(This story is a sequel to "One Too Many", and is a "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend"; it is also the start of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see both listings for more related stories.)
An awkward, phantom urge to twitch his ears, as a wolf might, haunted Windburn as he made his way around the Holt; the need to swat away the little flitting glances, like flies, the sense of the silence that fell at his approach. It was too often that it happened, that elves would pause at work or play to let him pass, resuming only when Whirl's tail was gone behind the next thicket of grass or bushes. They weren't trying to hide it, and the chief didn't blame them.
High Ones, but it had taken long to quiet them all down after the storm that Notch, Foxtail and Beetle had kicked up. A bit of silence was almost a blessed thing.
Of the three, only Beetle seemed to have taken the lesson with grace, sticking to her chores. Notch was all sullen looks and nervous games, making himself as useless as possible. His confinement was going to be long and sore, and worse now that One-Leg offered him no bolthole. The chief's daughter avoided her father and made no secret of that, and that was well in its own way. Windburn was tired, so tired of secrets.
He felt the eyes of his tribe on him as keen as they had ever been. As keen as those early, frayed nights just after Easysinger's death, nights of doubt and quicksand hope and a muddy future. Even now as he walked back to his den near dawn, despite the late hour, he felt them. They would not leave him be, those invisible but sharp hooks, till they had their answer. And they did not want the answer he had.
For all that it infuriated his father, infuriated many of his tribemates sometimes, Windburn still trusted his instincts above all else. The complicated, slippery thought process that came naturally to Blacksnake, even to Easysinger, was all good and well, but the wolf called to their son with a louder voice than either of them, and taught him a different wisdom. He perceived what was true, what was right, while others would squabble over eights of possibilities that would never come to pass, and he was right to order the humans left alone. He knew that right through his center, with the same conviction that he had used to put down One-Leg's eyes just nights before. The knowledge was certain, absolute.
The question hounded him, as relentless as his tribemates' silence. It seemed as though half his tribe had talked his ears off since the trouble started – first True Edge with his spears, then Blacksnake with his plans, then, almost out of nowhere, Notch, and One-Leg on the heels of that. He had let True Edge's wisdom lie and shrugged off Blacksnake's winding talk, struck down Notch – even silenced One-Leg's more elaborate ideas. He paused to look up and ahead, at the drawn hide across the mouth of his den. Whispersilk's pregnancy hadn't yet begun to show, but both of them could feel the tiny life bright within her. Quick Fang would birth her little one within a turn, and there were Crackle and Otter, still just bumbling cubs. If his elders were right, then what lay in store for these precious souls when the humans finally wandered down the wrong path, never mind if by accident or by design? He knew what was the thought he was supposed to have – wariness, caution pragmatic pessimism, the thought that all his elders seemed to harbor. The thought that had guided his mother.
But whenever he looked for that fear to guide his next steps -- though it seemed to drive them all, and had moved him to action when he'd first encountered humans -- he came up with an empty net.
There was a small group of elves in the tree he was passing under now, too engrossed in their conversation to notice him and drop their voices or switch to sending. Evervale's birdsong voice answered Rainpace's quieter, more thoughtful tones, with Kestrel's cool stream of words flowing around both, and Beetle softly interjecting sometimes. An odd group, except he recalled, this was not the first time he'd glimpsed them together since that disaster of a night, over a moon past.
" – don't think you were wrong," the young plantshaper was saying, haltingly. "Not… all wrong. The danger might not be worth it, but learning about them, one way or another… we must."
"The idea was wise, but the deed was foolish," came Kestrel's reply. "When you thrust a stick into a badger's den, what will you learn but that it bites? If you'd have spoken to us first…"
"I was sure you'd have stopped us, at the time. It made sense when Notch said the fewer elves that knew, the better." Beetle's voice was resigned but not regretful.
"Well, thanks to Notch, we're as good as a rabbit in strangleweed," Rainpace breathed out. "Windburn would have the ears off anyone who came near the humans, now, even if we sending-swore to him that all we want to do is watch and learn. And I'm not going to go behind his back like Notch. Stupid, stupid Notch…" he snapped his teeth as though biting the tip of the name off.
Seeing that her bond wasn't about to walk further, Whirl turned her head up and bumped her cold nose against Windburn's arm. He put his hand flat on her snout. It was no chiefly business listening in on his tribemates like this, and yet… secrets, secrets all around him. What designs could these four – sweet Evervale, steady Rainpace, elder Kestrel, and Beetle, who would've learned better – possibly have regarding the humans? What were they abandoning now, before ever coming to him?
I've chewed up One-Leg for less than this. The realization was sudden and cold.
"Are you mad that he didn't share with you, cub?" Kestrel's voice was amused in a wry, delicately pointed way, as her barbs often were when most to the mark. Distracted from his troubled thoughts, the chief heard Rainpace inhale sharply, could picture him lower his head.
"I… yes," he confessed finally. "He wanted you along and not me, Beetle… because he trusted you more with keeping the secret. And I… I… I would've told."
"There's no shame in that," Beetle said delicately. "If I'd have seen through his ploy to lure me along, it might have been better…"
"I know." The trapper's words were almost too soft for Windburn's ears to catch. "I know it would've spared so much trouble, but still."
"It hurts when a friend doesn't trust you," Kestrel filled in.
"It wasn't friendship that moved Notch," the herbalist's reasonable words and tone were touched with unhappy regret. "My brother knows me too well. If I'd have realized how curious I was before he lured me in, and gone to Windburn like I’d considered, or talked to you…"
"How could you have known we'd be interested?" Evervale returned softly, comforting. "Everyone's so afraid of the humans. I've seen the look in my uncles' eyes…"
"One-Leg wants a better way out of this as much as the four of us do!" Beetle spoke up, almost too loudly; Windburn could guess that the others had hushed her in sending or touch, as she continued in a much softer voice. "Doesn't everyone? I'd like to think so, I'd like that so much. They must be tired of fear biting their ankles."
"But it's fear that Notch wanted, and fear that he got," Kestrel said with a sigh. "Fear and old blood and bad memories – and hate, even from kind spirits like your father. And Windburn hasn't much choice now, if he wants to calm the tribe."
"But Windburn doesn't hate the humans, does he?" Rainpace whispered.
The question caught the listening chief as much by surprise as it had evidently caught the other three elves, to tell by their sudden, drawn-out silence. It pushed aside, again, the nagging, uneasy thought that they would have been afraid to come to him with their plan, having seen what others received. Whirl had gone off to seek her sleep elsewhere, and he was grateful for that as he edged closer to the tree, closer to hear the answer given. He knew who was afraid, and who hated, but how did the tribe think that he felt about the humans? Blacksnake supposed that he didn't take the threat seriously enough, Windburn expected no less from him, but One-Leg… and others? He'd forbidden all contact, and he had punished the pranksters, and besides, he was chief. No one was more serious than he about the danger of the five-fingered ones. He'd kept as close track of them as possible without following them himself, sending Kestrel and Farscout out, listening to every tale. If he could have done so without the tribe resenting his putting himself in danger, he would have gone out to the human village that much more often.
He'd kept the old plans in mind, all those old plans, that had been built upon and driven by fear, but they seemed as old and empty as a dried up creek. Perhaps his elders had the right of it: since he hadn't been there, himself, he couldn't understand anymore than Beetle could, when she spoke of being tired of fear.
But there was no fear there to guide him.
He searched for hate.
Evervale's voice was small: "When the Painted Faces first came here, I said to him… that we'll live with these humans, not the shadows of the others. I think… he understood that. Many of the others don't, but he does."
"Windburn is… different," Kestrel added in an equally low tone. "Blacksnake has dark memories, and spent turns making plans, expecting danger. But Windburn's eyes are clear, and he sees the Now. He sees these humans, who are – "
" – kind," Beetle threw in.
The hush was enough to tell Windburn what he never expected – that, though stunned that she would voice the thought, they did not disagree. He remembered Kestrel's tale of the drowned human boy, how the two tribes had searched for him together, and the scene of the human mother's grief, remembered that the Wolfkiller had shot down Crawfish only when she leapt for his throat. The wolfriders called the fearsome human tribe the Fierce Ones, but the dark-skinned newcomers hunted only amber. He recalled Blacksnake's own observation of the Amber Hunters, all those turns ago, "fools who know only peace".
"The story I told you, about the angry boy and the Amber Hunter who made the joke, is just one of many," Beetle continued very softly, between the rustling of the leaves. "I've watched them share food and water and bind each other's wounds, thank the kill they made, play in the river like cubs. If One-Leg had seen those things I told him about happen with his own eyes, he wouldn't have just set me to make more arrowheads."
Why had he ordered his tribe to stay hidden for all these many, many turns? The humans had walked and sailed all across the land, going even into Holt territory, sometimes deep – then returned home to their wood-and-stone dens. They hunted only as they needed, even as their numbers grew, and never pursued a wolf nor set out to kill other predators. As the elf tribe observed, the two separate bands grew closer and prospered together. The elves had hidden, and the humans did not come to find them and destroy them.
She'd told One-Leg what she'd seen, Windburn thought, but that was not what One-Leg had told him. What she was saying now echoed in his own guts, making clear the truth that he realized he had always known.
"One-Leg can think what he wants… but I believe you." Evervale's voice was soft as the caress of a breeze on the leaves, speaking such strange words, but not faltering. "The Amber Hunters made another tribe welcome, although their faces, their speech and their ways are all different."
She spoke, and through the thick of the Now, sent Windburn's mind swimming back to the first encounter of the human tribes, the tall Amber Hunter offering a skin of water to the child of the Painted Faces he had found, without fear or ill intent. More than everything, he recalled the two human tribes facing each other, the greetings and offerings of water and shelter and the touch of hands, and what it had made him wonder about – the meeting of elf tribes. Were four fingers, five fingers, a greater difference than pale skin or dark?
A trapped beast doesn't care who it strikes, Greenweave had said in that Council, and was right. Fear drove the worst of bloodshed. And for the elves, this had been fear, fear, always fear… from the very beginning…
And they could watch the humans for moons, to know all the signs and know how to stop them attacking, to scare them away, to draw the line firmly around their territory and make sure that the humans knew to stay out. He could take True Edge's words, Blacksnake's, One-Leg's, and found what the humans feared to keep them in as tight a stranglehold as they had on his own tribe. But when their fear turned to hate too great for them to contain – wasn't that way just a different way to battle and destruction?
Was there another path?
"And about Wolfkiller – are you sure about him?" Rainpace's question, unexpected as it was, snapped Windburn sharply out of his trail of thoughts. He couldn't tell if Beetle might've nodded, perhaps, but Kestrel was soon speaking up.
"I can speak of the truth of that. Wolfkiller is how we call him, but I think his name is Bomo – that's the word he answers to when they call to him. I see him often." She paused, as though recollecting. The silence as the others listened was absolute. "He likes the dark ones almost better than his own folk, and likes to wander alone, but many more times their chief walks with him and teaches him. I can tell that even without understanding their speech. I think he is chief's heir for the Painted Faces… and if their lives are as short as they seem, will be chief before any of us knows it."
"He's cleverer than all the rest," Beetle now put in. "We've made him lose his kill, but I don't think we've frightened him for long. The way Crackle always wants to know more about just the things that scare her most – that is what he's like."
It was a better answer than Windburn had dared hope for.
He longed for time to pause and consider what he intended to do, but it took courage, and he was aware that his courage might not hold. Thinking would present him with a dozen different problems, too many possibilities that might never happen, might stall and confuse and stop him in his tracks. He'd heard his father and friend out already and knew all he needed to know. He knew what was right.
**Kestrel,** he lock-sent. **Beetle. Come to my den, I need to speak to you.**
His eldest elder, first, and Beetle, who'd seen the humans more clearly than any other – and he would summon more elders, as well, and perhaps even call Notch and Foxtail to him. Them first, and then the tribe, the whole tribe. Secrecy had no more place among them – he would speak of his idea before all of them and hear all they might have to say, all their fears, misgivings, and maybe – maybe – approval, hopes.
To show themselves, yes, but not with blades and claws, but with open hands – with words. To learn the humans' speech, to open a path between them before their two separate paths inevitably clashed. And they should not waste time, but begin now, while there was one who might listen when they spoke.
It was a mad idea, crazier by far than True Edge's, and dangerous, even more dangerous than the human-scout role that One-Leg had purposed for Notch. It would take planning and effort and care to find a way to watch either sort of humans for long enough to pick up their words. He didn't know if the tribe would understand his purpose, could even imagine it. It was the one approach they had never thought to try with the humans. The other path. He could not order his tribemates into it – volunteers would have to step forward, and he would have to choose from them. Perhaps not Notch, but Beetle, no doubt, and there would be others – there must be others.
As there must be others, of course, whose voices would ring differently. He couldn't fault Cloudfern or Farscout for anything they might say, and what would One-Leg think, who had spoken so fiercely? And there was his father, always his father…
But what else? Bloodshed? Fear, forever?
If the humans can make peace, he thought again, at last, after more than an eight of turns, then so can I.