(This story takes place after “The Gathering Storm, Part 5”, and is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
Atop Browncoat, Newt followed Crackle and Muddypaws through the snowdrifts. The two teens were checking the small trapline that had been started at their new, temporary home at the Bluestone Cave. At least Newt hoped the move would be temporary. He wanted nothing more than for the Fierce Ones to leave and never return so he could go home. Back to the Dentrees. Where he belonged. That had been the tribe's home for longer than any of them had lived. It was home before his injury and consequent wrapping. The trees had sheltered him during that long sleep that seemed to last only a moment. And, even after the passage of so much time, it was still home when he awoke. It was where his mother, fathers, and brothers had lived their entire lives. Just being there gave him a small sense of connection with them. His heart ached with the longing to return to that place where he felt safest.
But will it still feel safe if… when… I return? he wondered.
Worry and a vague sense of fear had been his constant companion in the days since he had traveled to Bluestone Cave with Cloudfern and the others. He felt an overwhelming urge to keep an eye on the shapers. He needed to watch them to make sure they didn’t over-extend themselves in their zeal to get the work done. Creating new dens in the small trees around the cave was difficult and cold work for Cloudfern and Evervale. And Starskimmer was pushing herself equally as hard to reshape the cave to suit their needs.
“Look, Newt,” Crackle said, interrupting his inner musings. She turned on Muddypaws' back to look at her pale companion. “This one is empty too. Do you think we should move it?”
Newt stared at her for a moment. His companion looked both determined and uncertain all at once without a trace of her normal Crackle-like tendencies. Turning his attention back to the trap she had pointed out, he scrunched his face with indecision. He combed through the relatively limited knowledge he had of trapping. “Umm… I think we should just bait it again and see if we have more luck next time.”
Crackle nodded, as if his thoughts echoed her own. “I agree. We are more likely to catch fox or ermine this time of year anyway. The furs would be nice but they aren’t the best eating. Lucky we have leftover meat from yesterday all wrapped up in Preserver spit.”
She set about resetting and baiting the trap while Newt opened his bulging carrysack. He surveyed the fruits of another of his self-appointed tasks. Of the youths at Bluestone, he probably had the most knowledge of medicinal herbs and he was determined to augment the small amount the group had brought with them. But winter wasn’t the best season to gather many things the tribe relied on at home. He had stretched his knowledge to find things to make life easier for the others who were depending on him to contribute.
He had evergreen needles to make a boiled aromatic that would calm coughs. The needles were plentiful here, but he wanted a stock wrapped and available right away if the need arose. He had some chokecherry bark scraped from a young plant which was good for fevers. He also had some pricklebush roots for upset stomach or infection, as well as small handfuls of various nuts and seeds that had managed to be overlooked by foraging wildlife.
As Crackle mounted Muddypaws, Newt closed the flap on his carrysack and patted it. The trip along the trap line hadn’t been for nothing. The two began the trip back to Bluestone Cave in thoughtful silence. There had been a lot of that lately, but Newt wasn’t in a hurry to breach the quiet. He didn’t want to talk about the Fierce Ones, what they were up to, or where they may be going right now. Sometimes he had a strange feeling that talking about them too much might summon their presence. Newt shivered.
Suddenly Muddypaws and Browncoat perked up with interest. Crackle’s wolf-friend in front nosed a bush and a pair of rabbits darted from cover. Crackle whooped in excitement and pulled her sling and a rock from her belt pouch as Muddypaws began to chase one rabbit. Meanwhile, Browncoat charged after the other with Newt gripping his ruff. His wolf made a sharp snap with his teeth and came up victorious with a medium-sized rabbit dangling from his jaws.
“Got it!” Crackle crowed triumphantly, lifting her prize aloft by its ears.
“Us too!” Newt called, smiling with the thrill of the brief hunt singing in his veins.
Their good mood didn’t last for long, though, as they started riding again for the cave. For a moment there, it had almost been like before the Fierce Ones came. It was like a line had been drawn in the snow that day Farscout and Fadestar had come upon that hunting party. On one side was childhood and on the other was adult concerns and responsibilities. Was Newt really ready for all this? Newt looked down at his hands, hair falling over his eyes. Did he have a choice?
Newt and Crackle stopped one more time before reaching the cave, to refill their waterskins in Slaptail Lake. As he put the stopper back in, he noticed a single strand of limp brown grass peeking through a lumpy drift of snow right at the water’s edge. With a soft sound of discovery, he pulled out his digging tool and scraped back the snow.
“Cattail roots,” he said. “Crackle, help me dig them up!”
“Really? Those are so good toasted in a fire.” She moved to help her friend.
“I even like them raw and crunchy,” Newt replied.
Browncoat and Muddypaws saw what their elf bonds were doing and quickly joined in the digging. Soon they were all speckled with dark brown mud and the wolves were coated up the forelegs, looking like they had just pulled on a pair of sleeves. In no time at all, the young elves had four roots each clutched in their hands.
“We will definitely be having a feast tonight, Newt,“ Crackle said. “Just what we need to boost morale and help everyone sleep.”
“So we can do it all again tomorrow,” he interjected.
Crackle nodded. “Yep. And the day after that, and the day after that, until we are all together as one tribe again, wherever that may be.” She looked at him earnestly, green eyes full of purpose. “We can do it.”
Despite her determination, Newt heard that small thread of uncertainty in her voice again. He spoke quickly to bolster her. “You’re right. We can do it.”
And, for the moment at least, he thought maybe he really was ready.