(This story is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
One foot gingerly stepped upon the floor followed by a hard wooden knob. Axehand eased off the staff he’d climbed to get upright, putting all his weight on his lower limbs – old and new – for the first time. No one else was there, not even that meddlesome wolf-friend of his. He needed to do this alone.
The pain and terror of the accident were gone. He’d spent plenty of time laid up in the furs already, more than enough to deal with that. Happily, the hurt of the amputation had been sharp and quick; the mind has a blessed way of dulling the memory of such things. The more insidious, gnawing ache of gangrene was also gone, for obvious reasons.
That wasn’t what had kept him in his den for days after he was given clearance to leave. There was something else, a sensation that was driving him crazy. Something that should not, could not, be.
He could still feel his left foot.
Pacing his den, Axehand could feel weight on the heel that wasn’t there. He could feel that weight move to the ball of his foot as he hobbled. He could feel his big toe pivot as he circled his den. He could feel that itch in his little-toe that told him there was a storm coming in from the sea. That unscratable itch had been going on and off for days now with not a cloud in sight. It was maddening.
But it wasn’t going to stop him. ‘I won’t let this beat me! I won’t let it become all I am!’
He kept up the circles, picking up confidence, balance, and speed with each stride. He stopped short at the drawn leather flap, considering the lash. ‘There’s a whole tribe, a whole pack, and a whole forest out there. High time I found a new place in all of them.’ Axehand puffed up his chest before strutting proudly out of his den. He addressed the gathered crowd with a jovial bellow, “Alright, lassies! I’ve got a brand new bit of furniture that needs polishing! I reckon some soft furs and silky legs will do the job quite nicely! Any volunteers?”
Foaming waves lapped at the salt-crusted rocks One-Leg was balanced upon. He loved the sea. It was constant. It was windy. It was loud.
“Shout all you want! I’ll match you bark for baaaa-ARRGH!” One-Leg’s knees collapsed under sudden strain. He just barely saved himself following his net into the sea. In his spirit-leg there was a dull, shooting pain, like a swimmer’s knot, in the calf. It wasn’t much, but it made him feel like he could no longer support his own weight against the wind.
One-Leg collected himself and sat up on the rock. Still holding onto the towline, so as not to lose his net, he went to work. He looked at his good right leg, focusing on it to the exclusion of all else. He flexed and pivoted the ankle in practiced movements, contracting and relaxing his calf muscles in a way that had become almost ritualistic. He performed the act over and over, imagining his spirit-leg making the same motions. Eventually, slowly, his spirit-leg uncramped. He could stand again.
He pulled in his line and readied his next throw.
One-Leg woke up screaming, his brow dripping with sweat. He seized the leather teething ring by his furs and bit down, panting hard. His eyes were tearing up, his vision reddening. He had long since stopped having the bad dreams. But every now and then a young cub, still flexing their send-muscles, would go to sleep wondering what it would like to be like him. He’d always get the full brunt of the ensuing nightmare, and every time it felt like his spirit-leg had just been twisted and shattered all over again.
Starskimmer was up and at his side in an instant, wrapping her arms around him in silent comfort. Without facing her he knew there was a tense, sympathetic, look in her eyes. ‘A fine thing to happen while she’s spending the day!’ She’d endured sudden wakes like this many a time back when they’d shared a den while raising their son.
One-Leg smiled wryly to himself from behind the thick underbrush. Hours of laying in wait had paid off. Willow was alone, making her way back to the Holt from her trap-check, arms heavy with a basketful of the day’s catches. She hadn’t seen him yet, and he was upwind of her. One-Leg swept in behind his target and whacked her rump with his staff. Just enough to send her tipping forward, groping to keep hold of her bounty.
She turned and scowled. “What was that for?”
“No reason.” He grinned, “You were there is all.” Willow looked incensed. She’d been on her very best behavior for over a moon. For a prankster like Willow , though, ‘best behavior’ was ‘odd behavior’. So was wearing all that leather out of season. And while her gloomy attitude of late was not of the like that would lead her into trouble, the cloud around her was putting her closest friends – and even some elders – off something fierce. Even now she was at an atypical loss of words.
He kept up the ‘playful’ act, hoping to coax her into talking, even if it was just to shut him up. “It’s just that my ‘discipline rod’ here has been a bit getting ornery of late. Hungry, really. Poor thing missed out on all the thumpings your lot got for that little contest of yours. And you’ve been wearing sooooo much padding of late, I figured you for a tasty snack! If I were to knock anyone else around they’re likely to feel ‘hurt’ about it!”
He tapped her shin with the bottom of his staff for good measure. Willow didn’t show throat, instead she adjusted her weight to dodge any further blows. They made quite a pair, staring each other down across hardly a few wolf-spans. One dressed head-to-foot in winter clothes, the other bare-chested and bare-legged in the brisk autumn air. She was still looking at him with that accusatory glare.
One-Leg threw up his hands in frustration, “Troll-spit! There’s been a burr under your tail for weeks! You’re about as friendly as Ice on her worst day! Everyone has noticed, but no one has done anything about it! Once again the task has fallen to me to set a pup right!”
‘Something’s got her all torn up, or I’m a shagback. What isn’t Blacksnake telling me? Owl pellets! How do I get through to her? Maybe I’m going at this tail-first? Go for the soft touch.’ He set the staff against a tree.
One-Leg pointed a finger at her. “You need a good talking-to, lass!...Or a listening-to.” His fist unfolded into an open hand.
Willow backed away from the hand and shot him a stoic look of outright denial. The so-called ‘soft’ approach quickly fell prey to the elder’s impatience and concern. Hands on hips he demanded, “Come on then, out with it! What’s gotten into you that’s made you as snap-happy as Quick Fang in tick season? Why are you bundled up tighter than a hairless human with a head-cold? By Crow’s Beady Eyes, girl, SAY SOMETHING!”
Willow stood her ground under the verbal pounding. One-Leg wondered what was going through her head in the silent heartbeats that followed. Without a word, the younger elf turned on her heel and walked hastily away.
“YOU HAVEN’T HEARD THE LAST OF ME!” He called after her, retrieving his staff for the long walk home., “NOT BY ALL THE HAIR ON WOLFSISTER’S RUMP!”
One-Leg didn’t give chase. He had a strong feeling that she wasn’t running from him so much as herself.
Something other than his missing little-toe told One-Leg there was a storm brewing.