(This story is a sequel to ”Escape Plan”, and is a part of the "Wrapstuffed Tribemembers are Healed and Rejoin the Tribe" and the "Honey emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" storylines -- see listings for related stories.)
"Let her out!"
In a lifetime of friendship, Windburn could not remember when he'd last seen Thornbow so livid. The archer's hands were twisted at his side, half-convulsing with the willpower that alone held him from going for Notch's throat. Past Thornbow's furious bulk in the entrance of the den, the chief could see the younger elf stand tense and wary, no doubt as shocked as he was at this outburst from the calm, patient provider whose reprimands rarely went beyond a focused sending. But instinct had Notch moving slowly backwards, toward the mass of silky white wrapstuff that contained Dreamflight, asleep for three hands of days.
Windburn couldn't blame Notch for his slow retreat. In this temper, Thornbow was dangerous, and there was no telling what would happen in the den if the sly prankster made the wrong comment. Slow and steady, he raised his hand, and put it on his friend's back. There was weight in that hand – weight of several kinds, holding the other back as his tribemate, his friend and his chief. He could hear it when the archer swallowed and ground his teeth, reining his temper in with notable restraint. Still, it was too soon when Notch spoke up:
"I told you that she agreed to – "
"That was eight-and-four nights ago." Thornbow's voice cracked like a whip. “Eight-and-four! How much longer? Did you ask her that?!”
Notch bristled at the suggestion. "Don’t snap at me like some stung stinkbear. What does it matter? There's no harm in this, and the longer she’s in, the better lesson Willow’s going to get from it. Wil’s told you – “
“Oh, she told us,” Thornbow was snarling, now, almost a literal snarl that sent Notch retreating another half-step back, sensing his misstep. For all his swagger, he could see as well as Windburn just how tenuous Thornbow's grip on his temper was. The archer was like the string of his own bow – he could be pulled and forced far, could withstand great stress and be still, but once something loosened him, his snapping was sudden and sharp and merciless. “Whined to us about how pressured she felt about her responsibilities. And who else whined? Your sister, maybe?”
“Thornbow,” Windburn’s voice was low, half-comforting, half-warning. Notch had recoiled as if the question was a slap; his eyes flared, his wariness melting before a flare of anger.
“Don’t you dare accuse Beetle – !“ He only got so far before the archer cut him off again.
“Dung to that! Don’t make that coyote pup face at me. It’ll be a rough day for Beetle’s father and family when my sister returns to us, what’s the harm in holding if off a little longer? Binding my niece’s mouth with wrapstuff? Freeing Willow from Dreamflight’s nagging about having her mother back?”
“Thornbow!” Windburn tightened his grip, digging into the sensitive points between the bones of his friend’s shoulder. He backed all this with a sending as well. **Never had to stare you down. Don’t force.** His thoughts came up against a hard wall. If they hadn’t been friends from earliest childhood, he doubted the other would’ve heard him.
Thornbow’s thoughts whipped back at him. **You, too. Some loyalty you’ve shown her.**
The chief’s head snapped back a little, his reaction echoing Notch’s. The sending was a gale of cold fury full in the face, and in its wake a rush of bitter memories. The full force of Thornbow’s frustration and tension seemed to be vested in it, coming loose after High Ones only knew how long that he’d been keeping his silence, waiting with endless patience – giving Willow her space, Cloudfern and Greenweave their space, Dreamflight her space, making no demands and bringing up no painful reminders. Barely ever mentioning his sister’s name. It gushed out now like a torrent through a dam, in these scarce few words slammed into the mind of his closest friend.
It emptied him as it went out, as well, Windburn could sense; the archer’s shoulders slumped, and after a moment his head dropped. When he spoke again, his voice was level and almost soft. “I’m sorry, Notch. I know it’s nothing like that.” The apology was as sincere as it was flat and drained.
Without adding another word, he turned around and shuffled out of the den.
His anger thrown off by the apology, Notch blinked, casting a questioning look at his chief in a rare plea for guidance. He had not received that last sending. Thornbow had left Windburn alone with it.
It stung like sand in a wound.
“It’s been long enough,” he snapped at Norch, too irritable to explain, much less pacify. “Call Willow and cut her out.” The experiment had gone on longer than it was worth. Though he knew he should, he did not stay in the den to watch the unwrapping and how Willow coped with it. Instead, he rounded the corner back out into the inner space of the tree, down the winding stairs and further down.
The wrapstuff den seemed better aired, somehow, from the last time that Windburn had come down to it. There were fresh flowers scattered on its floor, and someone had brought in a large clay bowl full of water that gave the room a damp, cool scent. All was utterly silent – it had always been the quietest place in the Holt. When the chief came in, Thornbow was just kneeling by the bier of his sister’s cocoon, running a hand over it.
That singular silence of the den was crippling.
“How did this happen?” the archer murmured at last, with Windburn still standing uncertain at the entrance. “It’s meant to be a happy thing, that she’ll be healed and back with us soon. How come every happy thing always turns sour for my sister?”
He said it without accusation, and Windburn had never been one to hear blame where there was none. But the blame crept in nonetheless, had been inside all along. The silence seemed to be made of all the things that Thornbow could have said and did not.
“It’ll still be a happy thing,” the chief said softly, having nothing else to say. “She’ll be alive. She’ll have Dreamflight and you – “
“You’re walking right into it, my chief,” Thornbow said dryly.
So I am, Windburn thought suddenly. It was too late to shake off the memories now. They had been cut free. They were awake.
**How can you still not believe me? Speaking, joining, sending, nothing gets through to you! You are so set on being second-best, that you’ll never see how you’re first in my heart!**
He knew they were true, her anguished words, felt the emotion behind them. So fierce and bright and all-consuming – who else in the tribe could love as passionately as Honey? When she gave her heart, she gave all of it, sparing nothing. But he was not fit to receive it.
**You think so now… will you think so in a season?**
They were agemates, or near as. He’d known her from her earliest days. She loved like a storm, but storms passed. And it could not be him who’d make that great gale take root. He could not be the one to hold her. Not when he still remembered how she once pined for Riskrunner.
**I’m not the senseless cub I was. Why can’t you see that, when you say you love me?**
The chief blinked, startled to find himself staring into Thornbow’s eyes. His friend didn’t look concerned. He knew, no doubt, just what Windburn was reliving, that had brought out a memory so strong as to survive seasons and seasons of Now.
“It was wrong of me to speak of it,” the archer said softly. “That bone healed badly an oak’s age ago. Re-breaking it now would only hurt you both.”
“You don’t have to keep quiet all the time,” Windburn shot back, shaking his head.
He lingered no further, but entered the den and crouched next to Thornbow and the cocoon. They both knew that there would be no taking back words that had been said, any more than an arrow could be returned once fired away. Finally, pressed between his sleeping sister and his living friend, Thornbow allowed his head to drop down on his chest. He looked shrunken, defeated.
”She pines for you.” The archer’s voice was so soft, even through the ache in it. Even though he’d cornered Windburn in his den, and refused to leave until he’d had his say, he still spoke with tenderness, with open hope. “This is not one of her milk-loves. She’s chasing after Easysinger and Leather asking how to make you happy. Windburn, she’s the finest golden flower in this Holt.”
“She is,” he had agreed. He knew. How very keenly he knew. Golden Honey, as sweet as her name, brave and steadfast, patient and delicate. If only she was not so given to letting her heart rule her head. If only that, perhaps she’d have set her sights on someone more worthy of her.
Windburn could only shrug. “Flowers like the sun, not the moons.”
“I know you’ll be a good chief to her, and a good friend,” Thornbow said with the sort of gruffness that grief, not anger, lent to a voice. “I know that she will have all of us when she wakes. She won’t be alone. But sometimes, I wish – I wish things had been simpler. Clearer. My best friend, my sister, happy and making each other happy, and me happy for both of you. I wish things had gone right.”
There was nothing the chief could say to that – nothing to be said for regrets and might have beens. A wolfrider lived in the Now, took happiness and sorrow equally as they came, not pined for one and clung to the other. He and Thornbow both should have known that, and better than most. In the Now, he had a lifemate he cherished as closely as his soul, a beautiful cub by her and another almost born, and a wolfrider could want nothing more. Yet here he was, staring at Honey’s cocoon, and thinking of Riskrunner, of Foxtail, of Blacksnake. Regret tasted bitterer than grief.
He could not be Greenweave, any more than he could be Riskrunner. He could not be the one that Honey had ached for, would ache for, an elm’s age ago and now again. And she could not be to him the heart’s balm that Whispersilk was. There could not always be second chances.
He could not say anything but that truth to Thornbow, and his friend knew it already. Honey’s awakening would, in its way, be harder than any of the others’. Four eight-of-turns, almost a blink in all their lives, could be a vast and cold river when it lay between you and happiness.
The silence pulled at him, bubbling with the pain of memory, urging him to shake his head hard.
“We’re being fools,” Windburn said suddenly, sharply, driving his clutched fingers into the muscle of Thornbow’s shoulder. “She’s alive, alive.” He all but tugged his friend up to his feet, abruptly filled with an all but angry defiance. “Enough. No more fretting. No more ruining this. We’re getting our sweet golden flower back soon.” The eyes that met Thornbow’s were more than resolute. They held the force of a decision, the chief’s decision, Windburn’s decision – a solid, stubborn thing, which regrets would not break down, nor would lost chances alter. “That is a happy thing.”
He held Thornbow’s gaze. The tribe had worried for too long, too long allowed tensions and the thoughts of conflict mar the joy of Willow’s powers. No matter what lay between him and her, he would not allow Honey to wake into such a cloud of doubts, to feel that her awakening was unwelcome. He could do that much for her, no matter what and who he was not.
Thornbow’s eyes were distant, slightly misted over. Windburn knew what memories were lurking there: the good ones, the finest ones. Trip the laughing, running cub. Honey dancing, slow and lovely. Honey balanced on riverrocks, all grace and skill. Honey smiling her soft smile, speaking in her soft, soothing voice, her scent and the glow of her hair. He watched until his friend’s eyes softened, and the normal lucid, calm, steadfast Thornbow looked back at him. The archer clasped Windburn’s shoulder in return, turning his head to look at the cocoon.
“Do you hear, sister-mine?” he murmured. “When we get you back, things might go right again.”
And no regrets, Windburn thought to himself; no regrets were best.