(This story begins directly after "First Contact (Part Four)"; it is also part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
**Well, they’re across, Windburn,** True Edge sent, as cool and blunt as ever. **What are we going to do?**
The sending, as though confirming the facts before their eyes for terrible truth, sent a shuddering wave through the elves in the small party. Nothing but bad luck had been on their side in this expedition, it seemed. This desperate, skilled new tribe of tall ones sent scouts that ran between them and the Holt, their hunters and foragers came within several close calls of the shadowing wolfriders. And now the humans had roused themselves, stretching ropes and lifting packs and children, and struggled across the Holt’s River, the last barrier the landscape had to offer.
The elves huddled at their vantage points, in the trees and among the undergrowth, watching mutely. The river wasn’t deep here near its merging with the Bounty; it used to be a favored crossing point of elfin hunting parties. Rocks and shoals had made for a quick journey – any hope that the humans would be deterred and turn back was dashed against them. This was our crossing, Windburn thought; and suddenly, there was a seething heat in his belly. Will we run and retreat again?
The chief admired these round-ears’ ingenuity and cursed their courage. Everything Farscout had said was true, and more; they were an able band, nothing like the soft brownskins. Their foragers came within breathing distance of a watchful Pathmark. Thornbow had picked up a lost arrow of their hunters and jealously announced it a masterpiece. As they shadowed them, walking the length of the river, Windburn felt his father’s brooding presence at his back. He was keenly aware that Blacksnake was racking his brain against the threat, edgy for a plan, here, now.
High Ones, they were worthy foes, and now they were across the river.
**They want to go west,** Snowfall was the first to share her thoughts. **They wouldn’t have crossed only to continue along the Holt’s river. The sea will stop them – they will head for the Braided…**
**I know,** Windburn sent back, and no more.
Notch was getting agitated, restless. **Do you think they might cross the Braided and head for the mountains? Even I wouldn’t gamble on these odds…**
**We’d have them in our territory for moons.** True Edge’s voice was all raw disgust.
Blacksnake sent wordless agreement. **They might even settle there,** he added pointedly, **if not now, then once they’ve reached the Guardian Mountains and learned they must turn back. To think that what they run from is more terrible than winter on the mountains – that is not a risk to take.**
**I know,** Windburn echoed, soft and distant.
**They’ll have to rest a while after the crossing,** the hunt leader continued. **If we sent the wolves to harry them, if they try to push towards the den trees, we might force them to the coast. If they hug the coast, they may decide the Braided is too much and march along it right into our midst… but then they may decide to settle down where there is water. I wonder, if we let them rest a day and feel safe, then unleash the wolves on them… or even pick them off ourselves…**
Pathmark sputtered. **In the open?!**
**I know the chief’s decree,** Blacksnake answered dryly. He was leaning on his spear and his gaze never shifted from the other bank. **But if pressed, we’ll do what must be done. Perhaps we may frighten them enough to cross back.**
**They’re frightened enough as it is… but….** Even Evervale’s sympathy was wearing into caution.
**If we could only know what frightened them!** Thornbow’s sending was all pent-up rage. **How long do they intend to keep running!**
Windburn shook his head to put an end to that. They would not reveal themselves, whatever Blacksnake thought best. But what was best, instead… **I know.** What else could he say?
His tribemates were a solid weight against his back, usually comforting, but now pushing, heavy, forcing him to square his shoulders. He kept his own uncertainty from them, not speaking or sending, and watched the humans – letting his fear flow over him, heightening keen survival instincts that served a wolf well. He knew that nothing bred good ideas better than desperate need. Behind him, Snowfall and Blacksnake were grimly tallying their fighting strength at the Holt, despite all of Pathmark’s pleas that they were only scaring the cub. He was right, Windburn knew in a curious flash, the tribe could never hope to fight these humans.
**If only they’d go south,** he thought out loud, **they’d run into the brownskins.** The others were silent, suddenly, arguments faded as they considered that last option again. More humans – it was the last thing any of them wanted to think about right now. **I wonder what they would do.**
**Two rival wolf packs would fight,** Snowfall noted, quiet and without emotion.
Evervale’s nose twisted a little under the shadow of her hair. **But the brownskins are soft.**
**Soft but human still,** True Edge countered. Like Blacksnake, he was still standing a little apart and higher from the rest of them, his attention entirely on the moving shadows beyond the water, straining his far-sighted eyes. **It’s in their nature, you can see it. These ones are hunters, they would kill for their feed.**
**We wouldn’t, if we met others like us,** Evervale piped in, then fell into stumped silence as the pale-eyed hunter shook his head hard.
**They’re not like us, girl-cub! Humans kill, whether they’re pale or brown-skinned. Ask Cloudfern how much humans are like us! Right now they’re on the run, but if anything stood in their path, they’d tear it down, just like they’d do to our holt!**
**The brownskins didn’t tear much down,** Windburn stated, the sending half a memory. The odd human tribe from afar wandered all the paths, explored the length of the woods, but never set its home beyond its own boundaries. They bred slowly and did not press the borders of their territory. They hardly ever hunted.
He was wary of them, but not frightened or hateful. Eyes even, he met Blacksnake’s dark gaze, saw him tilt his head just a fraction.
**Who knows what the brownskins might yet do,** the elder coolly sent, **if they taste blood.** He moved then, Wasp a shadow on his heels, putting one boot on a root that stuck out and placing himself just behind True Edge. **I think Snowfall guesses right. They’re frightened. They’ll fight. They might destroy the soft folk, then take their territory. The brownskins might destroy them…**
**Not them!** Notch noted with a snort. **Likelier they’ll feed them till they burst instead! And what’ll we do when they’re close as lovemates, eh?**
**They might settle outside our territory,** Pathmark dared suggest, **close together **
Thornbow made a soft sound in his throat. **Wouldn’t that be worse?**
**There’s land enough, outside Holt territory. The brownskins never claimed it…** Windburn was studying Pathmark’s honest eyes, the hope in them mirroring the ones in Evervale’s. Thornbow was grumbling about things becoming someone else’s problem. Snowfall softly noted that no animal with a full stomach in a safe den, not even a predator, went looking for fights. Windburn found that he was tugging absently on the tails of his headband, feeling them between his hands, as he usually did before a decision was made. And from the corner of his eye, he saw Blacksnake’s fingers, tugging at the elder’s beard in the same unthinking gesture.
**How would we get them to head south?** the chief asked suddenly. **Without revealing ourselves?**
Notch gave a dismissive huff. **Make enough rotting noise, they’d run like rabbits, for some distance at least -**
**The wolves would scare them worse,** Thornbow cut him off, fingers worrying through the fur of Thief’s ears. **If we have to march them all the way to the coast, though - **
At that moment, there was Kestrel again, a flash of alarm in her sending like a sudden wash of icy rain. She sent an image – one of the multi-colored, noisy parties of the dark-skinned humans, out to collect tree sap, wandering a fair but uneasy distance away and heading North and East. Only this time, this turn of news rushing through the party held in its wake not fear, but a subtle burst of excitement, a sense of bad luck repaid.
Notch was suddenly grinning. **How much noise do you need me to make, my chief? Or would you rather I drew them along?** He patted the side of Beauty’s head, and the wolf growled through his crooked teeth, already looking to bite something. **The cub said they’re interested in wolves…**
**We could scare them…** Evervale sent hesitantly, glancing at Notch, **the way you talked Kestrel into scaring me last moons-turn…**
Windburn blinked, and True Edge gave an actual sound of unhappy doubt; but Notch’s eyes lit up like twin suns, Pathmark snapped his fingers in thrilled realization, and a flash of white teeth shone through Blacksnake’s beard, quick and predatory. Even Snowfall was smiling, nodding her head in agreement.
**If that will not work, nothing will,** she confirmed. **Just you listen to that one, my chief…**
The evening lay hot, cast in swollen red shadows under the sun as it set, notch by notch, and all was slow and heavy and the color of blood. The clan lay down by the water like a herd of tired deer, exhausted from the crossing. They drank and washed and chewed their dried meat, and gave thankful prayers for losing no man, woman or child to the rushing waters, but they did not rest. They were afraid.
Ayabo was not afraid, he told so angrily to his mother and father. He was not afraid, he was angry. He was so angry that, any moment now, the enraged spirit of Pawpo-Brown-Bear would enter him and he would become enormous and hairy and crush the Blue Beasts with his great and terrible paws. His mother did not smile; his father did not say he was brave, but instead smacked him on the shoulder and told him to take such fancies away until he was a real man, not a reed-armed boy.
The women brought up water and presented dry breasts to their babes, stretched hides over the branches and counted strips of dry meat. The men skulked around the camp like Bo’s hunting cats, striking meager kills in the grass, warding the edges of the group. And Ayabo sulked, hiding under a knitting of bushes that grew together, half-dug into a patch of loose dirt, dreaming of what he could not do.
“Hoo!” The call nearly scared Ayabo out of his skin, and he leapt up and glared at Teyu, who parted the bushes to sneak in with him. “I smell a little man-cub, hiding from his work!” The shaman’s boy was a year Ayabo’s elder, and as quiet and nimble at twelve as some grown hunters never learned to be. His teeth shone white in a face painted brown and green, patterned after the poisonous skin of a toad. “A boy who does not work falls asleep in his mother’s tent,” he mocked, “Moi-Moi comes and dries his manhood, she makes him shrivel like grass in a fire. The clan works and Ayabo waits for Moi-Moi.”
“I’ll break your nose off, Teyu!” Ayabo warned, brandishing a little fist. The boy was not shaman yet, he could punch him as much as he wanted. “I am working. I’m listening!”
Teyu snickered. “Hoo. Ayabo listens like a hunter.” Ayabo began getting to his feet to tackle the older boy into the ground, but realized that would make too much noise. They were at the edges of the camp, where noise could spell not just their doom, but the clan’s. “The little cat wants to be big! We would call you Bo-mo someday maybe – would you like that, Bo’s kitten?”
Ayabo felt hot blood rush to his face – hot, red blood rushing to his unpainted face, still moon-white and boyish and showing all he felt or thought. Teyu could make even a name that might carry honor – Bo’s cat-son – into a joke. He would punch him, he would break his nose and make his own blood flow red and teach him not to mock his own clan-mate in a time of need –
A twig cracked. Both boys froze.
There was no shifting of the undergrowth, no footsteps. It floated out of the foliage on a silent fetid breeze, rattling and swooshing and making heavy, wet sounds against the branches, sick sounds against itself. They might have thought it was a deer, but it walked on – no, floated. Its forelegs hung red against the red of its underside. It threw its great antlered head back, and under the open skin of its neck there was nothing.
Just skin, and more skin, floating and flailing at them through the forest.
The boys screamed. Courage never came into question. They forgot that they were growing boys, forgot their work, their ambition, and threw themselves trembling down onto the forest floor.
The smell of blood hung heavy and coppery in the air. The apparition flashed past them, red and wet, and plunged into the air over the camp. The commotion started almost at once. The tribe was suddenly all screams. Mothers scrambled, crying, for their children. Arrows flew, but there was no flesh for them to find purchase in. The thing rattled around the camp, leaving tracks of blood on everything it came across, and the chaos had never been greater, not even in the worst of the Blue Beasts’ attacks. The thing did not rest until it was a hand-span from the face of the only man in the camp who made no sound.
For a dreadful instance, it was a breath away from Tamyon, chief and hunter, taller by a head and more than all his warriors and as still and silent as an oak. Then it surged skywards and settled, dripping, among the branches. Tamyon raised his spear and cast it at it.
He missed, but the sight of his chief standing tall filled Ayabo with courage of a sort he had never known. While Teyu cowered, wailing, “it’s a curse, this place is cursed, a curse”, the younger boy found his feet. Taking gasps of air, he looked around, straining to understand what he had seen, to make it make sense in the world, and that was when he saw his second marvel of the day.
His cry, though it was a boy’s cry and one among the many, alerted the hunters who acted on instinct. Even Teyu glanced up to follow Ayabo’s outstretched arm and pointing finger.
It was a wolf standing there on the riverbank, a large and powerful beast at that, a male gray wolf with a pit-ugly face and scars deep and white in its flesh. But it was its missing left eye that caught Ayabo’s gaze. Tamyon’s predecessor Kumu had missed his left eye also.
The wolf had a bright strip of red cloth about its neck.
“Hoo!” Ayabo cried again. “Tamyon-chief! It’s Kumu come again in wolf-skin!”
Tamyon and his hunters froze, wavered. Among them, Ayabo saw the old shaman looking for his boy, his many braids in disarray. The screams of women, sobs of children and weak men were still everywhere, and the chief had lost his spear. The wolf – no, it couldn’t be a wolf only! – grinned to itself and trotted lazily into the undergrowth.
“No!” Teyu’s voice, shrill with fear and forced control, rang from behind Ayabo, startling him. The shaman boy leapt up and down, waving at the disappearing animal. “Don’t just stand there! Poyep sent us a guide out of this cursed place. Follow it!”
He darted forward and grabbed Ayabo’s hand, tugging him away after the wolf, and Ayabo felt his hand go slack in the sure grasp that poured spirit-will into his body, trust in Teyu’s shaman-eyes. It was their sign, they saw it first, would have missed it had they not been on the edge of camp. Behind them the elder shaman was shouting at the hunters, rambling at Tamyon, spurring the tribe to movement. He trusted his boy, clever and sure-footed as Bo’s hunting cats, and Ayabo walked into the woods with the dazzling power behind him of the entire Bukno-Baha clan following.
The wolf was fox-cunning, smarter than any beast, keeping itself just enough paces ahead to be out of reach, just close enough to stay always in sight. Ayabo struggled for a closer look at the cloth around its neck – was it Kumu’s death-cloth, once white around his dead loins to hide his manhood from the hungry spirits, but gone red with the blood from the wound that had killed him? Was it the weave of his spilled guts, turned into a mark of honor? He knew as much about spirits gone to animals as any Baha boy, but it looked like just a red cloth to him.
Wolves didn’t weave clothes.
He clung to Teyu’s hand, trusting him, knowing that so long as the older boy led him, no bear would come across their path nor adders crawl through the grass. Branches and bushes slapped his arms, wiped color away from Teyu’s face. They outstripped the clan by pace after pace, the hunters following close behind them, then the guards and others, with the wolf leading away from the river, deeper and deeper into the woods.
Time passed into a dizzy confusion. Sometimes far behind, a woman would cry for rest, or an argument broke out, and the great stream of people would begin to slow down and fall into disarray. But then the wolves would howl in the north and things – fleshless things, no doubt, bloody, dead things – rattled in the trees. “Poyep’s wolves are warning us,” Ayabo murmured to himself in awe. “Warning us that we mustn’t stop.” He panted hard, and struggled to keep up with Teyu’s larger steps.
He didn’t know how many times it happened – how many times he stumbled, or the clan stopped, or the wolves howled and forced new breath into them all, but it must have been so long that he began nodding even as he walked. He thought he saw other wolves from the corner of his eye, wolves of other colors, accompanying the camp. He began hearing mutters from behind him, Tamyon arguing with his shaman and elders. Exhausted, he stumbled yet again, never letting go of Teyu’s hand. He tripped over a stone, then another, and then with a rocking violence he was rolling down a ditch.
Teyu was crying in terror and dismay, but Ayabo didn’t let go of his hand, stopping him from rising as they lay in a tangle of limbs on thick, mossy mud. A brook burbled next to them. Ayabo opened his eyes.
“Teyu,” he whispered in a gasp. “The wolf turned into a man.”
They had fallen and lay at the feet of the man who now looked down on them, staring. The man was not Kumu. He was not a Baha at all. He was not a Blue Beast either. His skin was the color of fertile earth and his hair and clothes were the brightest Ayabo had ever seen.
“Ke?” The man said, crouching down till his dark face was level with Ayabo’s, till the boy could see that the brown was the real color of his skin and not paint. “Ke, ranan ie ishot?”
Ayabo sat up with an effort and stared at Teyu, the shaman boy’s eyes as wide as his own. This was something even Teyu had never seen before, not even in the spirit worlds. They couldn’t see the wolf anywhere, but they could hear the voices of their clan approaching. In minutes, the hunters would find the ditch and the two of them, Tamyon and their families would come to their rescue.
The dark stranger frowned at them, a gesture of puzzlement, of concern, that looked the same on a brown face as it did on a pale one. He took something from his belt. Teyu balked, reaching for a knife that had slipped its sheath, but Ayabo stayed still and saw that he was being handed a waterskin.
The strange man smiled encouragingly.
“Voa,” he said, then stressed, shaking the skin so the water inside made a merry splashing sound, “voa.”
“Kyuf,” Ayabo answered in his own tongue without thinking of it.
The man’s grin widened. “Kyuf,” he echoed, and took a sip himself to show that the water was safe before handing the skin to Ayabo again.
And Ayabo drank. It tasted nothing like bad water or the sweetwater that good men’s spirits were supposed to drink if they died nobly. It tasted like life.
The brownskins could not know that other eyes were watching their ceremony as they welcomed the new tribe to their home, but Windburn thought to himself that they probably would have been happy. It was a very pretty welcome, and he and Evervale had an excellent view of it from the trees that surrounded the bare ground of the settlement. The rest of the tracking party squatted within the tree line, still shadows, watching with the last of gnawing suspicion going to slow ease. But the cub sat remarkably still and silent on a branch next to him, making her chief proud, and there was no mistaking the excited fascination in her face.
It had taken some time for the newcomers, and the elves at their heels, to reach the settlement, but for the former at least, the journey had been well worth it. The brownskins now brought out water, both in skins and in wooden bowls for washing weary and wounded limbs. They laid out baskets of their brightly colored fruit, a pile as tall as an elf child of the enormous red balls they favored taking center. They freely shared cooked meat with the newcomers and handed blankets and even toys to wide-eyed children. Windburn imagined for a moment that this – exactly this was the sort of meeting he’d have expected between two elf tribes.
But the elves were few and slow to breed, in a territory that had shrunken once already, and now there were eight times as many humans in the settlement as there were wolfriders in the Holt. How much space would they need for their little huts now? How many trees would they cut down to make room for their seeding and cages for their animals? No one could know if one day, they would decide to descend on the Holt and destroy it as Lynx’s family had been destroyed…
He watched as the brownskins’ slender chieftess and the chief of the newcomers – the only one among them who could match her in height – tentatively took each other’s hand, pointing at themselves, speaking and repeating their names. He could imagine Blacksnake frowning atop his wolf. But his father had been wrong. They didn’t attack each other – neither of the tribes sought violence. They gave each other water and welcome. They were learning each other’s speech.
**Maybe we should’ve known,** Evervale mused, surprising him in a locked sending. **I mean, Kestrel’s floating deerskin scared them so much, and they followed Beauty so eagerly – they must’ve decided he was leading them to safety.**
Her eyes were oddly hopeful. He knew that it was right to tell her that humans finding safety was not a good thing for elves, to remind her of bitter history, and that One-Leg and Farscout might yet bring dire news from their journey back along the humans’ track, and who knew what lay far from the Holt… Blacksnake would’ve. He shook his head.
**Humans will do what humans will do,** he answered. **Now, the Holt is far away and safe. We’ll live in the Now.**
**In the Now,** Evervale answered, nodding, **with those humans… not the shadows of the others.**
Some shadows stretched far, Windburn knew, further, perhaps, than either of them could see. But he glanced at her bright eyes again. **Your little sister won’t grow up in a shadow,** he said, no, promised.
If humans could make peace, then perhaps so could he.
Eight years later….
“I’ll probably never get to discover a tribe of humans,” Crackle said sulkily.
Evervale giggled, but Windsong pressed a finger against her youngest’s nose. “You’d better hope not!” she announced, handing her the empty basket. “Two are quite enough. And any humans you discover are bound to be trouble!”
“It’s no laughing matter,” Cloudfern said mildly. Windsong inclined her head in apology, but he smiled and bit into his first travelcake. “Thank you for those. A young plantshaper has to keep properly fed when practicing her magic – and so does an older plantshaper!” He plucked another cake out of Crackle’s snatching fingers and left her with only one. She made a meek sound and stuffed it fully into her mouth in one bite.
“Thank you for the story,” Windsong answered, stroking the little cub’s hair. “Crackle needed to hear it, best of all next to the wall.” Evervale was already on her knees near the roots of the thorn wall, probing their strength. They were all knotted together down there, the work of turns of effort and planning. It had been there since before she was born, but now as she touched it with her magic for the first time, she saw it through new eyes.
“It’s amazing,” she whispered. Cloudfern gave a proud nod.
“No human ever passed it,” he said. “Not that they try. The pale hunters fear the wolf pack too much to enter too deep into our territory, and the brownskins aren’t any good in the deep woods.”
“But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to play or hunt alone,” Windsong said sternly before Crackle could ask. “Or to do anything but freeze and hide if you see a human. Remember Windburn’s decree stands from all those turns ago. It was bad enough when your sister was out there, so close to them, when they first arrived… before we even knew who they were.”
“We still don’t,” Cloudern noted, his hands at either side of a great thorn-laden branch.
“But they get along with the brownskins,” Crackle mused through a mouthful of travelcake. “They live in one holt and eat the same food, they travel together. They speak the same tongue now! Maybe if we spoke their tongue too they’d think we’re also humans and -”
“When you’re older,” Without a further word, Windsong scooped her up and placed her back on Muddypaws. Halftail buffed her satisfaction, licking Evervale’s hand as the plantshaper stroked her goodbye. “Work well with Cloudfern, kitling, and come home safe.”
“Yes, Mother,” Evervale promised. “No more following stray humans.” She reached up and grasped her sister’s little hand, and grinned at her.
**Maybe when you are older.** She promised her that, too, and knelt back to her work.
(The sequel to this story is "Edge of the World".)