(This story is a part of the "One-Leg adjusts to the loss of his leg" storyline -- see listing for related stories.)
Axehand lay expectantly under the fur covers. Dawn had arrived by the time Doeskin finally pulled back the drape over the entrance to his den. Their den? The thin clouds arcing over her were as vibrantly red as his shaggy mane. The tawny-haired tanner carried a growling ball of black fur nestled in her slender arms. By the look of it, the pup had some weeks to go before weaning was done.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, dear one, but I made a new friend today! He doesn’t have name yet, but it will probably have the word ‘gnaw’ or ‘teeth’ in it.” The pup was happily chewing away at Doeskin’s sleeve. “I came by for some scrap leather. Before he nibbles me out of all my clothes.”
“I thought that was my job, sweet one.” Was it too soon to call her ‘my love’? He chuckled and waved her over to his hoard. Axehand was still experimenting with the best materials to comfortably and firmly secure his peg-leg to his knee. (He knew a re-naming was unavoidable. The more time he spent in public, the more he was being seen as something new that needed a new name. But if his next name was going to have the word ‘Leg’ in it that would wait until he was satisfied with its trappings.) Swatches of fur and soft leathers from Doeskin herself, Dreamberry’s finest silks, specially prepared leaves courtesy of Sunlight, and a jumbled assortment of Suddendusk’s inventions were scattered across what little table and shelf space there was.
The pair of them had had quite a bit of fun discovering how they felt against other parts of an elf’s body.
Accepting of another inevitability, Axehand quietly reached for and wriggled into a loincloth. He knew how Doeskin was with new wolf-friends, especially the younger ones. She’d be doting over that pup for a moon, as much as his mother would allow. Their brief but invigorating romance was effectively over.
‘For the moment.’ Axehand resolved as he watched her lovely body move as Doeskin walked away. Already she was too absorbed with her new bond-friend to say thank you or goodbye. He couldn’t resist getting one last slap on that gorgeous behind on its way out. That earned a laugh and a proper farewell.
Axehand surveyed his surroundings. For the first time, he was truly alone in this new den. Cloudfern had moved him down to this ground-level section of the Child Tree following the brutal fall which ultimately cost him a leg. His daughter Flash moved herself in as a self-appointed nursemaid and stayed rooted there until Axehand was literally strong enough to throw her out. (She had no complaints at the time, as he’d made a point of tossing her in Whitestag’s direction.) Her departure had left room in the place for a few glorious hands-of-days with Doeskin.
Doeskin hadn’t officially moved into this new den. But she hadn’t moved out of their old one either. High up in the Mother Tree, it was no longer a practical option for him. The first steps towards getting closer with Doeskin had been taken, and he had all the time in the world to wait for her to take a few steps more.
A new plan formed, inspired by Doeskin’s happy accident. He pulled himself out of bed and into his wooden leg. Once upright, he covered his pride with a flimsy wrap-around skirt. Many in the tribe had expected that he would take to wearing skirts as a regular practice out of convenience. But, determined as he was to show them all that a trifling matter like a missing leg would not change who he was, he favored keeping skirts limited to his standard use for them: showcasing his availability to the local females.
As Easysinger had often quipped; “When Axehand puts on a skirt, he expects to take it off.”
What was left of the night was, alas, not to be spent in search of an elf-maiden’s companionship. Instead he followed his instincts up the trail leading to the den where the remaining pups were sure to be found. This was their first look at the recently-diminished elf, but there was nothing diminished about his posture, which proudly announced him as one not to be shuffled to the back of the pack. The alpha female, nicknamed Redpatch by the whole tribe as she had no elf-friend, mostly ignored him. She know well enough what Axehand was at.
So too did Traptease, the wolf to whom he just happened to already be bonded. Low-ranked and uncertain, she kept her distance from elf and fellow wolves both, keeping to the treeline while following Axehand into the area. Her presence alone was enough to drag his mind’s eye across all-too-fresh memories.
Traptease had been with him when he’d taken his fall. She’d dragged him to the others, to safety and healing, silently enduring as his trembling hands grasped desperately to her back. It was a noble thing, and he owed the wolf his life. But afterward… Elves take care of their wounded, sick, their dying. It is a behavior the wolf pack tolerates but does not really understand. If Axehand had been a wolf… Traptease shunned him as though he was one before the gangrene was set in enough for an elfin nose to detect. Part of him knew she couldn’t help but reject him -- instinct will out -- but a larger part cursed her absence in the dark nights and days that followed. That an ally of eight-and-three turns would suddenly have no problem at all with leaving him to starve and die alone in the wilderness wounded him as deeply as his physical woes. If Traptease had been an elf…
She’d made a few efforts to rejoin him several nights prior, well after the hardest parts of his recovery. But they lacked her habitual confidence, and by then overprotective Flash had made a habit of shooing out any wolf looking to use the ground-level den for its warmth in the deepening chill of autumn nights. Including Traptease. Truth be known, he had encouraged his daughter, in so much as he didn’t call for her to stop. He didn’t want to lock eyes with the fair-weather friend who’d saved him one day and betrayed him another.
Axehand didn’t face her now. He was here to see and be seen with fresh eyes. Three pups appeared from the warren, summoned by the new and strange sounds his three-part gait made as he neared their home. He happily endured the pups’ playful inspection while trying to maintain balance with deft swings of his staff -- which naturally the younglings decided was a game of keep-away. It was medicine for the sprit to be welcomed like this by those who had never seen him as anything else but what he was now, unfettered by memories of what may never be again.
The one with dirty-grey fur pushed its way ahead of the others, intent on getting a closer whiff of the pine-tinged varnish wafting off Axehand’s not-leg. He gave it a rough scratch on the head in reword for its bravado, which was returned with a thankful lick. Feeling no particular bond growing, and not really expecting one, he looked to the others. “Sorry, lad. Wasn’t meant to be.”
Redpatch, for her part, was watching Traptease intently as her subordinate risked a close approach to sniff at whatever had caught the grey pup’s attention. A huff of breath signaling her curiosity was all the explanation Traptease gave as she resumed her distant post. Axehand ignored her.
He picked up the next pup, dark gold with amber hightlights. Elf and pup regarded one another curiously, Axehand tilted his head. "Nope. Not it."
A pained, lonely, whine escaped Traptease’s throat. It earned a little of Axehand’s sympathy.
At first all were relieved to see Axehand up and around, and they welcomed his commitment to never become a burden on the tribe. But soon enough the tribe began to choose for themselves the tasks he was no longer fit to perform. And while he appreciated their desire to help with the remaining tasks, they had become a little too helpful of late, but in ways that made him fell like less a part of the tribe. Less connected to anything. They wanted him to settle into a soft, safe life that he wasn’t cut out for.
**No! You were cruel. I was hurt, I needed friends, and you weren’t there.**
In hindsight, it was foolish to expect that Doeskin would jump for joy and return the gesture when Axehand gave her his soul-name. It was the last thing he did before going under Cloudfern’s knife. The act of a desperate being with nothing to lose. On top of everything else, it had overwhelmed her aching heart. But she had been there when he needed her. Through the setting of fractured bone and the infection that followed, the fear that he would not live to see another night. And after he woke she had been there for him still. More distant, more guarded, than she’d been in a long time.
But she was there.
**Smelled wrong. Had to run. Had to.**
**And I have to find a wolf who will run with me, not away from me!** The pups backed off in reaction to the aggressive change in Axehand’s body language, and Redpatch’s warding gaze turned to him. He calmed himself and reached out to reassure them. “Hmmmmmm... perhaps this lad here!" He scratched the last pup, blue-grey and black with bold greenish eyes, behind the ear. This one seemed to understand what his brother had found with Doeskin, and he wanted it too. Enthusiastic whimpers became heartbroken whines, clearly disappointed that he would not find a lifelong elf-friend in Axehand.
Traptease barked and ran at him. Axehand heard her coming and swung his staff out of the path of her jealous claws. Without missing a beat, she snapped her head sideways and swiped the skirt off his waist. Redpatch was on her paws in the instant it took Axehand to restore his bearings. With a howl the cubs were ordered back into the den.
Traptease made herself very scarce, bolting into the tree line. “Do you really think a few cold breezes are enough to shake me of my task?” Axehand bellowed after her, “Go mount an ant-hill, you tusk-faced cat-tailed-“ Axehand suddenly realized that the alpha’s warning growls were meant for both of them.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll just be going then. Nice wolf.”
Respectful silence became curse-laden grumbles on the way down the path.
The Father Tree loomed closer as he felt the familiar presence before he saw Trapteases’s white-on-brown form burst through the trees. Tail wagging furiously, her head and forepaws lowered into a playful bow. His skirt dangled teasingly from her jaws. **Play now!**
A tremendous laugh broke free from Axehand’s abdomen. He lumbered over as fast as he could get there. With a good bit of back-and-forth he sieved his clothing back. He wrestled the thief onto her back and gave her a firm belly-rub.
“I reckon I can’t blame you for padding away any more than Doeskin. Or nip you into changing what and who you are. Come on then, let’s go find something to do.”