(This story begins directly after "First Contact (Part 2)"; it is also part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
After concluding his exchange with Farscout, Windburn passed a summary along to the rest of the hunting party, riding hard at his heels. They were close now, and did not pause. They needed no warning to be on greater alert; they had feared long before this that they might come across far-flung scouts of the humans' party.
Farscout's report had four of the human archers heading away from them – but that didn't mean they might not circle to the north to join with those who’d headed in the direction of the Holt’s River. The elves should be north and east of those scouting parties, but it could be fatal to assume that. The greatest advantage the elves held was that they knew the humans were out there, while the humans did not suspect they were being watched. Not by elves, at least.
Only because he was looking for it did Blacksnake see Kestrel's form angle away from their path, high up amongst the tree branches. Long, long practice, keen night vision, and uncanny reflexes helped the glider weave swiftly between the treetops, silent and sure as an owl. The forest canopy blocked out view of the sky, and would keep her from being detected. Having her on watch above them was better than any other scout they could have sent out riding along the land.
Ahead, Snowfall's Starfire set the pace, the pack's canny old alpha female swift and watchful. Windburn's Whirl followed close on the older wolf's tail – partly pushed by her rider's sense of status and urgency, partly by her own ambition. There, thought Blacksnake, was the pack's likely next female leader. Starfire was nearing the end of a long, good life, and the chief's wolf-friend seemed to sense it.
Under him, Wasp divided his attention between his pace-setting mate, and the younger wolves of the rest of the party. The task of choosing them had not been easy for the chief, since this was no ordinary hunting trip. Some of the choices still puzzled the chief's father, and Blacksnake had had long enough on the trail now to think on them. Now at long last they approached the point where the choices would matter.
Thornbow's inclusion was obvious. Everyone in the party was an archer, but no-one in the tribe approached the golden-haired elf's skill – except for Longshot, and he'd been left back in the Holt. The youngster had proven himself steady in the face of humans once before, but this time the nod went to his elder, and Blacksnake was still weighing that choice.
There was no shame in being left as the rearguard at the Holt – though Blacksnake knew he would never have accepted that role himself if there was a choice in it. With Foxtail reluctantly left behind, in charge, she would need all the wise counsel she could get – especially if the chief's hunting party did run into disaster. Should the worst happen, and these humans prove as devastating an enemy as the Fierce Ones of long ago, then those left to guard the Holt would become the new chief's core of support.
There were, Blacksnake thought grimly, too many of the tribe's elders on this mission. Thornbow was not an elder yet, but he would be sooner than Longshot would. A wise chief always kept the possibility of disaster in mind. Blacksnake would have kept Thornbow at the Holt, for Foxtail's sake.
Protecting the tribe's lifebearers in the face of a threat of unknown size was also a sound instinct – if not always an easy plan to carry out. In the cases of Kestrel and Snowfall, their wisdom and skills and value to the chief's party tipped the scales in their favor, even as others were left behind.
Windsong could not have come with them in any case – she had a tiny cub to care for again, the tribe's most precious treasure. Foxtail accepted only with bad grace that she must stay behind and lead the remainder of the tribe in her father's absence, and prepare for a possible defense of the Holt's dentrees in case the worst happened. Quick Fang had been livid – but there was a decision of the chief's that Blacksnake agreed with whole-heartedly. Snowfall's wolflike daughter was a weapon he was glad to have at hand in a hunt; but near humans? Blacksnake wasn't sure he would have wanted to test her self-control, when the humans themselves were as-yet unknown quantities. And, should it come to a defense of the Holt – few would fight more fiercely.
The tribe's alarm at Farscout's warning had been nothing compared to the panic of Evervale's parents, knowing their daughter was out there on the edges of the tribe's territory, humans within arm's reach. Suddendusk himself had wanted to come, a father's instinct to protect his cub overriding his sure knowledge that, one-eyed as he was, he could only be a liability to this hunting party. And he had another cub to protect – the infant was surely the only thing keeping Windsong from arguing to join them. Still, Suddendusk had not taken Windburn's flat refusal well, backing down finally only with the additional persuasion from his brothers.
Windburn would need someone to guide the girl-cub back to the Holt and her parents' waiting arms – someone woodswise, skilled enough to help keep Evervale safe, but not a fighter he would regret having to send away.
That was where Pathmark came in. The gentle young scout rode with them, spear across his back and the Preserver Foamspray clinging to his light-blond hair. Blacksnake knew why he was there. Pathmark was a fair hunter, though nobody's idea of a stout fighter; but he would be protection enough for Evervale on the trip back to the dentrees. And his skills as a tracker would make up for the danger of sending the two cubs back alone through human-infested forest. Best of all, he would not cause trouble or argue with his chief when he was ordered to go back.
The same could not be said of Notch, whose air of excitement was undimmed by the day’s hard ride. Bringing the youngster along was a gamble, Blacksnake knew – good in a fight, if it came to that, but needing constant watching. Still, he might prove useful. Blacksnake could not see into the thoughts and plans of his chief-son, but to his own mind, having Notch along gave them options. It wasn't that he didn't value his brother's wild cub, a headache though he could be at times; but he would gladly send Notch on errands that he might hesitate to give to another. Blacksnake wondered if Windburn was thinking along the same lines.
True Edge brought up the rear of the group, riding alongside one other. Blacksnake had had to talk fast to arrange One-Leg's inclusion in the hunting party – not only to convince the chief, but to convince One-Leg himself. It had been a long, uncounted blur of seasons since Blacksnake and his brother had ridden out like this together. The red-headed elder – who looked so much more like a father to Windburn than Blacksnake himself did – did not like the reminder that while he still had his strength of arm and fierce, boar-like stubborn determination, he was little good in a fight unless he was on a wolf, or had his back against a tree.
One-Leg was an obvious choice for the Holt's rearguard, to be adviser to his grand-niece Foxtail; not for the chief's fast-moving hunting-party, that might yet have to move and fight in ways they couldn't know. Blacksnake knew that, and could see from the sidelong glances that the others did, too; and he knew the risk he was taking with his brother's life, in convincing him to come along, in convincing the chief to let him. But he had his own reasons for it, and they were close to the time now when that would become clear to them all.
Windburn halted the party just before the summit of a low ridge; on the other side of it lay the slope down to the Bounty's edge. They would dismount, and make their way on foot and then on belly to the top of the rise. As they did so, there was a rustle of movement like wind through branches, and at the same time a sending that enveloped them all. Then Farscout and Evervale were in their midst, surrounded by their tribemates.
The scout brought them up to date; nothing much had changed since the report that Windburn had passed on. Most of the humans were still camped at the riverbank, uneasily. Their scouts prowled the camp's perimeter. No more hunters had left the group.
Evervale waited until the elder had finished his terse report, before she sent eagerly to them all. **Wait until you see them with your own eyes. They don't look like invaders, the way a rival wolf-pack would. They have their women and children and elders with them. They've run this way because they're scared!**
Farscout watched her until she finished, flashed a meaningful look towards Blacksnake, and then at the chief. Blacksnake snorted to himself. As if the girl-cub had any true idea what a rival wolf-pack looked like! **Just because something's running scared doesn't mean it won't attack if it feels cornered,** he told her sharply, and there were some nods and murmers of agreement from others in the circle.
**If they've brought their entire tribe with them,** Snowfall observed, **then that makes it sound as if they've come to stay.**
**If they're running, and they keep to the path they're on, then they’ll have to make a decision, and soon,** added True Edge.
**The Holt’s River is the next obstacle,** Windburn agreed. **They can stay on this side of it and go north, or they can cross it and continue west.**
**And if they do that, sooner than they know, they’ll hit the sea,** One-Leg added. **Then they’ll have to turn north, unless they decide to cross again to the south, where the brownskins are.**
Farscout showed them a quick sequence of images from his days of observation. **They've crossed two rivers already, to keep going north. They are following the Bounty's northern bank, but yes, when it meets the Holt’s River… **
He didn’t repeat the chief’s assessment. Everyone knew the danger that lay in the humans deciding to follow the Holt’s River, no matter which bank they were on. There would be nothing else between them and the dentrees but the plant-shaped thorn-wall that, even now, Cloudfern would be scouting the length of, shoring it up and repairing it in case of just such a test. The thorny barrier was not impenetrable to the elves – but it had been enough, these nearly thirty turns, to discourage the dark-skinned humans from coming too close in their wandering. Would it stop these new humans, though? Or might they see it as potential shelter for themselves?
One-Leg asked the question on all their minds. **What in Zerran's name are they running **from**? Any idea?**
Farscout shook his head. **I've seen no sign.**
**Whatever it is, they're terrified of it,** Evervale added. **They won't light fires, they keep watch constantly. And some of them are wounded.**
**That may only be from hurts sustained in their travels,** the scout pointed out. **But,** he admitted, **they push themselves hard, allowing no time for rest. They do not yet feel safe.**
**So, no telling when they'll stop,** Thornbow said unhappily.
**As True Edge said – they'll have to, whether they want to or not,** Blacksnake told them. **The problem is, what they'll do when they realize it.** With or without any action on the elves' part, the humans would soon be cornered indeed.
He glanced at Windburn – the chief was staring at the ground, but looking as if he didn't see it. It was hard to tell if he was listening to the exchange, or if his detachment indicated deep thought and his mind chasing along unknown paths. Blacksnake sent to him directly. **What do we do?**
The chief looked up – not startled; he had been following them. **We shadow them, until we see if they intend to cross the Holt’s River.**
But what then? Blacksnake thought. That was the real question, the real danger looming. They could postpone dealing with this human invasion, perhaps; he couldn't believe they would have the good luck to avoid it forever.
**These aren't like the Amber-Hunters,** Farscout warned them. **They have woodcraft, they hunt with skill. Even in these few days, there have been some close calls.**
Then he glanced sideways at young Evervale. Blacksnake was sure that he wasn't the only one who took the scout's meaning. It was hard to accept that humans might give a tracker of Farscout's skill and experience any difficulty; Blacksnake would need more convincing before he believed that. Having to keep watch on Evervale as well could account for the challenge they'd presented to the elder. But Blacksnake could tell the warning was not given lightly. These running-scared humans weren't like the bright-plumed boat-travelling tribe. It wouldn't do to underestimate them.
Thirty turns of the seasons smoothed out and became a blur to those living in the Now – and in that time, Blacksnake thought with some bitterness, the elves had grown used to the humans living on their southern boundary. Grown used to thinking of them as soft, foolish, blundering harmlessly through the forest when they ventured into it at all. Nothing, he realized now, could be more dangerous to the elves than to become complacent about dealing with **humans**.
Farscout went on, **But, woodwise though they are, they've left a trail that anything could follow. With their numbers, and their cubs with them, they couldn't help it.**
**No wonder they're afraid,** said One-Leg sardonically.
Farscout fixed his intent, pale-eyed gaze on his chief. **We should back-track their trail. We cannot just wait here for whatever they're fleeing to catch up with them, without warning.**
Windburn frowned at him, surprised. **You're right that there might be a threat back along their trail. But we can only deal with one problem at a time, and **this** is the threat that's at hand. We're too few --**
**I will go alone,** the elder sent quickly, firmly. **I can move faster that way, with less chance of anything spotting me.**
Knowing Farscout's skills, almost no chance at all. His sendings were still open, as the rest of the hunting party followed the exchange, waiting for the chief's decision. Though the scout presented a calm exterior, as he always did, Blacksnake could feel the undercurrent of desperation beneath the sending. It took no imagination to guess the root of that tightly-controlled fear. Farscout thought he knew what these pale-skinned woodsmen were fleeing. He would not rest, thinking that threat was heading for them, until he had confirmed it, or put it to rest.
Blacksnake did not want to wait for the chief to make his ruling; Windburn could be harder to shift than a mountain, once his mind was made up. **Not alone,** he threw in, catching their attention. **Take One-Leg with you.**
That earned him a handful and more of startled looks, and then a thoughtful frown from his older brother. He hadn't explained to them his reasoning for asking that One-Leg be brought along on the mission; he'd let them think it was for the elder's fighting strength alone. And in truth, that was still part of it.
But, that Farscout would want to backtrail humans fleeing some unknown threat – Blacksnake had known before they set out how likely that was, and there were few he would trust to watch the other elder's back while he was doing it. Even fewer, he thought, that Farscout would accept without too much argument.
It wasn't an idea he liked, even if he agreed with the need for it. Every instinct Blacksnake had screamed against the notion of sending any of the tribe out where they might face the nightmare human monsters of the past – out beyond his own reach, his own help and protection. And he would have gone himself – but Windburn was right, these humans here were the immediate threat, and he wanted to stay, observing, with a say in what course of action his son the chief eventually chose for dealing with them.
That being true, who could be sent with Farscout? Who was the far-walker likely to accept; who had experience enough to keep up, and not increase the risk of detection; was strong enough to be of aid should it come to a fight, but could be spared from the hunting party? And who, equally important in Blacksnake's eyes, might Farscout actually listen to, if it came down to having to convince the elder to abandon the back-trail – or, abandon the impulse to exact revenge – and return to the Holt?
Blacksnake returned his brother's suspicious glare with a level look of his own, giving nothing away. He knew that One-Leg would figure it out, eventually.
**Aye, I'll go,** the other elder sent, readily enough. **Four eyes would be better than two, on a trip like that. And he's right that I don't fancy sitting here waiting for another enemy to come in and flank us while we're dealing with the first one.**
Blacksnake suppressed a smile; leave it to One-Leg not to ask if Farscout would have him. Before the far-walker could protest, Windburn was nodding.
**Agreed. I'll send Kestrel, when I can. She can carry news of what you’ve found.** He scowled at both elders, clearly not liking the decision even if he accepted the wisdom of it. **Take Mushroom as well – and, by Halfwolfs blood, be careful.**
There was a long pause, and then finally, Farscout nodded once, sharply. **All right.**
**Now, as for you…** The chief turned to where Evervale was waiting, watching the exchange with wide eyes. She looked apprehensive, as if she’d guessed what Windburn would say. **Pathmark will guide you on the safest route back to the Holt. I expect you to heed him as you did Farscout.**
**But I don’t want to go back!** the girl-cub said, predictably. That made Blacksnake proud of her, in a way, even if was ridiculous for her to object. She might not belong with them on this grim mission, but at least she didn’t shrink from the danger. She might be a quiet cub, too easily upset by conflict, but clearly she didn’t lack courage.
Unless, of course, she failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation; unless she failed to see the danger. That was possible, too, and from what Farscout had communicated, likely.
**That may be, cub, but you’re going,** Windburn told her sternly. **This is no place for you – and I promised your mother and father. You’re more use to the tribe back at the Holt, helping them guard your little sister.**
Interesting tactic on the chief’s part, Blacksnake thought. Time was when Windburn would only have stood his ground and insisted, with the force of the chief’s authority behind him. He didn’t have to try to coax the youngster into obeying, but it was kind of him to give her a way to salvage her pride.
Evervale had straightened up to her full height – which was more than it had been, not long ago, but still wasn’t much, even next to Windburn. She kept one hand buried in her wolf-friend’s ruff, and faced up to her chief with determination. **But you’re letting Farscout go away – and he’ll want to leave right now, won’t he? Well, I’m the only other set of eyes that’s been watching these humans from the start. What we’ve shown you in sending isn’t enough. You may still need what I know.**
It was a good argument, Blacksnake admitted grudgingly, though he kept that to himself. If it had been anyone by a stripling cub making it, it might have held some weight. But even if Windburn had not been bound by his promise to Windsong and Suddendusk… it probably would not have been enough to sway him. This was no ordinary hunt, and no ordinary test.
But at that moment, there was a feather’s-touch at the edge of sending’s range, and soon all of them knew that Kestrel was flying by, unseen, above them.
**… met with the other four. Two have gone on ahead, west, and two have started back to the humans’ camp. The other four continue north, along the creekbed –** Her sending pictures were clear; they knew the one she meant, that flowed into the Bounty a few minutes’ ride downstream. **-- if they stay on their present course, they will circle around east and then come south back to the camp.**
If, if, if. Predicting what these humans would do was harder than tracking a foam-mad mountain cat. One thing was clear in Kestrel’s report, though – the humans were now strung out in a line between the elves and the Holt.
Everyone in the hunting party understood the threat immediately. Pathmark squared his shoulders. **With Kestrel’s help, we can avoid them,** he said, trying to sound confident. Sending, however, communicated more than words, and there was unease beneath his statement.
**I cannot spare Kestrel to shadow you,** Windburn replied bluntly. He frowned, looking into the distance blankly again, thinking.
**Not even long enough to see them across the Holt’s River?** Snowfall asked. **They would be safer then.** What the silver-haired elder did not say was also plain, her urge to volunteer to be another to guide and protect them, weighed against the knowledge that the chief’s party might yet need her there.
**Maybe not,** countered True Edge immediately. **We don’t know if there will be safety across the Holt’s River – that’s the trouble, isn’t it? Those scouts may be feeling out the way the humans intend to go next. Pathmark and Evervale could get past them, only to have them on their heels – and worse, lead them right back to the Holt.**
Thornbow stirred. **If they spot the wolves, maybe they’ll be scared off from trying that route.**
**I wouldn’t want to gamble on that. Would you?** Blacksnake asked, grimacing. **True Edge is right. If they’re as woodswise as Farscout says, then we’re already in danger of them seeing our fresh trail here. They’ll know there are wolves in the area, and that will make them cautious. They might decide to track more wolves just to find out where the threat lies. If they find the thorn-wall on their own, it should steer them clear of us – but not if they get curious enough to try to follow a fresh track all the way through.**
**Besides,** One-Leg added, **Cloudfern’s out there now, somewhere along the thorn-wall, checking it over. No telling where, and no way to warn him until it’s too late.**
There was no good answer to this dilemma. Windburn was scowling fiercely, as if he knew it and didn’t want to admit defeat. Evervale wrapped her arms around her wolf’s neck and watched him apprehensively. The rest focused on him too, waiting for the chief’s decision.
Long moments passed, and then Windburn finally said, **They stay with us. For now.** He sounded no happier about it than he had about anything else this day. **If there’s a chance to send them back safely later, then we’ll take it. For now it’s safer if they stick close to us.**
Pathmark nodded, and relaxed slightly. Evervale had the sense not to look triumphant; her arms tightened around Half-moon’s neck and she buried her face in his ruff. Everyone else understood the ways that this complicated things. Tactics might have to change, and this gave them an all-but untested cub to protect, should something go wrong. But no one could fault the chief for the decision.
**Come on, before you go,** Windburn said to Farscout then, gesturing sharply. **I want a look at these humans.**
Farscout nodded, and began to lead them to the vantage-point he had found.
To be continued...
(The direct sequel to this story is "First Contact (Part 4)".)