Crackle found herself upriver a ways from where her father and uncle One-Leg were casting their nets from the stone weir. She had wanted to help, but the nets were too big for her yet. Her father had warned her that the river was too fast for swimming in, at least for little cubs only six turns of the seasons old, and she had pouted on the shore for a little while.
A frog caught her attention for a time, and she had followed it, tried catching it, but then it had found a muddy hole to jump into, and had buried itself. Then she’d seen something shiny, and had gone to inspect it. It was a rock, white, but clear in some places. She thought it was pretty, and had set it aside, then wandered the gravel and rock-strewn edge of the river looking for other trinkets.
She made her way further upstream, to an area where the river undercut a high bank, creating a small cliff. Tired, the cub sat down, nestled between the roots of a great tree, legs outstretched and touching the edge. It was there that Mushroom found her.
The nosy little intruder tugged at her sleeve, flapping away in vain to pull her away from the edge. “Babblemuch Highthing, move back! Nastybad rushing wetstuff will snatch Highthing all up! Highthing will go down and down. Won't be able to swim. Dirty wetstuff will get in mouth and lungs. Highthing will get sick, or worse.”
Crackle tried waving the bug away, but it wouldn’t let her alone. “I’m up here. The water’s down there. Water can’t snatch me away!” she argued.
**Crackle?** her sister’s mind-voice intruded. Evervale was returning from berry-picking, and had just checked in with their father. He had asked her to check on Crackle.
**Up here! I can still see Father!**
**Don’t wander off alone!** her sister warned.
**I won’t! And besides - Mushroom is with me!** she sent.
Crackle then looked at the Preserver, which had been waiting patiently as it could while the “highthings” made “mindtalk.” “We’re supposed to stay together, Mushroom,” she announced happily. Her eyes narrowed, and she scooted a little closer to the edge.
Mushroom’s eyes widened, and it flew to her head and grabbed her hair in both its hands. “Oooooohhh no no no!” it cried, flapping itself sideways to draw her head and eyes in the other direction, towards the tree. Gnarled lines of exposed roots wound their way down a steep incline into the waiting river. “Looksee! Wetstuff eats up ground. Growtall greenthing will fall down, and tear up more ground. Cradlesoft Highthing will go with it into hungry wetstuff.”
Crackle’s eyes widened for a moment as she looked first at Mushroom, then at the tree and its roots. The tree was tall and strong. There was no way! it could fall — water wasn’t stronger than trees. Was it? She shook her head, trying to free her hair from the death-grip the bug had on it.
“Owwwwww!” she whined. “You’re hurting me! LetgoletgoletGO!” she yelled at it. Hoping to appease the flying nuisance, Crackle moved away from the edge. Eventually she felt her hair drop from Mushroom’s claws.
“Won’t stop till Highthing listens!” Mushroom replied, circling in distress. It didn’t take long for Crackle to determine the cause of its alarm; in her rush to get up from the edge, she had caused a whole section to loosen, and as she watched, a chunk of earth as big as a wolf tumbled down into the river below.
The cub got down on all fours and crawled to where she could put her head over the edge and get a good look. She knew the bug wasn’t happy about it because Mushroom had grabbed the back of her shirt and was tugging at her. After a few moments, Crackle pushed herself up, and sat back against the trunk of the great tree.
Mushroom flitted nervously around her, then settled on her shoulder, almost hiding beneath her hair. Mushroom was a strange Preserver - always doom and gloom. Doom and gloom. The little yellow worrywort had been whispering and warning since she was old enough to know what words were, much of it jumbled into mists by a young and disinterested mind.
But this time, it had been right. Hadn’t it? What else had it been right about? What other dangers lurked just around the next tree? What unknown threats had she ignored because she’d the ignored the messenger? She had to know!
“Mushroom?” she whispered, wrapping her arms around her knees and slouching down. When the bug didn’t respond, she continued, “You were right — this tree might fall. It will fall one day! I’m... sorry I haven’t listened to you before. I promise to listen from now on!”
Mushroom’s low (for a Preserver) voice came as softly as it could make it — “Babblemuch Highthing listen to Mushroom? Is promise?”
“I promise,” Crackle reiterated.
“Is good,” Mushroom concluded.
Crackle felt it stand, then giggled as Mushroom’s wings tickled her as it flitted up off her shoulder. She watched as it settled in front of her, its eyes piercing her own. “Mushroom has stories — many stories for Babblemuch Highthing.” It paused a moment, then cocked its head as if it were thinking. Then it nodded.
“First,” Mushroom started, “First thing Babblemuch Highthing watch for is beesweets-hunters. Beesweets-hunters never stop when they smell foodstuffs. Never, never. Even if Highthing drops foodstuffs, they still come. Highthing smells like more foodstuffs. They push over greenthings. They toss rocks aside. Over hills they go, over wetstuff they go, they never get tired. When beesweets-hunters want smells-like-foodstuffs Highthing, they get smells-like-foodstuffs Highthing.”
Crackle’s eyes were wide. She’d never considered that before. In all her short years, she had come to know that bears were dangerous - she’d even heard the story of how her mother had narrowly escaped a bear. Windsong even had the scars to prove it. But she’d also believed that bears would leave elves alone unless provoked — Mushroom’s story sounded more believable. Bears were so big — why shouldn’t they get what, or WHO, they wanted?
“Stay away from bears,” Crackle said to herself, nodding at Mushroom. She was already scared, and she had a feeling she might be up all day if she heard anything else, but she had to know the other lessons -- the ones only Mushroom could teach her. “What else?” she asked. “I’m listening.”