(This story is a sequel to "The Third", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend"; it is also part of the "Early Encounters with Humans", and the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” sequence of stories -- see the listings for more related stories.)
Beneath cerulean wings the Preserver crept along the floor on all fours. It pantomimed looking around its surroundings. “First Foamspray go look-see with No-Fear Highthing or Fire-Curl Highting. Find where Growlerkiller Bigthing going for catch-prey. Then we make sure he no get it! One time, Foamspray jumps up in face of fursoft hoofbaby, and goes PTTTTHHHHHHH!“ Foamspray jumped up as it blew a childish noise through its mouth, waving its fingers beside its snail-shell topped head for full effect.
“Make all hoofthings run farfaraway before bigthings can get one! Teeheeheeheehee!” The small creature put its seagreen hands to its tiny waist in a pose of self-satisfied triumph. “Growlerkiller Bigthing gets no foodstuff when Foamspray and Highthtings make sneak-do! Was sometimes spookycold, but Foamspray not fraidyscared! Foamspray is heartbrave helper for nicepretty Highthings!”
Foamspray could hardly be blamed for its role in events. It was only following its natural desire to aid its beloved ‘highthings’. The alphas of the pack of pranksters were standing at the center of a semi-circle of the entire tribe, at least those near enough to respond to the chief's summons. Fire-haired Foxtail, the chief’s daughter and heir, was in the center. Notch, also known as No-Fear Highthing, was to her right. Beetle, the last elf from the younger generations anyone expected to be in this much trouble, was to her left, standing back a bit from her fellow conspirators like a passive omega wolf, calmly resigned to whatever fate awaited her.
Foxtail had her head in her hands, trying to keep from laughing at Foamspray's display. It didn’t really concern her that the endless gossip amongst Preservers was probably how the rest of the tribe discovered their exploits in the first place. Nor was she cowed by the long faces on the crowd of elves, the whole tribe, surrounding their party from various vantages of the Gathering Den. There was a clingy tension around them all that Foxtail wanted to swat away like a swarm of annoying blood-biters.
Her father glowered at them. “The humans were never to be approached! < i>How dare you defy me?” The anger in his voice sent Foamspray zooming up to the second story of the high chamber. There it hid in the gnarled wall of the sealed lump that was once the den of Easysinger, Windburn's mother and predecessor.
Foxtail merely looked away from the display. She stole a look at Notch’s ear, thinking about how much she’d like to nibble that triangular slice for which he was named.
Whispersilk's private warning to her daughter was short and to the point. **You should know better than to insult your father like that. You are in enough trouble as it is.**
'What’s he going to do? Frown about it until the next whitecold has come and gone?’ The cuffs on the ear or the few chores she'd gotten for stirring trouble in the past were always well worth it considering how much fun that trouble had been. Besides, in the five-eights or so of turns since the day the Amber Hunters came to the southern shore, her father had seen no reason not to hold off making any real decisions about the humans until the next day. And the next day, and the next, and the next. Not quite two-eights ago they were joined by the refugee Painted Faces (the most notorious member of that lot being the one now called Wolfkiller by some of the tribe). Still the elves waited to see how things played out.
More and more faces were changing from distraught to outraged. It was Notch that stepped forward to address them. To his credit, Foxtail thought, his roguish swagger meant that he had some kind of plan, and like her was less than concerned about how this council would go. “It was my idea. I talked them into it.”
It hadn’t taken much talk. Not on Foxtail’s account anyway. It sounded like- and had been- a lot of fun.
“It doesn’t matter who talked who into what!” Nightstorm chided. She pointed a finger at the two maidens. “You two walked in just as deep by being fool enough to follow! If the humans found you, did you think they’d stop to ask who’s idea it was to snatch food out of their mouths?”
“They can ask whatever they want,” Foxtail smirked, “We’d never know the difference!”
“You thick-skulled pups!” Blacksnake was practically vibrating with hostility. “You three didn’t just gamble with your own lives, you had every single one of our lives in your hands! You could have brought the humans’ wrath down on a hunt team! Or one of the cubs! The entire future of this tribe at stake, and you treated us like tokens in a game!”
“How thick-skulled do you really think we are?” came True-Edge from another angle. He was speaking directly to Notch. “You wouldn’t have accomplished half of what you have done if you weren’t taking the whole scheme more seriously than you’re pretending to right now!”
It took a moment for Foxtail to wrap her head around that comment. What was True-Edge getting at? “Oh, well, we took the planning very seriously. At first we were going to rile up the near-wolves in the human village. But that place is so walled up and guarded we couldn’t really find a way in.” Foxtailed shook her head theatrically, “And trying to get Briarpatch to make water into a bowl while she was in heat was a real pain in the tail.”
"THIS IS NOT A JOKE!" Windburn exploded. "You risked discovery -- you risked your lives, all of you! Worse, you risked the lives of all the tribe -- you treated us like tokens in a game! Foolish, arrogant nonsense like this is what got Whitestag killed -- but at least he and Quick Fang only risked themselves! Try me further, and the punishment I gave her will seem light by comparison!"
That got Foxtail’s attention, but she pushed back. "If these humans posed such a threat, wouldn’t we- wouldn’t you- have done something about it by now?" She asked out loud and to all. With a hand on Beetle’s shoulder she said, “What had happened to Crawfish was a terrible thing. But it was a lucky shot, that’s all. We pulled a few feathers off that very same five-finger, and we walked out alive. This whole tribe has its hackles up over nothing.”
“Nothing? You call this nothing?” Red-faced Cloudfern had already given the chief the first word, and allowed many a reply. He had clearly been waiting to pounce on Beetle. At his side were his lifemate, Greenweave, and his lifemate's daughter, Dreamflight. Foxtail suspected Dreamflight was there more to act as an advance shield for Beetle. “How could you do this to me?” he demanded, “My own daughter? How could you put me through the terror of what they could do to you of they’d caught you?”
“We took every precaution, Father,” Beetle stated plainly. “I’m sorry to have upset you so, but the danger was worth the risk, I think. Pranking the humans gave me an opportunity to learn more about them. I knew there was danger from the start -- it was my wolf-friend who the human killed. But Crawfish was being stupid and greedy and should never have tried to keep the squirrel. I know that now, and I understand why the human did what he thought he had to do to protect the Amber Hunters he was guiding. But also I know for certain now that these humans are not like the Fierce Ones. They would not do the terrible things that were done to you and Farscout.”
Cloudfern strained not to interrupt. ”The Fierce Ones chased their half-shaved hides out here! We know that! Farscout brought back the proof! They could come back to finish the job!” He was on the verge of angry tears. He was paranoid beyond all reason on the subject of humans as far as Foxtail was concerned. One might as well be terrified of the Mother Tree itself for the chance its leaves may one day turn to itchleaf.
Greenweave solemnly stated his lovemate’s fears to the whole. “We really don’t know what the Painted Faces are capable of now that they’ve been pushed into a corner by the true monsters. A trapped beast doesn't care who it strikes.” His words were meant to reinforce the truth of the matter, but Foxtail only saw a lover's need to support their mate even into madness.
Having made her statement before the council, Beetle quietly stepped out of the middle of the loose circle, and wrapped her arms around her father. “I do not believe they are our enemy. Rivals maybe, but there are things they will not do. I could teach you what I’ve learned, father, if you’re ready to listen.” Cloudfern nodded. None in their party said another word, they simply held one another.
“Hey, I did my part!” Foxtail called, suddenly hungry for attention, “You heard the bug! Fire-Curl Highthing! It didn’t tell you all that I was the who started making ‘spirit-wolf’ howls to spook the humans! If anyone's not going to take as much blame as the other two, it should be Beetle. All she did was keep an eye out for us!”
Starskimmer’s face, which was normally warm and sparkling, was this night framed in the very definition of a disappointed mother. A look passed between the elder and Beetle. Foxtail could imagine what had been lock-sent, ‘Whom were you sent to watch out for, daughter? The humans, or your tribemates?’
The answer, of course, was both.
There had been other games played to disrupt Wolfkiller’s attempts to shoot down, trap, or otherwise catch dinner. Each kind of game needed its own division of labor. The prank being raked over the coals now was simply the one everybody knew about. Everyone in the den suspected as much, based on some of the other glances she saw being passed around. Foxtail saw no reason to share.
Notch took over the defense again. “We needed to do this, I think. The Painted Faces are afraid of the wolves, or in awe of them. Either way that is what keeps them away from our territory. Their guides keep the Amber Hunters away too, and we know they aren’t afraid of anything.”
“Those brownskins will dive right into a mudslide just to see the pretty rocks!” Foxtail joked.
Notch smiled and waited a moment for laughter (there wasn’t any) and continued, ”But now a wolf has died at their hands. They will be expecting something bad to happen, their ‘wolf-spirits’ taking revenge. But if < i>nothing bad happens< /i> they will have no worries at all, no reason to give us any space. How long would it be before there are campfires all along our thornwall? Rafts winding their way through the barriers Mother put in the river? I don’t know about you all, but I could do without their noise in the middle of the day when I’m trying to sleep.”
Foxtail looked at her charming co-conspirator with new eyes. Reckless, happy-go-lucky Notch was talking like he never had before. She could almost believe that getting caught was part of the plan, or at least planned for, just so he could lay out his argument before the whole tribe and be taken seriously for once. Or at least evade the penalty by providing proof of success. She really hadn’t put that much thought into this scheme.
"Whatever your reasons, you knew my orders," said Windburn sternly, unmoved by Notch's arguments. "It wasn't for you to decide on your own, and then do! That right belongs to the chief!" He thumped his own chest in emphasis.
“And only the chief!” called Pathmark, rising in defense of Windburn’s honor. There was a fire in his eyes, an alien boldness that was enough to turn heads his way. To see the gentle and syrupy-sweet trapper make such a sight of himself was something Foxtail never thought she’d live to see. ‘Nothing ever gets Pathmark’s fur ruffled. He was mauled half to death by a bear, and he came out all smiles!’
Nobody was behaving like themselves. Beetle had behaved from the start like interacting with the humans was another brain-grinding experiment among many. That was to be expected, really. But wild, incorrigible, wonderfully reckless, Notch was starting to sound like an elder laying out plans to halt a wildfire. And with every word he spoke, more and more faces seemed to be coming to new conclusions. She was starting to feel like the omega in a pack of big thinkers.
Just as absurd was One-Leg’s silence. Eyes kept darting over in his direction, waiting for him to shout everyone else down with one of his booming, curse laden, lectures on the Way and duty to the tribe and the importance of doing whatever the chief says. But Notch’s sire just sat there, mouth slightly agape, like he’d been hit in the gut by something.
No one was speaking to interrupt, but Foxtail's skin was all but tingling with the feeling of all the lock-sends in the air at that moment.
'It was only a game!'
Foxtail had had enough. “Oh, please! Will you all listen to yourselves?” She didn’t really believe half of what she was about to say, but if she said it right, it might provide a bolt-hole out of this farce. “Why is it me and Notch and Beetle up against a tree? If there’s a dung-pit here, Father, you are the one who dug it! You sat on your haunches and let the humans run wild on our territory! You sat on your haunches waiting to see what would happen. What happened is a wolf-friend was killed. Who’s next? At least we did something! We can’t all wait for you to padfoot a way out from under this anymore!”
The den went stone quiet.
All eyes were on Windburn.
Foxtail didn't like to think that maybe, just maybe, she'd managed to go too far this time, but the unlikely thought was literally shaken into her head as her father's hands suddenly closed about her collar, hauling her bodily from the ground. Fabric tightened painfully about her throat, and forced to look up to keep her breath, she met his eyes. They were flint and fire. She'd seen him turn such a look on a tribemate only once before, when Quick Fang came back from the errant hunt that cost Whitestag's life, and remembered how the proud willful huntress wilted under it. It had never been turned on her – his own daughter.
This was far more than frowning. All her fancy arguments suddenly dried up. Foxtail opened her mouth but found that all that came out was a faint gasp of fear.
"My own cub," Windburn hissed, not in her father's voice, but in a cold venomous tone. "Foolish, rock-brained, limp-tailed cub, my heiress and hope, spitting in the tribe's face like this. Do you think you can play at being chieftess?"
And he threw her down, her rump connecting painfully with the hard earth. Biting on a snarl, Foxtail tried to pull herself together and straighten, returning his glare, but his eyes paralyzed her once more. Something bore down on her like a great weight, impenetrable – Windburn's will, his chief-sense, rooting her to the spot. She hadn't her father's might.
The whole tribe was watching – she sensed them on the sidelines, more than saw. Her two comrades were frozen as well. Notch was now wordless - well aware, she thought, that it was only the chance of the draw that had Foxtail in this position he could easily have fell into himself. Her mother, Chicory, all the elders, all of them looking on. Even Blacksnake, who never had trouble pushing back against his son – even he wouldn't defend her, and that disapproval seared like a sting. The force of their unified stares along with Windburn's was too much to bear.
Foxtail looked away.
The chief's voice was flat and cold. "What good are your words, daughter? You may talk like you've thought this through, but I know, and the tribe knows, that you didn't. All you cared for was the thrill of the game. When was it ever different? If you truly cared about the future of the tribe, you might have come to the tribe – to the elders, to me, your chief. But instead you went with Notch."
He turned away from her then, and cuffed Notch on his ear, hard enough to send the younger elf reeling back, hissing in pain. Even as he whirled on her, Beetle bowed her head and tilted it to show throat, hands held out in open submission, and was spared. Foxtail watched it all through a thin haze, seeing the tribe stand aside without interfering. She rose to her feet slowly, heart hammering. Her face, she felt, was bright red.
Mocking her – laying her bare like that before the whole tribe, and the worst was that he was right, she hadn't thought it through, she never meant to.
"You – all three of you – acted as though you weren't part of the tribe." Windburn's voice was lower, calmer now that all three conspirators' eyes were lowered. The tribe was also calming down around him, silent exhales and twitching movements breaking the moment and ending the frozen scene of the challenge. A few – Pathmark, Windsong, Thornbow, even, treacherously, Rainpace – edged a little closer to the chief, as though both backing and basking in his solid presence, while the elders, from furious Blacksnake to stoic Snowfall, had hard attentive eyes. "So this is my decree: for three hands of days now, you are not. These three are air and winds, wolfriders – none may speak or send to them, meet or hold their eyes. Three hands of days of shunning, a hand for every fool head that played this game. And after that – " his gaze flickered across the tribe.
"Moss, Greenweave, Suddendusk," he said, "take these three in hand. They're confined to the Dentrees for six moons, once the shunning is over – work them raw." Foxtail felt the weight of that judgement as acutely as that of the shunning – six months stretching skins and mending nets, just the thought made her stomach turn. And why was Notch standing so still? They'd never thought their punishments would fall so heavily…
Or had he?
Feeling betrayed on all sides, she barely even heard the three affirm Windburn's orders, nor listened to any further discussion that went on. Notch and Beetle didn't meet her eyes. It was only a game, and it had gone wrong, terribly wrong. And she couldn't shake off the memory of her father's cold eyes.
Lonely, defeated and furious, the chief's daughter left the council for her cold, empty furs.