Blacksnake had learned over the past several turns that being part of a three-mating sometimes meant stepping aside and letting the other two bond alone. This was one of those nights. Easysinger and Oakhand were off who-knows-where doing he-was-pretty-sure-what. He was still getting used to that kind of sharing.
He comforted himself with the knowledge that come the dawn they both would be all the happier to come home to the missing third of their partnership. He was clearly the Beta in the den, but that seemed to him a leap of several ranks up from where he had started not quite eight-and-two turns ago. By the time Easysinger gave birth, she was truly his lifemate, and Oakhand had become something more than a friend sharing time with the female they both loved.
Besides, he was the one who got to look after Riskrunner for the night. And his boy didn’t need much looking after at all. In fact, he’d already earned a new name worthy of an adventurous life. He knew the alarm-whistles, and all the other skills a cub had to prove capable in before being left alone to explore the nearby forest. Or at least, the illusion of being left alone. He’d never really been out of range of Blacksnake’s ears. Or Thornpaw’s nose.
Riskrunner’s most recent adventure had led him all around the wolf dens. His auditory trail was easy enough to follow. A scrape of fresh ground, the breaking of twigs, the slap of leather soles on stone, the rustling of autumn leaves, fingernail scraping against bark. Then, for a brief and precious moment, silence. Followed by an energized inhale and a singular rush of projected feelings that meant only one thing.
Six small feet raced off together in a different direction.
Blacksnake was on his feet in an instant. He called Thornpaw to his side, but thought better of chasing after the boy. Let him come to me in his own time. He paced around a rock, trying not to look too excited while he endured the wait. A distant memory drifted across his mind, full of the many powerful things his son must be feeling now. He was straining to keep a mask of naiveté across his face when at last his son came skipping merrily toward him hefting the splendid prize.
"Look, Father, look! I have a wolf-friend now! My first ever! Her name is Leafsnap!"
The wolf was sandy brown mixed with many darker shades along her back and lighter tones under her legs and belly. All those colors were present on her face. At around six months, she barely counted as a cub anymore and was almost too hefty for a boy of Riskrunner's size to keep hold of. Blacksnake’s clever son had found a way. He had one hand around her ribcage, and one supporting her rump, her spine resting against his chest. She wasn’t trying to resist the awkward positioning, but her eyes and ears were bobbing around in a quizzical fashion that suggested she was having second thoughts about this arrangement.
Thornpaw howled with understanding. Blacksnake’s barely-contained joy finally burst forth in a spirited laugh. "Your first indeed! And a fine one she is. Your mother and Oakhand will be as happy about this as I am." Resiting the urge to rush forth and take his son in his arms, he rubbed a fatherly hand over both cubs’ heads. He took on a more serious tone, curious to see the boy’s response. How would Riskrunner choose to take on the important task to come? “So then, what should you be doing next?” Leafsnap licked his hand graciously, but Riskrunner squirmed out from under it. He was already getting too old for such cubbish displays of affection. The boy had to recompose a grown-up posture before answering.
The chief-heir began very properly with practiced seriousness in his voice. “I have to show everyone, wolf and elf, my new wolf-friend.” The excitement he felt when he first spotted his father crept back into his voice as he continued. “And let them all know that we are bonded now. You’re the third elf we’ve seen! And we’ve already said hello to the wolf pack!... The ones that aren’t off hunting, anyway.”
Blacksnake raised a curious eyebrow. “I’m the third? Me?”
“Well, yes. First there was Hooksharp on his way to the beaver-pond, and Turtle was going with him. So that makes you the third since I left the wolf-den."
“I see. Alright then!” Blacksnake hid a new smile. He couldn’t help being amused at his son’s direct approach to tackling new challenges. Of course he’d move from one target right to the next closest then right on to the next. “What are you waiting for, then? Off you go to finish the job. And put her down. She’s just as capable of walking around with her own legs as you.”
Riskrunner gently let Leafsnap down, and her relief showed. He ran off toward Brightwood- the next closest elf in his line of sight- who was busy with her plantshaping and easily surprised. Leafsnap chased after her new friend, her tail wagging furiously.
Blacksnake kept a watchful but distant eye on his son from atop the branches of the dentrees, hanging further back than before, switching from one to the other as needed. Riskrunner and his new wolf-friend seemed determined to evade him. Blacksnake chuckled to himself. The boy was by no means resentful of the attention, but he was hungry to prove that he could do things without grown-ups watching over him; a difficult feat to pull off with three parents to dodge while most cubs had just two to contend with. Blacksnake looked on – and sometimes away – with pride swelling in his heart. He was more than satisfied with his son’s growing sense of independence.
He was of course allowing Riskrunner to ‘lose’ him. But it wasn’t long before a nasal burst of a laugh rang forth telling him exactly where his son was. Goose had been the boy’s cub name, given because of that loud snort that on a clear day could rival Axehand’s mightiest guffaw. Poor little Leafsnap’s playful yips could hardly compete.
Leafsnap had clearly earned her name by her habit of chasing after fallen leaves, happily pouncing the brightly colored debris. And Riskrunner was putting her love of the chase to work. Less than one night together and Leafsnap was getting down the basics of how to play fetch.
‘That’s my boy. A good leader knows how to teach, how to show others what he wants from them.’
When they weren’t playing games, the two companions were scouting for and intercepting elves as they came back into the Holt from their nightly duties. The hunt teams that came in groups. The fishers who came in on their own. Ne’er do wells and gatherers who passed through in their own time. Each had to play their part in the ritual as the two cubs playfully got their attention before performing a formal introduction. Most of them with wolf-friends of their own who merely traded half-interested glances with their kin, wondering what all the fuss was about.
At long last, the final two introductions were made to none other than Easysinger and Oakhand as they came back home from their sojourn. Blacksnake watched from the farthest-reaching branch of the Father Tree, and made sure the rest of his family saw him. This was his son’s moment, but he wanted to be part of it.
The solemn observations of the day done, it would soon be time for all the tribe to celebrate and howl for this momentous occasion. Blacksnake leapt off his branch to start gathering the others, grinning wide and radiating delight with his sendings.
The night ended with Riskrunner and Leafsnap curled up together at the foot of the family furs. Blacksnake regarded the pair from one side of Easysinger, locking hands with her, who was herself pressed against Oakhand on her other side. In that moment she had eyes only for her son. Oakhand locked eyes with Blacksnake for a moment, and his eyes were full of respect and joy and love.
A touch of that old muddled disconnect he felt when they first invited him to join their family crept over him, when he’d only known them distantly as The Chiefly Couple and seemed an intruder in their furs. But it quickly passed. He was feeling more sure of his place in this family than ever. .