(This story is a sequel to ”Crackle’s Fire”.)
Crackle pulled her sleeping fur to her chin. The hide that covered the entrance of the den flapped closed.
“You should have let Willow heal that gash.”
Crackle sank deeper into her furs. She hadn’t expected her father to support her in this choice. She said nothing. True, her side ached from the toss the buck had given her and stung where her flesh had been cut. Crackle bit her lip. The decision was still hers.
“What would make you send her away?” Suddendusk moved from the seat he had taken during the healer’s visit and perched himself on the edge of the sleeping bowl Evervale had fashioned for her younger sister.
Crackle took a deep breath, not sure if she was made more uncomfortable by her father’s question or by the use of the word, cub. An awkward silence filled the den. Crackle felt a stifling pressure in her chest.
Then there was a mind-touch announcing a presence. Crackle’s eyes widened. It was the chief, Windburn.
Her father rose to sweep the den-flap aside and gestured the fiery-haired chieftain inside. Crackle fought the impulse to bury herself from sight in her furs. This was the moment she had been dreading since she had arrived at her family’s den. Windburn would be furious that she tried to hunt that buck alone. Not just that, she refused her father’s sendings as well as his, the chieftain. She doubted she could convince him that by chance she came across the buck and then opted to try and bring it down; especially since she ignored all their efforts of contact. She took another deep breath. She would not even offer that excuse, though not so long ago, she would have given it a try.
Crackle grimaced at the introduction. His tone was flat and his use of the word, deliberate. “Chief,” she responded, not knowing what else to say.
He took up his stance next to her sleeping place, arms folded across his chest. She slowly looked up at him. When did he get so big?
“Is it true you turned Willow away?”
Crackle swallowed and her bright green eyes widened as she scented the deer blood and then saw it on his hands. He must have tended to her kill personally. Her father did say Windburn and Notch were the ones that found her and her prey in the field. Maybe he was going to kill her this time like she had imagined when she was a little cub in trouble.
“Is it true?” He persisted, his tone sharpened.
“Um—I, uh…” Crackle’s eyes were riveted on his hands. “Er…yes,” she finally blurted, forcing her gaze down to the floor. Of course he was not going to kill her, but that might be quicker.
“And why?” His tone implied that he was tired of digging for information.
Crackle bit down on her bottom lip and slowly raised her eyes to the towering chieftain, barely aware of her father’s presence to the chief’s left. “I…I wanted to experience the whole part of the hunt. It was my misjudgment that caused the injury and I feel I should endure it.” She looked down again. There, she had said it. She pulled the fur up to the bridge of her nose.
She could hear Windburn shift on his feet but she not bear to look at his expression. Suddendusk was quiet as well. Perhaps they shared in a private sending, but she doubted it. She felt nothing from them.
Windburn left out a puff of air. “How is the injury?”
“Since it took Willow a little time to get back to the Holt, I dressed it with the help of Cloudfern. It’s painful, but not too bad.”
Crackle frowned as she listened to the elder’s discussion. She was still in the den after all. They were talking about her like she was a little cub. She groaned inside. She realized her recent actions made her look like a disobedient cub.
“Very well.” Windburn’s voice cut through her musings. “If there are any signs of complications, she’ll let Willow tend her. Do you understand that, cub?”
Crackle quickly looked up at Windburn as his tone hardened.
“Yes, Chief,” she answered, startled.
“I want you to get dressed and meet me at the craft trees where Moss tans hides. Don’t be slow about it.” Windburn turned and slipped out of the den, as both Crackle and Suddendusk mutely watched him go.
Crackle carefully made her way from the Holt to the craft trees. It took effort not to flinch from the jabs of pain that racked her slender frame just by simply walking. A few passers-by tried to get her attention, but she only nodded in response and averted her eyes from their concerned gazes. Up ahead, Crackle could see Moss and the chieftain standing just outside the closest craft tree. She took a deep breath as they both spotted her. All too soon she stood before them, feeling really small.
“I think you still need to learn what part we all play in the tribe. You could have been killed for your young pride.” Windburn took a deep breath through his nose. “You acted on impulse — selfish impulse. I want you to learn what being a member of this tribe means. It means working for the good of the pack and that’s not always done by glorifying yourself with some impressive kill.”
Crackle felt the look of shame creep onto her face. She bowed her head, looking down at Windburn’s feet. “Yes, Chieftain.”
“There have been many kills in the end of this summer’s season — yours among them.”
Crackle ears pricked up, wondering what was in store for her. Windburn had acknowlegded her kill, but she could not tell by his tone if he was even a little pleased.
“Moss works hard to cure the hides before the coldest bite of winter. I think you should give him a hand since you didn’t mind contributing to the stack.” Windburn folded his arms across his chest and scanned her face before continuing. “It would be in your best interest if you want to ever go on a big hunt, to work along with Moss and not complain and when or if I’m satisfied that you’ve learned your lesson, we can talk about a hunt for you.”
“Yes, Chief.” Crackle groaned inside. Tanning hides was hard, and in her eyes, boring work… her shoulders drooped. It was going to hurt with her fresh injuries jabbing at her with no mercy. But if she wanted to earn Windburn’s trust and faith in her, she was going to have to do it.
“I leave her in your capable hands. Start her out right away.” The words were meant for Moss.
Crackle stood quietly as Windburn left them.
Moss took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Crackle stole a glance at him. Moss had always been kind and patient with her, even when she caused him trouble. She loved her elder, but was unsure about his reaction to the situation.
“How do you feel, little Crackle?”
Crackle stood straighter and winced with the motion. “I’m a little beat up, but all right.” She could have sent, but didn’t want him to be aware of the level of pain she felt.
“Well, let’s see what we can do.” Moss squatted down next to the pile of furs and hides that Windburn had spoken of. Crackle looked at the looming pile and then recognized the gray hide of her buck.
“I believe this beauty belongs to you. Very impressive,” Moss smiled up at her.
Crackle grinned back and stiffly lowered herself next to the elder.
Moss smiled to himself as he heard Crackle scramble through the entrance of the crafting den where they had been working together. Crackle had worked as his apprentice through the first turn of the moons and was mending well from her incident with the buck. He turned to meet her. She had her hands behind her back.
“I finished the mittens you asked me to make for Copper.” She grinned at him. “You wanna’ see?”
“Of course.” He raised his brows and innocently batted his eyelashes at her.
She took a big step forward and produced the mittens from behind her back, holding them out for him to see.
“Ah—” Moss looked them over. This was the first project she had accomplished on her own, from the measurements, cutting and dying, stitching and decorating. The color was a pleasing smoke blue-gray, trimmed with plain white rabbit fur.
“Look at this,” Crackle said, turning them over.
The palms of the mittens looked like a pocket stitched onto them. Moss then recalled the same stitching across the top of the mitten. He had wondered about the loop that was attached where the ends of the fingers would be and thought the branch-horn buttons on the top of the wrist were just decorative. He took the mittens from her and paused, noticing how rough and chapped her hands had become with the tanning work they shared. He would send more salve home with her today and a sharp reminder to use it regularly.
“Ah—” he said again, pulling the cover that looked like a pocket up and fastening the loop over the button on the wrist. He could not help but smile as he saw the fingerless gloves that were hidden under the pouch. “How did you come up with this handy work?”
“I saw a pair of hunting mittens you made for Blacksnake.” Crackle confessed, rocking back and forth on her toes.
“They are very nice and beautifully colored.” Moss lightly rubbed them between his fingers. “Just one thing.”
Crackle bit her bottom lip.
Moss had become accustomed to her expressions. He smiled at her warmly. “Nothing of serious concern, cu— er, Crackle,” he caught himself. “We just need to make this loop smoother. We don’t want dear little Copper catching in on anything, do we?”
She looked a bit discouraged.
“They are wonderful.”
“Really?” She beamed back at him.
“Yep. I’ll show you how to unpick the loop and we’ll fix it together.” Moss laid the mittens aside. “But right now I have something to show you. Cover your eyes and no peeking.”
Crackle gazed at the tanner. She looked surprised by his request, but brought her hands up to her eyes, not able to suppress a crooked grin.
There was a swoosh as he pulled out his hidden item from under a small stack of furs. Moss was grinning back. “Open your eyes!”
Crackle whipped her hands from her face and gaped.
Moss took a deep, contented breath as he held up the long winter coat before the cub. The weight of it felt good in his hands and he beamed with an artisan’s delight.
Crackle’s hands went back up to her cheeks. “This is beautiful!”
“I’m glad you think so.” He still held the coat aloft. “Because it’s for you.”
“For you. Turn around so I can see how it fits.” Moss shook the coat lightly. “Come on. I’m dying to see if it’s a good fit.”
Crackle pulled off her old, slightly outgrown poncho and let it drop to the floor. Stepping forward, she slipped her slender arm into one sleeve then turning, she hooked her arm back, standing still as Moss slid the rest of the coat on. She turned back to face him again, but her eyes were poring over the eleborate detail of her new garment.
Crackle spun around slowly, letting the length swish around her. “This is mine? Really?”
“It’s your first deer hide,” Moss revealed. “I wanted to make something special, something you’ll have for a long time.”
Crackle bounced up and down. “I love it! — I love it!” she squealed before jumping at Moss and throwing her arms around his neck. He caught her around the waist and felt her weight as she kicked both feet in youthful delight. His heart swelled with appreciation shown for the special gift he had made.
“I have to show Fadestar!” She spun and dashed out the den entrance. She popped her head back almost instantly. “That is — if you don’t mind?”
“Of course I don’t mind. Show off our wares.” Moss waved at her. “And take the rest of the day off.”
“Thank you so much!” Her eyes were misty. “I really love it!”
Then she was gone. Moss wandered to the entrance and leaned against the smooth bark of the tree, arms folded across his chest. She skipped from his sight, feet barely touching the snow as she bounded. He grinned to himself, thinking of the matching boots he had also made for her.
Windburn’s project with Crackle hadn’t turned out so bad. The girl had applied herself to the task at hand and proved to be a hard worker, maybe to impress Windburn or to impress him. It didn’t matter to the tanner. He was pleased with the young girl’s progress. Crackle had a flair for design and color. She still wasn’t too keen on the actual tanning process, but he hoped that she might consider continuing to train with him even once Windburn’s faith in her was satisfied. Moss chuckled to himself. Maybe he would influence the Chief to linger with his approval.