(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part 5”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
RTH 2511.02.23 — mid-morning
The three hunters had been cautiously working their way down the steep, forested ridge toward the Fierce Ones’ hunting camp when a sending reached them. Windsong was deaf to the faint, distant call — it was Beetle who alerted her to it by a warning touch on her shoulder. Windsong looked at her companion, then followed Beetle’s gaze toward Snowfall, who was already intently looking inward as she listened, one hand raised in a silent gesture for her team to freeze in place and wait. Windsong nodded acknowledgement to both of her fellows, and settled down to wait.
Windsong sat in silence, her knees pulled up against her chest for warmth. It was snowing once again, the kind of gentle snowfall that made an elf forget that the white-cold season could sometimes be unkind and take lives. The snowflakes were stout and fluffy and took their time making their way to the frozen land, content to then sit quietly amongst their brothers and sisters, piled up in hills that by the end of winter looked like mountain ranges stretching as far as the eye could see. Some of the flakes liked a change of pace and danced on eddies of wind sweeping upwards and then back down, getting caught in bare branches and eyelashes.
Beetle edged closer and leaned a shoulder against hers, sharing warmth. Windsong almost grinned when she looked aside at her friend, and found the younger elf’s hazel eyes turned upward, her face smiling faintly as the flakes landed on her cheeks. Windsong could imagine that Beetle’s mind was, momentarily, somewhere else — perhaps back at the Dentrees with her lovemate. Windsong knew what it meant to be in love and to miss the one you loved, especially on a beautiful winter’s day like this, but snuggling under the furs was the last thing on Windsong’s mind. She looked down the forested slope again, toward where the trees trailed into the plainsland and where a human hunting camp sat equally quiet, its fire pit gone cold and dusted with snow. Windsong watched in that direction warily, unwilling to trust the place wholly safe and abandoned until she had confirmed it with her own senses.
The small band of Fierce Ones riders had camped there for two nights and a full day while they hunted a large herd of wintering branchhorns. Snowfall had taken her team close enough for the three huntresses to smell the roasting meat over their campfires and hear the complaining of their roundhooves. They had hidden in thicker cover north of the crest of Three Finger Hill and listened to the deep timber of human voices raised at night in song and laughter, or booming in conversation during the mornings as they lashed harnesses to their roundhoof friends. But Snowfall had not allowed her companions close enough to see the camp site, or to see the dangerous creatures themselves. They had remained out of sight, even when the humans’ horn blasts had announced their departure to hunt the past two mornings. The three huntresses had remained tucked out of sight, gone to ground like a trio of hunted foxes, for both days. But this morning, after the departing blast of horn call, Snowfall had sent their wolf-friends closer in, to nose around the fringes of the camp and prove it empty. Their wolves were down there now, prowling about in search of bones or scrap leather, skirting the bare, compressed area of snow where a single, large round tent had been raised, and rolling on frozen clods of roundhoof dung.
Windsong watched the slope beneath them, alert for movement or a human-scent which did not come. She wanted to get to that camp and see for herself, first-hand, signs of the human tribe which had slaughtered her kinfolk before her very birth and who had haunted her childhood, the humans whom Chieftess Easysinger had so feared and so long prepared for. Her trepidations would not be silenced — yet still under that she could feel the thrill of curiosity, which scared her more than the thought of running into the Fierce Ones.
Windsong glanced aside at Beetle again, and wondered if the chestnut-maned elf was thinking similar thoughts. She knew that Beetle was curious. The word-hunter had an innate curiosity which sometimes got her into trouble. Windsong’s memory shifted to the time Beetle had almost killed herself in an explosion, not to mention talk surrounding Beetle’s near-exposure to the local humans during a word-hunt. From what Windsong had understood of the incident, Beetle had wanted to move in and get closer so she could hear better, but in the end had almost fallen between a pair of humans. But for all the curiosity that Beetle must have had bottled up inside at that moment about the Fierce Ones, the youngest member of their team had been cautious and kept to herself. If Beetle felt the same burning curiosity that had plagued Windsong for the past few days, she concealed it well now.
There was a crunch of snow underfoot as Snowfall rose and slipped through the trees to join then. Berryflop rode on her shoulder, wrapped in the rope of Snowfall’s white braid, its vivid wings and body the only bright splashes of color to be seen in the snow-shrouded woods. She crouched down at Windsong’s other side and, after a wary look downslope toward where their wolves still prowled, she began to whisper. “That was the chief,” Snowfall said. “There’s been an incident with the larger band of Fierce Ones. Our kin are safe,” she added quickly, as Beetle made an anguished noise, and Windsong felt her own stomach drop sickeningly. “They are safe and remain unseen,” Snowfall continued, “but one of the unbonded wolves was shot and killed. Apparently the Fierce Ones have bows which are much more powerful than ours. Farscout reported to our chief that the Fierce Ones’ bows can be shot with accuracy half again as far as our own. Windburn insists we all take every precaution to not engage with the humans, or allow them to know we’ve been here,” Snowfall said, rising again to her feet. “Windburn wants us to take no unnecessary chances. We need to go back to our own shelter and wait and watch.”
Beetle looked back down the hillside toward the empty Fierce Ones’ camp, then pushed herself up to stand beside Snowfall. “But it can’t be dangerous for us to look at their camp now and see if they’ve left anything behind. Surely they’ll not waste the day! They shouldn’t be back here for hours yet.”
“I agree. We should do this while we’ve the opportunity,” Windsong said, trying to hide the trace of excitement in her voice, curiosity already getting the better of her. “I’ll go alone.” She looked into Snowfall’s ice-blue eyes confidently. “You two should go back to camp and keep watch. One of us alone will leave fewer tracks behind, and I’m the better hunter.”
Windsong glanced at Beetle, and was not surprised to see her friend’s expression of betrayal. The look passed quickly, but Windsong noticed her friend’s back stiffen, sensed the tension — they had all been tense these past six days, but Beetle had seemed the most calm of the three of them. “I should be the one to go,” Beetle said then, her voice low and carefully controlled. “I’ve searched human camps before. I know what I’m looking for. If one of us goes alone — it should be me.”
Snowfall scowled at them both, her gaze still directed toward the empty camp below. “None of us are going anywhere,” she said flatly, her hand absently stroking her pregnant belly — she would not show for another turn of the seasons, but a babe was already growing. “Chief’s orders. He wants no one to take any risks. We aren’t to go near that camp until he and his team have seen this group of Fierce Ones heading north to reunite with their kin. And he’s right. We have no way to know the Fierce Ones aren’t riding back toward their camp down there below us, even now. We cannot leave even a single elf’s tracks in the snow there for them to see -- so for now, the wolves must continue to be our eyes and ears. And if my Slychase can’t find anything he thinks fit to gnaw on, neither of you will turn up anything of interest.”
“But—” Beetle began to argue, her eyes passionate.
Snowfall cut her off with a gesture. “I want to go down there, too,” she whispered. “Do you think I don’t feel the same need, to know more of these humans who pose so much threat to our tribe? To my family? To my unborn cub? But the chief said no. Absolutely no unnecessary risks. And if any of us go, we all go together. Not one of us alone.”
They were at an impasse. They couldn’t, the three of them, all go. And the chief had given them orders that couldn’t be creatively misunderstood.
Windsong scowled down the hillside, then back toward Snowfall. “Chief Windburn is right,” she said reluctantly. “And Snowfall, your cub is more important than any scrap of refuse we might glean from this Fierce Ones camp. If any of us need to make it back to the Holt in one piece, it is you.” On this Windsong knew she would not negotiate. True, she was not leader in this instance, but that didn’t matter; she would challenge if need be -- the cub, Snowfall’s unborn child, must not be put in jeopardy, not for anything.
“We all need to make it back to the Holt in one piece,” Snowfall replied just as firmly. “Chief’s command. We take no unnecessary risks.”
“I suppose if this snow keeps up, they may come back early,” Beetle observed, reaching up to catch after a swirl of snowflakes in the wind. “But they’ll have hunted enough within another day or two, won’t they? How much can they carry with them on their roundhooves’ backs? They can’t continue to stay here for much longer, not if they do plan to rejoin their kin to the north. And when they have left, we can come back later. We can always come back later and dig their camp out before the snow melts, once the Fierce Ones have come and gone again for good.”
It wasn’t the answer any of them wanted, but it was the wisest one. Snowfall gestured for the two younger huntresses to precede her back up the hill. Beetle went with a lingering, mournful glance back. Windsong did the same, still seeing nothing more than the bare, mottled birch trees, and the dancing eddies and swirls of falling snow.
Ed. Note: see the story “Weight of Worry” (by A. Chandler: Newt struggles with uncertainty and new responsibilities.), which takes place around this time.
RTH 2511.02.23 — evening
Rainpace woke with a start. His dreams had been full of screams and blood and the crying of a child. His child. It was one of the worst nightmares which haunted him these days.
Rubbing his face to get rid of the last lingering pictures of his dream, he pushed himself up to one elbow, groaning softly. His whole body was stiff from the cold that crept upon him even through the thick furs he lay upon. The cold and the wind had been constant companions of him and Dreamflight here up on Crow’s Ridge while they were waiting for news from Bluestone Cave and looking out for the unlikely appearance of the Painted Faces or the Amber Hunters.
The small overhang Rainpace lay under had spared him from snow constantly blowing into his face while sleeping. It was small, though, and only spared a sleeper’s upper half from the wintry weather. But since Rainpace and Dreamflight took turns in keeping watch, checking traps or sleeping, the shelter was sufficient enough for their purpose.
From the unusually thin snow cover that lay upon Rainpace’s sleeping furs, it must have stopped snowing some time during the day. Unfortunately the cold had increased.
Before he could muster the courage to crawl out from under the warm furs a big wolf head bumped into his back demanding attention. When Rainpace turned he was greeted by a wet nose and an equally wet tongue licking his face.
“Argh, Bristlepelt, stop that!” the trapper complained and pushed his wolf-friend’s head away. After a last lick in her elf-friend’s general direction she obliged, put her head into his lap and eyed him expectantly.
Rainpace sighed but could not suppress a smile when he gave in to the silent plea and started scratching Bristlepelt’s graying muzzle.
“What are you doing up here, anyways?” Rainpace demanded, already knowing the answer. Since the old she-wolf had been beaten by Icemane in a rank-fight within the pack several eights of days ago she had become more affectionate than usual. Additionally, higher ranked Fumble — Dreamflight’s wolf-friend, who had also accompanied them into the mountains — had not missed a chance to remind the older wolf of this change in authority, which made Bristlepelt cling to Rainpace even more. As much as Rainpace enjoyed her constant, reliable presence he also knew how difficult it was for the old wolf to climb up to the shelter.
With a last playful ruffling of Bristlepelt’s head Rainpace finally peeled himself from his furs and hurriedly put on a thick tunic and his fur waistcoat, which lay nearby. Still shivering, he grabbed a travel-cake from their stocks and crept out from under the protecting rock overhang. Without the snow, which had nearly obscured their view during the last couple of days, and with the bright moonlight he could make out the snow covered shapes of the hills and the dark specks of woods in the south and east.
Rainpace approached the rim of the ledge, on which they had set their shelter and which fell away sharply. Four wolf-lengths below him Fumble lay hollowed up in a snowdrift, raising her head when she heard him approaching. While the steep ascent was moderate for an elf it was difficult for a wolf, not to speak of for an old wolf such as Bristlepelt.
Rainpace turned to his right where a pile of fur was sitting on a narrow extension of the ledge. Under the layers of snowcat and bear fur his look-out companion Dreamflight was hiding from the cold wind that bent even the trees up here, proven by the small, crippled pine tree that clung to the rocks above her.
“Couldn’t let you freeze your buttocks off, could I?” The supposed to be light-hearted reply came out a bit too forced, the nightmare had shaken him more than he wanted to admit.
Before Rainpace turned to start his shift and release Dreamflight from her duty, he gave Bristlepelt a pat. **Go hunting**, he encouraged her, pointing to the open land below him.
The she-wolf whined. **Not alone! Pack!** It was obvious Bristlepelt did not want to stay behind, to leave what was left of her scattered pack — or what she considered part of it — out of sight. Rainpace understood her just too well. Not only her pack but his tribe, too, was scattered wide. Way too wide.
**I do not go away. I just stay. You go hunt with gold-fur elf!** Rainpace’s sending was accompanied by an image of Dreamflight and her spear, running through the snow.
**Go! Safer down there with Fumble,** he pressed further, pointing down the ledge. Grudgingly Bristlepelt sank her head and finally did what she was told. Before she carefully started the descent she gave him such a disappointed look over her shoulder that he immediately felt guilty and promised her an extensive scratch and some hunting time together later on. The open-mouthed panting that followed before she left the ledge resembled a victorious grin. That wolf definitely knew how to manipulate her elf.
Rainpace turned to the fur pile that contained Dreamflight, carefully watching his step on the small ledge. An opening in the furs with green eyes gleaming in its depths turned to him. “Sorry, I could not stop her from coming up here,” came a muffled apology. Knowing how stubborn his wolf-friend could be, Rainpace just shrugged and asked instead: “Can I come in?”
“And with you the cold?” the pile complained.
“You have to get up anyways to change places with me,” he replied matter of factly and started to brush some snow off her fur covers.
Reluctantly one of the furs was held open and Rainpace quickly huddled next to Dreamflight.
“Brrrr, you are cold!” she complained half-heartedly.
“Gives you a foretaste for what’s to come,” he teased back before he sobered. “Heard anything from the others?”
To his surprise Dreamflight gave him a wary look before she answered. “Well, Fadestar said Hello again in the afternoon. Everything is all right up at the Cave. Greenweave and Nightstorm have started towards us with some supplies, but they won’t reach here until tomorrow at the earliest. And Goldspice had received a message from Windburn, who got news from Farscout.” She pause for a moment. “He, Blacksnake and Brightwood had an encounter with scouts of the Fierce Ones, who were screening the scrublands and the light forest. They killed one of the unbonded wolves, Brindlefur, with bows that are way superior to ours.”
Rainpace jumped up. “What?” Disbelief was written all over his face. “Why didn’t you wake me immediately?”
“Why should I have? There is nothing we could do, being stuck to this place,” Dreamflight stated with some bitterness in her voice.
“But when they are scouting they could be everywhere, even in the woods already!”
Dreamflight scrowled. “We haven’t heard any such thing from Windburn or Snowfall, or even Honey and Moss.”
Rainpace was still not convinced. “But what if the clickdeer come down the Clickdeer River this year? They hunt those, don’t they? Would they follow? Hearing now that they are already screening the woods, I am sure of that!” Which would bring them one day closer to the Holt, to Chicory and his daughter, than he himself was here at Crow’s Ridge.
“Those are just ‘what if’s’ and ‘would be’s’ that do no one any good,” Dreamflight replied. In a softer voice she added: “I am sure Blacksnake or Windburn would warn us early enough in case the Fierce Ones decide to come into the woods. There would be plenty of time to evacuate the Holt. Do not worry yourself sick over possibilities.”
Rainpace shot her an incredulous look. “Possibilities? You call a real danger ‘possibilities’?”
Finally Dreamflight lost her temper. Flinging the furs away from her she got up, too, oblivious to the wolf fur and the yarn she spilled on the ground. She glared at him. “You look really hard, don’t you? For a reason to finally run away with Chicory and Glow?”
Completely taken by surprise, Rainpace took a step backwards, staring at her. “What? I would never —” He stopped. He would never do what? Leave the Holt? Not follow Chicory if she decided to go?
Those questions had haunted him ever since his lovemate had challenged Windburn. But she came to her senses, didn’t she? It had all just been the mother-wolf in her. She told him so! She did!
Rainpace was shocked to hear that accusation coming from Dreamflight. She, who had not said a word about what had happened at the Holt during their whole time together at Crow’s Ridge. She, whose calmness during their shared ride with True Edge and Fadestar five days ago had steadied him while the blond elder had given Rainpace lots of his opinion about the matter. It had not been a particularly nice trip and both Rainpace and Dreamflight had been glad to part ways with the two who had ridden further up the mountains to Bluestone Cave.
Being lost for words, a tense silence stretched between the two friends until Dreamflight finally sighed and relaxed.
“That came out harsher than it was meant to be,” she mumbled.
From the corner of his eye Rainpace could see her starting to fidget, obviously searching for words.
“I just —” She stopped. “I just don’t want you to go,” she blurted out.
Finally Rainpace turned to her again, seeing the same strange mixture of pleading and anger on her face as he had heard in her voice.
Before he could even utter a word in response she continued. “No-one just goes. No wolf leaves his pack willingly. It’s against… against just everything!”
Dreamflight’s voice had gotten louder and husky by tears that welled up in her green eyes. Angrily she gathered up the pitiful rest of wolf fur and yarn and in an attempt to squeeze past him on the narrow ledge she pressed him to the rock wall. “You will not leave us behind, you hear me?!”
Completely baffled, Rainpace watched her gripping her spear and leaving the ledge to join Fumble and Bristlepelt on the lower ground.
Slowly he began to prepare himself for a long waiting in the cold, arranging the warming furs around him while trying to find a comfortable position. He realized hushing the matter had not been a wise decision of him. They definitely needed to talk about it when Dreamflight cooled down and he himself sorted out his confusing thoughts.
On one hand he felt sheepish pride that he stood in such high regard in Dreamflight’s opinion, who, besides turning other people’s problems into her own once again, obviously thought it a loss for the whole tribe if he and his family would leave. On the other hand he was surprised that others believed he could actually do such a thing as leaving. This far-fetched thought had never crossed his mind once until his Recognized had put his world upside down by standing up against their chief, and he was eventually forced to deal with this possibility. The sole advantage their small number would give the three of them was better chances in hiding and being overlooked by the malicious humans. Otherwise they would be way more vulnerable and defenseless. He knew this. Chicory knew this. They had discussed it through the boring nights when he was waiting for Fadestar to finally get into sending range. His Recognized could not explain her reaction to him other than it had been the overwhelming, mind-filling fear of their daughter being in danger that had blocked out every logical thought. All she had thought of was running with Glow, as fast and as far away from the Fierce Ones as possible.
Rainpace could relate. He was still surprised and ashamed he had questioned the chief’s decision in front of the whole tribe.
He was more than glad that Chicory had dropped the issue, repressing illogical instincts and seeing sense in the strength of a tribe backing her. Nevertheless, thinking over all the possibilities had made Rainpace see that just in case, he would follow his Recognized, his cub, anywhere, no matter how illogical it might seem. The realization was both frightening and strangely easing.
RTH 2511.02.24 — nightfall
The cave was little more than a sheltered crevice among the steep, rocky slopes of Lost Child Butte. A snowcat had kittened here several seasons ago, but the shallow den was empty now as the three elves made their cautious, careful climb down to it. If any of them slipped on the icy rocks, it would prove a deadly drop down the sheer scree slope below. But the steep, treacherous field of stone debris below the shallow cave made for even more dangerous footing for any climber who attempted to scale to the site from below, and Brightwood was confident that none of the humans would be agile enough to make the climb above its skirts of scree, all the way to the top of the butte. No human could make that climbs. Their wolf-friends couldn’t make that climb. Indeed — only other elves or a snowcat could reach the place — and if there were still snowcats nearby, Brightwood was confident they would have already taken sheltered there.
The old den site was on the shielded southeastern face of the butte, as it stood lonely sentry over the shores of Whitewing Lake. The Fierce Ones had already made their camp in the flatlands beneath the steep butte, where the Lost Child provided some shelter from the wind. The abandoned snowcat den overlooked that camp, giving the three scouts a clear view.
The view was almost too close for comfort. The elves had a clear line of sight straight down to the camp, several bowshots below. They were close enough to see the tendrils of smoke drifting up from the central smoke-holes of their round huts, hear the snorts of the roundhooves, and to see smudges of footprints in the snow that wrote out the details of how the huts had been raised. The elves were close enough that they could not dare to move about on their stone ledge during full daylight without the risk of being spotted by their prey below.
The Fierce Ones had still been raising the last of their huts at dusk, when the three scouts had finished their climb up the north side of Lost Child Butte. There had been enough time left in the fading light for them to watch how heavy blankets of what looked like brightly-woven fabric were spread over a lattice work of thin poles, while the domed roof was topped by a center spoke. Rugs were spread on the snowy ground for a floor, and there was some sort of metal pot they looked to be preparing for their central hearth. After the rug walls went up and the night had fallen, Brightwood could sometimes see the ruddy shadows of humans cast upon the walls of their round huts as they moved about. Not long after the elves had climbed down in the darkness to their hiding place, they heard the first sounds of human voices raised in song.
They were still singing now, as the first of the two moons reached its zenith in a clear, black sky. The herd of roundhooves wandered freely around the huts, digging through the snow for forage or simply standing close together for shelter, their rumps turned to the wind. None of them tested the single rope that was hung from spears around the wide circle of the camp, although there was no way such a flimsy wall could hold them in if they wished to push past it. There was a single gap in the rope boundary — to her eyes, it looked to Brightwood like the first thing the humans had done when they set their camp was to raise two tall wooden posts at the western apogee of their circle. The two posts created an open gateway, and Brindlefur’s head and pelt dangled from the top of one of those posts. Idly, she thought about taking the grisly trophy down, although she knew there was no question of doing so. Yet it would be easy to do, she thought — after all, there were no human guards on the camp that Brightwood could spot, and that was certainly a detail the plantshaper was keenly watching for.
As darkness settled completely, Brightwood lay beneath the shelter of her snowcat-fur cloak, Blacksnake to one side of her and Farscout on the other. She watched the camp below avidly and listened to the singing human voices. She could not help but remember the scents and sights of the inside of another such round hut-tent, centuries ago now, although for her the memories were less than a decade past. The hut she had remembered had had a stone hearth, and had been supported by poles, not a lattice frame. But the singing voices and the language were the same. Then, there had been a bowl of frothy, fermented drink — were the hunters below passing around a similar bowl tonight, she wondered? Unbidden then came the smell of burning hair and flesh, and Brightwood shuddered at that too-fresh memory.
She felt Farscout's touch on her back then, as he slid an arm around her. She nuzzled his shoulder, guessing his thoughts at the moment to be as dark and fraught with horror as her own.
"Get some sleep," Blacksnake ordered from her other side. "Both of you. They'll get active again come morning, and we've traveled hard today."
"You sleep," Brightwood countered. "I'm not going to."
Brightwood felt Blacksnake's eyes on her profile, sharp and thoughtful as always. She did not take her own gaze off of the camp below. She waited for argument — but for once, Blacksnake didn't go for the throat when he might have. She felt the touch of a locksend brush past her, between her Hunt Leader and her lifemate, and then she felt the shift of Blacksnake's weight against her side as he moved to slide an arm beneath his head to cushion it.
"Then wake me if there's anything of interest happening down there," Blacksnake said, before settling down to sleep. With a sleeping fur spread beneath them and furs spread over them, the three scouts had a warm enough nest to be comfortable, although gusts of sharp wind swirled the occasional flurry of snow into their stone crevasse.
Brightwood lay in silent company with her lifemate, keeping watch. The singing continued from one of the huts for half the night, while hearth lights glowed quiet from the others. It was only after the singing had gone quiet that the stranger-pack ghosted into view, taking up position below the scree of the Lost Child's skirts. The wolves settled, equally silent, attentive to the grasseaters that stayed close within the rope ring of the human camp. None of the wolves went to test the roundhoof herd, as if that single rope wall were as daunting as the thornwall around the Holt.
None of the wolves howled, even as the moons grew heavy in the sky and began to set. Brightwood made note of that, thinking that maybe the stranger-pack, too, had strayed far out of their regular territory. They would not find it beneficial to draw a resident pack's attention to themselves. That same anxiety kept their own wolves, even old Wasp, quiet and anxious in this cold, empty landscape.
No, Brightwood realized bitterly. It was only the Fierce Ones themselves who showed no fear at trespassing where they were not wanted.
That thought stayed with her until dawn, when the stranger-pack melted away, back out toward the scrubland to the south.
Ed. Note: see the story “Fishing For Your Supper” (by Mike H.: Otter learns a lesson about providing for the tribe.), which takes place around this time.
RTH 2511.02.25 — morning
His daughter was the first to spot them. **Look!** Foxtail sent, leaning precariously from her branch, so that Windburn instinctively reached after her to seize the ends of her jacket and Foamspray, clinging to her hair, gave a hiss of alarm. **There — riders!** Foxtail exclaimed, ignoring them both in favor of the distant humans. **Out there in the snow!**
**Aye, I see them as well,** Thornbow confirmed, from his vantage point among the thin birch downslope. **One, two, three... four, five and six. All six of the riders and both of the unbonded roundhoof-friends carrying burdens. That should be the whole secondary hunting party. And they’re heading north. Making fair time, too, I think.**
Windburn had followed his daughter’s extended finger across the expanse of snowy landscape beyond the Holt’s forest, following the icy curves of the Little Snake Creek as it curled out of its watershed and away across the scrubland. The humans were not the only dark, moving spots in that early morning landscape — a herd of wintering elk was fording the frozen creek and moving away from the human riders at a good clip, back toward the cover of the forest. The Fierce One riders would be well able to see that game herd as they travelled, but apparently they had gathered meat enough — they continue to ride north at a trot, moving in single file, with two burdened, riderless roundhooves towed behind the second-to-last hunter.
From the northeastern crest of Tuftcat Hill, the chief and his two companions had been looking for the small party of Fierce Ones since Snowfall had sent to warn them the evening before that the humans had not returned to their campsite at the mouth of the valley between the peaks of Three Fingers and Tuftcat Hill. Windburn watched them now with a fixed stare, relieved to have predicted their course correctly. True to every report thus far, the Fierce Ones had skirted the forest. They kept it in sight as they travelled, as a landmark and a windbreak, but there had been no sign of them having entered the forest again.
**Moss, Honey,** Windburn sent, sharing this critical sighting for his kinfolk stationed at their lonely watchpost to the northwest, at the crest of Northview Ridge. **We have all six riders of the secondary hunting party in sight. They are riding north up along the Little Snake, away from our woods and out toward the steppes and Whitewing Lake.**
There was a distant acknowledgement from those two, and from Snowfall as well, who was on the cusp of Windburn’s reach to the south. As Windburn felt his daughter lean back, her balance on the branch beside him no longer in question, Windburn turned his full attention away from her and out ahead of that line of dark riders. **Farscout,** he sent, hoping to feel his elder’s mindtouch.
**Here,** came the immediate response — Farscout’s sending was faint from distance, but bristled with energy and information. **The main band has settled their hunting camp, as we thought, at the foot of Lost Child Butte. We are camped in the snowcat den above — they cannot spot us or reach us. The hunters gather now and collect their mounts,** Farscout sent, and widened the flow of information to include what the elder was witnessing at that very moment.
Windburn reflexively closed his eyes in order to concentrate fully on what his scout shared with him. He saw through Farscout’s eyes from a very high vantage how the human’s camp was built below, with half a dozen large, round huts in a crescent, and two gateposts framing the western apex of a large circle that was roped off to form the camp’s boundary. In the bright morning light, Fierce Ones were strapping harnesses to their roundhoof-friends, and mounting up as they finished. The hunters called to each other as they assembled, as boisterous and loud as jay birds. One of the roundhooves protested when its rider tried to haul himself astride, and bucked vigorously, spilling him back into the snow. There was laughter and what sounded like mockery as that hunter picked himself up. He spat snow and made a show of sweet-talking his roundhoof-friend and sorting out the bands of its harness before climbing back up onto the beast’s back. It was more tolerant the second time, and did little more than side-step beneath him. By then the rest of the hunters — male and female alike — were all astride. Attention seemed to be focused on one male rider, a tall, quiet man with a beard and braids the color of rust who rode a pale grey roundhoof. When he barked a word, everyone heard it. Riders fell into formation behind the red-headed rider as he trotted to the fore. As the red-headed one passed through the camp gateposts, he raised a carved auroch's horn to his lips and blew a loud, soaring blast. The deep, bass roar of sound carried out across the plains before them, and echoed back from the steep stone walls of the butte. The sound excited the shaggy roundhooves, who shook their heads and whinnied in high-pitched echo.
**Males and females both have ridden out to hunt,** Farscout sent, still sharing the image-send. **They ride to the northwest, but you know how it is. They follow where-ever the clickdeer herds take them. Do not send Kestrel out to us again — there is no way to predict where they will have roamed.**
Windburn opened his own eyes again, and saw that his own riders had receded further in the distance. Windburn knew. **The secondary band of six riders are headed your way,** the chief warned his elder. **They should be able to find their way to Lost Butte before the end of the day. Do not risk yourselves — stay hidden!**
Windburn felt Farscout’s pulse of acknowledgement. **We have a safe camp — the scree is too steep for climbers as heavy as they are, and our ledge is too high for them to reach us with bows. But we cannot sit here forever. While we have supplies enough for now, we will have to hunt one night soon. The wolves are hungry and wait for us north of the butte.**
**Take every precaution,** Windburn replied, before letting the sending contact end. The chief continued to watch with his own eyes the single line of riders moving away across the plains, his icy gaze narrowed into a glare. It was only when Foxtail turned to him with a questioning look that Windburn realized that a rumbling growl was coming from the back of his throat.
“Farscout says the humans have settled their winter camp,” he said, as shared with her and Thornbow both the images and sounds of Farscout’s message. “So now, we just wait and see how long they choose to stay, and hope Blacksnake, Brightwood and Farscout and can stay safe, that close to the Fierce Ones.”
"Don't sweat so much," Foxtail said with a grin. Foamspray was settled on her shoulder, happily braiding strands of her hair, having proven largely disinterested in the distant concerns of the elves. "Grandsire is much too smart. He won't be caught by these round-ears. And he won't let Brightwood or Farscout get pinched, either."
Windburn swallowed back his growl with a grimace and the taste of imagined blood in his mouth. "Aye," he agreed verbally, unwilling to debate his oldest child's chipper faith in their Hunt Leader. Windburn had faith in his father's wit and good sense, and faith as well in both Farscout and Brightwood. Of all of the tribe, Blacksnake and Farscout were the two he most trusted with these circumstances. But during his lifetime, the chief had borne witness to too many kin who had been too old and too smart, felled by bad luck, or by an unforeseen change in the weather, or by a mere shift in the breeze... The tribe's history was populated with stories of tribemates who had died tragically, because it only took a single, unexpected moment for chance to turn on even the oldest and wisest of hunters.
"It's not your grandsire's wits that worry me," Windburn said then, knowing that he did his child no favor with an empty agreement. If Foxtail was ever going to carry the weight of the chief’s torc, she needed to be challenged to outgrow her easy assumptions. "What worries me are the unknowns. Look at them. The Fierce Ones. Your grandmother lived her entire life without seeing a single human... and yet today, we have three tribes of them hounding us. These Fierce Ones. They appear to have no hint that we are here. But we can't know that for certain, can we? Would you have looked at them and expected them to be carrying bows that can shoot half again as far as our own?" He glared after the creatures, wishing he could erase them and everything they represented to his tribe. If only it were so easy, like a stroke of a paintbrush across offending drops of paint. "Never be blithe to the danger they represent. If that band catches your grandsire and Brightwood and Farscout out in the open, in that empty country to the north — how far will any of them be able to ride before they're shot down? We don't know how close a bond these humans have with their roundhoof-friends. Can they send to their roundhooves like we can send to our wolves — and know some of what their mounts can see or smell? We don't think so, based on the fact that Fadestar and Farscout escaped the Fierce Ones once already. But we don't — and can't — know for certain. These humans have pet ravens. Can they train their pets to help spot game? When I was a cub, Thornbow’s father Birdcatcher had a raven that he had trained to help find prey. That bird was wickedly smart. It had a different call for marshbeast than it did for branchhorn, and it knew the wolves favored game that was already injured — it would do a little dance for Birdcatcher and drag a wing when it spotted injured prey. Tell me — if these humans have trained a pet raven to hunt for them in such a way, how will your grandsire save his hide?"
Foxtail scowled back at him, her green eyes wide with alarm at first, then narrowing with fast-moving thoughts. "He’ll spot it and shoot its feathered backside out of the sky, if Brightwood or Farscout don’t beat him too it. No bird can spot prey for you if it's dead," she snapped in reply. "I understand you're worried. I understand we should all be worried. But the sky hasn't fallen on us yet, father-mine. Just being alive is dangerous. Mother's death taught me that." Foxtail looked away for a moment, and her scowl turned into a half-hearted shrug. "I don't see the point in making myself miserable about what might be. And father — by Wolfsister’s eyeteeth, I don't understand why you insist on doing so!"
Windburn kept his eyes on the retreating humans, unwilling to look away from them until they had dwindled from sight in the distance. He bit back a hot retort to his daughter's sharp words, but the distraction of the humans' presence kept his temper in check. He watched the dwindling dark specks, and forced himself to attempt to listen to his daughter’s words instead of his daughter’s tone. It was an effort he had been struggling to make since departing the Holt with Foxtail and Thornbow nine days ago.
“What do you see, when you look at our enemies?” he asked, curious about how close his assumptions about the workings of his rash daughter’s mind might compare to the reality.
“Flyspecks, at this distance,” Foxtail said with a snort. “I know what you see. You see just a great terrible threat looming over our heads. Me? I see a bunch of chaffed backsides, riding away at a fast enough clip that by nightfall, there’ll be no excuse for us not to go and hunt one of those branchhorns they’ve just spooked back into our woods. I see opportunity. Yes, there’s danger we need to outsmart. That, too. But as bleak as the situation may look to you, I’m going to find some opportunity in it, too. Because any shift in the wind brings opportunity, if you’re canny enough to catch its scent.”
Foxtail’s barbed words travelled. Windburn felt Thornbow’s worried, questioning glance, and knew his old friend was expecting Windburn to rise to that challenge. Instead, Windburn shrugged the barbs off, his own eyes still on the departing band of humans. Against the promise of danger they represented to his tribe, his daughter’s disrespectful attitude was as galling as a midge bite, an annoyance so minor he didn’t even have to shrug to brush it off.
“Tell me what else you see. You have experience spying on the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces. Your eyes have seen things mine have not. So look again — and tell me what you see, and that I can’t.”
Foxtail’s green eyes regarded him with suspicion — she had not been unaware of her provocation, then, and had been expecting more of her father’s temper in response. He had rather thought so — Foxtail had been struggling to be on her best behavior during this long, cold patrol, but day by tense day, stress had made her teeth grow. Foxtail turned her glance back out over the expanse of snowy plainsland beneath them again, and was silent for a time as the humans dwindled away into the distance.
“You’re interested in the differences between them and our tame local tribes,” she said. “Their weapons, obviously so. Their roundhoof-friends are another. The Amber Hunters have their beasts of burden, and the Painted Faces their not-wolves that they sometimes bring hunting with them. But neither of those tribes have such a close partnership with their animals as the roundhooves and the Fierce Ones. Are they blood-kin, the way we are with our wolves, though? I don’t think that possible. Not unless the humans had magic once and could change shape, like our ancestors could.” Foxtail was silent for a time, then shrugged. “But the Fierce Ones are so much bigger and taller than the other humans. Not all of that bulk is winter furs alone. But I’d think their ancestors had bred with bears before I’d guess roundhooves.”
That suggestion earned a cough of laughter from Thornbow below them. “We can count ourselves lucky then, do you think?”
Foxtail grinned. “Sure. Those earless egg-suckers could be riding bears instead. Can you imagine just how much hunting that would take, to feed them all?”
“Enough,” Windburn said, unwilling to allow them their levity. “What else do you see?’
“The Fierce Ones are as loud as the Amber Hunters can be. That’s interesting to me, because they’re clearly capable hunters, like the wood-sly and quiet Painted Faces. I think the difference there is that the Amber Hunters are noisy because they really don’t know any better half the time, and they’re learning from the Painted Faces like cublings. But the Fierce Ones? They are noisy because they can be. They aren’t like us. They aren’t afraid of what may overhear them. No. I’d wager they WANT to be overheard. They want trouble to come and find them. What have they to fear from anything?”
There was sense in that. Windburn nodded to himself as he considered Foxtail’s observation. It was a radical notion, that a tribe could be so confident in overcoming any danger that it’s hunters would actively try to solicit it. It was a radical thought — and a terrible one, as well. “Well, come what may, I do hope their hunting stinks,” Foxtail said cheerfully as she began to climb down from the tree.
“No,” Windburn said, as the last of the riders disappeared from his view. “I hope they find the clickdeer herds to be fat and thick as fleas. The busier they are, the less likely they are to be trouble.”
“And the sooner they take their fill and go,” Thornbow echoed, “the sooner we can relax and go about our own lives. Our wolves are hungry, too.”
Windburn felt both his daughter and his old friend watching him. He weighed the dangers and the unknowns, then nodded shortly. “No need to waste the opportunity,” he agreed, with a half-smile for his daughter, “while that branchhorn herd is still heading for the shelter of our woods.”
RTH 2511.02.26 — evening
It had been a hard evening at Bluestone Cave, as True Edge and the rest of the elves had been busily at work to get the place in shape. It would take time, but Bluestone, if it was to become their future home, would be up to the task. Not yet willing to collapse for the day, the elder hunter walked around the area, looking at every nook and cranny to see how far they had gotten. Eventually, he noticed that he wasn’t the only one still up.
In a back cavern, he spied a light from a single candle. Curious to see who among the elves was still awake, True Edge made his way back to see for himself. Peeking into the stone room he spied Crackle, though she had yet to see him. So intent was she on something she was trying to build that she hadn’t even heard his footsteps. Watching for a bit, he tried to see what it was that had her attention so focused, but to him it just looked like stretched leather on a haphazard frame she had put together.
Earlier in the evening he had noticed how pensive the young huntress seemed as they had gone about their work. She was taking this business of the Fierce Ones' return as badly as any of them… maybe even worse than some. With a sigh, True Edge realized he had been so absorbed in the job at hand, in trying to protect the tribe from their enemies, that he had lost sight of the welfare of the ones put into his care. It was time to rectify that error.
“Dreamberry for your thoughts, Crackle,” he asked gently, stepping out to where she could see him by the candle’s light. “What is that you’re making there?”
Her eyes went round as she sucked in a breath of air. Strands of her hair had escaped from their tie-back and hung in her face in limp tendrils.
“Nothing of consequence... apparently.” Her voice sounded flat and she let the project collapse into her cross-legged lap.
True Edge studied the device as she laid it aside. This wasn’t like Crackle at all.
“Oh, I don’t know. It looks rather interesting. What is it supposed to do?” Maybe by trying to get her to talk he could draw the girl out. If one let worry and frustration just fester it usually turned into a huge mess that was very hard to deal with. He would help her avoid that if possible.
“Well — it’s supposed to be round for one thing.” She grabbed it back and held it up for closer inspection.
The creation in her hands was a circular frame that had been wrapped in rawhide strips, binding it neatly together. It was mostly round, with just a slight elliptical shape. In the center were two cross-beams that ran vertical and two that ran horizontal. They bowed out slightly to make the object concave. Over the face, Crackle was trying to stitch a leather cover to it.
“If I can get it right, I can do all sorts of stuff with it.” Crackle sat up straighter and looked at her elder, eyes beaming. “For one thing,” the tone in her voice became deliberate, “you can use it for a shield against wind and blowing snow. You could also use it to hide behind. That’s why it’s white.” Her cold-looking fingers brushed over the leather surface. “You could use it for a door if you had to spend the night in a snow-burrow. And if you had enough of them, you could lash them together and make a bigger shelter, eh?”
She leaned closer to True Edge. “You know what the best use is?” she asked with a mischievous expression that seemed more like the Crackle he was familiar with. “You can sit on it and ride it down a snow-covered hill. I can’t wait to try that one.” Crackle looked down at the circular object in her lap. “Maybe Newt and Otter would want one…”
True Edge smiled a bit, trying to see all the uses she described. He wasn’t much of one to create much of anything, save for the stone blades and tools he made for various uses. This was obviously something more creative than that, something from her father’s blood, he would wager. “You know, I bet it would work pretty well for that,” he agreed, trying to picture an elf sliding down a snow-covered hill on one. “Might have to make a larger, stronger one for some of our more stout tribemembers though. If One-Leg tried to rest his broad backside on one of those it would probably split in half.”
Crackle burst out in a giggling fit. She clapped her hand over her mouth as her snicking echoed off the cavern walls. Then like a shadow, a darker expression flooded over her face. “It’s a stupid thing to waste my time on,” she scowled, pushing the disc aside again. “I was hoping it’d be useful, but it’s dumb.”
Before her elder could respond, Crackle gazed up at him with large innocent eyes. “We’re supposed to be like our wolves, but we aren’t... are we? Our wolf-kin aren’t making a fuss about what’s happened.” Crackle let her eyes drop to the flickering candle. “They just avoid danger and go about their business. But we’re not like that. We remember the past and fear it.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “And it makes us afraid of the future. I felt Windburn’s fear for us when we were gathered for the news. It puts a strange gnawing in my gut.”
It pained True Edge to see Crackle like this but he let her talk without interruption to get it out of her system. He knew all too well what it felt like to let such feelings fester inside oneself. Once she had spoken her mind, though, and seemed to be floundering about where to go, he spoke again.
“We are like them,” he insisted in a low voice. “In most ways that matter. I guess when our kind came to this world we had to become a part of it to survive. We are like the wolves... just... more complicated, I guess.”
Why couldn’t Snowfall be here? Or perhaps Windsong? He was not the wise one to comfort someone with words or to understand another’s feelings. True Edge felt very inadequate trying to help with this but that didn’t mean for a moment that he would leave Crackle to her misery. He remembered feeling much the same way himself, once upon a time.
“When the ways of the wolf can’t see us through we still have our elven brains to fall back on. You’re very clever you know, because I could never have come up with something like that.” He glanced towards her discarded invention before continuing. “It’s not dumb, and neither are you. You’re very smart, actually, to fear those humans. Our wolves wouldn’t understand, so we have to for them. Keep your fear and use it to keep you sharp, Crackle. Just don’t let it paralyze you. We’ll need clever elves like you to help remind some of the rest of us after this incident has faded away into memory.”
“Fade into memory...” she frowned and bit the tip of her thumbnail. “The Fierce Ones were just a memory before, but they are the Now. As long as they roam the land — they will be a threat.” Crackle let her eyes meet his once more. “We won’t be able to hide or avoid them forever. Something will change...” Crackle frowned at her last words. “Something in me has changed.”
It was silent for a long moment as True Edge wasn’t quite sure what one could say to that. He remembered the changes that had come over him after the humans had come the first time and could only hope it wouldn’t be as bad for young Crackle.
“Get some sleep, Crackle,” he said gently. “We have a lot to do once the sun sets.”
Taking his own advice for a change he also went to find somewhere to rest.
RTH 2511.02.27 — late afternoon
Since mid-morning, flocks of gulls and other shorebirds had been winging their way overhead. For the time being, the skies were blue and crystal clear — but it would only be a matter of time now before that changed dramatically. The seabirds knew it, and the wolves tasted it as well. The winter’s next serious storm was fast approaching, seeing a wave of shorebirds fleeing ahead of it, and One-Leg and his team could only hope to catch some fresh meat while they still could. But unfortunately, trouble worse than seabirds and the scent of fast-approaching precipitation was on its way as well.
**Whatever you two are doing down there, get off the river fast,** sent Notch, from his tree-top vantage farther downstream. The sending startled Pathmark, if only because he would have sworn his tribesmate was still sleeping. Certainly Notch had snored loudly enough when One-Leg had called his son down to join them when they had left their shelter to go ice-fishing. **I see a mixed band of humans headed this way — they're moving fast, might be chasing something. Too many trees in the way to tell for sure.**
“Rot all,” muttered One-Leg under his breath, beginning to pull in his line. He and Pathmark were on the Bounty, ice-fishing at a open patch of water near the river’s center; Gurgleflap had flapped its way off downstream, doing Ancestors-knew-what passed as important through its addled insect-brain. One-Leg and Pathmark sat astride their wolves as they fished, taking care not to leave their own incriminating footprints in the fresh snow that dusted the river ice. It was delicate work here — the river was fast-moving enough to have rare patches of open water, but that also meant that they had to take care in avoiding the sneaky spots of weak ice. It meant fresh meat, however — something they all were craving after more than a week patrolling the Holt’s southeastern flank. In their short time on the river this afternoon, Pathmark had already caught one panfish, which they had shared between their loyal wolf-friends, but a canny big trout had robbed One-Leg’s hook of bait, and Pathmark knew his elder had taken the theft as a personal challenge. “Slimey cur is going to have to get the best of me,” One-Leg grumbled as he wound in his websilk-and-sinew line. “Revenge’ll just have to wait. Rot all — we’re too exposed, sitting here like this,” the elder muttered, as both wolves suddenly looked to the west, ears up and bodies growing tense with alarm.
Pathmark looked that way too, in time to see a young marshbeast come bursting out of the trees. The bull lunged down the rocky riverbank in two strides; even from this distance, Pathmark could see the red spatter of blood it left behind in the snow from the arrows that were lodged in its heavy neck.
**Move your tails!** Notch sent from his vantage among the trees.
The marshbeast was careening toward them at full gallop. Pathmark realized his fishing line was a loss — he just flung it all at the open, fast-moving water, trusting the river to carry the evidence away beneath the ice. **Just run!** One-Leg sent at the same moment, casting his fishing gear into the dark water as well as Longtooth began to pivot and bolt for the woods behind them. Bonetrail was only a breath behind his packmate, and in two bounds, had overtaken the other wolf and was carrying Pathmark past his elder and toward the concealment of the trees.
Behind them, there was an explosive, crashing thunder of sound. The ice beneath Bonetrail’s paws seemed to buckle and heave; the wolf staggered for balance and made a desperate lunge forward, claws scrabbling for purchase. Then the wolf found his stride and bounded clear of the collapsing shelf of river ice.
His companions weren’t so lucky. Pathmark heard the bull’s fearful bellow — and Longtooth’s yelp of shock as well, as he and One-Leg went into the dark, rushing water.
**Hide!** One-Leg’s mindtouch was searing, so much so that for a flash of a moment, Pathmark felt as though he had fallen into the bitterly cold river himself. His heart contracted and his lungs seemed to seize, so that breath was hard to draw. He fought against the sensations and rocked back on Bonetrail’s spine. The wolf came to a skidding stop, sending up a spray of snow even as Pathmark turned to look back.
At first, all he could see was the dark, wide hole in the river ice, and the marshbeast’s rack of horns bobbing above it. Then the bull’s shoulders heaved up as it got its forelegs onto the ice on the far side. For a moment, the ice held — and then a slab of it gave way, consuming the rest of the ice between the moose and the open patch the two elves had been fishing at, only moments before.
**One-Leg!** Pathmark sent, seeing no sign of his elder or of One-Leg’s wolf.
Then Longtooth’s drenched head popped up, followed moments later by One-Leg’s. The elder had lost his fur cap, and his crimson hair was brilliant against the snow and ice. Longtooth managed to claw his forelegs up onto the ice and strained to pull himself out but could find no purchase. One-Leg managed to pull his dagger and stabbed out into the solid ice as far forward as he could reach, then grabbed after Longtooth’s ruff and tried to help his wolf-friend’s escape.
Pathmark shot a desperate look toward the forest where the marshbeast had first appeared. He saw Gurgleflap arrowing toward them, bright yellow wings a blur, but he saw no sign of human hunters -- not yet. **Where are they?** he cast frantically at Notch.
**I see them now, they’re coming toward the river!** Notch replied. **Two skips and jump, and they’ll be able to spot you!**
The ice groaned and buckled under Longtooth’s weight. Panicked, the wolf began to yelp, clawing frantically for purchase and raking One-Leg hard in the process so that the elf lost his grip on his knife. Gurgleflap arrived, clawing for fistfuls of the elder’s dripping hair and flying backwards as if it had the strength to hold the stout elder’s head above water. The goo-bug was all heart but no help — seeing that One-Leg was in danger of being knocked back underwater by the panicked wolf, Pathmark flung himself from his wolf’s back and threw himself out onto the ice. Two steps, and then he dropped onto his belly and crawled forward, his spear extended.
**Grab on!** he sent.
**I told you to hide!** One-Leg blasted back, fighting the current and still trying to hoist his wolf clear of the ice.
**The humans will see you no matter what I do,** Pathmark countered. **I’m not going to let you drown!**
One-Leg lunged to catch the spear Pathmark had thrust within reach. As the elder’s gloved hand closed beneath the spearhead, there came a low, rumbling sound from the treetops behind them. It started as a rolling growl that gathered in volume, then burst into a roiling, deep-throated bugle that seemed to find echoes in the marrow of Pathmark’s bones. It was something deeper and louder than any branch-horn or marshbeast bellowing in rut, and fiercer-sounding than any roaring bear. The sound reverberated like a roll of thunder, and then, as the forest around them seem to recoil in shocked silence, the booming blast roared out a second time. Gurgleflap dropped its fistfuls of One-Leg’s hair and made a panicked retreat for the trees.
**Shard it!** One-Leg sent; Pathmark could not tell if his elder were cursing at the ice, the cold, or that terrible blast of sound. He grit his own teeth and hauled backwards, straining to pull One-Leg up onto a ledge of ice that appeared, for the moment at least, to prove solid.
**That’s stopped them in their tracks!** blazed Notch’s triumphant sending. For a dislocating moment, Pathmark saw the frozen riverside and forest beyond from his tribemate’s vantage. A line of humans had been hurrying through the trees, following the marshbeast’s blood trail. But the Painted Faces in the party had all frozen in place at the terrible sound. Only the two Amber Hunters were still moving — Notch was focused on sight of the bright blue and bright red geometric patterns on the sleeves of an Amber Hunter’s winter coat as he took a an oblivious step forward. Then his smaller companions seized him and dragged him to a stop, while the senior member of the hunting party barked a sharp, fierce order.
A silence fell, broken only by the snorting of the wounded marshbeast. The beast grunted and heaved itself up on its knees on the ice, which groaned under the beast’s weight. The bull gave a breathy bugle of its own and got all four feet under it. It stood for a moment, dripping water from its shaggy dark hide and gusting clouds of fog from its lungs as it labored for breath. Then the strange, terrible roaring sound came again from the trees on the elves’ side of the river — and Pathmark realized that somehow, someway, Notch was responsible for it. The bull gave a shuddering cry and trotted for the trees downriver, its retreat across the river ice high-stepping and delicate for all of its bulk.
Notch’s mindtouch brushed his companions again, and again, Pathmark saw the humans from Notch’s high vantage. They were falling back in retreat as well, their bows nocked with arrows and their expressions taut with fear. **It worked!** Notch sang out with delight.
**That’s my son,** One-Leg sent. He heaved with all of his strength and helped pull Longtooth clear of the river. The elder was gasping for breath from the cold, his facefur freezing against his face. **Now let’s haul tail ourselves, before my nutsack permanently burrows through my belly!**
Pathmark had no idea what had just happened, or how Notch had engineered the humans’ retreat — but he did not need answers to those questions just yet. Answers would come later — after they were all out of danger from the river and from freezing. Gritting his teeth and pulling with all of his strength, Pathmark dragged One-Leg the rest of the way out of the water and onto the ice like a great, ungainly fish. The elder had lost his false leg — but to Pathmark’s shock, One-Leg reached down into the sopping folds of his coat, and pulled out a trout that had somehow found its way into his clothing.
**I got the slippery nutless wonder,** One-Leg quipped, slapping the wriggling fish down hard against the ice and braining it. **Now let’s get off this rutting river, warm up, and eat!**
To be continued…