(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Fadestar emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
“She’s frightened of me,” Fadestar whispered, “I can tell.”
She stared across the clearing, toward the small fire lit in front of the Dentrees, where Crackle was putting on a show of shadow-puppets with her hands for Rainpace to admire, shifting them around to the tune of his flute. The melody was haunting, a rising and falling tune, mimicking the cry of the whippoorwill that Crackle’s hands made and then taking it further. When Crackle moved her hands around the fire, the shapes she cast against the tree became dazzling huge.
Nightstorm scoffed slightly, her hand hovering over Fadestar’s dark hair. She looked longing to run her nimble tanner’s fingers through its soft weight, but didn’t, knowing the cub’s remaining aversion to touch. “Of course she isn’t. What’s to be frightened of? You’re younger than her.”
Fadestar hesitated. She wasn’t sure what to answer; she wasn’t sure that she knew. But there was something in the elder cub’s eyes, something about her slinking movements whenever they came by each other, something in how she threw her arm about the neck of her wolf – something unmistakable. She watched the shadow-puppets, their gnashing teeth and fluttering half-formed limbs. Everyone had encouraged her to make friends with the other cub almost from the moment that she had woken up, told her of Crackle’s boundless energy, the chatter and imagination that could sweep an elf away from her problems. Instead she had found suspicious eyes, wary silence.
Rainpace twirled the music of his flute, accompanying the shadow play along. From his expression, Fadestar thought that the story could not be a very cheerful one.
“Crackle can scare herself into a shivery ball,” Nightstorm said, grinning a little. Fadestar glanced back at her, unsure. “The things she makes up… you should’ve seen her sent-nightmares when she was smaller. You just mustn’t let it get to you.”
She gave Fadestar’s back a delicate, encouraging push.
“Go talk to her.”
Fadestar hesitated, unconvinced. “I don’t think she’d like that.” She didn’t like Crackle’s stares. Every time that she had begun to hope, to feel that she could be a normal wolfrider someday, those stares had returned her to the wrapstuff den,
“She looks at me as though there’s something wrong with me,” she whispered.
Nightstorm’s answer was ready, as it always was. The crafter had not once wavered. “There isn’t anything wrong with you. You’re alive, healthy and growing strong.” Her sending was infinitely gentle, cautious in brushing against the cub’s mind. Still, it overflowed with confidence and encouragement. **Don’t go back into hiding, Fadestar.**
The tender brush of thought remained with Fadestar for the rest of the night, even when Nightstorm finished her stitching and took herself and her fishing spear off to the river. She felt less secure without the tanner there with her, but still watched Crackle carrying on her shadow-puppeting, until the story wound down and concluded in a surprisingly peaceful tone. When the redheaded cub wrapped up her telling, Rainpace had put down his flute and was curled in the nook of a root, letting himself be lulled into sleep by the lullaby that followed. Crackle had a voice as clear as a cold night’s sky that made Fadestar think of Finch, and she tried to take Nightstorm’s advice to heart. She couldn’t keep hiding. She had to accept that this tribe was her tribe, to learn to feel it as she had the tribe she was born into, she had to. It was something every wolfrider had to have. To be part of the tribe was to be real.
She crept silently out of her niche in the tree when Rainpace was already fast asleep. The small fire had mostly gone out, and Crackle sat poking a stick into the embers, thrilled at the tiny flame that licked at its tip. The firelight shone up and turned her face into a pool of shadow where two huge green eyes gleamed like moons.
The eyes darted up to Fadestar, and narrowed.
“Hello,” Fadestar whispered.
Crackle didn’t quite edge away, not quite sliding into the shuffling, wary body language of the cornered animal. It was a half-wince as she put her arm around Muddypaws’ neck. The lean red-brown wolf gave Fadestar a sniff of courtesy, then yawned and put his head back on his paws. But his eyes stayed half-open, the younger cub saw. It was very difficult to be brave.
“I liked your story,” she said in a low, low voice. Crackle’s nose wrinkled minutely. She stuck her twig into the fire.
“You didn’t hear it, you were too far off,” she said flatly.
Fadestar’s heart seemed to twitch inside her chest. That look again. Of all the elves in the tribe, her tribe, why would the one who was closest to her in age also be the coldest?
“I’ll tell you a better story,” Crackle announced suddenly, leaning back against her wolf. Her hair and his fur were a closer shade than Fadestar originally thought, and along with the dry-leaf colors of Crackle’s leathers, they fit together very well, a sort of red-brown wall. “I’ll tell you one about ghosts.”
She swallowed in silence. “Ghosts?”
“Ghosts,” Crackle answered, businesslike. “About an elf who’d got hurt on the hunt so badly, his spirit got out of his body, except they didn’t know that when they put him into wrapstuff. So there was his body inside but his spirit was outside. And it ate at him. So he tried to send to the others, but he was a ghost, and all he did was give them bad dreams, nights and nights on end, the worst of dreams, and in the end they had to – “ she cut herself off, dramatically enough to get the message across without one word said.
Fadestar realized that her eyes were almost painfully wide. She stared at the other cub, at Crackle’s slightly determined tilt up of the chin that seemed all but challenging. It was a horrible story, and almost definitely not real, it couldn’t be real, even if it sounded almost like it was about Fletcher. The other cub couldn’t know why Fletcher had died when they cut him out, she simply couldn’t. Nightstorm did say that Crackle was good at scaring herself... “It never happened, though,” she whispered, as resolutely as she could. “No one ever got bad dreams after… after someone was put in wrapstuff. And my spirit is all here.”
“That’s what you say,” Crackle retorted.
Her words crashed against Fadestar’s ears like the thunder of a falling tree. The sudden thought closed her throat; she had to swallow hard a few times before she found her voice again. “But I’m here,” she said. “I’m alive and I’m talking and…”
“You look like you are.” Crackle spoke quickly and surely, as though the words had been buzzing around her head for a long time fighting for a way out. “But maybe that’s just on the outside. On the inside you might not be Fadestar at all, maybe her spirit went out and something else came in. And you just bet it wants us to believe that it’s you. That way we won’t suspect anything.”
She tightened her hold on Muddypaws’ neck. The wolf raised his head, and his own bright yellow eyes matched his bondmate’s in wide staring. “Or maybe we think that you’re here, but you’re really a ghost. Are you sure the wrapstuff worked? Maybe you died turns and turns ago and you just don’t know it, and your spirit wants to live so bad it’s making all of us think there’s a living Fadestar, but it’ll just lead to bad dreams in the end…”
“No,” Fadestar tried to say, but the word came out choked and wavering. No, no, there is a living Fadestar! But if there wasn’t, would she know? Would she truly know? Or would she drift about, dead and not knowing it, never to rejoin her father, never to – did ghosts grow up? Or were they stuck in time worse than she had ever been in wrapstuff? “I’m not a ghost, I don’t feel like a ghost.” But what did a ghost feel like?
Drifting, strange, quiet, untouched, not real -
The look on Crackle’s face was a pained mixture of sympathy on the one hand, cold terror on the other. She was right all along, Fadestar thought, Crackle was frightened of her. Terrified. And maybe she was right to be. “And maybe there isn’t anything in you,” the other girl said very quietly. “Maybe what got in there ate your spirit, while you were sleeping. And now you’re empty, and it’s gone free of the wrapstuff, and before you know it – “
“No!” Fadestar gasped, throwing her hands up over her head, pulling herself into a ball, tight and dark and shivering. But Crackle had stopped talking, and there was another scent nearby, half-familiar, strong. The younger cub barely dared to open one eye and look past her own hands.
Quick Fang had a grip on Crackle’s shoulder, and was holding tightly while Rill clung to her other arm. There was a little bit of anger in the huntress’ face, bur mostly there was exasperation and perhaps even disappointment. Crackle was staring up at her, and as she stared, Quick Fang moved past her, rearranged Rill on her arm, and knelt by Fadestar to take a deep breath of her scent.
Fadestar whimpered, not even sure why, but Quick Fang hardly noticed. She sniffed for a little bit, then put her hand on the soft black hair and ran sure fingers through it.
“Fadestar’s scent,” she confirmed to Crackle, with absolute certainty. “I know Fadestar’s scent. Know how Fadestar moves and talks and breathes. If something was wrong I’d know it.”
She said it without blinking, without giving either cub a chance to comment or protest, and then she tugged on Fadestar’s arms till they loosened and slid Rill into them.
Crackle made a tiny sound of distress, but if Rill thought Fadestar was a ghost, he didn’t mind it. He gurgled loudly, kicked a bit to settle himself and aimed grabby little hands at the pink flowers on Fadestar’s shirt, tugging at them and making random cub noises that were entirely normal.
Fadestar briefly sat limp, overwhelmed. Then, by an instinct she was not sure where she found, she arranged the cubling on her knee. He was larger than Mouse had been at that age, grabbier, more active, but he had the same underlying scent of elf-milk freshness, the same whispery texture to his skin. He felt perfectly real against her. She glanced up and found Quick Fang looking satisfied, settling onto the root with a sigh as though quite happy to have found someone to hold her excited toddler for her. Rill reached up to tug at Fadestar’s pigtails, and she let him even though it hurt a little.
She looked at Crackle. Crackle looked back.
Fadestar’s hand darted out, arrow-quick. She grabbed onto Crackle’s wrist, and squeezed a little when the older cub flailed. She shifted her fingers till their hands had twined together.
“I’m not a ghost,” she said, voice tight. “You can’t touch ghosts.”
Crackle’s eyes were terribly wide. And for the first time since her emergence from wrapstuff, Fadestar felt a new, almost thrilling emotion, faint but definite; she felt anger.
“And if there was something horrible in me that you had to stay away from, then now it’s too late,” she added.
She released Crackle’s hand and put her arms around Rill, who yawned and nuzzled her chest. Off to the side, Quick Fang was looking over the sleeping Rainpace, a tiny smirk growing on her face as a prank was no doubt brewing. Embers hissed in the firepit. Normal, Fadestar thought. It has to be, someday…
At last: “I could teach you to make shadow-puppets,” Crackle spoke up diplomatically. She sounded as though she’d decided that if Fadestar did have something horrible in her, the best thing to do was keep on its good side. She held out her hands, and Rill squealed. Evidently he thought it was a good idea.
The burst of confidence had been draining. Fadestar swallowed. It wasn’t exactly how she thought friendship should go – Crackle wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t, herself. It was like everything had been since waking up, strange and slow and nothing like anything she’d known before.
Still, finally, she nodded. She was not going back into hiding.
“Shadowplay is best for telling scary stories,” Crackle warned; but Fadestar thought that was all right. They’d already gone through the scariest bits.