Kestrel and Fadestar had flown to the southern tip of Twin Peaks island primarily to make sure that there were no signs of human settlement on it. The elves knew that the Amber Hunters were avid boat-men. They had come from the sea, after all, from where-ever their homeland was. The elves had also seem them exploring the coast in smaller boats, as well as fishing on Eagle Bay and on the sea. It would not have been surprising to find they had visited the islands.
But it was still a disappointment when Kestrel first caught sight of the square-built watchtower on a headland that looked east, towards the mainland. She and her sister had flown for so long and seen nothing but untouched land, they had both started to hope that the humans might not be here, and that it could be a refuge for the elves should they need it.
Next to her, Fadestar took a deep breath. **So humans are here.** Her sending was tinged with sadness, and uncertainty.
**At least, they were here,** Kestrel amended. **We’re going to have to get closer, carefully, and see if we can tell if they still are.**
Flying to the headland would not have taken long, but going carefully slowed their pace. It felt like half the night before they were close enough to make out more detail in the structure, built of trees stripped down to logs, the way other human dwellings in their mainland Holt looked. It wasn’t a very large structure, though, and didn’t look as if it could be a home for many humans. Kestrel flew a wide circle around it, nonetheless. It was dark, and seemed empty, but it wouldn’t do to assume there wasn’t someone on watch in there, looking out into the night and able to spot them.
The elder paused on the western side of the headland, where the land dropped away to the west to slope down to the sea again, and then she let out a soft exclamation. **Oh no…**
**What is it?** Feeling her sister’s alarm, Fadestar sank again towards the safety of the tree-tops.
**It is just a watch-post,** Kestrel said, with dismay. She gestured westward, and she could feel through their sending link when Fadestar saw what had alarmed her.
There was a wide, semi-circular bay on the island’s western side, sheltered offshore by the small islet. And unmistakable on the shoreline was the large, square shape of a human Holt, as big as the elves’ Dentrees and the clearing in front of them. It even looked like there were some smaller square dens built inside the larger structure.
**That looks like the word-hunters’ sendings of the human Holt on the mainland,** Fadestar said, and it was half a question.
Kestrel gave a wordless confirmation, and then added, **Not nearly as large. Big enough for a group of them, but not for their entire tribe, let alone the Painted Faces too.** She studied it, and sent her thoughts to her sister, working them through. **I don’t see any of their boats in that bay or pulled up on the shore, but we will have to check more thoroughly. And I don’t see any lights.**
**Lights?** Fadestar asked, not immediately guessing the significance of it.
In response, Kestrel shared more memories of the humans’ Holt. **There are always lights there of some kind. Torches, lanterns, fires. Even at the height of the night, when it is quiet and most of them are inside their dens, there are always some lights visible, and someone on watch. I don’t see either, here.**
**Maybe they aren’t here, then?** For the first time, Fadestar sounded hopeful. **Maybe they built these long ago, but haven’t been back?**
That was possible, Kestrel admitted. **I’m not sure if we will be able to tell. If no one is there, that doesn’t mean they might not come back tomorrow. But if it’s empty of everything, no stores left to await their return, then perhaps... **
**So we go and explore?**
Kestrel considered for long moments, gazing at the silent, moon-lit bay. **Yes. But let’s check the watch-tower first, since it’s closer.**
After the excitement of the Leaper, Brightwood thought that she wasn’t the only one grateful when the next night’s scouting did not bring her small pack across any more great mysteries.They were braced for it from the moment they set out with the sunset, a buzzing energy between them that wasn’t eagerness, though Brightwood also thought that they’d have liked it to be. Yesterday’s adventure had been a seductive distraction even for her, tempting notes of an old song, and she had given them too much hold on her mind and, worse, her heart. But tonight they all seemed to understand. They had to see the island through other eyes entirely. And she had to lead them at it.
She set them at a slower pace, and for more than half the night they moved testing every new eye-, ear-, and noseful of the land. The island’s Northern peak continued to slope harshly upward to their right, not as tall as some that the elves knew on the mainland, but jutting sharper, as though someone had grabbed the island with two fingers and pulled, to leave all but its immediate shoreline tented. As the moons were descending they found the second river that Kestrel had reported flying over, the island’s third, easier to navigate than Mudslide Gorge, but similarly pocked with the remains of flooding and mudslides. Even Otter and Crackle felt little need to explore that one. The debris scattered haphazardly in its zigzagging course, the brown churning of its waters near where it fanned out at the shore, were a warning even a cub could read clearly. They gave it a wide berth, crossing through its seaside shallows, and continued with the disheartened mood brought on especially by thwarted third attempts.
But not all bad news, Brightwood thought to herself; where her crafty, wood-wise kin could find no shelter, no human could, either.
There was not the slightest hint of five-fingered presence, not in all the ground they’d covered. No felled trees cut and arranged in strange dens, no trace of the grazing of the beasts that followed them, no lost arrowheads or sand-covered firepits. Just like the wolfriders’ own territory had all been, once, clean and safe. No shelter, but no danger.
Kestrel had sent news of yet another river further south, before she and Fadestar had passed out of range on their own way, and a marked goal made it easier for the small group to shake off their dark mood and continue. Finding good ground too soon would have almost been disappointing, Crackle said, and Brightwood chose not to say anything to that, though she gave the girl a pointed look of reminder. When the colour of the sky was just at the tipping point from black to paling blue, the burbling of flowing water became distinct from the rustling of the wind in the trees, and all of them stepped a little wider with the thought of freshly caught fish in a new daytime camp. Something else came into view at the edges of the river’s spreading fan into the sea, though, bleached white and sharp among the pebbles of the beach. Otter and Crackle trotted ahead, and between them raised the enormous skull of a marshbeast from the edge of the water.
It was the first trace they’d seen in three nights of any animal larger than a ground squirrel. Pathmark gave a small cry of surprise, and Brightwood saw that Foxtail, like herself, immediately looked around and tested the air in suspicion. But there was nothing but the skeleton itself, clean of all traces of flesh, and laid out in what was to elfin eyes unnatural perfection. No large game animal was allowed such peace in death on the mainland. The skull hadn’t even been cracked for the tasty treat of its brain.
“I’ve never seen a marshbeast skeleton so whole.” Pathmark was amazed, even a little delighted as he knelt by the bones, tracing the shape of one leg. “Look, this wasn’t moved — it twisted its own leg under it when it fell.”
Crackle, ever hungry for the morbidly curious, poked a hand into an eyehole. “How long, d’you think?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen a carcass just… rot away like this.” The scout glanced up at Foxtail, who shook her head, then at Brightwood, who had nothing to add, either. “Scavengers always do their part.”
Otter poked his spear into the waves. “It’s just out of the tideline, so fish wouldn’t have managed a bite. Crabs would’ve had a feast, though, and the crows — see, there’s some cracked smaller bones.”
“But nothing bigger than seabirds.” Foxtail raised her eyes from one of the marshbeast’s mighty thighbones, untouched by even a single crack for its marrow, and met Brightwood’s. The plantshaper nodded, knowing they were thinking the same thing.
“This fellow’s not from here, I bet! Swept out, or maybe swam over, for some marshbeast reason… and died of exhaustion just when it got someplace where nothing’s big enough to hunt or eat it.”
“It must have been seasons ago,” Foxtail added, subdued with thought. “Nothing but birds and crabs to disturb a carcass… but we walked all that distance along the shore, and this is the only one we’ve found.” She patted the top of the massive skull. “This can’t happen often.”
“So what? We knew this already,” Otter spoke into the long moment of thoughtful silence that followed. “There’s no trace of big game anywhere. Three nights we’ve been travelling, and it’s nothing but birds and fish! If I were a wolf I’d be growling by now.”
“That’s exactly the point,” Crackle’s tone was growing morose with understanding already. “No big game means no wolves. And how long can we live on birds and fish, the whole tribe of us?”
Brightwood found herself exchanging a look with Foxtail over the two youths’ heads. Somehow, over the last two days, looking to the chief’s daughter to see her thoughts had become a normal thing to do, and she was not surprised to find her own concern mirrored on her younger tribemate’s face. “We’ll have to tell my father this, too,” Foxtail muttered, clearly not relishing the prospect. “It’s all bad news…”
This wasn’t like her, Brightwood thought suddenly, with something like annoyance — not at Foxtail herself, but at the island, with its rivers that didn’t fit, and mysteries that had no explanation. Decisive, she turned on her heel and began up the river, toward a likely looking clump of birches. “Let’s camp,” she said as she went. “The sky’s getting light, and it feels like it’s going to rain again. There’s no point brooding. We’ll see about this river once we’ve had a good day’s sleep.”
But she did brood, all through the rainy day, sleeping little even when it was her turn to do so. Four rivers, a full hand. Three of those would not even do in a pinch, and now the skull and the problem it had brought to light. None of them could have been sure what this trip would actualy yield, good or bad news, an important discovery or a waste of time, and she knew that Windburn would thank them for bad news just as for good. There had never been any certainty… only hope, or what passed for hope now, when they were effectively looking for a hole into which to run with their tails between their legs. And without that, what did they have? Bluestone Cave? And when the Amber Hunters in their relentless exploration, or the Fierce Ones in their excursions North, found that? Not finding any sign of the humans on the island had given her a deep sense of relief for a spate, but now...
They had come all this way to find something, she had come to find something. How could she return empty-handed?
The clouds rained their last and dissipated with moonsrise, and Brightwood snatched some sleep during the last shift, while Pathmark sat serenely carving a wolf’s head out of a birch stick. She woke slightly fresher, if still subdued — they all were, even around their evening meal. The last night’s quick trek up the river already revealed signs along its banks that it, too, was subject at times to hard flooding and rockslides, and after another day’s rain it was swollen and fast and forced them to navigate carefully along its banks. When they found a convenient crossing place, where two large boulders almost bridged the water between them, Brightwood had the party cross to the southern shore, which looked like easier going. She went in front, Otter behind her, and stood in disheartened assessment on the other side as the youth jumped down to the muddy earth behind her.
“Look over there.” He raised an arm, pointing ahead to a rocky outcropping that stretched into the sea. “I bet that’s covered in tasty shellfish.”
Brightwood scowled. “We’re not looking for shellfish,” she said as Crackle, then Foxtail came down to join them.
“They’ll be fresh, though. I won’t be long — “
“You’re not going anywhere.” Now irritated, she glanced back over her shoulder to where Pathmark was only now making the jump between boulders, an odd, uncertain look on his face. “Pathmark? What is it — did you see something?”
“Not sure…” the scout’s voice was low enough that Brightwood almost didn’t catch it. As soon as he was down on the other side, he started past them, moving up into the forest. Brightwood made to start after him, but Otter was still at her side, rambling on —
“Just give me a little time, it’ll do everyone good to — “
“We’re not here for shellfish!” She whirled and snapped at him, furious that she even had to. “What’s wrong with that empty head of yours that you can’t see now isn’t the time?”
“Now’s just the time!” Otter protested, sounding almost as exasperated as her. “We’re all frustrated and scared over something we can’t do a licking thing about. We can’t change the island or the rivers, so let’s at least have some fresh food and feel better before we start bickering and making angry-stupid mistakes!”
The strength of Pathmark’s open sending, wordless with shock, was such that it moved them both on instinct, without conscious thought. Shellfish and argument forgotten, Brightwood was at once on the scout’s short trail, the others less than a step behind. No pain in the sending — good — not hurt — was all she processed. Not fear, either, somehow. Just —
“Oh,” Brightwood exhaled, a single, open-mouthed syllable.
A little way into the trees, a storm had ripped up an old red cedar, toppling it against its fellows. Its roots were a tangle that had upturned the earth in a great swath about it, tearing thick undergrowth, uncovering buried stones, newly exposed and washed by the rain and not yet settled and muddied anew. Pathmark’s arm was raised, stiff with his amazement. He was pointing to a patch of shining white within the garbled green and brown.
It was a Preserver’s cocoon, just the right size for an elf.
End Part 3