The first thing he had to do, Raven knew, was find water. He might be able to go days without food, but he wouldn’t last long without water.
Walking north made for slow going, since the shoreline was rocky and even the beaches were a jumble of stones. But north was in the direction of one of the island’s mountain peaks, and he hoped he could find a source of the kind of stones he’d need in order to make himself a knife. If these island mountains were anything like those on the mainland, there ought to be a plentiful supply.
By sticking to the shoreline, he ought to intersect the outlet of a spring-fed stream tumbling down from the slopes of the mountain above. The advantage to walking the beach wasn’t only the easier going, though. He also hoped to spot a nesting area for the whitewing seabirds he could see circling in the distance. It might still be breeding season, and if he could find their nests, he might be able to raid them for eggs, or for some of the nestlings.
He tried to remember whatever stories the tribe had told about the islands. He knew that others had visited them in the past. Wasn’t there some story of Lynx having swum the whole way there? Did he remember rightly that Farscout had gone with him, or was that a different trip? He thought that Farscout and Brightwood had gone once, but try as he might, he couldn’t remember the details.
Surely the tribe’s gliders had visited? It wouldn’t be hard to row to the islands, using the small boats the tribe’s plantshapers made for use in the candlefish harvests on Eagle Bay — for the gliders, it would be even easier. But if Kestrel had ever gone, it would have been long ago, before he was born. He didn’t remember her ever speaking of it. Still, he couldn’t imagine that Stormdancer wouldn’t have done it.
It was frustrating that he couldn’t remember anything useful from the stories… but maybe that was the trouble? Maybe there just wasn’t anything interesting about the islands themselves. If there were, there’d be more stories about them, and more elves trying to visit them. He did know that the common wisdom of the elders said that no big game lived on the islands, so they weren’t of any interest as hunting grounds. It seemed they weren’t of any interest otherwise, either — beyond those who were adventurous enough to want to say they’d made the journey.
Well, he had never had any intention of adding himself to those who could claim to have done it, he thought glumly, and yet, here he was. And the most he knew was that he shouldn’t expect to find good hunting… even if he’d had weapons to use, or made them.
Could he swim back? As he walked, he studied the sea and the distant shapes of the mainland mountains. It could be done, since others had done it. But Raven wasn’t a risk-taker, like Lynx had been. His recent swim had reminded him of the dangers that lived beneath the surface, and even if it was doable, swimming that far was a risk. It would be stupid to risk his life swimming back, if he could help it. Better to hedge his bets and build a raft, to be safe.
The day was overcast, and it was hard to tell how high the sun had climbed in the sky. Moving during daylight felt odd, but at this point he had little choice. He was thirsty, and needed to find fresh water soon. There also was no real reason to wait for the cover of night — no prey that was active in the dark hours, and nothing that he knew of to hide from. Good as his eyesight might be in the darkness, he could see more, and further, in the day, and in this unfamiliar terrain that might be useful.
He had been walking a long time before he rounded a headland and saw a wide beach and the fan of rocks and silt that marked where a stream flowed into the sea. Thirst made him hurry, though he still picked his way over the rocks carefully. Spraining an ankle or breaking a leg would ruin his plans.
At the outlet of the stream, he found another welcome sight: branches and some tree trunks, a few partly-buried and lying scattered along the bank. He hoped he could find enough driftwood to make a raft, since trying to cut down living trees with just a stone axe wasn’t something he was eager to try. Just thinking about it made him realize again how much the tribe relied on its plantshapers… and then he could not help but groan aloud as a fresh vision swept over him, of Sunlight, his Recognized, patiently teaching her magical skills to Cloudfern, long years before he and Raven had become lovemates… The only plantshapers in the tribe, save for Brightwood, long sleeping in her cocoon beneath the Dentrees.
So now his lovemate Cloudfern was the only one left. And Raven had been so consumed by his grief for Sunlight that he hadn’t stopped to think of the burden her death left to fall on his lovemate’s shoulders. Yet another way he had failed those he loved, he thought bitterly, disgusted now that he realized how selfish he’d been.
Then he shook himself, pushing back the tangled hair that fell into his eyes, and taking a deep breath. He couldn’t change what he’d done. The only thing he could do to make things right was get himself back to the mainland, back to his daughters and his lovemate, back to the people who needed him.
Reaching the stream, he followed it back into the forest above the shore, until its waters ran clear and free of the ocean’s salt. There he knelt and drank from his cupped hands until his thirst was quenched.
Sitting on a rock above the stream, he surveyed the area and thought through his options. He would keep an eye out for something to carry water in, but until then he would have to stay near the stream. He could search this beach, and further upstream, for the stones he needed. With luck he could find enough driftwood between the stream and the beach to make as much of a raft as he would need. He hadn’t been lucky enough to find a seabird nesting site yet, but he could see a headland, hazy in the north, that he could explore while searching for driftwood. Even if the rocks didn’t hold bird nests, he hoped he could find shellfish there, since it looked as if the headland extended out beyond the line of low tide.
That only left the need for something with which to hold the raft together. Raven eyed the forest critically. Early summer was at least the right season for harvesting the inner bark of trees to make cordage. There were various trees he could use, but finding cedar would be best. The trees he could see so far looked the same as those he would find on the mainland, so he should have no trouble finding red cedar here. But to harvest its inner bark, he would need a knife, so that would have to be his next project.
A short search through the rocks along the streambed, and he was able to arm himself with what looked like a good hammer-stone: a rounded rock, with no cracks or fault-lines, that fit comfortably in his hand. He knew what to look for, from long experience, but it would still take some hunting and testing to find the right kind of stone to knap into a knife. Luckily, there was a wide range of larger rocks to use as an anvil.
Then followed the familiar, tedious task of picking through the stone-fields, looking for likely candidates. Each one he turned over in his hands, placing it on a flat surface and giving it a few strikes with the hammer-stone to see how it flaked. Some he set aside for more work, while others he threw away immediately.
The light was becoming dim under the cloudy sky when Raven finally decided he had enough to work with. He missed his well-made antler tools, but he’d been able to locate a few naturally-weathered narrow stones that would serve for the fine flaking work needed to perfect the knife’s edge.
The first stone he started working on proved too brittle. It broke into small pieces that, at home, he might have fitted to handles to use for fine cutting work, but here they were useless to him. The next was hard going, but its rough weathered surface finally flaked off to reveal a smooth reddish-brown veined interior. One of his strikes broke off a flake as long as his finger, that he held up to reveal an edge so fine that it was translucent, sharp enough to shave fur off living skin without damage. He tested it against the fine hairs on his forearm, whistled, and grinned, setting that flake aside, even though he doubted he would have a use for it. If he could just avoid ruining this stone, it would make exactly the kind of knife he needed…
Of course, he ruined it on the fifth stroke. It split along one of the veins in exactly the wrong place, and neither piece he was left with would fit comfortably in his hand without attaching a hilt. He needed something big enough for the untouched part of the stone to serve as a handle, or he’d cut his fingers to ribbons before he managed to cut the strips of bark he needed. Frustrated, he growled, hauling back and letting fly the piece that remained in his hand, then running his fingers through his salt-stiff, tangled hair.
The growl strained a throat gone dry again, and made him cough. So with a sigh, Raven got to his feet, walking upstream to drink. Shouldn’t get so worked up, he chided himself. Back at the Holt, an evening’s knapping could result in as many failures as successes, that’s just the way it was. A stone that broke in a way you didn’t want could maybe be repurposed into arrowheads or something; or even if not, it didn’t matter, just pick up the next rock and try again. Knapping was an art, and the material didn’t always cooperate. He wasn’t a young cub, to get discouraged at the first set-back.
But being stranded here put him on edge, he admitted. He wasn’t usually an impatient elf, but now he was anxious and restless. He felt the pull of the mainland, the pull of his tribe and kin, and it was hard to accept the many tasks that lay before him until he could try to return. He didn’t want it to take days to find the perfect stone for a knife, he wanted to get on with everything else he had to do. It wasn’t easy to accept that everything took longer than he was used to, or that he’d have to make trade-offs to do it — spend his time finding food, or working on a knife, or finding wood, or making cord to bind a raft together.
It just all took time — time to do, and time to do well, and there wasn’t any sense in rushing. He could almost hear the calm voice of Chieftess Easysinger telling him that, as a young cub, and that brought a small, painful half-smile to his face. It wasn’t so long since the tribe had lost her, too. But now he knew much better what Blacksnake had gone through.
Three more stones failed him before he was able to shape a useable blade. He nearly held his breath as he used a smaller, narrow stone to flake fine chips from the edge, creating a serrated cutting tool. But this stone, banded with colors of greyish brown and red, held its shape right up to the leaf-tip point. He forced himself to go slowly, afraid of ruining it in his eagerness, but with a few more pressure-flakes, he held up the shaped stone, and finally saw a knife.
It looked unfinished, with one long cutting edge the length of his hand, but the side opposite the tip only knapped to the length of his thumb. The rest of the rough stone would serve as a way to grip it. For a moment, he felt satisfied, and reassured now that he had something that could serve as tool and weapon both. Then he blinked, and looked around, realizing that the dusk light was almost gone, and it had taken him a day to get only this far. He was thirsty again, and his hollow stomach reminded him that he’d had nothing to eat.
“Still,” Raven said softly aloud, hefting the primitive knife in his hand, “that’s something. And tomorrow will be better.”
Standing and stretching the stiffness out of his back and shoulders, he turned upstream to his drinking place again. He had a brief urge to keep going, to walk in the rapidly fading light to the north, where he might find food. But he’d been awake and moving since the early morning, and he had to rest sometime. So he made himself a bare, cold camp on the grass of the bank above the streambed, and tried to find sleep.
The next day Raven walked north again, to the jutting headland where he’d hoped to find seabird nests. Arriving, though, he spotted only the birds themselves, and no nests. That was bad luck, but at least he’d rightly guessed that the rocks that had tumbled off the headland and come to rest in the sea supported large mats of thick black mussels. So he set to work collecting those.
Instead of testing his knife’s edge on the rocks and the tough fibers the mussels used to cling to them, he cast around until he found a stone with a crude natural point, and used that to scrape the shellfish off. There were plenty of rocks on the shoreline that he could use to crack the mussels open. It wasn’t too much work, and he could have his fill of the plump orange flesh inside, seasoned with sea-brine.
As he ate, he also attracted an audience. Seabirds came and landed around him, keeping far out of reach along the hard sand washed by the ocean’s waves. They watched him avidly, and squabbled amongst themselves. Experimentally, he threw a smashed-open mussel towards them, and watched them swarm to get it, their cries turning raucous. He was full enough on shellfish now, but he could repeat this another day, he thought, and perhaps throw a stone hard enough to take down one of the birds.
Even better, he found another stream on the northern side of the headland, with plenty of flotsam and driftwood of its own. With the mussels as a food source nearby, Raven immediately decided to move his camp to this stream.
Combing the rock-strewn beach, he dragged a few likely-looking branches to a point above the tide-line. He could see a few larger logs half-embedded in the rocks and the dunes, and investigated those. Some he thought he might work free, able to dig them out with enough time and effort. Some would be beyond his abilities, since he couldn’t shift the rocks. But this was a good start to a raft, and if he couldn’t get all the wood he needed from this beach, he could go back to the next one south and retrieve more.
Just as important as the wood, though, would be something to bind it together. The thing the beach lacked, he realized, was a supply of good seaweed. That baffled him, since it was plentiful on the mainland shore… or was it only plentiful in certain seasons? He’d never paid such close attention to it, since the ocean shore wasn’t his preferred hunting or gathering ground.
Cloudfern would know, came the thought, and with it another rush of emotion: love and guilt, fear and determination all churning in the pit of his stomach. Well, he told himself, soon enough, he’d be able to ask Cloudfern for an answer.
That brought him back to the plan to make cordage out of red cedar bark. That, he knew how to do. So Raven headed upstream, into the forest on the lowest slopes of the mountain, looking for the trees he needed.
It didn’t take him long to find a stand of cedars and get to work. This time of year might not be lucky for seaweed, but it was the perfect time for harvesting cedar bark. The sap was flowing in the trees, making it easy to cut away the tough outer bark to get to the pale layer within. He worked at it until he'd made a cut big enough to peel away long, thin strands as long as his leg. A sense-memory came to him as he worked — himself a small cub, tagging along after his mother Beesting and her lovemate Snaptwig, her showing him how to do it even though he was far too young to hold a knife, and Snaptwig laughing, holding the strips up to measure them against the cub's height.
Snaptwig had died a long time ago, but his mother he had lost on the same day he'd lost Sunlight. They had been out hunting together, with Tallow when the flood had caught them. As blindsided as he'd been by the depth of his grief over his Recognized's death, the fact that his mother was dead, too, had barely impacted him. He felt a wave of longing for her now. She had been so young herself when she birthed him, so unready for motherhood, that even as he was growing up, Beesting had often seemed more like an older sister than a mother — and once he was grown, often more like a friend. It hurt to know that she was gone. It also hurt to think that he had not properly mourned her, or shared the mourning that his brother Bearheart must feel. Another member of his family he'd failed, he acknowledged.
He soon had an armful of the longest strips he could cut. The peeled bark made a white blaze that was visible from the stream, so he could easily find this stand of trees again when he needed more — and he would need more, he knew, but this was enough to start with. Picking up his armful, Raven headed back to his camp site.
There it took some time for him to arrange rocks in the stream to create a small calm pool off to the side. When he was sure his hard work wouldn’t all float away downstream, he submerged the pale bark strips in the pool, weighing them down with smaller stones. Soaking would make them pliable and easier to twist into cord. That done, he headed back up to the cedars to cut more.
Eventually he had a good supply spread out in various stages of processing — soaking, drying after being soaked, and waiting to soak. He used the time he had to wait for the first batch to dry, to go harvest and eat more mussels.
While he was sitting on the rocks by the shore, rhythmically bashing open mussels, a flash caught his eye. Looking up and to the south, he saw a line of dark clouds advancing on the mainland, south of the island. He could just make out Knife Peak in the far distance. The flash had been lightning, at the forward edge of a storm, and as he watched, it came again, arcing from cloud to sea. The mountain at his back blocked his view west, but it was probably a good bet that the storm might overtake the island too.
There wasn’t a great deal he could do about it. His only shelter was beneath the trees along the stream’s bank — not the best option in a lightning storm, but he had nothing better. He hadn’t seen any caves yet, and being exposed out on the beach or on the rocks would be worse.
Finishing off his meal, Raven hurried back to the stream and gathered up all of the strips of cedar bark. He carried them up to the place he’d selected for camp, hoping it was high enough above the stream to avoid flash-flooding when rain fell higher on the mountain. He eyed escape routes that would take him to even higher ground, if necessary — but he hoped it wouldn’t be, since he would only be able to save some of the bark he’d harvested so far.
Sitting in the relative shelter of the trees, watching the daylight rapidly dim as clouds to the west hid the lowering sun, he shrugged. There wasn’t anything more to do, but for what he’d planned to do anyway — use the remaining light to start making cord. So as he waited to see whether the storm would break over him, and listened to the now-audible distant rumble of thunder, he picked up the first piece of bark, and started.
This was an old skill that Raven had learned as a cub, at Snaptwig's side, and he barely had to think about it, as his fingers knew what to do. Fold the strip in half and twist once, so that one strand was on top and one on the bottom, held by his left thumb and forefinger. Twist the top strand forward with the other hand, then tuck it behind the bottom, catching it with his free fingers; the bottom strand became the top. Twist that forward, tuck it down; twist forward, tuck, twist forward, tuck. Slowly the cord took shape, falling away to the side. When he reached the end of a strand, he picked up another and spliced it in on the top-side, making sure it was well-set and integrated before working in the next one on the bottom. Like his knife, the result wasn’t as pretty as it might be if he had the right tools, but he knew it would be strong enough for what he needed it to do.
The rain started with a pattering on the leaves above his head, and he squinted out at it, letting his fingers go on by reflex. There was still blue sky far to the east, over the mainland, but the sky above him now was dark and low, flashing violet with lightning that was followed after only a few counts by thunder. The storm was moving fast. Soon the scattered raindrops gave way to a downpour that pounded the beach and pebbled the water of the stream and the ocean beyond. Beneath the trees, rivulets of water dripped down on him steadily, but he was spared the worst of it. And soon he was glad of the branches above him, when white pellets of hail began bouncing off the rocks below.
But, though the stream did rise, becoming a violent, whitewater torrent, it stayed below the level of the bank. His camp-site was well-chosen, and safe. For now, at least. And though the light was dim, he didn’t need to see very well to continue his task.
Raven watched the storm retreat to the east, as lightning flashes came farther apart and finally the sound of thunder faded. The storm’s clouds and rain-curtains hid any last glimpse of the mountains of the mainland in the day’s dying light.
Was there anyone there on the mainland shore, standing or sheltering under the storm? More likely, he thought, Cloudfern and the wolves had already left, accepting that Raven had died at sea and there was nothing left to search for. It was no use sitting and hoping that someone might come, that Stormdancer or Kestrel would decide this year of all years to fly back to the islands. There would be no reason for Bearheart, Finch or Windsong to come to the shore. They had accepted their mother’s and grandmother's death without needing to see her body, and they would accept his, too. Unless he did something about it, they would go on thinking he had abandoned them — they had every right to think it, too, he told himself, because that was what he had done.
The only remedy for the regret and self-disgust he felt was action. So even as he gazed out over the sea, watching the storm and wondering if it had swept over the Dentrees yet, his fingers worked, and the length of rough cord grew beside him. He could do this. One step at a time.
(Ed. Note: This story is directly followed by ”Beyond the Shore (Part 3)”.)