(This story is related to "First Contact: Prelude" and is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
It was three nights' ride from the hometrees of the Holt to the western border where the land met the sea. Windburn and his small party of hunters covered that distance in one night and half of the following day, hardly daring to snatch more than just a briefest of rests and fearful of what they would find when they reached the shore. They arrived weary and travelworn, each of the five grim- looking and bristling with weapons, their wolves exhausted but with strength enough left in them to make one last hard run. Or so Windburn was willing to risk. He knew it was a risk he was betting his own life on, and that as of his tribesmen as well.
**Humans,** Farscout's alarm had been, reaching out across those miles. Although the distant send had been hardly more than a whisper, its impact on the tiny tribe had been as fearful as an earthquake. Humans. Ancient monsters of tribal myth that predated Wolfsister and her band's settlement of this forest, and only more recently, the murderers who had not only taken elven life, but feasted on elven flesh. That was the fate Farscout and Cloudfern both had narrowly escaped, hundreds of Turns ago, when Cloudfern had been little more than a boy. They had escaped, but Cloudfern's sister Brightwood had been mortally wounded in that encounter, and members of their family had been roasted alive and eaten as they had watched.
And now that horror had found the Holt. Humans. Humans had come to the River Twine Holt. And with that, generations of isolation and safety vanished, evaporating like smoke on that bare sigh of a send that Farscout had cast their way.
Perhaps it had been a lucky thing that only the chief himself was a strong enough sender to have caught that distant alarm. Windburn had only allowed his horror to affect him for a heartbeat. Then he had lunged into action, summoning back the hunters who had left at dusk and ordering all of his folk to the safety of their hometrees. He had time to prepare himself, time enough to carefully choose his words, before breaking the news to his gathered tribe. The shock and dismay on those beloved faces reflected back to him his own fright, a gut-deep fear that he struggled not to show.
“Blacksnake, Longshot, Notch, Bearheart – you four ride out with me. Everyone else stays here and guards the holt and the cubs, while we five go and see for ourselves these humans Farscout claims to have found.” Windburn had chosen to make a show of doubt in that, wanting to give his people heart. He had chosen not to share with them a locksend echo of Farscout's alarm, flavored as it was with strange scents and sounds. “Farscout is waiting for us; he'll shadow these Tall Folk of his and wait for our arrival.”
There had been protests, of course. Quick Fang and Foxtail had been most vehement in their demands to join the chieftain's party. The first argument had taken a physical shove before Quick Fang would submit to her chief's will; the second argument had taken gentler maneuvering. “Daughter, you lead this tribe while I'm away. Your mother and the elders will advise you as you need, but you heard my orders, same as the rest. You know what I expect of you. Keep the tribe here. Don't let anyone trail after us. We don't dare risk too many of us, not until we better know our enemy. Keep everyone close to their dens until my return; above all else, protect the children and the lifebearers of the tribe.”
More than anything, it had been Foxtail's frightened eyes that had haunted him when Windburn had gathered together his small band and ridden away. Windburn saw his daughter's fearful look, and remembered with a shudder his own moments of truth, upon his mother Easysinger's death.
Farscout was waiting for them. He ghosted out of the shadowed flank of a ridge that overlooked the point where the Clearwater River broadened from its narrow snowmelt course into a tidal estuary. Farscout came alone and on foot; his old wolf-friend Nearwoken had died the previous winter, and the scout hadn't stayed in the Holt long enough since then to bond with any of the spring's pups.
**Where are they?** Windburn demanded as his wolf trotted down the scree. They had been able to hear the invaders for a span of time now, as the humans created a strange, rhythmic booming noise, a sound as steady as a drumbeat but as unlike it as thunder, an ominous sound like nothing Windburn had ever heard before or ever wished to hear again.
**They're down in a clearing along the river.** Farscout's sending was clipped, severe, tinged with the aftertaste of fear on the cusp of rage. **They're cutting down trees.** The scout's expression was sober and calm, and did not fool a soul. A mistake, maybe, Windburn reflected. He should have called Farscout back to the holt, rather than put the elder in danger, such danger, from humans and from his own memories.
“Cutting down trees?” Longshot said aloud, with a nervous glance down the gentle curve of the river. “That's madness – are they destroying the forest?”
Mutely, Farscout sent images instead of words, a vision of fresh young pines felled and dead, being roped together and floating in the river like a raft, of a strange, long-necked bird bobbing along the riverbank. The bright glitter of metal axeheads flashed from mind to mind rising and falling in methodical violence. Windburn scowled, unable to make sense of the alien things he was being shown. **Come,** Farscout continued, his sending betraying the emotion his face did not show. **See for yourselves.**
They followed the scout down to the riverbank, and then up again, over the gentle rise of a forested hill that cut between the river's winding course. The group traveled in a hush, making no more sound than the natural sounds of river and forest, hugging the shadows, keeping to untrodden paths. Farscout set a moderate pace for the tired wolves, and when the sounds of the human-made thunder seemed almost directly before them, Farscout climbed into the trees. **They're on the other side of the river; you can hide well enough here and see them.** Hide was the heart of the message.
Windburn dismounted and sternly wished his wolf to sit silent and wait, then scrambled into the branches at Farscout's heels. The other hunters followed, all whisper-quiet as they fanned out through the supple tree limbs. They strained their eyes to the unknown in the distance.
Would the humans be tall, and painted bright blue, covered with flesh puckered from scars? The chief found himself tasting the air for the scents of burned hair and flesh, and shuddered at the memory of those shared-sendings of what Farscout and Cloudfern both had once only narrowly escaped. He glanced toward the elder scout now, glad to see the man focused on the business at hand, and wondering as well how long that cold reserve would last.
**Watch,** Farscout sent, having settled into a spot well hidden by the crowded leaves.
Windburn eased down alongside him on the branch, and looked down for the first time upon the aliens who had invaded his tribe's territory. What he saw on the far riverbank left him numb and mute.
The giant gull-like bird from Farscout's earlier send was far bigger than the chief had believed – strikingly huge, its sails stretched half as high as the Father Tree. In a flash he realized that he looked on a boat, ornately carved and pieced together out of wood. Something clear and as red as fire glittered from the bird's carved eye-sockets. Some magic? The beak was painted a bright sun-yellow, while the boat's body had fanciful wing tracings in lines of white and grey paint.
Beautiful… no, a human thing!
He tore his eyes away from the bird-boat, and focused on the sight of the humans – more than a dozen of them, scattered throughout a meadow along the far bank, moving, frantically active dots on the familiar green. He stared at them, letting his eyes take in the sight of them, carefully making sense out of the cacophony of color they presented. Their color caught him first off-guard, the deep browns of their skin, from soaked tawny buckskin to skin so dark it looked blue-black beneath a gleam of sweat. He'd never seen skin so dark before. And High Ones, they were tall! Though they varied in height, even the shortest of them would tower above even Farscout, a good head and more. Their arms and legs were freakishly long, longer than elfin spears.
Such awful creatures, it was almost a shock to see how splendidly they dressed themselves. The humans wore long tunics woven in rainbow hues, more shades than Windburn had seen from any clever tanner, and the bright colors shone against the darkness of their skin. With the sun in their leathers and bright hair, it was a colorful and gleaming image they made.
But the trees… the chief gritted his teeth. Most of those men were swinging tools – axes, Windburn recognized after a moment's puzzlement, long-handled axes with axeheads made not of stone but of some gray-hued metal. They swung the axes in unison, each working on chopping down a different tree, and they chanted in their labor, weaving a rhythmic song into their work that rose and fell like a conversation, with the occasional chortle of laughter and thunder of a falling tree. There was one among the humans whose hair was grizzled grey, and he seemed to be leading the chant – his voice wove out in a counterpoint to the rest of the voices, shaping the song and guiding it even as he set the pace for their work. Two smaller humans were keeping a close eye on the bird-boat, and roping together the trees which had already been felled; it took Windburn some time to realize that the smallest two of these humans were merely boys.
**Look at those axes! What do you think those are made of?** Notch sent openly, his mindtouch keen with avarice.
The question shocked Windburn alert. **Don't you dare think it,** he sent sharply, knowing his young tribesmate couldn't be trusted out of the chief's sight. Notch would be worth something in a fight, Windburn knew – but the young thief would also be the first to overcome whatever good sense he had, and expose them all to danger if he wasn't kept on a tight leash. **You sit tight and quiet, or so help me, I'll knock all of the teeth out of your head and send you back home trussed up on your wolf's back like a dead buck.**
**Is that singing? Are they singing?** Longshot asked in disbelief.
**If you call that singing,** Blacksnake spat.
**They've got their children with them,** Bearheart observed. **Those boys can't be more than eight or ten turns, if they grow like elf-cubs do.**
**And these axes are not for killing. I see neither bows nor spears,** Blacksnake added. **They must not be afraid of wolves or bears. Not that any bear with half its sense would bother with them, the amount of noise they're making. But they don't look too dangerous. Longshot here could take out a third of them before they'd even begin to realize the first had fallen.**
Windburn was aware of the suggestion in his father's send, and equally aware of Longshot's anxious look toward his chief. Farscout nodded too, though without looking at his chief, and perhaps only to himself. **No. We don't attack them. Not unless there's need. We keep our heads low and our tails tucked – we don't start with bloodshed. Not unless there's no other choice.**
He looked at Farscout; but the far-walker had already begun to ghost backwards, out of their sight. **This isn't all there is; there are more humans than these,** he sent softly. **Follow me and see.**
Blacksnake left the shelter of the tree's branches reluctantly. He would have liked more time to observe this group of humans before trying to make sense of another. There was a great deal still that he could see, but didn't understand. It rankled to leave that puzzle at their backs, unsolved – but Farscout's judgment was worth trusting.
Still, he was surprised when Windburn didn't leave one of their number to watch this group, to give warning if they began to do something differently, or just to gather further information. Blacksnake waited, but the order from the young chief did not come. He could suggest it himself – he wouldn't leave Notch alone, no, nor would he want to do without Longshot's bow, but it was a job he would readily have trusted to Bearheart. That was the kind of thinking that should have come naturally to Windburn by now, and he felt another familiar stab of disappointment in his son, that it did not.
He decided against making the suggestion. They were all on edge, and Windburn might take it badly even if he saw the wisdom in it. It was hard to let it go, but Blacksnake knew he might yet need to challenge the chief on some more important matter. Better not to raise hackles this early over something so minor.
The five of them followed Farscout's muted trail as he led them back into the woods, and then further downstream. **I heard them first, long before I saw them,** the far-walker explained as they made their way through the increasingly wind-shaped forest. **They came ashore in that cove where the river empties into the sea, in more than a hand of larger boats. Much larger. Boats far too large to ride the river. They have been cutting down trees for several days now. And they are making dens out of them.**
**They have to cut the trees down to do that? They don't have a plantshaper?** Longshot marveled.
**No. Cut, dead trees. Enough to build…** the scout hesitated. **I don't know how many there must be of them. You'll see.**
He slid between low branches and undergrowth, his presence fading from all knowledge but the mental tether that guided his tribemates on. They squeezed single-file through the narrow pass in the vegetation, sticking close to the lay of a land that offered no convenient trails or vantage points. Tense as he was, and much as he appreciated the cover, Blacksnake wished for a quicker path. This track was fit for neither elves nor wolves. But then, at least that meant that no humans could come this way, either.
They had no instinct of hiding, these humans, a fact that to his elfin mind was as disturbing as anything about their alien forms and sounds. He didn't know if this marked them as different from the monsters some of the tribe had collided with centuries ago, or not. Even Farscout's memory for the details of that horrifying encounter was jumbled and chaotic, Blacksnake knew. Easysinger and he had spent enough time sifting the details, going over them with the other elf, desperately searching for clues that would help them plan against another skirmish, or worse, an invasion.
Farscout's impression was that the Fierce Ones had not been as cautious as elves would have. But these new brownskins – caution seemed to not even be a word they knew. Well in sight of any passing creature, they had chosen a wide, sheltered meadow well above the river's tidal-surge mark, sunny and wind-swept. Choice land, if you were grazing prey. This was where the cut trees were going. From now on, Blacksnake suspected, their chief would declare this forbidden territory.
These men were singing as they worked as well, a bubbly song of short, cheery words. They worked expertly, splitting the logs and planing off the bark before levering the logs up onto frames. The result looked like a neater, bigger version of a beaver's lodge, though it sat on land rather than in the middle of the water. Blacksnake knew as soon as he saw it that Farscout was right. This was the humans' version of a den. A home.
Bearheart raised his hand, pointing across the meadow. His sending had no words in it, but was soaked in suspicion like an arrowhead in poison. Another cluster of men had pairs of big, heavy-boned beasts that looked something like shorter-haired shagbacks. They were bound in heavy wooden collars, and otherwise, docile for all their size, pacing the humans who led them. **Bound,** the black-haired hunter's mindvoice was all disgust. **Not bond-beasts. No respect for… what are they doing?**
**They're making… lines? Lines in the ground?** said the chief, after a long moment in which they all stared at the scene in bemusement.
The creatures were dragging behind them great wood-and-metal blades that cut into the ground, leaving rows of raw earth trailing in their wake, brown and fresh. Youngsters followed behind the harnessed beasts, dropping handfuls of seeds into the torn ground. They had poles stuck between marked areas, but the ground they were covering was huge. They left no pace unturned.
**They're planting,** Farscout said dryly. **Planting human food.**
Notch's notched ear twitched. **What do humans eat anyway?**
**Us,** said Blacksnake grimly, with a scowl and a glance in the scout's direction.
Still, it was a good question. Elves sometimes took seeds from one place and helped them grow in another. It was something any plantshaper could do. But they did nothing on this scale. They did not tear up the earth, trying to remake entire meadows.
Of equal interest, though, was the fact that there were even more human cubs here, running around, helping with the planting and other tasks. There were boys and girls both – most of them as tall as a full-grown elf, but clearly younglings in comparison to the adults.
Blacksnake had never seen a human child before, none of them had, not even in Farscout's memories. There had been none amongst the Fierce Ones, and it had been too easy to forget that a party of hunters could have left their lifebearers and children behind. In truth, Blacksnake had not thought about it very hard, hadn't tried to imagine it. He hadn't cared to know if the men who'd killed and eaten elvish kin might have had families of their own.
Now he watched the girl-children and the human females, repelled but fascinated nonetheless. A group of them came walking down along the riverside, heading away from the settlement down toward the distant shore, carrying gathering-baskets. Like all the others, they were not visibly armed, even the adults. Not one of them carried so much as a bow or a spear, and again, he could not fathom their insensitivity to danger. The tribe might let their children have the run of the area surrounding the den-trees, but that was the Holt, after all. He could not believe these humans were not warier of this new land and its unknown dangers – some of which perched in the trees above the riverbank, watching them, arrows nocked to bowstrings.
The sight of the human females was shocking for other reasons. They were full-figured, their muscles hidden by fat. No elfin woman he'd ever seen had such wide, soft-looking hips, such thick yet tender arms. It surprised him that they still managed to move their heavy bodies with a kind of grace, although it was nothing like the supple beauty of the cat-quick, bird-boned huntresses he was used to.
And they were dressed in equally brilliant colors, in full-sleeved shirts and long skirts that trailed ribbons. They glittered with metal jewelry and sparkling beads, and walking amongst them were all manner of cublings: girl-children, from tiny toddling human-cubs to lithe young women like fresh flowers, clearly on the cusp of womanhood.
**Those beads! Are they all gemstones? Can they shape stone into something that clear and brilliant?** Notch's sending was fiery with excitement.
Longshot touched the chief's arm and pointed, with a wordless send of astonishment. Soon, they all saw, and Blacksnake's breath nearly seized.
**Are – are those wolves?** Windburn burst out, narrowing his eyes. **Wolves walking with human women --?**
**Wolves…** Bearheart's mind-voice was jittery. **Not-wolves.** He was right. The creatures were small, sandy in color, not shaggy, and wagging thin tails as they loped alongside the Tall Ones. They were not wolves. They were not foxes. They were not quite like anything that Blacksnake had ever seen before.
**I don't understand.** Even Windburn lapsed into speechless confusion.
**Keep watching,** Farscout responded to them all. **And watch close. Tell me if you see something I haven't yet. None of these humans are carrying weapons. They've got axes for cutting down trees – but I haven't seen any weapons.** The hidden tone in his sending approached desperation. How could he believe…?
Blacksnake understood his fellow elder's distress. For scores of years, for centuries he and Easysinger had prepared for the return of humans, unable to believe that hunters like the Fierce Ones would not try to find the elves again. All their worrying and planning had been made in response to what they could glean from Cloudfern's and Farscout's vivid memories.
Now they were faced with humans again, and nothing about them – not one thing – was living up to the grim expectations he'd carried with him all these years.
Could it be their hunting parties have ranged away from their camp? he asked, directing the question to Farscout.
**If they have, I haven't been able to track them,** the scout responded unhappily. That, as far as Blacksnake was concerned, as good as meant “no”. **I did circle their camp, looking for signs. If they have been ranging out exploring, it has not been on foot.**
Their outbreak of chatter stilled, as each of the hunters waited and watched. They eyed carving tools, a musical instrument, jewelry, bags and baskets. The scout's observation proved true. While the humans seemed well-equipped with a variety of clever tools, they still could see no sign of weapons. Even the glint of their metal tools was dull.
**All right. Just because we can't see weapons doesn't mean they don't have them,** Blacksnake pointed out, and several of the others nodded. **I wouldn't be caught in a strange land without at least a knife close to hand, myself. But they could have them all stacked inside one of those dens, or on that bird-ship, and we wouldn't know it.**
**What fools are these creatures?** Bearheart asked. The edge to his voice made him sound angry, but Blacksnake knew that edge was fright. **What fools take their lifebearers and children and elders into a strange place, and don't carry weapons enough to protect themselves with?**
**Fools who don't expect trouble,** Notch responded, with scorn.
**Fools who don't know any better,** Longshot agreed.
**Fools who know peace, and who don't expect danger,** Blacksnake added, thoughtfully. It was completely at odds with the impression left by the Fierce Ones, who had been all over weapons, ready to meet enemies. As the elves had found out, to their cost.
A silence fell among the hunters, and they watched as the bustle of the human camp continued below them, completely unaware of the wolfriders' presence. Finally, Windburn signaled to his hunters, and drew them all back and completely out of sight of the human camp.
As he led the party back to where the loyal, weary wolves still waited, the chief sent, **Father, you and Bearheart ride back to the Holt. Share with the rest of the tribe what we've seen today. Make sure Cloudfern's with his lovemate when he hears.** That was an order that hardly needed saying. **The rest of us will stay for a while yet. I want to continue to watch these strangers, and see more of what they do.**
**Let's wait until they're all sound asleep, and then we can sneak in there and skip out again with some of those shiny axes and beads--** Notch began, already grinning in anticipation.
**No!** Windburn's order was as sharp as an the flash of an alpha wolf's fangs. **We remain invisible to the humans. They don't know we're here – and I intend for us to keep it that way. Forever, if need be.**
**This is no game, cub,** Blacksnake growled in agreement, pleased at the chief's quick response even if not by his other orders. He glanced at Farscout's blank expression, well able to imagine the turmoil it might be hiding.
The hunters stood for a moment in an uneven ring, each of them watching their chief's face. Bearheart was somber, Longshot warily curious, Notch irate at the reprimand. Windburn scowled, and locksent at them fiercely. **My orders – my command. These humans are soft and ignorant. And we have no need for them to be otherwise. We wait. We watch from afar. And we do not ever let the humans know that we are here. Am I understood?**
There were quiet nods from most of that familiar circle. It was, Blacksnake thought with reluctant approval, the prudent course to take. For once, his son was thinking before acting, and proving more cool-headed than his father.
There were quiet nods from most of that familiar circle. It was,
Blacksnake thought with reluctant approval, the prudent course to
take. His son was thinking before acting, and for once proving more
cool-headed than his father.
It went against all instinct, to think of killing to excess. That was not the Way. But it was a measure of how much Blacksnake loathed the idea of humans even this near the Holt, that he let himself wish it, even for a moment. This was the edge of the Holt's western boundary, this was only a few days' ride away from the den-trees. Humans, settling here? His skin crawled at the very thought.
But, even should the chief agree, the hunting party did not have enough arrows amongst them to take that course of action successfully. He didn't think there were enough arrows in the entire Holt to kill the numbers they had already seen. And worse – what if more came? Right now these brownskins seemed soft and easily avoided. Slaughter them, and it might provoke a hunt for their killers that would truly endanger the tribe.
Blacksnake thought the other elders might understand this. He would not have expected his rock-headed son to come to the same conclusions, and he was unsettled to find their usual positions reversed. But then, Windburn had not been born yet, at the time of the Fierce Ones' attack. Like the two younger cubs, he knew of the human threat only from his elders' sendings, grown less sharply painful with the passage of uncountable seasons.
Longshot was as disturbed as any of them by what he now saw, willing to follow his elders' lead. Notch alone held out, his eyes fox-sharp and full of rebellion. One-Leg's son could no more resist the lure of mischief than a hungry wolf a haunch of meat. Blacksnake was not even sure why Windburn had wanted to bring the reckless youngster along on a mission like this. He would not have done it, if it had been up to him.
Windburn met the young trickster's eyes and held them, staring hard until Notch finally looked away in submission. **We keep the humans ignorant. And we keep our distance. This is my word, my command. No one is to give us away to these humans. No stealing from them, no sneaking around their camp, no spying. Not unless it's on my orders. Am I understood?**
The chief met the eyes of each of his tribesmates in turn, and made certain that they agreed. Blacksnake did not miss that Farscout glanced in his direction, and he felt a surge of frustration so sharp he could almost taste it. Over half a lifetime spent preparing for this day, and the day had to come when his lifemate and trusted chief was gone, leaving in her place a hard-headed, stubborn, callow son. What to do and how to do it were no longer his decisions to make. Windburn would make them, High Ones help them all.
His father was not the chief's favorite advisor. Windburn listened to him as hunt leader, but chose his own path otherwise. This time, Blacksnake would have to find a way to make his son listen to his counsel. Windburn needed to know, at least, what his chieftess mother had thought and planned. That, Blacksnake thought, he might even welcome, for Windburn had revered Easysinger as much as Blacksnake had. That much, father and son had in common.
So he did not react to Farscout's appeal, except to meet the look and cut his own eyes sharply in Windburn's direction. He wasn't sure if the chief had seen the exchange, or not. Windburn's anxious attention stayed fixed on the scout, looking for something, hoping – for approval, Blacksnake realized.
When the Fierce Ones' attack had happened, all of those killed and those few finally recovered had been Easysinger's responsibility, her duty, her tribe, and by extension, her lifemate's too. For Blacksnake the feeling of horror at what had happened to his tribemates and friends was forever mixed with the fury of helplessness, and he knew that in her own more measured way, Easysinger had felt the same. It was the kind of pain only a leader could feel, when those under their care were hurt and killed far away, beyond the leader's reach or help. It was a pain Blacksnake had felt too many times over his many years as the chieftess's mate.
Now Farscout, and Cloudfern, and all the rest of the tribe were Windburn's, and no matter what Blacksnake thought of his son's wisdom or his sense, he did not question the chief's heart, not in this. It was there on his face for all to see, his concern and even his knowledge of the knife's edge they now balanced on.
To save the tribe and guide them safely through this crisis, the chief would need all the knowledge, all the wisdom, all the counsel he could get, and if Blacksnake had his way, Windburn would not be in short supply of those. But the chief also needed the tribe to follow him, to listen to and trust him – and that started with the dark-haired elder before him. The tribe could win no battles with the humans, but that did not mean there would not be those who would want to take bow, spear and axe and rush to the slaughter anyway. Even Blacksnake felt the lure of that, and Bearheart must too. But if Farscout, one of the most greatly wronged by humans in the tribe, who had been there and seen the carnage with his own eyes – if he supported his chief's course of caution, then the others would as well.
Finally meeting Windburn's eyes, Farscout nodded, slowly first, then readily. Caution and curiosity would win out over revenge, for now.
Then the chief was turning to him, and Blacksnake met his eyes steadily. **I understand, and I agree,** he affirmed, his sending for Windburn alone. **But send Notch back to the Holt with Bearheart. We need the cub's fighting skills less than we need him put out of temptation's reach. And I want to stay, to see more of these humans firsthand.**
Windburn looked as if he was considering it, at least. Blacksnake hoped it would not come to a challenge, because this was the one that he could not let go.
Finally, the chief nodded. **Agreed.** His sending had threads of emotion underlying it: puzzled, a touch frightened, but excited too. For Windburn, the lack of an overt display of weapons, the presence of children, the cheerful domesticity of the scene, destructive of the forest as it was – he was taking hope from those things, perhaps. Hope that the return of humans did not mean a desperate fight for the tribe's survival, as his elders had so long feared.
Blacksnake wasn't ready to trust that yet. For all their sakes, though, he hoped his son was right. There'd been blood enough. The tribe didn't need to risk more.
A hand and a half of days later, Windburn brought his hunters back to the Holt. With Bearheart and Notch sent ahead to bring the tribe some reassurance, and no violent menace at their heels, they had returned at a slower pace, Farscout riding double with Longshot and Blacksnake in turn. They had also stopped to kill a deer on the morning before reaching the Holt, kill-fresh meat as a kind of offering for the tribe's good humor.
When they arrived in the shade of the den-trees, it hardly needed the chief's open sending to summon the tribe before them. They came as if they had been doing little but watching and waiting, and worrying. As he swept his eyes over them, he noticed stiffness in their postures as Foxtail passed in front of Quick Fang. He wasn't surprised that the white-haired huntress had chafed under his orders, but he was pleased to see his daughter holding her ground.
And there – True Edge hovering near where Cloudfern sat with Cloudfern's mate Greenweave.
The look on the golden-haired elder's face was tense, drawn, nearly angry. Windburn knew he had chosen rightly, leaving True Edge here as part of the guard on the Holt rather than taking him along on their scouting mission, even if he was one of the tribe's best hunters. Humans and True Edge would not have been a good mix. Of those elves the Fierce Ones had killed, all those years ago, True Edge had lost father, mother, and elder brother all at once, to deaths more horrible than any the elves had ever imagined.
True Edge was not usually the sentimental sort, but Cloudfern was the only surviving child of the elder's brother; not counting Brightwood, sleeping the centuries away cocooned in the den beneath the Mother Tree.
The greeting to the returning hunters was subdued, anxious. Sending Notch and Bearheart back to bear the news had not been the chief's first choice – Bearheart's skills lay in hunting and in fighting, not in being soothing and reassuring; and Notch had not seemed to comprehend the threat's severity. Sending his father back would have been a gamble, too – a comfort, perhaps, to many who remembered his strong leadership at Easysinger's side, but a danger for that same reason.
Windburn had been almost relieved, therefore, when Blacksnake had wanted to stay. He didn't fool himself by thinking that his father had done it to offer his chief-son his support. More likely, he thought, was that Blacksnake trusted no eyes but his own to study these new humans and judge the threat they posed. Whatever the reason, it worked in Windburn's favor. It kept his father from trying to usurp Foxtail's slender authority back at the Holt; and the chief would be a fool indeed if he didn't admit the value of the dour elder's keen observations.
Now, the chief watched as Farscout dismounted and headed straight for Cloudfern's side. Greenweave made room for his lovemate's soul-brother, and Farscout put a hand on the younger elf's shoulder, Cloudfern covering it with his own – an exchange more eloquent than words. Windburn was glad that Farscout had agreed to return with them. If the dark-haired elder had not, the chief would have insisted. The tribe needed to be together right now, all together, more than it needed to watch these humans' every move.
Windburn also did not miss the way some eyes sought out his father first, as Blacksnake made his way to sit on the Child Tree's shaped steps below his brother One-Leg. The chief felt a flash of sullen anger at that, but quickly pushed it aside. This was his time, now, and these were not the humans that his mother and father had feared and planned against for so long.
“Wolfriders, hear me,” Windburn called, formally, gathering all their attention on him. “You'll all have heard and shared sendings with Bearheart and Notch by now. We stayed behind to watch further, and I will share the sending of that in a moment, though there's little new to report. Beyond the fact that if the few pitiful attempts we saw are anything to judge by,” he added, with what he hoped seemed like confident humor, “we have little to fear from these humans as hunters.”
That did little to lighten his tribesmates' anxious mood, though, and the chief went on soberly, “I will not lie to you. There are many of them, and they are making dens as if they mean to stay. They've planted their roots where the Clearwater meets the sea. They brought their lifebearers and their cubs with them.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Are they truly staying?”
Questions came from all sides, and Windburn held up his hand. “We don't know. They came on the water, in boats eight-eights times bigger than any canoe or raft we've ever made. They could be from anywhere. It doesn't matter. What matters is that the dens they made – you'll have seen them from Bearheart's sending, and we'll show you more – don't look like temporary shelters. But they're humans, so who knows?” The chief shrugged. “We have to act as if they're staying, until we see them go.”
There was muttering at this, and he could hear One-Leg's voice say, “Lad's talking sense, at least”, which warmed him a little. He raised his voice to recapture their attention.
“That's the bad news. The good news is that these humans don't seem to look or act anything like the ones our tribe has met before.” Windburn met Cloudfern's solemn eyes with sympathy. “They're dark, they look soft, and they carry few weapons. They hunt little, and as I said, not very well, though they do like to fish. They have animals and birds they seem to have brought with them, that are tame, and they eat those. They take nuts and roots and plants from the ground, and tear up whole fields to sow the seeds for more.”
Those words brought frowns of confusion to his tribesmates' faces. He would show them later; he wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen some of it for himself.
“So these are my orders,” said the chief, finally.
“From now on, no one hunts alone. Go in pairs or in groups, but always have someone to watch your back. Someone who can send, not just your wolf-friend. And from this day forward, no one goes farther than a day's journey from the place where the Clearwater meets the sea. Not until we know a lot more about the humans and their habits, and if they plan to stay.”
“Maybe we'll get lucky and one of the winter storms from the sea will wash them away,” said Rainpace, with false brightness.
“Maybe we will,” Windburn agreed. “Maybe something else lucky will happen. But until then – we avoid these humans. Be careful of the Clearwater , until we know their movements on it. Head north up the coast, away from them, and keep a lookout for their boats on the sea. Avoid them, at all costs. They don't know we're here. I want it to stay that way.”
“So that's all?” demanded True Edge. “Humans come and dig themselves in, and we just give up a corner of the Holt to them?”
“For now – yes, that's what we do,” the chief said, making sure to meet his eyes squarely. “Until I say otherwise. I don't like it either. But I like the idea of bloodshed even less, and there's too many of them.”
“They may look like soft dirt-diggers who eat leaves like rabbits,” Blacksnake spoke up finally, grim humor in his voice, “but that doesn't mean they're no threat. Even if they don't seem dangerous, we should act like they are.”
Those were words his father had spoken days earlier, uneasy, unwilling to let down his guard.. But Windburn had already come to the same conclusion.
“As chief, I have spoken,” he concluded formally, meeting the eyes of each of his tribesmates in turn. “The entire tribe's safety is at stake. Be wary, be wise, and follow my orders, wolfriders – and let anyone who disagrees challenge me now.”
But there were nods of assent around the circle, and relief on some of the faces. Even the few that seemed to disagree did not look as if they wanted to defy the others, let alone their chief. True Edge inclined his head before turning away to clasp his lifemate closely, burying his face in Snowfall's silver hair. Farscout's grey eyes met Windburn's briefly as he and Greenweave enclosed Cloudfern between them.
Yet when Windburn turned to seek out his father, Blacksnake had already turned away, listening to something that One-Leg was saying to Suddendusk, no longer looking towards his chief-son. Windburn felt a stab of disappointment – but it wasn't the first time he had looked for approval from his sire and failed to find it, and he brushed the feeling aside with his next breath.
Then he moved to where his lifemate sat beside his cub. Foxtail looked as if she would be one of those who chafed under his orders – but she would obey him, he knew. And she would be satisfied when he took her with him to see the humans for herself. If worst came to worst, and these humans did stay, then one day they might be Foxtail's problem instead of his own, and he would need to start preparing her for that day.
The somber look in Whispersilk's blue-green eyes as she raised them to meet his made Windburn sure that she had concluded the same thing. He let himself be soothed by the loyalty and faith he saw there as well, in his quiet lifemate's unfailing support. His family was strong, his tribe was strong, and in them he knew he could find the strength to guide them.(Taking place several years later, "First Contact (Part 2)" is a sequel to this story.)