so their lips could meet briefly and then he stepped back and cast an arm about Fadestar's shoulders. They waved at the departing pair, and turned to greet the dry warmth of Greenweave's den. Newt turned his back on the warmth, and with a quick glance at Cloudfern, set Browncoat trotting toward the great unknown.
The rain let up halfway through their first night of travel, having taken with it many of the multi-colored autumn leaves. The now partially bare branches were silhouetted against the pale morning sky and the remaining red leaves fluttered like shreds of flesh. The air was cool and dry, hinting at the coming winter and the fallen leaves were turning to crisp and crackling shells. Soon it would be difficult for even the most subtle creatures to travel unannounced.
Newt shifted on Browncoat's back, his hindquarters more sore than they had ever been. He had been on long treks before, but Cloudfern traveled at a pace and with a fervor that made Newt wonder just what the herbalist thought they were running to, or from.
The dawn was coming, which would ordinarily mean that they would have to spend the day hiding his pale skin from the sun's rays, but the high clouds looked as though they intended to linger. With his hood and long sleeves able to protect him from the weak light, they wouldn't need to waste any time with hiding so their rest would probably mean only a few hours spent wolf-napping. Their plan was to travel north inland to Icebound lake and then hook west until they reached the Vastdeep. From there, they would follow the coast south until they looped back to the Holt. The trip was designed to give Newt days on the shore so he could soak in the view and knowledge he most desired. But Cloudfern's fever-pace seemed to be designed to make this the shortest Very Long Walk in wolfrider history.
Newt listened to endless lessons from his adopted father about random bits of woodlore. Cloudfern’s knowledge was vast and the younger elf learned a lot. But, oddly enough, whenever the two tried to delve deeper into conversation the attempts fell pitifully flat. This puzzled Newt, for although the two of them had never had quite the easy closeness that he felt with Greenweave, he and Cloudfern were hardly awkward with each other. But here they were, trotting through the underbrush with fewer and fewer personal words passing between them. The boy swallowed his frustration and disappointment, hiding his feelings from Cloudfern. He had hoped for so much more but his Very Long Walk was not starting off well.
They moved on before sunset and were winding through the foothills of Elder Peak just in time to see the weak, filtered light of the sun turn the clouds red behind the dark hulk of the summit. The valley-filled foothills were cool and quiet in the massive shadow. The sugartrees and willows looked like stationary spirits that watched the travelers pass with unnerving stillness. The environment seemed to press in on them, halting Cloudfern's lectures on woodlore and leaving them both in a solemn mood. The only sound that filled the absence of conversation was the occasional chatter of incensed squirrels.
They spent a night poking about in the foothills to familiarize Newt with the area and let him learn about the important features nearby. Then they headed out into the lowlands to loop around Great Stoneback Lake. They camped upon the shores of the massive lake for two nights. Newt was taken aback by the sheer size of the water. It dwarfed any lake he had ever seen and the thought of seeing the even greater span of the ocean sent a thrill through him. How much smaller would this lake seem to him compared to the Vastdeep?
He tried to say as much to Cloudfern but couldn’t find the right words. He shot a quick sending instead, full of his giddy anticipation. Cloudfern smiled and responded with warmth and encouragement. However, Newt could sense the faint underlying messages that the plantshaper artfully interwove with the main thrust: an image of the threatening, gloomy skies and an overall sense of don’t set your hopes too high. Newt concluded the exchange with what he hoped was a mature nod, but the images of the peerless, wide-open skies above the Vastdeep came rushing back.
They had spent three more nights travelling northwest to the banks of Icebound Lake. Newt had stuck his hands in the water when they first reached it. The lake was high enough in the mountains to stay cold most of the time and it was among the first to freeze each winter. That small touch set Newt's teeth to chattering. He had heard stories about the even colder waters of Sky Mirror Lake and elves taking short dips in that glacier-fed water but the youth was having a hard time imagining anything colder than Icebound Lake right then.
After they left the lake behind, they continued west for two nights, winding through the coastal mountains. The air felt so thin and dry there that Newt had trouble catching his breath. Cloudfern continued to rattle off facts and features of the landscape. Animals, plants, terrain — Newt learned it all. He ignored the stilted feeling growing between the two of them, instead focusing on what was the most important part of the trip in his mind. Each moment that brought him closer to the Vastdeep made him more and more full of anticipation.
It was near dawn when trees gave way to the open, sandy grasslands of the seashore. It was still a long ways to the water itself, but Newt couldn’t bear to rest despite Cloudfern's urgings that they sleep and start out again before sunset. He hopped off Browncoat and went on foot through the milky morning mist toward the wild water he had only heard of.
The air was still and heavy. The tall, slender blades of beach grass were motionless, their bending stalks twisted and posed in positions that echoed some long-gone breeze. Newt pressed through the grass, its stalks dampening his boots and tunic. His feet hit the open sand but it wasn’t the soft and sinking sensation he had prepared himself for. Instead, he stood atop hard-packed, wet sand. The sky was the same slate grey as the ocean and the horizon line was nothing more than a smudgy blur dividing them. Newt found that if he squinted his eyes so tightly that they were almost closed, he could see the darker shapes of the barrier islands masked by fog on the horizon. It looked as though he was standing at the very edge of the world. It was not a pleasant sensation. He stood frozen there, so close to his goal, and tried not to let his disappointment with the view spill out on his face.
Cloudfern shifted at his side, and seemed for the umpteenth time to be about to say something. Newt waited, not bothering to look at his companion. As he anticipated, Cloudfern shut his mouth, placed a gentle but firm hand on his companion’s slim shoulder before guiding him out into the void. They walked to the water’s edge and looked out. The waves were softly rolling but not enough to disturb the scene. Newt had already seen waves bigger than this back at Stoneback Lake.
The plantshaper bent down, pulled a pebble from the packed sand, and turned it over in his palm. Bending his knees and crooking his arm, he whipped the stone out over the gentle waters. It struck the water at an angle and skipped nine times before vanishing. Its ripples sent tiny wavelets back to shore, creating the first strong movement Newt had seen in this dreary landscape. Cloudfern looked at him and offered a small grin. Newt smiled back, but the effort the action had required must have shown in his face, for Cloudfern’s smile dropped and he looked away. Newt gazed back out at the water again, frowning softly. Where were the crashing, white-tipped waves? Where was the sound pounding in his ears so loudly it could be mistaken for his heartbeat? The Vastdeep was as grey and listless as he felt.
They walked up the beach for a while. The sand beneath their feet was too hard to leave more than faint footprints, or any other indication that they had passed. Browncoat and Crowsong spent the time chasing seagulls and splashing in the mild surf. Cloudfern found a place to sit and watch the gently rolling waters and let Newt travel along on his own. Picking his way through crab carcasses, shells and driftwood, Newt let his disappointment consume him. This trip had not gone the way he had planned in any way. His time with Cloudfern had more been awkward and stilted than ever before, the scenery had been shrouded in clouds, and this was not the ocean he had imagined and longed for.
He bent and seized a round stone and flung it out over the grey water as he had seen Cloudfern do. The pebble smacked flat upon the water and vanished with a sucking sound. Newt shrugged at the foggy, quiet sea and headed back to his traveling companion.
They had planned on camping that day by the water, but Newt insisted that they head back toward the trees. The Vastdeep had fallen so far beneath his expectations that to sleep near it would only bring bad dreams. Cloudfern said no words of comfort; instead he simply let the lad lead the way, picking the best path through the woods. It was midday when they were fully surrounded by trees again, but neither elf was sleepy.The day was finally beginning to warm up some and each felt a burning hunger beneath their shirtfronts. Cloudfern let Newt take the lead on placing snares in the marshy area near where they camped. So familiar was Newt with snare-setting, he let his mind wander while he placed them. He was digging into the earth with his blade, preparing to peg his third snare into place when the blade slipped and severed the slender cord all the way through. Cloudfern sighed and threw up his hands.
**Really, lad, you've got to pay closer attention,** Cloudfern prodded. **When you're out and about with nothing but the woods to sustain you, the slightest mistake could mean the end of you.**
"All right!" Newt flung down the ruined snare, the volume of his verbal outburst startling his companion. "All right, so I botched it up good! It's my fault, I get it! But maybe if you'd taken a second to answer some of my questions instead of tossing it off with a 'figure it out yourself' we might be eating right now instead of listening to each other's guts rumble."
Cloudfern stared at the boy and, for a second, Newt held the gaze with a pressing anger. Then the rage faded and was replaced by embarrassment and guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
He stood and marched off into the marsh, though he had no true destination in mind. He let his feet carry him in angry strides until he was far enough away that there was no chance of Cloudfern seeing him. He flopped down on a boulder and smacked his knuckles against the wet stone. It stung, but he refused to acknowledge the hurt.
Why had he picked Cloudfern?
The question was not asked out of anger or regret. Rather, he simply had begun to question his motives. He threw aside any notion that it was because of Cloudfern's woodlore and herbal knowledge; those were rationalizations, not reasons. Perhaps the true reason might have been guilt? Guilt, because, even though he loved both of his fathers greatly, in some deep dark place he knew that of his fathers, he simply loved Greenweave more? No, that wasn’t right. He loved them both equally; there was no doubt of that. But when he woke at midday, plagued with a bad dream or shivering with the hint of a fever, it was to Greenweave that he turned for comfort. When worries fed at the corners of his brain, he sought out the warm loving arms and strong heart of the fisher. He wanted to feel the same way for both fathers, but he didn’t. And that knowledge had pushed him to go against his instincts and turn to Cloudfern for guidance on this essential journey. And between the two of them and the weather they had gone and mucked it.
He raised his fist to smack the stone again, but noticed the scratches caused by his first outburst and though better of it. He sat still until the hot ember of anger dwindled in his chest and gave way to the oppressive weight of disappointment. This was it, his one chance at a Very Long Walk, and it was already ruined. Wanting to escape the dragging sensation, both in his spirit and on his boots, he heaved himself to his feet and launched himself at the nearest tree trunk. He was up into the branches in a few short leaps.
Not wanting to face returning to camp with the bile of his outburst still in his throat, but unable to deny the pull of the travel cakes in his pack, he plotted a path through the tree tops. If he timed it right, he could reach the camp without having to run into Cloudfern. They'd have to meet up sooner or later, but if Newt could help it, it would be later, after the cloud of their fight had lessened.
Newt crouched low, his nose to the mossy branch, and aimed himself forward. A quick launch and he was sailing through the air, hands outstretched. He latched onto a thick birch branch with both hands and let his momentum swing him back and forth until his next landing point came clear. A few moments twisting in mid air, and he was clinging to a burl on the side of an ancient oak. He was about to move on when he caught a whiff of Cloudfern on the air. He flattened against the bark, feeling foolish for the action even as he did it. Newt thanked the High Ones for the pungency of rotting marsh vegetation because the embarrassment of having Cloudfern sniff him out of his hiding place would be too great for words.
Keeping his face pressed to the bark, he peered under his arm down to the forest floor. He followed the familiar crown of pampas hair with his eyes as Cloudfern moved across the leaf strewn path between marshy hummocks with what seemed like an air of determination. A flutter of curiosity rose up through Newt's embarrassment and disappointment, and he ever so carefully shifted his position. He halted and looked down. Cloudfern had not detected his presence. Newt did not have enough confidence in his tracking skills to think that he would fool the plantshaper under normal circumstances. Cloudfern must truly have been lost in thought. Newt scrambled after him, his muscles tensed for detection at any moment. The two traveled like hunter and prey until Cloudfern halted, and Newt cringed for the moment when their eyes would meet and the game would be up. But instead, the older elf flopped down upon a fallen log and thumped his fist lightly against the wood. Newt's eyes flew wide at the familiarity of the gesture. Cloudfern lifted his head, and Newt was taken aback by the expressions that were playing across his father's features: frustration, disappointment, and perhaps a hint of self-admonishment?
Newt leaned closer, and stiffened as he noticed a movement near the other's boot. A silent, slithering, and chillingly familiar shape slipped from beneath the rotting mess of fallen leaves and glided ever closer to the plantshaper's boot. Thick, muscular, shimmering black… even with his blurred sight, Newt could see it was a snowmouth, one of the last breeds of snake to seek a winter den to hibernate in. The snake was aggressive and territorial, but generally didn't tangle with larger creatures unless startled or cornered. Newt caught his breath, mind and body immobilized for a moment with remembered fear. This was the same kind of snake that had sent him into wrapstuff so many years ago. Cloudfern shifted slightly, moving his boot very close the passing back of the snake.
Later Newt's mind would not have been able to piece the moments together in the order they had happened. Perhaps they all happened at once.
The snake coiled itself up and opened its white mouth wide in a threat display. Newt's mind screamed a warning to his father, **CLOUDFERN!** and forced the image of the attack-ready snake into his mind. The plantshaper twisted his head up to see the youth and then, without questioning, or looking down at the snake, froze in place so as not to make any sudden moves and trigger a strike.
Newt's mind went calm and focused. He dropped from his tree, fear forgotten. His knife seemed like an inadequate weapon against the deadly speed and small size of the snake when he was hindered as he was with poor vision. Grabbing two sticks from the ground under the tree, he crept slowly toward the snake. One of his sticks still had a few rust-colored leaves clinging to it and the other had a perfect fork on the end. As he neared the snake, it turned its attention and gaping mouth in his direction.
Cloudfern sent, **Newt! Just be still. It should move on if there is no further threat.**
Newt shook his head and sent back a pulse of **know what I'm doing — determination**
The pale youth held the longer stick with leaves out ahead of him and to the snowmouth's side, keeping his own flesh well out of the way. When the stick got close enough, the snake struck at it and, lightning quick, Newt stabbed down with his second stick, trapping its head between the tines on the forked end and the soft earth. As he pinned the snake, Cloudfern lunged backward over the log and out of the way. Newt's mind was assailed by a burst of pain. He looked over to see Cloudfern lying on his back, with one leg still draped over the log, his foot caught in a branch and twisted at a terrible angle. The older elf still managed to hold himself motionless, despite the pain, while he waited for the all clear.
Newt carefully let go of the stick trapping the snake, making sure that the thing would stay embedded in the ground for the moment. Then he quickly moved to the other side of the fallen log with his adoptive father to watch from a relatively safe place. The snake's muscular body coiled and flailed against its prison until, finally, the moist soil loosened enough that the stick fell over. The snowmouth then made haste for the brushy cover nearby. Newt rose to follow its retreat with his eyes to be sure sure it was truly gone.
He stood looking after it for three steady heartbeats' time, feeling impossibly calm and incredibly tall. Then the surge of power left him and his knees went weak. He sagged against the fallen tree and looked to Cloudfern. The older elf lay on his back, fingers still clutching his own un-drawn knife, with his eyes fixed on Newt as though he was staring at a stranger. Then pain rippled across his face. Newt dropped to his knees at his father's side. He reached out to help Cloudfern as he pushed himself up on his elbows, but the plantshaper waved him off.
"Well played, Newt," Cloudfern said simply. "You," a grimace of pain stilted his words. "You acted quickly." He clapped a hand on the narrow shoulder beside him, and looked as though he was going to say more. Instead he carried his hand on to gesture at his trapped leg. "Help me get free?"
Newt nodded and stood. He grasped the twisted boot and tried to shift it gently. Cloudfern hissed and shot a glare at the boy.
**Stop!** His sending was hot with pain. He cut the sending off immediately, and fought the glare back quickly, but Newt had felt it and seen it. He stepped back, his eyes downcast.
"It's all right," Cloudfern continued aloud, setting the uncomfortable truth of sending aside. "Just come behind me and pull me back when I say to. I'm going to shape the branch out of the way so you won't have to trouble the foot."
Newt nodded and complied mutely, the rush and heroism of his rescue turned to cold embarrassment. Of course that was what his father had meant when he asked for help. Once his father was free he stood back and watched Cloudfern draw the boot off carefully. The foot was already turning a bright red, threatening a deep bruise, and the flesh around the bone was beginning to look swollen.
"It's sprained, but not broken," Cloudfern said, after his inspection was over. "It's going to swell quite a bit though, I doubt I'll be able to get this boot back on. I need to get back to camp and see what I have in my pack to keep the swelling down."
Newt offered a hand and, supporting half of the taller elf's weight, he carefully chose their way back to camp.
Cloudfern flopped down by his pack and began fumbling through it. After a long while of searching, he flung his pack down with a growl of frustration.
“All that foolish time spent packing, going through my entire larder of herbs and what does it get me? Nothing for a puffed up foot, that’s what!”
Newt crawled over to his pack and peered inside.
“What do you mean?”
Cloudfern grabbed the pack and smacked it on the ground.
“I forgot to pack any knitbone. It’s the only thing that will help with swelling this bad, and I have an entire bundle of the stuff all ready to go sitting nice and comfy back in the den.”
Newt perked up visibly.
“Cloudfern, don’t worry,” he said, jumping to his feet. “Knitbone grows in wet places, right? Places with both shade and sun?”
Cloudfern nodded, looking confused.
“Well,” Newt continued. “We passed a small clearing with a stream running through it just a short time back. If there’s any knitbone in this entire forest that’s where it will be!”
Cloudfern looked at the boy, a slow, inscrutable smile spreading across his face. That smile stayed in place all the time Newt was gone, and it was still there when he returned with a fist full of the herb, while he crushed it into a paste and spread it on the bandages, right through to when Newt wrapped his father’s ankle with gentle and firm fingers.
The journey home was quiet, and yet it seemed a little better than before. The air between them seemed just a little more buoyant, a little more full. Newt carried both packs, letting Cloudfern focus only on riding comfortably. When they reached the Thornwall, Cloudfern refrained from shaping an easy way through, instead letting Newt pick a path through the treacherous barrier. When they came out the other side, Newt slowed Browncoat’s pace. Cloudfern went a few paces ahead before he noticed he was alone. Turning, he looked at Newt quizzically.
**I think I’ll walk back from here alone,** Newt answered the unspoken question as he dismounted. **I need a little time just to think.**
Cloudfern nodded and trotted Crowsong closer. He reached down and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. **I’m sorry this wasn’t all you wanted it to be,** he sent, his thoughts laden with impressions of the nervousness of setting off on the journey, of wanting so badly to make this everything it could be for Newt, of the terror of letting the boy grow up, of having to be the one that prepared him for the dangers that the wide world, dangers that had taken so many loved ones over the long years, of how it had stilted his words and tied his tongue for the journey, and of the growing guilt that came with knowing that Newt was disappointed in him. **I tried.**
Newt said nothing back, but instead took his father’s hand from his shoulder and held it tightly. He smiled up at him, and squeezed it. Cloudfern placed his hand on top of his son’s head and ruffled the shaggy white mane. He detached himself and turned toward the Dentrees without another word. He had almost vanished from sight when he turned back a final time.
**Don’t forget, Newt,** he sent. **I owe you my thanks and my life. You've kept this old heart beating for another day.**
Then he was gone, doubtless sending to Greenweave trying to forestall the inevitable flurry of worry that his lifemate would shower him with as soon as his injury was in view.
Newt smiled, and sent Browncoat trotting after him. He sat down right where he stood and leaned his back against the ragged bark of an old birch tree. He let his thoughts pour back over the days and nights before. Perhaps it hadn’t been the journey he had wanted, but there had been lessons learned regardless. He wagered that his head would be full of new thoughts for days to come after these travels.
His reverie was cut short by a rumble in his stomach. He searched through his own pack, and finding nothing to eat, turned to Cloudfern’s. He pushed past bundles upon bundles of herbs in search of anything to satiate the growl that was emanating from beneath his tunic front. He had almost wrapped his fingers around a parcel of dried fish when something familiar brushed his wrist. He let go of the fish and grasped the object. When the boy unfurled his fingers, a look of shock spread across his face but it was quickly replaced by a broad smile. There, spread across his pale palm laid the slender and unmistakable leaves of knitbone. The bundle had been there, carefully placed in order along with the rest of Cloudfern’s herbs. There was no doubt that the other elf must have seen it and known it was there in his pack. Newt knew at once he had been tricked into taking responsibility. And yet somehow, he didn’t mind.
The lad tipped back his head and let loose a great peal of laughter, and had anyone been listening, they might have noticed that it already sounded a tad deeper and a tad older than it ever had before.