(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part One”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
RTH 2511.02.17, mid-day
A horrible cold feeling had settled inside Chicory's ribcage. It wasn't just the usual bad mood that plagued her during the white cold season, but a constant, gnawing fear she couldn't shake.
‘The Fierce Ones have been spotted,’ her brother had just announced to his kinfolk, having gathered them together in the winter morning. The tribe’s chief had been eerily calm with that terrible news. Chicory was having trouble even believing it, that the Fierce Ones, who were all but legend to her and many others among the younger wolfriders, had actually returned. On the other hand, however, it was all too unforgivingly real. She was worried sick for her cousin Brightwood, whom she'd only been beginning to get to know in the last few turns of the seasons since her unwrapping. She also worried for her cousin's lifemate, whom she had grown up knowing her whole life, not to mention her father Blacksnake. Farscout was already within spying distance of the Fierce Ones, and Chicory's father and cousin were already on their way to meet him. Her lovemate Rainpace still had not returned from walking his trap lines with Willow, though it really was too soon to expect them back yet, and she worried for them, too. Really, though, she was worried about everyone.
Chicory shivered and folded her arms to hug herself, running her hands up and down her upper arms in an attempt to calm herself. She stood just outside her den entrance, watching Glow playing inside the relatively warm den with a carved toy caribou her grandfather had supplied some while earlier one moment, and scanning the woods surrounding the Dentree clearing for Rainpace's return the next. She had hoped that by standing on the high branch outside, at the mercy of winter's weather, that the cold outside could somehow drown out the cold within her.
It hadn't helped. Not at all.
Inside the den, Glow turned her toy animal sideways and set it down hard on the floor with a wooden clump sound. Meanwhile, she used her tongue to make little thwwp, thwwp, sounds that Chicory, knowing her child, knew were meant to represent an arrow-sound. Obviously she was 'hunting' her deer and had brought it down. That lasted only a few moments, though, before the toy was up and galloping in strides that took it, if it were to true scale, what would have had to have been many tree-lengths into the air, as the length of Glow's arm seemed the only limit for how high it jumped. The sight made Chicory smile for a brief moment, despite her fears. The tiny oasis of carefree joy was short lived, however, as the chill wind that brought an impending storm-scent reminded her of the harsh world outside, making her shiver once again despite her winter clothing.
Chicory watched her daughter, and, unbidden, an image of enormous violent humans trying to hurt her sprang to Chicory's mind. Almost immediately, so quickly, in fact, that the new thought overlapped with the first image, she imagined herself doing anything necessary to stop them and kill them. No one would hurt Glow, or any of the tribe's cubs. Rainpace, Chicory, and every other member of their whole tribe-family would stop them from doing so. Her protective maternal spirit blazed up inside her chest in a fiery sense almost like rage, but stronger and not exactly anger in how it felt — not entirely, at least.
She'd found her fire to chase out the cold.
Rainpace and Willow had been working the trapline along the thornwall at Cascade Creek when Windburn’s warning send had reached them. Rainpace had simply traded a single, horrified look with his friend, and then they had both turned and run for home, as fast as they could through the snow.
To make the best speed, they had run and ridden, turn and turn-about with their wolf-friends. It was a ride that normally would have taken them until late in the afternoon to make — but the sun had only reached its zenith in a sky that was scudding with low grey clouds, and which had a great, dark mass of a storm moving in from the west.
Bristlepelt's lungs were heaving like Goldspice's forge-bellows as the old she-wolf skidded her way over the ice at the stone weir. Willow's she-wolf Sky was not much younger, and had been equally hard pressed to keep up with the punishing pace Rainpace had set for them. In concern for their wolf-friends, Willow had spoken to him and tried to rein back on their breakneck speed, but Rainpace had been deaf to her reasonable pleas. The most nightmarish danger was threatening the Holt — threatening his child and Recognized — and nothing was going to delay Rainpace in getting home to protect his loved ones. Bristlepelt, Willow and Sky could simply fall behind if they chose to do so. They didn’t.
The Dentrees were in sight now. Rainpace vaulted from Bristlepelt's back, sparing her his weight, and ran the last distance. He felt the blaze of Chicory's mindtouch as she scrambled down from their den to meet him, Glow clinging to her mother's neck. The lovemates met in the snow just beyond the eaves of the Child Tree, in the clearing that was now all trampled snow and milling, anxious wolf-friends. Rainpace caught Chicory up fiercely and crushed her against his chest, and felt both her arms and Glow's seize him in return. Their healthy, whole scents surrounded him, a momentary balm against the raw terror which had been piecing his heart.
Chicory’s heart was hammering against his chest as he held her; Rainpace could smell her fear, as keen and deep as his own. Glow was shivering between her parents, even though she was warmly bundled in her thickest rabbit-fur coat. The girl’s amber eyes were huge in her small face, flitting rapidly around them in search of whatever it was that had her elders so terrified and grim. Rainpace wrapped the edge of his own coat around her, drawing his child as close as he could. Dimly, the trapper was aware of the movement of others around them — Willow's arrival with their two she-wolves; Starskimmer making her way toward them from the direction of the craft-trees with a bulging bundle in her arms; Windburn emerging from the direction of the Gathering Den, with others following after him.
There was a sudden gust of cold wind, which sent Rainpace’s long brown hair swirling around both of their faces. Just beyond the embracing couple, Rainpace was aware of his chief, shadowed by his young son, stepping past and gripping Willow's arm in welcome. "Grateful you could both make it back in time. I'm leaving with my team as soon as we’re able, but I wanted to look you in the eyes before I left," Rainpace overheard his chief say to the healer. "You know the seriousness of the situation. I need to be able to rely on you, and that you'll stay where you're assigned. Can I trust you?"
Another blast of bone-chillingly cold wind made the Dentree branches sway overhead; some of the brances shed snow, great white lumps of the stuff falling between those gathered in the clearing and the bulk of the hometrees."Yes, my chief," Willow answered, her voice rough with earnest emotion. "I understand. You can trust me."
"Good." There was open relief in their chief's voice. "I'm not tying you down to the Holt solely to protect you," Windburn continued. "The Holt is central to every team being deployed. You may need to respond at any time, in any direction, to someone having been injured. Goldspice will coordinate who'll ride out with you in that sort of trouble. And should worse happen — should the Fierce Ones start to come here — I know your bow and your wits will help get the cubs to safety at Bluestone Cave."
"I understand —" Willow repeated.
"What?" Rainpace barked. He did not understand what he had overheard — in no rutting way did he understand! Rainpace released his lovemate and child and spun away from them, interrupting his chief's words with the tribe's healer. "You're not evacuating the Holt? You're not sending the children to safety at once?"
Windburn turned to meet Rainpace's rage, his expression startled at argument from that quarter, while young Cinder scrambled aside, out of Rainpace’s way. "The children stay here. I'm sending the shapers to prepare Bluestone Cave and ensure it's ready for evacuation, should we need to flee from here. But I do not think we need do that yet —"
"You don't THINK?" Rainpace looked around them in dismay, as a fresh gust of wind blew large flakes of snow; Glow's young Silversong lunged and snapped after one, as if chasing a firefly. "We know the Fierce Ones are back! What are you waiting for? The children must be sent to safety, and sent at once!"
Windburn snatched after one of the fat, thick snowflakes himself. "There's a heavy blow of a storm rumbling down on us, and Bluestone Caves is normally a three day ride up into the western mountains. In good conditions, it could be done in a day and a half if the pace were pushed hard — but loaded down heavy with supplies and packing the cubs, with a snowstorm howling down in your face, you'd not make good time and the going would be dangerous. The Fierce Ones scare me too, trapper — but not so badly that I lose good sense. The cubs are safest here at the Holt for now."
"And bad weather will slow down any advance of the humans, too," Willow offered, trying to diffuse the tension, while Cinder glared at the trapper in deepest disapproval.
Rainpace shot Willow a sharp look. "You don't know that," he snarled at her, before rounding back on his chief. "You don't know that the weather will slow the Fierce Ones down! They could be in the forest now, coming at us — we're fools to stand here and waste our breath when we should be running for safety!"
“‘In snow, they are as awkward and lame as seals on land.’ Hadn't those been your own words once? Didn’t you refer to the humans then? “ Windburn asked the trapper in return.
Rainpace faltered for a second. “Yes, right, but I spoke of the Painted Faces. They walk through snow, but the Fierce Ones have roundhooves. Farscout told us these animals are fast and they ride them like we ride wolves.”
Windburn watched the trapper sympathetically while Rainpace struggled for arguments for his case. “Rainpace, I understand your fear,” the chief said, including with a gesture not only Rainpace, but his sister Chicory as well, who stood unnaturally still and stiff next to her Recognized. “But calm down and listen to your common sense. Do clickdeer walk unhindered through high snow? Or deer?” Windburn did not wait for an answer to his rhetorical question. “No. They don’t. And neither will roundhooves. Even if the Fierce Ones would travel in our direction it would take them maybe three days to get here from where Farscout last reported their location as being.. And --”
“These are the Fierce Ones Farscout knows of!” Rainpace interrupted his chief. “What if there are more than one group of them around?”
Windburn nodded solemnly. “That’s worth fearing,” he agreed. “But the forest is some protection — the Fierce Ones can’t ride their roundhooves quickly or quietly through our woods. And we’re moving scouts into place all around the territory, so we’ll be able to see them if they’re coming. We’re blind at this moment — but we won’t be completely so by tomorrow. And while we’re blind, I’m not sending the children anywhere outside of the Holt. Not until I know their path to a bolt-hole is completely clear of any threat.” Windburn’s expression was tight with tension, but his eyes were sympathetic as he laid his hands on Rainpace´s shoulders. “I understand your worries. I share your fear. But we risk lives if we panic, and I’m not going to risk the children by sending them out of the safety of the Dentress in this weather, sight-unseen.”
Windburn’s hands tightened on Rainpace’s shoulders, and he gave the trapper a gentle shake. “Use your wits, trapper. Do you really want to see your little cub on wolf-back in the freezing cold, with no shelter, and heading up into the mountains in this snowstorm? Without knowing if the Bluestone Caves are safe from bears or stinkbears or mountain cats? Take heart. We always knew this threat might come. But we’re not unprepared for it.”
Rainpace opened his mouth but closed it again without saying anything. The more Windburn countered his arguments, the more stupid he felt and the more helpless. Nothing he would say would change his chief’s mind. Windburn had made his decision, based on logic and forethought, and the chief would not back away from that. In the realization of his hopeless case Rainpace was at a loss for words.
The brief silence was broken by a quiet, but very deep and gutteral growl. Chicory shoved her way between them and pushed Glow into her father’s arms. Windburn and Rainpace shared a brief look of surprise; neither of them could remember the last time Chicory had made that particular noise.
"I've never wanted to be chief," Chicory snarled, glaring at her brother. "You know that. I was glad that it was you who took up the torc, and I was happy to see you sire two cubs to follow your footsteps after you. But I am our mother's cub too. If there's one thing I've learned from both our parents, it's to value our cubs — even if you don't believe that of our father in your case, I know you felt it from our mother as I did. And as Easysinger's daughter, I will not let you endanger Glow, or any of the other cubs, in any way."
Windburn’s expression shifted from surprise to annoyance. “You’re scared, little sister. So are we all. But I’m doing as our mother would have. The cubs are safer here today, with every eye in the tribe on watch for invaders, than they would be being carried on a hard ride through a snowstorm to a distant cave which our hunters haven’t visited since autumn-time. A bear could have moved into it, or a stinkbear have claimed it for a den. Until we know that the Fierce Ones are headed here to the Holt, the cubs are safer at home, snug in their dens with storage dens full of food beneath their feet.”
Rainpace saw his lovemate pause as she absorbed the truth of Windburn’s words almost as if against her own will. Rather than meet her brother's gaze, she locked eyes with her Recognized, as if seeking the comfort of that emotional bond in the face of being at odds with another elf she held so dear. Her reply, though, was clearly meant for Windburn. "Then we will stay — for now," she relented, searching her lovemate's face for any sign of disagreement. "But if the Fierce Ones take even one step in the direction of the Dentrees, no matter how far away they are, then I'll take Glow to safety no matter what you say… Chief."
At Chicory’s challenge, there was a dismayed murmur from the cluster of tribemates around them. Cinder had both little fists balled up and was glaring at his aunt, while Willow took a step forward to intervene, before Starskimmer laid a hand on her arm to stop her. Rainpace knew his expression showed his horror at his lovemate’s threat of disobedience to their chief. Glow squirmed and whimpered in his arms, looking at each of their faces in turn as if seeking safety. Tears were streaming from her eyes — it was only the child’s wolf-blood, to seek meekness and submission in the face of a dominance battle, that held the girl from a full fit of noisy weeping. Rainpace held his daughter close, tucking her completely beneath the warmth of his winter coat.
Windburn took a long, slow look at the gathering which had overheard his sister’s fierce words, before turning a stern look back on her.. “No, little sister,” he said in a firm voice. “You will follow your chief’s commands, same as every other member of this tribe. If you hare off like a half-witted yearling that’s spooked by the wind in the trees, you will put yourself and your daughter in danger. And that I will not tolerate.” His next words were sent openly as well as spoken aloud, and they were weighty with a challenge of the chief’s own. **You will do as you are told, when you are told. Do you understand me, sister?**
Rainpace expected his lovemate to look down and away from her brother in submission, but to his starkest dismay, he saw instead that her stare seemed to lock with Windburn’s in challenge. **I understand,** she sent in slow, measured words, when spoken words would have been less of an escalation. **But it does not change my actions. I have already told you I will do as you say for now — don't press for more, Windburn. You will NOT get it from me. Your duty is to the tribe, but my concern is for my cub. I will not let her be harmed because you think it is the right thing to do! If you're so sure the Fierce Ones will not find the Holt, then you need not worry about me disobeying your orders. I only said that I will take my child away from danger if and when it comes.** Her eyes were flashing with anger and protectiveness. She held her chief-brother's gaze stubbornly, but her body was shaking from the unfamiliar strain of that challenging gesture. To Rainpace’s eyes, it seemed Chicory was struggling not to look away.
Windburn took a step closer, so that he stood tall over his sister. Rainpace stiffened at that — part of him wanted to step forward between them in order protect his lovemate, but he could not force himself to do so. Chicory was challenging their chief. During a crisis. In front of other members of the tribe. Rainpace saw the coiled violence in Windburn as he stared down at Chicory, with sharp blue eyes gone fierce and hard. Had it been any other member of the tribe, Rainpace suspected his chief would have already lashed out physically to knock the challenge out of her. “Sister,” Windburn growled forbiddingly, “you are pissing in a circle. I am your chief and you will do as you are told, when you are told — or when the Fierce Ones have gone, I will hunt you down and shred your ears to rags. Now. This time — do you understand me?”
Motionless, Chicory stood her ground, chin high, her angry eyes still a silent challenge. Glow gave a small sound of dismay and Rainpace realized he had pressed her too hard to his chest while helplessly watching how the situation escalated.
With a dangerously low growl Windburn slowly brought his face even closer to Chicory. “Do you really think you somehow possibly love your child far more than I can love my own?” he spat at her.
Rainpace saw his lovemate’s eyes widen. “What?.. no, I...”, she stammered while taking a step back. She looked at Windburn aghast, her expression quickly changing from surprise to understanding to shame. Deeply chagrined, she openly sent **I... I'm sorry I was so angry. It's just...** She broke off with a shrug, dropping her gaze to the ground in submission. She didn't need to finish her sentence. Her open send was confession enough to how her fear had fueled her.
Windburn’s fierce expression softened, and he gingerly put his hands on Chicory’s shoulders, then drew her against him. “Sister,” he murmured, giving her a careful embrace. “We are all frightened. The Fierce Ones coming back is what our mother always feared most of all. But can you understand me? I need you to stay with the children and protect them — all of them. Not just your own precious daughter, but my son and Rill and Copper as well. I need to be able to trust that I know where you are, and that you’re not riding off into trouble you haven’t foreseen. And Goldspice will need you as well. Can I trust you? I need to know that I can — there is far too much else right now that I cannot.”
When Chicory hesitated, Rainpace shifted Glow into the crook of one arm, then reached out and took his lovemate’s hand. She did not look at him, but he knew the gesture helped when she gave her chief a small nod. “You can trust me, brother,” Chicory said, looking down at her booted feet.
The chief let go a held breath, then look a step back, casting a glance toward Willow. “Willow, as I already said, you’ll be staying here at the Holt. So you know — Moss and Honey have already been sent off to Northview Ridge, and Longshot and Quick Fang will be off to Cascade Hill, just as soon as they’ve returned with True Edge. I have sent Pathmark and Greenweave to bring Kestrel home from watching the humans at Eagle Bay. Our treeshapers will be leaving shortly for Bluestone Cave, along with the yearlings to hunt for them. Goldspice will be in charge here. Foxtail, Thornbow and I will be leaving shortly; then Pathmark will wait for the word-hunters return, after which he will be headed south with One-Leg and Notch to keep an eye on the southern woods and our human neighbors at Eagle Bay. I’m sending Snowfall with Beetle and Windsong to the east up Tuftcat Valley.”
In the distance was the low mutter of thunder. Snow whipped around their faces, dancing on the icy fingers of the chilly wind. “You, Rainpace, I’ll be sending up to Crow’s Ridge, partnered with Dreamflight,” Windburn continued, with a distracted glance at the sky, and a fresh scowl, as if wishing the weather would do his will. “Rainpace, the tribe will be relying on you and Dreamflight to keep eyes open for humans, but to relay messages to the Holt from Bluestone Caves. At all times, each team or guard post will either be able to reach the Holt by sending, or reach another team or another guard post. We’ll have near-instant communication that way, should any of the humans come close. Don’t forget the Amber Hunters or Painted Faces in any of this — there’s not so much a risk, but it would be just like the meddling creatures to choose now to stick their noses over the thornwalls.”
Rainpace frowned, dismayed at the prospect of leaving his mate and child behind at the Holt, but he couldn’t meet his chief’s eyes and demand otherwise. Up on the heights of Crow’s Ridge, Rainpace hoped he’d be protecting his loved ones, far more actively than he could sitting on his tail at home.
Windburn’s fierce look softened somewhat, and he slid a wry look at his still stormy-faced sister. “None of the other teams will be in place before dawn,” he said. Foxtail had come up behind him and handed him a heavy pack; he shrugged it on, with a nod of thanks for his daughter. He reached out and rested a hand on Cinder’s head for a moment, before turning his attention back to Rainpace and Chicory. “Rainpace, you’ll not need to leave before midnight yourself to get into position.Take your chance to spend the time with your mate and child. It may be a long wait until you get the chance again.”
Rainpace still held Chicory’s hand and he looked at her questionly, knowing there was no use in starting an argument again and hoping that she wouldn’t. Rainpace still saw a lingering wildness in his lovemate’s eyes, but sensed that she would do as she had promised — for now. He trusted Chicory intended to do everything necessary to protect their child, should things turn for the worse. But the time for more drastic measures had not come. Not yet.
“Rainpace, you leave for Crow’s Ridge in the morning,” their chief reminded them. “Take some time now to enjoy your mate and cub, while you can.” With that, Windburn turned away from them and walked away, gesturing for Willow to join him for further consultation. Chicory squeezed her lovemate’s hand, and tugged him after her as she headed for their den.
Beauty knew his chief-wolf was close, long before Fadestar could catch Wasp’s scent. She was riding the scarred, grizzled wolf, with Notch running close alongside at a pace as steady and tireless as Beauty’s own. Beetle and One-Leg rode at Beauty’s heels, with Fadestar’s own she-wolf Autumnleaf taking up the tail-end of their party. Fadestar read it in Beauty’s ears first — they went up and alert, then stayed that way instead of flickering back at ease. Then the wolf’s loose, smooth stride beneath her shifted into something coiled and controlled. She felt the shift even through her exhaustion from days and days of non-stop travel: the transformation was immediate and unsettling, as though the friendly beast between her knees had suddenly metamorphosed into a snake. And it was a very intelligent and watchful snake, too, one which had a deadly purpose on his mind. Fadestar had never felt anything quite like it before, and she didn’t like the sensation. ‘This is what it means to have a high-rank wolf-friend,’ she found herself thinking, with a glance aside at Notch. She wondered — did the rider share his wolf’s ambitions? Was Notch as eager as his one-eyed wolf-friend to see the pack’s old leader fall?
Heartbeats later, Wasp’s and Blacksnake’s scents reached them on a swirl of breeze up the creekbed, and then there was a crunch of snow underfoot. Then Wasp came trotting into sight through the fringe of trees ahead of them. The young unbonded Bristlepelt, Fireweed and Frostback trailed Wasp. The chief-wolf’s head and tail were up, confident of his dominance over his packmates, and showing no sign of any other distraction.
‘It would be easier to be a wolf,’ Fadestar thought, as they all met on the icy stones of the creekside. The three young unbondeds rushed to meet their reunited packmates, approaching even Autumnleaf in submissive greeting. Blacksnake was bundled in his heaviest winter gear and bristling with weapons, including a spear-quiver that was slung across his back. She thought of what Blacksnake was riding toward, and shivered so convulsively that Mushroom, who rode tucked into the shelter of her coat collar, reached up to stroke her face in gentle concern.
“So you’re haring off as well, are you, brother?” growled One-Leg as he slid from Longtooth’s back, his staff firmly planted among the treacherous stones to catch his weight. “Does your son know where you are?”
“Windburn sent me,” Blacksnake said. “Brightwood and Farscout will need me.”
One-Leg snorted at that. “Aye. That’s just what Farscout needs, one more of you with the taste of vengeance in the back of your mouths,” the red-bearded elder scoffed. “If he’s got half the sense of my numb and narrow left ass-cheek, he’ll turn you both around and send you both home!”
The look Blacksnake gave his brother would have silenced Fadestar for a solid month — Fadestar always marveled at how One-Leg never seemed to be intimidated by their Hunt Leader’s piercing eyes, when most of the rest of the tribe would have gotten the message and wisely shut their mouths. One-Leg never shut his mouth, though. “Aye, that’d be Farscout’s wisest choice,” One-Leg chuckled sourly. “But having both you and Brightwood burning for revenge will at least mean he’ll sleep toasty.”
“Farscout’s got the same reason to hate them as either Brightwood or I —” Blacksnake began to argue.
One-Leg’s snorted again and talked over the top of his brother’s protest. “I’ve seen the look in his eye when Farscout’s holding that little kitten of his. He’s the one of you I’ll trust to come home again. But Brightwood doesn’t forgive or forget. And you’ve never had your taste of blood in return for Lynx. So don’t think I don’t know what’s burning your wick. Just promise me you won’t take your taste, little brother. Because your son and your son’s cubs still need you underfoot. Now and then, at least.”
Blacksnake’s turned his shoulder on his brother and looked sharply at Fadestar. She tried not to quail under that smoldering stare, telling herself firmly that she’d just survived a patrol with Farscout and a close encounter with Fierce One riders, so that her Hunt Leader was nothing she should fear. But it was easier to tell herself that than to swallow it whole. It was a hard thing to face Blacksnake when he was tight-focused and fierce-eyed like he was right now.
**Show me,** he demanded. **In full — everything you saw of the humans and everything Farscout said to you before you parted ways.**
Fadestar nodded and showed him what he wanted, locksending so that he could take in every detail of her memories. It was not hard to recall. It had only been two days ago now that she and Farscout had encountered the Fierce One riders as they hunted clickdeer in the thin forest at the very border of the tribe’s southeastern territory. She shared fully and without reservation, even though she knew it meant that Blacksnake would feel for himself how very terrified she had been. Two days ago, she would have resented admitting such a thing, fearing Blacksnake would think her a child for it. But it was as if there had been a Before and an After, and the Fadestar who lived in the After had faced her terror and done what she needed to do despite it. Of all of the lessons Farscout had taught his apprentice on her very first patrol, that was perhaps the most profound.
Blacksnake took everything she gave him and absorbed it. His piercing stare went inward, and she fancied could almost see him thinking. “Farscout said he wanted me to stress to the chief — these humans carried bows,” she added aloud, as she shared the memories up to her parting with the scout. “He wanted Windburn to see those bows. And the metal knives. Farscout saw metal knives and a big metal axe. Red metal, not silvery like troll-stuff. And the Fierce Ones didn’t have those. Not before, when my aunt Frost and Lynx and Cedarwing and Shyheart were killed.”
Blacksnake didn’t look shocked. He already knew the worst of it. Fadestar knew that that meant that One-Leg had already passed on those important details to Chief Windburn and the Holt. She let loose a long exhalation, suddenly feeling as though a great weight had lifted from her shoulders. Her duty was done. “I want to go back with you,” she said, knowing better but still unable to resist the request. “If you’re going out to catch up with Farscout and Brightwood and keep watch on the humans, I want to go with you. Farscout made me come back to tell the Holt, but now the tribe knows. I haven’t finished my patrol yet, and the more eyes you’ve got —”
“Hush cub,” Notch said, not unkindly. “If anyone gets to go, it’s me. Someone needs to sneak off with a sample of this Fierce One blood-metal, and who better at robbing a nest than me?”
One-Leg cuffed his son’s ear. “Not you,” he said, then shot a fierce look at a quiet Beetle. “Nor you,” he said sternly, “— nor you,” he added to Fadestar. “You’ve run as far as you are able, brave girl-cub. We’re escorting you home so that Willow will fix up that leg of yours. You don’t want it to get bad and rot off,” he said, knocking the butt-end of his staff on his own wooden leg.
“Windburn won’t let any of you go to waste,” Blacksnake said cryptically. “You’re only half a day’s ride home now. Get home and get some rest, while you still can. I expect we’re going to have a long, hard haul ahead for all of us.” Blacksnake eyed Notch for a moment, then held out his hand. “Give me your quiver. You can get another when you’re at the Dentrees, and if this takes as long as I fear it might, Farscout, Brightwood and I will need every arrow we can carry.”
There was an immediate flurry of response. Fadestar joined the others in emptying her quiver. One-Leg’s team of word-hunters had been on a long patrol of their own to the west before intercepting Fadestar, so pooled together their arrows only filled Notch’s skunk-skin quiver. But Blacksnake nodded gratitude as he slung the extra quiver across his back.
“Mushroom,” he said then, holding a hand out for the Preserver.
The Preserver went to Blacksnake without question, nestling into the warmth of the fur cape at Blacksnake’s shoulder. Fadestar felt abandoned, although the Preserver had been nearly silent for most of her headlong race home for the Holt. The Preserver’s pale eyes gazed after her mournfully, while Blacksnake reached for One-Leg’s arm and gave the other elder a firm parting grip.
“Get them home and help my son,” Blacksnake said.
“Ride safe, little brother,” One-Leg answered, as they all watched Blacksnake remount his wolf. “And tell Farscout I expect him to see you and Brightwood both home safe.” The Hunt Leader ignored his brother’s needling. He rode through them and away at a lope, Wasp’s nose pointed for the border. “One last push, and we’ll have our sleeping furs and warm bellies,” One-Leg said to the rest of them, limping for his own wolf-friend. They started moving again, knowing home was nearer now. Only Beauty delayed, ignoring the urgings of his borrowed rider to watch after Wasp with that strange, snake-like focus until the old pack leader was gone from sight.
“You can't wear that!” Nightstorm snatched the tunic from Thornbow's grasp. “It's got holes in it.” She slid her finger through the worn leather in confirmation. “Let me mend it. It won't take but a moment.”
She headed toward the door, but Thornbow moved to block her way.
“Nightstorm...” His hands caught hers, and he gently worked the tunic free of her fingers. “There isn't time. I need to go now.”
He slipped the tunic on and clasped her hands again, bringing them to his chest, Nightstorm pulled with them to stand close in front of him, leading her eyes to met his. “I know you're worried, but I'll be with Windburn. He's not one of these fools who would force a fight. He knows what we're up against, and what our chances in a battle would be. His only desire is to keep the tribe safe, to keep us one step ahead of the Fierce Ones and out of their reach. Trust in that.”
Nightstorm nodded. Thornbow wasn't saying anything that both of them didn't already know. But it was comforting to hear it, all the same.
Thornbow dropped her hands and gathered up his quivers and small pack of supplies. Pulling her to him once again he nuzzled her neck, both of them breathing in the scent of each other one last time, neither knowing when the opportunity would come again. Finally, Thornbow pulled away and headed towards the den opening. At the last moment, he turned back, mouth curved in a playful smirk. “Just think, this gives you plenty of time to work on my new tunic.”
He fled out the door just inches ahead of the hastily thrown boot.
“You wish!” she called after him.
Upon reaching the base of the Father Tree, Thornbow took a moment to compose himself. He settled the strap of one full quiver of arrows over his shoulder, then slung the second one crosswise to the first. The two quivers sat awkwardly on his back, but their weight reassured him. His mind calmed somewhat, he stepped into the clearing between the Dentrees.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the space so full, yet so quiet. It looked for all the world like several hunting teams preparing to depart at once. But if it had been, there would have been chattering and laughter and good-natured boasts, wishes of luck and bets laid. There was none of that now. Voices were hushed, kept to murmurs, quiet questions passed back and forth, offers of another bowstring, another spearhead, a warmer pair of gloves. Most goodbyes, he guessed, had already been said inside the warmth of dens.
He gave Nightstorm a quick smile when he saw her finally emerge from the den to join him on the ground. The one he got in return was so small, so tentative that Thornbow wished there was something he could do to help it reach her eyes and bring back the bright, mercurial tanner he’d been joking with only moments ago. He couldn’t think of anything to say. The thing he suspected she most wanted to hear — that her elder sister would return safely, that everyone would return safely, including him -- was a promise that he couldn’t make, and Thornbow had never believed in false reassurances anyway.
Across the clearing, he saw Windburn emerge from his den, Cinder and then Goldspice on his heels. The chief paused near to where Cloudfern and Starskimmer stood beside their wolves, speaking with them. Not far away, by the entrance to the Gathering Den, Otter, Crackle and Newt stood in a small knot, already geared up and ready to go. Then Evervale arrived, and as Thornbow watched she mounted herself on Halfmoon’s back. Windburn gripped Cloudfern’s shoulder, and gave the plantshaper a rough shake, stepping aside just as Starskimmer threw her arms around the chief’s neck. He held her patiently until she let go, then helped her swing up onto her wolf-friend, clumsy with the pack and skins draped around her.
Thornbow looked around for Thief, knowing that if the shapers were ready to depart, it was time to mount up and be ready as well.
Foxtail, already mounted, rode up beside him. She, too, bristled with weapons. The chief’s daughter pulled up her hood as the first flakes of snow started to drift down around them. “Hope this storm doesn’t turn worse,” she muttered, squinting up at the sky resentfully. Gusting wind shook the treetops far above them.
He hoped so, too. He didn’t want anything to delay their getting out there, and having something to do. He thought of his sister and Moss, already ridden ahead towards Northview Ridge, and wondered how long before their wolves’ tracks would disappear under the snow. He would have liked to follow them... but of course, he would be in Honey’s sending-range the whole time. Thornbow smiled to himself. He was proud of how quickly his sister had responded to the chief’s orders, taking up her bow and begging an extra quiver of arrows from her brother, then following Moss out into the grey morning light without a complaint. He knew that she was glad to have a task, but privately thought she was relieved to be on one of the watch-posts, with her daughter on another, and neither tasked to ride through the deep drifts in the valleys on constant patrol. And to tell the truth, he was glad himself to know that she and Dreamflight were safe to that extent, too. It was one less thing to worry about.
Windburn approached, and Whirl trotted to intercept him. He put one hand on her ruff, and turned to accept the bow and quiver that Cinder had been carefully carrying for him. The chief let his hand rest on his son’s head for a long moment, and Thornbow knew they must be sending, as Cinder’s shining eyes gazed steadily up at his father. Released, the cub dashed over to grab the hand that Foxtail leaned down to offer him.
“You be good for Goldspice, pup,” she told him.
Cinder looked up at her, his expression very serious, and said, “You be good for Father.”
Foxtail laughed at that, and even Thornbow couldn’t hold in a snort. “I’ll be better than good,” she assured him airily, and Thornbow almost had to admire how carefree she sounded, though he wasn’t sure he believed it.
“I’ll be the best,” her brother returned, clearly a well-practiced exchange. He stepped back to press against Goldspice’s side, and his cousin’s arm went around his shoulders.
Windburn rode up, the other wolves jostling respectfully around Whirl. “We’ll ride together with the shapers as far as the crossing at Dead Deer Creek,” he told them. “The Braided is frozen over and they can cross north there.”
“What are we waiting for?” said Foxtail, nudging Briarfoot around so that she was pointed in the right direction.
Windburn’s eyes met Thornbow’s, and Thornbow gave him the nod that was all the answer his friend needed. “Nothing,” the chief said finally. “So why don’t you and Briarfoot start breaking trail?”
His daughter groaned, but said, “Yes, my chief!” cheerfully enough. “Otter, Crackle, Newt!” she called, “you and your young wolves get up here and help me!”
Then they were moving out, past the ring of trees surrounding the clearing. Thornbow looked back once, at their tribemates and wolves standing small next to the enormous Dentrees, and then not again.
Ed. Note: see the story, “Listen to the Thunder” (by W. Ware: Glow reassures her family that they’ll be safe against a Fierce Ones invasion.), which takes place at this time.
RTH 2511.02.17, evening
There was nothing about this particular day that had indicated it would be different from any other. The humans had come for their candlefish run at Eagle Bay, the same as countless other times.
Kestrel, was now on her way home, pacing herself as she had always done. She was, therefore, quite surprised to hear her grandson and Greenweave sending for her. She was much too far still to be in range of the Holt, so the two of them must have come looking for her specifically. At first the glider couldn’t quite make out what exactly they were sending, but the feeling of urgency was crystal clear. She immediately made an effort to glide faster, trying to get in range.
**What is it? What’s happened?** Kestrel immediately sent, letting them know she could hear. In an instant, the story of Farscout and Fadestar’s encounter with the Fierce Ones reached her mind. Pathmark reassured her that both scouts were okay, knowing that that was the first thing Kestrel was likely to ask about, and told her that Farscout was still out there keeping a close eye on them, with Brightwood and Blacksnake soon to join him.
Upon knowing the full story, the elder’s mind was racing.
She thought of her sister, so eager to go on her first scouting patrol — and then to have something like this happen! Still, Kestrel knew that Farscout had kept her safe, and she was likely more shocked than hurt at all.
She thought of Snowfall and of True Edge, who had lost so many family members to the Fierce Ones all those years ago and still held hate for them in his heart — she hoped that in his elderhood, he would be able to keep calm and think rationally, rather than doing something he might later regret. And she hoped she would have the opportunity to touch minds with him, and with Snowfall, before likely being separated from them for who knew how long.
She thought of the cubs she and Snowfall were carrying, which Willow had checked on every day that she could, ensuring that everything was progressing as it should. This was the first time Kestrel had been on a regular scouting trip since she and her lovemates had learned of the pregnancies over two moon-cycles ago, and she had still tried not to tax herself, just in case. Now, she knew she could not afford to do so any longer, for the tribe would need her and she would have to get back to the Holt without delay. She tried to send reassuring thoughts to the cub, though she knew it was still too early for that — perhaps, somehow, it might help.
All of these thoughts crossed Kestrel’s mind in an instant, and in the next instant, she forced them aside. Her first priority now was to get back to the Holt as quickly as possible, and to be strong for others who might not be able to.
**Head back to the Holt. I’ll be upon you as soon as I can.**
The two on wolf-back were still an hour’s ride away from the Holt when their elder caught up with them. The going was much harder for them, as the snow on the ground made it more difficult for their wolves to maneuver. But the flying conditions were also worse than Kestrel would have liked. What had started as a few flakes of snow near the coast had become a steady fall driven by swirling winds. She would never have otherwise tried to fly in it — but the urgency of the chief’s message made her willing to risk it.
Kestrel descended to join them, first pulling Pathmark into a hug and then grasping Greenweave’s hand tightly. Though she had known they were safe from being in constant mind-touch with them, just the sight of them in person was a great reassurance. It went without saying that it would be foolish for the glider to slow her return to the Holt just to stay with the two riders, but the thought that she might not see her grandson again for awhile was a difficult one.
There was a flash and a clap of sudden thunder, strangely muffled in the snow-filled air, and all three elves’ eyes turned skyward. “High Ones, that’s all we need,” Greenweave muttered, and he looked at Kestrel with concern. Flying in snow and wind was bad enough, but...
“I’ll be fine,” the elder said firmly. What she meant was that she would take the risk. Thundersnow seldom lasted long, and its lightning seldom touched the ground. She would be safe if she stayed below the level of the trees. “Stay safe, both of you,” Kestrel added.
“And you as well, Grandmother,” Pathmark responded earnestly, a hint of worry in his eyes.
He and Greenweave watched their elder kick off into the air, their gazes following her until she disappeared among the trees, lost to sight in the thickening snow, and then they began their ride anew, unwilling to rest until the task at hand was finished.
The remainder of the flight went as quickly as it could — at least the wind was at her back. With part of her mind focused on battling through the gusts and the snow, Kestrel gave the rest of her attention to the problem of what awaited her. She had sent to the chief as soon as she was in range, and his mind had been occupied then — he and many of the others had just left the Holt themselves, and she would not get to see them face to face. She had to make do with what Windburn could tell her through sending, as he rode northeast along the Clickdeer River.
Finally, the Dentrees came into view. As Kestrel arrived, she could see activity below in the clearing between the three great trees and the river, despite the snowstorm and the thunder still rumbling overhead. As she came closer, she realized it was One-Leg’s word-hunters party, just returned. When she couldn’t see her sister’s figure amongst the press of elves and wolves in the clearing, she realized that Fadestar must have been bundled inside immediately, to have Willow see to the injured leg that Windburn had reported.
Dropping to the ground, Kestrel was met immediately by Goldspice. She met the smith’s eyes warmly, seeing the strain that was already there. She could well imagine how little her cousin desired the role of acting chief, but she knew that Goldspice would handle it well. Kestrel had always seen echoes of her Aunt Easysinger in Riskrunner’s daughter.
“Windburn’s told you everything?” the smith asked, sure of the answer. She nodded at Kestrel’s affirmation, adding, “Fadestar is with Willow just inside the Gathering Den. Go on and get warmed up, and I’ll tell you the rest later. True Edge and his hunting party are due back before the sun sets — that’s what he promised, anyway, snowstorm or no snowstorm.”
“That sounds like True Edge,” Kestrel agreed, smiling. She already knew much of what Windburn expected of her, from sending with him. There would be time to consult with Goldspice after she had gotten some rest. She squeezed her cousin’s hand, and slipped through the opening in the hide covering the Gathering Den’s entrance.
She found Willow and Fadestar seated nearby, away from the door’s drafts. Quickly, Kestrel knelt beside her sister, taking her into her arms almost a little too tightly. “Thank goodness you’re safe,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry I made you worry,” Fadestar replied regretfully.
Kestrel shook her head as she drew back. “That doesn’t matter now. I’m just glad to see you all in one piece.” She spared a glance at the long cut in Fadestar’s leg, already beginning to smooth out under Willow’s glowing hands.
“Yes...thanks to Farscout,” Fadestar said with a small sigh.
“You did well in an unexpected situation, and I’m proud of you,” the glider said, smiling at her sister and receiving one in return.
Soon enough, Willow was done, and she sat back with a sigh, only then noticing that Kestrel had arrived. Willow shifted over and hugged her grandmother. Kestrel could see the weariness creeping up into Willow’s eyes already, and hoped that her granddaughter’s magic would not be needed too often in the days to come.
“Let me help you with your exhaustion, Grandmother,” Willow said then.
Kestrel’s first instinct was to object, as it wouldn’t do for Willow to waste her energy when it might be needed for something more urgent. But as she caught a glimpse of the stubborn look in the healer’s eyes, she knew that objecting would do no good. The healer was eager to be useful in a way that only she could be, and Kestrel understood that. She smiled and nodded her assent, and the two made their way to Kestrel’s den together.
After a preliminary check to make sure that both mother and cub were still doing all right, the healer wasted no time in using her magic to ebb the exhaustion plaguing the glider. Kestrel sat cross-legged on the bed-bowl, her granddaughter behind her, letting her magic flow through the elder’s aching muscles. It was a strange feeling, and Kestrel knew that it would not take the place of getting some actual rest, but she was grateful for the temporary respite, at any rate. It was towards the end of the session that the elder received a send from True Edge suggesting that the two of them rest together before he would have to ride out with Fadestar.
The sight of him entering the den was a welcome one to the elder, who hadn’t expected to see either of her mates before they left for their tasks. However, she could almost immediately sense the concealed anger in the blonde elf. It was easy to guess the reasons for this — anger at his foster daughter’s injury, anger at being forced to leave his mates for who knew how long, and most of all, anger at just the presence of those hated beings who had caused him so much grief in the past. So far, though, he appeared to be keeping it in check. The glider was relieved at this; his wisdom appeared to be holding out over his temper — for now. He nodded once at Willow in thanks, and she embraced her grandmother once more.
“I’ve told the chief that I would help gather some supplies for the scouting groups... but I’ll see you again before you go,” the healer said.
“Thank you...and make sure you find some time to get rest yourself,” Kestrel responded, raising an eyebrow. Willow smiled and nodded, though whether she planned to follow this advice remained to be seen.
When True Edge and Kestrel were alone, he came to sit beside her, taking her into his arms for what seemed like ages. They didn’t need words to say just how relieved they were to see each other. When at last they drew back, the elder elf gave a questioning look to her lovemate. He knew exactly what, or who, was on her mind.
“Snowfall is fine...though obviously the news of Fadestar gave her quite a scare,” he told her, his eyebrows knitting and one of his fists clenching.
“Did Willow have a look at her too?” Kestrel then asked.
“She did, just before Snowfall rode out,” True Edge responded. It seemed as though he had wanted to say more, but thought better of it. Kestrel reached out to put her hand on his arm.
“You’re wondering why this had to happen now, of all times.”
True Edge nodded slowly. “I know it’s not often that the three of us are all together, but at least we usually know where we’re all going, and when we’ll be back. This, though...the not knowing is the hardest part, especially with our cubs to think about.”
Kestrel nodded. “I know what you mean. But we’ll have to try our hardest to focus on the tasks at hand, and not let our feelings cloud our better judgment.”
True Edge sighed. “That we will.”
Knowing that his thoughts must be in a turmoil, perhaps even more than her own were, Kestrel tried to change the subject. “How long can you stay? Are you able to rest a little?” the elder asked, motioning for True Edge to lie down beside her. He did so, wrapping his arm gently around her stomach, but the glider could see that his eyes remained open, and thought that for him, trying to rest was probably futile.
“I’ll probably have to go before you will. But not until tomorrow, when Fadestar is ready to leave.” He turned his head to look at her. The thought of leaving so soon, after only being together for a short while, was difficult for them both.
“Just be careful out there, elder,” True Edge said sternly, but with a hint of a smile.
“Of course,” she said, returning the smile.
To be continued…