Spring Cleansing

Written by Wordgazer

It was raining– a warm, spring rain that washed over the budding leaves and trickled down to the roots of the new flower shoots– a steady fall that soaked everything more thoroughly than seemed possible for a rain so soft and quiet.

Strongbow sat in his den in the gathering dusk, mending arrows. His dark hair swung forward over his face as he bent over his work in fierce concentration. The chittering of a new family of treewees in a nearby tree hollow didn’t cause him to take any visible notice. The male treewee, foraging for food for his offspring, jumped onto the Father Tree and ran down to the forest floor, as if knowing no elf would hunt him while his family needed him. Strongbow paid no attention.

He remained fixed on the task before him till the branches outside his den shook, and Bearclaw and Treestump climbed in. They were, of course, dripping wet. Strongbow turned so that the arrow in his hands wouldn’t get dripped on, and continued to work as if his chief and tribemate were not there.

“Come hunting with us, Strongbow,” Bearclaw invited.

Strongbow didn’t look up. *No.*

Treestump put a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “Strongbow, it’s been almost a full turn of the seasons since Crescent. . .” He trailed off. The archer’s tight shoulders had hardened to stone at his lost daughter’s name. “Come fishing, then,” he finished lamely.

Bearclaw glanced at him, then nodded. “In this rain the fish will be jumping like mad.”

Strongbow’s head at last came up. He looked at them without expression. *Fishing. In the rain.*

Treestump laughed uncomfortably. “I know it’s not your usual thing, but hey, it’s good to do something new now and then, right?”

No, said Strongbow’s shoulders.

Bearclaw took hold of the archer’s arms. “Strongbow. Crescent’s gone. It’s time to start living again.”

Strongbow wrenched himself out of Bearclaw’s grip. “What do you know about it?!” he shouted. “Have you ever lost a cub?”

Bearclaw nodded grimly. “Several, in fact.”

Strongbow stared at him. The moment lengthened.

“Well?” Bearclaw said at last. “You coming?”

*No.*

Now it was Bearclaw’s turn to shout. “Why, you stubborn, thick-headed, rock-skulled–”

Treestump put a hand on his arm. “Easy, my chief.”

Their eyes met. Bearclaw took a deep breath, then turned back to Strongbow. “All right, then. Strongbow, I command you to come fishing. Now.”

Strongbow’s lips tightened. Then, slowly, his head bent. *My chief.*

Soft rain washed warm over his leathers as Strongbow followed his chief towards where the river formed a large pool. He hefted the short spear Bearclaw had lent him, wondering morosely how many fish he’d have to catch before they’d let him go back to his den. He thought of sending to Moonshade to tell her where he was going, and decided to wait till he got there.

Muffled laughter and small squeals were coming from the pool. When Strongbow, Bearclaw and Treestump arrived at the water, they found that the fishes’ domain had been invaded by two lithe elf forms which were struggling in the water together, wet hair slapping the surface as they rolled and grappled. Apparently, Joyleaf and Rillfisher were trying to discover which could trap the other under water the longest. Moonshade was standing nearby, up to her waist in the water, somberly watching the other two maidens play. In spite of his mood, Strongbow couldn’t help feeling appreciation at the sight of her. The dusky, fading light gleamed on her wet arms and left shadows in her hair, turning the water the same color as her eyes. Grief had only made her more beautiful.

Bearclaw halted, looking in disgust at the fishless, rain-plashed pool, as Rillfisher and Joyleaf broke apart, giggling. “What madness is this?!” he snapped. “You’ve scared all the fish!”

“It’s new-green madness, old Badger.” Joyleaf lifted a flirtatious eyebrow and gave him a sidelong glance. “Anyway, we’ve got enough fish.” She indicated a small pile on the opposite bank. “I doubt you could have done better.”

Bearclaw pretended to scowl. “We’ll never know now, will we?”

“Come swim, lovemate,” Rillfisher called throatily to Treestump.

He grinned. “Don’t mind if I do.”

“What about the fish we wanted to catch?” Bearclaw insisted, folding his arms and glaring at his lifemate.

She giggled again. “Catch us instead!” She and Rillfisher dove as one and darted away across the pool. Bearclaw lost all pretence of sternness. He chuckled. Since it was impossible for his leathers to get any wetter, he left them on, as the elf maidens had theirs, and waded after them. Treestump followed him.

Strongbow and Moonshade were left gazing at each other. She regarded him silently a moment. Then she said, “So they dragged you out here, too?”

He nodded. Rain was running through his soaked hair and into his eyes. He blinked savagely. *Might as well clean those fish.* He waded into the pool towards the pile of fish on the far bank, holding his borrowed spear over his head. Moonshade leaned into the water and glided after him.

Just as they reached the bank, laughter and shouts heralded the return of the others. Bearclaw, wading towards them in the shallows, was clutching a fat fish in both hands. Its silver scales gleamed as he held it up. “I caught one after all!” he shouted jovially.

The fish was still alive and unharmed. It wriggled resentfully as Bearclaw, grinning fiendishly, held it to the top of his head. “I’m a fish-head!” he yelled. He lowered the fish, holding it in front of his face, its eyes staring outward between his own. “Fish-face!”

Moonshade shook her head. *Too much dreamberry wine. He’s acting like a silly cub.*

Strongbow gazed bemusedly at his chief, who was now dancing in circles in the pool, with the fish held straight out in front of him. He shook his head. *There’s no scent of wine on him.*

Joyleaf and Rillfisher, clutching each other, had dissolved into helpless laughter as Bearclaw clowned shamelessly. Treestump, hands on his hips, threw his head back and guffawed.

Strongbow glanced at Moonshade. Her face, so somber since Crescent’s death, was soft with amusement. She was almost smiling. He felt a tiny smile growing on his own face.

*He’s doing it for us, Wyl. To make us laugh.*

*I know.*

Bearclaw now (deliberately or otherwise) lost his grip on the fish. It flapped its way out of his arms and over his head, whipping him in the face as it fell back into the water. Losing his balance, Bearclaw sat down with a huge splash, gasped as his head went under, then surged back out of the water, shaking drops from his hair all over Joyleaf. Though she was already as wet as it was possible to be, Joyleaf made a show of fending off the water that had joined the rain running down her face. Treestump roared with laughter as Joyleaf shook her finger at Bearclaw. “Behave yourself, cub!” she quipped. Rillfisher tittered.

Strongbow found that he was really smiling. So was Moonshade. They reached out for one another and took hands. Strongbow shook his head slowly at Bearclaw, then glanced towards the pile of fish on the bank. *Looks like you let the only big one get away,* he sent.

The other four elves exchanged looks of triumph at the amusement in his mind-voice. Strongbow didn’t care. A warm feeling, from what they were trying to do, had crept over him. *Look at you!* he sent. *None of you even knows when to get in out of the rain!*

Bearclaw grinned widely. He, Joyleaf, Treestump and Rillfisher watched affectionately as the archer and his lifemate waded away together.