(This story takes place between ”The Gathering Storm (Part 4) and Part 5, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
It looked nothing like the last time Fadestar had visited Bluestone Cave. Sitting on Branch’s back, with Autumnleaf by her side, she looked around. True Edge rode on Charm in front of her, but she took a few seconds to compare her memories with the real picture in before her.
She remembered the valley as a rich, green area, filled with dark green, lush pine trees. Lower in the valley also were some trees that shed their leaves in the fall. She remembered where the branches of the willows reached the surface of the water of Bluestone Creek, next to which the tall oaks were standing proudly. She recalled standing with her back to Bluestone Cave, while admiring the everlasting snow on the Sawtooth Peaks. The deep blue color of Slaptail Lake in the far distance, outside the valley, and how the moons reflected in the water at night. If it weren’t for some of the landmarks she recognized and the sendings of her tribemates close by, Fadestar could have been fooled into thinking she was in an entirely different region altogether.
The ground, trees, and the lake, which had been frozen solid, were covered with a thick layer of snow. Since it had just stopped snowing as they entered the pass, the only tracks visible were the ones they had left behind. Clouds were hanging over most of the high peaks, which made them invisible. As the two elves moved on to their goal, the silence around them was almost deafening. The only thing that they could hear was the crunching of their own footsteps. When some snow fell off an overburdened tree branch, the group looked up in alert. And except for the mental contact they had with their tribemates, True Edge and Fadestar could not see a single living creature. It was a gray, sad sight. Or maybe the circumstances made the picture so grim.
No, wait. True Edge’s body became more alert on Charm’s back as they crossed the also nearly-invisible Bluestone Creek. Fadestar narrowed her eyes and saw it too – a lonesome figure in the distance, a white flash here and there between the trees covering the entrance of Bluestone Cave. The creature seemed to be moving in and out the cave's entrance. Fadestar recognized him instantly - there was only one elf she knew who lit up like that - and knew True Edge had realized who he was moments before she had.
The young elf looked up, and feeling a wave of relief wash over her, Fadestar slid off Branch’s back and started running through the thick layer of snow. It felt as if she was freed of her anxieties for just a moment. That the limitations of moving through the snow had fallen away completely, almost if she could defy gravity because the sight of her friend lifted an enormous weight off her shoulders. The young female flew into the arms of her best friend and she hugged him fiercely. **I am so happy to see you!** she sent impulsively while tightly holding on to him.
**High Ones, Fadestar, we were so worried!** Newt sent in reply, clinging to Fadestar as she held on to him. **Is Farscout all right? And you? You have to tell me everything!** Faintly, Fadestar noticed True Edge and the wolves catch up with them. From a distance, she heard True Edge send to the others that they had arrived. It didn’t matter to the young female, not for the moment. She was just happy to see her friend.
In the meantime, emerging from the entrance of Bluestone Cave, came Cloudfern, Evervale, and Starskimmer. Fadestar finally loosened her grip on Newt but kept holding his hand and waved to the group with the other. Then, she frowned. She couldn’t see Crackle with them. And Otter wasn’t there either. While the three elves shortened the distance to the shelter, she asked her agemate: “Where’s Crackle? And Otter?”
Crackle knew True Edge and Fadestar had arrived, because everyone had sent for her and Otter. “Maybe we should go back,” Otter said, but Crackle shook her head.
“No. We came here to do something, and we’re going to do it.”
While Otter had sent back details on where they were and what they had found, Crackle just had sent an acknowledgement, but hadn’t felt the need to return right away. Even though she would love to see her best friend, she had just picked up the trace of a couple of deer that she did not want to leave behind. She and Otter had a task to fulfill, just like the others: Windburn had entrusted her and her friends to forage and hunt for the shapers — a real task, instead of being huddled up at the Holt with the rest of the cubs! And she was not planning on failing either the Chief or the rest of her companions back at Bluestone Cave. She was determined to bring home at least one of those beasts and now even more, because True Edge and Fadestar had to be hungry too.
The redhead was proud of her friend. Fadestar had been allowed to scout with Farscout and she had done well — even though the news she had brought back to the tribe wasn’t good news, it was information that the tribe could definitely use.
But because Fadestar had actually undergone a near-encounter with humans and Crackle had not, Crackle felt that her own fear was somewhat foolish. Why, then, did she still feel so anxious as if she had seen those filthy Fierce Ones herself? She felt as if her safe world had fallen apart, that anything could happen right now. And High Ones! Her father and brother were at the Holt. What if the humans got to them? And her mother, Windsong, was out there somewhere. What if the humans found her? What if something happened, so that Crackle would never see her again? And what if the chief or Blacksnake got killed? Life in River Twine Holt would never be the same again. What if—
Muddypaws huffed and started to trot. Crackle gasped and felt a shot of adrenaline rushing through her veins as her concentration broke. Fortunately, she realized within heartbeats, Muddypaws had just started to grow impatient. Otter had already moved away from her, and Muddypaws seemed cranky that Splash was ahead of him.
**If you don’t want to return to Bluestone Cave, I’m going to follow the deer. I don’t know what’s up with you, but you better stop daydreaming,** Otter sent impatiently. **Because daydreaming certainly won’t catch our dinner for us, and I want to get back to the cave and hear Fadestar’s story!**
Muddypaws didn’t want to stay behind and took off. Crackle grabbed his fur to keep her balance with her left hand, and with the right, she tightened the grip on her bow. She didn’t want to return just yet. And since they weren’t supposed to take off alone, she couldn’t do anything else but follow. At least she was sure that the group could at least bring one animal down.
However, inside, she still wasn’t sure if she was ready for the task she had been given. She felt as if she lacked strength and endurance, and that her skills with her bow were far from perfect. Had she had more time to prepare, Crackle would have. It was also why the redhead had wanted to ride out with the wolves. Hunting those deer was also target practice. And if she didn’t succeed the first time, the wolves would be there to back her up.
The redhead bit her lip as Muddypaws picked up a scent and started to run. Passing Otter and Splash, he moved into the direction of some snow-covered pine trees which were closer to Bluestone Cave. Browncoat and Tenor followed. She inhaled deeply, focusing her senses on what Muddypaws had spotted first. She could do this. She just had to find a way to push the paralyzing fear away...
Meanwhile, True Edge had given Cloudfern, Evervale, Starskimmer and Newt a quick summary of the status of the Holt, the departure of the various scouting groups, and told the group at Bluestone Cave that Rainpace and Dreamflight had also taken up positions. When Fadestar ventured back to Windy Ridge, they would have contact with the Holt. Starskimmer had asked if Fadestar was all right and she had nodded quickly, not wanting to interfere with True Edge’s story. True Edge had been cranky almost all the way, and Fadestar didn’t want to fuel that feeling. She continued to listen to what he had to say, but she felt restless. She wanted to see Crackle. She hadn’t returned Fadestar’s sends but Otter had, so Fadestar knew they weren’t far.
Fadestar had been too anxious to keep huddled up in the caves to rest and wait for their return. Besides, she was now used to Farscout’s traveling pace and the lack of rest, so she felt no need to close her eyes and sleep a little. She had been pacing up and down in front of the cave’s entrance and had sent for her friend on a regular basis, until True Edge had emerged from the caves with Charm at his side.
“She’s not far,” True Edge told Fadestar. It was something she knew as well, because Crackle’s acknowledgement of her sends were close by and Otter did keep in touch with their whereabouts. They had just picked up a trail which they were following, but Otter promised they’d be back soon.
Fadestar looked up at True Edge. “I won’t be able to rest before I see her,” Fadestar said. She sensed something was wrong. Except for the one occasion that Crackle had run off to prove herself as a huntress, Crackle never deliberately ignored Fadestar’s sends.
True Edge sighed. He too, seemed worried about the cub. More so, perhaps, Fadestar mused, because he was responsible for the youngsters, including herself. “Can I go get them?” she asked.
The elder hesitated. “It might look peaceful with the fresh snow, but there are as many dangers here as there are around the Holt. And you’re less familiar with these.”
Fadestar inhaled and exhaled slowly before she smiled wryly. “I wasn’t familiar with the Fierce Ones before and I survived those. I made it the whole way back by myself until I met up with One-Leg’s group and that distance was larger than the one between Crackle and Otter and us. And I’m supposed to set up contact soon at Windy Ridge with probably no more than a few wolves. Their position is well within sending range. And I don’t want to leave Bluestone Cave without seeing her. I know something’s not right.”
True Edge had wanted to say no — Fadestar was almost sure of it — but after a few heartbeats during which Fadestar unconsciously held her breath, he nodded. “I am going with you.” Was that a glint of pride in his eyes, Fadestar wondered?
And tougher than she felt, she said: “Let’s go, then.”
Crackle knew they were being followed by someone familiar, because the wolves did not give any warnings. And when a gust of wind brought the scent of her best friend, Crackle wasn’t surprised. She also scented True Edge, and bit her lip.
Otter had picked up the scent that Muddypaws had found, and had led the group even closer towards Bluestone Cave. It was why Fadestar and True Edge had been able to catch up with Fadestar’s agemates before they had laid eyes on their prey. It appeared that the deer were further away than the two youngsters had anticipated.
“I don’t have time to talk,” Crackle said without even looking at her friend as Fadestar approached her.
Fadestar and Otter exchanged glances and as a greeting, and he nodded as she joined the group. **Are you all right? Is True Edge as cranky as he looks?** The humor glittered in his eyes while he quickly glanced at the elder. Instinctively, he had Splash create a safe distance.
**He will be, if you let those deer get away,** Fadestar told him with a smile. She turned to look at True Edge, who only huffed at the exchange between the two youngsters. Then she turned to Crackle, who still hadn’t looked at her but was pursuing the wolves. Her shoulders slumped a little. A few sends between True Edge and Otter were privately exchanged before Otter shrugged and sped up. True Edge soon followed.
There were a few things that Crackle didn’t want to share with her best friend, but her lingering fear was definitely one of them. She repeatedly reminded herself that the Chief counted on her for stocking the emergency Holt and feeding the shapers. She didn’t want to mess up. She couldn’t do that to her tribemates, and especially not to her family.
Crackle felt that Fadestar wasn’t going anywhere, and glanced sideways as Branch, who carried Fadestar, stopped next to Crackle. The redhead was ultimately relieved that Fadestar looked good. Seeing that Fadestar was all right relieved Crackle immensely. It even eased some of the anxiety she had been feeling ever since the chief had told them what had happened.
And sometimes, the fear had grabbed her by the throat and it was so fierce that she could then hardly breathe. Those were feelings she did not want to share with her agemates who were scared – everyone was, even the adults — but who seemed to pull through way better than she did. All of this, Crackle thought, wasn’t supposed to happen. This all made for great story material, but not for situations in real life.
**I can help,** Fadestar offered.
“Huh?” For a moment, Crackle was confused. She had simply followed Otter and True Edge, who had almost naturally taken over the hunt leader’s position. Trying to shake off the feeling, she straightened her back proudly, determined that she wouldn’t let her thoughts wander off anymore. Now she also had to convince True Edge that she was up to the task.
“You don’t have to. This is my task,” the redhead said.
Fadestar frowned at the spoken words. **I want to,** she sent, **When you have a task, it doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone.** She shifted her gaze to True Edge’s back. He had clearly picked up the trail that Otter had been following before and Charm had a steady trot. **True Edge wants someone to go with me to Windy Ridge. And I’m happy about that.**
Fadestar’s final words gave Crackle a little peace of mind, for now. She sighed deeply, and nodded. “Just don’t get in my way,” she spoke with some pride. "You’ve got your task, and I’ve got mine.”
Soon, there was no more time to talk. True Edge, still ahead of the group, sent images of the deer ahead, and the running wolves shortened the distance to the fleeing deer. All three young adults concentrated fully on the chase and the hunt.
With the increase of the number of elves and wolves in the hunting party, the group could bring both animals down. While True Edge’s arrow sunk behind the shoulder blade, Otter’s arrow pierced into the deer’s chest. Fadestar and Crackle had a little more difficulty with the second deer — Fadestar’s arrow hit one of the ribs of the animal and Crackle’s hit the deer’s neck. The first deer fell while the second one, albeit hurt, stumbled away in a terrified attempt to flee its attacker. Branch, who was carrying Fadestar, approached from the left while Muddypaws with Crackle moved to the right. With her spear in her hand, Fadestar was torn between giving Crackle the chance to kill it off, or seizing the opportunity herself. Still, she readied her weapon to end the animal’s suffering.
Then Muddypaws snapped at the deer’s leg and the sideways movement made it stumble. Fadestar and Branch got out of the way just in time before the animal smashed into the ground. With one jump, Crackle had reached the animal and slit its throat. With a proud fire in her eyes, she cleaned her knife while the virgin white snow colored red. Fadestar waited for the death-kicks to end. The scent of fresh blood tingled in Fadestar’s nose and she shivered, while she observed Crackle in silence, who howled in triumph and had Branch and Muddypaws join her.
While True Edge and Otter gutted the first beast, Fadestar and Crackle prepared the other. They worked silently for a little while. Crackle felt better than she had in... well, it seemed forever to the young redhead. But Fadestar’s silence bothered her a bit. She knew her friend wanted to say something and she knew it would come, soon. Crackle was just too stubborn to start first.
“Are you all right?” Fadestar softly said.
Crackle shrugged, and gave the answer she had already prepared. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because of... well, you know, everything,” Fadestar muttered. “The Fierce Ones, splitting up the Holt, us being here and our families and friends being out there. I hate that I had to leave my sister and Snowfall behind. They’re both with cub, even!” She breathed deeply. “And I haven’t heard anything from Farscout yet, which scares me, too... But I’m happy that at least I’ll be close to Newt and you. Because I’m terrified.”
For a little while that seemed like ages, Crackle stopped cleaning her kill and looked up to meet Fadestar’s eyes.
“Everyone’s scared,” she then sharply said, trying to mask her own fear with a shrug. But it occurred to Crackle that even though she thought she was terrified, she could hardly understand what Fadestar must have felt during the actual encounter. How close had Fadestar actually been? Crackle took a moment to muster up a few questions. But at the same time, she felt a little of the fear melt away.
For some reason, because Fadestar was able to show Crackle her fear, Crackle felt more at ease with her own feelings. Instead of having the feeling that Fadestar might look down on Crackle for being scared, now a feeling emerged that Crackle needed to comfort her best friend. She wrapped an arm around Fadestar’s shoulders. “I’ve been scared since I heard the news and haven’t stopped being scared since,” she admitted bravely. Despite the notion that she hadn’t wanted to show Fadestar how she felt, perhaps it would make Fadestar feel that she wasn’t alone. And, Crackle had to admit, it made her not feel alone either.
Fadestar tried to smile, but only succeeded in pulling up the left corner of her lips. “I had to be brave because I needed to be, and Farscout needed me to run like the wind and pass the message. But when I arrived at the Holt, you were already gone and I still had the smell of humans in my nose. And I needed to report to Windburn and remember as many details as I could before I could rest, and then I already had to leave. But then I came here and I didn’t see you and it seemed that all the fear just jumped right back at me.” Fadestar couldn’t stop talking now that she had begun, and in the meantime, Crackle squeezed her close.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I just needed to keep busy and I didn’t want you to know that I was scared,” the redhead muttered. “I’m scared for my family, and for Windburn, and everyone out there. I don’t want things to change and I don’t want to go and live here because our Holt is discovered by humans.” She felt Fadestar tighten her grip around her waist. “And it frustrates me that I can’t change this, and that it’s real.”
Fadestar sighed, playing with the cord of her tunic. “Yes, and it was too real for me. You only saw sent images. But I was there. I smelled them. I smelled Farscout’s fear. I thought Farscout was hardly ever scared like that, but he was... and still he managed to keep his head cool. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have died and then I wouldn’t be here.” Fadestar’s voice trembled and a shiver ran down Crackle’s spine.
“I am glad he was there,” the redhead spoke. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
“Me too,” Fadestar smiled. This time, the smile reached her eyes.
Crackle released Fadestar’s shoulder and continued to clean the kill, and Fadestar fell in line beside her. But Crackle’s morbid interest had been piqued by the glimpse that Fadestar had shared with her, and her interest had been raised. And even though Crackle knew it would probably scare her even more, she asked: “How did they smell?”
“The humans. How did they smell?”
Fadestar cast a sideway glance. “Like one of Notch’ stinkbombs. With some leather-and-sweat smell. And they smelled like round-hooves. Like Notch, too. Remember when he used bear poop and a rotten carcass of a stinkbear to make a flaming bag of poop, and it exploded while he was trying to frame Quick Fang?”
“What else happened?”
“Before we saw the Fierce Ones, I fell out of a tree and broke my spear, and Farscout had to stitch my leg up.”
“Was there blood?” Crackle asked with wide eyes and some morbid interest.
“Lots,” Fadestar said with a smile.
“Did it hurt?”
“Up until Willow healed it.”
“Ahh, that’s good. I’m sorry about your spear, though, I know how you liked it. Maybe you can ask Cloudfern and Starskimmer to shape you a new one. What else?”
“Autumnleaf let me ride.”
“No she didn’t!” Crackle gasped. “Really? Finally?”
“Yes, she did,” Fadestar laughed, “But it was a one-time thing. I had to ride Branch all the way over here. Oh, and did you know that Farscout can be silent for days on end? He didn’t speak for over two days. And he moved like the wind, it was so hard to keep up with him!”
“That must’ve been horrible!” Crackle shrieked in delight.
“The first time, it was, but I noticed when I traveled here that I was faster than True Edge,” the black-haired female winked. “Or maybe True Edge is getting old.”
Crackle laughed and Fadestar joined her. It felt good to laugh, and listen to the anecdotes of her friend, Crackle thought. Even though her worldview was temporarily shattered, at least she had her friends to count on. Maybe, she mused, not all was lost. Not yet. And in the meantime, Fadestar’s revelations were great story material.
**I’m glad you’re here,** Crackle sent when both deer were cleaned and the wolves had had their share. In pairs, True Edge and Otter on Charm and Splash and behind them, Crackle and Fadestar on Muddypaws and Branch, carried one of the kills.
**Me too. But I have to leave soon. Promise me that you won’t do anything stupid.**
Crackle snorted and stared at True Edge’s back. **I promise, as long as you share stories with me. I still need to keep myself busy.**
**I promise,** Fadestar replied.
For a little while, they were silent. Bluestone Cave came into sight, and Crackle thought it was good to be back. And with food, too. The shapers must be hungry, she mused, and this meat was good. The scent tickled her nose, and her stomach rumbled.
It made her think of the smell they discussed before. Crackle couldn’t help but ask:
“Did the Fierce Ones really smell like Notch?”
Fadestar grinned with shimmering eyes. “Yes, they did!”
The two females burst out in laughter, and their voices echoed through the valley. A flock of birds left the safety of the trees in shock, which caused the snow of the pine trees to drift to the ground. True Edge tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, but since they were home, and the youngsters should be youngsters for a little while, he just snorted and let them be.
Not all was well in Crackle’s world, but she now could see the good things too. And, the redhead thought while wiping the tears of laughter out of her eyes, the good things must outweigh the bad things. She needed the good things to move on and she realized that the same counted for Fadestar. Together, they’d pull through. With each other’s help.
And right now, that was enough.