The hulking old snapping turtle stood its ground on the stony beach of the riverside. It glared balefully at the four cubs and two wolves who surrounded it, then stretched out its wedge-shaped head on its serpentine neck and opened its jaw. It hissed at them all with enough venom to keep even Splash and Muddypaws at bay for several long, tense moments.
“Stay back!” Newt warned them all breathlessly. “It’ll bite!”
Otter poked at the turtle’s shell with his fishing spear. “I like turtle soup,” he said, with a wolfish gleam in his eye.
Splash inched forward to sniff at the turtle’s tail. The ridged tail curled away around the creature’s clawed hind feet, and the turtle snaked its head around with a sucking hiss. Splash retreated a step, ears down with uncertainty.
Otter tapped his spear against the turtle’s shell again. “Don’t tease it,” Fadestar told Otter, from the safety of Muddypaw’s back.
“It’s a whole lot of turtle soup!” Otter retorted.
“It’s a whole lot of wicked-nasty-meaness is what it is!” Crackle said. She was perched in front of Fadestar on Muddypaw’s back, and she leaned forward over her wolf-friend’s shoulders as he warily stretched his head forward toward the creature, so that for a moment, it appeared as if both the girl and Muddypaws were sniffing after the creature. The belligerent turtle stretched its own head out on its snaky neck and opened its jaws wide in fierce threat. “That’s an old, old turtle!” Crackle said. “And he’s been lurking out in the deep water of Badger Lake, biding his time. He’s not eaten any elf-toes recently and he’s hungry!”
“I’m the one who’s hungry,” Otter said. He rapped his spear against the turtle’s shell, hard this time. Splash inched forward again to sniff the turtle’s hind end, then retreated at the turtle’s grumbling hiss.
“We shouldn’t play around with it,” Newt said, grabbing two fistfuls of Splash’s fur, as if he could haul the she-wolf back and out of reach of the turtle. “It’ll bite you as quick as a snake.”
“It’s a tuuurrr-tle,” Otter said disparagingly, poking it again with his spear, so that the creature turned one eye on him directly and widened its gaping jaws even further, as though threatening to swallow Otter whole.
“We should kill it now, before it creeps into the hometrees,” Crackle said, her green eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. “Because it’ll come creeping in while we’re sleeping, looking for noses or toes to bite off. Each summer, it’s got to eat its weight in noses and toes and hairless baby rabbits. If it doesn’t get enough babies to eat, then it’ll starve all winter. And when river turtles starve, they fall out of their shells and walk around all feeble and naked, with their bones sticking out like winter branches. You’ve never seen mean before until you’ve seen a mean and naked old turtle!”
Fadestar rolled her eyes at that. Then she leaned forward over Crackle’s shoulder and pointed at the turtle’s left flank. “Oh! Look! Look there!”
The other three children looked eagerly. “What? What is it?” Crackle demanded.
“See those scars on its shell? That’s Old Snapper!” Fadestar exclaimed.
“Old Snapper?” Otter echoed.
“Old Snapper! Old Snapper was swimming in Badger Lake when I was just a little bitty cub,” Fadestar explained. “Newt, you recognize him, don’t you? Old Snapper was around when you were a cub; I know it because that’s what my father told me.”
Newt blinked, seeing Crackle and Otter turn toward him in unison. “Yeah, that’s Old Snapper,” he said, nodding wisely. “Old Snapper’s been around for forever. Why, he’s even older than Kestrel, and Kestrel’s older than anyone!”
“You heard the story about how Old Snapper crippled Dagger?” Fadestar said to Newt, pointedly.
Newt made a dismissive gesture. “Oh, everyone’s heard that story. It’s dry bones.”
“I haven’t heard it!” said Crackle and Otter in unison.
Newt grinned and nodded to Fadestar, letting her do the telling.
“It happened before I was born, and while Newt was just a newborn in his mother’s arms,” Fadestar said, her soft voice falling into a storyteller’s cadence. “But my father was there. He saw it happen. He saw it all.” Her voice dropped dramatically, as if the story was too terrible to tell. “And when Father told me the tale, he said he was never the same. Not after what he saw. Not after what Old Snapper did to Dagger.”
Otter stared at Fadestar with his mouth hanging open, while Crackle had twisted around and sat with one knee across Muddypaw’s shoulders to balance herself as she gazed at Fadestar in fascination. “What happened?” Crackle asked.
“Suddendusk and Bearheart were hardly older than cubs back then, and they’d caught Old Snapper on the riverbank the night before,” Fadestar said. “They poked at Old Snapper with their fishing spears, then wrapped him in a net and hung him from a tree branch. No one knows how he got free, but when they came back the next day, the net was torn apart and there were only Old Snapper’s tracks on down into the water. Suddendusk and Bearheart didn’t think any more about it, and went to play their games elsewhere. They didn’t think to warn Dagger. They didn’t think to warn anybody.”
“Warn them of what?” Otter asked. He tapped the turtle’s shell again with his spear, and the big turtle hissed like steam erupting from a geyser and took a step forward, powerful jaws wide agape. Muddypaws and Splash both shrank back a step, and Newt was quick to follow.
Fadestar took up the tale again. “Dagger was minding his own business. He was crossing the river to go hunting,” Fadestar said, with the hint of a tremor in her voice. “But that mad old turtle rose up like a boulder in the river. He was just waiting there, pretending to be a rock, and when Dagger stepped too close —“ The girl clapped her hands together sharply. “Old Snapper struck!”
“It was terrible! It was bloody!” supplied Newt with barely-contained glee.
“Dagger screamed and screamed something awful,” Fadestar continued, trading a knowing look with Newt. “It was horrible. My Father wouldn’t ever share this part by sending, because he didn’t want me to know how horrible those screams were. But he says most of the tribe had nightmares about it for a wolf’s life, it was that bad.”
Newt nodded sagely. “My mother would wake in the nights sometime, whimpering and crying. That’s how bad it was.”
Otter and Crackle were both all eyes. “What happened to Dagger?” Crackle asked breathlessly.
Fadestar’s expression was utterly solemn. “Old Snapper bit down on Dagger’s foot. His jaws closed like a troll-trap. Nothing could make him open his mouth. Dagger and my father and Cedarwing and Oakhand were all there. They took turns beating on Old Snapper’s head, but he wouldn’t open his jaws and let Dagger loose. They beat on Old Snapper. They pulled on his tail. They tried to pry his jaws open with a spear shaft. My father even rubbed Old Snapper’s head and eyes in nettle juice. But nothing would make him open up. And all the whole time, blood was pouring from Dagger’s foot. And every once and a while, Old Snapper would give this terrible grunt and grind down harder, sawing further into Dagger’s foot like he was going to just bite it off. It was terrible!”
“Horrible. Just horrible!” Newt echoed, clutching his arms around himself.
“Finally, the chieftess came,” Fadestar said. “Easysinger brought a whole jug of dreamberry wine. And she started rubbing it around Old Snapper’s jaws. Oakhand tried to hold her back, afraid that the turtle would take off her fingers, but the chieftess was fearless. She stuck a hollow reed in the very corner of Old Snapper’s jaws, right where all of Dagger’s blood was streaming out of. And she made a funnel out of birchbark. And she started pouring dreamberry wine into that funnel. She was pouring it down Old Snapper’s throat. The old turtle either had to swallow the wine, or open up his mouth long enough to let Dagger go. But Old Snapper is nothing but mean and stubborn, so away he went, still grinding on Dagger’s foot. By now, the bones in his foot were broken, and his throat was so raw from screaming he could hardly do more but mew. And the chieftess, she just kept on pouring that dreamberry wine into Old Snapper’s throat. That old turtle was just sucking it down, along with all of Dagger’s blood. She went through a jug. Two jugs. Three jugs. Then the tribe ran out of jugs and started using up their wineskins. All of the wine in the storage dens went down that old turtle’s throat. And poor Dagger’s foot was just about to pop off when finally, finally -- the Chieftess’s plan worked.”
Fadestar paused for breath. “What happened?” Crackle prompted her breathlessly, while Otter gave Old Snapper’s shell another solid rap. The ancient turtle rumbled in low warning and wriggled its tongue.
“It was the wine,” Fadestar said. “All that wine had filled Old Snapper’s belly until it began to bloat. And when a turtle’s belly bloats, it fast runs out of room to expand inside that hard old shell. And all that wine and all of Dagger’s blood was churning away in Old Snapper’s belly. Old Snapper is mean. He doesn’t ever want to give up what’s his, and Dagger’s foot was just about ready to be swallowed down whole. Old Snapper wasn’t about to just give up, no matter that half a tribe of elves were now poking at him. But when his belly began to rumble, he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t stop it from happening, not at all. He tried to keep his bear-strong jaws closed, but when a big, winey, berry-tasting burp came bubbling up out of his bloated belly, Old Snapper couldn't help it.”
“He burped!” Newt exclaimed. “He burped really, really big!”
“Big enough that my father and Oakhand and Cedarwing and Easysinger yanked Dagger’s leg free. Dagger’s poor foot was just hanging on by a thread. It was twisting in the breeze — just dangling from a bit of gristle. It was horrible!”
“Horrible!” Newt echoed with enthusiasm.
“Carrying Dagger between them, they ran for the Holt. And Old Snapper, he chased after them — not fast enough, but he is stubborn-mean, and that was his breakfast being denied him!” Fadestar smiled grimly at Otter and Crackle, who were wide-eyed with horror at her story. “Old Snapper circled the Dentrees for days, howling and hissing and growling and waiting to get Dagger’s foot back between his jaws. And while they sewed Dagger’s foot back on, he never did walk right again. Not ever.”
Crackle turned on Muddypaw’s back to watch the old snapping turtle with fresh respect. Otter scowled.
“You made all of that up, didn’t you?” he asked Fadestar suspiciously.
Fadestar grinned back at him but didn’t say a thing, while Newt covered his mouth with both hands to hold back a giggle.
Otter snorted, frustrated at himself for having been sucked into Fadestar’s tall-tale. He jabbed his spear hard at Old Snapper’s shell. To his shock, the old turtle’s neck swung around, as quick as any striking snowmouth snake. There was a sharp crack! as the turtle’s jaws snapped shut on the shear shaft just behind the spearhead — snapped it like a twig. Otter cried out in shock, and even then wolves flinched away in retreat.
“Now you’ve done it!” Crackle said, with real fright in her voice. “You’ve made him good and mad!”
“Old Snapper wants your foot now,” Newt teased Otter.
“And you’re a good deal smaller than Dagger was. I bet one bite would be all it’d take — snap and gulp!” Fadestar made a gulping noise. “He’d swallow your foot whole, and leave Cloudfern to shape you a stump.”
Old Snapper began to push himself forward across the rocky rivershore, his gaping jaws aimed at Otter. Otter took one step back, then two — then scrambled all the way up the riverbank, well out of range of those powerful jaws.
“The rest of you can just stay there and play with an old turtle if you want,” the boy said archly, as if he had not just fled the scene. “I have better things to do, and I’m going to go and do them!” Otter whistled for Splash, and headed back home at a trot.
The other three children and Muddypaws climbed up the clay bank after their companion; Newt and Fadestar were trading a laughing glance, while Crackle kept a diligent eye on the hissing old turtle behind them, making sure it was not following after them.
Having finally run off its tormentors, the hulking old snapping turtle glared balefully after the retreating elf cubs. Then the serpentine neck relaxed and the wedge-shaped head angled to get a better view at the shore at its feet. The old turtle went back to poking among the rocks for tidbits to eat, securely in possession of his riverside kingdom again.