(This story is a sequel to "Meeting of Minds", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" -- see the listing for more related stories.)
"Nobody really wants things to change," Blacksnake said.
The sun painted a long streak of pale shallow-sea blue across the horizon, the last hour before the growth spurt of dawn woke in purple and gold and red. A cool and calm time, a good hour for elves. Wasp and Halftail both had blood on their muzzles and meat in their bellies, grumbling good-naturedly at their shared load of butchered forest pig, content to the slow pace set by their equally full-bellied elf-friends. Soon, the Dentrees would be well within view, and it would be time to shrug off one's leathers and fall into the deep dreams of the furs.
"But things have changed," Windsong answered, almost dryly. "And it's not the path of wants we walk – neither us, nor the humans."
The two hunters glanced at each other across the carcass of their kill, silent, but needing no words to share thoughts. For the wolfriders, who counted time by seasons and lived in the Now like an endless, deep ocean, it was hard to swallow change that happened suddenly, night to night, before yesterday's new moths had died. Yet it had only been a handful of days since Beetle's wolf-bond was killed, and change was already there, surer than a gathering thunder. It was there in everything they did.
It was there in the soft ring of tension in Blacksnake's voice proposing a hunting trip, noting that he needed a partner as he planned to ride some distance, and one whose arrows were sure. It gnawed there, with small worrying teeth, at Windsong's gut before she agreed, casting a glance sideways at her lifemate playing with her small daughter, and a further one at Quick Fang, who sat carving wooden eyes for a stuffed wolf doll. The scent of change marked every other scent that Wasp and Halftail had tested twice before tracking, the caution in the swiveling of their ears. It had soured the blood-joy of losing oneself in the chase and crept into the howls of triumph. It was as though life had become change, and neither of them was easy with that in their bellies, weighing down the good red meat.
Blacksnake weathered change better than most, he knew – or perhaps it was that he had been prepared for it, in a sense. Some things could not be dimmed, not by any number of years within the Now, and the sight of little Moonmoth's face frozen in fathomless terror, of Farscout's and True Edge's numb grief and the former's sent memories of bloodied, broken Brightwood, were such things. And those plans, endless plans that he and Easysinger had made, breaking out of the Now for nights on end to plan for the future, those had been made to last. Often he commended himself on this: it was a gift, one the tribe needed, to be sure. A wise elder quick to shake off fear and refuse to cling to the old ways in a new situation could make the difference between life and extinction, in the right time and place.
And yet he had lingered; allowed time to pass on the hunt, urged Wasp to speed and to higher, stronger leaps. Lingered, like his fool son: tasted the blood he had drawn, passed the night without speaking, only doing. Clung to the ruff of the Now by the tips of its comforting softness.
He'd planned for this change for so long, he knew its terror too intimately.
"Crawfish was not the first wolf we ever lost to a tussle over prey," Windsong was musing in her thoughtful yet pragmatic tones, looking at him rather than at the trail ahead. Her bow lay in her lap, still strung, and she fiddled with the string. "This is our mistake – that we've stopped thinking of the humans as predators."
Blacksnake glared at her, unsettled – angry, even, at the implication, but she cocked her head at him, getting a twang out of her bowstring. "Am I wrong, Hunt Leader? There's change, and then there's a cuff on the ear to remind you of what was true all along. I've not raised two cubs without learning this, and you know better than most."
"I haven't forgotten," he shot back – just that, and he saw her face soften a little. She respected him, and understood.
Windsong was young, he thought; youngest among those he considered senior within his hunting party, capable of leading their own excursions. But while the tribe did not lack in elves who acted younger than their many seasons, she was among the few who acted older. Her own nature and two daughters, each a challenge all her own, had steadied and cooled her mind, made her like a birch slip, both resilient and flexible. He didn't need many words with her, not even now.
"There's danger in anything we might do," he said bluntly, "and doing nothing is just as risky. They'll always have the greater numbers, and the Painted Faces are no strangers to bloodshed. Aye, this is some cuff to our ears – but not every cuff has to be snapped back at, all at once."
"But you asked me on this hunt for a reason, I'd wager," Windsong answered, just as blunt. "And it's not like you to delay."
It wasn't, Blacksnake thought; and yet…
He didn't avoid her gaze: he gave her a small nod of acknowledgement, half a sharp smile, before looking ahead between Wasp's ears at the trail ahead and the Dentrees that were now just in sight. Even if there had been any sense to it, he couldn't delay any longer. And there was none, he knew with perfect clarity, no reason not to follow what plans they had managed to draw out all those seasons ago, precisely so they would know just what to do when the right moment came. No reason.
Except that he wished Easysinger was still waiting for him in their den, to curl up with after this.
"You're one of my most reliable hunters," he spoke up at length, with a clear note of pride, but little other emotion. "The tribe knows as much. Longshot, Foxtail, Pathmark, even Quick Fang in her way, they're all cubs still. Thornbow is older, steady, a good pack's second, but no leader. Notch is Notch. True Edge has the experience, but with his hard head, he'll never win the full confidence of some. Snowfall and you are my surest arrows." He turned his gaze to meet hers again, found her frowning, bright green eyes narrowed to almost-angry slits.
"Blacksnake." She nudged at Halftail, both stopping the she-wolf's progress forward, and directing her to move closer to Wasp's side. "What's this talk, my friend?"
Something in her tone gave him pause. He looked deep into that suspicious green glare, then actually gave a short, humorless laugh. "It sounds like I'm preparing for my own death, doesn't it?"
"Aye, it does." Windsong was even less amused.
"No." He quickly shook his head. Though that, too, should be kept in mind. "No, I'm preparing for something else. Something that's been prepared for a long time."
She wouldn't remember, he knew; it was long before she was born, though as Sunlight's daughter, Cedarwing's and Shyheart's granddaughter, she was not untouched by the hardship of that time. Perhaps her mother had told her – as much as she could convey what it had been like, to sit in council in those days. "We always thought about this day, huntress, Easysinger and I, and not only us but every elder at hand. Hunting's all well enough, but it's something else we knew we'd have on our hands, if we met these humans again. We knew we'd have to fight like we never fought before." He glanced at her; she was perfectly attentive, straight as an arrow on the back of her wolf. "And we'd need someone to lead that fighting as a Hunt Leader does for the hunt. We'd had choices then – Snaptwig, Dagger, Axehand before he became One-Leg, even your father." Names and faces floated between them, sent images and sense-of-presence, of strong and wise tribemates who had been relied on, who were no more. "But One-Leg can lead no fighting, now, and the rest have been dead for many seasons. Even my son must see that there's only one choice left."
There, it was said – felt like drawing a jagged thorn from a paw. It wasn't pain, he reflected, as much as a sort of chill, a grave realization – starkly opposed to the Now of the hunt they'd left behind them – that he was, in a sense, alone with what must be done. The plans that they made were made to last, but the seasons wore them down like water against stone – and even Blacksnake wished he did not have to be the lone rock still standing stubborn against the current.
But he had begun the thought and he would finish it.
"If it comes to that fight, then I must lead it, and someone else must be Hunt Leader for the tribe."
He looked at Windsong, who gazed back silently. In her bright green eyes, he saw what her father Raven might have said, with his cautious optimism, it might not come to that. But he saw Sunlight in that bright green as well, in all her orphaned grief and fury. Though Windsong voiced neither, he saw both mingled, a strange sort of strength.
"What about Snowfall?" she quietly asked at last. "She's older than I am, more experienced…"
"I mean to talk to her, too. The decision isn't mine alone, there's what the two of you might choose – and Windburn's word as chief."
"And have you talked to Windburn?"
The question caught him unprepared, and his hesitation was itself answer enough. Windburn… was there any use talking to Windburn? He knew of his parents' plans, Easysinger had drilled them into all her cubs, even Chicory. And Blacksnake had not let him forget, had brought them up, talked them out, back when the Amber Hunters first made landfall. But that was turns and turns ago… and what did Windburn understand? What could Windburn understand? Riskrunner had been fully grown, sitting at council with his mother and father, understanding the plans from their inception. Windburn was not even born, had always had them second hand. What could Windburn truly understand? "Windburn didn't come to me for counsel," he answered her knowing look. "But he'll get it anyway. No secrets, huntress, we have planned for this. No one would be fool enough to throw all those plans away." No one could be allowed to.
Windsong's face was thoughtful, hard to read. She nudged Halftail lightly, urging the she-wolf to start her slow walk towards the Holt again, and Blacksnake and Wasp followed suit, veering a step to the side. He didn't want to urge or press her – no doubt she'd see the truth of all his words if she thought about them. If only they'd have the time.
"I should tell Suddendusk," she murmured, nodding slowly, her many braids shifting to shine like water in the pale dawn-light. "You know Quick Fang would leap on wolfback and go hunting as soon as her little one is whelped, and he would need one of us..."
Blacksnake could only echo her nod. His protective younger brother would have a hard time of it with both mates riding far – but Suddendusk was one elf, and he, too, would bow before the need of the whole tribe.
"It may not happen so soon," he said in a low voice.
Windsong glanced at him – briefly her eyes were as sharp as pine needles, but meeting his, they softened. "What if it never happens at all?" she asked. "Have you planned for that?"
The Dentrees came fully into view now, just across a scattering of thick bushes. Among the branches that smelled of greenery and faintly of elf and wolf and home, it came to Blacksnake with a sort of dull wary surprise that, no, they hadn't planned for that. They had considered many options, many things that might come to pass, but a fight was a part of all of them, as natural and painful and inevitable as the cold of winter.
So many plans… Easysinger had always said that a river was best keeping its path, but thoughts should flow through many channels. And an elf could become lost in the past, as easily as in the Now.
He looked back at her, again – she was neither Raven, nor Sunlight, but all Windsong. Her fears and hopes were her own. And the humans…
"What else could happen?" he asked her dryly.
"I don't know," Windsong answered, her tone smooth. "Perhaps you should ask Windburn."
That was already too far. Blacksnake glared at her, and she looked away, eyes lowered in a sort of submission, acknowledging that her arrow had misfired, or perhaps struck too sore a spot. The Hunt Leader shook his head, as though to force away an irritant, silvery hair flying into angry eyes. What could Windburn understand? But the thought had lodged itself deeply, all at once, forcing a hundred others – and what if she was right? The humans were not the same humans… Windburn was chief now, not Easysinger… so many plans, but he was their last keeper…
And keep he must, what else could he do?
**Talk to your lifemate,** he grumbled at her as they came into view of the other elves scattered round, who came forward to greet them. Windsong nodded slightly, the gesture nearly lost as Crackle came bounding at her, talking and gesticulating in wild excitement. The huntress still looked at him, and he watched her reach out and put her arms about the tribe's future.
And perhaps I will talk to my son.