To the Western Isles, Pt. 2   2514.06.16*  
Written By: Holly H., Joan Milligan
As the elves continue to explore the Isles, mysteries and discoveries unfold.
Posted: 12/19/15      [5 Comments]
 

Collections that include this story:
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To the Western Isles, Pt. 1
Returning Ancestors
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To the Western Isles, Pt. 3

RTH 2514.06.16

“It actually is rather like the coast north of Elder Peak, isn’t it.” Foxtail said about halfway through the first night, though she was not complaining, but amazed.

They had set out from camp deep in twilight, after a night and a day of rest while the gliders regained their strength after the crossing, and the younger elves could hardly be kept longer from the promise of adventure. While Kestrel, Fadestar and Gurgleflap scouted ahead by air, Brightwood led her eager little band along the shoreline, which stretched south in a calm vista of gray pebbles and green-blue water. Wary of the openness of the beach itself, they kept just to the treeline, moving in the tight formation used by the word-hunters on their expeditions. With the gliders ahead, Brightwood felt more confident that they would not come upon any danger unaware, but all wolfriders knew well that more confident was not completely. They sent rather than spoke, and moved slowly, everywhere testing the ground and air for the passage of the unknown — or the well-known and well-feared.

Though she expected the others to get impatient, sooner or later, Brightwood was relieved that neither option materialized even well into the night. The island was as she remembered it, and she remembered it barely a shade removed from the woods of the mainland. The five elves travelled under pine and ash, birch and cedar, and on the edge of the woods were brownfruit trees that added welcome fresh sweetness to their midnight meal of travelcakes. The living things that rustled in the undergrowth were also all old friends, and Otter even bagged a careless young rabbit. The prey here didn’t know them, Brightwood recalled. It fled from their sound and scent on instinct, but had never learned the ways of elves as predators, the particular dangers of arrow and net.

By the time the moons were at the peak of their nightly arcs, they could hear the rumble of another river in the distance, greater than the one they’d left behind and sounding as though it roared through a great gorge. Brightwood called a stop at a copse of sugartrees, and they snacked on fresh rabbit and a nearby blackberry bush, and broke their strict adherence to sending to quietly exchange impressions.

“It isn’t so different,” the plantshaper conceded her younger tribemate’s point, leaning against a sugartree root and chewing thoughtfully on a scrap of liver. “And that makes sense. We flew over, so anything could. Or get carried over on driftwood.”

“I like it,” Crackle said quietly, surprising all around her. “Not how it’s just the same!” she protested at their looks. “That it makes sense. Woods are woods, rivers are rivers. The world has the same rules everywhere you go.” Pathmark nodded at this, looking pleased with the idea, but Otter grunted.

“You knew that it wouldn’t be so different,” he charged Brightwood, then scowled at his agemate. “I don’t know why I listened to you and not to her.”

“Because you still hoped to be the big hero and charm your way into Foxtail’s furs?” Crackle asked, deadpan. Otter flushed crimson and focused on gnawing a legbone. “But maybe what happened is different. Maybe this island didn’t used to be an island at all! Imagine if it was all one piece of land once, and something happened to tear this piece away. An earth-storm, or a flood… and under the ocean it’s all woods like ours.”

“Full of fish-riders, too!” Foxtail said, snickering. She flicked a bit of blackberry juice at the young howlkeeper. “They live in seaweed trees.”

Crackle brightened to the idea. “They ride the sea-wolves and think our boats are birds!”

“And Kestrel and Fadestar, flying over the boats?”

“They don’t know what flying is. It’s all the same, under the water there…”

“If they’d help us with the humans, I’d take them,” Brightwood said dryly, cutting the growing tale short. “Don’t forget why we’re here, you two. How the island came to be isn’t important, what matters is — “

“To find out what we can do with it now. Yes, Brightwood, we know,” Foxtail cut in, but her voice was sober. Brightwood looked up at the chief’s daughter, canting her head up as she looked for defiance in the bright green of those young eyes. Foxtail didn’t return the gesture. Her stance was steady and spine straight but loose, calmly looking as if she couldn’t imagine why Brightwood would think that she was less than perfectly serious about their task. Windburn had sent his cub along for seasoning, Brightwood mused, but it was seasoning of the advanced sort. Well, if it was so, then Brightwood was good company to do it in.

“All right,” she said, grinning a little around her last scrap of rabbit. “Then I’ll be counting on you, chief’s cub. We’re coming on another river, sounds like, and you can decide whether that one will do for us or not.” For the refuge they envisioned, they needed a source of fresh water, for a start. They also needed enough trees and level ground for shelter, or to find some safe caves, high above floods or the tide-line and safe from other dangers, like land-slides. It was a lot to consider, for a young mind full of mischief and bounce.

Foxtail’s nod was eager. She moved quickly as they broke the small camp, and took her place at the front of the small group, at Pathmark’s side, with eyes high and stride long. Little time passed before the scent of swirling water was strong in their nostrils, and the ground rose a little, then sloped again where the mouth of the gorge began gaping towards its end in the sea. Where sweet and salty met, the mixed low water gushing with silt and pebbles, they could wade and even cross, but the course of the river trailed into a sharp knife-slice in the slopes of the island’s peak. Whitewater crested a series of rapids, where rocks jutted out from the water, fang-like. Otter hopped onto the first stone in the waters, and looked towards the next one upstream with clear hunger, but it was Foxtail who shook her head.

**Anyone can see you from both sides of the gorge! Let’s climb the slope a little.**

She moved without waiting for Brightwood’s approval, understanding — Brightwood realized that, with approval indeed — that taking the lead was expected of her now. After a short time, the climbing was hard going even for the wolfriders. Everything that grew on the sides of the gorge wanted first rights for the water, and ferns crowded the edge of the crags between the tangled great roots of the ash and brown pine, where the scent of wet greenery was as thick as a mist. They pushed through it, aware of but unable to help the noise of their progress, the younger elves sneaking nervous glances across to the other bank.

Pathmark stopped where the bulk of a great ash had crashed down, a length of the tree — almost as long as a wolf — hanging over the steep banks. He pointed down and across. Just then, at the back of the tight group, Crackle strangled a yelp as her foot slid and a small trickle of dirt and caked mud went scattering to the waters below. Otter grabbed her shoulder, while Brightwood and Foxtail both strained their eyes. A dark swath was torn into the opposite bank, fresh earth and exposed roots.

“Landslide,” Foxtail said, scowling.

“Fresh,” Pathmark agreed. “Small, but even here the ground feels more loose than it should be. I don’t know…” he trailed off and glanced back at Brightwood.

She already had her hand on the nearest old tree, asking its advice. The answer made her mouth tighten, echoing Foxtail’s look. “Yes — these roots have known exposure. Seems like the earth shifts a lot here, it’s not — “ she remembered, and turned her eyes to the chief’s daughter. “What do you think?”

Foxtail stood with lips pursed, arms loosely crossed. She reached up with two fingers to play with the bangles dangling from her headband, a gesture taken straight from Windburn’s own habits when deep in thought. “Even if it weren’t for that risk, the gorge is much too steep for us,” she said. “There’s not enough shelter by the shore where it opens up, and flooding would be bad there, too.”

Brightwood didn’t nod agreement yet. “We could climb higher.”

“Waste of time. This kind of gorge only gets narrower the higher you go.” Foxtail tossed her hair. “You don’t have to — I mean, I’m sure of this, Grandfather and I climbed up one just like it on my Very Long Walk.”

You don’t have to test me. This was what she’d cut off, but she’s cut if off just in time. The chief’s daughter nodded to herself once, glancing up the slope of the mountain, and looked to Pathmark. “Am I right, far-patroller?”

“Uh.” Pathmark blinked, then straightened. “Yes, this is just like the river gorges in the slopes north of Elder Peak. Since this isn’t so different from the mainland…”

**Brightwood, Foxtail, come look!**

The bright shaft of Otter’s excited send made all three of them whirl out from their exchange and find him, a short trot up the mountainside, up in the brushlike top of a great pine, gazing out. Crackle was at the foot of the tree, looking torn between being jealous or much put-upon. **I tried to — ** she started, but he cut her off. Not words this time, but an image that Otter himself was seeing as he squinted back towards the open shore. The greenery blocked most of the view, but the pine was tall enough to offer a glimpse of something distant and bizarre. Far off down by the seaside, Brightwood could swear that she could see — through Otter’s eyes — the white splash of some massive wave, reaching so high that it was just visible from the young elf’s choice vantage point.

Baffled beyond words, she felt her own eyes narrow on instinct, though they were not the ones bringing her the sight. She shook her head a little as Otter broke the connection, and found the others similarly blinking, at a loss. By the tree, Crackle had abandoned both annoyance and envy to look just a little bit panicked.

**That’s a big wave!** she blurted out.

**It keeps happening,** Otter reported. **Waves splashing up so I can just see the foam. Burn’s eyeteeth, how can they be so tall?**

**The tide’s due to peak,** Pathmark put in, but didn’t sound certain.

**Can you tell how far this is?** Brightwood tried, but knew Otter’s negative response even before she got it. She reached out further, out beyond her party, straining to see if she could contact Kestrel or Fadestar. No response, not even the echo of a sending just reaching the edge of its power — the two gliders were out of reach. They’d given no advance warning of danger along the party’s planned path, and Brightwood trusted Kestrel’s judgment implicitly, but the sudden promise of the unknown after all made the woodshaper feel her hackles shiver.

**Yes, let’s go,** she answered the four expectant looks turned on her. Their longing was obvious — even Foxtail’s. It left a bitterness at the very bottom of her throat, that she could not quite join that excitement, but it was better, she knew well.

They crossed at the mouth of the river single-file, hopping from stone to large, dark stone tumbled down to the wide shallows from the great rocky peak. The shoreline meandered, curling west to dip into a small finger-shaped bay, where the forest grew thick and made it hard to see far ahead. The small group was just past its westmost point when they heard the roar, like the rumbling of a far-off river, become distinct from the familiar texture of the woodland and seaside sounds, and froze when they understood as much. This was not the sound of a crashing wave; it gusted out like a massive puff of breathing, like the snort of a marshbeast when a wolf crashed into its ribs. It sounded alive.

Brightwood never considered herself to have too quick an imagination, but as soon as she caught Crackle’s eyes when the young howlkeeper looked her way, she knew that they were both picturing the same thing. A vast animal in the ocean — like one of the great whales that the sea-wolves hunted, but larger even, exhaling out of a blowhole that an elf could fall into. Crackle’s eyes were so wide and round they seemed to crowd out the rest of her face. A moment later Crackle couldn’t hold the image in anymore and it flickered in an open sending out into their minds.

Pathmark made a noise of both awe and distress. Otter’s jaw dropped.

“I’d like to hunt that.”

“Nothing alive is that big,” Foxtail said with defensive certainty. “Not anything.”

How much she would wager on that, Brightwood wasn’t sure. “A sea creature wouldn’t hunt us, at least,” she said, thinking that that perhaps was safe to say if nothing else. “But we’ll walk a little further from the water’s edge.” She breathed in to steel herself and smelled their nervousness. No one was rushing ahead with the excitement of incipient discovery anymore.

It wasn’t much longer after that they saw the plume, shooting high above the treetops and scattering white against the night sky. Exactly like the breaking breath of a whale, if thicker with water, and much, much larger. The silver of the moon danced on the bursting droplets. Without so much as a word between them, the party’s progress slowed, became the wary, creeping approach of a hunting pack moving on prey as deadly as they. Moving along the treeline as it followed the beach, two steps into its shadow and away from the unnervingly open sky above the waters, the mist strove up overhead, ceased, and shot again, in time with the crashing of the waves. Pebbles gave way to harder rock here, dark gray and smooth as song with the wear of countless ebbs and tides, and the trees retreated further up with the good soil and the elves with them. At last they turned past the edge of the bay and the view of the shore ahead opened, just as the waves of the early tide rolled onto the rock and the plume heaved up again, higher than the Father Tree. As soon as the view opened, all five of them were gasping with awe.

Among the eerie water-carved rocks of the ocean’s edge, a circular pit was open, well large enough for two elves to dive in, and from it the water came skyrocketing. Every time a wave collapsed against the edge of the stone, splashing around and over it, up came the fierce, shimmering surge. Salt water with its stinging scent suffused the air, and tremors rose in the rock with the force of the blast. It was not the breath of some massive beast, no; it was as though the stone of the beach itself was breathing.

Burn’s blistered buttocks!” Brightwood swore, but there was no holding the youngsters back, now that the freakish threat had been dispelled and something strange and marvelous revealed in its stead. Crackle and Otter dashed across the stone, the rest of the party swift in their wake as liquid sparkles fell everywhere. The two still stopped a respectful distance from the hole itself, but well close enough to be half drenched with the cloud of its exhale, cheering as the plume leapt and receded and leapt.

Brightwood came up behind Crackle, who was catching some water on her tongue. “It’s just seawater and stone!” the young Howlkeeper crowed, almost in triumph. “There was a monster, but it turned to stone, this is what’s left of its blowhole!”

“How’s it still breathing then?” Otter demanded. Crackle paused in her cheer and stood contemplating. Pathmark and Foxtail, meanwhile, moved up to the very edge of the water, where the chief’s daughter stood with her spear hefted, still ready to launch it at any abnormally-sized sea-wolves.

“It goes deep here,” she reported without glancing back. “There’s no slope, the land just falls away.”

Otter smirked. “That means there’s room for something big.”

“It’s just stone,” Crackle said stubbornly.

Brightwood moved from the edge of the hole to join Foxtail and Pathmark in looking into the blue-green chaos of waves. They squinted together at the rhythm of the sea, trying to grasp the connection between it and the towering plume, while the two youngsters continued to bicker.

“It’s just stone now. You’re the one who thought about that monster sea-wolf.”

“So what? It’s not dangerous now.”

“If it isn’t, then what are you scared of?”

“I am not.” Crackle’s voice rose a notch, with a deliberate exasperated exhale. Otter sniggered. “It’s just stone and water, you squirrel’s ass!”

At Brightwood’s irate sigh, Pathmark called out softly. “Otter, come here and take a look. I think there’s a cave in the cliffside.” He’d gone to his knees on the flat wet rock, the other two looking over his shoulders as he inched closer to the water, trying to get a clear look over the shelf of land. Brightwood stood at high alert, ready to grab hold of the patroller should any freak wave come sweeping, but Foxtail turned round to urge Otter on. The young hunter stalled, standing and shaking his head.

“You’re the squirrel. This is just like back home and you’re still looking for monsters to be scared of. Hah!” He laughed and turned his back to Crackle, throwing over his shoulder, “I’m going to find the cave and swim in it!”

He only got a step closer to the waterline, and Brightwood was just rising, half turning to scold him, when Foxtail screamed —

“Crackle, no!”

She launched herself forward, a great tumbling leap, and caught the young howlkeeper about the waist in the midst of her taking running start at the blowhole. They fell over together, hitting the rocks with stunning force, lying gasping as the plume exploded over their heads.

There had barely been time to breathe. Brightwood gave her head a wild shake, trying to come to grip with what had happened — what had almost happened. Otter looked wide-eyed and pale, and Pathmark was only now turning from the water, alarmed and confused. But Foxtail, all but sitting on her younger tribemate, was speaking as soon as she had air in her for it.

“What were you doing? Were you going to jump over it?!”

Crackle croaked miserably through bruised ribs. “It’s just timing — yow!“ She wailed as Foxtail cuffed her across the skull.

“Timing! You foam-crazy pup! What if you got it wrong! You want to get thrown in the air, fall on the rocks, in the water, break your head? Gurgleflap’s not here to save you anymore, you dung-for-brains! Imagine your little brother’s face when we bring you back dead and broken because your timing was off!”

Crackle had always had a very vivid imagination; just by the little hollow sound she made, Brightwood could tell that the picture had taken root, breaking through her stony stubbornness as growing roots often did. Despite her own anger at the girl, she kept back. Pathmark was still shaking himself out of the shock, but when Otter crossed his arms and looked smug at his agemate’s plight, Foxtail leaned around — still perched on the prone Crackle’s back — and lay into him with equal force. “Don’t make that idiot coyote face, you were egging her on! How mad does something have to be for me to say it’s stupidly reckless!”

“I’m sorry,” Crackle mumbled, face to the wet stone. “It was stupid. I’m sorry…”

“I didn’t think she’d — ” Otter protested, but fell into shamefaced silence when Foxtail flashed her teeth at him.

“Neither of you thought at all!” Finally Foxtail deigned to move, leaving Crackle to pick herself up bit by cringing bit.

Brightwood nudged the staring Pathmark forward, away from the waterline, and moved between the three elves. It felt very strange, having little left to do, but she knew that to call attention to Foxtail’s sudden authority was to undermine it, and the lesson it delivered along with it. “Otter, help her up,” she snapped at the boy, jerking her chin at Crackle. “The only worse thing than what she almost did is why she did it. If you two plan to posture at each other like challenging yearlings, we’ll march you back to the boats and make you row back to the mainland. Understood?”

She meant the threat, and they both knew it. Otter moved at once to Crackle’s side, and she took his offered hand without a squeak of protest. Brightwood kept a gimlet eye on them until both were standing well back of the blowhole, the buzz of nervous, apologetic sendings between them. “Stay there,” she commanded. “Wait for us to finish.” As she walked back, leaving them there, she briefly lay a strong hand on Foxtail’s shoulder.

**Well spoken, little chieftess.**

Foxtail couldn’t well puff outwardly with pride, with the others still watching, but her answering send was gratified. **All the times Father and the elders cuffed my ruff for being reckless — I’d be surprised if I didn’t learn something!**

**Some elves never learn.** Brightwood could not entirely keep the amusement out of her mind-voice, though her spine still thrummed up and down with tension. She did not relish the thought of having to always aim the corner of her eye on Otter and Crackle throughout the reminder of their stay on the island. Now they had seen that things could be found yet that had no equal in the lands the tribe knew, and even with Foxtail’s unexpected help, the plantshaper knew that it would fall to her to keep the cubs careful and sober around them. Something in her ribcage ached, as though her heart sought to expand and couldn’t.

They returned to the water’s edge, but even between the three of them, could not puzzle out what was happening under the shelf of the land and what had made the pit and the plume. In the end, this was not what they had come to the island for, and all they could do was move on.

They camped that morning in the shade of three great firs that had collapsed all one across another, creating a natural roof that protected the five elves from a faint drizzle of rain. Everything was damp and smelled of soaked wood and drinking moss, and Brightwood hoped that Kestrel and Fadestar had found a drier shelter further south. The dawn was glum with Otter and Crackle still cowed by their earlier adventure, and little was said over their plain meal of travelcakes and smoked fish, all from the packs.

Pathmark drew first watch, but asked to swap, saying that he found himself waking before the others anyway. Brightwood took his place and sat with her face to the rain, hood drawn over hair and ears, staring into gray daytime dappling the woods that were and were not hers. Three of the rhythms of breathing behind her steadied quick into the peace of sleep, but the fourth lingered, first in shallow pretense, then in obvious discomfort, until Crackle gave up and came creeping near her, tracking mud on her gloves and the knees of her trousers.

“Brightwood,” she whispered. “I wanted to say sorry again. Earlier, it was like — like it wasn’t really me doing what I did.”

Brightwood stifled a snort. This was a much younger cub’s excuse. She let Crackle stew for a moment before half turning to her, one ear still swivelled to the sounds of the forest. The girl’s mouth was tight and her eye dim, parted by a deep furrow.

“There’s only you, pup,” Brightwood said dryly. “And if you weren’t doing it, who was?”

Crackle was the wrong elf to ask such a question; she was immediately contemplating it in earnest. Brightwood turned away again while the girl worried at her lower lip, in no mood for the young howlkeeper’s slippery thoughts and strange flashes. She let her eyes drift half-shut in the gray light and thought of the rivers they’d crossed in the night and the ones they were due to cross next.

“Younger me,” Crackle concluded suddenly. “It was — I shouldn’t care what Otter says, about me being scared. But he said I was looking for monsters.” She bit her lip hard until blood swelled it “And I am. I didn’t think about it but I am. I kept wanting there to be the most wonderful, scariest things out here.”

Brightwood cocked her head at her, curious despite her annoyance. Crackle thought too much, and thought about the maddest things, this was agreed throughout the tribe. But this struck an odd chord in the discord of her own thoughts, the ebb and flow that she found herself tossing on ever since they landed on the far shore that she thought she knew. “What we saw today was wonderful and scary, wasn’t it?”

“It was!” Crackle’s eyes brightened, a shiver of delight in her voice. “And a mystery too, that none of us could solve. It was just what I’d been hoping for!”

“Except you were scared of it.”

The girl’s face fell, shoulders slumping, chest sinking. “I was,” she whispered. “I was so scared that I was glad it was just stone, Brightwood, I was so scared I wanted it to be something normal.”

Slowly, Brightwood nodded. Crackle was watching her with wide, earnest eyes, a strange look from the young elf who was always answering her own questions, who knew that she had a quicker grasp than many of her elders. Between younger and older wolfriders hunting away from the Holt, as between senior and junior wolves, it was hard sometimes to keep a direct gaze, but Brightwood held those eyes now. There was searching in them, she knew.

“Crackle,” she said. “You’re not really a pup anymore. Being scared shows you know the difference between being afraid of a story, and being afraid of something real.” She hit a flat palm down on the muddy dirt between them. “This is real. We have real things to be afraid of. We’re here to find shelter from them if we must. That you wanted what we found to be safe is good.” Crackle hesitated, but gave an answering nod, a soft solemnity beyond her years in her face. “And that’s the instinct you’ll follow from now on, or by all the snarls in Wolfsister’s pelt, I’ll tell Windburn to never let you out of sight of the Dentrees again.”

“Ughh.” Rather than a wail, Crackle made a faint resigned sound, one she probably couldn’t help. But Brightwood liked it. It showed more understanding than any tight-jawed, serious nod of commitment might have. It almost made her want to confide in her younger tribemate, tell her of her own confused hopes for the journey and the island. She’d all but forgotten, until now, the dreamberry pits left of a joyful night with her lifemate and father on this shore, and the hope of seeing their descendants sprouting and green, as though here, on the island, her life had some unbroken continuity. But there had been no room for such thoughts, and there still was not. They hadn’t found their river yet.

But that was not Crackle’s fault. She looked at the unquiet on the howlkeeper’s face again, and smiled wryly. “Now I’ve scared you straight, go to sleep. I’m not angry anymore.”

“You’ll still have to tell Windburn what I did, though.” From Crackle’s face, musing on the thought was like chewing on a chokecherry. Now Brightwood gave a low laugh.

“Oh yes. And he’ll make you feel it. But learn your lesson, cub, and one day it’ll be one of the best stories you have. It’s not one to forget. In fact…” through the darkness of her mood, her eyes twinkled. “We’ve called the first river we found here Fadestar’s Landing. Pathmark suggested Mudslide Gorge for the one we passed earlier tonight. Everything here will need a name. So that blowhole… I think I’ll call that one the Leaper.”

Even though Kestrel had told her the island was big, it still surprised Fadestar how much of it there was to fly over. They had been flying south from the first camp for the entire day, and they had only just passed the island’s southern peak. And still the south-most tip of the island stretched before them, and she couldn’t see the end.

Was it as long a flight as going up to Bluestone Cave? No, she decided. Not quite. But near enough.

While they flew, Kestrel delivered updates to Brightwood and the rest by sending, while she could. She let them know whenever the two of them flew over another river or stream tumbling down from the northern peak’s slopes, though they didn’t stop to investigate them. That was the job of those who followed at a walking pace. The two gliders had other things to look for.

When they landed to rest, on the south-eastern flank of the southern peak, Fadestar realized with a jolt that they were out of sending range of the others.

When she said as much to her sister, Kestrel nodded. “I haven’t been able to reach them for a little while now,” she said, smiling. It always startled Fadestar to remember that she was a stronger sender than her older sister. She was so used to thinking that Kestrel, so old and wise, and so experienced a glider, was better than her at everything.

“Well,” Fadestar said, half to reassure herself, “we won’t be out of contact for long.” Then she looked at her sister. “Will we?”

“No,” the elder agreed. “It won’t take us all that long to fly down to the tip of the island, and back. We’re just going to see if there’s anything worth reporting. Why?” she asked. “Does it bother you? To be out of sending range of the others?”

Fadestar considered silently for a moment, and then said, “I’ve gotten used to it.” Whether it was long patrols with only one other elf for company, or the trips up and back from Bluestone Cave, where for the middle stretch she was often not in touch with anyone, she had had her fair share of practice feeling truly alone over the past several years. “It always bothers me, though. At least a little.” She smiled at Kestrel. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“It does take getting used to,” Kestrel said, with sympathy. She had been on her own long patrols over the many years, often alone. “It makes you appreciate it when you come back into range of the tribe.”

“Sometimes,” Fadestar confessed, “I worry about what would happen if I got sick out there, or hurt, and couldn’t reach anyone. What would I do? Just lay there, I guess, until someone came to look for me…”

“Is why Sad-Eyes Highthing must always take Preserver!” That was Gurgleflap’s matter-of-fact contribution, as it came darting back to them from its exploration of the mountain’s slope. “Then even if Sad-Eyes Highthing gets hurt, Gurgleflap can make wrapstuff to keep-safe, then fly back to home-place for help!”

That was true, and a good reason that Mushroom often went out with one of the far-patrollers. Fadestar patted her knee, and Gurgleflap landed there. “But what if there isn’t a Preserver who can go with me?” she asked, half-seriously.

“Gurgleflap always go with Sad-Eyes Highthing! Highthing only has to ask!” it promised, very seriously indeed.

**Don’t tease,** Kestrel sent privately, though her amusement came through. **You know they take their duties very seriously.**

**I know. I’m not teasing. Not really,** Fadestar assured her, unable to hide her fondness for the bug. “Then I’ll remember that,” she said to it, aloud. “And I’ll always be very happy to have you along.”

Kestrel turned her head to the east, studying the horizon beyond the mountains and hills of the just-visible mainland. While the stars were still out, there was a faint lightening of the sky’s blue in that direction. “I don’t think we’re going to get any further tonight. It’s almost dawn.”

“Is it really so risky to keep going in the daylight?” Fadestar asked. It was hard to believe. The island was so deserted, it didn’t feel as if the usual dangers of the mainland could touch them here, but…

“It could be.” Kestrel’s voice was sober. “The humans like to move around on their boats. For all we know, they come here regularly. And we don’t know how long their sight is. We know they don’t like the darkness, which is why it’s safer to move then. The chances of them seeing us are low. But in the daylight, it’s wise not to take the chance.”

Kestrel had been a part of the word-hunters for long enough that Fadestar trusted her caution. “Should we keep watch?”

“I don’t think we have to,” the elder shook her head. They had landed in an almost-level hollow of the mountain’s steep slope, which fell off sharply below them. “We’re well-hidden here, and humans aren’t going to be climbing that slope and catching us unawares.”

“Gurgleflap watches!” the Preserver promised. “Will tell Highthings if Big-Things come near.”

“And while you’re at it, wake us if it looks like we’re about to roll over the edge in our sleep,” Fadestar suggested, as she opened the pack she had carried on her back, and took out a skin to use as a blanket. The summer air was cool here on the mountain, especially with the breeze blowing.

“No worry, Gurgleflap will guard Highthings.” It patted her knee, then flew over to a high point on a nearby rock.

The next evening, Fadestar and Kestrel continued south.

Below the southern peak, the land dropped off and became level, and narrow. It was possible now to see both sides of the island, and even to see a small islet lurking off its western shore. The land was drawing towards a point, and Fadestar looked forward to seeing what the end looked like. Would it be some dramatic rock outcropping? Or just a tip of sand where the waves of the Vastdeep Sea met the channel between the island and the mainland?

Then, as they swept along a curving white-sand beach that ended in a small headland, Kestrel’s flight in front of her came to an abrupt halt, and the elder glider held out a hand in caution. **Fly down!** she ordered. **Land in those tree-tops.**

Curious, but picking up on the alarm in her sister’s sending, Fadestar quickly did as she was told. She made for the nearest tall tree, and landed amongst its upper branches. Its foliage easily hid her from view, and soon, Kestrel was beside her. **What is it?** she asked.

Kestrel had not looked at her, keeping her gaze locked on whatever it was she had seen. Then, she pointed. **There. On the top of that headland.**

She shared a vision of what she was seeing, through the sending. And though it was far away, it was easy to see the moonlight on the unnaturally-straight, right-angled walls of the structure built there. It was nothing that would have formed in nature, nor anything that elves would have built.

Feeling Fadestar’s growing realization, Kestrel nodded. **Human-built, I’m sure of it. It looks like the watch-posts they started building near their Holt on the mainland.**

Fadestar took a deep breath. **So humans are here.**

She was surprised by the strength of her disappointment. For a short time, it had felt as if the island might be something untouched by humans, and maybe, something that could be safe for the elves. Even though she knew it wasn’t somewhere the tribe could live for long, it had still been nice to think it might be a refuge.

But humans had gotten here first.

End Part 2

Collections that include this story:
<<
To the Western Isles, Pt. 1
Returning Ancestors
>>
To the Western Isles, Pt. 3

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