Willow heard the whimpering the moment before she reached out to pull back the leather flap that covered the entrance to her mother and father's den. The sound made her freeze in place. Even though it was almost inaudible, it grated on her nerves as though it were being trumpeted into her ear.
Why, in the name of Badger's Blood, was Mouse crying now?
Willow paused for a moment more, debating not going inside. She had wanted to step in out of the cold, but this changed things. Her brother was a pest and a shadow at the best of times. He was unbearably clingy when he was upset. And, what was more, Willow didn't want to somehow become shouldered with the burden of cubsitting her four-turns-old brother when he was crying. She already had other plans for her evening.
She would leave. Now. Willow turned to descend the Dentree when her mother's muffled voice called out from within.
“Willow? Is that you out there?”
Willow let out a small, pained grunt and rolled her eyes. She'd been caught. The wind was at her back, and more than likely, her mother had scented her at the doorway, even though the denflap was closed. With the demeanor of a wolf that had been caught raiding meat from the storage dens, Willow pulled the cover aside and ducked in. “I was looking for Father.”
Her mother, who was sitting in her bedbowl with her crying son cradled in her lap, merely nodded.
Willow tipped her head in her brother's direction. “What's the matter with him?”
Finch patted Mouse's ruffled blonde hair, trying to comfort him. “He won't tell me. But I have an idea it probably has something to do with his agemates.”
Mouse's sobbing intensified at the conclusion of Finch's answer, and Willow grunted a “Huh,” in response. If she had to guess, it was Snowflake who was causing the problems. Sickly little Fadestar couldn't hurt the feelings of a fly even if she wanted to. For a moment, Willow let herself wonder what the problem could be, and then she made herself stop. Agemates fought sometimes. It was the way things were. She couldn't count the times she had got into her own scuffles and arguments when she was Mouse's age. More than likely, whatever was eating Mouse would blow over like a summer storm, and he'd be back to chasing his friends' shadows again... which was preferable to him chasing hers.
Willow looked at her mother, who had fallen silent, but was still trying to comfort her son. Finch hadn't asked her to stay, and Mouse's crying was really starting to wear on her. “I'm going to see if Father's at the river,” Willow announced as she turned to duck back out of the den, and left it at that.
Willow's feet crunched through a crusted layer of snow as she made her way back to the Holt. The air had that familiarly crisp bite to it, and the wind had begun to pick up. It was going to snow soon, and the whole forest knew it. That was why, she reasoned, her snares were all empty. Anything with half a brain would be finding shelter before the snow started to fall. Willow shivered and hugged herself under her heavy winter poncho. She was appropriately dressed, but she still felt cold. She wanted nothing more than to find a warm den somewhere, preferably one with a warm furmate or two to wait out the coming storm.
When she drew close to the Holt, Mouse's shrill little voice cut through the growing wind like a freshly-honed blade. “Let me come with? Please?”
Willow stopped in her tracks. That was a question her brother had asked her countless times, but he wasn't talking to her. Why wasn't he at home, inside, when bad weather was coming in? Who was he with? She sniffed the air for a clue, but only got a noseful of bitter cold.
The response to the cub's request was a snarling, “No!” that carried unspoken undertones of, “leave me alone!” Definitely Snowflake's voice.
Curious now, Willow took a few more steps past some thorny, leafless shrubs to see if she could see what was happening. Upwind, in the near distance, Snowflake sat atop her wolf-friend, Growler, while Mouse scurried at the wolf's heels to try and catch his 14-turns-old agemate. Growler was spinning, happily playing his own version of 'keep-away' to avoid the cub's advances, but Snowflake wasn't treating this like a game; the snarl on her face made that painfully clear.
Willow stayed back and watched. The situation seemed painfully familiar to her: Mouse was not going to take no for an answer, and would keep pressing until he got his way. She knew it could take half a day to shake the cub off her own heels when he wanted to be around. She was sure her younger, more wolfish tribemate would be far less patient.
Snowflake moved to dodge another of Mouse's passes. “Go away!” she growled at her unwanted, oblivious, companion. “I can't check trap-lines with you at my heels!”
“But I want a wolf-ride!”
Willow lunged forward. Sure enough, the situation was quickly getting out of hand. A sudden, strange, sense of protectiveness toward her brother rose within her.
Growler, grinning and seemingly oblivious to his bond's quickly souring mood, spun around to 'keep-away' again, and this time, with a snarl, Snowflake leapt from her wolf with teeth bared. It became very clear what the young female's intent was.
“ENOUGH!!!” Willow bellowed. The sudden outburst made Mouse, Snowflake, and Growler stop short.
Willow stepped in between the two younger elves. Her voice dropped low, in warning. “You bite him, Snowflake, and I'll box you on your ears so hard they'll be ringing for a moon!”
“I told him to leave me alone!” Snowflake snapped in defense, with a glare in Willow's direction. “He won't listen!”
Willow met the glare with one of her own. “I know you did. I heard you tell him more than once. But he's like that. And he's just a cub! You, on the other hand, are old enough to know better than to bite a cub, even if he is annoying you!”
Snowflake guiltily averted her gaze to the ground and fell silent.
Willow wasn't finished. She turned toward her wide-eyed brother. “And you... When someone tells you no, that means no. See? You're lucky you weren't bitten!”
Mouse meekly nodded. His lower lip began to tremble.
High Ones, Willow wondered, was he going to start crying? Exasperated, she gestured toward the Holt. “This is over now! Get back to the Dentrees, both of you, before it starts to snow!”
Snowflake's response was to mount her wolf and head in the suggested direction. Her unchecked trap-lines were forgotten.
Mouse, however, looked up at his sister with wet, wolf-pup eyes. He was going to cry. “But I wanted to ride! Why can't she share?”
Willow knelt down so she could look her brother in the eye. “She didn't want to,” she explained, and quickly added, “and she doesn't have to.” Oh, how she wished she could get her little brother to understand that concept.
Mouse put his small, mittened hands around Willow's neck. “But why can Snowflake have a wolf-friend and not me?”
Willow instinctively hugged her brother. “You'll get one, sometime,” she finally said. “When you're ready. You really have to learn to be patient.”
Mouse fell silent, save for soft, sad, sniffles, obviously thinking hard about what his sister had just told him. Willow didn't know what to do to comfort him except to keep holding him. Finally, when Willow's knees were starting to ache from kneeling on the cold, hard ground, the cub finally let go of his sister's neck, wiped his mittens across his teary eyes, and nodded a quiet acceptance.
That was Willow's signal to — gratefully — push herself to her feet. She stretched her aching muscles and took a step toward the Holt... only to notice Mouse wasn't following. He just stood there, frowning and staring in the direction his friend had ridden.
“She probably won't let me play with her any more,” Mouse sighed.
Willlow gently poked his shoulder. “C'mon, don't be like that! Sure she will. Just tell her you're sorry.” Her mind raced for more words of comfort, and before she knew it, she blurted out, “I bet she's sorry she tried to bite you, too!”
“Do you really think so?” the cub gasped, wide-eyed again.
“I do,” Willow lied. More than likely, though, Snowflake would quickly forget being angry, just as wolves did. It was almost the same thing as being sorry, right? “And, anyway, if she doesn't listen to you, I'll box her ears so hard they'll be ringing for a moon,” Willow joked. It made Mouse giggle.
The first flakes of snow began to lazily drift groundward. Willow glanced up at the darkening grey sky, knowing the snowfall would pick up soon, and her mother and father would be worrying about Mouse. She smiled down at her brother. “So, what do you think, sprout? Time to head back home to Mama and Papa?”
Mouse nodded, and held his hand up toward Willow's. However, Willow didn't take it. Instead, she knelt down in front of her brother, with her back facing him. “You still want a wolf-ride?”
Mouse shouted, “Yes!!!” and wasted no time in clambering onto his sister's back. He giggled as Willow rose to her feet and loped homeward.
|Illustration by Heidi|
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