(This story is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
“She hasn’t come down since sunset,” Windsong said dismally, glancing towards her family den.
Moss followed her gaze with his own. Crackle’s absence was felt around the Holt – everything was too quiet, and Otter was kicking rocks alone by the riverside – but he hadn’t expected that answer, asking her mother after her. Windsong stood beneath the tree with head hanging low, her countless braids around her face. A number of wolf-lengths away, Suddendusk sat nervously peeling a long branch.
“Is she feeling well?” Moss asked gently.
Windsong sighed. “I don’t know. When I woke she was already sitting up, talking to herself – you know the way she does that, when she’s telling herself a story. Then she crawled under the furs and she wouldn’t come out, not even when Evervale called her down. I don’t know what she’s doing, Moss.” The huntress thrust a hand into her braids and flung them back, looking no less glum.
Moss was uncertain; it unlike Windsong not to simply take her cub in hand, but then Windsong was not like herself recently. “Let me try,” he offered. “She might have had a simple nightmare. Cubs will be cubs.” It was hard not to feel a touch of anger at the girl, seeing her mother’s state. Even Crackle should understand the tribe was uneasy enough, it wasn’t like her to hide and refuse to come out like a spoiled cub of a handful turns.
He climbed the tree one-handed, a drum cradled beneath his arm, familiar already with the things Crackle could never resist. The den was deep in shadows, lit by a single candle only, and light pooled in its niche in the wall and only brushed, hesitant, across the furs that covered the wooden floor. In the adjoining space where Crackle made her bed, a small alcove full of hanging decorations and oddly shaped bones, a mound of furs marked the girl’s hiding place. She heard him come in and her bright green eyes shone narrow and suspicious from the beneath.
“Oh it’s just you,” she said with a sigh, creeping out till he could see her. She didn’t look ill, Moss noted with relief, but she didn’t look like she was playing either, and she looked unhappily at his drum. “And you brought a drum.”
“I did,” Moss answered lightly, dropping to sit cross-legged, the drum held snugly with his hands just brushing its taut, inviting skin. The cub gave an admonishing squeak and grabbed his wrists.
“No don’t play it! You mustn’t make noise?”
Oh. “But we got rid of the Bear-Eating Monster four moons ago, Crackling-cub.”
“I’m not hiding from that monster,” Crackle said sulkily and drew a length of the furs over the drum.
Moss let her sit it out, running her fingers in small circles in the thick fur, feeling the instrument beneath. She glanced at him occasionally, measuring him, like a cat that tried to play uninterested in its prey. He knew her. She made her stories to be told.
“I’m hiding from Smokelost,” Crackle said eventually.
It was a new name, and a different one. Crackle rarely gave her monsters elfin names. “What is Smokelost?” Moss asked, opening his eyes wide in interest. But Crackle just gave him a glare.
“Not what,” she stressed. “Who. He was an elf. Turns and turns ago.”
She licked her lips nervously, then crept fully out, abandoning her protective furs. Down on all fours, she stared him full in the face for the first time.
“Smokelost was an elf, an elf just like you and me. Then he Recognized someone and they joined and had a cub. They were very happy.” She crept forward, leaned on his knees and looked up into his eyes. “But then he Recognized her again. Right after the cub was born. They had to give the cub to her wolf-friend to suckle because they had to join again right after the birth. And they had another cub, but they Recognized again, this time before the new cub was even born. They couldn’t make another cub – they joined, but she was already with cub, so it didn’t take. Smokelost had to wait four moons before he could make a cub with her again. By their forth Recognition, he had to wait a whole turn of the seasons. It got so they would join, she would be with-cub, and right that moment they would Recognize again. His mate was already with-cub so she didn’t get sick, but Smokelost had to wait and wait and wait. It happened eight times. He had to wait two turns of the seasons. He didn’t eat or sleep for moons. He got so thin and so gray that the tribe forgot his name, they called him Smoke. And then the eighth-and-one cub was too much for her. She died.”
Crackle’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Except they Recognized again, just before she died, and this time Smokelost couldn’t join with her at all. He kept pining for her. He went crazy. He didn’t see his cubs or his tribemates or even his wolf, he would just wander around the forest all night, sending out her soul-name. But she never came back for him. She couldn’t. He didn’t die, Recognition was too strong for him. But he got thinner and thinner, paler and paler, until there was nothing left of him except a gray shadow that drifts when the wind goes blowing, and the tribe lost him forever. But he’s still out there, you know, Moss, he’s still there in the woods – looking for his Recognized. And he could get any one of us. He could get you, or me, or Quick Fang or anyone. He’s Smokelost, and Recognition is all he knows or cares about.” She nodded, very firmly, and dived under the furs again.
Moss raised the furs just a little, a second time. Crackle’s eyes were only rounder now that she’d told her story, and she hastily caught his wrist and pulled him under with her. “We’re safer in here,” she whispered. “We should stay in here forever, just in case.”
“Forever is a long time, Crackle,” Moss whispered back.
“I know,” the cub answered. “But it’s better than getting caught. I’m too young to Recognize and die from it.”
Moss arranged the furs over them, and in the soft darkness, took the girl’s hands in his own.
“Crackle,” he said, very seriously, “you know that there wasn’t such an elf called Smokelost.”
Crackle thought for a moment. “Maybe not,” she said at last, “but there might’ve been.”
“Not in my lifetime,” Moss assured her, “and I’m much older than you. Not in Kestrel’s lifetime either, she’d have told me.”
“Even Kestrel didn’t live since always,” Crackle insisted.
She crept a little past him and risked a peek out from under the furs. The den was quiet and comforting, lit only by the single candle, but it could be eerie as well. Moss found himself listening hard for the cries of nocturnal birds, for the stray sends of his tribemates out in the Holt. “You’re smart, Moss,” Crackle said, “you’re smarter than a lot of grownups. But nobody’s lived since always and nobody knows everything. It could be that Smokelost was. It could be why Recognition goes wrong. It’s not supposed to be how it is for my father, right? So it could be because otherwise I don’t know.”
She wrapped some of the fur around her shoulders and sat staring into the darkness of the spring night.
Moss didn’t have any grownup answers. He sat up and took the cub onto his lap, wrapping the furs around them both. He didn’t know if he could see what Crackle saw out there in the woods, but he could feel her soft breathing and thundering heart, feel how small and delicate she really was.
“We could howl for him,” he suggested with sudden inspiration, “to tell him that we remember him and that he isn’t alone. Maybe that would make him feel better, what do you think, Crackle? Would that make him feel better so he won’t have to come and get anyone?”
He didn’t see Crackle’s face, but he could feel her shift a little as she considered. Sometimes there was just no telling, with Crackle. But he felt it when she breathed in, an impressive intake for her size, and then they howled. It was no injured howl, no mourning howl, nothing that would bring their tribemates running, only the clear music that the pack shared within itself. Crackle’s head was tilted back, and her young voice was as clear as rain in springtime.
Out by the tree, Windsong leaned back against the bark, closing her eyes and listening to the heart-song of her daughter. And the howl rang clear past the treetops and the distance, comforting the lonely and hurting, calling the lost to come home.