(Ed. Note: Sparkle was the cubname of Goldspice.)
(This story is part of the "2013 Family Time Contest"; click to see more fiction and art entries!)
Sparkle reached her hand, covered in yellow paint, toward the back of her mother’s head. She moved slowly, deliberately, and had almost painted the smooth head when she found her wrist caught in Ice’s vise-like grip.
**Ha! She caught you!** came Flash’s laughing send. **Better luck next time - we’re getting out of here!** her favorite cubsitter shared, indicating that she was running away, and taking Fletcher and Whitestag with her. They knew from a past experience that those caught trying to paint Ice’s head were faced with a furious and forceful retribution — as they had warned her.
Sparkle wasn’t upset by the others’ departure, nor was she worried about any punishment coming from her mother. Inside, she was grinning. She felt her mother’s grip loosen, and let Ice lead her around until they were facing one another. Ice's mind voice was calculated when she offered her praise, **Excellent work, daughter! They think that you can’t do this. After this, they will be even more certain that you won’t win... which means they’ll be wagering better rocks next time!**
Sparkle grinned at her mother. In her six turns of the seasons, the cub had only heard of the game. Apparently, her mother had caught Whitestag, and had gone after him with her hammerstone. To her knowledge, no one had tried the game since. The goal, so she’d heard, was for the an elf to paint Ice’s head. If the feat was witnessed, the painter would earn a rock. Supposedly, it was supposed to be an ongoing game — a moon-turn, and the elf with the most rocks would win.
Sparkle knew that Ice hated the game. Even though it had not been played in a long time, Ice growled at her whenever she’d asked for more information. Until recently. About a moon-turn, maybe two, ago, a hunting group had traveled somewhere north of Elder Peak, and when they returned, Flash had been proud to show a beautiful piece of green-veined ore she had found near Jewel Springs. Sparkle didn’t know why, but her mother had wanted to examine it — more likely to keep it — but Flash had repeatedly refused to trade for it.
Sparkle knew her mother was desperate for it, because she had come to Sparkle and asked for the cub’s help in procuring it. Ice had suggested that Sparkle ask Flash to tell her stories about the game; though Sparkle had heard it before, it was a story she never tired of, so there was no way Flash would be suspicious. Ice had then instructed her to beg that they try the game, and that she be allowed to play — and to do whatever it took to join in.
That first step — convincing Flash to try the game again, and to let her play — had been easy. Flash was excited at the risk to herself, and had as much as said that the only reason she’d let Sparkle play at all was that she didn’t think the cub would even come close to painting the forger’s head.
The next step of the game, convincing them that she would get caught if she tried, was also done. Now it was about time for Sparkle to head into the third part of the game she and her mother were playing — getting Flash to agree to give up the ore to the person who actually did paint Ice’s head before the end of the game. Because of Whitestag’s experience with Ice in the past, it had been agreed that the first one to succeed would be the winner.
Ice interrupted Sparkle's reverie. **You almost got me this time. I must have been dozing off, even though I knew you were coming.**
Sparkle laughed. She saw the crinkle of her mother’s eyes and knew that the smith was happy. It warmed her heart — her mother rarely seemed happy and even less frequently seemed pleased with her daughter. **What are you going to make with the ore when I get it for you?** she asked, following the lead that sending was still necessary.
**Not sure yet. I just want my hands on it to start with. After that... we’ll see.**
**I can watch you when you work with it, can’t I?** It was for this reason that Sparkle had agreed to be part of the deception — time spent with her mother was precious, and her mother rarely let her in the forge.
**Yes. You win it for me, and you can come into the forge with me.**
Sparkle sensed the hesitation and reluctance in her mother's promise, but accepted that Ice's word in sending was as good as any other elf's. The cub was excited. **So now I ask Flash to to give me the ore if I can actually paint your head?**
The smith's response was clipped, but affirmative, **Yes.**
It had taken some convincing, but Flash had been persuaded by the other players that there was no way Sparkle would succeed. The cub had felt a little hurt by the strength of their conviction that she couldn't do it, and she had begun to wonder if maybe they were right — she was just a cub after all. Really, the only way she was going to get close enough to her mother to paint her was if Ice was in on it and letting her.
That got Sparkle thinking. Even though her mother was agreeable to it, Sparkle knew she didn't want to win the rock because her mother let her do it. She still wanted to get the rock for Ice, but she wanted to win fairly. And she knew she needed help.
She found her father talking with her grandfather near the wolf dens. Sparkle was too intent on her own plans to try to listen in to their conversation and both Riskrunner and Blacksnake stopped talking when they saw her approach. Blacksnake's welcoming grin propelled her forward and she leapt into his welcoming arms for a hug. Then, turning to look at her father, who was waiting with an equally welcoming smile, she reached for him and was rewarded with another hearty embrace. She felt elated — unlike with her mother, she had never doubted that she was loved by her father, and every interaction with him confirmed that.
"Want to go out for a ride with us tonight, daughter?" Riskrunner asked.
The invitation was tempting. She loved riding out into the Broad Meadow and beyond, especially with her father and his sire. But tonight, she had another goal. "Actually, Father, Grandfather, I need your help."
The male's expressions were equally intrigued and seemed willing, but it was her father who responded, "Anything for you, my darling." Blacksnake nodded in agreement, and Riskrunner continued, "How can we help you?"
Sparkle clapped her hands as her father then set her down and squatted before her so that he could listen more intently. His father squatted next to him, and Sparkle put an arm on each of their shoulders before she sent, **I'm playing a game with Flash, Fletcher and Whitestag. No one has painted mother's head yet, and they all are certain I can't because mother caught me when I tried — but it was part of the plan with mother.**
She noticed their eyebrows rise and sensed their question at that. Sparkle also sensed some irritation from her father, but could tell it was toward Ice and not toward herself. She continued, **Mother agreed to let me get her next time, but I don't want her to know that I'm coming. I want to do it for real and win without cheating, but the others don't think I can, and I don't know if I can. Will you help me?**
Blacksnake responded first, **It's an old game, and Ice is a hard one to trick. When someone gets her, though, really gets her, she gets fairly upset about it. Are you sure you want that?**
Sparkle shook her head. Of course she didn't want Ice angry with her. She was playing the game to make her mother happy, and said as much.
**If Ice still gets her prize, she won't care that Sparkle changed their game a little. And I know how to help you, daughter. Just let me visit Starskimmer to get some dreamberry wine.**
Blacksnake laughed. "That'll do it, son. Won't be the first time someone's won by using a brew to get her relaxed. But I don't think she'll take to drinking with you that quickly."
"Don't I know it. I'll see if Starskimmer wants to join us. I’ll let her know what’s happening. I think she’ll be willing to help us — and she’s always up for a roll in the furs. Ice never seems to mind her company — though she never really desires anyone’s presence."
His father chuckled. "I should have thought of it first. Ah, well."
Sparkle could see the gleam in his eyes, which meant he wasn't really disappointed. Her grandfather looked at her, smiling. "What do you say, cub? Let's you and I take a ride, and when we return, I'll help you finish the task that your father's setting in motion."
Sparkle nodded happily, hugged her father and sent her thanks.
It was almost dawn when Sparkle and Blacksnake returned. She happily howled their return and her father responded with a locked send that she should come to his den, and that her mother would not know she was there. In the image he sent, all Sparkle would have to do would be to reach through the small window and paint her mother's head — Ice was leaning against the wall, arms wrapped around Starskimmer, who was sleeping. Riskrunner had extricated himself from Starskimmer's embrace to better help his daughter.
Sparkle hopped down from her seat on her grandfather’s wolf, Arrowhead, and ran to get some paint, sending for one of the other players to come witness her painting Ice's head. Fletcher responded that he would meet her at the base of the Dentrees.
She sent him up through the interior stairway while she climbed up through the outside. When she reached the window, she sent to him, and he responded that he was now sitting next to her father, and taking a swig of the leftover wine. Sparkle reached her hand through the window and ever so carefully set her paint-covered hand on her mother's bald head. Ice shifted a little in her uncomfortable sleep, but didn't wake up. Sparkle pulled her hand back through the window and, without thinking, covered her mouth to keep from squealing. She'd done it!
**Good job, cub,** came Fletcher's send, and Spakle knew she had won.
At dusk, Flash begrudgingly rewarded Sparkle with the piece of ore, and Whitestag called the game, making Sparkle the official winner. When they invited her to play with them next time, she declined, stating that she really hadn't liked pranking her mother.
About that time, Ice's enraged shriek reached their ears, and the other three scattered, leaving Sparkle on her own to face the smith. The cub tucked the ore behind her back and went to face her mother.
Ice's face was livid, and her head was still covered in the red paint Sparkle had chosen. "Hello, mother," Sparkle said timidly.
"You did this?" Ice asked directly, her voice hard.
Sparkle nodded, then without waiting for the next icy statement, held out the ore for her mother to view — a peace offering. "I won it for you," she announced hopefully, taking a step toward her.
Ice's breath caught, and she tensed even more. Sparkle didn't know what was being sent, but she could tell someone was saying something to her mother. After the air cleared, she watched as Ice purposefully took the step that bridged the distance between them and knelt. Ice reached out and carefully took the ore in her hands. Sparkle saw the crinkle at the edge of her mother's eyes and let out a sigh of relief. Ice was pleased and she was forgiven.
"Well-played, daughter. I'll take this to the forge later tonight. You may join me then.” With that, Ice stood and, cradling the ore in her arms with the care most mothers gave their tiny cubs, looked around, grinning. Then, she spoke again, only this time, it didn’t seem that she was speaking directly to the cub. “For now, I'm going to wash in the river. Someone painted my head."
Sparkle wondered if her mother was gloating. Nevertheless, the happy tone in Ice's voice warmed the cub all over. She had won the game, and even more importantly, had won some time with her mother.