"What are you doing?"
Vivace had stepped on a stick, alerting her to his presence. "The Queen said to protect you," he explained, waving a knife. "And I wanted to see you shoot."
Maebhe's nostrils flared in agitation. "I can take care of myself you know."
"My most grievous apologies, my dear- can you forgive this tone-deaf fool?"
"Tone-deaf would explain your choice of instrument," she muttered. He batted at her, pretending to be offended. "We need to be quiet so we don't scare off the game."
"Too bad there are no deer in this half of the forest," Vivace whispered. "Just small animals. We should talk to the queen about getting all this undergrowth cleared out when we get back."
Maebhe frowned. "You know, it's strange. I have hunted and hiked through this forest every year with my da and it has never been so dark and crowded with thorns as this."
"I wonder if this has anything to do with Evrahar," Vivace murmured thoughtfully.
Maebhe flapped a hand at him for silence. There was movement ahead. Vivace stayed back as Maebhe slowly walked closer. She shook her head and moved back to him. "I can't," she said apologetically. "It's a family of red foxes- oh!" A kit had trotted up to her with a pheasant in its mouth. He dropped it and barked at her. His parents came to stand behind him and watched her. The kit continued making sounds and she knelt with a hand out.
"I don't understand you, brother," she said sadly.
"Libba can! I'll be back-" Vivace bolted off toward the camp, a blur in the trees. He showed up again five minutes later, Libba beating on his fist.
"What do you want?!" the faerie demanded, about to take a bite out of his finger.
"Ouch, Libba, stop!" Vivace winced and opened his hand. "Here, just tell us what this kit has to say!"
She flew down to land in front of the little fox, her small voice echoed with the ringing of bells. "Hello, brother," she said. "Can we help you?"
The fox barked and yipped, pointing his nose at the pheasant and trotting over to Maebhe at different intervals. Finally he stopped and whined.
"He says his name is, well," Libba made a bark-like sound and the kit patted his paws on the ground. His mother barked at him and he sat still.
"He says Rosalie and Coperniko, the red fox gods, want to thank you," Libba continued. "Why?"
Maebhe sat on the ground and held out her hands for the young fox. "When an elf turns thirteen, he or she is sent out alone into the wilderness to find her spirit animal. We pray for nine days before for guidance. I assumed I would be called west to the ocean and my water brethren, since my magic speaks through the planet's life blood. Instead I was called east into this forest. I thought maybe it was in the lakes and streams I would find the connection, but instead I stumbled around the forest for days, unable to find any source of water.
"It scared me- I always knew where to find water, but my abilities failed me. I had to listen to the forest. I followed sounds I imagined for two days more and they led me to a den of foxes.
"Something had happened to them- the parents lay there broken and the pups were gone. The mother barked something at me and whimpered. I couldn't leave them like that- I knew only the barest amount about healing, but I had my bow and arrow. I could end them quickly, but something stopped me. I was faint with hunger and thirst and I knew the amount of energy it would take to heal them might kill me, but their suffering broke my heart and I tried.
"It took me hours, or maybe minutes- I think the fox gods worked through me, because I blacked out and dreamed of a location, a cave similar to the one we're sleeping in tonight. When I awoke, the foxes had brought me a vine full of grapes and led me to a stream. I drank and drank, thinking about the location. There was a map in my head. I thanked the foxes and left, following the mental map and found myself standing across from a troll den." Maebhe paused and scratched the kit behind the ears. "Well, the foxes got their pups back," she finished with a grim smile. "And the rest would offend the animal gods to say outright."
"You killed a troll?" Vivace asked, his eyes bugging out.
Maebhe buried her face in the kit's fur. "Of course I did, he stole their pups!" she said, her voice angry. "I shot him through the eye and I'll never regret it."
The male fox barked and Libba translated. "He says that he was one of the pups you saved."
The girl set the kit aside and stood to bow to his father. "It was an honor," she said. The older fox trotted over to her and nosed her hand, making throaty sounds.
"He says his son will go with you. He does not wish to send him off, but Rosalie promised them all long lives and a safe return. Coperniko said that he will be a great asset to your party...that...one less life will be lost if he goes with you..." she trailed off, a look of worry on her face.
Vivace stepped up. "Let's worry about things like that when the time comes," he said briskly. "Is this for us?" he asked, scooping up the pheasant.
The mother barked and trotted away. "She says you can have four of them," Libba said, puzzled. The followed the foxes and saw seven plump pheasants. "Oh my goodness!" Libba cried.
The father barked and yipped at them. "He says let his son stay this last night; he will join you in the morning. We should hurry back before the others come looking," she added, looking up at the rising moon. The faerie and elves thanked the foxes for the pheasants and rushed back to the campsite.
"Where have you been?!" Subito cried. "Drummer said to wait, but I was just about to come after you!"
"We weren't far at all," Maebhe said. "I just ran into some old friends. You probably would have heard us if the forest wasn't so dense."
"Come on, let's get this started," Drummer said, grabbing a bird from Vivace's hand. The boys started plucking them while Maebhe started throwing together a stew of the herbs and vegetables Subito had gathered into the pot of boiling water hanging over the campfire.
Once the birds were roasting and the pot was bubbling, they all sat back and sighed, impatient with hunger, but glad to rest.
"Can we stay here for another day or so?" Drummer asked, absent-mindedly tapping out a complex rhythm on a rock.
"I don't think the Queen meant you to use those like that," Subito said, eyeing the percussionists new drumsticks.
"I don't think she meant me to ever be this hungry either," Drummer replied.
"I can cook it faster," Vivace said. He stuck his hand in the fire, inciting a gasp from Maebhe. The fire got hotter, but it stayed the same height. He placed a finger on the spit the birds were on. "I raised the temperature of the food internally as well as externally, so another ten minutes and it will be safe to eat. The stew is done, though." He grasped the iron handle with his bare hand and sat it on the ground so it would stop boiling, then handed out bowls and spoons from his pack. "Ladies first," he said, carrying the pot over and ladling thick soup out into her bowl.
"So I guess fire is your element," Drummer said dryly when Vivace came over with food.
"I guess it is. We all know Subito is Earth, my darling Libba is Life, I know now that Miss Maebhe is water. That just leaves Aniko, Inina, Ylida, and...you." Vivace eyed him. "You don't seem too bright, so you're definitely not light."
Drummer threw his drumstick at him as the flautist walked away to give Subito his share. "I'm darkness, you pipe sucking-"
"Birds are done!"