(This story was an entry for Clue #1 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! It is also an entry in the 2013 Family Time Contest -- see that collection for more contest stories and images!)
Cloudchase could still see the dance of light and shadow of sunlight through the trees through her closed eyelids. She laughed and clung to her brother’s neck as he carried her like a cub, his strong arms unhindered by her pregnancy-swollen weight.
**No peeking,** her brother sent firmly, his mind-touch rich with amusement.
“No dropping!” she countered with a breathless laugh.
Abruptly, the dappling sunlight was gone, and she felt the ambient temperature drop several degrees. The sound of Den's Creek’s laughter was suddenly muted. The air in her nose was damp with the smells of earth and stone, flavored with the tang of burning candlefish and fresh-cut reeds and raw leather. “Here we are,” Stoneback said, his voice a deep rumble against her skin. She felt him stop, and the shift of the muscles in his arms as he began to put her down.
Her bare feet came to rest on cool stone. There was another scent present — she caught Herbfinder’s scent as her Recognized moved somewhere nearby, and then her apprentice Ice’s as well. Sound was imprisoned here — they were in a cave or a den? “Can I open my eyes yet?” she asked, her suspicions beginning to spike with anticipation.
She heard her Recognized’s chuckling laughter, and felt her brother’s pause. She imagined the two communing with a look. Then Stoneback’s hands slid up her arms to rest on her shoulders, his tall, powerful frame a support against her back. “Go ahead,” he said, the casualness of his words betrayed by the eagerness of his tone.
Cloudchase opened her eyes and gasped.
They were in a shaped room. It was open to the east and north, with a view from the rise looking down on the northern bend of Den's Creek. The ceiling was a low, triangular dome, and in the far wall was a dark, yawning mouth, set in a raised stone hearth, with a smoke-funnel rising up to vent through the curve of the stone roof. There were stone shelves shaped in the circling walls, framed regularly by hooks shaped like fingers, hands, and wolf noses for hanging tools. One peg, jutting from the stone of the wall, was of antler carved into a leaping salmon, from which hung a heavy bladder of drinking water. In the center of the room was a single, stout centerpost, which featured a spiral of pegs for hanging more tools, or suspending baskets of supplies or even articles of clothing. A shaped wooden work table curved around the centerpost, interrupted at even intervals with spaces from which she could hang tools. Ice was sitting on a shaped stone anvil, blowing puffs from air from a blow-bag anxiously in anticipation of their surprise, while Herbfinder knelt near the hearth, stacking chopped sticks of wood into a shaped hollow in the wall. He grinned at his Recognized, his dark eyes alight.
“A new forge?” Cloudchase whispered in shock.
“This was your brother’s idea,” Herbfinder said.
“I just figured that since you’re gifting the tribe with a new cub, we should all do a little something to gift you back,” Stoneback said behind her.
“I helped plan the design,” Ice rushed to add. “I hope you’ll let me use it, too.”
“Of course,” Cloudchase agreed, too stunned to say more. She hugged her swollen belly and just continued to gape at the wondrous new workden around her, and began to realize the number of gifts that crowded the room. There was baskets on the shelves of different stones, sorted by type; a wooden basin for water carved to look like a goose, with gosling-cups suspended above it. A new heavy apron hung from the centerpost, and from the next peg hung a pair of thick rawhide gloves. Birchbark boxes, painted with running deer by Strand; a river otter swam with its pup on its belly on the lid of large, painted wooden storage chest, while carved otter dived and danced around the body of the box -- on that, she could recognize both Swan and Catnip’s work. A bulging elk-bladder waterskin hung suspended from the wall near the door, and she could see Crest’s chalk marks on that — the squiggle-mark he made for dreamberries and the blue slash for blueberries, marking it for wine within. There were lumps of quartz, and nuggets of raw gold, chunks of vibrantly-colored greenstone, and even a big piece of amber that she could see, all resting on shelves near the forge itself.
Cloudchase opened her mouth again to murmur thanks, and found herself too choked up for words. It was a magnificent gift. Her brother had been working on something since the autumn — and she had a single, clear memory of seeing his wolf-friend sitting alone on this rise in the snow, but she had been too preoccupied with her pregnancy to question why her brother was working alone during the winter, or why his wolf would be sitting sentinel below the curve of Den's Creek.
“I can’t believe you did this,” she finally managed to say, turning in another slow circle to survey the new forge and its many new wonders.
“Everyone in the tribe helped,” Herbfinder said. “Even little Autumntide and Shyheart. I didn’t think the cubs could keep it a secret, but they did. And they’ve really enjoyed searching the riverbanks for raw gemstones.”
“I found the big gold nugget,” Ice said, pointing toward her gift.
“It’s all...” Cloudchase’s throat seized closed again. She swallowed heavily, then clutched her belly again as the son she carried turned and kicked. “I don’t know what to say,” she finished weakly.
Stoneback chuckled with amusement and gently steered her toward a fur-draped bench. “Just sit down, then, and supervise us. Your apprentice has been itching to fire up that forge for the first time, and I want to make sure the smoke funnels out clean.” Stoneback helped her sit, while inside Cloudchase, the baby kicked again and rolled. She pressed a hand against where his head now rested, and sent him a quiet wish to settle. It would only be days now, before he came into the world. She knew her time then would be filled with her firstborn; until then, she wanted to enjoy this incredible new gift while she could. Cloudchase laughed as the shock faded into joy. “Ice,” she told her apprentice, with a wave toward a tinder fungus conk on the edge of the hearth. “Go ahead and fire it up! Let’s see what this forge can do!”
“His mother's hair, but my eyes,” Stoneback said, feeling a pride so huge that he felt his heart might burst with it. “He’s the most beautiful little pup ever born.”
Cloudcase chuckled against his ear. “Aye, I felt that way about both of my own when they first popped out. I’m glad for you, brother. I know how long you’ve waited.” Stoneback felt the slide of her other arm past his shoulder, and then her right hand opened below his nose, overflowing with silver. “I made you a little something. Just a little gift. Nothing grand like the forge you shaped for me when Skinner was born, but... just a little gift, in return for the cub you and your mate have given us tonight.”
Surprised, Stoneback took the gift from his sister had offering him. It was a pin, finely crafted into the fluid shape of a swimming stoneback fish. The pin filled the broad palm of his hand, and the silver was cool and sleek to the touch. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Thank you.”
Cloudchase hugged him again, the shelf of her cheek resting for a moment against his own. “Thank you,” she murmured in return. And, in sending as well **Thank you.** It was just a brief, touch of emotion, but it was richly layered from the many long years of their interwoven lives. He felt the depth of her love — and of her gratitude for everything they had shared together, laughter and arguments and memories, good and bad intermixed. And then her touch was gone, and he heard the soft pad of her retreating footsteps out of the den doorway behind him.
Stoneback caressed the silver fish he held. He admired its sleek lines for another moment more, then pinned it proudly to the front of his vest.