(Ed. Note: written by Lyn and Holly, based on an idea/outline by Whitney.)
Chicory had hardly slept since she had heard the news. Her mother was gone.
Life was like that, she knew, but it wasn’t supposed to happen to her. Her mother wasn’t supposed to die! And then, her father had gone mad. He had run off, away from the Holt, away from the tribe, and his children. She heard some of the elders say that he had gone seeking his own death. Chicory’s mind whirled. Hadn’t he and his mother always been critical of those who went bat-blind and mad in their grief? Easysinger had thought it a waste - and her father had agreed. Was it all a lie? She didn’t know what to think. She only knew that when she’d needed him, her father wasn’t there.
She hadn’t known what to do in her grief. There was a Howl for her mother, before they had given the chieftess to the river — her father had missed it. She’d been sure he would be back for that, and he hadn’t appeared, and Chicory didn’t want to think about why. And now Windburn was chief — her brother had enough to think about. She couldn’t talk with him — not now. It was too hard.
Then, they’d gotten word from Farscout that he had found her father — Blacksnake was alive! Chicory hadn’t wanted to admit even to herself how worried she had been, until she burst into tears at the news. She had come so close to losing both of her parents... but it hadn’t happened, and her tears were of pent-up fear and relief. And so she found herself riding out to greet him.
Farscout’s report was not long on the details, but as she rode she learned more about her father’s reaction to the loss of her mother, and of his brush with death. Though the scout didn’t share the images, she could imagine the scene from what Farscout said; her father sitting in the rain, not moving, near the carcass of the bear that had killed his Recognized. A bear that had only been protecting cubs — she’d had two.
Just like her and Windburn, came the thought.
As she neared the point where she would meet them, the image of the two orphaned cubs, crying for their mother, would not leave her. Without their mother, they would surely die! How could her father and Farscout have just left them out there? Chicory didn’t question her sudden obsession with the idea of the two motherless cubs, left alone and bewildered and helplessly crying. She just knew the kinship she felt with them, and the sense of determination that flooded her when she realized that they needed help — help that she could give, and maybe she was the only one who could.
By the time she saw the approaching figures, Chicory already knew what she had to do.
Both elders were walking, trailed by Farscout’s wolf-friend, and it took Chicory a moment to realize what that meant, before she noticed the rolled wolf-hide slung on Farscout’s back. Her father was carrying the white bear’s pelt, and it was hard to tell what blood was his and what had been the bear’s. None of that stopped her from jumping down from her wolf-friend’s back and running to embrace him.
Blacksnake’s steps faltered when she touched him, as if he hadn’t seen her coming, or known she was there until that moment. Chicory hugged him fiercely, feeling how stiffly he held himself, and his only response was a grunt of surprise.
It was wrong, all wrong, she realized. She wanted the father she’d grown up depending on, wanted him to embrace her and comfort her, as she’d wanted from the moment she heard of her mother’s death. But now Blacksnake stood still, letting her hold him but not reaching to hold her in return, smelling of death and despair, and the fear Chicory had flung aside at Farscout’s news came back to whisper in her ear. No one knew how an elf would take the death of a Recognized, or if they would ever be the same afterwards. Already he had done things she never thought he would, and if she couldn’t depend on her father, what else in her world could she depend on?
“I’m glad you’re back and safe,” she said, pulling away from him, not daring to send.
“Chicory...” he began, reaching out with one hand to cup her face, but then he stopped and said nothing more. She didn’t know what to make of the conflict she could see in his face, and she wanted to look away from the emptiness in his eyes.
It hurt worse, she thought, to feel bereft of both parents, when one was standing there in front of her, but somehow seemed not there with her at all.
Blacksnake’s hand dropped, and he resumed his slow march towards the Holt, with Farscout trailing a watchful distance behind. Chicory glanced at the scout, and then looked back at her father with renewed determination. “Father, I have to know. What became of the cubs?”
He didn’t look back at her, his eyes on the path ahead. But finally, he said, “Cubs?”
“The spirit-bear’s cubs,” she persisted. “That’s why the bear killed Mother —” she saw his flinch, but pressed on, “— that’s what Sunlight said. The bear was nursing, the whole hunting party knew it. You killed their mother, but what happened to the cubs?”
**I didn’t find them,** Farscout locksent to her, giving her a quick impression of the scene he’d found. **If they were still nearby, they’d gone quiet. I would have looked, but when he started back... I did not want to leave him alone.**
After a long silence, Blacksnake finally answered, his voice raspy. “I don’t know. I don’t remember killing them, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then they’re still out there!” she cried, feeling again that flash of kinship with the orphaned cubs, waiting for a mother who would never return.
“Maybe. If they are, they’ll be dead soon,” her father said wearily. “An owl will have them, or an eagle, or a male bear will come across them, and that will be that. They won’t be the first cubs not to survive their first spring. Or the last.”
“I don’t want them to die,” Chicory said, not yet ready to say aloud what she had already decided; I won’t let them die.
“Why not?” Blacksnake growled. “It will be two fewer bears to grow up and kill more members of our tribe.”
She didn’t answer, not willing to argue with him about it. She caught Farscout’s knowing look, as she fell into step beside the scout, following her father back to the Holt. She didn’t want to discuss it with either of them, or with anyone else. Chicory knew what she had to do.
It had not taken long for her to find the den. The old hollowed oak had long been a favorite home for bears during, and before, Chicory’s lifetime. She crouched just outside it now, wind at her back, peering through the darkness and willing the cubs inside to be alive. She leaned forward onto hands and knees and finally caught a glimpse of a scrawny pair, sleeping. Their fur was saggy on them, and she knew they had to be hungry.
Reaching into her travel sack, the animal-lover pulled out a package of honeycakes, the last her mother had made. She held the leaf-wrapped package in her hands, staring at it. Was it right to try and save the cubs? Her father had made a point — if the cubs died now, they would be no threat to the tribe in the future.
But they didn’t have to die. They wouldn’t have died if their mother had lived — and she should have. Chicory felt responsible for the cubs. They gave her reason to keep going. She didn’t want to think about the fact that Easysinger was gone — she wanted to help something live. These cubs needed her. She cracked open the cakes.
At the sound, and likely at the scent, of food, the larger of the cubs woke up. His sister woke at his movement, and she began bawling. Chicory crushed a cake in her hand, then held the crumbs out for the cubs. The male moved forward, then licked the cakes off her hand. His tongue was dry.
They’re thirsty, too! Chicory realized. She waited until the cubs had licked the crumbs, then took her water skin and put water onto her hands and held it out for the cubs. She knew they needed their mother’s milk, but water would have to do for now. Chicory would figure something out. She had to!
Chicory wiped her brow with the back of her hand, pushing her hair out of her eyes, then returned to mincing the rabbit meat so she could make a broth of it. She knew it wasn’t as good as milk, but it was better than letting the cubs starve. Honeycake, the male, nudged her arm and sniffed at her hands. She pushed him away, muttering, “Wait! It’s not ready.” The cub huffed and went back to where his sister lay and nudged her. Chicory watched the interaction, tears filling her eyes as she noted that Honeycomb barely responded.
When Fishteaser sniffed and let out a bark, Chicory set down her knife and turned around. She had expected that her brother would come find her at some point. She could only imagine what he might say to her. She didn’t get up, though. Instead, she put some of the meat she’d been mincing into her mouth and started chewing. She’d give the mush to Honeycomb as soon as it was ready to be swallowed.
Windburn stepped into her field of vision and she looked him over. He had only been chief a few nights, but somehow he looked so much older than she remembered. She smiled at him, then returned to work. Working the meat into a bolus, she scooted toward the cubs. Honeycake tried to climb up onto her, but she gently pushed him aside and scooped Honeycomb into her lap, then rolled the cub so she could cradle her. Taking the well-chewed, tiny mound of food out of her mouth, she worked it into the she-cub’s mouth. Chicory let out a sigh of relief when she saw the cub chew and swallow. She put some more meat in her own mouth and began chewing.
Windburn broke the silence. “You’ve been gone three nights, sister.”
Chicory hadn’t been counting, so she shrugged. He would have a better idea than she would, really.
“Come back to the Holt.”
She shook her head. **No.**
Chicory finished chewing, then gave the meat to Honeycake. He took it greedily and swallowed it, then seemed to settle and wait for more. It was Honeycomb’s turn. Chicory had planned on making broth, but her brother’s arrival had changed her plans. What she was doing seemed to be working, so she put some more meat into her mouth.
“This is... wrong,” Windburn started. “It’s against the Way of things, and you know it.”
**Mother’s death was part of the Way,** Chicory started, her mind-voice full grief in the admission. **But father’s reaction — that went against the Way. He went after these cubs’ mother for revenge! Not for food, or for clothing, or bear fat. Not to stop a threat to the tribe. He didn’t consider the Way when he killed her. That wasn’t the Way, Windburn.**
As she took the bolus out of her mouth, Windburn knelt to stay her hand. “All you’re doing, Chicory, is giving these cubs a longer, lingering death. You’re not helping them. Even if, by some stroke of luck, you did help them survive, what then? Do you know how to teach bear cubs how to survive the winter? And beyond that? Will you leave the tribe for the next two full turns of the seasons — because they will not come to our Dentrees? Will you hibernate, too? You have not really thought this through.”
**I don’t have to figure that out right now. Right now, I have to keep them alive.**
“You’re not listening. Even if you did figure out how, these two bears will think of us as sources of food - that’s not safe. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but it is not about our tribe. Or even about yourself! There’s a male bear that’s new to the territory. You know that being here with the cubs is unsafe for you! Male bears kill orphaned cubs.”
After feeding Honeycomb again, Chicory finally spoke to her brother instead of sending. “I’m not giving this up. I have to try to save them. You can argue, or even order that I come back with you, but I will not.”
Windburn sighed. “I’ll be back. If you’re dead set on doing this, you need some supplies. I’ll bring you some furs and honeycakes. And I’ll send one or two of the wolves to watch your back until this is over.”
Surprised, Chicory sent, **Thank you.**
**Don’t. What you’re doing is stupid and a waste of your time. I also know that, short of killing the cubs right now myself, I can’t stop you. So do it, or try to. I’ll just do what I can to make sure you’re still alive when it’s all over.**
Chicory held the tiny, lifeless body close, and let the tears flow. She wasn’t just crying over the little she-cub, she knew. She was also grieving for Easysinger. Though she had been present for her mother's Howl, this fresh death had sharpened the pains of loss. She had failed - both her mother and the cubs.
Nearby, Honeycake whined. She reached out and pulled him close to her as well. He nuzzled his sister, who didn’t move, and let out a cry. It broke Chicory’s heart again and she cried even harder.
Then she felt arms — Notch’s, her senses told her — wrap around her from behind and pull her close. She shared with him, sending, about how hard she had tried to save the small cub, and how she failed. She poured out her loneliness, and her fear that she had set out to do an impossible task — that she would have to continue to hunt all the time, and that she’d have to do even more as the seasons progress closer and closer to winter. Chicory admitted she wasn’t sure she could do it — that her brother had been right. Then she shared her fear of losing the other cub.
Notch responded with his own send. **You’re a fool, Chicory. The last thing the Holt needs is another big male bear to compete with — especially one that looks at us and thinks we’re handing food out to every animal out there. But even though I think you’ve gone grief-crazy in your own way — just like your father did in his — I’ve brought you some things.**
Chicory pulled away and turned to look at him. He was smiling.
First he handed her some squirrels and a game bird. Chicory lay the dead cub on the ground next to her and reached for the supplies. “These are helpful for now,” she heard herself saying, “But how are we going to make it in the long run? Honeycomb died this morning. What’s going to become of Honeycake? I’m not sure I can do this, Notch.”
Notch reached for his knife. “I’ll cut his throat for you - it’ll be clean and quick.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” she growled protectively.
Notch sheathed the knife and shrugged. “Look, you’re doing this wrong.”
“What?” She was confused.
“You already know you’re not a bear. But you also know that you’re not that great at tasks that take too long. Your brother is the more focused one of the two of you, and he’s not going to do this — he knows better than to even try. Think it through. You know you can’t do this, so find someone who can.”
Chicory sat thinking. She knew he was right, but who would help her? “Maybe Snowfall...” she started, hesitantly.
“Chicory!” Notch said with exasperation.
“What? It was a thought. She likes helping out animals, and you told me to think of someone, so I was trying. Snowfall was the most likely — anyone else back at the Holt would offer to slit his throat, just like you did.”
Notch grinned at her.
“What?” she asked, slightly worried — he had the look of a schemer now.
“Who said anything about anyone back at the Holt?” he asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that guaranteed trouble.
Notch’s plan to place Honeycake with a surrogate mother was a good one — if it worked. Chicory watched as Notch began setting the wide, thin wooden bowl on the ground — and as he uncapped and poured the sleepy juice into it. Notch had brought a skin of applewine with him, and they had found sleeping herbs, which she had crushed into a powder. Then, she had made a thick paste, which they’d added to the wine. Now, if only the mother bear would drink it.
**Honeycakes!** Chicory sent sharply as she nuzzled the cub of the same name.
**I know!** Notch responded, standing and pulling the travel cakes out of a satchel. He took one, and placed it into the bowl. Then, he began making a trail of crumbs in the direction of the bear’s den.
Once he was done, Notch scrambled to the treetops and over to where Chicory was waiting.
**How long do you think this will take?** Chicory asked him.
**Your guess is as good as mine.**
She sighed, holding her orphaned cub closer to her. The moment where she would place the scrawny furball with his new mother was almost upon her, and Chicory wasn’t sure whether she felt sad, or relieved.
**There!** Notch sent, pointing through the trees.
A large she-bear made her way along Notch’s crumb trail, stopping to eat the larger pieces of cake, and continuing toward the bowl. When she got there, she sniffed at the mixture and began lapping.
**She’s drinking it!** Chicory’s excitement was almost cub-like.
Notch smiled at her, amused.
When the contents of the bowl were emptied, the bear sniffed at it again, then used her big paw to turn it over and batted it away. They watched as she looked around, then turned and headed back toward her den, and her own small cub.
It was Notch’s turn to wonder, **Will it put her to sleep?**
**Only one way to find out,** Chicory responded, jumping to the ground, cub in arms.
They followed the bear from a distance, then waited a while after she had entered her den. Finally, Notch crept closer and closer until he had entered the cave. Chicory held her breath.
She was startled by a shrill mental whistle, followed by Notch’s send, **She’s sleeping. Come on — it’s time to do this.**
Chicory’s breath caught in her throat and she felt tears welling. Holding Honeycake, who was squirming, she made her way into the den. The other cub, a female, was snuggled against her mother. Chicory knew she was doing the right thing for Honeycake, but it was still hard to let go. She nuzzled the cub, and sent, **Goodbye, Honeycake,** to him. There was no response from the bear, but sending a goodbye had at least made Chicory feel better.
She set him down near the mother bear, and Honeycake snuggled in and started suckling. The sound of the cub eating made Chicory feel better, though she was reluctant to leave her little orphan.
Notch grabbed her arm, **We have to leave. Now. There’s no telling how long that juice will have an effect, and we don’t want to be here when she wakes up. Let’s go.**
Nodding, Chicory reluctantly followed Notch out of the den, stopping one last time to look at Honeycake.
Chicory knew the other hunters were eager to ride for home. The hunt had been successful, and there was work to be done once they returned. She had begged her leave of them and followed another trail — one she had happened to pick up on. Nearing the meadow, she had climbed a tree to watch and wait.
Windburn found her not long after, and her chief had climbed up the tree to sit with her. Her chief openly sent to the others, telling them to go ahead without them.
“You don’t have to sit with me,” Chicory said quietly.
Her brother said nothing in response.
Suddenly, there was movement below. They watched as a large female bear, drawn by the ravens and the scent of the recent kill, made her way toward the meadow. Chicory felt herself holding her breath.
Catching a glimpse of the cub she had hoped to see, she sat upright and grabbed her brother’s arm in excitement. **Look! It’s Honeycake!**
The Mama bear, followed by her two cubs — one black like her, and one glowing white — made her way onto the meadow and began pawing through the bones of the dead elk.
Chicory watched, tears in her eyes, as “her” cub frolicked with his sister and then as he sat gnawing on the end of a bone.
Chicory and Windburn sat, arm in arm, watching until the three bears made their way back into the forest.
Then Windburn stirred. “Let’s go back to the Holt,” he said quietly.
This time, Chicory didn’t argue. Her heart was lighter for what they had seen. Her efforts, foolish to some, had not been in vain.
|Illustration by Megan M.|
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