Brightwood pressed her forehead against Farscout’s back and felt his steady, sleep-evened breath. He had stayed up for the entirety of her Howl, but when the stories had begun to taper off, and light had begun hinting at the corners of the sky, he had tugged her gently but insistently to their den. Once there, they had made full use of the space, but after, Farscout had fallen into a deep sleep. Brightwood found this odd, because, if memory served her correctly, she was usually the one to drop off first, leaving her mate to wile away the day alone. Ah, well, perhaps this was simply another thing that had changed in her long sleep.
Right now, sleep for Brightwood was far out of reach. She pulled herself from the furs silently, knowing full well that her mate, regardless of the years in him, remained the lightest sleeper in the Holt. That had to mean that she remained the slyest sneaker in the Holt. She crept to the door, threw her lifemate’s ragged green coat about her naked shoulders and stepped out into the early morning light.
The bark of the old tree was damp, so she picked her way down with expert care. Once on the ground, she set off in no particular direction. The dewy ferns tickled at her knees and soaked the hem of Farscout’s ragged coat as it parted before her. She craned her head back to watch the pale morning sky flicker through the canopy above. It was a short while before sunrise, she wagered, and if she pointed her feet toward the Home Ridge, she could make it to the boulder field just in time to watch the sky light up from dull lavender to brilliant blue. In all of her doings since she had awoken, she’d yet to climb this slope and survey the land below. Until now, she hadn’t had the time, and no time seemed better than right now.
When the ground reared up in front of her, her pace slowed. It was a harder climb than she had remembered. As Brightwood found it unlikely that the ground itself had changed during her long sleep, she figured it must be the added weight of the little cub growing inside her.
“I tell you, little fish,” she whispered, patting her hand against her belly. “You had best pop out big and strong for the weight you’ve put on me.”
At last the trees fell away to the familiar outcropping of granite. She had almost begun to wonder if the little clear circle of rock would still be there, but now the downy slopes of the Home Ridge boulder field lay in front of her. The trees had hemmed in on all sides the clearing, but the old rocks still kept their tireless vigil over the Holt. The dark trees above the clearing reached like angry fingers toward the sky, as though they were lamenting their failure to overtake the little clear, after all these seasons. Dew lay over the entire scene, changing the soft greens and pale purples of the heather, flowers, and heath into a network of rainbows. A strong breeze fingered through the flowers and through her hair. It sent the clouds racing across the rising sun, turning the entire scene into a gleaming, shifting patchwork of mottled daylight.
Brightwood took a deep draught of cool air, and turned to look out at the landscape below. The sun was just beginning to peer out over the rolling green treetops and mountains, bathing their waving tops in red gold. Countless tendrils of morning mist slanted up from between the trees and were ignited into fiery hues off and on by the running sunlight. Where the sky still remained stubbornly dark, one star still flickered, as though daring the sun to snuff it out.
Brightwood wrapped her arms around her belly, trying to send to the little, half-formed being inside her all of what there was to see.
**This is what awaits you, my little one.**
She took another deep breath, trying to keep down the joyful urge to howl at the top of her lungs, lest she awake those who slept below.
“And I thought watching the sunrise would inspire me with a song. Here’s a sight that makes the whole scene pale in comparison!”
Internally, Brightwood jumped at the sudden voice. Her hunter’s training kept her body calm as she turned to look up the hill. A short way above her, Moss leaned against a boulder in the same well-practiced relaxed position that Brightwood recalled a much younger version of the elf assuming: arms crossed behind his head, one leg resting atop the other kneecap, shirtless with his pant legs rolled up, and a long stem of grass jutting causally from one corner of his mouth. He winked at her.
“Age has done no kindness to your wit, old friend,” she said, smiling. “That was hardly your best line. I expect better.”
“Ah, well, the seasons will have their way.” He patted the ground beside him. “Perhaps you’d be willing to provide a doddering old wolf with some company?”
She smiled and made her way up to join him. She settled down beside him and rested her head against the cool rock.
“Unable to sleep?” she asked.
“I’ve been having a hard time coming up with new songs,” he said, scratching his heavy head. “I thought maybe your Howl and a good session with the sunrise would give me something to work with, but I just keep coming back to the same old ballads as ever.”
He turned his head to look at her.
“What about you?” He patted her belly. “Cub keeping you up?”
“Not really,” she said. “I heard so many tales tonight it made my head too busy to sleep. My sire always used to say that when your eyes won’t close it’s best to get out of your den and move about; otherwise you’re just staring at the ceiling wishing for sleep. I went out for a walk and realized I haven’t been up here yet, what with all the busy work of… starting over.”
Moss smiled at her and turned his face back to the sunrise.
“Asleep, in our den,” she smiled wickedly. “He’s very, very tired.”
Moss laughed and gave her a nod of congratulations.
“And what have you done with my mate’s beauty of a sister?”
“In our den,” he matched Brightwood’s expression. “Sleepiness must run in their blood.”
The two shared a few hearty peals of laughter. Moss stretched and straightened his legs out in front of him. For the first time, Brightwood noticed the wicked, spiraling scars that wound up each calf. She reached down and traced one with her finger.
“What are these?”
Moss kept his eyes on the horizon as he answered.
“They’re burn scars.”
He said it as though he intended to say no more. For a moment, Brightwood considered changing the subject, but she decided that this night had been about sharing the stories she had missed. This was one that had not been shared at her Howl, and it was one she wanted to hear.
“Are they from the fire that took Cider, Rhythm, and the others?”
For a moment, Moss said nothing. But then he turned to her and smiled sadly.
“Yes. Yes, they are.”
“So you were there?”
He looked down at his legs.
“Yes, I was there. I was on one of the hunting parties. My parents were on another. My party was far from the flames, but theirs was in the thick of it. I split from my group to try to find them, but… I only found Cider. I tried to carry her out, but the flames found us. I made it out with these to show for it. She didn’t make it out at all.”
Brightwood closed her eyes, thinking of her wide-eyed friend with the white-gold hair, who was always ready with a joke or a story to pass the time. Brightwood hadn’t said goodbye to Cider when she’d set off on that fateful hunt, a few days and a few lifetimes before. Her head had been full of hunt-thoughts and eagerness, she hadn’t thought to clasp her friend on the shoulder and say goodbye. Why should she have? She was only going hunting. And yet, her pretty little friend had lived long and died while Brightwood slept. Such a beautiful life vanished into smoke and memory.
“How did you survive?” she asked at last.
Moss’ eyes crinkled at the corners as his face curved into a proud smile.
“My son,” he said simply, but with a voice heavy-laden with love. “Even though he barely made it out himself, Longshot turned back to find me.” He rested his hand upon Brightwood’s stomach again. “These are the greatest gifts of life.”
Brightwood placed her hand atop his.
“They are at that.”
They sat silently together until Brightwood grew weary of reverie.
“So,” she broke the silence briskly. “There is one mystery I’ve yet to solve.”
“Oh, really?” Moss raised an eyebrow. “What is that?”
“How under the two moons did you manage to catch that lovely Goldspice?”
“Catch her? My friend, she snared me before I even knew what had happened!”
“Might have known,” Brightwood snorted. “You were never the type who’d settle down willingly.”
“Hold right there, old girl,” Moss sat up in mock indignation. “You’ve seen your mate’s sister with your own eyes. Can you really think I’m complaining?”
“She’s a right beauty, that’s for certain,” Brightwood conceded. She looked him up and down. “Are you still just lovemates after all the time you’ve been together?”
Moss shifted uncomfortably.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t forget that I know you, Moss! You’re still the same you that you were before my long sleep. You used to jump into the furs with anyone, with never a need for encouragement. And from what I hear you’re still up to your old tricks. I remember your lovemates from before, they were usually just your favorite furmates. She’s something different, isn’t she?”
She shifted position so she could look him dead in the eye.
“I see the way you look at her, Moss. It’s something more than just passing love between you two, isn’t it?”
Moss dropped his gaze, blushing. Brightwood sighed and shook her head.
“She’s stuck with you for life, poor thing. Don’t you think it’s about time you told her?”
Moss opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Brightwood poked him in the ribs.
“Well, well, you’re more easily rattled in your old age. She really has you body and heart, doesn’t she?”
Moss’ expression lost its sheepishness and changed to the sly, flirtatious one Brightwood remembered of old.
“Oh, no, old friend. Goldspice may have my heart, but right now my body is yours.”
He leaned over her, his posture relaxing as he returned to more familiar territory.
“You know, Brightwood, ever since you’ve come back to us, I’ve just been dying to fashion some leathers for you.”
“I don’t know, old wolf,” she breathed coyly. “Between Farscout and your Recognized, I’ve been fit with more clothes than I could ever wear.”
“Perhaps,” he leaned in and traced a finger up the inside of her leg. “But more than anything, I’d just like to measure you for a close fit.”
His hands almost parted the front of Farscout’s coat when the air was knocked out of him by a well-landed fist-to-gut punch. He fell back wheezing with Brightwood’s laughter in his ears.
“Glad to know you haven’t changed too much, you rutting rabbit!”
Flat on his back, Moss laughed out loud to the sky, though the action caused a bit of pain. He rolled his face to his companion’s, tears rolling down his cheeks, partly from laughter, partly from pain, and partly from joy.
“Stars above,” he said between giggles and gasps for air. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you how much I missed you, my friend.”
Brightwood smiled and reached out to trace the bump in his nose.
“Then don’t tell me, rhythm-keeper,” she took him by the waist and pulled him to her. **Show me.**
Farscout yawned and stretched. Outside his den, the night was not yet come, so he settled back into his furs. The still unfamiliar, yet infinitely sweet warmth of Brightwood at his side was too good a sensation to miss any of. She’d slipped back under the furs with him sometime during the day, and whatever her late sojourn had been, it had left her tired enough to fall into an immediate deep sleep. The faint, yet unmistakable scent of dyes, leather, and sweat left little wonder as to whom she had spent her morning hours with. He placed a hand against her gold curls and simply reveled in her presence.
A faint scuffling sound came from outside their den. Farscout cocked his head and listened, but all was silent once more. He crawled from the warmth of the furs and peered outside. There was no one outside.
He turned to go back in when something caught his eye. He reached out and pulled a small, neatly wrapped bundle into the den. Pulling the bindings away, he watched as several items tumbled out onto the floor. One by one he picked them up: A split-sleeved pale blue blouse, a long brown leather vest, a pale tan pair of trousers, and two dark brown, red gartered fur boots with feathers and beads dangling from them.
From behind him came a sleepy but hearty peal of legendary laughter.
“Do you know what this is?” he turned to his lifemate and held the items up.
“More new leathers,” Brightwood laughed. “And I’d wager they’ll fit perfectly.”