(This story is part of the Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Windburn stood in the entrance to the chief’s den, waiting for the arrival of One-Leg to complete the gathering of elders who would share in sending the punishment the chief had decreed for the young healer – though to call it a punishment was perhaps wrong, he told himself.
Surely Willow thought of it that way, but in truth, punishing her was not the reason why the elders were gathering, preparing to share more deeply than they ever had before their memories of Owl the Healer’s last days. This, Windburn thought somberly, was a lesson. It was something the tribe’s new healer needed to know, and whether or not it would be pleasant for the elders to remember it and send it, or for Willow to share in it, was beside the point. It was important, and as Kestrel had said, it was something that should have been done long before this.
Beside him, True Edge said, “You’re worried.”
The chief shot a look at his friend. “Worried? No. Afraid,” he admitted.
The other’s eyebrows went up. “What’s there to be afraid of?” said the blond elder in his short, direct way. “It’s just memories.”
Windburn shook his head. It was more than that. “This isn’t going to be like sitting in a circle and listening to the words of the howlkeeper. If it was easy to share, they would have shared it long ago – but I know Blacksnake never has, and for all that she was willing to share so many things with me, to prepare me to become chief, I know that Easysinger never did, either. Not on this level, not this deeply.”
True Edge shrugged. “No matter how deep – you’re here, in the Now.” He reached out, and thumped the chief in the middle of his chest, lightly but firmly. “Remember that, and you won’t drown in it.”
Startled by the blow, Windburn smiled tightly. Was that what worried him? Drowning in the strength of the elders’ memories? “No. That’s not…” He took a deep breath. “In all the tribe’s history, True Edge, elf had never killed elf. Even in the days of Burn and Badger, when things were rough and dangerous, elves fought each other, and bloodied each other, but never killed each other. Never, until that day.”
True Edge’s light-eyed gaze was unblinking, and unimpressed. He knew that as well as the chief did. Windburn tried to find the words for what gnawed at him. “Of all the elves that lived in the tribe, wasn’t Easysinger the last you’d ever think would do such a thing? But she did it, and I – I don’t think I ever truly understood why. She tried to tell me, she tried to send it to me, she knew it was important for a chief to understand, but she also hoped I’d never have to understand. She told me, but she never shared it with me this deeply.” He looked up at his friend, candidly uneasy. “Why? If it would have helped me truly understand?”
“You think she was afraid to?” True Edge looked like he found it hard to accept that idea.
So did Windburn, but… “Maybe. And if she was… that’s what makes me afraid. Of learning what she didn’t want to show me.” He had never been able to look at his tall, beautiful, wise, calm chieftess-mother and truly think of killing another elf as something she had done.
“You’re better off knowing than not knowing,” said the blond elder simply, and Windburn almost laughed. That was True Edge. Things were often that simple for him, when it came to knowing.
One-Leg had asked that the blond elder be included in the sending, and at first, Windburn had agreed… but by the time he’d sought the other out to make the offer, a different idea had taken root in the chief’s mind. He wasn’t sure of the reasons behind his uncle’s request, that was a question that could wait for another day, when they were done with this, but he remembered One-Leg’s words: “There will be lessons enough to go around for each of you.”
Windburn could see the truth in that… and if it was true, if Willow wasn’t the only one who had something important to learn from that troubled time… then maybe the only thing that made sense was for all the tribe to learn.
His father had looked surprised at the change in plan; One-Leg, thoughtful; Kestrel, resolute; Farscout, impassive. All had agreed, at length. That told Windburn how important they thought it. It wasn’t a small thing to ask of them. But as soon as he’d had the thought, he knew it was the right thing to do. Wasn’t the whole tribe in this together? At least, they all deserved the chance to learn – whether they accepted it was up to them.
Just then, Windburn saw Willow emerge from the Gathering Den, One-Leg on her heels. The chief’s open sending went out to all in the tribe then, alerting them to be ready. True Edge gave him a nod and a clap on the shoulder, before he turned to scale the side of the Dentree up towards his own den, where he would take part in the company of Snowfall.
Stepping back to make room for their entrance, Windburn held back the den-curtain, and Willow came through. Her glance around the space was tight and apprehensive, and she stood awkwardly in the doorway, One-Leg at her back, until Windburn gestured to the pile of furs that had been arranged for her. The young healer didn’t meet his eyes, but moved to sink down on the seat, drawing her knees up with her arms around them, watchful gaze on the elders arrayed on the other side of the den. Kestrel was seated closest to her granddaughter, and she gave the younger elf a look of sadness and compassion. Windburn knew that the eldest elder was not looking forward to what was to come, as none of them were, but she was steady and resolved, convinced of the importance of sharing these memories.
One-Leg moved to the space beside Blacksnake. Windburn’s father held up to him the bowl of dreamberries that he and Kestrel had been sharing, after some had been offered to Willow, as well. One-Leg grunted, lowering himself down and arranging his carved stick before beckoning the bowl towards him. Even if recent events had dredged up long-forgotten memories buried through ages of the Now, the potent effects of dreamberry juice would help to bring the recollections to the surface of the elders’ minds. “Wish we had some of Starskimmer’s brew,” the red-head rumbled. “Give me that over last year’s harvest any day.”
Blacksnake snorted, perhaps in agreement, before passing the bowl to his brother with a thin smile. The undiluted juice of the berries was what they needed for this night’s work. It was hard to tell whether One-Leg had begun his preparations before he arrived. He had a tolerance for dreamberries in any form that was impressive at even the best of times. It was Blacksnake’s heavy-lidded look that surprised Windburn. In the dim candle-light of the den, he couldn’t tell if his father’s cheeks were flushed, but his movements were slower, his eyes not as sharp as they usually were. This wasn’t a state that Blacksnake was seen in often, and the strangeness of it hit Windburn with another sharp sense of unease.
When Blacksnake spoke, however, there was no trace of inebriation in his voice. “We’re all here, and we’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” he said, looking at each of them in turn. “Farscout is ready to join us.” He would still be high above, in the new den that Brightwood had shaped for them, ready to join them in sending to share his part of the recollections.
**You’ve all heard these stories before,** the elder began. Blacksnake’s mind reached out with the strength and intimacy of a lock-sending, inviting all within the chief’s den into that circle, and then, all within the tribe. It would be each elf’s choice whether or not to open their minds in return, and one by one, Windburn felt his tribemates join them, or not – like Brightwood, whether by choice or because she remained sleeping, the chief couldn’t tell.
**You’ve heard them often enough that maybe you’ve stopped hearing them, thinking you know what happened, but it was all so long ago that it doesn’t matter,** Blacksnake went on. **That the only thing those stories told us was why we cherished those cocoons of our tribemates in a den beneath the Mother Tree, why we had to wait and hope through an oak’s age and more, not knowing if we’d ever see those within them alive again. Children grew up scared of old Owl, but what did it teach them? That something terrible had once happened to the tribe, and the chieftess saved us from it. They didn’t learn how it might happen again.**
Then he said aloud, “Willow,” in a way that made her raise her eyes from the furs she had been staring at since he had started sending. He did not sound angry, but there was an intensity to his voice at odds with the mellow demeanor imparted by the dreamberries. “I know that when you first discovered your powers and struggled to control them, that the stories of Owl’s madness scared you. Remembering those stories scared us as well, but it was the wrong thing to fear, and we should have known better.” **It wasn’t Owl’s madness alone that was frightening – it was knowing who he was before the madness took him, and then seeing what it made him become, what it made him do, that was the worst. We can’t tell you those stories and make you understand that,** Blacksnake finished, glancing at the elders to either side of him. **We have to show you.**
Then, he fell silent.
**I think we've been telling the wrong stories,** Kestrel said then, albeit hesitantly. A veil of mystery enfolded her sending, coupled with uncertainty. **The... stories most tell of Owl today show the last, sad days – of what he had become. They show nothing of who he was before – how we knew him before that terrible sickness began that made us lose so many...**
One-Leg nodded and began sending as Kestrel trailed off.
“Full bellies tonight!” he called back to his companions, and slit the creature's neck quickly and cleanly. Then, he led the chorus of elfin and wolven howls that would let loved ones at the nearby Holt know they'd had a successful kill and would be returning with a meal for all to share.
One-Leg, whole and known as Axehand, whooped and clapped Owl on the shoulder as the grey-haired elf rose to his feet. “Nice shot, grandsire, but just a moment more, and that kill would have been mine.” He gestured toward the deer's neck and at the red-feathered arrow that protruded just below where Owl's blue-fringed shot was embedded.
“Oh, don't worry, boy,” Owl grinned. “You're probably too old, now, for your aim to get faster, but I'm sure if we needed to wrestle the doe to the ground, you'd have been right on top of it.”
One-Leg's chuckle echoed in the room. **That old son of a shagback could give it out just as good as anyone. And he could hunt with the best of us, too. Pity the dung-humping bellyworm who kept him from a Hunt. He refused to be coddled – healer or no, he demanded to be out in the thick of it with the rest of us, in spite of whatever the dangers might be, and he'd rather have stepped into it first. It's a shame we forgot this. I think it would have done us well to remember.**
**Aye.** It was Farscout's somber mind-touch that spoke now from the den high above the Mother Tree where he kept watch over his recently-awakened lifemate's resting form. **He embraced all of his tribal duties, all without complaint, whether it was hunting, gathering, crafting, or healing. He always put the needs of others before his own needs. He was proud, but he never put his pride ahead of the needs of the tribe. Tribe had always come first.**
**And, first and foremost, he knew he was the healer. To those of us that knew him, he had borne – and accepted – that role for longer than any of us had been alive.**
”Owl!” Breeze shrieked, and the sound of it drew an agony-filled young Briar, to his senses. When there wasn't an immediate, vocal answer, her open-sending seared his brain. **Owl! Come quickly – Fawn fell from my den, and Briar is hurt, too!** Frenzied images flew – of Fawn plummeting down from that topmost den, of Briar rushing with tunic outstretched in order to try and break her fall, and of the young cub landing not in the tunic, but atop Briar himself.
Briar tried to take another tentative breath, but his chest just wouldn't cooperate. The pain was unbearable even with the smallest of inhales, and though his air-starved body wanted more, there was no overcoming that hurt inside that was relentlessly suffocating him. When Fawn had landed on him, she had hit him hard. Things had broken inside.
He tried to sit up, but both the agony in his chest and the useless, twisted arm at his side made that impossible. His body ached for air. It felt like something thick was filling his lungs, and suddenly, panicked, he began to wonder if it was possible that he could be drowning, even though the river was paces and paces away.
Others had begun to gather. Frost burst from the Dentrees, holding her wailing, bloody-nosed daughter who had been saved from certain death because Briar had been at the right place at the right time.
Briar tried to twist his head in that direction to get a better look at Fawn. He opened his mouth, to try and ask if she was all right, but a pain-induced groan was all that escaped his lips.
“There now! Let me through!” The voice exuded confidence and demanded that the one speaking be obeyed, and, by the High Ones, it was. The wall of elves that had gathered around Briar quickly parted, and Owl stepped past. Even a very concerned Chieftess Easysinger stepped aside.
Owl approached. Then, he calmly set his carved staff down next to him and knelt down at young Briar's side. The old healer gently smiled at him, and put a hand on Briar's chest. “That was a brave thing you did today. You should be proud.”
Briar immediately felt his rising fear flee, and relief surged up to take its place.
A warm, yellow glow enveloped them both. Immediately, the searing pain in both his chest and arm began to melt away. Owl was mending what had been broken inside him that made him unable to breathe. The thickness in his lungs evaporated. Briar trusted with all his heart that the healer would make him well. Owl was still smiling at him, and Briar found himself smiling back.
“Now,” Owl said, and though he spoke, the warm, healing glow did not fade. “I want you to take a deep breath.” Briar did so. “Yes, just like that.” The healer shifted his fingers and pressed the boy's ribcage. “Does that hurt?”
Briar shook his head.
“Good.” Owl smiled, and carefully helped him sit up. Only then did the healer retract his magic. “Your ribs and your lungs are all fine now. And I'll tend to that arm of yours soon. I've made it so it won't hurt, but you need to keep it still. Can you do that for me while I go look at Fawn and make sure she's all right?”
“Yes,” Briar nodded, and Owl helped him cradle his broken arm carefully against his body. “Please make sure she's safe. You should have gone to her before me.”
Owl smirked. “Ah-ah. Just who is the healer here? Unless my ears aren't working right, Fawn's lungs are in fine order. You needed attention first.” That made Briar laugh, and Owl playfully ruffled his hair. “Don't you worry, lad. She'll be just fine. Sit tight, and I'll be back soon.”
**And he was. There never was any concern he wouldn't be,** Farscout finished. Pride, respect, affection, was interwoven strongly within that send.
Kestrel was smiling. **If anyone ever needed him, he was always there. Whether he was needed to heal, or to hunt, or just to do something seemingly silly around the Holt, you could expect that Owl would be the first to volunteer. I think it made him feel good to be good at what he was, and to be depended upon.**
**The old blister-butt was sure as stones hard on himself when he felt like he let anyone down,** One-Leg agreed.
Kestrel let out a sad sigh. **I think that's what finally pushed him over the edge. We all know what loss can do... and how it feels to us, but have any of us ever been in the situation he was put in, where the losses pile up one on top of the other, and with all his magic, he was powerless to do anything about it?**
There was a long silence before Kestrel began sending again.
Stink. Stink of vomit and feces. Stink of death.
Loss. Loss of wolves, of tribe. Loss of friends. Loss of family. Mates. Children. Loss.
It was Kestrel who had found Wren as the sun was setting, when dusk just began to kiss the skies and began to suck the daylight from them just as the sickness was sucking the very life from their tribe.
Wren should have been found sooner. Kestrel's mother, Stormdancer, had glided off toward sun-goes-up and Kestrel toward sun-goes-down when Owl had said his mate had gone missing and had sent her last words, from afar, to her healer-lifemate.
**Save our son,** Owl had shared Wren's sending with the Chieftess and the searchers, in the hopes that there would be something in his sharing – a direction, a clue, some kind of trail – that would help them find her more quickly. **Save Reed. I know I am failing, and failing fast, my love. And I know you are tired. But I also know you, fighter of fighters – you don't have the heart to choose one of us over the other. I choose for you. I choose life for our son. Save our hopes and dreams, and let him – and you – live without sadness or regret.**
But the searchers -- both glider and rider, everyone who had been fit enough to walk out into the chilly, windy winter day – were tired. The sickness that still ran rampant in the Holt had drained everyone's last reserves. Hunters had not hunted well in seeming hands of days. Food stores ran dangerously low. And, High Ones, the dying. The now near-daily deaths of beloved tribemates, family, and wolf-friends had taken their toll on everyone. They could not find Wren in time to save her.
When Kestrel had found Owl's mate, she was lying, face-down, in a drift of snow, as still and cold as a winter's night. And she hadn't gone far. Curse it, not far at all. The thought hurt Kestrel more than anything had before. What could she have done differently so that she could have found Wren sooner?
She had failed.
When Owl and Chieftess Easysinger came to the small clearing, Kestrel had expected loud, anguished cries, much like others in the Holt had expressed when the horrible sickness had taken their loved ones from them. But instead, the elder just fell to his knees, silently, next to the body of his lifemate. His eyes looked sad and hollow, but not a tear fell from them. The two females, respectfully, left him to himself.
But when Kestrel and the Chieftess returned when the moons were high, Owl hadn't moved. He still knelt, knees buried deep in the snowdrift that half-covered his beloved Wren, staring at her as though that action would somehow bring her back to life.
Easysinger quietly walked up next to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Shall we summon others to help bring her back to the Holt?”
There was no immediate reply. For long moments Owl continued that same, sad gaze over Wren's form.
It was when Kestrel thought he wasn't going to speak that the healer finally sent, openly, to both of them.
**Do you think she knows that I wasn't able to save our son?**
Kestrel would never forget that sending. It was devoid of emotion, save for something...broken... that was almost tucked away and hidden completely.
It was Easysinger who replied. **It's not for me to guess what the spirits of our loved ones know or see,** she replied with undertones of, **concern for you, sadness, regret.**
The old healer closed his eyes.
The chieftess knelt down next to Owl. **You did your best. You worked through the night to heal your son. I know she would love and respect you for that.**
Owl let out a ragged, tired sigh. After a pause, he said, aloud, “I'm tired of all this death and dying. Why in the High Ones' names do I have this cursed healing power that seems so... worthless?”
Easysinger put an arm around him, then, and Kestrel moved forward to offer her support, too.
**None of us think your ability is worthless, at all,** the glider countered. **Think of those you have saved. Let us be your encouragement and your strength.**
Kestrel cast sad eyes downward. **He never cried. Not once that I saw. And now that I think of it, even though each and every one of us felt the loss of every wolf, cub, or friend deeply – did anyone really lose more than Owl did when the sickness swept over the tribe? Wren, his mate. Reed, his son. Even poor Melody, his grown daughter who was blossoming into a healer herself. Those losses, and the loss of every other tribemate he couldn't save when he stretched his healing abilities to the limit surely must have been a heavy weight to bear.**
**A weight he bore in silence.** It was Blacksnake who sent now. **It was Easysinger's deepest regret that she never knew the toll the plague took on Owl before it was too late. What could we have done to help?**
**In the end, when Owl finally realized he needed help – that it was healing powers alone, and not herbal remedies, that could finally rid the Holt of that sickness, he was to find that what he sought was something that none of us could give.**
Night was half over, and countless stars flickered overhead. The air was particularly cold and still. It was the kind of air that almost hurt to be in too long, Blacksnake thought, and he was glad that the trip out in it to relieve himself had only needed to be a short one – he hadn't really dressed to spend much time outside, anyway. He'd spent enough time out in it not long enough ago, with Axehand, trying to find some food to fill the stores. The brace of ducks they’d come back with weren’t much, but these days, every little bit helped. He felt cold to the bone, and wanted nothing more than to find a warm place to lay down and sleep for a few hours before it was time to go out again.
He strode quickly back toward the Dentrees, and as he did, he caught sight of Owl moving determinedly in another direction. That got his attention right away. His grandsire’s stride was fast and purposeful, and it filled Blacksnake with dread before he’d started to reason why. He couldn’t help it – his mind leapt immediately to the sickening thought, ‘does someone need to be healed? The sickness hasn’t started up again, has it?’ It seemed to come in waves – at times, it seemed like it might have finally passed them over once and for all, and then the next night, or the next, someone would fall ill and it was stalking the tribe again.
Sometimes, though he wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone aloud, Blacksnake felt the fear that the plague would never truly leave the tribe until every last one of them died.
The closer his grandsire got, the better Blacksnake could see him. He looked as if he had aged the lifespan of an oak over this past moon. The old healer had always been somewhat gaunt in appearance, but now the dark circles below his eyes and the almost bluish tinge to the skin of his face made Owl seem little different than those countless tribemates, friends and family, who had succumbed to that illness.
The thought hit Blacksnake with an icy grip colder than the air around him. If Owl died, what would happen to the rest of them?
Melody, Blacksnake’s aunt, had shown promise of developing the healing talent Owl possessed. Indeed, she had exhausted herself trying to call up her fledgling magic to use it on some of the sick in the tribe. In her weakened state, she had fallen ill herself, and died. Her father had been at the end of his endurance himself, his magic too depleted to save her.
‘And if I had it in me to heal anyone,’ Blacksnake thought to himself, ‘I would work to save the rest of them until I dropped, too.’ How could you not? But the thought frightened him, because, that being true, how could they prevent his grandfather from going the same way?
Not for the first time, the young elf cursed the High Ones’ whim that had given him his grandsire’s hair, but nothing else from him. If he was going to take after Owl in some way, why couldn’t it have been in magic?
It was a dream he’d had since cubhood, since he could look at his mother and grandfather and see that thread of resemblance that marked them as family. Being a healer was a great responsibility, and sometimes a great burden, but one he would have taken gladly, and been proud to bear. To be a healer meant certain respect. It was a role as important to the tribe as being a great hunter. But, it was a dream he’d forgotten as he’d gotten older and it hadn’t come – it wasn’t for him, clearly, just as it hadn’t been for his mother. He’d put it aside with regret, and focused on other ways to excel. But then it had awakened in Melody, not much his elder, and it almost seemed like a High Ones-sent gift that the talent had started to blossom in her just when the tribe needed it most…
And he’d hoped again. If it could come to Melody eights of years past her cubhood, then…? For the tribe did need it, it needed all the healers it could get… That was the thought that had been with him during the long, cold days and nights that he and his brother had watched their father, and their grandsire Hailstone, sicken and die. If the magic could awaken for Melody, why couldn’t it awaken for him, or for Axehand, in time to do some good? But Wolfmane died, and Hailstone died… and Melody died, and the High Ones’ gift seemed like it had turned into a cruel joke.
To be a healer carried risk that Blacksnake had never understood, in his youth. When he was a cub, Owl had seemed so powerful that he was sure there was nothing the old healer could not do, if he was given time to do it. Now he knew better. He had seen a healer die, and he could see the toll it had taken even on one as powerful as Owl. And knowing that, knowing what he would risk if the power arose in him now and he tried to use it… he still wished he could will it to awaken in his hands. Even if all he could do was place his hands alongside Owl’s and give the old healer greater strength, that would be something. Maybe it would be enough to finally rout this plague and banish it from the tribe for good.
Owl was getting nearer now, and strangely, he hadn’t even lifted his head to acknowledge his grandson. He was still intently focused on reaching whatever place he was headed to. “Grandsire!” Blacksnake called as Owl passed. “Where are you going? Has someone else fallen ill?” He almost didn’t want to hear the answer, but it wasn’t a question he could leave unasked.
The elder’s head came up then, and Owl's grey eyes seemed to stare right through him. The healer's voice was thick and hoarse when he replied, “No one is any sicker than they were before. I’m just going to check on something.”
Blacksnake’s brows lowered. That didn’t sound convincing. Owl only moved with such purpose when there was something the old healer knew he had to do. And all the recent deaths had been hard on Owl – maybe more so than they had been on anyone else. How could a healer not feel responsible, in some way at least, even when he had done everything within his powers to try and help those who had died? Was Owl now trying to keep any and all nursing of the sick to himself so no one else would take the blame if another elf were to succumb to this strange wasting disease?
On impulse, he called after the older elf, “Let me go with you,” and turned on his heel to follow, forgetting the cold and how lightly he was dressed.
“Why, lad?” Owl stopped to face his grandson, the heavy cloak about the healer's shoulders turning as he did so. “You're tired. The best thing the tribe can do now is rest. Sleep. It's harder for a tired body to fight.”
“I know. I’ve been through it once,” Blacksnake countered. Some in the tribe had never fallen ill at all, and nobody really understood why. Some had caught the sickness, but not as severely as others. There was some hope that those who had had it and lived would not catch it again. “But the same goes for you, too. You do nothing but drive yourself until you’re ready to drop – Mother’s seen it, and she’s worried for you.”
“I’ll rest when the tribe is safe,” the elder said shortly, turning to go again, and Blacksnake caught at his arm.
“How safe will the tribe be if you wear yourself out, and fall ill, too?” he demanded. “At least let me help you.”
Owl’s eyes were deeply shadowed, and his tone flat as he said, “You’re no help to me, boy. No one can be.”
That hit close to the helplessness and frustration that Blacksnake was already feeling. He heard the words that Owl wasn’t saying. “Grandsire, please, just listen,” he pleaded. “I know I’m not Melody, or Reed, and I can’t replace them. High Ones! If I could will myself to be a healer like you, I’d already be one! I wish it could be – but it’s no use wishing. Just – I don’t want to lose you the way we lost Melody. Let me find a way to help you, even if it’s only sitting by you and keeping watch while you get some rest.”
Owl stared at him for so long, and so blankly, that Blacksnake wondered if his grandfather had heard him at all. But then, just as he was about to truly worry, the older elf straightened up and set his jaw, looking his grandson up and down. “Fine,” the healer said suddenly, and it had taken so long to come that it took Blacksnake by surprise. “But you’ll need to dress more warmly than that. Stay out here much longer and I’d be having to heal your sorry, frostbitten rump.”
Blacksnake smiled, and half-nodded. That sounded much more like the grandfather he remembered. “I’ll get my cloak. I’ll only be a moment.”
“I’ll come with you. Wouldn’t hurt me to warm up before heading on, anyway.”
The pair headed up to Blacksnake’s den in the Father Tree. Entering, the younger elf crossed to the peg on the wall that held his heaviest cloak, while Owl hovered in the doorway. But when Blacksnake turned to remind the elder to come in and get warm, he saw Owl’s staff drop to the ground at his feet, and then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Owl’s voice spoke in his ear, and it was like gravel. “This will only hurt for a short while, until I do what I need to do.” A searing pain tore through his body. It hurt like skyfire, making every muscle instantly contract. His tendons popped. His bones seemed to buckle. He tried to cry out, but felt something in his throat constrict. Only a ragged gasp escaped his lips. It was only when his knees gave way, and Blacksnake fell into a quivering heap on the den floor that the intense pain stopped.
Stunned, shaking, Blacksnake looked up as Owl crouched over him. The healer's lip was curled in a half-grimace, and his grey-eyed gaze seemed to bore into Blacksnake as he picked the younger elf up by the neck of his tunic.
“Think you have those powers in you, boy? We'll get them to come out, then, one way or another!”
Even if Blacksnake had wanted to reply, he could not.
A harsh, red glow accompanied the next blast of pain. It bored into Blacksnake's very core and seemed to explode in his brain. Stars peppered his vision until unnatural light was all he could see. Tears welled up in his eyes and overflowed. Then, just as suddenly as the pain had begun, it stopped.
“Useless whelp!” Owl spat, his face mere breaths from his grandson's. “Of anyone – anyone – left of my line, you were the biggest hope to carry the magic to the next generation. But you're tainted. Polluted. Your elf-blood's been too diluted with wolf – just like someone came and pissed upstream when Recognition decided you needed to be born. Useless. Worthless!”
Owl was wild-eyed, and the last blast of pain he sent into Blacksnake was the worst of all. “If you had even the weakest thread of the magic in you, then it would rise up to protect you from this! But there’s nothing in you, is there? Nothing at all.” The younger elf convulsed. He felt as though his body were being ripped apart from within. The agony built until his body could stand no more, and sweet unconsciousness overtook him.
**I saw him drop you to the ground, brother,** One-Leg sent. **That's right when I came into your den.**
“What the – What is --” Axehand took a step back, in shock at the unexpected scene before him. “Grandsire, what – what are you --”
Axehand might have been the stronger elf, but Owl was the quicker, the moments of shock working for him. The old healer reached for his staff as Axehand protectively lunged forward. He snatched it up before the younger elf could reach him, and tangled the length of it through the red-head's legs. Axehand careened face-down to the floor and had no chance to right himself before the healer laid a hand on him.
A white glow surrounded him, and Axehand felt his muscles go limp, as if they had been turned into sludge. He tried to bellow out his shock and protest, but it was as if a hand had reached into his throat and had severed his voice from within.
Owl bent low to Axehand's ear. His eyes narrowed dangerously. “You always did take more after your wolf-blooded father. Never even dreamed that healing had a chance to live in you. But I'm willing to accept that I could be wrong. Are you? Let's find out together.”
Before he could even make sense of the words, the red jolt of pain was tearing into him – indescribable, agonizing. All-consuming. It burned like white-hot fire, stung like the stingers of thousands of bees, and would not stop. He saw his vision blackening around the edges. The tunnel through which he could see grew more and more narrow, until only the smallest of portals remained.
Then, it stopped.
“No,” the healer said, panting. “I didn't think so, either, really.”
He heard, not saw, Owl get to his feet. He felt the old healer extract the staff from his legs, and then place a hand upon his back. Something in his mind whispered, **Sleep,** and everything went black.
**It's still hard to stomach, even after all these turns,** One-Leg growled.
Blacksnake nodded tightly, then added with dark humor, **When the two of us were young, we were enough to try anyone’s patience, and our grandfather wasn’t the most patient elf in the tribe. We’d gotten the sharp edge of his tongue before, a cuff or a box of the ears from him, and we usually deserved it. But nothing like that. Nothing twisted and almost… hateful. That feeling in his sends, his disgust at us – that was almost worse than the pain.** The deep sense of betrayal he’d felt still underlaid Blacksnake’s sending.
Windburn looked from one elder to the other. “But you told Easysinger about it!” he said, lingering shock at the strength of sharing those memories and feelings making his voice harsh. It was harder, in the face of that, to recall what his mother had told him of these details long ago.
One-Leg snorted. “Of course we did. As soon as we woke up and realized what he’d done.”
“Then why didn’t she do anything then?” the chief demanded. “Didn’t that prove his madness to everyone?”
“What was to be done about it?” Kestrel returned. “There was outrage, yes, and the chieftess did task him over it, but… what else could she do? He didn’t think he’d done wrong, and there was no way the tribe could afford to shun him, and nothing else that might have gotten through to him.”
“Trouble is, there was a sick kind of logic to what he did,” stated One-Leg. “Maybe it would even have worked, if either of us had had healing powers just waiting to emerge.”
“Maybe if he’d asked, we would have agreed to try it,” Blacksnake added. He shrugged. “I might have. We were that desperate, and if there had been a chance, it would have been worth going through that…. If he had asked.”
“You can’t understand what we were all feeling then,” Kestrel explained urgently. “Owl had lost his lifemate and his two youngest children. He had a right to be a little grief-crazy – certainly he wasn't the only one. Owl's behavior was strange, but so many died over those few days, including nearly all of the children. Everyone was heartsick with grief, and tempers were strung tight from stress and hunger. No one thought Owl would prove capable of worse madness. No one realized how far he had gone around that bend, not until it was too late.”
There was a moment's silence as the elders present in the chief's den looked at one another. **Farscout, the next part begins with you,** Blacksnake sent. **The rest of us will join in where we can.**
Farscout took up the story from there. **It was two days later, after One-Leg and Blacksnake were hurt...**
...and the woods around the Dentrees were hunted clean as a bone. Most of the wolves were dead or missing, which limited the amount of meat the tribe required, but also crippled their hunting strength. And the weather was not kind – more snow was threatening, so the Chieftess was loathe to send out long-range hunting parties. However, the forests around the Holt provided more than just meat, and hunger was a great motivator.
Briar and Ice had spent a good share of first-light digging up squirrel nests, raiding for acorns, and were headed for the next. They crossed a pair of footprints in the snow, leading away from the river where several of the tribe were out ice-fishing. Ice went past them without a second look, while Briar hesitated, unable to pass any set of tracks without trying to read them. Even from a distance, he could see that the footprints had been left by an adult and a child. And after that terrible night when Melody had gone delirious with fever and had opened the children's cocoons... well, the child's tracks could only belong to Fawn.
“Probably Lynx nipped himself a fine, fat fish, and slunk off to share it with his daughter,” Ice grumbled with a backwards glance for what had delayed her son. There was no little jealousy in her tone at the thought of a salmon.
Briar took a second look at the tracks. It wasn't Lynx's track – of that he was sure of, he was confident he could recognized Lynx's print from anyone else's in the tribe.. No – there was a circular intention to the left of each long stride. Not Lynx. Owl.
“Come on,” Ice said, already dismissing the footprints in the snow. “Daylight is wasting. We've hardly found enough to make the morning's effort worth it – if we look long enough, we'll find a fat, sleepy squirrel, I know it.” Briar stood his ground, his eyes following the line of tracks until they slipped away, out of sight among the trees. He had overheard his elders discussing in hushed tones how Owl had turned his healing power into a pain-touch, and used it against Blacksnake and Axehand. He wasn't sure what either of them had said to deserve such a thing, other than simply opening their mouths... which, on second thought and personal experience, Briar could easily imagine either of the brothers saying something that deserved being handed a headache on a dinner platter. Yet that pair of footprints, leading away into the winter-bare trees, gave Briar an uneasy feeling.
**Fawn,** he locksent, wanting to assure himself of her safety. She had been so ill... they had come so close to losing her... **Fawn. Where are you?**
He touched his young friend's mind... she was there, but it was as though she were sound asleep, her mindtouch unresponsive to Briar's call.
The youth began to wolf-trot, following the footsteps in through the snow. “Hey!” his mother called behind him. “Wait! Where are you going?”
**Lynx, Frost,** Briar sent, ignoring his mother's protests. He felt Frost and Lynx both respond. The lifemates were both back at the Holt's River; Frost was with several others, straining to haul in a net near the stone weir; Lynx was farther downstream, fishing at a hole he and Skinner had cut in the river ice. Farscout didn't bother with words – he just shared the image of Owl's footprints with Fawn's beside him, and the sensation of Fawn too sleep-drunk to answer him.
For a moment, both of his elders were simply confused – Briar had the impression from Frost's thoughts of her daughter having been left in Songsent's care, back at the Holt. Frost reached out to Songsent, and found her lifemate's aunt senseless and non-responsive.
The fear which blossomed between the lifemates was immediate and infectious. **Follow them!** Lynx sent to Briar, his mindtouch ablaze, while Frost's alarm reached out to everyone in the tribe. **Fawn! Owl's done something to Songsent, and he's taken my daughter!**
Briar didn't need any further encouragement. His stride lengthened from a wolftrot into a flat run. He didn't fully understand what kind of risk Owl could be to the girl – but he didn't need to know. That Lynx and Frost were very, very afraid was all he needed to know to understand that Fawn was in grave danger.
“It was incomprehensible when Lynx and Frost first raised an alarm – incomprehensible even to me, who had felt first-hand the pain of my grandsire's abilities misused,” Blacksnake said, sending his sober words as well as speaking them. “A member of our tribe, capable of deliberate harm to a child? Who could believe such a thing? But my grandsire had intercepted Songsent and Fawn as they had carried fish back to the Holt; he had knocked Songsent senseless and left her in the snow, and taken Fawn. To this day, I'm not sure where he was headed when Farscout crossed their tracks – I can only figure he had someplace secure in mind, just far enough away where the girl's cries would not be overheard.”
“The old wolf wouldn't have left Songsent to freeze to death like our grandmother had, I'm sure of that,” One-Leg added. “He couldn't have expected to have Fawn away for too long.”
“We didn't know what Owl intended, but after what the healer had done to Beesting, and then to his own grandsons, when Frost and Lynx raised an alert, we reacted,” Kestrel said. “We all reacted. We didn't know what Owl was doing, or what he was going to do. We just knew that something precious had been stolen and had to returned.”
Beneath her, the hunters were running at full pelt, laboring through the drifts of snow; only Stoneback rode, his wolf the only one healthy enough to hunt. Kestrel hesitated, torn between making better time or delaying to remain the eyes for her team.
“Go!” The chieftess yelled from below, waving the glider on. Kestrel spared her hunting companions a final glance, gauging their trajectory. Confident they were heading in the right direction, she shot forward, as fast as an arrow from a bow.
Kestrel skimmed above the trees, as sleek and fast as the small hawk she was named after. Briar's sending guided her – the youth was a strong sender, and he had the good sense to broadcast as he moved, so that his elders, who knew these woods like lovers, knew exactly where Briar was, and where Owl was headed. Briar had Owl in sight now; the elder was running, aware from the howls that he was being hunted, Fawn carried as limp as a ragdoll in his arms.
Something bobbed and darted above the bare branches far ahead and to the right – Kestrel recognized her mother's gliding form as Stormdancer also converged on the wayward healer. That meant Oakhand and his hunting party would be somewhere close by, likewise being guided by Briar's send. Whatever the old healer was up to, the hunters would have him surrounded soon enough.
There. A flash of wolf-gray, racing among the naked trees. Owl was running, his fur-trimmed hood blown back from his craggy face. In his arms, Fawn looked boneless, and her eyes were staring sightlessly up into the sky. Kestrel swooped down on them, greatly disturbed by the girl's uncharacteristic stupor.
“Elder, what are you doing?” Kestrel called as she landed just ahead of him, blocking the old healer's path.
Owl skidded to a stop, his expression fierce. “Step aside, child,” he growled. “Don't make me have to do something you'll regret.”
Over Owl's shoulder, Kestrel saw young Briar creep closer. The youth was a distraction; she refocused her attention on their elder, discomforted by his arrogant words. “What are you doing with Fawn?” she demanded. “What have you done to her?”
“Nothing so much. Yet.” Owl shifted the girl so that he carried her solely in his left arm, so that his right arm was free. “I'll warn you again. Step aside. Don't make this day more difficult than it has to be.”
“Just give me Fawn,” Kestrel said, reaching out for the girl.
Owl sighed and intercepted her. Their hands touched. And then--
Searing pain. Molten agony. Kestrel dropped into the snow, as if every nerve in her body had just been disconnected by the jolt of skyfire that turned her bone marrow into liquid flame. The pain was so intense that she could not draw breath. She writhed, drowning in the pain-fire.
She heard Briar's shout; she was dimly aware of a scuffle, and then the boy was in the snow nearby, his young body contorting in agony.
“Fools,” Owl muttered.
Kestrel drew herself up on her elbows, laboring to draw breath. She was helpless to do anything else but watch as Owl strode away from them, Fawn's pale curls spilling down past the arms that carried her.
**The old wolf couldn't escape us. He couldn't outrun us. He couldn't hide. So what else was he to do?** One-Leg sighed.
**Submit,** Blacksnake said grimly. **Submit, or fight.**
“Aye,” One-Leg muttered sourly. “You can guess which the canny eggsucker chose to do. For an old wolf, he sure had teeth. He gave us a running battle.”
The brothers combined their sendings, joining their efforts to build a fractured series of adrenaline-taut reminiscence, each supplying fresh images when the others' memory faltered. After several moments, Kestrel and Farscout joined in as well, adding their memories to the patchwork effort.
...Blacksnake running, breaking a trail through deep snow for those running behind him, his heart hammering, the sound of Kestrel's scream ringing in his ears... ...Catching a glimpse of Owl ahead of them, hardly more than a fleet flash of grey among the dark trunks of the trees, against the winter white drifts of snow... Oakhand spots the healer as well and broadcasts a send, helping guide both his own hunters, and the chieftess's team, who should be closing in from the northwest...
… Axehand on the receiving end of the Hunt Leader's send, running with the chieftess, Stoneback and Tangle ... With Oakhand's guidance, Stoneback and his she-wolf surge ahead and begin to outpace the rest of the hunting party... Axehand shifts in his stride to take advantage of the trail Stoneback's wolf has broken through the snow...
...Blacksnake sees Stormdancer diving down through the treetops ahead of them in an attempt to snatch Fawn from the healer's arms. The glider is struck aside by Owl's open hand. She drops like a stone, falling motionless in the snow...
...Stoneback and his wolf, disappearing among the trees ahead of Axehand and the chieftess's party... **Owl, we're hard on your heels!** Easysinger sends openly, her mindtouch sharp with emotion. **Stop this nonsense!**...
....**Stormdancer is down!** blazes Oakhand's send; his cast message as much imagery as words, shared for the benefit of the hunters who did not see Owl's attack..
...Kestrel and Briar aiding one another to their feet, dazed and senses still reeling... helping one another walk, they stagger after the receding tracks...
...Blacksnake doesn't break stride as he passes Stormdancer's body in the snow; she is not moving, and the mark of Owl's right hand rises a fierce red on her face and neck... ...Blacksnake feels a pulse of fear for his tribemate, his own nerves still raw from the abuse of his grandsire's healing he had endured... he does not stop for Stormdancer, however, for he knows the temperaments of those he runs with, knows without question that Tangle will be the one who stops to aid the glider...
… the running is easier in the she-wolf's tracks... Axehand gains on Stoneback and Otterpelt. Through the trees ahead, he spots Owl now. The healer sees them as well and puts on a burst of speed, heading for higher ground...
...Blacksnake sees Stoneback and his wolf leaping through the snow, arrowing in on Owl... Otterpelt vaults toward the healer, attempting to strike him with her shoulder and bring him down; Owl narrowly avoids being knocked down by the wolf's charge...
… Through Axehand's eyes, the sight of Stoneback grabbing for Owl's tunic; Owl strikes him in the head with his base hand, and the stoneshaper topples off Otterpelt's back with a shriek of pain...
...Blacksnake sees Skinner ahead of him, putting on a fresh burst of speed... The red-haired hunter grabs for Fawn; Owl intercepts his arm and sends the hunter reeling back, clutching at his wrist as though it were broken...
… Kestrel and Briar reach Tangle and Stormdancer; Tangle is holding Stormdancer upright and trying to wake her, but the glider is senseless, with angry red patches raised like burn-blisters on the pale skin of her face and neck...
… Owl races up the forested slope... pursuers closing in on him from two sides...only when he realizes he cannot make the top of the ridge before being intercepted by the Oakhand's hunters does he stop, and when he does, it is with a wide capnut tree at his back. He faces down his kinfolk, undaunted and grim-faced, his pale eyes blazing with anger...
… Axehand stops warily; when his chieftess begins to move past him, he catches her arm and jerks her back out of his grandsire's reach, having already learned that hard lesson...
… Blacksnake, too, has come to an uneasy halt, but Oakhand hurtles past him. Owl is waiting. The Hunt Leader grabs for a handful of the healer's tunic, and Owl slaps a hand against Oakhand's bare skin..
…Axehand sees Oakhand drop to his knees and hears the Hunt Leader's scream... he does not let go of his chieftess, and wrestles her back several steps when she tries instinctively to reach her lifemate's side...
… “Step aside,” Owl says, his voice stern yet calm, while Oakhand slumps bonelessly into the snow at his feet. “Don't make this more difficult than it has to be.”
The combined sendings faltered, ceding the full story back to Blacksnake.
Owl stands firm, his back pressed against the trunk of the tree. He is panting for breath after his long run, as are they all. He carries Fawn in one arm, and she stares numbly into the winter-bare branches overhead, blind and deaf to everything.
“Elder,” Easysinger asks, her voice choked. “What are you doing?”
Chillingly, Owl smiles. His look is one of almost resolute relief. “I'm saving our tribe.” He caresses Fawn's cheek; the girl's eyes never flicker and continue to stare straight ahead. “I know how to do it now. This child will be the first –“
“The first for what?” Shyheart demands in outrage. “Why have you brought her out here? Why steal her from Songsent’s care?”
“Grandsire,” Blacksnake says, hoping reason will reach the elder, “if you know of a way to save the tribe, that’s cause for rejoicing. Let me carry Fawn for you, and we’ll all go back to the Holt. Tell everyone your plan –“
The look Owl turns on his grandchild is withering. “I won't let you fools interfere with what I must do! It’s my power that will save the tribe. None of the rest of you can understand.”
“We can’t understand if you don’t tell us,” the chieftess tries to say reasonably.
Owl stands stiff-spined and straight. “You can't understand because none of you are healers. I alone know what my powers can do – only I have the knowledge for this decision, and I know my duty to the tribe and its future. I'll do what I must.”
His expression grows all the more serious, and then he derisively snarls, “It's the wolfblood in our veins that is killing us. It makes us weak, dulls our magic, ages us. It makes us prey to diseases our High Ones ancestors never feared!” He whips his free hand into the air, and it glows with the golden power of his magic. Disappointment is thick in his voice as he boldly continues. “I'm not the healer my mother was, and she wasn't as strong as her mother. I may be the last healer who can do this for the tribe, if I can do it at all. I may only be able to do it for the youngest amongst us, the children – but at least they will be saved, if I can purge the wolf from their veins!”
It is not what Blacksnake expects to hear – not what any of them expects, by the looks on the faces around him. They can’t believe their ears, can’t believe what Owl is proposing.
Skinner moves to stand alongside Blacksnake; he is growling under his breath and whey-faced from pain. Blacksnake can see that when Skinner tries to close his fingers around his spear shaft, his injured right hand will not work. Stoneback limps up to the other side, close to Axehand. The old rockshaper staggers on his feet, and there is blood trickling from one of his ears from the bruising force of the pain-touch Owl has struck him down with. But Stoneback is looking at Blacksnake, Axehand, Shyheart and Skinner in turn. Blacksnake interprets that look, reading the silent message in it: if they all pile on top of the healer at once, they would have a chance to overpower him and take back the vacant-eyed Fawn. Axehand is already shifting weight onto his toes in anticipation; ready to act as soon as any signal is made.
“Healer, you’ve long been my elder. I’ve always respected you,” Easysinger manages to say, somehow keeping her voice level. “Only you know what your powers can do, or what you think they can do. But I do know that what you’re suggesting is wrong –“
“Idiots!” Owl roars, his grey eyes flashing in anger. “You know nothing! Little Fawn, little Cider – they need not die the way your daughter died, the way my son died! It may be painful to do this, but it's necessary. The pain will not last, and in its place will come freedom from illness, and from age!”
“It’s wrong!” Easysinger shoots back, refusing his arguments. “You were wrong to turn your powers against your kin and the tribe. It's wrong to steal a child away from her parents. You know this is wrong, or you wouldn’t have carried her away, skulking off to work in secret! Please, elder,” she implores, “don’t do this! We trust you, we have faith in you – don’t betray that. Give my niece to me, and we will walk back to the Holt together. This affects the whole tribe. We will go back and talk about it as a tribe.”
“You and the tribe are too full of fear to make this hard decision,” Owl growls flatly. “That's why it falls to me. Saving the lives of these children first – that's my duty. I can do this. I must do this. For the sake of the tribe,” he continues, in a bellow, “don't make the mistake of getting in my way!”
“You're foaming mad!” Shyheart cries. “Give me my granddaughter! You won't do anything to her – not over my dead body you won't!”
At those words, Owl gives the archer a cold, sober stare. His voice grows eerily calm. “If that's your choosing. I'll do what I must. The survival of the tribe, its children, all our future children – that's all that matters. I’ve made this decision because I know the tribe won’t. You all may choose to punish me when I have finished – I know that, and I will bear that punishment, when I’ve made the children safe. You’ll see. Not today, not tomorrow. But eventually, you’ll see the truth, and you’ll come to accept I've been right all along.”
“What?” For the first time, Willow interrupted the punishment-sending. She shook her head in disbelief, and her eyes were dilated in shock. “He said that? Owl really said that?”
Blacksnake nodded soberly. “He did. It was the last thing he said to us.”
“Give me my granddaughter!” Shyheart cried. She stepped forward and reached for Fawn. Owl pivoted, blocking that reach with his own body; in the same movement, he caught one of her wrists. The aura of his magic pulsed golden, and she screamed in agony, her body bending back like a bow.
That was signal enough. Blacksnake leaped, colliding with his grandsire's legs even as he felt his brother hit Owl from the other side. They fell in a tangle of limbs, Skinner and Stoneback in it as well. Blacksnake heard his brother's pained grunt; Owl twisted and writhed beneath him. Something hit Blacksnake hard in the ribs – Skinner or Axehand, kicking him by mistake – and then there was a searing flare of pain as a hand touched his hair. Blacksnake shrieked, his senses reeling. His sight went black and then red – he was aware of the brawl shifting away from him, leaving him behind. He heard his brother's howl of agony; he sat up in time to see Axehand rolling away from the scrum, the red mark of their grandsire's hand blister-red against Axehand's face. Skinner was doubled over and retching, out of the fight. Then Stoneback was rising away from the fight, Fawn clutched to his chest. Owl snarled and lunged after the stoneshaper, hurtling into Stoneback, dragging him down. As the stoneshaper tried to wrestle free, Owl slapped an open palm against the side of the elder's head. Stoneback's body arched violently as thought he had been struck by skyfire.
Blacksnake tried to lunge for Fawn, wanting to snatch her away before his grandsire could reach the child. But his body was still crippled by the echoes of the pain-touch he had endured, and his attempt fell short. He found himself instead in Stoneback's path as the elder began to fall. There was blood streaming from Stoneback's nose and ears, and his eyes were lifeless.
**Stoneback!** Blacksnake cried aloud as well as sent. His mind-touch only confirmed the truth of what he felt in his arms.
The stoneshaper was dead.
There were no words for the horror of it. Blacksnake sent the shock of it openly, to every mind in reach. His grandsire had just killed Stoneback. Owl had just killed their kinsman.
Owl had collected Fawn again and was beginning to stand. Oakhand had come to his senses enough to lunge for the healer's legs. Owl kicked his way free and reached down, his open hand glowing amber and his expression fiercely wrathful--
There was the sound of a bowstring. Blacksnake felt the whisper of Easysinger's arrow as it sliced past him, and heard the meaty thunk of it striking home. It was Owl's turn to fall –
Blacksnake's anguish welled up, as raw and heated as it had been that afternoon, so many long years ago. He ended the sending abruptly, with that image, of his grandfather falling into the snow with a white-fletched arrow piercing his throat. A heavy silence hung in the room, thick with lingering horror.
Windburn finally opened his eyes as the grip of those memories slowly faded. His mind became his own again, his thoughts those of Windburn and not those of his father or of the other elders still living seated before him. Blacksnake’s horror-anguish-remorse still felt lodged in his throat. Most of the elders’ eyes were still closed, gazes still turned inward, and their faces bore expressions of crushing sorrow, heartsick under the weight of what they had remembered. He stared at them, disoriented for a moment to see the signs of the countless years that had passed. He blinked, and in place of his father’s familiar face was the sight of Blacksnake, young and frightened, hardly older than Evervale – then he blinked again and he was back in the Now, and things were the same as always but for the new knowledge and perspective he had gained.
He glanced over at the tribe’s young healer. Willow sat, slumped in her seat on the floor. Her forehead was wrinkled and her jaw, though set, was quivering. He knew, then and there, that what the elders had done this evening had hit their mark.
“The madness was not the worst of it,” Windburn said slowly, trying to find words again to express what he had seen and felt and learned. It was hard to speak, but there was too much in his head to try to send. Speaking helped him to start to put it at a distance, to make sense of it – and he fell back on the barely-remembered words his father had spoken at the start. “It was what he did – the trust he betrayed, and the choices he took from others. It was his arrogance in thinking that his healing powers gave him the right to make those decisions alone. That’s the path you took the first steps down.”
She did not look at him, but he saw Willow flinch at those words, that hung in the air as heavily as the silence before them had. It was difficult to say what he had to say next, but somehow, he managed. “And now, you have a hand of days on your own to think about it. I’m sure the elders will be happy to answer any questions you have when the shunning is over – and it will be over. But what happens then is up to you, as is whether you use what they’ve shown us to figure out why you must never cross that line again.”
And there was one ray of hope in the entire thing, even as Windburn tried to shake off the last of the despair of that long-ago time. It was that by the look on the young healer’s face, she might finally understand what she had done, even though she had tried to do good. A hard lesson, hard for the chief to learn as well. But if it was a lesson learned, then maybe they could truly work to regain the trust and unity that they had lost. This didn’t fix things, not yet. But it was a start.