(This story is a sequel to "Whitechest" and "Secrets".)
Nameless woke to the hint of a tickle. It was a little black hopping itch, crawling across her sun-warmed neck. It moved. It traveled. With a muttering groan, Nameless sat up and began to scratch vigorously, grinning with relief as her back paw dug into the spot below her ear. The itch went away, and for the moment, all was well with the world. Nameless settled again, panting as she enjoyed her patch of late afternoon sun. It had taken hours for the rocks to begin to warm up in the weakening autumn sun, and Nameless soaked in that warmth as eagerly as a snake or lizard, knowing in that unquestioning way of Now that the seasons were turning and soon winter would arrive.
Half-Tail ambled over, her lazy gait deceptive. Nameless saw the older wolf’s keen stare and stopped panting. She rolled over onto her side and exposed her belly, hoping to impress the she-wolf with her quick submission.
No such luck. Half-Tail’s teeth flashed in warning. Nameless was too old now to be able to rely on a puppy’s tricks. Half-Tail’s grin shone in wider threat, and Nameless scrambled to her feet and gave up the comfortable sunning spot to her superior.
Nameless knew her place. She was low in the pack – no longer a pup to be tolerated now, and so bottom-most in the pack's hierarchy that even strange Weasel held place above her. She often had to scavenge for what went into her belly, always the last to feed at a kill. But that was the Way. The pack was successful enough in the hunt to feed even the lowest ranked of its members, so Nameless was seldom hungry for long. She didn’t question her place. She was satisfied with life. Even nameless as she was, she was still a part of the pack, a part of something bigger. Things were as they were meant to be; someone had to be low in the hierarchy of the family, and her littermates had absorbed all of the ambition out of their mother’s umbilical before it had reached her. There was little Nameless wanted in life, besides a full belly, a warm patch of sunlight to doze in, and her itches scratched.
Longtooth padded up and flopped down alongside Half-Tail. **Toothless yearling,** the high ranking wolf imaged in the wordless way of the pack. He swept Nameless with a dismissive glance, then pointedly stared away. **Toothless yearling warming the den. Handsome Longtooth leading the hunt.**
It was a ranking wolf’s right to abuse a junior with such imaging. Nameless settled farther down among the sun-heated rocks, her tail tucked deferentially. **Licking Longtooth’s bloody jaws, grateful for meat,** she imaged back as she found another flat, warm place to sit.
**Longtooth’s jaws bloody and closed. Meat full in belly, meat staying in Longtooth’s belly.** It was a flat insult, a reminder to the lowest wolf of her place. **Skulking black yearling with rabbit ears. Yearling with useless rabbit teeth. Slinking yearling, useless yearling. Kinless yearling. Kin choosing fumble-footed pups to run with, not toothless yearling.**
Nameless stretched out with one shoulder turned toward Longtooth and Half-Tail, letting the familiar insults roll past her. Her elders were wise in the way of wolf-kind and in the ways of their two-legged kin. She had never wondered why none of their kin had yet wanted her. That her own kind tolerated her was enough for her simple needs.
**Rabbit-tail-between-ears yearling,** was Longtooth's parting insult. **Kinless den-warmer.**
**Bracken,** Half-Tail moaned, remembering a very recent night beneath the clear sky, the stars, and the bare branches of the hometrees, and voices of the pack and the kin joined together in a howl. **Bracken-kin walking alone.**
Nameless wrinkled her nose in dismay; her memory of their lost packmate was faded along with the old wolf’s scent from the marking-spots. But Half-Tail and Longtooth had run with Bracken and his kin for many long seasons, and their memories had not yet faded.
**Bracken-kin walking alone,** Half-Tail settled her chin on her forepaws and regarded Nameless with a keen yellow stare. The older wolf’s send-images were layered with scents and emotions. **Kin limping. Kin smelling of pain-stress. Alone.**
**Hunter-kin running with strong wolves of the pack,** Longtooth imaged back. He closed his eyes, dismissing Nameless entirely from that equation. **Kinless strong young wolves running with wolfless hunter. Kinless strong yearlings Browncoat or Flysnap with Bracken-kin on their backs. Nameless den-warmer chewing bones in rain while hunters hunt.**
The itch returned and traveled. Nameless sat up and scratched vigorously. When her claws couldn’t rout the itch, she went at it with her teeth.
**Bracken-kin walking alone,** Half-Tail repeated that image firmly. **Bracken-kin injured. Bracken-kin alone. Traveling far and wolfless with stranger-wolves lurking.**
**Bracken-kin on strong kinless Mooncrier’s back for hunt, Longtooth-kin on Longtooth, Half-Tail carrying Half-Tail-kin, all following Wasp and Whirl and hunting sweet young branch-horn fawns,** Longtooth returned firmly, his yellow eyes narrow as he panted.
The itch crawled its way down Nameless’s shoulder and side, heading for the tender spot beneath her tail. Nameless chased it with her teeth in a growing frenzy, contorting to reach after it as it went.
**Bracken-kin on forest trail, tracking prey far from pack. Bracken-kin keen-eyed, keen-witted. Walking alone, wanting strong young legs beneath him. Longtooth muzzle grey.** Half-Tail sighed in bliss as the autumn sun warmed her thick fur. **Bracken-kin hands strong hands. Strong fingers. Clever fingers. Itch-seeking fingers. Itch-killing fingers.**
That Nameless heard and listened to. The yearling looked up attentively, ears cocked and tongue frozen in mid-pant.
**Itch-killing?** the young wolf imaged plaintively.
Half-Tail’s amber eyes eased closed. **Hunter-kin finding itches and crushing them between fingers,** she promised.
It was late afternoon, and most of the tribe was asleep in the dentrees overhead. Farscout sat alone in the dim chamber among the roots of the three great conjoined oaks, on the bench shaped beside his lifemate’s cocoon. Patches of glowing moonmoss grew among the intertwined roots of the ceiling; they gave off a blue-violet light that made the white cocoons gleam silver in their cradles around the room, and muted the colors of the murals and handprints which decorated the stone cave walls.
Farscout’s left arm ached yet, and he used it gingerly as he sewed up the long, gaping tear down the sleeve of his coat, where the renegade she-wolf Whitechest had bitten him. The bone of his arm was only cracked, and the wound was healing well enough now. The scar would be ugly, but it was healing. Farscout knew he was lucky, and was grateful enough for that piece of luck. If luck it were.
-- a sudden shared, visceral awareness, followed by a jolt of pain and the sense of a blackness in the wound breaking apart and flooding away like bad ice in a spring melt; Willow's wide eyes meeting his, desperate and frightened -- What had she done? Did she even understand it? Farscout was one of the few yet living in the tribe who could remember what a healer's touch felt like, yet he'd been exhausted and feverish as well. Had he imagined it? Farscout might have thought so, except for Willow's behavior these last few days. Willow had kept her distance from him during that long ride home, and had routinely refused to meet his eyes. She had done something. She knew it. And she was terrified of what she had done.
To his own surprise, Farscout found himself equally terrified. He had lived for centuries with the hope that the tribe would find a new healer... it had always been a distant hope, a some-day hope, like the threads of a dream you could almost grasp upon waking. It was a hope he had always nurtured and always treasured, but now that it was something he could actually reach out and seize upon... the prospect of it was terrifying. It had been enough... all these long years, it had simply been enough to know that someday, the tribe might have a healer strong enough to heal Brightwood, and save the child she bore. Someday was suddenly close enough to catch scent of, close enough to be tangible, and yet there was the risk that Willow might never be strong enough to do heal those wrapped in the silent cocoons, or that if she tried, inexperienced as she was, she could lose those she sought to save like water lost from a broken jug.
That horrible thought was enough to freeze his blood in his veins. Farscout had waited for centuries for his lifemate and child. To have them taken away now was unimaginable.
Out of habit, Farscout glanced up from his careful stitches, looking automatically for the comfort of Bracken familiar's presence. Normally, the old wolf would be stretched out on the bundle of rawhide that was near Farscout's bench-seat. And for a moment, Farscout almost saw the old wolf there, where he expected him to be. But it was just a trick of memory, a trick of the eyes and of the shadows. The old wolf wasn't there. And Bracken would not ever be there again. Farscout winced with fresh grief at that loss.
Bracken had not been the first wolf-friend Farscout had lost to violence over the centuries. Violence or illness or simply old age – it always ached to lose a wolf-friend. Cobweb had been his very first, followed in turn by Moonlost, Scratch, Stagmark, Fickle, Tiptail, Echo, Honeycomb, Wisp... he'd had more than fifty wolf-friends over the many years, and unlike some of his tribe mates, Farscout’s memories were clear and he could remember each of his lost wolf-friends fondly. But those repeated losses never made the latest easier to bear. Bracken had been an especially reliable friend, and he had traveled at Farscout's side for thirty years. Few partnerships were ever that long. One of these nights, when Farscout was healed enough to return to his travels, he would need to go to the pack and seek another wolf-friend. But Farscout didn't feel ready for that. Not yet. Certainly not today or tonight. Not while his grief for Bracken was still shadow-close, and while shadow-like he was still seeing and hearing Bracken where the old wolf could not be.
It wasn't that the old wolf's spirit haunted him. No, not that. It was memory that haunted him. Memory, and worse, the scent of change. Farscout wanted Brightwood back in his arms again so badly still that he could taste it -- yet he was also plagued by the fear of losing her completely. Change was a threat -- to her, to him, to the half-life he'd made peace with so long ago. And Farscout feared that he'd rather live out the rest of his days in that half-life of having some distant hope before him, than face risking the chance of losing her completely and forever.
There were soft footsteps on the stairs. Farscout caught his soul-brother’s scent before Cloudfern’s lithe body appeared in the arching doorway into the chamber. Cloudfern leaned against that living arch, a fur wrapped around his bare shoulders and a wry expression on his face.
“Can’t sleep?” Cloudfern asked.
Farscout shrugged the question off. He bit off the thread, tested the patch to ensure it was secure, and moved the coat in his lap to get at a fraying hem.
Cloudfern made a small sound of exasperation; he hitched the fur tighter around himself and moved to sit at the other side of Brightwood’s cocoon. **All right, Seth. Something's gnawing on you. What is it?**
Farscout frowned again, marshaling his words. He didn’t feel ready to share his thoughts yet, or the burden of his concerns. No, it was more than that – his fears touched on wounds they both carried, and the urge to protect Cloudfern was an old and worn-out habit. He glanced over Brightwood’s cocoon at his soul-brother now, and for a moment, saw blood-splatter on a boy’s face, a face dominated by terrified eyes. Farscout blinked that vision away, and it was a sober, mature face gazing back at him, eyes wise and steady.
Farscout reached out and stroked the uneven slope the cocoon, finding somewhere else to fix his attention as he weighed his worries. The websilk was uneven beneath his gentle touch: there were bits and pieces of things sealed into the silken threads of Brightwood's cocoon, and in the others as well -- feathers and flower blossoms, the glittery husk of a dragonfly, locks of cut hair and wisps of wolf fur, all mementos saved away to share with the cocooned within, the precious flotsam and jetsam of time and memory. Idly, Farscout sought to remember when he had added a tuft of Bracken's fur to the collection. His fingers found a tuft of grizzled hair – but that had been Vixen’s, the she-wolf he had partnered back around the summer of Beetle’s birth.
**You look like dried-out scat,** Cloudfern continued, his thoughts needle-sharp. **As soon as we got home again, you buried yourself down here. As far as I can tell, you’ve only left to relieve yourself and join in the howl for Bracken.**
There was a note of challenge in Cloudfern’s send, and his steady stare dared Farscout to rise to it. Farscout shrugged it off, finding a moment’s distraction in identifying another lump among the outer layers of the cocoon. His fingers traced the outlines of a cattail doll and remembered a laughing, freckled face and a mop of red curls. The doll had belonged to One-Leg’s daughter Flash, and she’d decided to give the favorite toy to Brightwood, so that someday Brightwood’s baby might play with it. A girl born, grown to maturity, and lost to the tribe, her beauty and vibrancy lost to Brightwood as well. Waiting for his loved one was one sort of horror; Farscout tried to imagine how terrible it would be to return to the world again, suddenly surrounded by strangers and finding that time had curved wide and carried away so many familiar faces and things…
There was another scuff of footsteps on the stairs; Farscout and Cloudfern both glanced that way to see a long-legged black yearling slink into the chamber. The young she-wolf dropped to her belly and crawled toward them submissively, and there was a hissing comment from Mushroom, who was perched among the roots overhead. There was almost always one or more Preservers in the cocoon-den, protecting their treasures from harm. The yearling flinched at the warning and flattened out where she lay, eyes showing white around the edges and tail swinging in a desperate attempt to look harmless. She was one of last year's pups, one of the three Whirl had whelped. She was, in One-Leg's unkind assessment, the sole wolf of the pack that could lose a test of wits with a treewee. She was hardly more than a pup, and as the lowest wolf in the pack, the one who would starve this winter if there wasn’t meat enough. Farscout scowled at her – the pack was mostly free to travel as it would, but the unbonded wolves weren’t welcome down here, among the tribe’s most defenseless.
**Something’s eating at you,** Cloudfern sent again, turning a dismissive shoulder on the yearling. **But it's not just you, either, is it?** There was a wry twist to Cloudfern’s lips, turning his sober expression knowing. **Something happened out there, didn't it?** he continued. **Something between you and Willow? You two and Rainpace were all acting odd when Windburn and I found you. You and Willow were scruffs-up like rival wolves, and Rainpace was all but dancing conciliation between you. And whatever that stormcloud was, it didn't fade on the long ride home, and when we got here, you bolted one way and Willow went the other. You want to talk about it? Want to tell me what's going on between you and Willow?**
Since the Preserver hadn’t attacked, the yearling had resumed its submissive crawl toward Farscout. He pinned the wolf with a forbidding stare, and young ears flattened. She turned her head aside, refusing to meet his direct gaze.
The yearling was harmless. Farscout frowned at the creature. Never in his life had he had a wolf who wouldn’t meet his eyes. Bracken would have run the whelp off at once for even daring breath the same air; the old wolf had been pitiless about his own rank within the pack, and quick to remind his packmates of it during those short times when he and Farscout were home at the Holt. The yearling inched closer, maybe hoping to scavenge leather scraps from what Farscout had been cutting for coat patches. If she didn't starve this winter, the rest of the pack would likely chase her off by spring. Farscout thought of that, and felt a moment’s pity for the black she-wolf. He made a soft summoning sound, as a higher-ranked wolf might when summoning a pup.
The she-wolf’s body language shifted at once. Ears, eyes, head and tail all came up, and she padded eagerly forward to him, although still without the confidence to meet his eyes. She walked rather than slunk, and the bouncing carriage of her stride was all puppy-enthusiasm, not yet the wary, shifting slink of a wiser, brighter omega wolf. Still too young, yet, to have had her spirit bullied out of her, maybe. Or maybe just too dumb. One-Leg certainly thought so of her, and the old fisher spent far more time with the pack than Farscout did. Farscout met the black yearling's curious sniff with an inhalation of his own, and after allowing her to taste the scent of his hands, he ran practiced fingers around her ears, and then down her spine, to the spots he knew from centuries of experience that any wolf would succumb to.
The yearling’s eyes rolled back in bliss, and her lips widened in a canine grin. The black, shaggy body stretched into his scratching; the tail went stiff and straight, and then one hind leg began to shake.
“You’re ignoring me,” Cloudfern muttered. “You know I’m too stubborn for that to work. I’m not going to go away, just because you don’t want to talk.”
“I’m listening to you,” Farscout said aloud, just to placate his friend. And, to the yearling, whose demanding company was more welcome, “Feels good, eh?” he added, amused at the cloud of fur his fingers were digging out of her coat. Her hind foot began to drum in answer. He kept at that spot, scratching until the she-wolf had almost begun to vibrate.
“Liar,” Cloudfern chuckled ruefully. "And if you're pulling a Quick Fang on us, brother, I'll cuff your ears for you. Don't think that I won't!"
Farscout took a moment to process that, and on second hearing, Cloudfern’s words still made no sense. He looked sharply at his friend,
Cloudfern’s expression of smug confidence shifted and began to waver. "You didn't, then?" the plantshaper muttered aloud.
“Didn't what?” Farscout shot back. Oblivious to their exchange, the black she-wolf nudged him with a sharp hip, imploring him to keep scratching. He began to do so with both hands, his hands busy with that task while his mind tried to make sense of Cloudfern’s riddle.
Cloudfern gestured in exasperation. "You know... you and Willow. She's acting just as odd as you are, which for her at least really is odd. And you know how Easysinger always believed these things seemed to happen in clusters..."
Farscout looked at Cloudfern in bewilderment, and then it began to dawn on him what his soul-brother’s current of thought was. "Recognition? You think Willow and I might have Recognized?"
"Well, until you tell me otherwise, what am I to think?" Cloudfern retorted.
The shock of the moment began to fade, and Farscout couldn’t help but laugh at the accusation. He shook his head and laughed aloud, and from among the roots above them Mushroom peered down at the pair in curious disapproval at the outburst. “High Ones save me – no, not that!”
Cloudfern gave him a quirk of a smile, but his eyes were still concerned. **Then what is it, Seth? Something's weighing on you. It has been since you came back. Tell me what is wrong!**
Farscout stopped scratching the yearling’s back, and when she turned her head toward him imploringly, he fondled her ears for a moment, then gave her a shove. “Go,” he told her gruffly. “Go on, I’m done with you.” Then he looked to Cloudfern, and held his soul-brother’s worried gaze. **I'll tell you, Pryn, and then you can tell me if you think I've finally gone mad... and I fear you won’t be alone in needing to hear this.**
Blacksnake looked at the two of them in starkest shock. "Willow?" he repeated, doubting his own ears. "A healer?"
They had summoned Blacksnake to meet them down on the bank of the Holt’s River, where distance and the rush of the current over the lip of the weir masked any chance of being overheard by another tribesmate. Blacksnake joined them, clothed only in his breeches, clear-eyed but his hair tangled from sleep. The three stood in the sunlight, and the black yearling followed like a shadow.
Cloudfern shifted a glance at Farscout. “Show him.”
Farscout nodded, and at once began a locksend. **...pain of torn flesh, fever-heat, exhaustion deep as a fog… a hesitant touch on his arm waking him, followed by a skyfire jolt of pain that seared the wound and blazed away fever and fog. Fully awake now, arm tingling with pain and soothing co-mingled; Willow’s face on a level with his own, unexpectedly close, blue eyes wide with fear; Willow jerking back her hand as if burned, expression shifting like quicksilver from shock to desperation to denial and outright dismay. Willow recoiling in retreat, guilt and challenge alike in every line of her body...**
Blacksnake let out a ragged breath and rubbed his left arm in the echoed memory of the pain. Farscout broke off the locksend, knowing his fellow elder had read every layer of sensation and emotion in that communication.
“Not many of us left who remember what it felt like to be touched by a healer,” Farscout said. He knelt and picked up a smooth flat river rock, turning it over in his hands. “Willow healed me. I’m certain of it. And what's more -- she knows she did it.”
“The tribe has been waiting to celebrate a new healer since long before my birth,” Cloudfern muttered, holding his fur wrap close around his shoulders. “But Willow is just about the last of Owl’s line I’d have expected to see it from."
Blacksnake was still rubbing his arm, his expression dark and thoughtful. Farscout glanced up at his Hunt Leader, content to wait for Blacksnake to sort out his thoughts on the matter. It was an uneasy secret that Farscout shared – he knew it was. But he knew equally well that Blacksnake welcomed the burden… and it was a small comfort, too, to know that Blacksnake was not disagreeing with Farscout’s interpretation of his strange encounter with Willow. Blacksnake could remember as well what Healer Owl’s touch had been like – both in healing and in attack.
“You tell my son about this?” Blacksnake asked first.
Farscout shook his head. He threw the stone and watched it skip across the smooth surface of the water. “No. Only Cloudfern and you. It’s Willow’s secret to tell the chief and tribe, not mine.”
A flicker of amusement went through Blacksnake’s eyes with that. Farscout didn’t need to add that he felt this problem too tricky to take to their chief. Windburn preferred immediate action over long planning and strategy, while his father Blacksnake liked to worry the marrow from the bones of a problem, and meet it with half a dozen different ways to ensure the conclusion he desired.
“My knee,” Blacksnake murmured cryptically. Farscout waited for the Hunt Leader to explain that comment, but Blacksnake’s thoughts had evidently moved on. Seeing her opportunity, the yearling slunk closer. She rolled onto her back in pup-submission at Farscout’s side, and thumped her tail invitingly, hoping for a belly-rub. Farscout complied thoughtlessly, welcoming only the chance to keep his hands from idleness.
“Willow’s been acting strange since the summer, at least,” Cloudfern said. "How long do you think she's known what she can do? What reason would she have for keeping it to herself? Scary cub-tales told of old Owl?"
“Scared of change,” Blacksnake murmured. “Scared of responsibility.” At Farscout's feet, the black yearling began to moan happily, oblivious to the emotional current that flowed over her head. She lay flat on her back with her stomach to the sky, one leg drumming as Farscout continued to scratch her offered belly. Blacksnake glanced down at her with a distracted look in his eyes. "Scared of the weight of the tribe's hopes, maybe? After all, Willow's healing magic skipped her grandsire's generation, and her mother's as well. She could be weak tea. There's no saying she'll have talent enough to do more than half-mend a cracked bone or ease a headache. Consider Starskimmer. She doesn’t have half the skill for stoneshaping that her mother Agate had, nor Agate her father Stoneback’s skill, and Starskimmer inherited her magic directly, without the power disappearing for two generations." The elder looked at Farscout again then, his eyes sharp. “So why’d you bring this to me, if you’re not telling the chief?”
Farscout shrugged. “I trust you’ll know what to do, if the time comes that something needs doing.” Farscout saw the Hunt Leader’s amusement at that. It was a double-edged blade that he’d handed his friend, and Blacksnake knew he knew it. “More than that – I trust you’ll keep a wary eye on her. I don’t trust Willow not to be rash. And I can’t be here all the time, to protect the sleepers from her.”
“Aye,” Cloudfern agreed. “Between the three of us, we can keep Willow away from the cocoons until we’re confident that she’s able and ready. But I don't see why we shouldn't tell the chief. He's the chief -- surely he should know!"
"He has eyes," Blacksnake replied sharply. "He was traveling along with you. He can see the way Willow has been acting since you all returned, if he thinks to look. He can ask her, or he can ask Farscout, just as you did. I doubt she'd lie to her chief, if he asked, no more than Farscout would. But if we go telling Willow's secret to that stubborn son of mine," he went on, "then I'd bet that snowcat skin you're wearing that he wouldn't be content just to wait and watch. No -- looks to me like Willow's running scared right now. We saw that in Farscout's locksend. Besides, if she wasn't scared, then she wouldn't be keeping quiet about it. If we tell the chief, then he'll confront her -- make her feel cornered, maybe start pushing her too fast. Or if he doesn't, others will, once everyone hears about it. And the last thing we need is for our budding healer to feel frightened and cornered," he finished, expression grim with old, old memories.
Farscout nodded, satisfied with Blacksnake’s course on the matter. He stopped scratching the yearling’s belly and rose to his feet. The black she-wolf had heaved herself up after him and butted at his hands, eager for more attention. He gave it to her, fondling her ears and scratching along the curving lines of her skull, while her tail whipped back and forth in gratitude. “What about Kestrel? Fadestar’s her sister, she’s got equal claim in this.”
“Chief just sent her out to check up on the humans' movements. We could tell Kestrel when she gets back from her patrol,” Cloudfern agreed.
“Greenweave and Dreamflight have claim, too – Honey. But sure as rain falls I won't be telling them about it just yet," Blacksnake muttered. "Wouldn't trust Dreamflight not to go after Willow to do something reckless and try to get Honey out of that cocoon yesterday."
“Two guesses where that puts me with Greenweave when Honey's back among the living,” Cloudfern muttered sadly. "I doubt Honey will be any sweeter on the notion of sharing her Recognized."
Neither Farscout or Blacksnake had anything comforting to say to that sober assessment. The trio stood in silence for a time, with only the happy panting of the yearling as counterpoint. At last, Blacksnake stirred from his thoughts and gestured with a jerk of his chin toward the she-wolf. “So what’s her new name?” he asked.
Farscout shrugged the question off. “I’m not naming her. She’s not mine.”
The hint of a grin touched Blacksnake’s lean face. “You so sure of that? Looks like she's set her mind for you."
Farscout scowled at Blacksnake's words, and looked down, conscious now of his hands' wandering work. The yearling gazed up at him with a helpless grin, yellow eyes half-lidded in pleasure, and he stopped scratching her immediately.
"A pup like her is no use to me," Farscout said. He gave her a firm shove and looked away dismissively. "When I go out to patrol again, I'll see if I can make a partner of Duskgreeter or Autumnleaf -- a wolf with sense between its ears and a place already in the pack."
The yearling whined plaintively and butted her broad head against him, yellow eyes gone soulful. "Looks like it's you she wants, brother," Cloudfern said, laughter lurking in his voice. "Just look at that face. You haven't the heart to turn her away, now, have you?"
Despite himself, Farscout glanced down again, meeting the yearling's amber eyes. She whined and nuzzled at his hand, her eyes never leaving his face. **Strong fingers,** the wolf image-sent to him then, raw and inexperienced but heartfelt. Her eager joy rolled through him with that connection, melting away at his determination to resist her. **Strong fingers! Itch-seeking fingers! Rider with wolf, running-running-running beneath moons. Rider with wolf, enjoying sun-warm rocks. Rider with wolf, scratching itches. Hopping black itches chased gone gone gone**
“Half-witted pest is what you are,” Farscout muttered at the she-wolf, while the young wolf’s tongue lolled with glee. He regarded the beast sourly, still not certain that he wanted this wolf for his partner.
**Rider with strong young she-wolf, scratching itches,** the she-wolf insisted, as headstrong with the images as the river in its course. **Wolf with rider, rider with wolf.**
**Rider with wolf,** Farscout warned her. **Rider with wolf, traveling far, traveling long, traveling weary and sometimes hungry.**
Undeterred, the she-wolf lapped at his face with her tongue in enthusiastic agreement, eager to do whatever her elf-friend wished if only it meant acceptance and affection.
"She's young and she's untested," Farscout sighed, still doubting this bond. "And One-Leg calls her as dumb as a rock.”
"I've known my brother to be wrong a time or two," Blacksnake said. He clapped Farscout on the shoulder. "And if the wolf is choosing you, she can't be as stupid as all that."
"Or she just confirms One-Leg's sentiment," Cloudfern said drolly, turning to head back to the dentrees.
Blacksnake moved to follow, while Farscout delayed for another cautious appraisal of the yearling. **Tired and hungry and wet, walking long and far following scent-trails that lead to dust or nowhere. Traveling in cold, traveling in snow, traveling in heat,** he imaged at her, pressing sensations of discomfort and exhaustion at her, wanting to see what would make the yearling wilt.
**Strong fingers,** the yearling insisted instead, pushing her head against Farscout's chest. **Strong itch-killing fingers.**
"Half-witted, flea-bitten pest," he repeated to himself, even as he yielded to that demand and gave the she-wolf what she wanted.