Written by Wordgazer
Newstar hadn’t thought the two worlds of her life would ever be brought together like this. After eights of eights of years in the Sun Village– after famine, and death, and the destruction of Sorrow’s End– she was back in the Holt of her cubhood, with the Wolfriders– her family, her tribe. She had only to step outside the Palace that had brought them here to feel as if woods and wolves had been all she had ever known. But if she stepped back inside, the gentle people she knew best were still with her, living their quiet, peaceful lives as if the Palace had been their home always.
Just now she wasn’t in the Palace, though. She was standing with the other Wolfriders, saying goodbye to her son Kimo as he left with Shuna and Dart to seek out and befriend human tribes.
“Dart!” Moonshade was saying, “how can you support such a mad venture, when it could well bring a human invasion to the Holt?” She clutched her little one closer to her as if doing so could somehow keep the future at bay. “What of your sister?” she asked accusingly. Strongbow, standing behind her, nodded agreement.
Newstar found herself speaking. “Please, Moonshade. . . After all we’ve been through, there’s no going back to the old ways of hating and hiding!” She reached out to clasp Kimo’s hand in both of her own. “Elves and humans must learn to get along,” she said earnestly, “once and for all!”
Everyone looked at her. Cutter smiled. Moonshade opened her mouth, then closed it again. Strongbow shot Newstar a swift look that she couldn’t quite interpret. Nightfall and Redlance exchanged glances in the sudden silence. Then as one, they lifted their heads and howled.
Dart let out his breath as the others, and their wolf-friends, joined in to howl farewell. Shuna smiled gratefully at Newstar and lifted her hand to say goodbye as the three of them set out on their way.
Newstar watched until they had disappeared from sight. Then she began slowly to move back towards the Palace.
All at once a jolt of emotion flooded across her mind, causing her to turn back. Treestump was standing there holding New Moon naked in his hand, a look of astonished pleasure spreading across his face. But the jolt had not come from him. Strongbow was staring at Cutter with his fists and jaw clenched. Behind him Moonshade stood shocked and disapproving.
*You’re going to let him take your sword?* Strongbow sent incredulously. *Now, when we may need to defend the Holt at any moment, our chief goes weaponless?!*
There was a dead silence. Everyone stared at Strongbow and Cutter as Treestump, with a quick glance at his nephew, stepped back out of the confrontation.
Cutter drew himself up to his full height. His chin came up, his shoulders lifted. His blue eyes blazed directly into Strongbow’s.
Awareness of Cutter’s authority shocked through the wolf that had lain sleeping in Newstar for so long. She took a deep breath. She was not really surprised when Strongbow, before Cutter even opened his mouth to speak, shifted his gaze down and away.
“I trust Shuna,” Cutter said quietly. “She won’t bring a human invasion to the Holt.” He reached out and put a hand on Strongbow’s shoulder. “You know she is to be trusted, old friend.”
Strongbow raised his eyes again and nodded, briefly– but Newstar was suddenly deeply aware of the story she had been told, of how Shuna had saved the “Arrow Spirit’s” life.
*All the same,* Strongbow sent, *our chief shouldn’t go without a weapon.*
“He can borrow mine,” Nightfall said at once, stepping forward and slipping her knife out of its sheath. But Moonshade shook her head.
“He should carry mine,” she said firmly.
Her lifemate’s eyes moved to hers. Nightfall opened her mouth to speak. But Moonshade went on, “You know very well that if danger were to come, I would not stay now to defend the Holt. It would be my duty to take the cub and flee.” Her eyes were cold and determined. “Of all here, I need my weapon least.”
*But you are our daughter’s last defense!* Strongbow replied passionately.
“It won’t come to that!” Cutter barked. There was a brief silence.
Then Newstar found herself chiming in again. “We have the Palace, now,” she reminded them all. “If need be, it could take us all away.”
Again, everyone looked at her. “Well, of course we knew that,“ Moonshade said curtly. But she sounded calmer.
Again, Cutter smiled. “It won’t come to that, either,” he said. “Before long Treestump will have the secret of bright-metal in his hands, and there’ll be no shortage of weapons.”
He turned back to Treestump. “Go now, uncle,” he said. “Go and learn to make a sword!”
Treestump nodded. Moisture gleamed in the corners of his eyes. “Aye, lad,” he said. He reached out to receive the sheath Cutter held out to him, then took Clearbrook’s hand . Clearbrook gave Newstar an approving smile as they turned and left the gathering.
“Now,” Cutter said, his eyes sweeping the gathered elves. “There’s no need for anyone to lend me a knife. I know that all of your weapons are at my call, night or day.” He grinned. “Thank you, Nightfall, Moonshade. But everything’s going to be fine.”
“Dawn is approaching,” Leetah said gently, as the Wolfriders relaxed in response to their chief’s tone. “I would suggest we seek our dens.”
As everyone began to disperse, Cutter’s hand fell on Newstar’s shoulder. “Your seasons in the Sun Village have made you wise,” he said.
“It was nothing, my chief,” Newstar replied softly. How long had it been since she had said those two words?
She smiled to herself as she returned to the Palace. She was pleased to know that she was a Wolfrider still. Perhaps. . . Perhaps that part of her life should be developed a bit more.
Cutter was standing on a little rise of the ground, the moons’ light glinting in his pale hair as the Wolfriders surrounded him. Strongbow, his eyes on his chief, settled himself on a log and reached out to touch his daughter’s hair as she lay in Moonshade’s arms beside him.
Dart was gone again. Strongbow was used to that, though, and let his thoughts touch only briefly on his son as he waited for Cutter to speak.
“Tonight’s howl,” Cutter began in a quiet but carrying voice, “is not for the dead, but for the living. It’s for those who are giving their all, now, for us. It’s not for the past, but for the future.” He lifted his chin, and moonlight caught his features, caught the new look of peace and openness that had come with their return to this land. Living in the Now, Strongbow didn’t think about the old expression that Cutter had worn for so long– the look of bitterness and pain. But Cutter’s words troubled him a little. Howls were meant for remembrance. They should be kept that way.
Skywise, grinning, was walking among the gathered elves, passing out the berries that gave memories. Strongbow’s lips curved slightly. He accepted a small portion of dreamberries from the stargazer. This, at least, was as it should be– an ancient part of every howl.
Cutter gazed at his tribe and grinned a little, too. He raised one hand and spoke loudly, the other hand dropping to Holdfast’s neck ruff as his wolf-friend stood beside him. “Tonight we howl for Shuna, Dart and Kimo, who are seeking a new time of peace with the humans. We howl for Treestump and Clearbrook, who are learning to make new weapons to protect and feed us.”
He paused, a long, long pause. Strongbow, who had felt a tinge of approval at the thought of howling for Dart, watched the Wolfrider chief without expression, wondering what was coming.
Cutter glanced back over his shoulder to where the Palace, disguised as a green hillock, darkened the bright night sky. “And,” he went on slowly, “we howl for the ones who have given, who are giving, more than anyone ever has, so that we can have the Palace of the High Ones.” He gave Leetah a quick glance, and she smiled warmly at him.
“Who knows where we’d be now,” he went on, “or what would have happened to the Palace, unless. . .” He let his voice trail off, then lifted it once again. “We howl for the keeper of the Black Snake, and the one who helps him bear the burden. We howl for Rayek, and Ekuar!”
Strongbow was taken aback. Cutter had hated for so long the one who stole his family. Strongbow knew all that had happened since– knew Rayek had won, at great cost, Cutter’s forgiveness, had lived near them and fought beside them before going wherever he wandered now– but the attitudes and feelings of the eight eights times eight turns of the seasons before then were much more deeply entrenched in the archer’s mind than the things that had come after. And the leader Cutter had been then– holding his tribe tightly, desperately– was still somehow the leader Strongbow expected Cutter to be now. He had not gotten used to the new look on his chief’s face, nor to his chief’s return to embracing change and possibilities.
But the rest of the Wolfriders, after a moment of surprise, lifted their heads and their voices as Cutter’s howl took the lead. After a moment Strongbow joined in.
As the voices died down, the Wolfrider chief looked around the group with a smile. “Our howl-keeper is with Ember in the new land,” he said. “And many of us who fought for the Shards are with her. But I’ll tell the story of what Shuna, Treestump, Clearbrook, Rayek and Ekuar did then– because howls, even for the living, are still about remembrance.” His eyes stopped on Strongbow’s face, then Moonshade’s. Strongbow felt her approval as he nodded his own to Cutter.
“And I’ve asked Shenshen to be here tonight,” Cutter went on, “to tell what Dart and Kimo did in the Forevergreen.” Shenshen smiled up at Cutter. She had not attended a howl in a while, but had always been present at howls while she lived at Thorny Mountain. She seemed completely comfortable as Cutter gestured for her to go first.
With pride in his son once more filling his heart, Strongbow settled back to listen to the tales.
But after the howl was over, as sunlight touched the tops of the trees, and the Wolfriders headed, yawning, for their dens, Strongbow remained where he was for a few moments. Memories induced by the dreamberries he had taken were flowing in and out of his mind like currents of water. His return in the Palace to this, the Holt of his birth. The first yips of his new wolf-friend as the ancient bonding had come to him yet again. Then a far deeper bonding– immersion into Eyrn’s eyes for the third time– rendering him breathless as if he’d plunged all at once into a mountain pool. Breathlessness returning as, locked in sending with his tiny daughter, he had felt her slide between Eyrn’s knees into his waiting hands.
Moonshade, slowly carrying their cub back towards the Father Tree, turned back when he didn’t rise to join her. She stood waiting, letting him return from where he was to the Now. *Wyl?* she sent gently.
Strongbow let his breath pass from him in a long sigh. *Cutter has changed,* he sent to her. *Again.*
Moonshade smiled sympathetically. *”Chief of changes,”* she quoted. *We had become used to being the Hidden Ones. And now–*
*Now Dart has followed a human into human territory, and Cutter’s howling “for the future.” Without a weapon.* He grimaced. *I thought we had come back here to follow the Way in peace.*
She dropped a hand lightly to his shoulder. *Come to the den, beloved.*
It was as he rose to follow her that Newstar suddenly approached, startling them both a little by the firmness in her quiet voice. “Strongbow, Moonshade– I have a favor to ask.”
“It is time for me to re-learn some things,” she said, smiling. She reached out to touch Strongbow’s arm. “Will you teach me to shoot? I want to learn to hunt. We left the Holt when I was a child only starting to learn.”
Surprised, Strongbow gazed at her, considering. Moonshade’s eyebrows rose a little, but she smiled. “You were born a Wolfrider,” she said.
“And I’m a Wolfrider still,” Newstar said. She looked from Moonshade to Strongbow.
Slowly he nodded. *Why not? Get Redlance to make you a training bow.*
“Thank you,” she said. “I will.”
*Good. When you’ve got your bow, come to me.* Strongbow took his lifemate by the hand and went to his sleep.
*Pull straight back. Keep your arm level. Now raise your sights a little to account for the arrow’s drop as it flies. Adjust for the wind. Good. Now!*
Newstar let fly, the singing of the bowstring in her ears as the shaft flew. This time it buried itself near the center of the tree trunk she was aiming at. Wordless approval touched her mind. But, *Better,* was all Strongbow sent.
Despite his brusqueness, Strongbow had proved to be a patient and careful teacher. He had insisted Newstar learn not only shooting, but care of the bow and string, and the art of making arrows. Now she smiled at him, letting the bow fall to her side. Nightfall, watching critically, grinned and squeezed Newstar’s arm.
“You’re much improved!” she said warmly. “Strongbow, don’t you think she’s ready for a hunt? She’s been practicing for several moons.”
*Not till she can make a clean kill,* he replied shortly.
Newstar shot him a glance, drew another arrow from her quiver and nocked it. She pulled and aimed again, then let fly. This time the arrow struck the very center of the tree.
Strongbow looked at the arrow, then at Newstar. His face remained grave, but one corner of his mouth lifted slightly.
Newstar lifted her chin triumphantly in response. “I can make a clean kill,” she said, her voice quiet.
He quirked an eyebrow. *We’ll see. We hunt tomorrow.*
The following evening Newstar struggled to keep up with Strongbow as he slipped through the treetops. Because she had no wolf-friend, he had left his own at the dens. It was just the two of them. Newstar was used to climbing rocks or running through sand, but this leaping from tree to tree was taking its toll on her. Besides, it had rained in the afternoon, and the wood was slippery. She wondered wryly if Strongbow were doing this to her on purpose.
And then below them, just ahead, was a small meadow, and in the meadow, dusky in the last edges of the day’s light, a small herd of deer were feeding. Soundlessly Strongbow sprang to the last tree and beckoned. Soundlessly Newstar tried to follow.
And then her head was jerked back by her long hair catching on a branch. She couldn’t help crying out, clutching at a limb to balance herself. The deer flung up their heads, stared– and with a flash of tails and a few graceful bounds, the whole herd was gone.
Strongbow’s head whipped back towards Newstar, his eyes outraged. *Look what you’ve done!*
Freeing her hair from the twiggy branch, Newstar raised her eyes to his. *Sorry,* she sent.
*Look at you!* His sending lashed at her. *Hair down to your feet, wearing moth fabric that’ll tear itself to bits in a moon-dance. . . At least Clearbrook braids her hair up out of the way!*
Newstar took a deep breath. I’m not a cub, she reminded herself. I won’t let him cow me.
“Good idea,” she said lightly. “Next time I hunt I’ll bind it up somehow. But there’s nothing wrong with these clothes. I like moth-fabric. If they get torn, I’ll mend them.”
His jaw clenched. He was aggravated enough, now, to speak aloud. “Those clothes aren’t fit for the woods,” he ground out. “Before you hunt again, you’d better decide whether you’re a Wolfrider, or a Sun Villager!”
Newstar’s chin came up. Her eyes flashed. “I’m a Wolfrider– and a Sun Villager!” she said fiercely. “Unlike you, I don’t deny everything except the Way. I know when to let things change me!”
Oh, High Ones. Newstar’s hand went up to cover her mouth at the look on Strongbow’s face. She thought she’d learned to curb the wicked tongue of her early adulthood. But really, this elf would try the patience of Savah!
“I– I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean–”
But he was gone, leaping up into higher branches, bounding silently along the tree paths. Newstar bit her lip in frustration. *Strongbow,* she sent urgently. *come back!*
Without stopping, he jerked his head back towards her, and she felt the beginnings of a sending. The next moment his foot slipped on a wet branch, and he crashed downwards, grasping at branches to slow his fall. He hung for a moment from a bottom limb by both hands, then dropped into the bushes below.
Newstar jumped down from the tree she was in and rushed forward. How could she have angered him enough to make him so careless? How could he, even falling, have made no sound? But she could feel pain in the thoughts that swept across her mind. *I’m all right. Don’t–*
And then she was at his side. There was a long gash across his forehead, running into his hair. Blood ran down his cheek.
*Don’t. . . * he repeated.
Then his mind-voice faded, his eyes closed, and he slumped into her arms.
Someone was wiping his face with cool water. Eyrn. . .
But it wasn’t Eyrn. The scent was wrong.
Strongbow opened his eyes to find himself lying beside the bush he had fallen into. His head was cradled in a bed of soft pine needles and leaves. Newstar, bending over him, had a piece of moth fabric in her hand that she must have torn off her dress. She poured more water into it from the skin he had been wearing at his waist, and wiped his forehead again. “There, the bleeding’s stopped,” she said. “Better now?”
He turned his head a little and immediately wished he hadn’t. “Lie still,” Newstar said firmly. “Leetah’s coming.” She answered his next question before he could send it. “Moonshade knows not to worry. She’s waiting for you.”
He grunted. *Stupid,* he sent, referring to himself.
She smiled slightly. “It was my fault. I said more than I meant to. You are who you are, Strongbow– you don’t have to change.”
He shifted again, restlessly, and his head pounded again. *But that’s just it,* he sent. *I have changed.*
“Lie still!” she repeated, laying a hand just below the cut on his head.
He lay still. But he didn’t stop sending. She wasn’t his Eyrn, but she was the one here to listen.
*When we came back here, after so long, to find the forest re-grown and the humans far away– all I wanted was for everything to be the way it was when I was young. I thought we could go back to the Way I learned then, and just live. Live in the Now, in peace.*
She tried to speak, but he went on. *And then the cub came. And I wanted Cutter to be protective like he’d been when Tyleet was small. Like when we had the thorn wall. But he’s changed. And so have I.*
He let images flow from his mind to hers– things the Now of wolf thought could never quite obscure. He had killed another elf; his life had been saved by a human. He’d seen the Scroll of Colors, had fought twice for the Palace– he lived every day, now, in its shadow.
*I want my daughter to know the Way as I have known it,* he finished. *But I can’t stop things from changing.* Low and bitterly he sent the last words. His new child had filled the hole Crescent’s death had left within him– a place he had thought would stay empty forever. But she wasn’t Crescent. He couldn’t go back again, no matter how much he wanted to.
“No, you can’t stop changes.” Newstar’s voice was gentle. “They become part of you. But the changes can be good, too.”
She took his hand, held it in both hers, staring soberly into his eyes. “Wolfriders are wolf and elf. We are a balance between two ways of being. Balance is our nature, our essence– a balance Cutter, after all he’s been through, is learning again. The Palace and the Way– both belong to us. That’s what all the changes have done for you, Strongbow. They’re part of the balance– and they’ve made you more a Wolfrider than ever.”
He stared at her, her words seeping deep into his understanding. But he said nothing. There was no need to say anything.
And then– “Ayooah!” The call rang through the forest. Cutter and Leetah were coming.
Newstar took a deep breath as Cutter and Leetah rode up on Holdfast. She was feeling a little overwhelmed at how much of himself the archer had shared with her. There was definitely more to him than she had imagined.
At the sight of Strongbow lying there, healer and chief both dismounted and hurried over.
“What happened?” Cutter asked.
Without expression, the brown eyes looked up at him from the ground. *I fell out of a tree.*
“You– fell–” Cutter’s eyes widened in disbelief. Strongbow regarded him sourly.
Newstar suppressed a giggle. “The branches are wet and slippery,” she said. “It could happen to anyone.”
“Yes, but–” Cutter broke off, trying not to laugh.
“Enough, beloved, about how it happened,” Leetah broke in gently. “Let me heal him.”
When she was finished, Strongbow sat up. *Thank you,* he sent gravely to Leetah. Then his eyes went to Cutter, and he at once noticed what Newstar had not. *You have your sword back.*
Cutter grinned. “Yep. Treestump figured it out! He’s making his own sword now.”
*Good.* Strongbow rose, satisfaction on his face that things were as they should be once more. He began to walk in the direction of the Holt, and Cutter and Leetah, glancing at each other in fond amusement, fell in behind him, Holdfast pacing along beside them. Newstar took up the rear.
They walked in silence until they neared the Father Tree. Skywise and Moonshade were waiting together for them. The cubling slept in a sling along her side.
“Everything all right?” Skywise asked, taking Newstar’s arm.
She nodded. “It’s my fault we didn’t catch anything.”
Strongbow had walked into Moonshade’s arms, touching his sleeping daughter’s curly head. Now he glanced back at Newstar. *She’s a good learner,* he sent, and Newstar found herself flushing with the unexpected praise. She was happy she had taken the time to begin learning again the ways of a Wolfrider. Maybe she’d try spear-making next, or tanning. . .
But Strongbow’s words as they turned back towards the Holt, sent so that only Newstar could hear, made her happier still.
*A good teacher, too.*