Dart’s Decision

Written by Wordgazer

Young Dart sat on a ridge just above the roofs of the huts of Sorrow’s End and looked down over the peaceful village. He was not feeling particularly peaceful himself.

Nearly two moons had passed since Cutter and Skywise left on their quest to find other lost children of the High Ones. Last night, high in the rocks above the sleeping village, Cutter’s little daughter, Ember, had bonded with her first wolf-friend. Dart had laughed at her as she alternated between squeezing and wrestling with the small wolf cub– he had been happy, then, in her happiness. But now, as the early sun gilded the tops of the huts, a restlessness lay on him that was almost discontent.

He wondered, of course, what their chief was doing: how far away he was now, and whether he had found anything yet. He wondered what would happen if any more humans came. But most of all he wondered why, once again, there had been no wolf-friend in Silvergrace’s litter for him.

Dart’s father had seemed so proud of Ember last night. Strongbow had given Dart no reason, though, to believe he was disappointed in his own cub. Everyone knew a wolf-bonding could come at any age, and to some it happened earlier than to others. But Dart also realized how happy Strongbow would have been if his son, already eight-and-five turns of the seasons, had also bonded last night.

Dart knew his father loved him– loved him with an intensity that pulsed behind every sending like a heartbeat– and he felt no need for outward demonstrations, which were simply not in his father’s nature anyway. But he wanted to achieve something Strongbow would value. He wanted more than to have him just not be disappointed.

And so he sat looking down at the roofs of the huts and brooded. He had been just a little older than Ember was now when the Wolfriders came to the Sun Village, and seven turns of the seasons had passed since then. Why did he have no wolf-friend?

His eye caught a flash of shimmering blue cloth, even as his nostrils picked up Newstar’s scent. She bounded lightly up to the ridge where he sat and stood looking at him curiously. “What’s the matter?” she asked, with quick discernment.

“Nothing.” Dart didn’t feel ready to tell her. If she’d been Shushen, now . . .

Shushen had been the only child in Sorrow’s End when the Wolfriders arrived. Shushen was roughly three turns younger than Dart, but they had been friends from the moment they first looked at one another. Dart had never kept anything from Shushen. But Shushen, at this time of the morning, had to be helping his parents in the gardens.

Newstar was a good friend, too, of course– only a few moons younger than Dart himself. Now she sat down beside him and gazed out over the huts, not pressing him to speak, but there if he should decide to. Newstar was quiet in an entirely different way than Shushen– or Dart’s father. Shushen was quiet like a small animal resting under a bank. Strongbow’s quiet was like an arrow whispering swiftly to its mark. But Newstar’s was the quiet of a softly moving breeze on a summer day.

Dart, of course, was not quiet at all. He rose as Newstar sat down and began to wander restlessly back and forth across the ridge. Newstar did not look at him, but settled herself more comfortably, wrapping her arms around her knees. She could tease, too, with those she felt really comfortable with. Her voice was teasing now. “Nothing? A little more ‘nothing,’ and you’ll be jumping around like a hunting cat.”

She did not press him further, though, but sat staring down at the village. “How was Ember’s bonding?” she asked, her voice casual.

“Fine,” Dart said shortly, forcing himself to sit down again beside her. “Why weren’t you there?”

Newstar shrugged. “Father likes us to sleep at night.”

Sun Villagers slept at night, while Wolfriders were mostly awake. For some time, Newstar’s parents had been living in the Sun Village, living like the villagers. Dart had only an instant to reflect on how different their fathers were, when he saw his own father striding down from the caves where the Wolfriders lived, directly towards Woodlock and Rainsong’s hut just below. Strongbow held the carcass of a fat rabbit by its ears in one hand. With silent purpose he rapped on the wall beside Newstar’s parents’ door.

Dart knew that whatever his father thought of Woodlock and Rainsong’s new way of life, as long as Rainsong was carrying a cub he would see that she got the best of every kill. Dart and Newstar watched as Rainsong appeared at the doorway of the little hut, accepted the rabbit with smiling thanks, and withdrew again. But Strongbow was apparently not finished. He remained in front of the door, and after a moment Woodlock came out– no doubt in response to a lock-send from Strongbow.

Woodlock looked annoyed. “What do you want?” he asked tersely. “We appreciate the rabbit–”

Strongbow switched to an open send, knowing, no doubt, that most of the Sun Villagers could not receive his mind-speech, and not caring if other Wolfriders– including Rainsong– heard it. **Why were you not at our chief’s cub’s bonding last night?**

Woodlock’s face did not change. **Why is it any business of yours?**

Dart and Newstar exchanged glances. Their two fathers had very little in common, but they generally tolerated one another. But now every line of Strongbow’s body spoke confrontation, and Woodlock seemed quite willing to respond in kind. Dart had the sudden conviction that his father knew where he and Newstar were– that he wanted them to see this. A little shiver of apprehension ran down his spine.

Though most of the Sun Villagers were in the fields, a few curious faces had peeped out of windows when Woodlock first came out. Strongbow ignored them.

**You should have been there. Ember will be your chief one day.**

Woodlock’s fists clenched. “What I do is no concern of yours. Humans have found the village, Rainsong’s with cub–”

**With child! Why don’t you use their word for it? You do everything else like them!**

Woodlock drew himself up to his full height. “With child, then! Does that make you happy? All Rainsong and I want is to live in peace, we and our children.” He spat the word defiantly into Strongbow’s face. “If that means living in Sorrow’s End, that’s what we’ll do. Until the humans overrun it, and we die defending it! But we won’t be driven out again!” He took a deep breath. “As for last night– Rainsong thinks it’s wise to stay safe in the village till the baby comes. And I’m not leaving her– for Ember or anyone else!”

Strongbow froze into a deadly stillness. His eyes blazed. **Because humans found this place? They’d be dead now if you’d killed when you said you would! It was your softness that softened our chief!**

Woodlock’s jaw worked. He was plainly beyond speech. **And if it had been you who had to kill the little one? In your great bravery, to strike it down while it stood there defenseless?** His eyes bored into Strongbow’s. **Would you have done it, archer?**

Dart felt Newstar clutch his arm, hard. His father was going to lunge. Woodlock saw it and braced himself for the attack.

And then–

Strongbow turned away. His deep frustration, his desperate unhappiness, swept over Dart like a wind. Fists tight, shoulders trembling, Strongbow bounded away from the huts and back into the bluffs that held the Wolfriders’ caves.

The realization hit Dart like an arrow between the eyes. He hates it here. He wishes Cutter hadn’t made us stay.

Newstar took a deep, shaky breath. Dart gave her a weak smile. If they had been a little younger, they could have relieved their feelings by arguing about whose father might have won in a fight. But they were past that.

Rainsong was beside Woodlock now, putting her arm around him and leading him back into their hut. The faces of those villagers who had been brave enough to watch the entire conflict, now disappeared from their windows.

“I-I’m glad Wing is with Shushen this morning,” Newstar said.

Dart squeezed her arm. “Uh– my father wouldn’t really have. . .”

“Well, anyway, he didn’t,” Newstar said.

A silence fell between them. Dart knew he should go home to the caves to sleep. But he’d never fall asleep now, the way he was feeling.

Why had his father wanted them to see that? The answer came, as sure as the desert sun. Because he wants us to know how much he cares about the Way. And he’s afraid we’re going to lose it.

Well, Dart wouldn’t lose track of the Way. He would keep to the path his Wolfrider ancestors had tread, no matter what happened.

He felt a sudden urge to get away from the village. But he was feeling too restless to return to the caves. “Let’s go exploring,” he said to Newstar.

She nodded. Her eyes were still wide, her face thoughtful from what they had just seen. Dart wasn’t quite sure what she was thinking, but apparently she was no more ready than he was to return to her home.

They headed out towards the desert, towards where the Bridge of Destiny cast its shadow over the rocky hills and bluffs. They did not speak to one another. Dart wondered if Newstar felt embarrassed by the things Strongbow had said. About her father wanting to live like a Sun Villager, not like a Wolfrider. But Woodlock hadn’t denied it– he had seemed almost proud of it! Was Newstar proud of it, too?

Dart needed to make sense of it all– but he didn’t want to make Newstar feel insulted. Cautiously he formed a question. “Uh, Newstar– do your parents still think of themselves as Wolfriders?”

She turned to him quickly. “Of course! After all, Mother’s wolf-friend is chieftess wolf. And when Father’s died, he bonded with one of her cubs.”

Times that had been forgotten in the Now of wolf thought burst back into Dart’s conscious memory. Crossing the desert. Grief as his mother’s wolf, and then Woodlock’s, dropped in the blistering sands. Rainsong’s wolf-friend Silvergrace insisting on carrying both Rainsong and her daughter, while Woodlock staggered beside them holding the infant Wing.

A season later, the yip of cubs in Silvergrace’s den, while Nightrunner stood proudly by, and Woodlock and Moonshade both formed new bonds to comfort them for what the desert had taken.

Dart felt comforted, somehow, in the memory. He tried another question. “Do you want a wolf-friend of your own?”

“Y-yes. I suppose.” Newstar lifted her head suddenly. “Do you hear something?”

He had been hearing it for some time without paying attention. Some Wolfrider I am, Dart thought. “That squeaking sound? Let’s go see what it is.”

It was coming from a small cave in the rocks. Jackal, Dart’s nose told him. But the smell of death was coming from the cave along with the tiny sounds. He dropped to his knees and cautiously put his head inside. Newstar squeezed in next to him.

Two small jackal cubs scrabbled at the body of their dead mother. Beside them a third, smaller cub also lay dead. Dart and Newstar looked at each other. Dart carefully felt the mother’s body. “A snake bite, I think.”

“Mmm.” Newstar stroked the head of one of the cubs, which turned weakly to suck at her finger. “These cubs are going to die like their brother if we don’t do something.”

“But that’s the Way,” Dart said. “We can’t interfere.” The words tasted sour on his tongue.

Newstar shook her head impatiently. “The Way is about respecting life, too– not just death. We can’t just let them die.”

Dart knew very well that they could. But he didn’t really want to, either. And Newstar’s words made sense. However– “But what can we do? We can’t feed them.”

“No. But Silvergrace can. She must still have some milk left.” Newstar’s voice was soft as she took a cub in her hand.

Dart thought about it. “But Briarsting’s sure to kill the cubs.” Briarsting, his father’s wolf-friend, had become chief wolf not long ago, after driving out Nightrunner, and it was he who had sired Ember’s new wolf-friend.

“Silvergrace won’t let him.” Newstar laid a soft hand on Dart’s arm. “Please, Dart?”

It had always seemed odd to Dart that the dominant, chieftess wolf was gentle Rainsong’s friend. But he supposed Newstar must know better than anyone else except her mother what Silvergrace was likely to do. Dart looked down at the helpless, hungry little creatures. Then he sighed, picked up the other jackal cub, and eased backward out of the den.

Silvergrace sniffed curiously at the jackal cubs when Newstar held them out to her. She rumbled a little in the back of her throat, but when Newstar sent her an image of herself suckling the cubs, she relaxed and accepted them. Dart and Newstar crouched beside her, watching the cubs’ eager feeding.

After a few moments, Briarsting entered the den. He bared his teeth and growled at the cubs, but Silvergrace laid back her ears and snarled, and he backed out again.

Dart doubted very much if it would be so easy once Strongbow knew.

“If Silvergrace leaves the cubs, even for a moment, Briarsting will kill them,” he said. “One of us will need to stay with them, too.”

“I’ll stay for now,” Newstar said. “You need to go back and sleep, don’t you?”

Dart could hear the apprehension in her voice. She didn’t want him to be missed, or for his parents to start looking for him. He wished they hadn’t gotten themselves into this. But they were in it up to their necks, now. Silvergrace was not about to let them take the cubs away again. And having saved them, they were now responsible for them.

Dart sighed. “I’ll be back when the sun starts going down.”

He came back that evening, and the next evening, too. By the third evening the jackal cubs had taken on so much of their foster-mother’s scent that Briarsting no longer growled at them. Newstar and Dart grinned at each other in weary silence as the chief wolf sniffed the little creatures and turned away indifferently. At last it was safe to leave them alone– a very good thing, as the continued absence of Dart and Newstar from their normal haunts had begun to be noticed. Shushen, especially, had made wistful remarks about how seldom Dart was around for their usual games. Dart had been missing these, too, and mentioned as much to Newstar as they began to walk back towards the village together.

“Yes, it will be good to play with Wing again, too.” said Newstar. “And Suntop and Ember.” She gave a long sigh. “I’ve kept being afraid one of the elders would come by the dens,” she said. “It’s a good thing the wolves wander free so much these days.”

Yes. Dart remembered now that this one of the things Cutter had said before he left. That things were different for the Wolfriders now, and they didn’t need him or the wolves the way they used to.

Well, things were certainly different. “Newstar,” Dart said uncomfortably, “if saving those cubs wasn’t against the Way, why are we so worried about the others finding out?”

Newstar looked at him, but didn’t answer. Dart could tell she was thinking about it, hard. Finally she said, “Because older elves can get so used to looking at things from one direction, they forget sometimes how to see anything else.”

They were nearing the huts now, and ready to go their separate ways. Newstar continued to look at him very seriously. “But your father was right, anyway, about Ember’s bonding. I, at least, should have been there.”

So she had been thinking about that confrontation between their fathers, as he still was even after these three days. Dart nodded in acknowledgment of her words, and they parted.

One evening a few days later, Dart headed out to the wolf dens by himself to check on the jackal cubs. The sun hovered just above the rocky hills, which glowed with golden light. The cubs were scrabbling around at the mouth of the den while Silvergrace, just within, watched. Dart was amused by the cubs’ clumsy wrestling with one another. He heard the sound of a night chirper rubbing its tiny legs together and stalked away after it, wanting to catch it for them to play with. It hopped away as he approached, and Dart followed it, with a little grunt of frustration, over the edge of a short bluff. Clutching it in his hand at last, he climbed back up the cliff– and as his eyes cleared the edge, stopped dead.

Shushen was standing there, staring at the jackal cubs in shock. Silvergrace, not recognizing the newcomer, showed him her teeth, and he stepped backwards a little, putting a hand to his mouth.

Just then Strongbow sprang up the other side of the ridge. With one swift glance he took in the scene– the jackals, Silvergrace, and Shushen. Dart, upwind and out of sight, for a moment could not move.

Strongbow advanced on the trembling boy, his jaw clenched. He knew Shushen could send– Dart had taught him from the moment they met– and his sending was like a lash across the face. **What have you done? This is a wolf pack, not a warren for Sun Village pets!**

Shushen’s mouth opened, but no words came out. As Strongbow took a step closer, he turned to flee.

Then Dart was there, laying a reassuring hand on Shushen’s arm and facing his father with shoulders erect, though his stomach felt like a stone inside him. “Shushen knew nothing about this. It– it was my doing.”

There was a pause. Strongbow’s face did not change. **Silvergrace didn’t accept these cubs from you,** he sent slowly. **Newstar’s in this too, isn’t she?**

There was no point in denying it. Dart nodded. Strongbow stood looking down at the cubs in silence. Dart glanced at Shushen and gave him a shaky smile.

Then Strongbow turned back to Shushen. **Go home.** The words were blunt but no longer harsh. With a quick glance at Dart, Shushen fled.

His going left a heavy, pregnant silence. Dart kept his head lowered a little in submission, wondering what his punishment was going to be.

But all his father did was send one word. **Why?**

Knowing his father wanted complete honesty, Dart kept to the openness of sending. **We found them in a den with their dead mother. Snakebite, we thought. These cubs were weak but healthy, and Newstar said–** Dart stopped. He wasn’t going to hide behind Newstar. **It seemed to me– to both of us– that if the Way is about respecting the cycles of life and death, it’s about respecting life most.**

His father only looked at him. **You shouldn’t have interfered. The wolf pack will never accept them when they’re grown. They’ll probably be killed early– or at least driven out, to fend for themselves without a pack of their own. All you’ve done is prolong their deaths.**

It was true. Dart could see that now. But still. . . **Father, they were hungry and helpless. We had to try.**

And he had to go on trying. Dart suddenly knew that he had to do what he thought right himself, no matter what his father or anyone else might say. He looked up into Strongbow’s stern face. “I’ll do whatever I have to, to see they get a fair chance.”

Strongbow’s expression eased a little. Behind his eyes something came and went that was almost a smile. **See that you do that, then.**

And without another word his father turned and strode away. Briarsting approached him as he neared the edge of the ridge, and Strongbow put a hand in his neck ruff as they moved down out of sight.

Dart released a long, shuddering breath. He was not going to be punished– confined to the caves, or forced to scrape endless hides. He was not, in fact, going to be treated like a cub at all. Somehow he felt older now than he had been just a little while ago.

It didn’t take Dart long to find Shushen. The younger boy was sitting under an overhanging rock not far from the wolf dens– waiting, in fact, for Dart.

“I kept wondering where you’ve been going off to,” he volunteered as Dart sat down. “So this time I followed you. Your father must have seen me and wanted to know where I was going. I’m sorry if I got you in trouble.”

Though he was clearly trying to speak calmly, it was even clearer that Shushen was upset. Very upset.

“I’m sorry, too,” Dart offered.

Shushen turned on him. “How could anyone think I’d make pets of those horrible things? They’re jackals, for Yurek’s sake!” His voice was shaking now. “How long has your father lived here, and he still doesn’t know Sun Villagers have nothing to do with jackals!”

Dart could only stare in surprise at this unexpected outburst from his gentle friend. He knew Shushen, like most of the villagers, was afraid of jackals. What he hadn’t realized was how much Shushen was afraid of Strongbow.

“He’s not as bad as you think,” Dart said.

“How would you know?” Shushen said bluntly. “You’re his son!”

The pressure of these last days had taken its toll on Dart. He felt a hot ball of anger rising in his chest. “If you hadn’t followed me, none of this would have happened!” he snapped.

“If you’d told me what you were doing, I wouldn’t have followed you!” Shushen retorted. “Lately you’ve been about as talkative as he is!”

“You leave my father out of this!”

Shushen suddenly seemed to withdraw into himself. He turned away from Dart, his shoulders hunched. “I’m going home.”

A wall had risen between them that Dart didn’t know how to get through. As Shushen began to trudge away, a weight of responsibility– for the jackal cubs first, and now for the consequences to Shushen– bore down on Dart like nothing he’d ever known.

“Shushen. . .”

The trudging footsteps did not pause. All at once Dart bounded after him, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Shushen, stop. Please.”

The younger boy stopped, but did not turn around. In sudden frustration Dart spun him to face him. “Will you just look at me?!” he shouted.

Sullenly, Shushen raised his eyes.

They met Dart’s with a crash like a silent clap of thunder. Unable to move, Dart cried out as he was flooded with an awareness of Shushen like he’d never had of anyone before. He stopped breathing.

After a moment, Shushen whispered, “Dyrr?”

His secret name. Only he and his parents knew it. “Wh-what’s happening?” Dart asked, confused. “I . . . This isn’t supposed to. . .”

No, it wasn’t. Only his lifemate, someday, was ever supposed to find his soul name. And yet– something his mother had said once about Cutter and Skywise came into his head. That they knew one another’s soul names. But that was supposed to be a thing that had never happened before or since.

Except that it was happening now.

**Shushen. It’s all right. It’s going to be all right. We just–**

But Shushen, overwhelmed beyond the capacity of his ten turns of the seasons by all he had just gone through, burst into tears.

Dart guided Shushen over to a flat rock and sat down beside him. Shushen’s sobs turned to hiccoughs, then died away. The sun disappeared below the edge of the world, and the sky deepened.

After a while Dart sent, **Better now?**

Shushen rubbed angrily at his eyes. He did not look up. **I don’t know what just happened. But I can’t stand it that I’m not brave like you.**

Dart didn’t know how to answer that. Instead, he said, “Shushen, whatever just happened was a good thing. A special thing. I’m sure of it.” He paused. “I really am sorry I didn’t tell you about the jackals. I didn’t want to tell anyone. Because I wasn’t even sure, until I was with my father just now, that saving them was right.”

“And now you think it is? In spite of your father?” Shushen at last raised his eyes again.

“Yes,” Dart said.

“But– they’re jackals.”

Dart looked at him. “Do you think you could try to forget that? Because I really need your help.”

“My help? How?”

“I’m not sure yet. But I helped save them, and now I’ve got to try to help them grow up.”


Dart put his hands on Shushen’s shoulders. “You’re braver than you think you are. I’ll show you.”

Shushen took a deep breath. “I-I’ll try.”

Dart nodded. He could feel Shushen’s sincerity– could understand him, now, in a way that was beyond words.

**Thanks. My . . . little soul brother.**

**Soul brother.** Shushen smiled.

Days passed. Dart knew his father must have told his mother what had happened at the wolf dens, because his father never kept anything from his mother. But neither of them said anything about it to Dart.

He went out every evening to check on the jackal cubs– sometimes with Newstar, sometimes with Shushen, sometimes with both. Shushen was determined, now, to overcome his distaste of the little creatures– and it was clear he was beginning to actually care about them. Newstar’s tenderness towards the cubs seemed to be helping him see them through her eyes.

Then one afternoon, just as Dart came down into the village after his sleep, he was startled to hear Adhri screaming for Leetah. He ran, catching up with Newstar as crowds of Wolfriders and Sun Villagers poured into Savah’s hut. Finding themselves at the back, Dart and Newstar wormed their way under elbows and between shoulders. It was unnaturally dark in the room, but after a few moments they could see what was happening. Little Suntop was kneeling on Savah’s lap, his arms around her shoulders, his head touching hers. Dart’s gut twisted at the strange stillness, the odd sense of lifelessness in the chamber, which normally was bright with the Mother of Memory’s warmth and spirit. He was shaken. Savah had been the soul of the village during all his life there. What could be wrong with her?

Dart could hardly believe his ears when Suntop, climbing down, began to beg to be taken to his father. Apparently, whatever had done this to Savah was also a threat to Cutter and his quest.

As the Wolfriders began to question the lad, Dart looked up at Leetah’s stunned face. All at once he knew she would go to her lifemate– and that his tribe would consider themselves bound by honor to protect their chief’s family on the way.

They were leaving, then. Dart’s heart gave a leap at the excitement, the adventure of it. But then he looked at Newstar, standing in front of him at the foot of Savah’s chair, frozen into a stillness not unlike like the Mother of Memory’s. Newstar stared back at him, and Dart looked up at Savah again, shaken this time by a sudden sense of loss. Amid the tumult of the crowd, the hubbub of voices, Dart and Newstar stood and found nothing at all to say.

That evening, restless and aimless, Dart wandered through the village. Everywhere, villagers were gathered in agitated groups, their voices raised to near hysteria at what had happened to Savah, and at the thought of Leetah and the Wolfriders’ departure. Dart knew he should be busy himself, deciding on necessities to take and treasures to store away. But his mind was numb, and he didn’t seem to be able to bring himself to begin.

He peeked into Savah’s chamber and shuddered a little at her blank gaze. Slipping back out without anyone noticing him, Dart headed back to the Wolfriders’ caves, avoiding all the villagers. He didn’t want to hear their protests, or to try again to explain why their protectors had to leave.

He didn’t want to look again into Shushen’s stricken eyes.

As Dart entered his parent’s den, he could hear his mother humming to herself. She looked up from a pile of cured hides as he came in. “Oh, there you are, Dart. I need you to start cutting these out along the lines I’ve marked. Too many of us need new leathers to travel in– thank the High Ones yours and Strongbow’s are practically new already! But there’s still so much to do! Dewshine, Clearbrook, Nightfall . . .”

Dart knelt without a word and began to cut the hides. Moonshade’s harried words did not match her tone– in fact, he didn’t think he had ever heard her sound so cheerful. Waves of joyful anticipation were flowing from her to fill the entire cave.

He wished he could feel the same way himself. Instead, a lump of some heavy, cold metal seemed to have settled itself inside his gut.

A moment later Strongbow came in. He stood looking at his busy lifemate, and a rare smile softened his features. **How soon do you think you can be finished, beloved?** he asked her, and his sending held the same eager note that Dart had heard in her voice. A pang shook him. What was wrong with him, that he didn’t want to go?

His mother’s eyes were teasing as she looked up at his father. **It will be sooner if you either help, or stay out of the way,** she countered.

**I have hunting to do,** he replied. **We all must be full-fed — especially the wolves. And more meat must be dried for the journey.**

Nevertheless he crouched for a moment across from Dart, took up a knife and sliced along the lines marked on the hides. Moonshade smiled at him and caressed the back of his neck, and his hand stole up to touch hers.

Dart felt suddenly embarrassed. “I’d better go,” he said.

**Finish helping your mother first,** Strongbow commanded, meeting Dart’s eyes across the pile of hides.

Dart sighed. “Very well, Father.”

Strongbow was looking at him, hard. Dart drew in his breath, uncomfortable under that intense gaze. There was a pause.

Then his father laid down the knife and the hide and put a hand on Dart’s shoulder. **Do you remember, son, what we left behind when we came here? We may find a place like it somewhere.**

His father was lock-sending. Dart closed his eyes.

Cool, leafy silence. Moist earth, and the damp air of morning. Green shadows flitted over elfin forms as they hid deep in the undergrowth.

A proud, antlered head; the measured tread of hooves. The scent of the deer sending a thousand messages racing down nerve pathways. The twang of the bow. The triumph as the target fell. The taste of the red blood. . .

The vision faded. Dart looked into brown eyes filled with a terrible longing. His own wolf blood was rising hot inside him in response. Of course he wanted to go– he must go. He must return to the forest, to stalk, hunt and kill. It was the Way.

After a moment Strongbow took up his bow and left the cave again. Dart finished cutting parts of vests and leggings out of the soft, cured leather, nodded at his mother’s thanks, and left.

Outside the cave, Dart passed a hand over his eyes as the strength of his father’s vision finally waned. Then he stiffened. The jackal cubs! How could he have forgotten about them?

He hurried out to the wolf dens. They appeared deserted. But Dart caught the now-familiar scent of the cubs and followed it into Silvergrace’s den.

The mother wolf lay still as the sleeping cubs pillowed themselves against her warm underside. Beside her, curled into the curve of the den wall, lay Rainsong.

Dart had caught her scent, too, of course, but he still felt a jolt of surprise at seeing her here, looking out of place in her moth-fabric villager clothes. He wondered how long she had known about the cubs.

Rainsong gave him a serene smile. “Silvergrace let me know she was feeding newcomers,” she said, a little hint of merriment in her voice. “It looks like between you, you are taking very good care of them.”

Dart didn’t know what to say. “I-I thought you were staying in the village till the baby comes,” he managed after a moment.

Rainsong smiled again. “I was. But with all the talk of leaving, I had to find out what Silvergrace wants to do. Woodlock and I need to stay, because of the cub coming. But Silvergrace’s mate is going with Strongbow. I wanted her to know she could make her own choice.”

Dart looked down at the peaceful she-wolf. “And. . . and did she decide?” he asked slowly.

Rainsong nodded. “She wants to stay here and take care of these cubs. And protect me, of course.” She paused. “Woodlock’s wolf-friend is staying, too. He’s always been a low wolf in the pack, and he’ll probably find things easier, now, with just Silvergrace his mother. The others are all going.”

A sudden hope blossomed in Dart’s mind. The little jackal cubs would be able to grow up now, with only their foster mother and her gentle, grown cub to deal with. Dart could be easier in his mind about them.

He thanked Rainsong, left her with her wolf-friend, and went away. There was something she had said about choice. . .

Had he made any real choice about what he was doing? He had assumed he was going, just as his father and mother and everyone else had. The idea of staying had not really occurred to him as something he could actually do.

Mulling this over, Dart returned to the village. He found all at once that he wanted to talk with Newstar.

When he arrived at their hut, he found Wing sitting on the ground outside the door, his knees drawn up like a grasshopper’s, his head hanging down between them. He was scraping despondently in the dirt with a stick.

Dart knelt beside him. “What’s the matter, Wing?”

The blue eyes looked up frankly into his. “Everyone’s going away. Ember and Suntop, you– all my friends except Shushen. And now Newstar says she’s going, too. It’s going to be no fun around here any more.”

“Newstar’s going too?” Surprised, Dart jumped up. “Where is she?”

Wing jerked his thumb towards the hut door. “In there, arguing with Father.”

Dart was too agitated to wait. He brushed aside the bead curtain and went in.

“But I’m a Wolfrider, too!” Newstar was saying, her eyes fixed on Woodlock as he stood in front of her, arms folded, brow lowered in what was almost a scowl.

“And your mother and I aren’t?” he growled.

“You know I don’t mean that.” Newstar’s voice trembled. “But I’m almost grown now. The cub coming isn’t a good enough excuse for me to stay.”

“You think we’re using the cub as an excuse?” Woodlock sounded really angry now.

“No! For you, it’s a reason– a real one. And of course Wing needs to stay with you. But I’m too old not to do what’s right, for myself!”

“And leaving us is what’s right for you?”

“It’s right to go help our chief!” There was something like a sob in Newstar’s voice.

Woodlock’s folded arms tightened. “All your mother and I ever wanted was for you to have a safe place to grow up. And you’re not leaving here till you’ve finished doing it!”

Newstar’s breath caught. She stood frozen for a long moment. “You are forbidding me to go?”

“That’s right.” Woodlock’s voice held a hint of weariness now.

Without another word, Newstar turned and fled from the hut.

Woodlock seemed to see Dart for the first time as he stood there speechless. Passing a hand across his forehead, Woodlock sighed. “Go after her, Dart. Please.”

Dart nodded. He left the hut without having spoken a word.

Newstar’s scent was muddled by the scents of the village, but Dart found it as it led up the face of a bluff. A light footstep behind him made him turn his head, and he stopped as Shushen trotted up.

Shushen said nothing about Dart’s leaving. Pain and acceptance were mingled together in his gaze, but his words spoke only of the need of the moment. “Is something wrong, brother?” He let the last word fall slowly off his tongue as if he enjoyed the sound of it.

Dart gave him a grateful look. “It’s Newstar. She decided to go with Leetah, like the other Wolfriders, but her father just said no. We have to find her– she was really upset.”

“Oh.” Shushen nodded. He kept up easily as Dart sprang up the bluff, and part of Dart’s mind wondered if it was being with him that had helped Shushen have more speed and stamina than the other villagers. But just then he caught a glimpse of Newstar, and the thought passed from his mind.

She was standing on the edge of the bluff, looking out to where the Bridge of Destiny stood stark against the clear sky. Her body was quivering with silent weeping.

**Newstar!** Dart let his concern pour though his sending.

She turned, saw them, and stood without moving, waiting for them to approach. With his eyes on her, Dart sprang forward, then stopped with a cry of pain, fighting to keep from falling.

“What happened?” Shushen’s hand was on his shoulder.

“My foot!” Dart grimaced as he clutched his leg in his hands. His foot was caught up to the ankle in a crack between large, flat rocks. He tried to pull it out and sat down hard, his breath hissing through his teeth.

“Here, let me try.” Newstar was beside him on her knees, scrabbling at the rocks with her slender fingers. “The rocks must have slipped when you stepped on them,” she said. “We have to pry them apart.”

“Should have been– paying– more attention–” Dart ground out.

“You were worrying about Newstar, not yourself,” Shushen said softly. He pulled Dart’s arrow whip out of its holder on Dart’s back and pushed the end into the crack. The rocks shifted. Newstar took hold of Dart’s ankle and pulled his foot out. Dart cried out again.

“Oh, Dart. Is it broken?” Newstar gasped.

Dart grinned and grimaced at the same time, as he rotated his ankle and moved his toes. “No, that’s not why I yelled. A much stupider reason.” He pulled his torn boot top down, and they both saw the deep gash that the rock had scraped in his ankle.

“My boot kept it from being worse,” Dart said. “But Mother will be wild that I‘ve torn it– she’s got so much else to do.”

“We can stitch it ourselves,” Newstar said, fingering the leather. “But what matters now is that cut.” She stood up. “I’ll be right back.”

She was gone only a moment. When she returned she was holding what looked like a piece of thick, fleshy grass that had tried growing stickers and then thought better of it. “Toorah showed me this,” Newstar said, squeezing thick juice from the broken end of the plant into Dart’s cut. “It will keep the wound from getting poisoned, and deaden the pain until we can get you to Leetah.”

“Thanks, Newstar,” Dart said. “I’m not sure Leetah really needs to see this. It’s not that bad.”

“B-but Leetah always heals everything!” Shushen stammered. “That looks like it hurts! You’re not going to tell her?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll decide later.” But Dart felt uneasy. If the Sun Villagers didn’t know how to take even a little pain, maybe it was a good thing for them that Leetah was going away.

Shushen stared at him, but said nothing more. After a moment Newstar said, “Why did you follow me out here?”

Dart took a breath. “Woodlock asked me to. He feels bad about what happened, Newstar. I could tell.”

Newstar drew away from them a little, turning to stare out over the bluffs. “Why doesn’t he want me to do what’s right? He’s never acted like this before.”

It was true. The coming of the humans had brought out a side to Newstar’s father that Dart had never seen before.

“I think it’s because he cares about you so much,” Dart said slowly. “He’s snarling like Briarsting over a new litter.”

“But I’m almost grown!” The hurt was back in Newstar’s voice. Dart thought of the way little Ember would rage and fight when she was thwarted, comparing it to this wounded distress of Newstar’s. He didn’t know which was harder to deal with.

“Newstar,” said Shushen all at once, “why is going with the Wolfriders ‘what’s right’?”

Newstar stared at him. “Because we have to help our chief.”

“But does he need all of you?” Shushen persisted. “Does he need– you?”

Visibly shaken, Newstar said nothing.

“Look what you just did for Dart.” Shushen’s hand brushed the air over Dart’s ankle. “You know this place, Newstar. It’s your place. You can do good here.” After a pause he added, “If you have to go, you have to go. But do you really want to go?”

Newstar didn’t answer. There was a long silence. Then she rose and began to walk down towards the village. Dart limped along after her, and Shushen took up the rear.

Just inside the ring of huts, Woodlock had clearly been waiting for them. Newstar stopped, startled, as her father approached. His step was firm, yet his shoulders sagged as they had when he had failed to kill the human child.

“Newstar,” he said in low voice. “You were right– you’re old enough to make up your own mind. You. . . can go with the Wolfriders.”

Newstar put her arms around her father and laid her head on his chest. “Thank you, Father. But I’ve already decided to stay.”

Dart stood in the mouth of the Wolfriders’ caves, waiting with the others for Leetah and the twins to come and begin their journey. Behind him the Wolfriders exclaimed over the new leathers Moonshade had finished so quickly. In the village below, the Sun Villagers had gathered again to talk and wave their arms in agitation.

**Look at those brown-skinned rabbits!** Strongbow sent contemptuously. **Yap! Yap! Yap! Always talking. No one ever just does anything around here!**

Treestump answered him, his voice soothing, but Dart wasn’t listening. Anger flared up in him at his father’s intolerance of the gentle people Dart had grown up with. But then his anger was tempered by insight– insight born of all that had happened since the night of Ember’s bonding.

Strongbow’s words came mostly from impatience to leave this place where every contact made him bitterly homesick for the simple life he had lost. All his frustrations through the long seasons of living in a place he could not understand– and which could not understand him– were wrapped up in that testy sending.

And Dart, so well able to understand both, was caught in the middle.

Shushen’s words to Newstar had not been lost on Dart. He knew the Sun Village as she did– loved it as she did. But where Newstar’s dilemma had been easily resolved once she saw that her duty and her desire did not have to be at odds, Dart was caught between duties and desires that refused to lie down together in any sort of peace.

How could he leave this place where he belonged? Whatever Strongbow’s reasons, it was still wrong to hold these people in contempt. There was more to the villagers than his father– or even they themselves– knew, and Dart thought there must be some way to show them that. And then there was Shushen, his new soul-brother. And there were jackal cubs that might still need some help to survive.

He wondered what the Sun Villagers were going to do once the hunters were gone. Woodlock and Rainsong would die defending their children and the village if humans came— but they were not enough. And they were not hunters— as far as Dart knew, they never really had been, even in the old Holt. Maybe he should— but no. How could he let his parents, his people, ride away without him? How could he hurt his mother– and yes, his father– by refusing to go with them? How could he turn his back on the vision of the green woods Strongbow had shown him?

How would he be able to bear it when they were gone?

And anyway, because he had not known what else to do, Dart had prepared himself for the journey. And now he stood silent, his thoughts in turmoil, as they had been since Newstar had made her choice. He stood that way without moving until at last he could see Leetah and the twins approaching, surrounded by villagers still desperately trying to change her mind.

As the Wolfriders left the cave to meet her– Strongbow already mounted on Briarsting as if he was ready to ride away this instant– Dart looked at the villagers, not as a swarm of bothersome interferers, but as individuals. There was Minyah, her eyes wide and imploring, reaching out to touch Leetah as she passed, but saying no word. There was Ahnshen, babbling out something, anything, to at least delay Leetah another moment. Shushen stood a little distance away, his face set in an encouraging smile that did little to hide his pain. Near him, Zhantee stood impossibly still, with a look in his eyes that Dart didn’t quite understand.

Then Adjah stepped between Leetah and the Wolfriders, holding out his hands to stop her. “Wait, Leetah, please! What if those human creatures come again? What if mountain lions descend to attack us? Rayek used to guard the village before the Wolfriders took his place. Without them, we will be defenseless!”

And then, like a bird settling into its nest, Dart’s mind came to a sudden clarity. His doubts fell away. He knew what he needed to do.

“No, you won’t–” he said in a strong, carrying voice “–because I’m going to stay and teach you how to fight for yourselves!”

“Dart!” his mother gasped.

Anger like a swift storm swept across the gathering, and Dart turned to look into the thundercloud that was Strongbow’s face.

“Father, I-I want to do this– I have to! I grew up here in Sorrow’s End!” He could not keep a tremor out of his voice. His father’s displeasure was flooding all of his senses– and behind it, as Dart had known there would be, was pain. Humans had taken the forest from Strongbow, and the desert had taken his way of life. Now Sorrow’s End was taking his son.

Then, as if oblivious to the heaviness in the very air around them, other Sun Villagers broke in.

“You? A spindly, half-grown youth will be our chief hunter and protector?”

“Ah! We are lost!”

Now the pain was Dart’s as he turned to answer them. But before their estimation of him could fully sink in, Strongbow’s furious growl snapped across the crowd. “That ‘spindly youth’ is my son! And he’s worth the lot of you put together!” His finger rose and stabbed the air at the startled hearers.

Pleasure and triumph lifted Dart’s head and shoulders as the voice few villagers had ever heard berated them. “He can teach you to hunt and to fight! It’s your own hides if you’re too fancy to learn!”

Dart could hardly believe his ears. He turned joyfully back to his parents. “Mother! Father! Thank you! I was sure you’d disapprove!”

**I do.** Strongbow’s face was still stern, though Moonshade, standing beside Briarsting, had lowered her head in grief and acceptance. The villagers, cowed, had subsided.

Very deliberately, Strongbow took Dart’s chin in his hand and lifted his face to his own, while Moonshade laid her hands on his shoulders from behind. **You’re wasting your time on these shivering fawns,** his father sent, **but it’s your decision.** The hand that held Dart’s face moved slightly in what was almost a caress. **Just remember, you’re a Wolfrider! Don’t ever forget where you came from!**

It was as if the village, Leetah, everything else had disappeared. Nothing existed at that moment but Dart and his parents, caught up in one last, endless moment together. His mother’s tenderness bathed Dart’s soul as he stood arrested by the fierce love in his father’s eyes. Any watching villagers must have thought their parting very cold, as Strongbow then turned away without word or gesture, and Moonshade simply stepped back, watching Leetah and the twins not far away, saying their last goodbyes. But Dart knew what he knew.

Then the Wolfriders were calling, the wolves pouring down out of the hills in answer, and the riders and their mounts lifting their voices together in one triumphant farewell. Leetah and her cubs mounted a zwoot and clucked to another one loaded down with tent and supplies. The travelers moved out, padding quietly into the evening-cool sand, while the Sun Villagers watched from a distance, having at last no more words to say.

Shushen and Newstar approached Dart from either side as he stood staring after the departing tribe. Newstar put a hand on his arm. “I’m glad you’re staying, Dart.”

“Me, too!” said Shushen, his young voice awash in joy and relief.

Dart shook himself a little, still stunned by what he had seen in a single flash in that last moment with Strongbow.

His father was proud of him. Whether or not he approved of Dart’s choice, he was proud Dart had stood up to him and to the villagers– proud that his son had made his own decision, proud that he was taking on, unflinchingly, responsibilities beyond his years.

It was an overwhelming thought. But now Woodlock was approaching, a smile of approbation warming his usually reserved features. He put an arm around Newstar. “Well, Dart. It looks to me like two Wolfrider cubs have grown up in the past few days.”

Newstar glowed with pleasure. “Father, is there room in our hut for Dart to stay? He won’t want to live in the caves all by himself.”

“But you’ve got a cub coming!” Dart said, thinking of Woodlock and Rainsong’s already-crowded hut.

“No,” Shushen said firmly. “He’s coming to live with me. I asked my parents just now, and it’s all settled.”

All settled. Dart smiled, warm inside with the knowledge that this was right, that he had done the right thing. He took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Shushen. Let’s go home.”

Illustrations for this story by Bonita