Whistle chattered happily with Finch. They were picking berries near the home ridge. The trickling of the Den's Creek could be heard nearby. The night air was cool on their skin, but the taste of fresh berries and the fact that the winter had finally turned to spring had urged them out into the night.
“So, I saw you and Suddendusk by the river last night,” Finch trilled, her words almost a song as she teased her little sister.
Whistle felt a flush rising up her neck at what her sister was suggesting. Just because she and Suddendusk had rolled in the furs once didn’t mean that they were lovemates. ‘Ha!’ she thought. ‘As if he would ever settle down with anyone.’ Whistle knew Finch knew that. Surely she was just teasing. She knew Whistle had no interest in the amorous ropemaker.
“Well?” Finch probed.
“We were talking. Just talking. And then I left.”
Finch pinched a berry, its juices splattering over her hand. “You left?” she sang. “That would have been a perfect time to…” her voice trailed off. “The way he was looking at you, he would have been happy to.”
“Oh, and don’t I know it. But I’ve been there – and I am not interested.”
Finch was about to respond, but Whistle gathered a couple of berries from her basket and pushed them into Finch’s open mouth. Finch closed her mouth, letting some of the berry-juice run through her lips and down her chin. She used it as an illustration, and sent, **He was practically drooling over you.**
“He was not!!!” Whistle argued, playfully swatting at Finch. She added, **You know I only have eyes for Blacksnake.**
Finch grinned at her, gathered berries into her hand and threw them at Whistle while asking, “Then why don’t you tell him? Just because he’s lifemated to the Chieftess doesn’t mean he would turn you down”
Whistle didn’t have an answer for that – she didn’t know why she felt so… nervous and shy around him, but so far, she hadn’t been able to tell him. She threw berries back at Finch. “I can’t!” she squealed as Finch pelted her with some more.
**Then you should enjoy the attentions of other elves until you can!** Finch sent, dumping her whole basket over Whistle’s head.
The basket of berries was a declaration of war. Whistle dove at Finch and began tickling her. Soon, the sisters were rolling on the ground, laughing and smashing berries on one another. They were giggling as they fought and tickled, berry-baskets forgotten on the forest floor.
A deep rustling in the nearby undergrowth brought the sisters to a halt. Though Finch had her axe nearby, it was not within reach, and Whistle had not brought her bow, and had only a small knife at her side. They had not intended to hunt, so Crackbone and Furnest were somewhere else, possibly hunting on their own.
Another crash made the sisters crouch, tensed as they sought to determine the cause, and a possible escape. They were upwind, so they could not scent what was coming. Whatever was coming sounded large. There was a snort as the beast came nearer.
**Bear!** Finch sent, and Whistle nodded. A cub came into view, and the pair dove into a nearby thicket of bushes. They hoped they hadn’t been spotted by the curious youngster. Both knew that where a cub was, a mother would be nearby. Neither was interested in an encounter with a protective mother bear.
Finch and Whistle reached out to send for whoever might be nearby. They held still, hoping the cub would move on, but it spotted the baskets and happily began licking at them. Finishing the baskets, the cub moved toward the bushes. Finch and Whistle crouched, making themselves as small as possible. Whistle considered bolting for a tree, but she had no way of knowing where the mother bear was, and she didn’t want to run into her.
Finch sent to her that she had touched minds with Furnest, who was on his way. She then shared with Whistle that Blacksnake, Suddendusk, and Bowfight were on their way also. **They told us to be still,** her sister added.
A larger crash announced the arrival of the mother.
The cub turned from the bushes and bounded to its mother. It rolled head first and landed, belly up, in front of her. She nuzzled it for a moment and it rolled over again, bounding away playfully. Mother bear snorted and turned toward the bushes.
Whistle felt something crawling up her neck, and she could sense it on her head. As it descended her forehead, she swatted at it, knocking it to the ground. It was a spider. An involuntary “eek” escaped her lips at the sight of the deadly black and red creature.
The mother bear looked up, hair rising.
Whistle clapped her hand over her mouth. Her heart beat increased as the mother bear came closer to the bushes. Though the bear had surely slept all winter, she was massive. The bear grunted, then growled. She was close. Too close.
**Run!!** Finch sent. She bolted toward the trees. Whistle saw Furnest's brown hide and watched as her sister jumped to his back. Crackbone's howl alerted her that he was near, and she hoped she could make it to him before the mother bear got to her.
Whistle stood. She spied Crackbone and started to run. She had to pass the bear. The bear swiped at her. Her back seared with pain. Suddenly, she was flying through the air. ‘High Ones, help me!’ she thought. The ground was coming. She tensed, hit the ground and rolled. Crackbone was there, growling at the bear. She jumped onto his back. “Go!” she shouted. The bear was charging. Whistle kicked at her wolf friend and he sped into the woods.
Whistle clung to Crackbone. She was hardly aware of Blacksnake, Suddendusk, and Bowflight passing them, heading the other direction. Finally, the pain from her open, bleeding back brought her to darkness.
Whistle heard them talking. She was in a den, warm, and she was lying on her stomach. Trying to move, she felt her back burn. The bear — it had clawed her. Where was it? What happened?
She opened her eyes. Cloudfern was talking with her parents. Cloudfern sat close beside Raven, his arm around his lovemate, while Raven and Sunlight held hands, looking tense and worried. She closed her eyes, resting.
When she opened then again, she saw Cloudfern approaching. He knelt at her side and applied a cool, soothing balm to the wounds on her back. His eyes met hers a moment and he began speaking softly. “These lacerations will take a few hands of days or longer to heal, and we have to treat them carefully to prevent infection,” he said simply. “You’ll have some scars, but that’s the worst of it. It could have been worse, much worse.”
“She’s awake?” Finch’s voice trilled into Whistle’s heart. When had she arrived? She was glad Finch was all right. Suddenly her sister came into view. The small elf knelt at Whistle's side and smiled.
“She is, but I don’t think she’ll be up for conversation very long," Cloudfern warned.
**Thank you,** Whistle weakly sent to Cloudfern as he stepped back, allowing her parents to get closer. Their hands were clasped as they looked at her.
“The bear?” she asked, her voice a whisper.
Finch's eyes lit up. Whistle wondered whether Finch had gone back and helped to kill the bear. But that wouldn't have been right - the bear had a cub. Finch's voice interrupted Whistle's thoughts as she shared that Blacksnake, Suddendusk, and Bowflight had faced the bear and made her back off. Whistle smiled. She was glad the mother bear hadn't been killed - she had only been protecting her cub.
Sunlight put her hand on Finch's shoulder, signaling that it was time for her to let Whistle rest. Finch winked at her and sent, **He came to your rescue, you know?**
Whistle felt herself blush at Finch's suggestion, and she was grateful when Sunlight shooed her sister away. Sunlight knelt in her place and reached a hand out to caress her daughter's face. "We came too close to losing you, Whistle. I'm just glad you're safe now."
Whistle tried to smile, but she was getting more and more sleepy. Sunlight touched her once more, then stood to leave. Raven caressed his daughter's hair and smiled at her as well. Whistle guessed he wanted to say more, but she didn't stay awake long enough to find out. She was asleep before he left.