Newt rubbed at his eyes and stifled a yawn. He'd been up since sunset, hard at work like everyone else. They were all pushing themselves hard. Newt knew he himself had been rushing about, trying to look after everything and everyone, so he really couldn't blame anyone else for asking him to stay up.
But this gathering trip wasn't necessary. They had plenty of supplies, and yet Cloudfern kept pushing on, finding more and more things he needed to show Newt before they could head for the furs. Newt's head felt like a leaky water-skin, filled and emptied at the same time.
They needed to talk about it. Newt just wished they could have put it off until a time when he wasn't going to be half asleep. But who knew when they'd next be alone together doing something that wasn't vital to the survival of the tribe? He had to grab this opportunity before it was too late.
**I know what you're doing,** Newt lock-sent to Cloudfern, worry in his sending.
"I'm teaching you. Isn't that what teachers are supposed to do?" Cloudfern had crossed his arms over his chest and had turned his back against the tree he'd been working with. Evervale was fast asleep in the cave, exhausted from a night of hard work. The sun would be rising soon — Newt could see the silhouette of Alder Ridge darken, heralding its arrival.
"Yes, but you're trying to teach me everything at once." Newt covered his next yawn with his hand and took a deep breath. "It's not that I'm not grateful — I wish to learn as much as I possibly can, as fast as I can — but I can't remember it all at once and right now we're both half asleep." The worry clawed at Newt, bordering on fear. "Why are we really out here scraping tree bark this close to sunrise? The others are all asleep and so should we be. We'll be no use tomorrow night if we stay on our feet much longer."
The way Cloudfern shook his head and gave a laugh sent a chill down Newt's spine. The movement was rigid and the noise far from the joyful or teasing sounds one could expect Cloudfern to make when amused.
Snow fell over Bluestone Cave, its softness a stark contrast to the stiff set of Cloudfern's shoulders. He looked ready to face a blizzard — an impression he gave more and more for each night they spent away from the Holt.
"It's not just with me," Newt said when it was clear no answer would be forthcoming. He stepped to the left so he was facing Cloudfern. It felt like there was a fissure between them, widening with each beat of Newt's heart. "I've seen how you push Evervale when you shape together."
Something shifted in Cloudfern's expression, as if there had been a sending he'd stopped short of sharing. "Evervale knows what's at stake, just as much as you or I do."
"I'd understand if you were pushing her to work faster," Newt said, the words rushing out of him like water from a broken flat-tail dam. "But you're pushing her to do more and more complicated things. She can't remember everything at once anymore than I can. It's like you…" It wasn't a realization. The path to the most reasonable explanation had been clear for Newt for quite a few nights; he'd just been unsure of the best way to talk about it with Cloudfern. Perhaps being blunt would work best? "It's like you're expecting to drop dead at any moment."
Cloudfern flinched. Without a word he turned his back on Newt and went back to scraping off tree bark.
A part of Newt's tired mind tried to recall what they'd need that much bark for. The rest was a stampede of panicked ideas; what if he'd read the situation wrong and something else was amiss? Could Cloudfern be sick?
The thoughts were brushed aside, pushed to the back of Newt's mind where they'd be nothing but a niggling doubt. Because Cloudfern didn't look sick — only very tired and that was of his own making. As much as Newt trusted Cloudfern, this was getting out of hand. The strangleweed wrapping itself around Cloudfern, making him act like this, needed to be pulled out by the root.
"I heard you talk to Otter," Newt said, switching tactics. "Shouldn't you take your own advice?"
"You think I've been acting like Otter?" Cloudfern asked, calm as you please. To a listener not paying attention, at least. There was an edge to his words that spoke more of worry than of affront.
Newt dug his teeth into his bottom lip. How did one tell their elder, their father, they were being reckless? Not that Cloudfern had been jumping head first at any stink-bears, but working oneself to exhaustion could be just as bad.
Otter's stubborn bravado might be foolish — and Newt really didn't want to think about him right now — but was Cloudfern wearing himself and his apprentices to the bone any better? Working like they had been, there was so much Cloudfern had to teach again and again, leaving them dead tired and none the wiser. There was nothing to gain from this, only things to lose.
"You can't teach me all I need to know in one winter," Newt found himself saying, reaching out for Cloudfern both with his voice and hand. A hand Cloudfern side-stepped.
Newt flinched, but didn't back down.
"You've learned much already," Cloudfern said, keeping up the task of scraping bark, "and you've mended tribemates without my aid more than once. There isn't much left for me to teach you. I see no reason to hold back knowledge."
"But I've not lived as long as you," Newt said. "You can't give me all the experience you have in one night, no matter how many sendings you share with me."
"Well, I can try!"
The fierceness of Cloudfern's shout had Newt gaping, lost for words. For a moment the only movement were the light flurries of snow falling around them. Cloudfern's teeth were bared in an uncharacteristic snarl and his eyes were burning — but with what emotion Newt couldn't tell.
The snarl melted away into a look of shock Newt knew had to mirror his own. Cloudfern turned back to the tree yet again, but he didn't resume his work. Instead he hung his head, as if looking at his idle hands.
Newt swallowed against a lump in his throat and reached out. This time Cloudfern didn't side-step. He even let himself be pulled into a hug.
"Every time we lose someone, we lose so much more than a tribemate," Cloudfern whispered against Newt's hood, the fabric muffling his words. "There is so much knowledge that has been lost to us."
Newt held on to Cloudfern, searching for words that would calm while pushing against his own worries. That they might lose tribemates to the Fierce Ones was a stark reality they all had to live with.
"Lost things don't stay lost forever," he hurried to say before he could give in to his own worries. "We rediscover old skills all the time and old magic comes back. No matter what happens, we recover and grow stronger."
Those weren't empty words of comfort either. Their tribe had survived so much, despite everything the world had thrown at them. The loss of a tribemate was a very real danger, but the whole tribe being diminished forever or worse yet, decimated? Not impossible, no, but very unlikely. And the best way to prevent it from ever happening was staying calm and working hard; not wasting their time trying to do or learn everything at once.
Cloudfern's silence lasted so long Newt felt the urge to say something more. But before he got the chance, Cloudfern spoke:
"When I learned I was a plantshaper my grandfather, Cedarwing, had been…dead for—" Cloudfern cut himself short. Out of the corner of his eye Newt could see Cloudfern had closed his eyes as if in deep concentration.
It took another five heartbeats before he continued speaking. "Two turns. He'd been dead and gone for two turns of the seasons, and Brightwood was in wrapstuff. Sunlight was a good mentor, but…she didn't have the experience my grandfather, her father, had. She never got the chance to learn all there was to learn from him. And when the flood came… I never got the chance to learn everything she knew either."
Cloudfern's arms had closed tight around Newt, his grip firm, bordering on painful.
"If Willow had a teacher," Cloudfern said, his voice heavy with time and memory. "If we had a stronger healer, a more experienced healer, how do you think that would have changed things for us?"
The mention of Willow's name brought up less than pleasant associations for Newt. He remembered how things had been between her and Cloudfern after she'd healed Brightwood. How long it had taken Cloudfern to return to his old self and how much help he'd needed to let go of old, terrible memories.
He wasn't walking the exact same path now, but it was just as dark.
"Sunlight built the Thornwall," Newt said, digging his fingers into the blue cloth of Cloudfern's winter tunic. Not looking to hurt Cloudfern, of course not, but hoping the sensation would give him something of the here and now to hold on to. "And between them, Suddendusk and Beetle have probably made up more new things and ideas than any of our ancestors ever knew."
Cloudfern's grip on Newt slackened, but he didn't draw back. Newt chose to take that as a good sign.
"There is much I would have liked to have learned from elves who are gone now." His parents came to mind. The image of the three of them was so strong he had to resist the urge to bury his face in Cloudfern's white fur collar to hide from them. "So much. So many elves I would have loved to just talk to."
Newt paused to take a deep breath, pushing aside any grief that might rear its ugly head. This wasn't the time for that. "But I also want to talk and learn from all the new elves who haven't been born yet. Who'll think of things I've never thought of and who'll have skills no one has ever had before. Even the High Ones didn't know everything. If one elf can discover and learn how to do a thing, a new elf after him or her can do so too. It might be slower without help, but no knowledge is lost forever."
Pulling away from Cloudfern was a bit of an effort, but Newt managed to lean back enough that they could look each other in the eye without craning their necks. "No elf can ever learn everything another elf knows, and no ancestor ever held all the secrets of anything. I think you know that. And I know you want to do everything you can to keep us safe. So could you please keep yourself safe too? Because that's what we need the most right now."
For a moment all Cloudfern did was stare at Newt, eyes a little wide, expression almost blank. Newt's heart leapt into his throat, but he force himself to remain in place and wait instead of speak.
The tired smile that finally tugged at Cloudfern's lips pushed a weight off of Newt's shoulders. "Well, you've always had a way with words that I'll never learn." Cloudfern's hands moved from Newt's back to his shoulders. He pulled Newt forward until their foreheads were resting against one another. "I am grateful to have you as my son and apprentice both. Though I honestly feel you are ready to be a herbal healer in your own right."
Despite the weariness clouding his mind and the snow cooling his head, blood managed to rush to Newt's cheeks in a weak blush. The praise warmed him up from inside, though it was the change in Cloudfern's demeanor that had Newt relaxing his posture.
They stood there, drawing warmth and strength from each other's company until a fine layer of snow had formed on their heads and shoulders.
"I think sleep would do us some good," Cloudfern muttered at last. Newt could hear him stifling a yawn, but didn't comment on it.
As they started making their way back to the cave, a question popped into Newt's head. "What were we gathering that bark for?"
Cloudfern laughed; not a completely happy sound, but worlds better than the last one he'd let out. "You know," he said, smiling in a way that approached being embarrassed, "I'm honestly too tired to remember."