An ElfQuest fan fiction
by Jerelyn Foxeye Parker
If the tribe of feral elves known as the Wolfriders woke to a clear night sky and bright moon, they hunted. If the tribe woke to a cloudy night, they indulged in making mischief on the aboriginal humans. If the tribe woke to heavy rains, they mended leathers and memories. The chambers of living, hollowed-out Father Tree, which looked like nothing so much as giant ant boles, were none very big, but Wolfriders were small and did not mind close quarters any more than a den of wolf cubs did. They were always eager to share company on rainy nights.
Not tonight, however, for one bedraggled elf.
Hair and leathers lay heavy on her frame. She swayed with the gait of the wolf she rode. He was running hard, urged on by the energy of her elf-friend. Though she and her burden were heavy with rain, Windchaser was a fast wolf, and her rider was a slip of an elf-child. No human could have seen them, nor fox smelled them, nor deer heard them, if there were any about in the torrent. The rain fell too hard, thick, and loud for any creature's senses.
Even the touching-sense was dulled. It was a cold rain, as rains were in the season of New Green, and the elf's hands were too numb to feel the fur that they clutched.
**Crescent?** The telepathic query of her closest friend, Eyes High, brought with it a moment's sensation of warm bodies and light from bear-fat candles. Eyes High was back at the Father Tree, listening to stories.
Crescent tried to blink the rain from her eyelashes. Eyes High persisted in using her name as if it implied the union of the moon with a strung bow. Crescent was the daughter of Moonshade the tanner and Strongbow the archer, and the implication that she was a harmonious blend of their two natures was, to Eyes High, a pleasant consideration. To Crescent, however, and to much of the tribe, the name was best considered a representation of something lean, sharp, and, as far as moons were concerned, on the verge of changing. Sometimes disappearing. Sometimes pushing out more and more space for herself.
Crescent sent a mind-touch without words back to her friend. A confirmation of her attention.
**You are missing out on so much fun!** With Eyes High's sending Crescent could sense Pike's mind-touch as well, and she smiled. **Longreach is telling a story about Bite and his wolf Bluerump...we're laughing so hard we sound like migrating geese.** Crescent saw and felt through Eyes High that Longreach was imitating a wolf scratching its rectum on the dirt. Treestump stood above him, convulsing with laughter.
**Maybe you can tell it to me when I return?** Crescent hoped.
**Me? Oh, I wouldn't be as funny as Longreach. Most of the time he is so calm, so when he starts things like this...**
**Where are you?**
Windchaser stopped herself at the top of an eroded bank. Below them thrashed the stream, winding away into the gray haze of rain. Windchaser knew where to go and carefully made her way along the upper edge of the bank, slinking around the larger trunks and under the boughs of younger ones.
**Hunting small game.**
**Like last time. Crescent...why do you hunt everytime it rains like this? You sneak away without any other hunters.**
**I like hunting with only Windchaser.**
**But only when it rains!**
Crescent did not answer. Her dark eyes were straining to follow the stream. Even for an elf's eyes, it was hard to see in such a dark night.
**And you like to gaze at the sky,** she finally sent.
**Yes, but - **
**I like to hunt in the rain.**
**But humans!** Fear erupted out of Eyes Highs mind into Crescents. **It isn't safe!!**
**Humans don't like the rain any more than we do. I don't need to be afraid of them.**
**I'll be fine! Now stop worrying about me or you'll miss the ending.**
Crescent gently shut her mind to her friend. Telling Eyes High the complete truth would lead to further questions, and she was not in the mood to discuss what she did. She simply wanted to do.
The truth was that for what she hunted, the rain was ideal. It was something she chose not to share with the tribe. There were times when a Wolfrider began to do something considered not part of the WolfSong, and this was Crescent's time for that.
Their down-stream journey ended at a small pool in the stream, as long as a hand of bears standing nose to tail, and five bears wide. Crescent swung her leg off of Windchaser. Free of her rider, Windchaser quickly found herself an overhanging ledge where she could hide from the downpour. The surface water jumped, tiny craters created and lost in less than moments, hiding whether the pool was normally calm or turgid.
Crescent peeled her breeches and vest from her skin. She tightened her knife belt. She was already numb, but she did not want to be heavy or clumsy as well. By Timmain's Tail, I remember this being much more pleasant when the days were longer! Her shoulders tensed in expectation and she stepped off of the bank into the water.
Timmorn's Blood! It was cold. Windchaser reproached her with her golden eyes. Crescent stepped with caution. It was impossible to see her feet and nearly so to feel them. The bottom of the pool was mostly pebble. There was no sand to be stirred upward by her movements or by the gyrating surface. Tiny silvery folds of the eye scattered away from her calves. The minnows chased each other throughout the water, hunting the tiny pool prey that minnows hunted. Crescent froze. Her legs were braced wide and her arms hovered around her waist, hands open and tense. Dark, thick locks adhered down her forehead and cheeks and shoulders. Violet eyes reflected the barest of the darkness, but gazed down hard at the water. This was a huntress. The intensity and focus seen in the eye of Strongbow along the shaft of a strung arrow vibrated through the drenched and gaunt body. Violet eyes narrowed into concealed caverns. Her frostbitten ears shivered.
Her skin was not so numb yet that movement of the water around her knees and calves was undetectable. Just so, the rain clouds made the sky dark, but not entirely black. It was with the slightest of night glows and the barest of touches that she focused. Under the gyrations of the surface were other disturbances. The ripples of the water reflected inky black as well as faint silver/blue. Under the ripples of silver were deeper, subtler, longer gleams of silver. They moved the water. They nosed the surface. They came to dance their fluid silver dance when the sky was dark and the rain brought the pool to life. It was here, at last, that Crescent felt that her name aptly chosen. These dancers were silver slips of a crescent moon that she was named for.
A quick clench of the jaw. Her butt and back tensed. Hands shot into the water and reemerged holding a thrashing, startled, fish. Crescent flung the fish onto the nearby bank. She had little time to revel, but her hands remembered the slickness and strength of the streamline body.
It was the simplest of hunts. No tracking. No arrows and spears. No chasing. Only the patience to be still. Waiting. Feeling. Balancing. Focusing. To move before time was failure. To move too slow at the necessary moment was to find your hands empty. If the prey was caught, it was never a wounded beast. It thrashed with a strength of a creature that was all limb and no torso. If it didn't slip from her hands before she had a firm grasp within the water, it was sometimes lost when she threw it.
Crescent knew well that this hunt was utterly un-Wolfrider, but it was utterly enthralling. The creatures loved nighttime best, and for reasons she did not seek to understand, were brought from their hidey-holes when heavy rain played with the pool. So here she was, risking cold-sickness, for a hunt. A new kind of hunt.
These fish were large enough that two filled her stomach. To her dismay, there was no reason to ever catch more. No other elves enjoyed the taste of fish. Or so she assumed. She had not asked, of course, but certainly Bearclaw would sneer at the idea of enjoying the pale flesh.
Let him sneer, she consoled herself. I get rotgut far less often when I fill my stomach with these.
Crescent had to attempt three more times before she successfully flung another fish onto the bank. That done, she walked out of the pool and used her knife to cut where she thought the throat of the fish to be. Crescent crouched under a small but thickly-needled tree. She cut the white flesh of the fish away from their bones, and scraped away scales, some falling to cling to her skin. The creamy flesh had a tangy flavor. Not so thick as red meat, but as juicy.
When summer came, she would eat her fish with leisure. No sooner. She was risking the cold-sickness. She had to eat quickly, put on leathers that she had wrung dry, and return to the holt. The tribe was busy with their stories. She would not be noticed in her furs until the next night when she was called for hunt.
Woodlock was the only one to see Crescent return. He held a boarskin cloak over his head and shoulders to shield away the rain. Curious pale eyes watched the young elf climb up the side of the Father Tree and crawl into her small den. He remembered Strongbow's troubled expression earlier. He suspected that the cub was responsible.
**They did not wake me for the hunt,** Crescent met her mother's eyes, identical to her own, with uncertainty. The grindstone and leather scraper in her hands had grown silent.
"Bearclaw does not need every hunter, cub. Perhaps he thinks you are ill. You did not join us yesterday, after all."
An indignant twitch straightened Crescent's back. **A likely excuse! Bearclaw does not think! **
Moonshade bent down to take the scraper from her daughter's hands, dark hair tumbling in Crescent's face like the wings of dark birds.
**Such judgements from a young girl!** She touched noses affectionately, then picked her way with bare legs over bowls of leather and dye and tangles of sinew to be made into thread. The two were in one of the roots of Father Tree, a chamber which had long been Moonshade's to make her leathers in. It was here that Crescent had surprised her mother with the sudden desire to be born. Since her birth, Crescent had been at home amongst the leathers, lacings, dyes and frames of her mother's work. Her favorite things were the leathers. The smell and soft yet rough texture. As a child she had played games, making tents and nests for herself.
Many turns of the seasons later, Crescent tried to assist her mother. Sharpening tools. Scraping hides. Gathering plants and clays for the dyes. She did not have her mother's talent, not even as much as Moonshade had shown at Crescent's age, but to her the making of leathers was an action of comfort and creativity.
An abandoned stretch of leather made its way into her hands thoughtlessly. Her lips tightened. The mindtouch of her mother had been like the perfume of lavender flowers, affectionate but teasing. That was the way between them. Nonetheless, Crescent remained uneasy.
"But Bearclaw said me that he would bring me on the hunt more often. He knows that I need more experience, especially with the older hunters. I've hunted small game with Eyes High, Pike, Foxfur, and Redmark. Now I need to know how to Hunt for the larger animals. He said I was experienced enough! Even father said I was much better at aiming from Windchaser. He took Foxfur and Redmark, why not — "
"You already said it. Bearclaw doesn't...think. He forgets."
Moonshade looked up. Crescent loved her father very deeply, almost adoringly. It was inevitable that she was sensitive where he was concerned, and they were already beginning to clash. Strongbow had a harder and harder time knowing how to relate to his moody and enthusiastic daughter.
**Yes, he does, daughter-of-my-heart.** In sending there could be no lies. No half-truths spoken for mere comfort's sake. Crescent was satisfied.
Flashing a white grin, Crescent began to play with the leather on her lap. It was the undyed skin of a large ravvit, cured to flower-petal softness.
"What will this be used for?" Crescent rubbed it against her face, inhaling the sharp, thick tang.
Moonshade leaned toward Crescent to look closer. She sighed ruefully.
"Lacings? This?! This is one of the softest leathers you have right now! You shouldn't waste it on lacings!" Crescent ran the leather across her bare back and shoulders to demonstrate.
"It isn't big enough or shaped right enough for anything else, and it isn't strong enough for a pouch. See that one ragged edge? Shale's new cub-friend, Coldtip, chewed on that corner, and now it isn't good for much."
"Good for much....? I don't believe that!" Crescent stood and began to press the leather against her body, wrapping it in a myriad of ways. Moonshade stopped her scraping to watch the performance. She had to blink her eyes to keep from seeing a small, pudgy child in place of the tall, sinewy elf that Crescent was growing into. When Crescent ended her experimentations, the leather covered her breasts and one shoulder. Crescent was smiling proudly.
"You see? You just have to listen to what the leather is telling you."
Moonshade unsettled herself to go circle her daughter, noting where Crescent had to hold the leather to make it stay. She would have to add a small extension on one edge to keep it from being too tight and several lacings, but the garment would be comfortable for a summer tunic. She nodded her grudging approval.
"You see mother? You always try to take the pieces you want from the leather. You pride yourself so much on straight lines and clean cuts that you miss the fun of the shape. For you it is both sleeves there and lacings in the front and — "
Moonshade pulled the leather away from Crescent. "Impudent tailchaser! Just which of us is the tanner in this room?"
"Now that you mention it...I was just starting to wonder whether..." Crescent was grinning as Moonshade chased her backwards to the room's exit.
"Out! Out! Leave me to do my work in peace!" Moonshade was smiling as Crescent climbed out of the room. She looked at the leather in her hand thoughtfully.
Blackbark had taught her that only an inexperienced tanner couldn't make a straight tunic with clean stitches. If she could get more use out of the smaller, irregular pieces, however, that lesson just might be worth reconsidering.
Crescent emerged out of a dark center of the Father Tree into a holt of shadows underfoot and windy treetops above. Looking up, she saw few stars. Clouds covered many of them, and the newly erupted, wavering, spring leaves obscured many more. She marveled at the breezes, so cold that they bit, but spicy with the thaw of rotten vegetation and forest blossoms, newly opened to the sun. Crescent imagined how this forest would look in the brightness of day. Old trees would have trunks rippled in grays, browns and pale green lichens. Leaves would be so bright that the color was nearly a smell. Blossoms would astonish with clean whites and delicate blues and the startling deep pink that she ached to see in leathers.
Was she the only one of her tribe that mourned the loss of colors? Moonshade's dyes were muted and all but colorless in the twilight.
Crescent shook her head. She honestly preferred the peace of night, as did most of her tribe. It must have been different before the humans had arrived though. Wolves, and their riders, would hunt whenever their prey was about. That meant day, night, dawn and dusk. Humans, however, were active at day, and so now the Wolfriders chose to move only at night. Crescent had been born into a world of twilight hunts and untrustworthy humans.
Restless thoughts were becoming her habit. If she was to have a burr in her tail about wanting to fish, she would discover that she had a burr in her tail about hunting only at night, about her mother's method of sewing tunics, about not hunting with the elders of the tribe, about ...
It was her father. Crescent sat down on a root of the Father Tree, feeling guilty about her thoughts, as if they were an open sending.
She heard the soft thump! of feet on the soft ground. Strongbow, straightening his cloak around his shoulders, came to her side in the darkness. She pulled her knees tightly together, her hands cupped her elbows.
He lay a hand on her shoulder. **As I thought. You are troubled.** Crescent had her father's strong sending talent. However, where his mind-touches had the clarity and strength of a well-shot arrow, hers could become a net of emotions and words if she did not restrain herself. Moody and intense at times, her unthoughtful sendings had been known to spread her moods to others. If she was unhappy, the more sensitive of the tribe would glower. If she was ecstatic they would be giggling and joking.
**What happened last night Crescent?**
"What..?" She was surprised that his sending held only concern. There was no recrimination.
He knelt by her, his handsome face coming close enough to be seen. Dark eyes searched her face. **You were not with us. You do not join the tribe except when hunting. When you leave the Holt alone, you risk your life. Humans are becoming more and more of a danger!** His sending had turned sharp, and Crescent pulled away.
**You are becoming a lone wolf, Little Moon.**
"That is what you think?" She was startled.
Strongbow sighed and leaned back. **I would rather think you were avoiding us than that you were stupid.**
Crescent jerked to her feet, stunned by the unexpected criticism. Shock gave way to indignation and anger. She felt the roughness of the root against her calf. Crescent stepped backwards, almost tripping, to place something between herself and her father.
**Bearclaw...and now you...** She could not stop the pain-laden sending. **You think I don't understand? You think I am too young to understand how to take care of myself?** She took several more steps back.
She felt him pushing the emotionality of her sending away from him, imposing the order on his mind that he was known for. If he had not been her sire he would have been the strongest at ignoring the moodiness of her adolescent mind. Even now, she could feel that he gritted his teeth against the frustration she leaked. His mind came on strong and sure, and it began to extend past the borders of his own mind, towards hers.
**Crescent, calm yourself! Do not - **
**NO!** She clenched her teeth helplessly, fighting to keep his thoughts from her mind. **You don't know! You don't!** But he could not hear her, they were both fighting to hold the strength of the other from their mind. Crescent knew he would win the struggle. Experience was on his side. Yet she could not bear to be chastised yet again, and in such a profound way.
Crescent leaped back over the root and wrapped her arms around him.
"Please don't send." she pleaded. "Please father."
The pressure on her mind eased. Strongbow held her by the shoulders and held her away from him. His lips were narrow. Eyebrows hung low over his thoughtful eyes.
"I don't understand you daughter."
"I don't understand you either."
A wisp of a chuckle passed from sire to daughter. Strongbow lay his hand along the side of her face and thumbed dark bronze hairs away from her eyes. "No sending then."
Crescent nodded, knowing that she was still being treated like a cub, but pensive patience was preferable to protection.
"Are you avoiding the tribe?"
Crescent shook her head. "No. It is not that. I do like to be alone sometimes...but not all of the time."
"I...did want to be alone."
Strongbow took his hands from her face and shoulder and rise to his feet. "Last night was the last time. You will not leave the Holt alone again."
"You can't — "
"But..." Crescent found the root with her hands and sat up onto it.
She looked up at his face. Her mother had called her tailchaser, and never had she felt so much like one. Something in her could not tell him why she wanted to hunt alone. Yet she had to give him some reason why he should not prevent her from having time to herself. Her fish-hunting was a magical time for her. Sitting with her nails scratching across the ridges in the back of the root, she considered that perhaps what she did in the pools of the forest would not be such a matter of disdain for the Wolfriders. She did not know for certain that it was. It was merely her suspicion. Wolves did not hunt in the water. They ran through the forest on the scent of their prey, or at least on the scent of some other carnivore's left-overs. Her tribe-mates might accuse her of being like a bear, or even worse, like a human. Or they might not. Faced with the possibility that she would be watched and restrained by her father and the other elders, Crescent was tempted to explain everything to her father. Then he would understand why she had been alone. Maybe he would even want her to teach him.
It was tempting. Her fish were her secret though, and she realized as she followed one possibility to the next in the frantic irresolute circle, that the secret of it was as special as the hunt itself. She had never had a secret before. She doubted if anyone had had a secret among the Wolfriders for a hand of turns. There was no reason for it.
Strongbow waited patiently in front of her. What had her mother said about Strongbow forgetting? "Yes, he does, daughter-of-my-heart." Of course! Her father would forget and so would the others. And when they forgot...
**I understand. I will stay with the tribe.**
It did not cross her mind that she might forget.
The hind crushed a sapling as she stumbled and fell to her side. Pink saliva frothed from her lips as she brayed out her disbelief. Eyes rolling, her head bucked and front legs tried to raise her up. A dark shape brought death from the bushes. With a shift of the shadows and the slash of metal across her thick neck, the doe grew still.
The dark figure stood away. Starlight brought a gleam to a rope of silver hair and white arms, then the shadows covered all.
**Well done Crescent, this doe is yours. Your mother will be proud to cure this hide.**
**Aye lass,** Woodhue added his praise to that of his lifemate's. ** That was as calm and clean a kill as I've ever seen from a huntress your age. You have your sire's arm.**
Crescent walked under the starlight to the doe. She ran her hand around the arrow embedded between the ribs, captivated by the warmth of the doe's chest. The fur was soft. Soft as the ribcage was hard, and Crescent was amazed to see that her arrow had pierced between the ribs into the lungs, or perhaps the heart.
Her dark eyes gleamed up at the other hunters from within the fall of hair. **No, not his arm. His unflagging attention for moon after moon. With that much training, any of you could have picked a flea from Pike's hair.**
"Do I really have that many?" Pike wistfully.
**No,** Shale sent to them all. **It was a compliment. If you had as many fleas as Eyes High, you couldn't shoot an arrow through your hair without hitting a flea.**
They all heard the sound of bow hitting flesh and Shale's grunt of pain. **Be thankful I don't tell them where you have fleas you obnoxious creature.** Eyes High rode her wolf up to Crescent and climbed down. She was glaring behind her, bow held menacingly.
The wolf Clickclaw and Windchaser growled softly at each other. Windchaser stood at the ump of the deer, and Clickclaw at the bloody neck. Sighing, Crescent stood and straddled the doe. She growled lightly at both of them.
"Here." Crescent handed her bow to her friend. **I would like to bring this entire doe back to mother intact, for the sake of the hide. Would all of you help me to carry it?**
**Of course.** Clearbrook sent as hunt-leader. **All of you, tell your wolf-friend's that this is not for eating yet. We will gorge on this kill when Moonshade has taken the hide.**
It was a wet night, though the stars were bright. The rains had fallen during the day, leaving the foliage sleek with wet and the ground slick with mud. The hunting party of seven made their way slowly over dark hill and valley. Crescent and Pike carried the doe between them. His red thatch was more disarrayed than normal, thick with mud and twigs. He had been responsible for tracking the doe and would receive as much honor as Crescent.
Crescent smiled broadly over at the older elf and received a shy grin in response.
**It's good to have you hunting with us, lass. We were worried that we'd never see you on a hunt.**
**Eyes High, Redmark and I.**
**Oh, is that all? Not the entire tribe: elders, cubs, wolves, fleas, and all?**
**Them too. What do you expect? When a pouting cub's sending can cause even Rainsong to turn into a snarling bitch, I think the tribe has a right to make sure nothing happens to her.**
"Well done cubs!" Bearclaw lifted the doe above his head and turned around in a circle to display it to the welcoming party. Brownberry ducked quickly as one of the hooves swung at her. Longreach and Treestump quickly stepped up to take the doe from their chief. He let them take it, but yanked free the arrow.
His eyes glittered when he looked at the fletchings. "So, young Crescent has done this. Only one arrow?"
"Clearbrook finished the doe with her knife. I only slowed it."
"What?" Bearclaw grinned at them all. "Trying to shift the credit to another? Two-Spear's Shafts, girl, don't you want the right to knock anyone who calls you 'cub'? You could be considered an adult before any of the others here. And young at that!" He seemed to lick the words as they came past his teeth.
Crescent looked to Clearbrook and the older elf gave her an encouraging smile. Crescent did not feel encouraged. The attention of the chief was like standing at the edge of the human's encampment. You wanted to run, but were afraid that doing so would attract attention to you.
"It is the truth," she said slow and soft, thinking out her words. "I did not take the doe down by myself. First shot slowed her for the kill."
"But what a surprise even that was," Woodhue exclaimed. "Pike here thought he'd try and to jump the doe himself. He ended up deep in the mud and the doe bolted. If not for Windchaser's legs and Crescent's arm, we'd have been trying to run down a doe through thick shrubs."
Rainsong looked over her brother's scratches and hair with a patient frown. **Trying to be Bearclaw?**
Pike blushed. **The doe was really very close...**
"So that would explain the way you look," Brownberry fearfully ran a hand over her own hair. "A couple of us were about to bathe. The stream is wonderfully warm. You should join us."
"I am up for a splash or two." Clearbrook, Shale, and Eyes High agreed and climbed down off of their wolves. Clearbrook paused as she passed Windchaser's rump.
The elf girl shook her head, though her eyes traveled in the direction of the Holt stream. "I should help my mother to take the hide from the doe."
"Of course! So should we all. Shale, Eyes High, Pike, you are not going anywhere yet. Until-"
Bearclaw's eyes lowered, still focusing on Crescent. "Hardly Clearbrook. These young wolves have earned the right to a bath." He looked around. "Redmark and Rainsong can help our tanner."
"But - !" Crescent argued. She had seen the disappointment in Redmark.
"Yes, little huntress?" Bearclaw closed the space between them. His eyebrows and lips curled up.
"I know more about cutting hides than Redmark...I don't mind doing it." Just as Strongbow had been taking up much of Crescent's time with intense archery lessons, Moonshade had been occupying the rest with more instruction about the taking and curing of hides.
"Redmark and Rainsong won't harm your first hide... 'cub'."
The hunters were already meandering toward the stream, except for Eyes High who hung back for Crescent. Crescent was weaving her fingers through Windchaser's ruff. She watched his ears swivel between the soft elven voices that faded away and the rumble of Treestump and Longreach considering where to put the doe. Windchaser's black nose lifted and twitched in her direction. Crescent thought of how lucky her wolf-friend was. The alpha wolf never teased and fumed as Bearclaw did. Something about the wild-haired chief made her teeth ache. Joyleaf she would follow without question. The same for Treestump, Clearbrook, and Longreach. They were patient and thought about what they said. If they found her to be young, they kept such thoughts to themselves. Bearclaw, with his smiling, knowing eyes, made her feel foolish. It was as if he could capture her fears and secrets between his teeth and would soon explain to the tribe just how hilarious the youngest among them was. She might have preferred his rages if it did not mean that he was likely to keep her from the hunt. The hunt was her only escape from intense scrutiny by her parents.
When Crescent looked up from the fur that hid her fingers, Bearclaw was holding her arrow out to her. "Show it to my sire," she said softly and turned Windchaser aside. Her short excitement over the success of the moment when her arrow had sung from her bow was dim already. She didn't look up at her chief as she rode away.
Eyes like the afternoon sky watched the girl and wolf recede into the damp shadows. The expression around those eyes was both solemn and gentle. **Moonbow? If you will not play with us, shall I keep you company?**
**Not yet Eyes High. I will find you later.**
The young woman sighed deeply, her newly-full breasts rising. Looking back toward the elders, Eyes High saw that Bearclaw was smiling, amused at her pensive display. She glared at him, but scuttled away to break that glance.
"Alone," she whispered to herself as she ducked under low and wet branches. "The child wants to be alone."
Eyes High was one of that group considered the youth of theWolfriders. Crescent was their youngest at a hand and seven turns, followed by Foxfur, Eyes High, Redmark, and Shale. Among them, only Shale had fully proven himself in the hunt. Foxfur would be a true huntress when enough years were behind her. Crescent was on the edge of being considered a mature huntress, an honor for one so young. Though young elves were not slow to learn skills, their long years provided so much potential for experience that any elf that had not lived a hand of a hand of seasons was comparatively inexperienced. Yet, Eyes High wondered if making the girl a huntress so young would mean that a hunter was all that would remain in the poor child.
Endeared to the girl, Eyes High was growing accustomed to seeing less and less of the sweet child she affectionately called "Moonbow". It was as if, after spending hours with her sire, and as many hours with her mother, the girl could barely stand to be in the company of another.
It had not always been so. For a time, Crescent had merely been a changeable child. Moody, some would say, but Eyes High did not believe that there was much that emotion had to do with it. If the tribe considered her moody, it was likely because they felt a level of emotions in her sendings that one only expects if an elf is in danger or in the arms of a lover.
Illustration by Joselle
It had been more than a turn ago, the change in Crescent. Her parents had drawn the girl into a tight clasp, teaching her everything they knew of their skills. It was not protective. Eyes High thought of the serious face of Moonshade as she helped Crescent to grind the juice from berries. She remembered the day when Strongbow and Crescent had raced through the woods on wolf back. He had tied a red piece of leather around a tree, and it was up to Crescent to see it as she raced by. To find that impossible bit of color and to send an arrow through it as Windchaser sprinted on. It was more as if they wanted her too tired to do anything else. Eyes High had watched for, and seen, the fear as they watched Crescent. They were not trying to keep the world from Crescent, but Crescent from the world.
Eyes High did not understand this change in Crescent's world. She certainly did not like it. Crescent was now as distant as an elf could be. Eyes High had seen those shoulders sagging forward as Windchaser carried her rider off. Perhaps it was time to stop allowing Crescent to retreat. As much as Eyes High appreciated privacy — she liked to sit in the treetops and stars — the girl needed to know something more than skins and arrows. If that meant intruding on her time alone and filling the hours with their old banter and stories, she would do it.
Eyes High had been stabbing the air with her gestures. Her mouth had been moving as if she were explaining the situation and her resolve to another. When she crossed paths with Moonshade and Rain she clasped her hands behind her solemnly and gave only a sideways smile in passing.
As always she marveled at the night-like beauty of the tanner. Crescent had inherited the thick, dark hair and flower petal eyes, but the cub had a sharper face and her hair looked as if it had absorbed a burgundy shine into the darkness of it. Moonshade was the true glowing, soft radiance of the moon. Her tresses were a waterfall of shadows. Where others hunted and paced like the wolves they all were, filling their nights with the death that brought them life, Moonshade dwelt in a world of creativity and skill. There was none to compare with Moonshade in the sight of the maiden, and Eyes High adored Crescent all the more for her share of the serene tanner's world.
Possibility lit those eyes that were said to gaze so high, and she carefully turned around. For moments she played with the edges of her shawl. Then, nodding to herself, she followed her elders.
Crescent's hands and feet maneuvered the black, wet bark of the tree. She did not stop pulling herself up to the next limb until there were no more limbs to be pulled to, and she had broken through the canopy. The domain of the sky was cloudy and growing lighter as the night receded. Against this immensity, and the unending plain of the sun-greedy treetop, Crescent's shoulders and head were a tiny presence. Like a lost songbird. Lost and fragile.
Crescent tilted her head back and opened her mouth for a howl. The muscles underneath the white skin of her arched neck tensed, but it was futile, for no sound came forth. She quivered there. Her hair fluttered over leaves and over her arm. Her arms stretched wide to grip branches. She was conscious of the wind against the underside of her chin, as if her chin was like birds' wings, and she would be lifted.
She did not howl and reveal her location. Her face retracted into a grimace and her eyelids shut out the sight of treetops and clouds. She sniffled to herself and her face dropped to hang among the leaves. It was near dawn when the inevitable companion arrived to find her gazing into the sun-comes-up, her eyes no longer wet.
**So how is it now?**
Crescent looked down at her father's upturned face. He too was holding onto two different branches, and his feet were braced in swaying nooks. Crescent carefully let go of the branches she held and crouched over her feet. She had to squint a little after watching dawn's coming.
**Am I a fool?**
**A question for a question.** She heard Strongbow sigh. **Why is it that you think you are a fool?**
**Because I feel like one.** Crescent leaned against the thickest branch she could find and tried to untangle her hair with her fingers.
Strongbow grunted. **I don't know why you feel like a fool, but I can assure you that no one else things you are a fool.**
Crescent concentrated on a knot of hair near her right ear, pretending it was too important a task for her to put together a thought for sending.
**You have been up here all this time, then, thinking about how you are a fool?**
She laughed and dropped her hands from hair. **Not so bad as that, father. I am not feeling morose. I just think that the chief considers me foolish, and perhaps I am little, climbing up here to be alone when everyone else is playing.**
**There are things you could be doing, though Bearclaw told me he would not allow those in the hunt to help skin the doe.** He reached into his tunic and withdrew her arrow. **If you are not allowed to help skin the doe, then perhaps you should sharpen this.**
The laugh in Crescent faded a little. She gripped the arrow she was handed.
**You did well Crescent.**
**What is blackening your mood then?**
Crescent opened her mouth hesitantly. "Bearclaw."
Auburn eyebrows lifted over Strongbow's eyes.
I know he is my chief, but he says things that make me feel...I don't know...and..."
Strongbow laughed softly and took her hand in his. **How many times have I told you not to let him ruffle you?**
**Try paying attention to what I have said about him as well as you have paid attention to archery and tanning.**
Crescent nodded. The two climbed down the tree together, leathers of deep blue, burgundy, and pale brown flashing colors in the patches of sunlight. Even though she was developing the female shape, Crescent still had her fathers lankiness. Their movements, the way they reached for branches with their toes, and how they shook their hair away from their face, was the same.
**Why did you name me 'Crescent'?**
Strongbow paused and thought before answering. **I do not remember.**
**Eyes High sometimes calls me Crescent as if it meant 'moonbow'...the shape of a drawn bow, but on the moon.** Crescent traced a crescent in the air with the arrowtip. **Because I am the daughter of Strongbow and Moonshade.**
**That might have been why.**
**That's who I am, right? The daughter of Strongbow and Moonshade? So the name makes sense.**
Crescent shrugged before grabbing a branch and swinging herself a length lower. **Is that all I am?**
The girl landed on the mat of old leaves before her father. The expression on his face was as bewildered as any that Strongbow had ever, or would ever again, display. Hard though his handsome face was, in smile and in frown, at that moment he resembled a wolf who had bit into a sour grub. In such a situation, its eyes will express a beleaguered wildness and fear over what unpleasant thing has come to it. Such was Strongbow's reaction to Crescent's question. Even his sending was uncharacteristically scattered.
**Where do these thoughts come from? What provokes you to ask such things?
**What did she ask?** asked a third from the shadows.
**Ask her. I did not understand.**
The smell of dyes and curing slats belied Moonshade's ability to hide herself in the shadows. **What did you say to him that has scattered his sendings like a dry pod of seeds?**
Crescent had been intrigued by Strongbow's express, and was slow in turning her attention to her mother.
**I asked him why I was named Crescent. Eyes High believes that I was named Crescent because a crescent moon looks like a bow, and that is like you and Strongbow in one. That as your child, I am you and Strongbow in one,** Crescent hesitated. Her reiteration had started slow and thoughtful, then sped up as she talked of Eyes High, and now she sent her thoughts with the caution of a hunter. **I asked Strongbow if that is all I was...just you and him in one. Whether I - **
Crescent stopped altogether. She had been controlling the emotionality of her sending, so that none of her unease would be shared, but it had grown difficult.
Moonshade showed none of the confusion that had struck Strongbow, and Strongbow himself appeared to be calmed by the example of his lifemate. The tanner ran her hands down her leather kilt. Solemn eyes turned toward Strongbow and then back to the girl.
"I named you Crescent," she said softly, "because when you were born, you were as pale and glowing as the moon ... and yet you were so small. Only showing a piece of who you would be."
Strongbow nodded his head, memories returning. **For this same reason I have called you Little Moon.**
**You wanted to name her Dart!** Moonshade reminded him.
**He did?** Crescent grinned at her father, an emotion like falling petals escaping with her sending.
**When you were born your hair was not so dark as it is now, but more like Strongbow's, and as soon as you could move your arms, you reached out and upended a full quiver of arrows.**
Crescent laughed, pulled her killing arrow from her belt, and stuck it behind her ear like a feather. With her laugh the coming sunlight seemed to resonate, and a few birds trilled in response.
"I will remember that, as long as I can. Perhaps I will name my own child Dart someday."
Moonshade's eyes were full of light, laying a garment of love upon Crescent as surely as if she had tanned, cut, and sewed it. She pulled them into the shade after her, then with an arm around each, guided them toward their den.
**Your name is your own, and as for you, that is for you to say. Perhaps your father and I have been too interested in teaching you our knowledge lately. It might seem to others that we are trying to imprint ourselves into you.** She paused, a whisper of a smile taking her away into her thoughts. She put her nose to Crescent's hair and inhaled.
**We did not mean to be this way.**
**You learn quickly,** Strongbow added.
Moonshade lifted her head from atop Crescent's and looked up at Strongbow. **It is hard to restrain ourselves from showing you everything. I fancy that if your father were chief, and you were to someday be chieftess, you would do well.**
"Am I really that crazy?" Crescent squawked. "I thought I was moody, but nothing like Bearclaw."
**Chiefs are not required to be like him,** Moonshade assured her. **Though spirit never hurts. Mantricker was mischievous, but not like Bearclaw. Goodtree, my mother told me, was strong-willed, but much calmer than her son or grandson. If we are fortunate, Bearclaw's next child will come from a recognition to one of the calmer elves.**
They were at the entrance to the Father Tree, and Crescent looked up at the openings to different elf dens.
**Joyleaf, Pollen, or Rainsong would take the sting out of any child of his. Joyleaf especially, though they would all be good choices.**
**Choice? You do not choose, cub.**
**More's the pity** Crescent sighed. **If I could, I would never recognize. Girls cannot recognize other girls.**
Moonshade smiled knowingly. **Do none of the lads appeal to you?**
Crescent shook her head. **Shale is always teasing people. Pike is fun to be around, and Redmark is really sweet, but...**
**I understand,** Moonshade leaned against her lifemate. **I was lovemates with Fairfeather for many years before I recognized Strongbow.** Strongbow was smiling, but he snorted nonetheless.
**Fairfeather never really liked me.**, he explained.
Crescent looked between her parents incredulously, eager for more. Their expressions, however, remained amused and closed. The girl grinned and threw her arms around her father's neck, her nose butting his chin.
"Did she pee on your furs?" Her father pursed his lips and considered the youth draped on him.
**Not as I recall.**
Crescent pulled herself away proudly. As she ducked into the Father Tree, she looked back over her shoulder. A grin consumed her face. **I promised Eyes High that if she ever Recognized, I'd pee on his furs.**
Strongbow and Moonshade faded into the large opening at the base of the Father Tree. Crescent was already scrambling up to the highest level, crawling out on a branch, jumping over to another tree, and sliding down to the opening to Eyes High den by the time her parents were in theirs. She peered in cautiously. The light showed her one of the elf's pink feet, upturned to show the wrinkled arch. Eyes High liked to sleep on her stomach.
The open was small and so Crescent had a job of it to lever herself in quietly. Having done this often, though, she knew to go in hand and head first, then to brace her hands on the floor and walk forward until her feet were within the opening, at which point she could put down her knees quietly. It was a small room, but then, so was she.
She leaned against the side of the den so that she could tug off her boots. As she was getting a grip on the toe of the second, a hand grabbed her by the bent knee and she toppled with a squeal of surprise.
"So there you are! I wondered if maybe you would not show your pointy ears at all!" Eyes High picked up a large fur and dumped it onto the floundering Crescent.
**I told you I would find you later!**
Crescent struggled out of the fur and shoved it up against the wall. The two glared at each other from equally messy thatches of hair. Eyes High made as if to lean back against the other wall, but instead leaned forward to bite Crescent on the nose.
"That is for not joining everyone at the stream!"
Crescent wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I had other things to do."
"What is more important than getting rid of the stink of damp leathers and sweat?"
"Are you saying that I smell?"
Eyes High put her nose to Crescent's shoulder and sniffed delicately, her small nose flaring. She sniffed up Crescent's neck to her ear. Crescent giggled as Eyes High blew warm breaths into her ear and nibbled on her earlobe.
"I will have to lick you clean, like a cat cub," she threatened, her voice a whisper in Crescent's ear. Crescent buried her nose in the feathery mane by her cheek and snorted.
**Lick me, and I'll purr like a cat too, but if I have to hear that word 'cub' again, I will regurgitate ravvit all over your furs, and we will have to hoist Clickclaw up here to lick it up!**
Laughing, Eyes High used her teeth to tug loose the pin closing Crescent's vest. Crescent struggled to pull off her damp leathers with dignity, but was again and again interrupted by tickles and nips and licks to the sensitive parts of her body, like the curve around her navel and under her jaw.
"Timmorn's blood! You are like Windchaser when I've been away too long," Crescent managed between laughter and occasional gasps. She snatch Eyes High's two fingers in her teeth, tasting the soft pads of the fingertips. **What has you so excited?** Eyes High tugged at Crescent's lower teeth playfully. She rested her head on her other hand and smiled dreamingly at her disarrayed girl.
"Did Moonshade tell you?"
Crescent dropped the fingers from her mouth. "Tell me what?"
"She wants a group of us to journey, to gather and preserve the more hard-to-find of her dye ingredients."
"That excites you?" Crescent looked down at Eyes High uncertainly. "I've helped her do that before...it is not all that interesting."
"But this time she wants you to lead the expidition, and since it will be us and the youth, it will be fun! We can get away from the same old hunt an howl of the summer months, see new parts of the forest...and adventure! She herself is too busy to come with us. Of course, a few of the older elves will come, but they can't spare too many of the hunters."
"Moonshade said that she would ask Pollen, Treestump, and Woodlock. She says she needs Rainsong to help her, else she would ask her instead of Pollen."
"Oh no!" Crescent bounced on her knees excitedly. "Pollen is perfect!"
Eyes High grinned. "I know."
"How gloriously, splendidly delightful!" Crescent lay back on the furs with a thump, a smile of rapture on her face. As she thought, she stretched her legs up, straight and perpendicular to her back. She widened her toes and wiggled them. Reaching up with her fingers, she hung onto the biggest toe of each foot, feeling the long stretch down the back of her legs.
"Redmark, of course. Pike. Maybe Foxfur, if she does not have to help River. Maybe even Brownberry, but she might prefer to be with the hunters, as she is very proud of her mature status. She might not want to play around with a gaggle of youths."
"Pike is not a youth."
"Don't tell him that!"
Their soft giggles blended together harmonically.
"And Shale, I assume?" Crescent grinned over at her lovemate. Eyes High groaned and covered her eyes.
"High Ones help me, I hope not. This idea is far to fun to ruin it."
"He likes you Eyes High!"
"And I like him as much as I like a bad case of fungus-foot. Ugh. All he does is tease and say things about me in front of everyone else. You heard what he said about me having fleas. He's especially fond of joking about my hair."
"You have beautiful hair."
"Well he says it is wild, like a bird with its feathers ruffled up. He'll tease me about the silliest, stupidest things. And if I try to counter what he says, he just shrugs his shoulders, with exasperation mind you, to whomever is there and says 'Eyes High will be Eyes High'. As if he was suffering because of me!"
"But you are so mean to him!"
"He deserves it! And don't argue his case, twig-legs. If I decided I like him, you might just have to share me with another lovemate."
Crescent looked over her legs, which did indeed bear resemblance to large twigs. "You know I don't get jealous, ruffle-head. And maybe while you are busy frolicking with Shale, I could take Redmark's advice and ask Pollen to teach me how to massage like she does."
"Oh, you impertinent little treewee!"
Eyes High yanked on Crescent's legs toppling her so that she lay across the other. A tussle of giggles and shrieks followed as they wrestled with each other. Like two wolf cubs playing they rolled and yipped, except that they did so not to train for hunting, but for the shear delight of feeling the skin and muscle of the other tangling with them. With no fur to protect from teeth, they bit loosely. Playfulness shared time with ardor, and bites became tasting. The young lovers, one freshly ripe with soft sloping hips, the other as white and sleek as a sapling, knew nothing but each other and cared nothing for time's passage.
As lovers do, they lay quietly eventually. The warm tingling of muscles relaxing, the awareness of every breath as it came slower than the one before. Crescent lay her head on Eyes High's belly and embraced her hips with one arm. They let themselves slide into sleep. The sound of morning birds serenaded them, and the sky outside continued to brighten. A late-up figure climbed past their window, only noted by a flutter of shadow across sky, on their way to their own den.
"Eyes High..." Crescent murmured. "Why did Moonshade tell you about this before she told me?" But Eyes High was already asleep, and she didn't answer.
Illustration by Wolfeyezz
The pack of elves journeying on Moonshade's behalf matched Eyes High's expectations, as well as her fears. Iron-haired and iron-eyed, Shale was helping Crescent with her tangle of quiver and satchel. The satchel was many pocketed and complex, intended for carrying the ingredients they would collect. His childishly intimate smile contrasted to Crescent's shyness and Eyes High's turned back. Redmark and Pike were both trying to help Foxfur with her satchel, the two elves struggling with a tangled strap. Their own satchels lay unattended.
Foxfur twisted her pretty shoulders to look down at the boys' hands. "I think you have made it worse," she murmured. The two redheads blushed as she batted away their hands and slipped off the satchel. With a smile of her dark eyes, however, the boys were sent away grinning.
"Take good care of them," her father instructed.
"Oh, she will River," Treestump chuckled. "Little Foxfur is a bright lass who won't accept nonsense or foolishness. She will keep this bumbling pack together. It is good of you to allow her to come along to help us."
River leaned on the staff he carried everywhere with him, unable to put his weight on a leg that had been taken off below the knee. "I can get myself around, Treestump. Foxfur just likes to take care of me." He reached over to pinch Foxfur's nose, which she allowed. At two hands plus three turns of the seasons, she doted on her father as if she was still small enough to sit on his good knee.
Moonlight lit the pack of them, and their conversation carried softly. The party of nine had not been dispatched hastily by Moonshade. A succession of summer storms had bound the elves and wolves to the Holt for a hand of days. Only when two full days and nights passed without air that was thick and heavy, the sort of air coupled with storms, did Moonshade send her daughter around the Holt to gather together the appointed elves.
Breezes cooled the sides of Crescent's neck and she shook her head at a tilt to expose the sweaty backside of her neck. The skin cooled, but no sweat evaporated. It was a sprightly night, and almost sweet to the nose, but she felt sticky. Her breeches were rolled up in her sack, and she had folded and tied down her boots at her ankles.
**Would you like me to braid your hair?** Eyes High offered. Their eyes met around Shale.
**No, I want to feel the breezes dry out my sweat when the wolves start to run.**
**Will they be given a chance?**
**If they are not, I might just make one!**
Crescent ran her palm over the soft fur of Windchaser's forehead. Shale reached around her to pet the shoulder of her wolf-friend.
"That is all I can do," he said cheerily. "Eyes High? Can I help you with yours?"
In reply, Eyes High eased her pack onto her shoulders and climbed onto Clickclaw's dark back. She gazed down at him, pale eyes glowing through the night's darkness.
"Why don't you help Pike or Redmark? Even young Foxfur is probably yearning for the competent attentions of an elf like yourself." Eyes High turned her focus to an itch deep within her boot.
Shale rubbed Crescent's shoulders with filial affection, almost sympathetically, and bounded off to gather his wolf, Coldtip.
Crescent considered chastising her friend, but stopped herself with an internal shrug. Lovemates though they were, Eyes High was nearly twice her years. You did not scold someone that much older than you.
The party of nine elves and nine wolves was seen off by Moonshade, River, Rain, and his daughter Rainsong. Woodlock conversed quietly with Moonshade before he took his place as the head of the pack. All three of the adults were familiar with the terrain that surrounded the Holt for at least a hand of days. The particular cut in the land that they were bound for first was two days away. Path finding would fall to each of them equally, with Crescent contributing her more recent travel experience.
"I have had plenty of time to tell you what I need," Moonshade said softly to her daughter. She embraced Crescent as the rest of the pack began to ride.
"I won't forget," Crescent assured her. Moonshade released her and stepped back to stand with Rain. Crescent smiled with her characteristic exuberance and Windchaser bounded off to take to her place within the pack.
**She looks happy,** Rain remarked to Moonshade.
**She does. I think Eyes High was right.**
Rain smiled up at the canopy. **You sound uncertain Moonshade.**
Moonshade nodded and gazed after the dark flag of hair that her daughter kept unbound. "I am." She gestured toward the pack. "Eyes High said that the sweet child needed to be free from pressure and attention. And I have tried to do that. I think I have succeeded, mostly. But she is still under pressure. Not from me or Strongbow, but because she has been put at the head of the pack. She has to teach all of them how to pick and cure and store and grind and...all of things that I taught her."
It was River, and not Rain, who put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Come tanner, you fret too much. Leave that to your daughter."
The sky over the sun-comes-up horizon was unlike any sky that Crescent had seen. Her mind grabbed for something to compare it to, but it hung before her eyes solitary and exceptional, and likely to be forgotten as unrepeated things often were. Only the sending of a powerful mind could share the expanse of gold-edged clouds and striations of blues, pinks, violets and white. It stretched like a living creature over the treetops.
Crescent lay her cheek against a horizontal rock face and watched the slow changes of color and pattern. She stood a short distance from the temporary den, but she could not see them through the jagged terrain. Rock crumbled and jutted from hilltop to valley, claimed by evergreen shrubs and fluffball flowers.
They had camped high on the side of a hill, where many seasons of rain had washed out a clay deposit, leaving an uneven pocket in the stone. An out-jutting of rocks reached around the southern side of this pocket. It shielded against weather and human eyes. An idea, site for a small group, but it only allowed for six elves to sleep comfortably at a time. The others stayed awake to keep watch about the hill that was alarmingly spare of vegetation larger than shrubs.
This was also where Moonshade found some of her dyes. Shades of red, gray, and black still clung to the rock, striped clay waiting to be teased out by small, four-fingered hands. They would set to this task after the sun had risen in full and set once again. Gravel crunched under light feet. Swaying like a blue and gray sapling, Pollen leaned around the rock face. She held a leg bone with bloody flesh still attached.
"Thank you Pollen," Crescent took and but into the meat. Salty and slippery, the mouthful hardly needed chewing. Crescent licked her lips.
**You don't mind first watch?** Pollen wondered.
Crescent shook her head, then made a face as wind and pig blood contrived to adhere hair to the corner of her mouth. Pollen scraped the hairs away. With deft fingers she began to comb and plait the dark tresses.
**Moonshade tells me that you will show the others what clay to take away. You do not need the help of the elders?**
**Only as more hands.**
**Tomorrow Woodlock and I will hunt.**
Surprised laughter whispered from Pollen. She continued to braid Crescent's hair as the young elf chewed on the pieces of mean that her sharp teeth tore from the bone.
**Have the wolves eaten?** Crescent asked.
**At this moment they are up to their eyes in one of those small deer.**
**I hope Windchaser joins me soon.** Pollen whistled like a songbird as she tied the braid closed. Whistling was something she did well. It was much like Pollen to do such a thing. She knew many things that were unique and pleasing but not necessary for survival. She whistled for that moment, then left Crescent alone again.
The sun rose. Clouds moved on and the amazing sky succumbed to the supremacy of blue. Crescent began to take note of the very green canopy, of the valleys and hills and, wincing, the sun's reflection off of the Lake. They would pass by the Lake once they finished scraping clay. That is what Treestump had decided. Moonshade normally went over the hills, through the forests of white trunks and green-gold leaves. Crescent had never seen the Lake, though it lay within a hand of days run from the Holt. It was closer than the clay hill. Yet Crescent had never been there. It was painful to look at, but Crescent found that her gaze lingered there as she kept watch over the hills and shrubs near their temporary den. She had bathed in the waistdeep stream by the Holt. She could not have detected that stream from the same distance, even if her line of sight were clear. The Lake was big.
It would be deeper than I am tall, Crescent realized. Fear stabbed up under her ribs. The Lake was deep and wide. You could float within it, and never touch the ground. What would happen if you could not rise to the top to breathe? Yet excitement coupled with that fear. It is like fire, it could kill you if you were careless, but if it does not...
Memories of a cool liquid sliding across her legs, stomach, and shoulders surfaced. Times she had lain on her back in the stream, holding onto a branch so she would not float downstream, the water on all sides of her but her face. The Lake, waiting with a cool, dark laziness...how would it feel? Would it caress like a lover?
Crescent rested her cheek back against the rock and fingered the hilt of her dagger thoughtfully. It was more than the lovely feel of water over her skin that excited her about that Lake. There was another memory. A memory that brought her hand to her dagger.
"I Recognize you," she whispered to the Lake.
There was no doubt: Charak had passed whatever prime he had known. After twenty-five years, his eyesight was poor and his spear-throwing shoulder always ached from never learning to throw without straining the muscles. Still, his ears were sharp, and he could follow the noise of Shird as easily as any would follow the younger man's figure. They were both hard-footed and leathery men, known for their stability.
Charak hoisted himself up an embankment with his staff and toes making cuts into the dirt. The shaft of his spear was worn from Charak's hands. A week ago he had wrapped on a new flint head and he was pleased with the clean, attractive edge. Many of the younger men came to him for assistance with making spear blades, or traded meat and skins for the ones he made.
"Well?" he grunted as he pulled himself up beside Shird. "Why did you stop?"
Shird smiled gamely. He was missing many of his teeth from a fight with another man. "I was thinking to myself what a beautiful day it was. I've seen tracks already."
"Piss-breath, why didn't you tell me?" Charak accused, but not without warmth.
"Because I think we will see more. We need to cover ground today." Charak did not disagree. He tilted his face up to look at the evergreen canopy. The sky peeped through blue and bright. Boughs quivered under the hops of small birds.
"Charak, did it ever occur to you that Gotara has blessed us indeed, and would bless us more if we could leave and find a home of our own, far from here?", Shird asked.
Charak eyed Shird thoughtfully, without the knowing of the younger man. "Yes, and no." He swatted at a biting insect on his knee. "This is my home. I know these woods. The seasons. The hills and valleys. The trees. This is where I was born, and this is where my heart...well, it speaks to me. It would be easier without the demons, but you know what...?"
Shird grunted quizzically.
"They are just like hunter cats. They belong here too. It would be easier without those large cats too. But they belong here."
"What Shaman needs is a nice sacred female bear that he can rut with, Shird."
Laughter startled the birds from the trees.
"Better yet," Charak knocked Shird in the back of his knees with his spear to get him walking again. "We should walk up to the next demon we see and ask them if one of the demonesses would please come and seduce the old man so he would conclude that maybe the demons weren't such bad neighbor's after all.
Shird's laughter died. "No, Charak, you joke too far."
Charak nodded his head thoughtfully and they continued on together. They followed a deer trail laying their feet as quietly as they could. The men knew that they were only two in the dangerous forest, even if it was in their natures to give way to merry thoughts. Shird eventually guided them up a hill, out of the tree line, to where he suspected pop berries would grow. Charak dropped himself down amidst the low shrub, exhausted.
"Look." Shird pointed over the treetops. Charak tried his best, but saw only where green became blue on the horizon.
"Come sit down here and tell me what you see, Piss-breath," Charak said heavily. Shird squatted and picked a few berries. "I see the Lake. Only just, though. We have not made very good time."
"We will get there in two days. Or not. Depends on where we want to go."
"Why are we here Charak?"
Charak shook his head as he ate. "New hunting grounds."
"No. That is the lie you told. Why are we here?"
Dark eyes looked sideways at the young, toothless hunter. He continued to eat.
Charak ignored him and searched for more berries amongst the leaves.
Redmark and Foxfur pressed Eyes High between them, trying to pull the edges of the cloak down so that it would cover all of them. Rain soaked their feet and the tips of their fingers. Eyes High wrinkled her nose at hair that straggled over her eyes. She could not move her hands.
**Ugh!** shared Shale.
Three sets of eyes looked up to watch him shake himself.
**No room for you here,** Redmark sent, not unkindly.
Shale looked from them over to where Crescent and Treestump huddled under a large, thick shrub, wolves around them. The elves had found the most vegetated dip out of the wind. The growls of the clouds were reason enough. Soon the rain had hit the open land hard and the small pack of elves and wolves missed the impervious skin of the Father Tree.
**Bearclaw wouldn't have named our healer 'Rain' if he had been sitting out here at the time!** Treestump joked.
**Is there any healing in this?** asked Foxfur.
**Not for elves! Just wet leathers, and cold, cold, cold!** Eyes High shivered.
Next to Shale, Pike extended his cloak. **We found an overhand. It isn't perfect, but there are dry spots. Pollen and Woodlock are tying their cloaks so that they hang over the edge and block the wind.**
**High Ones bless their busy fingers,** Treestump sent. At his rising, the wolves around him got to their soggy legs.
The elves gathered together their belongings and followed the pair of elf-boys. Though dark, morning was not far away. They had precious little darkness in which to move before any beast that was about could see them through the open country. Their path wound through low brush and crevices, and sometimes crevices with low brush. Crescent, at the back of the line, saw Shale stop and raise his hand in greeting before she realized that Woodlock was crouching in front of them. He was on the edge of a precipice, piling rocks along a line.
**It is dirty down there, but dry. When you go it, go between the cloaks. Pollen is piling rocks along the bottom of the cloaks so that they won't flap around.**
**Smart elf,** Treestump sent, still full of appreciation for their "busy fingers". As they filed down a steep slope, Crescent saw that Woodlock was indeed piling boulders and rocks to hold the cloaks in place. She stopped to pick up the largest rock she could carry and brought it to him.
**You are cold Crescent,** he said as he took the rock from her. **Don't worry about me.**
**Aren't you cold.**
**Yes, but that is what I'm here for.**
**To be cold?**
**To make sure nothing happens to you or the other young adventurers.**
Smiling uncertainly, Crescent joined the others inside their latest refuge. This was to be their den for the next hand of days. They had finally reached the lowlands where all of the dye plants could be found in one location, except for those found in the forest. They would gather the plants and process them here, distilling the colorful parts while the plants were still fresh. Crescent saw that there was a shallow brook not too far from their den.
These lowlands had many such brooks, too shallow for much to live in them, but they helped the plants to flourish. Why there were no trees, Crescent did not know. Perhaps it was related to the soil that was dry and pale, unlike the dark and moist loam of the forest home.
The night that was almost over was the third since they had left the clay deposits. In the early hours of dusk, they had passed the Lake.
"I have never seen so much water!" Pollen had gasped aloud. Treestump smiled over his shoulder at Foxfur. **Bad memory.** She flashed a white grin back.
After that first stop, they saw but flashes of it between the trees as they skirted around. The moons had barely moved across the sky by the time it was gone, and Crescent had only the first glimpse of the rippling water. What she remembered best was the sound of water lapping at pebbles, and the sight of it was only dark uncertainty.
The Lake was only a finger of the night away, however. They had not gone very much further before Crescent recognized the land where she had come once with her mother. She noticed some of the more common plants right away. Beetle flower, whose petals could mix with and darken any other dye. Three-Stem, with dark berries that turned skins red and orange, depending on the concentration. She had begun to explain this to the others when the rain had started.
The following night, provided the rain stopped, they would begin to work in earnest. For now, eleven wolves and eleven elves piled themselves, cursing at a jabbing elbow or hair that was stepped on, into a damp pile of bodies. Crescent fit herself in with her head on Windchaser's stomach, her legs over Pike's legs, and Eyes High's head on her stomach.
He dreamed that he was flying and woke to the sound of many crow's wings and caws as they sprang from the trees around him. Above Shird's head hung a wet branch. A drop struck his cheek and he rolled to the side, groaning. It was a cold morning. He was stiff from walking.
Climbing, he reminded himself, walking doesn't burn the thighs and crush your knees. He lay on his side until a jab in his shoulder could not be ignored.
They had slept in a small grove between two hills. Charak, father to his cousin's man, was not in sight. Shird crouched at the still-warm embers of their small fire, rubbing his hands together until the joints stopped cracking. The carcass they had left her overnight was gone. It was foolish to not have thrown it away from where they slept but he had not seen any large animals, and he hoped to fool a second meal into spear range. His own weariness had made a fool of him.
"Charak?" he called, his voice clear but not loud. There was no response.
Spear in hand, Shird ran in widening circles around the camp, hoping to warm his blood and find his companion. He saw the telling glimmer of water and knew were Charak was.
The older man must have known that they were close to the Lake. It took Shird at least five minutes to run to the lakeshore, but that was still close. The soft, leafy mat under his feet stopped at a swath of tangled roots and bushes that crowded the shore and grew a half meter or more into the water. Though he did not see Charak yet, Shird was already relieved. If they were this close, then they might be pausing their travels for a while.
Though it was a cold morning, the sun was not hidden, and Shird enjoyed every touch of its warmth on his bare arms. He walked slowly, calling out "Charak!" as he went.
Charak was crouching in a glade, digging with a stick. He grunted with each tug, his right shoulder almost quivering with the exertion. His long, graying hair was stringy from morning humidity. He stopped and peered when Shird coughed.
"Gotara's morning to you, Charak."
"And it looks like it will be Gotara's day too." Charak stood up, wincing as his back cracked. Despite his age, however, Charak was clearly full of life and his eyes were as bright as the sun's beams.
"Is that so?"
"It is! My heart is full, Shird, my heart is full."
Shird adjusted the cloth over his loins, easing a pinching. He shook his head in bafflement.
"I suspect that you full heart is related to your dirt digging."
Charak laughed and sat down on a root. "It is! It is!"
"You are an odd old man."
"Old man, now, am I?" The two men smiled at each other until Shird could not hold gaze with those exuberant eyes. He looked in the hole.
"What is down there?"
"Nothing anymore." Charak threw a many-pronged tuber to Shird. It was still covered with dirt, and pale, but Shird knew it at once.
"Chindi! I haven't seen chindi...why..."
"Since you were a boy. Aye. It is so." Charak's eyes lost some of their keenness, squinting almost as if he was remembering how poor his eyes were.
"Of course, but not all of it piss breath. Some is mine!"
The two men shared the root that they knew as chindi. Once their people had eaten chindi often. It was a sweet and satisfying root, good for the stomach, but it was also good for the bowels. Bowels firmed and the wormlike demons that grew inside a man would come dead from his body. Chindi was no longer found near the sacred rock.
As he chewed, Shird watched Charak discretely. Charak was looking around, as if trying to take in the trees and lake and grass with eyes that long-since saw poorly. His face was speculative.
"It is more than just the chindi. Your heart is full for other reasons."
Charak nodded. His voice was quiet. "It is. It is."
"It is the lake. It is this land. This place. It brings me hope. It is good land. Full land."
Shird felt the twinge of apprehension.
"Why are we here, Charak?"
"No. That is not why." Shird crouched and stared at Charak. "You look...you look as if you are meeting this place. As if...it is your uncle. If it were hunting grounds, you would not be coming here yourself. You know that. You are growing old. You would not come here again. But in your face I can see that you are tying yourself to this place."
Shird knew that he had broken through the story he had been told. It was a story that he had not minded accepting, because he had lost his woman to her complaining family and the man he lost a few teeth to was in a foul mood. Charak was respected, and by Shird he was even liked. Shird did not come to like men easily. Charak was a man of sense. A man of humor.
"You are right, Shird," the man of sense admitted. "I am old. Soon it will be time for me to put aside my hunting spear, and to enjoy the family of my son and his woman, your cousin. To teach their children the stories of our people." He sighed deeply.
Charak was a man who could say much without giving away anything.
"And you are also right that I am tying myself to this place." He paused. "I want to grow old in peace. In...harmony. I am tired. And do you know what I am tired of?"
"What are you tired of?"
"The Shaman. I want to move away from the Sacred Rock, away from that longhaired man full of rage...to this place. When we first came to this land, we stopped near hear and Mok said 'There is water and game here, why must we go inside the forest?' Yet inside we went, because of the Shaman. And the demons...they did not like it. The forest was their home."
"But Charak, the sacred rock protects us from the demons. In the forest, near the forest as we are right now, the demons will always follow us. They hunger for our lives but Gotara protects us, and so it is only our food that they can steal. Out here we would be forsaken by Gotara! This we are told."
Charak shook his head. "We entered the territory of the demons, as much as it was the territory of the great cat or a pack of wolves or even a flight of sparrows. I think they could kill us if they wish, but they have not. A pack of wolves does not attack a great cat, the pack merely hunts the same game. No more will the demons try to kill us. I think we are there for the pride of the Shaman. I would like to leave the Sacred Rock. Live here. I do not think the demons would bother us here."
"Shird, earlier you said that we would be blessed indeed if we could leave and find a place of our own. Do you not have the courage to support what you said..."
"I meant that we would be smart to go far away. So far away that we would never be bothered again. In my parent's time there were no demons. Not until we came here. If you wanted to go that far away, I would have the courage."
"In your parent's parent's parent's time, there were stories of Demontricker."
"But in those days our people were here. Remember? We keep returning and returning to these lands. What choice do we have? We are surrounded by other tribes."
"I don't think we need to leave so far Shird. This is good land."
"This is the center of a river, Charak!" Shird almost yelled.
"This is the place where we are too far from any place of safety. The point when you have gone too far for one safety but not far enough for another."
Shird hung his head. His teeth ground as he thought. "No, this is the path between the territories of two lions," he finally said.
Shird felt cold and shaky. It was if Charak was fighting against the darkness, against things that could not be changed. Or as if Charak suggested venturing out during the winter with only a breechcloth, and claimed that the cold only hurt you because you offended it with your fur cloaks.
"I did not wish to tell you yet, Shird. I wanted you to stay here for a while, to come to appreciate this place," Charak explained.
"But the Shaman..."
"Do you fear that he would call Gotara's wrath down on me? Or order the warriors to attack? Perhaps...and for this I think I am a crazy old man. But I am not so old, really. And I am not so crazy. If there were enough of us leaving," he looked hard at Shird, "then we would be too strong to fight. And as for Gotara...I think Gotara cares for all of us."
"The demons, Charak. I think you are wrong about them. I do not think they will let you."
Charak looked down into the face of his friend, almost with pity. "I saw a demon once. It was a boy, or at least, it had the size of a boy. It had hair the color of the sun behind the clouds, golden, and as soft as a boys. It was watching a hunter-bird eating its prey. It held a bag in its hands, and I think that it had been gathering plants. And it's eyes...the eyes of blue like the sky...they were full of curiosity. Full of interest, like my son's had been.
"I think that a demon such as he would let me."
"They bewitch you..." it was almost a question.
"Perhaps! Perhaps." Charak smiled. "But I do not think so."
Blood splattered on Beggar's fur. She was polite enough to lay down among the elven, leatherclad feet, but her eyes followed the carcasses. Shale ignored her as he tore a leg from a Hopper. True to her name, Beggar had never grown out of the cubbish habit of begging the elves for their share of kills.
Woodlock unstrung his bow. "How was your first effort?" he asked those who had not been responsible for hunting.
"Fascinating," Eyes High exclaimed. She sat up on the ledge, her heels carefully nudging the leather wall of the den. Redmark sat beside her, picking carefully at a strange seedpod, unable to leave the work of sorting. His low eyebrows and hunched shoulders were more obvious a testament to fascination than Eyes High's clear voice.
She reserved a corner of her mouth to smile at Redmark even as she spoke. "I never knew that dyes were so complicated."
"Or that plants were useful for more than feeding the animals we hunt," admitted Foxfur, speaking for many of them.
"Well — " Crescent swallowed and licked her mouth. "Mother does not usually bother with all of the things we are collecting. Still she does like to stock up — "
Treestump interrupted, speaking up at Eyes High. "And don't forget that Moonshade, and Blackbark and Tanner before her...they had years to accumulate what a tanner knows. What seems complicated to us is a natural as breathing to Moonshade."
Seeing that Crescent was poised to roll her eyes, Shale handed the rest of the hopper to Treestump. It succeeded in ending his informative discourse.
Pike cursed. Beggar had tried to slide a fantail off his lap.
"Rot take your teeth Beggar! I caught that, I will eat it. Pollen, can't you teach your wolf to hunt?"
"Not until I learn to hunt," she laughed.
"So then teach Beggar how to weave vines into Joyleaf's hair. She's as useful as Winterleaf was...might as well give her some kind of skill."
"Teach her to massage!" Crescent suggested.
"How to dance."
"Beggar can already sing, Eyes High." Shale winked. With a howl he coaxed Beggar, and the rest of the wolf pack, to begin a soulful caterwaul.
Shale's howl ended in a high pitched yelp as a small rock hit him in the stomach.
"You aren't so bad yourself,"Eyes High said blandly. She ignored the Treestump's scowl and the snickers coming from the other young elves. They were long accustomed to Shale's sense of humor and Eyes High was long accustomed to being a source of amusement and disapproval when her pique let her to retaliation.
"Puckernuts!" Foxfur squinted at the sky. Other gazes followed hers to the intermittent gatherings of clouds.
"Did anyone else feel raindrops? It is going to start again."
"Puckernuts," someone agreed.
"We need a bigger den."
"It is just rain..."
"We are not plants, Redmark," Foxfur said wryly. "Well, most of us are not. I'm sure if we left you out her with your toes in a thick pile of loam we'd find you next evening with leaves for eyebrows and flowers on the tips of your ears. Me, I like being dry."
Everyone but Woodlock and Pike laughed. The would-be plant-shaper had asked many times that night if they "would please take only the necessary parts and leave the plants to grow?" They knew he could not "hear" plants yet, but he certainly listened hard.
It did indeed begin to rain. At first it came lightly and the elves tried to ignore the darkening circles on their leathers. Before too long, however, a deluge descended.
"Say...Pike," Pollen called over the heads of elves entering the den. "What's this about a wolf as useless a Beggar?"
"Winterleaf? He was Tanner's first wolf-friend."
"Story!" cried Foxfur and Shale from inside.
"Owl pellets...is that all I'm good for? I'm not a —"
"Yes you are!" teased Foxfur, reaching out to yank him into the den.
Before she found herself cramped in with the elves, wolves, and the pile of packs that they had stored in the driest part of the den, Crescent picked her way downhill to the stream. The water washed blood from her hands. Morning light from the east met rain from above and together they gilded the water and air.
As she turned forward she saw a silver flash of light in the water. The sunlight had touched her silver necklace. She watched the flicker dance through the raindrop-circles.
"It is — "
Slowly, through young memory, she saw back to a different stream. To a moss-crowded stream with low branches.
She had lain along one of those low branches, watching Windchaser. Windchaser showed no sign that her capture by humans had upset her. She had her little teeth locked around a root and was trying ferociously to remove it from the earth.
Crescent's attention drifted down to the stream. She had already followed the silver dance before realizing that she was staring at fish. They seemed such foolish creatures. Always moving, never going anywhere. Still, Crescent hooked her knees and ankles through the branches and dangled down to look closer.
She trailed her fingertips in the water and giggled when the fish nipped her fingers curiously. She let all of her fingers dip into the water. Her eyes widened when one of the fish bit her first finger. The sharp pain was enough to make even an elf as placid as Rainsong angry, and Crescent had much hotter blood than that. With both hands she grabbed for the fish. What she would do if she caught it she did not know, but it would certainly reach the fish not to bite elven fingers! For a few moments she had her hands around something then it slipped away. She grabbed again, trying to reach deeper. The fish evaded her. Even worse, she had stretched too far and her legs became untangled from the branches.
Her loud splash startled flocks of birds from the trees.
Crescent struggled to her feet. She scowled at the surrounding waters, but no fish were in sight.
It was not until the end of Leaf-Green that Crescent returned to the stream and tried again. This time she was more persistent, and more patient. She was triumphant when she took her first bite of fish. The scales she spit out instantly, but the flesh was sweet. She smiled happily and hummed to herself while she removed all the flesh off the fish with little bites. Windchaser sniffed her face and licked away some of the fragments.
Yet when she went to catch another fish for Windchaser, the adolescent wolf lay down and sighed heavily. Wolfish eyebrows raised at her. Crescent understood him perfectly even without a sending. Windchaser does not fish
Crescent blinked away the memory. That was three turns of the seasons ago. It was not Now. **On my way, lovemate!**
High Ones... she thought, I forgot about all of that. No wonder I am so entranced by the Lake! I wonder... it is so big... I wonder what kind of fish live in the Lake.
That day Crescent slept little. She lay near the opening to the den and watched the rain gather into puddles. She thought of the Lake and all the fish that were drawn to the surface of the Lake by the raindrops. She thought again of how it might feel to be surrounded by water like fish were. When she did sleep, she dreamed of the blood that had dripped from her bitten finger onto Windchaser's fur.
Tiny bubbles slid from her skin when Crescent sprang for the surface. When her head topped the water, her small lungs filled and emptied rapidly. She had to hold a hand above her nose to keep from breathing in the rain that was almost as dense as the lake water. It was twilight.
She wished there were someone with her on her secret pilgrimage, so she could share her curses and frustration. It was her last chance to fish, and though it was raining hard, there were no fish.
When the elves had agreed that they had satisfied Moonshade's needs and it was time to journey back to the Father Tree, Crescent knew she had to make one more excursion to the Lake. It would be the sixth time in a hand and three days that she had lain near the entrance of their temporary den and watched rain dance on the stream. The smell, like the summer sweat of the earth, kept her from dozing while she waited for others to sleep.
She arrived at the Lake as the sun was at half-peak. After her first two visits, she accepted that fish were like the Wolfriders. They avoided the sun. She used the drizzly daytimes for napping and, at first, learning to swim. Despite not having prior experience, nor having heard stories of elves swimming in water as deep as the Lake, she taught herself how to swim. The tenacity she had applied to her parents' lessons helped her pay attention to movements that, while familiar on land, had many surprising results in water. Kicking her legs back and forth could move her forward, but so could her arms. If she wanted to turn, she had to turn on her side, bend at the waist, and then kick her feet quickly again. It was easy to lose momentum, so she learned not to stop kicking. The greatest surprise was that her hair became a separate, living entity that would twist around her face and neck if she did not swim faster than it did.
Once she understood how to move, Crescent practiced holding her breath. After five trips, she could hold her breath for a hand of hands of heartbeats. She carved crude, long darts with her knife. In the Lake she could not catch fish and throw them. She had to chase the fish. They were like underwater rabbits. And Crescent, despite her normal dexterity, was as fast and agile in the water as a human was in the forest.
With the darts her reach was extended with a killing point. She had tried to throw the darts, but had not been successful. She was an archer, not a spear-thrower.
If she lurked in the waters near a fish's hidey-hole, she could sometimes catch a fish emerging. She had to stab hard, for several times a fish had been pushed away because her jab was too weak and too slow.
"This is ridiculous!" she exclaimed, not worried that anything could hear her voice through the falling rain. "I'm giving up.
Crescent swam toward the shoreline until she could touch the slimy lake-bottom with her toes. The shore was hidden under the roots of slender trees that could not decide if they preferred the water or earth. He waterproof bag hung from a low branch.
Warmth on the long peak of her ear, almost a touch, caused Crescent to look back over her shoulder. The sun had finally found a space between the clouds. It was low to the horizon. The light skipped over the top of the water. Her eyes, accustomed since birth to cool night shades, lingered on the vivid greens above her and the golden glints on the water. Every the gray of the clouds was dramatic.
After so many similar pleas for her attention, Crescent ignored Woodlock's sending. He was not the telepath that her own father was. His mind was a brush against fur compared to the rock of Strongbow's mind. She did not wonder why Woodlock was looking for her. It was a little strange that it was Woodlock, and not Eyes High or someone else who normally involved themselves with Crescent's life, but no doubt someone had woken and found her missing and so one of the adult elves had been chosen to track her. She knew she was lingering at the Lake longer than she ever had.
It did not matter now. This was her last time. When she returned to the tribe, there would be answers for her disappearance. Until then, she cared about the Lake and little more.
The sun was low over the water, and in that thread of horizon where the clouds had pulled away, sunlight escaped like bees from a hive. Gold stung the undersides of the clouds. Flickered over the water. Crescent climbed onto a submerged root. Leaves sheltered her from the rain. She watched the sun fight through the raindrops. Rainbows to be held in the hand were born and lost in moments.
**Crescent, please! If your mind is touched by mine, let me know if you are well.**
The colors of the sky deepened. This was the hour of dusk when colors changed quickly, the sun fell fast, and even the rain seemed to be drying up as she watched. Far-away clouds were set afire with pink, magenta, and gold. Rain sparkled like the silver beads of her necklace. The sky over the lake was even more astounding than when Crescent had watched the sun rising over it for the first time, a half moon ago. Before her the Lake stretched, immense. Still as alluring as the first morning when she watched a loud flock of waterfowl come to water.
The rain had ceased suddenly.
Residual tremors rippled and then the surface of the Lake was a smooth as metal.
Crescent's eyes widened as the mirror of the sky's painting came into focus there, an exact reflection. She had never seen anything so reflective. Streams in the forest were too shaded to mirror more than form.
She ran her hands across her scalp, nervous at the brilliance. The world she knew was blues and grays at night, and greens, browns, blues in the daylight. Above and below her were the colors of fire and of rare forest blossoms. They shifted as the clouds moved. As the sun grew lower and lower. White to gold to pink to magenta to violet to indigo.
Moments passed. Crescent did not move.
The warmth of the sun slid away at last. The air was cold. Crescent took a deep breath. The wind had long dried the rain and lakewater from her face, but not her tears. She slowly got to her feet atop the root, trying not to shiver. She was stiff from the cold and from moving so little.
As she stood she saw something darting through the water. Something slender and long. Instantly, her thoughtful melancholy was gone, replaced by excitement.
"I'll not lose yet!" she whispered and took her best dart.
Elven eyes saw as well underwater as they saw in a nighttime forest. Shadows behaved differently, and distances were confusing, but Crescent could see well. She kicked hard in the direction of the fish, holding her dart against her side. She saw it moving ahead of her.
The fish abruptly stopped swimming. Crescent faltered, surprised, but continued to swim. She closed the distance between them quickly, and tensed her arm to strike. Not until she was but a wolf's length from it did Crescent understand that this was not a fish. It was nothing she recognized.
Before her swam an animal with four limbs and a tail. A long fin, much like fish had, but larger, stretched from the base of the neck to the tail tip. The head was snouted, but almost drawn up, with a high forehead, and no ears. She could not see any detailed features in the dark, just the movement of the legs and tail, and that the posture of the head suggested interest in her. Crescent lost some of her air in surprise. It was a large as she. What she had thought was a large fish, when seen from above, was only its tail.
The creature lunged at her with an open mouth.
Crescent stabbed at what she guessed to be the back of its throat, and her dark lodged in the soft flesh at the corner of its mouth. The creature closed its mouth on the dark. Its momentum rammed Crescent back and down, the butt of her dark jabbing painfully into her armpit.
She lost her concentration in that moment of pain and gasped. Crescent shut her mouth quickly when the cold water shocked her teeth and tongue, but it was too late. Her chest convulsed in the urge to cough out the water. Her precious breath escaped as she fought the coughs. Meanwhile the reptilian creature tossed its head, pulling the dart from her hands.
**Help!** she sent in her panic. **Fear. Water. Being hunted.** The thoughts that flickered out of her elven mind to any elven mind what was nearby were as jumbled as a wolf's.
Crescent saw the silhouette of teeth. She kicked her legs violently, trying to swim away, and her knee smashed into the soft underside of the reptile's chin. The alien texture of slick, hairless skin against her own frightened her even more. Using all her limbs she fought her way to the surface. Or what she thought was the surface. It was not until she realized she could not see and the she was even colder that Crescent realized that she had lost her sense of up and down, and that she was actually swimming downward. Away from the creature.
She reversed directions several times before Crescent saw the surface of the water above her. When her head burst through that gentle but consequential barrier where water met air, Crescent inhaled with a sob. Every breath that followed was a hiccuping whimper.
She looked into the water. Below, to her right, swimming toward her, was a dark shape. Crescent whined and turned around to swim away. She all but floundered, unable to adapt her new skills for swimming on the surface of the water. She made slow progress toward the shore.
"Ah, good, the rain has stopped." Charak crawled out of the pine-bough shelter on knobby knees. He squinted up at the sky. "Not for long though. Pity the people at the sacred stone, the dark cloud is running to them. Might be there already." He leaned a hand on a tree to help him get to his feet. His other hand swatted insects that followed him out of the shelter. Shird, coming after, said nothing, but looked at the insect bites that covered his own arms and legs. He would have been even more morose if he could see the many welts on his face. His hands were stoically clenched.
One look at Shird, and Charak was laughing silently. "Come Shird, I will clean the Wormleaf sap off of you and we'll try a different sap to scare the insects away." He waited until Shird handed him his spear, then ambled the few yards to the Lake shore.
"How many repellants do you know?" Shird whispered.
Charak tapped above his eye sagely. "Only a few. My father knew more. But not all work with all people. The spirit of the tree takes a liking to some people, and not others, and it will only help to protect those it likes from insects. Lucky for us, usually one tree will like us."
Shird eyed a large needle-leaf tree that hung over the water. "Can we give them offerings?"
Shrugging, Charak soaked a soft, ruddy pinecone in the Lake water. "I doubt they'll be offended. But I would save your effort. Like I said, one usually likes you." Charak set to cleaning the sap off from Shird's back. Shird sighed as the scales of the soft pinecone scratched the itching welts.
Without warning Shird fell into a crouch. Charak stared for a blank moment, then Shird grabbed his wrist and pulled him down.
"Oof!" he gasped at the pain of sore shoulder being tugged. He followed the dirty finger with his eyes. Shird point out to the Lake, at the shore that curved around to their right. Charak shook his head. His eyes were too poor to see whatever Shird could.
"I don't see," he whispered.
Charak looked at Shird in surprise. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! In the water."
Charak squinted, desperately trying to find the form that matched his precious memory, but his eyes were not improved by his willing them so. Without thinking, he took his spear and left Shird. Shird whispered after him, but Charak did not hear the words.
Charak crept as quietly as an aging man could, his feet not so sure as they had been, but his understanding of the stealth superior to that of a younger man's. His eyes turned again and again to the place Shird had been pointing. He could discern darkness above the water, but he would have thought it a duck. And perhaps that was all it was, but Charak wanted to see for himself.
He finally lowered himself into a crouch behind a rock. He saw her. Beautiful. Like the child of a woman and a bird. Only the top of her small breasts, her shoulders, and her head were above the water. Her skin was as pale as the moon itself. Her tall ears reminded him of birds' wings, but then, he mused, perhaps she was a water-demon and her ears were more comparable to fins. Except that they were not comparable to anything. She was almost beyond comparison. Her hair was the color of the darkest autumn leaves, or like the feather of a crow reflecting firelight. Like a human, she had arms and hair that grew long and a nose rather than a snout, but her features, like ears, the large eyes that were focused on the sunset, were distinct. She was more like human than like animal, yet so clearly not human. It terrified Charak even as he was delighted at the beauty of it.
When Shird came and crouched behind him, Charak did not move. Together they watched her watch the sun setting. Shird muttered when she stood. It appeared as though she were standing on the water. Her perfectly formed limbs reminded Charak of the girl he had desired when he was a new hunter.
Young. Unbent by injury or weariness. His comparison cracked when he saw that she carried a small spear. The women were not allowed to touch weapons.
Charak recognized the sudden tensing of her posture. "She is hunting..." he mouthed in amazement. Seeing the posture of a hunter in the body of a young girl was as foreign to the two men as her pointed ears. As if she heard him, the demoness uttered a few sounds with a voice like an infant singing to itself, and dove into the water.
The vegetation around them seemed deafeningly quiet to Charak, until he realized that he could only hear the rush of his own spirit trying to calm his heartbeat. Shird's mouth was moving without sound, or so it seemed to Charak. Charak rubbed the tips of his fingers across the rock to remind himself that he was not dreaming. Shird gripped Charak's shoulder and continued to speak soundlessly, but Shird ignored him. While he rubbed the rock he looked to where the water-demoness had been.
The water-spirit resurfaced. He almost sighed in relief. The entire quiet world seemed to be focused on her. Even the tree branches seemed, to Charak, to point to her.
The silence was cracked by a scream. A scream like a hawk's, only with the inflection of fear that gifted intelligence. Charak realized with shock that it was the spirit. She was afraid. Charak revised his earlier opinion of her likeness, for she began to flounder in the water like a tree-bird that could not use its wings or feet to escape the water. She was no water-spirit. Perhaps the fearful spirits who dwelt in the bottoms of lakes and pools were chasing her out of their realm. Spirits that might resent that other spirits used their hunting grounds.
Charak recalled the wonder on the face of the demon-boy he had seen. Hunter or no, she was as much a girl as that had been a boy. Her fear was as real as the fear he had seen on the faces of his tribesmembers. Are all the demons like children? he wondered.
He could not bear to see such a creature harmed.
With his spear, Charak ran for the shore as fast as he could.
Crescent berated herself for not learning better how to swim half-in and half-out of the water, as she had to do now. She knew that she might move faster if she dove down a few meters, but the panicking need to say where she could breath was stronger.
Something hit her foot hard. Though her mouth already had much work to do breathing, Crescent screamed anyway. She flailed even harder, her hair obscuring her eyesight, and the shoreline seeming no closer. She expected any moment to feel teeth like skyfire through her flesh.
Her expectations were nothing like reality. Crescent saw the shadow of the trees above her, saw the shadow of the roots below her, and then her leg was no longer her leg. It was pain. Like the thawing of flesh that had been frozen, only worse. Like the bite on her finger had been. Only repeated by tooth after tooth after tooth. Crescent kicked at the creature with her other leg, only she was too weak.
Worse yet, it was pulling on her. Dragging her down. Of course, she thought, much easier to eat me if I drown first.
Even as her head ducked under water by the creature fully her size and twice her strength, Crescent locked her grip around a root. She could not pull herself back. Neither could the creature pull her any further. She was just able to put her head above water.
**Help!!** she sent for the second time. **Someone!! Help me!**
Crescent was able to hold the root, and for moments she thought she might be strong enough to do more than just stay above water. However, the creature pulled suddenly, and Crescent lost her grip on the root. She was jerked under water.
Something hard fell across her back, then rolled away. As she sank she felt the teeth tearing across her flesh, rather than into it. Her hip struck the slimy bottom of the Lake, and the pulling stopped. A branch hit the Lake bottom in front of her, sending up a cloud of debris to match the one that had met her. Crescent had to close her eyes to keep the dirt out.
She reached out her hand. Not a branch...it is a spear. Someone struck the creature with a spear, and the force of it drove us both underwater! Who can throw a spear that hard? Crescent extracted her leg and pushed herself off of the Lake bottom. Perhaps Pike...but why had he not sent to her?
As soon as she was above the water, Crescent began to cry. A large hand touched her shoulder and Crescent clasped the wrist in her smaller hands. A deep voice rumbled comfortingly.
The strange smell stuck in the back of her sinuses. Crescent's eyes blinked open and she was staring into a pair of small dark eyes. No, she thought, not small, just small for his head. Too much in pain to be scared, or surprised, Crescent stood on one leg, buoyed by the water, while the human mumbled to her in nonsense words. He had hair like Clearbrook's, except it was rougher, more like wolves, and it did not smell as clean. He face was like tree bark. His lips were pulled in, as if the skin around them had grown, and as if he sucked on them too much. Fascinated, she watched the skin crinkle around his eyes as he smiled encouragingly at her.
He smells, she thought, but not worse than many animals.
Crescent stared at his lips, trying to understand. This was a human? I must be hallucinating. She thought. Or maybe the world turned me inside out while I was underwater. Humans hate us. But he...he is smiling and I think that he saved me.
"Did you..." Crescent found her voice and pointed back at the water. The human smiled even broader. He stood. Crescent had not realized that he was crouching. Crescent watched him bend to retrieve his spear from the water. He moved slowly and held one of his arms at his side, as if it pained him.
Proudly, he held the spear up for her to see. He pointed at the wrappings of the spearhead. Crescent laughed weakly, wanting to show him her gratitude, but in too much pain to smile deeply. Crescent mimed throwing the spear, then cocked her head. He nodded and hefted the spear, miming in turn how he threw the spear. His pose was so realistic, so like Woodhue telling a story of his hunts, that Crescent was impressed. Were humans storytellers too?
The human stiffened. Though in shock, Crescent recognized the sound of a bowstring. Several times his torso jerked, and then she saw an arrow tip erupt from the front of his throat. He dropped the spear. Utter shock was in his eyes. Blood from his pierced lungs replaced the words he was trying to speak. Then blood replaced the breaths he tried to draw in; he seemed to hiccup.
Crescent limped after him as he staggered toward the shore. He slumped on his side, in the water. Crescent looked into the forest, scanning wildly for the one who shot the man. She saw the face of a young human. His face was in the shadows, but she saw the rage.
"Why did you shoot him??" she screamed, though it was as much a weak gasp as a cry of rage. She crouched over the dying human, as much because she was losing blood and was too weak to stand as to give comfort. "Did you kill him because he helped me? You kill your own, don't you?"
The human fled. Crescent looked down at her savior. Blood was darkening the water. Dripping from the sunken lips. He was dead.
"Blood," she mumbled. "Blood in the water...might draw more of those...those..." Crescent shuddered and crawled out of the water. It was not far.
"Have to...have to get my leathers. Stop the bleeding. Have to..."
Crescent all but climbed the side of the tree as she stood. Pine needles stuck to her wet skin. She leaned against the tree, hand to her face, hoping that the dizziness would pass.
**Help...** her sending was a whisper. **Humans. Someone...I need...**
She lost consciousness.
"No no, don't scratch at it." A hand closed around her wrist. Crescent felt herself being straightened, and her head and shoulders were pulled into someone's lap. There was a fierce ache, that was also distractingly itchy, that covered her right calf. The nuisance of it had woken her. There was also a pressure. Her calf was wrapped. Crescent sniffed at the warm leg below her.
She felt legs shifting under her. "Yes. I found you Crescent, just in time. You are safer."
**Safer...?** She opened her eyes. It was dark. Stifling but cold. **Where are we?**
**Between two large rocks. A small cave. It is day.**
**Yes. I have to carry you for one night's travel. You are not heavy...but I still moved too slow to catch up with the other elves. We cannot meet them. It would be foolish to risk the flooded lowlands between them and us. When they reach the edge of the valley, Pollen, Shale and Eyes High are going to double back to meet us. Until then, we must be cautious. There might be more humans.**
**Humans!** The sickening memory rose from her viscera and Crescent gripped Woodlock's hand. The shock of seeing, for the first time, the death of something with eyes as intelligent as she had thought only elven eyes could be. The pain. The terror of being chased mixed so thoroughly with the death of the human.
**Oh Woodlock...I have never known anything so terrible.**
**I know. We all know. Eyes High went near crazy. Treestump had to threaten to tie her to a tree to prevent her from running after you. How you got yourself into that situation...I have not puzzled out yet. I thank the High Ones I arrived in time - **
**I was swimming...** she interrupted.
He continued. ** - to kill the human.**
Their minds were quiet for a moment as they considered the information imparted by the other.
**You killed him?**
Crescent rolled onto her stomach and scuttled backwards out of the cleft between the granite chunks. She froze in the shade just outside the cave, swallowing hard on the pain of her leg. She was still wincing when Woodlock's head appeared in the opening of the cleft. She bared her teeth, both at him and at the pain.
**Get back in here. It is not safe.**
"No," she grunted. She scuttled further back.
"Are you insane?"
The muscles of Woodlock's jaw twitched. **Why have you been sneaking away?**
Crescent stared at him, obstinate and silent.
**I know you heard me sending to you. You deliberately ignored me. The tribe was in danger. You were in danger. Why, Crescent? You smell like fear...are you afraid of me?**
She pulled herself up so that she crouched on her unhurt leg. Crescent looked around, scanning the young, widely dispersed trees. The air smelled clean and moist.
"I am not afraid of you."
**Send cub. It is too dangerous to speak.**
She shook her head.
Woodlock started to crawl out of the small cave. Crescent winced as she tried to move back and fell on her hurt leg. Woodlock touched her hand.
**You won't send to me?**
She shook her head again.
**But I want to understand this. Many a night I saw you behaving tired and clumsy, as if you had not slept that night. One early dawn I noticed you returning from somewhere. I also remember watching you return to the Holt from somewhere...on rainy days when no one else fancied to venture out in the torrent. Remember, I am a Guardian of the Holt. While others hunt, I guard our home and keep eyes high. I have seen what I doubt a few other Wolfriders have seen.**
He shifted in the dirt, still crouching in front of her, and continued. **I ask because I am worried that you behavior is somehow a menace to the tribe. You endangered yourself. If you act so carelessly, whom else might you endanger someday? I also ask because I am curious.**
She glared solemnly at Woodlock, in such a way that her features appeared younger.
**If you won't send, then come back into hiding with me so that you can whisper.** Woodlock took her hand and pulled her toward the cave.
**NO, DON'T TOUCH ME!** she all but screamed into his mind. Rage and repulsion from her poured into him, bringing his lips up in a snarl. **Murderer...filth!! You wish me to send? Fine. Suffer my anger as I do! I thought that it was another human that killed the gray-haired man, but it was YOU! Murderer! He saved my life! And you killed him for it.**
Woodlock, gentlest hunter of theWolfriders, sprang at her, his face contorted in rage. Crescent rolled out of his way, only to have her ribs and sore leg slammed against rocks. She could not move fast enough to avoid Woodlock. He gripped her shoulder and slammed her over onto her back. She saw his fist raised above her.
Shaking, Woodlock lowered his arm.
"I see," he said huskily.
"I told you."
"You haven't lacked control like that since you were much younger."
"I haven't been this angry before." Crescent turned her head to the side. She sighed as though her throat was tight. "It is hard to control."
Woodlock stood and walked away from her. He crossed his arms across his golden tan and blue vest.
Though a mature elven man, to a human he would have appeared as a mere boy, with hair the color of the sun behind the clouds. Gentle. Not a man who had nearly struck a child. Not a killer.
"If he did not hurt you, who did?"
"A lake lizard."
"A lake lizard...? I have never heard of anything like that."
Crescent bared her teeth. "I can send to you if you like...show you how it happened and what I saw."
"I did not think so."
Woodlock regarded her, his mouth rigid but his eyes sad. "You are a danger to the tribe. There is only one who should deal with this, because I cannot.
"My father? He - "
"No. You are no longer a cub to be reprimanded by your sire. You are a Wolfrider, and you will answer to your Chief."
**No hunts, eh?** Treestump accepted the silver hairpin from Brownberry. He used the slender point to dig splinters from the heel of his hand.
**Bearclaw says he wants the tribe in one place when Crescent returns.** Brownberry crossed her arms impatiently as she waited to have the hairpin returned to her. **And he is none too pleased with you, right now, so I wouldn't be expecting to lead the hunt for a while, not if I were you.** Her tone was petulant, though not without some sympathy. Brownberry had always been somewhat sensitive to the emotions generated by the interactions of the other elves. No doubt she resented the tribal agitation. It had been an exceptionally peaceful summer.
The entire tribe lingered around the trunk of the Father Tree. Some of the elves were as carefree and unconcerned as ever. Rain and his male offspring were laughing in a cloud of dust as they aired furs and leathers from the many dens of the Father Tree. Woodhue and Longreach were setting bets on whether the insect-bitten branch of the Father Tree would fall in the next white cold or not. The pensive way that Redmark examined the tree branch in question could have been due to any number of things, the most likely being Foxfur. Rain had healed her of a concussion, but she still rested woozily amidst a hand of bored wolves.
Other elves were merely worried. Rainsong, Clearbrook, and River washed the mud-caked leathers brought back by those elves that had endured storm and flood in returning. They talked in quiet tones. Though varied in age, these were considered some of the most sensible and thoughtful of the tribe. Where others saw that one of their tribe had wondered off and was now being brought under escort, they sensed a mounting storm. Already they had witnessed the confrontation between Strongbow and Treestump. Still the archer glared. Treestump was careful to not meet Strongbow's eyes. Challenges between tribal members had been removed from the Wolfriders in the time of Rahnee the She-Wolf, but another argument would call their chief's wrath down on them. Treestump had little fear of his chief. It was for his sister's sake that he kept quiet. Joyleaf was already at her wit's end trying to calm her lifemate.
**She is just a cub!** Joyleaf sent openly, facing Bearclaw's back. **From what Woodlock sends, she nearly died from the attack of some water beast. Is that not punishment enough? Lessons learned the hard way are learned forever.**
**Exactly. And she must learn that disloyalty to her tribe has consequences.**
Moonshade looked pleadingly at Joyleaf. Joyleaf tried to look reassuring. **What disloyalties, lifemate?**
**Every one of us has a responsibility to every elf in this tribe. If an elf is in danger, we will do whatever is necessary to bring them safely out. Just so, we have a responsibility to our tribe to not put ourselves in danger. This is not the first time that this girl has wandered alone. It is time she learns that her responsibilities to the tribe do not include sneaking off.**
**What about our responsibility to protect and watch our cubs?** Moonshade sent passionately. She fixed her eyes on Treestump. **Cubs wander! They see a pretty butterfly and chase after it. How can you accuse them of disloyalty for that?**
Bearclaw's eyes softened somewhat for the tanner. **Your daughter is no long a cub, tanner.**
**A few hunts does not make a child into an adult, my chief.**
**Then she is a cub, she has even less right to go anywhere alone.**
Joyleaf seized her chance. **Then if she is a cub, there is no reason for you to call her to task, Bearclaw. That is for her sire and mother.**
**Not anymore. It is not so long ago that I forget that they have been trying to reign her wanderings...**
Woodhue leaned over to Longreach to whisper, "Selective memory..." They snickered quietly.
**...and they have been unsuccessful. High Ones, Joyleaf, I am not going to eat the girl!** he shrugged in exasperation. **Just scare her.**
**What, may I ask,** Strongbow sent stonefaced, **is the difference between a girl moving alone through the forest, and a chief doing the same? Neither have the right to abandon their tribe.**
The tribe grew silent and still. All looked to the two men who had often come to heads. Strongbow had already lashed Treestump for negligence. Was it possible he would push their chief?
Bearclaw's voice was easily heard. "Crescent is a spindly, over-emotional youth who cannot fend for herself. I think I have proved my ability to protect myself."
**Crescent does not hunt bears and play with humans.**
The wolf-chief laughed. "Oh Strongbow, you aren't going to bring bearhunting into this?" Bearclaw leapt over the high roots of the Father Tree and landed in front of Strongbow. "Archer, you know I respect you. And Moonshade...we all honor your skill. But leave this to me. Crescent is not longer your concern. She is out of your hands, and in the hands of the entire tribe. That means she is me responsibility."
"Would you let me go to sleep," asked a small, tired voice, "if I assured you that I am already very scared of you?"
The tribe's heads swiveled around to face the opposite direction. The band of five elves were riding into the holt, Crescent in the front with a stone-faced Woodlock beside her. Crescent's eyes shifted around, as if unsure who she should be looking at. Eyes High rode up beside her and touched her shoulder reassuringly.
Bearclaw put his hands on his hips and met Woodlock's gaze. "Huh." He strode toward them. "This is what happens when my best scouts are the ones returning to the Holt. No once calls warning before they arrive."
Tree-branches swung as Pollen rode up from the rear of the pack. "Frankly, my chief, you were making enough noise to distract the entire tribe. You have everyone but me tied up like this ball of fur under Beggar's ear."
She smiled gently. "I, however, am far more concerned for small, head-knocked Foxfur than for this cub, so if you will excuse me, I'll leave all of you to your bellows."
Chuckles were heard as the elf-madam tipped her head and motioned for Shale to follow her. It was clear from Shale's face that he needed no encouragement to rush to his lovemate.
**Get off your wolf, cub.**
Crescent lowered herself off carefully, favoring her right leg. Eyes High moved to support her, then balked at Bearclaw's gaze. Crescent gestured for her lovemate to go. She kept her gaze on Bearclaw's chin.
"So you are already afraid?"
"Why should you be afraid? What would I do to you girl?"
She opened her mouth to speak. One look up at his eyes and she lowered her head submissively.
Crescent shook her head. "You would not hurt me," she admitted. "Elves do nothurt each other. Not like hum-" she broke off her words and glanced uncertainly at Woodlock. He avoided her gaze.
"So then you can understand that a chief is due respect because that is the way it is? That you should heed my words because it is the Way?
"No...I am afraid of you because...because...because you are...
"Because I am your chief!" he reasserted, loudly.
"Because you are Bearclaw!"
"Bearclaw IS chief!" he growled. "There is no difference."
She pointed at Joyleaf. "She is as much chief as you, but she is nor Bearclaw," she argued, her voice soft.
Bearclaw frowned. He grabbed Crescent by the chin and forced eye contact with her. **Heed to me girl, and I will show you what there is to fear.**
Into her mind poured images and experiences. Of an elf whose name was long forgotten who went hunting alone during a storm and starved because no elf was near enough to help him when his leg broke. Of her own father, a youth, being attacked by a raging mother bear. Of all that could have happened to Crescent. Of Eyes High fighting to go save Crescent when Treestump would not let her, and all that could have happened to Eyes High due to Crescent's irresponsibility. Of all that could have happened to Woodlock when he searched for her.
When Crescent had begun to cry, and was fighting to turn her face away, Bearclaw released his grip.
**And so tell us, Crescent, why is it that you have been hunting alone? What urges in you will we have to fight so that we can protect your life and the life of those who would seek to protect you?**
Crescent looked at Woodlock. He nodded.
"I...I have been fishing."
"Fishing...?" Bearclaw's eyes rose. "What sort of - ?"
"What sort of Wolfrider fishes? Me!" she sniffled and wiped her nose. "There is something wrong with me, like you think."
"Actually, no, I was asking - "
Crescent continued, ignoring Bearclaw. **Wolfriders do not fish! They hunt! But I fish...and I did not want anyone to make fun of me, or stop me. So I went fishing alone. I never meant to hurt anyone!** Her shame and youthful anxieties knit into the thoughts of the tribe. Bearclaw looked as morose as the other for a short moment before laughing.
"Fishing?! You hunted alone because you wanted to go fishing?!" he laughed harder. "Of all the crazy, confused, hilarious things I have every heard, that has to be on of the best."
It appeared as if Crescent would burst into sobs as loud as his laughter, but instead she tightened her small fists. **Yes! Fishing! I like eating fish. I like chasing them. And if that makes me fever-brained then...then...then I don't care!**
Bearclaw kept laughing.
Longreach jumped out of the Father Tree. "Timmorn's claw Crescent, Bearclaw is not laughing because there is anything wrong with fishing. He is laughing because you think there is."
She blinked, confused. Longreach crouched, his hood sagging back as he looked up at her. "How often are you around me?"
"Y-you storyteller? Well...hardly ever. You don't hunt much and you never work leathers, so, well, I am not really around any of the elders that much."
"Then you would not know that whenever I have some free time I find a quiet, shady place by the brook and catch fish by means of a grub attached to hook and string."
"For more turns of the season than you can count. Not everyone is fond of the taste of fish, but I am. If I had known that you like to fish, I would have taken you with me long ago."
Woodhue hooted with laughter. "He would love to have your company, Crescent. None of us are interested in sitting down by a bank, with our hoods falling over our eyes as we doze, waiting for some fish to get caught on a hook. He tried teaching me once, but I snuck off while he slept."
"But I don't hunt like that!" Crescent said excitedly, her tears already old and making her eyes sparkle. "I catch them with my hands! And while I was out there..." she pointed back where they had come from, "I chased them with a long dart. After chasing like that, they tasted so good. Except I wasn't very good at it. I do much better catching them in the brook, because I am not as nimble as a fish, but - "
"You fished in the Lake?"
She nodded in excitement. "Yes, and I've been fishing everytime you tell stories. Don't you know that fish are more active when it rains?"
Longreach looked dourly at Woodhue. "No, I never get out much when it rains. In case you were not listening, that is when my talents as storyteller are needed most."
She grabbed his hands. "You should come! I could teach you how I catch them!"
Longreach patted her hands, "I think I'm rather too old to be learning new tricks."
"I'd be happy to watch you sometime, but I certainly cannot leave during the rains."
"But - "
Their chief cleared his throat loudly. "I am glad we have cleared up the source of your behavior. Now Crescent..." he grabbed her necklace in his large fist and stared down into her eyes, "...have I made myself understood?"
Grabbing at the necklace to steady herself, Crescent nodded. "I will not...will not hunt alone."
"There is a stream near the Holt. Fish there."
"But it is not -"
"High Ones Crescent, but your age even your own sire had learned to stop questioning me!"
He released her and smiled. "Good! Now I think I would enjoy a hunt of my own! Good luck with your parents!" Bearclaw flashed a grin at Moonshade and Strongbow and trotted off merrily.
"Wait, before you get involved in more ear-burning, Crescent..." Pollen spoke up.
"I thought you were not listening to us," Pike laughed.
She smiled and shook her bangs away from her eyes. "I have had an idea. I was never that good of a hunter. Sweet Beggar and I are well-suited to each other."
"Now Pollen -" Treestump disputed, "just because you have so much elf in you, that hardly makes you a beggar. You do as much work for our tribe as any other."
"But I never was so much of a hunter. Crescent is right...elves hunt." She used Shale's arm to pull herself to her feet. "What say you, Crescent, if I were to learn this fishing from you and from Longreach? You could still fish, and you would not be alone."
"I'd be willing to try again as well," Woodhue admitted, "as it sounds like this lass' methods would not put me to sleep."
"I..." Crescent looked around surprised. A wide smile cut her face in half. **Yes! I would enjoy that!**
Touched by her joy, the entire tribe smiled warmly at Crescent, Pollen and Woodhue.
**Not now though, pack-sister. You need rest, and your parents will wish to sleep around you, knowing you are safe.**
The tribe lost cohesion and drifted away. Those with tasks, whether airing furs or cleaning leathers, stayed at their concerns, but others returned to whatever had kept them. Eyes High joined Crescent's parents, no doubt asking if she were welcome to share their den while they kept Crescent with them.
"Longreach..." Crescent asked softly as he started to walk away.
"You have lived a long time, and...and you seem to know things that others do not. Do you know...do you know if humans have souls? Do they still exist after their bodies die?"
In the swollen moment that followed her question, Woodlock's stance tightened, Longreach looked at the Holt Guardian with as much confusion and curiosity as he bestowed upon Crescent, and Crescent regretted her question. "I don't know. I don't know how one would find out such a thing."
"It doesn't matter. Thank you Elder." They shared a smile. Longreach left Crescent and Woodlock alone.
Woodlock put his hands on Crescent's shoulders. For long moments they looked at each other, silent. Crescent's hair tangled through his fingers as he kneaded her shoulders absentmindedly. Crescent pressed her lips together. "Crescent...I did what I knew had to be done, as much as any of us would have done, and as much as you would have done a mere hour before," Woodlock said softly. "Humans once captured your wolf-friend, and you'd be unwise to forget that. But I do hope that the human I killed has a soul. And whatever conversation you were having... can be continued in the world of souls."
She nodded sadly. Woodlock pressed his lips to her forehead before walking away. **I know you will find it hard to share what happened, but if you need to speak of it, you know where I den.**
Windchaser lifted her head and sniffed Crescent to make certain that she was unharmed. Crescent closed her eyes.
Some Seasons Later...
The grinding stones of the women clacked. Autumn was nearing. Shird had smelled the odors of cold the moment he stepped outside his door. He scratched at the beard that he had been growing for the past year. It still itched, but he liked the respect he seemed to get from wearing it. He took a few moments to stand in the midst of the small shelters, his hands on his hips, enjoying the respectful attention of the others. No doubt Azak was enjoying the same attention.
Holding the band of his claw necklace uneasily in one fist, Shird located the figure he wanted. He kept his shoulders back and head high, but he could not keep his stride confident no matter how hard he tried. The young woman looked up at his footfalls. She wrinkled her nose as she squinted to look up at him.
"Rowa? Oh, no, Shird!" She nodded respectfully to him, nervous.
"Emru. Can you help me?" He watched her young, healthy breasts move as she dusted her hands on her leather kilt. Her pale hair was short.
"What help do you need?" She looked uncomfortable. He knew that he was speaking improperly, to address a young woman so boldly. Her uncle would take great offense if he knew. Shird just hoped that his new status protected him.
"You prepared the demoness."
Emru looked away, as though troubled. "I did Shird. Only a woman may perform such a duty, and I was chosen by Gotara's priest..."
Shird nodded. He kneeled by her and held out the necklace in his hands. He pointed to the blood that stained several of the claws.
"I cannot touch this blood, in case it leads the wrath of the demons on me to seek revenge. I need someone to clean it for me. Because the old priest is dead...I fear that the new priest will take the necklace from me as a trophy...but it belonged to my father. I do not wish to lose it."
She nodded in understanding. "Yes." Emru took the necklace. As he stood to quickly put appropriate distance between himself and the young woman, Shird saw how sad Emru's eyes were.
"Who made the killing blow, you or Azak?"
Shird gaped. Women did not ask about killing, not about matters of hunting. He pretended he did not hear her and walked away briskly.
Their camp was still alive with the recent excitement. A demoness killed and the old priest as well. Everywhere he walked, Shird saw some reminder of these two events. Men muttering in groups. Women red-eyed. What he could not understand was why the old priest had been killed. "Why not me?" he unavoidably asked himself.
After that day, running from the screaming demoness who killed his friend, Shird had been certain that the priest was right. Charak had trusted demons, and he was killed for it. It was not like Shird to rage. He fought other men and hunted when he had to, but resentment was not his nature. Hatred for the demons never occurred to him. But he was certain that they had marked him, remembered him, and so when he and Azak had stumbled upon that one-autumn-leaf haired elf, he had been the one to try to destroy the eye. He would have destroyed both. Perhaps if the demon could not see him it might know who he was. Or perhaps Azak had just enjoyed it. It was Azak's suggestion.
At first when Shird saw the water demoness, he had been shocked. He had wondered if she remembered him. But no, he had not killed her. The honor was Azak's. Shird was too rapt at the critical moment; too rapt when he realized she had aged.
Demons age...they are born as children and they age. And the fear in her eyes had been real. She was still a child.
Shird was sitting on a fallen tree near the forest's edge when Emru found him. The sky was cloudy and darkening. Emru's skin was paler than most of the people's, as her hair was pale, for which she had been given the honor of cleaning the demoness. Honor or stigma, he was not certain. Perhaps they felt that her paleness meant she was closer to the demons.
Emru handed his clean necklace back to him.
"She was beautiful Shird," she murmured. "What had she looked like when she was alive?"
He watched the necklace pool in his outstretched hand. Her hand shook. "She was fishing." He swallowed. "She liked to fish."
Many seasons later
Mother and daughter shrieked uncautiously as water sprayed them. The large fish caught in their net flapped in fear, causing the edges of the net to jerk in their hands. The other fish in the net began to thrash as well, and soon a constant fountain sprayed onto the elves trying to pull the net out of the water.
**Hold tight Dewshine! We can't let him win!**
**He is so strong!** The little maiden's hair was matted wetly over her eyes. Rillfisher looked over to see that her daughter of seven turns was in fact slipping through the weeds, scrambling courageously.
**Grab onto that clump of grass cub, or you'll - **
Dewshine wavered, and then stumbled into the water. She kept her footing but her hands released the net.
**Oh no!** Dewshine grabbed vainly into the water. Rillfisher scrambled to recatch the lost edge of the net. A few of the fish were gone, and the lighter net was easy to pull up. Only then did she knot her thick wet hair behind her and look at her daughter. Dewshine continued to try to catch the fish.
**I am so sorry. I lost the fish!**
**Don't worry cub. I saved many.**
Seeing the fish on the shore, Dewshine clapped her hands to her cheek. Then she yelped. A fish had darted past her knee. She tried to catch it with her bare hands.
**It is too quick! I can't catch any.**
Rillfisher shook her head. **Come out of there cub. We need to dry you.** She helped Dewshine out of the stream. Together they bundled the dying fish up in the net.
**I knew a girl once who could catch fish with her own hands,** Rillfisher said with a smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes.
**Yes. Older than you, but still only a girl. She could catch them in her hands. Spear them. She could even chase them while swimming.**
**Was she you?**
Rillfisher laughed. **She is a spirit now cubling. She died before any of you cubs were born.**
**Tell me about her.**
Rillfisher sat on the grass. A shadow formed under her sharp cheekbones as she tilted her head down. She was still gaunt from the fever that made her deaf.
**Come sit in my lap cub. Thinking of little girls makes me long to hold my own
there!** She put her arms protectively around the warm little body.
**I knew her back in the days before I knew how to fish, when my name was Pollen because I was soft and small and sweet and little else...**