(This story is a sequel to "Plans", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Windburn had put him off before, but this time, Blacksnake was determined.
He waited until he saw his son head away from the Dentrees and back into the forest where the wolfpack had located its breeding-den for generations. Windburn’s Whirl was there, preparing the den to receive another litter of pups; a few more hands of days, and it would be time. She had stopped carrying the chief on the hunt, but he kept up regular visits to her, and she allowed that from her bond as she would not have welcomed it from any of the other elves, and from few of the wolfpack either.
Blacksnake was taking a chance that her mate’s bond to him would earn him toleration for the visit. He also had a thought that the broody she-wolf’s presence might serve as a reminder to them both to keep their tempers.
It was Whirl, indeed, who noticed his presence first, huffing and growling and then, after a moment, deciding to ignore him. From Windburn, he received an unreadable look, neither welcoming nor expectant; but there was nothing new in that. Of all elves, Blacksnake had never quite learned the knack of reading Windburn’s face or his moods. It was an irritation like a burr under the tail.
“Is it time for that discussion, now?” the chief asked, looking up at him from his seat against the old, gnarled tree whose great roots held the entrance to the birthing-den. He sounded resigned, as if he’d hoped Blacksnake had forgotten that morning a hand of days ago, when he’d first heard of True Edge’s plans.
“If you’re not too busy?” Blacksnake returned wryly, with a pointed look around the clearing, empty but for themselves and the chieftess-wolf.
“No,” answered the younger elf, stiff and serious. Then he added, unexpectedly, “Snowfall says you’re speaking to others of a new Hunt Leader.” Windburn frowned, and said directly, “Why?”
There could have been a number of answers to that. The one Blacksnake chose was, “Because if it comes time for you to choose my successor, there are those I’d want to see put themselves forward for it. And I wanted them to know that.” He had spoken to Windsong of it, and after her, he had gone to speak to Snowfall, too.
Windburn closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. When he looked at his father again, the frown was still there. “No – why should you be thinking I’ll be choosing your successor? Now of all times.”
If his son were a little quicker, he could have worked this out. He was like a wolf nose-down on the trail of prey, forgetting what he’d scented farther back, not raising his head to see what might be shadowing him on a parallel trail, or thinking about what might lie over the next rise. “Now, of all times?” Blacksnake said aloud. “Why do you think?”
“If I knew, I would not ask.” Now the chief sounded impatient, as if his father were speaking in riddles, when to Blacksnake’s thinking it should have been plain.
“The plan that True Edge suggested to you,” the elder reminded him.
Windburn cocked his head. “That we reveal ourselves to the humans, like a pack of stranger-wolves? Warn them off?”
“Yes. You’re still considering it.” He made that a statement.
“I’m still thinking on it. I haven’t decided if it’s even worth bringing up in council.” Windburn shrugged.
“It isn’t,” said Blacksnake, flatly. “But don’t take my word for it. Bring it to the tribe, if you like. You should know what I’ll say if you do.”
“I know that you don’t like it.” The chief might not mean to sound dismissive, but he said it as if he had already concluded there was no use trying to talk about it.
Blacksnake didn’t intend to leave it there. “That’s not what I mean.”
Windburn gave an almost imperceptible sigh, and crossed his arms. “Then tell me what you do mean.” He sounded impatient again – not an unfamiliar tone to Blacksnake’s ears, when trying to speak with his son. All too many times, that impatience led to frustration on both their parts, cutting the attempt at communication short when one or the other, usually Windburn, finally walked away. Not this time, though. Blacksnake had vowed to himself that this time, they’d see this through.
“It’s simple enough.” His tone indicated that he thought it was so simple, he shouldn’t have had to explain. “You know the answer already. So does True Edge, so do others.” He was watching his son’s face, but it still gave nothing away. He took a deep breath. “If we show ourselves to the humans, we don’t know what they’ll do. Maybe they’ll heed our warnings. Maybe they’ll decide to destroy us. We’ve always been ready to fight, if humans brought that fight to us, but this is different – we’d be inviting it. And we’d be fools not to prepare for invasion, if we let them know there’s something to invade.”
At the word “invasion”, Windburn sat up straighter. “You’re talking about the plans you and mother made, when you were afraid the Fierce Ones would invade.”
“Yes,” Blacksnake agreed, heavy and sardonic. “I’m talking about those plans.”
The chief was silent for long moments, and Blacksnake let him think. He would have given a great deal to know what was going through his son’s head, but it had never been the other elf’s way to share his thoughts. What Windburn said at length, however, was still a disappointment. “These aren’t the same humans.”
Mindful of the she-wolf nearby, Blacksnake controlled the flare of anger he felt. “It’s enough that they have five fingers,” he shot back, careful to keep his voice from becoming a growl. “Their ways are different from ours. They don’t value what we do. They cut down trees, they tear up the earth. They’re afraid of the wolves, and of the forest, and what they fear, they may kill. We don’t know what they’ll do.”
He drew himself up, trying to conjure the feeling of his lifemate standing at his side. “But that’s what our plans were for. And if that’s the path you intend to take the tribe down, if you’re going to try to stand up and tell the humans ‘No further’, then I say we have to be ready to fight them – fight, and flee, if that’s what it takes to survive. And I’m telling you that I intend to lead that fight, if it comes to that.”
He said that, and left it up to Windburn if he wanted to argue it. It was no use pretending that Blacksnake was asking his son for the privilege… or the burden, to be honest about it. Easysinger had understood the necessity of that arrangement – much as every wolfrider would want to fight to protect the tribe and the Holt, few could be allowed to. Those who went to fight, they risked losing, and if the tribe lost too many, then it would never recover. It would take the chief’s strength to hold back the greater part of the tribe from the fight, and the chief’s leadership to uproot them and make them abandon Dentrees and Holt, if that was the only sane choice left.
“And if you have to,” said the chief, apparently accepting his father’s statement, “then we will need another Hunt Leader. So that’s why you spoke to Snowfall.”
Blacksnake didn’t think that required a response.
The silence stretched, as Windburn’s eyes turned to watch his wolf-friend, and Blacksnake continued to watch his son. Finally, the chief spoke again, his eyes coming back to meet his father’s. “If it comes to a fight – do you really think we can win?”
Blacksnake was surprised by the question – not the question itself, but by his son’s asking it. Windburn did not often ask for his father’s thoughts, taking for granted that Blacksnake would share his thinking whether asked to or not. “I don’t know,” he replied, honestly. “But I can’t say I think the answer is yes. Those who faced the Fierce Ones were good hunters, good fighters, clever and strong – and of them, three of every four were lost. The tribe and the wolfpack together give us greater numbers, but we can’t afford those losses.”
That was why it had never been a question, to Easysinger or himself, that they would only fight if attacked. They had never, in all their planning, thought about taking the fight to the humans. Their plans had never been about defending the Holt, only saving the tribe. Yet, if Windburn had understood that… he would never have considered True Edge’s suggestion for a moment, and that was what gnawed at Blacksnake now. That by not rejecting it, Windburn proved once again that he was not the wise leader his mother had been.
But Blacksnake couldn’t help but press the point, willing his son to listen to more than the instincts of the wolfblood. “In the First Days, long before Wolfsister’s birth, elves fled this place, driven away by enemies. They fled, and survived, and Wolfsister was able to lead our tribe back here because of that. I don’t believe we have the numbers to stand against the humans – but between ourselves and the wolfpack, we could start over elsewhere, take another pack’s territory, somewhere far from where humans walk. This place, the Dentrees – they aren’t worth dying to try to keep. No matter what the Preservers say.” He did not add that some of them might have to die, to make the tribe’s escape possible. He thought that was obvious.
If Windburn was moved by that argument, he didn’t show it. What he finally said was, “I don’t want it to come to that.” Then, to clarify, he added, “I don’t want it to come to a fight.”
“Neither do I,” Blacksnake assured him. It wasn’t in his nature to start a fight he couldn’t win.
Windburn studied him with that disconcerting, level blue gaze. “Don’t you?”
The elder’s eyebrows went up, and he asked, with some heat, “What kind of fool question is that? Of course I don’t.”
The chief did not look convinced. “True Edge wants us to warn them off, not attack them.”
“It’s the same thing!” His tone was more exasperation than anger, but Whirl looked up and growled anyway, and Blacksnake checked himself. “I don’t want to attack them. I never have.” At least, his reason had always been able to master the blood-deep instinct that urged him to do just that. “The point is to be ready, not to be caught by surprise. The point is not to throw away the plans your mother and I made.” He was deadly serious about that, and if nothing else, he thought that might get through. Windburn might not count his father among his favorite counsellors, but he had as much respect for his chieftess mother’s legacy as Blacksnake did himself.
Windburn seemed to be thinking, again, so Blacksnake added, “The last time we spoke of this, the brownskins were newly arrived. We all agreed then to wait, and see. But the Painted Faces are better woodsmen than the others, and we know now that what they’ll do is keep pushing us, more and more – and in conflict, they’ll fire on what they fear.”
“Maybe,” said the chief, still thoughtful, “they will fire on what attacks them.” The look he shot his father was almost challenging. “Doesn’t that make them like us?”
That was an unsettling notion, and Blacksnake didn’t intend to debate it. “We don’t know what they’ll consider an attack. Because they aren’t like us, and we forget that at our peril.” If the chief forgot that, it would be the whole tribe in peril – but Blacksnake didn’t intend to let him forget.
Windburn stood up, moving down the low hill to stand near his wolf-friend. She accepted his rubbing of her ears.
“I won’t forget,” the chief told him. “I never forgot Mother’s plans. If we have to, and I must be the one who holds the tribe together, then I can think of no one better to lead the fighting.” He glanced over his shoulder. “But there will be no fighting unless I say so.”
Blacksnake shrugged. “It may happen whether you say so or not. That’s my point, as well. You keep that in mind, while you’re thinking over True Edge’s suggestion. For my part, I’ll be ready.” As he had always been, since the day human hands had shattered the tribe’s peace.
Windburn nodded, and then turned his attention back to Whirl.
And that, thought Blacksnake, was probably about as well as he could have expected this to go – inconclusive, but less thunder and skyfire, for once. He still had no better idea of which path his son would decide to take them down, still didn’t feel that anything he could say was truly reaching the chief, making him comprehend the risk and the danger. There’d still be the chance to argue that in council, if it got that far, and maybe others could sway the chief if Blacksnake couldn’t. Nothing new in that, either.
He’d have to be content with that, for now.