Cloudfern paused on his way down the Gathering Den stairs to look back at Newt, Crackle, and the cluster of four smaller children between them. Crackle wrinkled her nose at him, amused by the elder's clear hesitation. “Go on,” she said, waggling her hands at him in a dismissing gesture. “The chief's called. It can't take all that long to shape something open down there in the storage dens. We'll keep an eye on the cubs.”
Clearly, that was exactly Cloudfern's concern. “I'll be right back,” he said, looking first at Newt and then at Crackle. “No scary stories,” he added firmly, before stepping out of view.
“It's no fair,” Crackle complained to no one in particular. She sat sprawled on the floor of the Gathering Den, her feet kicked up against the wall as she idly braided a string of her own hair. With Fadestar gone, having suddenly taken up the notion of becoming a scout and having been sent out with Farscout on a long patrol, Crackle was waiting for Newt to finish up what he was doing so that they could go and find something interesting to do. Newt sat diligently finishing his chores – he was pounding away at a handful of dried black rattlecap mushrooms. Crackle rather envied him his pretty mortar and pestle, both shaped by Starskimmer out of a heavy green stone that was threaded through with streams of yellow and ruby-red. But Crackle knew that if she owned a pretty mortar like that, Cloudfern or some other elder would try to put her to work as well, pulverizing harmless herbs to dust. “I am just so unappreciated.”
“Oh, I think your parents and Quick Fang appreciate your story-telling abilities,” Newt said wryly. “Rill's nightmares sure gave them ample opportunity to appreciate you.”
Crackle snorted at that. She watched the cubs at their play. Cinder, Rill, Copper and Glow sat on the expanse of a black bear hide, playing with their wooden toys. Cinder, Rill and Copper all held wolves, who were hard pressed to circle and entrap Glow's single branch-horn stag. Especially since the stag was prone to somersaults and vaults that carried it the width of little Glow's reach.
“You cubs like my stories, don't you?” Crackle asked, seeking sympathy from any quarter she could find it from.
All four of the children looked at her with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “Yes!” squealed Glow. The stag tumbled, lifeless, into onto the fur hide as Glow dropped it and scrambled for Crackle. “A story!”
Crackle swung her legs down and sat up, providing the girl with lap space moments before Glow landed.
“Tell us a good one,” Cinder said.
“A bloody one!” Rill agreed, while his wolf pounced on the defenseless stag and finished it off with proper snarls and growls. “With none of that gushy-feely stuff like Honey's.”
“Bloody, huh? I can do bloody.” Crackle met Newt's eyes. Her friend was giving her a sternly significant look. Crackle gave him a sweet smile in return. “Bloody but NOT scary. I can do bloody but not scary.”
“Good,” Newt replied, never missing a beat in his steady rhythm with the grinding stone.
“So.” Bloody – but not scary. Crackle thought for a moment on that challenge. Her eyes fell on Copper. The girl was still playing with the painted wooden wolf in her hands, chasing a figment of her own imagination through the tall black grass of bear-fur. “I know a good one, and I bet you'll never have heard it before,” Crackle began, feeling the spark of inspiration strike and catch flame.
“Years ago – an oak's age or two now – some of our elders encountered the Fierce One humans, way way up in the north, in the shadow of the Guardian Mountains —” Crackle began.
**Not scary!** Newt demanded.
Crackle made a face at him and didn't break her verbal stride. “It was a terrible time. Some elves died and some were hurt. Brightwood went into wrapstuff with Copper no more than a sprout in her belly. But there was one brave, brave elf. Lynx was his name. He was Copper's grandfather, and brother of my grandmother Sunlight, and brother to Rill's grandsire True Edge. You share his blood as well, Cinder, don't worry, so we all should know about Lynx's fierce, fierce fight.”
Cinder and Rill were already rapt, while Crackle figured she had Glow's skyfire attention for at least the moment. Copper was looking at her as well now, the toy wolf motionless in her hands.
“You see, Lynx had to stay behind and fight off the Fierce Ones, so that Farscout and Brightwood and Cloudfern could escape,” Crackle continued. “Now Grandsire Lynx was a tall elf — he was taller than Blacksnake, taller than Brightwood, taller even than Farscout. He was tall and he was strong, and he was as fierce as the meanest bear. So he stood his ground and looked at this terrible pack of bad humans. He looked them in the eye, all of them, one – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight — the whole pack of them. He stopped them where they stood with just a look, and he said in a roar like a mountain lion, You will not get my cubs! I will stand and fight and put each of you down, and then I'll take your hides home for my den floor!"
Rill gave an appreciative trill at that, while Glow’s eyes were enormous. Cinder was staring at Crackle with complete absorption, hanging on her next word, while Copper was listening just as intently, her small face set with a frown.
“And so Lynx stood off the Fierce Ones,” Crackle continued, thriving on the rapt attention. “He fought them, one and all, and he cut them down like leaves, like autumn grass. The snow around him was red with blood, but still he kept fighting. When he broke his spear, he picked up the fallen weapons at his feet. And when the bodies got too high, he climbed on top of them —”
**Too scary!** Newt sent, sharp with disapproval.
Crackle ignored her friend. Rill and Cinder, at least, were eating this story up, and hadn’t Snowfall taught her that a good storyteller always played to her audience? “— until finally, even the bravest and most fool-hardy of the Fierce One hunters began to retreat from him. They looked at Lynx, and at all of their own dead scattered around the snow in a big circle around him, and then their oldest elder stepped forward. And do you know what that elder did?” she asked, directing the question at the two boy-cubs.
“Why, that elder put down his spear. He put down his knife. Then he got on his knees in the snow and bent his head to Lynx, until the old human’s forehead was in the snow. Lynx panted for breath and watched this. He didn’t know what to think. And then the next Fierce One did the same. And the next. And then all of them did! Lynx had beat them, and beat them so good, they could do nothing but show their throats in submission.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Copper murmured in protest.
Crackle ignored the girl — after all, it was Crackle’s story. Crackle was the one making it up, and she was going to tell it the way she wanted.
“Lynx began to carefully back away. He wanted to go home. But to his horror, the Fierce Ones followed him like ducklings. When he ran, they ran. When he stopped, they stopped. They didn’t try to touch him again, knowing he would chop them with his knife, but they made it clear -- they were his, now. They considered him part of their pack. And they couldn’t understand why Lynx didn’t want them.”
“That’s not the way it happened,” Copper protested.
Crackle threw the girl a look of exasperation. “Lynx ran for three days. He ran all the way back to the edge of our forest. And the pack of humans followed him, crying to him to come back to them. At the forest’s edge, Lynx stopped. He knew that if he came home, the Fierce Ones would follow him. There were too many of them left. And there would be fighting. So Lynx made his second brave sacrifice — the one his children would never know about. He turned around. And he led the Fierce Ones back to their camp. The humans cheered him and gave a big feast in his honor. They taught him their language and their dances —”
“That’s not the way it happened!” Copper insisted with some heat.
Crackle forged ahead, ignoring her tiny heckler. “— and offered Grandsire Lynx many fine gifts. They gave him their best weapons, and the choicest parts from any kill. They brought him their swiftest round-hoof to call his mount. They made Lynx their chief. And that’s where Grandsire Lynx lives today. It’s why the Fierce Ones have never come back — because Grandsire Lynx is their chief now, and Lynx keeps them far away so that we’ll be safe. He is the toughest, meanest fighter the Fierce Ones have ever seen, and they follow him as he hunts the great herds of thunderfeet across the grasslands —”
“That’s not what happened!” Copper shouted. The girl flung the wooden toy in her hands at Crackle; Crackle dodged it, but the sharp edge of a wolf-ear or wolf-tail gouged her cheek. “That’s not what happened! It’s not!” Copper continued to shout. Her normally soft voice was raised and shrill, and her violet-eyes had gone wild. She snatched after the rest of the wooden wolf pack, flinging them at Crackle one after the other. “They killed him! And they burned him! They decorated their spears with his hair and they put his finger bones into pouches!” Copper tried to wrestle Rill’s wolf-toy away; when the boy blocked her effort, Copper flung herself snarling at Crackle instead. Crackle turned a shoulder against the attack, tucking herself protectively around Glow, who still sat in her lap. She felt Copper’s fingers scratch against the leather of her tunic, and then Newt was there. The youth wrapped both arms around Copper and hauled the girl away. Denied her target, Copper burst into sobs.
“What’s going on here?” cried Cloudfern, as Copper’s uncle stormed back up the steps from the storage dens. Crackle unfolded from around Glow to see that chief Windburn was right at the plantshaper’s heels.
Newt gave Copper over to Cloudfern’s embrace. “Crackle was telling a story, and Copper got upset,” the youth said — quite diplomatically, Crackle thought.
“It wasn’t a scary story,” Crackle said in her own defense. “Not at all.” Cloudfern and Windburn both looked dubious at that. Copper was sobbing brokenly for breath; Rill and Cinder were both pale and wide-eyed at what they’d just witnessed, and little Glow was whimpering softly, unsure just yet whether or not the situation warranted her tears as well. Crackle felt a trickle of blood on her cheek, from where one of the wooden wolves had hit her. “Copper didn’t like my story, and she went crazy,” Crackle finished.
“Cinder — what was the story about?” Windburn asked his son.
The boy had the decency to give Crackle an apologetic look. “It was about Lynx and how he’s the chief now of the Fierce Ones,” Cinder said.
“It wasn’t scary,” Rill said. “It was a good story. It had lots of fighting!”
“I see.” The hard look on Windburn’s face promised she hadn’t heard the last of this — not yet, at least. Cloudfern looked even madder. “You’re dismissed,” the chief told her.
Crackle disentangled Glow from her lap and got to her feet. “It was a good story,” she said in her own defense as she headed for the exit. “It was Copper who was coming up with the scary stuff.”
As Crackle reached for the door-hide, she glanced back at Copper, who was still weeping in Cloudfern’s arms. That stuff about the finger bones and hair decorating spears — where had that nonsense come from? **And here everyone says I’m the one with a crazy imagination!** Crackle lock-sent to Newt as she left.