Foxtail found her little brother sitting on the long, low branch of the capnut tree that grew on the hillock there, overlooking the sunny, grassy clearing below the den of the chieftess-wolf. A glance at Cinder's solemn, mournful expression was enough to melt her annoyance like a first frost.
**Go on,** she sent to Rainpace and Farscout. **Take the other cubs and go without us. My brother's not interested in learning new snares today.**
Silently, Foxtail climbed up the old capnut tree and out onto the limb next to Cinder. She sat beside him and just took in the view for a time, giving the boy the chance to speak first. Most of the pack was away hunting marshbeast at Fork Spring with Windburn, but Sunsoak and old Sky both lolled in the morning sunlight nearby. As the two elves watched, two wolf pups came scampering out of the den-cave. They rolled over one another in a clumsy play-fight, joined moments later by the other two pups from Whirl's last litter. Starlight came out of the den behind them, favoring one hind leg as she shadowed the pups protectively. Both Sky and Sunsoak immediately dropped their ears and heads in submission as she gave them a hard look. Starlight sat and began to groom herself, her possessive attention never wavering from the four playing pups.
"The babies are all fumble-footed still," Foxtail said then, smiling as one of the male pups tried to chase a flying insect and instead blundered straight into one of his sisters, knocking them both over.
Cinder refused to smile. "Whirl was right there," he said at last, pointing to the fallen cedar log at the edge of the meadow, half a bowshot from where they sat. "That’s where Rill and I found her. She was already cold. All of the blood had come out of the big rip in her throat."
Foxtail regarded her brother sadly. Their father Windburn's she-wolf had died the afternoon before last. No elf had seen the dominance fight that had killed her, but the confusion of tracks had told the story enough for elf-eyes to read the gist of it. Compounding Whirl’s death was the loss of their grandsire’s wolf Wasp. The packleader had been killed by a bear while defending a kill about two hands of days before. It was likely the old pack leader’s death which had led to Starlight's brutal challenge. It had been a frightening enough reminder of how easily Blacksnake could have been killed along with his wolf, but thank the High Ones, that hadn’t happened. She wasn’t sure how that had affected Cinder, and now in Whirl they had lost a wolf the boy had been much closer to.
"Starlight had already stolen away Whirl's pups," Cinder said after another long silence. "I hate Starlight. She's mean and I hate her."
"Don't hate Starlight," Foxtail said gently. "She has wanted to be chieftess-wolf for a long time, and after Wasp's death, Whirl could not hold her place," Foxtail said. "Whirl would not show throat, so they had to fight. Wolves will be wolves. Someday, it may be your Longhowl who hurts another wolf on his way to becoming chief-wolf."
Cinder frowned harder at that suggestion — it was when her little brother was scowling like he was at that moment, that Foxtail could see their father in the boy. "Starlight didn't have to steal Whirl's pups. She didn't have to do that."
"Starlight is chieftess-wolf now," Foxtail said. "She had to either claim Whirl's babies as her own — or kill them. New chief-wolves will do that, sometimes."
Cinder's hard expression did not soften. He glared at Starlight, who ignored them in favor of her newly-claimed children. "Whirl didn't have to die," he said fiercely. "Whirl didn't. It's not fair."
"Wolves will be wolves," Foxtail repeated. "They fight over rank. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair to us — but it is the Way."
Cinder turned his sharp glare on her, and the look on his face reminded her suddenly of herself. "We don't have to like it," Foxtail said firmly, wondering for a moment when she had come to sound like such an elder.. "But we do have to accept it."
"It's not fair," Cinder repeated. "It's not. First Wasp gets killed by that bear. That was bad enough. It's not fair to lose Whirl now too. Her puppies need her!"
"Her pups have Starlight now, and the rest of the pack too."
"But now they'll grow up and think Starlight was their mother, always," Cinder said, his voice still fierce. "They'll grow up and they won't even know her!"
Is that the root of it? Foxtail thought. Lost mothers and orphaned cubs? She held her tongue with an effort, leaving a silence for her little brother to fill himself. Cinder swung his feet angrily and glared out over the sunny meadow at the pack's new chieftess-wolf. When the silence grew too heavy for him, he began to fill it with words.
"Whirl used to wake me every nightfall or dawn, or whenever I had slept too long. She would lick my face and lick my face, just like she was washing me." The words began to bleed out of him, dripping with the child's heartache. "Whirl would try to wash my face for me too when I laid down to sleep. She washed me like I was her little cub. When she wasn't away with Father somewhere, she would always watch over me. And she would sleep with me during the winters. If I would get cold, I'd only have to call for Whirl, and she would come over to me and tuck herself around me until I was snug and warm. She would always nip me when Rill and I would wade in puddles. She hated it when we did that. Quick Fang would get that pinched look for Rill when we'd come home all muddy, and Whirl would look at me just the same way. It's not fair. She didn't have to die. Starlight could have just beaten her like Halfmoon beat Beauty. Starlight didn't have to kill her. She didn't. Whirl should still be here to wash her pups’ faces and keep them out of the mud. It's not fair. It isn't."
"No. It isn't," Foxtail agreed sadly, thinking not of their father's lost she-wolf, but instead of their mother, Whispersilk. "But moaning about it won't change things, little brother. Life isn't fair. Sometimes it will just shit on you. But there's naught you can do about the bad stuff, but cherish the good."
Cinder looked at her again sharply, his blue-green eyes just like their lost mother's. "There's nothing good in Whirl's being dead!" he cried.
Foxtail shrugged. It’s good that Starlight didn't kill the pups, she almost replied, before guessing that argument would not help her little brother come to grips with the matter. "You can wallow in being angry, little brother," she said instead, "but being angry won't bring Whirl back. She's gone. It's the Way, and sometimes the Way is cruel. I'll miss her. So will you. And so will Father, most of all."
That seemed to take the heat out of the boy. Cinder heaved a great sigh and hugged himself. "Father was riding Fireweed when he left with the hunters last night," he said. "Do you think they'll bond?"
Foxtail nodded. "She's a fast she-wolf — and best of all, she's smart. Old Murkfur's heart will be broken. I think he thought Father was going to choose him instead."
Cinder managed the breath of a laugh at that. "Poor Murkfur wants an elf of his own too much. It makes him act all squirrelly, and then no one wants him at all." He stared glumly over the meadow, watching as Sunsoak rolled over onto his back to expose his belly to the sunlight. One of the nameless pups launched itself up onto the adult wolf’s middle and began a game of chief-of-the-hill with a sibling. Sunsoak simply stretched out his paws to the sky and suffered the onslaughts patiently. “Rill says Starlight can’t last as chieftess-wolf for long,” Cinder said bitterly. “He says she’s too old — she was Bristlepelt’s littermate, and Bristlepelt was so crippled this past winter that she fell and died. Starlight may have gotten the best of Whirl, but won’t be long before Silverbite or Redbrush will rise up and kill her right back.”
“Maybe. Starlight’s no spring pup, and Bristlepelt may have been her littermate, but Kestrel is her rider. Kestrel rarely ever rides. And over the years, that does add up and make a difference. Wolves carry us because they love us — but their bodies weren’t meant to bear riders. Wolves who aren’t ridden don’t wear their joints out so fast. So I wouldn’t go placing wagers on Redbrush or Silverbite. Not just yet. Starlight should have a few good years left in her yet.”
That wasn’t the answer her little brother wanted to hear. The boy gave another deep sigh as he considered that, and after a time, his expression as he gazed out over the meadow began to soften. While three of Whirl's pups were tumbling over one another in a play-fight to claim the high ground of Sunsoak’s belly, Starlight had the fourth one down and squirming beneath the weight of a paw. The she-wolf was licking the pup's face clean, while it squirmed and whimpered in its eagerness to join its littermates.
“I just wish I could make it better somehow,” Cinder said then.
“It’s what it is. It’s the Way. We don’t interfere with the politics of the pack,” she chided him.
“Not that,” Cinder countered. “For Father. He misses Whirl," Cinder said sadly. "I know he does. He shouldn't hurry another bond until he's let himself be sad a little longer."
Their grandsire had bonded again, fairly quickly, to the young wolf Frostback. Whatever regret he had felt over old Wasp’s death, he seemed to have gotten over it — not that it was ever easy to tell with Blacksnake, Foxtail thought. But Cinder himself would not miss their grandsire’s cantankerous old chief-wolf as much as he did Whirl; of course he would feel more sensitive about his father replacing her.
"Father doesn't want to be without a wolf-friend. Not right now," Foxtail said, thinking of the scare the Fierce Ones had given them — the winter seemed years ago now, but there were moments when she still woke expecting to find herself surrounded by snow and the fear of discovery. “Father wants to have a good, strong wolf-friend to carry him in case there’s trouble.”
Cinder shrugged that concern away. “But Father is sad," the boy said. "He tried not to let me see it when he rode away on Fireweed, but I did. And I know we all feel sad about Whirl. I just wish I could make it better somehow."
Foxtail reached over and tousled her brother's grey hair. "I think I know of something we could do. Something Mother taught me. C'mon. I'll teach you, too."
They followed their noses through the storage dens to find what they needed. First it was a pot of Starskimmer's vinegar, brewed from apples and then left steeping with sprigs of nosedeaf. Then, in another den down a twist of the burrowing corridor, there came the sacks of undercoat. Each spring as the pack shed their winter fur, their mother had used to groom the wolves and gather up bags of fine undercoat. Dreamflight had taken up the task since Whispersilk's death, and there were several wrapstuff-sealed bags to be sniffed through. "This one?" Cinder said after opening his second bag.
Foxtail waved to Muckabout and Flutterby to seal up the bag she had just investigated, and leaned over to stick her nose close to the leather sack her brother held open for her. The fur inside was a potpourri of the pack — there was hair gathered from Patchface and Mooncrier, Fumble and Bonetrail, and her own Briarfoot as well, but those scents were all undertones to the rich mingled presence of both of the pack's late leaders — Wasp and Whirl. "That one!" Foxtail said decisively, reaching for the bag. She let Cinder carry the pot of vinegar, and heaved the big bag of hair over her shoulder.
They carried their finds to the main room of the Chief’s Den. Foxtail raided her father's sleeping den and rejoined her brother carrying an old undertunic. It was winter-weight silk, the original rich yellow dye faded to the color of bleached buckskin by years of wear. She tossed it to her brother. “Pick out the stitching at the seams,” she told him as she left again.
She returned carrying a load of supplies from the storage dens to find her brother’s little bone knife and nimble fingers had the chore half done. “Why are we destroying Father’s shirt?” Cinder asked as she put down her load.
“Not destroying it, little brother. We’re going to use it as our pattern, and as the underlayer. Wolf-fur can get scratchy against your skin, so you want my nice layer of silk between you.”
“We’re going to make Father a fur-shirt!” Cinder said in excitement, having added things up for himself. “But won’t I need my drop spindle, if we’re going to spin this fur into yarn?”
“We’re going to do it a different way. Leave the knitting and weaving to Dreamflight for now. We’re going to felt it.”
Cinder’s sea-green eyes lit up at that. All of the cubs had made felt before — it was a simple enough thing, and a good way to keep little hands busy during a long winter day confined within the hometrees. “I’ve never made anything bigger than hats and slippers,” the boy said. “How do we make an entire wolf-fur shirt?”
Foxtail grinned and began to spread out clean, tanned hides for their workspace. “I’ll show you,” she said. “Just like our mother showed me. When my first wolf-friend died, she made me one like this, and I wore it for years, until it was no more than rags. Wolf-fur felt keeps you warm and sheds water like a duck. Of course, you smell like the wolves whose coats you’ve made it from... but that’s a comfort as well. Drag that bag of undercoat over here, and let’s get started.”
The process was simple — first they laid out the four sections of their father’s shirt — a front, a back, and the two narrower rectangular sleeves. “This let’s us eyeball how much we’re going to need,” Foxtail explained. “Let’s do the shirt back first.” Putting the other pieces of silk aside, she made an outline of the tunic back on the smoked buckskin with chalk, then sketched a wider margin, three-handsbreaths larger beyond that. “That’s how much hair we’re going to need when we start. It’ll shrink down to size as we work,” she said. “You remember how we made those felt dolls the winter before last?”
“I do!” Cinder said, already pulling out two handfuls of undercoat from the big leather sack. He began laying it out — Foxtail watched for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction when she saw that the boy did remember the way of it. “Good job, little brother,” she said as she joined in. “That’s it — lay this layer out with all of the hairs going in one direction. When we start the second layer, it’ll run the other way.”
They worked quickly, and by the time the sun was at its zenith, half of the great big leather bag was gone and they had four layers of wolf fur filled the chalked pattern on the work-hide. “Are we going to have enough?” Cinder said, eyeing what was left in the sack.
“Enough for the front of the tunic, at least. We can make it sleeveless, or turn it into a vest. Or we can get another bag of undercoat — the sleeves will smell different, but Father will still be wearing Whirl close to his body and he’ll catch her scent well enough.”
They took their pot of vinegar down to the craftdens then, and shared a fresh Elder salmon for lunch as they mixed the vinegar in with water and boiled it in a cooking skin over the coals of Goldspice’s forge. “We add a good lump of mashed soaproot,” Foxtail said, as she dumped the contents of her mortar-stone into the brewing mix. “If we were working with wool from a mountain goat or shagback, there would be enough natural grease in it that we wouldn’t need the soaproot. But wolf-fur doesn’t have enough grease on its own, so we have to to add a good handful of well-pounded soaproot. Let it boil for a bit, and it’ll melt into the mix. You only need to just bring it to a boil, then it’s done.” By the time they had carried the cooking skin back to the main room of the Chief’s Den, it had cooled just enough to work with. Foxtail poured it back into the pot, then covered the mouth of the pot with a woven reed mat. When she upended the clay jar over their layers of wolf hair, the steaming water sprinkled down like a gentle rain.
“We get it all nice and damp — the nosedeaf and the vinegar will take out most of the wolf-scent as it soaks, enough so that Father won’t feel like he’s bathing in wolf,” Foxtail explained. “But there will be enough of it left that Whirl will still be with him when he wants to breathe deep and find her.”
When they had gotten the hair damp enough that the bottom layer was just soaked through, they then rolled up the buckskin as tightly as they could. “Don’t be afraid to use your whole body — lean into it! Use what weight you’ve got there, little brother!” They did just that, and when they had the buckskin rolled just as thin and tight as they could, they lifted it and carried it outside, where they turned the rolled hide over on each end and shook it, draining away a little trickle of water as they did. “We should have added dye in the vinegar-water, if we’d wanted to dye it,” Foxtail said as they tied three strips of silk around the rolled hide to keep it securely closed.
“I don’t want it dyed,” Cinder said firmly. “I want it to look like Whirl did.”
“It will,” Foxtail said. “Now here comes the fun part! You take your end and I’ll take mine. Good — now let’s roll it. All the way down to the river, and then all the way back up.”
They did just that, crawling on their hands and knees all the way down to the riverbank and then all the way back up to the hometrees. Briarfoot and Longhowl both came to investigate, and Longhowl made a game of it, dashing back and forth ahead of them as if they were chasing him. Brother and sister were both panting for breath by their return. Foxtail gingerly untied the silk ties and began to unroll their bundle. She smiled at what she saw. The wolf hairs were clinging together, shrinking as they compressed down together in a mat. “This is really good,” Foxtail said as she picked at the layers of felt, to see how easily they parted. “It’s not ready yet, but we’re getting there. Now give we turn it one turn, carefully — just so. Good. All right, now help me roll it back up.” She glanced up to gauge the time of day; it wasn’t unusual for her to work through the day-light hours, but not all members of the tribe were so verstile, and many were asleep in the hometrees behind them. “Do you want a nap? If not, then we’ll start over and do it all again for the next piece.”
Cinder’s eyes were still bright with excitement for their task. “Let start the next piece!” he said with enthusiasm.
Their knees were sore and the afternoon had aged by the time they had completed their fourth and final trip down to the riverbank. Foxtail unrolled the battered buckskin gingerly, and gave her brother a grin. “That’s it! Feel this? Give it what mother called the ‘pinch test’. If you pinch it between your thumb and forefinger, what do you feel?”
Cinder pinched the matted wolf hairs carefully. “The layers are stuck together. I’d have to work at it to peel them apart.”
“You’d have to work at it hard to even find there were once layers,” Foxtail grinned. “And look — do you see the faint traces of our chalk marks?”
“There’s one — and there, too. It shrank down to just the right size!” Cinder exclaimed. “All we’ll have to do is sew it to the pieces of silk lining, and then stitch the shirt back together again, we don’t have to cut it or tailor it fancy or anything!”
“We could cut out some little wolf-heads together for decoration, or add in ribbons or scraps of cloth if we wanted — you could get all sorts of creative with decorating if you wanted to do so. Mother certainly did,” Foxtail said, remembering the first wolf-fur undershirt her mother had crafted for her so many years ago now.
Cinder shook his head firmly. “Not for Father. We keep it simple. Can we start the front part of the tunic now?”
Foxtail glanced at the sky overhead. “Let’s roll this back up tight first, and leave it here in the sun to dry. Then we can start on the front portion -- after we’ve eaten some supper and let our knees have a rest!” She saw the frown begin on her brother’s face, and poked him in the shoulder. “Father and his hunters will be gone for at least another three nights. We’ve time enough to do a proper good job without rushing it. We can’t be lazy about it, but we can take the time to do it right.”
Her little brother looked up at her, his blue-green eyes bright with emotion. “Just like Mother would, right?”
Foxtail tousled his fine grey hair. “Right. Just like Mother would.”
Windburn and his hunters returned to the Holt just ahead of scudding clouds full of rain. The hunters were weary, but they all carried heavy bundles of wrapstuffed meat from a successful hunt.
Foxtail hung back to watch as Cinder raced to be the first to greet their father, carrying a bundle of his own in his young arms. Windburn swept the boy up in a fierce hug, and Foxtail watched as she saw the shift of his expression — surprise, then joy, then pride — as Cinder presented their chief-father with the gift they had prepared for him.
“We made this for you!” she heard Cinder announce, as their father shook the tunic out to see it in full. “We used Whirl’s hair, and Wasp’s, and some from the rest of the wolves too. You can even smell Longhowl in it, if you press it up really close to your nose and smell deep. But most of it’s Whirl. We wanted you to have it, because we miss her, too.”
“That looks just like the fur-shirts my sister, your mother, used to make,” Snowfall said, while Windburn held the tunic up against his chest to check the size of it.
“It is!” Cinder exclaimed with pride. “Foxtail taught me how.”
When Windburn looked her way, she simply smiled and shrugged, letting Cinder be the one to make the fuss. But when Windburn smiled a rare, broad smile and began to strip off his travel-stained shirt where he stood in order to try on their gift, Foxtail let herself bask in the warmth of the moment, knowing that their father appreciated it — and that somewhere, somehow, her mother’s spirit approved.