(This story is a sequel to "Tangled Lives", and is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
Quick Fang ran through the night as hard as she could, with no care as to where she went, only that it was away from what she left behind her. She -- who had never run from anyone or anything before in her life -- fled in a blind panic, until her lungs were burning and her once-sure feet were stumbling. She fell, skinned her knees bloody in that first fall, scraped her elbows and arms in the second, lost count of those which followed or the injuries she accrued. The only thing important was escape, and the only refuge she could find in the solace of wolf-Now, where there was only her fierce fear, mingled with need and rage, to fuel her.
**Dehn! Dehn! Dehn!** She clung to that powerful essence of herself, chanting her soul name both in her mind and with each panting breath. Dehn was strength, Dehn was courage, Dehn was a she-wolf's pride and lack of self-doubt. Dehn would not be caught, not be tamed, not to be forced to anything against her will--
Another name pursued her, battered at her, seeking a niche in her defenses. Only through flight could she fight it. She put away miles between those names, and even once she at last lost her wind, Quick Fang still pushed on, staggering as she walked. She walked until she could run, then ran again until the sweat dripped from her hair into her eyes and her legs shook beneath her.
Another fall finally brought the huntress's flight to an end, when the sun was already yellow-white in the sky. She had been trying to vault a cedar log, but her exhausted legs failed her in an easy leap that once would have felt effortless. She hit the old log hard, draped over its middle, driving precious wind from her lungs and leaving her gasping. Half-blind from the shock of the fall, she clawed her way over the top of the log and fell into a heap on its other side. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a dark hole -- a den of some sort, dug into the earth in the shelter of the old fallen tree. Quick Fang crawled for that refuge, teeth bared. Whatever beast had made that lair for itself would have to find a new home, because she had run as far as she was able.
Outrunning this thing which pursued her was impossible. Time now to lick her wounds, recover her strength -- and find a way to outlast it.
**Blood,** True Edge sent, bent over the trail he had been tracking.
Snowfall reached her lifemate's side and knelt to investigate for herself, but True Edge was an old hunter, and as canny as she was herself. It was blood, a spattering of it on the leaves. Elf-blood. Their daughter's.
"She just ran headlong through these brambles," True Edge muttered as he rose to his feet. “Thorns will have sliced her ankles and legs raw.” The couple's wolves, Slychase and Charm, shadowed them; Charm edged up now and nosed her rider's elbow, having wit enough not to disturb the precious trail. Slychase had less sense, and only Snowfall's repeated sharp reprimands kept him from blundering over the fragile record of Quick Fang's passage. True Edge swept the forest around them with a sharp glance. "Still running, and still not using her head. That deer path there comes down this slope all gentle, avoids all these brambles and windfall."
Snowfall was moving again, following Quick Fang's trail. "Watch out, there's nettles," she warned her Recognized. "Poor cub didn't even try to go around it. She'll be all over welts when we find her."
"A few welts is nothing to what I’d like to do to her when we find her," True Edge muttered. Snowfall ignored her mate's words, knowing it an anxious father's empty threat.
The lifemates had been following their daughter’s trail throughout the night and well into the day. Quick Fang’s path had coursed mostly to the north and to the east -- away from the human settlements and increasingly away from the risk of encountering a party of human hunters. But the painted-faces ranged wide in travels of their own, and there was no corner of the Holt’s territory now that was safe to travel without risk of encountering them. And from the stubborn, thoughtless path Quick Fang had chosen, it was clear that she was making no effort to hide her trail, or to avoid trouble.
“Stubborn pup,” True Edge continued to mutter, as he and Snowfall both took care to clear the patch of brambles and nettles. “Pity she didn’t inherit my good sense along with the stubbornness.”
Snowfall couldn’t help but smile at that, but she didn’t respond, too concerned instead with picking up their daughter’s trail again. It was easy enough to find; Quick Fang's headlong flight left a path of broken bracken and twigs, crushed bearberry vines, and the rare small splatter of blood.
The lifemates traveled mostly in silence, broken now and then by True Edge's under-the-breath muttering. Snowfall knew her Recognized was as weary as she was, but neither would ask to stop and rest, not for any longer than the wolves themselves needed. They walked and rode in turn, pushing themselves and their bond-wolves, knowing that their daughter was out there, alone and unprotected and not in full control of her senses.
'Oh, my cub...' Snowfall wasn't sure which emotion -- worry or dismay or outright annoyance -- had the upper-hand in her heart from one moment to the next. She loved her wilful daughter, but too often found her love at war with her patience. She had been shocked when Suddendusk had come to her at the Holt and confessed that he and her daughter had Recognized. But was Snowfall shocked that Quick Fang's response was to hare off from her newly-Recognized, as fast and as far as she could? No. No surprise at that reaction from her stubborn, contrary child.
"Poor Suddendusk. I suppose we're just lucky she didn't brain him with the blunt end of her spear," had been one of True Edge's observations on that, some time after Snowfall had summoned him and they had set out together in pursuit of Quick Fang. "If she had my good sense to go with the stubbornness, well, she'd have just ripped his breeches off and got it over with then and there, and none of us would be any the wiser until she started to swell. But no, our girl-child can’t do it the easy way. She's got to fight, tooth and claw, until she's decided she's won the batte."
But not even Quick Fang had the force of will to overcome Recognition. Snowfall regretted that she and her lifemate were not back at the Holt, rejoicing with their kin at the prospect of new life for the tribe. No. Quick Fang was on the run, her behavior and good sense erratic, and no lone wolf was ever safe. Ever.
"Looks like she's stumbling here," True Edge murmured. Snowfall nodded. She had already noticed how Quick Fang's track wove drunkenly. "Can't be too much longer. She'll go to ground. Or climb up and make a nest for herself. We're close."
Snowfall glanced back at her wolf-friend with a narrow, sharp send. Slychase's ears went up in sudden interest, and the wolf slunk off at a tangent, alert to either flush his prey or catch what quarry his rider flushed. Charm watched him go and stuck to her own elf's heels.
Not long later, they came to the bulk of an enormous old cedar log. Quick Fang's trail went up to it. Snowfall was first to climb up onto the log, with True Edge close at her elbow. The pair saw the scuff and scatter of debris on the ground on the log's other side, and traded a knowing look.
"Just like I said," True Edge nodded to himself. "Right as always."
"I could tell tales on a few," Snowfall countered. She jumped lightly to the ground, and saw the dark arch of what looked like an abanonded fox den, further down the silent stretch of the log. Quick Fang's tracks led to it. Snowfall traded another glance with her lifemate, and the pair approached that hole cautiously, ready to catch whatever leaped out of it.
"Daughter,” Snowfall said, and repeated it in sending, kneeling within reach of the den's opening. **"Dehn."** A familiar growl rumbled out at them, low and threatening. Snowfall ignored it and deliberately edged closer. **We're here. You're safe. We're here with you now. Come out.**
The growl increased as Snowfall neared. "Careful," True Edge counselled, reaching out as if wanting to jerk his lifemate back to safety. "She'll bite."
Snowfall found her own teeth grit hard. "Daughter, come out," she said, crawling forward another step and resting one hand on the side of the den's earthy arch. Snowfall gave herself a moment to let her eyes adust. "We're here and we--"
Something filty and wild-eyed lunged at her from the back of the dark den. Snowfall snatched back her hand, fast enough to save her fingers, and True Edge pulled her back away from the den's door. Quick Fang retreated back into the dark hole, teeth bared in open threat.
"Said so," True Edge whispered in his lifemate's ear. He patted Snowfall's shoulder comfortingly. "We'll wait for you out here, cubling," he called to his daughter. "You can join us whenever you feel you're ready."
"That's right, we could sit here until the moon goes blue," Snowfall muttered, still feeling the graze of her daughter's canines against her knuckle.
True Edge chuckled and hugged his lifemate against his shoulder. **Yuki, my love, we can wait her out. Stubborn our girl-cub may be, but given some time to rest and think it through, she'll come to her senses. And if she doesn't -- well, we've got the waterskins. And in the meanwhile, she's safer down there with no way out, and with us up here to protect her.**
Time passed -- the shift and fade of light coming into her lair told Quick Fang as much, although sunk into the refuge of wolf Now she failed to count the nights or days. Hunger gnawed at her, and worst was the thirst, which parched her lips and tore at her throat. At times, she heard her parents' voices, or felt the touch of their sendings, torturing her with the offer of water and fresh, blood-rich meat. But she refused them, having at least that little control left. Because the worst torment of them all was the gut-deep *need* that raged through her, unquenchable and uncontrollable and so terrible that it would not even let her sleep. There was only one way to answer that need, and it required her submission.
Refusing food and water was easy, compared to refusing that greater desire. She grappled with it, seeking some way to rend it apart or master it entirely. But it was like trying to wrestle with water. The need eluded her grasp, surrounded her in its embrace, threatened to drown her entirely. Curled tight in the bottom of the abandoned den, Quick Fang clung to herself and and focused all of her energies on fighting that internal battle.
Her body and her mind seemed things apart; her desires, her intents, seemed to have as little effect on her flesh as if she was deeply sick. This was sickness, and there was no retching it out. She repeated her soul-name in her mind, in a growl, a shout, a whisper, grappling for control of it. She called up every memory she had, in the great misty expanse of her turns, every triumph and instance of strength. She remembered her first bond, the pup as fierce and needle-toothed as herself, and her first hunt, earlier than all her agemates, remembered her first sweet joining and her first bow, putting aside one tribename, then another. Hazy memories hounded her of a childhood friend let down, of a lovemate rejected, of saving a hunt-mate’s life and fighting a wolverine, all by herself. The dredging brought up old, strange things, and no answers at all. Then she tried to lose herself. She slept.
Her dreams were full of stags.
In her sleep, she was not as desperately hungry, and either way the animals were too beautiful to hunt, running against the dim, green background, noble, free, as free as she had once been. She ran with them, her feet bare and her hair loose. They were running far away and maybe she could join them.
But as she ran to keep pace with the herd, her feet were growing heavy, clinging to the ground as if they’d taken root, and no matter how fast she went, how much she pushed herself, the herd outran her towards the distant horizon. She was not a stag – and, she saw suddenly, neither were they. They were does all, each as lovely as the dawn, with young beside them, running – running past her, leaving her behind, till it was only her and the one deer. And this one was a stag, a gloriously crowned beast with a pelt like thistle-down, like one of the things in Crackle’s stories. No – with a pelt like clouds, like fresh snow.
They were alone, she and he, and his blue eyes stared into hers and she realized she was dreaming.
She gasped awake and lay panting, her senses still reeling from her walking in the dreamworld. Quick Fang licked her parched lips, and found her tongue swollen in her dry mouth. Despite her resolve otherwise, she began to crawl out of the cave. She knew she could go no longer without water.
Snowfall and True Edge were there, waiting for her, as she knew they would be. Snowfall sat on the log above the den entrance, wrapped in a winter fur. True Edge sat nearby, his back to the log, a makeshift scraper in hand as he scraped at a raw badger hide. Without comment, Snowfall dangled a swollen waterskin down within her daughter's reach. Quick Fang snatched it away.
"Don't drink too fast," her father warned her.
Too late. Quick Fang tore the stopper free and drank the bladder try. Then she retched it back up, as her abused body violently refused what it desperately wanted.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," True Edge said with gentle sympathy.
Quick Fang wiped her mouth with the back of a shaking hand, and a second waterskin lowered down into her view. She took it with a sullen writhe of her lips, and drank warily. The first swallow of water hit her empty stomach and lay there uneasily. She let it rest, and followed it with a second when she could.
"We've fresh rabbit, it's got a little new fat on it from the spring greens," Snowfall said.
"Badger, too, if you want to sink your teeth into something a lot more gamey," True Edge said, adding conversationally, "I think she wanted her den back, and the old sow wasn't willing to share."
There was an undercurrent of meaning in her father's words, but Quick Fang was too hungry and exhausted to look for it. She drank as much as she could risk, then sniffed the air. The smell of raw rabbit was tantalizing. Almost immediately, a hide-wrapped bundle came down from above. Quick Fang grabbed it, and found several strips of raw meat. She stuffed one in her mouth, scarcely chewing before she swallowed. The second mouthful she took more slowly, forcing herself to eat carefully, knowing that if she rushed this, she would sick it up like she had the water.
“Your mother and I have been sitting here and waiting for you to crawl out of that hole for almost three full days now,” True Edge said, fixing her with his steady, pale blue gaze. “You can’t outrun Recognition. You can’t hide from it. And I never raised you to bolt for a hole like a rabbit.”
Quick Fang bristled at that challenge. She glared at him and took another bite of meat, too exhausted to come up with a verbal response. Parrying words with her father was difficult at the best of times; she contented herself instead with flashing him a true wolf-grin, all teeth and threat and nothing at all of friendliness.
“Suddendusk is a good elf. Solid. He’ll love the child you’ll carry. And Windsong is as steady as her mother Sunlight. She would probably welcome you in a three-way, you know,” True Edge continued, ignoring her threat with a fresh challenge of his own now in his eyes – ‘try it,’ that look said – it was the look of the ranking wolf staring down an inferior, supremely confident of winning any fight.
“I don’t want him!” Quick Fang snapped, looking away from her father’s stare.
“Recognition doesn’t care,” True Edge retorted.
“Recognition isn’t about choice, cubling,” Snowfall said gently, still sitting on the log just above and behind her. “It’s selfish to think of Recognition in terms of what you want or don’t want, because it’s not something about you. You or your Recognized. It’s about new life. It’s about the child you’re meant to carry into this world.”
Quick Fang growled at that, having given little thought to the purpose of the torture she was enduring. Two years of growing thick and fat, hardly able to move faster than a waddle near the end – she couldn’t imagine herself like that. Further, she didn’t want to imagine.
“I don’t want him. I don’t want this!” she snarled. “I won’t be forced into anything I don’t want!”
True Edge’s eyes drifted past her, and when Quick Fang glanced back, she saw her mother smiling fondly back at them, both of them clearly sharing a private moment or private sending. “Seems I heard something similar to that that once before,” True Edge murmured.
“I wanted nothing to do with your father, on the night we Recognized,” Snowfall said. “Oh, we consummated it nearly on the spot. I wasn’t fool enough to deny what I knew to be necessary. But I had my heart set on another.”
“Took me nearly a Turn to talk sense into you,” True Edge grinned. “Because I knew, when our eyes met, that you were half my soul, and that you would be my lifemate.” He shook himself, and looked back at Quick Fang, the rare tenderness of his expression fading. “You do have choice here. A lifetime of it. Suddendusk won’t demand you lifemate him – likewise, think of it from his perspective. Maybe if you demanded it of him, he wouldn’t want you.”
Quick Fang found herself bristling at that – she caught herself when her father began to laugh, and hissed in frustration, not sure of what tangled emotion had even led to that sudden pang of dismay. Suddendusk – Dhay – reject her if she’d deigned to take him for a mate? It was unthinkable.
“Your father is right, in that you are not without some choice in this,” Snowfall said. “You need only share Suddendusk’s furs for a day, and the demands of Recognition will be answered. He won’t demand anything of you more permanent than that.”
“I won’t be owned,” Quick Fang growled. “I won’t be tamed!”
“Suddendusk is a wise soul. He knows that. Just watch. He’ll give you your distance, and let you choose your own way,” Snowfall continued. “You are not being forced to be his mate for life. Some of us do choose that, but others choose different. Look at One-Leg. He and Tallow were always close friends, but they went their own ways after Flash grew old enough. Starskimmer and Cloudfern. Moss and Nightstorm. In all my turns, I recall as many Recognized pairs who parted ways, as those who wished to lifemate.”
“And he has a lifemate,” True Edge added in a low voice, “as dear to him as your mother is dear to me. How do you think she feels, my fierce one?”
The water and meat churned unpleasantly in Quick Fang’s stomach. She would not sit, but she dropped to a crouch, feeling the cold earth beneath one hand. She had nearly forgotten Windsong, a fellow huntress – sometimes she thought of her as a rival dominant female, but she always knew her strength and skill, Windsong who had Recognized twice and bore and raised two cubs.
She licked her lips, thoughts sluggish. “Windburn?” she asked more quietly. “Blacksnake?”
Her father caught her meaning. “Not angry maybe – not when we left, but disappointed, yes, that you should run.”
“The hunting party as well,” Snowfall chimed in, “Thornbow and Longshot – “
Quick Fang snapped her teeth and growled and shook her head. Disappointed. She didn’t want to hear more. She began to back away, towards the den, towards safety. She never expected her parents – both of them – to leap down and place themselves between her and the safe, dark place she’d conquered, and was too stunned then to even growl. She stared at them, the living barrier they made, itching to turn and run but too tired, too burdened by a suddenly full belly. The frustration nearly brought tears to her eyes when her father spoke:
“You stubborn pup,” he said softly. “How do you think we feel? The one cub we have left, and hope for the tribe’s future… what do you think we’d have given, to see Whitestag live to sire a child? What would he say if he saw you now?”
Whitestag! Her brother’s name was like an arrow, like the shock of one’s fingers glancing too close to a flame. Blue eyes looked at her out of the dreamworld – eyes that she saw echoed in her father’s own, and in her mother’s silent stare. Her chest and belly seized a little and for a moment, she thought that she would be sick again. The feeling traveled up her throat and she knew heart-sickness for what it was, a regret that she had rarely thought to feel for more than an instant. Things flickered back as her knees grew weak, other regrets, a childhood friend lost, a lovemate pushed away, tribemates let down, and Whitestag, and her father, her mother…
Recognition made her weak, it must have, or she would never have let it slip, her final fear. Her sending had no words in it, no, it was rawer than that, all jumbled impressions. Loss of freedom more loss of self loss of pack-place loss of tribe-place, a huntress burdened slow-not-swift, heavy-not-quick, weighted down helpless helplessly full of cub tangled with cub love cub love stranger love weight burden obstacle mother’s tender hands always so tender her hands all claws how could she?
Snowfall’s answer came in turn – no words either, no need for them, no advice nor admonishion, but memories and memories only. Memories that Quick Fang almost shared. Milk scent and cub-scent, healthy, perfect birth-scent, tiny heart pounding next to mother-heart, silky skin of cub, tiny fingers of cub, busy mouth of cub on nipple, tiny weight of cub, warmth of cub, glow of newborn cub, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, strong wails of cub, soul-touch of cub, soul-song of cub Dehn Dehn Dehn…
“Mother,” Quick Fang breathed.
True Edge moved forward to catch her, but there was no need. She stood tall on her own for all that she shook with need denied. Instead he put an arm around her shoulder and she didn’t shake it off. “Father,” she murmured. “I won’t run away again.”
“I know you won’t, my fierce one.” She heard the smile in his voice.
“Come home,” her mother urged gently. “I know a tribe that’ll be delighted to see you.”
Quick Fang nodded agreement. Her parents were right. It was time to go home. And it was time to stop running from what she could not hide.
(This story has several sequels, the most direct of which is "Resolution"; the rest may be found in the "Suddendusk and Quick Fang Recognize" listing.)