(This story is a sequel to ”First Patrol”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
RTH 2511.02.17 – dawn
The word-hunters team had stopped to rest at dawn, just after entering the valley between Burnside Hill and Split-Rock point. With the snowfall that had come down since their departure from the Holt, more than three hands of days ago, it was necessary to ride their wolves in single file, leaving no elf-prints behind to betray them. That meant resting the wolves more often, and making less time on the trail. As the wolves sat or lay panting on a small rise above Redbird Creek, Beetle and Notch sat together on a sleeping fur and played dice with the carved bone game pieces they had found, dropped by some Amber Hunter on the stretch of Eagle Bay beach where the human carvers tended to their fishing boats. One-Leg was chewing on a piece of dried meat, watching those two play, while Brightwood was busy with a toy of her own, shaping a replica of one of those masted, long-necked vessels, making it as lifelike as her memory allowed, intending to have it finished and ready to paint by the time they reached home.
“Definitely bone,” Beetle was saying, rolling one of the strange, twelve-sided dice between her fingers. “I wonder what all of these different sided pieces are for? What kind of game do you play with them?”
“Whatever the game is — watch this!” Notch cast the pair of die in his hand once, scooped it up, then cast it again. “See that? The left one always rolls a one-spot. What a nutsack! Whoever the fellow was who dropped this, he was a cheat!”
“Really?” Beetle was suddenly keen to examine Notch's dice. “Can you tell how he loaded it?”
One-Leg chuckled to himself and threw a lopsided grin Brightwood's way. “Ah, the things we learn!” he chuckled. “It makes it almost worth our while, freezing our tails in the snow for nights on end just to know those small-earred whelps can cheat at dice, same as our —”
One-Leg went silent and his eyes suddenly went unfocused, as if he were listening intently to something. He sat upright abruptly and looked to the east, his expression suddenly intent as though listening to some faint call. Brightwood had known him long enough to recognize that One-Leg, the strongest sender among them, had picked up something too distant for her or the others to hear.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Fadestar —“ One-Leg began to say, reaching after his spear and levering himself upright. But then he froze in that awkward position, and his eyes flickered at once to Brightwood with a look of fear and horror, then flinched away again at the instant of contact.
Something had happened, something that involved Fadestar and something bad enough that One-Leg was left unwilling to look Brightwood in the eyes. Brightwood felt her heart slam to a stop in her chest. She jammed the shaped piece of driftwood into the travel bag that rested against her hip, and scrambled to her feet, moving to join One-Leg as the bearded elder finished rising. She saw both of his hands had gone white-knuckled on his spear. Seth, was all Brightwood could think. Fadestar wouldn’t be far to the east all alone. Something bad had happened, and Farscout was involved in it. Brightwood could think of nothing else that could make One-Leg flinch from her so, or leave his expression so grim as he locksent something in reply.
Beetle and Notch were looking up now as well, their expressions curious.
“Put your toys away now, cubs,” One-Leg said to Notch and Beetle. “Mount up. We need to ride fast.”
“One-Leg,” Brightwood said, looking him hard in the eye.
“Is something going on?” Beetle asked,
“Ride fast where?” Notch asked.
One-Leg looked back at Brightwood steadily as he summoned his wolf, Longtooth. “We've got to ride east and join up with Fadestar. My nephew sent her out as an apprentice scout on patrol with your lifemate. They ran into some humans, somewhere on the border above the Bounty.”
“Little Fadestar's a scout now? When she'd get old enough to draw a bow?” Notch said in exaggerated exasperation; as he dropped the dice pouch into his coyote-head belt-bag.
“East of us?” Beetle frowned. “Along the Bounty River? Did the humans get past us somehow?”
“Farscout sent Fadestar back to report to the chief, and he's still trailing them,” One-Leg said, his words still directed at Brightwood. Her heart began to beat again with the knowledge that her Recognized was safe —
But One-Leg was still looking at her with that opaque look in his eyes, utterly deadpan, and his fist around the shaft of his spear was still white-knuckled.
Her heart stopped a second time, skipped a beat, then started again. She gave One-Leg a narrowed-eyed, knowing look, and turned to throw herself onto Redbrush's back.
“Brightwood —” One-Leg began to say.
“Protect my girl-cub!” Brightwood called back to him over her shoulder, as she urged Redbrush into a full run.
Her old friend had the good sense not to try and stop her. **Protect yourself,** One-Leg sent after Brightwood, heartfelt. **Keep yourself and your mate safe, and for Burn's sweet temper, don't do anything I wouldn't do!**
RTH 2511.02.17 — midmorning
Windburn was sitting in the Gathering Den with Thornbow, both of them using bone and rendered bear fat to polish and waterproof new bowstaves, when One-Leg's distant sending reached the Holt.
The locksending was a distant susurrus at first, like batsong, of one sender casting out as he moved, listening keenly for the moment when he was first heard. **Chief,** One-Leg locksent then, after the first initial flare of relief at having reached him. **We've trouble. Farscout and Fadestar ran into a pack of humans down on the eastern border, just above the Bounty. Farscout sent Fadestar running home with the details while he's going to go and play shadow on 'm, but Farscout's certain they’re the Fierce Ones.**
Windburn felt his belly drop — then a cold, calm certainty settled there, like a gutful of ice that could not melt. **Tell me more,** he ordered.
**Fadestar's got a full report for you, but the long and short of it is that Farscout seems to think it's a hunting party that's just skimmed our woods. Some of their hunters chased clickdeer into our forest, collected their meat, then headed back out onto the plains. Farscout saw almost a dozen of 'm; Fadestar says they heard horn-blasts that might indicate there's even more than that, out there north of the Bounty.**
Thornbow had been speaking when One-Leg's locksend began. He was silent now, frowning with some concern as he watched Windburn's face. Windburn met his friend's eyes, holding onto Thornbow's gaze like an anchor.
**Farscout's trailing them,** One-Leg continued. **Fadestar says that before she passed out of Farscout's range, he was reporting that there was a big camp of the eggsuckers, and that it looked like they were heading north. A lot of face-fur, a few females, no very small cubs — he thought maybe it was just a hunting party, not a new pack looking to settle. I've got Notch and Beetle with me; we're riding fast to intercept Fadestar and will see her home. But Brightwood's hared off to join her lifemate.**
**Get your bunch home as soon as you can,** Windburn locksent. **Ride careful, stay alert, and try to leave as little trail as you can.**
**Aye,** One-Leg replied. Then, his report delivered, the elder broke off his locksend. He was wise enough to know his chief would be busy — and to trust that Windburn would contact him again if needed.
Windburn took a deep breath. This was the news he had dreaded hearing for his entire life. He was almost surprised by how little fear he felt — it was there, certainly, but he'd planned and worried for too long about what to do in this moment. And now the moment was here.
“Fetch Cloudfern for me,” he told Thornbow, putting aside the bowstaff and his polishing bone. “Don't send, don’t say anything to anyone else. Just find him and get him back here. That first.”
Thornbow nodded and scrambled to do as he was asked, without asking the questions that were clearly in his eyes. Windburn was grateful for that trust as he followed his close friend out of the den.
Thornbow disappeared like a shadow up the Gathering Den stairs, while Windburn strode out of the chamber and around the curve of the Child Tree to the entrance of the interior stairs. He took them two at a time and covered in a few strides the twisting corridor to his father's den.
Blacksnake had come back that dawn from a long-range hunt — his party had brought home fresh venison from the slopes of Elder Peak, and the Hunt Leader had seen their wrapstuffed bundles put safely into the storage caves before seeking out his den and sleep. Blacksnake stirred as Windburn unlashed the door-hide and entered. His father's weary expression was suspicious of this intrusion, while Wasp, sprawled across the bedfurs with authority, gave the intruder a much less welcoming stare.
“The warning's just arrived,” Windburn said quietly. He let the door-hide fall closed behind him and, somewhere, in the back of his mind, he found himself marveling at the calm, steady delivery of his words, “the Fierce Ones have returned.”
For an instant, his father simply stared at him in stark horror. Then the Hunt Leader threw aside his sleeping furs and began to snatch after additional layers of clothing.
“Farscout and Fadestar spotted them from the eastern border, somewhere above the Bounty. Fadestar is on her way back to the Holt with the full report, and Farscout is continuing to track them.” Windburn watched his father dress. He didn't think the sudden tremble in those strong hands had anything to do with the winter cold of the den. “One-Leg and the word-hunters will intercept her and escort her home.”
Blacksnake snorted at that in disbelief. “My tail,” he muttered. “Sure as rain falls, Brightwood's not coming home with them.”
Windburn nodded. “She's headed out to join Farscout. Not my preference — I don't trust her not to want blood, but I hope her lifemate can keep her in check.”
“Brightwood'll want blood, no doubt about that. But she's no fool. You can trust that. She's a better choice for this than any other I'd pick for the job, except for myself.”
It was a strange time for humor, but Windburn couldn't help but smile at his father's arrogance. “I figured you'd say as much. I'm going to send a scout after them, and I want you to go. You'll demand the assignment anyway.”
Blacksnake stopped for a moment, in the process of pulling on his winter boots. He looked at his son, his own expression a wary mixture of suspicion and love.
“You don’t need me here,” Blacksnake said, with a burr of warmth to his voice. “You need me out there. You need eyes and ears on this problem that you can trust, while you protect things here at home. And Brightwood and Farscout need an elf at their backs who is smart, experienced, and hard to spook. And you can risk sending me. I’ve fathered my share of cubs.”
“What I need is all three of you home safe,” Windburn said. “You see to that, or I'll skin you.”
Blacksnake smiled grimly at that and fished after the winter coat he'd dropped beside the bed-shelf.
“Farscout's reported what may be a hunting camp of them,” Windburn continued steadily. “I don't know their numbers yet, hopefully Fadestar can tell us more. But Farscout said there was a full camp, with a good deal of face-fur to be seen, and no small children. And maybe that they were headed north.”
Blacksnake's eyes were busy with thoughts. “Hunters then, maybe? Heading north for the clickdeer like last time?”
“And maybe they don't know yet that we're here.” Windburn let himself hope for that, although he kept a lid clamped down tight on feeling anything else.
Blacksnake nodded — very, very soberly. “We can hope,” he said. “But don't trust it. Don't trust anything.”
It was Windburn's turn to nod agreement. “I'm bringing everyone home. I'll post watchers at Northview Ridge and at Cascade Hill. As soon as she gets home, I'll deploy Kestrel to fly messenger as necessary between you and the Holt. At the first sign of trouble riding our way, I’m taking the tribe to Bluestone Cave. The thornwalls can only slow the humans down -— so if it comes to that, don't even try to find us here. But I'll be hoping it will not have to come to that.”
Blacksnake reached after his travel bag and began to stuff it with supplies. “Aye,” he agreed grimly, reaching after an extra quiver of arrows. “Our biggest threat at the moment? Panic. Who have you told?”
“One-Leg and his team know — but for a few hours yet, I’m the only one One-Leg will have sending range to reach. I've sent Thornbow to bring Cloudfern to the Gathering Den; Cloudfern needs to know first. I’ll send Cloudfern off today for Bluestone Cave, along with Evervale, Starskimmer, Otter, Crackle and Newt, along with as many supplies as they can carry so that our shapers can start getting emergency shelter and stores ready. True Edge and his team of hunters should be back from their hunt tonight or tomorrow. As soon as he’s caught his breath, I’ll pack True Edge off with Fadestar to Bluestone Cave as well. True Edge can keep the yearlings in line and out from underfoot here, and they should be enough to hunt and fish enough to keep the shapers in fresh meat and lay a little extra by.”
Blacksnake gave his son a long look, which turned into a slow smile of pride. “True Edge will have his hands full keeping Otter and Crackle in line – and that'll keep his hot temper out from underfoot. That's wicked-clever, son.”
Windburn shrugged the praise off, although inwardly it warmed him. “If Farscout's right, and this is just a hunting party after the northern clickdeer herds, then sitting tight and keeping watch is our best choice. I don't want to flee the Holt, not yet, not in deep winter like this. But the tribe's safety will rest in your hands, and with Brightwood and Farscout. The humans cannot know we're here. And if this goes wrong, and any of you fall into the Fierce Ones' hands... none of us can reach you. Not in time.”
Blacksnake nodded. He slung his travel bag over his shoulder and nudged Wasp off the wolf's warm nest amid the sleeping furs. “Son, I trust you to protect our tribe. You can trust the three of us to do the same.”
Ed. Note: see the story "Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On" (by W. Ware: Cloudfern has waited for centuries for this nightmare to materialize...), which takes place at this time.
**Everyone. Gathering Den. Now.**
Newt rolled over, waked from a sound sleep by the firm send. He sat up and tried to blink himself alert, not certain he'd actually heard the sending until both Otter and Crackle popped up from the pile of sleeping furs as well.
"What's Windburn want?" Otter groaned around a huge yawn.
Crackle shoved her way free of the furs and snatched up her winter coat, shrugging it on over the tunic and leggings she wore. "Move it," she said, clear-eyed as though the three friends hadn't laid awake talking all morning until what had felt like falling asleep just moments ago. "If the Chief says jump, you jump!"
Newt hunted around for his boots and pulled them on, then crawled out of the furs and fumbled after his coat. Otter's small den had been marginally warmed up by their shared body heat, but that comfort evaporated the moment Crackle unlashed the layers of clickdeer hide that covered the small single window/door hole. Otter grumbled something in protest, but Newt was too busy pulling on his coat and hurrying after Crackle, out of the door-hole and down the thick vine-rope that led to the clearing encircled by the three gnarled Dentrees.
As Newt began to slide down, he saw a flash of red as Evervale came scrambling out of her own high den, on a level with Otter's. Then the rope was swinging alarmingly as Otter's weight hit it overhead. "What's this all about?" Otter was calling to Evervale and Pathmark.
"No idea," came Pathmark's clipped answer from above.
Newt's feet hit the ground. Crackle was waiting there. He hurried to join her, as Otter came sliding down fast behind him.
Evervale and Pathmark followed the trio into the Gathering Den, along with a stream of other tribemates. The chief was already there, standing between the stairways that led down to the Storage Dens, and in from the the river-facing side of the Mother Tree. Newt saw his fathers standing at Windburn's side, along with Thornbow. Windburn's expression gave away nothing but a stern frown, but Newt saw at once from the emotion on Cloudfern and Greenweave's faces that some terrible was happening.
Or had already happened.
A hush fell on the gathering crowd. Newt took a step toward his fathers, then stopped in his tracks, not wanting to go anywhere near the chief when Windburn's face held such thunder. He felt Crackle's hand on his shoulder. He glanced back, saw her face was pale and her green eyes were wide with trepidation. He stepped back to her side, finding security in their shared fright.
Starskimmer pushed her way to them, falling in beside Otter. Her expression was tight with tension. Everyone in the Holt was crowded together in the den now, and the hush was so complete that Newt could hear the heartbeats of those around him. Goldspice and Moss were just in front of him, with Cinder and Copper in their care. Newt could see Windburn's face framed between their heads and over the heads of the two cubs, who stood between them. For some reason, Copper chose that moment to turn around and stare silently at Newt, her stuffed toy fox clutched with both hands against her chest. Newt met those solemn eyes and managed to a produce a faint smile of reassurance for her.
"Sorry to wake you all with this news," Windburn said. His voice was firm and unemotional. "I'll get straight to it. Yesterday, just north of the Bounty River, Fadestar and Farscout encountered a party of Fierce One hunters. They are both safe —" that, over the soft sounds of horror which came from several mouths. "Let me assure you that as of last report, both Fadestar and Farscout are safe. Fadestar is on her way home to the Holt now to make a full report — One-Leg's team of word-hunters are on their way to join her and will escort her the rest of the way. Farscout is following the humans. Brightwood and my father are both on their way to join him in shadowing the Fierce Ones, so that we can keep track of where they are, and where they are headed."
Goldspice caught Copper up in her arms protectively. The girl continued to stare at Newt over the smith's shoulder. Her expression was strangely serene. Starskimmer had moved as well, hugging Otter tightly. Her face was stark with terror. Newt saw Evervale shift closer to Crackle, and Windsong was pushing her way through the crowd to join her daughters.
"My Recognized and his hunters," Snowfall asked, speaking with what sounded like a hard-won calm. "They are hunting up north of the Lower Stoneback River."
"Yes," Windburn said. "But the weather has been fair enough these last few days, there's every reason to expect True Edge's team to be back within the next day. Just the same, I will be sending messengers out to warn them and bring them home immediately if they are not already on their way."
"Rainpace is out walking his trapline!" Chicory called, with no effort to hide the terror in her voice. She had Glow bundled in a sleeping fur and cradled protectively against her chest. "Willow is with him!"
“Father’s off with Rill on his own traplines,” Evervale cried out anxiously.
"And Kestrel is still on patrol to the west," Snowfall added.
Windburn held up both hands in a calming gesture. "I am sending now to everyone outside of the Holt and within my sending reach. They are ordered to come home immediately, with all safe haste. But let me repeat: the Fierce Ones were spotted just north of the Bounty River yesterday, on the border of our territory. Farscout's last report describes them as camping in the scrublands north of the Bounty, and well outside of our woods. Hear me — I know this is the moment we've always feared. We all hoped the Fierce Ones would never return. But they have. Thanks to Fadestar and Farscout, we have had the warning we need to prepare and take precautions.
"Here are my orders — I am recalling all of our hunters and all of our scouts, save for Farscout, Brightwood and Blacksnake. We will post watchers on the ridgelines around the Holt — no humans and certainly no roundhooves will be able to approach us unawares. Furthermore — I will be sending a team to Bluestone Cave. You all have known that since the Amber Hunters first settled on Eagle Bay, we have taken measures to use Bluestone Cave as a place of retreat should the tribe need it. I hope that we will not need it — but it will be ready for us in case. I will be sending our shapers there today, to further prepare it. Cloudfern, Evervale, Starskimmer — I want you to gather what you need and be ready to go by mid-afternoon. Otter, Crackle, Newt — I will be sending you three along with them, to hunt, fish, forage, and provide for our shapers whatever they find they need. Everyone else — I want you all to stay close to the Holt today and in the days to come. I am suspending all long-range hunting and all word-hunter missions. We have enough supplies in store to see us through until the Elder Salmon return. Are there any questions?"
A heavy, bated silence hung in the air. Newt looked around at his elders and saw worried faces, frightened faces, faces burdened with questions — but no one said a word now. After the gathering, no doubt, the questions would flow like ice-melt downstream — but no one wanted to voice them now.
Windburn studied them all, and nodded gravely. "Since long before my birth, the tribe has feared this," he said, his voice quiet but carrying like a shout through the breathless stillness in the chamber. "We have feared it, but we have planned for it, and planned well. If we are lucky, the Fierce Ones will continue north. Maybe they will hunt the clickdeer herds, take their fill, and then leave us again in peace. They need never know we are here. We need not panic. We need only to stay alert, stay stealthy — and above all, stay smart. I trust each and every one of us can do that."
He looked his gathered kin over and nodded again, this time in what Newt realized was a dismissal. "Foxtail, Goldspice, Moss — please join me in my den," the chief said, waving the summoned forward, and around him, Newt sensed the gathered tribe drawing a collective breath. Moss and Goldspice walked forward as summoned, Moss holding Cinder’s hand firmly and Goldspice still holding Copper. As she was carried away in her aunt's arms, Copper finally turned away from Newt, her expression still having never changed.
Newt let go a shaking breath of his own and turned to Crackle and Otter. Otter was still wrapped in his mother's embrace, almost as if Starskimmer were relying on her youngest child to hold her on her feet, while Crackle stood with both arms crossed firmly across her chest.
"The chief's given us a mission," Crackle said, her eyes glittering with a mix of fear and fierce pride. "We're not going to be kept holed up here, safe in the storage dens like swaddled babies!"
"Nowhere will be safe, not now." Starskimmer moaned. "Nowhere."
Otter held on to his mother, and his face looked more forlorn and frightened than Newt had ever seen it. "You heard the chief. The Fierce Ones may not come here. We don't need to be afraid," he said, almost as though speaking to himself.
Newt took another deep breath, trying to dispel the sour fear in his belly. "The chief has given us a mission," he said, finding his brave face and deliberately seizing on Crackle's words. He reached for Otter's forearm and squeezed it warmly, then clapped Crackle on the shoulder as well. "The chief is giving us a duty to carry through, same as he does all of the grown-ups. We've got until mid-afternoon to pack our gear and be ready to go. We can do this. I know we can."
Crackle nodded, finding her own brave face as well. "Time's wasting. Let's move."
Goldspice carried Copper with her as she moved toward the Gathering Den door. Just before leaving, she paused to look back at her uncle Windburn; he still stood at the far end of the chamber, speaking quietly to Snowfall, but his eyes had been following her and he nodded. **As soon as I finish here,** he had bade her, in the briefest of pulse-sends.
Moss matched her stride as Goldspice hurried across the tiny clearing in the center of the Dentrees, and into the gathering room of the Chief's Den. Normally her lovemate would have had something wry to say about the day's ugly surprise, but for now he held his tongue, no doubt out of concern for the two children in their care. Cinder was all sea-green eyes, his small face pinched with confused emotion, while Copper was blank-faced but clutched her stuffed toy to her chest so hard Goldspice wondered that Bearkiller didn't burst a seam.
“Shells and shards — will you pinch me?” Foxtail asked as she scrambled in behind them, flustered and looking ragged around the edges. “Make it hurt so I'll be sure this isn't a smokeweed-dream?” she added, thrusting an arm out between Goldspice and Moss.
Goldspice gave her cousin a sharp look, likely sharper than the younger elf deserved — but then again, fear always left Goldspice with ragged edges of her own. “You put your tunic on backwards.”
Foxtail made a face and yanked her arms into her loose winter coat and wriggled it around so that it fit correctly. “Felt like we'd only just gotten home and to sleep,” she muttered. “I'm not even sure how I found my coat when I rolled out of bed at Father's summon-send.”
“Father says the bad humans are coming,” Cinder said, the quavering note at the end of his words turning the statement into a question.
Moss automatically swept the boy up into his arms and hugged him tightly. “The Fierce Ones have been seen again,” he said, with a flicker of hazel eyes toward Goldspice. “But they do not seem to be coming toward the Holt.”
“Little brother, don't you worry,” Foxtail added quickly. “The humans have no idea where the Holt is, and they're so big we'll hear them stomping through the snow whole hills and valleys away.”
“Slow and sure,” Copper murmured then, in a breathy whisper of a voice. “Don't invite a chase, but don't invite a challenge, either.”
Goldspice cradled Copper closer, while both Foxtail and Moss's expressions mirrored their confusion at the girl-cub's words. “Your mother and father know these humans better than anyone,” Goldspice said, trying to reassure the child. “They know what they are doing. The Fierce Ones will never know they are on their backtrail.”
“And Grandsire Blacksnake is heading out to join them,” Foxtail said, with a chipper confidence that didn't quite sound false. “Those sorry-ass lumps of bear-dung won't know what-for, if they make the mistake of tangling with my grandfather and your parents. So don't you worry, cubling. Everyone will be home safe and sound again, before you know it.”
Goldspice felt Moss's eyes on her again, and she looked at him in return. She didn't want to give of the cubs false assurances — but neither did the smith want to discuss with the children the grave danger those three scouts — and the rest of the tribe — were really in. Cinder was looking cautiously from face to face, his sober expression indicating that he was picking up more from his elders than they likely wished him to know. Copper's expression was still blank and withdrawn, as if she were listening to something only she could hear.
At that moment, Windburn came through the archway door, and the adults all turned toward him automatically. “It's not good,” the chief said, with a gesture toward the doorway and the entire world outside. “But it could be far, far worse. We're lucky Farscout and Fadestar were there to give us fair warning. And Easysinger's plans for this are still mostly whole. So I think we're in a good position overall, all things considered.”
Goldspice managed a breathy laugh, surprised by her uncle's relatively positive words. She knew that the return of the Fierce Ones had long been her grandmother Easysinger's greatest fear, and the prospect of it filled her with a numbing dread. “A good position!” she found herself repeating.
Windburn reached for his son, and Moss handed Cinder over to his chief. “If it were well into spring, I might choose otherwise — but for now, I don't want to needlessly evacuate the cubs and the tribe to Bluestone Cave,” Windburn said to the adults, as he held Cinder close. The boy threw both arms around his father's neck, not too old yet to resist his father's embrace. “You all heard what I said in the Gathering Den to the tribe. I'm going to place guards on the ridgelines around the Holt, and I'm sending Cloudfern, Starskimmer and Evervale on to Bluestone Cave to prepare it fully for our evacuation, should that be forced on us. Otter, Crackle and Newt will be enough to hunt and forage for the 'shapers; when True Edge and his hunters get back to the Holt, I'll send him on to Bluestone Cave to oversee those three youngsters, but in the meanwhile, they'll have a job to do. It'll keep our yearlings out of trouble at the Holt, and out from underfoot if it comes to a running retreat from here.”
“And Fadestar?” Goldspice asked.
“I'm afraid Fadestar may have started out this moon as an apprentice scout, but she's finding herself forged under fire,” Windburn said. “When she's back and has had a chance to rest, you'll send her on to Bluestone Cave as well,” he said, with a direct look for Goldspice.
“Me?” Goldspice said in surprise.
“Her?” Foxtail echoed more sharply.
“Goldspice, you're going to be put to the forge as well,” Windburn said. “Foxtail, you and I are going to be needed in the field. Your experience with the human-language team makes you too valuable to be left behind at the Holt, and my sending range will allow me to stay in central contact with nearly every team and the Holt at the same time.” Windburn turned a steady look on his eldest child. “Do you have objections to that?”
Foxtail blinked. It was clear that her mind was jumping from conclusion to conclusion like a fawn skipping across a spring meadow. “No,” she said. “No objections. You're right — I'm more useful out there,” she said, waving a hand toward the door.
Windburn nodded. “Good. You'll have a chance to show me more of what you've learned during your human-studies. Goldspice, niece — I'm sorry, but this is what it is. My mother raised you practically as her own cub. You could wear the torc yourself, maybe easier than I —”
“No. No. Absolutely not,” Goldspice said vehemently.
Windburn paused for a few heartbeats, nuzzling Cinder's wolf-gray hair. “I'll stay in constant touch with the Holt. Likewise, we'll keep the teams each in constant touch with me, or with another team. If we ride out quickly enough, once Blacksnake reaches Farscout’s sending range, we'll know at all times where the Fierce Ones are.”
“Or at least, where Farscout's band of them are,” Moss said, with obvious reluctance. “But what if there are more? Like another band of hunters following after the first?”
Windburn nodded gravely, while that thought left Goldspice shuddering in horror. “First of all — no elf is to travel alone. I'll let True Edge decide for himself whether or not Fadestar can safely travel from Bluestone Cave to Twin Falls without a partner for safety, depending on what oversight his yearlings need from day to day. But otherwise, I want no one wandering alone.” When the other three adults elves present had nodded acceptance of that command, Windburn continued on. “There are three heights that will give us the best vantage over the Holt and the surrounding territory. I will send Rainpace and Dreamflight up onto Crow's Ridge — that way, Fadestar won't have to come closer than Twin Falls to reach the Holt by sending. But they won't need to depart until Cloudfern and his shapers have gotten close to Bluestone Cave and out of the Holt's sending range — Rainpace can have until morning with his lovemate and cub before they need to leave for their position."
“And the other heights?” Goldspice asked.
“Cascade Hill and Northview Ridge,” Windburn said. “I want Longshot and Quick Fang up on Cascade Hill. Longshot's strong sending range and keen eyesight won't be wasted here, and they can watch for any riders coming upriver. Moss — I'll be assigning Honey to be your shadow. I will be sending you up on Northview Ridge. You'll be able to see a long ways from there, and you'll be the first to spot any Fierce Ones who might be following the Holt's river down towards us. That's the most likely way they would approach us; it's absolutely necessary for you to stay alert for that threat."
“Aye,” Moss said simply. Goldspice gave him an anguished glance, heartsick at the thought of being separated now, during this crisis. But she squashed down that emotion, knowing every other lifemate and lover in the tribe likely was feeling the same way at this moment.
"I've touched in with True Edge's team, and they're racing for home now," Windburn continued. "I expect them back by midnight. I've also given word to Rainpace, Willow, and Suddendusk — they are all headed home as fast as they can. That leaves only Kestrel unaccounted for, but she should be southwest toward the human village on Eagle Bay, looking for the candlefish run to begin. If it's already started, she'll be well on her way home. I'm sending out Pathmark and Greenweave to bring her home. All they need to do is ride fast and far enough to slip into her sending range, pass on the warning, and get her flying home. Once they've done so, they're to turn their noses around and ride fast back here.”
“Kestrel even might be able to overtake them,” Goldspice said, nodding as she followed her uncle’s line of reasoning. “Overtake them and then beat them home.”
“Maybe, but maybe not without burning herself out like a candle,” Moss said with a frown.
Windburn nodded. “Just so long as she gets home. We’re going to need her gliding skills in the days to come. But there’s only one of Kestrel. We need more eyes among the trees to protect us. To do that, I’m going to send Beetle and Windsong out with Snowfall. Snowfall’s team will follow after my father, up past Quillrat Lake, into Many-Lakes Valley, and then on through the pass between Tuftcat and Three-Finger Hills. That opens right onto the plains, and could channel a band of Fierce Ones on us if riders wanted to risk the snowy deepwoods. I’ll take Foxtail and Thornbow with me. We’ll ride north toward Rainbow Springs, around Northview Ridge and to the east of Tuftcat Hill onto the Holt’s northeastern border. The Holt should still be in my sending range, and I should be able to range south to Farscout's as well, and all of our teams east of the Holt.”
“And what about One-Leg’s team?” Foxtail asked.
“Once One-Leg and Notch have had the chance to catch some rest,” Windburn said, “Goldspice will send One-Leg to the southeast, with Notch and Pathmark. They’ll search the woods for any sign of additional Fierce Ones coming around the hills to the south. I’m trusting One-Leg’s cunning — and that of his son — will keep them out of any close encounters if they do find trouble, and it’ll take the rarest greynosed-old-elder of a human to surprise Pathmark when Pathmark’s on the hunt. Do you have any disagreements with those duty-assignments?”
Goldspice looked at Foxtail, and found her cousin frowning thoughtfully back at her. Goldspice shook her head. “No. I just don’t like seeing Snowfall and Kestrel both out out there, carrying a cub as they both are. Shouldn't they stay here at the Holt?”
“I don't like it much either," Windburn agreed. “But we need them both too much. No one else can cover ground fast like Kestrel can, and I need Snowfall's wisdom and her good sense out there leading a team. I’ll be leaving you here at the Holt bare-boned already. If either of them ask to stay home — then they will, and I’ll make do. But they’re both savvy, and wise enough to protect themselves. And neither will tolerate being wrapped in swaddling here at home, when they know they’re needed.”
Goldspice found herself frowning as she quickly reviewed what deployments Windburn had described. Left at the Holt would be herself, Chicory, Greenweave, Suddendusk and Nightstorm, along with Willow and the cubs. “Willow won’t like it much either.”
“I wager she won’t,” the chief agreed. “But the Holt will be the center of our efforts. She’ll have an equally long ride east or west if her healing abilities are needed. I’ll have a firm word with her, to make sure she’ll respect that.”
“And what of Kestrel?” Foxtail asked.
“As our sole glider, Kestrel can travel the farthest the fastest. I’m afraid we’ll need her to play a support role, something I’m sure will change from day to day. She can scout, she can deliver emergency supplies, and she can fill in holes in any gap in our communications-reach. But above all — I don’t want to risk her too far over the scrublands near the humans. Without the treetops to shield her, the humans will be able to spot her flying for miles, as easy as we can spot an eagle over the plains. Kestrel’s a wise old wolf, she’ll know ways to protect herself. But she’ll take risks if we unwisely ask for them.”
Goldspice took a deep breath and released it slowly. Then she nodded, firm understanding and acceptance. “How long do we all have, until you send out the teams?” she asked.
It was the chief’s turn for a deep, deep breath and a long sigh. “Not long,” he said. “We need to get the sending-relay teams into place as soon as we can. I want our teams moving into place as soon as riders can get their winter gear packed and call their wolves. Snowfall and One-Leg’s teams will need to wait for the word-hunters’ return. Give Longshot and Quick Fang a few hours of sleep before rousting them out for Cascade Hill. But Moss — I want you and Honey on Northview Ridge as soon as you can safely manage it."
“Yes, my chief.” Moss delayed long enough to give Goldspice a hard, desperate embrace, and then he strode from the den.
“I’m rested enough,” Foxtail said. “Most of my gear is still packed, let me grab new supplies and find my belt, and I’ll be ready to ride.”
“Get an extra quiver and bowstring,” Windburn said after his daughter’s departing back. He nuzzled his son’s gray head again. “Do you understand what we’re doing, and why?” he asked Cinder.
The boy nodded solemnly. “You want everyone to be able to reach the Holt by sending, and there are scouts moving so that makes it harder. And you want eyes up high to watch over the Holt.”
Cinder had followed the conversation keenly enough, Goldspice thought with some respect. She watched as her chief-uncle hugged his son tightly, his smile warm with pride.
“Good. I’m glad you do. I need you to be a brave cub for me. And I need you to look after the other cubs. Everyone will be scared. You need to be brave for all of them. Can you do that? There is no shame if you cannot.”
Cinder nodded his head solemnly, and Windburn squeezed the boy tight. Goldspice felt her uncle locksending to the boy, and turned away respectfully until that sending brush had ended. She put Copper down — the girl stood on her own feet, but clung to Bearkiller with one hand, and to Goldspice with the other.
Windburn reluctantly put down his son, and held out Cinder’s hand for Goldspice to take. She held Copper’s hand in one of her own, and took Cinder’s tiny fingers into the other. She felt Windburn’s mindtouch seeking hers, and looked up into his clear blue eyes. **Niece, I’m entrusting my son to you,** Windburn sent. **And I am entrusting the care of our tribe. I know you have the strength for this. The strength, and the wits, and the courage as well.**
Goldspice struggled to give her uncle a brave smile, but feared she failed him in that much. **I will guard the tribe and your son both, with my very life. You know it.**
Windburn smiled, and touched her cheek fondly. **I know it. My mother knew it, as well. If the worst should happen, you will be chieftess after me. Foxtail has the heart, but she hasn’t the wisdom. Not yet, at least.**
Her hands otherwise occupied, Goldspice couldn’t hug her chief as she wished. Instead, she held his eyes with her own and gave him a fierce, stern sending.
**You’ll come home to us again, uncle. Or else I’ll come after you and kick your sorry tail halfway from here to Eagle Bay. You hear me?**
Windburn gave her a weary grin. “I do,” he said aloud. “I hear you just fine.” **But promise me — at the least sign of trouble, you’ll take the cubs and ride for Bluestone Cave? Don’t worry about the supplies here or the Dentrees themselves. We can sacrifice those. But you and the children and our elders who know our tribe’s skills — you all we cannot risk.**
Goldspice held his gaze and nodded soberly. **I promise. You protect yourself out there, and I’ll protect us here.**
Windburn smiled. He touched his son’s cheek in silent parting, and then turned for his sleeping den, to gather his gear for the afternoon’s coming ride.
(to be continued)...