(This story is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
2501.10.28, late evening
“...but she just won't listen to me! She never has.”
Pathmark stared intently down at his hands, buried in Bonetrail’s thick fur. He tried to relax, but the frustration of the last two hands of days had worn out even his typically unshakable optimism.
“When… when Bowflight died you managed to get through to her. Could you do that again?”
He raised hopeful eyes to his grandmother. Kestrel almost seemed to pause mid-air.
“I tried, grand-cub, I tried. She said she didn’t know and wouldn’t say anything further.”
“Do you think it’s some sort of mind-sickness? She was wearing her winter leathers again the other day! It’s still hot enough to melt the beeswax candles, for Foxsly’s sake!” The expression seemed to stumble on his tongue.
There was an amused expression on Kestrel’s face that Pathmark sincerely hoped wasn’t meant for him and his rare outburst. Kestrel seemed to think for a few moments as she glided serenely beside him and his wolf. To Pathmark, it was ages before she answered.
“I wouldn’t think it was something as serious as that.”
The words didn’t reassure the tracker and his hazel gaze dropped back down to his hands in consternation. “So she really didn’t say anything to you?” he repeated, clinging to the faint hope that the answer would change. Kestrel switched to sending to affirm that, and he let out a sigh at the truth of it.
He forced a smile. “I guess that means I get another chance to try to bond with her. And she gets another chance to come up with even more crude ways to describe my presence and tell me to go away.” Pathmark brushed the unease off with a laugh.
Bonetrail’s step slowed. From ahead, Starlight was also stopping. Kestrel gave Pathmark a smile. “Chin up, grand-cub. And if it turns out to be a lover’s quarrel, keep as far away from it as possible.”
Pathmark couldn’t help but show an answering smile. “I hope it’s only that. Well…” He leaned over as Bonetrail stopped completely beside the higher ranking, pale grey wolf. Starlight looked at her lupine companion and he lowered his head submissively. Pathmark took almost no notice. He waved as Kestrel continued on. She’d be solitary for the next few nights as she went over their borders yet again. **Take care,** he sent affectionately, watching her glide out into the distance.
**'Til we meet again,** his grandmother answered as she disappeared from sight.
Bonetrail whined once, following Starlight as the more dominant wolf turned to head back to the Holt. **If we run we can be there by sun-up,** Pathmark sent to his bond. The run would give him time to compose himself.
2501.10.30, before dawn
Pathmark could only blame himself. His initial thoughts to convince Otter and Crackle to help him had been inspired by their seemingly limitless energy – why hadn’t he guessed that catching frogs would lose its fun so quickly? Taking the cubs to the riverbank had been a recipe for disaster. The frog catching had turned into water races and some complicated game that he was sure took a cub's mind to comprehend. All he could figure out was that it involved a lot of splashing, some rather wet wolves, and some scraps of brightly coloured leather woven into some elaborate plot. Luckily, Chicory was a much faster learner than he was, and, at his rather pleading request, arrived to distract the cubs. His own work went much faster after that.
The hometrees were fairly quiet. Pathmark let out a relieved sigh. Not having to explain his wriggling pouch was a blessing. The tracker was light on his feet as he climbed up the outer steps. Reaching the second floor, he idly traced the outside of the bark, pausing a moment. Evervale’s scent seemed to drape around her den, and he felt the familiar catch in his chest. He dropped his hand and quickly continued up, taking the extra jump over to the next trunk, where Willow’s den was hollowed. He swung himself in after making sure that it was indeed as empty as it appeared to be, and finally freed the creatures he’d been trapping all night.
His hazel eyes focused on the task, he carefully tucked a few of the frogs into pottery and sheltered little shadows by the furs, hoping that they would be more comforted and inclined to stay around. It didn’t look like so many now that they were actually here. Still…
The first raspy chirps started. Pathmark’s smile grew. Yes, this would do. He took one final look and satisfied, left the den. His sister would understand. He knew it. It may have been several handfuls of turns since he’d collected pets to grab her attention, but he’d done it often enough as a child for his actions to strike some memory in Willow.
Dawn was breaking as Willow ducked into her den. The mere comfort of her own bed and the knowledge that most of the tribe was going to sleep now made her heave a sigh of relief. Why wouldn't people stop bothering her? She had the sneaking suspicion Farscout had been watching her again. Rainpace was trying to turn into a more obvious shadow. He kept repeating himself asking her if she was all right, even when she swore again and again she was until she became angry with him. She didn't even want to think about how One-Leg had bellowed at her the other day when she wouldn't talk to him. Why couldn’t they understand that when she said she had nothing to say, she truly had nothing to say?
She couldn't tell them that she didn’t want to talk about the strange things that had happened, or about her growing affirmation that something had awakened within her. A part of her still hoped that if she kept those strange feelings and sensations a secret, they would somehow go away. She still hoped that this storm of change she knew was brewing would vanish.
Willow tossed the rabbits she’d gathered from her trap lines on the floor near her bedfurs, then went to sit to rest her aching legs. She heard the small croak just in the nick of time: had she sat down all the way, she would have crushed the tiny amphibian making small leaps across her bed.
“How did you get here?” she muttered as she scooped the little creature up to put it back outside where it belonged.
The one small croak soon turned into a chorus of them from all areas of the den. Suddenly, it seemed, there were frogs everywhere – on the bed, on the floor, and even in the empty baskets she’d made for next year’s honey harvest.
Willow picked up the largest of her baskets, then scooped one of the frogs from her den floor and lifted it so she could peer into its liquid-yellow eyes. This wasn't the first time every crevice of her den had been filled with the little croakers. If Pathmark's scent hadn't been lurking so strongly, she might have thought the invasion was someone else's unimaginative idea for a prank. But something... some kind of combination of the frogs and her brother's lurking scent brought back happy memories of her past, of evenings with her father and brother, of trap lines and talking. Right now, those seemed like happier times. Much happier times.
Pathmark had done this, long before, when he had wanted Willow to listen. She knew he had gone to all of this trouble to get her to talk to him again.
She heaved the second heavy sigh of her evening.
**How long did it take you?** she lock-sent to Pathmark. **I’m assuming you had some help?**
She wondered, when she had been dodging others all day, why she couldn't tell her brother that she didn't feel like talking. It's not like they got along well, as it was. Hadn't she yelled at Pathmark the last time they'd got into a conversation?
Pathmark replied with a wordless smile. He wasn’t going to give away his secrets.
'Fine,' Willow thought to herself. 'It’s not as though I’ll be giving any away, either.'
**It’s going to take me all day to get these out of here,** she sent to her brother. **The least you can do is help me clean up the mess you made.**
Pathmark laughed at that and the sound reached Willow before his sending did.
**True... but I didn’t expect you to return so late,** he offered as a weak defense as he ducked into his sister’s den. The grin that lingered on his lips made it fairly obvious he was thinking about certain pranks that Willow had been involved in the past few seasons and the resulting messes, but he wisely chose not to bring those up.
**Those rabbits have nice pelts...** he sent, noticing the new addition to the den floor. Pathmark’s tone was more guarded, the laughter gone. He looked at the floor, scanning for more of the frogs.
**Take one if you want,** she said of the rabbits. **Or more. I have plenty of rabbit pelts right now. I was hoping I’d catch some weasels.**
She said nothing after that. Pathmark hadn’t come here to ask for rabbits; she knew that much. He could go catch his own if he really wanted to. But she wasn’t going to press him into telling her why he was really here. She knew what he wanted; he’d hinted before that he was worried and she’d scolded him for being too sensitive. That same part of her wished he’d decide talking wasn’t the best idea and that he’d decide to go away. Why had she even let him come see her, anyway?
Pathmark hesitated, letting the silence drag on longer than either of the siblings were comfortable with. A heavy sigh was the sign that he’d finally gathered his courage. **If it’s not the traps it’s the beetrees, or a walk, or whatever other excuse you can find to be alone. What’s the matter, Willow? You’re not usually like this...** His words were tentative, but there was genuine concern in his mental voice.
**What’s wrong with me wanting to be by myself once in a while?** she shot back, not bothering to hide her irritation, and, perhaps, not able to hide a hint of something else deep within the response. She stopped gathering for the briefest of moments as she asked that question. **Just because I want to be alone doesn’t mean everyone has to start worrying about me again.**
Pathmark's concern wouldn’t let him back down, not this time. He stood. He had no answers for her, so he pressed on with his own questions. **And this?** Pathmark reached out quickly, grabbing at the long sleeves that covered her arms. **You've been dressed like this since the middle of the warm season!** He stepped closer, between her and the door. The frogs that he’d already caught were escaping, but were forgotten for the moment.
Willow dropped her basket of frogs and pushed Pathmark's arm away as if he were trying to hit her. Before he could react, she forcefully shoved him aside so he couldn't block her in and planted herself next to the door.
**Get out,** she sent. Her mental voice sounded raw, shaken. **I'll clean this up myself. Get out!**
Pathmark staggered backwards, eyes wide. **Willow...** He caught his balance by throwing an arm up against the den wall. The wounded look in his eyes wasn't just a reaction to the physical gesture, but from everything that it represented. He pushed himself back up to a standing position and met her eyes with a sort of awkward, uncharacteristic determination. His stomach clenched when his eyes searched her face and found fear, not the irritated look he had half expected. Everything wasn't right. This proved it. **Don't push me away like this. Not again,** he pleaded, wondering if there was any side of her he could appeal to. **Just tell me what's wrong.** He felt like he was blindly forcing the words out, and kept hoping that they'd lead somewhere, anywhere better than this confrontation. **I'm not going to leave and just continue pretending everything's fine.**
Though she was the one standing by the door, Willow still felt trapped. She looked away from his gaze when his eyes met hers. She felt that sense of fear, one that was becoming all too familiar of late, it seemed, rising up within her. She just wanted a chance to deal with things alone.
"Please leave," she choked out, her voice wavering. She looked at her hands. Were they shaking, too? She couldn't stand this pressure any longer, even though she knew it was unintended. "I don't want to talk right now. Please...leave me alone."
But Pathmark didn't move. His response was to shake his head and remain rooted to the spot.
So it was Willow who turned and bolted from the den door. She'd shaken her brother off her trail too many times to count when they both were younger. She'd just have to do the same again now.
Pathmark was stunned, not sure what to think as he suddenly found himself alone in his sister's den. Whatever response he had predicted, it hadn't been this. It took him a moment to recover his senses, and when he did, he slipped out of the den after her. **Willow!** he sent, not expecting a reply. His eyes raced across the treeline, and he sent for Bonetrail. Fine. If this was how it was going to be... **Windburn, Willow and I are heading out... I'm not sure when we'll be back, don't be worried if you don't hear from us for a while,** Pathmark sent to the chief. He practically fell from the tree in his hurry to get down and release the frogs that were in his bag, before he was scampering back up the trunk to his own den. His satchel was large enough to fit a few waterskins and travelcakes, he packed the sustenance in, his mind already racing ahead. Willow didn't know how stubborn he could be, Pathmark told himself. It had been a long time since the days when he'd been desperate to stick to his big sister's side, but those skills hadn't been lost. No, his tracking had definitely improved, and this was not something he would just give up. It might take days. Pathmark pressed his lips together at that thought, and hoped that it wouldn't. Willow would see that she couldn't just run away before that. He'd be there for her, and maybe just this once, he wouldn't be rejected, not if he proved he'd track her for days. He sighed. Chasing his sister to another confrontation wasn't the best plan, but at least it was something. He couldn’t let her win by running away – again. He slung his bag across his shoulder. By the time he reached the base of the tree, Bonetrail was waiting for him. Pathmark smiled and ruffled the wolf's fur before slinging himself across the wolf's back. **Willow,** he sent, combining the image and the scent of his sister. **Help me find her.**
2501.10.30, early afternoon
She'd taken nothing with her. No food, no water, not even a cloak or a fur in case the weather took a bad turn. Now, Willow asked herself what she was thinking. Pathmark wasn't the little cub that she could easily leave by the wayside any more. No, he'd stayed right at her heels all morning, and into this new afternoon, too; no matter what she tried, she couldn't shake him off her trail. Doubling back and taking to the trees had been useless. She realized, after it was too late, that she had stupidly done the exact things she would have done to shake her brother in the past. This chase wasn't a challenge for Pathmark at all.
She'd taken to riding on wolf back in the hopes that, somehow, Pathmark would get tired of giving chase. But that was a disadvantage, too. Bonetrail was much, much more hardy than old Grizzle. Her wolf was losing his stamina. She knew her brother was gaining on her now, faster than he had been before.
And her own wolf-friend would soon make matters even worse.
**Tired,** Grizzle huffed grumpily. His pace had slowed all the more, and his thoughts mixed in images of resting comfortably in a warm, sunny location.
**We can't stop now,** Willow answered. **Pathmark and Bonetrail will be here soon.**
But Grizzle had had enough. He stopped dead in his tracks and refused to take another step further. **Not running,** he gave, in a simple answer. **Fight.**
Willow, irritated, retorted with a forceful reply of her own. **No fighting. We leave. Now.** She pressed her knees into the wolf's sides to prod him forward.
That was when Grizzle pitched upward and dumped his rider unceremoniously to the ground. He turned to face his fallen rider and narrowed his eyes at her.
**Fight,** he insisted. His sending was all images of him standing up to that lower-ranked wolf and teaching him it wasn't wise to make Grizzle or his elf-friend run away.
Willow made it clear she was less than happy with her wolf-friend's actions. **I'm tired of fighting. You go back to the Holt if you want, but I'm staying here.**
That said, she scrambled up the trunk of a nearby large tree. She knew it was probably too much to hope for that Pathmark wouldn't find her up here, but she was running out of options.
When he did catch her, she had no idea what she would do or say.
She should have left those High-Ones-forsaken frogs alone in the first place!
Despite being prepared for a long chase, Pathmark had hoped that his sister would give in before now. Frustrated with not being able to find any new signs that Willow had been past here, he settled at the base of a tree and pulled out some of the smoked meat he’d taken from the stores. Pathmark chewed thoughtfully as he and his wolf rested. If Willow had no supplies then she’d be tiring far sooner than he – and with her hasty flight out of the Holt, he was guessing that had to be the case.
Quiet footfalls were enough to put him on alert, and both he and Bonetrail were immediately on their feet, food forgotten for the moment. He drew his knife uneasily. **Willow?** he sent, curious.
He touched a lupine mind a moment before Grizzle came into view, snarling at both Pathmark and Bonetrail. Bonetrail immediately lowered his tail and body in submission, and Pathmark himself was startled into taking a step backwards. Uneasily, he watched his sister’s temperamental wolf, but Grizzle didn’t seem focused on starting any fight with them.
Pathmark started breathing again.
**Well,** he sent to Bonetrail, picking up his pack. **We’re still going in the right direction then.**
He gathered everything and started heading into the deeper undergrowth, keeping his eyes trained upwards. Willow might be easier to see from ground level, even if she was up high. There’d be less in his way and the bright sunlight might just frame her silhouette as he tracked her carefully. Eyes trained upwards, Pathmark started to walk ahead of Bonetrail. The wolf’s attention was divided as he tried to keep an eye on Grizzle as well as his elf bond.
Optimism came flooding back as he caught sight of small dry twigs overhead that held signs of being disturbed recently. He started moving quicker, his gaze only dropping to help with his haphazard navigation as he threaded his way through the brush. If he could just catch sight of her, it would be almost over. He could apologize and they’d head back together. Spurred on by hope, Pathmark broke into a run, his feet finding a winding game trail that headed in the exact direction that he wanted to – downwind, where Willow was trying to hide her scent.
Bonetrail was too far behind to warn him. So focused was Pathmark on silently following his sister, that he’d disregarded the other dangers lurking in the forest for a few critical moments. He pushed through another twiggy obstacle, the rich scent of ripe autumn berries filling the air as he crushed a few underfoot. Pathmark slipped slightly, glanced down, and in doing so, caught sight of a dark shape slightly off the path ahead.
A mound of dark fur twisted to reveal bright, dark eyes focused on him. Pathmark froze, stumbling forward a few steps as his momentum pushed him forward. He hadn’t expected to encounter a black bear this close to the wolves’ territory.
Small details suddenly became clearer. He could almost see in slow motion as the bear’s ears swiveled to train on him. Pathmark raised his arms, which were already up and pushing away branches in a desperate attempt to make himself look larger. His knife was at his belt. He’d try to grab it as soon as he had some distance between himself and the large bear.
The bear snorted and rose up on its hind legs. Pathmark felt the color drain from his face as he looked up, taking another slow and careful step backwards. Fear made his heart pound. Another step back. The bear was sniffing the air. Pathmark tried to force words past his constricted throat, but the noises seemed to stick in his chest.
He had managed to take another step backwards when the beast charged. The bear bellowed and launched into motion so quickly that Pathmark’s arm was only halfway to his belt and his weapon when the bear was upon him. He jerked to the side, twisting enough that the raised paw only caught on his shoulder. The impact spun him, and he screamed as the claws tore into his body and he collapsed to the forest floor.
Pathmark struggled to breathe, trying to move his arm. He’d fallen on the wounds and the pain seared through his mind, making it difficult to grasp at any thoughts. He felt numb. He slowly registered that the dampness below him was from his own blood. **Willow!** he sent in desperation, fighting past the pain that had already claimed the edges of his vision, hiding the dark mass above him in foggy grey blurs. He tried to stay still as he felt the heavy impact of the bear’s paws against his back and side.
It became a struggle to get enough energy to send past the pain. **Bear...** he managed to get out, hoping that it would reach his sister. ‘Help me…” he thought, unable to fight past the feeling that his head was wrapped in Preserver silk. The sounds seemed muffled. His vision was tunneling shut, like the mouth of a cave that was growing smaller and smaller.
The bear was tearing apart his favorite pouch, swallowing the food left inside it. Two sets of wolf ankles entered his vision, and the still images stood out in perfect clarity, though he was losing the time in between them as the wolves snapped at and harassed the bear. And then it all went dark.
The deafening bellow came out of nowhere. The sound of it took Willow by surprise and made her heart leap up in her throat. She'd been so focused on watching for signs of her brother and his wolf that anything else was unexpected.
When she calmed down a little, she chuckled. She'd seen and heard bears enough before to know that the sound heralded that one was nearby, and that it wasn't happy at all.
'Good thing I haven't touched any beesweets,' she smirked. She didn't have the energy to dodge a bear now. She'd make sure to stay put until all signs of the unhappy beast were gone.
She was almost settled back into the crook of that particular tree trunk when Pathmark's mind touched hers. The sending was mired in pain, but she could make out her name.
She felt her breath catch in her throat...and then the second sending came.
The send reached her just moments before the sounds of struggle did. Frenzied roars and angry snarls mixed together in a nearby cacophony.
Willow's eyes went wide as she pieced all the clues together.
She scrambled down the trunk of the tree and headed straight toward the din. As she ran, her desperate mind filled in more and more of the details of what she suspected was happening. There were two distinct wolf snarls in that frightening song of battle – it had to be Bonetrail and Grizzle. They were fighting the bear. She sent to let them both know she was coming to fight, too, so the wolves, in the frenzy, wouldn't accidentally turn on her before she arrived.
She tore through underbrush and shrubs, trying to make her way there. She felt like her legs wouldn't move fast enough.
**Pathmark, I'm coming!**
Pathmark had said nothing since those two clipped sends. Willow swallowed back worry. She hoped beyond all hope that when she got there, everything would be all right, even though something deep down in her gut told her it would not be.
There was another loud roar, punctuated by a sharp yelp. The sounds of struggle seemed to retreat.
She burst onto the scene just soon enough to see the dark shape of a she-bear crash through the underbrush in the other direction, Bonetrail snapping at its heels. Grizzle lay, unmoving, in a heap nearby, crying in pain. Willow almost ran to the old wolf, until the sight of Pathmark's torn pack drew her eye. Her brother lay next to it, nearly face-down. Still. He made no sound.
Willow threw herself down next to him and grabbed hold of his tunic to turn him over. When she got him on his side, panic seized her when she spied the damage the she-bear had done: blood poured from the gaping tears over his shoulder and across his back. It ran out of him like water and was growing into an ever-larger pool beneath him.
**Pathmark!** she tried to touch his mind, but Pathmark hardly answered. He was fading, and fading fast.
There was no hope.
**HELP!** Willow sent with all of her might. They weren't all that far from the Holt, were they? Yes, they'd been gone for most of the day, but they'd circled around some, too. Maybe some of the others could get there in time. It was Pathmark's only chance! **Help! Pathmark's been hurt. Bear – wolves on its heels – fear –blood. Bad, bad. Bring Preservers! Hurry! Hurry!**
Windburn's reply was quick and sharp, seeking information on their whereabouts, what had happened, what was wrong. Willow replied as best as her panicked mind could, in hopes that the others could get there quickly.
But when she turned back to her brother, she knew that quickly would not be soon enough. His face was deathly pale, his lips a sickening color of lifeless blue. He was as good as gone.
“No!” Willow cried. She felt so helpless, like she was reliving a moment from her past.
How many times had she forced herself to remember, over and over, when her Father had been caught in that mudslide and had been carried away? How many times had she wished, hoped, that she could have done something different that day?
She leaned over Pathmark's body. She sent, pleading, **Please... I can't lose you, too.**
There was so much blood. She had to stop the bleeding. She put her hands over the largest of the wounds and pressed, knowing that simple pressure would do little, if anything, to make the bleeding stop.
Sensations overran her, just like a mudslide.
Broken. So much is broken. Ribs, shoulder, side.... Excruciating pain. Pain, pain, welling like great waves. Over and over and over again. Everything's a shattered mess, like a clay pot dropped from the highest of trees. Pieces everywhere, everywhere. It's all wrong.
Everything assaulted Willow all at once. She couldn't think. She couldn't breathe!
Deep noise, loud, rumbling. Sounds like... like a dislodged rock tumbling down a ragged cliff face. Erratic, patternless, wrong. Wrong.
Ka-thump, ka-thump-thump. Silence. Silence. Ka-thump-thump, Ka-thump. Silence.
Willow focused on that noise. Something about it...made sense. An inkling of knowing took seed in her mind then, and with every moment she listened, that seed grew. She'd heard this before, hadn't she? Someplace... somewhere else. What was it? She fought through the pain and the confusion and tried to remember.
Like a sudden slap in the face, it came to her. It was a heart. A heart that pumped blood. Blood...
Another, more recent, memory, tickled her mind. There had been so much blood.
Realization dawned on her. This isn't me... it's Pathmark!
Suddenly, everything is here – all at once, as if she'd climbed up on top of Elder Peak and got a new vantage point. A network of little passages in here, like riverways. They twist and turn all through the body. They all carry blood, all go to the heart, all carry the essence of life.
But there, high on the side and over on the back, the riverways are broken. Shattered. Torn. They're ripped to shreds and bleeding those precious contents out. They beckon death to come quickly, end this misery.
Panic seized Willow at that moment.
Full of despair, she glances again at those torn riverways. They have to go back together. She wills that they do so, wills so hard her stomach hurts.
The edges of some of the largest of those vessels moves, slightly. She turns her focus, completely, forcefully, on them - stretching them, making them move.
And move they do. They stretch, join, fuse... enough to where they can, at least, hold blood.
Willow drew back with a sharp gasp. She was trembling. She didn't know where she was.
Grizzle's moaning, just a few short feet away, drove her thoughts back to the then and now.
Pathmark! His life was in danger! She had to stop the bleeding! She frantically looked down at her brother's prone body, still expecting to see blood pouring from those terrible wounds on his back and side.
But the blood just oozed.
Suddenly images of blood vessels like riverways rushed into her mind. Thoughts of merging broken ends together echoed in her head.
Willow raised her shaking hands. They were covered in blood. Her brother's blood.
And then she knew. She'd been lying to herself.
She'd been telling herself that those strange feelings, those strange sensations, would go away. She'd told herself that she never really felt Rainpace's weak arm, never really knew that Dreamflight had hurt herself when she fell and hit her head. That Blacksnake didn't really have bad knees, even though, now, she thought she could see him walk stiffly from time to time.
She'd told herself that what happened with Farscout just days ago was coincidence, that she had done nothing to help him, that his arm had gotten better on its own.
But it hadn't. She had fixed Farscout's arm. Not all the way, but she had fixed it. She'd known it all along.
She had fixed her brother, too, hadn't she? She looked at him, lying next to her, still and pale. Or had she? She knew, despite what she had done, that he still wouldn't last long.
She hadn't fixed him enough.
She raised her shaking hands to eye-level. Could a touch really mend? Did she have the capability to fix what was wrong? She didn't know.
She didn't even know, really, how she had healed what she had before!
Her hands trembled all the more. Could she even do this?
Pathmark would die if she didn't try!
Without hesitating another moment, she reached out again and braced for the intense pain she knew she would feel next.
Pain, agony, like slices from knives that had been heated in fire.
Why does it hurt worse?
Fear clutched at Willow's innermost being. Pathmark's life was depending on her. It was up to her whether he lived or died. But, High Ones, everything in here was still so broken. Still so wrong. It hurt so badly. Where could she start? What could she do?
Frantically, heart in her throat, she went back to the familiar.
One lone riverway, shredded, tattered, broken. Bleeding out life. The ends are frayed, like split-apart rope.
She pictures them merging, whole, then tries to make the real things match the image in her mind. Part of her fears she cannot make them match..
But the ends join, seal.
She finds another, and another. She mends them. But there are so many! How can she ever fix everything in time? What is she doing?
Pain nags nearby, gnawing at her back and chest, threatening, gleefully, to suffocate her. It pesters, hovers, gets in the way. Wells up again, again, again. It bears fangs and sinks them, deeply, into areas already maddened from agony.
Willow cried out.
Leave. Leave. Make it go away. Looking closely, she can see the agony blossom, hover, and then explode forcefully, like marsh cattails in late fall. The agony spreads like seeds on the wind, growing larger and blooming into something more unbearable.
She moves to those angry blossoms, full of hurt and fury. They annoy her, they're getting in the way. They have to stop. She touches the areas where they thrive and grow and wills the fingers of nerves to go numb.
It felt a little better.
But though the annoyance was gone, the matter at hand remained. There was so much to do, and time was slipping away. She felt panic rise again. She pushed herself harder.
She picks out two vessels at a time, then three, then four, and shapes them back together. She tries to steady the beat of her brother's heart – to make it right - so his shocked body can't pull the blood to all the wrong places, like it wants to do.
She works for what seems like a lifetime...
Willow was so focused, so frantic, she didn't notice a presence hovering nearby, at first. Perhaps it was because it watched quietly, at first, not wanting to get in the way.
But when she slumped, feeling exhaustion set in, it moved closer, close enough for Willow to sense it. It spoke.
**Willow?** it asked.
No sooner had her name been said, she realized that the mental voice was her brother's. That presence was Pathmark. He was sending to her. Hope blossomed in her heart.
**Pathmark...** High Ones, she felt like her mind was stuck in mud. **Please be all right. I'm trying to make it better.**
**I know. I...I feel better,** came the reply.
And, for some reason, that response lifted a burden from Willow's shoulders.
2501.10.30, after nightfall
A mournful, echoing howl broke Willow from her trance. Her stomach lurched as though she had been on Grizzle's back and he had come to an abrupt stop.
It was only when she thought of her wolf that she realized he had gone silent. Weakly, she craned her head to look at where she knew her poor wolf lay.
Night had fallen. More time had passed than she could have guessed while she tried to fix the damage the she-bear had done to her brother. The still form of her wolf-friend was bathed in shadow.
He was dead. She knew, even from this distance. He was dead.
Bonetrail lifted his head and howled again.
**Howl for me, too,** Willow begged the wolf. She and Grizzle had been, at most, the uneasiest of partners. But sorrow still ached in her heart. Her wolf had died trying to protect what little blood-family she had left. Tears stung her eyes, but she forced herself to fight them back.
There was still too much to do. There was no time to mourn.
Pathmark could not die.
She reached for her brother again.
She didn't hear them enter the clearing, but the sounds of them dismounting their wolves and scrambling closer roused her from the trance she had found herself in once again.
She cracked her eyes open in enough time to see Cloudfern slide next to her, reach for her. Windburn, Thornbow, and Blacksnake were just behind him. Two Preservers were there, too, fluttering about and chittering noisily about Wrapstuff.
“No!” she begged, weakly. She didn't dare send, didn't dare for fear she'd break that bond she'd made with her brother. She was attuned to her brother's body and what was in it now. She could almost feel comfortable 'moving around' in it, if you could call it that....If one could get comfortable with such things.
“Willow, move – Cloudfern needs to see him. See you both,” Windburn insisted. Willow shook her head.
She tried to say something to them. Her breath came in short, ragged gasps. She was soaked to the bone with her own sweat. Her brother's blood caked her clothes, her hair, and her fingers. She was shaking so terribly from the effort over the past hours that she fought to hold herself upright. As she looked at the four who had come to her aid, her vision blurred. Her eyes went heavy-lidded. She felt faint. She swayed.
Blacksnake reached out to steady her.
“Don't... touch me!” she warned, righting herself. It was all she had the strength left to say. If she felt anything from their bodies, who knew how that might affect what she was doing to Pathmark's.
There was enough urgency in her voice that Blacksnake withdrew.
She wasn't finished yet. There was so much left to be mended. Ribs were still broken, muscle still torn. There was bruising and... so many things not yet right. She knew she couldn't even begin to fix it all. She didn't have the strength. But she wanted, at least, to make sure her brother would be safe going home.
She leaned over Pathmark and placed her hand on his side, over a place where the she-bear's claws had ripped deeply. She closed her eyes, so she could 'see' what she needed to do.
Torn muscle, torn skin, no barrier to protect what had been fixed in all those layers below. It needed to move, needed to cover...
Shaping even the smallest bit of skin, at this point, was like pulling a poorly tanned hide.
She wills the flesh, but nothing happens. She grits her teeth and tries as hard as her exhaustion lets her try. She strains with the effort, feels his flesh almost come alive at her fingertips... She wills it to move just that bit more, to grow just that short distance.
It's as though it's heavy, too heavy to move, heavier than anything she's lifted in her life. She needs only to stretch it the smallest of distances, but she might as well be trying to pull it over a canyon. She struggles. The flesh stubbornly refuses to grow as it's asked.
Willow repositions her hand. She has to do this. She has to dig deep, search hard to find it. She hasn't much of anything left to give.
She makes the connection. She fights with all her will to keep hold of it.
She feels her hands become warm, feels the glow.
She hears herself cry out with the effort as she makes that flesh and muscle grow, bend, cover the last of those open spaces...
Willow opened her eyes, moved her hand to look at the skin below her fingertips. She heaved a ragged breath. It wasn't very pretty. Stitches would have been neater, could she have done them. What she did would leave a nasty scar, but it was patched. That was what mattered.
Amazingly enough, the corner of her mouth curled upward into a smile.
She hoped she had done enough, hoped that Pathmark would be all right, that he would be...
“Safe,” she whispered, as that thought came to her mind.
Her smile disappeared as adrenaline faded and her body crashed. She felt the bite of the wind, felt the sweat drip from her face, felt herself tremble both from weakness and from the chilly night. The last thing she felt was herself toppling forward just moments before everything went blissfully, painlessly, senselessly, black.