(Ed. Note: Toss's daughter is Wren and his son is Pollen; "Gold Eyes" is the cubname of Burr; "Reacher" is the cubname of Strand; "Onyx" is the cubname of Ice.)
I silently chant their names as I ride through the freezing winter day.
Itís for their sakes that Iím doing this.
Times have been hard on the tribe for several turns now. The year of the fire... thatís when it began. Wolfriders prefer to live in the Now, but Iíve always been good at remembering. I remember that long hot summer and the fires that struck our territory. The first one nearly took my life. The last one took four.
Ambergold; as skilled a huntress as she was a healer. Blackbird and Ivy; sisters and plantshapers both. And clever Streak.
Streak had been born out of Recognition, but Sweetslip had always been certain that her lifemate Pinecone was the father. Pinecone, the son of our first plantshaper, Greenleaf. That may have been true because although he had no powers, few loved the forest or was better attuned to finding things in it than Streak.
They died and it seemed as if good fortune died with them.
When that hot summer ended, we were all relieved. But soon Hailstone noticed that autumn and winter seemed a little colder. The following spring, Raindrop noticed that the rains werenít falling as frequently. It continued that way for some turns; the rains fell, but always lightly. Then three turns ago the rains stopped falling altogether and the hungry years began.
For three turns now there has been little food. Three turns of tightening our belts. Three turns of watching tribemates grow thin and weak. This turn has been the worst of all.
Chieftess Foxsly has ordered parties far afield in search of game. Iíve been in every party. This time she insisted that I remain behind. So Iím out alone. Iíve never disobeyed my chieftess before. But I must.
It wasnít too difficult to slip away from the Holt; most of the hunters are out with the chieftess. Even the cold was an ally of sorts, everyone is huddled in the Dentrees resting and trying to keep warm. Hopefully no one will notice I'm gone until dark.
The wind blows hard, cutting through me like a knife. Every time Iíve gone out, the cold seems colder. And Iíve felt weaker. Iím more tired than I can remember being. Iíll rest for a few minutes. But I will continue. I must, for the cubs. The cubs come first. The cubs must always come first.
The cubs. I feel the loss of every tribemate of course. But itís the loss of the young that always hits hardest.
The first three who died young, I never knew. They lived before I was born.
Quillfeather, the sister that my lifemate never knew.
Heron and Firecat, the brother and sister that my friend, Beartooth, never knew. Tadpole, the brother that Ripple and I never knew.
The others... the others I did know. My face-fur hasnít grown yet, but Iím nearly an elder and at times, like now, I feel every one of my turns. Growler; Rosepetalís firstborn. Quiet and serious. Closer to the wolves than to elves.
Diamond; Carverís firstborn. Such a spirited and happy lass. Spider; Owlís little brother. Shy and softspoken, but with a sly sense of humor. Little Dapple, Red and Darkcurlís cub. So dainty and yet never still.
And most painful of all. Dusk. Nar. My son.
To lose any tribemate is hard. But to lose the young is agony.
This cursed famine. And at exactly the worst time; when there are so many cubs to feed! After losing four tribemates, the tribe gained four more. And two of the mothers were my own sisters at that. Both of my sisters having cubs and so close together!
Butterfly was so happy when she and old Spearpoint Recognized. It was completely unexpected and yet the first thing their hearts longed for. Their little Reacher is definitely going to be like his father. Heís barely four and two turns, and his eyes are never still and his hands are ever reaching.
And there is Gold Eyes, Ripple and Beartoothís girl-cub. Only two eights and one turns and trying so hard to be grown up. My son. My Amin. A little over two hands of turns. So curious and full of energy. Thereís Turnstone, Cloudchase and Herbfinderís son. Such a warm and friendly cub. And Onyx, Sentry and Thistleís solemn little girl-cub. And my daughter, Wren. My Kya. The tribe may consider her an adult, but she will always be my cubling. I lost one cub, turns ago. These two I will not lose.
So for four turns I have gone out with every hunting party. And whatever Iíve caught has gone to the cubs. What little food the tribe has is carefully portioned among everyone. My portions have gone to the cubs. If everyone is already thin, theyíre not likely to notice if someone is a little thinner.
I know that Owlís worried about me. Itís been quite a challenge avoiding him. But I will. I must. I must keep going for the cubsí sakes. The children come first. The children must always come first.
Iíve rested long enough. I need to keep going. As my wolf and I again set off, I once again chant the names.
I stagger slightly and nearly fall over if not for Sniffer. Iím more tired than I thought. Snifferís whining; sheís worried about me. She wants to take me home.
But I wonít stop. For the cubsí sake, I will continue. Iím not going back until Iíve found food for them. I wonít stop. Iíll never stop.
The children come first. The children must always come first.