Disclaimer: I don't own Elfquest or take any credit for the creativity behind it. The characters are the works of Wendy and Richard Pini (and their fellow artists at Warp graphics) and I am borrowing them purely out of love. Please do not take the quality (or lack thereof) of this story as a reflection on the creations of others.
The Lonely Orbits of Stars
They traveled through the daytime. None of them spoke and though the morning sun was already hot on their backs, Skywise shivered.
Either do as I say or send me to Joyleaf's side! I don't care which! (1)
With his head throbbing in time to Starjumper's paws striking the ground, Bearclaw's words ran in endless circles through his mind like a wolf cub playing chase-tail, but he couldn't get a grasp on them. He couldn't get a grasp on anything. He knew the tribe had to be warned, but if Treestump and One-Eye hadn't been with him, he didn't know how he'd be moving forward.
The others must go back, Bearclaw, I agree! But I'm coming with you! You can't stop me!
He swayed off center as slightly as Starjumper leaped a small stream and found himself actually having to concentrate his entire will on keeping hold of his wolf friend's fur. All focus went to his hands and thighs; where he was going and why, who he was with, even thoughts of the wolf he was riding - all retreated behind one simple demand: hold on.
Treestump, if we don't come back, you are chief! Take the tribe far away from here.
What had Cutter meant? Where are we going? Why are we riding away? Brother? Brother!
If we don't come back…
Ground and sky tilted wildly and the last sound he heard before darkness overtook him was Starjumper's worried whine as he slid off the wolf's back.
For the span of a handful of heartbeats he floated on a sea of blessed unawareness. Trees appeared before his eyes, but they held no significance. His name was gone, but it did not matter because he was ignorant to the fact that he even had or should need one. A wonderful coolness descended on his forehead and he sighed with relief. His gaze took in a dark green hat.
"Cub? Are you awake?" One-Eye, his mind supplied. As he watched, his companion wet his hand in the stream flowing next to them and then used it to brush Skywise's hair back. *Skywise? Can you hear me?* the older elf asked, sending this time.
"How is he, One-Eye?" he heard a voice say from somewhere behind him. It was Treestump. He sounded anxious, distracted, and even though he was out of Skywise's line of sight, the younger elf could tell he was circling around them, eyes alert for movement. The wolves too were wary; even Starjumper was watching the woods when not glancing at his elf-friend with a questioning whimper.
They're keeping watch, Skywise realized. Something's after us. But he was too dazed to remember what.
"One… One-Eye? Treestump?" Stars, why did his voice sound so weak? He tried to lift his head, but the sudden lurch of vision and accompanying turning-over of his stomach told him that that was a very bad idea.
"Easy now, cub. Let us help," Treestump told him as he knelt down behind Skywise and lifted his head gently while One-Eye cupped a handful of water from the stream and held it to his mouth, doing it several times until Skywise had had his fill. Once he was done, Starjumper butted in to sniff his elf-friend in examination, finishing up with a few anxious lick's to Skywise's face.
" 'm all right, Starjumper. Everything's all right," he mumbled, instinctively needing to reassure his wolf-friend. He tried clumsily to reach up and scratch the wolf's favourite spot behind the ear, but he was so tired. He could feel his eyelids drifting closed again.
"No, cub, wake up," Treestump ordered.
"Wha…" his voice failed him. He swallowed and tried again. "What…hap…What happened?"
One-Eye took out his knife and cut off a dangling piece of his torn leathers. "Don't you remember, cub?" he asked as he dipped the torn piece in the stream and used it to gently pat at Skywise's face.
"No, I - " Skywise started to answer, but then stopped with a gasp as it all came flooding back. "Oh, High Ones, no!" he moaned. Treestump's arms held him tighter and One-Eye and all three wolves moved in closer, touching him, forming a protective circle around him, all sharing comfort as the three relived the previous night's devastation.
Eventually they helped Skywise to the base of a tree so they could all take a respite under some shade. The desperate urge to keep going, to warn the tribe, was still driving them, but the wolves were thirsty and even Treestump realized they needed to rest. So the two elder elves sat on either side of their wounded companion while One-Eye's Smoketreader went to hunt for the group and the other two wolves guarded them. Skywise gratefully rested his head against Treestump's shoulder at the other elf's urging and they sat together silently for some time, each subdued by their own pain and shock. Tribe members died, one here, one there - they were all used to that, though it hurt every time. This time, however… five slaughtered at once - five - with the fate of two more still unknown… it was a disaster like none of them could remember, and it secretly frightened Skywise when he thought of how it was going to affect the tribe.
We should howl, Skywise thought. His soul ached for the release of the familiar ritual, but he also knew it was too soon. A howl was for when a crisis was over, and this wasn't, not by a long hunt. And even when it was, the tribe should be together to share their grief.
"How are we ever going to tell them?" he asked his two companions.
They had no answer.
They had eaten the ravvit Smoketreader had caught and the sun had moved well past the highest point in the sky when Treestump began to move restlessly.
"How do you feel, lad?" he asked, turning to Skywise. "Do you think you can ride?"
"Don't worry about me, Treestump. I won't slow you down anymore." But when they helped him stand, he immediately paled and his knees buckled under him.
"Your Foggycoat is wounded, Treestump," One-Eye said. "You could take Smoketreader and ride ahead, while I ride behind Skywise on Starjumper." (2)
Treestump was clearly tempted, but in the end shook his head. "No. If Madcoil is tracking us, I won't leave the two of you alone, especially when one of you is injured."
"If Madcoil comes upon us, three won't be much more help than two, and if we're all killed, then the tribe won't know what happened or what threatens," One-Eye argued.
"Strongbow will make sure the look-outs are in the trees like they always are. They'll be watching for trouble, even if they won't know what's coming. That's all we can hope for. No, we'll ride together for now. I'll only leave you if I absolutely have to," Treestump decided. "We'll need to ride hard, though," the older elf went on. "I'm sorry about that, cub," he said to Skywise. "I know your wounds need better seeing to than we can do on the run, but…"
"It's all right, Treestump. I can hold on till we get back to the holt, then R - " he broke off abruptly, horrified. He'd been about to say Rain could look at them.
But of course he couldn't. Rain was gone.
"I'm sorry, that was stupid. I… I didn't mean to…" he whispered hoarsely, unable to look at them.
One-Eye's arm was already around him, helping him stand, and Treestump placed a comforting hand on his back. The blond elf swallowed hard and when he spoke his voice was just as hoarse as Skywise's was. "Don't take on so, cub. Rain and the others… it's something we're all going to have to get used to."
Skywise nodded miserably and they helped him onto Starjumper's back. On top of everything else, he realized, they hadn't just lost their most gentle pack brother - the tribe was also now without its healer. What if Cutter or Bearclaw come back injured? he asked himself. What if little Dart gets sick, or something happens to Rainsong's cub?
Rainsong. Another stab went through Skywise's heart. Rain had been so eager to see her cub. How will she take it so close to her time?
He felt One-Eye get on behind him and wrap his arms around his waist. Starjumper made no complaint at the extra weight, but kept trying to turn his head back to make sure his elf-friend was all right.
"Lean against me if you need to," One-Eye told him. *And not just for the journey home, cub. I know it's in our natures to lick our wounds in private, but don't grieve alone. We all need each other now.*
*Thanks, One-Eye. I won't.*
1) The first three italicized lines are quoted directly from Elf quest #4 - Wolfsong. (Issue number may differ depending on edition you have, so I used the one on the official Elfquest website.)
2) I know Lionskin is Treestump's wolf during the Original Quest, but I figure at least one of might have lost a wolf friend in the intervening time between this point and that.