She left the cover of the trees in the middle of the day, after the sun had reached its peak, while the others were asleep in their dens. Yun walked with her to the edge of their newest Holt, at once co-conspirator and suspicious, while Patch danced around them.
“It's probably not important,” Ember told her, for the third time .txte confiding in her at last.
*Not important enough to make you go skulking off in the middle of the night?*
“I don't know,” Ember shied away from the truth of sending. “It's nothing, but...” wrong. “I want to be certain.”
“Wouldn't it be better to simply let sleeping bears lie?”
Ember smiled, but wariness lurked in the depths of her eyes, and she remained silent. Yun returned the smile, wryly. Kneeling, the Chieftess tangled her fingers in her young wolf-friend's pelt. Locked in sending, she held his head steady, eye-to-eye.
When she had finished, Patch sat still and whined, tail wagging. Shaking his head, he jumped up, circled them, once, and ran back the way they had come.
“Happy hunting, Chieftess,” Yun said. She clasped Ember's arm, and watched after her friend, long after Ember had disappeared from sight.
It was the territorial growling that woke him. The sound of one wolf prepared to rip out the throat of another.
Teir rubbed the sleep from his eyes. One of the Wolfrider's wolves, no doubt, had wandered too close to his den. It happened, on occasion, and both packs of wolves had become accustomed to resolving their own troubles, usually without bloodshed.
Crawling from his den, he found his wolves half-circled around a single young wolf. At the center of the semicircle, the high wolf towered over the cowering interloper.
Low to the ground and whimpering. Wanting to come closer to the den, and wanting to run away.
Teir cautiously, gently intervened, and a calm settled over them. For the time being, Patch was friend. The other wolves mulled about as Patch, worming on his belly, came straight up to Teir, whining plaintively. The elf reached out, embracing the wolf and soothing his fear. But the agitation wasn't wholly due his mother's wolf pack.
Taking a breath, Teir sent across the vale.
There was no answer.
Mender rode through the thick greenery, cursing the forest despite his heritage. Normally the cool green of the summer trees was calming to his spirit, but, only half in the Now, he lamented that he could see across the open desert, and the wide plains, and the empty bare branches of the snow-buried forest. All he could see beyond the lush greenery was more lush greenery.
So focused was he on looking ahead, that the rustling in the bushes beside him startled him. A young wolf broke through the underbrush, running past him with Teir following behind, nearly matching the wolf's pace. Patch circled Mender, yapping, and Teir staggered to a halt beside him to catch his breath.
“Where's Ember?” he managed to gasp, leaning forward with his hands on his knees.
Mender bared his teeth in a Wolfrider's growl. “I don't know. She's not in the Holt, no one saw her leave.”
No one, except perhaps Yun, who - truth in sending - didn't know. But the wolf-father didn't need to know that.
They stared at one another, while Patch rolled happily in front of Mender's wolf without a care. At long last, Mender begrudgingly held out an arm to the packless elf.
“Come,” he said, pulling Teir up behind him. “We'll find her.”
There was a darkness in the forest, despite the early morning light. Farther than the tenuous borders of the Holt, farther than any of them had gone, hunting or howling, and farther from the plains than Teir had ever been. Mender shivered beneath his arms as they rode, slowing their pace the nearer the darkness came.
“Do you feel that?”
“No,” Teir murmured into Mender's back. “A little, not quite. But the wolves do.”
The ground climbed upwards at a gentle slope, to a glade beside a small, bubbling spring that pooled into a small puddle, feeding into a brook that trickled off into the surrounding forest. A female wolf - none of theirs, of either pack - lapped from the clear water, oblivious to their presence.
“Patch!” Teir shouted. The wolf startled, glancing up. Mender jumped at the sudden sound, but Teir grew still, arms tightening around the healer as he struggled to wolf-send, struggled to call him back.
It didn't work.
Patch ran up to the stranger with youthful enthusiasm. She snarled at his approach, and he stumbled to a stop, glancing back at the elves, and back to the she-wolf. Whining, he dropped to the ground and wiggled forward on his belly, showing throat. Her growl softened and died, and she nipped his muzzle. The young wolf rolled happily in the grass, and bounded back and forth between the strange wolf and the wolfriders.
Needleflower took a cautious step forward, held back only by Mender guiding her movements. Something didn't smell right.
Another crept out of the forest, across the glade towards them. Large for a wolf, silent as a shadow; black as night, with shimmering, intelligent golden eyes. He stood between the elves and their wolves, and the female, watching them.
He snarled when Patch came too close, and without further warning, lunged at the younger wolf. Patch scrambled into the bushes, tail between his legs and yelping, with Needleflower and her riders close behind. They half-flew, half fell down the hill after him, for quite the distance until they were, for the time, safely out of the shadow wolf's violent reach.
*Think those were the only two in the pack?* Mender asked. The ruddy female didn't seem unfriendly - aloof, at worst - but her shadowy companion quite obviously didn't want them in his territory. He reached out, enclosing Patch's muzzle between his hands as he willed the flesh to heal. Teir held the wolf down, locking him in a calming wolf-send.
Once Mender finished, Teir remained, face twisting in bewilderment.
“What is it?” When Teir didn't answer, Mender swatted him, breaking his concentration. “Hey! What is it?”
“Patch... seems to think those wolves have something to do with what happened to Ember.” Teir sighed, rubbing his eyes. “It's... It wasn't very clear.”
They sat in silence, while Patch wriggled between them.
“So.” Mender asked. “Any ideas?”
*I hate this idea.*
*So come up with one of your own,* Teir replied hotly.
They crouched at the edge of the glade. Their wolves had circled Teir like silent guardians, until he sent them down the hill. In the glade, the black wolf stood beside the trickling water, while the red female was nowhere to be found.
Teir crept forward, with Mender at his heels. The latter paused halfway. The wolf stared, as he had ever .txte they entered the glade.
*I think it's him.*
*What?* Teir took a chance and glanced back. *Who?*
*That... that feeling.* Mender's hackles rose. Teir could feel it in his sending. *I... I don't know. Just... Hurry.*
The last push spurred him on, and he continued. The wolf growled, not quite in reach.
*Easy* he sent, more of a emotion than a word. *Friend.*
The beast didn't react to his effort at all. Instead, the growl reached a dangerous pitch, and the wolf leapt over him, directly - Teir found as he scrambled around - at Mender.
The shadow wolf pinned the healer to the ground, as the latter, struggled in vain. He snarled at Teir, snapping when the elf came too close. When Mender's struggles ceased, the wolf lowered his head and stared at him until he glanced up, nervously-
-and froze, entranced by the wolf's golden stare.
And, as Teir stumbled back, out of the range of deadly-sharp teeth, helpless, Mender began to change.
At once, Patch's chaotic sending made sense.
The female peered from the thicket, coming forth cautiously. The wolf-that-had-been-Mender approached her cautiously, and they sniffed at one another, almost-friendly, almost-comfortable.
He stepped toward them, forgotten-until-now, and the black wolf lunged at him, snarling, coming face to face with the red wolf.
Somehow he understood.
Somehow he knew.
Ember had tried to explain it to him. Once. So long ago, it seemed.
What it meant, he couldn't fathom, but for the not-belonging. The red wolf stood between him and a brutal death. She didn't back down first, and when the tension dipped, for a brief moment, she nudged him with her forehead, almost-affection.
The black wolf barked in warning.
“It's okay,” Teir said. “It's okay, I'm leaving.”
The wolves seemed to understand. Or at least, the black wolf was willing to let him go. He backed away slowly, turning at the treeline.
At least they had each other. He swallowed against jealousy. At least they were together. Against the rejection. They weren't alone. Against the loneliness.
As he stumbled down the hill, Patch came out of hiding, flopping at his feet. Needleflower came out more slowly. He embraced them, broken. Alone but not alone. Patch's mournful whine bloomed into a full-throated howl.
An answer echoed down the hill, and Teir glanced up.
Patch meandered into the glade, drawing the wrath of the shadow wolf. He ran up, snarled, challenged, and charged away like death was on his heels, and for good measure. The black wolf followed him, silently into the twilight.
The wolves that were once elves frolicked in the glade, calm and unbothered by the.txtident. They cavorted into the forest, and he followed them as closely as he dared. They touched, they barked, they nipped and nudged one another. Jealousy wormed its way into his gut, and he squashed it.
Under the trees, he managed to approach them, carefree as they were. The pale silver-golden wolf that had been Mender growled at his approach, in kind perhaps.
At first, Teir reached for Ember, and Mender's growl deepened as he tangled his fingers in her fur. She seemed tolerant of the touch, and Mender had yet to act on his bestial threat.
As he sat with them, the black wolf haunted his mind. He didn't know how long Patch's distraction would last; he had to make good use of this time. He tried sending, he tried wolf-sending, and as that failed, his heart fell to despair. And as he despaired, a thought struck him, and he followed it along its twisted root.
Winnowill. Teir swallowed. Shape-changer. Twisted healer. Healer.
Teir opened one eye, to see the silver-gold wolf staring at him, near-challenge. He nudged Ember away - careful, for he didn't know her like this and didn't know how his calming influence held over her. He crawled forward, crouching before Mender and reaching to grasp the fur on either side of his head.
Teir pushed forward, gently, into the wolf's mind, seeking the elf within.
Wolf-Mender tried to pull away, once, but Teir held him fast. Beneath the wolf, beneath the layers of fuzz and the Now, he found the familiar threads of elf-thought. Delving deeper, he struggled to pluck the strings of thought, to wake the healer from his strange, shape-changed not-slumber.
The sound-word-name echoed in reply to his sending, vibrating through his being and shaking his concentration. The wolf wrest out of his grasp, writhing as the magic took him.
Mender reached out, in a healing trance; Ember shuddered like she itched of fleas, but nothing happened, and the healer drew back his hands, frustrated.
“I don't know,” Mender said, uncertain. Uncertain and something else. Angry, frightened, frustrated. “I don't know how I did it.”
“Let me help.” At the healer's sour gaze, Teir implored, *Let me try.*
Hesitantly, Mender nodded.
They lock-sent together, Teir guiding Mender farther than he might have dared to delve alone. He reached out between them, connecting wolf-chieftess and elf-healer. And as the magic took root, he faded back, leaving Mender alone to concentrate while he concentrated on calming Ember's wolf-mind.
Once it was done, and Ember was Wolfrider once more, they huddled together under the trees. The chieftess recovered first, staggering to her feet with their support.
*We have to go.*
Raising her hands to her mouth, she breathed deep and howled. Leaving her in Teir's arms, Mender followed her example. The wolves appeared at the call, first Patch - nearly bowling Ember over with exuberant glee - and Needleflower soon after, neither the worse for wear.
Ember sighed as they mounted, thoughts still fuzzy. *I lost my spear.*
A deep, commanding howl sounded behind them as they made it to the valley floor. Ember and Mender both twisted to look behind them, but the wolves didn't pause. Teir wrapped his arms tighter around Ember, and didn't look back.
For the time being, he was content to simply feel her warmth on the long ride home. They moved swiftly, near silently. Teir nibbled at her throat, and the chieftess' back arched as his idle fingers brushed soft patterns into her skin.
*Things can't be the way they were, you know.* Mender interrupted privately.
Teir eyed the healer sideways. Instead of the subdued irritation Teir might have expected, his sending was softer and more hesitant. *How so?*
He breathed in, then out. Through the lock-send, Teir could feel all that Mender was. Uncertainty waved and snapped between them. Outwardly, merely Mender sat a little straighter. For a distance, the tenuous connection was tumultuous emotion and nothing else.
*You're hoping to charm your way into her den, I take it.* Mender kept his eyes locked on the other side of the path. *Later, I mean.*
*If she allows.*
The chieftess' favor still varied between them; at times, her focus on one, at times neither. To claim victory in such a matter was to be a childish fool, and now?
Things can't be the way they were, you know.
Giving up so easily did not become him.
*You don't have to stay away.* Teir sent at last, twisting his head to rest upon Ember's opposite shoulder. He didn't have to watch Mender's expression change, somehow he just knew. *If things have to be different, I mean.*
When Teir looked back, his rival for the chieftess' affection had changed pace. The wolves were closer, loping along shoulder to shoulder. If he reached out, he could touch the healer's wolf, if not the healer himself.
*If you're going to lock-send the entire way back,* Ember's open sending echoed between them, *The two of you can ride together.*
“We were discussing that-” Mender glanced at him sharply, the sound of surprise caught in his throat. Teir smiled tightly - this was going to take getting used to. He nuzzled just behind her ear, murmuring into her throat, “The Holt is still quite far. We might want to take a break, to, umm... Let the wolves rest?”
Mender scoffed, rolling his eyes.
*We're going to have to move.* Ember leaned into Teir's embrace. *Again.* There was doubt in her sending, bordering on fear. Not for herself, or what she had endured, but for her tribe. *Or hunt it down. But it's not... not...* “...not like Winnowill.” She sighed wearily. *I don't know what it is.*
*I don't mind moving.* Teir sent candidly. *So long as there are others around.*
Mender eyed him askance. In reply, he reached out. At this distance, he could twist his fingers in the wolf's thick fur, but he couldn't reach Mender until the healer reached back, clasping his hand with unsteady certainty.