(This story is a sequel to ”Shadowplay”.)
“Crackle – “
“I know,” Crackle snapped back irritably. “I already know. Father told me, and Mother told me, and Kestrel, and Nightstorm, and True Edge told me loud. I was awful to Fadestar. I’m sorry. Leave me alone.”
Surprised by the outburst, Snowfall hung back, studying the silhouette of the cub inside her freshly burrowed hiding-hole. Crackle lay where she flung herself against the stretched-out Muddypaws, a patch of red-brown hair on red-brown fur, mottled with the many colors of the girl’s leathers. Early yet in the evening, the low moons snaked silvery beams into the den and struck them against Crackle’s eyes, making them glow a startling green. Snowfall had expected tears there, but there were none.
She had never seen Crackle lash out like that, not at anyone. Though excitable and active, she was a steady-minded cub, too given to explaining things to bother raging about them. Scolding either made her consider and mend her ways, or slipped off her as easy as leaves off her hair. But then likely she had never gotten a scolding as bad as the one five different elves had already handed her after she had nearly scared Fadestar out of her skin. The tale spread like wildfire. Out on the fringes of the Holt, where the girls themselves could not hear, True Edge and Windsong had come to shouts over it. Your cub’s growing like a twisted root! Snowfall’s lifemate had thrown at his fellow huntress. What will she turn into if she doesn’t clear her head?!
There was no room in the hole for two. Snowfall had to crouch outside, craning her neck to try to catch Crackle’s gaze before the cub could bury her face in her wolf’s ruff again. Muddypaws lay silent and anxious, even showing his teeth to the elder. The air stank of elf and wolf in distress.
“I saw that you were teaching Fadestar to make shadow puppets,” Snowfall began in a conversational tone.
Crackle made a huffing sound that let her know that she would not be swallowing the bait. She’d grown too old to stick her head out into the noose of talk. The only way to get to Crackle, Snowfall thought, was to think like Crackle – an art only few seemed to have mastered, which was no doubt part of the problem.
True Edge was right. The cub was growing up strange.
“I promise not to give you another scolding,” she said patiently. **Here, I’ll send it. I’m not angry at you.**
This time she had hit her mark, sent-honesty getting past the girl’s natural suspiciousness of all things grown up. The lines of the face that turned Snowfall’s way had been steadily changing with the seasons, the huntress reflected, growing better defined, more angular. An upturned nose had grown straight, huge round eyes slanted, her cheekbones showed in fine lines. Age was a subtle hunter, creeping in too small increments to measure; glance away and back, and the child would be an adult.
Crackle sensed that she was being studied, no doubt, and probably knew what was going through Snowfall’s head, because she made the craziest face she could manage, mouth stretched wide and ears twitching. Snowfall gave a start, which got a hum of satisfaction from the girl. “I know everything you’re going to say,” Crackle said bitterly, “and I won’t do it. I won’t stop telling my stories and I don’t care who they scare. No one ever takes me seriously unless I scare them.”
“You’re eight turns and four, Crackle,” Snowfall said gently, prodding on.
The girl’s face twisted again. “So what?” she snapped. “Otter’s four turns older and I’m smarter than him. I’m smarter than Evervale too. Sometimes I’m smarter than Mother and Father! But you still all think my stories can’t be true and someday you’ll all be sorry.”
Snowfall raised a skeptical eyebrow. Studying the growth of maturity in the cub’s face, this was not the response she had expected. She crouched lower, almost getting down on her hands and knees to allow her face to be level with Crackle’s. “Cubling,” she began deliberately, “it’s true that you are smart, so think hard and be reasonable. Do you really think there’s some creature inside Fadestar?”
Crackle just stared at her.
It was an implacable stare, not sullen, but almost accusing. Genuine, perfectly adult anger glimmered in its depth, and a twinge of unease pulled at Snowfall’s belly. She’s growing up strange. She saw things in those dark green eyes, no longer a child’s eyes, that she didn’t like. Childish fancies, nightmares dreamed on too many stories and too-full bellies, they were one thing. Crackle was past those. There was something sharp in this girl, she thought suddenly, something beyond a young imagination and curiosity, beyond the practical intelligence of her parents, something bright and wild. And it was swiftly growing too bright, too wild, faster than she could grasp.
“How do you know there isn’t?” Crackle said very quietly. “How do you know what wrapstuff does to elves? Or being healed when you were almost dead? How can you know what stories are true and what stories aren’t? Quick Fang thinks taking a whiff and feeling in your stomach is enough. I think she’s wrong. I think you’re all wrong. You don’t know all the things you say you do. You just make up stories like me and stick to them because you don’t have a choice.”
Her piece said, she once more leaned back against Muddypaws, seeking his unquestionably real and solid presence. Her eyes remained fixed on Snowfall, however. She had put her challenge down, and she was expecting an answer. An answer that Snowfall was not sure she had.
“Walk with me,” she said instead.
It was not the response that Crackle was expecting, and surprise mellowed her, so that after a moment’s hesitation she slowly scampered out of her hole. Muddypaws followed suit, nervous and dusted with fresh earth. He nudged his bond’s back and she obliged him, swinging a leg over and settling on his back. Snowfall took the moment to whistle to Slychase, and set them both at a leisurely pace, picking their way to the Holt’s River. In a nearby route, they could scent another group making its way to the water, Moss, Evervale and Rainpace enjoying the respite in their word-hunting trips, but Snowfall steered the four of them away, to a quieter path, just them and the leaves.
Crackle’s gaze was set ahead, for once ignoring the myriad of things, from shifting shadows to fluttering night insects that would have normally caught her slippery attention. Snowfall nudged her wolf closer, until their knees nearly brushed.
“How do you think we come to know things?” she asked softly, soft enough to be sure the question sounded genuine, but not so much that Crackle might suspect that she was being indulged. “True things. How do we come to have answers to questions?”
Thoughtful, the girl draped herself forward, half-lying as she rode with her fingers running through the taller grasses. “We see things happen,” she answered, “or hear things from tribemates, but that’s not as sure a way. I’m not the only one who makes things up,” she added meaningfully.
Snowfall nodded. “And how do we know if what we hear from tribemates is true or not?”
“If we hear it from Notch it’s not true,” Crackle answered dryly. The elder chuckled, but shook her head.
“When I was small,” she started, “One-Leg told me a tall tale about bloodsucker bugs bigger than my head. You know what a flare your uncle has for stories – almost as good as yours. For moons, every little buzzing noise made me jump. Here come the bloodsuckers to drain me dry! Until one day, I gathered up my courage and went to the Howlkeeper, Breeze, and asked her if she knew of any stories about how to avoid these monsters. And since you’re very smart, you can tell me what she said.”
Crackle snorted. “She said that she’d never seen any giant bloodsuckers so they don’t exist, and then she probably laughed.”
“No,” Snowfall said evenly. “She said that giant bloodsuckers don’t make sense.”
Before Crackle could whip up a reply to that, which looked to be already nocked to her bow, the huntress had stopped her wolf in his tracks. Hushing the cub, she gestured ahead, at one of the great cedar trees that grew down a curve in the path.
“What kind of tree is this?”
“Cedar.” Crackle actually hesitated a moment before answering, still surprised and fascinated by the slow unfolding of the lesson.
“You’ve seen such trees before.”
“Lots and lots.”
Snowfall pointed upwards. “And you know what a cedar looks like, hmm? You know that their leaves are a certain shape, the bark a certain color. You’d never confuse a cedar for anything else.”
Crackle shook her head, bewildered, as Snowfall leaned a little closer, her voice dropping at the next question. “Now, imagine that out of this same trunk, you’d see a branch of maple growing. What would you think?”
Once again, the answer was not immediate; the huntress thought that she could imagine Crackle’s initial reaction, buzzing through a dozen unlikely yet no doubt interesting explanations. She kept watching, though, and Crackle knew as much; at last, she answered honestly. “I’d think Notch stuck it there to confuse me.”
Snowfall almost smiled when she saw realization dawn: Crackle’s eyes had gone round, very round, the look she always wore when considering a profound revelation. A tremor of excitement ran faintly up the girl’s spine, and Muddypaws glanced back, attentive to his bond’s moods, sharing in the gale of thought and new understanding. She had succeeded, the elder thought; she had touched that part of Crackle where she was still most definitely a cub, where a new thought, new knowledge, could rush in like a wave and overturn the mind entirely.
She reached out and stroked a hand up the girl’s back. “Wisdom is like a tree, growing with the tribe. Branches grow from a common trunk; true stories joined by a common truth, the truth of how the world works. When you’ve seen enough branches, when you’ve heard enough true stories, a story that isn’t true stands out like a maple branch in a cedar tree. From Wolfsister’s time and onward, we gather stories, bits of wisdom like threads. Threads weave into a pattern, and when we know the pattern, we can know what doesn’t fit.” She brushed leaf-strewn bangs away from Crackle’s face, looking into the wide eyes. “When you know enough, the world doesn’t seem so frightening.”
With her hand on Crackle’s cheek, she could feel as the girl chewed on her lower lip, another gesture of being in profound thought, and remained silent while the thought ran its course. She was not merely offering Crackle a way out of the tangle she was in: there was another offer there, one she had been debating for a long time on whether to make, or wait for the growing cub to come to her. Snowfall was not normally one to give answers when they weren’t sought, yet now she saw clearly that she could not wait any longer. The tribe needed the talent that was currently not being used – and Crackle needed a place.
“Stories don’t have to be true to be good stories,” Crackle began, sounding hesitant. “I’m sure of that. And anyway no one wants to listen to me – “
“I always want to listen to you,” Moss’ cheerful voice broke through the foliage along with the harpist himself, without the company of his fellow word-hunters. He offered his bright smile to cub and elder alike and looked to Snowfall, offering a quick lock-sent impression of having heard the bulk of the conversation. Snowfall sent back equally quick approval, a sense of affirmation. Thoughts that they had shared between them, just a voiced idea here and there when the conversation turned to the tribe’s cubs and their futures, became now a mutual understanding.
“Actually, Crackle,” Moss spoke up quickly, seeing the girl looking at him with faint resentment at having been interrupted in her revelation and her complaint, “I wanted to ask something of you. None of the cubs is your equal, as a singer and on the harp – there are songs I’d like you to learn, now that I’m away from the Holt so often. I want someone to keep them for me that I can trust with them.”
Crackle blinked at him and his smile and then looked back to Snowfall. Her eyes had narrowed again, green slits in a thoughtful face, looking at and through both elders, clearly suspicious. Snowfall said nothing, but only returned the look, her own offer hanging half-voiced in the air. The rest of the girl’s growing was up to her.
“I know what you’re doing,” Crackle grunted at last. “All right. I’ll be your apprentice howlkeeper. But I want to learn some true scary stories too.”
She looked back at the two elders, head held high, the sudden determination in her eyes making her look far older than her three hands of turns. Snowfall nodded, holding back a wide smile even while her happiness bubbled over sending to the equally restrained, equally satisfied Moss. It would work: Crackle would learn wisdom, true stories to add to her collection of fantastic ones, and the brightness in her would find its form and function and make that wisdom shine.
**We’ve done it,** she sent to Moss, a mental clasp on the back.
**She’s done it,** he answered. **Just you wait. We’ll turn this crackling into a melody, yet.**
[Visual Design: Ellen Million | Sidebar Art: Rachel Vardys | Coding and maintenance: Ron Swartzendruber]