(Author's Note: Special thanks to Chris, for helping with all of One-Leg’s creative swears, and to Megan, who helped shape some of Kestrel’s dialogue and interactions, especially in the scene in 2079.)
(Ed. Note: Giggle was One-Leg's cub name.)
“He’s a handful, all right,” Dove agreed with Kestrel’s observation. “Thankfully, he’s got Melody - the pair of them entertain one another so well, I often wonder if I have a child.”
Kestrel laughed at her friend’s joke. It was true, Melody and Giggle had been best of friends since his birth two hands of turns of the seasons before. But on a day like today, when Melody was out with her father, Owl, learning more about herbs and where to find them, Giggle was left without his favored playmate. Kestrel had chosen to spend the day with Dove as a way of increasing watchfulness over the energetic cub.
Kestrel smiled at the thought - apparently, Dove’s Recognized had decided much the same, for he had whisked Giggle away to go fishing, and Dove had been left to enjoy the night with her friend. They had gone to the Great Meadow and gathered flowers, talking as they did and stopping for a while to enjoy the night sky.
“Speaking of my son,” Dove said, her tone indicating that the cub was nearby, “Here he is!”
“Mother, mother, look what I caught!” Giggle called excitedly, running forward, surprisingly empty handed.
“What is it, dear one?” Dove asked, kneeling to embrace the happy child.
Kestrel looked from the pair toward Wolfmane, who was approaching more slowly. He held a large trout in his hands and carried in front of him as if it were an offering.
“Is that what you caught?” Kestrel asked, motioning toward the catch Wolfmane held.
Giggle pulled away from his mother and looked at the glider, a gleam of mischief sparkling in his eyes. “Yes! I caught it all by myself, too!”
“That’s a big one!” Kestrel said with admiration. She noted the look on Wolfmane’s face, guessing that the father had definitely helped the son, at least with pulling the fish from the river. Still, she didn’t want to diminish the cub’s happiness. Instead, she teased him, “It’s big, but I’m hungry enough, I could eat the whole thing! What could I offer you for it?”
Giggle shook his head. “No way, Kestrel! I’m going to eat the whole thing! Really! I already told father!”
Kestrel and Dove both looked toward Wolfmane, who nodded his head. “He did say that. Though I’m not sure such a small cub could eat the whole thing.”
“Nor I,” Kestrel agreed. “Perhaps you could share it with all of us?”
“High Ones, NO!” Giggle argued, defensive of his right to his catch. “I’m going to eat the whole thing.” Then he looked pointedly at the glider. “I bet I can!”
“What are you offering little one?” she asked him, amusement coloring her tone.
“If I can’t eat the whole thing, I’ll have to catch one for you; the same size or bigger! But if I do eat all of it…” his voice trailed off.
“Yes?” Kestrel asked, encouraging him to go on.
“You’ll take me flying?” he asked, eyes wide and hopeful.
She laughed. She had taken him flying before, as she had done for so many of the tribe’s cubs, but Giggle seemed particularly fond of the pastime. Unlike most of the other cubs, though, Kestrel had found that he preferred to have a good reason, or else to offer her something in return for the favor. She nodded. Then, she said, “Well? What are you waiting for? I hope you’re hungry!”
She watched and waited as Wolfmane helped Giggle to filet the fish, and as the cub began stuffing his mouth. She guessed that he would finish the meal, though he would be full when he was done - she wondered if that was the best setup for flying, but didn’t want to put a damper on the cub’s enthusiasm.
**Your son has quite the appetite,** she sent to Dove.
**He’s determined to get a flight from you,** the gray-haired elf responded.
**I don’t know why he feels that he needs to win a bet to get one.**
**Giggle seems to have a notion that things ought to be fair, and I guess he didn’t think it right to ask for a flight outright.**
Kestrel nodded; it was exactly what she had surmised.
They waited as the cub finished the last bites of fish and watched as he wiped his face. “I did it!” he announced. “Now can we go flying?”
Of course, Kestrel would not say no to him after such an impressive display of eating, so she looked at his parents. Wolfmane nodded his approval, as did Dove.
“All right, Giggle, let’s go,” she said with a smile. The cub jumped up into her arms, and she took off into the night sky, both of them laughing.
(Ed. Note: This story takes place not long after ”High-and-Low”. Also, Ash was Blacksnake's cubname, and Axehand was One-Leg's previous name.)
Kestrel could hear the younger elves teasing and laughing amongst themselves on the ground in front of the Dentrees. She listened to Melody call out to Ash, “We won, both directions I might add.”
Ash retorted, “A fine bowl of nutmash you’re serving. You may have won at the races, but we won at toss stones.”
Axehand added, “You cheated, brother, and you know it. You’re just rutting upset that you’re not as fast as me, and probably never will be.”
Kestrel could see Ash’s face darken for a moment, but then noted that he pulled his frustration under control. Melody chimed in, “And I’m faster than Beesting. The two of us are probably unbeatable.”
Snaptwig stepped out of the Gathering Den and called out, “Oh, really? Do you think so?”
Kestrel felt herself starting to grin. Snaptwig was probably the fastest elf in the tribe; she didn’t think young Axehand could beat him, either. It would be interesting to see if the hot-tempered redhead would go for the challenge.
She wasn’t disappointed. “Yes, I do,” he stated. “Why? Are you challenging me to a race?”
Snaptwig grinned. “Yes, I am. You and Melody against Kestrel and I.”
Kestrel startled. She’d been sitting quietly on the branch, intently watching the interactions, but not getting herself involved in it. She was surprised that Snaptwig had noticed her there and that he had chosen to partner with her.
Melody whooped and slapped her nephew on the back. “All right! Let’s do this - only this time, the males are doing all the carrying.”
Axehand grinned at his agemate aunt and picked her up, swinging her around to his back. He then looked up at Kestrel, waiting for her reply.
As she glided down, Kestrel voiced her terms, “When we win, you both must hunt for us and bring back enough rabbits or ermine for new winter coats for myself and Snaptwig.”
Axehand groaned. Kestrel smiled at him, pointing out, “If you somehow manage to win, you won’t have to.”
Melody laughed, then shared something with Axehand, who nodded. He then said, “When we win, you’ll hunt and provide us with fresh venison for the next half a moonturn.”
The stakes were high, but Kestrel and Snaptwig agreed. She was only going along with it because she was confident that Snaptwig would win. She watched as Ash ran off toward the Holt’s River, sending, **The race will be to me. I’ll be on the other side of the river; you will have to track, run, and find me in order to win.**
Beesting stood before the two pairs of racers, waiting for the signal from Ash. Kestrel held tightly to Snaptwig, knowing that using her powers during this kind of race would be cheating. She looked to her left at Melody, who was grinning wildly and saying, “We’ve got to win this, Axehand.”
Suddenly, Beesting was yelling, “GO!” and the race was on.
At first, Axehand and Snaptwig were pacing one another, practically jogging toward the river. Kestrel could hear Melody urging her mount onward and faster, but Kestrel refrained from doing or saying anything that might distract her ride.
As they neared the river, Axehand picked up speed, racing toward the shallowest crossing point. Snaptwig, on the other hand, slowed his pace until he was walking.
She looked around, realizing that he was searching for Ash’s trail. Not seeing it, she furtively urged him to hurry. “Axehand and Melody are much further ahead now, and I don’t want to lose this wager.”
“We won’t,” the trapper promised. “Look!”
Kestrel noticed that the footprints Axehand had been following had turned, headed upriver, and then back into the river. Snaptwig started to pick up his pace, heading upriver, but without crossing to the other side. She saw Axehand’s face dawn with realization as Snaptwig broke into a run.
She could see where Ash had crossed back onto their side of the river, and she felt Snaptwig’s excitement building. Axehand and Melody were two wolf’s lengths behind and starting to catch up. Snaptwig followed Ash’s path through winding trees and up to another crossing of the river. This time, he splashed across and kept running.
Axehand and Melody were laughing as they crossed the river again, and she heard the white-haired elf say, “See! We should have stayed on that side of the river!”
Kestrel was glad they hadn’t. As they went around the next tree, Snaptwig cried, “Hold tight!” and jumped upward, grabbing a branch and pulling both of them upward. She looked up and could see Ash standing there, hands on his waist, smiling at them. “I knew the two of you would beat my brother!”
On the ground beneath them, she heard Axehand mutter a curse. Kestrel squeezed Snaptwig, thanking him for winning, then glided down toward their opponents.
“You really want a new fur coat?” Melody asked.
Kestrel nodded, saying, “Absolutely!”
Snaptwig called out, “Me, too!”
Axehand nodded his head, though Kestrel could see he wasn’t very happy about it. “A bet’s a bet,” he said. “Win some, lose some.” He glowered at his brother, then said to Melody, “C’mon, we have some hunting to do.”
A shrill cry of rage alerted Kestrel that Ice was unhappy. The glider deduced that the game of “Paint Ice’s Head” had ended, and that some unlucky elf had managed to get paint near the smith.
“Who do you think it was?” she asked Stormdancer.
The raven-haired glider responded, “My guess is Tossfur. Yours?”
“Bearheart. He’s young enough to still try the games with Ice.”
“I did it! I did it!” Dreamberry yelled as she dashed across the gathering area, running to get as far from Ice’s wrath as she could.
Kestrel laughed. “Dreamberry. I wouldn’t have pictured her even as playing at it.”
Axehand, who had been watching from an opening on the path toward the river, called out, “She’ll make up for it with a new brew for Ice.”
Stormdancer retorted, “Everyone ought to know better, really. I don’t know why this game even continues.”
Axehand smiled. “I don’t, either. I mean, really, I don’t know what the big rutting deal is.” Approaching the pair of gliders with a smile on his face, Axehand added conspiratorially, “In fact, I could paint Ice’s head, and she would let me. I’m sure of it.”
Kestrel knew the look on his face, “What are you willing to wager, friend?”
He grinned at her. “When I accomplish it, you’ll have to let me paint you.”
She laughed. What was the harm in the bet? The worst that could happen would be a little paint, if he could accomplish it. If he didn’t, she could only imagine how he would sooth Ice’s ire. “And when you haven’t accomplished it, I’ll shave your head.”
Her mother then added, “And paint it.”
Axehand’s eyes widened, but he didn’t back away. “All right. It’s a bet.”
The wind whipped and its cool blast made Kestrel shiver as she stepped out into the cold morning air. She had followed Axehand out of the Gathering Den, hoping to confront him about their bet, but to do so in privacy. She waited for him to return from the nearby trees, and glided from the ground to the branches above her and back to the ground, stretching as she did so. Cold though it was, it was nice to be out and moving.
Axehand returned while she was on the ground, and she said, “With winter here, I think a nice activity might be collecting on the bet I’ve won.”
He looked at her curiously. “Which bet was that?”
“You know,” she said. Then, switching to sending, she prompted, **Ice?**
He grinned at her. “That I have not forgotten. Nor have you won.”
“What? But…” she started.
He cut her off. “I never said when I would accomplish the task. I haven’t even tried yet.”
Kestrel opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. He was right. They had not delineated when the bet might be called, so he had all the time in the world - she would never collect. Unless he tried and failed.
He surprised her, then, by adding, “Before the seasons have gone full turn, I’ll have won the bet.”
She smiled then, surprised by his good-natured promise. “All right, then. I look forward to painting your bald head next winter.”
He merely grinned at her, pursing his lips as he said nothing. Then, humming, he returned to the warmth of the Gathering Den.
The last of the snow would surely melt when the sun rose, and the celebration of New Green had finally arrived. Kestrel excitedly gathered up paints and berries, making her way toward the base of the Dentrees to greet the others who were there. It was then that she noticed something.
Axehand had a skin of dreamberry wine and was sweet-talking Ice, who accepted the skin and took a swig, then returned it with a smile. Kestrel watched, eyes widening in amazement as the pair began the festivities by removing articles of clothing and dipping hands in the nearby colors.
Axehand looked up momentarily, catching Kestrel’s eye, and then winking. She shook her head, knowing that she was about to lose the bet. Then, laughing, she watched as he began painting designs on Ice’s head.
The victor found her later that night, bearing with him two bowls. One smelled of blueberry paint, and the other of henna.
“You said paint, not stain!” she protested as he stepped closer.
“Just because it stains doesn’t mean it’s not paint,” he countered. Then he sent the image, **Ice, head painted in a design of the sun, neck with the bark of a tree, breasts with flowers, navel with sunflowers, back with drops of rain, and legs like the stems of plants. She not only let me paint her head, but her whole body. Sweetslip’s sweet slit, it’s a work of art, and I’ve earned my prize. Kestrel, painted in blue and henna.** He laughed.
She knew there was no arguing, and further protest would only make the inevitable worse. Still, she thought, if he could deign to paint her head to toe with those stains, she would make sure that some of it rubbed off on him by the night’s end.
(Ed. Note: Shimmer is Starskimmer and Snowdrop is Snowfall.)
Blacksnake watched proudly as his son dashed across the Great Meadow, howling with victory when Riskrunner, only three hands and three turns of the seasons, beat Nettle and Tossfur.
Kestrel, who had witnessed the race from the air, watched as the young elf celebrated loudly, and as his father slapped him on the back. Kestrel also noticed Riskrunner glancing toward the trees where Shimmer and Snowdrop had paused to watch as well. She wondered if he might be showing off to get their attention.
As she landed near the small group of elves, Axehand, who had a small catch of rabbits, approached Kestrel, asking, “What’s he so overjoyed about?”
Nettle and Tossfur joined them, and Tossfur said, “Blacksnake is playing the proud father because Riskrunner is so fast. The cub beat us in a race across the meadow.”
Riskrunner overheard and retorted, “I’m not a cub anymore, and I just proved it by beating both of you slowpokes!”
Nettle wasn’t irritated by the younger elf’s teasing, but countered, “I’m nowhere near slow. But I have to agree, you’re not a cub any longer - you’re growing into a very fast runner.”
Tossfur nodded. “Agreed, though I doubt he’s the fastest in the tribe yet.”
“What was that?” Blacksnake asked, an eyebrow raised. “You think you could have beaten my son if you’d run harder?”
Tossfur looked down a moment, then looked back up and shrugged, stating, “Probably not.”
Blacksnake smiled at that, then looked at Nettle who stated, “I don’t think I could have run harder, but that doesn’t make him the fastest yet.”
“Hmmph,” the proud father responded.
Kestrel remembered a race run between Blacksnake and Axehand when both were younger, and she asked, “Well, do you think he could beat Axehand?” She knew her friend, who was currently fastest, wouldn’t turn down the challenge if it was accepted, and she waited with anticipation for the bet to be made.
She watched as Blacksnake considered it, and she knew he was likely remembering past races with Axehand. He remained silent, but he looked questioningly toward Riskrunner. The young elf whistled and yelped, then said, “Of course I can! Just watch and see. I bet I’ll even beat my uncle by a wolf’s length.”
Axehand puffed out his chest and blew air. “Swamp-rot! My nephew wouldn’t have a chance in a race,” he stated with certainty. “He would be behind by several wolf-lengths at the end of the race.”
Kestrel noted the careful wording, and she wondered what Axehand was up to.
Blacksnake must have been thinking along similar lines because he tried warning Riskrunner, “Be careful what you wager with this one, son. My brother can be wily.”
Riskrunner laughed, too puffed up to accept the warning for caution. Blacksnake shook his head, then took a step back, signaling that it was Riskrunner’s bet to make, and that he was not going to interfere.
“Be careful how you bet, Riskrunner. I was once blue for a moonturn when I lost to your uncle,” Kestrel tried, wanting to feel he had really been given the opportunity to think things through.
Axehand impatiently stated, “My nephew is grown enough to make his own bets, Kestrel.” He paused and mentally winked at her in sending. Then he continued speaking, “If he thinks he’s fast enough to win a race across the Great Meadow, let him think it.”
“And when I win,” Riskrunner announced, “You, Axehand, can never again claim the title of fastest in the tribe.”
“And when you lose, nephew,” Axehand stated, “You will remember to place your bets more carefully.”
Riskrunner was growing impatient. He was ready to run. He said, “I’ll do my best. But, uncle, when I win, will you stay with me and little Bugfluff during the New Green celebration? We can go fishing, and maybe even hunting.”
Axehand pursed his lips. Kestrel knew the wily one was particularly fond of celebrating New Green, and that he wasn’t one to celebrate with cubs - he would certainly win this race, one way or another. Of that, she had no doubt.
“Aye,” he nodded. “And if you don’t win, then your father will celebrate with you. Agreed, Blacksnake?”
The Chieftess’s second lifemate shook his head. “Leave me out of this, Axehand.”
Axehand noticed Riskrunner again looking toward Snowdrop and Shimmer. He sent something to the young elf that made him blush, but Riskrunner nodded his agreement, and the bet was struck. The racers agreed on the starting point of their course, and Axehand began walking. Riskrunner looked at his father, and a sending passed between them, then Riskrunner turned and hurried to catch up with his uncle.
Kestrel watched with interest, wondering what Axehand had up his sleeve - both as a way to win, and what it was he had sent to Riskrunner. She said as much to Blacksnake, Tallow, and Nettle.
Nettle responded, “What do you mean? There’s no way for him to win by several wolf-lengths on foot.”
“You’re right,” Kestrel agreed. “But he never said he would be running, did he?” she asked pointedly.
“No, he didn’t,” Blacksnake agreed, his eyes knowing. “As for the wager, Riskrunner said that Axehand made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, though he’s now terrified of losing.”
At that moment, Axehand howled a summons for Padfoot, who was nearby. Kestrel noticed that Riskrunner looked startled as well, and he didn’t really have time to summon his wolf - not that it would have done much good. Riskrunner’s wolf was only three turns of the seasons old, whereas Padfoot was in his prime. She could see that the cub was protesting and noticed Axehand shrug his shoulders.
Riskrunner wasn’t about to give up, and she heard him yell “Go!” and saw him take off running.
It took Axehand a moment to realize his opponent had started the race without him, but he quickly took off running at full pace, and might have easily overtaken him when Padfoot arrived in the meadow, running up alongside his wolf-friend. Kestrel watched the pair, noting how fluidly elf and wolf worked together and Axehand mounted the wolf without either pausing.
With the advantage of the wolf, Axehand easily passed the cub and reached the four waiting elves with six or more wolf-lengths between himself and Riskrunner. Axehand dismounted and turned to wait for the cub who arrived with frustrated tears streaming down his face.
Kestrel could tell there was more than just losing the race in Riskrunner’s mind, and she felt badly for him. She watched as Blacksnake offered some comfort, then she heard Axehand say, “Riskrunner, you are so fast! If I’d been running, it would have been hard to catch you - and one day, I won’t be able to. I rode Padfoot to prove a point about making wagers.”
“It’s still not fair, Uncle,” Riskrunner stated.
“Shards, no,” Axehand agreed. “But wagers often are not fair. And as Kestrel and your father tried to warn you, when you make one, you need to be certain to define the terms. The only reason I was able to pull one over on you was because you were momentarily wrapped up in your pride. And you have reason to be proud, nephew.”
Riskrunner’s eyes lit up at the compliment. Then he said, “And the rest of the wager?”
“I’ll help you with it, if you want,” Axehand offered.
Riskrunner shook his head. “No… that’s something I should do myself.”
“I agree,” Axehand stated, slapping Riskrunner on the back.
Kestrel’s curiosity was piqued, as were Nettle's and Tossfur’s. “What —?” Kestrel asked.
Axehand shook his head. “No… that part of the bet was between Riskrunner and myself, right?”
Blacksnake’s son nodded, flushing once again, and looking toward the trees. Snowdrop and Shimmer had disappeared. Riskrunner looked nervous.
Nettle and Tossfur moved to offer their condolences to Riskrunner then left the meadow. Riskrunner and Blacksnake also started walking toward the Dentrees. Axehand motioned for Kestrel to stay a moment longer.
She moved closer to him, then laughed as he wrapped an arm around her and swung her around. “You knew I had a trick up my sleeve, didn’t you?”
She smiled at him when he put her down and nodded, “Aye. Now, let me guess - you encouraged your nephew to approach Snowdrop or Shimmer, didn’t you?”
Axehand pulled her closer, saying, “You know me well, friend; though, truthfully, he had already planned to. Enough talk. Let’s go get ready for New Green.”
(Ed. Note: Snowdrop was Snowfall's previous name.)
Kestrel approached the Dentrees happily humming to herself. She’d been gone two hands of days, scouting the Holt’s territory, and she was looking forward to being home again. She’d sent to her lifemate, Boar, and lovemate, Snowdrop, when she knew she was in range, only to find that they had left with a hunting party eager to bring down marshbeast during their rut. The promise of fresh meat left her stomach growling, and she satisfied herself with the thought that the fresh meat would be better than dried or stored food.
Her son had departed with the other two, so she descended to the forest floor looking for no one in particular. Axehand called a greeting from where he sat mending a net. She approached and sat next to him, taking up some of the net and working out one of its knotted ends.
“Boar and Bowflight are out hunting with Snowdrop and the others. They should bring home a fair amount of marshbeast for the tribe,” Axehand started the conversation. They had been friends long enough, they didn’t need to exchange pleasantries.
Kestrel wasn’t bothered by the lack of “welcome back.” She knew she was welcome. “Aye,” she agreed. “Perhaps Boar and our son will have a central part in the tale Snowdrop shares after its over.”
“Nay,” Axehand said, a wicked gleam in his eyes that let her know he was about to offer a bet. “It will be my brothers that have the glory.”
“What are you offering, old friend?” she inquired.
He chuckled. “Nothing this time. Let’s just see who is right and who is wrong.”
“Mmmhmmm,” she murmered sarcastically. “You’ll let no one hear the end of it if you’re right.”
“You’re shard-sucking right I won't! And you’ll be happily telling your Recognized how confident you were in his abilities if you’re right, won’t you?”
“Of course,” she said with a gleam in her eye.
Kestrel’s sleep was interrupted by a sudden feeling of dread. A sense of loss hit her, and she knew even before Easysinger’s send. Still, she hoped against it until it came. Her mindtouch was both urgent and sad. **Kestrel,** her Chieftess sent. Along with her name came an image that she would never forget. **Boar, bow ready, shot flying, trampled by a marshbeast coming from a different direction. Dead. Bowflight injured, arm broken and twisted, grieving. Snowdrop unharmed, helping Bowflight.**
Kestrel gasped, the loss confirmed. The sound roused her furmate, and Axehand sat up, asking her in a groggy voice, “What’s happened?”
She looked at him, eyes wide from the unexpected turn of events. “He’s gone,” she whispered. “Boar’s gone.”
Axehand wrapped his arms around her and held her. The grief had not yet had time to sink in, and Kestrel felt only shock at first, followed by a sense of relief that Bowflight was safe, though injured. There was also relief that Snowdrop was with him, and unharmed. She allowed herself the comfort Axehand offered in the moment, planning to soon go to her son.
Boar’s body went down the river on a raft, sent off by Kestrel and Bowflight, whose arm had been set and was slowly mending. After the howl that followed, Kestrel remained with Bowflight for as long as her tired body would allow. The short amount of time since her lifemate’s death had seemed to go by in a blur, and she could not even remember when the last time was that she had forced food into her stomach.
It was only when Kestrel’s lovemate, Snowdrop, came over to put an arm around Bowflight and give a pointed look to Kestrel, that the glider could finally give herself a break. She smiled gratefully at the white-haired elf and comforted herself with knowing that her son would not be alone. She knew, too, that Snowdrop would join her later, so Kestrel made her way back to her den, finally starting to feel the lack of rest catching up to her.
Axehand was waiting for her there, and while normally Kestrel might have felt put off at the unexpected intrusion, right now she just felt relief for the comforting presence of one of her oldest friends. Before any words were exchanged, she simply climbed into the bedbowl and let him wrap his arms around her. After a while, he quietly said, “Toss’ stones, I’ve never wished to have been right in a bet so much as now, Kestrel. I’m so sorry.”
Somehow, she smiled. Turning, she said, “Boar was the center of the tale, wasn’t he?”
He smiled at her as well. “He was the center of your heart, too, dear friend. He will be missed.”
Kestrel nodded, but her smile no longer reached her eyes. Theirs had been a difficult lifemating, to be sure — to some, it may have looked like there wasn’t much affection there at all. But underneath that outward appearance of distance between them, there had certainly been love, and she would miss him. Axehand understood this better than most. Knowing she didn’t need to explain herself to her furmate, Kestrel allowed herself to fall asleep, comforted by the presence of a dear friend.
(Ed. Note: This takes place before ”Letter of the Law”.)
The yip of young cubs exiting their mother’s den for the first time was always something fun to see. Kestrel loved the sight of furry cubs, just starting to explore, and as she approached the wolf dens, a squeal and a fast-moving spot of red passed her by. Kestrel laughed, then turned to wait for Axehand, who wasn’t far behind his daughter.
“I imagine this litter will be the one Flash bonds with a wolf-friend,” she said smiling at him.
He laughed. “You said the same thing last turn of the seasons, and owed me four rabbits.”
Kestrel nodded, then said, “True enough. I’m willing to risk it - I’ll wager you five this time around, to make up for the ones I had to get you last time.”
Axehand let out a hearty laugh, then agreed to the terms.
Tallow was hurrying to catch up to them, and Kestrel greeted the other with a smile. “Let’s go and see which cub my daughter bonds with,” Flash’s mother said.
Moss was also approaching the wolf dens, his wolf, Sourbite, having died the previous winter. He called out to them, and the four went toward the dens.
“It’s a rather large litter, isn’t it?” Tallow asked, more as an observation.
Five pups had come from the den, and Hopstep, their mother, was trying to coax a sixth cub from the den. Kestrel watched as Axehand and Tallow approached Flash, who was sitting on the ground waiting for one of the pups to come to her. So far, none had.
She also watched as Moss lowered himself to the ground, laying on his back and waiting for a cub to explore the new mound in front of it. He was not disappointed. Two curious cubs crawled over him, sniffing at him, and one neared his face, licked it, then curled up on his chest.
Kestrel laughed. “That’s a different way to pick a wolf-friend,” she said.
The second pup had bounded away and returned to the comfort of its mother. Flash crossed her arms and gave a sigh of frustration, tears coming down her eyes. “It’s not fair!” she announced to her parents. “Why does Moss get a new wolf-friend, and I’ve been trying and trying and still don’t have one.”
“It happens that way sometimes, dear heart,” Tallow said soothingly.
Moss sat up, holding the curled up pup in his hands. “It’s never happened like this for me before, cub,” he said quietly. “I just felt like being playful in a different way.”
“Why don’t any cubs like me?” she asked despairingly.
“It’s not that they don’t like you, cub,” Kestrel offered softly, noticing what Flash had not - that the runt of the litter had just come out of the den and was cautiously approaching the child. “It’s that the right one hadn’t been born yet.” Then she said, “Look!”
Flash turned her head, and the sudden movement made the runt back up some. The child’s posture changed, and Kestrel could sense her excitement. Tallow whispered, “Go on, Flash.”
Axehand was grinning as Flash slowly crawled forward to greet the tiny pup. When they were nose to nose, the pup licked her and crawled under her chin, seeming to want to bury itself beneath her. Flash said, “Awwww, he likes me!”
“Of course he does, cub, what’s not to like about you?” Axehand asked his daughter.
Tallow glared at her lifemate for a moment, then turned her attention back to her daughter. “What are you going to name him?” she asked.
“Tumble!” Flash said happily, pulling the cub close and nuzzling him.
“Mine is Nipper,” Moss announced, adding, “Ow!” as the cub nipped at his fingers. He flicked the cub’s nose, and it backed away for a moment, then jumped back into Moss’s lap.
Kestrel had seen enough, and turned to head back to the Dentrees. Before she left, she called out a reminder to Axehand, “You owe me five rabbits!”
(Ed. Note: This ties into ”Say Mama” (before and after). Dash is Notch's cubname.)
“Say, ‘Papa,’ Dash,” Kestrel heard One-Leg insisting. She glided down to the riverside where the insistent father was trying to get his boy to speak.
Dash played happily with the strands of grass, pulling them from the muddy banks and putting rocks in his mouth, which One-Leg had to pry out again.
“Say, ‘Rock,’ then,” he tried.
Dash let out a squeal and started to crawl toward the water. Kestrel grinned at One-Leg’s quick movement as he scooped up his son and lifted him in the air. “When are you going to talk?” he asked.
Kestrel answered, “He’ll talk when he’s ready, and you know it.”
His start at her sudden appearance gave her some slight satisfaction. It was always fun to get a reaction out of One-Leg. And sometimes so easy, too, she thought.
“My nutsacks will dry up and rot off before he talks at this rate,” he complained. “Though don’t tell my Recognized that you saw me fretting over it.”
Kestrel shook her head at him. “I wouldn’t dare, and no, they won’t. You’ll see.”
“Shards!” One-Leg cried, hastily setting his son on the ground. “He bit me!”
The cub started crying, and Kestrel went to pick him up. It was always a sweet thing to be able to hold a babe. “Of course he did, he’s teething. And you should watch how you talk around him, or his first word is going to be a curse.”
Ha!” One-Leg retorted. “His first words will likely be ‘Papa,’ or perhaps ‘Mama.’”
Kestrel shook her head. “The way you talk, friend, I’m willing to wager that his first word will be a swear.”
Young Dash seemed to be taking it in - he looked from Kestrel to his father and back again. Kestrel continued, “In fact, if I’m wrong, I’ll speak with swears for a moonturn, but if I’m right…”
“Yes?” he asked, laughing at the thought of Kestrel swearing.
“You will have to go a moon-turn without swearing.” She grinned sweetly at him, adding, “Though I don’t know that you can do it.”
One-Leg countered, “I can, I just don’t want to. But it will be interesting listening to you try to swear. It’s a bet.”
“Oh, Kestrel,” Starskimmer called sweetly, “I have some interesting news to tell you!”
Kestrel was returning from a hunt, and was eager to rest, but she could tell from the tone of Starskimmer’s voice that it would be worth hearing.
She glided to where the breweress sat, Dash in her lap, and took a seat opposite her. “Well, what news?” Kestrel asked.
“Dash talk!” the cub answered. “Dash say ‘Shards’ first,” he added proudly.
Kestrel laughed loudly, and Starskimmer joined her. The cub’s mother added, “I know about the bet you and my Recognized made. He’s not looking forward to the next moonturn.”
Kestrel grinned. It would be interesting.
Kestrel was happily talking with Snowfall, sharing her excitement at the inevitable grandbabe Finch would give birth to two turns of the seasons from now. Finch and Bowflight had Recognized, again, the day before, and Kestrel could not be happier. She enjoyed her granddaughter immensely, and she looked forward to the newest addition to the tribe and to the family.
One-Leg interrupted, riding up to them, Longstride stopping next to Kestrel. “Talking about the coming babe?” he inquired.
Snowfall laughed and said, “That’s all she’s talked about since we met up here.”
Kestrel smiled in response. “It will feel like such a long wait. I wonder if it will be a boy or girl,” she said wistfully.
“A boy,” One-Leg said with certainty.
“Oh, really? What makes you so certain?” Snowfall asked playfully.
“Just a hunch,” he said confidently. “I’m sure I’m right, though.”
“We shall see,” Kestrel responded, choosing not to make a bet of it this time.
“We’re going to have a boy!” Bowflight exclaimed as he approached his mother, who was lounging at the riverside.
“A boy!” she replied happily, standing to greet him. “One-Leg was right.”
Her son paused in his approach, looking concerned. “What does he win in this bet?”
Kestrel laughed. “It wasn’t a bet this time, though he gets the satisfaction that he was right.”
Bowflight groaned. “That’s bad enough. We won’t hear the end of it until our cub is walking and talking.”
“True enough,” she replied. She reached out to offer him a hug. “How’s Finch?”
“She’s happy enough, and hungry. Willow’s with her right now. I’m heading out to hunt fresh meat for her. She’s busy in the craft-dens right now, trying to make a blanket for our son. It’s almost another turn of the seasons before he arrives, but she’s determined to have our den ready.”
“Want some company?” she inquired.
“Absolutely,” he replied, and together, they went hunting.
Kestrel and One-Leg sat together on a rock at the river, watching Evervale playing with Otter. Nearby, Starskimmer was flirting with Rainpace, and Greenweave was playing with Cloudfern’s hair. Longshot, Foxtail, Willow and Notch were further in the water, trying to dunk one another. It was a hot summer night, and tribe members flitted to and from the river, taking dunks to cool off from the heat.
Kestrel noticed that One-Leg was distracted, then saw what he had noticed. Snowfall had appeared, something cradled in her hands. Kestrel felt a familiar pang of affection toward her former lovemate-turned dear friend, and she could guess what the white-haired elf had in her hands.
“Birdcatcher’s beaky backside, what are you rescuing this time?” One-Leg inquired.
“An injured robin,” she replied. “I think it’s just a broken wing - should be better in no time. I found it further upriver, and I’m taking it back to the Dentrees.”
Kestrel watched the care with which Snowfall handled the bird and fondly remembered tender, loving nights between the two of them. She asked, “You already warned True Edge?”
Snowfall laughed. “He knows me well. He said that I’d best bring it to our den, otherwise he’d not see me for the next four hands of nights. That said, I’ll be on my way.”
Kestrel watched as Snowfall departed, and One-Leg interrupted her thoughts, stating, “You’ll be a pair again someday, I’ll bet.”
Kestrel smiled, but shook her head. “I doubt True Edge would want to share his lifemate.”
“But you would be agreeable to it,” he said plainly.
Kestrel pondered for a moment. “I hadn’t given it much thought, but I suppose that I would be. Still, whether I’m agreeable to it or not means nothing if True Edge is against it. I’ve denned with them before, you know. I don’t think he would want me to intrude for longer than a span or two of days.”
One-Leg shook his head. “I’ll wager that you’re wrong on that one, friend. It might take an oak’s age or longer, but I bet he’d be agreeable to it at some point.”
Kestrel raised an eyebrow skeptically, but had to admit it was an interesting thought.
(Ed. Note: This follows ”Family”.)
Kestrel headed into the Gathering Den for the first time in several days. She had been enjoying the newly formed three-mating, and hadn’t wanted to leave the den she now shared with True Edge and Snowfall. As she entered, a chorus of congratulations hit her, and she felt herself slightly embarrassed at the attention.
Then One-Leg caught her hand and she turned to look at him. She suddenly recalled sitting on a rock one summer, talking with him when Snowfall had appeared with an injured bird. He had wagered then that she would end up in a three-mating with Snowfall and True Edge, and she hadn’t thought it possible at the time.
“I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong, friend,” she said with a grateful grin.
Kestrel and One-Leg lay side by side, looking up at the night sky. The word-hunt earlier in the day had been largely unsuccessful, as the humans had remained in their homes due to the messy, cold weather. Nearby, Beetle and Evervale sat talking with Notch. The glider had not been on a word-hunt since before Flicker and Spark’s birth, but Snowfall and True Edge had noted some restlessness in her as of late, and had offered to care for the boys so she could get out for a little while. Kestrel had flown out to join the four hunters for the last bit of their time away.
She heard Evervale mention the sea, and Beetle chimed in that she loved visiting it. Notch mentioned something about Twin Peaks Island, and the small group began telling stories about what it might be like there.
One-Leg asked Kestrel, “When was the last time you flew to the island?”
Kestrel rolled over onto her side, looking at her friend. “Oh, I don't remember — I think I last set foot there when my mother was alive.”
One-Leg nodded, rolling over so they were face to face. “Any inclination to go there again?”
She nodded thoughtfully, choosing her words carefully. She and Windburn had talked about exploring the island, but nothing had yet been decided. “Aye. Fadestar’s powers are getting stronger, and it would be a good exercise to take her there - she’s expressed an interest in going. But for now, it’s still too cold to be worried about.”
One-Leg nodded, though Kestrel could see he wasn’t saying all that he thought. She didn’t want to push him, and she wasn’t interested in a wager about Fadestar’s capabilites, or on elves visiting the islands. Thankfully, One-Leg wasn’t interested in talking any longer, but instead scooted closer, saying, “I agree. Let’s wait for warmer weather before talking about a visit to the sea. In the meantime, I’m a little cold. I’d wager we could warm each other up.”
Kestrel laughed, and agreed, “I’d wager we could.”