(This story is related to the events in "Move, Counter-Move", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Beetle rubbed her sore wrists. They weren’t really yet, but she knew they would be soon, and for the rest of the night. Another evening of scraping hides for Moss awaited her. But scrape them she would. At least she'd have Moss to talk to. Mind-numbingly repetitive tasks were better than being shunned.
Her quiet walk to the Craft Trees was interrupted by a blast of sending. A memory of her face, her words. **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.**
The moon-old scene was not envisioned through her eyes. Beetle looked around, seeking the source of the memory and saw One-Leg approaching her from across the Stone Weir. Atop Longtooth, he glowered down at her will all the force of a whirlwind.
"Did you actually believe half that tooth-rotting clickdeer drool you painted your sire's face with?"
Beetle stared at him, wondering what he was getting at. No one else had confronted her about what she had said that day--no one else seemed interested. But she had meant it. The time she had spent watching Wolfkiller's group in preparation for the pranks, along with their response to the pranks, had gotten her thinking. Some instinct told her that the humans who lived in such close proximity to them were inherently different from the Fierce Ones. She was even more curious about them now, but she had neither plan nor intention of defying Chief Windburn. Remembering One Leg's question, she nodded.
One-Leg's response was a terse open-send to Moss, informing the tanner that Beetle would be enduring her punishment with him this day, and he was in no mood to argue the matter. "I have a task for you. One more fitting for your skills."
She wondered what he meant by that. Part of her wanted to return to scraping hides with Moss. She had a vague feeling of unease about One-Leg's response, but her curiosity was rising. It wasn't every day that One-Leg came looking for her help. Her eyes met his with a question, but he did not respond. She watched as the pair turned, then as One-Leg looked back at her, indicating that she was to follow.
Uncertain about where they were going, Beetle summoned Murkfur along with Rooter. She guessed that the ride would be further than was good for her wolf-friend, and Murkfur always seemed to enjoy being useful.
Beetle endured a winding, silent ride to Hidden Lake. When they arrived, the wolves were left to their own devices while One-Leg motioned his young charge to a flat stone near a tall bush. He moved the stone aside, and rolled up a reed mat, woven with grass. A shallow pit was revealed. In it lay number of sturdy sticks, twine for making into ties, and un-knapped stones. A completed spear lay to one side, near some finished arrow shafts. “True Edge has been making hidey holes like this up and down the Holt. Fixing for a night when we have to fight for what’s ours. Their numbers against our magic and knowledge of the terrain.” One-Leg took up the spear as he spoke. He looked it over, and then tossed it lengthways to Beetle. She caught the shaft with both hands. The elder’s tone was serious as a bear attack. “This is what happens if you’re wrong.”
Beetle’s eyes widened. She could hardly imagine what One-Leg was describing. 'What happens if I'm wrong?' she wondered. Then she began putting it together. “True Edge has made hidey holes… and spears. You think we’re going to have to fight the humans?” Her mind was reeling with the thought. She looked again at the evidence before her and burst out, “Does Windburn know about this? I won’t defy him again!”
One-Leg scoffed. “It was True Edge’s idea to put Easysinger's old plans into action. You don’t think he checked it over with the chief? Shared a couple of wineskins over brave talk of how to start a fight we can’t win? No lass, I didn’t call you up here to ask you to defy the chief again. I brought you up here…” His brow furrowed. “So you could tell me the words you offered Cloudfern. I need to know if there is some other way this itchleaf-poking mess can all end than in blood and tears.” He paused, looking away from Beetle and toward some unknowable something on across the hills that surrounded the lake. “Because I’ve sought for it and, boil me in skunk juice, I can’t find it.”
Beetle could sense that he was struggling; she was, too. The ones who had been alive when the Fierce Ones attacked knew what they were capable of, and part of Beetle wondered if those elves would ever consider that humans could be different. Her father had at least listened to her tell her story and what she’d seen, but she wasn’t sure she had convinced him. Still, she believed what she had seen, and an image of humans and elves living in peace was one she didn’t want to shake.
Beetle responded, “You knew my father before the Fierce Ones, and you saw what happened to our kin. It would be hard for you to see another way. But there is one.” Silently, she added, ‘There has to be.’
She didn’t wait for a response, but she didn’t rush her words, either. “When we were pranking the humans, and even before we started the pranks, I spent a lot of time watching. That was the reason I went along with the idea in the first place—to find out more about the humans. The one we’ve called ‘Wolfkiller’ seems to be a leader of sorts. There is a young hunter who travels with him sometimes. Notch thought we should prank him, too. Make him think Crawfish’s spirit was punishing him for being friends with the one who killed him.”
“The young one was more timid in the woods. Actually, I think he was training under Wolfkiller. Toward the end, our meddling in their hunts started to really bother him. But we left the learner alone when he was with another Painted Face or the Amber Hunters. Trouble by association, you know? But I wanted to see how he was doing. I felt... badly for him. For all of them, actually."
At One-Leg's arched eyebrow, she spoke a little faster. “We found him and some brownskins camped on the isle northwest of Lookout Mountain. I could see that he was frustrated, angry about something. There was another Painted Face there, and he seemed to be giving the boy a hard time. After a while, one of the Amber Hunters made a joke or something and they all had a good laugh at the hunters. The elder hunter stopped nipping the boy’s scruff after that, but he smiled. And they all spent the rest of the evening telling stories over the campfire. A couple of them headed into the woods to join, but most of them made their way to their tents to sleep. The point I guess is that the group did not all join the boy in anger. Instead, they helped him to be happy. I think they genuinely cared about each other, even though they weren't all from the same tribe.” She concluded, “They’re not as different from us as we believe.”
One-Leg’s face softened a bit at her words. "You have your mother's optimism, her way of seeing the brightest of stars behind the darkest clouds. You do her proud." He nodded his shaggy head, as much to himself as to his young companion. “That being so, I don’t see any of Windburn’s rules being broke in showing you something else I have stored here.”
Beetle watched as One-Leg moved the stones and some dry grass bedding out of the pit. Beetle laughed as she gasped, “Is that what I think it is?”
“It is. Might have seen it for yourself if you weren’t off with your brother and Foxtail playing your oh-so helpful games with Wolfkiller.” The tent had been thrown on top of the Mother Tree during one of the windstorms that had battered the holt near the end of the spring season. It had been spotted by True Edge who happened to be up before sundown again. Half the tribe was put to work unwinding its ropes from the branches and hauling the thing down to the ground before some human scout could spot it waving around above the treeline. Every effort was made to avoid leaving evidence that it had been manipulated by intelligent hands; cutting cord with a stone knife would not do.
Notch had relayed the story to Beetle after the fact. How he learned of it she might never know.
“It was a real pain in the berries to get it stuffed down there by myself. Help me unfold it.”
The tent was would make a spacious home by wolfrider standards, but barely that for the party of human hunters to whom it had once belonged. Made of weatherworn deer hide, it was painted in mismatched earth tones for camouflage. She had indeed been off with Notch and Foxtail when the tent blew over the holt, but she had seen the trinkets that had been swept up in the tent. These had been kept by the elves as curios; a small cooking pan, some arrows, some scraps of clothes that did not match in style or material. Beetle preferred to see them as proof that the two human tribes were sharing together.
“True Edge and I had some words while we were taking it away to where the humans could find it a safe distance from us. I got to hear about the hidey-holes, and he got an earful from me. If we come at them with teeth bared and they don’t show throat it’ll be a disaster…”
Beetle was so absorbed she almost wasn’t listening to One-Leg anymore. Exploring the insides of the tent, she found crude paintings of prey animals, chased by hunters with bows and spears held high. The sheep and clickdeer she knew. But a dominant image was that of a large woolly creature that was utterly alien to her.
It sat upright, its body akin to a stinkbear. White and black strokes of hair wrapped around its whole body, except for its smiling face. A face which bore a button nose, chubby cheeks, and a playful smile. It appeared to be tearing apart lump of grey clay. Its eyes were large and round and not those of an animal. A human child? A troll? The likes of it she had never seen before, even in Crackle’s wildest fantasies.
Soon enough came words that demanded her attention. “Glad the five-fingers or trolls didn’t scoop this beauty up before I decided to go back and claim it.”
Beetle looked up. “You went back to claim it. So you did leave it. I’m confused. You said Windburn is aware of what’s happening…” her voice trailed off.
“Windburn never laid down any rules saying we couldn’t collect things the five-fingers leave lying around!” One-leg answered bluntly. “There has been something of an unofficial notion that we’re supposed to share our finds with the tribe. That’s all. At least long enough for everybody to get some laughs out of them.” He shrugged. “Aaaand now I’m sharing. They had their chance to take it back if they wanted it! But this isn’t a joking matter! Maybe there’s something here that can tell us about how they think. There’s ways to move about a whitestripe once it’s spotted you -- or a big cat or a bear, well most bears -- and let them know you want to be left alone in peace.” He looked down at the tent, looking but not seeing. Softly he added, “It’s just a matter of figuring out what it is.”
Beetle was convinced of his intentions, if not his way of going about them. “Well, One-Leg, I think we can learn more about them. They seem friendly enough. Look at how the two groups are getting along. And they are no friends of the Fierce Ones.” Many years ago Beetle had found the hollow below the Child Tree where the painted horn was kept. It was evidence taken by Farscout and One-Leg from a dying Painted Face on the day of their arrival; proof that Wolfkiller’s people had been fleeing for their lives from the same bloodthirsty Human tribe that murdered her father’s family. Surely the tale of woe and its cause had been shared among their darker-skinned allies?
Beetle didn’t stop to dwell on that question. “When Evervale and the others led the Painted Faces toward the Amber Hunters… well… Windburn expected the two tribes to whittle each other down, didn’t he? Like two wolfpacks fighting over a line of territory?”
One-Leg nodded, eager to see where she was going with this.
“And the Amber Hunters could have done just what Windburn expected and True Edge is thinking now. Stand up and fight for their territory against all comers. But they didn’t attack. They could have chased the strangers back out to the plains or up the shore into the mountains. But they welcomed them as friends, shared food and space and work. They have spent all this time learning to understand one another.” Beetle put the tent back the way it was before she’d started flipping through the paintings. “One day, I bet we’ll all understand one another. And maybe some day... we can give this back?"
One-Leg smiled, grunted cryptically, and went to work refolding the tent. “You don’t think small, do you? In the meantime, you can tell me another story. And start making arrowheads."