(For other Stories about Trolls and/or Troll encounters, see the linked list.)
Windburn stood at the edge of the rocky cliff and drew in a breath damp from the ocean. The sky overhead was heavy gray and overcast, thick with the scent of coming storm, and even as he watched, an irregular wave, greater and taller than the rest, came roiling in and crashed against the jagged dark rocks of the low cliffs, sending up a white plume of spray.
“Just look at those fat cows,” muttered Riskrunner, who stood just a little bit farther out on the cliff’s edge, where the toes of his boots brushed air. The hunter snorted and pointed out to sea, where a line of sleek dark heads bobbed above the rolling surf. “They’re taunting us. They know the weather’s changed. No chance now of us stealing their calves, not with that storm coming in.”
It was a keen disappointment. The four hunters, Windburn, Riskrunner, Blacksnake and Farscout, had traveled all the way from the Holt to the rocky western cliffs of Eagle Bay to hunt seal. Seal fat made excellent oil, and seal hides and fur were greatly prized for both their softness and ability to shed the rain. In the water below, sleek dark heads rose and disappeared between the ocean swells; as the elves watched, more and more of them popped up to watch their hunters, confident enough of their safety for curiosity.
Deep within the cliffs to the east from where the elves stood was Seal Calf Cave. There, the cliffs rose higher above the sea, hiding a subterranean chamber where hundreds of the beasts gathered to birth and nurse their young. The seal cows quickly grew weary of feeding their half-grown youngsters, and the weanling calves began to find their way out of the great cave in search of the salmon run. Half-weaned calves could often be found resting on the rocks above the surf around the cavern, and the most innocent among them were slow to take to the water if a hunter approached them on foot. The otter-keen curiosity of a seal made for easy hunting… that is, when the beasts' storm-sense didn’t cause them to flee those rocky hunting grounds in favor of their birthing cave.
“Pity,” Riskrunner muttered, still watching the seals. “Too bad the tide is up now. Maybe we can wait until it ebbs, and then trying swimming into the cave?”
“Pokeberries,” snorted Blacksnake as he stepped up beside Windburn. “You’d drown trying that, even in good weather. And walk your narrow rump back a step. You go over that edge, and I’ll never hear the end of it from your mother.”
Riskruner was standing right at the cliff’s edge; as his brother shrugged off Blacksnake's order, Windburn noticed how the toes of one of Riskrunner’s boots edged out further into open air. Windburn felt his own nerves twitch at that teasing, and restrained himself from the immediate impulse to grab his brother by the arm and haul Riskrunner back.
“I’ve dived off steeper cliffs than this,” Riskrunner replied absently.
“You'd be crab-bait for sure if you tried it here,” Windburn muttered. His brother glanced back at him and gave him a sly smile, then leaned forward suggestively. Windburn had to restrain himself again from the impulse to leap forward and drag his brother back from the cliff's edge. Riskrunner saw his brother flinch, and with a triumphant grin, took an exaggerated step back, in order to stand alongside their father.
“Wait the storm out?” Riskrunner asked.
Blacksnake was obviously mulling their options. Late spring storms could last for hours – or last for days. “If the sea —”
**Over here,** sent Farscout, interrupting him. **Look.**
The other three hunters turned toward the quiet tracker. Farscout was crouched near the cliff's edge some distance away, gazing down, the lines of his body taut. The Preserver Mushroom was a bright spot of color among the dark strands of Farscout's hair at the shoulder of his coat. From his vantage, Windburn saw nothing that would put Farscout on alert, but that didn't stop him from following after his father and brother when they moved to join the tracker.
“What is it?” Blacksnake asked.
“Bad thing! Bad thing!” Mushroom supplied anxiously. “Stay away! Stay far away!”
Farscout ignored his high-pitched companion and pointed down the cliffside. “There. Among the rocks.”
Farscout included a send-pulse with those words, guiding his companions to what he was seeing. Something oblong and grey-green bobbed in the surf. As they watched, a wave crashed up against the rocks, hiding it from view. Then the seawater rolled away again, pulling the object back with it for a wolfs-length.
It was a stout body, arms and legs drifting akimbo, the head bald and mottled grey-green.
“What is that?” Windburn said aloud, while in the same breath, his brother exclaimed, “It's a troll! By Halfwolf's tail — tell me that isn't a troll!”
“It's a troll,” Blacksnake said grimly. “A dead one.”
The hunters had been prepared to climb down the rocks, harpoon their prey, and then haul heavy seal carcasses up the cliffside, so by the time the leading edge of the rain curtain had reached the cliff, the four hunters were back on the top of the headland cliff, standing around the body of the dead troll.
The creature had been floating in the water for a few days, at the very least. The skin of its hands were peeling off like gloves, and the body was swollen with bloat. Fish, crabs, and other scavengers had feasted on its exposed flesh; seagulls wheeled overhead impatiently, calling to one another as they gathered in anticipation of a meal.
“Dirt-diggers bad-bad-bad!” Mushroom said sternly from its perch on Farscout's shoulder. “Good high-things stay away!”
“Well, he's an ugly piece of bait, that much is for certain,” Riskrunner said, ignoring the Preserver's chatter. “I doubt he was ever much to look at, even before he died. Any guesses for how he bit it?”
“Drowning would be my guess,” Blacksnake said, crouching down next to the corpse to peer more closely into its lax mouth. “The real question is – why? What's a troll doing in the sea?”
“Hunting seal, same as us?” Windburn suggested.
“Seal Calf Cave,” Farscout murmured.
Blacksnake looked up at that, then nodded firmly in agreement. “That's very possible. We don't know how far their tunnels reach.”
“Bet he was down in there hunting calves, and a big wave swept him right into the water,” Riskrunner said, seizing on the suggestion. He crouched down close to the corpse, opposite his father, and began poking at its sodden clothing. “Bet he sank like a rock, too. Once in the ocean, he probably didn't have a chance. Poor cur. Pity we couldn't have fished him out alive and gotten something in exchange for all of the effort of hauling his deadweight up that cliff.”
Windburn looked at the empty eye sockets of the fish-gnawed face. This was closer than he had ever expected to come to a troll before, and he wasn't eager to get much closer to the rank, stinking corpse. Windburn didn't have much confidence in his brother's speculation, nor could he find himself sharing in Riskrunner's eager excitement. The troll was dead — and Windburn found he preferred it that way.
This was the first time Windburn had seen a troll with his own eyes. They were mysterious creatures who intruded into the tribe's territory — those intrusions were rare, even if they were likely more frequent than the elves could observe. The trolls came out of their holes to gather herbs, or sometimes hunt for meat. They tried to hide all signs of their trespassing and went to obvious efforts to avoid the elves.
A long time before Windburn's birth, Chieftess Foxsly had tried for a time to seed the tunnel entrances with gifts, hoping to sweeten the trolls into communication. That hadn't worked. His grandmother the chieftess had then escalated matters by capturing a pair of trolls and holding them prisoner. The tribe had kept the two trolls captive for several days, but both had refused food and water. The creatures had obviously understood their elven captors when spoken to, but would not respond in any way. After several days, the chieftess had had to force water into the creatures to keep them both alive, and when it grew obvious that the sullen captives would rather starve to death than talk, Foxsly had reluctantly released them and sent them back to their underground kin.
No one in the tribe liked the trolls' unpredictable intrusions — but there was no talking to a species that remained steadfastly mute, and the trolls carried big weapons — metal weapons far superior to the implements of bone and stone the elves could craft. There was no benefit in picking a fight with a troll, or so the tribe's elders had reasoned, and for all of their superior weapons and slinking ways, no troll had ever threatened violence to an elf – not even when caught in bear-nets and threatened with captivity. After the deaths of Foxsly and her lovemate Crest inside a trapped troll-tunnel, Chieftess Easysinger had commanded that her tribemates ignore the trolls' occasional trespassing. Tunnel locations were shaped closed by the tribe's stoneshapers as soon as they were found, and on the rare occasion that trolls were spotted above ground, scouts trailed them and monitored their activities but no longer sought to engage them. The chieftess had made her wishes on the matter plain – the tribe was to avoid direct encounters with any trolls they found, and that the trolls should be considered dangerous and untrustworthy until such time as the trolls themselves showed interest in proving otherwise.
“Bad-bad-bad dirt-diggers,” Mushroom said, hiding its face in Farscout's hair. “Nasty dirt-diggers, make poor wee fishes go belly-up! Good high-things stay away from dirt-diggers. Be safe far away.”
Windburn saw his father trade a curious glance with Farscout. The scout just shrugged. Although it gamely chose itself as Farscout's companion on patrols, poor Mushroom wasn't the bravest of the tribe's fair of Preservers. Its nerve had been twice broken, first when it witnessed the deaths of Foxsly and Crest, and then later when it had accompanied Cedarwing's ill-fated hunting party which had encountered the Fierce Ones. Yet, despite its dire warning, Windburn doubted the orange goo-bug had any special knowledge regarding trolls. He had heard it make similarly grim pronouncements over stinkbears, dandelion greens, and his uncle Leather's tanning pit.
“Steady on!” Riskrunner said suddenly. He had pushed aside the hem of the sodden tunic which was belted over the troll's torso, and had found a second belt around the creature's undertunic below. Sheathed on that belt was a knife. Riskrunner sawed through the leather belt and tugged it free — and as it came away in his hand, a second sheathed blade was exposed as well.
“Troll-knives!” Riskrunner exclaimed eagerly. “Metal knives!” He gingerly unsheathed the blade in his hand, then cut the second sheathed blade free of the belt and tossed to his father. The leather sheaths were ruined from immersion in seawater, but the blade in Riskrunner's hand shone as gray as the stormclouds overhead as he drew. “Now that's a trophy!”
Windburn shivered to look at the blade, not sure why the sight made the hair at his nape bristle so. The first spatter of raindrops was turning into a drizzle. He turned the collar of his tunic up against the rain.
“Terrible cold brightmetal!” moaned Mushroom. “Good high-things should throw nasty things into the deepwater! Be safe, be safe from bad nasty terrible deep-cutting brightmetal.”
Riskrunner made a rude noise and continued to admire the trollish knife, ignoring the cold rain which swept over them. “It's beautiful. Absolutely beautiful! Don't you think so, father?” he asked, glancing aside at Blacksnake.
Blacksnake had drawn the second blade. “Aye,” he agreed, although with none of his eldest son's enthusiasm. “And I know just the soul who'll appreciate it.”
“It's beautiful!” Sparkle said, marveling over the blade her grandsire had just given her. “And it's so sharp!”
“There are two?” Ice said, watching avidly over her daughter's shoulder. “Two of them? Can I see the other?”
“I'll let you take a look, but then I'm going to demand it right back,” Riskrunner said with a laugh and a knowing grin for his Recognized.
Ice ignored her Recognized. She failed to see his amusement in the situation — wasn’t it obvious that she needed to inspect the trollish blade if she had any hope of learning its secrets? Blacksnake was a fool for giving his blade away to a ten-autumns old child like Sparkle. The smith would feel insulted by the slight, if she didn’t want her hands on one so badly she could hardly think past the need to feel its cold weight in her hands. Riskrunner merely grinned teasingly at her and held out the second knife. She snatched it from him.
Ice held the troll-made knife in her hand and stared at the blade. Slowly, gingerly, she ran her finger over the blade, caressing it like a lover. The whole of the blade, and the entire hilt, were made of brightmetal. Ice brought it close to her face, searching in vain for any imperfection, a seam, a dark spot, anything that would say that this beautiful piece of work was possible. Breathing deeply, she closed her eyes and took in the scent of the metal. It smelled cold, tangy, and held the scent of the earth, traces of the trolls who made and used this work of art. When she opened her eyes again she saw the expectant looks on her kinfolks' faces.
“What?” Ice snapped at them.
“I asked what you thought,” Riskrunner said, the easy grin never leaving his face.
‘Leave them — get to my forge — must examine.’ Those were the thoughts that swirled around Ice’s head. She was annoyed that they were still there, they were staring at her, and worse, they were expecting some kind of answer from her. “It’s beautiful,” she answered, just to satisfy them. “I want to take this to my forge and examine it.”
“Just remember what I said about getting it back,” Riskrunner said with a wink and a smile.
She could’ve clawed the smile off of her Recognized’s face, but instead, Ice simply nodded and stood up. Not sparing another glance toward Riskrunner or Sparkle, she hurried to her forge.
Sparkle chewed on the side of her lip and looked at her father. Riskrunner simply shrugged and said, “Don’t plan on seeing her for a few nights, eh, cub?” Reaching over, he ruffled her hair.
Sparkle wrinkled up her nose and swatted her father’s hand away, then laughed as he tried again. Their laughter filled the hole that Ice had left behind, as it always seemed to do.
“Ice?” Sparkle’s tentative voice filled the quiet of the forge shortly before her annoying buzz filled Ice’s head. **Mother?**
Ice snarled and looked up. “What?” she said. It was not really a question, more a statement of annoyance.
“Bearheart's hunters have returned, the feasting has begun… won’t you join us?” Sparkle couldn’t help but let a wave of hope enter her voice though she knew it would likely just frustrate her mother.
The two had very little in common. In fact, Sparkle had despaired of ever being able to connect with her aloof mother until she started showing interest in metalsmithing. Even then, it was not the connection the girl had hoped for. She had a wonderful relationship with her father… only just for once, she wished her mother would look at her not as an apprentice, but as a daughter.
“No,” the answer came, as Sparkle knew it would, with a dismissive wave of a hand.
“But Father will be riding out to hunt thunderfeet tomorrow, and it'll be maybe half a moon before he comes back —” Sparkle tried again gamely.
“I do not have time.” Ice turned her attention away from Sparkle and back to the work bench where the beautiful brightmetal knife lay.
Sparkle chewed her lip, an expression that was constantly apparent on her face whenever she dealt with her mother. “Mother, you haven’t eaten in a hand of days. That knife will still be here after you’ve had a chance to eat, while Father and Finch and Moss will all be gone --”
The girl didn’t get a chance to finish that sentence before Ice spun around and shouted, “Out! Get out!” and physically shoved Sparkle away from the forge.
Stung, Sparkle could do little else but let her mother push her away. Once outside the entrance of the stone cave that served as her mother’s forge, Sparkle willed the tears not to show in her eyes, willed herself not to show any weakness. It was just her mother’s way. When Ice was working, her work was all that mattered. Sparkle just wished she knew what her mother was “working” on exactly. The forge had been cold, and the only thing that seemed out of place was the trollish brightmetal knife. Shaking her head, Sparkle sighed and returned back to the feast, and the company of kin who'd be riding away come morning. She would speak to her father about it and maybe her father would know what to do about Ice's obsession with the brightmetal knife.
Riskrunner was certain that he had started this encounter using his steady-on, chief's-heir-in-training, we-are-all-reasonable-aren't-we-here voice. But somewhere along the way, he'd lost it, and he found himself matching his Recognized volume for volume, heat for heat.
“You're rutting crazy!” he shouted, finding himself going hoarse with with exasperation. “Crazy!”
“And you're being a greedy, louse-ridden, toothless whelp!” Ice yelled back at him. “I will not give it back. It's mine! You gave it to me!”
“I did not!”
“You did, too!” Ice snatched up a water jug from beside the forge and flung it at him. Riskrunner ducked, and the jug shattered against the center-post of the forge-den wall behind him. Someone yelped, either splashed by water or hit by bits of ceramic shards — because sure as mushrooms after a rain, the loud fight had drawn an audience. From the periphery of his vision, Riskrunner had been aware of the growing cluster of faces, his daughter's worried frown among them.
Riskrunner struggled to moderate his voice, and to again assume a level, reasonable tone of voice. “My hunters are waiting for me. We need to ride out to the grasslands while the thunderfeet are still calving. I've already been generous enough to let you study the troll-blade; you've had it for more than a hand of days now. You've learned what you can learn from looking at it. It won't pop out a litter of kittens for you, no matter how long you stare at it, so —”
The second water jug sailed at him; Riskrunner ducked again, trusting any audience behind him would do the same. “Get out! Just get out!” Ice roared at him, the sheathed brightmetal blade clutched protectively against the small of her back.
“Or what? You'll push me out? Like you did your own daughter?” Riskrunner snarled back at her.
Ice's mouth snapped shut and she glared at him, panting for breath, her pale eyes gone to cat-slivers with fury. “Out!” she hissed.
“Not without my knife. It'll be a long hunt — I will need it,” he answered. He knew his Recognized. She was as selfish and willful as any cubling in their worst snot-nosed bratling years — thank the High Ones their daughter Sparkle had outgrown that me-me-me stage quickly and taken after her father in temperament, because two such females in his life would have been unbearable. “Because you know as well as I do, heart-of-my-heart, that if I don't piss in a circle and force my claim now, you'll never let it out of your claws. I let you have your long look-see at the pretty thing. Now hand it back over so at least one of us can contribute something useful to this tribe.”
Those pale gray eyes would be shooting skyfire at him if his Recognized could. Riskrunner smiled grimly, knowing he'd pressed Ice into a figurative corner. She was being greedy. She was in the wrong. She knew it, too — but her lust for trollish-craft was something as visceral and all-consuming as the fires of Recognition.
“You've got other knives,” Ice countered, still clutching the sheathed blade behind her.
“Yes, and nothing blunts a stone blade as fast or as sure as butchering a thunderfoot.” Riskrunner scowled, thinking he'd likely have to pry the knife from her hands. Truth be told, he was beginning to feel the flyblown, twice-blasted thing wasn't worth this fuss — but he'd be skinned raw before he backed down on the matter.
There was a stir among the gathering behind him. Riskrunner winced, half-expecting either his mother the chieftess or his father the hunt leader had arrived to intervene. Instead, it was his gangly twig of a daughter. Sparkle pushed past him and stood between her parents, her golden eyes shimmering with tears.
“Take mine,” she said, pushing the troll-blade her grandsire had given her into her father's hands. “That way you can both have one. You need one to hunt with, and Mother needs hers to...” The girl faltered and glanced guardedly at Ice. “Mother needs hers to study.”
Riskrunner glared at his Recognized, angrier with Ice now than he had been moments ago when she'd thrown pottery at his head. **Amati,** he lock-sent, letting all of the acid of his fury scour her. **Our daughter should not have to sacrifice for you!**
“Then you don't have to take it from her, do you?” Ice snapped back, refusing the intimacy of sending.
Riskrunner took his daughter by the shoulders instead, and guided her out of the craft-den with him. Their daughter's maneuver had de-armed him. Ice had won her prize.
Days passed, and still — the goldsmith could find nothing. Nothing! No spot! No seam! No line! How had those thrice-cursed trolls been able to make this knife? Every piece Ice had ever made had some mark that showed where the hammer fell. Every piece she had showed some imperfection, a dark spot, a small blemish that drew the eye like a lodestone. In all her eights-upon-eights-of-eights of crafting, Ice had never been able to produce anything that was as beautiful as this knife!
It was the middle of a cold, wet day, but the goldsmith could not bring herself to sleep. For the countless time in an hour, Ice ran her hands over the blade again. She had nicked her fingers bloody on the sharp edge of the blade, but seemed not to notice. She had burned her hands many a time at the forge, little things like cuts or blisters made no difference to her when she was working. But that was the problem! She — wasn’t — working! She had nothing she could work on, nothing to compare to this.
Running a tongue over the hilt, Ice tasted the metal. Closing her eyes she sighed as she took in the tangy, near-blood-like taste. Again she breathed in the cold scent. Again she tested the weight in her hand. Heavier than gold, but still so light! The trolls had secrets down in their rabbit-warren. The secret of brightmetal! The secret of forging this perfection! Ice’s eyes snapped open, her eyes blazing — she had to have those secrets! Had to get her hands on brightmetal! Had to feel the power of shaping something so perfect! And it was becoming more and more apparent that this was not the place she would find the answers.
Ice turned and scowled as she looked over her basket of tools. She selected first one, then another, until she had filled a carrisack. Then she turned and reached for her hooded coat. It would be hours yet before the sun set and the rest of the tribe was stirring, so she had best be away before any of them saw her. It was a wet spring outside, and the goldsmith had a long way to travel.
Sparkle sat on the edge of the bedshelf, her arms around herself, watching her brother pack his travel supplies. “Do you have to?” she murmured.
Farscout gave her a sympathetic glance but didn't stop what he was doing. He would be riding out as soon as he'd finished, off on another of his long patrols. It seemed her brother was always busy leaving. Just like her father, who always was going hunting. Same with her grandsire. And — too often by far — so did her grandmother as well. Sparkle heaved a heavy sigh. It seemed the only constant member of her immediate family was her mother, who never went anywhere at all, yet still never had time for Sparkle, unless Sparkle could make herself useful.
Farscout pulled the straps closed on his travel bag and slung it over his shoulder. To Sparkle's surprise, he did delay a moment, sharing in her silence.
**I know how it is,** Farscout lock-sent then, his mindtouch rich with empathy. She felt his own conflicted love for their mother, spiced with old resentments. **She's as stubborn as she is single-minded. Leave her to her madness. It will pass.**
Sparkle made a face, sour enough with doubt that it wrung a laugh from her quiet brother. Farscout rested a hand on her shoulders, his long fingers on the nape of her neck. **Your grandmother should be back with the fishers from Roaring Falls by midnight tomorrow; you know Cider enjoys it when you stay with her and Rhythm until then.**
“At least I make someone happy,” Sparkle muttered.
Farscout's hand pressed hard against her, and caught-out in her self-pity, Sparkle met his sober stare with reluctance. Her brother gave her a single, chastising shake, then ruffled her brown mane of curls with affection.
**I'll look for something special for you,** he promised, rising to his feet. **I can usually find something unusual around the Greenstone Mountain's flanks.**
Sparkle got to her feet and followed her brother down the Mother Tree stairs and outside the Dentrees. His wolf-friend, Shale, was waiting outside, lounging near Leather and his she-wolf, as Leather worked over a staked hide. Leather and Farscout nodded, acknowledgment of the scout's departure. Mushroom came fluttering over to take up position on Farscout's shoulder, humming a whispery three-tone tune to itself as it seized hold of Farscout's hair. Sparkle enjoyed one last hug from her tall, lanky brother, then watched sullenly as Farscout rode away.
“Everyone always leaves me behind,” she muttered to Leather.
The wise tanner merely smiled at her. “Each of us has a calling, she-cub. You'll find yours someday, too. Then maybe you'll find you’ll be the one riding away from the ones you love.”
Sparkle kicked at a bit of loam. She liked the thought of that. Someday she'd be the one riding away, and maybe then, when her mother got a taste of Sparkle being far far away, her mother would realize how much she missed her daughter. It could happen. Stranger things had.
Sparkle had avoided her mother's company since the fight at the forge with her father, three mornings ago. Still scuffing her bare feet through the forest loam, Sparkle turned now toward her mother's forge. Maybe — if her mother had finally tired of her relentless examinations of the brightmetal troll-blade — maybe Ice would let Sparkle work the bellows of her forge, or let her help polish a gemstone. Sparkle knew the easiest way to stay in her mother's good graces was to make herself useful, and when she could make her mother really happy with her, Ice would talk as she worked, explaining what she was doing and why. Sparkle knew that her mother's offer to share knowledge was her mother's way of expressing affection. Ice certainly didn't share her craft secrets with anyone else.
The forge was a low, turtle-shaped stone den on a rise overlooking Den Creek, and was open on the two adjacent sides most sheltered from the wind. Starskimmer's grandsire had shaped it a long, long, long time ago, and the triangular wedge of a roof had long been overgrown in a thick carpet of moss, so that the forge den looked as if it were just carved out of the rise itself. In the worst weather, Ice strung shagback hides, lashed together into protective sheets. When the weather was good, the goldsmith rolled the hides up and secured them on the roof, so that fresh air and sunlight could flood in. A single tall, straight branch of a smoke-funnel rose from the very back of the forge-den, a chimney for the worst of the forge-smoke.
Sparkle frowned to see that the hide-walls of the forge were lashed down, and that there was no smoke drifting up out of the smoke-funnel. She walked around the side of the forge and worked at the knots that lashed the hide door shut. It wasn't unusual for mother to sleep in the forge, so Sparkle slipped into the dark den as silently as she could, cautious of making the least sound that might wake an irritable Ice.
To Sparkle's dismay, the forge was cold and empty. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.
The girl turned in a slow circle and gazed about her with a sick, sinking feeling. She knew her mother's den in the Mother Tree was empty, because she and Farscout had just passed it — if Ice had been there, sleeping in the bundle of furs, her brother would have paused to check if their mother were awake and would have said his farewell before leaving on his long patrol. But no — Farscout had just walked past that narrow den, and Sparkle had followed in his wake, her nose telling her the room was empty and her mother elsewhere. It had been only natural to assume that Ice was at her forge instead — with the fickle spring weather being what it was, Ice wasn't apt to stray anywhere else in the Holt.
**Mother,** she lock-sent.
The girl waited for a response. She did not even feel the involuntary whisper-touch that her send had been received.
Sparkle hugged herself and looked around the dark forge-den. Everything looked to be in its place. No. Wait. Some of her mother's tools were gone.
And missing from their regular pegs on the centerpost was both her mother's gathering bag and her fur-lined traveling coat.
Sparkle bolted for the hide door. She knew something was desperately wrong — she wasn't sure what, but she knew her mother, and everything screamed wrong. **Farscout!** she sent with a blaze of fear. Her father was gone, as were both of her grandparents. But her brother would not be out of sending range, not for hours yet. **Farscout! It's Mother! She's missing!**
It had not taken long to determine where the tribe's goldsmith had gone. Her tracks had gone northwest along Den Creek, and up toward Home Ridge. Farscout and Leather had exchanged one grim look.
“Crow’s Ridge,” Farscout said. “She’s headed for Crow’s Ridge.”
“If your mother were just going to pan gold flake from Deer-Lick Creek, she'd respond to our sends,” Leather agreed. “You’re right. Your mother’s defying the Chieftess’s command about the troll tunnels. She’s headed for Crow Ridge.” He shrugged on his fringed longcoat and sent a summons-send, while Farscout turned back to his sister.
“We have to ride hard and fast to catch up to her,” Farscout said. “Mother may have as much as a full night's lead on us — even afoot and with no wolf-friend, she'll have reached the troll cave by now.”
“I'm coming with you,” the girl insisted.
Farscout held his sister's eyes for a moment, gauging her sincerity. Then he nodded and swept her off her feet and onto Shale's back.
They rode out of the Holt at full speed — as acting-chief in his sister Easysinger's absence, Leather had summoned young stoneshaper Starskimmer to join them, as well as Suddendusk, Raven and One-Leg. They travelled as fast as they could, with most of them running beside their wolf-friends as often as riding. They headed northeast and around the Speartip — it was a longer distance to Crow’s Ridge that way than Ice’s direct route, but it was flat along the river bottom and made for easy footing for the runners, unlike the steep and sometimes treacherous climb up and over Home Ridge.
**Mother,** Farscout regularly lock-sent, at times with force, at times imploring. If Farscout had known his mother's soul-name, he would have used it. Always, his sendings were absorbed without reply, beyond an increasing annoyance. Ice knew they were racing to intercept her. But she was narrow-focused on something with all of her formidable single-minded determination, and refused any and all distractions.
“Terrible traps, terrible, terrible. Slicing blades and falling stones and spikes! Horrible bloody spikes!” moaned Mushroom in a miserable whisper against Farscout's ear. He tried repeatedly to shush it, painfully aware of his young sister riding alongside on Shale's back as he ran. But the soft chanting would bubble out of the Preserver again and again, as if the frightened creature could not help itself. The best Farscout found he could do was to shift the Preserver to his far shoulder.
“What's Ice doing?” Starskimmer asked at one point, as the rescue party left the Spear Tip behind them, heading for the ford across the Braided River.
“Being an addle-pated fool,” muttered One-Leg in response. “Those pretty knives my nephew brought home finally cracked her egg. Bet you sure as fleas on a white wolf — she's trying to break down that troll door and find her some wart-nosed green-skinned root-digger to flap her yap at.”
“No way she can get through the troll door,” Suddendusk said, sounding so sure of himself that he earned second looks from other members of their party. “No way she can get through those locks. It can't be done.”
“She won't listen to me,” Sparkle moaned, as they crossed the northwestern ford of the Braided River and traveled into the child's send-range reach of her mother. “She won't answer me!”
The riders were passing around the eastern slopes of Sentinel Peak when Ice's sending flared bright in their minds, wordless and fierce with triumph. For a moment, they glimpsed through her eyes as the heavy stone door into the tunnels began to open. Ice expected the door to groan and drag, showing its age and weight. But instead, the door swung open with only the slightest whisper of well-oiled hinges, and a child's weight could have pushed it open.
“She did it!” exclaimed Suddendusk in shock, while Ice's own sending washed over them all.
**I've done it. Now go away. Don't follow me! I'll come back when I've learned everything the trolls can teach me!**
**Those tunnels are trapped,** Farscout shot back in desperation. **Foxsly and Crest together couldn't outsmart the troll-traps – don't DO this, mother!**
**The trolls won't teach you!** Leather added sharply. **They've always refused to talk to us!**
**Come home, mother, come home!** added Sparkle in a steady, despairing stream.
Ice heard them. But her self-confidence and lust for knowledge were too absolute. Her response was to close herself off entirely, even as she took her first step through the troll door.
The rescue party kept moving. Even riding and running at best speed, the Elder Valley watershed where the troll tunnel came out beneath Crow’s Ridge was still an hour’s ride away.
It was a pitifully short wait until they heard what they dreaded. Ice's mind-shriek blazed loud in their minds. Her mental reach out to them was an instinctive, feral cry for help. Pain was crushing-blinding-burning her alive — her bones were breaking — the pressure was unbearable —
And then, as suddenly as it had erupted in their minds, her agony-send was silenced. When they sought to reach back to her, her mind-touch was simply not there to be found.
The rescue party came to a staggering halt. No one wanted to say it aloud, no one wanted to be the first to acknowledge the death they had just borne witness to. Even Mushroom was silent.
Then Sparkle burst into a flood of tears. Farscout gathered his young sister off of Shale's back and sank to his knees, holding her as she wept. Someone touched his shoulder in sympathy; Leather knelt beside him, one arm about his shoulders. No one spoke. There was nothing to be said – at least not yet, and not with both of Ice's children within hearing.
Farscout simply held his sister close, and let his own tears fall into her brown curls.
At length, Farscout, Raven, and One-Leg rode on to the troll tunnels alone, leaving Leather to carry Sparkle back home. The tanner took Starskimmer and Suddendusk with him, the former to restrain any thoughts of shaping a way into the troll tunnels after Ice, and the latter as the crafter was far too eager to see the troll tunnel door and figure out for himself how Ice had opened its lock.
Once home, Sparkle would not stop weeping, not until she drank a bitter tea that Cloudfern gave her. The girl was bundled into sleeping furs in the Chieftess's den, while the wolfpack sang a chorus of death-summons in the distance.
A few hours after dawn, Farscout and his companions returned. The troll door had been sealed shut again when they had reached it; Ice's blood-soaked tool bag had been left slung over the weathered door-knob. The intent of the gesture was unclear — it could have been sympathy or it could have been mockery — but the purpose was the same. The trolls alone controlled their contact with the forest-dwellers above, and trespass into their warren would not be tolerated.
Sparkle refused to look up at her brother's lean figure when he stepped though the hide-door into the cold forge. “It's time,” Farscout said. “The tribe has gathered.”
All of the tribe's strayed hunters had returned, and Ice would be mourned, even if she left no body to build a funeral-raft for. She could hear the patter of rain outside — it had been a steady rain for the past two days and nights, weather far more suited to spring than early summer. Sparkle clutched her mother's sealskin wrap around herself and stayed where she was, at least dry if not comfortable, sitting with her back against the forge's center-post.
“I don't want to Howl for Mother,” the girl muttered, as Farscout sank down to his haunches beside her. “They won't have all nice things to say.”
Farscout slid an arm around his young sister's shoulders. She was tense with anger, over words not even yet spoken.
“Our Mother was difficult to love. You must not hold that against anyone. There might be some unhappy stories told about our mother tonight. You could probably tell as many of those as anyone.”
Sparkle did look at her brother then. Her eyes flooded with tears, but she ground them away with the back of her hand, determined to resist crying for as long as she could. It felt as if she had done nothing but cry these past four days.
“I'm angry at Mother,” she confessed.
Farscout hugged her close. **I am, too.** And he was — she could feel the anger and the despair and the tangled knot of resentment under his words.
“She shouldn't have died,” Sparkle said. “Mother shouldn't have gone into the troll tunnels.” She wanted to say more — that the trolls shouldn't have killed her mother. But the wolf in her blood silenced her. It was the Way. A pack claimed a territory and would kill to defend it. Sparkle wiped her unshed tears away again, the gesture sharp with helpless emotion. “The trolls should talk to us,” she said instead. “If they'd talk with us, this wouldn't have happened.”
Farscout was silent long enough that Sparkle realized her brother was taking her angry words and looking at them from every angle, as though she were an adult and just the sullen and hurting cub she knew herself to be.
“The trolls should,” he agreed at length. “Maybe Chieftess Foxsly and her hunter Crest would still be alive as well, if the trolls had. That they won't talk to us means only that we can never trust them. But I wonder if Mother wouldn't have done what she did irregardless. We loved her. You and I — we had to love her. Ice was our mother. But if the trolls had said to us in words what their actions have told us — 'Leave us alone, ignore us as we ignore you, and do not invade our warren, because our traps will have no sympathy for you' — what do you think our mother would have done, when she decided her curiosity must be answered?”
Sparkle sighed heavily. The answer to her brother's question was too obvious, but she didn't want to voice the words. Instead, the girl-cub rubbed her face, grinding away any moisture there, and shoved herself to her feet. Farscout rose as well, and followed her as far as the hide door.
“What will happen to all of this?” Sparkle asked, turning to look again and the orderly craft den. She could still smell her mother here; this space would always feel like home to her, just as much as the cozy dens of the Dentrees.
Farscout surveyed the room as well. “It will wait until one of the tribe has an interest in our mother's craft. She taught you and I both some of what she knew. We can pass that on.”
Sparkle felt her brother's hand resting on her shoulder. She looked up at him, then around the empty forge. Something that had been fluttering adrift in her since her mother's final death-send seemed to settle for the first time, putting roots to earth.
“Can you show me what Mother taught you?” she asked. The centered feeling grew stronger with each heartbeat; Sparkle already knew that she liked making pretty jewelry as her mother had. The thought of becoming the tribe's only goldsmith was a promising one. She remembered, with a pang, the words her grand-uncle Leather had said to her about finding a calling, on that terrible day just before Sparkle had discovered Ice had left the Holt.
“Everything she taught me is yours — if you want it,” Farscout replied, the hint of a smile touching his somber face.
Sparkle nodded firmly. She did want it. Maybe learning their mother's craft might not lead to a deeper understanding of their difficult mother. But the promise of mastering their mother's tools and skills, and eventually filling her role within the tribe — now that was a glimpse of a future that a motherless girl could want to reach for.
Wordlessly, Sparkle reached for her brother's hand, and turned to face the hide door. Out there, on the banks of the river below, the tribe had gathered for Ice's Howl. Sparkle was ready, now, to join them.