Chapter 5: Conversations

Urgh… rocks don't make the best sleeping spot.

Mender slowly rose from her makeshift sleeping area as the snores of the rest of her pack reached her ears. They made a soft echo against the rocks that only her ears could have captured against the background noise. Hidden runners were not known to be loud sleepers.

She stretched, being careful not to awaken Buse, as she glanced in the direction where Arial lay.

I need to check on her injury, but it can wait for the fastrunners to wake up. She snorted softly. After our 'entrance' I don't want to upset them any more than we already have!

Her mind made up, she gave one final look towards Cynnil to confirm that she was still slumbering. Seeing that to be the case, and that no one remained awake to give her contrary orders, she decided to attend to nature's call.

Hmmm… I wonder if they have a relieving spot.

She didn't notice Pearl opening her eyes and following her with her gaze.

Mender sighed heavily as she walked away from the relieving spot she had made the previous night. Being too embarrassed to come back and ask and too dutiful to risk exposing her patient to any danger, she had trekked nearly two miles to go back from where her pack had came.

"I will need to ask about that today… that is a long walk," I shouldn't have drunk from the stream before sleep. This happens every time. Though marking territory usually isn't a bad thing.

"The relieving spot is in the rocks, by the way."

Mender froze as the voice echoed across the ravine. Looking around frantically she could not see the source of the voice, but she could recognize it.

"Pearl?" Mender hesitated a moment with an embarrassed expression, "Um… sorry about waking you up…"

The laughter reached her ears before the tell-tale pale pink of the fastrunner came into view. After a few jumps from rock to rock she descended from the middle of the rock wall to its base. It was as if she knew every crevice of the rocks like the feathers on her back.

"No worries, Mender. I was already awake. I actually wanted to talk with you a moment."

Mender subconsciously began to twitch her tail out of nervousness.

"If that is alright, of course."

Get a hold of yourself, Mender! "Of course! Sorry, I just didn't realize that I had been followed."

Pearl laughed again. A slow, joyful laugh that sounded as if it had ripened with age. "I am not surprised. Our kind lives by being silent and fast… though if you had gone in the direction of the wind then I am sure you would have smelled me long ago."

Mender smiled meekly, "Surely…"

The pair seemed to pause for a moment as Pearl careful went to the relieving spot and gave it a cursory sniff. Then, using her hind feet, she began to quickly brush her body in the vicinity of the scent marking before carving a depression in the ground. It was only then that Mender dared to ask the obvious question.

"Excuse me, ma'am, but what…"

"Rub some of your scent right here," Pearl interrupted while not taking her eyes off of the little scrape she had made.

Mender tilted her head, What do you have in mind, Pearl? But she complied all the same. Within mere moments the scrape had a much stronger scent of fastbiter over that of the fastrunner. It was only then that she looked up.

To see that Pearl was no longer there.

"Few sharpteeth think to look up in the rocks," her voice echoed from the rock wall, her pink head peeking over a crevice of some kind, "Now if any come by they will think that the fastrunner who hunts out here has already been eaten."

Mender blinked as she contemplated the fastrunner's strategy, "Does your family have enemies?" If we had known that then we might have called in a few favors of our own!

Pearl's laugh greeted her again, "None in particular, but for a fastrunner any extra trickery is an advantage. A fastrunner who doesn't have speed or brains is…"

"Dinner." Mender finished Pearl's thought before realizing what she had just done, I need to keep my mouth shut! "Um... I mean."

"No, you are quite right. I have no doubt that if you needed food in the Mysterious Beyond then a stupid or slow fastrunner would be a good meal for you. Had it not been for Seeker's good words for you, and your formidable reputation, then we would have made sure that you would have never been invited into our family's hiding spot." Pearl's voice no longer had laughter in it, but rather an odd kind of reserved wisdom, "But that is not why I followed you this morning."

Mender remained silent for several moments until she was sure that Pearl was waiting for her to speak, "Then may I ask what brought you out here, ma'am?"

There was a brief pause until the pink fastrunner finally jumped onto a rock within Mender's field of vision, "I figured that we could talk for a bit as we head back to Hanging Rock… without the others hearing."

Great… what have I done now?

Then it happened again. The joyful laughter.

"I am not angry with you, Mender. I just have some questions. It isn't every day that Mender the Healer comes to your home, and it isn't every day that I can have a conversation with a fastbiter."

Mender rather self-consciously rose from her apologetic posture and tried to match the fastrunner's pace as she continued forward on the rocks above her, "I just help people…" she tried to temper the praise that the fastrunner had given her.

"A willingness to help people is a most rare trait in the Mysterious Beyond, Mender. Surely you know that?"

Mender looked down at those words. She had no rebuttal, "Buse and Cynnil are quite the healers as well. Cynnil has led me across the Mysterious Beyond for five seasons, and Buse has been with us for a season."

Pearl hopped to another rock with a soft thump, "I hope he has learned more about healing that tactfulness."

Mender laughed, "I am a healer, not a miracle worker."

Pearl echoed Mender's laughter, "It reminds me of the reports Spotter gives us from our daughter. Inevitably they will always include a few of Taunt's greatest incidents. Well, that is until the kids came along. Now it seems that he has his claws full."

Mender grew silent for several moments as she contemplated those words, "I have no doubt that Taunt's children would be like their father… I… um…"

Pearl stopped to look down at the fastbiter, "Go ahead, Mender."

"I have been traveling for many seasons, but I have not visited the pack since they had their kids. I… never had the chance." The slight quiver in her voice was not lost on Pearl.

Now it was Pearl's chance to be silent for a moment. When she again spoke, her voice came from behind Mender. She had covered enough ground that her scent was far enough away from the site of her faked 'death' to not alert any sharpteeth to the ruse.

"Now that reminds me of when we sent Ruby into the valley. We never knew if we were going to see her again, and the only notice we had of her whereabouts came from the mutterings of far-walkers leaving the valley," she sighed as she thought about those days, "Every time a complaining spiketail mentioned 'the damn egg-stealer' in the valley or the 'purple sharptooth' then we knew our baby was safe."

Mender frowned, "How often was that?"

Pearl smiled, "Not often. The leaf-eaters wouldn't directly talk to us, you see. But it is useful for a fastrunner to listen from afar. She has been an adult now for many seasons, and has been through several lifetimes of hardship. It is nice to know that she and our grandchildren are safe and sound."

Mender nodded, "Their song was hard to believe… and that is before I left. I can't imagine what they have been through since then."

Pearl blinked, "You don't know?"

Mender shrugged, "Well I was told by a flyer that the pack had had children… that Leap and Haven got together… and a several days ago a flyer told me that Seeker needed his favor repaid," she snorted, "…as if I only owe him one favor…"

"He didn't tell you what happened?" Pearl was disbelieving now.

"Um…" Mender hesitated, "The flyer told our pack about Ponder's sister needing some help… and that it involved a misunderstanding between the valley and some sharpteeth."

Pearl merely shook her head as a annoyed grunt left her mouth, "I will need to send a flyer out to inform my daughter's mate of the importance of giving the full story! Let's just say that the 'misunderstanding' involved Path, his parents, us, and the valley," she sighed, "It was enough to make us consider abandoning this place."

Mender frowned. My family never had the chance to flee… consider yourselves lucky. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Pearl, please." The fastrunner quickly corrected, "I am not a pack leader, Mender. You can address me as you would a friend. Anyone who is willing to help my daughters is a friend to me."

Mender nodded respectfully, "Sorry, Pearl."

"But we can't change the past… and things turned out well in the end. Which brings me back to the subject of yourself. We haven't heard the end of your song yet… but I am curious. What convinced the hidden runners to ally with you? They are loyal, but they also have their own agendas… what do they seek to gain?"

Mender smiled inwardly at the fastrunner's question. Now here is the Pearl that Ponder told me about long ago. The mother who would know her secrets even before she said them.

"I… that is something that will be explained in the song," Mender answered carefully, "As for how much I can explain that is something that I will have to ask my leader."

Pearl's only response to Mender was to stare at her a moment. It wasn't a glare, nor did it have a hint of reproach. It was the same expression one may give to a rock they were examining, or a scent.

Well… this is awkward.

"So the rumors about the Triple Alliance are true?"

Mender gasped, "What?! How do you know?"

Pearl smiled, "I hear all of the rumors, remember? And what I don't hear, my mate hears. Also, I approve wholeheartedly of the idea… though I understand it is not something that you would not want to announce openly. I'm sure the rank and file of the valley would not be thrilled to know the valley's role in this special arrangement."

Mender's mind spun. This is supposed to be secret! Cynnil is going to be livid! Taking a deep breath her mind shifted entirely to her duties.

"Who told you?" This is too important for us to mess it up!

Pearl's smile faded and was replaced with an understanding nod, "A herd of domeheads were talking near the stream when we first overheard the rumors," she gestured towards the stream ahead of them, "The rest of them appeared to not take it seriously. But I talked to Volant the next time she visited for the usual exchange of news…"

Oh no… It is all over. If far-walkers are talking and Volant knows that someone is talking…

"It turns out that was one with a reputation for telling tall-tales so the elders of the valley decided that the best way to prevent rumors from spreading was to ensure that it was seen as the ramblings of a liar."

Mender blinked, Are you trying to kill me, Pearl? I thought all was lost! "Isn't that risky? I mean, what if people start believing him?"

"Secrets are seldom held for long, Mender. The valley just wants to make sure that their part in the alliance can run its course," Pearl gestured towards the fastbiter, "Making any rumors seem absurd helps to ensure this."

I wonder how many people underestimate you, Pearl. You had us already figured out before we even arrived.

Mender shook her head, "Don't take this the wrong way, ma'am… er… Pearl. But you make 'the talk' that Haven gave me seem normal in comparison."

Pearl laughed, "No worries, Mender. I just thought that you should know where we stand. You have graciously told us part of your story, it is only right that you should know that we know another part."

"Do Arial and Orchid know?" Mender asked.

Pearl shook her head, "I figured that you might tell them in time."

Mender paused as she considered the situation, "I will need to talk to Cynnil… but if she has no objections then we can tell that part of the story as well. You… you do understand how important this is?"

Pearl nodded, "Absolutely. Trust me, when one has lived in the Mysterious Beyond for so long one understands the value of a helpful hand," she went silent for as she could see the purple form of her son appear in the distance, "Looks like the others are awake. Anything else you would like to talk about outside of listening ears?"

Mender snorted, "The tale about 'the talk' can be left out in front of the kids I think."

Pearl smiled.

Mender blinked. "…you're serious?"

"Well gathering the fish in silence would be boring wouldn't it?" Pearl added with a smile, "And not to mention I am curious how Haven gave you the talk. It was awkward when I had to give Ruby the talk. But I had to in case she found someone around the valley."

A laugh echoed in her ears, "Well, she kind of did, didn't she?"

Pearl shook her head as she laughed as well, "Indeed! Littlefoot was not who we had in mind for her, but fate proved to find a way. But… I do believe someone is delaying."

Mender rolled her eyes, Now I see how you get all of the gossip. "Alright, there actually isn't a song for this, but it is kind of a funny tale. After the meal Haven had a few words with me… but little did I know at the time that Seeker was planning on a meeting of his own the next morning."

Nighttime, after the events of the previous chapter's song:

I like this feeling, Violet thought to herself as she helped Tracker back to the nest, leaving Dodger free to act if anything unexpected happened. Two days without eating or sleeping isn't fun, but happens far too often. Better not get used to feeling full. Complacency is dangerous.

She suppressed a laugh, Great, now I sound like my brother.

"So what was it that you were going to tell me? Violet asked Tracker, trying to mentally change topics. The whispered reply nearly made her drop her friend.

"You two did what?" She looked from her best friend to her brother and back as she processed the reality of the situation. It's about time. My brother's not afraid of a rampaging pack but is terrified of asking Tracker what she thinks of him.

"Congratulations," Violet offered with sincerity.

"Thanks," Tracker replied happily. She looked over to see Violet stifling a yawn. "Tired?"

"A little bit," she admitted. But I don't need sleep as much as you... you need to rest for the sake of your leg.

Arriving at the makeshift nest, Violet let Tracker down, careful not to jostle her injury. Dodger took up a position a short distance away but with a good view of the surrounding area. Even in presumed safety, caution was always justified. Violet then looked around for a spot for herself.

She did not notice her brother focus his gaze on a new arrival.

"Evening, Violet," Ducky greeted with more than a little nervousness and uncertainty, "Is everything going well?"

Violet barely hid her surprise as she took in a breath. This may have been the same dinosaur that had injured her packmate, but she knew that Ducky meant no further harm. Her kind actions since then had confirmed that.

"Everything's great, Tracker's leg aside," Violet said. For once she could actually say that and mean it.

Ducky smiled. "That is good, it is, it is!" She looked behind Violet for a moment and noted that everyone else had settled for sleep, with only Dodger's gaze tracker movements. Only then did she decide to continue, "Um… I know it is late, but can I talk to you for a moment… in private."

Unsure, Violet out of habit looked to Dodger for help. After a pause, Dodger gave a slight nod, granting permission if she felt she needed it.

"Sure," Violet replied, sounding very unsure of her answer. She didn't think this was a trap, at least not a lethal kind, but it still seemed odd to her. What does she want?

Ducky nodded at her answer and hunkered down in a somewhat submissive gesture to indicate the lack of any threat. Then, with a slight gesture of her hand, she guided her towards the stream. The smell of Ducky's nervousness and embarrassment following behind her.

Something's up; she sounded nervous. What would she have to be nervous about? This is her territory. Violet was starting to think she'd never understand the green fastbiter she was following.

Violet's uncomprehending gaze was noticed by her companion.

I will need to get to the point… Ducky noted to herself as the forest began to clear as the stream came into focus in front of her, I can tell that she is getting uneasy.

With another slight gesture she pointed at a small clearing in front of some fragrant bushes. She didn't wait for a response before she sat down.

"I… am sure that you are wondering why I took you out here…"

"Yeah. I'm a bit confused," Violet admitted, sitting down next to Ducky.

Ducky hesitated as she forced herself to make eye contact with Violet. "Um... forgive me… this is the first time that I have had this talk with someone. It is not easy for me, nope, nope, nope. It is something that a mommy usually gives, but um..."

"My mom, for all I know, is dead," Violet bluntly finished for her.

"Yeah…" Ducky confirmed awkwardly, "My Mommy couldn't have this conversation with me either, because she well... was a swimmer… so I had to learn it from Path's Daddy and Taunt's Daddy. I will tell you what they told me, as you are an adult in the eyes of the pack now."

Violet stayed silent but looked a bit embarrassed at the reminder that she was still technically a child until earlier that day.

"I don't mean to be rude, Violet, but… did your Mommy and Daddy have time to tell you about… um... adult things?" Ducky looked almost helpless as she gestured towards the stream. "Like how eggs happen? Things like that?"

"A little bit, and I can't remember much of what they did say. I wasn't paying too much attention." Violet was more embarrassed by her prior lack of attention than anything Ducky had said.

Ducky's expression paled. "Um… okay… let me put it this way… how much do you know about the flyers and the buzzers?"

Violet actually looked alarmed at that. Dodger, who had actually listened to their parents, had explained a few things that she had asked about when they were trying to find a target during the threehorns' mating time. That was a day best forgotten, especially the near-death experience when some of the males had spotted and attempted to kill them. "A bit too much for not being of age," Violet said.

Ducky took a deep breath. "Alright… at least you don't need to learn about that…" She twisted her hands in an attempt to control her nerves. In the end she simply blurted out her next question bluntly, "Do you know how our kind picks mates?"

"Not really. I asked Dodger when we were watching a threehorn herd, and we were spotted before he could answer. I forgot to ask again. Things got really bad for a while..." Well, worse than usual, she silently corrected herself.

Ducky nodded. "Well let's start there so that you don't accidentally accept a courtship you don't want. That would not be good, no, no, no!" She resumed after a pause, "If you already have a male that you like, and that it is obvious you will bond with, then no ritual needs to be done. Taunt has a rather Taunt-like name for that."

"I'm not sure I want to know," Violet said, laughing a bit more than she meant to due to how awkward she had been feeling.

A mounting in wait, Ducky's mind responded, but Ducky kept that to herself. "But anyway… you don't exactly have a male that strikes your fancy right now, do you?"

Violet looked at Ducky like she'd grown a second head. Duh. The only male fastbiter that I know at all and don't want to kill is my brother. "Um, no."

Ducky nodded. "Then when you find a male that you want in that way, or when a male decides he wants you in that way, then a courtship offering will be given."

"How does that work?" And how does finding a male that wants to even be my friend, nevermind my mate, work?

"You will be given a sweet bubble or, if that is not available, the head of some prey. Then the male, or you, will mark the other's sleeping area."

"Okay…" This is a bit complicated. I hope I remember all this.

"If you accept the offering then that means that you accept his advances. If you chase him off then that is a 'no'," Ducky added unnecessarily, "Unless things go very bad then that is the only courtship that you would have to worry about."

"Very bad?" Violet could guess what she meant, but was still trying to process everything.

Ducky's expression turned so cold that it frightened Violet at some level. "It.. was something that Thud warned us about… and something that some of the survivors that brought us Calin's tail told us about… if a pack is destroyed and there are survivors, then the winning pack might give the survivors a horrible choice." Ducky looked away, not wanting to think about the stories that she had heard from Calin's pack. Calin valued power and domination over all else. The effects of that were horrifying. "If that ever happens and only you and Tracker are left then that would be a choice for you to make. I would choose death."

"Oh." Violet really couldn't think of anything else to say. She shook herself, feeling quite chilled suddenly.

Ducky paused for several moments, allowing her emotions to recede. "Not all packs are honorable, or even agree on what is honorable. A pack which takes new members by force is a pack to avoid. Some of those poor females didn't even know which male was the father… many of the males cried remembering what they had to do to prove how 'strong' they were… we had to kill fastbiters who were even greater victims than we were…" Her anger erupted finally. "One death was too good for Calin!"

As Ducky clawed at the poor bush in front of her Violet could only look on. To see Ducky react with such hatred was horrifying on so many levels.

"Haven," Violet said softly, not sure what to say, "Haven, he's dead. He can't hurt anyone anymore."

Ducky tried to suck in a deep breath as tears emerged from her eyes. She tried to focus on the happier memories from when they met that pack. The male and the female who reaffirmed their mating under better circumstances… the male who agreed to care for children who were not his own, albeit from a safe distance… the two females who paired together to care for their respective unwanted families who soon turned into an unexpected blessing… life had found a way to reassert itself after the abomination that was Calin. That was a point that she had to focus on.

"I know, Violet… It is just so hard to unhear such things... " She sighed as she tried to wipe her tears. "Alright, lesson number two about being an adult. Adults can still cry even though one should try to be strong except in private." She could almost hear Terri's refrain in her mind as she repeated her words.

"Glad to know that's not entirely off-limits," Violet said, happy to be away from the previous topic. Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I've ever seen Dodger cry. I wonder what he does when I can't see him.

Ducky quickly brought her discussion of mating to a close to move on to other things. "Thud told me that there was more to the whole mating thing, but that he would tell us when we were old enough to actually make eggs…" Ducky noted, "So… um… I guess that is all that I can tell you about mating."

Violet opened her mouth to ask a question, but quickly shut it, realizing that Ducky wouldn't know the answer. I've got to stop letting my mouth get ahead of my head.

Ducky noted the lack of response and inquired, "Do you have any questions about what I just told you?"

"Just a couple things I don't think you'd want to answer," Violet said, feeling embarrassed.

Ducky braced herself, but wanted to make sure that Violet had as many of her questions answered as possible. Mating and courtship was a matter too important to leave to trial and error. "Go ahead."

"Well, one thing I did remember was that my mom was especially protective of us when we were little. Are Tracker and I not going to be friends anymore once she's a mom?"

Ducky thought about this for a moment. "I know that Momma would be protective of new eggs whenever they were laid… I think it is a common thing. I should probably talk to Thud about that sometime, I should, I should." She gave an apologetic nod to Violet. "But I think you and Tracker can stay friends, but maybe you would have to be careful around her nest…"

"Okay." Violet breathed a sigh of relief. "She's the only friend I've got and…well, I don't want to lose that friendship." She took a moment to compose herself. "So what's the next thing?"

Ducky sighed internally, being glad that particular part of her conversation was over. This is a pack of orphans… I wonder how much of our kind's signals they know.

"The next thing I need to talk to you about is a bit more complicated… how much do you know about um… pack dominance?" Ducky asked softly.

"You mean, like how leadership works?" Violet asked.

Not much then. Ducky shook her head. "That is part of it… I also mean about… well… how everyone in the pack is ranked. How much do you know about all of that?"

"I know I used to get pushed around quite a bit at home before Dodger started pushing back for me. I know Tracker got pushed around in her old pack. I used to push her around before we became friends."

Ducky looked a bit disappointed by her answer. "So if Dodger could not give orders for some reason, who would order whom?"

"Before yesterday, it was always went Prowler, Dodger, then Dodger's escape plan. I always wondered why each hunting strategy had an escape plan. Tracker and I never had a situation where we'd be in charge of anything." Violet felt increasingly embarrassed as she kept talking. She knew that this didn't reflect well on her.

"I see. Seeker will probably have to have a word with Dodger as well. An escape plan is good, but a pack needs to have a clear line of rank. If the worst happens then you don't want those that remain to fight…" Ducky noted, "In our pack we did not come to tooth and claw to decide who was leader, but we did have a few... um… play fights to decide on where some of us were."

"May I ask what your order is?"

Ducky looked completely surprised. "You couldn't tell?"

"Not really. I figured out Seeker is the leader, but that's obvious."

Ducky looked towards Violet with more than a little pity. "You all are in the same place that my friends were before Thud and Dein told us how things worked. We will definitely have to talk to both of your friends about this as well. These details are not often said, but need to be noticed unless you want to risk problems when meeting other packs." Ducky sighed. "...and trust me, you really want to avoid problems when meeting new people. You do, you do."

Ducky collected her thoughts for a moment. "What does this gesture tell you?" She barely adjusted the gaze of her eyes to a place just below Violet's nose.

Violet wracked her brain for the answer but came up short. Most of her pack's gestures were somewhat large and very, very obvious in what they meant. "I'm not sure. Oh, Dodger's gonna kill me for this."

Ducky nodded as she slightly lowered her tail and tilted her head downward slightly, "...and this?

"I think that might be yielding, but Prowler would have considered that borderline defiance." Violet somewhat copied Ducky but moved her head much lower. "This would be acceptable."

Ducky's face darkened at the mention of Prowler, but she quickly returned to her contemplative expression. "The first gesture was how one would acknowledge that the other person is of higher rank than them, but that they may challenge them in the future, but not today." Violet did not hide her astonishment, being surprised by the amount of information that one gesture communicated. "The second was how one would acknowledge a person of at least two ranks higher than them, and your gesture was how one would acknowledge that they were the lowest of the pack. Only this would be lower."

Ducky lowered herself to the ground with her tail extended backwards and her snout and entire body touching the ground. "This means surrender. It tells the opposing pack that they may do with you however they wish."

"Oh," Violet said, "I saw Tracker making that surrender gesture once. I can't remember when, but I do remember Dodger getting between her and Prowler so fast he knocked me over in the process. I think it was during a time of hunger madness." Which means it was probably during a Cold Time.

"Did they fight after that?" Ducky asked without emotion.

"No, but it got really close."

Ducky nodded. "Considering Dodger has decided that Tracker is the one, and that gesture means complete submission, I am not surprised. Prowler might have taken it as an invitation had he been older." Ducky darkened. "Based upon what you all have said, he seemed like the sort who would have done that."

Violet didn't comment. She just looked at the ground, ashamed at how damaged her pack was. She was also bothered by how many times she'd stood back and let Dodger get into the middle of everything without backing him up.

"It isn't your fault, Violet. Your pack didn't know better, even if your instincts did. I bet Dodger only knew the surrender gesture because it is something that is natural to us." She made a comforting grunt in her direction. "Would you like to know the other gestures?"

"Yes, please," Violet said.

Ducky raised her head and focused directly into Violet's eyes. "This is a threat."

"I've noticed," Violet said, having seen that glare far too many times.

Ducky averted her eyes. "This is a threat declined. A way of showing submission."

She then stared back into Violet's eyes and exposed the edges of her mouth. "Threat escalated." This was followed by exposing all of the teeth. "Threat escalated further… and then growls, roars, and charges would be further escalations. But you probably already know all that?"

"I couldn't have described it like that, but I've definitely seen and done those. That's how I got these." Violet gestured to some scars on her side. "Prowler and I got into a verbal fight, and it, um, escalated. Dodger talked to Prowler and told me it would never happen again from Prowler's end, and I'd better not start anything either. That kept me from getting hurt a few times, but I still ended up with a few more scars."

Violet gestured to the much fresher wounds on her snout. "These were from right before I ran into Stern Claw and you." Violet didn't know that that "talk" was Dodger warning Prowler that any physical attack on Violet or Tracker would be treated as an attack against himself. Had she known, she might have bothered to tell her brother the attacks hadn't entirely stopped after that.

Ducky nodded sadly and quickly switched her position. She raised her gaze to just above eye level. "This is how one acknowledges that they are of higher rank than another. We usually only do this before a hunt or when one of us needs to pull rank. Otherwise we are pretty easy-going. You might have seen this little gesture right before the hunt."

"I saw Finder doing that. I was wondering what that meant."

Ducky smiled. "It can really get odd when Seeker assigns some of us to be group leaders. It makes sense as strength is only one part of leadership, but it can make things confusing. Seeker was technically part of Ponder's group even though he gave her control over that group, which means that he was taking orders from her until he said otherwise," she laughed, "It allows all of us to get experience and to do the jobs that suit us best, but it can get confusing. It does, it does."

"I'll say," Violet said. She hesitated for a moment. "Haven, I haven't made Dodger look too bad, have I? He wasn't the pack leader until today, and still wouldn't be if I hadn't acted like the child I was."

Ducky placed a hand on her shoulder. "No one can blame you, Violet. Until today you were a pack of children, who didn't know any better. You had to teach yourselves how to survive, and you did a fine job of that. Now just let us help you learn the rest." She smiled for a moment as if she were recalling something, "Seeker, Stern Claw, Ponder, Taunt, Finder, Path, Breeze, and then me. Spotter is a special case, and Thud's pack is a special case when they are with us."

Violet looked at Ducky skeptically, finding it very hard to believe that Ducky could possibly be at the bottom of the hierarchy.

"Okay, I'm confused. Why is every single pair split up? And how is the giant mouth with the giant teeth nearly at the bottom?" And why are you at the bottom? You're much nicer than Stern Claw when you don't want to kill someone.

Ducky smiled at the innocence of her question. "As I said, there is more to rank than strength, at least in our pack. Our ranks are based upon how ready we are to be leaders. Stern Claw served us well as leader when Seeker was injured by Calin, Ponder often takes over as Seeker's delegate when he has to deal with something else, and Taunt is surprisingly capable despite him being Taunt. As for Path he is still growing up and learning."

Ducky paused for a moment. "The first three ranks are agreed upon by us all, as is Path's rank, but the others are decided by strength in our play fights. That is not my strength."

"Oh. Ours were in part decided by our hatching order and partially by who our parents are. Prowler's father was our pack leader. My father is, was, the pack deputy. Dodger was hatched before I was and was trained to lead whether he wanted to or not. It's all he knows. I wasn't trained so intensively. Tracker is younger than I, but Dodger supports her just as much as he does me, so Tracker and I never tried to figure out where we stood after my really stupid attempt to 'put her in her place'. Dodger had to intervene there." And by intervene I mean 'pin me to the ground'. To be fair, he did warn me...

Ducky looked at her sympathetically. "Respect is more important than rank. Sometimes the sharptooth that keeps the pack together can be amongst the lowest of the low. A healer may not win many fights, but they can allow you to live to fight another one. A prankster might not be a leader, but they can make the leader see their errors. You must never forget that." She then looked at Violet's scars. "You will need to sort out your rank, however, unless you want things to remain uneasy between you two. It is just the way our kind is that we are happier when we know where we stand. We can show you two a way to settle that without as much risk of hurting one another badly."

"Is there a way just to tell Tracker she outranks me?" Violet asked as Ducky looked at her with surprise, "I know my strengths, and thinking ahead isn't one of them. With only three of us, we might find ourselves as you said dealing with who is supposed to be in charge. I know she's smarter than me. I can't even stay calm enough long enough not to get my best friend and my brother killed. You saw that. I'd probably have died before I even hurt you, but you could see that I would've tried. I nearly wrecked everything because I couldn't keep my head."

Ducky looked into Violet's eyes. "Violet, the fact that you just told me that shows that you are smarter than you give yourself credit for. You are willing to put your pack ahead of your own glory. That shows that however unsuitable you may be for leader, you are infinitely better than Prowler. So from one pack bottom to another, trust me on this: you are valued and important." She smiled as she saw the emotion in Violet's eyes. "Now this is how you concede rank…"

Back to the present:

"Wow, so many gestures!" Arial muttered, "I'm glad that all we need to know when we see a sharptooth is to run."

"And all I have to do to get a mate is to find a willing female and chase her down. None of this find a sweet bubble stuff and then… Ow!"

"Thank you, Dad!" Arial replied with a shake of the head as Orchid rubbed where one of his feathers had been pulled on by the elder fastrunner.

Mender, meanwhile, was sighed in a mixture of embarrassment and uncertainty. So much for keeping this part of my story from the others. At least Buse isn't here right now.

"So… how did the conversation with Dodger go?" Buse's voice called out from close behind.

Mender sighed as she glared at Pearl as the fastrunner gave her an apologetic smile. Cynnil then did her best to direct Buse back towards the stream to gather fish, though it was obvious that he was still listening in. Well, at least the most embarrassing part is over with.

"It makes sense that there would be a focus on the details of pack life. For a sharptooth that can mean the difference between success and an early death," Detras affirmed as his son still gave him a playful glare, "Though despite my son's words he has had a few lessons on how to read the signals of other kinds.

"Yeah…" Orchid admitted reluctantly, "But the fact that you had to learn these meant that these aren't instinct, right?"

Mender nodded, "Right. The surrender gesture I guess we all kind of knew in some way… and I guess the mating ritual would have come around um… when it's that time… but not most of the others."

This made Orchid curious, "Daddy, does that mean that fastbiters elsewhere would have different signals?"

Detras shrugged, "Probably… though I haven't gone far enough in the Mysterious Beyond to figure out, son." The elder fastbiter then smiled, "Maybe that can be your next adventure? You could go far past Seeker's territory and…"

"Dad!" Orchid protested, as Detras dodged his son's playful nip. This was enough to make the others laugh. It wasn't until several moments later that the two males realized that Mender had taken to examining Arial's injury again.

Arial sighed, "It's fine, Mender…"

Mender lightly tapped a part of Arial's foot, making her grunt in pain, "That is a bit worse than last night. Have you been putting much weight on that foot?"

"I told you that you shouldn't have walked to the relieving spot by yourself!"

"Shush, brother!"

Mender gave Arial a stern look, "Allow someone to help you next time, Arial. The swelling won't go down until you give it time to heal."

Arial sighed as she looked at the offending foot, "Sorry… it just gets so annoying sometimes."

"I have certainly heard that before," Buse blurted, "Remember when you helped that threehorn, Mender?"

Only the slightest hint of a growl left Mender's throat. Buse, you know what I think about threehorns…

Thankfully for her Detras was there to the rescue, "Before we get to what I assume is a most interesting story there… I am curious; how did Seeker's conversation go?"

Mender barely hid her relief as she tried to think back, "Well… I wasn't there so I can only tell you what my brother told me seasons later. But as he told me then, it was a conversation that stuck with him."

Back to the past, the next morning:

Littlefoot watched as the dark blue fastbiter gleefully dug into the remains of the already disemboweled swimmer. He had expected the scrappy sharptooth to be swift in obtaining an easy breakfast.

"When one is raised in hunger they seldom turn down a good meal… or wait for others."

Littlefoot frowned as he recalled Dein's words from seasons ago. Dein had been speaking of his own family, but he very easily could have been speaking of the gang themselves. It took many seasons in the valley before their habit of rushing to food before everyone else had dissipated.

This was different, however. The looks that Dodger was giving to his sides was indicative of being afraid of being attacked. It was the sort of actions that one would expect of the runt of an unruly clutch.

Or of a poorly-led pack, Littlefoot noted, a pack where even the second-in-command had to fear the pack leader.

Frowning, Littlefoot stepped out of the bushes and resisted the urge to flinch upon seeing Dodger's momentarily panicked expression. The fastbiter quickly recovered, but failed to hide his reaction from Littlefoot. Dodger would not have to worry about such underhanded tactics here.

But that didn't mean Dodger was aware of that fact.

Dodger deliberately stepped back from the swimmer corpse and kept his head down. Should I apologize? Or stay quiet? He decided on the latter, waiting for Littlefoot to speak first.

Instead Littlefoot merely tilted his head to an extremely slight degree before raising it again and tilting it up in a quick fashion, as if he were doing some kind of odd reverse nod. He held his gaze towards Dodger for a few seconds, as if he were waiting for some kind of response, before looking away in a somewhat disappointed fashion. Then Littlefoot, like Dodger had been, proceeded to tear into the swimmer's already exposed viscera.

I'm missing something, Dodger thought, Better not say anything and look even more foolish than I already do. Maybe I should just leave… He started backing up a few steps, intending to leave unnoticed.

"It is odd to concede rank when another acknowledges that you are equal to them," the voice of Littlefoot nonchalantly muttered, "Why do you retreat?"

Dodger froze at almost the same time his brain did. Say what? Besides not recognizing the gesture Dodger was almost as shocked by the reference to being equals. Last he checked he'd had to surrender to Littlefoot. That definitely didn't suggest that the two were equals. Dodger tried to respond but he couldn't think of a single thing to say. Would bashing my head into a tree be too embarrassing? I'm such an idiot.

Littlefoot looked at the backside of the seemingly frozen fastbiter. I think that I have confused him enough.

"There is no harm in admitting what you do not know, Dodger. Did you not understand my gesture? Or did I confuse you in some way?"

"I didn't recognize the gesture, sir," Dodger replied, trying to rebalance himself, "I also wasn't aware of my standing."

Littlefoot's expression turned expressionless for a moment before he nodded and extended his arm towards the kill. "What do you think this gesture means?"

"An invitation," Dodger replied. He'd actually seen that before.

Littlefoot nodded. "Correct. If you don't mind then perhaps we can talk while we eat."

Dodger nodded his agreement.

Littlefoot watched as the fastbiter cautiously walked back to his position and picked at the swimmer's abdomen. Littlefoot likewise took a few bites from the prey's chest cavity as he waited for the awkwardness of the previous moments to dissipate. Then he spoke with a curious tone.

"When someone has little food they get in the habit of not taking any for granted. Were you like this when you were with your parents, or was it your time alone that made you this way?"

"Mostly my time with my pack. Food isn't exactly something we get that much of," Dodger said before muttering, "except maybe for Prowler." Had he been caught by his former leader, his options were to either withdraw or risk rapid escalation. The pronounced size difference between the two in last year or so made the latter option very dangerous.

Littlefoot nodded. "My friends learned to eat whenever food was around when we searched for the Great Valley. Starvation is often an effective teacher." He nearly spat out the word 'teacher' as he recalled those barren days. Even after everything that he had been through those earliest of days still left a mark. "But you looked somewhat panicked when you saw that I was approaching. You don't have to fear me, Dodger, I am not Prowler."

"If you were I'd already be dead."

Littlefoot frowned at this and took another bite of the swimmer. Well this conversation is quickly turning darker than I had hoped, he thought mockingly to himself, I hope that Ducky's conversation with Violet went better than this! Finally, however, he decided to start again.

"When I was a longneck I grew up without a herd. Only my mother and grandparents were with me. So there was much about herd life that I never learned." He frowned at the fact that he obviously would never learn it now. Except for those bits that he learned from occasionally hunting his former kind. "Would it be fair to say that there is much about pack life that you never learned?"

"My father tried to teach me as much as I could handle for my age, especially since I was supposed to teach my siblings if anything happened to him, but it's been so long… and my education ended when I was nine, so I know there's quite a bit I don't know." And there's even less I can teach, Dodger mentally added.

Littlefoot nodded. "What my pack learned all came from Path's parents and from Thud, Taunt's father. There is so much that a fastbiter has to know in order to survive, but even more he has to know in order to understand the rest of his kind. Instincts only tell us so much..." He looked at Dodger with a sympathetic expression. "If you had made that retreat to another fasbiter, then he could have interpreted that as an invitation to take control of your pack. Some of these things are very important."

"Yeah," Dodger sighed, grimacing. He was barely into his second day as a pack leader, and he was already making major mistakes. Maybe surrendering command to someone more competent would actually be a good thing…, but I'm never saying that out loud.

Littlefoot frowned slightly at the one-word response, but continued on, "Would you like to be taught some of these things that you may have missed?"

"Yes, sir," Dodger replied as calmly as he could, trying not to sound too eager or worse desperate.

Littlefoot smiled slightly at Dodger's tone. Despite the overly formal tone the hint of friendly eagerness was clearly present. "Good. First we need to see what gestures that you know. Which greetings do you know?"

"Admittedly, just this." Dodger nodded his head in demonstration. "Most of what I know involves acknowledging relative ranks. Concession, for some reason, was something I was never taught."

Littlefoot blinked. "They never taught you how to concede rank? I mean… I don't actually know when a fastbiter would be taught that… but it can mean the difference between life and death." He shook his head. "Well… let's start with greetings. This is how you greet a non-relative of higher rank."

He bowed his head a bit lower than a nod. His eyes did not focus on Dodger during the process.

"This is how you greet a non-relative outside, or no particular rank." He repeated the gesture but kept his eyes focused on Dodger warily. "And this is how you greet someone of lower rank."

He nodded his head ever so slightly but he kept his eyes focused on Dodger. It was as if his gesture was simultaneously open, yet self-assured. "The gesture for a friendly non-relative of equal rank you have already seen."

"I sorta recognized those," Dodger said, "I was in the middle of learning gestures when, well, you know what happened." That last bit was added by a need to explain himself and somewhat defend the pack he was hatched in.

Littlefoot bowed his head in a show of respect. "I understand that they didn't have time to teach you all of these things. Please don't think that I am insulting their memory. I only hope that I can help finish what they started."

"I wish I hadn't forgotten so much. So, what's next?" Dodger was eager to change the subject, being unsure how to reply to what Littlefoot had said.

Littlefoot quickly continued, "This is how you concede rank… but first…"

Littlefoot gave a bow, tilting his body forward and raising his tail into the air.

"I want to do that to make sure that anyone seeing this knows that this is for play, and that I am not conceding to you."

He then averted his eyes towards the ground and opened his arms to his sides. He then turned his back to Dodger and continued to keep his head bowed.

"You can also offer your neck to the person you are conceding to. But turning your back and offering no resistance also gets the message across. It shows that you offer no resistance or thoughts of defending yourself."

"At least that one's obvious once seen," Dodger said, glad that there was at least one gesture that couldn't be mistaken for another, "Some of these are too similar for my liking."

Littlefoot nodded. "That is true. It is just like the sharptooth language, full of variation and meaning. That is very different from the leaf-eater language. But when one has claws misunderstandings are best to avoid."

"I've run into a few packs that were very clear in their intent without bothering with language. They skipped straight to the claws. I still don't understand why we were a target. We were never anywhere near a claimed territory, as far as I know, in all but one instance when we got ambushed." Dodger shivered a little bit. "I hate tall grass."

Littlefoot growled to himself. "Orphans attacking orphans. Unfortunately we have had some experiences like that. Fastbiters who never learned the basics and who only knew how to survive through tooth and claw. I guess if we had never found Dein and Terri then we could have become like that."

"I'm actually not certain Tracker or even Violet would stick with me if they knew just how little I actually know," Dodger said half to himself, half to Littlefoot, "If they knew how much I had to figure out through trial and error you'd probably have two new fastbiters asking to join your pack."

Littlefoot's expression turned grim. "I highly doubt that, Dodger, I have seen the way they look at you. They respect you. They would only join another pack if you decided to do so. Besides, it is the ability to learn and understand your own failings that makes a good leader, not the knowledge that a leader knows."

"I hope you're right. Are there any other gestures I should know? If something happens to me I want them to be able to integrate into another pack without a lot of difficulty."

Littlefoot blinked. "There are many gestures, and every pack makes their own for hunting and talking amongst themselves, but the gestures for concessions and greetings are important. But also… um…" he sunk into a hushed tone, "...you know about peace offerings and pack challenges don't you?"

"Somewhat, but can we go over them a bit? I've never done either personally."

Littlefoot closed his eyes but forced down his exasperation. The failure to offer a peace offering when entering another pack's territory would invite an attack… hence leading to the pack challenge. But Dodger obviously needed to learn more of the basics. Littlefoot had not expected Dodger to not know some of these.

"The gestures for partings can be the same as the greetings, but with a friendly grunt and a step back. Or, of course, you could just wish the person well and walk away… the gestures for courtship are interesting. Leaving a sweet bubble or small prey in another's sleeping area is how one invites such things… which can lead to misunderstandings as we found out…"

Dodger blinked. "Oh?"

Littlefoot sighed with amusement. "Well… Dein and Terri did not know about fastbiter mating rituals because… well… I am sure that they did not care to learn… so when Taunt got sick one day Finder and I decided to drop off some sweet bubbles by his sleeping area. Needless to say he was very confused."

"Taunt's the one you sent me with when finding the healing plants, right?"

Littlefoot nodded. "Yeah… Let's just say that he earned his pack name, but even he was silenced by our little gesture." Littlefoot then squirmed in embarrassment. "He had to explain to us what giving food without bowing first meant."

"There was a time when he was quiet? When we were looking for the plants, his idea of breaking the awkward silence was to rant about some 'capture the head' game. Apparently the girls are on a winning streak, and it bothers him. I thought he'd never shut up." Now if I can just get someone to explain this game to me…

Littlefoot sighed. "That is Taunt. He is a loyal and trusted friend, but he would never let a crisis keep him from telling a joke or ranting. He once told me that the reason fate hasn't killed him is because it doesn't want to hear him talk for all eternity. I am tempted to believe him."

"Is it okay if I run some of this over to Tracker? It's a bit far for her with her leg injured." Dodger didn't want to cut the conversation short, but he was starting to feel guilty eating while his two packmates were still asleep.

Littlefoot smiled coyly at him. "Going to try to make it official, huh?"

Dodger tripped a bit after he processed what Littlefoot had said. There is not a good way to answer that, especially when the answer is 'yes'. "Um…"

Littlefoot laughed. "It's alright! I am just happy for you is all! Though we will need to make sure that you know all that you need to know when you all are well enough to leave."

Dodger nodded, noting that Littlefoot had said the critical word 'leave'. The other pack seemed willing to make sure they would be much better prepared for what lay ahead of them. Maybe things will turn out alright after all. "I hope I remember more in the future," Dodger said.

Littlefoot smiled. "Practice makes perfect. We could have all of you practice some of these. Besides, we have to teach you how to play Capture the Head. Perhaps with you on our team we can finally beat the females' winning streak!"

"Sounds like fun." Violet and competition...someone's going to have explain to her that nearly getting herself killed to win a game is not an option. He sighed. How do you teach caution to your sister when she doesn't know the meaning of the word?

Sorry for the delay, everyone. That is mostly my fault as work has been chaotic lately. Hopefully I can get back to a chapter-a-week schedule soon. Nonetheless, I do hope you enjoy the latest chapter and I look forward to your thoughts. (:

bryan mccloud: Quite correct. Only now that Littlefoot has clarified the mating ritual is he going to make it 'official'. I suppose when the instincts took hold he would have found out the 'proper way' to perform the ritual. But this way they can fulfill that necessity without waiting until their instincts force their hands. As for Littlefoot's realization that is quite true. This is a big step for her, but a surprising one as well.

gordhanx: Thanks for the detailed review. (: Yeah, the fastrunners are quite aware of Mender's uneasiness and offered to give her an out, but she decided to persevere. As for Dodger and Seeker opening up a bit, we have certainly seen a bit of this in this chapter. As for the details in this chapter, I realize that it is a bit conversation-heavy (hence the chapter title d-;) but some rather unsettling details have been mentioned. A reminder about how dark and 'lawless' the Mysterious Beyond can truly be. This may be important to consider later on...

JulianR94: Thank you for the reviews, once again. (: As I have already responded to them via PM, I will not elaborate on them here. But I do look forward to your thoughts on the latest installment.

Until next time, I hope everyone has a wonderful week. (: