(This story is part of the "Early Romance of Farscout & Brightwood" set of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
The long storm had passed, leaving a bright, clear sky overhead and the forest below blanketed beneath a fresh layer of powdery snow. Elves and their bond-wolves came out of their dens to stretch their legs, and enjoy what might prove a brief break between the season’s storms.
With two opponents diving at her from either side, it was clear that the chieftess saw no other recourse. “Go! Go! Go!”Easysinger yelled as she threw the ball. Moments later, she went down under Leather’s flying tackle.
The ball was made of a strong bladder, which had been blown up tight, tied fast, and then stitched into a protective pouch made from a branchhorn's cod. A rabbit skin had been wrapped around it, and that pelt was patched and well-worn from hard use. It sailed through the sky now in a clean arch. Briar kept his eyes locked on it as he ran. Two more steps and it was beginning to descend – he leapt for it, hands outreached and fingers almost brushing the patchwork fur—
A weight slammed into him, driving him down into the snow. He rolled, felt a shoulder drive into his belly and shock the breath from his lungs even as he threw his own weight into the rangy body that had tackled him, so that they both rolled in the snow like entangled wolf pups. Grey hair whipped past his eyes. It was Blacksnake who had dropped him. The ball had landed just out of both of their reach. Blacksnake was scrambling to reach it first. Briar caught him by the belt and hauled backwards as hard as he could, anchoring the older elf down as a pair of booted feet danced past them in the snow.
“I’ve got it!” Fawn yelled, scooping the ball up and away from Blacksnake’s second wild grab. She darted away, laughing breathlessly as Blacksnake’s teammates Beesting and Oakhand closed in on her. Briar let go of Blacksnake, his eyes following Fawn anxiously. But she nimbly evaded both of her opponents and passed the ball on to Lynx. Lynx blocked Oakhand with a maneuver that sent the stocky Hunt Leader skidding into the snow, then flung the ball toward the other team’s goal-hoop. Kestrel dove down out of the sky and almost captured it, but ‘almost’ wasn’t enough. The ball sailed through the willow hoop, and Lynx’s teammates cheered in delight.
The game itself was a winter variation of stickball, played with a larger ball and without the willow sticks with their woven-pocket ends. In this variation of the game, play was rough and rowdy, with players trying to steal the ball from one another by any means possible. Layers of winter furs added padding against injury, but there had been memorable past accidents, including the winter in the turn before Fawn's birth when Oakhand himself had broken his lifemate's arm with an enthusiastic tackle. Scores were made by getting the ball through the hoop, and games were played until both teams were ready to limp back to their dens, seeking warmth and likely some of Sunlights's honey-sweetened willow bark tea against bruises and tomorrow's aches. Still, days of being trapped indoors by the winter snow and ice made it a popular game, both for players and for those who cheered the teams on from the sidelines.
Blacksnake got to his feet first. He held out a gloved hand, then hauled Briar up. Briar looked away from Fawn, and saw that Blacksnake had been watched her as well.
“What a difference one season can make, eh?” the hunter chuckled, giving Briar a conspiratorial wink.
Briar felt his face flush, and he gave the older elf a sharp look. But what Blacksnake said was true. During the autumn, Fawn had still been a reed-thin girl, all elbows and knees and still clearly a child. Yet somehow in just the few moons since, she had left childhood behind. Last winter’s tunic was tight now across her hips and bust, she had put on inches of height, and even her scent had changed, becoming richer and headily ripened. Briar had suddenly found himself struggling against very unbrotherly thoughts about the girl he had always considered a sister. Worse, he could see those carnal thoughts reflected now in Blacksnake’s brown eyes.
“Don’t look at her like that,” Briar growled, aching to wipe that expression from the other elf’s face.
Blacksnake glanced his way and smirked, one silvery eyebrow arching. Blacksnake didn't say anything about Briar's hypocrisy. He didn't have to. That knowing look was enough.
Oakhand was calling to Blacksnake and gathering their team for a moment to regroup and strategize. Blacksnake trotted off to join his teammates, and Briar turned to seek out his own. Lynx, Stormdancer, Frost and Easysinger had their heads bent together, and Lynx had that wicked smile forming that could only mean trouble for Oakhand's team. Fawn was pressed against her father's side, one of his arms resting lazily across her shoulders. She threw Briar an eager grin as he joined them, and that momentary flash of her smile was all his pulse needed to set it galloping. He was conscious of Easysinger and Lynx's game plan being brewed -- but his ears were deaf to it.
"We're winning!" Fawn whispered at him, her eyes shining with delight. This was the first winter her father had allowed her to join in the rowdy game; she had always been left to cheer from the sidelines before, and as much as Briar knew how eagerly she had awaited this inclusion, he couldn't help but wish she was still there, cheering them on rather than on the playfield and likely as the rest of them to be nursing bruises by the game's end. In every sense, she was a distraction. And suddenly, Briar desperately didn't want to be distracted. No, he wanted to excel. He wanted to single-handedly win the game, to triumph over Blacksnake in some remarkable fashion, and to dazzle Fawn so thoroughly that no matter how any of the other players played that day, she would only share that sun-kissed smile with him --
"Good. That's decided then," Easysinger said, with a finality to her words that carved through Briar's daydream like a skinning knife. He blinked at her, caught off balance and unawares, and saw his chieftess had a wicked smile of her own to match Lynx's. "Stormdancer, you continue to shadow that daughter of yours -- you're faster than Kestrel on the wing in a pinch, and Frost's signal will be that pinch. Fawn and Briar, you continue to guard our hoop, leave the fancy footwork to Frost and Lynx and me."
Briar nodded, hoping he had given no sign of having no clue what the game plan was. He felt uncharacteristically scattershot; he couldn't keep his mind on the game for more than a few moments at a time. Fawn walked beside him back to the field, her steps so light she seemed to skim the snow.
"It's harder than it looks!" she said. "I've watched Mother and Father play this every winter, I didn't think it would be so hard to play! But when Oakhand is running right at you and you know he's going to knock into you if he has to get that ball -- it's scary! I just about forget what I'm doing -- I just want to burrow into the snow like a hare and hide!"
"You're faster than any of us," Briar replied. "You can run circles out of old Oakhand, and even Beesting can't catch you straight out. I'll block them for you as often as I can. Just don't let them catch you, and you'll be fine."
Both teams had returned to the snowy field. Oakhand had only Beesting protecting his team's hoop at the far end of the field; Easysinger had dispatched both of her youngest players to that task. Easysinger barked, and from the sidelines, young Cider stepped onto the field long enough to hurl the stuffed ball into the air. The child scampered back to the safety of the sidelines as her elders threw themselves after the ball. Stormdancer was on it like a cat as it fell toward the ground, but Snaptwig sprang after her and dragged her down into the snow and tried to wrestle the ball from her; within moments, there was a tangle of players as Lynx, Frost, Easysinger, Oakhand, Kestrel and Leather all piled in, scrambling and wrestling for the stuffed ball.
Only Blacksnake kept apart from that skirmish. He loped over to the end of the field where Fawn and Briar held their ground, guarding their hoop. Briar pushed forward to intercept the older elf, knowing that if one of Oakhand's team couple get loose of that scrum to take a snap shot, the ball would be thrown to Blacksnake.
To Briar's frustration, Blacksnake seemed more focused on Fawn than he was on the pile-up behind him. "My brother says your father caught you and him down in the salmon-cache, doing something more than cleaning fish," he said, his tone teasing.
"Father did," Fawn shot back, unrepentant. "And Father says next time I want to play around at being furmates, I shouldn't pick a fool who confuses fish-stink with perfume and thinks the cache cave is a nice spot for taking a girl."
Blacksnake laughed at that, while Briar felt his ears burn. He didn't like the thought of Fawn playing at furmates with anyone, much less Blacksnake's brother Axehand. He refused to look at Fawn, knowing he would appear sullen; just the same, he was aware of her at every moment, and could not stop watching for her from the corner of his eyes. "Well, that's my brother for you," Blacksnake continued. "Daft-headed and clumsy with his hands. You can do better than him, you know."
Blacksnake's voice made the proposal clear. Briar heard Fawn's delighted laughter, and could not look at either of them.
"If you mean yourself, then I'm sure I could!" Fawn countered, but her tone was coy, and Briar knew the girl was enjoying the unprecedented attention from some her older tribemates, male and female alike, which was suddenly turning her way. It made sense for Blacksnake and Axehand to both be sniffing around her. While they were both decades older than Fawn and himself, the two brothers were the youngest of the tribe’s adult males. And Fawn was young. She had her mother's delicate beauty and haunting eyes, and her father's confidence and charm. She would take her pick of suitors over the winter, and by the time spring came...
"He's trying to distract you from the game." Briar snapped at Fawn, caustic enough to make her to turn toward him in surprise. "Don't let him get in your head. You can't trust him."
Fawn bristled. She never liked being corrected by anyone, for anything. Briar avoided the flash of her eyes, knowing himself in the wrong, knowing himself as acting petty, but unable to resist the compulsion. Like stags during the autumn rut -- he suddenly understood that visceral urge to lock horns and fight, in a way he hadn't before. And worst of all, he saw Blacksnake's wry expression. Briar knew the clever hunter saw through him like clean water. For a moment, he wondered -- was Blacksnake's play truly for a girl's affections, or was it Briar himself Blacksnake was toying with?
The mad tangle broke apart, and suddenly Snaptwig was dashing toward them, the ball tucked tight against his chest. Easysinger and her teammates were hard on his heels -- he wouldn't be able to outrun them for more than a few steps, and the sandy-haired archer knew it. "Blacksnake!" he shouted, breaking stride long enough to make a pass.
Blacksnake was running to catch it, and Briar bolted to follow. But Fawn sprang past them both, snatching it out of the air only inches from Blacksnake's hands. Blacksnake gave a shout and dived for her, trying to bring her down, but Briar was already flinging himself at the other elf, slamming into him and driving them both into the snow. Fawn raced away, dancing around Oakhand's attempts to catch her, and passed the ball straight into Stormdancer's eager hands. The black-haired glider swept the prize straight over the top of Beesting's curly head and into the hoop, earning howls of delight from the scoring team.
Blacksnake was first to his feet again; this time, he didn't offer his rival a hand. "Don't be so obvious, cub," Blacksnake whispered, his tone amused and mocking. "No girl likes mooncalf eyes following her everywhere. And no girl likes a boy as green as she is. Stick to Tangle and her talented ways. Tangle'll school you up right, with time and practice. In a few years yet, maybe Fawn'll take an interest in you. If you're lucky. But in the meanwhile – leave this game to those of us old enough to know how to play it."
Briar turned his shoulder on the older elf, knowing his face was flushed to the tip of his ears. He pretended not to have heard Blacksnake's words, ignoring his with what little dignity he could muster.
Little Cider was scampering out to throw the ball back into play. Fawn loped back to her guard position near the hoop, beaming from the praise of her elders. Briar saw that her pale golden mane had fallen free of the thong she had tied it back with. He also saw that she was refusing to look his way, having not yet forgotten his sharp words. Briar tried to control his misery as the patchwork ball was flung back onto the field.
Blacksnake’s words had scored him. The clever hunter was older, was wiser, was more experienced about everything in the world. And worse, Briar knew he had inherited some of his mother Ice’s strangeness when it came to her relations with her kin. Ice could hammer away at her anvil or labor over her sluice box for days without needing a word with others, her son included. And Briar found himself more comfortable alone in the forest, trailing after wide-ranging Lynx, than he was back at the Holt surrounded by their kin. Too much talk and too much close quarters drove him half-mad and yearning for escape. Lynx had always seemed to understand that restlessness in him, but could Lynx understand his interest in Lynx’s precious, budding daughter? And worse, what chance could he, Briar, have when the girl he wanted had been raised as a sister in all but blood?
Blacksnake was right – Fawn would have her pick of the tribe’s menfolk when she was finally ready. And there was little chance that she’d want him, half-grown and unproven as he still was—
The shout yanked him from his brooding, and to his dismay, Briar found the ball sailing past his head; if he’d been paying attention, he would have noticed Frost’s desperate circumstance as she was jumped on two sides, and her frantic pass backwards toward him. Too late, he scrambled after the ball. It hit the snow, and then Blacksnake was on it. He snatched it up and reached back to throw it. Nimble as a cat, Fawn leapt and plucked it from Blacksnake’s grip. She darted away, and Blacksnake was at her heels with a yell of protest.
Briar chased after them, angry at himself for succumbing to distraction. Then he saw Fawn’s mistake unfold before him. The girl was racing toward her father, hoping to pass off the patchwork ball to Lynx, but Leather and Snaptwig were both charging for her. As quick as she was, Fawn might have been able to dance around them, but instead, she shied up and began to turn back. Blacksnake launched himself and leapt at her, tackling her down into the snow.
Knocked from her hands, the patchwork ball went sailing into the air. Briar was aware of its arch, saw Kestrel arrowing down for it, and knew instinctively that he could intercept it before the glider got to it—
Then Fawn shrieked, and any thought of pursuit of the game vanished from Briar’s head. He had a glimpse of Blacksnake prying aside Fawn’s collar, her curls tumbling in the way of the handful of snow Blacksnake held. Briar yelled and threw himself at the other hunter, with only one burning intention before him: to protect what was his..
Briar slammed into the older elf as hard as he could, bowling Blacksnake off of Fawn and away from the laughing girl. The top of his head connected solidly with Blacksnake’s face in a collision that he hoped hurt Blacksnake more than it hurt him. Briar’s forward momentum rolled them both once, then twice; then Briar had his head down and rammed his forehead into Blacksnake’s unprotected belly, winding him and giving Briar time enough to collect himself for further attack—
Hard hands closed on his shoulder and yanked him away from his rival. Briar swung with an elbow, felt it blocked with bruising strength, then a hand cuffed his ear so hard that his head was left swimming. “Maggots and dung! Cub, what’s got into you?” demanded Oakhand.
“Briar!” exclaimed Frost, coming up fast beside the Hunt Leader. Then Lynx was there, and Leather, and Snaptwig, and all of the rest of the players, ringing about in a panting, startled knot.
Easysinger took him by the elbow and pulled him away from her Recognized. “You want to explain yourself?” the chieftess demanded.
Briar scowled and looked away. Fawn was pushing her way through the knot, and he looked toward her hopefully, proud of himself for defending her. To his dismay, she only seemed to have eyes for Blacksnake, who was sitting up and dabbing at a bloodied nose and split lip. She hurried to Blacksnake’s side and gingerly touched his swelling lip, with a tender concern that stung Briar worse than if he’d punched a fist into a wasp’s nest.
The chieftess’s grip on his arm tightened painfully, and then she gave him a shake and pushed him aside, toward the sides of the trampled meadow. “Get,” she said, her voice stern but her expression amused by what she had parsed. “You’re out of the game. We’ll discuss this when the rest of us have finished playing.”
Briar held his ground, unwilling to give way… until the moment when Fawn glanced his way. The disapproval he saw there sent him into a dismayed retreat. He skulked back to the edges of the playfield, to watch and wait until the game’s end, and whatever punishment his chieftess then felt was merited.
And whatever that might prove to be, Blacksnake could still best it. Briar watched in sullen disappointment as Fawn helped Blacksnake to his feet, and fretted earnestly about his bloodied face. Blacksnake slung an arm around Fawn’s shoulders as if the slender girl might actually help keep him on his feet, and the glance he cast in Briar’s direction was amused triumph, as if he had known before Briar what Briar might do.
**Like I said, cub,** Blacksnake locksent, as he gave Fawn’s shoulders a possessive squeeze. **Leave this game to those of us old enough to know how to play it.**