The second trap's camouflage fell into place and Rainpace gave it a once-over with a satisfied, yet tired smile. Sleep had eluded him that morning, leaving him tossing and turning in his furs until sunrise was over and there was no ignoring the light seeping into his den.
Setting new traps had seemed better than lying around staring at the ceiling. With dawn over and done with, he reasoned, the risk of scaring off potential prey would be low, as most animals were sensibly at rest. Unlike him.
He brushed the dirt and pieces of leaves off his hands and got back on his feet. He was getting a bit too close to the Craft Trees for there to be a point in setting a trap, but when he got closer to the Broad Meadow he could —
The sending, and the pure blinding panic it carried, made Rainpace drop the last of his traps. Rubbing at his temples with one hand he scowled and tried to focus on the trees around him.
**Humans,** the sending came again, this time with more control behind it, which gave Rainpace a moment to clearly identify the sender as Cloudfern. The sending felt like a warning, the first one meant to alert the whole Holt, or at least anyone who might be up and about in daylight. The second one had been a 'stay down' meant for Rainpace alone.
Rainpace, heart racing in sympathy with Cloudfern's panic, drew in a deep breath through his nose. Nothing. Nothing but the smell of plants and trees, small animals and their small leavings. Not even the scent of a badger or fox to be had. Certainly not the unmistakable smell of humans.
Frowning, Rainpace shook his head and picked up the fallen trap. **Where?** he sent back to Cloudfern, doing his best to stay low. Just because they weren't right behind him it didn't mean the humans wouldn't be able to spot him. Surely Cloudfern wouldn't be panicking like this otherwise? Then again…
In reply from Cloudfern, Rainpace got an image of two hands of humans on the other side of the river. They were traveling along the tree side of the thornwall, on the outskirts of the forest that included Froghome Marsh. With focus in that direction Rainpace began to pick up the familiar sounds of human speech, dampened by wind and distance as they were.
Rainpace did his best to not breathe a loud sigh of relief, then had to chuckle at himself. Silly really, getting so worked up over the humans. This was far from the first time they'd been spotted along the thornwall and it probably wouldn't be the last.
He couldn't really blame Cloudfern for the warning though, startling as it had been. Just because the humans were on the other side of the river it didn't mean you could walk about as you pleased on the Holt side. Rainpace had no desire to be know as 'the elf who let the humans find the Holt because he was walking around half-asleep'.
It took him another two heartbeats to locate Cloudfern. He was sitting high up in a tree that was close enough to the forest's edge for him to get a view of the humans, but with enough leaves on its branches to keep him well hidden. Rainpace put his trap down at the base of said tree and began to climb up. There was no sense in staying on the ground when one could both hide and observe at the same time.
**Picking berries off the thornwall again, are they?** Rainpace lock-sent to Cloudfern as he reached the branch Cloudfern was sitting on.
He got no answer. Cloudfern was unmoving, his posture stiff and his eyes wide. Rainpace wasn't sure, but he thought he could see faint shivers run through his frame, uneven and unpredictable.
Better think of a way to distract him, Rainpace thought. But how? Though Cloudfern's past was no secret, Rainpace knew he was out on a shaky limb poking around in it. Which path would be safe to tread? They couldn't exactly talk about the weather.
The humans on the other side of the river caught Rainpace's eye as he sat contemplating this. They were mostly Amber Hunters — if their dark skin hadn't given them away, their loud talking and laughter would have. But they had one of the Painted Faces with them; a young one Rainpace recognized. He was leaning against a tree, eyes-high and silent, the only one not busy picking berries off the thornwall. A hunter among squawking birds.
Rainpace squinted, trying to bring the humans' faces into better focus. He couldn't help but smile as he recognized a few of them; common prey for the word hunters due to their loud voices and willingness to stray a little from larger groups. He knew a few of them had young cubs, one of them had a lovemate he'd sneak off with, another liked to sit by himself and play music.
A glance at Cloudfern told Rainpace the elder hadn't snapped out of his mounting panic. A wave of compassion washed over him — there had to be some way he could snap Cloudfern out of this! The Amber Hunters weren't known for their efficiency; this could become a long vigil if they were unlucky.
Looking at the Amber Hunters and their 'guard', Rainpace had to stifle a sigh. Bad memories were one thing, horrific ones yet another, but how could these creatures frighten Cloudfern so? From what Rainpace had been shown and told of the Fierce Ones they were much different from these humans. It felt a bit like comparing a stranger-wolf to an unbonded pack wolf.
An idea nudged at him. Maybe that would work... What harm could there be in trying?
**I know some of them,** Rainpace lock-sent to Cloudfern, doing his best to ignore how Cloudfern started at the mind touch. Instead he focused on his own interest in the humans, the excitement of remembering and recognizing some of them. **We word hunters might not know all of their pack yet, but I do know these are no skilled hunters. We call that one Cricket,** he shared the image of one of the humans before them, **and that one Loudlaugh. They are nothing that can rival an elf when it comes to moving through the woods.** As if to underscore Rainpace's words one of the Amber Hunters let out a loud, belly-shaking laugh that set a bird flying out of a nearby tree.
Cloudfern remained unresponsive.
**See that one?** Rainpace sent, pointing to the Painted Face, still unmoving and watchful by his tree. **Softstep. We followed him on the last word hunt. We don't know his human name yet, but —**
**Is this some sort of game to you?!**
Sendings were not physical touch, but they could feel like a slap nonetheless. Eyes wide, Rainpace turned to face Cloudfern who was glaring at him with emotions Rainpace couldn't quite read, as jumbled on his face as they had been in his sending.
**I asked,** Cloudfern sent again, his teeth bared in a silent growl that seemed to be more reflex than intent, **is this a. Game. To. You?!**
At a loss of words, Rainpace only answered the sending with his own confusion and worry.
The feelings fighting for a place in the curl of Cloudfern's lip and the glare of his eyes faded away, leaving a cold mask as cover. **I thought you word hunters knew you were playing with fire. You truly don't see the danger you court each time you come close to the five-fingers, do you?**
And they were back to fear again. Rainpace fought the urge to shake his head, knowing it would send the wrong kind of signals. With Brightwood back among them, Rainpace had hoped Cloudfern would have been unburdened, despite the circumstances of her return. **I think there is less danger than you see. The Painted Faces and Amber Hunters go about their lives in peaceful ways. Yes, they hunt, but so do we. Now, you see them picking berries, as they've done before by the thornwall. I would never show myself to them without the word from Windburn, but I think one day it will be safe to do so. I know the Fierce Ones —**
**You know tales of the Fierce Ones,** Cloudfern interrupted him, **What has been shared with you in words and sendings are stories, not memories.** There was hesitation in his sending, along with some guilt, but also a lot of certainty. **Apparently that wasn't enough to teach you the threat humans truly pose.**
Rainpace squared his shoulders, sitting up straighter. Cloudfern may be his elder, but using the 'inexperience' argument sat ill with him this time. Cloudfern knew the Fierce Ones firsthand, yes, yet he had no direct knowledge of the Amber Hunters and Painted Faces more than what they were both witnessing now.
Cloudfern blinked. His forehead wrinkled, though not in confusion. His eyes darted over to the berry picking humans and locked on them as if they held the answer to an urgent question. Shaking his head, he sent to Rainpace: **You remember what it was like when the tribe shared Owl's...choices.**
Biting his lip, Rainpace steeled himself. Shared memories of Owl's unspeakable act stirred, and he forced himself to focus on the lessons that had been learned from the memories, above the horror of the experience. **I remember. Show me.**
Cloudfern just looked at him for so long Rainpace thought there would be no sharing. Cloudfern hadn't exactly been generous with letting others take part of those particular memories — for understandable reasons — so why should this moment be any different?
The sending was unexpected enough that the continuation of it caught Rainpace off guard. The images were jumbled, but their contents were clear; blood, terror, screaming, the nauseating scent of burning flesh. His grandmother's flesh. He was small and helpless, his only allies a wounded sister and a grandsire lost to the pain of a lifemate's death. He's told to close his eyes, but he couldn't and he saw far too much. He clung to his sister until his hands ached, too terrified to cry.
And then the Fierce Ones showed their true madness. Food and drink were offered, strange smelling smoke blown in his face. His grandsire was taken to the fire and —
The sending cut off so abruptly it, along with the terror it had contained. left Rainpace gasping for air.
**I'm sorry,** Cloudfern sent and there was regret in his words. **I should not have — lessons should not be taught while… I'm sorry. I wanted to make you understand my reasoning.**
Rainpace blinked away the unspeakable images still playing in his mind's eye. **I… I think I do.** He wanted to send 'but these humans might be different'. Yet it didn't seem the right time for it. Despite the horrors he had been shown, the Fierce Ones had been…just humans. They'd been laughing, smiling at one another. Not the foam-sick beasts some stories of them had made them sound like.
**Humans are unpredictable,** Cloudfern sent. **They aren't like bears or stranger-wolves who'll simply kill and eat you. I know I've said that before, but I hope my words ring true to you now. These humans might look a little different, but there's no telling what they'd do if they ever saw an elf.**
Across the river, the Amber Hunters had begun to move deeper into the forest, talking as loudly as before. Rainpace thought he caught a word he knew, though the wind and distance made it hard to tell if his ears were playing tricks on him or not. He managed to untangle his chaotic thoughts long enough to send: **They seem to be leaving.**
Cloudfern gave a curt nod. **We should go back to the Holt, talk to the chief. I'm sure he'll want more information about this than the quick sending he received earlier.**
Of course. While this wasn't worthy of a council, it was good to keep track of the humans' movements, like any stranger-pack passing through the tribe's territory. **I can stay here and guard.**
Rainpace had thought the offer would be welcomed. The look of pure horror Cloudfern shot him nearly startled him as much as Cloudfern's first sending of warning had.
"We go back together." The command — for that was what Cloudfern's words sounded like — brokered no argument.
Despite the macabre memories he'd been shown, Rainpace couldn't quite place this reaction. The humans were on the other side of the river and leaving! Did Cloudfern think they could fly? Keeping an eye on their retreat held no risk, especially not to Rainpace who'd gotten practice in hiding from the humans when they were much closer.
He'd have to make another attempt at snapping Cloudfern out of this downward spiral, or the older elf might shatter at a mere touch. Rainpace took note of the sling Cloudfern was carrying over his shoulder, which had gone unnoticed with the humans as distraction. Cloudfern must have come from the Craft Trees when he spotted the five-fingers.
"What have you been making?" Rainpace asked, speaking instead of sending to break the unhealthy silence.
"Sun-oil," Cloudfern said, his voice monotonous and much quieter than needed be, "for Newt."
"I see." And that seemed to be that. Cloudfern sped up and Rainpace instinctively did the same. He watched Cloudfern's swift gait, his tense shoulders and gritted teeth, as they began to walk back to the Holt side by side. Cloudfern walked as if he was fighting to keep from looking over his shoulder, like a cub trying to go to sleep after one of Crackle's tales of horror.
Sendings do not lie, Rainpace thought, making sure to keep even steps with Cloudfern, but all elves aren't the same, all wolves aren't the same, all bears aren't the same, so how could humans be? That wasn't the only thought that crossed his mind, but it was the loudest. The others whispered of worry, of how weary one would become if reminders of one's greatest loss and fear were to walk around one's den every other evening.
The humans wouldn't disappear, no matter how much some in the tribe wished them to. The tribe could perhaps remain hidden forever, but they couldn't avoid seeing the humans. Cloudfern's memories would stay with Rainpace, urge him to caution, but it was clear they were doing more than that to Cloudfern himself. They had to be tearing him apart, piece by piece, for each time he was faced with the sight of a human.
"Cloudfern," Rainpace said, knowing he was treading into a marsh as he spoke, "I would like to share with you as well."
There was hesitation in Cloudfern's eyes, and Rainpace expected a shake of the head or some other form of rejection. Instead he got a slow nod of permission.
Rainpace sent no words. Instead he sent what he'd seen during his explorations with the word hunters. The first was of a human playing a flute; the music was soothing and kind in a way he had no words for. The next image was a memory of a human with their young cub, playing a kind of hiding game among the trees. Many followed, of lovers, musicians, games, tears and grief, laughter and joy — not all Rainpace's direct memories, but memories shared among the word hunters so they'd all know as much as they could about the humans they watched.
As Rainpace broke the connection, he took note that Cloudfern's eyes were clouded with unshed tears. He held his breath, awaiting a reaction other than stunned silence from Cloudfern.
When it came, it was a soft mind touch:
**Thank you.** A pause. **Though I fear those memories are just proof these humans have a gentle side towards each other. We still can't say how they'd react to us.** And yet Cloudfern's walk slowed to a calmer pace.
Rainpace allowed himself a smile as Cloudfern's posture relaxed, if only a fraction. He doubted his words would calm all of Cloudfern's bad memories, but perhaps… Perhaps he'd helped begin a healing.