Coyote and Rainpace walked silently across ground west of the Dentrees. Circling further from home, their eyes were to the ground. They were looking for fallen branches, twigs, loose bark; anything that could be stripped into ties. They were looking for parts for the last raft Doeskin would ever ride.
Coyote spotted a spider crawling across one leaf to another, which brought his mind’s eye back to a glimpse Rainpace had sent of Doeskin’s body when he found it. Her lifeless hazel eyes were surrounded by short, dark-blonde, waves of hair that had already lost some of its luster. The color had drained from her face, save for the angry scarlet blotch of a spider’s bite. She was nude, and the bedfurs had been thrown off her in a vain attempt to save her life.
The image was a brief one, easily brushed aside. An empty shell did not leave near as much impression upon him as the brief touch of Doeskin’s spirit as it brushed against him mid-afternoon, waking him as it did every nearby member of the tribe, as well as the scouts in their wanderings and his mother on one of her few hunting trips with Windburn’s team. That still had him reeling, and not only for his friend and agemate.
Doeskin had been his father’s mate before she moved on to Rainpace’s sire. One-Leg had taken Ringtail’s advances as a harmless joke until Recognition drew her away. One-Leg, his own second Recognition coming not long after hers, slowly let her go. The matter had been resolved well before Dash and Twig – as the two you males were called back then -- were old enough to understand such things. Yet the two former lovemates stayed close. Sometimes she would spend the night with One-Leg, with Dash as a third denmate. Sometimes, One-Leg would accompany Doeskin back to the den she shared with Twig and Ringtail. And still other times, when Dash was denning with his mother or sister, Flash, he’d fall asleep to the sounds of his father’s voice singing love songs to Doeskin in that rumbling bass of his. Where’d they’d go off to afterward was anybody’s guess.
Coyote didn’t know what to say to his friend. He hadn’t really sorted out how he felt yet. All he knew for sure was he’d been inconsolable when Flash died not eight hands of turns past; every well-wish from friends and consolation from family had felt so hollow. He had promised himself he’d never make anyone endure that nonsense from him. Rainpace didn’t seem to want any of it anyway; he simply picked up one twig after another.
Coyote found himself wondering, not for the first time, why there wasn’t a word for the… soul-sickness?… that fell upon one who’d lost their Recognized, and the pieces of themselves the other contained. He didn’t think of himself as a very philosophical elf, but what else was a joker and prankster to do in times like this? He then had to make himself not to think about the mad things his father did when Flash’s mother, Tallow, died just five turns before their daughter. Or the older tales of broken elves running off and doing something moonmad like charging a beehive or jumping off a cliff to certain death, out of sight of tribemates who could talk them down.
But the tribe knew exactly where Ringtail was. He was at the Craft Trees. Tearing the place up and sniffing around for all of Doeskin's unfinished works -- and the tanner had several to go along with her varied interests, going back and forth from one to the other as the mood struck her -- madly intent on destroying them all so that no other crafters could 'sully' them by finishing her work. The normally easygoing, jovial, archer was mad with grief, and would regret it all once he came back to himself, but right now there was no reasoning with him.
There was, however, a frantic rush of other elves to save their own works from his wrath. It might have been a lot of fun to watch, given other circumstances. But Coyote wasn’t even listening to the telepathic updates from friends anymore. He just wanted to be close by when his friend needed to talk.
**Coyote. Craft Trees. Now!** The mental command from the south was sharp and stern and so urgent it all but shoved Coyote’s feet in the direction in which he had been summoned.
Coyote snorted, “Blacksnake.” He ran off, not daring to look Rainpace in the eye while abandoning him. Running at top speed, Coyote cursed between breaths. ‘Does Blacksnake ever think about anyone else?’ It was oh so typical of that cross-eyed old toad to appoint himself in charge of who went where while the chief was away. Even to the point of intruding on how other elves grieved.
He heard the ruckus well before he got to it.
“She wouldn’t want this dung-sucking bellyworm destroying her hard work!” One-Leg’s bellow was unmistakable and infuriated.
“Say it when you’re sober, you stinking whitestripe!” Ringtail’s voice creaked with passion.
“I’ll show you drunk! Rutting punch-drunk!
“I took your staff and I’ll take your hide!”
Coyote burst onto a scene like unto a challenge over the chief’s torc. A ring of tense wolfriders surrounded the combatants: his father and Rainpace’s. Cider and some other crafters had taken advantage of the brawl to set up a perimeter around their creations, and had dragged some undyed leathers to safety away from a smoldering firepit. The wolves had cleared out to let their elf-friends settle their own affairs.
But this was no chief’s challenge, and not all elves were standing aside. Ringtail was being held back by his sister, Dreamberry, and Suddendusk. The one-eyed elf was struggling in vain to pry the staff he’d carved out of his friend’s hands. Ringtail had a bright red face and a bloodied, broken nose. One of One-Leg's fists was caked in fresh blood; the other clung tightly to a half-finished necklace of woven leather-string. Blacksnake was struggling to hold One-Leg at bay alone, the elder elf’s free arm swinging with all his might.
And they were still shouting at one another.
“Let me at him!” One-Leg demanded.
“I’ll tear you to pieces!” Ringtail scowled.
**He won’t let anyone else near him!** Blacksnake locksent, giving a mental nudge toward Rhythm, who was nursing a wounded jaw with Cloudfern’s aid. **Calm him down and get his arm!**
Coyote tentatively approached through the crowd, and his father’s eyes locked in on him. Red, swollen eyes that swam in tears of sorrow not only for Doeskin, but for Flash and Tallow as well. Too many broken hearts in too little time. Coyote’s gut tightened as he realized Blacksnake’s callous efficiency in choosing him to quiet his father’s aching, raging, heart. For his sire’s sake, he chose to play the role thrust upon him. “It’s me, Coyote, your son. You’ve succeeded. You saved Doeskin’s things. It’s over.” He reached out, offering his father his own hand. One-Leg was speechless, but Coyote felt he was getting through.
Blacksnake slid to one side, kicking the back of his elder brother's ankle, sending him off balance. With one hand he thrust One-Leg's shoulder back and down, forcing him to the ground. One-Leg howled with grief, long and loud enough to get all the wolves started. Choking on pain, his teary-eyed howl melted away into anguished sobs. Ringtail puffed up with satisfaction to see his rival brought down. Coyote rooted himself to strike, not sure if he was going to clobber Ringtail or his uncle.
**Don’t make me stop you too,** warned Blacksnake.
**Who are you to- to… If they want to grieve this way, let them!** Coyote was livid.
**They went too far when they started breaking pieces off each other. ** Blacksnake was resolute, justifying his arrogance as always. **I won’t let it go any farther.**
Coyote scowled; it seemed as good at time as any to let Blacksnake know what he – what all the younger elves -- thought about him. But before he could reply, Ringtail’s sister and friend released their charge. Suddendusk seemed eager to get out of this conflict, maybe because he had a stake in either side. Dreamberry remained, and kept one gentle, reassuring hand on Ringtail’s as he stepped closer to One-Leg. Sneering, he spat, “You think you’re so tough, but you’re a stupid fool! You don’t know anything! Not about this, not about her! She chose me! Remember that! She chose me!” He chucked the staff on the ground beside its owner in disgust.
One-Leg’s weeping stopped cold during Ringtail’s boast. He tilted his head and stared hard at his long-ago rival, who was now being led by Dreamberry toward Cloudfern. Coyote felt something pass from his father’s mind to Ringtail’s; a locksend strong enough for those nearby to notice. Ringtail stopped midpace and turned back, pale and trembling. The soul-sickness was gone from his watering eyes. The crowd, which had begun clearing out, paused as well.
One-Leg motioned for his son to help him up. From this angle, Coyote could see past his father’s bushy red moustache to see him speaking through a split lip. “What Recognition handed to you in a broth bowl, she gave to me freely. Just you remember that.” The fight had gone out of One-Leg’s eyes, but not the determination. “I know she wouldn’t want what you were about to do.”
Ringtail choked up, and looked around the place like he didn’t know what to say or do anymore. Dreamberry took his hand again and led him away. Ringtail staggered the rest of the way toward Cloudfern, and fell to his knees, crestfallen.
Blacksnake got to his brother’s staff before his son could. One-Leg took it, and nodded solemnly to Blacksnake. He cleared his throat, which Coyote took as a signal he was returning to normal. Looking down at the leather-string necklace he rasped, “I reckon I’ll lend this to your mother when she comes home. See if she can finish it.”
“She’ll like that. Come along with me,” Coyote wrapped an arm around his father’s shoulder. “You can help look for raft parts. And maybe we can talk?”