Kestrel and Fadestar took their time exploring the square-sided human Holt, until they were satisfied that it was empty. There weren’t even supplies stored there, waiting for the owners to return — no food, or rope, or baskets, or nets. There were coverings on the doors and windows of the dens, but the buildings were imperfectly sealed, and the floors inside were covered in a fine layer of sand and dirt that had blown in, along with dead leaves. It was impossible to tell how long the place had stood, or how long it had been since it had had visitors.
That was good news to the two gliders.
“Maybe,” Fadestar said, standing on the roof of the tallest building and looking out over it, “they had the same idea that we did?”
“Come here and make a place to retreat to, if needed,” Kestrel agreed. “But they haven’t needed it yet.”
Fadestar’s eyes were bright in the moonlight. “I know I’ve never flown to the human Holt on the mainland, but — this island is really long. It took us more than a day to fly here from where we landed, and that wasn’t even the northern-most point.”
Her older sister nodded. “The north end of the island is as far from here as our Dentrees are from the human Holt,” she confirmed, having had the same thought herself.
“So we already can hide from the humans on the mainland — why couldn’t we keep ourselves hidden here as well, if we had to come here?” the younger elf said eagerly.
Kestrel thought about that. It was true that if they chose to create a refuge here, they would make it as hidden as possible, anyway. Did it matter if the humans were also using this island as a bolt-hole? If it came to that, both the humans and the elves would be on guard against attack from the mainland, not searching the last corners of the island itself for enemies. But…
“It’s probably still worth looking into,” she allowed. “But don’t forget — there are other islands, too. It might be we’re better off going to the next island north, and trying our luck there.”
Her sister’s expression brightened at that, reminded that there were still more adventures awaiting them. “Well, before we give up here, shouldn’t we finish scouting to the southern end of this island?” They were still some way from it.
Kestrel laughed. “Yes, I suppose we should. You sound like you expect to find something else exciting there.”
“I don’t know what to expect,” Fadestar answered, taking off and already beginning to fly in that direction. “That’s why I want to go see for myself!”
“It’s not possible,” Brightwood muttered, strangled. “It can’t be…”
She pushed past the others, who had stopped just on the edges of the great swath of turned earth, swung herself over a jutting branch — a quick, agile leap, but her movements felt clumsy, as though her body worked on its own apart from her mind. It couldn’t be, but there it was, an unnatural, gaping white against the greens and browns of the woods. If it weren’t for the clear fact that the others had seen it too, Brightwood would have worried for her sanity.
How could a Preserver’s cocoon — a Preserver’s cocoon sized for an elf — be on the island? This of all things, here of all places…
She reached out a hand, tremulous and gentle, and touched achingly familiar silk. Softer than a feather, but hard enough in its reality to shatter the dreamlike moment. Brightwood turned on her heel to her companions, who stood craning their necks, holding their breaths, waiting for the verdict of the one who knew wrapstuff better than any of them.
“It’s impossible,” she said again. “But it’s exactly what it looks like. A wrapstuff cocoon.”
“An elf-sized cocoon,” Otter breathed out, echoing her thoughts, which was no surprise. She knew that all their minds were racing down exactly the same paths now, so much that the questions didn’t need to be voiced.
Crackle, always quickest to untangle and to leap, attempted the first answer. “If a glider could fly across, so could a Preserver. Sometime long ago… long, long ago… so long we don’t have any stories about it.”
It did feel like something out of a story, even to Brightwood. A Preserver lost to the tribe before it left any memory with Wolfsister’s children…
“So in the cocoon…” Pathmark’s voice was as halting as his steps, as the other four came nearer, half-slinking, navigating around the roots with caution born of awe. “If it is an elf — is it a Firstcomer?”
Crackle gave a squeaking gasp and stumbled on a root, almost crashing on her face before Otter could grab the back of her shirt and pull her steady. Foxtail’s sharp breath was quieter, but Brightwood saw her hands leap to her mouth, tight together. A Firstcomer was not just an unknown face, lost kin, a shocking discovery. They would be stories, secrets, history…
That was what Foxtail and Crackle were seeing, and she understood their excitement. But, almost despite herself, despite the powerful reserve that she had forced upon herself ever since arriving at the island, Brightwood saw something else.
“The Firstcomers were much taller than us,” she said. “Like I’m taller than most of you. This cocoon isn’t big enough for someone much taller. If there is an elf in there, they’re about the same size as me. They’re someone who lived during my time.”
As soon as she voiced it, it was like light and fire running through her veins. Someone from her time. Elves had been lost at sea before, or disappeared to unknown fates — she’d heard that Raven, her old friend, her own brother’s lovemate, had been lost to the tribe this way. This had to be one of those lost ones. Someone from her time. It had to.
The thrill of that certainty was almost too much for her to contain. She nearly howled with it. No time to stand around and speculate, now. Time for action. “Crackle! You’re the fastest; you’re with me. We need to go south and get back into range to send to Fadestar, tell her and Kestrel. The rest of you — stay here and stand guard. This cocoon was buried for who knows how long — long enough for the tree to grow roots about it. Now it’s out, it’s vulnerable. Don’t let anything touch it!”
“Got it!” Foxtail said at once, High Ones bless her. No argument, no complaint at getting sit-down duty. She’d keep Otter in line and Pathmark confident, Brightwood was sure. As for her, all she wanted to do was run. Run south and tell Kestrel the news. Run back and run her shaping into the driftwood at the river’s mouth, run swift boats back to the mainland, back to the Holt, to Willow’s magic, to the promise of a whole new link saved from across the scar in her life… better than the dreamberry seeds, better than a safe place from the humans, better than all her dreams of mystery and wonder…
“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” she said, and, Crackle swift on her heels, sped south like a bird, freed from bondage, casting itself into the air.
It was becoming clear to Fadestar that the southern tip of the island was further away than it seemed. The moon had visibly risen as they flew, but she still could not see the island’s end. It was hard to judge distances when the land was this flat and covered in endless forest.
She had just thought of the idea that she might try to fly very high, and see if that vantage point helped to give a sense of how far they were from the end, when her train of thought was interrupted by a shrill cry.
“HIGHTHINGS! HIGHTHINGS! HIGHTHINGS! Fly-highthings are here, pretty-pretty fly-highthings came back for Chatterhop! Chatterhop is happy-happy-happy!”
Fadestar’s first thought was that it was Gurgleflap that had shouted, as all three of them came to a halt in the sky, the yellow and orange Preserver circling around the two gliders in agitation. But then, after a moment’s confusion, Fadestar realized with astonishment that Gurgleflap was not the only small, bright shape whizzing around them — there was another fluttery body flying intricate patterns in the sky, and the sound of both of them singing was nearly beyond the range of her hearing.
“Chatterhop? Is so? Is so? BREE-DEETLE-DEE-DEE-DEE, is so, is Chatterhop!”
“Gurgleflap bring fly-highthings to find Chatterhop at long-long-long last! Come bring help to Silver-silk Highthing and others all snug-safe in wrapstuff!”
“Chatterhop has Silver-silk Highthing snug-safe in wrapstuff?” Gurgleflap repeated, finally coming to a halt from its dizzying loops. It sounded more than surprised, it sounded awestruck. “Is true? Silver-silk Highthing is here?”
“Is true! Chatterhop put Silver-silk Highthing in wrapstuff and kept watch-over for long-long time — Skytouch Fly-Highthing said to do, and Chatterhop do! Chatterhop watch, Chatterhop keep safe! Was cracklebooms and shake-shakes and itty-bitty wingthings going scritchscratch on nice pretty wrapstuffs! But Chatterhop never stop fixing! Chatterhop kept nastybad featherthings away too!”
Fadestar and Kestrel stared at each other, until Kestrel finally said, “Chatterhop?” The name was unfamiliar, as was the Preserver’s blue and pink coloring, and the idea of an unfamiliar Preserver was something Fadestar had never even imagined.
The new Preserver flew up to Kestrel’s eye-level, its arms spread wide. “Yes yes yes! Chatterhop wait long-long time for help to come! Skytouch Fly-Highthing said stay and keep wrapstuff safe, and Chatterhop do — now fly-highthings come! Bring make-better highthing for Silver-silk Highthing and other highthings safe in wrapstuff?”
Her sister shared a bemused look with Fadestar, who wondered if Kestrel had to try as hard as she did to make sense of the Preserver’s rapid-fire statements. “We don’t have a healer here, but we can bring one,” said Kestrel, hesitantly, but that wasn’t what had caught Fadestar’s attention.
“There’s elves here in cocoons, that need a healer?” she blurted out. “There’s more than one?”
“Chatterhop keeps watch over four-and-one highthings!” the Preserver said proudly, holding out one hand with all its fingers spread, and the other with a single finger aloft. “Skytouch Fly-Highthing say Chatterhop stay here! Keep Silver-silk Highthing snug-safe! Then Climb-High Highthing came and fell and Chatterhop had to make wrapstuff. Then Chatterhop found Whitehair Highthing and Curly-soft Highthing all hurt and still-quiet and near-near spark-gone, Chatterhop make wrap-stuff for them too. Then Furry-face Highthing came and tried build floater to go find other highthings and bring help, but got all yucky-feel and ask Chatterhop to wrap up, so Chatterhop did.” The blue bug cocked its head, looking back and forth between them. “Pretty fly-highthings even smaller than Furry-face Highthing! Is fly-highthings not eating good?”
The sisters found themselves staring at each other again, hardly able to believe their ears. “But who could they be?” Fadestar finally asked.
“Silver-silk Highthing come here in Home-Place, long-long-long time ago, in Belonging-Time,” said Gurgleflap helpfully, as if that answer did not seem all but impossible. Then it went on, a sad tone in its tiny piping voice, “But all thought Silver-silk Highthing was all spark-gone, like pretty green-touch Fire-hair Highthing and Skytouch Fly-Highthing —”
“Awwww, is true? Skytouch Fly-Highthing is spark-gone?” Chatterhop sounded dismayed.
“Is true, if Chatterhop not wrap Skytouch Fly-Highthing too?” Gurgleflap’s question was hopeful, but the bright blue Preserver was already shaking its head.
“No no no, Chatterhop only wrap Silver-silk Highthing. Pretty Skytouch Fly-highthing went way-away, back to other Highthings, promised would bring help.”
“Pretty Skytouch Fly-highthing never came back,” Gurgleflap affirmed, and both Preservers trilled mournfully.
But Fadestar almost hadn’t heard the rest of their exchange. “A High One,” she said, nearly whispering, but she knew that Kestrel heard her. “It’s guarding the cocoon of a High One.”
Her sister’s hazel eyes were wide, and at any other time Fadestar might have laughed at how comically astonished the usually-calm elder looked. “It certainly sounds that way. A High One’s cocoon… and who-knows who else’s?”
Fadestar felt a chill that had nothing to do with the night air. For all of her childhood, there had been two cocoons in the den underneath the Dentrees, carefully guarded, waiting for the day a healer would be born again in the tribe. She had always known they were there, had put her own hand-prints on the biers that held them when she was old enough to understand what she was doing. She had always known who was in them, even though she had never met them — but others in the tribe had shown Newt and Fletcher to her in sending. She had always known who the tribe was waiting to see released from those cocoons… until the day she joined them in their white-wrapped sleep.
These elves… these elves slept too, just as she had. But perhaps for countless ages longer. No one waited for them, no one had even known they were here. The thought made her hair stand on end.
“We have to tell the others,” Kestrel was saying, and Fadestar shook herself and focused on her sister again. “And Windburn, we must tell him as well —”
Immediately, Fadestar tried to send to them, but felt nothing in return. “We’re still too far away to send,” she said out loud.
Kestrel nodded. “Then let’s fly as fast as we can, and get back in range. Chatterhop?” she addressed the new Preserver, which came over to hover in front of her again.
“Pretty Freckle-face Fly-highthing will help? Bring glowy-gold healer-highthing for Silver-silk Highthing and others?” it asked eagerly. “What does pretty Freckle-face Fly-highthing want Chatterhop do? Chatterhop want to help!”
The elder’s mouth quirked in a smile at the newly-bestowed name. “Yes, either we’ll bring a healer here, or we’ll bring your Silver-silk Highthing and the others to our healer. But first, we have to meet with the other highthings we came here with, and then let others know. We’re going to need a lot of help to get these cocoons to the mainland. As we fly north, can you let us know where the other cocoons are?”
“Yes! Is easy!” the bug sang, and took off, trilling happily, followed closely by Gurgleflap. "First is this way! Come come!"
“Time for another flying lesson,” the elder glider said, giving her sister an encouraging look. “Let’s see how fast we can get back into the range of Brightwood and the rest. Let me know if you need to rest.”
“I can make it,” Fadestar promised. She couldn’t wait to see the looks on the others’ faces when she and her sister broke the news. A new Preserver and five strange elves!
Without another word, Kestrel arrowed after the Preservers, and a heartbeat later, Fadestar followed.
**Four cocoons?** Brightwood almost lost her grip in shock and tumbled off the high treetop that she was perched on. She and Crackle had been running for a while, pushing themselves with only the shortest of rests, and though there could only be truth in sending, for a moment she was sure that she had heard Kestrel’s mind-voice wrong.
**I couldn’t believe it myself at first, but Chatterhop insists.** The eldest elder’s sending was weak with distance, but Brightwood imagined that she could feel the currents of emotion in it, echoing her own. Astonishment, wariness, delight. **Four cocoons, five elves, and all of them taller than us. It says that two are furry… and that one came here in the ‘Home-Place’.**
Next to Brightwood, Crackle was now almost falling off her perch. **So there is a High One!**
**Maybe more than one. But the others must be elves we know,** Brightwood quickly returned to the thought that occupied her most. **Kin lost at sea. There haven’t been so many of us that have vanished, with nothing left to send down the river. But my own brother’s lovemate was one.**
**Raven,** Crackle filled in at once, soft with awe. **My grandfather, in one of those cocoons?**
**Don’t rush ahead, Brightwood.** Kestrel’s voice was even weaker on this, and it took Brightwood a moment to realize that that sending had been for her alone. As the floater continued, though, she was all business again. **The chief needs to know. This takes precedence over our mission here. You said you’d left Foxtail and the others guarding the cocoon you’ve found?**
Brightwood swallowed her instinctive bristling response to the private reprimand. Kestrel was old enough to have earned speaking to her this way… and Kestrel was right. **Aye, to keep it safe until we could meet up again. But hauling out four’s a much bigger job. I’ll need to shape new boats, and we’ll need more able hands to sail back with them.**
**Windburn needs to know,** Kestrel said again, a note of quiet joy in her businesslike voice at the thought of bringing the chief such news. **But I’ll be a while flying to the mainland to tell him, and it may be some time before I return with whomever he sends with me to help us. In the meantime we should bring all the cocoons together. I’ve already sent Fadestar off with Chatterhop to see where the others are, and what it might take to retrieve them.**
**She can’t take any risks with them,** Brightwood half-snapped, only to hear Kestrel’s mental chuckle.
**This is my sister, not one of the rowdy pups you’ve been tending, my friend,** the floater answered — right again, Brightwood had to admit. **She’ll assess how things stand and head back north to report to you.**
Brightwood nodded to herself, glancing at the youngster in the tree next to her. **Then I’ll have Crackle run back ‘til she can send to Foxtail and the others to start hauling the cocoon south, while I start work on the new boats here. A good midway point. We’ll gather as many of the cocoons together as we can until you return.**
**Just don’t push Fadestar too hard,** Kestrel warned. **The wrapped ones have been waiting until now. Another night or two would make no difference.**
**Unless something goes wrong. You’re certain that human-built place you’ve seen was deserted?**
**Certain.** Kestrel’s sending left no room for doubt, but she paused before continuing. And when she did, the tone of the sending was tender. **I understand what this means for you, Brightwood. It means much for all of us. I’ll fly as fast as I can.**
Brightwood breathed in. **I’ll wait for Fadestar’s report. Fly safe, Kestrel.** A pulse of warmth with the words, the fullness of her hopes in it. **Tell Windburn we did find something wonderful after all.**
(Author Note: thanks to Chris for helping again with Preserver dialogue!)