Tanner's Dream by Nancy Springer
Toad turds!" Tanner exclaimed softly to himself. He had lived for over seven hundred years and been the chieftain of his tribe, the Wolfriders, for some four hundred of those, but the seasons had been quiet, spent mostly in wolf-time, the Always Now. Seldom had Tanner produced such an outburst or felt the need to. At this point, however, mere toad crap seemed inadequately disgusting. "Ripe, rotten toad turds!" he expanded in his soft, chirring, birdlike elfin tongue, staring downward through dense leaves. The man, the human, was standing directly under the oak tree, his crude fur skirt upraised, urinating.
**Told you,** came an amused sending from Tanner's side. On the broad oak branch beside him knelt Brook, his hunt leader. Though the human, and humans in general, took elfin speech for birdsong, Brook had a hunter's instinct for silence and preferred to send. **Every day, just like a dog wolf marking. It's a wonder he doesn't get down and sniff around.**
**Timmorn's blood, the flood of it!** Tanner exclaimed, sending also, lest in his dismay he should speak too loudly. **And the smell!**
**Potent,** Brook wryly agreed.
The human finished, shook the final drops off his member, let the stiff, smoke-cured leather of his skirt fall, and lumbered away toward a stand of hemlocks, leaving a yellow puddle slowly soaking into the loam at the roots of the oak. The man disappeared into dense forest. Stretched out full length along his supporting bough, Tanner let his head fall to the rough bark.
"My leathers," he groaned aloud. For under the tree, at the very spot the human had chosen to flood, Tanner had hidden a pit full of the finest hides Brook could bring him, layered with an exacting, laboriously gathered mixture of barks, acorn cups, leaves and berries, all bestowed with utmost care to undergo the silent, unseen process by which crude, flinty-hard, sun-dried hides would become—Tanner hoped—fine, supple leathers for his tribespeople to wear.
Brook reached over and gave his chief a light slap on the shoulder. **Lift-Leg we call him, even though he doesn't,** Brook teased, and then he went off, padding and leaping noiselessly through the treetops, bound for the hollow where he would drowse away the rest of the day while the human hunters blundered about below.
Tanner remained where he was, to brood.
"Humans," he muttered. "A stinking, muck-eating human."
This was rather strong language for him. Tanner was not much in the habit of brooding or hating, but the matter of the urinating human had upset him deeply—the more so because no one in his tribe but him would care about it as he did.
He was a throwback, though he could not himself have explained it in that way. A throwback, not to the wild half-wolf urgings of Timmorn, but even beyond, to the gentle, beauty-loving nature of the high ones. Their blood stirring in him had taken a bent form, skewed his thoughts away from the thoughts of the other Wolfriders. He made a clumsy hunter, with no passion for the kill. He seldom rode on his wolf-friend, and there was no wanderlust in him. He had taken no lifemate, or lovemate either, in all his many sea-, sons. But he had a dream, an artist's vision, of what leather could be.
Or rather, the dream had hold of him, as relentless as disease or infestation. Fine, supple, many-colored leathers, if he could just find the right mix of tanbarks and oddments ... And now the human hunter had pissed on his pit. A year's labor, buried there, and another full four turnings of the seasons for it to steep, and Lift-Leg had taken it into his head to use that very place in all the vast Everwood as his customary spot to pee.
"Humans," Tanner moaned aloud again. Timmorn would have driven the man away. Two-Spear would have killed the human before looking at him twice. But Tanner had stayed in hiding.
Through the long summer afternoon he lay on the oak bough, his gray eyes thoughtful, restlessly stroking the hair of his short brown beard, until the fireflies came out at dusk. Then, as lithely as Brook (though the hunter was less than half his age) the Wolfrider chief made his way through the twilight treetops to the hurst, where his people were gathering for the nightly howl.
It was a hilltop, a bluff rather, overlooking the clear river that flowed northward into Muchcold Water. At its crest stood a grove of beeches, their bark nearly as smooth and pale as a Wolfrider's skin, gray of sheen, like Tanner's wolf-friend, Stagrunner. Spreading beech branches kept the forest floor beneath them nearly free of undergrowth. Around and between the gray gleaming trunks cubs were playing tag, they and some of their elders as well. As Tanner swung down to the ground he was met by smiles and a thump—a laughing, heedless Wolfrider, running into him, then darting past without a word, her long hair looking pale as moonlight in the night, tossing behind her. One of the cubs, Tanner recalled. A skinny youngster, half grown. Stormlight.
"Tanner!" It was Joygleam, one of the young hunters, smiling merrily along with Brightlance and Brook and others, her comrades. "I hear that luck is against you yet again!"
Without anger Tanner gave her his quiet half-smile. It was true that he had tried tanning leather again and again, seasons stretching back long before she was born, and there were always setbacks, and the stench sometimes was enough to drive a wild boar out of the woods—though never the lumpish humans—and never had he been wholly satisfied. But it did not matter. There was always the chance to try again. It was the reason why the tribe had stayed so long in one place, his tanning, his pits always being filled or waiting to be opened.
"Are you not glad you need not always wear stinking, rotting hides such as the humans do, Joygleam?" he asked her.
"Puckernuts!" cut in one of the elders before Joygleam could answer. It was old Fangslayer, one of the few Wolfriders who was older than the chieftain. Fangslayer had been grown when Tanner was yet a cub, and Fangslayer did not hesitate to speak his mind. "It's a waste, say I. Waste of time better spent, waste of shaper's labors setting the trees to rights after you're done taking the bark from them, Tanner, and now a waste of good skins, sitting in a hole in the ground for the humans to pass water on!"
Tanner said, "You would truly rather wear smoked hides rubbed with grease and brains?"
"It was good enough for me in your father's time," Fangslayer snapped.
"But that would truly be the waste," Tanner said, "when leather can be so much more. Don't you see, if I learn how I can make it thinner, softer, thin and soft as new leaves, and I can make it as many colors as the pelts of the wolf-pack. Or I can make it thick and hard, for protection in battle, should we ever have to battle the humans, or tough and supple for shelters, or I can make it stretch over a form as the humans stretch it for their drumheads. If I can learn to lace it tightly enough I will make pouches of it that will hold anything, even water. And—"
Caught up in his own fervor, it took Tanner a moment to notice that all the tribe had fallen silent and was gathering closer, listening to him. When he saw it, he stopped, lest they should hear promises where he had only dreams. He was reluctant to share such dreams; they were as nothing, he thought, before he made them true. To his tribe-mates he gave instead his shy, crooked smile. They smiled back, and some gently laughed. Fangslayer snorted and walked away. But the cub Starlight stood scowling earnestly at her chieftain, though he did not notice it. And Brook offered, "My chief, do you wish us to guard the pit from the human?"
The human tribe had come to their patch of the Everwood a mere hundred-some years before, and as yet knew nothing, or almost nothing, of the Wolfriders. Tanner and his people had learned new stealth; they had kept it so. Indeed, the rare human sightings of elves were hotly disputed around the tall ones' cooking fires in the evenings, and most of the humans scoffed more heartily than Fangslayer.
"No," said Tanner quietly to Brook, "thank you, but no. Let it go as it is." And he strode to the brow of the hurst to lead his tribe in the howl, to listen as tales were told of battles and migrations, of the days of Prey-Pacer, Two-Spear, and Huntress Skyfire, days so dangerous, so different from the safe and settled life of Tanner's time.
Night followed night, howl followed howl, and in the Now of wolf-time moons followed moons, scarcely noticed. Orange autumn moons, cold white winter moons, and through them all Lift-Leg remained faithful to his oak tree and relieved himself on Tanner's pit. Watery spring moons, and still Lift-Leg did not falter in his routine. And Brook, Joygleam, and the others gleefully brought their chief the news of it all the while, until, when the thaw finally came, Tanner had no heart to open the pit.
"I swear by Timmorn's bones," he said to Stagrunner one night as they sat atop the silent hurst, "I would like to just let it lie."
The wolf-friend sat stolidly under the starlight. Concerning things of this sort, Stagrunner was the only one Tanner could talk to. Brook was a loyal friend in the large things, but in the small things he could not be trusted not to laugh or bear tales; he too dearly loved a joke. Though to Tanner leather-making was no small thing.
"And if it were not for Fangslayer," said Tanner morosely, "I think I would do just that. Let it all lie and rot."
Stagrunner panted, his white teeth gleaming in a grin of wordless agreement.
"But he'd never let me hear the end of it." Tanner shrugged, suddenly putting on again the air of half-smiling bemusement that he wore like a cloak. "So open it I must. I believe I was born to be the laughingstock. Walk with me, my good friend?"
Side by side, they ambled off into the night together.
On another night not long after, a night of the full moons, Tanner led a troop of strong young elves down to the oak to help him open the pit. And though they were outwardly silent, many were the jests that were privately "sent," especially as they drew near enough to whiff the place's aroma.
But on the way back to the hurst there were no jokes at all.
"Well?" Fangslayer barked, meeting the group of elves with their bundles of heavy, still-wet leathers. And Tanner, in the lead, looked straight at him with a smile that was neither shy nor wry.
"They are nearly perfect," he declared.
The leathers were lovely, fine and supple, softer than they had ever been before.
A tanning agent without peer had been discovered.
For days Tanner luxuriated in heady victory. Eagerly he assembled the next year's batch of hides, already harvested by Brook and sun-dried atop the evergreens, where the humans would not see. Eagerly he fetched tanbark and dried leaves, expertly placing them with the hides as he set them in the ground.
The seasons went round the cycle of four, one more moment-year in the nearly-endless span of elfin life, and the next springtime, seemingly no more than a moment later, found Tanner once again in despair.
Lift-Leg, the human, had unaccountably changed his habits. Perhaps the smell had become too much for him. He had taken his bodily wastes elsewhere. Not even once had he vouchsafed to piss on the awaiting pit. Tanner had undertaken to service the site himself, but without much hope; instinct told him that elf urine was quite different from human. In desperation he had attempted to obtain wolf urine, without much success. And to add to his gloom, the struggle had caused the relationship between him and Stagrunner to become chill and strained. And the leathers, when they came out of the ground, were solidly second-rate.
All his tribesmates, even Fangslayer, tried to tell him otherwise. "They're fine," Fangslayer snapped. "Very serviceable.''
The Wolfriders nodded, watching their chief with concern.
He had grown far too intent on his leathermaking to be laughed at.
"There's nothing wrong with this year's batch, Tanner," Brook told him. "Really."
Oddly, instead of comforting him, all this made him secretly furious, more furious than he had ever been when they had laughed. And oddly, it was one of the cubs, Stormlight, who was of better help to him.
She came to him where he was sitting alone for want of Stagrunner, sitting beneath the stars at the brow of the hurst. With no greeting or apology she sat beside him. "I know what you want," she said.
Still furious, all the more so since he could not shout at his well-meaning people, Tanner did not look at her or answer her. But Stormlight spoke steadily on.
"You want leathers as soft as flower petals, and colored all the hues of sky after sun goes down."
His head snapped around so that he looked at her.
"You want deerskins the color of honey, but softer than a newborn baby's hair. You want split pigskins as red as a robin's breast feathers, and purple as oak leaves in autumn, and gray as twilight, and deepwater blue. You want doeskins of milk white, able to be folded flat as a leaf and opened without a crease. You want the smaller skins, treewee, ringtail, even swamp rat, no less beautiful than the others."
She, a cub, understood better than any of her tribe-mates. Tanner was astounded, for it was seldom that any of them, least of all the cubs, saw him as anything but a stodgy, eccentric elder with a sparrow-brown beard, an undistinguished body, and no skills at the hunt.
Anger gone as if it had never been, Tanner looked hard at Stormlight. He might as well have been seeing her for the first time. Indeed, she had only been in his long life for a mere eyeblink, fourteen years or so, a tiny span compared to his seven-hundred-some years. She had been a fair-haired flash darting past him in the night, no more. Now he saw a cub—yet not a cub. All slender quickness and lank lengths of growing bones, but something stirring in the fine, pale face, the huge, night-shadowed eyes faintly sparkling with starlight. She was a cub at the edge, the verge, of passage and adulthood. And she understood.
Tanner found his voice a trifle husky when he spoke. "I had not thought of the purple," he admitted.
"But I was right about the rest?" the cub demanded.
"More than right."
"So what are you going to do?" Her great eyes were intensely on him.
Tanner smiled with both sides of his mouth, finding his way suddenly made clear. "Is it not plain? I must obtain more human urine," he declared, and he got up and went off to call a council of the Wolfriders to set about it.
"My people," he told them, "I need your help."
It was a request that they could not lightly refuse, and they did not do so. But neither did they agree. And by the end of the night all the tribe was dark with doubt and grumbling about Tanner. No longer one to be pitied and protected, he. A danger, maybe even a madman, Two-Spear's worthy successor. Tanner found himself smiling, the only one smiling. He felt much more happy and comfortable as a danger than as a soft-spoken eccentric, a leader who seldom led, chief in name only and a disappointment to the tribe.
"There," he remarked to Brook after the others had scattered, muttering, to the tree hollows and hidden places where they spent their days. "Finally, I've given you some excitement."
Brook said unhappily, "What did you expect, after letting Fangslayer and Longreach and the other elders run everything for years?"
"You think I'm a fool, Brook? Why do you suppose I only proposed that we watch the human camp until their habits become known to us? I plan to bring Fangslayer and his cronies around by degrees. What we really should do is dig a trap, make a net, and capture a human male to make urine for us."
Brook stared and backed away. "You are crazy," he stammered. Then he bolted toward the safety of his daylight perch.
"And he's the one who always tells the tales of Two-Spear at the howl," Tanner remarked to himself. Shrugging, half smiling in the faint daybreak light, he took to the trees—but not to rest. Silently, by the hidden upper ways, he himself made his way toward the human camp.
Just as he reached the point where he could watch the human hunters setting out to run the deer toward the waiting spearmen at the river, he saw a flash of fair hair some distance below him.
Her easy, swinging gait through the maze of lower branches slowed. Reluctantly she answered the sending. **I am here.**
**I know you are! What are you doing?**
**Watching the human camp for you, my chief, since the others are too stupid to care.**
He felt amused agreement, which he did not dare to share with her. Instead, he tried to sound stern. **Turn around. You know you should not be here. Go back to your family at once.**
**I have none.**
He had forgotten that she was an orphan, raised by the tribe, her parents killed in a hunting mishap years before. Childless and mateless as he was, and preoccupied with his leathermaking, Tanner had taken small part in the rearing of such cubs. He felt a jab of guilt, not only that he had forgotten, but that she could remind him so starkly, as if she should expect nothing more than forgetfulness from him.
**Turn around, then,** he sent more gently yet more firmly, **and go back to the place where you spend your days. I, your chief, command it.**
She went like a flash of birdflight, like a leaf on the wind, like cloud wisp, gone. From his higher, safer, more hidden vantage, Tanner looked on uneasily. For there was a human hunter standing on the ground beneath where she had been, staring upward with a puzzled scowl.
Tanner watched the humans. He did not come so recklessly near to them as Stormlight had done, for it was not in his nature to take unnecessary risks, but nevertheless, he lost rest and watched, and found ways to the nearer trees, day after day. At times the slow-witted human women, grubbing roots, would have needed only to look up from their toil to have seen him. Once a small child did see him leaping from oak to ash, but the women paid no heed to the child's babbling. Tanner spent the rest of that day in hiding and in compunction, for if he had been discovered so also would the tribe have been, and he felt it his duty as chief to protect them. Yet there was that in him which would have died, were it necessary, to fulfill his private quest.
That season there was unwonted silence and lack of merriment at the nightly howls. But one night when both moons were nearly at the full, as he sat alone afterward, Stormlight came to him and seated herself as abruptly as before, and said to him darkly, "I know where you spend your days."
He met her gaze, smiling. "It seems to me that you know everything about me."
She ignored that and went on. "You are watching the human village. I know it because I am watching, too, and watching you."
He was aghast. "Stormlight!"
"And you are going to get yourself caught if you are not more careful," she said to him sternly.
"You have disobeyed me!" Yet for some reason he found that he could not be angry with her or impose a punishment on her, as a chief should do.
"You gave me no order but for the one day," she retorted with a defiant lift of her head.
"You know no cub is ever to venture near the humans!"
"I will not be a cub for much longer! Then I will come and go as I will, and where I will, climb up and touch the lightning if I like. Ride the gale down to the ground, if I can. Do as you do, if it pleases me."
Tanner stared at her. She was as wild as Timmorn had ever been, born to confront the storm, as wild as the wolves. There was that in her which could be as fierce as he was gentle and mild.
Her eyes met his, her eyes of deep indigo, darker than storm clouds, deep as midnight, and he felt the jolt shift his center, his bedrock of self, and felt the tremors run through the rest of him, and he knew her soulname, which she did not yet know herself. And sitting, stunned and quaking, he knew he had to live some small time yet at least, long enough to generate a cub with her.
The cub that always comes of Recognition, combining the best qualities of each parent, her daring, his ... vision... The cub that might someday be his heir.
Stormlight was trembling, edging away from him, her delicate face very frightened; she had felt it too. "What— what was that?" she stammered. "What have you done to me?"
She thought it was something he had imposed on her, a punishment for defying him. Quickly he reached out and laid a hand on her arm to keep her by him. "No!" he exclaimed. "No, it was not me."
"What, then?" she appealed.
"Far larger than either of us. It was Recognition."
"But I—but how can that be?" For all her proud talk, she was still very much the cub. "I—I am not yet—"
"I know, little one." He stroked her hair, shining like pale water in the moonlight. "You are nowhere near ready, neither your body nor your self. Let the high ones give me strength, I will wait for you."
She stared at him. "But it is not fair!" she burst out. "There should be lovemates for me, courtships, choosings!" A wild light was growing in her eyes. A wolf, entrapped by humans, Tanner had heard, would kill itself with fretting against its bonds rather than submit. This daughter of the wolves would take no more readily to the bonds of Recognition. "I have never wanted anything but to be free!"
Her cub, Tanner thought, might have those same wide, midnight-blue, flashing eyes.
"It is horrible!" she cried. "Why should I be—be made a prisoner to—to—"
Be bound to a dried-up old stick of an elf, she was thinking, though she would not say it, not even in her frenzy of shock and anger. But Tanner knew well enough.
**You will be as free as I can make you, Stormlight.** He sent to her, trying to calm her. **The bond need not be for life.**
She glared at him and sprang to her feet. "I'll see to my own freedom, thank you!" she snapped. She strode away from him, legs thin and gawky beneath her leather kirtle, and he watched after her until she went out of sight in the night.
Then he lay back and sighed and dazedly looked up at the stars. He was serene by nature, but Recognition had been at least as much of a shock to him as it was to her.
"Tie me and skin me and cook me in a fire!" he muttered.
By dawn he was still dazed, and went and watched the human village as he did every day, without really seeing anything, and without finding out any more than he already knew, which was that the humans were maddeningly random as to where they put their urine and when they produced it. When the sun was high he slept, right on a thick oak limb as he was, for he felt exhausted. And when a great hubbub from the humans below awakened him, he felt yet so dizzied and weak that he did not at first understand what was happening.
Then he glimpsed a small head of fair hair, so fine it floated like flowerdown above pointed ears, and he knew.
The humans had Stormlight.
One of the tall ones' hunters was carrying her in his coarse hands, carrying her to the center of the camp at arm's length, gingerly, as if even in his triumph he was afraid of her. Other humans, women and striplings mostly, were crowding and swirling around, jostling each other for a chance to see. yet unwilling to come too near; a clear space always showed around the hunter and his captive. Even in his panic Tanner could see that Stormlight had not been hurt, at least not yet. And she might not be if she used her wits. The humans acted more than half frightened of her.
**Stormlight! Be calm, be canny. I will bring help.**
**I—my chief, I am sorry. There is something wrong with me. I was clumsy and slow, he saw me—**
**Never mind that now. Keep your wits about you. Use their fear of you to fend them off. But do not make them so afraid they become enraged.**
**Please—come back quickly...**
At the distance, Tanner could not see the look on her face. Horror held him staring one moment more, and then he tore himself away and sped through the treetops toward the forest.
**Ayooooah! Stagrunner!** With all the sending strength that was in him he summoned his wolf-friend to more quickly carry him the remaining distance back to the camp. Within moments the wolf came leaping to his side, and for the first time in many seasons, and in high daylight, yet, Tanner rode, at speed.
**Ayooah-yoh! Wolfriders, to me! Brook! Brightlance! Joygleam! Oakstrong! Scarp!**
All those who were strong and fit for fighting he summoned by name, sending, and when Stagrunner stopped, panting, at the crest of the hurst, he heard slight, squirrellike rustlings in the beeches as they came to him. Hesitantly they came down to the ground, exposed to view in the blunt daylight, and stood around him with wary eyes-.
They and many whom he had not summoned, Fangslayer among them.
"The humans have captured Stormlight," Tanner told them. "You cubs and nursing mothers, you elders, back to the trees, to hiding." His tone was curt, for only those he had summoned should have come to him; the others should have stayed in safety. "You who will follow me, bring weapons, send for your wolf-friends."
No one moved except to shift from one foot to the other and to shift eyes, glance at neighbors. None of them summoned their mounts.
"How did the cub come to be captured?" Fangslayer asked harshly, his voice sounding oddly loud, like the calling of the crow, in the forest hush. "How do you come to know of it?"
"There is no time now to talk of it!"
Brook said, softly, too softly, "You were spying on the humans, you and she, were you not? And you ventured too near. Is it not so?"
"And now the tribe is to pay the price of your folly," said Fangslayer. "Many lives might be lost, to try to save one."
Tanner felt his hands turn cold where they rested on the thick fur of Stagrunner's neck. He said, "Which of you wishes to challenge me for the chief's lock? Brook? Fangslayer?"
"I am too old," Fangslayer said stiffly.
"By the high ones, I think you have gone as mad as Two-Spear," Brook muttered. His hands balled into fists, and he shouted, "Yes! I will challenge you!"
He strode forward. His fists swung up as if that would help him. But he faltered and slowed to a stop as his leaf-brown eyes locked with the wolf-gray ones of his chief in a battle of wills, a sending that only they two could hear. And while Stormlight in the human village down below wielded the thin blade of human fear and used it to hold her enemies off, Tanner wielded the fragile weapons of mind.
In a few moments Brook's fists fell, his face turned away. Tanner reached out and placed a hand on his sagging shoulder. But his gaze looked fiercely around at the others.
"I am your chief," he told them. "Does anyone dispute it?"
No one answered. The glances of some fell to the ground.
"Then hear me. Some of you have spoken truly. It is my duty as chief to see to the safety of the tribe. I have seen the faces of the humans, and I believe that they will be terrified of us if we strike now, in number, that they will flee, that no lives need be lost. But I have also seen your faces, and I will not require any of you to follow me. For my own part, I must go to the human village. I have no choice. Stormlight and I are Recognized."
A murmur of astonishment ran around the tribe. Even Brook's eyes snapped up. "When?" he demanded.
"Lately." Tanner smiled briefly, crookedly at him, then sobered. "I must go to her at once, alone if need be. I name you chief, Brook. I myself will tie the lock on your head, for I have seen your center, and it is good." He reached up to pull the leather thong from his hair.
"No!" Brook caught hold of his arm to stop his hand. "Keep it! May you keep it for eight hundred turns more. I will come with you to the human camp." .
"And I," said Joygleam.
"And I," said Oakstrong.
And others. And others, and more, and they were all coming close to him, crowding around him with hands outstretched or upraised as if in triumph, and Tanner tilted back
his head and shouted aloud, with no thought for caution any longer, "Ayooooah! Wolfriders!"
Before the sun had dipped low in the sky he had ridden Stagrunner to the laurel thickets at the edge of the forest, where he looked out at the human village, a score of strongly armed Wolfriders at his back.
Tanner stiffened and swayed on Stagrunner's back, dizzied. It was his soulname,
**Soulmate,** he asked her, **have they harmed you?**
**No. The tall ones are quarreling over what to do with me.**
**Be ready. We are coming.**
His mind turned to the others, Brook at his one side, Joygleam at the other, the many at his back, and his sending embraced them all at once, and they all answered him. Out of the score of them, some frightened, most uneasy, sending made a unity, strong, steady, fierce.
**No killing, my people, unless it is necessary. But if it is, smite hard.**
**We are ready, our chief.**
"Ayooooah, Wolfriders! Attack!"
The human young relived it all of their brutish lives in nightmare.
Out of the shadows of the forest, the wolves, a storm-gray scud of them, streaming forward at the speed of birdflight, their gaping mouths showing their long, white teeth—and on each one, long hunting knife or sharp lance upraised, a—a creature, a demon, with fierce eyes that seemed to glow, upslanted and wild as the eyes of the wolves. And before there was time to do more than scream, the flood of them swept into the village.
Tanner, in the lead, sped straight to Stormlight, saw her squirming out of her bonds as if they were so much strangleweed. A few quick strokes of his sharp leather-cutting knife to help her, and she was free. **My eyes see with joy,** she greeted him.
He caught her up much as the shrieking human females were snatching up their children; he set her on Stagrunner before him. **My hands touch with joy,** he told her before he turned his eyes and mind back to the others.
The Wolfriders had needed to do no more than rush and threaten. The humans were fleeing, falling like storm-toppled trees in their frenzy to get away. Only a few, doughty Lift-Leg among them, stood their ground, and they all seemed too stunned to raise weapon. No bloodshed yet, Tanner saw.
"I have our sister, my people. Quickly, back to the hurst!"
Like one large, leaping wolf they wheeled to obey him. But a human hunter was in Tanner's way. The man who had captured Stormlight, he was not as frightened as the rest, for his slow mind was intent only on his prize, and he saw it escaping him. With a bellow of anger he raised his club to strike—
Tanner shouted and raised his knife, futile against so large a foe. Nearly helpless, Stormlight pressed against his chest ... too late to send Stagrunner darting off to the side—the wolf snarled, longing to tear out the throat of this enemy, knowing he could not leap so high with the burden that was on his back. The club swept down—then dropped with a soft thud to earth as Brook drove his stone-tipped lance into the human's heart.
Tanner saw the quivering lance haft as the blow struck home, but he only heard the thump of the falling body, for he was forest bound, at speed, holding Stormlight in his arms, Brook riding at his side, and the others close at hand, and the wolves running hard, carrying them all out of danger.
Though never again would they be entirely out of danger. The humans knew their enemy now. A human warrior had been slain.
Brook said, "My chief, I had no choice."
"But you did! You could have let me be killed."
Brook stared uneasily, feeling once again as if his chief were going mad—until he saw the gray glint of mischief in Tanner's eyes. Then he laughed aloud.
"You have outjaped me," he declared, laughing, "after all these years."
"What, my chief, did you never tell him you have the soul of a scamp?" Stormlight twisted her thin body to look up at Tanner. But his face was somber, his fingertips stroking a storm-purple lump on her white-skinned temple.
**You told me they had not hurt you.**
**Not but for that. It is where the tall one stunned me with a rock, capturing me.**
He felt weak, as if starved by many days' hunger, touching her. Her soulname was pulsing in him like a heartbeat. He needed her as a parched forest needs rain.
"Set me down," she said, perhaps sensing some of this in him, perhaps feeling it in herself. "I will go take my passage at once."
"Come to the healer first, and to the howl, so that the tribe may see you are well," Tanner told her. "Then go."
It was a long howl. There was much to be discussed, for there was no telling what the humans might do. A heavy guard was set. More weapons were to be made, and breastplates of thick leather, to be worn even when hunting. Extra roots and forage of all sorts were to be gathered. No one was to leave the hurst alone. Tanner's people agreed to all this, and looked at him with a new light in their eyes. Theirs was again to be the life of legend, the life of the Wolfriders. Safety was perhaps, after all, not the only thing. Perhaps daring and courage were worth as much. Perhaps they might yet find a way to capture Lift-Leg's marvelous tanning agent for their chief.
To him, it no longer seemed so important. In time he expected he would find something else that worked as well. Meanwhile, there was his Recognized to be thought of.
He took leave of her afterward, by moonlight, as she stood at the side of her wolf-friend who would bear her away and guard her during her vigil.
"As soon as I have found my soulname, I will be an adult, we can do the thing to make the cub?"
"Yes," he told her.
"I will come back as quickly as I can. I know you are suffering, you cannot eat. I feel the same."
"But I do not plan to stay with you," she told him bluntly, "after it is done."
"Of course not. I will not try to hold you." His hand lifted to stroke her cloud-wisp hair. "It would be like trying to hold the wind."
**Lhu. I thank you.**
He embraced her, held her pressed against his chest for a moment, then let her go, stood and watched as she rode her giant thunder-dark wolf off into the darkened forest.
When she was gone from sight he turned and went back to the hurst, thinking he would sit alone at the brow of the hill, as he had so many other nights. But he was mistaken. Not only his wolf-friend awaited him, but many of his tribe-mates were there waiting for him as well.
"It seemed to us," Brook explained awkwardly, "that we ought to be more together from now on."
"No more hunting alone?" Tanner teased him.
"No more letting you become a stranger to us. I, for one, was fool enough to think bad things of you, and I am ashamed."
Tanner said, "I let it happen, too. So much that is in me, I have never shared."
He sat at the brow of the hurst, looking up at the stars. They all sat with him.
"Together," Tanner echoed softly. "My people, often I have had a strange dream of a-—a place I do not know, a sort of huge tree of many hollows, where all the Wolfriders could rest in one place."
"Show us," said Fangslayer gruffly.
So he shared with them the image in his mind with a sending that included them all. A generation later, when some of the younger ones of them, grown old, came at last to the holt, they would remember that night when Tanner shared with them that dream, and many others, and when they and their chief howled together of the Way and what the Wolfriders should be.
Longreach didn't join the long hunts anymore—he claimed too much wolf riding made his bones ache—but he joined the ones in easy range of the Father Tree. It was possible that his strength was less than it had once been or that his eyes were just a bit blurred, still what he had lost in sheer ability he had more than gained in cunning. He'd thrust his spear into the heart-flesh of a redbuck and felt the wolf-song within him trill as the warm blood touched his lips.
He was content, then, as they brought the carcass back to the hole to share with the others. His mind moved with the moment, so he was surprised when blond Treestump came up alongside.
"It's Moth, storyteller," the bearded Wolfrider said. "I'm worried for her. She's all set for her quest but there's something off-stride in her heart."
Longreach brought his mind to focus behind his eyes. There was no doubting the affection and concern in the hunter's face though Moth was no blood to him since Tanner's generation. The Wolfrider loved all the cubs—their own and each other's. If Treestump thought Moth needed a story or a shoulder, then Longreach would do his share.
"She's in the mist grove," Treestump said as he took the redbuck onto his own wolfs back.
The old Wolfrider put the gnarled trees with their dangling clumps of silver moss into Starwing's mind. The wolf melted away from the others and carried him rise-ward to the grove. Moth was with her wolf-friend, looking very small and very frightened. Her face showed shock and then relief as Starwing cleared the shadows.
"I didn't hope—" she began, taking his hands before he'd even slid from Starwing's back.
He patted her straw-blond hair and tucked her face against his shoulder; he could feel her heart pounding and trembling. "You didn't need to hope, wolfling. One sent thought and I'd find you, you know that—"
**What if I don't find it?**
**You'll find your soulname, don't fret about it.**
She pulled away, leaving dark splotches on his tunic. "Why me?" she stammered through her sobs. "Why couldn't I find my name right here under the Father Tree like everyone else? Why wasn't I born knowing it like Cutter was?" Shamed by her cub-tears, Moth wiped her face on her sleeve— and left a long smudge across her cheek.
It made her look younger and even more forlorn. Longreach would have made up a name and given it to her right then if that would have made a difference. "You'll be seeking more than a name. Cutter was born knowing who he was and he'll know who he is all his life, I suspect. And the ones who find their names here, it's as if they're truly a part of the holt. But some of the Wolfriders have had to search to find their true selves."
**And some of them never come back.** Sent, not spoken, because the fear lay tight around the thought.
"Some," the storyteller honestly agreed, "but I can see by their eyes when they won't find a soulname, and I can see when they will. And what I see in your eyes, I've seen before—''