This, Tove thought, was the worst kind of success.

Oh, she’d found Koli, hunting near his homestead. But he didn’t so much as greet her when she strode from between the trees.

“Uncle.”

He glanced up and then away, gently freeing a rabbit from his snare and resetting it.

“Koli.” She stepped closer. Claiming space as his fellow ranger and not as his young student.

“What do you want? I don’t have anything planned with you today, Tove.”

“Not that you’ve been keeping said plans. Wolf’s teeth, Uncle Koli, what’s been with you lately? You never used to blow us off like this.” She leaned closer. “Are Alvor and I not good enough now because we’re women? Is that it?”

Koli straightened up. “I don’t appreciate what you’re implying there.”

“I know who you’ve been hanging out with, Uncle.”

“That’s none of your business. I spend time with whoever I please. I agreed to teach you my trade, not let you manage my life. I have a mate to do that.”

“The one who moved out, you mean? Were you disrespecting her, too, Uncle? Is that why she took Hvat and left?”

“Go,” he growled. Tove stared at him for a moment longer, shook her head, and left.

Family gatherings frustrated Tove because Uncle Koli was always conspicuously missing these days. Well, that and she had to spend time around her mother, but that was an annoyance she was well used to dealing with.

Rikvi rested a hand on Tove’s shoulder. Her eyes had that unfocused, dreamy look she tended to wear when she was about to Say Something. “The bear is already frostbitten through.”

Tove frowned. “You can recover from frostbite.”

“Not by the time it reaches the heart.”

Tove watched Rikvi drift off into the crowd and sighed. What did it mean this time?

Everyone converged on Uncle Solgi’s homestead. Smoke blurred dawn’s brilliant colors from the sky. Little remained of the place–the tent was a smoldering heap. The dolyak pen’s eastern fence was down, and the only animal that remained was, well, a pile of bones next to the outdoor cookfire.

“How many people knew Solgi wasn’t home?” Gufa Firewinder, another of Tove’s aunts, stood on a rock outcropping and rested her hands on her hips. “Did anyone blather somewhere thieves could have heard?”

Everyone shook their head. Everyone gathered knew, of course, of Solgi’s planned trading trip. Most of the youngsters without homesteads of their own to look after had agreed to take turns feeding the animals.

Tove included. She was ignoring Gufa’s inquisition in favor of prowling the edges for tracks. Unfortunately only half of her family had the sense to come in on the damn road, leaving a frustrating amount of perfectly innocent trails to muddle everything up.

That’s cousin Ormhildr’s stride, right there, so that must be Gufa’s. And that’s Abjorn’s heavy tread, I’d know that anywhere. Nice to see that Stagger still snuffles every berry bush he….

Tove’s thoughts trailed off. Koli’s bear. Twisting around, the ranger did a swift headcount of the family present and no, Koli’s dark hair was nowhere to be seen amongst the rest. Frowning, she struck off after the trail, her thoughts skittering anxiously around her brain.

Koli wasn’t there. But he had been.

Author Ambrosine
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