(This story is part of the "Early Romance of Farscout & Brightwood" set of stories; it is also part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
Farscout failed to notice when the bright afternoon light first began to fail. He had other business at hand – the scout had been shadowing a trio of human hunters since they had strayed across the Bounty River that morning. The three young men had tracked down and killed a marshbeast yearling and were chattering at one another now in high spirits as they strung up the beast and began to gut it. Farscout had found a good vantage point to watch them from; he was stretched out along the stout length of an old tree branch, just out of bowshot. He had an unobstructed view of the three humans and their work; of course, an unobstructed view of them meant that there was always the chance that the woodwise humans might spot him in return, but Farscout was careful to stay downwind and to make no sudden movements, and as his leathers were dyed in forest hues, he wore nothing bright that might draw a human’s inquisitive eye. The humans had been clever in stalking their prey and had made their kill cleanly, but they were too intent on cleaning the yearling’s carcass to pay much attention to their surroundings now.
When the light first dimmed, Farscout assumed it was clouds scudding across the sun. But then the shadows deepened, the day’s warmth began to fade precipitously, and a startled red-breast bird began to warble its nightsong.
Farscout looked up; the humans turned their faces up to the sun as well, and one of them gave a sharp cry of horror.
The sun had been turned into a half-crescent, and the darkness only deepened as that relentless shadow grew and seemed to swallow the sun whole.
As the light suddenly failed them, the three hunters froze where they stood at the river’s edge and looked up into the sky for answers.
“An eclipse!” Brightwood exclaimed. The entire tribe had watched lunar eclipses before, but the sun in eclipse was a rare event that only elders would recall.
“Be careful,” Lynx said. “Looking full on an eclipse can blind you. Owl could fix any sunburn you took to your eyes, but without him now…” The tawny-haired hunter turned away and put up his hands, fingers held together at right angles to form a square between his thumbs. “Old Crest taught me this trick. Watch this,” he said, catching the sun’s shadow.
Brightwood laughed in delight at the result, as a tiny sun-in-eclipse danced on the river stones at her feet.
The human hunters cried out in fear, and one of them sang out an ululating prayer, supplicating his gods to return save the sun. As the darkness grew deeper, more birds had begun to sing their dusksongs and fly back to their nighttime roosts as. Among the leaves a hands-reach from Farscout’s nose, he saw the pale flutter as a nocturnal moth emerged from its hiding place and spread its fragile wings.
An owl woke in its hollow in a tree nearby, and the creature hooted softly in question. The humans were less composed; they gestured wildly in a panic that clearly grew as the sun above them shrank away. As the daystar vanished, so did the day’s heat. That proven too much for the strong, tall humans. The hunters abandoned their kill and fled, leaving the half-skinned marshbeast swinging. There was nothing their elders could tell them that would bring them comfort, Farscout mused. He remembered, with pleasure, the words of wisdom he had been given, six hundred turns or more ago now.
“Your grandfather Crest explained it to me the way he’d heard it as a boy from the elder Greenleaf, who was a High One’s son,” Lynx continued, directing his words to Farscout. “One of the moons sweeping between us and the sun. A daytime eclipse is a beautiful thing, but looking at the sun now while the moon is swallowing it is more dangerous than when the daystar is full in the sky, because your eyes don’t know they’re being burned. Only during the brief middle of an eclipse is it safe to look up at it. You’ll know that moment when you see the sun-pearls. And here they come, my favorite part,” Lynx said, crouching now at the river’s edge. “Watch for the pearls.”
In the wavering shadow before them, the moon had almost completely covered the sun, so that the daystar had become a crescent. As the final edge of the sun was disappearing, a series of tiny specks of light flared, one after another, looking like a brilliant series of beads strung on a single glowing bracelet. Lynx turned his face up to the sky then; Brightwood and Farscout followed his lead, watched for one, four, six, ten heartbeats, until in an instant, the beads disappeared and were replaced by a single star of light which remained for one long, long intake of breath, glowing like a single gem set against the dark ring of the moon.
“Old Crest said any of us are lucky to see this once in a lifetime,” Lynx said with a smile of satisfaction. “And I’ve now seen two.”
The single point of the ring disappeared overhead. Farscout waited, counting his breath today as he could remember having done alongside his lifemate and heart’s father centuries past. He watched the full dark disk overhead, and marveled again at the twilight quality of light. The sky above was dark enough at zenith for the brightest of stars to sparkle, but faded to reddish hues toward the horizons. Stars in the daylight – it was a beautiful sight, something to be marveled at and treasured for the brief time they remained.
The owl hooted again, confused by the sudden nightfall. It took wing and flitted through the trees, passing close through the branches that Farscout felt the breeze from its passage. Farscout kept his eyes on the heavens, enjoying the rare vista overhead.
"Look!” Brightwood said, scrambling up the riverbank to pluck a climbing bee-berry vine. The vibrant pink blossoms had curled inward, closing up for the night. “The birds are confused, and so are the flowers.”
“The bees fly home; they’ll be so scared by the eclipse that they won’t come out of their hive for the rest of the day,” Lynx said.
“The pearls are back,” Farscout said, still marveling at the vision of stars sparkling overhead at midday.
“Look away,” Lynx warned. “It’s not safe anymore to look directly at the sun. But come on. Climb with me. There’s one more gift yet to see.”
The sole large sun-pearl arrived again on the opposite side of the eclipse, and then vanished, replaced then by the string of smaller pearls curving around the edges of the sun’s disk. Farscout looked away, hearing Lynx’s voice again over the years as if his old friend were whispering the words in his ear.
Instead, Farscout looked down at the forest floor below. As the strange twilight faded again and the sunlight returned, he watched the sun’s return through a multitude of growing crescents that danced on there, a thousand different growing crescents of light, each sun-shadow cast by a different forest leaf.
“Any of us are lucky to see this once in a lifetime.” Farscout repeated the words softly, watching as the moon slid away from the sun, returning the world back to its natural order. “And now I’ve seen two.”