(This story is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories; and also is the start of the "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" storyline -- see listings for related stories.)
Winter’s last snows had come and gone, and the world was green-grown and fresh-scented. Up by the fork of the rivers, where the Braided yielded the Holt’s River to its own way to the sea, the willows kept Cloudfern ample company in the pale dawn of their greenery, shy in early spring dresses, hanging like patient heads. Early night found them huddled in moonlit clutches, drinking their share of brightly cold water under a sky of sweet, clear dawning gold. He rummaged among their roots, glancing every once in a while at the ghostly form of the stil winter-whitened Spirit licking from stray pools, while some paces away Beetle sniffed for arrrowhead roots between brown sand and muck.
The Holt lay some distance west and south of them, behind the nearby thorn wall, in the leisure of early spring, winter’s fist easing and lightening, the latecomer storms breathing their last. It was time to take a last, deep breath of the air full of flowery scents and empty of care for the first time in moons, to lie back in the newly returned sun and indulge in another white-cold survived. This was a favorite time of Beetle’s, as the forest reclaimed its life and color, and they had left the Holt together laughing and chewing the first of a batch of honeycakes made from spring’s first haul, always sweetest on the tongue.
She’d grown up well, his only cub, as well as he could ever have expected, he mused as he watched her at work. She’d grown up clever (if not yet wise) and quick of wits and hands. Among the muck and mud and willows, she knew where to seek out the arrowhead roots – fleshy, full and sweet – and between them and what little fish he found swept between the roots by the overflowing river, they’d soon have a nice midnight meal. They made a good team.
“Careful, Father!” Beetle’s voice rang with the easy laughter that had given her her cubhood name. She raised a hand and pointed – Crawfish, her hard-headed wolf-bond, had gotten into one of her typical fits of dominance again, snapping and grunting at Spirit. The older wolf was all grumbling indignation, showing her thick tail and ruff. Cloudfern straightened and blew out air through his nose as Spirit grudgingly moved closer to him.
“How could a sweet soul like you end up with such a puckernut of a bond?” he wondered out loud. “Poor Spirit didn’t even look her way!”
“That’s just Crawfish,” Beetle said forgivingly. She knew her bond was temperamental and stubborn, but somehow it made the wolf that much more endearing. “Dawn makes her grumpy. Actually, everything makes her grumpy. Well, everything but food.” Cloudfern snorted softly again and made a point of dropping one of his small catches into Spirit’s open maw. Beetle laughed out loud at Crawfish’s open astonishment that the other, lower-ranked wolf was given a reward so freely. To salve her wounded pride, she butted her head against Beetle’s side, prompting a tug on her fur and a scratch behind the ear.
“She’s a stupid wolf,” Cloudfern teased, his eyes averted toward his daughter’s bond, watching as the wolf continued to grumble at Spirit.
“I agree.” she said, with typical open cheer. “But she’s my stupid wolf, and anyway, she’s better than what Notch has.”
Cloudfern sniggered and shook some willow leaves at his daughter, splashing her with cold diamond droplets that made her shake her hair like a wolf. Sensing that she was somehow the source of amusement, the hurt Crawfish raised her tail like a flag and trotted past Beetle towards the deeper woods, where she could find proper prey rather than those silly silvery things that Spirit had received unearned. She glanced back to grin at the two elves, assuring them that the future of their meal was safe in her paws, and bounded over the wet earth in search of other creatures out to enjoy a pretty spring sunrise.
“My stupid wolf,” Beetle laughed a second time, and sank back on the damp ground, soaking her knees in the search for roots. “But at least she’ll find some real meat for us!”
Spirit looked up at Cloudfern and sighed, and he smiled and indulged her with a rub of her pretty, frost-touched ears, feeling more than a little blessed.
A loud rustle, a snapping and a small animal’s cry rang from the woods, making Beetle leap to her feet and set out on a sprint, delighted and surprised that her friend had found fresh meat so quickly. More than a little shocked himself, Cloudfern urged Spirit to follow. He was distracted when he received the sending and it took him a moment to recall that Greenweave was not far west with his small fishing party.
**Cloudfern! Are you close?**
There was an uncharacteristic frightened note in his lovemate’s sent-voice that raised instant alarm in the older elf, making him freeze in place with a shiver colder than icicles down his spine. Had something happened back at the Holt – was he needed? **Greenweave? We’re at the riverfork – **
**Get up a tree, quickly! There’s a party of brownskins moving upriver – they’ve just gone past us. Rainpace and Chicory are heading back to warn Windburn, but Dreamflight and I are tracking them. We’re coming. Hide!**
Humans! Bile rose up Cloudfern’s throat in a terrible surge. Humans, so close to the Holt, a wolf’s run from his thorn wall. They moved upriver at least! The brownskins roved everywhere, like bloodsuckers in summer, fearless and keen-witted for all their poor forestry skills. If they had just gone past Greenweave’s fishing party –
He choked on his fear, too hard to be able to call out. It all came through in his sending. **Beetle! Humans!**
His mind-voice was as panicked as Greenweave’s had been, and a flash came in response to let him know it had been received, but his heart beat the moments away and Beetle did not emerge from the forest cover. When that heart was close to bursting, he heard the angry, fearful cry from the shadows: “Crawfish!”
The stupid wolf was in the glory of her kill, refusing to join them in hiding but standing over the dead ground squirrel and growling at her ungrateful bond. Beetle stood frightened and fuming, trying to stare her down, but Cloudfern grabbed his daughter’s elbow and snatched her to him, tearing her eyes away from the wolf’s defiant gaze.
**She’ll be all right, it’s we who have to hide!** This was true; the brownskins were not hunters, they had proved before to give wolves a wide berth, but the tribe never wanted to discover if the same held true for elves.
Beetle continued to send to Crawfish all the way up the tree, but Crawfish did not understand why Beetle did not praise her, and seemed oblivious to Beetle’s sent images of running and hiding. By the time she had realized that no praise was forthcoming, Cloudfern could already smell the distinct, sharp scent of the humans. The brown-skinned amber-pickers made no attempt to conceal themselves, a technique that proved surefire to stop any animals from approaching them; they were perfumed with the tangy aroma of the bright orange fruit they grew near their home, and their clothes were bright to match. As always, walking confidently through the undergrowth, touched by the early sun, they were a lovely, colorful sight that made Cloudfern’s throat close with fear.
There was another with them today – one of the wood-wise, pale-skinned humans, armed with a short, sturdy bow. The herbalist swore silently and gripped his daughter’s arm; one of these was worth a dozen brownskins. The dark humans chattered as they walked, their tongue fluid, light and their laughter easily loud, but the single pale youth – barely out of boyhood – was as silent as a predator, his dark eyes darting back and forth, his nose twitching like a hunting elf’s. When any of the others addressed him as they walked, he answered with small shakes or nods of his head, keeping his silence. He stood out like a wolf in a flock of deer.
Cloudfern’s heart hammered so hard, that if the boy’s ears weren’t so small and rounded, he would surely have heard. Beetle’s eyes were wide with obvious fascination —a part of her wanted to get closer, to learn more about these tall ones. Her father fought the urge to physically shake her.
Then she stifled a gasp. The humans had spotted Crawfish’s kill.
Though Beetle was relieved to see the wolves now both lying in hiding amid the silvery willows, the ground squirrel lay dead by obvious violence, fresh and steaming. One of the humans pointed towards it, remarking something in his lilting tongue.
Now it was Beetle’s turn to grasp her father’s shoulder. Her lips moved silently, then stilled as she sent with all her might. Among the reeds, no movement. He could barely see Spirit’s white back.
The pale hunter murmured something, and one of the tall, dark men gave a soft call of wonder. The elves could not understand what he said. He took a step towards the dead squirrel, and bent to pick it up.
Beetle’s eyes widened with fear as Crawfish shot from between the willows like a bolt of skyfire, snarling and growling and flashing her yellow fangs at the two-legged thing that had dared to come near her kill. She snapped her jaws in more than a warning and leaped for the nearest throat. The human reeled back. “Muro, Bomo, kumkona! Kumkona!” The small band scattered backwards, trying to flee from reach. The pale boy rising from the undergrowth like a snake, his bow already drawn. Red feathers flashed through the air.
Up among the dark branches, Cloudfern clasped his hand around his daughter’s mouth and cut her cry stillborn.
The mind-scream caught them already on the move and added a note of desperation to their speed. Her father had already outstripped Dreamflight, Lightjaw easily gaining on and passing the old and weary Darkpelt. She couldn’t see Greenweave’s face as he rode ahead of her, but she could imagine it vividly: pinched, harried, bone-pale, the skin between the eyes tightening painfully as he sent. It was Beetle who’d screamed into their heads. Cloudfern…
**Father, slow down!** she pleaded as Lightjaw leapt over a rotten log and vanished past a thicket. **Slow down or we’ll run into the midst of them!** Her father wouldn’t – no, he mustn’t attack the humans, even for Cloudfern’s sake!
Darkpelt’s ribs shifted hard beneath her, hoarfrost gleaming in the old wolf’s fur. The crisp, still cold air blew across her face and into her wide-open eyes til her vision blurred. Still, she felt as if she wasn’t moving at all with her father already out of sight. Silence in her head – perhaps Greenweave and Cloudfern were lock-sending? It wasn’t fair. She reached out to Beetle.
Blood black numb sudden shock grief overwhelmed her. The stargazer wavered on her wolf’s back, hugging Darkpelt’s neck and feeling his comfortingly thick ruff. Ahead of her the thicket opened to an ancient dead oak that crossed a bubbling brook. Lightjaw and her rider were already across, leaving her behind.
**Father!!** she shrieked, because she smelled the humans, tangy and overlarge. Then she saw it – Greenweave had slipped his bond and gone to the trees, walking the branches. Lightjaw sped ahead, snarling, and Darkpelt, for all his exhaustion, strained to join her. The wolves were hot for blood, driven by their bonds’ terror and translating it into rage. She slipped his back at the last instant and felt him unleashed like one of Longshot’s sure arrows, streaking after Lightjaw, so that when she reached high enough in the tree for a clear view of the scene, he had already taken his place at the she-wolf’s side. Spirit was there too, Dreamflight saw, made all the braver by the appearance of her packmates, snarling at the retreating humans – five brownskins, and a smaller, pale boy with a hunter’s bow.
And there were Beetle and Cloudfern, Greenweave creeping along his branch towards them. Both were safe and concealed, so who…?
The three wolves snapped and growled, ears flat and tails in the air, and the humans, cautious as always, backed away. She saw it then, smelled it. Wolf blood…
**Crawfish,** Beetle sobbed, her open sending all shocked pain. **They killed her. She didn’t mean…**
Dreamflight didn’t dare move, didn’t dare risk the slightest noise that would attract the humans’ attention away from the wolves. The danger was too immediate and Greenweave too worried to think properly. Cloudfern wasn’t hurt, but the look in his eyes… Beetle clung to him, her eyes wet, but he didn’t have as much as an arm around her. He was frozen where he sat, Greenweave holding him gently. Dreamflight held her breath. **Oh Beetle…**
She couldn’t move, not until the humans retreated and disappeared within the forest, leaving Crawfish’s still body behind, and not for a long, long moment afterwards. Even after their voices were long gone, their scent lingered as it always did, its bittersweet aftertaste cruel on the grass and among the willows, on the arrow that ran through Crawfish’s eye. A swift kill, an able hunter’s kill, the she-wolf probably didn’t even realize she was hit before her heart stopped. But for the elf she left behind, the moment stretched unbearably, until all was still but the river and the wind in the willow trees.
Beetle uncoiled, racing toward her now-dead wolf friend. Dreamflight burst into motion. They met over Crawfish’s still form, and before the bird-watcher knew it, her friend had stumbled into her arms.
“Shh…” She rubbed Beetle’s back, flashing painfully back to the too-recent loss of Bracken and Grizzle. Crawfish was luckier than these at least. “It was fast – she didn’t feel anything – “
“She’s such a stupid wolf,” Beetle mumbled, sniffling. “Such a stupid wolf, I tried to tell her to stay put but she had to attack them over a stupid ground squirrel… I tried to tell her!” She crumpled to the ground, Dreamflight still holding her.
“They’re gone now.”
“They didn’t know she was just, it was her prey – she didn’t mean to…“
“They’re gone, Beetle, it’s over…”
“It’s not over.” Cloudfern’s voice jarred them both out of grief with a sting of terror. It sounded like stone grinding over stone, like the river rolling pebbles to waste against each other. They spun round, and Dreamflight wished that Beetle, at least, hadn’t. “It’s never over – the killing, never – “ He strained against Greenweave’s arms holding him, his stiff shoulders pushing against his lovemate’s grip. In his wide white eyes, the bright blue-violet was a slim ring around huge pupils, and he stared into the dark and silent woods.
“They’re gone,” Greenweave muttered into his ear. Their heads touched gently. “Please, beloved.”
Dreamflight tore her gaze away and held Beetle close, her ears full of the fluttering of her friend’s heart. Bitterness rose at the back of her throat like poison, which she knew she must not expel. Your daughter is in pain! She needs your comfort! The words strained to emerge from her and stab at Cloudfern, to shake him out of his stupor, because her own father just wouldn’t. The two were too wrapped up in each other. Cloudfern leaned his head against Greenweave’s shoulder and their hair fell together –
**Dreamflight.** Her father’s lock-sending startled her.
She glanced round as much as she could, with Beetle still leaning against her, light and shaken like a leaf in winter. Greenweave’s gentle brown eyes met hers and held. She sensed him – he was going to call her by her soul-name, then thought better of it. She squared her shoulders a little unconsciously. **Dreamflight,** he started again, **you must take care of Beetle. Cloudfern and I - **
**She’s his daughter!** The bitter anger surged in her, rising from her mind without her control, as if the shock of fear worked to loosen her tongue as well as any skin of wine. She saw him flinch and it didn’t stop her. **Look at her. She needs him! Tell him to go to her. It isn’t his wolf-friend who died!** Real anger of his own sparked in his eyes, but rather than sober her, it pushed her further. She cut him off before he could send a reply. **Tell him, Father!**
With each of them holding a shocked, shuddering tribemate in their arms, they could not look at each other properly. Dreamflight felt little tremors hammering against her ribs like her skin was the earth in a quake. Blood pooled slowly under Crawfish’s unmoving body – the more blood, the heavier the scent, and she could see Cloudfern’s throat moving as he swallowed. She did not, could not let go of Beetle, holding her as if the older elf had no one else, and not knowing what else to do even as she knew that Greenweave would send again –
**Father - **
“Father…” Beetle murmured weakly. Tears filled her eyes and stained her cheeks.
Cloudfern twisted abruptly in his lovemate’s arms till his face moved away from Greenweave, the curtain of his hair falling about him like shifting moonlight. His face seemed small under it and his eyes overlarge and pale. “Beetle,” he whispered. “My poor cub.” He slipped out of Greenweave’s arms, Spirit falling into pace, whining, a little behind him.
Suddenly anxious, Dreamflight let go.
Cloudfern knelt next to his daughter, pulling her close. Soundless tears ran down Beetle’s face as she curled into her father’s arms, her head fitting into the crook of his neck. They knelt beside poor Crawfish, not minding her blood. Dreamflight felt her throat close slowly. Blood and tears had the same edge of salt to their scent.
Poor Crawfish; she hadn’t been a clever wolf, nor friendly, nor kind. But she was pack, still, and family. She and Beetle were bonded. It was the Way, and more, it was right.
This time he did use her soul-name, and her gaze snapped up, surprised. Greenweave rarely did that anymore, calling his daughter by her secret name, asking for a closeness that she was not, perhaps, ready to give – especially not now, with Willow’s newly awakened power reopening the gulf between them all the wider. But she was still his daughter and she knew what he asked, the plea that he wanted to voice but could not. They looked at each other. Greenweave began to move his gaze away first.
After a long, silent moment, Dreamflight moved forward and wrapped her arms around Beetle from behind, joining the hug as a sort of second layer of warmth. She could feel from the ease of Beetle’s muscles that she was welcome. She breathed in the scent of her friend’s hair, and Cloudfern’s as well, the salt on their faces that thickened minutely and the feel of faint shudders that passed from one body to another. And then she smelled her father as well, coming from the other direction, behind Cloudfern – closing the four of them together, arms entwined, hair falling together, as if they were one flesh. And if nothing else, they were warm.
Beetle had wanted Crawfish’s pelt for a keepsake; it was a good thing that Greenweave and Dreamflight were both there, as neither the herbalist nor her shaken father were up to the skinning task. It went by quickly enough, expertly. They had all lost wolf-friends before, if never this way. The smell of blood was heavy in the air when they were done, but Beetle hugged the pelt to her chest and breathed in.
“My stupid wolf,” she murmured.
Carrying the pelt back was no meager task either – they were some distance from the Holt, after all. Beetle and Cloudfern rode double on Spirit, while Lightjaw was loaded with the wrapped and knotted pelt, tied behind Greenweave. Darkpelt was too old for a greater weight than Dreamflight herself; carrying only her, he trotted ahead of the others. None of them relished the thought of telling the rest of the tribe of what had happened; they rode through the dreamlike light of a silent day, among the melancholy willows, lost in their own thoughts.
Beetle’s face was pressed against her father’s back, but her sent-voice was clear in Dreamflight’s mind. **I suppose you can’t choose family,** she sent with tired, memory-filled sadness.
Dreamflight sent back only a soft, wordless reassurance. Sometimes you could, she thought; but love, well…
She glanced back, not at Beetle, but at the two lovemates, and troubled but resigned, supposed love just happened.