(This story is a sequel to "The Other Path", 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, and is related to the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline -- see those listings for more related stories.)
Evervale pulled the lacings on her small leather bag shut, and leaned down to adjust the heel of one boot. Straightening, she patted herself down, making sure all things were in place: supplies bag, waterskin, pouch of herbs, knife at her belt and spear at her back. She had rarely had to pack and prepare so much, and kept feeling as though she was forgetting something, which she supposed was a natural sort of thing to feel. Concern and excitement fluttered together in the pit of her stomach, coiling around each other and competing to shape her hopes for the days ahead.
She stood up finally and slid the curtain across her den-mouth open, staring at the pale afternoon outside, at the unusual number of tribemates already out and about, gathering in small groups. Everything's moving so fast…
Hard to imagine, that it had only been four hands-of-days since Windburn had called his fateful council.
"Some of you have been wanting to take action. I know how much this scares you, and rightly –- it scares me too, we all know how much of a danger the humans could be to us. It can be said again and again." The chief had given his meaningful glances –- at Farscout, at Cloudfern, at True Edge. At Blacksnake, as well, though that was a glance with a different meaning. Around them, the tribe was mildly tense, but attentive. The fears he was addressing had been hovering, muted, between the branches of the Dentrees for a long time, and all of them seemed grateful to have them fully aired, eager to see how Windburn would finally sink his teeth into the matter at hand.
"We can't do with the humans like we'd do with a foamsick bear, or a flood, or lack of game. We can't avoid them forever, we've learned that. We can't wait until they go away. We can't rely on scaring them off our territory... fear breeds bloodshed, and if we tried to fight them, we'd only be killed. We can't think about them as beasts or monsters or something that just happens like a winter storm." He breathed in deeply them, visibly steeling himself for what he was about to say next.
"We can try to talk to them."
With a last glance back into her den, the plantshaper began her descent, to the ground and the elves that waited there. Her breath still caught a little at the memory. Windburn's voice had been clear and resolute as he explained his intent: for the tribe -– perhaps a small group especially assigned, like a long-ranged hunting party -– to watch the humans, listen to them, hear and learn their speech. The tribe had listened; when muttering broke out, the chief only spoke more loudly and overcame them. Many faces had looked shocked, Evervale remembered, but not all; Kestrel, for one, had sat nodding to herself, contemplative, almost as though the news came as no surprise. Now the eldest elder sat on a low branch, overlooking the preparations below her and speaking softly with her grandson. Pathmark's eyes lit up when he saw his lovemate approach and he slid down, landing in a crouch and rising at once to touch Evervale's arm.
"Are you ready?" His words caught a little and he smiled shyly.
Evervale echoed that smile, nodding. "I have everything I need. Don't worry so much, lovemate, your grandmother will look after me."
"For a while, at least," Kestrel chimed in. "I can't hover over you the whole time, but I will stay within sending range, and do my circling. No human will catch you unaware."
Evervale knew that he wasn't entirely convinced, but he put on his best brave face, accompanying her toward the center of the Holt while Kestrel floated overhead. Many eyes were on them as they passed, and the air was thick with sendings, open and private. The atmosphere around the Dentrees, suffused with the gazes of the elves who'd woken up early to bid the small group farewell, was much like the mixture of emotions in the plantshaper's gut: excitement, apprehension, dread and hushed hope, all at once, till it was hard to tell one from the other.
What was most shocking, perhaps, was actually the silence that followed Windburn's words. Evervale's eyes -– and not hers alone -– had roved over those that were the most obvious choices for defiance. Cloudfern had looked mildly stunned, and Farscout’s wariness was evident, but neither spoke up, and the former was casting small curious glances toward his daughter. True Edge's obvious apprehension was muted. Blacksnake's hand had stopped mid-tugging at his beard, and his eyes were unfathomable, swirling with thoughts, fixed on his chief-son.
And One-Leg had broken the silence. "Well, fried dung on a stick, why don't we?"
Then the questions had begun. Evervale's own mother had shot the sharpest arrow: did that mean revealing themselves willingly? And Windburn had conceded that yes, eventually, but on their own terms rather than being discovered like rabbits frightened out of a burrow. A good answer, put in terms the huntress could relate to; Windsong now stood with Suddendusk, smiling at her firstborn with pride as well as worry.
Longshot was not with them to meet his lovemates; he was up above, perched on a branch and leaning into his father's den.
Moss had been the first to react with open enthusiasm. "It isn't impossible! There isn't a sound that the humans make that we can't, and they live in the same world as we do. All you need is a good ear and a good memory."
"Even I have that," Crackle broke in unasked. "Though my tongue isn't half as long so I'll have to stretch –-"
Her father hushed her. "You also need to get close enough to the humans to sniff their hair," he said. "Close enough to drop into their hands like a ripe fruit if you're not careful. But that's true of any dangerous hunt."
"We don't usually go looking for danger," Longshot had said softly, but his father had only shrugged.
"We aren't usually trying to save our home."
Moss was smiling when he appeared at the den-mouth with Goldspice, himself all packed up and ready to go. He waved at them, swinging down to the ground, Longshot sliding in his wake. "Nice wind this evening. A good sign," he grinned at Evervale. "A good start for our word-hunt."
"Just try not to drop like a ripe fruit on anyone," Longshot grumbled under his breath.
Pathmark swallowed a little, edging half a hand closer to Evervale, and Moss scoffed, but Windsong spoke first: "Have some faith, archer. It wouldn't be the first time some of us have followed some humans and passed unseen. We've proven we're perfectly capable of it." She cast a little glance upwards, to one of the Dentrees' higher branches, where Notch and Foxtail sat together, silent, sullen.
"Of course we can avoid them." Notch had snorted loudly. "We've done that, haven't we? We've played them for drooling fools." Next to him, Foxtail had nodded all too eagerly, looking to her father with something tentative and faint but like hope. They had sat a little apart in that council, opposite even Rainpace and Willow. The prankster had risen to his feet and gestured as he spoke. "Kestrel and Farscout slide by a whole pack of them every other moon and nothing wags. They never knew Beetle and the others were there when they'd killed Crawfish, though they'd been right overhead. We're faster and quieter and cleverer than those thick-footed branch-breakers can ever be. We've got to –- let me do it, my chief!"
Evervale had been sitting half a wolf's-length from Foxtail; from the corner of her eye, she'd seen the chief's daughter look up at Notch with a bright grin, almost a proud one, toes twitching as she prepared to jump up. It was the first time since her humiliation at Windburn’s hands, Evervale had realized, that the chief’s daughter was testing his limits again. Foxtail had been subdued, thoughtful almost, for a long while. But this was bait she seemed unable to resist.
Windburn's eyes had hardened. His sent refusal was all barbed feeling, not even wasting words.
Genuine distress had flickered across Notch's face. "You don't –-" He blinked; suddenly, One-Leg's staff was planted in the earth in front of him.
"Suck it up, cub," the elder had rumbled. He, too, was staring at Windburn, fiercely, and the chief had met that stare and kept his own gaze still. Something might have passed between them, perhaps just a realization or a change of heart. One-Leg had frowned, but didn't move. He'd spoken in that deep steady way that he would when wearing the mantle of elder, a chief's right hand. "You've pissed in your own den and now you'll have to sit in it."
Evidently unprepared for the blow to come from that direction, Notch had sat gaping. Next to him Foxtail was livid, her hopes crushed. “But it’s not fair! I understand if we have to finish our punishment, but we were there first! These stupid humans are nothing to us. We’ve proved ourselves –-”
“Proved yourselves the least reliable members of this tribe!” One-Leg threw back at her. The chief’s daughter flushed, fists clenching, and Notch moved to stop her; but both were caught by surprise that had seemed almost angry when Rainpace, of all elves, cut them off. "I'll go," he had said.
The den-flap behind Foxtail and Notch was pulled aside, and Evervale and Pathmark both tried not to look too obviously as Rainpace dropped to a crouch between his two friends. He and Notch spoke in hushed tones. The former's face was still, while the latter switched between half a dozen expressions, concluding in the distinct look of having bitten deep into something sour. The last words exchanged had passed in a snap, hissed between clenched teeth.
Foxtail just slinked out of the way, creeping along the length of the branch. Her jaw was set tight, a quiet, helpless fire in her eyes, back to the quiet and frustrated contemplation that had marked the passing nights of her punishment. It was wrong to feel sorry for her and Notch, Evervale thought, but couldn’t help it. That Rainpace had been given the position both thought they’d rightly earned was a sting they couldn’t have been prepared for. She touched Rainpace’s arm when he finally joined the group, remembering his own frustration at being excluded from his friends’ plans, worrying that Notch didn’t trust him, then realizing that Notch wasn’t wrong. She didn’t think he’d expected the prankster to be quite so upset over being passed over in his favor, but now the struggle was clear in his face. Four that had stood together good as fingers on a hand – Notch, Foxtail, Rainpace and Willow – the changing seasons had scattered them like leaves.
Moss put his hand on Rainpace’s other shoulder. "Don't feel guilty," he cautioned. The younger elf sighed, but nodded.
"It makes sense," Rainpace had insisted, one fist tight at his side while he gestured widely with the other. Notch stared at him with open disbelief at this reversal of their roles, but the trapper looked away from him and to all his tribemates. "Look –- the humans have done what they've done, and then Notch, Beetle and Foxtail have too, and it's not about –- not about whether we will do anything anymore, it's just about what we're going to do, isn't it?" He looked at Windburn, who nodded just slightly. Off to the side, Notch looked more and more incredulous. "And I want to do this. If we had done it before…"
Evervale found herself speaking up: "It's what we should have done to begin with."
She had stood up –- more than a few tribemates were on their feet by then -– and, moving under the wide-eyed looks of her parents and Crackle's awed stare, put herself at Rainpace's side. "What would've changed, if Beetle had been able to say, look out, don't come near? I –-" a deep breath. "I'll do it, too. I'm willing to go."
"And you'll do nothing foolish," Suddendusk stressed as he had countless times, ever since these words had left her mouth. Evervale just smiled at him and nodded, again and again, for all the help that that was. It was only with great effort, and the support of many, that she was able to calm him down and get him resigned to the fact of her leaving on the word-hunt in the first place. He'd nearly pitched a fit back at the council; luckily, a distraction happened almost at once.
"Evervale!" Willow dropped from a rope overhead, grabbing her friend's hand almost with the same momentum. "You'll share everything with me, right? Between you and Beetle…" The plantshaper nodded quickly. She was subtly grateful, still, that at the time, Willow’s own volunteering had attracted the elders' –- Suddendusk's –- attention, taking it away from her younger friend. She cringed to recall how Willow never got three words out before Windburn had ruled her out, snapping that she should have grown used, by now, to risks a healer could not take anymore.
But then Longshot had stood up, and Farscout, with a wary, heavy-limbed look of necessity, and the group around Rainpace -– the group of the willing, the eager -– was steadily growing.
There'd been a sense of precarious balance to the council, as though some great weight was on the verge of shifting. Many of the elders were still seated, with looks of uncertainty, expectation, silent approval or disapproval. More questions then: some demanding, some hesitant, of how big an endeavor the tribe was undertaking, how many elves for how long, how would everyday hunting and gathering be affected. Windburn hadn't given an answer to all. He'd questioned his hunters, fishers and foragers, asked for opinions and impressions. Not all of the questions could be resolved at once.
But those were different sort of questions, they had all known.
Airy plans began growing roots, gaining weight. Windburn picked from among his volunteers, accepting some and denying others. He turned down Suddendusk, who seemed torn between disappointment and relief, assigned a thrilled One-Leg to go with the group to advise and train, consulted Farscout and Kestrel as to how much support the two far-range scouts could lend without disrupting their duties. Longshot took being turned down as well as he might have. Pathmark seemed quietly glad to stay with his own scout training. Willow held her peace, at least outwardly. With tentative suggestions and hopeful ideas, thing took shape.
They'd talked about it for a while before, without warning, Blacksnake had gotten to his feet to speak up.
"Answer me one question, my chief," he'd asked, and it was hard to tell what he meant by these two last words. "Supposing we do this, supposing we learn their language and we can talk to them… what do you think you'll say?"
"Ready to go, are you?" The look that Blacksnake greeted the group with was critical, his voice a touch gruff -– Evervale thought that he looked as though he hadn't slept enough, and that made sense. One-Leg grinned at him. Moss smiled pleasantly, Kestrel merely nodded and Rainpace stood very straight. His eyes roved over them all, and Evervale tried not to think that he saved a glance of particular disapproval for her.
"If this somehow works –-" he began.
"It might just work, Blacksnake," Kestrel broke in with half a smile. "It isn't a bad idea just because it's Windburn's."
The hunt leader blinked in surprise; then actually snorted with laughter.
"Hah."Elder," he shook his head, grinning, "this might be the best idea my son has had since the day he was whelped. And it if works…"
"We never made any plans for that, did we?" Windsong said very softly.
"That would depend."
The others had moved back slightly, so that there was a clear line of sight between Blacksnake and Windburn. There was no hostility crackling in that space; the elder elf was looking at his son with a strange expression, as though there was something he very much wanted to feel, but wasn't allowing himself. Just as oddly, Windburn seemed to acknowledge that. He spoke in a slow deliberate tone. Some crux had been reached, some central, all-important idea.
"Once we understand them, we can know more of what they're like. If they speak of expanding never mind what's in their path… if they speak of hunting or of war, we'll know. And then… we've planned for that, haven't we?" A little way behind him, True Edge gave a solemn nod, and Windburn had echoed it. "My mother planned for humans who'd be our enemies."
But then he gestured back, towards Beetle, who had sat in fascinated silence.
"But maybe they aren't. Did you speak with Beetle, Father? One-Leg – I know you did. Cloudfern, too. Kestrel can tell you such stories as well. Even Farscout can. They'll all say the same to you.
"They're tall and they have five fingers and round ears… but they care for the others even of another tribe. They thank their kill. They take care with their living place. They help the weak and young among them. They cry for cubs they lose…
"We can look at them and see the Fierce Ones, our enemies… or we can try to look at them as friends."
"Windburn." Kestrel took to the air, raising a hand in greeting. Flanked by One-Leg and Beetle, trailing a gaggle of half a dozen others, the chief approached the group. Almost the entire tribe was gathered, now. Not such a rare sight -– it happened sometimes when a group was leaving on a lengthy hunt, that all would gather to say farewell, but the eve of the word-hunt smelled different.
"I'll say to them that this land is wide and hunting is plentiful. If we respect each other's territories – there's room for all of us to live in peace."
The small team stepped forward, detaching themselves from family and friends. Beetle smiled at them, bravely and eagerly –- she would find her place among them only after her six moons' punishment was done, the chief had decided, and was bearing that fate with grace -– while One-Leg looked them all over and finally gave a hrmpf of satisfaction, pushing himself up to foot-and-staff. "Let's get going before someone sobers up and changes their mind," he said to Windburn.
"What if they don't want your peace?" Blacksnake had queried. "What if they laugh in your face and fill you with arrows on the spot?"
The chief nodded. "Let's." He was silent, briefly, just looking them over, then open-sent: a powerful flash of trust-hope-caution-rely-on-you that enveloped the entire tribe, connecting them briefly but totally. Other minds joined in after a moment: Beetle's a glowing beacon of faith, Snowfall's and Windsong's a defensive pride, Longshot's an anxious eagerness, Goldspice's a wistful farewell, Blacksnake's a fond and demanding sort of respect. Even Notch and Foxtail skulked around the edges, with a bright tang of jealous curiosity.
"If it's to be war anyway…" Windburn had shrugged. "Then all we stand to gain are a few more seasons' hiding-luck.
"Think of what we stand to gain otherwise. No more fear."
And then it was time to go.
Evervale glanced back; the trees closed over the view of the Holt’s center and the elves that stood there as they did on every journey she'd taken away from the Dentrees. A howl rose behind them, a familiar farewell. Kestrel flew ahead and One-Leg trailed the rear, leaving Moss, Evervale and Rainpace to ride side by side. They were silent; not a fearful silence, but silence nonetheless.
"Well," Moss said at length. "We've taken the first step."
It'll be a long, long path, Evervale thought to herself. But Moss gave her and Rainpace a brave smile, and she returned it.