The wind bit through even the warmest of furs and imposed stillness sent muscles into tense lock-down. Even though both watchers were seasoned hunters, their bodies still felt the strain of the wait. Nonetheless, they both understood the importance and, by silent agreement, they kept steady watch so their chief could rest. Privately, Thornbow wondered at the uncomplaining willingness of his redheaded companion. From time to time, he would glance at her and judge her posture. He watched the small shifts of her compact body, the barely-heard intake of her breath on the rare occasion that a bird or beast broke through the quiet. He kept his thoughts to himself when, every once in a while, she stood and stretched and took a pace or two around their camp, a twig in her hand dragging a gash in the snow when she returned to her crouch.
The sun had moved past its highest point in the sky before either of them spoke at long last, shattering the listening silence. With wry amusement now, Thornbow was not surprised that it was Foxtail who burst first with a long, heavy sigh. He gave her a sideways look but she ignored any of the measured consideration in the action. Instead she rocked back on her heels and rolled her shoulders. “It’s the waiting,” she finally whispered and he noted her use of the low, carrying tones of a skilled hunter with approval. She was still taking things seriously even if she was going to complain. He did not answer her statement, though, and she turned to judge his expression. For some reason, whatever she saw made her grin. “The waiting is what drives us all moon-mad. Me and the youngsters and even you.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless lump that was her father. “Definitely him, too,” she added. “He starts to think too much while we wait and he hates that sort of thinking. That’s grandfather’s thing. Me, though, I don’t like the waiting because it’s boring.”
“And you never do things that bore you.” He knew it sounded borderline antagonistic but the question had been on his mind far too long. There had to be some justification in taking the chance to ask now, right?
“Sure, I do.” Her grin was another flash of sparkling white. “Now.”
“Exactly. Now. You don’t have to remind me.”
Foxtail wrinkled her nose as if scenting a stripe-tail but her even gaze never wavered from his. “Then why do you all like reminding me so much?”
That caused him to look away and he frowned out at the snowy expanse stretching out to the dim horizon. As much as he hated to admit it, she had a point. Perhaps he was being too suspicious but things had changed so much in the tribe and there was more at stake than ever with the return of the Fierce Ones. It made him cagey and cautious, more so than he normally would have been, and he was not the only one who felt the tension and uncertainty. It was like a strange plague of its own, touching every member of the Tribe, affecting each of them in a certain way. Perhaps Foxtail’s way meant she took on more responsibility. But then her behavior had changed long before the present crisis… A crease of thoughtfulness appeared between his eyebrows but his frown eased. Finally, he cast her a sidelong look. “What are you up to?” he asked in surprisingly mellow tones.
Green eyes widened with an almost believable look of shocked innocence and she rocked back on her heels. “Up to?” she repeated. “What do you mean?”
“I mean all of this and that. How you’ve been acting for the past few hands of seasons. Taking on the most boring jobs even though you just said how much you hate being bored. Showing up to lend a hand when before you used to scarper off and leave it to the rest of us.”
“Hm.” Foxtail’s expression shifted to match the non-committal noise she offered as initial answer to his concern and he turned to look at her more closely. That earned him a faint smile and she shifted again in her crouch. Her gloved hands pressed down on the crisp snow in front of her until it broke. Then she dug her fingers deeper and scooped up a handful of snow. Idly, she began passing it from hand to hand, almost in meditation, turning it in her hands and packing it down tighter. “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” she asked, sweetness looping around every word.
He could not stop himself; his gaze left her and zeroed in on the forming snowball in her hands with growing wariness. “It’s not really like you. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Mmhm.” Foxtail rolled her shoulders, tipped her head to one side in a stretch, and then rose to her feet. Taking a single side step, she stood over him and he craned his neck to watch the mesmerizing arc of the snowball as it moved from hand to hand. Then she broke into one of her brilliantly white, invitingly mischievous smiles and tossed the snowball over her shoulder. It fell soundlessly but his attention shifted to take in her engaging expression. “Maybe I’m just growing up, finally.”
As he could not think of a reasonable response to that, he simply continued to watch her face. Then, the corners of her mouth curling up further, she leaned forward. Close and warm now, her voice came out as a low purr. “But, then again… Maybe I’m not.”
Quick as anything, she reached up and gave the heavy-laden branch above Thornbow a quick tug. Snow fell down immediately, dousing him with the cold white stuff. Her giggles rang in his ears but he was too busy dusting himself off and, by the time he looked up again, she was gone. Her send echoed with warm laughter in his mind, though, reminding him of his question.
**I’ll do the perimeter walk this time, Thornbow. I’ll be back before you know it. Stay warm and dry there.**