(This story is a part of the ”Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath” and ”Learning the Humans’ Languages storylines – see lists for related stories.)
The headlands surrounding Eagle Bay were carpeted in yellow-blooming clumps of hardy gorse that grew in dense, wind-sculpted thickets through which a determined hunter could crawl unseen right up to the edges of the rocky cliffs. The lifemates made that trek before dawn. As the sun rose in the east, Brightwood looked down over the bay and saw nothing but the thick morning fog. She turned a sharp look on her lifemate. Farscout had insisted that they travel up to the headlands for Brightwood's first glimpse of these strange, neighboring humans — but as far as she could tell, it was an extra night’s travel wasted.
**When this fog clears, the village will be so far below us, it won't look like much more than an ant's nest,** Brightwood sent.
Farscout gave her an enigmatic smile. **Wait. I promise you, it will be worth it.**
Brightwood gave him the suspicious look that deserved, but she knew her lifemate well enough to bite back further complaint. Instead, she rolled onto her side and rested, one hand on the swell of her pregnant belly. Farscout shifted comfortably against her back, providing her with a leather-cushioned shoulder to pillow her head against.
They were three hands of days into Brightwood's Very Long Walk. From the beginning, they had struck a comfortable pace, one which agreed both with her pregnancy and her still-fresh bonding with the she-wolf Redbrush. It had been a strange journey. The trails they had followed were new to her. While Brightwood had slept in her wrapstuff cocoon, a generation of trees had died and their children had grown tall. Some once-familiar meadows had turned into forest, while forest fires had turned patches of forest into meadows. The river's braiding course had twisted and changed, snake-like, while the Thornwall which Brightwood's aunt Sunlight and brother Cloudfern had nurtured into being had, in many stretches, grown dense and knotty with age. But despite all of the changes, the stone bones of the land were familiar and unaltered. Sentinel Peak and Knife Peak, Elder Peak, Greenstone Mountain and the Guardians were all still faithful guides, by which Brightwood could navigate her way when other, long-familiar landmarks were gone.
All throughout their travel, the lifemates had found unwelcome traces of the Holt's new neighbors. Farscout took great care to safely show her what hunting paths the humans favored during the summer season, and those they tended toward in others. Brightwood had been horrified to find the magnificent Roaring Falls had been ceded to the humans during the salmon runs, for the humans were no fools and took enthusiastic advantage of that seasonal bounty. The tribe had shifted its old territorial borders north, away from the human settlements on the Rushwater. It was the best Chief Windburn could do in the effort to limit the chances of humans encountering elven hunters and thereby alerting the co-joined human tribes to the Holt itself. It seemed somehow miraculous to Brightwood that such an effort had succeeded for as many years as it yet had — but apparently the humans didn't have keen sense of smell, and the longest-settled Amber Hunters had little in the way of woodscraft.
**As bumbling as bear cubs,** Farscout had described those dark-skinned ones. **But the other kind, the Archers, they are not so naive. Never trust that the Painted-Face hunters will be fools. They are sharp-eyed and almost as keen on a trail as we are. And the two tribes are friendly with each other. They share well. Give them a generation or two, and the Amber Hunters may become as skilled as the Archers. We will not be able to hide from the humans forever.**
It was a dreadful thought, one which conjured too-recent violence. Brightwood shivered and clutched her swollen belly. She felt the child within her grow restive in response to her own spiking pulse. Farscout’s arms tightened around her, and his mindtouch bloomed bright in her mind, a calming presence against bloody memories.
**Windburn should have relocated the Holt,** Brightwood sent with some acid. **Or fought them. My uncle says we could have eliminated the Amber Hunters within the first moon of their arrival. Now there are two tribes of them, and if the humans breed so fast, we'll never be able to win a fight for territory with them. We'll win the first battles, but not the long fight when they bring it to us.**
Farscout held her close, and one of his hands strayed to stroke her swollen belly. **Aye. If there's a fight.**
Brightwood snorted. That had been one of the tribe's very first lessons — back in the days before Wolfsister had been whelped, the wolves had taught her ancestors that territories always came with a blood-cost. The pack had to fight to hold their hunting grounds, and when a pack grew too few, they lost their lives along with their land. **Windburn's only bought the tribe time. Maybe learning human-speech will buy us a little more. But they're hunters. We're hunters. There'll be a fight. How can there not be?**
Farscout had no answer for her. They lay in silence, and after while, Brightwood rested her eyes. She dozed, warm in her lifemate’s embrace, until she felt him shift against her.
**Look now,** Farscout sent.
Brightwood lifted her head and looked down over Eagle Bay. The fog had begun to burn away, and her eyes went at once to the large, long, dark objects that were beached on the rocky shore. Her mind tried to make whale carcasses out of those unfamiliar shapes. It took her several long moments to realize that the long, large hulks were hand-crafted, not seaborn.
"What are those?" she breathed.
"Just watch," Farscout answered, his breath stirring the hair against her ear.
Tiny figures crawled over and around the dark shapes. As Brightwood watched in amazement, the first of the beached hulks was pulled and pushed into the water. Long branches were extended from both sides of the thing and into the water. Paddles. Those were paddles. Yet the hulking shell was too narrow and high-hulled to be a raft…
"A boat,” Brightwood said, answering her own question. “The humans have made a boat." She gazed in wonder at the sight. Very rarely, the tribe had cause to make a rafts, or to shaped a log into a canoe. But these human-made boats were too big and long have been made out of a single tree, and were clearly far more than simple lashed-together log rafts. The unlikely shape of the things argued their work was very careful and very complex. As she watched, she saw the long paddles raise from each side of the boat — two hands of paddles on each side. The paddles dipped like a wave, then collected into a unison rhythm. It took a heartbeat or two for the first, distant sound of a drumbeat to reach the cliffs. As the ship reached deepwater, she saw a wide square expanse of fabric raised...
“Sails. To catch the wind,” Brightwood marveled.
“The paddles are good for keeping the craft off the shoals,” Farscout said quietly. “Now that it’s past the shallows, the sail will make it pick up speed. It sails out of the bay and waits for the rest of its pack. Then together they sail away.”
The other ships were taking to water like so many goslings. “Where do they go?”
Farscout’s breath stirred against her ear again. “Sometimes north. Sometimes south. The sail patterns are painted different for each ship. Sometimes I’ll see a boat return which I’ve seen before. But often they’re new each time.”
Brightwood tried to remember how many of the tiny ant-figures she’d seen manning the first hulk as it has been pushed off the beach. Sixteen to twenty of them per ship, maybe? The second of six ships was hoisting its sail now, and the third was being pushed into the bay. Six ships. Each with five-hands of humans necessary to make it go from place to place. Each ship was its own tribe; the numbers of humans living in the village must swell each time a flock of these craft settled. Brightwood scowled as she considered those numbers.
Then the deeper import of her lifemate’s words struck her. The humans came and went from somewhere... these shipbuilders must have an even larger tribe living back where-ever they sailed from. A craft that size would take a great many hands to build. That much sail cloth would take a great many seasons to grow and gather and weave... unless there were a great many weavers involved in the effort. And those ship-crafters would have to have others foraging for them and hunting for them...
It was a terrible realization. It chilled her to the marrow to know that somewhere, maybe not too far beyond the horizon, there was a patch of earth crawling with humans, as thick as blowflies on something rotting in the high summer sun.
And her own tribe only numbered a sum that could be squeezed comfortably onto one of those vessels. Brightwood chewed on that bitter mouthful, watching in silence until the flock of colorfully painted sails had scudded around the northern edge of Eagle Bay, lost from view behind the bay’s far cliffs.
“What do they do here? What keeps them coming and going?” she asked her lifemate then.
She felt Farscout’s shrug. **I’ve seen them loading bags and bales and baskets, and round wooden boxes. Hides. Furs. Tree sap. Syrup of hawthorn berries. Logs — lots and lots of logs. You’ll see how they have cleared the hills south of their villages.** Farscout’s sending was rich with imagery — some of it far too close to the humans for her comfort. Brightwood made a wry sound at the sensation of a boat’s hull under Farscout’s hand — the wood had been oiled, and half of it was painted above where it would lie on the water once loaded with goods.
“Windburn know you got that close?” she asked her Recognized, turning to give him a sharp look.
Farscout’s smile was enigmatic. “I never tell the chief everything,” he replied. “Your father taught me that.”
Brightwood nuzzled her lifemate’s cheek. “Take me closer,” she said. “I want to see this village of theirs.”
Farscout glanced at his lifemate’s profile as Brightwood stared down silently over the valley below. Her face was smooth and uncharacteristically expressionless. Such stillness and silence from Brightwood was often a stormfront — she was gathering information as fast as all of her senses could drink it in, and once she had deliberated on what she had learned there would come a rain squall of reaction.
He looked down again over the valley, trying to view the sight through fresh eyes after having watched it grow over the years. The village had been built on the high ground in the center of the valley. The settlement was a strange, orderly thing, all neat angles and tidy squares, with a high log wall boxing it in. Large family groups seemed to dwell in each wooden home; each dwelling-den was wide and long, built from planks of wood with colorful tiles on the mild slope of the roofs to keep out weather. Each of the homes had a stone funnel, from which tendrils of smoke drifted out of. Square regular windows faced out of each dwelling-den; colorful and opaque squares of glass were set in frames over those window-holes. Farscout had sometimes spied on the humans carrying sand from the ocean shore, and seen them melt and blow the glass into shapes, something Suddendusk in particular had marveled over when Farscout had brought those send-images home to the Holt. The dwelling-dens were built in a grid with paths in between them. There was a large, sandy square in the center, and the largest of their wooden homes was centermost there, with windows of a colorful geometric design that was pleasing to the eye but which told no story which Farscout could decipher. Not all of the dwelling-dens were homes; some seemed to be storage-dens, and some maybe crafter-dens. There were herb gardens and closely-tended fruit trees within the stout painted wall, and many of those plants were strange to him. Outside of the wall was a large, heavily reinforced animal pen, where lived the strange long-eared goats and placid, powerful grazers which the Amber Hunters had brought with them. Beneath the slope of the straight walls of the village stretched out the rows of earth where the Amber Hunters grew their grains and their strange root-crops, closely tended by the menfolk of that village.
The Painted Face village was built on the saddle of a second piece of high ground, flanking the first of the garden-fields planted by the Amber Hunters. When they had first arrived, their camp had been a semi-circular sprawl, but as the years passed, Farscout had watched them begin to mirror their neighbor’s habits. While the Painted Faces never took on the neat, square grid of the Amber Hunters, their camp grew more organized, and their conical tents of painted hide migrated into groups of eight wide circles, each of more than four tents placed facing around a communal firepit. A hand and a half of summers ago, the Painted Faces had built one large den-home in the square fashion of the Amber Hunter’s homes, which appeared to serve as their tribal meeting place. This was where the Painted-Faces seemed to prefer to spend their days, gathered together to pursue their crafts when the weather so allowed it. They weren’t gardeners like the Amber Hunters were, but they were clearly wiser in other ways. There was always a guard alert on their walled gate, whereas the Amber Hunters only kept a nightwatch — and that only to keep the deer out of their fields and predators out of their animal-pens.
From this distance, the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces were just ant-like in size. The Amber Hunters in their bright colors were easier to spot, while the Painted Faces favored the earthy tones which helped conceal them in the woods. Farscout took his attention away from them and listened instead to the forest ambient around himself and his lifemate. The forest birds were still singing -- only the crows and scavenger jays took any interest at the presence of two wolves and two elves, but all of the forest birds went silent whenever humans were near. A scout always had to be fully alert this close to the villages; the Painted Face hunters were dangerously more keen of sight and hearing than the Amber Hunters were. The forest remaining on this side of the Rushwater gave them some protection, but Farscout knew not to be overconfident when it came to their strange quarry. And any elf in bright colors who made their way across that clear hillside on the other side of the river would be spotted immediately.
Farscout glanced again at his lifemate. Brightwood’s silence was too busy. Farscout read the danger in that, as surely as if the forest birds had gone silent.
**Aya?** he lock-sent.
Her blue-violet gaze did not leave left the settlements below. She was quiet for a very long time, but her mindtouch was aswirl with a tangle of emotions. Farscout waited, knowing she would answer when she was ready.
**The two tribes appear friendly enough?**
Farscout tasted the wolf-keen undernote to Brightwood’s question. **We’ve seen no sign of violence between them. No sign of conflict.** He hesitated, well able to guess the direction of his mate’s thoughts. **When we first led the tribes together, there were some of us who hoped they’d wipe one another out. But they’ve shown no sign of conflict. I’ve looked for tensions, especially during their first years together, when it was clear that both tribes were struggling to learn the ways of the other. But I’ve seen no hint of it. I’ve seen nothing I thought we might use to our benefit in turning the two tribes against each other.**
Brightwood slid him a slow glance, her expression far too serene. It was proof enough that he had guessed her thoughts correctly. **Yet the Painted Faces were fleeing from the Fierce Ones,** she sent.
**That’s how it appeared,** Farscout answered. **More than ten summers have passed now since they arrived. They have never ceased posting guards along their defensive wall, by day as well as by night.**
Brightwood turned her stare back down on the conjoined human villages. If she recognized that the Painted Faces might share the same nightmares, she gave no sign of it. Farscout did not push the point. He simply watched the forest around him, and let his lifemate watch her fill of the humans below.
The word-hunters had returned to the Holt that morning, and by nightfall, Beetle felt rested enough to share with some of her curious kinfolk what their newest discoveries had been.
“It was a good trip out!” she said, sprawled across the shelf-bench on her belly, her chin propped on her hands. Willow reclined against her, her head a familiar weight against Beetle's hip. “And you would’ve appreciated it, brother,” she teased Notch. “We got more than an eyeful this time!”
“Tell on!” Notch groused with good humor. “Don’t keep us waiting. You know my imagination will provide far more vivid a story that whatever you spied on.”
Beetle laughed at that. Outside the Mother Tree, rain was pattering through the leaves. The first autumn rainstorm had rolled in that afternoon, but the Gathering Den was crowded enough at the moment to ward off any chill. Notch and Foxtail lounged together on the floor, Longshot was leaning against the curve of the den-doorway, and Brightwood sat on a seat-burl, cushioned by a rabbit-hair pillow as she nursed her infant daughter Copper. Fadestar and Newt came slipping into the room, eager not to miss a thing.
“We caught the same lovebirds slipping out of their village,” Beetle said. “I’m pretty sure they’re the same pair, at least – sometimes it’s hard to tell when the wind is bringing you a human’s scent, but I’m sure it’s the same human girl, at least. Last time Moss saw him giving her a beaded necklace, and this time, I saw her take it out of her tunic and put it on as they met in their grove. I think she can’t wear it openly, so she secrets it about —“
“Why not?” scoffed Foxtail. “If I like something, no one keeps me from wearing it when I feel like it.”
“Maybe it’s been stolen,” Longshot said.
“Maybe she has a jealous lovemate,” Willow offered.
“I don’t know, but it’s obviously something very private and special to them both. And they both are clearly sneaking about to be together.” The mystery of it frustrated Beetle — she had so many questions, and so much of what the humans did made no obvious sense. “They join like rabbits, and afterwards, he sings to her and makes much of her braided hair.”
“He’s one of the Amber Hunters, right?” Fadstar asked. “They don’t have much hair, do they?”
Beetle supplied a sending-image of the two human lovers, partially screened by leaves and totally unaware of their lovemaking being spied upon. The darkness of his skin was strange enough, and her paleness only made his strange hide look darker by contrast. “The male Amber Hunters always wear their hair really short, or they else shave themselves bare like he does; the females grow it long but always pin it up in fancy ways. The Painted Faces have hair more like ours, but it’s always dark colored and it gets greasy quickly.”
“What was his song like?” Newt asked wistfully.
Beetle summoned the memory and hummed along as she shared it in a send. “Mmmmm – hmmm – mmm – nih…” She mouthed a word, then repeated it audibly, sing-songing the alien words.
“Niĝ ud-bi-ta la-ba-ĝal-la. Ki-sikil tur ur dam-ma-na-ka še, nu-ub-dur-re.”
“That’s kind of pretty,” Fadestar sighed.
“I think so,” Beetle agreed. “Of course, I have no idea yet what the words mean, but from the context, I think he was praising her beauty and promising his affections; they both laughed a lot, and then she clearly teased him. They do that, you know. The humans do. They’re not like bears or wildcats — they clearly enjoy company. They clearly love their children, and members of their immediate family groups. They’re a lot more like us than they’re not —“
"Shards!” Brightwood spat vehemently, and everyone turned to look at her in shock. “You’re being a fool if you think that,” she snapped at Beetle. “They’re nothing like us. They’ll eat your heart before your eyes if you give them the chance.
Beetle looked at her aunt in dismay, her happy bubble evaporating. She had welcomed Brightwood when her aunt had joined the others in these informal language lessons last winter; while Brightwood’s curiosity had always seemed more muted that the others’, she’d never spoken up like this, or radiated such heat. Beside her, Willow sat up, ready to come to her lovemate’s defense. Beetle instinctively reached out and touched Willow’s thigh, gentling restraining her from response.
“I’ve spent hours and days and nights watching them,” Beetle said in her own defense. “I know what my eyes see. These humans aren’t bad. He brings his lover flowers and strokes her hair – that’s not so different from us at all, not the way I see it. If we could only speak with them, we could be friends. They could learn to like us just as much as we like —”
“Like?” Brightwood snapped with some outrage. “Like? Ancestors save us! You’re being a fool. Maybe they mirror our behaviors, but that’s not proof that their minds work anything at all like ours do. Who’s to know if they are capable of feeling what we feel? I like bears, for the High Ones’ sake, I like them a lot, there used to be one that liked to hang out on the shores of Badger Lake and who you could play tag with when he’d gotten stuffed full of fish, he clearly liked to play once his belly wasn’t growling. But just because the tribe named him and played with him and left him a share of fish now and then, that never kept him from wanting to eat one of us when he was winter-hungry, for bloody rotted sake!”
“These humans are clearly smarter than any bear,” countered Willow. “So why can’t we expect more of them than that?”
Copper began to make small sounds of dismay, and Brightwood shifted her into a new position against her shoulder, patting her back to bring up a burp. “Because they’re not elves,” Brightwood shot back, her tone low and sharp. “No matter how badly you might wish it, they’re not us. And if you read them wrong, you won’t know it until they’ve broken your head open for it. We might be able to fight them off when that battle lands on us, but even if we do, we’ll lose far more of us than we can afford! You’re letting what’s familiar about them corrupt your good sense, niece. And for one, I don’t understand why we are all sitting around here waiting for them to show up on this side of the Thornwall! ”
There were frowns all around the room, and both Fadestar and Newt looked fearful. “I know what I’ve seen,” Beetle said firmly. “You can choose to live in fear of them if you wish, but I know these humans are capable of goodness and love. I’ve seen it. They’re not the Fierce Ones. We don’t have to live in fear of them — not if we’re smart about it and learn to communicate. If only we could learn their words and talk to one another, we can make peace with them. I’m certain of it —“
Copper’s small cries were gaining in volume; Brightwood pushed herself to her feet, clearly intending to leave. “Niece, you need to take this responsibility more seriously,” she growled as she carried her infant past Longshot, out of the doorway. “Because all of our lives depend on you NOT liking them so rutting much!”
Silence lingered in Brightwood’s wake like a fog. The treeshaper’s anger had touched a communal nerve. Beetle felt Willow’s presence beside her, and feared there might be doubt in Willow’s stillness.
“I do worry sometimes,” Willow said then, “that you and Rainpace and Evervale aren't taking enough precautions.”
“Moss and One-Leg are sourpusses enough for them all,” Notch said, dismissing with a laugh the lingering spell of Brightwood’s warning. “The humans aren’t about to catch any of you. And even if they did — you’d run rings around them, just like it were a game of Taal.”
“The humans aren’t about to fight us for our territory — and if they did, we’d hand them their tails in a knot!” Foxtail grinned and pulled Newt against her in an easy hug. “So you cubs stop looking down around the mouths. Brightwood’s fussing about nothing. Her musty old humans scared her so bad she just can’t see past her own nose. “
“No one has seen the Fierce Ones since Cloudfern was a cub! They came. They went. We don’t need to work ourselves into a lather over them,” Notch said. “And if Beetle says our humans here are handing out flowers and honeycombs, I trust my sister’s good sense.”
Beetle smiled at her brother, warmed by Notch’s rare praise. “Well, Brightwood does have a point,” she allowed, looking directly at Willow. “I do want very, very much to make friends with a human someday.”
“If the humans haven’t killed each other yet, then there’s reason to have some hope in them,” Willow agreed.
Longshot came fully into the room and dropped down to sit on the padded burl-seat which Brightwood had just vacated. “So. Back to what you were sharing,” he said, stretching out his legs and leaning back to get comfortable. “So you spied some more on your favorite lovebirds. That was what — one evening worth of work? What else did you see and hear and sniff out during this word-hunting trip?”
Seeing the curiosity of her friends undimmed, Beetle settled back down across her bed furs and gave them the stories they wanted.
The big bag of blackberries was sealed tight in wrapstuff, but from the fading paint markings on the websilk, Windburn could tell they were more than eight summers old. Younger bundles had been mistakenly stacked before it in the storage racks; he pulled the oldest bag aside and shifted the rest into proper order, so that the oldest would be used first. Then, with the taste of late summer in his arms, the chief turned to leave the storage dens —
“Chief,” called a voice as he stepped out into the stone corridor. He looked back to see Brightwood taking the last step down from the Gathering Den. Her pale golden hair was loose and shone against her snowcat-fur coat. “I’d like a word.”
Windburn nodded and shifted the bundle in his arms. “What is it?” he asked. The question sounded terse in his own ears — not his intention, but the big bag felt as solid and heavy as if it were seal blubber instead of blackberries.
The sharpness of his response didn’t seem to cause her any hesitation. “I’ll begin weaning Copper this summer. When she’s weaned, I want on the word-hunters team.”
The request took him by surprise. Windburn stared, knowing he had not misheard her but still thinking he must have, somehow. “You?” he said. “Why you?”
Brightwood leaned against the corridor wall across from him. “Because. I’ve got the skills. And I’ve got a perspective the rest of your team lacks.”
Windburn scowled at her. Farscout’s lifemate remained an enigma to him. It had been two and a half years since Brightwood had been brought out of wrapstuff; she had proven as gregarious and self-confident as sent-memories had promised she might be, and there had been nothing shy about her reintegration back into the tribe. Yet there were times when Windburn still felt as though she were a stranger in his pack. Brightwood was not a predictable quantity in the way that everyone else in his tribe, known lifelong, was to him. And despite being his blood-kin cousin, Brightwood could still trigger wolf-deep instincts yet as stranger and strange wolf.
“It’ll be months yet before Copper’s old enough for me to leave on long trips, but I want to do this,” Brightwood continued. “I need to do this.”
He studied his cousin, holding her violet gaze steadily. “You need it,” he repeated.
Brightwood’s eyes dipped for a moment, and the shoulders beneath the thick fur coat lifted in a shrug. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m scared to death of these humans. I know they’re not the same as the Fierce Ones who killed my family. I know that. But they still scare me. I don’t like to be scared. And the rest of your word-hunters? As sure as fleas in the spring they aren’t scared enough of these humans. Not half so scared as we all need them to be. Except for One-Leg and Moss – and even they are getting too familiar, too comfortable.”
Windburn felt a twitch at his lips. He kept his expression stony, not wanting to share that it was an assessment he himself had begun to reach. Brightwood took his silence for encouragement to press her argument. “I know what it’s like, as none of them do, to have an encounter with humans slide sideways and out of control. We did nothing to the Fierce Ones to suggest threat. When we ran into their hunters — my grandparents and my parents and my brother and I, we did nothing to invite a fight. We were all drooped-tail and signaling retreat. And they were smiling. Smiling..” Brightwood sent a pulse of memory with that bitter word — and for a moment, Windburn was there, sitting astride an unfamiliar white wolf, aware of his kin on either side of him as a strange, shaggy bear-like creature rode a reluctant roundhoof toward him. It was flanked by its own kin, all of them hulking and bearded elders. The Fierce One called out to him in a deep, booming voice. It held out a spear, pointing at them, and through the blue paint and bushy beard of its face, Windburn saw a flash of white teeth as it spoke.
The memory-send was terminated. Hard. Brightwood stared at him, and her usual cheerful demeanor had vanished.
“The rest of your word-hunters like these humans,” Brightwood said, her voice as sharp as flint. “They pick up human sounds and string them together like beads and think we’re learning the human language. They want to hope that we can speak to each other. They think the humans can be like us. But I know better than to think that a human’s mind is going to work in patterns that mirror our own. Your word-hunters want to be friends with humans so they see what they want to see. But I’ve already seen human friendship, too close and too personal. And all I want is for our tribe to survive.”
Windburn stared at her. She held his piercing stare without flinching. “I need steady heads on the word-hunters' team,” he growled. “I don’t need revenge-seekers.”
Brightwood’s eyes flickered away, and for a moment, her expression was angry. “I know the Fierce Ones are different than these gentle-seeming neighbors of ours. But bears are bears. Spirit bears and black bears and brown bears, they all look different but they’re all the same beneath their hides. I won’t trust these humans. Not ever. But I can control myself. And I’ve already killed my share of humans. That’s not something any of your word-hunters can boast of. I’ve felt human blood on my hands. And I knew it then as the blood of a creature who could speak and wear clothing and build tools the same as any elf.” She hesitated, then locksent the rest of her say, so that he could feel the truth of it. **I may hate them, but killing them was no pleasure.**
Windburn scowled at her, weighing her measure. He knew that both Moss and One-Leg would welcome Brightwood to the word-hunters team. Brightwood was a skilled huntress, who had served the tribe as a tracker and scout during his mother Easysinger’s reign. Today, Brightwood was the tribe’s best plantshaper, and that was a skill that could prove invaluable to the word-hunters in an emergency. Indeed, putting Brightwood and Evervale into the field together would give Brightwood the chance to mentor the younger and less-experienced shaper in her talent. And the word-hunters needed relief members — rotating a relief member into the team would allow current team members more down-time at home to rest from their efforts. Brightwood’s request did make some sense to him, seen in that light.
“What does your lifemate say about this?”
Brightwood’s sober expression vanished, and she gave him a half-smile and a shrug. “Farscout’s not pleased. But he knows me. And he knows what I’ve got to do.”
Windburn reached out in a lock-send. He found Farscout up in the lifemates’ den, sitting beside his sleeping daughter, carving a piece of bone down into the shape of a hawk’s feather. Farscout welcomed his chief’s mind-touch as if having expected it.
**You know what your lifemate is asking me?** Windburn asked.
**I know,** Farscout’s send flowed back in affirmative, flavored with a mix of dismay, fear and pride. **I don’t like this. But I know my lifemate. And if Brightwood is on your word-hunters team, the tribe will be better off for it.**
**It will mean sending Brightwood into danger, and away from you and your young child,** Windburn lock-sent, hardly trusting what he was hearing from his elder. **After waiting for your lifemate all of those years, you’ll let her leave you both behind like this?**
There was amusement in Farscout’s return send. **I know my Recognized. And more than anyone else, I trust her to always come home.**
Windburn broke off that send-conversation and eyed Brightwood sourly. He shook his head. “I’ll consider it,” he said. “There’s months yet before Copper has been weaned.”
“Yes, my chief,” Brightwood said. She smiled at him, as though he had told given her a “Yes,” before she ducked her head and moved back toward the Gathering Den stairway. Windburn watched his stranger-cousin go. Then he shifted the weight of the wrapstuff-bag in his arms, and turned back to his own business at hand. He had time to consider her request as he finished his inventory chores.
There was a crackle of brush ahead of them, and the entire team of hunters frozen where they stood. The birds in the tree canopy above them went silent, and then a jay exploded into flight from that direction, cawing in alarm.
**Hide,** One-Leg commanded his team. The word-hunters silently did just that, each taking the best cover available to them as the sound of an approach grew closer.
Brightwood knelt on a tree branch, listening to the crunch and crackle of human footsteps. She held her bow fast in one hand, and slipped an arrow from her quiver and soundlessly fitted it to the string. There was a murmur of human conversation, growing louder with each step. The words were gutteral and clipped to her ears, no gentler than a crow’s harsh warning.
The wind shifted then, and she caught her first scent of these invaders to her forest. Woodsmoke and strange spices, acrid man-sweat, and a hint of sun-warmed leather. Something warm pressed against her shoulder; Brightwood did not turn her head, but from the corner of her eye, she saw Moss’s worried expression.
He’s thinks I might just put an arrow into the first target that steps into my sights, Brightwood realized, with a touch of bitter humor. She felt the tension in her own body, and could not really say that she hadn’t meant to take that shot.
**Trust me, old friend,** she lock-sent, including One-Leg as well as Moss in that sending. **I’m no she-cub on her first long walk.**
**Aye,** countered One-Leg, his mindtouch wry. **If I’d thought that, you’d never have left the Holt and joined us.**
Then the first of the humans stepped into view below them. Brightwood felt her vision tunnel-focus on the creature. It was slender, only a few hands taller than Farscout, Brightwood realized with a shock — in fact, old elder Swan had been taller by a hand or more than this weedy thing. It carried a well-made bow, and the fletchings in its quiver were well made. The leather of its tunic was decorated with beadwork in a geometric pattern, and the skin of its face and chest were painted in what looked like hearth-ash. Brightwood took a deep breath, filling her lungs with its strange scent, finding it the same as terrible stink of the Fierce Ones… and entirely different as well.
Brightwood exhaled the brutal weight of her memories and watched with a calm she slowly began to truly feel as more hunters followed in the footsteps of the first Painted Face. The three chatterers of the party were dark-skinned Amber Hunters, whose brightly colored kilts swirled around their knees. One of those ones was doing most of the talking — about what, Brightwood could not begin to decipher the context, although he was pointing south toward the distant, snow-capped Elder Peak, visible in a glimpse between the tree tops. Brightwood glanced that direction, wanting to be entirely sure that none of the word-hunters were taking cover in the trees flanking that vista. None of her fellow teammates were. But when she glanced up, she saw too clearly the bright robin-breast red of Evervale’s hair, through the leaves above her.
Brightwood put aside her arrow and pressed her free hand against the trunk of the tree they had climbed. **Cousin,** she sent firmly, as she pulsed her will into the tree itself. **You need a hood!**
Compliant to her will, the leaves of the tree began to grow until Evervale was totally hidden from view. Brightwood felt Moss’s silent laughter through the touch of his shoulder against hers; he leaned more companionably against her while the humans traveled blithely past beneath them.
**It’s good to have you here,** Moss sent warmly. **Welcome to the team, Brightwood.**