Genevieve wasn’t sure what to expect when she crossed into the territory of the clan of Pad. She smelled their markers at the border, just like her clan had marked their borders, hundreds of miles behind her, just like the two clans whose territory she crossed in her ten days of travel. She’d eaten from her pack rather than the land and bedded in uncomfortable places, and so had been able to travel unchallenged.
Now, though, she wanted to catch someone’s attention. This was her destination, and they were expecting her. Theoretically.
Genevieve sniffed the air, but caught no reason scent of bear. She did smell water, though. After a moment’s thorough sniffing, she followed that. Where there was water, there would be bears eventually. Maybe fish, too, although Genevieve would wait for that until she was invited.
She ambled over a ridge into a stand of trees. Every so often she spotted a huckleberry plant. They'd be a taste of home in a few months' time. There were deer, here, too, and Genevieve thought about wintertime and scavenging among the frozen remains of yearlings and old timers, succumbed to starvation.
Okay, so maybe Genevieve was just hungry. Dried provisions left a person wanting after a while.
She’d followed the river two more days when the wind shifted and she caught another scent: bear. Definitely a sow bear, two-legged. Genevieve briefly considered taking off her own skin, and rejected it; she’d be less threatening that way, but she’d also have to carry her skin.
Anyway, no reason to worry; they were expecting her.
It was only as she repeated the thought to herself that she let herself realize for a moment just how nervous she was. She’d met another bear now and again, wanderers traveling through the territory of the clan of Cor, old friends of her parents and even a relation now and again, but she’d always had the adults to nestle against when she was nervous. Also, she hadn’t been expecting to mate with any of those bears.
Genevieve pushed all the thoughts aside. She was boar and daughter of the clan of Cor, and she would not be afraid. Taking a heaving breath, she called across the valley, a respectful, wordless greeting. Then she continued downwards.
By the time she’d crossed the river, the bear she’d smelled on the other side had been joined by another one, a huge boar in four-legged form. When Genevieve was within speaking distance, she said, I am Genevieve from the clan of Cor. I’m looking for the clan of Pad.
The two-legged bear, a blond girl sow no older than Genevieve, nodded solemnly. “I’m Alona, from the clan of Pad. Welcome.” The moment of formality held for barely a second, and then, grinning, Alona slapped the boar on the side of the head. “I told you. Nothing to worry about.” Turning back to Genevieve, she added, “Most of the family is fishing on the other fork of the river, but you can come back to the den and leave your things, if you like. You’ve got great timing. The whole clan’s meeting up for dinner tonight.”
Thank you, Genevieve said. Alona seemed friendly enough, but Genevieve’s etiquette lessons had been hard won, and she wasn’t letting them go now. She’d greet the whole clan formally before she decided whether she could relax.
Alona, meanwhile, had crawled onto the boar’s back and was gripping him with all she had, feet and knees and hands. In a moment, they were moving, and Genevieve followed.
The den was a family of caverns set back into a ridge an hour’s walk from the river. Several of the smallest of the caverns were laid thick with skins: deer and a mountain lion or two and, of course, bear.
“You can change, if you want,” Alona said, gesturing towards the skins. The boar, whom she’d referred to as Jeff, had left again to do whatever it was Jeff did.
Take my pack? Genevieve said. Alona helped her shrug out of it, and then Genevieve peeled the bearskin off and rolled it up. She turned to find Alona grinning at her, and she felt suddenly shy. She began digging in her pack for the one tunic and pair of pants she’d brought.
Apropos of nothing, as far as Genevieve could see, Alona said, “Jared’s going to love you.”
Maybe etiquette wasn’t so important to this clan as it was to Genevieve’s. If she’d said anything like that to a visitor, much less a new mate, her father would have swatted her halfway to the river. She kept her head bowed to hide her blush, and because she was afraid if she looked up, she’d beg Alona for everything she could tell her about Jared.
“Damn,” Alona said. Genevieve looked up and was startled to see Alona looking vaguely uncomfortable. “This is why I shouldn’t be the welcoming party. Now you’re embarrassed, right? I’m sorry.”
“No,” Genevieve lied.
“You are too,” Alona said, sitting down next to Genevieve’s pack. “Seriously, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
And, yeah, Genevieve was pretty sure Alona hadn’t. She looked so repentant. “It’s okay.”
“But I can make it up to you!” Alona said. “You want to know about Jared, right?”
Genevieve couldn’t find the words to answer, because this was what she’d come for, right? She swallowed. “Jared’s a he, right?” she ventured.
Alona blinked. “Definitely male.”
Genevieve ducked her head. “I don’t know much. He’s male, he’s a sow, he’s from your clan. That’s about it.”
Alona blinked again. “Didn’t Aunt Samantha tell your clan anything when she visited? You’ve come all this way to mate with my cousin, and that’s all you know?”
Genevieve shrugged. She was sorry now that she’d said anything. “Maybe she told my parents.”
“Okay. Well. Let me see how many dirty details I can tell you before he gets here.”
At dusk, Genevieve knew a few more things about Jared – his passion for huckleberries, his fits of snoring during winter loud enough to wake all his cousins, his height – and a lot more things about Clan Pad in general. They sounded like Genevieve’s clan, at least the way Alona told it. There were eighteen bears total, adults and cubs, though in summer they splintered into groups of one or two and scattered across the clan lands. It’d been six weeks since Alona had seen Jared or his brother Cole.
“Don’t be nervous,” Alona said.
Genevieve snorted, which was a measure of much she’d relaxed in an afternoon. There was no way she wasn’t going to be nervous as she met the sow she’d mate with for life, if all went as planned next year.
Jeff wandered up to the den’s mouth a few minutes before sunset. Once he’d removed his skin, he turned out to be a correspondingly large man, uncle to the clan in general and, it looked to Genevieve, Alona in particular.
“I think it’s time to start the fire,” he said. “Genevieve, help me with the fire pit?”
Genevieve pushed to her feet from where she’d been sitting just outside the den.
“Sure,” Alona said, eyeing him and Genevieve speculatively. “Be nice to her, Jeff. She’s new.”
“Greens,” he repeated. Despite the rumbling menace in his tone, his eyes were twinkling.
Once she was gone, he turned to Genevieve. “Welcome,” he said gravely. “The fire pit’s this way.”
“Thank you,” she said, following him.
“You’ve come a long way,” he said.
“We’re grateful, your coming so far to join our clan.” They had arrived at the pit. Wood lay scattered around them, cut and left to dry in the sun.
“It is the way,” she said. That’s how her parents had explained it to her, starting when she was ten. Clans with young boars sent them off to other clans in need. It was the way.
Now, here, she was shocked at her own audacity. The grand adventure she’d begun twelve days ago had grown in the intervening miles until it towered, an unscaleable height. She thought it’d be better to find some empty territory of her own, solitary, then try to find a place among these strange new bears.
“You won’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Jeff said. He was turned away from her, stacking kindling meticulously into a cone in the pit. “You have some time to decide whether you like us. Whether you and Jared think you can get on. Of course, if you decide against us, the sooner we know, the better. Jared’ll be ready for a mate –”
“Next year. I know.” Genevieve swallowed. “Our clans have agreed. I can’t break the pact.”
He turned back to her, surprised. “Sure you can. If you don’t like what you see, we won’t hold you to what was decided without you.”
“I... Thank you,” she said. It was more than she’d expected. However, it wasn’t a decision she’d make; she wouldn’t let down her clan, or theirs – which would be her clan too, soon.
When the fire was all but lit, Genevieve and Jeff turned back towards the den and found a jumble of bears, two-legged and four, milling in the clearing in front of the entrance. Faintly she could differentiate by smell between sows and boars, but there were so many all at once and, on a word from one of them, they suddenly were all looking at her.
She pulled herself straight and repeated her greeting from earlier. “I am Genevieve of the clan of Cor.”
A sow came forward and bowed its great head. I am Samantha, Sow of the clan of Pad. Welcome. The head lifted, and the bear peered at her. Welcome, Genevieve of Cor. My dear girl, we’re glad you’ve come. Without turning, the bear – she, by name, though Genevieve couldn’t tell as long as the bear stood on four legs – added, Jared. Come meet Genevieve.
It was a lanky boy that came forward, Genevieve’s age, tall and bound to grow taller, dark hair shaggy and hanging in his eyes. He looked a little bit terrified. “Welcome,” he said.
Genevieve hadn’t known what to expect, and Alona’s gush of trivial detail hadn’t really helped. She’d wondered if she’d feel a rush of romance, of heat in her bones – the two things her younger cousins were convinced came of a match out of the clan. Meeting Jared for the first time, they said, would be like the meeting between heroic mates out of the songs. She’d been skeptical, since they weren’t even old enough to know what heat the songs were talking about.
But for this boy in front of her, her great match who would carry her cubs and be her companion to the end of her days, she felt only a twinge of pity twined with sympathy, and that only because he was clearly even more nervous than she was. He was just a strange boy sow prone to making himself sick on huckleberries.
She pulled her thoughts together and said, “Thank you, Jared of Pad.”
Her summoned a tiny smile. “You’re welcome.”
Then the other bears crowded around them, and as they did Jared drew back. She caught a glimpse of him, watching her from beneath his hair.
It was Jeff who pointed out to no one in particular that Genevieve had traveled a long way, was probably feeling a little overwhelmed, and was hungry for some more tangible hospitality. Samantha roared her agreement, and the whole clan moved down towards the fire pit. Many of them had fish strung up on sticks hung over their shoulders, and Alona had a basket of greens.
A boy of maybe ten sidled next to Genevieve and held open his sack for her to see. It was full of fat white tubers. “I’m Cole,” he said. “I’m Jared’s brother.”
“Hi,” Genevieve said. She glanced up to look for Jared. He was a long way behind them, talking to Jeff.
“We’re not usually all together,” Cole said.
“I know,” Genevieve said. “Alona told me.”
“Are you going to stay with us?”
It occurred to Genevieve that out of the entire clan, the opinion of this young boar might be one of the ones she cared about most. “My clan made an agreement with your clan. I have to.”
“You don’t have to,” Cole said, peering intently at her. “If you don’t like Jared, you’ll leave.”
This echo of Jeff’s adamant assurance left her feeling stifled.
The clan talked all through the night. The first greeting from Samantha was apparently the only formality Genevieve needed to expect from these bears. It was not a comfort. As Genevieve munched on blackened fish and baked tubers seasoned with herbs, one after another of the clan came around to introduce themselves, and Genevieve floundered for answers to questions ranging from the number of cubs born to her clan to her preferred methods of fishing. Each bear thanked her for coming, but the subtext was clear to Genevieve: Are you good enough for our Jared?
In comparison, Alona’s uncalculated chatter was a relief. She had settled at Genevieve’s side and now she whispered in her ear in between visitors. As Genevieve met aunts and uncles and cubs, she realized that Jared was the only other member of the clan even close to Alona’s age, and Alona’s immediate attachment to her began to make more sense.
“Is a boar coming for you?” Genevieve asked in between introductions.
“Next year,” Alona said. “Her name is Adrianne. Then she’ll go through this whole ordeal.” Alona gestured at the other bears circled around the fire.
“Have you met her?”
“Jeff took me to visit her clan this spring,” Alona said. “It’s closer than yours,” she added.
“Did you like her?” Genevieve wondered if this was too intimate a question.
Alona didn’t seem bothered. “I guess,” she said. “She seemed a little intense. Not rude or anything, just... intense. But it’ll be better once I get to know her better.”
“Yeah.” Genevieve glanced around, looking for Jared. Across the fire she could just see him, his head and Cole’s bowed together.
Samantha came around last, on two legs this time, blond hair long and swinging free at her back. As if on some signal, Alona proclaimed a desperate need for a midnight swim and wandered off.
Samantha began, “I wanted a chance to welcome you again before the clan goes its separate ways in a day or two. We’re glad to have you, Genevieve.”
Genevieve wondered if there’d been an elders’ counsel when she wasn’t paying attention. “Thank you. I hope I’ll satisfy.”
Samantha snorted. “Our families are friends from way back. My father came from your clan, you know. I have no doubts you’ll suit us fine. I know you may not feel the same about us yet, but we’ll mostly be gone soon, and you’ll only have one or two to deal with at a time.”
Genevieve supposed that meant it’d be just her and Jared. She tried to be enthused about that.
The clan slept the next day away, Genevieve included; she’d arrived just as the first summer harvests were coming in, and she ate better than she had since before bedding down the winter before. She woke a couple of hours before dusk, groggy and snug up against the broad shaggy side of a bear – Jeff, she recognized after a moment. There was no one else in sight.
After a moment of her sitting up, Jeff did, too. Jared’s probably in the river, he said. Cole’ll be with him.
“Is it the four of us, then?” Genevieve asked. It’d be a little easier, she thought, if Jeff and Cole were around, too.
I figure Cole and I will be in and out, Jeff said. This is your time to see how you feel about each other.
He snuffled his nose against her neck. It’s not so bad, kid.
She stiffened. “I know how this works.”
He’s a good kid. A little shy, but he’ll come around.
“I won’t disappoint the clan. Or you.”
He blew a hard sigh, spraying moisture against her skin. There’s nothing you could do to disappoint me, unless you hurt that boy.
She had no intention of it, but nor did she want to think of the clan’s response if somehow she did. “I won’t.”
Jared and Cole came back around in a couple of hours, two-legged and wet and smelling of river. Jeff drew Cole away. In the silence, Jared gave her a glance and then wandered off into the den.
After a few moments’ murmuring, Cole came back to tell Jared that Jeff was taking him hunting. It must have been a particularly exciting hunt, because Cole barely murmured when Jeff also mentioned foraging for healing herbs. In minutes, they were gone.
That left Genevieve with Jared, who hadn’t spoken a word to her since they’d met.
“Hi,” he said, eyeing her from under his hair.
“Hi.” She felt suddenly, ridiculously young. She had no idea what to say to him. She covered up her confusion with purpose. “So, I’m hungry. Show me the fishing spots?”
He nodded towards the ground. “Yeah, okay. Skins?”
Genevieve retrieved hers for where she’d set it against one of the den walls. She turned away from him, stripped, and wrapped herself in her own fur. It was the first time in two days she’d been really dressed. She shook her head, worked out the kinks in her neck, and grunted a couple of times, just to test her voice.
Behind her, Jared answered in a similar voice, and she turned.
All that length on two legs translated into length on four, stretched across a frame smaller than her boar stature, but not by much. His fur was a sandy brown, like his hair, and its tips were whitened by the sun. There was nothing overpowering about him, nothing that said, Lo, here was the most desirable mate on four legs, but now that he was in his skin, his sow smell was stronger. There was something deep in Genevieve that liked that smell a lot. And he had nice ears, she decided. She liked their angle.
If he had any similar thoughts about her, he kept them to himself. This way, he said.
The fish were delicious. In the hour it took to catch them, Genevieve and Jared together spoke less than two dozen words.
The days afterwards were much the same. Genevieve and Jared spent their hours rambling all over the clan lands. Half the purpose was to show Genevieve the territory she would call home, assuming she stayed, and half was feeding in preparation for winter, pressing ever harder on their heels.
Jared was unfailingly polite. He said hello every time they woke, always out from under his hair – even after giving himself a haircut with a ragged human blade from the den, his hair seemed to stay ever the same length. He made sure Genevieve got all the best to eat, to make up for the time she’d spent traveling.
The second morning, Genevieve found Jared snuggled up against her. Once he’d woken and startled away from her, it took Genevieve twenty awkward, insistent minutes to convince him that she didn’t mind, but after that, they found themselves wordlessly huddled together to sleep whenever the temperatures allowed.
And he didn’t talk to her any more than he could help it. Although, to be fair, she found herself at a loss with him, too.
The silence seemed easiest when they were hunting, when silence was what was called for. They spent hours one evening waiting on a game trail for a doe they’d seen, and the wordlessness seemed easy then, companionable. Every so often Jared would catch her eye. Once she winked in return. He turned away, but not before she saw the blush across his cheeks.
They learned to read each other’s signals, even without the internal speech that came with their skins. She knew how he’d flick his tail just before scooping a trout onto the bank, how he snuffled when he slept. She could intuit his moods, even though he seemed to take care to hide them from her. She even saw them coming sometimes.
She just didn’t know what caused the moods, or what kinds of thoughts he thought, or any of a hundred other things it seemed like a person should know about her mate.
It was the night Jared figured out that she couldn’t hold a tune that something previously frozen began to thaw. They’d killed two deer between them, both yearlings but enough meat to gorge themselves on. Afterward, Jared rolled back and forth on his back, groaning in pleasure, and Genevieve couldn’t help but snuffle a laugh. He tossed his head at the sound, and then he launched into a rendition of the lay of the bear in the mud. After the first verse, he said, Come on, Genevieve, sing with me.
He looked so ridiculous, sprawled on his back, and he sounded happier with life and the world than she’d ever seen him. Besides, he’d never asked her for anything before; that alone would probably have been reason enough. So she put aside all of Lawrence’s remembered teasing and began the second verse.
As usual, the tune didn’t sound quite right in her head, but after the first few words Jared joined in, and it sounded better then. His internal voice was good; she found herself wondering how he sang on two legs.
When they’d sung all eight verses, silence fell again, and Genevieve thought maybe that was it. Then Jared rolled over onto his side and looked at her. I think you might have been a little off, there at the end. He looked apologetic.
Genevieve snorted. I can’t sing worth anything, she said. My whole family knows it. I guess they didn’t warn you, huh?
There was a pause. They should have, he said very seriously. This might break the agreement.
Genevieve blinked. For a moment she thought that she really might be kicked out of this clan that she was just beginning to be accustomed to – the Jared-Cole-Jeff parts of it, anyway – because of her singing or lack thereof. Then she caught the look in Jared’s eye, so earnest that no bear in her right mind would believe it. Lawrence had had the same look sometimes.
Without another thought, she barreled into Jared. He huffed in surprise, but as she bit teasingly into his neck he rolled over and tried to bite back. She was bigger, but he was still a little heavier. They were a good match. They nipped and wrestled and slapped with their paws until finally they were both panting.
I haven’t wrestled like that in years, Genevieve said.
Me either, Jared said. Not since I got so much bigger than Alona. After a pause, he added, You really can’t sing.
The next week, Jeff and Cole met up with them again. Cole begged Jared to come see the new snare Jeff had taught him, and once they were gone, Jeff turned to Genevieve.
“Have you decided whether you’re staying?”
“I...” She’d known the question was coming. She’d never meant to give any answer but yes, but now that it came, she hesitated. “I want to talk to Jared first.”
He nodded. “Don’t wait long. The clan needs an answer soon.”
Cole and Jeff bedded down near dawn, but as Jared was curling up, too, Genevieve said, “Can I talk to you?”
He considered her, and then he pushed his shaggy bulk to his feet. After one stride forward, he paused, put a paw to his skin, and glanced at Genevieve. She turned around and let him change. Taking off his skin to match her lack of dress was the sort of polite consideration she’d learned to expect from him. When she turned back, he was slipping on a pair of pants. Silently he followed her out of the den clearing and down the trail towards the river. She found a rock overlooking the river and settled on it, and he came and sat at her side.
She liked having him sit there next to her. She wished he’d talk to her more, but she liked how comfortable he was with silence. She liked how his head hung from his shoulders and how his ridiculous hair fell in his eyes. She liked his eyes, in fact, both pairs of them. She liked the particular texture of his voice in her head.
She hadn’t the faintest idea how he felt about her, though.
“Jeff asked me today if I was staying,” she said.
Beside her, Jared became very still. “What did you say?”
“I said I wanted to talk to you.”
He glanced at her. A fleck of moonlight glinted in his eye and was gone. “Do you want to stay?” His voice was even and colorless.
“Do you want me to?”
Jared huffed. “That’s not an answer.”
“I don’t want to force you into a mating you don’t want,” Genevieve said. When he didn’t answer, she prodded, “We’re friendly, aren’t we?”
Against the lighter sky, she could see him nod. “Yeah.”
“But that doesn’t mean you want to sleep every winter together, to raise your cubs and live all your life with me.”
“The agreement’s already made, right?” he said. “It’s not like there’s a lot of other options.”
“But...” Genevieve braced herself. “But I don’t know if you even like me. You don’t talk to me, hardly at all.”
Jared’s huff of response was forceful but ambiguous. “It’s not... I don’t know how to do this. I didn’t know you at all, and...” He seemed to run out of words.
“This is the way. It’s how clans have always mated their cubs.”
“I know,” he said. “I just... Some clans to the east, they skip this stage, where we get acquainted. You could have come to us next spring. We could have gotten to know each other fine, in the heat of mating, and then this’d all be over.”
Genevieve tried to imagine it, meeting Jared for the first time in the throes of the mating frenzy, and then, after a week of following their blood, waking up filthy and sated and utter strangers. She shuddered.
Jared must have felt the motion. “Yeah, I guess not. But you know, you don’t talk to me, either.”
“What?” she said, startled.
“You’re so reserved and, I don’t know, contained. I never know what to say to you.”
“Oh.” She frowned out into the near-dark. “I was trying to be polite.”
It took her a moment to read Jared’s silent shaking as laughter. She supposed she deserved it. Eventually, though, he said, “But what would you do now, if I said I didn’t want to?”
It surprised her, how much the question hurt. Genevieve tried to steady her breaths, to keep the question strictly in the theoretical. “I’d go back to my clan, I suppose. If they couldn’t find another clan to send me to, I guess I’d be the old spinster boar of the clan. Like Jeff.”
His voice was very quiet. “Do you want to do that?”
She followed his gaze out over the river. “No.”
“What do you want to do?”
Now that it was Jared asking her, the answer was simple. “I’d rather stay with you.”
He turned to stare at whatever of her features he could make out in the moonlight. “Really?”
“Oh.” It was less a word than a breath. “I didn’t think you’d want to.”
“Oh, come on. You don’t smell that bad.”
After a second’s frozen silence, Jared laughed. When he’d gotten his breath again, he said, “I want you to stay.”
“Yeah. It’s not, um. It’s not like the songs, you know? But you’re good at fishing and browsing, and you mostly don’t laugh at me—”
“Except when you deserve it.”
“—and you have nice hair.” He brushed his fingers against the end of her braid. “I want to find out how it is to mate with you. I’m going to carry someone’s cubs, so I’d like them to be yours.”
It might as well have been a declaration of undying passion, for the way Genevieve’s heart was beating in her chest. “Yeah. I... Me, too. I like you, too.” Struggling for words, she fell back on the old ingrained formality. She reached for his hand and gave herself a moment to revel in the way their fingers twined together. “Jared of Pad, will you be my mate?”
“Yeah,” he breathed. Then he caught himself. In the moonlight, she thought she could see his eyes shining. “I accept, Genevieve of Cor.”
In their skins, they would continue to roll and snuggle together like siblings until Jared’s heat came on, but on two legs things depended less on the whim of the seasons. It felt inevitable, Genevieve’s hand reaching up to trace his jaw. She leaned up and kissed him, as natural as if she’d kissed blushing young boars a hundred times before. For a moment he stiffened with surprise, and then she felt that lift of his lips that meant he was smiling, and he kissed her back.
After a few seconds Genevieve pulled away. It was so nice, so close that any more right now would feel like too much. After she’d found her breath and her pulse had slowed a little, she asked, “Does this mean you’ll talk to me now?”
He laughed. “I’ll try.”