(This story is a sequel to "First Contact, Pt. 3" and "First Contact, Pt. 4"; it is also part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
From the horizon to the ground at his feet was an endless sea of tall grass. To his back was a wall of trees. Olon sank to his knees in between those two worlds. He was but one lone man, lost and alone in the wilds.
Olon did not know the ways of the vast grassland he had wandered through to find this place. Hunger was eating him from the inside. He knew thirst would kill him first. Food and water and some hope of shelter would be easier found in the woods. Death might still lurk in the tall grass. He did not know which way to go. It was time to ask.
Each of the gods of his people had its own favored ways of how to be approached, and a hunter like himself relied on the shamans to carry his prayers to them. But Olon had no one now to intercede on his behalf, so he summoned his courage to do what must be done. Olon began with a lament. Raising his hands to the sky in supplication, he sang to the gods for fallen friends and family. He sang for the ancestors lost with his homeland. He sang to his gods for pity and for vengeance. He sang of their great and sorrowful march through the grasses. Always moving, always hungry, always with blue-hot death on their backs. He pleaded – no, demanded -- that the names of the fallen would not be forgotten by the gods. Only if their names were known could they be found in the void and escorted to their next lives. Trees, spiders, all the living things in this world had their own patron, and Ennoth’s role was to judge who would go where based upon their deeds. Ennoth would take the most honored dead, the strong warriors who had died that others may live, to join him as one of Poyep’s hunting-dogs, the Moyuno.
His respects paid, he could address the one he needed most to speak to . “O Powerful Poyep! Hunter of Hunters! Breath Of The Wind! Olon is not worthy to speak to you! But there is no one left! Olon has sung the song of those who have no voice! Now he begs you to hear him!” Olon sung in a chant of supplication. It was the shaman’s place, not a common hunter’s, to address the mighty god. He did not know the right words, but in his heart, he hoped the Hunter of all Hunters would take pity upon a poor, loyal man. He struggled to remember how the shamans had called upon Poyep before the sacred hunts, how they called on Poyep to keep the wind in their favor, out of the noses of their prey and to the backs of the hunters’ arrows. He wasn’t even sure how appropriate this particular chant was, but at least it was something the god would recognize.
Olon did not waste Poyep’s time with the things that happened after the elders had sent him and the four other hunters away to work their wiles. These things the Hunter either knew already, or did not care to know. The plan to steal the object from the Blue Beasts’ camp and use it to lure the Blue Beasts away from his people was not his own. It was Beyol’s, and Beyol had been inspired by Mokmo, the trickster cat-god ill in Poyep’s favor. And Mokmo had demanded a heavy price. Of the five volunteers, only Olon had made it this far.
Two, Pobo and his twin Nobo, were killed getting the object out of the Blue Beast’s camp – Olon hoped that both of the young hunters had died clean, for worse had awaited them, over the feasting-fires of the Blue Beasts. He prayed they had been quick enough to end themselves, and not been captured alive.
Unumo died of wounds received days before Beyol’s plan was hatched. It was Unomo who had scouted ahead and first saw the creatures that would be their people’s salvation. Hooved giants, with large stout heads and short blunt horns, that roamed the grassland in uncountable numbers. They travelled in herds large and long enough to cast a dark black cloud across the plains. It was into the tracks of these giants that the Blue Beasts were led. Tracks wide and trampled enough to be confused for the flight of a whole people. Unomo’s own body was used to make the fantasy complete.
Beyol had died of thirst and a festering wound, while he and Olon were lost, wandering in the endless grass.
Ennoth knew their names.
Only after Olon was alone, untainted by the tools of Mokmo’s will, had Poyep come to his aid.
“Olon found your signs! He followed the black-hawk to this place! He has stepped into the woods and found the path his people have left. But as much as he wishes to, he has not gone to meet them yet!” Olon brandished his stone blade, a blade he could barely hold above his head any more. “This one is a mighty hunter! He will fight! He will kill and die! Are there still Blue Beasts hunting his people? Or were they fooled and doomed to die in this grass? Olon is here! He wants to return to his sister and his wife! But he wants more to protect them, to give his life for theirs! He will do whatever you ask!”
The wind did not shake the leaves in reply. The blackbird did not glide past on a sacred gust of air. Not even the tall grass swayed. The world was silent.
“Olon begs you, what do you want him to do!?”
Poyep had heard him. Poyep always heard when his name was called, for he has the senses of the wind. It would do no good to repeat the questions, Poyep would answer in his own time and in his own way or he would not. Olon began his dirge anew. If Poyep’s sign never came, then he would sing for as long as his failing body could make the words. Even Bo the Creator, forever more concerned with his child-games than the affairs of mortal men, would not ever be able to forget the names of the fallen.
Farscout and One-Leg had been sent by their chief to follow the backtrail of these strange new humans, and follow it they did. It was easy enough work. While these humans were shockingly woodwise when compared to the soft brownskins who had settled near Eagle Bay, there were too many of the strange intruders not to have trampled a path that could be read by a blind cub on a moonless midnight.
The two wolfriders pushed themselves and their mounts to the edges of their speed and endurance, following the path of that flight. At that punishing pace, half a night brought them back to where Farscout and Evervale had first encountered the humans at the ford of the Rushwater. From there, the trail led them for the rest of the night along the river's bank, to the very edge of the grasslands. There the two riders paused, with the swift flow of the Rushwater beside them and the thinning ranks of the trees before them as they faced the dawn.
“This is where our territory ends, lad,” One-Leg said, from the Holt’s side of the Rushwater, taking the opportunity to fill the waterskin he carried at his belt. “This is as far as the chief sent us.”
Farscout simply nodded and dipped up a handful of water. When he had finished drinking, he picked his way carefully across the river, leaping from rock to exposed rock, in this place where the river curved wide and as low as it would flow, before the autumn rains filled it again.
One-Leg snorted in weary, wry amusement, then followed after his younger tribesmate, riding right into the river and letting the water lap up around Longtooth's ribs. The rust-haired elder had never been one to shy away from argument, but he’d known Farscout for too many centuries not to recognize a waste of breath. Besides, he knew the question that fueled Farscout’s perseverance, and One-Leg wanted that answer as well.
These strange, pale, woodwise humans had flooded into the Holt’s forest ill-prepared and battered. Something bigger and meaner must have driven them from their own territory. And it was clear from the humans' behavior that they feared a pursuit from whatever terror it was that had triggered their flight.
It was the return of the Fierce Ones which Farscout feared. Chieftess Easysinger had taken the threat of the Fierce Ones seriously, and had prepared her tribe for an invasion which had never come. And while the elves had stopped fearing such a thing, they had never stopped nurturing their thornwall defenses. It was fitting, somehow, that it was now Cloudfern, who had survived the horror that had slaughtered his family, who kept those thornwalls healthy and in sharp-spined order.
One-Leg thought of the past, of good friends slain by the Fierce Ones, and marveled at the differences between the soft Amber Hunters of the coast, these new pale strangers, and the dreadful Fierce Ones who had killed Cedarwing, Shyheart, Frost and Lynx, and left Brightwood so badly broken that she had had to be put into wrapstuff. ‘How many different types of these creatures can there be?’ One-Leg wondered to himself as he rode across the river. Black bear sows sometimes bred spirit bears, and red fox sometimes whelped young who were black or grey. But those were just differences in hair coat, little different than his nieces Evervale and Crackle having red hair, while their sire’s was black. Yet while a spirit-bear or blue fox was alike in all other ways to its normal-colored dam and sire, hare and rabbit were similar but very different in their ways, and blacktail and whitetail deer were very different and did not interbreed. One-Leg had been thinking on it, and he’d decided that the dark Amber Hunters and these strange new pale-skinned humans – they were like the rabbits and the hare. Close enough kin to be cousins, recognizable as the same species, but a hunter didn’t expect them to crossbreed, or expect a hare to live in warrens like a rabbit.
‘We’ve seen the Amber Hunters, these new paleskins, and through Farscout and Cloudfern’s eyes, we’ve seen the Fierce Ones. How many others are there out there in the world, and how radically different might the next strangers be?’ It was the kind of thinking that One-Leg would have preferred to leave to his brother Blacksnake, who was perverse enough to enjoy worrying and planning ahead for problems that might never happen.
The deep forest grew to be a thing of memory here, past the eastern banks of the Rushwater. The two elves followed the trampled trail skirting from copse to increasingly thinning copse, the blue arch of the sky curving above them. One-Leg was too wise an old hunter to be frightened by his growing sense of exposure, but there was a reason why his kin seldom hunted this far past the Rushwater, except on well-organized hunts after the shaggy thunderfeet. The land felt empty here, without adequate cover in which to hide. Only the Rushwater river remained a constant, flowing alongside them. Clearly the river had served as a guide to these strange new humans.
** -- scent of roundhooves, mixed with smoke and leather, and bear fat gone rancid -- ** It was Farscout’s memory of human-scent that was shared silently between the two elders now, an old, old memory, but still nightmarishly keen, and markedly different from the scent of either the soft Amber Hunters, or these strange, hungry-smelling paleskins. One-Leg nodded agreement when the other hunter stopped and threw himself down upon the ground to press an ear to the earth to listen for vibration, suchs as the the sound of a moving herd.
“Anything?” One-Leg asked.
Farscout gathered himself to his feet with a brief shake of his head. Yet One-Leg saw the tension in the other hunter’s jaw and shoulders, and caught the pulse of send-imagery that Farscout cast his way, of the dangerous speed of long-maned, painted roundhooves at a gallop.
“Aye,” One-Leg agreed. It was the closest either of them had yet said to giving voice to that old, old fear. “Roundhooves’d outrun a wolf in a sprint. But those beasts can’t outlast a wolf at a long run. Or at least I’m willing to bet my hide that they can’t. And we’ve only sign of the paleskins so far.”
Farscout said nothing to that, only pushed himself back astride Bracken and set his wolf-friend trotting on toward the next stand of trees. The shade of those wide-leafed branches was welcoming in the growing heat of the day.
“See how the paleskin tracks bunch up when they reach the trees again?” One-Leg observed as they reached the stand.
Farscout nodded, his pale grey eyes scanning the landscape around them constantly. **These little humans are forest hunters. They don’t like the grassland any more than we do.**
One-Leg grunted at that, nudging at the remains of a cold campsite with the butt of his spear. “Doesn’t stink too bad here – they must bury their waste—“ he began to say.
Beneath him, Longtooth's body went suddenly taut. One-Leg went silent at that warning, looking around them with every sense on alert. **We're not alone,** he sent.
Farscout nodded and silently eased back onto Bracken's back. Both wolves stood frozen, ears pointed forward. One-Leg strained to listen, and then he, too, heard the distant sound of a human voice on the breeze. The wind carried the noise to them, a mere whisper at first that grew and faded in a chanted rhythm.
One-Leg slid a glance toward Farscout. **Singing. Is that singing?**
Farscout's expression was wary. **Just one voice.**
**It is singing,** One-Leg answered his own question. **Let's find where it is, and what it's got that’s worth singing about.**
It took little skill to find their singer. They followed the chanting song to the southeast. One-Leg stayed to his wolf-friend's back as they closed on that lone voice, as the sounds of the river faded to nothing behind them. Farscout and Bracken rode ahead of Longtooth, moving at a cautious pace. They were all but blind in this tall grass, and One-Leg was conscious of straining to catch any fresh scent in the shift of the breeze, knowing the safety of the forest had turned into a long, long run behind them.
**He’s right ahead,** Farscout sent, as Bracken froze beneath him. Longtooth went stock-still as well, ears fully alert.
**Let’s get into those trees. We can get a vantage on him there,** One-Leg sent.
Farscout nodded agreement, and One-Leg nudged Longtooth into movement. They rode carefully, raising hardly more than a whisper in the tall golden grass, circling with care that their scent was not carried on the wind to the lone singer. Farscout reached the trees first and climbed noiselessly up onto a limb. Moments later, One-Leg accepted his companion's clear sending-image, of a single human kneeling in the tall grass, face raised to the burning sun. **I see only one of them.**
**Doesn't mean there aren't more lurking about,** One-Leg replied, watching the land around them closely for any sign of moment or hidden threats.
Farscout reached out with a vision-send, sharing what he saw from his vantage. One-Leg accepted that familiar, cool intimacy without question. The single human knelt in the epicenter of a trampled patch of grass. The creature was filthy, dressed in buckskins that were torn and stained from travel; his hide shirt was torn, showing thin ribs beneath. His skin, where exposed, was burned red by the sun. The human’s lips were parched and dry, and his voice cracked as he continued to warble that inscrutable song. Between the raspy notes he heaved deep breaths, and his closed eyes looked hollowed in his scorched face. One side of his head was shorn to close bristle, while the dark hair on the right side of his head had been cut or pulled out by the handful. A few dark, smeared remains of paint stained his dusty cheeks.
**Poor whelp stinks, I can smell him from here,** One-Leg complained, finding a fresh grip on his spear and looking impatiently toward where the ragged singer knelt, hidden from his own eyes by the tall grass. **What’s he doing?**
**Sitting,** Farscout replied, his shared vision-send changing as he quickly scanned the horizon, then refocused on the solitary, chanting human. **Just sitting.**
**Sitting and starving.** One-Leg rubbed the side of his nose as if he could scrub away the offending scent. **The river’s full of fish, and it’s just a hike this way. He’ll find his kin’s tracks back there, if he’ll just haul himself to his feet and start walking. Why’s he just sitting there?**
The wind rose for a moment, shifting course and tugging at One-Leg’s hair and at the tips of the wolves’ fur. The elder winced, knowing that betraying breeze was carrying their scents straight to the human. One-Leg felt Farscout’s surge of adrenaline as keenly as his own, anticipating flight. Then that swirl of wind swept over the human – and through Farscout’s eyes, One-Leg saw the man fling open his arms as if embracing the sky. The weakening chant went silent, and then the ragged singer simply smiled, and lay back in the grass as though to sleep.
**Piss me out a burning fishing hook, but what is that whelp doing?** One-Leg muttered fiercely, bewildered by the creature’s strange actions. **Not burned badly enough by the sun, maybe? Needs to smear himself with a little bit of grease and roast himself further, maybe? Hold on – what in a bloody fart is that?**
The human still held something in both outstretched hands. In the right hand was a stone knife, and in the other was what looked like a long, ivory-colored cone. It was a carved, hollow horn -- longer and straighter than anything that had ever come from a shagback or a rocksheep -- wrought with gold and etched with interlocked symbols painted over in fading violet paint. The horn rolled free of the creature’s relaxing grip, yet was held tethered to his wrist by a braided leather strap tied between the horn’s mouthpiece, and the flaring round opening of its hollow end.
For a moment, Farscout’s attention was fixed on that horn, and on those etched symbols, and through the sending link they shared, One-Leg could feel the roil of horror that rose from the other hunter’s gut.
**Stay where you are!** One-Leg ordered, even as he felt his companion’s impulse to leap down from their point of vantage. **Keep your eyes on the human! One of us has to keep eyes on him,** One-Leg shot at Farscout, while he urged Longtooth out headlong into the grass.
The golden leaves of grass surrounded wolf and rider as though swallowing them whole. **I’m just going to sneak in on our friend for a closer look, won’t get within reach, won’t get off my wolf,** One-Leg retorted to Farscout’s wordless wave of dismay. **I was hunting with old Oakhand before you were even whelped, pup, so don’t worry about me – just keep your eyes on him, don’t let him surprise me.**
One-Leg felt the smooth grain of wood in Farscout’s hands as the tracker nocked an arrow and pulled his bow taut. Through Farscout’s eyes, he could see the ripple of Longtooth’s path through the tall, rippling waves of grass. Bracken shadowed after them, ghost-silent and cautious. The human-stink grew, and then Longtooth came to an uncertain halt; through the vision-send, One-Leg could see that he and his wolf-friend were right on the verge of the trampled semi-circle of grass. He nudged Longtooth sunward, until the human’s outflung hand with the horn was only a hare’s leap away.
Longtooth’s cautious steps had made only the barest rustle of sound. This close, One-Leg could hear the human’s labored breathing, and smell his sour breath. **Lad’s starving, and weak from lack of water. He doing anything that you can see?**
It was a needless question – One-Leg could see anything Farscout could. **Just lying there,** Farscout answered. **Seems to be sleeping.**
One-Leg carefully dismounted, aware of Farscout’s disapproval, and relishing that the silent tracker respected him enough not to argue it. Besides -- it was just within bowshot. If the human moved, Farscout would have an arrow into the human’s chest, and if that didn’t finish the sorry roasted hare, then Longtooth and Bracken would. The creature was too weak to be much of a risk. One-Leg silently lowered himself to the ground, and began a slow, cautious crawl into area of trampled grass.
This close, and he could hear the whisper of a chant as the man whispered to himself. This close, and he could see the dusty track of a tear as it slid down the side of the creature’s face.
**Bloat and belly worms!** One-Leg swore vehemently. **The flyblown rotten twice-cursed motherless son! He’s not sleeping. He’s waiting to die!**
**I can make it quick and clean for him, then,** Farscout replied.
**No!** The force of his own sudden empathy toward this stinking, filthy creature shocked One-Leg like a blow to the gut. He watched as other tears followed the first, tracing a filthy track down that strange, sunburned face. One-Leg knew that bottomless welling of grief… oh, yes, he knew it. He’d felt despair’s own relentless tidal pull, more than a time or two during his long years. **No,** he replied, more calmly the second time. **Let him be. We don’t need to interfere.**
**If that’s so, then what do you think you are doing?**
As he’d sent, One-Leg had inched forward the last distance he’d needed. He reached out with his knife, and with a deftness that even Notch might envy, he sliced the leather strap the human wore lashed to his wrist. One-Leg reached out, slipped his fingertips across the smooth ivory of the etched horn, and silently pulled it to him.
**One-Leg…** The tension of holding the powerful bowstring taut was an increasing strain for Farscout. He willed the red-bearded elder out of there, safely out of harm’s way.
**Just one moment,** One-Leg countered. He slipped the horn safely through his belt, and pulled away his waterskin. He weighed the water-swollen bladder for a moment, then deftly slipped its weight into the place where the horn had rested. **All right then, my lad, good to go,** he sent as he crawled backward. The tall grass surrounded him again, as welcoming as a lover’s embrace, and One-Leg slithered back to where he’d left his staff. He levered himself upright, then got himself back astride his wolf-friend. **It’s a fair enough trade, his treasure for mine. That waterskin will do him a whole lot more good than this painted bit of horn will, should he decide to open his eyes and rejoin the living.**
The human remained oblivious to the trade, right up until Farscout’s last sight of the creature. Farscout stole a final, freighted scan of the far horizons, and still seeing nothing, scaled down the tree to where One-Leg and the wolves were waiting.
“Want a closer look-see?” One-Leg murmured, dismounting and holding out the painted horn to his companion.
Farscout took it from One-Leg’s hand, scowling in distaste. **The Fierce Ones. This was something of theirs. There’s no mistaking those markings.**
One-Leg sighed heavily, and cast a look back toward where the human lay in the long grass. **We know what sent these curs running into our woods with their tails tucked, then. No need to ride any farther. Best we head for home, and report to the chief.**
**And just leave the human?** Farscout asked.
One-Leg leaned on his spear and thought about it for a moment. **Maybe he’s dying, in which case, he’ll be crow-bait by morning. Or maybe he’s grieving for someone he’s lost, and simply wishes he were dead. Or maybe… maybe he’s left his kin for a reason. Maybe he’s as got as much guts as he’s got dirt on his hide, and he’s waiting for whatever trouble’s on his folks’ trail to find him. One man against many doesn’t count so very much, but maybe he just wants to spend his last breath buying his people a little more time.**
Something dark and painful welled up against One-Leg’s words; the sending-link he and Farscout had been sharing severed abruptly at that, and the look Farscout gave him was long and cold. Too late, One-Leg thought of Lynx, and of how Cloudfern’s father had met his end, buying Farscout and Lynx’s two children what precious time Lynx could. One-Leg winced inwardly, held Farscout’s eye in rueful challenge, not willing to back up or apologize for the unwitting comparison.
**They’re not like us,** Farscout sent bitterly. **They can’t be.**
**Who’s to say, one way or another?** One-Leg reached out and clapped Farscout on the shoulder and then, mindful of the action, tousled the archer’s hair fondly, as he had when Farscout had been only a youth. **We’ve got what the chief sent us to find. We’ve got kin waiting for us at home, let’s not keep them waiting.**
Farscout nodded, but didn’t move as One-Leg hauled himself onto his wolf’s back. One-Leg watched his old friend knowingly, then prodded him with the butt of his spear. **Let’s go,** he repeated. **We’ve days and nights to ride.**
**And just leave the human?** Farscout sent, mistrustful of loose ends and a possible enemy left alive at their backs.
**It’s his choice to live or die,** One-Leg countered. **Leave him to get busy at it.**
Farscout looked down at the carved horn in his hands, then nodded and swung astride Bracken’s back. Without another word, he turned and rode back toward the Rushwater river. One-Leg tapped his heels against Longtooth’s ribs, and rode for home.