Berry Blight

Written by Wordgazer

Pike hopped from his wolf-friend’s back and took a sagging branch in his hand. “That’s what I was afraid of,” he said gloomily to his three hunting companions. “The blight’s got this bush, too. And this is the last of the dreamberries inside the thorn wall.”

Nightfall gazed at him sympathetically as she sat her wolf. “Redlance has tried,” she said softly, “but the sickness works fast, and all the way through. He couldn’t kill the blight without killing the bushes.”

Clearbrook dismounted and moved to put a hand on Pike’s shoulder. “The bushes will grow again next season, Pike,” she said comfortingly.

“But there’ll be no dried berries to see us through white-cold,” Pike mourned. “And that means the howls. . . the stories won’t be–”

He broke off.. Strongbow, sitting like a stone on Lashpaw, gazed at him without expression. Things were hard enough here on Thorny Mountain, with Cutter so grim without Leetah, Skywise, and the twins. If there were no dreamberries either. . .

Pike stared down at the withered branch with its brown, wrinkled berries. He squared his shoulders. “There are dreamberries growing down by the human village,” he said. “The blight hasn’t gotten to them.”

“How do you know that?” said Clearbrook.

Pike looked innocently up into the trees. “I . . . just do.”

Nightfall snorted. Then her eyes became stern. “You know you shouldn’t have, Pike. What would Cutter say?”

Pike grinned. “What if I brought back fresh berries for him and everyone?”

Clearbrook frowned. “You know the rules, Pike. Cutter doesn’t want any of us anywhere near that village..”

Pike was silent a moment. Strongbow was watching him, his face unreadable. Pike gestured up the mountainside. “You see that big boulder up there? You can’t move it or climb over it. So if you need to get to the other side, all you can do is go around..”

Nightfall snorted again. “And you think you’re just going to go around Cutter?”

Pike’s eyes met hers levelly. “If I have to. For the dreamberries. For the waiting for the Palace, and the white-cold– and the stories that’ll help us all get through.”

Clearbrook and Nightfall stared at him. Pike shifted uneasily, but continued “I’m riding to the human village before this night’s over. I’ll bring berries home to dry– and a whole fresh bush, dug up to replant near the Holt. If Redlance watches over it like a mother bird on a nest, maybe the blight won’t get a chance to take hold. And then there”ll be enough berries to get us through.”

There was a silence. Nightfall looked worried; Clearbrook thoughtul, but neither of them spoke.

And then a sending cut the air between them like an arrow. *He’s right. I’ll go with him.*

“Strongbow?” Nightfall’s eyes widened. Pike’s heart gave a surprised leap.

Clearbrook hesitated, then nodded. “Nightfall and I will go on with the hunt. High Ones speed you.”

Pike grinned, casting a grateful glance at Strongbow. “We’ll be as speedy as we can.” He smiled at Nightfall. “It’s for Cutter as much as for anyone, Nightfall.”

“I know,” she said. She gave him a quick grin. “Hurry back. I don’t want to have to tell him where you’ve gone.”

Pike raised a wry eyebrow. “Me neither!” He waved cheerfully as he and Strongbow rode away.

Pike slipped through a gap in the thorn wall and started down the slope. Even his sharp ears couldn’t hear the archer behind him, but Pike knew he was there. Their wolf-friends, whining a little, were waiting for them on the safe side of the thorn wall. Deep night though it was, there might be human hunters out anyway, and any human hunter would kill a wolf on sight.

*Just how close are these berries to where the humans live?* Strongbow sent tersely.

*A long stone’s throw from their wall,* Pike sent back.

*Too close for my liking.*

Pike glanced back at the shadowy form behind him. *C’mon, Strongbow, not all humans are bad. Remember Little Patch?*

The only response was a grumble under Strongbow’s breath, but Pike knew he remembered– now that the name had been brought back into the Now for him. The past tended to fade for Pike, too– but when he’d made the trek here earlier in search of healthy dreamberry bushes, there’d been a couple of humans who had brought Little Patch back to the front of his mind. The young maiden had been laughing, running from the lad, and pelting him with flowers whenever he got too close. The lad had scooped up the flowers and presented them to her in a bunch. Games like that were played by elves and humans alike. Pike had sat well-hidden in a tree and watched them till they’d gone back inside the village wall.

Well. No sense in letting Strongbow know Pike had been out here in broad daylight. He crept forward now, the light of the setting moons guiding his steps almost as well as the scent-trail he’d left last time. He could see the wooden poles of the village wall now– and there were the dreamberry bushes, straight ahead. Pike slipped between the last two trees and pulled from his tunic the folded pouch he always kept with him at this time of year.

Strongbow was beside him, expertly twisting berries from the branches and dropping them into the pouch. To the archer, just as much as to Pike, dreamberries were more than a source of pleasure: they were part of hunt and howl, part of life and love– part of the Way. Strongbow might shake his head sometimes when Pike had had too many, but he’d never deny the value of the berries to the tribe.

They gathered in silence for a while. Clouds above drifted across the moons, growing thicker and thicker. A wind sprang up. Strongbow lifted his eyes to the sky. *Storm’s coming. Dawn is too.*

*I know.* Pike closed his pouch and tied it around his neck. Then he slid it around behind him and dropped to his knees, slipping between the bushes. *I’ll dig up this one in the middle,* he sent. *The humans won’t notice it’s gone.* He plunged the point of his spear into the ground.

Strongbow’s hand came down, tugged at the pouch around his neck. *I’ll hold that. You’re going to smash the berries.*

Gratefully Pike let him remove the pouch that was bumping against his back as he dug. *Thanks,* he sent.

Just then there was a creaking sound. Pike and Strongbow’s eyes both snapped to where the village gate was slowly opening. Men’s voices, muted but cheerful, gusted towards them on the wind.

Pike and Strongbow, as one, sprang for the trees– but Pike was deep within the bushes. He felt a sharp tug at the back of his leggings as a spiny branch caught– and then the sound of tearing leather. Strongbow’s hand caught him firmly and hauled him up beside him on a branch. The humans went by below, carrying spears and nets– clearly taking advantage of the coming rain and the approach of dawn to make the fish bite. They did not look up into the dark branches, and it was doubtful they would have seen the elves even if they had. But Pike, though feeling a draftiness in the area of his seat, did not move till the men were gone.

Strongbow gripped his arm. *Finish your digging, and let’s go– quick!*

Pike eyed the dark form beside him mournfully. *I tore my britches.*

There was a pause. Then white teeth flashed in the dusk as the archer smirked. Pike sighed and jumped from the tree. He finished digging up the bush without another word. Then he and Strongbow started back for the Holt, Pike’s seat flapping behind him till they reached their wolf-friends once again.

“Pike! What have you done to your leggings?!” Moonshade scolded.

“And where have you been?” Cutter added. He plucked a dreamberry off the bush in Pike’s arms and sniffed at it.

Pike grinned. “Getting healthy dreamberries.”

His chief eyed him suspiciously. “Where did you get them?”

Pike’s eyes were wide, solemn– and innocent. “Where we found them.”

Strongbow’s mouth twitched. Cutter turned on him, eying the pouch around Strongbow’s neck. “You went with him?”

The archer nodded, ducking his head a little at Cutter’s challenging glare, but offering no information. Nightfall laid a hand on Cutter’s arm.

“Sometimes, my chief, it’s better not to ask..”

Cutter stared at her, opened his mouth, and closed it again. He gestured to Redlance. “Help him plant that bush, tree-shaper.”

“Yes, Cutter,” Redlance said meekly. He lifted the bush out of Pike’s arms.

“Get up to your den, Pike, and out of those leggings so I can mend them!” Moonshade said.

“Yes, tanner,” Pike said, just as meekly as Redlance. Strongbow’s lips compressed, and his shoulders shook a little. Krim stepped forward, her eyes shrewd as she looked from Pike to Strongbow.

“I don’t know what you’ve been up to, lifemate, but it looks like it was worth it,” she said. Behind her, Skot chortled a little as Pike, following Moonshade’s orders, began to climb to his den.

Pike paused, looked down at them, and opened his mouth. A long, dreamberry scented burp came out.

Even Cutter forgot to be stern as the Holt rang with the Wolfriders’ laughter.