(This story refers to the events of ”The Drummer’s Dilemma”, and is part of the ”Learning the Humans’ Languages” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
“By Stoneback’s snarling sack, we can wait here ‘til our tails turn green and rot through and all they’ll do is sleep!”
Rainpace jumped as One-Leg’s bark broke through the sleeting rain. The elder had pulled his hood low over his face, so all the younger elf could see was his scowling mouth. One-Leg flicked a stone in the general direction of the slumbering human camp.
“Look at them down there, slumbering away like swamp rats, nice and warm in their little tents while we sit out here in the pouring, piss-blasted rain! What are we waiting for? One of them to sleep talk while he’s bumping belly to belly with some big-breasted dream-itch?”
**They’ll do more than that if you keep up your howling, mad wolf,** Moss sent from beneath his own hood. **Much more from you and they’ll come pouring out of those tents to see what poor animal needs to be clubbed out of it’s misery! Besides, we’re only camped here because they took the only good place to get out of the wind. At least we have this hollow to keep us dry. We’re not out in the rain, so stuff that hole in your face.**
One-Leg shifted about to give the drummer a cold-eyed stare.
“I’ve been sitting here so long my rump has gone flatter than Starskimmer’s overdone wine and I’ll be leaking water from every opening after the soaking we’ve had tonight. Out of the rain my foot. I’ve earned my right to bellow, so you keep a civil tongue in that rope-head of yours!”
He cuffed the afore-mentioned head roughly but playfully. Moss chuckled and cuffed him back. They scuffled briefly and quietly, more for the warmth of blood-flow than any pretend anger. Rainpace grinned at his elders and returned his gaze to the soft glow of the human fires below. The camp was at the bottom of a steep embankment, and the elves had hidden themselves at the very top of the hill. Between the distance and the driving storm, Rainpace doubted that the humans would hear One-Leg howling at the top of his lungs.
The three word-hunters had been following the Amber Hunter party for a good handful of days. They had surmised that the humans were on an exploration rather than a hunt, as the presence of carrying bags and gathering tools far outweighed the presence of weapons. Over the past few years the elves had witnessed the brown-skinned humans taking long forays into the wilderness, as though they wished to memorize every stretch. This trek had begun with a river crossing in brightly colored rafts. Their path had led them downriver of the human Holt until they neared the vastdeep coast, then they had wound hub-ward through the trees, with the pounding of the great water always in their ears.
Rainpace was having a hard time concentrating on the mission, however, the unusual grouping of their party setting him ill at ease. He was used to traveling with Evervale, himself, and Moss, or perhaps he, Beetle, and One-Leg. Evervale had started the journey with them, but the rain had driven a sniffle into her and she had agreed to let Kestrel come and collect her so she could return to the Holt rather than let a full-grown fever develop. Beetle had simply wished to remain in the Holt for a while longer so she could finish some new experiment she’d been working on. Initially, Rainpace hadn’t given the unusual team divisions much thought. After spending several days and nights trailing the humans with only the two elders, however, he had found himself becoming increasingly awkward. It was always a little difficult for him to act naturally around the tribe’s elders; their years and authority made it hard to look at them as friends. Even the more amiable ones, like Moss, with his ready smile and twinkling eyes, seemed a tad aloof and out of range. One-Leg was simply loud and intimidating regardless of his age.
More than anything though, he was missing Evervale’s shelter-shaping ability as the spring sleet pounded against his shoulders and down his collar. Moss and One-leg had ceased their play-fighting and returned to their soggy vigil. They had considered trying to pitch camp and sleep, but the howling storm had left them too weary to do anything but hunker in the lee of a tree trunk and wait. Sleep was too difficult to come by in the tempest. Night was drawing to a close anyway, and soon the humans would be stirring.
The storm blew past sometime in the early morning. The angry sky began to calm, and pearly gray pre-dawn light began to sliver through the clouds. The first human to emerge from the tent was a burly male who staggered out into the light sleepily. He made his way to the edge of the camp where he braced himself against a tree and relieved himself.
**Not a bad idea, that.**
One-Leg heaved himself to a standing position and stumped off. Moss chuckled after his friend, rolling his eyes at Rainpace. The younger elf was unsure how to receive the conspiratorial gesture, so he simply smiled and looked back toward the humans. More had begun to stir; the little camp bustled with humans going about their morning routines. Rainpace had been studying humans long enough to know that when it came to rising from sleep and beginning the duties of a long day or night, humans and elves were none too different. Each grumbled, stumbled and moaned through the early hours, and neither seemed pleased at the chill.
**Though I do hate to admit it,** Moss sent. **The old badger may be onto something. You all right to sit tight here?**
Rainpace nodded and Moss crept in the opposite direction One-Leg had taken. Rainpace let his head drop back against the tree trunk and watched the humans through half-closed lids. From the center tent, a rather small Amber Hunter male emerged. He looked a touch younger than most of the other party members, and he carried himself differently. While the others seemed sluggish and grouchy, this one stretched his limbs and looked fresh. He had a strange weapon across his back, a thing unlike any Rainpace had seen. It was like a thick, unstrung bow, but it was painted and had rattling objects dangling from it. The human adjusted it and set out through the woods.
Rainpace looked after him, his interest piqued.
One-Leg stumped back from his brief sojourn in remarkably better spirits.
**Now that makes a body feel more at ease! You should try it, Rainpace, it would set that silly look on your face upright again.**
As if on cue, Rainpace’s bladder gurgled. He laughed.
**It seems my innards agree with you.**
**Off you go then.** The older elf waved his hand dismissively as he settled back into a comfortable position. **I’ll keep an eye on this lot.**
Rainpace picked his way along the ridge until he found an appropriate spot. He undid his trousers and rested his forehead against the trunk of a cedar whilst he relieved himself. The night’s long vigil closed in about his head at last and he realized just how long it had been since he’d slept. Once his bladder was empty he laced himself back up and straightened. He shook his head and popped himself on either cheek to chase away the threatening sleepiness.
The distant crackle of untrained footsteps drew him to attention. He crouched down behind a stand of ferns and peered down. The same short human with the odd weapon was walking carelessly through the woods alone. Something about his gait, his mannerisms, and the strange thing on his back intrigued Rainpace again.
He glanced back at the campsite where his elders were. It would be rude to send to them, he thought, as One-Leg was just getting settled and Moss was likely most still… busy. The human was probably not going too far, so it wouldn’t be dangerous to follow. Moss or One-Leg couldn’t mind too greatly if he shifted position by a few hundred wolf-lengths or so, could they?
Just to be sure, he sent a quick image of the departing human along with his intent to follow him. One-Leg responded with a sharp warning to be careful, while Moss simply sent back affirmation.
In case the wolf had followed him, Rainpace sent for Bristlepelt to stay behind and snuck after the human on foot. He slid under fallen logs and ferns; over boulders and mossy hillocks; and behind tree trunks, all the while keeping the human in the corner of his eye. The human walked confidently, his head high and his arms swinging, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Rainpace wondered at how these Amber Hunters moved about so freely, without caution or reserve. Did they simply not think of the danger that lay in the woods? This human looked neither left nor right but kept his gaze forward until the woods gave way to the openness of the grassy coastal cliffs. Rainpace halted at the edge of the trees. The sea breeze greeted him, thick, salty, and cool. The sky matched the great waters perfectly, gray for gray. The human strode out into the pale gold of the tall grass and made his way toward the highest point of the bluff. Rainpace paused, tested the wind around him, and dropped flat on his belly. Sinuous and subtle, he sliced through the windblown stalks, making nary a crease to betray his presence. He caught occasional glimpses of the human through the waving grass, only visible from the waist up, his brown skin a vibrant silhouette against the blanched sky.
The human stepped free of the tall grass at last and strode out onto the bare rock of the cliff’s cornice. Seemingly unafraid of the great drop below him, he sat upon the protrusion and dangled his legs into the wind-tossed gulf of empty space.
Ever so carefully, Rainpace parted the grass in front of him for a better view. The human took a deep breath of the cool morning air and un-strapped the strange weapon from his back. Now that he looked at it, it didn’t seem to be a weapon at all. It was as big around as Rainpace’s forearm, with a narrow hole at one end, and a wide opening on the bottom. Along the length of it there were two rows of holes like the holes of a flute that opened the mysterious innards of the object to the air. From it dangled many trinkets, feathers, shells, and bits of amber, and it was painted with red, swirling patterns. As the human rested it between his knees, the edge dangling off into space, Rainpace realized that it must be close to his own height.
The human put it to his lips and gave a few short breaths through it, as though clearing the airway. From the far end of the object, a strange, garbled sound emitted in perfect synch with the human’s breaths. Rainpace’s interest thrilled as he realized it could only be some kind of pipe. He cocked his head eagerly to one side, studying it as closely as he could from his hiding place, trying to sort out the form and function of the odd instrument. He could tell from the rows of holes that it must contain not one but two airways inside of it. One thing he could see plainly was that it was massive, the human would have to stretch his arms out fully to reach all of the holes, and two windways would create strange sounds indeed.
The human put the instrument to his lips, placed his hands at certain points along its body, his hands splayed to their fullest extent to reach several holes in each row. He blew, and two notes glided from the odd flute at the same time: One high, tremulous, and trilling, the other deep, dark, and guttural. They held, clear and haunting, for an impossibly long time, until it seemed the human’s breath gave out. He breathed in, and began a slow and steady melody that curled through the air in strange and simple patterns. It dipped and flowed, never repeating a note and yet stringing them all together like a strand of Chicory’s eclectic beads.
When the melody had ended at last, the human sat still. The sun had just begun to pierce the horizon with gold. The human casually flicked a rock in the direction of the sunrise, and rose to leave. Rainpace’s heart leapt into his throat as the human turned to face directly toward his hiding spot. The elf scooted back as far as he could without toppling over the cliff face. The tall brown legs passed two arm’s length in front of his nose. He held his breath until the human had vanished into the trees.
Cursing himself over and over for letting the human get so close, all the while keeping a wide berth between himself and the human’s scent trail, he wound his way back to the word-hunter’s camp. Moss, One-Leg, and the wolves were readying to leave when he arrived.
**That must have been some piss,** One-Leg sent. **We were about to give you up for lost.**
Rainpace opened his mouth to explain what he had seen, but something stopped him. Suddenly hesitant to speak, he shrugged.
**Ah well, did your little human friend do anything interesting while you two were out playing piss partners?**
“Not much,” Rainpace lied. “He just took a walk.”
That half-truth tasted bad in his mouth, and he wondered why he had told it. The human music still rang in his head, and to try to describe it seemed too tall of a task. Plus, the burning embarrassment of letting the human so near chaffed at his chest. One-Leg looked at him closely, and seemed almost ready to pose a question when Moss elbowed in front of him and tossed Rainpace his travel pack.
**The humans seem to be readying themselves for the trek home,** he sent. **From what we can tell, they’ve said a few things about getting what they’ve learned back to their Holt. They’ve gathered up their things and packed them away good.**
**Aye,** One-Leg broke in as he swung himself up onto Longtooth’s back. **And if it’s homeward bound for them, by dung-crust and fire, they’ll get no complaints from me!**
The humans indeed turned homeward that day. Their invisible trackers followed them for days until they were within hours of the human village. From there, the word-hunters made their own path home. Rainpace kept his mind busy by running over the human melody again and again. When the others slept, he put his pipe to his lips and thumbed the high melody silently. Then he would go through it again to catch the deeper set of notes. But all thoughts of song were gone when the close of the third night of travel brought the Thornwall in sight. Rainpace felt a thrilling in his chest at the thought of seeing his child and Recognized.
Before the weary three could begin to wind their way through the treacherous thorns, there was a glowing ripple of green and the seemingly impenetrable wall peeled apart. Standing in the entryway, the usual tall, imposing figure of Brightwood was offset by the presence of Copper on her shoulders. The powerful plantshaper waved at her returning tribemates jovially.
“Thought we’d come show you the way home, in case you’d forgotten. And my, you three look like bear droppings if I ever saw them. Welcome back!”
One-Leg reached up and pulled Copper down onto Longtooth’s back.
“Even bear droppings feel half-healed at the sight of beautiful maidens such as this,” he said, ruffling the cub’s pale hair.
Copper looked uncomfortable for a moment, but she overcame it quickly and busied herself with braiding Longtooth’s pelt. Moss swung off Weasel’s back and slung an arm around Brightwood’s shoulders.
“And maidens such as these could make droppings of any kind stand up and dance!”
He reached up for a kiss and Brightwood cuffed him away, laughing. The drummer staggered back in exaggerated pain. Brightwood caught him by his hair and dropped him into a friendly kiss.
Rainpace chuckled, and pulled ahead. He urged Bristlepelt toward the Holt at a good trot.
**Vru!** he locksent before the Dentrees were even in sight. **Vru! And little bug! Let me see your faces, my hearts!**
Chicory was ready to greet him by the time he reached the trunk of the Dentree, with a squalling Glow under one arm. The sunlight cast harsh shadows on the circles beneath her eyes.
**Welcome, Sudi,** she locksent wearily. **I’m glad you’re back and, come nightfall, I’ll greet you with all the fondness I can muster. But for now…**
She thrust the shrieking ball that was their daughter into his arms and climbed back up the tree. Rainpace watched her go, and then looked down at the cub in his arms.
**Well, it’s good to see you at least, my cubling,** he sent.
The only response he received was a wail and a kick. Suddenly tired, he turned and headed for the riverbank and the soothing sound of water. He took a seat at the edge of the mighty water and pulled his boots off, all the while balancing the quarrelsome infant with one arm.
“It’s been too long a time since I saw you, my little bug. Can’t you spare a smile for your worn-out sire?”
Glow’s eyes puckered at the corners, her face turning a deep red. Rainpace sighed and jostled his daughter to his other hip. She kicked her tiny legs against his restraining arm and threw back her head. Rainpace braced his ears seconds before a lusty bellow exploded from his arms.
“Shhhh, little bear cub,” he murmured over the din. “I know you don’t want to sleep yet, but it’s nearly daybreak. This night’s all over, and you’ll have to sleep before you can greet the next one.”
Glow considered him as she paused for breath, then let loose with an ear-piercing wail. Rainpace reached into his side pouch and drew out his pipe. He balanced the cub across his knees and tried to summon forth a lullaby his mother used to sing for him. The sweet and soothing tune seemed pitiful and inadequate in the face of his own child’s screaming. He tried several different lullabies and a few slow ballads, but the cub howled and howled as though she could go on for seasons. At last Rainpace admitted defeat. He bounced the baby on his knees while his mind scrambled.
Without really thinking, he lifted the pipe to his lips again and let out a high trilling note. Glow’s eyes flew wide and she sucked in her breath, too startled to scream again. Rainpace held the note until his breath faltered, as he had seen the human do, and then he dropped into the slow, but sturdy melody, playing it as he recalled, though the single voice of his flute could only play half the song. Glow stared for a while, confounded at the strange tune her father played for her. With each turn of the tune, her lids dropped lower and lower, until at last, when Rainpace hit the final sustain, her eyes were completely shut. Again he held it until his breath left him, and he lowered the pipe, the only sound being Glow’s even breathing. Tentatively, he slid his hands beneath her tiny body, and lifted, expecting her to awake at any moment. But her head and chubby limbs flopped limply to the side as she rose. Saying a word of thanks, he cradled her against his chest, wiping the errant tears from her tiny cheeks with a thumb that seemed massive and rough in comparison.
“You did well there.”
Rainpace looked about to see Moss a short ways downstream, standing in the water up to his knees. He was stripped to a loincloth with a bundle of fresh fish across his back, looking as though he had just surfaced from a water hunt. The fisher waded against the current until he was level with the pair. He flopped onto the bank and grinned.
“I just meant to take a swim and wash some of the travel grime off, but I guess I’ve grown to miss fishing being away so much,” he said, slinging his catch to the ground. He dried his chest and arms with a handful of grass while he spoke. “I never knew I enjoyed it so much until I hadn’t tried it in a season’s time. And now that I’ve grown used to being awake days what with following the humans around. I’m sure you feel the same. Fishing is just as good during the day, though you have to be more conscious of your shadow startling the fish. I surfaced just there, but I didn’t want to bother you. Besides, you were – ah – distracted.”
He nodded at the small figure in the other’s arms.
“She’s a powerful one, isn’t she?”
Rainpace smiled quietly; suddenly uncomfortable in this jovial elder’s presence. How much had he heard?
“Your arms look a bit worn down. May I?”
Moss offered his hands, and Rainpace handed Glow over. His arms tingled with fresh blood flow as he stretched.
“To look at her, you wouldn’t think her so heavy,” he said. “But she is no seedling, that’s certain.”
Moss cushioned the girl against his shoulder and buried his face in her hair.
“It’s a scent like no other, isn’t it? Fresh, soft, yet untouched by time. Longshot makes me prouder every moment now he’s grown, but there are times I miss this smell.”
Rainpace lost his eyes on his daughter’s perfect profile. Her little nose smooshed against the drummer’s shoulder and the chubby swell of her cheeks was almost folding over her eyes. He reached out and ran his fingers through her downy-soft hair.
“That human song really did the trick didn’t it?”
Rainpace froze and met the elder’s eyes. He wasn’t quite sure why his face flushed at the thought of someone uncovering his new interest. There really was nothing wrong with learning human music; it was as much a part of his word-hunting job as anything else. But sitting here, with his secret laid bare in front of one of the word-hunt leaders, he felt as though he had been caught in the act of some terrible deed.
“So… you heard.”
Moss nodded, his face unreadable, even though he was smiling.
“I heard. And I noticed that while you seemed to take in every moment of the human song you somehow failed to tell One-Leg and I what you’d seen, even when asked.”
Rainpace shifted uncomfortably.
“I know you well, cub. Better than you think perhaps. You never will play unless you’ve run a tune countless eights of times through your head. Even for an audience like this one,” he rocked Glow against his shoulder, “you’ll still play only the most perfected melodies. You’ve been practicing.”
“I just liked the way it sounded,” Rainpace said, unsure if he was defending himself or simply telling the truth. “The pipe was different and the sound it made was new, but I just thought it would be worth trying. I guess I should say I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Moss looked surprised. “Why should you be sorry?”
Rainpace had been readying his defenses and was caught off guard by the question. He paused to consider and Moss laughed.
“Rainpace, the only reason I saw you watching the human was because I had snuck off to watch him, too.”
Rainpace looked up. The elder’s eyes were smiling, but honest.
“You did? But why?”
“Why did you?”
He thought for a moment.
“I was curious, I guess. I thought it foolish afterwards, that’s why I kept quiet. Now that I think on it, it was more than foolish, it was dangerous. I let him get far to close, I was almost discovered. Now I’m really not sure what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have lost my wariness, not with a human so close.”
“No, I suppose you shouldn’t have,” Moss yawned and scratched his face-fur with his free hand. “Nor should I have, either.”
“Then,” Rainpace said tentatively. “Why?”
“Same as you. I was curious. I didn’t even realize I was following the same human you had sent to us about until I caught your scent on the air. I told One-Leg about what I had seen, but not that you had been there. I figured the news was yours to share.”
They sat not speaking for a time. Glow’s little snorts and snores broke the quiet thrum of the river every now and then, but other than that the woods were silent. After a time, Rainpace noticed that Moss was humming softly and tapping out a rhythm with his free hand.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh,” Moss grinned, almost sheepishly. “The tune is infectious, that’s all. I was just seeing if I could sort out a drumbeat to match it. I can’t seem to get it by myself though. It just doesn’t work with one voice.”
Moss returned to his humming. Rainpace stared at the elder measuringly. He smiled, and added his own voice to the soft serenade. They worked through the entire melody again, Rainpace keeping the high melody line and Moss dropping to the deep one and keeping a slow and steady beat on Glow’s sleeping back. Rainpace found himself smiling broadly as their two voices made the song whole in a way he had been unable to do on his own. Just as they finished, Glow stirred, blinked about owlishly, and reached for her father.
“Here you are, little one,” Moss said as he handed her over. “Go tell your father what a fine drum you make.”
She curled up in Rainpace’s arms and dropped back to sleep.
“We played well, the three of us together didn’t we?” Rainpace asked.
“We did indeed,” said Moss. “That song has stuck in your mind just as much as it has in mine, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it has.”
Moss nodded and seemed to consider something deeply.
“Well then, do you have time to listen to a story?”
At Rainpace’s nod, Moss said, “Do you remember that hunt that Thornbow, Pathmark and I went on several season’s back where Pathmark fell into the strangleweed?”
Rainpace chuckled and nodded again.
“You may recall that I reported smelling humans nearby on that same hunt. I told Thornbow I was going to scout, and I really did mean to do just that.”
Moss dropped spoken words and began to send to him of sensing humans, of hearing drums, of playing witness to a Painted Face death celebration of dance and song, of feeling overcome by bittersweet reality and mystery all at once, of being lost in alien song.
**I watched until they had finished their dance,** Moss finished. **Then Thornbow found me and pulled me away. He was furious, and rightly so, but I asked him to let me keep my secret for a time. He agreed, though to this day I don’t know why, so long as I would tell Windburn eventually. And I did mean to, truly I did, but soon after our chief began to speak of word-hunting and I was chosen. The promise of learning was so great that I didn’t tell him then, for fear of losing my place. Now so much time has gone by, I don’t know how to tell him, or anyone else. You are the first I’ve told.**
Rainpace tried to process the tale, to reconcile his image of a wise elder with the thought of one risking exposure by humans and keeping secrets from his chief. Though he’d never counted Moss among the most exemplary of the tribe’s elders, it was difficult to process.
“You’ve given me your secret,” he said, slowly. “What do you expect me to do with it?”
“Whatever you wish. I’ve never been one who’s good at keeping secrets, and holding onto this one for so many years has grown tiresome. You seem to understand what it really means to hear a human song. Who better than you to share it with?”
He rose and began gathering his things.
“You can tell Windburn if you like,” he said. He turned about and smiled. “Though if I’m honest I’d say I’d rather you didn’t.”
“No,” Rainpace said after a moment of thought. “No, I won’t give you away. It’s interesting what you’ve shared with me. And I liked making music with you.” He laughed. “And if I were to be honest, I’d say it’s a bit of an honor to be trusted with the secret of an… well, of someone like you.”
Moss shook his head.
“Elders are elders, Rainpace. The head that’s on your shoulders is only ever going to be as good as you let it, and you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. It’s well that you do, because it’ll take a good head to glean wisdom from the time you’ve got to live. Don’t build us old ones up too high just because we’ve been dodging death longer. It’s not just the years that make the elder.”
He put his hand on the younger elf’s shoulder.
“I’m glad to have you out there on that odd hunt of ours. I wouldn’t trade you for any of the elders in this Holt.”
Before Rainpace could think of an appropriate reply, Moss clapped his hands together briskly.
“Now, whether we’re ready for it or not, sleep is what we need. Take a cue from your daughter.”
They headed toward the Dentrees side by side, Rainpace’s arms full of cub, Moss’ full of fish. The latter veered off shortly before their destination to cache his catch. He turned to wave good morning, and Rainpace stopped him.
“Perhaps…. Perhaps on the morrow we could play the song together for real? Practice a bit before we show the others? If I’m going to tell One-Leg and the others about what I saw I’d like to have something to go along with the words.”
Moss grinned broadly.
“I’d like that very much.”
Rainpace nodded, and turned toward his den.
“Well, little bug,” he said to his sleeping daughter as they bedded down. “This word-hunt does dredge up interesting catch.”