Orchid’s chin started to itch, so she squirmed to reach one toe-claw upward to scratch. She’d been waiting for far too long. “Be fair,” she muttered. “Cirrus and Frog can’t fly as fast as you can, and though we flew into a headwind to get here, the wind might have shifted.” She looked at the angle of the sun. It had only been about an hour. A long, boring hour, with nothing to do but watch the woman’s cut form a messy scab. And watch the baby, just a few feet away, swimming in its enclosure.
Realistically, her friends were probably just arriving at her house. If she was lucky, they’d be talking with her mother right now. She tried to remember her mother’s plans for the day. Would she be home? Of course, a healer’s plans often got disrupted—
Orchid looked down at the lakeborn woman, who was lying mostly in the water. Where she was in the water, her skin looked less red and flaky. Her eyes were still closed.
“Um,” Orchid didn’t know what to call her, or what to say. ‘Are you all right’ was a dumb question, which she’d already pointed out to Frog. “We found you on the ground, in the sun.”
“Ow.” The woman’s eyes opened, but looked weird and filmy. Her voice was rough and hoarse. “Water—“
“Yes, we brought you back to the water,” Orchid broke off as the woman tried to wiggle further into the water. “Hold still, you’re hurt! I sent my friends to get my mother, she’s a healer.”
“Drink?” The woman closed her eyes again, tired out by that minor effort.
“Oh, sure. Um. Keep your eyes closed.” Windborn feet were agile and strong, but did not make a good cup. Orchid folded her wings for a moment to relax the muscles, then used one to scoop up some water. “Here.” She directed a trickle into the woman’s mouth, only splashing her face a little.
Orchid settled back down to being a sun-shade, but the woman’s eyes flew open again. This time, Orchid saw that she had two sets of lids, because both opened, showing her eyes to be a startling, bright green. “Minnow! And Mud—“
“Your baby is fine, he’s in the net just like you left him.”
“Mud? There’s sand here,” Orchid was confused.
“No. Mud—daughter. Woodborn, three years old.” The woman surged into a sitting position, and moaned as her head moved into the sun. “I’ve got to find her!”
“No. You can’t. You’re sick.”
The woman tried to stand, then fell down into the water, her head submerging. Orchid stood, started to reach for her, though she knew she couldn’t lift her alone, but the woman lifted her head out of the water, just barely enough to talk. She looked a little more clear-headed.
“You—you’re just a little kid yourself!”
“I’m Orchid.” Orchid stood as tall as she could. “I’m not a little kid! I’m 8. Almost.” She spread her wings again and moved to shade the woman again.
“I’m Coral.” The woman looked around wildly, but then deliberately smiled at Orchid. “How did you get me to the water?”
“My two friends and I lifted you. I’m sorry I scratched you.” Orchid pointed at the woman’s bloody shoulder with one foot.
“No, you did right. Lakeborns get sick if we get too dried out. And you’re right, I’m not up to leaving the water to look for Mud yet. But I’m worried—”
“I can look for her!”
“You won’t get lost?”
“Of course not. I’ll fly.” Orchid leapt into the air and hovered over Coral and the baby, already looking toward where they’d found the mother. “It’s easy to see where you’re going from up here. But will you be OK? If you go underwater, I don’t think even my Mom could go down to get you.”
“I’ll go over by my baby, under that tree to keep the sun off. You shaded me too, didn’t you? With your wings?”
“That must have been tiring.”
“Nah, that was easy.” Boring, but even easier than flying.
“Still, thank you.”
Embarrassed, Orchid whistled *welcome*, and flew off to look for the child. It wasn’t until she reached where they’d found the woman that she realized she didn’t know if the woman knew the windborns’ whistle-talk.
She walked all around the clearing where they’d found the woman. There was a net full of leaves, and a berry bush with no ripe berries down low, but no little one. She picked up the net, tying it shut and then around her waist to take to Coral, then rose up to fly in circles around the area.
“Mud,” she called. “Mud, where are you?” But there was no answer.
She hovered, picking a few berries from the tops of the bushes with her toes and munching on them. If she was a woodborn little, where would she go? With a lakeborn mother, she probably was pretty good at swimming, but got to do that all the time. And with a new baby brother who couldn’t breathe air yet, she was probably sick of the water. Orchid had seen plenty of tantrums when her mother was visiting newborns; she knew that kids that age often felt ignored when there was a new baby. There was this one boy—“Mud” she interrupted her thoughts aloud. “Got to find Mud. Stop daydreaming.”
Mud couldn’t fly, but woodborns could climb before they could walk. Almost anywhere windborns could fly to they could get to too, if not quite as quickly. So, if she were a bored woodborn little, with a stomach full of berries, she figured she’d head for a tree. Hopefully she didn’t get far before she tired herself out, and with a full belly, fell asleep.
Orchid landed again, and sat down by the berry bush, looking up at the trees, trying to imagine which one would look comfortable--or interesting--to Mud. There were some tall oaks and maples, a few apple trees with tiny, very green apples, and a stand of hawthorns. She saw two birds’ nests, and leapt to her wings to check them out. She found some baby chicks, and an angry blue-jay mother, but no little girl. And she didn’t see any claw marks on those trees.
She flew around from tree to tree for a while, calling Mud’s name, but all the trees she could easily fly around were likewise empty of small humans, and totally lacking in human claw marks.
Reluctantly, she looked at the stand of hawthorns, eight or nine trees grown so close to each other that their branches tangled together. Their very thorny branches. And the spikes sticking out from the trunk and branches were both long and sharp.
Orchid flew as close as she dared, around the whole clump of hawthorns, looking to see if she could see the child from the air. No luck. So then she landed in the clearing, near them, untied the net from her waist, and folded her wings as close to her body as she could. With a deep breath, she called again. No answer. If the girl was in there, she was either hurt, sound asleep, or afraid to answer.
“Mud, come on. Your Mom, Coral, misses you.”
Checking again to see that her wings were folded in as close to her body as possible, Orchid stepped forward between the first two trees, moving carefully to keep her wings from snagging on any thorns. She walked as far around each tree as she could, looking back and forth between where she would step next to up in the trees.
“Mud, can you hear me?” She called as loudly as she could, knowing that if the girl were high enough into the leaves she wouldn’t see her. “Mud? Mud, where are you?”
She moved on to the next pair of trees, and then a really big one in the middle. “Mud?”
Finally, she heard a tiny sound, and rounded the big tree, scraping her elbow on a thorn. “Ow!” At her feet was one of the berries, splattered on the ground; another was speared on a thorn well above her head. And way up—well, hardly at all upward, if she dared just fly there, only four or five times as high as her father’s height—she spotted some mottled grey and beige that didn’t match the tree’s colors, the long, sturdy prehensile tail of a woodborn child, held out between branches away from the thorns.
“Mud, come down from there!”
The tail vanished in the leaves.
“Mud, your mother, Coral, asked me to bring you to her.”
“Who—“ A little voice, with a tremor. “Who are you?”
“Come on down. Your Mom wants you.”
“I’m mad at her.”
Great. Orchid swayed from one foot to the other. “If you come down, I’ll help you pick more berries.”
“I don’t want berries.”
“Well, what do you want?”
The little girl started to cry.
Orchid considered for a moment. “Come down and I’ll tell you a story.”
“Tell a story now.”
“No. I’ll tell the story when you’re down here.”
“Just tell it loud. You’re good at loud.”
Orchid stomped her foot. “If you heard me, why didn’t you answer?”
“I didn’t know you.”
Orchid wanted to show how really, really, good at being loud she could be, but was afraid that yelling at the girl would just chase her higher into the tree. She stomped a few more times, until a thorn poking at her other elbow reminded her to be more careful. “It’s a really good story. You’ll like it a lot.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a girl and her parrot.”
“Does the parrot talk?”
The tail reappeared, and a foot, but the tail brushed against a thorn, and both disappeared again. “Tell me the story!”
“When you’re down here.”
The foot appeared again, slowly. “It’s sharp.”
“Yeah, it is. Why’d you pick this tree anyway?”
“Mom can’t follow me here.”
“Your Mom got herself all sunburnt and sick looking for you!”
“Mom’s sick?” A head appeared, with long, greeny-gray hair framing a berry-stained face.
“My friends and I carried her to the water.”
“Is she OK?’
“No, I said she’s sick. And she needs you. I’m afraid if I don’t get you back to her soon, she’ll go out in the sun and try to look for you again.”
The girl started to climb down, and stabbed her hand on a thorn. “It hurts!” she wailed.
“Mud, stop it!”
The girl looked down, hiccoughing and sobbing.
“Look, girl, I’d fly up to get you if you were in any other kind of tree!”
“Look at me!” Carefully, Orchid spread her wings a little way from her body. “Those thorns might poke you a little, but they would shred my wings if I tried to fly, or even to climb, here.”
“Of course I’m windborn! Look, you’ve got to climb down here. Really.”
“I’ll stand right here to catch you if you fall.” Orchid folded her wings into what she hoped looked like a reassuring, cup-like shape. “But you won’t fall. You’re woodborn. Woodborn are the best climbers ever.”
“But it’s sharp!”
“Did you poke yourself going up?”
“No! Of course not.”
“So you just go slow. Look before you move your hands or feet. Heck, you’re woodborn. I bet you could climb down head first, so you can see where you’re going.”
“Oh! Yeah!” The girl came rushing down the tree, and leapt into Orchid’s wings, not quite too fast for Orchid to worry that the girl would fall and break her head open.
Orchid stepped back to keep her balance, luckily not backing into any of the thorns, and turned her frantic grab into a hug. She had shaped her wings to look reassuring, not expecting to actually have to catch the girl. After a minute, she set the smaller girl down. “Let’s get away from these thorny trees, and back to your mother.”
“My story. You promised.”
“When we’re away from these trees.”
“Now.” The little girl stomped her foot.
Orchid just walked, carefully, through the hawthorns to the clearing. Once far enough away to spread her wings safely, she started, “There once was a girl with a parrot.” She bent over to retrieve Coral’s net full of leaves. Her fingers shook as she knotted the net around her waist again, so she turned her back to Mud, to hide them.
“Hey, that’s my story! Wait!”
Mud ran up and tugged on her wing. Orchid shook her loose, and instead grabbed her hand, and told the story as they walked back to the water.
The story continues here.