(This story is a part of the ”Responses to the Human’s Killing of Beetle’s wolf-friend” and ”Learning the Humans’ Languages” storylines – see listings for related stories.)
Tum-tum-tah-tum, tah-tum-tum. Tum-tum-tah-tum, tah-tum-tum. Tah-tum-tum. Tah… tum… tum…
Eight callused fingertips pulled free from the taut expanse of doeskin. They hung, thoughtful in the air, poised just so, allowing them to either plunge back onto the face of the drum below or to withdraw entirely leaving the air silent. After several heartbeats, the fingers sank to either side of the instrument, resting upon its bindings where the echoes of the now dead rhythm still thrummed. The drum sat, its body in shadows, its head bathed in a dusty beam of midday light. The particles of dust made their flurried dance downward, leveling their sights on the new-minted motionless skin, only to be thrown violently off course from their prey by a faint sigh of breath.
A muffled thump sounded as Moss dropped his dreadlocked head against the entryway to his den. Without moving his head, his eyes roamed to the side to the landscape beyond. The gaze of twin hazel orbs drifted about, landing on one thing and drifting to the next, over the dappled light that splayed across the forest floor to the small stand of pale flowers where the bumblebees droned to the canvas of green above and the small patches of blue that winked through. But though the drummer’s eyes saw all this, if he had been asked later, he would not have been able to recall a single image because his mind had wandered so far. He stared at the apex of the entryway arch a half-arm’s length above his nose for quite a time before let his eyes move onward with their circular journey. When they came to rest again, it was upon the sleeping form within. His sitting shadow rippled across the sleeper, the echo of his arms and legs entwined with the very real limbs that lay outside his reach. The soft swell of the hip, oh so thinly veiled, even beneath the thick sleep fur, pulled his mind back from the deep misty place it had been traveling.
She had climbed into their den when daylight had just begun to filter through the dew-laden branches, sweaty either from her forges or an energetic joining that Moss had been too distracted to provide. When she arrived he had remained wedged in the doorway, drum between his knees, but with the well-practiced ease that came with long lovematings, she’d picked her way over him, planting a kiss on the bridge of his nose as she passed. No words were exchanged as she tumbled onto the furs and into sleep. Goldspice had denned with her lovemate enough years to know when he was lost in his own mind, composing a new song or drumbeat for hours at time, and with joyful independence, she could leave him to his long-spanned musings.
But beneath that skull which she so-often referred to (lovingly) as “rock-thick,” it was not usual rhythms and rhyme schemes that were being turned over and over again into the late hours of the day but instead a series of newborn thoughts and sensations were taking their first steps across the musician’s busy brain. Moss shut his eyes, placed his fingertips against the lids, and pressed. He stopped, just at the point of pain, and snapped his eyes open to watch the pressure lights swirl into nothingness. With their departure, his mind turned, for the umpteenth time, to the events of the days and nights before.
Beetle’s hands skittered clumsily over the hide, her fingers having long ago succumbed to numbness against the wet cold of the raw skin she worked. She half made a move to set it aside, then stopped, glancing at her overseer with her lip between her teeth. Moss had his head bent over his own work, face obscured by the eclectic mass of dreadlocks that poured from his scalp. She tried for a time to catch his eyes, but they were hidden somewhere behind a red hawk’s feather and a length of pearl beads. Resigning herself to her fate, she returned to the hide, stiffly trying to worry the last bits of flesh from the skin.
The older elf, however, was watching his charge closely from behind that impenetrable curtain; having long ago discovered his hairstyle was useful in the art of spying. When her scraper slipped a second time, it was his turn to force words back down his throat. Moss had never been one to disobey a direct order from his chief, but he was finding this one to be an increasingly difficult task to carry. Beetle was a clever cub, but even the most ready learner made mistakes. Beetle was well-versed in some tanning methods, but today Moss had a load of brain-tanning to complete, and Beetle was at a loss. She had been struggling with the same hide for most of the evening and was getting dangerously close to putting a hole right through it. Moss could ill afford to lose more raw materials after Crackle and her incorrigible wolf-friend had rent three fully-dyed doeskins to pieces, nor did he enjoy seeing Beetle’s wrists grow sore and red from the work. It was a small mistake she was making, she needed only to change the angle at which she held the stone and the flesh would slough off as easily as breathing. It would take less than a sentence for him to correct her mistake, but even though the younger elf’s shunning had ended, he stuck resolutely silent. Though he felt almost like a sulking cub, he had chosen to hold his tongue and let Beetle spend the time alone, reflecting on her tasks. So he hid from the awkwardness, and focused his eyes upon his work.
He was angry at the cub, that was plain enough. Beetle and her compatriots had thrown the entire tribe into danger for the sake of a pointless prank. The amiable musician had felt his near-atrophied sense of rage gurgling up his throat just seeing the horror-stricken looks on the faces of tribemates, especially Cloudfern and Farscout, when they had heard the news. As a result, he had been more than amenable when Windburn had enlisted his help with her punishment. Even though her shunning had ended with the rest of the tribe, his anger pushed him to conduct a little shunning of his own. He had taken a small amount of stern pleasure in refusing to speak to her in the first evening, stolidly keeping his lips pressed or giving the curtest of answers whenever the girl-cub would pose him a question. But as the hours passed without the distraction of conversation, his thoughts were left to their own devices.
Beetle’s involvement in the debacle turned over and over in the drummer’s mind until it grew to be something of a mystery. Cloudfern’s daughter had always seemed to be the sensible sort, not as given to rash troublemaking as her elder brother or the terror Windburn called “daughter.” At the council Beetle had spoken out on her own behalf, saying the hazardous hijinks had been worth the opportunity to learn more of the humans’ ways. At the time Moss had dismissed her words as a feeble attempt to diffuse anger directed her way, but now, after several nights with nothing to do but think, he was no longer so certain. He, unlike most other elders, had never seen a human with his own eyes. What he had seen was Farscout’s return from that bloody first encounter so long ago, the shaken child that would grow to be Cloudfern at his side and the haunting wrapstuffed bundle that had been the fierce-eyed Brightwood in his arms: Three pitiful remnants of a hunting party seven strong. What he had seen was the stark horror in Cloudfern’s adult eyes on the day the Amber hunters made landfall on their shores. Or Beetle’s own tear-stained face when she returned to the Holt wrapped in her human-slain wolf-friend’s pelt. He had seen the effects of humans on his tribemates. He had seen the horror that had echoed down the years and for all that time, it had been enough for him. But now he was thinking and he couldn’t stop. Curiosity had been kindled in his mind like a coal in his lovemate’s forge and, like any of the obsessions that had littered the years of his long life, hot flame-tongue questions were consuming his mind.
Beetle hissed. Moss glanced up to see her pressing a bloody thumb against her lips, the offending blade buried deep into the hide.
“Just fine,” Beetle spat around her thumb. “A full night’s work, and look at the masterpiece I’ve made: not just a hole in the hide but bloodstains on the fur as well. Let’s see you try to equal this stunning success, tanner!”
Such flinty sarcasm coming from the mouth of the usually sweet Beetle was enough for Moss to hide a smile behind his hand.
Had she seen him, Beetle would not have shared in his merriment. She pulled her thumb from her mouth and gave it a careful inspection. The cut wasn’t deep, little more than a scratch really; it was more the insult than pain that caused her anger. She licked a fresh bead of blood away and turned her attention back to the ruined hide. The bloodspots on the fur were not as bad as she had feared, but the rent on the flesh side was deep. Tears of frustration threatened to overspill. She lowered her head. A pair of leather gloves flopped into her lap. A thin strip of rawhide fluttered after them. She looked up, but her companion was busy with his work again, giving no sign of having tossed the items in her direction. Her mouth was half open, perhaps to give thanks, but she seemed to think better of it, and simply began to bind her thumb.
Moss, too, was biting back words, watching the younger elf don his gloves and begin the salvaging work on the hide.
What are they like?
It would be so easy to ask, just a quick lock-send. No one would ever have to know he had posed the strange question, just Beetle. He gave his head a quick toss, like a wolf loosing a flea, and shook the foolish cub-thoughts from his mind. He was an elder, and it was high time he continued to think like one. With that self-admonishment, he reached across and took Beetle’s wrists and adjusted her angle for her and helped her scrape the last stubborn bit of flesh from the hide. There would be time enough for idle musings later.
Weasel had an itch. Any other time he would sit and take his claws to it and feel that grin of pleasure spread across his face. It would have been a good feeling. But on this evening, he could not. The unfamiliar weight of an elf-friend was pressing against his spine. If he sat, then his Moss-friend would fall and his Moss-friend would be less likely to let Weasel have the scraps of flesh from the hide his Moss-friend would work on come nightfall. So, Weasel shivered and let the itch go right on itching.
Aside from the can’t-scratch problem, he didn’t mind traveling with his elf. Though they often went exploring the woodlands together, rare were the times when they rode as one, both of them preferring to follow their respective noses in different directions. To travel as one was interesting.
Weasel could just make out the occasional flash of fur in the dappled half-light of the early morning. Thief and Bonetrail swept silently through the woods alongside them, the other two wolves keeping their distance from Weasel. His smell was disturbing to the rest of the pack, it lacked that certain tang of feral danger that true wolves should bear. The most he was good for, as far as the pack was concerned, was as practice for rank challenges. Weasel knew this, and was perfectly content to let the other wolves shy away from him. Their company was nothing to him. He simply enjoyed his Moss-friend and that was enough.
A short space above the odd wolf’s busy thoughts, Moss shifted his shoulder bag from one hip to the other. After spending most of the night traveling south and ocean-ward, it had grown to be quite an uncomfortable weight, being heavily filled with the necessary tools for bark collection. He was used to carrying it inside the thornwall, for there had always been a good amount of dead birch trees to harvest from. But the most recent rain-squall had forced the last of the dead ones to the ground, and Moss knew better than to try and harvest bark from a live birch. No, if he wanted materials for new birch-bark baskets he needed to search beyond the Holt. So, when he’d been presenting Pathmark with a new pair of boots, and had overheard Pathmark and Thornbow planning a short hunting trip he had volunteered accompany them. He was finding it rather pleasant to be out on a hunt; rare were the times he had ventured out over the past few seasons. There were always new projects, always more chores to attend to, always another excuse to let the day pass by within the confines of the Dentrees. He was glad to be forced out. Indeed, it had been so long since he had explored this particular region of the forest that it had changed shape significantly.
As dawn approached, Pathmark sought out a deer trail and lead the others deeper into the woods. After some time, Moss passed a beautiful dead birch, and with a minor amount of convincing, got the others to take a brief rest while he carved some swatches from its bark. He had a large strip in his hand when Thornbow hissed. A large buck had crested a rise a little way off to their right and upwind. It peered about cautiously, its senses undoubtedly tingling with danger, but its nose unable to seek its cause.
Thornbow nocked an arrow and drew it back slowly. The feathers brushed his cheek and his eyes narrowed to slits as he prepared for the killing shot. The silent woods shattered into sound as Weasel hacked forth a violent sneeze. The buck’s eyes flew wide and it bolted. Thief and Bonetrail snarled at the throwback wolf before bolting after the prey. Pathmark was quick on their heels. Thornbow shot Weasel an angry glance.
**Keep here, noisy beast,** Moss overheard him send. **We’ll be just around the hill.**
Moss couldn’t help but chuckle as he quickly tried to finish his work. Weasel looked a tad shamefaced, but the familiar grin around his eyes made Moss wonder once again just how much of what Weasel did was done for the usual wolfish reasons.
**You’re a strange one, my friend,** he sent. **I never know if you’re a wolf or just an elf with a thick pelt. Just you watch you don’t turn into too much of a prankster. The tribe has enough of them already.**
Weasel grinned in the odd way only he could, and Moss turned back to make the final cut before following his huntmates. A slight breeze tickled around his cheeks and through his hair. He breathed in and halted. There was a strange scent embedded in the air, something musty and bitter. Moss let his hands continue their work, but his senses remained on full alert. There was something familiar about this scent. He hadn’t ever smelled it himself, that he knew, but perhaps in a shared sending from another? Perhaps…
Thornbow’s powerful mind-voice jolted the tanner from his work and his knife sunk deep into the tree. Without pause, Moss urged Weasel to his feet and tossed himself across the wolf’s narrow spine.
**I’m on my way,** he replied, knowing better than to waste focus on asking what was wrong.
He pressed himself against his mount as they pounded up Thornbow and Pathmark’s scent-trail. The scent-trail grew fresher and fresher until they lurched to a halt. Bonetrail and Thief milled about a small clearing. Each gave a huff in acknowledgment of the omega wolf’s arrival. Before them, crouched on a fallen log with his back to them, was Thornbow. He gave a quick glance of acknowledgment over his shoulder, and then returned his gaze to whatever it was he was doing. In three fluid movements Moss was off his wolf-friend‘s back, across the ground, and crouching at the other elf’s side. A soft groan escaped his lips as he saw what Thornbow was occupied with.
The log they crouched on was butted up next to another fallen tree with a small gap between them. The space between the two was crowded with an impossible mess of dark vines, vines that were slowly writhing and twisting themselves into new patterns and knots. In the center of the strangleweed jumble was a familiar cap and pair of round eyes.
Pathmark answered with a tight, embarrassed sending: images of crossing the pair of logs in chase, new, snug, unfamiliar boots making it hard to feel the ground beneath, the moss slipping from the rotted wood, falling, vines winding tight. His thoughts were cut short with an audible gasp. A creeper had begun to work its way around his throat. Thornbow reached down calmly and severed the vine with an easy flick of his blade.
“I’ve already sent for Cloudfern,” Thornbow spoke, his eyes not lifting from the busy task of keeping the younger elf’s windpipe clear. “It’s a pure stroke of luck, but he’s already beyond the thornwall now with Suddendusk gathering smokeweed. Even with a plantshaper, Suddendusk’s nimble fingers certainly won’t get in the way of untangling this mess. They’ll be here before too long.”
**I’m sorry for ruining the trip, I really am,** Pathmark’s pitiful sending rose between them. **I should’ve broken in these boots before taking them on a hunt. It was foolish, I should’ve-**
“Enough,” Thornbow cut him short. “There’s no point in beating a fish once it’s dead. What’s happened, happened and now we are going to get you out.”
The three fell silent, two of them batting and slicing back sinister green fingers, the other simply trying to breathe. Weasel gave a faint wuff! Every hair, down to the smallest on the nape of Moss’ neck shivered and stood in a rigid salute to memory. The scent, he knew it now for what it was.
**Thornbow,** he lock-sent. **Pathmark has enough to worry him at the moment, so give no sign that you are hearing what I am telling you.**
The blond archer inclined his head to the smallest hint of affirmation.
**Moments before you sent for me, I was working on a birch tree. A breeze came up and I caught a whiff of something, just the faintest of traces, but it was there. Human. I’m sure of it.**
Green eyes flashed up at him, wide for a moment, then narrowed into a passive stone face for their trapped companion’s benefit. His thoughts, however, were edgy and clipped.
**Well… That is… disconcerting.**
**Isn’t it just? Do you think you can manage here until the others arrive?**
**What? No, tanner, you are not taking another step alone. We were already remiss enough in letting you out of our sight before. I can’t betray Windburn’s orders again.**
Moss looked pointedly down into hole below them. Grudgingly, Thornbow followed his gaze.
**We may not have a choice. He’s stuck there, and until the others get here, there is nothing we can do but make sure he isn’t crushed to death. Getting him out ourselves is out of the question. If there are humans nearby, we have no way to hide if they stumble too close. We must mark where they are, and we most certainly can’t leave Pathmark to the mercy of the weeds. One of us has to go, and I left my knife behind in a birch, I’m no use at freeing the cub. You’ve got to stay here and keep your blade busy. Besides, you’re our hunt leader. You’ve got to keep your hunt members safe and report to Windburn.**
Thornbow’s lip curled ever so slightly, but Moss knew he had made his point. He clapped the other on the shoulder and turned to Pathmark.
“In my haste to get here, I left my knife in a birch a way back. Hold tight here and I’ll fetch it to help stem the tide until the others get here.”
Pathmark nodded, and Moss tousled his tawny hair.
“Worry not, cub. These weakling weeds don’t know what’s headed for them. Cloudfern will set them weeping and wishing they’d never so much as sprouted.”
Nestled among the writhing mass of dark green, the round hazel eyes crinkled in a wary smile. Moss slid from the log and onto Weasel’s back. The two made their way from the clearing, right at the edge of which they were stopped by Thornbow’s sharp sending.
**Be wary, rhythm-keeper,** he sent, never turning to look at them. **If humans are out there, these woods are no longer familiar. Send to me the moment you sense trouble. I’ve no wish to own up to Windburn if things go wrong.**
Finally he turned his head, his narrow green eyes honest and concerned.
**Please be careful. And good luck.**
Moss gave a short wave and took to the woods. He kept his nostrils flared as they backtracked to the birch. Once his knife was free and returned to his thigh-sheath he busied himself with the air around him. The strange human scent was still in the air, though it had faded some. It was against his instincts that he remounted his companion and urged the reluctant wolf toward the unsettling odor. Weasel’s mind was full of danger-not-safe-return-home. Moss ruffled the long hairs between Weasel’s ears but the wolf shook him off, unwelcoming of the patronization. The two trekked cautiously through the woods for a seemingly endless time until a faint sound drew them up short. Moss cocked his head listening. It was a familiar noise, but one that seemed odd not coming from his own hands.
Tum-tum-tah-tum, tah-tum-tum. Tum-tum-tah-tum, tah-tum-tum.
They were drumbeats, undoubtedly, but they were strange, foreign, following rhythms that no elf had composed. Moss directed Weasel toward the sound, but the wolf shied away, unwilling to bring his elf closer to danger.
Moss hesitated a moment, and then slid from his wolf’s back and continued on foot.
Weasel growled softly as he watched his friend carry on through the woods alone. He did a brief dance of indecision, his four feet cantering almost comically, and then he turned about and bolted back the way they had come.
The drumbeats led Moss to a cliff overlooking a meadow clearing. Instantly he threw himself to the ground. Cursing as he went, he scooted back frantically until his back collided with a tree trunk. He scrambled up the trunk and stayed there, his heart thundering. After a few moments, he ventured cautiously out onto a thickly leafed branch that hung over the edge of the cliff.
Down below, a two-eights of the Painted Face humans were gathered, some dancing, others beating on crude drums that held only the mildest of resemblance to Moss’ own beloved instruments. He crawled to the edge of the bluff and peered down. What could possibly have drawn the humans here, so far from their Holt? They would have had to cross the river and travel a half a night hubward to reach this place. A newborn cub could tell at first glance that this was no hunting party. Aside from the drumming and dancing, the party was comprised of both males and females, old and very young. Moss marked a human-child that looked no older than a few seasons toddling among the swirling legs of the dancers. As for the dancers themselves, their steps were far less graceful and intricate than his Goldspice’s flurry-footed jigs, but they hit the beat of the drum with a practiced ease. It took a moment for Moss to mark another oddity: None of the dancers were smiling. They swept about the meadow with ease, but their faces held an almost solemn fervor. It was then that he noticed what lay at the center of their dance. A tall structure of shoddy construction rose up from the midst of the dancers. It was a flat pallet of wood, supported on four spindly pillars. The entire structure was adorned with furs and trinkets that grew thicker the closer they got to the top. And resting on the pinnacle of the platform there was a woman. She was old, very old, her face scored deeply with years of living. Her hair was jet black, but it looked stiff and dry and her breathing was deep and labored. Even from his high perch, Moss could smell that she was sick and dying.
All at once the dancers were singing. The women’s voices rose in a high, tremulous chorus, a seemingly wordless, synchronized howl. From below their sustained high note, the voices of the men and children bubbled up and burst into the air with an awesome force of song.
“ Vangelala ye ezinga fwanukwa vangelala ye zikwa nzangu! Vangelala ye ezinga fwanukwa vangelala ye zikwa nzangu!”
Their chorus repeated and doubled back upon itself, and to his surprise, Moss could almost differentiate the sounds into small groups. Words perhaps?
His last shred of caution gave way and parted before the drummer’s passionate and all-consuming curiosity. He crawled the length of the branch and leaned down, his face assuming the avid and distant expression his tribemates had come to recognize. Few bothered with him when his face took this shape. He was completely removed from the world around him.
He nearly lost his grip on the branch when the drummers finally added their voices to the song.
“I vumwinu za luwutuluku-ansongi!”
The voices of the dancers and the drummers began to braid together until they reached a titanic crescendo:
“Vangelala ye ezinga fwanukwa vangelala ye zikwa nzangu! I vumwinu za luwutuluku-ansongi!!”
The song billowed and fell, then billowed again. Every now and then one woman’s voice would rise above the others, piercing the air clear and pure before falling back into the chorus. Lost as he was in song, Moss did not mark the passage of time. Therefore it may have been hours before the song was interrupted by a shout from one of the drummers. The music turned to silence instantly and the dancers and drummers rose and turned to face the platform. The old woman’s eyes were open and staring up into the sky. Tears were coursing slowly down her leathery, wrinkled cheeks. The humans stepped up one by one until they surrounded the base of her bier. She did not look at them, indeed, it seemed to Moss that the ability to even turn her head had deserted her long ago. She simply stared up into the sky, unblinking until her eyes misted over and the tears ran dry on her cheeks. Her chest heaved once and was still.
Not a human moved for a very long time. At last the toddler grew weary and tugged upon the skirts of one of the dancers. She stooped, picked the child up and left the clearing. In silence, the humans gathered their things and began to file away into the trees.
Moss’ wide eyes swept about the scene intently. So lost in the moment was he that he failed to hear the soft footsteps that approached him from behind. A rough hand seized his arm and dragged him back along the branch to the body of the tree and slammed his back against the trunk. Still lost in his trance, Moss felt himself being shaken violently. A pair of furious green eyes became clear before him.
**Have you lost your mind, tanner!?!**
Thornbow’s frightened, furious words blazed through Moss’s still fuzzy mind at a pace that was almost painful.
**Less than two-eights wolf lengths from a full band of humans and you sit there like a sun-addled cub? What could you possibly have been thinking to endanger yourself so? Can you even understand what it could mean for the tribe if they had seen you?**
Moss tried to form a coherent send, but Thornbow shook him again.
**I was up to my ears in helping Cloudfern pull Pathmark out when Weasel came tearing back, wolf-send a jumble about you heading off toward humans. I left the others to head for the holt and came here half-expecting to find you skinned alive! I saw how angry the actions of Notch and the others made you. Now you’ve gone and done worse than they have! You’re an elder, for the sake of all the High Ones, how could you do this?**
Moss blinked and collected his thoughts. He glanced down to where the last of the humans were leaving the clearing.
**I… No, they wouldn’t have seen me. There was something else to occupy their minds.**
Thornbow’s face registered confusion among all the rage.
**Something else? What could possibly be so important that they would fail to notice a pointed eared creature half their size dropping into their midst?**
Moss removed the archer’s fingers from his arm and pointed.
**I think this was some kind of howl for the dead one there. She died while they sang it.**
The archer quieted his anger to a dull roar and let the other send to him some of what had taken place.
**I had no aim to come as close to them as I did,** Moss finished. **I only meant to scout, but…somehow I lost myself in their song. I had no mind to stay where I was, but I simply had no will to leave.**
Thornbow sat quietly. When at last he sent, it was with more weariness than anger.
**I’ve never really understood you, rhythm-keeper, and I don’t suppose I ever will. I’ve called you friend, but there are times you confound me with your oddities. I do know this: You are my elder. You are old enough to have seen first-hand the damage creatures like these have wrecked upon our tribe. Therefore you don’t need me to tell you of danger these ones could bring.** He gave a silent, bitter laugh. **Wolfsister’s tail, you know better than I! Whatever you’re reasons were, my friend, you’ve broken Windburn’s orders into so many pieces I don’t know where to even start. You know I have to tell him.**
Moss sighed and passed a hand over his eyes.
**I know that you have to. I would, in your place.**
Thornbow nodded and turned to climb down the tree.
**Still, I would ask that you don’t.**
The younger elf halted and turned, his face disbelieving.
**What? Can you really be asking me to betray my closest friend, my chief in this way?**
**Yes.** Moss held up his hand to forestall the inevitable outburst. **Do not think I ask this lightly, and do not think I ask it simply to save my own skin. I will tell Windburn, in time. I simply ask that you give me just that: Time.**
He dropped from the tree to the other’s side.
**I’ve shared with you what I have seen. Now try to understand what it means to me. All the songs I’ve sung in my long life have been the old ones of our tribe, or ones that I myself have crafted. They all have their own features and uniqueness, but they are all of a familiar ilk. Here I have heard strains that never have touched an elfin ear before. I have seen how their songs carry their dear ones into death and I have seen them stand together to witness it. It was an accident that I happened upon this, but now it is a…a part of me. I haven’t the words to explain it.**
He tried to send to the other elf the wonder, the sense of awe, the deep chord it had struck inside him. He tried to translate it to his friend in terms he could understand, tried to send images, feelings about feeling the perfect bow suddenly thrust at you by strange hands. He was sure his sendings were a jumble, but he pushed through.
**I just need time to think upon what I have seen,** he finished.
Thornbow did not speak for a long time. Moss watched many different emotions play across his face.
**You will tell Windburn?** he sent at last.
The archer growled and turned about.
**Very well, I’ll keep your secret, but don’t ever believe I do it happily. Just promise me you will show far, far more care from this time on.**
**Be rest assured I will.**
Thornbow nodded curtly, and the two made their way to meet the others. Moss chanced one quick glance over his shoulder at the bier, now a solitary silhouette against the sky. A few humans had remained, and they had set to work lowering the bier to the ground and scattering the twigs and belongings that had surrounded the body. In the sky, carrion birds were circling.
Pathmark, Cloudfern, and Suddendusk peppered the two with anxious questions the moment they met, but Moss assured them that though he had accidentally brushed close by a human hunting party, there had been no real danger. Thornbow allowed the lie to go by uncontested. Moss felt almost ill lying to his tribemates so, but the need to reflect upon what he had witnessed was overpowering.
Weasel shot Moss an occasional questioning glance on the long trip back, but his elf remained silent the entire ride.
Moss stirred slightly from his entryway perch as Goldspice’s strong arms slid around his shoulders. She pulled him close and rested her chin against the curve of his back. She pressed her fingers underneath his chin and turned his face to meet her sleep blurred eyes.
**It’s been seasons since you’ve pulled such a long pondering session. Any burrs beneath your tail you’d like to confess?**
Moss opened his mouth to answer, but found himself too tired to try and explain the muddled path his thoughts had been set upon. Goldspice bumped her nose against his, a twinkle in her eye.
**Well, whatever it is, you’d best leave it to winnow itself out. I’ve enough brooding males around me as it is, and this state doesn’t suit you nearly as well as it does my brother. Best leave the storm-cloud thoughts to the likes Farscout and Windburn; it looks better on them.**
She pulled him to her and dragged him bodily from his perch and into the furs.
**You are much more pleasant as a headrest than a den flap.**
The irrepressible goldsmith trapped her drummer in a hopeless tangle of limbs and drifted back into her dreams. Moss worked his fingers through her hair as her warm breath tickled the nape of his neck. He said a silent thanks to the High Ones for the gift of his lovemate, and let his eyes drop shut. With her pinning him there, he had no choice but to sleep. His “storm-cloud thoughts” would still be there at nightfall, as would his betrayal of his chief and the mystery that it had led him to. But sunset would grant him another night to study the abyss he’d made for himself. There would be another night to be close to those he loved. Another night to breathe deep and live.
Vangelala ye ezinga fwanukwa vangelala ye zikwa nzangu! I vumwinu za luwutuluku-ansongi!
“Life lived well deserves a death song sung well! This soul will rightly be born again!”
In memory of my grandmother, Thursa Wulfe-Revenaugh (1926-2010)