(This is a sequel to "The Lesson of the Last Healer". It is also part of the "Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Re-living the memories had been bad enough, but now Kestrel thought her heart would break at the sound of Willow’s cry, “Grandmother!” The elder set her mouth in a firm line and turned away from her granddaughter. She knew that it was only Windburn’s insistent presence that prevented her from turning to embrace the young healer both to comfort her and receive comfort. The sharing had been hard on everyone. Most of all on Willow, who must ache with the knowledge that had been shared.
Kestrel wanted to tell her so badly – to let Willow know that she loved her still, and that the pain of the knowledge she and many others had received would ease. But Willow’s terrible punishment was really just beginning, and it would be a full hand of days before Kestrel could acknowledge her again.
Blocking out her granddaughter, especially after the intimate and painful sharing, was hard on Kestrel. Maybe the hardest thing she had done yet. And it would not get easier. She knew Willow, maybe better than Willow did herself, and she could guess what the sending, and now the shunning, would do to her. Kestrel herself had had nightmares after Owl had been killed. She didn't wish that on Willow, or any of the others. But Willow was the only one who would have to be alone. Kestrel wrapped her arms around herself as she exited the Chief's Den.
She felt the cool night breeze and was aware of her lovemates, Snowfall and True Edge, watching her with sympathetic eyes. They knew her moods well enough to realize when the elder just wanted to be alone, and for that she was grateful. Kestrel had long been an elf who coveted solitude over company when she was feeling upset, and while such moods had not come over her as often lately as they used to, the memories of Owl and the shunning of her granddaughter brought those feelings to the surface once more.
Pausing for a moment, she could hear sobs – Willow was crying. Kestrel felt tears prick her own eyes. She wasn’t sure she could do what her Chief had ordered – not if she stayed where she could see and hear her granddaughter. No, if Willow was sentenced to be alone, then Kestrel would do the same.
Without a word to anyone, she took off from the ground and left the Holt behind, heading south along the Holt's River, letting her mind focus only on the feel of the wind blowing through her hair and the sound of it whistling past her ears. Gliding was a comfort to the elder, and she let herself do so until well after the sun had risen, and she was physically exhausted. Spotting a small, sturdy tree that stood mostly under the shade of other trees, she came to a rest on one of the thicker branches.
As she rested her head on her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs, she pushed away the memories of Owl and recalled instead memories of Willow as a child, running to her grandmother whenever she was hurt or needed help. The effects of the dreamberries she had taken before the shared sending were still present, though not as strong as she thought of Willow, playing in the snow with Bowflight, Finch, and Mouse. Memories of an older Willow, distraught over the fact that she couldn't save her father, Kestrel's son. Always, Kestrel had been there to lend an ear or hold her close. Leaning back against the trunk of the tree, the elder closed her eyes and willed sleep to come quickly, for she knew it was the only way she could achieve temporary escape from her concern for Willow.
The elder did not know how long she had been asleep before she was jerked awake by strange noises, still out beyond the Thornwall, but seeming to come closer. The noises were almost reminiscent of a fight between animals, but somehow, they were...off. Grateful for anything to keep her mind off of the situation at the Holt, Kestrel glided slowly towards the sound, passing over the Thornwall, then heading southwest, toward Eagle Bay, being careful to keep to the trees so that she would not be seen by whatever was making the strange noises. She figured the animals would certainly be too occupied to catch her scent. When at last she knew she was not far off, she landed soundlessly on a sturdy branch and waited patiently.
Kestrel was shocked to see that the source of the noise was coming from humans! Her first instinct was to fly away immediately, and to warn the others that the pale faces were in the area between the river and the Thornwall, but she found herself fascinated by what was happening.
Scattered through the trees were deep-voiced men, dressed in masks that seemed to be an attempt to look like forest animals. They were silent and stealthy, with the exception of making sharp noises whenever an unmasked, young human men neared them. Kestrel looked closer. She scented fear in the air, and it had her on edge. She knew that the humans could not see very well in the dark, and she didn't understand what they were doing now. She almost felt sorrow for the young, unmasked youth who were obviously frightened by what their elders were doing.
As they moved through the forest, Kestrel watched one young human, shorter and less bulky than the others, lose his footing and fall on his rump. The larger humans in masks and the other youths were starting to move quickly and would soon leave the smaller one behind. The look on the small one's face seemed determined, but Kestrel wondered whether the boy would be left to the forest. Surely the humans would not leave one of their own behind this way?
"That poor boy," Kestrel thought to herself, sighing. She had no particular love for humans, but in a way, he reminded her of her granddaughter, alone, and without the notice of his tribemates. The elder felt a strange desire to help the youth, just a little, since she could not help the one that she longed to save the most.
Her apprehension grew as the group drew nearer to the Thornwall. She knew that it was not completely impermeable, and she wondered if one of the humans might try to breach it, but as they neared it, the group of youth and their strange, masked elders slowed. Then, as if by some hidden signal, things changed. A shout went out among the elders, and the sound was loud and terrible. Suddenly, they turned from the direction of the Thornwall and began running. Then, the youth drew weapons and gave chase. The animal-masked "hunters" had suddenly become the hunted.
Kestrel waited until she knew she would not be seen, and then flew, following the group. She saw the smaller youth, who had caught up, give chase with the others. Suddenly, his foot caught on a root and he fell to the ground. She slowed, not caring so much for what the rest were doing as much as she suddenly cared for the... child. The elder watched as the spindly youth picked himself up off the ground and again began chasing after his companions, but they continued to outrun him. Following the group, the glider thought quickly to herself. Perhaps, if she subtly levitated a small rock in front of one of the masked humans, he would trip, allowing the small one to catch up with them....
While lost in thought, she failed to notice that the boy had increased his speed. He appeared to be pushing himself to his limit, sweat pouring off his back, but he was intent on catching up with his companions. To his advantage, the group had slowed a little as the other youths seemed to attack the ones in masks. Kestrel looked down just in time to see him leap in the air and land on the back of one of the masked men, who let out a grunt of surprise. The small boy quickly jerked his knife forward and cut open the mask, giving a small cheer as he did so. To her surprise, Kestrel realized a hint of a smile now crossed her face...even though she had thought she would not smile again for days. He hadn't needed her help after all...
Somehow, seeing the boy's success served to reassure Kestrel that Willow, too, would be strong enough to face the days ahead of her. She felt that knowledge lift the weight of her sorrow - it had not vanished completely, but Kestrel knew from experience that that would take time. And time she had. She would continue her journey, scouting instead of mourning.