(This story is a sequel to "Survivors", and is part of the "Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storyline -- see listings for related stories.)
RTH 2503.07.15 – mid-afternoon
It took a few hours of sharing a den with her lifemate, Cloudfern, Greenweave and Newt to motivate Brightwood. “First things first,” she muttered to Farscout, as he followed her out of her brother’s crowded den.
The hometrees had changed significantly during Brightwood’s long sleep. The trees themselves had grown, and over time dens had been reshaped so that the interior of the old trees were unrecognizable to her. The changes made sense, once she'd gotten past the shock of it. The tribe had grown smaller in her absence; so many elves had died and left behind descendents who were strangers to her. Yet Brightwood remembered her way down to the ground level of the three conjoined hometrees — it was impossible to mistake the way, just go down and out the first door. Then, once outside in the open space between the three trees, she raised her face to the midday sunlight that filtered weakly through the leaves, then reached out to greet her old favorite, the Mother Tree, and simply began to climb, scaling her way up the Mother Tree’s once-familiar side until she had passed the fourth and last inhabited level.
Farscout settled on the tree beside her, above where the wood was shaped into a great burl for someone's fourth-level den. "High enough?" he asked with the slightest of smiles. Brightwood gave her lifemate the look that deserved, knowing he was teasing her.
"Cider's den used to be here," she replied, as she tried not to pant for breath. It frightened her a little, to recognize how weak she had been left after the healing. "I always fancied that den."
"I remember," her lifemate said, with some amusement. She glanced sidelong at Farscout, wryly interpreting what he said into what she knew he really was thinking, which was that he remembered her breaking his arm in a fall, back in the misty days of their shared childhood. "It's a fair enough view," he added, thinking ahead now, "but it'll be colder in the winter. The wolves cannot climb so high."
"I could shape a winding stair for them around the outside of the tree," she countered. "Besides, I'll just shape our nest closed up tight around us, and we can find a way to warm it up." Farscout smiled at that and laughed his near-silent laugh, clearly anticipating the prospect. "The stairs are a good idea anyway," Brightwood added, resting a hand on the swell of her belly. "As hungry as I've been since waking, I'll be waddling in no time."
**I can't imagine you slowing down, no matter how large the baby grows,** Farscout sent, his mindtouch still amused. **You'll be climbing like a treewee up until the kitling is born, and I'll have the gray hairs to show for it!**
Brightwood chuckled and made a face. It felt good to sit above all of it — the strange new tribe, how everything in the world below had changed, all new faces and new voices and new scents. She felt out of reach up here, and somehow in control of all that was strange and different. Up here, she could choose how and when to face the changes, in her own time and on her own terms. Satisfied, Brightwood rested her palm against the bulk of the tree's body, and set her will to begin shaping it.
"Just a small den for now," she murmured, as her eyes slid half-closed. She saw the stout bones of the tree and shaped around them, coaxing the old wood into a hollow burl that began to slowly bulge out to the east, facing the river. "Then I'll add a shelf-ledge, where we can lie in the sun if we want and burn ourselves pink. We can hang a rope to make it a faster climb."
"You mean a faster descent," Farscout said again, laughing in his silent way.
Her lifemate knew her too well. Brightwood smiled to hear the pleasure in his voice, then slid more fully into her practiced shaper's trance, only aware enough of her body to keep herself from falling. At some point, she grew conscious of Farscout's arms around her, anchoring her in place as she worked. She nuzzled his shoulder in absent-minded thanks, and continued shaping them a new home.
Forming the body of the den was an exhausting job, and once she had finished and shaped an opening into their new nest, Brightwood had climbed in and collapsed on the bare floor. She had gone to sleep feeling Farscout spread his ragged coat over her for a blanket, and when she had woke hours later, she found herself lying on a wolf pelt for a cushion, with familiar sleeping furs draped over her. Farscout sat in the den's entrance, making use of the setting sun as he carved on a bit of boar's tusk. There was a pile of baskets and wrapstuff-bundles nearby, piled up and waiting for her, but it was the wolf hide itself that held her immediate interest.
"Tailchaser..." she said, rubbing her face against the fur. Brightwood sat up and pulled the hide around herself like a blanket, breathing deeply of its fragrant scent. It was hard to believe Tailchaser was gone, when only days ago, as she knew time, she had been riding on his young, strong back. "Thank you for saving this," she whispered to her lifemate, struggling against the weight of tears.
**Tailchaser lived a long life,** Farscout sent, sharing moments of memory of her wolf-friend; Tailchaser standing a head and shoulder above most of the rest of the pack, running in the hunt with young Moonmoth clinging to his back; Tailchaser older and less agile but still romping in fresh-fallen snow, bowling over a yearling pup with his simple-minded enthusiasm for play. **Your brother bonded with Tailchaser. They comforted one another.**
Brightwood hugged the pelt against herself and nodded, glad to know that her brother had had her wolf-friend’s loyalty and love. She felt the weight of tears and resolutely shoved them away, not wanting to give way to grief. She looked at her lifemate, and found Farscout watching her. There was a tension in his shoulders. She cocked her head to one side and looked at him in question.
Farscout read her body language easily. “The Chief has decided what punishment to give Willow,” her lifemate said in answer, both his expression and voice carefully neutral. “Tonight the elders will gather and show her in sendings Owl's last days.”
Brightwood felt her eyebrows arch. “All of it?” she asked, startled by that grave sentence.
Farscout nodded. “All of it. Willow went rogue with her magic. She needs to know it in her gut, not just her head, why the abuse of healing is so very terrible a thing. The Chief wants to know if you and I will participate in the sending-punishment. It will be done tonight at moonshigh.”
Brightwood found herself shaking her head no, without consciously making that decision. Farscout nodded, his expression lightening. **Windburn will understand that you don't,** he sent. **And I don't have to stand with the rest of the elders to take part.**
Brightwood stroked Tailchaser’s pelt as it blanketed her. “You’re an elder now, are you?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief with that realization.
“Your brother is nearly so as well, by the tribe’s reckoning,” Farscout said, blowing a bit of carving dust from the tusk he held.
Brightwood looked at her lifemate, suddenly feeling bleak. If her lifemate and little brother were both elders, what did that make her? The question unsettled her, and suddenly the tears were back, hot and heavy against her eyelids. Brightwood did weep then, reluctantly at first, then with a fierce flood that almost choked her. Farscout left off his crafting and came to join her, offering her his embrace. She melted into him and let go of her inhibitions. At first she allowed herself to weep for her wolf-friend, because Tailchaser, because his loss was the easiest loss to accept. But then the tears fell for the rest of her family — her parents Lynx and Frost, her grandparents Cedarwing and Shyheart, all lost to the Fierce Ones. Brightwood cried for her aunt Easysinger, who had been the only chief she had ever known, and for her aunt Sunlight, who had been as close to her as a sister. She wept for her uncle Leather, who she had lost during her sleep and did not yet even know how. She wept for her cousins Finch and Whitestag, whom she had only known as tiny children, and whose adult faces were strange to her when shared in sendings. She wept for Cider and Snaptwig, Raven and Beesting and all of the other good friends who had disappeared between one awakening and the next. Brightwood cried until she was left spent and shaking, with nothing left in her but the aching, empty hollow in her heart. Through it all, Farscout simply held her, silent, but stroking her hair now and then in sympathy. She was grateful for his undemanding, unquestioning presence. There was nothing Farscout could say to make it better. She was grateful that he didn't try.
"I want a Howl for them," she said later, as she drifted off to sleep in her lifemate's arms. "I need a Howl for all of them. The rest of the tribe has gotten to say their goodbyes, but I haven't. I need that."
Farscout pressed a kiss against her forehead, and she knew her mate well enough to take that for what it was, a silent promise that whatever she needed, he would see she received. Satisfied, she let herself drop into an exhausted slumber, and when she dreamed again, her dreams were full of familiar faces of those who were gone.
When she woke next, Brightwood's first priority, after using a pisspot, was to begin shaping the bowl of their bed.
It was daylight again; the healing and her plantshaping had both rattled her body’s sense of time, but Brightwood had never confined herself to nighttime hours alone, as some of the tribe did. While she had slept, Farscout had brought up baskets of food and a skin of fresh water. She reached for them eagerly now. Brightwood ate ravenously as she considered the comfortable shape of her new nest. Pregnancy had done strange things to her appetite, certainly, but Brightwood had found since the healing that her belly seemed incapable of being full. She could feel that she had lost flesh to the experience. Willow must have needed something to work with when knitting Brightwood's broken body back together, and Farscout did not question his lifemate's sudden voraciousness. He seemed perfectly happy with the chore of climbing up and down the Mother Tree, fetching her food and carrying away her pisspot.
Refreshed by a good meal, Brightwood went back to work, shaping her new nest. Beneath her practiced hands, she drew out a shallow shelf, then stroked it into a bowl-shape, reinforcing the wood so that it would carry far more weight than the two of them, yet leaving an arching space beneath it for storage. Around of rim of the bowl, she allowed her fancy to take flight. An easy motif at first — vines and leaves, entwining their way around the circumference of the bed, but it was Tailchaser who was still close in her thoughts, so she began to shape him into the bed-shelf, running and leaping through the grain of the living wood. It seemed right to place him there, as though he were carrying the bowl on his back. "Oh, my friend," she whispered aloud to herself, feeling the unwelcome sting of tears in her eyes again. "You carried us away from the humans, when I could not have run. We would not have survived without you."
Soon, Brightwood knew, she would need to go to the wolf dens and introduce herself to the unbonded wolves in search of a new bond. But her heart was not ready for that yet, and she doubted it would be ready for many long days.
There were so many little things that would be necessary. Proving herself to the wolf pack. Proving herself to the tribe, so many of whom knew her only from send-fragments and One-Leg's no-doubt colorful stories. The forest which she had once known like the back of her own hand — its stone bones would remain familiar landmarks, but everything else would have grown and died and changed so that nothing would be familiar...
There was a rasp of leather against bark outside, and then Farscout was climbing through the door of the den, his shoulder-sack bulging. "I need to take a Very Long Walk," she said by way of greeting. "How soon can we go?"
Farscout slung off his carrysack, looking only mildly surprised by his lifemate's question. "When your strength is back. We have maybe two cycles of the moons before the leaves begin to change."
She turned to look at him, wanting to read his face. "You will take me to see these new humans?"
Farscout returned her steady look, and nodded soberly. "The Chief will not like it. On Windburn's command, everyone but the scouts and the word-hunters avoid the humans entirely. But you will need to see what territory we have given over to them, and what hunting paths they now most favor."
Brightwood nodded at that, satisfied. With a pulse of concentration, she finished off the fluid curve of Tailchaser's back. The wolf's leaping figure was raised out of the bed-shelf's arch from nose to tail-tip, still a blank canvas yet for the details that would make it uniquely her wolf-bond. There would be time enough to add those decorative details to finish the memorial off, Brightwood thought with satisfaction as she pushed herself to her feet. But for now, her body felt stiff and sore, and she wanted movement. "I need a walk," she said to her lifemate. "Will you come with me?"
Farscout smiled at her question. She knew as well as he did that she did not ever need to ask.
Brightwood's intention had been to visit the river, but Farscout had changed her direction with just a light touch on her arm and a few words. "I've something to show you, first."
She followed him back into the Child Tree, and down the stairs into the rabbit-warren of tunnels and dens. The dark depths beneath the hometrees were much more familiar to her than the old trees overhead; the tribe had had her brother and her aunt Sunlight as treeshapers in her absence and after the loss of her grandsire Cedarwing. But the storage dens and work rooms beneath the hometrees had been shaped by old Stoneback’s sire and grandsire, long before Brightwood's birth, and the familiar twists and archways looked virtually unchanged to her despite her long years asleep. Brightwood remembered the sad day of Newt's wrapping, and hesitated at the corner where that corridor turned toward the large chamber where his cocoon had lain. Farscout squeezed her elbow gently and, to her relief, led her past that intersection, toward the smaller dens further in beneath the Mother Tree's roots.
He led her into one of the storage dens. The room was mostly filled with racks of tanned hides, and smelled strongly of the different methods used to tan them — the tart tang of urea and the meaty must of brain-rub, and beneath them all, the rich undertone of woodsmoke. There were a variety of large baskets as well, many with a bit of bone, hoof, stone or shell worked into the lid to identify what resource was being stored within. Many of the baskets had been shoved into the center of the room, clearing the curve of the far wall, and the stone center of that wall had been shaped open to expose a deeper cavity, in which were many wrapstuffed bundles. Farscout knelt and began to pull them out.
"After your brother and I returned to the Holt, I put everything from our den into storage, so you would have it all again when you woke," he explained as he worked. "And everything of your family's, which Cloudfern or Sunlight or True Edge did not keep for themselves, I put those away for you as well, to do with as you wished."
"You saved everything?" she asked, eyeing the growing heap of wrapstuffed bundles Farscout had begun to pile up next to him.
"Everything of ours; many of your parents' things, and some things as well of Cedarwing and Shyheart's. I wanted you to have as much of it as possible, to decide for yourself what to keep. What others didn't need, I kept for you."
Brightwood sank down to sit on a stack of hides. She lifted up one of the wrapstuffed items, conspicuous by its shape alone. "My father's gitar," she murmured, holding the weight of it reverently. "No one else ever learned to play it."
"Moss might, if you asked him to try." Farscout had pulled out many of the smaller bundles already; now he wrestled with the largest of them, a huge, heavy mass that shifted ungainly in his arms as he hauled it out. "Your down-bag," he said, seeing his lifemate's dubious expression as she looked at it. "With all of the years it took to fill this, I would not just give it away."
Brightwood nodded, glad for that. It had taken them many, many years to collect enough feather-down to fill the suede bed-bag. It would be good to have that again to cushion the bed-bowl in their new den.
Brightwood put aside her father's treasured instrument, and picked up a large bundle that lay close to her feet. It was heavy yet felt shifty in her arms. Curious, she tore open part of the sticky websilk to find soft blue-grey leather beneath. Recognizing it, she tore at the wrapstuff, until more of the grey shoulder-bag was exposed. "This was Mother's favorite gathering bag," she said, pressing the familiar, well-worn leather to her face. Brightwood drank in deeply of its scent, fragrant of her mother, Frost, but also of her brother Cloudfern — and it was his younger-self scent, so much more familiar to her than his scent today. "She had this with her when we went hunting the click-deer."
"Frost left it behind at Cedarwing's tree," Farscout said. He'd finished pulling his hoard out of hiding, and had shifted his position so that he knelt close beside her. "When Cloudfern and I ran for the Holt, I packed it as full of supplies as I could and your brother wore it home."
Brightwood hugged the bag to her and watched her lifemate in the dim blue light of the moonmoss that grew overhead. She had not asked her Recognized yet what that trip back to the Holt had been like, escorting her orphaned brother and her own wrapstuffed body and doing so with good reason to fear the Fierce Ones following at their heels. It was still strange to look at Farscout's face and see him with facefur. She had grown up with Farscout — after the dreadful winter of the plague, Farscout had been her closest agemate until Raven and Sunlight’s births. There had never been a time in her life where anything about Farscout was a mystery to her. But now... with a growing sense of dread, Brightwood realized that her lifemate had lived for more years without her than years she herself had been alive. So many of the things he had seen and done and been witness to were unknown to her. Stricken by that realization, Brightwood stared at him, searching Farscout's face for signs of a stranger and knowing that suddenly, there was a gulf between them which had never existed before.
Farscout must have realized some of her thoughts. He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, then cupped her palm against his cheek. **Aya,** he locksent, his gentle mindtouch steady and richly layered with emotion. She smiled with relief then, feeling the strength of his love for her, and the pure joy he felt at having her beside him. Time had not changed her Recognized, not beyond a superficial scruff on the chin. She stroked his cheek, taking reassurance that some things, at least, would never change.
Brightwood gave her lifemate's cheek a final pat, and turned her attention back to the bulging carrysack she held. "What's in it now?" she asked, unlooping the single buckhorn bead from its button-loop and lifting the flap open to see.
More familiar things. A wooden box shaped like a magpie with its wings curved in a circle, the lid inlaid with shells. It had been her father's treasure-box, and she knew without opening it what it would contain: a mix of small curios he had gathered over his many years of wandering, like the dragonfly he had found encased in a pellet of amber; what looked like a great elk's tooth, but made of stone; odd shaped freshwater pearls and an agate that looked like an owl's eye. Once, when she had been a very little cub, she had brought him an mottled black stone she had fished out of the river, and he had kept that simple, foolish gift in his magpie's box of treasures as if it were as valuable as the rest.
There was second box beneath the shell-inlaid magpie box. This one was much heavier, and had been shaped out of the colorful ovoid of a large agate nodule. Brightwood knew what she would find before she lifted its lid. Her grandmother Shyheart had loved jewelry, but had seldom worn it. Inside were strands of freshwater pearls, carved bone pendants, beaded armlets, tangles of braided leather bracelets, a hammered torc of silver crafted by Ice, a carved bone amulet painted to look like a bluejay feather, a beartooth choker, and much more. Brightwood fished out one of the many leather bracelets and rubbed it between her fingers; the wine-colored leather was loosely braided and featured a single bit of scrimshawed knuckle-bone as an ornament. The bone had been inexpertly carved to suggest a sea otter, floating on its back with its front paws crossed cheerfully over a fat belly. "I made this for her... the winter Father taught us to scrimshaw. The winter after the plague. Do you remember?"
Farscout nodded. "I do."
Brightwood swallowed against the lump in her throat and put Shyheart's jewelry box back into the depths of her mother's gathering bag. The rest of the bag was filled out by folded pieces of clothing — from the colors and stitching she thought she recognized one of her mother's favorite leggings, one of her own summer tunics, and one of her father's traveling vests. She saw a darker bulge and reached after it, pulling out a dark brown leather pouch that rolled and shifted at the bottom as it moved, yet bulged strangely at top. "Mother's beads and buttons," Brightwood said, almost choking on a laugh to see it. Ever practical, Frost's own collections had tended toward the tedious — her mother was forever squirreling away extra beads and extra buttons, promising that they'd be useful some day. Lynx had used to tell his children that the beads mated and had litters in that pouch -- and for some time, Brightwood had believed that to be true. She held the pouch in both hands now, surprised by the weight of the collection, and by the odd way the pouch filled out at top. Curious, Brightwood opened it to look.
"Look!" she cried in disbelief, pulling out the culprit. It was a stuffed child's doll that had once looked like a proud red fox, but had been long ago loved bald. The toy was patched in many spots, in a quiltwork of different shades and fabrics, but the disks of painted bone were still firmly attached where a fox's eyes should be. "It's Bearkiller! Shells and shards — but I thought I'd given him away when Moonmoth was born!"
"Cloudfern never was interested in playing with him, so Frost saved him away. She showed him to me after you and I Recognized," Farscout said softly. "Your mother had wanted to surprise you by giving him to our child."
"I would have loved that," Brightwood said. She nuzzled the old toy, thinking of how dearly she had loved it once. It smelled of dust and bone and leather, and beneath it all, faintly of her mother as well. Brightwood drank in the scent, then caught her breath as the child in her womb woke and turned suddenly. She pressed a hand against the swell of her belly, and felt the the gentle movement of their daughter pressing back.
Brightwood hurriedly shoved the toy back into the pouch and began to push herself to her feet. **I want to find a Preserver and wrap Bearkiller back up,** she locksent. **We can bring him back out when the she arrives — and that way, Vuna will know Mother's scent, too.**
Farscout nodded his agreement as he helped Brightwood to her feet. He took Frost's gathering bag from her and slung it across his own shoulder before escorting her from the storage den.
Mushroom and Flutterby had responded to their summons almost instantly, and it wasn't long before the lifemates were strolling together towards the river.
"... and the thornwall was Easysinger's answer, the most solid way she could start to make the tribe feel safe again," Farscout was explaining. "The idea came from Sunlight, but the Chieftess and Blacksnake both seized on it. It would be only a first line of defense — but it would certainly buy the tribe time in case of an invasion."
Brightwood squeezed her lifemate's hand, and felt the reassuring press of Farscout's fingers, entwined with her own. She glanced at him, and saw the grim look in his eyes as he remembered back to those days, immediately after the death of her parents and grandparents. It was not lost on her that her much of what her Recognized said to her was being spoken, not sent. She did not ask about how, or if, the tribe had planned to transport their cocooned tribesmates in case the Fierce Ones found their way to the Holt. It was simply a relief to know that the terrible, strange creatures who had murdered her family had just vanished back into the plainsland they had come from, and not troubled the Holt again.
Strange, too, to know that the horror of her family's murder had become just a distant, ugly memory for her lifemate, and for her brother as well. For her, she could still count the days back to it on the fingers of one hand.
Brightwood shuddered, feeling her skin crawl at the flash of memory so vivid, she could still sense the prison of the round leather tent surrounding her, see the blue paint on pale human skin, smell the fetid human-stink filling her nose, and hear the screams of her grandfather as he was roasted alive —
Brightwood realized that she had stopped walking; the memory-flash was overpowering, and only the sudden, hard embrace of her lifemate's arms around her seemed to have the power to clear her senses.
**Aya!** Farscout sent as he hugged her close. Brightwood clung to him gratefully, feeling her knees gone as weak as water beneath her.
**Seth,** she moaned, seeking his anchoring strength and seizing upon it. She pressed her face against his chest and breathed in his scent until the memory of human-stink and her grandsire’s burning flesh had been chased from her nose.
Farscout stood steady and just held her, letting her draw upon him until she had battered her defenses back together. **I know,** he sent, his mindtouch a gentle caress. **I know. But the power of the bad memories have on you will fade with time. Cloudfern and I both learned that.**
"Can you forget? Did either of you?" she asked, shaken by the violence and strength of the memory-flash.
Farscout pressed his lips against her forehead. "No. Never forget. But the power of it fades."
Brightwood took a shaking breath, then found her feet beneath her again. "How did you live with it?"
Farscout gazed at her, his pale eyes thoughtful. "Those first months after the Fierce Ones, the whole Holt was holding its breath and waiting for invasion. But I had you to live for, and a promise to your brother to keep. Mostly, I dealt with what happened by trying to help Cloudfern through it. Your brother's nightmares were tough on anyone who touched them. Those dreams went away, but only after time, and after we found ways to talk about what we’d lived through. We both learned that terrible memories are like something dead and rotting. You could throw it into a lake to get it out of sight, but you can’t stop it from bloating up. It'll always float up to the surface again, no matter how deep you try to drown it. You can’t hide from it; you have to accept it’s there and do something with it. That won't be pleasant — but it means you won’t be allowing it to poison everything around you."
Her Recognized's advice made gut-sound sense. Brightwood took a deep breath to clear her lungs, and nodded firmly. "So Easysinger had my aunt start shaping these thornwalls?" she said, taking her lifemate's hand again and resuming their stroll toward the river.
"Sunlight started them. When Cloudfern came into his ability, he began to help her. They created the entire circuit. Now that Sunlight's granddaughter, Evervale, has developed the talent to shape plants, Cloudfern has taken her on as his apprentice and has been having her help keep the walls tall and strong."
Evervale. Another name she had yet to add a face to — there had been so many mentioned in passing. During her first night awake as she'd bathed at the hot spring, Brightwood had had both Cloudfern and Farscout recite for her an overview of what history she had slept through — and so many of her friends were gone, with children and grandchildren left behind and awaiting introduction. Brightwood had been conscious of several strange faces watching them from windows of the Dentrees. Apparently either the new chief had told everyone to give Brightwood her breathing room, or else the younger generations were all shyer than their predecessors.
Apparently, not all. As they reached the clearing between the Dentrees and the river, a lone figure carrying a basket — with a scattering of flowers, herbs and what looked like tufts of thistledown — at the crook of her arm. She was willowy, with big violet eyes and a long black braid swinging off one shoulder, dressed in a black scarf of a skirt and a colorfully dyed purple and rose-red sleeveless halter top.
"You look good!" the stranger gushed, eyeing Brightwood over closely. "Farscout came to me with a few of your old things and told me to use my imagination; looks like my imagination was right!"
Farscout was laughing his near-silent laugh. "This is Nightstorm," he said in introduction. "Bearheart and Dreamberry's youngest."
Brightwood tried to force a connection in her memory between name, face and scent. Nightstorm did have her mother's infectious smile and her father's raven-wing hair. That helped, somewhat. "Thank you for the new clothing, I do like it very much," she said.
Nightstorm beamed with pride. "I'm very glad to have been able to make it for you. You want anything more, just ask!"
Farscout started walking again on toward the river, and Brightwood gratefully allowed herself to be towed along. She squeezed his fingers in thanks, glad for the escape. **She seems nice enough,** Brightwood sent, with half of a glance back over one shoulder toward the tailor. Brightwood was rattled to feel her heart beating fast and her pulse racing, as if the brief, unexpected encounter had been with a she-bear, not with the daughter of old friends. **Bearheart and Dreamberry's youngest?** she marveled.
**Youngest of three. Whispersilk, the chief's mate, is the middle sister. Neither are anything like Snowfall — Snowdrop chose that as a new name, after formally lifemating your uncle. Both Whispersilk and Nightstorm are crafters. Dedicated crafters.**
Brightwood felt the amusement in her lifemate's send, and looked at him knowingly. **My mother used to call your mother 'dedicated' — but only when Frost was struggling to be kind.**
Farscout nodded. He slid an arm around her thickening waist and pulled her close as they walked. **Neither are quite so obsessive as my mother about their work. Although... sometimes, with Whispersilk, I've wondered.**
Brightwood chanced another glance backwards, and saw that other strangers had come out onto the Big Meadow to gaze after her in curiosity. She was still rattled by how difficult it had been to meet a stranger. There had been no strangers in the whole history of the tribe — everyone was family, Brightwood mused. Newborns had the decent good sense to give you a solid two turns to prepare yourself for their arrival, they didn't just spring themselves on a tribe without warning. Brightwood found herself shivering in the wake of meeting Nightstorm. The physical act of looking into a stranger's face and taking in their stranger scent was a whole lot harder to do that she ever could have anticipated. Her nerves kept flinching at her body's instinctive wolf-Now response of strange wolf and of threat, and raw in her mind as well were the brutal Fierce Ones, who for all of their alienness had still walked like elves, talked in language, dressed in familiar smoke-tanned leathers and carried tools like an elf. Tools. And weapons.
‘Do not think of them’, she told herself firmly. ‘Deal with the here. Deal with the now. Do not dwell on them and give them that power over you.’ Brightwood shivered with the effort of that, and turned her face resolutely for the river.
The Holt's River had changed in its course, having shifted away from the meadow somewhat. But Brightwood had been prepared for that — the Holt’s River had always been a fickle thing. It was the trees around her that were strikingly different. Many old friends were simply gone altogether, with their children or grandchildren left to spread branches in their places, while other trees who Brightwood had known as young had grown old and hoary. "Just like the tribe," Brightwood murmured to herself under her breath; Farscout glanced at her in question, and she shrugged and stepped down toward the ford. "That's the thornwall?" she asked, looking across the river at the strange new growth there.
"That's part of it,” Farscout explained, as they picked their way across the stone rocks of the weir. “It's grown from a variety of plants. Wild rose and whitethorn in many places; blackthorn and hazel in others." Brightwood eyed the thornwall critically. Wild rose needed water and grew well here, with the river so close by. The wall was an elf and a half tall here, with roses having been shaped to grow unnaturally thick and tall as a supporting lattice, and whitethorn interwoven throughout the rose trees to make the wall an impenetrable tangle that bristled with unnaturally long and large thorns. “There were a few places where Sunlight experimented with gorse,” Farscout added.
“Oh, I’ll bet she did!” Brightwood said, with a feral laugh of amusement. “The way gorse flames up at any spark in a summer, I’ll bet she had a fine old time devising fire-traps! Plant the stuff so that it channels the humans where you want them, and if they come during the dry-season, you could turn the tables on them and roast them in a narrow valley.”
Farscout nodded, a grim twist to his lips. “Since Sunlight’s death, Cloudfern mostly weeded out the gorse for being as much of a hazard to the Holt as not. He’s not got your father’s taste for devious twists like that…”
Brightwood thought of the sweet-natured, smiling boy her brother had been, and felt a deep touch of relief at her lifemate's words. It was good to know that whatever horrors he had witnessed and survived, her brother wasn't consumed by them, and that he hadn't been changed into someone bitter and vengeful.
“These new humans — has the thornwall worked?” Brightwood asked, plucking a whitethorn leaf and toying with it.
“So far,” Farscout said. “They've not tried to burn the thornwalls down, or cut through them, or climb over them. So far, the humans have kept to the far side of them, and have allowed the thornwalls to deflect their explorations away from us. Even though there have been seasons where the Amber Hunters have sent out gathering parties specifically for the blackthorn.”
That surprised a laugh from Brightwood. “Blackthorn berries? What would the humans want with those? They're so tart, only the songbirds will eat them.”
Farscout shrugged and looked back toward the Holt. “The Amber Hunters gather the berries and carry them home — they don't seem to want them off the bush. And they gather the sap as well. Beetle has experimented with blackthorn gum to figure out what they want it for — best she can figure is that it can be boiled down into a black dye. They seem most partial to wearing bright colors, however, so what they do with that much black dye is a good question.”
Brightwood glanced at her lifemate, and saw he was still looking back toward the Holt, his eyes tracking on something. She turned a glance back that direction, and saw a small group of tribemates walking across the meadow toward the river ford at the weir, coming to join them. When she glanced back at Farscout, he was looking at her protectively, ready to send their visitors away with a send if she wished it. She held her lifemate’s eye and shrugged.
**I can’t hide away forever,** she sent to him.
Farscout’s concerned expression lightened, and he touched her cheek with a brief caress. **Of course you can’t. But if you need room to breathe, just say so.**
Brightwood nodded and turned to walk down to the riverbank to intercept their visitors. “Shards! Look at the pack of you!” she called out as she began to recognize faces through the facefur. “You look like shaggy badgers, the lot of you!”
Blacksnake was first across the ford. He jumped the last of the bridge-stones and swept Brightwood up in a warm embrace. “Good to see you,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
She hugged her old friend close, trying not to be shaken by the thick beard of fur on his face. “Farscout and my brother say you’ve been having fun without me,” she countered. “What with all of these humans infesting the woods and all — what, do I expect an outbreak of trolls next?”
Blacksnake’s brothers and her uncle True Edge had joined them then, and Blacksnake released her so that Brightwood could embrace the others in turn. “No trolls yet,” True Edge said sourly, while Suddendusk was laughing in amusement. “We did have a rain of fish once,” Suddendusk offered.
Brightwood looked at each of her old tribemates in turn, trying not to allow her grief at how they’d changed touch her face. She had been forewarned by her lifemate and brother and knew Axehand had lost a leg and changed his name, and that Blackberry had likewise changed his name after losing an eye. But it was still a shock, seeing firsthand how cruel time had been for friends she loved. She reached out and cuffed One-Leg’s shaggy red sideburns gently, earning his familiar grin. “Bet that’s not slowing you down much,” she teased One-Leg.
He rapped his wooden peg-leg soundly. “It does, just a bit. But not in the ways that count.”
“And you, uncle, you look just like grandsire Cedarwing,” she said, touching True Edge’s cheek.
True Edge regarded her steadily, his expression somber. “You look just the same,” he said, his voice as sad as his eyes.
“Welcome back! We've missed you, you know,” Suddendusk said heartily, taking Brightwood by the shoulders and beaming up at her. “It's been so long — I'd forgotten you were so tall! Just wait until you meet my mate and cubs. All three of them! I've sired three!”
“No need to fear,” One-Leg said with a snort. “They all look like their mothers.”
Suddendusk laughed and turned on his eldest brother in mock outrage; the timing of the exchange was so familiar, so much them as the good-natured rascals they'd both been as youths, that suddenly Brightwood didn't see the face-fur anymore, or the disabilities which had changed them. She just saw Axehand and Blackberry, and it was a joy to laugh along with them.
“I’m looking forward to meeting everyone,” she said. “Just maybe not all at once!”
“We’ll have a proper Howl for you,” True Edge said.
“Might need more than one,” One-Leg added with a smirk. “We’ve more than one night’s worth of tales to tell!”
“I’ll bet,” Brightwood laughed. “But between now and the Howl …what are you all going to be doing?”
“That depends,” grinned One-Leg. “What have you got in mind?”
“One... two... three... Heave!”
The new den was crowded with straining bodies as Farscout, Blacksnake, True Edge and One-Leg hauled on their ropes. Brightwood and Suddendusk guided the heavy, unwieldy bundle as it was pulled up into the branches of the Mother Tree. It took some sweat, but with the help of some of her old friends, Brightwood got the bed-bag hauled into her new den, and wrestled into the bowl of her new bed-shelf. Brightwood swept a sleeping fur across it, then fell back with a sigh of delight.
“It's already beginning to feel like home,” she said, with a smile of gratitude for her companions. “Thank you for your help!” she said to her guests, as she caught Farscout's hand and pulled him down onto the bed beside her.
“No thanks necessary,” Blacksnake said, already coiling up his share of the rope.
“Aye, it's thanks enough to see you two cubs together again,” One-Leg agreed. He tossed his rope to Suddendusk, who was busy securing another rope near the door, to make for easier access to the den.
“Where do you want these?” called Cloudfern as he climbed up through the doorway, a number of wrapstuffed bundles in one arm and his mother Frost's carrybag over one shoulder.
“C'mon, let's get what's left,” True Edge said, slapping Suddendusk's shoulder and leading him out of the den, making room for Greenweave and Newt to follow Cloudfern inside with their share of bundles.
“Just drop them anywhere, I'll open them later,” Brightwood answered. She nestled back in her lifemate's embrace, propped up against his knees, and pulled his hands down to rest against her pregnant belly. Farscout nuzzled her ear, while beneath his hands, their girl-cub did a lazy somersault. Brightwood rested her head against her lifemate's chest, and took a deep, calming breath.
She was alive, when others she loved dearly were not. Maybe this wasn't the home Brightwood had left behind, only days ago as time had passed for her. But even changed as it was, it was still home. Brightwood smiled at her gathered family and friends, and resolved herself to make the most of what she had before her.