Chirrup. Blacksnake woke to the sound of crickets and young frogs and to the scent of moisture hanging in the air. He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling of Starskimmer’s den. He had fallen asleep there after enjoying a roll in the furs with her. He smiled. Starskimmer sometimes helped clear his mind.
Sometimes it was hard to stay in the Now. The previous turn of the seasons had been hard. Thinking about it still made his pulse race. Six members of the tribe – gone. Birdcatcher, Ringtail, Cider, Rhythm, Bearheart and Dreamberry, all killed in what seemed to him quicker than a blink of an eye. Gone. The drought and floods and fire had stripped the tribe of six elves… to say nothing of the wolves.
Wolf-friends had been lost as well. And then his own wolf-friend, Dawnbreak, finally just strong enough to ride on the long hunts, had been kicked by an elk her first long ride out. Had they been positioned differently, it could have been Blacksnake himself that had died. Or any of them. Life, as long as it was, seemed too short when a loved one, elf or wolf, died.
Blacksnake’s thoughts were interrupted by the patter of little feet. He knew it had to be Sweetvine – the tribe’s pride and joy. His brother’s first cub. Blacksnake had promised to take his niece to see Mudpelt’s new cubs tonight, and he guessed that she was not inclined to wait. Not that he could blame her. The child had yet to find her first wolf-friend, though she was more than two hands old. Maybe this would be the night.
“Blacksnake!” Sweetvine called from outside Starskimmer’s den. “I know you’re in there. Come out! You promised.”
Chuckling to himself, Blacksnake slid out from Starskimmer’s embrace, sent **Thank you!** to her, and hurriedly dressed himself.
Starskimmer’s sleepy, hungover reply promised more for later if he wanted. He smiled, then stepped out of the den to greet his niece.
Sweetvine’s green eyes were wide with excitement. “Do you think I’ll find my first wolf-friend today?” she asked hopefully.
Blacksnake knew the excitement of waiting for a wolf-friend. He, too, was waiting, and he wondered if his next wolf-friend might be among the cubs born to Mudpelt. He thought wistfully of Dawnbreak, who would be his wolf-friend still. Had she lived, he wondered whether she might have made her way to becoming the chieftess wolf. She had been canny, good natured and fast. He had never had a doubt about her – from the moment he had seen her playing with her littermates, he had known her for his.
Sweetvine interrupted his thoughts, “Well? Do you?”
‘She asked about finding a wolf-friend,’ he reminded himself. “You may, Sweetvine. And… you may not. Forming a wolf-bond isn’t always easy. You have to wait for the right wolf, and the right timing.”
“Mudpelt’s cubs are so cute!” Sweetvine told her parents when she and Blacksnake found them at the river. Both looked expectantly at her, and she answered their question cheerfully, “I didn’t find my wolf-friend, though.”
Blacksnake saw the brief flash of concern in Suddendusk’s eyes and the exchange between the lifemates. Sweetvine didn’t see it, though, and she ran to her mother, giving her a hug, and then threw herself at her father. Suddendusk laughed and stroked her hair. Blacksnake smiled wistfully at the family scene, remembering rare moments that he had shared with Easysinger and Riskrunner, Windburn, and Chicory.
Sweetvine’s squeal brought his attention back to the Now. Suddendusk was tickling her, and she was squirming. “Let go!” she insisted, then giggled some more, yelling, “Mother, help!”
At that, Suddendusk let go, and Sweetvine bounded out of his arms and past where Blacksnake stood. “I’m going to see if Willow will let me watch her harvest honey!” she called out, arms flapping wildly as she waved her goodbye.
Blacksnake chuckled, then sat on a rock near Windsong and Suddendusk. Windsong remained quiet as she sat mending old garments. Suddendusk, however, seemed agitated. “She’s more than old enough to have her first wolf-friend!” he finally vented.
“Aye,” Blacksnake agreed calmly. “But maybe she’s not ready.”
“She’s ready,” Suddendusk growled.
Windsong spoke up, her quiet voice causing both brothers to lean closer. “Who’s to say why an elf bonds or doesn’t? I didn’t find my first wolf-friend for a long time. There’s no sense in worrying about it.”
Suddendusk didn’t look convinced. “She needs a wolf-friend,” he insisted.
“Maybe she just hasn’t found the right wolf,” Blacksnake countered.
“She could just choose one,” Suddendusk countered.
Windsong bit off a thread and looked up. “That’s true. I chose Crackbone,” she said pointedly.
“We all know that it doesn’t work like that,” Blacksnake answered, adding, “You chose Crackbone, but you had to wait for Crackbone to choose you in return. There’s more than just choosing to forming a bond.”
Windsong nodded her agreement, turning her head back to her stitching.
“Hmmph,” his brother responded, indicating that he thought Blacksnake was wrong.
“If we could just choose our wolf-friends, then why haven’t you gone and gotten one?” Blacksnake asked. His brother’s wolf, Lakeshore, had died at the start of the previous winter, and Suddendusk still had not replaced him.
Suddendusk “hmmphed” again.
Blacksnake’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned in. “You were there when Sunlight and Raven were worried over Windsong’s not bonding. You weren’t worried then. And there have been other cubs who bonded ‘late’ and you told their parents not to worry. What makes this time any different?” he asked with a smile, knowing he was at the root of the issue.
Suddendusk grumbled something, and Blacksnake leaned in and whispered, “I didn’t hear what you said.”
“It wasn’t my cub then!” Suddendusk barked.
Blacksnake grinned. “It is still the same. A bond will form between my niece and a wolf when it’s time. And even if it takes turns more, you still have nothing to worry about.”
Instead of responding, Suddendusk focused on the work at hand and Blacksnake decided the conversation was over. Windsong looked up from her work when he stood to leave and smiled at him. He returned the smile and left the lifemates at the river.
Heading back to the Holt, something was nagging at him. What if a bond could just be chosen? Wouldn’t it be easier? How was a wolf-bond actually formed, anyway? He had always thought it was a mutual happening, just like the bond between a parent and child when the cub was born. Some bonds were stronger than others, but all were as natural as breathing. But what was it that made a bond? Why was one elf and one wolf suited when a different elf or wolf wouldn’t have worked?
Blacksnake found himself at the wolf dens again. Mudpelt looked up at his approach. She was amiable enough, but more focused on the tumbling cubs Sweetvine had deemed “so cute.”
For all the child had known, he had been there just for her. But he had been looking, too. He sat down with his back against a tree and looked again. The lone female of the litter was an aggressive little bitch. She snapped at her brothers when they tried to pounce on her, and she was not beyond biting and drawing blood. A temperamental little thing, the size of her paws made Blacksnake feel certain she would rise the ranks.
Her brothers, however, Blacksnake was not so sure about. Two were almost identical in coloring and markings. They were obviously close and seemed to work together as they tried to tackle their sister. When the she-cub bit one, the other cried with him. Blacksnake shook his head at them, guessing that the pair, if they remained unbonded, would make their way away from the tribe one day.
The fourth cub was the largest of the litter. He seemed clever. He knew his sister’s temper and did nothing to antagonize her. He also did nothing to interfere with his brothers’ attempts to best their sister. He seemed clever. The almost-all-black wolf was also not unfriendly. He saw Blacksnake and came up to him. After a sniff and a lick, the cub turned and went back to Mudpelt’s side to curl up and fall asleep.
No, there was no bond here. Not among these cubs. And even if Suddendusk was right, even if a bond could be simply chosen, Blacksnake wouldn’t have chosen one of these four.
But there were other options, he could almost hear his brother whispering. There were the yearlings. And the other wolves who weren’t already bonded to an elf. Knowing that he couldn’t just choose a wolf, Blacksnake nevertheless stood and made his way to the lazy gathering of resting wolves and again sat down to look.
Icemane was the first yearling he noticed. He could sense her ambition and confidence as she approached one of her elders and tried to lie down too close. The elder wolf snapped at her, and she showed throat, but then tried again to lie down next to the sleepy male. He growled at her, but she lay next to him anyway. The old male must have decided it wasn’t worth the fight and he let her stay.
Blacksnake chuckled a bit. She was a feisty one, and he liked her a lot. He might choose her, if bonds could simply be chosen. She was sure to be high ranking if she stayed with the tribe long enough. He thought about trying her out, playing with her a bit, and seeing if a bond formed, but was distracted when the nose of another yearling, Whitemask, pushed the back of his arm.
Blacksnake might have been bothered by the intrusion into his thoughts, but the wolf’s insistence caught his attention. Whitemask didn’t have an elf-friend, but he was crafty. Blacksnake had earlier in the year watched as the yearling helped others in the pack to chase off the runt of his litter. He felt no affinity toward Whitemask, but something about the look in the wolf’s eyes gave him pause. The wolf’s sent image was even more striking, and alarming, **red-haired elf child.**
Blacksnake knew immediately who the wolf was referring to, and moved from sitting to crouching. “Sweetvine!”
Whitemask “whuffed,” and then sent another image. Blacksnake gathered from the images that Sweetvine had been following Willow, but had been rebuffed, and then had gone searching for bees on her own. The next image was that of the child climbing a tree toward what she must have thought was a hive of bees and beesweets.
“No, no, no, no!” he called out as he stood. Whitemask had seen all this, had been with the child, and had even tried to stop her, but when he knew he wasn’t helping, had gone to find the nearest elf. The canny wolf had known there was trouble. Blacksnake wondered a moment why the wolf hadn’t just howled, but as he tore through the brush behind the wolf, he realized that Sweetvine had been close enough, the wolf hadn’t needed to howl.
He reached the cramped clearing just as she reached for the hive. He called out to her, startling her, and she tumbled, knocking the hive with her hand as she fell from the tree. Blacksnake’s strides hadn’t stopped and he was beneath her, catching her before she could hit the ground.
Unfortunately, the hive did hit the ground, and a small group of angry wasps began to swarm around them. Blacksnake knew he had to get Sweetvine away, fast. Whitemask was too young to be ridden, so Blacksnake ran, fast as he could while clinging to his niece. He didn’t stop to find out if the flying, stinging bugs were behind him. He ran all the way to the river and, holding tightly to the child, jumped in.
The water was still cold with runoff from the snowy mountains, and Blacksnake felt his lungs tighten at the feel of it. He knew from Sweetvine’s struggle that she needed air, and together, they surfaced. He looked around, listened, and waited a moment. There were no wasps nearby. There were, however, two concerned parents standing at the shore.
Windsong reached for Sweetvine. The child left his arms and swam toward her mother. She climbed out of the water, her hair and her leathers sticking to her. “Mother, it was wasps!” she started to cry. “I didn’t know it was wasps.”
Blacksnake watched from the water, forgetting for a moment that it was cold and that he needed to get out. He wanted to know why Sweetvine had been climbing after a hive of wasps.
Suddendusk helped Windsong peel the clothes off of the child as she told her story. Windsong took the wet leathers, then handed Sweetvine the ones she had been mending. “I was following Willow, but she didn’t want me to. So I looked for honey by myself. And then I saw a hive really close to the wolf dens. And it wasn’t too high up, so I climbed the tree. I figured if Willow saw I could gather honey as well as she could, then she might let me go with her.”
Blacksnake felt his suspicions confirmed, then felt something else. His toes were tingling from the cold water. He walked out, noting that he was starting to shiver. It was time to get back to the dens and warm up. Suddendusk caught his arm, “Thank you. She would have been covered in stings – it could have killed her.”
Blacksnake nodded. “Thank Whitemask,” he added. “The wolf found me and led me to her. I was there just in time.”
He thought a moment, then added, “I wonder if he might be the reason they didn’t follow us.”
“I’ll check,” his brother promised. “You go get warm.”
“Cloudfern’s tending to Wasp,” Starskimmer told him when he woke up.
“Who?” Blacksnake asked, curling himself into Starskimmer’s embrace, grateful for her warmth.
“Wasp. The yearling we were calling Whitemask. Sweetvine changed his name. He stayed behind and must have angered the wasps while you and Sweetvine were getting away. He got enough stings that his face swelled up, but he should be all right.”
Blacksnake thought some more about the canny, sometimes aggressive and crafty wolf. He had been instrumental in protecting Sweetvine. What a wolf! If a bond could be chosen, Blacksnake decided, he would choose the young male. But bonds weren’t like that. They couldn’t be chosen. Not like that.
Starskimmer nuzzled the back of his neck, and he turned to her, thoughts of a wolf-friend momentarily forgotten.
“I told you you could just choose,” his brother called happily. “See, Icemane’s my bond now. I chose her!”
“Hmmph,” Blacksnake responded. “If that’s the case, why hasn’t Sweetvine just chosen a wolf-friend?”
Suddendusk scowled, then laughed. “All right. There’s more to it than just choosing, I agree. But there is a level of choice. You have to want your bond, and your wolf.”
Blacksnake nodded, thinking. He had considered trying Suddendusk’s theory with Icemane, but that was before she bonded to his brother. She must not have been as canny as he’d thought, he laughed to himself.
But… when he had been thinking that, Whitemask, now Wasp, had found him. Something in that moment had caught his attention, and now he wondered what that might have been. At that time, he wouldn’t have chosen Wasp. But now, after the wolf had saved Sweetvine, maybe he would.
Hmmphing again, Blacksnake dismissed his brother with a glance and walked back toward the wolf dens.
When he arrived, he didn’t see Wasp at first, but then the wolf’s head perked up from among the sleepers. Yearling though he was, he wasn’t on the outer edges of the pack. Blacksnake smiled. Wasp was sure to be a leader. Blacksnake liked that. Wasp rolled and stood, then made his way over.
Blacksnake knelt and looked the wasp-stung wolf in the eyes. Wasp stared back, confident. Neither gave way until Blacksnake said, “I choose you, Wasp.”
If wolves could smile, Wasp did, and responded with an almost-laughing send of **running together at the front of the pack.**
Blacksnake did laugh at that. To his mind, it was the same as if Wasp had said, "It's about time."