Two puddles of water and mud gathered around two dripping and delighted elf cubs. Over their heads, green eyes looked down at brown -- one set irritated, the other sparkling with the joy of an evening well spent.
"You did… what?"
"We watched lizards." Chicory grinned. "And turtles. It's important for the cubs to get to know the river area."
"Chicory, these are Otter and Crackle." Windsong looked down pointedly at the two cubs, who ignored the discussion and went on building mud towers and dripping on them. Both were soaked and muddy, and in Crackle's case, covered in dead leaves. "They know the river better than they know the dentrees – there are three of them. They spend more time at the river, in any case." Her cub wasn't quite five turns old, and Otter was four turns older, yet both knew the river and had an intimate acquaintance with the river-area animals. "You couldn't at least wash them?"
"I did." Chicory snickered. "They were both squeaky clean when we left the river… then Crackle decided she just had to chase a lizard up a tree, and of course Otter offered to help. How could I know there was a puddle of mud under the tree?"
"Easy," Windsong grumbled. "Crackle was in it." Somehow her youngest had an uncanny sense of which places would get her dirtiest, fastest. She knew it wasn't really Chicory's fault, but did it have to be the river? "Well, you might as well take them back. It's easier than explaining to the others why I'm dragging them down there." She produced a fishing spear. "And we might as well hunt while we're there."
Otter was on his feet and eager to join, and Crackle, lured by the promise of more slimy things to catch, followed happily. Windsong motioned to Chicory that she was in charge of this one -- water was never her strong area, but she could at least practice fishing with Otter. The huntress and the older cub settled in the shallows, standing still and silent, waiting for their chance, while Chicory and Crackle went looking for more lizards.
"Hsss! Crackle!" Chicory's voice was quiet and controlled as she froze on the bank. She crouched, one hand on the ground for balance, so that only her feet and one hand got slightly muddy. With her other hand, she pointed to a large turtle lumbering out of the water. Crackle clapped both hands on her mouth to stop a squeal of delight, and threw herself flat on her belly to get a better look -- right in the mud. Windsong winced and a particularly nice fish used her distraction to get away. Chicory grinned at her, patting the cub on her still-mostly-clean shoulder with one muddy hand.
"Silently now, cub. Let's see how close you can get to the shellback. Can you touch it?" Ignoring Windsong's silent sending of 'don't', Crackle slithered forward, practically wallowing in the mud to get closer. She stroked the turtle's shell, tilting her head when it watched her curiously. She giggled.
"Very good, Crackle. Next snowmelt we'll be able to try the deeper waters, and show you fish." Chicory smiled, and Otter grinned. The deeper water was his realm, and he couldn't wait to show it to his younger friend.
"You can try it now. She'll need another wash anyway." Windsong threw up her hands and headed back to the Dentree. There'd be no catching anything with the cubs around. Crackle attracted commotion like beesweets attracted cubs. "You know what -- never mind. Let her get as dirty as she wants." Maybe they could try washing her off just before sunrise, so she'd have fewer chances to get dirty again. With the cubs cheering behind her, she left.
Chicory smiled at the two younger elves. "All right. We can try the deeper water. Remember: get as dirty as you like, but be very, very quiet and still or we won't see anything." They both nodded enthusiastically, and Chicory led them deeper down into the river. It was late in the hot-sun season, and the river was slow and warm, but she didn't lead them straight into the rushing foaming area, no… there was a nice deep pool by some rocks that she knew some of her best animal-friends lived in. It might be a good place to introduce the cubs to them. They all waded in carefully, Otter walking where Crackle had to swim. She was a fair swimmer for such a young cub, but her version of staying above water still included a lot of splashing. A frog sunning itself on a rock gave the elves an offended look and hopped away.
"No, that won't do." Chicory shook her head. They'd see nothing, and the stream was a little too fast for cubs to play in, maybe.... As the cubbish faces in front of her became more and more miserable, she found a solution. "Let's try this. Can you two wait here, and promise to be quiet and still? I'll go see if one of my friends will come play with you."
"Yeah!" Crackle grinned, and Otter nodded happily.
"I'll make sure she's good." He patted Crackle's messy hair and she stepped on his foot hard, almost initiating a play-fight before Chicory reminded them that no silence meant no river-creatures to play with. When both cubs settled down, she left them behind and dove into the river herself. She swam, smooth and silent as a watersnake herself, cutting through the water to reach a group of standing rocks, half-in, half-out of the water, which housed a family of frogs she knew. It took a bit of a wait to gain their attention, and a while longer to coax one of them out, but finally she turned triumphantly, a frog safely nestled in her palm to see the riverbank completely empty, the two cubs nowhere to be seen.
Alarmed, she let the frog hop away to safety and started swimming back. **Otter! Crackle!** She sent as far as she could, but both cubs were a bit too young. Could they hear her? She knew they'd have called for help if the river... No.
**We're here!** Otter's mental touch was faint but not distressed. In fact, he sounded excited. **Come see what we found!** She was out of the river and running, torn between relief and irritation. Behind a few bushes were the missing youngsters, wide-eyed with wonder, though she couldn't see what they were looking at.
**Crackle heard something, and we came to see, and look!** Otter moved aside and let her see a small, rounded head poking out of the sand, followed by a lurching, shelled body. Chicory grinned, irritation forgotten as she moved closer.
"Shellbacks hatching!" Crackle's eyes were huge and glowing, and Chicory was delighted. An opportunity to watch crawlies climb out of their hidden nests in the sand was a rare and happy event, and she motioned to the cubs to move a little and let the tiny creatures crawl from the nest to the shallows. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so much so, both cubs crouched in perfect silence and stillness, watching, until all the tiny turtles were safely in the water. Chicory's smile was radiant when the mother shellback came to greet her young, poking them with her round snout and herding them away.
"That," she said quietly, "was more special than any frog or lizard. It doesn't happen often, cubs. You were lucky." They looked up at her with faces lit with wonder, and nodded. "You were also very good, standing still and quiet until they were all in. Next snowmelt we'll try the river again, if you still want." She held up a hand against the protest forming on Otter's face. "Now, why don't we go tell your parents what we saw?"
"Yeah!" Crackle grinned and shot ahead, and Otter raced to catch up with her. Chicory looked ahead at the running cubs, then back to the river, and to the line of bobbing little heads in the water. Then she chuckled. Crackle had been so absorbed with the hatchling shellbacks, she'd forgotten to get dirty.