“Promise me, father, that you’re not angry.”
Bearheart gazed down into his daughter’s earnest, shining face, and found that words choked him. He seized her in a tight embrace instead, easily lifting the girl from her feet.
“Of course I’m not angry,” Bearheart murmured as he hugged Snowdrop close. He set her back down on her feet and managed a smile that he didn’t quite feel. “You go out there and walk wide and far, do your father proud.”
Snowdrop beamed at him. The ten-turn-old girl was dressed in a new matching set of boots and coat of dyed seal which her mother had made her expressly for this day. Her long, snow-white hair was braided back in two braids and wrapped in dark lengths of otter. Across her shoulder was slung a new quiver, made from an entire foxpelt, with the fletching a pale grey of goose feathers. Bearheart checked the fit of the new quiver, proud of his own crafting, then chucked Snowdrop under the chin.
“You’ve got your spare bowstrings?” he asked, despite having closely overseen her packing for this extended trip.
Snowdrop nodded and patted the pockets of her new coat. “And flint and stone, and tinder, just in case I get separated and have to make my own shelter, just like you and mother showed me.”
“You’ll be fine,” Dreamberry said, deftly elbowing her lifemate aside and enfolding their child in a warm embrace. “Oakhand will take good care of you, and you’ll learn a lot of new places and new things.” Dreamberry pressed her lips against her daughter’s forehead, then gave her an encouraging push toward where the girl’s wolf-friend was waiting alongside the Hunt Leader and his wolf. Snowdrop flashed her parents a final, excited grin, and scampered to pull herself aside her she-wolf. Oakhand met Bearheart’s fierce look and nodded once, soberly. Then the Hunt Leader turned away and rode off, with his young charge close behind.
Arms crossed across his stout chest, Bearheart stood and watched them go. He waited for his little girl to look at her parents one last time before she was gone, but Snowdrop was too enraptured with the adventure ahead to look behind her. At her lifemate’s side, Dreamberry gave a small sigh as Oakhand and Snowdrop rode out of view.
“Well, that’s that. We may see the first snow of the year before we see them come back,” she said. She slid an arm around Bearheart’s hips and snuggled close to his side. “I have no idea what we might possibly do without our little she-cub stealing all of the sleeping-furs,” she purred, in a tone that suggested that, in all actuality, Dreamberry had a lot of very good ideas in mind.
Normally, Bearheart would have been immediately receptive to his Recognized’s unspoken suggestions. But at the moment, he hardly heard her, or felt her soft embrace. Dreamberry looked up at him, her fringe of white hair framing her cat-green eyes.
“You are angry with our daughter, aren’t you?” Dreamberry asked quietly,
“Of course not,” Bearheart said, in a voice that was too tight.
Dreamberry squeezed him tighter in her embrace. **You’re jealous, then. Hurt that our daughter asked for Oakhand to take her on her Very Long Walk, instead of you?**
Try as he might, he couldn’t find a way to evade the question yet keep his dignity. “My father took me on mine. I always assumed any cub of mine would want me to do the same.”
There’s nothing that Oakhand knows that I don’t, was also on the tip of his tongue, wanting to be said. He swallowed down the bitterness, yet the wise look on the face of his heart’s love told him she’d heard what he’d left unspoken, too.
**You are one of our steadiest hunters. No one doubts that – most of all, certainly not our child. Our daughter worships the ground you walk on, love.**
“Then why am I not riding out with her now, instead of Oakhand?” he grumbled.
Dreamberry gave a small, sympathetic chuckle. “Snowdrop just wants you to be proud of her. That’s why she asked for the Hunt Leader, instead of you. You’ve always been her most enthusiastic mentor; you made her her first spear and her first bow, and took her on her first hunt for small game. But our little girl is growing up. She’ll be a huntress in her own right, someday soon, and Snowdrop is wise enough, even at her age, to know every experienced hunter has some different insights to share. Snowdrop asked for the Hunt Leader to guide her on her Very Long Walk because she wants to come back and impress you with everything she’s learned. Oakhand will push her harder than you might have. She knows that. She wants you to be proud of her, and of what she’ll achieve.”
That made sense… but it was Bearheart’s heart which hurt, and he didn’t want to listen to reason. “Oakhand shouldn’t have accepted her request. He didn’t have to.”
“And the Hunt Leader normally doesn’t,” Dreamberry agreed. “I think he did because he thinks our little Snowdrop will be as special a huntress someday as you always boast she will be.“
That mollified the hurt, but only a little. “She’s my little girl-cub,” Bearheart whispered. “She’s making her own decisions, and leaving our nest because she wants to go. And I’m just not ready to let her go yet.”
Dreamberry stood on her tip-toes and planted a warm kiss against her lifemate’s lips. **She’ll always be our little girl-cub. You’re a good father, to let her go like this, even when it hurts to do so. Our fledgling is trying her wings, and someday too soon, she’ll leave our nest for good. But even when she’s all grown up and mated and has got little cublings of her own, she’ll still be our little girl.**
Bearheart shook himself and gusted loose a deep sigh. It hurt to let go… but his lifemate was right. His precious child would never truly be far. He hugged Dreamberry tightly, enjoying the press of her soft curves against him. He managed a smile for her, and after the first few heartbeats, it ceased to feel forced. “I suppose so,” he rumbled in reply. “So… what are we going to do after all, if we’ve the den all to ourselves?”
Dreamberry laughed, long and low, as she wriggled out of his embrace. She caught one of his hands in hers, and tugged him after her as she led the way back to their den in the Father Tree.