(This story is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers - Background" series of stories -- see listing for related stories.)
Dawn was fast approaching, as crystal clear and cold as the night itself had been, with a bitter wind which tasted of coming snow. The rare rain of starfalls had slowed to only a rare streak across the sky overhead, and Snowflake paused for a moment to marvel at one greenish streak of light that crossed the dawning. Then it was gone, and Snowflake crawled out of the hometree window, letting the window-covering flap close behind her. She hung for a moment, gauging her fall, then dropped. The thick layer of snow softened her landing, and she gathered herself to her feet like a tree cat, barefoot and shivering from the snow that had gotten under the collar of her winter tunic.
The tussle was brief but not bloodless. When Snowflake turned around and found the other child had a hold on Snowflake's new doll, she growled and lunged for it, flashing her teeth in warning. Fadestar recoiled, clutching the doll to her thin chest. Snowflake locked both hands on the toy and yanked, trying to drag the floppy-eared stuffed rabbit free. Fadestar held on. Snowflake pulled again, still growling, and flashed her teeth in warning. Fadestar hung on. "Mine!" the two-year-old protested, dark braids flying as she dragged back. "Mine!"
Warning given, Snowflake wrestled the doll closer, leaned in, and sank her teeth into the other child's bare arm. Fadestar shrieked and let the contested toy go.
Snowflake retreated to her parents' bed, ignoring the screams of her defeated playmate. She cuddled the doll for a moment, then bored of that, propped it up among the blanket furs and practiced pouncing on it. Behind her, Fadestar's wails scaled the octave. The door-curtain rustled; Snowflake caught Tallow's scent as the crafter hurried into the room and scooped up the weeping child. "Oh kitling, hush, hush..." Snowflake didn't look up until, moments later, she heard her mother's steps approach the door.
Snowfall ducked into the room. "What's wrong?"
"That cub of yours!" Tallow snapped over the sound of Fadestar's sobs. "She took a bloody chunk out of Fadestar's arm! *Again!*"
Snowflake had learned what would come next. She snatched after her toy and dived for the window. Snowfall was quicker, and dragged her daughter back before escape could be made.
Snowfall held her daughter up and looked her sternly in the eye. **You mustn't bite,** she sent firmly. **You especially mustn't bite Fadestar. The cubling is littler than you. You mustn't bite.**
"Mine!" Snowflake hoisted her toy, proudly unrepentant. "Mine!"
Snowflake took away the stuffed rabbit and deliberately handed it to Fadestar. The younger child clung against Tallow's chest, sniffling now. She refused to take the toy, and turned her enormous eyes away as if frightened of the thing. Tallow took it instead. "You mustn't bite, and you must learn to share," Snowfall said. "A good huntress always shares with the rest of her tribe. A wolfrider always shares. Hear me, cub?"
Snowflake heard her mother’s voice, and knew the words were a chastisement, but she also knew she didn’t need to listen. She had no question of her dominant position over the other child – Fadestar was younger, smaller, and always the weaker. They were a tiny pack of two, and Fadestar rightly knew her place in her own pack.
Instead, she focused on her toy. Snowflake growled and swiped stubbornly after it, knowing that with persistence came rewards.
"It’s like trying to teach a fish to fly," Tallow said. "Your daughter might as well have been whelped by Wolfsister herself – she’s all wolf. You can’t tame her, much less teach her.”
“All cubs go through a biting phase,” Snowfall countered evenly. “Your young Littlejab was a biter as well, as I recall it.”
Tallow chuckled at that. “Yes, but at least my Thornbow outgrew it!”
Fadestar had stopped weeping, and her thin face peeked out from Tallow’s protective arms. Snowflake felt the other child’s shifting gaze, and looked directly at her. Fadestar’s dark eyes dropped submissively, and Snowflake chuffed to herself in satisfaction. They were a pack of two, and both cubs knew it.
Finch’s newborn boy was fat, pink-faced, and topped by a welter of tawny curls. Fadestar squealed with delight the moment she saw him and immediately reached out in hopes to getting to hold the round-cheeked bundle. Snowflake was satisfied instead to simply lean close and breath in deep, tasting and categorizing his scent. Milky-sweet and healthy. There was nothing missing, like there was in Fadestar’s weak-prey scent.
“Mine,” Snowflake said with satisfaction. “Part of my pack.”
“Yes, little Mouse is part of our pack,” Bowflight chuckled, sitting beside his lifemate in the couple’s den. He nuzzled Finch’s chestnut curls proudly. “He’s a fat, strong little pup, isn’t he?”
“He’s beautiful,” agreed a voice from behind Snowflake and Fadestar. Leather stood in the den’s arching doorway, watching Finch and her newborn with a haunted look in his brown eyes. He caressed his daughter’s dark head. “You’ve a fine son.”
Fadestar began to cough. The coughing wracked her thin frame; her father hugged her close and rubbed her back until the coughing had passed. Snowflake cocked her head, listening intently. There were times when Fadestar coughed so hard that she could not breath, her lips went blue, and if Snowflake were close enough to her agemate, she could here the strange whispering “shusss” of Fadestar’s laboring heart. There was a hole in Fadestar’s heart, or so Cloudfern tried to explain it – but Snowflake knew her elder must be wrong. You stuck a spear or an arrow in your prey and pierced its heart, and it died. No elf could live with a hole in her heart.
“That’s a fine new spear you have there,” Finch said to Snowflake, as Bowflight offered a waterskin to Fadestar and helped the sickly cub to drink.
Snowflake held up her spear, and made a show of testing the sharp bone point. She was fiercely proud of her spear, which her father had made for her and which her mother and her brother Whitestag were teaching her to use. “I’m going hunting!” she announced. “I’ll bring home good meat for you and Mouse.”
“Me too,” Fadestar said quickly. “I’m going hunting too!”
“Not today, cub,” Leather said, resting both hands on his daughter’s shoulders. “Not until both your cough goes away and those rain clouds pass. You don’t want have to take to your bed with a fever again.”
Fadestar frowned and shook her head. “No Not again,” she said miserably.
“Poor cubling,” Bowflight said.
“Don’t look so sad, pretty kitten. Not all of us are hunters,” Finch said, while offering her newborn her breast. The boy rooted for her nipple and latched on with a satisfied smacking of his plump lips. “Snowflake will be a hunter like both her mother and father, but someone like you and me has to make the leathers our hunters wear, and gather the roots and greens that we all eat when there’s no fresh meat to be had.”
Snowflake made a face, knowing viscerally that it was better by far to be a hunter. That was a truth her own blood sang to her, as undeniable as the moons overhead. “I’m going hunting!” she repeated, determined to prove herself a good provider for the newest member of her pack.
“Good for you, cub,” Leather said, patting Snowflake’s head as she strode past him in the door. She heard him speak to his daughter as she left them behind. “Fadestar, what do you say? Should we go and finish making Mouse that toy you and I started?”
“I’d rather go hunting,” Snowflake heard her agemate say, as Snowflake stepped out of the hometree into the crisp night air.
“Wait up! Wait for me!” Fadestar called, gasping for breath as she ran. “Wait!”
**Keep up!** Silvermane – the name Snowflake had now chosen for herself – sent her order firmly as she loped alongside her wolf-friend Growler. Mouse, only five autumns old, ran right at Snowflake’s heels, his tawny curls tied back in bouncing wolf-tail. He glanced back toward Fadestar anxiously and began to break stride, so Silvermane repeated her command fiercely. **Keep up!**
**Wait!** Fadestar sent back desperately.
**You keep up!** Silvermane blasted back, her words shadowed with the image of hunters racing with the full wolfpack.
Fadestar continued to fall behind, her face flushed crimson and her lungs rasping. Silvermane kept the pace she had set; it didn’t occur to her to take mercy on her playmate. Silvermane listened to her wolf-heart and knew what she did was right and best. Nature showed no mercy to the weak, and neither did the wolfpack. Mercy from their elders hadn’t cured Fadestar of her lifelong weakness, so Silvermane did as she knew was best: challenge Fadestar to keep up or fall behind, either do or fail.
“You can do it!” Mouse called back encouragingly. “I know you can do it!”
Fadestar struggled to gain ground, arms and knees pumping gamely. But she was unable to keep up the pace, and within a few more strides, the forest swallowed her from sight.
Silvermane kept running until she had led her small pack to the riverbank. Then she turned and trotted back down the path they had taken. They found Fadestar where she had tripped and fallen, several hundred paces from the river. Fadestar lay curled in a ball, hugging herself and sobbing for breath.
“Get up,” Silvermane said, nudging the other girl with her foot.
“Why won’t you ever wait for me?” Fadestar cried.
“You’re weak,” Silvermane answered. “You must stop being weak.”
“I can’t help it!”
“Then don’t waste tears. You run with the pack. Or you don’t. The pack doesn’t wait. You keep up or you stay behind. That’s the Way.”
“You’re just mean!” Fadestar wept.
Silvermane turned away, already bored of her playmate’s histrionics. “You either are, or you’re not. Crying over it won’t make the rain stop falling, or the river stop flowing. You do, or you don’t.
“Maybe if you run really really hard every day, you’ll keep up next time,” Mouse said, kneeling beside Fadestar and patting her shoulder sympathetically. “You can do that, I know you can.”
“It’s not fair,” the girl sobbed, her weak lungs wheezing after breath. Silvermane could almost here the desperate laboring of the other girl’s weak heart. “I don’t want to be sick all of the time, but I can’t help it.”
Growler sat and began to scratch. Silvermane leaned against her spear, aware of how quiet the forest had gone around them. Fadestar’s weeping had scared away the birds. There was a flicker of movement overhead; Silvermane glanced that way reflexively and saw a big-eyed tree-wee staring down at them from high up in a cedar, its bushy tail twitching in anxious curiosity.
The tree wee wasn’t the only one who heard Fadestar’s tears. Fresh movement from up the trail caught Silvermane’s eye, and she looked that way to see a grey she-wolf loping toward them. It was Moonbrow and her rider. Leather leaped off his wolf-friend’s back and scooped up his daughter, giving Silvermane a fierce look as he gathered his weeping daughter close.
“Kitling, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
Fadestar just wept harder, her sobs so hard now that she was left choking for breath.
“Not hurt. Just weak,” Silvermane said.
Leather carried his child back to his wolf-friend. He set Fadestar astride Moonbrow’s back. “There are more kinds of strength than you know, wolf-daughter,” he said sternly to Silvermane.
Silvermane shrugged dubiously; her elders often said things that made no sense, or that ran contrary to common sense and the Way. It was easier to ignore those contrary statements rather than waste breathe with argument. She turned away as Leather rode off with his daughter; she looked instead for the tree wee, hoping its curiosity had drawn it down within range of her spear. But the tree wee had sense enough to know it was prey. It had fled.
Silvermane padded barefoot down the stairs, following her mother down into the warmest of the interior dens. She was bleary-eyed and wrapped in her thickest winter fur, having just been woken from a deep day’s sleep.
Mouse was already there, as were Kestrel and the chief and Cloudfern and every other member of the tribe not out on a late-winter hunt with Hunt Leader Blacksnake. They were all crowded into the small, round chamber, and while Silvermane wasn’t surprised to see a little cub like Mouse wet-faced with tears, she was shocked to see several of their elders crying shamelessly.
“Go on,” Snowfall said, giving her daughter a gentle push. “Hurry. You must say your goodbyes now; Cloudfern says there isn’t much time left.”
Silvermane was resistant, but other tribemates urged her through the press to Fadestar’s bedside. Fadestar lay motionless among the fur blankets there, her lips almost blue and her fair skin gone translucent. A sheen of fever-sweat glimmered on her skin, and her dark, shadowed eyes were sunken. She seemed to stare through the faces around her, and mumbled feverishly in a one-sided conversation with her father.
Silvermane stared at her playmate. Fadestar was always sickly, and her fickle health always took turns for the worse during the winter. But four days ago, the tanner Leather had been crushed to death by a marshbeast bull while hunting. Within hours of learning of her father’s death, Fadestar had come down with a raging fever, and nothing in Cloudfern’s centuries of experience with of herbal treatments could bring her fever down.
Silvermane leaned over her playmate and breathed deep. Fadestar’s scent agreed with what Silvermane’s eyes told her. Fadestar was dying, and reeked of it. The smell made the hair at the nape of Silvermane’s neck rise. She shivered and retreated an involuntary step.
“Too cold,” Fadestar mumbled, her voice a rasping whisper. “Father, where’s my broth?”
“Poor cubling,” Kestrel murmured. She sat close by her sister’s side and held the girl’s hand tightly. “It’s her grief at losing Father that’s killing her, not the wretched fever!”
Silvermane attempted a send to her agemate. She pictured both of them together, as they’d stood during the tribe’s howl for Leather, four nights ago. But reaching Fadestar was difficult; it was like trying to find the girl through a dense, humid fog. When Silvermane succeeded, her playmate’s mindtouch was distant and non-responsive.
“Kestrel, I don’t think we can wait any longer,” Cloudfern murmured to the elder.
Kestrel nodded, suddenly mute with grief. Cloudfern set a trio of bright-winged Preservers to their task, and the spit-bugs went to work without hesitation. Silvermane retreated back to her mother’s side.
“It’s just as if Fadestar has gone to sleep,” Snowfall said solemnly, hugging her daughter close. “Fadestar will just sleep a safe, peaceful sleep in the storage dens below, with Fletcher and Newt and Brightwood. And when the tribe has a healer again, she’ll be woken, and then she’ll finally know what it’s like to be as hale and strong as you are.”
“But it’s not the Way,” Silvermane murmured, shivering as if chilled as she watched the Preservers at their work. The Preservers worked quickly, and Fadestar had already disappeared under the first layer of their silken cocoon. “The Way is that the weak and the sick die.”
Snowfall held her daughter close. “We’re elves, not wolves,” the huntress said. “This is the tribe’s Way. Wolves wouldn’t. But elves must.”
Silvermane watched the Preservers at their work, her ears full of the muted grieving of her tribemates around her. She listened to her own wolf-heart, and knew that this was wrong. Fadestar’s weak heart had been too much elf and too little wolf; postponing Fadestar death until some other daybreak or moonrise was wrong.
Suddenly, Silvermane couldn’t continue to watch the Preservers spin their spider-cocoon. She wrenched herself free of her mother’s embrace and pushed her way to the nearest window. No one held her back as she scrambled for escape. The rasp of rough bark against her bare hands and feet was bitterly cold as she climbed free, and the snow was crunching under her bare feet. She hugged her fur blanket tight, and glared up through the winter-bare branches of the Mother Tree, to where the weak winter sun hung balefully overhead. For a confused moment, Silvermane remembered a shooting star against a dark winter sky. But the memory blazed to nothing, like a promise forgotten.
Silvermane wiped fiercely against the tears she found in her eyes. Elf ways made no sense, but the wolf in her knew what would comfort. The girl tilted back her head and began to howl.