(This story begins directly after "The Healer", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
2501.10.30, late afternoon
Images of a fallen, blood-covered elf slammed into Windburn's mind, jolting him out of a very deep sleep and into an unwelcome state of confusion.
**Help!** It was Willow's mindvoice, jumbled and clipped due to sheer panic, **Pathmark's been hurt. Bear – wolves on its heels – fear – blood. Bad, bad. Bring Preservers! Hurry! Hurry!**
Windburn was out of bed and on his feet before Willow's sending had finished.
He sent for Cloudfern, knowing that the plantshaper must have heard the sending, too, but he wanted to be sure.
**Rushing down tree-steps now—emergency healing kit in hand—Spirit's coming,** came Cloudfern's lightning-fast reply.
**Get Preservers!** Windburn sent, then summoned Whirl, grabbed his spear, and rushed out of his den. There was no time to waste!
**Willow, where are you?** he projected out to the distressed elf. Her response was muddy, clouded by a fear so strong it made Windburn feel afraid, too. He couldn't get a precise location from her, but he gathered enough to know that she was far from the holt.
**Thornbow, get food and furs,** he ordered. **True Edge--**
**I'm coming, too.** The boldness of Blacksnake's statement interrupted Windburn's order mid-send. **Wasp is with me. I'm ready.**
Windburn sent acceptance of his father's request. Blacksnake was more than capable of helping, and now was not the time to argue. **Thornbow, Blacksnake, Cloudfern, then. With me.**
**To where?** Blacksnake asked.
**Southwest of here,** Windburn sent back, sharing the jumbled messages he'd received when he pressed Willow for them just moments ago. **That's all she could tell me. She's frightened out of her mind.**
He didn't dare add that last thought that was running through his mind, even though he knew most everyone else was thinking what he was too: there was no way they could reach Willow and Pathmark in time. The way it stood, they'd be bringing home a body. This wasn't a rescue mission. It was a recovery.
**Willow!** Windburn sent with all his might, but he received no response. The only response was the stir of dead leaves still stubbornly clinging to naked trees as the chill wind that had picked up just around nightfall gusted again.
**Why won't she answer anyone?** Thornbow asked, his mind-voice heavy with concern. In frustration, he howled loudly, as he and the others had been since setting out, hoping that perhaps Grizzle or Bonetrail would answer, but that was met with silence, too.
Windburn couldn't answer that question. He'd been trying to send to Willow since sundown, to find out something, anything about where she and Pathmark were. Willow had been silent since that initial sending, and that had been when the sun was still relatively high. The chief couldn't help but feel like his group was stumbling around blindly. They'd had to pick their way southward, looking for signs of the two elves' passage. At times, just when it seemed the trail was picking up, all trace of where Pathmark and Willow had gone suddenly faded to nothing, and they'd have to scour the place just to find some little sign to point them in the right direction again.
Frustration and worry built to a dangerous level in Windburn's gut. **WILLOW!** he sent again.
**Windburn, here.** Blacksnake bent over to peer at the branches of a prickly shrub. A small tuft of brindled fur was hooked on the end of one of the bush's barbed thorns. He plucked it and held it to eye-level as Windburn and the other two males approached. **It's Grizzle's.**
2501.10.30, late evening
Sends and howls had still gone unanswered, but the trail had become clear now; almost too easy to follow. Grizzle's footsteps had patterned the ground first. They were heavy, they showed the old wolf was growing tired. Bonetrail's prints followed behind. Willow and Pathmark had ridden their wolves at a dead run.
And now, as he and his companions rode that same trail, Windburn couldn't help but wonder what the siblings had been doing. Were they being careless, as Willow had been known to do? Willow had been acting especially odd these past few days. But how had Pathmark been hurt? Pathmark wasn't the risk-taker his sister was. He was careful. A she-bear shouldn't have surprised him.
Windburn wanted answers, and now it seemed he would get none until he could find where the pair had ended up. But, given Willow's silence, he could only worry that she might be dying, too.
The howl broke Windburn's train of thought. It was distant, faint. It might not have reached them had it not been for the chill breeze carrying the sound.
The four wolves' ears pricked at the call. They stopped in their tracks, listening.
Another howl followed the first. The wolves lifted their heads and howled, too. It was a song that had been sung not long ago. It had been sung the day the tribe had said farewell to Farscout's wolf-friend, Bracken.
Another of the pack had fallen.
Windburn cut the wolves' howl short. He howled in return – a different howl that said, “Help is coming,” and urged Whirl forward, to run as fast as she could. Time might have already run out.
They stumbled into the clearing. Everything was a mess. Tatters of cloth and leather were everywhere. The air was heavy with the stink of blood and death. Grizzle's still form lay in a heap on the ground. The scene was a shock for the chief to take in – it made him expect the worst. He dismounted and immediately set the wolves on guard for the possible return of an angry she-bear.
Cloudfern was a step ahead of him as they scrambled to Willow and Pathmark. Willow was hunched over her brother's body, trembling so badly he could see it, even though he was paces away. She must have been injured in the attack, too.
Cloudfern reached for Willow, but she moved just enough to avoid his touch. Windburn heard her say something to the plantshaper, but exactly what she said was snatched from his ears by the wind.
The Preservers Mushroom and Foamspray jumped from their perches in Cloudfern's hair and circled over the two bloodied elves. Mushroom chirruped, “No good. Highthings hurt bad. Make wrapstuff now?”
“Not yet,” Windburn told them, then turned to Willow. “Willow, move – Cloudfern needs to see him. See you both,” the chief insisted. Willow shook her head.
That was when Willow lifted her head to look at each of them. High Ones, she didn't look good. She was caked in blood, and dripping with sweat, even though it was cold enough tonight to make one's teeth chatter. She gasped for air, like she'd been running for hours.
Suddenly, her eyes rolled back in her head and she swayed. Blacksnake reached out to steady her.
“Don't... touch me!” she snarled at the elder, like a wolf defending its share of the kill. Windburn noted Blacksnake was surprised enough to draw back.
Willow slumped over Pathmark's body again. It was time to take action.
**We have to move her,** Cloudfern insisted, undeterred by Willow's warning to leave them alone.
Windburn nodded and moved up to help with the task himself when what he saw next stopped him in his tracks.
Willow's hands were glowing -- glowing a pale yellow.
**Don't touch her,** Blacksnake warned.
Windburn balked. Was that knowing in his father's voice? Despite that twinge of curiosity, he moved back. Cloudfern and Thornbow did, too.
The four males watched as that small glow suddenly grew, accompanied by a gut-wrenching cry from the girl. For a brief moment, that whole clearing seemed warm and bright, and then the light that only elf-kind could sense faded quickly into nothingness.
Windburn's jaw dropped. What in the name of the Firstcomers had they just seen? His thoughts of disbelief were cut short as Willow sat up, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes. She moved her hands from Pathmark's side. Her eyes were glassy, a smile crept up on her lips.
“...Safe,” she whispered.
No sooner had those words left her tongue, than she fell forward, unconscious.
Cloudfern was at her side in an instant, taking charge. He pulled Willow off her brother and laid her, next to Pathmark, on the ground.
“Her skin's like ice,” he finally said. “We need to warm her up!”
Blacksnake moved before Windburn could. The elder peeled his cloak from his shoulders, wrapped Willow in it and carried her to the low side of the clearing.
Windburn sighed with relief. If Willow was able to be moved, that was a good thing. However, he refused to let down his guard. It was hard to tell how badly injured Pathmark was. He moved closer as Cloudfern carefully pulled a bit of moonmoss from his emergency pack and looked over the younger elf.
Windburn watched. He waited. As Cloudfern examined his patient, the chief's thoughts began to turn to Kestrel, whom he'd just sent out on another trip to watch the humans. It had only been ten years since the glider had lost Bowflight, her only son. Windburn remembered the day Bowflight died all too well. He remembered sending to her to tell her that her son had been swept away in that landslide....
Would he be sending to the eldest elder that she had lost her grandson, too?
Cloudfern shook his head, drawing Windburn's attention. **I don't believe it,** the herbalist sent to his companions, his tone incredulous... full of disbelief, even though something else indicated that he almost knew what he would see. **It's hard to tell what might be tender inside – at least in this light. I can see some bruises, which means some bones might be broken. But every last scratch on the outside is sealed or scabbed. It's nowhere as neat as I'd have done with a bone needle and some stitches, but there's nothing gaping, at least.**
Thornbow's thoughts, on the other hand, more closely reflected Windburn's own. **I still can't believe any of this,** the archer answered, cautiously leaning forward as though remnants of the magic he’d just seen might still be lingering. **I've never seen magic that looked like that before.**
Windburn leaned in close, too, to look at the mended flesh to which Cloudfern was referring... what was it about Cloudfern's tone that bothered him? He knew, by Burn's blazing stare, what Willow had done. She'd healed Pathmark. Saved her brother's life. There was no doubt about that. But why was there an undertone of knowing in Cloudfern's thoughts? The plantshaper didn't seem as surprised about this new revelation as Windburn certainly felt.
**I don't see how there can be any doubt,** Cloudfern sent, his tone all too certain. He cast a knowing look at Blacksnake, then stated what Thornbow hadn't quite figured out yet. **Willow healed Pathmark.**
Windburn's gaze immediately shifted to his father. It was all too clear that Cloudfern knew something about Willow's capabilities before now, but did Blacksnake know something, too?
Blacksnake was still back with Willow; he'd laid the unconscious girl between himself and Spirit in the hopes that both his body heat and the wolf's would warm Willow back up.
Blacksnake's eyes met his. There was something about that look.
Windburn's eyes narrowed. **You knew,** he lock-sent to his sire. **You knew she could heal and you didn't tell me.**
Blacksnake's gaze didn't waver, nor did he hesitate in his reply. **I did. And, had you had your eyes open, you might have figured it out, too.**
Windburn stood up straight. **Of anyone in the tribe, I should have been the one to know. You should have told me if you knew. This is important. This will change so many things.**
**This wasn't my secret to tell.**
**This was too important not to tell me,** Windburn snapped back. Yes, in an ideal situation, it might have been best to wait for Willow to reveal herself that this change had taken place within her. But, in this situation, keeping silent might have led to disasterous results. Surely Blacksnake should have realized that! Hadn't his sire realized, if he -- the chief -- had known this, he might not have let Willow and Pathmark go out today?
The question remained, too – how had Cloudfern and Blacksnake found out?
**Willow didn't tell you of her gift, did she?** he lock-sent to his father.
**Who told you, then?**
Something else clicked in Windburn's mind. Of course! Willow and Farscout both had acted so strangely on the way home after Whitechest's attack. **Willow healed Farscout--**
**She did. And Farscout came to Cloudfern and me.**
Windburn set his jaw. His initial suspicions had been verified. **Who else knows about this?**
**Well, now you. And Thornbow. And, soon, the rest of the tribe,** Blacksnake answered matter-of-factly.
Windburn wrested his gaze from Blacksnake's. His mind swam with thoughts. For a moment, he felt betrayed by three elves that, by all means, he should have been able to trust the most. Why had they kept this from him? He was the chief – if anyone should have been told, it should have been him! How could he possibly watch out for the best interests of the tribe if important things like this were kept from him? How many more secrets might they be hiding?
He turned to watch Thornbow and Cloudfern. Both were busy helping prepare Pathmark to be wrapped for the journey home. It would be quicker and safer to bring him home that way.
A quick glance back at Blacksnake revealed the elder pulling the fur up more tightly around Willow's shoulders to guard against the chilly, incessant, wind. Blacksnake's eyes, for the briefest of moments, met his, silently asking if Windburn had any more questions.
Windburn took a deep breath, then exhaled. He made a decision. No, there would be no more questions. Not now.
**Pathmark will be ready to move soon,** Cloudfern announced. The Preservers had already begun their work.
**All right, let's leave quickly. There's no telling how safe we are here.** There had been no sign of the she-bear's return, but the smell of blood could draw other things. Windburn was surprised it hadn't drawn other predators already.
The chief took a deep breath, held it, and slowly let it out, trying his best to extinguish the anger and disappointment he felt flickering in his gut. There were more important things to be concerned with now, such as getting Pathmark and Willow back home and back to good health. Hopefully, once they were well, there would be answers to all the questions brewing in the chief's mind. He would choose a later time to address why his father, Farscout, and Cloudfern hadn't felt the need to tell him of this very important secret.
Windburn told himself, despite the frustrations of the moment, he had to count today as a lucky day. Soon, if all went well, he'd bring Willow and Pathmark home, safe.
And what would happen after that? That Windburn didn't know. But surely, if Willow could save her brother, so grievously wounded, from death, there must be hope for those waiting in wrapstuff, too.
He'd gone out thinking today would be a day of mourning. Instead, it would be a day to celebrate. After countless years, lifetimes, really, of waiting, there was a healer --a real, magical, healer, among them again at last.