The Gathering Storm (Part 4)   2511.02.20*  
Written By: Holly H., Megan McCarthy, Whitney Ware
Kestrel pushes her gliding ability to its limits, while Blacksnake joins Brightwood and Farscout in trailing the humans — and finds that the elves are not the only ones following the Fierce Ones’ trail north. Cloudfern and his team must reclaim Bluestone Cave, while Windburn contemplates the other humans the tribe has to worry about.
Posted: 10/08/12      [12 Comments]
 

Collections that include this story:
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Those Left Behind
Return of the Fierce Ones
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Uncertain Future

(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part Three”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)



RTH 2511.02.18, nightfall to 02.19, dawn

Kestrel adjusted the awkward, bulky pack one last time, and took to the air, slipping above the frozen banks of the Holt’s river and the twisted, winter-bare thickets of the thornwall on the far side.

She put on her best speed here, as fast as she could manage with the wind tearing at her fur-wrapped burden, getting a feel for how it would affect her travel. She had to make an effort to overcome its drag, more effort than it would take just to fly alone. Immediately she began to adjust her plans in her head, thinking about where she would stop to rest, how much of the food she had brought with her she would have to consume, whether she had brought enough… she thought so. But time would tell.

This leg of the journey was where she could afford speed over caution, though, and she took advantage of that, flying fast enough to outrace even the fastest wolf on the ground. All the reports of their lookouts and scouts said that no humans had made it this close to the Holt yet, and here she had the cover of trees.

She flew below where Longshot and Quick Fang were already perched on the ridge of Cascade Hill, touching minds briefly with the young archer. **All quiet so far?** she asked, knowing the answer.

**All quiet,** he confirmed, and beneath his sending was a mix of emotions. He seemed all at once eager and resolute for the task at hand, and anxious for news of those left behind at the Holt, even though it hadn’t been long since he had taken leave of them.

The difference, she thought, was that he knew his mates were scattered — Evervale still riding on the way up to Bluestone Cave, while Pathmark had departed south along with One-Leg and Notch. Evervale was no longer in his sending range, and passing messages through intermediaries wasn’t the same. Soon enough, Pathmark would be beyond him as well. Kestrel knew how he felt, no longer able to feel True Edge’s mind-touch, and soon to ride beyond Snowfall’s.

Still, Kestrel did her best to give both him and her mates’ daughter the latest news, and the last images she’d had of those left behind in the Holt.

**Tell Pathmark, when you’re in range —** Longshot began, but then he stopped, his thoughts trailing off in a tangle too hard to express. The archer was worried, and Kestrel could also feel his frustration. He knew that his post on the lookout point was important. He was a strong sender who could relay messages from many of the different teams of scouts. He and Quick Fang could also see for a long way down the Holt’s River, and with the blanket of snow over everything, they would see any danger approaching the Dentrees long before it got there. But...

But it wasn’t the same as wanting to be out there, and moving. Kestrel sympathized. She got to fly, after all. She didn’t know how she would feel if she’d been asked to sit and watch.

**I’ll tell him,** she assured the young elf kindly, letting her own worries show through along with her pride in her grandson, and in the careful, cautious scout he had become. She knew that he and One-Leg and Notch had a heavy responsibility, and would have to watch for danger from many directions. Where they rode along the Bounty’s banks, it wasn’t only the Fierce Ones they might encounter. Kestrel didn’t want the Amber-Hunters or the Painted-Faces coming east up the Bounty in her direction without warning. She didn’t think their human neighbors would want to come on the Fierce Ones unawares, either, although she wasn’t sure what she or the scouts could do about that, if it looked likely to happen. She only knew she was glad to have those three sets of eyes down there, alert to all those dangers.

She took her leave from both Longshot and Quick Fang with a last encouraging mental touch.

The sky hung low and grey above, threatening snow, and strong gusts of wind caused the treetops to sway, but there in the valley between Cascade Hill and Shellback Mountain to the south, she was sheltered from it. There would be time enough later to worry about what the winds would be like out in the open lands to the east. Beneath her, she could see the tracks of wolves in the snow, leading past the smooth, frozen surface of Quillrat Lake and on into the Many-Lakes valley beyond. One set of those tracks might be Blacksnake’s, or the returning word-hunters’, unless the wind had already blown snow over those and erased them. Perhaps all she saw were the tracks of the three wolves bearing Windsong, Beetle, and Snowfall — her beloved — to their scouting positions nearer to the Holt’s border.

Windsong, Beetle, and Snowfall received Kestrel’s open send all at once, each expressing their joy at hearing from the elder after having to leave the Holt before witnessing her return. From the glider’s vantage point, she could see the three of them in the distance. Snowfall, in particular, turned to look for her lovemate, but the elder’s gliding experience had taught her how to fly amongst the treetops, avoiding detection from the ground.

**I must keep on my course, beloved, but I am glad to have seen you, even if only for a short time,** Kestrel sent, this time meant only for Snowfall.

**I am glad as well. There was no time to wait for you to return to the Holt,** Snowfall sent in return, the regret apparent in her mind-touch.

**You and the cub are doing well?** Kestrel asked. Though she had heard it from True Edge, hearing it from Snowfall as well could only help ease her worries.

**Yes, thank the High Ones. You as well, beloved?**

Kestrel’s response was affirmative, but soon she could no longer see the three elves in the distance, as her course began to differ from theirs. Still, though both Kestrel and Snowfall kept their main focus on the task at hand, they remained linked to each other in the back of their minds until the last possible minute.

Now Kestrel was heading south into a narrower valley between Shellback and Three-Finger Hill. The latter’s long forested ridge shelters her not only from the wind, but from exposure to the scrublands beyond, where the humans travel. Soon enough, she would have to contend with that danger, and go more slowly and carefully, but here she could still fly at her best speed, and did.

She paused just where the valley takes a sharp turn, sitting on the pile of an old rockfall near the iced-over expanse of Whitefox Lake. Without a view of the sun or the stars, it was hard to estimate time, but her instincts told her there was still a good bit left of even the short winter day. She would be able to make the banks of the Bounty before nightfall, she thought, and rest for hours before she had to start the next, more difficult leg of her journey.

As she neared the southern end of Three-Finger Hill, she finally passed out of the sending range of the tribe’s lookouts and scouts. Eventually, One-Leg and Notch and Pathmark would come down this valley behind her, extending the tribe’s sending range; but they may not have yet left the Dentrees, she knew. From here on, she would be on her own until she caught up with Farscout’s range, and in that time, she would have no one to rely on but herself.

She rounded the end of the long hill, and there was still light enough to see the long, thin break in the trees that marked the course of the Bounty River. She knew of a good stopping-place there, up on the flanks of the hill, sheltered and with long views to east and west. Kestrel made a rough nest of pine-boughs there, and settled in, hidden and protected. She had flown as far and fast as she could in a day, despite the extra weight she had to carry, and that pleased her. But she knew the harder part of her task lay before her, and she closed her eyes to get what rest she could.

From the cover of an alder grove on the flanks of a small rise, Blacksnake watched the Fierce Ones appear in the distance. Forewarned, Blacksnake stayed where he was, motionless as he watched as the distant figures grow from dark specks on the south horizon into a pair of riders on their roundhoof-friends. The Fierce One scouts alternately loped or trotted across the middle-distance, occasionally blotted from view by a swirl of snow in the gusting wind. The two riders never reined away from their course, kept secure in their direction by the mountains that ranged like a jagged spine to the east. Blacksnake watched the two ride north until they had dwindled again to flyspecks and then were gone from sight. Only then did he turn back and set his gaze again to the south.

Soon enough, the larger band of Fierce Ones rode into view, all mounted and burdened to a varying degree, some with travois, and others leading strings of roundhooves. The band moved along at a fair pace — slower than their two scouts had, but still with a sense of purpose. Blacksnake held his position, simply watching as the band crossed the broad plainsland below him. The day was stretching from morning to afternoon as the first of the riders rode even with him, a dozen or more bowshots away. The wind was still, and for a time at least, the weather grew clear, the winter sun overhead crisp and the sky a deep cerulean. From this distance, Blacksnake could see some details — the wink of metal in a roundhoof's riding harness; slashes of blue or crimson decorations on riders and mounts alike; that one of the riders near-side to him was lushly female, evident even through heavy winter furs. He counted riders: four hands and two, eighteen in all. He counted spears in hand: twelve. Most of the riders, male and female alike, carried bow-sheaths on their backs and had the bristle of quivers at shoulder, hip or riding-harness. Half a dozen of the riders looked significantly smaller than their robust kin — he guessed them to be slight females or boys. More than a dozen of the riders had thick pelts of face-fur; some of it was worn free, some of it was braided or otherwise bound up. Some of the face-fur pelts were extraordinarily long and full, flowing down their chests. From time to time, Blacksnake could hear the humans’ voices. They boomed back and forth with one another in hearty good spirits, with no regard for stealth.

The Fierce Ones band rode past through the snow, unaware of their silent observer. Blacksnake waited and watched them go, until they, too, disappeared into the northern distance. Only when the entire band had dwindled completely from view did he stir and rise to his feet.

Blacksnake stretched. The cold affected him more than he liked to admit — the winter always left him feeling the old injury to his knee and made that joint reluctant to bear weight. He eased his weight onto that leg cautiously as he summoned the wolves.

"Bad bad bad," whispered Mushroom, from its perch on top of the pack Blacksnake left resting against the base of the tree. "Fire and smoke. Blood and ashes. Sharp-words Highthing should leave ugly hateful bad big-things alone."

"Hush," Blacksnake told the Preserver, partly wishing he hadn't taken it from Fadestar. Even in good times the goo-bug expected to find misery under every rock. In bad times like this, Blacksnake rather thought it must be thriving.

"Mushroom tried," it moaned to itself, an anxious chatter it had kept up for long stretches of Blacksnake's race for the borderlands, when the creature was normally morosely silent. Blacksnake wagered it was less than happy to be back the way it had just come, back toward the Fierce Ones instead of safely away from them. "Mushroom tried to help. No help, no help, no help. Too much blood. Too much smoke. Blood and weeping. Blood and weeping."

“Hush,” Blacksnake said again, more sharply this time. Mushroom gave a ragged sigh and lapsed into a sullen silence.

Emerging from the sheltered hollow where he had left the wolves to wait, Wasp was the first up the rise and to the Hunt Leader’s side. The three unbonded wolves trailed their pack leader, eager to be useful but anxious to be so far from their own territory. Of the trio, the she-wolf Fireweed had the most wit by far, while Frostback was all brawn and shy young Brindlefur was a blister-fast sprinter. Wasp butted his head against Blacksnake's hip, broadcasting firm thoughts of hunger and the image of his rider on his back, running down something juicy and slowed by the drifts of snow.

Blacksnake fondled his old friend's broad skull, absently sending back an agreement. They would need to hunt soon — the wolves needed the meat, and—

Wasp's ears went flat and his ruff bristled. A growl rattled from the old wolf's chest as Wasp turned his head sharply back toward the plains below. Blacksnake turned at once, one hand reaching for his bow, his ears imagining the thunder of hooves on the slope below. Instead, what met Blacksnake’s eyes was the sight of was a pack of strange wolves, strung out in a long line, trotting intently through the snow, through the tracks left by the Fierce Ones' roundhooves. Brindlefur, Fireweed and Frostback all crouched down among the bare trunks of the trees, fearful of being spotted by a strange pack in that pack's territory. But Blacksnake had to push at Wasp to make the dominant chief-wolf sink down as well.

**Be still,** Blacksnake commanded his companions firmly. The stranger-pack was twelve wolves strong, and they would not take kindly to invaders. Farscout and Brightwood had warned him that they'd spotted this stranger-pack, but Blacksnake had not expected them to be so close, or so keen on the Fierce Ones' trail. Blacksnake watched them warily, grateful the wolves had not caught the intruders’ scent. He didn’t like what he saw. The pack varied in size — a few of the beasts were normal purebloods, but the rest ranged in height and breadth of chest. Some of them might be cast-outs from the Holt’s pack, likely enough. Certainly some of them showed evidence of sharing traces of Zerran the Changer’s blood. They were bigger than normal wolves, and that meant they’d prove smarter, too. It wasn’t a fight Blacksnake wanted, even if Wasp seemed to wish for it.

The plainsland pack had dwindled into flyspecks when two more riders appeared to the south. Blacksnake sent a pulse of acknowledgement, his heart lifting to see them.

The two riders put their wolves to a lope, and the distance began to melt away. Blacksnake shouldered his pack and rode Wasp down to meet them, the three unbonded trailing at the old gray wolf's heels.

"What took you so long?" Brightwood grinned at him on a puff of icy breath as she and Farscout reached him. Blacksnake rode closer and clasped her wrist in welcome.

"I've been enjoying the view," he retorted. "The main band passed me by at suns-high; their two scouts are riding farther ahead, as you promised. Saw their rearguard as well, all twelve of them."

"That pack tried the human camp last night," Farscout said, clasping arms with Blacksnake in his turn. Mushroom abandoned Blacksnake then, arrowing for Farscout's shoulder with a strange little trill. "They must not have been too hungry, though," Farscout finished, as he idly gave Mushroom a welcoming stroke. "The wolves didn't appear serious about it."

"A couple of Fierce Ones drove them off with snowballs," Brightwood said, shaking her head in amusement.

Farscout began to ride again, unwilling to fall too far behind the humans. Wasp lurched forward to overtake Duskgreeter, putting himself in the lead. The chief-wolf had his pride; he would remind Duskgreeter and Redbrush of their places, and they were already following a well-broken path through the snow, so the older wolf wouldn't wear himself out unnecessarily to do it.

"Told you he'd put himself in charge," Brightwood said in a teasing voice behind him. Blacksnake threw a glance back at her, knowing his old friend wasn't talking about Wasp.

"If I were in charge, I'd send you home to your young daughter," he retorted, not teasing in the least. "You chased off without thinking what it might mean to leave your cub an orphan."

The smile had vanished from Brightwood's lovely face, and the stare she fixed on him was cutting. "You can stuff that down your craw and chew on it. Copper is safe at home with my brother and Goldspice to care for her, and my place is here, guarding my lifemate's back. I know these twice-rotted bear-sons better than any other member of the tribe. Better than even you, believe it or not. So don't get all high and mighty with your notions of a mother's duty. You wouldn't have batted an eye if it had been Farscout who'd done the same thing to join me out here."

"Because Farscout wouldn't have. He's got far too much sense," Blacksnake snapped in return.

"Shaft that!" Brightwood blazed. "Farscout would have ridden over the top of One-Leg, you, and the chief, if it had been me out here alone on the border, and you know it!" Blacksnake did not fail to notice that Duskgreeter fell back a few strides. Even if they were going to invoke his name, Farscout wasn't about to stick his neck into this wolf-fight. "And you'd have sharding well have done the same, if it had been Easysinger or my father. Send me your denial if you're going to bleat otherwise!"

Blacksnake's frown tugged into a grudging hint of a smile. Brightwood was right. The Hunt Leader couldn't deny it, he would have done the same as she had, if it had been his Recognized, or his lost soul-brother Lynx. Brightwood saw the shift of his expression, and her head cocked to one side, an eyebrow raising in victory. "You're just the skunk complaining to the muskrat for being upwind. Did you even ask for the chief's permission before you raced out here to join us?"

"I asked," Blacksnake said.

Brightwood snorted at that when he failed to elaborate. "Either Windburn sent you first or you'd planned to ride over the top of him anyway. Because you don't trust anyone but yourself to not foul it up high and wide. Not even Farscout, and not even me," Brightwood said, with more bite to her voice than even her flare-up over his accusations that she should have gone home to guard the Holt and her daughter.

"That's not true —" Blacksnake began to say, insulted by her parry.

Brightwood's pointed chin lifted knowingly. **Send it,** she flashed. **If you're going to deny it, send it.**

It wasn't the full truth... but there was truth enough to it that he couldn't send a denial. Blacksnake closed his mouth, thinking with rueful pain that arguing with Brightwood was too much like arguing with her father. Being needled for his arrogance stung — but reminded him as well how dearly his missed Lynx's deft skewerings.

**Enough,** Farscout said, finally choosing to intervene into their quarrel. **Your bow is welcome, and so is your good sense. Your son was right to let you come. We have trouble enough, we don't need add to it. And sound carries far too well in weather like this.**

The scout's quiet chastisement was enough. Blacksnake turned back to watching the trail ahead of them, alert for figures on the horizon, and finding a wistful pleasure in leaving Brightwood to smirk in victory at his back.

Ed. Note: see the story “Those Left Behind” (by W. Ware: When the rest of the tribe scatters to prepare for the return of the Fierce Ones, those left behind find small comfort...), which takes place around this time.

Nightfall found them at the northeastern base of Tuftcat Hill, looking out toward the empty scrublands. They had burrowed an ice cave nestled beside the single young oak in a grove of bare-branched maples. Windburn lay beside his daughter, listening to her deep, even breathing. He had slept himself for a time — his body still craved sleep, having pushed for two days and nights through the stormy weather to reach this site. But his mind was alert again, and try as he might, Windburn could not lull himself back to rest. He carefully pulled himself out of his sleeping furs and past his daughter without waking her, and crawled out of the snow cave.

Thornbow was on watch. The archer sat on a low branch of the oak tree, bundled in his furs. The wolves all slept, curled up together in a single round, snow-dusted ball at the foot of that oak. Windburn wrapped his own sleeping fur around his shoulders as a second cloak, then wordlessly climbed the oak to take a seat behind his lifelong friend.

**Your turn to sleep,** he sent as he settled, tucking the sleeping fur around himself to stay warm.

**It’s still my watch,** Thornbow sent, with a deliberate glance toward the overcast night sky. **Not moonshigh yet.**

**I slept as much as I could, but my head is full of bees. One of us might as well take advantage of the rest while we can.**

Thornbow turned a silent gaze upon his friend. Windburn caught that look and returned it, having a fair measure of what his old friend had been thinking. Had he been able to sleep, Windburn would have wagered a good spearpoint on Thornbow sitting out both of their watches. Quietly stubborn and loyal to a fault — that was Thornbow. There wasn’t another member of the tribe that Windburn would have preferred at his back in the weeks to come.

Thornbow shifted into a new position against the central trunk of the tree, and settled back and closed his eyes. Windburn leaned against his friend’s knees, sharing body warmth and bracing his friend should he sleep where he sat. The night was still and quiet. Fresh snow sifted down from the skies now and again, although it was nothing like the flurries the trio had ridden through to get here. An owl swept past once on near-silent wings, hunting for prey. But nothing else around them stirred, save for the trees swaying in the cold, steady winter wind.

This was the hard part, Windburn thought to himself, listening to the wind in those bare branches. He had rolled his dice and set his tribe into motion like so many game pieces on a painted hide. Now it came to the watching and the waiting. The best that the chief could hope for was that the Fierce Ones did nothing more than ride north to hunt clickdeer and then return to their distant homes again, without ever again invading the Holt’s forest... that was their best-case scenario, and it would now take them many, many long days and nights of waiting and watching to know which it would be. The best or the worst.

It was the worst-case scenario that the chief’s mind buzzed with like a hornet’s nest. So much depended on so many different variables. What weather would the winter throw at them next, and could the elves find an advantage to worsening conditions? What terrain features could they use to their advantage? How well would the Thornwall slow down an assault? An invasion from the Holt River valley would be so much harder to defend against, while a handful of archers between Tuftcat Hill and Threefinger Hill, or Threefinger Hill and Badwater Mountain could lay down a withering fire of arrows...

**You know the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces were here last spring.** Thornbow’s sending pierced through Windburn’s preoccupied thoughts. He glanced at his friend, and found Thornbow watching him through half-open eyes.

**The sugartrees?** Windburn said.

Thornbow nodded. Each year, encouraged by their woodwise neighbors the Painted Faces, the Amber Hunters seemed to forage a little farther out. Both tribes treasured the sweet maple sap, and were willing to journey far afield to collect it. But neither tribe traveled so far in the winter months. Not with the Eagle Bay estuary so close, and the large herds of branch-horn who came down out of the heights to winter there, or the large flocks of wintering waterfowl who migrated in during the late fall and would depart again for northern nesting grounds in the early spring.

Windburn pulled his thoughts away from battle plans for this tribe. He thought of the tapped maple trees, and again of the local humans, who suddenly seemed so tame and complacent in comparison to the living nightmare that rode north out on the scrublands.

**If we were lucky, our human problems would solve themselves,** Thornbow sent.

Windburn snorted at that. **That would be convenient, but the Fierce Ones would have to ride deep through our woods first.** Or the elves would have to leave a wide trail to lead one set of humans down past Eagle Rest Hill and west along the Razor Ridge and the Rushwater River... it might be doable, to see if they could effect a fatal meeting between the tribes east at the Rushwater River ford where the FIerce Ones would be sure to return to. The two neighboring tribes had a large enough population — together, they could outnumber and overwhelm the Fierce Ones hunting party which the tribe’s scouts were now following. But the more Windburn thought of the logistics to encourage such an encounter, the more risks he found in it to his own people. The humans bred like rabbits. They could afford bitter losses. The elves could not. No. Better to wait and watch, and hope that the Fierce Ones simply did not venture again back into the forest...

**I still think that would be for the best, if the humans just eliminated one another, and left us our woods,** Thornbow grumbled, **We’d have some of our richest hunting grounds back and a knotty problem solved.**

**I don’t see how we could do it safely,** Windburn replied. **If wishes were wings, we’d all be warm at home right now... but I can’t see how it could be done without grave danger to the Holt. There is no way I want to drawing the Fierce Ones’ attention to our forest, not for any reason.**

Thornbow sighed. He shrugged ruefully. **And I suppose I really don’t want to know what the Painted Faces and Amber Hunters might do, either, if they knew the Fierce Ones were so close to their home.**

**Boil up like an ant hill when you pour hot grease on it, maybe,** Windburn observed bitterly. He remembered — too keenly — the arrival of the Painted Faces into the Holt’s forest. They had been ragged refugees, many injured and many more grieving deeply, obviously in flight for their lives from some greater enemy. The elves had not known at first that that enemy was a shared one.

And the elves had brought the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces together then in hopes that the human problem would resolve itself. Instead, the two tribes had settled down together and shared territory, in a way that no wolf pack or bear would tolerate from another of its kind.

**... or welcome the Fierce Ones in like lost kin,** Thornbow sent after a while, repeating exactly the scenario Windburn was musing upon. **Just as they did the Painted Faces.**

Windburn sighed and pulled his sleeping fur close. The owl had returned; it swept past them again, a moving shadow on the whisper of wings. Windburn watched it go about its hunt, and let the conversation between himself and his friend lapse into silence. Thornbow seemed comfortable with that as well. After a while, his eyes eased closed again, and then his breath grew even and slow with sleep.

Windburn sat out the rest of his friend’s watch and his own as well, plotting and planning for futures he hoped never to see.

RTH 2511.02.19, nightfall to 02.20, dawn

When Kestrel awakened, clouds hid the moons, but she knew somehow that she hadn’t overslept. There was still plenty of night to travel in, and she needed the night now, to be safe. The clouds were a blessing, even if they brought thin flurries of snow with them.

Now she followed the course of the Bounty upstream, further into the open highlands beyond the tribe’s territory. Though frozen over, the river was still a good guide, and as the forest cover thinned, the trees that still grew along its banks provided her with some of the only cover to be had.

This was the dangerous part of the journey. Somewhere below her, unmarked beneath the shadows of the trees, she passed the place where Farscout and Fadestar had narrowly avoided being run over by the human hunters. Here along the river’s course was a wide, trampled path of snow that she could still see, if she swooped low enough – the hunters’ backtrail, leading back to whatever crossing they had used to come north of the river. This was where she must be the most on the alert.

Farscout’s last report said the humans were moving north, but they had sent out parties to the west in pursuit of bands of clickdeer or elk already, and they might have sent out more. There was also still the question of how many more of them might remain south of the river, and how close. What if there was a larger band of Fierce Ones encamped on Cloudmaker Lake, ready to follow the others north? Kestrel could not count on them all having moved through this area already.

What she hoped she could count on was what seemed to be a universal human habit — one that she and the word-hunters had observed in the two tribes they have been shadowing now for years, and that Farscout’s observations of the Fierce Ones had so far confirmed: unlike the elves, humans appeared not to like the night. They made camp, and sometimes posted guards and sometimes not, depending on the tribe. Kestrel hoped this would continue to hold true. She could navigate well enough in the night, even on the blackest nights like these moonless ones, and even if there were human eyes watching, she thought she could trust the blackness to hide her.

The Lower Island of the Bounty passed beneath her, a slightly-raised ridge that parted the river around it. Its trees gave her cover, but she knew from long experience that its northern end made a good crossing-point. One of Farscout’s reports had a camp of the Fierce Ones on the crossing’s northern bank, though that was days ago now and they would have moved on north, she hoped. She would know more when she could send to Farscout himself.

She was far outside the tribe’s territory now, though the land below wasn’t completely unfamiliar. The tribe once came here often, for the hunting in the winter and the salmon runs by the Roaring Falls, not far upstream of the Lower Island and the crossing-point… in the days before the Amber Hunter humans arrived, and later their pale-skinned neighbors. The humans liked this country too much now for the elves to risk coming here often. Kestrel felt wistful, for a moment, for the huge fishing trips to the falls. She wished the tribe could visit them again.

When the northern end of the Lower Island came in sight, she alighted briefly in the upper branches of a tall pine. Now she had just come into Farscout’s sending range, and she quickly made contact to let him know she was there.

**I’m in range of you, my friend,** Kestrel sent to Farscout. **What news?**

After returning her greeting, the elder scout went right into the details: **The human hunters continue to move north, along the Bounty’s course, far above Roaring Falls. Brightwood and I have been keeping close watch on them. Blacksnake reached us last night.**

Kestrel whispered a silent thanks that the humans were, at least for now, still heading away from the Holt.

Emboldened by the report, Kestrel made her decision. North of this point the banks of the Bounty were too bare of trees to give her good cover. If she flew due east in a short burst over open ground, she could reach the forests that began around the lower flanks of Lookout Mountain. She knew she could reach that cover before dawn arrived.

It was a risk, but one she decided was worth it. If there were still Fierce Ones hunting the lands south and east of the Bounty, then this was where they would be, and all of Farscout’s observations so far would not have discovered them. So she would have to keep her eyes out for any signs that the humans were near, and not only for her own safety. It was Blacksnake’s idea that should the scouts be discovered, they could run east to where she would hide this cache of supplies, leading the humans further away from the Holt… so if there were humans here too, the scouts needed to know that.

She sent her plans to Farscout, and received his agreement with her thinking. He and his companions were acutely aware of the limits of their own sight, and worried for what might be going on just beyond their range, that they couldn’t see. It was a feeling that Kestrel understood well. It was always more of a comfort to be able to keep an eye on a potential danger, than to worry that it might strike from any direction, without warning.

**Blacksnake says he’ll want you to show us all you’ve seen, once you reach the cache-point,** Farscout passed on to her, and in his sending she could almost feel the Hunt Leader’s frustration with his own limited vision, along with Farscout’s quiet amusement at the thought that Kestrel would need reminding of such a thing.

In spite of herself, she smiled. She was nearly tempted to give him a tart reminder that she was the elder here, after all... if she hadn’t had faith that he’d be hearing the same from Brightwood, probably at that same moment. What she sent instead was, **I’ll keep you all informed, when I can.**

The flight over the open, snow-covered ground went as quickly and as uneventfully as she’d hoped it would. She saw not a moving thing in any direction as she swooped towards the dark tree-line, with the sky lightening to the east beyond the mountains. Once she reached the treeline, her long night’s travel was over. She spotted a tall pine bearing an old hawk’s nest, abandoned, and chose it for her perch for the night. She didn’t need Farscout’s warning to be wary of the packs of stranger-wolves that called this their territory; she could hear them howling in the distance, answered by some rival pack. Kestrel did not answer. She was far from her own pack, there, but in little danger so long as she stayed high off the ground.

RTH 2511.02.20, afternoon

They approached the cave mouth cautiously, bows ready and wolf-ruffs bristling. Snow from the morning's flurries covered the ground, obscuring any tracks in or out of the cave, and the only scents Cloudfern breathed in on the freezing mountain air were the faint taste of sulfurous water, and the tang of sap from pine branches bent and straining under the fresh weight of snow.

Then a curl of breeze did swirl out of Bluestone Cave, and on it, Cloudfern caught other scents, musky and fetid and predatory, and with it as well was the stink of a meat-cache gone rancid. **Don't anyone move!** he sent in warning. **Stinkbear.**

For a moment, there came no sound nor movement, not even from the wolves. Starskimmer's sable head slowly turned toward him, her dark eyes eloquent with dismay. The half-dozen elves and their wolf-friends had been riding hard for three days and two nights, pausing to rest only when the winter storms forced them to take shelter. Evervale and the three yearlings had not questioned the brutal pace their two elders had set for them from the Holt to Bluestone Cave. They all understood the nature of the task their chief had set them: to get to the mountain hunting camp and to prepare it for the tribe's possible evacuation. The steep slopes and rugged terrain would be far more defensible than the lowlands Holt, and would in winter likely prove much too hard for roundhooves and their riders. But it was an equally cruel landscape for the elves and their wolves as well, no matter how better suited their wolf-friends were to the place. It was a hard ascent in the snow and ice, made harder by flurries of stinging, cold wind. By the time they had finally reached the frozen trail of Bluestone Creek, even Crackle's normally unflaggable energy was spent. Evervale and Newt were both stumbling with weariness, and Otter had gone sharp-tongued and sullen. Even the Preserver Muckabout seemed exhausted. The goo-bug had retreated into the depths of Newt’s hood and refused to come out.

**We've got to take the cave,** Starskimmer sent now. Cloudfern nodded in agreement to his Recognized. Stinkbears were solitary creatures, so there was unlikely to be more than one of the beasts inside. Stinkbears were half the size of a wolf, but they were fearless and savage fighters. They had no hesitation to chase a pack off of its kill, and Cloudfern had seen a single stinkbear attack a big brown bear and drive it from a fresh kill. Every hunter in the Holt had been challenged by a stinkbear at one time or another in their lives, and the Hunt Leader's standard order was to just let the vicious creature have whatever it wanted. Elven bows and spears gave their wielders the edge in a fight against a single stinkbear, but it was seldom worth the collateral damage a hunting party would take in that fight.

Cloudfern glanced back at his companions critically. He and Starskimmer were the group's most experienced fighters — which was telling, considering the both of them seldom left the Holt to hunt. Both Newt and Evervale were shaky with exhaustion. Crackle and Otter looked stronger, but they were both inexperienced and reckless. Cloudfern glanced at Starskimmer again, and saw her miserable expression. She didn't want this particular fight — but they had to take the cave. They needed the shelter themselves, and if their tribe were forced to flee here, Cloudfern's party needed every day they could get to prepare the place.

Otter seemed to read Cloudfern's discouraged thoughts. The youth stepped forward, his chin up belligerently. **I can shoot,** he sent. **I'm a better shot than anyone in the Holt but maybe Longshot. One shot, and I'll take it down.**

Crackle snickered at that, while Starskimmer turned a droll look on her son for his arrogance. Cloudfern just gave the youth the steady stare the boast deserved. True — Otter was a good shot with a bow and he had a strong heart, but he was still learning the value of patience. Worse — for the entire, miserable trip from the Holt to Bluestone Cave, Otter had been testing Cloudfern for position. The youth was taking all of his anxiety about the humans and channeling it into a protective drive toward his mother and his agemates, while challenging Cloudfern at every turn like a young wolf scenting weakness in a ranking elder. Otter didn't think of Cloudfern as a hunter — and in the youth's inexperienced eyes, if you weren't a hunter, you didn't have the right to be a leader, either.

**One shot, and you'll piss the stinkbear off,** Cloudfern retorted. **It'll then proceed to tear you a new hole under your tail.**

Otter bristled in insult. Cloudfern turned a shoulder on the youth, letting the pup steam. He held out his hand to Crackle, a silent request for her spear. She handed it over, and he gave her his bow in return. **Crackle, I want you, Newt and Evervale to take your bows and climb up this slope. Take position in those rocks above the mouth of the cave. Starskimmer — go with them. Otter, you stay with me. We'll see if your feet are as fast as your mouth.**

Evervale, Crackle and Newt moved at once to do as they were told, while Otter stood a little taller and set an arrow to his bowstring. Cloudfern felt his Recognized's dark eyes on him, but then Starskimmer nodded and followed after the three younger elves. She knew, without Cloudfern having to say it, what her job really was.

Cloudfern turned his attention back to Otter and gave the youth his sternest look. **You do exactly what I say, when I say it. Understood?** he sent.

The young fisher scowled and gave him a curt nod in return. Cloudfern took a firm hold with both hands on Crackle's spear, and turned back to gaze into the mouth of Bluestone Cave.

The cave itself jutted out like a stone snout from the steep western slope of the valley. It looked more like a dark, narrowed eye than it did a mouth — it was a narrow slot to the west that opened in a rounded oval to the east, just high enough there for an elf to walk through, although a tall elf like Farscout would have to duck. Completing the image was a heavy, overhanging ledge of stone hung over the cave entrance like a scowling brow. As Starskimmer and her trio of young elves climbed up to take a position among the rocks on the overhanging ledge, Splash and Crowsong both edged closer to the cave mouth. They caught scent of its occupant, and unanimously decided to retreat, sidling back nervously behind their riders.

**Coward,** Otter scolded his wolf-friend.

**That wolf's smarter than either of us,** Cloudfern retorted, with no little feeling. He glanced up to make sure the other four elves were in position on the rocks above the cave mouth, and caught Starskimmer's eye in the process. She gave him the hand signal for secure, and Cloudfern nodded. It was time. He stepped forward warily, stalking into the yawning cave mouth, moving slowly to keep his footfalls in the snow as quiet as possible.

**Stay behind me,** he ordered Otter. **When it becomes aware of us, it won't be likely to threat-display like a wolf or a bear or even a mountain lion. If it's lazy, it'll warn us off once before coming straight for our throats. If it's not lazy — then it'll hit us hard, straight on.**

Cloudfern had been inside the cave complex before many times. He knew that the delicate moonmoss he had nurtured there would be thriving in the deeper chambers, but that inside the first, narrow, throat-like chamber of the complex would be unlit except for the overcast afternoon sunlight that filtered in from the cave mouth. After a dozen paces or so, inclining up, the stone throat opened up into a single small, egg-shaped cave, from which branched two other corridors. The floor of the egg-room was sandy, and other predators in the past had used it for a den. That was where Cloudfern was betting they would find the stinkbear. He stalked forward cautiously, each step carrying them deeper into the darkness. As that gloom swallowed them, Cloudfern was extremely aware of how his pale hair seemed to glow, like moonmoss or a blind cave fish.

**You and me, cub, we're bait,** Cloudfern sent to Otter. **When it charges, it's likely to come after me because I'm the one it can see the best. Take your shot at it only if you've got a clear one. If not, just turn and run. We're drawing it out where the archers can turn it into a quillpig.**

**And ruin a fine pelt?** Otter sent. **I told you — one shot is all I'll need. Newt could use a warmer fur coat, and I'm going to give him one.**

In the deep pool of darkness, something stirred, and there was a low, rumbling growl of warning. **Guess the stinkbear must be lazy,** Otter quipped.

Cloudfern took a deep breath and gripping the spear tight in both hands. **Stay behind me — remember, we're the bait. If you take a shot, don't wait around for a second — bolt straight out. Climb one of those stouter trees across the clearing and when you reach a high branch, use your bow again. But we don't want to linger on the ground with the stinkbear so it can make mincemeat of us.**

Otter's sent response was a wordless acknowledgement, while the rumbling threat from the den cave grew in volume. Then there was a scratching sound of talons against stone, and a large, low shadow roiled out of the darkness at them.

Otter's bowstring hissed, and Cloudfern felt an arrow cut past his shoulder. There was the sound of impact, followed by a guttural shriek. Even as Cloudfern pivoted to retreat, he saw from the edge of his vision that the charging stinkbear shifted in its attack. "Run!"

Instead of following orders, the young fisher stood his ground, fitting a second arrow to string. Otter drew the arrow back, but there wasn't time for a shot. The stinkbear lunged at him, knocking aside the bow and smashing into the youth's chest. Otter yelped in surprise as the stinkbear's solid weight knocked him sprawling.

"Hai!" Cloudfern yelled, scrambling to the youth's aid, while Splash came bounding into the cave to her rider's defense. Otter had one arm up to defend his face and throat, and the snarling stinkbear was latched onto it like a lamprey, teeth tearing through Otter's thick winter coat as if the hide were suet. Splash bit at the creature's hindquarters, while Cloudfern jabbed at it with his spear. The beast seemed to not feel the blows. It continued to savage at Otter with tooth and talon, while the youth yelled and beat at the creature's head with his free hand.

Cloudfern snarled and took aim for a second attack with his spear. He jammed it into the side of the beast's neck — the stinkbear was all solid muscle, and it felt like stabbing not flesh, but a slab of wood. Cloudfern shoved his weight into the spear, pushing most of the beast's body off of Otter's chest. But the stinkbear hung onto Otter's arm as though determined not to go unless he got to take the limb with him for a midnight snack.

Cloudfern snarled again, and again shoved at the beast with all of his weight. He reached into the spear, using the surge of fear and adrenaline in his blood and focusing it with his ability. He felt the wood in his hands respond to his will, saw it in his minds' eye as a straight green-glowing shaft of light, felt it encased in blood and meat and bone. Cloudfern channeled his own energy into the spear, growing teeth and talons of his own. A cluster of small spikes erupted from the spear shaft like a rash of thorns; he centered his will on one where it came up against the joints of the creature's spine, and sent a full blast of growth into that single spike.

The stinkbear gave a convulsive spasm and let go of Otter's arm. The creature snarled and ripped the spear from Cloudfern's hands -- but Cloudfern's shaper's magic was still coursing through the weapon, and the single vicious spike was still taking root and growing. The stinkbear began to thrash and shriek as the spike continue to wedge itself through the creature's spinal joint. Cloudfern didn't hesitate. He simply grabbed Otter by the uninjured arm and ran for the cave mouth, hauling the youth behind him and letting Splash guard their retreat.

Otter found his feet as they reached sunlight. The youth's winter coat was shredded and his wolfhair shirt below was growing dark with blood, and blood dripped from his right forearm and soaked his coat. But the youth had drawn his greenstone knife and was digging in his heels to turn and stand his ground. Cloudfern let go of the youth's arm and turned to look back. All that followed them from the cave were yowls and the sounds of a violently thrashing body. As the two stood, panting for breath and listening, the thrashing sounds ceased. The yowling continued as Starskimmer scrambled down to join them.

"You're hurt —" the stoneshaper said anxiously as she hurried toward her son.

"Just some scratches," the youth said, his attention never wavering from the cave mouth. "What did you DO to that thing?" Otter said to Cloudfern with fresh-born respect, as the terrible yowling subsided into a panting mew.

"Stopped it, I hope," Cloudfern replied, as the stinkbear when silent. Muckabout came winging out from its hiding-spot in Newt’s hood, taking an interest in closer inspection only after the beast was quiet.

Splash came trotting out of the cave then, while the other wolves cautiously approached. Splash nosed anxiously at her rider, more concerned for his injuries than for the stinkbear behind her. Cloudfern took that as a good sign. He gestured to Evervale as she and Newt and Crackle scrambled down to join them, leaving Otter to his mother's ministrations. "C'mon," he said to the younger plantshaper, hoping to use his desperate use of his ability as a teaching moment for his apprentice.

"I still want that skin!" Otter called irrepressibly after them as Cloudfern and Evervale re-entered the cave to confirm the kill. "Looks like I'll be the one needing a new coat!"

Farscout sent the warning to the chief openly, in hopes that any elven mind within range would receive it as well. **Windburn, a band of half a dozen Fierce One are headed your way. They will have split from the larger group an hour or so ago, and they’ve got spare roundhooves with them, riding due west toward Tuftcat Hill. We think they’re returning to the edges of the forest to hunt for game. The larger group is still moving northward, no deviation from pattern.**

Windburn was out of reach to the north yet, but there was another was in range. **I hear you,** Snowfall acknowledged. **We’ll watch for them, and I’m passing word on to Windburn. We’ll keep out of their sight. You stay safe.**

Farscout frowned at his companions. “Snowfall has Windsong and Beetle with her,” Blacksnake said, translating that particular look of worry on his friend’s face.

“Windsong’s solid, even if she can’t send her way out of a badger hole,” Brightwood said from where she knelt, examining the muddled, forking tracks. “But my brother’s girl-cub is a bit too human-friendly for my tastes. Snowfall’d better keep one hand on Beetle’s collar to keep her from welcoming the Fierce Ones with flowers and questions about their dining practices.”

“Beetle’s got more sense than that,” Blacksnake said in his young tribemate’s defense. “She’s not half the troublemaker her brother Notch can be. Beetle’ll keep her distance, and know better than to try and creep into the camp at night to steal things.” He dismounted himself, to look over the riddle of tracks. “This stranger-pack is following the hunters.”

Farscout nodded, while Brightwood scowled at what she read before flinging herself back onto Redbrush’s back. “Maybe they’ll tangle, give the humans a little grief, eat a roundhoof or two,” she said with a humorless smile.

“I’d rather they stayed on the trail of the larger band, where we keep can keep track of them,” Blacksnake retorted. “I don’t want Snowfall having to juggle both half a dozen Fierce One hunters and a dozen stranger-wolves, all at once.”

Farscout was already sending an additional warning to Snowfall, while Brightwood smirked and laughed outright. “No, you want to keep the fun all for ourselves,” she parried, while Blacksnake rose and brushed away the snow that dusted the knees of his breeches.

“These stranger-wolves, they’ve trailed these humans before,” Blacksnake said. It was a grim observation, one he was reluctant to make. But the behavior they were witnessing and saw sign of left in the snow was making the Hunt Leader increasingly sure of his suspicion. These stranger-wolves were too confident, too knowing. They had no hesitation in how they followed after the smaller band when it broke west, even though the concentration of roundhooves remained with the larger camp. “You know what that means, don’t you?” he asked his companions.

“The Fierce Ones have been back here before,” Brightwood agreed grimly.

**Aye,** Farscout sent in agreement. **These wolves know the Fierce Ones too well. They know the smaller band means fresh meat, sooner than with the larger band.**

“They recognize an easy meal when they see it,” Brightwood agreed. “And they’ve got that, for as long as these humans are crossing through the pack’s territory.”

Blacksnake nodded, having trusted that his old friends would have put those puzzle pieces together the same way he had.

**But it’s been six and a half years since Copper’s birth,** Farscout sent, his mindtouch rich with dismay. Blacksnake nodded, recognizing what his old friend meant. For the first time in his adult life, Farscout had chosen to stay at the Holt for the first five winters of his daughter’s life, leaving the long-range patrols of the Holt’s borders to others. **And I saw no sign of the Fierce Ones last winter, or the winter before. If they had hunted in our woods anywhere along our borders, I would have seen sign of them.**

“Maybe they didn’t need to ride as far as the forest to hunt,” Brightwood said. “That’s possible. Last year’s winter was a hard one — the clickdeer herds came south early and stayed late.”

“If the Fierce Ones didn’t cross our border, we’d never have reason to know they’ve been near,” Blacksnake agreed, thinking of the hunting parties he had either led or assigned to hunt northeast of the Holt over the past hand or so of winters. It was a sobering thought to know that any one of those hunting parties could have ridden unexpecting into a band of Fierce Ones, the same as Cedarwing’s party fatally had done so many winters ago. “Let’s count ourselves lucky,” he said, before getting back onto Wasp’s back and riding north again, continuing to follow after the broad, trampled trail in the snow.

Ed. Note: see the story “Paradise Lost” (by L. Aarts: All of this, Crackle thought, wasn’t supposed to happen. This all made for great story material, but not for situations in real life.), which takes place around this time.

RTH 2511.02.20, nightfall

It was difficult to lie hidden and waiting for all of that day. Kestrel slept for only a short time, then awoke to see patches of blue sky and sunlight coming through the cloud cover. She ate some of the dried meat and travel cakes from her own supply of rations, her sharp eyes scanning the white horizons for any sign of humans. She could feel the crawling energy of impatience through her limbs, and kept still with an effort, thinking ruefully of Longshot and Quick Fang at their posts. She was too old and experienced to give in to such feelings, but they plagued her nonetheless. She wanted to be moving, doing something useful, but she did not dare in the bright daylight.

Once she had a scare, when there was a dark patch of movement underneath the trees to the south, rounding one of the flanks of tall Lookout Mountain. But as she watched, the dark patch slowly became a small herd of branch-horns, and she relaxed. That herd remained undisturbed through the rest of the day. No human hunters came along their trail, and even the stranger-wolves were occupied elsewhere.

When dusk arrived without any sign of humans riding in the open lands, Kestrel finally gave in to the urge to depart her perch. At least the enforced layover had given her time to rest from the previous days’ exertion. She felt fresh enough to reach Silver Lake’s outlet to the Bounty that night, if she ran into nothing unexpected.

Farscout’s continued reports, at least, let her know that the Fierce Ones and their wolfrider shadows were paralleling her course to the west. The humans gave no sign of turning east to cross the frozen river. Farscout thought they were heading for Whitewing Lake in the north. Kestrel thought that likely, too. It was up in that country that their tribe’s only other encounter with the Fierce Ones had happened — that terrible day so long ago, that was a fresher memory for Brightwood. That was where the clickdeer were the thickest at this time of year, and it appeared the humans knew that.

The howling of rival wolf-packs came to her throughout the night, and she was glad to be flying, not riding. She knew that Farscout, Brightwood and Blacksnake had their wolves with them, and some of the unbonded wolves besides, but she wondered how they would fare if they had to remain out here for a long period of time, in the middle of other packs’ territories. The tribe had never ventured out into these lands except in force, to discourage challenges from stranger-packs. Three elves and six wolves was not a large enough pack, though, and who knew how long the scouts might have to stay shadowing the humans.

A broad trail of trampled snow caught her eye, as well as dark shapes on the ground, and with a tight knot in her chest, Kestrel cautiously left the cover of the trees to investigate. There were only two dark lumps visible, and no fires, so she knew it couldn’t be a camp of humans… but she worried that it might be a site where they had hunted and then butchered their kills before moving on.

At least the weather now was clear enough for moonlight. She stayed low to the ground, gliding silently, until she had reached the trail. There was enough light to see the tracks clearly, and though she circled the entire killing ground, she saw only the cloven hooves of clickdeer, not the strange round prints of the humans’ mounts. The two mounds proved to be a bull’s carcass in two parts, with the tracks of wolves, ravens and foxes all around. The kill was two days old, she thought, relieved both that it wasn’t the work of the Fierce Ones, and that the wolf-pack responsible had eaten their fill and moved on.

Despite the interruptions, she made good time to her destination, finally passing the long, ice-bound plain of Silver Lake to its northern end, where a short river emptied it into the Bounty. This was the landmark that Blacksnake had suggested for caching the supplies she carried. It was right on the edge of the foothills that rose towards Greenstone Mountain, and if the elven scouts had to flee in this direction, Kestrel could see how it was the shortest route to losing themselves in the high, steep hills and valleys that would be hard-going for their human pursuers and their beasts. If they could make it this far… but that question, Kestrel did not think on too closely. She had to believe that if they had to, they would, and it was her job to hide the cache well, but make it easy for them to retrieve on the run.

She scouted the length of the short Silver River, looking for the right combination of a distinct enough landmark, and a tall and sturdy enough tree. Then she stopped, and questioned her own instincts — of course she preferred the idea of placing the bundle somewhere high and out of reach. But, was that the wisest course? If the others were on the run when they reached this point, would they have time to climb and retrieve it, to lower it and open it and distribute its contents among themselves? It was a consideration. But a moment’s thought later, and she realized that with Brightwood with them, getting into the trees quickly should not be a problem. And even if for some terrible reason Brightwood could not help them… well, Farscout and Blacksnake were capable climbers. Taking to the trees might be the best way to throw off a close pursuit.

She finally found what she was looking for — a set of rapids with a distinctive pile of boulders on the north bank, and a fallen tree hanging out over the rushing water. There was no other fallen tree sticking out at such an angle, and it created enough of a landmark for her purpose. She also liked that the terrain on the north bank was rougher than on the south, and that the rapids caused the river to run unfrozen here. The elves and their wolves would be able to travel that north side more easily than humans on roundhooves, and if they paused there to retrieve the cache, they would not be easily attacked across the churning water.

From the rootball of the fallen tree, Kestrel wended her way back into the stand of pines, until she found one with a split in its base. That would do, she thought, looking up into its branches. It was far enough back from the river here that anyone climbing it would not be fully exposed to sight from the river’s south bank.

Ascending to the tree’s crown without the cache bundle, she found a set of sturdy branches, though unfortunately, no old raptor’s nest that she could make use of. That would have been too easy, she thought wryly. But, she could create a makeshift nest easily enough, and began to gather pine boughs to do so. When she was done, she was satisfied that the platform she’d created wasn’t too obvious, though she wished briefly that she had a plantshaper’s powers, to make it more secure. But then, had she a plantshaper’s powers, she would not have been given this mission in the first place.

Finally, she brought the bundle up, the last time she would carry it. She checked to make sure that all of the wrapstuff was intact, then carefully covered it again with the dark fur cloak that kept the cocoon’s gleaming white surface from showing. The inner surface of the cloak’s hide was treated to make it waterproofed, and between that and the wrapstuff itself, the supplies inside were as protected as they could be, short of sealing them in a cave. The deep brown of the slaptail fur blended into the darkness of the bark and pine needles all around. Kestrel tucked more boughs around it, to hide it further.

This time, when she sent, she was within range of all three scouts. **Here is the hiding place,** she told them, along with images, in order, of the clues to its location.

Blacksnake was quick to appreciate the site’s advantages. **Good. If we had to, we could retrieve that and then be up and over that ridge to the north and halfway to Greenstone Mountain before the humans had figured out how to get their mounts across the river.**

**If they could cross it at all,** Brightwood agreed, liking what she saw in the violent rapids. **I’ll remember those trees,** she promised, meaning both the deadfall that pointed the way, and the tree that held the cache in it. **Well chosen, cousin.** Kestrel could nearly see the plantshaper’s sharp grin.

**It should be safe there well into spring,** she told them. **Even if humans come along here, I don’t think they can see it. Once the black bears are out and about in the spring, one of them might find it and drag it down, but...**

**High Ones willing, we won’t be here in the late spring,** said Farscout simply, and there were echoes of acknowledgement amongst the four of them.

If the cache stayed safe for the next month or two, that would be enough, Kestrel thought. And beyond that, she hoped, it would not be necessary. In fact, she hoped that it would never be necessary… but like Blacksnake, she felt better knowing it was there, if needed.



To be continued…

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Return of the Fierce Ones
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