Light peeked through the scant openings of the den leathers, which had been lashed tight to keep out the frigid night air. Though the ground had thawed a hand of days prior, the nights were still cool, and the previous one had brought a new frost. It had been the kind of night when an elf wanted nothing more than to bury down deep beneath the furs and up close to anyone else in a bedbowl.
Flint sensed Deertracker shifting behind him, and he heard Swan yawn loudly, then felt a cool draft as the cub scampered out of the bedbowl the three had shared and moved toward the door.
“Cub?” he asked groggily, wondering what the child wanted so early in the morning.
“Make water!” she said urgently, pulling at the leather straps that would open the door and allow her an exit.
He groaned. The day before had been warm enough that he had removed and washed the pots for such use, and he had left them to dry by the riverside, forgetting that he would be cubsitting. Now he had to get up.
“I’m coming,” he grumbled, wishing that he had not agreed to watching his half-sister so that their mother could go on a long-range hunt — the first such that she had been on since giving birth to the white-haired cubling three turns of the seasons before.
He was almost to the den-door when he scented urine and heard the little one say, “Uh-oh.”
“Swan!” he said with exasperation. “Why didn’t you wait? I was going to open the door for you.” He knew he was being harsh with her, that she was still just a tiny cub, but he hated messes, and a puddle of piss was not something he wanted to clean up first thing in the morning.
His tiny sister sniffed, and looked up at him with wide violet eyes that were filling with tears. “Me sorry.” The tears spilled over, and she wiped them away with her arm.
By that point, Deertracker was awake and called the cub to her. The huntress opened her arms wide, and Swan practically flew into them. Deertracker held her tightly and glared at him, lock-sending, **She couldn’t help it. She tried to get out of the den, but couldn’t. It was an accident. You agreed to care for her while your mother and her father were out hunting. That means showing her love even when she makes a mistake.**
He felt his ire rising. Though Deertracker was lovely in form and in bed, she knew how to irritate him, and often took pleasure in watching him get angry. Scowling, he unlaced the door hide, then went to get moss to clean up his small sister’s mess.
~~ Later that night, Swan was still upset about her accident, and Flint felt badly for her. It was raining, and cold, so he didn’t want to take her outside to play. Instead, he got out a bag of toss-stones and let her play with them. They were some of his favorite pieces — shaped by his father when he was a cub. Clayshard had used particularly colorful stones, and they were absolutely beautiful. Flint had shaped some in the wolf’s age since he developed his own rockshaping powers, but he had yet to make anything to rival his father’s work with stone — though he was improving.
“Uh-oh,” his sister’s doomed words had alerted him to the problem.
“What’s the matter, little Swan?” he’d asked, though his heart was already sinking as he had turned his attention back to her. He should have known better, he realized, than to let her play with them unsupervised.
“Rock. Belly,” she said as she looked up at him, pointing to her stomach.
He scanned the floor, taking stock of the stones. A stone the color of the daytime sky was gone, and Swan said it was in her belly. A part of him wanted to rage at her, but the look on her face only made him laugh.
“Me get sick?” she asked, worried.
“No, cub,” he answered, sitting down beside her and then scooping her into his lap to comfort her. “You’ll pass it in your dung, and then you can dig it out.”
“Give back?” she asked.
“Yes. You can give it back to me. Until then, though, let’s put these stones away, all right?”
She nodded, then helped him clean up her mess.
Two nights later, Swan was playing around the Dentrees with two of her brother’s young half-siblings, Dawn and Heron, as well as with her own half-sister, Sweetslip. Flint had gone to the river to gather stones to knap. The cubs were playing hide and find, and it was Swan’s turn to find the older cubs, but she had to relieve herself.
She called out, “I’ll be back,” and went to take care of business.
When she finished, she looked at the mess on the ground floor of the forest, and said to herself, “Stone in there. I give it back to Flint.”
Forgetting the game she’d been playing, Swan made use of some leaves and moss to gather up her dung, and carried it to her brother’s den.
Once she was there, she dropped it on the floor, then began using a leaf to spread the excrement. She spotted the stone her brother had told her would be there, and squealed with delight.
“Swan?” Heron’s voice called. “Are you up there, cub?”
“Me find it! Me find Flint’s rock!”
The oldest of the group of young elves entered the den, then took a step back. Swan looked up at him, smiling, her hand stretched out and holding a stinking brown rock.
“See?” Swan asked. “Flint be happy!”
“Oh?” Heron asked, not so sure.
“He say so! Me put with other rocks, then play more.” She turned and took a step, her booted foot landing in the spread out dung. She kept walking and then stood on the lip of the bedbowl, trying to reach the shelf above it.
Heron scooped her up, and she squealed, dropping the rock onto the furs beneath them. Carefully, he walked them out of the den and down to the forest floor. By that point, she was yelling at him.
“Put down! Put down now!” she cried.
Flint arrived at just that moment, his face scowling as he asked, “What are you doing with my littlest sister? Put her down!”
Dawn and Sweetslip came out of their hiding places and gathered behind Flint, wondering what was going on, and why Swan was so upset.
“Found rock for you! Put back! Heron grab me!” Swan cried, running to her brother’s arms. He circled her in a hug, his nose wrinkling at the scent that came with her. She’d have gone to Sweetslip, but Flint was closer.
Heron spoke quietly to Flint, “There’s dung on the floor of your den. She stepped in it, and she was going to step onto your bedfurs. I stopped her and brought her out before your den could get any more messy than it already is.”
At that, Flint scowled, and held Swan at arm’s length. “There’s dung on the floor of my den?” he asked her, wondering if she’d had another accident.
The cub nodded, but tried to explain. “Me had to GO, so did. ‘Membered the rock. Took to den to find it.”
Flint groaned. “You carried your dung to my den?”
“Found rock, like you say so! Try put back, but him stop me,” Swan was crying at this point.
“Where’s the rock, little one?” he asked, trying to keep his composure. He couldn’t help but think about the mess in his den, though, and was frowning.
“Dropped on furs,” she said simply. “Wanna see?”
Flint sucked in and held his breath. Nodding, he picked the cub up and started up the stairs. Pausing for a moment, he turned and lock-sent to the three who had been watching Swan, **Thanks so much for watching my sister. Heron, at near four hands turns of the seasons, I’d expected more of you. Sweetslip, you’re a season or two older, and Swan’s your little sister! Dawn, you’re younger than they are, so I don’t hold you as responsible. This time. Still, I’ll be sure to pay you all back sometime soon.** There was an ominous promise of mischief to come, and he smiled to himself at their expressions, especially at Dawn’s, who looked particularly worried.
Ideas already forming in his mind, he carried his little sister up to his den, cringing at the smell that greeted him as he entered. He set Swan down, who ran across to the bedbowl and leaned over, grabbing at the rock. She lifted it and proudly carried it to him, saying, “See! Me find it!”
He knew he had to accept the gift, and reluctantly held out his hand allowing her to place the stone in it. Once she had handed it over, Swan looked around, saying “Ewww. Smelly!”
“I agree. I think we should clean up your mess,” he said, trying to focus more on his plans for her watchers than on the task at hand. “What do you think we need to clean it all up with?”
Swan clapped her hands and jumped. “Water.”
“Yes. Anything else?” he asked.
“Soap?” she inquired.
He nodded. “And moss. Lots of moss, little one. Why don’t you go and gather it? I’ll be down in a moment.”
She hugged him, then, and headed down the steps to find some moss. He stood there a moment, thinking about the rock in his hands, then set it on the shelf next to his bag of special toss-stones. He would clean it later. Now, he had to go and help his sister gather moss, water and soap.
That night, a newly-bathed Flint and freshly-scrubbed Swan settled into his bedbowl in his clean-again den. It had been a lot of work, but together, they had accomplished it. Flint wondered whether the next day would be as messy — it seemed to him that life with a cub was one mess after another. He closed his eyes, and before he could think about messes any more, he fell asleep.