(This story begins directly after "Fight or Flight, Pt. 2", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories..)
The sun was past zenith and falling to the west. This close to the year’s shortest day, its rays were already slanted, casting long shadows and spreading no warmth. Still, it was higher in the sky than Blacksnake expected. He would have said that the encounter with Willow had taken longer. Much longer.
On their way back to the Dentrees, Willow’s path diverged from his quickly, as she headed for the outskirts of the marshes. He let her go. No need to shadow her steps this time; he believed her when she told him that she would return to the Dentrees, to the tribe. That she would stop hiding from them, avoiding them. That she would face up to the powers the High Ones had given her, and learn how to use them. She’d sent him her promise, and there was only truth in sending.
Blacksnake himself took the direct route back. If he was lucky, he might yet snatch a few hours’ sleep before it would be time to head out with some hunters, looking for whatever prey might be stirring in the snowy landscape. Across the frozen river, to the clearings near the Deer Marsh, maybe. Find some of the yards the deer had trampled in their endless white-cold search for food. Hot, fresh meat would be a welcome addition to the rations the tribe drew from the wrapstuffed caches below the Mother Tree. It would make a proper feast to celebrate the healer’s return to them –
He stumbled, catching himself before he fell face-first into the snow. He hadn’t been paying attention to his steps, and his foot had caught on something tangled and hidden beneath the white crust. Shaking himself, he looked around – he was just coming into the wide meadows to the east of Badger’s Lake. The shadow of the Guardian Ridge was already starting to fall over them.
As soon as he stopped moving, he could feel the tremors running through the muscles of his legs. It wasn’t just the cold, though that was there, too, eating into him. He could still feel an echo of the thrashing fire the healer had sent into him with her touch. He locked his knees, bracing himself upright – reminded of how he'd done the same not long before on the ledge beside the hot-springs, Willow in his arms… and how that had failed, unable to stop himself from falling although he hadn't let go of her. At least he could say that, with some pride.
This time, though, it worked. This time, there was no searing pain, only weakness, and that he could master. He stood still, and stared across the open, gently rolling expanse of almost unbroken white, stared at the dark treeline on the far side, and the crowns of the great Dentrees visible in the distance. At that moment, the idea of walking all the way to that treeline felt like a task that might be beyond his strength.
Blacksnake snorted. No need to be over-dramatic, he told himself sharply. No need to be a fool, either. He tipped back his head, cupping his mittened hands around his mouth, and let loose a howl into the chill afternoon air, meant for one pair of ears only. He underlaid the howl with a short, powerful sending, just in case the hearer needed wakening.
The answering call was distant but clear. He smiled with satisfaction, answered with a series of short howls and yips of his own, and then stayed still, watching and listening.
He didn’t have long to wait. First he heard the croaking call of ravens in the trees near the lake. They took off, black dots against the brilliant blue of the sky, skimming out over the meadow, circling. Then he saw the dark shapes crest a low hill, three of them running fast, bounding through the deeper drifts in the hollows of the land. Wasp’s dark-grey shape was in the lead, followed by two lighter wolves. He soon recognized them as his granddaughter’s wolf-friend, Peakrunner, along with Rainpace’s Bristlepelt – eager mid-rankers, awake and curious to follow the pack’s leader on his errand.
The wolves arrived in an explosion of snow while Blacksnake stood his ground. The other two circled excitedly, but Wasp was all business. The canny old alpha had felt the underlying messages of his elf-friend’s wolf-send. He leaned up against the elf, and Blacksnake took off his gloves and buried his fingers in the thick grey ruff.
A short distance away, Peakrunner had wandered with his head cocked, and suddenly the wolf hopped straight up, coming down with nose and both forepaws stabbing into the snow, to emerge a moment later with the tail and hind legs of a vole hanging from his mouth. Bristlepelt watched with interest, and then likewise turned his attention to studying the ground, ears pricked and listening. The wolves’ energy was infectious; Blacksnake felt better just feeling Wasp’s strength underneath his hands, and the warmth of the big body pressed against him.
Wasp turned worried amber eyes on him, and he laughed. “I’m tired, that’s all,” he said.
**Home.** The wolf's answer was short, vivid, and to the point.
Above, the ravens voiced their disappointment in the wolves with harsh calls, now that it was apparent that the howling and running wasn’t leading to a kill. Too interested in the snow and the field-mice to be found in the grass tunnels underneath it, too excited by the joys of racing through the flying powder, the two younger wolves soon split away from them, unwilling to return to the dens right away. Wasp ignored them, carrying Blacksnake in a straight line for the Dentrees, steady and purposeful.
The sun’s golden rays still touched the uppermost branches of the trees, and the tribe was still sleeping when they arrived. Blacksnake was unfastening the hide covering his own den’s entrance, near the ground, when he saw to his surprise that Wasp was still at his shoulder. He paused to rub the wolf’s ears, then slapped Wasp’s shoulder firmly. “Thanks for the rescue, old friend. But it’s the sleepfurs for me right now.” The pack’s leader almost never came in to sleep with his elf-friend. He had his mate and the pack to attend to.
This time, however, Wasp huffed, and bumped his shoulder into Blacksnake’s own, nudging the elf towards the den’s entrance. He gave the wolf an amused look, and Wasp stared back at him steadily. It wasn't a contest of wills worth having, not when they wanted the same goal. Blacksnake ducked beneath opening in the thick hide, and Wasp followed him into the small den.
It was warm in there already, much warmer than the air outside. Some of the pack's lowest-ranked wolves often came to share the ground-level dens with the elves, a habit that a wise elf encouraged in winter. Moss's Weasel, along with unbonded Browncoat, were in there already, warming the den with their body heat. They woke when Wasp nudged them apart, and they readily made room for both pack-leader and elf. Lashing the door-hide back up tightly, Blacksnake threw down his cloak, and settling in amongst the wolves, pulled the furs from the bed over him.
Then it was all darkness and silence, except for breathing, and gradual warming from the solid weights around him.
He should have fallen asleep instantly. He was exhausted out of all proportion with the day's efforts, and though he'd missed sleep, it shouldn't affect him so much – but he knew better than to lie to himself about the cause. Lying curled beneath the heap of furs, no longer distracted by the need to move, the task of getting home, he had nothing to do in the silence but listen to his body's complaints.
Now, with his eyes closed, he could almost pinpoint the heavy, hovering pain behind his eyes, somewhere in the middle of his head; it throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and it should have drowned out all other feelings, but it didn't. All his limbs ached, even down to his fingers. Muscles jumped and twitched, restless, as if ready and eager to run, or to fight. Sharp, tingling lines of heat raced across his skin at unpredictable intervals. He held himself rigid, but couldn't stop the shaking, and at his back Wasp whined and pressed against him more tightly.
**Hush,** he sent to the wolf. **This will pass.** It was a reassurance for himself, as well.
Fresh experience sharpened the memories better than dreamberries. For a moment, out there on the ledge above the steaming pools, time had slipped, and it wasn't a frightened, sapling-green girl-cub filling him with skyfire at her touch – it was a tall and grey-haired shape, hands that had never been anything but soothing and loving, and a long, lined face twisted into a hateful mask.
**Useless whelp.** The words were cold as winter ice, contemptuous, and something in him flared and strained, pleading – with his grandfather, with himself, or with the High Ones. None of Owl's children had yet shown the gift, but… he was Dove's son, wasn't he? It might be within him. He had never wanted anything more, but it hadn't come – not in the sorrow of his own father dying, or the terror of watching his mother and brother sicken, and feeling the first threads of sickness in himself. Not as he watched so many die, and too few saved by Owl's hands. Not even in the shock of seeing his grandsire's hands turned against them, and the knowing that only one thing could fight Owl, and that was a healer like Owl – but Owl's line was dead, dying. Melody was dead, and Reed was dead, and Dove had never shown any sign of having the gift, and that left himself and Axehand, and both of them were –
**Useless whelps.** Was it the strong wolfblood of their father that made them unfit? That thought had been in Owl's sending, too, along with the torrent of despair that threatened to pull under those his mind touched. Young Blacksnake had never felt a pain like the red-flared blast that swatted him aside, followed by a pulse of bitter disappointment (Owl's? or his own?) when even that attack failed to rouse an answering, defending flare of power –
A wolf's cold nose touched the back of his neck, and startled Blacksnake back into the Now. He was breathing hard again, tensed with the memory of that long-ago failure. Wasp licked his ear, and he had to relax enough to unlock his limbs and reach up a reassuring hand to the wolf.
Willow's attack had been nowhere near as severe. She was young and untrained, and acting on instinct, and more important, the greater part of her did not want to attack at all. That had made a great deal of difference. It was also why he wasn't angrier with her. He'd known it for the reflex of fear and the clumsiness of one still unsure and learning. That could be excused – once. He would be far less patient and forgiving if he didn't see her work her tail off now to ensure it didn't happen again.
Still, that was a pain the like of which he hadn't felt in centuries. No other pain of the body compared with it. The aftershocks were fading, but still a potent reminder. He couldn’t remember how long it would take for them to pass completely.
**That's what you get for pushing a healer.** That sardonic observation came to him in the voice of his soul's brother, Lynx. He could almost see the glittering green eyes, the mouth curled in a sly, provoking smile. Lynx was always ready to laugh at him when he over-reached himself. Lynx laughing at him never failed to drive him to redouble his efforts, to try harder, to show the elder that Blacksnake knew what he was doing. And since they knew each other's souls, he knew that Lynx knew it. That didn't keep the tawny-maned elder from saying you-should-know-better.
**You're one to talk,** he replied, though he knew the apparition was nothing but a trick of his own mind. He couldn't make his point to the other with the reminder of Lynx's own fury and desperation and futile defiance of the healer when it was his own flesh and blood, his precious daughter, in danger. Sometimes, whatever the punishment, the risk is worth it.
But there was no use arguing that with Lynx. His soul-brother was gone, throwing away his own life for something that had been… worth it. That, Blacksnake understood. Today, his own life had been nowhere near in the balance, and whatever Willow's burning touch had done to him, whatever he was feeling now, it was more than worth it if it brought them one step further on the path to having a real, living, working healer again. **You would approve,** he told the memory, or perhaps he sent it out, wondering if it might find Lynx's spirit. It meant Brightwood's life again, among so many other things.
**Would I, Grahn?**
Blacksnake shivered, because he could picture the look on Easysinger's face, the expression that went with that tone. He might know, without question, that he had Tyrlee's love, her heart – but it was still frightening when he knew he'd displeased her. Her blue eyes wouldn't be warm, looking down at him, not as mate to mate, but as chief to erring pup.
"It needed doing," he whispered, and that sounded convincing in his own ears, but… he couldn’t chase away the image of his lifemate or the disappointed look she wore. He would have cut off his own hand before he betrayed his chief, even before they had Recognized and lifemated. But now…
**Your flesh and blood. And mine. And now that I am gone, he is what's left.**
His soul cried against that, but knew it for the truth. The truth, but that truth didn't touch the distance between himself and his son. "This was too important." Too important to waste time arguing. Too important to leave in hands that might fumble it.
**As you nearly did?**
Memory of fear rose up, the fear of the moment when the chief had shared Willow's thread-thin call for help. That bear… it might have killed both elves. And yes, underneath the fear lay the questions. Should he have prevented it, somehow? If they had told Windburn, exposed Willow's secret to the tribe, could the chief have kept her safe?
Blacksnake pushed those thoughts away. He knew the answer. No. Maybe that particular encounter wouldn't have happened, but… You couldn't sit on a healer and keep her locked away and safe. Owl would have had the ears of anyone who tried to keep him from going on a hunt. Danger was just part of life, bad luck could strike anyone. They could all be more careful, but they were fools if they thought they could anticipate everything.
Still, the thought came back that once he'd known the truth, Windburn had not reacted as Blacksnake had feared. Yes, he'd stubbornly stuck to his latest decision past the time when he should have been rethinking it, looking for another way, but –
**Do you know that he wasn't?** Blacksnake's way in arguments was to grow sharp and prodding. Easysinger had always remained calm for far longer, persistent and questioning. They had been lifemates for so long that the pattern had etched itself in his mind.
No, of course he didn't know – for all he knew, others had approached the chief. If Windburn hadn't seen what Blacksnake had seen, maybe others had pointed it out to him. Maybe the chief was on the verge of ordering a new approach, and Willow's return today would forestall that only by hours.
**You could have gone to him.**
And pushed him into doing the opposite of whatever I urged, Blacksnake answered that persistent thread of doubt. I'm not the one he listens to. Now, less than ever, feeling betrayed over the secrets kept about Willow's emerging powers.
**You could try harder.**
He snorted to himself at that thought. Yes, he could. And Windburn could plant his feet and become more stubborn than ever, if his father pushed him. Blacksnake had had long enough – too long, far too long – to study his son's habits as chief.
**You've never given up in the face of a challenge before.**
Sometimes, he countered. Sometimes, if you can't go through, you find a way to go around.
Maybe there was something to those admonitions, though. Now that they were in his mind, he couldn't dismiss them. The part of his soul that had always belonged to his lifemate, to Easysinger, was right to reprove him. So would Windburn be – if his son had the guts to do it, this time. Two insults, in such a short time… yes, Blacksnake knew he deserved whatever the chief might choose to throw at him. This time… this time, surely, it wouldn't be ignored.
Time to think on that later, he told himself. Now that this crisis was past. High Ones, let it be past. Let what he'd done, and what he'd endured, be worth it.
He was warm now, and the tremors were easing. At his back, Wasp sighed and settled into a doze. Blacksnake listened to the breathing of the wolves, and followed them into sleep.