(This story is a sequel to "First Contact: Prelude", and is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
Infant-blue eyes peeled open and gazed about. There was a new scent in the air. Uncurling, the tiny form in the den corner was transformed from a nondescript ball of fluff into a surprisingly chubby wolf pup. He raised his head, rounded ears swiveling, and staggered to his feet. He gave a huffing squeak as he took a drag from the air around him. Strange. He knew the smell of his littermates. They smelled warm, musty, like slumber and tumbling play. This was not them. This new smell was of crisp freshness, with a spice and fierceness that he hadn’t known before. Excitement filled the pup and he pressed his chubby nose flat to the ground. His rounded paws led him in a zigzagging investigative bumble across his den floor. The pup didn’t lift his head as he passed through the shadow barrier of his den and into the pale light of early evening. His untrained nose only told him that he was still on the path of the scent trail and failed to alert him when he closed in on his prey. As a result, he bumped straight into a pair of soft leather boots and tumbled over, nose stinging from the impact. A peal of surprised yet hearty laughter colored the air above him. From far, far above a pair of long hands descended toward him. They caught him beneath his front legs and lifted him up. The pup found himself impossibly high in the air, but the scent was all around him now and he had no time to be afraid. A pair of dark blue eyes gazed steadily at him, their lashes long and powerful, but their edges crinkled with an easy joy. He liked them. He struggled, scooping at the air with his tongue, trying desperately to lick the face in front of him and taste the source of the wondrous fragrance. Again the laugh sounded and the hands drew him closer. He busied himself with smothering the face in kisses as though it was the one task he had been born to do. Noises sounded around him, but he had no time to waste on them.
“Looks as though you don’t have a choice in this matter, Brightwood. This little one chose you before you even had a heartbeat’s chance at seeing the others.”
Then came the sweetest sound the young pup had heard in his short life.
“I suppose he did, sire. I suppose he did.”
It was then sealed. What followed was a time of growing: the pup slimmed, lengthened, grew strong. At last he reached enough height to carry his bond, and from then on he was only whole when her weight was pressed against his spine. He gained himself a name from his adherence to the habit of spinning in tight circles in pursuit of his tail. Tailchaser ran, played, slept, hunted, through changing colors, falling snow, melting, flood and sunshine, and always she was there. His elf was there to run and breathe and be with him. Time did not pass so much as flow by, the land and world altering around him but her constant presence beside him.
This stream of life and hunt was interrupted on a day of white-cold.
The smell of the strangers was acrid and sharp. It made Tailchaser’s lip curl almost without his consent but he made his paws pound along the bitter scent-trail. The stranger-smell was hard to breathe in, but his elf-friend was with them, he knew that. The strangers had beaten them both, knocking his beautiful she-elf from his back and pummeling the fight from her before he could stand between her and the pain. He had tried to tear through them so he could stand over his fallen bond but they and struck at his head with heavy objects, blinding him with pain and fury. He had been forced to choose between running or lying down beside his packmates and growing stiff and cold. Tailchaser had chosen to run, only so that he could turn about again, and turn the stranger-hunters from his tormentors into his prey. Before he had lost sight of her, he had seen his bond lifted from the snow by the strangers. He could mark her scent now, her bright, fresh aroma mingled faintly with the cruel stranger-smell that burned its way through the woods. He caught that smell and refused to lose it, though one back leg pained him greatly and he found himself fighting to put weight on it.
He had traveled far when something caused him to pull up short. Faint, just on the edge of hearing, a howl winnowed its way through the darkening air. Tailchaser stiffened and listen closely. Again it sounded, louder this time and unmistakably familiar. Tailchaser craned back his head and let loose his deep, dark-throated howl into the chill air. A receiving howl came back to him, and he knew to wait for Rattle and Thornbur and their riders.
He began running before the others were in sight. They swept out of the darkness, weary wolves bearing desperate riders, their pace matching his in both speed and determination. As they ran the elves probed his mind with questions of the battle and the moments following. He responded with distracted snatches of blood-pain-fury-strangers. His bond’s mate’s mind touch was clouded with the same fear and concern for the bright hunter they both ran with. Tailchaser clasped the elf’s mind with his own and in synchronized fury they surged toward the source of the stranger-scent.
The ragged pack pulled up short close to the stranger-scent source. Some distance away and below, many strangers milled about, embroiled in their own putrid stench. Tailchaser sensed the elves conferring silently behind him, but he paid them no heed. He stalked the length of the rise upon which they stood, snarling silently down at the strangers below him. When the others sought shelter some distance away, he followed. He would not rush into the kill like an over-eager pup. No, he would wait for his pack to move in upon the prey. But the moment they were within reach of his fangs, the strangers would fall, shredded and in pain.
Darkness gathered. Snow began to fall. The wet air clouded the stench some but Tailchaser lost none of his readiness. When the others leapt forth from their hiding place and began a frantic race toward the strangers, Tailchaser followed, enveloped by a kind of grim calm. By the time the sound of elf-screams engraved the insides of his ears with terror he could already see the glow of the camp and smell their terrible smoke. Tailchaser did not mark the time that passed between their arrival at the camp and his first sight of the strangers. He only knew that their scent filled his nostrils and that he did not want it there. It had to be removed. He peeled away from the others, one stranger already within his sights. He coiled his legs beneath him and leapt.
The taste was bitter, this was no kill for prey, but he pressed his long fangs deeper into the fleshy throat skin. He tore the throat fully from the stranger’s neck and, casting it aside flung himself bodily into the next stranger. It went down more easily than the first, his teeth winnowing away at the back of its neck. Again and again the massive animal flung himself into his enemy, slaying with a fury he had never felt before, killing not for food, not for protection, not for gain, killing because there was nothing else to do with these strangers but tear them down. He would rip them apart over and over until he was no longer a body but a column of pure fury and still he would shred them open. Then suddenly, the blood-smoke-fear-rage that filled his nose was burned away by the overpoweringly familiar smell of spice and freshness. At the opening one of the stranger-dens, there she was, his bond, his running-mate, alive and golden. His blood-lust was instantly replaced by a puppy-like joy, his feet danced involuntarily in a circling half-trot as she stumbled out to him, her smell enveloping him fully. Even when her weight was pressing firmly against his back and her small brother-cub had clambered up behind her, even when her mate-elf ordered them to flee and the world blurred around them as they ran, even when Rattle was cut down at his side and they turned to fight, even then he was glorying in her scent. He could die right now, bloody and in battle and all would be well because her weight was upon his spine and her scent was in his nostrils.
But it was the humans who fell, the elves cut them back, and the four of them were off into the woods alive. They ran for a time that the Now of wolf-thought could not fathom. Tailchaser only knew that the pounding in his chest that had beat out the rhythm of battle had been replaced by the heavy beats of a heart engaged with a flight for life.
Finally the mate-elf signaled stop. Tailchaser stopped and took a deep breath. The acrid stranger scent was still there. He didn’t like how it permeated his elf-friend’s hair and person, didn’t like how it burned his nostrils when she slumped across his back, didn’t like how it blended with the sticky sweet scent of her blood. The stranger-smell meant pain, meant death and fear. It shouldn’t be on his elf-friend, she smelled like fierce, spicy, clean air, like health and hunt. She smelled of the warm-new-cub-life that was in her belly. Not of the strangers who brought pain. Not of pain and blood. Not of the bitter, fading smell of dying prey.
His elf’s mate was walking ahead, dark hair wet with snow, shoulders hunched and determined beneath the green leather expanse of his coat. The mate-elf was looking ahead, didn’t smell the bitter smell that was closing in on Tailchaser’s elf. Tailchaser prodded mate-elf with his forehead. The mate-elf stopped and turned to look at Tailchaser and the two elves he carried, but his eyes were clouded, thinking and not seeing. The big wolf butted his head against the elf’s chest again, a whine escaping his throat. A distracted hand fell on the wide, furry sweep that was the wolf’s forehead.
Tailchaser’s ears flattened in confusion, how to make the mate-elf see, smell the warmth that was leaving one of the bodies on Tailchaser’s back. Before the wolf’s mind could move freely, a cry pierced the air and he felt the weight of his elf-friend leave his back. The brother-cub jumped off as well and Tailchaser cantered backwards as he saw his elf-friend laying flat on her back in the snow, her face strange and white, her blood flowing into the snow like wounded prey. Mate-elf and brother-cub huddled around her, but her smell was so strange, so unlike how should be that Tailchaser could not bring himself to draw near. He circled the scene, his paws cutting a worried ring of tracks into the snow. While the elves made desperate cries and tears, Tailchaser tossed his head, and squinted his eyes as though preparing himself for a blow. Nodding his head he crept closer and then further away as the strange scene played itself out before him.
Just when his elf-friend’s scent was beginning to grow darker, colder than ever, a bright shape wheeled up from the trio and began to pour whiteness down upon the prone form of Tailchaser’s bond. It was the one of the little winged-things and it was covering his elf-friend in web. The other elves had moved back, but Tailchaser moved closer for the first time. His elf-friend’s face was still free, her eyes half-open, and only partially alert. Tailchaser pressed his nose to her forehead and snuffled her hair. The webs were getting closer, covering more and more of his elf-friend. Moments before her face was hidden the big wolf licked her forehead, cleaning the blood away and leaving her skin pale and free. Then she was gone and only her taste remained on his tongue. Her scent was muffled, not dead, but not there. Alive-yet-not. No longer a part of the Now. He lay down by her side, resting his head against the place where her shoulder would be. The other elves closed in again. The mate-elf lifted the cocoon from the snow, and the brother-cub sank to his knees in tears. Tailchaser stirred himself from where he lay. His bond’s scent was still alive, but it was muffled and fading. The brother-cub’s smell was fresh, present and frightened. He pressed his nose into the cub’s hair and snuffled. The boy pushed him away. He snuffled again, then prodded the boy’s back with his forehead. He continued with this pattern until the cub had risen from the snow. Tailchaser bowed his head and allowed the elf to climb upon his back. The mate-elf would carry Tailchaser’s bond now. The brother-cub needed someone to carry him, and the big wolf’s back was open.
What followed was a stream of changes, the brother-cub astride his back or at his side. The cub-scent was not fierce or wild, but it grew to be familiar and their togetherness grew to be a bond. They did not hunt as much, but soon Tailchaser forgot the wild blood-thrill of times before. He mellowed into a new partnership, though every once in a time a breeze would drift through the Dentrees and bring with it a spice from the past. On those times, Tailchaser would pause and breathe deeply. But time muddled recognition, and Tailchaser merely followed the bond-path of his other elf. Seasons blurred, green to gold to red to white, and time passed.
Old eyes peered up at the setting moons. They were still bright, still there, but they had faded and drifted further away over years of hunt, years of life, years of being. The air was cold, crinkling leaves and making scents sharp, even to his old nose. The chill cut him deeper now, his fur had gone patchy, old wolf’s fur. One back leg, injured in a time that had vanished into the folds of memory, had begun to drag. Too old. It was time. There was room needed, little pups, too fast for him, needing space. Time to find a soft place in the woods, far away. He turned toward the beckoning branches, waiting to soothe old bones, to brush away a lifetime’s worth of aches. Almost to the edge of the darkness, the pale blur of a wolf stopped. He raised his nose as a breeze trundled from the direction of the Dentrees.
A faint scent, one that a younger, livelier wolf never would have noticed, was carried by. If the old wolf had been an elf, perhaps it would have been called a memory. But the wolf was a wolf, and memory was not for his dwindling mind. His nose had merely forgot its age; forgot the years that had separated him from that scent. A faint but fierce scent, a spicy, fresh scent of wild, gold hair, of hunting and hearty laughter. The scent of a weight upon his spine and a hand upon his head. It was muffled, dusty, but to his old mind, unmistakably in the Now. The old wolf huffed and turned his face into the breeze. His nose led him away from the dark woods, back across the clearing and toward the roots of the great tree. The dark hole was before him. Musty and cool, this was where the scent came from. The large head turned, taking one deep draught of chill air. The scents were sharp. It was a good time for a hunt. Giant ears lifted at the ready, and a heavy tail that had not seen life for many moons raised and gave a wag. He was ready.
The twin moons watched through a misty veil as an old white wolf dragging one leg behind him made himself vanish into the darkness beneath the great spreading roots.
Cloudfern awoke, his side colder than it should be. Tailchaser was gone. He sat up, his pale eyes focusing and re-focusing upon his empty den. The first light of day was smoothing the lip of his entryway with rosy and gold fingers. His breath fogging around him, Cloudfern crept to edge of his den and peered out at the silent, red-frosted forest. Starting at the entry to his den and leading off towards the woods, the frost-stiff grass was cleft in two by a steady trail of melted, ice-free stalks. A warm body had passed through the field some time during the morning. He seized a fur from the pile that was his bed and threw it about his shoulders as he set his bare feet to the chill grass. The trail led, straight and steady, toward the treeline, and every step Cloudfern took upon the path caused a watery pressure to grow stronger in his throat and behind his eyes. Just at the forest’s edge, he marked the slow curve of the trail. He followed it with his eyes and saw it bend back toward the Dentrees. His numb toes began to ache with returning feeling as his pace quickened. He paused the mouth of the Dentrees’ southern bolt-hole. Tailchaser’s scent was strong here. Cloudfern walked slowly into the dark chambers.
When at last the darkness gave way to the familiar gloom of the cocoon chamber, he stood still. Beneath his wolf’s scent, came a faint and unexpected aroma of his sister. For a moment, his mind reeled with a mixture of bittersweet memory and confusion. Then he recalled finding a pair of her bone earrings the night before, tucked away in a forgotten corner of his den. He must have saved them as a child when his sister’s den had been sealed off. Now, as an adult, he had been ready to add them to the wrapstuffed collection of Brightwood’s things. He’d carried a bundle down to this den and opened it. It was an unnecessary action, he could have simply added the earrings to the bundle with another layer of wrapstuff, but it was comforting in a way, to be surrounded by his sister’s scent while sitting by her side. He’d breathed in his sister for what might be the final time, and then tucked the earrings into the front of the familiar blue blouse he’d uncovered, let an admonishing Flutterby seal the package off again, and the objects resumed their endless wait. He’d almost forgotten the moment in his sleep, but here, in the dank still air of the chamber, her essence had lingered.
Her scent mixed inexorably with Tailchaser’s as he stepped forward. Mushroom crouched at the entryway to the silent room; just close enough to see inside yet still remain in the dark hallway. It looked up as Cloudfern approached, studying him for a moment with its wide, gloomy eyes, and then it returned its gaze to the chamber, its head resting upon its tiny fist. Cloudfern stepped over the sprite and into the half-light of the cocoon chamber.
Beside the bier that had been host to so many a sleepless vigil there was a pale white blur. There on the floor, his long legs curled under him, his eyes closed as though in a satisfying sleep, his chin resting comfortably alongside the cocoon of his long sleeping elf-friend, lay Tailchaser. He let the fur drop from his shoulders to the ground. Moving through the silence, he slowly closed the gap between them and knelt beside the bier. He placed his hand in the broad space between the old wolf’s ears and gently ruffled the stiff hairs. The skin beneath was still warm, but it was empty to the touch. Cloudfern shut his eyes and took a few steps back. The dank air seemed suddenly thicker, more difficult to breathe in than it had ever seemed before. His breath shallow and unsteady, the plantshaper pressed the flat of his palm against the wooden wall behind him. A faint green glow shivered along the outlines of his fingers and traveled upward; burrowing into the tree like an overlarge woodworm. It tunneled upward and out until it had carved a portal, a bare hand’s width wide, to the early morning air. Cloudfern rested his forehead against the lip of his tunnel and took in the clean air until his senses cleared. His heart stopped spinning and settled into a slow, steady, sorrowful rhythm. He left the tunnel open and settled himself on the chamber floor, his back resting against his wolf-friend’s cooling side. It was strange to press his weight against that familiar side and yet feel no rise and fall of breath. But the touch of fur was still familiar.
They sat there, the three of them: One slowly stiffening in the absence of life, one breathing in the sweetness of another morning, and one slumbering somewhere between the two. The sun began to creep over the edge of Cloudfern’s airshaft, invading the shadowy den and illuminating countless tiny dust motes in their silent, intricate dance. The tiny specks swirled about each other, drawing secret patterns and codes in the air as they settled about the trio, with only one pair of lungs to disturb their path. Beyond the golden glow of dusty air, a patch of blue was just visible. It was going to be a sunny day.