Written by Wordgazer
None of the Wolfriders wanted to leave Goodtree’s Rest. The Father Tree that chieftess Goodtree had shaped had been their home through her son Mantricker’s lifetime, and his son Bearclaw’s after him. But Bearclaw said they must go– that they would not fight any longer against the humans who had become desperately bold in their mission of death– and Bearclaw’s word was law. Their chief had taken a hunting party out to seek a new home deeper in the forest, as far as possible from the horrible human camp where Wolfrider skulls decorated their sacred pillar of rock.
Redlance understood the wisdom of the plan, but his heart was filled with dread. The heart and mind of a tree-shaper was his, but somehow, the power of one was not. When the tribe found their new home, they would all, once again, have reason to wonder why, and Redlance had no answer for them. He knew he could give them no new shelter and protection like Father Tree, and he felt like a failure already.
He sat on a branch and watched his lovemate, Nightfall, talking with Rainsong as they sat on a protruding root below him. Rainsong was heavy with cub, and Redlance knew it was largely for her sake (and for the sake of Moonshade and her infant) that Bearclaw had finally chosen flight over fight. He hoped it would soon be for the sake of Nightfall as well.
Nightfall. Though much younger than he, she was older than her years and was his perfect counterpart, her strength and boldness complementing his gentleness and self-doubt. It seemed as if they had always known it– they had begun calling one another “lovemate” even before she felt herself ready for joining– and Redlance, Wolfrider-fashion, had already forgotten what life had been like without her. It was customary, though not always practiced, to reserve the term “lifemate” until after Recognition, and hoping fervently that Recognition would come to them soon, they were waiting.
Just watching her gave him confidence, and his dread of leaving ebbed away as he remembered their conversation of a few nights ago. He had climbed to the top of Father Tree and was trying desperately to cause just one small twig to grow, even a little, with the power of his thought. Nothing. A tear of frustration traced a path beside one of the red braids that hung down his cheeks.
“Still no luck, lovemate?” Nightfall had perched herself beside him and caught the tear on one warm finger.
“No. Bearclaw’s going to need a tree-shaper when he gets back, and what can I say to him?” He gave her a hopeless look.
“Perhaps when there is true need, your magic will rise to it,” Nightfall said. “And . . . I’ve been thinking.”
“Clearbrook says sometimes all an elf needs is confidence.” Nightfall put an arm around him. “What if you stopped trying so hard to tree-shape and focused on learning to do something else really well? Something you’re already good at.”
“Like tracking?” Redlance was beginning to see what she was getting at.
“Yes.” She smiled. “I’ll bet you could be the best tracker the tribe ever had.”
“Then I wouldn’t feel so useless,” he said.
“And when you stop feeling that way, it might be just what your magic needs!” she finished triumphantly.
He laid his head on her shoulder. “What did I ever do without you?” he asked.
Nightfall grinned at him. “I have no idea.”
Moonshade sat in her den and suckled her infant cub. The scent and touch of him brought back painfully sweet memories of her firstborn, Crescent, dead at the hands of the humans eights of turns of the seasons ago. But a much more recent memory was clearer still.
It was the night, two turns ago, when Strongbow’s arrow, alone, had brought down the largest buck they had ever seen. Though as usual he said no word, he was flushed with triumph as the hunters returned to the Holt. And when after the feast she had climbed to their den, he was there before her.
**Eyrn . . .** His dark eyes were fixed on her in that way that always turned her bones to water. There were no other words in his sending, only a compelling offer, a promise she had no wish to resist.
**Wyl . . . ** She went to him, laid her hands on his chest as his arms surrounded her. And for the second time in her life, she fell into his eyes.
“Beloved!” she gasped. “It’s –”
They both knew what it was. His only reply was unutterable tenderness. The Father Tree held them in its protective grasp as they held one another in a never-ending Now.
Moonshade smiled to herself at the memory and gazed down at the little one in her arms. She toyed idly with the thick hair that insisted on standing up on either side of his head, almost like two small wings. She hoped to find some way to tame it as he grew. But if Dart was anything like his sire, he was sure to take his own way about the matter someday, regardless of what anyone said or thought. And she had a feeling the son and the father were like two garments stitched from the same hide.
She pushed down a sudden feeling of panic at the thought of the humans searching for the Holt. If she lost this cub too, she feared she might go mad. But Bearclaw would soon lead them to safety, and though she hated having to go, nothing mattered now but little Dart.
Outside, on the other side of Father Tree from Redlance, Woodlock was also remembering. Remembering countless sleeps lying snug in its sheltering dens, lately with Rainsong’s form beside him a little rounder each day. What would it be like not to wake up where he had woken every night of his life? But even leaving forever would be worth it, if only they never had to see another human again.
The problem was that in his deepest heart he didn’t think that was possible. He had said as much to Rainsong the day before.
“The humans hate us, beloved,” he had said as she lay in the crook of his arm under the furs. “If we stay here, they will keep trying to find our Holt and destroy us. If we go, they will follow us. They will never rest until we are all dead!”
“Oh, I don’t know, beloved,” she had responded comfortingly. “Why would they care about us once we got out of their hunting range?”
“I don’t know why. I just feel as if something terrible is going to happen, and I need to keep you and the cub safe.” He stroked her belly and tightened his hold on her.
She laughed softly. “And I’m sure you will, my fierce protector! Don’t worry, love. I can take care of myself a little, too.”
“I know,” he said. “But just now . . .”
“Just now our chief and tribemates are finding us a safer place to live. Trust them.” Her eyes smiled confidently into his.
He had let her soothe him, then, into sleep. But he could not escape the feeling that nowhere in the woods was safe.
It came suddenly, crashing through Clearbrook’s mind like an icy storm. Pain. Pain, terror and shock as an utterly monstrous sending tore into One-Eye’s being, somewhere far away. Her mind screamed his secret name even as her voice screamed wordlessly aloud. She fell back against the trunk of Father Tree.
“Mother!” Scouter dropped from the branches above, to her side.
“Clearbrook!” Others gathered around her.
“What is it?” Moonshade put a hand on her arm.
“One-Eye,” Clearbrook said faintly. “Something . . . hurt . . . him. Just now.”
“Is– is he–?” Scouter stared at her.
“He lives.” Clearbrook tried to steady herself. “But I couldn’t tell what hurt him. I’ve never felt anything like that before– like an attack inside his mind!”
“What could it . . .?” Dewshine began in a confused voice.
“Clearbrook.” Redlance laid a hand on her arm. “Nightfall and Rainsong felt something, too. Over here.”
Clearbrook leaned on him as he led her, Moonshade, Scouter and Dewshine to where Nightfall and Rainsong sat, clutching one another. Pike and Woodlock hovered anxiously nearby, while Strongbow stood stiffly in front of the two.
**What was it?** he sent, looking from them to Clearbrook. Clearbrook told him, and he looked again at Rainsong.
“I– I don’t know how to describe it,” said Rainsong. “A sudden sense of . . . loss.”
“For just a moment it was as if I was with my mother and father,” said Nightfall. “I was just standing there staring at Cutter and Rain. Then something– horrible– happened to–” She paused and gulped, glancing from Rainsong to Pike. “–Happened to Rain. And then my parents were . . . just not there anymore.”
“Humans?” asked Dewshine.
“No.” Clearbrook shook her head. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t human.”
They all looked at one another. Then Strongbow’s sending put into words what they all knew. **Some of us are gone.**
Pike and Rainsong stared at one another. “Father. . .” said Rainsong. Pike knelt and put his arms around her. A tear slowly slid down his face.
Moonshade laid a hand on Rainsong’s head. “Rain. And . . . who else?” she said slowly.
Clearbrook swallowed. “One-Eye lives. That’s all I know.” As Nightfall stood up, Clearbrook turned to her. “Longbranch and Brownberry are–?”
“I don’t know.” Nightfall closed her eyes, forced out the words. “I felt them, and now I don’t. But they can’t just be gone.” She opened pain-filled eyes and stared at Clearbrook. “Can they?”
“What do we do?” Woodlock asked.
Strongbow was the eldest present, and as such, he was in charge until their chief’s return. The tribe’s eyes turned to him in silence. In silence he stood and regarded them.
Then, **We do nothing,** he sent.
“Nothing?” Nightfall’s voice cracked. “How can you–?”
“I said NOTHING!” Strongbow shouted. It was such a shock that for a moment, no one could speak.
Then Clearbrook said, “Strongbow, Bearclaw may need our help.”
He wheeled on her, a soundless snarl on his lips. **Bearclaw expects us to all be here when he returns! There will be no more deaths to greet him with!**
Clearbrook considered. Everything in her wanted to go after her lifemate, but Rainsong and little Dart must be kept from danger, and Strongbow was right in this: they needed to stay together, at least until further word came from Bearclaw.
It seemed Moonshade had been thinking the same thing. She came up behind Strongbow and slipped her arms around him. “But if Bearclaw calls us, beloved?”
He turned, looked down at her, and his face softened. **Then we will go. As many of us as can.**
Dewshine said, “But what if whatever it was comes here?”
Strongbow’s jaw tightened. **Let it come! We’ll be ready for it.** He bounded to a branch over their heads, and from there to the top of the tree. Looking up, Clearbrook could see him bending his bow and readying himself to watch.
Scouter touched her arm. “Mother, what about Father?”
“I can feel him. He is shaken but unharmed,” said Clearbrook. “Right now, Strongbow needs your eyes, son. Go to him.”
Scouter took Dewshine’s hand and squeezed it. Then he started up the tree after Strongbow.
Clearbrook looked at Pike and Rainsong, sitting huddled together with Woodlock crouching nearby. “When we’re all together again, we will howl for Rain,” she said. They all looked up at her, but none of them spoke.
Nightfall said, “I can’t just sit and wait and do nothing! What if my parents are–?”
Redlance put an arm around her. “Please don’t do anything rash. We need you here, to protect the new cub and the one coming. Can you wait until next dark, at least? We may have news by then.”
“Very well, lovemate.” Nightfall leaned her head on Redlance’s shoulder.
In spite of everything, Clearbrook could not help smiling to herself, amazed at how Redlance, with his gentle words, could gain cooperation from others when no amount of orders, threats or discipline would avail.
At that moment, little Dart began to cry from his parents’ den, and Moonshade went to him. As Clearbrook turned to go as well, Dewshine stopped her. “Clearbrook, do you think my father . . .?”
“Treestump is a match for anything out there, cub,” Clearbrook said. “I imagine he’s fine.”
“But what if–”
“No more ‘what-ifs.’ Stay in the Now,” Clearbrook told her firmly. “I’m certain we will know more soon.”
It was just as dark was falling the next day that they sensed tribemates nearing the Holt. Nightfall took a long, deep breath as those who were waiting gathered in front of Father Tree to greet the returning ones. She slipped a hand into Redlance’s, knowing in part what the news would be, wanting to deny it to herself for just a little longer.
But she wasn’t prepared to see only Treestump, Skywise and One-Eye come into the clearing. They were staggering with exhaustion. Skywise had a gash on his forehead.
“Beloved!” Clearbrook ran to her lifemate. He took her in his arms and held her there, standing very still as if willing time to stop.
Strongbow stepped forward. **Where’s Bearclaw? And Cutter?** His eyes glared accusingly into Treestump’s.
Treestump shook his head, bleakly. His voice very low, he said, “It was a monster. I– I can’t describe it. Bearclaw‘s chasing it. He. . . He wouldn’t let anyone else go with him but Cutter.”
“But–” Nightfall heard her own voice crack. “But where is the hunting party? All– all the others?”
Treestump shook his head again.
“Dead.“ Skywise raised his fingers to the wound on his forehead, squeezed his eyes shut. “All dead.”
Somehow, even though she had known it, the words were like rocks smashing into her. “Dead? My mother and father?”
“And Foxfur. And Rain,” said One-Eye, his arms still around Clearbrook. “And . . . Joyleaf.”
There was an intense silence. Then Strongbow turned and walked away. Nightfall could see him shaking with wordless grief. After a moment, Moonshade followed him, clutching Dart to her chest.
Nightfall found she had sat down. Redlance sat down as well, very near, but not trying to touch her. She knew that if he touched her, she would break into little pieces, and a tiny part of her mind, watching as if from a distance, was grateful to him.
Treestump put an arm around Skywise. “You need rest, lad,” he said. Woodlock led Rainsong away, Pike following them, as Treestump helped Skywise up to his den and went in after him.
Clearbrook said, “Lock-send to me, One-Eye. Show me what it was.”
“I will.” One-Eye looked at Scouter and Dewshine, who were standing close together, staring at him. He glanced down at Nightfall and Redlance. “I’ll lock-send with anyone who is . . . ready. . . to see it.” Nightfall did not reply, and they left, leaving her and Redlance alone.
For a long time Nightfall neither moved nor spoke. She did not look at Redlance, who seemed to have made himself part of the tree root he sat on. Then, softly at first, but with gathering force, she began to weep. And then at last Redlance took her in his arms, rocking and rocking her as the tears overwhelmed her.
Madcoil. Could it be that only three days ago, Skywise had never heard the name? Now it pounded in his head as insistently as the humans’ distant drums. Was it Madcoil’s presence that had roused them to such fury? Skywise let his mind dwell on the thought only a moment before he returned to worrying about Cutter.
Where had the sudden maturity, the air of command, come from, that had prompted the chief’s son to defy the enraged Bearclaw to his face and insist on going with him to hunt the monster? What was happening to them now? Skywise shuddered again at the memory of the savage, twisted thoughts invading his mind, the deadly claw raking his forehead. The place still ached, though Treestump, when they had returned, had gruffly but kindly applied a mixture Rain kept, made of crushed whistling leaves and tallow. If that claw had come even a little closer . . . Skywise thought of Foxfur, and tears trickled down his face.
He was sitting in a tree a short distance from the Holt. Suddenly he became aware that the elders were gathering under the tree next to his. Curiosity overtook him, and he sat very still, hoping they wouldn’t notice him, or if they did, that they’d allow him to stay. The wind was in his favor– they might not scent him.
Treestump sighed heavily as he looked at Strongbow, Moonshade, One-Eye and Clearbrook each in turn. Skywise listened, hardly breathing.
“Well, friends, what do you say?” Treestump was asking. “It’s been days now.”
**Not long enough,** Strongbow answered immediately. **I say we keep waiting.**
“Haven’t you been listening to the drums?” said One-Eye testily. “The humans are getting angrier. It’s only a matter of time before they attack the Holt.”
“Bearclaw would want us away from here, in a safer place,” said Clearbrook.
“Please don’t speak of him as if he were dead,” said Moonshade.
“But that’s the point,” said Treestump. “That twisted lump of bad magic killed five of us in one blow. Bearclaw and Cutter were only two.” He sighed again. “I’m afraid the line of the Blood of Chiefs has been lost.”
Strongbow tensed in every muscle. He stalked close to Treestump and stared into his face. “That would suit you, wouldn’t it?” he whispered. “The Blood of Chiefs gone, and Joyleaf’s brother wears the lock!”
Skywise bit his lip. He’d seen the bearded elder aroused to anger before. But now Treestump only looked tired and annoyed.
“Don’t be an idiot, Strongbow!” he snapped. “What makes you think I’ve ever wanted to be chief?”
“Strongbow, calm down,” said One-Eye. “It comes to this: we don’t know if Bearclaw and Cutter are alive or dead. There’s a monster in the forest, and the humans are getting bolder by the day. This isn’t a safe place anymore, and how much longer can we stay?”
Moonshade laid a hand on Strongbow’s arm. “I don’t want to leave, either, beloved. But think of Dart.”
Strongbow sank onto the ground, his head in his hands. **I am thinking of him,** he sent bitterly. **Every heartbeat I think of him. But what of Bearclaw?**
“Strongbow speaks true,” said Clearbrook. “If Bearclaw and Cutter were dead, surely we would have felt it?”
Treestump didn’t look at her. His shoulders sagging, he said wearily, “Maybe. But our hearts are already full of the others’ deaths. Are you sure you’d feel more than what you feel now? I’m not.”
They all looked at him. No one spoke. Skywise, listening, felt a sudden doubt. He’d been sure he would know if anything happened to Cutter. But what if he didn’t?
Then Strongbow sent again. **Bearclaw will want to lead us to a safer place himself.**
One-Eye said, “Bearclaw would want us to follow his last wish and escape before it’s too late.”
“But where can we go?” asked Moonshade. “Bearclaw took the hunting party deeper into the forest to find a new Holt. But that’s where Madcoil is. Is there any place safe for us now?”
Another silence fell. And into that silence came the howling of wolves. Wolves of the forest crying a message to the wolves of the Holt, who picked up the cry. And the message was, “Come!”
The elders raised their heads, listening to the call that had been used before when an elf out of sending range needed help from the tribe. Their faces, Strongbow’s especially, were filled with joy and relief. Skywise couldn’t help but draw in his breath sharply. One or both of the Blood of Chiefs still lived. He should not have doubted.
At the sound, five pairs of eyes turned upwards to where he sat in the tree. He grinned sheepishly down at them.
“Come down from there, you spying rascal,” said Treestump. “And get ready to go. We’ve all got a call to answer!”
Everyone had heard, and the tribe gathered quickly. But the little one in Moonshade’s arms, and Rainsong’s cub so near birth, must not be risked for any reason. Woodlock volunteered to stay with his lifemate, and Moonshade could not leave Dart, so the rest prepared to leave without them. Moonshade’s eyes were wet as she bade farewell to Strongbow. Though he was clearly eager to answer the call, it was also clear how painful it was for Strongbow to leave her and the cub. Watching them, Skywise thought again, regretfully, of Foxfur. He had been very fond of her, but it never had been like that.
But soon the Holt was far behind them as they retraced their steps to where Madcoil had first attacked, where Bearclaw and Cutter had left them. Just being there again was agony. Orphaned from birth, Skywise had always hated death. But they were all agonized, all feeling the heart-cries of those so suddenly torn from life and loved ones.
Treestump spoke gruffly into the stillness. “We’ll need to track them from here.”
“I can do it.” To Skywise’s surprise, Redlance stepped forward. Treestump eyed him, obviously puzzled at the retiring elf’s willingness to take the lead. “You’re a good tracker, lad. But they’ve been gone for days. We can’t afford delays.”
“Please. I need to do this. There won’t be any delays.” Redlance reached behind him, found Nightfall’s hand. She squeezed it and nodded at Treestump.
Skywise saw Strongbow look hard at Redlance, then he also nodded, very slightly. “All right, lad,“ said Treestump. One-Eye, who had been prepared to take the lead tracker position, smiled almost imperceptibly and allowed Redlance to go ahead of him. They all followed.
For a long time, unerringly, Redlance kept them on the trail. Then he stopped. “The track crosses itself here,” he said. He cast forward. “And again here.” He looked at them bleakly. “It was– playing with them. Leading them in circles.”
They all looked at each other. Treestump said, “Well, Bearclaw and Cutter would have been following close behind it. But since we’re not–”
“We can cut a long time off the chase,” Clearbrook broke in. “Which trail is freshest, Redlance?”
“This one,” Redlance said quietly. They continued.
Skywise heard Treestump say softly, “Well done, lad.” Redlance only smiled. Behind him, Nightfall smiled, too.
Just as the sun was going down, they saw him. Cutter was sitting on a rock in the middle of a small meadow, and Skywise’s heart leaped. But something was wrong. Skywise’s throat tightened with apprehension at how very, very still Cutter sat. He made no move to rise as they hailed him, but simply waited for them to approach.
Bearclaw was nowhere to be seen. Cutter’s face held grim determination, his eyes, a kind of emptiness. In his hand he gripped his father’s sword. “Bearclaw’s dead,” was all he said.
No one could find any words. Strongbow put his head in his hands. Nightfall gave a soft little cry, staring at Cutter. Treestump closed his eyes.
Skywise’s eyes were also on Cutter, though the grief was more than he thought he himself could bear. Bearclaw might as well have been his own sire (in fact, he’d lost several fathers and mothers in the last days), but Cutter was now truly parentless. An orphan, like himself. It was one more bond between them.
Skywise’s tears flowed freely as Cutter told the story: how they had chased Madcoil for days and finally found its lair; how they had watched and waited till Cutter slept in spite of himself; how he had awakened to find his father wounded and dying.
Then they all howled for Bearclaw, some with swords raised, some kneeling, some standing still. The rising and mingling of their voices helped Skywise’s grief a little. He knew there would be more howls later, as well, when they returned to the Holt.
It seemed Cutter’s thoughts were in tune with his own. As the howl died away, he laid a hand on Nightfall’s shoulder. “We’ll howl for your mother and father when we’re all together.” He looked around at the others. “We’ll howl for all our dead.”
He already sounded like he was in charge. Treestump lifted his head and gave Cutter a long look. Then he pulled out his axe and cut a piece of leather thong from its handle. No one moved as he walked up to Cutter, who turned to receive the chief’s lock from his uncle’s hands.
It made him look– different. Skywise felt a little prickle of shock. As if to confirm the change, Treestump bowed his head before Skywise’s erstwhile tag-a-long friend and asked, “What is your will– my chief?”
My chief. Somehow, Skywise was still not prepared for the words. Would Cutter expect unquestioning obedience, as Bearclaw had? Would he take council only from the tribe’s elders? Where was this going to leave his soul-brother?
But at Cutter’s first words as chief, Skywise released his held breath. With all his father’s decisiveness, but all his mother’s grace, Cutter told the tribe what he wanted, then asked for their help. Asked them to follow him willingly. His eyes met Skywise’s as he spoke, with mute pain and pleading. And Skywise knew, more than ever before, that he’d go anywhere, do anything to ease his brother’s path, as long as they both lived.
Madcoil was dead. As suddenly as the thing had begun, it was over. Within himself Strongbow was still shaking with shock and revulsion– the monster’s sending just before the death-blow had hurt him more than the others. But it was nothing beside the terrible grief that was crushing him, for the chief he had loved beyond all words. And so he met both kinds of pain in silence– a silence that was, for him, the only possible response.
The others were all looking at the repulsive body, still in the net they had made. Some were talking quietly, others just standing, lifemates and lovemates with their arms around one another. Strongbow wished desperately that Moonshade were here to hold in his arms. But she had stayed behind for the sake of little Dart, and it was for Dart’s sake that Strongbow had sprung from the tree with his part of the net, had held the thrashing body till Cutter could get in position, had not let go even when the horrible sending threatened to tear his mind in two. For Dart, and for Bearclaw. The creature would never kill again.
Bearclaw’s son was standing over the foul head, staring down at it as if in thought. It was going to take some getting used to, seeing the chief’s lock on this cub. But this was the Blood of Chiefs, and it wasn’t his fault he wasn’t Bearclaw. Strongbow stood and awaited the order to leave Madcoil lying and return to the Holt.
But the order didn’t come. Instead, Cutter looked at Treestump and Skywise, who stood on either side of him. “Madcoil was killing humans, too,” he said. “We found their bones in its cave.”
Strongbow’s lip curled. The more dead humans, the better.
Treestump whistled. “If it’s been killing them, too, no wonder they’re so riled up!”
There was a pause. Then Bearclaw’s son said slowly, “We need to show them it’s dead.”
Skywise’s head jerked towards Cutter. He said in a confused voice, “Show them it’s dead?”
“The thing came from elf magic gone bad,” said Cutter. “We owe it to them to let them know it’s dead.”
Strongbow couldn’t believe it. He sprang to the top of a low rock, his sending a storm of passion. **We owe them nothing! The bones of our dead hang in their camp! Did you forget they almost killed you?**
A look of misery crossed the chief-cub’s face, but he held his ground. As their eyes met, Strongbow averted his gaze slightly; upset though he was, to challenge now was unthinkable.
“No, Strongbow, I haven’t forgotten,” Cutter said quietly. “But this is what’s right. We’ll take its head back and leave it near their camp. Then they’ll know we weren’t the ones who made it. That we killed it, and they’re safe. Maybe– maybe it’ll make them leave us alone.”
The cub was still full of high ideas. When would he learn? How much would the tribe suffer before he did? Strongbow burned to send the angry questions. But Treestump was glaring, One-Eye gazing at him reprovingly. Their eyes asked the same thing: was Cutter chief, or wasn’t he? An image of Bearclaw rose up in his mind, and with a terrible effort, Strongbow subdued himself. He leapt down from the rock and approached the young chief.
**It’s going to smell foul when we cut it,** he sent sourly.
Skywise gave a relieved laugh, and Cutter’s tense shoulders relaxed. Clearbrook, standing next to One-Eye on the other side of the body, said, “Cutter’s right. They may not leave us alone from gratitude, but they may from fear. We were able to kill the creature, and they were not.”
“Yes!” said Dewshine excitedly. “Maybe we’ll even get to stay in the Holt!”
Cutter smiled a little. “First things first, cousin. We’ll see what happens when the thing’s done.”
Strongbow sighed. First Bearclaw, and now Cutter, wanted to make peace with the murdering white-stripes. So be it, then. But he could never forget his daughter’s death-cry at their hands, and there was a part of him that would not be satisfied until, someday, he could find a chance to bury an arrow deep in their shaman’s throat.
It took the rest of that night, all the next day (with a brief rest), and almost all the following night for wolves and elves to drag the huge, reeking head to a place near the humans’ camp. Cutter was filled with gratitude and pride in his tribe; all of them, including Strongbow, toiled willingly and did not complain, though he knew many of them doubted his plan would do any good.
They left Pike, One-Eye and Scouter to keep watch and bring back news of the humans’ response to their gesture. The rest of them returned to Father Tree. Seeing Strongbow’s reunion with Moonshade and Dart brought a few of his unwept tears to Cutter’s eyes. But only a few. The rest were trapped under the load of unaccustomed responsibility he had been carrying, and was carrying still.
Though it was not yet dawn, the exhausted Wolfriders and their mounts had sought their dens. But Cutter was too tired and too much on edge to sleep, and the scent of his mother and father still in the den was both comforting and unbearable.
He slipped back down the Tree and up to the star-watching hill. As he approached, a form he had expected to see detached itself from the shadows of the trees and moved to sit down in the usual place. Cutter sat down next to Skywise with a sigh. “You couldn’t sleep either?” he asked.
“No.” Skywise shook his head. Cutter knew he was lying: his friend was worn out and could have slept. But still it wasn’t for Cutter’s sake alone that Skywise had watched and waited at the place each had known the other would come.
Cutter rubbed his hand through the grass, pulled a stalk and chewed it thoughtfully. “Well, it’s done,” he said. “Nothing to do now but wait and see what the humans do.”
“Nothing to do,” Skywise said softly. “You can let go of being chief for a while. Just be Tam.”
Cutter gave him a tired smile. “I think being chief is part of being Tam, now. Maybe in a way, it always was.”
Skywise grinned broadly. “Better watch out, then. I can be a troublemaker– my chief!”
Cutter’s smile was not so tired now. It wasn’t the first time Skywise had called him that. The first time had been when they were setting the trap for Madcoil , and he had asked Skywise, under his breath, if he thought the net would be strong enough. His question had been meant to show that things had not really changed between them. Skywise had looked seriously up at the weighted ropes in the trees. His soft answer, “Looks good to me, my chief” (with a sidelong glance and a smile), Cutter had heard as reassurance that the change was accepted and taken in stride.
He thought of the moment when he had run with Madcoil after him, when all there was in the world was a stench of hot breath behind him and the need to run, run. Skywise’s fear then had been like a current pulling him on, a near panic that he might lose Cutter, too, and that one more loss– especially this one– would be beyond bearing. But Skywise hadn’t tried to stop Cutter from being Madcoil’s bait, hadn’t tried to turn him from too great a risk, as he had so often in the past. Things really had changed.
His mind swerved away from the thought and returned to the one before it. “You thought Madcoil was going to get me, didn’t you?” he asked challengingly.
Skywise responded with mock sternness, but his voice shook a little. “If you ever do anything like that again, by the High Ones, I’ll–”
“You’ll what?” Cutter pretended to glare.
“I’ll– I’ll think of something!”
“Troublemaker!” Cutter lunged at his brother, and the two of them wrestled like cubs.
“Give up?” he asked, shaking the hair out of his eyes as he held Skywise pinned by the shoulders in the grass.
“I never win anymore,” grumbled Skywise. Cutter released him, and they sat up.
“Feel better?” asked Skywise.
“Yes,” said Cutter. “I did almost forget about this–” he touched his chief’s lock– “for a moment. Thanks, Fahr.”
“Any time.” Skywise looked up at the stars, and they sat for a moment in silence. Then he asked, “What’s it like, being chief?”
“Curious again?” Cutter laughed.
“Always,” grinned Skywise.
Cutter sobered, thinking about it. “Like a weight pressing down on me. All the lives of the whole tribe on my shoulders. But it’s a weight I was meant to carry. It doesn’t feel bad.”
“Sounds terrible to me,” said Skywise.
“I just wish I felt more– ready,” said Cutter. “I wish Bearclaw–”
And with that, his pent-up grief came spilling out. Skywise, with tears running down his face, sat in the grass and held Cutter’s shoulders while his chief’s body shook and convulsed with sobs. The stars shone silently, brilliantly above the storm spending itself on the little hill below, deep in the green woods.
As the first, gray light smudged the edge of the world, Cutter quieted. “Fahr–” he said brokenly.
But Skywise had lifted his own wet face to the stars. “Tam,” he whispered raptly, “There’s a star up there I’ve never seen before!”
Cutter wanted to just sit on that hill without moving, without thinking, without looking at anything, forever. But for his friend’s sake he turned his eyes upwards to where Skywise pointed. “Are you sure?”
Slowly, Skywise said, “I don’t know how long it’s been there. There hasn’t been much time for the stars these last few days. But I know the last time I looked in that spot, there was no star there.”
“But how? Do stars have cubs?” Cutter felt confused.
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s been there all along, but all at once it got so much brighter, we could see it. Or maybe . . .” Skywise trailed off.
“A new star. . .” Cutter breathed.
Just then, Dewshine’s voice hailed them as she came running up the hill. “Cutter! Skywise! Rainsong’s having her cub!”
“It’s a girl.” Nightfall slipped into the den and lay down beside Redlance, keeping just a little distance between them. “Hair the color of the sun, like her parents’.”
“She couldn’t be more welcome.” Redlance reached over, pulled the sash from Nightfall’s head and stroked her hair.
Nightfall nodded. “There’s going to be a gathering tonight. Welcoming, council and howl all at once.”
He looked at her seriously. “Are you ready for that?”
She swallowed the stinging lump that had formed in her throat. “I need to howl with the tribe. There’s been no time for us all to be together. All of us that . . . that are left.”
His hand brushed her shoulder. “No time for anything but private grief. Except that we howled for Bearclaw.”
“We howled for Bearclaw. But that– and more– was his due. Even then, it wasn’t all of us.” Nightfall took a deep breath. “It will be good for all of us to howl for all our dead.”
“But the council?” His voice was still filled with concern.
“We have to have a council,” she said, “to hear the news from Pike, One-Eye and Scouter, from where we left the– the head.” She turned to him. “Lovemate, I know I’ve been snappy since my parents– since it happened. But I can sit through the council.”
Redlance sighed. “It’s just that you’ve wanted to be alone so much of the time. I– I worry.”
She touched his cheek lightly. “I’m still here, with you. It’s just that . . . I have no family, now.”
“Neither have I,” he said, very quietly.
She sat up. Why had she never thought about that before? “Your parents died–”
“Long before you were born.” Redlance’s clear, green eyes gazed into a past she couldn’t see. “Seeing you go through this brings it back to me.”
“Show me. Lock-send,” she urged.
He, too, sat up, staring at her half in disbelief, half in admiration. “So generous– offering to take my old grief on, with your own still so fresh. It’s just like you, Nightfall.” He laid his hand against her cheek. “But let’s wait– please. We have enough to howl over in the Now.”
She put her arms around him. “I know.”
There was a silence. Then he said into her hair, “But now what are we going to do for a family?”
She pushed him back to arms’ length, stared at him. His steady eyes met hers.
“Nightfall,” he said. “Lifemate. . .”
“Lifemate?” she whispered.
“For this, let’s not wait– please. Lifemate.”
Slowly, she nodded. “Whether Recognition comes . . .”
“Or not,” he said.
“Lifemate,” she said.
And there was no longer any distance between them.
Pike sat on a rock and waited for the rest of the tribe to gather. It was unlike him to be the first to arrive, but many things just now were unlike they’d always been. He had arrived back at the Holt with One-Eye and Scouter as the sun had reached its high point, to discover that his sister’s cub had been born just a little while before. Peeping into the den, he had seen the two golden heads, cheek to cheek, asleep in the furs, and Woodlock smiling at them with pride in his eyes.
One-Eye had gone to tell Cutter what they had seen and heard while hidden in the trees around the humans’ camp, and Pike and Scouter had sought their dens. When Pike had awakened, it was deep night. A hunting party had already been out and was returning laden with small game, and those who had stayed behind took their meal just as it was, laying aside the skins, feathers and so on for later purposes.
Pike had left the others at this task and slipped up to the gathering-place alone. There was an emptiness inside him where Rain’s matter-of-fact gentleness had always been, and he couldn’t seem to make himself believe that the coming howl would happen without Longbranch, his teacher and friend. Pike was on his own as story-keeper now, and he didn’t feel ready for it.
He sighed. The others would help, he knew. Many would fill in for him until he felt more comfortable and confident, and they’d never let him feel his lack. Suddenly feeling more cheerful, he looked around as Nightfall and Redlance slipped out of the trees, hand in hand. There was something about those two since he’d returned . . . .
Others were appearing now in two’s and three’s, their wolf-friends padding behind them. They settled down on the ground, or on rocks or fallen logs. The moons cast a pale light that showed their faces, each bearing marks of grief and strain. It was too soon, and yet not soon enough, for this gathering.
All eyes turned towards Rainsong as she carried her tiny burden into the midst of them, settling down with her lifemate to wait, with everyone else, for Cutter.
He came among them simply, without show, and whether he arrived last from reluctance to begin, or from dislike of waiting himself, Pike didn’t know. Cutter stood and looked at each of them in turn. Then he said slowly, “I know this is hard for all of us. I wish my father and mother were here, and all the others. I wish I were just sitting and listening, like always.”
There were murmurs of understanding. Pike blinked the moisture from his eyes.
“But they’re not here,” Cutter went on, “so I guess the best thing to do is to start with the most important.”
He beckoned to Woodlock and Rainsong, who brought the cub into the center of the circle. Everyone else stood and came closer, and Rainsong pulled back the covering so they could see the small face, the round eyes staring solemnly at the moons, which frosted the soft, golden hair with silver.
Woodlock said, “Hers is the soul-name of a Wolfrider. But after what you and Skywise saw last night, my chief, the only possible name for the tribe to call her is . . . Newstar.”
“Newstar,” repeated Rainsong, smiling. “A sign of hope for new beginnings.”
“Newstar,” said Cutter, touching the small head. “Bringing renewal to the tribe, turning our eyes from death to life. She’s welcome.”
Pike nodded. Not bad for the young chief’s first words of welcoming. He’d spoken sincerely, not trying to impress, but it was just this that did impress. The cub lifted a fist and waved it under Cutter’s nose, and everyone laughed as he blinked. Rainsong turned and moved back to her seat. Woodlock laid a hand supportively on Cutter’s shoulder, then sat down as well.
Cutter paused. “Uh– good,” he said. “Time now for council.” He looked at One-Eye, then Scouter and Pike. “Who speaks from the watchers at the human camp?”
Pike stood up. “I do.” It had been agreed between the three of them that he should tell the story. Still wishing heartily that Longbranch were here to help and encourage him, Pike began.
“Well, it took a long time for the humans to notice what we’d brought them. When they did, the old shaman was as mad as a bear with a bee up its nose.” He chuckled a little. He knew how dangerous they were, but to him humans always seemed funny. “He told the others to burn the head, said they’d hunt down those who made it, one by one if they had to.”
Moonshade clutched little Dart to her. “And you think that’s amusing?” she snapped.
Pike ducked his head and smiled apologetically. “No, Moonshade. It was just the way they acted– like rabbits pretending to be wolves. The shaman and his follower were the only really brave ones. As soon as they left, the rest were just rabbits again.” He wrapped his arms around himself and pretended to shiver, mimicking the humans in a high, trembling voice. “The demons are too powerful! They made this monster, and then killed it, to show what they’re going to do to us!”
Scouter burst out, “But that’s not what we–” He broke off.
“We know, cub,” Clearbrook said gently. “Let Pike go on.”
Pike went on. “Little groups of humans kept coming to look at the head all through the morning, while some of the others gathered wood for a big fire. They pointed and shook their heads and whispered. And they all said pretty much the same thing.”
He paused for effect. Treestump said irritably, “Well, what did they say?”
Pike sighed. Some elves never would understand how to listen to a good story.
“That their shaman hadn’t said they still had to find our den and destroy us all at once. He’d said, ‘one by one.’ And they were glad, because not one of them wants to come anywhere near where we live anymore.” He chuckled again. “They’re as scared as treewees with an owl at the den-door.”
There was a silence. Then Cutter stood up again and said slowly, “Well, what do all of you think? Bearclaw wanted to find a new Holt because the humans were getting too close, looking for this one. Seems now they won’t be looking anymore.”
“Let’s stay here,” said Dewshine eagerly.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” sighed Rainsong. Woodlock put an arm around her and the baby, and squeezed. His face wore a look of wary relief.
“You were right, beloved,” said One-Eye to Clearbrook. “They’ll leave us alone– out of fear.”
**Make no mistake,** sent Strongbow, **they still want all of us dead. They just don’t want to risk coming to our Holt to do it.**
“They should have been scared all along,” Scouter said stoutly. “If they’d attacked us here, a lot of them would have died!”
“And more of us, son,” said Clearbrook. “There are too many of them. Bearclaw was right to want to lead us away. But it seems things have changed. At least for now.”
Cutter looked around at them all. “Are we agreed, then?” There were nods. He nodded as well. “Then we stay.”
“Ayooah!” yelled Skywise. Laughter and more howls met his outburst. But Cutter didn’t laugh.
“The same rules will be kept,” he said. “Stay far away from the humans’ camp. No hunting alone. And if the worst comes, and we have to fight them again, the lifebearers keep out of it.”
Moonshade leaned against Strongbow, stroked Dart’s hair. “Bearclaw’s decision makes even more sense now we’ve lost so many,” she said.
“Agreed, lifemate?” said Redlance. Nightfall nodded, and Pike suppressed a laugh. So that’s what it was about those two!
And now Cutter did smile. “Good. Council is over.”
He paused, then quickly grew serious again. “Now comes the final reason for this gathering. The last thing my father did was to give me his sword.” He drew New Moon, held it glinting in the moonlight. “He would want me to use it this way, now.”
He turned the sword-point into his palm. Pike and the others took a deep breath. The first drops of blood fell to the ground, and they all spoke. “Timmorn Yellow-Eyes . . . Rahnee the She-Wolf. . .”
Far into the night they howled for Rain, Longbranch, Brownberry, Foxfur, Joyleaf and Bearclaw. They howled for lost wolf-friends, as well, and the wolves added their voices to the music of the song. Pike felt himself swept up into the grief of his tribe, even as they carried his grief in their own hearts. Their voices and sendings flowed into and lapped over one another, and each one received comfort in the expression of sorrow.
As the night and the singing began to die, Pike saw Cutter take Skywise by the arm and ask a silent question. Skywise pointed up into the still-dark sky, and Cutter raised his hands for silence.
“Wolfriders!” He spoke into the stillness as every eye and ear turned to him. “Look up! There’s the star seen for the first time only last night.”
Pike looked where Skywise pointed. It was a small star, no different from the others, but it shone brightly.
Cutter continued. “It came on the heels of death and fear, bringing birth, new life, with it, as if to show us the Way once again. Maybe the High Ones sent it, or maybe it came somehow on its own. But we’ll take it as a sign. No matter what comes, we are the Wolfriders, and we will live on!”
Once again the elf and wolf voices rose, this time in a howl of triumph. Pike’s heart soared. The tribe was renewed by the birth of the new cub, by the courage of their young chief, and by the oneness of all of their hearts and minds. Not far away, the Father Tree’s branches rose, shadowy against the brightening horizon. Once again it was theirs to trust in, to shelter in, as they had since Goodtree, Blood of Chiefs, had shaped it long ago.
Their Holt. At least, for Now.