There were few things as satisfying, Notch considered as he munched on a brownfruit he'd nicked from the storage dens, as watching others work. He lounged in the doorway of his den, feet propped up against the opening, his ratty mostly-bearfur winter coat serving as both padding for his back and warmth against the early spring chill. Below him, the tribe was going about their business — cubs playing, a fishing party heading down to the river, dens being aired out, the general hustle and bustle of daily life. It was all just so idyllic.
And so boring. He'd have to think of something to liven things up a bit.
An unmistakeable flash of red in the trees on the edge of the Holt clearing caught his attention. It was Foxtail, returning from a hunt with Thornbow, Blacksnake and Crackle. Notch smiled as he watched the hunting party enter the Holt proper and dismount from their wolves. If he knew Foxtail, she'd help unload the spoils of the hunt, then head down to the river to clean up before seeking him out. Of course, lately she'd also been helping out in the storage dens like a responsible girl-elf — like a responsible future chief, he thought, and his smile turned slightly wicked. All part of the plan.
Notch took another bite of the brownfruit. Ah yes, the plan. The greatest scheme he had ever dreamed up. He had come up with it after the punishment he and Foxtail had endured as a result of the prank he'd pulled on the humans for killing Beetle's wolf Crawfish, after Foxtail had lopped off her long curls, faded to a ginger-gold at the tips. It really was as much a game as a plan, and a long-game at that, especially for Foxtail: she was to prove herself a model member of the tribe so that Windburn would name her his heir and not skip her in favor of Cinder. And so far she was playing the game perfectly. She had convinced nearly everyone that she was a reformed elf, that she'd learned her lessons and was behaving like a chief's daughter should. She hadn't even caused a fuss when Windburn had chosen Goldspice to lead the Holt instead of her during the Fierce Ones crisis — that would have been a true test of her mettle, to be sure, and it would have been nice to see her in action, proving herself worthy. But oh well.
As for him, he was playing his part. He was good old Notch, after all, and there were certain expectations of him that he was happy to live up to. Still, he had reformed himself to the point that he had been accepted on the Word-Hunt and had only received a cuffing for stealing the Fierce Ones' horn from the depths of the storage dens and blowing it to save his father and Pathmark from discovery by the humans. Something like that would surely have earned him much worse punishment if he were the "old" Notch. No, his role in the game was a good deal simpler than Foxtail's, and he played it easily. His role in the plan, however…
Notch wasn't much for living in the Now. He was always planning ahead, thinking about the future and how to bend it to his will. It was no different with the plan. The plan was deceptively simple: make sure Foxtail became chief. And make sure he was close enough to her that she would rely on him to make decisions and be her second. He'd be the real power behind the torc; it would be he who effectively ran the tribe. This entailed making sure she was strong and confident enough to be perceived as a viable leader, but uncertain enough inside that she'd still depend heavily on him for decision-making. If that took occasionally breaking her confidence down a little bit only to build her back up, well then that's what it took. He was certain Foxtail hadn't sussed that part of the plan out. He'd have known it by this point — she'd be furious if she thought he was using her for his own ends. But she didn't have the long-view that he did; he wasn't sure any of his tribemates did, except possibly Blacksnake (and even so he viewed his uncle as having missed his own opportunity with Easysinger). And that was Notch's advantage. It was a flawless plan because no-one else would even think of it.
He almost laughed aloud. It was so perfect.
His attention returned to the activity below. Windburn had met the hunting party and was no doubt inventorying the meat and hides they'd returned with. (So much inventorying! Notch didn't understand how Foxtail put up with it, he'd have gone nuts by now.) As if she knew he was thinking about her, she looked up, saw him and flashed him a smile. **After I'm done in the stores, my wolf's-heart,** her sending teased around the edge of his mind.
**I can wait however long you need, my Fox-kitten,** he replied. He could, too. He was nothing if not a patient elf.
Finishing the brownfruit, he tossed the core to the ground and stood, stretching and yawning with a sinew-cracking satisfaction. In the meantime, there was some livening-up to be plotted. He had a reputation to uphold, after all.