For his first major scouting trip after the scare of the previous season, Pathmark reflected, it hadn’t turned out too badly. Lingering paranoia had kept him alert and jumpy at the start but, as the moons rose and set, over and over, and the familiar landscape rolled out beneath his trekking feet, he felt the tension leave his shoulders. He would never be as comfortable and contented at the solitary rambles as Farscout was; he was a crowd-loving elf, by nature. But, as he argued when he first offered to share the long-range perimeter walks, he knew how to track almost better than anyone else and he had stamina and he could be spared from the larger hunting parties. His crafting was appreciated but it was hardly vital if he missed a few hands of days carving.
What he had missed, though, waited for him at his den and his steps altered pace in an unconscious attempt to close the distance faster. His pack hung heavy against his back but the weight had become part of him and easy to ignore as it bumped and shifted in response to the increased movement. The moons still hung well above the horizon. If he made good time, he figured, he could be home before they set. Easily, in fact, as the trees and rock formations grew more familiar and comforting with every step.
A sudden snap of a branch made him freeze, however, and Pathmark lowered his foot silently before sinking down lower to present less of a tempting profile. His eyes narrowed and he scanned the surrounding foliage. Whatever had made the noise could not have been very big. No other sounds came after that first one and he felt his muscles loosen slightly as he gave his head a shake. Tipping his chin up, he scented the wind.
He eased his stance and stood again, a smile appearing on his face. Not much further and he would be home and he would not have to go out again for a good few handful of days. It was going to be wonderful.
The scenery around him had become as familiar as his own face, comforting and lovely in the light of the moons. Pathmark estimated he would be back at the Dentrees in next to no time. Then he could rest. As pleasant as the weather had been and as blessedly quiet as the entire trip had gone, he still missed his own furs and his lovemates and the pleasant noise of other elves surrounding him. The wide open spaces took time until he was acclimated to the silence, until he was used to the lack of breathing around him or unwary sends or muffled laughter.
It gave an elf a lot of time for his own thoughts. He wondered if that had been the allure for Farscout all those turns ago. Going on the long rambles gave him the solitude necessary to indulge in thoughts of the past and a Recognized wrapped and a cub unborn. Pathmark suppressed a shiver and pushed the memory far away. A sympathetic nature made it all too easy to imagine someone else wrapped in the silvery webbing and his own sister’s rash decision had haunted him as well at the time. But that was in the past, he reminded himself, and the past had its time and place which was not at all in the Now. The Now was familiar trees and the faint scent of smoke on the wind and the occasional howl in the distance from a familiar wolf.
The snap of a branch echoed through the stillness and Pathmark stopped, chin coming up as he searched the area with eyes and ears and nose. The wind shifted minutely and brought him the clues he needed to relax again with a laugh. Crossing his arms over his chest, he straightened and allowed his weight to fall sideways onto a convenient tree trunk. He crossed one foot over the other at his ankles. He smiled.
Then he waited.
It took almost no time for her to emerge from the trees, scarlet curls only somewhat hidden by the hood pulled up around her face, and Foxtail grinned at him. The expression curved from ear to ear, her generous mouth flexible in her glee at finding him waiting for her. “Pathmark! It’s about time you got your tail back here,” she laughed. A handful of quick steps brought her right up against his side and she threw impulsive arms around his neck for a hug.
He nearly overbalanced at the pleasant assault and had to quickly uncross his ankles to gain better footing. Her weight pushed him back into the tree nonetheless, though. “What are you doing out here?” he asked as he slipped his arms around her bare waist for a reciprocal hug. “How long have you been out here?”
The second question came hard on the heels of the first one when he remembered the earlier sensation of being watched and a suspicion took hold. When she giggled but did not answer, he sighed heavily and gave her another squeeze before releasing her. “A while, huh? You’ve been following me,” he accused.
She shrugged without the slightest hint of remorse, her smile lingering and warm. She leaned into him comfortably. “I was out with Briarfoot for a bit of a run and we got distracted by dreamberries.” She waved her hand a bit vaguely in a direction but, instead of following the visual cue, Pathmark kept his attention on her face. With increasing amusement, he noted a slight flush to her fair cheeks and a brightness to her green eyes. Dreamberries, huh? “We found a nice sized patch so we stopped to gather as many as I could get into my satchel. You know how Starskimmer is always looking for fresh batches. She swears different areas produce different flavors.”
Foxtail wrinkled her nose and shrugged. “I don’t know why. It sounds a little moon-mad to me but she’s the expert and who’s to tell her no if it means none of her potions?” She paused then and smiled anew at him. “Speaking of, do you want some berries, too?”
While he hesitated, weighing his desire to get back to the tribe against her generous and tempting offer, part of him noticed how quiet she was, how patient. Pathmark tipped his head to one side and abandoned the debate within as he regarded the redhead. Catching his look, she lifted an eyebrow and her smile moved from tipsily amused to wicked. “What?” she drawled. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“Just wondering something,” he answered cagily. But he was Pathmark and his talent for dissembling ranked somewhere extremely low on the scale of things and Foxtail giggled. He joined her laughter and gave her shoulder a little shove, good-natured to the end of everything. She almost overbalanced but her instincts proved sound and she compensated by falling against him again. Her absent cuddling drew a heavy sigh from him but it was lost in the giggles when her quick fingers found his side and tickled. “Fine! Dreamberries first and then you can ride in with me,” he announced. His hands found her shoulders and he pushed her away to stop the playful torment. “But just so you can explain to Evervale and Longshot why I’m late in getting back.”
“Then I better come up with a really good excuse, shouldn’t I?” She drew her hands away and rolled her eyes skywards as she bit her lower lip in fair simulation of deep thought. Finally, after long moments, she shrugged and reached up to remove his hands from her shoulders. She did not release him, though, but threaded their fingers together. Then she gave a little tug to pull him away from the tree behind him. “Come on. Dreamberries first. I’m pretty sure they’ll inspire just the right story for us.”
“All right, all right.” Pathmark chuckled and let her pull him further away from the tree. Once solidly on his feet again, he shook one hand free but allowed her to keep the other captured. In fact, he gave her small calloused hand a fond squeeze. “Is it far?”
“Says the elf who spent however many moons wandering all over the place!” Foxtail rolled her eyes again but her smile glowed brightly to show she meant no harm. “No, it’s not far. There’s a pond, too,” she added. “Maybe you can get cleaned up before we head back to the dens.” In another quickfire moment of teasing, she leaned close to him and nuzzled his neck before drawing back to show a comical wrinkling of her nose. “They’ll appreciate it. Honest. You’re as ripe as a wet wolf.”
With an abrupt movement, Foxtail pulled her hand from his, winked at him, and set off at a brisk pace, sprinting through the trees. Her giggles drifted back to him. Pathmark stood stock still for the span of a few heartbeats. Then he laughed himself, cast an amused look at a decidedly benevolent Bonetrail, and pushed himself into a run after the fleeing redhead. Between dreamberries and the chief’s mercurial daughter, his excuse for a late return was certainly going to be a fascinating one.