The Spring dared to try and come early that turn. It stepped hard on Winter's heels with a lashing of harsh winds and night after night of cold, driving rain. As a result, the snows didn't melt – they evaporated, leaving the ground covered with a miserable cloud of fog that lurked for days like a cough following a bad chest-cold.
It was over such a fog bank that Kestrel glided. Once in a great while, the thick cloud below parted, offering a glimpse of bare fields, leafless forests, or of brown rivers swollen far beyond their boundaries and angry enough to sweep away anything that dared get in their deadly current.
It was not such a pleasant dawn to fly; Kestrel realized that now. The rains had ceased, at least for half the eve, but the fog was too thick to see anything below. The glider could still get her bearings by the landmarks that were tall enough to poke up through the shroud, but the usual advantage of her bird's-eye view would not exist today.
So she turned back toward the sunrise, aiming to head back to the Holt, when something oddly-familiar cut her short. For just a moment, she felt Vahn, all that was her son, Bowflight, brush with her spirit, and then, as if the wind itself had carried that essence away, it was gone.
Dread began to pool in the pit of Kestrel's gut and that all-engulfing emotion quickly turned into a torrent of its own. Bowflight – something was wrong with her son! He had gone east with Windburn's hunting party, toward the Bounty River. She had to find them, she had to go to them!
**Kestrel.** It was Windburn's mind-voice, more sharp and clear than anything she could see from above on this miserable day, and the undercurrent of regret, sorrow, grief within it made Kestrel's heart rise up in her throat.
She returned Windburn's send, relaying that she had heard her chief. She tried her best to hold back the storm of emotions in her head, daring to hope that the feeling in her gut would be wrong. But still, she dreaded what Windburn would send next.
**Something has happened to Bowflight. There was a landslide. He was caught in it--**
Windburn needn't even say her son was dead for her to know that it was true – there had been reason for her feelings. The emotions she had tried to keep in check flooded forth so intensely that they threatened to knock her from the sky. They burst from her in a heart-wrenching cry that tore at her throat.
**Kestrel?** Windburn sent again. **Elder--**
She fought to compose herself, but her reply was choked with raw, painful grief. **No. Don't tell me anything more. Let me come to you.**
Windburn wordlessly acknowledged, and Kestrel pointed herself in the direction of the send.
Kestrel descended through the thick fog to where the hunting party was gathered below. She neared the ground, but she did not light upon it.
Her gaze swept over the small group. Everyone looked as defeated as the broken hillside did. Wolves and elves alike were caked with thick, brown mud to the point where it masked all scents and blurred identities.
Windburn approached. His mud-streaked face was an emotionless mask, save for his eyes. He couldn't hide the sorrow there. He gestured toward the scarred face of the hill. Ancient trees that had clung to that hillside for ages and boulders that no group of elves could even hope to move had been swept down the saturated slope and to the murkish waters of the churning Bounty River below as if they had been nothing more than pebbles and twigs.
**His foot got wedged between the rocks when we were passing under the precipice,** the chief soberly explained, sending snippets of the event along with all the regret and hurt he felt for not having been able to save her son. **He was swept away with all of it.**
Kestrel felt tears sting her eyes, but she held them in check and buried that aching sorrow in the growing numbness she felt within. If mighty, ancient trees and stones held no chance against that landslide, there was no hope her son could have withstood the torrent. She turned to look at the churning river. There was nothing there to indicate the side of the hill and everything on it had swept away. The river had drowned and washed away all evidence.
**...we couldn't find him,** Windburn continued. Had he been sending all along? Kestrel didn't know. But the chief's next words caught her attention and held it. **Willow's shaken up... she almost got caught up in it, too, but Rainpace and Thornbow managed to pull her back--**
**Willow! Is she safe?** Kestrel asked, cutting Windburn short. She had forgotten that Willow had asked to come on this hunt!
The chief gestured toward an outcropping a good distance away from the disaster, where Willow was seated with Rainpace and Thornbow at her side. She was caked with mud, and sat with her head on her knees, sobbing inconsolably. Rainpace held her, and Thornbow was trying to comfort her, too.
Kestrel hurried toward the little group and lighted on the ground. Rainpace and Thornbow moved aside as the eldest elder approached and knelt in front of her granddaughter.
“She's safe,” Rainpace said to Kestrel, in a hoarse whisper. He was crying, too.
Kestrel pulled Willow close and squeezed her tightly. “Oh, Willow – thank the High Ones and our ancestors both that you're all right,” the eldest elder whispered.
“Grandmother, he's gone!” Willow choked out. She tried to return Kestrel's embrace, but didn't seem to have the strength to hold on.
“I know, my sweet child, I know,” Kestrel replied, holding her. Grief flooded within her, and her tears joined her granddaughter's.
A mere night and a day later, Winter had beat Spring back again for a short while, and the Bounty had shrunk back slightly, no longer fed by the unseasonable rains. Snow flurries swirled in the frigid air as Kestrel soared over the still-swollen river. Her heart was heavy and her grief fresh, and what she had claimed to friends and family was a scouting mission was really an escape to clear her head and take a reprieve from having to be so strong for everyone else. She needed to get away, if only for a little while.
She did not expect to find what she did that day, although she must have known what she could have found by flying over the Bounty....
….And now that she saw the body, she wished she had stayed at the Holt.
There, in an eddy caused by some odd combination of debris and undertow, the bloated, beaten body of her son floated, pinned mercilessly between two large deadwood branches that were unable to escape the whirlpool's swift flow. His eyes – what were left of them – gazed sightlessly up at the sky in a permanent expression of surprise. His flesh was pale and torn. And the ravens that were even now feasting upon Bowflight's flesh cawed at Kestrel when she approached in warning to stay away; this was their meal.
But Kestrel ignored their cries. The tears fell as she lighted on the nearby ground, set aside her spear, and picked up a good-sized rock. She hurled it with deadly accuracy took delight in the sickening sound as the projectile squarely struck one of the birds and sent it crashing into the churning water. She managed to take out two more in the same fashion as the rest wisened up and took wing. However, they didn't flee far; they perched nearby to wait for her to leave and to complain at this interruption.
She sank to her knees there at the river's edge, before her son's ravaged body, and wept bitterly until her stomach ached and the tears would no longer come.
Then, she stood. The complaints of the ravens grew louder.
“You'll not have him, curse you!' she screamed at the scavengers. She picked up another rock and hurled it up into the trees. Then, she grabbed her spear and lifted herself off the ground so she would not have to contend with the dangerous waters swirling before her.
She studied the dam that had her son pinned and found what she hoped was the weak point – a twisted cluster of branches a few elf-lengths out from the shore. She jammed the butt of her spear into the twisted debris and pried it up to try and break up the dam. It took time and effort to find the right place to apply pressure, but she eventually broke it. The jam cleared, and the swift current quickly carried everything that had been caught there away.
She watched, tears streaming down her face, as her son's body floated down the river and was eventually pulled below the murky surface. She tried her best to say farewell – that was what she would have done if she had been able to bring his body back and make a raft to set it afloat down the Holt's River for one last journey.
But the grisly image of her poor son's beaten body at the mercy of scavengers haunted her mind. She could no longer stand to be in this place. She didn't want to see it ever again, and she would speak of it to no one. She flew as far and fast as she could to try and outrun that horrid image in her mind. She had tried to be strong, but this was too much for her to bear.
The rains had begun to fall again in earnest the night before, but this time they were warm. They fell heavily, then subsided by the time dawn arrived. Springtime was trying to get the upper hand on Winter again, and this time, Kestrel was sure it would succeed.
She had been gone for three hands of days since she fled from seeing the poor, mistreated body of her son. Her time away had taken her many places, but she followed no set path. Nor did she settle for too long in any one place. She'd flown from the mountains, to the hot-springs, and to the sea, and at each of those places she'd found places to sit quietly and reflect. She tried to remember the happy times she shared with her only child to cast those unwelcome last memories of him from her mind. It helped take the edge off her grief, and had given her some strength, but she knew now she needed something more. She needed to see her family, her grandchildren, and her friends. She needed to stop reliving the past and take comfort in the here and now.
She found Pathmark easily. He was in the center of the Holt helping Moss to take the hide off a recently-killed deer. He wasted no time in running over to her and hugging her tightly when she landed, only realizing moments later that he was messy from helping with the kill and he had inadvertently made his grandmother so, as well.
**It's all right,** Kestrel sent to him when he started to pull away. There was nothing but love, happiness, good-to-be-with-you in her sending, and Pathmark didn't hesitate to hug Kestrel even harder.
**We've missed you!** he sent back, then finally let go.
Kestrel smiled at her grandson. “It was time to come home.” Then, changing the subject, she asked, “How are you doing?”
“I'm getting by. I like to keep busy. It helps.”
Kestrel nodded. “It can. I know it helps me.” Pathmark smiled at her, and it made her feel warm on the inside. She changed the subject. “How is your sister?”
That made Pathmark's smile fade. “She's at the river today, I'm sure.”
Something about how Pathmark said, “I'm sure,” made Kestrel's heart sink. Something was wrong. Before she had a chance to ask what it was, Pathmark continued. “I've seen her down there a few times when it rains. She gets... strange.”
“Strange? How so?”
“I don't know, Grandmother. Sometimes she just sits there. Sometimes she cries. She tells us to leave her alone, so we do.”
Maybe Pathmark was just overreacting. “There's nothing strange about crying or wanting to be alone.”
“I can't explain it, Grandmother. Maybe it's her own way of dealing with what happened. It always seems to pass once the rains end... but it's strange.”
Kestrel paused for a moment, in thought. “I'll go see her.”
Pathmark could only nod. The smile that crept across his face was one of relief.
Kestrel hugged Pathmark once more and took to the air again, watching her grandson a moment as he went back to work. There could be a number of reasons why Willow was acting, as Pathmark said, strange. Willow had been very close to her father whereas Pathmark had been closer to Finch. Kestrel remembered when they'd received news of Finch's death on the hunting trip; for a while she'd thought Pathmark would take Finch's death just as hard as Bowflight had.
But now... Willow had been her father's girl. Willow had always turned to Bowflight first when it came to matters that bothered her. It didn't surprise the eldest elder that her granddaughter was taking the loss of Bowflight hard. She probably just needed time to sort things out in her own way. She was sure that was it.
It didn't take her long to spot Willow at the edge of the swollen Holt's River bank, seated on a high rock, seemingly lost in thought as she watched the muddy, gorged river churn by. How familiar the scene seemed. It was almost too similar to when.... A raven cawed in the distance, and it made Kestrel shudder.
The glider took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind before she lighted on the rock next to Willow and took a seat next to her. Willow turned her tear-streaked face away when her grandmother bent to look her in the eye, but made no effort to leave.
That seemed like her granddaughter, at the least. Never wanted anyone to see her crying. Her childhood friends, especially Notch, always did tease her when she cried. Kestrel put her arm around Willow's shoulders. **What? I've never seen you cry before?** she sent jokingly, her send full of the same love, happiness, good-to-be-with-you she'd shared with Pathmark shortly ago.
Willow pulled away. Her eyes locked downward on a spot on the rock near her feet, and her head bowed submissively. Pathmark was right. Something was strange.
**What's wrong?** Kestrel asked. **You're worrying me.**
Willow's response was a deep breath that might have resulted in some kind of an explanation, but a choked sob came out instead.
**What is it?**
There was a pause. Nothing. Kestrel thought she was going to have to press further when suddenly, Willow blurted, in sending, **It's my fault. It's my fault he's gone!**
Kestrel was shocked. **Your fault? How can it be your fault the hillside broke away and took Bowflight with it? It's not your--**
Willow interrupted, shaking her head almost violently. **I couldn't save him!** she sent, mind-voice full of anguish and shame. She held out an arm toward the river with her palm outstretched. **He almost had my hand – if I could have moved just a step closer...but they held me back! Rainpace and Thornbow grabbed me and held me back!** She sent images of what kept creeping, unwanted, unwarranted back into her mind each time the rains made the river swell: her father's hand just a hair's breadth away from hers, her straining to traverse that one last little distance to pull him to safety, even though the ground grew more fragile by the minute... But then, when he was so close, the ground above them began to give way, and Rainpace and Thornbow jerked Willow back out of harm's way. As he disappeared beneath an avalanche of mud, rock, and trees, Willow screamed and screamed after her father, begging him to answer her, hoping beyond hope there would be some kind of response.... a sending, anything. But all that spoke was silence. The whole forest had gone quiet, save for the churning, angry river that had swallowed Bowflight into itself. **If I had just been closer, if I had done something differently--**
The anguish and despair in Willow's sending made Kestrel's heart ache, and felt so hauntingly familiar. The anguish, the helplessness, the images of the hillside falling into the churning river stirred images of Bowflight's battered body in Kestrel's mind again. Powerlessness, helplessness.... there was nothing either of them could do. She ached for her granddaughter. She had felt the same kind of pain when she'd found Bowflight's body those hands of days ago... Willow's send interrupted her thoughts. **I didn't save him, grandmother. I didn't save him.**
For a moment, there was silence. What could Kestrel say?
**And could you have?** Kestrel asked, finally, tenderly. Her send was full of compassion, comfort, and love. **That hillside was older than you or even me, and something more powerful than rock and roots brought it down. What if you had taken your father's hand? You'd be gone, too, and we'd be mourning you just as we're mourning him. Even if I was there, even if I had taken his hand and tried to lift him, the landslide would have taken me, too. It wasn't your fault, and no one blames you. And you, dear heart, shouldn't blame yourself, either.**
Willow thought for a long time about what Kestrel said. Kestrel didn't press as her granddaughter looked out toward the river again and lost herself in thought.
After a while, Willow looked at her with eyes wet to the point of overflowing. **Do you think he knows I tried?**
Kestrel touched Willow's cheek. **He saw you try. And he wouldn't want you to keep torturing yourself this way.**
Willow sobbed and crumpled into Kestrel's lap. **I miss him so much it hurts.**
Kestrel smoothed Willow's hair and cried, too. **I know. I miss him so much it hurts, too.**
And then, Kestrel shared some of her thoughts and solace she had found when she had flown alone over the countryside the past few days. She had found strength in fond memories of her son, and hoped Willow would draw strength from those memories, too.
She smiled when Willow started sharing fond memories of her own.
They would do this again, later, with Pathmark, Kestrel decided. They all needed this. They needed each other.
The hunt had gone well that eve. Windburn's group had brought back two deer, and the tribe was gathering at the Holt's center to take part of the fresh kill.
Kestrel watched the group from a distance. She spied Willow with her friends. Her granddaughter looked more somber than usual, but she smiled from time to time. She had her father's smile and his laugh. Ah, and there was sweet Pathmark, with his father's light hair, laughing. Bowflight lived on in them.
Life would go on. It always did. It had to. Kestrel knew that now. She had lived through the death of her parents, a sister, the death of her Recognized, and the wrapping of another sister, and she knew, after her time away, that she would live through the death of her son, too, even though the wound of Bowflight's death hurt more deeply than she remembered any of the others had before.
She felt a pat on her shoulder. Windburn had walked up behind her without her noticing. “It's good to have you back, Kestrel.”
She shot him a genuine smile. “It's good to be back. It's good to see all is well.”
“Yes, all is well here.” Windburn looked at her. “Is all well with you?”
Kestrel answered honestly. “It's getting there. It will take some time.”
“Will you be leaving us again soon, then?”
Kestrel chuckled softly. Had her way of sorting through her thoughts been so transparent? “No, not anytime soon.” Pathmark had just spied her from across the gathering area and was beckoning her over. “Perhaps in a few days. But right now, I need my grandchildren and I think my grandchildren need me.”
“That they do,” Windburn agreed. “Don't let me keep you, then.” He headed back to the waiting feast.
Kestrel walked over to her grandchildren, then put an arm around each of them and held them close. It was nice to get back into some sense of normalcy, and to be around those who loved her. It didn't still the pain in her heart, but it comforted her enough to try and move on.