The water of the Den’s Creek ran fast enough that it hadn’t frozen during the long winter storm, but the rocks Rill usually skipped across easily were slick with ice. The boy made his way across the ford carefully, using both hands braced against Softjoy, his half-grown wolf-friend, to help steady himself. Together, they made that treacherous crossing without incident, only to find an unexpected audience at the bank’s far side.
“We said ‘only as far as the Den’s Creek,’” Suddendusk said. His mother Quick Fang stood on the high bank beside Rill's father, and she was scowling. Rill looked down at his feet, knowing that -- if he'd had ears like Softjoy's -- they'd have gone flat against his skull in chagrin.
“We ran all the way here,” he said, trying to keep his voice even and reasonable. If he were clever, he might find a way to dodge out of this one. “And we both were still so jittery after being stuck in the Dentrees for all those days of the storm, I knew just running back home wouldn’t burn it off. Softjoy’s still just a puppy. She really needs to run, and I just knew that if we came home again she’d still have all that energy and she’d do something bad like chew up Evervale’s boots again.”
His parents traded a look. Quick Fang’s expression hadn’t changed, while his father’s had acquired a touch of humor. “I know it’s hard to stay denned up through a long winter storm,” Suddendusk said, strolling down the bank, while Quick Fang jumped down it, ignoring the shaped clay steps entirely. “Son, let’s go for a stroll and help Softjoy burn off any remaining den-jitters she may have.”
Rill eyed his parents cautiously, but if they wanted to go for a walk themselves, he was eager to tag along. After three solid nights and days of snow, a sunny break in the season’s heavy grey clouds was welcome, and the bright afternoon sunlight glittered off of a familiar landscape gone strange and exotic. Rill took his father’s hand back across the icy stones of the creek ford, then scrambled happily back up the trail. His winter boots made a satisfying crunching sound in the thick white layer of snow, which was broken only by his and Softjoy’s own tracks away toward the Rabbit Meadow. Softjoy trotted ahead of them eagerly, floating like a shaggy black shadow over the white snow, and Rill stepped out ahead of his parents after her. He challenged himself to stay ahead of them while placing each step precisely in each track he had previously left – that wasn’t easy to do, not with the effort it took to stay ahead of his longer-striding parents.
Then Softjoy reached the edge of Rabbit Meadow -– she stopped and looked back at Rill expectantly, her golden eyes shining. She spun and dropped into a play crouch, then turned again, offering him her side —
Buck-berries! Rill missed his step and stopped, his high spirits sinking. Softjoy’s playful offer, and their visible tracks across the snowy meadow, were confessions of his crime, and he knew his sharp-eyed parents were too wise to misread them. Rill winced as he felt his father’s hand land on his shoulder. Quick Fang took a step past him, and whatever the expression was on her face made Softjoy’s ear and tail wilt. The half-grown pup skulked aside, well out of the huntress’s reach as Quick Fang gazed out over Rabbit Meadow.
The tracks began as two sets, running a lap around the snowy clearing. Then one set disappeared. Rill couldn’t tell if the other set, Softjoy’s, deepened when his own vanished, but he doubted his mother’s sharp blue stare missed anything.
Quick Fang turned on him, her gaze fierce. **You rode!** she sent, her mindtouch a blaze of anger. Quick Fang’s sending was more powerful than Softjoy’s, but given to wolf-image more than words. Shadowed by the pulse of her anger, she cast the image at Rill of him climbing astride his wolf-friend’s narrow back and racing her a second lap around the meadow. In his mother’s send-images, Softjoy was even smaller than the petite black she-wolf really was, and Rill knew his face had not looked quite so Crackle-wicked as his mother imagined he had. No, he remembered that wild gallop, and knew he’d been grinning with sheer delight.
“It was only once. Just once around the meadow, and it’s such a little meadow. Softjoy wanted me to. You know she did!”
Quick Fang cuffed his right ear hard enough to make his eyes sting. **You know better!** she sent, and this time, the words were laden with the image of an old grey wolf, staggering in the hind end and limping in pain, struggling to keep up with the rest of the pack. **You know better, do not do it again!**
Quick Fang spun on her heel and stalked off, back toward the Holt. Rill rubbed his aching ear and gazed after her, aware of his father’s hand still heavy on his shoulder.
“Son, you know what you’ve done is wrong. You cannot ride your wolf-friend until she’s old enough to carry you,” Suddendusk said.
Rill scowled. “It was only for a short distance. And Softjoy wanted me to.” It was true. Softjoy was growing bigger and stronger every day, and she knew he was her rider. She wanted to carry him. Rill didn’t want to keep waiting, especially when Copper – who was smaller and younger than he was – had her full-grown wolf-friend and rode around all the time. “It was just such a short ride,” he protested. “I know I didn’t hurt her. I love her and I’d never hurt her.”
Suddendusk sighed. “A young wolf’s joints and bones are still growing, just as you are still growing,” he recited, a lesson Rill had heard a hundred times even before he and Softjoy had bonded. “If you steal a little ride here and a little ride there, it will add up. And Softjoy will pay the price in the future.”
“But look at how much bigger than me she is —“ Rill began to protest, gesturing to his bond-wolf, who was cheerfully digging after something in the snow. “And she wanted me to take a ride, she asked me to —“
Suddendusk’s squeeze on his shoulder silenced the boy. “You can trust your wolf-friend’s good sense in a great many things, but not in this,” Suddendusk said. He turned his son about to face the Holt, and together they began to walk home. “A wolf-friend never thinks of the future. Softjoy depends on you for that, much as you depend on your elders of the tribe. In many ways, we love our wolf-friends as our brothers and sisters, but at times we must love them and care for them as if we were their parents as well. Softjoy doesn’t understand the dangers of carrying too much weight while she is too young. She cannot understand such things. But you do, my son. And as hard as I know it may seem, you must be patient. To be a good wolfrider, you must be concerned about more than simply riding. And you must be patient… even when I know that’s the hardest thing you can imagine right now. I know it must feel like forever, to wait until late spring. But you must. For her own good, you must. Your mother had reason to be angry, even if she doesn’t remember why. And I know that you are wise enough to be patient with your first wolf-friend and to wait from now on, until Softjoy has grown big enough.”
Softjoy had scrambled to catch up with them and now pranced ahead of them, her tail flagging in high spirits. Rill watched the shaggy black she-wolf dance ahead of them and knew that his father was right. Waiting until Softjoy had grown big enough to carry him was the hardest thing ever. At least Cinder could commiserate with him, since Softjoy and Longhowl were littermates. But it still wasn’t fair that Copper, who was junior to them, still got to ride Flea. The thought niggled at him that maybe Brightwood and Farscout’s strange daughter had known something that neither he and Cinder had known, in bonding with an adult wolf instead of a pup. She had been riding her wolf-friend everywhere since the summer, many long months ago now.
They walked in silence for a time, following the tracks in the snow back toward the Holt. It was only as they came into sight of the hometrees that something else occurred to the boy.
“Father,” Rill asked, as Suddendusk. “When Mother sent at me before she left, it felt like a memory-send. It was, wasn’t it?”
Suddendusk’s smile was slow and satisfied, and Rill knew he’d been right to ask. His father’s odd reference to his mother having had had reason to be angry with Rill had been like words in one of Suddendusk’s snares. Suddendusk sometimes did that, seeded what he said with hints of what he wanted to discuss next and then waiting to see if his son were clever enough or alert enough to take the bait.
"I remember many of us having this same conversation with your mother, when your mother was a cub your age. And your mother never listened. She was like your grandfather True Edge, always knowing her own way to be right and true, despite anyone else’s advice. She always snuck rides on her first Growler, no matter how often her own parents caught her at it, or other elders cuffed her ears for it. And Growler eventually paid the price. He was slow and crippled in his last years of life, and try as hard as his game heart would, there came a time when he couldn’t keep up with the pack. Even a simple walk to the riverside was hard on his old bones. I doubt your mother even consciously remembers Growler’s last seasons, but even when we’re deep in the Now, we never truly forget those we have loved.”
Suddendusk looked thoughtful. Rill walked beside his father and waited, intensely curious about what his father might say next. It was always strange and wonderful to get glimpses of his parents as they had once been -– little cubs, just like him.
“You are not your mother,” Suddendusk finally said, as the hometrees grew visible through the trees ahead of them. “As a child, she would never stop riding her wolf-friend, because she couldn’t understand a future she couldn’t imagine. I do not doubt how much your mother loved her first wolf-friend, just as I don’t doubt your love for Softjoy. Yet you have my strengths as well as your mother’s. You can choose to be patient, in a way which she could not, at your age. So can you do the right thing, the patient thing? Can you do that, my son?”
It was easier to take his mother’s stinging cuffs to the ear than it was to face this sober, gentle faith of his father’s. Rill took a deep breath and watched Softjoy’s buoyant trot as she nosed into a snowdrift at the foot of the Father Tree. He thought of the sad, crippled wolf-friend of his mother’s past, and of the terribly long wait it would be until late spring. Then he met his father’s waiting gaze, and nodded.
“I won’t ride Softjoy again,” he promised solemnly. “Not until the Chief says she’s ready to carry me.”
Suddendusk’s smile was as bright as the crisp winter sunlight, and his single green eye danced. He squeezed Rill’s shoulder once, with warmth. “That’s my boy,” Suddendusk murmured with pride.
Rill couldn’t help but smile himself, even though he knew that it would just be forever that he’d be left waiting. But late spring would come eventually It had to. And Rill was determined that he would be strong enough to be patient that long, no matter how hard a wait it would be.