(This story is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories; it is also part of the "Early Romance of Farscout & Brightwood" set of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
“It’s mid-day. Time to go,” teased his mother’s voice in his ear. “Wake up, little one, or you may get left behind.”
“If left, little moon-hair would cry and cry,” trilled Mushroom in dour counterpoint to those words. “Poor little moon-hair, all lonely and sad.”
Moonmoth blinked awake from the depth of a good dream only to find himself in a strange bed inside a strange dentree hollow. His mother, Frost, knelt beside him, dressed in her warm traveling leathers, with the Preserver Mushroom’s yellow-bodied, orange-winged self perched on her shoulder like the memory of autumn. Moonmoth stared up at his mother fuzzily, disoriented in this unfamiliar place. But then memory swept over him, and the boy sat up eagerly.
“Are we going hunting now?” he exclaimed, throwing aside the sleeping fur which had been draped over him, and reaching after his raccoon-fur cap. Except for himself and Frost, the dentree was empty now; the rest of their family’s hunting party must have already left for the day’s expedition. Moonmoth jammed the cap down over his ears and scouted frantically for the spear his grandmother Shyheart had made him, not quite sure how, or when, he had possibly fallen so deeply asleep. Sure, he had been tired, because Grandfather Cedarwing’s treasured hunting-camp site was many long days and nights’ ride north from the Holt. But this hunting trip was the first of his family’s regular winter treks that Moonmoth had been allowed to join, and this far away from the Holt, every little thing, from the scudding clouds overhead to the crunch of the snow-crust underfoot, was somehow magically different and more exciting. Joining his elders on this trip was the culmination of every dreaming moment of his entire young life, and Moonmoth was determined to impress upon his kin that their decision to take him along was in no way a mistake. He’d be as tireless as his father Lynx, as wise as his mother Frost, as skilled a hunter as his sister Brightwood. Grandfather Cedarwing would tell stories after this hunt of his grandson’s courage, and Grandmother Shyheart would make him a new winter coat of the finest clickdeer-hide, after Moonmoth had proven himself beyond the wildest of any of their expectations —
A gentle hand on his shoulder stopped Moonmoth before he could rush out of the dentree. “Don’t forget these, dearheart,” Frost said, holding out his green otter-skin boots.
Chagrined, the boy snatched away his boots and scrambled to pull them on. “I’m going to get the biggest clickdeer of all today,” he said, trying to cover his embarrassment. “Just wait and see!”
“Biggest won’t impress anyone,” Frost replied, a wise smile turning up the edges of her mouth. “If you rush a hunt, you’ll be the one who spoils it for us all. If you want to impress anyone, you’ll have to be smarter than that. Spinner knows her place in the hunt. Don’t urge her to anything reckless — just ride where she takes you, and don’t do anything foolish.”
Frost’s luminous eyes were sober as she gave her son that knowing warning, but the pride of her smile gave her away. Moomoth tolerated his mother’s sudden embrace as he stood again, his boot-ties now secure. “You only need not make the same mistakes your sister did in her excitement of her first clickdeer hunt, to have your father and grandfather celebrate you as the family’s next great hunter,” Frost whispered in his ear. “Darling, just stay astride your wolf-friend, don’t spook our prey, and don’t do anything rash, that’s all you need do.”
Moonmoth nodded acceptance of that advice as his mother released him. Then he bolted from the old shaped dentree, letting his excitement carry him out into the brilliant winter sunlight.
The hunting camp the family treasured was a towering old cedar, which Cedarwing had first shaped into a dentree for them in the years of Lynx’s youth. Out of the corner of one eye, Lynx saw the purple-clad blur that was his son’s exit from that tree. Little Moonmoth’s face was flushed with excitement and his blue-violet eyes were shining as he rushed to join the cluster of his kin as they finished planning the day’s hunt. Lynx shifted where he stood to reach for the boy as Moonmoth arrived, pulling the youth against his side in an easy embrace.
“Thoughtful of you to join us before we all freeze,” Brightwood teased, reaching past Farscout to tousle her little brother’s moongold hair.
“We were just deciding to leave you a-bed, Moonmoth,” Lynx agreed, with an amused side-long glance for Cedarwing and Shyheart. “After all, someone has to stay behind and protect our supplies from scavengers. The stinkbears in these hills have wickedly keen noses for what they can steal.”
Moonmoth’s expression crashed dramatically, before the boy saw from the faces around them that his father had been teasing. “We don’t need to leave a guard. Grandfather will just shape the tree-door shut like he did while we slept,” the boy protested.
“No,” Cedarwing corrected gently. “No I won’t — at least, not entirely. I’ll shape the door partway closed, and then we’ll lash a hide curtain tight over it, angled so that it’s hard for any stinkbear or ringtail to reach. That way, any of us who need to take shelter can get back in to their warm furs, in case your sister or I aren’t at hand to shape the door open again.”
“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” Shyheart said, her attention on the sky. “There’ll be a storm before dawn. You can smell it coming, and it’ll be thick with snow.”
“All the more reason for us to get a good hunt in now, before it arrives,” Lynx said. “We can tuck ourselves up in the safety of our old hunting-den, and wait out the snow will our bellies full of fat clickdeer meat.”
“There’s no time to waste, then,” Brightwood announced, her blue-violet eyes shining as brightly as Moonmoth’s had. “Let’s get moving!”
Lynx looked at his daughter and could not restrain a proud smile. It had been just over a year that autumn since she and Farscout had Recognized, and Brightwood’s babe was just beginning to show, swelling at the middle of her winter leathers.
**Baby-making doesn’t slow our Aya down,** Lynx locksent to his lifemate, feeling Frost’s presence at his back.
**Why should it?** Frost countered. **She’s as fearless as you are. I’m just grateful she inherited my good sense to temper that.**
Lynx snorted and tossed his mane of curls out of his eyes. “Right,” he said. “We’re ready then. Farscout, you’re with me. We’ll scout out the size of the herd, see what there is to be seen. The rest of you, follow the river north. We’ll catch our prey between us, and take what we need. Do what you can to keep from ruining the hides, that’s after all why we’re here, right?” There were answering smiles at that. Nothing was better insulating than a clickdeer’s winter hide, and those which ranged down from the high mountain glacier were of higher quality than the smaller beasts closer to the Holt. And for more winters than Lynx could count, his family had used the winter’s migrating clickdeer herds as an excuse to ride far afield from the Holt, hunting a territory the elves seldom rode north enough to visit.
“Everyone have their gear?” Lynx asked aloud — it was a rhetorical question, save for one. Lynx looked down at his son, evaluating what the boy wore and carried, then nodded approval. “Ride close to your grandmother,” Lynx ordered his son, giving Moonmoth a little shake in punctuation of that command. “And do what your mother or your grandfather tell you. The last thing we need is you getting caught up in a stampede when the herd runs.”
“You mean, not like Brightwood did when she was my age!” Moonmoth grinned back. That event was a favorite family story now, often told and embroidered upon over the years.
Lynx hugged his son, then propelled him gently toward where Moonmoth’s young wolf-friend Spinner waited, haunches planted in the snow. “Don’t drop your spear, either,” he called after the boy. Lynx patted the weight of the spear-quiver he wore across his back, and satisfied that he had his own gear ready, he strode toward where Lynx’s bond-friend Thornburr stood, stiff-legged and impatient in the wolf’s own way to get started.
“You can nuzzle later,” Lynx called over his shoulder to Farscout, who was delaying to see Brightwood mounted astride her wolf, Tailchaser. “Shake your tail, lad. Let’s go!”
They rode down out of the low, forested hills and out into the relatively flat ground southeast of the family’s travel-den. Many days to the east lay the snow-shrouded Greenstone Mountain, and farther beyond that, the cold waters of Sky Mirror Lake. Farscout eyed the distant reach of Greenstone peak, weighing the distance and the time it would take to make that trek again.
**You’re looking snowdazzled again,** Lynx sent, with a sly look cast back over one shoulder. **If you’re intent on getting another snowcat pelt for my daughter this trip out, as you’ve promised her, you’ll have to get your wits about you.**
**How long’s it been?** Farscout countered, shading the question with a memory of them swimming in Sky Mirror Lake.
“The summer before Moonmoth’s birth,” Lynx answered. “You feeling the need for another sack-shriveling swim?”
Farscout smiled and shook his head. **After my cub is old enough to join us,** he replied.
Lynx chuckled at his companion’s proud send. “I felt the same way, before the birth of my first. You’ll change your mind soon enough after the little howler is popped, what with all of the squalling for milk and stinky swaddling. You and my footloose daughter both will be happy enough to foist the spawn off on uncles and aunties and grannies, just wait and see.”
Farscout shook his head again, but did not rise to his companion’s bait. Lynx loved an argument as much as Farscout loved silence, and Farscout felt no need to defend what he knew in his heart. When his beloved had their child, his lifelong restlessness would be stilled. He would have reason to take root until their child had grown. Their child… There was no end to the joy and pride Farscout felt when he thought of the little soul he and Brightwood had sparked together — those emotions were as deep and limitless as the ocean. There were even moments when he held his lifemate in his arms and felt the bubbling first movements of the little one in her belly when Farscout suspected that he could just as easily drown in the riptide of his heart’s passions as he might in the sea itself; sink down and drown and lose himself utterly, and never for a moment regret it.
The pair rode on in silence for an hour or more, seeing increasing sign in the snow of where clickdeer had scraped away snow to feed, and then finally, the first stragglers of a massive herd, grazing like flyspecks in the distance. The clickdeer of the Holt were creatures comfortable in the woodlands, while these beasts Farscout and his close-kin hunted today were larger and heavier than their woodland cousins. These herds were wanderers who spent the spring and summer months feeding in the highlands to the north, beyond the Guardian Mountains. When the autumn chill arrived, the great herds moved south, following the river channels down from the high glaciers and through the Guardian range, finally passing through the vast green valley of the Clickdeer river and across the Bounty, spending the worst of the winter in lowlands between the Clickdeer and Bounty Rivers.
And with the migrating herds came others as well — packs of stranger-wolves followed those clickdeer down from their summer highgrounds, as did the solitary and shy snowcats. Success in hunting for clickdeer in this season was a near certainty; the real challenge was to kill an elusive snowcat. The elves would hunt for those too, once they’d caught enough clickdeer to fill a healthy cache of meat. Snowcat pelts were rare and treasured, and Farscout was intent on taking one this season, to serve as a birthing-gift for Brightwood. He had already enlisted Shyheart and Frost to help coordinate any necessary deception to keep the gift a surprise, provided he could first make the kill —
Farscout was jolted out of his distraction as the wind shifted suddenly with a gust from the northeast, assaulting his nose with a distant but alien stink. Both of the wolves faltered suddenly in their ground-eating pace. “Gah,” Lynx muttered. “What is that?”
Farscout gave his companion a disquieted look. Lynx’s expression was equally sober. The elves’ world was full of flux and change — but the components of that seasonal ebb and flow were known elements. Sometimes something dead from the deepest sea washed up on the sands of the ocean shore, or a clever herbalist like Lynx’s sister Sunlight combined oils and essences into a unique new perfume. But anything so instantly unidentifiable was remarkably rare — especially for two of the tribe’s most well-traveled.
The wind toyed with them, gusting just as suddenly from due north, and smelling only of distant clickdeer dung and the growing threat of snow. Then it shifted again and brought back to them a fresh tangle of scents, familiar and strange both and wholly unpleasant against the back of their throats. “Roundhoof,” Lynx said, his nose wrinkling.
“And smoke,” Farscout added, disliking that strange combination for this season and place. Roundhooves were creatures of the southeastern grasslands; the country past the Rushwater River was too wet for them and, in time, made their feet rot away. And while wildfires were common in the summer, there was little the snow left bare enough in this season to burn.
“And that again. Whatever it is, it’s ranker than dead stinkbear.” Lynx made a face.
Farscout nodded, tasting that alien, meaty odor and finding nothing at all in his memories that was similar. It was musky-pungent, like raw bearhide, with equal mix of stale and rancid. Beneath him, his she-wolf Rattle whined in displeasure, while Lynx’s Thornburr grumbled an uneasy threat.
“I don’t know what that is,” Lynx said. “But whatever it is, I don’t like it. Rot it! The clickdeer hunt can wait. Let’s take a closer look.”
Following the tracks of the herd they had intercepted, Frost and her family rode down from the forested hills and across a flat, snowy stretch toward the twisty Clickdeer River.
**Look at all of them!** Moonmoth sent with raw wonder.
A large herd of clickdeer — hundreds of cows and their summer-born fawns — grazed on the far side of the river. As the elves watched, a few stragglers from the herd — males who had shed their antlers at the approach of deep winter — waded across the wide ford of the river. One of the beasts, a tall strong bull, stopped to cast a look back toward the five wolfriders, and finding them of little concern, leisurely went back to grazing at shoots of grass exposed by his companions’ footsteps in the snow.
**The herds get larger and larger all winter, as small herds combine,** Cedarwing observed for his grandson. **The males and yearlings lose their antlers, but the pregnant cows keep theirs, to best forage through deep snow. Today, we’ll take only beasts without antlers.**
**Pity. Those fawns would make for tender eating,** Brightwood countered wickedly. Frost shot a look at her daughter, and saw Brightwood’s feral grin as she consciously patted her own belly. Frost smiled and shook her head, amused at how like Lynx their daughter was.
**Even the old bulls will be tender enough,** Shyheart sent, nudging her wolf Buckhorn forward. The senior-most in rank behind Lynx’s Thornburr, Buckhorn went willingly into the lead, head low in a sense of purpose which caught fresh attention from the straggling grazers.
**Won’t we wait for Father?** Moonmoth asked, as the other wolves sorted themselves out to follow single-file after Buckhorn. Frost held her own she-wolf Flamefly back when she would have preceded Brightwood’s Tailchaser, and gestured for both of her children ahead of her, intent in taking up the rear behind Spinner to keep a close eye on her son.
**Lynx and Farscout must have overshot this mob,** Cedarwing said. **That’s easy enough to do around here. Farther out to the east, see the land looks as flat as smooth water? That’s your eyes playing tricks on you without much in the way of close landmarks to anchor them. The land really rises and rolls, so a herd can be tucked into a little dip of land. If the wind is blowing wrong, you can trot right past them and never know they were there.**
**I can’t see anything to the east except for more clickdeer!** Moonmoth sent excitedly. **Why aren’t they running from us?**
Straggling members of the herd were moving away from the trotting wolves, and the herd itself was tightening up. Wary beasts were eyeing the hunters, but many continued to graze, more concerned with digging up their feed than they were with a handful of hunters.
**They know what wolves are, and they know how wolves hunt,** Shyheart answered. **With so many gathered in one place, they don’t have to run from us like deer. The healthy ones know they haven’t much to fear from wolves, and that wolves will go for the weakest and easiest kills. And who knows if any of them have ever seen an elf before, so they don’t know what our bows or spears can mean.**
“Much meat, much meat, much much wrapstuff to be made!” warned Mushroom, traveling on Frost’s shoulder as it best liked. “But highthings be wise and careful, nasty slobbering clickdeer kick and bite and trample good highthings flat if good highthings not cautious and quick.”
“Hush,” Frost told it fondly. The orange-winged, mushroom-capped creature had once been her mother Foxsly’s little favorite, and it had adored the footloose chieftess and enjoyed roaming with her. But the little bug had followed Foxsly and her lifemate Crest on their last adventure into a troll tunnel, and whatever it had seen of their deaths had changed the Preserver entirely. Mushroom expected doom and bloodshed at every new turn, and there were times when Frost wondered why the poor creature ever left the safety of the Dentrees at all.
Buckhorn splashed through the ford, the water rising belly-deep on him. Shyheart swung her feet back over the wolf’s hips, so that she was almost lying flat across his spine, keeping her boots and leathers largely dry. Following close at Buckhorn’s heels. Cedarwing followed suit. The elves had to take more care than their wolf-friends, as their clothing captured water and would freeze close to their skins. Frost made sure her son crossed the river safely, while Mushroom clung to one of her braids and peered anxiously at the icy cold water as though it might suddenly swell in a flash flood.
The herd began to move, slowly and deliberately, away from the hunters’ purposeful approach. The wolves kept to an easy trot, pushing the clickdeer just enough to get them moving but not enough to expend much of their own strength. Soon enough a lame old cow or crippled yearling would begin to fall behind, and the elves would have an easy kill.
**Why don’t we just shoot one?** Moonmoth demanded of his mother. **Your bow and Brightwood’s bow could bring one down right now!**
**Patience, dearheart, patience. We give the wolves a little taste of the chase for now, and then when—**
Abruptly, the easy flow of the clickdeer herd vanished. A wave of panic seemed to flow over the beasts, sweeping over the herd from its farther reaches. A large wedge of the beasts wheeled about and galloped headlong for the wolves and their riders.
**Stampede!** Shyheart warned, as their wolves bolted in a race to get clear of the oncoming herd.
**Pryn!** Frost locksent to her son, ordering him to her side. Spinner lunged close to Frost’s Flamefly, as wild-eyed in fear as her young rider.
The stampede overtook them, sweeping them up in a crazed, thundering rush. It was all Frost could do then to tuck low against her wolf’s body and ride it out. The wolves ran as fast as they could, struggling to keep from being trampled underfoot. **Here!** blazed Cedarwing, his sharp sending a buoy for the entire family.
Ahead of them, the mass of clickdeer wheeled away from something, a swerve of direction so violent that several of the cows in front of Flamefly collided and went down. There wasn’t time to avoid that scrum; Flamefly vaulted the thrashing tangle, using the flanks of one of the wild-eyed cows as a launching point. **Pryn!** Frost sent, casting a frantic glance backward. Spinner was dodging out of one clickdeer’s way, but that leap put the young she-wolf right into the path of a yearling that was veering hard aside. The yearling struck wolf and rider hard, and all three went down into a tangle of limbs.
**Moonmoth!** Frost sent wide, blasting an image-send of that awful collision to all her family. She brought Flamefly up in a skidding spin. The herd around them was in full rout back toward the river. Flamefly ducked beneath the legs of a cow who twisted to avoid them. Several strides and then Frost and her wolf were back to where both Moonmoth and his wolf-friend lay. Frost grabbed for her son, dragging him up astride Flamefly’s shoulders, while poor Spinner struggled up, one hind leg shattered.
“Hai!” shouted Brightwood, as she and her wolf-friend Tailchaser closed in from the other direction. The largest of the entire pack, white-coated Tailchaser was big enough to give even a fear-mad clickdeer pause when the wolf held his ground. Brightwood snarled and shouted, then swung her bow into the head of one bull who came too close. The weapon snapped on impact, but the beast swung wide instead of trampling them down.
Moments later, Cedarwing and Smokenose where there, and then so was Shyheart and Buckhorn. The wolfriders pressed together in a close, united knot, making themselves into an obstacle no clickdeer could overrun. Cedarwing and Shyheart waved their arms and spears and shouted, seeking to look bigger than they and their wolf-friends actually were. Frost hugged her son close with one arm and with the other used her bow as club, while to her far side Brightwood had ripped off her snowcat-fur cloak and waved it in the face of the stampede. Their efforts proved out. The herd parted ranks around them, and then within the space of several heart-pounding moments, the bulk of the herd had passed them utterly, with only a few terrified stragglers in its wake. Frost clutched her son against her, feeling her heart hammering with sick fear, only then felt her lifemate Lynx’s distant, insistent mindtouch. He’d heard her send-warning regarding Moonmoth’s fall.
**Is it my fault?** Moonmoth asked then, his sending thick with mortification. The boy had lost his fur cap somewhere during the stampede, and his pale hair was tangled. **Did I cause the clickdeer to run?**
“No, son,” Frost panted, feeling from his mindtouch alone that the boy was only frightened but not seriously hurt. She breathed out a deep breath of relief as she silently reassured Lynx that they all were safe. “No, they’d have run away from us if you had, not into us like…” Motion on the periphery of her vision caught her attention, and Frost turned her head to look that way, expecting to see a pack of stranger-wolves or maybe a bear. “… they did…” she whispered, the words dry as dust in her mouth, while around her, the rest of the family turned to look as well.
“Shards,” Shyheart aloud, while Brightwood and Cedarwing both turned their wolves full about to face this new threat.
Frost’s first impression was of shaggy dun hides and strangely misshapen bodies. The foremost of that gathering whinnied and flung its head — a roundhoof, she recognized the beast then for what it was, but the dark bulk riding on its back defied explanation. It looked like a bear — squat and heavy and bushy with fur. But bears ate roundhooves. No herdbeast of any kind would willingly let a bear ride astride it.
“What are they?” breathed Frost.
Moonmoth squirmed in his mother’s arms, trying to get a clearer look at the strangers. “Are they trolls? They’re trolls, aren’t they?”
“Farscout and I have seen a troll. They’re green, not blue,” answered Brightwood.
**Be quiet, both of you,** Frost sent, her fear giving the sending sharper edges than she would have wished. Her eyes were still too busy trying to make sense of what she was looking at — the individual details made sense, but her mind recoiled from the whole of what she was seeing. She reached out to her distant lifemate — no one in the tribe was as far-traveled as Lynx, but she knew even Lynx had never seen anything like this before. There were maybe a dozen of the riders. Her first impression of bear was because several of those riders were dressed in bearskins, with the bear’s head fashioned as snarling hoods. But three of those riders rode without hoods. Those riders had blond head-hair and an elder’s long face-fur worn in braids, and the skin of their faces was alternately flesh-pale and dusty indigo. Frost recognized the indigo shade as woad-dye, and saw that the leather arms of their tunics and breeches were painted as well. Feathers fluttered in the riders’ hair, and in the tangled manes of their mounts. Two of them wore big, painted auroch horns slung across their chests. And in their hands, all of the riders carried weapons.
**We’re coming! We’re on our way!** Lynx sent then, his mindtouch distant and anxious.
“Whatever they are, they’re hunting the clickdeer, same as us,” Cedarwing said. “See that bull that’s down over there? They’ve got their spears in it.”
Frost sat deep, and in response to that cue, Flamefly began to back up cautiously. Smokenose edged back as well, her ears flat.
One of the strange riders jammed his heels into his beast’s flanks, and his roundhoof jolted forward for two steps before shying up. It wanted no closer to the wolves than it already was, and when its rider tried to force it forward, it simply danced in place, swinging around in a refusal to advance. Frost saw that there were blue handprints — big, big hands with one more finger than was right — and a twisty geometric pattern repeated in paint up and down the beast’s flank and haunch. That rider fought with his mount, sawing at a leather rope tied around the beast’s lower jaw. Then a second of the strange riders rode forward at a walk, his beast moving steady beneath him. The hoodless rider called out to Frost and her family in a booming, rolling voice and held out a spear toward them.
Whatever the strange rider was saying, it sounded like a command. Frost saw Cedarwing and Shyheart trade a worried glance.
“It’s talking at us!” Moonmoth exclaimed, his excitement overcoming his fear. “He’s got facefur, so he’s a he. He could be a troll that’s bred with bears, just like Wolfsister and Halfwolf with the wolves!”
“Let’s go,” Shyheart whispered. “Leave them the herd. Let’s go.”
The one rider called out again, still riding at an advance. His tone was insistent and sharp with question. Cedarwing held up his own hands, his spear held crosswise.
“Back away slowly,” the elder said again, over his shoulder to his kin. “Slow and sure — don’t invite a chase, but don’t invite a challenge, either.”
**Shai, get out of there,** Lynx sent, his mindtouch bristling with anxiety. **Get yourself and our cubs out of there!**
Tailchaser began backing away then, and so did Buckhorn. Frost was wondering when would be too soon to actually turn tail when a blur of motion among the other strange riders caught her eye. She saw the familiar snap and swing — an atlatl, like Autumntide’s favored weapon — and cried out in warning. But her cry was a heartbeat too late. Frost heard the awful crunch of a short-spear hitting flesh, and saw Shyheart crumple from Buckhorn’s back. One of the strange riders blew a blast on his hunting horn like some terrible howl, and Frost knew better than to delay to see what their intentions were, or even to see if Shyheart were only wounded. As her Recognized’s locksend urged, Frost embraced her youngest child tight and sent her wolf racing for the river, and for the far-too-distant shadow of the forest.
Lynx and Farscout had just found a safe spot to ford the river when they heard the distant rumble of hooves. “They’ve found a herd, and they’re running it,” Lynx muttered, putting Thornburr to a run. Farscout urged Rattle to follow. They were safely across the river and heading toward that telling thunder when a sending from Frost blasted them. Farscout rocked back on his wolf’s spine, swept by Frost’s powerful send, and for a split second, he saw and felt everything Lynx’s lifemate did — riding full-out in the thick of a running clickdeer herd, and looking back to see Moonmoth fall in a collision with a yearling clickdeer behind her.
Thornburr leaped into a full-out run, and Rattle followed without needing her rider’s guidance. Farscout reached out in a sending of his own. He brushed his Recognized’s mind, felt her focused on actions of her own, and retreated from full contact. A shadow-touch was enough for the moment — he knew that if his lifemate’s little brother were in any danger, Brightwood would be rushing to Moonmoth’s aid, and his questions would only be a distraction for her.
"Whatever’s happening, it’ll all be over by the time we get there," Lynx muttered fiercely, his mind-touch likewise splintered between lifemate and companion. "Rot it, what are they thinking, running the herd without us?"
Brightwood’s mind was a familiar, blazing presence — whatever was happening, she was where she wanted to be, in the thick of it and meeting it headlong. Farscout rode, urging his wolf to her best speed, and knew when his lifemate’s mindtouch surged with elation that the worst of it had passed.
**They’re free of the herd,** Lynx reported then, followed in a heartbeat by, **She’s got him, he’s safe.**
There was relief in Brightwood’s mindtouch as well; she noticed her lifemate’s presence then and he felt the swelling glow of her touch. Something else had spooked the clickdeer herd, turning it on its hunters. **Safe,** she reassured him, but not entirely so — **Spinner’s down and badly hurt, hardly able to hobble upright. Moonmoth looks like he’s just bruised, nothin more-—**
A flash of startlement then, followed by a surge of his lifemate’s wolf-keen aggressiveness. Farscout shared her impression of a fresh threat, then saw through her eyes what Brightwood now faced.
“Run!” Farscout didn’t know if his words were for his lifemate, his companion, or even himself. He pressed his knees tight against Rattle’s ribs and urged her with his hands to run, flat-out and headlong, as fast as the she-wolf could. **They’ve found them,** he cast at Lynx. **Whatever-they-are, Brightwood and the others have found them!**
Lynx’s Thornburr drew even with Rattle as the bigger wolf met his packmate’s pace. Then Thornburr began to draw away, a breath with each stride. **We’re coming!** Lynx blazed at his kin. **We’re on our way!**
Cedarwing’s calming mindtouch reached them then like an echo, urging caution, urging sense. Whatever these creatures were, they were smart enough to craft weapons and cure the hides they wore. Whatever they were, they were trying to communicate, and having two bow-waving scouts ride frantically into the scene might scare someone —
Brightwood’s uneasy touch surged into starkest fright. Farscout felt the sickening jolt of her terror, saw through her eyes as Shyheart went down with a spear through her belly, and then Brightwood was lunging forward to her grandmother’s defense, her rush of wolf-blooded fury overwhelming all else. **Aya!** he locksent, finding himself shunted aside and frantically seeking to re-establish that close contact. But he knew his Recognized, and knew she would be too absorbed in the immediacy of a battle-fury to respond.
It was in that moment that Lynx toppled from his wolf-friend’s back. Rattle was forced to vault over the fallen elf, and Farscout reflexively pulled her up, turning her back to go to his companion’s aid. Lynx was thrashing helplessly as though in a palsy. He gave a dreadful, wordless cry, the sound of which would later haunt Farscout’s dark dreams.
Farscout flung himself from his wolf’s back and seized Lynx by the shoulders. Lynx’s raw moan went silent, and he shoved Farscout away from him. **Go!** Lynx sent, and the grief in his mindtouch was more terrible than any physical blow. **She’s dead. My lifemate is dead. But my children — go!**
Farscout threw himself back astride, and turned Rattle about, heading for the sounds of distant battle. **Aya!** he locksent once more, already fearing that Brightwood was too busy fighting for her life to answer him. He urged Rattle to an ever greater effort, but even at the she-wolf’s fastest pace, they were miles yet from where they needed to be. When he felt his Recognized finally fall, Farscout was unable do anything but howl his despair.
There was nothing left at the scene of the battle except for trampled, blood-stained snow and the skinned corpses of four wolves. Spinner’s body was the most pitiful. The others bore wounds that were testament to their fight for survival. But poor Spinner had shattered a hip, and from what witness Farscout read in the snow, the troll-bears had clubbed her into submission before cutting her throat.
Four of the wolves were dead and skinned — but a fifth had fled the combat and survived it, then returned to follow the roundhoof tracks away from the site. Farscout measured the size of those prints, read again the track-sign, and was fairly certain that the sole survivor was his lifemate’s Tailchaser. For what little comfort that could be had, it was something.
Lynx arrived as Farscout finished trimming slices of meat from the abandoned carcass of a clickdeer the strange riders had killed. **They killed three clickdeer, but only carried off two.**
Lynx’s haunted expression was ghastly. “They killed my lifemate. Where is she?”
**They carried off all of our kin, and took the wolf hides as well.** Farscout reached for Lynx’s shoulder and pressed it silently. His entire life, Farsout had looked to Lynx as the one who always knew what to do next; never had he seen Lynx look lost, as he did right now. **But we’ve hope. Brightwood lives. I can feel that much.**
Lynx nodded shallowly. “My son as well. They have wrapped something around his head and he is tied hand and foot. I think Cedarwing is alive as well. But my mother—“ Lynx choked, and the misery in his eyes was eloquent beyond words.
A sudden bit of color came winging toward them, fluttering on crumpled butterfly-brilliant wings. “Mushroom,” called Farscout, holding out a hand for the creature.
The Preserver seized his fingers like a lifeline. “Bad-bad-bad,” it wailed, its eyes swirling with dread. “Mushroom tried to help, Mushroom tried, but Mushroom no help, no help, no help. Bad-bad-bad, blood and weeping and ugly hateful bad big-things!”
Farscout tucked the keening Preserver onto his shoulder and made sure its shaking hands found a grip. “Hush,” he urged it. “Hush. Be silent. We need you to be silent.”
Mushroom shut its mouth miserably but nodded understanding. Satisfied, Farscout cut away a last piece of rib-meat from the clickdeer carcass for later — it was meat they would need, he swore to himself that it would be so. **The riders left us tracks to follow,** Farscout sent, stuffing the chunk of meat into his shoulder pouch. He kicked up a broken half of what looked like Cedarwing’s spear up out of the snow, then picked that up too, shoving it into his carrisack against future need. There was a shattered hunting horn buried in bloodstained snow nearby. Farscout picked it up as well, turning it over in his hands and examining the etchings. A bear’s head, its maw opened wide, stretched out from around the mouthpiece of the horn. Rough geometic shapes spilled from the bear’s mouth like a blast of fetid breath. Farscout dropped the horn and rubbed his hands clean on his coat. **Our kin are waiting for us,** he sent, looking up at the sky and gauging the quality of the clouds above them. **Snow’s due. Let’s not waste any time.**
Lynx nodded and urged his weary wolf back into motion, following after the line of tracks the riders had left behind them.
Something was whimpering, close to her ear… Brightwood drifted in the black current for a while, aware only of pain, and that soft, lost whimpering sound. Something urgent pushed at her now and then, but it was peaceful to ignore it and to simply drift…
**Sister, sister,** pleaded Moonmoth, the blaze of his sending too immediate to be denied. **Don’t die, oh please, don’t die!**
“I’m not dying. Don’t be a fool,” Brightwood growled at him. Opening her eyes was a struggle, and then, once they were open, focusing them enough to see clearly was worse. Moonmoth’s round face was close to hers — only the fact that his nose was nearly pressed against her own kept her from seeing two of him. Her head throbbed wickedly, but worse was the pain that stabbed her when she drew breath. Brightwood took a second, cautious breath. It was just as bad as the first. She reached warily for her belly, and it hurt where-ever she touched it. But at least the babe still lived – she felt its consciousness hovering at the edges of her awareness. The babe was reason enough to overcome her fear and her body’s injuries. Brightwood knew the babe and Moonmoth both needed her to get her wits about her, if any of them were going to survive this. “Where are we?"
They were lying on a bearhide that was stretched out on trampled, season-dry grass. Moonmoth whimpered and clung to Brightwood’s side as she carefully sat up. Immediately, there was a murmur of voices beyond them. Brightwood struggled to look past Moonmoth’s fair head. They were inside a big ribbed cave. It took her a moment to recognize it as a huge round tent, supported by tall lengths of slender wood. A big fire crackled nearby in the center of the tent, and several small oil lanterns burned elsewhere, shedding some light and even more thick, fatty smoke. There were several of the woad-painted not-trolls sitting in a semi-circle around the fire. They had all shed their bearhide coverings and were dressed in buckskin tunics and leggings, some with warm wolf-fur wraps draped over their shoulders. Brightwood saw the glitter of firelight reflecting off of knapped stone knives, and some of the men had spears or ugly stone-headed clubs balanced across their laps. They were all staring toward her and Moonmoth and they muttered at one another in their ugly, deep voices. When Brightwood blinked her unwilling eyes into better focus, she saw that another line of not-trolls were clustered behind the first line in a sober silence. They were equally yellow-haired and braided, but smooth faced. She took them at first for younger males, but when one rose to approach the fire, she saw the bulge of breasts and realized these were female not-trolls. Her eyes tracked the one that approached the large central firepit, which was flanked by two shrouded biers. The female knelt and gathered onto a bone platter some of the thin-carved strips of meat which were roasting on sticks in the flames. Brightwood glanced back at the biers, still not recognizing the shrouded figures for what they were – it was only when she took another breath and tasted an underlying stink of death and the start of decay that it struck her that these were bodies of two of the not-trolls whom she or Cedarwing had killed. The place was crowded and stank, but the not-trolls gave her and Moonmoth ample room, staying well clear of the hide the siblings sat upon.
Brightwood shot a look behind her. Her grandsire Cedarwing lay on the hide directly at her back, and beyond him, three more of the not-trolls near the wall of the tent, well out of reach but solid encouragement against flight in that direction. Cedarwing’s green eyes were open and staring sightlessly at the smoke-hole in the dome of the tent’s ceiling, through which drifted a rare flake of snow. Brightwood touched her grandsire’s cheek. His skin was waxy, and the side of his head was badly contused, but he blinked in response to her touch. **Grandsire,** she sent, trailing her fingers across the line of facefur at his cheekbone. **How badly are you hurt?**
Her elder was aware of her, but seemed too distant within himself to acknowledge her question. Beside her, Moonmoth moaned and clung to her like a limpet. **Grandsire,** Brightwood repeated, unable to keep back the edge of fear that crept into her sending. **Grandsire, are you hurt?**
**I’ve lost my heart,** Cedarwing responded at length. **They’ve taken my heart, they’ve stolen my soul. I don’t know why I’m still breathing.**
**Because we’re still alive, and we need you!** Brightwood replied fiercely. **We’ve got to get out of here! This cave is as thick as fleas with them, but at least we’re not tied up. They hit me with one of those clubs, and I taste blood when I draw breath. I’m going to need your help to run when we find a way to escape.**
Cedarwing shook his head shallowly. **They have my heart here, speared on a pole and roasting in the flames. How would I live, leaving her to this?**
**Moonmoth and I are still alive, grandsire!” Brightwood sent back at Cedarwing, chilled by the hazy touch of his sending. She glanced back toward the firepit, alarmed by her grandfather’s impressions of Shyheart being in the flames. The one female not-troll had turned away from the fire with her large platter of meat and was offering choice pieces to the male elders. The pale flicker of shadow playing across frost-white hair caught Brightwood’s eyes, and drew her attention back toward the farthest of the two biers. At the foot of the bier was a round lump which she had first thought was something draped with white foxfur. She looked at it again, struggling still to focus, then caught her breath in horror.
It wasn’t white foxfur she saw, but her own mother’s frost-white hair, and her mother’s profile, stiff and unfamiliar in rictus —
Brightwood swallowed down a moan and hugged Moonmoth tightly against her. **Close your eyes, little brother, and see nothing,** she wished to him, aware now of the second disembodied head resting at the feet of the closer of the two biers.
The female with the platter had served the males and was now passing it down the line of females. Having finished eating his slice of meat, the first of the not-trolls got to his feet and approached them. Brightwood growled at him and clutched Moonmoth closer. When the not-troll reached for her, she snarled and snapped. He jerked back in surprise, and there was a rumble of laughter from the gathered not-trolls. One of the not-trolls called out something to the one who had approached her; he answered in kind, and there was more laughter.
“Think you’ll still be laughing when I rip your hand off?” Brightwood snarled. “Try to touch us again and I’ll be spitting your fingers back at you.”
The not-troll was listening to her words, although it was clear from his expression that he didn’t understand what she said. He was half-again as tall as an elf, and as thick with muscle through the shoulders and chest as Axehand. Half of his blunt-featured face was painted blue, with a white line bisecting the blue across his cheek. There were strange, mottled ridges along his brow and under his eyes, like patterns of deliberate scar tissue. His hair was as golden yellow as her aunt Sunlight’s, and standing as close to Brightwood as he did, she could see that his too-small eyes were a clear cerulean blue. Brightwood couldn’t tell if he had been one of the ones who had attacked her family, but his dirty leathers smelled of dead wolf, and there was the scent of elf blood about his hands and sleeves.
The not-troll said something to her, addressing her directly. Brightwood gave him a full show of teeth in retaliation, making it clear that she wasn’t so badly wounded that she wouldn’t go for his throat if he got much closer. Whether or not he took her threat display as a bluff, the not-troll ducked his head to her, and turned to call some sort of order to his own kind. He clapped his hands once, and instantly, two of the females moved to comply.
The not-troll turned back to her and began talking again. Within moments, the two female not-trolls approached, both bearing wooden bowls. Brightwood eyed them warily. Neither looked to be armed; both wore very similar buckskin leathers decorated with elk teeth and dyed quills, with their yellow hair tied back in braids. Eyes downcast, the two not-trolls set down their bowls at the edge of fur blanket, then backed away toward their own.
The not-troll addressed her again, his voice deep and steady. His blue eyes were the eyes of a pack leader, expecting submission and instant obedience. He gestured to the bowls and mimed lifting one to his lips, then with a booted foot, he nudged them one after the other into the edge of Brightwood’s reach. Brightwood took a quick sniff to identify them. One was water, another was a meat broth, a third was suspiciously like one of Cider’s honeywines, and the fourth something thick and clotted, which smelled of some sort of fermented milk.
“Goalla,” the pack leader repeated, again miming drinking from a bowl. “Goalla.”
“Go bite yourself,” Brightwood snapped back at him. “Don’t touch a thing,” she told Moonmoth, although the boy had made no effort to do so. **We don’t trust a bite or swallow of anything these motherless sons give us, you understand me?**
Moonmoth nodded shallowly, too afraid to make more of an affirmative gesture. The pack leader likewise seemed to take the meaning of Brightwood’s words. He shook his head slowly, and again gestured to the bowls. He slowly reached forward and took up one, sipped it himself, and then put it back down just within Brightwood’s reach.
“Bin taka holmus,” the pack leader said firmly, gesturing first to Brightwood and then to Moonmoth. “Bin taka holmus vy misu taka bin. Vy musu goalla. Goalla yoen neglassed vy. Bin taka holmus human.” He nodded solemnly, then waved expansively at the top of tent before patting his own broad chest proudly. “Vy. Vy. Shurilen taka human. Vy wu human.”
Brightwood scowled, sensing from his tone and expression that he expected an answer of some sort. “Human,” she echoed, mouthing the strange words back at him “Vy wu human.”
A broad, toothy smile split the not-troll’s face, and he nodded approval. “Vy. Human taka bin vy.”
“What do they want with us?” Moonmoth whispered fearfully. “What are they going to do?”
Brightwood hugged her brother close. None of this made any sense. She didn’t understand anything about these brutal creatures, and she didn’t care to. **We’re getting out of here, just as soon as we can,** she promised the boy, the only answer she could think to offer him.
The pack leader was still watching them closely. He bowed his head again, and half-turned to address his own kind. His loud, rolling words were accompanied by strange gestures — it was only when the not-troll cupped his hands over his own chest and then mimed a pregnant belly that she realized he must be describing Brightwood herself to the gathering. He then motioned toward Moonmoth with a petting gesture, as though stroking the boy’s loose hair.
**Aya.** Farscout’s locksending whispered suddenly to her, as deft as a moth’s wing. Brightwood seized her lifemate's mindtouch, and felt his locksend enfold her with equal parts of joy and relief.
**Seth!** She struggled keep her expression and manner from changing, and watched the pack leader closely to spot any sign that he sensed the locksending. **Where are you?**
Although Brightwood could feel the ragged edges of his keen fear, Farscout’s sending was steady with purpose — there was no wolf-rage blindness for her Recognized, Brightwood knew, and she trusted from their lifetime of experience together that Farscout would remain calm even with a dentree on fire over their ears. **Your father and I are on the edges of the camp. Night is falling — we don’t think these creatures can see as well as we do, but we’re taking care not to risk it. The snow’s begun to fall; when it’s dark enough, we’re coming for you.**
Brightwood turned her face into Moonmoth’s pale hair and pressed her forehead against his crown, hiding her eyes until she was sure she would give nothing away to their captors. Just knowing that her lifemate and father were close by — that she was not alone in this — left Brightwood shaken in a way she had not been, only moments ago. Her father Lynx was the cleverest elf in the tribe, and the most wide-ranging. With Farscout to guard Lynx’s back, Brightwood knew she and her brother had reason to hope.
**This is what I’ve seen,** she sent, locksending to her lifemate every detail of their captors, and of their strange round tent. **Moonmoth is here, he’s not hurt. But grandfather is -— I’m not sure how badly, but he’s —-” Brightwood shied away from the thought of grief, and of admitting her own losses just yet. There would be time for grieving later, when she had little Moonmoth clear from this, and when she was safe again in her own Recognized’s arms. **The baby is strong, but I’m hurting. The not-trolls hit Tailchaser and I with clubs, I’ve broken ribs at the least. My legs are whole, but I’m not sure I’m able for a long run.**
For a moment, Farscout’s sending was uncharacteristically tangled in a rush of relief for their unborn child, and fury at Brightwood’s injuries. **Tailchaser is alive,** Farscout told her as he dampened those emotions. **He followed the riders back to camp ahead of us, and is with us now.**
**I’m grateful for that,** Brightwood sent. She had thought Tailchaser lost, along with the others —- she wrestled back her own surge of emotion at that news, and forced herself to think only of the situation itself, and of Moonmoth’s trembling, frail body pressed against her side. **They’ve offered us food and water. They don’t seem to be threatening us now that we’re here, but I don’t understand why we’re still alive. They’ve got my mother’s head displayed like a hunting trophy, and grandmother’s as well, but they seem interested in the three of us alive, for the moment at least. One of them keeps trying to talk to us.**
The pack leader was at it again, too. Brightwood willed her expression blank as she looked up at the not-troll once more, as he began to address her and Moonmoth again in his deep, rasping voice. He had produced a clay bowl and held it out before him in one hand, and held a hawk-wing fan in the other. Some dried leaves of an unfamiliar herb were burning in that bowl, sending up a string of wispy aromatic smoke. The not-troll breathed deeply of it, then fanned the smoke toward Brightwood and Moonmoth. She wrinkled her nose and held her breath, rather than breathe the smoke in. The pack leader asked something else, this time indicating Cedarwing with the direction of his stare.
“Grandsire,” Brightwood whispered urgently. “Grandsire, get up. Get up.”
Cedarwing turned his face away from them and closed his sightless eyes.
The pack leader seemed to nod himself. He brought his hands together in front of him in a short gesture, and then clapped to his kin.
Several of the females jumped to feed the large central fire, building it up in its stone-lined pit. The pack leader returned to his seat in his line of solemn companions, and another pair of females began to go from one to another of the gathering, offering each of them a drink in turn from a large, painted bone bowl. One of the not-trolls began to shake a turtleshell rattle, and another two joined with lap-drums, creating a slow, even rhythm.
Frightened, Moonmoth shuddered and turned his face against Brightwood’s shoulder. She held her brother close, and tried not to let her own welling fear overwhelm her. **Something’s changed,** she locksent to her lifemate. **They’re doing something now. I don’t know what’s happening, but I don’t like it.**
A few miles distant, out of sight and downwind of the not-troll’s camp, they could hear the whisper of those drums. Lynx and Farscout had already scouted as close to the camp as they dared. It looked like a temporary encampment — when not ridden, the roundhooves were kept in a large rope pen, and there were two large round shelters into which the not-trolls strode in and out, and a smaller one into which they had seen the strange creatures move supplies and riding gear. Several coyote-like canines roamed freely around the camp, and at least two spear-carriers sheltered under a hide canopy strung up near the roundhoof pen, standing obvious guard over shaggy herd of riding beasts.
**A hunting camp,** Lynx had surmised from little they could see. **We’ve never seen anything like them before in this area. I don’t know what else they could be.**
**Displaced by a larger pack, maybe, and looking for new territory?** Farscout had offered.
**Whatever they are, they’re not wolves,** Lynx had replied. **And if they’ve been displaced, I sure as rain falls never want to see the larger pack.**
Now, hearing the first beats of the drum, Lynx tucked up in the shallow arroyo they had taken shelter in. He squatted with his head bent over his knees, letting Farscout stand guard, while beside Lynx, Thornburr panted at rest. Tailchaser and Rattle lay down nearby, their fur gusted by blasts of the icy wind. Mushroom was with them still, a silent, bright spot of color among the strands of Farscout’s dark hair at his shoulder.
**Brightwood says they are building up their fire,** Farscout reported. **She’s taken a blow to the head and her sight is not clear, but it looks like there are a dozen or so elders with facefur, and maybe six or so of what she thinks are females. No children, and no young men without the facefur; she thinks it was only elders who fought our kin.**
Lynx heard his companion’s report, but his mind was scattershot, unable to focus down on the problem as he once would have. Instead, his mind was crowded with knowledge of what he had lost. Shai, love of his life and his companion for so many long years; his mother Shyheart, so gentle a soul but as supple and tough as rawhide. Lynx felt as if he had taken a head blow himself — his senses kept reeling, his thoughts vanishing from one moment to the next, and even his balance kept fading so that the ground itself was uncertain. It was only sheer desperation and love for his children and his father that had kept Lynx on his feet this long. He wanted to howl his grief to the moons above, but if he gave way to his agony for even a moment, Lynx feared it would overwhelm him utterly.
Time enough later… he chanted that to himself, and fought to summon the faces of his children before him. Tender-hearted and sweet-smiling little Moonmoth, and Brightwood as beautiful and fierce-hearted as her mother… time enough later, time enough for him and his father Cedarwing both to grieve, once Lynx’s children were free and clear of this.
Farscout had said something else, but the sending had escaped him. Lynx blinked and struggled to gather up his scattered wits. He looked at his companion and found Farscout watching him with starkest concern.
“We’ll get them back,” he murmured for Farscout’s benefit, thinking of the boy his old friend had once been. “We’ll get them back.”
Farscout’s expression didn’t change — the boy he had once been had been too long replaced by a wise hunter to be taken by false reassurance. **Twelve male fighters for certain in the tent with her, all elders with full facefur,** he repeated. **Another eight or so females. We don’t want all of them coming at us at once. And we don’t know what’s in that other tent.**
Lynx didn’t want to think about a fight. No. He wanted the fight itself, some chance to begin to get payback for the soul-separating grief that consumed him now. He just didn’t want to have to think about it first. Which was a mistake, no question about it, a dire mistake if their enemies were canny enough survivors to have earned their facefur.
**The snowstorm will be our friend,** Lynx summoned focus enough to say. **We can creep in enough to cause some distraction. Chase off their roundhooves, at the very least.**
Farscout nodded. If they could find a way to separate the not-trolls from their mounts, then that changed the dynamics of the situation entirely. Wolves could run all night without rest, but they couldn’t outrun roundhooves over a short distance and over open ground. For a moment, Lynx’s mind wandered off on a good dream, of the roundhooves run off for good. Clubs and spears versus a bow made little contest out of a mobile fight. If they could do that, then he and Farscout could ride up at will, shoot as many of the not-trolls as they could see, and then retreat again when pursued until they were out of the short reach of a spear… unlikely a not-troll could cast an atlatl as far as one of Cedarwing’s powerful bows could shoot…
**All we need to do is get them free and make a run for it. With snow falling to hide our tracks from the riders, we should be able to get back to the forest,** Farscout sent. **Roundhooves won’t be able to follow us there.**
**Roundhooves won’t,** Lynx agreed. He glanced at his companion, and saw Farscout looking at him again with that grim look of horror. **We confuse our trail as much as we can, use nosedeaf to hide it, and we’ll avoid leading them back to the Holt. But first things first. First, we get back our own.**
**When it’s dark enough and there’s snow falling enough to hide our approach, we go in. Two guards on the roundhoof pen — two arrows, no warning. We take out the coyotes as quick and quiet as we can, and if we’re lucky, we’ve raised no alarm.**
**And if we’ve raised an alarm?** Lynx asked.
Farscout shrugged. **How many arrows do you have? We stay out of reach of their clubs and shoot until we run out.**
Lynx looked at his hands, which dangled limply beside his knees. It seemed a good plan to him. The elf he had been only hours ago, before his Recognized had been ripped away from him, would have found reason to embroider on it, would have upended it into something sly and deceptive enough to trap a hoary old fox. But the broken creature he was in this hour welcomed the simple and the straight-forward.
**I’ll play the distraction,** he said then, with whatever little sense he could find left in him. **If the alarm is given, I get their attention on me. I get as many as I can to follow me, and lead those away and to the east, give you whatever chance we can to get you in to my father and my children. You get them out and head west. Head for Cedarwing’s dentree. It’s on high ground; my daughter can shelter there and heal up safe with Moonmoth, while you, Cedarwing and I take care of what remains of these not-trolls. We get them in on our ground in the forest, and we finish them. We don’t leave a single one alive. They won’t trouble us or the tribe again.**
Farscout didn’t answer, but Lynx read his friend’s dour satisfaction in the way Farscout turned his attention to counting the arrows in his quiver, inspecting the fletching of each with the single-minded dedication he might give to nursing a child. The distant drumbeat continued, steady as a heartbeat, and the wind swept through the arroyo with a fresh flurry of snow. Lynx lifted his face into that chilly gust, and closed his eyes with satisfaction to feel snowflakes melt against his bare skin. The snow was their friend this night, and their friend was late to arrive.
Brightwood’s sending swept them suddenly, a quick impression of alarm and violence. **They’ve grabbed Cedarwing,** she sent to them, her sending thick with images and a constant, sickly pain. **They pushed us down to keep us from stopping them; they’ve got him and they’re binding his arms together.**
Lynx opened his eyes and looked up into the darkening sky. The low-hanging clouds were beginning now to shed their weight of snow, but the flurries were erratic. The dusk was gathering, but not quickly enough — until the sun had set completely and the snowfall thickened, he and Farscout would be easy to spot against the white of the snow-covered ground.
**Father,** Lynx locksent cautiously — there was no knowing if their enemies could eavesdrop on a sending, no way of knowing if their enemies weren’t capable of such communication themselves. **Father, we’re coming for you as soon as we can.**
**Kamu.** Cedarwing’s sending was an easy caress, chillingly calm. There was a lifetime of love and pride spoken in that single soul-name. **Keep them safe,** Cedarwing wished him, thinking not just of their own immediate family, but of their entire tribe. **Whatever is coming, I’ll buy you time to save them.** Then Cedarwing severed the send and refused Lynx’s sent demands.
Shaken, Lynx shoved himself to his feet. “Let them see us,” he muttered at Farscout as he flung himself onto Thornburr’s back.
They were riding out of the arroyo when Brightwood’s next anxious sending reached them. Without explanation, she simply offered them what she was helpless to watch. When Brightwood lunged after them in protest, she was met with the blinding crack of a spear shaft, knocking her back to her place on the hide beside Moonmoth. Cedarwing had gone willingly where the humans led him, and didn’t protest as they stripped him of his winter clothing. Next to their captors, Cedarwing looked as slight and reed-thin as a stripling boy. The pack leader offered him a bowl of the fermented milk, and Cedarwing ignored Brightwood’s sent demands not to drink it. Cedarwing swallowed the bowl without protest, then simply closed his eyes and let them do as they would, as they lashed his arms and legs to a long, stout pole. When the not-trolls began to hoist Cedarwing up over the fire, bracing the first end of the pole in what looked like the cross pieces of a boar spit, Brightwood realized what their intentions were, she pulled Moonmoth against her and turned away. She severed her sending-link with her father and Recognized as well, but not before they, too, caught a glimpse of what was to come.
The few miles between the arroyo and the not-troll’s camp was the longest ride of Lynx’s life. The snow began to fall in earnest, but after the first mile or so of the ride, the wind wasn’t fierce enough to keep them from hearing Cedarwing’s screams. They rode as fast as they could, but for the second time that day, it was nowhere near fast enough. Lynx imagined himself drifting somewhere outside of his body, unaware of the cold, unaware of the ghastly screams, his heart numbed to ice in his chest. Only as they came into sight of the camp did those screams fall mercifully silent.
The snow provided them scant cover; as soon as they knew the camp was close, they skirted around it, taking the risk of the wind carrying their scent into the camp in exchange for an approach at the back of the roundhoof pen.
The roundhooves pawed at the snow in their enclosure, unperturbed by the screaming. Only when the wolves had stalked up within reach of the staked ropes did the first of the herd snort and look up. Lynx was ready with his bow and already had his target selected. He took his shot, and took down the first of the two guards, clean and silent. Farscout’s arrow was only a heartbeat behind. The second guard fell even as the roundhooves shied away from the sudden appearance of three wolves through the snow. The herd wheeled about and bolted; a few ropes secured to spear-shafts weren’t enough to stop a panicked flight, and the beasts broke through the far side of the pen and galloped away. Several of the camp-dogs gave chase, baying an alarm. Tailchaser would have followed after them, but a sent command from his bond’s Recognized drew the big white wolf up short and brought him back to Farscout’s side.
The door-flap of the central shelter was flung open, and two more of the spear-carriers came hurrying out. Lynx took aim for the first and dropped it where it stood. Farscout’s arrow took the next in the chest. A camp-dog came charging up to them, barking viciously. Lynx put an arrow in its throat and sought desperately for his next target as Thornburr bolted toward the side of the second shelter. The not-trolls came boiling out of their shelter like wasps from a hive, and in that moment, wind blasted at them with sudden force, whipping fresh snow around them in a blinding sheet.
**Go around,** Lynx ordered Farscout. **Brightwood’s shown us she’s near the back, opposite the doorflap. I’ll draw them off, best as I can.**
Farscout nodded and vanished into the swirling snow, with Tailchaser close at Rattle’s heels. Lynx saw them go, then urged Thornburr forward with a roar. He couldn’t see the not-trolls through this snow, but Lynx would find them, and when he did, he would kill as many of them he could.
When Moonmoth heard the thunder of galloping hooves outside, he at first didn’t understand what the sound was. But the humans, or whatever they called themselves, certainly did. Their leader sprang to his feet, nearly knocking the platter of seared flesh from the hands of the female who had been serving him. The pack leader shouted in his thunderous voice, and then the rest were rushing about purposefully with their spears in hand. They began pushing out of the tent, while the pack leader stood his ground for a moment, pointing at Moonmoth and Brightwood and shouting. Several of the females picked up spears and closed in a circle around the siblings, clearly being put on guard. Satisfied, the pack leader and the last of his spear-men left the tent.
Moonmoth tried to stop shivering. **What’s happening?**
**We’re going to get out of here,** Brightwood said forcefully, as though words alone had the power to make it so. She was eyeing their new guards, her expression hard and promising violence. Before this day, Moonmoth had thought his beautiful sister invincible, but now he locked his arms around Brightwood's thickening waist and hung on, hoping to anchor her down from anything reckless.
**Father and Farscout are here for us,** Brightwood told him. **We’ve got to find a way out, we’ve got to find a way to help them.**
There was an animal roar somewhere outside — belatedly, Moonmoth recognized his father’s voice, moments before there were screams and wails. Then a wolf shrieked in agony. Moonmoth screamed in echo to that and clung harder to Brightwood as he felt her coiled to spring toward the nearest of their guards. That female backed up a step in alarm and shook her spear at them warningly.
“She’s scared of us,” Brightwood growled, flashing a feral grin at their captors, a grin which held nothing of friendliness to it.
**Distract them!** blazed Farscout’s sending, so suddenly that Moonmoth couldn’t help but jump. The guard Brightwood had frightened mistook his movement and jabbed the spear at him. Moonmoth shrieked as it scored his arm, and then Brightwood had ahold of the weapon just behind the spearhead and was wrestling it from the guard’s grip as the other females rushed in with their own spears, one of them shouting roughly at her companions.
A spear butt hit Moomoth hard as he flung up his arms to protect his head. Another jabbed him shallowly in the belly and he heard the sound of blows striking Brightwood as well. But Brightwood hadn’t let go of the spear shaft she had grabbed, and suddenly it was the guards’ turn to shriek and scream. Brightwood had managed to pull the weapon from the one guard’s grasp, and in the dim light within the tent, the sudden warm green glow around Brightwood’s hands shone brightly. The female humans fell back in horror as the spear Brightwood held began to twist and writhe. The butt end of it began to melt into the flaring head of a rattlesnake, and its mouth yawned open and its head swung back and forth like something alive. Brightwood jabbed it toward their captors, and two of the females broke and fled in horror, yelling as they went.
But the senior-most one of the bunch, whose neat braids were as much grey as yellow, retreated only as far as the fire. She seized up a flaming stick and turned back toward them, holding it with a warrior’s measured confidence. Other females took courage from her and fell in at her heels. Brightwood snarled challenge at them all and jabbed at the seniormost to test her reflexes. Moonmoth shrank back fearfully, tugging mutely at Brightwood’s coat ends, knowing his sister was hurt and terrified of the results of such a fight, outnumbered as Brightwood was. He cast around for anything to use as a weapon himself, but could find nothing, nothing at all-—
There was a hissing sound of a bowstring, and then the female with the torch dropped her weapon and clawed at the arrow that blossomed in her throat. Another shot took down the next-nearest spear-wielder, and Moonmoth turned to find that Farscout had sliced through the side of the tent. Mushroom spiraled past them, spitting websilk and blinding another pair of guards who didn’t clear the Preserver’s path quickly enough. **Move!** Farscout sent at them, taking steady aim at another guard. That female screamed and turned to flee, and Farscout’s arrow took her in the back.
Brightwood seized Moonmoth by the wrist and bolted for the long sliver of an opening Farscout had carved for them. Moonmoth ran with her, trying to support his sister as he felt the weakness in her stride. Two steps and they were at the tent wall. Something hissed and rebounded against the tent near his ear; Moonmoth flung a shocked glance back over his shoulder, realizing that one of the guards had nearly hit him with her spear. Then Farscout was elbowing him outside, maneuvering to both shield Moonmoth and also take aim at the guard who had launched that attack. Moonmoth heard the twang of Farscout’s bow even as Brightwood was pulling Moonmoth with her outside. The fresh, ice-cold air hit him like a slap to the face. Something shaggy and white nearly collided with them -— it was Tailchaser, dancing with such delight to see his rider that Brightwood could hardly mount. Moonmoth shoved her with what frail strength he could provide, then scrambled astride himself, as Farscout came leaping out after them into the snow.
**Ride!** he ordered them. Tailchaser bolted, and in moments, Rattle was bounding alongside, her own rider low over the she-wolf’s shoulders. Incongruously, Moonmoth heard his sister’s laughter, and saw her reach out a hand to Farscout. Farscout reached back, their fingers brushing, as Brightwood laughed in sheer delight at their escape.
Something as dark and rank as a bear reared up out of the whipping snow before them, and Moonmoth caught a blur of motion even as the wolves sprang apart. Something struck Rattle full in the chest, and she dropped with a blood-curdling shriek, tumbling her rider into the snow.
Brightwood was roaring — Moonmoth felt himself lose his grip and he fell from Tailchaser’s back even as the big wolf launched himself as if aimed at the human which had just killed Rattle. Wolf and human went down in a thrashing tangle of limbs, with Brightwood’s streaming hair swept like a pale banner above them in the whipping wind. Moonmoth tried to pick himself up, but then Farscout was there, pulling the boy to his feet. A dark figure rushed to its companion’s aid out of the snow, and Farscout shot at it, putting an arrow through its belly. Its momentum carried it several more steps before it fell writhing in the snow. Belatedly, Mushroom caught up to them and spat a stream of wrapstuff at the fallen human before rushing back to Moonmoth and seizing a lock of the boy’s hair.
**Run!** Farscout sent urgently. Moonmoth staggered and tried to do as told, but he didn’t know where to run to — everything around him was blowing snow and the wind and hulking shadows. “This way, this way!” Mushroom shrilled, tugging at Moonmoth’s hair. He ran several steps in that direction, until Tailchaser sprang away from his kill, his jaws and chest stained red. Seeing that opportunity, Farscout scooped Moonmoth up and swung him across the big wolf’s shoulders, and Moonmoth felt his sister’s arms wrap securely around him. **Go!** Farscout blasted at them.
Moonmoth felt his sister’s indecision, and beneath them, Tailchaser whined and wavered. Then both Tailchaser and Farscout were turning to face a knot of warriors who came rushing at them out of the snow. Mushroom shrieked a warning from its perch near Moonmoth’s ear; Farscout had time for one shot, and then the warriors were on them with their spears and clubs.
Something else hurtled out of the snow, blood-streaked and wielding weapons stolen off of the humans he had killed. Moonmoth yelled his father’s name as Lynx launched into the warriors. There was a whirl of spear-shafts and clubs; later, Moonmoth would remember the almost beautiful geometric details of a painted feather fluttering from the shaft it was secured to, held in his father's hands. The three humans went down in the exchange of blows, but as they reeled back, neither Farscout nor Lynx were unmarked. They staggered backwards, Farscout clutching oddly at Lynx’s shoulders. Blood dripped from a raking wound across the arm of Farscout’s coat, while Lynx -–
Moonmoth shrieked and flung himself from Tailchaser’s back as he realized that the long, wavering thing he saw was a spear that had impaled Lynx side. Lynx was sinking into the snow as Moonmoth reached him, with Brightwood only a breath behind. They tried to hold their father upright, and Farscout moved to support the weight of the spear that dragged at the wound.
**Go, go, get on Tailchaser and ride!** Lynx ordered them. He coughed a great gout of lung-rich blood, and waved them off. **Fools! I can delay them a little further. Ride while you can!**
Even Farscout seemed too stricken to react. Ignoring his terrible wound, Lynx reached for Moonmoth and crushed his son to him. **Pryn, grow strong,** Lynx locksent, before shoving Moonmoth into Farscout’s care. Then it was Brightwood’s turn for a final hug, Lynx’s brindled-gold curls obscuring Brightwood’s face as they embraced fiercely. Moonmoth felt Farscout lift him and again put him astride Tailchaser’s back. Then Farscout had a grip on Brightwood. He dragged her to her feet and forced her astride Tailchaser, while Lynx somehow found the strength to stagger back to his feet.
To Moonmoth’s horror, he saw Lynx pull the spear free from his side and then lean on it to keep his feet. **Keep them safe,** Lynx sent openly, his thoughts directed at Farscout. **Go, love each other, raise my grandcub,** Lynx then wished them all.
There were fresh shouts -— another group of the human warriors had spotted them and were approaching at a run. “Father!” Brightwood cried, reached out for Lynx again. But Farscout blocked her and sent a violent wish hard at Tailchaser, wrestling the big wolf out of his rider’s control. Tailchaser bolted into a run; Moonmoth’s last sight of his father as he looked back was of Lynx leaning on the spear which had killed him, the blood around him a wide stain of red against the snow, facing the oncoming humans for one last stand.
They ran as hard as they could, as fast as they could. Midnight found them still running, Farscout and Tailchaser going turn and turn about to break the trail through the wet snow. Endurance was their only hope —- in the open, riders on roundhooves could easily ride them down, and while the steady drift of snow masked their trail somewhat, the snowfall wasn’t heavy enough to hide their tracks entirely, not from the eyes of any experienced hunter.
At length, Farscout came to stop for a moment’s rest. He turned to look behind. Tailchaser was close at his heels and stopped in turn, panting for breath in great steaming gulps. The big wolf’s riders were bundled together in Brightwood’s snowcat-pelt coat, their pale heads bent close. Farscout looked past them as Tailchaser butted his broad skull against Farscout’s chest, whining and seeking comfort.
He stroked the blunt, shaggy head automatically, his attention focused on their backtrail. They had put miles and miles between themselves and the human camp. There had been a few riders after them at first; Farscout wasn’t sure how or when those pursuers had been lost. All he could be certain of was that, for the moment, there was no visible pursuit. But if the riders were not still out there, he had little doubt they would be on their trail again with the dawn, with the sun to light their way.
“We need to keep going,” Farscout said. His voice was raw in the crisp winter cold. He pushed away Tailchaser’s muzzle and rested his hands on his lifemate’s thigh. “With daylight, they'll find our trail. We’re not safe until we’ve crossed the river and reached the forest.”
Two pairs of exhausted blue-on-violet eyes gazed back at him, equally bruised and miserable. Moonmoth’s cheeks and nose were pink from the cold, but Brightwood’s face was colorless, except for her enormous, haunted eyes and a rivulet of blood that gleamed from her nose and over her chin.
**Aya?** he locksent. He had never seen his beloved so pale, and the blood on her face was fresh. Farscout reached for her shoulders, feeling a wave of fear envelope him.
Brightwood responded silently, her mindtouch uncharacteristically tentative and fearful. Her body was a multitude of hurts, but worst among them was the pain in her side, where each breath was an exquisite agony.
**I’m broken,** she sent. **I’m bleeding inside. I bleed when I breathe.**
Farscout’s embrace was fresh agony for her; he felt her shudder and the echoes of pain through their locksend was all but blinding. He released her automatically, then felt her sliding through his arms and past him. Farscout grabbed for his lifemate, catching her before she could fall entirely from Tailchaser’s back, and eased her carefully to the ground. Moonmoth scrambled down to pillow his sister’s head against his knees.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” the boy pleaded, trembling violently from fear and cold.
Brightwood began to speak, but choked instead. Fresh blood poured from her mouth. Moonmoth wailed and tried to wipe it away, while Farscout’s own hands were busy beneath his lifemate's coat, gently working their way through layers of leather and winter furs to find her bare skin. The side of her chest beneath his hands was misshapen and grossly distended, ribs broken and her belly swelling with blood. Her skin felt waxy; when he found her pulse, it seemed to flutter under his fingertips like a dying bird.
“We’ll get you home,” Farscout promised desperately, denying what he knew impossible. “Easysinger and Sunlight with their herbs, and long nights of rest in our den, that’ll mend this.”
**Seth,** she chided him, too wise to believe his offer of false hope. **I’m broken and fading. I can’t ride any further. I won’t last the night.**
Farscout embraced her fiercely, unable to stop himself from that, even though he knew it caused her fresh pain. Stubbornly, Brightwood pressed images at him — of himself on Tailchaser’s back with Moonmoth before him, riding away; herself left in the numbing snow. When the humans found their trail they would find her, but by then she would be beyond their torments, and Tailchaser would be miles away. Farscout rejected her plans, refused them utterly; if she couldn’t ride, he would build them a hollow in the snow and take shelter; perhaps the snow would fall enough to cover their tracks entirely and the humans wouldn’t come at all. Brightwood would rest in safety, for as long as it took until they could travel…
“Do something!” Moonmoth begged, his voice as thin and broken as a reed. “Farscout, do something!”
Brightwood’s very scent had changed; she was dying, and with her their child would die as well, if it had not already. Farscout was helpless against that truth. He heard Moonmoth’s desperate words, but he felt frozen. He couldn’t leave his lifemate behind, not as Brightwood wished; he would hold her for as long as he could, provide her the protection of his own body and his own warmth for as long or as little time they had left, and when he had lost her he would ride back the way they had fled and find their pursuers and kill them one, after another, until either their enemies or the cold claimed him.
“Sunny-soft Highthing going cold, going still?” asked another tremulous voice.
Farscout looked up in shock. Mushroom was still with them. The Preserver had taken shelter in Moonmoth’s pale hair, and now crawled up onto the boy’s crown, peering down at Brightwood inquisitively.
“Make wrapstuff!” Farscout said, choking on the words. “Mushroom, make wrapstuff!”
The Preserver blinked at him, while Brightwood shuddered in his arms. “No!” she cried.
“Love, I won’t leave without you,” Farscout said, kissing her pale brow. “Not without you, not without our babe.”
“Please, please, you can’t die. You can’t!” Moonmoth’s tears were freezing on his cheeks. Tailchaser was whimpering and trying to push his way in on the knot huddled over his rider, and Moonmoth pushed the big wolf away desperately. “Please, sister, you can’t die!”
Farscout felt his beloved’s mindtouch, and among the currents of pain and fear, he felt her desire to live. He didn’t need to see her shallow nod of acceptance. Farscout let her go and sat up, out of Mushroom’s way so that the Preserver could set to its life-saving work.
They found their way back to Cedarwing’s dentree several hours past dawn. Farscout had taken what care he could to cover their trail, but he had no faith that they weren’t being followed. Moonmoth watched mutely as Farscout carried Brightwood’s cocoon carefully up into the branches of the old cedar, to the partially-shaped closed door. He unlatched the hide curtain there open, and carried Brightwood inside. **Come on,** Farscout sent at Moonmoth, when the boy was slow to follow.
Moonmoth crept up the side of the tree and through that shaped door. The shelter felt dreadfully empty, with his family not here to fill it.
Farscout had laid Brightwood’s cocoon out across Lynx and Frost’s sleeping ledge, heaped as it was with furs. Moonmoth slipped up beside his sister’s websilk-encased body, loathe to let it get too far away from him, just in case another disaster found them in this refuge. Farscout’s expression was grim. Brightwood’s Recognized had always been a silent elf, but Moonmoth watched him now with dread, fearing the hunter had forgotten him totally.
To his relief, Farscout did meet his eyes. The hunter pulled a chunk of meat from the carrisack he wore, and pressed that into Moonmoth’s hands. Then he wrapped a sleeping fur around Moonmoth’s shoulders, as though anything could possibly still the boy’s trembling.
Farscout looked at him for a moment longer, then began to sort through the contents of his shoulder bag, producing several more pieces of meat and the killing end of a broken spear shaft. He put those down nearby, then rummaged through the packs of supplies Moonmoth’s family had left here for their extended hunting trip.
**Enough water for several days, dried meat, some honeycakes.** Farscout pushed a waterskin close to the sleeping ledge, within Moonmoth’s easy reach. Then he took up another pack and pulled out a capped quiver. He uncapped it, inspected the arrows within, and then began filling his own quiver with Brightwood’s gold-fletched ones.
“Stay holed up here,” Farscout said — he who rarely spoke aloud, especially around Moonmoth’s gregarious, quick-witted family, who had been all so quick to supply their own words for him. “Stay put, don’t make any noise, no matter what you hear outside. You’ve food and water enough for five days. If I don’t come back before the water runs out, you creep out in the darkness of night, and you head for home. Carry only the pack your grandmother put together for you before we left the Holt. That’s sleeping furs, a waterskin, and food, no more. Move fast, move quiet, and trust Mushroom to guide you. Mushroom knows the way, he’s the surest guide possible. Tell the Chieftess everything. Easysinger will come back here and take Brightwood safely home.”
Moonmoth felt his belly clench with terror as the meaning of Farscout’s words sank in. “You’re leaving me?”
“If the humans are still following us, I won’t let them find this tree.” Farscout swapped a waterskin from his carrisack for a fuller one from another pack. “I won’t let the humans find you or Brightwood. Not again.”
Moonmoth looked around him at the nearly empty dentree, and inside himself, he felt something strained break apart. “You can’t leave me!” he cried, the words starting as a whisper and ending as a shout. He leaped at Farscout and battered at him with his fists, determined not to allow the hunter to go. “You can’t leave me! You can’t, you can’t, you can’t!”
Farscout stared at him at first, too shocked to defend himself. Then the hunter caught the boy’s arms and held him still. **I’ve got to go. It’s the only way to make certain you stay safe,** he sent, kneeling so that he was on eye-level with the boy.
To his shame, Moonmoth felt himself burst into tears. “You can’t leave me! If you leave me, you’ll never come back, and I’ll be all alone. Please, please, you can’t! You can’t leave me alone!”
Something equally broken flashed across the hunter’s sober expression, and Moonmoth found himself pulled against Farscout’s chest in a fierce embrace. **I’m coming back. I promise that. I’ve got to go, but I’ll come back for you.**
**You’ll go out there and they’ll get you and they’ll kill you, just like they killed everyone else!” Moonmoth cried desperately.
Farscout held him out so that Moonmoth could see into the hunter’s eyes. **Moonmoth, I swear it. I won’t leave you. They won’t get me —- not here, not in these woods that I know.**
**I couldn’t bear it,** Moonmoth wept. **Don’t go. Just don’t.**
Farscout pressed his forehead against Moonmoth’s own, so all Moonmoth could see were Farscout's pale grey eyes. **I swear to you. I will not leave you or your sister, not for long. I’ll do what I must to see you both safe, and then I’ll return. My name is Seth -— know me, and know that I’ll stay true to my word. I’ll be back for you. I swear it.**
Moonmoth was too shocked at first to respond. He understood what he had just been given -— Seth was Farscout’s soul-name, Seth was Farscout down to his least essence, and you didn’t blubber and leak snot like a little scared cubling when someone trusted you enough to give you their soul-name. Moonmoth swallowed back his terror and found something within himself, something maybe as tough and resilient as his father had been, or his sister. **I am Pryn,** he offered in return, with as much dignity as he could muster.
Farscout nodded, then hugged him tightly again. **Pryn, I’ll be back for you. I swear it. But I must go and make sure we weren’t followed here. Will you swear to me —- you’ll stay here, tucked away safe and silent? And if I can’t make my way back to you before the water is gone, you will take Mushroom and go back to the Holt?**
**Not alone, please, not alone!** Moonmoth begged, unable to keep back his tears.
Farscout hugged him. **Mushroom will be with you. Whatever else happens, Pryn, you have to be brave. The tribe is too far away to know from sendings what happened to us here. One of us must make it home to warn the Chieftess. That’s the most important thing, even more important than keeping you safe, or keeping Brightwood and the baby safe in their cocoon. Pryn, do you understand me?**
Moonmoth caught his breath and rubbed the tears from his eyes. He thought of his grandsire’s dying screams as the humans had roasted Cedarwing alive. He thought of his mother Frost falling to the snow with a spear in her back, and of his grandmother Shyheart’s violent death. He thought of his father, and of Lynx’s futile last stand, dead on his feet but still determined to buy his children a few more moments of life. Moonmoth wiped his face and met Farscout’s haunted eyes. He nodded solemnly, thinking that he did, truly, understand what the hunter was telling him. The monsters who had stolen Moonmoth’s family from him were out there in the world, and the Holt was unsuspecting.
“I understand,” Moonmoth whispered. “The tribe has to know. Has too.”
Farscout nodded, and gave Moonmoth another desperate hug. **Be silent, be safe, do nothing to draw attention to yourself. I’ll be back as soon as I can, but do not wait if the water runs out.** Farscout touched Moonmoth’s face, wiping away a last tear, then made sure the sleeping fur was settled warm around the boy’s shoulders. When he had finished, the hunter rose and climbed out of the door, lashing the curtain tightly behind him without another look back.
Moonmoth pulled the sleeping fur tight around his shoulders. He doubted he would ever feel warm again, but the blanket was the only security he had left to him. He had to trust that Seth would return to him as promised, and that if not, that he could find the courage inside himself to follow Seth’s instructions, and trek the long journey back to the Holt alone.
The boy settled back to wait for what came next, his sister’s cocoon a mute and lonely presence at his back.
by Rachel V.
(Sequels to this story include: "Fragments of the Story", and "Something in the Air".)