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Author Notes:

The reviews on this one ran something like fifteen to one that I should continue it, at least a little ways. So here goes. Enjoy!

Moonfur and Smokepaw, of the fourth den-cave behind the sharp-smelling bush among the home trees of the Stonehouse Pack, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, by the standards of the People sometimes called "wise wolves" by the twolegged ones. They spent their days sleeping in their den-cave, and their nights teaching their cubs how to hunt prey and fight invaders and sing to the moon of their father's name, and their lives ran in an untroubled stream from season to season.

Admittedly, Moonfur's story was an unusual one. Instead of being born among the home trees, or born of the changing ones and released there when he was old enough to fend for himself, he had himself been a changer, who had chosen of his own free will to become one of the People of the Pack. His arrival at the Stonehouse den-caves carrying the boy-cub called Grasseye in his jaws, to humbly beg acceptance into the Pack for both of them, had been the sensation of the late autumn and early winter of that year.

The elders of the Pack consulted, and decided that father and son should be allowed to live among them a season on sufferance. Very few of the changers ever chose Moonfur's path, they explained, and to do so for not only oneself but the cub of another left to one's guardianship (for no one with a nose could fail to catch the differences in their two scents) could mean that he might be pursued. Moonfur acknowledged this truth and accepted their judgment, preparing to wait out his time patiently at the edges of the Pack's territory.

But a she-Person called Smokepaw, so named for the fleetness of foot which allowed her to outrace a centaur in full gallop if she chose, cared little for custom, and sought the strangers almost before Moonfur had chosen a den for himself and his black-furred cub. She would share her hunting grounds with them, she told him, if he would satisfy her curiosity about the world from which he had come. Moonfur agreed gladly, and together they hunted for themselves and for little Grasseye through the cold of the winter, and told tales of the lives they had lived as they curled together around the cub in Moonfur's shallow cave.

The outcome of the bargain surprised no one; on the Night of Balance, when winter turned to spring, the Stonehouse Pack raised their voices not only to sing the names of their newest members but to cry their joy at a new pairing. And on a night of the following year when spring came close to summer, Smokepaw allowed Grasseye to climb onto her back for a better view as Moonfur gently laid a tiny, squirming girl-cub before the full Pack for them to see. Their howl of approval so startled the cub that the fur of her tail made itself into the shape of an ash tree's leaf, narrow at each end and full in the middle, and thus, amid merriment, was she named Ashtail.

So matters stood, and so, for all that most of the People cared, could they have stood forever. But the elders knew that they were not called the Stonehouse Pack for nothing, and that the incomprehensible doings of the twolegs at the great stone house beyond the home trees, and elsewhere in the land, could easily affect what became of the Pack. And so they took council of Moonfur and Smokepaw, of certain centaurs whom they had reason to trust, and even of those known to the Pack as Redmount and Bees-hum, though the exact identities of these last two were a closely guarded secret.

The first effect of these councils on the life of the small he-Person called Grasseye, who knew vaguely that he had once had another name and shape but did not see why he should care, came in the form of a most unpleasant shock.

The young wise wolf stared at his mother, green eyes wide, black fur fluffed, ears and tail lowered. The combination of his posture and the incredulous whimper which burst from him would have translated perfectly to a boy's horrified cry of, {But Mum!}

{That will be enough out of you,} said Smokepaw, cuffing her son on the side of the head with one gray paw and bowling him over into the underbrush. {The elders say you will go and learn from the centaurs, therefore, you will go and learn from the centaurs. They know many things we do not.}

{But the centaurs are boring.} Grasseye picked himself up and shook, showering fragments of leaf and twig across the clearing outside the Stonehouse den-caves. {They go on and on and on about things that are so far away you can barely even see them—}

{You see them less well than most, little one.} His mother padded over and delicately nipped a burr out of the fur behind his ear with her teeth. {Perhaps the centaurs can help you with that, so that you can learn to hunt by sight as well as by sound and scent.}

Grasseye growled once for form, but a tentative stirring of interest had begun in the back of his mind. He knew he didn't see as well as any of the Pack's other cubs, like Bramblebud from the next cave over or Gravelbark from two caves the other way. Even some of the elders, whose eyes had been dimmed by time, could see more clearly than he could. His ears and nose were keen enough that he was keeping up with his hunting lessons so far, but it would be nice not to have to rely solely on those senses…

{If not the centaurs, then the twolegs,} Smokepaw added as though it were an airy nothing, wagging amusement at her son when Grasseye spun about to stare in renewed horror. {Yes, you understood me. Either you agree to learn from the centaurs, or we will find a way to communicate to the twolegs that you require teaching.}

{But…} Grasseye sank down to his belly, ears lowered in submission. {Yes, Mum.}

{Good boy.} Smokepaw lay down beside her son, curling herself so that he could lay his head on her paws and look up at her. {Are the sleep-seeings still with you?} she asked, gazing down at him with warm brown eyes. {About the ending of your own time as a twoleg?}

{Yes.} With an impatient growl, Grasseye began to squirm on the dusty ground, trying to scratch an itch on his back. {Why did I ever have to be a twoleg at all?} he asked when he was finished and had rolled onto his belly once more. {They look silly, and they act silly, and I don't like them.}

{You are not required to like the twolegs, nor are you required to be one of them any longer.} The angle of Smokepaw's ears altered, changing her tone from loving reproof to something a bit icier. {You are required to be a good Person. And that means learning what your parents and the elders of your Pack tell you that you will learn. In your case, whatever the centaurs see fit to teach you, and the other cubs who will go with you. Is that quite understood, little one?}

Grasseye considered arguing the point one more time. His mother's soft growl decided him against it. {Yes, Mum,} he said again, lowering his chin to the dust.

{Very good.} Smokepaw's tail thumped against the ground. {And remember that your father knows many of the arts the centaurs will teach you, and has taught them to me. They are useful, even if you do not immediately see how, and you will not allow your attention to wander away from your lessons like a rabbit in a field.}

{No, Mum.}

{And once the centaurs have taught you how to catch moonbeams, bring me three,} Smokepaw added, dropping her jaw in a grin. {I want to bathe in them and make my fur shine bright like your father's,}

{Yes, M—what?} Grasseye blinked, then whined in protest as his mother rolled over, panting laughter at him. {Mum! That's just silly! Nobody can catch moonbeams!}

{How do you know, little one?} Smokepaw was on her feet in a rush of movement, arching her back and tail, then shaking the dust from her coat in a blur of motion. {The twolegs with their magic can do a great many things. Why not that?}

{I…don't know,} Grasseye admitted. {Why not?}

{That, my love, is what you are going to the centaurs to learn.} Smokepaw flicked a last bit of dust off her forepaw. {But you must not go to them hungry or tired. So let us find your father and see if he has had hunt's luck—which I doubt, with your sister to look after, but one never knows—and help him if he has not, and then we shall have a story, so that we sleep deeply and well…}

At that very moment, elsewhere in the home trees, the Person now called Moonfur was contemplating with a certain sense of irony the stag he had just brought down. Its leg had been broken by a fall, destroying its ability to run, and his swift pounce and sharp teeth had likely come as a welcome end to misery.

Still, try as he might, he could never quite forget what this shape had once meant to him.

{Daddy did it, Daddy did it, Daddy did it!} chorused his daughter Ashtail, bounding in gleeful circles around the body of the stag. {Daddy did it and now we have meat, wonderful meat, tasty meat—} She broke off with a squeak as Moonfur deftly tripped her with a paw, then placed it in the center of her chest, holding her still.

{Settle down,} he told her, showing his teeth for a moment to emphasize his meaning. {Your mother and brother will be here soon, and then we will have meat. And when we are finished eating, we will call the rest of our Pack to eat their fill, and we will go back to the den-cave and sleep.}

{Yes, Daddy.} Ashtail lowered her ears obediently, and Moonfur released her. She jumped up and shook herself all over, sniffing at her gray fur and licking it back into place where it was disarrayed, then sat down in front of him, ears upright, tongue lolling. {Will we have a story before we sleep?} she asked. {Please, please, please, a story?}

{What kind of story?} Moonfur asked, keeping an eye on the bushes behind his little girl. He'd caught a whiff of a very particular scent not too long ago, and while giving up kills to the People's traditional enemies rankled, he wasn't capable of fighting even one of the manylegs by himself. If it came down to his child or his meat, he would take Ashtail and run. The trees were full of prey, and someone else had surely had hunt's luck tonight.

{A story about you.} The feature for which Ashtail was named fanned the ground behind her, raising a small whirlwind of dust. {About you and your friends, when you were a twoleg and a changer and lived in the great stone house with all the other twolegs.}

{You do love those stories.} Moonfur let his tongue loll, chuckling at his daughter's fascination with a life she herself would never know at the same time as he took a sample of the scents on the air. The manyleg scent was still there, but it was fading. It didn't seem he'd be required to snatch his cub and run away from danger tonight.

{They're fun.} Ashtail rolled over, snapping and mock-growling at a leaf which had fluttered into her view. {I like to hear the stories and pretend I am a twoleg, and I go to school, and I work magic.} Some of the concepts of the folk from whom Moonfur had originally sprung could be difficult to convey in the mainly gestural language of the People, but the family had worked out their own understanding of such things. {Will I ever be a twoleg, Daddy?} she asked suddenly, curling her head around to look at him with big, wondering brown eyes. {When I grow up, or if somebody works magic on me, could I be one?}

Moonfur stifled his immediate, emphatic negative. He'd made his choice deliberately, leaving behind the twoleg world and everything in it, but forbidding it to his daughter would only lure her to it more strongly in the end. {I don't think so,} he said after a moment of thought. {There isn't supposed to be any way for that to happen. But maybe your brother can tell you more, once he's learned from the centaurs for a while. That's a kind of school, you know. And centaurs have their own magic. It's different from the twolegs' kind, but who knows?} He bent his head to lick Ashtail's muzzle. {Maybe that means the answer you want is there.}

{Yay!} Ashtail leaped up to race in dizzy circles. {I could maybe be a twoleg someday! Maybe, maybe, maybe—} She stopped, looking puzzled. {What's 'maybe' mean, Daddy?}

A twig snapped at the edge of the clearing, bringing both People's heads around. {Maybe,} said Smokepaw, stepping out of the brush, {means the answer is hidden from us. It means we have to wait and find out more later.} She nuzzled behind her mate's ear, both greeting and appreciation for the fine kill he had made to feed their Pack. {But there is no maybe about this. Dinnertime, cubs.}

{Dinner!} chorused Grasseye and Ashtail, sitting up to raise their noses to the moon and howl their joy. Moonfur and Smokepaw joined in, adding harmonies that would send their enemies running and bring their friends to feast.

There was meat, and there was Pack, and soon there would be the den-cave and a story.

All the maybes in the world could wait for tomorrow.

{Daddy?} said Ashtail drowsily, later, as the family curled together, preparing for sleep. {What happened to your twoleg friends? What happened to the fast-runner who didn't see well, like Grasseye doesn't, and his mate who was so strong to fight against the bad twoleg?}

Grasseye snapped his jaws at his sister. She evaded it easily and continued. {And the laughing one, and the one who was always frightened. What happened to them, Daddy?}

Moonfur sighed a little. {They died,} he said, as he had many times before. {All of them died. I was the only one left.}

{And that's why you took Grasseye and came to the People, and met Mummy.} Ashtail nestled her nose into her mother's fur, and received a loving lick between the ears in return. {I'm glad you did that, Daddy.}

{So am I, little one.} Moonfur rested his head on his paws. {So am I.}

Not far away, a man sat atop the tallest tower of the castle and watched the sun rise, alone.

He had been alone for the last four years.

Of the four dear friends he had once known, three were dead: two, a married couple, at the hands of the very person he'd have given his life to protect them from, and the third at his own hand when he'd realized that one was a traitor. His last true friend, and the child of the couple, were in hiding, and no one would tell him where.

Happy damn birthday to me.

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Author Notes:

The chapters will probably be short, right about this length, and I may or may not be introducing certain other plotlines and casts of characters. We shall see.

I should probably point out that there's another story in my repertoire that I began on a whim, which had short chapters and something of an offbeat premise. It's called Be Careful. While I don't think this story will go to 111 chapters, one never knows…

Thank you very much for your kind reception, and don't forget to review, please!

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