This one is dedicated to Kathleen and Wingthing in gratitude for inspiration.
Daughter of Shale and Eyes High
Skywise stared at the cub she had just saved from a snake. She felt strange. It was as if she was somehow bound to the newborn Blood of Ten Chiefs. She had never felt so close to anyone in her young life. Not even her mother, of whom she had but as hazy memory. Not any of the tribe, who had all been like parents to her.
Joyleaf noticed the girl staring at her and the cub.
“Would you like to hold him, Skywise?”
“Yes. Thank you.” And she held him in her arms, and her heart sang of love. He was a tiny little creature, eyes closed, tiny hands fisted. And he lay there so content, not crying for his mother. Joyleaf seemed to notice that.
“You’re holding him just right, exactly as I was going to tell you to. You will be a good mother someday.”
A mother? She? Not yet.
“I would rather be – a sister.”
Later the cub was welcomed to the tribe, and Bearclaw told tribe name would be Cutter. And they all howled for the Blood of Ten Chiefs.
Chapter One: Dreamberry Love
*Puckernuts!* The stargazer thought. She loved her brother, yes, but lately she had begun to appreciate other, more mature company. The age difference between them had never seemed so great. She was a maiden now, he was still a child.
“Hey! Did you forget me?”
“Heh heh… no, Cutter! How could I forget my own shadow?!”
She bent down to explain:
“But Pike and I have a long way to go, and Starjumper’s rump is sore. He can’t take extra riders.”
Skywise placed her arm on Cutter’s shoulders:
“Now, don’t tell anyone… especially Bearclaw! This is a secret hunt! I’m after the most delicious prey there is!”
“Don’t worry, Skywise! I won’t tell! You’ll see!” Cutter called as he ran back towards the holt.
“Delicious prey…?” Pike asked, grinning.
“Wait ‘til you see my lure!”
Skywise had found the place by change, when she had been tracking a buck her arrow had wounded some nights ago. She’d caught the buck eventually, but what she had scented on the way was even better than the kill.
Pike’s mouth hung open when he saw –
“A field of dreamberries!”
“Farther from the holt than we’ve ever gone, but worth the risk, eh?”
“As if you had to ask!”
Pike tumbled headlong into the bushes. Skywise giggled and followed, landing in his arms.
They fed ripe berries to each other and kissed between the mouthfuls.
“Well, the prey is down, my sweet huntress. What now?”
“As if you had to ask.”
They began to undress each other.
A moment later Skywise straightened her back, sitting up from the bushes.
“Mmmm… oh… oh, lovemate…!”
Joining was such pleasure, she would never tire of it. If it took dreamberries to get her lovemate in the mood, well then dreamberries he would have.
She opened her eyes, and it took a moment to realize what she was seeing.
**Pike! There’s a human!**
**We’d better run!** He answered, fumbling with his belt.
**Wait! Let’s take a closer look!**
**Bearclaw won’t like this!** Pike objected, but followed his lovemate.
**Bearclaw thinks we’re fishing in Goodtree’s Glen!**
The human was doing something with some stones arranged in a circle on the ground.
**Skywise! Around his neck – the ornament Eyes High once wore in her hair!**
That did it. Something snapped inside Skywise and she cried out:
Sword flashing, the daughter of Eyes High rode Starjumper to revenge her mother’s blood. She was too angry to be afraid, too angry to remember Bearclaw’s rule about lifebearers not risking themselves in battle. Pike followed, spear in hand, but Skywise already had her blade at the throat of the human. She demanded to know how the human had got the ornament. The answer was something she would never have expected:
[You…! I know you!]
The human told an incredible story of how he had tried to help Eyes High, and how his brother had died for that. Skywise did not know what to think of it. She cut the string that bound the ornament around the human’s neck, and left him trembling on the ground, hardly able to believe the white-haired demoness had not cut his throat open.
**Lovemate!** Pike sent after Skywise, but she ignored him. Alone, she stood under the starlit sky, grasping in his hand the leather decoration that had been her mother’s. And she mourned her parents all over again.
Chapter Two: Eyes Meet Eyes
It was a clear, sunny day, one of the first warm days that Season of New Green. Skywise found it hard to sleep. Something felt out of place, yet not exactly wrong. Different. As if she was someone else and not Skywise at all. As if she was dreaming and aware of it but unable to wake herself. As if she was drunk – but no, she hadn’t touched Pike’s dreamberries for days. She got dressed and climbed out from their den, leaving her lovemate asleep. On the branch she met Joyleaf, who was making a new flower garland to wear in her hair. Skywise did not know where the words came to her tongue, but she found herself asking:
Joyleaf smiled, as if she knew a secret or something. Then again, Joyleaf often smiled like that.
“He went to try his new bow. He said he couldn’t wait until night. He won’t be long.”
Skywise did not know why she was so glad her brother would be back soon. She did not remember ever having missed him so much, but she knew not why. There was nothing special to show him or tell him, nor any reason to worry. He was old enough to take care of himself now.
Cutter did indeed return soon, with a freshly killed rabbit in his hand. Skywise climbed down to meet him. Cutter called out proudly:
“I got him on my first try!”
“Either the bow is much better than your old one, or you’ve finally learned to aim!”
“Skywise…” Cutter walked very close to her. Suddenly he drew his knife and cut something loose from the insides of the gutted rabbit.
“The meat goes to Moonshade and Rainsong, naturally.” He said, referring to the two lifebearers.
“But I would like to give you this.” He held out the still-warm heart of the animal.
Skywise reached out her hand and took the strange gift. Usually, the heart was given to a lovemate. But of course, Cutter did not have one yet, so he had to make do with a sister. And what was that nervous scent Skywise sensed from him? Of course. She should have guessed. He was about to ask for some favour or other, and the gift was meant to soften her. She met his eyes with her customary grin.
And looked deeper than she had ever looked before. Straight into his soul.
Cutter stood back, startled. Then he caught her in a tight embrace. They stared each other for a long while, drinking in familiar features transformed by the force of Recognition.
“But you are so young…” Skywise tried to protest.
“I’m old enough.” As if to prove it, she lifted her off her feet.
Other voices joined Skywise’s laughter. Joyleaf had woken everyone with a sending.
“Well, strike me with skyfire!” Bearclaw exclaimed. “My cub is not a cub anymore.”
Joyleaf laughed and ruffled his hair:
“Two turns from now we’ll be grandparents. How does that sound like, Old Badger?”
The chief found no answer.
“The High Ones have truly blessed us,” Rain the healer stated.
“First Strongbow and Moonshade will have their second go at it, then my little Rainsong goes and Recognizes Woodlock, and now you two.”
Pike and Redlance sat on a branch almost directly above Skywise and Cutter. If Pike meant to whisper, his voice was too loud for them not to hear it:
“Cutter doesn’t know what a striped buzznest he’s stepping in. He is going to be nutmash. Totally.”
~**Tam, what about Pike? He’s my lovemate. Could we…**~
~**Tree with him? Of course.**~
Skywise looked up and called out:
“You won’t be off the hook so easily, Pike! Would you like to tree with us?”
“Thank you, but no. Not right now at least. The High Ones know I need some rest!”
Cutter was beginning to feel a bit apprehensive of the whole Recognition thing. Maybe he’s been just a bit too hasty to assure her of his maturity? Everyone knew about Skywise and her love of sharing. Cutter had heard she’d been with half the male wolfriders, at least, and some of the females too. And what they said of her seemed to suggest she had quite and appetite for joining. Cutter had loved her all his life, first as a sister, and recently he had started to see her in a new way. He had almost decided he was going to ask her to initiate him. That was why he’d given her the heart of the rabbit – the rabbit! He’d forgotten!
“Rainsong! Moonshade! I brought something for you!” He lifted up his kill.
“Keep it, Cutter!” Moonshade called back. “Maybe she isn’t a lifebearer yet, but she will be, and you’ll be too busy to hunt tonight!”
“Yes, you’ll need the meat more than we do,” Rainsong agreed. “Isn’t Recognition wonderful?”
Skywise sensed that Cutter was worried.
~**Tam? What is it?**~
~**I’m afraid… I mean, I have never…**~
~**Don’t worry. What was before is past. This is now. This is Recognition.**~
~**Oh, Fahr…**~ He embraced her once more.
Skywise led the way to her den. It was the highest in the Father Tree, closest to the stars, and it had belonged to her mother. She loved living up high of course, but for once she wished the climb had been shorter. She was burning, she was aching - she had never felt such a desperate urge for joining. Always, it had been her choice, but now Recognition had made the choice for them both. She had never given much thought to the whole idea. It was something that happened to others. She had smiled, listening to Nightfall and Dewshine whisper about who they would like to Recognize when they grew up, and all she had thought was she couldn’t choose, she dreamed of everyone, and she had wished the others luck and asked if they would share.
Now she was in her den, and she sat on the soft furs and began to undress. First she took off the headpiece, a gift from Cutter some turns ago – although he had thought she’d wear it behind her ears as a hair decoration. Then the wristbands, those too resembling armor more than decoration. The other females had often wondered why someone so obsessed about the males didn’t pay more attention to her looks, but the truth was, Skywise had a secret dream. No matter what Bearclaw said, one day she would be a warrior. The humans would not catch her helpless like her parents had been. Now, though, she was not thinking about those dreams. She undid her belt and threw it and the sword attached to it into a dark corner. Cutter was watching her. As she bent down to take off her boots, Cutter reached out and helped her. And then he helped with the rest of her clothes, and she with his.
Skywise had thought she knew all there was to know about joining. But she was proved wrong. Nothing, nothing she had ever experienced could compare with the intense, wild magic that was Recognition. It was fire and it was ice, it was the wolf in her in heat, it was the voice of the High Ones singing in her blood, weaving a spell. There was no choice, and although she loved Cutter, this had nothing to do with love. It felt – it felt as if the stars themselves had come down for her!
And a fear of loneliness she had never admitted having was gone once and for all. As long as she had Tam, she would never again be alone.
Chapter Three: Madcoil
It was just a hunt, she had said, and her belly hadn’t swelled yet, it wouldn’t be in the way. The cub had just begun, she wanted to take part in one more hunt before she would be forced to hole up back at the Holt with the other lifebearers. It was just a hunt, and anyway Rain the Healer was coming with them. Skywise had pleaded, first with Cutter, then with Bearclaw, until they had agreed to take her along.
And of course when they sensed the strange scent and felt the terror in the air, it would have made no sense to send her alone back to the holt. Surely she was safer with all the hunters?
But it would turn out that no one was safe that night. Rain the Healer was the first to die. The monster attacked wolf and elf alike, and with one slash of a huge paw it threw Skywise down before she had time to escape.
She fell on rocks, and the pain was unbearable. The monster was in her head, it could send, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the faint and wordless sending, first inside her, then, horribly, nowhere, out in the air - the last caress of the spirit of her unborn cub as it died and left her. It was with her just long enough for her to learn that it would have been a daughter.
“Run! Run for your lives!” Bearclaw commanded. Skywise couldn’t even walk, so Cutter carried her and helped her into a tree. Voices around them called for Brownberry, Longbranch, and Foxfur.
~**Fahr? Are you all right?**~
~**Tam… Oh, Tam! Our cub… is no more. I felt her die.**~
Cutter wrapped her in a tight embrace, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. Then they heard Bearclaw’s anguished voice:
“Answer us, sister!” Treestump added his voice to the call.
When no answer came, Bearclaw climbed down and stood still a long time, sending.
~**Go to him.**~ Skywise knew what Cutter wanted. ~**Joyleaf is my mother, too.**~ She would not say “was”. Not before it was certain. The thought was too terrible. Wasn’t losing one mother enough?
Apparently not. There was no measure, no limit to the pain Madcoil had brought. Joyleaf was gone. Bearclaw wanted to revenge his lifemate, and he wanted to go alone. The others objected of course, but he drew New Moon and made it a matter of challenge.
“Who wants to cross me? You, One-Eye? Treestump?”
A new day was dawning. Skywise had gained enough of her strength to stand on her own. She could hardly believe her ears when Cutter spoke:
“The others must go back, I agree! But I’m coming with you! You can’t stop me!”
He had never defied his chief before. To everyone’s surprise, Bearclaw didn’t object. He turned to track the beast, while Cutter held back a moment longer.
“Treestump… If we don’t come back, you are chief. Take the tribe far away from here. Bearclaw and I want you to live – understand?” Then he turned to Skywise.
“That includes you too. Don’t come after us, no matter what. I have to know you are safe.”
“Oh, lifemate! Timmain keep you!”
She had never called him lifemate before. She knew if she embraced him now she would never be able to let go. So she just stared at him, and after him, until One-Eye had to take hold of her shoulders and turn her to the path towards the Holt.
Days went by. The lifeless remains of the unborn cub left Skywise’s womb with more pain than an actual birth would have been. Moonshade had scolded her first, for going on the hunt, but at last she too could only pity the stargazer. She was a shadow of her former self, refusing to eat until Clearbrook forced her to.
Then the summons came. The wolves howled a message from Cutter, and no-one questioned when Skywise declared she would go with the others.
Cutter sat on a stone in the middle of a glade. He did not answer Treestump’s greeting. Skywise ran into his arms. They had no words, not even a sending. Skywise sensed his sorrow was even deeper than before, and stood back, waiting.
Treestump spoke, explaining they had left Woodlock to guard the lifebearers. Cutter interrupted his babbling:
There was a moment of silence. Too much sorrow, Skywise thought, all too much.
Treestump took out a bit of leather cord and tied the chief’s lock in Cutter’s hair.
“What is your will, my chief?”
Skywise stared at her young lifemate. He seemed older, suddenly. Stronger. She tried to tell herself it was just a bit of leather in his hair, that nothing had changed – but she knew her whole world had changed, and herself with it.
Cutter answered Treestump’s question:
“Madcoil can be killed. Bearclaw wounded it! But he was wrong to think he could destroy the monster alone! I promised Bearclaw I’d finish what he began – but I need all of you to help me.”
Then he did something Bearclaw had never done. He asked them:
“Will you?” He could have commanded them, but he didn’t. And with that choice he won them over.
They tricked Madcoil from its den and caught it in a net, and Cutter stabbed it right through the eye. Skywise watched, heart racing, as he used himself to bait the monster. She loved him with all her heart, but watching him that day she learned to truly respect him, too.
Three turns later Recognition reinforced its hold on them, sudden and undeniable. But no new life began, and Skywise learned the full depth of the wounds Madcoil had left in her. She would never be a lifebearer again, at least not while they had no healer.
After that revelation, of course, there was no reason to keep her from fighting the humans. Cutter was surprised and a bit scared of the wrath his lifemate felt towards them.
to be continued....