Quick Fang woke before the daystar's rays had set below the hillside. Too early. She stretched and pulled on her leggings and top. She sheathed her knife and nabbed her spear. As she passed the minnow pool, Chicory waved and grinned. That frog-licker knew how to aggravate; it was like some irritating instinct. Out of principle Quick Fang bared her fangs. Chicory giggled and sank her nose below the waterline once more. It was the beginning of a bad evening all the way around.
For the past three nights Quick Fang had trailed a herd of rock sheep, discerning which ones could most easily be brought down without resorting to calves or mothers-to-be. She had come to believe there were at least two elderly and another that was ill, a hoof or leg by the tracks, infected by residual odor. She had yet to study the herd as a whole; that was the plan for this evening. She loped upriver with several of the wolves, and as expected caught up with the herd before the child moon peeped over the mountain top. She would be ready to bring the hunters and the rest of the pack within the next half-hand-of-days.
The night, however, progressed along its own ill-fated path. One of the younger wolves took a misstep along the steep side of a bluff. The crumbling shale only disintegrated as the wolf scrabbled to gain a foothold. The sound of raining rocks alerted the herd, which bolted away from the water. Quick Fang reached for the wolf's scruff, but it nipped her, slid sideways, and sent Quick Fang over the ledge. The shale might as well have been tusk-nose grease for all the traction it offered. There was no way to stop her downward slide until she hit bottom. Lying on her back, nicked and scraped all over, breath knocked from her, she looked up to see the young wolf staring down at her from the safety of the rise. For some reason it reminded her of Chicory. She showed her fangs.
Feral eyes of the other wolves watched her, waiting for her to figure out a way back up the ridge. With a suppressed whine, she pulled herself to a crouch and glimpsed the shaggy shadow just before a bear paw slammed into her ribs, flinging her back into jagged shale. Hands of sharp points sliced into her back. She sucked in air but set her jaw against crying out.
It was a black bear, luckily not a large one by any means, but peeved nevertheless. It reared again and bellowed. Quick Fang pounced on her dropped spear. She thrust as she rose, using her momentum to drive the spearhead at the bear's throat. The bear batted it down, but it hit still, sticking in the animal's shoulder and was jerked from Quick Fang's hands. She danced back into a half crouch and growled. The bear answered the growl.
**Mistake!** She could feel her heart pounding, but she glowered up at the threat with her ice-blue eyes. The bear huffed, huffed again, sniffing the air as if it had caught an unknown scent.
**Back off!** She didn't exactly use the words, she didn't have to. The aim and the end were the same: She hadn't meant to invade the bear's territory. In fact, if the truth were known, she already regretted acting on first instinct and lashing out. **Leaving!**
She stared long and hard at the bear. **Leaving.** The bear sank to all fours. After several heartbeats, both moved away, watching the other over their shoulders until the boundaries were reestablished.
There would be no more tracking tonight. She limped home. She wasn't sure how, but her ribcage seemed intact, though she'd be more lovely shades of purple and blue by tomorrow. She lay in her furs, prone on her stomach so her scraped back could breathe and recover, but sleep didn't come easily. That bear shouldn't have attacked for such a small breech of territory. Unless she had a cub of her own. A cold spot developed in Quick Fang's stomach. Did she? If so, that rather changed things.
The next twilight, she woke sore and stiff and for a moment wondered why in the -- ! The cuts and bumps jogged her memory and she scowled. She grunted in discomfort with each minor tug as she pulled on her leggings and top.
If she was lucky, she and the wolves could pick up the herd's trail and still have a hunt upon them in a couple of nights. Chicory smiled an irritatingly knowing smile as Quick Fang passed the minnow pool. Quick Fang bared her teeth. It was the principle of the thing.
She couldn't find the herd right off, as she might have normally done. Might have had something to do with the fact that she angled far upriver again. She told herself it was to look for her lost spearhead. And ... maybe there would be telltale bear tracks and she could sleep better come next morning. She reached the place where she had fallen. It didn't take much sniffing around to discover blood other than hers. She followed the blood and the scent to the hollowed-out base of a gigantic, toppled, capnut tree. Her shaft and spearhead were on the ground beneath it.
The moment she stepped onto the exposed roots, a small hairy outline slipped behind a great big hairy shadow and the great big shadow snarled. Quick Fang resisted the instinct to raise her hackles and snarl in return.
As she had feared, there was a cub, and the cub was obviously hungry and anxious -- though not hungry enough to venture out on his own alone. The mother moved her head and her black eyes watched every movement of the wolfrider. But she wasn't inclined to move very much more. Unless the wolfrider were to attack again. The black-bear mother was very young, herself. Probably her first mating season. Quick Fang tried to remember where her spear had struck. It must have been deeply in one of her limbs; perhaps one of the joints.
Quick Fang hopped to the ground. In the meantime, if mother and cub couldn't find enough food easily, the least she could do under the circumstances, was hunt things bears liked to eat. For several moments, the wolves thought they would actually be leaving the area and doing something interesting. Their disappointment was palpable when Quick Fang started digging under shrubs instead. She returned with a mound of black dirt held with both hands, teeming with ants. She could feel grubs squirming against her hands, trying to burrow deeper. With just her legs, she heaved herself onto the massive roots of the tree. The mother bear rumbled a clear warning.
In response, Quick Fang began humming, began before she realized what she was doing. It was a melody she remembered Snowfall cooing when she was still a suckling cub herself. It was ... right. It conveyed ... comfort, kindness, warmth and safety. It was everything unconditional about a mother. Her mother. That ... devotion. Quick Fang eased forward as she cooed, not conscious of the fact that her cooing stayed only in her mind.
She wasn't sure how long it took -- 'singing' while gingerly making her way into the bear's lair. But ultimately, the mother bear nosed through the clump of dirt. The baby saw what mother was doing and that it must be all right to do it. Quick Fang was happy to let the cub follow suit, slurping up ants and juicy grubs with his tongue
She left and returned twice more, each time stepping carefully, each time carrying food, each time humming the lullaby in her mind as though the small bear family could hear it, too.
She emerged from the tree-den satisfied. She hadn't seen the rock sheep, but the wolves that had accompanied her had long since gotten bored with chasing mice and wandered off. If the herd was still in the area, she could find out from the pack by the following nightfall.
Tomorrow she would come better prepared, bringing hairmoss for infection, a bucket for water, and a bowl for grubs and ants and such. A large bowl. She could have it filled first-off with capnuts, berries, and fat critters from the bog near Chicory's minnow pool. Oh, and fish! That spindly lizard-chirping wolfrider should be put to some use, other than being an annoying little mosquito.
Quick Fang headed back toward the den trees at an easy, ground-eating pace, stretching her legs and filling her lungs with the crisp early green-growing season air. And back in the tree-den, a mother bear, full and content, cuddled with her cub, still hearing the gentle refrain of a lullaby in her head.