Ed. Note: “Whistle” is the cub-name of Windsong. “Sparkle” was the younger name of Goldspice.
The very first moment she saw it, Whistle knew that she had to have the green gemstone. The visceral reaction shocked the youth — never in her fifteen years of life had she ever felt such an instant, demanding need. But she saw the teardrop-shaped green jewel, shining like cool, shadowy water with a six-slash white star in its center, and Whistle knew that she had to have it. Furthermore, she knew why. She needed to give it to her mother. Sunlight loved jewelry and gems and pretty things of all shape and size, and the green stone perfectly matched the color of her sparkling eyes.
The desire seized the young huntress like a fever. She spent a night burning with the thought of the stone as she hunted, convinced she would find prey magnificent enough to trade for the jewel. But the forest around the Holt was covered in a layer of snow and quiet, and by dawn, all she managed was a single ruffled grouse, shot from the bare branches of a brownfruit tree.
Undeterred, Whistle rode her wolf-friend Crackbone back to the Holt, and found Sparkle as the smith was feeding charcoal to her forge to wake it for the short hours of the day.
"I want to trade with you," Whistle said, holding up her plump bird. "I'll trade you this and all of the small game I catch between now and Midsummer, if you'll give me that green stone."
"The star sapphire?" Sparkle said. "It's lovely, isn't it? I spent more than a year grinding and polishing it down to size — sapphires aren't always blue, but you know them when you find them because only diamonds are as hard as they are. But I'm sorry, I can't trade with you for it."
Whistle frowned and glanced at the single grouse she was offering. "A full year of small game?" she offered. "You know how good of a shot I am, I almost never come home empty-handed."
Sparkle's smile grew apologetic. "I'm sorry, it's not your skills as a hunter in question. It's only that I've already traded it away to Whitestag. But if I should ever find another raw star sapphire again, you'll be the first one I'll let know. All right?"
Whistle nodded and made her retreat. Her ears had stopped hearing that Whitestag had her gemstone. She dismissed Crackbone with a hug and a rough scratch at his red-tipped ears, then marched into the Dentrees and scaled the stairs up to Whitestag's den. She found him just settled into his sleeping furs — and, to her surprise, alone. Stubbornly, Whistle made him the same offer as she had made Sparkle.
"I want the green star sapphire," she said. "I'll trade you a full year of small game for it. Even Blacksnake praises me for my aim, so that's bound to be enough meat for you and both of your lovemates."
Whitestag gave a jaw-splitting yaw and sat up, then scratched his curly head as he eyed the single bird she was holding up in display. His expression was dubious. "I hunt well enough for myself — I haven't any need for snacks or down feathers."
Whistle took a deep, stubborn breath. "I need that gemstone. For a gift. For my mother."
Whitestag yawned again and started to finger comb his long mane. "Well, that's all and good, but I traded for that gem to give to Flash for Midwinter's. You have never faced a hard going like that lovemate of mine, when she's been disappointed." He flicked a bit of something from his fingers and shrugged. "But I'll tell you what. I'll trade you — but only if you can get me two snowcat fur pelts. The full pelt, mind you — not something that's already been cut down. And by mid-day of Midwinter's Eve, too. Two snowcat furs would put just as much of a smile on Flash's face as any pretty stone."
"Two full snowcat pelts. That's a deal." Whistle nodded solemnly and retreated from the den, her mind racing like Crackbone at the front of a chase.
Snowcat pelts. Two of them. Whole. No furs were more beautiful, more rare or more precious than snowcat — the pale hunters could only be found in the farthest north of the tribe's territory. They lived high in the steep, rocky Guardian Mountains, and only infrequently came down from the heights in pursuit of the seasonal hordes of migrating clickdeer. Whistle struggled to think of who in the tribe might possibly have even one whole snowcat hide. Farscout was the first to come to mind... she had heard he had been steadily collecting the pelts against the future hope of his lifemate waking from wrapstuff. But Farscout was gone on one of his long patrols, and Whistle doubted he would be back to the Dentrees before Midwinter's Eve. Who else? The Hunt Leader had taken a group hunting the clickdeer this past autumn. Whistle sought to remember that post-hunt Howl and boasts of who had caught what. Then she remembered, like a flash of skyfire: Snaptwig had unexpectedly taken a pair of nearly full-grown snowcats, hadn't he?
"I sure did!" the elder said proudly, when she found him sitting in the blue moonmoss glow of a storage room below the Gathering Den, a leather apron across his lap as he carved a knucklebone down into dice. "Two good-sized youngsters, probably had just been pushed out of their mother's territory and striking out on their own. The female thought to challenge Redfang and I for a calf we'd just speared, and her big brother was backing her up. I bagged them both, one spear each — they were inexperienced enough not to run. I almost felt sorry for them afterwards — but not enough to forgo those pelts!"
"Do you still have them? The pelts?" Whistle asked anxiously.
"Sure do. Savin' them away — I need at least one more good pelt for a longcoat."
Whistle beamed, feeling almost faint with relief. Two whole pelts existed just with reach — the star sapphire would surely be hers! "I want to trade you for them!" she said, offering him the plump grouse. "This is just the start — you know what a good hunter I am, I'll bring you all of my small game between now and next Midwinter's Eve for your two pelts."
Snaptwig grinned at her, his blue eyes dancing with amusement. "That's a lot of squirrels and songbirds, isn't it?" he said.
"And rabbits and grouse and quail. If there's anything you have a particular taste for, you just tell me and I'll bring it to you."
"Mmmm..." Her elder mused on that for a moment, stroking his cheek-fur braids. Then he smiled at her and shrugged. "Sorry. Not interested. But there is something else that I want that you can try and get for me."
Had she been older or wiser, Whistle would have hesitated — Snaptwig was a twisty, impulsive trapper, known for his cunning and snakey-wit. But the anxiety the youth felt was as piercing as a knife blade. "Anything," Whistle replied.
The wolfish smile turned into a grin. "That's my girl! Rhythm has my Pounder — my drum, the most perfect drum I've ever made. It was a fair game of dice — or at least he claims it was, but now Rhythm has some silly bee under his tail and refuses to trade Pounder back to me. He might have his ruff up at me, but there's no way he'll say no to a sweet-faced little chipmunk of a girl like you. So bring me my Pounder, and you've got your two snowcat furs. That can't be hard at all, can it?"
Whistle beamed in relief as she nodded with enthusiasm. No. It didn't sound hard. Not at all.
Rhythm had Pounder cradled in his lap when the girl found him. The drum looked just as Snaptwig had described — large, stained almost black in color, with a drumskin of painted concentric circles, held in place by the jaws of twelve leaping wolves who were shaped out of the drum's round oak body. The elder nodded to Whistle as he lightly rippled his fingertips over the colorful taut drumskin, perhaps composing a new song or revisiting an old melody in his head.
Whistle held up her ruffled grouse hopefully. "Can I trade you for Pounder? I'll bring you a full year's worth of small game — in every season or at any time if there's anything special that you want, you just tell me and I'll bring it to you the next day. I'm very good. Even Blacksnake says so."
Rhythm's expression shifted from absent pre-occupation to interest, and then abruptly slid into narrow-eyed suspicion. "Did Snaptwig send you?"
Whistle flinched, startled by the venom in the musician's voice. "Uh... well... yes, but I need the two snow—"
The whisper of fingertips over the painted drumskin turned into a hard, driving patter, like an angry sleet against the dying leaves of autumn. "That toothless, egg-sucking salamander! That cur! How dare he? The old snake has no shame! How dare he manipulate a wisp of a girl like you to do his dirty work for him!"
Whistle fought not to retreat a step, awed by the seething anger on the normally cheerful elder's face. "But I do really need—"
"Rot him!" Rhythm snarled, as his hands on the drum found an unforgiving beat, making far too much noise for an hour of the morning when many of their tribemates were sleeping in the dens around them. He stilled himself with an effort, but his fingers continued their angry, pounding tap against the drum. "You can go and tell that sour-faced old weasel that he's got to come and do his own groveling in person!"
Whistle took a deep breath and stood her ground. "I don't know why you're angry with Snaptwig, or what he did to deserve it — not that I'm questioning that he deserved it, I'm sure it was quite bad, whatever it was — but I don't know and I don't care and I'm only here because I want Pounder myself. Snaptwig has what I need, and Pounder is his price. So will you stop being mad at him, and just be nice and trade with me?"
Rhythm's golden eyes went wide in surprise at her speech, and the tapping fingers went still. Her elder glared at Whistle for a time, scowling as he thought, then heaved a weary sigh and shrugged.
"I'll trade with you, pretty cub. But my price will be steep. I want a Midwinter's feast. No. I want a fine Midwinter's celebration to remember! At least three fine, fat gobblers; sweetcakes and trout roasted in honey and cracklings to munch and crunch on. And skins of cider or wine — at least four of them, to wash it all down with. Do you think you can do that for me, my golden-haired little hunter?"
Whistle nodded solemnly. "I'll find a way. You'll have everything you need for your party, by dawn of Midwinter's Eve. I promise."
Whistle slept on it, then rose at sunset, determined to find a way to fulfill her vow and trade her way into possession of the star sapphire. She traded her quillwork quiver to Fletcher for his next branch-horn kill; the promise of that she traded away to Tallow and Doeskin, for a basket of berrycakes, a basket of honeycombs, and a basket of crisp-fried cracklings, all to be ready by dawn of Midwinter's Eve. She knew that she could fish up the necessary trout within the next several days before Midwinter's Eve. It was the gobblers and the wine that proved more difficult to procure.
Bearheart was the tribe's master at hunting the wily flocks of gobblers. She went to him and explained what she needed and by when. "Three hens? Aye, I can do that between now and then, especially if I start tonight. But I can catch my own small prey — so what else have you to trade to me in return?"
"What is there that you need?" she asked, beginning to learn that question was key.
"Well, my lifemate would like something pretty for Midwinter's. Some bauble from Sparkle would do."
So it was back to Sparkle, then. The smith had spent the short winter day using the daylight for her crafting, and was cleaning up her forge-den when Whistle found her. Sparkle welcomed the youth with a smile, and the smile only grew as Whistle explained what she needed, and why. "You're hanging in by your fingernails with this trading, aren’t you?" the smith said with a laugh. "And it's only getting to be more and more tangled a journey, isn't it? Well, I'd love to accept your small-game offer. Come take a look at my basket of jewelry — you know, I still even have a few pieces of my mother's work left in there. I'm sure you'll find something you'll agree is worth both your year's worth of hunting, and Bearheart's efforts as well."
Whistle examined the contents of the reed basket closely, and finally singled out a large necklace fashioned out of five interlocked golden rings; each ring had suspended within it an intricately shaped animal head — wolf, fox, otter, doe and hawk. Sparkle agreed it was a valuable choice, and Whistle left the forge with something concrete in her hands — finally — to trade with. She ran to catch Bearheart as he was riding out to start his hunt. He was equally delighted — and she watched as the necklace of golden rings disappeared into his coat pocket.
Empty-handed once again (and thinking to herself that maybe she should have hung onto that necklace until after Bearheart had delivered each of his promised gobbler hens), Whistle then went to the tribe's brewers, to see how dear it would cost her to procure Rhythm's demanded four skins of wine.
"Four?" Cider snorted. "I've already promised out what I've got left. I can give you two — but they'll cost you."
Whistle winced but nodded soberly, still resolved to do whatever it took to win the star sapphire for her mother.
Cider thought about it for a time, as she stitched a patch over the elbow of her winter coat. "Ten baskets of berries. That's what I want. Before Midwinter's, so I can get fresh batches of my brews bubbling away!"
Whistle felt her heart deflate at that demand. "But it's winter, there's nothing in season!"
"Not for me," Cider sniffed. "But for you? Your mother is a plantshaper. If you want it badly enough, you'll find a way to get me some berries!"
Whistle thought about it herself for a time, then nodded agreement. Cider prowled around her workden and could only find nine berry-baskets, so she shrugged off the tenth and sent Whistle on her way. "Nine baskets of berries then. Fill those to the brim, mind you, I won't count half a basket as a full one!"
From Cider's workden, Whistle went straight to her cousin Cloudfern. "I need nine baskets of berries!" she pleaded, "so that I can trade them to Cider for wine, which I can then give to Rhythm to get Snaptwig back his favorite drum, so that Snaptwig will give me two snowcat furs, which is what Whitestag wants for the gem. Help me, please? It's for my mother, and I need to do it all before dawn of Midwinter's Eve!"
"Is that all?" Cloudfern smirked. "You know making the berry patches bloom in the dead of winter isn't always easy — and nine baskets worth? That's asking for an awful lot of effort..."
"Please?" Whistle pleaded. "Pleeeease?"
Her cousin laughed at that. "Sure, little cousin. I'll do it. I'll ripen those berries for you — but you'll have to do all of the picking yourself. And I want something in return as well!"
"What?" Whistle asked.
Cloudfern considered it for a moment. "I want some pretty pelts of my own — how about eight ermine? They're in season, and after last year's wet spring made the rabbits breed so many, there should be lots of ermine available this winter."
Whistle agreed to his deal with enthusiasm, and was halfway across the Holt on her way to find Dreamberry when she realized that she only had ten days before Midwinter's Eve. How much time would it reasonably take her to catch that many of the ermines, as well as pick Cider's berries and catch Rhythm's trout as well? She stopped and began to turn back to go back to Cloudfern and ask if he would trust her to catch his ermine before the end of the year and start ripening the berries immediately when she spotted Ringtail hiking across the icy rocks of the river ford. The trapper was obviously just returning from his trapline, and he carried a big bag of game over his shoulder.
Whistle scrambled to join him as Ringtail topped the snowy riverbank. "Can you trade me eight ermines? Now?" she asked breathlessly.
Ringtail smiled at her cheerfully, his nose and cheeks reddened from the cold of his long journey through the snowy forest. "Aye — I've got nearly a dozen between this trip and last, pelts and tails attached. But I've been saving them for my Recognized. She wants a new cloak, something special she can wear just for the New Green fesitval. If you can find me something in trade that'll make Doeskin an equally pretty cape, I'll be happy to trade you what I've got."
Whistle grinned. "I'll do that!" she promised. But first — to resolve the earlier problem. Cider had promised her two skins of wine. Whistle still had to get two more for Ringtail's feast. She waved goodbye to Ringtail and hurried to find Dreamberry.
The herbalist was sitting with Tossfur, carding baskets of shed wolfhair into yarn. She listened patiently to Whistle's long request, then nodded. "You should have come to me first," she said. "I've got a stash of skins left, you could have gotten all four from me. I'll trade you the two of your choice. But you'll have to get me some geese. Six of them."
"Geese?" snorted Tossfur. "You can't be that hungry, can you? Go easy on the girl-cub. You can see she's hauling weight, here!"
"You're going to be the one who's desperate, next time that winter cough goes around and I've used up my last pot of goose grease rub," Dreamberry countered.
"I can get you six geese," Whistle said quickly, before Dreamberry could change her mind or increase her request. “But do you need them all before Midwinter's Eve?"
Dreamberry smiled at her and shook her snow-white head. "Your promise is good with me, cub. I'll need them as soon as you can get them for me — but I suspect you have your days and nights already full between now and Midwinter's. Just get them for me as you can, before winter's end." The herbalist set aside her chores and rose to her feet. "Come along, let's go take a look at my stash. You can choose what you want — and I'll make sure the vintage is good enough to be worth two geese each!"
Leather was at work when she found him, in his favored workden beneath the Dentrees. There, he had a shelf of folded projects in various stages of completion, a small stone hearth, and a wooden frame set up for scraping, drying and stretching hides during wet or wintery weather. The frame was as tall as the tall elder, and Muckabout enjoyed perching on one of the taller crossbars, chattering with him as the tanner worked. At the moment, he had a deerhide which had been soaked in a brain-bath and then dried for a day lapped over the stout middle cross-bar, and was twisting the softened hide up tightly to wring the very last vestiges of moisture and help ensure it would stay supple. Leather took his time, slowly but surely twisting it until it had compressed into a stout coil. Whistle knew the tanner was giving the fibers of the hide time to be stretched in all directions, and the well-prepared hide made a funny squeaking sound at each twist. While the sound had always made her giggle as a small cub, she knew that Leather considered the squeaking to be proof that the resulting buckskin was work to be proud of — milky white, soft as pufftail rabbit’s fur to the touch, and supple enough for any of the myriad uses the tribe had for a good tanned hide.
Muckabout made a happy chirpy sound and waved at her happily, announcing her arrival. Leather glanced back over his shoulder as he gave his hide another twist; it squeaked like a little mouse. “Hello there, Whistle,” Leather said. “Why aren’t you out taking advantage of the clear weather? It won’t last another night.”
“I’m trying to trade for a Midwinter’s gift for my mother. I want to get her that green star sapphire which Sparkle spent a year polishing. But she traded it to Whitestag. Whitestag won’t give it to me unless I can get him two snowcat hides before mid-day on Midwinter’s Eve. Snaptwig will give me his two snowcat hides, but I have to get his favorite drum back from Rhythm. Rhythm won’t give the drum to me unless I produce everything he needs for a big feast on Midwinter’s Eve. He wants three gobbler hens, four wineskins, and a bunch of other munchy-food. I have traded my way through all of the munchy-foods, aside from the fish that I can catch myself. Bearheart will catch the gobblers for me, in trade for a necklace of five gold rings I traded Sparkle a year’s hunting of small game for. And I’ve traded my way to four wineskins from Cider and Dreamberry — Dreamberry wants six geese for goose fat, and I can catch those for her from the wintering flock at the marsh, while Cider wants nine baskets of berries, which Cloudfern will ripen for me in trade for eight ermine pelts.” Whistle paused for a moment, ticking off each of her trades over her fingertips, to review if she had forgotten anything. Satisfied she had not, she launched into her planned plea. “Ringtail has the ermine pelts already and he’ll trade me for them, but only if I can find him a pretty cape in return for Doeskin. So — please, do you have anything that might please Ringtail that you might trade to me? You can name your price. I’ve come this far without giving up — I have to find something for Ringtail, so I can get Cloudfern’s ermine pelts and get the jewel for my mother.”
Leather’s eyebrows had gone up and up at her recitation of her trade negotiations. He gave the hide a final twist, then tied the coiled hide to the crosspost with its twist-peg in what looked like a knotted ball. “I think I have something that Doeskin would be very happy with,” he said, as he wiped his hands clean on a strip of linen and went to look at the stacks of his projects on the workden shelves. He gently selected a wrapped bundle, and pulled it free of the undyed silk it was wrapped in. “I’ve been working on this for some time now,” he said, holding it up with both hands so Whistle could have a good look at it. She caught her breath as she looked at it.
It was a cape, not a cloak, of snowy white feathers, with the broadest and stiffest flight feathers defining the lines of the shoulder, and a ring of black feathers forming a tall collar. It was lovely, and delicate, and certainly not something one would wear for anything but a celebration.
“It’s made of ten of the softest rabbit pelts I’ve ever tanned,” Leather said as she continued to stare at the cape, “and I’ve used the feathers of seven adult swans. I was making it to give to my own lifemate — but I’m willing to trade it to you, if you would be willing to hunt herons for me. I need a number of good, long crane bones — leg or wing — long and narrow, something I can carve into flutes for my lifemate and daughter. I’ll let you decide how many you think is fair, and I’ll take them as you catch them, just so long as I have them all by Midwinter of next year.”
Whistle swallowed heavily. She stared at the beautiful cape, absolutely sure that Doeskin would adore it, that Ringtail would have gotten the better of the deal — and that it would take her a lifetime of hunting herons to make a fair trade to Leather for such a lovely thing. He was taking pity on her, she knew. And while part of her was willing to take the uneven deal and rejoice — the greater part of her knew she had to do better than that, if only to live with herself afterwards.
“I can’t accept that trade,” she said, feeling the words choke in her throat. “It’s not fair. I could hunt down every heron in the Holt for you, and it wouldn’t be an even deal.”
Leather’s warm brown eyes seemed to grow warmer at that, and she thought belatedly that maybe she had passed some test with him. “Then let’s negotiate the terms of the deal. Bring me eleven herons between now and Midwinter next year. And — you will owe me a favor. Favors can be dangerous things — neither you nor I know yet what that favor will be, and it may be I wind up asking of you something you’ll rue. It may well be that I wind up ahead in an uneven deal, when all is said and done. Are you willing to take that risk?”
Whistle looked from her elder’s earnest face to the swan-feather cape. She resisted the impulse to immediately agree to his terms, and to instead reason the decision out. She knew the chieftess’ brother was right: agreeing to favors could come back and haunt you. She remembered the time when she was a little cub when her sister Finch had agreed to a trade with Flash for a open-ended favor — Finch had gotten a nice big chunk of greenstone for a new axehead, but then when Finch had gone through all of the hard work of crafting her new axe, Flash had called in her favor — she wanted the finished axe. Their mother, Sunlight, had told her eldest daughter to laugh in Flash’s face — but Finch had finally chosen to respect the terms of their original trade and given Flash the axe. A member of the tribe was trusted only as far as their promises were kept, and Finch had finally decided it was better to grant this painful favor as requested — for who knew what the slippery Flash might ask for next?
Whistle studied her elder’s eyes for a time, trying to think it through. She weighed every effort she had made yet to win the gemstone for her mother. If the winter weather did turn tonight, as Leather predicted, then her remaining time to catch the fish and hunt the six geese and pick the nine baskets berries could be severely limited. She had only ten days and nights left before Midwinter — she could not count on catching eight ermine in that time. She could maybe ask Leather to delay on her decision, and canvas other tribemates to see if anyone else had something of value to meet the terms of her agreement with Ringtail. But she knew the reputation of her chieftess' brother. Leather was a fair and considerate elf. She did not think her elder would deliberately ask her to fulfill a favor in a way she would have cause to regret.
She took a deep breath, then committed. “I’ll take your deal. Eleven herons for their bones for flutes, and a favor that you’ll ask from me in the future. I trust you to be fair with me about the favor.”
Leather nodded and smiled, and handed over the swan-feather cape.
Sunlight’s expression of awe and delight when she opened the silk pouch Whistle had wrapped the Midwinter’s gift in made all of her daughter’s efforts of the past twelve days and nights (and those to come as well) worthwhile.
“Oh, my cubling,” Sunlight said breathlessly, holding up the teardrop shaped jewel to marvel at it more closely. “Oh, my dearheart! You shouldn’t have!”
As Sunlight embraced her close, Whistle figured she’d just wait until tomorrow to tell the story of how she had gotten the gem. “It was nothing, mother,” Whistle beamed, hugging her mother back just as tightly. “I only saw the gem and thought of you, and knew you had to have it, that’s all.”