Whitemask   2511.11.22*  
Written By: Holly H.
(2013 Jan/Feb Fic Trade) Newt discovers the nest-hole of a pair of whitemask owls, and it changes his life in ways he never expected.
Posted: 04/27/13      [8 Comments]

RTH 2511.11.20

One of the things Newt liked best about trips to the Broad Meadow to gather roots and herbs was that if he timed it just right, around dusk or dawn, he could often spot some of the local owls putting on a show.

He knew that owls were drawn to the Broad Meadow’s wide expanse because it was such a popular home for the kinds of prey the owls liked. It was full of mice, voles, and rabbits, and while owls were primarily night hunters, some of them would start to stake out the grassy meadow in those hours when the light was weak, fading towards night, or just before dawn. He saw short-eared owls, with their keen yellow eyes rimmed in thick black, as well as the bigger barred owls, with their round faces and dark eyes. Sometimes, if he was lucky, he might even see one of the great greys, though mostly they frequented the scrublands further upstream on the Clickdeer River. And very rarely, in winter, he might see the unmistakable form of a snowy owl, ranging far to the south of their usual arctic range.

But the type of owl he saw most often, and his favorite, were the whitemask owls. He wasn’t sure why, but he loved the way they looked, with their enigmatic, heart-shaped white faces and deep dark eyes, and beautiful golden feathers over their backs with white bellies and underwings. They were smaller than some of the other meadow-owls, light enough to hover for a short time as they searched for prey.

Newt loved to see any of the owls, and he’d learned the calls of some of them. He could copy the long phrases of the barred owls well enough to lure one in to see who was issuing such a strange challenge, and deeper in the forest, he could imitate the huge great horned owls, and was getting better, at least, at the bubbling-laughing sound of the little screech-owls. Unfortunately, though, the high raspy scream of the whitemask owls was beyond his talents, so far. He would have liked the ability to “call” them and see if they would answer, or come investigate.

Then one day, as spring was turning into summer, he’d had the good fortune to see one of the whitemasks hunting, and had followed its flight back to a big oak tree right on the verge of the meadow. He’d watched it perch, and then to his surprise and delight, saw it hop down the branch and up to a hole in the great trunk, where it ducked in. He’d found a whitemask nest-hole! Throughout the rest of the spring, whenever he visited the Broad Meadow, he’d stopped first by the whitemasks’ tree. He’d been rewarded many times with the sight of both adults returning from their hunts, mice or voles dangling from their beaks, and then later, he’d gotten to watch as the owlets emerged and tried their wings. He and Dreamflight and Fadestar had spent an entire evening just to see what turned out to be the owlets’ first flights.

The whitemask owlets grew up quickly and went on their way, but the adults stuck around the nest-tree after that, although Newt saw them less regularly. He tried even harder to learn to imitate their call, but he never got an answer. Still, it became his habit to check the tree every time he came to the Broad Meadow, just in case.

This evening the Den’s Creek was still unfrozen, even though they’d been having stormy, snowy weather for the past few hands of days. There was a thin dusting of snow over the ground, even under the forest’s trees, but not enough to slow down travel. Just enough, he thought, to show the tracks of everything that moved, and he amused himself identifying the signs he saw as he headed across the creek and towards the meadow’s verge, while Browncoat trotted all over the place, sniffing everything but generally keeping Newt in sight.

He could see mouse tracks and rabbit tracks, and the small dainty prints of a fox. He saw the signs of deer that had been through the forest, browsing, and something that looked like a bobcat heading in the same direction he was, towards the meadow. He puzzled for a moment over paired tracks with a long waving line between them, before concluding that it must be a weasel. Newt smiled, enjoying the way the snowfall made the woods come alive with the evidence of everything that lived there going about its business.

He was nearing the whitemasks’ oak tree, when Browncoat became intent suddenly, running purposefully to the base of a tree and rooting through the leaf litter beneath it. “What do you have there?” Newt started to ask, and then he saw the pale feathers and quickened his pace.

There beneath a chestnut tree, lying on top of the snow, was a spray of feathers, and something that Browncoat mouthed at before the wolf lost interest. Newt picked up one of the feathers and realized, with dismay, that he knew exactly what it was. There was no mistaking the golden hue, with its slightly greyish mottling, and creamy white underside. It was the feather of one of the whitemask owls.

If there had only been a few feathers, he might have hoped that it was from molting, or even a close call with some other predator. But there were too many feathers for that, Newt concluded sadly, seeing the scattering of fluffy down and shorter body feathers lying on the snow. Once Browncoat moved away, he also realized with a start what the wolf had been chewing at: a set of taloned feet, part of the white-feathered legs still attached.

Newt leaned in close for a look, but the light was failing, so after a moment’s hesitation he picked one of them up. He’d never gotten to see an owl’s talons at such close-range before, but they were as wickedly sharp as he would have guessed. The leg didn’t really tell him much else, though. He couldn’t guess why just the legs and some feathers would be left here.

Looking up, he saw a sturdy branch overhead, and on some instinct left his bag and the talon on the ground, and began to climb. When he reached the branch, he scooted out along it until he was just overhead of where the owl’s talons had been found, and there he saw what he had half been looking for — a discolored spot of blood on the bark.

That made it seem likely that the whitemask owl had been sitting on this branch — it wasn’t far from the oak tree with the nest-hole in it, Newt could see it even in the failing light — perhaps with prey already, or getting ready to fly out to find some, and some other winged predator had caught it there. It ruled out the idea that the whitemask had been caught on the ground by a fox or a bobcat, and Newt didn’t think that a bobcat could catch one of the owls in a tree. Far more likely that a larger owl, perhaps a great horned, was the culprit. And another owl seemed more likely to have left the legs to fall below, even if it had carried off the rest.

Newt sat where he was for a time, gazing out towards the nest-tree, and wondering if the victim had been one of “his” owls. It might not have been. It could have been one of their fledglings from the spring, less experienced and thus easier prey for a bigger owl. He hoped so. He didn’t want his owls to abandon this nest-hole, now that he’d found it and had been looking forward to getting to see them raise more broods here.

Descending, he gathered up his bag again, and after some thought, he put both of the talons and some of the longest of the feathers into it, to take back home with him. Then he gave a short howl for Browncoat, who had disappeared, and resumed his original errand out into the meadow.

It didn’t take him long to cut the armfuls of grass that he’d come for. The meadow plants were good and dried out now, but not yet beaten down by winter. They still smelled sweet, and would make good stuffing for a sitting pillow for his den. Tied up into a bundle, they were bulky but light, and he was soon heading back towards the Dentrees, his steps by habit taking him past the base of the nest-tree while he glanced hopefully up into its branches.

Newt didn’t see anything, but then he heard something. Faint at first, he had to stop and really listen.

The sound was a faint, raspy bark, repeated several times, and it seemed to be coming from up in the branches of the tree. He frowned, because it sounded like the very un-owl-like call of the short-eared owl, and he knew they did frequent the verges of the meadow... but he’d never seen one around the whitemasks’ tree before. And a short-ear wasn’t big enough to be the whitemask’s killer, either. The two owls were of a size, and while they competed, and could warn each other off sometimes, they mostly seemed to avoid one another.

Curious now, Newt left his pack and his bundle of grasses at the tree’s base, and started climbing, part excited, and part apprehensive. He’d wanted to climb up the tree ever since discovering the whitemasks’ nest-hole in it... but he hadn’t, because he didn’t want to disturb them and cause them to abandon the nest. Now he was worried enough to do it anyway, and just hope it wasn’t a mistake.

The closer he got to the dark opening of the nest-hole, the louder the hoarse sound became, confirming Newt’s fears. It was coming from the nest! And while there wasn’t much light to see by, when he finally peered in over the lip of the hole, he could just make out the shape of two owlets, all pink skin and fuzzy white down covering, huddled together on the floor of the little den. Soon enough, one of them raised its head and the sound he’d been hearing came forth again, amplified by the walls of the chamber.

Reluctantly, Newt retreated, glancing all around at the neighboring trees and looking for the pale shape of the other whitemask parent. He didn’t see anything, or hear anything either beyond the fading sound of the owlets crying to be fed, as he took up his things and started back to the Dentrees. As he was crossing the Den’s Creek, he did hear a deep hooting in the far distance, which he knew was a great horned owl. It didn’t sound anything like a whitemask’s scream, and he was too preoccupied with the troubles of his favorite owls to try to answer the great horned’s call.

He didn’t think the remaining whitemask parent would abandon its chicks, even though its mate had been killed. If the owl that had been killed had been its mate at all, he reminded himself -- it could have been one of the fledglings from the spring. Just because the current owlets had been crying for their parents, didn’t mean both parents were gone.

But Newt realized that he wouldn’t rest easily until he had found out for sure, one way or the other.

RTH 2511.11.22

The following night, Newt headed back towards the Broad Meadow, but not for any gathering. He brought an extra fur to wrap himself in, as well as some food and water. He set himself up underneath a tree that was right on the meadow’s edge, that also had a good view of the whitemasks’ tree, and the nest-hole overhead. From this distance, he could not hear the owlets crying; they hadn’t been crying when he arrived, either. He hoped that meant they had been fed.

Settled in to wait, the dusk turned to night, and the wind picked up, cold and biting. After a while, Browncoat came and curled himself at Newt’s back, for which he was grateful. He had seen a pair of short-eared owls, far off across the meadow, as twilight was fading. He had heard the call of a barred owl, but did not want it to come nearer, and so did not call back. He kept himself alert, confident that if the whitemask parents returned, he would see the gleam of their pale feathers in the moonslight.

As that night went on, however, he began to doubt his eyes. He could hear the minute, scuffling sound of small animals, going about their nightly business. That was the sort of prey the owls needed to feel their chicks, but if there were owls hunting close by, he never saw them. He also never saw the arrival of any parents to the nest-hole far above. He left when the sun was far enough up to clear the hills to the east, and he knew there would be no more owls flying. He was more worried than ever as he made his way home.

Newt thought about confessing his worry, when Greenweave and Cloudfern noticed that he was more subdued than usual, but he didn’t. He wasn’t ready to hear any well-meaning reassurances. He wanted proof, one way or another, no matter how many nights he had to sit out there and wait to see whether one of the parents returned to the nest. He thought about telling Dreamflight, or Fadestar, since they had shared his delight in watching the fledglings from the last brood learn to fly... and sooner or later, he would have to tell them, but he wasn’t ready to share his vigil yet. He didn’t mind sharing something joyful, but something in him wanted to keep his dread and sorrow private, at least for now.

The next night, he could smell rain or snow coming on the wind. He went out anyway, wearing his waterproof cloak and hood, which he slung over the furs he wrapped around himself. He didn’t like the fact that it wouldn’t be good hunting weather for owls, if a snowstorm started. He hoped the bad weather would hold off until closer to dawn, to give the owls a chance.

He had been there for hours, in the damp, rising wind, and Browncoat had wandered off restlessly, when he finally spied movement overhead. Sitting up, Newt squinted into the tangle of tree branches. Clouds moving in obscured the moonslight, but he still felt sure that he would have been able to see the feathers of a white owl in the darkness, and that wasn’t what he was seeing. He got up and moved closer to the oak’s base for a better look, and felt the first drops of icy rain start to hit the hood of his cloak.

What he saw up in the branches definitely wasn’t an owl. He could hear the faint scrabbling of claws, and then Newt spotted a bulky shadow, lowering itself from further overhead. It was too big for a squirrel or any kind of weasel, and too fast for a porcupine... and just as the dark shape reached the even darker patch that was the nest-hole opening, he realized with a cold, sinking feeling that it was a ringtail, and a big one, too.

Without consciously making the decision, Newt started climbing, stripping off his mittens for a better grip even though the rain was cold on his fingertips. He half expected to hear the scream of one of the whitemask parents, coming in to defend the nest, but no such challenge came, and he accepted what that meant — there were no parents to defend the nest any longer. He didn’t know what had happened to the second parent, but something had, leaving the nest and the owlets unguarded... except for him. That was his only thought as he climbed as quickly as he could in the worsening rain.

Ringtails were big and heavy creatures, and not to be tangled with lightly. They were clever, and quick-tempered, and they climbed as easily as squirrels. They were frequent nest-raiders when the opportunity presented itself, and on some level, Newt knew that this was a part of the Way. With both parents dead, the whitemask owlets didn’t stand a chance. Either they were dead already or they soon would be, and it was inevitable that they become a meal for something like a fisher or a bobcat or a ringtail. But Newt didn’t have to like it, and he couldn’t sit by and just watch it happen.

The ringtail’s rump and namesake tail were hanging out of the nest-hole when Newt reached it, so he did the first thing that came to mind — he reached out and grabbed the bushy tail, giving it a good yank. The ringtail turned with a startled hiss, and Newt just had time to scramble onto the nearest branch. “Go on! Get out of here!” he shouted, drawing the small knife that hung at his belt, wondering how much good it would really do him. He wished he had been able to grab some kind of stick as a club, even though he wasn’t sure how he would have climbed with it.

With an answering growl, the ringtail turned back to the nest-hole opening, lunging inward — as if it didn’t want to leave without the prey it had come for. Newt swung the knife at the ringtail’s rump, but it wasn’t a good blow, and just glanced off. Frustrated, he growled himself, and decided his first idea had been the best one. He grabbed the ringed tail again, throwing himself back in an effort to dislodge the creature’s grip on the hole’s opening and drag it away from the owlets. “Yah! Get out of there! Go away!”

When the ringtail turned on him, he saw to his horror that it had the white shape of one of the owlets in its mouth. He stabbed forward with the knife, poking it in the thigh, but it was moving too quickly for him to land much of a blow. It did scream, though, the owlet falling from its mouth and away into the darkness below. Its scream was more anger than pain, and it turned into an outraged, high-pitched growl as the ringtail flung itself at him.

Shocked at the attack, Newt saved himself from falling, but lost his knife when he flailed out with that hand for a grip on the branch. He caught a glimpse of bared white teeth and flung his other arm up, feeling the jaws score across his hand. The ringtail ran right over top of him, and the claws scratched at his face as he struggled to keep his balance on the branch. Once it had passed him, he scrambled backwards, until he felt the solid trunk of the tree at his back. He could just see the ringtail farther out on the branch, still snarling and spitting with fury. It had nowhere to go now, except to come right back at him, so he quickly fumbled at the clasp of his cloak at his neck, managing to open it and drag the cloak off his shoulders just as the ringtail came at him again.

Newt flung the cloak at it, enveloping it completely, and in the next moment the ringtail, cloak and all, fell right off the branch. It hit the ground below with a yelp.

Newt knelt on the branch, panting, and waited. But if the ringtail was still able to move after its fall — and he thought it likely, they were tough creatures, with plenty of padding — it looked as if it had no desire to try to climb the tree again. Then he heard another sound, a scrambling rustle in the dead leaves of the forest floor, and a whining bark along with another barrage of hissing and snarling. He realized that was Browncoat, coming back on the scene.

Illustration by Melanie D.
Confident that the wolf would drive off the ringtail, Newt took a deep, steadying breath, and turned to the dark nest-hole in the trunk of the tree.

There nearly wasn’t enough light to see by, as he leaned into the opening. He knew already that one owlet was gone, and was seized by dread that he would find the hole empty, that the other owlet had already been taken before he’d arrived that evening. Then his eyes adjusted enough to see a pale shape lying on the floor of the nest-hole, and he held his breath, barely feeling the cold rain or the trickle of blood on his forehead from the stinging scratches. Slowly, he reached a hand into the nest, until his fingertips brushed the whisper-soft down, then came to rest against the curve of the small body itself.

He felt warmth, and then jerking movement. The owl chick let out a long, hissing exhalation, and Newt himself started breathing again too. He grinned as the owlet’s heavy head rose and wobbled on its thin neck, and it squawked its rasping, begging cry. He’d managed to save one of them from the ringtail, at least!

**Newt? Where are you, cub?**

The suddenness of the sending, and its strength, startled Newt so badly that he nearly hit his head on the upper curve of the nest-hole’s opening. The sending was from Blacksnake, and the hunt leader felt close-by, concerned, and irritated by the mystery of Newt’s wolf-friend being out here on the edge of the Broad Meadow in bad weather like this...

**I’m here!** he answered hastily, turning on the branch and looking down.

Immediately, he saw Blacksnake below him, mounted on his wolf. The elder’s face turned upwards at Newt’s reply, shadowed by his leather hood pulled up against the sleeting rain. His Frostback was nose to nose in greeting with Browncoat, who seemed more submissive than he usually was with the younger wolf.

**Are you all right, cub? Are you hurt?** Blacksnake demanded, dismounting. **Your wolf is bleeding.**

What?” Newt yelped out loud. He started to climb down the tree as quickly as he could, slipping a little on the wet bark.

As soon as he was on the ground, Browncoat came to him, his entire body-language apologetic as Newt took the wolf’s big head in his hands, looking him over. He saw a scratch across the wolf’s nose, turning the fur around his muzzle red, but nothing more serious than that. He wondered if Browncoat felt sheepish for allowing himself to get hurt by a ringtail, and he lavished praise on his bond through wolf-sending for being courageous enough to drive the nasty little beast away.

“And you’re bleeding as well,” Blacksnake went on, out loud, now that he and Newt were close enough for words. A firm hand took Newt’s chin and turned his head towards the elder, who was bending down to study him with a severe frown and worried eyes. “What have you been getting yourself into out here?”

“I’m sorry!” said Newt, wiping his sleeve across his face to clear off some of the blood. “It’s nothing! It was just a ringtail that I surprised, and it turned on me, but I knocked it out of the tree, and Browncoat tangled with it, but it’s gone —”

Blacksnake’s expression turned to surprise at the sudden torrent of narrative, then alarmed. “A ringtail? It didn’t have the foaming sickness, did it?”

“What? No,” he replied, and then stopped to think about it. But no, he would have seen if it had been foaming at the mouth... “No, definitely not,” he went on firmly. “It attacked because I attacked it first, I was driving it away from the nest —”

“What nest?”

So Newt went back to the beginning, and finding the nest, and watching the whitemask couple’s first brood hatch and grow up and leave, which led up to the recent visit when he’d found one of the whitemasks’ remains, and the owlets, which he knew now had been abandoned, and then up to tonight, and his vigil, and the ringtail, and—

“Huh,” said the elder, staring down at him in bemusement. “Well, I suppose if you yanked it out of the hole while it was trying to get those chicks, it would have attacked you, rabid or not. Still,” he added pointedly, hands on his hips, “Willow will meet us back at the Holt to check you and Browncoat for the foaming sickness, just in case,” proving that even while listening to Newt’s long story, Blacksnake had been able to arrow a sending back to the Holt to alert the healer.

“All right,” Newt agreed, absently, bending down to pick up his cloak where it was lying on the ground. Then he looked back up at the dark hole of the nest. He wasn’t sure if he could actually hear the owlet’s faint cries, or if it was his imagination. “But I have to do something about the chick I saved, first.”

“Hmph,” grunted Blacksnake, looking up as well. “Hasn’t eaten in two days? But it’s still moving?”

“Yes,” he said quickly, hoping that the elder wasn’t about to give him a lecture about how the Way said that the chick should be left to die, because he didn’t think he could stand to listen to that advice, but he’d never tried to argue with Blacksnake before, either. From what he’d heard from Crackle, though, it didn’t sound like an easy thing to do. “It moved when I touched it, and it was still begging for food.” He started towards the tree where he had left his pack. “I have some travel-cakes, but I don’t know if it will eat that, but maybe if I chew some dried venison to make it soft...”

The hunt leader heaved a sigh. “This would be better,” the elder said, moving towards where Frostback had patiently sat himself on his haunches.

Only then did Newt notice the big, dark bundle lying on the forest floor next to the wolf. Blacksnake reached down and seized a leg, and dragged the carcass towards the base of the oak tree, revealing a fresh-killed gobbler hen that must have been the result of his night’s hunting. His pack in hand, Newt wandered over and watched as the elder took a knife from the top of his boot, and made a long cut from the base of the bird’s neck, through the thick coating of feathers and down across the breast. He peeled back the skin just enough to expose the breast meat, which he cut off in several long strips.

Blacksnake held out the strips of translucent pink meat towards him. “That should do for now. Do you have something to carry it up in?”

Newt hadn’t expected the elder to help him, but he didn’t want to question the good fortune, either. Wordless, he opened his pack with one hand and took the meat in the other, and just put it in on top of everything else. It wouldn’t get very dirty, and he didn’t think the owlet would care if it was. He nodded his thanks, and securing the pack across his back, he started climbing quickly, barely even noticing that it was still raining.

When he reached the nest-hole again, and took out the first strip of fresh gobbler meat, the owlet raised its head again and pointed its gaping beak towards him, its cries growing more insistent. It must smell the meat, he realized, as he tore off a piece as long as his finger. The owlet snatched it up as soon as he presented it, and then the next piece, and the next one, choking each one down eagerly and lunging forward for more. Even the big handful Blacksnake had given him was soon gone. He felt badly for having to stop, and then he quickly jerked his hand back as the owlet snapped after his fingers.

So the owlet would take food from him, and he could feed it, but... Newt withdrew from the hole, and looked around. He couldn’t leave it here. He didn’t have supplies with him to close over the hole, and if he didn’t close it, the ringtail would just come back, or another like it, or a fisher, or something.

He was going to have to take the owlet back to the Holt, somehow.

Taking a deep breath, he started down. He found Blacksnake waiting at the base of the tree, watching as he descended. The hunt leader had the fur Newt had brought with him over his arm, and was holding the knife that Newt had dropped earlier. Newt had always heard that Blacksnake preferred a direct approach, so when he was on the ground and standing before the elder, he announced, “He liked that, thank you — but now I have to figure out how to take him home.”

Blacksnake just nodded, looking as if he’d expected that was what Newt would say. “You’ll need to keep him warm. I suggest you use this,” he held the fur out towards Newt, “and put your cloak back on to keep the rain off you.”

Newt was too astonished at not getting an argument from the stern elder that he blurted out his reasons anyway. “I can’t just leave him here -- the ringtail would just come back! And he’ll need food more often than I can come out here...”

Now the hunt leader gave him a small smile, barely noticeable beneath the facefur. “Both very sensible conclusions. So let’s get him bundled up, and get ourselves moving back to the Holt before this rain freezes us through.”

It was tricky business climbing back up the tree, and arranging the owlet so that it was completely bundled into the warm fur, and then getting back down again. Blacksnake helped, though he wasn’t as agile a climber as Newt. It would have been handy to be able to put the owlet in its fur into one of the bags, but neither his own bag nor Blacksnake’s bag was big enough, so Newt ended up with the entire bundle held in both arms, wondering if he was going to have to walk all the way back to the Holt that way.

Instead, Blacksnake had him call Browncoat over, and then the elder put his hands on Newt’s waist and lifted him bodily, bundle of owl and all, until he was mounted on his wolf-friend’s back. Newt hung on tightly with the pressure of his thighs. He waited while the hunt leader reloaded himself, with his own pack and his bow and quiver, and then slung the gobbler hen over his shoulder before he started off, walking beside Browncoat while Frostback walked on the other side of him. He was clearly ready to steady Newt if he needed it, and Newt wanted to tell him that he wouldn’t, and there was no reason that Blacksnake shouldn’t ride his own wolf… but he hadn’t done so much no-hands riding that he was sure of it, so he didn’t say anything.

Even though he couldn’t feel it through the thick fur, Newt was aware of the tiny living body in his arms. He was in awe for a moment of what he proposed to do. As much as he’d watched birds for years now, he hadn’t ever tried raising one — not even a little songbird. He’d have to consult Dreamflight, he knew, and get Fadestar to help him remember every detail of the previous brood of whitemask owls they had watched grow up. He’d have to trap extra game to feed the owlet, and at some point, he thought, he would have to figure out how to catch mice, because he remembered seeing the whitemask parents giving whole mice to their fledglings. For a moment, he was almost overwhelmed.

As if the elder had read his thoughts, Blacksnake remarked beside him, “This isn’t the first bird that someone in the tribe has raised. Ask Snowfall, she’ll have plenty of advice for you.”

“Has she raised an owl?” Newt asked, thinking that it was probably a little more complicated than raising a songbird.

“No,” Blacksnake admitted, as the sleety rain began to turn into soft snow around them. “But her grandfather did, and I’m sure she remembers that. I do.” He shrugged, throwing Newt a half-smile. “Hadn’t thought about it in years. But I do remember. It was a barred owl that your uncle Snaptwig raised. Not like that half-wild great horned in the stories about Healer Owl, you know. Snaptwig raised his from a chick. I don’t remember how he got it. Snowfall might.”

Newt remembered Snaptwig, of course — his mother’s younger brother, fun-loving and good-natured. Snaptwig had always been full of interesting stories — he’d been one of the tribe’s Howlkeepers — and quirky ideas. Newt didn’t remember him having a particular interest in birds, but he did remember Snaptwig always looking for unusual ways of doing things. The Recognized of Beesting, he’d been the father of Bearheart, who had fathered Snowfall while Newt slept.

“Even once it was grown, it still came to him for food,” the hunt leader was saying. “It would fly along with him all the time — probably waiting for hand-outs. It helped him spook rabbits in the meadow, too, so it was useful, in its way. But your brother did him one better.”

“My brother?” said Newt in surprise.

“Birdcatcher. Of course,” Blacksnake said. “At least once that I remember — maybe more. He raised a raven from near a chick, not much older than the one you’ve got there.”

“A raven...” Newt knew the huge black birds well — less numerous than crows, but bigger, heavier, and smarter. Wolf-birds, the elves sometimes called them — for they were never far from the hunt-team, knowing that the wolves and elves would provide a kill that the ravens could scavenge when the wolves had eaten their fill. He’d heard hunters telling stories, that following ravens could lead them to prey as well, as if the birds were leading them. Newt believed the stories, because he’d seen for himself how clever they were. Of all the birds whose calls he’d learned, he’d had the longest “conversations” with ravens, quorking and gargling back and forth for hours on end.

“A raven, like the one you said the Fierce Ones hunter had,” he said slowly, and earned a sharp glance from under the elder’s hood. The tribe had chewed over all the stories brought back by the scouts, of what they’d seen in their long vigil over the humans. The elders had mentioned Birdcatcher’s raven then, but at the time Newt hadn’t wanted to think too much about something his own brother might have had in common with the Fierce Ones.

“Like that,” Blacksnake agreed, “maybe. We couldn’t see how well the human might have trained his. But the one your brother had seemed as close to him as a wolf-friend, at times. He knew whether that bird’s croaks meant it had spotted branch-horn, or white-tail. He could tell the difference between the call for bear and the one for mountain-cat. It could fly over a herd and spot any lame animals from the air, and it used to circle over spots in a meadow where branch-horn calves were hidden. That bird could be as useful as a scout,” the hunt leader admitted, “when it wanted to be. And it could be a thieving nuisance when it had a mind to.”

Newt glanced down again at the fur bundle in his arms, and Blacksnake followed the look. “I don’t know if an owl could be trained to do any of that. I never felt sure how much Birdcatcher had trained his raven to do, and how much it did just because it wanted to and had figured it out on its own.”

“But even if he would just come back sometimes,” Newt said softly, “and maybe fly along with me, and scare up rabbits...” He was thinking of Snaptwig’s barred owl, not just his brother’s useful raven.

“You’ve a long way to go yet, before he gets to that point,” the elder cautioned. “Worry about that for now. If you manage to raise him so that he flies on his own and learns to hunt for himself, that’ll be impressive enough for your first bird.”

His first bird. Surprised, Newt looked up at the older elf, and saw that faint smile on Blacksnake’s face again. It looked almost... encouraging, just as his words sounded. Newt hadn’t thought beyond wanting to save this one owlet, hadn’t thought of it as something he could learn to do, with this one, and after it, many more.

But Blacksnake was right — he had to raise this one first. There was no use getting ahead of himself.

By the time they reached the Dentrees, the clearing in front of them already had a thin coating of white on it. Newt could see warm light coming from around the leather skins covering the entrance to his fathers’ den, and he sent briefly to them to see who was home. **Cloudfern? Greenweave? I’m back, and I need Cloudfern’s help...**

Blacksnake helped him dismount near the steps that led up to the second level of the Child Tree, as the curtain parted above and he saw the shape of both of his fathers in the den’s door.

“Newt? Blacksnake?” Greenweave called when he saw them. “Is something wrong?” The two of them started down.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Newt answered, shifting his grip on the bundle of fur. Blacksnake moved away from him, setting his things down against the hometree’s trunk and starting to dress the carcass of the bird he carried. “But I — I need a favor from Cloudfern, well both of you, really —”

“This sounds like it has a story attached,” said the plantshaper, looking between his adopted son and the hunt leader working nearby. Blacksnake was clearly paying attention to the conversation, waiting to see how Newt would handle the responsibility he’d undertaken.

“It does,” Newt admitted. “Kind of a long story, actually...”

“How did your face get all scratched up?” Greenweave demanded, having reached his side.

“That’s part of the story. Look.” Newt drew back the corner of the bundled fur, revealing the shape of the owlet within, and both of his fathers bent closer for a look.

Cloudfern gave a low whistle, and Greenweave said, “Will you look at that! What kind of bird is it?”

“Some kind of owl?” Cloudfern asked.

“Yes! It’s a whitemask owlet,” Newt explained, “though I know it doesn’t look like much of anything right now. But it’s an orphan — its parents were killed, and I saw its only sibling killed, and I saved this one from a ringtail —”

Greenweave laughed. “This does sound like quite a story!”

“And I’ll tell you the whole thing, only — only I want to get him settled first, because I’m going to raise him,” he stated, with more confidence than he felt. Newt was aware of Blacksnake’s eyes on him, though, and the elder had sounded as if he believed Newt could do it, so why shouldn’t he believe it as well?

His fathers traded a glance, but there weren’t any immediate objections. After a moment, Cloudfern said mildly, “So what’s this favor you wanted to ask of me?”

The idea had come to Newt on the ride back to the Holt, so now he asked, “Could you shape a nest-hole for him? It doesn’t have to be big, it could fit into the wall of our den, near the window maybe? But so I could close it off from the outside, so he’ll be safe from any more nest-raiders, and I can get to it easily, to feed him.”

Cloudfern looked up towards the window of their den, thoughtfully. “That shouldn’t be hard to do. I think I know just the spot.”

“It’s all right with you? With both of you?” Newt said anxiously, looking from one of his fathers to the other.

“It’s all right with me,” said the plantshaper, raising his eyebrows at his lifemate.

Greenweave looked down at him, a proud smile on his face. “Of course it’s all right with me. If you want to save an orphan owl, of course we’ll help you — though I don’t really know anything about raising birds...”

“Snowfall does, though, and Dreamflight does,” Newt said firmly. “And we’ll figure the rest out. I want to try.”

Cloudfern patted his shoulder. “I’d best get started, then. It sounds like that little fellow has had enough excitement for one day. I’m sure he’d appreciate a nest to settle into.”

From the depths of the fur came a raspy croak, followed shortly by a stronger call, and then another. The owlet was hungry again, and Newt realized that he wasn’t going to get any kind of a break before he had to figure out how to get a steady supply of food for the growing creature.

Before he could ask, he found Blacksnake standing next to him, offering another handful of meat stripped from the gobbler hen. “I don’t think another dose of this will hurt,” said the hunt leader.

Newt took the meat gratefully, and juggled the bundle until he could feed the strips to the owlet one-handed. “Hurt?” said Greenweave, looking puzzled.

Blacksnake shrugged. “I doubt the parent owls were bringing home gobblers for their chicks to eat.”

“Hmm. Just like elf children learn not to feed wolf cubs anything the older wolves wouldn’t bring back for them to eat,” the fisher mused. He smiled ruefully at Newt. “I’m afraid my fishing lines aren’t going to be much help to you.”

“You’d better see which of the tribe’s trappers had luck tonight,” advised Blacksnake. “The rate your new friend is eating, it looks like he’d make short work of the rest of that hen, if we let him.”

Newt nodded, as the last of the gobbler disappeared into the gaping mouth. “I think I’m going to have to have someone teach me to set traplines myself, so I’m not just asking them to give me their catch.”

“Not a bad skill to learn, and you’ll have some extra motivation to learn it,” Greenweave agreed. “You’re a papa-owl now, and that’s a lot of responsibility.”

Newt knew it. But looking down at the helpless young owl in his arms, he felt excited about the challenge, and where it could lead.

Just at that moment, Willow came riding through the screen of trees along the north side of the clearing, past the Father Tree and towards their little group. “There you are — you made it back!” she called, dismounting from Sky. Newt saw that the bag slung over her shoulder looked full — from a successful run of her own traplines, maybe? He was so busy thinking about what he could offer to trade with her for her catch, that her next words took him by surprise. “Blacksnake said something about the foaming sickness? What happened?”

“Oh!” He’d just about forgotten that worry, and that Blacksnake had sent to the healer to meet them. “Oh, right — there was a ringtail I tangled with, it was trying to steal baby owls from a tree, well actually it did manage to steal one of them, and it bit me a little on the hand, so Blacksnake thought you’d better check me, but I don’t think it was really sick, just spitting mad —”

Willow’s eyebrows went up. “All right, all right — slow down! It should be easy enough to tell. Give me your hand.”

Newt started to extend his free hand, then remembered it was the other that had been bitten, and maybe it would be better for her to examine that one. So he shifted around the bundle until he was holding it in the other arm, and gave his left hand to the healer. The golden glow of her power was brief, a warm sensation that erased the shallow score-marks of the bite when she was done.

“Nope,” she announced, “no sign of sickness there. You want me to take care of those scratches on your face, too?”

“Sure,” Newt nodded. “Thank you.” Her touch soothed the stinging lines across his cheek and forehead until he couldn’t feel them any more. He was aware of both Greenweave’s and Blacksnake’s hovering presence relaxing a bit; they’d been more worried about the foaming sickness than he had.

“So what’ve you got there? Is that really an owl chick?” Willow asked.

“Yes, it’s a whitemask,” Newt told her, opening the fur covering again so that she could see.

“Huh! Sure doesn’t look like much, does he?” she chuckled, and looking down at the owlet, he had to agree.

“No, he doesn’t look like much right now,” Newt said fondly. “He’ll be a lot more impressive once he’s grown up — and I’m going to be the best Papa owl I can, to give him that chance.” He grinned at Greenweave and Blacksnake, knowing he’d have the help he needed, if he asked for it. “So while you’re here, I wanted to ask you about the catch from your traplines tonight...”

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