Newt hugged Fadestar back when she wrapped him in a tight embrace. Her grip was stronger than it had been turns and turns ago and Newt felt pride swelling his heart. His once-weak playmate and friend had become a strong and healthy yearling: a yearling who was growing up into a fine huntress.
“We will be back soon,” Fadestar promised, her cheek pressing against his. She hugged him as if she didn’t intend to come back too soon, that much was for sure. Newt took it with good humor, though.
“Don't rush it. A good hunt knows no time limit. I can do a few days without you, you know?” he gave back, his voice teasing.
The dark-haired female smiled and loosened her grip around her friend, taking a step back to look him straight in the eyes. Her smile was a sympathetic one and he saw in her eyes that she felt for him, to be the one who had to stay back at the Holt, while she was out.
Truth to be told, it did feel weird to be the only one staying back. Crackle, Otter and Fadestar all would go on this hunting trip to test out their skills and train their hunting muscles as a team. All his close agemates had taken up the hunter's path, but not Newt. Newt was no hunter.
“We will bring back fresh meat,” Fadestar winked. This confidence in her skills was refreshing and once more Newt felt pride and joy for his playmate. “I will save the best part for you,” she added.
“Save me the liver,” Newt whispered, slowly lowering his hands until the youngers stood holding hands, foreheads touching.
“Eww,” Fadestar made a face, but chuckled. “You are weird this way, but all right. I’ll save it for you,” she promised.
“Thanks. And take care of yourself. And the others,” he asked of her, meaning it seriously. He knew that between the three of them, Fadestar was the voice of reason. Crackle and Otter both tended to get carried away, but Fadestar was the one who always seemed to look a step ahead.
“I will,” Fadestar assured him and gave his hands a last firm squeeze before she let go right at the moment Crackle called for her, impatiently and urging.
“Keep up!” Quick Fang growled. "Prey’s not going to wait, and neither will I.“
Fadestar gave a sigh. “She’s right. I should go now.” With that, she hurried over to the waiting hunters. Newt watched her falling in the same pace as her bond Autumnleaf, who still wouldn't let her mount, waving at Newt over her shoulder, this time together with Otter and Crackle before the woods swallowed them and the pale lad was behind on his own, still waving into the direction they had vanished.
Lost in his thoughts, Newt twirled the bit of willow bark in his hand, gazing out of the window. It was a while now since he had said his farewell to his friends. Since then he found himself unable to really focus on the task on hand.
He wondered what they were doing right now. Maybe Fadestar would be crouching down next to Quick Fang examining the track of a deer, with Crackle sniffing the air to see if there still was the trail of the prey’s scent to follow. Otter would stand guard, his bow ready to defend them if something came jumping out of the underbrush, or scouting for any other kind of danger. Or they already had found a good track and now were watching a deer and discussing the strategy to take it down. Maybe Otter’s arrow already had struck home. He was so good at archery, Newt sometimes even felt ashamed to shoot next to him.
Or maybe —
Pulled out of his daydreaming by the stern voice of Cloudfern, Newt focused back on his foster father right in front of him.
“Newt,” Cloudfern sighed and picked the crumbled bark from his hand, holding it up for the youth to see. “I do have a mortar for that; you don’t need to do it by hand.”
“Ah, sorry,” Newt apologized. “I was somewhere else with my thoughts.”
Cloudfern smirked, amused, and dropped the bark in the mortar and handed it to Newt, wordlessly nodding him to grind it into powder. “I noticed,” he told his student.
Accepting the mortar, Newt started what he was asked to do, adding a little water now and then to get a paste. He tried to pay attention, but his mind drifted off once more. He was pretty sure that whatever he thought up was way over-dramatic.
His agemates most likely were just riding on wolfback or, in Fadestar’s case, walking next to them, and kept looking for little prey to hunt it down. Probably they were even taking a rest now, bantering or laughing together to the point where they sent off Quick Fang in annoyance.
“All right, cub, that’s not going to work out here,” Cloudfern interrupted his thoughts once more and took his tools back from Newt, placing them aside. “What’s keeping your thoughts off?”
Slightly embarrassed, Newt rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, well, nothing special.”
A knowing smile came to the herbalist’s face. “Nothing special, huh?” he teased, good-naturedly. “A not special lass or a not special lad?”
“Well, actually, kinda both,” Newt answered with a smirk and a shrug.
“Both? That’s ambitious.” Cloudfern chuckled. “You might want to take it one step at the time.”
It was no secret that Newt tended to crush easy and hard, so Cloudfern’s guess wasn’t that far off. With Newt growing into an adult, Cloudfern and Greenweave were waiting for one of his crushes to turn into something more serious or at least a furmate. Newt was aware of that too and felt the pressing urge to correct this misunderstanding as soon as possible, not all sure if his foster father was teasing here or not.
“No,” the pale youth said quickly, “Not like that. I was wondering what the others might be doing. Fadestar, Otter and Crackle,” he admitted and gave a sigh, looking out of the small window again. “Wonder if they are on an adventure or just roaming around, or taking a break. What they might talk about and such.”
“Ah, I see.” Cloudfern nodded and started to grind the bark himself. “It’s not easy to be the one staying behind, is it?”
Newt made a face. No, it wasn’t. He was glad for all of his agemates but being the only one not going on a hunt still felt odd to him.
“I guess it is,” he admitted, halfheartedly.
Cloudfern offered a sympathetic smile. “You know we can find ways to suit you for a hunt. Granted, the long ones would be too risky yet, but — “
“I don’t really want to be a hunter,” Newt cut off his words. “It’s not only the sensitive skin, or the poor eyesight. I just don’t really feel the hunt, like they do,” he admitted. “Sometimes I do get the feeling I would like to hunt, but more often than not I just don’t feel it as strong as they do.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Cloudfern assured him. “Some of us are more suited for the hunt than others, and just because some feel the call stronger than others doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with that.”
“I know,” Newt sighed.
“So?” The question was a challenge he was used to by now. Whenever Newt came out with an ‘I know,’ Cloudfern would test the truth behind these words. Usually he was right picking up on it. Newt himself knew he tended to abuse these words, when truly he meant ‘I should know better, but…’
“It’s not that I wish I could be a hunter. I’m perfectly fine with fishing and herb lore. I enjoy both more than shooting the bow or tracking,” he went on, casting a side glance over to Cloudfern who looked back, inviting him to go on.
“I just want to be with them right now. Not for a hunt but…” Newt groaned in frustration. He had no idea where this was going himself. How could he wish to go hunting with his friends, when he didn’t want to go hunting? That made no sense.
Luckily Cloudfern seemed to see more value in his confused mess of a statement than he did.
“You just don’t want to be the odd one out. That’s perfectly understandable,” he pointed out. “While your friends learn how to shoot and use the spear and go on hunts, you stay back and learn to pick herbs and gut fish. They travel far and come back with stories of great hunts. You only can tell them about sorting out the useful leaves from the useless.”
“If you put it like that, it sounds much worse, you know that,” Newt huffed, which caused Cloudfern to laugh.
“Tell me that’s not what it feels like,” he prompted his foster cub.
Newt shrugged. “Maybe,” he admitted. “But just sometimes. At moments like now. It feels as if we’re growing apart at these moments. They have all these things to bond over and I am not a part of that, but I can’t force myself to be what I am not.”
He glanced over to the training bow over his bedbowl, which proved he had tried that already. He just had picked it up to spend time with his friends, not because he truly was into archery at all. Well, during the lessons he had learned that being closer to Longshot as his teacher was also a part of why he kept it up, but that was a topic for a different conversation.
For a short moment genuine fear and sadness rose up in Newt’s chest. He suppressed it quickly, but it wasn’t that easy.
“Just because you take different paths, doesn’t mean you grow apart,” Cloudfern broke into his thoughts, handing Newt the paste he had made along with some clay jars to fill them with. “You can be friends no matter what your calling is. True, sometimes we grow apart, but that’s nothing to do with whether we have the same position in the tribe or not.”
“I know,” Newt sighed, starting to fill the little jars.
“So?” Cloudfern said; this time it sounded more teasing than challenging.
Newt wrinkled his nose and smirked. “I know enough to know you are right, and I just have to let it sink in.”
“Very good. And if you are done with the filling, clean the tools please,” Cloudfern asked. Standing up, he stretched and gave a yawn. “I will see if Greenweave still is playing by the water.”
“You’re leaving me do this on my own?” Newt asked, scandalized, watching Cloudfern prowl out of the den.
“Yes. That will teach you to daydream in my lessons,” he quipped in a playful tone.
Newt had been on his feet even before the distant howl had been answered in the Holt. He knew what this meant, and a bright smile had come to his face. His friends were back from their hunt. Quick Fang’s howl of triumph was unmistakable.
It took him a moment to realize he still was holding the net he had agreed to untangle for One-Leg and Greenweave. Caught in his excitement, he almost had forgotten it. Aware of that now, he looked over to Greenweave who just smiled and took it from him.
“Will you go already? I’ll finish this here and come after you,” he told Newt, who took the time to give his father a rushed but heartfelt hug, and then rushed back to the Dentrees.
When he arrived there, he could see how some of his tribemates had already gathered around the youngsters and Quick Fang to welcome them back and take a look at their prey: a small deer and some fat hares.
Newt slowed down when he came closer. Smiling all over his face he took in the scene unfolding before his eyes with mixed feelings.
Quick Fang stood firm, Fadestar at her side, talking to the chief and Blacksnake, apparently giving a report on how the hunt had gone, with Snowfall and True Edge listening as well. Newt saw Windburn nodding in response and as a sign that he took in what the fierce huntress had to say, while Blacksnake seemed even more unreadable, regarding each of the youngsters thoughtfully while she talked. Snowfall and True Edge were easier to read, with pride written on their faces. If it was on Quick Fang’s behalf or Fadestar’s, Newt couldn’t tell. Most likely they were proud of both of them.
Nightstorm and Moss examined the furs of the hares closely and seemed deep into a conversation on which to use for what, while Rill eagerly bounced up and down taking in every word from Crackle as she told their father something in big gestures and with a passion Newt was used to seeing in her. Otter, on the other side, tried to lift heavy load of the deer off of their wolves’ backs, with Thornbow’s help, distracted by his mother, who asked him all sorts of questions at the same time.
It was an eager welcome for the young hunters. From the look of it, they had proved themselves worthy and capable of working as a team. The deer was small, but then again they all were inexperienced hunters and it was more than most had expected them to come back with.
The air was buzzing with sending and Newt hesitated to break into the crowd and greet his friends in their moment of triumph. Then again, he was their friend and he was sure they would want to share this with him. Quickening his pace again, he aimed straight towards them when Otter caught sight of him.
The other’s face broke into a wide grin and before Newt realized it, Otter had pushed the pole carrying the deer into his mother’s hand and dashed toward him. It knocked the wind out of his lungs when Otter crushed him in a hug and lifted him from the ground for a few moments.
His scent filled Newt’s nose, mixed with excitement and blood from the hunt. Newt couldn’t help but laugh and hug Otter back around his neck before the other set him down again, after what seemed a little longer than a usual hug tended to last.
“Newt!” Otter started right away, his amber eyes aglow. “You should have been there. It was amazing. Did you see that deer? I killed it with a single shoo—ouff—!”
“You’re telling it wrong,” Crackle groaned after she had cut the older elf off with a well-aimed elbow in the ribs.
“I’m not!” Otter complained with a dark frown he aimed at her, rubbing his ribs.
“Yes, you are. You are a terrible storyteller. Leave it to me. Poor Newt should hear this story as if he were there, not just the shattered Otter version of it,” Crackle gave back, challenging her former playmate with a smug grin.
“That’s not fair. I just want to tell him about that shot.”
“And there’s your problem, you leave out the whole build up. The shot is boring without the rest of the story…”
While both of them seemed to get lost in their argument, Newt felt two slender arms slip around his waist from behind, and Fadestar’s presence filled his mind as he sensed her cheek against his hair.
“We missed you,” she whispered close to his ear.
Newt’s wide grin turned into a soft smile and he turned in her arms to face her, embracing his friend tightly.
“Not as much as I missed you,” he muttered back and enjoyed hearing her soft giggles. She didn’t need to spell it out that he was probably right.
Their foreheads touched as she took his hands in hers. “I saved the liver for you,” she told him in her quiet voice that carried over the ongoing debate behind them.
Newt smiled back, his eyes shining with pure joy. No, they wouldn’t forget him, even if they hunted at the other end of the Deep Water. Newt was sure of that now.