(Ed. Note: This is a direct sequel to ”Missing”.)
He didn’t know what he had meant to do, until he was doing it; until he had been swimming for so long that it was a surprise to come back to himself and find that he was far out to sea.
True, he had entered the water deliberately. He had taken off his boots, his tunic and shirt, leaving them carefully folded beside his lovemate. He had walked into the surf until he could no longer stand, and only then started to swim. It almost felt as if something had pulled him into the waves, some deeply buried instinct. They had not found his Recognized’s body in the river or on the land, and that meant that it must have been swept out to sea. Was he still trying to find her, or was he simply following her?
He realized that he wasn’t sure of the answer. He could have just allowed the sea’s waves and current to take him, but somewhere deep inside, the drive for life was too strong to allow that. He swam instead of sinking, searched instead of surrendering.
It was the cry of a seabird near his head that made his swimming strokes falter. He came to a halt slowly, feeling all of a sudden the leaden exhaustion in his arms, the tightness in his chest, the deep chill of the water. He floated on the long ocean swell, while a hand-and-a-half of gulls hovered around and sometimes dove close to him, calling, curious if this elf so far from land meant food the way one near shore often did.
As he bobbed up at the top of one of the waves, he saw with surprise how far from land he really was. He couldn’t even see the beach or the mouth of the river in the darkness. The hills of the Holt were a low black line on the horizon, barely visible against the stars, and even the soaring shape of Elder Peak was smaller than he would have expected. Twisting in the water, he could also see how close he was to Twin Peaks island, closer than he had ever been. He couldn’t tell how long he had been swimming.
He was gripped by fear, then, when he understood what he’d done. He didn’t think he’d wanted to die… but he couldn’t remember what was in his mind when he’d left the shore. He thought that perhaps, he hadn’t been thinking at all. Maybe some part of him had believed he could find her… but not a rational part. The sea was far too vast, and it had been far too long. Somehow he must have needed to prove it to himself, needed to search the last place that could be searched — but what a fool’s errand that was.
And now, he thought, you’re going to die a fool.
He was tired. He didn’t know how he had swum this far. He wasn’t sure if he could swim any further. If he had lacked the desire to truly seek his own death, had something within steered him this way until death was inevitable? He hadn’t allowed the waves to claim him, but he had driven himself until he might no longer have a choice in the matter.
But he didn’t want to die. Maybe there had been times in the past few months when he nearly had wanted it, but at this moment, finally, he did not.
If there was a worse place to come back to himself, and feel the urge to live, Raven couldn’t think of one.
The gulls still called overhead, but they were losing interest in the elf head bobbing in the water. He tried to send, but felt nothing in answer; he was too far from shore.
He had a choice, he told himself grimly. He could swim, or he would sink. Even treading water used up precious energy, and the cold was settling into his bones. Staying in place would only prolong the inevitable. Swimming might use up energy faster, but it would make him warmer, and more important, it might get him to shore.
But which shore? He turned in place slowly, rising with the waves and falling into the deep valleys between them. He wished he had some sense of how long he had been swimming, but the moons weren’t in the sky, and he couldn’t get his bearings by the stars, not the way he was being tossed around. Could he make it back to land? Or was the island nearer? How close was he to either of them? That was the problem, he didn’t know. The island was closer than he’d ever been to it, but that didn’t tell him how much further it might be. It certainly felt like he was far from land, but he couldn’t know, exactly. He only knew that he had to make a choice.
The island, he decided finally. Its dark bulk seemed to fill the entire horizon, when he faced in that direction. Its peaks looked taller now than Elder Peak did in the other direction. He had to be close, and it might be his only chance.
It was harder to swim now that he was thinking about it. Raven wished he could have fallen back into that mindless state in which he’d left the shore, in which he hadn’t felt the cold or the pain. But, he told himself, he probably shouldn’t wish it. In that state, he probably would have gone on without thinking until he faltered and slipped beneath the waves, only waking up too late as the water filled his lungs. At least now, he could drive himself towards his goal.
Every time he thought that he wanted to stop, and gauge his progress, he made himself keep swimming instead. It would take too much energy to start again, if he stopped now. He tried to ignore the voice in the back of his mind that said it might be too late, after all.
When a wave rose up and hit him in the face at the wrong moment, causing him to inhale seawater instead of air, he did have to stop, coughing and sputtering. His head sank beneath the waves, and he clamped a panicked hand over his nose and mouth, holding out the water even as his chest heaved with the instinct to draw breath, kicking frantically to regain the surface. It was too long before he had control over his breathing, working harder to keep the choppy waves from hitting him in the face again. His lungs burned, as did the muscles in his arms and shoulders and back.
Turning himself slowly, trying to take what little rest he could, he saw that the island seemed closer. But not close enough. The surf was rougher here, closer to its shore, and that would make swimming harder. He couldn’t tell how far there was to go. He couldn’t see whether there was a safe place to make landfall, whether there was beach instead of sheer cliff and rocks. He wasn’t sure how long it might be until dawn. He couldn’t stay where he was, but he wasn’t sure he could move.
It was when he was telling himself that he had to move, that he heard the noise.
It was different from the cry of the gulls, which he could hear in the distance, closer to the island. This sounded like… the snort of a bull elk on a still morning during the rut, or the grunt of a large brown bear, opening a carcass; only louder, much louder, and nearer, there in the water with him. He panicked again for a moment, thinking bear!, even though a bear would never be found this far out at sea. But realizing that it couldn’t be a bear didn’t comfort him, because if it wasn’t, then what was it?
Twisting in the water, trying to look everywhere at once, it was long tense minutes before the sound came again, and he saw it — starlight silvered on a column of spray, like the steam from a geyser. Then he knew exactly what it was, or close enough.
It was a whale. He’d only seen them from the shore before, far away out on the sea. This was much closer, less than a bowshot away. And suddenly he was thinking of things that he hadn’t before, and wondered how he had forgotten — that he wasn’t alone in the sea, and there were other things to worry about than drowning. There were sharks, large enough to hunt the seals found in the sea-caves along the shore, and so large enough to consider him prey. There were dolphins that travelled in packs like wolves, though they had never offered danger to an elf. There were the great huge whales that had no teeth, whose bodies sometimes washed up on the beach for the elves to examine. And there were the black whales that did have teeth, the sea-wolves who also hunted in packs and could take down anything else in the sea.
This wasn’t a shark, at least; and maybe it was a mercy that he hadn’t thought about sharks until just now. They were fish and didn’t breathe at the surface like this. He thought it was too big to be a dolphin, but wasn’t sure.
Another puff of spray, closer to him now. Whatever it was, was approaching him. Then came a second puff, and a third off to the side, and finally he could see, even in the dim starlight, the tall black dorsal fins rise from the water and slip beneath again. Sea-wolves, for sure.
He stayed as still as he could, but that wasn’t very still. He still had to tread water or sink. And he was in their element. He might as well hope that a wolf couldn’t see him or scent him in the middle of the Broad Meadow as hope that these creatures would fail to sense his pale skin or flailing limbs. In minutes, he was surrounded by shining black backs and dorsal fins of all sizes. He held his breath, wondering if they would just swim on… until something rose before him out of the water, only two wolf-lengths away.
It was a sea-wolf head, he could tell by the markings even if he couldn’t see the eye in the darkness. It rose until the big white spot above the eye was fully out of the water, before it sank back under again. Then he felt something brush his legs, and he twisted, with a wordless yell. But he saw nothing, until after a moment, another head emerged, and floated there, neither rising nor sinking.
He knew he was being watched. He tried to control his breathing, which was already harsh and panting. He tried to keep the movement of his arms and legs calm, and he tried to stare with confidence at where he thought the creature’s eye might be. He sensed more movement around him, heard more huffs of breath, and could now smell the rotten, fishy odor of it. He didn’t take his eyes off the one studying him.
Gradually, it drifted closer, or else he drifted closer to it. It was a wolf-length away now, and then it was arm-length, and he couldn’t help it — he reached out, and touched the black skin above the white eye-patch. It felt slick, and tough. He laid his hand against it, not pushing, just letting it rest there; and all the while, the creature watched him. He could see a glint of light off the dark eye, now.
The moment was broken when the sea-wolf slid back beneath the water. He tried not to feel disappointment. At least he no longer felt afraid; not of the whales, anyway.
Then something bumped his legs, a real bump this time, not a fleeting brush, and he wondered if he’d been too quick to lose his fear. One of the great black bodies was pushing against him, rising under him he realized, upending him until he tumbled off to its side as it passed by. That ducked him beneath the surface, and he came up pawing the hair out of his eyes, trying to regain his position in the water, just in time to see a broad black nose headed his way.
He twisted to avoid it, but the creature was so much bigger beneath the water’s surface that he slid along its length anyway, the edge of the dorsal fin knocking against his arm. No sooner had that one passed by, than another was behind it. This time the creature was turning as it came up alongside him, and the edge of the curved fin on its back hit him in the side, pushing him along for several wolf-lengths before it dove and he was free of it, though it caused him another ducking beneath the waves.
He regained the surface with an effort, coughing out the water he’d swallowed. Fear was being replaced with frustration. What did the creatures want? He couldn’t tell if there was darker intent behind the way they nosed and nudged him, or if it was simple curiosity. He knew that the sea-wolves ate seals, just like sharks did. But if they saw him as prey, he didn’t know why they did not just finish him. He was barely moving in the water, he must have looked as helpless to them as he felt. They hardly needed to stun or disorient him, just to catch him.
His frustration so overwhelmed his caution that the next time one of the huge black bodies brushed against him, he closed his hand around the dorsal fin, and let it pull him along.
He expected the beast to be alarmed, and to dive away from him. Instead, even as it continued to swim, its nose tilted up out of the water, as if verifying that he was clinging to it with its own eyes. It swam like that for many lengths before his grip failed, and almost as soon as he fell away from it, the whale tossed its head, hitting the surface of the water with a smacking sound, and then dove.
A bowshot away, there was a sudden eruption of water, and one of the sea-wolves burst out in a great leap, clear nearly to its tail, before it fell with huge splash and a thunderous sound. He wondered if it was one of those that had brushed by him. Were they all just playing?
A head came up just in front of him again, angling around until the great eye was facing him. On impulse, he swam three strokes until he was beside it, letting the momentum carry him against the large body. His hand rubbed along the white spot, just above the eye; but he couldn’t tell if the creature even noticed him, or not. Unlike animals he was used to, or even birds, the whale was completely alien, its reactions impossible for him to read, if it was reacting at all.
Then, after a long moment, while he held himself in place with his hands on the whale’s smooth skin, the creature moved. It started forward gently, its body lifting to the surface as the head mostly submerged. It wasn’t fleeing from him. He had the strangest thought that it wanted him to stay close to it, and didn’t understand that he simply couldn’t, that he had no strength left to swim alongside these creatures, that he couldn’t have kept up with them even if he’d been at full strength.
But he didn’t want to lose contact with it, either. With the admission that his strength was nearly gone came the knowledge that when the whales finally moved on, and left him, that would be the end of him. He would die out here, and die alone. And he did not want to be alone.
So when the shorter, curved dorsal fin broke the water and he slid along the whale’s body towards it, he reached for it. He caught it with one hand, and then the other, pulled himself up until he could hook his elbow around the leading edge of it, and then just rested there, as the whale swam.
At first Raven told himself that he would hang on for as long as he could; for as long as the sea-wolf would choose to swim at the surface. He didn’t know how long that would be. It could tire of this game at any moment, take a deep breath, and dive. Or the rushing water that broke around its head and streamed along its sides and back would finally tear him away, and the whales would swim on without him. But for now, he clung to the dorsal fin, content to go where the sea-wolves decided to go.
It took all of his concentration just to keep his grip on the whale’s slippery skin. He didn’t notice where they were heading, except that the dark bulk of the island was a constant presence on his left. He didn’t realize that they were angling closer to its shore, until he heard the crash of waves against the rocks, and with a start saw how close to it they really were. Still, he held on, as the whale’s swimming slowed, then finally stopped.
More of its pack were milling around them, heads poking out from the water, sometimes as far as their fins, before sinking back, rolling and diving. The one he clung to let itself sink, until he had to let go or else go under with it. He felt bereft of the contact, and wondered why this, of all places, was where the sea-wolf had chosen to stop carrying him… and then the whale rose again at his back, with him between it and the land, and he looked, really looked at the island, and in the faint light saw the white foam of the waves breaking not against cliffs or dangerous boulders, but along a level, rocky shore.
The sea-wolf had carried him all the way, as near to the shore as the whale could go. He stared in the direction of the creature’s head, but couldn’t see its eye, and anyway, it had no features that he could read. He saw the heads that popped up all around them, the others coming to look before swimming off again; but the one that had carried him seemed to be waiting. It was waiting, he thought, for him to move on his own.
With a slap of his open hand against the whale’s side, Raven pushed himself away, and began to swim towards the shore.
It was slow going. His arms and shoulders still ached, he felt as if he could barely lift them for each stroke, but the thought of how close the island was now urged him on. He was nearly there, and couldn’t give up. Soon the bottom was rising underneath him, the waves becoming higher as they rushed onto the rocky strand to break and crash. The first time his foot touched the rocks of the beach, he nearly sobbed. Getting free of the surf was the greatest struggle yet, as the breaking waves caused him to stagger and knocked him down, and he fought against the ebb of the water rushing back from the beach. He came out of the surf on his hands and knees, and practically crawled until he made it past the line of debris that marked the limit of the tide.
Only then did he allow himself to stop, and fall forward to lie on the rounded stones of the shore, utterly spent.
Raven woke when the sun climbed high enough in the sky to clear the mountain range to the east, on the mainland, and it shone directly on him. He awoke with a start, every muscle stiff, and pushed himself up to a sitting position, staring at his surroundings.
He’d made it. He was on Twin Peaks island. The waves were breaking gently on the rocky beach much farther away than he remembered crawling to get here, so the tide must have gone out. He could see no trace in the sea offshore of the pack of sea-wolves that had helped him. He would have thought he’d dreamed that, but he still felt so weak with exhaustion that he didn’t see how he could have made it on his own.
He was here, on land, and he was still alive. But his struggles weren’t over yet.
He’d made it to the island because he’d thought at the time it was his only chance to survive the immediate threat of drowning. He couldn’t stay here, though. He wasn’t sure how easy it would be to live here, whether there was prey to be had, beyond seabirds and fish, whether he could find shelter or make clothes to replace those he’d abandoned. There was no future here for him on this island, out of sending range of his tribe. If he wanted to continue living, he would have to find a way back to the mainland.
He crouched on the rocks of the beach, staring towards Elder Peak, and taking stock. He still wore his breeches, but that was all, besides his belt and the sheath that had held his knife. The knife must have fallen out during his long swim. That was a pity, he needed a knife. Squinting behind him, at the tall peaks lit up by the early sunlight, he thought that would have to be his first goal; finding rocks to make some kind of knife or axe with.
The he would have to build a raft. If he could find the right rocks for knapping, he could make the tools he’d need to hollow out a canoe… or perhaps he could find enough deadfall logs to make a raft, cutting vines to hold it together.
He could do it, he told himself. His chest tightened at the thought of those he’d left behind. Of Cloudfern, left sleeping above the mouth of the Braided River. Of his daughters, Finch with her lifemate and precious cub Willow, just lately grown to adulthood; of Windsong, a grown huntress herself, but still so devastated at the loss of her mother and her father’s distant grieving.
Losing himself with his Recognized’s loss, he’d hurt them, he knew. And now he’d hurt them further, because they must believe him dead. Worse, they would believe he’d left them deliberately.
Well, he had, after all. He’d left them, and until he could find a way back to the mainland, he might as well have killed himself, for all the good his survival did them.
**Oh Jynis, what did I do?** He sent that out, despairingly, wondering if her spirit could hear him; but nothing answered.
(Ed. Note: This story is directly followed by ”Beyond the Shore (Part 2)”.)