(This story is a sequel to ”The Gathering Storm, Part 7”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see the Collection for related stories, or see the forum listing here.)
RTH 2511.02.29 — early hours
He rode until old Wasp was staggering with exhaustion. Around them, the blizzard continued to rage, blinding them in a curtain of whirling snowflakes scouring exposed skin with pellets of frozen ice. Fireweed and Frostback huddled up to either side of their grizzled pack-leader; both young wolves were down at the ears and tail and seeking comfort from their elder. Blacksnake took a firm grip on his spear and eased himself from Wasp's back onto Frostback's, not risking a full dismount in the blinding storm.
Behind them, somewhere in the blizzard, lay the Fierce Ones' camp — and the human whom Blacksnake had almost ridden down in the snow. Should have killed him, was the thought which haunted Blacksnake now. But the human had been only a child, with freckled cheeks and red hair, just like both of his nieces'. Should have let Wasp rip out his throat — he had already cried out a warning, but there's the chance his kin might not have heard that scream over the wind. If we'd killed him, he wouldn't be able to talk, wouldn't be able to tell them what he'd seen. But I didn't, and now it's too late. Too late — maggots and rot, I've come to my senses too rutting late...
He gave Wasp a few more moments to rest, then pressed his knees against Frostback's ribs and urged him forward. They had to keep moving. With the storm roaring around them, he had no way to tell if, even now, there were Fierce One riders closing in from behind. Best to keep moving. Best to lead the danger away, to the north, deeper into the steppes, away from his companions and away from the Holt. If the humans were chasing him, the freezing blizzard was his ally — every mile farther from the Fierce Ones' camp he could lead them lessened their chances of returning. Those Blacksnake himself couldn't kill, the storm itself might finish.
Although the blizzard had separated Blacksnake physically from his companions, Brightwood and Farscout's sendings were a constant presence, sharp and shining in his mind, as though the lifemates rode astride the two wolves behind him. He could feel their fear for him, keener than his own. They drank up any sensation or sensory impression he was willing to share with them, and in return shared their own — the wind whipping through their rocky shelter, gusting eddies of snowflakes that swallowed the plains below entirely. They were as blind as Blacksnake was, and as deafened by the constant wind. But their constant contact served as a bright beacon — even bat-blind in the storm, he could feel his way back to Lost Child Butte. Keeping them constantly at his back gave him the confidence that he and the three wolves were traveling north; there was no chance of them circling back by accident and stumbling back into the human camp, as Wasp and Blacksnake had before.
**Still nothing from them,** Brightwood said then. **But the Fierce Ones could be building a bonfire on top of the butte and the storm would hide it from us.** Her sending was fierce with restless frustration. **Don't you dare go and start planning your last stand yet!** she snarled at him. ** You're not getting into any kind of scrap, not without both of us there to back you!**
**Sit tight! Don't either of you leave that den!** Blacksnake ordered, as he had dozens of times already that night. Brightwood and Farscout had reached the shelter of the abandoned snowcat den before Blacksnake had come nose-to-nose with the human boy, and Blacksnake knew how badly sitting and waiting galled Brightwood in particular, even in the best of times. Waiting now was a torture, and if there had been room in the cliff-side crevasse, Blacksnake knew the plantshaper would have been pacing it.
**I'm not your cub, so you stuff your orders down your craw!** Brightwood sallied back. **You're not my chief and we're not hunting!**
**Neither of us can get to you,** Farscout's sending slid between them, as though positioning himself between two wolves quarreling over their place in the pack. **We cannot leave. The wind is only rising; we cannot climb down now, nor could you safely climb up. The rock face is too icy and too exposed to the wind. We are in no danger, not in here. Save your concern for yourself, old friend. You need to stop running. Take shelter.**
**Use your wits on yourself for once,** Brightwood added. **Tuck up and take cover. The wolves will keep you warm, with a layer of snow around you for insulation.**
**Take shelter,** Farscout urged again. **This storm will only get worse before dawn.**
Blacksnake knew the advice was good advice, but he could not shake the image of Fierce One riders on his tail. **If any of the humans are following us, then I'm leading them as far away from you as I can,** Blacksnake countered.
**If any of the Fierce Ones are stupid enough to be following you, the blizzard is going to freeze their stones solid!** Brightwood retorted. **This blizzard must be erasing your tracks three steps behind you. Take cover until it lightens up. If not for you, then have pity on the poor wolves!**
**Even if the humans are chasing you, they cannot find you. Not storm-blind,** Farscout sent. **Stop and wait the storm out. At least wait until we can send Duskgreeter or Redbrush into the camp, to count the roundhooves. We will know then if you have been pursued.**
Blacksnake felt the sense of that. He knew that if their roles were reversed, if it were Brightwood or Farscout in the blizzard alone, that he would insist on it. But he could not shake the need to keep moving, to keep laying down a fox's trail to protect the ones he loved.
And in turn, his friends knew him too well as well.
**You rutting old windbag!** blazed Brightwood in furious exasperation. **The farther you range, the more danger you're going to put my lifemate and me in when we have to come out in search of your frozen bones! Haven't you thought of that? Anything happens to you, you know we'll be coming after you. So every step you take puts Farscout and me in more danger of being caught by the bloody rotten humans! So tuck and cover already!**
Blacksnake groaned aloud, but beneath him, Frostback reacted to the shift in his rider's weight and drew to a stop. Blacksnake stabbed his spear butt into the snow and dismounted, to dig a shelter beside it.
**For now, I'll stop,** he sent as he worked, while the wolves circled around him and huddled together against the storm. **But only until you get Duskgreeter or Redbrush's eyes into that camp.**
**Aye,** Farscout agreed, his relief palpable.
**And you hit below the belt,** Blacksnake sent grudgingly at Brightwood.
**I learned that the hard way,** Brightwood retorted, the sharp edges of her mindtouch softening with her relief and with her love for him. **Sometimes the only way to get your full attention, dearheart, is to grab you by the nutsack and squeeze.**
RTH 2511.02.29 — early hours
**Niece,** whispered Windburn's sending. **Niece.**
Goldspice was dreaming about panning for gold dust. She was crouched naked on a creek bank, while in the distance thunder rumbled as steadily as a wolf’s growl. She could see a wealth of nuggets beneath the water, but they swirled away in her pan, leaving beneath nothing but mud. It was good, though, that her chief was coming to help her — maybe he would have better luck. Besides, Moss was waiting for her back at the Holt. Her lovemate had been away too long, and she missed him. Her sleep-fogged mind could not remember just why her lovemate was gone. But the ache was there; awake or dreaming, his absence was felt.
**Niece. We need to speak. Wake up. There's trouble. Wake up. Blacksnake has tangled with the Fierce Ones.**
That succeeded in shaking Goldspice awake. She opened her eyes, feeling as if she had been doused in ice water and wondering, in a sleep-dazed corner of her mind, whether or not those terrible words were just part of her dream.
But no — Windburn was there, his shadow in her mind faint but persistent. She tasted the strong thread of fear that rippled through his mindtouch, and knew the message had been no dream. Outside, the storm was still blowing. She could hear the fierce gusts of wind, and feel the sway of the Father Tree above their sheltered den. Around her, their sleeping furs piled close together, Chicory, Willow, Suddendusk, Kestrel, Nightstorm and the cubs all slept. She reached out reflexively to Greenweave, the absent one, and found him drowsing alone in his den above them, the unbonded wolves Murkfur and Windswift crowded into the bowl of his bed for warmth. **I am awake,** Goldspice sent to her chief. **What has happened? Is Grandsire all right?**
**Farscout reports that Blacksnake got lost in the blizzard, and rode by mistake into the Fierce Ones' camp. Father escaped again, but not before a youth saw him.**
Goldspice shivered and clutched her sleeping furs tighter. She felt Windburn’s fear for Blacksnake as a shadow to his sending, but her chief’s thoughts directed to her were tightly controlled and tightly focused. Right now, she envied her uncle that control.
**I will tell you more as I learn it — but for now, do not share the news until you must. I don’t want my sister to panic on us,** he sent.
**Chicory is asleep,** Goldspice assured her chief. **Everyone is asleep but me.**
**There is no knowing yet how this will change things,** Windburn sent. **But I must change the previous orders I gave you. I know I had asked that once the blizzard is over, that Kestrel to be sent out to join One-Leg, so that she could partner Pathmark in the southern watch while One-Leg and Notch follow the humans back to their village. But I’m not comfortable with that now. We may find ourselves needing Kestrel’s mobility now, more keenly than ever. I want you to send Kestrel to take the alarm to Bluestone Cave, then to join One-Leg on watch over the human settlement. That means you need to send Greenweave to pair with Pathmark on our southern approach. I know sending Greenweave out that leaves you with one less able body to help look after the cubs, but Pathmark can’t be left to the southern watch alone, and with the local humans alarmed, One-Leg may need Kestrel most.**
Goldspice considered that for a moment, then nodded to herself in the darkness. **I understand,** she said simply.
**If there’s any sign of trouble, you and the others will have the most warning. You have enough adults left at the Holt to get the cubs to safety, should the worst come to pass.** Windburn’s mindtouch grew fractured for a moment, distracted between competing concerns. **You will have to juggle who you have left to escort Greenweave there. I know Willow will volunteer, but... please keep our healer close to the cubs.**
**I understand.** Goldspice thought about the situation and frowned. **I will send Nightstorm to escort Greenweave out. Must I send a rider with her? Nightstorm will surely ride home as fast as she can.**
**No.** Windburn countered firmly. **It will be a two-day ride, at the very least. I want no one traveling alone. We think we have all of the Fierce Ones accounted for... but I will not risk lives on that assumption. Send Suddendusk as well. My uncle will be sure to ride as fast as he can to get home to the Holt and his son.**
**Aye,** Goldspice assured her uncle-chief. **Then when the storm is over, I will send Greenweave to join Pathmark on watch; Suddendusk and Nightstorm will escort Greenweave there and then return with all haste. I will send Kestrel up to Bluestone Cave with the latest warning about the Fierce Ones, and then she'll move to join One-Leg and Notch in spying on our local humans.** Goldspice eased back down into the furs, careful not to disturb Copper as the girl slept beside her. She felt Windburn’s acceptance of that, and the brush of relief he felt at having one concern settled. **I’ll be waiting for better news,** she told him, before he broke off contact.
Goldspice slid her arms around Copper. The girl snuggled closer in her slumber, warm and trusting. Goldspice lay awake until well after dawn, holding the child close as she listened to the blizzard winds howl outside, waiting with a sense of sick anticipation for whatever might come next.
RTH 2511.02.29 — late morning/early afternoon
Cold stone would never make a fit home for wolfriders. Otter was certain of that as he lay in his sleeping furs near the hearth of the Bluestone Cave’s central gathering den, unable to actually sleep despite the other sleepers slumbering around him. The one thing he could say about sleeping in this cave was that at least, buried within the mountain as they were, with both ends of the narrow throat corridor blocked off by lashed-and-weighted curtains, Bluestone Cave was marginally warmer than a hometree, and the sound of the wind howling outside was blunted to a distant whisper. One could almost ignore the snowstorm outside... almost. A full day at least had passed since the blizzard had roared down on their high valley; with any luck, it was blowing itself out now, and they would be able to leave the cave and stretch their legs on a nice, long hunt before nightfall. That at least would take his mind off of things, he hoped.
Nearby, Cloudfern thrashed in his sleep; the plantshaper settled after the first few moments, but then began to whimper softly, like a lost child. The plantshaper’s nightmares had become such a familiar occurrence to his companions since their arrival at Bluestone Cave that Otter only rose up on the elbow of his uninjured arm and looked over the sleepers between them to make sure that Cloudfern’s thrashing had not cost Newt a share of the sleeping furs.
Cloudfern’s nightmares weren’t the only symptom of the stress they were all living with. Otter’s mother, Starskimmer, was working herself to a constant state of exhaustion with her stone-shaping ability; Evervale and Cloudfern were doing the same with their plant-shaping, while Crackle’s humor had become a brittle, forced thing worn like a cheerful mask, not reflected by the troubled business going on behind her green eyes. Newt was abnormally quiet and watchful, and Otter knew his friend was worried that he would not prove useful enough, since he wasn’t a hunter. And worst of all was True Edge — the arrogant elder swung from being uncharacteristically nice and nurturing one moment, to being as fierce as a stinkbear the next.
True Edge had gotten so prickly that he would not even share sleeping furs with the rest of the group — he had claimed as his private den a lonely crack in the wall in the back of the smallest of the two chambers that Starskimmer was intending to shape into the secondary storage den, and in what moments True Edge wasn’t pacing the cave complex like a trapped wildcat, he was sitting in the darkness knapping spearheads and stone knives and carving bone arrowheads. Fadestar seemed to be the one of them who was handling the emergency the best... but then again, she was the one who’d been lucky enough to have spotted the Fierce One hunters. Otter was willing to bet that everything Fadestar had experienced since was just a sunny walk to the riverbank in comparison to having almost gotten caught by the elf-eaters. And Otter was deeply envious that it had been her out with Farscout on that long patrol in the first place. Otter had spent a good deal of time daydreaming that it had been him, instead, who had gotten to encounter the Fierce Ones. He preferred imagining heroic twists and turns to that adventure, over gnawing upon the fear he might never see the Holt — his real home — again.
Otter hated the thought that the tribe might be forced to leave their home and move here to Bluestone Valley. He hated this cave. He hated the poor winter hunting and deep snow and having to always remember to worry about avalanche dangers. He hated knowing that there were dangerous humans being stalked by his tribemates somewhere else, and that he and his peers had been sent out of that harm’s way. Otter hated being young and always having to take orders from his elders. He hated waiting on the weather, hated how the blizzard shut them in like burrowing badgers. He hated having to sit on his tailbone with little to look forward to but more scutwork like bone-cleaning and basket-weaving. He hated that it was little Fadestar who was getting sent on the scouting trips to and from Windy Ridge, when she had already had her share of adventure out on the long patrol with Farscout. And most of all — he just hated having to wait. Waiting was all they did. Waiting on the blizzard. Waiting on his elders to allow him and Crackle to go hunting. Waiting on Fadestar to come and go to Windy Ridge just to learn what else was going on in the rest of the Holt — and having even that dribble of news be days-old and stale when it reached them. If the local humans were going to do anything in reaction to Notch’s having blown the Fierce One’s horn, they would have to wait until after the storm had blown over enough to see if that kicked hornet’s nest was going to buzz or boil. Probably anything exciting would already be done and over with by the time news reached the back of beyond up here at Bluestone Valley.
As Otter thought on this, complaining silently to himself how unfair it all was, his sharp ears caught the sound of footsteps. It was True Edge — the elder stalked through the chamber from the back corridor toward the curtained throat, his boots making only a whisper against the sandy floor of the Gathering Den. True Edge’s body language was tight with unfocused anger; the wolves saw that and responded. Halfmoon, Crowsong, Browncoat, Branch, Pounce, Muddypaws and Otter’s own Splash all roused and rose to follow, leaving only old Tenor and True Edge’s own half-crippled she-wolf Charm behind. Otter scrambled to his feet as well, snatching up the winter coat he had been using as a pillow and shrugging it on as he hurried to catch up.
“If the storm has cleared up enough, there’s a flock of gobbler birds roosting up just north of the east fork of High Springs,” Otter said as he caught up to the elder, where True Edge was unlashing the heavy layers of hide-curtain where the throat opened in the cave mouth. “We could have fresh fowl by nightfall, if Crackle and I can go hunting!”
True Edge grunted in answer as he pushed the door-hides aside and strode on to the mouth of Bluestone Cave. An icy breeze greeted them as they stepped out into a bright, crisp morning. The snow had blown calf-deep into the shelter of the cave; as they waded out of the cave, the fresh snow was well up to Otter’s thighs. Beyond them, the blizzard had buried their valley — but already, there were other signs of life, emerging from the snow. A redbird took wing, and the surface of the snowbank skirting the closest pine was dappled with tiny paw-prints of some sort.
Splash pushed past, her furry paw-pads bearing her weight up across the fresh snow better than booted elf-feet could. The other wolves were equally eager to stretch their legs and mark their weather-changed territory. Otter reached down and scooped up a handful of the heavy, wet snow. It patted up nicely into a firm snowfall, which splattered satisfactorily when he flung it at the snow-burdened pine. He heard the arrival of others in the cave mouth behind them, and automatically shaped a second snowball, just in case Crackle got any ideas and self-defense became necessary.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Starskimmer said, clutching a fur around her shoulders.
“A good day for us to get back to shaping,” Evervale agreed, with a smile for Cloudfern.
“Gobblers will be hungry, they’ll be busy looking for food and distracted. We’ll be able to creep up on the troop of them and bag ‘m, easy!” Otter exclaimed.
Crackle nodded enthusiastically. “Panfish in the lake can wait for another day!” she agreed.
True Edge was still scowling as he stared out over the snow-mantled landscape. He then tugged his hood up over his head and snapped his fingers to get the unbonded wolf Branch’s attention.
“No hunting today,” the elder said. “You cubs stay near the cave and finish cleaning those bones. Fadestar, rest up. I’m going to ride out and assess the avalanche risk — when I know it’s safe, I’ll be sending you back to Windy Ridge.”
“What?” Otter cried out, barely recognizing his own voice. A wave of outrage swept over him. It was a clear, beautiful day — there was no way he was going to waste it, held back to the caves like some cub! “The game will be looking for food — it’s ridiculous to waste a clear day! We should hunt now!”
True Edge turned to face Otter, his eyes narrowing fiercely. “No. You cubs aren't used to this mountain country. You’re blind to the dangers of a heavy snowfall. I’m not sending you cubs out to hunt till it's settled a bit. I'll not have you being buried in an avalanche.”
Otter flung his snowball in a fury. “I’m no cub, so stop talking like I am one! And Crackle and me aren’t stupid, we can hunt as safely as anyone! Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean that I am —”
Otter was aware only of a blur of movement before something struck him, hard, across the side of his ear. Snow rushed up around him, and he found himself on his hands and knees in the snowbank, his head spinning, his ears ringing, and tears watering his eyes. True Edge stood above him, both hands gripped in fists and his face set in a feral snarl.
“You do as I tell you to do, boy,” his elder rasped. “You do as you are told, and when it is safe for you to hunt, I will tell you you can hunt.”
With that, True Edge shot a fierce look at the rest of the gathered group, and when he was satisfied that there was no other open rebellion, he gestured for Branch and stalked off on his self-appointed task. Starskimmer and Newt both immediately moved to help Otter to his feet. He shrugged them off, his face burning.
“That was not clever, son,” Starskimmer said drolly.
“Me and Crackle aren’t stupid cubs,” Otter grumbled. “We’re not!”
“Well, at least one of us is smart enough not to challenge True Edge when he’s being a cranky old bear,” Crackle countered. “I want to go hunting, too, but I would have been just as happy with a hike down to Slaptail Lake. Instead, we’ve got bone-duty now, thanks to you.”
“I’ll help,” Newt offered. “And we can at least bring them outside and enjoy the day, while the weather stays clear.”
“You shouldn’t push True Edge when he’s in a dark mood like this,” Evervale said. “He’s already enough of a stinkbear to live with. He’s taking the return of the Fierce Ones so hard.”
Otter shifted a sullen glance at Cloudfern and then scowled at Evervale. “Like we’re all not?” he grumbled bitterly. “Cloudfern’s got the most reason for any of us to be tied up in knots over the rutting Fierce Ones, but Cloudfern’s not biting anyone’s heads off their shoulders!”
“Glad to know I’m decent company,” Cloudfern smirked. “My uncle has never forgiven himself for not dying with my parents and grandparents. His being there would not have saved any of our family, but he thinks too highly of himself to accept that.” Cloudfern shrugged off the concern, and tied back his long, pale hair in a knot. “We shapers have our own work to tackle. Cubs, get to work on that pile of bones. If you can finish it off before the afternoon gets too late, maybe there’s hope yet for some ice-fishing down at Slaptail Lake.”
Evervale and Cloudfern walked away, heading for the treehomes they had been working on down along the streamside. Starskimmer turned away as well, heading back into Bluestone Cave. “How about some tea?” she asked Newt, who followed after her. Otter scowled after Cloudfern and Evervale’s backs as they hiked away through the snow, until Crackle gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder.
“Cloudfern’s right,” she said. “Let’s see how fast we can finish. The sooner we’re done, the sooner maybe we can find something that’s fun to do.”
Otter delayed just long enough to shoot a wistful glance after Splash and the rest of the wolves. They had not followed after True Edge and Branch, and instead were still investigating the fresh snow. Otter felt the flavor of Splash’s mind, and tasted her restless hunger. Someone, at least, was going to spend their day hunting. Otter wished his wolf-friend well in it, and resentfully followed Crackle back into Bluestone Cave.
RTH 2511.02.29 — midday/early afternoon
**Storm is clearing,** Kestrel sent. **We should all be leaving, too.**
Suddendusk finished double-checking his travel pack and responded with a wordless, distracted pulse of acknowledgement. Then he sighed and looked at his son. Rill gazed back at him, his bright blue eyes shining.
"Is it time, father?" the boy asked.
Suddendusk nodded reluctantly. He sat on the edge of his bedbowl, and patted the furs beside him. "Do you understand why I must go?"
Rill sat beside him, swinging his booted feet. "I understand," the boy said. "The chief ordered it."
Suddendusk felt his heart swell with pride for his son. The boy was struggling against strong emotion — a father could sense that, and see it in the irregular, twitching body language of a child who was trying his best to seem mature beyond his tender years. Suddendusk could not help but reach out and cup Rill's cheek — but only for a moment, out of respect for a cub's pride. "And do you understand why my nephew gave the order?"
Rill nodded firmly. "The chief wants Greenweave to go join the southern patrol with Pathmark, so that Kestrel, Notch and Uncle One-Leg can get close to the human village and see what they’re gonna do next. You and Nightstorm have to escort Greenweave there, and then you both ride back together. Because Chief Windburn doesn't want anyone to be out there in the woods alone because of maybe there's Fierce Ones."
"No one has yet seen the Fierce Ones in our woods, so it's a wise precaution." Suddendusk studied his son for a long moment, hating the prospect of leaving him behind, if only for the handful of days his mission would take him. "Goldspice, Willow, and Chicory will keep you safe until I come back. It should only take me five nights or so, or even four if Nightstorm and I travel as hard as we can on our return."
Instead of the tears Suddendusk had half-expected, Rill smiled bravely. "Four nights or five, that isn't long at all. You'll be back in no time."
Suddendusk hugged his son close, thinking to himself that four or five nights to him would feel like four or five years. Goldspice had told her elders about Blacksnake's close encounter with a Fierce Ones in the middle of the blizzard during the night; the last word relayed to the Holt from the scouts were that they were reunited and safe, but Suddendusk was deeply afraid of how tenuous that safety might be. Heavy fresh snow dumped by the blizzard would keep the humans in their hunting camp subdued for a day or so yet, maybe — Suddendusk hoped his brother would use his considerable smarts to use that time to put miles between the scouts and the Fierce Ones, but he feared Blacksnake, Brightwood and Farscout would choose instead to stay on task despite the exposure. And as dearly as he feared for his brother and the others, Suddendusk also knew that the development meant that the threat of an invasion of the Holt had just risen considerably. If the Fierce Ones rode on the Holt within the next few days, it would be up to Goldspice, Willow and Chicory to get the children to the arguable safety of Bluestone Cave; he and Nightstorm would be too far away to be of any aide.
But those were fears he did not want to burden his brave little wolf-cub with. Instead, Suddendusk forced a cheerful smile to match his son's courageous effort, and shouldered his travel pack as he rose. "You be my brave little wolf and do what Goldspice, Chicory and Willow tell you. You are the eldest of the cubs. I expect you to keep a close eye on the others and look after them, just like I know you already do."
Rill nodded at that, although there was a twist to his smile. "Cinder is already doing that for me, twice as hard," he complained. "He is so serious he's boring."
"Serious times call for serious faces," Suddendusk said sternly, although he could remember a younger, wilder self who would have scoffed at such a thing. It had taken fatherhood to teach him that lesson.
The glitter of mischief in Rill's eyes had vanished at the admonishment. The boy nodded soberly, and even stilled his swinging legs.
"I know," Rill said solemnly. "I will be very good while you're gone. I promise. Very, very good."
Suddendusk could not restrain himself from hugging his youngest child again, for one last time before leaving. "I know you will be," he said, ruffling his boy's fine, sunny hair. "I know you will be. Now wish me clear weather and see us off — and let's make sure Greenweave or Nightstorm has packed One-Leg’s spare leg. Your uncle will never forgive us if we've forgotten it!"
RTH 2511.02.29 — late afternoon
**Movement,** whispered Farscout. **We have movement.**
The words woke her from an uneasy doze. Brightwood opened her eyes. She lay on the floor of the abandoned snowcat den, with Blacksnake wrapped in her arms beneath their layers of sleeping furs, and her lifemate pressed warm against Blacksnake’s back. It had been well into the morning before the blizzard winds had died down enough for Duskgreeter's cautious inspection of the perimeter of the human camp, which had revealed that the humans themselves had not yet stirred — and that their herd of roundhooves were all still within the circle of the camp. There had been no riders in the night, no pursuit of Blacksnake. Although the blizzard winds had waned by mid-morning, the snow had not stopped falling until after Blacksnake was safely back to the shelter and the waiting arms of his friends. All three of them had been dragging with exhaustion by then — in Brightwood’s opinion, waiting helplessly was far harder work than fighting through snowbanks in gale force winds, although she wagered Blacksnake would argue he had had the worst of it through the night.
It was late afternoon now — Blacksnake at least had slept soundly, sandwiched between them as Brightwood and Farscout had kept watch. Farscout had insisted the watch was his alone, but she knew the night of fear and tension had wakened her lifemate’s own bitter ghosts. She had only to see the hollow look in her Recognized’s pale eyes to know that he was haunted by the memory of a desperate trek through a snowstorm he had made once, centuries ago now, when there had been a pack of riders in pursuit. They had been fleeing for their lives, she and her brother astride a white wolf, Farscout afoot, stinking of the smell of death of their close kin and Brightwood’s own life’s blood a bubbling froth on her lips and filling her mouth... That ride had left too terrible a memory to leave her lifemate alone with now, so she had struggled to stay awake, when all her body craved was the sweet release of sleep...
There would still be time enough for sleep later, she hoped, while Blacksnake stirred against her. Mushroom was murmuring a stream of misery in Farscout’s ear from the cover of her lifemate’s hood. Blacksnake sat up, dragging a sleeping fur around his shoulders. Brightwood pushed herself up on her elbows to see over the lip of the ledge of their crevasse shelter, to see what their enemy was doing.
Below them, the steppe was white with fresh snow, and the sky above was cloudless and that breath-taking deep blue that only seemed to come in the clear calm after a storm. The blizzard that had lasted all night and all the morning had buried the Fierce Ones' camp. The roundhooves were stood belly-deep in the drifts, pawing through it in the hopes of finding graze beneath.
Fur-and-leather clad bodies were pushing out of the largest of the round huts. Silently, the three elves watched as several of the humans walked outside, one of them shrugging his way into a sheepskin coat, another stepping aside to pass a prodigious stream of water. A young female scooped up a snowball and threw it at one of her companions, who laughed, grabbed up a handful of snow of his own, and proceeded to chase her until he caught her by the hood of her tunic. The shrill sound of her squeals carried across the virgin drifts; she could have been within their bowshot, rather than 10 or more bowlengths away.
**There's Bear-Shoulder. And that's Heavy-Coat,** Brightwood observed, as those individuals came out of a second hut-tent. **Look at him with his hood down. He's the first of them I've ever seen with dark hair.**
**He's still got his raven,** Farscout added, as that bird quorked and took flight. It sailed across the camp to land on the top of the frozen wolf-heads that hung from the tops of their two western gate posts, dislodging snow as it landed. When the posts had first been raised, only Brindlefur's head, pelt still attached, had been displayed there. But she had grisly company now. Two nights ago, one of the Fierce One women had startled the stranger-pack feasting on the bloody bones of the camp midden pit. As the pack fled, she had killed one of them with a single, well-placed shot.
**There's the Red Chief,** Brightwood said, recognizing the blue bears-head painted on the back of that one’s bulky coat. **Is that your boy with him?**
**Aye,** Blacksnake replied. **That’s the boy.**
The three scouts watched as a group of Fierce Ones walked across the circle of their camp, while the rest of their hunting party emerged from the other tents. Words passed between them like ravens. The one the elves had taken to calling the Red Chief was walking to the fore now, one gloved hand resting on the shoulder of the shorter, slighter youth beside him. Both humans wore their hoods down. They both had the same red, shaggy hair that made Brightwood think of Blacksnake’s nieces Evervale and Crackle — and of Blacksnake’s son Windburn.
**That's him,** Blacksnake replied. Brightwood remembered the memory-sending Blacksnake had shared with them during the night — their glimpse of the youth had been of a face dappled with freckles, and ice-blue eyes that were wide with shock and fear. Blacksnake’s encounter during the storm had certainly scared the Fierce One as badly as it had scared all three elves.
The humans stopped between the gate posts, and the boy began to talk, his words fast and feverish. The Fierce Ones clustered around the boy, as avid an audience as their spies. Sound carried keenly across the crisp, cold distance. The elves could not translate the youth's words as he recited his story, but Brightwood found the youth’s gestures to be eloquent enough. Here was where a wolf and rider had materialized out of the storm before him in the snow, she imagined him as saying. And here was where he was attacked by the wolf — although in the boy's telling of it, he appeared to be bravely setting his spear between his widely-planted feet, bracing against a charge. **The way you told it, the boy fell on his tail and wailed like a little cub,** she sent wryly.
**Lost in translation, maybe?** Blacksnake returned, his humor forced and grim. His expression was tight with anger — at himself, Brightwood wagered, for not having struck the boy through the heart and silenced him permanently.
**There is an arrow's-length of snow burying Wasp's tracks,** Farscout sent. **There is no physical sign to be found of your encounter during the storm. We have that comfort, at least.**
**And none of them has the least clue we’re up here, hiding right on top of them,** Brightwood agreed. **So when they go looking for us, my wager is that they'll ride north, toward where they caught me and Frost, my brother and my grandparents before. There’s no reason for them to turn south toward the Holt.**
**But they know we’re here,** Blacksnake sent darkly.
Brightwood shrugged his bleak words off. **There’s no reason to believe they didn’t already. It’s been hundreds of years since they last tasted elf, but they could already be hunting us as they hunt the clickdeer. As long as they don’t start sniffing around the woods, the tribe is still safe. We’ve given nothing away.**
**Human years are shorter than ours, they could have forgotten. Until last night, that is,** Blacksnake countered, his words edged with simmering emotion.
Brightwood shrugged again and simply leaned her shoulder into her friend’s ribs, figuring that for the moment, physical touch was all the comfort anyone or anything could provide him.
**What are those two doing?" Farscout asked, still intent on the distant figures below. As the boy had been talking, Bear-Shoulder had leaned down to whisper to the female the scouts had taken to calling Short Girl. They sidestepped closer to the gate posts; he cupped his mittened hands together and boosted her up so that she could reach for Brindlefur's head. She tugged it down and draped the grisly trophy over Bear-Shoulder's head, so that the head rested atop his own and the front legs of the pelt were draped down over his chest. The boy's back was still to them; he had noticed nothing of their furtive movements. As the boy continued to chatter away in his excited voice, Bear-Shoulder crept up behind him. The hunter poked the youth in the back, and when the boy turned, the big man lunged and roared, as if Brindlefur had come back to life and was attacking. The boy wailed and staggered backwards in the snow, while the rest of the camp burst into laughter. Bear-Shoulder jumped into the snow on top of the boy and made a show of the severed wolf-head gnawing at the youth's belly, while the laughter around them continued.
The distance was too far for expressions, but human body language was eloquent enough. Brightwood turned to her companions in disbelief. **They're laughing at him! They are mocking him!**
Blacksnake's expression had gone blank. **The elders don't believe him,** he sent. **They don't believe the boy saw me.**
Farscout looked at them both, and then he began to smile.
**They do not believe in you, old friend,** he said, beginning to laugh in his near-silent way. **The Fierce Ones think you are just a trick of the storm and a boy’s imagination.**
The flood of relief that swept through Brightwood turned her equally giddy. She flung both arms around Blacksnake’s neck and hugged him tight.
**Back to the furs,** she grinned at her menfolk. **Let the goo-bug take watch. This is worth a little celebration.**
RTH 2511.03.01 — midnight
Rill eased himself cautiously out of the sleeping furs, and rose with the biggest pillow in his arms, moving as slowly as he was able. Even that proved to not be enough, as Cinder blinked awake and rolled over to look up at him.
“I just have to use the piss pot,” Rill whispered. “Go back to sleep.”
Cinder nodded and closed his eyes. Still, Rill stood his ground and waited, listening until he was absolutely, positively, no-doubts-at-all sure that his best friend had gone back to sleep. Then, his pillow in his arms, he crept to the doorway of the chief’s den. He hesitated there for a long moment, listening intently. Goldspice, Willow, Chicory and the rest of the cubs were all still sleeping soundly. The loudest breathing was Willow’s old she-wolf Sky, who snored blissfully in counter-point to Glow’s young Silversong.
Emboldened, Rill squeezed past the lashed door-hide, then tip-toed down the curving stairs to the doorway out of the Father Tree, slipping soundlessly past the weighted curtain-hide at the top of the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, he pulled aside his waiting go-bag, then stuffed the pillow down beneath the pile of other carrisacks, so at any cursory glance the size of that stack had not changed. Another moment was spent stripping off his hawk-feather decoration and knotting it to another pack. Then he pulled on his gloves, unlashed the weighted door-hide curtain, slipped outside with his pack of supplies, and lashed the door-hide closed tightly behind him.
It was moonshigh, and the night outside was black and freezing cold. Through the bare interwoven branches of the Dentrees above him, Rill could see a few distant pin-pricks of stars, but they seemed faint and distant. There were only a few clouds, and those were wispy and way, way up high — nothing snow-laden in sight, and there was no warning halo around the one moon face he could see.
Rill took a deep, bracing breath, filling his lungs with the taste of freedom. It was time — finally, it was time! He had been watching and waiting and had begun to despair that his chance to escape would ever arrive before the winter ended and the Fierce Ones went away again and everything went back to normal like his father cheerfully promised everyone would happen. But the combination of the blizzard followed by what promised to be a span of clear weather, and the chief sending Suddendusk and Nightstorm and Greenweave and Kestrel all away — even a blind bat could see that this chance was going to be the biggest and best chance of all.
'I promised Father I would be good!' Rill thought, grinning at the far-away moon shining above him. 'I just didn't promise what kind of good!'
Suddendusk would be furious when he found out his youngest had gone, Rill had no doubt of that. But Rill had heard stories of his father's own wild days as a boy, and he knew that deep-down, his father would understand. Especially when he also learned how cunning Rill's woodscraft was, and how useful Rill would make himself once he reached the Chief on the border, where the humans were. Because it was obvious that Chief Windburn needed more hunters to watch for humans, and Rill knew that once everyone stopped being mad at him for leaving the Holt, he'd prove to them all just how useful he could be, and what a mistake it had been all along to keep him bundled up in swaddling with the younger cubs.
Rill knew he would prove himself. But he only would get that chance if he made the most of his escape, and to make the most of it, he needed to get moving now and put as much distance between himself and the Holt before his disappearance was discovered. He heaved his go-bag across his back and put each arm through the straps to secure it, then set off on his great escape.
Almost immediately, Rill found himself hindered. The blizzard had left behind more snow than Rill had expected. A dozen steps away from the shelter of the heavy old limbs of the Dentrees, and Rill found himself wading through hip-deep snow. But then a black shape came trotting through the trees to meet him. It was his she-wolf Softjoy, and she was as eager as he was to get moving. The snow slowed her down much less, even after he climbed onto her back. He nudged her down toward the Craft-trees, where he had left both his favorite spear and his throwing stick hidden just inside his father's crafting den. Rill dismounted and squirmed past the door-hide curtain just far enough to grab them, then wriggled out again and vaulted for Softjoy's back —
“Runaround Highthing! Back to sweet dreamings and warm furs!" squealed a high-pitched shrill voice. There was a flutter of white-spotted green wings and then Dewdrop was there before him, dancing in the air just above and between Softjoy's ears. The Preserver shook a finger at him, rainbow eyes swirling. "Go on, go now, go back to warm snug den!"
Rill fought his expression into one of appropriate concern, trying not to let his smugness show at having anticipating this possibility. "Oh! There you are!" he said, feigning enthusiasm at the sight of the bossy little fuss-bug. "I was looking and looking for you! You've got to help me! I got hungry and went down into the storage den for a bite to each, and there was a great big, fat, nasty wood-rat! Gnawing at the wrapstuff! I kicked it away and tried to chase it, but it got away from me. You've got to go catch it! Fast! Before it tears open a cocoon and spoils things!"
The golden-yellow Preserver's eyes went wide with horror. It didn't stop to ask how Rill could have seen such a thing, when wood-rats normally slept all through the winter. "You've got to hurry, I'll be right behind you!" Rill told it, and that permission was all the Preserver needed. Dewdrop dived away at full speed, flying away as fast as its wings could flap, eager to do battle with its eternal enemy and having no reason whatsoever not to trust that Rill was following dutifully in its wake.
**Hurry!** he blazed to his wolf-friend, pressing on Softjoy his need for them to move fast and move far. She lunged into a run, eager herself for whatever adventure her rider had in mind. He clung to her back, his spear tucked tight beneath one arm, and wolf-sent directions as Softjoy ran. Straight through to Cascade Creek would be fastest — but that route would risk taking them too close to Cascade Hill, where Longshot and his mother were stationed on human-watch. Rill knew better than to risk their sharp eyes — his mother would have no sympathy and might well drag him back by the ear to the Holt herself. No — they would have to take a longer route to get to where the Chief awaited them — and first going south past Goosehead Hill might confuse any pursuit, especially if he could find a way to hide Softjoy's tracks when they cut north again at the ford between Split-Rock Point and the Deer Leap. Goldspice wouldn't know whether or not Rill was intending to chase after One-Leg and Notch and spy on the local humans — and that was a powerful temptation, the more Rill thought of it. One-Leg and Notch would probably both be more tolerant of Rill's arrival than the Chief would be, Rill imagined. And One-Leg couldn't yell all that loud at him, either, not without fear of bringing the local humans down on them.
The trees flashed past as Softjoy galloped across the snow. Rill grinned to himself, still weighing the question of whether to turn north toward the Chief or whether to keep going south after One-Leg and Notch. He had miles and hours yet before he had to make his mind up on that decision — and all that mattered now, in the moment, was that each of his she-wolf's strides was carrying him that much farther into an adventure. Just wait, he thought with fierce pride. Rill's elders had no clue just how good he could be. He couldn't wait to amaze them all! They would all be so amazed, he might even earn a new name, a hunter's name. Boldscout, he thought. No. Better. Boldwolf. Or even Bravewolf! Snowfall and Crackle would tell stories about him for future cubs to learn from, and Moss would write a song everyone would want to sing, with a steady, swift tune that matched Softjoy's ground-eating strides.
Adventure was delicious, Rill thought with delight. Nothing in his life had ever been as wonderful as right here and right now, the dark nighttime forest and the crisply crunching snow, and every breath he took tasted impossibly sweet with freedom. Sure, his parents would blister his ears when they caught him. But first they would have to catch him — and Rill knew with full confidence that nothing and no one could do that. The night and the forest were his, and nothing now could get in the way of him having a real adventure!
RTH 2511.03.01 — pre-dawn
"Gone?" The word cut through Willow's dreams like the sharpest of greenstone knives. "Gone? Gone where?"
Willow sat up, not even certain at first whether or not she was awake. She blinked and scrubbed her eyes, only to find Cinder kneeling beside Goldspice and Goldspice sitting up as well.
"What do you mean?" Goldspice was saying to Cinder, still in that keen, brittle tone of voice. "What do you mean gone?"
Cinder's expression was wretched. The boy glanced at Willow, as if seeking her help. "Rill's sleeping furs are cold. He told me before that he was going to make water, so I went back to sleep, but now his sleeping furs are cold, and when I went to look for him, he was gone." The boy was holding a big felted pillow in his arms, and looked down at it miserably. "And there was this down with the go-bags, and tracks in the snow outside."
"What's going on? What's wrong?" Chicory was awake now, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Glow yawned hugely from her nest among the furs, and Copper was sitting up as well, her hair tangled around her shoulders.
"Rill's done something," Goldspice said as she shoved herself to her feet and rushed for the doorway. Willow got up as well and snatched after her winter cape.
"Stay with Chicory and Glow," Willow told Copper as she headed after Goldspice. "Cinder, show me."
Cinder led the way to the Father Tree’s doorhide, where Goldspice stood beside the disturbed stack of go-bags and unlashed the weighed door-curtain. There had been a go-bag piled there for each of them, filled with carefully packed emergency supplies, so that in case they needed to evacuate the Holt, they could do so without delay. Each of the cubs had had some identifying trinket dangling from a shoulder strap of the bag; Willow blinked when she spotted Rill’s red-tail hawk feather, then realized that the feather had been untied from Rill’s bag and reattached to the dangling string of beads which identified Glow’s bag. Cinder just looked at her miserably as Willow fingered the hawk-feather, while Goldspice shoved the door-hide open. It was the crystal-cold dark of a pre-dawn winter night outside, and there was a muddle of Rill’s footprints in the snow outside, leading off toward the Craft-trees. Goldspice cursed at the sight.
“I should have known what Rill was up to,” Cinder said wretchedly. “I should have stopped him.”
Willow gave a humorless bark of laughter. “Not your fault, cub. I’m not surprised Rill did this — I’m just surprised it took him this long.”
Goldspice rounded on her, her amber eyes flashing with fury. “You knew? Why didn’t you say anything?” she snapped.
Willow snorted again, and glanced back up the curving steps that led to the Gathering Den and the Chief’s Den, where she could hear Chicory bundling the two girl-cubs into their winter boots and coats. “If I’d known, I’d have sat on the boy,” she retorted. “But Rill’s been on his best behavior since all of this started, and he’s his father’s son. Don’t tell me you don’t remember how wild Suddendusk was, before Windsong Recognized him.”
Goldspice turned her glare back onto the lonely tracks in the snow. Flea, Longhowl and Silversong came trotting down the stairs, followed by Chicory and the girls. Old Sky came limping down behind them, and butted her broad head against Willow’s hip in search of a comforting pat. Goldspice whistled for her wolf, Peakrunner, who came trotting up from the direction of the river. Chicory’s Slueth and the unbondeds Patchface, Murkfur, Sunsoak and Windswift trailed behind him.
“Rill won’t answer my sendings,” Cinder said. “He’s mad at me for telling on him.”
Willow reached out to Rill in a sending, and felt the boy’s firm refusal to answer. She saw a fresh flicker of anger on Goldspice’s face, and knew Goldspice’s sending had been ignored as well.
"You did right," Willow told Cinder automatically, aware of the many times she had put her poor brother Pathmark or long-suffering Rainpace in a similar bind. "Rill is in the wrong, and he knows it. He's just going to enjoy himself for as much as he can before he’s ridden down and caught." She turned to Goldspice expectantly. "The boy's got a few hours head start. But the weather is still clear. We can still catch him before mid-day."
Goldspice was concentrating on a send again, and her frown remained fierce. "Suddendusk, Nightstorm and Greenweave are out of reach already; I'm notifying Quick Fang that her cub may be headed her way."
"None of the watchers should be leaving their posts," Willow argued. "Clear, crisp morning like this is when humans are most likely to be on the move. You and me, riding fast — we'll collar the cub before noon, and be back to the Holt by well before nightfall."
Goldspice's lucent stare turned to Willow, and she could see the fast thoughts taking place there. Then that gaze shifted beyond Willow's shoulder, to where Chicory stood on the stairs behind her, with Glow in her arms. The frown turned to stone. "Get your weapons and ride hard," Goldspice said shortly, the words directed to Willow alone.
Willow blinked at that order. "Just me?" she said, thinking she must have misunderstood.
"My brother's orders are that no one is to ride out of the Holt alone," Chicory said, her tone equally concerned. "The cubs and I will be safe here at home — we've got the Preservers and the unbonded wolves, as well as Sleuth and Flea and Longhowl."
Goldspice shook her head firmly. "Willow, take Sunsoak and Windswift with you; ride Murkfur, he will carry you faster than Sky."
Willow hesitated for only a moment, then scrambled back up the stairs for her spear. She had left it in the chief's den, near the pile of sleeping furs. She snatched it up, then grabbed the leather bag of hard-dried, smoked meat chips from its hook near the door. She stuffed her pockets full, then bolted back down the stairs again, wolf-sending to both Sky and Murkfur as she did, and shouting for Flutterby by name. All the while, the argument behind her heated up.
"You can't send Willow alone! You know Windburn's orders, it's not safe for anyone to ride out of the Holt alone! You've got to go with her!" The more Chicory protested, the sharper her voice grew. "You can't send our healer out there alone! You've got to go with her!" "Your brother made me acting chief in his stead. The cubs here need to be kept safe."
"We've got all of the watchers on all of the heights to give us warning; we've got the wolves and the Preservers here at the Holt. We're safe here at home, here in the Dentrees! It's Willow and Rill who'll be in danger — you've got to go with Willow!"
"I am staying to protect the cubs! Willow will have two of the unbondeds with her."
"Then you stay with the cubs and I'll go with Willow!" Chicory said; she tried to put Glow down, but her daughter wailed and clung to her neck. "Or we'll all go!"
"The cubs stay here, where they're safest," Goldspice said firmly. Willow edged past Chicory and Glow; Cinder and Copper were standing close together at the bottom of the stairs next to the pile of go-bags; wordlessly, they looked at one another and then reached after Willow's and heaved it up to her as she passed. She gave them a nod of thanks and hurried for Murkfur. The ugly unbonded wolf was nearly prancing with excitement at being selected for this chase, while old Sky stood stiff-tailed in jealousy.
"The cubs are staying here, and you are staying here!" Goldspice said firmly. "Willow, you stay in sending-touch the entire time, I want to know the whole ride where you are and what is happening."
"Then go yourself!" Chicory shouted in exasperation. "Don't be such a coward and go with Willow! She's the one who'll be in danger, she and Rill! I don't understand why you're being such an idiot! Windburn's orders are clear — no one is supposed to be alone outside of the Holt! If you're too afraid, then I need to go with Willow!"
"You are staying right here, with the cubs!" Goldspice yelled back. Flutterby had appeared out of the storage dens beneath the Dentrees, and circled overhead once, clearly trying to decide what all the raised voices were for. Willow gave Sky an apologetic caress, then threw herself onto Murkfur's back.
"Is it me?" Chicory's voice broke in outrage, as Goldspice's sudden guarded look confirmed the question, even as it was asked. "You're going to send Willow out into danger alone, because you don't trust me?"
"After the crazy way you acted with Windburn before he left?" Goldspice countered. "I can't afford to trust you not to panic and go haring off to Bluestone Cave with the cubs, like you said you would do at the least provocation!"
"That was before the blizzard! I'm not going to go carrying the children off into the high country that's ripe with avalanches!" Chicory shouted back.
Willow whistled Flutterby to her, and pointed at Rill's tracks with her spear. Murkfur gave the tracks a single sniff and then bounded away, as eager as Willow herself to leave the shouting behind them. Goldspice's decision-making was as inexplicable to her as it was to Chicory, but she wasn't going to delay to quarrel over it — she was finally getting the chance to do something, and the tribe's healer wasn't going to wait around for Goldspice to come to her senses and change her mind.
To be continued…