(This story follows ”Fresh Perspective” and ”Earned”, and is a part of the ”Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath” and ”Learning the Humans’ Languages storylines – see lists for related stories.)
The day’s pickings had been few for the humans, a group of Amber Hunters — including a tall, loud one and his garishly clothed friend, who were no strangers to the experienced word-hunters — and the far more canny but no more worrisome Painted Face guide. The five-fingers had been making fast work of moving down the Far River, and the elves following them needed to keep up pace if they wanted to stay within earshot. As Beetle slipped back out of her foliage-covered hidey-hole on the opposite side of the river, to make her way to the next position, a flash of reflected light from her niece’s eyes set Brightwood’s face to a tight scowl.
**You’re supposed to be watching them too, not just her,** came One-Leg’s thoughts, with enough force to almost put her back to her knees. **All you’ve done on this run is eyeball the rest of us.**
**She’s clumsy. Naive and idealistic. She takes too many chances and makes too many mistakes. You all do. And I have somewhere else to be.**
The frustration underpinning One-Leg’s thoughts was palpable. **And you were supposed to be there ahead of Beetle! We never move in pairs so close to each other! It’s just asking to be spotted! Thistle’s twisted teats, girl, you vex me! But don’t fret about your piss-poor timing. I sent Foxtail back a peg to keep your seat warm. Now you can back up and circle over to where she was supposed to be right now.** The gruff old elf was as far ahead of Beetle as she would soon be of Foxtail. One-Leg’s design wasn’t sent, but it was more than implied; I want you where I can keep a closer eye on you.
Night had fallen, and with it the word-hunters had retreated to a secretive camp position. Foxtail and Beetle were on watch, quite possibly making bets on what was about to happen a little further off.
The spot the elder elf had chosen for the ‘little chat’ he’d summoned Brightwood to was a slight depression amid several bushes and close-knit tree roots. The place could be plenty cozy for three amorously inclined elves, though he doubted either of them was or would be in a mood for such diversions. One-Leg stashed the wineskin he’d been bitterly nursing and sat upright as he heard the plantshaper’s whisper-quiet footsteps coming, and put on his best ‘disappointed elder’ face when she breached the circle of leaves. **There’s a rhythm to this dance, lass, and you aren’t keeping step.**
**A dance, indeed. You all traipse through the woods around us as if it wouldn’t up-end our entire lives if you got caught. You are almost as bad as she is,** Brightwood snapped back at him, still watching her surroundings warily. **As they are. They are cubs; I can almost forgive them that. I would think you are elder enough to know better.** Woven into her sending were feelings that she was alone in her diligence on this hunt; that Kestrel or Moss might have been able to inspire more caution from this particular lot.
One-Leg puffed up. **Easysinger’s Ears, you’d best tie off your sendspout and listen good! You’re no help to this hunt if you can’t spot the differences between the prey. If all you see when you look at an Amber Hunter or a Painted Face is pale skin and yellow hair and bloodied lips, then you’re not letting yourself do your job. You’re twice as hard as you think we are soft. The rod that can’t bend breaks, lass. Mend your ways or when we get home I’m crawling up Windburn’s rump for as long as it takes him to replace you.** It riled him that the chief had given Brightwood a place on the team after little more than her asking for one. Especially after all the effort Foxtail had to go to, proving she could be disciplined enough for the task. But who had the most reason to see fangs in every shadow, and strike at threats that might not be there? What had the chief done to make Brightwood prove her emotions were in check? For a moment, he let that displeasure with the chief's short-sightedness show through the mental link.
Indignant, Brightwood began, **Windburn put me here to —**
**Keep an eye on us softhearts?** he interrupted. Whiskers flew emphatically and disdainfully. **Windburn’s been wrong about a thing or three lately, far as I reckon. This team, — the tribe (!)— can’t afford for him to be wrong about you. And if he is, it’ll be one slip-up I won’t let fester while he’s sitting on his nutsack putting his paintbowls in a row. If time enough hasn’t passed for you to see the world as it is Now, the humans that are here Now, I need to know. And you need to know.**
**First off, I’m not sure where you got the idea that Windburn put me here to watch you all. I am the one who went to him and told him that I wanted to come out here. He wasn’t excited about the idea, I’ll have you know.** She glared at him. **Me watching the cubs for stupid behavior is my own doing.**
One-Leg did not respond, so she kept going. **Next, no, I will agree that it hasn’t been long enough. It was nearly yesterday for me. I will remind you again that I watched the Fierce Ones eat my family. Eat my family, old friend. These,** she gestured loosely in the direction of the party they were following, who had likewise set up camp, **might be mice compared to bears. I didn’t come out here to prove to you all that I am right. I came out to watch them, to see for myself what they might be like. I keep hearing that no one has seen any proof that these are the vicious brutes that we encountered up north. But I am also weary of hearing that I need to be more trusting.**
**More trusting of the humans, no, I won’t ask that of you. But if you want to keep watching them, I rutting well expect you to show some trust in the pups who’ve been slipping around them longer than you.** One-Leg included a wordless acknowledgement that, yes, much of Foxtail’s and Beetle’s experience with humans was of an illicit nature. He sat down atop a particularly comfortable looking root, some weight still leaning on his staff. **I bear the proud distinction of having tossed two wild-eyed, smartmouthed, sneaky, misbehaving pains-in-my-rump cubs out of my den to go looking for ones of their own. So let me share the biggest and best secret any timeworn parent can pass on to a new one. Something you’re going to learn as Copper gets bigger is how often cubs teach their elders, rather than the other way around. When those lessons come, they are worth heeding. Those two pups back at the camp don’t know it, but they’re offering you one.**
Brightwood frowned. **You want to talk of lessons learned? Perhaps you didn’t see the Fierce Ones for yourself, but surely Farscout’s and Cloudfern’s story made some sort of impression on you? Have you really learned enough about these humans to know that they don’t have a dark side? Really? Would you feel safe if they were to make it through the Thornwall and showed up at the Dentrees somehow? Would you be there beside my brother’s foolish cub to greet them with a platter of honeycakes?**
Exasperated, and realizing that she was standing over him at this point, she slung her carry-bag off her shoulder, dropped it on the ground, and sat down beside it. She rubbed her face in her hands and sighed. Maybe she didn't belong out here. Maybe she should have been satisfied with going out with Farscout to watch the tribes of humans. At least he knew where she was coming from, emotionally. She tried to gather herself to explain her thoughts better. Her tempestuous nature was not new to him, but she felt she was not making her point in a way that was getting through.
**I am not convinced we should consider ourselves safe with them around. A spirit bear and a brown bear and a black bear are different from each other, but they are all still bears. All still dangerous. We don’t know if the Fierce Ones were gentle and nurturing with their own kind when they were in their home element, and we don’t really know how these humans behave when the pressure is on. They could prove to be as violent, and we wouldn’t know until it was too late. We may learn their words, and we might, might be able to sling enough together to tell them to keep back or beg for quarter. But, no. I doubt we could truly be friends.**
One-Leg was unconvinced. So he proposed a challenge. **If you really think that a bear is a bear is a bear, and a human is a human is a human, go put it to the test. Go pack up, and start walking. All the blister-bursting way back to the land our ancestors walked away from. And when you get there, go and see if an elf is an elf is an elf! Test whether Feverease’s nameless kin will welcome you into their Holt and call you one of their own, or turn up their noses and send you running back here tail between legs! Go and see how different you are from them!** His free hand flew around and across as he spoke, to the ground, to the mountains, to the distant south of Wolfsister’s birthplace, at Brightwood. That hand stopped on his waterflask, which he removed, and offered to her.
**This might help you along the way. I gave one to a human, once, and never looked back.** As an argument, One-Leg knew it was an unreasoned one, even unfair. The legends of the tribe all spoke clearly of what the outcome of any such journey would be. But he wanted her to try to see things from an outsider's perspective, and it was the best he had.
She let him finish, but didn’t reach for the waterflask. Of course she wasn’t going anywhere. **That may well be true. Even wolfpacks will kill strangers. I would be just as much a stranger to them as I am to these humans. Even if some of these humans wound up here to escape the Fierce Ones, themselves, it doesn’t make them potential friends. At best, it makes them an ally against a common enemy, if, High Ones forbid, the Fierce Ones show up here someday.
**I still hold that many of these younglings, and maybe some elders that are old enough to know better, are romanticizing what little they can observe about these humans. And maybe I am totally wrong, and they would welcome us like lost family into their dens. But the truth of the thing is that all our observations may never tell us that. So the Painted Faces and the Amber Hunters chose to band together instead of kill each other off — that doesn’t tell us if they would even share the same sort of feelings about knowing of a tribe of elves living within a stone’s throw of their camp. One band could think we were great and the other could see us as a threat.
**Truthfully, I would rather be friendly with them than kill them all, despite however kill-hungry you may think me to be. I am sorry if the experience that I went through has changed me from the person you knew before I left for that hunting trip. But that experience makes me beyond cautious when it comes to fluff-headed ideas like exposing our existence to them.**
He shook his head with a bittersweet grin, **I’m not sorry you changed. A different Brightwood is better than no Brightwood at all. But be careful where that change leads you, unless you fancy waking up one night to find everyone’s suddenly taken to calling you Darkwood.** He leaned back in his seat. **Me, I need to hold to the positive. Need to. If not…** he tapped his peg-leg, **This would have killed me long ago. Not the torture of a shattered limb, not the rot, not the cutting, or all the nights and days I ached in bed just wanting not to die. But what came after all that, when I had figure out how to live with it. What I’d lost, in body and tribe. The spirit-pains that kept tearing me back from the Now. The smells and the sounds and the sights of it all still swimming in my mind, drowning everything else when I let it. Get me good and drunk some day, and I might well tell you about the worst and best night of my life, up on Elder’s Peak.
**Then as now, I need to find something good and cling to it. Hornet’s half-a-cock, if I’m moon-coating anything, it’s not the humans, it’s what we all have to gain from peace — real peace — with them. The freedom we’ll all get back when we don’t have to look over our shoulders on our own land anymore. I want to swim in the ocean with Otter. I want to cast my nets off those great rocks again and feel the salt air tickle my nose. I want to stand on a sandy shore with my grandcubs, and show them a whale breaking the surface to take its next breath. And if the Fierce Ones ever do turn up, Ancestors help us, I want as many friends at my side as I can clasp on to.** His eyes focused back from what-might-be’s to the reality before him. **It’s a long walk to the day I’m looking to. Trolls and toads, girl, if you trust nothing else you better know in your belly that I am not blind to the chances I’m taking getting there. I sure as spit know my son may yet be taking them beside me. But I believe the risks are worth taking. We’ll get farther slinging words than arrows, that’s for sure. If we aren’t willing to try, we might as well all pack up and find someplace else to be right now.**
She studied him for a long moment, then made a toothy, lopsided smile. She wondered how much he was speaking to her and how much to himself.
**Listen, I appreciate your view. I do. I’m overly cautious, not crazy. I don’t like having to sneak around my own woods like a shadow. And, I think that ultimately, we can’t know how they will respond until we meet them. I can suppose one thing and you can suppose something else and Windburn can have his own idea. We won’t know until we know. They don’t know the same things about us, either.
**You and I approach this from different sides. Both are useful. I will have to take you at your word that these striplings can do the job, because clearly you trust them. I will keep my mind more on the humans than my tribemates. But be assured,** she grinned with impudence, eyes narrowed, looking every bit the spawn of Lynx, **In the event it all goes rump-over-ears because one of those cubs gets cocky, I will make sure you remember I told you so.
**Maybe my task here is more to balance the raging optimism of certain team members than anything else. Now, maybe it’s time we went back to the others, if you are not kicking me out on the spot?**
**Raging optimism, eh? I like that!** Proximity to the humans denied him a good howl, so he settled for a good chuckle. **I like that a lot!** Smile wide, he confessed, **Well now, I s’pose if I can hold out so much hope for the five-fingers, I can spare a little for you, too.**
He wanted to believe his fair-haired companion. One-Leg offered her a hand, which she took. He pulled himself up and recovered the wineskin. He offered it to her with a wily grin. “What say we change the mood around here, ey?”
Suddenly he was feeling amorous.