(This story follows "The First Step", and refers to the "Response to the Human's killing of Beetle's wolf-friend"; it is also a part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline, and also refers to the "Learning the Humans' Language" storyline -- see listings for more related stories.)
She would not cry, she told herself over and over, until it became a mantra said beneath her breath as she scooped water up in both hands to flow over her reeking, damaged hair. The early morning wind cut sharply against her, the omen of coming cold months, but she ignored it, too focused on her feverish cleansing. Crying was not something she did. Not anymore, at least. Not since she was a cub, anyway.
Finally, when the water ran almost clear and everything dripped heavily over skin and fabric, Foxtail paused and sat back on her heels. Her fingers remained tangled in her soaked curls for long moments as she stared ahead, without quite seeing the dimly lit shapes of the trees and thornwall across the river. With a sudden shake, she loosened her hands and straightened just enough to edge away from the water. A fallen log put a stop to the movement, hitting the backs of her calves sharply, and she allowed gravity to take over. She landed with a bump and a miserable, soft noise escaped her compressed lips. Only after another moment, with the early morning birdsong being the only other noise, did she lift her hands again to cradle the sodden ends of her hair and lift it to better inspect the damage.
It was almost hard to tell, and most others would never have noticed, but she stared at her hair with a sort of numbness settling into her limbs. Her hair, her treasure and vanity. Uncut and pampered and protected. Her beautiful, glorious, special hair - destroyed and discolored and ruined. It was just one more thing, one more punishment, and this time it was even more unfair, delayed by time and distance from the offense. Closing her eyes, she felt the tears prick at the back of her eyelids, threatening to crystallize along her thick fringe of eyelashes. She would not cry. She absolutely positively would not.
After all, if she could hold back the pained tears that had sprung up when she tripped over the knotty root at the tannery, she could do it this time. Unfortunately, just the memory of the trip set her knees to throbbing almost as hard as her heart. The image of what followed the fall played out on her closed eyelids like some horrible, repetitive nightmare - how her foot had caught and her hands had gone instinctively to catch herself, never minding the wide-mouthed container she held. The contents had immediately splashed, more violently as the container hit the ground and broke, and coated her hair and shoulders and throat with the odiferous tanning solution. It had only been by the grace of the High Ones that her mouth had been closed. She shuddered at the thought.
Blinking hard, Foxtail reopened her eyes and glanced around the little space she had stumbled towards in her choked-off, controlled escape from the tannery. The unfinished scrap of leather she had used to wrap up her hair for the dash lay abandoned at the edge, half-draped over a bush where she had allowed it to fall the moment she had seen the water. Other bits and pieces rested scattered over the ground and a thought passed through her mind that she really ought to gather them up before she lost something. She still sat frozen, though, for another handful of heartbeats. Sniffling suddenly, she lifted a hand to rub at her nose. It was drawn back almost instantly, however, as the wet coldness and lingering odor of the tanning solutions assaulted her.
"Puckernuts," she muttered sulkily. It wasn't the tanning and it wasn't Nightstorm's fault. It was her father's and, maybe, just a little bit, Notch's. "It's not fair. It was just some stupid pranks. Alright, maybe it went a bit too far but no one got hurt." She stared down at her hands, too keenly feeling the way her soaked hair hung down her back and trailed over her shoulders. Notch was too clever by half to let any of them get hurt. So was she, for that matter. Why did her father have to think she was stupid? Worse, why did he have to tell the whole entire tribe that he thought she was stupid? And why did he have to keep reminding the tribe how stupid and useless she was, no words in the denial, just painful stinging emotion.
She tangled and then untangled her fingers, fretting them against each other as her mind spun over that thought, before lifting her chin again to survey the glade. Her belt knife had slipped halfway beneath a pile of fallen leaves. Foxtail stared hard at it.
Her father had punished her to teach her a lesson and, apparently, that lesson was that she was completely unnecessary and replaceable. Even now, the spark of her new sibling quickened in her mother's belly and they had made no secret about how they were going to be far more attentive parents to the new cub than they ever were to her. Imagine that. She curled her fingers inwards until she felt the faint press of her short nails against her palms. All of that attention and responsibility given to their second try. It would figure that they were making no bones about it. There was nothing to her about which they approved. Never had been. Why else ignore her until they could no longer do so? When she made mischief, that was when she had them. Then and only then. Even the things she knew were special counted for nothing in the face of their distance and abstraction -- her cleverness and skill at the hunt, or her singing voice. Her hair, for instance, had been mentioned exactly once by her mother and only in the context of a suggested washing. As if she had ever needed a reminding of that.
Swallowing hard, Foxtail looked down at her hair again. She bit her lip until the pain of it startled the tears free and she felt the salty warm wetness join the cold river water still dotting her cheeks. Careful not to use her fingers or even risk her palms, she rubbed at one eye and then the other with a bent wrist. "Shards," she hissed, suddenly very mad at everything with the white-hot burning she had not felt in many moons. Not since the first punishment. Even the second denial had soaked through her without igniting properly. She stood and stomped hard. The unforgiving jolt of the hard-packed earth shot up through the sole of her boot, through her leg, and grounded in her hip. She ignored the resulting ache in her fury. Instead, she strode to where her knife lay and scooped it up with a sweeping arm.
Then, before she could think better of it, she tugged it from the sheath, dropped the leather covering to the ground, and grabbed a wet handful of her abused curls. Pulling them tight, she sawed roughly until she felt a sudden give and her hand came away with a jerk, a fistful of the paler ends spilling over her fingers. Opening her hand, the curls dropped to the ground in a messy scatter. Quickly, she reached for another grip on her hair. The indelicate process was repeated, over and over, until the ground beneath her glimmered from the discarded hair. Tears were burning her eyes and slipping down her cheeks, unrestrained, by the time she finished the mad act. She stood, chest tight and hiccuping in the wake of her sudden violence, and stared at the ground and what she had done. A rough fringe of hair slipped down over her eyes as her chin dropped at the study.
The knife fell from her fingers, unnoticed. Free now, her hands flew upwards to clutch at her shorn curls. There were still abundant handfuls and the tears slowed at the realization but far too much of her hair lay before her, nonetheless, spread willy-nilly over the packed mud. For long moments, she ran her fingers through the remains of her formerly long, pampered curls. She shivered and closed her eyes. "Oh," Foxtail whispered and she felt her lower lip tremble again. Deliberately, she forced her hands away and, without reopening her eyes, she stepped back until she felt the log against her calves again. She sat down with another faint hiccup, her hands coming to knot themselves together on her lap.
What was she going to do now? As if the official shunning was not torture enough and the chief's dismissal worse, she'd gone and ruined herself so that no one would want to look at her even without that horrible punishment. The loneliness threatened to choke her and she swallowed heavily to combat it. That was even worse than the ruin of her hair or the way strange callouses were appearing on her fingertips, worse than the mess and stink and exhaustion of her labor details. The silence still rang in her ears and she had to fight a shudder at the memory. The isolation and abandonment hung heavier than anything else. She wondered if her father had any idea of that. Quite probably. Everyone knew how social she and Notch were. Windburn showed too much hurtful wisdom in his punishment and even more in his abrupt refusal of the word-hunt.
Foxtail loosened her hands and brought her arms up to wrap about her torso, chin ducking as she curled in on herself protectively. No one understood. Not really and truly. Maybe Notch and Willow and Rainpace but... She hugged herself a bit more tightly. Maybe they didn't, after all. They felt so distant now. The entire tribe surrounded Willow, desperate to keep their new Healer safe and protected and special. It was enough to make her almost angry with her friend. Except then she would see the misery in Willow's face sometimes and sense the frustration in a sending and she knew she could forgive the other female almost anything, up to and including her current spotlight.
As for Rainpace... She worried her lower lip until it stung. She knew he was disappointed but it was in a different way that felt far more uncomfortable than the customary, expected disapproval from her parents. Then, to add injury to insult, he had joined the word-hunt. Volunteered, even, without a word to favor her own position with the team. It stung too deeply to explain. Yet she still missed him and his steady warmth. Everything was so cold lately.
She had not even seen Notch in what felt like almost forever. Everyone had their eyes too keenly turned their way as if she and Notch were only waiting for a chance to run back out to the human lands for pranking or worse. They were wrong. She was bored with that, she told herself firmly, never wanted to see another human ever. She just wanted to see Notch. She wanted to share bedfurs again and go back to how it was before - all warm and comfortable and fun.
With a pathetic little sigh, Foxtail stretched herself upright again and loosened her arms. She shook her head and the feel of the shorter curls against her cheeks and neck had her swallowing hard again. She pushed her mind back to the Now with effort. It took all of her will to force her memories of the others back into the depths of her mind. She had other things to deal with now, mostly what to do with herself. She looked towards the tangle of bushes, branches broken through her flight, as if expecting to see Nightstorm or one of the other helpers there and waiting. She had left without permission. That would earn more punishment, probably.
Lifting her chin, she straightened even further. "Don't care," she muttered and nearly winced at the sullen sound of her own voice in the dim morning quiet. Worse, she knew the words for a lie. Before she could process that uncomfortable fact, a noise in the leaves at her back sent tension up her spine for an instant. As she turned, though, she quickly relaxed and held out a hand to the dark, lupine face peering at her with concern.
Briarfoot nuzzled into the offered hand with a low rumble and only silenced fully when her elf-friend stood and clambered over the log to throw both arms around the shaggy neck. She buried her face in the warm fur, inhaling as she allowed the gentle mind-touch of her companion to sleet over her own angry, tangled emotions. It proved only somewhat helpful, the fury still a bright hot spark tangled in the blue of misery low in her stomach, but anything was better than nothing and nothing was the sad lot of what Foxtail found herself with lately. Nothing and no one.
Briarfoot nudged her shoulder at that thought and she laughed weakly. Drawing back, she stroked the wolf's dark and silvered cheeks. "All right, all right," she murmured. "I've got you and you're the best." A snort set her butchered curls swaying and she hugged Briarfoot more tightly. "Heart to heart, my cub, so don't fret yourself."
A warmth that bolstered her own feelings set her sighing against warm fur and, finally, Foxtail drew away from her wolf-friend. She offered a faint twist of her full lips before stretching out her hand again to rub Briarfoot's favorite spot between her ears. **Go back. Time to go back to the den.** A slightly annoyed, frustrated echo answered her sending but Briarfoot turned nonetheless and padded back into the surrounding trees. She watched hard, straining her eyes until she could not see the slightest bit of dark or silvered fur. Then she listened until even the sound of moving branches faded. Only then did she sigh and turn back to the glade, still scattered with her possessions and cut hair.
In absolute silence, Foxtail retrieved the ragged square of marred leather from the bush and folded it neatly into a triangular scarf. With nimble fingers, she tied it over her head, tucking the knot beneath the still damp weight of her hair before bringing the back corner under and up. She fidgeted with it for a moment longer to reassure herself that everything was hidden beneath the spotty, rough leather. Then she crouched to gather the discarded ends from the ground, handfuls of pale and fiery silk. She looked around for a moment. What to do with it all? The river gurgled pleasantly beside her and, without thinking too much more about it, she moved to the bank and tossed her hair into the waters. She watched numbly as the strands caught the air and early morning sunlight before drifting downwards to the playful current. They darkened immediately and, before long, were whisked out of her sight.
A sinking settled low in her stomach but she lifted her chin, facing the rising sun. Her lips thinned as she bit at the inside of her lower lip. Then, with a sudden turn, she left the sun and the river in her wake, bending to collect the rest of her things. For a moment, Foxtail paused and fingered the blade of her knife once more before shaking her head roughly and locating the sheath, returning it all to her hip intact and unused. Without another glance behind, the chief's daughter left the river and pushed herself back into the Now, heart dragging, stomach twisting. There was a little den in the corner of a tree just waiting for her.
What was left of her, anyway.