(This story begins directly after "Aftershocks", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
It was past time to be stirring, past time to be out in the cold of the gathering dusk, trampling flat a space in the snow to get the blood moving. One-Leg stood in the entrance to his den, and viewed the activity around the base of the Dentrees. Below him, Windsong and Longshot passed, riding their wolves away to the north. That tickled a memory, and he stared after them until he’d chased it down. Yes, he had it now. Chatter in the Gathering Den the night before, plans being made, his brother’s voice amongst them…
Odd for Blacksnake not to be out there, seeing off the other hunters. Odd for him not to have ridden out at the head of them, with all that talk the night before of where best to find the deer yarding. Even resting between the longer hunts, his brother couldn’t resist a chase like that in weather like this. Had he gone already? One-Leg looked over his shoulder, through his own den at the inside door, and his brother’s den beyond. The Child Tree’s interior was dark and quiet, but…. One way to find out.
He picked up one of the candles on his way to the inner door, not even needing the help of his stick over the long-familiar route. His brother’s den wasn’t unfamiliar, either, and it was filled with the expected, warm scent of wolves, and Blacksnake as well – strong enough that One-Leg knew right away that he’d guessed right, and even better, he’d caught the great Hunt Leader still in the furs with the dusk almost gone and the night advancing.
“Did I miss the part where you drank off a whole skin of Starskimmer’s honey-wine?” One-Leg asked, not quite bellowing, but not lowering his voice, either. “Without me?”
The only reply was a wolf’s half-growl, half-whine. One-Leg puffed breath through his moustache, and raised the candle higher, sending wavering shadows leaping around the den.
Three wolves made for a good, cozy warmth – One-Leg usually had a similar set of visitors, when he didn’t have softer, rounder, smoother-skinned company in his bed – and as he watched, Murkfur stirred and stretched, but didn’t waken. The other two were lumps lost amongst the pile of bedfurs, which Blacksnake seemed to have thrown back at some point in his sleep. One-Leg could see him clearly, wearing all his white-cold leathers – no wonder he’d become too warm! – arm outflung and face turned towards the door. Neither the light nor One-Leg’s jovial question had woken him.
He was twitching in the throes of a dream, hand clenching, brow furrowing, lips curling back in a silent snarl. Looked like a chase, or more, like some dream-prey putting up a good, hard fight. One-Leg’s own brows went up. “Good hunting, brother?” he called, but that made no impression on the sleeper, either.
He was just wishing that he’d brought his stick with him after all – he didn’t want to get too close, but he could have poked Blacksnake awake from a safe distance – when the wolf lying at his brother’s back raised its head to turn and look at him. Further clever comments died on his lips as the candlelight made Wasp’s eyes flash gold at him, and the wolf stared.
One-Leg stared back. “Now, that’s rotting strange,” he mused aloud, unconsciously more softly than before. There was a time when his brother’s wolf-friend might have denned in here, but that time was long ago, before Wasp had become chief-wolf of the pack. One-Leg couldn’t remember the last time it’d happened… but he didn’t need to, because it didn’t happen; he was sure of that.
Beside the wolf, Blacksnake arched in a long stretch, making a low noise in his throat. Wasp looked down at his rider and echoed the whine, and then turned his eyes back to One-Leg. There was something intent in the wolf’s gaze, and the red-haired elf shifted under that regard. “You can make eyes at me all you like,” he muttered, “but I’m not stupid enough to come over there to wake him up. If that’s what you’re thinking, think again. Better yet, you do it, and get his fist in your nose for your trouble.”
Blacksnake had relaxed again, seemingly into a deeper sleep; his face was turned into the furs, and only his fingers twitched, like a parody of beckoning. Wasp sighed, and put his head down on his paws, though his gaze remained fixed on One-Leg. “All right,” he told the wolf, “I take your point. I’ll keep my eye on him once he’s up. Unless he has the brains to go see Cloudfern himself, and see what the lad can brew up for him.”
Whatever the wolf thought was wrong with his rider, it was unlikely to be serious. Blacksnake wasn't usually fool enough to leave a bad wound or illness unseen-to. He would go to Starskimmer or Cloudfern for one of their herbal remedies before anyone had to tell him to.
And One-Leg would have thought no more about it, except for the unusual detail of Wasp's hovering presence. That's what made it stick in his mind.
There was no sign, the next day, of anything bothering his brother – unless you counted a hovering frown, somber manner, and grunts for answers to all of One-Leg's teasing about his oversleeping the day before. But no, you couldn't count any of that as meaning anything. That was just Blacksnake in a mood, and from the long, uncountable seasons of his vantage as older brother, One-Leg knew that Blacksnake had a quiverful of moods, most of them spiky or dour. Nothing unusual in that.
Even when Windburn emerged and summoned those elves still near the Dentrees to listen, and then announced to all that he was lifting his orders concerning Willow – that if she asked for help, of course they were to do whatever she wanted, but that still included respecting a signal to back off, if given – even then, there wasn't a flicker of reaction on Blacksnake's face.
"Well, that settles that," One-Leg tossed in his brother's direction. "Lad was right – give her some breathing room, and she came around on her own."
Now that got him a sidelong look. In the councils leading to Windburn's original orders, Blacksnake's hadn't been the loudest voice, for a change. He'd listened and watched, allowing others to propose what they should do about the new healer, endorsing none, opposing none, but not looking happy with his chief-son's eventual decision. Had Windburn tweaked his father's tail over knowing – or guessing – Willow's secret, but not telling the chief? If he had, One-Leg didn't know it. There'd been no public reprimand, not of Blacksnake, nor Farscout, nor Cloudfern either, though Windburn's glowering disapproval and disappointment had been apparent to all. Maybe that was all the censure the chief thought the trio needed. One-Leg didn't agree, but it wasn't his place to say.
Still, he could do a little tail-tweaking of his own, and the best jab was to point out the success of a plan that Blacksnake hadn't liked. Especially one of Windburn's.
The white-cold season was well and truly on them now, and game was scarce on the ground. Even a four-day hunt had netted little – a single, lame elk yearling, and the pelt of a stinkbear that had challenged the hunters over their kill. That, thought One-Leg, was the sign of a bad winter under way, if stinkbears were coming that far south looking for food.
So it was easy to guess that Blacksnake wouldn't be in the best of moods when One-Leg cornered him as dawn was starting to color the sky. Others might have found a reason to postpone their business with the Hunt Leader, but the day One-Leg let his younger brother's bearish temper deter him would be the day the old fisher stripped himself naked and laid out on the tidal rocks until the sea took him.
Blacksnake was sitting in the entrance to the Child Tree's dens that gave out onto the central space between the three great trees, watching a few of their tribemates lingering over the last of the elk carcass. There wasn't enough of it left to be worth the Preservers wrapping it. Moss and Nightstorm would have the hide, Thornbow the sinew, and Greenweave and Windsong were starting to strip the bones. One-Leg looked up at his brother from the ground, studying his approach. Blacksnake didn't even glance at him; his gaze was directed somewhere miles away.
One-Leg hit the younger elf on the thigh with the head of his walking-stick; that got the other’s attention. "Give me a hand up," he ordered.
He got a narrow-eyed look in return, and he could see the question forming on the other's tongue – did he have to climb up and right over where Blacksnake was sitting, instead of going around to the easier stairway? – but no sooner had Blacksnake's mouth opened than it shut with an almost audible snap of teeth, and he reached down one arm while he braced himself with the other.
Yes, the stairs were easier; but always taking the easy way was boring. He fitted the end of his wooden leg into a foothold shaped in the tree, and, between Blacksnake's strength and his own, heaved up into the opening. If the other elf hadn't been blocking it, he could have done it on his own. But it also neatly closed off any escape by that route.
"So!" he said, leaning around to push aside the hide covering the inner door to his brother's den and ostentatiously looking inside. "You have your den to yourself again, I see!"
Blacksnake “mmm”ed in agreement. "I thought she'd be gone by the time we returned," he commented, his voice neutral. That Willow had fallen ill after pushing herself too hard in pursuit of mastery of her powers had become known to everyone in fairly short order, as had her… interesting choice of refuge.
Poor Willow! Can you imagine being so desperate that even Blacksnake's den looks inviting? Yes, that'd been good for a laugh, embroidered on by Notch and Foxtail, and leading to Chicory's protest that she had braved her father's den many a time and lived to tell about it… and then that led to general tale-telling about old pranks played, trying to prove who was the bravest and the most daring, always an enjoyable pursuit. But… that still left the fact of Willow, seeking out Blacksnake's den in the first place.
One-Leg leaned against the curved, shaped wall of the tree's interior. "Maybe I should thank you for the good half a moose rack I had from Longshot, then." At the other's puzzled glance, he elaborated, "There was betting aplenty about how soon you'd kick her out, and I took the long option."
That earned a snort, but no other response as Blacksnake moved past him into the den.
"That was a fool's bet, though," he went on dismissively, placing himself in the doorway. "Not hard to see that things have changed, if you have the eyes to see what’s there, and not just what you expect to see."
Blacksnake agreed with another “Mmm”, but by this time he was watching One-Leg warily, knowing an opening feint for what it was.
"So here's what I'm seeing, and you tell me if I’m moon-mad or not." Playing word-games with Blacksnake would get him nowhere, and One-Leg had always favored the blunt approach. "First, there was that little intrigue with Farscout and Cloudfern – and they both know better, so I'm thinking the root of that decision has your scent all over it..."
"Wasn't my secret to tell," said Blacksnake shortly, and One-Leg made a dismissive gesture.
"Dung! I don't know what you thought there was to gain by keeping quiet," he shot back, deadly serious, "but if that bear had killed Willow and Pathmark both, I know who I'd be blaming." That brought the younger elf up short; at least, it earned a blink from him. It was telling that Blacksnake didn't protest it, either. "So then you kept your trap shut when we did all that yapping that led to Windburn declaring hands-off the girl -- and that's mighty interesting, too, isn't it? Since when do you pass up a chance to tell everyone else that the best plan of action is the one you've come up with? And –" he raised a finger to forestall whatever his brother's mouth had dropped open to say "— don't pretend that you couldn’t think what to do. I'd believe Starskimmer lifemating with Quick Fang before I'd believe that!"
"Care to make another bet?" Blacksnake asked, smiling humorlessly. "Problem was – everyone was right. Or wrong. Hard to tell which." He shrugged.
"And whatever Windburn decides, you're unhappy with on principle?" the elder shot back. That wasn't even really a question, though.
"Too many options, all with some merit," his brother returned. "Shouldn’t have gotten stuck on just one. Should have kept his options open, ready to react quickly."
"And yet, there I was thinking the lad made the right decision after all," One-Leg continued heavily. "Give her time, give her room, and she came around on her own, started coming to the tribe for help – working her tail off, for once, even to the point of making herself sick."
Blacksnake's brows went up. "So she did," was all he said.
**Don't you lie to me, too!** One-Leg's sudden send was like the crack of his stick against stone, because voice and expression weren't enough to convey the fury and suspicion he wanted Blacksnake to understand. Words could never explain as well as hitting that arrogant pup with the full blast of emotions roiling in his gut – anger, yes, and certainty, even if he what he knew was mostly guesswork, and underlying it all the hurt that in this of all things, of all people, his brother would exclude him.
Blacksnake’s head tilted, dark eyes unreadable, unaffected by that blasting send… or trying to seem as if he was. **I. Have. Not. Lied.** His reply was short, firm, and as tightly-shuttered as a send could be, unquestionably the truth but as heavy as a thunderstorm with the weight of what he was holding back.
One-Leg jabbed a finger in his direction. “Yet. Don’t think there isn’t someone smart enough to notice what you don’t say. The day Willow came into the Holt with Beetle," he went on, his voice low and rough, "no surprise from you, no comment about it, and here I thought maybe your nose was out of joint that Windburn's orders were right after all. But no, that wasn't it, was it? You knew."
That sparked a flicker of expression, but he didn’t wait to see what the other elf would say. He plunged on, “And when Willow came in here looking for a safe place to hole up, she didn’t just choose the nearest den to hand, did she? She knew she’d be welcome. And where’d she get that notion, I wonder? There’s a long list of people that’d make sense for her to seek help from, and probably dead at the bottom of it is me – and you.”
Blacksnake huffed a not-quite laugh and half-smiled, acknowledging the right of that. But One-Leg wasn’t finished with him. Unlike his brother, he didn’t see the point of holding back or keeping game-pieces in reserve just in case. Everything he had, he’d use.
“You couldn’t leave it alone, could you? Rot the rest of us, you’ll just go off and do whatever you think best! You’re the only elf in the world full enough of himself to think he knows better than the tribe, or the chief. That’s why you weren’t surprised when Willow finally decided to face up to her powers and ask for help mastering them – because you were there badgering her into it, weren’t you?”
Once again, Blacksnake opened his mouth for a reply, and once again, One-Leg rode right over him, leaning closer, right into his brother’s space, blue eyes boring into brown. **And she hit you hard for it, didn’t she? Zerran's blood! I hope it was hard enough to make you wonder if you’d made the right choice, or if you’d finally jumped in over your fool head!**
And right on the tail of that he sent what he’d seen, and what he’d only just put together over the past hand of days when he’d noticed Willow’s strange reversal in regard for his brother -- **Blacksnake shaking and twitching in his sleep – Wasp’s worried presence, the wolf’s golden eyes demanding something that his rider’s brother dismissed at the time – but looking back it takes on a different meaning in light of new ideas, new suspicions. Where has he seen that before – has he felt that before? There are memories so old that One-Leg doesn’t know the last time he thought of them, but of everyone in the tribe he is one of the few who can remember a healer –**
Blacksnake’s reply cut across the flow of sending before that upswell of memory could become an unstoppable torrent. **For a moment, maybe. Yes.**
One-Leg shook his head sharply, brought up short. It took him a moment to realize what his brother was replying to, and when he raised an eyebrow at the admission, Blacksnake shrugged, lips twisting in a wry smile. **What? That’s the truth, too – but at least she doesn’t have the strength or control yet to hit as hard as she might.**
Underlying that send was a brief sense of warning, enough for One-Leg to brace himself before Blacksnake deliberately shared with him a vivid echo of the flare of pain-touch the girl had hit him with. It swept through him like skyfire, instantly making the substance of his memories dim and foggy in comparison.
It took him another few moments to realize that he had slumped against the den’s wall. He straightened up, giving his brother a sour look. "Thank you, rotted-out dungchip. Because I couldn’t have gone the rest of my life without feeling the likes of that again.”
“Be grateful I didn’t give you the whole thing,” Blacksnake told him dryly.
“It’s still no less than you deserved,” One-Leg said, meaning every word. “And it’ll look mild in comparison to what Windburn will do to you, if he finds out.”
“What Windburn will do,” the other repeated, his tone dripping with his disbelief and skepticism, casting doubt on the idea that his son would do anything worth worrying about. Then one silver eyebrow went up and his head cocked to one side. “If he finds out? I wasn’t aware that was still in question.” The dark eyes held a challenge.
And until that moment, he hadn’t realized that was where this would naturally lead – that choice, his alone. He’d been so caught up in sniffing out the mystery, he hadn’t thought beyond the moment of throwing it all in his brother’s face and making him confess to it. Hadn’t, in truth, thought that much beyond his own personal anger – not anger at Blacksnake’s defiance of the chief’s orders, just gut-level anger at secrets kept from him.
Not that he’d always been his brother’s confidant. Not even that he often had. But blast it to cinders, they were both Owl’s grandsons! They’d been there together at the end of their grandsire’s life, both struggled with the knowledge that one of them could have been the old healer’s successor, and neither were; both smashed down by the agony-despair-contempt of his powers gone horribly wrong and turned against those he loved, those who loved him.
That was what One-Leg sent back at his brother now, a sharp reminder. They’d gone through that together… and now, this time, Blacksnake had left him out.
He saw that hit the younger elf – it was the first thing yet that made Blacksnake drop eyes, even for a moment. Then he sent, not with remorse but at least with sincerity, **I’m the one who thinks he knows better than this chief. You’ve always been loyal to him.** Underneath that, One-Leg could feel old, well-worn resentment, as well as Blacksnake’s certainty of what his older brother would do next.
But there were other things behind that decision that Blacksnake’s send wasn’t bothering to hide, the same feelings that had risen in One-Leg when he’d first heard news of Willow’s magic surfacing – hope postponed for so long that he’d almost stopped believing in it, turning into a flood of desperate relief, and then fear that if they weren’t careful this precious chance (maybe the last he’d live to see; maybe the last chance the tribe would ever have) would disappear like a moon-dream even as they tried to grasp it, hold it, nurture it.
That fear, he understood too well.
Finally, he said, “Maybe if you’d told me, I’d’ve gone to Windburn. You know sharding well you should have. And maybe if you’d asked, I’d’ve helped try to convince him to listen to you. Maybe next time,” he added sarcastically, it being a safe bet there’d be a next time with Blacksnake, “you’ll think of that. You’re the one who’s so mind-rotted fond of chewing over all the options.”
Blacksnake’s eyes narrowed. “Noted. So let me point out something as well – I wasn’t wrong. Maybe my son’s orders were based on a notion that could have been right, but the reality is, it wasn’t helping Willow. I did. Look at her now – now she’s on the right path. Does it matter that much how she got there?”
One-Leg growled. It mattered – but, much as he didn’t want to admit it, he couldn’t see a good reason to go to the chief over it now. If he’d caught on sooner… but he hadn’t. It seemed that nobody had. Maybe nobody ever would; there were few who knew Blacksnake so well, and were so suspicious of him at the same time.
“The chief won’t hear it from me,” he said, at length. “But that’s twice in too short a time, brother – and you’ve been caught both times. Do it again, and I’ll hold you down for Windburn myself.” And then, because the set of Blacksnake’s shoulders relaxed too quickly, One-Leg added the only thing he thought might make an impression on his too-clever sibling. “You would never have treated Easysinger this way, even before she was your mate. She’d expect better of you – and so do I.”
He saw that blow land the way he’d intended it to, and, satisfied, he turned on the pivot of his wooden leg and left to find better company for the rest of the evening.