(This story is a part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see the Collection for related stories, or see the forum listing here.)
The sound of the little spear hitting the ground was oddly satisfying, whether it hit the mark Cinder had carefully drawn into the ground or not. It hadn't taken him long to reach the mouth of Den's Creek, thanks in large part to Longhowl, who now lounged lazily near the creek bed. The treeline surrounded him in a wide semi-circle, mixing trunks thick and thin alike. The last remnants of the previous day's rainfall dripped from the branches in the pleasant evening air, a welcome change from the cold chill of winter that had seemed to last forever. The snow had long since melted away, leaving Cinder with plenty of room to change the space the way he liked for practice.
The young boy was frustrated, and somehow that seemed to lend him a vast amount of focus on the activity at hand. Could it be simply that he had drawn his target -- at the base of the largest tree, and a good two handspans from where his most recently thrown spear had embedded itself -- in the wrong place? Unlikely. It seemed more likely that his focus, which he had been trying incredibly hard to maintain, had waned. Of course, focus did not automatically lead to skill, and much more often than not the spear was missing its mark completely.
A rustle coming from the trees behind him cut through the surrounding noise, bringing forth a low rumbling growl from Longhowl’s snout as he lifted his head from its resting place on his paws to sniff at the air. Cinder turned quickly, peering at his wolf-friend’s face to try and interpret his reaction. The momentary snarl from him quickly abated into what could almost be described as a sneeze as his mouth widened into a yawn before returning to its former position.
Cinder’s surprise at his friend’s reaction turned to understanding when he watched Kestrel float down from the trees. He wondered how long she had been there; whether she had simply stumbled across him or if someone had sent her.
Whatever the reason, though, Cinder decided he was glad right now that it was she approaching and not his father or one of his age-mates. He had had something on his mind for a little while, now, and though she was older even than his grandsire -- which made her Really, Really Old -- he found that she made it easy to speak his mind. Cinder rarely sought the elder out on his own, but she was always attentive if he did find himself with her.
“You seem to be working hard. Are you practicing your hunting?” Kestrel asked with a smile, picking up Cinder’s little spear for him and walking to his side, handing it over.
Cinder nodded shyly in response as he took the spear back. “It isn’t going so well, though. I think I like using the bow better.” In reality, he hadn’t had tons of luck yet with either of the two weapons, but his current frustration caused him now to favor one over the other.
Kestrel nodded, and Cinder got the impression that she knew more of what he was thinking than he let on. How did elders do that? “You still have lots of time to figure out which one you like more,” the glider added reassuringly.
The young elf stood in place, the fingers of his right hand playing lightly across the child-sized tool as he sifted through his tumultuous thoughts. Finally, he turned to face Kestrel.
“Can I... ask you something?” he began, figuring that now was as good a time as any to tell somebody about the thoughts that had been bothering him. Keeping them to himself was only serving to confuse him more.
“Of course you can,” she replied, smiling. “What is it?”
“What can I do to get better?”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Kestrel responded after a moment.
The boy struggled a bit with the challenge of putting his feelings into words. “While our tribe was split up, sometimes I... just really, really wanted to be out there with you -- or with Father or Grandfather -- hunting or scouting. It was fun, gathering plants and herbs and staying here to practice things around the Dentrees. But the next time something happens I want to be able to do more than that!”
Cinder took a glance at the elder, trying to see if she understood what he was getting at.
“I see. And that’s why you’re here now, working so diligently?” she asked, her expression still hard to pin down.
“Yes. I want to get better as soon as I can,” the boy said fiercely, his jaw set firmly.
Cinder’s stomach sank as Kestrel knelt in front of him, her eyes now level with his; he had the feeling he was about to get a lecture.
“You know that each and every elf has a place in the tribe. Even the younger ones, like you and Rill, have something they can do that will help the rest. Gathering, basket weaving, and tanning, though they may not be skills you are the most interested in, are still very important, and knowing how to do them will allow you to help your tribemates in the future. As for the hunting and scouting... you just have to give it time,” the elder said... and suddenly Cinder was beginning to feel uncomfortable under her gaze. Perhaps the deepest part of him knew she was right, but at this moment in time, it was not what he wanted to hear.
Instead, he took a step back, his expression growing harder. “But that doesn't help NOW. I just wish I were a grown-up, so that I could be of use to Father.” With that, he returned to his previous place, facing his target drawn in the ground, and took aim again.
Kestrel frowned as she watched the boy, and sensed that nothing else she might say was welcome at this point, and so she took to the trees again, alighting on a high branch but continuing to watch Cinder for a while. In truth, seeing Cinder so earnest and self-demanding, she couldn’t help but be reminded of Windburn; and though she had a hard time admitting it to herself, there had been a little bit of Blacksnake in his expression as well. Was the way he was acting now just a phase? Yes, the chief’s younger cub had always tended to be quiet and sometimes took things too seriously -- quite the contrast to his best friend -- but could it be that the arrival of the Fierce Ones had exacerbated that trait to the exclusion of all else? Kestrel had seen firsthand and heard stories about how an event such as the one their tribe had recently experienced had caused a child to leave behind cubhood much too soon. She was at a loss for something, anything to say to make the boy understand that there would be time enough to be an adult.
Kestrel wasn’t sure how long she had been lost in thought when those thoughts were interrupted. She noticed Cinder stop in his tracks; he appeared to be receiving a sudden send, which was then followed by Rill and Softjoy bounding into the clearing moments after. The small fluttering form of Muckabout floated about Rill's head, staying close to the cub as his father's punishment dictated.
“THERE you are!” the slightly older boy said with a grin, jumping off of his wolf. “Glow and I were trying to see who could find you first... looks like I won!”
“You sent to me. That’s cheating,” Cinder answered, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, she doesn’t know that. Come on, we want to start up a game and we need you for it. We might even get Copper to agree to play!” Rill said quickly, taking Cinder’s arm and giving it an insistent tug. Cinder appeared to be genuinely conflicted, his gaze moving back and forth between his drawn target and the eager face of his friend beside him. Kestrel could see the hesitancy in the young elf’s body language; he was clearly torn between what his head thought he should be doing and what his youth was instinctively pushing him to do.
“I don’t know,” Cinder said. “I’m kind of busy...”
“Busy with what?” Rill asked, waving his hand impatiently at the preserver to shoo it away. Muckabout was getting antsy; they were nearing the outer border of Rill's designated travel area, and things had the potential to get loud were he to breach that border. “Practicing with your spear? There’s time for that later. This will be fun!”
Cinder was silent for a moment -- leaving Kestrel unsure of whether the young elf would give in to his boyish urges -- before his gaze finally settled on his friend. Finally a childish smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “What kind of game?”
“I’ll tell you on the way,” Rill replied as he mounted his wolf again, waving at Cinder. “Come on!”
To Kestrel’s relief, Cinder nodded once at Rill and moved towards Longhowl. “All right, but just for a little while.”
The elder sat back with a smile as she watched the pair and their wolves bound off together. While it was true that the Fierce Ones’ arrival had affected the boy greatly -- as it had affected them all -- he was still a cub. There was plenty of time for growing up; she hoped he would remain a cub for as long as cubhood was meant to last.