(This story was an entry for Clue #8 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! )
Pathmark sat beside his wolf-friend, combing out Moonmist’s white coat while the chieftess-wolf sat in her favorite spot, among the rocks above the largest of the wolf-dens. The summer night was hot and still, leaving the adult wolves languid in the heat. Most of the pups from the spring’s litter rolled and played at the edge of the wolf-den clearing, chasing flameflies under the watchful eye of their sire, Cubsitter. Pathmark had fallen into a steady pattern of about a dozen strokes with his boar-bristle brush; he would then take a moment to pull Moonmist’s shed hair out of the brush, stuff a cloud of it into the wide reed basket beside him, then apply another dozen or so strokes. Moonmist sighed and stretched, content with the grooming. As comfortable as she looked, however, Pathmark saw that his she-wolf always had one dark golden eye open. As chieftess-wolf, she was never fully relaxed. She was always watching her kin, keen to everything going on among the other wolves.
There was a crunch of steps in the grass. Pathmark glanced down to see Windburn approaching. His chief carried his newest wolf-bond — little Whirl was only three moons old, and although weaned, she still spent a good portion of her day with her dam and littermates. When Windburn put the grey pup down, she touched noses briefly with Moonmist, then shot off like a hare to pounce on her littermates down the slope. Windburn chuckled as he watched her go, and eased down to sit beside Pathmark and his basket.
“I didn’t want a pup,” he muttered, more to himself than to Pathmark. “But she insisted.”
It was Pathmark’s turn to chuckle. He knew he was not the only member of the tribe to be startled when his chief had bonded with a pup in the days after the death Windburn’s last wolf-friend, Candlefish, during a hunt. Like many experienced hunters, Windburn preferred to bond to adult wolves; it would be a year until young Whirl was large enough to carry a rider, and longer yet before she was a truly reliable partner in the hunt. But sometimes, it wasn’t entirely the rider who made the choice.
“Moonmist did the same to me,” Pathmark said fondly. “She tumbled up to my boots, took one long look at me, and decided I was the one for her! I’ve been taking orders from her ever since.”
Windburn gave Moonmist a fond glance. She had already acknowledged the elven chief with a glance and a single thump of the tail, but disdained now to do more. “Whirl’s a lot like her mother, I’m afraid,” the chief smiled. “Ambitious already. Look at how she’s dominating her brother.”
Pathmark watched the rough play. “Whirl will want to be chieftess-wolf herself someday, if she’s going to follow in her mother’s tracks.”
Windburn looked at the tracker from the corner of his eye. “You sound sad about that.”
Pathmark shrugged. “I’d rather my beautiful girl here were the lowest in the pack than be the chieftess-wolf. I’m a low-wolf myself. I’d never want to be chief. And I never wanted her to be chieftess of the pack. I hate the constant shifting winds of who’s rising and who’s falling. Every fresh challenge Moonmist meets, I’m left with my heart in my throat, terrified she’ll be badly hurt this time. One of these days, there’ll come a fight that she won’t win. And my beautiful girl won’t show throat. She doesn't have it in her to submit again, now that she’s had her taste of power.” Pathmark shrugged again, and gave his friend a sheepish smile. “I don’t like the fighting at all. Never have. I don’t know what Moonmist saw in me in the first place.”
Windburn stretched out his legs and leaned back against a large stone, and continued to watch his pup rough-house with her littermates. “She saw a good friend who’d support her, no matter what her ambitious were,” he said. “Every chief needs that, you know.”
Pathmark thought about that and smiled. “Even you?”
“Even me,” Windburn chuckled.
Pathmark smiled and transferred another handful of shed wolf hair into his gathering basket. “I’m just glad we elves don’t decide chieftainship through all the fighting,” he said. “It’s hard enough to endure with our wolves. I love Moonmist, but I wish she’d listen to me. Just let Starfire have it, I say. Moonmist has had her share of pups now — she should just leave the bother of it all to Starfire, and the two of us can enjoy the rest of her natural days.”
Moonmist sat up abruptly then, sharp-focused on the snap and flash of teeth between two of the other she-wolves nearby. In a fluid lunge, she was on her feet and striding stiff-legged to intercept them, leaving Pathmark behind with his boar-bristle brush still half-raised in mid-stroke. Pathmark and Windburn both silently watched as the chieftess-wolf intervened and made both of the lesser she-wolves show throat. Windburn glanced at his friend’s face, and saw the mourning in Pathmark’s expression.
“She can’t stay chieftess-wolf forever,” Pathmark said. “And she won’t live without being chieftess-wolf.”
Windburn nodded in sympathy, and turned his own gaze back to the chieftess-wolf’s daughter.