Molting
by Sauron Gorthaur

Princess Rosalind had been bawling her eyes out all morning, and Marianne was at her wit's end.

She'd tried all the usual solutions, but the tiny princess only squirmed and wailed when she was offered food, she hadn't needed a change, and not even the comfort of her favorite stuffed ladybug had stemmed the furious squalling. Marianne held her daughter to her chest, rocking her back and forth at the window and singing soothingly to her, but her chubby face was still scrunched up in misery and tears leaked unceasingly down her cheeks. The princess could be temperamental and fussy sometimes, but Marianne had never seen anything like this display before.

As each minute passed and Rosalind refused to be soothed, Marianne grew increasingly worried that something was seriously wrong with her daughter.

Of course, it just had to be a day when Bog was gone. Reports had come in about some type of invasive fungal species growing in the northern reaches of the Dark Forest, and the King was gone for the day to oversee the operation of rooting it out. He'd told her not to expect him back until late that evening at the earliest.

Marianne gently laid her daughter down in her nest and checked her all over again for anything that might be causing her distress, only to once again come up with nothing. She pressed her cheek to Rosalind's forehead, but she had no signs of a fever. Yet, the little halfling continued to wail, arching her back and writhing against the moss as if trying to crawl out of her own skin.

Frantic anguish was rising with panicked energy in Marianne's breast. Something was distressing her daughter, and all she could feel was the all-consuming, deep, desperate need of a mother to soothe her child.

She picked Rosalind back up and pressed her to her chest, kissing the side of her face as she rocked side to side. She could feel her own tears starting to ooze out of the corners of her eyes from desperation. "I don't know what to do," she whispered with a sob in her voice, pressing her face to the child's tear-slick cheek. "What's the matter with you, Rosalind? Sweetheart, what's the matter?"

Rosalind only bawled in response, squirming as if in pain.

Marianne couldn't stand this one second longer. She had to find help.

~o~o~o~

"She's been crying for two hours straight and nothing I do makes any difference and I think she's in pain and I don't know what to do!" At this point, Marianne was bawling nearly as loudly as her daughter.

Griselda calmly watched the sobbing fairy queen and halfling princess then patted Marianne's arm. "Oh sweetie, you need to sit down and wipe your eyes, honey. Let me take a look at the little sweet pea."

Marianne gratefully relinquished Rosalind to Griselda. The gobliness gathered her grand-daughter tenderly into her arms and rocked back and forth, poking one finger carefully at the small, squirming mass, humming under her breath to herself as she did so. "Hmmm, what do we have here, let's see, hmmmm, ah!"

Griselda turned Rosalind onto her back, cradling her with one arm, and rubbed firmly along the edge of her belly scales. Almost instantly, the princess's wails receded to tiny whimpers.

Marianne's jaw dropped. "H…how did you do that? I've been trying everything all morning!"

Griselda chuckled. "Well, obviously not everything, honey, but I'm not surprised you didn't know the trick. Little sweet pea is getting close to a month old, isn't she?"

"Yes, next Tuesday," Marianne said slowly, unsure.

"Oh my, my, my, the time really does fly." Griselda tickled under Rosalind's chin, earning a soft coo in response. "With her being a halfling, I wasn't sure if she'd follow the same time frame as her daddy, but it looks like we can expect a similar schedule from her."

"Soooo, there's nothing wrong with her?" Marianne queried, still uncertain.

"Oh spirits in the trees, no!" Griselda replied brightly. "What Rosalind is going through is completely and totally natural!" She returned her attention to the baby in her arms. "You're just getting ready for your first molt, aren't you, peanut? You want to get that nasty old, tight skin off, don't you?"

Marianne's eyebrow shot up. "Molting?" She leaned over Griselda's shoulder to peer down at Rosalind, suddenly intrigued.

Griselda stopped stroking the edge of Rosalind's scales, causing another eruption of angry fussing. Griselda chuckled again. "Oh oh oh, you really are your daddy's girl, aren't you, you impatient little tyke?"

"Is…is it painful?" Marianne winced as her offspring let out a particularly ear-splitting scream.

"Psssh, no." Griselda waved a hand airily. "She's just throwing a tantrum. There's no real pain involved. The old skin is getting too tight, and it's turning dry and itchy as it gets ready to crack off, but she's just irritated, not in pain. Imagine wearing a dress that was too small and made out of teasel leaves. Oh, her daddy was just like that when he was molting. Bog would fuss up a right little hurricane during his molts, and even during his teen years he'd snap and fuss and generally make sure the whole Dark Forest was as miserable as he was." Griselda shifted Rosalind in her arms, holding her out towards Marianne. "Here, take the little peanut back for a moment. I've got something that might help a bit."

Marianne took Rosalind back into her arms as Griselda waddled over to a cupboard in the corner of the room. The princess had started wailing again, and Marianne attempted to rub her fingers along the edge of her scales the way Griselda had done, but with little success.

Griselda was rooting through the cupboard now, strewing jars and embroidered napkins and knick-knacks across the floor, humming and muttering to herself before uttering a loud "AH, here it is!" Marianne looked up from Rosalind to find Griselda returning with a small bottle decorated with a floral pattern.

"If she's just started fussing this morning, you've probably got a good ten or twelve hours before anything starts coming off. This should help in the meantime." Griselda pressed the bottle into Marianne's free hand. "I always used this on Bog when he molted as a baby, and it worked like a dream on him every time. The cream will soothe some of the itch and help the scales along when they start coming loose. If you're lucky, it might even calm her down to the point where she can slip in a wink or two of sleep."

She tickled under Rosalind's chin again, but only got some irritable whines this time around. "With your claws being so short and stubby, sweetie, you won't be able to rub up underneath her scales where they're itching quite as properly as a goblin, but spread the cream along the edges the best you can and you should notice a difference shortly. Bog's out for the rest of the day, isn't he?"

"Yes," Marianne answered glumly, cursing the stupid fungal invasion that had called her husband away on this of all days. "He didn't expect to be back before this evening."

"Well, hopefully, he'll be back before she really starts to molt. If not, you bring her back down here to me straightaway, and I'll help you both through it. I think I peeled off enough of Bog's exoskeletons when he was little that I can manage another time for little sweet pea."

Marianne felt tears of a different nature gathering at the corners of her eyes. "Thanks, Griselda," she said, suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude and emotion.

A fond sparkle glinted in Griselda's beady eyes. "Oh, you're welcome, honey, and you know you can ask me questions anytime you need to. Being a mother isn't like fishing in a frog hole, and you've got a lot on your plate right now." She patted Marianne's arm, gazing fondly down at her grand-daughter. "Oh, I forget how little they start out. When my boy was first born, I could tuck him up in a single hollyhock petal. His first skin was just the cutest little thing; I still got it here somewhere. Oh, but he was such a pea!"

"That's, uh, that's nice," Marianne said, wondering if Bog was aware that his mom had his first skin stowed away somewhere.

Griselda began ushering her towards the door. "Oh, now I'm babbling! You go on now and try out that cream, and let me know if anything else crops up."

"I will," Marianne promised, clasping the bottle tightly. She paused a second at the door, then gave Griselda an awkward one-armed hug. "Thanks so much for the help."

Rosalind shrieked an ear-piercing note that had both Marianne and Griselda wincing. "OK, OK, we are definitely going to try out that cream now. Bye, and thanks again, Griselda."

~o~o~o~

Once Marianne had slathered her daughter's scales in the sweet-smelling cream, Rosalind settled down, screams turning to whimpers and thrashing transforming to little vexed squirms. Marianne cradled her, continuing to stroke the edge of her scales, doing her best to slide her fingernails up underneath the overlapping plates until her wrists ached and her fingertips were sore and raw from the constant friction against the bark-like texture of Rosalind's second skin. Rosalind's eyes slipped closed, her breathing slowly steadying, and finally her head lolled loosely to the side. Marianne carefully wrapped her up in her rose petal blanket, tucking her stuffed ladybug beside her, and gently deposited her in her nest. She then proceeded to wobble over to her own nest, where she flopped backwards into the moss and feathers, limbs and wings akimbo, and the world soon faded away.

~o~o~o~

Marianne was woken sometime in the night by the sound of Rosalind crying again. Groggily, she drug her eyelids open and was met by the silvery moonlit darkness of the royal chambers and that cool, earthy scent that somehow signaled that it was the wee hours of the night. She could hear Rosalind squirming in her nest, petal blankets rustling against moss, and her whimpers and cries mingled with the background chirr of insects outside the castle.

Marianne began to push herself upright, her joints creaking with protest, when a large hand on her shoulder gently stopped her and pushed her back down into the bed. "It's all right, tough girl. I've got her."

The springy moss bounced a little as Bog rose from beside her with a grunt, his wings brushing for a moment against her bare arm. Still half-asleep, she watched him cross the room, a tall, dark silhouette against the window as he bent over to lift Rosalind out of her nest. She whimpered as he nestled her against his chest, one huge hand cupping her entire back. Softly, he began rubbing his claws against her scales, crooning to her in a low, soothing rumble that Marianne could just barely make out. "There you go, sweetheart. That feels much better, doesn't it? Yes, it does. Doesn't it, Rosalind? There you go. There you go."

Rosalind quieted almost instantly, making soft grunting sounds but otherwise seeming at peace. Bog swayed, the rhythm of his movement and his murmuring almost hypnotic, the moonlight catching with a soft sheen on the two of them. Marianne watched them for some time, a sense of peace washing over her. However, instead of slipping back to sleep, Marianne felt herself growing increasingly intrigued. Slowly, she pushed herself up, and on soft, bare feet she padded over to join her husband and daughter at the window.

Bog glanced down at her and smiled in acknowledgement, then returned his attention to Rosalind. His long claws glided deftly underneath Rosalind's scales. "Mom told me you'd been to see her this morning. I'm sorry I had to be away all day and leave you alone to deal with this little beast. If I'd known she was starting her first molt, I'd never have left, fungus be damned."

Marianne slipped an arm around his waist. "You had no way of knowing that today would be different."

Rosalind whimpered a little louder. Bog glanced around. "Where's that cream. Ah!" He picked it up gingerly with his free hand and dabbed some onto his fingers. More deliberately than before, he began systematically prodding at the bark-like plates covering Rosalind's tiny body. "I should have suspected that her first molt would be coming up soon anyway. I'm sorry I didn't prepare you better on what to expect but with everything else, it slipped my mind that you might have to handle her if I was away."

She pressed a quick, forgiving kiss to his shoulder. "We've both had a lot on our minds this past month."

She continued to watch him, completely entranced even though she was not entirely sure what he was doing. Then again, she always loved watching him with Rosalind. It never failed to touch her, just how gentle those huge, gnarly hands could be, but never more so than when he was cradling their daughter with them. His claws made a slight scraping sound against her scales, his fingers working and exploring with deft gracefulness. Something warm and content settled in Marianne's breast.

A low series of grumbles and growls rolled from Bog, seeming to soothe Rosalind as he continued his focused exploration. Finally, he slid a claw underneath one of Rosalind's back plates and gave a pleased grunt. "Ah, there we go." He twisted his finger and there was an audible pop. Rosalind twisted sharply and started crying again.

Marianne's mothering instincts instantly kicked in. "What is it, Bog? Is she in pain?"

Bog nudged her arm reassuringly with his own. "No, no, she's fine. This scale is starting to come loose. That's good. Once the skin gets started, it'll come off fairly well; it's getting it to let go initially that's the hardest bit. It might pinch and tug a little at first, but it doesn't hurt as long as the skin is ready to come off." He gave her an encouraging, lop-sided smile. "I did it enough times to myself in my young years that I know when a scale's ready and when it's not. And this little bugger definitely wants to come off."

He twisted his finger again and there were several more pops. Marianne could see now that the scale Bog was working on was sticking out further than those around it. He continued to calmly worry at the scale, running his claw back and forth and twisting gently. After the first few crackles and pops, Rosalind settled back down, her head resting on Bog's chest, making soft little noises that didn't seem to distressed.

Marianne reached over, taking one of Rosalind tiny hands and stroking her thumb over the back of her knuckles. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Bog paused his work a moment to wrap a hand around the back of Marianne's head, pulling her forward to press a quick kiss to her crown. "Nothing more than what you've already down, love. It's going to be a long, slow process, and you've had a long day already. Go rest while you're able. If I need any help, I promise I'll let you know."

She kissed him back and squeezed his hand. "I'm not going to fight you on this one."

He chuckled dryly. "I didn't think you would."

She slipped back into her nest, tucking her wings in close and snuggling down into the warm moss. Briefly, she continued to watch Bog through drowsy-slitted eyes, but soon enough her weariness and the continuous soothing purr of Bog's voice whispering gentle nonsense to their daughter lulled her back to sleep.

~o~o~o~

Some indeterminate time later, Marianne felt Bog slide back into the nest beside her. She nuzzled back up against him and he slipped an arm around her, pulling her close with a soft sigh.

~o~o~o~

"Look at you! Who's a pretty little princess? Is it you, Rosalind? Yes, it is. Yeeesss, it is."

Morning light cast a glowing kaleidoscope of colors through Marianne's closed eyelids when she regained awareness of the world to the combined sound of her husband's playful whispers and her daughter's giggling. Her wings shuddered and unfurled leisurely as she arched her back and stretched her arms and legs. Rubbing at her eyes, she rolled over onto her back with a yawn.

Bog was sitting on the floor on the moss rug that covered Rosalind's "play corner" with their halfling princess between his legs. He was steadying her upright with one hand and holding her ladybug in the other, dabbing it lightly at her face as if pretending it was kissing her. Every time he touched the plushie to her nose, Rosalind erupted in giggles and clumsily attempted to grab the toy with small, clawed hands. He continued to coo continuously at her, bent so far over that his long nose was almost touching the top of Rosalind's fuzzy head. Marianne lay silently watching them both for a comfortable measure, unable to keep the smile off her face as she observed her two favorite dorks in the entire world lost in each other's company.

She stirred again, and this time Bog glanced up and saw her watching them. A huge grin – which he attempted to hide from her by twisting away his head – broke across his face as he quickly gathered Rosalind up into his arms. He concealed her from Marianne, tucking her against himself, as he put his mouth to her ear and whispered in a voice that was deliberately loud enough for Marianne to hear. "Look, Rosalind, Mommy's awake. Do you think Mommy wants to see your beautiful new skin?"

Rosalind gurgled.

"I absolutely agree. Who wouldn't want to see that shiny little carapace?"

Marianne rolled her eyes at her husband's antics, but sat up eagerly and turned towards them as Bog carried Rosalind over and sat down on the edge of their nest. He made a show of turning Rosalind around and setting her on his knee, holding her up with both hands around her waist to display her. Marianne reached out to her. "Oh, let me see, sweetheart. Oh my!"

Rosalind seemed to have sprouted centimeters in the space of a single night. Her limbs were longer, her body thicker, and she was noticeably heavier when Marianne lifted her up. Her exoskeleton was smooth and a glossy black like a beetle's shell. It felt slick, almost damp, and soft again, like when she'd first been born.

"Oh, you look so shiny and new, Rosalind," Marianne exclaimed delightedly, aware that she was the one cooing now, and rubbed her nose against her daughter's. "You look so beautiful, sweetheart."

Rosalind squirmed a little and started fussing for her toy, which Bog handed over. She went back to playing contentedly, oblivious to the adoration her parents were pouring out over her. Bog raised an eyebrow at Marianne. "Well, I guess she knows that the really important things in life are."

Marianne shook her head with a grin and leaned back again. Bog reclined beside her, putting an arm around her so that she could lean against him. He rubbed the back of her shoulder as they both watched Rosalind playing in the safe valley formed between her parents' legs. "So, everything went well?" Marianne asked.

Bog squeezed her shoulders. "Aye, I couldn't have asked for better. You'd done a wonderful job getting her ready before I even started on her. She was already so soft and loose the skin slid right off."

Marianne heaved a small sigh of relief. "That's good to hear. I had no idea if I was doing it right or not."

Bog grimaced and gave her an apologetic look. "It's my fault, tough girl. It's something I really should have thought to talk to you about beforehand, and I'm sorry you had a bit of a panic yesterday. It totally slipped my mind."

She pecked his lips. "Apology accepted. It'll be especially accepted if you take her out to play for the day and let me rest."

He wilted with mock chagrin. "I shall accept your harsh demands, my queen."

She flicked his nose. "At least now I know what to expect for the future. Speaking of which, how often will this happen?"

"When I was a baby, I started out molting every month or so, or that's what my mom has told me. It'll gradually slow down the older she gets. By the time I was in my adolescence, I only molted every fourteen months or so until I was fully grown."

Rosalind kicked Marianne in the leg, growling to herself with unintelligible baby noises. Marianne allowed a slightly mischievous grin to creep across her features. "Do you think we should do something special to commemorate her first molt? Should we save her skin or something?"

Bog wrinkled up his face in melodramatic distaste. "Ugh, that's disgusting. That sounds like something my mother would do."

Marianne bit her lip. Bog was quiet for a moment then his brow shot up. "Wait, my mother didn't do that, did she? Oh bloody spirits of the trees, tell me she doesn't have my first skin stuck away somewhere."

Marianne elbowed him. "Language, sweetheart. There are children present."

They settled back down to watch Rosalind. The peaceful moment was interrupted by Bog muttering under his breath. "I can't believe she kept my skin…"

Marianne just shook her head with a smile and laid it on his chest. His muttering receded. Contentment seeped back through her, warm and soft and alive. Parenting was a whole new adventure every day, and it was an adventure she got to share with the two people she loved most. Who could ask for more?