(This story is a sequel to "In the Other Direction", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
Unfamiliar noises stirred Willow from a deep, yet uneasy sleep: the shuffle of leather satchels, the strange, almost clink-like noise of stone hitting stone. Footsteps scraped ever so lightly over a thin, thin layer of dust.
Willow was used to quiet, especially when she was sleeping. And this had been no ordinary sleep – she realized that the moment those noises reached in like a mother wolf and snatched her out of that sleep-darkness like some wayward cub.
She groaned and cracked her eyes open, and the dark shape of that someone who was moving paused and turned – probably to look at her.
Willow tried to shift position, but something heavy and unexpected was laying across her belly. Startled, she quickly glanced downward to reveal the fuzzy top of a sleeping wolf's head. Sky, was it? That unbonded wolf that the tribe sometimes laughed at for staring off at nothing like she was daydreaming?
“She's as much of a lump as you are,” the figure said. “She hasn't moved since you came in here, and she's snapped at the omegas who usually den in here to get warm. Won't even let them come in. ” It had moved closer, and Willow's senses had awakened enough now to realize that is was Blacksnake who was speaking to her. However, they hadn't awakened enough for her to muster a response before he continued. “Feeling better?”
'Where am I? Why is Blacksnake talking to me? What am I doing here? What is this wolf doing here?' Those thoughts raced through Willow's mind in a moment's time as she tried to get the last of her bearings. She never had been one quick to wake under most circumstances, despite recent attempts to better herself and become more responsible. And, due to the current jumble in her mind, her initial response was, “Uhh.”
“I take that as no?”
Willow looked up at the ceiling of the den, confused. She wondered how to tell if she was feeling better or not, since she couldn't quite remember how she had got here in the first place.... until it all came rolling back in like a massive wave: pushing herself too far, the pounding headache, the nausea, the sickness, the fear. A quick mental check told her that most of those symptoms were gone now, save for a slight touch of a headache that she was more than capable of bearing. “No, I feel better,” she rasped out. Her throat felt like a cracked patch of dirt.
As if he'd sensed that was the case, Blacksnake picked up a waterskin and held it out to her. Willow had to shift a bit to free her arms from beneath the furs and the wolf to take it, and she spent a long time drinking after she grabbed it. Blacksnake merely watched her. When she'd finished, she offered him the empty skin, which he took and set off to the side.
And then he sat on the side of the bed and watched her again. The silence grew and began to make Willow feel very uncomfortable. She glanced up at Blacksnake's face, which seemed to wear no expression, and felt a sudden sense of embarrassment and guilt. She didn't know why, but knew she disliked this sudden feeling of chastisement without words and didn't know if she should hunker down in the furs or to tell Blacksnake to get away.
For some reason – again, she didn't know why, and this bothered her – she chose the former.
“It's one extreme or the other with you, isn't it, cub?” Blacksnake said then, with an almost sardonic-sounding chuckle.
He was calling her a cub again, and that got Willow's hackles up a bit. Even though she knew what the elder was saying, she irritatedly grumbled, “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, there is no in-between for you, is there? It's either do all or do nothing. You want to leap the canyon even though you know good and well that it would be a lot safer if you'd climb down inside and climb back up the opposite edge.”
She shot Blacksnake a defensive look. “What if I can't see the bottom?”
“Only a fool charges ahead without knowing what's in the path to her destination, cub.”
That made Willow look away. High Ones, this was why she and Blacksnake could never get along. Yes, he was an elder. He'd lived turns and turns of the seasons longer than she had, and she was aware that made him much more experienced in most things than she was. But why did he always have to make her feel so small and insignificant – like she didn't know the first thing about anything? He had no idea what this was like. He had no idea how hard she had been trying. And the way he was addressing her was maddening!
“Stop calling me a cub!” she snapped, stirring the wolf awake who was lying across her middle. Sky lifted her head, looked lazily up at the two elves, and yawned before deciding this conversation had nothing to do with her and settling back in again.
“Stop acting like a cub, and I won't call you one,” Blacksnake flatly replied.
“How am I acting like a cub, Blacksnake? Tell me how! First, everyone is angry because I choose to do nothing about my healing, and now that I'm trying to do something, you're at my throat again. It's like there is no way to win, no way at all to do this right!”
Blacksnake's eyes narrowed. “The way to win is to get to the destination without killing yourself. Taking control of your abilities is useless to you and to everyone who needs you if you end up dead getting to that point.”
“Well, tell them that, then!” Willow shot back, tilting her head toward the mouth of the den. “It's just that everyone wants... something different. And some of them can be so pushy.”
“I've never seen you be afraid to push right back,” he pointed out.
“It's never come from so many directions before. It gets to be too much.” She didn't want to mention that the one who was pushing the most, however, was herself. She wanted so badly just to be able to touch someone again without a healer's consequences. She'd give anything to do that for more than just a handful of moments at a time. She wanted it so badly she was willing to bear the pain and sickness in order to make it happen.
Blacksnake nodded. “The tribe has to get used to what it means to have a healer again, too. Shards, most of this tribe doesn't even know what that's like! And the memories are dim for those of us who do. It's something we all have to learn together -- and part of that's learning how to keep from overwhelming a healer with demands.” He paused, then tilted his head before adding, “And how to keep the healer from overwhelming herself.”
The look on her face must have told Blacksnake he'd hit upon something. He continued, “Nobody pulls a heavy bow the first time they pick it up. Nobody. You have to work up to it. Cloudfern, Starskimmer, Evervale -- they all know what it's like to have to learn to use magic. They didn't have the answers when they first started. Your grandmother knows, even if it's been an age since it happened to her. I'm sure any of them could give you some advice.”
“I've asked them,” Willow said, quietly, “again and again. Grandmother, Evervale, Cloudfern... I've asked others besides them, too -- Beetle. Rainpace. I just... can't figure it out.”
“And pushing yourself until you're sick and staggering into my den is going to be what makes the difference?”
Willow sighed and looked down at the wolf draped across her middle. She reached down and scratched the ruff of Sky's neck. The fur there was soft and thick and warm. Petting the wolf unexpectedly comforted her and took the edge off the irritation she felt toward Blacksnake at the moment. There was no 'feedback' when she touched the wolf. She could pet Sky and could almost pretend that she wasn't having such a problem with her powers. She could pretend that she was normal.
She looked up, finally, and her demeanor had softened. “I wish pushing myself like that could make the difference. I wish something would have happened this past time to let me figure out how to make it stop when I want it to... for more than just a few moments.”
Blacksnake didn't say anything, and Willow went back to petting the wolf. She felt sadly victorious in the fact that she'd presented the elder with something he didn't know the answer to, although she wouldn't have complained, either, if he somehow, miraculously, did.
“And then there's the after,” she continued, scratching behind Sky's ear.
Willow nodded. “If I do figure all this out--”
“You mean when you do,” Blacksnake corrected.
“When I figure this out, I can't say things will be the same, anyway. How do I know what I can do? I might not be able to do what I know some are already asking.”
“Then don't do it until you are ready,” he said, as if it were the simplest and most obvious thing in the world.
“I'm worried it's going to be too much. That they'll all want too much, all at once.” For some reason, she decided to send Blacksnake images of being hemmed in by her tribemates. She began to feel overwhelmed all too quickly.
**You don't have to deal with it all at once,** Blacksnake answered, sending in return. **You don't have to deal with them all at once, either. ** He sent that with such confidence that he made it sound easy; perhaps to him, it would have been. **But you do have to deal with it in ways you can manage. Start small. Or you'll never master it -- the way I know you can.**
Willow looked at Blacksnake, shocked. He had faith in her? She couldn't help but to send her disbelief.
His eyebrows went up. **Of course I do,** he stated, and let her feel it, let her see the way he pictured her: truculent, maddening, tough as elkhide even before these latest developments. **You're the stubbornest cub I've seen in a long, long while. I've never doubted your strength -- only whether you were too lazy to use it!**
**I ... always thought you didn't think any of us 'young ones' were worth our weight.**
That seemed to amuse him. **You have the wrong idea, cub.** The familiar, patronizing diminutive Willow hated so much took on the quality of a shared joke. **I know what you youngsters could be worth. It’s just that I’m always waiting for you to prove it, to show me you’ll live up to your potential.**
Willow paused and couldn't help but chuckle at this strange new realization. Blacksnake wasn't the inaccessible grump she had always guessed he was. He had been the one to actually help her find a way to pull herself from the downward spiral she had been locked into before, and now he'd taken her in when she was miserable and afraid. “I never thought you'd be the one to help.”
He respected her signal to stop sending and responded out loud, "I never thought you'd be our tribe's next healer. But here we are." His half-smile was rueful.
Willow snorted and gave Sky's ear another scratch. “Yes... here we are. Me pushing myself until I'm sick and holing up in your den.”
“Nobody is ever given a gift they can't handle,” Blacksnake told her, with the kind of supreme self-confidence he always showed the world. That he believed that of himself came as no surprise. That he expected it to be true for everyone else as well was Blacksnake through and through. “I said I knew you were strong -- now I want you to prove it.”
Willow nodded. “I'll be better about looking to see what's on the path before I go rushing to my destination.”
Blacksnake chanced a smile at her. “It's hard now, I know. But you'll figure it out. You learned how to best Notch and Rainpace at slings when you were just a little thing. That didn't happen overnight, either. It took time to work on that aim, but when you caught on, you learned it quickly. You'll be able to best this one, too.”
Sky arched her head back, and looked into Willow's eyes with a contented sigh. Willow smiled.
Blacksnake stiffly rose to his feet and went back to the opposite corner of the den, where he'd been gathering items to take with him on the hunt he was leaving for when the moons were high.
“Rest up,” he said. “And when I get back, I expect to see you out of my den.”
“Don't worry. We'll be gone.”
“Sky and me.”
Blacksnake looked over at her and nodded. “I'd wondered if she'd got got the idea that she's yours now.”
Willow looked down again at the comfortably sleeping wolf. “I think she's right.”
Blacksnake went back to packing his satchel. When he'd finished, he tied it at the top, slung it over his shoulder, and headed toward the den's entrance.
**Have a good hunt,** Willow sent after him, conveying her thanks for helping her both now and during her time of need.
**And you, as well,** Blacksnake replied with a nod. **And if the others push too much, you come talk to me and I'll deal with them.** With that, he ducked out of the den.
Willow settled back into the bedfurs. She couldn't help but think what a strange past few moons these had been, and that things just continued getting all the more strange. But strange wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as things were going right.
She gave Sky a gentle pat on the head and settled back into the bedfurs. Yes, things seemed to be headed in the right direction, at least.