Watching

A tale of Rushwater Holt.

The wind in the treetop rustled, the chatter and whisper of countless leaves swept to and fro filling the air echoing the rumble of the Rushwater River. The stars were cold points above and in the distance, there somewhere at the edge of Holt territory watching out westward, where night- sounds had penetrated the silence the disappearing life-sounds had left behind. The cool air was empty, all ahead the treetops also formed an emptiness of sorts, as green mingled and faded into green and gold and red, as far as the eye could see.

The cubling crept to the edge of her branch and grabbed the shoots tight in fisted hands to maintain her delicate balance. Small nose twitched testing the wind, her blue eyes two marks of the wolf with their glow, high above ground. She shifted and frowned, watched, scented and listened. The westward-blowing wind told her she had left all her tribemates behind near Holt proper, that the Hunt was not out tonight, that she was watching alone.

She liked that. Others have stopped watching some time ago, now that it has been so long. Below under the greenery something leapt, something scratched and tumbled in the chase. Something winged burst out of the treetops, black shapes between green. The distance was uniform from above as from below, the green and the walls of the canyons. Beyond Holt proper, it was still all like home.

Will he return?

An owl hooted deep within the forest. She crept back slowly along the branch, which swayed under her weight, closed her hands about it, easing herself backwards until she could lean her back against the trunk and put her head down and shiver a little. Thank the High Ones that she was still small or it may not have held her up. It was the tallest tree she could find and she needed to go as high up as she could.

Echo understood, head and heart, why Rock had left the Holt. Perhaps she understood better than most cubs, her own father and her beloved friend Snowsoft having gone through much the same as he. Understood the emptiness, also, that he and Duskwater had left behind wandering away westward, reflected in a quiet inner emptiness where once a golden-haired sister laughed.

Echo knew that she shouldn't hope that Rock and Duskwater would bring Summerset back with them when they returned, but it was a difficult hope to chase away. She dreamed frequently. Her mother knew, though Dreamshadow would never invade on her little one's secret imaginings, would never see where Echo's spirit went daily following her sister and tribemates away. Where were they now? Out beyond the green of the treetops, beyond the shadows of leaves on the ground. Out beyond seasons' change bringing familiar patterns to familiar lands. Out beyond the call of known and loved voices, into the cold freedom of new nights.

In her short life she had never known death, only leaving. Summerset has left, and now Rock and Duskwater. Left the Holt – gone beyond its unmarked borders. But what was there beyond these borders, did the treetops part and let through a glimpse of open starry sky? Did the ever-present wall of the canyons, earth and stone, close up above sealing the stars away? Or perhaps the daystar shone there, perhaps there it was that it went westward every night, where Summerset, Rock and Duskwater had gone. Perhaps they had gone chasing it, to a place that was not woods, and was not leaves and ferns and the river, and not wolves and ravvits and deer and Elves. Someplace that was – that was –

Echo had no words.

She raised her head from her knees and watched away. The air was brittle and the wind shifted bringing scents from places she did not know, but scents that were familiar as any. Scent of fat game. Scent of the river. Scent of leaves. Or perhaps beyond the Holt there was more forest, and more forest, to the gaping ends of the world.

Perhaps it was all the same.

Why had they gone, then?

Those thoughts were too big for her little cubling head, she thought decisively as she started to climb down. Sunray was back at the Holt and it was a long walk back, and she'd best be started now if she didn't want to be out at dawn. She hoped Father was not too worried, she had left word with Clover about where she was going... not told him why, though. "I'm going to watch out for Rock and Duskwater". It was enough. Would Clover understand what she was looking out for?

Why had they gone, if it was all the same? Why had they gone?

Echo's small feet hit the ground with a dull thump. She leaned her head against the tree and felt the rough bark. A squirrel fled up from the other side, she heard things slither in the grass. She wasn't scared. Those were home sights and home sounds that she knew. The rumbling river...

Or was it not all the same? Perhaps Dreamberry knew, perhaps she could show her. Perhaps Father could lock-send into her mind what it yearned to see, he'd gone himself more than once after all.

She didn't want to ask. It was not memories tinged with familiarity she wanted, nor what they would show her to keep her mind at peace – not things others have already seen.

The known trails stretched before her, footsteps sure, the pattern of undergrowth showing her home. Elves stayed at the Holt because it was safe, it was where they knew their world and its rhythm and life. Did different birds fly on different wings in skies beyond those treetops? Did different wolves scrabble and scratch at the ground and lay warm in different dens? Different branchhorns browse by different rivers? Was Summerset seeing them now?

Or why had she gone?

Echo gently hushed Sunray, who came bounding at her as she arrived at Holt proper, tail held high, tongue lolling, the moonlight weaving trails in her golden fur. A cold nose thrust against her palm and she absently ran two fingers on the wolf's back. Sunray sensed her bond's thoughtfulness, her quiet, and fell behind her like a shadow as Echo avoided her tribemates on the way to the Denning Tree. There were voices in the Holt, laughter and clatter of tools – the familiar life. But Echo was far, far away from it all.

So far, and still here.

Mother Moon shone bright above the smaller form of Daughter Moon, casting their loving silver light on the inviting curves of the den-holes. Echo climbed up suddenly wishing to lay her head on her soft sleeping furs that smelled of Mother and Father. Clambering in, she pulled them up to her nose and breathed in that familiarity. Small shoulders rose and fell in a soundless sigh.

She glanced back out of the den. The trees stood there, brown and stark, an endless clutter, a pattern that would not be broken. The sky showed in torn patches between them, sewn with a smattering of stars. Leaves closed in the world she knew.

Or perhaps it was all the same?

Why had she gone, then? Why had she gone?

Perhaps it was not the answer for Summerset, for Rock, for Duskwater. Perhaps not. But for herself, Echo wanted to know –

Her thoughts dissipated into trickles and disappeared. She curled up among the furs and nuzzled the blanket Summerset once made for her, then closed her eyes and let the dreams rush in. For a moment, just before she drifted, she was aware of the picture – of another endlessness, blue and white, wavy and salty, and touching the sky in the distance, some wisp that enveloped her mind for which she had no word or name.

For a brief moment she ached terribly for it, and then sleep eased her into silence. It would be many, many years before she understood.