Written by Wordgazer
Chitter found the wolf cub near dawn, while walking with her father. It lay stiff in the closed flowers, its lips drawn back from its teeth as if snarling. Silent for once, she crouched, staring.
“Papa?” she whispered.
He was at her side then, gazing down with her. His hand dropped to her shoulder. *It’s dead, cub.*
In her five turns of the seasons, she had seen dead animals many times, had eaten with relish what was given her– but never one of her pack. This one was not bonded with any of her tribe, but it didn’t matter. Wolfriders, wolves, Preservers, Shuna and Bee– all were part of her, and she of them. None of these could. . . die. Could they? And yet the cub’s still, unseeing eye stared up at her.
Chitter shuddered. “What happened, Papa?”
Strongbow crouched next to her, bent close and sniffed. *Not sure. It ate something bad, I think.*
“Papa. . .” Her voice was a sob. “Papa, talk. Don’t send.”
She was getting better at sending, but she still found words so much easier. They said only one thing at a time, without all the shades of emotion and thought that complicated what she had once called “think-talk.” She looked up at her father now, wanting him to make this simple.
He pulled her up beside him as he rose, and gazed down into her face. “It’s the Way, Chitter. The cub was foolish. He wandered far from the den, ate something the pack hadn’t brought him to eat. It’s the Way.”
His voice seemed harsh. Chitter didn’t know why. Suddenly she wriggled free of his hands on her arms, skittering back out of reach. “Don’t you care?!” she shouted.
Strongbow’s lips were set. “It doesn’t matter if I care, Chitter. It’s the Way.”
“You don’t care!” she cried. “And I don’t like the Way!”
And she turned and ran.
Her father’s fierce sending nearly pulled her to a stop. *Chitter! Come back!* But Chitter squared her chin, steeled herself and rushed deep into the woods.
It was her favorite time of night– what she usually called “the shiny time.” Early dew sparkled on each blade of grass, wherever the trees did not hide it from the setting moons. But a fog was beginning to seep up from the ground as sun-comes-up approached, covering low-lying spots with glowing whiteness. Tonight, though, Chitter had no eyes for enchantment. She swung up into a tree, then across to another, and huddled deep within the leaves. A shadow passed under the tree as her father hunted for her. But he had lost her scent for the moment. Chitter waited, then moved to another tree, jumped down and across an open space and back up into branches again. She was not ready to be found yet.
Darkness deepened as she moved on and the moons set. The fog was gathering thicker and thicker. Chitter was no longer sure where the Holt lay. Her father’s sendings, close and stern at first, had grown faint. She couldn’t tell which direction they were coming from. There was a hint of alarm in them now.
Then, out of nearby trees, a mountain cat growled. Chitter froze. All at once she knew what a terrible mistake she had made.
*Papa!* she sent, as hard as she could. *Papa! Help!* The image that that growl had formed within her flashed through her sending. Her father’s mind-voice burned suddenly intense and clear as he located hers.
*Don’t move, cub!*
She didn’t move. The mountain cat would surely chase and catch her if she tried to get away. But she could picture it creeping, creeping closer. . . Chitter’s heart pounded. She hoped the mountain cat couldn’t hear it.
Imperceptibly, the woods were lightening with the approaching sun. Through the fog Chitter could now make out the shadow of the cat, now in the next tree; its haunches were gathered under it, getting ready to spring–
An arrow thudded into the tree a finger’s breadth from the mountain cat’s shoulder. Startled, it turned and leaped away. Crying with relief, Chitter slid down the tree.
Silent as the forest itself, her father’s dark form loomed over her in the fog. Chitter trembled. She could have been killed. What was he going to say?
“I-I’m sorry, Papa,” she breathed.
Silence. The black shadow standing over her did not move.
Then, after a breathless instant, her father was on his knees, pulling her to his chest with arms strong as bright-metal. His bow fell behind him into the grass. He buried his face in her hair. *Cubling. . . *
Chitter clung to him, shaking with sobs. “I-I was almost just like that wolf cub, Papa.”
A sending without words washed over her. Grief for the wolf cub, fear for her, savage, desperate relief– Chitter understood, all at once, how it could be better for her father to send than to speak.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” she repeated, hiccoughing.
His response was to press her to his chest again. She whispered into his ear, “Why didn’t you kill the mountain cat, Papa?”
He looked down at her with a half-smile, his brown eyes tender. “When a scare was all that was needed? Why kill then, cub?”
She nodded, rubbing her face on his vest to dry her tears. “M-maybe I do like the Way after all.”
Strongbow’s smile widened. *That’s my cub.*
“Let’s go home, Papa.”
“Let’s go home.”