(This story is a part of the Return of the Fierce Ones storyline; please see listing for related stories. In particular, this story is best read after having read the stories in the First Encounter with Humans! thread, set 400 years earlier.)
Last night’s plunging temperatures had created a fresh crust of snow that crunched underfoot as Fadestar made her way down to the craft-dens. She saw her chief long before she reached him. Windburn's red hair was easy to spot amid the more muted grays and tans of the raw animal skins, as well as Moss's own tied-back pale yellow ropes of hair and undyed buckskin working tunic and apron. Windburn was helping Moss scrape hair from fresh hides before they were smoke-tanned, and the two were clearly pushing to finish before the dark clouds overhead unloaded another spell of wet snow.
“Hello there!” Moss called, as he was the first to spot her approach. He stood up from the hide he was staking and wiped his hands on a bit of rabbit fur, using Fadestar's arrival as an excuse to stretch his back and reach for his waterskin, which was swaddled in a basket with heated stones to keep it warm. Fadestar could smell the aroma of mint tea as Moss uncapped the waterskin for a drink.
“Fadestar,” Windburn said by way of greeting. He was kneeling in front of a staked hide, with a badger fur between his knees and the snow. He gave Fadestar a nod as he continued to work.
Fadestar gave Moss a quick, almost apologetic smile for the interruption. She took a deep breath and tried to quell the flutter of moth-wings in her belly, reminding herself firmly of the speech she had spent the entire morning practicing. “Chief, I have a request.”
She saw one of Moss's pale eyebrows rise; he handed the waterskin of warm tea over to their chief as Windburn paused in his work to look up at Fadestar. She felt the weight of the chief's curiosity like sudden stones; she had not imagined she would find herself looking down at Windburn for this conversation, and that detail alone caused her courage to fumble. Fadestar struggled to maintain her composure, while the fluttering in her stomach increased from moth-wings to what felt like an entire gaggle of Preservers.
Windburn took a sip of tea, then handed the waterskin back to Moss. “Yes?” he prompted her.
Fadestar swallowed heavily. “I want to be a scout,” she said. Once she started, the words spilled out. She knew she sounded just as nervous as she felt, much to her own frustration. “I want to be a scout just like my sister Kestrel. I can do it. I know I can. And with my sister carrying a baby — she's not going to be able to scout for the tribe forever, and neither will True Edge once the babies are born. I want to become an apprentice now, so that maybe by the time I'm needed to take over for my sister and True Edge, I'll be ready.”
Both of Moss's eyebrows were arched now, while Windburn's expression was frightfully guarded. He stared back at Fadestar from where he knelt before the branch-horn hide he had been scraping, and Fadestar felt an impulse to drop to her knees as well... then maybe roll on her back and bare her throat in submission while she was at it. It was hard to quiet that particular submissive urge when the chief's sharp blue eyes had gone unreadable. Instead, Fadestar locked her knees and stood her ground, while Windburn slowly looked her up and down.
“You aren't serious,” the chief said.
“I am very serious,” Fadestar replied, trying to sound firm and braver than she felt. “I can do it. I know I can. Just give me a chance. Let me prove myself.”
Windburn met her gaze then, and to her surprise, he gave her a curt nod before he returned his attention to scraping the branch-horn hide. “If you are serious, then I'll give you what you want,” he said, before opening his mind and sweeping hers with him in a directed send. **Farscout — you have a new apprentice. Fadestar is leaving with you when you go today. Take her along, and let's see if she can keep up with you.**
Fadestar felt Farscout's burst of surprise at his chief's command, but the elder sent nothing more in response than **Fadestar —– get your things and be ready to go by sun-high. We will be going northeast along the Holt River until we reach the border near Rainbow Springs, then walk the loop of the south-eastern border. I will meet you at your sister's den for your leave-taking.**
If anything, Moss's eyebrows had risen higher. The tanner was looking back and forth between Fadestar and Windburn as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd overheard. Fadestar was sympathetic. She had expected... well, she had thought she would to have to fight for what she wanted. She had expected an argument, a long-waged battle — something, anything more than this sudden, too-easy gift on a platter. Fadestar tried to hide her surprise and bewilderment by smiling and murmuring a thanks. Then she turned and hurried back toward her den in the Child Tree. The sun was near its zenith overhead — Fadestar had been given her apprenticeship, and she had woefully very little time to prepare for leaving on her very first patrol.
Word of Fadestar’s sudden apprenticeship spread fast in the family. Fadestar sent to her sister, who was not far from the Holt with Snowfall. She informed them, excited and a little bit anxious, what and with whom she was going on the scouting trip. Both females responded. **Don’t leave without saying goodbye,** Kestrel sent back with pride and only a little concern.
**We’re on our way,** Snowfall more practically said. **Take my quiver. Yours is too small for such an extended trip.**
**Thanks, Snowfall,** Fadestar sent back, and rushed over to her sister’s den first. Fadestar had sensed that both felt a hint of worry, but the main feeling had been pride. It had relieved the youngster. She had thought, and perhaps even expected, that Windburn would assign her first training patrol to her sister. But this sudden opportunity had been thrown in her lap and she was determined to do her very best to prove herself.
True Edge was in the mates’ den as Fadestar entered, and it seemed both of his mates had informed him in the meantime about Fadestar’s apprenticeship.
“So, it’s Farscout you will be traveling with,” he said with a hint of dismay in his voice.
Fadestar raised her chin. She had never gotten close with her sister’s and Snowfall’s mate, always having the feeling that she had to prove herself to him or that he plainly chose to shake her feathers. “Yes,” she simply replied. “Snowfall said I could take her quiver.”
Her eyes scanned the den for it, and when she saw it near the den’s exit she quickly reached for the quiver. Then, she put one foot outside the den, indicating that she’d leave right away. “I have to gather my stuff,” she breathed and waved a goodbye.
It didn’t take her very long to climb up to her own den. Fadestar’s heart was racing with adrenaline; excitement, eagerness and anxiety battled to surface within her. She grabbed her own bow and quiver. Quickly, she emptied her quiver and put her own arrows in Snowfall’s quiver, after which she put it near the den’s entrance. Then she took her spear and put it next to the bow and the quiver. Maybe she would need some food for the first day? She had to make sure to stop by the storage den before departure, she mused. What else? Her winter coat, she would need that one in any case. It was hanging on one of the hooks that Brightwood had shaped in Fadestar’s new den.
Just when she took a moment to caress the soft fur she had made it out of, a shadow fell over the den. She looked up and saw True Edge stepping into the den. He had followed her. Clenching her teeth, she figured that he’d probably want to give her some advice before they left.
“Do you know what lies ahead, cub? Scouting is serious business and not as easy as it might look.”
“I can do it,” she said confidently, repeating the words she had spoken to Windburn not long ago, “I know I can. And I want to do it.” She felt that True Edge wanted to say more and raised her head to meet his eyes. “I want to be a scout,” she said, even louder this time to meet his volume. “I can do it.”
“Farscout is a hard nut to crack,” True Edge told her directly. “He can go without talking for days. Don’t let his silence get to you.”
“I won’t,” the young adult spoke, slightly annoyed by the unwanted advice. True Edge always seemed to have advice she didn’t want.
The elder knew Fadestar, and knew the tone with which she replied. “Yes, you will,” the elder told her. “Travelling with him is like travelling with a rock — only a rock in your shoe is more entertaining. He’s a tough teacher, he’ll be looking for reasons to disqualify you, so don’t give him any.”
Fadestar felt her anxiety trying to rule over the other strong emotions within, and her heart raced in her chest. Turning away from True Edge, she swallowed hard, while he continued with advice. In fact, she felt intimidated by the confidence with which the elder laid out his words.
“He’ll try to run you off your feet — no one covers ground like he does, because no one else enjoys misery as much. And for ancestors’ sake, don’t chatter at him! Nothing annoys Farscout more than chatter. Best way to deal with him is to wait for him to talk first. Wait him out for days if you have to, but make him talk first!”
The image True Edge sketched with his stern voice was unnerving, and she felt restlessness within her. Clenching her teeth, she raised her hackles, and the eagerness to do what she was about to do took over.
“I won’t!” she said again, sharper than before. True Edge raised his eyebrows. He could hardly miss the impatient tone in her voice and his own voice grew sharper too, but his tone still had the confidence of someone who knew what he was talking about.
“Don’t underestimate what you’re about to do, cub. It’s going to be hard and tough, and you’ll have a hard time keeping up with him. Physically and emotionally. He has ways to make you doubt every move you make. You want to prove yourself, but try too hard, and you’ll ruin the chance.”
Fadestar gasped. True Edge was almost barking right now. She knew on some level that he had a strong opinion that wasn’t necessarily the truth, but the stern tone made her doubt. The anxiety inside her had reached full power. She fell silent and tilted her head towards True Edge, who had moved forward. He took her suddenly cold hands into his, while his light blue eyes pierced into hers.
“Dress warm, add multiple layers. The nights are cold in the woods, but when you reach the scrublands on the eastern border, where there is nothing to block the wind, it’ll feel like your nose, ears and fingers will freeze off instantly. Don’t take useless items, they will just slow you down — you’ll want to travel light. And most important: don’t ever complain about anything on the scouting trip, do as you are told, and you might make it “
Fadestar opened her mouth, but found herself unable to speak and in submission, she turned her head away. She suddenly felt doubtful she could ever make it through the scouting expedition if everything True Edge told her was true, but her determination forced her to go on. If she retreated now, she might never be given another chance.
“Mark my words, young one. This is NOT going to be easy. I’ll leave you to yourself to prepare.” With that, he let go of Fadestar’s hands and started to turn around, but before he did, he sent: **And hurry. Do not be late, or you have failed him without even leaving the Holt.**
Fadestar stared at the hunter’s back as he moved out of the den and felt True Edge’s pride and fair warning of his last words wash over her. It took her two heartbeats to catch her breath before she whirled around, slightly panicked, to gather the rest. Taking True Edge’s advice, she added winter-weight silk leggings under her black leather winter pants, a linen shirt under her blue sweater with a turtleneck, and swung her dark grey clickdeer-coat over her shoulders. Extra boots, she reminded herself, and a weatherproof sleeping fur. Gloves! She needed to take those, too!
She gathered her clothing and her weapons, then raced out of her den while she summoned Autumnleaf. She went to the storage den. Inside, she blindly found her way to the dried meat, but hesitated. It was better to take some high-fat cakes, she pondered. She gathered a few pemmican cakes and added only a few pieces of dried meat. The rest, she figured, they’d hunt.
She thought she arrived well before noon, but to her dismay, Farscout, Duskgreeter and Autumnleaf were already waiting for her. They stood in the snow outside of the Father Tree, their breaths visible in the frigid air. Fadestar nodded at the scout, trying to avoid Farscout’s eyes as True Edge’s words rang in her head. She took in his appearance. The silent scout was wearing a sealskin hood, dark grey pants and knee-high, black boots. Her own colors, too, were mainly black and dark grey, with only the few bright pink flowers to brighten up Fadestar’s outfit. The only bright color in Farscout’s gear was the orange splash of Mushroom, who was tucked under the shelter of Farscout’s fur collar. The Preserver looked solemnly at Fadestar and said nothing. Fadestar fidgeted with the foxfur trim of her hood but stopped when she felt Farscout’s eyes resting on her, brushing the bangs out of her face, instead.
He silently reached for the bag that she packed. Unwillingly, Fadestar held her breath while Farscout inspected what she had brought. The youngster thought she had packed everything she needed. She had chosen some high-fat travelcakes instead of dried meat, a sleeping fur that was weather-proof, an extra pair of boots and gloves and a waterskin. Next to that, she had brought her bow, had put an extra bowstring in her quiver, and she had also brought her spear. She had strapped a knife to her upper leg, and had put one in its sheath in the bag that Farscout was now inspecting. Fadestar had been on short trips with Kestrel since her Very Long Walk, but this was different. She had no clue as to when they would return, and she just hoped she packed enough. More importantly, she hoped she didn’t pack stuff that Farscout would deem unnecessary or trivial.
But after a little while that seemed as long as the entire winter, Farscout just gave her a simple nod, and handed the bag over. Fadestar breathed in deeply.
True Edge arrived, as did Kestrel and Snowfall, who had returned from a close-by hunting trip. Kestrel squeezed Fadestar’s shoulder and ruffled her hair. **You’ll do well, sister,** the glider sent with pride.
**Windburn couldn’t have made a better choice for a teacher,** Snowfall added. Fadestar looked up at her female elders before looking at True Edge, who solemnly nodded. Feeling nervous, she automatically reached out with a send to her best friend Newt, but as her teacher started to move, she couldn’t do anything but follow. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye to Newt in person, but his sent wishes of luck were a welcome relief.
She lifted her hand to wave goodbye to her family, just before the elder and herself disappeared between the trees. She took a deep breath and followed him. He did not give her an order, he just seemed to expect her to keep up as he hit a traveling trot. Soon, the sounds of the Holt had disappeared and they traveled only with the sounds of the forest and the sound of their footfalls and those of the wolves.
Fadestar stayed close behind Farscout, biting her lip. Since they had left the Dentress, he hadn’t said a word — he’d just looked back a single time to see if she kept up. She could hear True Edge’s words of warning ring in her head, getting louder with every trot the wolves made. Gritting her teeth and tightening the grip of the wolf’s fur below her, she bent over a little more to catch less wind. She would do this, she could do this, and she would prove it. To True Edge, to Windburn, but most importantly, to Farscout. Silently, she raised her chin in determination and accepted the challenge she had set for herself.
Despite the wet winter snows, they had made good time as they travelled up along the Holt River toward Rainbow Springs. Fadestar sighed in relief, not because she wanted to admit she was tired after two and a half days of near-constant travel. She was grateful for any break from the relentless pace — but what relieved her more was to hear Farscout’s voice. She had felt his eyes sometimes following her like a hawk. Farscout was aware of Fadestar’s every move, but since he hadn’t spoken, she also hadn’t known whether he approved or didn’t. Every now or then he would gesture at her, or give her a sending-nudge to direct her attention toward something he thought valuable — like animal tracks or a glimpse of a winter herb. But her elder didn’t speak or show any interest in conversation. Even Mushroom traveled in silence, either riding on Farscout’s shoulder or tucked beneath the shelter of his sealskin hood. Their mutual silence had gotten on her nerves, and now that Farscout had actually spoken, she felt a weight drop off her shoulders.
The elder scout led her to a sheltered spot, where an overhanging rock flanked with low bushes created a shallow cave of sorts. It wasn’t entirely sheltered from the weather, but it was mostly dry and protected from the wind. Autumnleaf went in first and Fadestar swiftly followed, nestling against her wolf-friend. Farscout watched her get settled in, then he turned around and moved away silently, with Mushroom still clinging to his hood. Soon, he had disappeared from sight. Duskgreeter, however, stayed behind, and sat down next to Autumnleaf. The she-wolf snorted, but Farscout’s wolf didn’t move as he sat guard.
Fadestar was glad to have a break. She hadn’t complained, but her feet were sore. She couldn’t remember ever walking so far on end. They hadn’t rested much. They’d been constantly on the move, traveling for hours with Farscout sometimes silently pointing out some tracks from animals that she had overlooked, or herbs that he thought should be of interest to her. They had sometimes rested for a little while to fill their waterskins or to catch a quick wolf-nap, but she was still achingly tired.
She hadn’t wanted to admit it, especially not to True Edge, but she had underestimated the hardships of the journey. She had made short trips with Kestrel before, but her sister had planned more breaks than Farscout had — probably, Fadestar now realized, because she had been with the glider. The constant travel, the short naps and the constant silence had exhausted the young apprentice. Not to mention, Farscout was always alert to details around them. Fadestar had tried very hard to do the same as he did, but she soon noticed that he still had to point things out that she had missed.
To make matters worse, the weather had begun to warm up — it was a temporary thaw, Fadestar knew, but it made the top layers of snow melt into a wet slush, and caused the river and creeks to rise. Last night had been clear, and the temperature had dipped well below freezing again, making everything icy; but today was warming again, melting the ice. Fadestar was finding that it was better to have a frigid cold than this slippery cycle of freezing and warming. It made for slower going, for the wolves as well as for themselves. Or at least Fadestar hoped it was affecting the wolves as well — she didn’t want to think that Farscout might be resenting her for slowing them down. She knew they should be at the border by now and heading south, and that the combination of the weather and an apprentice was slowing Farscout down egregiously — but she didn’t dare to ask him what he thought about their travel-time.
And just now, before Farscout had spoken, Fadestar had almost fallen asleep while walking next to Autumnleaf. She had leaned heavily on her wolf’s back, not being able to keep her eyes open after too little sleep. The wolf had huffed in annoyance, which had nearly caused her to trip, too. Farscout had witnessed her embarrassing moment, Fadestar was sure of it.
She pulled off her boots and shivered when the cold wind touched her bare feet. At the same time, the breeze also seemed to ease the hurt. It was no wonder that they hurt, Fadestar thought with dismay after a closer inspection, because she had a blister on her left heel and a painful spot that was hot to the touch on the ball of the same foot.
Aggravated with herself, her grey eyes shot from the left to the right, inspecting the sheltered spot. Her feet needed care before she could move on. Careful not to burden her feet, she worked herself up to her knees and with her arm she shoved some snow closer. Then, she carefully scooped up a handful and adjusted it to her foot. She hissed at the cold touch of the snow, but after the initial shock from the cold, it felt a little better. However, it wouldn’t be enough. The sore spots would need protection, too, or else they’d blister. Fadestar went through her travel bag in increasing annoyance. Nothing she carried would serve her purpose. Food wouldn’t cover the sore spots, neither would the weapons.
For a moment, she pondered on what to do, while her eyes slid to her winter coat. If she could take something from the lining on the inside, she might be able to use it as a pad to protect the sore spots. With regret, she reached for her knife and carefully cut out a patch from the suede lining of her coat, then a longer strip as well to serve as binding. It was a shame to mar the coat, but she wouldn’t miss the piece she had removed, and at least it had taught her to take bandages with her next time. At least she had a long coat, she figured with a grim smile. She would at least have enough straps of cloth to make bandages of before she’d run out of coat.
Fadestar put the pieces of suede on the sore spots, and bound the straps around it to keep the fur in place. Then, she leaned back to inspect her work. It would simply have to do. Fadestar was determined not to slow Farscout down, no matter what pain she had to bite through. She would not complain, she promised herself, and she would try even harder to stay alert...
...Autumnleaf stirred. Fadestar opened her eyes slowly and blinked a few times. She had scented Farscout before she could see him clearly. Apparently, she had fallen asleep. With rosy cheeks she sat upright.
It took her a heartbeat to notice that the scout was carrying food. When she saw the rabbit, she noticed how hungry she was — her belly started to rumble vigorously as the scent of the rabbit was carried to her nostrils. Pushing one of her hands at her belly, she accepted the fresh meat with the other when Farscout handed it over. The rabbit was still half warm, she noticed in delight. Fresh blood was dripping in the snow. As she took a bite, she shoved some snow over the drops with her feet.
“You can eat as we go,” the elder scout said. “If we keep a steady pace, we’ll reach Growler Geyser by dawn. It’s outside our territory, but a scout should know her landmarks.”
Fadestar’s spirits dropped — she had hoped to rest a little while longer. Biting back a moan, Fadestar nodded. She pushed herself up from the ground and followed the scout, who silently moved past Duskgreeter. With a hint of regret and a longing gaze, Fadestar briefly looked at Autumnleaf. She’d been determined to do as Farscout did, and she understood that he didn’t want to tire the wolves. Still, it would’ve been a welcome relief for her feet if they’d ridden out. Autumnleaf caught her gaze and huffed in dismay, as if she wanted to discourage the youngster from even thinking of riding her. Fadestar gritted her teeth. Determined not to complain, she ignored her wolf and bit through the pain. She would prove to Farscout that she could do this. If only he gave her more clues on what he thought...
After their detour outside of the Holt’s territory to Growler Geyser, Farscout and Fadestar started travelling south along the very eastern edge of the Holt’s territory, where the forest trailed away into the rolling scrublands. For the next night and day, the weather grew frigid again, and fresh, powdery snow began to fall. Farscout sought shelter for them during the coldest hours of the night, but started them moving again by dawn, relentlessly heading south along the eastern edge of the Holt’s border, when Fadestar would have rather stayed tucked up and wrapped warm in her sleeping fur.
They were picking their way across a narrow, steep creekbed when the accident happened. Fadestar had chosen to go up a tree and cross among the branches, leaving Farscout and the wolves below her to pick their way across the slick, icy rocks of the creek. On the other side, she stood on her branch to wait for them, using the moment to catch her wind. The old limb was already bearing a weight of wet, heavy snow. Fadestar was watching her companions climb the slope below her when something snapped and began to give way. Suddenly she was weightless and the world was rushing up to meet her. Fadestar had a moment’s flash of fear, knowing that she was falling — then it as though time stopped and the moment stretched out effortlessly. She could see the snow-covered ground below her with a crystal clarity. Her senses of smell and hearing felt almost painfully heightened. She could hear Mushroom's shriek of alarm, and Farscout calling her name — both cries seemed stretched and distorted. She could attempt to correct her fall, twist so that her feet were beneath her – but for an endless, disorientating moment, Fadestar felt as instead as if she simply could spread her arms wide and fly up and away, so wonderfully feather-light —
Hitting ground was a hard, jolting shock. Something crunched and snapped; all of the air punched out of her lungs and Fadestar could not draw in breath to replace it. The winter-bare branches above her danced and swam, the whole world suddenly aspin as lights darted like fireflies in her vision.
Farscout was at her side in the next moment, his expression alarmed. She saw his lips moving as he spoke to her, but Fadestar couldn't hear his words at first. She felt his hands, however, searching her for injury.
“... can't... breath...” she managed to gasp, or at least thought she pushed the words out. All her ears could hear was a roaring sound.
Farscout's mind-touch brushed her then, searchingly. She seized his sending, releasing a flood of physical sensations to him, like a cub grasping for a parent to make the hurt go away. Farscout's mental embrace enfolded her protectively, taking in what she gave him and returning only a deliberate, soothing calm in return.
Fadestar could draw breath then. She sucked in air desperately — it hurt to do so, as if waking every nerve at once. The pain was everywhere at once — she had landed gracelessly, her whole body spread-eagled in the snow.
“Sad-Eyes High-Thing fall!” cried Mushroom, landing beside her and clutching at a lock of hair that spilled out of her hood. Sad-Eyes High-Thing make big crunch in snow!”
“I only fell,” Fadestar countered. The world had stopped spinning, and the fireflies before her eyes were dimming. “I hit a patch of ice on the branch.” The wolves arrived then and Autumnleaf tried to shove Farscout aside in order to bathe Fadestar's face with her tongue. Duskgreeter snarled at and shouldered the younger wolf back; there was a snap and snarl a hands-breath overhead, and Fadestar joined Farscout in firmly ordering both wolf-friends aside. “I'm all right,” Fadestar said then, trying to sit up. Farscout grabbed her shoulders to support her when her effort faltered. “I just knocked the wind out of myself. That's all. Really.”
Farscout's mindtouch was dubious at that, and Fadestar realized she could smell the salty scent of blood. There was blood on the snow. She looked at that, seeing the jagged end of a broken stick at her side as Farscout tugged her left pants legs free of her boot top, then began to roll up the leg of both her breeches and her leggings. Fadestar felt a flash of pain then, and realized that what she was looking at her own spear shaft, broken in two. Then she looked in horror at the bloody laceration on her left calf. Fadestar groaned, mortified to see that she had landed on her own spearhead, not only breaking the weapon but slicing open her own leg through both her leather breeches and woven leggings.
“Sad-Eye High-Thing must be more careful, break leg bad, bad to fall and hurt self and freeze like ice in snow, really not smart of little Sad-Eye High-Thing!” Mushroom scolded her, while Autumnleaf inched cautiously past Duskgreeter and gently nosed Fadestar's cheek. Fadestar hugged her wolf-friend's neck with her left arm, grateful for the she-wolf's unquestioning sympathy.
“Hush,” Farscout told the Preserver then. He knelt forward again and gingerly palpated the length of Fadestar's left calf. “Does that hurt?”
“No.” Fadestar scooped up a handful of snow and pressed it against the bleeding gash, numbing it so that she wasn't lying. The rest of the leg didn't hurt — she was confident nothing was broken.
Farscout appeared to come to the same conclusion. “Take a slow, deep breath for me,” he ordered her, his pale grey eyes watching her closely.
Fadestar did so. Everything still ached, but she had no trouble breathing in, or breathing out. Farscout seem satisfied by that. He had fished a small, colorful ball out of his shoulder-bag, and belatedly, Fadestar realized it was scrap lengths of silk. He unknotted a length, and as she pulled aside her hand, he applied one folded piece against the wound as bandage, then wrapped a second around her leg to secure it in place. Then he rose and reached for her hands. “Can you stand?”
Fadestar tried to stand, and to her deepest mortification, found she needed Farscout to help her rise. She stood gingerly, testing her weight on her wounded leg. It hurt, but after the first few moments, her equilibrium steadied. Fadestar took one careful step, then a second.
“Will Autumnleaf let you ride?” Farscout asked, kneeling quickly to scoop up half of her broken spear. He pulled a utility knife from his belt and began to thriftily slice the spearhead free of its bindings. “I know a place nearby where we can take shelter for the rest of the night. We'll need to tend to that wound more thoroughly.”
Fadestar hobbled a step toward Autumnleaf, casting a hopeful send-image of herself on the red she-wolf's back. Autumnleaf's ears flattened, all sympathy vanishing in a flash of outrage. The she-wolf retreated with a wrinkled nose, throwing back at Fadestar a sharp retort of **elf-friend flat on back in snow, elf-friend with tree-wee ears, tree-wee earred elf-friend walking**
The insult hurt more than the laceration in her calf. Fadestar gave her shoulder to Autumnleaf in turn and took a hobbling step eastward. “How far is it?” she asked her elder, too shame-faced to look Farscout in the eye.
Shelter was a hollow in an old fallen cedar tree, the broad trunk of which was nearly as tall as Fadestar herself. It wasn’t entirely dry, but it was sheltered from the shower of wet snow that the skies unleashed on them.
Fadestar hissed in pain as she tucked herself against the side of the hollow. The laceration had kept bleeding, already soaking through the silk bandages. Farscout removed a small pouch from his shoulder bag, then deftly removed the bandages to inspect the wound more closely. Fadestar looked away — her stomach roiled to look at it, and she would swear it hurt more with each stolen, queasy glance she took at it.
“Bloody bloody bloody,” Mushroom announced with disapproval from its vantage on Farscout’s shoulder. “Flies will come and lay eggs, then comes stink and rot. Mushroom make good wrapstuff now?”
“That will not be necessary,” Farscout replied. “The wound is deep at this point here,” Farscout said to Fadestar, she thought in an attempt to comfort her after Mushroom’s macabre words. “But the wound has bled clean. We will only need three or four stitches to close it.” He pulled out a small red leather pouch from his shoulder bag, from which he pulled open and took out a small ball of fine sinew thread and some needles pierced through a thumbprint-sized scrap of hide. “Pack a handful of snow on it to numb the area,” he told her, as he threaded one of his needles.
Fadestar swallowed nervously, but did as she was told. Her calf was already very cold, but the handful of snow was still a shock at first. When the snow had melted, Farscout carefully dabbed the wound dry. She averted her eyes as he leaned closer over her leg and prepared to begin stitching.
“Do you want to do this?” he said, offering her the threaded needle. Fadestar shook her head in an immediate negative. Farscout regarded her, his expression giving away nothing of the thoughts which were busy behind his pale grey eyes. “You need to watch this, at least,” he said then, his expression gentle but firm.
Fadestar grit her teeth and forced herself to do so. The laceration was as long as her finger, and deepest close to the top of her blood-stained boot. A tiny rim of yellow fat showed at the gaping edge of the cut there. She tried to pretend that it was not her own muscle and flesh she was looking at, but that attempt failed utterly when the needle first went in. Fadestar yelped and gripped her knee tightly, struggling not to jerk away in pain.
Thankfully, Farscout worked quickly and confidently, and in just heartbeats, he had stitched the laceration closed and had leaned in to nip the sinew thread off just above the final knot. He took a small hard leather vial from the red leather pouch and carefully dripped some of the liquid out over the wound. Fadestar caught her breath and swallowed down another yelp — the tonic Farscout was splashing smelled of boiled marigold and garlic, with an underlying tang of apple cider vinegar. It also stung fiercely as it came into contact with the stitched wound.
“You should do your own the next time,” he said then, as he put aside his flask and needle kit and prepared a fresh silk bandage. “When you are alone on patrol, you have no one else to tend your wounds. It is something you need to learn to do.”
Fadestar looked at her elder bleakly, thinking that she had failed not just one test tonight, by falling out of the tree, but two, by not having been able to summon the courage to stitch up her own wound.
“The first time is most difficult,” he continued, as he finished bandaging her leg. “But it does get easier, after you have had to do it often enough,” he said as he pulled his winter gloves back on.
Farscout offered her his needle-pouch then. “You’ll want to sew that up before we leave, or else patch it,” he said, indicating the rent in her breeches.
Fadestar heaved out a shaky breath as she took his sewing pouch. She didn’t have any patches. She would have to remember that the next time she packed for a patrol. She would also have to add bird bone needles and thread, and make herself an herbals kit. She had not considered the possibly of being injured during a patrol, or what she might need on hand if so.
Farscout pulled loose his blanket-roll and settled back between her and the shelter entrance with the fur wrapped around his shoulders. After a quick glance toward the wolves, who sat just outside the opening to the hollow log, he closed his eyes and seemed to doze, while Mushroom made itself a comfortable nest in the fur of Farscout’s collar. Fadestar slid off her breeches and, with just the winter-weight silk leggings to keep her warm, turned the torn breech leg inside out before beginning to mend the torn leather. She figured she would simply ignore the rip in her leggings — it was simply too cold to strip entirely for that chore. Even with Farscout providing her some windbreak, once outside of her fur-lined gloves her fingers felt like they were freezing.
With the wolves on watch, Farscout slept for a brief time. After finishing her mending, Fadestar moved as silently as she could to slip her breeches back on, but his eyes flickered open at the rustle and shuffle of her movement.
“Sorry,” Fadestar murmured, wincing at having woken him and feeling miserable over every failure she could catalog since their departure from the Holt.
**No need,** Farscout replied. He shifted his shoulders into a more comfortable position where he sat, and drew his knees up to shelter his legs beneath the wrap of his sleeping fur. **Branches will break.**
Fadestar looked at her elder in surprise, wondering if he had misunderstood her apology deliberately. She suspected so — those ice-grey eyes of his seemed to miss little, and she doubted she had been able to successfully contain her dejection as her elder had brought her to this shelter. “I’ll bet that never happens to you,” she replied cautiously, hoping for any scrap of conversation she could draw from the stoic scout.
Farscout gave a soft snort at that. He looked out toward the wolves in assessment, then let his eyes close again. **When it happened to me last, no one was around to see,** he replied long moments later, after Fadestar had concluded her attempt had failed. His eyes opened again and he looked at her levelly. **Why do you want to be a scout?**
Fadestar shrugged. “Because I know I can do it. Because the tribe will need me. It’s how I can contribute.”
“Weaving contributes. And you are home warm, safe, and comfortable when you do it.” Farscout spoke the words aloud, and his voice was hoarse.
“I’ve spent most of my life being kept warm, safe, and comfortable,” Fadestar muttered. “I want this, instead.”
Farscout’s gaze and expression gave her nothing back, except that he was listening. Fadestar felt a sudden, fierce warmth at that. Her elder wasn’t thinking about what he was going to say next, or predicting her next words — he was actually listening to her, as though each word had weight and value.
“There is no adventure in this,” Farscout said then. “And it is a responsibility where you have to want to avoid excitement.”
Fadestar laughed a little at that, although she doubted her elder had been trying to be humorous. “I’ve had enough excitement now for the whole patrol,” she agreed, rubbing her bandaged leg wryly.
Farscout closed his eyes again and rested for a while. Fadestar wrapped her own sleeping fur around herself and made herself as comfortable as she could, knowing well that she shouldn’t waste a chance to rest. She was almost asleep when Farscout's mindtouch brushed hers.
**Are you not lonely, this far away from your friends and the rest of the tribe?**
It was not a question Fadestar had ever asked herself, and her answer came like a sudden, surprising burst of flavor on the tongue. **Being surrounded by the tribe is what leaves me feeling lonely,** she replied, knowing it sounded strange, but feeling the truth of it in her soul. **I like getting away. I only feel balanced when I am away.**
Fadestar opened her eyes and risked a glance at her elder, worried he might think her odd after such a confession. To her surprise, Farscout was looking at her again, his eyebrows raised and, to her shock, with a small, gentle smile dawning on his lips. He watched her in silence for a moment, then nodded to himself, and settled back in their sheltered space.
“You will do just fine,” he said, as he pulled his fur wrap closer around himself and closed his eyes to sleep.
A flock of ravens swept past noisily, skimming over the bare treetops overhead. Farscout stopped in his tracks to watch them, so Fadestar did as well. To her, the birds didn’t seem alarmed, only excited as they flew east, toward the fringe of the forest.
They had had two cold, clear days and nights. They had made the most of that fair weather and had moved south along the Holt’s eastern territorial edge at a better pace. It was new country to Fadestar, and she had kept busy trying to impress every new landmark to her memory. Their duty now, here on the border of the Holt’s territory, was to look for signs of encroaching wolf packs, other predators, and the movement of game, and also to gather information about the landscape in general — such as the snow conditions in the valleys and hills that they passed through, water levels on the various creeks they crossed, or any changes which Farscout’s experienced eye found important enough to merit report back to the Chief.
Flanked by both wolves, Farscout started moving again, this time shifting direction to follow after the ravens. He didn’t explain himself to her, but after the afternoon spent in the hollow log near Shelter Springs, Fadestar had found that Farscout’s silences no longer troubled her. Even better — once she stopped trying to outwait her elder’s silence, Fadestar began to enjoy the quiet for its own sake. It allowed her to listen to the world instead. In the landscape through which they moved, even silence itself would tell a story to the wary elf who listened for it.
The ravens had passed out of sight now, and the trees around them continued to thin. The ground they covered was increasingly level. The tree cover had changed from towering cedars and pines and mixed patches of oaks and hardwoods and a carpet of ferns and other lush overgrowth beneath the snow, to a mixture of thin, tall birch and alder with only the occasional patches of brush for cover. Now and then they skirted wide open clearings, where the snow was marked only by the tracks of small game or birds. More often, they traveled along the forest’s very edge, looking east over snowy broken plains, where Fadestar had hoped to see with her own eyes the herds of clickdeer who migrated south from the icy Guardian Mountains for the winter. She had heard about those herds all of her life, but her hopes to see them had so far been dashed.
Fadestar thought they were growing close to the Bounty River. Once they reached the Bounty, she knew, they should travel along its northern banks for a time, then part ways with it again as they moved west. But she thought the Bounty must lie more to the south of them, and now Farscout was taking them east. Fadestar hoped they found good game sign, and no sign of invading stranger-wolves. Bears would be sleeping during this season, so stranger-wolves were the biggest danger she and Farscsout might face on the eastern side of the Holt’s territory. But once they turned west and started heading toward the southern reach of the Holt’s River, they would be moving into territory also shared by the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces. Fadestar knew the Painted Faces were the ones to be most on the watch for — their hunters were canny woodsmen, whereas the Amber Hunters were just loud and clumsy.
A lone raven cawed and burst out of the trees, flying back toward them from the direction the rest had flown. Duskgreeter and Autumnleaf froze in mid-step. Farscout did as well, so that Fadestar stumbled into his back. Something in the distance made a sound her ears couldn't quite identify, and whatever it was, the wolves were intent on it, their sudden stillness able to turn into a rush of movement at any moment.
Fadestar caught herself with a hand on Farscout's arm, realizing a heartbeat too late that she had just been caught wool-gathering instead of paying close attention. Fadestar scowled and shook herself alert, paying closer attention now that it was entirely too late for her to pretend that she had only stumb—
Another distant, strange sound. Farscout and the wolves were all still motionless, their mutual body language straining to catch the next whisper of noise or the next tell-tale scent. Fadestar shook herself alert, mortified at having been caught out. A slight breeze brushed against the bare skin of Fadestar's face and toyed with strands of her black hair. It was a crisp, snow-flavored breath of wind, and it carried their own scents away behind them. Fadestar could hear the rustle of the lone raven's wings as it swept past overhead. She wondered if it was fleeing from its kin, or maybe it had been dispatched on some mysterious patrol of its own?
More sounds. Something was running through the snow. Something big. It was the crunch and the crash of hooved creatures, several of them, vaulting through the trees toward them. Fadestar saw antlered heads and grey-tan coats – too heavy for deer, not so tall to be branch-horn or as massive as marshbeasts, heard the distinctive click and clatter of their hooves. Clickdeer! It was a small band of clickdeer. Racing headlong straight toward them--
Several thoughts occurred to her at once, colliding together in her mind. The excitement and relief of Clickdeer! We've found the clickdeer — I finally get to see them and we'll have good news to share with the hunters when we get home! came crashing into the sudden spark of concern for Clickdeer running full at us — that's not normal — something is pushing them, is something hunting them? The small band of clickdeer were pelting full out, in headlong flight. The wolves bolted, getting themselves out of the way of those snow-scattering hooves. Fadestar moved instinctively to follow after Autumnleaf, and only in that moment as she began to move did she see something more behind the half-dozen approaching clickdeer flash of color — red and blue — what's red and blue in these woods, at this time of year?
Then Farscout was slamming into her, shoving her off of her feet He grabbed her and leaped aside, carrying her with him, his locksend **Be silent!** a blinding flare in her mind. He was pushing her into cover, down into the wind-sheltered side of a fallen birch where there was a patch of winter-bare brush. It was scant shelter, but the best to be had in this sparse place. Time seemed to bend and slow and stretch, even as Farscout rolled into hiding beside her, his bow in hand as Mushroom burrowed so deeply into the elder’s hood that all Fadestar could see were two stark, round eyes the color of fog.
The caribou were bounding past them now, their feet gouging up sprays of snow. She saw the dark, liquid panic of the beasts' eyes and the frost that puffed out of their muzzles as they heaved for breath. Fadestar turned her attention past them, back into the forest beyond, still searching among the trees again for that flash of crimson and cerulean, so strange and out of season in the snow-dusted and winter-bare forest. Farscout's sending was still in her mind, almost painfully sharp **If they turn toward us, I will take down their roundhooves first.**
Fadestar saw them then, even as Farscout sent that warning thought. Galloping roundhooves, their black manes flowing and tied in knots with painted feathers, hides tawny beneath leather harnesses and patterns of painted red and blue.
And riders. Riders on the roundhooves. Fadestar saw them in a blur as they galloped past in pursuit of the fleeing clickdeer. Spears, yellow braids flying, buckskin the same color as the hides of the roundhooves they rode, human faces and horse hide alike painted in patterns of crimson and cerulean, patterns which held no meaning for her.
Human faces. Human riders. Fadestar’s mind struggled to accept what her senses were telling her. Humans. Yellow-haired and pale-skinned… when the Amber-Hunters and the Painted-Faces alike were not.
Three strides and the roundhooves were past and flying out of Fadestar's field of view, but she could still hear the thunder of their hooves. There were braying shouts from the riders’ in the excitement in pursuit, then a sudden bawl of pain from a clickdeer. It was followed by the crash of a heavy body tumbling into brush and snow. The rest of the clickdeer herd was still running; some of the roundhooves continued to gallop on in chase. But others reined about, with a spatter of loud, urgent voices. Fadestar didn’t need to know their language to know that a human had brought down a beast, and that some of his fellows had stayed behind with him to make their kill.
**They don’t know we are here. Not yet,** he sent to her.
Fadestar nodded. Her mind felt scattershot and her emotions distant, as if she’d dived into freezing water that had numbed her to the marrow. It was like that moment when she had fallen out of the tree — her senses were heightened and time and consciousness was stretched and slowed, only this was infinitely worse. Fadestar waited for that jolt of impact, counting on it to clear her wits.
**When I tell you to run, you will run,** Farscout continued in a lock-send. **Do not wait for me. Do not try to hold your ground. Just run as fast as you can, as hard as you can, into the thickest cover that you can find. Thick cover will cause trouble for any rider following you – and you will need it to slow them down. You will not be able to outrun them on foot otherwise. Do you understand?**
The searing quality of Farscout’s locksend pierced her numbness. Fadestar realized that her elder — the one who she was counting on to know what to do, what not to do, how to save them — was absolutely terrified.
The jolt she had been waiting for hit, and with it came the deepest, most soul-consuming fear Fadestar had ever felt in her young life.
The Fierce Ones. The humans who roasted elves alive and ate their flesh. The Fierce Ones were here, only a bowshot or so away. Her pulse spiked and her heart began hammering so hard Fadestar could not conceive how the humans could not hear it. She had lived her whole life thinking of these humans as legends, as distant horrors from the past. They were something her elders feared —– but something which she would never in her own lifetime see. The Fierce Ones had never followed Cloudfern and Farscout to the Holt after killing Cloudfern’s family, all those centuries ago. The Fierce Ones had never again returned to the Holt. This could not be happening. This could not be real.
But the terror was real. Fadestar had to only draw in a breath to know the reality of them — a musky human stink, combined with roundhoof sweat and smoke-tanned leather. There was a weighty, meaty thwunk, and the downed clickdeer stopped thrashing. Deep, booming voices hailed one another in congratulation — their hunters had that much in common with elves, perhaps. Then the scent of rich, hot blood reached Fadestar’s wolf-sensitive nose, followed by a ripping sound, and the sudden, fecund stench of a grass-eater being gutted.
Fadestar found she was shaking. She took a deep breath, then two, aware of Farscout’s still body next to her and trying desperately to achieve something like his outward calm. She knew her elder was terrified, but his hands were not shaking uncontrollably like her own. Fadestar hugged herself, trying to will herself steady. She was terrified that her body would betray her, betray them both, that she might make a sound that would alert the Fierce Ones to their presence.
Farscout’s sending brushed her again; aware that she was lying blind, he offered her what he had vantage to see. Fadestar took that offering with trepidation — she couldn’t help but wish that she were a little cub who could simply pull her blanket over her head and let the embrace of an elder chase away the night terrors.
The clickdeer had fallen several wolf-lengths away; Farscout’s view of the Fierce Ones was partially obscured by intervening trees, and by the shaggy dun body of one of the roundhooves that, once its rider had dismounted, had begun to nose hopefully at the snow for something on which to graze. There were three of the humans who had stopped for the downed clickdeer. Standing, they looked huge against the stout dun roundhooves they had ridden — they were much, much taller and broader than any of the dark Amber Hunters or wiry Painted Faces. One of the Fierce One hunters had looped the riding-straps that controlled his beast to a low-hanging branch; the other two roundhooves were just loose, their riding straps fallen to the ground or secured to the leather riding pads harnessed to their back. Fadestar felt the pulse of Farscout’s interest in that observation of the two loose roundhooves. Then he was watching the three Fierce Ones again, intent on their every motion and utterance.
Then Farscout's gaze strayed, moving toward the foreground, to the riot of tracks in the snow just a wolf's length from their hiding spot.
Fadestar caught her breath. She realized Farscout was looking at their own tracks in the snow. Their footprints were mostly trampled over by the clickdeer and the roundhooves, but not entirely. She could feel Farscout begin to slowly, almost imperceptably, ease up for a better view.
The Fierce Ones had ridden over part of their tracks, obscuring them. But through Farscout’s eyes, she could see their own trail through the snow, bisected by the trampling path of the hunt. She felt Farscout’s keen dismay at that. Then he saw a flicker of dark movement in the trees beyond.
It was Duskgreeter’s dark pelt, shadowed by a flash of ruddy red. Autumnleaf trailed the older wolf as he slunk back toward where they had lost their elf-friends, their hackles high at the scent of humans and a kill.
Farscout studied the situation a moment longer; Fadestar could feel his distraction. His eyes returned to the humans. All three were kneeling around the dead clickdeer – Fadestar wasn’t sure, but from the glimpse she could see through her elder’s eyes, it looked as if they had finished gutting the beast, and were examining the contents of its entrails. There was a bright, bloody splash of their handiwork slung aside in the snow — the glistening curl of gut was a brilliant pink that drew the eye…
Fadestar shrank down farther into their sparse concealment, realizing that that shade of pink was the same color as the flowers embroidered on her tunic and pants. Did the splashes of color in her clothing stand out that brightly from their hiding spot?
There was a distant, echoing sound from the southeast, like the bugling call of some great marshaland bull. One of the humans rose from the kill and put a white-grey cone to his mouth. He blew into it and produced an answering blast of sound; Fadestar couldn’t help but cover her ears against the bugling note. Then, from deeper on in the woods to the northwest, came another horn blast — the rest of the group of riders, answering as well.
**They use their horns like we howl!** Fadestar sent in amazement.
Farscout nodded. **These ones are preoccupied; the rest are to the northwest. Time for you to move. Back out of our thicket — move slow, move careful. Go up the nearest tree and silently work your way around to the northeast. Remember that they can see color, and that fast movement out of place will draw their attention, same as it does ours. If they spot you, forget stealth and just run. Thicker the brush, the more likely their horses will break a leg. I will keep these three in my sights the whole time. If they give chase, they will not live long enough to get in spears-throw of you. But you should be able to skirt the Fierce Ones entirely, these and those others. You must take care to leave no trace of your passing — that is critically important. They cannot be allowed to return to their people, knowing that we are here. Do you understand?**
Fadestar stared at her elder, mute with terror. She shook her head, not in misunderstanding, but in resistance. With her hands, she tried to cover the pink splashes of color on her tunic, convinced the bright embroidery was going to doom them both.
Farscout’s hard look softened. He studied the humans for a moment; there was a happy, boisterous conversation going on from that quarter the three Fierce Ones as they were busy butchering their clickdeer. Moving slowly and stealthily, Farscout began to pull off his own sealskin hood; Mushroom burrowed instead down the neck of Farscout’s tunic, between the fur of Farscout’s winter collar and Farscout’s neck. **I want you to return to the double-tree snag with the eagle nest that we passed this morning,** her elder sent firmly. **There is an old badger hole there at the base of the tree, where you can hide in at need. Do you understand? Good. Now put this on.**
He handed her his hood; the mottled sealskin carried his body-warmth and scent. Her hands shook as she pulled it on; it covered the bright flower at her shoulder, and Farscout dug up earth from the roots of the thicket and spat into it, making mud with which to cover up the splashes of bright pink at the hip of her long coat, and over the thigh of her left pant leg. . **There. Better?** he sent.
**The doubletree with the eagle nest,** she sent back, beginning to still her shaking hands.
**Good.** Farscout gave her a satisfied nod, then picked up his bow again and put an arrow to the string. **I will try and be there by nightfall — but if I do not join you by then, do not wait for me, or for the wolves. Run for the Holt.**
**Not without you!** Fadestar’s hands began to shake again, and she closed them into fists to control the trembling. **We can shoot these three, then shoot the others when they come riding back to find their friends. They can’t tell their people anything if they’re dead!**
**You heard the horns,** Farscout replied, watching the humans again. There was a peal of booming laughter from the Fierce Ones, as they continued to field dress their kill. Two of the roundhooves were grazing at the snow, but the third was looking off into the trees toward where the wolves were lurking — not nervous, not yet, but its body language was alert and curious. **There are more of the Fierce Ones beyond the woods, maybe down across the Bounty River. We don’t know how many. And you and I are not picking a fight with them which we don’t know we can win. You wanted to be a scout, kitling. Right now, you are. Your duty at this moment is to stay alive and to get a warning to the tribe, and to do so without giving our presence away to our enemies. So go. Now. Up that tree behind us and through the branches. Leave no footprints in the snow for as long as you can manage it. The wolves and I will erase our tracks here as best we can, and then I will follow you. I will try to meet you at the doubletree by nightfall. And if I am not there by nightfall, do not wait for me. Run for the Holt. By late morning, you should have traveled far enough that you might be in sending range of any hunters south of the Thornwall. You can pulse-send as you get into range, to find any listening mind as you approach. But do not risk howling — not until well after dawn. You should be far enough by then that these creatures cannot hear your voice.** Farscout glanced back at her, his expression grim but softening for a brief moment. **You can do this. I will cover your retreat. I will keep you safe as long as I am able. Now go.**
Her heart in her mouth, Fadestar gathered her courage and did as she was told.
The sun was sinking behind Elder Peak when Fadestar finally heard the scruff and crunch of light approaching steps in the snow. She was dug into the shelter of the abandoned badger den, her knees drawn up tight against her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs, making herself as small as possible. Fadestar unfolded herself from her balled-up position and slipped cautiously out of the den. She spotted the two wolves as Autumnleaf and Duskgreeter came trotting out of the shadows. Fadestar held her breath for several heartbeats, until she saw Farscout ghosting down from the trees behind them.
Fadestar scrambled to meet him, more relieved to see her elder than she had ever been to see anyone before in her life. With an effort, she held her tongue — instead, she pulled her waterskin out from beneath her winter coat, and wordlessly offered it to Farscout.
He took it with a nod of thanks, and took a grateful drink. **We took care of our tracks,** he reported. Farscout's mindtouch was weary and distracted; Duskgreeter and Autumnleaf both sat in the windbreak provided by the lightening-riven cedar tree, but their postures were alert, the set of their ears busy tracking the least sound. **Four more riders came from the forest's edge, not long after we had finished,** Farscout continued. **They helped pack up the first clickdeer kill on a riderless roundhoof. All seven then rode deeper into the forest. The rest of the hunting party numbered another four. They had killed a second clickdeer. The group packed their kills up and rode on out of the forest, off toward the Bounty River. I can guess where they are fording it, in this weather. And maybe where they are camping, too.**
Fadestar took back her waterskin when he handed it to her. She tried to give him one of her two last travelcakes, but he waved it off.
**You'll need your supplies. Show me what you have left in your bag.**
They crouched over her travel bag, and Farscout quickly inventoried her remaining supplies. He then pulled a hide pouch of travelcakes from his own shoulder bag, and split his supply with her. **The wind smells like the sea — stormy weather may be coming,** he said as he laced her bag closed and handed it to her. **You will have enough now to see you home, even if the weather slows you down.**
Fadestar frowned, not liking what she was hearing. **You're sending me home — alone?**
Farscout looked at her, his gaze frank and direct. **Do you fear you cannot find your way back?**
Fadestar shook her head – she had never been this far south of the Holt, but without a doubt she knew her way home. The mountains didn't move themselves, after all. **What about you?** she demanded.
**We do not know where exactly the Fierce Ones are, or what they are doing here. We do not know how many of them there are, or where they have come from. Are they armed for hunting, or for something worse? Do they have their elders and children with them? Are they simply passing through, maybe riding north after the caribou herds to where they found us before? Or have they come and settled a village, like the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces before them? The chief will need to know those things, to know how grave a danger the tribe is facing.**
Fadestar shivered as that reality sank home. Somehow, it had seemed simply enough to ask of their luck to have avoided the invaders — to have even outwitted them by hiding their tracks and sneaking away from right under the Fierce One's noses. She and Farscout had survived a close encounter with the Fierce Ones and gotten away untouched. Wasn't that enough? But no — she tried to think farther abroad than that, tried to turn the matter over in her head the way the chief might. And she knew her elder was right. The tribe would want to know — no, would need to know as much as they could about their unexpected invaders.
**We need to know which way the Fierce Ones are going next, and if they’re going to stumble into one of our hunting parties. Anyone hunting north and east of the Holt is in danger, aren't they?** she asked.
Farscout nodded. **And we are all in danger if the Fierce Ones learn we are here. If they can follow one of our hunting parties home, or even simply follow the Holt’s River south...**
Fadestar thought about that, and saw clearly where Farscout was leading her. The Holt’s River forked into the Braided River and the Dentree fork, in the lowlands pass between Sentinel Peak and the Ash Ridge highlands. Any rider coming down the Clickdeer would head for the open ground north of the Old Burn, and from there, likely following the Holt River south... across Dead Deer Creek, then Silverrun Creek, and then on into Froghome Marsh... just across the stone weir from the Dentrees themselves...
Fadestar looked at Farscout, feeling a stone-cold ball of dread knot in her belly. **I understand,** she sent, knowing that dread shadowed her sending.
Farscout nodded. He reached out and pressed her shoulder. **Then I am grateful to have you here today, as my apprentice,** he replied. **And the whole tribe will be grateful as well, when you have reached them with your news. What are your priorities?**
**To get home. Fast is important — but not as important as careful. I won't do anyone any good if I fall out of another tree and break my leg, out of sending range or howling range of the Holt.**
Farscout nodded. **And what will you tell the Chief?**
Fadestar thought about that. **I'll share everything that we've seen. I tell him where you've gone and why. That there were 11 riders that we saw, and there were others within horn-call to the east.**
**Tell the Chief as well — they were hunting with bows this time.** Farscout pressed a sent-image along with that of one the riders sweeping past with a double-curve bow in hand. Fadestar didn’t understand why her elder gave the detail such importance, but she nodded and committed the image to memory, to be shared with their chief. **Bows, and with blades at their belts,** Farscout continued grimly. **Metal, ruddy, not like the troll-knives.** A second sent-image was shared with that — bloody human hands carving apart the clickdeer’s stomach organ, the knife deftly handled and wet with gore. **I saw one axe as well, worn across the back and sheathed, flat-bladed. I counted only two spears. But all carried bows,** Farscout said.
Fadestar realized then the importance of what her elder was telling her. When Farscout had first encountered the Fierce Ones, long, long ago when Lynx and Frost and Cedarwing and Shyheart had all been killed — when Farscout had fought Fierce Ones then, the Fierce Ones hadn’t had bows. Or axes. Or metal knives.
The ball of dread in Fadestar’s stomach grew heavier. She watched her elder’s face, trying to read his expression. But Farscout just looked weary, in a way that days of travel with only brief wolf-naps had not.
“What will this mean for us?” Fadestar asked, hardly able to do more than whisper those words.
Farscout looked back at her for a moment longer, then pulled her into a brief embrace. “I do not know,” he said, resting his chin against the top of her hood.
Fadestar hugged her tall elder fiercely, feeling tiny against him. His arms around her felt sinewy strong, but his scent was as scared as her own. Fadestar felt the weight of his head against her own, and in that moment, wondered how she had ever found her elder and his silences intimidating. She knew he felt the same dread that she did — or maybe, Fadestar found herself thinking, maybe the ball that knotted in his stomach was even heavier. Because Farscout had seen firsthand how terrible and cruel these golden-haired humans were. He’d smelled the burning flesh and heard the screams, and had faced down Fierce One warriors in a fight for his life, and for the lives of his lifemate and child and young Cloudfern. Today’s encounter must be his own personal nightmare, Fadestar thought. And yet Farscout could face that terror and go back out there to track the Fierce Ones to their camp. That prospect left her far more frightened than the prospect of herself having to travel home through strange country alone.
**I should stay with you,** she argued. **You’re going to need someone to watch your back. I can do that.**
Farscout squeezed her tightly, then released her. **You have your father’s heart,** he said, looking at her with a gentle expression. **But you know what your duty is. The tribe needs to hear your warning, so that they can start taking all possible precautions. How is your leg?**
Fadestar had already changed her bandage, during the long wait for nightfall. **Healing clean,** she replied, as she pulled off the sealskin hood he had loaned her. **It won’t slow me down.**
Farscout nodded, accepting her assessment without requiring an inspection of his own. With a bloom of warmth, Fadestar thought her elder might not have trusted her judgement on that, only a handful of days ago when they had left the Holt. She handed him back the sealskin hood. He put it on with only a nod of thanks, and then she watched as he repacked his travel bag, then slung it back across his shoulders.
**The chief will send someone to rendezvous with you,** she sent. **I’ll insist he send me, too. You haven’t finished teaching me yet, and I’m holding the chief to it, that he sent me out here in the first place to learn from you!** Fadestar sent, firm in her resolve to return, no matter how badly the thought of seeing the Fierce Ones again terrified her. **I’ll finish this patrol with you, all of it!**
Farscout smiled at her then, fleetingly, as he reached for her shoulder. He pressed her shoulder firmly, one hunter to another. **You will have a fight with the chief on your hands for that. And having you here, now — you endanger more than yourself.**
Fadestar bristled at her elder’s words, feeling it first in the gut as a slight of her abilities or to be of use. She held Farscout’s stare angrily for a moment — and then the full import of his sending began to open before her. Fadestar realized that it wouldn’t matter to her sister, or Snowfall, or True Edge. They loved her and thought of her as their cub, to be treasured and protected. If she were to deliver her warning by sending and then turn around and ride back to watch Farscout’s back on the border, her family would be terrified. They would want to rush to protect her. Fadestar then thought with a pang of fear of her dear friends Newt and Crackle. Newt was the sensible one. But Crackle...
Farscout was watching her face closely, and he saw the moment her resolution wilted. **The chief will have need of scouts close to home, to watch from the heights for invasion,** Farscout sent to her, his mindtouch gentle but rich with pride in her. **Show the tribe what we’ve seen here today. They will want it straight from your eyes. And go now. We have delayed long enough, and we both need to use this night to our advantage.**
Fadestar continued to delay, fearing this parting. Farscout delayed a moment as well, looking to her expectantly. He fished Mushroom from the shelter of his tunic. “Go with her,” he told the Preserver firmly. “Guide her the safest way home.”
Mushroom said nothing, simply fluttered to Fadestar’s shoulder and began to burrow its way between her the foxfur of her hood and the knit-fur of her sweater. “Home,” it whispered then, in the softest tones she had ever heard from a Preserver. “Home!”
**Go,** Farscout sent then, with a gentle mental push toward her waiting wolf-friend. **Ride. It is important enough. Autumnleaf has the scent of stranger humans in her nose yet. She will carry you.**
Fadestar took a deep breath and turned away. Autumnleaf stood to meet her, butting her head anxiously against Fadestar’s chest, then side-stepping to present her midsection in an invitation. Fadestar slid onto her wolf-friend’s back and Autumnleaf immediately turned to face the northstar and home.
Fadestar looked back over her shoulder as her she-wolf broke into a ground-eating trot. Farscout stood, watching their departure. He gave her a final nod of approval, and then he and Duskgreeter were turning away to face the dangers behind them.
Fadestar turned around herself toward home, and urged Autumnleaf on into a lope. Snow crunched underfoot beneath Autumnleaf’s stride, and the wind in Fadestar’s nose tasted of changing weather, and of the approach of another winter storm.
With luck, Fadestar thought, she might make it home before the storm broke.
Dear members of River Twine Holt,
When you have finished reading this, PLEASE email the Council at firstname.lastname@example.org! We want to leap directly into planning the tribe's next steps, and so, if you are a character owner, we want to review with you:
a) where your character is when she/he learns about this shocking development;
b) what their immediate reaction will be;
c) what happens next with your character, in terms of the Chief's immediate plans and emergency deployments!
The Council is also hosting a discussion on the forums regarding the tribe's response to the return of the Fierce Ones. Click here to join that discussion!