(This story is related to Otter's near-drowning in ”Never Too Stubborn” and "Tomorrows".)
"Are you scared?"
Chicory's words got their desired effect; Crackle raised her eyes from her half-submerged toes to the river-watcher's face. The set of her small mouth changed a touch, pulling downwards at one corner. Up to their waists in water, Chicory and Moss watched her deliberate. The others in the party had already swum further out, or were busy swinging on vines over the river or taking splashing dives, leaving only the cub and her two closest friends near the shore.
Moss was a little worried – perhaps more than a little, watching Crackle sit on the muddy bank, arm slung over her wolf-friend's neck, toes in the shallows where any passing crawfish could get them. While she'd never taken to the river as surely as her agemate, Otter, Crackle loved the water as any cub under Chicory's tutelage learned to love it. She had never before hesitated in sliding in, paddling about and trying to do handstands where the bottom was flat. Not taking his eyes away from the cub, Moss mentally brushed against Chicory's thoughts. Yes, she had the same idea; they were only a short while's ride downriver from the place where Otter had nearly met his end, an eight of days before.
"The river is a lot more dangerous than you always told me," Crackle said suddenly, biting her lower lip.
Caught by surprise, both adults waded back towards her. Chicory pulled herself up onto a slab of rock, sensing by instinct that Crackle would feel better seeing her out of the pull of the current. Moss hopped onto the bank next to the cub, his hands leaving deep imprints in the rich brown mud that she sat on. He put a wet hand on her muddied red hair.
"Is this about what happened to Otter?"
Crackle gave him her well-practiced you-don't-say! look, head tilted and eyebrows raised comically. Then she looked back down at the river, wriggling her toes. The tips of her pants were soaked, but not past that. She seemed to be judging the currents, looking at them almost accusingly.
Chicory's mind-touch was like a flicker of feeling across Moss' thoughts; resignation, helplessness. She knew well, more than most, just how dangerous the river really was, and that there was no use telling Crackle otherwise. Moss knew that himself. The girl was too clever by half – the answer that would satisfy any other cub of eight-and-three, that the adults would always protect her just as they had succeeded in protecting Otter, would never pass with this one. Perhaps it was time to say it clearly: that life was just dangerous.
**Try a story,** Chicory lock-sent, contemplative.
Moss glanced at her, stroking Crackle's head and back. His questioning look was met with a hopeful one. Stories did usually work, Crackle made up stories to explain everything: from her father's brush with Recognition denied, to her unarticulated fears about the wrapstuffed elves. The tanner nodded slowly to himself. Yes, it could work…
"The river was dangerous, all right," he said mildly. "But it's not half as dangerous now that we got Old Wriggleface. Do you know about him?"
Crackle's eyes turned round, two moons of emerald. Good – that meant her attention was secured. Moss continued his soothing stroking, drawing circles on her back. He dredged up what he knew would seize the cub's imagination best, the most terrifying of his father Rhythm's own collection of nightmare stories. "You know catfish, right? Well, Old Wriggleface is just like that, a catfish, except instead of four small whiskers, it had eight and eight – long ones, as long as your arm." He held up the limb, noting to himself in satisfaction that Crackle's arm was considerably longer than it had been last spring. "It lives on the bottom of the river, and it's a nasty piece of work, Old Wriggleface. It doesn't like company at all, which is why it tries to catch the limbs of anything that swims by and drag it down and drown it. I swear – exactly this happened to the sister of my mother's own mother. But now that True Edge and One-Leg got 'im – "
"That's not a very good story at all," Crackle said flatly.
Shocked, Moss dropped his hand from her back. He glanced at Chicory, but only found her staring, equally surprised and a little bit alarmed. Crackle heaved a great big sigh, almost too big to logically come out of her small lungs. She looked up at him.
"There's no such thing as Old Wriggleface," she said. "I know that. What happened to Otter is just… something that happens. It can happen to me. Or to you. Or to anyone. Stories are important, but sometimes…"
She looked away from them, past them, after the gaggle of elves playing around in the river.
"Sometimes life's just dangerous."
She wriggled her toes in the water a bit more, thoughtful; then, evidently satisfied with the conclusion she'd reached, slipped out of her pants and waded carefully into the river.
Still processing what had just happened, Moss watched her go. Chicory offered the girl a hand as she passed by her rock, but Crackle only shook her head and continued, wary but determined, swimming bit by bit toward the others.
Only when she was further away did Moss and Chicory look at each other. Neither of them quite knew what to say. Crackle's ability to sort out her own fears could be comforting, but it could be equally unnerving. Not for the first time, Moss found himself wondering if the girl already knew her own soul-name.
"She's growing up too fast," Chicory muttered, the sound tearing him out of his reverie.
He smiled at her, a brave smile of sorts. "Don't they always?" She snorted in reply, but nodded.
"I just hope she doesn't grow out of being herself," she said sadly.
To that, Moss had no ready reply, and didn't know if one existed. He could only look after Crackle, now swimming steadily alongside her wolf, and think of what made her uniquely her. It wasn't hard to think of quite a few things; and very soon, another thought occurred to him.
"I think," he said softly, with a small smile spreading bit by bit on his face, "that that might be up to us."