(This story is related to the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers being Healed and Rejoining the Tribe" storyline -- see listings for related stories.)
He was close. There was no doubt about it. Willow slung the tether holding her honey baskets so they hung down her back, dismounted from her wolf-friend Sky, and knelt low to the ground to inspect the track she had just spied there. A single bear paw print was impressed in the soft mud near a creek bed, and the leftmost claw was missing.
Old Greedygut had found her again.
The old brown bear had been a thorn in Willow's side for as long as she'd been wearing her hair this long – at least two hands of years before her father died, or more. He was a grizzled and crafty thing, and seemed to have as good a nose for which bee-trees were ready for harvesting as Willow did or better. If there was honey to be had, the old bear was there.
It used to be Willow would find that the bear had raided the trees with lower hives before she had a chance to. However, over the years, Greedygut had figured out that it was much easier – and much less painful – to have the bee-elf harvest the honey and to try and steal it from her later.
A voice in the back of her head pricked her thoughts – she should send word that her old, familiar adversary was back in Holt territory. The nuisance bear was dangerous and it would be better and safer to wait for the honey harvest after he was driven from the tribe's territory.
But she also knew Greedygut would raid that bee-tree first if she let it sit long enough for a group of hunters to rally to chase the bear out. This particular tree was a prize tree – the bees always produced quite the harvest, and it would be a shame if the tribe had to miss out on this particular treat.
Willow placed her hand over that familiar track and sniffed the air. She didn't scent the bear nearby, but he would show before the day was through. She knew it, and she would be ready. She'd danced this dance before. She'd keep Greedygut at bay on her own.
She sent for Sky to follow and to be wary, and forged ahead on foot.
Willow heard the buzzing of the bees in the old, hollow tree just as she entered the willow grove from the south.
**Stay put. Keep watch,** she sent to her bond, and Sky replied that she would do so. If Greedygut was anywhere nearby, hopefully the wolf could help distract the old bear while Willow got to safety.
Carefully, she approached the buzzing bee-tree and sniffed the air. Still no sign of Old Greedygut. Good.
She positioned her honey-baskets so they draped over her back, and then scaled the trunk as quickly as a squirrel might have. In no time, Willow was eye-level with the gaping maw of the hive, paying no heed to the bees swarming around her shoulders and face.
Slowly, she shifted her honey baskets around to her front, opened the rope-hinged lid-covers on them, and then deftly reached inside the hive to retrieve the first of many pieces of honey-filled comb. She harvested until both baskets were half-full.
That was when Sky's snarling alerted her to the fact she was no longer alone. A glance down at the ground revealed that Greedygut was sitting patiently on a nearby knoll, waiting for Willow to descend.
“Hah!” Willow called out at the bear. “Go home, you stupid, fat son of a shagback! I beat you to this tree, and what's in it is all mine!”
Greedygut merely huffed and advanced toward the bee-tree despite Sky's threatening snaps and growls. The behavior wasn't anything new. This was a game he and Willow had played for seeming ages. Thankfully, it was a game that Willow knew how to win.
The bear reached the bee-tree, rose up on its hind legs, and began to slam his upper body against the bottom of the tree to try and knock Willow down. The old trunk shuddered. The bees inside began to get angry; the gentle hum within began to grow to a low roar. Even Willow didn't want to be around angry bees. As the bear slammed into the tree again, Willow knew she had to act fast, or risk getting stung. She wrapped her left arm securely around the tree trunk, then reached into her honey basket with her other hand to retrieve a large piece of honeycomb.
**Get ready to run,** she warned her wolf-friend. Sky kept growling at the bear, but indicated she was ready.
Willow took the honeycomb and hurled it as far away from the bee-tree as she could.
The bear lumbered after it, and that bought Willow the time she needed. She closed her honey baskets, flung the tether holding them back over her shoulder and began to scramble down the tree as quickly as her arms and legs would carry her.
Willow heard a snap about halfway down as an old, brittle branch broke beneath her. It was followed by the sharp sounds of other branches giving way as the healer fell through them, scrambling to get some kind of handhold. A final crack from her lower left leg heralded the moment she hit the ground.
Stunned, she felt nothing for a moment as she lay there, sprawled at the foot of the tree. She felt a broken reed from her baskets poking her in the back. Sticky honey oozed from the crushed container beneath her.
“Oh, piss and dung...” she muttered to herself. Her senses slowly came back and she realized what had just happened.
And then, a burst of pain erupted from her leg that was so intense she couldn't help but cry out.
Something – that voice within her that diagnosed others when she touched them to heal – went out, looked within her, and returned quickly, screaming, Leg bone broken! Ribs bruised!
She didn't have time to even attempt to heal the damage the fall had caused before Sky rushed over to her with hackles raised. The wolf was growling fiercely. Greedygut had finished the honeycomb Willow had tossed to him, and was now fearlessly moving toward them again at a slow amble. Aggressive-sounding huffs announced his approach.
Willow's heart leapt in her chest. She was lying on the honey baskets, and beesweets covered her from head to toe. She was perfectly dressed to be Greedygut's next meal.
Sky wouldn't leave her side. The wolf's fangs were bared and her fur bristled in a desperate attempt to ward the bear away, but Greedygut wasn't going to be deterred. The old bear began increasing speed as it moved forward.
Suddenly, a black, growling shape tore in from what seemed to be nowhere and joined Sky in standing her ground. Another wolf. Flea! And Farscout was on her back, shouting and with his bow raised high in an attempt to make him look larger than he actually was. The two new additions were what it took to break the bear's advance. Greedygut stopped short, still chuffing, but also eying this new predicament warily.
Farscout quickly slid to the ground, reached beneath Willow, and retrieved partially-crushed honeycomb. He waved it in the air, making certain he had the bear's attention. Honey dripped down his hand as he called out, “Is this what you want?”
Greedygut huffed and took one eager step forward.
“Then go get it!” Farscout cried, and chucked the honeycomb as far away as he was physically able to. Once again, the bear took the bait and chased the beesweets off into the trees.
When the bear was a good, safe distance away, the scout turned to Willow. “Are you hurt?”
“Leg's broken. Can't walk on it,” Willow told him, wincing as she tried to sit up again. She put a hand on her leg. It was already swelling tightly in her boot. “I'll fix—”
“Can't wait here for that,” Farscout interrupted. He slung his bow over his shoulder and knelt down next to the injured healer. “Greedygut will be back. We need to get out of here, and we're going to need more time.”
Willow wasn't sure what Farscout had in mind, but she was glad he seemed to have some kind of plan for the situation. However, when she sat up and he snatched the crushed honey baskets that had been beneath her, Willow's gratefulness turned into surprise.
“Hey! What are you doing with--”
That surprise turned to anger when Farscout hurled the basket in the same direction he'd tossed the honeycomb earlier. “Badger's blood, Farscout, that was everything I had! I'm not going home empty-handed after all this!”
“You're going home with your life! Now, let's get you up.”
Willow uttered every curse that had ever rolled off her tongue as Farscout lifted her from the ground – due to both the loss of the whole honey harvest and the pain in her side and leg. Despite the cursing, Willow tried to help him as best as she could, but she sucked in a painful breath when he had to reposition her in order to balance her weight in his arms. Once he was sure she was secure, Farscout mounted Flea and wordlessly urged his wolf-bond to move. Sky followed closely behind, on guard and alert should the bear choose to pursue the two honey-covered elves.
They stopped only when they were a good distance away from the willow grove. Farscout helped Willow dismount, in an area sheltered on three sides by fallen rocks and trees. With some effort and swearing, Willow wedged herself next to a fallen trunk. Once settled, she closed her eyes and began mending the damage to her leg as best she could. Farscout and the wolves stayed wary and alert for signs of trouble.
It was nearly dawn by the time Willow had healed her leg enough to bear weight on it. She could have pushed herself further, but she'd have unable to ride the rest of the way home. Her ribs still ached, and her leg still felt weak, but she'd be able to walk back to her den on her own two feet. Her mood, however, had completely deflated.
With a little help, she got to her feet and managed to make it onto Sky's back. Farscout mounted Flea, and the pair began to head back toward the Holt.
**Why didn't you let us know that Greedygut had come back?** Farscout suddenly asked when they were well on their way.
**Because I'd have lost the harvest,** Willow answered, her depressed sending still mourning the loss of those beesweets. **I just beat him to the bee-tree as it was.** The unspoken answer was clear: Willow knew that once word was out that the wise old bear had come back into Holt territory, she wouldn't be allowed to continue gathering due to how dangerous Greedygut could be.
“That was foolish,” he said aloud.
Willow felt her temper rising and snapped, “I've dealt with that bear for turns and turns now. I know how to handle him!”
Farscout pointedly looked at Willow's leg before disgustedly returning his gaze to hers. “That bear could have killed you. So tell me, healer, what happens to the rest of us – who are counting on you – should no one be around to rescue you the next time you handle it so well?”
Willow fell silent, but her anger didn't fade. She knew this was an argument she couldn't win, regardless of how she felt. She knew Farscout was partially right – she would be dead now if he hadn't come along. And dealing with bears wasn't safe, by any means. But she'd handled bears before – for most of her life. What happened today had been an accident. Accidents happened to others, too, all the time... and theirs weren't held against them like this one would be held against her!
The tribe already knew what had happened. Farscout had more than likely relayed the information when he'd first spotted Willow in trouble. The healer already felt the first pinpricks of Windburn's mind touching hers, telling her she was never to go out to collect beesweets by herself anymore, even if the tree was close to the Holt. She acknowledged his sending. She didn't agree with it, and made it furiously clear she didn't, but she acknowledged it, and said she would obey the order. She had no choice but to.
And quite a few were waiting to meet them when they arrived back at the dentrees: Windburn, arms crossed and looking angry, others who were concerned about Willow's well-being, and even Honey, who sat smirking off to one side, gloating at Willow's misfortune.
Willow didn't meet any of their eyes. Instead, she dismounted her wolf, muttered that she was fine, and limped her way up the exterior steps of the Mother Tree so she could lick her wounds in the privacy of her own den.
Willow watched the new day grow as she lay beneath the furs in her bed. Her leg was healed now, for the most part. She'd taken some of the ache away from her ribs, but there was still work to do. Her sticky clothing had been cast to the side, and she hadn't bothered trying to find any replacements...
She just wanted to lie still awhile. She felt groggy from healing herself, and the ache in her ribs was annoying her. But moreso, she was trying desperately to shake the sting of this new confinement. She kept wondering how things might have been different had she not fallen from that tree.
She'd been denied a spot on the Human Language-learning team because her powers were too valuable to the tribe to be placed in such a dangerous situation. That had bothered her a lot, but she'd made herself get over it.
When Windburn had denied her participation in two of her favorite extended hunts over the past few moons – for the same reason – that had hurt, too. And that sting still simmered and festered. Her world, she knew, had become that much smaller.
She'd been called back from the only extended trip on which she'd been allowed to go, to save Otter, who had nearly drowned and had caught lungrot. The feeling she had since then, that she always needed to be near, constantly waiting just in case they needed the healer's attention settled around her like a den that was too small.
And now this, the feeling of the last of her freedoms slipping away... It hurt far, far worse than the ache in her ribs and her leg.
“There you are!” Beetle exclaimed as she burst into the den. “I heard what happened, and came back as quickly as I could. I'm so glad you're safe.” The group of elves trying to observe the humans and learn their language had only left a few days ago, so Willow hadn't been expecting Beetle to return. The herbalist's soft voice was a bright spot in the darkened den and lifted Willow's gloomy mood a little.
**Glad you're back, happy you're here, missed you,** Willow sent to her without words. She was afraid if she opened her mouth, she'd start griping right away, and that was no way to greet the person she cared about most.
Beetle crossed the room, and Willow felt her crawl in bed and snuggle up against her. She wrapped her arms around Willow's middle and unintentionally pressed against Willow's sore side. Willow grunted in pain.
Beetle moved her arm and sat up. “Did I hurt you?” she asked.
Willow shook her head and rolled onto her back. “No,” she mumbled. “Just a little sore there. Not quite finished healing up. The worst of it's gone; the rest can wait.”
Beetle lifted the bedfurs to take a look at Willow's side. “It's bruised,” the herbalist said. Willow felt Beetle put a cool hand over her aching ribs. It felt good. “Do you want me to make a poultice for it? Or some tea to take the edge off and help you sleep?”
Willow shook her head again. **Just stay with me, please.**
Beetle must have picked up on the frustration and depression that were heavy undercurrents beneath Willow's sending. She curled herself around Willow again, being careful not to bump up against any sore spots, and smoothed Willow's hair back away from her face. **Want to talk about it?**
Willow closed her eyes and sighed. **I know this was my fault. But it was an accident. How many times have I run from that bear – or other bears – and have come home perfectly safe? Others get hurt when they go out hunting – even by themselves – but does Windburn tell them they can't go out by themselves anymore? I know I'm 'the healer'... and I'm fine with that. I want to be... but can't I do other things besides heal, too?**
**It's not fair.** Beetle's reply was full of sincere compassion. **Maybe it will get better once the last of the wrapstuffed elves are out. I think your healing the rest of them is on everyone's mind right now – Chief Windburn's especially – since you made Honey safe and sound.** Along with the words, Beetle included the sentiment, **Hard for you now, though.**
**That makes me feel like I'm only good as a healer, and nothing more.**
Beetle hugged her a little tighter and sent, **You’re more than that.**
Willow wasn't convinced. **Who is to say they won't just store me away to be here once the next person needs healing? Maybe I should just wrap myself up, and they can take me out when they need me.**
**Don't be like that,** Beetle responded. **That hurts me.** She added, **Need you every day. Don’t want to lose you.**
Willow opened her eyes and looked into Beetle's. She hadn't realized the implications of what she said, and now that she realized how she had come across, she couldn't believe she had said it, either. **I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be that way. I don't want to be away from you at all!**
Beetle nuzzled Willow's cheek. All was forgiven. **I know this is hard for you, but you'll – we'll – get through it. You're strong. And I'll help you, however I can. We'll figure it out together.**
That made Willow smile. She put an arm around Beetle and squeezed her gently. **Patience to my impatience, calm in a storm,** she sent fondly.
Beetle smiled, too, and returned Willow's embrace. **Why don't you sleep, if you can? Sometimes things seem to hurt worse when you're tired.**
“Mmm,” Willow replied, aloud. Beetle's words were true. Maybe this sting wouldn't be so sharp when she was rested and thinking more clearly. But it was so hard to relax.
**Tell me about your trip first,** Willow sent then, leaning her forehead against Beetle's. She always enjoyed hearing about the new things Beetle discovered when she and the others went out to learn more about the humans. In ways, she lived the experience herself through Beetle. **Did you see anything new when you were out this time?**
**I did!** Beetle said, excitement in her sending.
Beetle nodded and happily began.