In the shadow of the Karassian mountains, the forest stretched for miles with its own emerald majesty, complementing the towering, snow-capped peaks rather than competing with them. Rivers of meltwater meandered through the trees and trickled over water-smoothed rocks, and paths worn in by deer and wolves provided indirect and scenic routes to marvel at the forest's charm. Visitors as distinguished as royalty and beyond had followed the trails throughout the years, some as a means to temporarily escape their heavy duties, others as a means to maintain their lives, but despite the trials the forest's visitors had brought with them, it had remained perpetually unaffected. Its trees always produced their seasonal fruit, the flowers always bloomed on schedule and the animals hunted and foraged come rain or shine, snow or thunder.
And the Bragoh forever protected it.
Digaba was one such creature. Small, bark-brown of skin with a long, pointed nose and ears, covered in speckles of lichen that helped to conceal it from those it wished. He moved now on bare feet, darting silently even over fallen twigs and dried leaves, heading towards the river to watch the fish and catch his breakfast.
He passed hollowed tree trunks in which owls settled down to slumber the day away, dug-out setts where badgers similarly rested, tiny pools where frogs soaked. He knew each creature by face and sound, some so well they'd given him their names, but he protected them all equally, maintaining the order of nature.
But as he blustered quietly past a dense collection of shrubs, a sound he knew but didn't recognise drew him to a quick stop.
But this was the home of dunnocks.
The bird's head dipped into the woven twigs, and when it returned a moment later, it held a bright blue egg in its beak.
Panic flashed through Digaba and he dove into the bush, hissing as he went and promptly frightening the bird away.
He peered into the nest. There were three eggs. That seemed about right. But after withdrawing from the branches, he didn't continue along his way. Instead he settled down in the shaded grass and waited for the lady dunnock to return.
She wasn't far away.
He babbled when she arrived, telling her in his own way what had happened, and though he spoke in plosive sounds rather than the chattering and tittering song of birds, she understood his every word. She darted into the bush and fervently checked her nest, and when she popped back out again a moment later, she seemed satisfied. With a quick chirp, she thanked him for his help, and he went along his way.
He fell quickly back into his silent rush, though there was less carefree song in his heart as his sharp ears focused for the sound. The cuckoo wouldn't be far.
In fact he found it again by its telltale song less than a minute later, peering into another nest. He chased it away again and it darted off ahead of him. This time he tried to follow it, but without wings of his own, he lost it in the ceiling of branches above.
He mumbled something to himself, but there had been urgency in its departure this time. Hopefully, it was gone for good.
The river wasn't far - in fact his pointed ears could already pick out its gentle babble over the breeze that tousled the forest's green drapery. Now a smile pulled at his wide mouth to bare his bucked teeth, and he rushed on ahead, feeling his stomach begin to rumble.
He settled down on the river bank and watched the small, silver-sided fish twist and turn casually in the weak current, and when small, quick movements caught his eye, he snatched the dragonflies from the air and stuffed them into his mouth, crunching their shimmering bodies with a grunt of approval.
An easy half an hour passed along the water's edge, but his joy was shattered by an awful sound.
His sharp ears pinpointed its location quickly and he spotted it dart out from the nearby thicket of reeds. It called out again as it flew away, and Digaba had no doubt that this bird - the very same individual and no mistake - was mocking him.
He jumped to his feet and hurried over to the reeds, ignoring the creature as it left the area, and found the small reed warbler nest that sat snug between a collection of reeds. There were four eggs within, all speckled, all roughly the same size.
But they were not all of the same species. One of them was a cuckoo egg - but which?!
He moved through the water to search the nest from all angles, not daring to be so bold as to touch it, but try as he might, he couldn't decide which of them didn't belong, and it was too great a risk to try to make the selection.
A warble sounded from behind him and he looked up as the nest owner returned. Her little chest was heaving - she must have heard the cuckoo and come as quickly as she could.
Digaba explained the matter to her, but she gave him no time to finish. She hopped in amongst the reeds and peered into her nest for a long moment, then dropped in and decisively lifted one of the eggs, one slightly larger than the rest, and dropped it over the edge into the water.
Digaba sighed in relief. If any could distinguish the imposter, it would be the mother.
She turned and cocked her brown, tufted head, chirping her thanks for his vigilance as lady dunnock had, and after bowing his bare head, he turned away and left.
The wily cuckoo would not return to this nest, but others would infiltrate its neighbours. Digaba knew he could never stop them all, it was simply the parasitic ways of the cuckoo, but this forest was his domain and he would protect all of the inhabitants that fell under his watch wherever he was able.
Because that was what the gods had created his kind to do.