(This story is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
He found his way home through the swirling snow, drifts of which were already piling up high enough that his she-wolf Snatcher was floundering belly-deep through it. Farscout and the she-wolf went turn and turn about, breaking trail for one another as the wet, heavy snow continued to fall. It fell thick for a full night and without break throughout the following day; it was still falling when the hometrees finally came into sight.
His homecoming, only a few hours past sunshigh, did not go without notice. “You fool!” Blacksnake called, as he and his lifemate hurried through the deep drifts to meet their wayward scout. “What’re you doing limping home in weather like this? You should be holed up somewhere, waiting this blow out.”
“You’re half-frozen,” Easysinger chided more gently. Matching Farscout’s pace, she wrapped her fur cloak around his shoulders and hugged him with one arm. “We didn’t expect to see you home until well after this storm had passed.”
“A big herd has come down the Brownbear watershed,” Farscout said. Words were often hard to come by after long trips afield, but he knew what news the tribe’s chieftess and hunt leader needed to hear. “Autumn-fat. A hundred or more, yarded up in that valley where the fireweed grows thick.”
“The clickdeer came that far south?” Blacksnake’s voice grew worried, weather-wise as he was. “Everything has grown a thicker coat, wasps have built their nests low. It’s going to be a long, cold--”
The sudden weight and warmth in Farscout’s arms drove the exhaustion from his bones. He hugged her back, awash for a moment in a cloud of golden hair. He returned the girl’s fervent kisses, matching her exuberance with a slower burn of passion.
“Off with you two,” Easysinger chuckled, giving Farscout’s shoulder a push toward the open doorway into the Father Tree. “Trip, kindly go thaw our wanderer out. Farscout, get some rest and warm your bones; find us when you’ve rested.”
It was a welcome dismissal. Escorted, Farscout disappeared into the Father Tree, leaving weary Snatcher to find her own welcome shelter. Chieftess Easysinger and her mate came in last, and moved to lash the door-hides closed behind.
**He knows better,** Blacksnake sent, scowling after Farscout’s ascent up the twisting Father Tree stairs toward Trip’s den. **Storm like that blows up when you’re a long march out, you take shelter. Storms in this season are more likely to turn bad than turn good. Farscout knows better.**
Easysinger simply smiled a wise, coy smile, and made sure the winter cold was lashed out tight. **Hunters aren’t always sensible,** she replied. **Not when they have something to come home to.**
They made love, slept, then woke to couple again. Farscout dozed off for a time, then woke to find himself shrouded in a stream of golden hair.
He inhaled her scent deeply, enjoying the warmth of the furs and of her skin against his, the lassitude, the indulgence of a soft bed and safe shelter.
The girl stirred against him; she was awake, maybe had not even slept, her young stamina untested by the miles he had traveled over the past several days. Farscout shifted to look at her as she lay with a cheek pillowed on his chest. She smiled at him, the sweetness of her expression a balm.
“Tell me a story,” Trip asked, snuggling against his side. “Tell me about something you’ve seen.”
The request was more of a challenge than she knew, perhaps, after many long days of silence and of only Snatcher’s wordless company. The things he looked for and locked to memory during his long patrols were of keen significance to the chieftess and to the hunt leader; his mind went blank when he tried to figure what would be of interest to Trip, but he knew that prey patterns were of little account to the pretty fisher, and that she wanted no heavy concerns about weather or encroachment by rival predators brought to her light-hearted bed.
“Tell me,” she urged him, laughing a little and pushing at his chest. “You were gone away for so long, I know you saw something worth sharing. You must have.”
“The ermine have changed their coats. There’s more of them this year than I’ve ever seen before. A long wet spring meant large rabbit litters, so the ermine doubled their numbers too.” Farscout wondered if his voice sounded as rusty as it felt. His eyes wanted to close, and he felt the weight of his own bones in exhaustion. Blacksnake had been right in his temper, Farscout knew he had been in the wrong to have risked the storm and pushed the last day and night for home. For a moment he lost sense of where he was and of the company he kept, until the tickle of her touch against his ribs brought him back. The girl was young and had no pity. He caught at her slender hands when she persisted, then struggled to find the threads of what he had been saying. “Birdcatcher and Ringtail should shift their traps to the east, to the fresh burns. The ermine ate well since early spring, but the rabbits are fewer now. Their hunters will be facing a long, lean winter. Kinder to give the ermine a quick death than watch them starve.”
“Will you catch two ermine for me?” she asked wistfully. “I love the dark tips of their tails, and how warm and rich their pelts are. I could trim my winter hood with them; they’d keep me warm, and remind me of you while you’re away.”
Another moment of fade-out, so that he lost where he was and when. A fragment of memory – Brightwood and their own bed, the pure joy of her embrace, and her knowing patience. He shoved that abiding grief aside, unable to reconcile it with now, and with the soft requests being made of him.
“Could you?” the girl was saying, her sweet voice earnest and hopeful. “For me?”
"I could." It would be easy enough to do, and he did like to see her sweet, sunny smile. It felt strange to take an interest again in pleasing someone, but it seemed the proper thing to do. Trip wanted him in her bed, and it seemed a small enough thing to please her. She would tire of his company soon enough, but until then, Trip offered him shelter and her pleasant company, and Farscout welcomed the brief period of thawing she offered him, frozen as he had felt since Brightwood had gone into wrapstuff.
Trip propped herself up on her elbows and smiled that brilliant smile at him, her green eyes shining at his promise. “Two would be nice. Or even three, if you could. Think of what I could make out of four...”
“A hood. And gloves.” Farscout couldn’t restrain a smile of his own, and thought ruefully of the brightness of her eyes, and her easy strength. Trip could – and would -- ask questions of him until long past nightfall, holding him captive to her youthful whims. If he had any hope of sleep, then he had to tire her out enough that she’d let him get it. Farscout stroked her cheek, and twined his finger in the silken fall of her hair. "Golden like honey," he murmured, appealing to her young vanity. "So beautiful..." "Do you think so? Do you really think so?" she breathed, mint-green eyes shining.
Farscout answered that eager question with a kiss. Her playful hands dipped to his sides, trying to find somewhere ticklish; he rolled and pinned her beneath his weight, and she began to wrestle coyly, inviting more loveplay. He gave her what she wanted, until he himself was left spent.
**Sleep,** he wished her then, struggling to keep his own eyes open.
**You sleep,** she sent back. She nuzzled his neck, and then began to stroke the tangles from his hair. **Sleep safe, sleep sound, and when you wake, I'll be right here beside you.**
There was comfort in those familiar words, even as his mind tried to shape the voice into another. Gratefully, Farscout closed his eyes and let himself sleep.
It was only with reluctance that Trip let Farscout leave her bed. She snuggled in the redolent furs and watched him dress, smug in knowing he would find his way back to her by dawn. Only when he had left her den to search out the chieftess and hunt leader did Trip pull on her own winter clothing. She drifted down the narrow winding stairs in Farscout's wake, humming to herself in pleasure. Even in the deep cold of midwinter, she felt as warm and light as if bathing in the summer sun.
The central common chamber of the Chief's Den was cozily crowded with tribemates, who regularly gathered there to share body heat and story-telling as they worked on winter crafts. Most of the room was seated in a rough semi-circle around the central brazier, where Sunlight sat brewing a fragrant tea while One-Leg told a bawdy tall tale about himself, Rhythm and Bearheart, all caught in a mud pit with an angry sow. Trip had no attention to spare for the story. Farscout was not there, nor were Easysinger or Blacksnake. Trip spotted her agemates sitting on the edges of the gathering behind Raven and Cloudfern, so she threaded her way through the crowd to them. Greenweave was busy with a netloom in his lap, while Windburn was putting the finishing touches on the whitetail cannon-bones he had been saving since spring to make into a matched pair of belt knives. Trip settled in between them, still humming to herself.
"Good, I could use another pair of hands," Windburn said, handing her one of the raw knives. He had scored and ground it into shape when it had still been fresh; it was aged enough now to keep the edge, and Windburn had already polished the bone to a shining ivory. He was rubbing seal-oil into the hilt of the knife he held, and indicated the stone jar of oil with his chin. "You know how many coats of this it takes to get it good and dark."
Trip only half-heard her friend, alert only to the murmur of her lover's voice, in discussion with Easysinger and Blacksnake in that private room beyond. She toyed with the unfinished blade, stroking it gently and as if that she had never touched the rough, porous surface of worked bone before. Everything was changed. The world and everything in it was new and different, and it was all unspeakably marvelous. She wanted to sing. She wanted to spin around the room in dizzying dance. She wanted to howl it to the moons.
Greenweave was looking at her with a wry smile. "Somebody has been drinking happy-juice."
Trip smiled back at him, still distracted. "Yes, I'm happy," she murmured. "You know, he's going to get me ermine pelts. He promised he would." She was oblivious to the look that passed between Greenweave and Windburn. She laid aside the raw knife, and stroked the rabbit-fur trim of the winter tunic she wore, already feeling the luscious silk of thick ermine against her fingertips. "I'm going to use them to make a hood," she continued dreamily. "No, not a hood. He loves my hair loose. He says it’s golden like honey. So I always will wear my hair loose as he likes it. I'll wear the ermine tails as a decoration, and add the pelts to my collar, where I can always feel them close to my skin."
Windburn snorted, not altogether kindly. "Stop dreaming, and make yourself useful." He nudged the oil jar with his foot, so that it pressed against her leg.
Trip picked up the knife again and gave Windburn a practiced, wistful look. "Wouldn't this wait for tomorrow night? I don't want to carry that blubber-smell back into my bedfurs with me, not tonight!"
"Sweetheart," Greenweave began to say. She knew that tone and made another face. "Sweetheart, why don't you come share my bedfurs tonight instead? Or Windburn's. We'd keep you just as warm."
"Don't be silly!" Trip retorted, feeling some of the glamour of her day beginning to fade. "Why would I want either of you when I've got Farscout home again?" Windburn made another dubious noise at that, while Greenweave's concerned look just deepened. "Trip, don't go stitching another fur coat out of another daydream. Don't you remember how sweet you were on Riskrunner? And then on Moss? This will pass too, and once the bedding-fever runs its course through your veins."
Trip pouted at Greenweave. Her playmate was ten years her junior; indeed, she had often helped Nettle change his swaddling-moss, so she didn't know how her friend felt it justified to use that kindly, paternal voice with her. "Those were just passing fancies, and you know it!" she told him quietly, under the rolling tones of One-Leg's story. "What I feel for Farscout is altogether different. What I feel for him is enormous and magnificent -- it's like comparing a pond to the sea. He's the sea. Rough and tender and everything in between -- that's how I love him. I could drown in him. And he loves me too. I know he does!"
Greenweave gazed at her in dismay, while Windburn's expression was starkest disbelief. "You've got a warm bed to offer him in winter, but don't fool yourself into thinking he's more than a sometime fur-mate," Windburn said. "You haven't the net you'd need to hold onto him."
Trip bristled at him, knowing her older agemate was only envious of her good fortune. "It's true!" she countered. "I love him. And just you watch and see! He comes to me -- me! -- and no one else. He's been alone for too long, and he's needed someone to reach out for him and hold on to him and bring him home again. And I'm doing that. No one else could but me, because I love him."
"Trip, dearheart--" Greenweave began to protest, his warm brown eyes more concerned than ever. "Don't go on like this--"
Trip sulked, telling herself again that her playmate was only jealous. "I do," she countered with heat. "I love him! I do! I couldn't love him more if we were Recognized. And Farscout loves me back. I know he does! We're not just furmates. I know it. This is something so much more..."
Windburn was shaking his head. "Be practical. Don't confuse a simple roll in the furs with a lifemating. Farscout's no more in love with you than I am with Greenweave's wolf-friend."
Trip shoved herself to her feet, hurt and disappointed by her friends. She glared at them, then turned on her heel and strode from the room, pushing her way blindly through the gathering and heedless of where she stepped. They were wrong -- so wrong! She knew it, and Trip resolved herself not to forgive them for their cruel words, not until they begged for her to do so. Until then --- she would save all of her kind words and kind thoughts for her lovemate, and the promise of Farscout's adoration and attention was more than enough comfort to ease the sting of her agemates' betrayals.
Flash had replaced her father One-Leg as the storyteller when Farscout left the chieftess's den. Easysinger and Blacksnake both had been keen with questions regarding what Farscout had seen during his patrol, and as he dropped the door curtain closed behind him, Farscout was satisfied to know that Blacksnake was already beginning to put together plans for the next big hunt. With clickdeer gathering so thick and deep, it would make for easy hunting and heavy hauling home. The real concern would be time -- it was proving to be a hard winter, and the storms were unpredictable. Snow was still falling from the storm which had chased him home, Farscout knew. It would make for slow going for a party of hunters to get back to the Brownbear watershed, but packing home several kills on makeshift sledges would prove easier than if--
"Farscout," said an unexpected voice at his elbow. Farscout turned to find his soul-brother Cloudfern and Cloudfern's lovemate Raven waiting for him, near the doorway to the chieftess's den. Cloudfern's expression was sober and worried -- not his usually cheerful humor. **Seth, we've got to talk.**
Farscout flickered a questioning glance at Raven, and found the hunter's pale golden eyes equally concerned. He nodded in submission to them, knowing he'd best hear Cloudfern out, whatever the problem was. "Just let me find a bite to eat," he said. "It's been two days since I last ate."
"We've some graincakes and dried meat up in our den," Raven said, leading the way toward the stairs
"You've been home since midday," Cloudfern snapped at Farscout, as they followed after Raven, out into the cold for several strides before they could climb the rough exterior stairs to the lovemates’ den. "You fool, why didn't you eat when you first came home?"
Farscout shrugged that question off, not feeling the need to explain himself. "What is it?" he countered. "What's the problem?"
"What'd you do when you first came home from this trip out?" Cloudfern retorted, question for a question returned. He had shaped open the interior den door, and ushered them into that round, sheltered room that retained heat so much better, without the lashed window-hides and door-hides that other dens required. "Farscout, just what did you do for practically the last four days you were home before that, and for the time before that?" Cloudfern followed in after them and flung himself down to sit on the edge of his bed, his blue-violet eyes stormy. Farscout dropped onto the familiar shelf of the extra bunk Cloudfern had shaped for him in the small room, suddenly conscious of how long it had last been since he had used it. He shot another questioning glance at Raven, confused as to the point of Cloudfern's temper. Raven handed him a pouch redolent of smoked fish and gave away nothing more.
"You've been a fool. An absolute fool," Cloudfern said, sitting on the corner of the bed and regarding his soul-brother grimly. "Or is the girl right? You aren't planning to settle down with Trip as her lifemate, are you?"
Farscout was about to bite into a piece of salmon. Shocked, he stopped and stared at Cloudfern instead.
"We were downstairs, sitting in the commons den," Raven said, taking pity on him. "Trip came in and had words with her playmates."
"We got an earful, all right," Cloudfern snorted. "Trip thinks you're going to settle in and put down roots with her, from the sounds of it." Cloudfern spoke the words dismissively, then frowned and gave Farscout a sharper look. "You are going to deny that, aren't you?"
"Lifemate? Trip?" Farscout had the sensation that his ears weren't working right; oftentimes after a long, long patrol, he found speech hard when he returned, but this was the first time he had ever lost his ability to understand what was spoken to him. "I don't understand."
Cloudfern made a fizzy noise and rolled his eyes eloquently. "Apparently not! If you had half the sense you were whelped with, you'd stick to sharing furs with Starskimmer, instead of some inexperienced she-cub who's still confused that bedtime bliss isn't the same thing as Recognition. Trip was crowing about how she's your new dearly beloved, and how she'll rescue you from all of your troubles. You think you've just taken a furmate for a night, and the silly pup thinks it means you're planning to lifemate her."
"Trip's a good child, but she can't tell her dreams from the daylight," Raven said more kindly. "You need to gently set her straight. Gently. Unless, of course, you're actually interested in becoming her regular denmate--"
"In which case, you'd be twice the fool," Cloudfern snapped in exasperation. "Farscout, it would be no insult to my sister if you did find someone and settle down for the duration. You can't spend the rest of your life grieving, and Brightwood would be the last to want that! And sure, Trip's a pretty girl. Pretty yellow hair -- kind of like my sister's. Big pretty eyes -- maybe not like my sister's, but pretty enough. But Trip is still hardly more than a child. Her body's grown up, but her mind's not there yet. She hasn't the experience yet in life to know that someday, you hope to have my sister back, and that when that someday happens, you won't want Trip's pretty hair or pretty eyes any more.” Cloudfern frowned and sighed, leaning back to rest against Raven’s knees. “What's more, I don't think Trip is the kind who'll ever understand you. She wants more than you can give her. She just won't understand that she's not the one you're waiting for. She thinks she can heal you -- which means, brother-mine, that she thinks she can change you, simply out of the sheer wanting of it."
Raven was nodding solemnly at that. "Trip's a sweet cub. But you're going to break her heart worse later on, if you let her go on thinking now that she's living out a daydream."
Farscout put aside the pouch of smoked fish, having found his appetite completely gone. If what his friends were telling him was true, then he had made a thoughtless mistake -- and compounded it by returning to Trip's bed after these last several patrols. He nodded soberly to them, acknowledging what he had been told, and gathered himself to his feet.
"What are you going to do?" Cloudfern asked, his expression mixed sympathy and suspicion.
"Find Trip," Farscout replied, with a gesture to the wall where Cloudfern needed to shape the door open for him. “Find her, and set things right.”
Finding her proved to be the easy part.
The girl was back in her bed, her winter clothing scattered on the floor again. She was waiting for him, and gave him her sweet, brilliant smile as he entered.
"I was just trying to warm the furs up again," she purred, wriggling over invitingly to give him room to join her. "When it gets this cold in winter, it definitely takes two."
Farscout spotted his bow, quiver and spear, tucked aside safely with his travel pack. He gathered them up carefully, aware of the sudden confusion in her eyes, and the dimming of that sunshine-smile.
"Where are you going?" Trip asked anxiously.
Even in the best of times, words were never something Farscout felt comfortable with. Words usually were unnecessary, conveying what gesture or expression or body language had already told you. Words usually just complicated things, making a muddle of thoughts and feelings, and when it came to matters that cut close to heart and bone, Farscout preferred the honest clarity of sending. But as he looked at Trip now, he knew that sending could be too intimate, and honesty too brutal.
"Back to my own bed. It's time I did," he said, the words tasting awkward and ashen in his mouth. Raven and Cloudfern had urged him to be gentle -– but how? Farscout couldn’t see a way to navigate though this that wasn’t painful.
"You don't have to go!" the girl said urgently. "I mean, I want you to stay. It's warm and snug, just the two of us. And I please you, don't I?"
The fracture lines were already there -- he saw them in her, saw the panic beneath the surface. "You have. Of course you have. It's far too easy to spend the days with you. But I'm not what you're looking for in a furmate--"
"No -- no! You are! You're everything I want and more!" Trip was sitting up now, the furs clutched around her soft curves and her golden hair half falling across her pretty face. There were tears in her eyes now, spilling easily down her cheeks. "You can't leave me! I love you! Farscout, I love you, you can't leave me, you can't just walk away--"
"It would never be as you want it, just the two of us, alone in the bed. It never could be. I didn't think. I took the comfort you offered, I didn't see any farther than the moment, and for that, I'm sorry." Farscout turned for the door, then hesitated. He glanced back at her, and cast to her a locksend of wordless images and emotion, as clear and honest as he knew it could be, and as visceral as a wolf-send. **Beautiful Trip, Trip with eyes like bright mint leaves and beautiful hair golden as honey. Sweet girl-cub, - inviting, attractive, fresh and innocent as a dawning sky. Welcome hours of pleasure, tangled limbs and joining bodies, a safe haven. Intoxicating hours, feeding the hunger for what's lost, feeding the desire for the one loved, feeding the need for the one loved and not here--**
Trip rejected that locksend with a sharp cry. "But I love you!" she protested, as though the simple, sheer perseverance of her desire alone was enough to change tides and time. "Brightwood's as good as dead, and I'm here -- there's nothing she gave you that I can't!" Trip reached out imploringly to him, and when Farscout simply shook his head and was silent, she collapsed in a sobbing fetal ball among the scent-rich furs.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, the words heartfelt but empty-tasting in his mouth. He stepped out of the doorway and let the curtain fall shut behind him, and let the sound of Trip's weeping pursue him as he fled.
Thornbow paced his way back through the door, conscious of the awkward silence that reigned throughout the rest of the conjoined hometrees. His parents were where he'd left them last -- at Trip's bedside, trying to comfort their youngest child, while Trip continued to sob miserably, as she had for heartrending hours. Trip had her face buried in her arms, but hearing his step, she looked up hopefully -- and Thornbow felt his own heart crack at seeing her hopes dashed. Trip hid her face again, and her sobs continued.
"Can't you do something?" the archer asked his parents urgently. He loved his golden sister dearly, and knew he would do anything he could to end her anguish.
"Poor girl-cub," Birdcatcher murmured, stroking his daughter's hair. "My poor, poor lovebird. Just let it out. Let out the grief, and by morning everything will seem better."
"Don't know where she's getting all these tears," Tallow sniffed, always practical. "I'd have expected her to dry up by now."
Thornbow took a seat at the edge of the bed and patted his sister's leg. "You shouldn't cry over him," he urged her. "There will be others for you, better mates, mates who'll love you for what you are. You're better off without Farscout, really you are."
"No!" Trip sobbed the word out, her effort giving it several syllables. "I'll never love anyone like I love him. N-n-never!"
Thornbow saw the faintly amused look his parents traded between them. "My lovebird," Birdcatcher said to his daughter. "Dearest, remember how smitten you were with Whitestag? This will pass too, just give it time. Your heartbreak will melt away like snow in the spring."
"Never," Trip repeated, with a hitch for breath. "Never!" She turned an imploring face to her parents; Tallow reached out to dab her daughter's nose and cheeks clean, and Trip waved the soft strip of cloth off impatiently. "I hate her," she hissed then. "It's not fair, and I hate her!"
"Nonsense," Tallow chided her gently. "You don't hate anyone."
"I do!" Trip seethed. "I hate Brightwood! She's been as good as dead forever, but she can't let him go, she won't, she makes him miserable and it's not fair! Not when I love him, when I can make him better! I hate her! If it weren’t for her, then he'd love me!"
Thornbow looked at his parents in dismay; Birdcatcher looked aghast at his child's outburst, while Tallow's frowning expression was angry. "That's nonsense, child, and you know it." The crafter pushed herself to her feet. "You're making yourself sick with your grieving. You haven't lost a mate, you've simply lost a might-have-been. We've pampered your self-pity long enough. I'm going back to my work. I'll speak with you again when you've finished crying for yourself." With that, Tallow left her daughter's den-room. Trip watched her go, shocked silent for a long, breathless moment, and then burst into fresh tears.
"It's not fair!" she wept bitterly.
"Poor girl," Birdcatcher sighed, stroking her hair again. "Your mother is right -- you're making yourself needlessly sick with all this crying over a furmate. So let go of the last of those tears, my lovebird, and before you know it, you'll be back to your sun-shining self."
Trip's fresh sobs put some doubt into Birdcatcher's confident words. Feeling himself helpless, Thornbow just kept his self-appointed post at the foot of his sister's bed, and tried to provide what silent support and comfort he could.
The snows had hardly begun to let up when Farscout left again. The chieftess was reluctant to let him go, wary of the winter weather, but there was no one in the dentrees who had slept well over the past two days, as Trip's keening had been loud and constant.
Blacksnake's parties of hunters set out a few hours later, Raven among them. Cloudfern fussed for a time with crumbling dried herbs and mixing them for teas, but when he ran out of pouches and herbs, the emptiness of the denroom he shared grew oppressive.
Cloudfern climbed down the side of the Child Tree and leaped lightly to the ground. The snow crunched underfoot, and rose nearly to his knees. The forest around him felt dormant -- the great trees were sleeping, and what animals were left were conserving their energy against the snow and chill. When he looked up through the winter-bare branches, he could see that the dusk sky overhead was clear; sunlight was fading fast, and already, the brightest of the stars could be seen.
Without thinking about where his feet were leading him, Cloudfern began to walk around the curve of the conjoined trees, heading for the shaped archway among the Mother Tree's exposed roots which led down toward the sober cavern where the wrapstuff cocoons were kept. He missed his lovemate Raven, and he missed his soul-brother Farscout, and whenever Cloudfern allowed himself to feel loneliness, the rare pangs always drove him to his sister's side as surely as if he were caught in a current. He wondered what Brightwood would make of her lifemate's straying, of the performance of soul-deep grief which Trip was putting on, and of her angry shouts, wishing for Brightwood's death in order to make possible Trip's own romantic wishes. He thought Brightwood would have laughed it off, with that sharp-eyed look of hers which promised witty retaliation, to be had when least expected.
Poor Trip. The girl had never known his sister, didn't have the slightest idea who she insulted. Practical Tallow had been pushed to take refuge in her workden, while tolerant Birdcatcher continued to stick close to his daughter's bedside, doing his best to comfort his youngest. Until Blacksnake had called him off on the hunt, Thornbow had stalked through the hometrees like a thunderstorm looking for the chance to rain, jaw clenched like stone and clearly wishing he could push a fight in his beloved sister's defense... if there were anything to defend Trip against, beyond a sheltered girl's own childish notions and childish needs. Try as he might, Cloudfern had a difficult time finding sympathy for the girl. Trip... well, she was too young yet to know what real grief was, much less real love. Uncharitably, Cloudfern had even predicted to Raven that Trip's loud weeping would stop shortly after Farscout's departure -- and then been none too surprised to have guessed right. The tribe always spoiled its children; the world around them was harsh enough to provide unwelcome balance, for most of them all too soon. The way Cloudfern saw it, Trip had not suffered yet in her young life, and in her innocence, she was still child-spoiled. She thought still that love was something she was entitled to, that she would be given freely at her request; and someday, when she had it, Cloudfern figured that she would expect love to always be an entitlement, something come by easily and without question, and never something you had to work at to sustain, or be expected to nurture through compromise and struggle.
'Was I ever that simple?' he wondered to himself. 'Was I ever that innocent? The poor child has had her heart handed back to her in a basket, isn't it fair to expect she sheds a few tears? When did I get so hard of--'
The archway loomed ahead of him, and a slender figure materialized in that passageway. He blinked in surprise at that sudden materialization, then backed an instinctive step when he saw the bare blade held up between them.
"You!" Trip's voice was flat and angry, and her eyes were narrow and yellow in the dying light. "You told him to stop seeing me!"
Cloudfern looked at her, as startled by Trip's abrupt appearance as he was by her uncharacteristically hard tone. It wasn't like Trip to visit the wrapstuff den -- indeed, most of the tribe preferred to avoid the place. Cloudfern took in the young elf's flinty stare, her balled up fists, and the knife that she was holding so fiercely. As angry as she was, as jealous of Brightwood, and clearly distraught by Farscout's refusal--
A cold fear coursed down his spine, a foreboding of something terrible. "What did you do to my sister?" he demanded.
Trip recoiled, and horror replaced anger on her face. "What do you think I would do?" Trip demanded in outrage. She glanced up into the snow-covered branches, perhaps aware of how keen the hearing of the rest of the nearby tribe would be. **You think I would hurt her?**
The betrayal and hurt in Trip's narrow sending was undeniable, and Cloudfern felt a tickle of guilt. **No,** he could reply honestly. **I was only startled...** Sending didn't require the explanation - the impression of his surprise, her anger, and the unexpected knife in her hand was shared without words.
"I was bringing in fresh sprigs of pine," Trip said tartly, aloud. "So it would smell less musty." Her face crumpled, then, and her mouth quivered. "For... Farscout." Then, angry again, **Why didn't you want us to be happy?!**
Cloudfern swallowed. Her sending didn't have the clarity that soul-names stripped it to -- he couldn't sense her as deeply as he could Farscout, but the force and complexity of it was still there, focused in a way that sending rarely was. She was hurt, and raw, and she felt as if Cloudfern was the cause of it. Under her anger was doubt -- she should have been able to keep Farscout despite Cloudfern's advice -- she was worthless -- she was nothing without him... Cloudfern retreated another instinctive step.
"I wanted the best for you both," he said. "It just wasn't real, what you expected from him, and he didn't realize what you were hoping for."
"I could have made him happy," Trip insisted, in the same low voice. Tears were pouring down her face, and she rubbed at them with the fur on her cuff. "You didn't even give me a chance to show him that, really show him how much he needs me..."
Trip looked terribly young wiping away her tears. Misgiving crept into Cloudfern's mind, and for a moment, he truly did feel some sympathy for the girl. He remembered his own first few lovemates, and how those first relationships had felt keen and immediate and forever. It seemed unforgivable that he'd assumed such an awful thing of her as sabotage of Brightwood's cocoon, and Cloudfern couldn't help but feel bad about that. Maybe he should have waited until Farscout was gone out on patrol again, then approached Trip first and warned her that what she saw wasn't really there... she was so sweet and naive, and so sure that they belonged together.
**Were you jealous?** Trip poked at him. She was uncomfortably sharp in his mind -- all raw wounds and grief, and the bitter feeling of her send made his momentary sympathy vanish. **Did you think I would replace you as I let him forget Brightwood? Did you think that he might not need you if I showed him that he could be happy without her? You only drag him into the past. I made him happy Now. You couldn't do that!** "I hope you're happy," she flung at him with words. "You're the only one who is." She gathered her cloak around her and burst into final tears, fleeing away from him around a crook of the Child Tree to the stairs leading to her den.
Cloudfern stood and looked after her a long moment, feeling off-centered and uncomfortable. It was never easy to have that much anger between tribemates. She was part of his pack, and he could no more hate her than hate his own foot. And just as unpleasant -- he couldn't help but feel he'd stepped in something very sticky and complicated, and though he'd escaped the mass of it, there was still some stuck to his boots.
Trip had earned her cubname not from clumsiness or frequent spills, but from her habit of skipping as she walked - cheerful, innately graceful and full of life wherever she went. She tripped from place to place, she never merely walked. Returning from her soul-name search, she didn't choose a new tribename. "It's still comfortable," she'd said, when her mother had asked her why.
Nothing felt comfortable now, trudging through the snow toward the craft trees, where her mother's workden was. Her mother's den was a fallen cedar log, the body of which had been shaped to Tallow's liking years ago, which was still nurtured by Sunlight to keep it from weakening to rot and time, as other fallen trees did. "Mama?" Trip called as she ducked into her mother's cluttered workspace. Shelves for storage and for work-surface grew out of the walls, making the long narrow den nearly a maze, filled with jars and pouches, hanging bundles of herbs and hides, odds and ends of a thousand different kinds. Her mother sat close to a burning brazier, bundled warmly in a fur coat, grinding something to powder in a stone mortar. Tallow looked up at her and gave her a ready, forgiving smile.
"Over your heartbreak, are you?" she asked. "Come in, cub," she invited, and she patted the plump furs on the sturdy shelf-seat beside her. Trip did so, silently, and after a long silence, she added, "I understand Farscout's left to earn his name again. That should make the next few nights easier on your tender heart."
Trip sat and watched her mother working, feeling the sting of humiliation close on the heels of her pain. There was a jar next to her elbow, and she lifted it idly, simply to occupy her hands. It felt cold and slightly sticky to the touch. She weighed it in her hands, thinking of how everyone knew of her failure to catch and keep Farscout. There were no secrets in the tribe. Everyone knew, and everyone would pity her. She watched Tallow’s strong, clever hands, and wished she were her mother’s equal. Tallow had Recognized twice – her own father Birdcatcher had been Tallow’s second Recognized after One-Leg, and Trip knew that One-Leg still loved her mother dearly, even if they were no longer lifemated. It seemed to her that Trip’s entire life had been spent listening to her father sing love songs to Tallow. Birdcatcher made no secret of how proud he was to have won his Recognized’s heart, and how dearly he adored her. “My life, my heart,” Birdcatcher would regularly murmur to Tallow, his eyes shining with love...
Trip wanted that -- so completely adored, so completely wrapped in another soul’s love and loyalty. And at the moment, Trip couldn't imagine anyone adoring her so. Never.
"Don't take it so hard, cub," Tallow said, looking sidelong at her daughter with wise, knowing eyes. Trip could hear the pity color her mother’s words. Pity wasn't something that sat well with Tallow; pity was for pitiful things. "Our lives are long, there is no reason to rush these things," Tallow counseled her – her mother, who had two mates who loved her dearly, and who had had the luxury of choosing between them.
Trip took a deep breath, struggling to put on a steadier face. "I am thinking about taking a new name," she confessed. “I’ve been thinking about it a long while.” 'Trip' seemed too fast for her, too much like a cheerful, bumbling cub, always skipping from place to place. She was no longer a child – her first heartbreak had burned the comfort of childhood from her, and she wanted her youth and inexperience banished. She still held the jar – she lifted it to her nose and sniffed it curiously, with half a thought to wonder what might be inside.
Honey. The weight in the jar was solid, immobile, not a rolling weight as if it were liquid. Trip thought of that, and thought about how slowly honey flowed, and how it would grow cloudy if it was left too long. Honey liked to be stored warm - it got crystalline if it grew too cold. Crystalline and fragile, the way that she felt now. But warm it back up, and it would grow clear again, like liquid light. Would she? If someone ever loved her? .
"Something pretty, I hope," Tallow said, with another sidelong look. "You should have a pretty name, to go with that pretty face of yours.”
Trip managed a grateful half-smile for the attempt to cheer her. "I was thinking of Honey," she said firmly, of an uncertain impulse and half-fearing her mother’s rejection.
"I like it," Tallow said after a long moment. "Your hair is that color. The name suits you."
Trip would have liked it better if her mother had said she was sweet like honey, and felt vaguely disappointed. Still... "I'll take it, then," she said. She set down the jar and rose to leave.
Honey… she thought, savoring it in all of its flavors and shades of meanings. It seemed like a hopeful name. And that, more than anything else, appealed to her right now. “Honey,” she said aloud as she slipped back out into the snow. She felt her heart, imagined it as gone to cold crystal, and then managed a wan smile at the promise that someone, someday, would warm it to liquid gold again.