(This story is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" -- see the listing for more related stories.)
One-Leg found the fishing hole he was looking for without difficulty. In short order he had his lines baited and cast, his bare foot resting on the cool grass, his back leaning against a mossy tree, his hands behind his head, and his eyes half closed in restful repose.
Nothing to do but sit back and wait for something to bite.
This was peace. This was freedom.
Freedom to let his mind wander through the misty paths of his long life, and the many lives that had touched it along the way. On this particular day it meandered around arrow-sharp images of his mother, Dove; her wise blue eyes framed by vibrant silver locks, her quiet dignity and strength in the face of unspeakable tragedy, her dedication to helping Easysinger to put a shattered tribe back together. Then it moved to Doeskin. Sweet, delicious Doeskin. The one true love of his life. Her warm, inviting… everything. The smell of dyes in her hair. The dreams they’d shared of a cub who would never be. It side-stepped the ever-present flickers of his departed daughter Flash and on to his most recent wolf-friend, Boneplayer, a rough old cur who just a few short moons ago had fallen in a challenge for head of the pack.
Who needs dreamberries to clear the cobwebs out of your head when you can go fishing?
One-Leg swung a full line of young catfish in the Preserver’s face. “You know what to do.”
Gurgleflap made quick work of wrapping the bunch and then turned its attention back to its game of dropping small stones into the river from different heights to see what kinds of splashes they made. It had plenty to choose from; the forest-wide drought had entered it second year and this creek was well below its normal spring depth from lack of mountain run-off water. The low levels made spearfishing easy work.
This was as far south as he could go looking for food, but not as far as he used to go. The tribe’s territorial borders had shifted northward over the past several years, and One-Leg was pushing the current limits of the southeastern end. The Chief had ‘granted’ certain lands to the big folk, and that was all there was to it.
Nor could he do the work of preserving the fish the old fashioned way, gutting and smoking them on the spot. If those moon-mad humans saw something as distinct as a smoking fire they were more than likely going to blunder their way towards it than keep their distance. As such his haul would be half what he could have brought two-eights of years ago. He didn’t mind the extra walking for a second haul though, and Gristle could use the exercise.
**Perhaps the new smoke-house will be ready by the time we get back, hmm? Not that you care, lazy pup.** One-Leg was actually looking forward to trying it out.
The wrapstuff was mostly to keep the fish from leaving any smells that could be traced back to the holt. Not that the clueless Amber Hunters were anywhere near capable of following a trail.
The Elder Salmon Run was so plentiful that Longtooth and Icemane were easily getting their fill by snapping fish out of the air as they jumped their way up the slight stone waterfall. One-Leg and Suddendusk flanked either side of it, rounding up scaly masses with each cast of their nets. Further on up the Braided River, less experienced fishers struggled together in pairs to control nets of not quite the same size, or were working alone with smaller ones. Half a day’s ride away, alongside the holt, even more elves were manning the great net strewn across the Holt's River's stone weir.
The only elves that weren’t busy fishing, or busy watching the cubs while they chased scavengers away from drying fish on the stony beach back home, were elves that were busy scouting. Among those was Blacksnake, and it was his sends that rang an alarm.
**Kestrel says the Amber Hunters are wandering around the bay. They’re getting closer to your position. This time there’s a Painted Face guiding them.**
**What?** One-Leg’s astonishment rang out in his sending. Some elves had entertained dark nightdreams or sympathetic fears of the two ‘problems’ neutralizing each other. Those thoughts were now meat to be wasted. **Cloudfern won’t be happy to know they’re working together.**
Suddendusk was less astonished and more practical. **They don’t move at night. They’ll unwrap those travel-dens of theirs before long.**
**We won’t know they’ve gone down for the night until Kestrel sees a campfire.** It was clear from Blacksnake’s sending that he was uncomfortable with this new twist the woodwise Painted Faces were weaving into the predicable ways of their dark-skinned benefactors. **Just be ready to move if the word is given.**
One-Leg passed a grim look to Suddendusk and swore under his breath. **Stay close, friend,** he sent to Longtooth, **I may be needing your aid soon.** If the humans did come this way, better their trackers found the prints of a strangely overweight wolf than the distinct marks left by a foot, a peg, and a staff.
The group approached the western foothills of Elder Mountain, traveling along the Toothpick Trail, a slightly elevated route chosen for its tight spaces and inaccessibility to the big folk. Notch and Chicory were up ahead, keeping an eye out for the humans anyway as a precaution. Some way behind them in a single file procession was Otter, followed by Foxtail, and finally One-Leg holding up the rear. All were on wolfback, and as the biggest One-Leg had to duck down a few times to avoid low-hanging bushes.
Otter had insisted on discussing the recent tragedy. “I think we could be friends, the humans and us. If we tried.”
“The stupid human got a lucky shot off, that’s all,” Foxtail replied in a flippant voice.
“That’s not how I heard it. If it had been me that had killed one of their half-wolves, though, I’d want to explain is all. Try to make things better.”
“Why worry about keeping them happy? They aren’t really dangerous. Slow and stupid, that’s all they are.”
One-Leg listened to the exchange with half interest. There was a time when an eager cub and a teacher could have gone crab-catching on their own without escort. No Hunting Alone was the way now, and every trip to the ocean was an event that had to be planned in advance, with volunteers to wrangle together and camping supplies to be arranged.
The discussion was brought to an end by the sound of two wolf-howls ahead of them.
Notch and Chicory were watching the northwestern horizon from a secluded spot under cover of foliage. There was plenty of vantage from this pass, still several dozen feet above the shore.
Otter dismounted and, followed closely by Foxtail, climbed his way into a spot alongside where he could see. **There’s nothing out there!**
Notch scoffed, pointing to a spot in between them and the northernmost of the Mist Islands. **If there’s nothing out there, fish-face, why are there gulls circling around it?**
Back a bit from the rest, One-Leg didn’t need to see it to guess from the clues the others were providing. He shared with all a memory borrowed from another. A long and wide log that was not a log. Shaped by hand, not magic, into a high-walled floating den. Two small sails catching the wind from a short beam. A sculpted face sticking out from the front end, an oddly lined mockery of a fish, garishly painted. Swimming across the water with the help of two rows of flapping wooden paddles. Proud and oblivious, beautiful and terrible all at once. **They’re here to collect the amber and whatever else the humans scavenge here. Or to leave more humans behind to expand their territory. Or both. And they never travel alone.**
**They’ll be coming down from this side of the islands,** Foxtail sent, more puzzled than concerned. **I’ve never heard of them being so far north. **
One-Leg exhaled grimly. **Well they are here, the puffed-up quillrats! So we can’t be. Their spotters will see us on the beach for sure.**
Chicory sent her first words, **We’ll have to stay to the trees and work our way behind them under cover. Head north while they head south. There will be plenty of crabs further up the coast.**
One-Leg grunted in the affirmative. It was a sound plan.
Notch nodded, and looked to Foxtail, an expectant grin dancing on the corners of his mouth.
“It’s agreed, then,” Foxtail announced. “Chicory, do you mind if I take point with Notch for a while?”
Chicory shrugged. “Go ahead.”
Otter did not need to be reminded to get himself between both pairs of older elves. He passed One-Leg on his way back to Splash. As One-Leg watched the boy overtake him he was struck by a sharp pang of pity. Otter had lived his whole life under the shadow of new limits that his playmate Crackle, in her indomitable nature, would be rubbing up against soon enough. Those rules could soon be getting more, not fewer. What new restrictions would the cubs growing inside Quick Fang and Whispersilk (and Brightwood for that matter) be born under?
Quillrats he had called them. It was an offhand comment, but the more he mulled it over along the extra hours of travel the more it fit.
‘Once they get their barbs in you, they dig in right down to the bone.’