The Braided River purred. Late snowmelt filled it to brim, already temperate and clear after flowing the length of the Clickdeer, and ferns fat on springtime rushes dipped long leaves along its banks. Pebbles occasionally lost themselves in the course; the river nipped at its banks, nibbling away loose ground. The mud was heavy and dark like a richly ripened fruit.
“Sit still,” Chicory said.
Windburn crouched, balanced on his toes. The ground underneath him was relatively dry, yet still muggy to a persistent touch, making his footing vaguely uneasy. While Chicory plunged right in to her ankles, her bare feet as black as the shoes she discarded, her elder brother could at least credit himself with trying to keep his leathers clean.
He padded in place. “I washed these breeches just today.”
“The river doesn’t keep track of what you wash when,” Chicory answered dryly, in rough imitation of Blacksnake. Windburn scoffed, the slid out of his remaining clothes and flung them at her. Would she catch them, or –
Chicory dodged, and the clean breeches landed just shy of the river itself. She giggled. “I should hate you,” Windburn muttered under his breath.
“No one can hate me,” his sister replied in sing-song. She crept through the mud towards him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Now sit still.”
Her fingers were cool and slick and sticky and poking. Without thinking of it, Windburn raised his own hand and placed it against hers, warm and cool like the springtime weather. “One of those nights,” Chicory mused, “one of those nights your shoulders would start creaking then turn into wood.”
Windburn glanced back in surprise. “That can’t happen.”
“Maybe not wood, but they can creak. Hear them creaking?” She grabbed his arm and pulled at it until he visibly winced. “I heard it. Your bones are making noises.”
The truth was that Windburn heard it too.
“I’ve had… these were eight long nights,” he said softly. “Between the spring floods… new-green hunting…”
“And mating season,” Chicory said airily.
“I’m tired,” her chief-brother said, with a shrug that made his shoulders creak some more.
Chicory’s fingers poked into the sensitive spot between neck and shoulder blade, wresting a wince of pain. The muscle was as stiff and hard as the bone beneath it. “You’re always tired.”
Windburn gave a slow, solemn nod. Which was Chicory’s cue, really.
She scooped up two handfuls of river mud – rich, dark, cool river mud, as thick as snow, as soft as newly sprouted grass. She raised her hands and let it slosh down over Windburn’s too-taut neck and back and shoulders.
Her brother let out a long sigh.
Chicory grinned, the mud stains on her cheeks making it a strange and dreamy expression. She began to work her small and able fingers through the cover of mud, rubbing the soothingly moist slosh against and into sore muscles. The mud eased the chaff of skin against skin, turned even the most aggressive of rubs coolly pleasant. By now, Windburn’s back was a uniform brown, the coat over his shoulders thick like a pelt. His dark red hair now had darker brown tips in an odd mirror image of his daughter’s.
His chin was slowly dropping down on his chest.
Chicory rubbed harder. She knew better than to spare him – Notch would be complaining of her cruelty to high heaven by now, and with Crackle she didn’t dare massage the half-grown bones too hard, but Windburn took it all in his characteristic stoic silence. It was a good pain, after all. Nobody knew necessary pain as well as the chief.
She cheerfully noted that he was fast asleep.
The Braided River purred. Chicory thought to herself that it would take her a good while to work all the knots at her poor brother’s back, but she hummed with the frog-song and enjoyed the feeling of mud sloshing against her hands.
They shared something, and that was all that really mattered.