A story of Night Fires Holt
Inspired by, lyrics from, "Flatten the Grass", by Echo's Children
Disclaimer: Elfquest, © Wendy and Richard Pini. Night Fires Holt and all mentioned characters created by yours truly.
I find in the morning, three times out of ten
A patch of the grass has been flattened again
This isn't the bed of a horse or a steer
This hasn't been pasture for more than a year
I'm a young lady of savvy and charm
There isn't that much I don't know on the farm
How cats get their kittens, how clouds make it rain
I'll pester the grownups until they explain…
Firecrest encircled the patch of rugged undergrowth a third time, pacing slowly and carefully around it examining every flattened grass blade and every broken stalk and ruffled dirt. She was rather certain such patches couldn't grow like mushrooms did, and there were no mushrooms growing around the Dwelling Tree anyway, so the eight-years-old was facing a mystery of some depth.
"This is the third time in eight days," she noted.
Birdchaser, her curious bond, looked on quizzically as she crouched down, nose to ground, and surveyed the facts. The patch smelled of Elf – distinctly it smelled of Wingshine and Drumbeat, but that wasn't surprising, as Wingshine and Drumbeat could hardly be found apart anymore. It had no real shape that she could tell crawling its breadth and length, Birdchaser's snout at her ankles. Her knees and hands became damp with dew and brown with sodden earth and a stalk of grass or two found itself into her mane of hair, but for all that it could be seen she tried, she was no closer to untying the knot.
"They're popping up all over the Holt."
"Wuff," Birdchaser said.
"You think so? But then why would they smell of Elf. No, I don't think they're dangerous. They're just sort of… there."
Birdchaser scratched an itch over his right ear and buffed. Firecrest sat on her haunches, pried the leaves out of her hair and thought.
"They started appearing when my brother and Wingshine decided to den together. Maybe we should ask them?"
"No, I'm not giving up easy! I only think if Drumbeat is making patches of grass act strange around the Holt he should know about it!"
"Wuff," Birdchaser said adamantly. Firecrest stomped her foot.
"You're no fun."
Confused, the young Koyokan followed behind his bond as she walked off away from the offending patch of grass and back towards the Holt's main area, keeping a pace or two behind her. In his two years' experience as Firecrest's bond, he learned to love her very much, and also not to walk too close when she was upset or bored. Smiles greeted cub and bond as the girl marched purposefully past the Gathering Stone, but she paid mind to none of them. She was an Elf on a mission.
As Howlkeeper and Elder of his tribe, Snowdance cherished times of peace like this one, when he had no duties on his head and a chance to sit by the river and play his flute to none but himself, his bond and the sky. The sight of round green eyes amid the undergrowth wasn't about to shake him from his reverie, and he smiled pleasantly at Firecrest and invited her to sit by him.
"Greetings, cub, have you come to – "
"I have a question."
Snowdance blinked. As Howlkeeper and Elder of his tribe, he was not used to being interrupted in mid-sentence.
He shifted slightly where his sat and raked a hand through his icy-white hair and beard. "Well – yes?"
Firecrest wrinkled her little nose in deep, intense thought. She seemed to be phrasing the question she had very very carefully for some time.
"What makes patches of grass go all smushed?"
"… what?" Snowdance asked before he could help himself.
Firecrest wrapped her fingers about her toes and rocked left and right where she sat, thoughtful. Behind her, oblivious to the grand scheme of things as always, Birdchaser leapt around trying to snap his jaws down on fluttering moths.
"There's patches of grass that're popping up all around the Dwelling Tree. I find one almost every night now. They're all smushed and flattened like something slept there but they smell of my brother and Wingshine and I know they have their own den so I guess that couldn't be and also all the wolves are in their dens every day I know because I checked. So I thought maybe there's something no one's telling me."
A pause. It took Snowdance a moment to put together the details of her story, and another moment to regain enough control not to burst out laughing as soon as he opened his mouth to answer her.
He leaned back on the soft grass by the river and put the flute back to his mouth, amused by how Firecrest's eyes were growing from two moss-green almonds to a pair of moonlike ponds while he played. "It's a secret," he said sweetly. The girl-cub nearly exploded.
"Can you tell me, Howlkeeper? Please?"
"Do you promise not to spread it on?"
"Promise!" She nodded hard till bangs of hair fell into her eyes and fingered her short Warding Chain, twirling the golden beads about the string then grasping it full in her small fist to show how serious she was. Snowdance stretched back and lay an arm across his Koyokan's neck.
"I think you're too small for it," he said somberly. Firecrest let slip a tiny sound of despair.
"I'm eight full turns of the seasons!"
"That's not much. You've not even had your First Hunt yet…"
"I'll be good. I'll do anything!" She was moving to desperate tactics. "I'll keep my spear-tip chipped and sharp like Wildwind tells me to. Really. Every day."
"Really?" Snowdance frowned. Firecrest nodded eagerly, then beamed as he chuckled, and leaned closer to whisper in her ear.
"It's like this." His face-fur tickled her cheek. "Sometimes, just after dawn, when all the tribe has already gone to sleep, one or two Elves go out to do something very important. It has to be two of them, and they come out under all the stars, and together they start dancing. They dance on one patch of grass under the Dwelling Tree round and round till the sun comes high in the sky, and that's how they chase the rain away, so the sky would be clear for the rest of the day, and we don't have to trip over puddles when we wake up. It's a very important ritual, Firecrest, someday you'll see."
"Howlkeeper…" Firecrest murmured.
"It did rain. All day. Why do you think I'm all muddy?"
Snowdance paused. As Elder and Howlkeeper of his tribe, he wasn't quite used to this kind of turnout.
"Well – " he said feebly, his crysaline blue gaze darting here and there to avoid the firm inquisitive cubbish eyes on him. Then he shook his head and crossed his arms, striking an imposing figure against the night sky, as Preysnapper finally had enough of Birdchaser's antics and clamped her maw down on the pup's muzzle. "Maybe they just didn't dance very well. Now off to your knapping stones, cub!"
And, well, Firecrest did promise.
"My arms're hurting," Firecrest complained. Wildwind gave her an incredulous look under her arching eyebrows. She studied critically the spear-point under the knapping stone, and also the cub's arms, that – since Firecrest was quite strong for her eight turns – haven't hardly begun to go unsteady with strain yet.
"No they're not, you always say that," the Elder let her know. Firecrest considered arguing, but it was a lot easier to dream about getting up and leaving Wildwind with her knapping when off in her den than to actually do it under the weaponsmaker's eye. So she didn't, she just grumbled and went back to work. So much wasted mission time.
"It's not fair," was what she grumbled. "Snowdance didn't even tell me…"
"Told you what?"
"Umm…" Firecrest raised widely mischievous eyes from her knapping. Could it be? Taking a great risk in raising her head and hands from the knapping stones, she pointed across from the Dwelling Tree at the mysterious patch, where even now Birdchaser was loyally sticking his nose looking for clues. "See that patch?"
"Right as the river."
"How did it get there?"
Wildwind eyed her with disinterest. "It fell from the sky?"
Firecrest had to admit that was a very original answer.
"You, cub," Wildwind began, in that tone that told Firecrest she won't be stopping for quite some time now, "spend too much of your time sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, sniffing grassblades and dreaming shapes in the stars. Some more healthy knapping and knotwork would do you good. Who cares about patches of flat grass? They're there, it's the way of things, and we'd best keep ourselves busy and not worry about the – "
Firecrest took a deep breath until her small chest puffed big, and let it go in a lightning-quick chirp. "Sograssjustflattensitselfonitsown?"
That was a very, very risky gamble. If Wildwind thought she was playing stupid on purpose, she'd have the fur off her back. But if Wildwind thought she was just being stupid…
"You're being stupid, cub," Wildwind snapped, and Firecrest nearly fell over herself in relief. "Everyone knows the patches get made when a wolf decides to stargaze. It happens. They sit on the grass and look up and when they get up it's flat. For once your Birdchaser, all that mud on his fur clearly shows – "
Birdchaser raised his head. He knew what was coming and was wondering how fast he could scurry off, in a direction opposite of the river.
"Elder," Firecrest said patiently, "Birdchaser is muddy because he went hunting for worms with me. You find the best worms in the mud." Wildwind's mouth opened in a round 'O', but she didn't get to say anything before the girl continued. "And, Elder, I understand that wolves stargaze… but how do they do it during the day?"
Oops. Not very stupid now.
Wildwind had a lot of fur, which meant Firecrest couldn't quite see the shade of red the weaponsmaker turned, but she had a vivid imagination and could picture it. She started thinking very-very-small, very small Firecrest, nothing worth noticing, no –
"Knapping!" Wildwind bellowed, pointing a finger down at the stone. "And you'll scrub every hair on your pup clean and mend those tatters of leathers of yours and polish the spear tip again before you'll think of playing me for a fool!"
Not much more progress was made on the mission that night.
"'M falling asleep, Birdcatcer…"
Birdchaser was a good bond to his little fuzzy whirlwind. He loved her and would do anything for her. He hunted worms with her, he sniffed at the patch of grass and followed her fearlessly on her mission, he even stayed still when she scrubbed him with cold water, because he was a good bond to the end. But when he spied Drumbeat and Wingshine by the Dwelling Tree, an hour to dawn with Firecrest drooping on his back sleepy and exhausted, he paused before jarring her awake.
Birdchaser was a dainty young Koyokan. He did not relish the thought of more cold water. And that seemed to be where everything was leading this night.
Briefly he was torn and conflicted. He stood agonizing just out of the two's sight, Firecrest's breath rhythmic against his back, her feather-light weight warm, doubtlessly dreaming of patches of grass. Up ahead Drumbeat tucked a bloom behind Wingshine's ear and nuzzled her cheek as he whispered to her something that made her giggle. They were both in a good mood and forthcoming…
Oh, he could not betray her so… Birdchaser commended himself for his courage and abiding loyalty, and shook himself up, making Firecrest snap up, green eyes wide.
"Oooh" She said, and slid off Birdcatcer's back… he stood eyes closed, grinning, ready to accept her grateful hug around his neck… and ran off towards her brother and Wingshine.
A slick-furred young bravo, Drumbeat knew how to appreciate all life's joys, particularly, the creamy-furred, starry-eyed beauty putting her head down into the follow of his neck, a smile on her lips. It was a perfect moment. Soon he'll offer they indulge in a few Dreamberries, and slowly do away with the shawl he'd gifted her with a fortnight ago, and then they'll…
Drumbeat glanced up in horror. A ball of mud and auburn fur full of burrs and bristles was bounding towards him, fiery determination in bright green eyes. He wanted to scramble away, but without moving Wingshine so rudely, barely managed to hold up a hand to defend his face before his little sister was fully upon him, getting mud over everything.
"Oh my," Wingshine muttered under her breath.
Drumbeat picked his cub sister up by the scruff of her furry neck. "What are you doing here? How did you get so – so – "
"Dirty?" Firecrest beamed. "It rained so Birdchaser and I went hunting for worms but we found a patch of grass all smushed instead so I asked Snowdance but he sent me to knap and then I got dust all over me and I had to clean up Birdchaser and there was more mud and some fish and then leaves and I tried to mend my leathers but I don't think it went very well and I still don't know what makes those smushed patches, Drumbeat!"
"Smushed patches?" Drumbeat frowned, confused.
Firecrest nodded breathlessly.
Drumbeat and Wingshine exchanged looks. The pretty weaver held out her hands helplessly. Firecrest squirmed in her brother's grip.
"They're all – over – the – holt! I found one two nights ago, and another eight, and there's one appeared just tonight right under your den! Drumbeat! You're making grass go crazy!"
"Oh!" Wingshine said.
Drumbeat glanced at her. He did not let go.
"She means the places where we – "
"Oh," Drumbeat said.
He looked down at Firecrest.
"You want to know how the patches get all smushed, Firecrest?" He asked with a grin.
Firecrest wasn't sure she liked that grin. But she was so close. She nodded.
"Are you sure?"
Firecrest knew she was going to regret it. She nodded.
"Fine," and Drumbeat laughed as he and his wolf-friend as well bore down on her…
"… and then he grabbed me by the ankles and picked me up and put me down on the grass and made Stripling roll me on it over and over and over until it became all smushed," Firecrest finished her story with outmost seriousness.
Floodluck and Stoneskipper exchanged a mute gaze between them. There really was very little to add. Stoneskipper sighed and went to her daughter to start picking the leaves, twigs and dirt out of her fur and clothes.
"You get into the most unlikely trouble, Firecrest."
"But I was so close to finding out – !"
Floodluck sniggered, till his lifemate gave him a look. She sighed again. This was obviously going to take a bit more than a brushing. A bit more than a bath, even, maybe several baths.
Oh well. She supposed the two things inevitably went hand in hand.
She smiled as her Recognized swept their cub up into his arms, ruffling her auburn mane till bits of grass and an errant spider fell out of it, then tapping her nose. "Off to the river with you, cubling. Believe me, Firecrest," and he grinned slyly at Stoneskipper, then dodged her kicking boot with a laugh, "someday you'll know."
"Flatten the grass, flatten the grass
What are they doing to flatten the grass…"