RTH 2511.03.06 — just about dawn, at Lost Child Butte, on the northern steppes west of Whitewing Lake
Despite gusting winds and scattered flurries of snow, the first touches of dawn on the horizon saw an unprecedented stirring in the human camp below. By the light of torches, the round huts were quickly and efficiently broken down. Roundhooves were harnessed up and laden with heavy packs. As the sun rose, a line of riders leading burdened pack-beasts were filing out of the hunting camp, leaving behind only their refuse, trampled snow, and the bloody posts where they had displayed the two decapitated wolf heads. Apparently, the humans were taking their trophies home with them.
**Chief,** Farscout sent as he, Brightwood and Blacksnake watched the line of riders move away through the the expanse of snow toward the southeast. **The Fierce Ones have broken camp. They are headed back the way they came.**
**As we hoped,** came the distant whisper of Windburn’s response. **I will warn our watch teams. Be sure you three take every precaution trailing them.**
**Aye,** Farscout replied, automatically sharing the chief’s message in a send with his companions. All three of them lay on the stone ledge of their cave-shelter, watching the riders slowly recede in the distance. It would be hours, yet, before they began to follow the Fierce Ones. Only when the humans were long out of sight would it be safe to pick up their trail.
**We could go down to the empty camp,** Brightwood lock-sent to her companions. She added a pulse of an image to that thought, of Farscout alone keeping watch from the high crevasse ledge, and of herself and Blacksnake edging down the side of the rocky butte, toward the abandoned campsite.
**I want to see what they left behind,** Blacksnake agreed. **And we need whatever supplies we can gather. We will stick to the side of the butte and won’t dismount from our wolves. Farscout, you are our eyes. With you still at this vantage, even a roundhoof at a gallop won’t have time to surprise us, not without enough of a warning for the wolves to carry us back into hiding.**
Farscout nodded at that, although he frowned as his companions crawled out of the crevasse and made the icy climb back to where the wolves were waiting. Brightwood and Blacksnake’s mission was a necessary one. Their own supplies were gone now, and they had watched from this height for the last several days as the human hunters had dragged back carcass after carcass of the clickdeer they had caught. The camp’s days had been spent at butchering their game and preparing it for travel, and the nights had been spent with boisterous feasting. The Fierce Ones had killed more prey than they could carry — there would be scraps aplenty left under the snow for the elves and their wolves to scavenge. And they would need to scavenge as much as they could, to carry them through the days of travel to come, if they were to follow the Fierce Ones south again across the empty scrublands.
“Bad bad bear-things go away,” murmured Mushroom against Farscout’s ear, sheltering as the Preserver preferred to do within the protection of Farscout’s hood. “Far far far away!”
“Go with Brightwood and Blacksnake,” Farscout wished his little friend. “They may need you to make wrapstuff.”
Mushroom thought about that for a moment, then reluctantly left its shelter and fluttered out of the mouth of the crevasse in pursuit of Brightwood and Blacksnake. A swirl of wind caught the Preserver and blew it off-course for a moment, nearly pushing it into the stone cliff wall. But Mushroom righted itself and dove after the two elves, leaving Farscout alone at his watch.
Below them, oblivious to their watchers, the line of human riders continued on their way, across the empty snowy steppes toward the south.
RTH 2511.03.06 — mid-morning, at the Holt
“Father!” Rill’s shout was followed by a reckless leap from the high Dentree window. The high snow cushioned his tumble; he rolled to his booted feet at the bottom of the snow bank and ran to meet the two weary riders as they finally reached their home.
It had been a two and a half day ride to the rendezvous point at Three-Finger Hill; despite the fresh snow storm that had swept through the woods yesterday, it had been another two and a half day’s ride home again. Suddendusk pushed himself from his wolf’s back and took several long strides to meet his son. He swept Rill into his arms and sank to his knees, hugging his youngest child close. Nightstorm rode around them without comment, although the wry look she gave her traveling companion was eloquent enough. They had learned of Rill’s midnight departure from the Holt via sending relay the morning the boy’s departure was discovered, four and a half days ago now. Despite a father’s desire to turn tail and rush immediately after his wayward child, Suddendusk had remained on the mission he and Nightstorm had been dispatched on: to escort Greenweave to a rendezvous at Three-Finger Hill with One-Leg, Notch and Pathmark. Suddendusk had understood the necessity of protecting the tribe’s south-eastern flank, and that even if he had turned and raced for home there and then, that he had been too many miles away to make any difference in any outcome. So Suddendusk had placed his trust in his tribemates at the Holt to protect Rill from Rill’s own misbehavior, and continued on for Three-Finger Hill. But that decision had not been an easy one, nor had Suddendusk stopped worrying a moment since committing himself to it. The exhaustion which gripped him now, after their long, hard ride, felt as much a mental burden as it was a physical one.
Suddendusk crushed his son close for several long, shuddering breaths, then held him out at arm’s length. “What. Were. You. Thinking?” he demanded, accenting each word with a hard shake.
Rill’s happy expression melted. Perhaps the boy had been expecting his father to provide a rescue from the constant, unforgiving supervision of Goldspice, Willow and Chicory since his ignoble return to the Holt. “I just wanted to see the humans for myself,” he said miserably. “I knew I could out ride any human after all the snow from the blizzard, and I was tired of sitting still and waiting and waiting and waiting for everyone else to come home again. I didn’t mean to scare everyone. Really I didn’t. And I keep saying sorry, but no one seems to believe me.”
Suddendusk hugged his son close again, his heart aching. He remembered riding away from the Holt with his son’s promises in his ears to behave for his elders. “I will be good,” Rill had promised, his blue eyes earnest. Suddendusk had returned to that memory obsessively in the past several days. He had heard those words of promise, and taken his boy-child on full faith because Rill had been so very, very good in the half-moon since the Fierce Ones crisis had started. But Suddendusk was not a first-time father. His first child, Evervale, had been such a sweet, good-hearted child, she had often seemed wiser and older than her years. Evervale had never caused her parents a moment’s real trouble. By comparison, his second child, Crackle, had been nothing but trouble since her curiosity had propelled her squalling into the world. His son Rill had always been more like Crackle than Evervale — the boy was high energy and impulsive, and he combined his mother Quick Fang’s stubbornness with Suddendusk’s own quicksilver wit. Suddendusk could only blame himself. That afternoon days ago before their parting, Suddendusk had heard his son’s promise as if Evervale had spoken the words, not as if Crackle had. No. Perhaps the comparison to Rill’s half-sisters was unfair. If Suddendusk had really listened, free of his preoccupation with the human matter, he would have likely heard his own voice. How many times could he remember, back in the misty days of his own cubhood, promising an elder that this time he would be very, very good?
Aye. Young Blackberry had always thought himself very, very good. As often as not, good enough to get away with this trick or that prank. Oh yes, his younger, immature self had been so very, very good… and regularly been punished for it, after the misdemeanours were discovered. As all misdemeanours eventually were. Rill hadn’t fallen far from the tree that seeded him, and his father should see it keener than anyone.
“Have Goldspice and the others been punishing you?” he asked.
Rill nodded solemnly. “Even the wolves have been snappy.” He held up his left arm, angling it to show off a fresh patch above the left elbow. “That was from Sky yesterday. I think she’s still mostly mad that Willow went away after me riding Murkfur, not her, and she blames me.”
Despite himself, Suddendusk found himself smiling. He could remember similar distant moments of his own. “You scared everyone very badly, your father included,” he responded. “You broke your promise to me, and you went against your chief’s command. What do you think Windburn would do to you if the chief were home now?”
“Tan me, Willow says,” Rill replied, in a very thin voice. “And Chicory says if I weren’t a cub, I should be shunned.”
Suddendusk nodded solemnly, while thinking that Chicory was going a bit far, in her ire. Rill's actions had endangered himself, not the entire tribe. Still, he didn't say that to his son. Perhaps Chicory, too, was only trying to scare the boy with the worst punishment she could think of. He sought his son’s eyes and held them. “You waited for your best opportunity, for when your mother and I were both gone and out of sending reach, before you did this, didn’t you? You waited and planned for it.”
Rill squirmed for a moment beneath his father’s firm, stark stare, then finally nodded. “But I had to,” the boy said in his own defense. “Because when the Fierce Ones leave again, they’ll be gone maybe forever. I wanted to see them for myself. While I still could.”
Suddendusk hugged his child close again. He couldn’t put voice to logical argument against that childish expectation. He could only pray with all of his soul that his son was right — that the Fierce Ones would leave and never return to the tribe’s territory, and that this would prove to have been his youngest child’s only chance in a long and happy lifetime to see the brutal humans. He felt no sympathy; it was no loss. Suddendusk simply wished with all of his heart that Rill’s prediction would prove truth.
There was a crunch of footsteps behind Rill. Suddendusk looked up to see that Goldspice had arrived, flanked by Cinder and Copper. The two children looked anxious for their friend, while Goldspice’s expression was both relieved and expectant. Dewdrop sat on her shoulder, one clawed hand tangled in her golden-brown curls.
Suddendusk had been exchanging sends with the tribe’s acting chief since the moment he and Nightstorm had ridden back into sending range of the Holt, during the dark hours before dawn. He understood that Goldspice had delayed any real punishment of his son, deferring that decision to Rill’s parents upon their return. Goldspice had made an amused comment about the boy being lucky it was Suddendusk who had come home first. Suddendusk caught Goldspice’s eye now and gave her a grim smile, thinking that very shortly, Rill would probably choose to differ.
“Dewdrop,” Suddendusk said in summons.
With a happy hum, the brightly colored creature fluttered over to land on the top of Rill’s head. “Wee-thing remember how to sing!” it announced happily.
“I thought you might,” Suddendusk said. He let his son go and pushed himself to his feet. “Goldspice and Windburn have left it to me to set your punishment for your actions. You know what you did. You know why it was wrong. And know, too, that now the rest of the tribe understands we cannot trust you at your word, or trust you out of our sights. I’ve got to make a hard decision. I’m not happy about this, son. Believe me when I say to you I know how much this is going to hurt.”
Rill gave a convulsive swallow, but the the boy rounded his shoulders back and presented the bravest face he could. Suddendusk traded another glance with Goldspice and had to struggle not to smile.
“When I was your age, my father said that I was ‘made of trouble.’ Your uncles have told you all sorts of stories about the cub-fool stunts I played — and continued to play, for far too many, many years. While my mother Dove often laughed at my antics, my father — your grandsire, Skinner — he was a hard, grim old wolf. He was as likely to cuff me sideways or tan my backside for a prank as my mother was to forgive them. But there was only one punishment he found that truly made an impression on me. Dewdrop?”
The Preserver gave a happy trill. “Wee-thing remember. All wee-things remember! We watch close. And then we sing!”
Copper clapped both hands over her mouth and began to giggle, while Goldspice’s golden eyes widened in sudden comprehension. Cinder looked between his elders in question, while Rill watched his father with growing confusion.
“Son, if you are half as good a cub as I ever was, you’ll find opportunities aplenty for more troublemaking. Ancestors know I did! The rest of the tribe has other concerns and other responsibilities. In the days ahead, your elders will be distracted. They will forgive. They will even forget. So there won’t always been someone alert to watch over you as closely as we should. But my father knew that Preservers are always watchful, and that the Preservers will never forget. From today until midsummer’s night, you will always be watched over by one or more of the Preservers. And the moment you step outside of sight of the Dentrees, if you are not in the company of one or more of your elders, the Preservers will know it. And they’ll sound the alarm.”
“They will sing!” Copper giggled, while Dewdrop snatched up two handfuls of Rill’s hair and began to warble a shrill, off-key melody of its own invention.
“Generous of you to call it that,” Suddendusk said, unable to keep the weary smile from his face. “When I was a cub, I always called it torture.”
The stark, dawning dismay on Rill’s face assured Suddendusk that his son would call it the same thing. He clapped the boy on the shoulder and waved Dewdrop to silence.
“I promised, I’ll be good from now on,” Rill said in a tight voice, the white showing around his sky-blue eyes.
“I know, son,” Suddendusk said. “Better even than you know, perhaps.” He squeezed his son’s shoulder and gave him a little push. “Now, Nightstorm and I have been traveling through storm and snow and freezing cold. I’m starving and about to fall on my nose. Take me home and feed me, and then tell me in your own words all about your wild ride and the mountain lion. I may not approve — but I do want to hear the whole story.”
RTH. 2511.03.07 — afternoon, in the valley of the confluence of the Bounty and Holt rivers, east of the local human settlement
Kestrel’s heart lifted with some relief when she finally spotted her kinsmen. One-Leg, Notch and their wolves had crept as far down the western point of Razor Ridge as they could get and still have adequate tree cover to hide in. **There you are,** she sent, weaving her way through the bare tree branches to join them. **I was expecting to find you back there, farther up the ridge.**
One-Leg and his son both looked up at the gliding elder in welcome, and One-Leg waved her down to join him where he sat, a raw marshbeast hide stretched out beneath him for insulation.
The snowy valley of the confluence of the Bounty and the Holt’s rivers stretched out in front of them, the frozen rivers pristine beneath the morning’s dusting of fresh snow. Out at the far end of the valley, dark figures moved about, busy as slap-tails and oblivious to the spies who were watching. The noise of their efforts carried startlingly well across the frozen river valley — each crash of an axe against a tree trunk rang as if it were in bowshot.
**Got ourselves a fine view here,** One-Leg said, patting the hide beside him in invitation. Both Longtooth and Beauty were gnawing on marshbeast leg-bones, and thumped their tails in welcome as Kestrel landed. Notch offered her a chunk of frozen meat, but she shook her head, more interested in what was going on down the valley than in filling her belly. **They were busy putting up their watch-post yesterday when we got here — you can see that one there,** One-Leg sent, pointing at the raw lumber structure, which Kestrel had to squint in order to make out in the distance. **I thought they’d finished with it yesterday, so it’s a fair question why they’re still bringing down trees. There’s another watch-post on the south side of the Bounty, flanking this one, only we couldn’t get a good angle on it as well, not without plopping our tailbones out in the open on the ice.**
**That west watchpost on the top of the gooseneck of the river there looked done to me when I snuck in close last night,** Notch said, gnawing idly on the hunk of marshbeast. **Don’t know why they’re still bringing down trees on that side of the river — maybe they’re planning on building something more?**
**Are the trees meant for the second watchpost?** Kestrel asked, wishing they could see that as well.
Notch snorted. **Doubt it. They’ve forest enough to cut from on the southern banks of the Bounty, after all. I think they’ve got more plans and are just laying supplies by. They seem to be collecting ‘m up above the likely reach of spring flooding.**
**Easier to drag a downed tree through snow than it’ll be to move it through spring mud,** One-Leg agreed.
**Most of the second watchpost looks done to my eyes, too,** Notch continued. **They’re pretty simple things — just really really tall wooden posts with a cross-beam to sit on, and rope ladders to scale up and down, some woven branches for camouflage at the top and maybe to provide archers with a little cover. And with escape lines — that’s the best part, really. Clever of the round-ears. Looks like fun, too.** Notch illustrated the sending with a visual image of the watchpost he’d gotten closest to. What he called an ‘escape line’ was a thick, braided hemp rope that ran from the top of the watchpost down at an angle into the thickening forest. The line was strung taut. **They’ve waxed it like a bowstring. It looks like a blast! I imagine you just grab on with gloves and slide away like a greased woodrat.** Notch slashed down at an angle with the bit of venison he held, making a “zzzzzzzt” sound, miming such a descent. It was obvious from the brightness in his eyes that he was eager to test the escape line for himself.
Kestrel glanced at One-Leg in warning, and met the red-head’s grin of amusement. She would not be surprised if her fellow elder had similar designs, should the opportunity present itself. **I’m curious how much more they will build up down there,** One-Leg sent. **They’re laying down a stockpile at a fair rate. Smart of them to take into account what the spring floods will bring. They’re not half-witted cubs.**
**They’re not all that sharp,** Notch countered, with the weight of what sounded like it might have been an on-going debate between them. **Come the thaw, they’ll lose the southern post to flooding for sure. Maybe both, if the snowpack melts faster than normal, or if we have heavier spring rains than last year’s.**
**I think that top post will stand, come thaws and flood. They’ve picked a good point on the bank,** One-Leg argued. **And if both watchposts do wash away, well, the humans seem smart enough not to have sunk in too much effort. Won’t take but a day or three to replace. They’ve got some sense. What they’ve built here will be hard for intruders to spot from a distance; archers will be able to spend a quiver of arrows before they have to run for their lives if anything comes at them across the open bottom of this valley, and did you hear those big, twisty metal horns they blew yesterday? They toot just as loud as the Fierce One’s horn my son blew on, and that’ll carry well enough to give their settlement half a day’s warning.**
**We gotta get to the settlement and see what they’re doing there,** Notch sent. **Now that Kestrel’s here, we could get a start on that tonight.**
**The settlement ain’t going anywhere, not in deep snows like this,** One-Leg countered, in a tone that again suggested the pair had had a running debate on the issue. **That group of dark-skins that got past us heading east up river — them’s the ones we need to be following.**
**What?** Kestrel seized on that information with some surprise.
Notch waved his chunk of raw meat dismissively before taking another healthy bite. **We’ll catch up to them easy, whenever we feel like it.**
**There’s a hunting party of humans heading east?** Kestrel demanded. She mentally retraced her own flight path since parting ways with Pathmark and Greenweave at the summit of Three-Finger Hill that morning. She had flown straight for Razor Ridge, then skimmed close to the ridgeline in search of One-Leg and Notch. Kestrel was confident that she had been out of sight of the frozen Bounty herself the entire time, except for glimpses of it now and then through the trees in the river valley below. But if she had taken another course, she could have easily encountered them. **We need to get back in sending range of Three-Finger Hill, and warn Pathmark and Greenweave.**
**Don’t work up a sweat over it,** One-Leg said with some confidence. **I’m guessing it’s not hunters, but a scouting party. They heard Notch blow the Fierce One horn and they’re sensibly scared. They’re likely marching straight up the frozen river to the scrublands, looking for proof of the Fierce One riders. They won’t go looking for roundhooves up in the deepwoods around Three-Finger. As long as Pathmark and Greenweave are sitting tight at the camp we left them at, they’ve got high ground and vantage. And neither of those two are souls likely to be straying far from their appointed watchpost, after all.**
**’Sides, there were some big feet in those tracks east. Couple of Amber Hunters for sure. You know how much noise those stone-boots make,** Notch snickered. **Pathmark’ll hear them coming from half a day away! Plus — you’re looking grey and ragged. You shouldn’t be flying much farther anywhere today, should you?** he asked Kestrel pointedly. **Not with your little traveler aboard.**
Kestrel gave her younger tribesmate the look he deserved, but just the same, she settled down beside One-Leg on the raw, insulating hide. Using her gliding magic was just like using another set of muscles, and pregnancy or no pregnancy, after more than two weeks of constant travel, she was bone-weary to the core.
**None of us can be two places at once,** One-Leg said solidly. **Pathmark and Greenweave have their wits about them, and they’re sitting where they’re sent to sit, precisely so that they’ll spot any unexpected humans coming. Let them have their thrill — we’ve important work to do here, seeing what the locals get up to,** One-Leg said, his attention firm on the laboring humans in the valley to the west.
Kestrel nodded to that — but just the same, she sent out a mental wish to her she-wolf Starlight, knowing her wolf-friend had shadowed her as far as Three-Finger Hill. The she-wolf had followed her further, and was just within the edge of her sending range. Kestrel sent her old friend warning of the humans, impressing on Starlight the imagery of Painted Face scouts skulking along the frozen Bounty. She asked Starlight to look for them and to then shadow them, staying always out of sight and out of bowshot. How much of the request the wise old wolf understood Kestrel was not sure, but she felt the surge of territorial keenness that flooded back through the wolf-send from Starlight in acknowledgement. Then, knowing she had done what she could for the afternoon at least, Kestrel eased her heavy pack from her shoulders in relief and let One-Leg drape a body-warmed fur around her shoulders. The weary glider accepted the next chunk of meat Notch offered her, and let her eyes drift to the distant, dark specks of movement at the valley’s end below. The local humans continued in their labors, still oblivious to the spies who sat watch over them.
Ed. Note: see the story “Lift Off” (by Linda A. & Melanie D.: A best friend in dire need triggers something in Fadestar.), which takes place on RTH 2511.03.09.
RTH 2511. 03.14 — early afternoon, at Crow’s Ridge
**Rainpace! Dreamflight! I am here, with Otter this time. What is the news?**
Dreamflight had been lying with her face turned up to the weak winter sun when the distant whisper of Fadestar’s sending reached them. She scrambled upright, and heard the crunch of Rainpace’s boots in the crusty snow beneath their campsite on Crow’s Ridge.
**There you are!** Dreamflight sent in stark relief. **We were expecting to hear from you two days ago!**
**We’ve been worried,** Rainpace sent as well, his own message overlapping the stream of Dreamflight’s send.
**Newt and I had some trouble getting home after the last trip,** Fadestar sent. Her mindtouch was such a rich blend of pride and exuberance that Dreamflight did not need to wonder if either of the younger elves had been hurt in that “trouble”. **True Edge insists we tell the chief now, and not wait until we’re all back to the Holt again — I did it! I did it! I flew!**
Rainpace had joined Dreamflight beside the mouth of their snow cave. She was aware of the way he immediately turned to her at Fadestar’s words, and of the look of kindly sympathy in his blue-grey eyes. Dreamflight looked back at him, not understanding the meaning of Fadestar’s words, not until the young scout had continued on in a rush of joyful words. **True Edge insists Windburn will want to factor this into his plans, even though I can’t really do much of anything yet. Starskimmer and Cloudfern and Evervale all say I’ll get stronger with practice, but that it takes time and effort, and that I can’t spare a lot of that effort just now. But still — I did it! I flew Newt and I both out of danger! I can fly, just like my sister and like our mother!**
Dreamflight blinked at Rainpace, feeling as if someone had just yanked her sideways in the world. The tribe had another glider. And it wasn’t Dreamflight herself. “Oh,” she found herself saying aloud, an exhalation of profoundest shock. “Oh!”
**Congratulations!** Rainpace sent to their young tribesmate, as Fadestar’s pride in her unexpected accomplishment shone bright as sunlight in their minds. **That is marvelous. I know both Stormdancer and Leather would be so proud of you.**
**Cloudfern says so, too. And True Edge says Kestrel will be beside herself! I can’t wait until we can all come home again, and I can practice properly!** Fadestar’s excitement was crystal-sharp. Dreamflight found herself still staring at Rainpace, her own thoughts swirling apart like so much thistledown in a galestorm.
Rainpace reached out and rested a hand on Dreamflight’s arm. She realized belatedly that her emotions were feeding back through their sending contact, and that Fadestar had felt her reaction and that her pride and joy were beginning to deflate. **Congratulations,** Dreamflight sent, reining in her own emotions more firmly. **Good for you,** she managed to send. The goodwish was choked at first through her own long years of yearning and day-dreaming of such a discovery. But the initial jealous shock was beginning to recede; she had tasted of Fadestar’s eager joy, and even the second-hand flavor of such a discovery was as beautiful as everything and anything Dreamflight had ever daydreamed of. **Everyone will be so happy for you! How wonderful it must be!**
**I am sorry,** Fadestar sent then. **I know you’ve always, always wanted this yourself.**
Yes. Dreamflight always had. Always. Her earliest memories had been of her father throwing her up into the air, and of her spreading her arms and pretending to fly. Nothing, nothing, nothing in life could ever fulfill her more than somehow finding the magic within her to lift herself into the air and soar away, as feather-light and as graceful as any bird. But to her own surprise now, Dreamflight found herself able to smile for her younger friend. **You are getting to live my dream,** she sent to Fadestar, finding only envy in her heart — envy and joy, instead of the bitter jealousy which might have been there, not all too long ago now. **You are very lucky. And I am glad for you. I am.**
Beside her, Rainpace was smiling, and through the intimacy of sending, she could feel Fadestar’s relief rolled back to them, as tangible as a wave on the sea.. **Thank you!** Fadestar sent.
Dreamflight laughed aloud and grinned at Rainpace. **You just have to promise me,** she sent to Fadestar, **— that when I finally find my wings someday, that you’ll help teach me what you’ve learned about how to fly.**
**I promise,** Fadestar sent in return, making an effort to subdue her delight. **So now that I've shared my news — tell me, what news is there to share from the world outside? Are the Fierce Ones still on the move?**
Dreamflight nodded to Rainpace, letting him take lead on the rest of the conversation. Of a sudden, she felt strangely free, as if she had given over some burden to Fadestar in exchange for Fadestar’s news. Dreamflight sank back down into her sleeping furs and swaddled herself in them, then lifted her face back to the weak winter sun.
Ed. Note: see the story “Moment of Hope” (by Lyn C.: Spring meant new life, warmth, and hope.), which takes place on RTH 2511.03.14.
RTH 2511.03.14 — early evening, Rockjump Lake
At the chief’s summons, they met at the shore of Rockjump Lake. Snowfall and her team were the first to arrive, and had a pair of gobbler hens shot, plucked and ready to share when Windburn, Foxtail and Thornbow joined them.
“I’ve called in Moss and Honey,” Windburn said, not delaying from business even as he accepted a warm hug of welcome from Beetle, and Snowfall’s strong handclasp. “Farscout’s last report has them making camp last night a long ride to the east from Three-Finger Hill.”
“So then the Fierce Ones really are leaving?” Windsong said with some relief.
“A pity we never really got to see them,” Beetle said. Belatedly realizing she’d spoken that wish aloud, she reddened and turned a guilty glance toward Windburn, who gave her a narrow-eyed look of disapproval, while Foxtail laughed aloud.
“Be more careful what you wish for,” Thornbow chided her in more gentle amusement. “We’re more than well rid of those monsters.”
“So you’re sending Honey and Moss home?” Snowfall asked her chief, as the others gathered around her to rest and share a meal.
“It’s safe for them to leave the Northridge watch,” Windburn agreed. Snowfall felt her chief’s keen blue gaze as he searched her expression for any sign of the emotional turmoil he had felt in her locksending, during Rill’s misadventure at the start of the moon. She met his gaze steadily, and he held her stare for a moment, before nodding in satisfaction and turning his attention to the others. “We’ll rest here tonight until dawn, and then come morning, Windsong comes with us while Snowfall, you and Beetle ride to Quillrat Lake and wait there. My father, Brightwood and Farscout will have to continue following the humans south, far past the southern borders of our territory. We’ll need to make a new sending-string in order to hear them.”
Snowfall nodded at that. “One-Leg and Notch are still shadowing that party of Painted-Faces. They say there’s two really big Amber Hunters with them who seem to be making the orders. One-Leg says they don't show any sign of stopping -- they look to be heading upriver for the grasslands.”
Windburn nodded. “We’ll have to keep a wary eye open for them. I will not leave our scouts out alone below the Rushwater without having some eyes in place to know what’s going on at our river-border. We’ll ride to rendezvous with our watchers at Three-Finger Hill tomorrow. I want to send Thornbow with Notch to trail our wayward locals back to their village, and with One-Leg taking on the relay at Three-Finger Hill. We may need the rest of you, to build the links of the sending chain. But those we don’t, I will start sending home.”
There was a wave of weary smiles at that. “Home again!” Windsong breathed with anticipation, while Foxtail looked at her father with a stubborn gleam in her eyes, clearing intending to stick with Windburn through to the very end of the crisis.
“I can’t wait until we’re all back in the Holt, and everything is back to normal again,” Beetle said. Snowfall saw the steady, grim look that Windburn and Thornbow exchanged at that, and when Windburn glanced her way next, the elder caught his eye and held it knowingly.
**We’ll never be back to normal,** she locksent to Windburn.
**I can’t see it. No,** he replied. **We lost normal decades ago, when the Amber Hunters first arrived.**
Snowfall nodded sadly, and found herself sitting with one hand against her belly, where below the layers of leather and winter furs, her unborn child slept and grew.
‘My precious little spark,’ she thought to that for-now gentle sleeper. ‘What sort of world will I be bringing you into? I can’t help but fear for what changes you’ll see in your days ahead.’
Snowfall knew from the changes she had weathered in her own long days that she could not foresee what would come next. She only hoped that not all of the changes would be grim ones.
Ed. Note: see the story “Frozen Roads” (by Whitney W.: Fallout from Notch’s decision to blow the Fierce Ones’ horn, from another point of view…), which takes place around this time.
RTH.2511.03.16 — midday, on the steppes just north of the Bounty River
It was the hardest kind of hunt.
They had spent the daylight hours of the past ten days, since leaving Lost Child Butte, shadowing the Fierce Ones, pacing themselves so that they lingered hours behind their prey. The scouts could not afford to ride within sight of the humans within daylight hours, knowing that if they could see the Fierce Ones, they might be seen in turn. So that meant resting during the earliest hours of the day as the Fierce Ones rose and broke camp, then following a lazy trail gone cold enough that any spoor had frozen. The humans could not cross the snowy grasslands without their footsteps in the snow betraying their passage; the riders settled their nightly camps in the waning light each dusk, and if there were wolf-tracks circling the ring of their rope-boundaries from during the night when clouds hid the stars and moons, then at least the wolves had ceased to be a bother to their roundhooves.
By midday, it was Brightwood and Redbrush’s turn to ride ahead of her companions, following the swath of broken trail the Fierce Ones had trampled through the snow since breaking camp at dawn. After days of fair, crisply clear skies, the weather had begun to change since morning. A shelf of dark clouds were boiling ashore to the west, promising to lash the distant forest of the Holt by late afternoon; even here, several days’ ride to the east, the wind blew in even, fitful gusts, and Brightwood wore her hood up against sporadic spatters of rain that almost — almost — felt warm. Blacksnake and Farscout rode behind in the trail Redbrush laid them, with the young unbondeds Frostback and Fireweed trotting close behind old Wasp.
When the first of the screams were whipped to their ears on a swirling wind gust, all five wolves froze in mid-step. The screaming continued, shrill with mortal injury and many miles distant. Frostback and Fireweed both surged forward several steps, coming abreast of Redbrush, ears and tails high with blood-anticipation, but Wasp’s low, rumbling growl kept them from going any further.
**Roundhoof,** Brightwood sent.
**One of their beasts?** Farscout echoed.
**Can’t imagine the humans would have gone hunting a wild herd, not with all of the butchered clickdeer they’re already hauling,** Blacksnake sent. Wasp paced forward with a deliberate, slow tread, until he had put his shoulders past the line of younger wolves. **One of their beasts must have come to harm.**
**They should have reached the Bounty by now,** Farscout agreed, while Brightwood supplemented it with an image of broken ice with dark, yawning water beneath.
The keening scream was cut short then, with an abruptness that suggested some violence. Brightwood felt a shiver skitter down her spine like a running mouse, while from Farscout’s shoulder, Mushroom gave a small squeak of worry.
Blacksnake turned on Wasp’s sharp spine and looked at his companions. The Hunt Leader’s expression was dark. He sent to them, a memory of snowy landscape just above the Bounty’s river-island, seen from a hunt many years’ past. Farscout seized that offering and replaced it with a fresher memory of his own, of a wide expanse of deceptively empty snow-swept plains, on which moved small, dark figures at a great distance.
**Too flat,** he said. **The stretch above the river-island northward turn is too flat. We can’t afford to ride too much closer.**
**Not if the humans are stopped at the ford,** Brightwood agreed. **A clear, bright afternoon like this and you can see forever. We’d risk being spotted for sure.**
Blacksnake nodded agreement. **We will have to wait, then,** he said, before turning his gaze toward the dark, towering stormclouds that were gathering to the west. **Those will reach us by nightfall. We’ll have cover enough then.**
The thunderstorm arrived before nightfall, overtaking the winter sun and dropping the plains into darkness. It lashed them briefly with frozen pellets of stinging rain, but the scouts ignored the weather and pushed on toward the river, following the Fierce Ones’ tracks to the frozen ford.
They found the carcass of the dead roundhoof on the south side of the Bounty. Sure enough, there was a jagged hole in the river ice, and the muddle of tracks could still be read for the sequence of events. It had been one of the heavily laden pack-beasts, the last to cross, and the weakened ice had simply given way beneath it only yards from shore. Something had kept the creature’s head up and kept the submerged creature from being swept downstream in the river’s current. One of the humans — smaller and lighter than the rest — had crawled out to get ropes around the beast’s head and they had physically hauled it ashore. But one of the creature’s forelegs had been broken. They had pulled it clear of the ice before cutting its throat and stripping it off its load.
**They butchered it as well,** Blacksnake observed with grim distaste. **But left its hide.**
**Roasted themselves some too, I’ll wager,** Brightwood sent back. **Fresh roundhoof after days of clickdeer? Sounds good to me.** She shoved Frostback aside and began to carve some fresh meat to share with her companions.
Blacksnake scowled, revising his assumption of the relationship between a Fierce One and its mount. Wolfriders might save the pelt of a dead wolf-friend, but it would have taken a serious threat of starvation before any would have considered eating a wolf. And they knew well enough that the humans weren't starving. Not with all that clickdeer meat in their packs.
Farscout had ridden Duskgreeter a little ways to the south, following the wide, trampled trail in the snow. **They’ll have settled camp no more than an hour or two ahead,** he sent, keeping watch to the south. The battering of freezing rain had ended, but now a slow, quiet drift of snow had started to fall. **With the thaw beginning and taking them by surprise as it has, they will hurry for the Rushwater. Burdened as they are, it will take them days to get there.**
Blacksnake considered that, then reconsidered again on account of the butchered roundhoof. **They can make it three days maybe, if they set a brutal enough pace. I think they will. They will not spare their beasts.**
Brightwood had slipped back astride her she-wolf, and she and Redbrush were taking care to destroy all traces of her footprints in the snow, while Fireweed and Frostback made eager feast on the roundhoof carcass. Tracks trampled to incoherence, Redbrush shoved in to have a taste of the dead beast herself, tearing away bites from the haunch her rider had been cutting from.
**Let’s find their camp,** Brightwood sent. **Let’s see where they’ve tucked themselves in to sleep for the night. Then let’s find shelter of our own. I’ve enough tender mare here for a fine breakfast.**
Blacksnake nodded agreement. He felt the lightness and lurking relief behind his friend’s sending. They had to escort the invaders only as far as the Rushwater. Once the Fierce Ones had forded that river, they would be safely gone for now — and the scouts could turn back for their own distant home.
RTH 2511.03.19 — midday, Bubbling Spring, north of Cloudmaker Lake
The sulphuric waters of the Bubbling Spring remained boiling hot, even in winter. Steam rose from the lonely hot springs and coated the surrounding trees with a glittering shell of ice. Windburn and his daughter sat in the rock high above the heaviest of that fog, bundled against a freezing drizzle of rain. The weather for the last few days and nights had remained stormy, and while the snows had not yet begun to melt, the winds from the west smelled of warming and of change.
From the far distance, the message they had been waiting for finally came. Farscout’s sending flickered into Windburn’s mind, miles-faint but clear.
**They have gone. The Fierce Ones have crossed the frozen Rushwater. They are returning to the grasslands.** The words came with imagery: Farscout was standing among the trees on the height of a ridge, one of the southern flanks of Lookout Mountain. Far below, a line of black specks moved away to the southeast, like a trail of ants against the white snow of the plains.
Windburn seized that image. He shared it first with Foxtail, then reached out to One-Leg, who waited with Windsong at the southern slopes of Three-Finger above the Holt’s southern border at the Bounty, likely somewhere near where Farscout and Fadestar had first encountered the Fierce Ones more than a month ago now. One-Leg grabbed ahold of the image and, still sharing with his chief, passed it along. It was Snowfall and Beetle who received the projection next; Longshot and Quick Fang joined in moments later, ferrying the message on to Goldspice and those waiting at the Holt. One by one, Windburn felt the flickers of other tribemates joining their tenuous connection, until it was only the distant kinsmen at Bluestone Cave who were not sharing the message.
**The Fierce Ones are gone, for now at least,** Windburn sent. **It is time to bring everyone home.**