“Toss it here!”
“Hah! Almost dropped it!”
“Willow, stop making faces and throw it to me!”
The ball went flying between the low branches, a flurry of pale Preserver silk among the green and brown and occasionally flashing bright against the night sky. They were playing tree-ball. It was a double challenge at the center of the holt, near the denning trees, to both keep the ball from smacking into the low branches and get it across to the next elf in line. Crackle watched with jealous fascination. The players were divided into two teams, an elaboration on the usual game, and she thought they were pretty evenly matched: Willow’s quickness for Evervale’s, Nightstorm’s deft hands a match for Longshot’s, Chicory’s eagle eye pitted against Pathmark’s attentiveness, Goldspice’s throwing strength for Thornbow’s grip.
Between the eight of them, the ball hadn’t fallen once. They stalked and jumped between branches, shifting positions, raising hands, calling out:
“Goldspice! Right across the clearing!”
“Pity it didn’t hit your face!”
“But keep trying!”
“They could pass the whole night at this,” Windburn grunted in disgust as he prowled by, glancing upwards, but Crackle thought it was wonderful. She didn’t see why they’d have to stop at night’s end at all.
Down on the ground, where she played, ball games only got so far. It was hard to run and throw and kick in the undergrowth, and Crackle always managed to get the ball tangled up in just the thorn bush that popped the air out of the inflated bladder the fastest. Otter called it her talent.
The group chortled as a complex shot from Willow sent the ball to smack into Thornbow’s face, then, as he was reeling, tumble down to the ground. Chicory and Nightstorm gave whooped and raised victorious fists up in the air. Goldspice laughed out loud. “Bring us the ball back, would you, crackling cub?” She called, swinging on her branch to look down at Crackle.
Crackle ran and grabbed the ball before it could roll under any bushes. It was nice and soft in her hands, the deer bladder covered with silk to make the grip more slippery, the game more of a challenge. She glanced up. It was too high to throw. She’d have to climb to give it to them.
A thrill ran down her spine, and she scampered up one-handed and presented the ball to Goldspice breathless with triumph.
“Can I play too, Goldspice? Can I?”
“Don’t be silly.” The goldsmith smiled and ruffled her hair. “You’re too small. Wait till your arms are longer and stronger.”
“But that’ll be turns and turns and – “
“Go play with Otter, cubling.” Goldspice turned and hefted the ball, swung it then threw it clean over Longshot’s head and into Willow’s eager arms.
Disappointed, but far from beaten, Crackle tracked the ball. Pathmark didn’t look busy right now; maybe his team would want her. It took some careful navigating to get to his tree; by the time she was next to him, the ball had fallen again – this time bouncing out of Longshot’s hands – and was thrown back with some choice words about a broken cup from an irate Starskimmer.
“Crackle.” Pathmark beamed at her. Crackle was sure of her success this time.
“Pathmark, can I play too? Look, I climbed all the way here! I’m strong!”
The tracker looked genuinely sorry as he shook his head. “We’re four and four, Crackle. It wouldn’t be fair if one team had five.”
“I’ll call Otter, then you’ll both be five!”
“What if you fall?” Pathmark gave her ruffled hair a stroke for compensation. “Not now, Crackle. When you’re older. Toss it here, Longshot!” Abruptly he stretched up and raised his arms high.
'Nobody likes me in this holt.' Crackle was distinctly displeased, studying the playing field. The ball landed in Pathmark’s lap, and a few of the others smiled as they spotted her next to him. But none of them would let her play. Thornbow wouldn’t listen, Willow would wave her off. Evervale would point out that if Father caught her he’d have a fit, and knowing she was right just made Crackle all the more sullen.
Climbing back down did not bear thinking of. There was one more chance. She mustered her courage, and headed for Chicory.
Her mentor had just completed a beautiful throw to Nightstorm, who was laughing and sticking her tongue out at the rival team. Chicory looked very satisfied. She grinned at Crackle.
“Hullo, cub. Came to watch?”
“Not watch,” Crackle said decisively, crossing her arms. “Play.”
Chicory chuckled. “When you’re bigger, Crackle. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a game for you yet.” At the cub’s stricken look, she added, “you’re clever and good! But cleverness isn’t enough when you need strong hands and long arms.”
'It’ll be turns before I have long arms!' The thought filled Crackle with horror. Would she be barred from playing the best game of them all until she was an adult, and then High Ones knew if she’d still like it at all? How could such a game be allowed to be wasted on adults? This was not right. She was sure of it. Something had to be done.
She eyed Chicory, glanced at Longshot who was moving the ball, trying to confuse the other team, deeply focused. Abruptly, she tossed her arms up in the air, and yelled out at the top of her lungs for everyone to hear:
“Thank you Chicory thank you thank you! I’ll play good! Longshot! Toss it here!”
The effect was immediate, all eyes her way. Chicory gaped. Longshot gave a start. But it was too late – he was already deep into the throw, his arms working all but apart from his mind seizing this unexpected opportunity for a move. He launched the ball into the air, and Crackle leaned out, stretched, grunted with effort, and just managed to loop her fingers through a loose curl of Preserver silk.
“Hey!” Chicory shouted. Willow cursed. Pathmark and Evervale were already moving out of their trees. But Crackle pressed the ball firmly to her chest and slunk down the tree with the breathless speed of a victorious cub on a mission, pushing hard on the element of surprise. She made it to the ground before all of them and broke into a mad dash, whistling for Muddypaws. Her heart pounded against the ball. She skipped in place and blew a resounding raspberry at her pursuers. Tree-ball was over. It was time for a little game of Catch-the-Crackle