The forest began to thin as Beetle and Willow approached the southern side of the Broad Meadow on wolf-back. The two had been out riding together all morning, and had wound up here, close to the Holt, just as the sun was reaching its peak. A cool breeze made the tall, brownish grass and yellow and white wildflowers ripple in waves.
“Look,” Willow said, gesturing out toward the north. “Rabbits. And lots of them. We'll sleep with full bellies tonight, and we’ll have meat and furs to bring back to the Holt, too. And I’ll bring one back for Sky.” Willow’s old wolf-bond was too old and achey to ride anymore, so she had brought unbonded Murkfur with her this evening. She grinned and unwrapped her sling from her left arm, then looked over at Beetle with eyes twinkling. “Race you to see who can get a hand of them the quickest?”
Beetle grinned in response and pulled her bow over her head. Willow nudged Murkfur forward and the pair took off, running. Beetle studied the area, looking for a choice rabbit to shoot. When Willow and Murkfur bounded over a patch of flowers, Beetle was distracted by dozens of fluttering wings. Butterflies — some red, some blue, and others orange — flitted upward, then settled back down after the disturbance had passed.
Beetle lowered her bow, competition forgotten for a moment. The sounds of Willow's gleeful hunt-race faded into the recesses of Beetle's mind as she focused in on the butterflies. Rooter must have sensed the change, for she sent **many small winged bugs. friend looking longer?** Beetle smiled. Rooter always seemed to understand Beetle's curiosity. The wolf was almost as curious. Slowly, rider and mount moved toward the patch of flowers, then Rooter crouched so that Beetle could silently slide off. Beetle crept forward, moving as quietly as possible, hoping to get close enough to the winged creatures who had captured her fascination since cubhood.
Beetle found a comfortable position on a large stone and crawled onto it, happy to note that it was almost surrounded with flowers and butterflies. She lay on her stomach and looked down. A large orange and black butterfly was flitting its wings as it perched on a wildflower. She might be able to reach down and touch it, she realized. Slowly, holding her breath, Beetle reached out. Her hand was almost around it when a sound distracted her, she moved too quickly, and the butterfly flew to a flower further away.
Beetle looked behind her. Willow and Murkfur were there. Willow had her four rabbits in hand, and she slid down from the wolf’s back.
“No rabbits at all? C'mon, Beetle, you didn't just let me win that one, did you?” When Beetle turned back toward the patch of flowers and reached out to touch another of the insects, Willow climbed up to where Beetle was, set her catch down on the ground in front of her to keep it away from the hungry, unbonded wolf, and then squatted down next to her lovemate. “What's so interesting about butterflies?” she asked. Beetle couldn't tell if Willow's tone was irritated or amused.
She chose not to worry. Few of her tribemates had ever asked about her interest in butterflies, so she was happy to share what it was that fascinated her. "I remember the first time I ever saw one. I couldn't have been even a hand of turns old. Mother had taken me to the field near Badger's Lake. There were flowers everywhere, and I ran toward them. All of a sudden, the flowers were flying all around me. They were beautiful. Mother explained they were butterflies.”
Beetle smiled to herself, lost for the moment in memory. Blinking, she looked at Willow, then continued, "I tried to catch one that day, but I couldn't. Another day, Father and I were out walking, and we found one — it was dead. Most of the colors were gone, though. When I picked it up and looked at it, the wing was almost like a skeleton. It was like brittle hairs forming a base - but something was missing. I got curious. What was it that filled the wings? And what made it fall off? I figured I'd have to catch one, to touch it... but I haven't been able to. So I watched them. For years I watched them. And one day, I noticed a sort of dust on them. I wondered what it was — and I still wonder. If I could gather some of the dust, well, maybe I'd understand more. But... I've never been able to touch the wings - even though I've been so close!"
Beetle blushed. The return of the Fierce Ones just this past spring had chased the idea away for a time. She wondered if Willow thought she was foolish for even thinking about it now. Looking to Willow's catch of rabbits, Beetle had to think that maybe she was. If butterflies could distract her from finding food.... She shook her head. "I didn't let you win. I hope you know me better than that. I just got... distracted."
Willow didn’t look upset in the least. Instead, the healer shrugged and smiled.
Beetle sat there a moment, looking at Willow and glancing occasionally to the flowers. A thought hit her. "Willow... you're a bee charmer. Maybe you could... charm the butterflies." Nodding, Beetle sat up. "Actually, I think you could! Maybe you could get one to hold still enough for me to brush some of the wing dust off. What do you think?"
Willow's brows lowered, and she looked at one of the colorful insects that had perched nearby. “Never was able to let anyone else near the bees,” she said, extending a finger toward the butterfly. “Not without them getting stung. Don't know why that is.” She bumped the bug's belly with her finger and, after a moment, it crawled up onto it.
Willow tried to bring the butterfly closer to Beetle, but the movement made the insect unsure, and it began to flutter its wings as if it were about to fly away. Willow exhaled slowly. “No, don't think I can bring it to you without clamping down its legs and hurting it. But you wanted... what, wing dust?” Without waiting for an answer, Willow brought her other hand upward and lightly brushed an index finger over the butterfly's wing. “This stuff?” she said, holding out her hand for Beetle to inspect.
Beetle's jaw dropped. What she had been trying to do for so long, Willow had done without batting an eyelash. Beetle stared at the dust on Willow's finger, then asked, "Could you get more?"
Willow nodded, then brushed another finger along the other side of the same wing. There was now dust on two of Willow's fingers. Beetle stared, then looked at the butterfly. Its wings twitched. Beetle saw a hole of light. "The wing... part of it's gone!" she said in awe.
They stared at the wing, and then Beetle reached to hold Willow's hand. Taking it in her own, she looked at Willow's index finger and studied the dust. "I shouldn't try that anymore," she said, almost as if to herself. "It's not dust--it's what the wing's made of all together!" She felt sadness. "I... it's hurt, I think. It wasn't what I intended... I didn't know."
Willow frowned. “No, you didn't know. Neither of us did.” She lifted her hand back to the wildflower patch and let the butterfly crawl back up onto a flower petal. The butterfly tested its wings and flew away, but it could not get far before it clumsily lighted down on another, nearby leaf. “It’ll be easy prey for the birds now.” Then, after a pause, she said, “Sometimes we have to learn the hard way.”
Beetle considered Willow's words, then added, "I feel badly for the butterfly, but hurting it wasn't intentional. Now that I know... lesson learned."
Willow grunted — an affirmation of sorts, Beetle supposed — then dusted off her hands and stooped down to pick up the rabbits. “Let's get these back to the Holt so we can eat.”
Beetle’s stomach growled in response, and she made her way off the rock and over to Rooter. “Race you back?” she asked her lovemate with a smile.
“Definitely,” Willow responded. She leapt onto Murkfur’s back and urged him toward the Holt at a run.