Freefoot sample

Halfhill was called that because it was just half a hill, a steep clay cliff cut by Small River, which ran from west to east a few eights of paces south of its base. The cliff was taller than two elves, and long enough for every family to have its own den dug into it. Between the bank and the stream was the common yard, a treeless stretch of short grass where the elves spent most of their time with each other when not hunting, sleeping, or working on special projects. There were more trees and a waist-high fern brake across the stream, where the cublings frequently played in the mornings, or when it was hot, or whenever they felt like it. Trees and bushes crowned the top of the cliff, which sloped gently down upstream to the west and downstream to the east. The forest closed in at either end. This was home.

Summer Tag

There was still morning mist in the forest as Raindance, Suretrail, and Sunset moved quietly and quickly from tree to tree. Their eyes searched in all directions, their ears were tuned for any sound of pursuers, or of their quarry who, since the trail was not that fresh, might be anywhere. In spite of this, they carried no weapons, other than their knives, and they tracked their quarry without the aid of their wolves.

Raindance, tense as a bowstring, was in the lead. Her rather short amber hair was damp with more than mist. Though it was still early in the day, she and the others with her had already seen some action, and she knew that one misstep could cost her and her companions. The trail was faint, but she spotted a bent leaf ahead, a sure sign that she was leading them right. She raised one hand briefly to signify that she’d found the way.

Suretrail, two paces behind her, and responsible for making sure no one came at them from the sides, had seen the leaf before Raindance had, but he had said nothing, as this was her lead. Two paces behind him Sunset, as brilliantly dressed as if this were a normal day, kept watch at their back. She tried not to breathe too loudly in the near stillness, struggled to identify each of the small noises she did hear, to make sure none of them was someone on their trail, even as they pursued another.

Though the elves did not have any weapons, they each carried an elaborately carved taal-stick, as long as an arm, in special slings at their belts. That was part of the risk of the day, since the sticks were no defense against any agressive animal they might run across inadvertantly.

They came to the edge of a shallow ravine, where more firs than maples grew. The slope was steep, and they looked down together. It was a good place for an ambush, but there seemed to be nobody there.

“Which way,” Sunset asked as she scanned the tree limbs overhead. She was nervous, though no stranger to this kind of hunt.

Suretrail glanced up the ravine, then down, then across again. There, on the far side, was the mark of elvin passage, but he said nothing, waiting for Raindance to report it.

“Straight across,” she said. Her voice was only a whisper. “But it looks like they doubled back.” Around them, except for the normal chatter of squirrels and birds, the forest was silent. “How many?” she asked Suretrail.

“Three, I think.” He, too, was whispering. “We’re gaining on them.”

“Quiet,” Sunset hissed, and they all crouched lower as they listened.

The birds off to their left had stopped calling. They held their breaths as they tried to sink into the all too scanty cover on the edge of the bank. But whatever had disturbed the birds must also have stopped moving, for after a moment the chirps and other bird sounds returned to normal.

Suretrail breathed more easily now. It had been hard for him not to take the lead from Raindance, as good as she was. He wished Sunset had not been so intent on living up to her name and had worn something less brilliantly colored this morning.

“Let’s move,” Raindance said softly, “and see if we can’t shorten their lead.”

“And,” said Sunset, “leave whoever is following us behind.”

With one more glance around, in case of ambush, and specially careful of a dense tangle of wine-berry vines hanging from a pair of gigantic cedars on the far slope of the ravine, they left their resting place and descended the steep but shallow slope, then hurried up the other side.

Lonebriar, as he was known then, high in that very tangle of vines, kept still as he watched the three elves cross the ravine. He had had a tense moment when it had seemed that Suretrail had looked straight into his eyes, but apparently the older elf had not seen him after all. Lonebriar had never intended to ambush them from here anyway, he would make too much noise coming down through the vines, and would lose all surprise. He was willing to be patient, to wait for just the right place before making his move.

He did not stir until the three elves on the ground below had disappeared from sight, and almost from hearing, and even then kept to the treetops as well as he could as he left his hiding place and moved to intercept them. He did not follow them directly, but paralled their line of travel. It wasn’t his trail they were following — those others had gone by some time before. And besides, it was Raindance he wanted.

He moved quickly, being as quiet as he could, away from the three below in an arc, and then back again, hoping to cross their path some distance ahead of them. But even as he chose his place he heard them turn aside. What for? He dropped down to the ground to look for the trail they had been following and couldn’t find it. He hadn’t followed that other trail far enough, and had missed a turning.

By now he could no longer hear the all but unnoticeable sounds of their passage. He feared that he had lost them and started off in pursuit. The forest floor was more open here, which gave him less cover, but it allowed him to be as quiet as he wanted to be.  When he saw a slight movement maybe fifty paces ahead, he took to the trees again, and ran along the higher branches — oaks here — hoping for a good place to make his move, and in his hurry almost revealed himself to the three elves. He stopped and ducked back behind the high trunk and listened.

There was no sound of movement below. He peeked around the trunk, barely wide enough this high up to conceal him, and saw the three, crouched in some tall weeds, barely visible from his vantage point. They must have heard him, since they were glancing almost directly at him. He very slowly moved back out of sight and waited, listening as hard as he could, until he heard the subtlest of rustles from below.

But if he let them get away from him again, he might not have another opportunity for a long time. He had to take a bold chance. Once again he moved on in a direction which he hoped would take him ahead of their line of travel, until he came to a single smooth snake vine dangling down. He looked at it for a moment, weighing the possibilities in his mind. Its lower loop ended only three elf-heights from the ground. Yes, this would serve him very well indeed. Especially since he was rather well concealed by the foliage of the branch on which he crouched. He gripped the vine and waited. It was a tricky move, and a risky one. If he didn’t make a count this time, he would have lost his only chance. And it seemed that his plan was going to be tested, for there they were, coming toward his tree, with Raindance still in the lead.

It was all he could do to wait until they passed — marvelous luck — directly beneath him. He gripped the vine with one hand, took his taal-stick from its sling with the other, then stepped off the branch and slid, a bit too fast perhaps, down the vine to land just two paces behind Sunset.

The three heard him as his feet hit the ground, and startled, started to turn, but he leaped, swung his taal, and struck Sunset a glancing blow on the head. Without a pause he spun and even as Surtrail turned to face him, struck him on the shoulder. Raindance was just beyond Suretrail, and Lonebriar leaped for her too, but she was already standing in a face-off crouch. He pulled up short.

“Where did you come from?” Suretrail exclaimed as he burst into laughter.

“Owl pellets,” Lonebriar said with a frustrated jerk of his taal-stick. “I could have gotten you two any time, it was Raindance I wanted to count.”

Raindance was laughing too as she straightened from her crouch, but Sunset was rubbing her head ruefully.

“A bit rough, there,” she said. “Were you in those wine-berry vines back there by the ravine?”

“Way up high,” Lonebriar said, “but that was just to spy you out.”

Suretrail was looking up at the snake vine from which Lonebriar had descended. “If you’d come down just a moment earlier,” he said, “you’d have gotten her.”

“I know,” Lonebriar said, “but I got greedy at the last minute. Sorry I hurt you, Sunset.”

“Not the worst I’ve been hurt today,” she said. “That was a real good move.”

“Who are you following?” Lonebriar asked his three friends.

“Hornbird and Puckernut, I think,” Raindance said, “and Grazer.”

“I havent’ seen them all morning,” Lonebriar said.

“I got Grazer once,” Suretrail said, “when he had to stop and send Smoke back to the holt. The poor wolf just didn’t understand that he couldn’t play with us today.”

“Can I join you?” Lonebriar asked.

“Sure,” Sunset said.

But Raindance shook her head. “I think I’d like to go off on my own for a while,” she said.

So she left them, and Lonebriar, Sunset, and Suretrail went on, skirting the far edge of the part of the forest they’d designated for counting taal.

#

Faun was not old enough to go out with the elders that day. She felt old enough, but she didn’t yet have her adult name. She was he oldest of the cubs, but still her parents, Grazer and Dreamsnake, had told her she had to stay near the holt. It was little comfort that her mother, too, had to stay behind to take care of the children. Her father was out there having fun, while Faun had to make do, playing with the younger cubs.

Of course, once she started the game she forgot about the elders. Right now she was sneaking through the fern brake, across the stream from the holt. Beyond the edge of the head-high ferns she saw Sundrop, just about to take refuge in the same place. Faun leaped out with a shout and tagged her, fair and square. Sundrop, surprised, burst into a scream of laughter. Faun laughed too.

Then the two stood back to back for a moment. Faun yelled “Now!” and they ran away from each other as hard as they could. Faun counted two eights of paces, then ducked behind a tree, hoping to get out of sight before Sundrop could turn around and start chasing her, but Clamshell, quite a bit younger than she, was already there and waiting for her. He tagged her with both hands, and laughed at her surprise.

He’s going going to be good when he gets a little older, Faun thought as they stood back to back. That was an important part of the game, as was racing away from each other a counted two eights of steps when the winner of the last tag gave the word.

This time Faun kept running until she got to the white rock, a large outcropping of massive stone, and ran around behind it, almost afraid she’d find somebody there waiting for her. But luck was with her, there was nobody there this time. She stopped a moment, looked quickly over her shoulder, then climbed up the rough, white face toward the rock’s flat top. She kept low, in case anybody was watching, and paused on top to catch her breath.

From up here she could see Greentwig, almost as old as she, come sneaking around the rock from the willow wood right next to it. This would be an easy tag, she thought, but before she could make a move, Sundrop dropped down from an overhanging branch and got him.

Poor Greentwig, Faun thought, he’s tagged nobody so far this morning. But he seemed to be having fun in spite of that.

Faun watched as Sundrop and Greentwig stood back to back and raced away from each other. Greentwig went right back into the willow wood, but Sundrop ran away from the white rock through clear forest, so Faun dropped down from her hiding place to chase after her. She ran so fast that she caught up with Sundrop before she finished her count of paces and tagged her as she ran past. But Sundrop must have heard her coming because she turned just then and tagged Faun in return. Both were surprised.

“I thought you were Greentwig,” Sundrop said, laughing.

“He’s in the willows,” Faun told her as they put their backs together.

But before they could race away from each other, Greentwig came screaming out from behind a tree and got them both.

“Good score!” Faun told him. She was very surprised, Greentwig was hardly ever clever enough to think of doing something like that.

“I heard you chase Sundrop,” he said. His smile was as broad as if he had actually accomplished something. “It’s my first tag, and a double, too.”

They all three put their backs together and, on Greentwig’s word, raced away in different directions. Faun ducked into a clump of berry bushes, where the foliage was so thick she couldn’t possibly be seen by anyone outside the bush. She crawled through the low, clear space near the stems, then felt someone tag her hard on the ankle.

She turned in utter surprise, nearly scratching her face on the low branches, and saw that it was Sprig, the youngest of the cubs.

“I was waiting here all the time,” Sprig said, laughing so hard he couldn’t crawl out of the bushes. They laughed together, then worked their way clear of the berry bushes and stood back to back. Sprig’s head barely came up to Faun’s shoulder blades. He gave the word and they raced away.

This time Faun kept running until she was far away from everybody else, then she circled around the outside of the area they’d marked as the territory of the game, until she heard a squeal coming from the hollow in the bend of the stream. She approached carefully and saw Clamshell and Greentwig just beginning their race.

She followed Clamshell as he left the hollow and turned past the triple stump, until Sundrop jumped out from behind the dead cypress and tagged him. But instead of running on up to them, Faun stopped short while she was still concealed by a tree trunk. Clamshell and Sundrop hadn’t seen her, so she waited until they stood back to back, and then raced in and tagged them both before Sundrop could give the word.

“That’s not fair,” Sundrop shouted, stamping her foot.

“Yes it is,” Clamshell said, while Faun danced laughing around them both, eager to be on with the game. Sundrop pouted for just for just a moment, then joined in their laughter. Then they put their backs together, Faun gave the word, and they raced off again.

#

Lonebriar, Sunset, and Suretrail were taking an easy time of it. They had counted taal several times in the short while they’d been a team, but each had been counted in turn more than once. Now they were on the far south side of the taal area, and seemed to have lost track of everybody. At least, they hadn’t seen another elf for long enough that they felt safe in letting down their guard. It gave them a chance to catch their breaths, but if they’d really wanted rest, they’d have stayed back at the holt, or gone fishing with Bluesky and Starflower. It was action they wanted, and so they were heading back north toward the center of the taal area. Their casual movement meant that they were vulnerable, but at the moment that was all right with them.

When they first heard the commotion, off to one side, they all had the same thought and went immediatly up into the low branches of the oak under which they were passing. Even as they hid themselves in the thick foliage they realized that it wasn’t elves they had heard, not the sound of somebody counting taal, more like an animal hunting. But the sounds, half whistle, half bark were not like those of any animal with which they were familiar, so with only a few quick glances to each other by way of communication, they went back down to the ground to investigate.

As they neared the noise they heard a wood pig squeal in pain, but somehow more agonized than if it were just being killed by a predator. They gave up caution and hurried on until they came to a small clearing, where they found two swordfeet, like giant birds but with green scales instead of feathers, and grasping claws instead of wings, attacking a very small wood pig. It was the calling of the swordfeet they had heard while in the tree. No wonder they hadn’t recognized the sound.

One swordfoot was a large adult, the other a nearly-grown juvenile. Swordfeet hardly ever came this far north and, in fact, only Suretrail had ever seen one before, when he and some others had gone ten days’ journey to the south long ago during a bad, dry summer of no rain and no game.

He was just as fascinated as Lonebriar and Sunset as they watched the two creatures leaping at the small animal. The great claws on their hind feet, which gave them their name, slashed at the poor animal over and over again. The wood pig was bleeding from several deep wounds, but still too quick to let the swordfeet get a killing blow. As he watched, Lonebriar felt a strange sensation in his mind, like a sending, but different.

The larger of the two swordfeet was taller than an elf, but had been crippled at some time and was not as agile as it should have been. The smaller one, nearly as tall as Lonebriar, was quicker but clumsy. Together they kicked out at the frantic, dancing wood pig, sometimes leaping over it for a better blow, working together to keep it from getting away, chattering at each other in their strange voices.

Eventually the wood pig tired, and the younger swordfoot got lucky. It lashed out with a powerful kick and it’s long talon caught the wood pig just under the shoulder. The blow tore through skin and ribs, ripping the animal open so that its insides fell out on the ground.

As if they were very hungry, the two intruders from the south immediately started tearing the wood pig apart, even before it was fully dead. The strange sensation Lonebriar was feeling became stronger. It was thin and sharp, almost a taste in the back of his throat. And while it was like a sending, it had no content, other than a feeling of great hunger at last being satisfied.

But in their fascination with the killing, and their excitement, the elves had gotten careless, and had let the wind get behind them. The swordfeet suddenly caught their scent and, jealous of their prey and chirping angrily, turned toward the elves and leaped to attack them.

The elves were taken by surprise, and discovered that they were a lot nearer the swordfeet than they had thought they were. The swordfeet made two great leaps toward them before the elves realized what was happening, and they had to scramble to get out of the way. Each elf jumped in a different direction, which fortunately confused the swordfeet for just a moment.

But it was only for just a moment. The swordfeet were incredibly fast and quick, and immediately turned their attention to Suretrail, who barely managed to get up into a tree before being ripped apart by the swordfeet’s huge talons. Lonebriar and Sunset, while they had the chance, decided to follow suit, and each climbed the tree nearest them.

The swordfeet, frustrated, dashed from one tree to another and back again, but soon gave up since the elves no longer presented a challenge to their prey. As they returned to eat up the wood pig, too small really for a decent meal, Lonebriar felt the sending sensation again, like an acrid taste in his mind, not very strong but very clear.

**Let’s get out of here,** Suretrail sent to his companions. The others agreed whole-heartedly.

They quickly worked their way higher up into the trees, and then away from the creatures at their meager meal. When they were far enough away to pose no further threat to the swordfeet, they returned to the ground and headed on toward the center of the taal area. Lonebriar felt the odd sending diminish, until at last it faded away altogether.

He started to tell the others about it, but Suretrail was talking very earnestly with Sunset about what to do about the swordfeet.

“We can’t just let them run around up here,” he was saying.

“But there are only two,” Sunset said, “and the older one looks like it won’t live very long.”

“That’s as may be,” Suretrail said, “but they’re both female, and the younger one looks like it’s carrying young. If she has her litter up here, we’ll have more trouble than we can handle.”

“A few swordfeet won’t be much competition,” Lonebriar said.

“That’s not the point,” Suretrail answered him. “The trouble is, swordfeet attack anything — deer, big cats, wolves, elves. I’ve seen healthy adults kill a gray bear. They’re fast, and strong.”

“These two don’t seem too impressive,” Sunset said.

“They are not a good example. Another problem is that wolves can’t smell them — or at least they don’t pay any more attention to swordfeet than they do to lizards and small birds. And swordfeet are smart, very smart. But they are different from other hunters, they don’t think the same way a wolf does, or a cat. No, we can’t let them stay up here in our hunting grounds. And if more swordfeet came north, we’d have to find a new place to live.”

“So should we go back,” Lonebriar asked, “and destroy them now?”

“Tomorrow will be soon enough,” Suretrail said, “but destroy them we must, and the sooner the better. But right now I want to find somebody to count.” He patted his taal-stick and grinned.

#

Raindance inched her way through a tangle of thornbushes, moving so quietly that a robber bird just four arm-lengths away didn’t notice her. She knew there was another elf nearby, maybe two, though she had seen or heard nothing so far. She was good at the game, had counted many times with her taal-stick, and had not been counted herself yet even once. Graywing had once said that she thought that maybe Raindance could sense other elves even when they weren’t sending to her, but Raindance didn’t agree with that. Maybe it was smell.

She paused to listen, heard the robber bird, now behind her, preen its deep blue feathers, heard something that sounded like maybe a fox, some way off, digging up a mouse burrow, heard a slight rustling up in a tree ahead of her, just a scratching. She looked up toward the sound, like tiny claws on bark, and saw a squirrel running along a branch. There was something about its movement —

She looked back along the way the squirrel had come, and heard a chattering there, where another squirrel was scolding at something concealed among the oak leaves. Nearby was the ball of leaves that was its nest, and further out on the limb were, yes, two elves — Freefoot and Shadowflash. Raindance let her breath out slowly and watched them for a moment, then backed away, just as quietly and carefully, until they were out of sight.

She circled around their tree, far and fast, until she was well ahead of them and, she judged, on their line of movement. Then she climbed a tree of her own. She went high up, as high as she could, then out on a limb which overhung a lower branch which, she hoped, would be the one Freefoot and Shadowflash would take when they went by. There was a free drop between her limb and that one. Now all she could do was become a part of the tree and wait.

After a few moments she heard the faintest of sounds approaching — bare elf feet on treebark. She did her best to become even more invisible, and even more silent than she was. And her guess, if that was what it was, had been correct. First Freefoot, then Shadowflash stepped out onto the branch below her.

When they were directly underneath her she dropped down to their branch. She landed just behind them, and struck them both, one right after the other, with her taal, even as they were reacting to the impact of her landing. Freefoot, in fact, was so startled that he nearly fell out of the tree.

“Easy,” Raindance said, laughing, as she helped him regain his balance.

“What did you do,” Shadowflash asked, “fly?”

“Just watched the squirrels,” Raindance said. “Who are you tracking?”

“Suretrail,” Shadowflash said, “and Lonebriar and Sunset, if we can judge by the marks.”

“At least,” Freefoot said, “we know Suretrail has two others with him.”

“I left them together a while ago,” Raindance said, “I suppose they could still be teamed up. Can I join you?”

“Sure,” the other two said together.

“There’s Suretrail’s mark, right there,” Freefoot went on, pointing to a tiny disturbance in the bark of the limb a few paces further on.

They followed the trail, which went down from the tree at last. Shadowflash, as the longest sighted, took the lead, while Raindance kept on the alert for anybody who might have been following them. Ater a while the trail began to get rather vague, and they all had to work hard to follow it. So intent were they on this task that they almost stumbled across a bear cub before they were aware of it.

“Not good,” Freefoot said. The mother bear had to be near by, and none of them wanted to deal with her if she thought they were a threat to her cub, so they backed away from the little animal, who was not at all afraid of them, and indeed seemed to want to play. But before they could get fully away, two strange green scaley creatures, as big as elves, jumped out, without warning, from behind a fallen tree behind them.

The larger of the two swordfeet misjudged its leap, and its huge talons missed Freefoot, but it hit him with its body and knocked him to the ground. Shadowflash was not so lucky. The smaller swordfoot caught him a glancing blow on his right side with one great claw, ripping through his jacket and the flesh beneath.

Raindance had little time to think, but she was nearer Freefoot. She leaped for a branch that nearly overhung her chieftain, then swung from it, aiming a two-footed kick at the swordfoot adult which was about to attack him again. She hit it on the shoulder and knocked it away even as it was jumping.

Shadowflash, meanwhile, had recovered enough to be able to jump on the juvenile, just above its kicking feet, and struck at it with his knife. But the swordfoot’s scales were tough, and his blows hardly scratched it.

The adult swordfoot had turned toward Raindance, who was still swinging from her branch, and raised one foot high to kick at her. The momentum of her swing just barely took her out of its way. Freefoot got unsteadily to his feet, drawing his knife as he did so, and stabbed at the swordfoot, aiming just under its foreleg. The blade bit through the softer skin and scales there, but did not penetrate the ribs. The swordfoot leaped away and turned to face him again.

Shadowflash was having trouble hanging on to the juvenile. It jumped and twisted and threw itself about, and at last threw Shadowflash to the ground. With almost the same motion, the creature turned on him.

Raindance, at the same time, was taking advantage of the adult’s momentary distraction to swing away to the ground, but she was so concerned for Shadowflash, who was stunned by his fall, that she fell clumsily herself, and that left the larger swordfoot free to pursue Freefoot, who now was trying frantically to get away from it. Raindance lurched upright, then froze — as did everyone else — at the roar of a large animal thrashing through the undergrowth nearby.

It was the mother bear, about which they had forgotten in the fight, which came crashing out of the brush toward them — and they were between her and her cub.

Freefoot was directly in the black bear’s path as it charged, upright on its hind legs, forepaws outstretched, more than twice as tall as an elf. He tried to duck out of its way, but the bear swung one paw and knocked him backward, through the air and against the trunk of a tree. The adult swordfoot continued its attack by leaping at the bear, and slashed at it with both talons. The bear was saved from serious injury only by virtue of its dense fur and thick summer fat.

Raindance had to choose and Shadowflash, this time, was nearer, so she jumped to his aid even as the smaller swordfoot turned away from him. But before she got to Shadowflash she saw the bear grab the larger swordfoot in a mighty hug, and couldn’t help but watch. It looked like the adult swordfoot would surely be killed, but the juvenile leaped high at the bear and struck her with both talons on the shoulder.

Shadowflash, without Raindance’s aid, got unsteadily to his feet, and staggered off, away from the battle. With just a glance at him over her shoulder, Raindance turned her attention to Freefoot, who was lying very still at the base of the tree against which he had been thrown. She circled around the battling bear and swordfeet to him. Even as she did so, the bear swung a forepaw at the juvenile swordfoot and knocked it away, and the adult, which had not been unscathed by the bear’s hug, attacked it again.

Raindance knelt beside Freefoot. He was unconscious. She grabbed him under the arms and dragged him away from the fight, in the same direction Shadowflash had gone. As she had to pull him backwards, she was able to see the two swordfeet suddenly run away from the bear. The bear followed only a pace or two, then stopped to search for her cub, which was running toward her and squealing with fright.

Freefoot began to mutter and toss his head as Raindance pulled him to his feet. She half carried him after Shadowflash, whom she found leaning against a small elm tree, as if unable to go any further. He straightened up when he saw her coming, and tried to help with Freefoot, but he was too badly injured himself and was barely able to follow her away from the bear. They did not go far, but stopped when they came to a big, sturdy tree with low branches. Raindance pulled Freefoot up first, then helped Shadowflash clamber up after. They got themselves to the next higher branch with some difficulty, where Raindance propped Freefoot up against the trunk.

After a moment to catch her breath and to make sure her two companions would not fall, Raindance looked to their wounds. Freefoot had several broken ribs, and was still dazed from hitting his head on the tree trunk. Shadowflash’s wound was not deep, but it was very long and he was bleeding badly and in shock. Raindance bound his wound as best she could, and tried to reassure him that the loss of his taal-stick was really not very important under the circumstances. She had lost her taal-stick too, though Freefoot still had his in his belt.

“We’ll have to find them,” Shadowflash insisted. His words were slurred, his shock was worse than she had thought.

“We will,” she reassured him, “but later.”

There was no hope for it. Freefoot and Shadowflash were too injured to move, and they needed healing right away. The only thing Raindance could do was to make sure they were secure, then hurry back to the holt for help and proper weapons.

#

Lonebriar, Sunset, and Suretrail were moving quickly through the taal area. They had seen or heard no other elf in quite some time, and were eager to find someone to pursue or elude. They went along through a stand of pines, which had carpeted the forest floor with a thick layer of needles, so that nothing else grew between the trunks of the trees.

Lonebriar felt something tickling the back of his mind, like the memory of a dream that comes back unbidden. It was another strange sending like before, over almost before he could start to pay attention. It was — had been — sharper than before, and yet very faint, as if it had come from a great distance. He tried to puzzle it out, but the only sense he could make of it was anger and pain. He started to mention it to the others, but before he could speak they came to an open glade.

They stopped at the edge and looked out at the sunlit place. There was no cover higher than an elf’s knee — all low ferns, flowers, thumb-bucket plants, and clumps of grass. It wasn’t a very large glade, maybe only a hundred paces across, but the verge surrounding it was dense — a good place for an ambush.

“Shall we go around?” Sunset asked. “If there’s anybody watching and we go across, we’ll draw them out.”

“That’s just what I was thinking,” Suretrail said, “and that’s why I think we should go out in the open and take our chances. It’s no fun tromping through the forest all by ourselves.”

“That’s true,” Sunset said thoughtfully. “And come to think of it, if we lay a good trail, whoever is following us will go through here too, and we’ll be safe on the other side in ambush.”

“Is there somebody following us?” Lonebriar asked.

“Where have you been?” Suretrail said. “Didn’t you hear that branch break back at the draw?”

“I’m sorry,” Lonebriar said, and started to go on to explain his distraction, but Suretrail and Sunset were already in the glade. He followed after.

They went across it quickly, keeping all eyes open in all directions at once but, almost with disapointment, they got to the other side without anybody jumping out at them. Once back in the forest they became more careful about the trail which, as a part of the taal, they had to leave for others to follow, and circled around just inside the verge of the forest, so that they could keep a watch on the open glade in case their pursuer was closer than Sunset thought. When they had gone about half way back to where they had entered the glade, they paused to rest a moment and enjoy a little sit-down. Lonebriar was just about to mention the strange sending sensations when Stride appeared, at the side of the glade, right at the spot from which they had entered.

She looked out across the glade, even as they had done, and for a moment seemed to hesitate. Then her gaze went to the ground, and a moment later she started forward, with many glances from side to side, but obviously following their carefully laid trail.

The three elves in ambush did not speak nor send — sending would have been unfair — but a few quick glances from one to another, a few gestures, and their plan was set.

Suretrail, as quietly as he could, started to circle back through the woods toward the point where they had left the glade, going well in from the edge. Sunset, in the meantime, went on around the other way, and when Stride was nearly to the forest verge, came out of the forest behind her, boldly but silently, and nearly caught up with her, just as she was about to enter the forest. Suretrail must have made some slight noise just then, because Stride, who had been about to turn around, hesitated a moment, and stared intently into the forest ahead of her, and did not see Sunset, who was in plain view behind her, but now frozen absolutely still. That was Lonebriar’s cue. He went in the direction Suretrail had taken, but just at the edge of the glade, and so was able to see all that happened.

Stride waited by the verge just a moment longer, but the sound she had heard was not repeated. She felt nervous being out in the open like this, and hurriedly made her way in past the thick growth to the forest proper. She felt immense relief at being back in cover, and was about to turn around to see if anyone were following, and surely would have seen Sunset had not Suretrail, just at that moment, jumped out from behind a tree and touched her lightly with his taal-stick.

“Rats and mice!” Stride exclaimed, jumping involuntarily into the air. “Were you there all along?”

“More or less,” Suretrail said, grinning.

“But I heard you —”

“I threw a nut,” he said. And just then Sunset raced up from behind, leaped through the verge, and struck Sunset with her taal.

“Puckernuts!” Stride exclaimed. She had seen Sunset at the last minute, but hadn’t been able to drop into the face-off stance that would have invalidated the count. “Where did you come from?”

“Right out there in the open,” Sunset said, laughing.

Stride was so perturbed she didn’t even notice Lonebriar who, by this time, had come up behind her and was standing next to Suretrail. “That was a pretty clever move,” she said to Sunset. And then Lonebriar touched her with his taal, and she jumped into the air again.

“Oh, come on!” Stride cried when she saw who it was. “Not you, too.” But she couldn’t help laughing herself now.

“Me, too,” Lonebriar said, or tried to say through his own laughter. “What a blow! count three in a row.”

It was the best taal count any of them had ever been involved in that day, and they all enjoyed it immensely, even Stride. But they were having such a good time that they didn’t notice, until it was too late, Moonblossom droping down out of the tree right over their heads. She hit both Lonebriar and Suretrail with her taal, but Sunset and Stride were a bit further away, and though very badly surprised, managed to face Moonblossom off. But just barely, they were laughing so hard.

“Were you in on this too?” Stride asked her.

“No,” Moonblossom said, “I was up in that tree the whole time.”

“Why didn’t you get the three of us,” Sunset asked, “when we came through just a few moments ago?”

“You were being too careful,” Moonblossom said, “and I was afraid to take the chance.”

“You couldn’t have picked a better time,” Lonebriar said. “Too bad you couldn’t have gotten us all, I don’t think anybody’s done that before.”

“Raindance has,” Moonblossom said, “the last time we counted taal, four summers ago.”

“Well,” Suretrail said, “we found the action we were looking for, and a bit more besides. Let’s change partners.”

“I could use some help,” Stride said. “Why don’t you and I go together for a while?”

“That’s fine with me,” Suretrail agreed.

“Then let’s us three make a team,” Moonblossom suggested.

“I think I’d like to go alone for a while,” Lonebriar said, “if that’s all right with you two.”

“It’s okay with me,” Sunset said. So they split up and went their separate ways.

#

Faun was getting tired of playing tag. She was, she felt, getting to old for that kind of thing. After all, she would be taking her adult name in not too many more summers, and elders didn’t spend their time playing tag. She told Clamshell she was quitting, and went to find her mother.

Dreamsnake was busy in the treeless area between the stream the clay cliff which gave Halfhill its name, and in which the elves had dug their dens. She was making pants for Sprig, and having trouble with her needles. They kept on breaking. They were all old, but there was no antler left to make new ones, and there would not be more until the fall. That meant she had to be especially careful in boring holes in the pants leather, and would have to stitch each seam twice, since the only needles she had left were small ones.

Faun came up to where she was sitting cross-legged, and waited while she finished a thread of jumper gut. “I want to go out to the taal area,” she said.

“Just a minute, cubling.” Dreamsnake straightened out a new piece of jumper gut by running it several times between her fingers. It was fine enough for the needle she was using, but the needle had already begun to show a crack near the eye and she wanted to be careful with it, to make it last as long as she could.

Faun waited a moment as her mother threaded the needle. The sound of the other cubs’ laughter, coming from across the stream, made her want more than ever to be grown up. “Can I go?” she asked. “I’ll be careful.”

“Go where?” Dreamsnake asked as she picked up the half-sewn pants.

“Out to count taal.”

“Oh, goodness no.” She smiled up at her daughter. “You’re not nearly old enough for that. Now let me finish this so Sprig won’t have to go around naked.”

Faun wanted to argue the point further, but her mother was obviously so concerned for her sewing that she knew that to interrupt her further would only make her angry, so she wandered off, looking for Graywing or Glade, the only two other elders left at the holt, hoping that maybe one of them would give her permission to go.

She went upstream — which just happened to be in the direction of the taal area — but before she went very far she heard adult voices. There, just beyond the edge of the holt, were both Graywing and Glade, talking with Raindance. Grizzle, Raindance’s wolf, was with her, and that made Faun wonder, because she knew Raindance was counting taal and that wolves weren’t supposed to be a part of the game.

“Hello,” she called as she ran up to them.

“What is it, Faun?” Graywing asked. Her face was troubled, and for a moment Faun thought she had done something wrong.

“I want to go out and count taal with Raindance,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Graywing said. “You’re too young for that.”

“I’m nearly full grown!”

“And besides,” Graywing went on, “there’s been some trouble, Freefoot and Shadowflash are hurt. You’ll have to stay here.”

“I can help,” Faun tried to say, but Bentfang came bounding up to them just then, and Graywing turned away to nuzzle her wolf.

“Go tell Dreamsnake,” Raindance said to Faun, “that Graywing and Glade are going with me.”

Faun turned to Glade. He had often let her do things when the other elders wouldn’t. “Please, Glade,” she begged, “can I go with you?”

“Not this time,” Glade said, and she knew by the sound of his voice that he meant it. He started to say something more, but Streak was loping easily toward them, and he turned his attention to his wolf.

Faun couldn’t understand their preoccupation. Raindance was saying something about litters, though it was not the time of year for wolf cubs, and what they could possibly have to do with anything was beyond Faun’s comprehension.

“Are we ready, then?” Graywing asked.

“We’d better get going,” Glade said. He turned to Faun. “Let your mother know where we are,” he said, “and we may want you, too, when we get back.”

“At least now we know,” Graywing said to Raindance, “why Lightpaws left so suddenly a little while ago.” Lightpaws was Freefoot’s wolf.

But Faun wasn’t paying any more attention to what the elders were really saying than they were to her. She wanted so badly to go out and prove herself grown up that she could think of nothing else, not aware that her behavior was proving her to be the child she thought she wasn’t.

So, being childlishly selfish and feeling put off, she left the adults to their adult business and wandered back toward the bank. As soon as she could see Dreamsnake, bent over her work, she stopped, and looked back just in time to see Graywing, Glade, and Raindance, all fully armed, go into the forest with their wolves.

She looked back at her mother. Dreamsnake was very busy, and not watching her. She was supposed to give her mother a message, but the opportunity was too good to miss. She would surprise her elders, and show them how good a tracker she was. As quietly as she could, she ran after them.

She hadn’t gone very far into the woods before Bouncer came bouncing up to her. Bouncer was her first wolf, and getting rather old. She stopped to greet him with a nuzzle and a wrestle.

“You can’t go with me,” she told him. “I’m going off to count taal, and wolves can’t play.”

He sat up and looked at her, his head cocked to one side, almost as if he understood.

“Now you stay here,” she told him, “and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.” Then she ran off after Graywing, Raindance, and Glade. She knew approximately where the taal area was, since the elves who had gone off to play had planned its boundaries that morning before they left, but she wanted to practice her tracking skills by following the three elders. She easily found their trail, and then proceeded with more caution since, she knew, if she were caught, they would send her back home in disgrace.

#