(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Newt emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories. It also contains scenes that are a sequel to "First Contact: Prelude" and are a part of the "First Encounter with Humans" storyline.)
Some things were too terrible to share in sending, and the story of the tribe's first human encounter was one of those things. At Newt's Howl, when the boy demanded to know what had become of his elders Cedarwing, Shyheart, Lynx, Frost and Brightwood, there had been an awkward silence at first, and uncomfortable glances had been shared around the ring of tribemates gathered for the night of storytelling. Then Farscout had spoken up and told the grim tale aloud, his words sparse and unillustrated by sent-images. As always, the tracker's voice was soft and quiet, but for once that night, the entire gathering was still and silent, as Newt heard that terrible story for the first time.
“— and when the snow stopped, Cloudfern and I left our shelter. We came home, carrying Brightwood with us. We saw nothing more of those humans,” Farscout explained.
Newt sat huddled in a tight knot, his knees pulled tight to his chest and his pink eyes gone enormous with fear. He looked to Cloudfern as tears began to shimmer in his eyes.
“You were no bigger than me?” Newt whispered brokenly.
“Well, maybe a year or two older,” Cloudfern replied, managing a wan smile. He tousled Newt's fine, colorless hair, giving the boy an encouraging smile. “But I'm sure you're already taller than I was way back then.”
“Newt,” Blacksnake added gravely, leaning forward to tap the boy's knee and get his full attention. “Newt, you mustn't be frightened. That was a long time ago — and these new humans who are stumbling through our forest now are as different from those ones as rabbits are from a bear.”
Newt blinked owlishly, and a tremor ran through his slight frame. Greenweave reached for the boy and hugged him close.
“You are safe,” Greenweave promised. “You mustn't be frightened by the history you've slept through. Just know it for what it was, and understand how it shaped those who lived it.”
Newt turned his gaze back to Cloudfern, clearly fascinated by the tragedy survived by another boy his own age. “How long did it take you to get home?” he asked.
Cloudfern's brave smile faded somewhat, and he traded a cautious glance with his soul-brother Farscout. “Two hands of days, I think,” he said, glancing next at Blacksnake. “But it felt like much longer. The chieftess joined us, as soon as she could, and she and Blacksnake went to work to make sure we weren't followed...”
Within moments of receiving Farscout's first, faint sending, the chieftess had assembled a party of her toughest hunters and had ridden from the Holt at full speed. They rode hard, oblivious to a worsening winter storm. Even so, it had taken them two days to intercept the survivors of Cedarwing's family hunting party.
They found them traveling south along the Clickdeer River.
Brightwood's wolf, Tailchaser, walked ahead, breaking a trail through the night's snow. Young Moonmoth rode on Tailchaser's back, carrying a heavy bag of supplies slung across his thin shoulders. The boy gazed numbly at his tribemates as they raced toward him, shadows as dark as bruises showing on his face beneath his blue-violet eyes.
Farscout followed behind Tailchaser, dragging a pole-frame made from a pair of spear shafts. A long wrapstuffed bundle filled the makeshift frame, with Mushroom an autumn-orange splash of color perched on top of it. The bundle was further wrapped in sleeping furs, although the body within the cocoon silk would feel no cold.
Easysinger flung herself from her wolf's back and ran the last few steps to her tribesmates, while an exhausted Tailchaser and Farscout both staggered to a stop. Easysinger pulled Moonmoth into her arms and embraced him tightly, while her eyes went straight to Farscout.
“My sister?” Easysinger said in a tight voice.
“Frost is dead. So are Lynx, Shyheart and Cedarwing,” Farscout reported, his voice hoarse with fatigue. He reached out with a tight, narrow-focused send to Easysinger and the rest of her gathered party, sharing a careful fragment of memory with them: his first sight of the terrible humans within their hunting camp, with its pen of horses and colorfully painted round hut-tents. “They were surprised while hunting; Frost and Shyheart were killed then, along with all of their wolves but Tailchaser. The humans captured my mate, Moonmoth and Cedarwing. They burned Cedarwing to death, and ate his flesh. Lynx and I had been scouting off the other way. We rescued Brightwood and Moonmoth, but Lynx was killed fighting them, and my mate —” Farscout winced as his voice failed him. He adjusted the weight of the spear shafts against his shoulders. “We've tried to hide our trail as best we could... but I can't promise their riders won't be on our backtrail somewhere.”
Easysinger hugged Moonmoth against her, aware of his near strangle-hold around her neck. She had been prepared for this news of tragedy — Farscout had already conveyed as much in his sendings to them. But it was terrible to face her tribemate and hear with her ears the horror in his underspoken words, and to smell the stink of fear and exhaustion which both Farscout and her nephew wore. The chieftess looked at her niece Brightwood's cocoon, and with a shiver of foreboding, knew in her heart that she would not live to see Brightwood again, or to know the fate of her niece's unborn child.
“How many of the creatures were there?” demanded her lifemate, who had ridden up at her shoulder. Blacksnake's voice was harsh with his own grief — Lynx had been Blacksnake's soul-brother, and although he did not outwardly show it, Easysinger knew her mate was badly rocked to know that Brightwood and Moonmoth's father would never be returning from this hunt.
Even weaving on his feet with fatigue, Farscout was canny enough to impart what the chief's mate thought important. “Lynx and I counted more than four hands of them in the camp, but I cannot say that there were not more. Male and females both fight; I saw spears, axes, javelins and spear-throwers,” Farscout said. “Between Lynx, Brightwood and I, we accounted for six to ten of them. But they are much taller than we are, and they are fast and strong. And all of the males I saw had long facefur.”
At that last detail, Easysinger looked back at Blacksnake gravely. If these humans were at all like elves, the elders would be the wisest and most formidable of their tribe. She squeezed Moonmoth tightly in her arms, aware that the boy had begun to shake.
“These beasts cannot be allowed to find the Holt,” Blacksnake said.
Easysinger nodded, already well aware of that. She held her lifemate's eyes steadily, knowing Blacksnake would take refuge from his grief by focusing on contingencies and schemes. She wondered numbly if she would find equal solace in that, then put the idle thought aside and focused on the emergency immediately before them: securing their borders, and getting their traumatized kin back to the Holt. “Leather — brother, you and Bearheart take Farscout and our nephew home. Stormdancer — scout above us up Farscout’s backtrail. Beesting, Dagger, Snaptwig, Bowflight, Axehand — you come with Blacksnake and I. If anything has followed in our woods, we shoot to kill, we stay at extreme range of our bows, and we do not get close enough to them to let their size and strength come into play. Am I understood?”
Several pairs of grave eyes stared back at her. There were no questions. She nodded solemnly, while her brother dismounted and moved toward Farscout. “Bearheart and I can —” Leather began to say in his quiet, reasonable voice.
Farscout shook his head in a sharp, abrupt negative. “I've got her,” he said, taking fresh hold of the frame shafts. Leather frowned and looked to Easysinger to see if the chief would intervene, as Farscout was clearly staggering on his feet with fatigue. The chieftess opened her mouth to order the scout to let his tribemates take up his burden. But then she looked into Farscout’s face, saw the devastation lurking there, and instead stepped toward Leather and carefully disengaged Moonmoth's arms from around her neck.
“Get them home safe, brother,” she murmured, meeting Leather's brown eyes. **Let Farscout pull his burden until he drops, if that is what he needs,** she locksent. **It may be the last thing he can truly do for his Recognized. Let's not take that from him.**
Leather nodded, and gathered Moonmoth close. **Do not risk yourself unnecessarily, sister,** Leather locksent in return, his mindtouch thick with grief. **These terrible creatures have already wounded us too dearly. Do not let them spill more of our blood.**
Easysinger nodded. She touched her brother's arm once, in lieu of too many things left unsaid, then returned to her waiting wolf and drew herself astride. “Let's ride,” she said to the grim party of waiting hunters, and pressed her knees to her wolf's ribs. The chieftess did not look back as her wolf sprang forward, toward possible war.
Newt nodded, absorbing Cloudfern's words. “Was it hard for you, once you got home?” he asked the pale-haired plantshaper.
“I was very sad for a very long time,” Cloudfern said. “Like you've been sad since you came out of wrapstuff. But the tribe embraced me, as they've embraced you, and with time I began to feel better.”
Newt nodded again, oblivious to the knowing looks passed between some of his elders...
Moonmoth's dreams were vivid and bloody. And unfortunately for his grieving kin, the boy unwittingly broadcast his nightmares, in all of their gruesome, surreal horror.
True Edge plunged down the stairs three and four steps at a time, spear in hand and as bare as an egg despite the winter chill. He arrived in the arching doorway of the Chieftess's den wild-eyed and out of breath, looking as frantic as the dream-blast which had awakened him as he pushed himself past the heavy door-hanging and into the room.
Farscout had managed to wake the boy, and Moonmoth's piercing shrieks had subsided into a moaning, shaking sob. Farscout was holding the boy close, both wrapped in sleeping furs. He gave True Edge a narrow, warning look as Moonmoth's uncle stormed in.
True Edge stood there for a heartbeat, ribs heaving and spear held tight in both hands. Then he blinked the disorientation from his eyes, and truly seemed to see where he stood. The hands relaxed on the spear haft, but tension did not leave True Edge's bare shoulders.
There was the sound of other feet approaching, and then Sunlight was there, her long golden hair back in a braid and a sleeping fur clutched tight around her shoulders. She looked from her brother to her weeping nephew in Farscout's arms, then laid a hand on True Edge's sweating shoulder.
“Brother —” she began.
True Edge flinched away from her touch. “Moonmoth was crying for help. He was seeing them here. They were here, with torches and fire,” he said in a tight, harsh voice.
“I know. We all heard the dream-send. But it was only that — a dream-send. The Chieftess and the others have sent to tell us they've found no trace of the humans, not anywhere near our northern borders.”
True Edge allowed his sister to shift her fur wrap from around her own shoulders to his. “I should have ridden out with Easysinger and the rest,” True Edge growled.
There were more footsteps outside, and then Raven and Snowdrop both entered. Raven was cradling his daughter Littlesong, who sucked on her thumb and looked like she was considering a good crying fit herself, while True Edge’s newborn son Sunray was little more than a bundle of furs in his mother Snowdrop’s arms.
“Aunt Easysinger left you here to protect the Holt,” Sunlight said, with a hint of exasperation edging her voice. “You need to be here, with your Recognized.”
True Edge was still staring at Moonmoth, his expression anguished. “I should have been there, with my family. One more spear would have —”
“Would have made no difference,” Farscout snapped. “Only difference would have been you dead as well, without ever knowing your cub.”
With a growl, True Edge shoved his way between Raven and Snowdrop and left the room, heading not for the winding stairs up toward their dens, but instead outside, into the snowy afternoon. Snowdrop gave the others an apologetic look and went to follow after her Recognized, but Sunlight stopped her.
“Let me,” the plantshaper said. “I've at least slippers on my feet. My brother may be willing to shrivel his pod, but you and the babe shouldn't have to suffer for his temper.”
Sunlight touched her Recognized Raven's shoulder in passing as she followed after True Edge. For her own part, Snowdrop made a small, sad sound and sank to her knees beside Farscout and Moonmoth.
“You know how True Edge had wanted to go,” she mourned, cradling little Sunray to her breast. “True Edge always went on his family's hunting expeditions. He only stayed behind this time because I asked it of him. And now he feels his family only died because of him. That if he'd been there...”
“The humans would have killed him, too,” Moonmoth said, his voice no more than a whisper. “There were too many of them. Just too many.”
Snowdrop shuddered. Raven sat down beside her, shifted Littlesong against his other shoulder, and put a comforting arm around Snowdrop. “Sunlight feels it, too,” he said. “She feels the same guilt for being alive today, when her parents and brother are not. But she, at least, has somewhere to channel that heartache. She's talking of growing a wall of thorns around the Holt, to keep the humans out.”
Farscout turned to look at Raven, his expression dubious. He said nothing, however. Littlesong yawned hugely, while Moonmoth rubbed his nose and burrowed deeper into his sleeping furs, his eyes already drifting closed again.
“Do you ever feel it?” Snowdrop asked softly of Raven. “Do you ever feel guilty, for helping keep your Recognized here and alive?”
Raven smiled sadly and shook his head. Then he planted a kiss against his daughter Littlesong's crown. “Not guilty. Just grateful. Deeply, deeply grateful.”
“Did you ever go back north to Cedarwing's tree?” Newt asked next, frowning soberly.
“As soon as we could,” Cloudfern answered, with a glance for Farscout...
Moonmoth was struggling to hold back his fear. He stood stiffly in the snow and scowled down at his booted feet, the tension in his thin body radiating what he fought not to say.
Farscout knelt in front of the boy and hugged him hard, pressing his forehead against Moonmoth's own. **Pryn,** he locksent. **I swear this to you again — I will come back to you. But I have to go. Easysinger and Blacksnake trust me to lead the way.**
Moonmoth took a shuddering breath, but still said nothing. His face was fiercely angry, and pink from the cold.
**There has been no sign that humans followed us,** Farscout continued to locksend. **They may not know the way to the Holt. But we have to go out and look. We have to scout wide and see for ourselves if the humans are gone, or if there are more of them. You know this.**
**What will you do, if you find these humans?** Moonmoth demanded.
**We will be cautious. We will be wise. We will not engage them, unless we can do so by stealth and from a distance. But above all, we will not allow them to come here.**
Moonmoth did look up then, his face ferocious. **The Chieftess and Blacksnake have talked of leaving the Holt. We could do that. We could go far away, so far away the humans will never find us!**
Farscout nodded solemnly. **We could. And it's possible that we might. But the Chieftess will not make that decision unless the humans have found us and force it upon us. But we must go now, back up to where our loved ones died. We have to see if the humans are still there.**
Moonmoth shivered, but the boy was determined not to cry at this parting. Instead, he simply nodded once, assuming for a moment a maturity far beyond his tender years.
**Go and be careful. Do not take unnecessary risks. But if you find them and can kill them — kill them all. For me and for my sister. Do it.**
Farscout nodded a solemn acceptance of that command. He restrained himself from hugging the boy again, and instead, took leave of Moonmoth as he might from another hunter. He held the boy's blue-violet gaze for a moment, then turned and walked silently away.
“I would want to go back,” Newt said. “If I had left behind anything of my parents', I would want to go back right away and get those things back, before the ugly humans came and stole it all away.”
“We did that,” Farscout said quietly. “And we made sure the humans had gone away, and that everyone in the Holt would stay safe...”
Scavengers had worried at the window-curtain; a stinkbear had torn it open and climbed into Cedarwing's tree-shelter. It had clearly thought it had found a comfortable new den, and had burrowed a nest out of the pile of sleeping furs which Farscout and Moonmoth had left behind. But luckily for Blacksnake and his band, the stinkbear was away from its new lair, and they reclaimed possession of the hunting shelter, with their wolves outside to defend the claim. Axehand, Beesting, Snaptwig, True Edge and Leather were scouting the perimeter of the area now, while Blacksnake and Farscout waited for Stormdancer’s return from her scouting foray out over the grasslands.
No one had yet found any sign that the humans had ever found Cedarwing's tree. What supplies Farscout had not deemed essential to getting Moonmoth and Brightwood home were largely where he had left them — sans the bundle of sleeping furs, which had been torn and tangled in the stinkbear's pursuit of a comfortable nest. But Shyheart's extra quiver of arrows was still there, as was Frost's shoulderbag, and Lynx's extra spear. Only Shyheart's carrybag had been disturbed — the stinkbear had gnawed on the leather shoulder strap and torn the bag open to get at the pouches of herbs and berries which Shyheart had carried.
Farscout was gathering up these items reverently while Blacksnake watched; the rest of the party were still outside with their wolves, ready to face down the stinkbear if the aggressive beast wanted to quarrel their claim.
“It will snow again by dawn,” Blacksnake said, trying to read the silent scout's demeanor. “We may be snowed in here for a few days.”
Blacksnake's unspoken question was met with a shrug. If Cedarwing's tree was too haunted with painful memories now for Farscout, he seemed determined not to admit it. Still, Blacksnake had been witness to how poorly Farscout had slept during their trip back to where the humans had been encountered. He knew the tracker's dreams were as ugly as young Moonmoth's, and was grateful that Farscout's mental control was firm enough to not allow those nightmares to leak when he did manage to sleep.
**My lifemate returns,** Leather called from outside; indeed, within heartbeats, Stormdancer swept up to the high arching doorway into Cedarwing's tree-shelter. She slipped through and landed lightly beside them, as silent in her gliding talent as an owl.
“I flew as far east as you said,” she reported. Blacksnake eyed her knowingly, expecting she had gone quite a bit further than that, considering she had been away on her aerial missions for most of the night. Small and ebony-haired and as fierce in her way as a displaced stinkbear, Blacksnake knew the huntress burned for vengeance, but had trusted her enough not to engage a group of humans if she had found them. If she'd found a lone human on foot or ahorse, however, that might well have been a different case. “Had to search hard to find any trace of a camp. The snow has covered up most of the remains of their site, but you can still catch a whiff of roundhoof dung and something else that stinks worse than tanning-piss.”
“Show me,” Blacksnake said. Stormdancer shared a sending then, openly, knowing the rest of the hunting party would be equally eager to see what she had seen.
“They've moved on,” Blacksnake said. “Back the way they came, you think?”
Stormdancer shrugged. “Don't know. Who knows which way they came from? I scouted until the Child Moon began to set, then I flew back, knowing my lifemate would get nervous. I saw clickdeer — there's meat yet to be had. And I saw sign of another wolf pack, looking for a taste of clickdeer. But no sign of the humans themselves.”
Farscout had gathered up the bundle of torn sleeping furs. He hugged them to his chest for a moment, then climbed up toward the high door, and dropped the ruined furs outside. He said nothing to either Blacksnake or Stormdancer, simply climbed back down and began to sort through what else was left remaining within Cedarwing’s tree-shelter, beginning to rebundle it to be carried back to the Holt, and the close kin of those who had been lost.
“Snowstorm is coming,” Stormdancer said. “We'll have enough food with us to last a few days holed up here, but we'll need to hunt for meat after that.”
“Aye,” Blacksnake agreed. He took a last, curious glance at Farscout, then climbed up and out of the doorway himself. He wanted to set patrol orders, to cover as much ground as possible before the storm hit. They had only a handful of hours left, maybe — but it would be enough to determine how secure their temporary shelter would be. And then, when the storm had passed, they would range farther afield, to see what there was to see. He could send True Edge out with Axehand, knowing his brother would keep the younger hunter in line if they found anything. He didn't trust what True Edge might do, if they came across any of the humans — but then, Blacksnake admitted to himself privately, he wasn't sure he trusted himself, either.
Well, he would deal with that if and when it became necessary. It was too soon to hope... could it be possible that the humans had gone back from where-ever they had come, and would prove no further risk to the tribe? Blacksnake sealed away that sudden blossoming of hope. They would not know that for sure yet... and even if the creatures had gone away, there was no promise that they would not return, and prove even more hungry the next time for elvish blood.
No. The humans could not be underestimated. Even if they had gone, the Holt must prepare itself for the beasts' return. Because as sure as the seasons turned and storms rolled across the horizons, the humans were creatures who tanned their clothing and knapped their knives, same as the elves. They would someday return. Blacksnake knew that in his blood and in his bones. Because as surely as Lynx and his kin had been slain by humans... there had been humans killed as well.
Blacksnake could not imagine that fact being easily forgotten, or forgiven. The humans might be gone for now, but they would be back. Someday. And the Holt would have to be prepared.
Newt nodded firmly at that, his expression thoughtful. Quiet hung over the tribe, as everyone gave the boy time to digest the grim history. Finally, Newt took a deep breath, and rubbed his cheek against Greenweave's shoulder.
“I'm not scared of the humans. And I'm glad we're safe from them now. Can you tell about the Amber Hunters again? They sound so much nicer.”
Cloudfern smiled with genuine relief and looked to Windburn, grateful to relinquish storytelling duties to another. Windburn nodded acceptance of that task, and spoke up willingly. Cloudfern listened with only half an ear to his chief's confident voice, his own thoughts still back with the past.
**Time is supposed to heal all wounds,** the plantshaper locksent privately to his soul-brother. **But even time doesn't make the stories any easier to tell.**