(This story is a sequel to ”Never Too Stubborn” and ”Tomorrows”, and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
Willow’s sleep had been deep, dark, and dreamless. When she awoke it took some time to remember where she was and why, but the particulars returned to her soon enough as she caught scent of Beetle's sleeping furs that were still piled around her. She stretched then in an effort to awaken her limbs and set them to moving. Arising with some effort she became aware of a great emptiness in her belly that was contrasted with the fullness of her bladder. Shaking her head a bit to rattle the muzziness out of it she scratched a few times and made her way from the den.
Apparently she had slept longer then anticipated. It was the next evening she guessed, based on the sounds coming from around the Holt, and approaching dawn apparently from the light she spied as she exited the tree to go and relieve herself. The smiles and greetings from her tribe were somewhat indistinct to her still semi-slumbering mind, but she absently returned smiles and a few brief words. With her more immediate problem solved and wakefulness gradually reasserting itself she began to search for something to eat.
Her grateful tribe was happy to oblige her in this and someone passed her a large helping of shoulder meat from a buck that was being butchered nearby. Willow settled in to eat and watch the comings and goings of the tribe. The irritation of having to return early from her honey-gathering trip was a sort of distant memory now in light of her victory in healing Otter and the prospect of doing the same for Honey. That was a big step, she knew, but a large part of her wanted to do it and be done with it. If she was the healer they had waited for then the sooner that the sleepers were awakened the sooner she hoped she could get her life back.
Eventually, as her belly was filled and the fog in her mind cleared, she became more aware of her surroundings. Though for the moment she didn’t participate in the conversations she began to listen more closely. By now her tribemates were used to her sometimes-sullen moods and left her in peace. She smiled when overhearing someone say that Beetle had kept watch on her for most of her long sleep but had earlier in the night gone to spend some time with her brother when he had felt strong enough to move about a bit. It also made her feel that much more pleased to hear the gratitude in the voices of others that she had been able to save Otter.
Not too far away she could hear One-Leg bragging about the rescue and it seemed the story was growing with each telling. Before long he and True Edge would have even more inflated egos than normal, which was saying something. Bringing the other elder to mind, though, made him conspicuous in his absence. Normally she would have heard him, correcting and arguing details of the story that his friend told. Any story told by the one of them usually became a sort of full-contact, tag-team sort of event as they rushed to out-do and correct each other.
Her curiosity aroused now, Willow stood and looked about for True Edge. He had been hurt, she recalled, but had held himself back from asking for her help. Searching her memory she realized that he had always seemed more skeptical of having a healer than the rest of the tribe had. For the most part, she had never bothered concerning herself with his opinion. His mood was often prickly at best, but now his absence seemed important and she decided to seek him out. Taking a few tentative sniffs of the air she finally caught his scent and began to follow it.
It didn’t take long to find his trail, especially since he was using a walking stick much like One-Leg's to get around. Following that distinct of a track didn’t prove any real challenge to her and soon enough she found him sitting down by the wolf dens, a place he was often known to frequent. Charm was nestled close beside him, her head resting on his lap, while Duskgreeter sat to one side. One look at him told Willow that True Edge was indeed in pain and to the new senses she had developed with her healing powers, the tightly wrapped wound on his leg flared like an angry red snake.
He seemed to be asleep, or at least trying to rest. Willow came closer, concern for him now taking precedence over her curiosity. Once close enough she laid a hand on his shoulder to rouse him. Both wolves watched her curiously but neither really stirred as she roused him. That changed as his eyes fluttered open and he realized who it was who awakened him. In that instant he flinched, pulling away from her in a clumsy half-awake sort of way. When that happened both wolves, in their alarm, turned to glare at Willow as they put themselves between herself and True Edge. Seeing their fangs gleaming in the early dawn light, she fell back in shocked caution. That was a fear response, she realized, and the last thing she would have expected from the cantankerous elder.
“True Edge,” she said in a quiet voice, “it’s all right. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Whether she meant it or not, both Charm and Duskgreeter took it with deadly seriousness, she realized. It only took a few moments for her to understand that True Edge wasn’t truly awake. He was in the early stages of a fever dream and not really in full control of his reactions. So that was why he was here alone. The wound had started to go bad after his dip in the river to help rescue Otter. For some reason he was still trying to hide that fact.
“You startled me,” he said with some hesitation. “It must have surprised them as well.”
Willow merely nodded, knowing that that was pure nonsense. He had been afraid for that brief second upon seeing her kneeling over him or the wolves would never have reacted like that. Wisely, though, she decided not to point that out. If she had it would surely have squashed any chance for finding the cause of that reaction. Besides, if that wound wasn’t tended, preferably healed, at this point, it would likely turn much worse very quickly.
“I didn’t see you at the Dentrees. Thought maybe your leg was bothering you.”
“It will for a few days. Then it will heal,” he said in a noncommittal way. “No need to trouble yourself.”
Again it was nonsense, but not being sure what else to do or say really, Willow pressed on. There was a mystery here and her curiosity was aroused. True Edge had acted very odd towards her since her healing powers had manifested.
“I’m sure it will,” she said tentatively. “Though maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let me have a look? After your dip in the river you may have gotten dirty water in it and that could get infected.”
His expression remained stony, but he seemed to be drifting in and out of the delirium. Only through strength of will was he remaining semi-conscious enough to speak to her. Even now, she could feel his thoughts wandering. True Edge was losing the battle with the fever and weakly sending disjointed surface thoughts and emotions. Not sure if she was making any headway with him, she added, “And if you don’t want for me to look at it now, Snowfall and Kestrel will surely ask me to later if you keep yourself away from them.”
His expression changed to a defiant glare, but then, after a moment's hesitation, to resigned acceptance. It would seem she had found the right motivation to bring down the walls he was putting between them.
“Stubborn girl,” he muttered, turning his gaze a bit away from her. “Do what you have to then… but leave me my scar at least. I’d hate to have a wound that bad and not get a memento of it.”
Shaking her head in a bit of exasperation, Willow watched as he seemed to send to the now-very-confused wolves who relented and let her pass. Very carefully she unwrapped the bandage as True Edge looked on. His face looked impassive but the tension was plain enough in his body language. Glancing warily at the two wolves who were staring at her as well, she removed the last of the wrappings and took stock of his injury. Apparently it had been rewrapped after his adventure in the river to help with Otter's rescue. Being drenched in the dirty water hadn’t helped his healing in the least and there were serious signs of infection setting in. No wonder he was in so much pain and resting so fitfully.
“Infection is setting in. You’re a strong elf and won't complain, but without my help it’s going to get a lot worse. If you let me heal it now it will be much easier than helping Otter was… and I think it will make your mates rest easier.”
She watched his face as he considered this. True Edge was obviously hesitant but the prospect of the infection spreading bothered him and seemed to cut through his feverish state. That and the thought of the complaints of Snowfall and Kestrel seemed to sway him. In the end he merely nodded to signal that he would relent and let her heal it.
Willow didn’t want to give him the chance to change his mind. Besides the desire to help a tribesmate there was a mystery here that she hoped could be solved in the simple act of healing. Laying her hands upon his leg she let herself sink into the healing trance to begin her work. What she saw as she did so nearly broke her concentration entirely.
The healing trance would put her into closer contact with her subject than normal sending did. In addition, his mind was not as sharp as it might ordinarily be. His fever was disorienting him and he couldn’t yet control the images that his mind was leaking out. She didn’t think it was as deep as Recognition, to be sure, but a closer touch of the minds was established between them than with any but the deepest sendings. She could feel his nervousness to be touched by a healer plainly and also felt part of the cause. In True Edge’s regard she looked like a small child and at her touch the image he tried to keep from his surface thoughts was that of his skin and bones melting away and reshaping themselves in the same manner that she had seen Cloudfern shape the trees.
It took Willow a moment to reorient herself and she had to fight to keep her focus. In much the same way, True Edge fought to keep his misgivings away from the young healer. Bit by bit she found the tendrils of infection in his system and purged them away. In the same manner she pulled torn muscles together and knitted damaged flesh until it was whole. She was careful, though, to leave the scar as he had demanded. Soon she was finished and feeling drained again, though not as much as she had after healing Otter. She lay then upon the ground next to him and watched his expression as she caught her breath.
“Thank you,” he said after a long pause. “It feels a lot better.”
She nodded, dozens of thoughts dancing in her head. At least now though they were only her own. Breaking the fever had given him back his self-control and stopped the fever images and fears that he had been sending before.
“It will be sore for a night or so, but there won't be any infection,” and then, after a long pause of her own, “but do I really look that young to you?”
For the first time he seemed to smile just a bit. She could understand the sudden fear of his flesh being shaped away. The magic he was most familiar with was, of course, plantshaping since it ran so strongly in his family. Without another healer in his memory that would probably be how he saw healing to work. The image of her in his mind as a tiny cub troubled her, though.
“Sometimes, Willow. You’ve always been a willful, stubborn cub.” The words were somewhat harsh but he said them with a hint of amusement, maybe even admiration. “Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is a thing I’ve admired about you… so long as you carry your weight, anyway. This new gift though… it’s a heavy burden for even an older elf. Shards… even one as old as Owl couldn’t carry it.”
So that was it, she concluded to herself. He saw her as a child with too heavy a burden to bear… one he couldn’t understand and whose mystery scared him a bit. Being as stubborn and cross as True Edge usually was he wasn’t about to admit that it troubled him that she might be as unable to handle it and would succumb the same as Owl had. Sometimes she thought the same thing, though not in so many words. She knew better though than to comment on this now.
He laid a hand gently over hers as she lay there and for the first time met her gaze fully.
“We’ve waited a long time for a healer,” he said in a somber tone. “We have high hopes for you, Willow, so you will be held to a high standard.”
There seemed to be more he wanted to say but for whatever reason he left it for now. She merely nodded and remained silent for now as well. There was a mystery there, she knew, but he wasn’t going to speak more of it yet. He had admitted that he, and the others, would hold her to a higher standard than she would like, and even though they had this peaceful moment as a kind of victory he already had doubts and fears as to her success. She got the feeling, though, that for some reason he really, really hoped she would win out in the end. For now she was too tired to worry about getting to the bottom of it. She would rest a bit with True Edge and the wolves watching over her. Maybe in the fullness of time it would all make more sense.