Windburn stirred awake to a crisp breath of autumn chill drifting into the den, sneaking under the sleeping furs and slithering into his hair. Reluctant to rouse, he scrunched his nose and tightened the lids over his eyes, shifting a little, trying to make sense of contradictory sensations. The cover drawn over the den-mouth had slipped open somehow, and goosebumps were rising over his outflung left arm, while the other was warmed by the sleeping presence of another. Sari, he thought for a moment with the haze of dreams about his head, and almost reached out when he remembered. No — it was Thornbow who had come to warm his den against the first truly cold day of the year. The archer now lay at his side, still and sprawled as he tended to be in sleep, the two of them amply buffering each other. But at his other side, the invading chill had turned the chief's torc very cold against Windburn's skin... all except near the end, where there was a sudden, unexpected warmth. Soft, silky... damp?
The chief opened his eyes at last. Thornbow, he realized, was awake and raised just slightly on his elbows, looking at something with a wide smile on his face. Before Windburn could move, his friend put a finger to his lips, indicating silence.
**Turn your head very slowly,** he sent.
Now even more baffled, Windburn did as instructed. On his left side, cradled under his arm, Cinder curled where he'd fallen asleep with the dawn. The tiny cub was tangled in the sleeping furs, his little fists bunched up in his father's hair. His lips were closed decisively about the star end of the chief's torc.
Unbidden, despite Thornbow's hushing, a soft laugh escaped Windburn's mouth. It seemed to warm his heart as it passed by, bubbling up his throat. Laughter didn't come easy to him, after less than half a turn of the seasons. He felt a wordless echo come from Thornbow, a pulse of sunny amusement as his friend lay back into the furs.
**He woke up fussy, a little while ago,** the archer provided. **I'd just slipped back in and caught sight of him, thought he was going to cry. But instead he clamped on and quieted right down again.**
**Must be teething,** Windburn returned, his mind drifting through a fog of seasons to his daughter's early cubhood. **Cold things soothe them. Foxtail chewed one of my lifemate's bracelets beyond recognition, once.** There was a wistful hurt in the memory, but laughter too, closely cherished. With endless care, he raised his opposite hand and brushed a single finger against the fine spun silver of Cinder's hair.
**Father, I'm ready.** Just then the sending came from without. Foxtail's mind-touch was strangely cheerful, considering the task ahead of her. Windburn frowned in unhappy recollection. The first truly cold day meant an inventory of the tribe's supply of dried and wrapstuffed healing herbs, which his daughter had, unusually, asked to watch — which meant rising from the furs and going outside. His hand hovered over Cinder's cheek. At his side he heard Thornbow's chuckle.
**I'm not sure you can wriggle free without waking him,** his friend sent. Daunted but determined, Windburn began to consider angles. If he could hold the wolf's-head end... if he could twist to one side and rise very slowly...
**Father?** Foxtail's sending thrummed with curious impatience. Eager for an early start and an early finish, no doubt. Windburn pursed his lips in concentration and froze when Cinder's little eyebrows threatened to knit unhappily together. He could hear more chuckles shiver through Thornbow's frame, barely held back. He was reconsidering his options, up to and including asking Goldspice to come by, when the den-flap moved to the side and Foxtail stuck her red head in.
“What's going — “ she started, and didn't finish. Instead her mouth and her eyes all turned into perfect circles at the sight. Then her cheeks puffed and she bit hard into her lower lip.
**Little scamp!** she chortled. **Look at him, getting a nice good grip on the torc already!**
Windburn gave her an look of apology, broken by a smile, which he was deeply gratified to see her return. **Another moment, daughter,** he asked. **I'll find the trick to freeing myself somehow.** From the corner of his eye, he could see Thornbow shake his head in silent, merry disagreement. He was probably right, the chief reflected with an inward sigh. He could return the torc to Cinder once he'd removed it, but couldn't remove it without waking the cub, who might otherwise sleep blissfully through the evening. But such was duty. Autumn and winter would not wait on his account, and anyway he ought to act quickly before Foxtail changed her mind and tried to weasel out of the task...
**Wait, Father.** His daughter's sending surprised him. There was still amusement in it, but there was something else, too. A warmth. **There are others who know how to do the tallying too, aren't there? Cloudfern maybe?*
**And Starskimmer,** Windburn answered, mystified at this development. **Chicory too, in a pinch.**
**Then I'll go ask them. I'll take this on. You just stay where you are.** She had already let the den-flap fall again. **Don't wake the chief of sucklers there.**
**???** There were no words in the sending that Windburn shared with Thornbow, only blank confusion. The archer had nothing to offer but his own share of the same. But Foxtail's sending was truthful, not a scheme to escape or delay the work. The chief reached out hesitantly. **Are you sure?**
**Right as the river, I'm sure! The way he's attached to that torc, I have my work cut out for me if I mean to give him any competition!**
The words were all laughter, but she was already gone from the den's door. They caught the echo of her call, “Starskimmer, there you are, I need a hand —“ and then she was outside the Hometrees and beyond their hearing.
Windburn relaxed again into the furs, still baffled, but unable to find it in himself to be concerned. Foxtail had been... changing, those past few moons, he thought, and realized that he'd been aware of it for some time before the thought had properly crystallized in his mind. Changing in unexpected, encouraging ways. He needed to consider them, consider her — consider those words that she'd just thrown off as a joke, but that rang maybe a little of something else. Yes, there was thinking to be done.
But not quite now.
He sighed in deep contentment and stretched out his arm to slide it about Thornbow's shoulders. His friend echoed his sigh, as happy as he to melt into the furs and delay a cold waking for another hour. He then shifted his other arm to nestle Cinder, who was still attached to the chief's torc with all his little might. Chief of sucklers indeed. Windburn grinned to himself as he drifted back to sleep. Cinder might grow up to wear that torc, but his sister would never let him forget this.