(See "Linked Stories" for others related to this storyline.)
Willow clutched the hard leather ball so tightly in her right hand the stiff stitching nearly cut into her fingers. She couldn't drop it, not now. Not while the game was so close. Both teams were tied, and if either side scored one last point, they would win.
"Willow! Here!" Notch waved his hands a good two trees over, trying to get her attention. "Throw it here!"
At that same moment, Evervale leapt up onto Willow's branch and surged forward with all possible speed to try and steal the ball away. Willow drew back and tossed the ball just as Evervale collided with her. Swearing, Willow managed to grab Evervale with one arm and the trunk of the tree with the other in order to keep them both from careening to the ground.
They were both safe. But the throw was off. Way off. It arched well below where Notch was standing... straight toward the limb at which Dreamflight was running.
"I've got it!" the fair-haired fisher cried. She jumped onto the unoccupied area, arms wide for the catch.
The brittle limb snapped under her weight with a resounding crack.
More than one elf cried out as the ball, the limb, and Dreamflight noisily crashed to the forest floor. Game forgotten, the tree ball players scrambled to the ground and rushed toward Dreamflight, who lay crumpled atop the limb that had fallen to the ground before her.
Willow got to Dreamflight first, sliding on one leg across the cool, damp ground to cover the last few feet that separated them. She saw the fisher's eyes roll back in her head and flutter closed. Frightened, Willow leaned over the fallen female and slapped Dreamflight's cheek.
"Dreamflight?" she asked as other elves hurried closer and knelt nearby. The fisher was still. There was no response. "Dreamflight?"
Trying to squelch the panic that was rising in her gut, she shouted, "Has someone sent for Cloudfern? Someone send for Cloudfern!"
**Dreamflight, answer us!** Willow switched to sending, hoping she would receive an answer that way. She patted Dreamflight's cheek again.
That moment, the moment of contact, something coursed through Willow's body like skyfire.
Her head was throbbing, at least she thought it was her head, pounding in time with the rapid beat of her heart. Blood-colored...fingers... burst at the point of that throbbing grey pain, while something whispy and smoke-like grew darker, larger, more ominous at the edge of Willow's vision.
The darkness began to slink closer, like a hunting cat on its belly, waiting for the right time to pounce. Involuntarily, Willow braced herself against it, willing the frightening form to go away. It hissed and retreated.
It was then that realization hit her. It wasn't her head that was aching... it was Dreamflight's, wasn't it? The moment she made that realization, her perspective shifted, accompanied by a sensation that made her feel as if she'd jumped off a high cliff and was plummeting toward the ground. With a startled gasp, Willow drew back – at the exact same moment Dreamflight's eyes popped open.
"Are you all right?" It took Willow a moment to realize that was Evervale's voice, and that the question was directed toward Dreamflight and not her.
Dreamflight put a hand to her forehead and the lump that was growing there. "M-my head hurts," she said weakly. Her fingers trembled.
"We've sent for Cloudfern. He's coming as quickly as he can," Notch said. "Lie still."
"Does anything else hurt?" Evervale asked, taking Dreamflight's trembling hand into her own.
Dreamflight shook her head slightly and squeezed Evervale's hand. Tears pooled at the corner of her eyes.
Cloudfern was there now, telling the others that they needed to give him and Dreamflight some space. Willow was the last to move; Notch had to practically drag her over to him because she seemed to be rooted to the spot. He gave her a funny look when she recoiled from his firm grasp on her arm. He put an arm around her waist and pulled Willow close to him.
"Cloudfern is here. He'll know what to do. She'll be all right," He whispered to Willow. He didn't like the look on her face. He wanted to make her feel better, even though he was feeling nervous himself. He felt Willow stiffen under his touch and tightened his grip. "Come on, Wil. Stop worrying. It wasn't your fault the branch broke."
Willow swallowed hard, nodded and tried her hardest to swallow the growing nausea in her stomach. She was afraid if she spoke, she would be sick – and it wasn't because she just felt guilty about the results of a bad throw.
Since she knew she couldn't do anything about Dreamflight, she shifted her thoughts to herself. She was tired. Why was she so tired?
She remembered feeling like this before – the night almost a full Turn ago, with Notch. The sound of his heartbeat seemed to thunder in her ears as she remembered how she felt when he touched her. She had been sick to her stomach after that meeting, and her head had pounded all the rest of the next day. At the time, she thought that she had caught something, or had eaten something bad.
But her stomach had lurched today when he had touched her. Could it have something to do with him?
But she had felt something with Dreamflight, too!
Frustration and fear swelled in her gut as she sank exhaustedly to the ground at the base of a large tree. She put her aching head in her hands, trying to sort out swimming thoughts, trying to figure out what was happening and how she could put a stop to it.
**You look like you've had a hard day.**
She jumped when she felt Rainpace's hand on her shoulder, and was surprised when she felt nothing else besides the warmth of his fingertips. She wearily looked up at Rainpace's concerned face, the small worry lines around his blue eyes.
**We've been worried about you. Why haven't you answered our sends?**
They had been sending? She hadn't even noticed! What was wrong with her?
**I—didn't hear you,** she admitted.
Rainpace frowned and slid down to sit next to her. **Are you all right?**
Willow bit her lower lip and shook her head. She didn't dare send a reply, not until she could figure what was happening out for herself.
Rainpace was surprised at his friend's unusual silence. Something must really be wrong if she didn't say what was on her mind.
**Don't clam up on me - not like you did after your sire died,** he pled. She shot him a strange look. **Willow... Tell me.**
Willow looked away, toward the forest, saying nothing.
Rainpace put an arm around her shoulder, then pulled her toward him. She leaned against him, but was still silent. It made Rainpace worry all the more.
**Willow, will you tell me when you're ready to talk? Can you promise me that?**
Willow sighed deeply, then finally nodded, unwilling to argue. She felt drained, and her eyes felt heavy, oh so heavy.
Willow's left arm tingled from top to bottom, felt as though it had curled up upon itself. She carefully stretched it out straight, trying to test it, but try as though she may, the muscles would not cooperate. They resisted more and more with each attempt, until her shoulder throbbed.
She looked at the limb; it was shrinking, twisting like a gnarled old tree did over time. Muscles cramped and doubled over on themselves, feeling as though they would pull the bone out of place with it as they atrophied. She had to move them, had to do something soon. What could she do to take away the aching pain? It lurked like a shadow beneath the full moon. The muscles twitched again, sending agony down the length of her arm.
Willow awoke with a start. She was staring straight at the arm Rainpace still had draped over her shoulders. Her skin crawled where they touched, her eyes traveled up and down the limb's length and over small scars that were a reminder of the bad break he'd had long before Willow had even been born.
He twitched slightly, as if he were having a dream. As Willow watched the muscles move beneath his skin, her stomach lurched. Carefully, as if it were something diseased, Willow pushed Rainpace's arm off her, scooted away from her sleeping friend, and scrambled to her feet.
She made her way to her den and found she was shivering, even though the air was hot and damp and clung to her skin like a wet blanket. What was happening?
Rainpace would come looking for her when he woke up, wondering why she had disappeared without waking him. She didn't want to see him. She didn't want him to touch her, to put an arm around her, to comfort her like she knew he would try to. She didn't want to feel his pain.
Something clicked in her mind. It had happened before, with Notch. And something strange had happened again, just a half dance of the moons before, with Blacksnake and his knees... was that this same thing, too? She knew where Dreamflight had hit her head long before the lump had even appeared. And now this, with Rainpace. Rainpace's arm had cramped up on him for as long as she could remember. Why was all this happening to her, why all of the sudden?
She felt as though her skin had gone transparent, like it had disappeared. Why was it that when she touched someone she could feel the aches they felt – felt as though it were her own body that somehow wasn't whole?
A thought sprang into her mind, one she quickly said wasn't possible. She was too old for it to be possible. She didn't want it to be possible. She didn't want to feel what other people felt, ever again. She didn't want to admit that something was happening -- something that was sure to change her life as she knew it, and in ways she didn't want it to change.
She wouldn't let it be possible. But how could she keep it from happening? Whenever someone touched her, she wanted to be sick.
What she needed was a thicker skin.
She stripped off her shorts and the sleeveless shirt she had been wearing and threw them in the corner. Those would never do.
Then, her eyes wandered to the wooden shelf that held her winter clothing: skin-tight, long sleeved, supple leather that kept out the wind and the cold. She began casting clothing aside until she found the long pants and the long sleeved shirt she had abandoned with the end of the cold season.
She put the pants on first. The soft leather clung to her damp, sweaty skin as she pulled them on one leg at a time. The shirt went on next.
Then, she hastily rummaged through the pile of clothing until she found the gloves that fit over her wrist. Another, nearby, shelf, held the knee-high black boots she normally wore when the snows were high.
**Willow? Where are you?** Notch's sending almost seared as it entered her mind. **Haven't you heard? Dreamflight is going to be all right.**
No, she hadn't heard. She'd been oblivious to everyone's sendings again.
Willow walked to her bedfurs and sat down, wrapping her arms around herself. She felt hot. She was suffocating in this heat.
She knew Notch would poke his head into the den's entrance soon. He'd surely ask why she was dressed the way she was. At the moment, she didn't really care about the upcoming questions. At least, for now, she felt a little more safe.