(Ed. note: "Fawn" is the cubname of Brightwood; "Axehand" is a former name of One-Leg's.)
Gurgleflap’s bright orange limbs protruded from beneath its golden wings. Floating belly-down upon the surface of Laughing Creek and letting the breeze take it where it might, it popped its head up from the water — from whatever it was studying beneath — to take a breath.
Not far off, Redmane had a hand wrapped around seven-turns-old Badger’s, whose other hand was wrapped around a smooth, flat stone. For nights, the chieftess’s cub had been on him to teach him how to skip stones. And now that Redmane was here, and had time to teach, the cub wasn’t really paying attention to the lesson; he was watching the Preserver.
"How long has it been doing that?" the boy asked, puzzled. A wing twitched. The boy cocked his arm back and threw the stone — it skipped once, then dropped into the water.
"Oh, since shortly before you got here. Midnight, maybe," the elder answered, choosing to be amused by the shifting attentions of a cub.
He was about to critique the cub’s throw when Badger went on, "No, I mean how long?"
“Oh, ah,” The question brought to mind a memory from another time, and another place. "Since before your mother's time, cub, and mine."
The bug had made several trips between the Dentrees and... somewhere. Tanner's mother, Dawn, had finally awakened, and he’d asked to chase after the Preserver. She had assented, and Tanner waited eagerly for the bug to return from its most recent flight down into the storage dens. He’d followed it down there, and had even searched around - but he hadn’t found where it was getting its stuff.
When Gurgleflap flew back up, Tanner stood excitedly waiting. “Come-see come-see!”
Tanner eagerly agreed and the pair headed into the woods. The bug flew down a path straight to the river, where a small pile of... trash... had been built on a rock near the shore. Tanner cocked his head in puzzlement.
“Watch-see!” the bug trilled.
Then, as if it were the most interesting thing to do, Gurgleflap began gathering items and dropping them into the river in different places, then singing shrilly as the items floated away. Tanner wasn’t sure exactly what made this such an interesting occasion to the bug — but the cub decided to join in anyway. He found his own things — leaves, sticks, even a few bits of moss, and threw those in, too.
Hawkcall panted and reached yet again for his water flask. He felt like the drought was sucking the life out of him as much as it was sweat. The land beneath his feet was supposed to be swamp, but the thieving heat had sucked it dry, too. Even the light of the moon felt oppressive and hot. With precious little cover among the wilted, leafless willows, the boy was sticking close to his mother’s shadow.
“Deer Marsh is drying up all over, see?” Riversong said. “Looks like the arms of the Bluespear are are closing up. Much more of this and the deer will be digging themselves sleeping holes in the mud just like the frogs did!”
His mother was always making jokes, but right now he didn't want to laugh. He wanted to go home, throw his bag of fresh-dug frogs into a storage den, and dive into the river and feel cool and clean again.
But first the frogs needed to be doused in wrapstuff. The pair of elves found Gurgleflap was right where they’d left it, still poking at riverbed with a long, thin stick.
“There's no frogs there. We already checked. What’s your problem, bug?”
Gurgleflap looked up at him, a forlorn look upon its pitiful face. It held up the stick and pointed at the bone dry lower end. “No water. No fun.”
He scowled. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
The tribe had gathered at the river for the salmon run. At first, Fawn had pouted - she wanted to help her parents catch the large fish. But she was too small, and it was too dangerous. Arguing was pointless — so she’d found herself wandering upriver — and she’d found Gurgleflap laughing and singing as it flitted back and forth, dropping debris into the river, and looking for something.
“What are you looking for?” she’d asked it.
Gurgleflap looked at her, then answered, “Small-sunnysoft-highthing help Gurgleflap?”
Fawn was pleased at the idea of someone needing her this night, so she had agreed - though she wasn’t sure to what.
The bug explained, “Must find wetstuff-floaters! Gurgleflap all out!”
Fawn wasn’t sure she understood why — maybe the Preserver didn’t really know, either. But doing something was better than doing nothing. So she agreed to help it. She carefully set Bearkiller down so that it wouldn’t get wet, then began helping Gurgleflap search for “water-floaters.”
She found leaves, sticks, a few mushrooms, and even a feather. Before long, the shore was emptied of water-floaters. She decided to go beyond the treeline — maybe there was a dead tree. The bark would make excellent “wetstuff-floaters.”
Fawn had her arms full of bark when she returned to the shore — just in time to watch Gurgleflap drop her beloved Bearkiller into the water. “Wetstuff-floater splash good! Much thanks!”
The bark fell out of her arms as she rushed toward the water, shrieking. “BEARKILLER!”
Gurgleflap’s eyes went wide with realization. It squealed and raced over the river after the unseen doll.
“Come on, lass!” Axehand howled from a distance, easily drowning out the sounds of splashing fish and the many eager elves out to catch them. “Stop playing with yer shiny new teats and get to work! These fish aren’t going to wait all night for you!”
Blushing, Flash growled under her breath and wrangled another bit of twisted driftwood out of the net she’d been set to clear of debris. Her hands were so numb and sore and raw she didn’t want to touch anything, much less her tender chest. She’d been at it all day, net after net, new trash rushing in almost as fast as the Elder Salmon the nets were meant to collect. Leaves, twigs, clumps of moss, seaweed, on and on! As if she didn’t know where it was coming from. ‘The pest must have wrangled up a whole basket full of crap to pull this off!’
The thought had just left her mind when her ears picked up an odd silence among her fellows further downriver, followed by a smattering of chuckles, then outright laughter.
“Ratfangs! What am I missing because... I’m stuck... here...”
The answer came in the form of a long, lean chunk of water-worn branch. Straddling it was Gurgleflap, cooing in awe at the view as its makeshift raft bobbed and juked among the salmon around it.
Flash snarled and tossed her net. The Preserver flew off in time to keep from getting snagged, but the girl got what she’d aimed for.
She pulled the driftwood over to herself, and jabbed it firmly into the muddy shore.
“If I don’t get to have any fun, nobody does.”
Brilliant blue eyes looked over a bright yellow-green acorn top. Gurgleflap examined it for signs of wear, turning it up and down and all around, scraping dried mud out of the knotted seams where it found any. When satisfied as to its condition, the Preserver gently placed the cap into a clump of crabgrass and patted it down to keep put. Its precious hat safely secured, it scrabbled up a boulder of the stone weir, and — “Weeeeeeeheeeheee!” — jumped right off into the Holt’s River below.
Fadestar chuckled at the show, her weaving temporarily forgotten. “Hmm,” she looked over to her other companion. “How long do you suppose Gurgleflap’s been playing in the water?”
Copper didn't answer immediately. Instead she picked up a smooth flat stone from the riverbed and studied it. "Since before your mother’s time, cub, and mine...." She paid no attention to the confused look on Fadestar's face and threw the stone.