(This story is part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline – see listing for more stories.)
Spring weather could be as fickle as a she-cat in heat, and often just as loud and brash. Windburn rode into the wind-whipped rain on a borrowed wolf, his own Whirl left behind irritable and pup-heavy in her den. Murkfur had no complaints about the weather; his stride was exuberant with delight at carrying his kin-chief. But the chief wasn't so cheerful as he intercepted the returning party of word-hunters. His expression as he joined them was as stormy as the weather.
“I'm fine,” protested Rainpace, shame-faced astride his she-wolf Bristlepelt. “It's just a sprain.”
“It's not just a sprain,” countered Moss, the party's leader. “He slipped on the rocks and scraped up that leg from hip to calf. We had to cut his breeches off his leg because his knee is swelling up like a dead toad in the sun.”
“Willow's two nights ride to the north with Blacksnake's hunting party,” Windburn said, dismounting to examine his tribemate's injury for himself. Rainpace's left leg was bare to the mid-thigh, except for hide-swaddled bandages, but the young tracker's eyes were clear and Windburn could scent no fever, only the pungent aroma of boiled garlic and marigold balm.
“Beetle dressed it in the field,” Moss said, while Rainpace was saying, “I can wait for Willow, you don't have to call her back on my account.”
Windburn nodded approval to Beetle for her handiwork before giving the rest of the party of word-hunters an assessing glance. Evervale and Beetle both looked as weary as Rainpace, and just as eager to get home and out of the cold wind and rain as Windburn himself. Only Moss seemed undaunted by the weather.
“We followed a band of Amber Hunters up the Braided River to the southeastern flanks of Elder Peak,” Moss reported as Windburn pulled himself back astride Murkfur. The ugly young wolf made a show of puffed-up pride, asserting himself over Moss's wolf, Weasel. Weasel deferred to the younger wolf with wet amusement, where less of a throwback would have likely answered Murkfur in challenge. Windburn was privately grateful for Weasel's good grace. He himself found Murkfur's puffed-up pride annoying – it had been a long night, a long ride, and Windburn had been roused out of a warm bed and his lifemate's company by Moss's long-distance send. “They seemed to get concerned over the incoming storm, and turned back for home,” Moss continued. “We would have followed them back to their village, except for Rainpace’s accident.”
Windburn nodded, letting Murkfur push ahead of the rest of the wolves as he listened to Moss's report. The word-hunters' work seemed agonizingly slow in producing results. It had only been about a year and a half since the effort had begun, and their grasp of the humans' tangled tongues had not advanced much. Windburn had to remind himself that capturing words wasn't like hunting game – but it was difficult at times to do so. Even if a hunter was hunting snowcats, he knew by the end of the pursuit whether he had a valuable hide in his hands, or whether the elusive beast had simply outsmarted him for another day. No – hunting a grasp of human-speak took time, and while there had been a few small moments of epiphany for the word-hunters, most of the team's efforts seemed to yield results like the growth of a tree, each ring growing imperceptibly over the last. So Windburn rode in silence and concentrated on Moss's report, consciously cultivating his patience and trying to ignore the cold trickle of rainwater that ran past his collar and down his back.
There was another gust of wind; the storm was coming in from the northwest, and was chillingly cold. It was only pride that kept the chief from hunching his shoulders against the chill. He wondered if they would even see snow – granted, it wasn't the first time snow had
“It’s always much easier to eavesdrop on these gathering parties than it is on the humans close to their settlements,” Moss said. “They had found a spot they liked, I’m certain they’ll return to it, once the storm has passed. We'd like to get back there and in place before the humans have returned, if that’s possible. But some of our team may need relief. We can't afford to have a youngster come down with the sneezes.”
“No fair!” Evervale called from the back of the pack, while Beetle and Rainpace both laughed. “I sneeze just once, and no one will ever forgive me for it!”
Windburn looked back over his shoulder at that, sensing a story he might not really want to hear. But storytelling kept them all from thinking of their misery in the cold rain, so he committed himself to asking the question he doubted the word-hunters wanted to hear. “What happened?” he asked, resigning himself to having to know. “And just how close to the humans were you when this happened...”
“There you are!” Foxtail said, sitting up from her spot in his nest of sleeping furs. “Where have you been?”
Notch was wet, Notch was cold, and Notch was tired as he crawled through the window into his den. For many long miles he had been fantasizing about crawling into his sleeping furs and drifting off into blissful slumber, and that fantasy hadn't included a furmate. However, he was always willing to improvise when his plans went sideways – and Foxtail's warmth would be a welcome way to chase the cold from the marrow of his bones.
“Someone's got to check Rainpace's traps for him while he's busy with better things,” Notch said, reaching after yesterday's tunic, with which he rubbed his hair dry. The trap-line story was only half the truth, but he wasn't about to share all of his trade secrets, not even with Foxtail. “Got some nice gambling goods out of it, including an ermine pelt that's still white.” Normally, a bit of fancy like that would light Foxtail's pretty eyes up like skyfire – too late, Notch glanced at her from his toweling off and realized her eyes were already aglow over something else. He dropped both the tunic and his half-formed notions of how Foxtail might help him warm up, and crouched to look expectantly at her. “What's brewing?”
Foxtail beamed at him. “Moss sent to my father that the word-hunters are on their way home. Father's already ridden out to meet them. Rainpace took a spill and hurt his leg--”
Notch didn't think about it – he simply moved, heading back toward the window he'd crawled in from. Foxtail grabbed him by the arm and hauled him up short, frowning at him in exasperation.
“--slow down! Don't be a half-wit! Rainpace isn't hurt bad, no one's howling for Willow.” She scowled at him prettily, and then her excitement overcame her again. “This is it! This is my big chance!” Notch looked at his young friend blankly, and Foxtail threw her hands up in the air. “Willow's days away hunting with Blacksnake! Rainpace is going to have to take some time to recover – right? And you know Chicory's pining for him as well, so this is it! This is the chance I've been waiting for! If you and Rainpace'll help me, I can use this to get onto the word-hunters team! If Rainpace agrees – if you'll help me sweet-talk him – if Rainpace says he wants to stay at the Holt for a moon or so and rest up, Father's going to need to substitute someone onto the team to cover for him, right?” The words gushed from Foxtail in her excitement. “One chance is all I need! If I can just get onto the team on a temporary basis, then that'll mean I'm really in for good, and there'll be no more sitting on my hands at home, watching them ride out for all of the fun!” She caught her breath, glowing like a flamefly in the dim darkness of Notch's den. “Oh please! You've got to help me. With your help, we can surely talk Rainpace into wanting to rest up for a while, can't we?”
Notch thought to himself that they'd have to talk fast – Blacksnake's hunting party wasn't expected back for another day or three, but chances were that Willow would be back and have Rainpace returned to a polished shine before Moss and the rest of the team would be ready to head back out into the field. It also occurred to Notch that it was a good question for Foxtail why he would want to talk his best friend into sharing a spot on the human-speak team with her – instead of Notch himself. But Foxtail was all but a-quiver with glee, and he liked her that way. A sulky Foxtail was not pleasant company, while a quivery Foxtail was good for all manner of fun and games.
“We can certainly talk to Rainpace when he comes home,” Notch said, tossing aside the damp tunic and squirming out of his wet leather breeches. “In the meanwhile, squeeze over and make room for me. I'm going numb from the cold!”
Foxtail gave him half of her warm spot in his bed, much too excited by her prospects to object to his chilly skin against her own. “You'll help me perfect my arguments against Father, won't you?” she asked hopefully, hugging Notch against her.
“Mmmmm,” Notch murmured, nuzzling the curve of her shoulder where it joined her neck. “Are you sure you want to waste your time with that?'
“Of course I do!” she snorted. “Talking to Father is always the hardest part! You’ve got to help me practice saying just the right things, because you know how no matter what I say otherwise, he’ll blow up at me just as sure as Growler Geyser.”
Notch began to nibble on her neck in earnest. “Well, first thing,” he said between soft love nips, “you can’t just rush up to your father when he and Moss and the rest come riding back in.”
“But--” Foxtail began to protest.
“It’s a miserable night out there, and they’ll all be riding home with their nutsacks shriveled up tight,” Notch said, chuckling a little. “Trust me on that, I was just out there myself! No. You want to outwit your father, then play it smart. Wait until you see him tomorrow -- after he’s had a chance to dry off, snuggle up to your mother, and sleep off his cold ride. Let him be rested up. It’ll do marvelous things for his temper.”
Foxtail nodded, but not happily. “And then?”
“And then…” Notch began to move lower, and caressed her hips with his hands. “Mmmmm… my own head’s half-frozen with cold. Willing to help warm my blood up a little, so I can be properly clever for you? It’ll do marvelous things for my temper…”
“I won’t get any useful help out of you without that first, huh?” Foxtail snorted in amusement and pressed the length of her body against his willingly. Notch laughed and made himself clever enough… for the time being, at least.
Windburn had a favorite wooden block. It was a portion of a shaped cedar log, and while it mostly served its duty as a cutting surface for crafters, Windburn found it just the perfect height to stand on when he needed to comfortably reach the stone rim above most of the storage den archways. He stood on it now, a shell cup in one hand, his paint brush in the other as he painted a fresh layer of paint on the salmon symbols that leaped over the length of the storage-den door.
It pleased him to repaint the storage den symbols every few years, as the paints faded with time. There were symbols over the doorways of each of the warren of storage-rooms, indicating the primary resources to be found within each den. The tribe's system for warehousing supplies had been perfected over many long years by his mother and his uncle Leather; the only improvements Windburn had ever found to add upon it had been the simple quality of symbol-making, as the door-symbols of salmon, berries, herbs, deer, and hides had never looked quite so vivid until Windburn had taken on the chore.
Monitoring the tribe's stores was a year-around duty. The lean months of winter always melted away at the tribes' stores of all kinds of goods. The chief always kept an eye on what essentials were low, and made certain those stocks were replenished as soon as the turn of seasons would allow – making it a steady, year-around concern. And after each year's night of New Green Bliss, it was time for the chief to methodically inventory the contents of each storage den. He kept a record hide on which he painted symbols of what the tribe needed most urgently. And Windburn was diligent about making sure the oldest items in wrapstuff were the easiest to access, so that they would be first-used during the coming year. Then he made sure capped gourds of oil-based paint and a brush were placed in each den, with the color of the paint changing each year, so that a stripe of paint painted on any new bundle going into storage would help identify the oldest supplies from the newest. Often there were symbols to be retouched on shelves as well, and on baskets, bundles or bags, to help the tribe keep their stores identified and organized. Windburn knew that anything misplaced was as good as wasted – not just in terms of the goods item itself, but also in terms of the sweat, care and time his tribemates had put into cultivating that resource, gathering it, crafting it.
Down here in the storage dens, in the stillness of the blue moonmoss-glow, Windburn usually found a sense of peace. Sometimes he imagined the spirits of his family around him. It was easy to remember time spent with his mother Easysinger down here, drying herbs, brewing syrups, grinding grain, or chopping up fat into fine meal. It was easy to hear the echoes of his wise uncle Leather's voice among these rooms, where Leather had once kept a close eye on the tribe's inventories. It had seemed that neither Easysinger nor Leather had ever considered managing the storage dens an unwelcome or unpleasant chore. Instead, they had both seemed to thrive on the minutia that gathered down in the warren beneath the hometrees – minutia which Windburn often struggled to find the motivation to face.
Maybe part of the reason for his absent elders' enjoyment of the busywork had been because there had always been the both of them to share in it. Now that they were both gone, Windburn often reflected on Chieftess Easysinger's close working relationship with her brother Leather. It was a close partnership that Windburn often felt lacking in his own life. He loved his sister Chicory dearly, but she had never shown an interest in helping her brother manage or administer tribal resources. If their eldest brother Riskrunner had lived... well, a lot of things would be different, but Windburn liked to think that he and his older brother would have fallen into an easy partnership, like what their mother had shared with Leather. Certainly among Windburn's earliest memories had been himself and Riskrunner down here among the storage dens, himself sitting on his brother's shoulders with a paintbrush between his fat cubling fingers, while Riskrunner's hands guided his own, patiently teaching him to paint symbols over a storage-den door. Later, as a youth, Windburn had sought Leather out and grudgingly studied Leather's habits and his New Green Bliss rituals, with the faint anticipation of someday, when his brother was chief, that his brother would need him to fill their uncle's reliable shoes...
Windburn mourned to know that his son would never know his grandmother, the Chieftess; nor would little Cinder ever know his uncle Riskrunner, or his grand-uncle Leather. Windburn could only hope to try and teach his son the lessons his mother and his uncle had taught him. Likewise, he could only hope that someday, his children Foxtail and Cinder might find themselves sharing the same easy, unquestioning sense of being helpmates that his mother and Leather had experienced, and which Windburn had once thought he would share with his brother-chief.
On that thought, as if a summoning send, he caught his daughter Foxtail's scent. Moments later, he heard the whisper of her approach, moving a few steps up one corridor and then back again before coming around the bend. From the corner of his eye Windburn saw how his daughter's head came up as she spotted him, and how her stride immediately shifted into a shorter, less easy step.
“Good evening, father,” she called as she approached. “I was hoping to have a chance for a few words with you.”
Windburn nodded, not quite looking away from the last of the fish he was painting. He loved his daughter. Without question, he would trade his life for her, give her his last bite, his last breath... but still, there were often moments when seeing her approach like that put his nerves on instant, unreasonable edge. His daughter never approached her mother or her friends with that keen she-wolf glint in her eye, or altered her step so that her weight was balanced for combat. Foxtail wanted something from him, and her body language broadcast that she expected a fight. It made him instinctively wary, like a wolf seeing a lesser coming his way in challenge for his place in the pack. It triggered his temper – in a heartbeat, he felt the increase in his pulse, and in the way his mind wanted to narrow-focus with a hunter's tunnel-vision on prey.
“I just spoke with Moss, and you know how eager he and One-Leg are to get a team back out. Moss worries about the Amber Hunters coming farther north up the Braided River.” Foxtail's voice was pitched unusually low. She kept her eyes down and head bowed, her body language turning uncharacteristicly meek. “With Rainpace waiting for Willow's return, Moss is concerned about what opportunities we're missing in our studies...”
Windburn stepped down from his favorite chopping block and turned to face his daughter, guessing well enough where this was going. He could show Foxtail the respect of hearing her out, at the very least.
“Rainpace is injured, and you'll need to replace him, if only temporarily. I would like to ask you to consider sending me.” Foxtail flickered a glance at him, gauging his reaction before trying to continue smoothly on. “As your daughter, I know my duty is to be of service to the tribe. What better way is there for me to be of service than to learn the words and the ways of our enemies? If I'm to make wise decisions regarding the humans someday, I should be out with the word-hunters now, learning directly about the humans with my own eyes and ears. I know I've been reckless in the past, but father – I swear to you – you can trust me in this. You have taught me your lesson. I will not risk my kin. I will do nothing to risk human attention. I will be as silent and stealthy as the best of your scouts, and I'll be able to learn not only how the humans think – but how to best manage them.”
Windburn nodded amiably at her words. There was sense in them – and certainly the chief of the tribe himself craved being out with the word-hunter teams, absorbing what he could first-hand of their unwelcome neighbors. But replace Rainpace on the word-hunters with his fickle daughter? Not even temporarily. “No.”
The meek facade dissolved at once. Foxtail's shoulders went back and her chin went up, and her eyes went as sharp as flint. “You won't even give me a chance?”
“I give you chances aplenty,” Windburn replied. “When I see you're ready to be trusted, then I'll send you. But you're not ready yet.”
“But I am ready!” Foxtail cried. “Just how do you ever think you'll know I'll be ready if you don't let me DO anything? I'll never learn to be chief like this, sitting at home on my tail while everyone else goes out and does what needs to be done!”
Windburn bit back the snarl that complaint deserved. Instead, he simply crossed his arms across his chest and looked at his daughter, striving for a steady, reasonable tone. “Tell me. Where were you last night?”
Foxtail recoiled as if slapped. Her mouth shut, her eyes narrowed, and she glared at her father as if his unexpected question were a trap.
“I... I was with Notch,” she said cautiously. “We waited up all night for Rainpace.”
Windburn nodded. For a moment, he could still feel the wind and the rain from yesterday's long ride, and that sensation was bracing. He knew his daughter had watched him ride out. He had seen her watching from Notch's window. Windburn had almost ordered his daughter to accompany him. He had thought of how his brother Riskrunner had always ridden out with their mother on such uncertain trips, and of how he had begun to do so himself, after Riskrunner's death. It was not a habit Chicory had ever embraced, and their mother the Chieftess had never asked it of any of them. Easysinger never said why she rode out to meet returning tribemates who were injured or who had met with something unexpected on the trail. She simply did it, regardless of the weather or the mildness of an injury. Later, when her sons had decided to join her, she had simply welcomed her sons' company with a silent, unspoken pride. Easysinger never commented on her children' decisions regarding that choice – but afterwards, Windburn had realized from the way others in the tribe approached him, that the tribe itself had been watching, and that the tribe had taken notice. It had taken Windburn years to realize himself what that choice had represented – but at the time, his kinfolk had rightly read it as their chief's heir stepping up to the burden of an inheritance. So yesterday, while Windburn had thought of commanding his daughter's company, he had held himself back from doing so. He surely couldn't expect Foxtail to be willing or able to carry such a burden, not unless she had decided for herself to step up to her responsibilities.
“Where have you been tonight, since moonsrise?” he asked next.
Foxtail was frowning and her green eyes were wary. “Down at the tanning pit, helping Nightstorm,” she said quickly. Windburn could not smell any hint of the potently acrid tanning-stink around her, but he didn't voice his doubts of the claim. However, he saw Foxtail react to the flare of his nostrils. “Then I went and visited with Rainpace and made sure he had a skin of willowbark tea,” she added quickly.
Windburn nodded acceptance of that alibi. “You're serious about becoming chief someday?” he asked.
Foxtail's tight expression brightened – the question surprised her, but pleased her too. She stood up a little straighter and nodded firmly. “Yes. Yes I am.”
Windburn nodded and handed her his paintbrush. “This is where you start. The next den on your right has our stores of medicinals. Tally for me what we've got left; there's chalk and extra record hides in the basket next to the door.”
Foxtail's eager expression slid into sheer outrage. “You want me to muddle around down here like a ground squirrel, counting seeds of grain?” she cried, and threw the paintbrush at his feet. “Are you SERIOUS?”
Windburn felt his own temper flare. He felt his pulse begin to race and the hairs on his nape rise with the wolf-deep anticipation of the taste of blood that always came to Windburn at the prospect of a challenge. The chief struggled to take a deep breath and to meet his daughter's fury instead with an even expression and steady voice, as cool and calm as he could remember Chieftess Easysinger being when faced with her second son's own skyfire temper.
“If we get a freeze over the next couple of nights, then we'll lose the entire spring crop of marsh-marigold, moonberry and spring cress; all of those buds and blooms we celebrated with New Green Bliss paints the other night will be dead on the branch,” he replied steadily. “Human words won't fill the tribe's bellies. Human words can't be brewed into a healing tea.”
“Piss pots!” Foxtail was struggling, and failing, to control her outrage. “You're just scared! That's what! You're scared! I am as stealthy and sharp-witted as anyone else you've got on the word-hunters team, but you're just scared to let your own daughter near the humans! Don't treat me like a little cub! I'm not a little cub anymore, but you're still making little-cub excuses to keep me safe at home!”
“I'll stop treating you like a fluff-brained cub when you stop acting like one!” Windburn snapped, feeling his grip on his own temper slipping precipitously. “Hunting human words is more tedious than counting stores – I'd maybe send you out with the word-hunters if I could trust you wouldn't hare off the moment you realized it wasn't fun and games, but instead was real work!”
“I like real work! I love REAL work! Just look at all the hard work I’ve been doing with Nightstorm down in the tanning pits now that Moss is out rambling, and all of the weaving I’ve learned from Mother? It's just YOUR nonsense makeshift chores that you make up as punishment duty that bore me to tears. All I ask from you is that you stop wasting me! Take me seriously, if only this once! Just give me something worth my doing it!”
Windburn made a gesture toward the storage-dens. “This is the real work! Real work that's kept you fed and clothed and comfortable your entire life! I'll begin to take you seriously when you take this seriously! Being chief isn't all racing at the head of the pack and having others show throat. It's work – and it's work that never ends, not while you've got kin alive and needing you!”
“You're a coward!” Foxtail snarled back at him. “You lurk down here in the dens like a squirrel counting nuts, when you should be out there yourself, stalking the humans and keeping us safe from them! That's where you should be, but you haven't the courage!”
“Don't be a fool!” Windburn retorted, his fists clenched in the effort not to cuff his daughter half-senseless. “You need to learn self-discipline, girl-child, and clearly the last months of punishment-duty failed to make a dent in your self-centeredness!”
Foxtail snorted and tossed her head. “You make all of these noises like you expect me to become chief someday! But then you keep me buried here with you, sitting on my tail end watching as everyone else goes out to DO what's important! But you know what? Someday you'll be dead – and I won't be ready, because you won't let me out of your sight long enough to learn! Where will your precious tribe be then?”
“In the hands of a fool who refused to learn what was important when it was right under her nose!” Windburn shot back. “Or maybe the tribe will look to your brother instead! I can only hope one of my cubs shows they've got both the spine and the spit enough to be chief – because as sure as eggshells crack, you seem determined to prove you haven't the sense the High Ones gave a treewee!”
Foxtail rocked back on her heels with her fists clenched tight in rage; but Windburn saw the glitter of tears in his daughter's eyes as well. “I knew you'd play that hand eventually! That's the joy of having a second cub – Cinder's just one more thing you can hold over my head! If I don't do exactly what you think I should, exactly how you think I should, then you can always turn to your youngest now, can't you? You can always make him chief instead!”
“If it comes to that, it won't be me making that decision!” Windburn held himself back from hitting this daughter of his, although he ached to do so. With an effort, he turned away from her, giving her his shoulder as coldly as a high-ranking wolf would deny a pup its attention. “I won't know which of my cubs the tribe chooses to follow. But from what I'm seeing from you, whelp, I'm grateful the tribe will have a choice.”
Foxtail hissed at his back. Coldly, Windburn picked up the paintbrush at his feet, then stepped back onto the chopping block, and returned his attention to painting the storage-room symbols over the archway. Denied the quarrel she wanted, Foxtail had the choice to either shout curses against his show of indifference, or retreat to regroup her arguments for the next fight.
His daughter chose as Windburn had guessed she would. She retreated to lick her wounds.
Foxtail stormed up the stairs and out of the Gathering Dens, so angry she could taste blood. She whistled for Briarfoot, but her wolf-friend was nowhere close by. A crisp gust of wind whipped her hair from her shoulders and bent the tree branches around her. Yesterday's storm had only worsened, and showed no sign of blowing itself out – in fact, Foxtail fancied she could taste the dry, metallic taste of snow. The Baldtop Mountain would certainly see some snow tonight; how low would the freeze go was the only question now. Foxtail turned her face into the cold wind and breathed it in, trying to cool her fury.
It didn't matter. It truly didn't matter. No matter what she did or what she said, her father would always put her in the wrong. She would never be able to please him. He was narrow-minded and unable to see past his nose. And he didn't need her anyway – he had Cinder now, and he would raise his son to be heir to the tribe. Well, just wait and see, Foxtail seethed. Just wait and see – no brother of hers would be without a spine of his own! Cinder'd come to his senses and rebel the same as Foxtail did, when their father's dull expectations began to weigh down too heavily on the cub--
A hand touched her arm, startling her. Foxtail spun and found her mother standing in the hometree archway behind her, bundled up in her hooded winter coat, a large gathering basket balanced on one hip and a large-eyed Cinder on the other.
“Take your brother and come along,” Whispersilk said firmly, pushing Cinder into Foxtail's care.
“Wait--” Foxtail tried to avoid it, but it was either take her baby brother or drop him. She juggled Cinder uncertainly; he had that look as though he were deciding whether or not to starting crying. “--I don't want--”
“You're not dodging out on this, not now. After all, it's your shrieking and your father's bellowing that've scared your brother in the first place,” Whispersilk said tartly, in an impatient tone of voice Foxtail knew far too well from her own childhood. “Take him and come on. There's very little time left before that storm gets here in full, and I'm going to need your help. We're going to need to gather as much moonberry as we can; those flower buds won't survive a freeze, and there's nothing else that produces as vivid a purple dye.”
Foxtail thought of protesting that with three skilled plantshapers in the Holt now, her mother didn't have to race against the coming storm to get her precious dye-blooms. But she bit back the words before they escaped. If her fight with her father had been so loud that tribemates in the Dentree above had overheard it, then the best impression she could make to regain lost ground would be to put on a pleasant face and go help Whispersilk. Foxtail schooled her expression and shifted Cinder's weight in her arms. “Let's go,” she said as sunnily as she could, with a glance up at the wind-whipped branches above them. At least there was a break in the rain. The moonberry her mother wanted to gather was growing in patches in a meadow north of the wolf dens, along the Den's Creek. Notch's current hidey-hole was on the slopes of the Home Ridge not too far of a hike away. She would spare some time for her mother, and then excuse herself to join Notch and seek his solace.
Whispersilk nodded and set off at a good pace. To her surprise, Foxtail found herself having to stretch her legs to keep up. Whispersilk must be truly anxious to gather what she could against the possibility of a freeze – and so, why in Wolfsister's teeth had her mother waited for Foxtail's company? Whispersilk could have simply worn her baby-sling and gone the moment Cinder had started to fret.
At least Cinder had decided against a crying fit. He squinted up at his sister, his baby-eyes still too short-focused to take an interest in anything beyond his sister's face. He smacked his lips a few times, but when Foxtail began to hum and rock him as she walked, his sea-green eyes began to grow heavy. They were hardly out of sight of the hometrees before those eyes had shut.
“You and your father both seem determined to misunderstand one another,” Whispersilk said as they walked.
“Don't you start on me, too,” Foxtail grumbled. “I've been trying! I've been trying so hard to be everything Father wants from me. But he doesn't give me even half of a chance!”
“That's not true,” Whispersilk replied. “Your father has certainly noticed how much your attitude has changed since Cinder's birth. He's seen how you've made an effort to carry more of your own weight. And your father and I are both proud of you for that.”
“If that's so, he sure doesn't know how to show it,” Foxtail muttered. A fresh gust of wind came ripping into their faces, and both Whispersilk and Foxtail had to snatch after their hoods to keep them from being blown off. “I'm ready to join the word-hunters. But Father won't ever let me, will he? He never sees the good things I do. He always expects the worst from me, so that the only way I can get him to see me is to give him what he expects!”
Whispersilk shot her a glance of amusement. “Don't sing that song to me, daughter,” she said, tartly but leavening her words with a smile. “I know you too well for it! Mostly you do just what you want to do – and your father's approval, or mine, is hindmost in your considerations. It always has been that way with you, now as much as ever.”
Foxtail tried not to show a reaction to that keen observation, but she certainly felt it. Around them, the trees were swaying in the squall, and what newly-buddy leaves had sprouted by New Bliss were being stripped from the branches by the storm. “But you just said that I've matured – and that you were proud of me for it!” she retorted. “You see why I think you're both so unfair? You say one thing, but you really mean something else entirely!”
Whispersilk laughed and clutched her coat tight, leaning into the wind as they walked. “That's because you inherited your father's ears, not mine,” she said. “You hear what you want to hear before you even try to listen. Daughter of mine, I love you. I love you for your faults as much as your many strengths. I am proud of you for how hard you're trying. And sometimes it breaks my heart to watch you and your father go at it like you do. You know how your father has always felt at odds with your grandsire Blacksnake? I see something of the same happening with you and your father. Windburn likes to go wolf-straight at problems, and he doesn't work through long enough or three-ways sideways like your grandsire does. Your father can't help but fight with you, and you can't help but fight with him. You're not like your father, just as he's not like his. And High Ones know – you're not much like me, either. Maybe that's a good thing, because wouldn't it be boring if we were just as much like our as parents as salmon spawn?”
Foxtail couldn't help but grin in agreement, but she held her tongue against repeating her mother's words. Whispersilk saw that, and gave her another smile. “Aye, boring to tears,” Whispersilk said aloud for them both. “But maybe easier on those who love us. You know, I look at you, and I see your Uncle Riskrunner. Moreso – I think of the Howls the tribe has had for your great-grandmother, Chieftess Foxsly. And I think that Foxsly is who your father sees in you. You have Foxsly's impulsiveness as well as her brilliance. And I think your father fears that.”
Foxtail frowned at her mother, trying to make sense of Whispersilk's words. “Foxsly was chieftess for a long, long time,” she said. “I would be proud to stand in Foxsly's shadow.”
Whispersilk shrugged. “You've never really known hunger. Neither have I, or any of us younger than Moss. We've had generations who've known lean times, but never starvation as their sires and grandsires knew it. We've never had to tighten our belts or watch our children grow thin and weak. That in itself is a tribute to your grandmother Easysinger's wise management. The tribe has never known hunger under your father as Chief. But the tribe knew hunger under Wolfsister and Burn. And the tribe knew hunger under Foxsly.”
“I'll never let anyone go hungry!” Foxtail said fiercely.
Whispersilk nodded, but her smile turned wise and sad. “I'm sure your great-grandmother said the same. And I'm sure she meant it. I know you've got the spark and charm to be a good chief. A very good chief. But it takes work – hard work, boring work, and constant work – to be a wise chief. The tribe would follow you if your father were gone. But as your mother, who loves you dearly and with great pride – I do wonder if you've got the patience to be a wise chief.” Whispersilk glanced at her again, her expression gentle. “I see you struggle trying to do as you think you should. But it doesn't come naturally to you. Maybe it never will. You don't know how to put the needs of others before your own pleasures. While your father… he doesn’t know how to put his needs before those of the tribe. At least you are happy. I find consolation in that.”
There was a fresh blast of wind, and with it came the first, cold spatter of the leading edge of rainfall. Foxtail found herself hugging Cinder tightly, so the baby began to squirm in her arms. She shifted her brother up against the warmth of her shoulder and bobbed him gently in her arms to settle him. Her mother’s words were a weight in her mind, heavy and as indigestible as gristle. She sidestepped the pain of them. “Can you put in a word with him for me?” Foxtail asked, cleaving to her end goal. “Mother, he listens to you. Father listens to you, if you’ll talk to him, maybe he’ll reconsider and—“
Another blast of wind hit them then, and she was aware of Whispersilk’s reach after her hood as it was blown off of her mother’s raven-wing braids. Then Foxtail heard a deep cracking sound ahead of them. She heard it and simply moved. No question. No thought. Just her legs moving, her body following, gripping Cinder helpless against her chest. The cracking came again, thunderous, and there was a brief press of hands against her back, adding to her leaping momentum. Then something slammed down against her – around her – over her. Foxtail tried to curl herself around Cinder, her mind registering only danger, the shock of adrenaline, and Cinder’s sudden, whistling shriek.
Then they were on the ground. Earth was wet against the bare skin of Foxtail’s face. She found herself pressed hard against the length of an old cedar log. A smothering weight pressed against her back, and each breath was thick with dirt and cedar. Cinder was still in her arms. She felt him wriggle like a fish, and heard the hitch of his breath as he sucked air into his lungs. Her own arms were around him still, and she found her body arched around his, providing him what shelter she could against the terrible weight that was crushing down against them.
Cinder had his breath then. He began to scream. Foxtail pushed back against the miserable weight. There was no moving against it, or against the lee curve of the fallen log, but she found that if she pushed, she could wriggle to her left. Foxtail wormed her way through the flat spray of cedar, following the lessening of pressure, and after squirming against the weight for what felt like a lifetime, she shoved herself free of it and into the chill falling rain.
Another gust of wind blew into her face, pushing her red curls away from her face. Foxtail gazed around her, failing to comprehend what she saw. A great old cedar tree had given away to the combination of rain and wind. It had fallen down along the length of the path she and her mother had been walking from the Holt. They had gotten well out of the way of the tree's wide trunk; it was the old tree’s branches that had pressed down around her. Foxtail caught her breath when she realized how the weight of the wide branch had been mostly carried by the fallen log she had taken refuge against – she might have really been hurt, but for luck and chance the solid bulk of the big old log…
Cinder’s screams were ear-piercing – they’d not only hear him back at the Dentrees, they’d likely be hearing him as far away as the thornwalls. Foxtail drew in a shaking breath of her own and tried to comfort her brother by patting him on the back. “There, there, we’re fine, we just got a scare, we’re fine—“
A moment too late, Foxtail realized she and her brother were alone, and that she could not see Whispersilk. “**Mother!**” she sent as well as cried aloud.
There was no answer to her call.
But it had taken them longer to find Whispersilk.
“Chief." Moss moved to join Windburn. His chief crouched silent among the cedar branches at his lifemate’s side. Whispersilk’s head and upper body were buried in the earth beneath a length of thick branch; maybe only a few hands another direction, and the vibrant weaver would maybe be with them still— “Chief,” Moss said in anguish, reaching out a consoling hand.
Windburn swung wildly, knocking Moss’s hand away. The chief snarled at him, wild-eyed with loss. Moss retreated at once, knowing better than to challenge that desperate, violent stare.
The rain came down in a driving sheet, and it had turned into a freezing rain. The weight of the ice on limbs and leaves combined with the hard gusts of wind meant it was growing increasingly dangerous to remain outside. The storm continued around them all, chilling them to the bone and making the trees groan and sway. Somewhere distant was the crack and crash of a falling branch, further victim of the tempest.
Behind them, Nightstorm was keening in grief for her sister. Moss glanced back that way and saw Snowfall was there, her youngest sister held tight, both of them looking shattered and lost. **Rayah,** Moss sent to his Recognized, flooding Nightstorm with his love and sympathy for her loss; she was too consumed with grief to respond. Beyond Whispersilk’s sisters, Moss glimpsed Foxtail, being held close by Notch. Foxtail was weeping inconsolably. Quick Fang had taken up Cinder to nurse at her breast – Whispersilk’s son, at least, was finding comfort somewhere, unaware yet of his loss.
Chicory came forward to console her brother. “Windburn. Let us tend to her. Let us dig her out. You don’t need to—“
Windburn snarled and snapped, nearly biting Chicory’s outstretched hand. She jerked backwards in fright, and Rainpace wisely pulled his Recognized back further, out of Windburn’s possible reach.
“Leave him be.” It was Goldspice who spoke out, in a voice that was sympathetic but firm. She stepped forward until her shoulder brushed Moss’s own. “Leave them both. We can’t comfort my uncle. Not in this.”
Moss heard the stern strength of his lovemate’s voice; for a moment, he simply looked at her, surprised by the command in her tone. Although he had known her her whole life, there were times when Moss forgot that Goldspice was the granddaughter of a chieftess.
“Everyone, back to the Dentrees,” Goldspice said. “The winds aren’t letting up; more trees could fall. It’s not safe.”
“Goldspice is right,” Moss said, supporting his lovemate’s words. “Everyone – move. We’re doing Windburn and Whispersilk no good here.”
There were misgiving looks traded among the others. Moss saw One-Leg touch Snowfall's arm and the pair of elders shared a significant glance and perhaps a locksend. “You all go,” One-Leg said. “I'll sit watch with my nephew. When Windburn is ready for our help, I'll put out the call.”
“But we can't leave her! We can't leave Whispersilk here alone, not in this rain and cold,” Moss heard Nightstorm weep as Snowfall sought to lead her surviving sister away.
“Whispersilk's not alone; we can't do anything for her or for her lifemate,” Snowfall answered, her own voice thick with tears. “The only thing we can do for our chief is get out of the storm and reduce his worries.”
“We'll care for Cinder for now,” Windsong said. She held Rill held in the crook of one arm, as Quick Fang continued to nurse the chief's son. Crackle was wide-eyed at the enormity of the situation and kept trying to inch into a position where she could see Whispersilk's body through the screen of branches, until her father caught her by the shoulder and pulled her with him, trailing behind the rest of the family as they headed back to the hometrees.
Moss took his lovemate's arm and looked to One-Leg as the chief's eldest uncle settled in to wait. The freezing rain continued to beat down, compounding their misery. One-Leg met Moss's eye and nodded. **Go on,** One-Leg locksent, as he pulled his winter hood down lower over his brow and crouched down among the winter-burned bracken, taking what shelter he could from the icy rainfall. **Kestrel is off to collect Blacksnake and bring him home,** One-Leg continued. **The shock of losing your Recognized is different for everyone. There's no knowing how long Windburn will be like this, but at least he's showing no sign of running off wolf-wild. I'll stick to Windburn like a flea if he does. It's bad enough to lose Whispersilk tonight; I'll make sure we don't lose my nephew as well.”
Moss took a long look past One-Leg's shoulder at Windburn, who was still kneeling at his lifemate's side, head bent and shoulders hunched against the rain. He felt his lovemate's gentle pressure on his arm, and followed after her toward shelter from the storm.
Dawn was approaching, and as it did, the blasted rain finally turned to snow. Silent white flakes of it fell, wet and heavy against branches already bowed under the weight of frozen rain. One-Leg had spent the night listening to the distant crash and fall of branches and trees; once a thick limb had come down nearby, just close enough to be entertaining.
Windburn still crouched next to his dead mate, his head and shoulders collecting a dusting of snow. The chief remained wordless and remote in his terrible grief; every now and then, he lifted his head and howled, a howl to which there came no reply. One-Leg's sporadic attempts to comfort his nephew had been met by bared teeth and threat of violence; even cub-heavy Whirl had been chased away when she had sought out her elf-friend's side. One-Leg simply sat watch, knowing his nephew was beyond comfort for now. He knew himself the soul-consuming depth of such a watch, and knew that when Windburn was ready for comfort, he would allow it – if ever. Some didn't. Some withered away and died from the loss. Time would tell. One-Leg didn't think his nephew the type to shrivel up or waste away, or the type to simply walk away from the Holt and hole up somewhere in isolation, until mischance or starvation turned him into raven-bait. No. Windburn wasn't a quitter. And Windburn had a new-born son to live for. He had his daughter. And he had the tribe. Those three things might not mean an crow-fart in a windstorm to Windburn at the moment, but they would keep him anchored to this side of the creek with the living. One-Leg was pretty confident of that.
The elder sat back against the curve of his wolf-friend Longtooth's body. His wolf-friend had come to sit this watch with him, fragrant from the rain but despite that warm and welcome company through the miserable night. Whirl had left to return to her den, but Whispersilk's she-wolf Soot sat nearby, golden-eyed and silent in a deep misery of her own.
There was a whisper of clothing and the crunch of a step in the snow. One-Leg looked that way to see his son and Foxtail coming through the trees to join him. He scowled at his boy for letting Windburn's daughter back out here, and got back Notch's wincing shrug. One-Leg knew too well that look's meaning. His grand-niece Foxtail reminded him too keenly of his dead daughter Flash – strong-willed girls, the both of them, who once they'd set their sights on doing something, you could either talk yourself blue in the useless hope of convincing them otherwise, or just wisely get out of their way and let them have at.
Notch came and crouched beside One-Leg in silence, while Foxtail took several uncertain steps toward her father and the fallen tree. She carried a big hide – it was a brain-tanned click-deer hide from the looks of it. Foxtail approached her father carefully, holding the hide out before her.
“Careful, kitling,” One-Leg murmured, watching how Windburn bristled and growled at that approach. Foxtail stepped closer than One-Leg feared was safe, and when Windburn's growl rose into a snarl, she shook out the hide fur-side down and draped it over his shoulders, taking care not to touch him. Then she retreated for Notch's side, slipping in between Notch and One-Leg to share their warmth. She was shivering violently, and the tears on her cheeks threatened to freeze.
“Your father is mad with grief,” One-Leg said gently. “Just give him time. Go home. Your aunts will want to comfort you and Cinder.”
Foxtail hugged herself and shook her head fiercely. “No,” she said. “No. That's my mother lying there. That's my father. This is my watch to sit, not yours. If anyone is leaving, it isn't me.”
One-Leg glanced over his grand-niece's head at Notch. Notch met his father's eyes and nodded before putting a comforting arm around Foxtail's shoulders and drawing her close.
“You look half-frozen. You can turn in if you want. But if Foxtail wants to sit here and wait, I'll stay as well.”
One-Leg looked at them both, then nodded to himself. “If your father goes anywhere, you send to me and the other elders,” he said, levering himself up stiffly with his walking stick, the joints in his hips and his good leg feeling as if they'd frozen solid themselves. He hesitated, then touched Foxtail's shoulder gently. **Until your father finds his feet again and your grandsire comes home, we look to you, chief's daughter.**
For a moment, One-Leg's send seared the grief from Foxtail's pretty face. She stared up at him in horror, looking for a moment very young and very lost. Then he saw something sharpen in her green eyes, and she nodded acknowledgment of his words.
“I won't let you go hungry. Ever.”
If One-Leg thought his chief's-heir's words were odd, he was too wise an old wolf to show it. He squeezed her shoulder, then left her to the cold responsibility of her watch.
(This story is part of the "The death of Whispersilk, and Aftermath" storyline - see listing for related stories.)