(Ed. Note: this story takes place soon after the events in "Nipping Thoughts".)
“The ocean is so big,” Crackle was mumbling when Brightwood came out of the trance of going over the last boat. “Almost as big as the sky.”
Shaking her head to clear it of the last of the song of the wood, the plantshaper smiled at the sight. Crackle and Otter were standing just at water’s edge, salty waves lapping at their boots, on either side of Fadestar. Like a pair of guards, supporting their agemate as she prepared for the greatest test of her magic yet. Pathmark stood at the young glider’s back and rubbed her shoulders. A tight little bundle of anticipation, the four of them, gazing towards the open horizon that they were almost ready to brave, while Gurgleflap flew excited circles around them. Only Foxtail broke away from the group preparing for departure, getting her bare toes in the water as though she was letting it know she was coming.
The ocean was quiet that evening, after several days of storms had finally blown out. The elves and wolves had traveled through the soaking rains to reach the shore, and spent the day drying out while Brightwood worked her magic on some of the trees from the edge of the forest, far back from the water’s edge. The shore was pleasantly cool in the purple shadows of last sunset. Just late enough for the gulls to have settled down, it was a peaceful sight, though there was always something striking about how such a whole new landscape could be little more than two nights’ ride out from the Dentrees. And busy with preparation, now. Brightwood straightened and stretched, loosening muscles stiff with the effort of her shaping trance.
She had spent the hours since their early noon arrival shaping craft after small, steady craft. Turns had passed since she last bent her skills to such a task — since the coming of the humans, the elves could no longer risk themselves in the little boats out on Eagle Bay, even for the candlefish harvest. Once, those small craft would have been waiting for them, stored in hiding for the next season; but now she had to make new ones for them all. Still, it was not a skill she had forgotten, and she had full confidence in the three little boats that now stood ready for her chief’s inspection.
“I’m ready,” she called out.
Riding their wolves and keeping look-out from the high crest of the dunes above the beach, Notch and Honey did not respond. Windburn, Kestrel and Goldspice had been standing together a little way off from both the working shaper and the small group of the younger elves. All three looked eager but satisfied as they approached to have a look. Not so much the youngsters themselves, as they turned from the sea to the boats that would take them across it. Otter’s eyes were bright with anticipation, and Fadestar contained hers with sober determination. But —
“Already?” Crackle sounded a little stricken. “I thought we had a good while yet!”
Brightwood chuckled, and heard Kestrel do the same. Otter pounced on his friend’s words like a wolf on a tasty morsel.
“Are you scared?”
“Are you stupid?” Crackle countered. “This is a real adventure. Nothing like all the toddling we got to around the Dentrees.” She shivered with excitement. “We might all die.”
“No one will die,” Pathmark quietly asserted, nuzzling into the back of his lovemate’s neck. “I have full faith in Fadestar.”
“Sad-Eyes Highthing fly long and far! Gurgleflap has seen!” the yellow and orange Preserver put in, its tiny piping voice full of confidence. “Preservers fly with Sad-Eyes Highthing on many-many scout-trips, we know!”
Crackle opened her mouth, but closed it, to Fadestar’s visible relief. Instead she gave Otter an elbow in the soft spot under his ribs. Foxtail turned back to watch the fun, but Brightwood left them to it. Windburn and Kestrel were kneeling by the boats, Goldspice standing behind them.
“I miss the times when we used to take boats like these out on Eagle Bay,” said the metal-worker wistfully. It was startling to think that the youngest elves there had never done such a thing. She moved forward and marked with hand and eye the graceful width of the boat’s beam, flowing into a ridge that would help keep its course straight.
“Sturdy, but light,” Kestrel agreed, praising the plantshaper’s handiwork as Brightwood joined them. She ran a hand over the loop of wood through which a rope would run, tied to a harness that she would use to pull two of the boats across the waves. “Easy for me, and Fadestar should be able to manage one herself. Your grandfather would have been proud.”
Touched, Brightwood nodded. “Stormdancer would have been, too, to see what her youngest will do today.”
“I said to my sister that Mother’s spirit would watch us. I believe in that.” Kestrel’s smile was warm. They shared that smile, before looking to Windburn.
Their chief had a strange look for a moment as he stroked the side of one boat; a little faraway, a little wistful. One of the first things that her lifemate had told her about Chief Windburn, Brightwood recalled, was that Farscout thought that he might just have made a good patroller himself. But he shook himself soon enough, and turned to them as their chief, composed and focused. “You’re ready, then.”
“Tired, but ready to rest on the way,” Brightwood answered. No ambivalence for her; she was itching to feel the roll of the waves carry her. “We should leave before the cubs work themselves into a panic.” She glanced over her shoulder with a grin.
“Before Crackle works Fadestar into one, at least,” Kestrel put in with echoing amusement. “The trip across should be fine. If my sister tires, her boat will bear one more.”
Windburn nodded. “Push her, but not too hard.” He looked thoughtfully at the shoreline. “I don’t like that you’ll be out of even my sending range, but there’s nothing to be done. And we need this. If the islands might shelter us from the humans, we need to know. And if they’ve explored or expanded so far, if there might be more of them there… all the more.” His eyes darkened at the thought.
He needn’t have said it. Brightwood’s mood for adventure was instantly withering, and she added that to her long list of resentments where humans were concerned. She was grateful when Kestrel spoke up.
“You’ll have everything, my chief. The lay of the land, water, shelter, and game. All we need to make a place ours, at least for a short while.” A short while was all that any of them hoped to need. “And the young ones will have the seasoning they need, and your daughter also, just as we said.” By the water, Foxtail had lobbed a handful of mud at Otter’s face. Kestrel kept smiling. “It’s good of you to let them have this chance.”
Windburn grunted. “They’d better make good use of it. I almost feel sorry for sending Pathmark with them. But he’s proven himself as a scout, and your lifemate would have had an even harder time with this pack of chatterbirds,” he said almost in apology to Brightwood, who smirked.
“Ears would’ve been clipped,” she agreed. “But for me, a pack of chatterbirds is just fine in exchange for a chance to go back to the island. I left dreamberry pits on that shore, when Farscout and I last took a boat there with my father there - I want to see how they’re coming along!”
Windburn smiled at that, surprising her a little. “If all is safe and well, bring a handful back,” he said. “And some good news too, High Ones willing.”
“High Ones willing,” Brightwood agreed, and climbed to her feet, calling out: “All right, you rowdy cubs! Come help Kestrel and me haul. We’re off across the sea!”
She halfway expected them to waver, still, but Crackle’s moment of uncertainty was the last of that. Even when the rest of Windburn’s hunting party - Notch, Honey, and Goldspice - gathered about them on the waterline, it was a brief farewell. Honey and Goldspice promised to join the next journey, should there be one, while Notch gave a brief report of no humans along their stretch of shore or visible on the water to the horizon, and a lengthy ribbing to his little brother going off into the unknown. Kestrel and Fadestar, harnessed, took to the air, and Windburn gave each boat a final push. A slosh and a last excited call back and forth from boat to shore, and they were away.
Brightwood would hardly have believed it of the company that she was travelling with, but the journey across the waters was silent. At first, when the boats just began to cut through the vast black-blue, Crackle and Otter made all the expected whoops of excitement and gasps of awe, and she could see that Foxtail had even roped Pathmark into some laughter and splashing in their boat. But as they cleared the shallows, as the shore became first a shrinking landscape, then only the stark suggestion of far peaks in the moonlight, silence fell. One young elf after another sat back and sank into the flood of new scents and sensations, while the Preserver flew at Fadestar’s shoulder, serious with purpose. The wind, thick with damp and brine, sparkling with sting; the faint rocking on the night wind, the shaped wood almost alive in its heaving, dropping, high and low; the cool splashing, now and then, beads of water settling in hair and on leathers and sneaking onto the tongue. And over all that, the gaping bowl of the sky, studded with stars like eyes.
But it was the dark below that captured them most of all, Brightwood knew, because it did the same to her. The night sky lay reflected in the fathomless waters, so that the scatter of the moon’s silver on the waves was almost within reach. There were unimaginable depths in there. Almost as big as the sky, Crackle had said; Brightwood never thought of the sea that way before, but now it stuck in her mind. Halfway through the journey, she saw the young storyteller surreptitiously take a rock out of her pocket and drop it overboard. It vanished instantly, even the High Ones knew not there to.
Crackle leaned her crossed hands over the edge of the boat, and stared into the depths as though they were staring back at her. Otter let his own hand dangle in the water with a distant, smitten stare of joy. Still weary from her shaping efforts, Brightwood lay back and closed her eyes, lulled by the rocking waves. They had rowed, she, Farscout, and her father, all those seasons ago. Lynx had asked Stormdancer to tow them, but she called the journey dull, so rowing it had been. The memory was clear as a summer day, clearer than many of the those that she could still pull up from her life before her wrapping - the moment in which they let the oars sit and briefly floated aimless, blue above and below. The ocean had smelled exactly the same. So vast as to be changeless…
She had lost track of time when Fadestar’s sending came, weary but pleased: **I see the shore!**
On a clear day, the island could be glimpsed from the mainland, but in the depth of the night, with only a half of Mother Moon for light, the sight of its shores was long in coming, and thrilling when it came. Crackle and Otter nearly upended the boat in their scramble from their seats to the prow, shoving each other for the best view. Brightwood sat up more slowly, knowing that it would be a few moments before they caught up with the gliders’ vantage from above. The distant shore faded into their sight bit by slow bit, a gray shadow becoming brown and green, a far-off peak rising from the endlessness of the waves. Brightwood pushed the two youngsters’ heads down, ignoring their protests, and squinted over them.
**Good time!** she sent up to Kestrel and Fadestar. **Rowing took us more than twice as long.**
**It doesn’t feel like good time,** the younger glider moaned in response, exhaustion coming through her satisfaction. **I’ll be useless until next nightfall.**
**Windburn and I have accounted for it.** Kestrel’s voice was warm. **You did well, sister. You’ll have all the rest you need.** The shore was coming into view more swiftly now, as the two magic users strained towards their long-awaited goal. **I see the mouth of a river. Good luck for us! We’ll make landfall close by it, and won’t need to search for water.**
“Look, over there!” Foxtail raised her hand just then and pointed out the river to the elves down on the boat. “Right to the river. Great work, Fadestar!” Otter and Crackle, who had begun to scuffle for the point at the prow again, paused a moment at it to raise a cheer.
Soon they were coming up on shallows again, the water lighter in colour, and the details of the shore becoming clear. Fadestar pulled at her harness-rope to reach the ground, but managed to land and stay on her feet, though she caught Pathmark’s arm as soon as he hopped out of the boat and waded the last few steps over to her side. Kestrel landed more easily, though neither younger elves in her boat waited for it to come up on shore, but leapt out into water as high as their waists. Brightwood jumped after them, taking a great breath in through her nose, filling her lungs with the scents of a different night.
“It’s just like the shore north of Elder Peak,” Otter protested, looking left and right at the pebble-strewn beach and the woodland vista beyond it. “There’s nothing special about it at all!”
Foxtail followed Brightwood’s example with a deep sniff. She looked less disappointed, but not very much less. “Smells rather similar, too. The same kind of trees, overall.”
“That’s what it’d like you to think,” said Crackle in a low voice. “Oh, it’s just the same! There couldn’t possibly be any marshbeast-sized spiders here.”
Foxtail snorted. Otter looked briefly nervous, but relaxed when Brightwood snorted as well. “None of that,” she snapped. “No more nonsense from you, little howlkeeper. There aren’t any monsters, but humans there may be. This isn’t our territory, however similar it looks. From now on, eyes open and noses to the wind!”
It was good to see the transformation, the youngest two snapping to attention, and even Foxtail leaning a determined fist on her hip and nodding. Pleased, Brightwood turned to Kestrel, who was looking on with a smile. Windburn had made the elder leader of their little group, but soon they would be parting, Kestrel and Fadestar scouting the far south from the air, Gurgleflap with them, while Brightwood took the rest along the shore by foot. Soon, Brightwood thought, she would be leading the others across territory that a small part of her somehow thought of as her own.
“Some rest first, though,” Kestrel cut into her musings. “We’ll start out at nightfall tomorrow. For now we must hide the boats - “ Otter groaned at the thought of hauling the boats, and Crackle applied her elbow once more “- and find a good place to camp, above the tideline.”
“And hunt a good meal?” Foxtail risked, clearly hoping for some action after the lengthy silence of the boats, and for fresher food than the dried meat and travel cakes in their packs. But Kestrel shook her head.
“Small game if we chance across it, or fish from the river, but nothing more. Not where we don’t know the lay of the land well. There’s no hurry, cub,” she added with a chuckle at Foxtail’s slumping shoulders. “We’ll explore every pace of this island that we can reach. For now, let’s hunt for ferns to pad our bedrolls.” She tilted her head back slightly and squinted across the vastness of the waters that they had crossed. “Brightwood is right. We must be the most careful that we have ever been. Remember that the mainland is out of sending-reach. We are alone - the only elves on this land.”
(To be continued...)