The sun showed through the clouds in the morning of their second day at the cave, and James breathed a sigh of relief. Their gear had dried out eventually, and he had hung the canvas over the mouth of the den. The bear, thankfully, had not returned.
Marell and Emma had visibly improved as Saul the Younger had tended to them. The boy’s father had woken in the night and professed minimal pain, though the man was so groggy he was near to useless.
James gathered berries and what edible roots he could find, and brought a few roots he’d recognized from young Saul’s gathering on days previous. He lit their small fire, well-stocked now with resin and tinder, hung his water bag over it with water and stones in it.
While he waited for the fire to do its work, he packed what he could into bundles. He let the others sleep, keeping a particular eye on young Saul. The boy had earned his rest. His energetic harvesting, his sure, steady hand with the cookpot, and his constant attention to his father and the other children had left James at loose ends. James had seen the day drag on the boy, and had promised himself to take as much of the burden as he could in days ahead.
He pulled aside the canvas, watching the area outside. The silence was palpable. Only the rustling of trees and grasses disturbed the quiet.
The evening had been the stuff of nightmares. James had had to hold the canvas at times as a hissing, pattering, thumping parade of creatures passed by, some pressed towards the den by the sheer mass of bodies around them. Young Saul had asked questions for which he had no answers – where were these coming from? What would they do if all the animals had taken the Wild? Could they even travel with such a tide passing by?
James shook his head and cursed, pulling the canvas down to let the light spill in. He stepped outside and unfolded himself, rolling his neck and stretching his back and shoulders.
Saul the Elder stepped outside to join him.
“What a fine day,” said Saul.
James stared at the needleman.
“Do you remember the last two days at all, man?” he asked.
“Pain, mostly, and tea,” he said.
James shook his head again and laughed.
“There’s been a steady tide of Wild-touched running past,” said James. “I had to hold the door against them.”
Saul’s eyes widened, and he looked about anxiously.
“Should we be out?” he asked. “I can’t help you sing them off.”
“They’re gone,” said James. “And I’m not sure how to sing a squirrel anyhow.”
“What?” asked Saul.
“The small creatures have taken the Wild,” said James. “I’ve never seen it so bad.”
“How is that possible?” asked Saul. “They’ve no songs!”
“The Wild is not a thing of songs,” said James. “Songs merely draw it, as with fire, or running water. It is something else.”
“How does one calm a rat?” said Saul. “Or…or a bear? Did you see the bear?”
The needleman’s hands shook, his eyes darted, and his breathing became shallow and quick.
“The bear is not nearby,” said James, laying a hand against the other man’s back. “Though I dare say it went with the tide.”
“Well, that’s good news,” said Saul.
“Aye,” said James. “Except that they were heading for the river, and the station.”
“Oh,” said Saul.
“Aye,” said James, his eyes fixed on the fire stone.
“The children won’t make it back,” said Saul.
“No one to go back to anyways,” said James. “They got out, or they’ve taken the Wild by now. Balenn’s a better voice than any I ever heard this side or the other. If she wasn’t down that damn well, they might be close behind Rose.”
Saul’s shoulders lowered and he unclenched his good hand.
“Anna, too,” he said. “She took care of Perrill for years after her mother passed.”
“Time to move,” he said. “How’s Emma?”
“She’s strong, James. We need to get her to a healer or a steadyman, but she’ll make Gamut. Ah!”
Saul bent, pulling his bad hand against his stomach. Tears threatened between his closed eyelids. The spell passed again, and the needleman unfolded.
James eyed the other man. The farmer’s was guarded, all tensed muscle and crooked posture.
Saul smiled weakly.
“This damn hand,” the needleman said. “Nothing worse than a break when you’re on the move.”
“Could you not splint it?” asked James.
“If I’d gotten to it before it started to swell, yes,” said Saul. “Not much point now. All I can do is try to keep the blood in tune until there’s a healer.”
“Better leave that to the lad,” he said, chuckling.
Saul scowled, but James laughed all the harder, leaning against the needleman for support. Saul leaned away, but then he caught the bug and he let out a laugh of his own. The men stood together, laughing and coughing and slapping each other on the shoulders.
“What’s so funny?” asked Saul the Younger.
Saul the Elder wheezed to a stop and beamed at his son.
“We were just happy that the rain is stopped,” he said.
“It’s a good day for moving on,” said James.