The loose ground squelched and slipped under the paws of the wolves with a riot of soft, thick noise. It so happened that the day of return for Blacksnake's first major expedition as hunt leader was also the day of the most miserable downpour that the tribe had seen yet in the spring of that year. The weather had grown warm already, so the hunters, riding back, were at least spared winter's biting chill and the perils of frozen mud, but it seemed to Blacksnake that the mud was getting its revenge for that. With raindrops the size of his fist splashing down all around him, and the small incident earlier in the day when Breeze's Stickpelt refused to follow the lead of his Moonsnapper, he was coated from ear-tip to boot-tip. Even among his similarly muddy tribemates he stood out splotched and speckled so badly that even the rain didn't seem much help. He had lost his oiled cape on a rushing ride on the first day of the hunt, and water ran in rivulets down from the limp ends of his hair – High Ones, but he would set Cider to trim it short as soon as he was back in the Holt. Every jostle of the eager Moonsnapper's run yanked at the thigh muscle he'd strained, rushing in to spear the marshbeast that had almost trampled young Bowflight, who'd somehow gotten it into his head that even an expert archer could only win glory on his first far-ride by closing in with his prey. They had some meat with them, true enough, well butchered and wrapped, but less than he'd expected. Everything was aching, wet and filthy.
This was emphatically not how he had imagined his return.
**Stormdancer?** His mind drifted ahead searching for contact with the floater, who had flown ahead as was her habit, eager to greet her lifemate and daughter. She should be at the Dentrees already, meeting the tribe. The question in his sending was vague, unspecific. He didn't truly wish to ask her how she found them all. In fact, he kept his mental touch as narrow as possible.
Wise old Stormdancer might already suspect, but he had no wish to confirm it for her. The tribe was still sometimes wildly out of balance following Oakhand's death, in an expedition just like this one in the previous spring. Blacksnake had felt his hunters' uneven ground all throughout the half a moonsturn of the far-ride. The same strange, hackles-twitching habits-out-of-joint not-quite-there feeling was thickly present when the group had set out. Now they were returning, and what to? He didn't want Stormdancer to sense how weary he was of uncertainty.
He was surprised, then, when her returning pulse was edged with a shimmery humour.
**Ride hard, Hunt Leader,** she sent. **Quite a lot is waiting for you.**
Quite a lot? Blacksnake glanced over his shoulder, but the sending had apparently been for him alone, because the rest of them were still hunched over their wolves with the single-minded exhaustion of almost-there. He ruffled the mucked fur between Moonsnapper's ears and urged her onward.
The Dentrees were soon in sight. Between the thickness of the rain, the scent of woodsmoke tickled Blacksnake's nose. He narrowed his eyes slightly in surprise, realizing that a low fire was flickering in a pit within the Gathering Den, just barely visible as the hunting party entered the Dentrees' central clearing. The place was crowded with elves, who were mostly divided between greeting returned family, and laughing at the hunters' sorry state. There was a third group, though, small and snickering, who gave passing waves to the others before circling to close in on Blacksnake himself just as he slid off Moonsnapper's back.
He blinked at the five – sisters Doeskin and Nettle, lifemates Cider and Rhythm, and Agate at the lead. To his further surprise, he realized that Easysinger was nowhere to be seen amidst the small crowd. He was just opening his mouth to ask about it, when Agate flashed a dazzling grin at him, and raised a finger to her lips.
“Look at you, you poor drowned pup,” she laughed. “I wager you've mud in places even my clever daughter couldn't find.”
“And wet, too,” Nettle chimed in. “How can he be this muddy and this wet at the same time? There's a new river starting at his hair. If we let him in his den he'll flood it.”
“And he's favouring his right leg,” observed Rhythm. “I don't smell blood or see wrappings. Must have pulled something.”
“Poor tired Blacksnake,” Cider, elbow on her lifemate's shoulder, sighed and shook her head. “Our poor, aching hunt leader.”
“We can't let him in the den like this. He'll ruin the bedfurs.”
“He'll catch his death of cold!”
“It's not even cold, my beesweet.”
“He'll manage,” Cider insisted. “Look at him. He's clearly put a lot of effort into his misery.”
“What in Wolfsister's eyeteeth are you flock of chatterbirds on about?” Blacksnake snapped finally, altogether too wet and weary to mind his temper.
Agate's mind brushed against his by way of answer, a soft directing touch, almost below notice, making him turn on instinct. Facing the entrance to the Gathering Den, he saw the firepit clearly, and blinked again in surprise to see a second pit shaped next to it. Stones were piled between the two, ready to be heated in one and dropped into the water that filled the other. The wolfriders used this trick to heat water sometimes, but not very often – the process was too complex, and the reward only enough for one or two elves to enjoy a quick warm soak. Blacksnake had last seen it used after his own cub's birth, when Frost and Leather had decided to surprise the weary Easysinger. Just this moment, it may have been the most beautiful thing that he had seen in his life.
He looked at Agate. “The whole hunting party is wet and tired. There's no reason only I should get to —“
“We can think of a few,” the rockshaper said softly. “Get in before we change our minds.”
His own inclination to be persuaded caught him off-guard. He shrugged his short coat off, then his tunic and pants, and left his boots outside the den. Three of the welcoming party went into the den, and Agate used a stone pole to hook heated rocks out of the fire and drop them in the shaped pool, one after the other, while outside Nettle and Doeskin took great delight in helping Blacksnake wash the mud off in the rain. They laughed as they scrubbed his back, rubbing the slosh out of his hair with small towels, then flicking the towels at each other until their own faces were spotted with mud while his was clean. “This isn't just from the ride,” Nettle teased as she sneaked the twisted corner of one towel into the whorls of his ear. “You fell off!”
“Moonsnapper and Stickpelt scuffled,” Blacksnake said in self-defence, but his pride wasn't really pricked. They had done a much better job getting the mud off of him than he possibly could have done himself at the moment.
They herded him into the den, where the water had just stopped bubbling, and laughed again when he lowered himself in and gave a tremendous sigh. The water seemed to seep into every pore and spread a liquid light under his skin. It sunk especially deep into the sore muscle of his thigh, and he could feel the length of his leg unknot and almost melt with relief. His spine, too, seemed to unravel into languid pleasure. Cider pushed lightly on the top of his head, and he submerged to let the water dissipate the last of the chill out of his hair and work on his scalp like a lover's fingers. When he emerged again, actual fingers – Rhythm's, High Ones love him! – kneaded his temples. He closed his eyes and for a moment lived only in the warm, tactile, floating Now.
“Don't fall asleep!” Cider's cheery voice reached him. “We've barely begun!”
When Blacksnake opened his eyes, the brewer was kneeling by the side of the pool, holding a small pot of soap with a wafting scent of willow root. “Tallow's special for bruises and aches,” she said. “Have a good scrub, and when you're done, I'll sort out your hair.”
“I meant to ask if you'd trim it,” Blacksnake muttered, weighing the benefits of a scrub versus those of just staying in the heated pool for the rest of his natural life. Cider looked very pleased.
“With pleasure! Easysinger did mention you might ask.”
Yes, where is my lifemate? The thought was almost enough to return him to full alertness, but only almost. If something was wrong, he'd have known. His Tyrlee would not have left him to be pampered if she didn't... if she hadn't meant exactly for him to be pampered before he saw her, he realized. That did explain everything.
A wolfish grin slowly spread over his face. Cider noticed, and wriggled her eyebrows.
“Is a haircut that exciting, Hunt Leader?”
“You're all sly weasels,” he returned as he straightened and began to lather himself with the soap. “You didn't tell me that my lifemate put you up to this.”
Cider smiled in return, but it was not a smirk. It was much softer.
“Well, the chieftess didn't object to you being clean and relaxed before she tackled you into the furs,” she said. “But she did not 'put us up to this'. We put ourselves up. You're a bossy, puffy-tailed son of a she-wolf, Blacksnake, and High Ones know why – but you're dear to us all.”
She caught him off-guard with this statement, submerged to his ears in the cooling water. Her face was open when he looked at her, her frizzy curls framing bright honest eyes. It was 'Hunt Leader' before, but Blacksnake now, and he couldn't quite tell why but the difference mattered. Rather than a wry comment on her opinion on his temper, he smiled back at her, understanding, taking what he was given.
Cider was swift and efficient with her knife. She trimmed his hair until it fell just below his ears, while he sat wrapped in a bear hide and ate strips of liver-meat freshly cut from Bowflight's marshbeast nemesis, brought by Rhythm in on a tray along with some dried fruits and candied salmon. After his lifemate was done, Rhythm quietly replaced her kneeling behind Blacksnake and set to completing the work he'd begun, rubbing the knots first out of his back, then his legs and sore thigh. Agate drifted in and out of the den, reporting on the rest of the hunting party's settling in, in between a handful of outrageous stories about the tribe's life during the part half-moonsturn – Blacksnake wasn't sure that all were strictly fact-based, but appreciated them nonetheless.
“... and of course, in the end, we had to cut Ringtail free of his own trap! One day we might be tempted to leave him in one of those...” she laughed, and Blacksnake laughed despite himself, low and good-natured. “Are we all done here, then? We'd better let you get to your bedfurs, and some sleep!”
Blacksnake stretched, the bear hide falling off his shoulders. He felt unimaginably revived and restored. “Thank you,” he said, quietly at first, and then again, “thank you, all of you.” The words softened, slipped into sending. **Two eights of days, alert, wary, stressed. The most familiar thing made strange, unbalanced. Harder than thought, to find a way that fits, that works again. Couldn't have said so, but needed this.**
“You're welcome, my friend,” Agate said, her voice rich and satisfied, while the others murmured assent around her. “Anytime. Truly.” She gave a throaty chuckle when Blacksnake wobbled slightly as he rose, giddy with relaxation and warmth, and swiftly pulled the bearskin to her when he tried to pick it up and wrap it around his body.
“Where do you think you're taking that?” Cider drawled with a foxlike grin.
Blacksnake looked at her, then at the five matching grins around them. He thought for a single moment of protesting, then gave an amused huphf! of his own, turned his bare back to them, and sauntered across to the stairs up to the chief's den.