Title: The Accident

Arc: Sweetbreeze fanfic

Part/Era: 1 of ongoing

Fandom: ElfQuest

Characters: Wolfriders of Bearclaw's tenure, OFC Snowmelt

Snowmelt held perfectly still, her arrow nocked and drawn to her cheek as she took careful aim at the yearling buck sharpening his antlers on an old oak. Her lips slowly curved upwards into a smile. She hadn't taken a buck alone before. A doe, definitely, and more than one of those in her life. But a buck, especially such a young one, was a rare prize.

With barely a whisper, she released the arrow, and it slid through the air cleanly and with deadly accuracy. As it slipped between the buck's ribs, she grinned triumphantly; the buck let out a shrill death scream and reared in preparation to bolt. Even as his hooves sliced the air, his eyes began to glaze over as his life flowed out. By the time he landed back on all fours, his front legs would no longer hold his weight; they buckled beneath him, and he collapsed forward, then onto his side, his legs twitching ineffectually.

Slowly, with a hunter's infinite patience, Snowmelt stepped out from her concealment, into the small clearing. Motioning to her wolf-friend, Whitestripe- named for the distinctive white streak of fur running down his spine from nose to tail, stark against the dark gray of the rest of his fur- to stay put, she moved soundlessly across to her kill, her leather shoes making not even a whisper in the grass.

Drawing her knife as she walked, Snowmelt's icy blue eyes sparkled with triumph. She gripped one of the buck's antlers and knelt on his shoulder to reach down and cut his throat, letting his life-blood spill onto the forest floor. "Your body for my body," she murmured. "Your spirit for my spirit. Thank you for the gift of your meat and blood to nourish me and mine."

As she began dressing her kill to drag back to the Father Tree, some preternatural sense told her something was not entirely right. She tilted her head to one side and listened carefully. A falling leaf, her wolf-friend's softly grumbling belly, and a stream about a league away were the only sounds she heard. When, after a moment, those remained the only sounds she heard, she returned to her task. Whitestripe trotted over from his place just under the tree-line, and whined pathetically. Chuckling softly, she tossed him the entrails and half of the liver. He wagged his plumed tail once in thanks and buried his muzzle in the warm, bloody meat. "Greedy," she said fondly, the word less of a reprimand than an endearment. Whitestripe only snorted and continued to gorge.

Wolf-sharp senses or no, neither sensed the dangerous watcher in the trees. Though a Wolfrider and her wolf were respected by most of the forest's large predators as a formidable foe, even the greatest hunters could be surprised.

Whitestripe, his senses only slightly better than his elf-friend, was the first to sense something wrong, and he lifted his bloody muzzle from his meal. A growl that came from deep in his chest brought his elf-friend's head up and around from her grisly task, blade up and all senses immediately on alert.

Even so, she was too late. Whitestripe attacked the longtooth before it could charge, giving Snowmelt time to draw an arrow and put it to the string. Drawing it smoothly to her cheek, she screamed in rage and pain as the longtooth swung a massive paw, claws unsheathed, and knocked the snarling wolf aside, one side scored and bloody. He hit a tree back-first with a pained yelp that nonetheless failed to mask the sound of cracking bone, and lay still.

Though bleeding profusely from Whitestripe's attack, the longtooth still had power and strength enough to turn and face her. Snowmelt aimed and released her bowstring, then reached for another arrow. The first one hit the longtooth in the chest, punching into a lung, even as the second arrow landed on the string.

Her first shot slowed the big cat, but also enraged it. Her second shot went wild as the longtooth lunged at her; a shrill scream tore from her throat as she instinctively tried to use her bow as a shield between herself and her foe. One swipe of the giant cat's paw broke it in half and knocked her backwards.

Snowmelt's eyes widened in terror as the paw, claws extended, descended on her again. As the long, sharp claws tore into her shoulder and neck, lines of bright fire across her awareness, another arrow sprouted from the cat's ear. A screaming rush of sound in her ears was the last thing she heard before blackness engulfed her.

Her last coherent thought was that of a true Wolfrider: concern for her brave wolf-friend who still lay where he had been thrown.

Strongbow was the first to reach her side; Rain and Clearbrook reached her at the same time only a heartbeat later. The red-haired healer went instantly to work on the unconscious, bleeding young huntress. Strongbow, his face a carefully-controlled mask of concern belied by the fear in his rich brown eyes and the white-knuckled grip he had on his bow, sent to her, silently, repeatedly, with no answer, and his heart, which had begun to slow after he killed the longtooth, renewed its frantic tattoo against his ribs.

Clearbrook, on the other hand, regarded Snowmelt with all appearances of utter calm, despite her daughter's pallor, injury, and profound stillness. She gripped Snowmelt's ice-pale hand and lock-sent one word, deep into the younger elf's mind. ◊Aiyo. Aiyo.◊

Finally, after a long moment that was nonetheless an eternity, a tiny, flickering, uncertain response made Clearbrook nearly collapse in a relief so powerful, she was surprised later that she hadn't flown apart. ◊M-Mother?◊

◊Hold on, cub. Rain is working on you. Hold tight to me, sweeting, and don't let go!◊

◊Mother…Whitestripe. Is he all right? He-he attacked the longtooth…he saved me. How is he? Is he all right?◊

Clearbrook lifted her eyes to the silent, motionless wolf lying only a short way away. Tears fell from her eyes as her lifemate, Woodhue, looked at her bleakly and shook his head. With a soft sob, Clearbrook forced herself to focus once more on her girl-child, her pretty, happy cub who was now struggling just to live. ◊Mother?◊

Clearbrook winced. ◊ He was a good wolf, daughter,◊ she sent. ◊And when you recover, we will howl for him.◊

Snowmelt's return sending was noticeably weaker, as though that answer had sapped her will to survive. ◊He saved me, Mother.◊

◊I know, cubling. I know.◊ Clearbrook opened her eyes, ignoring her own tears, and looked at the healer. Rain's focus was absolute, his power more intense than Clearbrook had ever seen it. So intense, in fact, that it was a visible corona of pale golden light around his hands where they hovered over Snowmelt's torn, bleeding shoulder and neck. Clearbrook's heart clenched in fear and despair; the side of Snowmelt's neck and the top of her left shoulder were gone, torn away, leaving a bloody mess that continued to pump blood at an alarming rate with every beat of her heart.

The silence as the rest of the Wolfriders gathered around the determined healer and their fallen tribemate was punctuated by the increasingly labored breathing of the beleaguered healer. Strongbow, staring fixedly at his lovemate's still form, was the first one to notice that the blood's flow from her wounds had slowed from a steady stream to a trickle. Almost at the moment he noted the change, Rain sank back onto his heels, his skin ashen and covered in a sheen of sweat. Everyone stared at him expectantly as he struggled to make his sluggish mind focus on his surroundings again.

"I've done what I can for the moment," he said slowly, as though he wasn't aware of what he was trying to say. He pressed a pad of absorbent leather to the still-bleeding wound to try to staunch it further until he could get to work on it again.

"Will she live?" Clearbrook and Woodhue asked simultaneously, their concern for their child shared, if not voiced, by the rest of the tribe. Strongbow's grip on his bow made the wood creak in protest.

Rain considered their question carefully to make sense of it, then looked at his two tribemates with compassion. "I don't know," he forced himself to admit, though he wanted badly to reassure them. "I don't know. It was good that I arrived when I did, but I cannot even bring the bleeding to a stop right now. The damage was extensive. Is extensive." He brushed gentle, pale fingers across the young huntress's brow and sighed when she didn't so much as stir. Only a moment's close study revealed she was even still breathing. "Much depends on her. But even more…I will keep working on her, of course. But I can promise no certainty." He shrugged helplessly.

Woodhue clasped Rain's shoulder warmly, and Clearbrook offered a tearful smile. "You have done enough for now, healer!" Bearclaw's hearty, brash voice made Rain blink, but the healer nodded in acknowledgement.

"Can we move her?" Trueflight asked, picking up the two halves of Snowmelt's broken bow and placing a hand on her son's shoulder. Still crouched beside his lovemate, Strongbow looked up and back at her, but said nothing.

Rain considered the question for a moment, then nodded slowly. "It should be safe to move her, if we carry her on a litter instead of dragging her on a travois. Carrying the litter walking, not slung on the back of our wolves." He reached into the pouch he wore on his belt and pulled a rolled strip of soft-cured leather to wrap around her neck and shoulder, to hold the leather pad in place. When she saw how his hands shook from exhaustion, Clearbrook took the leather from him and knelt to gently bind her daughter's wound. Bearclaw, Joyleaf, Trueflight, and Longreach immediately set about making Snowmelt's litter. Woodhue drew his knife solemnly, his brown eyes full of both relief and sorrow for what he was going to do.

"I'll take Whitestripe's pelt for her," he murmured to his lifemate. He gently touched his daughter's cheek. ◊Thank the High Ones we were close enough to hear her scream,◊ he sent to Clearbrook.

◊Thank the High Ones Strongbow has his mother's aim and cool head,◊ she replied in the same tone. Woodhue nodded painfully and went about his gruesome task in silence.

Clearbrook brought Rain a bowl of hot broth, which the healer directed her to set to one side. He finished wolfing down the meat his lifemate had brought him an hour ago. He smiled tightly; seeing Moonstrand, swollen with their child, had brought a rush of strength to him. He had made more progress on Snowmelt's injuries while she was there.

Clearbrook, her eyes damp as she looked at Snowmelt's pale form, turned her eyes to Rain. "She looks…how is she, Rain?" Alone with the healer, she finally allowed her calm façade to drop.

Rain smiled wearily. "She yet breathes, Clearbrook. The bleeding has stopped, and I have managed to heal the torn muscles in her shoulder. She will use her arm again."

Part of Clearbrook tried to relax with relief at that, but she ruthlessly forced herself to ask, "Has she opened her eyes?"

The flame-haired healer sighed. He had hoped that Clearbrook would take the good news, but he should have known that the mother would accept nothing but everything. "No. And the longer she remains asleep…I will do my best, Clearbrook, but I don't know…"

Clearbrook swallowed her fear and despair and touched his shoulder with a trembling hand. "I know you will do all that you can, Rain. I have never thought anything less." She reached down and smoothed her daughter's tangle of starlight-pale hair that had earned her the name Snowmelt. Clearbrook and Brownberry had tenderly cleaned the blood and dirt from it six days ago. Now all Clearbrook wanted was to see her daughter's ice-colored eyes. ◊Come back to us, sweeting,◊ she sent. ◊Aiyo, where have you gone?◊

There was no physical response, but Clearbrook felt her daughter's weak, flickering star of sending reach up to brush hers. There were no words, but the mind-to-mind touch was enough for Clearbrook. She smiled tremulously and pressed a tender kiss to Snowmelt's bloodless cheek. She nodded at Rain and then slipped from the healer's den, unable to stay any longer, though her heart wanted to be nowhere else.

She headed for the stream that ran along one side of the clearing that housed the Wolfriders' Father Tree, and knelt on the bank to splash some of the cold water on her face and neck. As droplets clung to her lashes and dripped from her chin and nose, she stared, unseeing, at the shadows under the trees across the flowing water. Abruptly, she pushed herself to her feet once more and wiped her face with her sleeve. Across the clearing surrounding the Father Tree, Clearbrook noticed the young cub Moonshade helping the tribe's tanner, Blackmoss, to tan the hide of the buck Snowmelt had brought down…only an eight-of-days ago. The longtooth's pelt lay scraped and rolled to one side, awaiting de-hairing for tanning into leather. Whitestripe's pelt was already stretched on a frame, scraped and cured, given precedence over the others. The sight made Clearbrook swallow a sudden lump in her throat. She hoped she would be able to present it to her daughter when she woke.

Clearbrook jumped when someone placed a hand on her shoulder, then relaxed when she recognized Joyleaf. "Snowmelt is as strong as you and Woodhue combined," the fair elf reassured her friend, hugging her with one arm. "She will be back to hunting in another eight-of-days, you'll see."

"Rain has managed to stop the bleeding," Clearbrook allowed. "But he does not know if even that will make a difference now. Every time I send to her, her answer is weaker." She shuddered and finally could stand no more. She buried her face in her hands and shook silently. Unused to seeing her unflappable tribemate so distraught, Joyleaf pulled the barely-younger elf into her arms, and simply held her close while she wept.

In his own den above the stream, Strongbow watched Clearbrook dissolve into despair and tears, and his heart clenched. Only one thing could make the unshakeable crumble, he mused. Heart hammering as it had an eight-of-days before, when he had killed the marauding longtooth as it savaged his lovemate, he swung out of his den and made his way swiftly to Rain's home.

When he entered at something slightly faster than his normal, measured stride, Rain's head jerked up out of a doze, and blinked, briefly disoriented. Then his eyes cleared and he smiled. "Strongbow? Is everything all right?"

◊I saw…I saw Clearbrook weeping by the stream,◊ the younger male sent, his eyes fixed almost feverishly on Snowmelt's motionless form. ◊I thought…that is, I needed to see…◊

Rain nodded in sudden understanding. "Snowmelt breathes still, archer. It was most likely a mother's fears that caused Clearbrook's tears." When Strongbow only continued staring at Snowmelt, the healer smiled and stood. "Since you're here, would you mind sitting with her while I get some air? Send for me if she wakes." Rain gave Strongbow a gentle push towards the stool he'd been sitting on, smothering a smile as the silent archer sat in it reflexively.

When Strongbow reached out and tentatively took Snowmelt's limp hand, Rain stole silently from the den, a small smile curving his lips. After so many days of grim, exhausting work, it was heartening to see hope for Snowmelt in Strongbow's tender affection and shy concern.

Aiyo didn't know how long she'd been drifting in the blackness. She knew, vaguely, that she'd been touched by a soul she knew and loved. Her mother had touched her many times in the blackness, but each time, it seemed that she was farther away. Aiyo had no idea what that meant.

But the light that drew her slowly through the blackness wasn't her mother, nor her father, who had touched her once or twice since she'd fallen away from the light. There was someone else, she knew, who should be there. Brownberry's bright, cheerful star had briefly eclipsed the blackness several times. And Rain's golden light had wrapped around her and sunk into her since as far back as she could remember.

And now…now Aiyo remembered the name that had wrapped her, keeping her safe. It drew her out of the blackness and back into her body, aware, again, of who and where she was.

The first thing Snowmelt became aware of as she woke was the soft, regular sound of someone breathing nearby. The breathing was not Whitestripe's soft snuffling whuffs, nor Strongbow's deep, even inhales and exhales. Slowly, other things entered her awareness: the musty smell of pungent dried and fresh herbs rather than the heavy, musky scent of sleep-furs; a dim, flickering golden light on her closed eyelids instead of the steady silvery dimness of moonslight coming in the opening of her den; and a strange, unfamiliar numbness in her neck and left shoulder.

The numbness quickly turned to sharp pain when she tried to move her arm, so she stopped trying and merely lay still, breathing heavily through her nose. "Snowmelt?" The voice finally identified the breather.

"Rain?" she asked in surprise.

Only…no sound emerged from her throat. Instead, burning anguish started, spreading from her throat, down into her neck and left shoulder and arm. Her mouth opened to scream in pain, but that only made the agony increase tenfold.

◊RAIN!◊ her mind screamed as blackness reached up and swept her back down once more, tearing Aiyo free of her body.

The healer felt his hopeful relief drain from him when her mind-scream hit him. He rushed to her side, his healing gift leaping from him to soothe the hurt. What he sensed made his eyes widen in dismay and shock; his determination, however, hardened as only a healer's could. He could feel her frightened mind grab hold of his, and he knew why she had screamed.

Rain directed his healing power to soothing the raw nerves in her throat, deadening the pain so that he could discern the cause of it. What he found brought sympathetic tears to his eyes; he was grateful, as he continued to work, that his patient was unconscious.

Throughout the day, Rain worked his healing magic. As the sun rose set and the sounds of his tribemates rousing from their dens for the night increased and then tapered off, he finally sat back on his stool and wiped the sweat of his efforts from his forehead with one hand. He was pretty sure he'd managed to heal the raw nerve endings completely. The flesh of her shoulder and neck was largely re-grown, and the skin had sealed over it, but she had four ragged, parallel lines where her neck met her shoulder that could not be fully sealed and repaired. They were a vivid red now, but they would eventually lighten to the same color as the rest of her skin.

The most important thing, which he could now guarantee, was that she would live. But her voice would never again be heard by the Wolfriders. Nor her laughter. The High Ones had spared her life, but they had exacted a price nonetheless.

Clearbrook ducked into his den with another bowl of the hot broth she had been bringing him nightly. Strongbow and young Brownberry, Snowmelt's closest friend and age-mate, followed her. "How is she this day, healer?" Brownberry asked with her characteristic effusive cheerfulness. She perched herself on the furs beside Snowmelt's head, reaching out to absently comb her fingers through the pale strands. The healer looked at her in weary amusement, then smiled slightly, his relief evident.

"Snowmelt has healed as much as I am able," he said, his eyes moving to Clearbrook. "She will live…" Strongbow unbent enough to grin outright, and Brownberry squealed with delight, but Clearbrook had caught his hesitation and merely waited, her eyes steady on his face. Rain made himself meet her eyes without flinching. "I could not save her voice, Clearbrook, I'm sorry."

The silver-haired elf looked at him with warmth and gratitude, then looked down at her sleeping girl-child. And she smiled.

"She lives, Rain. She lives, whether she be voiceless, eyeless, or crippled." She squeezed his shoulder and crouched beside the pile of sleep furs. Her eyes were bright with relief and love. "That's what matters."

Brownberry agreed cheerfully. Strongbow said nothing, but the taciturn archer's grip on Snowmelt's hand didn't change. ◊She's still a Wolfrider,◊ he finally pointed out, a sentiment shared by all of the small tribe.

"Of course she's a Wolfrider!" The four elves turned towards the opening of Rain's den as Bearclaw poked his head inside for an update. Woodhue stood beside his chief, smiling with a father's relief. "And when she wakes, she'll still be who she always was."

"Very wise of you, my chief," Clearbrook said dryly, making everyone chuckle.

"But nonetheless true," Rain pointed out, getting slowly to his feet. He chuckled as he stretched the kinks of nearly two eights-of-days of healing and tending his patient. "Now, what say we let her rest and recover more of her strength?"

"I'll stay with her, in case she wakes and needs anything," Brownberry said with a ready smile, making a shooing motion with one hand when Strongbow hesitated, looking torn. But the she-elf knew that the archer hadn't participated in a hunt since Snowmelt's accident. "Go on," she urged him. "A hunt will do you worlds of good."

Clearbrook and Woodhue lingered when the rest left. Strongbow pressed a kiss to Snowmelt's forehead before he, too left, smiling at her parents as he passed them. Clearbrook touched Snowmelt's cheek while Brownberry averted her eyes to give them some privacy. ◊You're going to be all right, cub. Sleep, and come back to us quickly. We have missed you.◊

Woodhue, also, sent to her. ◊Bearclaw spoke truth, daughter. Voice or no, you'll always be a Wolfrider. Hurry back to us.◊

From the blackness of her subconscious, a small star of sending, weak yet, but strengthening, reached up to meet theirs. ◊I'm so tired…◊

◊Rest,◊ they sent in unison.

With a feeling of relief, the star that was Aiyo dropped back to float in the blackness and regain her strength. The stupor of before had left her; she knew who she was. And a Wolfrider's will to live formed the core of her being, keeping her from losing herself once more.

As she drifted peacefully, Brownberry's sunny voice spoke to her, telling her the stories shared at the Howl the night before.

Aiyo smiled sleepily as she listened.

Strongbow smiled at her proudly as her eyes flickered back and forth between him and his mother, who held out the new bow she had carved. Snowmelt couldn't explain, nor control, the panic welling up in her chest at the thought of touching that bow. She started to lift one shaking hand, but her arm wouldn't move. She had never felt so petrified in her life, save once before.

In her mind, she was suddenly lying on the forest floor, the longtooth's claws descending on her, larger in her mind than they had been in reality. With a gasp, Snowmelt backed away from Trueflight. She shook her head, her breathing coming in heaving pants. ◊I- I can't!◊ she sent. ◊I'm sorry, I…no. No!◊ Turning on her heel, Snowmelt fled, unreasoning panic making her breaths come hard and fast.

She leapt the stream and disappeared under the trees, her feet carrying her to the lakeshore. Despite her fear, a lifetime of avoiding the open kept her from emerging into the late-day sunlight. She huddled against a tree, her heavy panting devolving into harsh sobs.

She sank to the ground and drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and burying her face in them. Her whole body shook with reaction, and she couldn't begin to understand it. And now I've offended Trueflight, who only meant to do me a kindness. And Strongbow! I know he'll be angry about this, and hurt! He'll take it as a slight, when I didn't mean it as such. What is wrong with me?

She lifted her head when she heard the nearly soundless footsteps coming towards her. Her mother, astride her wolf-friend Softpaw, passed between two trees. Clearbrook slid off Softpaw's back and walked over to her, dropping to the ground beside her with easy grace. She slipped her arm around Snowmelt's shoulders and pulled her head against her shoulder.

"What happened, cub?" she asked quietly, her fingers twisting the thin braid at Snowmelt's temple.

◊I don't know, Mother. I saw the bow, and…and all I could see was the longtooth's claws. I couldn't move my arm to take it from her. I…I was so…so afraid, Mother! Afraid of Trueflight? She is my tribemate, she is my lovemate's mother! My teacher and friend! But I…◊ She trailed off miserably, shaking her head.

Clearbrook leaned her head back against the tree and watched the clouds pass by overhead. It was a long time before she spoke. "You went through a terrible ordeal, Snowmelt," she said softly after many minutes. "Despite the soundness of your body, thanks to Rain's efforts, you lost your voice and your wolf-friend…part of the problem, this fear you feel, is real. Memories of such power, even for wolves and Wolfriders, take much time to recede and recover from. No one expects you to return to hunting alone less than a season after your accident."

◊But…the bow! I couldn't even look at it, Mother, and Trueflight went to such trouble!◊

"She wanted to make you happy, cub. None of us realized that you weren't ready yet. She will understand."

Snowmelt shook her head. ◊Even if she does, Strongbow will never forgive me for slighting his mother's gift.◊

"Strongbow is still a temperamental youth. As are you. He will understand."

◊Maybe…but will he forgive me before I lose him?◊

Clearbrook kept her silence; she and Snowmelt both knew that the answer was probably no. And Clearbrook wouldn't lie to her daughter. The pair sat in silence for quite a lot of time; Softpaw lay down at their feet. Snowmelt ran her fingers through the warm fur of the she-wolf's neck-ruff absently. ◊Whitestripe used to lay on his back and I'd scratch his belly while we watched the clouds drift past,◊ she mused. Clearbrook looked at her thoughtfully for several minutes as Snowmelt absently carded through the coarse fur.

The sun had set before Snowmelt was ready to get up and face Trueflight. Clearbrook helped her to her feet and the pair walked back towards the Father Tree, Softpaw padding contentedly between them.

When they reached the Holt clearing, Snowmelt hung back briefly, then smiled wanly at her mother before she broke away to stride towards Trueflight's den. The carver was inside, whittling a bowstock by candlelight. ◊Trueflight? May I…may I speak with you?◊

The carver looked up and smiled. "Come. How are you feeling?"

◊Miserable,◊ Snowmelt answered honestly. Sending could contain no lies, so prevarication was no longer an option. ◊And I have wronged you. I am grateful that you thought to cheer my heart with a new bow. I don't understand my reaction. Mother says that the longtooth attack has filled me with too much fear to easily overcome.◊

Trueflight smiled and reached out to clasp Snowmelt's pale hand. "Even Wolfriders feel fear, cub. Walking so close to death changes elves. You'll need more time, is all." She indicated a finely carved bowstock that sat on a small shelf. "When you are ready for it, Snowmelt, your bow will be ready for you."

Snowmelt managed a quivering smile. ◊You are kind, Trueflight. Thank you.◊ Trueflight patted her hand, then picked up her knife and the bowstock. Snowmelt took the hint and slipped from the carver's den. She looked around before climbing up to her own small hollow. A pile of furs sat on a wide shelf along one wall. Whitestripe's pelt sat atop them all. Shy Moonshade had presented it to her only a hand of days before. Snowmelt slipped the pelt around her shoulders and huddled beneath it, breathing deep of her wolf-friend's scent.

It had been almost a season since her accident. Her scars had faded to only a few shades darker than her pale skin, and she had regained all the use of her left arm. But more and more she found herself withdrawing from her tribemates. She hadn't been on a hunt. She had retreated to the fringes of the circle during howls. Even Brownberry had started to send her strange, hurt looks when Snowmelt avoided tasks and activities that they used to enjoy doing together.

Snowmelt huddled under the pelt of her slain wolf-friend and wondered how her life had changed so dramatically. Wolfriders had been attacked by predators before. Some had died, some had been more grievously injured than she had been. But she couldn't escape the dark fear that seemed to follow her like a cloud.

Closing her eyes, Snowmelt drifted to sleep quickly. The darkness gave way slowly to a field of stars, slowly brightening until she could see better than she could most nights. A silvery-gray wolf that sparkled as though he were made of stars himself approached. Snowmelt felt no fear, only awe as the massive beast strode to her side and nosed her hand until she rested it on his head.

Fear eats at you, wolf-cub.

Snowmelt dropped to her knees and stared at the wolf. "What?" Snowmelt's eyes went wider at the sound of her own voice.

Fear eats at you. Fear is not the Way.

"I know that. I cannot seem to help it."

The Wolfrider Way is not the only Way, wolf-cub. But it is the only Way your people know. Forgetting is the Way.

"I can't forget. How can I when I bear the scars? When I cannot laugh or speak aloud ever again? Forgetting is the Way, and Wolfriders live the Way. If I cannot forget, how can I be a Wolfrider?"

The wolf's glow brightened and he gently dragged his tongue up the side of her face once. Then you can change. A Wolfrider changes when she cannot remain the same.

"I have changed."

You have. And when the fear is more distant, you will see that you are the same.

The dream ended as it had begun, in blackness. Snowmelt opened her eyes and blinked at the cool silvery moonlight pouring through the opening of her den. She sat up, still wrapped tightly in Whitestripe's pelt. A Wolfrider changes when she cannot remain the same.

◊Snowmelt? Longbranch is beginning the Howl.◊

◊Coming, Brownberry.◊ Snowmelt tenderly set aside the fur wrapped around her shoulders and swiftly descended to the clearing below, where the rest of the tribe waited and ate. Her uncle smiled at her as she stepped from the bole of the Father Tree.

"Welcome," he said gently, taking her hand and drawing her to a seat on one of the bench-like root near his feet.

◊I wish to speak,◊ Snowmelt open-sent. She had almost instant attention with those words. She wasn't the only one who had noticed that she had been withdrawing from the tribe's activities since her accident.

"Speak," Bearclaw said around a mouthful of venison. Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth and his tongue darted out to draw it back in.

◊Something has changed in me since my accident. I am full of fears I've never had before. I am no longer sure of my place among the tribe.◊ She paused for a deep breath. ◊This afternoon's incident made me think. I can no longer bring myself to hunt, or even to look at a bow without panic freezing my limbs.◊ She turned to Longbranch. ◊I would like to learn talespinning from you. Until I am ready to hunt again.◊ Longbranch blinked, his eyes wide. His expression swiftly softened and he took her hand, squeezing it gently.

"I would enjoy teaching you, Snowmelt."

She smiled and turned to Trueflight. ◊I would like to learn carving. If I cannot bring myself to shoot a bow, maybe I can help make them for others who can.◊

Trueflight smiled warmly and nodded. "I, too, would enjoy teaching you, Snowmelt."

Snowmelt nodded and open-sent one last time. ◊I have also decided to take a new use-name.◊ Once again, she had her tribe's undivided attention. ◊I have chosen to be called Silence from this moment.◊

Bearclaw stood, wiping his mouth on his arm. He climbed up to stand beside her and put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing warmly. "She is Silence." Everyone repeated her new name one at a time, trying it out and fixing it in their minds. He smiled at her. "You'll do, cub." He squeezed once again and then hopped back down to sit beside Treestump and Strongbow to continue his meal. The newly-named Silence took her seat gracefully at her uncle's feet and accepted a cut of venison from Brownberry, who climbed up beside her and kissed her cheek.

◊Well-met, Silence,◊ she sent. ◊I'm glad you're back.◊

◊Someday, I'll be able to hunt again. I don't know when. The fear is overwhelming at times, and I don't know how long it will take. But I don't want to live under this cloud of darkness any longer. There were things I loved to do that didn't involve hunting.◊

◊What you need is a new wolf-friend, lovemate,◊ Brownberry sent gently, leaning against her shoulder. Silence shivered, but she admitted that Brownberry had a point. A Wolfrider without a wolf-friend was somewhat adrift.

◊Twitchpaw has a new litter, doesn't she? How many cubs?◊

◊Six in this litter. Maybe you'll bond with one of them. Only two of them are spoken for, after all. Little Chipmunk has his first wolf-friend, which he named, off all things, Tailpuller, and Bearclaw's new wolf-friend, Snapper.◊

Silence knew Brownberry just wanted her to be happy. So she smiled and nodded around a mouthful of warm meat. A wolf-cub to bond, she mused. The thought actually filled her with giddy hope.

Silence's head rested on Strongbow's chest. His arms were crossed behind his head, and they lay together in silence, both staring at the ceiling of his den. ◊This isn't the same, either,◊ he finally sent. ◊Everything really has changed.◊

Silence heaved a sigh and sat up. She looked down at him, ignoring her own nudity, despite the way his eyes darted to the scars that stood out on her neck and shoulder. ◊Pleasure and joining are wonderful, Strongbow, but both of us know that we have even less in common now.◊ Her sigh was heartfelt. ◊I still enjoy you.◊

◊But love is no longer drawing us together,◊ he finished for her. She smiled sadly and kissed his forehead. Strongbow put his hands on her slender waist and pulled her on top of him. ◊That is not to say that I don't still enjoy you as well.◊ He nuzzled her neck with gentleness and passion, a combination she had always found both intriguing and arousing about the stoic archer.

Their joining was, as always, pleasant and satisfying. They slept together until the sun set and Bearclaw called for the hunt to begin. Silence dressed after her lovemate had taken his bow and gone, then swung down to the ground to find her uncle.

Clearbrook smiled at her as she approached the bole of the huge tree. Softpaw lifted her head from her paws and whuffed. Heaving herself to her feet, the she-wolf padded to meet her and tried to nudge her to turn to the side. Silence scratched her ears and stepped around her. Softpaw snorted and grabbed the tooled-leather sheath of her thigh-dagger and pulled.

Silence smiled and took the hint, following the she-wolf across the clearing towards the wolf dens. As they approached the alpha-wolf's den, Silence felt her heart thrill in anticipation. Softpaw was going to introduce her to the cubs.

Clearbrook's wolf-friend nudged her in the small of her back, causing her to stumble forward a few steps. From within the den, high-pitched yaps indicated the presence of the newest litter of cubs. Crouching in front of the den's opening, Silence held out her hand. Whistling was the only sound she could still make, and she tweeted a run of soft notes. A loud squeal erupted from the den and a ball of blue-gray fluff tumbled out, rolling to a stop at her feet.

Silence stared in amusement at the chubby cub. It looked up at her in momentary confusion, then got to its shaky feet and started to sniff her outstretched hand. When it nibbled on the tip of one of her fingers, she snickered silently and picked it up, quickly checking for the sex. Smiling as the pup eagerly washed her cheek and pawed at her shoulders, barking incessantly, she cuddled it close and breathed in its scent.

"It seems you've found a perfect match for yourself, Silence." Longbranch touched her shoulder, and she beamed up at him, the pup in her arms still washing her cheek and yapping. "What is his name?"

◊Yapper,◊ she sent back instantly, laughing silently as the newly-named Yapper stuck his nose in her ear and began to wash the winged tip.

"The bond is true," Longbranch commented. "So, are you ready to begin?" As he asked, young Chipmunk, Rain's son, ran up and leapt onto Longbranch's back.

"Are you telling stories, Longbranch? Can I listen? Snowmelt, is that your new wolf-friend? What did you name him? Are you gonna-mmph, mm-mm muh-phum?" Silence grinned at the cub. Longbranch's hand had blocked the rest of his questions.

"Quietly, Chipmunk. Snowmelt is Silence now, remember? And she is going to learn the tribe's history and tales."

"Ooh! Me too!"

Longbranch looked at her questioningly. ◊Might as well have two cubs to watch as one,◊ she pointed out, amused. Chipmunk clung to Longbranch's shoulders, looking back and forth between them expectantly.

"All right, cub, you may come. But you must promise not to speak. Listen and learn. Do you promise?"

Chipmunk nodded eagerly. "I promise, Longbranch!"

The storyteller hooked his arms beneath Chipmunk's legs and started off towards the tribe's dreamberry bushes. "Longbranch, where are you taking that noisy cub?" Moonstrand called from where she was sitting with her swollen ankles in the stream. Her pregnancy was reaching its end, and she spent most of her time sitting or reclining in the subterranean den she shared with Rain.

"He's going to tell us stories, Moonstrand!" Chipmunk shouted across the clearing.

Moonstrand shook her head, amused, and Chipmunk's mother, Moss, laughed as she gently rubbed the pregnant elf's ankles. "If you choose, storyteller. I thank you for watching him," she called. Longbranch smirked and nodded at her, then led his short precession from the Father Tree clearing towards the deeper forest where the storytellers' dreamberries had been growing since Goodtree's time. Silence's steps slowed as she fought with a sudden fear of the shadows beneath the trees. She halted and closed her eyes, trying to banish the fear that cropped up.

Yapper saved her by sticking his nose in her ear and beginning to wash it again. She laughed silently and began walking again. Longbranch waited patiently for her just ahead and smiled encouragingly as she approached. "Almost there," he said reassuringly. She nodded and followed at his heels as he led them down the rest of the path to the dreamberry grove.