(This story was an entry for Clue #9 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! )
The afternoon's hunt had brought down a stag at the edge of the lake. The wolves had feasted, and the wolflings as well — it was only the purebloods who still insisted on their meat roasted and who were still waiting for their meal. Wolfsister, Bravestride and Eagle-Eye remained behind with the kill, butchering it and using the Preservers to wrap the meat for transport and safekeeping, while the purebloods set up camp in the forest nearby and began to prepare their evening meal. The rest of the group slowly trickled into the camp and settled. A gentle rain was falling, pattering off the leaves of the trees and dripping off the ends of the uncured hides they had staked for shelter. The warm rainfall still tasted of summer, but the first signs of autumn were there to be read as well: the deer were in rut, the green herons and the fishhawks were beginning to melt away to the south; nights were getting longer and had begun to cool. Winter was coming, and it was time for decisions to be made.
"The Preservers insist this is the place," said Rhunil — Redmane, the wolflings called him, more often than not — as he sat beside the fire, tending the stew bubbling in the suspended cooking-skin. The pureblood fished out a stone and replaced it with one heated in the fire, keeping the meat-and-herb stew at a boil. "We trusted them, and they've failed us."
"Not a failure," wolfling Crow said, perched on a branch overhead. "Good hunting here, good water."
"But there's no Palace, and we came to find what the Firstcomers had left behind!" Redmane countered with some heat.
“You came for old thing,” sneered Moth, from where she and her fellow wolfling Raincaller had curled up together, next to Greenleaf beneath another rainshelter. “Not us.”
“Not us,” Raincaller agreed. “Freedom bring us.”
“We all have our own reasons for coming here,” agreed Feverease soothingly, always quick to intervene. She sat near the fire with Littlepaw cradled in her lap; the orphaned child was sleeping, one fat thumb lodged in her mouth. “I’m disappointed as well that there’s no sign of the Palace,” Feverease said, stroking the child’s hair gently as she spoke. “It would have been marvelous to be able to reclaim the ancient home of our grandfathers. It would have been an ideal home for our children. But we can still build a new home without it.”
"But the Preservers are insistent that the Palace is here," Cubmaker said wistfully. She sat at Redmane’s other side with Clayshard, wrapping roots in broad leaves to roast within the campfire's coals. “If we just keep looking, maybe we’ll still find it.”
Knifemaker gave a bark of laughter at that. She sat under the cover of Greenleaf’s rain-shelter, knapping a fresh spearhead to replace the brittle flint broken during the afternoon's hunt. "None of us have spotted it yet, and it's a thing far too big to lose! You think it turned into a mountain? How else would it hide?"
“The Preservers insist it was here,” Clayshard said sadly. “My father described the Palace as crystal, grown from the earth of an Old World. I fear it must have proven too fragile for this one. It could have shattered into countless pieces, and become dust and dirt and part of the earth beneath the roots of this place. That would explain why the Preservers still sense it here.”
"It must be destroyed and lost to us, or else we would have found it by now," agreed Greenleaf. “I think we have to consider the Palace a lost dream. We have more important things to consider. Like surviving the next winter.”
A quiet fell on their group at those words. The previous winter had been difficult — they had lost both Littlepaw’s parents to the cold, and feral Halfwolf to the hunt. They were all weary of wandering. Wolfsister’s pregnancy was growing pronounced — she would be having her child by midwinter. And it would be only the first of the children the wanderers were waiting for — both Moth and Cubmaker had Recognized since their band had left behind their kin and Zerran’s tight-fisted rule.
“We should go back to the forest below the ice lake. Those caves behind that waterfall would be the most secure home, there’s quality reserves of good flint and obsidian to be found there, and there’s all of the herds on the grasslands, we’ll never go hungry,” Knifemaker said. She had not been happy since they had left that area, and took any opportunity to urge a return.
“No!” Cubmaker and Clayshard said, almost in unison. “Not after that wind-rope snaked out of that wall of storm clouds, and nearly sucked up us all!” Clayshard continued. “That storm was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not going back near the grasslands. Not ever.”
“I still hear the sound of it in my dreams,” Cubmaker agreed with a shudder.
“Good water here,” Crow repeated. “Good hunting. Good home.”
“We’ve seen nothing of the trolls who killed the first of us here,” Redmane. “They could have well starved to death during the long first winter on this world, for all we know.”
“Wolves happy with this place,” Moth said.
“Find troll-tracks, hunt trolls,” Raincaller agreed with a toothy yawn. “Good woods here, good hunting. Fine, fat game.”
“There’s a stand of capnuts north of us, between those two sweet-water creeks,” Greenleaf said, smiling to himself with a distant, inward gaze. “With some shaping, they’ll make tight shelter for the winter.”
“We need to start putting away winter stores,” Feverease agreed. “This place is as good as any other we’ve seen.”
“Better,” Crow said firmly.
“Passage Falls was better than this,” Knifemaker grumbled. “That narrow valley was perfect.”
“This place better,” Moth argued.
“Much better,” Raincaller echoed.
“Only a few days travel to the sea; a few days travel to the grasslands,” Cubmaker said. “It’s a central location, and we won’t have to argue with the Preservers about leaving.”
“Leaving?’ Wolfsister paced into the camp, carrying a bundle in her arms. Bravestride and Eagle-Eye followed, both carrying their share of the butchered-and-wrapped meat. Brightly colored wings danced as the fair of Preservers came fluttering in behind them.
“Highthings stay! Big highthing-place here!” brayed Berryflop.
“Is here! Is here!” chorused the rest as they settled on the branches around Crow.
“We were just discussing the merits of this forest,” Feverease said, gesturing for the group’s leader to sit beside her. “As a place to at least shelter for the winter. No one wants to take the risks we did last winter.”
Wolfsister put down her burden. “No,” she said firmly. “This place is good. Good earth. Good water. Good hunting.” She patted her belly, swollen as it was with pregnancy. “No more wanderings. I claim this place. It is ours. As much of it as we and the pack can hold. We take it and claim it, and fill it with our cubs.”
There was a silent moment after those words. Wolfsister looked around at her gathered kin, and her narrow green eyes glittered in the flicker of the campfire. “No more wanderings,” she said with finality. “This is home.”