“Can you do me a favour, Shimmer?” Dreamberry stopped as she reached the young maiden and smiled down to her, holding the hand of her little daughter, Snowdrop. The five-turns-old cub looked up at Shimmer with big blue eyes.
“Yes?” Shimmer looked at her slightly warily – things that started with ‘Do me a favour’ seldom turned out to be something she wanted to do, in her experience.
“Could you watch Snowdrop for a bit?” Dreamberry asked. Letting go of her hand, she gave her daughter a gentle shove towards Shimmer. “I really need to get my last batch of brews done, and I can’t have her around there.”
Shimmer perked up at the mention of brews. “Can’t I do that for you?” she asked eagerly. Having taken an interest in Dreamberry’s brews lately, she would love to do that.
“Sorry, Shimmer – another time, all right?” The brewer shook her head with a smile. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long.” She gave her daughter’s head another pat, and then turned and walked away before Shimmer had the chance to say anything else.
Sighing, the maiden resigned herself to the task for now. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Snowdrop – only that she had next to no experience with watching cubs. How could she, seeing that Snowdrop was the first born into the tribe after herself? At first she had been very excited at Dreamberry and Bearheart’s announcement of their Recognition and the impending birth, but by the time the white-haired girl was born, she had other things to do than play with a cub – as a baby Snowdrop was hardly a playmate after all, even if Shimmer hadn’t been too old for playmates. So she hadn’t bothered to get to know the cub, apart from the time Shimmer spent in her company while sharing meat, a story, or a song with Dreamberry and Bearheart. And there was never any lack of willing cub-sitters for Snowdrop. It seemed the older tribesmates had sorely missed that task between Shimmer’s own days as a cub and Snowdrop’s birth, and so Shimmer just did not make an effort to volunteer when everyone else was happy to.
Except that tonight ‘everyone’ seemed to be busy … “All right, since we’re stuck with each other, we’ll just have to make the best of it, right?” she said, turning towards the cub who was still watching her with big eyes.
Snowdrop nodded and leaned forward to have a look at the herbs in her lap that Shimmer was sorting. “What are you doing?” she asked with interest.
“Sorting those herbs – they’re to be dried and used for salves,” Shimmer explained while she went back to her work. “That’s not very interesting, though… Would you like to do something else?” She was already casting her mind around for ways to entertain the cub – she certainly had some of her old toys somewhere in her den and could dig them out for her.
“I like watching,” Snowdrop declared, shaking her head. She settled down on the ground and wrapped her thin arms around her knees, with all signs of intending to stay there.
Shimmer raised an eyebrow but finally shrugged and concentrated on her work again. If Snowdrop was that easy to please, she wouldn’t complain. A while passed in silence while her fingers moved swiftly through the herbs strewn on her lap and around her, and she only raised her eyes from time to time to see what the cub was doing.
Every time she did, she met the same scene of Snowdrop sitting calmly in the same place, her eyes on Shimmer without wavering. And, each time, Shimmer was becoming more unnerved. As far as she remembered, at that age she would have been bored out of her mind sitting around and watching someone sort herbs, and that steady gaze was especially unsettling.
“You’re not bored?” she asked aloud, almost hoping that Snowdrop would take that as a cue to start fidgeting or complaining – that would be much more normal, in her opinion.
But the girl only shook her head without budging.
Shimmer gave her a suspicious look but returned to her work. Still, she kept glancing up at the girl, and the longer Snowdrop sat there, barely moving, the more nervous she became. It felt as if all the restlessness she expected the cub to show was instead accumulating in herself. Finally she threw down the herbs and stood up – it was no use, she could no longer concentrate.
“Let’s go gathering,” she said curtly. Some task that involved moving would be better; she could get rid of her excess energy, and hopefully Snowdrop would not watch her all the time.
Snowdrop looked surprised but scrambled to her feet obediently. “Where are we going?” she asked.
Shimmer shrugged as she reached out to Dreamberry in sending to inform her that she was taking Snowdrop for a gathering trip. “I promised your mother we wouldn’t go far,” she then said. “So don’t worry, we’ll keep close to the Holt.”
“I wasn’t worrying,” Snowdrop stated matter-of-factly.
Shimmer raised an eyebrow. “Good, then,” she was all she said, though. Dipping quickly into her den, she deposited the sorted herbs and grabbed a basket, then returned to Snowdrop. “Do you want to carry the basket?” she asked.
The girl nodded solemnly, accepting the basket that she had to carry with both hands – it was a normal-sized one, too big for a cub of five turns.
“Come on,” Shimmer said, leading the way. She had nothing special in mind to gather and therefore kept her eyes open for everything. The cub followed in her wake, just as silent as before, but Shimmer found that with her attention elsewhere and her body moving she did not mind as much. When she glanced back at her, she was not met with that relentless gaze but saw that Snowdrop was looking around at the trees around her with alert eyes. Shimmer smiled and returned her attention to gathering – this behaviour was much better, she thought.
Slowly the basket began to fill as the first nuts of the season were dropped into it. Snowdrop helped, depositing the basket on the ground a few times to have her hands free, but always took it up again afterwards without complaining, though it had to be getting heavier with the nuts that were soon joined by a few late berries and some herbs.
“Oh, wormgrass!” Shimmer suddenly exclaimed. She knelt down next to the small cluster of purple flowers and picked one of the plants, carefully crushing it with her fingertips and holding it up to her nose to inhale the sharp scent. She loved this herb, much more for its scent and taste than for its healing qualities, though those were a nice bonus. She pulled the basket close that Snowdrop had set down next to her and began to pick the plants, choosing the older ones and leaving the young shoots unharmed so that hopefully she would find more of them when she came back the next time.
For a while she worked while she cheerfully hummed a tune. When the basket was almost half full with the wormgrass, though, she suddenly stopped. It was quiet around her – too quiet. Snowdrop hadn’t talked much but Shimmer had heard her, breathing and walking and being there. But now there was no sound from the cub at all, and when she whirled around to look for her she did not see her.
Shimmer felt a pang of panic. Where had she gone to? Oh no, she would never be able to tell Dreamberry that she had lost her daughter! But she fought back the panic and sent out to the cub: **Snowdrop, where are you?**
The answer came at once, and Shimmer felt the relief flood over her. Snowdrop sent her a picture of where she was, and her sending was strong, clearly coming from nearby. Getting to her feet, Shimmer started to walk in the direction where it came from. After only a few moments she reached Snowdrop and breathed another sigh of relief – she had barely gone a few steps, and it was only because of some bushes between them that she hadn’t seen the cub.
Snowdrop was sprawled on the ground and had her gaze on a hole in a bank of earth, but raised her eyes to Shimmer when she arrived. Two small pink spots had appeared in the light skin on her cheeks, and her piercing blue eyes were alight with excitement. “They are so cute!” she exclaimed in a barely contained whisper, and as Shimmer knelt down next to her she saw that the hole was a hedgehog den. “But you made them go back again,” she added with deep disappointment. “One of them came out and almost bumped into me! I don’t think they have good eyes.”
Shimmer couldn’t help but smile. In her excitement the cub was awfully cute herself, and it reminded her of the times when she had been a cub and had ended up somewhere on the forest floor, too, watching something new like a lizard lounging in the sun. The thought made her laugh – when she had been a cub! Six hands of turns and she was already talking as if she was an elder!
Snowdrop looked at her with surprise at the laughter, and Shimmer grinned and waved her off. “We can see if they come out again if we are watching them very quietly?” she offered, settling down more comfortably and folding her legs underneath her. After all, even if she wasn’t a cub any more, she would have to reach an oak’s age before she was too old to sit on the forest floor watching hedgehogs.