Newt handed Crackle another practice arrow, which she mindlessly took from his grasp. Her eyes were still focused on the padded target that was lashed to the tree. Quickly the red-head notched the arrow and let it fly. It hit just below and to the left of her last one. She let out a puff of air.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Newt offered. “Maybe you should just slow down a bit and focus.”
“If I wait too long….” She looked over her shoulder towards him but not at him. “I begin to doubt my aim and then my hand wavers. I have to get it by instinct.” Crackle pulled out her last two intact arrows.
**Hey, you two!** The call came from the the other side of the moonlit clearing. The pair recognized the sender as Fadestar and both grinned a welcome. A small pack of cubs, Cinder, Rill and Glow, trailed along with her. The boys were pouncing in the summer grass and Glow had Fadestar’s hand.
“Hey – what’s going on?” Newt bounced past Fadestar to ruffle the little boys already-mussed hair. “Parents off huntin’?”
“Or something.” Cinder rolled his eyes and made a little sneer. “It’s always somethin’ this time of season.”
Newt felt his brows raise. True, it was the most pleasant part of the summer time, with lazy warm-to-hot days and perfect nights. The Holt was buzzing with activities and just pure enjoyment of the season. Even their small practice meadow held a certain kind of magic this night with the two moons beaming in full glory. The light was bright enough to make Newt want to squint while still having a eerie softness to it.
Crackle stomped past the musing boy to plop herself on a smoothly-worn log. For that moment, Newt could not pull his eyes away from the firey blaze of her red hair, torched by the glow of the moonlight. He found himself marveling how even her tanned skin held its warmth against the cool glow of the moons.
“What?” she frowned at him.
Newt blinked quickly. “What?” he shot back at her.
She eyed him warily, resting her bow and arrows against the log she was seated on. “I’m to entertain the pack of you or somethin’?” Her frown had transformed into a graceful brow-arching and she smiled her usual half-smirk.
“Ya—!” Cinder and Rill shrieked together and rushed towards the young archer, falling heavily at her feet.
Crackle quickly leaned back, raising her hands. “Easy now! Don’t stomp my toes!” she chided them and settled back into a more comfortable posture.
“Only,” Fadestar interjected, “let’s make it a nice story. Eh?”
“Nice?” Crackle’s lip came up and quivered briefly. “Nice? What do you mean nice?”
Fadestar smiled warmly and seated herself next to the boys, pulling little Glow into her lap. “You know, nice. Something that leaves you feeling good.” She hugged Glow, who beamed in return. “Or maybe that’s something not possible for your…..style.” There was a smug look on the girl’s face. She took a deep breath. “We could just go back to the Dentrees and find something else—”
“Fine!” Crackle pulled her shoulders back and arched her neck defiantly at the small audience at her feet. “You want nice? I can do nice.”
“We’ll see,” Fadestar snorted.
Rill and Cinder looked at each other in surprise and Newt lightly smiled as he seated himself to the boy's right.
The young storyteller pulled her bottom lip over her top and eyed the empty space above their heads. Her gaze swept back and forth until it came just above Newt, then her eyes fell to rest on his features and a crooked grin grew on her face.
Newt shifted his seat in the grass and returned her attention with a guarded expression. He had known Crackle for nearly six turns of the seasons and knew that look meant some sort of trouble.
“Well—” Crackle began, flashing Newt a grin. “This is a story about the great Daystar and the Moons.”
Fadestar’s brows went up and the cubs leaned forward to catch what sort of tale was being spun before them. Crackle smiled down at them.
“The Daystar rules the skies and has many, many star-cubs.” Crackle spread her arms out wide and graciously. “Her cubs thrive and grow under her care and her golden warm light dominates the day, keeping them from being seen. When she sleeps, she lets them out to play under the watch of the Moons.”
Newt let out the breath he had been holding. Perhaps he misjudged that mischievous twinkle in her eye. What harm could there be in a story about the Daystar and the Moons? He relaxed and settled in for a interesting tale.
“Do you know what the Moons wanted more than anything?” Crackle asked her small audience.
“No,” whispered little Glow.
“To rule the skies!” Cinder shouted with a big grin on his face. “They want to challenge the Daystar!”
“Ah—” Crackle breathed, “Yeah, they wanted to rule the sky and they had challenged the Daystar many years ago, and lost. That is why they were banished to the dark. They also weren’t allowed to have any cubs of their own. They were only allowed to watch over the Daystar’s cubs while she slept. So what the Moons wanted more than anything was…”
Newt found himself leaning closer to Crackle as she paused, drawing them in. The field grass brushed lightly in the breeze, making their magic meadow whisper. Behind Crackle, a few glow-bugs flitted in irregular patterns, as if drawing near to hear what the Moons so desperately wanted.
“They wanted a cub.” Crackle’s tone was enticingly quiet and smooth. “They wanted a cub more than anything.” The redhead moved in to meet her listeners. “So, in secret, they made a cub and kept him from the Daystar. Because if the the Daystar found out, she would try to kill or punish the cub.”
“Whaaah…” The two boys at her feet breathed in unison.
“The Moons were very happy with their cub. He was beautiful in form and pure. They made him to look like a creature they had seen in the forest so he could hide away better. Only he shone with a glow like his parents, shimmering in the forest as he explored his new land. But—” Crackle sat back up. “Some one spied the Moon-cub walking in the forest and told the Daystar.”
“No,” Glow whispered. Her golden eyes were large and unblinking.
“Yep,” Crackle nodded. “The Daystar was on the hunt for the Moon-cub to destroy him and punish his parents for their disobedience. But the Moons were wise and had told their cub to never wander out in the daylight, so the Moon-cub stayed hidden from the Daystar because she couldn’t see in the dark. The Daystar became furious and made a plan to catch the Moon-cub by enticing him to walk in the light.” Crackle took a deep breath and her voice took a dark tone. “She would have him tricked. She sent two large Ring-tails to trick him. in fact, it was the same two Ring-tails that told the Daystar about the Moon-cub.”
“That’s not nice,” Rill piped in. “They don’t get him…do they?” The boy’s indignation gave way to concern. Fadestar put her arm around his smaller shoulders.
“Ring-tails were very clever. They traveled the night to spy on the Moons for the Daystar. They had been watching the Moon-cub and knew his greatest weakness.” Crackle looked directly at Rill with brows raised and posture collected. “They knew that the Moon-cub was lonely for other cubs to play with. So, one night, they found the Moon-cub and told him they knew where others like him played. They did not spend their time in the cover of the forest, but in the open lands of the plains. Now, the Moon-cub had been warned by the Moons never to venture into the open place of the plains because he might get caught out there when the Daystar woke and not be able to hide from her eyes.”
Newt barely breathed as Crackle’s last words left her lips like whispers. Next to him, Rill and Cinder held stock-still, as if being hunted by the Daystar themselves. Newt’s heart beat with dread for the Moon-cub and the enticement that lay before him. Newt hoped that the cub would refuse to listen to the Ring-tails, but sensed that would not be the way with Crackle’s story. He bit his lip as she continued.
“The Ring-tails assured the Moon-cub that he could ride on their backs and flee into the forest before the first streaks of light shone over the mountains. The Moon-cub had a pure and kind heart and had never known a lie, so he followed the Ring-tails through the forest until they stood on the edge. Now the Moons had their backs turned and were only a sliver of light in the black sky and they didn’t see the Moon-cub slip from the edge of the forest into the plainsland.”
Glow’s eyes watered and she blinked. “I don’t want him to get hurt,” she sniffed.
Fadestar glared up at Crackle, but the redhead ignored the direct look and continued on.
“Moon-cub followed his guides deep into the barren land. And soon he asked them when would they find the other cubs. The Ring-tails kept just ahead of him and answered over their hunched shoulders that the other cubs were just over the next rise. Moon-cub stopped and looked at the sky. It was changing into a dusty purple with ribbons of pink light. He had never seen such colors in the sky before. The poor cub stood and watched the glow of the sunrise unfold its ripples of colors. He couldn’t move. Even the air changed scent. His heart beat quickly as he became aware. The Daystar was approaching! Moon-cub spun back around to look for the forest, but it was a great distance away. He began to run, but before his legs could reach their stride, he was tackled from behind. The two Ring-tails knocked him to the ground and rolled him over to face the sky as it quickly lightened. He struggled against them, but they were too strong. Using their powerful paws, they pinned him to the ground. He cried out for them to let him go, but they only snapped their fangs at him. Moon-cub finally just laid there, exhausted, and the Daystar rose to look at him with a burning glare. Moon-cub’s eyes stung as the bright light scorched them, and tears streamed down his cheeks. The Daystar became hotter and her searing heat burned the Moon-cub’s flesh, making it blister in pain. The cub cried out.”
Crackle paused, sitting back on the log seat. A look of numbness flooded her tanned features, making her seem a little more pale. Newt looked at her in disbelief as an unsettled feeling lodged in his heart. His chest hurt in a strange way and he let out the breath he had held in for so long. He knew the stinging pain she was describing. He wanted her to stop, but could not move or object. It was as if he was the one pinned to the ground by the Ring-tails. He gritted his teeth as Crackle’s voice whispered through the dark.
“The forest heard his cry. The forest loved the Moon-cub and asked Brother Wolf to go quickly and save him. Now, Brother Wolf was a creature of the night and traveling into the plains in the light of day frightened him, but he loved Moon-cub more than he feared the open grassland, so he sped away to help the cub. And the sky herself also loved Moon-cub so she struck the Daystar. With a surprising blow, she began to cover the Daystar like a shadow. The sky wouldn’t be able to darken the Daystar for long, but the Moon-cub began to feel relief on his burning flesh as the Daystar was over-taken by the sky-shadow.”
“The Ring-tails became afraid as the Daystar faded and night claimed the land. They let go of Moon-cub, backing away in fear. Hissing at him and snarling, they slowly circled him. Moon-cub laid there from the exhaustion of his torture. He could feel their frightened glare on his pale and still body and sensed they would attack.” Crackle pushed forward with raised hands, holding her fingers like claws.
“Yii!” The two boys cried, falling back on their heels. Glow turned to bury her face in Fadestar’s tunic who gathered her into her arms. Only Newt remained unmoved.
“The sky’s shadow power began to fail and the Daystar gathered strength. Moon-cub weakly climbed onto Brother Wolf’s back, and the pair raced for the forest, with the heat of the Daystar chasing after their heels. Soon, Brother Wolf carried Moon-cub back into the depths of the forest where the leaves protected the cub from the burning anger of the Daystar. Moon-cub slept the rest of the day under a great tree’s roots, screened from any light.”
“That night the Moons found their cub blistered and burned and cried for their son. The stars streaked across the sky like rain. The Moons decided to make Brother Wolf Moon-cub’s protector. So from that night forward the wolf looked after Moon-cub.”
“But Moon-cub was still sad and lonely for cubs he could play with. In his wisdom, Brother Wolf decided to take Moon-cub to a people who played in the light of the Moons and who did not fear the darkness. A kindred that had cubs of their own, cubs that Moon-cub could play with. Brother Wolf brought the Moons' cub to these people and they welcomed them as one of their own and promised Brother Wolf that they would help take care of Moon-cub. So together they raised Moon-cub and counted him as kin.”
Crackle folded her arms. Newt felt the eyes of the small group shift from her to him. Even Fadestar’s expression was wide-eyed as a reverent silence hung in the air. Newt could feel the burn as his cheeks filled with color.
“Are you…?” Rill’s voice trailed off as he stared at Newt.
Newt frowned at Crackle, but the storyteller was grinning down at the two boys, missing his glare.
Fadestar quickly stood up, lifting Glow with her. “That was an amazing story, Crackle. I hope you tell it again.” She stretched her hand towards Cinder. “Come boys, it’s time to go back to your dens.”
Cinder and Rill slowly got to their feet and took their place next to the dark-haired girl.
**See you both at the Holt, yes?** Fadestar sent to Crackle and Newt as she led the cubs into the meadow, towards the Holt.
**Yep!** Crackle sent back, standing and collecting her arrows and bow.
Newt stood up next to her. “What kind of story was that?” he asked, his pale eyes lowered.
“What do you mean? It was a nice story. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they got.” She looked at him with a straight face. “It was the best I could do.”
“—It was embarrassing! Did you see the way they looked at me?” Newt felt the heat on his face intensify.
The girl blinked at him, brows raised. After a moment's consideration, she said, “I don’t see why you’re embarrassed. You’re lucky to be different – special. It’s not just the way you look, but the way you are.” Crackle quickly looked aside and her cheeks flushed. “Never mind,” she murmered. “It was just a dumb story. I didn’t mean for you to get all funny about it, so just forget it.” She slipped past him, rustling the grass under her step.
Newt continued to stare after her as she walked away. He blinked in disbelief. Did Crackle just attempt to say something nice?
“Wait--” Newt trotted next to her and caught her by the arm. “It was a good story. Actually….really good.” His hand kept its grip despite her light resistance. “I’m sorry I got all hot and bothered. It just kinda hit close to home.”
Crackle looked over to him, her brows creased lightly as she considered his words. “You know I was making it up as I went along, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I know,” Newt smiled as he bent his head down slightly. “It’s just, now I’ll have to endure being called Moon-cub for who knows how long.”
Crackle let out a snicker and pulled her arm free. “I can think of worse things.”
Newt snorted back and the pair headed into the field together. The light of the two moons casted a long shadow behind them and set Newt’s hair aglow.
“You said I was beautiful.”
“In the story, you said I was beautiful.”