(This story is part of the ”Learning the Humans’ Languages” story collection; click to see related stories and artwork.)
Newt stood at the entrance skeptically watching the going-ons inside the dimly-lighted storage den. He flinched at every bang and clash.
One of the dark shadows that busily moved under the moonmoss-covered ceiling belonged to Rainpace. His upper half had almost vanished between some big clay jars and a shelf with honey pots. To give himself more space he constantly produced wrapstuffed sacks and baskets from the depths and carelessly piled them up behind him. A little wall was already building up.
“You know, if you would tell me what you are looking for, I could help,“ Newt offered once again. Rainpace’s answer was muffled but Newt was sure he understood as much as: “No... surprise.” As expected.
“You sure they are in this den and not in one of the others?” Chicory asked her lovemate from her high perch on top of a wall of stacked baskets. When she had joined them earlier Newt had immediately expected today was not going to be a regular flute lesson with Rainpace.
Rainpace produced himself from the little cave he had formed between the storage items, his face flushed visibly even in the dim, bluish light. Newt was idly wondering if the color in his friend’s face was still a result of his excitement over whatever it was he was not telling him or if it was only due to him working bent over all the time.
“How often are you going to ask me this?” the trapper asked his Recognized in return, sounding a little annoyed.
“As long as it takes to find them,” Chicory replied with a cheeky grin and winked at Newt.
Rainpace gave her a pointed look and turned to his searching area again. “As I already told you, it wasn’t me who put them here back then. But Moss was sure he —”
“No, no, no!” Rainpace was interrupted by Muckabout’s outcry. “No destroy webstuff! Bad Fastjump Highthing! Bad, bad!” the Preserver wailed at the top of its small lungs.
Three pairs of eyes turned to a corner in which Glow was sitting amidst a pile of wrappstuffed supplies irritably waving at Muckabout, which buzzed around her head. “I am helping,” the three-year old explained to the Preserver with a solemn face, as if this would be a most reasonable excuse for her poking into a wrapstuff package with a piece of antler she had snatched from the tools supply.
The girl usually did not leave her father’s side during the first couple of days whenever he returned from one of his word-hunt trips. Rainpace had just come back yesterday, so Glow had joined in the searching troop, too, of course.
While Muckabout continued complaining about the illicit destruction of wrapstuff, Newt took a nervous look over his shoulder into the passageway, hoping his chief would not come down to catch them red-handed. Normally, all the baskets, clay jars and wrapstuff sacks at least looked as if they were put in some kind of order. But after several minutes with this family, Windburn’s carefully organized storing system was past all recognition.
Finally, Rainpace had managed to scramble around his own mess and picked his daughter up to silence the Preserver.
“Bad, bad Fastjump Highthing!” Muckabout cried one last time and pointed an accusing finger at Glow before it flew down to take care of the destroyed wrapstuff. In response, the girl dismissively stuck her tongue out at the Preserver and turned to her father: “But daddy, I wanna help!”
“You can help me, my little squirrel,” Rainpace assured her while he gently wrenched the sharp-edged piece of antler from her hands and put her down next to the little cave he had dug from the supplies. “Do you see the two square baskets down there? I have a feeling the bag is hidden behind them but I can’t reach through the gap.” Newt could tell, this was one of those white lies that came over all parents' lips with easy nonchalance. “But you are small enough to squeeze through and have a look.”
Right the instant the last words passed his lips Rainpace was aware of his mistake and flinched even before Glow opened her mouth.
“I am not too small!” the girl complained loudly, and stomped with her little foot on the floor. Both hands planted onto her hips, standing straight as a stick to make herself taller, she stared up to her father, determination in her eyes.
Newt almost laughed at the sight of little, pouting Glow, who was not at all intimidated by her tall father towering over her. Rainpace looked a bit clueless while obviously thinking about a change of strategy.
“Found it!” With this triumphant outcry Chicory released Rainpace from the uncomfortable situation at hand. Not only the trapper but also Newt sighed in relief, glad that the secret rummaging was finally coming to an end. But Glow’s pout increased. Obviously the girl had wanted to be the one who would find what they were looking for.
Chicory climbed down from the stacked baskets tower, a plain linen bag in her hand. Judging from the way she carried the bag it was not very heavy and when the objects in it bumped together they made a dull, wooden sound. His curiosity stirred, Newt stepped closer.
Gratefully Rainpace took the bag from his lovemate and — with an expectant look at Newt — carefully spilled its content on the solid trampled earth floor.
“Ocarinas!” Newt exclaimed.
Two handfuls of different sized, oblong-shaped ocarinas made from dark to light brown wood lay before them. Newt could easily tell from the form and the intricate patterns on the smooth surface that they were made by plantshapers. He admired the stylized leaves, butterflies and meaningless symbols, even noticed prints of teeth on the mouthpiece of a particular small one.
Rainpace grinned. “Yes. I had totally forgotten about them. They are popular once in a while and all us pipers and mostly all the cubs take a liking to them for a period of time. Then the cubs find something else to play with and us adults recall our other instruments and they get stored away again. Usually by the cubs’ parents themselves for some reason,” Rainpace’s grin turned mischievous.
“It has been a while since the last time one could hear the sound of ocarinas in every corner of the holt, though I think Moss still has one in his den. Securely hidden from the cubs, of course,” the trapper added.
His eyes still fixed on the lovely instruments, Newt felt Rainpace’s and Chicory’s eyes on him, waiting for a reaction. “I remember Cider playing one sometimes,” he finally whispered into the expectant silence, memories of his former tribemate flooding his head.
Oblivious to the change in mood that suddenly filled the den, Glow squeezed through her crouching parents and Newt, took a close look at the ocarinas and unerringly picked the biggest. Taking a deep breath, she blew into it, creating a horribly loud sound, which seemed to please her immensely.
Excited, she asked no one in particular: “Can I play with this?” Without waiting for confirmation she picked two other ocarinas, which surely were meant for Cinder and Rill, and started for the exit, clumsily trying to hold all three instruments in her little arms.
“Well, that was it then with quiet and contemplative holt life,” Chicory commented dryly, but could not hide a loving expression while she watched her daughter leave.
“When has it ever been ‘quiet and contemplative’ since those three were born?” Newt retorted, equally dry.
Making big eyes at him for this ready reply, Chicory laughed. “Fair enough!” Then she stood and brushed off her trousers. “Well, now that you got what you wanted, I can finally go look for the things I actually came down here for.” With this she left them and went around the corner into one of the other — probably tidy — storage dens.
Rainpace did not seem to notice her leave. He had picked up one of the ocarinas and tenderly stroked the smooth surface before he put it onto his lips and played a little melody. The sound of it was different than Newt's own flute, more lively, bright and somehow vibrant. Hearing it stirred even more memories of Cider and Rhythm in Newt, inevitably followed by memories of his parents, which made his heart ache despite the happy tune his friend played.
Shaking his head, Newt tried to chase away the dark thoughts, reminding himself to focus on the Now to keep the sadness at bay. It helped to concentrate on Rainpace’s fingers that confidently alternated between the holes of the instrument. His teacher tried four other ocarinas and finally put the second one into Newt's hand. “I’d say this one has the best sound. Also, the finger holes are close together and should fit better with your smaller hands.”
“For me?” Newt asked, sheepishly looking down at the dark brown, oval-formed ocarina in his hands. The elegant pattern on the surface resembled some kind of trailing plant with the different sized holes representing its blossoms.
“Yes, of course!” For an instant an insecure look flitted over Rainpace’s face, almost too quickly to notice. “Or don’t you want to try?”
“No, no... I mean, yes, I want to,” Newt hurried to answer. Relieved, the older elf clapped him on the shoulder, anticipation in his eyes.
Behind them Chicory came back from the depths of the storage dens, two sleeping furs in her arms. Rainpace grabbed her by the waist and pulled her closer. “Thanks for the help!” he said and kissed her forehead. Smiling, Chicory unfolded herself from her lovemate’s arm. “I better leave you to making some noise, now,” she said and started for the exit, through which her daughter had disappeared moments ago.
Passing Newt, the fisher stopped and added in a conspiratorial voice, “Don’t let him be too hard on you!” She smirked as if the image of Rainpace as a strict teacher was something hilarious. As an immediate retort to her impudence Rainpace clapped her on her rear, which made her squeak and stagger some steps. Giggling, Chicory moved on, exaggeratedly wiggling her beaten body part in some kind of final say.
Shaking his head in amusement, Rainpace turned back to Newt. “Shall we try it?”
Besides being eager to try the new instrument, Newt was equally interested in learning what had made Rainpace remember the ocarinas, especially so shortly after returning from a word-hunt. But before he could give a positive reply, the boy’s eyes got caught by the messed-up storage den and the angrily muttering Preserver in the corner, which was still occupied with giving several items an extra wrapstuff wrapping as a protection against curious little elves. “Yes... but shouldn’t we clear up the place first?”
“Naaah, we can do this later,” Rainpace declined the younger elf’s worries, put an arm around his shoulders and steered him to the exit. “First, let’s find out how the ocarina works for you.”
Sensing the youngster’s worries had not eased, Rainpace added, “And maybe you’re interested in its connection with the Amber-hunters?”
Now, Newt was all ears and willingly followed Rainpace out of the storage dens.
Rainpace and Newt settled not far from the Dentrees and the youngster impatiently waited for the story his flute teacher had promised. Rainpace was always willing to share his experiences and impressions from the word-hunts with Newt, so the touch of his sending was familiar. Due to Newt’s never-ending curiosity and his questions about the tiniest details, Rainpace had changed over to sending vivid images, and even scents and sounds along his words to give the youngster the feeling he was there himself. It was probably the closest Newt would ever get to the humans and he was grateful to Rainpace for making the effort each time after he came back from a word-hunt.
**I was on watch with Evervale — the plantshaper’s fresh and flowery scent, the warmth of her body next to him, tree bark under his fingers — very close to the humans' settlement —the peculiar, earthbound dens visible through leaves — and we observed Two-tone-Piper — a dark, lean Amber hunter; familiar; an older memory of him playing on a very big wind instrument; its alien double sound — and two cubs — a small girl with bushy auburn hair and a slightly taller, skinny boy.**
The more Rainpace tried to remember and pass on his memories of this day, the more choppy his talking in sending became. **The three humans sat together on the ground not far from the village’s border, talking. Two-tone-Piper took something from his pouch — a round object with some knobs at the side; as big as his hand; brightly colored — and gave it to the girl, who probably was not much older than Glow — the girl’s delighted face at the sight of the new toy— When she turned the object in her hands I finally recognized it — realization; sudden joy — it was an ocarina in the shape of a turtle. I never saw one as such before, but the holes did not leave any doubt. The boy also got one — curiosity written on the brown face — Two-tone-Piper played a lively melody on his own — an unknown rhythm; unusual flow; but the sound very familiar; the children enchanted; the boy clapping his hands — Eagerly the boy put his instrument on his lips and tried to play — skewed, shrill sounds — Two-tone-Piper stopped him immediately and started to play a scale, up and down, down and up, emphasizing the movement of his fingers on the different holes. After he did so several times he encouraged the cubs to follow his example — wary, disharmonious sounds of two instruments; skipped notes—** Rainpace’s sending ended with a picture of the girl’s face, which showed annoyance soon after the practice had started. The boy, however, had a determined look on his features.
Newt could not suppress a smile. How much he had hated practicing scales himself at the beginning of his flute playing.
Rainpace returned Newt’s grin, most likely remembering these times, too. “You see, another example for them being not so different from us.” Newt could hear something like pride in the word-hunter’s voice. He guessed those were the exact words Rainpace had used towards the always skeptical tribe members such as Brightwood or True Edge. Newt himself was not one of those who needed to be convinced.
“But their ocarinas look different,” Newt commented.
“True.” Rainpace nodded. “I don’t even think they are made from wood; burned clay more likely. But the sound is similar: bright and optimistic.” The trapper paused and gave Newt a speculative look. “Reminded me of you,” he added.
Newt could not help but blush, which deepened even more when he saw the fondness in Rainpace’s eyes.
Before he could recover, though, an angry sending from Windburn burst in his head and made him flinch. His teacher next to him, jumped, too. **Rainpace, Chicory, Newt, what in Wolfsister’s name did you do with the storage dens? Clean it up! Now!** Obviously Muckabout had given them away, or maybe just their scents that still lingered in the storage dens.
Newt was instantly on his feet but Rainpace put a hand on his shoulder. “No, you stay here and get familiar with the instrument. Find out if you like it.”
“But...” Newt started, and was immediately interrupted by the trapper.
“No, it was me who made the mess and I am going to clean it up. Besides,” he added, when Newt was still not convinced, “you remember the melody to ‘Mother Moon and Father Sun’?” The simple lullaby was the first song Newt had been taught by Rainpace on the flute. The youngster could play it in his sleep.
Rainpace did not even wait for a reply to his rhetorical question. “I want you to be able to play it when I come back. Error-free!” Newt laughed when Rainpace even stuck out his finger at him to emphasize his point but at the same time ruined his strict teacher attitude by grinning widely.
Affectionately ruffling Newt’s hair, Rainpace turned and walked back to the storage den. Half-way he met Chicory, who had climbed down from their den. Both of them were too far away for Newt to hear what they were talking about, but guessing by the exaggerated gesture Chicory made she was complaining about having to clean up, too. As a retort Rainpace just picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and dragged her with him. Chicory’s squeals and loud complaints were interrupted by breathless laughter.
Grinning to himself, Newt turned his attention to the ocarina in his hands again. Arranging his fingers on the unaccustomed instrument, he took a deep breath to gather his concentration and blew into it.