There was something odd, colorfully shimmery, in the small lake far below them, right at the shoreline. The three children circled, then dove downward toward it. Orchid arrived first, as always, her tiny size and restless drive had already built up her wings to the point where she could nearly keep up with an adult in a long-distance fly. She hovered over the contraption, waiting for Cirrus and Frog to catch up. The thing in the water was a soft, fine-weave net, snagged carefully between some rocks, with more rocks on the bottom edge. It defined an area about the size of a playpen. And swimming happily inside, completely submerged in the water, was—
“What’s that?” Frog landed carefully at the water’s edge.
“A baby.” Orchid’s mother was a healer, and a traveler. So Orchid knew things.
“But it has no wings!” Cirrus landed and stuck her finger into the water, and the baby swam right over and grabbed it. The hand was tiny, with long, webbed fingers. Cirrus touched the webbing with her other hand. “Unless you count between the fingers.”
“And toes,” said Frog. “It won’t fly far with those tiny wings.”
“It’s not a Windborn baby,” Orchid said scornfully. “It’s a Lakeborn baby. Or maybe a Seaborn—my Ma would know.” She hated admitting she wasn’t sure of something, and quickly added something she was certain of. “Those aren’t for flying, they’re for swimming.”
Cirrus reached down and lifted the baby up into her wings, giving them a clear view of his naked body. He let out a shuddery wail that stopped abruptly and didn’t start again.
“Put him down!” Orchid yelled. “He’ll drown out here!”
“What?” Cirrus just stood with the dripping baby, whose face was getting red, so Orchid plucked him from her wings, and plunged him back into the water, where he swam to the far side of his net, looking scared.
“Lakeborn babies can’t breathe air. Not until they’re old enough to walk.”
The other girls stared at the tiny boy, looking puzzled. Cirrus stuck her finger in the water again, “I’m sorry, boy, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
But now the baby was having nothing to do with her. Watching him try to hide from them seemed cruel, so they walked a few paces away.
“So, where’s his Mama?”
Orchid thought that was an excellent question. The lake was tiny, and clear. She was pretty sure she’d have seen the mother in it before they landed, if she’d been there. And in any case, mothers didn’t normally leave their infants alone; any adult nearby should have heard them and come running upon hearing them talking about him, or at least when the baby cried. “Let’s see if we can find her!” She launched herself into the air, followed by her friends. They split up, Frog skimming low, over the lake; Cirrus soaring high—her distance vision was better than anybody’s—and Orchid flying up just above the trees, to search the area near the baby.
It didn’t take long before Orchid saw her, sprawled on the ground, some kind of leaves in her outstretched hand. Like the windborn girls, she was nude, though her short, wide tail curled protectively forward, through her legs and up under her belly. Unlike them, her skin, except for her eyebrows and the top of her head, was hairless; it looked dry and flaky, and awfully red. Orchid whistled, high and sharp. *Come here, quick.* She landed by the woman, touched her hot face with one toe. The woman’s breathing sounded bad, and she didn’t react to being touched.
Orchid shook her head. The woman was in trouble.
The other girls landed. “Is she OK?” Frog looked doubtful.
“No, clearly she’s not. We have to get her to the lake. You take her legs, I’ll take her shoulders.” The girls all got into position, and grabbed hold of the woman, wrapping their main toes under her arms and legs, and gripping the top with the rear toe. Her hot flesh split and started to bleed on one shoulder when Orchid got a tight grip, but there was no helping that now. “OK, up!” The girls had practiced carrying things together before—blankets of apples or herbs—so their wings beat downward in unison as they leaped up, into the sky. The woman was heavy, they barely got airborn. Thank goodness it was only a couple dozen feet to the lake.
“When we get there” Orchid breathed in, “Hover at the edge for a moment,” another breath, ”then drop her legs in.” That would be the hardest part. She needed to get the woman mostly in the water, for her skin’s sake and to cool her off, but not so far in that she couldn’t tend her, and drag her out if it seemed necessary.
“’Kay” panted Frog. Cirrus only nodded.
Orchid strained to hover while the other girls dropped the legs into the lake, and strained harder to fly backward just a bit, to position the woman as she wanted her. She sank gratefully down to the shore, with the woman’s face and shoulders on the sandy bank.
“My Ma will know what to do. You two have to go get her.”
“And leave you here alone?” It was almost a wail from Frog.
Orchid gestured to the woman. “She could die! And her baby—“ she stopped. “Go, get my Ma. Now. Hurry! Fly!”
Used to following her lead, the other two leapt into the sky.
Looking at the woman’s red skin, Orchid remembered that some forms could get burns from sunlight, so she went into the woods to grab some large-leafed plants, which she laid over the woman to shade her at least a little from the sun. It wasn’t very effective, so she settled on the sand and spread her wings wide. The sun couldn’t hurt her, after all.
Finally, there was nothing else she could do, besides wait. Oh, how she hated waiting!
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