The rain continued off and on throughout the night, along with gusty winds, and made for uncomfortable sleeping.
At first light — dim and grey under cloud cover — Raven resumed twisting the red cedar bark into cord, using up the remainder of what he’d originally cut. By the end of it, he had a little over two wolf-lengths of finished cord coiled beside him. He would need more than that to bind together a sturdy raft.
So after another visit to the rocks for a breakfast of mussels, he turned around and made his way upstream, to the stand of cedars he had found earlier.
It wasn’t as easy a walk this time. The stream was still swollen from the rains, at times forcing him to walk up on the banks and make detours into the forest around tangled undergrowth. In places the bank had given way, and the ground was soggy and treacherous beneath his feet. New streamlets were cascading down from the heights above, joining the established stream, and where the slope rose steeply he could see the white plumes of waterfalls that hadn’t been there the day before. He was lucky the flood hadn’t risen higher in the night.
This time, he cut as much of the white inner bark as he thought he could lift, and used the cord he’d made already to bind it into a bundle for easier carrying. He had to make another soaking pool for it — the first one he’d created was deep under fast-running water now — but soon enough, he was able to sit down and get back to work, adding length to the bark cord.
Another day of this, Raven thought, and he might have enough. At least he could start on the raft, then.
After a short period of clear skies, when the soaked forest and the beach steamed under the sun, clouds moved back in, and then rain chased him back under the partial shelter of the trees. Gusts of wind from the west came down over the mountain’s ridge and set the trees above him swaying. By the time he had finished off the bark he had gathered that morning, the last drizzle was done, though the clouds still hovered. Judging from the light, he ought to have plenty of time to make it back to the cedar grove for another harvest. He could eat again after that, and still have time to add to the growing coil of cord before the light completely failed for the day.
The forest was dripping wet. The rain would be welcome on the mainland, he knew, but he hoped these storms had not caught anyone by surprise. As soon as the vision of more tribemates caught in flash-floods came to him, he shook his head sharply, and turned his thoughts to something else, anything else. Instead of another meal of mussels this evening, should he try to bring down one of the seabirds that always gathered to watch him, hoping for scraps? The shellfish were easy to get, and he liked them well enough, but eating nothing but was monotonous. He wanted the taste of real meat, and fresh blood.
As he stripped the bark from another of the cedar trees — he couldn’t bring himself to do so much damage to a single tree that it might be killed — the rain started again, softly at first. “It has to stop sometime,” he muttered, flicking his rapidly-soaked hair out of his eyes.
The rain became steadier, and the wind rose again in the trees. The pile of bark strips beside him grew. It was half the size of what he could carry back, so he kept on working. At least he wouldn’t need to soak the strips for long, he thought with a snort.
The first rumble of thunder he heard was far off, and he hadn’t even seen the lightning. Between the mountain’s slopes like this, he didn’t have a good sense of which direction it had come from. If he could make it back to his camp-site before the worst of the storm, he would rather be there than here. The danger of lightning might be greater near the open area of the shore, but it would be easier to get out from underneath the trees there, should the winds become worse. He didn’t like the idea of being deep within the forest when branches might start falling.
Looking at the bark-strips pile, Raven decided he had enough for now, and quickly used the cord to bind it all up. Balancing it on his shoulder and back made for awkward walking. It was harder to slip between the trees. Tucking his knife handle-side down into the waistband of his trousers at least gave him one hand free for balance when he had to pick his way over rocks. The thunder sounded louder now, but still there was no lightning. He was moving as quickly as he could. Just beyond the treeline, along the open streambed, he could see the branches and tops of trees swaying in the wind that whistled down the funnel of the valley. When he heard a sharp crack, far off, at first he thought it was lightning, then realized it was a branch or a tree breaking.
Then came a rumbling, grinding sound, from his right and above him, that he soon realized wasn’t thunder. He doubled his pace, heading for the streambed, even though there was almost nowhere to go. The water was too high and fast for him to walk along it, but he didn’t like being hemmed in by the trees — he couldn’t see anything. The rumbling kept on, and was growing, along with cracking sounds, and he knew the danger he was in now. There was a rockslide, or a mudslide, soil weakened by the soaking rains and triggered by waterfalls and the wind tearing at the trees. He just didn’t know which way it was coming, or which way safety lay.
Without a second thought, he dropped the bundle he was carrying and sprinted on an angle for the stream. If it was a choice between the flood and the slope above falling down on him, he’d rather take his chances with the water.
The growing sound — of growling earth and cracking timber — hit his ears first, then the smell of the dirt and the broken wood, and then the ground beneath him heaved. He wasn’t going to make it to the stream, unless he was thrown into it. He had no choice in the matter now.
His hands clawed instinctively at the branches around him. Handholds were ripped away from him, and he slammed against one tree-trunk, bouncing off it to land almost straddling another. He tried to get purchase with his feet, some idea in his head of riding it out, of climbing above the avalanche of debris, but he lost his footing immediately, slipping to fall between tumbling trunks. He knew the danger of being caught between them and scrambled to get back on top.
The jagged edge of a broken branch ripped across his leg, and Raven yelled hoarsely at the sudden, searing pain. He fell again, half-draped across a thick pine branch that smelled sharply of sap and heartwood. The slide of earth was slowing, the rumbling almost done, trees creaking where they came to rest against each other, bending limbs to the breaking point and beyond. He clutched the branch and with his foot sought something to brace against below. Then the top half of the pine tree came down just as the tree beneath him gave way, and he fell an abrupt wolf-length before his head hit the trunk below and blackness came over him.
He couldn’t have been out for long, there was still light in the sky when Raven opened his eyes again. The rain was gone and the only sound was dripping and the creaking of timbers settling from the landslide. He woke to pain, in his head, his ribs, and leg, but cautious movement and an exploration with his hands didn’t turn up any wounds worse than what he remembered of the branch tearing his right leg. Thank the High Ones, nothing felt broken, not even his sore ribs.
But his first attempt to move, and extricate himself from the tangle of branches he’d fallen in, ran into unexpected difficulty.
He couldn’t move his head. Or at least, he could only move it so far before a sharp tugging on his scalp stopped him. Trying to twist to see the problem didn’t work, either. It rolled his ribs uncomfortably on the tree trunk beneath him, and his head couldn’t turn far enough to see, before the pain stopped him.
Reaching back, his fingers probed the back of his head. They met the lump where it had hit the tree and knocked him out. Everything was still so wet that he couldn’t tell by touch if it was bleeding or not; the smell of the blood from his leg overwhelmed anything else but the sharp smell of pine sap and fresh-split wood…
Raven groaned, realizing just a moment before his fingers found the problem. The scent of pine was all around him, he was half-sitting within the top branches of a long-needled tree. Flowing sap covered the ends of those breaks and was oozing all around him. The stickiness he had found in his hair wasn’t dried blood, but sap — and it had glued his head to the tree.
He didn’t relish the idea of pulling that much hair out by the roots, especially when he couldn’t see how far the tangled portion extended. It felt like a long way, and now that he had the sap on his fingers more of his hair was sticking to them. He let out a long breath in a sigh of relief when he remembered tucking his knife into the waist of his trousers. If only he hadn’t dropped it — but no, that wasn’t another branch digging into his left buttock, it was the knife. He groped around for it awkwardly, and cut open his finger on the edge before he got it free.
It wasn’t easy to get both of his arms into the right position for one hand to hold his hair, and the other wielding the knife to cut it. He had to find each sticky area by touch, and then figure out its limits, and then slowly and carefully saw at it with the knife’s sharp edge. He had to lift his head at times to get a sense of where it was still stuck. But after what felt like ages, it was done, and he was able to sit up fully, pulling his head free. It felt odd without the weight of so much long hair shorn from the back.
Faced with climbing out from his awkward perch in the branches, he tucked the knife back into his trousers. He needed both hands — especially when it became clear how badly his leg was hurt. He gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it, though it throbbed and protested sharply at every movement. It wasn’t broken, but he wondered how hard it would be to put his weight on it, once he was free.
Finally standing on the jumbled ground, Raven got a good look at the leg, and wished he hadn’t. There were two long, parallel gashes, one of them deep and still bleeding. There were splinters still in the wounds, and one of them looked big. He could grip that one, and did, pulling it out with a strangled groan to see that it was as long as his fingers. Blood welled up anew, and he pressed his hand over the wound, breathing hard.
This was bad. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, he didn’t think he was in danger of bleeding to death, but he needed to do something about it. Taking the knife in hand, he slit his torn trousers up to mid-thigh, and cut away the loose leather. He was able to slice that into strips, not as long as he’d like, but they would do for binding most of the wound, at least the worst part. He tied off the makeshift bandage loosely. He knew he’d have to unbind it again when he reached a place to rest — his camp-site, if he could make it that far — in order to clean the wound out. That, he was not looking forward to.
He found that he could walk, even though it was painful. Surveying the mess of broken trees brought down in the mudslide, he found a branch long enough to use for a walking-staff, and broke it off from the rest. Then he made his slow way downstream, limping towards the sea.
In the last of the day’s light he sat down on the rocks of the swollen stream, below his camp-site, and unwound the dark-stained bandages from the leg. The gashes were on the outer calf, difficult for him to examine closely, and he had to probe within the wounds trying to find bits and pieces of the branch’s splinters, hissing all the while. Then he stuck the entire leg into the rushing water, hoping the cold would help to numb the pain. Cutting off one of the ends of the leather bandage, he used that to scrub at the wounds, wondering how much good it would do. It hurt so much that he couldn’t tell whether anything was still embedded. He’d gotten out the largest pieces, the ones he could feel. He hoped the bleeding and the water had flushed out the rest.
He re-bound the gashes tightly, then heaved his way out of the stream and up onto the bank, flopping down on his back and finally resting. It wasn’t a comfortable rest. His leg throbbed, and his ribs ached, and he had to prop his head at an odd angle to avoid the tender lump on the back.
Raven sighed. The worst part wasn’t his injuries. He’d been lucky, incredibly lucky — that he wasn’t dead, that he could still walk at all, even slowly. The worst was that he’d lost all of the cedar-bark cord that he’d made so far. It and the bark strips he’d cut were probably buried somewhere under the edge of the landslide, days of work wasted. So that set him back, and it now wouldn’t be as easy a walk upstream to collect more bark to start again.
But that was what he was going to have to do. Tomorrow. For now he was too tired, and hurting too badly, even to muster the energy to go find food. He made his way stiffly to his camp-site, and settled in for a damp and hungry, painful night.
The night’s rest did Raven no favors. He was sore and even stiffer the next day. He didn’t unbind the wounds on his leg to check them, but he felt around the skin above and below the bandage carefully. He couldn’t tell if the skin felt warmer than it should, or not. But it didn’t look too red, at least not yet.
Infection was a concern. It put a time limit on how long he had to get off the island. If infection did set in, then the longer it took him to make his raft and get away, the weaker and less able he would be to contend with the ocean’s waves or row the raft the long distance to the mainland. Once there — if he got there at all — unless he was lucky and found tribemates close by, it would take him days to walk back to the Holt, or for someone to come to him if he was able to reach anyone by sending. Even roughly counting those days, supposing that nothing went wrong or delayed him in getting help, still worried him.
Could he do something himself to postpone the infection? Beyond the cleaning he'd tried to do, that is. There was a good chance that there was still splintered wood deeply embedded in the wound, and it was too awkward for him to probe it deeply and see what he was doing. At the Holt, his lovemate Cloudfern, or Starskimmer, or Dreamberry would have had herbs, salves and poultices on hand that could have helped clean the wound out and ward off infection — things they had gathered over time, in season, and prepared to be ready when needed. But he'd been Cloudfern's lovemate for so long — Raven thought he had some idea of what his lovemate would have used to treat a wound like this. He could remember gathering-trips in the past, Cloudfern putting him to work harvesting this or that, swatting him playfully when his attention strayed from hunting for herbs and instead fixed on nibbling the shell of the plantshaper's ear, trying to distract him into more pleasurable activities...
Raven shook himself, and refocused on the problem at hand: what would Cloudfern have gathered, what was in the poultices and salves he made?
Feverease... but that wasn't meant to treat a fever brought on by wound-infection. It would do him no good in the end. Whistling leaves, maybe... but he know those grew in marshes, and he had not yet found a marsh in his walks around the island. That left out mallow-root as well. Pine-sap, ironically, might help, but not raw. Elder leaves or bark would work as well, but like pine-sap, he would need to grind them, steep them, or mix them with hot water or fat — and for that, he'd need to find a way to make a fire, a problem he had not needed to solve yet. If he remembered one thing from Cloudfern's many lectures, it was not to use comfrey; it helped wounds heal, but could help them heal too fast, closing over and sealing in infection. What he could recall all of the tribe's herbalists agreeing on was the value of yarrow — it was effective even if you only chewed up the leaves and used those as a paste on a wound, and it could be found in meadows and open forests both. Marigold would work as well, if not as readily as yarrow, and it too could be found in meadows.
Raven turned a considering eye inland. He had not seen any meadows, just as he hadn't seen any marshes, and the coastal forest was not what he would have called "open". It was late in the spring, but yarrow should still be in bloom now, which would make it easier to spot, if any was growing. Marigold would grow in the same areas and should be equally easy to see, with its bright-yellow blooms. The question was — how far should he walk, trying to find it?
Every hour he spent trying to find herbs to treat the wound was an hour spent postponing the work he had to do to make a raft to leave the island. If he found the right herbs, and he could use them to treat the wound, it might buy him more time. If he couldn't find them, or not the right ones, the wound would fester and weaken him. He'd have no strength left to make the raft or paddle it to the mainland if he did. He wouldn't be moving fast, no matter what he tried to do.
He pressed the heels of his hands to his tired eyes, then scrubbed at his face. The thing he needed and didn't have was time. He had little of it, now, and had to decide how to spend it.
Searching for herbs to treat the wound might buy him time... but it might also just waste his time, if he couldn't find them. If he focused on building the raft and getting back to the mainland instead... it would still be many days before he could get help for the wound, even if the tribe's herbal-healers would have everything on hand. If he made it to the mainland, and found them... would an infection be too far gone by then, for their poultices to do any good?
By that point, the only way to save his life might be to lose the leg, as One-Leg had not that long ago. If it came to that, he would need others' help. He didn't think he could cut his own leg off.
So, use his time to search for healing herbs he might not find? Or use the time to build a raft, and gamble he could make it to the mainland and find help while the wound could still be helped?
He stared out to sea as he turned that stark choice over in his mind. Then he hauled himself to his feet, choice made. He couldn't face the idea of limping around the forest, and failing to find what he needed. At least he knew he could find the bark to make cord, and find driftwood to make a raft. He knew he could do that, and so that was what he would do.
First, though, he gathered up the ragged long strands of hair left over from cutting himself free of the pine-sap the day before, and for a moment considered knotting them at the back of his head… but for what? Having cut off the rest, there was no use saving any of the long bits. His knife made short work of the strands. It was probably still uneven, but his hair had always been loosely curly and that would hide the worst of it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had hair this short on his head, but it must have been when he was a little cub. The sensation of the shortened locks falling around his face would take some getting used to. He put aside the cut hair, laying it in the undergrowth beside his sleeping-place. He wasn’t sure what he might use it for, but in his current situation, it went against his instincts to throw anything away.
He was making his way slowly, limping over the uneven stones of the beach, heading for the rocks to harvest more mussels, when his luck changed in the most unexpected way possible.
“Highthing! HIGHTHING! HIGHTHING!”
The shrill, unmistakable voice of a Preserver pierced his ears, and Raven spun in place, almost overbalancing at the stab of pain in his leg.
“Chatterhop wait long-long time! Highthing come at last, bring help? Want Chatterhop show where Silver-silk Highthing wrapstuff is?” Before even waiting for an answer, the bug darted down to the elf’s feet and back, and swiped a hand from the top of its forehead to the top of Raven’s. “Highthing is little? Where big-grown Highthings?”
Raven stared dumbly when he realized that the darting, circling Preserver sported a set of colors he had never seen before. None that he knew were quite that shade of deep sky-blue.
“Why Highthing have furry face?” it went on, and zoomed in closer, clawed hands outreached as if to grab onto and tug a lock of his beard. "Is fursoft like Curly-soft Highthing?"
“Wait! Hold up! STOP!” The bug came to a halt, hovering an arm’s length in front of his face. “Who — who are you?” he croaked.
“Is Chatterhop!” it said proudly, gesturing emphatically at its chest. “Chatterhop put Silver-silk Highthing in wrapstuff and guard long, long, looooooong-long time.” It waved its hands in a wide arc, as if to emphasise the time it had been waiting. “Stay here and guard, wait for Highthings to come back and bring help — Skytouch Fly-highthing say so! Chatterhop remembers!”
Raven took in the unfamiliar details, bemused. He’d become so used to the tribe’s Preservers, he’d taken them for granted. They were a constant presence, from his very earliest memories. The idea of a strange Preserver was something he had never imagined. But from its bright-blue body to its pinkish-orange wings, its shocking dark-pink eyes and the bright green tangled-vine hat on its head, there was no mistaking this for any other Preserver he’d ever seen.
Then he understood what it was saying. “Wait, wait a moment — did you say you were guarding a cocoon?”
“Yes! Yes! Furry-face Highthing say right! Only is not guarding one — Chatterhop guarding three!” It held up a hand and carefully counted on its fingers. “Silver-silk Highthing snug-safe in cave-place, and Climb-high Highthing way up in Highrock crack, and one BIG wrapstuff with Whitehair Highthing and Curly-soft Highthing all stillquiet together! Is all good! Chatterhop knows, guards all, visits all to make sure no scritchy-scratchedy nibble-y web-gnawers or nasty-bad creepy-crawlies or bad-bad knifebeaks make holes or tears —”
Raven waved a distracted hand, tuning the bug out again. Three cocoons, four elves by the sound of it? Yet he couldn’t think who those Preserver names might apply to — if they were even members of his tribe. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck when he realized the cocoons here could predate his own tribe’s founding. “But how?” he demanded. “When?”
“Long time, long-long time,” said the Preserver unhelpfully. “Pretty Fly-highthing bring snug-safe Silver-silk Highthing here with Chatterhop, tell Chatterhop to stay and keep watch. Other highthings come, maybe bring to Home-place, but got hurt, so Chatterhop wrap them all snug-safe to wait.” It flew circles around Raven as it explained and stopped suddenly near his injured leg, reaching out one hand nearly to touch the blood-stained bandages. “Oooo! Furry-face Highthing hurt too?”
“Yes, I’m hurt, but I’ll live,” Raven said, trying to piece together the story behind the Preserver’s babbling. Then he quickly added, “But I don’t need to go into wrapstuff, all right?”
“Is right, is right, Chatterhop knows — highthing not hurt bad if walking and talking.” Its tiny legs pumped a mid-air jog. “This time Furry-face Highthing bring help? Bring healer for Silver-silk Highthing and others?”
At the mention of a healer, Raven recoiled. “Healer? I’m — I’m not a healer. We don’t have a healer. Not now.”
It felt strange to say those words aloud — words he hadn’t said, hadn’t even thought in an oak’s age. Once, it had been all he could think about, wondering if his father Owl’s healing magic would come forth in him. If he would be the healer the tribe needed, the healer Owl had wanted to create, mating with Raven’s mother Beesting not long before his own death. But Raven wasn’t a healer. He had stopped expecting it, watching for it, wanting it — stopped thinking about it long ago, when it had become clear that it wouldn’t happen.
“No glowy-gold healer-highthing?” the bug said, in a shocked tone, its face screwing up in a puzzled expression. “Where all highthings go? Did nasty-bad dig-digs chase highthings away from Home-place? But Skytouch Fly-Highthing said would come back! Come back for Chatterhop and bring help for Silver-silk Highthing!”
Raven tried to remember the lore that the Howlkeepers had kept alive in the tribe. “I think… dig-digs are trolls, I guess, so yes — they chased away the High Ones. A very long time ago. I don’t know who your Skytouch Fly-Highthing was, though… all the High Ones are long gone, who knows where. Somewhere else. It was only the wolfriders who came back here.”
“Is true?” The bug’s eyes widened, then its whole expression dropped into almost comical sadness. “Highthings all gone — Furry-face Highthing all alone?”
“No, I…” Raven shook his head. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d tried to have this long a conversation with a Preserver, at least not one where he was trying to explain something complicated. He’d forgotten how maddening it could be. “My tribe, the wolfriders, are elves — highthings. But not very many of us have magic, and we don’t have a healer right now.” He wasn’t sure if the tribe would ever have a healer again. Neither of his own children showed signs of developing the magic, nor did the children of his cousins Blacksnake and One-Leg, at least so far.
“Aww, no glowy-gold healer-highthing to come help Chatterhop.” The bug fluttered down to sit on a rock, resting its chin on its fisted hands and looking the picture of dejection.
“No,” Raven agreed. “But we can still help, surely? We can help guard the cocoons? You don’t have to guard them alone any more — there are other Preservers with the tribe, they can help you.” He pointed towards the mainland, a long row away, and an even harder swim — but an easy flight, even for something as small as a Preserver. “Help is just over there, if you fly over the water and find the tribe!”
The Preserver took off again, and starting flying wide circles around him. “Chatterhop can’t fly across water! Chatterhop must stay and guard Silver-silk Highthing, until help comes. Skytouch Fly-highthing say so!”
Raven tried not to groan too loudly. “All right, I understand that — but here I am, I’ve come. I’m not a healer, and I can’t fly — but I’m telling you, all we need is a little more help, and you can get it.”
“No! Skytouch Fly-highthing say Chatterhop stay!” the bug said with conviction. “Not fly far-away! Not look for other highthings! Wait here and keep Silver-silk Highthing snug-safe!” It shook a rigid forefinger once for each of these imperatives. “Chatterhop do! Keep Silver-silk Highthing and other wrapstuffs snug-safe long-long time. Someday pretty Skytouch Fly-highthing bring healer and help!”
He could have wept, and he cursed himself for blurting out that the tribe had no healer. He knew from past experience that Preservers could out-stubborn the most stubborn elf, once they had a notion in their heads. That almost nothing could divert them from the course of action they’d chosen, once they were set on it. He also knew they could cling to orders with single-minded purpose — whoever the long-ago glider had been who’d given this Preserver its orders, her influence was still in full force. Even in the tribe, Preservers sometimes listened to some elves more than others. He suspected his own ability to issue orders was nothing compared to a High One.
But it hurt almost physically, to have this means to summon help appear when he needed it most… and not be able to use it.
“What if I promise to go to the cocoons, and guard them for you while you fly to get help?” he tried.
“No, is no good!” the Preserver said, as he’d glumly suspected it would. “Furry-face Highthing too hurt to climb to cave-place where Silver-silk Highthing is snug-safe, or where Climb-high Highthing is. Can’t keep wrapstuff safe from nibbles or knifebeaks, or make more wrapstuff to make good again. No, no, no, only Chatterhop can keep-safe!”
Raven scrubbed his hands over his face, and sighed. “All right, bug. All right. I heard you the first three times.” He’d dropped his walking stick in the surprise of the Preserver’s appearance; now he picked it up again, and resumed his slow, hobbling walk towards the rocks where the mussels were.
“What Furry-face Highthing do now?” the bug asked, keeping pace with him by flying wide lazy loops around him. “Go now? Get help? Bring Highthings?”
“Furry-face Highthing is going to get food, because Furry-face Highthing hasn’t eaten in nearly a day,” he grumbled. He wondered if he could convince the Preserver to help him catch something to eat besides mussels. It could spit goo and tangle up one of the seabirds… but being a small, flying thing itself, it would be in danger of the other seabirds mobbing it, so maybe that wasn’t the best idea. “Then I guess it’s back to raft-building.”
The Preserver stuck with him while he harvested and broke open more mussels to eat. It kept bringing him bits and pieces of things it found on the beach — broken shells, an old crab claw, admiring each as it piled them beside where he sat. Then it took to arranging his discarded mussel shells in patterns on the sand. It watched him eat the mussels’ orange flesh, without any indication that it was interested in the food, until it said, “Furry-face Highthing want Chatterhop to make wrapstuff for long-shell meats?”
Raven shrugged. It didn’t seem worth it, but… suddenly, he realized that even if the bug wouldn’t fly to get help, its appearance might still be a gift from the High Ones.
“No,” he said slowly, looking at the Preserver with new eyes. “But if I ask you to wrap something else, will you?”
The bug trilled in what it probably thought was a happy song, flying upwards in a tight spiral. “Yes-yes-yes! Chatterhop can wrap many things! What Furry-face Highthing want Chatterhop do?”
“I’ll show you,” Raven promised, wiping his hands on the remnants of his trousers. Maybe there was a way to start building a raft a lot sooner, without having to take the time he’d feared to make the cedar-bark cord to tie it together.
Heading for the cache of driftwood he had started to assemble above the tide-line, he selected two long pieces, and held them together length-wise. Then he gestured to the Preserver, and pointed at the end. “Can you wrap these ends together?”
The Preserver landed on the sticks, and examined them. “Is all? Is easy!” And in moments, as good as its word, it had spit webbing around the ends of the sticks, until Raven told it to stop. Pink eyes looked over the result quizzically, blue head bobbing about as it tried to puzzle out Raven’s intent. “What Furry-face Highthing make? Is stick-toy? Chatterhop makes many many stick-toys! Want see?”
Without stopping to explain, he hefted the two pieces until the other end was off the ground. “Now this end,” he directed, and the Preserver did it again.
The result was even sturdier than he’d expected it to be… but then, he shouldn’t have been surprised. He hadn’t had much reason to test the strength of Preserver webbing before, but he knew what an effort it took to cut through it. And he knew how strong the fibers were, once the tribe had processed them into silken strands. The cocoons at either end bound the two pieces of driftwood together solidly. He couldn’t shake them apart, or budge them by trying to pull.
It would work, he thought. It would probably work better than the cord ties he’d planned to make. If he remembered correctly — and he could test to make sure — Preserver webbing didn’t absorb water. So he could get Chatterhop to spit as much goo as he needed to hold the raft together. He wasn’t sure, but he might even be able to use the stuff to make a kind of rough boat. It wouldn’t be pretty, but with enough webbing it might be water-tight. Now all he needed to do was gather wood.
That proved easier said than done. His leg still hurt fiercely, and it slowed him down. It took him all the rest of the day’s light to hobble along the beach between his mussel-rocks and the next headland to the north, scouring the tide-line for driftwood, and then to drag the biggest pieces back to his growing pile. The effort tired him, and he was discouraged when he stood and surveyed the pile in the fading light, and found it wasn’t as big as he had hoped. It had taken him all this time, and he could barely count the number of useable pieces on both hands.
Dejected, he ate more mussels, barely listening to the Presever’s incessant chatter. It had shadowed him all day, but in this gathering stage it was little help. It couldn’t lift pieces of wood big enough to use.
“Furry-face Highthing go find more long-sticks?” the bug asked, as it took his discarded mussel shells and arranged them in circles, like the petals of a flower.
“Yes. We’re going to need more sticks than that, unfortunately,” Raven admitted. There were a few he’d passed by, mostly buried in the dunes above the tide-line. But he might have to put in the effort tomorrow to dig them out. The Preserver could probably help with that, at least.
As soon as Raven woke the next morning, he knew something was wrong. He ached, and he didn’t think it was only the soreness of overtaxed muscles. He could feel the throbbing of his heartbeat in the wound in his leg. Sitting up brought a wave of dizziness, even if it passed quickly. His eyes felt dry and scratchy.
“Hello-hello-hello! Furry-face Highthing sleep good? Chatterhop watch good! And go looky-see all sung-safe highthings too! All good! No bitty-wingthings or nastybad nibblethings or sneakysoft hissers get them! Furry-face Highthing and Chatterhop go make floater now? Go find more highthings, bring help?” The Preserver flew excited, elaborate loops in the open air just beyond his treeline shelter, singing shrilly when it couldn’t contain its happiness.
“One step at a time, bug,” he told it, getting up slowly and heading for the stream.
In the bright morning light, he could see that the skin above and below the bandage on his leg was flushed, and when he felt it, it was hot to the touch. Just as he had feared, infection was setting into the wound. Grimly, he untied and unwound the bandage to have a look. It looked about as bad as it felt. The edges of the gashes were angry and red, though he didn’t yet see any pus forming. Just because he couldn’t see it, though, didn’t mean it wasn’t there, deep within; he could smell the sickness, faint as it was. He washed it in the stream’s clear water as well as he could, jaw set against the pain. He washed out the leather strips of bandages as well.
“Not good, not good,” was the Preserver’s worried opinion, as it perched on a rock next to him and watched the whole procedure. Before long, it was moving again, pacing back and forth along its perch. “Want Chatterhop make wrapstuff?”
“Not just yet, all right?”
But that was something he was going to have to consider. There was no “if” about it, the wound was infected. It would only get worse from here on. He had a limited amount of time before he hit the point of no return, and he would only become weaker. He faced the same question he had asked himself before — would he have the strength to make it back to the mainland, back to the tribe and its herbal-healers, in time for them to save his leg? Or even save his life?
Today, though, he had an option he didn’t have yesterday. He had the Preserver.
He didn’t want to give up yet. Painful as it was, he scrubbed at the wound and hoped he was opening it up to let the infection drain free. Then he looked at the Preserver thoughtfully. “Chatterhop, can you make wrapstuff just here?” He marked out the area between his knee and his ankle.
The bug moved closer, examining the area. “Chatterhop can do — is easy, but no good. If wrapstuff not all around, won’t keep-safe!”
Raven understood that. Wrapping his leg wouldn’t keep the infection from getting worse, it wasn’t like putting someone entirely in a cocoon. But it would be cleaner than the now-filthy bandages, and would keep further dirt from getting into it. “I know — but do it anyway, yeah?”
The Preserver shrugged. “If Furry-face Highthing say so, Chatterhop do.”
‘If only...’ the elf thought uneasily, while the bug got started.
Even with his lower leg encased in gleaming white cocoon, it was almost too painful to walk on. Grimly, Raven used his walking stick, and got on with it.
He ate, even though he didn’t feel all that hungry. As he ate, he tried to figure out which course of action would be better — using the strength he had to try to dig some logs or branches out of the sand and debris above the tideline, or instead use it to walk, this time going south to the first stretch of beach he’d explored, to gather the wood that he’d seen there.
He finally decided in favor of walking. It didn’t seem worth it to use all that energy just for a few pieces of wood, when he might find far more south beyond the headland. At this point, every day — every hour counted.
He spent the rest of the day trudging back and forth, dragging pieces of wood behind him. He saved himself some trips by having the Preserver wrap some of the pieces together and then attach them to a long, thin branch that he used to drag the rest. It was slow going, but he could drag back more pieces in one trip than he could have carried in three.
He scoured the beach to the south until he’d found all of the driftwood it had to offer, and had dragged it back north of the headland to add to the pile. Then he slumped down on a rock nearby, and watched while the Preserver carefully picked apart the wrapstuff it had made around the bundles. It looked like enough — it would have to be enough. Thank the High Ones — maybe, thank one particular High One, lying wrapped elsewhere on this island — that he hadn’t had to waste time trying to make more cord.
In fact, even though the light was fading, along with his energy, Raven didn’t want to waste any more time that he didn’t have to. He levered himself to his feet using the walking stick, and started arranging the gathered pieces of wood to lay alongside each other.
“Is good? Furry-face Highthing find many, many long-sticks!” said Chatterhop, in what sounded like encouragement. “Make floater now?”
“Yes,” Raven replied, picking up two of the pieces to start with. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
He held the sticks, and directed the Preserver where to spit its sticky strands. The work went quickly, though as more wood was added it became harder to hold the growing raft up. Realizing the potential problem, he dragged the partially-built raft down from the dunes and onto the flatter part of the beach, still just above the tide-line. He didn’t want it to wash away in the tide, but he didn’t want to have to drag it very far when it came time to put it in the water. He wasn’t sure how far he would be able to move it, once it was all built.
In the end, he had something that looked like a crude, child’s attempt to mimic one of the plantshapers’ graceful little boats. It was flat-bottomed, and shallow. He made it wide, worried about how easily the waves would tip it over. It looked half built out of wrapstuff alone. But it was a raft, and it was done.
By now, it was nearly dark. Much as he would have liked to, he couldn’t leave yet. He needed rest after working all day. He also needed to find something to use as a paddle.
Limping heavily, he made his way back to his camp-site. He was too tired, again, to think of food. But he felt more hopeful than he had in a long time. He finally had a way to leave the island. He fell asleep trying not to worry about the dangers he would still have to face, or the effort it would require of him.
He did not sleep well. One moment he felt overheated, aching all over, sweating and shaking, and the next the sweat cooled rapidly and he was chilled, trying to curl into a ball for warmth. He knew what this was, and he spent the wakeful hours telling himself that he would feel better in the morning, if he could only get some rest. But rest was impossible.
When dawn came, he gave up trying, and stumbled to the stream to drink. In the morning light, he could see the redness of the skin of his leg above the wrapstuff bandage, and the start of dark streaks extending towards his knee. Chatterhop watched him examine the leg with worried eyes.
“Not good, not good,” said the bug, shaking its head. “Want Chatterhop make more wrapstuff?”
Raven knew that the Preserver meant, to replace the bandage. But he knew the Preserver would eagerly comply, if he asked it to make a larger cocoon. “Not yet,” he said, his voice raspy.
He could barely walk, as he made his way down to the beach. In full light, the raft looked clumsy and makeshift, but he had to believe it would work. Yet, it also looked big, and the tide was out. He would have to drag the thing a long way to reach the water.
“One more thing,” he muttered softly to himself. “Just one more thing, and then you can do it.”
He had saved one piece of wood from the pile he had gathered, intending to make a paddle out of it. He braced the end of it amongst the rocks of the shore, and used his knife to try to pare away one side, hoping to make it flatter and a little concave. Trying to shave the old, weathered wood with the stone knife was harder than it should have been. It wasn’t the knife, it was the lack of strength in his arm. Just this small task nearly exhausted him.
In the end, Raven sat there, with a stick that just might serve as a paddle sitting across his lap, and he stared at the raft. He needed to get up. He needed to eat something, even if he didn’t want to, and drink. He would need to drag the raft into the ocean. And then he would have to paddle, for as long as it took, and try to keep the sea’s currents from sweeping him too far to the north. If this was to work at all, he needed to land as close to the Holt, as close to help, as he could.
Putting weight on his leg made it feel as if it were on fire. When he reached the mussel rocks, he collapsed against one of them, trying to muster the strength to pick up the rock he’d been using to scrape the mussels free. Even that simple thing seemed beyond him. He closed his eyes.
“Aww, Furry-face Highthing mustn’t sleep there! Is no-good place for nap!” He felt a tugging on his hair, and opened his eyes again to see the Preserver’s wings fluttering near his face.
“I know, bug, it’s all right. I’m not napping.” But that was a lie — the first part, at least. It wasn’t all right. Raven pushed himself upright, and faced his choices.
He’d done what he could, to right the mistakes he’d made, and make it back home to his family and his lovemate. He’d nearly done it. The crossing back to the mainland would be dangerous, but if he’d had the strength, he could have made it. It made him weep to think he’d come this close, and for nothing.
He had two choices left.
“Ah, Jynis,” he said softly, “friend of my body and spirit — if I came to join you now, would you welcome me?” It wouldn’t be a quick death, or an easy death, to let the wound-poisoning take him. But he had his knife, he could make it quicker. Maybe her spirit would forgive him, eventually, but he knew his Recognized, his oldest friend. She’d have sharp words for him, for giving up, and for failing their family. He doubted his mother’s spirit would be any more understanding. Beesting had always been tough, competitive and a fighter. She had weathered the death of her own Recognized, Snaptwig, far better than Raven had when his own time came.
But the other choice was not an easy choice, either.
He couldn’t remember how long it had been since another elf from the tribe had visited these islands. Clearly, some had done it, without ever encountering the island’s unexpected Preserver guardian. He didn’t know how long it might be until someone else came, and when they did, if Chatterhop would find them. Didn’t know if they would have any better luck rescuing the cocoons the Preserver had collected here — didn’t know how long those in the cocoons might sleep, waiting for a healer.
If he went into wrapstuff himself… would it do his family any good? He couldn’t know. They might be long dead before he was brought out of it again — just as poor little Newt’s parents were all long dead, while he slept away in his cocoon in the storage den beneath the Dentrees. Just as Raven’s brother Fletcher would wake to find his parents dead as well. Just as Farscout might never see Brightwood or his unborn child emerge. Cloudfern already waited while his sister slept; he might never know that his lovemate slept as well. And the tribe Raven returned to someday might all be strangers, a thought that made him shudder with a chill that was not brought on by the fever.
Finally, Raven stood, steadying himself with his walking stick, and made his halting way back towards his camp-site.
His soul yearned to meet that of his Recognized again, but his heart pulled him towards the family he had wronged, and that was still living. He wasn’t sure his spirit would be eased if it knew there was a chance and he hadn’t taken it — nevermind what Sunlight and Beesting would say to him. The time when he could have laid down and let death take him, or used his knife on his own throat, had passed, washed away by the ocean’s waves during that desperate swim.
“Chatterhop!” he called, and although his voice was hoarse and didn’t carry far, the Preserver still came arrowing towards him. “I need your help.”
“Time to put floater in wetstuff?” Chatterhop asked eagerly, keeping pace with him as he made his halting way back towards his camp-site. “Furry-face Highthing take floater to find help for Silver-silk Highthing and other highthings?”
He took one last drink from the stream, letting the cool water soothe his throat, before dragging himself up the bank, and into the shelter of the forest. His camp-site wasn’t much, just a grassy space beneath the trees long enough for him to lie down in, a little sheltered. He half-fell, half-sat, and then pointed to his leg. “Take that off.”
Chatterhop chittered a quick acknowledgement of the request, and got right to work. Preservers were painstaking about undoing their wrapstuff handiwork, and it was safer than trying to cut through the layers. As the bandage came off, the sickly smell of the infection hit him, and he knew he was doing the right thing.
“Furry-face Highthing want Chatterhop to wrap up again all good and snug-safe?” the bug said, but it sounded dubious about the idea. Its first wrapping hadn’t prevented the wound from getting worse.
“Yes, I want you to wrap it again — but first, I want you to listen.” Raven tapped his knee, and the Preserver landed on it, watching him attentively.
“I’m hurt, and I’m ill,” he admitted, “and I can’t take the raft to go get help, not now. I can’t even wait while you go get help, even if I could get you to do it. So,” Raven swallowed hard, then took a deep breath and said, “I need you to put me in wrapstuff — all the way.”
“Chatterhop can do!” the Preserver assured him. Then it looked around. “Furry-face Highthing want to be in wrapstuff right here?”
He’d thought about that the entire walk back here. “I think it’s as good a spot as it’s going to get,” he said. It should be above the stream’s flood-stage, and well back enough from the ocean to escape the highest storm-tides. “But listen to me. I know you have a lot of cocoons to guard, and I guess that takes you all over the island. But you have to watch for more elves — more highthings. You have to watch more carefully. They’ll come. Others from my tribe will come, someday. They’ve come before and didn’t find you. They’ll come again, and you have to find them when they do,” he finished fiercely, wondering if it would do any good at all. But this was it, and now his fate was going to rest in this Preserver’s tiny blue hands.
“Chatterhop very good at guarding, promise! Furry-face Highthing will be all snug-safe and good. Will watch all the time for more highthings. Highthings will come, Chatterhop knows.” It patted his good knee in a comforting way.
“All right.” Raven took a deep breath. He wondered who he would see in his dreams as he slept, if those in wrapstuff could dream. He knew who he hoped he would see.
“All right. Do it.”
“Was nice talking to Furry-face Highthing!” it smiled. Then the world went white.