(This story begins hours after the events in ”Never Too Stubborn”, and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
One-Leg held aside the curtain-door of the room and limped inside. “There you are,” he said to Starskimmer with a smile. “Thought I’d find you here. How’s the boy doing?”
Starskimmer looked up from her seat at her son’s bedside and smiled warmly at her visitor. “Otter’s sleeping. He didn’t want to drink the sleeping-draught, and put up enough of a fuss over it that Cloudfern had to threaten to pinch his nose closed.”
One-Leg chuckled at that as he crossed the room and dropped down to sit beside Starskimmer at the bedside. “Cloudfern’ve done just that, too – I hope the boy didn’t force it, because the plantshaper’s pretty little hands aren’t beyond leaving a few bruises!”
Starskimmer shook her head and hugged One-Leg. **Glad you came, Khash,** she sent, nuzzling her Recognized’s neck.
One-Leg hugged Starskimmer close and planted an easy kiss against her forehead. “Knew you’d welcome the company.”
Starskimmer gave a throaty, suggestive laugh at that, but there was nothing sensual about her embrace. Instead, she simply leaned companionably against One-Leg, resting a cheek against his shoulder. The boy had survived nearly drowning this afternoon, but One-Leg knew Starskimmer wasn’t keeping watch over her son out of post-accident adrenaline. Otter wasn’t out of danger yet. Anyone who swallowed down too much dirty water was at risk of lungrot. Starskimmer’s own father, Dagger, had died of that complication after nearly drowning in a flood. Dagger had chosen not to go into wrapstuff, and One-Leg feared his Recognized still might remember her father’s death rattle when he’d finally succumbed to his illness. He didn’t want Starskimmer sitting alone just now, not with that miserable memory within reach.
“Any sign of Willow?” Starskimmer asked.
“She and Rainpace are well out of sending distance,” One-Leg reported, having checked on that before making his way to Otter’s sickroom. “But the chief sent Foxtail and Longshot off at a gallop to fetch them. Willow’s sure to be back in time, in the off chance there’s any need.”
Starskimmer nodded at that, and they sat together in silence for a long while, watching Otter sleep. “Thank you,” Starskimmer said after a time. One-Leg knew she wasn’t referring to his bedside visit to help sit watch.
“My pleasure,” he replied. “Just grateful to have been in the right place at the right time.”
“You and me both.” One-Leg felt Starskimmer shudder. He shifted his arm down from her shoulders to her waist and gave her a comforting squeeze. They sat that way in silence for a while, watching Otter sleep.
The boy lay on his back, his raggedly-shorn hair having dried to curls around his wan face. It occurred to One-Leg suddenly that Otter had grown considerably over the last season or so. The boy was what, now… piss up a rope, but the boy was nearly 15 turns of the seasons old now, wasn’t he? It shook One-Leg to the marrow to figure that. He wondered when the child had grown so fast… it had seemed only yesterday when Otter had been only a little cub just learning to swim…
“It’s past time for Otter to have gone of his Very Long Walk,” One-Leg murmured. “Has he found his soul-name yet, do you know?”
“Not yet, but he’ll go and find it soon enough,” Starskimmer answered. “Some children need that faster than others. Certainly Notch sped through it all too fast. I’m grateful for Otter having remained my little boy this long. But he won’t be, I fear, not after today.”
One-Leg nodded, and gave his Recognized another squeeze. Every elf who faced a near-death experience reacted to it differently. One-Leg thought about his own various close calls, and how his reaction to each had varied. But he was willing to wager Starskimmer’s mother’s-intuition was right. Otter’s life had been as sheltered as his kinfolk could make it. His near-death by drowning today was an invitation toward maturity. One-Leg just hoped that the boy’s cheerful nature didn’t mature so quickly that his sunny smile was dampened. That would be a real pity.
Otter’s breathing was regular and steady, but after a time, One-Leg realized there was a rusty sound to the boy’s intake of breath. One-Leg held his own counsel on the matter, knowing Starskimmer was far more skilled in healing arts than he. At length, she stirred and leaned over the bed to touch her son’s pale forehead. The look she turned One-Leg’s direction was miserable.
“He’s developing a fever,” she said.
One-Leg nodded and pushed himself up. “Grind up your willow bark and feverease, or whatever it is you make that nasty tea with,” he said as he limped his way toward the doorway. “I’ll go and fetch Cloudfern for you, and pass word to the chief while I’m at it.”
Willow rode up to the mouth of the Child Tree before spilling off of Sky’s back. Rainpace, astride Bristlepelt, arrived at Sky’s heels as Willow began to run up the Child Tree stairs, bounding them two and three at a stride.
**Here,** she sent in a pulse of warning, cautioning anyone in her path that she was upbound at speed and in no mood to avoid a collision if a tribesmate were fool enough to stay in her way and ask for it. Wisely, there were no fools in her path; she even heard the scamper of footsteps away from Starskimmer’s room ahead of her, leaving her uncontested right of way. Willow gave a grunt of satisfaction at that as she cleared the last tight, twisting corner of the stairway. Her knees felt like water, she was weary from riding helter-skelter at her chief’s summons, and she couldn’t help but feel a private bitterness at being called back at all. Willow was certain Otter had not tried to drown himself just to spite her, but this had been the first time since becoming aware of the manifestation of her healing talent that Chief Windburn had allowed Willow to go honey-hunting more than a day’s travel away from the Holt, and therefore, of course it was only natural and necessary that someone, anyone, had to go and get themselves in trouble enough to necessitate her headlong race for home.
‘--not rotted fair, being a healer means I’m always gonna wear a bloody short leash, whether I want too or not, just bloody rotten not fair—‘ she thought bitterly. It was a chant that had sustained her for her entire headlong ride for the Holt. It was easier on her nerves, somehow, to just stay angry than it was to let her temper drop. If she did that, then the worry set in, and with it, a feeling like she *should* have been there, should have kept close to home just in case of something like this, should have kept in easy reach, should have been willing to just give up her freedom to ride free and far like she used too, as proof to one and all of her love for her kin and her maturity and her sheer rotted acceptance of who she had become, and what she could now do—
“Out of my way,” she barked as she barged through the curtain-door into Starskimmer’s den, still half-aching for a collision and the chance to physically stomp someone or something. “I’m here, rot it all, I’m back, get out of my way and let me do what I have to.”
Starskimmer, Cloudfern and Windburn all looked at her but wisely refrained from comment at her temperamental arrival. Starskimmer sat at her son’s bedside, holding a cooling cloth against his flushed face. Willow’s eyes and nose both instantly confirmed that the youth was running a high fever; he was sweating and shaking from it, and the fever-scent seeped from his pores like musk. A pungent mix of goose grease and herbs had been rubbed into his chest to try and aid his breathing, but the breath still rattled in and out of his laboring lungs.
**We’ve treated the lungrot as far as we can,** Cloudfern locksent, giving way to Willow at Otter’s bedside. **The wasting fever has come and gone for two days now, but the congestion in his airsacks has yet to clear. The river is thick with silt and fish dung – I don’t know how much of it he swallowed into his lungs, but it was clearly enough for lungrot to set in.**
Willow gave the plantshaper a distracted nod as she took the seat he had vacated for her. Now that Otter’s misery was on display before her, Willow’s self-pity-tinged fury had evaporated. It was possible that the youth might have survived this illness without a healer’s intervention, but there was no need now to risk it. Willow was here, and she saw what she had to do.
She settled one hand on his chest over Otter’s heart, and the other farther across his chest. The moment she touched his fever-hot skin, she *felt* the poisons raging in his body. Willow took her time to sink into a healer’s trance, feeling out the extent of her work cautiously. This was a new sort of challenge. Healing illness was different from the wound-mendings she had pursued before – a wound was localized, while an illness bred and travelled like a shimmering, flashing school of fingerling fish. Otter’s clogged lungs were full of debris that had to be purged. That she could help with – but only after the fever-poisons had been chased down, one by one, and extinguished.
Willow focused her entire attention on that challenge, and set to work.
Otter opened his eyes and smiled sleepily at his worried family. Starskimmer still sat at Otter’s bedside, with Notch and Beetle close by. Her work completed, Willow had managed to make it only as far as a cushion near the doorway. She sank down wearily onto it, wrapping her arms around her knees to control the shaking of her limbs.
“Thirsty,” Otter murmured plaintively. “I’m thirsty.”
“How do you feel?” Starskimmer asked, while Beetle brought her brother a birchbark cup of water.
Otter drank it quickly and gave it back, clearly hoping for more. Beetle grinned and obliged him. “I don’t feel raspy anymore,” Otter said. “It’s easy to breathe. But I’m so tired… and my bladder feels like it's going to pop...”
“Your turn to fetch,” Beetle said to Notch, who made a face but fetched the necessary glazed clay bowl.
Willow felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up to find Windburn there. He held aside the door curtain and offered her a hand up.
“My own den,” Willow muttered, grateful for some assistance to get from out from underfoot as Otter’s family celebrated his awakening in good health. Windburn drew her up and supported Willow as she staggered to her feet. She saw Beetle look up and begin to start their way, but Willow met her lovemate’s eyes and shook her head. **I’m done now,** she sent. **It’s your brother who needs you.**
Beetle smiled, her eyes bright with gratitude, and Willow turned her attention to the challenge of taking one step, then another, toward the door of Starskimmer’s den. The healing had taken more out of her than she had expected, and without her chief’s assistance, she would not have been able to keep her feet. She leaned on him drunkenly and trusted him to point her in the right direction.
There were three dens on this level of the Child Three, and all three met in single open area in the center of the tree. Beetle’s den was empty, while Greenweave and Cloudfern sat together in their den, sharing cups of tea. Both were clearly alert for any sign from the sickroom, and Cloudfern was immediately pouring another steaming cup of tea.
“Otter’s well?” Greenweave asked.
“Otter’s cured,” Windburn replied on Willow’s behalf. Instead of guiding Willow toward the stairs which would lead down to the first floor of the Child Tree, Windburn half-carried her to Beetle’s empty den. Willow would have protested that diversion if she had had the strength, but she realized that she didn’t have the strength to make it to the upper boughs of the Mother Tree, where her own den was located. Beetle’s familiar sleeping furs were a welcome enough secondhand refuge; Willow wanted nothing more than to sink down into sweet oblivion. Windburn controlled her collapse and guided her to a gentler landing on Beetle’s low bed.
A shadow loomed in the doorway; Greenweave followed them in, carrying a cup of willowbark tea. “You’ll want this, before you sleep,” he said, putting down the tray and holding the cup within Willow’s easy reach. “For the strain-headache. Cloudfern says to drink this now, before the headache takes seed.”
Perhaps it was a reflection of her deep weariness, but Willow didn’t have it in her to debate Cloudfern’s diagnosis. Willow reached for the tea, but Greenweave saw how badly her had was shaking, and he wrapped his hand around her own and helped gently guide the fragrant cup to her lips.
“Was Otter was as ill as Honey was, when we had to put her in wrapstuff?” Greenweave’s quiet question was directed to Windburn as Willow drank down the bitter willowbark tea.
“Aye,” Windburn replied.
Willow glanced up at them both, and saw the sober look that was exchanged between them, as eloquent as any sending. With a start, Willow realized what they each were thinking, and the last swallow of tea nearly went into her lungs as the ground beneath her seemed to go sideways.
Honey had fallen ill with lungrot. If Willow had healed Otter, then Willow was ready to heal Honey. She was ready to open the first of the wrapstuff cocoons – wasn’t she?
“Willow needs to rest,” Windburn said then. “We will discuss this later.”
Greenweave nodded acceptance of that. He touched Willow’s shoulder, a brief, comforting press of his cool fingers, before rising and slipping out of the den. Willow stared after the brown-haired fisher, still shaken by her skyfire revelation. If she could wake Honey, then wasn’t she also ready to open Fadestar’s as well, since it was illness and fever which had put the girl into a Preserver’s cocoon?
“Lie down,” Windburn said gently, taking Willow by the shoulders and guiding her when she didn’t move on her own. He tucked her in like a child. “Sleep,” Windburn said then, patting Willow’s shoulder. “We’ll rouse you if there’s any need, or if Otter’s condition changes—“
“It won’t.” Her voice was a rusty croak. Willow swallowed heavily. “He’s cured. And I’m ready to open Honey’s cocoon now, aren’t I?”
“Healer, we can discuss this to--” Windburn began.
Willow did not hesitate to interrupt her chief. “If I can heal Otter of lungrot, then I’m ready to try healing Honey.” She shivered to say those words. It was a big step, a momentous step, something she had been imagining as confidently on the horizon, and not expecting to find so suddenly underfoot.
Windburn knelt, and Willow blinked drunkenly to find her chief suddenly close and in her face. “We will discuss this tomorrow,” he said firmly, but with the hint of an approving smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “Tomorrow, perhaps, you may be ready to try opening Honey’s cocoon. But tonight, you need your sleep.”
Willow nodded. Her chief was right. Sleep first. And tomorrow, when it came, she would take fresh stock of her ability. She took a deep breath and let her eyes ease closed. And as Willow drifted into an easy sleep, it was tomorrow’s horizon she saw and she strode toward.