"He'd have gotten me for sure, if I hadn't gotten him first," Riskrunner boasted, hefting up his spear for great show. "And that was no cub's play either. They're monster things, those tuftcats, when they get riled up and hissy, and this one made noises like you wouldn't believe. And you just picture it, there I was, naked and spearless, with nothing but my gutting knife to hand, and up he goes and I'd have pissed my poor breeches if I had 'em, I tell you, before Father's training kicks in. And even as his blood's trickling down on my face and it hits me that I'm still breathing, all I can think of is how old Ice would always grumble that I'm likely to get killed before I ever find my soul-name…"
He leaned back and took a swig of brew, chuckling at the look in Littlejab's wide, luminous eyes. The youth drank in his words, mesmerized by the daring tale, no doubt thinking of his own upcoming soul-search and wondering if his exploits could ever truly compare. Behind him, even Redfox, who was usually occupied with something else when his brother and his best friend were talking, was listening in, though his face was hard to read. He was four turns Littlejab's junior; old enough to understand some things, like joinings, but perhaps not yet old enough to understand others. Riskrunner wasn't worried; his little brother's time would come, as it always did. Redfox was just a little slow.
He took another drink and gazed contemplatively skywards. "Of course, the real scary part is not the outwards search, but the inbound one. Deep as you look – you've never looked that deep, never dived in such a river. You put your head down – and the river's all you, things you didn't think about, didn't realize, memories you haven't brought up in years… and sometimes they come up like bile, but they're also you, and if you don't swallow them and make them welcome…" He glanced at the staring cub. "You don't really understand, do you? You can't until you've been there."
Littlejab – assertive and reasonable as always – opened his mouth to protest and then closed it. He couldn't exactly tell Riskrunner that he was wrong, not on this subject. "I'm leaving in a hand of days. I'll know everything soon."
Riskrunner grinned like a fox. "If you come back. There are big tuftcats out there." Littlejab went the color of bleached bone, and from behind him, Redfox, ever serious, gave his brother a glare.
"Don't joke about that."
With a good-natured laugh, the chieftess' older son clapped the pale youth on his back. "Of course not. You'll do fine, Littlejab, my father and yours taught you well. You'll make a proud hunter for the tribe; we'll even find you a new name that won't sound so silly." Now Littlejab went crimson, earning a louder guffaw.
"I'm not scared of any tuftcats," he said coolly.
Riskrunner shrugged. "I didn't say you were."
"And not of looking into myself, either."
"I didn't say that either." The chief's heir was, suddenly, serious. He even put his jug of drink aside to look more closely at the two boys. "But don't dismiss that as dreamberry talk and moon fancies, lad. If it were something easy and unimportant, every half-weaned cub would know his soul-name sooner than the teat was out his fat lips. You may think you know who you are now, but you're all dander and fluff, no solid core. The soul-name gives you that, but what good is it if you don't work for it?"
His gaze shifted and caught Redfox. "You weren't born yet when I'd gone off, didn't know me before… really, you won't understand till you've had your own, how much an elf changes. But I learned more in that hand of days than I did in all my seasons before or since. I even learned that I'm not perfect, and that Father can be wrong." He smirked, and the seriousness fell off him like snow off a branch in spring. He clapped Littlejab's back again, making the youth nearly double over. "But you'll do fine, Littlejab, and when you come back I'll put in a good word with Father for you. And who knows! Maybe with pretty Flash, too!" He got to his feet, laughing out loud at the renewed flush on Littlejab's face.
Despite the parting encouragement, Littlejab was glum when the two of them were left by themselves, reaching for the half-emptied jug of drink. "I'm not afraid," he murmured again, moving closer and looking at Redfox, "but I still wish you could come with me."
"I wish so, too," the younger elf answered with a sigh, "but that can't be. You'll tell me what it's like, when you come back?"
"I promised, didn't I?"
"Yes, but…" Redfox hetisated at length. "You might change your mind. You heard what he said, the search changes you."
"Well, you hold me to my promise no matter how much I change." Littlejab's tone was both committed and dismissive, his pragmatic, direct nature showing itself as sure as ever. Redfox smiled at him a little. "And don't let me become a bloated-head fool either and call you cub or tease you. You know your soul-name too, even if you never had to search for it."
He looked earnestly into Redfox's eyes. The younger boy was hesitating again, staring past his friend and down the way that Riskrunner had taken. "Redfox… why don't you just tell him that you know? Your mother and father know it. And I know you hate it when he teases you about your search."
"That's not what I hate," Redfox muttered low. The older elf almost started speaking again, but he turned his head away from his gaze. "Leave it, Littlejab."
Silence. Littlejab didn't push, sensing that he'd misspoken even if he wasn't sure how. Many things that Riskrunner said or did made his quiet brother flinch, but few did as much as this talk of searching, of changing… he sat aimless for a moment, then picked up the jug and took a full drink before offering it to Redfox.
"I'll share everything," he said. "It'll be like you'd gone on a search yourself."
He was surprised when Redfox turned again and looked at him, and even more surprised by the way he brightened, suddenly, at these words. But perhaps that didn't matter. He didn't always understand Easysinger's younger son, but loved him anyway. Maybe the former would change after his search; but he was sure that the latter would not.