It was a bright and lovely, if cold, winter night, and Chicory could almost manage to forget that it was dreary winter. Rainpace had just left with one of the word-hunter groups a short while ago, and would be gone with them for about two weeks. Chicory and Glow had seen him off, after which Chicory had settled in quickly with her back against the enormous trunk of the Child Tree to patch one of her fishing nets. Glow, on the other hand, seemed to have become restless almost immediately after her father's departure. She didn't run off to seek her agemates as she usually did to play with, and instead sat down in front of her mother, put her hands on Chicory's knees, and looked directly at her with bright, pleading eyes.
"Can't we go with him?"
"No, cubling, I'm afraid not!" Chicory replied, shaking her head.
"Why?" Glow demanded.
Chicory smiled, and patiently explained, "Because you're not a word-hunter, or even a hunter or tracker yet."
"Why?" Glow demanded again.
Although Glow was Chicory's own first cub, Chicory had cubsat for plenty of the cubs in the tribe before her daughter had ever come along. Her sharp senses (and the threatening headache behind her eyes) told her it was time to head off the 'why-game' before the cubling became fully commited to it. Thinking fast, she came up with an idea to distract Glow. "How would you like to learn how to track just like your father?" she offered.
Chicory was no great tracker herself, prefering the fish in the rivers most of the time, but Sleuth was good at tracking — it was what she'd been named for, after all! Even as a small cub, Sleuth had loved to run around and investigate things. Chicory fondly remembered the day she'd bonded with her wolf-friend; little Sleuth had been almost as interested in sniffing her boot as in anything else. So Chicory could call for her wolf-friend to help with the tracking lesson.
"Yay!" Glow agreed, jumping up. "I'm gonna be a tracker tonight!"
Smiling, Chicory rolled up her fishing net and set it aside. It would be in no one's way for the time being, and she could simply come back to it later. She stood up as well, cupped her hands around her mouth and howled her special call for Sleuth: "Ayoo-yoo-yoo!" Actually, it was the same howl she'd used for all her wolf-friends; she'd never seen a reason to change it. Next to her, Glow called for the wolf as well, imitating her mother: "A-yoo-yoo-yooooo!"
Almost immediately, Sleuth's head appeared around the base of the Father Tree, quickly followed by the rest of her. Sensing adventure or at least some fun, she headed straight for Chicory, ears and tail held high with excitement. When she was only a few feet away from the elves, she brushed up against Evervale's Halfmoon, who turned and snarled fiercely at Sleuth, snapping at the air above her head. With a startled yip!, Sleuth stopped in her tracks, tucked her tail and leaned away from Halfmoon in a semi-crouch, exposing her throat and the side of her belly to the dominant wolf. At the same time, Chicory instinctively put out an arm in front of her daughter and took a step back, giving the wolves plenty of space.
"Why is Halfmoon mad at Sleuth?" Glow asked curiously, looking up at her mother as she held onto the arm Chicory had stuck out. "She didn't do anything wrong."
"Halfmoon's just been edgy lately," Chicory told her as Halfmoon growled and glared at her wolf-friend. "He wants to make sure the other wolves know he's still second-chief within the pack, especially now that Wasp is getting older."
It was over as quickly as it had started, and Sleuth was back on her way, trotting over to Chicory and Glow, eyes bright and breath puffing out in little white gusts of steam from her nose.
"Hi there, old friend!" Chicory greeted Sleuth happily, rubbing her fingertips briskly against the skin of the wolf's neck and back through the thick winter coat. She reached down and picked up Glow, swinging her easily up onto Sleuth's back, then climbed on behind her daughter. **Let's go!**
"Silversong!" Glow called as Sleuth started the trot towards Den's Creek, and the silver-coated near-yearling she-wolf broke away from the main pack as well and ran to catch up with her young elf-friend. She gave Sleuth what Chicory could only describe as a resentful look, then reached above the older wolf's back to lick at Glow's arm and whine.
"You're too little to ride yet!" Glow told her, the very picture of sternness, and Chicory had to smile to herself at that. 'Yes, you're a wild one, my cubling,' she thought, 'but you take after your more serious family members, too!'
They passed by the Craft Trees, and the sounds of someone working on a project (probably Goldspice, by the sounds of it and the heat leaking out from the forge) rang through the air: tinker, ring, clink. tinker, ring, clink.
Several minutes later, the group of four had reached Den's Creek, which at this time of year was frozen over its surface, though you might occasionally see moving water beneath the thick ice layer. The wolves stepped out boldly onto the creek, their claws scratching against the ice as they went. skitter, scrape, scuffle. skitter, scrape, scuffle.
Chicory noted with satisfaction that a few inches of snow had settled on the face of Broad Meadow. Animal prints should show up clearly, having made a good impression in the snow, making them easy to follow even for an elf with only basic skills. The wolves slowed down, taking it in turns to scent at the air and the ground for any hint of prey, while Chicory and Glow looked around for any visual signs. They kept their noses open for scents as well, of course, but the wolves would doubtless be the first to pick any of those up. As Chicory had expected, it didn't take long before they found signs of an animal, though she was just a bit surprised at what kind it was.
"Bear!" she exclaimed, pointing out the pawprints to Glow, who slid down from Sleuth's back to investigate them closer. The tracks weren't fresh, but they were there, having been only partly covered over with fresh snow from the light flurries of the last few days. Chicory judged that the tracks must be at least three or four days old, probably made on one of the bear's rare winter forays for a meal. She considered for a moment, then decided that this wasn't such a bad thing after all. It was winter, after all, meaning that this bear was almost surely sleeping in his den. Even if they woke him up, he would be sluggish and confused for the first moments, and the small group would easily be long gone before he was wide awake. Also, from the size of the prints, it had to be a black bear, rather than the larger, much more dangerous brown bear. "Why don't we track him all the way to his den?" Chicory suggested to her daughter with a grin. "Maybe you can even hear him snoring!"
Glow giggled at that mental image, and nodded. She ran back to Sleuth's side, and reached up for her mother to lift her up again onto the wolf's back, which Chicory did. With Glow taking the lead, pointing out the direction for them to go, with a little help from Chicory and Silversong and a lot of help from Sleuth, they set off again across Broad Meadow. As the wolves kept up a steady pace, they kicked up little clouds of snow behind them: shuffle, shuffle, scatter. shuffle, shuffle, scatter.
The tracks ultimately led them into Cattail Marsh, which was partly frozen over. The wolves' paws broke easily through the fragmented ice layer on the mud's surface as they brushed past on either side of the stiff, cold cattail stands that the marsh had been named after: crunch, swoosh, swish. crunch, swoosh, swish.
At the other side of the marsh, the bear tracks led up the forested mountain slope leading towards Arrow Ridge at its height. This seemed like bear-country to Chicory; Bear Hill was in similar terrain, about as far to their southwest as they'd already come from the Dentrees that night. Chicory glanced up; they hadn't hurried, and had started out late. It would be morning in a little while, but they still should still have enough time to finish the tracking lesson before going home to sleep. The elves slipped off of Sleuth's shaggy back, so that they could read the tracks more closely where they were more subtle in the forest floor. They began the climb up the slope, following the wending bear tracks: climb, climb, climb. climb, climb, climb.
They didn't have to go all the way to Arrow Ridge; about a third of the way up the mountain, they came within scent of the bear and his den. Without needing to be told by Chicory, Sleuth slowed to a stalking creep at the head of the small pack of four trackers, lowering her head with a cautious expression running through not only her face but her whole body. Silversong seemed excited, her ears perking up, her head lifting, and her mouth opening in a wolf-smile as the scent hit her nose.
**I want you to be careful, Glow,** Chicory reminded her daughter. **Don't go any closer to the den than I say, and be very quiet. Just because he's asleep doesn't mean he won't wake up!**
Glow nodded, looking up at her mother with wide, solemn eyes. Chicory was content that her daughter understood completely, and nodded back in approval.
Carefully, they edged their way towards the scent, and moments later, sight, of the animal's winter den. It was a good den, Chicory couldn't help but think. A small, squat cave in a short cliff set in the mountain side, with a fallen log lying on an angle to partly cover the entrance. It was well-sheltered from the winter elements, and that bear was no doubt a lot warmer and cozier than the small group of wolves and wolfriders tracking him here! Oddly, she almost felt jealous for a moment. Hunkering down behind the low needle-branches of a pine tree, Chicory came to a stop and reached out for her daughter's small shoulder beside her. **No further,** she instructed. They were still several wolf-lengths from the small cave, but well close enough for a cub to have her first exposure to the information in front of her.
Sleuth, silent as a shadow, came to stand behind her elf-friend and elf-friend's daughter, with her head poking between theirs, her hot breath at least warming the sides of the elves' faces. Silversong, however, did not have Sleuth's many years of gleaned caution, and had slunk her way almost to the mouth of the cave in her unbearable curiosity. Chicory's eyes widened in concern. 'I'm so stupid!' she chided herself silently. 'Too busy thinking of Glow's behaviour, I didn't consider Silversong's! Oops...!'
"Glow," Chicory warned quietly, uneasily eyeing the young wolf who was now nosing at the bear's den. "I don't think Silversong should —!" she was cut off abruptly as a low, sleepy moan came from within the small bear den.
Chicory wasted no time. She grabbed her small daughter by the back of her winter jacket, and hauled her up onto Sleuth's back, jumping on herself at nearly the same moment. Now that the bear was stirring, Chicory would not wait around for him to emerge! "Quick! Home!" she barked, sounding more like her bolder tribesmates in that order than she usually sounded herself. Sleuth yapped an order that must have been much the same to Silversong, causing the younger she-wolf to dart away from the den as another, somewhat louder moan of warning came from the wakened bear inside. She hared off after the elder wolf, who had already turned tail and was going at fastest safe pace right back down the side of the mountain slope towards home — climb-climb-climb! climb-climb-climb!
As soon as they reached the base of the slope, they plunged right into Cattail Marsh and through its eastern side. They had to slow their retreat somewhat to make their way through the marsh, kicking up little fragments of half-frozen mud in their wake and whipping past the tall plant-stems till they reached the far side — crunch-swoosh-swish! crunch-swoosh-swish!
Once they were past Cattail Marsh, they were able to speed up to a full run again, though a sense of play-fear, such as from a good game of Tail Tag, had long since overtaken any real concern. Chicory and Glow held onto Sleuth's back while the wolves ran through the powdery snow that had settled across Broad Meadow, spraying it up behind their paws as they ran — shuffle-shuffle-scatter! shuffle-shuffle-scatter! — until they reached Den's Creek at its north border.
The group wasted no time in scurrying across the creek in their race towards home, paws scrabbling across the smooth, icy surface — skitter-scrape-scuffle! skitter-scrape-scuffle!
Once they were "safely" on the north bank, then it was just a final dash past the Craft Trees, where Goldspice was apparently still not satisfied with whatever it was she was tinkering with, as the strikes of her little hammer were beginning to sound frustrated — tinker, ring, clink! tinker, ring, clink! — until finally the Dentrees were before the group. Chicory wrapped her arms securely around Glow's little waist and slid off Sleuth's back with her mid-wolf-stride, and all four ran straight towards the Child Tree together, heedless of the curious and amused looks they were getting from a few tribemembers who hadn't yet denned for the morning. They reached a den opening in the ground level of the Child Tree and dived in, hearts still pounding with excitement.
As his daughter and grandcub flew into his den and then into his furs, their wolf-friends close behind them, Blacksnake's hunter instinct had him alert right away, though he could tell almost at once that nothing was truly the matter. Still, the intrusion deserved some response, which he gave.
"Now, what — ggrrrrrr-ouch! Off my knee, Glow!" Blacksnake warned, as the cub managed to somehow press all of her slight weight through one small palm down onto one of his kneecaps as she scrambled into the furs. She heeded him immediately, though, and crawled up quickly to snuggle under his left arm as Chicory mirrored her actions on his other side, wrapping her arms around his body as well. "Oof! Sleuth!" Blacksnake went on as the large she-wolf jumped onto his lap, though she knew enough to avoid his knees. "You're not a suckling cub anymore, you're huge!" he reminded the wolf, who ignored him completely and laid down over all three elves like a fur bedcovering. Meanwhile, Silversong wedged herself into the bedfurs on Glow's far side, boxing the girl-cub completely in with body warmth between wolf-friend and grandfather.
Blacksnake looked around at his family members. "Now, listen here cubs," he said, giving Chicory a meaningful nudge at the emphasized word, "Just what is going on?"
"Nothing," his daughter replied, contentedly cuddled up at his side. "We were just on a bear hunt, that's all."