(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part Two”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
RTH 2511.02.18 – night
The land between the Holt's forested hills and the mountains which held back the Great Ice Lake was a windswept place, a landscape which looked flat to the eye yet rolled like motionless ocean waves when a rider sought to cross it. It was a scrubland of wide open spaces interrupted by the rare stand of conifer or aspen, usually dotting the patches of higher elevation. Far to the north, the gentle waves of earth rose into an inland plateau, overlooking the western shores of Whitewing Lake. But that was far, far to the north now of where Brightwood cautiously rode.
It had been too dangerous to travel far out into the scrublands by daylight, so Brightwood and Redbrush had rested and waited until nightfall in the fringe of the Holt’s forest before venturing out past the territorial border and into those snow-blanketed plains. She had reached Farscout by sending the night before and remained in steady contact with her lifemate. But that reassuring mental touch was not the same as reaching his side and finding him whole and healthy. So she urged her wolf-friend faster now, and Redbrush carried her at the she-wolf’s ground-eating lope toward the sparse pine grove on a rippled rise, where Brightwood knew her lifemate was waiting.
A flurry of snowflakes gusted around them as they climbed that rise, toward the thin stand of mixed pine and cottonwood. Brightwood couldn’t help but smile with relief when she saw Farscout come out of the trees to meet her. She slipped from Redbrush's back and into her lifemate's arms. They embraced for a long, silent time. Brightwood knew her Recognized's weariness that he had not slept for more than stolen moments for days now, and she could feel from the tension of his embrace that he wasn't entirely pleased that she had joined him. Brightwood knew he would have preferred her safe at the Holt with their daughter. But Farscout said nothing in argument when they parted. Brightwood knew her lifemate was too practical to argue such a thing, once the deed was done — and that he knew her too well in turn, to think anyone force her to be anywhere but here, facing the same danger he did. No — Farscout was too practical for that, and there was a job on hand to focus on, so instead of argument, Farscout simply pulled her with him, back into the fragrant shadows of the conifers and winter-bare cottonwoods, guiding her to a point of better vantage.
**They have guards on their camp,** Farscout sent as they walked through the snow, sharing a send-image of the Fierce Ones' camp — thankfully glimpsed from a distance, probably the height they now stood on, Brightwood thought. **Two guards are on the roundhooves pen all night, one of which patrols the camp perimeter at irregular intervals. These humans are too smart to remain predictable, unlike the Amber Hunters back home. And they have not-wolves wandering the camp — those will roam farther afield, although when the weather is at its worst, they find shelter within the camp, in the tent-dens with the humans. I have not yet seen a Fierce One leave their camp at night. They’ll leave their tents to pass water or scat, and that they bury in the snow.**
Farscout had guided her to his preferred vantage point: they crawled beneath the skirts of a snow-burdened pine, finding shelter as well as a clear view out over the scrublands beyond. Farscout already had a clickdeer-skin sleeping fur laid out, the water-proofed side of the hide facing down to insulate them from the frozen ground. Brightwood threw her snowcat-fur cloak over them both as they lay down together on their bellies, able to see out through the fringe of evergreen after Farscout cleared aside a bit of new-fallen snow. Below them, down the other side of the hill and some distance out into the snowy plains, the Fierce Ones' camp was a dark smudge in the white expanse of snow. There were half a dozen of the round den-tents, distributed in an irregular circle. Around the outside of that circle was a strange mounding, and inside of that circle milled a large herd of roundhooves in a space somewhat cleared of snow.
**They have flat-bottomed digging sticks,** Farscout sent, illustrating the sending with an image-send of several hands of wide, brown figures, digging snow and moving it to the outside of their camp. **They make a low wall of the snow and string it around with ropes — protection, perhaps, as well as to help keep their round-hooves confined. Clearing the snow away from the grass provides the roundhooves fodder for the night. **
**They've got a lot of roundhooves,** Brightwood sent, giving up on trying to count the grazing beasts in the center of that distant circle.
**At least Two each of the humans, and a few handfuls more,** Farscout sent. **In the morning, the humans take down their tents and break camp. They split the load between several of the roundhooves, who carry packs or drag travois. Each human rides a beast, and there's another dozen or so unburdened ones led by ropes. I assume to carry home their prey — if they're hunting.** Farscout provided a sending-image of that sight, caught from a fair distance. **So far, I've only seen them travel or hunt by daylight — they're like the Painted Faces and Amber Hunters in that. They begin breaking camp at dawn, but they will start setting up their camp later in the afternoon, and they race the sunset to have it done.**
**Weak eyes then? Like our local humans?** Brightwood suggested.
Farscout shrugged. He put an arm around her hips and pulled her closer, their bodies beneath the snowcat fur beginning to produce a comfortable warmth. **Maybe. But I know their sense of smell is not keen. They're practically nose-deaf.**
Brightwood turned a sharp eye on her lifemate, and skewered him with a sent pulse of question. She felt the wincing shift in her Recognized's mindtouch away from her question, and knew he didn't want to go further down that trail. **If they'd have half a nose between them, they would have known Fadestar and I were nearby when we encountered their hunters, north of the Bounty,** Farscout sent; tellingly, he offering her no image-send of that.
Brightwood's violet-blue eyes narrowed knowingly as she fixed her mate with a hard stare. **How close did you and Fadestar get to them?**
Farscout gazed at her for a silent moment, then shrugged and looked away. **They nearly rode us down,** he answered. **But they were distracted by their hunt and never noticed us. I sent Fadestar out of harm's way, then got Duskgreeter to mask our tracks.**
Brightwood took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. She let her lifemate be evasive with her for now — because part of her didn't want to know how close a call it had been. Knowing how understated Farscout usually was, she could too easily imagine him having been right under the roundhooves' feet. And she knew Blacksnake was on his way to join them, and that the former chief’s mate would require Farscout’s full report. Blacksnake wouldn’t accept an evasion, and later would be soon enough for Brightwood’s tastes. It was enough for now simply to be reunited with her Recognized, and feel the living strength of him beside her. The nest Farscout had made beneath the low branches was comfortable enough, once their bodies began to warm it. Idly, she reached up and touched the branch above her head. The pine was winter-somnolent to the touch, but she coaxed it awake, then began to shape the branch, flattening and thinning it simultaneously, turning it into a giant feather-shape.
**Every morning, as they break camp, they appear to send out two riders as scouts ahead,** Farscout continued. **I've not seen them send out riders behind them on their backtrail as of yet, and I've not seen them send out their hunters again. But they must, soon. They took three clickdeer three days ago, when Fadestar and I encountered them, but I'm not sure how long that much meat can last them. They travel all day. Once they're out of sight ahead of me, I follow. It's impossible to miss their tracks in the snow. I stay to wolf-back as much as possible, not to leave tracks of my own.**
Brightwood nodded. She moved on to shaping the next branch over them, providing a surer roof against the snow. She thought for a time about their prospects. It was a risk alone to move after the Fierce Ones during daytime. If for any reason the humans were to send a rider back on their own trail, a wolfrider could likely be spotted just about the same time a wolfrider spotted the human. The snow would slow down a horse more so than a wolf... but the damage would still be done. The Fierce Ones would know the elves were there. The scouts could ride a human down themselves and fill the creature full of arrows to delay the delivery of that warning, but unless a blizzard could be pulled out of their pockets, there would be no hiding that that human had been killed... which would only instigate the rest of the human band to further actions, none of which Brightwood wanted to think about. Safer, maybe, to sit in place all day and catch up with the humans by night, in a game of leapfrog in which each player's distance was measured by what ground the Firece Ones could cover by daylight. The elves could even risk riding ahead and taking up a position ahead of the Fierce Ones and —
—No. Forward scouts would leave behind them tracks in the snow. In blizzard conditions, maybe they could risk it, with a fair expectation that the falling snow would mask their footprints by daylight. But weather was as fickle as a marshbeast bull in rut. You didn't stake the lives of everyone and everything that you loved on the weather doing what you expected of it. Not in the unsettled months of winter.
Yet to sit in place for all of the hours of a winter’s day, knowing the humans were out there and getting further and further away from them with each step? When the Holt would depend on the scouts to give warning of the humans' progress? It would be difficult to be patient enough to do that. The way she guessed her lifemate was figuring it, a rider along the backtrail must be far less likely than another band of hunters haring off from the main group and returning to the Holt's forest, in search of fresh game. And with the Holt’s Dentrees almost due west... that could be a recipee for disaster. Brightwood understood that the chief had not been idle the past day and a half. Windburn had dispatched what guardposts and scouts he could. But guardians were still far and few between, and Brightwood did not trust all of her tribemates to fear the Fierce Ones enough. The local humans, the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces, were a gentle spring rain in comparison to the violent thunderstorm of the Fierce Ones. They were the worst kind of unforgiving summer storm, the type that spun off twisters on the plainslands to tear up and destroy whatever was in their path.
Brightwood gnawed on that bone of thought that for a while, idly finishing with a third branch and then moving on to a fourth, so that their hidden shelter was more securely protected from any wind-shifting of snow down on their heads. **Even traveling on their tails by day, Fierce Ones hunters could still be a few hours ride west — even to the border of the forest itself — before we might reach their tracks to know they’ve gone,** she finally sent, frustrated by that prospect.
**Yes,** Farscout sent. **But Windburn is in range of our sending now. We will at least be able to provide that warning —**
From the far east came a drifting, unfamiliar chorus of wolfsong. At once, Brightwood sent a firm command-pulse to Redbrush, as the she-wolf moved in the hollow she and Duskgreeter had dug for themselves in the snow nearby. Redbrush sat up, listening alertly, and whined a complaint -- but did not answer that distant call. Duskgreeter also held his silence.
**Ten of them, maybe?** Brightwood said, listening intently to that chorus. **Twelve?**
**Twelve,** Farscout agreed. **I saw their tracks today in the snow. They were following the Fierce Ones themselves for a time, before they turned back toward Greenstone Mountain.**
**All of those roundhooves must be a temptation,** Brightwood thought, thinking of what havoc a pack of stranger-wolves might make. Aye, that might be arranged for... the humans would certainly suffer if their roundhoof-friends could be run off... but that would leave Holt with a band of Fierce Ones camped more permanently here on the plains, far too close to home for her comfort. Worse — the stranger-pack outnumbered her and Farscout and Redbrush and Duskgreeter. Three-to-one odds would make a wolf-fight chancy, even when Brightwood and Farscout had the benefit of bows.
**Blacksnake will be joining us sometime late tomorrow,** she sent. **That'll even things up, especially since he's bringing three of unbonded with him.**
**Aye,** Farscout answered, his mindtouch increasingly heavy. Brightwood felt that weight, and smiled tenderly.
**Sleep, beloved,** she sent, caressing his face in the darkness beside her. **I'm here now, I'll keep watch. Sleep sound now, while you can.**
He nuzzled her neck and his arm about her hips drew her closer. Brightwood held her lifemate close as Farscout fell asleep, watching the dark smudge of the Fierce Ones camp as it slept just as silently on the snow-covered plains below them.
**Are you still within range, my chief?**
The sending from his father hit Windburn as he rode along between the frozen banks of the Clickdeer River and the looming edge of Northview Ridge. He and Foxtail and Thornbow had made good progress, the snow cover here thinner than it was in the valleys to the south. They would be rounding the ridge soon, heading for Tuftcat Hill.
**I hear you,** he responded immediately, with all his strength behind it, as if his own ability could make up for the faint quality of the thread of sending from Blacksnake. They must be touching at the very edges of their range.
**Good. I wondered if I’d left it too long.** There was the barest sense beneath the sending that told him his father preferred to reach him directly, rather than pass a message through Longshot or Snowfall.
**Where are you? You cannot have reached Farscout and Brightwood yet.** Windburn tried to picture how far his father could have travelled since he’d left the Holt, but it was hard to judge the time. Blacksnake’s departure already felt like a hand of days ago, and that wasn’t true. It was only yesterday, he realized.
He got a sharp burst of amusement in response. **No, even in Wasp’s best years, he was never that fast. We’ve only just emerged into the scrublands.** The image that came along with it was of a wide, open land, snow-covered and dotted with brush and few stands of trees. **We have a day’s travel ahead of us, at least.**
The import of it hit Windburn right away. There was little cover out there. He’d known that, but Blacksnake’s send, stretched thin as it was, brought it home vividly. From here on out, his father, and the tribemates he rode towards, would have an ever-harder task before them, trying to track the humans without being seen themselves.
It was no use telling Blacksnake, again, to be careful. So Windburn only asked, **What do you need?** He knew his father would not have reached out without purpose.
**Kestrel,** was the elder’s response.
**She flew hard to get back to the Dentrees. But she will be ready to leave again soon,** Windburn confirmed.
**I had a thought —** Blacksnake began, and at that, Windburn snorted, a reaction that travelled along their link and was met with wry acknowledgement. **We have to be prepared for the worst,** his father went on, soberly. **Discovery, pursuit.**
No images accompanied those words, but Windburn could supply them. He knew that Blacksnake was right. He trusted Farscout and the others to evade detection by the humans, if anyone could. Unlike the first time, they were forewarned. But it would be foolish to think that things couldn’t go wrong, in any number of ways. He also knew, with a thought he was careful not to allow to leak back along their connection, that the scouts’ discovery by the Fierce Ones was not the worst that could happen. He did not want to ask what other plans Blacksnake had been making on his long ride.
**If we have to run,** his father went on, **we won’t run in the Holt’s direction. We’ll run east.**
Windburn saw Blacksnake’s intent in the flash of memory that went along with that declaration. The range of hills and mountains between Lookout Mountain in the south, and Greenstone in the north, formed a perfect maze of steep valleys and dark, dense woodland. It wasn’t terrain that would favor the humans on their roundhoof mounts. If the three scouts could make it to those hills...
**It would help,** Blacksnake admitted, **if we had a cache of supplies waiting along the route. If we have to flee suddenly, who knows what we might have to leave behind — or how much of our store of arrows we’ll use.**
Kestrel’s role in this became clear to the chief. Of all the tribe, she was the only one who stood a chance of covering the great distances involved quickly and safely, and carrying those supplies.
**There will be cover along the Bounty,** Windburn mused, think of the route. It wasn’t one the tribe travelled much any more, upriver to the Roaring Falls and beyond. Once, they had, but the Brownskin humans and their woods-wise allies liked that route too much for the elves to risk it now. But in winter, it should be safe for Kestrel. He felt Blacksnake’s agreement.
**If she picks a spot along the Silver River...**
Windburn nodded to himself. The river that emptied Silver Lake into the Bounty was short. It made a good landmark, and it was due east of the scrublands, midway along the range of the eastern mountains.
**So, more arrows...** he confirmed, thinking about what might still be in storage in the Holt, and what those staying at the Dentrees could get made before Kestrel would have to leave.
**And a spare bow and bowstrings...** Blacksnake’s sending shifted into pictures and impressions, **spearheads, flint and tinder, food, extra furs...**
Windburn could feel the way each item was weighed for its inclusion, anticipating the challenge Kestrel would have flying with it. He sent his acknowledgement. **I’ll have Goldspice send her out as soon as she can go. She’ll pass through Farscout’s sending range, at least, so you’ll know when she’s on her way.**
**High Ones willing, we won’t need it.** Windburn could almost see Blacksnake’s shrug.
**But you’ll feel better knowing it’s there. And so will I.** He didn’t want to think of the Fierce Ones gaining proof that the elves were still here, and he didn’t want to imagine Farscout, Brightwood and his father running for their lives, low on ammunition, desperately trying to lead the humans away from where the tribe lived. But if he had to consider that possibility, then it was better to picture it knowing that they wouldn’t be running blindly, and instead would have a plan, and resources to fall back on.
**Just so,** Blacksnake agreed dryly. Then he paused, though the slender connection was not yet severed. Finally, with a sense of great restraint, he sent, **Take care, my son,** and Windburn could feel through their link the knowledge that this would be the last they would be able to touch directly, until it was all over.
He didn’t try to respond in words, and moments later felt his father ride out of range, the sending broken.
Willow shook off the sense of tiredness she felt as she made her way down from her Grandmother's den and to the Gathering Den in the Father Tree below. Helping to ease Kestrel's exhaustion from her long flight back to the Dentrees hadn't taken as much out of her as Willow thought it might; which, in turn, ended up being a good thing.
Now, there was other work to be done — Blacksnake had sent word that extra supplies were needed — and Willow had offered to get the rest of what was needed together so Kestrel could take them with her when she left the Holt. Besides, tired as she might be, she wasn't really feeling up to resting, especially when others out in the field probably weren't being offered any, similar chance. She wanted to feel useful, and, right now, resting did not feel useful to Willow at all.
Willow knew she didn't have long to gather the supplies — especially since she had taken some time to help her grandmother rest. Kestrel would probably need less time to sleep as a result, and that meant less time for Willow to get everything together. It helped some that those who had stayed behind at the Holt had crafted a few things to be put in a supply cache already, but that was only part of the work. As she descended the stairs, she knew she was going to have to get help. But from who?
Most of the other elves who stayed at the Holt were still camped in the Gathering Den below, so that's where the healer headed. When she arrived, she found that most of the Den's occupants were asleep... which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, considering the majority of those sleeping were cubs heaped in a wolf-pup pile with Goldspice near one of the room's inner corners. She knew the cubs would be more than happy to help, if asked – they had been happy to help craft items for potential use before – but she felt like their help might slow her down.
Nightstorm, however, looked up as Willow entered. “How is Kestrel doing?” the younger elf asked.
“She'll be fine. She's up resting with True Edge. She has to head out again, soon, though, and we need to get some supplies together for her to take with.” Willow had just found her volunteer.
“All right,” Nightstorm said.
Now that Nightstorm had agreed, Willow went over what was needed. “I think they’ll need food to eat on the move, and maybe a few spare sleeping furs if we can find them. We can wrap everything up in those and then get Flutterby or Dewdrop to seal all of it up in case Grandmother has to leave it out for someone to get to later.”
“I have a few extra furs in my den. I can run and get those.”
“All right,” Willow nodded. “I’m headed to the storage dens, then. I’ll get them some jerky and some smoked fish. We already have travel cakes made up here, but I’m sure they’d appreciate something besides those.”
Gathering up what other supplies were needed took less time than Willow had expected, and the healer was almost disappointed by that. As time passed, as sleep continued to be elusive, Willow found that she was more and more desperate for something, anything, to keep her mind off the emptiness she felt at the Holt because everyone but their small group had left, and the worry she felt because everyone was gone. What bothered her the most was nagging thoughts that if the Fierce Ones did find them and did attack, that she wouldn’t have the ability enough to help those who might become injured. Some of the others were so far away; at least they had some Preservers to wrap up anyone severely injured so she could get to them in time.
‘But shards,’ she found herself thinking, ‘what if we end up in a situation where multiple tribemates are wrapped and waiting to be healed?’ That thought made her feel all the more anxious, so she tried to push it out of her head and focused all the more fervently on getting together a couple more pouches of jerky and dried fish.
“Beesweets Highthing get eats, then Dewdrop make Wrapstuff?” The bug fluttered up to Willow and perched on her shoulder as the healer gathered. Somehow, someone must have got word to the Preserver that it was needed, and it had come to seek Willow out.
“Yeah, in the Gathering Den, though. We already have the other things gathered. Once I get these last few things and Nightstorm gets the furs she has, we’ll be all set for you.”
“Color-Lots Highthing already there. Cubs helping her sort stuffs in piles. Color-Lots Highthing say come get Beesweets Highthing so Dewdrop can make wrapstuff.”
Willow fought the urge to roll her eyes at that. She was gathering as fast as she could; however, she supposed she shouldn’t feel surprised that Nightstorm had impatiently sent for her. Instead, she did her best to set her annoyance aside, grabbed the last couple of pouches of deer jerky, and then headed back out of the storage dens.
When she arrived back at the Gathering Den, it was just as Dewdrop had described: both Nightstorm and the cubs had placed the supplies into neat piles on top of the sleeping furs.
“It’s all ready for what you’ve brought,” Nightstorm said to Willow as she walked over to the group.
The healer placed the armful of items she had gathered onto the pile, and then she knelt down and rolled everything up into one neat bundle. Then, she tipped her head at Dewdrop. “All right, make wrapstuff.”
The Preserver gleefully did as it was told and sprayed white webbing over the supplies. With quick work, the bundle was soon tightly wrapped and waterproofed.
“We’re finished!” Glow chortled, her tone making it clear that she had been happy to help with the project.
Willow picked up the supplies. The bundle was light, and small enough to pick up under one arm. But something still wasn’t quite right. “No, we’re not quite finished,” she said.
“What do you mean? We didn’t forget anything, did we?” Nightstorm asked.
Willow shook her head. “No, everything’s there — but this is way too bright. If Grandmother flies overhead with this in tow, she’s going to attract attention.” Thinking quickly, the healer glanced over at the pile of furs on which the cubs had recently been sleeping. She walked over to them and picked a dark-brown colored one up, and then wrapped the fur around the wrapstuffed package. She tied it around the bundle with a long strip of sinew that had been left on the floor from when everyone had been crafting supplies earlier.
“It’ll blend in with the trees, now!” Rill said, suddenly understanding Willow’s choice of fur-cover-coloring.
Willow nodded. “Exactly. Hopefully that will help keep Kestrel safe.”
They had ridden all afternoon and all night and for half of the next day, and now they had reached their assigned destination — Northview Ridge, a bare crest of stone high amid a wide swath of birches. The young trees flourished on a steep mountainside that had been seared by a fast-moving forest fire. It had been a fire that had happened while Honey herself had slept her long sleep in wrapstuff — the forest she remembered here before had been more mixed pine. But the view from the rocky crest was essentially the same. From that height, a hunter could see far out across the landscape, as the forest dwindled and the scrublands melted north toward tundra. From this vantage, when the weather was clear enough, a hunter could sometimes spot the midge-swarm specks of wintering clickdeer.
And likewise — from this vantage, a scout might be lucky enough to spot Fierce One riders, if they came at the Holt from the north and east.
Honey took a long, anxious look north and saw neither clickdeer nor humans. For the hour at least, maybe for the entire afternoon, they had a lull in between stormfronts and the view was clear. She could not see clickdeer nor humans, and she sat and stared long and hard to be absolutely sure. She looked away only when her eyes had begun to swim, and her hands and feet had turned to ice.
Moss came up the trail from the birch grove, carrying a fur-wrapped bundle followed by Weasel and Mooncrier. "The branches of our shelter roof are woven as tight as I could get 'm," he said as he sat down beside her and cradled the bundle in his lap. "Anything?" he asked, looking out over the northern view. Honey shook her head mutely. Mooncrier nuzzled up to her and warmed her face for a moment with fetid exhalation, before the she-wolf moved to sit at Honey's other side.
“You look exhausted,” Moss said then. “Why don’t you go rest? I’ll take our first watch.”
Honey sat and stared out over the distance. She was exhausted — but Moss’s eyes looked equally bruised and weary. She shook her head in a second mute protest. Windburn had chosen her for this duty, same as he had chosen Moss. That fact thrilled and horrified her in equal measure.
‘My chief sent me,’ she thought to herself, looking out over the empty, snow-swept land below. ‘This is probably where the Fierce Ones will come, if they come at all. And Windburn trusted me enough to send me.’ It was more faith in her than Honey herself felt, and she was desperate not to let her chief down.
Moss gave her a knowing look and nodded. He began to unwrap the bundle he carried. Honey felt her eyebrows lift in surprise as she saw he had brought Heartsong, his treasured harp. She watched in disbelief as he fiddled with the tuning pegs.
“You can’t mean to play that,” she said, thinking fearfully of how the sound might carry to human ears.
Moss smiled sagely. He stripped off his fur glvoes, then braced the harp against his shoulder and rippled his fingers across the strings. His bare fingertips merely whispered over the gut strings, pulling only the ghost of a tune from the harp.
“I don’t have to make a noise,” he said. “And I won’t let the humans separate me from what I love. I don’t rue a long cold duty like this — we will do what the tribe needs, without complaint. But to sit out here, cold and lonely for long, long nights to come? Not without my music.” His fingers coaxed a tapped tune from the strings.
Honey didn’t have the heart to argue with her elder. Instead, she leaned against Mooncrier’s familiar warmth, and when her eyes finally did sink closed, it was with the muted notes of Moss’s melody sighing softly in her ear.
**I’m up, I’m up!** Notch yawned so hard he felt the tendons of his jaws snap. He scrubbed the back of his hand across his eyes and blinked blearily and the hieroglyphs that blurred on the storage-den wall. **I’ll be there in a just a heartbeat, I promise. You don’t have to nag.**
**I have to nag if we are going to leave before the spring thaw,** his father sent back. **Pathmark is already packed and ready; True Edge and Fadestar are already off, so we’ll be last on the trail as-is. Let’s shake the dust and get riding.**
“Let’s shake the dust and get riding,” Notch muttered aloud in a sing-song tone. His father One-Leg did not tolerate dawdling when his wind was up, and Notch was fairly certain that dawdling was his mother’s main speed... although why it was called dawdling when Notch practiced the inherited trait, yet considered a oh-so-more seductive “languid” when his mother did it, was something that Notch had never fully figured out. He yawned again, and turned his attention back to finding the elusive treasure he had been seeking. “Just where in Clayshard’s pisspots did you hide the toothless, flyblown thing, chiefy-sweets?” he muttered to himself under his breath in frustration.
The chief had kept the heirloom wrapped and tucked away in his own den for a time after Notch’s sire and Farscout had found the artifact and brought it home. Then Whispersilk had gotten heavy with cub and demanded it gone, so Windburn had quietly and unceremoniously stashed it away — wrapped in wrapstuff and then a rawhide bag — down in the storage dens. Notch had found it there once — he could have sworn it had been tucked away behind the big baskets of wild rice, which had previously been one of Notch’s own close-to-home hidey-holes. But it wasn’t there now, and it wasn’t in the next two storage dens that Notch had searched. The trickster stood and scowled in the dim blue glow of moonmoss illumination, and tried to think like his chief. “If I were Windburn, where would I be hiding the rotted cur?” he grumbled under his breath.
Well, first off, the chief probably wouldn't think he needed to hide the twice-rotted thing. After all, who in the tribe had any use for it? And only the silliest of cubs would think of it as a toy... so the only precaution Windburn would think necessary would be to put it up high, out of reach of any curious child. And for all of Windburn's deft painting skills, imagination wasn't one of his best-exercised muscles, so he'd put it with similar objects... not that human artifacts were so common as that, but it was made of carved auroch horn, so... Notch put his feet to following the twist of his thoughts, past the rest of the storage niches beneath the chief's den, toward the northern bolt-hole, then down the second sets of stairs toward the largest of the storage dens that were sunk between the Mother and Father Trees. He pushed aside the door-curtain into the den where he expected to find —
"Hai!" Notch yelped before he tripped over her and caught himself against the arching storage den doorway. "Cub! What in Burn's bloody eyeteeth are you doing here?" he snapped.
Copper was sitting cross-legged on a leather bundle of hides, her dappled snowcat-fur coat swirled around her like wings. There was a snowdrift of torn wrapsilk around where she sat and when she looked up at him in the dim bluish glow of the moonmoss, her enormous eyes looked dark and fathomless. "Hello," she said simply, and needed both hands to offer up to him the artifact she had been holding.
Notch snatched it away, surprised as he did so by the sheer weight of it. The carved horn was nearly as long as his own arm, banded and capped in worked yellow metal. "Cub, what do you think you're doing?" Notch demanded, his voice sounding unnaturally sharp in his own ears. Seeing the dreadful thing in the girl's hands had put the hairs up at the nape of his neck.
Copper gazed at him, as sober and round-eyed as a fledgling owl. "I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to know if it still smelled like the Fierce Ones."
Notch took an immediate sniff. The hunting horn smelled like dust and grass, with the solid undertaste of hoof-salt and of the metal bands which bound it stem and stern and capped the blow-piece. "It doesn't."
"I know that. Now." Copper brushed some of the torn wrapstuff from her lap. "You mustn't blow on it," she told him solemnly. "Their ancestor spirits will hear it if you do. That's what it does. It calls the ancestors for the hunt or the fight."
Notch gave the girl an amused look, thinking she was developing as dark and twisty a storytelling talent as Crackle had at her age. Then he looked again at the hunting horn in his hands. In the moonmoss glow, the ivory of the horn seemed to glow, and the intricate shapes incised on the horn's length seemed to writhe. It took a moment of staring to see the roaring lion-like face that seemed to snarl out of the center of the horn, but once he had recognized that visage, his eyes could not go back to the lacey, more peaceful designs he'd thought he'd seen moments before.
"Those humans call in their ancestors to hunt with them? Fancy that." He saw the rawhide bag on the ground at the girl's feet and snatched it up to wrap the artifact back up in. "You need to get back to Goldspice, little owl," he said sternly. "The tribe's got enough to worry about without Goldspice realizing she's lost you in the huddle-muddle as well."
Copper hopped down from the stack of hides that had been her throne. She slipped past him and past the curtain door. Only before she let it drop, the solemn child turned back and regarded him thoughtfully.
"They'll come when you blow it. When they do, just always keep them behind you. Never let them in front of you, because that's when the trouble will come."
Notch gave the child the look that bit of nonsense deserved. “Crackle is teaching you too well,” he observed, as he tied the foot-ends of the hide to secure the bundle. He smiled at the girl and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Trust me when I tell you this,” he said conspiratorially. “Don’t always follow Crackle’s storytelling advice. Some of her big-fish tales are a little too big. Crackle’s imagination gets the best of her, sometimes.”
Copper nodded soberly. "Crackle never gets it right," she agreed.
Notch snorted at that, although he doubted the girl intended to sound droll. "Now — as for this," he said, holding up the bundle. "I promise not to tell the chief or the elders about your playing with the human-horn — but only if you'll promise not to mention it as well," he said, trying to match the child's solemn manner. When Copper nodded again, he grinned and gave the girl another pat to send her on her way. "You hustle on up to Goldspice," he called after her as the girl went. "While as for me, I'll just put this away where it'll stay nice and safe, well out of the reach of cublings and Crackle's scary stories..."
RTH 2511.02.18 – midday
Ever since the Chief had ridden off, Cinder had been glum and gloomy, following Rill around like a raincloud. So when a bright spot of fun could be spotted on the horizon, Rill was ready, set and waiting. Dragging Cinder with him, he scrambled after Notch as the hunter came up out of the steps from the the storage dens below the Mother Tree's roots. "You're going to go hunt humans! It's gonna be an adventure, right?"
Notch yawned mightily, for all as if it weren't mid-day already, and as if he hadn't gotten home at dusk yesterday with the rest of the word-hunters. "Adventure?" he said then, in answer to Rill's breathless question. "Of course there'll be some! What do you expect? I'm going, and where-ever I go, I'm on the prowl for some thrilling heroics." Notch yawned again, showing a display of teeth that seemed to Rill to be every bit as impressive and sharp as his mother Quick Fang's, and then stretched his neck and scratched his tail-end. "It's going to be an adventure, all right. Best of all, it's going to be a so-cold-we'll freeze-our-nutsacks-solid adventure! My favorite kind!"
Pathmark had already been waiting outside with his wolf Bonetrail, and with Beauty and Longtooth. Rill saw the exasperated look which the trapper gave Notch, before turning back to the two boys. "It will be just like a long patrol. Patrols are best when there are no adventures, and when everything just goes as expected," Pathmark said.
"Aye," chuckled One-Leg as the old elder limped down from the Dentree behind them. He reached down and touseled Rill's hair as he passed by to join his son and Pathmark. "Aye, and all we can expect to find down south is heavy thick snow and cold so bad it'll freeze our nutsacks off."
"See," Notch said expansively. "What'd I say? A rousing adventure." He yawned again. "I'd rather stay here. Let the blasted humans be the ones to freeze. We'll hear their chattering teeth long before they can reach the river, and we won't have to leave behind our warm sleeping furs."
Rill scowled at that, not much liking that answer. If there were nasty Fierce Ones hiding anywhere in the woods, hunting them down and rooting them out should be an exciting adventure. But Cinder spoke up before he could. "But Father said you have to go," Cinder said, frowning thunderously. "Father said someone has to search the woods and keep the humans from coming. Someone has to watch for the Brownskins and the Painted-Faces, too. And Grandsire agreed with him, before he left to ride patrol with Farscout and Brightwood —"
"We're all holding close as we can the plans laid down when Easysinger was chief,” One-Leg said. “And blue skies and full moons, she knows there's been plenty of time to smooth out the wrinkles!"
Rill looked around them at the snowy Holt. He wasn't sure why One-Leg and Notch were complaining so bad. After all, it wasn't snowing hard now, and it wasn't gusting winds and rumbling thunder like it had been yesterday afternoon. No. It was mostly clear today, with only a few little spits of snow now and then, and with all of the new winter furs and boots and gloves and everything that everyone had been fussing to make sure were ready, Rill didn't see how any of the Holt guards were going to feel the cold at all.
No. It wasn't fair. Rill wanted new boots of his own and a new furry hood just like Notch's. Then he could strap lots of spears in a badger-skin across his back and get both of his throwing-sticks, and ride out with the guardians and hunt the bad humans too. Softjoy was big enough and old enough now, she would carry him just as fast as any of the other wolves. And he could climb a tree faster than his uncle One-Leg could, too, so really, it just was bitterly, bitterly unfair —
Big hands settled on both of Rill's shoulders. Rill looked up in surprise to see his father's black beard right overhead. Suddendusk had come up behind him so quietly that Rill hadn't heard a thing. The boy felt caught out and transparent, and wondered how his father always seemed to catch him whenever he was thinking not-so-kind things like this, or thinking of breaking some rule or another. Suddendusk squeezed his son's shoulders.
"So you layabeds are finally off?" Suddendusk said, his tone more teasing than serious. "True Edge and Fadestar were off for Bluestone Cave at suns-high, and Kestrel will be leaving soon as well. I was wondering if both of you were just going to sleep the winter off like bears, and leave poor Pathmark here to head out on his patrol alone."
"The thought did occur to me!" One-Leg replied cheerfully. He reached down and tousled both Rill and Cinder's heads in parting. "Go easy on your old father here," One-Leg said with a conspiratorial wink for Rill. "Ancestors know it's always a tough go, when his brothers aren't around to carry his water for him."
Suddendusk laughed, then abruptly gave his brother a hug. The two elders embraced for a time, and Rill had that shimmering sense of a private sending passing over his head. Then Suddendusk let One-Leg go, and nodded to both Notch and Pathmark.
"If either of these crackwits give you trouble, just knock 'm flat, tie them to their wolves, and send them home," he told Pathmark with a forced good cheer. "Rill and I'll ride down and take their place. You'll find yourself traveling twice as far, twice as fast, and your ears won't ring from the constant chatter."
Pathmark and Notch both laughed at that as they turned toward Willow and Nightstorm. Chicory and Goldspice were suddenly there, and Greenweave too — everyone was suddenly turning out for this last goodbye. Rill backed quietly out of the press of his tribemates. If his uncle and his cousin and Pathmark were all going to go like eveyone else had, then they needed to just go and get it over with. He was tired of all of this saying goodbye, and all of the strange emotional currents it meant among his elders. After all, the ones who had gone or who were going, they were the lucky ones. They were going to go have adventures, while he was stuck waiting in an empty holt with all of the younger cubs, with their few remaining adults all nervy as a bag of treecats, and with nothing at all fun to do. It was all bitterly, bitterly unfair, and he hated the humans who could upend everything in Rill's entire world without, apparently, ever even noticing they had done so.
Still. His father Suddendusk had said that about going to replace Notch and One-Leg if they complained too too much. Rill brightened at that hope, and hurried to gather his spears. He knew where there was an extra badger skin down in the storage dens. He could make a spear-quiver for it and fill it full of spears and be ready and waiting for when Pathmark sent them home tied to their wolves. And then it would be Rill's turn to go out and chase down the humans.
And Rill just couldn't wait.
To be continued…