(This story is a part of the "One-Leg adjusts to the loss of his leg" storyline -- see listing for related stories.)
The first time Suddendusk found his hands had started whittling a short rounded staff without consulting his brain, he threw it away and didn't touch his knife for three days. It was foolish, he told himself, to think about what might happen when there was still hope.
As two days, then three, went by, and as Suddendusk saw his half-brother grow weaker and paler, he knew there wasn't much hope. Axehand was fighting with his own body, and he was losing, far too swiftly for anybody's comfort. The entire tribe could wish for a miracle, a sudden discovery of healing gifts somewhere, but there was nothing anybody could do. Suddendusk had tried- he'd contrived complex pulleys and slings of wood and rope, hoping to relieve the pressure on Axehand's leg and ease healing. His brother had borne the agony of using it, but it hadn't helped. Cloudfern was looking sadder, more disheartened, by the day. The entire tribe seemed to be under a dark cloud, knowing they might lose a valued and beloved member. Tallow looked half dead herself, and Flash hadn't smiled since that hunting party returned. Suddendusk found himself staring listlessly at his work, distracted by thoughts, unable to concentrate. He kept ending up with short, stubby staves with rounded heads.
The night it became clear it would be Axehand's leg lost, or his life, Suddendusk wasn't there. The atmosphere around the Holt was too heavy and thick with expectations, he had to get away, if only for a while. That day, he gave up on sleep and sat through the long sunlit hours, working on those rounded lengths of wood. Now, he wouldn't throw them all away- only the ones that wouldn't fit. At dawn, he'd run out of wood. A shadow blocked the first rays of the sun, falling over his work.
He looked up, relaxing slightly when he saw Kestrel.
"You should come talk to him," she said simply. He shook his head.
"I can't. I don't want- it could be the last time." The ropemaker swallowed hard. "I can't go say goodbye. Not when there's still a chance." He didn't want to accept that that chance was very slim.
"He's strong, Suddendusk. He'll live. But I'm sure he'll feel better if you come. Don't say goodbye." She reached down to help him stand, and he did. "Go say good luck. He'll need it, him and Cloudfern both. His lifemate and cub are there, Blacksnake is there, you should be also." The elder, as usual, made some sense. Suddendusk shook himself, rubbed his eyes and followed her back to his brother's den. He knew, in his heart, that however much he didn't want to face the option of his brother dying, he'd want even less to live on, knowing he hadn't been there.
Half the tribe was there, it felt like. Chieftess Easysinger was there, as well as Tallow, of course, and Flash. Cloudfern, Starskimmer, and Kestrel, who'd stayed. Blacksnake turned when he heard them approaching, and his face lit up a little. The change in expression only heightened the marks of fatigue and worry on his face. He reached out to pull Suddendusk into the group, silently shooting a look of thanks over his brother's head at Kestrel.
"He- hasn't started yet?"
"No." The rest of it went unsaid- they were waiting for him, just those few minutes longer. He pushed through them to where Axehand was laid out, his face pale and sweaty.
"Axehand." From somewhere Suddendusk dredged up a smile. "You look like an unbaked bowl."
"Good to see you too, brother." His voice was weaker, slurred from however much dreamberry wine they'd forced into him to dull the pain, but Axehand, too, smiled. "Come to say good-"
"Luck, Axehand. Good luck." Suddendusk cut in before the sentence could be completed.
"That's what I meant. I have no intention of dying, little brother. Never let it be howled, later, that Axehand the hunter was carried off by a sheep dumber than the stones it climbed."
Suddendusk had to chuckle. "It's good to see you're still in a good mood."
"Aye, I'm not dead yet, and don't mean to be for a while. I'll have good help in that, right fancy-fuzz?"
"Right." Cloudfern, looking almost as ill as Axehand himself after more than a week of no sleep, tried very hard to look confident. "If- if we're going to start, we should start. Now." He looked at the gathered elves. "Everybody out but Starskimmer. If you could call in Bearheart and Ringtail." He knew he'd need their help. With one last squeeze of the hand his brother was named for, Suddendusk left with the others.
"I'm going out." Blacksnake, clearly, wanted to be alone. Kestrel looked worried, but let him go, and Suddendusk didn't interfere.
**Cloudfern, is there any way I can help?** he sent towards the den.
**Thank you, but no. Afterwards, when it's over, then maybe. For now, let us work.**
A tangle of fishing nets had lain ignored all week. Suddendusk went to it now, trying to untangle his mind as he untangled the rope. After a while, he even managed to stop thinking about it, stop imagining it. As much as he tried not to listen, he couldn't ignore the single, piercing cry of pain that ripped through the Holt, followed by dead silence. The rope tore in Suddendusk's hands, pulled past endurance. He cursed softly and retied it. "I'm doing more damage than good." The nets could wait until his mind was clearer. Handling a knife just now might prove dangerous, but still his hands took up an unfinished stick of wood and his carving knife and set to work. How much would be left? How could it be attached? His mind, now that he allowed it to focus properly, was alive with ideas.
He knew the plantshapers could probably do a better job. He wasn't even much of a woodworker, but in this case there was little he could do with ropes and clay. Cloudfern or Sunlight would be able to smooth living wood down and attach it perfectly with no bumps or splinters. They'd be able to find just the right texture and strength. Suddendusk, armed only with the knowledge born of years of experience, and with the need to do something, could do no less. At least, he had to try. The others had magic and will; Suddendusk had love, and endless patience.
At twilight again, Kestrel came for him. Axehand had lived through the day, and Cloudfern was hopeful. Suddendusk let the elder scold him back into his den and slept like the dead. He took with him three staves of different lengths, unfinished but well made, and the beginning of something his brother might use as a crutch until he got used to things.
The two eights-of-days which followed were full of hard work for everyone involved. Cloudfern and Starskimmer took turns watching over Axehand, with Tallow, Suddendusk and Blacksnake spelling them occasionally. Even the chieftess sat with him for a short time every night, whenever she could. Suddendusk kept trying different things, creating yet more slings as Cloudfern suggested them, coming up with ideas of his own. And his brother lived, the fever didn't return, his spirit was unbroken. By the third day, he was making jokes about it- that somehow made it easier for everybody else. Others took over the nets, letting Suddendusk concentrate on improving his woodworking skills. By the turning of the moon, Cloudfern declared Axehand was strong enough to try and move.
"Well?" The question, tossed with a smile as Suddendusk was just leave, caught the younger elf by surprise.
"Well what?" He turned to his brother, who was once again grinning at him from his furs.
"Well, what do you have for me? You know floppy-top is going to want me to try hopping tomorrow, and you know I'll need to balance…And I know you've been working on something." Axehand's many colorful nicknames for Cloudfern had grown more respectful over those long days as he developed a deep appreciation of his skill with herbs that dulled pain and kept sickness at bay. "So hand it over."
Suddendusk blushed. "It's…not ready yet."
"I'm ready." Axehand shrugged, "So I'm guessing it is, too. Give."
Almost shyly, Suddendusk went to his own den and brought back the crutches he'd designed. They were simple- good sturdy wood and a comfortable rest for the arms made of braided rope. "I'm…still working on a- a peg." He explained. Axehand took the crutches and turned them over, this way and that, studying them. Finally he nodded and put them down.
"Won't be able to use a peg for a while yet, but these'll do nicely. I won't be joining any fire-dances anytime soon, but I'll certainly howl at the next gathering." He stretched forward, grasping Suddendusk's hand and turning it over, tracing the new ridges of roughened skin. Woodworking created a whole new set of calluses where there had been none before. "Thank you."
Suddendusk found himself quite lost for words. How could he explain the need to help, the terror he'd felt, thinking he was going to lose a brother? Instead of finding a way to put it all into words, he simply sent it- love, and confusion, sorrow at his brother's loss, joy that it was far better than it might've been, a small amount of pride that he was able to help. The returning wave of warmth, gratitude and hope was enough to make him sit down hard.
"All right, brother?" Spoken words came after a fairly long time, and it took Suddendusk a moment to collect himself enough to reply.
"Y-yes." He stood up. "Yes. We are, and we will be."
If the plantshapers ever improved on Suddendusk's effort, they never told him, and he was content not to ask.