(This story is a direct sequel to "A Long, Difficult Path", and is part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
**Seth!** Farscout was picking his careful way across the northern ford of Deer-Lick Creek when his soul-brother’s alarm-send reached him. It was a raw, shocked skyfire jolt, shading fast into horrified outrage, centered on a shadowy image of Willow bent over a cocoon on a stone bench, with Preservers swirling around her in a frantic spiral.
Farscout staggered and slipped into the creek. He didn’t feel the water that filled his boots and soaked him to the thigh. **Pryn!** he locksent, half in demand and half in denial.
Cloudfern’s sending wavered, then widened into a less private call. **Chief!! Blacksnake! Willow’s gone and done it! She’s opened Brightwood’s cocoon!**
Farscout spun and scrambled for shore. Heart slamming in his chest, he pulled himself up the steep bank. Farscout began to race for home.
**Seth,** Cloudfern cried in despair, locksending again. **Windburn is coming, but she's too far into it for us to stop her!**
Farscout’s regular ground-eating stride had already carried him miles from the Holt in the hours since his dusk departure. Cloudfern was still sending a summons for the chief and elders, but it was clear that Willow had already gone too far in opening the cocoon to be interrupted. Images of Fletcher’s ugly death were still too raw in Farscout’s mind — he wanted bitterly to curse the rash healer, but he did not dare waste the breath. How dare Willow? How dare she? Farscout had waited too long for his lifemate to lose Brightwood now, not like this, not without him there at his Recognized’s side —
Windburn’s send pierced his desperate thoughts, sharp and bracing with controlled fury. **Farscout,** the chief demanded. **Where are you?**
Farscout answered with a pulse of image and sensation, of the steep banks of forest that flanked Deer-Lick Creek near its head, and of himself running for the Holt.
Windburn accepted that with only a simple wish — **Just get here. Get here as fast as you can.**
Farscout ran, helpless in the knowledge that there were too many miles and too little time between himself and home. No — perhaps not entirely helpless. Farscout reached out mentally for his Recognized. Since going into wrapstuff, the vibrancy of her lifeforce had been long shrouded, like a star behind stormclouds. But suddenly, Brightwood was there again, alive but wavering. Farscout seized her with every fiber of his being, seeking to provide both anchor and buoy for the weak candle-flicker of her soul. **Aya,** he sent, nearly blind to the forest he ran through physically. His lifemate was too close to death to answer him, **Aya — I am here! I am here, and I will not let you go!**
Brightwood was too close to death to be fully aware of him. Farscout didn’t not waste thought or breath to question on anything else. He simply ran, as his soul fought what battle it could to aide his beloved.
Blacksnake was the next to arrive, nearly on his chief's heels. The Hunt Leader must have been drowsing in his den just overhead. “Oh, you foolish stubborn girl!” Cloudfern heard Blacksnake growl as he looked on over his chief’s shoulder.
Cloudfern stood himself close enough to Willow that he could have reached out and touched the wrapstuff which still cocooned his sister. He hugged himself so hard that it hurt, alternating between wanting to throw himself at Willow and beat the young healer senseless, and wanting to sink down at the side of the wrapstuff bier and cling to something, anything beside that stone couch. Willow was motionless where she crouched over Brightwood’s cocoon, her hands sunk into the tear she had made in it. Several of the Preservers swirled overhead in an agitated confusion of butterfly-bright wings.
“How long has she been at it?” Blacksnake asked.
Cloudfern caught his breath for an unreasonable moment, fearful that a quiet discussion might distract the healer at her work.
“Long enough,” Windburn replied, equally quiet, although there was a fierce rage lurking in the clipped words. “The Preservers came screaming out of here when she started, but she was already well into it before Cloudfern or I could get down here to stop her.”
The Preservers who had returned with Windburn had finally begun to settle. Two of them, Berryflop and Mushroom, landed near Willow’s hands and began to strip the websilk aside, further opening the tear Willow had made. Cloudfern did move then, intent on stopping them.
“No, no, is time, is time, wrapstuff must go!” shrilled both Dewdrop and Foamspray in protest.
Cloudfern shrank back again, terrified of distracting Willow from her efforts. The Preservers worked as quickly to shred the wrapstuff as they had originally to spray it; within moments, it seemed, the room began to stink of fresh blood, and of the musky, hateful stink which had haunted Cloudfern’s nightmares for centuries.
“How far away is Farscout?” Blacksnake asked next.
“He left at dusk,” Windburn replied.
“Rain rot,” Blacksnake muttered. “The wolf-trot Farscout strikes out at, he’ll be hours away yet.”
The elder cursed again under his breath, then heaved a heavy sigh. He moved sideways and settled heavily on the empty shelf-ledge which had been Fadestar’s bier. “I’m sending for Kestrel, if you haven’t already. We may need her before this is over. And the others with her will want to know.”
Windburn didn’t answer that. Cloudfern felt the chief’s solid presence at his back, and knew without looking that his stance would be arms-across-chest and wide-legged, with an expression that could cure leather swifter than piss.
Someone else came rushing down the stairs behind them; Cloudfern heard the shift of Windburn’s body, and whoever it was stopped in their tracks before reaching the arched doorway of the wrapstuff chamber. “Oh,” he heard Goldspice murmur in an awkward tone; he could well imagine the chief’s fierce look. “Should I keep everyone out of the way?” Goldspice asked, and after a pause, Cloudfern heard the soft step of her retreat back up the stairs, while Windburn shifted back around to watch Willow’s deadly work.
At that moment, there was a low groan from Brightwood’s bench — for the life of him, Cloudfern could not tell if it were his sister crying out in pain, or Willow moaning from the strain of her work. Cloudfern must have made some small sound himself in echo of it. He felt Blacksnake's hand close around his arm, and the elder tugged at him gently.
“Come here, lad,” the elder called, indicating the stone bench beside him. Cloudfern wasn’t aware of responding to that gentle summons until he had actually sat. “Nothing we can do to help, all we can do is wait this out,” Blacksnake said, patting the plantshaper’s leg gently.
From this new angle, Cloudfern could see his sister’s face. It was still filthy from captivity, and there was fresh blood trickling from her nose and mouth. Her eyes were closed, and her pale gold hair spilled loose among paler strands of websilk. He could see the thick winter leathers she still wore, the snowcat-fur trim stained and spattered crimson. Cloudfern drew in a deep breath, and found himself shaking violently.
“That’s Father’s blood,” he moaned. “I can still smell him!”
Blacksnake reached for him then, settling an comforting arm across Cloudfern’s shoulders and drawing him close against his shoulder. “I can smell Lynx too," he said, his voice subdued. "After all these years... it might be a gift of sorts, if you choose to think of it that way.”
Cloudfern hugged himself all the harder. The centuries wavered and vanished, leaving him for a moment as helplessly adrift as he had been as a child, those many long years ago.
**Seth!** he locksent automatically, reaching out for the comfort of his soul-brother’s familiar touch. Farscout’s response was a slight pulse of recognition, but no more — where-ever Farscout was, he was too preoccupied to give Cloudfern more than that.
“Your plan,” Cloudfern said then, turning to look at Blacksnake. “You wanted us to help Willow heal my sister. Can we still try it?”
Blacksnake was watching Willow, and while his stare was angry, Cloudfern imagined he could see a blizzard of thoughts there as well. “Without Farscout to anchor us, I don’t know what aid it’ll prove. None of us know her soul-name.”
“But we still love her!” Cloudfern said. “We’re the ones left who loved her most. It cannot hurt to try, at least!” he watched cried, watching Willow’s tense shoulders and even tenser profile. At least Brightwood was still alive. As morbid as it was to acknowledge, Fletcher hadn’t lasted this long out of wrapstuff. Brightwood was still alive, and Willow was still clearly locked in a battle not to lose this patient, as she had the last. “We can at least try to help!”
Blacksnake nodded once, decisively. Cloudfern reached out mentally to his elder, and felt Blacksnake join him as he turned his sending toward Brightwood. **Sister,** he sent, as fiercely as he could. **Sister, don’t leave me again!** He felt Blacksnake’s send as counterpoint, a steady, wordless wolfsend, promising sunlight and rainstorms, the touch of soft furs, springtime buds, rousing hunts and fresh-killed meat — pleasures Brightwood had loved in life and things which she had in the here and now to return to.
They couldn’t know if their sendings would help, but Cloudfern could not imagine it would prove hurtful to have at least tried. And at the worst… it meant that if Willow lost this battle that the healer had chosen, Cloudfern would have at least one last mindtouch to remember his sister by.
There was a still and silent knot of tribemates in the Gathering Den as Farscout arrived. Bodies shifted and moved to make way for him as he pushed his way through them, blind and deaf to anything except for the dark archway of the stairs down into the wrapstuff chambers.
Brightwood’s presence was still alight — but she was still too far adrift to respond to him. But as far away as her mindtouch was, he at last was in physical reach of his Recognized. Farscout hurtled down the stairs, on the last of his wind and with his knees gone to water beneath him. He reached the bottom of the stairs, and the arching doorway of the wrapstuff chamber.
Farscout stood there for a moment, panting for breath. Candle-bowls had been brought into the cocoon den to provide a warmer light than the cool blue-green of the moonmoss that grew among the tangled roots of the ceiling. He saw Willow on her feet and being half-carried by Blacksnake. She was white-faced and wet with sweat from her efforts, and without a thought, Farscout went for her, teeth bared and intending violence.
Windburn and True Edge both lunged after him, wrestling Farscout back. The chief was saying something, but Farscout could not hear beyond his own fury. Willow had chosen this path, she had irrevocably chosen to put at risk the two lives Farscout had spent centuries protecting — Ancestors, the arrogant she-snake had played with his very heart and soul, without a care for the lives she gambled with —
“Settle down, my niece’s alive!” True Edge was shouting in Farscout’s ear, while Blacksnake scooped Willow off of her feet and swung her entirely out of reach. “Brightwood’s healed, and so’s your cub!”
Windburn dragged them two steps the other way, but the fight melted from Farscout’s bones in the moment he saw Brightwood. She lay on the stone bench, her bloodied face smooth in sleep. Cloudfern sat close beside her, clutching her hand as tears streamed down his face.
Farscout shook off the two tribesmen who restrained him and moved to his lifemate’s side. The air was thick with the coppery smell of fresh blood and with the unforgettable human-stink of the Fierce Ones. Brightwood was still dressed in her stained winter leathers and her tangled hair was filthy, but beneath the streaks and spatters of blood on her serene face, her color was healthy.
**Brightwood is alive, and so’s the baby,** Cloudfern sent, his sending aglow with joy.
Mementos which had been woven into the wrapstuff cocoon crunched underfoot as Farscout climbed up onto the cold stone bench. He sat down beside Brightwood, and then, with trembling hands, he carefully pulled his lifemate up across his lap and into his arms. The weight of her was warm and supple with life.
Unable to stop shaking, Farscout bent his head to nuzzle her forehead. Brightwood’s breathing was slow and deep, but it remained even. He remembered the raspy, ragged struggle of her breath as she had been when the wrapstuff had begun to encase her, and had to fight himself not to crush her against him in his embrace.
“Take her up to my den,” Windburn growled; Farscout heard the words only distantly, and knew the chief was directing Blacksnake with Willow. For the moment, Farscout no longer cared what became of the healer. He held his lifemate’s sleeping body against himself, and simply clung to her, reveling in the living scent and heat of her in his arms, and with the swelling presence of their unborn child, cradled between them. He pressed his face against her golden crown of hair, and wept with joy.
by Ellen M.
At first, there was only sensation. Something damp and perfumed with lavender brushed softly over her skin. Gentle strokes, soothing strokes, skimming over her body… sleeping furs soft beneath her, and the air against her skin comfortably cool and tinged with scents of autumn leaves... A quiet male voice was murmuring something nearby, about the tea having steeped long enough, it would be cool enough now to drink…
Brightwood woke to those sensations and clung to them. The dream she had been trapped in had been a nightmare of blood, of death, and a sensation of fleeing from a horror that was right on her heels. Brightwood had wanted to stand and fight, but she knew there would be no surviving that battle, and when it was over, her head would join the other grim trophies left behind, and her body would be meat for the victors’ feast…
Brightwood clawed at those jumbled images, wrestling them aside to be dealt with later. She drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs with a mix of familiar, beloved scents and strange new ones. She was awake again. She was still alive. Brightwood hadn’t quite expected it to actually work, when Mushroom had started spraying its webs. She had doubted that going into a cocoon would actually mean coming out of it again. But not taking that chance would have meant letting her enemies win, and Brightwood had already lost too much to them to allow that. Thinking of them was a treacherous slope – she wrestled once more with the nightmare she had left behind her, and again, forced that darkness back into tight containment. There was time, now. Brightwood would deal with the darkness later. But right now, she was alive, and it was a precious gift to celebrate.
Brightwood inhaled another sweet breath. She felt one of her hands resting against the swell of her belly, and felt the hazy, warm presence swimming sleepily within her. The babe was well, then, too. Relieved of fear, Brightwood let her eyes open, welcoming what she would see.
She was in a strange den. The sleeping furs around her smelled of her brother Moonmoth, but his scent had a different almost-stranger flavor to it, and there was a second stranger’s taste mingled in the scent as well. Farscout sat beside her, wringing out a sea sponge in a pan of lavender-water. He was watching her and smiling, and his pale grey eyes were shining. Brightwood looked at him again, knowing her lifemate at once, but startled by the dark scruff of facefur on his chin and cheeks, and by the threads of silver in his dark hair.
“You’re awake,” he said leaving the sponge in its pan and gently stroking his fingertips along the curve of her cheekbone.
“You look as ragged as a coyote,” she admonished him. Her voice felt itchy in her throat, and she had to pause and swallow before she could finish the observation. “You need to comb your hair.”
Farscout smiled at that, clearly amused by her words. His eyes were fixed on her face, drinking in the sight of her with a total absorption that was strange, even from him. Brightwood opened her mouth to ask how long she had slept, but was interrupted by a shrill squeal of delight above her, and by a pair of bright butterfly wings that spiraled down into her face. “HIIIYYIIIY! Sunny-soft High-thing done long long sleep!” squealed Berryflop cheerfully, no more than a blur of bright pink and purple in front of her nose.
“Mushroom did good-good, Mushroom promised you sleep-sleep and wake all peaceful,” added Mushroom’s somewhat more sober tones as it fluttered on autumn-orange wings over head.
“Fine, fine,” Brightwood tried to say, fighting to raise a hand to wave the friendly, helpful little brats out of her face. Her limbs felt like deadweight, heavy and resistant to her demands.
“Pests,” Farscout scolded them, waving them back up to their perch on a curtain-stick above the denroom window. They went as banished, but it was only then that her hand worked, sluggishly slow to her mind’s demand. That scared her, and the fear put cracks into her resolve. Jumbled images forced themselves free like air bubbles rising from underwater. Cedarwing’s empty hunting tree. Her mother falling from her wolf’s back, a short spear in her back. Her grandmother’s dead, glazed eyes, her grandfather’s dying screams. And finally — her father, kneeling in the snow, bright red blood staining the snow around him…
Brightwood seized her lifemate by the tunic sleeve. “We’re back at the Holt?” she demanded. “Did they follow us here?”
Farscout took her hand and carried it to his lips. **Aya, we’re safe. They did not follow us. How do you feel?**
That was a good question. Before she had gone into wrapstuff, Brightwood had ridden for many long miles with bone shards driving into her lungsacks with each stride her wolf took. Reminded of that agony, Brightwood took an experimental breath, expecting that knife-burn at any moment. But there was nothing.
**I don't hurt!** That part was wrong, and the wrongness of it scared her. **Why don't I hurt?**
**You’ve been healed.** There was a strange thread of anger underscoring Farscout’s locksend, but deep joy as well. **You and the babe are both healthy.**
Healed? But the tribe didn't have a healer. The only way that would make sense was if.... **Seth? Who?**
She recognized the hesitation in his mindtouch, and the careful reserve of his sending, withholding much of the rich, multi-layered flow of information her lifemate’s sendings usually were composed of. Farscout’s eyes never strayed from hers; she searched his face, and found it subtly changed beneath the strange new facefur. **You've been sleeping a long time, beloved,** Farscout sent. **Willow was born while you slept.**
Willow. Again, a strange pulse of anger underlaid the name; Brightwood pulled the impression of a lively freckled stranger’s face from her lifemate’s send. She might have pulled more, but Farscout didn’t leak much even when he wasn’t keeping a tight lid on his thoughts, and the sheer strangeness of a stranger’s face was shock enough to make Brightwood stumble in that effort.
Change. Time enough had passed while she slept for strangers to be born to the tribe and mature into a rare talent. Clearly she’d laid here long enough. Sucking in a deliberate breath, Brightwood tried to get her hands under her, intending to sit up. Farscout reached for her and towed her into a sitting position. Then he embraced her reverently, and she rested with her arms around him gratefully. Sleeping for too long seemed to have sucked the sap right out of her, she thought wryly.
For the first time, Brightwood managed to focus her eyes beyond her lifemate. She blinked slowly and fixed her gaze on the elf who was standing near the denroom door. She stared in shock. It could only be her brother… could it? Moonmoth had grown up. He was taller, that was for sure, with his pale wheaten hair grown long and down past his rump, yet his violet-blue eyes, so much like her own, were unchanged.
“Brother?” Brightwood said, searching that expectant, mature face for the delicate features of the little boy she had parted from only minutes ago.
“Brightwood!” Her brother hurled himself gleefully across the small space and, as Farscout released her, Moonmoth climbed into her arms. **It has been so long...** he sent as he hugged her. **I was so afraid that this day would never come! There is so much to tell you, so much to share!**
**How long?** she asked him, holding her brother out at arm's length to marvel at his familiar/unfamiliar face.
Her brother gave a ragged laugh and traded a glance with Farscout; Farscout gave him a shallow nod. He sent, **A hand of centuries, or more,** more in impressions and feelings than in words, with a sense of landscape changing, trees growing, falling, and rotting away, season flowing into season in an uncountable blur. "I should be getting facefur soon," he finished aloud.
Four hundred summers? Four hundred... Brightwood looked in wonder at her lifemate, seeing again the shadow of facefur on Farscout’s cheeks, and the threads of silver in his hair. “Little brother,” she cried, looking back to Moonmoth again. “You're older than I am, now!” she said in shock.
“I’ll always be your little brother,” Moonmoth laughed breathlessly, hugging her close again, or as close as her swelling belly would allow.
She hugged him back, feeling grief for what she had missed of his childhood. That pang of regret let unavoidably toward deeper pain. **Mother and father? Our grandparents? They are all dead, aren't they?** she asked him, hoping against hope that the awful fragments of memory which pressed against the leash of her will might just a prove a hideously surreal dream.
Her brother’s face melted into sadness. **They didn’t make it back. Just Farscout and I, with you and the baby in a cocoon.**
Brightwood pressed her face into her brother’s hair and resolutely swallowed down any tears. She had known it already, and asking about it was like picking at a raw scab. So that was that. Brightwood was grateful for what they had escaped with. She clung to that gratitude, but try as she might, the tears began to win out. She couldn't avoid the horror of the deaths of their parent Frost and Lynx, and of their grandparents Shyheart and Cedarwing. As she held her now-grown brother, she had a whiff of woodsmoke and blood. For a moment, she thought it just wisps of memory — but then she saw the filth still caked beneath her nails. She recoiled from her brother’s embrace, horrified at touching his gleaming hair with human-fouled hands.
“I need to get clean,” she said. “Really clean. I need to soak the stink of them off me.”
Moonmoth traded another glance with Farscout, who was setting aside the pan of lavender-water where it couldn’t be spilled.
“Flea can carry us to the Holt’s Near Hot-spring,” Farscout said.
Moonmoth nodded. He stood upright and turned away. “Farscout’s already had you new clothes made —” her brother said as he reached toward a burl in the living wall of the den. There was a warm green glow around his hands as he made a sweeping gesture, and the burl shaped itself open to reveal a sizeable bundle of items. “It’s summer now, but you’ll want a wrap to ward off any chill. Let’s see what —“ Moonmoth turned back with the bundle in his hands, and was struck silent by Brightwood’s shock.
“You shaped the tree!” she cried. “Moonmoth, you’re a shaper!”
Her brother smiled with pride. “Nowhere near as good as you at it, but I get by,” he said.
Farscout had taken the bundle of clothes and separated out a flowing shift of sandy-colored silk. “Can you manage this?” he asked, offering it to her.
Brightwood nodded as she took it. Her limbs still felt sluggish and heavy, but her body was waking enough to wriggle into a simple shift. When she had finished pulling it over her head and settling it past the heavy swell of her breasts and belly, Farscout helped her as she awkwardly found her feet, then, and enfolded her in a welcome embrace. Her lifemate held her steady as she sorted out her wavering balance, and she felt his lips press warm against her forehead.
**Aya,** he locksent then, his mindtouch as soft as an exhaled sigh. The simple send was rich with emotion — deep joy and relief, foremost, but there were shadows to the sending as well. She wrapped her arms around his waist and hung on to him; between them, beneath her coat, she felt their babe turn in her belly, as though it were waking as well.
“Salt scrub with dried flowers,” Moonmoth said, holding out a small, drawstring pouch. Still standing in her lifemate’s embrace, Brightwood took the pouch gratefully, and was amused to see that for all of his growing up, her little brother was shorter than her, like their mother had been. She nodded thanks to him for the gift, and patted Farscout’s back.
“I want that soak in the hot-springs now,” she said. “I want the last of the human-stink off of me. And when that’s done, then I need to know what I’ve slept through, for all these many years.”