The girl-cub laced closed the curtain-skin and turned away from the window in dismay. It was still snowing – and it was a cold, wet snow. Winter had hung over the Holt’s woods for long enough now that Sparkle no longer found delight in rushing out to play in the snow. It was cold, it made her nose run, and when most of the tribe were in their dens sleeping away the short daylight hours, there was no one else to play with. Worse – wet snow like this meant it would likely be another night or two more before her father, Riskrunner, returned along with the party of hunters he had left with, the dusk-before-last.
“It’s still snowing,” she complained to her mother. “I’m bored.”
Ice burrowed deeper into her sleeping furs and mumbled a sleepy reply. Sparkle took that for permission, and hopped down off of the bed. She scooped up her hooded winter cape, the one her grandfather had made for her, lined with warm ermine and with the hood edged in wolverine pelt, and wrapped herself in the cloak as she slipped out of the room.
Three steps away from her mother’s door was one of branch-bridges between the sheltering Mother Tree and the towering Father Tree. Sparkle made her way across that bridge carefully, knowing from experience it would be slippery from wet snow. Mid-span she stopped to look up through the bare twined branches overhead, and stuck out her tongue to see if she could catch one of the large flakes of falling snow.
“Cubling! What are you doing awake at this bright hour, my little honey-eyes?”
Sparkle scampered the rest of the way across the bridge and flung herself into her grandmother’s arms. “I’m bored, and momma’s sleeping.”
As always, Chieftess Easysinger’s arms were warm and welcome, her embrace cradling and perfumed with the ghosts of sage and rosemary, sweetgrass and mint. The elder was dressed in buckskin leggings and an undyed sweater made of Dreamberry’s thicked mouflon wool, her pale-brown mane of hair loose and worn twisted back from her face with pins of carved bone. “Your grandsire is sleeping,” Easysinger said. “You caught me on my way down to the cache-den workroom. Another pair of hands would be good; I’m making travelcakes.”
Sparkle clung to her grandmother’s hand as they climbed down the narrow stairs that led past sleeping-rooms and into the warren of storage dens among the Father Tree’s roots. A lot of the tribe’s winter supplies where here, sorted by type and method of preservation. Dried herbs hung from the gnarled roots overhead; baskets and clay jars were piled and stacked sometimes orderly, sometimes haphazardly; there were stacks and rows of raw hides, and a standing rack draped with supple leather and cured furs.
Easysinger led her granddaughter to one of the niches that served as a work space; the area was well lit by a thick layer of moonmoss that grew across the sloping ceiling overhead; as always, Sparkle had to giggle at how the moss’s phosphorescent glow gave her grandmother’s tawny hair and pale skin a blueish cast. Easysinger returned the child’s grin, and ruffled Sparkle’s short cinnamon curls fondly.
“Will you pound the berries and nuts for me, while I grind down the venison?” Easysinger asked.
Sparkle nodded vigorously; it made her feel important and older than her five winters to help her grandmother make travelcakes. A staple for the tribe’s hunters, Sparkle knew everyone thought her grandmother made the very best.
“Tallow rendered down the fat from that boar for me,” the chieftess said, patting a large clay pot that sat next to Easysinger’s low work table. Sparkle followed suit as her grandmother knelt at the opposite site of the narrow shelf of shaped wood. “Tallow knows how to melt it and strain it down until the grease is pure tallow and will never go rancid on us, like fat straight off the kill will do.” Easysinger selected one of the long, oval grinding stones and gave it to Sparkle, then measured out several handfuls of dried blackberries from one basket, blueberries from a second, and marshberries from a third. She added in a handful of sunflower seeds, and a second of hazelnuts, then handed the mixture to Sparkle. Sparkle had done this before. She covered the bottom of the mortar bowl with nuts and berries, and began to grind them down with a pestle, while across from her, her grandmother set to work grinding down dried venison until it became a powdery meal.
“Will you use honey?” Sparkle asked hopefully, knowing that if her grandmother did, she would be allowed to swipe a fingerful of the sweet, golden syrup.
“When we go to mix it all with the tallow, yes. But first we need to pound our meat and berries down to the right consistency. Then just like last time, we’ll mix it all together, adding a little honey at a time, and leave it to set in storage bladders.”
Sparkle nodded eagerly, and matched the rhythm of her pestle with the pace her grandmother set. That rhythm was broken only to pour out the meat or berry-nut meals into a single watertight reed basket, and to refill their mortar stones with more.
“Tell me a story,” Sparkle asked. Times like now, working with her beloved grandmother, were what the girl always thought were the best times for stories.
“A story?” Easysinger was silent for a time, then finally swept her mortar clean of pulverized jerky and dropped in a new piece of meat. “A story,” she repeated, finding the rhythm again with her grinding stone. “I’m afraid I haven’t any stories in me right now, but making travelcakes always makes me think of long nights hunting, and of the long months of travel that our ancestors once made, as they sought this place we call our home. Your great-grandsires and great-great-grandmothers must have made travelcakes just like the ones you and I make today, and I wonder how often travelcakes saved our ancestors from starving during the cold of winters without a hometree to shelter in. I haven’t any stories for you, but I’ll tell you of our history and who we are instead.”
Sparkle nodded eagerly; and seeing her granddaughter’s eager expression, Easysinger smiled and began to speak.
“Once, long ago, so long ago that no one now alive was there to remember it, or even looked upon the face of one who was there who could remember it – once so long ago, one of our ancestors had the choice to live as an elf, or to live as a wolf. And because of that single choice, we today are not like our kin the wolves, whose simple natures allow them to be blind in the face of a fearful truth. No. Because the choice was to remain elf, remain listeners of the starsong, we can think, and know, and predict what is to come from what it is we have endured. We remember the past, and those memories can make us wise, when we choose to learn from what has come before.
“Wolfsister was of this world, born of it, born of the wolves. Those gentle High Ones welcomed her and her packmates when their survival made it necessary. When Wolfsister and the pack provided warm furs against the winter snow, and good red meat, she was tolerated. But she was also feared. Her differences made some of those early ones recoil from her, and some of those lost ancients abhorred the thought of mingling their blood, and the blood of their children, with a huntress whose father ran wild with the wolves. Some of those ancient ones refused to share their fires and their shelters with her, so repulsive did they think her tainted blood.
“But Wolfsister was wise. Unlike her feral father, who ran nameless with his wolf-kin, Wolfsister knew that her life meant something much, much more to those left timelost on this world. She knew that her gift to her elf-kin was more than meat and furs and fruits of the forest. Her gift was fertility. Those of her elf-kin who had the courage to mingle their blood with hers would receive the most precious of all gifts – they would have children.
“Wolfsister’s first Recognized was one of the High Ones who survived the humans, and he abhorred her wolf-blood. He was a man with a forceful will and one others listened to, and as her child grew in her womb, so did her fear that her child’s father would poison her child with his hatred for her. So she gathered to her her closest friends, and they resolved to leave, and to find new territory to claim of their own. They endeavored to leave behind those who feared how the wolf-blood would change them, and in the shelter of a new forest, they would raise their children in peace.
“For a full turn of the seasons they wandered, Wolfsister and her friends. Summer found them hunting among the great shagback herds, and autumn found them marveling at the endless waters of the western sea. With her child heavy in her belly, Wolfsister decided the rich forests between the ocean and the grasslands would be ideal for their wintering over. By the time her son Badger was born at midwinter, Wolfsister knew she had found her tribe its home.”
The chieftess paused for a time, and gazed at the storage dens around them, with particular fondness for the roots of the great tree that formed a cathedral overhead. Sparkle found that she had stopped in grinding her own berry and nut mixture – she hurried to refill her mortar, and studiously went back to work, giving her grandmother a shy smile as Easysinger nodded in approval and returned to her history-telling.
“Here we have lived for generations since. Wolfsister bore three sons and three daughters, all of different fathers. She didn’t need Recognition to spark a life. And although Wolfsister was the child of a half-wolf father, she had the wisdom of her High Ones mother. Unlike the simple wolves of the pack, she understood that children ensured survival, even more than did meat and furs during winter. Because it takes two elves to make a child. All creatures prize their own young, but for us, our children are all the more precious because they are so few. If our tribe is to simply endure, each of our lifebearers must bear two cubs; for our tribe to thrive, each of our women must have more cubs that two.
“Feverease was Wolfsister’s dearest friend, and she was a healer as well. She understood Wolfsister’s wisdom and she had the power to help the tribe grow and thrive. Wolfsister and Feverease, Littlepaw and Moth, Knifemaker and Raincaller. They were the first mothers of our tribe. From their wombs we all come. Their mates were Crow and Eagle Eye, Bravestride and Redmane, Clayshard and Greenleaf. Crow was a glider, Clayshard could shape stone, and Greenleaf himself first nurtured the Father Tree, the Mother Tree, and the Child Tree, whose limbs shelter us today. From those first ones we all come, and their spirits linger with us still, rejoicing with us at every birth and grieving with us at every death. And some day, your children’s children will fish from these waters and hunt these woods, and you and I will be spirits together among the leaves of the Father Tree, celebrating with our ancestors all that has been, and all that will yet be.”
Sparkle put down her pestle, and gazed up at the root-laced ceiling overhead. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, trying to reach out and feel the ancestor spirits her grandmother promised her were there. One, in particular, she reached out for and yearned to feel respond; Wolfsister, the ancestor who was figuratively the mother of them all. But if her great-great-great-greatgrandmother’s spirit were there, she remained silent.
No. Wait. For the briefest of moments, something stirred through her brown curls, as though the barest of breezes had floated through the underground room. Sparkle’s eyes shot open, and she stared at her grandmother, who still sat across from her, pounding dried venison into meal. Easysinger met her granddaughter’s wide gold eyes, and smiled knowingly.