Notch dropped down onto the flat river rock and bumped his shoulder companionably against the boy beside him. “So, little brother, why the long face?”
Otter sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, listlessly tossing bits of rock and earth into river as it flowed past. His face was drawn in grim lines, with no hint of his usual cheerful smile. He continued to stare at the late afternoon sunlight as it danced on the water, ignoring Notch with sober determination.
“You’re not still teary-eyed over the Chief laughing at you like he did, are you?” Notch said, tousling his half-brother’s brown hair.
Otter shrugged, then shook his head firmly.
“I don’t blame him – that was an awfully funny story you told yesterday, what with Wolfsister still being alive and lurking out in the woods, and Quick Fang being the rightful chieftess of the tribe.” Notch snorted a laugh. “Yeah, it’s still worth a few giggles today, you know.”
Otter’s only answer was to rip up a handful of autumn-yellow leaves, and fling them toward the rushing river. Notch looked at his brother, trying to remember when, if ever, he had seen the boy so out of sorts.
“Fox nipped off with your tongue today, I see,” he tried again, with a relentless good cheer of his own. “Do we need to go and hunt the fox down and stitch your tongue back in?”
Otter made a face, and finally looked at his half-brother out of the corner of one brown eye. “Go away,” he muttered.
“Pity, I could do with a nice fox hunt,” Notch retorted. He deliberately drew his knees up against his chest and wrapped his arms around them, mimicking Otter’s sullen pose. “Tell me what’s wrong, little tagalong. You know I can out-sit you. So best fess up and tell your big brother what’s wrong so I can fix it for you.”
Otter’s lips pressed together, then twitched, then finally, the dam burst. “It’s not fair,” he complained. “Crackle’s younger ‘n me, but she knows everything. Everything!”
“Ah.” Notch rested his chin on his crossed arms. “Some girls are like that. Self-important little know-it-alls. You shoulda known Foxtail back when she was a pup. Always running at the mouth, just like Crackle, but worse – just because she’s chief’s cub, she expected to be taken seriously! Not, mind you, that you should ever make the mistake of not taking a girl seriously to her face. Agreeing with them when they tell you the sky is green can win you all sorts of flowerdew, so I heartily recommend it, if you know what I mean.”
Otter made a sour face, as though smelling a rancid scent. “I don’t. Don’t know what you mean.”
Notch chuckled and rocked to one side to bump Otter’s shoulder with his own again. “Well, wait a few years, and you will. You lucky little sprout, you!”
Otter just scowled harder. “Crackle’s years younger than me, but she always knows everything,” he repeated. “And she always thinks of things first. It’s not fair. She always gets all of the good ideas first, and it’s just not fair! She even knows my soulname, she says. It’s not fair that she knows something like that when I don’t! I just don’t know anything!”
Notch watched his young brother’s angry profile, and thought of his own childhood years spent with Rainpace. Poor earnest, good-hearted Rainpace; the way Notch saw it, Rainpace had always been three steps behind his agemate, gamely trying to keep up. Crackle was gifted with a keen little mind in her head, maybe even nearly as keen as Notch himself had been at her age, and as much as Notch loved his half-brother Otter, he knew Otter wasn’t always the sharpest of sticks. Privately, Notch thought of Otter as Greenweave’s son – High Ones knew that Notch had inherited his own father One-Leg’s keen wits, and their sister Beetle had gotten Cloudfern’s brights as well. Of all of the rest of the males in the tribe who their dam Starskimmer could have sparked a child with, Notch measured Greenweave’s steady, unflappable nature as closest to young Otter’s. Greenweave’s water was so placid that you couldn’t even get a rise out of him if you set his tail on fire. If anyone was father to Starskimmer’s son-out-of-Recognition, Notch was willing to bet it was Greenweave --
Ah. So. That was really it, wasn’t it? The root issue of his brother’s sullen temper struck Notch like a flash of stormfire. “Crackle doesn’t know your soulname, little brother. And no matter what she may say, she doesn’t know who your father is, either.”
Otter finally turned his head to look at Notch, and the boy’s brown eyes shimmered with tears. “I don’t know anything,” the boy murmured. “How am I supposed to ever know my soul name, if I don’t know who’s my father?”
Notch reached out and draped an arm around the boy’s thin shoulders. “If Mother knew, she’d say. But it means you’ve got it better than anyone else, better even than Crackle, because instead of only having one father, you have everyone. One-Leg, Cloudfern, Greenweave, True Edge, Suddendusk, Moss, Thornbow, Farscout, Rainpace, Pathmark, Longshot – even old Blacksnake and Chief Windburn. They’re all your father. That makes you something special, doesn’t it?”
Otter sniffed, and wiped away tears. “I know, Mother tells me that,” he said in a rough whisper of a voice. “But some days, I’d just rather know who he was, and not be so special anymore.”
Notch hugged his brother to him, and nuzzled his hair. “Well, even if you knew, you’d still be special. You know that, don’t you?” When Otter looked at him suspiciously, Notch grinned and rubbed his brother’s hair backwards, making the boy squirm. “You’ll always be special, ‘cuz you’re mine. Anybody could be your father, but you’d still be my best brother ever. So go ahead and tell me that doesn’t make your sad little heart warm up all roasty.”
Otter thought about it out for a moment – and then his eyes lit up, and the smile began to creep back onto his face. “There you go, that’s better,” Notch said, giving the boy another hug. “Now that’s my little brother!”