(This story is related to "First Contact: Pt. 1" and is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
It had begun to rain, just a little misting drizzle at first that slowly built into a steady grey fall. Evervale huddled under the scant protection of her cloak, soaked through to the skin and miserable. Rain dripped past the brim of her hood, narrowly missing the end of her nose. She burrowed her chilled fingers through her wolf’s ruff to keep them warm, and deliberately held her silence, determined to face whatever perils found her on this scouting trip as stoically as did the hunter in whose tracks she rode.
Farscout ranged ahead of her, moving at his tireless pace. He walked or trotted more often than rode, although his wolf-friend Bracken generally kept to his side. It had become a rite of passage for the younger elves of the River Twine Holt to be sent out along with the quiet hunter during one of his extended patrols, and for Turns, Evervale had waited for her elders to think her old enough for her chance to make this trip.
In her imagination, it would be an exciting journey of discovery. Of all of the tribe’s elders, Farscout was the most remote, gone on patrol as often as not; in her imagination, this trip had promised a chance to learn mysteries and secrets he alone knew. It would be a chance prove herself, even win the friendship and respect of the one elder she didn’t believe had ever noticed her as a child. And in her wildest daydreams, the journey would be fraught with dangers; she would find herself in an opportunity where her wise choices and quick actions saved the quiet scout’s life, and earned her his lasting gratitude and admiration.
In reality, the trip so far had been little more than four days of exhaustion and tedium. Farscout remained as silent-tongued on the trail as he had always been around the Holt. He discouraged friendly conversation, or rather, ignored it entirely. Even the Preserver Mushroom, who was almost always riding on the scout’s shoulder, tucked under the shelter of his collar at the nape of his neck, traveled in silence. And Farscout was constantly on the move. Weather didn’t slow his relentless pace. Three or four times a day he would climb into the trees or settle in a sheltered hollow for a short wolf-nap – but those breaks came few and far between, and it seemed to Evervale that she only managed to close her eyes for snatches of sleep before she found herself shaken awake.
“You must be silent to listen.” In four days, her companion had said very little else to her. Even Mushroom, was silent and stoic; when the creature did speak, it chose to whisper its words into the scout’s ear. At rare moments, Farscout would point out herbs or oddities of the landscape as they moved through it, but even those communications were largely silent, conducted through brief gestures and significant glances. Farscout traveled as if she were no more than a shadow, and her attempts to draw Mushroom into conversation had earned her a sour browbeating from the nervous Preserver. For her own part, Evervale’s daydreams of grand adventure were shattered. If there was something Farscout expected her to be learning, she didn’t know what it was – he sure as stars above wasn’t teaching her anything, except how to steal moments of sleep while riding wolfback. Yet despite it all, she was still determined to salvage what she could of her long-nurtured dreams. Evervale was resolved to meet the scout’s relentless pace without complaint, and if nothing else, maybe earn his praise at the end of the patrol for her stoic endurance.
Farscout continued in his long, silent stride, pausing for only a moment to gather up some low-growing herb; Evervale wasn’t watching closely enough to see what it had been, and only saw the flicker of his pale hands as the bit of greenery went into the leather bag that swung against his hip. They had not taken a wolf-nap since the early hours before dawn. Evervale felt her eyelids sinking. She caught herself and blinked vigorously, renewed her resolve to endure, then again caught her eyelids sliding shut. Halfmoon’s steady pace was lulling, and she was exhausted down to the marrow of her bones. There was no harm in allowing her eyes to rest, certainly – her ears and nose were sharp, and Halfmoon’s body beneath her was relaxed and easy…
She let her eyes rest, and what felt like only moments later, a hand closed on her shoulder, jarring her awake. They had reached a break in the trees, where the land sloped down toward a flowing creek. Halfmoon had stopped, and so had the rain. Farscout was standing beside her, his expression faintly amused.
“You’re too cold,” he said, pulling her hands free from Halfmoon’s coat and chaffing them between his own. “Dismount. Running will warm you up.”
Evervale swallowed back a moan. A glance up through the gap in the trees around them showed her that the sun had risen behind a grey curtain of clouds. Sane elves slept the day hours through; Evervale was beginning to understand the whispers she had overheard about Farscout being a crazy old wolf. She pulled her hands free and did as she was told, weighing good sense against her own desire to prove to herself that she would, or even could, endure this trip.
“We’re half a day from the Bounty River,” Farscout said then, surprising her with the information. “We’ll reach the river by midday, and once there, we’ll check the wind, check the tracks, and see whether to turn west or east.”
He squeezed her shoulder then, an unexpectedly companionable gesture, and then began to move, following the deer trail at an easy lope. The borders of the Holt’s territory. That was the edge of the entire world as Evervale knew it. She wanted to see the Bounty River with her own eyes – and someday the Rushwater as well, in the territory the tribe had lost when the humans had arrived in the year of her birth. Evervale scrambled to follow her elder, finding herself energized by his brief words.
They ran until Evervale couldn’t run any further, and then they walked until she had found her second wind and could run again. They only rested next when they reached the clear waters of a small creek, which danced merrily on its way to join the Bounty. Exhausted, Evervale knelt and caught up a palm-scoop of water. It was crisp and icy cold, and she imagined that it tasted different from the summer-lazy rivers that twined about the Holt.
“How close are we?” she dared to ask, when Farscout knelt to scoop up a mouthful.
**Close enough,** the hunter replied. **The Bounty is close enough that you can almost hear it. Always be alert for strange wolves, this close to the border.**
Bracken and Halfmoon both were lapping up a mouthful. Suddenly, both wolves’ heads came up, ears pointed forward and noses twitching. Farscout looked that way, too. Evervale saw nothing and smelled nothing; she looked at Halfmoon again, gauging the wolf’s body language. He was alert to something, but not alarmed.
**What is it?** she asked, taking a cautious step backward toward the great oak behind her, half a twitch from scrambling up it to safety.
**Don’t know.** Farscout glanced her way, his pale eyes sweeping over her measuringly. **Other wolfpacks aren’t the only concern out here. There’s a bear den an hour’s hike downstream, and you never can bet where the footloose Amber-Hunters will be found. Their village is down on Eagle Bay, but I’ve seen their boats travel upriver far out into the grasslands, and their menfolk have wandered as far into the forest as the Holt’s thornbreak.**
“Bad bad bad,” muttered Mushroom, clutching at Farscout’s collar and giving Evervale a nervous look. “Strange wolves mean, strange wolves fight and bite and growl, strange wolves eat pretty-cub, pretty-cub go home now.”
Farscout rose and strung his bow. **There’s a ford just to the southeast; things tend to collect there at the riverbend. I’m going to head for that and take a look. You stay here; hole up and wait for me to return.**
Evervale frowned with dismay. Travel this far – only to be made to go to cover once there was finally something to be seen? **But--** she began to protest.
Farscout’s sending blazed back at her, showing herself through his eyes: a thin-boned slip of a girl, face dirty, looking ragged and worn out. **You are exhausted. You and Halfmoon take to cover here. Rest up. Once I’ve scouted ahead, I’ll come back for you.**
The elder’s send was firm; Evervale found her body moving automatically in response to that sent command. She gave him a grudging look as she made a spot for herself in the brush, in the depression among the upthrust roots of a fallen tree. Halfmoon curled up beside her at once, happy to take advantage of a moment’s rest.
Farscout saw her settled, then disentangled Mushroom from his shoulder and handed the dour Preserver to her. Mushroom gusted a long-suffering sigh and climbed into her tangled hair, while Farscout turned to leave, Bracken shadowing his heels. **Stay put,** he repeated. **I’ll be back soon enough.**
With that he was gone. Evervale huddled close to her wolf-friend, her body grateful for a rest but her mind left wide-awake and racing.
She had obeyed her elder’s orders because she was accustomed to doing as she was told. It was the Way, as natural as a low-ranked wolf giving way to its superiors in the pack. To the wolves, pack-rank was as simple and necessary as breathing. Evervale knew her own place, and knew that she was expected to do as her elder told her, especially now, on this patrol. But there was enough elf in her blood to be dissatisfied with her place. Had she not come all this way, four days’ worth of exhausting travel, to see the unknown and face possible dangers? Yet at the first sign of the unknown, she was sent into den-hide, just like the inexperienced cub she did not want to still be.
“Be still, be quiet,” whispered Mushroom, in its raspy, breathy whisper of a voice. “Hush hush hush, silent like a fawn, no wolf eat us if we-things be quiet, be still.”
Evervale winced at more than the tug of the Preserver’s fingers working at the tangles in her hair. Simply being left stung. And the sting worsened with every moment she sat and waited. Evervale knew she wasn’t a child who needed protection. She was a huntress now, wasn’t she? She would go where she pleased and do as she pleased. Farscout might think her weak and weary, and think it necessary that she hide to regain her strength – but she knew herself better than that. She wasn’t going to sit and hide like some newborn fawn, not when the Bounty River was just within her reach. She would show her elder that she wasn’t a child, and that she was capable of making her own decisions. Evervale pushed herself to her feet.
“No! No! Pretty-Cub no go, Pretty-Cub Highthing s’pose to sit and hide!” Mushroom hissed against her ear. She ignored the nuisance and brushed herself off, stroked nervous fingers over the fletching of her arrows in their hip quiver, then took a firm grip on her bow. Sensing his rider’s determination, Halfmoon gave a weary gust of a sigh and heaved himself to his feet after her. Evervale drew her cloak close, then found Farscout’s tracks in the bright daylight, and set out after him, down toward the river ford.
It was strange at first to travel alone under the afternoon sun, and very shortly her venture grew lonely, for Halfmoon flushed two young does from their hollow downsteam and rushed off on a hopeless chase, abandoning his elf-friend to find her way to the ford without him. Mushroom was no help and worse company. The Preserver kept a whispered stream of protests in her ear, begging her to return to the spot where Farscout had left them and predicting a lurking danger in every shadow or shift of the breeze. It was Mushroom’s constant distractions that Evervale blamed for being responsible for her losing Farscout’s tracks, but the river itself was easy to find, and she recognized the ford when she reached it. It was obviously safe crossing here, where the river flowed over a widening in its course, a bend which left rocks piled up on the near bank from winter flooding.
“Naughty-cub, naughty-cub,” Mushroom chanted in her ear, as soft and sober as an owl’s wing. “Many-Gone Highthing told you stay! Go back, go back, go back to safe sleeping-spot, back to where Many-Gone Highthing left we both. We in danger, terrible danger, bad things eats us, eats us, naughty-cub go back.”
“Hush,” she hissed back at the nuisance, wishing she could tear it out of her hair and cast it in the brush. The Preserver clung like a burr, however, and she knew it would rip out a painful amount of her hair with it if she tried. “Hush, or I’ll have Halfmoon eat you, for all the bellyache you’d prove to be.”
The threat worked for the short-term at least. Mushroom went silent, leaving Evervale free to pick her way carefully across exposed stones in the river. The river was low enough in this season to leave most of the ford-stones dry, so that she was forced to wet her feet only once while midway across, where a gap in the irregular chain of ford-stones turned her a wolf-length downstream. She faced about, made a calculated leap, then found an exposed root to use as a ladder up an erosion-cut in the riverbank. She climbed up the bank and looked back the way she had come, hoping to see Halfmoon return from his chase.
Then Evervale froze, not certain at first quite why, only knowing that a sudden strange, cold fear had taken possession of her body. Instinctively, she crouched low, as still and silent as a fawn among the concealing brush. The fear swept through her, nameless and overpowering. It made her pulse race and burned her senses to sharpest alert. There was something wrong, something dreadfully wrong--
Beneath the laughing voice of the river, she realized there was a complete silence in the forest around her. Her ears registered that sign of danger, and her nerves spasmed in response, urging her blindly toward flight. Evervale wrestled that urgency under control, but the effort left her trembling.
“Danger!” rasped Mushroom at that moment, the barest breaths of a whisper against her ear. “Be silent! Hide! Danger!”
There. The slightest crackle of brush upstream. Evervale’s eyes seized on the shadows of the close-growing young trees there. The shadows were still, and then one of them took shape and moved. The shadow-form was two-legged and familiar enough that in that instant, her heart began to swell in relief. It was one of her kin, out hunting where she had not expected to see another elf…
Not-elf was the realization that came with the next heartbeat, as the shadowform moved fluidly and showed itself too long, too tall, too strange…
**Humans!** she blazed at Farscout in sheerest terror. **Humans!**
She felt Farscout’s reaction to her desperate send; she felt his wordless terror and a sense of surging movement as he rushed to find her. And somehow it was the flash of his fear that calmed her; instead of rattling her further, knowing that this single, shadowy creature had the power to frighten her stoic elder to his core dampened Evervale’s own terror. Her nerves settled, and the powerful need to flee went still and quiet. The fear was still there, but it was a shadow of itself now, palpable but not overpowering.
Evervale took a heartbeat to review her hiding spot. She was tucked down low in the heart of a skunkleaf bush, and the overlapping wedge-shaped leaves hid her well. She felt a tugging at her hair and the shift of slight weight as Mushroom crawled up onto the top of her head; the Preserver’s tiny body was shivering, but it clearly had sense enough to follow its own advice, and it stayed silent. Confident that she would not be detected, and trusting then even if she were, that Mushroom would spray her assailant with a blinding stream of wrapstuff that would give her the seconds she needed to bolt for safety, Evervale focused her full attention on the human that was making its careful way down the riverside.
It was not one of the dark-skinned, languid Amber-Hunters. Her eyes had confirmed that for her, even when she had sent to Farscout in warning. She had not seen one of the gentle-seeming brownskins with her own eyes, but she had shared in the vivid sendings of her elders, and saw immediate, critical differences before her now. The men of the Amber-Hunters were loud and confident as they made their way through the woods. This human was slighter, very pale skinned, and his movements were wary and furtive. The Amber-Hunters had little woodscraft; this human picked his way through the brush nearly as silently as an elf would. He was taller than an elf, certainly, but not so tall as one of the brownskins. His dark hair was black and straight, worn tied back at the nape of the neck; half of his head was shaved bare. A necklace of wildcat claws and teeth hung around his throat, and he carried a powerful-looking short bow with a quiver at his shoulder. His face was painted with black charcoal pitted with small spots of white, like stars in the night sky, or hailstones in a storm.
The human stopped when he was within spitting distance of Evervale, and her heart leapt with fresh fear; balanced on her crown, Mushroom’s shivering body seemed to almost vibrate with fear. The young elf could smell the human’s acrid sweat, and see the pulse that throbbed in the hollow of his throat. The painted archer was watching the forest around him closely; his eyes rested on her thicket for a long moment, so that she readied herself to run. But then the man’s gaze moved on, and he whistled once, in a deft imitation of a redbreast-bird.
More shadows appeared and began to move warily down the side of the stream. More human hunters. Evervale watched them closely, as alert to differences as to similarities. All of them were dressed in smoke-tanned leathers decorated with beads of bones, and three of the four had their faces painted, all in wildly different designs. Evervale couldn’t get enough of looking at these strangers – they were dangerous, yes, but they were fascinating in their strangeness.
The one who had walked ahead of the others said something to his companions. His words were equally soft and harsh. From their tone, Evervale concluded that the men were consulting over something. Their fluent conversation was hushed, as if they themselves were fearful. That realization dawned on her and only fed her curiosity. As she watched them, she found new signs of a shared anxiety. One of the men bore a dirty strip of buckskin bandaged around one arm, and moved gingerly, as if every step were painful. Two others bore obvious bruises on their pale skin.
**Evervale.** Farscout’s grim sending touched her from somewhere up the slope behind her, close enough for a bowshot. She could tell from her elder’s sending that he knew exactly where she was in relation to the intruders. **Do not move. Do nothing to give yourself away to them.**
**The humans are scared of something. I’m sure of it!** she sent back. There was a question here that demanded answering; she could feel the edges of it, but was struggling to discover its full shape. **What would they be afraid of ?**
**What are they intent on?** Farscout demanded in turn, his send sharp.
Three of the men had crouched along the riverbank now; Evervale found herself marveling at the seams of their worn leather boots, the patient stitches so similar to what she wore on her feet. Belatedly, she recognized that they were grouped around the spot in the ford where the chain of stones took the turn downstream.. She had picked her way across those river rocks carefully enough, hadn’t she? Clearly it wasn’t sign of **her** that held their attention? Or had she left a wet footprint on the stones there, when she had first turned to face downstream?
**They haven’t seen me,** she sent firmly, as much to reassure herself as to reassure Farscout. **If I were wearing bright colors, I swear they’d have spotted me, but they’ve not. They’ve hardly looked twice my way. They’re worried about something, though. I know they are. Watch them – don’t they seem like wolves who know themselves outside their territory?** Something else occurred to her then, a distant memory from a shared send. **They’re not the same as the humans who you and Cloudfern saw, are they?** she demanded. **They’re not the same as the ones who hurt Brightwood. They aren’t riding beasts and they aren’t big like bears and they don’t all have all that yellow hair and face-fur, and only one of them is painted with blue. These aren’t your humans, these aren’t the Amber-Hunters. These are something new!**
Farscout didn’t seem to react to her question, or to what felt to her to be a profound observation. **You’re too close.** was all he said. **Be a stone – do not move, do not make a sound. Bracken will test them.**
Evervale was grateful for the warning; it seemed no sooner than she caught the words cast her way than Farscout’s wolf-friend was materializing out of the ferns downstream. The humans were woods-wise enough to be alert to the sudden movement, and all four men went silent and still, their weapons at the ready. Evervale held her breath fearfully, conscious of the short, powerful bows each of the humans carried. She watched them closely, and marveled to watch the humans’ reaction.
All four men stared round-eyed at the wolf. Bracken’s ruff and tail stood out, making the wolf look even larger than he was, and he gazed balefully at the intruders into his territory. There was overt threat in the wolf’s posture, but the humans didn’t reach for the arrows in their quivers. Instead, they watched Bracken with reverence, and one touched his forehead and murmured under his breath in heartfelt supplication.
**They’re not scared of him,** Evervale sent in wonder.
Bracken stalked forward a few steps, stiff-legged and bristling. Then he turned and trotted away, down the river, paws making soft splashing noises above the burble of the riversong.
All four humans gathered themselves up. The one with the charcoal on his face said something short and commanding to his companions as he pointed to the rocks where Evervale had forded the river, and then he and two of the others followed after Bracken as if they trusted the wolf were leading them to beesweets and flowerbuds, while the fourth and smallest of their number turned and scrambled back the way they had all come.
**They’re leaving,** Evervale sent, strangely disappointed.
**Sit tight!** Farscout’s sending blazed at her so bright and sharp that her mind felt seared to receive it. He was angry at her for straying from where he had left her, and the close encounter with the humans had frightened him deeply. She felt a sense of his movement – he was still making his way down through the trees to the bank, toward her, and he did not trust that the humans were gone.
Moments later, that mistrust proved right. The one hunter who had gone back upstream was returning, and there were others behind him. **Scouts,** she realized. The four humans they had seen had just been scouts for a larger party. She shrank back in her hiding spot, watching as more humans came into view.
These humans were different yet again. Like the four scouts, they all were pale-skinned and shorter than the brownskins of the coast. This group numbered more hands than she could count, and while they clearly were moving with as much stealth as they could manage, some of them couldn’t manage much. As a whole, they looked dirty and worn down. They moved slowly, most of them burdened with bundles and baskets and – to Evervale’s amazement – some had babes or small children in their arms.
Most were dark-haired. There were a few with hair streaked with grey or hair gone pure white, and whose faces were strangely wrinkled. Many were women, and there were more children, some girls carrying baskets or younger children, many of the boys carrying bows and short javelins. Many of these humans wore beads as decorations on their simple sleeveless tunics; nearly all of the adults seemed to wear their hair in braids, although the styles seemed varied. Many of them had paint on their arms and faces, and most of that paint looked smeared. And many of them bore signs of wounds – dirty bandages or bruises, some with open cuts which were crusted and scabbed over.
**They are weary. They have many hurt, and cublings too,** she sent to Farscout.
**Look at the ones with weapons, look at where they travel.** Farscout sent back, his sending still sharp and shivery.
Evervale blinked, feeling for a moment as if her senses were overloaded. Then she focused on what her elder had told her. The humans were approaching along the river’s southern bank, where the smooth river rocks were exposed and the bank was level. At any one time, she could see a dozen or so of their menfolk as the long group filed slowly past, using the ford to cross over to the Bounty’s northern side. The menfolk all carried weapons, leaving the women to carry their tribal burdens. And the men put themselves on the outside of their group, making a thin shield for their women and children.
Evervale saw that, and felt a fresh fear in her gut. She continued to watch, silent and still, as the humans made their weary way past. At length, the last of the humans came into her view. It was a group of young men, the biggest and strongest of their pack. They were bristling with quivers and javelins, and they were more concerned with what lay behind them than in which direction their pack went.
**They are fleeing from something,** Evervale said, hoping her elder would contradict her. **They are being chased into our woods by something. Something they are terrified of.**
**Something… or someone,** Farscout replied to her simply. **We need to warn our tribe.**
The humans walked until after nightfall, made a cold camp along the riverside, and rose at dawn to break camp and continue on their way. They spent the hours of the day walking, their pace set by the weakest among them as they followed the course of the Bounty River. Some of the young men tried to hunt for game, but large prey had wisely fled before them. The ragged group subsisted on what small game could be had, and what little the women of the tribe could gather as they walked. At nightfall came another camp, this time in a clearing their scouts had found, just north of the river
**Their children are hungry,** Evervale observed. **Listen to how they cry! The humans are starving, but they’re too afraid to stop and forage, or to delay for a day’s hunt.**
The two elves had taken up a position in a tall tree overlooking the camp for the night, knowing themselves half a night’s journey upstream of where the Bounty and the Holt’s River met. It was a quiet camp, save for the hushed whimpers of hungry children. There were none of the cooking fires the Amber-Hunters would have set; what little there was to eat was shared out cold and raw. Young men with fierce eyes and full quivers prowled the edges of the clearing, always with more attention to the forest they had traveled than the unknown ahead.
Farscout kept a constant eye on those roving guards, knowing Evervale was far more concerned with the clusters of huddled human children and their families. He kept his charge close, unwilling to let her out of his sight again. The longer the pair shadowed these intruders, the more curious about these strange humans Evervale seemed. Her curiosity was as much of a danger to the pair of elven scouts as the powerful short bows carried by these fair-skinned intruders.
**There’s Swan Feathers and her family,** Evervale said; she was already naming some of her favorites among the human tribe, as she might unbonded wolf pups. **Look how exhausted the young mother looks. She’s offered a breast to her cubling, but see how the poor little thing fusses? I’m afraid for her. Do you think she’s stopped producing milk for her baby? What of the little boy with her and the old woman. Swan Feather’s son and mother, maybe? Or maybe Swan Feather’s younger brother? What do you think?**
He listened to her with only half an ear; she might as well ask her idle questions of the moons, since he had no answers for her. It troubled him to hear Evervale already thinking of these humans as harmless. They might seem like pups running with their tails tucked, but even a milk-toothed pup could fight when cornered.
Evervale saw starving children and helpless mothers. Farscout counted heads and saw more than five times as many of these ragged strangers as were numbered in the River Twine tribe. Any squalling human pup that didn’t starve tonight might live to become one more of these woods-wise hunters. Earlier in the day, Farscout and Evervale had seen one of the human archers shoot a rabbit. Evervale had rejoiced because it meant a human child might be fed; Farscout had gauged the skill of the archer, dismayed to recognize the shot as one which might even have challenged Longshot.
Something tickled the back of his mind. Farscout glanced down, alert to that warning. Below them, lying at the base of the cedar tree, Bracken and Evervale’s young Halfmoon were both lounging, out of sight of the humans and out of their wind as well. Bracken had been dozing, but he was alert now. Farscout touched his bondmate’s mind, absorbing the wise old wolf’s sense of interest and relieved to find nothing of alarm coloring it. **Starfire** was in the forefront of the old wolf’s thoughts, **Starfire** and **Wasp** and a sudden pull toward **pack**.
**Chief,** Farscout sent then, knowing his wolf-friend had sensed the presence of packmates still too far as yet for himself to hear or scent. **Evervale and I are downwind of the human camp now,** he locksent, including all of his senses in that send to help Windburn locate them. **There’s a band of four archers who went south from the camp just before sunset; and they have not yet returned. Four scouts went off to the northwest up toward the Holt’s River as the humans began to set their camp, and I cannot account for where they are now, only that they have not returned.**
Windburn acknowledged that; Farscout felt a moment’s dislocation, that shared sense of physical and mental space another strong sender could impart. The chief and the rest of his party were close now, and were riding at a more cautious pace than what the chief had first set when he and his party had left the Holt the afternoon before.
**Safe. I don’t let her out of my sight.**
**The humans have fire?**
**Not tonight. But they could make it. I’ve seen an elderly woman use firestones to burn enough tinder to make a tea for some of their wounded. But the fire was quickly doused. They don’t want to put up smoke that’s visible to whatever hunts them.**
Windburn was silent after that exchange. Farscout knew his own fear had been voiced enough, and that his chief had heard him. What had chased these humans out of their own territory and into the Holt’s? He could not tell. But he feared he knew – and the thought of the savage, blue-painted humans he and Cloudfern had escaped from so long ago being on the trail of these refugees made his blood go cold. If that were the case, then Farscout knew he was tracking the lesser of two dangers, and that his own people needed every heart’s beat of warning it could get ahead of that nightmare.
**Look at that one,** Evervale sent, her innocence lancing into that private terror and distracting Farscout from the growing need to go for himself, as fast as feet and wolf-friend could carry him, back along the refugee’s trail for an answer.
Farscout looked toward where Evervale was pointing; there was a sleeping huddle of bodies near the edge of the camp, what he assumed was a family group of mates and cubs. One of the children had been sitting up and facing toward the water, his back to the elves’ vantage. The child had risen and was squatting at the river’s edge. Farscout assumed the child was just passing water of its own, but a second glance showed the child industriously doing something – just what, it was hard to tell in the dark and from a distance.
**He’s a bright cub,** Evervale continued. “He’s weaving reeds and he’s gathering sticks. I think he’s making a net, or maybe better, a weir. He doesn’t want to see his little brother or sister go hungry in the morning. I’m going to call him Sharp Eyes – but his mind is even sharper than his eyes.**
**Stop naming them,** Farscout sent curtly. The girl’s wide green eyes turned his way, shining with hurt. Farscout did not apologize for his sharp send. The humans were intruders, and her fascination with them was a danger he was only too eager to turn over to the chief and her other elders to worry about.
Beneath them, both wolves roused suddenly, rising and turning in unison to face north. Windburn and their tribesmates were close. Evervale looked that way in surprise, having been too absorbed in the humans to have noticed the more subtle signs of the chief’s pending arrival. Farscout nudged her with his shoulder, pushing her to action. **Down,** he sent, his communication half-imagery, as if sending to a wolf. **Intercept. Meet them at a safer distance. Move.**
Evervale took that order and began to climb down out of the tree. Farscout waited only a moment longer, taking the time to verify he knew where the human guards had strayed in the past few heartbeats, then climbed down from the tree behind her.
(to be continued…) (The direct sequel to this story is "First Contact (Part 3)".)