RTH 2511.03.01 — pre-dawn hours
In the dark of the hours before dawn, they had left Thornbow to keep watch with the wolves at the crest of the ridge above them, with the intention of ice-fishing in Redfern Creek in the vale below. But halfway down the hillside, Foxtail had spotted the black, charred-looking growth of a tinder fungus up a tall birch, and had climbed the tree to carve it free. When Longshot’s sending reached them, Windburn was standing at the birch trunk beneath his daughter, a hide stretched between his hands, catching valuable bits and chunks as they rained down from her labors.
**Chief! It’s Chicory. There’s trouble at the Holt.**
Although the chief could not see it, Windburn instinctively turned his head toward the distant Cascade Hill and returned a wordless pulse of acknowledgement, awaiting whatever new axe was about to fall. Above him, Foxtail had stopped what she was doing to listen, while Thornbow stirred in his seat among the trees.
When it fell, the axe proved to be a blunt one. **Chicory is arguing with Goldspice. She says Rill sneaked away somewhere around moonshigh. Your son was first to notice and raised the alarm. Chicory says Goldspice is sending Willow out alone to track Rill down. Chicory says Goldspice won’t ride out with Willow, and that she refuses to send Chicory as well. Your sister is spitting mad. She insists Goldspice has gone crazy and is putting Willow and Rill both in danger. Chicory insists you send Goldspice along with Willow, or tell Goldspice to send Chicory.**
Windburn cursed being too far from the Holt to speak directly — and privately — with both his sister and his niece. When word had reached him the night before of his father’s face to face encounter with a Fierce One, he had broken his own standing orders and ridden alone through the fading dregs of the storm until he could reach Goldspice directly by locksending with the troubling news. He was loathe to allow it to spread too quickly before he had a fuller understanding of both the situation and its repercussions, and was equally worried about sparking a helpless panic among his kin.
**Quick Fang,** he sent, knowing now which fires to put out first.
Rill’s mother was a weak sender, and Windburn could only barely brush her mind with his — but she was alert and aware of the situation. Chicory’s angry message had not been locksent; no doubt the watchers at Crow’s Ridge, Cascade Hill and Northview Ridge had all gotten a headful as well. His sister’s sending would have burned ears as it arrowed past. **Stay put,** Windburn commanded Quick Fang. **For now, at least, I want you to sit tight. Longshot — get me Goldspice’s side of this story.**
Windburn heard Longshot relay his question, and the flow of Goldspice’s answer echoed back to him quickly. **Goldspice has sent Willow off on the back of a young unbonded, with Flutterby and the rest of the unbonded wolves with her. Goldspice says she doesn’t trust leaving Chicory alone with the cubs, not after watching her panic-fit with you just before you left the Holt.**
Foxtail made a rude noise at that and went back to working, chopping away another large chunk of the tinder fungus. Windburn automatically caught it with the net-hide — the rare growths were too valuable medicinally for him to fully interrupt what he was doing, even for as sticky a problem as this. **How far a head start does the boy have?** he asked Longshot, searching for a solid angle on the problem that he might grasp.
**He sneaked out around midnight, Chicory says.**
It was a clear night, the sky mostly bare of clouds in the wake of the brutal blizzard which had just passed. Windburn weighed the dangers he knew of against the night’s current good weather. Impulsive as the boy was, Rill was canny enough for his age. Softjoy was a black she-wolf; Rill would probably keep her in the trees and not risk crossing the white blanket of snow across the Holt’s River, where sharp eyes on Crow’s Ridge or Cascade Hill might possibly spot her. If the child had been riding steadily since moonshigh, then he and his wolf-friend could have gotten as far as the foot of Burnside Hill. Windburn considered that as he caught the next falling chunk of tinder fungus.
**Tell my sister that I’ve heard her concerns. But I left Goldspice as acting chief in my stead — and Chicory is to follow the orders of her acting chief. Willow will collar the cub and drag him home.** Windburn shifted his attention back to Quick Fang. **Willow can reach the boy before you can. I have every faith in our healer — she knows every fox’s trick there is. Will you stomach that?**
He could feel Quick Fang’s restless acknowledgement — it wasn’t an acceptance until several heartbeats had passed, time enough for the huntress to gnaw on the bone she had been handed. **If Willow hasn’t caught him by morning,** she said in way of agreement, **then I go after him. My son wants to see the Fierce Ones for himself.**
Windburn had made the same guess. **If Willow hasn’t caught Rill by the scruff by then, you have my permission,** the chief sent, with the private thought that if Rill knew what was good for him, the boy would turn tail and ride straight for Willow.
There was a thunderous pause, as Longshot listened to something Windburn could not hear himself. **Your sister is not happy,** Longshot sent then, with what Windburn suspected was remarkable understatement. **Chicory demands that someone be sent to back up Willow —**
Windburn interrupted his tribemate with a cold finality. **Tell my sister again: in my absence, Goldspice is acting chief. Those are my orders. Tell her that. And tell Chicory to do as she is told, or I’ll thump her flat myself.**
Windburn’s own chilly response was not locksent — the rest of the tribe in range got an earful, and it was a message Windburn was not hesitant to reinforce. He felt Snowfall listening to the south, and Farscout’s curious stirring to the north. They might not have heard the start of the conflict, but they heard its resolution. **Aye,** Longshot acknowledged simply, before relaying the chief’s command.
“Auntie Chicory will be having a litter of treecat kittens, just about now,” Foxtail snickered from the birch branches above. “I can just imagine a geyser jetting out of her ears! But I don’t get it. Why are you backing Goldspice? Her choice doesn’t make any sense. Your orders were no one rides alone: she’s ignored that by sending Willow out solo. If Goldspice doesn’t trust the children with Chicory alone, then all she had to do is send Chicory off with Willow.”
**Rill and Willow are the ones in immediate danger,** Thornbow agreed. **The rest of the cubs are snug at home in the Dentrees, with half a dozen wolves and a Preserver or two to guard them. Goldspice is endangering Willow and Rill both by not sending Chicory and Sleuth with Willow.**
Windburn nodded, unhappy with the situation all around. “Daughter, tell me,” he said aloud. “If I put the chief’s torc on Goldspice, but then quibble over her decisions from afar, what’s going to happen to the tribe if you and I don’t ride home again at the end of this?”
Foxtail scowled down at him, but her eyes were quick with thought as she renewed her efforts on the woody fungus. “No one would trust Goldspice enough to follow her in a crisis,” she finally said. “No wolf in the pack will have faith in her as a chief, not if we’ve undermined her.”
Windburn nodded and caught the the shavings of tinder conk as they drifted down like bits of ash. “The weather right now is clear, and the woods have been quiet. I’d be sweating it hard right now if it were any of them but Willow. But I’ve got faith that if any of them can outwit a troublemaker-cub and get Rill home again unharmed, that it’ll be our healer.”
RTH 2511.03.01 — just about dawn
Rill's grand adventure wasn't proving so grand after all.
He had expected it to be a glorious escape — him and Softjoy, flashing fast and free across crisp winter snow, their freedom both a scent in their noses and the best taste ever in their mouths. Instead, they skulked from shadow to shadow, chased relentlessly by sendings they couldn't outrun. Rill had simply not thought it through that even when he was physically out of sight and sound of the Holt, his pursuit would be more than a physical one. Everyone was mad at them — at him — and while he could ignore the sendings, he could not escape them. Goldspice had ordered him to return, then tried talking to him like he was an adult hunter to coax him to return; Chicory had pleaded, then commanded, then pleaded again. From Cascade Hill, Longshot had tried to reason with him as well, while his mother’s weaker sendings rumbled on the edges of his awareness like thunder on the horizon — he couldn’t quite hear her, but he could not fully evade her concentrated anger with him, either. From the Holt, even Cinder and Glow had implored Rill to come home, before Softjoy had outdistanced their wavering sendings. Copper's only comment had been a terse **Both of your parents are gonna be mad enough at you. If you don't ride back now, I don't want to see what they'll do to you when they come home.**
Rill had ignored all of their sendings, pretending he simply did not hear them. But he could feel from the falter in Softjoy's pace that from time to time, the sendings were even affecting her — she was hardly more than a yearling herself, and it was hard for her not to immediately submit to an angry adult elf. Only Rill’s constant willing it kept her going forward where he wished. Yet as bad as everyone else’s sending was, the very worst of all of them was Willow. The healer wasn't imploring like Goldspice, or emotionally demanding as Chicory. No. She was simply ruthless. She sent to the boy once to let him know she and a pack of unbondeds were on his trail and that they would catch him — and then that was it for her words. After that, it was simply a regular, silent pulse, occurring every thirty paces of so of Softjoy's stride, steady and unfaltering a calm heartbeat. He could feel her there behind them, sensing her at a distance that had steadily, relentlessly narrowed. The steady pulse of her search-sends reminded him of a bat's song at night. None of the tricks he and Softjoy had pulled to make their trail more confusing appeared to slow Willow down — her beacon-sendings remained steady steady steady and did not waver. With growing dismay, Rill had realized he could not hide from Willow — not unless he could outdistance the healer and physically escape her mental reach. But Willow was too good a huntress, and he and Softjoy simply could not run through the winter woods any faster than they already were.
Discouraged, Rill had ridden through the night, stubbornly refusing to give up or give in. Yes, there were moments when he almost pulled Softjoy up and turned her around for home, knowing his great escape was futile and knowing he was already beaten. But that would mean showing throat — and he was too much his mother's son for that. His grandfather True Edge would never be so easily cowed. Rill tried to figure out what his grandfather True Edge would do in his stead — his grandfather knew everything, after all. But the answer didn't come so easily to True Edge's grandson.
Finally, in the darkness before dawn, Rill realized what it was that his grandfather would tell him to do. Willow had steadily closed the gap between them and would catch up to him soon enough, Rill knew. He wasn't going to get anywhere near the borders of the forest, where he'd get to see the humans for himself. And all the tribe who had heard what he'd done were good and angry at him — there was no way to pour that water back into the cup. No. Rill understood he wasn't going to successfully outrun Willow, and doubted he would ever be able to successfully hide from her either. Trying to do so would just waste whatever precious time he had left. No. Instead, he had to use what time he had left to prove himself. His elders were all mad at him right now, but if he could come home again with a great big fat deer, or a fine fat boar... then they would at least have to admire his skills as a hunter! They could stay mad at him, yet still admire him for a successful hunt — especially if he could bag something far bigger than cubs like him were supposed even think about trying to kill.
And Rill desperately wanted to salvage some scrap of pride from his ruined adventure.
Softjoy proved eager for this change in plan. Willow’s constant sending-pursuit had been rattling the young she-wolf’s nerves badly. But at Rill’s instruction to find prey-scent, the ready-to-move-sideways-at-any-moment sensation left Softjoy’s stride, and her ears and nose came up in an instant morale improvement. Running away from her own pack was confusing and stressful — but hunting fresh meat was something she could fully embrace.
They were loping along the flanks of Burnside Hill; Rill had been taking care to keep to thick tree cover, wary of the distant Cascade Hill watch post. Dawn was fast approaching, but the night was still fair, cold, and crystal-clear. The weather wasn't about to turn on him (although you wouldn't know it, from all of the fuss his elders had raised about the fickleness of winter). There had been a fire in the forest somewhere near the time of his birth, which had burned half of the eastern slope of Burnside Hill. Young aspen were growing there now — Suddendusk and Chicory had taken the youngsters there during the past summer. Rill was all ears when it came to listening to his elders talk about their hunting. He knew deer relied on woody browse during the winter months, and that they'd stick close to where they bedded. It might be possible deer would be there now. He had never hunted deer before — his elders would say he wasn't big enough or strong enough for it. True — he couldn't throw his whirl-stick hard enough to stun a deer or lame it. But he could stalk anything that moved, and Softjoy's jaws were strong. She could lightning-quick snatch a leaping hare —crunch!— right in the head, and for sure a deer's throat was a bigger target than a rabbit's little head! If Softjoy could grab a deer and hold it long enough, he could certainly stab it in the eye or stab it in the throat or —wham!— right smack in the heart. And then he and Softjoy would be feasting on hot, bloody meat when Willow finally caught up with them. Then she wouldn't have caught him caught-him. No. Then it would be obvious that he had let her catch him — because he’d had more important things to do, like killing a big fat deer, and he’d need an adult’s help afterwards anyway, because there would be too much meat for him and Softjoy to drag home alone. Then when they got back to the Holt, the other cubs would be wide-eyed with jealousy, and Goldspice and Chicory could not stay mad at him, not if he was feeding them from his first big kill!
Yes — that was exactly the type of clever solution his grandfather True Edge would think of! Proud of himself, Rill settled down to work, desperate to find a deer before Willow found him.
The snow lay heavier among the young trees of the aspen grove than it did on the deeper woods. The tall, thin trunks, with their streaked, bone-white bark, closed quickly around the young wolf and her rider. The bare branches reached like starved fingers into the black sky overhead, and the shadows that dappled the world felt deeper, if only because the moons were both fully set now. With the streaks of white snow and the white-and-black tree trunks and Softjoy's own ebony pelt, it suddenly seemed to Rill that his golden hair and brightly patterned winter coat were the only colors left in the world. It was a strange feeling, but a special one too. He sat up a little straighter in pride, even as Softjoy paused with that sudden tension in her body that hinted that maybe, just maybe, she was on to something. She stood frozen, ears up and nose twitching, while Rill drew in a deep breath of his own, straining to find the scent of a deer.
He smelled the aspen trees, and Softjoy, and his own exhalation. He could even smell the crisp, tasteless pang of the fresh snow itself. But no deer at all... oh, but wait, he could feel the faint tickle of the breeze in his hair and against the skin of his bare face as it shifted ever-so-slightly —
— the sudden smell of cat-musk turned his head as firmly as his father's hand on his chin. Another color existed in the snow — tawny amber and fixed, unblinking molten gold.
For an instant, Rill froze in place. The over-confident boy in him vanished, replaced by the powerful instinct of the wolf-cub. — don't move — don't move — don't move — that instinct blasted at him, while his heart stopped and his breath caught in his chest, the spear in his hand forgotten and no more a danger than one of the aspen branches. — don't move — the hunter won't see you — don't move — the hunter will move on —
But the hunter did see him, had seen him, had even been stalking him and his young wolf-friend for who-knew-how-long? The mountain lion's golden eyes were locked on him, piercing and unwavering and hot with hunger. The creature — it was a monster, it was huge, it was without doubt the biggest, most terrible mountain lion ever — was motionless, but that stillness was a lie, Rill knew. The mountain lion was simply one bunched, coiled, straining muscle — and in a heartbeat it was going to spring and eat him for sure.
The beast leaped at the same moment that Softjoy sensed the danger and began to turn to face it. Something hit Rill hard in the chest; he felt himself yanked sideways by his thick winter coat before he could even hit the snow, and knew the mountain lion had at least one set of claws fastened onto him — but the rest of the creature's limbs seemed tangled up around Softjoy. His wolf-friend shrieked and kicked and thrashed — Rill had a terrible moment when he tasted a mouthful of golden fur as two bodies rolled over the top of him in the snow, and then somehow he was sailing free of the brawl, his face streaked by a raking blow from Softjoy's hind feet and his coat and go-bag torn away in the fight.
Rill hit the snow and tumbled again to his feet. He swarmed up the nearest aspen trunk, the bone-white bark tearing beneath his hands. **help! help! help! help! help!** he sent in a shrill, focused burst of fear, a cub-sending as instinctive and visceral as the wolf-cub instincts that had held him only heartbeats before.
The minds of a handful tribemates had already been waiting, listening for him. He felt the explosion of their reactions, felt hands not-his-own snatching for weapons and bodies-not-his-own surging into movement. And a split second later, he felt Willow's percussive sending-pulse bouncing off of him, so loud and adrenaline-packed that it left his head ringing. **Here!** she sent, while the aspen grove around them turned into a sudden whirling storm of howls and growls and flying wolf paws. Bright wings made a dizzy spiral around his head, and a flood of fur seemed to roll over the top of the combatants. Willow's chestnut hair and brown winter coat were there in the thick of that snarling flood.
The big cat was no fool. It vaulted out of the scrum and ran, with Windswift and Sunsoak hard at its heels. Willow was riding astride Murkfur; she pulled the wolf up short, and looked straight up the aspen at Rill. She held out an arm to Rill. Forgetting all else, the boy slid halfway down the thin trunk and launched himself into his rescuer's embrace.
Willow hugged him tight. **Everyone calm down!** he felt her sending ring out sharply. **I've got him. Rill's safe and unharmed. He just stumbled across a young cat — and the wolves and I sent it flying.**
Rill felt the scratch of claws against his scalp as Flutterby settled on top of his head, and then the Preserver gave his hair two sharp yanks. "Naughty Runaround Highthing!" the Preserver said sternly. "Runaround Highthing scare all highthings, all wee-things! Naughty little highthing needs to be spanked-spanked-spanked!"
"Aye," Willow agreed. She hugged Rill tight for a heartbeat longer, then shook him roughly. "But first things first! You. Sit tight," she ordered sharply as she disengaged herself from the boy's frightened grip. "See all the blood? It's not the cat's and it's not yours, so let me see to your wolf-friend."
Only then did Rill look. He saw the spatter of blood across the snow for the first time, and saw Softjoy's hanging head. There was a pool of blood staining the snow where she stood, one foreleg held high and her ears and tail tucked flat. Rill began to dismount to rush to his brave wolf's side, but Flutterby hissed angrily and yanked so hard on his hair that his eyes stung with tears. "Wee-thing sit!" the Preserver cried, its voice so shrill that Windswift's ears flattened and the wolf turned to snap at it. Rill rubbed the side of his head, shocked that even one of the Preservers could be so angry at him.
Willow was kneeling beside Softjoy by then, her hands gently exploring the wolf's torn shoulder. "You got ripped up and spit out, didn't you?" she murmured sympathetically, while her hands sought out the wounds and began to mend them. Softjoy whimpered and then bathed Willow's face with her tongue as the healer worked her magic. "Good girl," Willow said gently as she struggled to heal the injured wolf. "Brave, loyal girl.” Then Willow’s voice shifted to hard and flinty, and Rill knew she was speaking to him instead of Softjoy, although the healer did not turn to look at him. “Your brave girl here was raked to the bone. That might have been a young lion, but it could have killed you both. Do you understand that?"
Rill scowled, remembering the size of the attacking cat and knowing it was the biggest, oldest, meanest one in the woods. But Willow's expression was angry enough that he didn't want to risk a cuffed ear by arguing the matter. "Uh huh," he agreed, solemnly, knowing the answer that was expected of him.
“The best I can do for her is to stop the bleeding,” Willow said as she worked, but there was a growing strain in her voice as she did. “But I’m afraid that’s all I can do. Softjoy is not an elf; I can’t take her pain away, and she’ll be limping and not ride-able for days. There. That’s all I can do for her for now. We’ve got to get her and you both back to the Holt.” With a final comforting touch to the she-wolf’s head, Willow rose to her feet and whistled for the unbonded wolves. She picked up Rill’s winter coat and shook it free of snow. He saw that the front of his coat was ripped open as if it had been made of suet. The healer looked at it, then gave him a grim, narrow-eyed look that was somehow worse than the slice of her angry tongue. She shouldered his blood-splattered go-bag and draped his torn coat around his shoulders, then climbed back astride Murkfur behind Rill again. **We're headed home,** she sent openly. Rill felt her arms settle firmly around him as Murkfur jolted into a lope. He glanced back, around Willow's elbows, to make sure that Softjoy was following, and saw Sunsoak and Windswift falling into stride behind her. **Be there by noon,** Willow promised; Rill could feel the busy blaze of sendings around them, as several listening tribemates clamored for Willow's attention as well as his; he stoically ignored them, feeling the heat of anger and, even worse, the weight of relief and fear behind others. **No distractions, no short-cuts,** Willow promised someone — it could have been Goldspice or Longshot or his grandmother Snowfall or Chicory or any one of them or maybe all of them, Rill wasn't sure and didn't want to expose himself to a mind-lashing to find out. One of her arms settled around his middle, holding him like a vise before her on Murkfur's back. **Straight home, I swear it. We've all had enough excitement for one night, I'd say.**
'You might have,' Rill thought better of complaining. But he still wanted the grand adventure that this foray had promised — but failed — to be.
RTH 2511.03.01 — mid-afternoon
The wolves were the first to react. Longhowl and Flea scrambled to their paws and surged out of the arching doorway of Goldspice’s forge, ears and tails which had been flagging all day now high with anticipation. “They’re back!” Cinder said in excitement, bolting to the doorway as well. “They’re back!” he cried, following the wolves’ tracks through the snow.
Goldspice put aside the length of silver wire she had been braiding, and rose to her feet as well. “Shall we?” she asked her niece, offering Copper a hand.
Copper was carefully putting aside the sanding tools and the cloudy chunk of amethyst she had been polishing. The girl nodded and fell into step beside her aunt, then waited as Goldspice lashed the forge’s door-hides securely behind them. The winter afternoon outside was crisp and clear, and each of their exhalations puffed like clouds of fog from their lips and noses. Cinder and the eager wolves had left an easy trail to follow along the curve of the icy riverbank, and they watched as Willow and the unbonded picked their way across the river ice. Willow’s she-wolf Sky was there as well, first to greet her elf-friend and the rest of the returning pack. Flea and Longhowl rushed into that reunion with enough enthusiasm to make it a near-collision, while Cinder had the presence of mind to hang back. It proved a wise move; Patchface, Windswift, Murkfur and Sunsoak had all travelled long and hard in Willow’s pursuit of Rill, and Longhowl’s puppish over-eagerness was met with a snap and a snarl of jaws violent enough to immediately drop the young wolf on his belly.
Longhowl’s sheepish expression when Sunsoak allowed the young wolf to his paws again was mirrored in the look Rill turned Goldspice’s way, as Willow dismounted and planted the boy on his feet. Rill chanced a glance at Goldspice's face, then looked down immediately and kicked a boot into the snow as if there were something somehow important buried right beneath his toes.
“You’ve got a tongue, pup,” Willow chided the boy. “And I know you’ve got something to say to Goldspice.”
“I’m sorry, Goldspice,” Rill said at once. He looked at her again, his blue eyes miserable, then dropped his gaze to his feet again sheepishly. Willow took a stand behind him, her gloved hands resting on his slender shoulders just lightly enough to remind him that he was confined. Goldspice saw Cinder cast an anxious look back toward her before then edging closer to his friend. All things considered, it was a brave show of moral support, especially since Chicory rode up at that moment like a thundercloud, her daughter Glow before her astride her she-wolf Sleuth’s back.
“You owe all of us an apology!” Chicory said, in a voice tight with anger.
“Naughty Runaround Highthing needs to be spanked-spanked-spanked!” Flutterby chimed in — the Preserver launched from its perch on Willow’s shoulder and made a tight spiral around Rill’s head as it shrilled its opinion. The last revolution of its spiral brought it close to Sleuth’s twitching nose, and the she-wolf lunged and snapped, nearly putting a tooth through the Preserver’s pink wings. The Preserver shrieked and dove back for safety, glaring at Sleuth from the shelter of Willow’s tangled brown hair.
“I am sorry,” Rill said. His apology started sluggishly, but gathered speed as if rolling downhill. “And I truly didn’t mean for anyone to be scared. I know I shouldn’t have ridden out of the Holt alone. The chief said not to, I know, but that was half a moon ago and all, and I knew with all of the snow the blizzard dumped on us that no human was going to be able to travel as fast as a wolf, so I knew I would be safe —”
Willow cuffed him across the bare ear. “You were all but halfway down a cat’s belly when I caught up with you,” she said with a snort. “How safe was that?”
“You could have been killed,” Goldspice said sternly. “And Willow sent us the whole of it — we know the lion hurt your wolf-friend. Softjoy could have bled to death — your choices and actions led to her being badly hurt when she tangled with that mountain lion. Even if you might have escaped the hungry lion, what would have become of Softjoy, if Willow had not arrived when she did?”
Rill hung his head and gave a listless shrug, unable to come up with a clever answer for his elder’s question. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I am. Really.”
Goldspice shared a look with Willow. The healer was smiling with grim amusement. Goldspice rather suspected that Willow was thinking the same thing that she was, that the boy truly was sorry — mostly over that he had been caught and dragged home again, and sorry that his misbehavior had not lived up to the glorious adventure he had undoubtedly been expecting to have. But Rill was every inch the child of both of his parents — he had Quick Fang’s stubborn single-mindedness, combined with the slippery recklessness which Suddendusk had been infamous for for centuries before his Recognition to Windsong. Goldspice regarded the boy with exasperation, doubting that Rill really comprehended the full depth of fear and worry he had caused during the past day. And she was too well aware of the sense of simmering anger that radiated from the slight figure on Sleuth’s back. Chicory had not looked Goldspice’s way yet, just as she herself had not looked fully at Chicory. That Windburn had chosen to back his niece over his sister was still a raw wound between them, and too many hot and painful words had been traded on that score. The tension between them remained palpable, even when they both were making an effort to ignore it. Trapped as she was now in her mother’s arms, poor Glow was feeling the brunt of it. The girl was mouse-silent and wide-eyed, chewing nervously on a mittened thumb.
“You should try to sound more convincing next time,” Willow muttered to Rill. “You might want to practice those words a bit more.”
“But I really am sorry!” Rill flared back at her, with more than a touch of temper. “Really I am! I didn’t want to scare anybody!I And I never wanted Softjoy to be hurt! I only wanted to see the humans for myself, before they’re gone again for another oak’s age!”
“And what would you have done if, Ancestors save us, you’d actually found the Fierce Ones?” Chicory demanded. “They’d have skinned you alive and eaten you!”
Glow burst into sobs at that, while Cinder looked stricken. “No humans would have ever caught me,” Rill retorted, although he was unable to look any of his elders in the eye when he did so. The close encounter with the hungry mountain lion might have scared some sense into the child, Goldspice hoped. Might.
“What will you do with him?” It was Copper who asked the question, looking up solemnly at her aunt. “It’s for you to say how he’ll be punished.”
At the girl’s quiet words, everyone looked to Goldspice. Copper was right — as acting chief, it was Goldspice’s decision, and it was a decision she’d been considering — and dreading — all day. Goldspice fixed her sternest stare on Rill, and was satisfied when the boy did not dare meet her challenging gaze. If Rill had been a wolf pup, his ears and tail would both have been tucked tight.
“You deliberately broke your chief’s commands,” Goldspice said firmly. “You put your life in danger, and you put others’ lives in danger as well. If Windburn were here, he might beat you. Or worse, tell the tribe to shun you. At the very least, you’d be on middens duty for an entire season to come. It’s possible that Windburn still might do those things to you, when he comes home. But there’s bigger things now for the chief — and the tribe — to worry about. Bigger and more important things than an arrogant pup who hasn’t the sense of a spring rabbit between his ears.
“Your father will back in less than two hands of days. Until then, you will not leave my sight — or Willow’s, or Chicory’s. Night and day, one of us will always be breathing down your neck, cubling. We won’t let you pull another stupid stunt like this. And worst of all — I will leave it to you, cub, to figure out how you are going to win back what you’ve lost from each of us in the tribe. Because you’ve wasted the good opinion and trust I had in you, and that everyone else had in you. And I fear you’ll find it may take you a very, very long time to earn those back.”
Rill did look her in the face at those words, and Goldspice turned her back on him in deliberate dismissal, satisfied to have seen a real flicker of fear in the boy’s blue eyes. “Take him to the hometrees and get him fed and cleaned up. He reeks of cat-stink,” she said to Chicory and Willow, while gesturing to Cinder and Copper to follow her. “Come along,” she told the two cubs. “We’ve got our own work to finish.”