**Whistle! Whistle! Where are you? Answer me!**
Flash and Yellowmoon raced across the open forest in a blur of motion. Rider and wolf-friend moved, and thought, as one. Whistle had gone missing the previous night, separated from a training hunt, and the encroaching sunset was dotted with mocking red clouds. Further complicating the matter was that Whistle was a painfully weak sender, and Flash wasn’t much better off. The scarlet-haired storyteller had been the omega-of-senders until Whistle came along. Sometimes that had come in handy, like when Flash didn’t want to be found by anyone. She could always claim she never heard the sends of her tribemates.
But right now that lack of ability felt like a curse. Whistle was gone; her family hadn’t slept at all. Finch was leading the search. She’d kept up a strong, decisive front, but Flash knew her well enough to see the turmoil aching beneath the surface. The agony of wondering if they would ultimately retrieve lost kin or bring home a corpse. Flash herself was reaching exhaustion and her stomach was growling, not to mention what the cub might be going through. ‘I might have found her by now if only…’ The thought was cut off by a baleful growl.
To make up for their shortcoming, the two had made a game of creating a language of bird calls. Well, mostly Flash taught Whistle the calls, and the youngling dreamed up meanings for them.
One such sound -- maybe? hopefully! -- wafted on the wind to Flash’s ears. An out-of-season mating call. Its meaning, if it was being sounded by Whistle, was obvious enough; ‘Something not right, not as it should be.’
**Finch! I’ve got something!**
**Don’t wait for me!** her friend demanded. **Go get her!**
Flash raised her head in a warbling “follow me!” howl. Yellowmoon added his voice to hers.
From the north came Finch’s answering howl as Flash raced toward the calls. Whistle’s big sister was on her way.
Flash followed the sounds to a beast from her youth.
Old Termite Face hunched guardedly at the edge of a small clearing. Two ancient trees wrapped around one another, growing into one another. An eternal embrace, which just happened to have caught a stunted limb in the center. A passable, if jagged, nose. Rock-hard lines writhed around the exposed roots, the remains of a once thriving termite colony.
The tree had also been an endless source of spooky tales for an imaginative scarlet-haired cub with a penchant for scaring herself with her own stories. Now it was literally a shell of its former self. The upper branches and leaves they once supported were long gone. Scattered bits of rotten bark lay here and there. A large branch was on the ground, freshly broken and not yet crawling with rollypollys hungry to feast upon the decayed matter. Below the spot where the branch had been, there was a sizable hole near the center of the joint where the two trunks finally pulled away from one another.
Burly Crackbone, Whistle’s wolf-friend, pawed helplessly at the old hulk. The birdcalls were coming from within it.
The whistling stopped. The terror in Whistle’s send was bare and raw, but speech eluded her. Flash’s mind was battered with a series of wordless images -- **Chasing a bird! Want to listen! Must get up higher! SNAP! Falling! Can’t get out! Foot hurts! Can’t hop out! Wood crumbles in my hands! Can’t climb! CAN’T GET OUT!** -- Sharp, choking, sobs echoed in the trunk. Crackbone pawed faster, whining, in response to his elf-friend’s terror.
There’d been a summer storm a few nights ago. **The tree is saturated.** As much as she wanted to, Flash was woodwise enough to know that the outside of the trunk was still too sturdy to bust through. Crackbone would have torn through it by now if it weren’t. And the sound might terrorize the poor girl even more. **Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right. Finch is on her way. I’m coming up to get you, sweetie.**
From her examination, Flash was pretty sure she could get up the trunk without incident. Whistle had, after all, she decided. **Tell me how you got up there, Little Bird? Show me the best path.**
Another burst of sends, less sortable than the first ones. No help. Given time, she’d be able to pick the images apart, put them in place, and build the story of what had happened out of them. But there was no time! Just knowing a fellow elf was on the other side of the wooden barrier, and not being able to reach them, had likely driven the girl close to full-blown panic. Whistle might hurt herself if I don’t act now!.
Flash pulled off the gold-wire ties in her hair and wound them into her necklace, which she draped across the tree’s ‘nose’. They wouldn’t snag on the climb up that way. Eyeing her wolf-friend, she sent an image of Finch and Oddclaw. **Find them. Bring them here.**
Yellowmoon bolted off. Crackbone’s eyes darted back and forth between the tree and his kin, and ran off to follow his elder.
The best way to calm a terrified child down, the best one Flash knew anyway, was to tell a story. **Did I ever tell you the one about the three-armed troll and his magic sword?** She rounded the tree, looking for the best way up, and something she could dig her feet into near the top. But no answer was forthcoming from her very young friend. **Come on, come on. Play along. I haven’t got all day.**
A weak sending of fear and confusion was the only reply. Sometimes all telling a story did was remind someone that was somebody else was trying to distract them from something bad.
Flash bit her lip at the mistake, and started up the route she had chosen. The trunk was a good three times her sire’s height. A short trip, if one wasn’t worried about a chunk of bark sliding away in one’s hands. Such worries made the climb a long and winding one. At last she reached the wide lip torn by her target. Holding her breath, she craned her head up a precious little bit more, and took her first look inside the trunk.
The interior of the trunk was dark and smelled like… like a terrified cub had been stuck so long she’d had to lift her leg at least once. Whistle’s face could barely been seen through the shadows. Her eyes were swollen red, her cheeks soaked with tears. Weakly she begged, “pleeeeeeease get me out.”
**I will.** Flash slowly eased up onto the lip, making sure she had a good perch. She twisted herself around to get in position, sitting down with her back facing the girl. Carefuly, she put her weight down-
A horrified scream rattled Flash’s ears, made all the more head-splitting by Old Termite Face’s bellowing harmonics. Whistle was sobbing now so hard Flash couldn’t make out anything she said other than “Hurry!”
“Andheslewthemonsterandallthothertrollslovedhimforevertheend! Here I come!” Secured by her lower legs she raised her hands above her head and fell back into the tree as though she was diving backwards into her favorite bathing pond. Small hands grasped her wrists and clung tight. “Hey! I’ll be needing those later!” she growled. Anger right now was more useful than fear.
Whistle scrambled clumsily up Flash’s body. Once she had a sturdy perch on her elder’s legs, Whistle tensed to leap off -- “No! Wait! Don’t!” -- and her right leg gave out. The poor girl tumbled down with a shout. But Flash didn’t hear her feet hit the ground.
An open sending of warmth and love and security enveloped Flash. Finch had caught her sister. “I’ve got you! Everything’s all right.”
Flash took her time leveling up out of the slimy pulp inside the trunk. There was no longer a need to hurry. It was a matter of ‘sitting up’ at a right angle, getting her chest level with the ground and balanced, her weight on the backs of her knees, up against the lip of the hole Whistle made. That done, she could reach for handholds around the hole. The first two crumbled away, the third held firm. When at last she was upright, she spotted Whistle on the ground, still trembling and favoring one leg but otherwise all right. Finch was checking her for bruises. **You’re welcome,** Flash smirked.
Whistle gave Flash a heartfelt and thankful smile.
Flash kept an eye on them as she made her way down Old Termite Face. She watched her friends hugging and smiling and laughing together, and Flash couldn’t help but think about how different things might have been between the sisters. They shared a mother and sire, but they were separated by so many turns that it wasn’t unthinkable that Finch could have turned out more like a favorite aunt in Whistle’s eyes than a big sister. And yet, somehow, they were so close. She and Honey were practically littermates by comparison, but separated by far more than wildly different sires.
Flash could no longer imagine a time when she or Honey would be so heartbreakingly eager to see the other. She summoned Yellowmoon and mounted up without commenting upon it.
“Mother and Father are on their way,” Finch promised her sister. “I can hear their sends now, and soon they’ll be close enough for you to hear.” She helped the girl onto Crackbone’s back, and winced sympathetically. “Looks like you have a sprained ankle there. We’ll take you to Cloudfern’s den, so he can make sure-“
“NO!” the girl cried. Flash had never heard such defiance in Whistle’s voice. “If Cloudfern wants to look me over he can come outside!”
Finch’s sending of surprise gave way to one of empathy. **Whatever you want, sister. I’m just glad you’re safe.**
Flash nudged Yellowmoon to get moving.