(This story follows "Strange Behavior", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories; and it is also related to the "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend" storyline.)
For Windburn and his hunting party, it was a wet, cold return to the Holt after a glorious few days of warm spring weather promising the end to winter. They were all glad to get back to the furs and heavier leathers they had recently discarded, and it was chill enough to make them wonder if they might yet see more snow in the days ahead. Thornbow grumbled about it good-naturedly, while Windburn cast a sour look at the low, grey sky. At least they'd had good hunting. Fresh meat and their tribemates' company would warm them up quickly.
The chief heard about Notch’s latest escapade when he returned with his hunting party to the Holt – mostly from tribemates laughing and saying that Willow had certainly gotten her fire back, and sounded like her old self again, which was a relief to everyone. Only Snowfall, helping to dress the whitetail buck and wild pig that Windburn and his hunters had brought back, seemed troubled, not joining in fully with the others’ merriment.
“What?” Windburn said, noting her expression.
Snowfall gave him a shrug. “Probably nothing,” she replied, with a rueful smile. “It just… didn't feel right. Willow and Notch… they’ve been close for so long…”
“And a pain in the tail for most of that time,” he pointed out. Snowfall laughed softly.
“True. But I’d almost welcome them teaming up for some prank or other. It would feel… normal.” Now the elder’s smile was apologetic in her chief’s direction, knowing that he was far less likely to welcome any such thing. But so much had happened lately that wasn't normal – the onset of Willow's powers, humans killing one of the wolves. It wasn't surprising that all of the changes were putting the tribe on edge.
The elder sighed. "I just don't like hearing hard words between tribemates, or seeing them come to blows. And this was over something that seemed so small…" She shook her head. "I've never seen Willow lose her temper that easily."
**Show me?** he asked, wanting to see for himself what had her worried. He knew it was worth listening when Snowfall was concerned about something.
So she’d shared with him her memory of the confrontation – the yelling, and the blow from Willow that knocked Notch on his rump, her snarls, and finally Notch’s tuck-tailed retreat. It had looked for moments there like it might be a real fight, and that would have been bad, but… really, the fight had seemed to all be on Willow’s side, she’d put Notch in his place relatively easily, and that was that.
Windburn shook his head. That was indeed worse than he’d ever seen those two at odds. But they weren’t the first set of tribemates to snap and snarl at each other. “I’ll keep an eye on them,” he told the white-haired huntress. “But you’re right, it’s probably nothing. They’ll work it out.”
He wasn’t inclined to punish Notch over it, even if the younger elf had pushed the boundaries – again – of Windburn’s orders to give Willow space as she wrestled with control of her powers. Notch’s humiliation in front of a portion of the tribe, soon broadcast far and wide to everyone else, was effectively punishment enough. He’d learned the lesson, there seemed no need to reinforce it.
The problem of Willow and Notch was not what stayed with Windburn afterwards. It was the words exchanged, and the basis of the fight, that lingered.
Maybe that was because it had involved his father, and Windburn’s senses were always on heightened alert where Blacksnake was concerned. Maybe it was because the chief was still smarting over what he’d learned the night when Willow’s healing powers had been revealed – when he’d learned, too, that his father had known, or suspected, but kept it secret from him. Windburn had chosen to let that go, at the time. It had seemed more important to concentrate on what it meant that the tribe had a healer again, and on Willow herself, whose grasp of her powers seemed troubled.
Had that been the right course of action? It wasn’t usually Windburn’s way to second-guess himself. He did what felt right at the time, and trusted his instincts. But he was also no stranger to doubts, where his father was concerned.
"The Willow I know would never even think to visit Blacksnake's den, unless she were planning a prank. She'd never go inside – night after night – and spend time there like you have been lately."
That was an interesting point, that Notch had made. It was the truth. Notch and Willow were foremost amongst those youngsters who often felt the sharp side of Blacksnake’s tongue. It wasn’t a secret that the dour elder thought them irresponsible and unreliable; nor that they thought of him as a moss-backed old stink-bear. Nor was Blacksnake the target of their pranks very often; it wasn’t worth braving his wrath.
So why had Willow chosen Blacksnake’s den for refuge, that night she’d made herself ill trying to master her powers?
One easy answer might be that it was one place she knew that others would not disturb her, so she’d gambled that Blacksnake would not throw the new healer out on her ear. But, Windburn thought, going over his memories of that incident from months past… that sounded too calculating for the condition she’d been in at the time. Any sick animal, elves included, acted more on instinct than on reason. What had given Willow the instinct that Blacksnake represented help, comfort, safety?
"Blacksnake helped me. He was smart enough to come to me and talk some sense into my head when I needed it most and when no one else would. He's helped me all along!"
So, not what, but when?
He probably should have let things lie. Windburn wasn't one to keep chewing over old decisions, or old failures. Once something was done, it was done, and there was no changing it.
There were things that needed his attention now -- this thorny question of what to do about the humans, harmless for seasons upon seasons, but now killers of one of the tribe’s wolves. It was only too easy to imagine them turning their arrows on the elves as well, should they ever come face to face. Yet True Edge wanted them to come face to face, feeling it might be the right path to follow… and Blacksnake, as usual, saw only grim danger in anything involving the five-fingered ones. True Edge put the matter in his chief’s hands, and had faith in Windburn's decisions. Blacksnake expected his son to listen to the elder’s dire predictions. The tribe’s fate was in his hands now, and Windburn had a decision facing him. He needed to be able to concentrate on that.
So why wouldn’t his mind leave this old matter alone? Unless, Windburn thought, his instincts were trying to tell him something.
What to do about the humans was a dangerous enough question, without other worries snapping at his heels. Windburn had faith, in turn, that True Edge, having given his friend his thoughts, would leave the matter to his chief. He had no faith, he realized, that his father would do the same.
The incident with Willow’s secret was only the latest reminder of Blacksnake’s independent streak. He’d come to talk to Windburn, and remind him of the plans that Easysinger and her mate had made long ago, but… there had been impatience there, too. Concern that Windburn would choose a path that Blacksnake did not like. Was the elder merely resigned to doing what he had told Windburn he would do, if it came to open confrontation with the humans? Or was there a danger, if Windburn took too long to decide, or if something else happened, that Blacksnake would push things in the direction he wanted?
Of all the tribe, Windburn thought to himself, Blacksnake was the most likely to do that. And when it came to the humans, his father was at his least reasonable; no other subject so visibly upset the elder’s tightly-held control. Humans sent Blacksnake’s thoughts and emotions back to the time after the Fierce Ones’ attack, and the task confronting he and Easysinger, to decide what to do should that attack be brought to the Holt’s heart itself. In this, he still saw himself as chief’s mate, not just as another tribesmate.
Windburn didn’t like being suspicious of any member of his tribe. But Blacksnake had surely given him cause… perhaps more than he knew.
Even when it came to his father, though, mere suspicion wasn’t fair. It also was not Windburn’s way to store such things in his mind, to wait and watch for confirmation, or another mistake. Better to get this in the open between them, he knew. He’d already made the mistake of letting it go once. And though he had always instinctively avoided confrontation with Blacksnake… this was too important. The matter of the humans was more dangerous than anything else Windburn had ever confronted as chief. One wrong move from anyone in the tribe could steer them into disaster.
If he wanted to prevent that, he would have to make sure that both he and his father knew where they stood – with Windburn as the chief, and Blacksnake acting on his order, and only then.
The send he used to call his father to the wolf-pack’s birthing den was as short and tight as Windburn could make it. He did not want any hint of his purpose showing through.
Blacksnake didn’t take long to arrive, stepping into the clearing with a wary eye for the den’s entrance. Though Whirl’s new litter was starting to venture outside the mouth of the den, and though she had allowed Beetle to come close enough to form a bond with one of them just the other day, the chieftess-wolf’s welcome for elves who had wolf-friends already was as uncertain as her tolerance for the rest of the pack. She would welcome their company and their help with the cubs soon, though – and from the look on Blacksnake’s face, he wondered if that was the reason for Windburn’s summons.
But no. There were no other wolves present, and Windburn had not summoned any of the rest of the tribe. In the clearing there was only Whirl, and her cubs playing in the short undergrowth near the den, and Windburn himself.
Blacksnake’s expression quickly turned to concern. “Is something wrong?” he demanded.
“The cubs are fine,” Windburn replied, knowing that was his father’s thought.
Blacksnake’s eyes would be telling him the same thing. He relaxed visibly. “So? What, then?”
It was only a few hands of days ago that they had talked of Easysinger’s dire plans for a human invasion, here in this very clearing. When Blacksnake had reminded the chief of his intention to lead the fight that he seemed sure was to come. Now Windburn had chosen this place as one of the most likely to allow them privacy for what he was about to do. Instinct told him that this was something best done without others watching – not to save his father's pride, nor even to save his own, whichever of them emerged the winner. More, because he understood that the tribe's opinion was a powerful advantage for whoever could sway it, and he did not want Blacksnake thinking that was a strategy he could pursue.
“I have a question.”
“Oh?” The elder’s eyebrows rose, head tilting to the side thoughtfully. The usual impatience in his tone was tempered by curiosity that he couldn’t hide.
Windburn was not nervous. The feeling in his chest was the tight anticipation of riding in the hunt, about to give chase to prey. He took a deep breath, and launched his first arrow. ** He was smart enough to come to me and talk some sense into my head when I needed it most and when no one else would. He's helped me all along!** And then, when he saw the recognition of the words and their meaning on Blacksnake’s face, Windburn asked simply, **When?** When had he gone to Willow? When had he started helping her?
It was a question that demanded an answer in sending as well – the plain truth, no evasions. There was a half-smile on Blacksnake’s face; acknowledgement of the tactic, perhaps. **When no one else would,** the elder replied, along with a quick sensation of bright, frost-covered morning by the hot-springs, the tribe’s new healer running, hiding, finally cornered, until she’d admitted her fears, faced them, and took the helping hand that Blacksnake had offered.
“It was my order that she be left alone,” said the chief, feeling a surprising calm even though his father’s answer confirmed all of his suspicions, without any doubt.
Blacksnake shook his head. “What she needed –“ he began.
Windburn’s fist took him across the jaw, with enough force and surprise to stagger the larger elf. Blacksnake caught his balance again down on a hand and one knee, and his expression of shock and affront was one that Windburn had never seen on him before, let alone caused to happen. Even the chief had not known what he would do, until that moment, but he knew what felt right, and he let instinct guide him.
His hands closed on the front of his father’s heavy winter tunic, and jerked upward before Blacksnake himself could start to pick himself up. Still off-balance, the elder’s face was set in a reflexive snarl, but all the anger and momentum was on Windburn’s side.
**That was not for you to decide! I. AM. CHIEF!** he blazed, blue eyes locked onto brown, snarling in return.
**YOU WERE WRONG!** came his father’s implacable thought in return, though it was a small victory that he accepted Windburn’s declaration rather than refuting it. He was tensed under Windburn’s hands, rigid, all his energy focused on the mental contest with his son.
Windburn could sense easily what Blacksnake did not put into words – Willow’s fear, her dangerous isolation, her need for someone to come to her and do what the chief had forbidden – but that was reason, and this was not about reason. **Maybe!** he flung back, rewarded by another pulse of startled reaction for the admission, but he pushed past it quickly. **But I am chief, and I decide! Not you!**
They were both breathing hard, and it took effort for Blacksnake to growl out, “And when what the chief decides is wrong?”
“Then convince me!” he gritted back.
Blacksnake huffed a disbelieving laugh. “Convince you? Easier to convince a river to flow upstream!”
“And here I always heard there was no challenge you weren’t equal to! Did I hear wrong?” Windburn made his question scornful, a challenge itself. Alongside the nurturing anger there was a new feeling, growing as he realized that Blacksnake was not fighting back as he could have – as Windburn had expected he would, as he had thought Blacksnake's pride would demand, even without the tribe's eyes on them. It was a feeling of elation, knowing that he had already won.
“There was no time to waste trying to make you listen when your hackles were already up!” the elder said, defensively, and in his tone Windburn heard the certain proof of what he’d begun to suspect: Blacksnake wasn’t as sure of his rightness as he wanted to sound.
The mere thought of that was a stunning revelation. Blacksnake never doubted himself! Not that Windburn had ever seen, and that made it hard to recognize that it must be what he was seeing now. It was the only thing that explained why this long-avoided confrontation was proving easier than Windburn had always feared it would be.
His certainty gave him the strength to say, “Is that why? Or was it just easier to act the chief yourself than to come to me?” He released his grip on his father’s tunic, pushing off as he did so. **This tribe cannot have two chiefs – it must have one.** Windburn added aloud, “I was the one who took the chief’s torc from Mother’s body, not you.” He saw the stab of pain that reminder caused, and pressed on, “I am the one the tribe follows, so tell me, Father – are you part of my tribe, or will you try to take the chief’s torc from me? Because it must be one or the other.”
This was not just a matter of pride – this was a vital part of the Way, and it was a key to their very survival. Once, he might have worried at such an open invitation to his father to challenge him, but right now there was nothing in his sending but solid conviction, the will to defend his chiefship against anyone, even Blacksnake – and the assurance, in this moment, that he was right, and he would win. Perhaps Blacksnake's reasoning had been correct, and what he'd done was what Willow truly needed. Windburn could admit that, and still know that what his father had done was wrong. Being correct gave Blacksnake no right to defy the chief, nor to act as if he were chief himself.
For long moments they stared at each other, heavy breaths frosting the still air. Blacksnake’s eyes narrowed, studying him as if uncertain whether he faced the son he knew, or something else that he hadn’t expected. Then finally, after what seemed an eternity, the elder very deliberately dropped his eyes, and bowed his head. “Your tribe – my chief.”
Windburn thought his heart would fly out of his chest, it was beating so hard all of a sudden, the pulse roaring in his ears. He nodded sharply. “Remember that.”
That brought his father’s eyes flashing up to meet his again. “I’m not likely to forget,” Blacksnake assured him dryly, beginning to regain his usual composure. “Will the chief remember to listen, on occasion?” he added, pointedly.
“I’ll… try.” It was the best Windburn could do, admitting that perhaps he had something to learn from this as well. But he stopped short of promising, just as he wasn’t naďve enough to think that this one victory would change Blacksnake’s ways completely.
The elder inclined his head, the half-smile back on his lips. “So will I – harder, next time.” In his eyes was the sure knowledge that there would be a next time, another crisis, another decision to debate, and what he said was a promise not just of obedience, but that he would make his voice heard.
That, Windburn expected of him. "I'll count on it," he said, seriously. "What's happening now, with the humans… I need the tribe together, behind me – the whole tribe. I will do whatever I have to, to make sure of that." He wanted there to be no doubt on that score.
Blacksnake nodded shortly in agreement. The look he was giving his son was not chastened – already, his customary self-possession was back in place – but it was thoughtful. "I… don't doubt it," he said, sounding almost as surprised to say it as Windburn was to hear it from him. Then he gave another half-bow of his head, and asked, "Is that all, my chief?"
Though Windburn was listening for it, he did not hear too sharp a challenge in the words. And for once, the faint smile on Blacksnake's lips did not have a hint of mockery – but what to call that expression, he couldn't tell. It never occurred to him that it might actually be pride, for him, or something like it. **Is that enough?** he sent in answer, conveying his feeling that there was no need for further punishment to make sure the lesson had been learned.
**Oh yes,** came the sardonic reply, accompanied by a short impression of the moment when Windburn's blow had landed, knocking Blacksnake off his feet.
So he nodded, satisfied, and taking that as dismissal, Blacksnake left the clearing.
And for the first time since his father had appeared, Windburn allowed himself to relax. But not completely. For though this was a triumph, one that he could rightly savor, it didn't solve any of the other problems facing him. All he could hope was that it would give him, and all the tribe, a better chance of success.