You can catch up on the story here.
It was still morning when Carrick found Aleda trudging back along the river from Gaerlom. Her feet slipped on the mossy ground, exhausted from too much stress and too little sleep. But she held the offering in her arms, and she wouldn’t let go.
“For Awena, Lea, you could have been killed!” Carrick grabbed her shoulders and she welcomed the strength of him. “What could be so important that you would risk your life?”
She straightened and pulled back a corner of the leather. Underneath was the tiny, red-splotched face of a newborn child. It was weak—too weak to cry—and she doubted it had even been fed before being left as an offering to the ocean. The People of the Sea returning the newest child of Mountain.
“He must be Elise’s little boy,” she said, throat raw from crying and thirst. “They put him in the cove to die.”
Carrick looked at her. “He’s a changeling?”
“I thought no more changelings were born? All the newest babes have been normal.”
She shrugged. “This one has wings. They left him in the cove.”
Carrick’s fingers gently touched the babe’s forehead and he took the child from her arms. “How did you know to go back?” His voice held a touch of awe that made her uncomfortable.
“I didn’t.” She handed the babe over, glad to be relieved of her burden for a while. “I went back for supplies but they ransacked our home. So I tried to retrieve your emergency pack in the cove and there he was. I…I couldn’t reach your pack, and all I brought back was another mouth to feed.”
Tears rolled down her face slowly. “I’m sorry, Carrie. I didn’t do us any good.”
“Shh.” Carrick held the babe in one hand and wiped her tears away with the other. “You did good, Lea. You saved another child. There’s nothing bad about that. Hush now. Lisel can feed the babe and Alaric will be happy to see you. Come.”
He took her hand and led her along the river, slowing when she slipped and telling her stories of the children at the camp. “They have found a mushroom that looks like something from the ocean.”
She grabbed his arm in panic. “They didn’t eat it?”
“Of course they did—they’re children.”
Aleda’s eyes widened as she imagined what she was coming back to. A dozen children poisoned or hallucinating, emptying their tiny stomachs and crying in a chorus of misery. She only had one cup and a limited supply of herbs. What would she do?
“Lea, they’re fine. The mushrooms are edible.”
Edible. It was hard to believe. After all they had been through they found a food source. They couldn’t survive on mushrooms alone, but it would extend the supplies they brought with them.
Carrick continued through her shock. “And I’ve found some mudbugs in the stream.”
“More like tiny lobsters. They’re all over the rocks.” His eyes were gleaming with hope. “You were right. It’s a good spot. Blessed by Awena.”
She shook her head. “You were right—it’s too close. As soon as Alaric can hobble and Erie is healthy we should move.”
As if proving her point the stream turned and they were already at the camp, the children crowding around them to see what she brought back. Lisel shooed the children away as she hurried over. “You won’t believe what the children found.”
“You won’t believe what I found,” Aleda said and turned to Carrick as he uncovered the babe.
“A changeling?” Lisel’s hand found her mouth as she stared down at it. Her own new babe was normal and none of them expected to see another changeling child again.
Aleda nodded. “They left him in the cove. Carrick already told me about the mushrooms.”
Lisel’s smile turned from the new babe to Aleda, and she looked relieved for the first time since they left Gaerlom. The wrinkles around her brow had smoothed a bit, and her eyes were no longer full of fear. “Not mushrooms. A cave. A huge cave in the mountain, with an entrance hidden from view and a space big enough for all of us, plus more. It’s damp inside, but it’s damp out here too.”
Aleda and Carrick looked at each other in shock. It was impossible that they had found safety so close to Gaerlom.
Lisel took the babe from them. “Faye, show Carrick and Lea the cave, hmm?”
Faye grabbed Aleda’s hand and pulled her with a child’s excitement. When they reached the mountainside the little girl let go and crawled behind a bush, disappearing from sight. Carrick moved the branches aside to reveal a gaping hole in the wall, Faye’s little face smiling from it. They followed her in, ducking their heads and trailing their hands along the damp wall of the shallow, dark tunnel before the space opened up before them, lit by small shafts of light that pierced the ceiling.
“Oh Carrie.” Aleda’s voice caught as she reached for his hand. The size of the cavern was dizzying. A small tribe could live here, it was so large.
Carrick squeezed her hand. “I think Mountain will provide for his children after all.”
Aleda began crying again.