A Long, Difficult Path   2503.07.13*  
Written By: Lyn Cavalier, Angie Cousins, Melanie D., Holly H., Mike H., Mareike Heilemann, Heidi Henderson, Stacy Lucas, Megan McCarthy, Ellen Million, Chris T., Whitney Ware
Fletcher's sudden death stirs doubts and memories, with far-reaching repercussions.
Posted: 02/22/10      [11 Comments]
 

Collections that include this story:
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Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing
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The Morning After
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Handprints for Hope
Wrapstuffed Tribemates are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe
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Loss for Words

(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.)



2503.07.08 (evening – at Fletcher's Howl)

It started deep in Notch's soul, summoned by the swirling memories being shared by everyone, memories of Fletcher as he had lived. Not as he had died; no-one was entirely sure of how he had ultimately died, not even Willow, whose hands had been unable for whatever reason to pull him back. This was not the time to think of that. This was the time to say goodbye.

The memories drew the low, mournful howl out of Notch almost involuntarily, the instinct to add his voice to the chorus honoring Fletcher too strong for him to control. Control would have been better. Control would have let him mourn in his own way, would have let him focus on Fletcher alone instead of the others in Fletcher's life. Because a large portion of the memories being shared and felt by everyone included Flash; and even though he had howled for her and seen her body off down the river long ago, he still wasn't done mourning his beloved half-sister.

Notch threw his head back and howled for Flash, for the happiness she had found with Fletcher (and with Whitestag, but the other elf no longer registered in Notch's thoughts as anything but a target for his pranks), for the grief she had felt when Fletcher was brought back so gravely wounded. He howled as if the spirit of Flash herself was sitting next to him and howling, mourning the loss of her lovemate -- something she had never gotten to do in life.

As he squeezed his eyes shut to howl again, the tears that had been welling broke and streamed down his face. He wept as he howled, not for Fletcher, not even for Flash, but for himself. Fletcher was the last tie Notch had to Flash, the last little bit of her that he could reach out and touch. He had, on more than one occasion, gone into the wrapstuff chamber and placed his hand in the outline of her hand over her lovemate's cocoon, and he swore he could almost feel her there in the room with him, her hand beneath his. Now that connection was gone, in tatters like the Preserver silk that had once held Fletcher. Now Flash's loss was final. Now his loss was final.

Notch gave one last, long howl before he finally opened his eyes again, and as he wiped his face dry with the back of his hand, his gaze fell on Honey. With Fletcher gone, the golden-haired elf was now the only link to his sister's memory. That bitter realization -- that the target of most of his and Flash's pranks lived, while Flash was as dead as Fletcher -- burned. He stood and shot Honey a narrow smoke-green glare, then turned and walked away.

They expected the worst of her, Honey knew it.

They glanced at her out of the corner of their eyes and waited for her to say sharp things. Every so often, there would be a pause, and the present elves would look everywhere but at her.

Honey had run out of sharp words, so she had none left to put in those moments. She only recognized them once they were already past, anyway, as if she were walking a half-step behind everything.

Fletcher was dead.

Part of her thought it was painfully unfair. Why couldn’t she have been the one to die? It would have been more fitting. Elves waited to greet Fletcher – waited with joy, not the guilt and regret they met her with. If she had died, they would have missed her, they would have felt sorry, and remembered her with the shine of memory. Instead, they dreaded her presence, and avoided her, and waited for her to say inappropriate things.

Part of her grieved.

Fletcher had been a lovemate for a short time, and the lovemate of her rival Flash for much longer. Flash still haunted her – the space of seasons had given Honey a view of their relationship that she’d never expected. She had hoped that Fletcher could give her perspective on her unresolved feelings, and in many ways, he had – with his death.

Part of her would have thanked Fletcher.

His death had opened her eyes, and closed her mouth.

The hurt in her chest had poisoned her, she felt like she could see the dark lines of it spreading to her fingers and toes, following her veins. It blackened her tongue, and she couldn’t open her mouth without thinking about it, dripping from her lips. It dissolved the words she might had said and turned them into dust.

She was the poison, nothing but pain to her own family – she’d even driven Dreamflight away, and though they were civil again, she still felt as if the gulf between them was growing larger and colder with every day.

It was Fletcher – his tragic death – who finally made her step back and realize that she had well and truly lost her path.

There was a conversation going on without her, but Honey had followed none of it. She stood, and left, pinching her mouth shut, the better to keep the poison in.

2503.07.09 (near dawn)

At dusk, the solemn tribe had gathered to put their kinsman's cold body on a raft of woven reeds. Then, once Fletcher's body had silently drifted out of sight behind the far curve of the river, a Howl had been held for those who remembered Fletcher in life to share those memories with the many younger tribemates who had never known him. Birds had begun to stir and the eastern sky was growing light before the Howl ended, and it was only then that Windburn singled out the tribe's elders for a sober council. They were the ones who had known Brightwood, as Windburn had not.

Windburn summoned them, and the healer, down to the wrapstuff cavern beneath the Dentree roots. Fletcher's former resting place had been cleaned up after his wrapstuffed form had been moved upstairs, and all that remained in the chamber was Brightwood's still, silvery cocoon. Windburn stood with his arms folded over his chest, near the head of that bier. He was not surprised when Cloudfern and Farscout took up position to his left, Cloudfern sitting on the edge of that painted stone slab, and Farscout standing grim-faced beside it. Snowfall and True Edge arrived together, and both sat down on the empty bench which had served as Fadestar’s bier. Starskimmer and Suddendusk followed in after them, with Willow between them, while One-Leg and Blacksnake followed close behind. One-Leg, Starskimmer and Suddendusk sat on the stone bench behind Fadestar’s, while Blacksnake stood leaning against the wall near Fletcher’s empty slab. Willow sat down deliberately on Fletcher’s bier, alone and isolated, and slid a weary gaze around the room. The tribe's two remaining elders, Kestrel and Moss, entered the room and remained standing close to the doorway.

The room was silent for a time, even after everyone had settled. “You all know why I’ve called you here,” Windburn said finally. “I have a difficult decision to make, and I want your counsel. I know already what my thoughts are, and what choice I prefer. Persuade me otherwise.”

Cloudfern scowled at that ambiguous statement, while Farscout fixed a suspicious stare at his chief, but Windburn feigned ignorance. Kin-right or not, Windburn knew that any life or death decision concerning any member of the tribe was the chief’s responsibility. He had been pondering this choice since the shock of Fletcher's death had worn off, yet he wanted to hear the wisdom of his elders, to see if their debate challenged him to fresh insight or a different outcome.

“Your opinions. Do we open Brightwood’s cocoon now, or do we wait?” the chief said evenly, looking first to Willow, and then at each of his gathered elders in turn.

“We wait," Farscout said immediately, with a hard look at Windburn. "We wait, for as long as we need to."

Willow's jaw dropped. She was clearly taken aback.

Blacksnake spoke before she could. "And how long will that be?"

Willow interrupted, "There was nothing I could do to save Fletcher. It's not my fault he died!"

"No one thinks it's your fault," Snowfall said soothingly.

"I know they don't blame me," Willow said to her elder, "but I've heard some of the others wondering if I were a better healer, if I could have saved him.... but I couldn't! I can't explain... his spirit was --" She hesitated and frowned, then made an impatient gesture with her hands. "I couldn't have stopped him."

A short silence followed that revelation.

Blacksnake seemed visibly troubled by what Willow had said, and after some thought, his words pierced the silence that had fallen over the room. "If that's true, then maybe not even Owl himself could have saved Fletcher," he agreed. "And if Brightwood is in the same condition, there'll be nothing you, or we, can do about it, no matter how long we wait before you try."

"No, but we don't have to rush into this, either!" Cloudfern countered. "Look, I'm a magic-user, too. And no offense to you, Willow, but you're still learning. Your talent is still raw and untrained.” He shifted in his seat on his sister’s bier, turning to include everyone in the room. “You can have all of the raw talent in the world, and it still takes years of practice to learn how to fully master the nuances and subtleties of your ability so that you grow fully proficient. Trust me -- I've been there, I know.”

When the plantshaper’s eyes returned to Willow, they were sympathetic, but his words were firm. “Maybe even a healer like Owl couldn't have saved Fletcher. But we don't know that. Maybe he would have known what to do, to keep Fletcher's spirit and body together long enough for it to matter. You're still learning. You're still inexperienced. And if waiting means the difference between having my sister alive and here with us again, or losing her -- it's only fair that we wait."

"And wait how long?" Blacksnake asked again, his tone less sharply challenging than usual. He sounded genuinely questioning. "How will any of us know when it's time?"

A fair question, Windburn thought. It was one that bothered him as well. Unlike plantshapers or rockshapers, there was no good way for Willow to demonstrate how far she had come in learning her powers, or to prove that she had come far enough. What were the odds that another elf would be wounded so seriously that his or her healing would provide a comparison?

"Our healer will know," Starskimmer said, with a gentle smile for Willow. She, too, had gone through the experience of discovering her magic and working to control it, finding out how much she could do, and what was beyond her. She was not as strong a rockshaper as her mother had been, or as her grandfather Stoneback was said to have been. She knew about recognizing limits.

"Why isn't anyone listening to me? I can do this," Willow said. "I can do this now --"

"And risk losing my niece -- and her baby! -- needlessly?" True Edge growled. "No. Absolutely not. Farscout and Cloudfern aren't the only ones who've waited an oak's age for Brightwood to come out of that cocoon! You're a good lass, Willow -- but ever since you were a cubling scooting around on your hands and knees, you've been given to jumping into a thing before looking it over first. I don't fault you over Fletcher, maybe there really was nothing to be done for him. But my sire Cedarwing always called his magic just another muscle -- something he had to flex and strengthen regularly to keep it in fighting trim.”

The blond elder stood, and he turned his eyes from Willow to the others in the room. “A young hunter can't just run with the pack and keep up, not without running alone long enough to develop their wind. Willow can heal better today than she could at the beginning of spring -- and waiting hurts no one. She'll show us when she's good and ready for Brightwood."

"And I'm ready to do it now!" Willow insisted. "You don't get it, you don't understand! It felt like he pushed me away! I don't think Fletcher wanted me to heal him.” The look in her face echoed the desperation in her voice, as she called up that recent, raw memory. Then it hardened into resolve, and she went on, “But I can heal Brightwood. I know I can. I kept Pathmark alive, after that bear mauled my brother. If that doesn't show you I'm good and ready, you're all deaf and blind!"

”And so are you if you think you’ll win anyone over with insults, pup!” shouted One-Leg, bristling where he sat. Then he directed his sharp-eyed gaze at his fellow elders. “But if Willow’s word isn’t good enough for the rest of you, you sure-as-shards better wrap your ears around mine! I was there and I say Fletcher wanted to die -- as was his right! -- same as Stormdancer and all the others before and after who refused the wrapstuff. I don’t know, I’ll never know. But I’ll not have Fletcher’s decision weighed for or against Willow here! It’s on his head and his alone!”

Windburn was taken aback. This was a notion that hadn’t even occurred to him. "Fletcher was my friend. I can't imagine him wanting anything but to live,” the chief said slowly, thinking of that possibility with reluctance. But he had to admit to himself that One-Leg had a perspective that none of the rest of them shared – only the red-headed elder knew what it was like to make that choice himself, and refuse to be put into wrapstuff.

But, as One-Leg had said, they could never know. And it wouldn’t help them decide what to do about Brightwood. Windburn held up his hand to forestall what anyone else might say, and nodded in the young healer’s direction. “Willow, I'm not saying you're to blame for Fletcher's death. I don't believe that to be so. But you have to understand, it is possible that your inexperience was a factor. We have no way of ruling it out, either. We must give it weight in the decision we make for Brightwood and her cub.”

"But my brother and Starskimmer are right in one thing," Blacksnake spoke up again. "If we have a healer, we have to learn to trust her word. And we can’t ignore that there’s good reason NOT to wait.”

Windburn turned a wary eye on his father, while others reacted more sharply. "Piss up a rope!" True Edge cried in exasperation. "Didn't you hear a word of what I just said? Or of what Cloudfern had to say?"

"I heard," Blacksnake replied coolly, straightening up from his slouch against the wall. There was nothing casual about his stance now. “So let’s say we do as you want, and Willow isn’t allowed to open Brightwood’s cocoon. We put it off for a Turn, or two, or a few more than that –- telling ourselves we’ll know when the right time has arrived.” His dark eyes slid over to Willow, who seemed to be restraining her words with an effort, and he took a deep breath before continuing. “In the time we wait, Willow could be lost to us. And if we lose her, then Brightwood and her cub are as good as dead, as well.”

“And every time Farscout goes about his duties outside the Thornwall, he gambles at losing Brightwood a lifemate and the cub a sire,” One-Leg added, pointedly, making sure everyone considered all that was at stake. “Life is a gamble. I say it’s time we throw our wagers into the pile and finish this long and painful game. My tokens are on Willow.” He thumped his carved stick on the tight-packed earthen floor in emphasis.

"And I refuse to gamble with my sister's life!" Cloudfern countered with some heat. "Willow just made that gamble with Fletcher, and we lost him. If we can improve Brightwood's odds in any way, then I fail to see why we're even wasting breath on rushing into this!"

“Considering all the options isn’t the same thing as rushing,” Blacksnake said levelly. “None of us can say what the future could hold. None of us can make promises –- not for a year from now, and not for tomorrow, either. You don’t want to gamble with your sister’s life, and I don’t, either -– but I have to admit we risk just as much by waiting as we do on taking a leap of faith, here and now, in the healer we have, and what she believes she can do.”

Cloudfern did not look convinced by those words, and though Windburn studied him closely, Farscout revealed nothing of his thoughts in his face. It was hard to even tell how much of the debate the elder was hearing, as he stood and looked down at the cocoon that held his lifemate and his unborn child.

It was Kestrel who broke the silence, spreading her hands in appeal to all those present. "I know that everyone here truly wants the same thing," she said. "Caution is something that we learn as we age. My granddaughter is still young, she does not have the same relationship with the passing seasons as we elders have developed. But Blacksnake has a good point. We could run a risk of being too cautious as well."

Moss nodded in agreement. “Sometimes it can be best not to wait. We lost Fletcher. We don't know why, but he is gone. But Brightwood is not Fletcher. Are we being fair to compare one elf with the other?”

Across the room, Suddendusk looked thoughtful, and Windburn deliberately caught his uncle’s eye. The black-haired elf acknowledged with a nod that he hadn’t leant his voice to the council yet. "I don't believe Willow is responsible for Fletcher's death," he mused aloud. "But we can't know for sure if she wasn't, either.” He looked apologetic, but he didn’t let sympathy stop him from pointing it out. “I’ve only heard stories of our tribe’s healers, and it’s said they could do amazing things. So maybe a healer of Owl or Ambergold's experience and ability could have saved Fletcher --"

“Experience can lick my pokeberries!” One-Leg spat. “To demand anyone be hauled back to the living against their will is to cross the same swamp-sucking, madness-hungry lines Owl did! Willow shouldn’t be shoved up against them just to test her abilities! And by Cubmaker’s cavernous cubhole, if that stick ever needs swinging, I’ll club all of you with it!”

His younger brother took the interruption in stride. “-- Or maybe not. We'll never know,” Suddendusk went on. “And I don't see how we'll ever know if it's the right time for Willow to open Brightwood's cocoon, either. True Edge, old friend -- how will you know when it is time?"

"I'll know she's ready when she puts her pride aside and stops insisting she is!" True Edge retorted.

“It's not pride,” Willow retorted angrily. “I just know I'm capable of this --”

"And if you're wrong, girl-cub?" True Edge asked. "Will you ever be able to look me in the eyes again? Or Cloudfern? Or Farscout?"

Windburn could see that Willow was fiercely angry, but the young healer took a deep breath, clutched her arms against her chest and stared at the ground between her feet. "If you make me wait, it'll be this terrible thing always looming just over the horizon. I'll never be able to escape it. You all will keep running tail-tucked from it, and you'll still keep me leashed tight to the Holt just to make sure I'm still here to finish it whenever you think it's time... however rotted long you think that will be. I'll never be free."

At those words, Windburn found himself gritting his teeth. "Spare us the self-pity," he said. "If I wanted sullen, I'd talk to my daughter. Willow, I hear you whine about being leashed -- and I've seen you sulking about over not being able to go with the word-hunters. But you're not the only pup not chosen for that team. And you're just as free to travel within the Thornwalls as every other member of the tribe, as long as you take someone with you. If you're trapped, it's all in your head."

Willow glared at him, clearly furious. Windburn stared back at her, challenging her to take the argument up further. He knew Willow wasn't happy. She seemed to feel she should have the footloose freedom to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, same as any feckless child. It frustrated him that his young tribemate showed no hint of maturing into her responsibilities. She certainly wasn't the only member of the tribe whose personal wishes differed from her duty. He himself knew all about having to sacrifice his own idle wishes for the needs of the tribe.

"Farscout, what have you to say?" Snowfall asked, redirecting everyone's attention away from Willow.

Windburn looked again at the normally-stoic scout. Farscout's bristling, defensive stance had faded during the course of the council's debate, and now, half-leaning against the edge of Brightwood's cocoon, the older elf just looked weary.

**I want my lifemate back,** he sent openly to those gathered in the chamber, and those simple words were layered with hundreds of years of grief and aching loneliness. **I want her back. I want to be a father to our child. More than anything, that is what I want, what I've waited for. I understand that opening my lifemate's cocoon under any condition will mean taking a risk. I know that. I've faced that fear for longer than Willow has drawn breath. And I would rather wait forever, if that's what I needed to do, in order to secure for them their best chance for survival. Brightwood deserves every chance we can give to her. This isn't a dice game we're wagering on. This is the life of my soulmate. This is the life of my child. Willow can afford to lose that gamble. I can not.**

Willow's eyes were all but throwing sparks, but when she opened her mouth to retort, Windburn cut her off. "Enough," he said firmly. "I've heard enough.”

He walked to the center of the circle they made, to be sure that all eyes could see him, and he made sure to look around and meet every pair of eyes in turn. “We wait. When we've judged Willow's abilities have caught up to her potential, then we'll open Brightwood's cocoon. Brightwood's closest kin are in agreement with my wishes on this." He spared a glance for True Edge, Cloudfern, and Farscout to verify that, then continued. "Willow, I respect your feelings, but understand -- my decision is not about you. Before I hear you whine again about what a terrible thing it is to wait, I want you to remember that your elders have been waiting for this since long before your birth."

Willow stared at her boot tops, her shoulders hunched and her face hidden by her hair. Windburn watched her for a moment, looking for signs of rebellion but seeing only surrender. Satisfied, he nodded a dismissal toward his gathered elders, all of whom were quiet – even boisterous One-Leg, who had been uncharacteristically quiet since he was interrupted a while ago.

The council was over. His decision was made.

2503.07.09 (near sunset)

Willow couldn't sit still. Instead, as Beetle worked, the healer paced around in circle after endless circle. “They talked about me like I wasn't even there! They wouldn't listen to me – they wouldn't even let me get a word in... Every time I tried to say something, they ran over me like some fear-crazed shagback and wouldn't let me finish. And then, when I finally did get to speak, Windburn just out and said I was whining. Like he didn't even want to hear what I said – like I'm some piss-pants cub tottering around bellyaching!” Willow fumed from near the crafting den's door. “Why did he even ask me to sit in if he didn't give any more care to what I said than he'd give a piece of maggot-covered meat? His decision was already made!”

Something fell to the floor and shattered then, and Beetle looked over her shoulder. Willow had accidentally knocked a clay bowl to the ground and now, with a sigh, the healer stooped over to pick the pieces up.

Beetle had been listening to Willow, but she had also been intent on getting the mixture she was working on right. She wanted the tea – a memory enhancer – to be ready three eves from now when it was time to shadow the humans again. Willow was more important than the tea, though. The sound of her lovemate’s sigh coupled with the sight of her picking up the shattered pieces and the air of frustration caused Beetle to leave her work. She took the few steps to where Willow was kneeling and knelt beside her. She reached out, putting a hand on Willow’s shoulder. “Let’s go talk,” she said quietly. “I’ll clean up later.”

Willow didn't move. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out but another frustrated sigh. It was only when Beetle urged her outside again that Willow dropped the pieces of bowl back on the ground and didn't resist.

“They're going to make me wait to open Brightwood's cocoon,” the healer said as they walked up the Den’s Creek and through the woods towards Badger’s Lake, clean-up already forgotten. Willow wasn't acting like herself at all today. She seemed nervous. No, anxious.

Willow continued, sounding exasperated, “Until they think I'm ready. However long that will be. Like I don't have a clue what I'm capable of. They're going to make me wait until they think it's time. How in the name of Badger's blood are they supposed to know? It's like them telling Cloudfern they know how to shape trees better than he does, and telling him to go seal himself in his den while he waits for them to decide!” She growled and stopped dead in her tracks. “I can't take this! I can't wait turns and turns to finish unwrapping those cocoons – not if Windburn keeps me penned in like some animal he's got cornered and about to run through!”

Beetle frowned. She wasn't sure she had ever seen Willow this frustrated, even in the beginning when she was trying to get a handle on her powers. She also wasn’t sure what to say. She waited to reply, allowing Willow some time to breathe. Willow knew some were worried that she wasn’t strong enough to heal Brightwood. Beetle suspected that after so long, even Farscout probably found more peace in knowing his lifemate was wrapped up safely than in the possibility of Willow failing to heal her and losing her permanently. Still, she believed Willow when she’d said that Fletcher hadn’t wanted to be healed; that resistance had made it impossible.

Beetle sent, **You’re suffocated, trapped, alone, hurting, angry, needing breathing room.** Then she added quietly, “It won’t be turns and turns. You’ll see.”

“You don't know that!” Willow shot back, the anxiety she clearly felt mirrored in her expression. “Farscout's been waiting since longer than you or I have been alive. He's safe with Brightwood in that cocoon. He's running away from this because it scares him, and it doesn't matter how I feel or where it puts me! Right now, it wouldn't surprise me if he decided to wait for the next healer to come along! And I wouldn't care if they did, if they just let me get out of here to do other things once in a while! But they won't. It's like I don't matter any more than a fly buzzing around their heads! Well just rotted slap me and put me out of my misery, then!”

Willow’s pain was tangible. Beetle wished that their elders would listen. But the issue for them was not just Willow. “You’re right, Willow. It’s not really about you. For most of them, especially for Farscout, it’s about Brightwood and the unborn cub. They're not worried about how you’re feeling. They're not really worried that you can’t handle healing her. They're very worried about losing her. Maybe no healer would be good enough for Farscout. Who knows?” Beetle watched her lovemate, anxiously wondering what she was thinking.

Willow snarled frustratedly. “I know I can handle it. But I can't make anyone see that. They don't want to see that. Instead, they want to play silly waiting games because they're too afraid to do anything else!” She growled again. “The question really is whether Brightwood wants to be healed... and if she doesn't then it doesn't matter if it was Feverease herself standing over her. But then, maybe Farscout would actually think Feverease's opinion would matter in all of this.”

“I bet she wants to be healed. But until they get that, I don’t think things will change – and they’ll want to wait.” Beetle paused, trying to choose her words carefully. She didn’t want to heighten Willow’s anxiety. The knot in her own stomach was tightening. How could she reassure Willow? Maybe she couldn’t. She chose to send, hoping that Willow would know that she supported her, and that she understood. **How you feel is important to me. It’s just not the issue for them.**

Willow shot Beetle a sad look. “I wish it was,” she said, bitterly. “How can it be fair that I'm left to be miserable for potential turns and turns, while everyone else can go back to what's normal for them, or at least get away from what's eating at them from time to time? I don't even think that if I'd sent how I felt to them that they would have believed me.”

Beetle wanted nothing more than to take Willow in her arms and hold her. Willow was right. Sort of. “It’s not fair,” Beetle said. “But it’s also not fair to think that things are back to ‘normal’ for them, either. You don’t have to be miserable. It’s going to take time – which means you’ll have to develop some patience. Maybe it would help to get out for a while, to take a break,” Beetle paused, a plan forming in her mind. She didn’t have to go with the human-shadows this next time around. Maybe she and Willow could leave for a whi--

“Out?! To where?!” Willow snapped back, as if Beetle's words were the most incredulous things she had ever heard. “Where under the rotted two moons is Windburn going to let me go? And even if he did let me step five paces out of the Holt alone, how soon would it be before he reeled me back in because he was afraid to let me out of his sight in case something happened to someone else? And he claims he doesn't have me on a leash?! He's rutting blind!” Willow shook her head, then looked at Beetle. “It must be nice to get to go where-ever you want, whenever you want, just like you get to.”

Though she wanted to be sensitive and understanding, her own anxiety caused Beetle to respond defensively, sarcasm dripping with each word. “You know… it is nice. It’s nice to leave home, not knowing what will happen, whether we’ll get spotted by the humans, or worse. It’s great being away from family, away from the ones I care about and the one I…. And it’s fantastic knowing that while I have freedom, you’re stuck here, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It makes me feel wonderful.” Willow’s frustration was tangible and Beetle’s was beginning to match it. There wasn’t anything she could do to help Willow, especially with her in her current state. Tears welled in her eyes and as she tried to blink them back, one escaped.

Willow threw her hands up, sarcasm ramped up to match what had been in Beetle's tone. “Oh, and it's so wonderful just sitting here, doing nothing while I wait for you to get back from someplace you wanted to go, wondering if you are going to get back, and knowing there's nothing I could ever do about it either way while I sit on my hands and just wait for Windburn to bloody tell me when to eat, drink, or take a piss.”

“Like you really listen to anyone else? So it bites, Willow,” Beetle responded drily. She was frustrated – her lovemate wasn’t listening, and it seemed that anything Beetle said to her made it worse. “It really does. And I can’t change it, and neither can you. But it’s not doing you, or anyone else, any good, to storm around feeling sorry for yourself, either.” Beetle’s hand flew to her mouth. She knew she had just said the wrong thing...

Willow's brows lowered, and her jaw set as hard as stone. “So, that's how you really see it, is it? I'm just feeling sorry for myself? If that's how you saw me, why in the name of the bloodied Firstcomers didn't you tell me so? Well, I guess I am just being a lung-rotted cub, then, and I'll go off to my own flea-bit hole in the wall to whine to myself so you all won't have to put up with it. I won't bother you with my gut-bloated bellyaching anymore.”

Beetle wasn’t about to let Willow go – not yet. “Ughh!” she groaned. “You’re not listening!” She reached out to put a hand on Willow’s arm.

“Oh, I heard you just fine,” Willow spat angrily, shoving Beetle away. “I'm feeling sorry for myself because they won't let me have my way. I'm throwing a tantrum just like a pissy little cub. That's the way you see it. That's what you just said! I thought you, of everyone, would understand how hard this is on me, but I guess it's just me and I need to rotting grow up.”

“Willow --!” Beetle took a step forward. “I didn't mean --”

“Just stop it!” Willow snapped. “Stop bloody saying things just because you think it's what I want to hear! Just leave me alone! I'm sorry I ever came to talk to you in the first place!”

Beetle was about to say something in response, but Willow stopped her with a growl. “Leave. Me. Alone.”

Beetle didn’t want to back down and she didn’t want to walk away, but Willow had said she didn’t feel that anyone was taking her feelings into consideration. She didn’t want to be among that number. Her shoulders slumped as she turned to head back toward the Crafting Den. She remembered something and stopped. “I can’t.”

At Willow’s look, Beetle hastily continued. “I can’t leave you alone here. Windburn would have both our hides. We don’t have to talk, but I won’t leave you until we’re back at the Holt. Once we’re there, I’ll respect your wish – I’ll leave you alone. And when you’re tired of being alone….” She didn’t finish the sentence. She doubted Willow was listening anyway. Beetle took several steps. Once she sensed Willow was following, Beetle continued. She was glad to be walking ahead – Willow wouldn’t see the tears falling from Beetle’s eyes.

Newt had left his den. He had searched for his favourite hideout to huddle up there with his wolf-friend. Browncoat had gruffly escorted his little elf-friend until they had reached the spot Newt had had in mind, only to find that the little overhang at the riverbank didn’t exist any more. So Newt simply had settled down where it had been and tightly hugged his knees. Browncoat lay behind him, supporting his back and breathing evenly. The young wolf had fallen asleep.

For quite some time he stared at the river flowing by. Fletcher had died. Newt tried to wrap his mind around this. Almost everyone he knew was dead but he hadn’t been there to see them dying. He just had closed his eyes and the next moment they had been gone. They hadn’t died in his mind. They had vanished. That meant … it had been like that till now. Suddenly the death of all of them seemed more real.

Greenweave had wanted to comfort him, he knew, but Newt hadn’t given him the chance. He had run off with Browncoat before Greenweave had reached him. The atmosphere in the Holt was oppressive. All over he could sense the heaviness and it was very tangible in his new home. Farscout and Cloudfern both had this look in their eyes. Newt knew it was worry, maybe even fear.

What would happen to Brightwood? What would happen to Willow? What if Willow had failed him? Too many what ifs filled his head and Newt found himself unable even to cry. Burying his face on his knees, he tried to put his feelings and thoughts in order.

Soft steps approached and hair as white as Newt’s own was visible through the foliage for a moment. As she spotted the cub, Snowfall froze, standing absolutely still as she observed him. It seemed he had come here with the same intent as she had – to be alone. She still had the echo of Willow’s desperate whisper in her ears and the heavy feeling of dread and grief in her stomach. Fletcher was gone.

The elder hesitated shortly, considering whether to go before Newt noticed her, or to join him, but it did not take long until her instinct convinced her to go to him. No cub should be alone after the tribe just had lost a member.

Quietly, she stepped out of the brushwood to the free space at the river bank, announcing herself to him in a short, gentle sending so she would not startle him.

Newt looked up, his eyes still dry. The motherly warmth in the sending made him hope for a moment, hope he just had dreamed a terrible dream, but soon that hope was shattered. Lacewing had sounded different than this. He knew this sending. It was Snowfall.

Browncoat lifted his head before Newt turned in the direction Snowfall came from. The lad snuggled closer in the brown fur, trying to hide his misery.

“Mind if I join you?” she asked when she reached him, squatting down next to him and his wolf-friend, and for a moment meeting the wolf’s eyes calmly so that he would acknowledge her.

Browncoat huffed and laid his head back on his paws, but didn’t close his eyes anymore. He had an eye on Snowfall – just in case.

Newt looked at the elder as well and reached out to touch her white hair. White, but more like the white of Dreamberry’s hair, not like his own. Swiftly he drew his hand back again. He considered her offer thoroughly and finally shrugged his shoulders.

Snowfall wasn’t fazed that this was all she received. She slid down to the ground next to him, well aware of Browncoat’s eyes on her. “My hair is not quite the same white as yours, right?” she asked in reference to his movement to reach for her hair. She wasn’t sure if Newt was aware that she was Dreamberry’s daughter – of course he had been told about it as he had been told about all the elves born to the tribe during his sleep – but that had to be too much for a confused cub to remember right away.

“Mine is … more like bleached dry grass,” he muttered into his arms. “Yours is like snow… soft and white.”

The huntress simply nodded. “Part of where my name comes from,” she commented. Falling silent, she just sat there, looking out over the river. She wanted to give him time to decide if he wanted to talk and about what.

Newt watched the river as well. The silence was comforting and Newt found that Snowfall had a very warm glow around her, just like Lacewing had. It was easy to sit with her, and he noticed how his troubled thoughts stopped swirling around in his head and began to settle – just like when you splashed water and the water was blurred by the mud on the riverbed and after you stopped paddling with your feet the water started to get clear again.

“They didn’t vanish… they died,” he said in a quiet voice. “Like Fletcher did.”

“Yes,” Snowfall replied, just as quietly. For a cub, death was always hard, but for Newt it had to be even harder as it tore open the still-fresh wound of grief for his family – gone while he had slept. “Like Fletcher.” The thought of her younger uncle, Whitestag’s lovemate, was heavy on her heart, another tie to her father and her son cut off. “It’s hard to understand, isn’t it?”

“I was not there,” Newt said, his voice starting to break. “I didn’t get to say goodbye like we did for Fletcher.” Newt bit his lip and rubbed his dry eyes.

Snowfall couldn’t resist but reached out, not pulling him into her arms, but just laying a hand on one of his smaller ones and giving it a little squeeze. “I know. It was not your fault – not anyone’s fault.” It was a thing easily said but difficult to feel, she knew – even for a wolfrider it sometimes was hard to let go of the what-ifs, grief, and the guilt that surviving called forth.

Newt instinctively curled up at her side and rested his head on her soft body. There was nothing to say. He was starting to like, and love, Cloudfern and Greenweave but he missed his mother sometimes. The flowery, warm scent of a mother was nothing Greenweave could give him no matter how gentle he was. There was so much more going on in his head but he couldn’t share it all right now.

A small smile appeared on Snowfall’s lips as Newt curled up against her and she put her arm around his shoulders. Talking was good, but sometimes having someone to curl up against was a better remedy against the grief.

Browncoat gave a low snort and moved behind them. Now that the cub had someone else to lean on, the wolf moved toward the woods, probably planning to hunt for some meat. He knew his elf was safe.

It didn't make sense. It made no sense at all... But, if Willow said it, then it must be true. Mostly. Foxtail bit at her lower lip, fingers fiddling endlessly with the section of netting she had snatched from the storage dens as an excuse to wander towards the river without lifting eyebrows. Without conscious thought, she counted knot after knot of the rough hemp fibers. She needed time to think and there would have been no accomplishing that at the Dentrees.

Besides, she knew of a certain, snuggly little den along the bank where she could find peace and quiet.

Peace and quiet were in short supply around the Holt lately, she decided with a sigh. Heaving the net up again, she dragged it over her shoulder, freeing one hand to push at her bangs in an absent habit. The sooner she reached the bank, the better it would be.

Except she was wrong and, as she stood on the bank and watched the water flowing silent and dimly silvered, she wanted to scream all over again. No matter where she went, there was no escape from what happened. After three successful unwrappings, no one had expected a problem. Willow had proven herself more than capable. The tribe grew with the returned members and the Howls had rung out with joy and celebration. Even she had tried her tongue at telling the stories to reintroduce the sleepers.

Abruptly, she let the net fall to the ground and dropped herself into a crouch, arms wrapped tightly around her torso. But Fletcher hadn't woken up and no one could explain why. Willow had shared her ideas privately but Foxtail knew others whispered other things. Some refused to even discuss it at all. 'Why would someone do that?' she wondered. 'Why would someone just... Give up and leave?'

She bit her lip again, this time nearly to the point of pain, and closed her eyes. She harbored no real doubts about Willow's assessment but, at the same time, it made no sense. What little she had known about Fletcher prior to the Howl gave no clues. The stories shared by the tribe only helped her puzzle it out slightly better. Those who would have been able to tell her more were silent by choice or permission; after watching tears appear on Notch's cheeks and hearing his shuddering cry at the tribute, even her tactless curiosity drew up short.

So with no one to ask and nothing to do, Foxtail found herself beside the river with a fishing net as subterfuge and a head full of questions and discomfort.

Heaving a frustrated sigh, she gathered the net into her arms again and stood, clutching it to her chest. She had been so careful and attentive the past number of moons; she thought she had very nearly gotten the hang of being the natural choice for future chieftess. But what was one supposed to do when someone who should have lived didn't? What to do when they chose to push away the healer and die?

She stared hard at the gurgling water in front of her, unseeing and focused only on the thoughts chasing their tails within her head. 'There's so much to do,' she thought. 'There's hunting and climbing and dancing and dreamberries and feathers and furs and...' Her mind came up sharply against that thought and she grabbed at something learned at the Howl. Fletcher had been lovemated, three-mated even, and both of them were dead. 'Would that...' Foxtail reflexively increased her hold on the net in her arms until the rough hemp nearly burned her fingers from the friction. The notion was impossible, unthinkable, and made her stomach lurch in discomfort.

"But that's stupid," she said out loud suddenly and her voice rang from the quiet banks. A flock of birds startled just out of sight and took to the air with a noisy rustle of wings. Foxtail turned to look in the direction and lifted her chin higher. "It is! It's... It's ridiculous!" Chest heaving a bit from the shouting, she curved her shoulders inwards before turning away and starting to follow the river again. "It's a waste. All of it," she muttered, cowed back to lowness by the silence of the river. "And I don't care if I ever understand it. Mush-brained and, and..." She aimed a kick at a rock and sent it skittering into the water. "And I'd never do it," she concluded. "If Willow would bring me back, then, shards, I'm coming back."

Finally reaching a slight rise in the bank, Foxtail sighed with relief and tossed the net over her shoulder in preparation of slithering down the loose stones. A quick side step saved her from going into the water and she promptly ducked beneath the overhang. As she sidled into the den, though, half-crouched and slightly off-balance, she suddenly froze and her green eyes went wide. "Oh." It was more a breath than an actual sound and she stood in her awkward position for several heartbeats as she and Notch stared at each other. She barely risked flicking her gaze around enough to determine that he was not up to a prank. No elaborate pots or gimmicks littered the secret bolt-hole; it held only her expressionless friend sprawled at the back, a fairly rancid-looking fur around his shoulders and beneath him.

Neither moved for long moments. Then, finally, Foxtail offered a small smile and allowed the net to fall from her shoulder and land in a tangled heap at the entrance. "Scoot over," she ordered softly before dropping to her hands and knees and quickly crawling to his side. She tugged at the fur until it came loose, then settled herself at his side and pulled it back around to enclose them both. Without another word, she rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Beneath the fur, her hand searched out his.

It was still all mush but, if nothing else over the past number of moons, she had learned that mush could still hurt.

A lone toss-stone hit the wooden floor between two empty wine flasks.

"It's settled, then. A girl!" True Edge said with mock pride. "She would have Whitestag's eyes. Her grandsire's eyes. Pale and sharp, and good at spotting things no one else thinks to look for." He waved a wobbly hand at his drinking companion.

"Hmmph. Could've been grey. I'll tell you one thing. She would have her mother's hair. Full of shining red fire!" One-Leg groggliy wiped his mouth with the back of his palm and passed the skin of wine to the other.

After a long draw from the wine skin, True Edge thought for a moment on what his friend had said before he spoke.

"I'll grant it might have had her mother's hair...if she had ever been able to pass the cub. With us as grandsires she might have had too big of a head for its mother to bring into the world."

"You may have noticed that's why a cub's head starts out all pointy-like. Large egos round themselves out later." One-Leg motioned for the flask, and took another swig. "Newt didn't wake up knowing he was an orphan. Still, I cant shake the feeling that Fletcher knew his mates were gone."

"You aren't the only one."

"So what makes us so musk-rutting sure?"

"Because the children didn't yet know themselves fully. Newt and Fadestar haven't found their own soul names yet, so how could they hear the call of other souls who have passed on? And Honey, even with all of her hysterics, probably never loved anyone freely enough to bother to listen for their spirits passing."

Both were quiet for a moment as they gathered their own thoughts.

True Edge was the one to break the silence. "I don't know if they called to him or not, but it seemed to me that he sure wanted to leave this life. Willow's a scrapper, and if he could be held here she would have done it. It's hard to imagine him moving on. Death isn't the end so much as another kind of beginning."

One-Leg lifted a wobbly arm. "I'll drink to that."

Snowfall’s expression was calm as ever as her steps carried her back towards the Dentrees – she had spent some time alone after she had left Newt, and now she had managed to calm her feelings enough not to let them penetrate to the surface. For as long as she remembered she had done it like that.

Kestrel, intent on her flute carving in hopes that it would help take her mind off things, was therefore slightly startled when her lovemate opened the hide to the den. “I was wondering where you were,” she said wearily, thinking she could almost see the same weariness in her lovemate’s face… but then, Snowfall always tried so hard not to let her emotions show that it made one question whether they had really seen anything there.

“Down by the river,” Snowfall replied. “I’ve been talking to Newt for a bit.” They hadn’t talked much, truth be told, but that was just as well.

She sat down next to Kestrel, looking at the flute the skilled hands of her lovemate were honing. “This looks like it will be one of your best pieces,” she commented, finding some peace in the normalcy of these everyday tasks and words.

Kestrel smiled under the praise. Pausing for a moment to look at the calm face beside her, she wondered if perhaps Snowfall was trying to hide something by changing the subject. “That poor child. He has experienced such loss already, and now this,” Kestrel said. True, it was hard for her to believe that Fletcher was gone too, for she could remember the day he had been born to Beesting and Snaptwig – a small, curious child – and as he grew older, so too grew a sense of humour that was akin to her own. The day he had been injured beyond Cloudfern’s abilities and was put into wrapstuff, Kestrel could remember how devastated she had been, retreating to her den and remembering Fletcher in happier times. But always, there had been the hope that one day he would rejoin the tribe. Kestrel wondered if Snowfall had been thinking of these very same things, for the two were so alike in many ways.

“Yes – though in a way it’s even harder because he wasn't here for these losses,” Snowfall mused. She didn’t want to say too much about Newt’s thoughts as they were his to share, though. For a moment she smiled sadly. At least she had been there – she had been able to say goodbye to all of them. And now they had said goodbye to another member of her family. In more ways than one… Fletcher had been a tie to her father and to her son, and she sometimes still felt the loss of both keenly, so a shadow of her grief for them was added to that for her young uncle.

“Beloved, are you really all right? I know how much you were looking forward to welcoming him back, probably more so than most in the tribe right now,” Kestrel asked, trying to keep the worried tone out of her voice. She and Snowfall were both elders, and she knew that both had seen enough death in their long lives to know that it was always a possibility. But Kestrel also knew that when the loss of a loved one was involved, sometimes rationality took a backseat to raw emotion. She searched her friend and lovemate’s eyes for some sign of how she was really feeling, and hoped that the other would open up to her.

Snowfall didn’t answer at first, though she did meet Kestrel’s gaze steadily. She had expected the question from someone and most of all from her new and old lovemate who had known her all her life.

“I’m--” ‘all right,’ she wanted to say but found she couldn’t truly say it. “I will be,” she changed track. It was not as if it had hit them unexpectedly – she had been there when Fletcher had been injured and had known how bad it had been. But still, she had been hopeful, and seeing hope destroyed always hurt, no matter how old you got and how much you were prepared for the possibility of what you hoped for not coming true.

“Of course you will be…I’ve never known anything to keep you down for long,” the glider responded with a faint grin. “But what I’m really asking is, now that you’ve lightened someone else’s burden, do you need someone to lighten yours?” She set the flute aside and gripped her snowy-haired friend’s hand tightly. Knowing Snowfall as she did, Kestrel was aware that she might not open up much more about her feelings, but at least the elder elf could provide comfort. Being the oldest in tribe, she understood all too well how much elders were relied upon to be a backbone in hard times, and oftentimes it was forgotten that they, too, might need a shoulder to lean on.

Snowfall gave back the squeeze and moved so she could lean her forehead against Kestrel’s, closing her eyes trustingly. **I’m just glad you are here,** she sent. And again she felt that sometimes talking was not so important to ease the sting of loss.

2503.07.10

The chief’s decision was made. Farscout and Cloudfern, more importantly, had decided which gamble they would rather take – and Blacksnake couldn’t say he didn’t understand them. Farscout, he thought, would rather risk dying himself than face losing Brightwood for good. And having lost his own lifemate, Blacksnake couldn’t argue with that at all.

But the decision to wait left a host of other decisions postponed, and that was what Blacksnake didn’t like. Uncertainty felt like helplessness, made worse by the fact that it was starkly true. He was helpless. He couldn’t talk others into following a course of action he wasn’t certain of himself. He had no better way than anyone else to tell how long Willow might need to hone her powers to their sharpest edge. Worse, it might never be enough.

That was what gnawed at him. Blacksnake had seldom met a problem that he couldn’t master by studying it and understanding the facts and necessities and truths of all its parts. This one, though – it was slippery with all the things he couldn’t know, had no way of ever knowing, and it slid through his hands when he tried to hold onto it, until he was nearly maddened with frustration.

Why had Fletcher died? Without the answer to that, how could they know anything else for sure?

Was it the healer’s strength at fault? That seemed unlikely. Recent events had made sharp again the dim memories of Fletcher’s wounding, and what Blacksnake remembered of it said that the young archer had been no more badly wounded than Pathmark had been. It wasn’t power, he told himself with conviction. If it had been power, then Pathmark would have been the first to die.

Experience, then? The knowledge of how to keep body and spirit together, when they were so close to the edge of parting? Without an older, experienced healer to ask, there was no way to know how possible such a thing even was. It was the first of the answers that Blacksnake couldn’t pin down.

Had Fletcher wanted to die? Those who believed that seemed to feel certain of it, and that number appeared to include Willow herself, but… Blacksnake growled to himself. Impossible to know. His brother One-Leg saw reflected in Fletcher’s situation the things that One-Leg himself had gone through long ago. Axehand had refused to be wrapped, and had fought to live – but perhaps he had gotten close enough to that edge to know what it was like to feel its pull. But every elf was different. That was why some survived the death of their lifemates, and others did not. It was why some had agreed to be wrapped in Preserver cocoons, and others had not. Friends to Fletcher they had been, and kin to him, but none of them had known the deepest part of his soul. How could any of them say with conviction how he had faced that choice?

If choice it had been. That nagged at Blacksnake too. He knew that it had been a long gap of time, and a hard ride on wolfback in Farscout’s arms, between Fletcher being wounded and the Preserver doing its job to wrap him up where time couldn’t touch him. How long? Too long? In the memories of the wrapping that Blacksnake had seen through Farscout’s and Cloudfern’s eyes, the young archer had been just about bled white, maybe just one fluttering breath away from dying. If the wrapping had caught him outside of time on the point of exhaling that last breath… then would it have mattered if the lad had wanted to live, or not?

That thought circled back to the other unknowns. How far gone was too far gone for any healer? Willow insisted that she had felt pushed out of the way even as she tried to heal him, but – had it been a push of want-to-die, or had it been a final rush of the spirit that no-one could have stopped? What held the spirit to the body, and what was the precise thing that severed that bond?

That, to Blacksnake, was the crucial question. There was a moment, when the spirit deserted the body for good. A healer could help to draw the body and thus the spirit back from that edge… if she had time enough to heal to make that difference.

Time. More training and experience would never give Willow more strength, but it might help her to do the right thing, the crucial thing, those few heartbeats more quickly.

How much time did Brightwood need?

Like the memories of Fletcher’s wounding, Blacksnake could call up the painful sendings he and Easysinger had shared with Farscout and Cloudfern, soon after their return to the Holt with Brightwood’s cocoon. He knew how long she had suffered from wounds made worse during the violence of their escape. He knew that she had agreed to be wrapped at the last possible moment – if he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could almost see it, through Farscout’s vision, her acceptance, and the desire to live that fueled it.

She had that. Even if Blacksnake hadn’t known it from Farscout’s memories, he would have believed it just from knowing her. She had a lifemate, and a child within her, and a younger brother she would never desert if she could help it. Like her father – Blacksnake pushed aside the familiar pang of grief and anger at the thought of Lynx’s death – he had no trouble imagining Brightwood giving her life for the right cause, and at the same time he knew she would never give up her life without a fight when she had everything to live for.

So, he told himself, there was no question that they’d have her fighting to live once that cocoon was opened. No question at all, in his mind, and for Blacksnake that made it a certainty, something they could count on. Willow had the strength, he was certain of that, too. So… what did that leave for the rest of them to do?

Because he had stood there and watched helplessly for the last time.

No matter how much better control Willow gained over her powers with time, Blacksnake knew, they would always have a nagging doubt about this. The doubt wasn’t the young healer’s fault. They could just never be certain. This wasn’t like plantshaping or rockshaping. How in the world was the girl-cub supposed to practice holding body and spirit together, without endangering other elves’ lives? And how could she become more deft at doing it, if she could never practice it?

And even if luck ran out for one of them, and provided her with the opportunity – every elf was different, every wound was different. They would never be able to say with certainty that whoever she next saved had indeed been as badly hurt as Brightwood was, or just as close to death, since none of them could know how close Brightwood was, either.

Blacksnake shook his head sharply. Those were things, again, that he couldn’t do anything about. He needed something that he could do, something real, that he could have confidence in.

“Do you think he knew?” Crackle murmured.

Moss blinked his eyes open, surprised. He brushed a hand through the cub’s wild red mane in a soothing motion, feeling Crackle’s small heart flutter in her chest as she curled up against him. “Knew, cubling?”

“That he’d died,” she answered quickly; then she thought better of it and shook her head. “No, I mean, that he was ever not-dead. I mean – that he woke up, and then he was suddenly dead – no – I don’t know what I mean.” Her face scrunched up, as though this feeling of not understanding her own thoughts was a foul smell full in her nose.

Moss thought about this question. He continued to stroke Crackle’s back, in the same wide circles he’d drawn there ever since the cub dropped wordlessly into his den.

“You mean,” he said quietly, “does he know that he is dead? Or does he – “

“ – think he’s still dreaming,” Crackle completed, her voice hushed, almost choked.

The harpist nodded and pressed her closer to him.

“I think it doesn’t matter,” he said softly. “If he thinks that he’s still dreaming, then he dreams of spirit-joy, of being free with his lovemates’ spirits, and watching over the tribe.”

Crackle stirred slightly, giving an echoing nod. Whether Moss really believed in his answer or not, it seemed to have satisfied her. She stared into the green distance, the shadowed forest landscape outside the mouth of the den.

“When I die,” she whispered, “that’s how I want it to be. Like a breeze, here one moment and there the next. And by the time I realize that I’m not dreaming but really dead, I won’t mind it very much.”

Moss toyed with her hair in silence. He wanted to tell her that she wouldn’t die for a long, long time yet, but thought better of it. First Otter’s near-fatal accident, now Fletcher’s death… wolfrider children learned their lessons hard.

And there was nothing to do about that, but hold the girl and soften what they could of the world.

“Yes,” he whispered back. “That’s how I’d like to go, too.”

Blacksnake didn’t even need to send to find Farscout’s location. He knew where the other elf would be.

In the chill and dark of the cocoon den, four Preservers fluttered at the edge of his vision – an unusually high number. Had Windburn set them to watch, or were they responding on their own to the agitation of the council held here four days before? It might be that. They didn’t like anything that appeared to threaten what they looked on as their cocoons. There was chattering when he entered, but it soon subsided.

Farscout didn’t move as he entered, but he must have scented who it was. Blacksnake knew how taciturn the scout could be, and he was prepared to do the talking for both of them, but the other elf surprised him.

His eyes never leaving the silvery cocoon, Farscout asked, “What would you do?”

Blacksnake’s eyebrows went up. “What would I --?”

“If it was your lifemate and child in there.” Farscout did look up at him then, his pale grey eyes glowing in the faint moonmoss light. “What would you choose?”

He was brought up short against the question, something he had never asked himself, and in an instant his mind conjured the possibility… Riskrunner, precious child, son and friend, the best part of me and none of the worst, because you are part of her, too… Her He shook himself and took an involuntary step backwards, stopping the flow of thoughts and memory before he could recall in every sharp, perfect detail what it had felt like to have half his soul, the better half, ripped away. What if those crushing losses had not been so final? What if he had the chance, today, to undo them as he could not at the time – the chance, right here, but the risk that it wouldn’t work, too?

Blacksnake’s eyes flew open, unaware until that moment that he had closed them, and he stared down at Farscout’s steady, questioning gaze. “Don’t ask me that,” he said, his voice raspy. “I can’t give you an answer.” He had no idea himself, but he knew it wouldn’t be subject to calm planning and reason. There was a part of himself he had not understood, before he lost his lifemate, that he hadn’t even known existed – a part he couldn’t trust. He had an uncomfortable flash of vision – himself dragging Willow into the den and tearing at the cocoon with his own hands, desperate and unreasoning, as if the strength of his will alone would be enough to force the outcome he desired.

Farscout studied his face, and then nodded, and turned his eyes back to Brightwood’s wrapped form. No, Farscout did not know what it was like to lose his lifemate… but he had seen enough of how it affected others, including seeing Blacksnake on the edge of madness himself, to know to fear it. It made him cautious, and Blacksnake couldn’t fault that.

“I cannot trust Willow’s word, yet,” said the other elf quietly. “It pains her to hear that, but it’s true – not least, because she is so focused on how it pains her, and no one else.” He took a deep breath, and then angled his head enough to glimpse Blacksnake from the corner of his eye. “You have worked with her more closely than I have, these past two turns of the seasons. Do you trust her?”

Blacksnake knew his friend well enough to know it was an honest question. He had seen things that Farscout hadn’t, and… it wasn’t his lifemate in the balance, so he could be rational in ways that Farscout couldn’t. “I think she believes what she claims. Now she knows what it feels like to lose the battle for someone’s life, and she knows what it feels like to fight and win it, too. Her belief is based on what she knows.” He paused, then huffed. “What she doesn’t know is how much she still doesn’t know.”

“Do you trust her?” the scout repeated, wanting an answer, not speculation.

“I don’t think it matters whether I do or not,” he replied. “The question is, what will it take to make you trust her? At some point, that’s what you’ll have to work out.” He tilted his head to one side, regarding the set of Farscout’s shoulders. “Want me to take a stab at that?”

Not moving otherwise, Farscout raised one hand and waved it in a gesture of invitation. Blacksnake smiled, even though the other wasn’t watching.

“Willow isn’t looking beyond herself at the moment. What she can do. What she can’t. She lost the ability to be carefree the moment her powers surfaced – and she doesn’t accept yet that she’ll never fully regain what she’s lost. Nothing could be as solid a symbol of the pressures on her as these cocoons. They’ve been hanging over her like Recognition and motherhood rolled into one, and she thinks that when the last one’s open, she’ll have escaped the snare and she can be herself again.” He paused, and saw the other elf’s nod of agreement. “True Edge sees pride in her conviction, I see fear. Neither inspires confidence. I think you’ll trust her more when you sense that neither one is behind her words.”

“I want her to want to heal Brightwood,” Farscout said, so softly that Blacksnake stepped closer to hear him. “Not to prove herself, not to escape a burden – and right now, that burden wears Brightwood’s face, for her. I need her to want to help, not just want to be right.”

“To Willow, Brightwood has always been a face in others’ memories,” Blacksnake reminded him. “No amount of time may ever make her feel for Brightwood as a real person, the way you or Cloudfern or I feel, the way anyone who knew her feels. Maybe…” He hesitated, feeling his way towards a thought he had just begun to have. “Maybe that was part of the problem with Fletcher, too.”

Farscout turned to frown up at him. “How so?”

It suddenly seemed so simple, Blacksnake was amazed he hadn’t thought of it before. “Pathmark was as badly hurt as Fletcher, or Brightwood. When she healed him, Willow had her connection to him, her love for him as her brother, her long history with him. What if that was the key to her keeping his body and spirit together long enough to matter?” He could see Farscout starting to think about it, and pressed on urgently. “What healer has ever before tried to heal a tribemate they didn’t know? It’s only natural – how could she care as much for Fletcher, or for Brightwood, as we do? We all stood around her, all of us who knew and loved Fletcher, but we held ourselves apart, afraid of distracting her, but – what if that was the wrong thing to do?”

“What if we had been sending to him from the moment the cocoon was opened…” Farscout said slowly.

“Yes! What if we all lock-sent together – High Ones, what if Brightwood’s own lifemate was lock-sending to her, with the strength of the rest of us at your back?” Excited by the idea blooming before him, he put his hand on the other elf’s shoulder, shaking it slightly. “Why does it have to be the healer’s strength, alone, that does it? We have the whole tribe!”

The look on Farscout’s face was wary. “Can it be that simple?”

Blacksnake snorted. “You call that simple? We’ve never tried anything like it before.” He thought about lock-sends, and send-sharing, that had come close. “It would take time and practice to get the entire tribe working together like that. But it’s something we can do, instead of having to sit by, helpless, when that cocoon finally opens. And it could make the difference.”

At length, Farscout allowed, “It might.”

“It has to.” He had to believe that it would.

The other elf slanted a look up at him. “You’ll tell Windburn?”

He laughed shortly. “Obviously, if we want to involve the whole tribe. And he’s the strongest of our senders, apart from you. Who knows? It may even help Willow to know that we’re looking for ways to help her. But it’s up to you.”

Farscout was silent for long moments, staring at his lifemate’s cocoon. Finally, he nodded. “Yes. Anything, everything that will give her better odds.”

Blacksnake gripped the other’s shoulder again, trying to convey his resolve and confidence through the reassuring warmth and weight of his hand. “You and I both know, she’s a fighter. She deserves to have all of us there, fighting with her, not just a stranger’s hands healing her while she fights alone. That, we can give her.”

2503.07.12

Beetle felt the weight of silence between herself and Willow pressing down more and more with each passing evening. The word-hunters would be leaving soon, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to go with them. She was tempted to remain behind, to show Willow that she cared. But she knew that Willow might be even more upset with her if she stayed. She sighed. There was no easy answer or quick solution.

Willow hadn't come to Beetle's den to sleep since the night of their disagreement. Those had been three long nights. Beetle figured her lovemate must have been sleeping in her own den, though there were plenty who would have happily shared furs with her. In the mood Willow was in, though, Beetle guessed she wanted to be alone. When Beetle went outside, still warring with herself over whether or not she should go or stay tonight, she spotted Willow slouched on one of the benches that a plantshaper had shaped in the side of the Father Tree. Her lovemate looked tired and miserable as she stared, brow knitted, at a bug slowly making its way through a patch of crumbly dirt.

Beetle hated seeing Willow look so unhappy. She hated even more that she was one of the reasons for Willow’s misery. She had to do something. Beetle knew that Willow’s stubborn streak meant that it could be moons – even turns – before her lovemate would talk to her. She also knew that Willow felt no one was taking her feelings into consideration. ‘Maybe…’ Beetle decided. Quietly approaching Willow, Beetle took a seat on a branch near her lovemate. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she sent her feelings, **I see you’re unhappy and I’m sorry I added to that. Don’t want to leave tonight with things like this between us.**

Not wanting to pressure Willow, Beetle leaned back, resting her head against the Father Tree. She closed her eyes, silently hoping that Willow would respond and accept her apology.

Willow didn't look up. “You don't have to worry about it any more,” she growled, her tone full of resentment and anger. It was clear that the apology wasn't accepted.

Beetle sighed inwardly. She did understand, even though Willow was currently too lost in self-pity to recognize that. Though her lovemate’s distress pained her, it was obviously something she didn’t want help with. And maybe no one could help her. Willow wouldn’t feel better until things went back to normal… but normal didn’t exist any more.

She sat up, opening her eyes to look at Willow. “All right, Willow. I won’t worry about you. You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to hear what anyone has to say or even what I have to say. I wanted to be here for you. I want to help you, and you won’t let me.”

Willow turned to Beetle then, scowling. “You made it perfectly clear that you don't care what I have to say, either!”

"Oh. Right. I forgot. That's what you think I said. And you're wrong. You want everyone around you to show their throat and tell you what you want to hear instead of the truth."

"Show their throat?! Hardly! I only asked for people to listen – to recognize that I have feelings, too! But no... I'm the one who's wrong here. I'm 'throwing tantrums and so full of self-pity'!"

"And maybe... just maybe... you might remember that NOT EVERYONE feels the way that you think they do,” Beetle shot back. “I KNOW how frustrated you feel... I tried to talk with Windburn about it – to point out how hard this is on you. I get it, Willow. He’s not listening. I would, but you don't want me, or anyone else around. You're pushing away the ones who love you and you won't let me back in."

"You know I'm frustrated, but you don't think it's RIGHT. And then you try and tell me what you think I want to hear to make me feel better... when you don't believe a word of what you say! No, no. You're right, Beetle. I don't want you around. I don't want you pretending to understand me. You can go rut it for all I care."

Willow’s words hurt, but Beetle wasn’t giving up. "It's FINE to be frustrated. You SHOULD BE. I am. And tell you what you want to hear? I'm not even sure what that would be. I tell you the truth. Even if it makes you angry. If you really don't want me... well, you at least get that much of what you want. I’m leaving with the word-hunters tonight."

Willow growled and waved Beetle away. “Fine,” she said, still scowling as she rose to her feet. “I don't need you, anyway!” That said, she made her way over to the Mother Tree, took the stairs to her den, and disappeared from sight.

Beetle wanted to chase after her. She didn’t like the idea of leaving with this much tension between herself and Willow. And yet there was little she could do. She climbed up the side of the Child Tree and through her window. She needed to get the bundle of items for the trip, and she needed a moment to herself. Sitting down on her furs, Beetle put her head in her hands. ‘What just happened?’ she asked herself. Tears spilled over as she reviewed her argument with Willow.

She scented, then felt, her father’s presence. “I heard,” Cloudfern offered, moving to sit next to his weeping daughter.

“Anyone who was in the Holt heard,” Beetle mumbled, her voice muffled by both tears and hands.

Her father did not argue with her. Instead, he put an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close. She sank into him, the tears coming faster. “She doesn’t need me. She never really did. And she doesn’t want me.” She choked back a sob. “Why does it hurt so much?”

**Cubling,** her father sent. The use of the term didn’t offend her – it was meant affectionately. **Love hurts sometimes.**

She cried silently into his chest and nodded. **She’s not being reasonable.**

“We’re not always reasonable when we’re hurting,” Cloudfern said quietly.

Beetle sighed. **Afraid she meant it. Afraid to lose her.**

Cloudfern’s arms tightened around his daughter. **You won’t lose her,** he promised with more conviction than Beetle understood. **She’s hurting, she’s confused. And right now, she’s probably crying, too. With what she said to you, she’s probably worried that you wouldn’t let her near you.**

Beetle sat up, alarm on her face.

Her father put a finger to her lips. “She needs to go through this. And she needs to know you’re still there for her. Are you?”

“Of course. But she doesn’t want me near her right now! How can I let her know?”

“You can send to her.”

“And if she doesn’t receive it?”

“She’ll receive it. She won’t respond, though. And you’ll spend the whole time away with the word-hunters wondering how she’s doing. And she’ll spend that time waiting for you to return.”

“Ugh.” Beetle groaned. “Love bites.”

“It does. When it has to. Glad you’ve admitted it, though.”

”What?”

”That you love her.”

Beetle stared at him. Her chin dropped, opening her mouth into a gape of amazement. Then she grinned. Of all the silly ways to recognize the depth of feelings, this one had to be the worst. To argue with the one you love to the point of thinking the relationship could have ended… to feel the devastation of that loss, and then to have hope reignited. What a night. She felt tired, but she had a long trip ahead of her.

She was more animated as she tried to think of all she had to do. Her father helped her. Cloudfern, who had been moving while she sat thinking, placed her traveling wares in her hands. “High Ones be with you, daughter.”

She half-hugged him, then made her way through his den into the stairway. She considered going up to Willow’s den, but thought better of it. Her father had given her good advice. She would take it. She made her way down the stairs and out into the gathering area. The other word-hunters were waiting on her.

“You all right?” Evervale asked, her face tight with concern.

Beetle nodded, “I think so.”

She watched as the red-headed plantshaper bid farewell to Pathmark and Longshot. She saw Moss touch hands with Goldspice, and Rainpace clapping Notch's back, and then she saw her mother standing nearby. She and Starskimmer exchanged a look in which Beetle acknowledged the argument and said she was all right at the same time. Starskimmer nodded. Beetle felt Rooter nuzzle her hand, and absently she scratched the back of her wolf-friend's neck. When Kestrel signaled that it was time to go, Beetle looked around, wondering where One-Leg was. She mounted Rooter and silently began to make her way out of the Holt, following the others. When the Father Tree was almost out of view, Beetle paused for a moment.

She looked toward the top of the tree and thought she saw Willow, but she wasn’t sure. She lock-sent, **Look forward to returning to you. Going to miss you. Warm embrace.** Then, without pausing to wait for a response and expecting none, Beetle turned and signalled Rooter to catch up with the others. It was going to be a long trip.

Pathmark had heard that horrible row. And even now, the length of time it had taken for Mother Moon to rise another hand's-length higher into the sky, the sounds of his sister shouting angrily at Beetle, her lovemate, rang in his ears as though he had just heard them. He didn't like that Willow had so unfairly yelled at Beetle, and he didn't like that his sister was hurting.

Was there something he could do? That thought was in his mind as he carefully climbed the steps on the outside of the Mother Tree that led to Willow's den. Maybe he could talk to her. Maybe he could talk some sense into her so she'd be able to patch things up with Beetle when she got back from word-hunting.

For a moment, as he stood next to the den's closed leather flap, Pathmark thought of turning away. He knew too well the mood his sister was currently in, although he wasn't sure he had ever seen it quite this ugly. He knew the last thing Willow probably wanted was for him to come scratching at her den's door, let alone trying to talk to her. And yet, he found himself doing just that.

His request to enter was met with silence, and he wasn't surprised. He scratched again.

“I'm not going to be so easily shaken off,” he said, knowing full well his sister was inside and could hear him. “You might as well let me in.”

There was another long moment of silence, followed by a heavy sigh. **Fine,** came Willow's answer. The sending was interlaced with some kind of angry underpinning that Pathmark didn't quite understand. He decided to shrug it off as part of Willow's foul mood, and pulled the den-flap aside. His sister was sitting, arms crossed, on her bed platform, and she glared at him as he sat down on a pile of furs stacked up near the den's doorway and let the den-flap fall shut behind him.

As he tried to find what words he wanted to say, Willow impatiently spoke first. “What do you want?”

“I'm worried about you,” he said, knowing the truth would take the edge off his sister's words.

Her eyes narrowed. “You don't have to be worried about me.”

Pathmark didn't flinch. “I know I don't have to be, but I am. I don't like to see you like this. I don't like to see you pushing away the ones who care about you like you did with Beetle a while ago.”

Willow looked away for the briefest of moments and swallowed hard before her eyes met his again. Ah yes, his sister had a tough exterior and she could muster all the bravado she wanted to, but he could tell she wasn't pleased with herself about what had happened at the base of the Mother Tree earlier this evening. “Did Grandmother send you here?” she finally asked, characteristically trying to change the subject away from something that made her feel uncomfortable. Her tone had softened. The corners of her eyes had relaxed somewhat.

“No, I came on my own. But I'd be surprised if she hadn't heard that row you had, too, and is just as worried about you as I am – as we all are. I bet she’d have come to see about you herself, if she hadn’t had to leave with the word-hunters.”

He was expecting some kind of sharp retort, or orders to leave her alone because she didn't want have to deal with all his mushiness, but Willow surprised him. She slumped down in her bed looking more miserable than he could ever remember her looking. Pathmark, now more concerned than ever, moved to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn't bother to hide her face, and she didn't cry, but she looked pained.

“What is it? Tell me. C'mon.”

“I...” Willow trailed off for a moment, as though she were trying to find the right words to say. “I just want someone to listen. I want someone to believe what I say about Fletcher and about what I'm capable of.”

“I know what you're capable of,” Pathmark replied, his soft voice full of pride. “I owe you my life. I was on the knife's edge of death, and you reached out to me and pulled me back to live. C'mon, sis, if anyone believes in you, I do. You know I do. And I think everyone else does, too. It's just--”

“I wish they would listen.”

“Maybe it's just too soon for that. It's just been a hand of days. I know I don't even know what to think about what happened... especially if what you say happened is true.”

“I think they're afraid.”

“Maybe so. But don't you think they have a right to be?”

Willow sat up abruptly then, and Pathmark figured he must have struck a nerve. He leaned back to give his sister room to move. She looked him defiantly in the eye again. “Maybe they do, but being afraid gives them no right to shut me out like they did. I wish I could make them see what happened when I tried to heal Fletcher. I wish I could show them --”

“Show me.”

Pathmark's interruption made Willow stop short. She studied him for a moment, looking puzzledly at him, perhaps wondering what was going through his head. Before she could say anything, Pathmark put a hand on her arm and spoke.

“I've been there – there at that point where death beckons like cool breezes and sweet water to someone who is hot and thirsty. Show me what you want to show them. Show me how you tried to pull Fletcher back from that place, just like you did for me. If anyone can take that experience and go to Windburn and make him believe, I can.”

Willow's expression turned more serious than ever, then, and she nodded at him. Without saying a word or wasting a moment, she reached for his hands, took them in hers, and then began to lock-send.

Pathmark flinched at the intensity of the sending. He could practically feel the air crackle when Willow sent her powers out into Fletcher to heal him. He felt his sister connect with the archer, and then felt the struggle that began almost immediately and lasted for long, painful moments until Willow was pushed back, and the fight to heal Fletcher was lost.

The sending ended, but Pathmark sat still at the side of his sister's bed. He kept his eyes closed. He didn't say a word. He heard Willow moving next to him. He knew he needed to say something, but he couldn't bring himself to say what he knew he needed to say next.

“Pathmark?” Willow finally asked. She didn't ask the question, but knew his sister was waiting for an answer.

Pathmark took a deep, ragged breath. “I can't,” he finally said, feeling sadness wash over him. “I can't tell Windburn what you want me to.” It hurt to say that. He hated to disappoint his sister like this.

“What do you mean you can't?” Pathmark opened his eyes. The look Willow gave him was desperate.

“I can't,” he repeated again, shaking his head. “I... don't see it the way you do. When you healed Fletcher, it wasn't like when you saved me. It wasn't like that at all.”

His sister scooted down on the floor next to him and took his hands in hers again. “But you felt him push me, didn't you? He pushed me so hard he knocked me back!”

“I felt him push you. But I can't say it was because he didn't want you to heal him.”

He saw Willow's expression fall.

“It was just...different, is all,” Pathmark blurted then. “I'm not saying you were weak. It just wasn't like when I was...” The right words to say, the ones he wanted to find in order to make Willow feel better, were becoming more and more elusive. “It... I'm sorry, I...” Words finally failed him.

Willow let Pathmark's hands go and cast her eyes downward. Then, she whispered, “Please, just leave.”

He started to say something – anything – but the realization hit him that he would never be able to say the magical thing that would make everything right. He'd spoken the truth before, but he knew it wasn't what his sister wanted – no, needed – to hear. He knew he had come to help, but had only made Willow feel worse.

And now, he didn't know what else to say. He felt rotten as he rose to his feet and made his way to the den's door. As he let the den-flap fall closed behind him, he caught one fleeting glimpse of his sister slumping defeatedly against the side of her bed. He should have never come here at all.

2503.07.13 (early evening)

Deep orange light still kissed the fringes of the western horizon as the sun sank below it, out of sight. Willow pulled her den-flap aside in time to catch a glimpse of it. It had been another day filled with fitful sleep and unsettling dreams, and the healer felt more tired now after spending all day tossing and turning than she had before she had tried to retire the night before.

And now it was evening. She gave up on even trying to get back to sleep.

Hurt still welled up within her at the slightest thought of the conversations she'd had over the past two evenings. Everyone, even those who Willow had once believed would support her through the strongest of storms, had lost faith in her. They believed that she hadn't been capable of saving Fletcher's life at all – that she had been weak and incapable. And even Blacksnake thought she needed the whole tribe standing behind her in support if she were ever to have hopes of bringing Brightwood back from the brink of death.

I didn't want this duty at first. I fought it with all my might, she thought to herself. But, then I embraced what was given to me. I've done my best. I've tried my hardest to do what was asked of me, always. Why won't they trust me?

Windburn's scathing words from the council over a hand of days past ate at her. He'd said she was whining, and then went on to tell her she was just as free as anyone else, provided she never went alone. How was that freedom? Why couldn't the restrictions the chief had laid upon her be lessened while they waited, at the very least? She felt like she was being punished for allowing Fletcher to die!

Windburn had never believed she was capable of healing Brightwood. He'd made his decision before he even called anyone to that council. It was because she was 'feckless and irresponsible.' How could he even think that when she had worked so hard over the past two turns to grapple her new-found powers? He would never have treated Evervale or Pathmark or some other 'calm, quiet' elf this way!

Just because I'm willing to take risks makes me no less capable than they might have been. It's made me more capable. I've pushed myself hard, to the point where my health and happiness came second to what they wanted. I bit my tongue for the longest time when they told me I couldn't do the things I used to love because I had to stay safe. But they call me selfish when I've tried to be selfless for everyone sleeping down in that den. But it doesn't matter – not to Windburn. Not to anyone else.

The hurt she felt quickly morphed into anger and Willow swallowed down the bile that intense emotion made rise in her throat. She was capable of healing Brightwood! She knew it! But yet, now that everyone believed she couldn't, there was no telling how long she'd be caged up here, waiting for those who did not know anything about healing to tell her she was ready to do what she needed to do!

She gritted her teeth and growled her frustration.

A shadow of movement far below on the ground caught Willow's eye. Farscout was quietly making his way through the gathering area between the trees below. His shoulder bag was packed full, and his quiver and bow were slung over his shoulders. Willow knew, without a doubt, that Farscout was leaving on one of his longer scouting trips, and High Ones only knew when he'd be coming back home again.

Coward! More raw, painful anger rose in Willow's gut again at the sight of the scout leaving the Holt, free to come and go as he pleased. He might be hurting over not having Brightwood at his side, but he's free to run away from his pain and lose himself in whatever else he might find out there until the edge of his pain dulled enough to come back here. Coward! she silently spat at the retreating figure. Too afraid to stay and face your fear. Go run off with your tail in-between your legs again and then come limping back when it pleases you while I'm forced to sit in the middle of this mess and wait. All because you're rutting afraid!

Farscout's figure disappeared from view, but Willow's anger hadn't vanished at all. “You dung-rotted, selfish coward!” she bellowed out after him. She didn't care if he'd heard her or not. Let him know how she felt, for as much as he'd pay attention.

She let the den-flap fall closed then, and with another frustrated growl, slammed herself back hard against her den wall. She blinked and tears ran down her cheeks. Others below were already awake, and soon the Holt would be bustling with activity. They'd go hunting, or trapping, or gathering. Everything would go on for them, like normal.

Willow roughly wiped the tears from her eyes from the back of her hand. Normal. The thought of that word made her spit. There's no rutting such thing as normal anymore, she suddenly realized. Not for me. She looked down and spied the little bee tie Notch had given to her in her hair. She'd never get to go out collecting beesweets like she used to. With Greedygut and other bears about, it was just too dangerous for a healer. Angrily, she ripped the bee-tie out of her hair and flung it across the room onto the furs of her bed. Now they won't even let me do the last thing I was allowed to do. But they'll sure as Badger's blood tell me when they think I'm ready to do it!

They wouldn't let her free to even leave the Holt a short distance alone. Now they wouldn't let her heal. She might as well be a tree, for all she was rooted in place.

“They don't know me!” Willow bellowed, balling her fists so tightly that her nails dug into her palms. “They're too gut-rotting afraid to open their eyes. They don't know anything!”

And, by the lost Palace of the High Ones, she was going to prove it. She had nothing left to lose.

Willow emerged from the shadowy stairs leading to the wrapstuff den. The room was quiet and cool, and Brightwood's cocoon seemed to glow an eerie white beneath the faint light of the moonmoss within.

No one was here, save for four Preservers who looked up momentarily as Willow entered the chamber. Others had been here, and had been here recently. Farscout's scent was the strongest; the healer guessed that he probably paid one last visit to his lifemate before he set out earlier this evening. Hopefully no one else would enter here for a long while.

Willow walked to that one last, remaining cocoon determinedly.

“Beesweets Highthing come visit Sunny-soft Highthing?” Berryflop asked, curious.

The pests are here on guard, Willow realized, studying the four colorful creatures flitting about Brightwood's cocoon. She bristled momentarily at the realization that Windburn not only had no faith in her, but he didn't trust her, either. This complicated things. She needed to act fast. Without any further hesitation, she pulled out the small knife she always kept in her boot. The stone blade felt cool in her hand.

The Preservers' eyes went wide at the sight of the blade, and their shrieking grew more and more shrill as Willow brought the sharp edge close to the wrapstuff and slipped the blade beneath a small swatch of websilk. Willow ignored them. The noise was like a buzzing in her ears; easily tuned out. She had to do this.

One small tear will do it, just enough to slip my hand into, she told herself. Then, she pulled the blade upward. The websilk made a delicate sound as the stone blade ripped it open. The stink of blood, and dirt, and some sour, vile odor filled the room as the cocoon was opened to the outside air.

“No!!! You no cut wrapstuff!!!!” Berryflop cried. The little bug tried its best to spit a new wad of websilk at the tear to mend it, but Willow smacked the creature out of the way.

The cocoon was open. There was no time to waste. As the four Preservers darted, screaming, from the room to get help, Willow hastily knelt down and slipped her hand inside the hole she had just made.

This wasn't going to be pleasant. She braced herself. She could do this. Brightwood would be healed. They would see.

Willow took a deep breath and sent her healing powers out. She thought she could sense a weak presence fluttering nearby, and she latched onto it with all her being.

**Fight with me,** she sent to that unfamiliar soul. **It will be a long, difficult path, but we'll get you back to the land of the living, together.**

Collections that include this story:
<<
Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing
>>
The Morning After
<<
Handprints for Hope
Wrapstuffed Tribemates are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe
>>
Loss for Words

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