The mound was getting larger, an artificial island of bowls and clay jars and baskets in the center of the Holt. The collection of decorations made an earthy contrast to the remaining patches of melting snow scattered around the trees the elves called home. They were filled with paints and feathers and bangles of every color. The New Green Bliss was underway. Longshot wiped his brow after heaving in his contribution, his own mixture of dark berry juice and specially selected mud.
Evervale was the next to add some playthings, setting down a basket of bright flowers. Like his unpainted chest, her hair was free of its usual adornments, all the more room to attach some trinkets in later.
Evervale played with her hair, working up nerve. “Have you made any plans for later?”
“Not yet.” He smirked. “Any ideas?”
“I know a place I like.” Evervale’s cheeks reddened. “If you’re still looking for someone to spend time with after the Howl.” She giggled unevenly. She had never asked him before. But considering that he was quite interested in her proposal, awkward though it was, Longshot was happy to help her muddle through. A brief, tantalizingly hands-on lesson in flirtation later, she bid him goodbye, passing him an encouraging look on the way to the Mother Tree.
No sooner did Evervale depart the scene than her sister entered it, racing from her family’s den. Crackle’s hair was amazingly free of debris, her body almost completely clean of dirt. She was already zipping around shirtless ahead of the Howl, trilling merrily. Apparently her parents had given up trying to keep her clothed. She caught sight of the archer, and veered straight at him.
“Hello Longshot. Um…” After running all this way she now looked unsure of why she had come to him. Had she seen him with her sister? She remembered what she wanted soon enough. “I want to get painted up to match you this time!” she asked, tracing a swirling design across her chest with a finger. “Will you help me?”
This was new. He’d often heard the cub call this her least favorite celebration. ‘Where's the fun in getting dirty if you're supposed to?’ He was glad she’d found a new way of looking at it. It was near the top of his list. “Of course I will help, crackling cub. I’d be happy to- oof!”
Crackle caught him in a big bear hug. “Thank you thank you! Everyone says you’re the best at this! The best at body art I mean!” An unreadable gaze crossed the young girl’s face before she continued on in her usual animated manner. “Ooooh, maybe someone will be painted up all over like an animal this turn! Like snowcat spots all over or stinkbear stripes! Or colored just right to match a piece of the Child Tree, with all the shadows and moonlight painted up in all the right places so if they stand in just the right spot no one will see them! Can an elf be dressed up in raw wrapstuff, or would that make them fall asleep? Or what about covered in wolfy pawprints so they look like they got run over by the whole pack! There was once this plantshaper named Vine in the tribe a long time ago, and I bet she liked to be covered in tangleweed shapes crossed with bearprints! She outsmarted a bear once to save her sister, I mean her best friend! Maybe there’s something that can be mixed in to the paint to make it stick out like barbs on a quillrat…”
The scatterbrained cub had started talking to herself more than with him. Longshot stepped aside to let her carry on with her thoughts. He was after more than a good chat tonight.
He went prowling on. The matter of who would be his blissmate was somewhat settled, but three could be just as much fun as two, or even more! His hungry eyes soon spotted Chicory, one of his favorite diversions, wandering the dentrees alone. She had spent the mound-piling time avoiding a confrontation with Quick Fang, who just was beginning to show and spoiling for a fight. He decided to show the chief’s sister a friendly face to talk to. His own. “Hello there, Chicory. Have any plans for later this night?”
She returned his amorous smile. "Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why don’t you tell me what you have in mind…” Her face soured. “Do you really think we should be having this conversation right now?"
“Why not? The night is young and the dreamberries are fresh…”
Chicory crinkled her nose derisively, cutting off the rest of his line. She looked downwards and behind him. Crackle was on his heels, watching intently, hands over her mouth to suppress a giggle at the goings-on.
By the time Longshot could look back up to Chicory, she was passing him by. **Come find me when you're not busy.**
Much the same happened minutes later when he tried his wiles on Rainpace. The brown-haired archer traded some off-hand gossip about Suddendusk planning something special with Windsong before also leaving in an uncomfortable hurry. And Crackle was definitely following him, albeit in a roundabout manner that suggested she was of two minds about whatever it was she was doing.
Across the pile of decorations, Longshot spotted Notch. He had stopped trading jokes with One-Leg, his attention directed now on the archer. One-Leg slapped his son’s shoulder and headed off to other business, likely the same as Longshot’s if the way he was strutting toward the elder females was any indication. Notch was looking at him intently now, as if trying to puzzle something out.
Longshot glared. **What?**
Notch just shrugged, then a knowing grin spread across his face. Notch pantomimed a “busy fingers” signal, a jab at a cubhood nickname of Longshot’s, and pointed at his underaged shadow.
Longshot swore to himself. It was easy enough to see what was happening now. Crackle, sleepless and insatiably curious as she was, wasn’t one to just lay back and rest while everyone else was off doing something that she was being kept away from. She wasn’t going to stay put if she had a say. And if Longshot didn’t do something soon, he could be stuck cubsitting while everyone else was off doing it. He’d just become the cub’s latest pastime.
He had to think fast!
‘Who set this up? Who got Crackle interested in me of all elves?’ Crackle’s words echoed in his mind’s ear, ‘Everyone says you’re the best at this… Everyone who?’ He couldn’t imagine Suddendusk or Windsong wanting to distance themselves from their daughter. But that didn’t mean someone else didn’t think of giving them a break from her, or making sport of him. He scanned the area, looking for some clue. The usual suspects weren’t hard to spot.
Notch was laughing at him, of course, drawing a crowd that would soon be in on the joke if not already part of it. ‘He looks genuinely surprised though, like maybe he’s admiring someone else’s work.’
Chicory? ‘Could she have playacted her way through that display?... Yes. Would she have?... Yes.’
Rainpace? ‘Sure, why not? He might have said something that set events in motion, even if he didn’t mean to.’
Foxtail? ‘This all seems a bit subtle for her. Or maybe that’s the idea, so she won’t get caught.’
Willow? ‘She’s been through so much lately, she’s still so distant. It wouldn’t surprise me if she doesn’t show up by the river at all. Even if she stays behind, though, she wouldn’t want to be left with Crackle bouncing all over her.’
He shook his head. ‘This is pointless! I’ll never figure out who put this in motion! I don’t think like a prankster!’
Maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe he could solve this by thinking like an archer.
**Crackle? Could I dress up your hair as well?**
The shedding and howling done, next came the dress-up. Longshot and his charge spent almost the whole time working on each other. When all was done, the older elf stood back to admire his work. Crackle’s purple-daubed torso was a mirror of one of his most used designs. Bits and pieces of his other favorites squiggled around the rest of her in different shades. As an extra touch, she had enough strings and bobbles in her mane to keep Greenweave and Cloudfern busy for a week. She was beaming, very pleased with how she came out, and also with the way he’d taken on her usual style. His hair was a tangled mess of red dyed stripes, twigs, feathers, leaves, and clumps of Muddypaws’ fur. He was covered head-to-toe in every color and texture of mud. He even had an oversized red scarf, tied around his neck just so.
Longshot looked himself over approvingly. “You know, I’m almost jealous of you,” he said with a smile.
“Because this is your last New Green as the youngest of the tribe. Just like we say goodbye to the white-cold, you get to make a show of making a place for the new cub. ” He knelt down to meet her at eye level, whispering his next words to her, hoping to sound like he was imparting a secret. “Today you get to be the center of attention! It’s your job to go to everyone and show off your New Greens. Oh, and for extra fun you can also trade some of your trinkets.” He offered one of his bright red eagle feathers for her shiniest bead. She accepted gladly. “Try to make today special. For everyone! You already have for me, of course, since you let me help you get ready.”
The cub was hardly able to contain her glee as she ran off to present herself to the nearest crowd, a whole menagerie of colors and styles. Said crowd just happened to be one full of his best guesses. His newly fletched arrow had hit her mark perfectly.
Nonchalance was the word as Longshot walked slowly backwards behind the nearest tree. Once he was out of sight he bolted. He found the rendezvous point, where the unbroken sounds and smells of the forest told him he was the first around. He spent the time keeping his hands busy with a bit of strategic rearrangement of his costume. Looking too much like Crackle wouldn’t do for the rest of the night. He wished for a degree of Evervale’s patience, and hoped she wasn’t the one who was landed with the trying task he’d so deftly avoided.