(This story is part of the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
The sky was that snapping, wicked, deep blue that sometimes showed its face during the colder days of winter. It outshone the ocean waters like a preening older sister, but despite its almost gaudy appearance, that blue served as a most breath-taking backdrop for the red sails that were swooping toward the harbor. Coriander lost herself for a moment staring at the brilliant contrast and the glowing outline of the sun behind the expanse of red. Shouts of excitement rose up around her, and she felt her heart surge past its momentary reverie and carry her fully into the present. The ship glided seamlessly into the harbor, its occupants leaping from the gunwale to secure it to its moorings almost before it had slowed. Bodies pressed past the Colony Leader as her people rushed out to clasp arms with the newcomers, to catch a glimpse of the treasures the heavy laden boat promised, or to simply glory in the spiced scent of home that wafted from the sailcloth.
“A welcome sight during this long, cold winter,” Thunderchild said as he approached from behind.
Coriander imagined his arms wrapping around her from behind, like they used to, but after a moment, he simply stood next to her, watching as she did as colonists swarmed the dock to greet the newcomers and help unload the wares. Coriander smiled at the sight of the crates of fruit - blood oranges from the mainland. She felt her mouth water at the thought of them.
The time for harvesting the oranges had begun about a month ago, by her calculations. These, then, were among the first harvested. She smiled. Someone on the mainland was thinking of them, to have sent so many. They would be divided among the colonists.
Coriander started to wonder what she might do with their own share of the round delicacies. An idea began taking shape when she considered the native tribe. She would do something for them, for the children. She had almost forgotten Thunderchild’s presence when he touched her arm.
The thrill of his touch jolted her and she looked at him, wide-eyed and hopeful for just a moment. His face was all business. “We need to help unload and make certain that the goods are divided evenly. We should also welcome the new arrivals.”
She nodded her assent. Together, they pushed their way forward and got to work.
Breathing deeply hurt. The frosty air attacked his nose hairs and sent a dull ache into his lungs, but Moss drew in as much of the chill as he was able. He was closer to the village than ever before. The onset of winter meant that there were fewer human excursions to the nearby forests, so the hunters had decided to get even closer. It had proven challenging finding a place that was close enough to observe and not so close as to be easily detected, and the soft snow forced the word hunters to spend most of their time leaping from tree-to-tree like overgrown treewees. Evervale’s shaping ability was helpful, but they had agreed that she should not change too much so close. At the moment however, the icy, rough bark of the venerable birch in which the elf crouched was hardly a concern.
"What is that smell?" Moss wondered out loud.
The scent was sweet, somewhat sharp. It was fresh, as if it had come from a fruit, though it was not the scent of any fruit Moss had ever tasted. The scent had woken him up earlier that day, and now it permeated the approaching night.
Kestrel, perched atop a nearby tree, responded, **It’s fruit, I think.** Moss craned his head back and could just make out a hint of the scout’s russet braid among the frosty branches. The edge of the forest was near enough to the holt and the water that, from where she was, Kestrel had an easy view of what was happening. **Round and reddish-orange. It came on the boat. There was a lot of noise about the fruit. The chieftess seemed especially glad. She took several armloads back to her den almost immediately.**
Moss could see the images in Kestrel’s send, but it did not assuage his curiosity. He wondered what it might taste like. The scent reminded him of ripe dreamberries, but seemed lighter. The acidic tang to the smell made him think of soured apple-water or the cider that Starskimmer sometimes brewed. He wanted a taste of it.
**A fruit?** Evervale inquired.
Moss couldn’t see her, nor Beetle or Evervale, but he could sense them from their various hiding places and feel their varying degrees of curiosity awaken. **It’s like nothing we know,** he responded. Moss wondered what the other word hunters would say when they met up with them and shared their findings.
Moss was brought back to what was happening by Evervale's send. **If we got some of the seeds, maybe we could grow one closer to the Holt,** Evervale suggested, her creativity showing in her send and the image and smell of the tangy-fruit bearing tree made Moss’s mouth water.
Moss hadn’t thought of that. But Beetle had. **Would it grow here?** she asked, her send full of curiosity, wondering whether it was the right environment for such a fruit.
Evervale responded, **Between Brightwood, your father, and I, it could grow.**
Moss laughed at her confidence. **Would we even want it growing near the Holt? Settle those magic fingers of yours cub, we should get a taste of it before you go rearing a whole forest of them.**
**A taste?** Kestrel knew all too well the drummer’s eager nature. **And how do you propose we get a sample of the fruit in the first place?**
Moss shrugged, mentally and physically. He didn’t have the faintest form of a plan, but the urge to follow the strange scent was too strong to ignore. He’d figure something out. He hoped.
Thunderchild entered his home, whistling at the sweet smell that greeted him when he had opened the door. He found his way to where Coriander stood at a table, obviously working hard as she stirred a sticky sweet mixture. He reached out toward the bowl, hoping to get a taste.
His wife slapped his hand away. "That's for the children!"
"What?" he asked, disbelieving. Why would she waste time and effort making something so delectable for the children of the native tribe? Not to mention the waste of their portion of the fruit.
"It’s for the children. I told you I’ve wanted to do something for them, and now that the ships have come in, I am doing it."
Thunderchild slouched into a nearby chair, his face sullen. "You’re going to waste our whole ration of oranges, aren’t you?"
Coriander half-turned from where she was making the candy to look at her husband. "It is no waste to share. From what Bomo says, the children have never had anything like it. It will make them so happy. Thunderchild, I want to do something for them, and this is an opportunity to give them something they could never have otherwise."
"But the whole ration?"
Coriander shook her head. "Not the whole ration. Just enough to make candy. We have plenty more stored away."
Thunderchild shrugged then. "Your decision. At least you’re not wasting all of it," he said disparagingly.
Coriander turned back to her work, tears springing to her eyes. She didn’t want to argue with him about this, not again. Tonight, she wanted to finish her surprise for the children. Biting her tongue a moment, she found the diplomatic thing to say, "There will be some for you, too, husband."
His satisfied hum told her that he would at least be happy to receive that from her. She felt her heart grow tight with the strangest sensation of bitter affection. Her grown and handsome husband, so much like a spoiled child at times. She half loved and half resented him for it, but for now the gathering storm of their differences had been stalled. In the meantime, she needed to finish her work.
Soon, a knock on her door indicated that Bomo had arrived.
The others had retreated to the nearby camp. Moss, however, kept a lonely watch over the human villages, perched atop a knotted birch. He could feel the frost seeping through his breeches and shifted his position to keep from freezing to the rough bark. Weasel paced restlessly below his companion’s tree, unwilling to leave his elf; yet also unwilling to rest when the thought of the food in elf camp was so near to his mind. Moss, on the other hand, was still pondering a way to sample the fruit Kestrel had described without breaking Windburn’s "Don’t go into the village" order. He had no intention of risking exposure, but he simply couldn’t let go of the honey-sweet and tangy sensation that had filled the day.
The smell had sweetened as he sat thinking. Moss bit his tongue to hold back the saliva he felt gathering in the corners of his mouth. He rapped his gloved fingers against his temples.
**Well isn’t this fine,** he sent to Weasel. **Face fur coming in and I’m still behaving like a giddy coyote pup with carrion in his nose. How does it feel to have the tribe’s oldest cubling as a bond, old friend?**
Weasel snorted and irritably sent out images of warm-food-rest. Moss sighed silently and began to make his way down the tree.
**All right, all right, I’m stirring my stumps.**
A shout from the human camp halted his progress. He tossed a glance over his shoulder and noticed a pair of humans - one was Wolfkiller, the human called "Bomo" - gathering at the chief-woman’s door. The door swung open and even before the circle of warm light was fully exposed his sensitive nose was assaulted by an alien sweetness that thickened the night’s crisp air. He pressed a hand beneath his stinging nose, wondering how the humans could stand it. Could they really be so insensitive?
He dropped silently to the snow-covered earth, landing on all-fours with a rumbling stomach. He pressed one hand against the front of his coat in a futile attempt to silence his innards while the other hand fished through the inside pocket in the lining of his collar. Pulling out a piece of smoked clickdeer he forced it into his mouth to staunch the empty sensation on his tongue. After a few moments of chewing he spat it out, it’s taste corrupted by the over-powering otherness that permeated his nostrils.
Weasel was at his side snapping up the half-chewed meat before it had hit the snow. Moss wound his fingers through his wolf-friend’s coat partly out of habit, and partly to steady himself; his head turned half-drunk from the intoxicating odor. It shivered into his nostrils and blossomed, tickling and shivering, on the inside of his skull. It at once was both alien and familiar, its mystery blending with an unexpected olfactory portrait of Goldspice’s strong limbs drenched in sweet, acrid forge sweat. The smell was appealing, fresh, sharp, and bitter, a sensation that both made him feel wholly out of place and strangely, close enough to home to run his fingers through familiar curly russet locks.
Down below, the door had closed and the humans were gone. In the darkness, Moss found himself blinking back tears, suddenly aware of how much he missed his smiling lady of the forge. He sat back on his haunches, processing the wonders of human food, something that with one whiff could send an elf into a tailspin. If the odor had had such an effect on him, a few hundred wolf-lengths away, he could barely fathom what its influence must be up close. Were the humans really so scent-blind that they couldn’t sense the power of what they carried in their arms? Or perhaps they spent their days surrounded by such wonders that they grew used to them, as wolves do with fresh air and open spaces?
The door began to open again. Moss hustled into a crouch. The scent rolled out again, but this time it was softer, equally strange, but no longer over-powering. Slowly, arms and legs akimbo like a wood spider, the elf slithered through the snow toward a better vantage point to watch.
“I’m glad you came with him, Nonoli,” Coriander said quietly as they carried baskets of candy away from Coriander’s home and toward the sprawling village of the native people.
Nonoli smiled ruefully at her friend. Of course she had come with Bomo. Nonoli and Coriander had agreed that she and Bomo should not be alone together. Nonoli sensed the deep sadness Coriander felt and the longing for love. She could easily love a young man like Bomo, and Nonoli had taken on the duty of a watchwoman. When Bomo went to Coriander’s home, Nonoli was sure to bet there. Tonight, however, Nonoli had been on her way when Bomo had caught up with her.
She had been going for another taste of the orange fruit with the blood flesh. Bomo had been going for lessons, but had been distracted by the sweet and sticky “candy” which Coriander had made. When Coriander had shared her purpose, Nonoli and Bomo had eagerly stepped in to help. Thunderchild, whose mood swings were becoming more and more noticeable to Nonoli, had left in a huff.
Nonoli felt badly for her friend, but there was little she could do. She smiled at Coriander, “I am glad to share in giving a gift to the children of my people.” They entered the village, nodding to the guards as they followed Bomo.
Leading them around through the walkways of the village, Bomo quietly signaled the homes of the children. Nonoli and Coriander took turns placing baskets of candy at the entrance of each saba, hoping that it was late enough that the inhabitants would be sleeping. Coriander had told them of her intent to do something without drawing attention to herself. Nonoli smiled. Coriander, for as stern as she could seem, was as sweet as the candy they were carrying.
When they reached the last hut, there were three baskets remaining. Coriander told Bomo and Nonoli to keep their baskets as thanks for helping her. Nonoli grinned. They had not placed candy before her teepee because the twins were not old enough for such treats. But she knew that Tamyon would enjoy them. She loved pleasing her husband. And he loved pleasing her in return. She grinned. “It is late. I must be going back to my family.”
Coriander nodded at her.
Nonoli’s concern about whether Bomo and Coriander would be left alone was abated when her friend announced that she was heading home and that she could find her way. Nonoli observed a flicker in Bomo’s eyes that indicated he might have wanted to spend more time with the dark woman, but she couldn’t be certain. “Goodnight,” Nonoli called to Coriander. “Thank you!”
Coriander turned and waved, then kept walking. Nonoli bid Bomo a good evening and headed home.
Moss watched with interest as the two females left. The dark-skinned chieftess returned to her den, and then the light-skinned chief’s mate returned to her own den. Wolfkiller was the only human remaining in the fire-area of the human holt.
Bomo stood in the silent clearing, thinking of the basket in his hands. The sweet-smelling aroma of the orange candy was tantalizing, and he longed to sample a piece. But something had him on edge, a feeling, almost as if he was being watched. Bomo looked around but saw no one. He looked to the trees surrounding the village. Thoughts of the wolves that ran through the forests caught his attention, and he remembered the time, long ago, when the wolf that had been Chief Poyon's spirit had led his people to this place of safety.
It was almost two years since he had killed the wolf in the woods. He hung his head. At the time, he had only been protecting the hunting party that was with him. But afterward, when he was alone in his teepee, he had grieved the wolf whose life he had taken. Bomo’s instinct had told him, at the time, that the wolf had not meant any harm, that she had just been protecting her territory. But the others had been frightened and had also been looking to him for protection and guidance. Had he been alone, he might have backed away, quietly, non-threateningly. But he hadn’t been able to do it at that time.
For a while afterward, he and any group he hunted with had experienced mishap after mishap. Teyu told him he was being haunted by the spirit of the wolf, and that had made sense; what he had done was ill repayment for what Poyon's wolf had done for him. Yet perhaps it was the Ebeans, with their muttered but persistent disregard for Baha tales and Baha spirits, that had put the thought into his head, and perhaps it was his own contrary nature - he wondered. Wondered if it could not be something else that haunted him in those woods – something glimpsed long before he'd killed the wolf, something small and secretive and two-legged, though what, he could not exactly say.
Still, Teyu insisted that it was a spirit, and Bomo trusted his shaman and lover more than his trusted his niggling doubts. He offered sacrifices to the spirits knowing that they never went amiss. Finally, at Teyu's prompting, Bomo had returned to the place of the wolf’s death and offered a sacrifice of his own blood and swore to protect the wolves, the mishaps had ceased.
Bomo considered the basket in his hands. The candy appealed to him, as did the orange that was also in the basket – there had been an orange in every basket. Still, the sense that something was near, that maybe it wanted the orange and the candy, pulled him from his own desire. He knew he could be imagining things, but he did not want to take a chance. He had sworn an oath. Whether it was spirit or something else - whatever it would be, not only would he protect it, but he would serve it as well. If it wanted the candy and the fruit, it could have it. And if it didn’t, then the treats would still be there in the morning.
“I offer this to you, ‘Wolf-Spirit,’” he whispered as he neared the fences at the edge of the human village. Then, swinging the basket back, he flung his arm forward and let the basket fly. It flew over the fence and into the forest. Bomo heard a thump, then nothing. He stood a moment longer, hoping that he had done the right thing, and then went home.
Moss jumped as Kestrel’s message poured into his mind. It was a call to remind him that the word hunters were to return to the Holt tonight. He looked back to the human camp, weighted with a heavy disappointment that surprised even him. He longed for a way to sample the sweet-smelling fruits, but resigned himself to they way things were. He knew that asking Windburn for the right to enter the human village simply to follow a smell to its source would be akin to asking a she-bear to let her cub roll right into a hunter’s arms. At the same time, leaving that smell to languish in memory felt like leaving a near-perfect song unfinished.
He crawled backwards toward the tree, wiping his tracks from the snow as he went. He sent for Weasel. The wolf had just settled into the snow bowl he had been so carefully crafting while his companion had been lost in olfactory reverie. He sent his elf friend the darkest of looks as he hoisted himself grudgingly from his nest. Moss hopped upon his back, and directed the wolf in a tight circle to cover the last of his own tracks with the less-suspicious one of a wolf. As he was surveying the ground to ensure all evidence of his presence was erased he felt the hairs on his neck raise in warning.
Hunching low over Weasel’s back, he looked toward the human’s clearing. The male Painted Face, Wolfkiller, was approaching the tree line. Moss pressed himself flat against his wolf’s spine and felt their hearts measure the seconds in tandem. The human halted just inside the embrace of the forest, but still on the other side of the wooden boundary. From where he stood on the ground, Moss could still see through the spaces between the pieces of wood. The human peered into the darkness for a moment, and then said something so quietly Moss almost missed it; "Mono ntambika ekioki kuna kwa ngeye, mwanda-dievwa."
Moss repeated the words to himself so he would not forget them, 'Mono ntambika ekioki kuna kwa ngeye, mwanda-dievwa,' then watched in rapt attention as the human flung the basket over the boundary and into the dark of the forest. Moss looked after the parcel as it flew by, marking where it landed. He returned his gaze to the human, who was looking after the now-vanished parcel, a grin on his face. He gave a small nod to the dark, silent branches, turned his back, and marched back toward the flame-lit center of his holt.
Moss lay motionless amidst the fog of his own breath. The human completely left his sight when Weasel’s impatient “whuff” moved him to action. He tentatively turned his mount toward the basket’s resting place. The pair stared down at the small woven basket, its contents partly strewn about. Moss stretched his hand over Weasel’s shoulder and plucked one of the small, reddish-orange orbs from the snow. It was just as Kestrel had described, and the smell left no doubt in his mind. It was firm on the outside, and the skin seemed thick, but when he pressed his fingers against it, he felt the give of soft insides.
The other objects were smaller, flatter pieces, but by scent he guessed that they had been fashioned from the likes of what he held in his hand. Almost without thinking, he pressed the smaller piece to his lips. His tongue slipped out and brushed lightly against its surface. It recoiled at the taste of such unfamiliar sweetness. Next he placed his teeth tentatively against the orb. A spray of sourness attacked his tongue as his fore-fangs pierced its flesh, but it was quickly followed by a trickle of sweetness from the mysterious insides.
He halted his inspection as a second sending reached him, this one from his hunt-mates, wondering after his whereabouts. He sent back a jumbled assurance of his well-being with a promise of swift return and busied himself with collecting more of the objects that littered the snow. For a moment he considered taking the basket, but upon further thought, realized that removing it would not be something that wolves or other creatures would do. They would eat the food, but most would have no use for a basket. He slipped the last of the fruit into his sleeves and allowed Weasel to carry him away from the site and into the silent night. The pair left nothing behind them but an empty basket and a fading trail of wolf tracks.
Thunderchild and Coriander stared at the ceiling, their bodies side by side. The firelight traced lazy patterns across the floor, the walls, and their motionless skin. The occasional pop of over-heated sap was the only noise. Thunderchild finally spoke, but his gaze remained upward.
"Do you think it was worth it... giving all that to those children?"
Coriander shut her eyes. "It’s worth it."
"They are not our own."
A weary, joyless half-smile played across her face. "We have none of our own."
"Cor…," Thunderchild said, a hint of anguish mixed with frustration in his voice.
"Do not worry. I will not speak further of our failure.” She rolled onto her side, her face to the cold wall, her back to her husband. “But do not fault me if I reach out to the children that are here."
Thunderchild turned his face to his wife for the first time that evening. The broad sweep of her shoulders, the curve of her neck, the cleft between her shoulder blades, all these details he had learned by heart when their marriage was new-born and their passion had no limit. He unlaced his fingers from behind his head and stretched one had toward her. His fingers hovered an eyelash’s width above the place where her spine pressed against her skin. One heartbeat. Two. Then he shut his fist, pulled his arms to his chest, and rolled the other way to sleep.
Snowflakes had begun to skip and flutter through the midnight woods but a few stars held fast to their posts and winked down occasionally through the treetops. Moss worked his fingers through his companion’s pelt to ward off the swift-approaching numbness. He had sent the others on ahead, though Evervale had insisted on waiting for the straggler at the old campsite. Moss half-considered urging Weasel toward a faster pace, but he resigned himself to his thoughts and whatever travel speed that entailed. The younger elf could wait.
The weight of the strange fruit in his sleeves bounced against his sides. He had not yet related his experiences to the others. Later, there would be time to examine them; time for the tribe to use them to further their human knowledge, time for the plantshapers to sort out the seeds from the sweetness. He didn’t want to share just yet. He himself hadn’t even peeled back the outer skin to uncover the secrets inside. That would wait. He didn’t want to know what lay inside until he was deep beneath the furs of his den, surrounded by that sharp, sweet scent that accompanied the warm, curved body he knew best. Moss had lived just long enough to know that the uncovering of mysteries was sweetest when shared. He would be home soon.