The wind was biting Cloudfern to the very bone. The trees had been fighting him and Evervale every step of the way this night, wishing only for sleep and stillness. Shaping anything more than a bump in the bark had been a battle and had left Cloudfern feeling very much like a tree in winter himself; longing for rest.
But there was more work to be done before he could turn in.
The youth looked up from the rabbit he'd been skinning, eyes heavy with sleep. Cloudfern felt a sting of sympathy, as most of the others already were wrapped up in their furs. He suspected True Edge had something to do with Otter having to stay up tending to a kill this close to sunrise. Whatever the youth had done to deserve it Cloudfern felt a sting at how tired Otter looked.
But the sympathy was lost as Otter said: "What do you want?"
Cloudfern frowned. "I need to take a look at your wounds," he said, gesturing at Otter's bandaged arm. "It will only take a moment."
Otter scowled at Cloudfern, then turned to scowl at the half-skinned rabbit, then back to Cloudfern. His shoulders were as stiff as the gait of the angered stinkbear that had torn holes in his arm three nights ago. "It feels fine. Go to sleep, you look like you need it."
The words were a stone that started a landslide inside Cloudfern. He let out an uncharacteristic growl, baring teeth at Otter. "I've had enough of your foolishness!"
Otter's eyes widened at the growl and he sat up straighter and glanced over his shoulder, sleep blown from his eyes like leaves from a tree in fall. He kept his back to Cloudfern though and soon looked away. Within a moment of recovery his hands were back at the task of relieving the rabbit of the last of its skin. He said nothing.
Cloudfern circled around until Otter's face came into view. He could see the challenge in Otter's eyes, see his hackles rising. And suddenly Cloudfern felt very, very tired.
Falling more than sitting down, Cloudfern positioned himself opposite Otter and said: "What will letting your arm get infected prove?"
That got another pause from Otter. The glare of challenge was snuffed out, the gleam fading from his eyes, snowflakes met by the water of a hotspring. "Huh?"
"There's no need to refuse showing me your wounds," Cloudfern went on, holding out his hand and waiting. Otter placed his arm in Cloudfern's grip seemingly on pure reflex. "You'll do more good to keep all of us alive once your arm is better, so why not accept my help?"
"I…" The question looked to have knocked Otter's feet out from under him — had he been standing, that was. He stared at the rabbit until Cloudfern cleared his throat.
"You looked tired," Otter muttered to the rabbit. "Thought you could use sleep more than my arm needs seeing to. It really does feel fine."
It was a poor excuse, delivered in a stubborn tone of voice, but Cloudfern couldn't make himself meet that with more than a nod. The night's work was weighing heavily on the both of them. Let it be, Cloudfern thought to himself. I'll deal with this when we're all more rested. Let it be.
While he unwrapped the bandage and examined the wounds, Cloudfern stole looks at Otter's face. Nothing. Otter might not have the stoneface True Edge could pull, but his expression was neutral enough to give no clue as to his thoughts. Cloudfern sighed.
Had someone told him a moon-turn ago that he'd be going to Bluestone Cave with Otter, Evervale, Newt, Crackle, Starskimmer and True Edge, with Fadestar being there on and off, he wouldn't have been worried. Yes, Crackle could get caught up in her own fancies, of course, but she was old enough to know when things were serious, as far as Cloudfern had seen. But Otter, even though he was Notch's brother, he'd never seen as a source of trouble before. At least not intentional trouble.
Cloudfern let go of Otter's arm. He got a curt nod of thanks before Otter went back to the rabbit.
When had Otter turned so sullen and ready to bite? The pale of Newt's hair caught Cloudfern's attention from the corner of his eye. His son was sleeping the deep sleep of a long night's work, dead to the world. Again, had this been a moon-turn ago he would have asked Newt to talk to Otter, to see what was wrong.
But there was an unease between Newt and Otter now, one Cloudfern knew all too well from experience. Looking at the two of them, he couldn't help but see himself and Greenweave, many turns ago, before Honey's wrapping and healing.
So much could change in a moon-turn.
With one last glance at Otter, Cloudfern crawled into his furs. Restless sleep full of dreams awaited him. Hopefully Otter would sleep better and everything would be better by nightfall. But Cloudfern doubted it.