(This story is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
**Willow, are you awake?**
She hadn't been, but she was now. The sending pierced through her head like a spear. She groaned, rolled over, and cracked her right eye open. The tiny sliver of moonlight spilling in through the pinhole in her den flap struck her with an intensity eighty times what it should have. Willow gasped and squeezed her eyes closed. Her head hadn't hurt this badly in years, and this time too many dreamberries weren't to blame for the pain.
**Willow! I was talking to Evervale and thought of something else that you could try that might help! Are you awake?**
Willow winced at the second sending, sat up, and put a palm against her throbbing temple. It wasn't just her head that ached, but her whole body. She felt stiff and heavy, like whatever it was that held things to the ground had focused all its power on her. Her stomach complained that it didn't want her moving, at all, or it was going to rebel.
A deft hand pulled her denflap aside and Beetle peeked in, letting in more of that horridly painful light.
“Willow? Are you all right? I got worried when you didn't answer.” At least Beetle's voice was quiet – much better than the sending.
The first noise that left Willow's mouth in response was, “Ugh.” She shifted again and her stomach brought up acid in protest. She swallowed down that acrid taste and begged her stomach not to send up anything else.
**Tired-head hurts-nauseated,** the new healer finally sent, in feelings moreso than words. Her eyes were closed again, so she didn't see Beetle's wince of sympathy.
“Are you sick? Can I get you something? Some water? Should I fetch some tea from my sire? Do you want me to have him come see you?”
Willow shook her head and collapsed back onto her bed. **Want sleep.**
“All right. You sleep, feel better. I'll come check on you later. If you're not better, I'm going to get Father.”
The denflap closed and the room was enveloped in darkness.... Sweet, sweet darkness.
Willow tried to get comfortable, but her body would not cooperate. She knew, without a doubt, that she had pushed herself too far the night before, trying to keep that 'feedback' she felt when touching someone else at bay. She was so close to a breakthrough she could taste it, and High Ones, she wanted that breakthrough so badly! That's why she'd pushed herself to keep trying long after Rainpace had suggested she stop.
She'd spoken with other magic-users to ask how they held their powers back. They must be able to somehow, or surely the plantshapers would have gone mad, being surrounded by trees and plants all the time. The whole tribe had been helpful, and Willow appreciated that more than words could say. Beetle was helping her research what worked for others and often came up with different things to try that she thought would help. Many in the tribe offered themselves for 'practice,' whether it be for healing, or just for what Willow had come to call 'hands off' – keeping that feedback she hated so much at bay.
It was just that...sometimes they were almost too helpful. Sometimes she felt as though there were others who were more anxious for her to master her powers than she was. Sometimes she felt like she was pushing herself so hard for them. There were times she wished they would just give her some time alone. She certainly wished that this morning. Since she'd come back from the hot-springs and had vowed she'd find a way to master what she now knew she possessed, there hadn't been any time to be alone.
Never before since she had started trying to master her abilities had she felt as worn out and exhausted as she did this morning. She hadn't felt this badly since... since that first time she'd felt her powers, when she and Notch had been about to share honey in the tree.
“Willow, are you there?” Not much time had passed since Beetle had left, and now Dreamflight was at her den's door. “Did you need someone to practice with today?”
“Tired!” came Willow's grumbling complaint. She screwed her eyes more tightly closed, just in case the denflap was pulled aside again. 'Oh please, please, please, leave me alone!' she silently willed.
“Come on, Rainpace said you were close to figuring it out last night. I'd like to help, if I can.”
Willow switched to sending how miserable she felt. **TIRED--HURT--EXHAUSTEDFROMTRYING.** Her head nearly split from the send, but she wanted so badly to convey that she was in no shape to try to practice now.
There was a pause, then a return send laden with sympathy and regret. **I'm sorry. I didn't know. Please let me know if you need anything.**
Willow heard Dreamflight's footsteps retreat and tried to settle into her bed again, but her nausea refused to dissipate. Her stomach clenched, forcefully reminding her of how angry it was that she had pushed herself so hard last night. There was no use in trying to fight it.
Willow dragged herself off her sleeping platform, her attention on the pot she kept in the corner for times like these when it was too cold to dress and go outside.
It wasn't there.
Willow's mind raced. High Ones, where was it? Had someone taken it? It wasn't uncommon to 'misplace' someone's pot during the cold moons so they'd have to 'streak to safety' to make water outside. She decided that wasn't such a funny prank any more.
She clenched her teeth and groaned in frustration, trying to take deep breaths to put her stomach at ease. She had to go outside. Somehow, even though her body felt like it was stuffed full of rock, she managed to pull on her pants, boots, and one of her old ponchos and push her way out the denflap.
The cold air shocked her for a moment and temporarily settled her stomach. Willow took advantage of the situation. The stairs were a jumbled blur as she ran down them. 'Have to make it, have to...' She hit the last step and managed three eights of paces before she crumpled to her knees and let her stomach have its revenge.
She felt drained when she had finished. Her head pounded in protest, her body hurt, and her left knee felt like it was bruised.
She was so tired she knew returning to her den was out of the question. She didn't have the energy left to climb back up those stairs. If she tried, she knew she wouldn't make it. She pondered just lying down where she was, but knew she'd freeze to death if she fell asleep out in the cold. She looked around. There was no one outside that she could see, nearby, that could help her. There was a part of her that didn't want anyone to help her or worry about her. She just needed to sleep, needed a break, needed to be left alone, just for a while.
She pushed herself to her feet, but it was hard to do so. Her body cried out that it was near its breaking point. She began to feel afraid. Suddenly, she didn't want to be alone. She needed help. She wondered if she had the energy to send to Kestrel or Beetle or anyone...
It was at that moment her gaze locked onto a nearby den. It wasn't the den of any relative. It wasn't a den she had even set foot in recently. If she hadn't felt so sick, afraid, and out of it, she might not have even considered what she did next. She still had guilt over hurt she had caused that den's owner before. But there was a tickle of a memory of a recent sending in the back of her mind that told her it might be worth taking a chance.
She staggered to the den and entered without so much as scratching the den flap. Blacksnake was inside, re-fastening the ties on a spearpoint that had loosened. Startled, he looked up at the elf who had burst inside, unannounced.
"Willow!" he barked. "What is it?" His brows lowered dangerously, giving her a look that suggested she'd better have a good reason to be bursting into his den this way.
She felt tears pool in her eyes. Her weak, wordless send full of, **Head hurts, I hurt, pushed too far, afraid, sick, exhausted, need help, need sleep, need peace,** intermixed with echoes of a send Blacksnake had shared with her not long ago: **Ask anyone for help, care about you – protect you – help you.**
Blacksnake's dour expression melted away, and Willow felt a measure of relief. He jumped up, hurried to Willow, put a hand on her back, and pushed her toward his bed. She felt hints of Blacksnake's nagging wintertime aches and pains that leaked through to her from his touch, but she was too exhausted to care as she shakily shuffled in the direction he led. Sky, one of the unbonded wolves that had sought out Blacksnake's den for warmth and had been resting on his bed, lifted her head curiously and moved over when Blacksnake told her to do so.
“Lie down,” Blacksnake said to Willow, helping her off her feet.
Willow heaved a sigh, nodded, and closed her eyes. She felt him pull a fur over her and felt the warm wolf next to her settle in comfortably at her side.
She heard Blacksnake say, “You're safe now. I'm going to get Cloudfern,” before she felt a blast of cold air as he stepped outside.
She was safe. She believed him. And before Blacksnake returned, sleep had overtaken her.