(Ed. Note: Snowdrop is the cub-name of Snowfall; Shimmer is the cub-name of Starskimmer; Glint is the cub-name of Tossfur.)
It had been a long, swelteringly hot summer day, the worst kind of sticky heat which the Holt seldom had to endure. With nightfall came a cool-down, along with flameflies and a blaze of stars across the black, cloudless sky above -- and the elves of the Holt welcomed that relief. The tribe gathered where the stone weir dammed up the river behind it, making a deep spot for swimming. As the heat dissipated, a party atmosphere developed. Cider and her apprentice Shimmer brought out skins of fruit wines, Beesting charmed slabs of honeycombs from a hive, Turtle and Glint brought a feast of silver salmon and crawfish they had spent their sweltering afternoon catching. Snaptwig, Rhythm and Moss started a drum circle, while Tangle and Oakhand had set up a rope swing from a branch of the capnut tree at the lip of the high bank. As the wineskins were passed around freely and the salmon feast consumed, a friendly competition developed to see who could make the most impressive dive into the deep water from the rope swing's apogee. Laughter and catcalls equaled the applause and cheers as the displays of acrobatics got both more impressive, and more comical.
Young Snowdrop sat on a log on the opposite riverbank, overlooking it all. Her long white hair was loose down her back, and her right arm was in a sling and encased in a cast of birchbark and mud plaster. The eight-year-old refused Moon and Raven's requests to join them at the water's edge; she refused as well Leather's attempts to coax her over to the shifting circle of drummers. She only toyed, one-handed, with the food she was offered and watched in silence as her elders swam and played in the water below. When Stormdancer approached her and sat down beside her on the log, she remained stubbornly focused on the swimmers, clutching her injured arm against her chest.
"That arm hurting, cub?" Stormdancer asked, her voice uncharacteristically gentle.
"Need some willowbark tea?" Stormdancer tried again.
Snowdrop scowled and shook her head firmly, determined never to drink another cup of willowbark tea for the rest of her life.
"Want something to eat?" Stormdancer asked.
Snowdrop shook her head and glared at the swimmers below.
"Can I get you some honeywine? It's very sweet. Cider swears it's the best she's brewed in years."
Again, Snowdrop shook her head firmly. There wasn't anything she wanted right now, but what she couldn't possibly have. Tears prickled at her eyes, and she squinted to deny them release.
Stormdancer sighed in exasperation, and the solicitousness of her tone vanished. "This sullen temper of yours is getting tiring, cub," she said. "I know that arm is hurting you -- anyone who looks at you can see it. And Sunlight says you're refusing to drink your tea. She thought you'd come around after a few hours. She didn't expect you'd be so stubborn about it. What are you planning to do? Sit and stew until your parents come riding home with the chieftess and her hunters? That'll be at least two more nights of waiting."
Snowdrop scowled even harder and refused to admit that that had been, exactly, what she had been planning on doing. Her father never showed pain, so she was determined to be just as stoic. Stormdancer seemed to see through her silence, however, and gave a snort of laughter.
"Sunlight's more stubborn than you are, girl-cub," the huntress said. "If you try to outlast her, by morning she'll be sitting on top of you, plugging your nose, and pouring the willowbark down your throat if you don't choose on your own to drink it. Or worse -- she'll think you need more of the feverease. That stuff tastes better, but it'll knock you flat and give you loopy dreams."
Snowdrop pursed her lips and glanced at Stormdancer from the corner of her eyes. The dark-haired glider was sharp-tongued and left all patience to her lifemate, Leather. Snowdrop could not remember when the huntress had ever sought out her company before. It was probably pity that had stirred Stormdancer's interest in her now, and the taste of that thought was as bitter in her mouth as willowbark tea.
"My arm doesn't hurt that bad," she lied, wanting just to be left alone with her misery. "The cast is worse. It makes my arm itch. And I can't get it wet."
"Ah..." Stormdancer leaned back against the log and stretched her long legs out comfortably. Her blue eyes narrowed knowingly as she regarded the girl. "So that's it, is it? Bearheart's little girl-cub can't swim with the rest of the tribe. So she's going to sit up here like a lump on a log and mope about it," she said.
Snowdrop felt tears flood her eyes. Angrily, she reached with her best hand to rake the tears away, forgetting for an instant about the sling and the cast. The attempt hurt, so she clutched the cast against her narrow chest and scowled through the tears, angry at being called out on the truth. She wanted to protest that it wasn't fair -- the day had been hot and sticky and she wanted to swim in the cool water more badly than she had ever wanted anything ever in her whole life! But Stormdancer had clearly used up all of her nice for the night, and her sharp, grey gaze was almost cat-like in its smugness. Snowdrop knew she wouldn't get any further kindness from her elder, so she swallowed down her self-pity and the tears, and resolved anew to be as stoic as her father.
"Poor little girl-cub," Stormdancer clucked again.
"I'm not moping about it," Snowdrop said, trying to sound stoic, even if she didn't feel that way. "I just don't want to drink any more nasty tea and I don't want to be fussed over."
Stormdancer smiled then, and gave a snort of a laugh. "Now that I can understand. I hate being fussed over, myself. Hate it. Last time I broke a wing, all I wanted to do was crawl into my den and be left alone. But the rotten thing is -- wanting the most to just be left alone is like wearing fish bait around your neck. Those who love you the most get absolutely clingy. They want to fetch and carry and tuck you in and spoon you soup." Stormdancer gave another derisive snort. "So I understand wanting to get some distance from them all. And I bet it'll only get worse for you when your parents do get home. Your mother is the sort who can't stop with the pampering. She loves having a patient almost as much as she love babies."
Snowdrop turned her head to look at her elder. She had only yearned to have her parents back with her -- she had not thought past that, to the reality of what she faced after the first happy hours of reunion. Her mother, Dreamberry, was a skilled herbal healer and she did enjoy doting on patients. And for all of his impressive strength and renown as a tough hunter, Bearheart would fuss over her like a woodhen. Snowdrop felt her heart plummet in her chest. Her mother would insist she drink more bitter teas, and her father would hover and tell her little-cub stories, like she was half her age.
Apparently, her attempt at being stoic had failed utterly, because Stormdancer's expression softened with sympathy. The elder pushed herself to her feet and looked down at the miserable girl. "Close your eyes," she said.
Snowdrop looked up at her elder dubiously. "What?"
Stormdancer grinned. "Close your eyes. You can't go swimming with the rest of the tribe, but I'll show you something even better."
Snowdrop heaved a weary sigh and did as she was told. She closed her eyes. She felt Stormdancer’s arms encircle her, followed almost immediately by a ticklish, almost tingly sensation, and the sudden sense of of them both becoming weightless. Despite her attempt at self-control, the girl’s eyes snapped open, and she saw the ground a wolf-length below and retreating fast. "I said ‘Close them,’" Stormdancer ordered crisply, and Snowdrop did so at once. "Trust me," her elder said, mistaking the girl’s delight for fright. "I've got you, and I won’t drop you. Just keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them. It'll be even better that way. Trust me."
Snowdrop took a shuddering inhalation and committed herself over to her elder's words. She loved it when either Stormdancer or her daughter Kestrel took her gliding. She relished in the tingly, weightless sensation as it continued, and with her eyes closed, she had no sense of where they might be. It was thrilling beyond words, and it made her even begin to forget the throbbing ache of her broken arm. There was only Stormdancer's magic lifting them, the glider’s arms tighter around the child, and a moment when a brief breath of a breeze caught them, blowing like a sigh against her face and stirring her pale hair.
After a long, lazy sense of floating, she felt Stormdancer's arms around her give her a squeeze.. "Go ahead," her elder said. "Open your eyes."
Snowdrop did so. They were floating in the air, and the Holt was so far below them that the trees looked like twigs. The night was cool and still, and it seemed to the child that she could see to the very edges of the world. Stormdancer’s smile was knowing as she turned the girl in her embrace, so that the girl’s back was against her chest. “Let’s swim," she said. "You can go up, down, toward the sea or toward sunrise -- just know I’ve got you and you cannot fall.”
Snowdrop straightened her legs and kicked cautiously, then stroked with her good arm. Tentatively, she paddled the air and kicked her feet, as though treading water. Stormdancer leveled them out, but their bodies moved as if Snowdrop’s efforts were truly propelling them, pulling up toward the two sickle moons, then canting right when she fluttered her good arm, leveling out like a swimmer, but she did not fall. With more confidence, she kicked off and stroked with her good arm, and felt her hair stream back as her movement created its own breeze.
"I'm swimming!" the girl squealed with a surge of delight. "I'm swimming!"
For all of her slight size, Stormdancer had a deep laugh. “When you feel ready, just roll like an otter,” her elder said. “You’ll see my favorite part of it then.”
Snowdrop ‘swam’ for several more strokes before her curiosity overwhelmed her. She began to twist in the glider’s arms, and Stormdancer moved with her, rolling them both onto their back. What Snowdrop she saw above them then made her gasp with wonder.
The full sky of stars sparkled around them, at once so close and yet so far away. The night sky was black and the stars glittered like so much gem dust, some of them large and bright, some of them just faint motes of light, some of them seeming to twinkle with colors, as though they had stolen the edges of light from a rainbow. Both moons were in crescent, and she could see the dark shadow of their full orbs. But the night seemed to be crowded with stars, with the swirls of the twining night-rivers carrying a thicker concentration of stars through the black sky, enticing her to swim up to join that ancient current.
Snowdrop just lay on her back and floated, staring at the heavens. She felt as though she and Stormdancer were swimming among the stars, and the warmth and the silence felt like a gentle embrace. She forgot about the itching of the birchbark cast; the dull throbbing ache of her arm had gone mute. There was simply nothing but the stars, the night sky, and Stormdancer’s maternal embrace, and for a time, Snowdrop felt so at peace that she felt it was possible she had become one of those distant, flickering stars herself.
At length, she felt Stormdancer’s arms tighten. "I'd do this all night if I could," her elder said. "But when the headaches start, I know I've pushed it farther than I should. Time to go back down to earth, girl-cub."
Their descent was rapid but controlled; Snowdrop refused to watch the world take them back. Instead, she kept her face lifted to the night sky, trying to cling to the sense of kinsmanship with the stars for as long as she could. But gravity couldn't be denied, and far too-soon, the trees were around them again and her feet again touched ground. Stormdancer had landed them not far from from Snowdrop's log on the riverbank. Leather was waiting for them, his expression calmly expectant, with a clay cup in each hand.
"Willowbark tea," he said, holding out a cup for each of them. "Mixed with honeywine."
Stormdancer took the cup from her lifemate without hesitation and with such clear gratitude that Snowdrop thought to wonder, for the first time, what their long flight aloft might have cost the glider. Chagrined, she took the cup Leather held out to her and drank it down without complaint. The honeywine was very sweet and mostly masked the bitterness of the pain-killing willowbark. Mostly.
"Can I have another of those?" Stormdancer asked wistfully when she had swallowed down her cup. Leather smiled and nodded.
"Sunlight has half a skin of the honeywine left, expressly for medicinal purposes." He looked at Snowdrop thoughtfully, and took her hand when she handed back her own cup. "Let's get you both back to the Dentrees. Some more honeywine will help you both sleep."
Snowdrop squeezed her elder's hand and let him lead her home. Sleep sounded like a very, very good idea. Especially if she could find a way to swim with the stars again tonight -- if only in her dreams.