Part Two

Timmain was dreaming. The white wolf twitched in her sleep, legs moving, feet pawing at the air as her lips drew back from her teeth. Little whimpers escaped her throat.

“Is she running to or running from?” Bluestar wondered aloud as he watched from his seat at the campfire. Sitting above Timmain, his bandaged leg propped out in front of him, Sparkstone could only shrug.

“She doesn’t tell me.”

The humans cheerfully ate the last remnants of Lehrigen’s hawk, loudly conversing in Trade. Cheipar and Bluestar sat a little apart from the others, listening to Sparkstone’s whispered tale. He explained how he had tracked the Hunt himself for months, before one day Timmain appeared by his side. He told them of the failed raid on the humans at Rivertown, and the retribution the Longriders had exacted. Finally, he explained how they had come to the High Wind Heights, and how they had taken shelter from the winter storms in their green sanctuary, only to fall to in-fighting as they waited for the thaw.

“Our White Mother tried to keep the peace, but few of the Hunt could hear her sendings. You see the price I paid for intervening.” He gestured to his leg. “I do not blame Eyetooth, though. He is young and strong, and I am slow and brittle-boned. He did not mean to be… so harsh.”

“Are you sure about that?” Bluestar asked.

“Not with me.” Sparkstone summoned a faint smile which did not reach his eyes. “He is my many-times grandson, after all. Through Reader’s second daughter. Or was it his third? He sired them both so close together. We called that the Year of Recognitions… eight cubs born within as many months.”

“And how many elves had to die to spark all that?” Bluestar asked cynically.

Sparkstone shrugged. “Fewer than eight. We were still growing as a tribe, in those days.”

“Guess that’s a win, then,” Bluestar muttered, but Sparkstone seemed immune to the sarcasm.

“And Stripe?” Cheipar prompted.

“Poor fool,” Sparkstone sighed. “Of course, we all knew how it would end. Eyetooth finished the killing Rue had started, back at the College.” He scowled at the memory. “That wasn’t right. Whatever happened between them, there are some weapons you do not use. It was only a matter of time before someone else would pick up that blade. But I wonder how long Eyetooth will keep his chief’s lock now that he has shown he is utterly without honor.

“They left after that. It was as if they all understood they could not linger amid this wrongdoing. But no one would carry me down the rocks, and I cannot blame them for that. I gave them my blessing to go on without me.”

“Well, we can help you down,” Bluestar said. “Lehrigen can carry you on his back without a-”

Sparkstone held up his hand. “I thank you, but I need no aid. The White Mother hunts for me, and I heal in my own time. We will stay here until I am ready, and then we will catch up with the Hunt.”

“Why?” Bluestar asked, unable to keep the scorn from his voice.

“They are my kindred.”

“They left you for dead!”

Sparkstone shrugged. “But I did not die. And my place is with them – whether they wish it or not.”

“Your place was with your lifemate and your real tribe!” Bluestar burst out. Cheipar set his hand on his son’s shoulder, but the youth ignored the warning. “But you couldn’t stand show to throat to the Waykeeper and you let them sail off without you!”

Sparkstone only chuckled and shook his head. “You think you have me figured out, cub?”

“It’s not hard!”

Cheipar’s hand tightened on Bluestar’s shoulder. The youth irritably shook him off. “I’m not wrong!” he hissed.

Cheipar gave a diplomatic tilt of the head.

“The Waykeeper… they will need a new name now, I think,” Sparkstone murmured, staring into the flames.

“They took their old ones back,” Bluestar explained. “I’ve been to visit them. The Wolfriders. They call themselves the New Blood. They live in a Holt sculpted from giant mushroom trees and they’re learning to ride jackrunners. You could go see them – there are pods going between Abode and Homestead all the time. You could go back to them, help them build their future. The first Wolfrider Holt beyond the World of Two Moons!”

Sparkstone made a face. “I was born of this world: its water, its soil, its air. Its blood. I will not forsake it. And I will not live as a captive of your stone egg. I belong to the wolfsong. And a wolf is not meant for a solitary life.”

“So, you’ll chase after the Hunt. They despise you, you know.”

Sparkstone shrugged again. “They only ask me to prove myself. That I can understand. But you, cub, and all you College elves…. You might as well be humans to me, for your ways are just as unknowable.”

Cheipar muttered something under his breath that Bluestar could not make out – a thin hiss of a breath over moving lips.

But Sparkstone heard. “Yes, I did try, Cheipar! And I know you think me a child, but it seems to me an elf’s age should be measured in the trials he has faced, and the wisdom he has learned. Our White Mother has shared with me tales of High Ones who drew breath for an eternity, let lived less than a Wolfrider cub.”

Cheipar’s only response to the implied challenge was a wry twist of the lips.

“My fate is not your concern now,” Sparkstone said. “I have our White Mother to protect me. And in time, we will reunite with the Hunt.”

“Or what’s left of them,” Bluestar muttered.

Cheipar swallowed a smile and tapped his nose.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Bluestar pressed. “You’re hoping they’ll thin their numbers while you’re away. If the chief-wolves keep picking each other off there’ll be nothing left but throat-showers by the time you catch up with them. And then you can be chief again.”

Sparkstone did not blush. “There must be a reason I am still in my skin. I must have lessons still to teach my children.” He looked down at the dreaming wolf. “She understands. The future of our kind is not in the stars, but here, on this world.”

* * *

Down in the lowlands it was late summer, yet at High Wind Heights Bluestar awoke to a thin layer of frost. He insisted Lehrigen help Sparkstone to lower elevation over the elf’s objections. To his surprise, Timmain agreed, giving Sparkstone a determined nudge towards the human. Lehrigen easily hoisted the Wolfrider up onto his back and come midday, they all descended together, to rejoin Khorbasi and the horses.

Lehrigen took Bluestar aside. “That leg hasn’t healed straight,” he whispered in Trade jargon. “He’ll never walk properly like that.”

“I know.”

“Who taught him how to splint a leg anyway? Your folk aren’t usually so helpless.”

Bluestar shrugged. In the old days at the Evertree Holt, Duskwind would have healed his son’s break with a moment’s touch, no matter how much Sparkstone complained about the Way. And in the still older days when Sparkstone had first led the Hunt, someone with some healer-lore would have taken care to set the bones properly. But Bluestar doubted there was anyone left in the Hunt with skills beyond killing… and even if there were, no hunter would waste kindness on old Sparkstone now.

“How will you find the Hunt?” Bluestar asked the old chief. “Their trail must have gone cold months ago.”

“Our path will lead us to them,” Sparkstone said confidently. “As it did once before. The White Mother knows the way, even if I do not. She found me, after all.” His expression grew solemn. “I was at my lowest ebb. I had lost everything, even the Way. I was wandering without purpose. As was she, I suspect. But we have found each other, and she has shown me the path we must walk together.”

“You kept mentioning a path. But do you know where it will end?”

Sparkstone smiled. “Here, let me show you.”

Bluestar felt the sending star touching his mind. He lowered his defenses and admitted it. In his mind’s eye he was suddenly transported to an idyllic Holt, a Palace made of green-growing things, pairs of wolves and elves frolicking together under verdant branches. Each wolf and elf merged together into a furry hybrid not unlike the old Scroll-pictures of Timmorn Yellow-Eyes, then each hybrid lay down in the ferns and merged into the forest floor. Even as they disappeared, their cubs broke out of the undergrowth, to begin the cycle anew.

Bluestar made a face. “That old dream. But it’s long gone, Sparkstone. I thought you would have seen that.”

Sparkstone chuckled. Bluestar heard the note of condescension. “All things come full circle,” the old chief said simply. He leaned forward, then checked him, and Bluestar had the distinct impression he wanted to fluff the youth’s hair. “Your parents must have taught you that.”

Bluestar shook his head. “You’re wrong. It’s not a circle, it’s a spiral. It grows with every turn. You have to grow too. You have to keep up, or you’ll fall by the wayside. The dream isn’t enough anymore – not with a world filling up with humans and trolls and rotten magic. We’re seeing the signs everywhere. The break up of Oasis and Blue Mountain; the wars in Djunshold, the corruption at Howling Rock; drukk it, the Tree! This world… it’s getting so crowded. It’s like… look, you used to keep gardens at the Evertree. You must know, fields of grain or patch of punkins – eventually the earth gets tired. You need to try another crop. Or you need to just let it rest.  Nothing is changeless. And you either adapt or you die! That’s the only real Way!”

**I feel the truth in your words.**

Bluestar turned at Timmain’s sending. The wolf was watching the pair of elves carefully – almost warily; an elder sizing up two young challengers.

She did not send in words again, but Bluestar had a new vision: an entire world converted to farms – here plots of shrivelled wheat, there fields of rotting punkins, and there rows upon rows of dying elves and trolls and humans, sunk in the ground to the ankles, their bodies writing in slow-motion agony as they withered away like dead grass. As the sun winked out and the light faded, everything shrivelled away until nothing remained but endless tracts of barren earth.

This world is overworked. Was the thought his own or Timmain’s? He couldn’t be sure.

**We all thought the Palace’s arrival was the moment on which our past and future would hang,** Timmain continued. **We were right, and we were wrong. Its appearance and return to the past was but the beginning of a long sequence even now unfolding… a tipping point out of equilibrium which we will never recover.**

**Mother taught me not to say ‘never’ lightly,** Bluestar chided.

**If she had seen what I have seen, she would agree that it is warranted, now. We have been in freefall since the moment the Palace came and went, and the ground is racing up to meet us. But we still have a choice where we will strike home.**

When she sent nothing more, Bluestar gave a huff of impatience and prompted, “And that choice is?”

**Adapt or die,** Timmain repeated his own words at him. **And learn to live with our choice. There will be no more half-measures, no more compromises. We must abandon this dying world or else sacrifice our very souls to reclaim it.**

* * *

“Do you have any idea what she’s talking about?” Bluestar asked his father after he recounted Timmain’s sendings. Rowb and Shuna were readying the horses to move again as Khorbasi and Lehrigen argued about the best route down to the lowlands. Sparkstone and Timmain lingered on the rocks a short distance from the group, seemingly unwilling to say farewell.

“Wrong question,” Cheipar remarked.

Bluestar considered the statement; another elf might think Cheipar was simply being glib, but Bluestar heard a lesson to be learned. He turned his mind from Timmain and instead assessed his father. What question would he ask? The hunter was as sparing with his worries as he was with his words. When confronted with such a dire warning couched within such a riddle, what mattered most?

Assess the threat, he told himself. But did the danger lie in the words or the speaker?  Then he saw a little twitch at the corner of his father’s mouth and he realized he was thinking like a Wolfrider when he ought to be thinking like a Go-Back.

“Does she have any idea what’s she talking about?”

Cheipar smiled proudly and patted Bluestar’s shoulder.

“Well?” Bluestar urged, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Does she?”

Cheipar shrugged. “Your grandfather’d say she’s cracked.”

“Which grandfather?”

“Take your pick.”

“Aurek wouldn’t say ‘cracked,’” Bluestar teased, enjoying a moment of levity.

Cheipar shrugged again. “He has better words.”

He sat down on a rock, and Bluestar joined him. When Cheipar next offered his thoughts, it was in lock-sending.

**It’s either/or. Always is with her. Either she doesn’t know what that double-talk means… but she’s too high-headed to admit it… or…**

**Or what?**

Cheipar just gazed at him steadily. You know, his eyes seemed to say. Bluestar did.

**Why wouldn’t she want us to know what she means?**

Cheipar’s smile was utterly without humor. “That’s the question.”

Bluestar lay awake half the night trying to puzzle it out. In the end, he came up with two possibilities, but neither of them promised him a restful sleep.

“Either/or,” he whispered up at the stars. Cheipar was right; it was always either/or with Timmain.  She had spent her long life caught within the confines of duality. What had Grandfather Aurek said? Something about it being better for everyone if Timmain never found the peace she so desperately sought.

When Bluestar lapsed into a fitful sleep, he dreamt of the Tree, his own mind twisting the Littlefire’s sending-pictures into still more elaborate horrors. Then he dreamt of the barren ground from Timmain’s prophecy, the entire world reduced a corpse of dust and rock. And Timmain’s haunting words.

Adapt or die, and learn to live with our choice.

* * *

The days passed as they slowly descended back down to the forest. Timmain and Sparkstone travelled alongside the group, always apart yet always within sight. The old Wolfrider spent nearly all his time on wolfback; on the rare occasions he dismounted, he could not manage a faster pace than an awkward shuffle. Lehrigen was right; something had healed wrong in his leg – he could scarcely bend the knee to walk. When he climbed astride Timmain he needed to use his hand to hitch his leg into riding position. Bluestar doubted he could balance properly to ride at a run. How they intended to catch up with the Hunt remained a mystery.

At any rate, they seemed in no rush to desert their travelling companions. After five days spent following the river, Bluestar gathered the humans together and asked them what they wanted to do.

“Timmain is convinced the Hunt went north, and Sparkstone is intent on following them. I don’t think I can talk them out of it. The question is… where do we go? Back to High Hope?”

“Where else?” Rowb asked. “We found your missing god. Looks like she didn’t need our help after all.”

“The Hunt is still out there.”

“What, the rest of those beast-elves? You want to go looking for them now? No thanks, I’ve seen what they do to humans.”

“I’ve never been north of these woods,” Lehrigen mused. “Supposed to open up onto a plainswaste like in Djaarsland, but with shorter grass, and great rolling hills like ocean waves… and the very last of the mastodons. Oh, I’d love to see one.”

“I thought they were just make-believe,” Rowb said dubiously. “Something to drive up the price of walrus ivory.”

“When I met you, you thought Preservers were make-believe,” Shuna said scornfully.

“And you thought these gwits didn’t bleed!” Rowb sneered back, gesturing to Bluestar.

Lehrigen ignored their quarrel. “Can you imagine it, Khorbasi?” he said. “The chance to hunt a mastodon! What a story we could tell.”

Shuna looked pained. “There are only a few left and you want to kill one?”

Seeing Lehrigen’s enthusiasm, Rowb changed his tune abruptly. “Why not? They’re going to die anyway – they are, aren’t you? I mean, they’re not like elves, right? Time will kill them even if we leave them be, and where’s the glory in that for anyone? I’m with you, Lehrigen. Let’s go north. Find us a mastodon. We bring back its pelt and tusks and we’ll be renowned throughout Djaarsland!”

Lehrigen was thinking fast. “No… no, we bring back its bones and we will be dismissed as scavengers. We would need to bring one back alive.”

“Could we do that?”

“Why not? Ujjals have tamed elephants. If we were to find a small one… a calf… separate it from its mother.”


“Well, we would have kill the mother, I suppose. That’s how the Ujjals do it. If you do with the calf is small enough – but old enough to be weaned…”

“It’ll be autumn before we make it up there. They’d be weaned by then.”

We could do it, you know.”

“Bluestar! You won’t let them do this?” Shuna implored.

“No, I won’t,” Bluestar said firmly, hands clenched. “This talk ends now!”

“Oh pfft,” Rowb dismissed with a wave his hand.

Lehrigen chuckled. “Sorry, Bluestar,” he said, when the elf youth’s face darkened with anger. “But you are… precious when you get your hackles up.”

“Little puppy playing at being a wolf,” Rowb added spitefully, strolling up to Bluestar to let his height speak for him. The top of Bluestar’s head barely came up to his chest.

“Rowb, stop it!” Shuna snapped.

But Rowb was clearly enjoying himself. “Hey, Lehr, what do you think? Bet you I can lift him with one hand?” He reached down as if to grab Bluestar by the scruff of the neck, and Bluestar slapped his hand away with a force that made him cry out.

“Drukkin’ gwit–” Rowb’s drew back his fist with a brawler’s instinct. Shuna cried out in alarm. But before he could swing, he found himself sprawled on his back, Cheipar crouched atop his chest, the elf’s blade drawn and pressed against his windpipe.

“Whoa, whoa!” Lehrigen held up his hands. “Calm down! Uh… vesh… veshna…” his tongue stumbled over the elfin words.

“It’s all right, Father,” Bluestar said in the elfin tongue. “Really. It was just a play-challenge.”

“And this is just showing throat,” Cheipar growled, as he pressed the blade a little harder, making Rowb stretch out his neck. Satisfied, he got up and resheathed his short-sword. When Rowb started to prop himself up on his elbows, Cheipar only needed to cock his head and point to the ground and Rowb eased himself back to the ground.

Bluestar put his hand to his face. “Drukk, I’m sorry, Rowb,” he muttered through his fingers.

Lehrigen licked his lips and tried again. “Rowb… very sorry,” he said in limping Elfin. “No… mean hurt. No more loud. Promise.”

Cheipar raised his eyebrows skeptically.

“No… more… hard… talk?” Lehrigen amended, hoping his meaning was coming across.

“I speak Trade, pup,” Cheipar said, his expression pitying, his inflection flawless.


Cheipar glanced down at Rowb. “You: paws to yourself. And you: no mastodon hunts. They’d stamp you to mush. And I’m only here to protect my son.”

His piece said, he vaulted back into the tree and disappeared.

“Augh, he is so embarrassing!” Bluestar seethed as he walked over and offered Rowb a hand back onto his feet. Then he saw Shuna fighting back tears. She was shaking all over. Khorbasi had seen it first, and now he moved to comfort her, but she recoiled from his touch and whirled away, shrieking “Oh, leave me alone! All of you!”

“What’s eating her?” Rowb demanded, as he struggled up from the ground. “I’m the one who had the elf-shave!”

Bluestar jogged after Shuna. She had not gone far. He found her leaning against a tree, hugging her sides to still the tremors. The old sword she wore on her back bumped against the tree trunk, and with a cry of irritation, Shuna threw the weapon to the dirt.

“Shuna? What is it?”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry. I should… I shouldn’t have come. Rowb’s right – I don’t belong here!”

“Rowb’s a zwoot-pucker.”

“I…” she sniffled. “I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s not good.” Bluestar slowly sidled up to her. “Shuna? Come on, you can talk to me.”

“It… the way he shouted – and when he pulled back his fist – and – a-and… it was just like – just like–”

“Your father?”

She kicked at the sword in the dirt. “He had a big battle-ax. He kept it propped by the door when he was home. I… I used to look at it… whenever he was hurting Mother – and dream of picking it up and…. But I couldn’t.”

“Of course, you couldn’t. You were just a child.”

“You’re no bigger than I was. And Rowb – if he’d hit you without thinking–”

“I wouldn’t break,” Bluestar insisted. He touched Shuna’s arm, lightly, so as not to startle her. “Trust me, I’ve faced down worse than Rowb preening for Lehrigen.”

“I know that! But I – when I was there –”

“You remember the fear. It’s all right. That happens.”

“I felt the fear. I felt… helpless and useless a-and w-worthless–”

“Hey, hey!” Bluestar couldn’t stand it any longer. He slipped between her and the tree, and when her trembling legs began to gave way, he cast his arms around her and held her tight.

“I’ll never be the warrior I want to be,” she wept. “Rowb is right–”

“Rowb is never right!”

Shuna laughed weakly at that. “Oh, Bluestar, why do you still put up with me?”

Even all limbs as she was, she was too heavy to hold up. Gently, Bluestar eased her down to her knees, so he could look her in the eyes, the way he had when they had first met. He touched her tear-stained cheek fondly.

“Why do you place me so far above you?” he countered.

Shuna struggled to form a smile. But she could only manage a tremulous grimace. Her gaze was filled with sorrow and longing. “My dearest friend…” she whispered. “You’ll never understand. I’ve yet to meet the human who loves what they see when they look within.”

She moved her face towards his, and Bluestar gently shifted his head to one side so they could embrace, chins on each others’ shoulders. He had no words for her, and she could not hear his sendings, so he settled for a hug with all the strength he could put into his slight arms.

He felt her hesitate, a momentary tension in her long, thin frame. Then she hugged him back just as fiercely, and he clenched his jaw rather than admit she was bruising his ribs.

He let go before she did.

* * *

The wolves insisted on an afternoon daysleep. They remounted their beasts by late afternoon, and spent the long golden evening descending the final slopes into proper forest. Bluestar took his turn on one of the packhorses while Cheipar rode point on Trouble, keeping a sharp eye on the train of horses over the uneven ground. Rowb and Lehrigen seemed to have learned their lessons, and largely held their peace. But Khorbasi seemed to have found his tongue at last, and peppered Bluestar with questions about human mythology – and the elves behind it.

“Is Adiirak of the Nine Wings really your grandfather like Kuldachi says?”

Bluestar shrugged. “One of them. I got four.”

“But… he really didn’t create all the sprites and the mountain folk…?”

Bluestar laughed. “Naw. But he made the Egg and the College inside it.”

“And the Mother of Horses?” he asked next, naming the Longrider creation goddess. “Is… she your kin too?”

“Oh, Mardu. Yep, she’s my…” Bluestar thought about it. “She is my father’s… grandfather’s… lifemate,” he said proudly once he had worked it out. “The Plainsrunners call her Mother of Horses too. And she didn’t create the first horse, but she was one of the first to ride one on the Plainswastes. Dunno why, but humans hadn’t really caught onto that over here. Not like the human tribes in the Eastlands.”

“Ponies,” Cheipar remarked.

“Oh, that’s right.” Bluestar looked down at his horse. “They only had the ponies back then, didn’t they? I keep forgetting the horses only got this big because the humans bred them that way.”

“The Ghost Herd?” Khorbasi asked next. “The spirits of the dead who patrol the edge of the world and claim the rider who ventures too far from the homelands?”

Bluestar considered it. “That’s… what do they ride again?”

“Depends on the story. Usually horses. Ghost ones. But sometimes giant wolves.”

“Ah – that would probably be the Wild Hunt – my uncle Teir’s clan. Ever since the fall of Djaar Mornek, the Djaarsland and Djunshold tales are always talking about angry spirit riders. The Longriders probably picked up the ‘wolves’ part from them.”

“The Grey Queen?” Khorbasi asked.

Rowb made a scoffing sound, but mindful of Cheipar’s presence, said no more.

“Oh, that’s just Drub,” Bluestar laughed. “She’s a troll. And she doesn’t turn you to stone when you see her – she’s not that ugly! Come on, give me a hard one.”

“Threksh’t?” Khorbasi tried.

Shuna shot him a hard glare. “Don’t joke.”

“No,” Bluestar said. “We can’t take credit for that one. Humans have been praying to Threksh’t… or Tharshek or Threkkan – he’s had a lot of names, Aurek says – since before we settled here. But we did actually–”

Cheipar cleared his throat loudly, and sent a stinging rebuke in sending.

“Never mind,” Bluestar amended.

“Have you spoken to Threksh’t?” Shuna asked. “Elves, I mean? In your crystal Palace?”

Again, Bluestar winced at a sharp sending from his father. When he didn’t answer promptly enough, Cheipar said simply, “No.” His tone did not invite further discussion.

An awkward silence fell, but before it could linger long, Khorbasi spoke up again. “Lord Adiirak… I’ve always wondered – if he didn’t breed all the mountain folk on the daughters of the Longriders…”

Bluestar burst out laughing. Cheipar huffed and rolled his eyes.

“…did he breed any?” Khorbasi finished lamely. “I mean… is it possible the first Longrider clans might be… somehow…”

“The children of Adiirak?” Bluestar finished. He couldn’t quite keep the pity out of his voice. “Sorry, no. Elves and humans… that just doesn’t happen outside the stories.”

Khorbasi looked sad; too late, Bluestar wished he had let him down more gently. Humans held their illusions so close: they ought to be allowed to keep a few. So when Shuna asked rather tremulously, “But there are so many stories…” Bluestar decided to shrug and remark: “Well, not that I’ve ever heard of.”

Upon further thought, he glanced down at his father. “Why is it always Adiirak running off with human maids, anyway?” he asked. “Of all of us. I mean… if it was someone like Manx – or Prince Smokewater! – I might actually wonder at it. But Aurek?”

Cheipar shrugged, a look of distaste on his face.

“Because you’re right, Shuna,” Bluestar said. “There are so many stories – all the way to Djunshold. Didn’t you tell me that in Kwynnmire they say human maids need to light special candles or something… or else Adiirak will steal them away the night before their wedding?”

Shuna nodded.

“He does that to widows in Djaarsland,” Rowb piped up, all the while watching Cheipar carefully. “Doesn’t steal them, but spoils them for remarriage. So they say,” he added quickly.

“He doesn’t take just any women,” Khorbasi said. “Not in our stories. But they say he stole the first woman of the ancient chief Tasok.”

“Well, go on, then,” Lehrigen said. “Let’s hear it.”

Khorbasi flushed to have all the attention on him. “Well… that was long before we were in proper clans – long before the Mother of Horses made us our steeds and taught us to ride. Um… and Tasok was one of the finest hunters – and his woman Havay was one of the fiercest maids.” He cast a sheepish glance in Shuna’s direction, Bluestar noticed. “Only Tasok could have claimed her. But he did, and she gave him a fine son. But she didn’t recover from the birth. She… um… she seemed to waste away – not in body, but in spirit. And her baby boy, as he learned to speak, he took to babbling strange sounds – like birdsong. Tasok thought nothing of it, until the wise woman in his clan said the child was speaking Skytalk – the language of the spirits. And when Tasok asked the little boy how he learned to speak to spirits, the child said ‘Adiirak teaches me when he comes to visit Mother.’

“So when Tasok next went away to hunt, he locked Havay and the boy inside his hut, and told the wise woman to sit guard outside until he returned. And for eight days this plan worked… he’d leave in the morning and return before nightfall with food, and Havay and the boy would be waiting for him. But on the ninth day, he was late coming home. The moons were already up, and the wise woman had fallen asleep waiting for him. Tasok broke down the door trying to get in… but it was too late. Havay was gone. Disappeared, leaving nothing but a pile of clothes on her pallet bed. And the little boy, though Tasok and the wise woman shook him and pleaded with him to tell them what happened… he couldn’t speak. He never spoke another word again. Adiirak had stolen his voice, just as he had stolen away his mother.”

Bluestar nodded politely at the story’s conclusion. Then he noticed Cheipar hunched over on his wolf. His father seemed almost in pain, lips pressed together tightly, brow knit, nose wrinkled and cheeks reddening.

The laugh that burst out of him was so loud it startled Trouble, and Cheipar had to grip the wolf’s neck ruff tightly to keep from being thrown. He laughed and laughed, nearly doubled over, clutching his stomach with one hand as the tears filled his eyes.

“What?” Bluestar asked. “Father?”

“Now we know…” Cheipar managed to stammer out between guffaws.


Cheipar caught his breath. He looked up at his son. “Tasok? Ta-sok? Skot!” he burst out, when Bluestar failed to make the connection. “It’s Skot!”

Bluestar’s eyes widened as he suddenly understood. He switched back to Elfin as he said, “You mean that Havay is… and the little boy… oh, drukk! Does Skot know?”

“Poke Skot!” Cheipar laughed. “Does Aurek know?”

“We have to tell him! I have to tell him!”

“Buckrot you will! I’m the elder – I get to do it!”

“No fair. You got your voice stolen, remember?”

Rowb looked at Lehrigen. “Can you translate this mess?”

Lehrigen shook his head. “I… have no idea. Good to see the papa bear laughing, though.”

“I think he’s possessed,” Rowb muttered.

Bluestar overhead. “Adiirak strikes again,” he quipped, promptly a renewal of laughter from Cheipar.

* * *

They made their camp where the river rejoined the forest. Timmain and Trouble disappeared into the woods together. Rowb tried to make a crude joke about their likely activity, but he had scarcely begun the set-up before a withering gaze from Bluestar silenced him.

As twilight fell, Lehrigen set to making a campfire. Sparkstone watched him work from his perch on a low-hanging tree branch, until Cheipar make up to him and thrust his bow and quiver into his hands.

“What’s this?” Sparkstone asked.

Cheipar did not dignify the question with a reply.

“Thank you, Cheipar, but I have no need of them.”

“Buckrot, you don’t. Come on.”


“Target practice!”

“I know how to use a bow.”

“Good. Prove it.”

“I’m beginning to understand why your son has always been so eager to escape you.”


Grumbling, Sparkstone slid down to the ground and gingerly followed Cheipar’s lead. Bluestar watched them disappear into the shadows and shook his head in exasperation. “And he wants to take back his chief’s lock,” he muttered.

“There we are,” Lehrigen said, as the tinder caught fire. “Now, as I doubt the ‘White Mother’ is bringing back food for us all….” He got to his feet and whistled for his hound. “Let’s go, Lev. Reckon I saw some deer scat back there.”

“I’ll come with,” Rowb said eagerly.

Lehrigen shook his head. “You stay here at the camp. Help Khorbasi with the horses.”

“Drukk that. I’m no stableboy.”

“And you’re no hunter. Nothing against you, lad,” Lehrigen added, when he saw how Rowb’s face fell. “But you know I track best alone.” Seeing that was still not quite enough, he offered, “Lev and I will find us some deer tonight… and maybe tomorrow I’ll show you how I caught it.”

Rowb perked up. “Maybe?”

“Well… gotta kill the beast first,” Lehrigen winked.

“Ah. So that’s why I can’t come,” Rowb teased with a roguish grin. “You’re afraid you’ll miss a shot in front of me.”

“Sure, pup. You believe that if you want.” But Lehrigen was smiling too as he clasped Rowb on the shoulder.

Hunter and hound set off back the way they had come, in search of deer. Khorbasi busied himself removing the tack from the horses. “Hey, Rowb. You gonna help or what?”

“I said I’m no stableboy!”

“Don’t be a gwit,” Bluestar chided.

“I’ll help,” Shuna said, getting up from the campfire.

Khorbasi already had two horses unsaddled. He held them by the halters. “I’ll take these two down to the stream and see them watered,” he nodded towards the sound of nearby water. “Can you get the saddles off the others?”

Shuna set to work unbuckling the pack straps, while Rowb took her place at the campfire. He warmed his hands over the flames, smiling to himself.

“What’s got you so cheerful?” Bluestar asked.

“Just thinking of that deer Lehrigen’ll bring back.”

“Don’t think he’ll miss that shot?”

Rowb flushed. “Aw… I was just pulling his tail. You know he never misses. Hey… you… you think I could learn some of that… tracking stuff?” he asked, almost shyly. “I could, couldn’t I?”

“What happened to being a sellsword?”

“Well, that only pays when there are wars to fight. Might be good to have something else. To fall back on. You know. Maybe Lehrigen and I… I mean… he says he works best alone… but – well… if I could show him I was a fast learner–”

Bluestar started to chuckle.

“What?” Rowb scowled. “What’s so funny?”

“Why don’t you just say what you mean?” Bluestar challenged. “And why don’t you just say it to him?!”

Rowb flushed again, and his brow knit into a frown. “Dunno what–”

“It’s me. Rowb. I know you – I’ve known you since you were my size! And don’t think I haven’t noticed you preening around him like a stutter-cock. You want him? Stop chasing your tail and get after him!”

He noticed Rowb’s cheeks darkening as he spoke, and his frown turning into a scowl. But he didn’t spot the clenching fists, or the fearful light gathering in his eyes

“What’s the worst he can do–”

 “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Rowb snarled.

“I think I do–”

“No, you don’t!” Rowb roared, seizing Bluestar by the collar and shaking him for good measure. His eyes were wild with panic. He was suddenly shouting, spraying the elf’s face with spittle. “You don’t! You don’t say that! I’m not – I’m not one of those–

“Rowb!” Shuna shouted. Abruptly Rowb seemed to realize what he was doing. He stared at Bluestar’s startled face as if seeing his friend for the first time. Then he thrust Bluestar back roughly.

“I’m not!” he insisted, getting to his feet. “And don’t you ever say I am! You – you bring that up again and… and I’ll beat the magic out of you, you hear me?”

Stunned, suddenly afraid of the human’s strength and temper in a way he’d never been before, Bluestar nodded shakily, though he had no idea what he was agreeing to.

Rowb looked just as frightened. Shaking his head and swatting at the air as if to chase away insects, he staggered away from the campsite. Bluestar watched him go, completely at a loss.

“Oh, Bluestar!” Shuna dropped down at his side. “Why do you keep taunting him?”

“What… what did I say?” Bluestar stammered.

Shuna’s concern turned to suspicion. “You… don’t know?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I did! What set him off like that? All I said was–”

“I heard. Bluestar… you… you called him unmanly. A deviant.”

“When did I say that? I just said he’s been panting over Lehrigen.”

“Another man.”

Bluestar stared at her blankly.

“Don’t you know the Codes of Thresksh’t?” She was blushing furiously. She wouldn’t look him in the eye as she quoted: ‘Let not man spoil man as he would a maid. For that is abhorrent to Thresksh’t the Wrathful.’”

Bluestar absorbed the scripture in silence, his mouth slightly agape. At length he stammered, “You’ve got to be pulling my tail.”

Shuna saw his genuine bewilderment, and her eyes widened in horror. “Surely you don’t… everyone knows… elves must… anyone can see it is unnatural!”

Bluestar let out a loud laugh of derision. “Have you seen nature? Male wolves… female shagbacks… birds, bears, treewees – puckernuts, treewees! They’re all mounting each other for sport!”

“That doesn’t make it right!”

“You… you’re serious! So… what? Humans… bucks have to stick to does and does to bucks?”

Somehow, Shuna’s blush managed to go even deeper. Even her neck was a deep pink. “One man. One woman. It’s the only proper way. I thought…  I assumed it was the same for elves.”

Again, Bluestar laughed sharply. “No. Not even close.”

“Then… what is it?”

“It’s whatever you want! It’s whatever works. Lovemating, lifemating… love comes in all sorts. Buck and buck, two bucks and a doe, two does and no buck… oh, don’t look at me like, Shuna! I have four grandfathers – didn’t that make you wonder? You met Pike and Skot back when they were at the College. I told you they were my father’s fathers. How did you think that worked?”

“I thought you meant… didn’t your grandmother have… two former husbands? I thought… she had the one, then traded for the other.”

Bluestar heard the note of judgment in her voice. Strange that he’d never noticed it until now.

“No, she had the two, then traded them both for Aurek,” he said wryly.

“Your parents–”

He shrugged. “Have only had eyes for each other. Doesn’t make them better or worse than those who hop furs every month and can’t choose between maids and lads.”

Shuna breathed out a long sigh. She still wouldn’t meet Bluestar’s gaze. “Can… can you choose?” she asked. “Have you ever… with another lad?”

“No. I prefer what maidens have,” Bluestar admitted honestly. He considered it a moment. “Not ruling out a lad… if one takes my fancy. Who can say what I’d rather have in a few centuries.”

“Centuries…” Shuna repeated tonelessly. She chewed on her lips thoughtfully. “So… you’ve… gone with a maiden, then?”

“Sure. A couple. It’s… not the easiest thing when every elf in the Egg thinks of you as a little cub, but–” too late he noticed her tears.

“Do you love them?” she accused, her voice thick with spite. “Your elf maids?”

“W-ell… love’s a strong word. We have fun together – we… oh, Shuna!”

She wiped at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “It isn’t right. You should value yourself more highly… they should value… you – you could pledge yourself to someone true – someone… who truly loves you…”

At that moment, he understood. He finally recognized what he had been trying so hard to ignore for the better part of two years.

“Shuna, you know you’re my dearest friend–” Even as the words left his lips, he knew they were the wrong ones.

“Oh, stop!” she pulled away, hunching her shoulders.

“And if it were only joining you wanted… I… I’d probably give it a try.”

“There’s what a maid likes to hear. You’d ‘give it a try!’” She tried to rise, but Bluestar caught her sleeve and pulled her back down.

“But it’s not just joining with you,” he continued, more firmly. “I could tell that even before today. And now I’m more certain than ever.”

“That you could never love me?”

“Not the way you want. Not the way you deserve.”

She swallowed a sob. She fought for control. “Of course, you’re right,” she sniffed. “You’re a blessed spirit… grandson of gods… and I’m just an awkward, foolish, lumpen human–”

“Stop it. Yes, you’re a human. And that is why… but it’s not why you think. Shuna… your kind… your lives are like… like butterflies’. You fly through your lives so quickly – you burn up like moths at candleflames. Me… I’ve barely left the cradle. I can afford not to know what I want out of life. And I might have a star’s age to figure it out. But you… I wish it weren’t so, but your years are numbered – and not even spirit-magic can change that. You have so little time, Shuna. I don’t want you to waste it pining for me.”

“But if my life is so little to you… then couldn’t you spare that little time–”

“And keep you close, and watch you die? Shuna… I don’t know how I can bear it as it is. I try not to think about it,” he admitted. “But I do, all the same. I think about Lehrigen, and Rowb… and you, you most of all.” He reached out to touch her cheek, and she leaned into the caress helplessly.

“I said it just doesn’t happen between elves and humans – the sort of love you want. The sort of love you deserve. How can it… with so much time standing between us? Could you love a butterfly? Would you dare to? To open yourself to that much… and have it over before you can blink?

“Maybe… maybe someone stronger could. Maybe one day I’ll be that strong. But I’m not yet.  And I think… the kindest thing I could do for both of us is to walk away, soon. So I can always remember you like this – as young as me, full of hopes… and so you can forget me… and go on with your life – find a nice human lad who can give you his whole life – not just a sliver of time.”

Shuna stared at him bleakly. One last tear trickled down her cheek, wetting his fingers. This time she was the first to pull away.

“If I say I understand… will you stay?”

Bluestar smiled gently. “As long as you’ll put up with me.”

A painful silence fell then, and Shuna soon excused herself to go down to the river. She had barely left the campsite when Bluestar heard her snarl, “Did you hear everything, then?”

Bluestar couldn’t make out the muttered response. He waited at the campfire as Khorbasi came up, led the horses back to their companions, and tied their halters to the tree trunks. Finally, he came up to the campfire and sat down across from Bluestar.

They avoided each other’s gaze for several tense moments. Eventually Bluestar broke the silence with a sharp huff of air. “So, are you in love with someone you shouldn’t be?”

The younger Longrider turned the color of shame, and turned his head to look down the path Shuna had trod. Bluestar moaned softly into the palm of his hand.

* * *

**I’m a zwoot’s ass,** he concluded, having told his father all in sending, once the humans had fallen asleep and they could retire to a perch high in the trees.

Cheipar shook his head. **You told them what they needed to hear. Not your fault they didn’t like it.**

**I thought I understood humans. I thought I’d learned something about them.**

Cheipar smiled and patted his shoulder.

**I’ve ruined everything with Rowb and Shuna, haven’t I?**

**Hope not. Would have thought better of them than that.**

**So what do I do? What do I say?**


Bluestar looked at him skeptically. “That’s your advice for everything.”

Cheipar smiled enigmatically and shrugged.

Bluestar looked down at the sleeping travellers. Rowb had chosen a spot as far from Lehrigen as possible, while Shuna lay curled miserably in front of the dying fire, and Khorbasi hid between the sleeping horses. Sparkstone and Timmain rested a short distance away from the humans, the wolf wrapped about the elf to keep him warm, despite the mild night air.

**They’re really going, aren’t they?** Bluestar asked. **Can Sparkstone hit anything with that bow?**

Cheipar’s disgusted expression was answer enough.

**They’ll have to stop as soon as the snows fall; he’s not strong enough to travel in winter.**

Cheipar nodded.

**They’ll never catch up to the Hunt, will they?**

**They will.**

**How? They don’t even know where they’ve gone.**

**She knows. She always knows these things. And she’s a patient hunter.**

**And then what? The pair of them try to lift them back up to be proper Wolfriders?**

**What’d you tell her? ‘Adapt or die’?**

Bluestar nodded.

Cheipar glanced back at the white wolf, her fur glowing a soft silver in the moonlight.

**She was good at adapting once. Time to see what she remembers.**

* * *

By morning, Sparkstone and Timmain had slipped away. Bluestar’s party waited a few days by the riverside, just in case. Then they turned south-west and headed back for High Hope.

Shuna did not speak directly to Bluestar until it was time to break camp. But after a few days on the road, she seemed her old self again. Except in her eyes; they remained guarded, as if a thin veil had fallen over them. She did not mention their talk at the campfire.

Rowb no longer dogged Lehrigen’s heels, no longer pestered him to teach him the secrets of tracking. If Lehrigen noticed the change, he did not comment on it.

When Shuna sprained her ankle leading her horse along a narrow path, Khorbasi rushed to help her, but she spurned his attentions with a torrent of anger. Bluestar began to despair for the easy camaraderie they had once all shared, but he followed his father’s example and said nothing.

When they returned to High Hope, Rowb offered to treat them all to drinks at the elf-owned inn. “You got enough coin for that?” Lehrigen challenged with a wry smile. “You know Brightstar probably won’t take those spindles of sprite-silk you’ve been hoarding.”

Rowb flashed the older hunter a careless grin. “She’s a trader – she’ll take them, you’ll see!”

“All right, if you say so. But I am feeling mighty thirsty.” Lehrigen clapped Rowb on the shoulder in passing, and for the briefest moment, a look of abject longing flashed across the younger man’s face.

“I’ll be off to the stables – tell Kuldachi we’re back,” Khorbasi said. “He won’t be too happy to hear about the lost horse; I’d better get it over with now.”

Shuna looked about, saw no one else would speak up, then said: “Bad news will keep, Rowb’s spending mood won’t. Come on, Khorbasi. You’re one of us now.”

Cheipar looked up at Rowb hopefully. Rowb scowled. “No fathers allowed! Sor,” he added when Cheipar’s hand strayed to his sword-hilt.

**Papa!** Bluestar warned, when Cheipar let the moment stretch too long.

Cheipar turned away with a wink at Bluestar. **Go on. Go play with your pack.**

Bluestar grinned, feeling a rush of pride.

**Just don’t come home drunk!** Cheipar sent as he walked down the lane.

“Don’t worry, I’ll sleep it off first!” Bluestar called to his back. Cheipar’s only reply was a farewell wave.

Bluestar watched his father disappear into the multispecies crowd. Behind him, Rowb called “Come on, point-ears!” Still smiling, Bluestar turned and followed his friends inside the inn.


The Wolfrider tired easily. She carried him most of the way, stopping often to rest or to hunt. The first frosts came as they reached the Plainswaste. The snows soon followed. They spent a hard winter on the steppes, moving when the weather cleared, denning down in hollows when the wind howled.

The Wolfrider lost weight and strength. But he did not succumb. Neither did she. She could hear the song calling her onward – the distant, anguished howls of her descendants. She did not know where they were, but she knew where they were going, and she meant to meet them there.

Strange elves came and went, following their age-old migrations. So did the odd human. But wolf and Wolfrider did not make their presence known. They lacked the strength to fight, and the patience to debate. So they hid like hopdiggers, without shame. It was as the child had said: adapt or die, such was the only real Way.

The wolf lost weight too, during that long winter. But somehow, she found them enough meat to keep them alive. And came the melt they continued north.

Summer saw them on the northeastern coast, where the frost coated the ground each dawn even in the warmest months. Even here, humans spread like a plague, with their fishing villages and their wooden ships.

The song grew fainter. The path faded. As the nights grew longer again, the wolf found herself thinking of the child, and doubts began to gnaw at her resolve. Each time she slept, she found herself running, hunter and hunted at once.

The wolf was her strength, but some nights she did not feel strong enough.

Yet she could not go back. She could not live in memories, singing the same song until the notes drove her made. Adapt or die, the child had said. And she could not die. She could not stop. She dared not. Not with what pursued her… the doubts, the guilt, the slowly resolving understanding that some missteps could not be corrected.

 Their race was in freefall, as she had warned the child. But she had been falling for much longer. Only one choice remained, and she meant to make the right one.

The ice bridge was not as thick as it had been when those brave snow elves had crossed it, abandoning the cradle of their face for the wild new world. But as winter gripped the land and sea, it was thick enough. When spring returned, they raced the melt in a desperate, slow-motion sprint.

The song was louder once they reached the Homeland. The memories guided her steps. She was returning to where it had all begun. She would return to her roots and begin a new life. A new purpose. She would sing a new song for the new world she would make, here, in this precious soil, with her beloved children.

The humans of the Homeland were different: stunted somehow in both inventiveness and cruelty. Here they seemed less like dangerous aberrations and more like any beast in its proper setting.

Still, they kept their distance. They turned south, and watched the barrens of Snow Country give way to the bright colors of spring in the alpine meadows. They crossed valleys and traversed ridgelines, until at last they came to a cliffside overlooking a great forest of misty pines.

“We are almost home,” the elf whispered hoarsely. “Can you hear it calling us?”

It was the sweetest song she had ever heard.

The humans knew not to intrude upon this forest. As they journeyed deeper the pines gave way to hardwoods, and the canopy grew steadily thicker of their heads, shading the world in green shadows. The air was moist, heavy with the scent of decay and new growth. Mushrooms carpeted the ground in between the great oak trunks.

It was high summer when they came upon the child. Not the stripling adventurer from the Egg, but a little black-haired cub with the scent of wolf and a bright light in his green eyes. He wore nothing but a garland of flowers above his ears.

“Welcome, White Mother,” he lisped; he was losing his milk-teeth.

“Who…?” Sparkstone frowned at the child. “Are… are you Sorrel’s boy?”

“I am Sunspot,” the boy nodded. “Come. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“How… how many survived the journey?” Sparkstone asked.

“We’re few now. But we’ll grow.”

The naked child led them through the shadows, to the glen of Timmain’s dreams. More elves awaited them, some old, some only toddling cubs, all wearing dreamy smiles and snatches of moss. They came in greeting, arms outstretched, sendings warm as fresh sunlight.

“Eyetooth...?” Sparkstone murmured, scarcely recognizing the welcoming elf who embraced him and helped him off his mount. Timmain shook herself once she was relieved of her burden, revelling in the sudden lightness.

Free. I am free.

She found herself changing shape before she was even aware of it. She shed the layers of fur and muscle, and found herself lighter still.  Her long hair fell about her shoulders, yet even it felt strangely weightless. As she got to her feet, she felt truly reborn.

The little boy Sunspot came up to take her hand. “Come. The Green Father is waiting for you.”

“Yes…” Timmain whispered, her voice hoarse from disuse. She raised her eyes to the massive oak tree, its many trunks piercing the ground like the legs of some great wooden spider. More elves perched on its branches, some in shells of flesh, others in those of wood. The air itself seemed to resonate with their combined voices.

The song had frightened her once. She couldn’t remember why.

At last she could stop running. She was free, and she was home.

 Elfquest copyright 2017 Warp Graphics, Inc. Elfquest, its logos, characters, situations, all related indicia, and their distinctive likenesses are trademarks of Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Some dialogue taken from Elfquest comics. All such dialogue copyright 2017 Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Alternaverse characters and insanity copyright 2017 Jane Senese and Erin Roberts.