(This story is a sequel to "Hope", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" -- see the listing for more related stories.)
‘One-Leg never does anything quietly.’
The thought reverberated in Windburn’s mind as he followed Longtooth’s tracks through the Cattail Marsh up into the valley off Goose Pond.
The recent disaster with Notch, Beetle, and his own daughter was beyond irresponsible, beyond infuriating. Three-hands of days of shunning he had slapped them down with for meddling with the humans. The first of six moons worth of hard labor was nearly past. The last time he’d handed down such a harsh punishment was the dark night two-eights of years ago when Quick Fang followed her brother on a forbidden hunt and returned an only child.
From here on, he had determined, when someone gambled with the life of a tribemate they would be punished as though they had lost the wager.
Theirs were not the only not the only transgression of late. Willow had possessed precious healer powers for moons before anyone found her out. Those who did -- Cloudfern, Farscout, Blacksnake -- chose to keep silent until Pathmark’s mauling left them with nothing to hide. Also other, lesser, incidents left him wondering not for the first time if his authority might be slipping. If he was beginning to appear weak and unworthy to lead his tribe. And of course there were the subtler insurrections of his sire, who approached everything like a toss-stone game wherein he was hiding a loaded die up one sleeve.
‘Too many secrets. Too many lies. Too many decisions that affect the whole tribe being made behind my back.’
It still felt as if he had only just set things straight with Blacksnake, but old habits died hard on both sides, and it was difficult to trust that he had truly gained the upper hand with his father. Yet already there was another plot rising up from the muck.
One-Leg never does anything quietly.
The rumors had been circulating for nights now. What his boisterous uncle considered a whisper other elves called a normal speaking voice. He had been spending time with Beetle, a notably recent development. She had become the one he would go to when he needed someone to travel past the thornwall and help bring in his catches. Beetle, like her co-conspirators, was permitted outside Holt boundaries when there was work to be done. But other than his son, it was unlike One-Leg to go out of his way to spend time with the younger members of the tribe.
And now he had indeed been taking Notch aside to chat in private. Notch involved in secret meetings meant trouble, no matter what or whom they involved.
‘I should have realized something was brewing in the council.’
One-Leg never does anything quietly.
And yet the old fisher had sat there like a knot in wood, barely responding to the blatant and casual disregard for the rules that all elves were to follow, as well as Foxtail’s slack jawed mockery. That abnormal quiet had continued for much of the time his son and the others were shunned by the tribe on Windburn’s order. One-Leg had kept to himself, denied himself even Starskimmer’s tender attentions. Had this silence been born of disapproval in the handling of the pranksters? Had he taken One-Leg’s support for granted? Expected the elder to behave the way he always did?
The sorry truth was that when Windburn was growing up, One-Leg was a mystery. For all the elder’s bluntness he rarely knew where One-Leg stood on anything, save that he was always behind Easysinger, his chief right or wrong. That was part of who he was. Once a decision was made by his chief, One-Leg would stand by it and set a full-throated deluge loose on anyone who went against it.
That much he knew. And he knew enough to wait until One-Leg was fishing to do this.
Goose Pond was not far from the Dentrees, but Gosling Valley was deceptively isolated. Duplicate stars shone brightly on the surface of the water. His uncle was sitting on a rock pulling in a catch. This could go one of two ways; a loud fight or a quiet chat.
Windburn did not want to prejudge the outcome.
One-Leg looked his way and waved, ruddy red sideburns twitching. Windburn raised his bow in hello before dismounting. Whirl and Longtooth went through the motion of their own greeting ritual. Longtooth knew his place among the pack.
The red-haired elder ahead of him appreciated direct talk, and the chief preferred it. “Some interesting words have reached my ears. I’ve come to ask you directly, what are your intentions regarding Notch?”
“None yet,” was the elder’s mater of fact reply. He cast another line before continuing. “Thoughts. Notions. Testing the waters, really. Nothing settled, so nothing to bring before council.”
Windburn tried to offer a way out of this. “I would have imagined he wouldn’t be interested.”
“Hmph. He knows how much it would chew into his free time. Once he has some. I’d wager two moons from now he’ll come twitching for something to break the routine. In four moons, he’ll be telling me what an old fool I am for not letting him get started early.”
Windburn graciously supplied another bolt-hole. “What makes you think I’ll let him?”
“After Whitestag fell, you let Quick Fang wander about when the tribe needed her skills, even though she was confined to the Holt. And her skills were needed often. And he’s the best one for the task. Kestrel and Farscout have the whole territory to look after. We need someone who can patrol just the places the humans roam most -- shadow them closely, stick around long enough to watch and listen, without interfering. We need to know more about them. Chicory has the patience to sit and watch, but she’s not half the sneak Notch is.” There was no small amount of pride in One-Leg’s voice. The elder chuckled, “I have five whole moons to teach him the patience. Think I’ll start taking him fishing with me. Did wonders for Quick-Fang.”
‘Quick Fang was a different matter. There is something you are not saying.’ One-Leg’s proposal would come with an untenable condition; Notch would have to be free to roam past the holt borders by himself. Only the tribe’s two most experienced scouts had been permitted such in eights of turns. It smacked of resolutions he was being left out of. Another elder presuming to make critical decisions on their own. The confirmation was what Windburn had come up here hoping not to hear, but was expecting nonetheless. ‘Very well, if it must be done…’
“Fish with him all you want.” Winburn declared, his voice solemn but commanding. “But you will not speak of this wild notion of yours with him again.”
One-Leg heaved himself up on his staff, confounded. “Swamp rot! He’s my son and I’ll say whatever the roaring riptide I want to him!”
Windburn was sharply aware of the many barbs about his own failings when it came to communicating within his own bloodline that One-Leg was choosing not to fire. This situation hadn’t gotten out of hand. Yet.
“He’s stepped far, far out of bounds already. I won’t have you encouraging him to do it again. I will decide if a ‘human-scout’ is needed, and I will decide whose hands the safety of our tribe is put in. And they won’t be such idle and irresponsible hands as his.”
One-Leg's scowl was an indignant one. “Of all the moon-mad toungemush! No one gives that lad his due! I reckon he’d step up to some responsibility if the whole poking tribe would stop acting like he’s not worthy of any!”
“He didn’t think through the consequences of his actions. He never does.”
“The only thing he didn’t think through was how right he was! The cover-flap has been kicked up more than once now. It’s a matter of time before it gets tossed aside altogether.” One-Leg looked away wistfully, toward the waning moons. His voice remained loud, but lost some of its anger. “I’ve never been much for looking past the Now. That was your mother’s gift. For moons all I could see when I tried was the end of the Way. The humans are dug in too deep. We cannot win. Now I know this is the way to save the Way!”
One-Leg’s scheme had a glaring, chip-eared, flaw. “I will not let Notch start a conflict with the humans!” Windburn realized too late how his change in tone would be taken.
“Just what in a shagback’s whistling dungshoot do you think True Edge has been preparing for?” One-Leg sneered, face red, turning back to face his chief. “What do you think I’ve been hiding at Hidden Lake? Toys for Quick Fang’s anklebiter? If we go tooth-and-fang with the humans, if we lose the Dentrees – when we lose the Dentrees, and all those that will die to keep them -- Hidden Lake is our last rally point. At Hidden Lake we follow Easysinger’s final command on the matter; we regroup, we grab what weapons we can, and we flee! We leave all of this behind! Our home, and whoever is to be the last elf standing in the way of the path of those who would hunt us to our ends!"
Easysinger’s plans were never this fatalistic. A final stand was a possibility, yes, but one that the plans of old were made to escape. One-Leg was treating it as a foregone conclusion. Windburn put a hand on his uncle’s shoulder, an act he knew would come off as awkward even as he did it. He tried to make eye contact and look patient. “I think… you may not be thinking clearly on this matter.”
One-Leg brushed it aside. “I’m just telling you where the current path will lead. It won’t take True Edge howling into a kill-frenzy, or Blacksnake deciding to poke it all and ride to his death. All it takes is one of theirs to misread the signals we give them! Another Crawfish moment and everything falls apart! But these five-fingers are not like the ones of so long ago! Beetle! Is! Right! We need to learn all we can about them. They’ve been here for turns upon turns and we’ve let so many chances pass us by. Just think how different things may have been for Frost and the others who fell to the Fierce Ones-“
“They did fall. Sharing dreamberry tales with Starskimmer’s cubs won’t change that.”
One-Leg rammed his words over the line Windburn was drawing. “If they’d known what all the waving was about, what then? Maybe they would have had some warning! We could have learned from their deaths but we chose not to! Up to now, we've avoided the humans whenever we see them! That's anthill-mounting foolish! That isn't how we've treated any other rivals or dangers! We spent eights upon eights upon eights learning the ways of bears and mountain-cats! We know what a rattler will do before it strikes! We know when we can warn off stranger-wolves, or when it's time to beat a retreat from them! We don’t crawl away into holes and hide from the world like trolls! We watch, we learn, we adapt!" One-Leg’s chest was heaving with passion. He checked himself and allowed his breathing to slow. With utter urgency and earnestness he spoke, “Notch can do that. Give him the chance to make something good come from the dung-heap he dropped in our lap.”
“Yes he did leave us quite a mess to clean up. And you did not answer my concerns about him possibly causing more.” In point of fact, One-Leg had simply jumped about from one angle to the next, never stopping to address the holes in his designs. 'It is a poor weaver who does not think of the whole cloth.' Winburn's eyes met the other's. “Do you even have an answer?”
One-Leg’s eyes held no reply. But neither did they waver in search of one. To Windburn’s eyes it appeared that. One-Leg was certain he was right, but could not give voice to why. In this matter, however, that was not enough. Belief in one’s goal was not enough. Faith in his son, faith in Beetle, was not enough. One-Leg was grasping for responses to outcomes he had already prejudged. This wasn’t about Notch at all.
Windburn’s resolve was clear as ever. “The lad must show he is worthy of responsibility before he will receive it. Not the other way around. Fish with him all you want,” the chief repeated. “But you will not speak of observing the humans with him again.”
One-Leg’s posture changed as grief and anger boiled over inside. The elder’s eyes were blazing with defiance. Windburn kept his gaze stark and uncompromising. Seconds ached by.
In those moments, Windburn's suspicions and personal feelings faded away into the mists of the Way. One thought dominated all others; he was the chief and he would be obeyed.
One-Leg turned his head aside. He sulked back to his rock, and set to work repairing a line that had become cut. In a normal speaking voice he whispered, “Aye.”
Windburn gave a stern mental summons, and Whirl came running. As they came around the pond towards the marsh, a long mournful howl climbed up into the sky behind them. Windburn shook his head, wishing there could have been some other way.
‘At least it didn’t truly come to a stare-down. At least I didn’t need to do this in front of a crowd. Either way word of what happened here will spread, and all will be reminded who makes the decisions. One-Leg never does anything quietly. If he can help it.’