(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.)
The cold winter wind howled outside her den-room window. Willow tossed and turned restlessly in her sleeping furs. Usually, Beetle's lingering scent in the bed brought her comfort. But tonight, it was only a bitter, anxious reminder.
Beetle was gone. Willow’s lovemate had ridden out with Snowfall’s scouting party, to watch for the Fierce Ones. Nearly everyone was gone, either deployed by their chief in scouting parties or to watch posts on heights ringing the Holt, or sent off to prepare Bluestone Caves for the tribe’s possible evacuation. Left behind were the tribe’s four children, with Goldspice, Greenweave, Suddendusk, Nightstorm and Willow herself to guard them. Never in Willow’s entire lifetime had the Holt be left so very still, so very silent.
Somewhere in the distance, south toward Broad Meadow, came the crack and crunch of a snow-laden branch breaking and falling. Otherwise, there was no sound to be heard, save for the hungry winter wind. Yesterday's rare thundersnow was just a memory, and a weight of fresh snow on the forest.
Willow couldn't sleep. She had tried counting wolves, tried to do nothing but listen for the river, had tried to do nothing at all but be stone-still and stone-quiet. But sleep eluded her, and the lonely silence crowded down around her like a weight. Finally, in frustration, she flung herself out of bed and jammed her feet into winter boots, wrestling with a half-contained violence into her winter over-tunic and then her fur poncho. She delayed a moment longer to strap her knife in its sheath to her calf, welcoming the heavy weight of the razor-sharp stone blade. Then she tied her sling-stone pouch to her belt, and wrapped the leather string around her arm.
The door of her den opened out onto a broad branch of the Mother Tree. Willow lashed both of her door-hides shut behind her, while a cold blast of wind whipped at her hair. She turned and took the three strides to the to the taut doorhide at the entrance into the Mother tree at the branch's base. The wind continued to pull at her as she first unlashed the outer door hide, lashed it closed again behind her against the cold and hungry wind. In that small pocket of shelter, she then worked free the ties to the second, inner doorhide, then and stepped through. and secured the inner door-hides closed. There were no dens currently shaped into this level of the great hometree, although there had once been. She descended the spiral stairs, her steps the only whisper of sound here inside the sheltered core of the Mother Tree.. The entire dentree felt abandoned — and that emptiness was worse than the winter chill outside.
Willow stood for a moment in that empty stillness. The thought came to her, with the image of a dandelion head in autumn. In her mind’s eye, she held it in her hand and looked at it, a white, furry ball of seed-spines, which bobbed and swayed to her exhaled breath. That is my tribe, she thought. A lively whole thing, tenacious but delicate. Take one breath and blow — and most of the tiny little spines will be swept away. Another breath, and a second blow — and many more will swirl away, leaving only a fragment of those tiny dancing seeds behind, quivering anxious and lonely on the bare head of the bud.
That was it. That was exactly how Willow felt. Blasted and blown apart and as if everyone had been swept and swirled away from her. It seemed not so long ago, she had craved isolation. It had nurtured her and kept her whole. But now? When the hometrees were all but empty, and most of her kinfolk were traveling out of reach of even a send-touch, the isolation was an oppressive thing, and Willow found she needed not to be alone with all of the fearful things she could imagine.
She knew where to go. Willow followed the stairs down into the Gathering Den. It was empty, and so was Goldspice & Moss’s den, which opened into it. Willow unlashed the Gathering Den’s inner doorhide, secured it behind her, then repeated the actions with the outer door hide. She had never been so diligent about the door-hides before as she had been in the last day, as the Holt grew more and more empty around her. It was a futile effort, perhaps, to try and keep what little heat there was in the great tree, with all of its dens above empty. But it was a lifetime’s winter habit — and to surrender the gesture felt disrespectful to all of her missing kin, whose scents lingered in the dentree around her like ghosts.
The central clearing within the embrace of the three giant dentrees was largely sheltered from the wind, with only a light crust of snow. Five of the wolves were resting there. Starlight rose to nose at Willow curiously. The wise she-wolf was the pack’s second-ranked female, and her bond Kestrel had bid her stay to help guard the Holt. The others were the young unbonded wolves who had been left behind — Patchface, Murkfur, Sunsoak and Windswift. They all lay curled into balls in the snow, the ends of their tails blanketing their muzzles against the winter cold.
Willow fondled Starlight’s ears as she strode across the tiny clearing for the entrance to the Chief’s Den. The bindings to the outer door hide came free with a swirl of living scents. As she lashed the outer door shut behind her, she heard the scamper of footsteps and the rustle of small hands on the other side of the inner doorhide. As she reached after it, it was pulled open for her. Cinder blinked up at her, his sea-green eyes wide. For a moment, the boy looked disappointed, as though he had been hoping it might be someone else — his father, maybe, or his sister Foxtail. But the child smiled at her just the same, and waved her in. “Hurry, before more cold gets in!”
Willow stepped past the boy and glanced back to make sure his nimble hands were securing the door tightly behind her. She drew in a deep breath, and the combined scents of wolf and kin crowded together filled her lungs. The hanging candle trays had been lit, giving the room several flickering points of light as well as the illusion of warmth.. The main gathering area of the Chief’s Den was crowded with wolves — her own she-wolf Sky was there, as well as Nightstorm’s Silverbite, Suddendusk’s Icemane, Goldspice’s Peakrunner, Chicory’s Sleuth, and the four who looked to the cubs — Flea, Softjoy, Longhowl and Silversong. Their body heat helped keep the small chamber comfortable — not warm, no, never that again until spring returned, but not freezing as it was outside. Piles of sleeping furs seemed to cover the floor not already occupied by wolf. Nightstorm sat in the middle of the room, her back braced against a slumbering Silverbite, a pile of dried and straightened river cane to one side of her, and a basket of goose feathers at the other. Suddendusk and Goldspice sat nearby; Suddendusk was busy knapping arrowheads while Goldspice was busy with a mortar and pestle. Rill and Copper were seated with Nightstorm with Copper’s Flea curled against their backs. Nearby sat a nest of snowcat furs, piled in a way that suggested someone had been sitting there. A big reed basket and Greenweave’s favorite set of bone net-needles rested in front of the snowcat furs.
Cinder trotted back to his place beside Copper, and picked up the sanding stone he had dropped. “What are you all doing?” Willow asked of the cubs, as she moved to sit beside her she-wolf Sky, who was curled up near the curtained archway to Suddendusk’s den.
“Making arrows,” Rill said. “We’re gonna make lots and lots of them.”
“We can make bundles of them this way,” Cinder said. “We already went through and make sure we have all the shafts straight and cut to size. I’m smoothing the joints, and Rill is cutting the nock-notches, and Copper has the wet sinew for fletching. Then Nightstorm secures the arrowheads.”
“We harvested the bottom of the thornwall for great big thorns,” Copper added “So we don’t need knapped arrowheads for all of them.”
“We’ve got the meanest big thorns we could get,” Rill said, with a savage enthusiasm. “But Father is making more flint arrowheads, too. I think we should race them and see who can finish first — us with our arrow shafts, or Father with his basket of flint. It’s just a little basket he’s got, but we’re fast when we work together. But Nightstorm says no,” the boy added, with a sour glance for their elder.
“Speed is not so important as making arrows that will fly true,” Nightstorm said, with an amused smile for Rill. “The arrows must fly true and strike true, or else —” The smith hesitated to finish that statement, but Willow finished the words in her head. ‘Or else they will not stop our enemies.’ The healer thought of her lovemate out in the frozen woods, with a quiver of flawed arrows at Beetle’s waist as Fierce One warriors rode her down in the snow. Willow shivered and immediately fought to drive that terrible image from her head.
“Or else they simply won’t fly true,” Suddendusk said firmly, with a grim note that suggested he, too, was struggling to drive a similar image from his head. “And why shoot an arrow at all if it won’t fly straight?”
“My arrows will always fly straight,” Rill said loftily, then slid a look at his playmates. “Unless Copper pegs her feathers wrong, or Cinder leaves the joints lumpy.”
Copper gave Suddendusk’s son a frowning look, while Cinder just gave a humorless snort that sounded to Willow’s ear just like Cinder’s grandsire Blacksnake. “Copper and I can craft arrows just as good as you can, and besides, Nightstorm is double-checking them all. And the only error she’s found has been the shaft you split down too far!”
“No quarrels, cublings,” Nightstorm said, the stern note to her voice very unlikely her usual cheerful tone. “Even the craftiest elder can make a mistake now and then. But if you’re going to put your attention into fighting with one another, I can guarantee you I’ll be finding more mistakes.”
All three cubs went back to their work, each bent over their crafting with unusual diligence. For a time, the only sound was the panting of wolves, and the noises of tools being put to their trade. Willow watched the others work, and suddenly grew conscious of her empty hands.
Goldspice was grinding dried venison into a powder for travelcakes. She pointed with her chin toward the large basket at her hip. “Please. There’s another grinding stone in there. If you would — three handfuls of dried blackberries to two of blueberries, then a handful each of sunflower seeds, hazelnut, and marshberry.”
Willow nodded. She scooped out the ingredients from their respective pouches, dropping each handful into the large stone grinding bowl before picking up the pestle and setting to work. Once they’d ground their ingredients enough, Willow knew the mixture would be combined with honey and rendered-down fat, then hung in airtight bladders down in the storage dens until needed. With most of the tribe away and traveling hard over the next who-knew-how-long, Willow could only imagine that the tribe would need a great deal more pemmican than they had now in the stores. She bent to her task with grim determination.
“I was looked for more feathers,” Cinder said, talking to Nightstorm. “Father’s shown me how all of the storage dens are arranged, so I went and looked for goose feathers and turkey feathers. There’s a whole pretty basket of hummingbird feathers and some down, but these are all the fletching-feathers I could find. We won’t have enough, will we?”
“We can use any feather that’s long enough if we need,” Nightstorm answered.
“Turkey and goose are the best, though,” Suddendusk said. “They’re stiff and will stay that way.”
“And turkeys are always shedding their feathers,” Nightstorm said cheerfully. “We can always gather more, easily enough.”
“We can chase them and make them fly!” Rill said eagerly. “They’ll really drop their feathers fast to get away from my whirl-stick!”
A grim thought occur to Willow. “Do we have enough fat down in the stores, for all that we will need to make?” Willow asked Goldspice quietly. Would there be enough fat, rendered or not, in the stores now to meet the tribe’s unexpected need for travelcakes? Animal fat was hard to get in the deepwinter.
Goldspice glanced at her and shook her head. “If we had hunters to send to Seal Caves, maybe. But...” The smith shrugged. “We haven’t. We do what we can with what we’ve got. And then, if there’s still a need... then we’ll get creative.”
There was a rustle at the doorhide that covered the entrance to the stairs that led directly from this den down under the Mother Tree. This time is was Copper’s turn to scramble to her feet and dash to the door. The girl managed to work the inner-doorhide lashes free just in time for Greenweave. He came in with a large bundle of wrapstuff, carried up from the storage dens below.
“Willow,” he said with a nod of greeting as he reclaimed his seat among the snowcat-pelt sleeping furs. “I was wondering how long it would be before you joined us.”
“Says the one who got lost in the storage dens,” teased Suddendusk. “I was about to send Fllutterby and Dewdrop after you, to see if you’d frozen to ice down there or something.”
“Or something,” Greenweave grinned back, rubbing his hands together briskly to warm his chilled fingers. “I couldn’t choose — nettle or thistle or willowbark? So I took a bunch of each. The cordage won’t suffer if I mix them.”
“What are you making nets now?” Willow asked, not adding the thought ‘when the tribe needs weapons to fight with, and travel rations to feed us should we be forced to flee?’
Greenweave’s gentle, wise smile turned her way, as though he had heard her unspoken words. “A good net will carry as much as a hide sack, and be much more useful once you’ve gotten to where you are going. And good strong cordage will always be useful.”
“Hunting is easy,” piped up Copper solemnly. “Hunting is in our blood. But it’s crafting that keeps us alive. Our crafters should earn more Howls in thanks.”
“We all do our part, little cub,” Suddendusk said with a lopsided grin — Willow rather thought he agreed with the girl, but wasn’t going to admit it with a non-crafter like herself in the room.
“My grandmother, Chieftess Easysinger, used to speak those very same words often enough to my father,” Goldspice said with a smile for Copper. “I can hear her voice when you say them.”
Copper gave a solemn nod and went back to her careful work. For her own part, Willow sat and thought about those words as she pounded away on her grinding bowl of nuts and berries. She herself had always appreciated the tribe’s crafters, certainly. But she had never had the patience to sit for long and pursue a craft. She could spend hours charming the bees or putting together the pieces of a wicked-clever prank... but making the day-to-day items that the tribe needed for its very surivival had always been too dull and too boring for her to tolerate for long.
That had been Before, though. Before the Fierce Ones had come back. They were all in the After, now. And if all Willow could do to help her tribe survive was sit on her tailbone and grind berries and seeds into meal, or roll nettle stalks against her thigh to be braided into cordage, then Willow found a new, bottomless reservoir of patience. With fresh eyes, she saw the value of efforts that Before she would have considered too tedious. What made with their hands today could prove the difference tomorrow between life and death for any of her loved ones. It was a chilling thought, but she felt the importance of the labor of her own hands, like she had never felt it before, and she felt a new, deeply, viscerally satisfaction in rolling her sleeves a little farther up her wrists and pounding away at fresh handfuls of seeds and berries with the pestel. She couldn’t ride through the deep snows with her lovemate or her brother, but by Wolfsister’s fierce fangs, Willow could help see that they wouldn’t go hungry.
Something scratched at the doorhides. “Is Silversong there?” cried Glow’s shrill voice from outside. “We want in!” Rill scrambled to his feet to answer that summons, and in moments, Chicory and Glow had joined them, their heads and shoulders dusted with fresh snow. Chicory delaid to help the blond-headed boy lash the doorhides shut, while Glow scampered to her she-wolf Silversong’s side and flung her arms around the young wolf’s neck as if they had been parted for seasons.
“It’s snowing again out there,” Chicory said, a tight note of worry in her voice. “It’s too quiet and too lonely up in our den. I hoped we might share sleeping furs in here with the rest of you.”
“No one wants to be alone right now,” Cinder said gravely. “And it’s warmer here, too.”
Glow finished hugging her wolf-friend, and rolled over to flop nearly in Willow’s lap. “I wanna help!”
Goldspice had brought only the one extra mortar and pestle. Willow offered her spot up to Chicory so that mother and daughter could share in that task, and moved to sit beside Suddendusk. Despite the elder’s deft, nimble hands, his basket of flint arrowheads was growing less quickly that the river cane arrows. She picked up a piece of quartz from the open tool-pound at Suddendusk’s knee, spread a rabbitskin hide across her lap to collect the flakes, and reached after a piece of flint.
“My arrowheads won’t be pretty,” she said with a grim smile for Suddendusk. “But I can at least make them sharp.”