Whistle sat and played with the newly-weaned pups for hours, but it became increasingly clear to her watching parents that no true bonding was going to take place.
**I was sure it would be tonight,** Sunlight sent. She sighed and leaned back into her lifemate's embrace as they both sat watching and waiting. **I worry for our daughter. She's ten summers old now. Most all cubs have bonded to a pup by her age.**
Raven stroked his lifemate's shoulder comfortingly. **Each child does things at their own pace--**
**Yes! Exactly! Which is why I worry!** Sunlight flashed back. **Finch had her bondwolf by age seven, and Finch won't be half the huntress her little sister will be. Whistle is not headstrong or stubborn, but she always knows what she wants. And you know how much she wants her own wolf-friend. You know how she grieved last turn, when none of the pups were right for her. Watch her play with these cubs now. None of them spark with her. You can see that.**
**I see that,** Raven agreed. **But I'm sure there have been cubs who have waited longer. I'm sure Ice waited a score of seasons before she found a pup to bond with.**
Sunlight snorted at that. **Beloved, you are supposed to reassure me, not frighten me more!**
Raven chuckled and nuzzled his lifemate's ear. **Some elves are simply more elf and less wolf. Our Mytan just needs time, perhaps--**
**Our daughter is ready for her wolf-friend,** Sunlight argued. **She's ready. She's been ready for turns. I worry -- do the wolves find something missing in her?**
**Missing? In our beautiful kitten? Never.** Raven sent that firmly, having no doubts in his own precious daughter. **When Whistle decides on a wolf she wants, I'm certain she will bond with it. She simply has not yet met her wolf.**
The wolves of the River Twine Holt had mated and multiplied over the many seasons since the tribe had first taken refuge in this forest. The elves lived at peace with one another, but the same was not always true of their wolf-friends, and sometimes the struggle for rank grew bloody.
At the first growl, Sunlight glanced up from the moonberry start she was planting, and had only a moment's warning before her own wolf and the pale young upstart were at one another's throats. The plantshaper snatched her daughter out of the middle of that battle, making sure to give the wolves a respectful distance.
“Lionpaw!” Whistle shouted, watching in fascination as her mother's old wolf-friend fought his opponent. Their snarls and growling terrible to hear, and fur filled the air as they both snapped and slashed at one another with their teeth. Old Lionpaw was a strong and fierce-tempered wolf, second only to the Chieftess's own Rattletail. Lionpaw's tolerance for a perceived challenge to his authority was low on even on the best of days, and the young red-pointed Crackbone had been stalking about all day, feeling his youth and eyeing the other wolves for a hint for a weakness. The two males parted ways, both still snarling, lips writhing back from yellow, deadly teeth. Lionpaw stood tall, tail high and stiff, ruff on end. The younger wolf was of equal size, however, and was not yet ready to cede to his elder's dominance. There was a second violent clash, and this time the older male physically slammed into his rival, knocking Crackbone off his feet. When Lionpaw went for the younger male's throat, Sunlight wasn't entirely sure her wolf-friend wouldn't kill his challenger. It was rare for dominance quarrels to be deadly – but it wasn't unknown, and there was an air of aggression about Crackbone that invited a killing.
“No!” Whistle shrieked. The girl struggled to wrestle free of her mother's grip, but the plantshaper held the child close.
“Never get between the wolves when they fight,” Sunlight said sternly. “You do that, you're asking to get mauled. When the wolves fight, you stand clear. Hear me?”
Whistle nodded soberly, her clear green eyes never leaving the two wolves. Lionpaw still had his opponent by the throat and was snarling ferociously. Crackbone was slow to roll onto his belly, but he wasn't dead yet. “Lionpaw is going tear his throat out, isn't he?” she asked, clearly fascinated.
“Young wolves have to find their own place in the pack,” Sunlight said. “That's the Way of things. Young wolves push, older wolves teach, and someday, if they live long enough, the young wolves take over the pack and become old wolves themselves. But sometimes stupid young wolves push the wrong old wolf, and they get themselves killed. That's the Way, too.”
“For wolves,” Whistle said confidently. looking at her mother. “Not for elves.”
“Yes. Not for elves. We don't kill one another. Not ever.” Sunlight pushed a lock of golden hair from her eyes, and frowned at her own words. “Not unless it absolutely must be, like when Healer Owl went mad.”
Whistle's attention had returned to the wolves, having little interest in what, to her sober eight turns seemed like ancient history. “Look. Crackbone's given up the fight.”
Young Crackbone had finally exposed his belly like a pup, but Lionpaw still had him by the throat. Lionpaw kept snarling, his threat muffled by the fur and flesh between his teeth. Only when the younger male had gone bonelessly limp did Lionpaw let his rival go. He continued to stand over his vanquished rival, growling fiercely as Crackbone slowly gathered himself together and began to slink off, tail tucked. Sunlight held on to her daughter and watched, chuckling ruefully to see the sly, watchful look the younger male turned back at Lionpaw way as Crackbone slinked a safe distance away.
“Wolves talk with their bodies,” she said aloud. “What do you think Lionpaw is saying?”
“'I'm gonna eat your throat next time, little boy!'” Whistle replied.
“And what do you think Crackbone is saying back?”
Whistle giggled and turned a brief, brilliant smile up to her mother. “'Old wolf, next time Iwin.”
Sunlight chuckled again and patted stroked her daughter's golden head. “I think that's what the younger wolf says, too. But my Lionpaw is canny and mean. No young wolf is going to displace him any day soon.”
Whistle nodded solemnly. “But someday, some other wolf will. And then Lionpaw won't be second to the pack leader anymore.”
“That's true. That's the Way of things. Sometimes it's a cruel Way, but it's what's right.”
Whistle nodded agreement, and her expression remained thoughtful long after Lionpaw had settled back down comfortably and forgotten his rival's challenge.
The young male wolf sat on a broad stone next to the streambank, drowsing in the sun. Whistle watched him through the brush for a long time, liking what she saw. He was big-boned and rangy, with a chest as deep and powerful as even the pack leader, Rattletail. Most of his coat was the color of pale cream, shading to ruddy hue at his ear points, muzzle and paws. And those paws where big and tough with pads turned to leather by a lot of travel. He was a strong young wolf, full of himself and full of determination to win something for himself in the world. He wasn't going to let an old greynose like Lionpaw beat him always and for ever. No. One day, he'd be the pack leader himself, and it would be younger wolves between his teeth.
Whistle shifted, moving stealthily until she was where she felt the slight afternoon breeze ruffling her loose gold hair. The wolf stirred then, as her scent was carried to him. He looked up, panting lazily, but his yellow eyes were keen.
She eased out of concealment to where he could see her. Whistle stood up tall and straight, not afraid of the big wolf. She looked him directly in the eyes, although she could hear her mother's stern warning that an elf-cub should never stare at an adult wolf, that wolves thought it a challenge and might take offense, chastising an elf-cub as sharply as wolf-cubs were chastised. Whistle chose to stare firmly at the wolf, daring him to take offense, willing to bet she'd be halfway up the nearest tree before he could finish a lunge after her.
**I need a wolf-friend,** she sent to him then. The wolf's mind was rough and raw, and his easy demeanor vanished at her unfamiliar touch. The wolf gathered himself to his feet fluidly, and his stare locked with Whistle's own with a predatory confidence. There was no languid ease in his step as he stalked toward her – Whistle read the aggression in his straight, direct stride, and for the briefest of moments, she felt a twinge of fear.
**I need a wolf friend,** she repeated. She sent that to the young wolf, as firm and delicious an offering as she could think of. Wolves didn't send in words, and so neither did she now, casting to him only rich images of herself on his back and the two of them running, running, running under the light of two full moons, her carrying a huntress's weapons and him being followed by other wolves.
The big wolf was in front of her now. His tail was high, his shoulders and ears up, nothing remotely submissive in his stance. There was no escape from him now, Whistle knew. If the big wolf wanted her throat between his teeth, she could not stop him. His yellow eyes stared into hers, expecting her to break that gaze first as he smelled her over curiously. Whistle held her ground and held his stare, offering him again the promise of **us-together** and **hunting as two** and **racing in front of the pack, free and first** with all of the desire of her own young heart.
The big wolf whuffed once, his breath rancid. Then he sniffed imperiously at the wrapped leather bundle she carried, his gaze breaking from hers and locking instead on what she held. Whistle grinned in triumph and pulled the thigh-bone from the patch-rag scraps she had wrapped it in. The deer bone was clotted with blood and still had chunks of meat clinging to it. The big wolf took the bone from her eagerly and settled down to enjoy it.
**us-together** she sent to him, squatting to watch as he began to gnaw on her offering.
The big wolf met her eyes again as his powerful jaws cracked the bone into two. **running before the pack, free and first** was the image the wolf visioned back to her, self-satisfied and content. **Goldhair and Crackbone, together and showing only tails to the rest of the pack**
Whistle giggled and clapped her hands in excitement, knowing for certain that she had found her first wolf-friend.