Sitting atop a branch outside his brother’s den, Otter looked over the quartet of discs in his hand. Each looked roughly like a wolf’s pawprint preserved in clay, only much smaller and formed from smooth grey stone. The edges were worn down in many places. The paw imprints were coated in chipping black paint that needed to be retouched. There was a strong sense of history about them.
“Mother formed them for me when I was about your age. I never play a game of taal without them. Well, almost never,” Notch explained. “They’re sort of my lucky charms.”
The stones did indeed look well-used and well loved. Otter had seen them many times before, but this was the first time he’d ever been allowed to touch them. “So how many games have you won?”
”That’s not important right now.” Notch gestured to get the stones back, Otter obliged. “But this could be.” With a flick of his wrist, one appeared in his empty left hand. Notch held it tantalizingly close to Otter’s ear. He whispered, “Listen. Do you hear anything?”
Otter gave his brother a wary sideways glance. “No, of course not!”
Notch beamed a sage smile. “But you might, in the future. Or I might. Or maybe Beetle. Well, maybe not her. One night a chip just like this may call out to us, whispering the secrets of stoneshaping. All the fantastic things our mother can do and more.”
Otter was intrigued but skeptical. “Hmm, aren’t you a bit old to be suddenly getting a magic power?”
“Hmm, isn’t Willow a bit old to become a healer?” He clapped Otter on the back. “Don’t fuss over what’s probable, think about what’s possible! Can you imagine the fun we could have with the ground and rocks beneath us at our beck and call?”
“I can imagine what you would do. Between you and the cub, Quick Fang would never get any sleep.”
“Yeah, I know!” Notch’s wicked grin turned conspiratorial. “But that’s not why I called you over.” He held up empty hands, waved around about a bit, and as if by magic he was holding all four discs. “What’s wrong here?”
Otter stopped to think a moment. “Aren’t there five tokens for each player?”
“So where’s the other one?”
“Exactly! Someone tagged if off me in the last game, and now I have to go get it back!”
“So why don’t you just go ask who has it?”
“Where is the fun in that?” Notch smirked. He whisked Otter inside the den and closed the curtain. Notch loved his view and the feel of fresh wind on his face. There were three and only three reasons that he ever denied himself those simple pleasures. There were no rain-clouds above, so Otter knew his brother was hatching some new scheme. **It’s much more interesting to steal them away. It’s a game I play with myself. I have to get the token back before it ends up in that big basket below the Mother Tree. And you can’t tell anybody, or there won’t be any game at all.**
**I won’t! I won’t!** Otter was worried, for his brother’s opinion of him and then for Notch himself. “How long have you been doing this? Doesn’t anybody notice their winnings disappearing?”
**Nope. Half the tribe just takes what they need from the basket, and puts them back when they’re done.** Few in the tribe were as dedicated to hoarding trinkets as Notch was. **Someone keeps the basket full. So no one will know what I’m doing if no one blabs. Got that?**
Otter nodded. He could see where this was headed, but it felt like Notch was dragging it out for his own amusement.
Notch’s tone darkened a bit as he noted that, **Blacksnake figured it out, though. I’m sure of that. Whenever he gets one of my lovelies, he always makes sure to lose it to someone else before I can get another go at tagging him. And he always remembers to forget who he gave it to.**
**Then you really have to go chasing around! That must be a pain figuring out where it ends up, huh?** Otter kept himself from laughing, but not grinning. He dared to ask a forbidden question, **Is that why you re-arranged everything in Beetle’s den that one time?**
Notch’s skin tone dropped a few shades, and he adjusted his collar uncomfortably. **Uh, let- let’s not talk about that. But Beetle’s a good example! Half the time she doesn’t notice she’s taken her tokens back home. Slip into her den, slip out, no big deal.** He illustrated his point by walking his fingers up and down an imaginary branch. **It’s not something that ‘belongs’ in her space, so she doesn’t notice when it goes missing. But with the other maidens… Foxtail, Dreamflight, what have you, I like to pick their pockets while their clothes are bunched up next to mine and my other hand is --** Notch looked down his nose with a fanciful Big Brother Stare. “Should I be talking about that? How old are you, anyway?**
Otter scowled. **Old enough to know what you’re talking about!** That was the other reason Notch closed off his den.
**Well, what I mean to say is, different targets require different approaches. So I might need a little help on this one… If you’re interested.**
Otter’s enthusiasm was briefly overshadowed by suspicion. ‘Different targets? How many targets could he have left?’ Otter was only eight-and-five and he knew how special the stoneshaped discs were to Notch, even if he never knew why until this night. Notch had been playing with these tokens since before Beetle was born. ‘Half the tribe or more must know about this. Why wouldn’t they just give them back after they count out the winner? Do they let him play his game and let him think they don’t know?’ Otter clearly wasn’t getting the whole story, but if he called Notch on it, Notch might revoke his invitation. **I’m in! I’m in! So who’s the target?**
Notch let Otter’s anticipation hang in the air for a while before answering, **Pathmark.**
His accomplice chuckled loudly. **Pathmark caught up with you?**
**Hey, I got him the first time! And he is definitely not going all the way down under the Mother Tree put them back tonight. He went straight to his den after everybody met up to see who won, chatting up Rainpace about his next project. You know what Beetle says about how sloppy he is with his stuff when he’s working. My token is probably already under a pile of wood chips and quill feathers. But see, the problem with sneaking around a tracker is they notice everything. I can’t get close to him or his den without him knowing. That’s why I need you to --**
“Excuse me,” a voice called from outside. It was Pathmark’s.
The scheming brothers looked over to the curtain, then back to each other as Notch got up to answer to the call. Otter went stone quiet. How could Pathmark have known what they were talking about? Notch only drew the curtain open far enough that the elves could face one another.
Pathmark stood passively holding up the very grey-and-black token in question. “I didn’t want to interrupt, but this is yours, right? It found it when I was looking for this.” He held up a small carving knife with a relieved grin.
Notch quietly took his treasure out of Pathmark’s extended hand. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Pathmark chirped in his good-natured manner, clearly happy to have performed his good deed for the evening. “Have a good night!”
As Pathmark left the scene, Notch let the curtain fall back into place. He halfheartedly dropped the fifth token with the others, drew the pouch shut, and placed the pouch on a shelf, all without a single word. He slumped down on his bedfurs, shoulders low and face long. Otter looked across at his brother, trying to understand the sudden cloud that appeared in his normally bright eyes. The taal token was back, right? Everything was as it should be, right? They could always find something else to do.
Notch brooded that way for several moments before his arms burst outward in a vibrant fit of frustration. **WHERE IS THE FUN IN THAT?**