(This story takes place during ”The Gathering Storm (Part 1), and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
"Cloudfern," said a voice, intruding into a dream so nebulous that the details of it faded even as Cloudfern opened his eyes. All he could remember of it as he scrubbed his eyes open was the impression of a painted feather, drifting in the wind across snow. "Cloudfern, the chief needs you."
Thornbow stood in the arching doorway to the stairs down, which opened into the den-room Cloudfern shared with his lifemate, Greenweave, and their adopted son Newt. Newt was away, sleeping with his friends in Otter's den; with both of her parents away, little Copper was splitting her time between her uncle Cloudfern's den and her aunt Goldspice's, and this day was Goldspice's. Greenweave began to stir as Cloudfern sat up in the sleeping furs. The plantshaper took one look at the grave expression on Thornbow's face, and instinctively reached after his fur-lined moccasins.
"What is it?" Cloudfern asked as he shoved his feet into the footwear. Thornbow's expression remained somber.
"Windburn received a sending. I don't know from who. But he needs to speak with you in the Gathering Den."
Cloudfern felt a spike of fear. He wrestled it into submission as he reached for a fur to wrap around his shoulders. Cloudfern was due to sprout face-fur; he was old enough to have experienced similar summons; he could smell bad news when it was wafting. Greenweave had caught the scent as well. The net-braider was scrambling out of their bed-shelf and shrugging into his winter coat as Cloudfern followed Thornbow down the stairs, through the hide-door Thornbow had unlashed to enter the Child Tree, and then outside briefly into the weak winter sunlight. Lashing the door tightly behind them, they crossed the corner of the clearing that was the center of the three ancient, embracing dentrees, then went through the open archway into the Gathering Den. The chamber was empty. Thornbow murmured something about 'the chief would be right back'. Cloudfern nodded absently, hardly hearing the bowyer's words. He felt Greenweave's touch on his shoulder and he leaned slightly into that comfort, but mostly, Cloudfern concentrated on wrapping himself in calm, imagining it as a weight around him as tangible as the spotted fur wrapped about his shoulders.
Thornbow knew it. Greenweave knew it. Cloudfern knew it as well. Whatever the chief wanted Cloudfern for, it wasn't good. Good news was delivered by a hearty sending; good news would wait until morning. A summons for the healer would have been sent or shouted or both, with an intensity to match the nature of the need. But bad news... when the outcome was dark, or a body past saving, then that was news that hauled you out of bed, to have the heavy weight of it quietly delivered, face to face. The three elves stood silently, waiting for their chief. Cloudfern glanced at Thornbow again and met the bowyer's eyes, giving him a silent nod of thanks. Whatever was coming, Cloudfern found the show of support was welcome.
The longer they waited, the more time Cloudfern had to try and predict the reason for the chief's summons. Something bad had happened to someone he loved. It couldn’t have been his daughter, Beetle, because her mother Starskimmer would likewise have been summoned. And if anything had happened to another team member, their immediate family would be here as well, sharing Cloudfern's dread. So something had happened to his sister Brightwood. Or something had happened to his soul-brother Farscout. Brightwood had been away since the new moon as part of One-Leg's word-hunter team; Farscout. Farscout had been away for two hands of days, on patrol with Fadestar in tow as an apprentice. But if it were Farscout, wouldn't the chief have summoned Goldspice as well? So. No. Brightwood. It had to be Brightwood. Ancestors, please not Brightwood. She had only been returned to them for so brief a time. Shards, but had One-Leg's team taken a Preserver with them? Cloudfern tried frantically to remember — he knew the word-hunters generally did not, but maybe, just maybe —
"Word has just reached the Holt," the chief said, wasting no time on gentling the impending blow. He glanced at Thornbow and Greenweave, but did not ask them to leave. "The Fierce Ones have been spotted. Farscout and Fadestar have encountered them just north of the Bounty. I thought you should be first to know."
The words weren't what he had braced himself to hear. At first, Cloudfern felt only the profoundest relief, that some tragedy had not befallen his sister Brightwood. Then the words Windburn had spoken began to resonate, and he felt his heart clench.
"The Fierce Ones?" Greenweave repeated the words in the disbelief.
"Fadestar is on her way home with the full report, and Farscout is continuing to shadow them," Windburn said. "The humans were briefly in our woods, but it seems they may be staying to the scrublands, heading north —"
"North? To where they killed my family?" Cloudfern's mind felt like a flat rock skipping across the surface of a river, all breathless flight and glancing impacts. But strangely, he felt no fear. Instead, it was as though something were bleeding away from him, quickly and painlessly. "Where is my sister? Have you heard from One-Leg's team?"
"One-Leg relayed on to me Fadestar's message. He, Notch and Beetle will be meeting up with Fadestar and escorting her home. Brightwood has already left them. When she heard the news, she..." Windburn hesitated, his expression showing his concern. He looked as if he were waiting for something from Cloudfern, and that Cloudfern was not providing it. "Brightwood left them to join Farscout."
Cloudfern nodded, not surprised by that. "Good. That's good. What about my uncle?"
"True Edge does not know yet. He's due back with his hunters any night now."
Cloudfern continued to nod. "Be sure to tell him while he's got the rest of his group to think of and to protect. True Edge has both of his babies-to-be to think of now, but I wouldn't trust him otherwise not to race off after the Fierce Ones himself. But he can't, not if he has to see his hunters home."
It was Windburn's turn to nod, as though it were good advice he'd not yet thought of himself. "We’ve prepared for this. Since my mother’s time, we’ve planned and prepared. You know what the next step is.”
Cloudfern met his chief’s eyes, holding the younger elf’s gaze. “Evacuating the Holt.” The conversation felt too surreal, too calm. Part of Cloudfern’s soul watched himself dispassionately, waiting for the terrified cub too-long trapped inside of him to break free and run screaming from the chamber. But Cloudfern found he could breathe without that taste of fear. “Are we to leave today?”
“Not everyone. I want to send you, Evervale and Starskimmer ahead to Bluestone Cave. Make sure everything is in order, and begin preparing more hometrees. I know we couldn’t begin shaping those before, because of the risk of the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces finding them. But we’ve worse to worry about now. I don’t want to relocate the entire tribe until it’s certain we need to leave; we have the children to think of in this weather, and all of the stores we’d have to leave behind. But I want Bluestone Cave ready to receive us, if Farscout’s next report is that the Fierces Ones are heading deeper into our territory.”
Cloudfern nodded calmly. “I can be packed and ready to ride by sunshigh,” he said.
“I’ll be sending the older cubs with you — Otter, Crackle and Newt can hunt, fish and forage for you. And when True Edge and Fadestar are back and have had a chance to rest, I will send them as well. Fadestar can continue to prove herself as a scout, and I’ll have True Edge tasked with overseeing the youths, and making sure that you, Evervale and Starskimmer are provided with everything you need to concentrate on your work.”
Cloudfern frowned. He looked at Greenweave, and found his lifemate’s face was ashen. Greenweave was watching him with the deepest concern, perhaps as frightened by the prospect of how Cloudfern was receiving this news as he was at the news itself. Cloudfern gave his beloved a tight smile, then turned his attention back to their chief.
“I would rather be off after Brightwood and Farscout myself,” Cloudfern said. “But you wouldn’t allow that, would you?”
Windburn shook his head solemnly. “Blacksnake will be riding out to join them. He’s preparing to leave now.”
That was a small comfort, at least. Cloudfern took another deep breath, then released it slowly. Somewhere deep inside of him, if felt like an abscess had been lanced. A lifetime of terror was draining away. This was it. He had lived most of his life in fear of this. It was the moment that populated his every nightmare. And now that it had finally arrived...
“Elder?” Windburn asked, looking troubled as he watched the shifting expressions on Cloudfern’s face.
Cloudfern managed another strained smile. “I knew this day would come. I’ve always known. And now that it’s here... “ He exhaled slowly again. “I’m scared. Of course I’m scared. But I’m free, as well.”
Windburn’s expression made it clear — Cloudfern’s young chief didn’t really comprehend his elder’s words, and neither did Thornbow. But Greenweave understood it. Greenweave put his arms around Cloudfern’s shoulders in a brief, comforting embrace.
“Let’s go and get you packed for the journey,” Greenweave murmured against Cloudfern’s ear.