Dusk was falling. The wind had been gusting all day from the northwest, carrying with it showers of rain, and the cubs had brought a hide to stretch above them as a rain shelter — for even when the showers stopped, the leaves continued to shed tear drops with every fresh rustle of wind.
The chief and his returning party of scouts had been in sending contact for the past two days, allowing for much of what they had to report to have already been shared with the waiting tribe. Thornbow and Notch had returned from Eagle's Rest Hill around sunhigh, having seen no additional movement from the local human settlement. Kestrel was out on an all-day patrol flight along the thornwall, ensuring all was clear. Otherwise, the tribe was gathered at the hometrees of the Holt, grateful to have their loved ones home again, and was awaiting the return of the very last of the scouting parties.
Glow and Rill took turns fidgeting and climbing up and down and in and out of the Dentrees, fetching toys, collecting snacks, refilling the water skins, or simply vanishing on this or that or whatever excuse they could think of — but they always returned to assume the watch again beside their friends. It was Cinder and Copper who remained constant sentinels, sharing the high-shaped sunning ledge that Copper's mother had coaxed from the old hometree the previous summer. Both cubs waited patiently, straining to be the first to spot Windburn's returning party, while the periodic sendings between the chief and the Holt drew nearer and near.
"There!" Cinder finally shouted, jerking to his feet so that the smoked hide they had been holding above them tented up over his head, and sent a cascade of gathered raindrops streaming down on the heads of Rill and Glow to either side. Copper was already diving off the ledge. The girl scudded down the side of the Mother Tree at a reckless speed, leaving her friends to follow in her wake.
The cubs reached the ground and ran, even as their tribemates and wolf-friends began to emerge out of the hometrees behind them. Cinder caught up with Copper with his longer stride, and the pair were running breakneck even as the returning scouts emerged through the trees.
Only Foxtail was riding — the rest of the wolves were thin and footsore from long travel, while Whirl was beginning to show the pups she carried. Cinder flung himself into his father's arms, while Copper wrapped herself around Farscout's neck. Farscout traded a look with his lifemate and cradled his daughter close, while Windburn hugged his son tightly and buried his face against the boy's damp hair.
The wolfpack arrived then, eager to greet their long-away chief and chieftess-wolf. The elves wisely waded out of that noisy, frantic mob, carrying the children clear of the inevitable snapping and rank-scrap that would ensue. They walked the rest of the way toward the hometrees, where the tribe was gathering in a welcoming crowd of their own.
Each returning scout drew their own small, shifting knot of welcome. Windburn had to put Cinder down in order to hug Chicory, as she flung herself at him, calling "Brother!". Goldspice was not far behind. "Cousin," the smith said with relief, as though the word alone were a passing of an unwanted burden. "I am glad you are finally home."
"You look like something that’s been shat out by some troll then warmed up after spring thaw," One-Leg boomed in hearty welcome to his brother, clasping Blacksnake's arm in welcome. "And smell like it!"
"Missed you, too," Blacksnake returned drily.
"Is it just me, or does it scare you a little that our big brother even knows what that looks and smells like?" Suddendusk grinned, moving in to grab Blacksnake for a hug himself, as Chicory, Glow and Cinder moved in on Blacksnake as well. Foxtail had a cluster of friends gathered around for welcoming embraces, while Cloudfern and Greenweave were hugging Brightwood close.
"We've been preparing a feast," Snowfall told their chief — unnecessarily, since the rain-damp woods around them were aromatic with the scents of roasting and baking.
"Tomorrow," Windburn said raggedly. The exhaustion which had been shadowing him for days had suddenly gathered weight and draped itself around his shoulders like a soaked hide. "We can gather for Council tomorrow. Tonight — we've got to get some sleep."
"The roasting pits won't have finished until morning," Snowfall agreed with sympathy. "Everyone has time enough tonight to rest."
"Some things won't wait," One-Leg said, planting his walking-staff firmly and speaking in a tone and volume that got everyone's attention. "We’ve got the whole tribe right here, right now, 'cept for Kestrel. I want to say something that needs sayin': I'm proud of my son, and what Notch did out there — in blowin' that Fierce Ones’ horn — likely saved both Pathmark 'n me from being seen by the local humans. It also gave our neighbors fair warning to our shared danger — something which you otherwise weren't gonna do." The red-bearded elder fixed Windburn with a knowing look, clearly critical of his nephew's choices on that matter. "So if you're thinking of punishing Notch for using the smarts he was born with, you'll have to punish me, too. Because the truth is, I was fixing to take that horn myself, only Notch just beat me to it."
Windburn was gazing at his uncle with exhaustion, clearly struggling to pick up the threads of a matter the chief had not thought about for many long nights and days. For his part, Notch was arm-in-arm with Foxtail, looking nearly as worn to the bone as she was. His father's demands had him as broadsided as the chief, and his eyes — bleary from an interrupted, long-overdue sleep — were blinking rapidly as he was sorting things out.
"Like father, like son," Foxtail grinned, although her voice was rough from exhaustion. "Good thing I'm not chief yet, or I'd tie you together in a sack and dunk you a few times in Frog Pond for the thieving part of things, then haul the both of you out and kiss you for the saving-of-the-day!"
Foxtail's joke broke any waiting tension among the rest of the tribe, and there was a ripple of laughter at her words. Suddendusk punched his eldest brother's shoulder, and Notch grinned and planted a slobbery kiss on Foxtail's face.
"Watch this one, chief," Notch warned Windburn. "I think she's getting rank-crazy."
"Piss off," Foxtail laughed, wiping saliva from her cheek. "Being chief is too much work for me!"
"Or me!" Goldspice agreed cheerfully, pulling her cousin in for hug of her own. She thought to herself that Foxtail was one to keep an eye on. Joking or not, she had a good balance in her chief-thoughts. Even Goldspice was torn between wanting to dunk and kiss both culprits.
Chicory though was giving her niece the stink-eye, and might have opened her mouth to drop a cutting remark as well, but Blacksnake had been hearing by sending all about Chicory's feud with Goldspice over the latter’s choices as acting-chief. Tired as he was, Blacksnake was alert to his daughter's coiled tension, and distracted her from a sniping attack by pulling her close for another hug.
**This bitterness between you,** he chastised his daughter in a locksend, **let it go now. Our troubles are not yet over, even if we've all returned home. We need to pull together as a tribe, not splinter apart.**
**But she could have gotten Rill killed!** Chicory blazed back furiously. **She made a bad choice, and refused to listen to reason when I —**
**Enough,** Blacksnake sent firmly. **Child-of-mine, I know you too well. It is your pride fighting this battle. Let it go. We have more serious concerns to gnaw upon during council tomorrow, understand me?**
Chicory sighed and melted in submission within her father's embrace, while Goldspice, who had noticed the exchange, caught her grandsire’s eye and gave him a grateful smile. Beyond them, Windburn shook his head, then walked a few paces to where Notch and Foxtail stood, looking his cousin in the eye. He could feel the rest of the tribe’s attention on him, but kept his focus on the young prankster, until he saw Notch’s brow furrow with just the slightest sign of worry. Slowly, deliberately, and not as hard as he could have, Windburn reached up and cuffed the back of Notch’s head.
“That’s for taking the horn without asking,” said the chief, with a raised eyebrow. “Since I know you know that you should have asked. But,” he added, “when you used it, it was for the right reasons — saving tribemates, not causing mischief. So, good thinking… for once.” Those last words were said sardonically, but he meant the rest, and could see the surprise not only on Notch’s face, but Foxtail’s too. “To tell the truth, I’d forgotten about that blasted thing. But the next time you get an urge to ‘borrow’ something that important, ask.”
Another gust of laughter swept around the group, and Windburn gave a short nod to One-Leg’s considering look. There was no use chewing over that incident any further — not when the outcome had been so clearly in the tribe’s favor.
Then Snowfall was encouraging everyone to let their chief and the other returning scouts go to retire for the night. "Willow and Beetle, see that Foxtail gets what she needs; Cloudfern, take care of your sister and her lifemate," she said, while physically pulling Windburn away from the center of the crowd. As Farscout and Brightwood followed gratefully in Cloudfern’s wake, they exchanged a glance and pulled Blacksnake with them. The hunt leader conceded to be led away without protest, and Snowfall continued, "Cinder, get your father to his den; Starskimmer and I will bring a meal to tide you over for the night, my chief. The rest of you, back to your furs or your own dens. Let our weary travellers find their beds; tomorrow will be here soon enough, and we will all sit together and share in a feast, before we sit as a tribe in council."
Windburn woke to find Starskimmer nestled beside him, the weight of her head against his shoulder and her long sable hair tangled around them. She had asked Suddendusk to take the sleeping Cinder, and crept into the chief’s furs during the night to offer another sort of welcome home. He nuzzled her cheek now, letting himself soak in her scent and the warmth of her soft curves against him. The chief allowed himself to doze for a long, long time. Such lassitude was usually an anathema to him, but he was bone-weary from weeks of travel. He had earned a little lie-in, he told himself, and enjoyed even more once Starskimmer woke as well. The coupling which followed was slow and lazy and soul-healing.
“Your stomach is growling,” Starskimmer chuckled later, as they were dozing again in the aftermath of their joining.
It felt as though the spoken words woke him entirely. His sense of lethargy sundered, Windburn sat up and swung his legs out of bed. The double layer of winter curtain-hides over the den’s single window were lashed tightly closed, but he could hear from the calls of redbirds outside that it was morning. Windburn reached after the breeches he had left on the floor last night, then changed his mind and rose to his feet to rummage around in the large willow basket where he kept his spare clothing. He found a buckskin and slate blue tunic and dark brown breeches — both old and worn thin, but blessedly clean. The wood of the hometree felt as soft and worn as suede beneath his bare feet — even while he cast about for a pair of clean boots, he savored the cold intimacy of that feel of the familiar den floor.
Starskimmer dressed as well and followed him from his den and out of the Father Tree. The winding root-step stair brought them down to the central clearing between the three ancient hometrees, and a few strides across that brought them to the arching doorway into the Gathering Den, on the ground level of the Mother Tree. The double-layered winter door-hides had already been tied open in welcome, and the air was rich with the good, mingling scents of a feast.
Piles of furs had already been arranged in a great circle around the chamber, with room enough for the entire tribe to sit. A stack of wooden bowls and carved spoons of bone and shell waited in the center of that circle, along with several wineskins and a big carved box. Thornbow’s wolf Thief was worrying at that, trying to nose open the lid. The pale wolf shied off from that effort the moment the chief and the brewer stepped into the room, and slunk quickly out of the chamber, accompanied by Starskimmer’s laughter.
Within moments, other members of the tribe began to arrive: Windburn did not overhear word being passed by mouth or by sending, but clearly the rest of the tribe had been waiting on his appearance. They greeted him as they entered, and Cinder came trotting up and at once attached himself to his father’s side. Baskets and platters and heaping bowls arrived as well — summer berries and fruits, fresh out of wrapstuff; trout and Elder salmon, raw venison and roasted duck; a squirrel-and-rabbit stew fragrant with wild onions and garlic; salted greens, herbed quail eggs, and roasted tubers still warm from the cooking pits; sweet honeycakes and smoked Chum salmon salted and rolled in honey. Cloudfern and Newt arrived with a great, steaming ceramic pot of raspberry-mint tea, and Foxtail and Notch came laden with jugs and swollen skins of wine.
With little ceremony, everyone chose their meal and chose their seat. Feasting had begun before the last arrived — Brightwood, Copper and Farscout, trickling in late enough that Chicory’s honeycakes had already been reduced to crumbs. Goldspice saved the day there by having saved two of the treats for her niece and her cousin. Windburn himself did not delay — he took a bowl of the onion stew and several handfuls of the greens, a wing of duck, and the saved honeycake. And once he had sampled everything else, he took a double portion of the sticky-sweet smoked salmon. The mixed flavors of salt and fish and honey always evoked for him a certain childhood nostalgia. It took some amount of self-restraint from the chief not to simply gorge on the candied salmon.
As Windburn ate, he listened and watched. The mood for the feast was joyous but reserved — members of the tribe were grateful to be home and to have one another close again, but no one was merry. There was quiet conversation, but little of the usual cheerful banter which only got louder and more giddy as the wineskins and jugs went empty one-by-one. Many cups were raised to congratulate Fadestar on the emergence of her gliding powers — a very fortunate development, a blessing from the High Ones — but drinking was reserved, all careful to keep their eyes and minds clear. Even Glow and Rill were subdued; Glow stuck close to her parents instead of her usual whirlwind travels from lap to lap around the room, while Rill seemed to be doing his best to sit in his father’s shadow, out of his chief’s clear line-of-view.
The boy expects me to punish him further, Windburn observed. He could see the bright tips of Berryflop’s wings just past Suddendusk’s shoulder; the Preserver was sitting perched a-top Rill’s head on its punishment-duty, watching the cub’s every move and eager to sing at the slightest provocation and summon the adults to curb any wayward urge. Let Rill sit and worry, the chief thought to himself with a bit of amusement. He could remember his own boyhood-self well enough, enough to recognize echoes in Quick Fang’s cub. Whatever the pup is imagining I will say or do to him is only going to get worse and worse; he’ll be punished adequately enough, just worrying it over, while I have bigger things to set my teeth on right now.
That was truth enough. The tribe had gathered, and the feast awaiting them had blunted any hunger in their bellies. It was time now to get to work.
Windburn swallowed the last of his raspberry-mint tea and put aside the carved cup. He licked the last sticky residue from the candied salmon off of his fingers, stifling a sigh at the flavor’s fading, then rose to his feet to get the council started.
The flow of chatter around him stopped at once. Every eye looked to him with sober attention.
“It makes my heart whole to be home again, and to have you all home as well,” Windburn said, surprising even himself with the words, when normally he would have launched straight to the meat of the matter. “It is a feast for my eyes to see you all safe and in good health; your voices are all the music my ears have craved. The past moons-turn and more has been difficult for us all. But everyone did what was needed to get through the crisis, and here we are again. Home. Safe —” Windburn saw the way his father’s eyebrow lifted at that, and at the storm cloud that suddenly threatened from True Edge’s quarter of the circle. “... or at least,” he added with a wry look at his father, “as safe as we ever were. But the Fierce Ones were here. And it’s likely that they have been here during other recent winters. For how many winters, we cannot know. It has simply been our good luck that we have not encountered them before now.”
“How do we know that, and can we know that?” Dreamflight asked anxiously.
“The band of Fierce Ones that Farscout, Blacksnake and I followed were being shadowed by a pack of stranger-wolves,” Brightwood answered. “Those wolves knew the Fierce Ones well enough to recognize their passage through the eastern grasslands as a source of easy meals. They knew when and where to look for scraps — and how close they could come without being within range of the Fierce Ones’ bows.”
Blacksnake added, “It would have taken several winters worth of encounters for the stranger-wolves to adapt to those humans as they had.”
“We’re lucky that Fadestar and Farscout found the Fierce Ones as they did; otherwise, it would have been a group of our hunters riding into them, as Cedarwing, Shyheart, Lynx and Frost did.” Windburn paused to look at Brightwood and Cloudfern in turn, who had survived that centuries-ago encounter. There was a hollow look in Cloudfern’s eyes at the mention of that hunt, but not as dark as it once would have been. “Or perhaps worse — our hunters would have unwittingly left signs of our presence, which could have led the Fierce Ones back to us unawares. So we sit here today alert now to the danger we had been blind of. We are wiser today because of it.
“The time of their passing has been hard on us all. I know this. I know as well that this is not the first time we’ve faced such a thing. The elders will remember those terrible days well, and what efforts my mother Easysinger made to protect us. Ultimately — we face the same choices the tribe faced then. Then the tribe decided to stay. We grew the thornwalls as a defense, and we increased our patrols to the north and to the east. But the world has grown in the ages since. The tribe is fewer in number now than we were then. And we have two more tribes of humans as well, crowding us from the southwest. So. You all know the situation. I want to hear your thoughts and your wishes. Do we stay here at the Holt? Or do we surrender this forest to the humans and leave them to each other, and find a new and safer home?”
Windburn felt the ripple of emotion course through the chamber around him, unleashed by his words. It was the question which everyone in the tribe had been asking themselves for long, lonely eights of days. The answers came in a flood.
“We are staying!” Nightstorm said firmly.
"Littlepaw's lanky legs! If we start running now, we'll never stop!" One-Leg thumped the butt-end of his staff on the ground in emphasis.
“This is our home,” Greenweave said. “The thornwalls will help protect us.”
“The thornwalls can only slow the humans down — it won’t stop any of them if they decide to go around the thornwalls, or chop through them with their axes,” Willow countered.
“Our tribe has small cubs to protect — and two more babies on the way,” Snowfall said, resting her hands on the slight swell of her belly. “If we had somewhere we knew was safe, we should go at once and never look back! But where would that be, that the humans can’t follow?”
“Chieftess Easysinger never intended for the thornwall to be impenetrable,” Cloudfern counseled. “She and my aunt Sunlight only intended for the thornwalls to channel our enemies aside and buy us time to escape up to Bluestone Cave. So the question as I see it is whether we relocate now of our own choosing — or do we delay until we’re being chased out with our tails on fire?”
“Bluestone Cave is a far more defensible a site than the Dentrees could ever be,” True Edge said. “Here, the Holt’s River will channel any invader from the north right to our doors, while it’s only luck that’s kept the Amber Hunters from getting through the thornwalls at us already!”
“But it’s blasted cold up there!” snorted Otter. “I was happy to leave Bluestone Cave behind us, and I sure as rain falls don’t want to go back! It’s cold, the snow is brutal all winter, the hunting is hard, and it’s never going to be home.”
“The Dentrees are precious to me,” Windburn spoke again, finally, “but the lives of my tribemates are beyond price. And the humans can still find us up at Bluestone Cave, even if the steep climb to that valley is so much easier to defend. Instead — there are other forests and other territories we can claim. Wolfsister and her band proved it.”
“Certainly we can find somewhere safer for our cubs!” Chicory agreed. “There was a place Mother spoke of as an ideal holt — at the southern foot of Knife Peak, on the banks of the Far River.”
“It is a beautiful site, and the river teems with fish — but the start of the grasslands is only a day’s ride across the river,” Suddendusk replied.
“Worse — the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces ruined it by settling on the north side of Knife Peak,” Blacksnake snorted with disgust. “They’d only be a day’s hike away, and their hunters and trappers are probably thick over all that ground. We’re safer here in our own woods.”
“There was a place my father loved,” Brightwood suggested. “The hidden valleys above Passage Falls, between it and Greenstone Mountain. It’s close to the grasslands, too — but it would be easy to defend, and the mountain trail is too steep for more than one rider at a time to climb. Very few archers could hold off any invasion.”
“The same is true of the approach to Bluestone Cave!” True Edge retorted. “And it’s farther from the direction the Fierce Ones came from. There’s no way I would consider moving my family closer to the lands they haunt.”
“How would we know anywhere is safe from them? The Fierce Ones and the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces, one and all,” Honey spoke up, worry plain in her voice. “And who knows how many other human tribes there might be lurking out there? They’re like bears and wolves and mountain lions — their numbers build and their young go out seeking new territory. So if we did move to a new Holt, how could we find somewhere some humans won’t find us?”
“We can’t,” One-Leg said firmly. “We can’t! Humans have feet and they use ‘em! We’re fools to move anywhere.”
“And we’re as well fools to think that the humans won’t find us here in the Holt!” Rainpace countered. “I’ve been a word-hunter since we first started trying to learn their tongue. I’ve seen how the Amber Hunters explore. The thornwall has kept them away from our homes for now. But it can’t last. It won’t. They’ll come here, sooner or later.”
“Then let’s be ready for them!” Otter said with feverish excitement. “We can and will defend our Holt! We’re better archers than them, and we’ve got our wolf-friends! We can fight ‘em and send them running!”
“From the first encounter, certainly,” Thornbow said with a deep frown. “But from every fight that followed? They outnumber us greatly, and you dangerously underestimate the Painted Face hunters. They aren’t as good as us… but some of them are dangerously close to it. Close enough to whittle us down, one or two at a time, while we have no way to match their numbers.”
“Bluestone Cave is defensible. The Dentrees are not,” True Edge said fiercely.
“We would not have to relocate up to Bluestone Cave permanently,” Rainpace said. “But it might be wiser to do so now, for a few years at least. While we figure out what to do about the humans. All of them.”
There was a pregnant silence in the wake of those words. “The wolves taught us — if we leave a territory, it’s as good as lost,” Foxtail said firmly. “And we’ve lost plenty of territory to the round-ears already. But we know we can’t keep hiding from the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces. They’ll find the Holt sooner or later, and their numbers just keep increasing.”
“If we were ever going to scrap with them, the time for it would have been when they first arrived,” Notch agreed. “We had a chance then to push the Amber Hunters back into the sea, and to have finished the job on the Painted Faces which the Fierce Ones had started. But we didn’t, and now there are just too rotted many of them.”
“Doing so would have meant slaughtering their children. Killing helpless cubs. Who of us could have stomached that?” Evervale asked plaintively.
“It’d have been no worse than putting down orphaned fawns —” True Edge began to say.
“No.” Heads turned in surprise to look at Quick Fang for her bark of a response. She was scowling sourly. “Not the same. Not at all. Your guts know it, same as mine.”
There was another weighty silence, until Beetle hesitantly spoke up. “We have to make friends with them,” she said. “Befriending them is our only hope. It’s always been our only hope.”
“Good luck with that,” Brightwood said with a bitter laugh. “The word-hunters have been trying for years to figure out their language, yet we can only guess at the meanings of their sounds. And who knows what their thinking is like. Sometimes their actions make clear sense to us. Sometimes they make no sense to at all.”
“And sometimes their actions don’t even seem to make sense to the other humans,” Moss added. “We’ve seen the Amber Hunters make noises the Painted Faces don’t understand; we’ve seen the Painted Faces do things which have bewildered the Amber Hunters.”
“It’s not just a single human problem,” Foxtail agreed. “Certainly the Fierce Ones are a problem in and of themselves, but we can’t safely lump the two local tribes together as a single headache, and then be surprised if that assumption explodes in our faces.”
“And you are all fools who've just assumed they’re the enemy! Just like we’ve been commanded to treat them!” One-Leg broke in. “It’s the Fierce Ones who have proved themselves our enemy. We’ve just judged every kind of human by that standard, instead of judging every other kind of human on their own merit.”
“As we should!” True Edge said, anger sharpening his words. “A bear is a bear is a bear — black bears and brown bears and spirit bears all behave the same way. A single bear might prefer berries and another honeycombs, but they all are the same under their fur.”
“But we’re not all the same!” One-Leg countered. “Elves certainly aren’t. The ancestors who drove out Wolfsister and her kin weren’t the same as us, so why judge humans as all the same?”
"How weren't they the same as us?” Crackle said. “The old stories say that some wolf-bloods stayed behind with the High Ones when Wolfsister left. Even Halfwolf’s own father, Zerran! I think Wolfsister left because she just wanted to be a chieftess-wolf. Like when packs of stranger-wolves get too big, the ambitious ones always leave to find new territory.”
"Like if Foxtail decided to hare off tomorrow to make her Holt at Knife Peak?" Notch teased blithely.
Foxtail glared at him and hit him on the shoulder. "Don't be a toad," she growled, while Notch laughed and rubbed his arm as though wounded. "Running off and being ambitious doesn't make me any different from the rest of us,” she added archly. “It just makes me part of a new pack."
“Chieftess of a new pack,” Notch grinned.
"But a new pack way too close to the grasslands for my comfort!" Foxtail retorted. "I'll take the hike to Bluestone Cave and keep the tribe together."
"No one is really proposing splitting the tribe!" Fadestar spoke up anxiously.
“No!” said One-Leg, with scornful reassurance. “The point is this: Wolfsister’s pack was a mixed pack — purebloods and wolf-bloods both. If they could get along and prosper when they were so different, then it’s no great jump to think that we could get along with the local humans.”
“That’s a huge jump!” Honey protested. “A huge and dangerous one! Especially when we can’t even communicate with the humans! The wolf-bloods and the purebloods were still elves! They could still send to one another, they could still communicate.”
“Lucky for us, all humans might as well have mud between their ears,” Notch commented, more soberly than before. “Think of the trouble we’d have if they could send, and hear our sendings. Look,” he went on, once he had everyone’s attention, “I don’t entirely agree with my father — he says we can’t know that all of the humans are dangerous to us. I think we can only count on all humans to be unpredictable. And now the locals who heard me blow that horn are scared. Thornbow and I just came back from spying on them, and they’re boiling around their settlement like hornets after you’ve kicked their nest.”
“Not just around the settlement,” Thornbow added with a grim look at his scouting companion. “A group of them passed on a game-trail just a shortbow’s shot away from us, when we were riding back, a trail they’ve not ranged on for turns. Armed to the teeth and twitchy like hungry stinkbears. If they’d seen us…”
“Can’t blame them for being scared,” Notch cut him off, but his shrug wasn’t as dismissive as it might have been. “We could argue about how they’re like us and how they’re not until we are all blue in the face, and it won’t change our problem. Our problem is simple. The humans are here. And they aren’t going to go away.”
“We have to find a way to live with the neighbors,” Nightstorm agreed. “Because there’s no way to make them go away.”
“There could be.” Brightwood exchanged a look at her lifemate. “It’s ugly, but the Painted Faces and the Amber Hunters are a problem we could still permanently solve. While they still don’t know we’re even here.”
“The humans get much of their drinking water from one source,” Farscout said. “They dug that water-shaft in the center of the Amber Hunters’ village. Even most of the Painted Faces use it, rather than carry their water back up from the riverside.”
“We could poison their well," Brightwood continued. "That would eliminate the locals as a threat, and leave only the Fierce Ones to worry about. We could do it. It’s possible. Risky, certainly — but possible.”
“Could you live with yourself afterwards?” One-Leg said with disgust. “Poisoning the helpless? The children and the babes in arms?”
“If it’s my daughter’s life, or theirs?” Brightwood flared back, unheeding of the dismayed looks on the faces of many around her. “I could leave tonight.”
“No.” Windburn almost did not recognize his own voice. “If I could rid us of the Fierce Ones that way, I would ride out myself to do it. But the others haven’t wronged us so badly that we should treat them as if they all had the foaming sickness.”
“That is not a path we should start down,” said Kestrel in firm agreement, and others nodded at her words.
“Besides,” Suddendusk pointed out, “it wouldn’t keep more of the Amber Hunters from arriving in their ships from where-ever it is they come from.”
“Our best bet is still to throw our lot in with our neighbors,” One-Leg persisted. “The Amber Hunters and Painted Faces made pains to make friends with one another. There’s no reason to believe they’d not welcome us as well!”
“No reason?” Cloudfern said, aghast. “And what a welcome we had from humans in the past! I still hear my grandfather Cedarwing’s dying screams every night in my dreams, and those humans smiled as they did it! They were even friendly with my sister and I as they roasted him alive on a spit!”
“You can’t judge the local humans by the actions of the Fierce Ones!” One-Leg shot back.
“How can you not?” True Edge snarled in retort. “They attacked my parents and my brother and his lifemate! They hunted them down in the snow and they tortured them! They didn’t kill for territory! They didn’t kill out of hunger! The Fierce Ones killed my family simply because they could, and you’re a dangerous fool to expect any better from the rest of them!”
One-Leg’s face had gone as red as his whiskers and he was taking a deep breath in preparation of an argument, but the chief spoke out to interrupt the fight before it could go any further. “Enough!” Windburn barked, fixing each of the two elders with a stern look in turn. “You are each correct, in your own way. We have to remember the Fierce Ones when we try to guess what our neighbors could do. The risk is too great otherwise. But we’ve remained cautious for many years now; we have given up territory to the new tribes, and changed our lives to hide and adapt to them. I respect each of your views on this. We know that our first encounter with humans didn’t make coexistence look possible, and we cannot afford the risk of losing our loved ones to the humans again. But we have tried to simply hide from them. That’s only won us time, while the problem has multiplied. We must try something different. The question is what.”
“We can’t continue like this forever,” Newt offered up. The youth swallowed nervously when all eyes turned to him, obviously hesitant to make his feelings known. “We can’t go on forever, not knowing for sure whether the Painted Faces or the Amber Hunters are going to be our enemies. Even if the Fierce Ones never come back again, we will still need to know about the humans who are our neighbors. If we are going to remain neighbors.”
“Newt and my son are right,” Blacksnake finally spoke up. “I have to hold my nose when I say it, but I think the time has come to deal directly with the two local tribes. We can’t trust either the Amber Hunters or the Painted Faces to think like elves, or act like elves. But we do know one thing. We cannot afford to fight a battle flanked by enemies on three sides. And we know something else: for all of their differences from us, we have seen that the Painted Faces fear the Fierce Ones as much as we do. If we share nothing else at all, we do share the same enemy.”
Another heavy silence fell on the gathering. Windburn looked from face to face, at each of his tribemates in turn. He saw expressions of fear and profound concern. But no one spoke up against the logic of Blacksnake’s words.
“It is a terrible gamble,” Windburn agreed. “But I can’t see any other way. That’s been on my mind from the first, when we decided to try and learn their language. I did not expect it to come to a head so soon, but it has — it’s time to decide on the next step. Especially if we ever do face a real invasion by the Fierce Ones. Despite our best efforts, the day will come when the Fierce Ones learn we are here in this forest. And when that day comes, there are not enough of us to stop them or protect ourselves. Certainly not here, in the Holt. We would stand a much better chance up Bluestone Cave — but we will still lose lives. And we cannot afford to lose a single life. The tribe is as we always have been: too few.”
“I don’t disagree with anything that I am hearing,” Starskimmer said slowly. “That’s not the same as saying I like what I’m hearing, though. I know that our word-hunters have tried hard to learn the human tongue —”
“Tongues,” Moss interrupted. “There’s more than one, I’m sure of it.”
Starskimmer shrugged the interruption off. “They’ve been trying but I know the opinions even among our word-hunters on how successful they’ve been are divided. We aren’t able to ride up to them yet and say “Hello, I’m your friend,” and know they’ll understand us.”
“I could, I think I could —” Beetle began to say.
“Piss up a tree!” Willow snapped at her lovemate. “Don’t you even think to try it!”
“I don’t want to see anyone try such a thing, much less any of my cubs!” Starskimmer protested, accompanied by an emphatic nod from Cloudfern, his eyes wide with worry. “Bluestone Cave is inhabitable. Maybe it’s not comfortable yet, but it’s inhabitable. Maybe we need to make friends with the local humans eventually — but in the short term, we need the tribe to be safe. I think we should all move immediately up to Bluestone Cave, and worry about learning the right words once we’ve got everyone and everything we need to safety.”
“And I don’t want to leave at all!” Longshot argued. “Not unless it’s absolutely necessary! We’ve got the best fishing and hunting right here — not up in Bluestone Valley. The Elder salmon runs are about to begin; we’ll be scooping fish out of the Holt’s River with our bare hands by the hundreds. I don’t want to have to haul our years’ weight of Elder salmon all the way up there. It would takes us months and months of travel just to haul that much. Why should we make ourselves suffer like that, if it’s not absolutely necessary?”
“And if we leave this territory, that is an invitation to the humans to step in and take it. A stranger pack certainly would,” Nightstorm agreed.
“Even if we do make friends with the two local human tribes, we don’t need to share any more of our territory with them,” Dreamflight added.
“We won’t know whether or not we can talk to them until we try,” Beetle argued.
“We can flutter our fingers and play guessing games until the stars glow green,” True Edge snorted with disgust, “You won’t know whether or not they understand you until they stick their spears through your guts.”
“Or until a human says ‘Hello, friend’ right back!” One-Leg retorted.
“Yes, just like the humans who ate my sire did!” True Edge snarled back. “The Fierce Ones were friendly enough — they feasted with my niece and nephew as friendly as could be, with choice slices from Cedarwing’s body!”
Cloudfern made a choked noise. With Copper curled into a ball in her lap, Brightwood had gone dangerously pale and her eyes glittered. But it was Farscout who spoke up. **”Stop!”** his voice lanced into that argument as sharply as his outraged sending. “No more,” he said again to True Edge, when the younger hunter turned to him in surprise. “No more of that memory.”
“Please,” Cloudfern echoed. “One-Leg, I get it. I understand what you’re saying. Yes, our local humans aren’t the Fierce Ones. They look different. They dress different. They make different noises when they speak. But they still smell like humans underneath those differences. Even if I could speak the word ‘friend’ to them, we don’t know if the word means the same thing to them, truly, as it does to us.”
“And we can’t know until we at least try it,” Brightwood allowed reluctantly. “It’s either that — or commit ourselves to killing them all, and doing it again and again and again, every time the Amber Hunters sail one of their swan boats into Eagle Bay.”
“That, or leave the Holt and relocate entirely,” said Greenweave sadly.
“But we all agreed we didn’t want to do that, didn’t we?” Evervale said, looking around at the circle of the tribe with anxious eyes.
“Does anyone want to flee the Holt?” Windburn asked solemnly.
There was a long silence, as members of the tribe looked at one another. No one spoke up.
“We stay,” Windburn said then. “The way I see this, it’s a question now of — do we stay in the Holt itself, or do we relocate to Bluestone Cave. I have heard you saying both things. As chief, I say we stay. We continue living our lives in these hometrees which have sheltered us for generations. But we continue as well to prepare Bluestone Cave. If the Fierce Ones come — or if the local humans threaten us — Bluestone Cave remains our best fall-back.”
There were nodding heads and sighs of relief from around the circle — but also frowns of disagreement. “I agree,” Windburn continued, with a direct look for One-Leg, “that we need to attempt making allies with the local humans. It’s that or fight them, and that’s not a fight I think we can win in the long term. So we need to work up to attempting to communicate with the local humans. But before we expose ourselves to them, we need to know for certain that Bluestone Cave is well stocked, so that if we are forced to relocate, we aren’t left hungry, or cold, or without basic supplies.
“Furthermore.” His eyes moved to survey the circle of his tribemates. “We can no longer continue living with all of our defenses watching the west and south. Now we know that the humans functionally surround us — the Fierce Ones can reach us through the forest from the south or the east, or ride down on us from the north along the river valley. So we must change to face that risk.”
“Continue to man the watch posts?” Foxtail said.
“We need more patrols!” Fadestar agreed.
“It’s no longer as safe as we thought to hunt beyond the eastern forest, or anywhere out on the scrub lands,” Windsong added.
“Aye,” Windburn said to all three of them. “We need to continue to be vigilant for Painted Faces and Amber Hunters passing the thornwalls from the west. The old rule remains the same: no member of the tribe hunts alone outside of the thornwalls. We will reconsider whether or not long-range hunting parties will be sent beyond the limits of our forest to the east, especially during the winter season, when we know there is now the risk of encountering the Fierce Ones. We will stick to our lands to the north, where the human presence has been thin.
“Our word hunters will need to continue their efforts — but cautiously.” The chief met the eyes of those who had been word-hunters, pleased to see the determination in their faces. “As Notch and Thornbow reported, the local humans are stirred up now, searching the shadows for enemies. Once we have Bluestone Cave secured and ready in another turn or two, then we can address how to best approach the local humans, so that when we do expose ourselves to them, we do it on our terms, not theirs. Maybe by that time, they’ll calm down enough to hear us out rather than throw spears at the first sight of us.” There were some grim huffs of laughter in agreement, at that.
“Do we continue to keep watchers at the high watch posts?” asked Longshot, thinking no doubt of the lonely vigil he and Quick Fang had shared.
“In the winters, at least,” Windburn agreed heavily. “Next winter, and the winter after that. It’s during the winters when I believe we are at risk from the Fierce Ones — and during the rest of the year, I don’t believe we’ll have extra bodies to spare. Because not only will we have our regular efforts ahead of us this year to gather the food we and our wolves will need, but we’ll have to send tribemates to Bluestone Cave, to continue preparation efforts there. Not only will Starskimmer need to continue shaping our shelter, but there will be the effort needed to carry all of the food and supplies we need to store there up into that high valley.”
“When Starskimmer goes back up to the cave, some of us can go too and take several of the Preservers with us,” Crackle said with some excitement. “Once the snows are melted and we don’t have to fear avalanches, the hunting will be better.”
“And the fishing, too,” Otter added grudgingly. “We caught a lot of bigmouth and trout there already, and that was just while ice fishing.”
“I’ll send teams up to Bluestone Cave in rotation,” Windburn said. “Once the Elder salmon migration has come and gone, and we’ve stored away as much as we can here at the Holt. The Elder salmon won’t swim so high as Bluestone Valley, but other salmon do.”
“I’ve caught Blood salmon in Cutthroat River, and I’ve seen them spawning in the high lake there as well,” Farscout offered. “The humpbacks are thick in the Coldwater during the summer.”
“Which is just as much of a hike from Bluestone Cave as it is from Bluestone to here,” Brightwood said, to which her lifemate shrugged.
“I’ve never seen any signs of the Amber Hunters that far north. Not since their first hand-or-so of years of settling.”
“We’ll hunt, we’ll fish, put enough food aside for both here at home, and up at Bluestone Cave,” Windburn said, taking control of the council again. “Our crafters will need to think on that — what will you need up there? How many more arrows? Hides? Tools? Weapons? Baskets? Blankets? What can be gathered from the mountains and valleys up there, and what supplies will we need to carry up on our backs?”
“I can help figure that out!” Cinder piped up bravely. “If you let me go with Starskimmer, I can help. I can make things, too!”
“Me too!” Rill pounced on the opportunity at once, earning an echo from Glow. “We can make nets, and baskets, and traps —” the boy grinned over his shoulder at his father “— and we can lay trap-lines and hunt for rabbits and birds!” His blue eyes were wide and sincere as he gazed at the chief hopefully, bouncing slightly with excitement, but trying hard to look mature and reliable, clearly hoping to work his way back into his elders’ good opinions.
“We will all have to work hard,” Windburn answered the cubs, without making any promises of what he would or would not allow. They will need to go the cave, was the grim thought which lurked below. The cubs will need to know the way to Bluestone Cave for themselves, in case of disaster. He set that thought aside, for contemplation later. “And while we’re setting by more supplies and food than ever, we’ll still need to see to our defenses here at home,” Windburn continued firmly. “As soon as the thaws have gone, our plantshapers must see to the thornwall. Evervale, Brightwood Cloudfern — that will be your priorities all spring, for as long as it takes. I want each handspan of the thornwall inspected and reinforced. The thornwall remains our staunchest friend. It has kept the humans from finding the Holt, and we need to ensure that it continues to deter them for as long as possible.”
“We’ll need to send out more long-range patrols,” Pathmark said, looking stoic at the prospect. He glanced at his grandmother. “And with you carrying a cub, we may not have you flying patrols for much longer?”
True Edge opened his mouth, as if he wanted to comment, but Kestrel beat him to it, with a wry glance in his direction. "We'll see. I knew when it was time to stop before, but every baby carries differently. The time will certainly come when I will want to stop flying for a while."
"Lucky for the tribe, Fadestar has proved herself capable on long patrol," Windburn noted, with a nod of recognition for the youth, causing her to flush with both embarrassment and pride. “I’ll be expecting you to train with Kestrel and learn more about your new powers, and become stronger and more skilled in them. I don’t want you to strain yourself, but we’ll also be using you, because we will need everyone to do what they can.”
Next he turned and caught his father’s eye, watching him with a thoughtful, hooded gaze. “Brightwood and Blacksnake, I will be rotating you both into more of the long patrols — because whenever possible, I no longer want any of our long-range scouts out there traveling alone.” Windburn was expecting some protest on that command, from Farscout if not True Edge, but none of his elders disagreed. Not with the Fierce Ones having returned.
“With more scouts and the word-hunters afield, can we truly afford to keep anyone at the high watch-posts?” Windsong asked sensibly.
“It does sound as if we’ll be thinner of hunters than usual,” Snowfall agreed. “And a heavier need for them if we’re to try to put away extra.”
Windburn nodded towards his father. “We discussed that at some length while riding home from the Rushwater,” said Blacksnake. “During the winters is one thing — when hunting and fishing and gathering is otherwise limited. That’s when that long-range view is most valuable — that’s when we can see invaders moving against the snow. And that’s also when it seems the Fierce Ones are on the move. In the warmer months, though, no. There’s too much to be done then.”
Windburn went on, “In the warmer months, we choose just one spot, and assign watchers to it on a rotating basis so that everyone pulls the duty in turn. We start with a post at the top of the Speartip. That will give a single sentinel a view a fair distance north up the Clickdeer River, west down the Braided River, and south down the Holt’s River. Those are the three key approaches from which danger is most likely to come.”
“A watcher there would probably only be able to provide the Dentrees with an hour or two's warning,” Willow frowned.
“Even that little time is enough of a head start to make a difference for the tribe,” Blacksnake replied. “We could set up watches wide afield, as my son did when this whole mess started. But that would wasting warm bodies which the tribe needs even more to continue providing for it.”
“It also places a sentinel over the best route for evacuation the Dentrees, due west and straight up Home Ridge,” Windburn added. “The thick trees will hide us and shelter us from round-hoof riders, it’s steep enough that anyone chasing us will be slowed, and we’ll have high ground for guarding our retreat. Once we’ve got everyone safely to the top of Home Ridge, then we can catch our breath and determine whether the safest route will be straight down the other side, and across the Braided River to Bluestone Cave — or if we just follow the high ground south along the ridge and to sneakier options.”
“So it sounds as though the tribe will be split up again,” Goldspice said mournfully. “The word-hunters will be more important than ever, and the plant-shapers will see to the thornwall, and Starskimmer will be off to Bluestone Cave with who-knows-all, and long-patrols doubled… we’ll be scattered like puff-balls all over again, won’t we?”
“Everything has changed, and the Fierce Ones really didn’t even get that close,” Newt agreed.
“Some things haven’t changed,” Greenweave countered with a smile. “Dreamflight and I saw our first Elder salmon yesterday. The migration should begin soon — very soon.”
All around the circle of the gathered tribe, worried faces lightened and smiles appeared. “For now, then, no long patrols, no word-hunters, no hunting parties,” Windburn said. “Not while the Elder salmon are running. If the whole tribe uses the next half-moon to put aside as much of the spawning run as we can catch, we’ll have stored away an easy year’s supply of meat for ourselves and the whole pack.”
“Evervale and my sister and I can open up the old sealed-up dens for additional storage,” Cloudfern said. “We can work the Preservers until they run out of spit.”
“Which they never do,” Beetle added with a smile.
“And the tribe is all together, for a little time at least,” Dreamflight beamed.
“For a little time, at least,” Windburn echoed with a nod. It didn’t sound like much, but he was content to let the words linger.
Ed. Note: see the story "Harsh New Thoughts" (by Sofia L.: Unpleasant thoughts keep Blacksnake awake.), which takes place at this time.
Springtime made life flow again. Windburn could feel it in his veins; he imagined that all of his tribemates could, as this cruelest of winters finally blew off on its way. The seasons neither knew nor cared about humans and elves… and life followed food. Standing on a grass knoll an arrow’s shot away, he watched his tribemates amongst the rocky shallows of the Braided River. Just below Sentinel Peak, the wolfriders fell upon the salmon run as they had done for springs beyond counting. The similar bridge-rocks that split the Holt’s River by the Dentrees, from which he’d just ridden up, were just as busy. Just as it had always been. In all his springs, and his mother’s, and her mother before her, all the way back to Wolfsister’s own time when home first become home.
He permitted himself a rare indulgent moment at simply watching them. The tribe danced through this whirlwind with little need for instruction, no hesitation, no concern. Otter, Moss and Goldspice had one enormous net between them, teetering in the shallow current lugging it to shore with its precious, scarlet-and-silvery-squirming load. Greenweave and Dreamflight had their fishing spears in hand, perched on towering rocks in the middle of the river itself, and even Honey had picked hers up again and joined them. Striking fish the size of elf-cubs with every well-trained blow, the trio worked in easy harmony that Windburn could hardly recall seeing from them at any other time. Crackle, over on the riverbank, was not yet as fast with her fishing trident, but she made up for it with enthusiasm, and her father looked on with approval from his trap-mending. Evervale and Pathmark paused now and then from helping Cloudfern and the Preservers prepare wrapped hauls to enjoy Longshot’s bowfishing display. Only a little upriver, Snowfall and her mates had their dip-nets full, and even as Windburn watched an enormous salmon came leaping out of the current and finally overbalanced True Edge’s haul and the elder with it. He tumbled into the water and emerged soaked, sputtering and as sulky as an old bear, and snapped such a string of curses that all activity stopped for a moment of laughter.
Families, everywhere — pairs, trios and more, some parted briefly by the split between rivers but all to reunite as the fishers returned to the Dentrees and work shifts cycled. Parents and cubs, siblings, mates — together. Laughing at the endless, flowing bounty that made the Holt feel like such a blessed place.
His father would have thought it too much a wolf’s-gut thinking — or perhaps, Windburn thought with a minute shake of his head, perhaps Blacksnake would actually understand quite well this feeling of the raw, uncompromising need to defend one’s territory and home. Chief though he was, he would have left, were that the tribe’s decision. He’d not idly put the question to council. But he would have left bereaved, hungry… vengeful.
Instead there was the salmon run, as there had been since time beyond memory.
This year, it felt like a victory.
His mind bright with the thought, he cast his sending about. Beacons lit in his mind’s eye. Starskimmer with Windsong and Quick Fang, hauling fish to the rock-shaped storage cache that had been shaped into the northwest side of the Speartip by Clayshard’s own hands. A wolf-send from a serene Murkfur, reassuring that the bears were at their own fishing spots by the little shoals and falls, content with the well-established split of territory.
And last, his daughter at her own station down by the Dentrees. Without need of asking, she turned her head to let him see through her eyes — the full nets, the leaping spears. Thornbow and Nightstorm teasing and bantering as she quickly fastened his spear-tip. Fadestar flying with a dip-net in hand. Beetle accidentally splashing a laughing Willow. One-Leg on his favorite rock along with Notch, tossing fish to Newt and Rainpace as quick as they speared them. Chicory, herding the four cubs to work quicker at pulling fish from traps — a faint flash of concern snaked through Windburn, still, at the sight of his sister. But a moment later he was distracted as Foxtail’s gaze landed on Blacksnake, who was hauling his own net with Farscout and Brightwood. He could feel his daughter’s blaze of mischief, and before he could as much as send a query her way —
Foxtail let him see it all — her spear-twirl, the fish that went flying, the wet impact. The salmon’s tail slapped the back of Blacksnake’s head. He whirled on his granddaughter. Farscout shook his head in bemusement, but Brightwood chortled. Foxtail blithely ignored her father’s faint disapproval in her head.
“It leapt,” she said sweetly.
“That it did,” Blacksnake grunted. “Off your spear and onto my head.”
“It couldn’t very well resist, seeing that scowl on your old face. Had to knock it off.” Foxtail’s voice was irreverent, but it was strong, merry. Even through her eyes, Windburn could see that a hint of a smile was threatening to crack through Blacksnake’s dry exterior. His daring daughter continued undaunted, “It says, there’s more of my kind than stars in the sky coming right into your den-door. Spring’s here. The tribe’s home and together for now. Stop thinking so hard and have some fun fishing.” Her final words were both speech and sending. **”Get back in the Now.”**
“Hrmph,” said Blacksnake; but then his scowl broke, and he reached into the net with a wolf’s grin and grabbed his own fish-shaped weapon.
Foxtail broke the sending before her father could witness the payback, but Windburn found that he was already grinning, himself. Down by the river, some of the others had spotted as much. Moss called out to him cheerfully, “Enjoying the show, my chief? Much nicer than getting your own hair wet, eh!”
Get back in the Now, Windburn thought, and began to walk down the slope to join his tribemates in their work.