“Dung,” Evervale said happily.
Crackle glanced over her sister’s shoulder, curious. She was used to some of the tribe not minding animal waste, but it was odd to hear Evervale so cheerful about it. The delicate plant-shaper was expertly wielding a wooden scoop, scraping in the dirt for the manure, while Crackle stared on with mounting respect.
“What are you going to do with it?” She inquired, bouncing up from her crouch as Evervale rose from hers.
Evervale’s nose was wrinkled slightly, but her face determined. “It’s for a Dreamberry bush I’m nurturing,” she explained, making her way through the undergrowth in large but careful, silent steps, the scoop held firmlu. Crackle prowled along in her wake, pushing high stalks away from her face. “Dung is good for plants. You spread it around the roots and they grow healthier and greener.”
Crackle hadn’t known that. “Do they eat it?” She stuck her tongue out in disgust, but Evervale knew all about plants. If she said dung was good for them, then it was. It was nice to think that dung was good for something.
“Through the roots…” they had reached Evervale’s Dreamberry bush, which grew inside a circle of small rocks that she had placed herself to mark it apart from the rest of the patch. Crackle immediately dropped to her knees and began reordering the rocks according to color, while Evervale worked with a frown of concentration at spreading the dung into the soft earth along the base of the plant. She scraped a little dirt away to let the pale roots show. “Plants get their food from the ground and from rain and sun. That’s how they grow. If you add dung to the ground, and if it rains enough, they grow faster.”
Ground and rain and sun. That sounded right; three of Crackle’s favorite things. She frowned curiously downwards, catching sight of her large black boots. “I wish I could grow faster,” she bemoaned.
Done now, Evervale was beaming as she peeled both gloves off to touch a leaf then stroke Crackle’s head. “I’m sure you’ll get new boots soon enough, little one. Boots like yours are just some work, and these aren’t so old yet.”
“But they’re tight!” Crackle wriggled her toes inside the boot, which maybe wasn’t such a good idea, as it showed that she still had wriggling room. “Otter got a new fish-gutting knife. All I want are new boots…” Evervale nodded with great sympathy. But their mother had had her say – no new boots for Crackle until the cub was too big for her old ones.
Crackle grumbled under her breath, so Evervale beckoned her with a slender hand. “Here. You can help me flatten the dung into the ground.” She held out the scoop in smiling invitation, and Crackle was only very happy to have an important role in the growing of Dreamberries. She set on pounding the ground around the bush with abandon, while Evervale glanced up skywards, then back towards the Den Trees.
“And look,” she announced with satisfaction, “it’s going to rain!”
“Has anyone seen Crackle?”
True to Evervale’s prediction, it rained heavily over the Holt, a steady curtain that made everything gray, down to elves and wolves, so that spotting Crackle’s red head was difficult. Evervale had searched all around the Den Trees and found not a single red hair, and by now even the two sisters’ parents were getting concerned, joining the search. They had sent for her, but only got a fleeting impression of being-all-right in reply, no more, and that wasn’t enough. There was never any real telling what Crackle might’ve gotten into – ‘all right’ could be anything. Together they were venturing past the center of the Holt, towards the further dreamberry patches.
Suddendusk was soaked to the bone and frantic; Windsong was covering her head with a scrap of oiled leather and scoffing. Neither of them was going to be very pleased with the sudden idea Evervale had about where Crackle could be. Inwardly, she cringed. No, they wouldn’t be pleased… it was such a Crackle thing to do. At least they’d find her…
And they found her all right. Right next to Evervale’s dreamberry bush. Up to her knees in wolf dung.
Evervale couldn’t even begin to guess how Crackle amassed so much dung. She must’ve been working on it half the night, while they were searching. Now she was planted quite firmly in dark, wet dung that was to Evervale’s plant-growing grass-eater dung what the night’s rain was to a flooding thunderstorm. She was soaked through, a little shivery, but looking very pleased with herself, even when her parents dashed forward and grabbed hold of her, half relieved, half appalled, and another half just bewildered.
“What, by Foxsly’s bow, are you doing, Crackling-cub?!” Windsong grabbed Crackle’s waist and gave a mighty pull, trying to wrest her daughter out of her pile of manure. Suddendusk came to give her a hand. Neither of them was looking at Evervale, who kept back, hoping she didn’t look at guilty as she felt. Crackle didn’t resist the pull, but she looked utterly miserable.
“But I’m trying to grow! Look, I’ve got dung around my roots and it’s raining and I’ll stand here when the sun comes out and I’ll grow just like a dreamberry bush!”
She wriggled her feet. Her boots were completely ruined – coated in and out with dung, the smell would never leave them, and their soft insides would be grimy forever. They had sustained a great deal of abuse, but never quite like this. Windsong let out a long, hissing breath. “Dung around your roots, all right!”
Evervale swallowed hard. Crackle’s eyes were getting big and wet, when Suddendusk spoke up.
“Look at the poor cub, lifemate, you can’t be angry at her – she made a cub’s mistake, that’s all. Which of us never wished that we could grow faster?”
Leaning a little to one side, Evervale risked a peek past her mother’s back. Suddendusk stood with his hands on his youngest’s shoulders, and Windsong sighed. She came forward to hand Crackle her piece of oiled leather to put over her head, useless though it was, as the cub’s hair was so wet its auburn became almost brown. She was too big for either of them to pick up anymore, but they did take her hands and give her a swing as they started back to the holt. Still wet but more cheerful, Crackle let them go ahead and fell into pace next to her sister.
“Really, Crackle,” Evervale muttered, “you should be too old to believe you can grow like a bush.”
But Crackle only chirped “new boots!” and grinned up at her sister, with what Evervale could almost swear was a wink.