(Ed. Note: this story opens as a direct sequel to the last scene in “Bets of Friends”, and also refers to events in “Distant Goals”.)
The trip home from Kestrel’s few days’ excursion with the word hunters seemed to go by even faster than usual — the reason being, she surmised, that she had a lot on her mind to keep her occupied during the flight.
It had been a bit of a surprise to find out how some of her tribemates had been thinking of taking a trip to Twin Peaks Island, as Kestrel remembered that same interest coming from Fadestar during a somewhat impromptu training exercise a month or two before the start of winter. Her younger sister had seen it as a good challenge to test her gliding magic, and Kestrel certainly agreed. She and Windburn had discussed it briefly at that point, but with winter approaching, and Fadestar not yet ready, the idea was shelved until the weather improved.
Now, after her discussion with One-Leg and the other word-hunters, and the knowledge that the weather would warm up in a few weeks, the idea had resurfaced to the front of her mind, and the elder had been going over the specifics of such a trip — When would be the best time? What kind of planning would be involved?
Ideas such as these ran through the glider’s mind as the forest surroundings passed by her in a blur. Eventually, Kestrel realized that she was nearing the Holt, and gradually thoughts about the island expedition were replaced by anticipation that she would soon see two treasured little faces. Though the elder could fully admit that her days away were something she had needed, her two little boys were always on her mind, and she couldn’t wait to reunite with them the instant that she made it home. It was hard to know if both of her lifemates would be there as well, but even just one of them would be a sight for sore eyes.
The glider made a mental note to seek out Windburn the next day, after she had had a chance to relax and unwind.
The chief was easy to find — he had set up an animal-skin canvas in the Gathering Den to practice his painting. Kestrel smiled to herself at the sight. It was rare to see Windburn allowing himself the time to just indulge in his private pleasures during the past few turns, under the shadowy threat of the Fierce Ones, but it served to reassure Kestrel that now was a good time to discuss future plans.
Windburn nodded in greeting when Kestrel entered, his brow furrowed in concentration as he worked.
“It’s good to see you home, elder. Any news from the word hunters?” he asked, his voice somewhat distant due to the focus on his activity.
“I’m afraid not. The weather hasn’t been very agreeable the past few days, but they’re going to stay out a bit longer to see if they can salvage the trip.”
Windburn nodded, unquestioning, and Kestrel came to sit on a knot of the den wall near him.
“It seems, though, that there are more than a few of us who have been thinking about making a trip out to Twin Peaks Island — One-Leg mentioned it. I know you and I have talked about it before, but I think now would be a good time to revisit the idea, with winter coming to a close,” she continued.
Windburn paused, lifting his head from his task.
“Interesting that you should say that. I’ve been mulling the idea over again lately as well. Though not just as a training exercise for Fadestar.”
“Oh?” Kestrel prompted, curious to hear what else he had in mind.
“You’ve said that Fadestar has already shown remarkable improvement in her skill after taking over communications to Bluestone Cave and the long-range scouts, and from what everyone has said, I don’t think she will have any difficulty making a trip out to the island,” he started, a hint of pride in the tribe’s newest glider showing through. “I thought that together, the two of you could help get a boat of us over to explore the island as another possible refuge. Now that Bluestone Cave is fully prepared, of course.”
Kestrel tilted her head for a moment, turning the idea over in her head. She had to admit there was merit to it. The island was far enough away that it made sense to turn the trip into an expedition of sorts and make the most of coming such a distance. “It’s been a long time since I last went there,” she said thoughtfully. “Farscout and Brightwood have probably been there more recently. I don’t know where we’d find the best site for such a refuge. We would definitely have to explore. But it’s a good idea. Unlike the Amber Hunters, the Fierce Ones seem to stick to the land. Going across deep water might be a very good way to escape them, if we had to.” She wondered if that was where One-Leg’s thoughts had been going, when he brought it up to her a few days ago, though he hadn’t elaborated at the time.
Windburn nodded. “The tribe couldn’t resettle there. I’ve never been there myself, but all of the tribe’s stories say there’s no good hunting — and while we could get there in boats, I don’t know how we’d get the wolves over there, either. But in a crisis, it might be a place for temporary retreat.”
Kestrel agreed. “When do you think the best time for such a journey would be?
Without hesitation, Windburn answered, his thoughtfulness on the matter evident in his response. “Summer. We need everyone here for the Elder salmon run, and we want the weather to settle a bit more. I know summer brings more storms, but the water is warmer and the days are clearer. Everyone is more likely to fare better if we wait. I know the days are longer, but the nights are warmer, so passage over the water would just be safer — if something happened to a boat, those on board would be able to swim.”
Hearing him mention boats again made her wonder out loud, “Do you have members of the scouting party already picked out?” He had thought ahead about it, it seemed. It was very like him.
He shook his head. “Some, but not all. Some of it will depend on who wants to go, of course.” His brows furrowed, and he fully turned from the incomplete painting to look at her. “There is some danger. Going so far in a boat — we don’t do such things often.”
“Not often,” Kestrel nodded, her mind drifting back to adventures in seasons past. Lynx had liked the open water, and Diver had earned his name there, with love enough to even name his little cubling Seafoam. But it was true that most wolfriders were not keen on venturing so far, beyond a wild escapade in their youths, to prove that they could. Some were even not so keen on that. “But you are set on the idea.”
Windburn fingered the chief’s torc about his neck, head tilted sideway slightly in thought. “It would be good to have another refuge we could turn to. And I would like to know if the Amber Hunters have been on the islands — or if they’ve prepared to run there, themselves.” Good points both. Kestrel nodded again, and he continued in a slower voice. “I’d also like… I’ve thought, sometimes. Of the borders of our territory. Of what lies beyond them.”
He said it softly. Kestrel found herself smiling. “I understand, my chief.” She liked them, those rare glimpses of wistful vision in Windburn, the same cautious but clever creativity that had guided him in his responses to the arrival of the humans. Easysinger shone best through him in these moments.
“But it’s no footloose adventure, as some of our yearlings will think, I’m sure,” the chief added dryly, as though checking his own moment of adventurousness. “Since Fadestar gets to go, the rest of them are sure to grumble.”
“Perhaps we should not rule them out.” She was careful in suggesting it, but did not retract the suggestion despite his scowl. “Otter has earned the cuffs he’s gotten, but Crackle and Newt have both done their duties well these past seasons.” At his doubtful look, she added, “every cub must have their moment, sooner or later.”
Windburn huffed an unhappy laugh. “We both know it, elder.” He nodded to himself, clearly resolved to consider it. “Brightwood might want to go, and it would be good for you to have a plantshaper, in case there’s a problem with one of the boats. Between you and her, you may be able to keep a grip on all their tails. And perhaps I’ll send my daughter too, for a moment of her own. Let her put her time watching the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces to good use, in case you do run into them over there.”
“I’d be glad for her company.” And Foxtail would love her father for it, Kestrel thought privately.
Blacksnake and Brightwood were riding back to the Dentrees with a brace of gobbler hens between them, when they received the sendings that the latest group of word-hunters had returned to the Holt. They shared a glance, but didn’t urge their wolves faster. They were just about to pass the Craft-Trees and would be there soon enough to hear the report that Moss’s team gave to the chief.
After a long spell of rain, the weather had turned mild and warm. They found the newly-returned word-hunters — Moss, along with Foxtail, Rainpace and Notch — gathered around Windburn on the steps that led up to the chief’s den. One-Leg was also already there, seated comfortably on a root, with Kestrel standing behind him, and as they rode up, Evervale and Beetle were climbing down from their dens, going to sit next to Starskimmer and Goldspice. The budding leaves of the Dentrees hid some of the upper branches from view, but looking upwards, Blacksnake could see movement that he knew would be Farscout, bringing Copper to see her mother’s latest kill.
Redbrush sniffed when Brightwood dismounted, glad to be rid of the extra weight of the large bird her rider carried, and the red she-wolf soon trotted away on business of her own. Blacksnake threw his own bird down on the outskirts of the loose circle the other elves made around Windburn, and was amused when Frostback laid down nearby. His wolf wasn’t above sticking around hoping for some hand-outs when Blacksnake cleaned the hen. He settled down cross-legged, and began to pluck out feathers, listening to the word-hunters’ report already in progress.
“— looked like one of their normal gathering trips,” Moss was saying, as his team-mates nodded.
“Acted like it, too,” said Rainpace, from where he sat with Glow already on his lap. “The brownskins, at least, seemed a lot more casual than we’ve seen them, lately.”
“Still not back in their bright plumage,” Foxtail put in.
There were many nods at that. The Amber Hunters had started wearing more subdued colors in the past few years, rather than the brightly-dyed clothes they’d always favored. “Perhaps the example of the Painted Faces finally influenced them,” said Kestrel. “They’ve always been the woods-wise ones.”
“Maybe the threat of the Fierce Ones finally made them listen,” the chief’s daughter agreed. “Whatever the reason, it’s a smart change. It used to be you could spot them a long way off, even through the trees, but not this time.”
“With your eyes, anyway,” Notch snorted. “So long as your ears are working, they still can’t be missed.”
Rainpace smiled slightly. “It’s true, they do still chatter like a flock of sparrows.”
“And there’s no mistaking that the Painted Faces are as alert as ever,” cautioned Moss. “There was also a brownskin spear-man with them, and he looked plenty serious.”
Windburn listed to their back and forth with a grave, attentive face. “What of their holt?”
Moss gestured towards One-Leg. “Just as the last group reported — they still set a watch, just as we do. But there’s been no new building with the coming of spring.”
“I wonder if they’re getting as tired of watching as we are?” said Notch, and then he rolled his eyes at the looks cast his way. “I didn’t say it wasn’t important. It’s just not very interesting to keep watching and watching when there’s nothing to see.”
“Cub’s got a point,” Blacksnake spoke up finally. Inwardly, he smiled to see the slight narrowing of Notch’s eyes, the only reaction to a term outgrown long ago. “We’ve been watching, and I’d bet a dozen pelts that we’re better at it than the five-fingers are — but even we haven’t spotted anything since the Fierce Ones rode away.”
He felt confident about that. He’d been one of those to ride and walk the tribe’s territory’s outer limits these past few years, and he had absolute faith in the others who’d been doing so as well.
“Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good,” said Brightwood, an expected response to a conversation they’d had many times. Her hand went to Farscout’s shoulder, and he raised his own hand to cover it.
“No,” her lifemate agreed. “They could be out there, beyond our sight.”
Blacksnake nodded, but still went on, “But they haven’t tested our boundaries again, that much seems certain. It’s been three winters, with no signs of their roundhoof tracks or their columns of smoke on the horizon.”
“Firecat’s fangs! It must be certain to the Painted Faces too, or they wouldn’t have allowed the gathering trips to start up again,” One-Leg put in. “We’ve never known what scouting they were doing on their own time, past where we could see them. But they can’t have seen anything either, or they wouldn’t be relaxing even that much.”
Windburn looked at Moss. “How close did you get to them?”
Moss tilted his head in a half-shrug, and Foxtail answered, “Not as close as we used to, but —”
“It seemed like we could have, if we’d tried,” Notch finished.
Rainpace was shaking his head. “I’m still not so sure about that,” he said, and it was clear this was also a conversation that had been had several times. “They may be loud, but there’s still an edge to them. They’re willing to go gathering, but they still seem ready to shoot at shadows.”
“Maybe we can figure out a way to test that,” Beetle spoke up. “I know we’ll have to be careful, but, if we approach them the right way, I know we can make it work.”
After a moment, Windburn rose to his feet, and every eye turned to him. “All right,” he said, and there was a chiefly ring in his tone that had everyone’s attention. His eyes swept the group, lingering briefly on his father before moving on. “The last few years we’ve been feeling our way like walking on spring ice — never sure if it’s about to crack or not, but ready for the worst. We’ve done everything we can — Bluestone Cave is as ready as it can be, should the tribe need to relocate there…”
He glanced at Starskimmer as he said this, and she nodded firmly. “There’s always more to do,” the rockshaper said with a smile, “but we could be comfortable there. We’ve stored plenty of wrapped food in the caves, so even if we have to go in a game-poor season, we’ll have time to adjust.”
Windburn went on, “Then, like the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces, perhaps this is the time for us to stand down our watch. Not completely,” he added quickly, seeing surprise on some faces. “We will still have our long-range scouts, and our word-hunters. We should all still keep our eyes and ears open. But now that spring is here again, we don’t need to keep what seems like half the tribe scattered the length of our territory, doing nothing but watching the horizon. We all have better uses for our time.”
“But we keep word-hunting,” One-Leg pressed. The way he said it promised an argument if the answer was no, but Windburn nodded.
“You keep word-hunting,” the chief affirmed. “In fact, you all see if you can go back to word-hunting. I know we’ve been giving the humans a wide berth, and I don’t have to tell any of you not to drop your guard —” though he still shot a meaningful look in Notch’s direction as he said it “— so it may be more time before you can get close enough for words. But it’s time to try again.”
“And to live like wolfriders again,” said Blacksnake firmly. He hadn’t begrudged anything the tribe had to do to feel safe these past years, but it would be good not to feel as if they had danger nipping at their heels all the time. Watching and readiness made sense, but too easily led to feeling hunted and harried. He was glad that Windburn seemed to realize it. The tribe had found a balance once before, between watchfulness towards the humans, but still living as wolfriders should. They could find that again.
He looked over towards Brightwood, but found her expression neutral, too hard to read. Farscout still had her hand, and Copper was nestled into her side, and whatever thoughts or misgivings she had, she kept to herself for now. Blacksnake didn’t try to send to her; he would find out what she was thinking later.
“Well, that’s a call for a feast if ever I heard one,” Starskimmer laughed. “I haven’t had a moment for brewing in far too long, but I’m sure there’s some flasks wrapped down in the storage dens that the Preservers can help me find…”
“Here’s a start,” Blacksnake said, holding up the leg of the gobbler hen, “if someone will help us get these plucked.” Farscout was already bent over the bird that Brightwood had brought down.
**Everyone come to the Dentrees,** Windburn’s strong sending went out, reaching all of the tribe but for True Edge and his hunting party, beyond the chief’s reach up near Great Stoneback Lake. **And bring the makings of a celebration with you.** His message promised good news for those who hadn’t been there to hear it firsthand, and there were a scattering of responses, wordless questions and bright anticipation, that everyone could hear.
It wasn’t the end of the tribe’s watchfulness. Blacksnake remembered Windburn’s promise from years ago, and so would the word-hunters — it was time to start thinking about the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces as possible allies, at least once the elves felt sure the humans might listen to a greeting rather than throw their spears at a possible threat. That might take more seasons of observation on the part of the elves, but the day they would try it was closer now than it had been for a long while.
That was for tomorrow. Today was for being a tribe again, together.
Across the circle of elves, a howl arose. Blacksnake recognized Foxtail’s voice, followed soon by Notch’s, and then others. It was a joyful sound, picked up by the wolves immediately, until all of the voices blended together.
It felt good to hear it. Something in his chest loosened, and he felt lighter than he had in many turns of the seasons. After a moment just to enjoy the sound, Blacksnake closed his eyes and raised his chin, and added his voice to the others.