(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.)
One-Leg found Honey sitting near the Craft Trees, a place her mother had often frequented. She still wore that sour look of betrayal that she’d had on when she’d swept out from the Mother Tree like a stormcloud with a mane fresh-cut as short as Tallow ever let hers grow.
“Just this once I’ll speak for your dam. She wouldn’t want you mad at the world like this. Show yourself some mercy; howl for what’s past and move on.”
“What would you know about it?” she scoffed. “You were always happy to be left alone. Some of us aren’t like that.”
“That wasn’t always so. And besides, what moonmad torment would your life be now if I’d put up a fight for my first Recognized, eh?” He cocked an eyebrow. “Fancy the thought of calling me Father, would you?”
“Just go away! You have no idea what I’ve lost! What all those turns in that stinking cocoon cost me!” The blonde-haired elf turned away from him.
“I know rump-scootin’ well you’ve lost less than any of the sleepers who will follow, and so do you! If you must be jealous of Cloudfern, at least he’s around for you to do it face-to-face. By my reckoning, that’s something to be happy about!” One-Leg started a slow turn back toward the dens. He’d had his say, and would leave the rest to her family. “If you ever feel like celebrating something, my furs’ll be waiting for you. Bring a friend.”
One-Leg held in his hand two thin sticks, a failed arrowshaft split in half, each with a bored acorn where sharpened stone would go. One, dyed bright orange, still had the cap it had come with. The other, a raw green, was topped with a wrap of scrap silk. He’d carved in divot eyes and toned them with ash. With a twist of his fingers the puppets faced Fadestar. The raven-haired girl, sulking at the foot of the Father Tree, pretended not to notice.
Speaking in the best falsetto he could manage, One-Leg performed his little play. “Oh no! Sad-Eyes Highthing all… um… sad-eyes!’ ‘What we do?’ ‘Gurgleflap not know!’ ‘Flutterby say mix head-talk like Highthings!‘ ‘Yes is good! Preservers make thinkdo too!’ KLONK!” Pretend heads collided together hard enough to knock ‘Flutterby’s’ clean off. Girlish giggling broke out. Now it was One-Leg’s turn to look at her. “That wasn’t so hard was it? Such a pretty smile you have, lass. Your sire would be glad you remembered how.”
Fadestar lowered her head. “It’s not just Father. Silverm- Quick Fang and Pathmark were my friends. Now they’re all grown up. She has a cub to play with and he’s got mates.” Her voice trembled. “I’ll never catch up to them, not ever.”
The elder elf repaired the toy and came just close enough to hand them to his younger. “Here, share these with Rill. I think his mother would find you the best cubsitter she could ask for.”
Small, pale fingers reached out beckoningly, and One-Leg knelt down to allow them purchase on their goal.
“Your facefur… there’s so much of it!” Newt’s voice was quiet and tentative. “Farscout doesn’t have nearly this much.”
One-Leg held a low branch with his free hand to carry his weight, then rapped the end of his staff against the side of his wooden leg. “The missing weight had to go somewhere, lad.” If the boy were but a few years older, he might have made a different comment.
Not counting the cub’s welcome-Howl, it was the first time Newt had really spoken with him, really looked at him. Wide blue-pink eyes ventured to place all the things that had changed about his (much!) older acquaintance with all the things that were the same. The rush of a passing bird’s wing called an end to the boy’s scrutiny. Newt returned to his sullen observation of the shore. “I like the river. It’s changed less than the other places.”
“Aye, here at least. You’ll find there are other spots where the water has found new ways to get where it’s going.” One-Leg stood, and in doing so saw Greenweave, who was sitting on the opposite side of the boy a few wolf-paces back, lazily waiting for a catch. “It all still ends up as part of the ocean where it was always meant to be. Just with different rocks and such to help it on the way.”
The sun was low in the sky by the time One-Leg had another full load. How many times had he made this solemn journey, carrying home a collection of branches and driftwood, the final pieces of a fallen elf’s Final Howl? The shaggy-faced elf had lost count.
Already there were questions, rumors, about what had happened with Fletcher. But One-Leg had not been the only elf in the Gathering Den the previous night who’d lived to see Owl work a healer’s magic, and to see him fail. Not even Owl could have kept Fletcher in his body if he’d decided to leave it, not even when that troll-fathered snot-miner was crazy and cruel enough to force his whims upon his fellows. There was nothing Willow could have done, and nothing more that could have been asked of her.
One-Leg was at peace with Fletcher’s death, and he wished his friend well on the journey.
Longtooth trotted along beneath him, somewhat indifferent as this was his first such outing, not that he’d remember such an excursion anyway. The twine-wrapped bundle rested in the angle formed by wolf-back and elf-thighs. One-Leg scratched his bond’s ears with the hand that wasn’t holding the load steady. “Had things been just a spot different, old friend, you and I would have just met. Long ago, there was an ornery blowhard of an elf who had a powerful wound that could have put him in pile of bugspit right next to his fellow hunter, waiting for someone to come and cut him loose too. Last night, Axehand might have woken up!”
The moment those words left his lips, it struck One-Leg that if that had been the truth of things, Axehand would never have known Fletcher. The archer was born well after Axehand’s fateful accident, and Axehand would have woken up to tales of an elf he had never met. Fletcher would be unwrapped after, for his was a greater wound, but the younger elf would end up just as dead. And come the final Howl for one of his beloved daughter’s mates, Axehand’s furless mouth would have nothing at all to say.
A light squeeze from his knees asked his wolf-friend to slow down so he could think. Many were the times One-Leg had spent soaked in wine and good company, counting the names of the elves that had come and gone while the sleepers waited. But he had never before sought the names of those he himself might never have known. And for the life of him, Fletcher’s was the one and only name on that list. If that wasn’t good news, One-Leg didn’t know what was.
But once started, his mind kept searching, and it found a realization that chilled him and emboldened him all at once. Had Axehand gone into that silken slumber, Notch – his very own flesh and blood!-- would never have been born. And maybe, just maybe, neither would Otter. Honey and Fadestar, who would surely have been released before him, would be strangers to his eyes and nose and ears. As would their rescuer, Willow. So too Greenweave and Evervale, Whispersilk and Nightstorm. Crackle and Rill. Windsong. Beetle. Quick Fang. Foxtail! Dreamflight! Pathmark! Longshot! Goldspice!! Chicory!! Rainpace!! Their names and faces flooded into his to mind, and filled his heart, in no particular order, asking nothing more but that he know them.
And know and love them One-Leg did! He had hunted with some, fished with others, rolled in the furs with many, lifted all upon his broad shoulders for a higher look at the world they’d been born into. He’d wagered and joked and feasted with them. He’d helped them through their trials, and they his. No strangers by far, they were his kin and friends one and all!
Of what value was a rotten bit of meat worth compared to all that?
“Move along, you lazy pup!” he bellowed with a mental command that sent Longtooth into a sprint. “I aim to get a good look at my tribe before the sun comes down!”