(This story is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
The moons were dipping low behind the trees and the sky was lightening slightly. Suddendusk was alerted to the change by the birds, who started chirping and defending their nests and territories at first cautiously, but growing more and more bold as the day threatened to break over them. He'd sat here by the river with Icemane at his side all night, ever since returning from the trap trail with Quick Fang. Windsong had come to find him, and they'd talked—it had been a balm on his soul, although he still burned. She had promised to do her best to keep their curious and questioning tribesmates at bay for him, and she had done so admirably—the only one he'd had to deal with himself had been One-Leg, come calling for answers from the source after somehow circumventing Windsong. He'd been unsatisfied with Suddendusk's tight-lipped responses, but had conceded, upon request, to respect his brother's privacy. For now.
The truth was hard to believe, anyway. Had it not been a truth that reverberated through his very soul, he would not have believed it himself. He felt sure that tongues were already wagging and speculations running rampant through the Holt. It was just a matter of time before one of the older elves, most likely Kestrel or one of his brothers, put all the signs together and guessed at the truth, if it hadn't happened already. The thought of his two daughters hearing the news from treewee whispers and vine-talk turned his stomach. He owed it to them to tell them himself, but he felt fear nestle in his breast and take root. They were both so young, and perhaps they would misunderstand, not truly knowing what Recognition was. All they might see is their family torn asunder, and an interloper, Quick Fang, introduced against their will to their little family unit.
His wolf-friend lay beside him, knowing nothing but that he needed quiet company, which she was glad to provide, although she was restless as a pup for something to do. "Icemane," he said. She sat up and looked at him, her eyes bright and eager to help him through this, whatever it was. She knew something was wrong, but could not smell illness or serious injury on him. She felt his distress, however, and wanted more than anything for him to point her at a solid thing, an enemy, something real to sink her teeth into, something to wrestle and shake and make submit, something, anything, to help.
"Get my cubs," he whispered to her, stroking her fur with a still-trembling hand. He accompanied the words with the mental image of them, and their scents: Evervale, pine trees and thick loam and sweet summer flowers; and Crackle, frogs' eggs and woodsmoke and restless, clean water. "Bring them here," he asked.
Happy at last to have something real to do, Icemane bolted back to the Holt as though her tail was on fire.
The wolf found Evervale first. Spring was starting to curtail the nights and stretch the days out longer, and although Evervale enjoyed the night and was sad to see it start to shorten, she enjoyed the growing warmth even more, and the intoxicating feel of reawakening plant life all around her. Everyone knew that trees did not die, but only slept, and only she and Cloudfern knew how it felt when they awakened. She enjoyed running her hands over the bark and feeling the sap stir, the water flowing, the roots reaching. She didn't interfere, but simply liked to use her magic to feel it happen. It was invigorating, and if she thought too hard about it, the beauty of it threatened to make her weep.
She was sitting, leaning against the Mother Tree with her eyes closed and her fingers twined in Halfmoon's ruff, and she was thinking about making the climb up to her den for a good long sleep. She'd spent the night with Starskimmer, reviewing the berry patches and tending to them, cutting away the truly dead branches to leave the live ones free to explode with new-green growth. Her arms were scratched and her feet and back were sore, but it had been a good day. She liked being useful.
It was Halfmoon's raised head and worried woof that first alerted her to Icemane's thunderous approach. Her father's wolf came crashing through the brush looking determined and self-important. This was a wolf on a mission. She skidded to a stop in front of Evervale and panted, looking for all the world like she was trying to decide what to do next. She chose to tug at Evervale's boot.
"What under the two moons are you up to?" Evervale asked, pulling her foot from Icemane's mouth and standing up. She wiped the dirt from her bottom and wondered what had gotten into Icemane.
The frosty-furred wolf got behind Evervale and nudged her forward, towards the forest and the river. She dashed ahead and turned and barked, her tail wagging and tongue lolling. She was being helpful!
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Evervale said, and followed the wolf into the woods and through thickets until they came to the river's edge. Halfmoon trotted alongside her, just as curious as she was.
Suddendusk was sitting under a large tree, looking a little dazed, but happy to see them. Icemane bounded over to him, pleased with herself, and he thanked her, rubbed her ears and pressed his forehead to hers. "Now go find the little one. Go find my wild little windstorm." Icemane barked happily and tore off again. Evervale, however, was rather perplexed.
"Are you all right, Father?" She moved to kneel beside him and saw how damp his skin was from sweat, even though the night had been cool, and she also saw the cut on his hand. The blood had stopped hours and hours ago, but it was still visible as an angry slash across his thumb. "You've cut yourself?"
Suddendusk's heart swelled. Windsong had said the exact same thing, with the exact same concern in her voice, and had taken his hand to examine the wound in the exact same way. Evervale was so much like them both. She was gentle and modest, sweet and kind, with Windsong's beauty and his keen mind and the patience of them both put together. She was the best of them. Both his cubs were the best of them, although they were so different. He couldn't help but wonder who this new impending cub would be more like, or if he or she would forge a new path.
He came back to himself and said, "It's nothing. It's almost healed already."
"What did you want, Father?" Evervale's voice was calm, but tinged with worry. He looked so... off. And his hand trembled in hers. "Are you ill?"
He smiled ruefully. "Sort of," he admitted. "I have news. It's both joyous and... difficult. And I wanted to tell you myself before you heard it from someone else's whispers."
"Joyous and difficult?" He could see Evervale's mind working over that, trying out possibilities. What could it be? What could be the most joyous thing she could think of? She looked at her father's slashed thumb. Well, he hadn't discovered a long-latent healing power, that was certain. "Joyous and difficult..." she muttered, thinking hard. She was taking this like one of her father's riddles. When she was younger, he used to come to her with thought puzzles and trick questions, and she liked to work them out herself.
Suddendusk hadn't intended for her to take it as a puzzle to be solved, but he sat back and waited, to see what she would come up with. She was very bright, he was sure she would at least come close. He wasn't disappointed.
"Are you and Mother having another cub?" Her eyes were wide and bright with hope. Such a thing would surely be as joyous as any.
He looked puzzled. "And what would make that difficult?"
She laughed and asked, "Have you seen what Crackle's been up to all night?"
He laughed as well, but shook his head. "You're close," he admitted. "But you're not quite there."
"Then someone else is having a cub," Evervale reasoned out. "There's been a Recognition!"
"There has," he said.
"But what could be difficu--" but she was interrupted by her own realization. Suddendusk sitting here all day. How haggard and weak he looked. His hands, the steadiest things in her entire world, shaking as they were. Her jaw dropped. "You've Recognized, but not Mother," she said. Joyous, but difficult indeed. Her mind instantly raced through all the elf women in the tribe: Chicory, Dreamflight, Kestral, Willow, Quick Fang, Snowfall, Whispersilk, Beetle, Goldspice, Nightstorm, Foxtail, and Starskimmer. Any one of them was difficult to imagine. She started to rank them in her mind from 'easiest to deal with' to 'most difficult.' Starskimmer might be the easiest. Her or Nightstorm. So it was unlikely to be either of them.
Suddendusk nodded, holding his breath and watching every flicker that passed over his daughter's face. How would she take this? Would she feel betrayed? Would she fear for the change to their secure little family? How upset will this make her?
Evervale's mind was racing with the possibilities and the repercussions of this news. Her face, however, broadened into a wide and powerful grin and she flung her arms around her father's neck and rubbed her cheek to his. "Three Recognitions, Father! Three cubs! In only about three eights of years! You are a fine elf indeed." She sat back on her heels and regarded her happily stunned father at arm's length. He hadn't been expecting this, but he wasn't about to complain about it, either. "Three cubs! Four, possibly, if you consider Otter might be yours as well." Her eyes danced, and right at that moment, she reminded him powerfully of her younger sister: eager, open, and utterly unafraid of anything. How could he have so misunderstood his own child? What had he been worrying about? "But you must tell me who you've Recognized," she said, eager for the news. “Who is going to bear my little half-brother or -sister?"
Suddendusk was still a little stunned by her unexpectedly positive reaction, and chastised himself for it. Why should Evervale, young as she was, fear change the way he did? She took after him, certainly, but she wasn't an exact copy. He squeezed her hand and smiled, relieved to have been so wrong. "That's the difficulty," he admitted. "I've Recognized Quick Fang." Even saying her name aloud was a challenge. It was as though his throat and tongue wanted to call her Dehn. Her name conjured up her image in his mind and he momentarily drowned in it. He closed his eyes against the swirling emotions and wrenched himself back to the present, to Evervale.
She looked at him, watching the effects of Recognition play across his face. Her shock at the fact it was Quick Fang to bear the cub was buried under concern for her obviously suffering father. "She's trying to refuse it, isn't she?"
"She's just frightened," he said. "It will take time for her to accept it. She's still young, and Recognition isn't always welcome."
Evervale nodded, somewhat sobered by the news. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not yet," he said, shaking his head. "Although if you see Crackle before I do, don't tell her. I think I should."
Evervale stood up. "I'll help Icemane find her," she said. "There's nothing so slippery as a Crackle in spring mud." She gave his hand a last reassuring squeeze and turned to go.
Suddendusk smiled as he watched Evervale and Halfmoon disappear into the forest. He shouldn't have worried so much. This would all work out in the end. It would be difficult, yes, but also joyous.
He looked forward to telling Crackle.
(This story has several sequels, which may be found in the "Suddendusk and Quick Fang Recognize" listing.)