(This story takes place during ”After the Storm", and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
The sending knocked said elf out of thoughts as twisting and full of traps as a troll tunnel. Blacksnake thought for a moment not to answer, but the sending had come from nearby and while the daylight was dim he was sitting by the Holt's river, in plain sight; being caught trying to hide was no an option.
Cloudfern came into view a moment later. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked like he could have used a stay in the furs for about a moon or so. Still, he was smiling.
Blacksnake's eye-lids, already heavy from lack of sleep, lowered, narrowing his eyes into suspicious slits. "Shouldn't you be with your lifemate? Or Brightwood, Copper and Farscout?" Last he'd seen of Cloudfern, after the council the night before, he'd looked ready to cling to his closest family and never let go.
"They're all asleep," Cloudfern said, taking a seat on a stone next to the one Blacksnake was occupying.
"Like you should be."
Cloudfern gave a huff of laughter. "And you. It's midday."
A comment open for a sarcastic answer. Blacksnake held one at the tip of his tongue, but it was brushed away and dragged down by brooding thoughts making their way back to the forefront of his mind.
"It's good the salmon will be here soon," Cloudfern said, his eyes on the river before them. "Having a plentiful food storage will be a weight off my mind. Off the whole tribe's, I'm sure."
Blacksnake kept quiet, letting Cloudfern talk himself to the point of why he'd come out here in the middle of the day. Cloudfern continued to speak of trivial things, like the weather and what silly antics his bond-friend had been up to on the journey back from Bluestone Cave, until he said:
"What brought you out here?"
With a shrug, Blacksnake turned to Cloudfern, one eyebrow raised. "I could ask you the same thing."
"I saw you leave your den when I was about to enter mine. So I followed you. I doubted you wished to enjoy the pleasant weather." Cloudfern gave the very cloudy skies above a pointed look, before saying: "Your turn."
A growl could have worked its way up Blacksnake's throat at that point. Bone-deep weariness blending with the past moon of dark events made anger an easy option. But anger demanded energy.
"Something just isn't letting me sleep. That is all."
An understatement to say the least. There wasn't just one thing keeping Blacksnake awake and being back at the Holt hadn't been the balm he'd hoped for. As long as he'd been on the move the Now had been strong. After all, they couldn't afford a single distraction before reaching home and the rest of the tribe. Here, back with all familiar faces, the future reared its ugly head, in tandem with the past. And the cursed thoughts would. Not. Let. Him. Sleep!
"A bigger problem than usual," Cloudfern said, cutting through the silence like a spear diving for a fish. "Though I won't fault you for staying awake, being right here with you."
Thinking back, Blacksnake couldn't place what came over him. He was so tired he might as well have been drunk, so that could be it. Or maybe his less than alert brain had hazarded a guess that Cloudfern would leave him in peace if he got one bone to chew on.
Whatever the reason, the next thing Blacksnake said was: "I got spotted by a human cub. Can you imagine that? And the snow fell so thick I at first thought it was Farscout standing in front of me."
Cloudfern had surely heard that less than heartening news, but Blacksnake couldn't recall in what detail. In that moment, keeping apart who had heard what from whom was an untangle-able mess. The tribe had been split in pieces for far too long.
"Just a cub. Cursed thing looked like—" One of One-Leg's more colorful swears came to mind. Comparing a human cub, a Fierce One, to his precious nieces raised his hackles. Comparing them again you mean? The likeness stood out stark and clear in his memory, just like the fact that he hadn't thrown his spear. He'd ordered the wolves to run, leaving the human to reveal...
"Like what?" Cloudfern asked, dragging Blacksnake's thoughts off their path.
"Never mind," he said and gave a shrug. "Five-fingers look like five-fingers."
He heard Cloudfern take a deep breath. "Could you show me?"
Blacksnake hesitated. He had no trouble remembering the human boy — would likely remember what he looked like for many years to come — but memories always carried emotions. These were not particularly pleasant.
"I doubt that would do any good." Rather the opposite. Cloudfern had been keeping it together, from what Blacksnake had heard and seen, but pushing that self-control would be a cruel thing to do. The Fierce Ones were still out there; Blacksnake doubted reminders of that would do Cloudfern any good.
Cloudfern, on the other hand, looked like he had in mind to protest this. Seemed the only way to avoid further requests for send-sharing would be to continue talking.
"He told the rest of the humans that he saw me," Blacksnake said, hiding a wince despite how exhaustion had worn away his restraint. "It was a lucky thing they didn't believe him. They could have—"
Blacksnake cut himself off. It had been an beech's age since he'd thought of Cloudfern as a cub in any fashion. Blacksnake would always be his elder, but Cloudfern wasn't far from facefur now. Yet the knowledge that he'd put Cloudfern's sister and soul-brother in danger with his actions called up stark memories of that traumatized little cub he and Easysinger had taken in to their den.
"You did the right thing."
That did draw a growl from Blacksnake, but he aimed it more at himself than Cloudfern.
"Human or not, we can't kill cubs." It didn't have the force of other words which had been spoke in that spirit during the council, but Blacksnake could hear no hesitation in them.
"That sounds like your soul-brother speaking."
"Don't try and twist my words, old wolf," Cloudfern cut him off before he could think of anything else to say. "Farscout's wish to spare the occasional fawn is his habit, but even he kills young prey to feed his own. We don't eat humans."
There was weight to those words that spoke of more than merely stating a fact. Blacksnake knew what dwelt behind them and the thought of it sent a cold shiver down his spine.
"Bears can be dangerous, but we don't go around killing them just in case they become a threat," Cloudfern continued, gaining more confidence with each word spoken. "They have to attack us for us to attack them. We don't spill blood for the stones unless we absolutely have to. Or did you turn deaf during that part of the tribal council?"
The loaded exchange of words True Edge and Quick Fang had set off were far too clear in Blacksnake's mind. That argument, however, had been different.
"That was about the Amber Hunters and the Painted Faces," Blacksnake pointed out, partly for his own sake, though he'd never admit that. "The decision I faced… I'm not saying we should do it lightly. But bear cubs don't speak. They don't have a pack."
Cloudfern's eyes had taken on a distant look, as if they were staring through the thornwall on the other side of the Holt's river. "Stranger-wolves do."
Blacksnake heaved a sigh. "Wolves from other packs don't have words for 'enemy' or 'revenge'," he said, his tone of voice low. "They protect their cubs, but they don't go back to their pack leader and plan a trap after something's killed their young. The humans are something else. Far more dangerous."
"That is true," Cloudfern said, "but you still did the right thing. If you had killed that human cub, are you sure none of the older humans would have heard? You would have wasted a young life and gained the ire of the Fierce Ones in a matter of heartbeats."
The blizzard had sent down walls of snow. Blacksnake doubted the other humans would have found the cub before he'd been safely back with Brightwood and Farscout. If he'd allowed the wolves to go at the cub's body there would have been no trace of a spear wound. It would have been the safer choice. The wiser choice.
"If Crackle had come back from her first hunt and told you a blue bear the size of an oak was stalking the Holt, would you have believed her?"
That comment left Blacksnake blinking at Cloudfern, his tired mind not quite ready to process such a far-fetched scenario. Then again, Crackle making up a story like that was far from unthinkable.
"You'd say she was making up a story, wouldn't you?" prompted Cloudfern. He sat with one knee drawn up to his chest and had his arms wrapped around it. A very relaxed pose, belying the storm of emotions swirling in his eyes.
Blacksnake shook his head. "She could send it, show it was true."
"But the humans don't seem to send, do they?" countered Cloudfern.
"Not that we've noticed, no," Blacksnake said, letting his heavy eyelids fall shut for just a moment. "That doesn't rule out the possibility though. We can't be too careful."
"No, we can't," said Cloudfern, "but…I still think you did the right thing."
Blacksnake shook his head, before stifling a yawn. The sun had to be high in the sky behind the thick clouds above. He really should be in his furs, but he doubted a second attempt would yield anymore sleep than the first he'd made.
A hand on his shoulder had him open his eyes, meeting Cloudfern's. They were calmer now and almost as weary as Blacksnake's own had to look.
"I'm glad to have you looking after us." The words warmed his heart, though he wished to protest Cloudfern's clear trust in him. He hadn't earned it, not on this scouting mission. "And to thank you for that, I think I shall do more to look after you now."
Blacksnake raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"
"Meaning it's time for us go back to the dens." Cloudfern pulled Blacksnake to his feet with some effort. "And you're staying in mine and Greenweave's den. No arguing. Leave the watching to the wolves for today."
Arguing did cross Blacksnake's mind. Being alone with your thoughts could help untangle them, help him find a way to not repeat his mistake in the future. But his limbs were heavy and Cloudfern's grip on his arm insistent. The furs beckoned.
With a final sigh, Blacksnake managed the shadow of a smile and said: "Lead the way."