(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
Another bowl of dreamberries was being passed around the Howl circle. Brightwood took one and toyed with it, rolling it between her long fingers. "My brother has told the story of his Recognition," she said, turning her smile toward Suddendusk and Windsong. "Now I want to know how Sunlight's daughter got burdened with you!"
Everyone looked expectantly at Suddendusk, who sat up a little straighter and reached out to wrap an arm around Windsong's shoulders. "Burdened, is it?" he grinned at his lifemate.
Windsong laughed and nuzzled his cheek. "You tell it," she said, conscious of how her soft voice would not carry.
"With pleasure," Suddendusk beamed, his single eye twinkling. "It was late spring, as I recall it — and I was giving two of my tribesmates a helping hand..."
"And this, my cublings, is how the wise old wolf does it."
Suddendusk made a grand gesture toward the elaborate snare he had just built. Notch and Chicory stood just behind him, having watched him at his work. They traded an amused look now, behind their elder's back.
"It's guaranteed to work flawlessly," Suddendusk continued, his voice rich with pride for his own handiwork. "The trigger line is virtually invisible, is it not? And that counterweight is deviously set to launch at just the perfect angle. She'll not have a clue — until she's been painted."
It had been a long spring; boredom had led Notch and Chicory into another prank war, with a vengeful Quick Fang as their primary target. After several moons of escalation, other tribemates were either getting weary of the ongoing warfare — or else were looking to join in themselves, albeit from the safety of the fringes. Suddendusk was one of those — as the tribe's elder prankster, he appeared to be reluctant to miss out on the fun
“Part of the mastery of a good trap, aside from knowing how best to apply the nosedeaf which will mask your scent, is knowing exactly how to place your trap in order to nab your intended prey,” Suddendusk continued, his single eye twinkling with pride and delight for his craft. “You have to know your target intimately, know exactly how their reflexes will carry them, know what they think, how they think it, and what their motivations are. You'll see how I selected the strip of the trail where it has a narrow pass between the nettle patch and the big capnut tree? Our hunters will be tired from a long night's hunt, and Fang is a highly aggressive young male; he always pushes himself to the front of the hunting party, if the chief-wolf or the chief-wolf's mate aren't present.” Suddendusk grinned at his two younger tribesmates and tapped his forehead. “You want to be absolutely sure you hit your target, and not someone else by mistake.”
“Yeah. Hate it when someone else gets in the way,” Notch agreed amiably. He plucked an oakleaf up from the ground and fussed with it, wrapping it rapidly around his fingers. “Although it is sometimes hilarious.”
Chicory smiled at that, and glanced idly Notch. She noticed the oakleaf he was manipulating, and gave him a second, pointed look. He acknowledged her silent question with an evasive smile and a shrug.
“And look — see the way I've strung the bladder?” Suddendusk continued, oblivious to the wordless exchange behind him. He pointed up toward what looked like a mass of hanging moss. “You can't even see the trigger line — beardmoss is best for that, plus it has a nice, musty odor to it, which helps mask the yeasty stink of what's in the bladder. Urine from the chief-wolf's mate, nicely fermented,” he added with a grin and a wink for his audience. “No male wolf can ignore its perfume.”
“About that...” Notch said, with a brightness about his eyes that was at odds with the lazy half-interest of his voice. “How did you manage to gather enough of that to fill a bloat-ball?”
A slight breeze rustled the leaves around them, blowing from the direction of the trail. All three immediately tensed. “They're coming!” Chicory announced.
“Quick! Hide!” Suddendusk said, following after Chicory as she dived into a nearby thicket. Notch delayed behind them, just long enough to bring the oakleaf he had been rubbing up to his lips. He blew a hard gust of breath on it, sending the mangled bit of leaf sailing, then scrambled to hide with his companions.
Several heartbeats later, as the trio finished concealing themselves with views of the trail, two hunters rode into sight. True to Suddendusk's prediction, Quick Fang's wolf Fang trotted ahead of Quick Fang’s cousin Windsong and her tawny-coated wolf Tassel. The pair each carried a brace of rabbits, and Quick Fang was still gnawing at what looked like a hare's hindquarters.
**Just watch, and you'll see a masterpiece at its work,** Suddendusk locksent gleefully to his companions.
From where their shoulders pressed together, Chicory felt the silent buzz of Notch's laughter. She glanced at him suspiciously.
The hunters trotted closer, still oblivious to the danger they approached. Then, only a hand's breadth from where the spider-silk trigger line was stretched, Quick Fang's nose twitched and she dragged her wolf to an abrupt halt — with Notch's bit of abused oakleaf right in the trail at Fang’s feet. Both wolf and rider went taut with suspicion, their noses working to draw in more of the hated scent they had caught a hint of. Chicory slid a grudging look of admiration toward Notch, while at her other side, Suddendusk's expression had gone from delight to horror.
“No no no...” he whispered, watching as Tassel trotted blithely past Fang on the trail.
“It is sometimes hilarious,” Notch whispered under his breath, as Tassel took another step toward the trip-line.
**”Stop!”** Suddendusk both sent and shouted the warning as he burst out of cover. Fang’s ears flattened and both he and his rider snarled at the elder as Suddendusk launched himself toward them, while Tassel simply shied sideways, her expression and her rider's both echoing their surprise.
Tassel's left front paw hit the trigger-line, severing it.
Suddendusk collided with Windsong, carrying her bodily from Tassel's back. They hit the ground together as a swollen bladder of fermented wolf-urine, trailing streamers of green-gray moss, sailed over Tassel's shoulders. The toxic missile struck Quick Fang full in the chest, splattering both rider and her wolf-friend with the noxious broth. Both roared in outrage, while Notch leaped out of hiding to cheer the perfect strike.
“That was beautiful!” Notch crowed. Quick Fang — who had begun to focus on Suddendusk as the cause of her sudden, eye-watering misery — caught sight of him and snarled. Fang echoed that and launched himself forward, intent on retribution. Notch spun, waggled the coyote-tail pinned to the back of his breeches at them, and fled, hooting over his shoulder his encouragements to catch him if they could.
Chicory held her breath until Quick Fang and Fang were safely past, then scrambled out of hiding.
“Are you both all right?” she asked as she hurried toward Suddendusk and Windsong. That had looked like a hard tackle, and Suddendusk, who had landed on top of Windsong, was no lightweight.
Suddendusk was already helping Windsong to sit up. The normally quiet huntress was flushed with anger, and Chicory saw Windsong open her mouth to express her indignation. But then the angry lines of her face went slack, and she simply gazed into Suddendusk's eye with shock, while Suddendusk's own shoulders rocked back with sudden stiff tension.
Realizing something was happening between the pair, Chicory staggered to an uncertain stop. “Are you all right?” she said again.
Oblivious to Chicory, Suddendusk threw back his head and laughed in joy. Then he sprang to his feet and swept Windsong up into his arms. Without a word said between them, he carried Windsong away, out of range of the acrid stench of left by his trap.
Their coupling was frenzied and quick — the demands of Recognition would allow for nothing else. Afterwards, Suddendusk lay atop her, panting for breath and with his heart hammering as though he had just finished a long and desperate race. Windsong's breathing was no less labored. She lay with her eyes closed as though she had fallen asleep, but he knew from the batter of her pulse against his skin that she was not, no matter how exhausted the mating act had left them.
Suddendusk drew himself up on his elbows and rested his sweating forehead against hers. Beneath him, he focused on the thick golden fringe of her eyelids. They were a deep gold, several shades darker than the rich yellow of her hair. How, he wondered to himself, how had he failed before to notice the perfection of her eyelashes? They were exquisitely beautiful... as were the matching gold of her arching brows. He had never seen anything so lovely before as those slight, feathery touches of marigold, set against the flushed cream of her pale skin.
Recognition. This was the mate of his soul. Suddendusk had waited for this, had waited for her, for so very, very long. He gazed down now on Windsong's face, marveling at the beauty of her, dazzled by her and by his own previous obliviousness to such living, breathing perfection. Suddendusk had watched Sunlight and Raven's youngest daughter grow up. He had always admired her soft, full curves and lovely green eyes. He had pursued her now and again as a furmate, and shared moments of pleasure with her before. Yet how had he never recognized her true beauty until now?
Of course — he had not Recognized her before. Suddendusk chuckled with amusement to himself, knowing that that single, heart-freezing moment of Recognition had changed everything. She was Mytan. She was his.
"Mytan," he whispered, as he licked a drop of sweat from her brow. Her soul-name was as good on his lips as the taste of her salt and skin. "My Mytan."
Her eyes flickered open and she gazed up at him, her eyes as green as a meadow after a spring rain. He smiled down at her, loving the disheveled beauty of her beneath him. "Say my name," he whispered to her, licking another drop of sweat from her skin. "Seal it and make my joy complete. Say my name."
"Dhay." Her soft voice was hardly more than a sigh. Suddendusk shivered to hear his soul-name aloud. He felt his joy swell inside as though it might make his heart burst. He nuzzled her and stroked down the curve of her body to the swell of her hip. If he could have awakened his exhausted member, he would have taken her again, right then, right there. Ah, but this would be only the first of their couplings as mates, he thought with delight. They would have a lifetime together now, and there would be a child as well —
A child! He would finally be a father! The reality of that shimmered suddenly in front of him. A child. His child! Suddendusk had long envied both of his half-brothers their chances to sire children. Now, it would be their turn to envy him, as he and his Recognized brought new life to the tribe.
"We'll move your things to my den — it's larger, and Cloudfern won't have to shape much to expand it for our cub," he murmured, glowing with anticipation for the future. "When you're heavy with the child, I'll bring you honeycombs and the softest of furs to sleep on. Anything you desire, my love, you need only ask and I will provide it —"
Windsong's body twisted beneath him, and Suddendusk found himself dumped on his side as she pushed herself to her feet. She snatched after her torn clothing and began to pull on her leggings, her heavy golden mane swinging loose down her back.
Suddendusk gazed after her, startled by her uncharacteristically fierce manner. "Mytan?"
"I like my den," she replied, her voice a rasp.
"Then I'll move to yours." Suddendusk sat up, trying to reclaim the sense of bliss he had been floating in only moments ago. "Whatever pleases you, now that we're lifemates —"
Windsong stopped cold and looked at him in disbelief. "Lifemates? With you?" Windsong shook her head firmly. "Why would I want that?"
Her blunt words staggered him. Suddendusk gaped at her, horrified by her words. She turned away from him and calmly went back to dressing. "I didn't choose to Recognize you, so I don't see why I should choose to lifemate," Windsong explained as she finished pulling on her clothing. "I like you well enough, elder. You're always good for a night or two of fun as a furmate. But I don't want you for my lifemate. I love Thornbow. I’m happy with him. He’s steady. I can rely on him. We share the same interests.”
"Mytan, you know my soul. What shall that make us, if not —"
“It doesn’t automatically make us lifemates!” Windsong looked at him sharply, her expression exasperated. “My own parents Recognized twice, and they had the good sense not to lifemate. Suddendusk, I know what I want, and what I don’t. You're feckless. You're often irresponsible. You spend days with your head in the clouds, tinkering away with useless toys that do nothing to feed or clothe the tribe, or in playing childish pranks. I'll share a child with you as it needs raising, but Recognition to you requires no more claim on me than that. Because I'm not sure I'm ready to raise one child. I know I don't want to be responsible for raising two."
With that, Windsong shook her mane of hair free of the collar of her tunic, and just walked off, leaving Suddendusk staggered and silent in her wake.
Windsong walked home through the trees, blind to everything she passed. She held herself to a steady walk, and willed her expression to be calm, as if practice alone would make it so. What she really wanted to do was to run, to flee as fast as she could, back to her den, and hide there until she could make sense of what had just happened.
Recognition? To Suddendusk? Oh Ancestors, no! Windsong knew that what she’d told Suddendusk was possibly cruel — but it was the truth as well. She liked the elder enough to share his furs once in a rare moon — he was charming, and funny, and clever. But so was Notch. You could count on Suddendusk just about as much as you could Notch — either one was always eager to hit the furs or hare off on a new prank. But you would never expect either of them to stay loyal for more than a handful of nights at a time, and you sure didn’t want to trust either of them to stick around when things got dull or boring. Eggshells and icicles, the last thing she could imagine was being Recognized and bound for life to a prankster! High Ones, but talk about cruel…
Windsong held herself to a walk. She was accustomed to cruel. Her parents, Sunlight and Raven, had both died within a year of one another. Then her sister Finch had died as well, five eights-of-years later. Windsong figured she had a lot of practice at facing and overcoming adversity. She liked to think that the grief she had endured had made her stronger, had made her more mature at her age than was normal. She knew she was tough enough to overcome any trial that life faced her with. But the selfish, orphaned child in her heart still wanted to weep and tear at her hair at this unwanted Recognition.
And in her heart, Windsong knew for a truth that she did want to be a mother. She did want a child — no, she wanted many children. She would bear litters of them like Cubmaker, if the High Ones would choose to allow it. But it was only that she didn’t want to do it alone. She wanted an equal to share the joys and burdens. She wanted someone she could love, and trust, and most of all — someone she could rely on without doubt or question. Windsong had had enough of loss. She wanted — no, she needed — someone who would always be there for her and who would never leave her.
The angry child in her heart raged at the unfairness of this Recognition. Why, oh why? Why couldn’t it have been her lovemate Thornbow? There was no one more steady, more reliable. Thornbow loved her, Thornbow would be a dependable lifemate. She would trust Thornbow to still be there when a cute little newborn turned into a screaming, vomit-spitting, dung-squirting monster who wouldn’t allow you to sleep for days on end. Thornbow would stick to you like a spider’s web, through floodwaters or fire. She had no doubt of his affections or his loyalty.
Or why — why couldn’t it have been Blacksnake? Windsong couldn’t help but wish it, although she felt ashamed of the thought at once. From a tender young age, she had secretly compared all possible life-partners to the tribe’s Hunt Leader. There was no one in the tribe who matched him, not in wit, not in courage, not in competence. She had always struggled to win his acceptance and his approval. She had watched from afar as he had struggled with the death of his lifemate, Chieftess Easysinger. Windsong had offered herself to him as comfort many times since, but only rarely had those offers of her furs been accepted. She would have revelled in a Recognition to Suddendusk’s elder brother... if only it could have been Blacksnake instead!
Windsong wiped unshed tears from her eyes and found herself at the Mother Tree. She began to climb up to the den she shared with Thornbow, feeling more alone and orphaned than she had in many long years. ‘Mother,’ she thought bitterly, ‘why can’t you be here for me today? I need to know — I never understood you and Father. Why didn’t you lifemate one another? You were both always the closest of friends, but you both seemed to be happy elsewhere. How did you manage that, when you knew each other’s souls? Sister? Where are you tonight, when I need your advice, when I need just to be held and for someone to share my tears? I’ve always wanted to be a mother — so why do I want nothing more now than to hide under my sleep-furs and weep?’
Her den-room was there through the haze of tears in her eyes. Windsong pushed herself through the door but found Thornbow already there, sitting silently on the edge of the bed. They looked at one another for a long moment, and then Thornbow opened his arms wordlessly for her.
Windsong sank down into his embrace and found herself trembling against his chest. Her lovemate held her gently and rubbed the nape of her neck, beneath the weight of her hair.
“Oh, love,” she whispered. Her throat seized up, and she couldn’t say more.
“I know,” Thornbow said quietly, nuzzling the crown of her head. “I know. Chicory came and told me what’s happened with Suddendusk. Whatever happens, my golden one, whatever you choose to do, just know that I’ll stand by you and your wishes.”
Windsong blew out a shaking breath and hugged him hard. She had known he would say something like those words, and Thornbow’s predictability was a balm to her bruised heart.
“I don’t know what I should do,” Windsong whispered.
“Just rest,” Thornbow urged her. “Close your eyes and rest, and when you wake, I’ll still be here with you.”
There was the scuff and rustle of someone climbing the tree outside, and then Suddendusk arrived, flushed and sweating, his single eye wild. “Windsong, we’ve got to talk,” he said.
Thornbow growled a soft warning at that, but Windsong stilled her lovemate with a touch. “I’ve already said what I needed to say to you,” she told Suddendusk. “I’m happy to raise one child. I won’t raise two.”
“You had your say, but you didn’t give me mine.” Suddendusk raked his shaggy bangs away from his single eye, and pointed at the door firmly. “Thornbow, you need to go away and give me a chance to speak with my Recognized, or else Windsong, you’re stepping out now with me. Because I will have my turn to speak!”
Windsong took a deep breath and centered herself. She had always taken pride her in ability to remain cool in a crisis, and the emotional turmoil she’d found herself in now was certainly crisis-worthy.
**Lovemate, give us the room to speak in privacy,** she sent to Thornbow. **This won’t take long.**
Thornbow nuzzled her once before doing as she bade him. He stalked past Suddendusk with a cool look. Suddendusk watched the archer go, bristling like a wolf with a rival. Only when he judged Thornbow safely out of range did he turn his fierce gaze back to Windsong.
“Suddendusk —“ she began to say.
“No. My turn,” he interrupted sharply. Suddendusk drew himself up to his full height and glowered down at her. “I won’t argue you regarding your opinion of me. Your assessment of me is likely truer than I want to admit. And maybe I’m not the reliable and dependable one — but if that’s so, it’s because I’ve never had to be. I know who I am, and what I am. I grew up in the shadows of my brothers — and while I love them dearly, let me tell you just what it’s like to try and fit in either of their boots. I was never going to be the equal of the Hunt Leader. I was never going to be as strong as the mighty Axehand. But I could — and did! — excel in making fun of them, and in making them laugh. And I found that the tribe noticed me when I was more reckless than either of them. So I bloomed in what sunlight I found, and I made the most of it!”
Startled by his vehemence, Windsong opened her mouth to speak, and again, Suddendusk cut her off.
“You called me feckless. You called me irresponsible. You belittled my crafting and dismissed me as an idle prankster. And you know what, girl-cub? You’re right. I was all those things. But I’ve waited my entire life for you, and for this one chance to become a sire. All my life, I’ve been waiting for this moment of eyes-meeting-eyes. I’ve been waiting for this — do you understand that? And I won’t argue that I’ve earned my reputation for having a different furmate every night. I’ve never had a lovemate. You know why? Because in my heart, I’ve been waiting for you. For the one, steady mate of my soul, who I could love above all others and cherish above all things. And that’s going to be you. I know you, Mytan. I know it.”
The fierceness faded suddenly from his expression and his shoulders slumped. “Give me the chance to prove myself to you,” Suddendusk said urgently. “I am a changed wolf. The moment our eyes locked, I was changed to the core. I will be want you need me to be. Give me just one chance to prove it. Anything you want of me, I will give to you with pleasure. I swear to you. I’d give you my heart on a platter with honeysweets as a garnish, if you told me that’s what you wanted. All I want, Mytan, is a chance to be your lifemate, and to raise our cub together. That’s all I ask.”
Windsong stood and gazed up at him. Suddendusk gazed back, his hope and yearning plain. She could not deny that his words moved her. They struck a chord and resonated in her mind, where the new-found presence that was Dhay had now found his place.
‘Can it be true?’ she found herself thinking. The one, pure need that she felt was to be loved unconditionally by someone who would never fail her. And if Dhay were true to his words, the one thing he had been looking for his whole life was the one partner he could love without condition.
“Prove to me you’ve changed,” she said, “and I’ll give you one chance.”
Suddendusk grinned wildly and swung her off her feet in a tight embrace. “Just one chance is all I need.”
Brightwood regarded the couple with amusement. “So I suppose your mate hasn’t blown it yet, then?” she asked Windsong.
Windsong laughed and nuzzled Suddendusk’s cheek. “Not yet, he hasn’t.”
Suddendusk embraced Windsong affectionately. “I stuck to me promise. I gave up all the funning around, and became the reliable lifemate and father I swore I’d be. And I’ve never regretted it, not for a moment.”
Windsong laughed in her lifemate’s embrace, in clear agreement with his statement.