The storage den was cool and dark. A single tallow candle lit Chicory’s work area, casting dancing shadows around her. The dusty scent of dried plants filled her nostrils. She frowned in thought as her hands worked by rote to carefully place herbs and ingredients in a pattern of disarray known only by herself and Rainpace. Her warm brown eyes narrowed as she catalogued the plants and calculated amounts she planned to use. The last concoction had not worked as planned and had some unpleasant side effects. She paused for a moment, scrunching her nose in remembered discomfort. Her belly had cramped for days.
‘More water this time,’ she thought, absently squeezing her nearby water skin to verify its volume. It sloshed reassuringly. Her small hands returned to the work of carefully crumbling her chosen ingredients into a dried hollow gourd then leaving the messy, just in case, notation for Rainpace. She reached for a few stonefruit seeds at the far edge of the table. As she pulled back, her elbow bumped a shaped wooden bowl sending it off the edge of the table. It flipped end over end, dumping bits of dried willow bark onto the ground. She sighed and dropped the seeds into her gourd. Chicory just stared at the mess for a moment, impatient at having her creation interrupted, and then she crouched to pick up the errant bowl and its contents. The wood felt as smooth as spider silk in her hands as she carefully placed every piece of bark back inside.
Wiping stray hair from her face with the back of one hand, Chicory placed the bowl on the edge of the table before returning to her task. Gradually, her gourd filled with herbs and other bits while the table grew more and more jumbled with her recipe. After a while, she gave the table a final glance, double checking her work for anything amiss.
“Hmm. I’m sure I put that in already.” Chicory muttered as she noticed the absence of a key ingredient. Her brown eyes skimmed the table one more time. With a shrug she picked up a tiny pot Starskimmer had shaped for her. She cautiously tapped the pot until three flakes of dried lizard slime fell into her gourd. Then she pushed a stopper into the pot, making sure it closed firmly, and tucked it in her pouch where curious cublings would not run across the dangerous substance. She arranged three torn bits of bittertree leaves as the agreed upon clue to the flakes presence in her potion.
Chicory stepped back to survey her work again. With a satisfied nod, she slid the gourd onto a carrying strap and slipped both it and her water skin over her shoulder. Picking up the tallow, she turned to leave. The flickering flame threw faint illumination on the table Easysinger preferred for making travelcakes during her life. Chicory blew out a long slow breath as melancholy tightened her skin. She allowed it for a moment before pushing it away and exiting the room. As she crossed the threshold, she felt a faint prickling on the back of her neck, as if someone was watching her. She looked back over her shoulder for a moment before she shook her head at her own silliness. She quickly moved out of the confines of Mother Tree, leaving the storage den and its apparitions behind.
The night air was calm outside the denning trees but there was a hint of crispness that warned winter was fast approaching. The Holt was bustling with activity in preparation for bedding down for the day. Greenweave stretched a weighted net over a bush to dry. Thornbow gathered a stack of newly crafted arrows and slid them into his quiver. Crackle and Otter dashed around playing a last minute game of touch-you-touch-me. Notch and Willow seemed to be playing their own version of the game as they headed up the trunk of Mother Tree. Rainpace wandered back into the Holt having finished laying his traps. Chicory waved at him.
Rainpace trotted up to her with a welcoming smile. "Have a productive night?" He said.
Chicory smiled and shook her gourd a little to draw his attention to it. "It was actually a quiet evening. I didn't do all that much."
“And the cubs let you laze around all night?" He linked arms with her and strolled companionably by her side. He lock sent to her. **Is that another experiment with the bloodbelly secretions?**
She nodded in answer to both questions. "One Leg was giving them pointers on spear fishing. I think there was more splashing than fishing going on though." She chuckled, jerking her head in the direction of the elder's wet leathers spread out to dry.
Rainpace smiled and nodded but his lock send was completely serious. **Why are you so determined to experiment with that? It’s dangerous.**
She shrugged a little. **I’m careful with it. But there just has to be something useful about a poison that effective. I think I’ve almost figured out the right dilution. I’m going to test this new batch once the daystar rises.** He sending was colored with stubborn determination.
Rainpace responded. **Why not wait until tomorrow night? I’d like to check the recipe and offer some suggestions.**
Reluctance to change her plans slowed Chicory’s steps. Pursing her lips, she looked away from her friend as she weighed the options. ‘No. I want to get this done now,’ she thought. Resolve firmed, she looked back at Rainpace to tell him her decision. But instead of waiting patiently for her answer as he should, he was seemingly searching the Holt with his eyes and standing on his tiptoes as if that would help. All of the sudden he gave a quiet cry of discovery.
“Heyla, Longshot!” Rainpace called. “Want to join us? Chicory needs a little… distraction.”
Startled, Chicory looked over to where Longshot was entering the Holt after a quick dip in the river. She saw the flash of his teeth as he smiled at them. “Of course, I’ll join you two.”
‘Ooh. A three-mating.’ All intentions of trying the potion right away fled in the face of other, more passionate thoughts. She glanced back at Rainpace only to find him grinning at her. He knew her too well. She gave him a brief scowl for good measure before laughing and dashing to Mother Tree. She called back over her shoulder, “Catch me if you can!”
Her eyes popped open. She was suddenly awake, jolted out of her dreams by… something. Flicking her gaze around the darkened den, she listened intently trying not to alert a possible intruder. Everything was where she expected it to be. A bow and quiver of arrows were carefully positioned near the den’s exit. Crumpled leathers lay strewn in a haphazard path toward the sleeping furs. All was quiet, except for a lone cricket anxious for the coming night and the soft rhythmic breathing of the sleeping elves behind her. Her nose caught the scent of them mingled with her own scent and a hint of moisture in the air. There was nothing at all out of the ordinary. ‘So why am I awake?’ she thought.
Then, despite being firmly wrapped in a cocoon of furs with her lovers radiating heat, chill bumps marched down her spine from the nape of her neck to her toes followed quickly by a convulsive shudder. Shifting in response, Longshot plopped a sleep heavy arm over her and snuggled closer so that his hot breath steamed her cool ear. Rolling her eyes, Chicory planted her left elbow against his ribs and pushed ever so slightly. With a sigh, Longshot rolled to his other side to cuddle with Rainpace, taking his confining arm and most of the furs with him.
She carefully slipped out from under the small remaining cover and quietly padded over to the den’s entrance. Pushing the leather flap aside, she paused framed in the doorway as she peered outside searching for whatever had disturbed her. The last rays of the daystar set her bare skin aglow with soft oranges and pinks but she fixed her gaze on the ever rising fog below.
Something moved amongst all that swirling whiteness. She squinted to make out the shape. Then she saw it and the sight froze her in place. The mist seemed to part as a white furred animal gracefully strolled into view. The spirit bear’s small ears twitched and its great head rocked from side to side as it moved. It seemed to be examining the Holt before finally lifting its tiny black eyes up to her. Chicory felt the weight of great age and wisdom in its gaze that almost seemed to press against her mind. Their eyes stayed locked together for an interminable moment. She heard a faint whispering, a ghost of a sound, in the back of her mind. **caution**
She gasped and took an involuntary step backward, knocking the quiver of arrows to the floor with a clatter. The sudden noise and movement broke the connection between them. The spirit bear turned its ancient eyes away from the home trees and seemed to search the fog surrounding the Holt for a moment. It glanced up at Chicory one more time before giving its large white body a shake from nose to rump and melting back into the mist.
“What is it?” Longshot murmured sleepily as he moved up behind her. The heat from his body nearly scalded her backside.
“Did you see it?” Chicory whispered.
“See what?” Rainpace asked from the pile of bed furs as he pulled on his pants.
She lifted her hand and pointed with one shaking finger. “A spirit bear was standing right there. It was… looking for me.”
“A spirit bear?! Where? I didn’t see it.” Longshot pressed closer to peer over her shoulder.
Quickly, Chicory scrambled out of the den and down the tree trunk, heedless of her nudity. She heard her black haired companion mutter “Puckernuts” as she rushed to the ground but she kept going. She examined the dirt and moss near where she had seen the creature, looking for any sign of its passage. With a rattle and a thump, Longshot leapt the last few feet to the ground and landed at the base of Mother Tree. She looked at him for a moment, long enough to notice the bow slung around his naked body and a single arrow clutched between his teeth, before she turned back to her search, saying, “It was right here.”
They crouched together searching for tracks, broken limbs, or disturbed foliage to determine where the bear had gone. When Rainpace landed with a quieter thump, Chicory glanced back at him and saw a few more heads peering out of their dens.
One Leg called, “What are you cubs doing?”
“Chicory thought she saw a spirit bear!” Longshot yelled back.
And the tribe boiled out of their homes like ants when the mound is disturbed. There was a sudden rush of sound and movement around her. It was more than Chicory could take in. She stared with wide eyes, trying to make sense of what was happening but the colors and voices swirled together and she couldn’t make sense of it.. She felt something warm settle around her shoulders and gentle hands guided her away from the madness. She let those kind hands take her somewhere calm and dimly lit. “Chicory, love, look at me,” a quiet voice cajoled.
Slowly she turned her gaze toward the speaker and her vision snapped into focus on a pair of blue-grey eyes. Rainpace smiled a bit. “There you are.” He wrapped her more fully in the bed fur he’d put around her shoulders and hugged her tightly. “Your father has organized a couple of hunting parties to search for the spirit bear. And you know he’ll be very thorough. It won’t bother you anymore.”
Chicory frowned. **I thought it sent to me.** She replayed the moment in her sending.
Rainpace gave her a startled look before cuddling her more closely. “That’s… strange.”
Chicory snorted at him and shook her head. “That’s one way of putting it.” She shrugged. “It was probably just a waking dream.”
He breathed a small sigh that sounded relieved and nodded. “That would make a lot more sense. But it will be a while before Blacksnake will be willing to entertain that notion.” He chuckled which brought a small smile to her face.
They sat together quietly entwined for a while before she noticed they were in the storage dens. Carefully, she stood and walked over to the table that had her recipe all spread out. “I guess you’re getting your chance to look over this new experiment and give me your suggestions.”
Her friend wandered over to join her. He stared at the table intently to see what she was trying. Absently, he picked up the bowl of willow bark as he studied the recipe to move it away from the edge of the table.
Chicory’s gaze snapped to the three torn bits of bittertree leaves that had been beneath the bowl. He eyes flitted to another set of leaves near the center of the table. She felt the blood drain from her face as she clutched at Rainpace’s arm. His soft gasp told her he had noticed the duplication too.
“That much might have killed you.” He whispered. She nodded, momentarily speechless at the near miss. He said, “I’m going to get that gourd and dispose of the mixture right now.”
He strode quickly from the storage den, leaving Chicory to deal with the bits she had left strewn across her work area. Mechanically, she returned everything to where it belonged, trying to ignore her shaking hands. As she swept the last crumbs into her left hand, she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She looked back over her shoulder to see shadows from the candle Rainpace left dancing over her mother’s old work table.
“I’ll be more careful,” she promised herself with the darkened room as witness.