"Good shot!" Skywise said, his words barely audible over the din of hoof beats, thundering past their hiding place.
Strongbow didn't answer, instead nocking a new arrow. He let it fly as a new rider rushed past their hiding place. It easily felled the no-hump, hitting it right in the eye.
**Yes, wonderful. You have successfully given away our location.**
Strongbow gritted his teeth and willed his mind to stay as blank as possible. All there could be was the fight. He had not time for anger or irritation...or fear. That would come later.
"If you wish to mock us, you should best us first," Skywise said, fixing Rayek with a look that was somewhere between mocking and an outright glare. "You're just sitting there."
**Unlike you, I am thinking of a plan to get us out of here alive,** Rayek sent, eyes narrow and mind-touch cold.
"And you think I'm not?"
Strongbow did his best to ignore them. The worst part was that damn pup was right; the five-fingers would stop panicking soon and then their hiding place would be obvious. One of them had already stopped and dismounted, staring at the cliff face where the three of them had found a small cave. Strongbow could hear his own heartbeat over all the noise the five-fingers were making, like a drum. Drums and humans were a combination that did nothing to steady his hands.
His next arrow missed. Rayek and Skywise were still bickering like wolves battling for rank. Strongbow fought the urge to hit something.
**My lifemate and cub are down there!** he sent instead, startling the other two into silence. **If you want to fight, fight the humans.**
**They're safe in the troll tunnels,** Skywise sent after a moment of hesitation. His mind-touch felt like it meant to be reassuring.
Strongbow bit back a growl. 'Safe' and 'trolls' were not two concepts any sane Wolfrider should say with the same breath.
**And the pests down there aren't far from the entrance now,** Rayek sent. Images of Ekuar bled through, most likely unbidden. **We need to lure them away.**
"Ah yes, what a masterful plan," Skywise said. "Have you thought of step two yet?"
This earned him a glare from Rayek, but little else. **I'm rested. I can fly us deeper into the woods. With me shielding us, I could stay low enough for them to follow without injury, but with their weak eyes they wouldn't be able to see us should we choose to disappear.**
"If you hadn't noticed, your shield glows."
**Humans can't see the glow.**
"Have you asked any humans?"
**Yes.** Shuna's image darted across the surface of Rayek's mind-touch, leaving Skywise quiet.
On the ground below, the five-fingers were calming their no-humps. Strongbow turned his back to the discussion and focused on them, trying to find the one who'd dismounted first. He was less than pleased to find him at the bottom of the cliff face, a barking hound by his side.
**We'd better move quickly,** Strongbow sent, eyes fixed on the five-fingers' pack leader. **We won't be hidden much longer.** The sending was accompanied by images of what he was seeing.
Skywise and Rayek moved closer to the cave's entrance, joining Strongbow in looking down. The five-fingers were nocking arrows on their own bows. They didn't have many of them, but one arrow was more than none.
Strongbow gave Rayek a look, doing his best not to show how his stomach was sinking. **No arguing. Fly.** He hated flying.
Rayek gave a nod and in the next moment there was an arm wrapped around Strongbow's waist. Everything that was wolf in Strongbow howled in protest as they left the safety of ground. He bit his lip to keep quiet. Skywise, the fool, looked to be enjoying himself, if only slightly. Rayek looked like someone pushing at a rock thrice his size.
Strongbow did his best to not think of that, or the ground that was far too far below them. He still had his bow and his quiver. He focused on balancing them right, not spilling any arrows. It was easier said than done.
Below, the humans were rushing to their horses, their leader first among them.
It felt like an eternity before they landed.
"I have a plan," was the first thing Skywise said once their feet touched the branches of a tree.
Rayek, who'd doubled over the moment he'd let go of them, panting like he'd just outrun a hungry bear, gave Skywise a look that was part confusion and part suspicion. Strongbow was too busy thanking the High Ones for the familiarity of standing in the crown of a tree to do much of anything.
"I'll be right back."
He was there one moment and gone the next, jumping back the way they'd come, though through the leave-free tree tops instead of the sky. Rayek and Strongbow were left blinking in disbelief.
**That impulsive, no good-**
**I'll fly after him,** Rayek sent, exhaustion coloring his words.
**You stay where you are,** Strongbow bit back. **If all of us get separated, we'll help no one. He'll send if he needs help.**
Rayek looked like he wanted to protest. His breathing hadn't evened out yet though, which Strongbow was sure to point out via another sending. They remained in the tree, as silent as possible, listening to the approaching hoof beats that weren't nearly far enough away.
In the middle of the White-Cold, a tree was no hiding place at all.
The smell of five-finger was growing worse. Strongbow's grip on his bow was so firm his knuckles turned white. He nearly shot Skywise when the damn elf returned, carrying three large pieces of cloth that stank of five-finger.
"Told you I had a plan," Skywise simply said as Strongbow growled at him. "Put this on."
He threw one of the cloths – which turned out to be large cloaks – to Rayek, who merely looked at it. Strongbow wrapped his around himself when he got it, with a look of disgust on his face. It was flecked with five-finger blood, much like the other two cloaks, by the smell of them.
**They won't be able to scent us,** Strongbow sent. He gave Skywise a small nod. **Good thinking. Reckless to go back for them, but good thinking.**
**No risk, no gain,** Skywise sent back, his mind-touch having a tremor that spoke of adrenaline and a heady mixture of fear and excitement. **The next bit is trickier. We'll need to jump around a bit. They've split their pack in three, leaving a small guard by the troll tunnel. If you follow my lead-**
**Follow you blindly?** Rayek sent, with an undercurrent of 'I remember how you were during the Battle for the Palace' and 'We two fought a war not long ago, you've been here'.
**Because I've been here,** Skywise said, unfazed. **I've tricked this hunter before. And I know just what will stop him in his tracks. Just follow. My. Lead.**
The stare-down was brief. Rayek crossed his arms over his chest and rolled his eyes, before pulling his cloak on. His next sending had no words, only a mixture of doubt and exasperation.
**Keep to the trees and move in a circle. Don't get too close to each other and just say whatever I ask you to.**
Strongbow remained in their landing-tree while the other two took off. Rayek's flight looked unsteady, but there was nothing to be done about that. The stubborn son-of-a-troll would most likely deny it until he passed out, so there was no point in calling attention to it.
The five-fingers had left their no-humps somewhere not far behind, no doubt due to the state of the ground. It would have been a perfect place for hunting deer; branches, rocks and plants buried under snow laid out as natural traps.
The five-finger with the hound was at the head of the group, eyes sweeping the trees as if the lack of sunlight bothered him not at all.
Skywise was the first to speak: [Are you the leader?]
A rustle of frightened whispers erupted from the five-fingers. All of them turned to stare in the direction of the tree Strongbow knew Skywise to be hiding in.
[Steady,] the five-finger with the hound said, addressing his followers. [They can mimic sounds well. Don't let yourselves be fooled.]
[And why should we be fooling you?] Strongbow grimaced. He'd never been good at using words and having to say ones he barely understood made them sound anything but impressive. Still, the five-fingers – even their leader – whirled around to face the direction of his tree. [Who am I mimicking? You have not spoken my words.]
[Nor mine.] Rayek's voice was steadier, every bit as prideful as when he spoke his true tongue. Strongbow couldn't help but smile in amusement.
The five-fingers' leader looked to his hound. The animal was sniffing the air like a pup on its first hunt, whining in confusion. [If you are boys playing pranks, go home!] the five-finger said, his expression dark as a storm cloud. [I can not guarantee your safety here.]
[Humans or demons,] Skywise said. [That's a riddle you'll have to answer on your own.]
And on and on the game went. Skywise would speak first, then Strongbow and lastly Rayek, while they all ran circles around the humans. Finally, Rayek sent: **I'll lure them towards the lake. Go back to the troll tunnel, I'll catch up with you.**
Skywise felt like he would argue. Strongbow merely acknowledged and sent for Skywise to hurry.
There were only four five-fingers guarding the tunnel entrance. Strongbow downed them all with little effort. The last fell just as Rayek – sans cloak – flew into their line of sight. He was followed by a small rain of arrows.
**Cutter, it's done, the guards are dead!** Skywise sent as they huddled together by the entrance. **Tell the trolls to let us in before the humans turn us into needle-mice!**
Rayek's shield wavered as an arrow struck it. Strongbow had an arrow nocked and ready, aimed at the closest five-finger. He held his breath.
The door behind them opened, tripping all of them backwards into the arms of smiling tribe mates. It then slammed shut with a loud bang.
Their return was a loud and happy one (extra loud as one of the trolls decided to destroy the uncovered entrance in a quite dramatic fashion). Rayek was quick to disappear into one of the side tunnels, Eukar at his side, without as much as a nod to anyone else. Strongbow ignored that and let Skywise take to the center of the gathered elves, giving him the task of retelling their short adventure.
Once the tale was done – with some exaggerations of course – Cutter was the first to speak:
"You spoke to him?"
"What was I supposed to do?" Skywise said with a laugh, setting off a torrent of questions from all around him.
Strongbow sat down, one arm around Moonshade, happy to leave questions and arguments to others until a decision was to be made. He had his lifemate and his cub. They were safe, if only for a little while.