(This story is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Newt emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
It came to Windsong when she saw Newt glancing toward the chief’s den. The Howl night was drawing to a close, the lingering moments of yawns and stares into the fire growing longer between tales. The cub-heavy Whispersilk had excused herself, and Windburn had followed after her into their den, and in the moments of silence that followed, Windsong saw Newt’s pinkish-blue eyes narrow, following the couple with deep uncertainty and trepidation.
That Chief Windburn was an unknown to Newt was realized by all the tribe; the boy had never met any of Easysinger’s children, had slept the length of Riskrunner’s life, and now had woken up to find a stranger-chief. And what that was like, Windsong could not imagine. She turned the thought over in her head — over and over — half listening to the circle gear up for another tale. It didn’t look like Newt was listening, though. No — there was only one tale that he needed to hear right now.
“You’re wondering about him, aren’t you?” The cub gave a start when she addressed him, scrambling round to look at her. Windsong scooted sideways a little where she sat, drawing closer to where Newt was sitting curled. The tribe’s attentions shifted around her, first her family, then others leaning in to lend an ear. Newt gave the tiny nod of a shy cub, as though unsure of whether his curiosity was appropriate, and Windsong echoed it. “Of course you are, how could you not? Listen, kitling; I’ll tell you about chief Windburn, so you’ll know him as I’ve come to know him.
“You’ve already heard how Chieftess Easysinger was taken from us; you can imagine how hard that must have been. Easysinger was chieftess for longer than any of us, even the very eldest, can remember, chieftess for eight eights when Kestrel here was born. She was as constant as the moons and as permanent as the Dentrees. When she died, we followed the Way, accepted Windburn as our chief without resentment, but it was difficult for everyone. The seasons turned in a sort of fog, all of us trying to find our feet again like after a long illness. Things that were right weren’t right anymore. Ways older than oaks had to change. It was a little like a very long twilight.
“Then came the flood.”
She paused in her telling, briefly closing her eyes. Others had understood by now what tale she was telling; Thornbow and Honey clasped hands in silence, and One-Leg sighed under his breath. Memories came floating from a number of minds, three beloved faces. Newt bit his lip a little, quickly naming the names.
“Beesting, Sunlight and Tallow.”
“That they are,” Windsong confirmed. “And that was when we lost them, in the second turn of Windburn’s chieftainship. And only two hands of days after, we lost a forth as well: Beesting’s son, Sunlight’s Recognized — Raven, my father. No, hush, cub, this isn’t their story I’m telling, though you’ll hear it, I’m sure. I’m telling the story of an empty den.
“You see, we don’t know how my father died. He just wandered away, just disappeared. He said he’d come back, that he only needed to go away for a short while, to find his peace of mind again, but that was the last we ever saw of him. After a hand of days, we went searching. We scoured the forest, calling and sending, but never got a reply. He was just – gone.
“And I was angry with him, angrier than you can imagine.
“I was angry at everyone back then. My mother and grandmother were both gone. Then my father left me. My sister, Finch, had her lifemate and daughter. Thornbow, my lovemate — Tallow’s son — had his sister. And who did I have? I felt as though everyone who had lost someone had someone to make up for it, someone who’d be with them, except me. My parents’ den was empty, and I sat in it and growled at anyone who came near. I was a selfish cub, we do selfish things when we’re hurting, sometimes... but I wouldn’t let any of those who loved me come in and comfort me. I chased all of them out.
“But you can’t chase out your chief when he comes into your den and sits there. You simply can’t.”
She saw Newt’s eyes flicker toward Windburn’s den again, and her own gaze followed his. It was a painful story to tell, but she was smiling as she looked that way. “He’s got a very hard head, chief Windburn, and he’s not particularly good with words. He just came into that empty den, saying nothing, picked a fur to sit on and wouldn’t leave. The words I flung at him… you’d shudder to hear them, cubling. All my anger, sharpened like a dart. I told him that I didn’t want him there, that he couldn’t try to replace my family, that I didn’t need him any more than I needed anyone — I even, High Ones help me, threw in his face that had Easysinger still been alive, none of it would have happened. I knew I was wrong, knew it to my gut, but he wouldn’t go away, so I said it anyway.
“That made him flinch, and it made me satisfied. I felt as though I’d fed him just a taste of what I was feeling. So I kept talking about it. I knew I was hurting him… but he still wouldn’t leave. He sat there and soaked it all up. If he’d reached out to comfort me, then, I know I’d have lashed out at him and tried to drive him away so much harder. But that silence — in that silence, all I could hear was myself, and how harsh and unfair my grief and anger were making me be.”
She sighed deeply. “I wish I could tell you that I’d realized what I was doing and stopped then, but I didn’t. I raged at him all through that night until I’d worn myself down and cried myself to sleep. And do you know what? When I woke up, the next evening —“
“— he was still there!” Newt spoke up in a small voice, hiding a hint of a smile behind his hand.
Windsong nodded. “That’s right! He hadn’t slept; he’d watched over me all day, and I’d finally cracked. Why are you doing this? I asked. Why won’t you leave me in peace?
“And he said… I can’t replace my mother, or your father. But I am your chief. I am not leaving you alone in an empty den.
“And that, cub, was the night that Windburn became my chief in truth, in my heart and not just in my mind and wolf-gut. I’ve never looked at him the same, and he’d never betrayed what I’d given him then. It didn’t heal me all at once — nothing could have — but it forced me to see my tribe again, and understand that a wolfrider always has someone to be with them, always."
She studied the cub’s face, so small, still wan from the handful of strange, shocking days since his awakening, seeing him drink in the story and its lesson – and over his shoulder, she saw Windburn standing at the mouth of the den, looking at her with faint surprise. The chief’s usual frown softened then, into an open, almost boyish smile of gratitude. She smiled back at the both of them.
“So that’s who your chief is, Newt. He’s not gentle like Easysinger – he can be hard and harsh, and he isn’t perfect any more than the rest of us, he’ll not always know just the thing to say to you just at the right moment. He isn’t as constant as the moon, but he’s stubborn, solid like an old oak. When you need him, he’ll stick by you, even if you spend the whole night shouting at him. Trust him – he’ll see you through.”
Her piece said, she settled back, gratified to find her lifemate’s arms around her after the difficult telling. Suddendusk nuzzled into her hair, his breath warm. Newt looked profoundly thoughtful, and not him alone — she realized then that many of her younger tribemates who were not yet born at the time, and who took Windburn’s leadership for granted, had never heard that story. She’d told it for Newt’s sake, but perhaps he wasn’t the only one who could gain from it.
“Come join us, my chief,” she called out, and Windburn looked happy to oblige, passing around the circle to settle again between Chicory and Thornbow. As he passed by, Newt looked up at him, and he looked back. Windsong watched, a touch tense. What she hadn’t told was that she was full grown at the time of the story, and Windburn had never been particularly fond of dealing with cubs. But he’d decided to make a change, she thought, him and Whispersilk. She needed to trust him…
“Hello, Newt,” Windburn said softly. “Do you need anything? Just say so.”
After a moment, Newt smiled.