(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Fletcher emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
“Where is it?!” Flash’s tone straddled anger and anxiety. Ringlets of dark red hair stampeded across her reddening face as green eyes darted about the couple’s den. Her frantic hands had managed to make a mess of the place in an astoundingly short amount of time.
“Where is what?” Whitestag asked, though he knew very well what. A small brown curio bag with a loop long enough to go around one’s neck. It was — at last sight — filled with small shells and other baubles that had recently caught the storyteller’s eyes. All to be added to her hoard of riches she took on and off her favorite necklace. Twine-holes had been gradually bored into each treasure, and she had just received a fresh reel from her mother to make ties from. He knew from experience he could get his temperamental lover to calm down if only she would stop and think things through.
But she could get so very worked up over very small matters. “You very swamptrompin’ well know what! And if you don’t want to get your berries burned off sleeping outside in the sun today you’ll stop your lip flapping and start looking for it!”
“And which pile of debris should I sort through? There are so many to choose from.” He tried to add some humor to his voice, but the old strains had been showing for days already. How long until they took another ‘break’ from one another?
With an upturned jaw, Flash pointed back at him. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. If you want to blow wind, start up a list of who could be responsible!”
The yellow-maned hunter was about to reply, with less patient inflections, as a slight — almost imperceptible — sound from outside the doorway drew his attention. Flash was too worked up to have heard it, but she caught the motion of his head. She bounded over and all but ripped the leather drape from its hooks with an angry oomph! Standing before them was Fletcher, frozen in mid-tiptoe. Dangling from an upraised hand was the very bag in question. The shock in his grey eyes morphed into a cheery smirk, and he jingled the bag’s contents. “Did you lose something?”
The tension in the den’s air melted away instantly. There was just something about the sight of their guest caught red-handed. Smiling, Whitestag could barely suppress his laughter as he stepped up beside his mate. ’Oh, how marvelous! Well done!’ Not one for grand designs, it was pretty clear the sable-haired archer’s plan had been to simply leave the trinket hanging over their doorway for one of them to smack into once they were done arguing about it. Simple plans were often the most effective.
A sideways glance told him Flash was likewise amused. Her own grin was absolutely predatory. Not a trace of anger was left in her next words, “If you wanted an excuse to visit, all you had to say was ‘let’s ruin some furs together’.” She stepped forward, slipped the treasure out of the archer’s grip, and let her hand glide down his strong arm. An arm that had spent plenty a night wrapped around Whitestag’s sleeping chest.
Like a hungry chieftess-wolf, Whitestag’s mate had picked her target. Nothing left to do but to cut off the prey’s escape path. The branch that led to the den was wide enough for Whitestag to just slip by. Once on the other side, he patted the shorter male’s shoulders and let his hands rest, gently but firmly, upon them.
“I must say I am impressed, friend! No, truly. I didn’t think you had it in you —”
**He’s gonna have somethin’ in me soon enough,** Flash privately interrupted.
**Hush.** Whitestag continued, “You really had poor Flash chasing her tail. And running right over mine. Congratulations! I’d say this time you proved them all wrong.”
Fletcher appeared to be confused. “Huh? Who?”
Flash answered for her mate. “Why the other pranksters among the tribe, of course. ‘Poor dull-bladed Fletcher,’ they say. ‘Always the accomplice, never the mastermind’…”
**Charming,** Whitestag locksent. It was close enough to what he was going to say, but not quite how he’d intended to put it. The truth of things was that acid-tongued Flash wasn’t the easiest elf to confess an interest in, due in part to her penchant for making a compliment sound like an insult.
The young thief’s face darted back and forth between the two. “What? Who says that? I want names!” As acts of innocence in spite of overwhelming evidence went, it was a good one. But then, he had been trained by the best; Flash herself. And the student had learned well. With a perfectly straight face Fletcher met his female accuser’s eyes and insisted, “I am NOT dull. And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Flash made herself sound less than impressed. “Then maybe you could tell me where you found this?”
“Um… nowhere. Outside. Just…” Fletcher straightened up. “I did not take it.”
**If that were true, he’d send,** Flash coyly informed her mate. “Why does it smell only of you, then?” she asked, savoring the scent upon her property. “Just think if we hadn’t been home. Leave to go look for this, come back to find it hanging about smelling of …” She took another blissful whiff, “Invitation.”
“Sounds like a brilliant plan. Too bad I didn’t think of it.” For all Fletcher’s dissent, he wasn’t trying to get away at all. And the line of his shoulders betrayed no apprehension. If Whitestag had to guess, his dear friend was beginning to enjoy the interplay. “But, really, there’s been some kind of-“
“And playing the put-upon victim, too.” Whitestag tsked. “How would you judge his performance so far, oh teller-of-tall-tales?”
Flash shifted her weight to the other leg, arms crossed in theatrical thought. Then she opened her eyes large as they would go. “Try to widen your eyes a bit next time. Makes you look more sincere. If it’ll help, I might know someone who can teach you how to cry false tears.”
“I think we’re just about done talking, here,” Fletcher answered, own voice lightening. “Let’s get on with this, then.”
“Oh, the archer’s arrow flies true,” Whitestag complimented. “Whatever shall we do with him, I wonder?”
Flash giggled, and started undoing the ties about her top. “Well, oh catcher-of-mighty-beasts, I say we make him work off his obligation.”
“Sounds like a plan! Consider yourself lucky we didn’t take this matter up with the chief.” With a genial push, he guided Fletcher into his home and away from prying eyes. Fletcher continued protesting his innocence, even as he pulled his shirt off. As Whitestag pulled the curtain back into place, it occurred to him that something very important had indeed been missing from this den, and now he knew what it really was.
Ravenous curiosity had been nibbling at Notch’s mind for hours. Ever since Fletcher’s body was put out on the river to float away by himself, his father, Longshot, and Windburn. Just before the four of them took up their push-poles, he’d spied crafty old One-Leg slipping something into the folds of the shirt Fletcher had died in. He was sure the other two didn’t see, and the rest of the tribe was too far back. Notch had tried to get his sire alone to ask about it, wanting in on the secret. But there had been precious little time between the last sight of Fletcher’s corpse and the start of his Howl, and One-Leg seemed keen to spend it with as many elves as possible.
Notch decided that his cagey sire had had his chance to keep things hushed up. Now, with the tribe gathered for the Final Howl, Notch would have his answer.
Sitting back against a root of the Child Tree, Notch waited for an opportunity. When an opening in the chat and singing presented itself, Notch took it. Smooth-voiced, he asked for all to hear, "So, Father, what was in the bag you put next to Fletcher?"
Silent eyes focused on his father. The elder blinked, and his bushy red whiskers twitched. “What? Oh, that was from before your time. Just a little carryall of your sister’s that found itself way up in the lad’s den one night while he was down at the Craft Trees knapping arrowheads.” With a devious twinkle in his eye, he added, “Though nobody ever figured out who did it, or how.”
The eyes stayed on him. “Humph. That wasn’t a very long tale, was it? The longer one lies in what came from Fletcher giving that trifle back. For that was the night three elves stopped being blind what half the tribe already saw, and when they climbed out of that den the next night they made it official. A three-mating from then on. A strong and vibrant braid they were; Whitestag’s even head, Fletcher’s devoted hands, Flash’s wild heart. The fire in the love they forged burned all the brighter for the short time it lasted.”
As evasive answers went, it was pretty good.