Sunlight leaked across the sky like spilled paint, seeping into the cracks of the world. Starbursts of orange and pink and gold lit the landscape with effervescent morning light. The cool threads of night were shed, leaving only the summer warmth and diurnal life. Creatures of all sizes were discarding their comatose slumber, replacing it with a rejuvenated sense of purpose.
Birds flickered through the canopy like permanently cheerful specters who mocked the land-locked beings below. The sky was a crisp azure, streaked with a minimum of clouds. With a light breeze keeping the heat at bay, it all seemed rather peaceful and full of potential.
The peace was ripped asunder, though, as a moist yell announced a not-quite content denizen. Gagging on what was left in her mouth, Chicory retched for a third time, adding more stomach acid than actual post-masticated concoction to the growing pool. She vomited several more times before her body decided it was through in its attempt to completely empty her gastric system.
Groaning, Chicory pushed herself backward, grasping at Sleuth’s nearby neck. The brown and gray wolf dragged Chicory away from the putrescent bile, stretching out on the ground with her muzzle turned toward the ailing elf. Chicory released Sleuth’s ruff, leaning against her wolf-friend with her eyes closed. The world was spinning much too fast to keep them open.
For a moment, the fisher didn’t respond, fairly certain it was her own semi-delirious mind. But then Chicory recognized the shift of Sleuth’s weight meant that the she-wolf was looking toward the voice and that her tail was thumping in greeting. With a sick feeling that had nothing to do with her sour gut, Chicory cracked open her eyes and looked across the small clearing. Her ears hadn’t deceived her – it was Farscout who had called her name and the elder was already in motion, striding across the clearing toward her, his she-wolf Flea at his heels.
“No worries—“ Chicory said, or at least tried to say, although her tongue made a hash of the words. She tried to wave him off, but Farscout knelt beside her, his expression tight.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his voice quiet but taut. His hands traveled down the length of her body, seeking an injury he would not find. “Did you fall?”
|Illustration by Joanne P.|
“I’m just wolf-napping,” Chicory said, struggling to pronounce the words clearly and confidently.
Apparently, her elder was not fooled. Farscout caught her by the chin and tilted her head so that he could look into her eyes; when she let them begin to slide shut, he popped her on the cheek sharp enough to make her look up at him in surprise. He stared into her eyes, first one and then the other, clearly comparing the sizes of her pupils against the possibility of head-trauma.
“I’m fine,” Chicory tried again, waving him off ineffectively as he began to slip his fingers through her hair, searching her skull for injury. Farscout’s young wolf-friend Flea tried to nose her way in curiously but Sleuth growled and bristled her hackles. Wisely, the much lower-ranked she-wolf shied off, contenting herself instead to sniff around one of Chicory’s puddles of vomit.
“Fine?” Farscout sat back on his haunches, having found not one suspicious swelling upon her skull. Her elder looked at her steadily, his earlier alarm melting into something dubious. **What happened here?** Farscout sent next.
“Don’t yell at me,” Chicory mumbled, reaching after her aching head. Farscout’s sending rang in her mind. Her elder was a powerful sender and she didn’t dare answer him in kind, who knew what she might leak to him that way?
**Did you fall and hit your head?** Farscout’s sending was probing, as sure and relentless as his hands had been only moments before.
For a moment, Chicory considered lying by agreeing with her elder’s question. But she would have to speak the words; she couldn’t send them with anything like conviction, and even as she considered it, she knew her chance to fool him had passed.
“I… I ate something,” she mumbled, shutting her eyes so the forest didn’t tilt sideways. “Just don’t tell my brother. Windburn never understands.”
With her eyes closed, Chicory sensed rather than saw her elder’s reaction. “What did you eat?” he demanded, his words sharp again as he leaned forward.
It took Chicory a moment, picking and choosing her words carefully. “Chokecherry leaves,” she murmured, refusing to open her eyes and look at him again. “They were soaked, then boiled in marrow broth—“
Farscout cut her off there. His fingers seized her by the chin again, lifting her gaze to meet his own. His pale grey eyes were searching. “How long ago did you eat them?” he demanded. “How long have you been vomiting?”
Chicory waved the question off, unwilling to admit that in her self-induced misery, she had lost track of time. “I diluted them enough to keep it from being a serious dose,” she said, trying to sound offended. “I’m not a fool, you know!”
One of Farscout’s eyebrows arched at that, in what might have been amusement. He didn’t say what he was obviously thinking. Instead, he released his grip on her chin and shifted his weight back on his heels, his pale eyes never leaving her face. He pulled a waterskin from the heavy leather carrisack he wore slung across his chest and offered it to her. “Drink,” he said.
Bristling at the order, Chicory almost refused to take the waterskin. But her elder was right. Chicory knew the vomiting had left her dehydrated and, if nothing else, the inside of her mouth tasted like stomach bile, so she took a deep pull from Farscout’s waterskin, glad to chase the nasty after-taste away. She drank and drank until the waterskin was half-empty, and her own aching belly gave a sloshing protest. Then she capped the waterskin and handed it back. Farscout nodded, and put it back in his carrisack.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll escort you back to the Holt – likely Willow will ask to meet us at Broad Meadow—“
“No.” Chicory raked hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath, centering herself for a fight. “I’m fine. I don’t need the healer. I don’t need to go back to the Holt. I’m fine. I just need to wait this out for a little while.”
The same dark brow arched over unreadable pale eyes. Farscout stared at her, then slowly shook his head. “You smell like someone just cut open a fermenting elk gut,” he said. “And any bear or big cat who came along would not mind the stink.”
“I said I was fine—“
“Prove it.” It was Farscout’s turn to interrupt. He gestured toward Sleuth with his chin. “Stand and walk to your wolf. Show me you can mount up and ride.”
Chicory looked toward her wolf-friend and tried not to wince. It was only three steps, maybe four, to where Sleuth was now standing. Chicory gave her elder a defiant look, then carefully pulled herself to her feet and took that first step. The world wobbled around her, and threatened to slide sideways. She grit her teeth, fixed her eyes on her goal, and took a careful second step.
The ground crow-hopped beneath her and she found herself down on her knees, wracked by another round of the heaves. Every swallow of water she had just drank splashed right back up and out of her, causing Sleuth to scatter back several steps in order to avoid the deluge.
Farscout moved to her side and carefully held back her hair until she had finished retching. She sank beside him, feeling too wretched to push him away as her elder carefully pillowed her head against his knees. “Poor cub,” he murmured, then shifted to the gentle intimacy of sending. **For all of your mother’s wisdom and your father’s wit, why do you do these things?**
Farscout’s sending was sympathetic, but also exasperated. He didn’t understand her and he didn’t hide it. She *felt* his dismay at her actions, and also his confusion, mingled as it was with the pure respect he felt for both of her parents. Chicory *felt* the direction of his thoughts: neither Easysinger or Blacksnake would understand or approve of their daughter’s actions.
Blacksnake certainly wouldn’t – that, Chicory wouldn’t attempt to debate. But Easysinger… ? **Mother taught me,** Chicory sent back in self-defense, her memories of her mother Easysinger thick with longing. **She taught me all she knew about herbs, and yet there’s so much we don’t know. She said so herself. My mother would have done anything to protect the tribe. She would understand this!**
Farscout continued to stroke her hair, his touch gentle. **Your mother was many things, and you’ve got her courage,** Farscout responded, after a long, thoughtful silence. **But she was never foolishly reckless with life. Maybe you have a reason for what you do, but you put yourself in needless danger. Tell me. Why the chokecherries? Wolfsister and her kin knew chokecherries were poisonous. What could your eating them now possibly prove?**
Farscout was honestly curious about that, and she *felt* his respect for her intelligence, even if his sending was rich with his exasperation. That measure of respect was a surprise and it warmed her aching middle somewhat.
**Belly worms,** she confessed, choosing to take the elder into her confidence. She felt his confusion, so she elaborated. **Willow can treat a fever or a wound or a broken bone. But she can’t treat parasites once they’re settled. Like always, if one of the tribe gets bellyworms, Cloudfern treats it with several days’ doses of an emetic of chokecherries and boiled garlic to force them out. Down goes the bitter chokecherry tea, and up comes the worms! But you can’t get a wolf to drink a nasty tea, not through the several treatments it takes. You *know* what a fight it is, especially if you’re trying to get the second or third tea down ‘m. So now old Darkpelt has got the belly-bloat and, if he’s got the worms, it’ll be a fight to save him. So I thought I’d see if I could find a way to make the chokecherries tea less bitter, make it taste enough like the marrow broth to get a wolf to willingly drink it down…**
Chicory let her eyes open to slits and, above her, saw her elder nodding comprehension.
**Did it work?** Farscout asked.
Chicory shrugged. “Not yet. This round tasted better than the last, but still not enough to make a wolf *like* it.”
“This round,” Farscout repeated. Chicory winced, realizing too late her mistake. “What round is this?” her elder asked, his words steady and holding nothing of outrage in them. Which was why he was asking the question aloud, Chicory figured.
“Third,” Chicory answered. Let him guess whether that was the truth or not, spoken as her answer was.
Farscout’s fingers slipped through a tangled length of her hair, gently pulling loose a twig or bit of forest debris. **How many times have you done this? Slunk out of the Holt to poison yourself?** he asked, the question shadowed only by the rawest of concern. Concern for her. Somehow, that was a surprise. Chicory had never thought the aloof scout had ever noticed her enough to warrant such a true wellspring of care.
Chicory sighed and opened her eyes again. She looked up at her elder, his face upside-down to her vantage point of her head resting against his thighs. **Four hands, maybe a little more,** she answered, risking honesty.
The dismay in his eyes was answer enough. **Windburn knew and told you to stop?**
Chicory nodded slowly. “Yes, he told me to stop,” she admitted, the words seeming to stick in her throat as she spoke.
**You think you’re taking a reasonable risk?**
Chicory nodded again. “I’m careful,” she said. “I’m not about to kill myself or do real damage. The vomiting passes. I sure can’t test it on wolves, so there’s no other way but this.”
Farscout was frowning, but it was a thoughtful look on his face, not an outraged one. **Your mother wouldn’t approve,** he sent, then. **But she might have accepted your need to do it.**
Chicory smiled broadly, feeling the somehow she had just won the elder’s acceptance. **You knew my mother well, you know she would!** she sent exultantly.
Farscout did smile down at her then, his expression both wry with amusement and faintly apologetic. **Aye, I knew your mother well. I loved her dearly. Just like I love and respect your father,** he sent, leadingly.
Chicory sat up abruptly – too abruptly, apparently, for the world whirled dangerously around her. “Oh no…” she moaned, as Farscout grabbed her by the shoulder to steady her. “Oh no! You didn’t!”
“I sent for your father the moment I found you on the ground, retching.” Farscout chuckled as he pressed the waterskin back into her hands. “Drink, then lie down and rest. I’ll sit guard until Blacksnake arrives.”
“How could you?” Chicory moaned.
“How could I not?” Farscout squeezed her shoulder and helped guide the waterskin to her lips. **Your father has been my friend for too long,** he sent, as he watched her swallow. **Trust me, cub. I have more to fear from not telling him, than you do from him having been told.**
“He’ll skin me,” Chicory moaned. “He won’t even use his knife to do it.”
Farscout looked amused at that. **Just be honest with your father. Tell him what you told me. If you intend to continue with these experimentations, you need someone who’ll protect you… from yourself, if nothing else. Who better, than him?**
“I have Sleuth,” Chicory defended meekly, the aforementioned she-wolf’s ears perking at the sound of her name. She padded over to her elf-bond and head-butted Chicory’s arm, to which the fisher smiled gently. Feeling the skeptical glance Farscout was directing at her, Chicory sighed and tilted her head slightly upward. “I know you’re right but… Shards, Farscout, my father? You couldn’t pick Longshot or Rainpace or even One-Leg, if you wanted to stay in the family?”
**Blacksnake is your father,** Farscout replied evenly. **No one else loves you as unconditionally. And your crazy scheming in pursuit of figuring out a greater problem? Girl-cub, that sideways thinking was not inherited from your mother. **
Chicory grumbled and settled a bit more comfortably against Farscout’s legs, running her hand slowly through Sleuth’s fur now that she had settled once again at Chicory’s side. “How far away is he?” she asked after a moment, taking into consideration that what was done was done and there was no way of amending it to her preference.
**Your father was at the Holt,** Farscout sent – which, on the Holt side of the Near Hot-Springs as they were, simply left no time at all. Though, the wheels in Chicory’s head continued to move. It was a naďve hope, but it remained none-the-less.
Farscout’s soothing touch at her hair continued. Chicory assessed the uncertain feeling in both her gut and her knees, and tried to imagine how she might manage to outmaneuver the elder hunter who was widely considered to be one of the tribe’s best trackers. Maybe if she feigned the runs and crept off for the privacy she desired…
**The wolves and I are on watch,** Farscout assured her. **You’re in no shape to run. So sleep and regain your strength for your father’s arrival,** he sent, his mindtouch amused, as if he might have followed the path of her thoughts.
Chicory sighed deeply. Who was she fooling? There was no escape for her now – even if she could find a way to out-sneak Farscout, the secret she had kept from her father for years about her clandestine experimentations had still been exposed… there would be no more hiding this from her father, not now.
But maybe her elder was right, Chicory thought with a glimmer of hope. Maybe she could make her father understand why she was driven to do what she did. And Chicory knew, in her heart… that if she could make Blacksnake understand, then he would accept it, maybe even with one of his rare measures of grudging respect…
It was a sweet hope to sleep on.
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