(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Fletcher emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
Windburn absently stretched his legs as he stepped from his den. He was going to be sitting, he was sure, for quite some time tonight, and the mere thought of that made his left calf cramp.
Today was the day Fletcher was to be unwrapped and healed. His cocoon had been carefully brought from the wrapstuff den to the Gathering Den where he would be able to comfortably sleep and recuperate after Willow had finished healing him. Furs and other items had been arranged in the room to make the elves who would be watching and waiting for Fletcher's awakening more comfortable, as well.
The realization hit Windburn that he was almost becoming used to this whole unwrapping process. Almost. He still felt apprehensive the moment a cocoon was opened and the sleeper's body lay exposed and dying. It was a reminder that no elf in his tribe was ever truly safe from illness or from harm, and that the unexpected could happen to anyone at any time. He didn't like it; it showed he had no control over the situation, and the resulting anxiety always lingered for a long, uncomfortable while once Willow fell into her trance and began to heal.
'But this will be the fourth,' Windburn told himself. He was the only elf, aside from Willow, who had attended every unwrapping, as was his right – and duty – as chief. 'Today, we will welcome the fourth of our sleepers back to the tribe. And then there will be only one more time we'll have to go through with this. After that, it will be finished.'
He was thankful the tribe finally had a healer again. He was thankful that Fletcher would open his eyes to friends and family who would welcome him, and he had high hopes that this unwrapping would be a much happier event than the previous three. Those thoughts temporarily chased away any lingering feelings of unease, and he held tightly to them as he stepped inside the Gathering Den.
“Better late than never, eh, Windburn?” One-Leg grinned as the chief entered. A quick look around the room revealed the source of One-Leg's humor. Everyone else who was to be there for Fletcher's unwrapping was ready and waiting: One-Leg, the father of Fletcher's lovemate Flash, and Snowfall, who was both Fletcher's niece and mother of his lovemate Whitestag, were sitting on some furs across from the pallet on which Fletcher's cocoon lay.
'What will Fletcher think,' Windburn wondered, 'when he discovers his lovemates are gone, or that two other nieces besides Snowfall have been born and have fully-grown, since he was wrapped?' Just like those who had been wrapped before, so much was going to have changed for Fletcher. This would not be the same Holt he remembered, at all.
Farscout sat silently on some furs on the opposite side of the room, his gaze focused on Fletcher's soon-to-be-opened cocoon. Blacksnake stood against a wall next to Farscout, calm-faced and cross-armed. Windburn half wondered if his father really thought that casual stance and stoic face would mask the apprehension clearly floating just under his skin?
It was a kind of duty, Windburn knew, that brought Farscout and Blacksnake to Fletcher's unwrapping. Not a burden, only of obligation, fueled by guilt, but one of deeply-felt need and love . Blacksnake had been hunt leader even those many turns ago, and Fletcher had been injured on his watch, on a hunt that he himself had led. Farscout was not only Fletcher's kin, but he had been the one to rush Fletcher back toward the Holt when the archer had been injured, and had personally overseen Fletcher's wrapping. It was a welcome responsibility - one that had been undertaken those countless turns ago, to see this task through to the end.
Windburn could understand that sense of duty. It was why he was here, too. Regardless of who was chief when the sick and injured ones were wrapped, this was his tribe now. The sleepers were his responsibility, and he would watch each of them be healed and welcome them back to the tribe until the last sleeper was awakened and well. Though the unwrappings were stressful, he was happy to be here, and happy that his position in the tribe allowed him this chance to watch each of these sick or injured elves offered another chance at life.
The sound of shrill chattering drew Windburn's attention to the figure next to the pallet. Willow sat there, looking serious and yet anxious to get started. Foamspray sat perched on her shoulder, blabbering happily in her ear while the healer did her best to try and ignore the noise. The other Preservers were circling happily over the healer's head, or perched, like shy Dewdrop and dour Mushroom, waiting, atop Fletcher's cocoon.
'This is all in Willow's hands now,' Windburn thought, and it frustrated him. Regardless of whether he was guardian of the sleepers or not, his hands were tied once the healing began, and he hated it. He knew Willow often grated under the pressure this task put on her shoulders. She'd snapped at him more than once about how she felt he was boxing her in more and more as time passed. And, while they'd never really talked often on an informal basis, she wasn't on speaking terms with him at all, now. He knew she was still angry with him over his decision that she not leave the Dentrees alone: she merely grunted in acceptance at him and walked away when he told her, two nights ago, that Fletcher was to be the one that would be healed next.
No, the healer wasn't happy with him by a long shot... but he had to tell her no to make sure she stayed safe and that the sleepers had a chance to awaken. Even though she had stepped up to her responsibilities, Willow was still too rash and, at times, irresponsible. She took too many risks without thinking through the consequences. His decisions to keep Willow close had been for her own good and for the good of the tribe, whether Willow agreed with him or not.
And now, soon, she would be unwrapping the fourth cocoon. He wondered if healing Fletcher would be different than healing the others had been.
Fletcher was seriously wounded; his wrapping was a result of injury, not of sickness or of poison as the past three sleepers had been. 'Willow has healed wounds somewhat like this before,' Windburn staunchly told himself. She healed Pathmark when he had been mauled by that bear. She can do this, too.
One-Leg and Snowfall had begun to talk quietly while Windburn found a place to settle. The chief could only hear snippets of their conversation; it had something to do with how One-Leg had his den ready for Fletcher to move in. Snowfall talked about Fadestar and what her growing family had learned since they had taken in Kestrel's sister.
“I take it we're ready?” Windburn interrupted after he'd found a comfortable spot to sit in the middle of the room.
All eyes turned to Willow, who nodded.
Windburn nodded in return. “Let's start, then.”
Willow took a deep breath. “Open it,” she quietly commanded, after which the Preservers chortled a gleeful, cacophonous chorus and gathered on Fletcher's wrapped body. Then, they carefully began to break the threads that held the cocoon together.
Willow's gaze was trained on Foamspray in particular. Though all the Preservers were doing their part to open the cocoon, Foamspray had proven to be the one that could pull apart the sticky wrapstuff fibers the most quickly. Her shoulders tensed up as the small hole in the wrapstuff cocoon Foamspray created slowly became larger. When it grew larger than the size of the Preserver, Foamspray finally broke through and exposed some of Fletcher's skin. Willow wasted no time in placing her hand over that area. She closed her eyes, and the archer's body was soon bathed in the familiar, bright, glow that was the hallmark of a healer at work.
All the while, the rest of the Preservers kept diligently working to unravel the cocoon until, suddenly, the websilk disintegrated, revealing Fletcher's bruised body.
The familiar sense of unease began to seep back into Windburn's gut.
Willow groaned. The sound was nothing new. Willow often groaned or moaned from time to time as she healed the seriously-wounded elves. Windburn figured it had something to do with her healing effort or with pain: the healer had indicated in the past that she could often feel the pain of those she healed. However, when Willow groaned again, there was a sound of desperation to it. Her brows lowered. She gritted her teeth.
One-Leg sat up straight at the sight of that. “What's going on?”
“This isn't normal,” Snowfall quickly added.
Farscout stood and kept his eyes glued to the healer and Fletcher.
Another sound from the pallet cut any further speculation short. Willow murmured a strained-sounding, “No..,” and she leaned forward to wrap her arms around Fletcher's body and lean her forehead on his chest. The healer's glow seemed to flicker. “No... no... no...!”
Blacksnake took a step forward toward Willow and Fletcher, then stopped, looking uncharacteristically uncertain.
Farscout's eyes were wide, his face pale, while Snowfall gasped and put a hand over her mouth.
All the while, Willow's chant of, “No!” grew more frantic. She repeated the syllable more and more fiercely until, suddenly, the glow surrounding Fletcher vanished. Willow sat back – hard – and her eyes snapped open. The color drained from Willow's face as she held her shaking hands out before her. Her eyes glazed over and her breath caught in her throat as she stared at where Fletcher lay, clearly in shock.
“...Gone..!” she managed to whisper, mere moments before Windburn knew what the healer meant. He felt Fletcher's spirit briefly brush with his before it departed.
Fletcher was dead.