(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part 4”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
Ed. Note: the following two stories both take place on RTH 2511.02.21, before the first scene in this 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.)
”Uncertain Future” (by Razzle C.: While overseeing the preparations for Bluestone Cave, True Edge worries for his family and tribe's future.)
RTH 2511.02.21 — dusk
In the usual way of such things, the encounter was over almost as quickly as it had begun.
It was close to dusk, and the scouts had left the trampled human trail through the snow to ride east. They knew the Fierce Ones were setting up their own camp as the sun fell, and now and again even heard the distant sound of that activity — booming human voices calling to one another in a rhythmic chant, similar to what the elves themselves did when several worked together to haul in heavy nets of fish. The three scouts knew it was time to find shelter of their own, ideally where they could see that camp from afar. To the east there was a rise which looked promising, a round height where a cluster of alder grew. They rode off away from the open, snow-blanketed bottomlands the Fierce Ones favored for riding, leaving the trampled trail behind. But it was not full dark yet, so the elves rode for that copse of trees carefully, hugging the low ground in between the gentle, deceptive waves of the plainsland.
The closer they came to that hillock, the steeper the dips and folds of land became. Judging the growing gloom had deepened enough to risk exposing themselves on a height, Blacksnake pointed Wasp’s nose up to the top of the slope they had been flanking, expecting to find a frozen creekbed or some similar watershed running off of the high hill. The wind was blowing a steady, cold stream down from due north, bringing faint strains of human-stink and horse-dung to their noses. The wolves’ footsteps made a crunching rhythm, but it was as deceptive as the flat-seeming landscape: they traveled in single-file, placing their paws in Wasp’s footsteps as he broke their trail, and at times they sounded as few as one or two hunters instead of a pack of six.
Wasp crested the top of the middle-rise — and yes, the frozen creek which Blacksnake had expected to find below was there, but so was the plainsland pack, all dozen of them, either curled up to rest in the snow, or lapping at where the water still ran fast enough that it had not yet frozen over. One large she-wolf was already looking up the slope toward Blacksnake and his wolf-friend, her ears beginning to flatten as she heard Wasp’s footsteps breaking through the crust of snow.
Instantaneously, the plainsland pack scrambled to its feet, while the one she-wolf already facing them rushed at Wasp, white-eyed and lips writhing back from her flashing fangs. Wasp drew himself to his full height, not flinching from the fight and snarling in a full threat display of his own. Blacksnake braced for the impact of collision and took a two-handed grip on his spear, brandishing it. Three strides up the slope and the she-wolf would be on him and Wasp, with her packmates close on her tail. Behind them, he heard Frostback's belated yelp of surprise, and Brightwood's hissing snarl as the rest of their party surged up to the top of the rise...
… and in the space of a heartbeat, everything changed from the promise of violence to an instant retreat. The plainsland pack was scattering, bolting away across the frozen creek and up the northern slope of the watershed. The she-wolf checked her headlong charge as though hitting the end of a snare-rope: she skidded back on her hindquarters in a spray of snow, then pivoted tail-end-over-nose to flee as fast as she could, ears flat and tail tucked. Wasp sprang after her in pursuit, and Blacksnake heard the crunch of snow as at least two of the old chief-wolf's own packmates followed.
**No chase! No chase!** he heard Brightwood wolf-send to the unbondeds, even as Blacksnake wrestled Wasp back from that pursuit. The old wolf submitted only grudgingly. Wasp's nerves were afire with adrenaline, and his mindtouch was hot with **give chase** and **fight** and **claim territory**. It was a struggle to get the old wolf to turn back, but Blacksnake was equally determined, if not more so -- they could not afford taking injury in a wolf-fight, and there was no sense in contesting for territory the tribe had no interest in attempting to hold.
Wasp came to a stiff, jittery halt, ruff bristling and his head low with simmering aggression. Blacksnake rocked back on the wolf's sharp spine, looking back toward his tribemates. Brightwood was riding Redbrush forward as she called the three young unbondeds to her, and Farscout was still astride Duskgreeter at the rear of their scouting party, an arrow drawn to the string of his bow. He eased back on the bowstring, his pale eyes following after the last of the plainsland pack to disappear up and over the steep rise across the creek.
**Did you see that?** Brightwood asked cryptically, as Bristlepelt, Fireweed and Frostback jostled against Redbrush and licked at the red she-wolf's muzzle like half-grown cubs.
Blacksnake shook his head, still urging a resistant Wasp to turn and rejoin their fellows. Continuing to savor thoughts of violence, the old wolf muttered a growl after the retreating plainsland wolves where they had fled up and over the northern crest of the slope. The chief-wolf submitted to his rider's demands with a sullen reluctance. **See what?** Blacksnake asked, sending Wasp jogging back toward the others, the old chief-wolf still grumbling.
**That pack didn't give a bloody scat about your spear, but the moment Farscout's bow came up, they turned and ran,** Brightwood sent, shadowing the observation with a flash of memory-send of that pivotal moment of retreat. **They really don't like bows, do they?**
**Lucky for us,** Blacksnake replied, not sharing Wasp's bloody enthusiasm. **All twelve of them at once would have meant a nasty scrum.**
Farscout was sliding his arrow back into his shoulder-quiver. **We're lucky it was only the stranger-pack,** he sent sourly. **Next time it could be a pack of the Fierce Ones instead.**
Blacksnake frowned at the thought, and looked automatically toward the north. The Fierce Ones' camp was still out of view, but the sounds of them were clearer here, above the fold of land they had been clinging to for cover. He listened to the sound, alert for any variation that would indicate the humans having alerted on the lupine altercation. The distant chant did not alter, but the plainsland pack came back into view, trotting single-file to the east, putting distance between themselves and the archer. Blacksnake scowled to see that, knowing his own pack would be more interested in shadowing an invading band of wolves in wait of a better opportunity to attack.
**See them go?** Farscout sent, as he touched Duskgreeter forward to take a turn at breaking trail through the snow.
**I bet they’ll come back at us tonight,** Brightwood countered, following after him with the unbondeds trailing at Redbrush’s heel.
Wasp stood, waiting to take up tail-guard, and continued to rumble in threat as he watched the distant pack disappear into the east. The old wolf seemed aware of the stranger-pack’s odd behavior. Blacksnake watched them go as well, until they were mere dots against the white blanket of snowy flatlands, and when he felt a shiver course down his spine, the Hunt Leader knew it wasn’t entirely due to the winter cold.
RTH 2511.02.22 — mid-morning
**True Edge has reported in,** came the sending from Dreamflight, her mindtouch feathery and faint with distance. **He and Fadestar have reached Bluestone Cave; Cloudfern, Starskimmer and the yearlings got there safely a day or two before, and True Edge says they're all busy as bees.**
It was good news to start a morning off with. Goldspice found herself giving a sigh of relief to have finally received word from the kinsmen who had been dispatched to prepare the tribe's possible evacuation site. She stood a little straighter, facing into the whipping gusts of wind that blew from the northwest. Beside her, Nightstorm and the two boy-cubs had gone silent and still, knowing that the goldsmith was locksending with someone. Only Copper kept working, shoveling through a drift of snow in the leeward side of ancient old capnut tree. Her black she-wolf Flea was digging intently at the spot, sending an enthusiastic spray of snow out behind her, happily oblivious to the anxious concern around them.
**I will be happy to tell Suddendusk his daughters are safe,** Goldspice sent back. Suddendusk and Greenweave were ice fishing back near the Holt, while Chicory and Glow remained behind in the Dentrees. **How are you and Rainpace faring?**
**We’re cold!** came back Dreamflight’s immediate response. **The cloud cover is low enough today that we can hardly see our wolves when they step outside of our shelter. But the bighorn are coming down to better graze — we got clean shots at a good sized ewe and we have been eating our fill. But I do have a request — the first supply run you send up the mountainside to us? Can I beg for another sack of wolf hair? I’ve already nearly carded everything I brought with me! There’s nothing to do up here but shiver without some sort of chore to keep my hands busy with, and I’ve seasons and seasons of wolf hair bagged away down in the storage dens. Never a better time than now to get yarn made, I suppose.**
Dreamflight’s cheerful practicality put a smile on Goldspice’s face. She had worried about how the weaver would handle being assigned to the watch duty on Crow’s Ridge with Rainpace, when it was clear that the trapper had taken the return of the Fierce Ones especially hard. **In a couple of days, I hope to send Nightstorm and Greenweave; I don’t expect we’ll see Kestrel back soon enough,** she sent in return. She would have to think about what else could be sent out to the other watch-posts, both to give the watchers something to keep their hands busy, and to add to the supplies already being prepared at the Holt.
The waiting grew too much for Rill. "Did they see the Fierce Ones?" the boy interrupted eagerly. "Have they spotted the Fierce Ones yet?"
The boy's ruthless glee at that prospect was so appalling, Goldspice could not help but give a bark of laughter. "No, thankfully not!" she replied. "Just good news for a change! Your grandfather has reported in from Bluestone Cave; everyone is well and your sisters are hard at work there," Goldspice added, thinking the boy-cub would appreciate that tidbit of good news.
Apparently not so much — Rill frowned at her, as though he had never questioned their safety and well-being. And maybe the boy had not, Goldspice realized. Maybe everything to him was weighed on the balance of whether or not it provided entertainment. Perhaps Rill's sisters and mother were all both off on a grand adventure, as he saw it, while he had been left behind at home, where he was reduced to doing chores. That sour frown on Rill's face suggested as much.
"The Fierce Ones are to the east," said Cinder soberly, before Goldspice could respond herself. "My father is going to see them before Rainpace or Dreamflight do. Or before True Edge does."
"My mother and father are watching them now," Copper added, shoving aside the last handful of snow and rooting out what she had uncovered. "Look! Flea's nose was right, there are some woodhens left!"
Goldspice took the big grey-white fungal mass that the girl held up in her mittened hands. The mushroom had sprouted late in the autumn, then frozen solid with the first hard frost. She sniffed it suspiciously, but found it only slightly over-ripe. "This'll be delicious," she said with a smile and a nod to her group of young foragers.
"Shall we keep digging and see if we can find some of that ground elder I saw growing here before the snows?" Nightstorm asked. "It was just sprouting when the leaves began to fall, so it's bound to still be tender enough."
"I'd rather look for rose hips," Cinder said. "I know we didn't pick all of the berries from those bushes along the thornwall!"
"Flea wants to find more mushrooms," Copper said as she stood and dusted herself off.
"We should go and look for the humans ourselves," Rill said, still frowning and refusing to be shaken off his trail. "We could at least climb to the top of Home Ridge and look for them. They could be out there. They could have slipped past everyone else."
Nightstorm made a face and looked about to say something, but instead she swallowed back her words and turned to Goldspice expectantly. Goldspice gave her friend a look in return and tried to weigh her response carefully. Being the acting-chief in her uncle Windburn's absence was an easier facade to sustain with the adult members of her tribe. Irrational though it may be, if was only with the tribe's children that she felt like a fraud.
"You don't have to be scared—" she began to say.
"I'm not!" Rill blasted back, flashing his teeth in an expression clearly inherited from his mother, Quick Fang. "I am not scared of the Fierce Ones! I just want to help find them — and first, too! I don't want to just sit around and wait like a frog on a log, while everyone else gets to go out and do hero-things!"
Goldspice traded another glance with Nightstorm, thinking that she would need to keep an eye on Rill and come up with ways to keep him busy. Nightstorm’s look in return was sympathetic. Goldspice knew her friend was as impatient as Quick Fang's son to be out there and doing something — anything — rather than spend another night in the near-empty hometrees, waiting for word from their kin and going about the regular winter chores. Fierce Ones or no, there were still nets to mend, arrowheads to knap, baskets to weave, cordage to be twisted... busywork of all kinds that needed to be done, and even more of it now, with the rest of the tribe's hands out sitting at icy watch posts, or riding through the snow flurries in search of invaders. But if the best of their hopes bore fruit — if the Fierce Ones kept riding north, hunted the clickdeer herds and then went back home again without ever intruding into the Holt's territory — then the tribe would have lost the weeks of steady handiwork they always performed each winter, chores that allowed them to be prepared to meet the different challenges of the successive seasons to come.
Impulsively, Goldspice reached out and caught Dreamflight in a locksend. As the weaver's mind blossomed open to her in question, the goldsmith swept up the minds of each of the cubs in turn, starting with Rill, and then ending with Nightstorm. **Dreamflight,** she locksent. **Show us where you are and what you're doing. Show us everything.**
Obligingly, Dreamflight widened her mindtouch. She was sitting watch on a snow-dusted hide on a flat, open ledge at the crown of Crow's Ridge, shivering despite being bundled in her thickest fur coat and hood. The clouds were low and heavy with snow, obscuring nearly all the valley that stretched out below her. The wind blew constantly, stinging cold and gusting swirls of snow. Her fingers and toes felt numb, despite insulating layers of leather and fur, and the tips of her nose and ears were icy enough that at times she pinched them, just to welcome the hot flood of pain. Worse of all — her bladder was full and had begun to ache — but she wasn't going to drop trous and make water until fit to burst, because she didn't want to expose parts of her that would feel as though they had flash-frozen. Physically, Dreamflight was miserable — but worse was the boredom. Visibility was so poor, she doubted she would be able to see the tribe's enemies if they were dancing naked on the scree five bowshots below where she sat — but she did not dare stray from her post, in the remote case a messenger from Bluestone Cave came into range, or even anything equally urgent from the Holt. Determined to face the circumstance stoically, the weaver did the best she could. She turned her fur-bundled shoulder into the howling wind in order to shield her hands as she doggedly worked a drop spindle in one hand, feeding it a steady twist of wolf fur with the other so that the fibers twined together into a thick, grey-silver yarn.
**You want to do hero-things, little cub?** Goldspice sent sternly. She locked eyes with Rill, and the boy looked down almost at once at kicked at the snow. **Being a hero isn't fun,** Goldspice continued to send, looking at each of the others in turn to make sure they had absorbed Dreamflight's sending. **It isn't games. It's sitting on an exposed mountainside like Dreamflight is right now, freezing your tail solid, bored half out of your skull. It's waiting — just like we're waiting here — only worse, because here at the Holt we can come out when the weather clears and go foraging, or we can sit together in the Gathering Den and play games and listen to stories and drink hot tea. So you stop feeling sorry for yourself, little cub. Put that self-pity to work doing something useful instead.**
Rill scowled and dug his toes angrily into the snow, but both Copper and Cinder seemed to take her words fully to heart. "You sounded just like our grandsire," Cinder said then, grinned, "No, you sounded like my father!"
"We should keep looking for more mushrooms, and then send them to Dreamflight and Rainpace," Copper said. "Or if we can find enough, send them to everyone, because they won't be able to look for them themselves."
"We can do one better than that," Cinder said with rising excitement. "Let's go downstream to the birch grove, and look for chaga! It's hard work to grate them down, but nothing makes for better winter medicine! We can brew chaga tea for everyone, and send everyone waterskins of it, so then they won't get the sniffles or runny noses."
"That's a great idea!" Nightstorm agreed, while Copper nodded with enthusiasm.
Nightstorm and Cinder led the way off — Goldspice paused long enough to study the sky, thinking it likely they could reach the nearby grove of beech trees and then back to the Holt again, before the flurries of snow worsened. She waited until Rill and his wolf Softjoy had trudged past her, then fell in step behind them. From the angry set of the boy's face, the goldsmith did not believe her lesson had made much of deep impression — and she didn't expect a child of Quick Fang's to give to any argument easily, either. But equally — his father Suddendusk certainly was never one to carry a grudge. So Goldspice was willing to wager that the boy's usually sunny nature would return, given time and patience. And this winter, patience was certainly the hero's virtue.
Goldspice watched Rill’s stiff stride, and the way he whacked at frozen leaves with his child-sized spear, and vowed to herself that she could stand to learn that lesson just as well as any of them right now. She also renewed her determination to remember every little thing she could that her brother Farscout or grandmother Easysinger had ever shared with her. Now would be the time to think of old lessons and what the tribe needed from them. And that was a sobering thought, itself; that she now had to think in terms of the tribe. Not just her and Moss, but everyone. That caused a chill that no winter coat could warm.
Ed. Note: see the story “Behind Green Eyes” (by Angie C.: During the tense times, Thornbow has a chance to ask a question that has crossed his mind once or twice.), which takes place at this same time.
RTH 2511.02.22 — midday
Alert to his partner's cue, Notch instinctively looked up as his wolf-friend did, following Beauty's gaze north across the frozen river, squinting against the glare of the noonday sun off on the snow. **Painted Faces,** he sent in warning, shifting to melt completely from view among the trees. **Two... three... four... huh. Four of them, and two Amber Hunters along as well. All with bows, hauling home a branch-horn doe.** Notch included a visual in his sending: two slight Painted Faces walking forward of their companions, the other four weighed down by their kill, suspended from spears between them. The two Amber Hunters were conspicuously taller and darker than the others, although they wore leathers fashioned in the style and camouflaged shades of the Painted Face tribe. **Never seen those jaybirds drop all of their bright colors before,** he sent in comment. **No sign they're leaving the snow trail we eyeballed earlier; they are following their footsteps home.**
There was the barest whisper of sound as Pathmark slipped up beside him to watch the human hunters pass. **The Amber Hunters are learning from the Painted Faces, aren't they?** the scout asked, his forehead wrinkled with concern at that thought.
Notch shrugged it off. **They are,** he replied. **But they are as slow about it as a blue ice wall is to melt.** As if agreeing with Notch's dry observation, there was a loud, almost braying burst of laughter from one of the Amber Hunters, which his companion joined in with heartily a moment later. The Painted Faces were also laughing, but they were all but mute about it. **Good thing we've got some travelcakes left. Those two jaybirds just scared off all of the game in this valley.**
Beauty's one erect ear was all but quivering, and the wolf's scarred lip was retreating from his single, oversized upper fang. Notch reached out and rested a hand on Beauty's scarred head, knowingly rubbing at the tension-knot that had formed under the wolf's torn ear. He felt rather than heard the subterranean rumble of the wolf's growl go silent at his touch. The one-eyed wolf sat and gave a nonchalant yawn that exposed all of Beauty's teeth, then idly scratched with a hind paw at the side of his neck. Anyone who had not partnered with the clever old wolf for years might have thought Beauty was preoccupied with a flea bite — but Notch knew better. He'd learned the twists and turns of his friend's cunning, and knew the wolf had been thinking of starting some sort of trouble. Beauty always found it a thrill to steal a kill — challenge was the spice of life, after all, Notch thought with amusement. Notch chuckled to himself and kept rubbing at the stubborn muscle knot beneath his wolf-friend's ear, knowing his touch was received as a silent communication. Beauty knew that Notch knew that Beauty was scheming; he caught the sly glance the wolf cast his way, and saw the thoughtful look that weighed him. Another yawn then, even wider — then the grizzled head cocked to one side as Beauty finished studying his rider, and the wolf gave a sigh of disappointment. The muscle knot beneath Notch's fingers began to melt away into temporary compliance. Whatever Beauty's scheme had been, the trouble would wait another day.
**Our day will come,** Notch promised his wolf-friend; Beauty might not understand the words directly, but he understood the taste of promise and rich satisfaction which flavored it. Notch felt the weight of the bag he wore slung across his shoulder. He brushed a hand over the solid, hard curve at the bottom of his shoulder bag, and the smile on his face as he watched the distant line of human hunters grew positively feral. **We'll have our way at them someday — maybe even sooner than either of us can expect.**
Snow crunched beneath paws to Notch's other side as Longtooth ghosted up to join them, nosing past Pathmark's shoulder among the evergreen branches to give his rider a view. Notch felt a hand settle on his shoulder. He slid a glance sideways and met One-Leg's shrewd blue stare. His father cocked his head to one side as he looked as his son, and Notch had the sudden, rotten sense of having been found out. He hated that knowing look of his father's -- it felt terrible to be caught out, when he had not even done anything. Not yet, at least.
**Kind of makes you feel for the poor round-ears, doesn't it?** One-Leg sent to them both. **Look at them. They're happy to have a bit of a break in the sodded weather. They’re enjoying getting out and doing a little hunting, same as any of us.**
Pathmark turned his head to look at their elder, his expression startled. The tracker had spent the last few years busy with long-patrols while Farscout was busy tending his nest; he had not spent much time at all with the word-hunters, observing the humans like One-Leg had, or to a much lesser extent, as Notch himself had this past year. Notch snorted to himself and rolled his eyes, expecting what was to come next.
His father never failed to disappoint. **That nephew of mine thinks he was clever and that he’s thought it all out,** One-Leg sent, as all three watched the party of human hunters make their way across the frozen river. **He’s sent the tribe this way and that way to scout for Fierce Ones, and he’s got that nutsack-freezing bolt-hole Bluestone Cave getting turned all cozy just in case. If the Fierce Ones so much as sneeze in our direction, my brother’s boy thinks we’re ready for it. But he’s sees about as well as Suddendusk — only half of things.**
Pathmark turned a worried glance toward Notch, clearly uncomfortable with hearing criticism of their chief. Notch gave the young scout an amused look. **The old windbag here should be wearing the tribe’s torc,** Notch sent with amusement, unable to resist needling his father.
The rumble from One-Leg’s chest was almost a growl. **Sometimes I wonder,** the red-bearded elder retorted sharply. **That, and why that ambitious brother of mine hasn’t seen through his cub’s mistakes and taken on the torc himself. What we’re doing right here, right now, is so piss-poor wrongheaded! Look at those poor, nose-deaf round-ears. They haven’t a clue what’s threatening us. They haven’t a clue what’s threatening them! We’re sitting on what we know, when you both know that the Painted Faces came running here to escape the Fierce Ones in the first place. They’ve probably lost more kin to those rutting sons-of-bears than we have. If our chief had half the sense of a treewee, he’d see that, and see what the result of it will be for the tribe somewhere downstream!**
**You think the chief should be going to the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces, and telling them about the Fierce Ones?** Pathmark sent with shock.
**Don’t feed the cranky bear,** Notch sent dryly.
Both of his tribemates ignored him. **Sure as a shit after dinner,** One-Leg grumbled fiercely. **My crack-skulled nephew thinks we have a human problem now, with the Fierce Ones just skirting our flanks? What about when our locals wake up, learn we’re here, and learn we failed to warn them about a shared danger? We’ll have pissed in the pond we’re drinking from! And if that happens, if it comes to a scrap with the Fierce Ones, any hope of having allies in the fight will be gone like a puff of pollen.**
Pathmark’s hazel eyes had gone so wide in his face that Notch had to suppress a laugh. **Father thinks the local humans could be friendlies,** Notch sent. **Of course, I’d love to know how we’d just march up to the village’s front door and announce ourselves. ‘Hello, we’ve been spying on you for years now, just thought you might want to know the big nasty bad fellows are visiting. Nice to meet you, see you around later!’**
**We share the danger equally, them and us,** One-Leg retorted, coldly sober and without his usual lurking humor. **We’re fools to set ourselves up for a failure. Because what happens turns from now, if our chief does finally introduce himself to the locals? And they learn what we’ve known all along, and hidden from them? No way we’d ever trust the neighbors again, if it were the other way around. No way.**
Pathmark looked like he was chewing that piece of gristle over, and that it tasted bitter. **But we don’t know the local humans will ever be friendly in the first place,** he sent back, his mindtouch rich with worry. **It’s just too big a risk to expose ourselves to them now. It’s bad enough that the Fierce Ones could come at us and chase us from the Holt! We can’t afford to spend the rest of the winter looking over our shoulders for an attack from the humans at Eagle Bay, too!**
The set of One-Leg’s bristling jaw was eloquent enough that he didn’t really think of the local humans as a threat to the tribe. Certainly not as grave a one as their chief still did. But the old hunter simply shrugged, his eyes following the group of humans as they climbed the snowy far riverbank.
**There’s always ways of getting what we want with a minimum of risk to the tribe,** One-Leg finally answered. **It just takes some smarts and the ability to exercise those smarts.** With those words, Notch felt his father’s hand squeeze his shoulder. He glanced One-Leg’s way again, and found those shrewd blue eyes fixed on him knowingly again. **You did bring the horn, cub-o-mine?** One-Leg locksent then.
Notch was startled enough that he brushed the weight off his shoulder-bag reflexively. His father noticed the telling gesture, and cracked a narrow grin.
**Aye, I was counting on you for that, lad,** One-Leg locksent. He squeezed his son’s shoulder again before letting go. **No need to worry yourself over it,** One-Leg sent openly then, the thought cast at Pathmark. **It’s the chief-wolf’s call to make, about when we let the locals know we’re here. So long as my nephew tells us we’re still in hiding, we’re still in hiding — and that means the three of us keep skulking about with our nutsacks climbing into our bellies, trying to keep from freezing as we watch the tribe’s tender flank. Until the chief says otherwise.**
Notch watched as the last of the human hunters climbed the far bank of the river and marched off into the trees beyond. His father’s message didn’t take that much parsing — not from someone with some smarts, and the sense to use them. No, that wasn’t the fleabite that annoyed him. **Why didn’t you just nip the Fierce One’s bloody horn yourself, then, if you thought one of us should have it?** he locksent to his father sharply, stung that the secret he had been hauling all this sorry-assed trip had not been a secret at all — at least, apparently, not to his father.
One-Leg chuckled and clapped his son’s arm soundly. The feral grin that flashed from among the crimson facefur was far, far too familiar. **Because I carried the rotted thing back home from the grasslands the first time around, after Farscout and I found it! And I know what that sodden thing weighs. Better your strong young shoulders feel the ache than mine.**
Notch snorted at that, and reached out to fondle Beauty’s grizzled head. His scarred wolf-friend gazed back at him, tongue lolling in shared sour humor. Though whether Beauty was laughing with him —- or at him — Notch didn’t know.
And some things were better not asked into, either.
RTH 2511.02.22 -- late afternoon
A raven was flying toward them, sweeping low from the distant hill country to the northeast. It was the first corvid Farscout had seen for days. He watched it as it banked to circle the three wolfriders once, swooping even lower overhead to tease the unbondeds as Frostback jumped into the air after it. Then the raven turned and flew back the way it had come, leaving the three youngest wolves to chase after it. Farscout continued to watch it as it flew away, wary of it. A single raven in wintertime was a rare thing — the birds roosted together in huge flocks and haunted the foraging grounds of the massive clickdeer herds, waiting for one of those thousands to die and provide the ravens with a ready meal.
“Nasty knife-beak,” muttered Mushroom, seeking shelter within Farscout’s sealskin hood. Mushroom had been mobbed by crows once, sometime long before Farscout’s birth, and the pessimistic Preserver had never forgiven any corvid for that attack.
"Getting closer and closer," Blacksnake remarked, no doubt because of the lone bird. "Whitewing Lake can't be more than a day and a half ride away now."
"Let's hope we all make it there before the next big storm rolls in," Brightwood said, with an eloquent look behind them and to the west. The sun was well past its zenith in a sky that was bruised grey-purple with flat, snow-heavy clouds, and there was a visible curtain of snow approaching from the west. The weather had been sporadic snow flurries all day, light at first but growing heavier one after the next, so that the trampled path in the snow the humans had left was largely blanketed. The humans had left the curve of the Bounty River behind them late yesterday when its course had turned due east. The going was more dangerous now for the three elven scouts. They stuck as close as they could to the the low ground where the rippling waves of land gave them their only hope of cover — the stands of trees they had been finding shelter in had melted away north of the river, leaving the land empty save for snow broken by the rare patch of wind-scorched grass. The three elves knew too keenly that the band of Fierce One hunters who had ridden away to the west two days ago could re-appear anywhere on the western horizon, or even behind them on their back-trail. Ahead, there was little tree cover between the bend of the Bounty River and the those low hills far, far in the northern distance, where the hills flanked the belly-bulge of Whitewing Lake. With the threat of humans ahead of them and the possibility of humans coming at them from behind or from the west, the elves were eager to get out of this open landscape as quickly as they could.
"There'll be game in those low hills," Blacksnake said, his mind always busy ranging ahead. "If we're lucky, the Fierce Ones will set up camp somewhere near where we can get a high vantage. We can sit tight then, shape a solid shelter, and just watch like crows from a perch while the humans go about their business."
"The wolves need fresh meat. We'll need to risk a clickdeer of our own tomorrow night, if we've reached Whitewing Lake by then," Brightwood replied.
**Rider!** he sent, even as he caught Brightwood and pulled her down with him, flat to the ground. He was aware of Blacksnake's scramble to join them as Brightwood swept off her snowcat-fur cloak and swirled the grey-and-white dappled hide over the top of all three of them, their only hope of camouflage in this empty land.
**From the east?** Brightwood sent, her mindtouch sharp with the shock of it. East was what they had assumed to be their safe direction, the direction they had agreed to bolt towards if spotted and pursued.
Farscout looked again to the northeast, and saw two riders now, where before there had been only one. He focused on those two loping roundhooves and shared his image-send with his companions, until he felt Brightwood seize on them with her own eyes and her full focus lock. Only then did Farscout look away, shifting his gaze to the side, scanning the open country due east for any additional threat. He had shared the hunt with these two companions long enough to have a gut-deep certainty of each of their respective roles. Brightwood would track the immediate danger, while Blacksnake's attention at this moment would be partially split behind them and to the west, clearing that vector of danger.
**Did they spot us?** Blacksnake's question was almost on cue.
**They're headed this way, but their roundhooves haven't broken stride,** Brightwood replied, as a gust of wind blew from the west, swirling the first fresh flakes of snow as the next flurry began to reach them. **I don’t think they’ve seen us.**
Neither rider had reached after their weapons, and continued to move at an easy jog. Scouts, Farscout thought. One of them was hooded against the cold, wearing a shaggy, heavy coat that looked like it was made of a single thunderfoot hide. The other one rode with his hood down, his yellow hair streaming loose behind him. He wore the head of a black bear as a shoulder-piece of his winter coat, so that his right arm appeared to reach out of the beast's maw. Mushroom took that moment to peek out from its hiding place against Farscout’s neck. The Preserver moaned and ducked back within Farscout’s hood again, its slight body vibrating with fear.
Duskgreeter stood sentinel in front of the three prone scouts, but Wasp began a stiff-legged stalk toward the humans, leading the other wolves with him. That was certain to draw the humans’ attention, especially the bright splashes of Redbrush and Fireweed’s ruddy coats against the muted whites and greys of the snowy landscape.
It was obvious the moment that the two riders spotted the wolves.
One of the pair reined up so abruptly that his mount swung sideways and threw its head. The second — the bear-shouldered one — gave a shout audible from even where the elves were hidden. He drove his heels into his mount’s ribs and the roundhoof lunged forward, kicking up a spray of snow.
“He’s riding straight for us,” Brightwood muttered under her breath.
**It’s the wolves,** Blacksnake sent. **He’s after the wolves.**
Farscout shifted cautiously, glacially slow as he eased his bow forward, lengthwise in the snow. With the same slow pace, he reached after an arrow. The situation was too precarious. There was nowhere the elves could run without drawing attention to themselves, and there was no cover to be had to improve their chances if discovered. Their best hope was to wait until both of the Fierce Ones were within bowshot, and then take them both down. But even that was ultimately a bad choice. They would save themselves in the short run, but in the long run — the Fierce Ones would try to find their missing scouts, and that would be likely to lead to disaster for the tribe. At least the next storm front was blowing in, on strong gusts which made swirling eddies of the snow caught in its blast.
With little other choice, the three elves held their positions under cover, trusting the snowcat-fur over their heads to provide camouflage from this distance. Bear-Shoulder was calling cheerfully to his companion as he loped his roundhoof toward the wolves. The other rider yelled something back in a voice that was deep and rusty. Something dark moved on his broad shoulder — belatedly, Farscout saw that it was a raven, perched on the shaggy hide of the man’s coat like Mushroom was wont to sit on Farscout’s. Farscout scowled, wondering with dismay whether or not it was the same bird they had just seen overheard. Could the Fierce Ones befriend ravens, and use them as scouts? It was a terrible thought — one that made him immediately reassess all of their contingency plans. Kestrel would need to be warned —
“I don’t like this!” Brightwood hissed.
**The wolves will run west, into the storm,** Blacksnake sent. **The humans will chase them and lead them away from us. Wasp knows what to do.**
Farscout felt his lifemate’s tense body pressed beside his, and could almost taste her rising adrenaline. He leaned his shoulder into hers, and felt the touch of her mind in response. She was ready to fight — the scent of blood was in her thoughts, both dreadful and sweet with anticipation. Brightwood’s nerves were steady. If it came to a fight, she was ready to win it — but Brightwood would not be the one to set spark to tinder. The danger to them all was simply too great, and it was a danger she knew too viscerally.
Another flurry of wind swept past them, and now the snow was arriving in earnest. Bear-Shoulder continued to approach, his speed steady; Heavy-Coat had begun to trot forward as well. Wasp had led his packmates a spear’s-throw forward, keeping to the broken snow of the trampled Fierce Ones trail. There he stood his ground, head low and ruff bristling, waiting for the bait to be taken. Redbrush, Fireweed and Frostback flanked their pack leader, while Brindlefur took a step forward past the chief-wolf, her head high and ears forward, knowing there would be a chase and eager to run. Duskgreeter shook himself and loped ahead to join the other wolves, unable to long resist the psychological pull of the pack during a crisis.
The rider cantered his mount closer. Leisurely, he pulled a stout, curved bow from its quiver on his saddle harness, strung it, and put an arrow to the string. More than a bowshot-and-a-half distant from the wolves, he reined in and raised his bow.
**Fool,** Blacksnake scoffed in amusement. **He’s way out of range for a shot.**
The roundhoof snorted and threw its head beneath the Fierce Ones as he took aim.
**I don’t like this. Tell Wasp to run,** Brightwood sent anxiously. **Tell him to run!**
Redbrush immediately turned and bolted for the west, as commanded by her rider. Duskgreeter followed a moment later, with Fireweed at his heels.
At that instant, the Fierce One let his arrow fly. To Farscout’s horror, it sailed true, flashing across a distance which would be impossible for even Brightwood’s most powerful bow. Brindlefur shrieked and fell, thrashing in the snow with the long, red-fletched arrow through her throat. Frostback wisely ran for it, but Wasp stood his ground, snarling at the human archer even as the Fierce One put another arrow to his string.
**Run!** They were each sending it, their commands to the wolves so loud in Farscout’s head he was surprised the human couldn’t hear it. Old Wasp pivoted and ran as ordered — and an instant later, another red-fletched arrow was there, quivering in the snow where the chief-wolf had been just a heartbeat before.
The Fierce One urged his mount forward again, advancing at a lazy trot, as his companion cantered closer behind him. The humans weren’t chasing after the wolves after all. They were riding toward Brindlefur’s body.
**I’ve got Bear-Shoulder,** Farscout sent. When the humans discovered them, the elves would have only moments in which to strike — they could not afford to let any arrow go to waste.
**The other one is mine,** Brightwood sent. **Not sure our arrows can even get through that thunderfoot hide he’s wearing — Blacksnake, be ready to take that one down if my shot fails to do the job!**
Farscout let his attention narrow to the spot where he would plant his arrow. Centuries ago, he had done a similar thing. He had sunk arrows there before, in that place in a man’s pale skin where the artery ran between the head and the heart. One arrow to piece that spot and the human would have only heartbeats left before his heart had pumped his body dry...
**Steady,** Blacksnake was sending to them both. Farscout heard that counsel as though from a great distance. **Wait until there’s no other choice. They’ve still got no idea we’re here, and the snow is getting thicker.**
The human had reached Brindlefur now. He dismounted even as the other rider joined him. The two boomed at one another in loud, hearty tones of congratulation, even as the man reached down to lift up the dead she-wolf’s body and sling it across his mount’s back. The roundhoof snorted and tossed its head irritably, clearly not liking the burden of a dead predator.
Then Bear-Shoulder laughed in a deep, thunderous peal of sound. He pointed to the trampled tracks in the snow and said something to his companion, the words rapid and flowing. Heavy-Coat replied in turn and lifted his shoulders in a massive shrug. Bear-Shoulders vaulted back astride his roundhoof-friend, and then both riders were turning their beasts around, noses pointed up the trail.
**They were looking for the trail,** Blacksnake sent with a rush of relief. **They’re scouts, and they overshot their own people.** As if in illustration of that observation, both riders spurred their mounts into a canter and rode away at a quicker pace, following that nearly-obscured trail north.
Farscout slowly eased his arrow from his bowstring; beside him, he felt Brightwood do the same. She was trembling in the aftermath of adrenaline, and after a moment, Farscout realized he was shaking as well. Blacksnake reached across Brightwood and laid a hand on Farscout’s shoulder, his arm resting across Brightwood’s back. Now that the danger had passed, Blacksnake was no steadier than either of the lifemates. The three laid there in silence, while the snowstorm blew in over them.
Perversely, it was Mushroom who came out of hiding first. The orange Preserver crawled out from its shelter beneath Farscout’s hood, then slipped out from beneath the edge of the snowcat-fur cloak. The Preserver stood upright and craned its neck, unable to see the riders through the steady gust-and-swirl of snow.
“Is gone,” the Preserver finally said. “Time we too go.”
“Right.” Blacksnake’s voice had regained his usual confidence. The Hunt Leader sat up and reclaimed his grizzly-hide cloak — belatedly, Farscout saw that Blacksnake had used that as well, adding it to the makeshift snowcat-fur camouflage. “Wasp is leading the others back.”
Farscout sat up, and offered his Recognized a hand. “We run. We go east and then north, and we don’t stop until we reach the tree cover of the hills south of Whitewing Lake.”
“Running sounds good,” Brightwood agreed, picking herself up gingerly out of the snow. “Running sounds very good.”
“Agreed,” Blacksnake said. It was perhaps a measure of how shaken the Hunt Leader was that he didn’t argue or propose alternatives. Not yet, at least. But Farscout trusted his old friend’s mind was busy at work.
Because the Fierce Ones had just unwittingly upended the scouts’ assumptions of what their margins of safety were in this game. And they’d exposed another ugly truth — that the weapons the humans now carried were vastly superior to the elves’ own. That had not been true of the band they had encountered all those years ago, but it was true now. The humans’ mounts were faster, and their bows had greatly superior range. And the Fierce Ones had metal weapons. The only thing the elves still had was concealment... and they’d just had a taste of how uncertain an edge that would prove to be, in the flat, treeless tundra of the clickdeer plains where the humans were headed.
The tribe needed to be warned.
Farscout purged his mind of all emotion, then reached out across the miles to report this newest development. **Chief...**
To be continued…