A night’s hunt with her family was always a pleasant thing. Thistle looked at the small group of loved ones who had gathered to hunt marshbeast. Her mother, Raindrop, was there, eyes bright and shining with love of the hunt. Her mother’s lovemate, Songsent, was next to her, bow in hand. Thistle’s uncle Oakhand had joined the group, his right hand holding the bottom of the toothed club he preferred huting with — it rested on his shoulder. Her brother, Hailstone, had his axe. Her own children, Sunflare and Turtle, arrived last — their sister, Ice, wasn’t coming — she was working, as always, in the forge. Sunflare had her whip and spear, and Turtle had a spear as well. Thistle’s own preference was to use a spear, though she carried a set of knives much like her mother’s.
Her mother hunted solely with the long knives, and Raindrop was more wolf than elf during any hunt. Her mother was fast, sharp-skilled, and seemed to have better instinct than most when pursuing or attacking prey. It was always joyful to hunt with her. Tonight, though, would be even more joyful, because of the sense of family. It wasn’t often they all hunted together, but when they did, the way they hunted always turned out for the best. Thistle looked forward to the meat they would eat later that night.
She watched as her uncle looked around, sizing up the group and their weapons. Then, the wolves arrived. Raindrop’s Grizzle and Prowler, Songsent’s Knot-Tail, Oakhand’s Strongbite, Hailstone’s Fiveclaw, Sunflare’s Snow, and Turtle’s Barepatch. Only Thistle didn’t have a wolf-friend for the hunt, her Shortsight having died in a challenge. Oakhand suggested, “Get an unbonded, Thistle.”
She nodded, then howled for one. Threetoe was the first to arrive, and she mounted the eager wolf. Yipper also joined the group — the wolf would be a scout — and they were ready. Dewdrop fluttered to Songsent’s hair, and they headed toward the marshes.
Thistle knew the slow pace at the beginning of a hunt could be distressing to her mother, and she reached out to her in sending. **Mother?** she asked.
Raindrop slowed her pace enough for Thistle to catch up to her. They smiled at one another, and her mother asked, “You need something, sweet pup?”
Thistle shook her head, smiling at the familiar term of endearment. “I just know that until we are actively pursuing our prey, you are antsy. I hoped to distract you some.”
Raindrop smiled a wolfy grin. Songsent, atop Knot-Tail, turned and grinned at Thistle, silently mouthing, “Thank you,” to her. Thistle nodded knowingly.
Raindrop said, “It is good to hunt together. All of us. We will have much meat tonight.”
Thistle nodded her agreement. She knew better than to howl with joy — they were trying to get close to the marshes without alerting the beasts that they were coming. Howling wouldn’t be helpful. She sent, **Ayoooah,** openly, and it was heartily returned.
Raindrop jogged next to Thistle and Threetoe, the silence between them comfortable and familiar. Though her father had died before she was born, Thistle had never felt a lack of affection — in fact, it was well-known throughout the tribe that the mother-daughter pair were closely knit. Once the cub had grown old enough to hunt, she had worked hard to be able to keep up with her mother. If she’d been too big for wolfback, as some elves were, she would have been hard pressed to run as fast or as far as Raindrop could. But she was small for her generation and could comfortably ride; she’d learned to hunt and keep up with Raindrop, and the pair had rarely returned from a hunt empty-handed.
Thistle smiled at the thought.
**happy daughter, happy family, hunting together.** Raindrop interrupted Thistle’s thoughts.
**Yes, I was thinking about that, and about learning to hunt with you. It was much harder for me to learn to keep up with you than it was for Sunflare, Turtle, or Ice to learn to keep up with me.**
**fastest running,** her mother agreed, sharing the sensation of moving through the forest in chase of prey.
**Exactly,** Thistle sent with laughter.
Ahead, Oakhand raised his hand, signaling them to stop. **Yipper found our prey.**
Far ahead, a pair of marshbeasts stood munching on bark. Elves and their wolves had slowly surrounded them, taking positions as Oakhand directed. Threetoe was anxious to move in, and Thistle kept having to hold him back mentally. **waiting on the wind. waiting on the pack,** she sent over and over, wishing that she’d chosen to ride Yipper, or not at all. **waiting on the wind. waiting on the pack,** she sent again. The wolf stilled beneath her.
At Oakhand’s signal, Songsent shot two arrows in rapid succession, aiming for the larger of the two beasts. Her shot was true, and the beast roared up in pain, but it was clear that the thrashing would only hasten its death. Turtle and Oakhand were slowly approaching it; the Hunt Leader would club it, and Turtle would spear the heart once it fell — just to be sure.
The second beast, spooked, started running toward Sunflare. Thistle watched as her daughter prepared to use her whip — causing the beast to shift direction enough for Hailstone to throw his axe at it. Thistle readied her spear. A howling sound alerted her to her mother’s dash into the fray, and she watched as Raindrop moved in to attack, running and baring teeth at the beast, who reared back.
Thistle urged Threetoe forward. He eagerly ran in, and the rider had to make a one-handed grab at his fur to stay astride him. When they were close enough to join the hunt, Thistle watched as Sunflare readied her own spear. Together, mother and daughter moved forward in attack. Sunflare reached the marshbeast first, striking it’s side. It was not a deathstrike, though the animal might die of blood loss if left alone at this point. Thistle was about to strike when Threetoe went the wrong way. The change of direction caused Thistle to lose balance. The Marshbeast was thrashing, and in that moment, it kicked. Thistle’s world went black.
Raindrop watched as her daughter’s body was laid on a raft. Though her eyes gave testament to what she was seeing, her heart balked at the loss. Only the day before, they had been hunting together, and the family party, always so successful in the past, had brought down not one, but two marshbeast to fill bellies with. That Thistle, Hornet’s last gift to her, had died was an unexpected shock. She felt the urge to run, to give in to the wolf within and clear her mind. Raindrop knew that once Thistle’s body was out of sight, she would run.
Now, instead of running, Raindrop tilted her head back and erupted into a long, mournful howl, which was joined by each member of the tribe. Raindrop picked out each of their voices, connecting mentally to each member of the tribe. She named them to herself, each name grounding her, reminding her that the elf must grieve and remember. She lingered on thoughts of Frost, the smallest member of the tribe, provided roots for Raindrop. The sweet, tiny howl from Foxsly’s youngest daughter had Raindrop’s attention until the howl ended.
Tribemates gathered around different members of Thistle’s family. Lacewing, Summer, Tangle, Strand and Hawkcall surrounded Turtle. Minx reached out to Ice, who resisted, trying to make an argument for returning to the forge, but allowed the other elf to lead her back to the Dentrees. Sunflare was sitting on the bank of the river, and Huntwise, Carver, Riversong, and Shyheart joined her, starting to talk about Thistle, and to share stories. Cedarwing and Lynx skipped stones for a moment, then sat down near Shyheart. Other members of the tribe headed toward the Gathering Den, no one really wanting to be alone, but also not wanting to crowd family members too much.
Hailstone approached his mother, who stood tense and unmoving. “Mother?” he asked, his voice laced with worry.
Raindrop looked at her son, waiting for him to continue speaking.
“Are you going running?” he asked pointedly.
She considered his question. Running, and giving in to her wolf side, had always been a source of comfort in the past — not as a means of avoiding difficulties, but as a way to center herself. Before the howl, she had wanted that more than anything. But something during the singing had pulled her back — Frost’s tiny voice. A helpless cub, who still needed her mother. Thistle had not been helpless. She had been a huntress. Raindrop felt pride at her daughter’s accomplishments. And then fear — that she would forget; that memories of Hornet would fade, and that memories of her favored child would also fade, as they had with Sundaze.
Memories faded quickly for Raindrop, and it was difficult to keep them. Her daughter, Sundaze, was mostly a name to her now. She could no longer hear her voice in her mind, or see her smile — those had to be shared by others. Thistle had been her tie to Hornet, and had kept his memory alive far longer than it would have without her. She was gone now, and both their memories would fade all too quickly. The urge to run was returning.
Songsent took her hand, and Raindrop came back to herself. “Are you?” her lovemate asked.
Raindrop shook her shaggy head. “Not running,” she said quietly. “Not this time.”
“Eat, beloved,” Songsent insisted, placing a plucked duck in Raindrop’s lap.
Raindrop didn’t remember the last time she had eaten, and the fresh duck made her mouth water. She knew she should not refuse the offering, so she silently picked it up and bit into the juicy breast. The taste of fresh blood roused her senses, and she felt herself brighten. The scent of it revived her mind and made her feel alive again. She ate in silence, knowing that her acceptance and consumption of the gift said enough.
When she was finished, Songsent quietly said, “That’s better. I know Thistle’s death is hard, but you must live. Just as you have through every other loss.”
The words washed over her, and Raindrop closed her eyes at the pangs that came as a result. Loss… such a hard thing to accept, and yet time would ease the pain, she knew. The elf would grieve and remember the spirit. The wolf would forget. Raindrop always struggled — the elf in her didn’t want to forget, but the wolf forgot so easily. “I forget,” Raindrop said quietly. “Help me remember?” she asked her lovemate.
“Of course, beloved,” Songsent replied, offering the comfort of an embrace. Then she offered a thought. **Loved ones lost are like flowers. They grow and are both fragrant and vibrant. But when their season passes, the color fades, the scent is gone, but we know they were there. And we look forward to the inevitable new flowers in spring. Love lost does not have to mean love removed. I will help you remember, though it is up to you to continue loving.**
Raindrop offered no response, her mind working around what Songsent had shared. She took another bite and continued chewing.
After eating, Raindrop had fallen into a sound sleep — the result of a full belly and Songsent’s comforting presence. Her lovemate had sent to her, memories of Thistle, as well as tales of Hornet and other elves that were gone. Raindrop was comforted by what had been shared, and had slept almost through the night.
The squeal of a young cub’s voice woke her. Frost was playing outside the Dentrees, and Raindrop opened her eyes. The delight she felt in little ones never abated, and their lively presence always brought her joy. Not wanting to wake Songsent, Raindrop tried to exit the bedbowl, but the storyteller woke up. Raindrop smiled at her, then stood up inside the den and headed out. She sensed her lovemate following her.
Below, on the ground in front of the Dentrees, little Frost was running around, chasing after an air-filled bladder. Raindrop heard Easysinger’s laughter, and she headed down the steps to join the Chieftess’s eldest daughter.
Easysinger looked at her, smiled, then said, “I’m glad you came out.”
“Your sister’s laughter. It woke me,” she stated plainly and without accusation. She looked toward Songsent.
Her lovemate smiled back at her. Then, Frost kicked the bladder, and it rolled toward Raindrop. The shaggy elf knelt down to pick it up, then rolled it back to the cub, who clapped her hands and toddled after it, tumbling over it and laughing. Raindrop grinned. Happiness, even small moments of it, felt good.
Frost stood up again, then found the ball and picked it up. She carried it over to Raindrop and flopped into the older elf. Raindrop picked her up along with the bladder and stood. “Cubs bring life to the tribe. And laughter. Laughter is good.”
She nuzzled the white-haired cub and gave her a squeeze, tickling her. Frost squirmed and giggled, then went limp so that Raindrop would put her back down. The older elf, not as sad as she had been, watched with contentment as the cub continued her play.