(This story is part of the ”Romance between One-Leg and Doeskin” and "One-Leg loses his leg" storylines – see listings for related stories.)
"I'm not dead yet, and don't mean to be for a while.” Axehand lay on a raised, treeshaped wedge in the Gathering Den, reeking of wine; worse than Doeskin had ever smelled it upon him or any other elf. His speech was slurred from it, but his words were still clear enough to be understood. And the words he was sharing with Suddendusk were filled with courage and a brother’s love, as were the ones he’d had with Blacksnake not long before.
She’d looked dutifully after her lovemate while he chatted with visitor upon visitor, wiping sweat from his brow, re-checking his comfort on the pile of furs, and trying to avoid setting eyes on nearby healers and their carefully organized selection of stone knives and thin leather straps and bone-needles and -- No! She wasn’t going to think about that. She couldn’t. Her heart felt like it was lodged in her throat already, her limbs ached from fighting off the shivers.
She hadn’t left his side since his family and the healers had moved him to this place. The strength to move on his own had left him, but still there was vitality in his eyes. Sitting there beside him, Doeskin took strength from the brave face her lovemate had kept, the encouraging words he’d had for anyone ‘fool enough’ to fear for his life. If her lovemate could be strong for so many these past few hands of days, she could be strong for him these next few moments. She re-soaked the rag in cool water, and dabbed it across his chest. Doing something, anything at all, helped. Especially her hands. Over the past few days they’d started to shake whenever they errant occupied.
"Everybody out but Starskimmer," called Cloudfern. It was beginning, and the thought chilled her blood. The remaining visitors cleared out, Axehand’s brothers the last and most reluctant, leaving one frazzled, secretly terrified tanner left to go. Once she was gone, in would come chieftess Easysinger. Bearheart, Ringtail, and Rhythm as well. It was the chieftess’ duty and right to be here to see this through, help hold the patient down if nothing else, but the others aiding her in that task could have been anyone at all. Most of Axehand’s family had offered, but all had been denied by Axehand himself.
Their reactions to that had been heartening and heartbreaking all at once. Blacksnake’s air of controlled detachment had been gone for days already, and he and Suddendusk together desperately tried to talk their way around being excluded. Flash shamelessly begged to stay, to be there in her father's final moments if that was to be. It had taken all the willpower Doeskin could muster to keep from making such a scene herself. Axehand had done his best to calm their fears, but was adamant that they not be there for the “messy part” as he jokingly called it.
Doeskin kept up her smile as she stood. “Lovemate, Nettle’s offer remains open. Please, if you won’t let me stay, let my sister stand in my stead.“
“Weren’t you listening when I told my cub?” he slurred. The fermented odor on his breath could not quite remove all trace in the air of the rot that was the reason he was lying there. “This’ll work. It will. I’ll be in good hands, and plenty enough of them.” Doeskin knew her mate -- the way his lip was twitching -- well enough to tell that wasn’t all there was to it, not exactly anyway. “I made my choices. Please, honor them. I'm not dead yet, and don't mean to be for a while.”
Her racing heart was screaming at her to stay –- it was her right and her duty! -- but if being somewhere else for the next few hours would give her beloved some small measure of peace, then Doeskin would not deny him. Her lips started to quiver, and she bent to kiss his forehead before he could see it. In that one moment all was as it had been, and two lovers shared wordless sends of love and encouragement to one another. Several sets of footsteps sounded, healers and strong-elves taking their places. It had already begun. As Doeskin stood, a tear rolled down her check and fell to his. Doeskin gave Axehand one more fearless smile, and her hand caressed his hair as she walked around the head of the makeshift bed to leave --
The sharp skriiick! of stone on stone from behind made her wince and miss a step.
A cold hand clamped down upon her wrist. Out of reflex, Doeskin looked back. Right into her lovemate’s eyes. Axehand’s looked as though eights upon eights of turns had drained out of a suddenly paler, sallow, face. His sunken eyes were bright blue and perfectly lucid. They were open wide like a mouth gasping for air, his gaze boring into hers like an awl. **I am Khash.** His eyes resumed their drunken glaze and turned to the ceiling.
All at once, Doeskin knew her mate. She wrested her hand free, gently and quickly as she could. Three quick backward steps and she was out of the den, turning and walking with stiff steps and needing to be some place else. Eyes sought hers, hands touched her, minds reached out to her, but if anyone were ever to ask she would not have been able to say whose. She climbed up and into the den and home she had made with her beloved. Doeskin’s sister, Nettle, was waiting for her there; thin lips attempted a smile but failed. Tallow too, pale-faced, her composure utterly shattered. And Flash was huddled in the corner she’d slept in as a cub, wrapped in a blanket, a look of silent horror on her face. Doeskin fell upon her sister’s lap in a rough, sobbing heap. By the time she stopped for breath, Tallow and Flash were huddled together with them.
‘It’s all too much!’ she thought, wiping away tears, and then instantly hoping she hadn’t sent. Her heart was aching, giving over to the fears for Axehand she’d kept bottled. But at the same time pieces of Khash’s-- Axehand’s!—soul were fitting themselves into place within her own. It was uplifting, a joyous thing, but a gift she was in no way ready to return in kind. She didn’t even know how to wrap her head around that, how to feel about it, yet. ‘I shouldn’t even be thinking about this right now!’
Tallow’s locksend felt as strained as she looked, **He wanted you to know all the things he couldn’t say.**
**What?** Doeskin looked up. **But I… How did you know?**
**Because I know him.** Tallow’s weak smile was quickly overcome with anguish. **What he would likely do when…** her send faded away, and her eyes drifted away. With sudden, searing clarity Doeskin understood what Tallow must have already known; why he had sent away his family at such a dark hour. And the knowing sent them both into spasms of weeping. Daughter held mother and sister held sister and the crying became a howl.
Axehand stroked the tear his lovemate had shed like a precious fallen star. He couldn’t say all that rushed to his mind in the moment Doeskin started to leave. There wasn’t enough time, not enough good strong air left in his lungs, not enough relief from the endless throbbing agony of a leg to let him put together a decent couple of sends, too much energy spent maintaining his gambler’s mask. He hoped his soul-name was enough; it was all he had to give.
While lovely Doeskin had run her eyes through gopher-holes to keep from looking at the cutting tools, he couldn’t stop stealing glances at them. He took another when Starskimmer passed him one last wineskin, and he made a bad joke about using up all her stores. The weight of it all had finally hit him hours earlier, when he was lifted furs-and-all from the den in the Child Tree where he’d been laid up to this larger one where more elves could buzz around him. The talk was done. This was real. It was happening. And Axehand was absolutely, completely, eight-for-eight, certain that he was about to die.
Still he kept the gambler’s mask on. He didn’t know why, it just seemed the proper thing to do. The wineskin was taken away, and he was given a leather-wrapped stick to bite down on. His hands were taken and pressed down by Easysinger and Ringtail. Bearheart had his good leg. Somewhere behind him waited Rhythm, awaiting word to bear down on his midsection. Cloudfern was wrapping leather straps around the bad one, saying something or other about blood flow.
He could feel his heart pounding harder and harder, his pulse not quickening so much as booming louder and louder with each eerily slow beat. He honestly couldn’t hope to live through what was about to come. This would be no clean cut -- as Hornet’s hand had received countless turns before his time -- it was far too late for that. And Axehand never could stand the thought of going into wrapstuff, of leaving his kin bound in endless grief the sleepers’ families endured. Let him be sent down the river. Let them all weep and howl and get on with their lives.
‘A trapped wolf bites. What else can it do?’ He had no way out. This was his last stand and he would go down fighting. Fighting the pain. Fighting the straps being cinched tight around his leg. Fighting the ones trying to hold him still. Fighting the very elves fighting to save his life! Yes, he was weak, but he had a good shot or two left in him. No, those present at his end might not go away unmarked. At least he could go down the river happy knowing his last act would not be that of hurting someone close to him.
”Never let it be howled, later, that Axehand the hunter was carried off by a sheep dumber than the stones it climbed,” He’d said to Suddendusk. ‘Let it be said that he died swinging!’
With a snarl he summoned up one last send; **What are you crossed-eyed, bucktoothed, cubs of knock-kneed trolls waiting for? Let’s do this!**
(This story has a sequel, "All In A Name, Part 2")