It was an unseasonably warm late fall-day. Bright and clear...in short, perfect for picking burr-nuts. Normally, of course, Starskimmer and Cloudfern wouldn't have ventured so far from the Holt during the day, but burr-nuts had a very short growing season, and it was impossible to tell ripe from unripe ones in the dark, even with wolfrider eyes. Combine that with the fact that there was only one burr-nut tree in all the wolfriders’ territory, and it was in a swampy marsh beyond Bald Top Mountain, and it made going out in full sunlight almost a necessity.
'Strange…when I first started gathering these there were handfuls of these trees, and closer to the Holt as well. Now there’s just this one, which means every nut is irreplaceable,’ Starskimmer glanced at the pale elf riding beside her, ‘I should ask Cloudfern. Maybe he can figure out why they died out, before we lose this one too.’
Why all the fuss about burr-nuts, one might ask? It’s probably best to know what a burr-nut is. Though they're called nuts, and their tough, spiky husks certainly resemble nuts, the insides contain a particularly succulent, tart-sweet fruit that is perfect for making the potent concoction that Starskimmer called firewater wine. An eye-watering brew, it was popular in winter to warm the bellies and bodies of hunters just returned from a long, cold excursion through the snow. But in order to have enough burr-nuts to make a winter's supply, Starskimmer had to venture out daily to get the nuts as they ripened on their tree, so that none went to waste.
And the tree, of course, grew on a tiny tussock of land inside the swamp. As the path grew progressively wetter and more muckish, Shadowback at first whined in protest and finally stopped, refusing to go any further into the clinging mud. The huge black and white wolf planted his paws firmly and refused to budge. Starskimmer snorted and slid off his back, ruffling his ears affectionately.
“Even your wolf doesn’t want you to go in there,” Cloudfern observed, grinning.
“Oh, don’t you start, too. You’d be the first one whining if there wasn’t enough firewater wine this winter,” Starskimmer retorted, looking at her Recognized with annoyed affection. He’d volunteered to come along with her, which surprised her…but then, the edges of the marsh were an excellent place for gathering herbs and roots. The elf turned back to her wolf and grinned.
“Stay here then, tenderfoot. I'll be back soon."
"Whuf," was Shadowback’s reply as he hopped up to a patch of dry grass and flopped down happily. Chuckling at her wolf-friend though she was, Starskimmer herself chose a careful path through the bog, stepping from root to root and tussock to tussock to avoid ruining her new boots and leggings. It made for slow going. But she agreed with her wolf-friend that anything was better than getting the stinking, clinging slime that clogged the surface of the water all over her.
“Be careful!” Cloudfern’s call came after her as she disappeared into the darkness of the swamp, and the pale elf turned and urged his own wolf-friend along the edge of the swamp, sharp eyes on the lookout for specific plants. Starskimmer paused to wave in acknowledgement before turning back to concentrate on making her path.
Finally the burr-nut tree came into view, its tiny island accessible by the trunk of a long-dead brother. Starskimmer carefully crossed the rotting log and looked up into the live tree, adjusting her gathering sack against her side. ‘Not too many ripe today. I'll have to make sure to get every one, or they'll fall into the swamp and be lost.’ With that thought in mind, she put her foot on a root and boosted herself up into the tree. Branches rustled and reddish leaves shivered down into the swamp below as she made her way around the tree, harvesting all the spiked orbs that had turned the rich golden brown of ripeness. After she'd gathered about three hands worth of them, only one remained-on a branch extending far out over the green, sluggish waters.
She eyed it and the branch appraisingly. The branch was slender, too much so to hold even her weight, but there was a branch directly beneath it that would allow her to reach up and pluck it...if she stretched herself out precariously. Was it really worth it for one more nut? Yes, she decided, it was. The harvest had been small this year, and every nut counted. Her face set in a determined expression, Starskimmer shimmied out onto the lower branch on her stomach, clutching it with her legs. After a foot or so, she reached out toward the nut. Still too far. So she scooched forward again. Not quite... Another half a foot along the branch and she felt she could reach out for it. To steady herself, she put one hand down...on smooth scales instead of rough bark.
The treesnake was not at all happy about having its afternoon nap disturbed, and it expressed its displeasure by drawing back its head and gaping its wide mouth, showing vicious, needle teeth. Starskimmer gasped and jerked her hand back, rearing up and banging her head against the branch overhead. Swearing, she flailed, lost her balance and toppled off the tree, bottom first into the mud with a wet, odiferous splat!
"PUCKERNUTS!" Starskimmer swore as she looked up at the snake, who for all the world seemed to be laughing at her. Treesnakes weren't even poisonous, and she'd let one scare her out of the tree! She'd never hear the end of this, back at the Holt. And the stench! Every inch of her was covered in greenish slime, black muck and that horrible, rotting smell! "I'll never get my leathers clean again!"
Grumbling and growling, she went to move forward, to climb up out of the ooze, possibly to reclimb the tree and toss the snake in for good measure. Which was when she discovered she couldn't move. Oh, she wasn't sinking, but she was mired up to the bottoms of her breasts in the thick mud, and there was no way she'd get out by herself. Sure, her arms and legs were mostly free, but she was in the most awkward position imaginable, with her rump stuck deep in the mud and her body bent so her nose almost touched her knees.
**Shadowback!** she sent, hoping the urgency in her call would overcome her wolf-friend's distaste of the smelly swamp. It did. After a few moments the wolf became visible, daintily picking his way through the tangle of wet vegetation. He saw Starskimmer and sat at the edge of the bog, his head cocked.
**Why swim in stinkwater?** Not in so many words, of course, but that was the image the wolf managed to convey to his elf, along with a healthy dose of disgust.
**I'm not swimming, you furball, I'm STUCK!** she growled again, gesturing to the ooze holding her in place. Her irritation only increased when the wolf grinned, wagging his tail in amusement at her predicament. **Get a branch to lay over the water so I can climb out!**
Shadowback whined and cocked his head. In her irritation, the elf's sending had gotten too complex and abstract for him to understand the concepts. It took a few more minutes and some deliberate calming and patience on Starskimmer's part to explain exactly what she wanted of the wolf. He padded off and returned with as large a branch as he could hold in his jaws, setting it down on the shore and nudging it out into the swamp until the elf could grasp the end. She did, and tried with all her might, but she couldn't use it to get herself moving.
**Pull the other end!** she sent to Shadowback, and the wolf yipped excitedly. Tug-of-war! He loved this game! Growling fiercely, the wolf seized his end of the piece of wood, pulling back and digging in his heels. Starskimmer held on tightly, and felt herself starting to move...about the same instant the branch snapped with the wet sound of rotten wood, sending her sprawling back into the mud even deeper than before.
"Agthsptth!" She spat out a foul mouthful of mud and clawed it out of her eyes. This was not going to work. No, she needed a rope...and Cloudfern. She sighed. There was no way she would ever, ever be allowed to forget this. He’d be laughing at her for moons. But she had no other choice, unless she wanted to stay here until she was as rotten as the water.
"Puckernuts. Rotten dreamberries." That was, in Starskimmer's opinion, the most virulent curse of all, since a dreamberry rotted was a dreamberry wasted.
**Pryn…I need you.**
**...Vree? Vree, are you all right!?**
**I'm...unhurt.** Her return send was reassuring, but certainly not cheerful. She crossed her arms and waited, listening to Shadowback and Spirit exchange howls until the other wolf was close enough to find her way on her own.
**I'm coming. Don't worry. Are you sure you're all right?** Cloudfern's sending paused as his wolf made her way to the edge of the stagnant pond and he got a good look at Starskimmer. The elf's face went though a handful of expressions in an eyeblink, eventually settling on a tight-lipped, narrow eyed smirk that said he was trying desperately not to let out the mirth inside.
"Laugh and you're rotten meat," Starskimmer grumbled, trying desperately to claw some of the algae from her hair. Her voice could have frosted the water around her.
"Of course--snort--I wouldn't--cough--laugh at you! Nothing could be--coughcough--further from my mind!" Cloudfern had a hand over his mouth now, to hide his wide grin. He took a few deep breaths and finally got control of himself, though the corner of his mouth still twitched when he could speak again. "What happened?"
"I fell out of the tree." Starskimmer wasn't about to elaborate. Things were humiliating enough as it was. "And I got stuck. NOW GET ME OUT."
"All right, all right...let me see." Having moved past the humor of the situation, Cloudfern turned his mind to the task of getting her out. He looked around for something to extend to her, but on closer examination, all the branches of suitable length and width were just as rotten as the one Shadowback had picked. So he turned his attention to the vines. With little effort he twined three of them together into a sturdy rope, bonded by his magic, and tossed it out to Starskimmer.
She took hold of it firmly, and Cloudfern began to pull, digging into the bank and leaning back with all his weight. And yet, she barely budged from the clinging grip of the mire. That is, until both the wolves joined in, grabbing the trailing end of the rope in their teeth and pulling with the unabashed glee of young cubs. Then she popped free like a cork from one of her flasks, flying up out of the mud with a startled cry and landing right on Cloudfern, sending the two of them tumbling to the loam. Bounding playfully, Shadowback moved in to join the pile for a good wolf-wrestle, then backed off with a sharp chuffing sneeze when he got a scent of Starskimmer.
**Oh, like it's so much worse than what you roll in!** she snapped at the wolf, then looked down at Cloudfern, who now shared a good amount of her muddy coating. **Thank you, Pryn. And...I'm sorry your leathers are ruined too...**
The pale elf did laugh now, merrily. "It's nothing that a good scrubbing won't fix. Come on, there's a stream with a nice deep eddy pool back this way." He got to his feet and helped her up, grinning, and she couldn't help but be infected by his easygoing acceptance of the situation. It almost made up for the fact that her gather sack was now missing.
"Puckernuts!" she exclaimed as she looked back into the swamp to see her leather bag, and its precious cargo, sinking out of sight forever. Her dark mood returned, settling on her shoulders like storm clouds around a mountain peak. "That was half of this year's total harvest!"
"So we'll have less Firewater Wine this year. It's not so terrible, Vree. I'd rather lose a few burr-nuts than lose you."
That did make her smile, a warm feeling spreading inside her. It was good to have a solid, comfortable friend and lover to count on. The easy, casual nature of their relationship made it all the better, because they could be friends, as well. "All right, you win. Come on. Let's go get cleaned up."
The small group of wolves and elves made their way out of the swamp, leaving the murky darkness behind, and most of Starskimmer's ill mood with it. She felt better yet when she shed her filthy, mud-caked leathers and slipped into the water, combing the sludge from her hair and letting the stream carry it away. She was working on scrubbing her leathers on a rough stream rock when she felt Cloudfern's slender, warm fingers on her shoulders, and saw his long, pale hair swirling around her, floating on the current.
**Since we have to get clean anyway...** His eyes were deep and luminous as he turned her to face him. She smiled and slipped her arms around him, trailing her fingers through his wet hair.
‘Yes,’ she thought, before thoughts ceased to have any meaning in the flood of sensation that followed, ‘I guess today was not a total loss, after all...’