The sound of cubs chattering drew Brightwood up the Father Tree, smiling to herself as she scaled the branches on the way to collect her daughter from Newt's den. A good night; finally returned from her long patrol alongside Pathmark at the edges of the tribe’s territory, and that was another moonsturn without as much as the distant shadow of humans. She knew just how well this had become a given to her tribemates, the more impatient youngsters sometimes already mumbling against the need for the tribe's watchful routine. Had surprised herself, even, with how little this mumbling grated on her. She should have cuffed young Otter for his complaints, when she'd last ridden back to the Dentrees and given her report, about the terror of the Fierce Ones twisting all their lives out of shape. Someone should have. But her temper has stayed strangely still. Otter was young and he couldn't understand, and she had come not to expect it of him, of all her tribemates but those themselves touched by that same terror an oak's age ago.
It would never be a given to her. She blessed every uneventful return. Up in the den, she could hear Newt's sweet voice drawing the cubs' babble into a song. The words drifted past her for a while as she indulged in picking the young voices apart, pausing on a branch a level below the den mouth. Glow was the most talented of the lot, her father's gift, and that talent making up for youthful lack of skill. Rill sang distractedly, half-humming, while Cinder's voice showed the practice and enthusiasm that the chief's son brought to everything he did. Finally, Copper – her daughter also had some talent, Brightwood was pleased to say, but her singing was low, whispery almost. Even Rill's humming almost drowned her out. Brightwood frowned very slightly, pulling herself up the last swing to the den-mouth – was Copper finding it hard to fit in with her agemates' play again? But it was at pulling the curtain aside, and finally discerning the words of the song, that she suddenly understood.
Human words. They were stringing human words together to one of the tribe's favourite lullaby tunes.
“Newt,” Brightwood cut into the singing, her voice oddly hoarse in her own ears.
Five heads turned her way, the youth and all four cubs. Copper leapt up with a gasp of glee and threw herself at her returned mother, and her agemates all followed on her heels in excited greeting. Every return was a small celebration to them. By instinct, Brightwood put one arm around her daughter as Copper nuzzled happily into her belly, and her other hand strayed to pat three more heads, golden, silver, and brindled. But her gaze was still on Newt, and his on hers, a flickering nervous shadow in its pale blue.
Brightwood breathed in through her nose and forced a grin. “All right, you squirming squirrel-kits, I'll tell you everything – very soon. I've just come back, give me a moment to breathe! Copper, my heart – “
“Did you see any humans?” Rill always asked the same question, even though he knew already that the answer would be no. All four cubs had been drilled extensively on what would happen if the Fierce Ones did indeed return again, and knew that they would not sit in a den and sing if dire news had come blazing from any of the patrollers or watchposts. But Rill asked, visibly torn between craving excitement, and a belly-knotting dread that had developed as he matured since his adventure turns past.
Copper swivelled away from her mother's embrace and fixed a glare on him, one of her famous ones, sunrise-violet and venom. Newt moved between the cubs before conflict could erupt and put a hand on Rill's shoulder. “Brightwood just asked you to be patient,” he scolded in the soft but clear tone that even Quick Fang's headstrong son couldn't shrug off. He put another hand on Glow's arm and nudged the two together. “Maybe Pathmark will tell you about the patrol instead, you can go find him.”
“Or maybe ask my father,” Cinder chimed in. “Come on, Rill, let's go ask him. Glow can come too.” The boy's voice was a little low, a little odd. Brightwood glanced at him, surprised. Cinder was the most attentive of the cubs when it came to noticing his tribemates' mood, even more so than the watchful Copper. He'd noticed something, perhaps. Something about her manner when she came in, or the way she was still, now, standing with Copper held very close. She consciously loosened her arms around her daughter, cautious not to squeeze, wondering if her heartbeat betrayed upset or anxiety. And she'd pulled off that smile so well, too!
As Cinder led his agemates outside – Rill already teasing that Windburn wouldn't tell anything with Glow present, Glow already protesting how grown and mature she was – Brightwood knelt to be eye to eye with Copper. “My heart,” she started again, “would you go find your uncle? I left my kit with him before coming here, and there are gift in there for both of you.” Copper was a little too old now to care about who got first glance at a gift, but she was still fascinated by those little pieces of the wider world that her parents brought back from patrols. The girl looked up at her, hesitant, reluctant to part with her mother who had just returned from a moon's absence, but then seemed to understand. She nodded, tugged once on Brightwood's hand – the message unspoken but clear and plaintive, I'll be waiting – and followed the others out of the den.
As soon as she was gone, and out of range of their voices, Brightwood turned on Newt. “Did you have to be practicing just when I came back? You know how I feel about this human-tongue game!"
Newt shuffled his feet, staring at the floor – perhaps regretful but not guilty, Brightwood thought. He had more of a backbone than that soft voice and those blue eyes betrayed, this nephew of hers. And grown, too – she could not scold him, adult to cub, as he had scolded Rill, particularly not when he'd done nothing truly wrong. It was widely agreed in the tribe that everyone should master the humans' speech, however young, anyone might come to need it. But they all also knew how much that grated on Brightwood.
She stared at him with the focused, white-hot glare not just of anger but of hurt. She trusted him so profoundly with Copper, knowing that he knew just how to speak to and just how to nurture her quiet cub who sometimes needed a different kind of nurturing than most. And she has said it so clearly, to all of them, don't force her, I don't care how important you think it is, none of you dare force her to learn to speak like those creatures.
"Cinder said they'd like to practice," Newt said at last, apologetic hands held out before him. "Copper agreed."
"Did you hear how quiet she was? She hates it!"
"She doesn't like it but she still wants to learn. We've talked about it, she said it was fine –”
"Fine can mean many things!" Out of habit she tossed her hair, the bright voluminous length of it flying about her, like the rising fur of an angry wolf making it look bigger, fiercer. "How many times have you told Crackle or Otter that you were 'fine' with one of their fool schemes?!"
"Your daughter isn't half as much a belly-shower as I am." One corner of Newt's mouth turned slightly up, a touch of wryness in his voice that made Brightwood pause in her mounting fury. She swallowed the comment that rose up in her throat – you even showed your belly to little Cinder, it looks like! She'd hurl such gutting words, and worse, at anyone in the tribe without hesitation, but not at Newt. Her brother's son who was not of his blood but had grown up so much like him. Newt was different. He made no assumptions. He had spoken with Copper about this, she knew that well. She'd just trusted him to... to...
She drew in a long breath, seeing him look at her – waiting for her to speak, attentive and listening, which only frustrated her more when she could not articulate what had set her off so badly. She dragged a hand down over her face. Biting back on hurt-fuelled anger was like swallowing hot stones. "They're cubs," she said at last, snapping her teeth on the word. "They say practice, but they think it's a game, even Cinder. You and I know it isn't." Another breath, steady now. "Copper knows too."
She saw understanding flicker and settle across Newt's face, or thought she did, anyway. It was hard to tell. She didn't expect understanding, not from anyone in the tribe but her brother and her lifemate, who have been there. The rest of them could try all they like, did try, and she supposed that she was grateful to them for it. But trying could just mean the opposite thing. They thought they knew, but they didn't, they couldn't.
Except her daughter, of course. That was what frightened her most. That maybe Copper, young though she was, did understand.
Newt looked crestfallen, understanding her distress, at least, if not all that gaped behind it. He looked down at the cubs' toys littering the floor, some woodshaped wolves and deer, one of Glow's clay whistles, a string and a handful of beads. He dropped to a crouch next to them and took the beads in hand, turning them in his fingers nervously. Brightwood raked a hand back through her hair and breathed again, her turn now to wait for words. She could do it, she told herself, patience. Be patient like Cloudfern.
"It is a game to them," Newt said at last, voice low, unhappy. He closed his hand about the beads. "We made memory-beads for the words, like when you learn a new tune. But that's how cubs learn best. And they need to learn."
"We need to learn," Brightwood threw back irritably. Was this all he had for her? "Some of us, so we can deal with them. By the time Copper's grown enough to leave the Thornwall on her own, I want them dealt with."
"You know they won’t just vanish, Brightwood." The lad raised his pale eyes to her, soft as two placid lakes but intelligent, so much like her brother's. "We have to teach the cubs just because it's dangerous and we never know what might happen. We do everything to protect them and we have to do this too. Windburn said –”
"I know what he said!" She flared again, hands half curled to claws at her sides. Patience fled like dew in the summer blaze. "Easysinger's own son, who'd have believed it! Soft-headed, water-gutted, squirrel-squinty whelp, and the same for One-Leg! And Rainpace, teaching his little pup their words, so puffed with pride over it it's a wonder his ears don't fart! And you!" She pinned down Newt just as a tiny giggle threatened to escape him at that mental image, skewering cold eyes through that budding smile. "How can you not know better?"
She could see Newt choke slightly at that, a convulsive working of the throat, skin shifting. His eyes flickered around to the toys but found her again and held against the fury in it. Not such a belly-shower at all. She bore down on them, demanding the answer that she felt she was owed. "I'm not a fool," Newt spoke, his voice firm, though boyishly high. "I know what the danger is. I do know - " **Cloudfern thrashing in the bedfurs, fingers twisted, jaw locked open in a silent scream – Greenweave so used to it, not even afraid, just grim, hardened by years of his lifemate's pain – flutter of nightmares around my mind, charred flesh hot blood loss and loss and loss waiting frozen waiting will he return will anyone ever come again not nightmares but living memory – **
"That doesn't mean you know!" Brightwood snarled, and slammed her mind closed to nightmares so much like her own.
She did not realize that she had moved away until her foot came down painfully hard on the flank of a toy deer, almost snapping one of its carved legs. Her rejection had dazed Newt a little, she saw, and a part of her thought good. He looked at her now with his mouth drawn in a thin, bloodless line, wary. Hurt. Rot it, she hadn't meant to hurt him. She just wanted it clear, for once, that there was knowing and then there was having lived it, living it.
Newt said, "They're my family too."
She huffed. "Family's nothing to do with it. Beetle is Cloudfern's cub too, and she –”
"I'm not Beetle!" The snap was hasty, heated even, as Newt jerked to his feet. Now his fists, too, were tightening, half raised alongside his chest. The boy took a breath. "You're snapping at me because you're angry at someone else. I didn't say I know what it was like. I don't. Of course I don't!" His voice rose when she looked at him with wry suspicion. "I just know how much even the memory of the Fierce Ones hurts my fathers. I won't do anything to make that worse. I'm teaching the cubs to keep them safe!"
She had not taken her gaze from him, and he held it, chin canted slightly up and eyes bright under a furrowed brow. So much like Moonmoth. If she'd ever known her brother at this age. Actually, she had no idea. This stubbornness was youth, it was naiveté, too. By this age, Moonmoth would not have had...
"And you mustn't make it worse either," Newt added after a tense heartbeat, his throat working again.
Brightwood jerked back on her heels a little, stepping on the carved deer again. Pain sliced into the soft pad of her foot. "What?"
"You're so angry." Not stubborn now. Plaintive. How long had he been holding onto this thought? "I am sorry that you came back from patrol to see something you hate so much. But... after what you said in the Council, about poisoning the humans, I'm afraid that – that you're too angry, Brightwood. That you really think the only way is to kill them all, and think that you're the only one who sees that."
There was a retort just inside her lips, taut, clawing and ready to pounce. In her younger days it would probably have escaped. Now it alarmed her. Has Newt seen through her clearer than she saw herself? Did she really think this way about her own tribe?
Shaken, she shifted a leg back, cautious now of the sharp edges scattered around them. She was grateful when the need to answer him was disrupted by the sound of fluttering wings, an owl's low cry. Newt's taut face brightened and he hurried to unlash the door-flap for Moonwing to come flying in from his night's hunt. The owl, splendid and self-important with a mouse's hindquarters still sprouting from his beak, made satisfied clicking sounds as he settled himself on his wood-shaped perch besides the den-door.
Brightwood watched as Newt praised Moonwing for his catch, sinking clever fingers into the owl's thick ruff and scratching until his head turned almost upside down in pleasure – as thankful as she was, she thought, for this break in the heated conversation. Her own tendency was to rise into conflict, sharp, fierce, sometimes too fierce, while Newt hated fighting. He was more like Greenweave in this. But he'd stood up to her nonetheless. You're so angry, Brightwood...
Another small form slipped into the den a moment after Moonwing, a flash of red-gold hair showing under the den-flap. Copper clearly sensed the tension still filling the den, her eyes large with uncertainty as they shifted from Newt to her mother. Newt offered the girl a smile before Brightwood would entirely collect herself, for which she was thankful, and untangled himself from Moonwing despite the owl's faint protests to greet her.
"Sorry, Copper-cub, your mother and I just disagree on something. Are you all right?"
"I know," Copper said quietly. She looked to Brightwood again. "I just came to ask Mama not to be upset with you."
Brightwood's heart sank. She was ferociously proud of her keen, mature daughter, but sometimes the price of that wisdom was bitter. Sometimes Copper understood much too much. "Oh kitling, arguments happen. It's nothing you need to worry about."
But Copper stood firm. "I know," she said again. "You're arguing because we were practicing the humans' tongue. So I wanted to say don't argue about me. I said I wanted to learn and I really meant it."
She looked a little surprised at herself when she finished, as though unsure where she'd found so many words, and such conviction. Her hands worked slightly at the hem of her tunic, but her chin canted up an equal touch, calm and sure. On the perch Moonwing hissed and flapped his wings a little, demanding that attention be returned to him. Newt raised a hand to hush him, not looking at Brightwood.
He was doing her a kindness in that, Brightwood realized, letting her save face. Very like Newt, but still strange, not to be pressed, expected to admit that her anger was irrational. She still felt like a fool, standing there with her face hot and a cracked toy under her foot, and guilty for her unwarranted outburst. There was no judgement in Copper's young face, but the earnest discomfort at the idea that she might have been the cause of an argument was worse.
She needed to dispel that cloud first. She sank to her knees in front of her daughter, putting their eyes level. **Not your fault,** she sent, the words strong in a pulse of feeling, and added, "you did good, cub, it's brave of you to be learning. However I feel about it, I'm proud of your courage." All of that was true, and it was the best she could give right now, hoping Copper's own wisdom would make it enough. Copper reached out and took her hand in hers, with a small, encouraging tug. But there was still expectation in her eyes.
Brightwood rose, stiff with banked pride and bone-deep weariness. "Newt, I'm sorry," she said, half turning to the youth. "That was all ill-said. You deserved none of that."
"I understand," Newt said readily. He gave her a smile, but it was one of his brave smiles, and she didn't like it. It was his keep-your-head-above-water smile, shored up against worried eyes. "You're tired and stressed from patrol. I'm not upset."
She didn't believe him, and suspected that Copper didn't either, but the moment had dissolved and left them all probing in the dark. Brightwood was tired. When she met Newt's eyes she saw the anxious question still in them. Her unspoken retort was still sour on the back of her tongue. She might still have given it to him, if he pushed.
But Newt didn't push.
Copper tugged on her mother's hand again, pulling her back into the Now. She wanted nothing but a nice plunge in the Holt's cool river and a bite to eat. To put all this behind her. "Let's go, kitling," she said to her daughter. "Help me unbraid and wash my hair and I'll tell you all about the patrol." It was an enticing enough offer to get Copper to relax minutely and give a final tug that was a little less shy than before. Small mercies.
She exchanged a final nod with Newt and left the den in silence.