Windburn counted the white, silk-wrapped haunches of elk, making neat tally marks for each one. When he finished, he paused and counted again, but he came up with the same number. Frowning, he shook his head. There had been twice as much left over the previous year. When winter was over, the stores were always a little on the light side. But this past winter's hunting had been unusually lean and the previous season's was little better. The tribe had used more of the stores to make up for that, which was what the stores were for. But Windburn was more than ready to fill the storage dens again, if only the weather would cooperate. A drought had been wreaking havoc on their territory for more than a turn of the seasons. A warm spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, and a bitterly cold winter with only a dusting of snow left the rivers low, the plants brittle, the prey animals desperate and without any body fat, and predators more aggressive. The lack of snow meant the rivers weren't filling with runoff this spring. There had been precious few flowers at New Green Bliss. What else would the tribe have a hard time finding this spring and summer?
Windburn gritted his teeth and moved on to the next alcove to take a full inventory of the remaining root vegetables and fruits in their Preserver-wrapped bundles. As he moved, he caught the scent of Starskimmer coming toward him. He heard her humming a happy tune and felt the corners of his mouth turning up in response. **Nice to hear someone in a good mood,** he sent to her.
She paused in the walkway and smiled at him. **Of course I am. I'm getting another skin of that new brew I made over the winter. I left a few skins to hang in here so they can age just a bit more.** She cocked her hip and gave him a coy look out of the corner of her eyes. **Want to help me... taste it?**
Windburn smiled slightly at her. **I do actually, but I must attend to this first.**
She reached out and ran the tips of her fingers along his jaw line. "A chief's work is never done," she murmured. "Come find me when you are ready for a sip." Then she sashayed further down the corridor and disappeared around a bend. The sound of her humming floated back to him.
He shook his head to clear his mind and returned to the task of counting. The state of the storage dens made him more and more concerned. There was enough for now. But if the weather didn't turn around soon, the tribe would be hard-pressed to store enough for the next winter. Better to plan ahead for disaster, in his estimation.
The air around Windburn grew heavy with sends as he urged his father, the Hunt Leader, to send out more hunting parties. Then, he touched minds with Farscout, who was just inside their combined range, to get his impression on the state of the game further afield. A quick consultation with One-Leg gave Windburn a better idea of when the salmon should begin their run this season. A good salmon run would do much to remedy the situation in the storage dens.
A sudden exclamation of pain brought Windburn's mind back to the present. He dashed down the passageway to find Starskimmer. She stood just inside a small room slapping and vigorously wiping at her arms and hands. A skin of wine lay on the floor at her feet with its deep red contents spilling out. He moved to her side and saw a few ants crawling up her right arm and scattered on the floor around the wineskin. Windburn quickly swiped at the insects on her arm, helping her clean them off. Then he set about squishing as many on the ground as he could.
"Those things got into my wineskin," she hissed. "They ruined my brew!"
"And stung you pretty well too," Windburn said. "Should I call Cloudfern for some of his poultices?"
Starskimmer waved him off. "I can make the sting remedy myself in a few moments. No need to bother my Recognized about this."
The two scanned the small space, looking for the ants' point of entry. The chief spotted a line of them moving across the ceiling. It looked as though they had created a tiny crevice to enter, crossed the root and dirt ceiling, went down a hanging hook for wineskins, and then down the strap. Judging from the mess on the ground, they had been at every stitch in the seams and all around the mouth piece.
Starskimmer scowled unhappily at the scurrying line of insects. She placed her hand against the dirt wall and closed her eyes. The pale pink glow of her rockshaping power lit the space around her. "I can feel the void of their tunnels. They've set up a colony between Mother Tree's roots."
"They must be seeking cool places and moisture." Windburn frowned in thought. The storage dens mostly contained items wrapped in Preserver silk, which would be safe from the insects. But some items were placed down here to dry and were therefore exposed to potential damage. Additional measures to keep out vermin were going to be needed because of the drought. Dire circumstances were causing desperation throughout their little section of the world.
He glanced back at the brewer and was surprised to see that her power was still glowing over her hands. Starskimmer's face was tight with concentration. Beads of sweat popped up across her forehead as she focused on making her power obey her will. He saw a ripple of movement across the dirt ceiling. A thin trickle of liquid rock rolled across the line of ants and instantly hardened, sealing the bugs inside.
Starskimmer let the power go and sagged against the wall. "That colony won't bother us anymore. I called all the small rocks near here and made them into one."
Windburn helped her move to a raised root so she could sit and rest. She hissed softly as his hands came into contact with her ant stings. The chief sent to the tribe's herbal healer, **Cloudfern. You are needed in the storage dens.** His send was laced with images of ants and the raised welts on Starskimmer's arms. When he received the other elf's acknowledgement, he pulled his water skin from his belt and offered it to Starskimmer, who took it gingerly.
"The last skin I touched bit back," she said with a laugh. When her chief didn't respond to her joke, she reached over and poked him in the side. "Your head is already busy plotting how to deal with more insect incursions, isn't it?"
Windburn smiled wanly and inclined his head in concession.
"I knew it," she said. "Well, sit with me and taste my wine before you get started on all that planning and cleaning this mess. I still have one skin of my newest brew. It would be a shame if you missed out on sampling it." She indicated another wineskin hanging from a hook.
Windburn inspected it carefully for ants and then picked it up. He pulled the stopper off and took a swig before passing it to Starskimmer. He grunted in appreciation and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's good. It's got a nice, almost nutty flavor."
Starskimmer took a mouthful and nodded. She patted the space beside her, inviting the chief to sit by her and share some more. "Too bad this is the last one out of that batch. I guess even the bugs can appreciate a good wine."
Nodding, Windburn crouched down beside her and took the skin back for another sip. But even when relaxing and enjoying her company, his mind was whirling with plans and concerns. This drought was already having unforeseen consequences. What more lay in store for his tribe before it ended?