(This story is a direct sequel to "Brightwood" and ”Loss for Words”, 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.)
Dawn had broken two hours ago, and the morning birds had long since settled their sun-greeting songs. The hometrees around Windburn were silent and still — most of the tribe was asleep at this hour, after the alarm and excitement of the previous night. Windburn moved silently up the Child Tree stairs, his own nerves still too taut with tension for sleep. Change and challenge had come to the tribe, and now that the dust had settled, it was the chief’s duty to make sense of what was to come next.
Windburn paused outside of the curtain-door to Cloudfern and Greenweave’s den. He had just seen the lifemates below, curled up to sleep with Newt in the Gathering Den. Cloudfern was sleeping easily, no doubt exhausted by a long, fearful night.
The chief closed his fingers around the edge of the curtain and lifted it aside to look in. Farscout and Brightwood lay in the room’s large bowl-bed. Brightwood was asleep, curled up in the furs with her head pillowed on her lifemate’s shoulder. Farscout was awake. He lay stroking his lifemate’s hair, a weary smile on his face. His pale grey eyes flickered at once toward the rustle of the moving curtain. Windburn met his tribemate’s glance, and nodded solemnly.
**Your mate is well?** Windburn locksent.
Farscout nodded. **She bathed in the hot-springs, then again in the river. She is well.** The smile grew. **And we felt the baby move.**
That proof of life resolved one niggling worry. Ragged as she was after healing Brightwood, Willow had sworn that Brightwood’s unborn child was alive and healthy as well. Once, Windburn might have taken Willow for her word. But he’d learned, at Brightwood and the baby’s risk, how far the young healer was to be trusted.
Windburn eyed Farscout and Brightwood, drinking in the plantshaper’s healthy, living scent. He was unprepared for the way he felt the hairs raise at his nape, and at how her stranger’s scent triggered impulses of strange wolf and protect the den. Windburn could remember the night of Fadestar’s birth and she had never been a stranger to him, just as Honey had been a close friend in his childhood. Young Newt had gone into wrapstuff long before Windburn’s birth and thus was a stranger to him, but Newt was only a child, and his cubling-scent had roused only protective instincts. Yet Brightwood was truly a stranger – he knew her from tribal stories and shared send-stories, but now that she was here, in the flesh and breathing, Windburn found himself at odds with the wolf in his blood, which spoke to him in adrenaline-laced pulses to protect the pack and drive away strange-wolf. Windburn wrestled with those wolf-strong instincts, knowing them wrong, and trusting them to fade with time.
**Do you need anything?** Windburn asked, as though that offer were what had brought him here.
Farscout shook his head, one hand on his lifemate’s hip, the other still stroking her pale gold hair. **I have everything I need,** he sent.
Windburn nodded and let the curtain drop. He retraced his steps back down the stairs, then out of the Child Tree and across the mossy center of the three hometrees. He took the low, shaped root-stairs into the Chief’s den and looked toward his own bed, knowing already that his lifemate had taken shelter for the night with her younger sister Nightstorm.
Windburn’s bed was not empty. Willow was curled up in it, her unbound ruddy hair draped over the side of the bowl edge. She was buried in the furs like a burrow, and whimpering in her sleep. Her brother Pathmark sat at her bedside, absorbed in carving a bit of bone bead. He looked up at his chief as Windburn entered, and while his face was carefully impassive, Pathmark’s hazel eyes were troubled.
“You can go,” Windburn told him.
Pathmark delayed an anxious moment before gathering up his pouch of beads. Windburn had not come to see Willow since ordering her sent to his den; clearly Pathmark had come to spell Blacksnake at sitting guard. Likely Blacksnake had arranged for that — Windburn knew his father’s capacity for anger, and doubted Blacksnake trusted himself to be in the healer’s presence anymore than Windburn himself had, for the past several hours.
Pathmark lingered in the doorway, looking back at his chief with precisely that question in his gentle eyes. “Go,” Windburn repeated wearily, as he sank down into the chair the tracker had just vacated.
Pathmark went, but obviously not without reservations. Windburn sat in the chair and gazed at Willow’s sleeping form, feeling the rage rise again and forcing it to settle.
Willow stirred then, as though feeling the weight of her chief’s stare. She blinked up at him for a moment, as disoriented as a child, and then he saw memory of her actions flood her eyes. Her expression grew wary and she sat up, shrugging off the sleeping furs and swinging her legs off of the edge of the bed. The young healer looked haggard, and the bones of Willow’s face looked prominent, as though her life-and-death battle for Brightwood’s life had cost her flesh.
“Brightwood?” she asked, in a voice that was tight with exhaustion. “The baby?”
Windburn felt his eyes narrow as he stared at his tribemate. He heard the notes of sullen victory he had expected to hear in Willow’s voice, as well as a trace of the smug defiance he had seen in her before. “Asleep,” he answered coldly.
Willow nodded with the self-assurance of one who still believed that what she had done was right.
Windburn felt his anger rise again. Willow had gone against his direct orders, and taken it upon herself to open Brightwood’s cocoon. She had succeeded in healing Brightwood and the baby. However, he held his silence and just looked at her, hard and cold.
Willow chanced one glance at him. There was no expression of remorse in her gaze. His hands ached to simply thrash her, as easily as Whirl would slash with fangs at a disobedient pack member. But Windburn knew now that such a simple and satisfying punishment would make no dent on the healer. Likewise, she had proven that time in the middens or tanning pits was wasted as lessons. No. No punishment he had ever tried before with Willow had worked to change her behavior for very long. The look she gave him wasn’t defiant, but only because she did not yet know how much trouble she was in.
And, he realized heavily, it seemed that all the actions he had taken with her since her powers had emerged had been one misstep after the other. Even if he didn’t want to admit it, his gut was telling him it was true. If not, would they have come to this pass at all? Could a wiser chief, like his mother, have handled the young healer better, gotten through to her where he had not? Windburn shook his head now, as he stared at her. The tribe had the chief that it had, and that was him. He had to work this out his own way. And no matter what else he might need to do, first he had to deal with Willow’s defiance of him as chief.
Something dark swooped down over the doorway. Windburn looked over to see Kestrel landing there, wisps of chestnut hair floating free around her face, swept loose from her braid by the speed of her flight back to the Holt. “Chief,” she said. He gestured with his chin, giving the tribe’s eldest permission to enter, and Kestrel hurried to drop on her knees at the bedside and wrap her arms around her granddaughter in a protective-seeming embrace. “Oh, child, what have you done now?” Kestrel whispered against her granddaughter’s ruddy crown, her voice no more than a choked whisper of dismay.
“I healed them,” came Willow's tired-yet-confident sounding answer. She slipped an arm around Kestrel and returned the embrace. “Brightwood and the unborn cub are safe. They are well and they are safe.”
“Oh, my stubborn cubling,” Kestrel said. She caught her granddaughter’s face between both hands and looked at her firmly. “You are lucky you did not lose Brightwood or the baby. But even so — how will you face the tribe, now that you have gone against the chief, and against the wishes of Brightwood’s family?”
Willow's brows lowered, and she shook away Kestrel's hold. “Brightwood and the cub are alive and well. Isn't that what's important?”
Windburn rose from his chair. He could hear the sound of running feet — maybe that was the rest of the word hunters, who had been called back from their mission, arriving on Kestrel’s heels. Both Willow and her grandmother looked expectantly at him.
“Of course that’s important,” Windburn said, unable to stop his lips curling into a snarl. “If your impatience had killed them both, by all the chiefs before me, I’d have little choice in what to do with you — if there was anything left of you once Farscout was done.”
His words clearly shocked the young healer, though Kestrel looked troubled and unsurprised. But then, the elder could remember, if she tried, the day his mother the chieftess had killed the healer Owl. Had those memories been accompanying her on her long ride back to the Holt, after Blacksnake’s summons? Thoughts of them had been haunting Windburn through the long night.
Any reply from Willow was interrupted by the den-door’s curtain being thrust back, and the arrival of others. Windburn turned a glare on the first through the doorway, and Pathmark hesitated, his eyes dropping, and he might have retreated — but the way was blocked by Blacksnake coming in behind him. So the sounds from outside had not been the word-hunters, but Willow’s brother hurrying back. Probably he had seen his grandmother’s arrival, and it looked like he might have gone to fetch Blacksnake as well.
Pathmark sank down beside the entrance, frozen there by his chief’s stare, while Blacksnake returned it steadily, undaunted, and accompanied it with a quick impression of a locksend, **With you.** That surprised Windburn enough that he simply nodded, and then turned his attention back to the problem at hand.
Willow’s reaction by this time had turned into a scowl, and despite her grandmother’s restraining hand, she stood up to face him. “That’s not what happened,” she said roughly, “just like I told you it wouldn’t!” She held up her hands, still dirty, with signs of dried blood on them from where she had touched Brightwood’s clothes and body. “I know my powers better than anyone else, and I was right! How can you be angry at me for saving them?” That last cry was desperate, as well as exasperated.
“That isn’t why we’re angry, cub,” said Blacksnake bitingly, the last word almost sounding like an insult, and Willow turned her incredulous eyes on him.
“You’re the one who told me to believe in myself!” she snapped back, pointing at the elder and getting a growl in return.
During this exchange, the door’s curtain was pulled back again, and this time it was One-Leg who came through, still puffing with the exertion of a hard ride back on Kestrel’s tail. His gaze swept those in the den, and came to rest on the chief, who could read determination in every line of the red-headed elder’s stance. He was followed closely by Beetle, who looked resolute as well, but apprehensive too.
It hadn’t been Windburn’s intention to call any council of the tribe or elders to deal with this matter — he didn’t need their advice, or their consent, this was a matter for the chief, plain and simple. But if they could help his words and his judgement make an impact on Willow, so much the better. And perhaps it was better that he have witnesses to what was said here. So he nodded shortly to One-Leg, too, and then, meeting Beetle’s eyes, jerked his chin in Pathmark’s direction. The young elf ducked her head and quickly sat down beside him, and Pathmark’s hand reached out to grasp hers. “— forgot the part where you were supposed to believe in me!”
Windburn turned back in time to catch the uncomfortable, worried look that Willow cast in Beetle’s direction. But a rocky patch between two lovemates was far down on the list of problems on the chief’s mind.
“Oh, kitling, you aren’t listening,” Kestrel was saying sadly, reaching out for her granddaughter, only to have her touch shaken off. “We are glad you succeeded in healing them, truly –“
“I’m waiting for someone to act like it,” the young healer muttered.
“— but worse than defying your chief’s orders, you betrayed a tribemate’s trust to do it. Right or wrong, that was Farscout’s decision to make, not yours,” the eldest elder finished urgently, willing the younger elf to hear.
“Listen to your grandmother, if you won’t hear anyone else,” Windburn told her flatly. “Succeeding in your healing doesn’t erase that crime.”
That word got the young healer’s attention, and her look turned wary. “So now it’s time to punish me again?” she asked, still with more scorn in her voice than proper caution. “What will it be this time? Am I trapped in my own den for a moon? Or tending the tanning pits for a whole year?”
For a moment, he had to restrain himself again from the urge to hit her. But Windburn wrestled his fury back, trying to focus again on thoughts of his mother and how that wise chieftess might have chosen to handle this. “If I thought it would teach you your place,” he growled at her, “I’d make you shovel the water out of the Holt’s River with a nutshell for the rest of your days. But you’re too stubborn to be clubbed into sense.”
“And if she hasn’t learned anything from the way you’ve handled her so far, whose fault is that?” One-Leg’s voice broke in unexpectedly, and Windburn was diverted from his focus on the erring pup. He turned to stare at his uncle in surprise.
One-Leg pulled himself up to his full height. “Before you settle on how to punish the girl, you hear me out, my chief. Because if nobody else will stand up for her, by the High Ones, I will.” That was directed with a growl as much at his brother, who stood with his arms crossed nearby, as to Windburn. Then the elder held up his hand, three fingers spread wide. “Three of your tribesmates misbehaved, going and pranking the humans when they shouldn’t have, and three were punished — but at least you told them how long they’d be punished, and you told them what they’d have to do, to earn back the freedom you took away! They took their lumps, but then they were allowed to get on with their lives.” He waved at where Beetle sat next to the den’s wall. “And now one of those very whelps has a place at my side, on the word-hunt!”
He looked at Willow, and his expression turned regretful. “But did you give her anything she could reach for, every time you took something away? No! Let her step past the lines you drew, and you just drew them tighter still. One scuffle with a bear that could happen to anyone, and what did you do? You handed down a grounding that had no end, gave her no hint of how to earn her way out of it. I ask you, chief,” One-Leg said, voice growing firm again, “would you have done that to anyone who wasn’t a healer?”
Caught off guard by the elder’s tirade — of all people, Windburn had expected One-Leg would have short patience with Willow’s defiance and unreliability – the chief did not answer immediately. He also hadn’t expected to hear such an immediate echo of his own earlier doubts, and it threw him off his stride. But before he had decided how to answer, Blacksnake’s voice interrupted his brother.
“Has any other grown elf given their chief so much reason to mistrust their judgement?” the elder asked pointedly. “It’s not Willow’s wits that are lacking. Did he need to lay out for her that she’d be free again when she could show him and the rest of us that she could be trusted to act wisely and sanely, instead of taking stupid risks that could get her killed?”
“And how could she do that, when she wasn’t allowed to DO anything?” the red-head exploded, throwing up his arms. “You’re our chief,” he went on, jabbing his finger in Windburn’s direction. “You're supposed to guide and teach... and not just sit on your rump and wait and not rutting do anything except hand out punishments when your tribesmates cross you because they've failed to read your mind! When it comes to young pups who do wrong, chief, you're hardly a leader at all! You slap them down for being less than you want, but you don't teach them how to be more than they are!” His wide gestures again took in the two youngsters sitting near the door, whose wide eyes darted, apprehensive, between the elder and the chief.
“That’s enough,” Windburn rapped out, slashing his hand with finality and shooting a warning look at the elder. His uncle might be echoing the chief’s thoughts, but this was not the time or the place for such a discussion. Much more in this vein and it would undermine the strength of the message he needed Willow to hear. He couldn’t have this become about wrongs done to her, if wrongs there had been — here and now, first, it had to be about the wrongs she had done to others, to Farscout and Cloudfern, and to a tribe that should have been able to trust her.
But One-Leg only shook his head like a stubborn bear. “Hear this, my chief, if you hear anything,” the elder said, holding up his hands, palms-outward in near submission; but there was nothing submissive in the words he spoke next. “Before you pile another load of stones on our healer’s shoulders, consider that maybe you’ve failed her as much as she’s failed you.”
“Enough!” Windburn repeated, and hands still raised, One-Leg took a step backwards; but the tilt of the elder’s head and the look on his face was meaningful. He didn’t intend to push a challenge to the chief, but he wanted what he was saying to penetrate the chief’s anger. Windburn glared at his uncle, and settled for a quick locksend as well: **Later.** He didn’t want the other to think the chief was avoiding or dismissing the issues he was trying to raise, but it needed to wait until it wouldn’t be muddying the waters of the problem Windburn had to deal with right now.
Looking back at Willow, though, he could see that the damage was done. Her chin was raised defiantly now, clearly bolstered by having someone speak up on her behalf.
The chief stared at her long enough to make her shift her weight uncomfortably. “My uncle is right in this, at least,” he said finally. “Piling more punishment on top of you won’t do any good. We’re past that now. In all my days as chief, no one has ever betrayed the tribe’s trust as much as you have,” he continued heavily, not looking in his father’s direction but aware of Blacksnake’s glowering presence nonetheless. “There’s no punishment I can give you, no task you can complete, that will mend that.”
For the first time, Willow started to look uncertain. That gave Windburn a small feeling of satisfaction. She was geared up to meet his discipline, and wasn’t prepared for the idea that he might not continue the familiar pattern. Near the door, there was a start of movement, but when he looked that way he couldn’t tell if it was Beetle or Pathmark who had stirred, and wisely, both stayed silent.
Instead, it was Blacksnake’s voice that rose next. “She can’t mend it until she understands what she’s done,” said the elder, and then Windburn did look at his father, unfamiliar as it was to think of him as an ally. “And I don’t think any amount of telling her will do it, my chief,” he added, with an odd emphasis.
Nor did Windburn… but it was clear that his father had some idea in mind. He was reluctant to let it seem as if he needed the elders’ advice to decide what to do with the errant healer — but he admitted to himself that he wanted it, and more, wanted to feel the support of Blacksnake and Kestrel for what he had to do, after the way One-Leg’s criticism had stung. “If you have advice, I’m willing to hear it,” he said, making sure to meet the eyes of both his father and Willow’s grandmother.
“There are few of us,” Blacksnake said, “who can remember the last time the tribe had a healer. Three of us are in this den —“ and here he nodded at both Kestrel and One-Leg “— and the other two are sleeping up in Cloudfern and Greenweave’s bed. The tribe knows what happened to Owl from Howls held and tales told, but we are the ones with memories of it, long-buried though they may be. We’re the ones who can still feel the echo in our guts of what it was like to have a healer turn on his tribemates, because in his arrogance and madness, he decided he knew better than anyone. We know what happened when Owl decided his wishes were the only ones that mattered. And we know how it ended,” he finished grimly, looking only at Willow now.
Willow’s confidence was clearly wavering, and she sank back down to sit on the bed beside her grandmother, who reached out to take her hand, although Kestrel’s eyes never left Blacksnake either. And after a pause, he continued, “I say it’s time those memories were shared – all of them, by all of us together. We can’t just tell her where this path might lead, we need to make her feel it. And if it means sending what I thought and feared and felt, down to things I never shared with anyone but my lifemate and those who were there at my side, then that’s what I’m willing to do. Because it has to be done.”
There was silence after Blacksnake finished speaking, as each elf there let what he was proposing sink in. Then finally, heavily, One-Leg sighed, and said, “Aye. Maybe it does have to be done.” The look on his face was hard to read, resolve and remorse all at once. “And if that’s a path we don’t want Willow following,” he went on strongly, “then we need to remind ourselves, too, of what can drive a healer down it.”
His brother looked at him sharply. “Maybe you’re right. We know that, and it’s time she did, as well. By the time we’re done,” Blacksnake promised, his gaze back on Willow again, “there are many things you’ll understand.”
And that, Windburn thought, might be better than any simple punishment that he could give her. If he understood what his father was suggesting, then receiving that massed sending of the elders’ memories would be a heavy task itself — reliving the days of the great plague and Owl’s madness would be an ordeal, but it would also teach, and it was a lesson that Willow, still so new to her powers, desperately needed to learn.
“Yes. Are the three of you enough to do it?” the chief asked, looking at each elder in turn. “Because Farscout and Brightwood may share those memories as well, but if this is to be done, it should be done soon, and they are in no state to —“
“We should ask them,” Blacksnake countered. “We can do it at the next moonsrise, but let them make the choice.” “The Brightwood I remember would skin anyone who made a choice like that for her,” One-Leg added. “I doubt she’s changed.”
Windburn nodded decisively. “All right. Next moonsrise, then. But,” he added. “I will share in this sending as well.” This time he faced Willow again, and saw the apprehension on her face, and in spite of everything he wanted, at that moment, to make her understand that this was not an ordeal she would have to face alone. “I need to know this and to learn it as well, beyond what my mother was willing to share with me in the years before I became chief.” Just the taste of the memories that he had had from Easysinger had been disturbing enough, and Blacksnake’s words promised more, and worse, and that was not something that any chief should leave another tribemate to endure, if he would not. “Are you all agreed?”
After a hesitation, One-Leg nodded. "So long as you agree to bring True Edge along with you," the red-headed elder smiled grimly. "There will be lessons enough to go around for each of you."
The chief was surprised by that request, but whatever his uncle’s reasons for it, it sounded right to him. Windburn knew his friend well enough to know it was the kind of thing that True Edge might ask for himself, when he heard of it. “If True Edge wants to,” he responded aloud, already sure of the answer to that.
Then the chief turned to Kestrel. She still held her granddaughter’s hand in comfort, and her expression was still troubled, but she nodded her agreement as well. “Perhaps,” she said sadly, “this is something that we should have done long ago.”
“And then,” Windburn continued, finally sure of what else was needed, “your punishment.”
Willow’s eyes had dropped to study the floor of the den, and now they snapped up to meet his with dismay, as if she wondered what could be worse than what had already been handed down. “Yes,” said the chief, “there’s still a punishment to come. I said once before that someone who acts as though they are not part of the tribe will know what it feels like not to be. I didn’t think I would need to be handing out another sentence like this so soon, but having done it once, I have to honor it.”
He saw the dawning realization on her face, and finally, something like dread. He went on, “Not only that, but after the send-sharing that the elders are planning, you’ll need the time to think over what you’ll learn. So, after we share the elders’ memories next moonsrise, I will let the tribe know that you are to be shunned for a hand of days — with no word or send, or touch or glance from your tribemates.”
Windburn could see how the idea of it hit her like a blow, but now the feeling gave him little satisfaction. It was a heavy thing to ask of the tribe, even if many of them might agree with the reason for doing it. “And when you rejoin us,” he finished, “maybe you’ll have thought of a way to begin mending the trust you’ve broken.”
For sure as the moons would rise, Windburn knew, some would celebrate what Willow had done; but it might be hands of seasons before others forgave her and came to trust the healer’s head again, as well as her hands.