**Still back there, runt? I was about to pop down for a quick nap.**
Coyote’s taunt slapped back through the trees and into Willow’s head. She felt her face flush fresh with renewed fury. With a snarl, the child pounded off down her tormentor’s musky scent trail. His laughter rang out through the branches as she quickened her lopsided gait, turning her hot pursuit into a topsy-turvy dance as one booted foot stomped against the earth while the other swung about bare in the air. Though she was out of breath from the long chase, she continued to roar violent curses mixed with screams of wordless wrath. When at last she took a moment’s silence to catch her breath, she noticed that the derisive laughter had faded. She slowed to a trot and cast her nose about the air for her quarry’s scent. Two heartbeats later she found it, behind her and slightly to the left. In her near-blind anger she must have overshot his trail. She turned to take up the chase when she noticed that the smell was fresh, not just an impression of Coyote but the smell of the elf himself. She bit back the grin that threatened to spread across her lips and put on a show of nonchalance. Ambling slowly back the way she came, she made as if to pass by the stand of brush where Coyote hid. At the last second, she spun about and leapt. Her short, ruddy mane whirled about her as she sailed into the attack…
And then it was streaming behind her as she toppled into the dried sump that had lain hidden behind the leaves.
Her shoulder struck the earth hard and she rolled down the rest of the embankment, her hair and clothes gathering dirt, twigs, and other debris as her body was gathered bruises. The second she hit level ground she was up on her hands and knees. Ignoring the pain from a skinned knee, she glared back up the little slope until she found what she was looking for. She growled.
“Oh, vex me! Took a tumble did we?”
Coyote leaned against the body of the tree, his feet crossed casually atop a branch that extended just an arm’s breadth above the space where Willow had made her attack. He grinned at her, and then turned his attention to cleaning the fingernails of his left hand.
“I hate you, you whelp of a bloated toad,” Willow spat. “I just… hate you!”
Coyote shook his head, giving a little tisk, tisk. He drew one boot back and flicked a bit of bark with his toe. It pinged harmlessly off the younger elf’s forehead, inciting another howl of fury. Willow howled, hurled herself against the incline and began scrambling up the loose earth. But for all her gusto, every length gained cost another three sliding back down the slope.
Coyote brought a small leather boot from behind his back and dangled it tantalizingly between his thumb and forefinger.
“Want this back? You’ll need to set those little legs working much harder!”
Willow’s fingertips brushed against a dead tree root. She seized it in both hands. Hauling herself hand over hand with a near-crazed intensity, she was over the lip of the hole, and halfway up the tree in three heartbeats. Her fingertips were just clawing at Coyote’s boot top when he hopped backwards off the branch and landed neatly on both feet. His face now only a hair’s breadth below his snarling pursuer’s, he raised one finger into the air before him. Willow halted in her mad scramble over the branch. The finger stood tall in the air between them, then rotated slowly about on its wrist until the knuckle was facing her. It beckoned with two quick curls. Glaring, cautious, Willow leaned down. Coyote, his face gone serious, stood on tiptoes to further shrink the gap. He met her gaze with a grave steadiness, opened his mouth to speak, and flicked her sharply on the nose. Willow’s face darkened. Coyote flashed a wide grin and vanished into the underbrush. Twigs and leaves slapped against Willow’s face as she returned to the chase.
**You wouldn’t win a race against a three-legged, fever-sick treewee! Even with a head start!**
The bushes broke and Willow caught sight of Coyote, just ahead, splashing through a knee-deep snow-melt pond. She was partway down its fern-covered banks when a thorn chose to bury its sharp head into the exposed flesh of her right foot. She skidded on her knees into the shallows. Coyote reached the other side of the pond and kept running.
“Don’t worry,” he called, waving the captured boot above his head. “I’m sure Moss can knock together a new one.”
Willow sent a stone hurtling at his retreating back. It bounced off his shoulder; he managed to give a yip and a laugh at the same time and then he was gone. She let out a bellow of pure rage and sent the blackest images of pain and destruction, featuring the maiming of Coyote in several inventive ways. Her chase had come to an end, and a rather unsuccessful one at that. Ripples danced out across clear water as she flopped back upon her haunches, foot in hand, ready for inspection. A thin flap of skin covered the thorn’s hiding place, angled deep into her foot, four drops of dark blood beading up about it. She ripped it from the pad of her foot and hurled it across the pond’s tepid surface. A bolt of pain simmered through her foot, far out of proportion with the tiny cut. She bit her lip, too angry to cry.
Stupid Coyote. Stupid, stupid, stupid Coyote.
She sent a scoop of water shimmering into the air with her toe. It was nearing the high point of the day. She could have been warm beneath her furs or perhaps enjoying the midday snack she’d just fished from the stream when Coyote had started his game. But here she was. She wasn’t even sure where here was, except that it was far from the Dentrees. It would be a long trek back. She was nowhere near being ready to start it yet.
Though it was already soaked, she yanked off the surviving boot and tossed it ashore. The mossy bottom felt soothing on the little wound and though she didn’t want to, she enjoyed it. Climbing to her feet she waded further into the water, each step releasing tiny air bubbles from the water-usurped ground, marking her path with a slender, sparkling trail of foam. Reeds fingered the spaces between her toes, tickling a giggle to her lips before she remembered she was angry and forced it back. She had liked those boots. They had been cozy, the next best thing to being barefoot, and what was more, they had been fashioned from a clickdeer that her father had brought down specifically for her. She didn’t want to think about what fate her beloved boot was suffering at the hands of that stupid, hateful elf. She would never speak to him again. She’d made that vow many times before, and each time it had lasted until the next sunup before she was forced to break her silence to share some marvelous secret that only he would understand. But not this time, oh no, this time Coyote would suffer and grovel and beg her to forgive him and she would just smile and walk on by. Then he would be sorry and he would be lonely, but she would never look his way again, even when his whole face was hidden under a thicket of smelly face fur.
She felt a bit better. She looked down into the water and put Coyote’s face where her own reflection was. With one triumphant kick, she scattered him all across the pond.
Something small and white rode with the ripples as they curved away in front of her. She took a step towards it. The waves from her movement pushed it further away. She waited until the ripples had calmed and then picked one foot out of the water. Toe pointed, she slid it back under the surface. The water remained calm. Like some strange, giant bird, Willow approached the thing in this fashion: leg bent, foot out of the water, toe pointed, back in, leg bent, foot out of the water, toe pointed, back in, until she was standing right above it.
It was a moth. Not one of the giant, fat, moon ones that slammed about during the early evening, but the smaller, delicate ones that made their dance just before the sun rose. Its body was translucent white and impossibly delicate. Its wings spread wide against the shell of the water in perfect display, a water droplet on either wing that shimmered blue, purple, green, changing as she tipped her head. She had never seen one so still. Moths were always in motion, flitting through the early hours of the night or dancing about just before she went to bed. They never held still long enough for her to really see them, to study the curve of their wings and the segments of their bodies.
She slipped a finger underneath it and slowly drew it upwards. The instant the fragile body left the water its splendor crumpled against her fingertip. The graceful, widespread wings were suddenly bedraggled and plastered flat, their white glow turned muddy against the pink backdrop of her flesh. Reasonless guilt seized her and she lowered her finger back to the water. Just before the pond reclaimed its pretty prize, the tiny abdomen lifted into the air and gave one feeble wave.
Willow straightened. It waved again.
Life! There is life here!
The water broke into a mass of wrinkles as the child’s slender legs hurried towards shore. Several paces onto dry land and she sat. She held her fingertip to eye level. The body that had been motionless a moment before now writhed with a will that didn’t seem to fit with its small size. Its wings were still near-fused to her finger and the tiny creature’s struggle threatened to tear them from its body. Willow placed a tentative fingernail underneath one wing and lifted. A rent appeared and she let it drop. She spared a few seconds to think while the animal continued its newfound fight against oblivion. She combed through all of her wood-lore teachings but couldn’t recall anything about bugs. They were so small, so insignificant that there wasn’t much to learn. But if she did nothing the creature would tear itself apart. Perhaps it would be best to snap her thumb and forefinger together, crush it before it could suffer further.
Wait. There, at the edge of her mind: a memory. It was dimmed by time. Four turns ago, perhaps? Half her lifetime, in any case. She scrunched her face, recalling.
”See, cubling?” Her father, a struggling fishfly held between two fingers, wings beating, its slender body plucked from the air moments before it could hurl itself into the stream to die. “These two whiskers on its head are like a wolf’s nose, eyes, and ears all clumped into one. See how she’s sweeping the air? She’s studying us, finding some way of escape. Without them, she’d have no use for those pretty wings of hers.” Fingers opened, a flash of green, and a little winged shape soaring straight up into the morning sky.
Willow’s sharp white teeth closed about her lip as she lifted her fingernail again, this time beneath the water-trapped head-whisker. First one and then the other, she peeled the stalks from her skin and freed them into the air. The body ceased its struggle. One experimental sweep of the air, then two, the liberated sensors took stock of their surroundings. Willow pursed her lips and let out a soft, whistling breath over her little charge. The head-whiskers trembled, paused, and resumed their scan.
The two of them sat very still for a very long time, one administering the occasional slow puff of air, the other letting the sun work across its sodden wings.
The sun had begun to tickle the treetops when Willow again slid her fingernail beneath one delicate wing. Achingly slow and deliberate she raised it bit by bit until the entire limb was released. The wing she freed looked nothing like the one that had been spread so perfectly across the pond water. This wing was stained and ragged, but it raised and lowered. She repeated the process on the other side. The moth held its wings stiffly and took a lurching step. It was missing one leg and another was twisted upwards and had fused to its wing. Yet it made its stumbling way, knuckle to knuckle, down her finger.
Willow searched about until she found a shrub a safe distance from the water. She selected the widest, most comfortable looking leaf and let the bug lurch onto it. It walked to the edge of the leaf and hung its head-whiskers over the edge, testing the abyss. Then it turned and trundled back up the stem and vanished into the foliage. Willow bent down and peered after it, but it was gone.
She lay down beneath the shrub and folded her hands behind her head. Through the green glow of the leaves she could see the clouds scudding across the bottomless blue above. What strange happenings. Without undergoing any transformation, body on her hand had changed abruptly from a thing of prettiness to a living being. Ugly, drenched, near death, but unmistakably alive!
A jaw-cracking yawn cut her musings short. It was late into the day. Time for sleep. She stretched and almost began doing up her bootlaces before she remembered there was only one. A frown considered playing about her mouth but instead she heaved a little shrug and stood. She spared the moth’s little shrub a final glance. How long would it survive, crippled as it was? Perhaps it would have been better to kill it, put it out of its misery. Willow shook her head. No, that wasn’t her decision to make. She’d merely given it a chance, the rest was beyond her. She aimed a little wave at the shrub, swung her solitary boot over her shoulder, and started the long trek back to her sleep furs.