The departing sun was still partly obscured by the charcoal grey clouds of the late-afternoon sky when the small silvery shadow crept across the passageway walls and into the storage den. The figure's footfalls were soft and sure, knowing instinctively where to move to avoid eliciting the sounds that would betray his presence. The tips of his ears twitched intermittently, constantly evaluating and filtering through the sounds of the distantly fluttering flora and fauna for the tell-tale impacts of approaching footsteps.
It had been a long time since his last time in the labyrinthine storage dens. His memory was filled with vague recollections of being in the space with his father when he was younger, but they were nothing concrete. He was familiar with the area, with the feelings brought forth by his recollections of their subterranean vastness. He recognized the faded smell of berry-based paint that wafted through the still air, but this was his first time being here of his own accord, and as such it was all totally brand new. Rill had always bugged him to go with him to see what was there, but Cinder's memories of being in the space made the prospect of returning there one that wasn't pressing, not to mention the restrictions placed upon the cubs towards the lower levels of the dentree. Though he was mature for his age in some ways, his young mind couldn't quite fathom why an adult escort was necessary. The dentree was his home, and that should include all areas, shouldn't it?
He imagined he felt a slight tingle at the back of his head, but ignored it as he stepped lightly across the floor. It was only natural, he supposed. To his knowledge, he was the only one up and alert. The silence made it easy to make a game of it, imagining he was sneaking into a human camp for some piece of vital information for the tribe. With the potential trouble he could get in if he were discovered, and the very real threat of the Preservers intervening to spoil any fun to be had, the act of being there was equal parts scary and exciting.
But that wasn't the only reason he was here. For as long as he could remember, Cinder noticed that his father would often spend time down here on his own, always around the same time of year. This time of year, a time when the spring weather fostered a sense of renewal, seemed to cause the chieftain to retreat within himself, albeit briefly. He realized that this was something important, but he wasn't old enough to figure it out for himself, only that his father was acting differently. It was hardly noticeable, to be sure, but Cinder had noticed. It could be said of cubs his age that despite the inherent immaturity there resided a certain kind of wisdom found only in the young, doubly so when it comes to family members. Perhaps it was because Windburn had been spending so much time here, or perhaps he was hoping to find him here, but he felt sure that the answer he was looking for–to a question he hadn't really thought to ask–could be found where he was standing.
The cub swept his eyes across the alcoves, drinking in the labels and processing their meanings. They all boasted a painstaking level of detail; each brushstroke was bold, concise. They seemed to emit a feeling of order and specificity that seemed slightly foreign compared to the more organic flow of living the elves generally indulged in. His eyes traced the subtle pattern of the various labels, absorbing the temporal continuity they displayed.
There was no sense of time in this room. The past and present seemed to exist simultaneously, a sense made more potent by the symbols in their varying states of decay. Cinder could pick out the oldest by how faded they were, the cracks in the joints, the smudges that came from years of fingertips sliding across their breadths.
He stepped closer, careful to avoid jostling the dust-covered, well-worn wooden block that still bore the weight of the wooden paint bucket. A paint brush remained still inside it, its bristles jutting out over the lip. The bucket had surely long-since been emptied of its contents, but the faint aroma of the berries that produced the paint still lingered.
A barely audible sound from behind him pricked at his ears, prompting him to react immediately and instinctively. His eyes darted around and swiftly found the nearest place to conceal himself. In a flash, he was safely secluded in one of the crevasses naturally formed in the structural wall.
A few moments later, a shadow appeared in the entryway, framed by the glow of the moon-moss adorning the cavernous walls. It took but a moment for Cinder to detect his father's scent, and only a moment longer for the cub to wonder why exactly he had reacted as he had. Where did he think he was, a human camp? Apparently the “game” had done wonders to impede his common sense.
Windburn was carrying a rectangular carved box, divided down the middle; from the smells, Cinder deduced that it was half-filled with water, while the other half contained something made from the juice of berries. He sometimes forgot how much more potent the smell could be when the berries were drained. The chief moved with purpose through the passageway with a masculine stride, unconsciously compensating to ensure not a drop of water was spilled. A subtle curdle of steam floated from the water's surface and trailed behind him as he walked.
Cinder's positioning within the cavern wall didn't help his comfort level. The walls that enclosed him felt rough against his skin, and a slow-burning heat seemed to be building, causing a light sweat to break out on his forehead. He didn't particularly like cramped spaces. Despite preferring the outdoors to the confines of the dentrees, he didn't have a problem with the indoors, but there was just something about not having room to move and maneuver that unsettled him.
The dull thud of the wooden materials box hitting the floor indicated that the figure had ceased moving, and the words that came from its mouth confirmed it.
“I know you're there, little one. Come out before you hurt yourself.”
The unfortunate reality of his situation accompanied his father's words like the thrum after a shot arrow. He didn't think Windburn would punish him for breaking the rules against being in the storage dens alone, but figured there were even odds that his father would be disappointed. That was the last thing he wanted. He immediately began squirming to free himself from his hiding place, cringing occasionally in discomfort at the awkwardness of moving. When he was free, he let out the breath he had subconsciously been holding and walked over to Windburn, the briefest hint of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. It was nice to be able to move again.
“I don't see why you thought you needed to hide,” Windburn continued, retrieving the stump and bucket from where Cinder had seen it last. “Even if I couldn't scent you when I came in, you weren't doing a very good job controlling your fidgeting.” A soft chuckle accompanied his comment as he removed the empty paint bucket from its place atop the stump and moving the divided wooden box to replace it. “I know how uncomfortable such tight spaces make you.”
“I, uh, well... I didn't think anyone would be awake yet. You scared me,” the cub replied, fighting to keep the slight flush of embarrassment from reaching his cheeks. The elven chief smiled at his son briefly before reaching for the paintbrush in the empty bucket and moving it to rest in an open loop on his belt.
“It's been a few seasons since the last time I brought you down here with me,” he said, waving his arms to point out the breadth of the cavernous room. “Does it look like you remember?”
“It looks a little smaller, but I don't remember so many pictures. How long did it take?” he asked, pointing to the various symbols.
“A long time,” his father replied with a chuckle. “The work never seems to end.”
“I suppose it can be, but it needs to be done, otherwise we'd be liable to eat rattlesnake roots when we really wanted to eat salmon.”
“I guess.” The cub paused for a moment before moving to leave. “Maybe I'll go see if Rill is up yet.”
“I don't think anyone else has gotten up yet,” Windburn replied. “If you want, you can stay here and help me until then.”
“Well...” the cub began uncertainly, taking a moment to think. His father was right, it would probably be a little while before anyone stirred, and watching his father work would certainly be less boring than wandering off to find someplace else to alleviate his boredom. “...all right.”
Windburn smiled and nodded. “Good.” He reached to his belt and produced a small pouch from it.
“What's that?” Cinder asked, curious. His father loosened the pouchstrings and spread open its mouth so that his son could see inside. It was filled with shavings of an opaque white substance, which Windburn proceeded to pour into the steaming water. The liquid immediately turned milky as it began to mingle with the substance.
“It's the key ingredient to make the paint I use. If I were to just mix the water with the berry juice it would be far too thin to use, and I'd have to do this a lot more often,” he said, stirring the mixture gently. “But do you see how the shavings are mixing with the water here?”
“It's getting thicker,” Cinder replied, nodding.
“That's right. When it reaches the right consistency, right about now,” he said, pointing to the mixture which had become something between a liquid and a gel, “it's ready for the colour. Would you like to do the honours?”
Cinder grinned and nodded vigorously. “What do I do?”
“Do you see the divide separating the juice from the mixture? Pull it out,” Windburn said. When Cinder moved quickly to do so, the chief cautioned, “Slowly, little one, unless you want to be covered in juice.” Cinder immediately moved more slowly and removed the divider, watching in mute curiosity as the deeply-coloured juice washed over the milky mixture, swiftly beginning to stain it as his father stirred to help it along. He recognized the colour as similar to what was on the walls.
After a bit of stirring, Windburn seemed satisfied with the combination and gestured to the empty paint bucket. “Hold that steady while I pour the paint in. We don't want to spill any.” Cinder nodded and held the bucket firmly on both sides. His father took the mixture in both hands and carefully poured it into the bucket. A little bit of steam escaped when it hit the surface of the bucket and immediately began to cool. Satisfied, Windburn put the now-empty receptacle aside and looked intently at his son.
“Do you recognize the symbols that need touching up?” the chief asked. Cinder swept his eyes across the space, noting the most faded symbols and their meanings, and nodded. “Good,” Windburn said, offering his son the paintbrush. “Then you'll paint the first one.”
Cinder, caught by surprise, accepted the paintbrush and looked questioningly at his father. “They're too high. How am I supposed to reach them?” In response, Windburn swept the cub up in his arms and hoisted his son atop his shoulders. Cinder laughed. Maybe it wouldn't be so boring after all.