Spring had been wet and miserable like it always was for Fadestar. But the warm summer sun had buoyed the girl’s health and spirit both. Her breathing had been steady for days, and the irregular rhythm of her heart that sometimes bothered Silvermane felt steady as it had ever been. “Maybe this is the day!”
”Maybe it is, ‘star,” replied her father.
Fadestar had never been allowed near the den where other elves went to pick out young pups. Or let themselves be picked out, whatever. Her father always said that the wolf picks the elf, not the other way around. If any other elf had told her that, she might have thought they were funning her. Wolves didn’t have magic, so how could they be the ones to make a bond?
Either way, the older wolves always made it clear she wasn’t welcome near the cubs. Very, very clear. But the current litter was now old enough to wander around under supervision, and to some extent make their own decisions. This was her moment! She had been peppering her father with questions about wolves ever since these pups were born. She wanted to know everything he knew about them. She reasoned that if she knew how wolves behaved, why they behaved that way, maybe she would figure out a way to get one to like her. Perhaps if she could make a wolf-friend if she got to one soon enough. Before they picked up any bad habits.
Fadestar spent the journey riding atop Sharpnose. She was thankful, but borrowing her father’s wolf-friend was not the same as having a bond of her own. And part of her wondered how much longer he would tolerate her. Her father passed the time showing her the secret tricks to track the wolf pack. Fadestar was always amazed by how much he knew that had nothing at all to do with tanning, which he was very good at. So good that the whole tribe had given him a tanner’s name. With his help, she arrived at a small clearing where to her delight she saw four energetic young pups busily begging food from a dozen or so of their relatives. A lean low-ranker pounced upon the carcass of a water-rat, and was attacked by whining, hungry mouths before he could take one bite.
”Stay by me, just in case,” her father whispered. Together they moved into the gathering. Most of the wolves ignored her. Some angled back their ears in a display that said ‘stay away from me.’ But the pups were pups, and curious about this new small elf that had wandered into their company. One of the pups, a clay-brown one with enormous blue-grey eyes, took the initiative and moved a few steps in her direction. It moved around its lean big-sibling to get a better view, tiny wet nose sniffing away.
Fadestar knelt down in the friendly pose her father had taught her, and held out her hand to be sniffed. ‘Please, please, please like me.’
A commanding howl sounded from a short distance away, and Fadestar’s hopes collapsed. It was the alpha female, Crooktail, summoning her young. Fadestar’s lips trembled, but she straightened her shoulders, refusing to show weakness in front of Crooktail. That would only justify the stupid, cruel shunning that was about to take place! And for once her volatile lungs did not betray her. One of the fleeing pups fell back and gave Fadestar a long, curious glance. But it was quickly rounded up and shoved away. Crooktail kept her body between the pups and the young elf, as they departed the area. They were soon followed by the lower-ranked wolves.
Fadestar’s lips parted into a low, pitiable wail. Leather squeezed his daughter’s shoulder for support, and they too left the scene.
”Do you want to talk about it?” Leather asked when the two stopped walking so Fadestar could rest. They weren’t far from the Holt proper, sitting as they were on the drier northern side of Frog Hill. But it seemed that this latest disappointment had stolen some of his cub’s strength. “You haven’t said one word since we left the clearing.”
**I’ll never have a wolf-friend! It’s not fair!** Fadestar fumed from atop a mossy rock. When his daughter cast her thoughts, it was usually a clue that she wasn’t up to the physical act of talking.
**You don’t know that,** he answered in all honesty. Leather preferred sending over speech when helping his daughter deal with one of life's hard lessons. **It may not seem like it now, but you will grow bigger in time, and stronger too. And some elves just naturally take longer to get their first wolf-friend. Why, your mother was almost twice your age before she made friends with… was his name?** Leather paused for a moment. **Skitter. Yes, that’s what she named her first. Skitter.**
Fadestar’s pout didn’t fade at all, her eyes were dark and angry. ”You’re just saying that. The wolves don’t like me ‘cause I’m always sick. And I always will be. Everyone knows it.” She actually had to stop for a moment, in order to wait out a tremor that threatened to become a hoarse cough. “The only reason they don’t chase me out of the holt is ‘cause I’m an elf.” That brown straggler was the closest she’d ever come to a bond, but Leather knew full well that by the time Crooktail let it anywhere near her again, it would be like all the others before it; compelled by instinct to bully out the weak members of the pack and segregate themselves from the weaker elves. His daughter, wise beyond her years, obviously knew it too. “Silvermane is mean sometimes but at least she talks to me.”
Leather patted his daughter on the head. **The wolves are part of us, and we are part of them. That was the gift that Halfwolf’s sire gave to all of us. All of us. One day you will know the joy of that harmony. I promise.** Along with his words, he sent a clear and proud feeling of confidence in his young daughter. She had overcome so much in her short life. She would overcome this.
Fadestar crossed her arms. **I don’t believe you.**
That stung. Leather found himself looking away from his flesh and blood, lest she see the tears that wanted to loose themselves from his eye. Had he failed his daughter by building up her expectations? Had he — as One-Leg would say -- wagered on the wrong dice?
“I know what will cheer you up. Look over there.”
Slowly moving into view from under the shadow of the Speartip came a single rider atop a dark grey wolf. Farscout had come home after weeks abroad. With him as ever on such journeys was the pale shape of the Preserver Mushroom. He could almost hear the little bug pestering ‘Many-Gone Highthing’ with one paranoid warning or another. Leather sent a wordless thought of welcome and waved. Farscout responded in kind but did not change course. There was a river between them, after all.
Leather was not the first to notice Farscout’s arrival. It was, after all, the scout's way to alert the chief of his comings and goings. From closer to the dentrees came a raucous crowd of happy voices. Younger elves that were happy to race each other the distance, and to whom Farscout’s return home was still an event to be savored. Leather was certain that one day his daughter would be among them, bolting through the trees as fast as four furry paws could take her.
Ahead of them flew a small multicolor swarm of tiny wings and waving limbs. Farscout and Salt were forced to dodge around while the six home-bound Preservers darted about them, welcoming their returning kin in their own peculiar, and noisy, way.
Leather heard a light giggle. When he turned his attention back to his child, he saw the bright, inquisitive light that he loved so much returning to her eyes.
“Father… Tell me everything you know about Preservers!”