(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.)
Past midnight, 2503.07.16
The lock-sending had stopped. The elders' presence and memories of Owl's wrongdoings and fateful actions slowly retreated from Willow's head until only a nagging headache and a stiff, residual throbbing in her joints remained to remind her of what the elders had recently shared – the agony her healer-predecessor, Owl, had intentionally inflicted upon others in his tribe during his moments of madness.
'I am not him,' Willow told herself, even as her mind reeled. That phrase, or variations of it, was what she had begun to chant over and over in the midst of all of this to try and break the parallels between what Owl had done in the distant past and what she had done by healing Brightwood without permission more recently. She hadn't tried to hurt anyone intentionally like Owl had done. She'd helped! She hadn't harmed anyone! She hadn't stolen anyone away to change them!
But, in the end, wasn't 'only helping' what Owl had wanted to do for the tribe, too?
'But I am not him,' she repeated as she squeezed her eyes closed. Tears burned behind her eyelids.
It was during this time, as Willow tried to collect her swimming thoughts, that Windburn spoke. She didn't quite make out exactly what he had said, but she realized, with a growing sense of dread, that the second part of her punishment – the shunning – was set to begin.
That cleared and sobered her mind almost instantly – in just the right amount of time to notice that, slowly, one by one, the eyes of the other elves with her in the den glazed over when they looked her way. A shudder quaked its way down Willow's spine.
No! Wait! It was too soon! She hadn't had a chance to speak her mind! Shouldn't she get a chance to speak her mind? She hadn't had a chance to get ready!
She hadn't thought the shunning would be so sudden, like this! Her heart began to pound in a panic. This couldn't be happening yet!
“Grandmother!” She suddenly ached for Kestrel's familiar, reliable, steadfast comfort, but, this time, there was none to be given. When Willow tried to send to Kestrel, a wall had been erected in the elder's mind. Willow was being refused. Shut out. There could be no love or support offered. Not now.
Willow's attention went to her Chief.
“Windburn!” she cried, leaping from her seat on the floor-furs. She near-ran to his side and got on her knees at his feet. Her eyes ached with unshed tears. She grabbed his forearm – did his eyes flicker her way for just a moment? “Let me say something, please!”
There was no response, save for a faint ripple of his jawline as he set it hard. Then, he rose to his feet and shook the young healer's grasp away as if she were a noisome insect. He made a motion toward the den-door with his head. The others present in the room rose then, too, and left the chief's gathering den one by one.
Willow called after them, called each of them by name. Kestrel, Windburn, Blacksnake, One-Leg... there was no answer from any of them. Her tears finally spilled over. She pleaded with them to let her tell her side of things.
But they did not see her, they would not hear her. It was as if she was not there.
And being ignored when she felt she needed to be heard the most hurt worse than any words or sending that anyone could throw at her.
2503.07.16, late morning
After the shunning began, everything became a blur. Willow could only remember snippets and pieces of things that happened once the elders and the chief had left the room where the sending had taken place: sobbing until her sides hurt, her emergence from the chief's den, the eerieness of being surrounded by her tribemates, but of not being acknowledged as being there. She was greeted by nothing and no one, and the silence was both suffocating and frightening, for reasons she couldn't quite understand.
For some reason, the cool wrapstuff den below the trees called to her, which also seemed so very strange. That room had, before, been the source of her misery. It had cradled the wrapped forms of those who had been waiting to be healed – the sleeping ones whom Willow had thought kept her from her former life and freedom.
But now, the small, underground room that had held those forms beckoned to her like a stream on a hot, sticky day. It offered darkness, quiet, and a refuge away from the unsettling, unseeing nothingness she was being subjected to as part of her punishment. She would be able to sort out the confusion in her head in there.
Her steps felt uncertain as she turned her back on her unseeing tribemates and made her way below ground. The musty tang of earth and old roots made her nose burn. Nonetheless, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply of that scent. Anything that distracted her from the horrible memories still racing through her mind was a comfort. After a few more deep breaths, she turned and entered the den that she had come to know well – especially over the past couple of full turns of the seasons – as she'd come to 'visit' with those she'd be healing next.
No one knew she'd told each of them – sleeping Honey, Newt, Fadestar, Fletcher, and Brightwood – about her hopes, and dreams. Or about her frustrations.
Willow stood in the doorway and looked around at that familiar place. The moonmoss that had been constantly nurtured to illuminate the small chamber had been ignored now that there were no longer any precious cocoons in this place. In the short time since Willow had come here to heal Brightwood, it had dimmed considerably to where the glow just barely touched everything with a pale, surreal light – surreal like the images of Owl, and the horrible things he'd done that kept dancing in her mind. She leaned against a wall and shuddered.
'I am not him,' she said to herself, trying to keep up the faint inkling she had left in her soul that it was true.
Willow's stomach began to join her head's complaints that it had been abused during the shared-sending. She'd eaten the dreamberries before the sending, but nothing more. Her head pounded a rhythm behind her eyes, and her stomach growled a song to accompany it. She wanted nothing more at the moment than to sit with her tribemates and eat, and then find someplace quiet to go to sleep. But she knew that would never happen this morn. She didn't dare go back above ground to face the sightless eyes of her peers, so, instead, she turned and made her way to one of the storage chambers next to this one. There would be food and water there to last her through the punishment, and, though gloomy, the wrapstuff den seemed an oddly appropriate place to make a temporary shelter to ride out this tide.
So, in the quiet below ground, Willow went and ate her fill, drank until she was no longer thirsty, and grabbed some tallow candles to help light her makeshift den. She returned to the wrapstuff room, lit a candle, and made her bed on one of the biers that had been a resting place for some of her tribemates for longer than she had drawn breath. Despite the fact she was deeply troubled, she somehow managed to dam the jumble in her head and fall asleep.
The child was crying. At first the sound was merely an annoyance, but it quickly began to hurt Willow's ears.
She looked down at the child she carried in her arms. Fawn. She was carrying Fawn away from the Holt. The cub was wrapped in furs to protect her from the cold, harsh wind, but the covering did nothing to keep the child's cries from being carried to the ears of the others.
“Shh! Be quiet!” Willow hissed, but words had no effect, either. The child howled all the more loudly. Another cry, and Willow's heart leapt up in her throat. She'd cut the child from the cocoon that had held her for ages, against the wishes of her family, because they had been too afraid to make that decision on their own. She, however, had made that decision for them, and had made the child well!
Now she was bringing Fawn back, triumphantly, to the protective arms of the tribe. But the cub kept crying, curse it! How could Willow ever convince the others that she had done the right thing by cutting Fawn out of the wrapstuff and healing her if the child kept howling like this?
She pulled the covers back from the little bundle to expose Fawn's face, desperate to find a way to comfort the child.
...But it was not Fawn who was in her arms.
Her brother, little Pathmark – little Mouse – immediately stopped howling when he saw his sister. He smiled at Willow and peered up at her with his twinkling hazel eyes.
Willow stopped short and nearly dropped the fur-wrapped cub in her arms. This wasn't how this was supposed to happen! She shook her head. Fawn was supposed to be here, not Mouse! And – wasn't Mouse grown now? Willow was supposed to remove Fawn's wolf-blood in order to stop the disease that was wiping out the Holt! Fawn was hope for the tribe's future!
Mouse's smile expanded to a wide grin, and he laughed.
Willow blinked at him. What in the names of the bloodied firstcomers was happening?
“Willow!” The shout from behind made the healer whirl around, and she nearly dropped the precious bundle in her arms. Windburn crested the top of a hill, and her mother and father were both at his side. Bowflight and Finch looked bedraggled, as if they had just been roused out of a too-deep slumber. All three of them strung bows and nocked arrows at the ready, but Willow could see, even from here, that her mother and father's aims trembled unsteadily. The sickness had tried to take them, but they had fought it. They stood now, but they were weak. And while the plague had been driven away once, it lurked in the shadows nearby. Willow could see it there – a putrid, dark, tangible predator, waiting to prey upon them again.
The healer took a step backward, thoughts of escape – thoughts of finding some way and some place she could finish this – running through her head. And then the disease – that horrible, dark presence – sprang next to her, cat-like, and took her brother in a strangle-hold before disappearing inside him.
Little Mouse stopped smiling. A grimace clouded his features, and he coughed a small, single hiccup of a cough.
And then, he coughed again... and again, again, again! Coughed until he was blue in the face and faint from lack of air. He sucked in a deep, whoop of a breath and began coughing uncontrollably anew. He coughed until he choked up a river of blood and went dangerously limp in Willow's arms.
No! Willow began to panic. Mouse was dying! This sickness would take him, and then take her mother and father and Windburn, too! She could cure this! Why didn't the chief and her mother and father want her to cure her brother? To do nothing was stupid, foolish! She'd cure Mouse, and then take the wolf-blood from him and he'd be immune to this sickness. She'd give hope back to everyone! She could do this. The others were just afraid. She knew her powers better than they did. She had to do this! She must!
Warm, golden light erupted from her hands and surrounded her little brother's hacking frame. She'd stop his coughing first... As Mouse fell silent and heaved a small sigh of relief, she knew the first part of this healing was done. So she extended her powers deeper into her brother's being – into his very blood, to seek out the wolfishness there that made him sick....
'But makes him who he is,' a voice in the back of her head cautioned.
“Stop! No more!” Windburn's command rang out, and Bowflight cried, “Willow, no!” at the very same time.
A voice in her head continued: 'This isn't right. I know not to go any further. They don't want me to do this. I don't want to do this. Mouse is strong – we can fight this plague on our own, without changing who we are, just like we fought when he got mauled by that bear!
She angrily silenced that voice with a snarl. She knew, without a doubt, that she could do it, and she would succeed. Stop being afraid. Forget them, forget the voice. She was the healer. She had the power.
She knew what was best.
Golden light erupted from her hands again, so brightly that it blinded her.
She heard the three arrows whistle through the air toward her in quick succession. One-two-three. And then, she careened forward and saw the ground coming to meet her face faster than she could react.
Willow awoke with a start and a gasp that made her ribs ache. Her heart pounded in her chest so quickly she thought it was going to explode. She was soaked to the bone with sweat, and it took her a moment to realize who and where she was.
“I didn't do that,” she croaked. “I wouldn't steal that from my brother. I am not like Owl. I am not him.”
A cool draft blew into the chamber from one of the deeper, yet nearby, below-ground recesses, and she shivered. She shoved her body into a corner and curled herself into a ball, and stared at the candle-lit walls to try and clear remnants of those horrid dream-images from her mind.
Suddenly, the handprints and pictures that had been carefully painted and placed on both the walls and biers in this den over the turns seemed to flicker and quiver in the low light. It was those images – especially those of the handprints – that caught Willow's eye.
'There were hearts, hopes, and dreams in those prints,' Willow thought to herself as her eyes danced from one wavering colored symbol to another. In each print and picture, she saw promises left by mothers and fathers to guard their sons and daughters, and dreams of cubs hoping their friends and family would one day wake up hale and whole. Then, her gaze came to rest upon Farscout's prints that had been neatly placed over where Brightwood lay.
Hearts, hopes and dreams.
She knew she had taken some of Farscout's hopes and dreams when she'd ripped open that last cocoon. Hopes and dreams of being able to watch as his lifemate awoke from that ages-old sleep. Hopes and confidence that Brightwood wouldn't slip away like Fletcher had when left in Willow's care. But she hadn't taken away what he'd wanted most, had she? Farscout, she knew, had wanted nothing more than his lifemate and child to be whole and with him again. And that's what she had given him!
The healer had accused Farscout of being a coward – had cursed his name under her breath whenever he had walked past on his next scouting trip, to his next freedom – because she had felt trapped at the Holt and was unable to escape as Farscout could. Because he did not trust her healing abilities, it could have been ages before he'd had faith enough in Willow's powers to give her the go-ahead to heal Brightwood. High Ones only knew how long Willow would be trapped, waiting for Farscout to learn to trust her.
She thought she knew what was best. She took the step that needed to be taken. She healed Brightwood for Farscout's own good, and for her own good.
That assumption made a thought tickle the back of Willow's mind. ...Just like Owl thought it was for the tribe's own good when he stole Fawn away, to take her to a secluded place to remove her wolf-blood.
'It wasn't Owl's choice to make,' Willow decided as images of what the old healer had done played out again in her mind. 'Owl never should have done what he did. Fawn was a cub. She wasn't able to decide for herself. The old healer should have asked Fawn's family first. It should have been their choice. He had no right to take a little child away and try to change her...'
Realization hit Willow like a fist to the mouth. Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach.
She had been just as underhanded in what she had done as Owl had been that fateful day when he'd met his end.
Brightwood had been unable to decide for herself. And when Willow had healed her against everyone's wishes, she had taken away Farscout's right to choose. It should have been his choice when his lifemate was healed – not hers. She might as well have been Owl ripping Fawn from Songsent's arms the day that last cocoon was sliced open.
“No!” Willow cried out suddenly, trying to deny her own revelations, because they were too painful. She could not dam the flood of revulsion that surged in the pit of her gut. “I am not him! I'm not Owl!” she shouted in desperation. Her voice echoed sharply, harshly, back at her. It mocked her for being such a fool.
In the silence that followed, she knew. She was not Owl, but she knew, now, that she hadn't acted any better than Owl had when he'd gone mad. The was no doubt about it. She'd taken away the same choices that Owl had tried to take away when he acted underhandedly and against the wishes of the tribe. The only difference between the two was that Owl had been cut down mid-attempt, and she had been allowed to succeed.
She'd succeeded where Owl, the great healer – the mad one – had failed.
Willow's eyes shot back to Farscout's handprints.
“No!” she choked again, then she buried her head in her arms. Guilt and shame washed over her like a torrent. She broke down under the weight of it and wept bitterly.
What she had done was unforgivable.
2503.07.19, early evening
Willow jolted awake. Her gaze tore around the darkened wrapstuff den like a frightened squirrel's until she came back to herself. Then, she slumped back against the wall and willed her heart to stop thundering.
She exhaled a pent-up breath. Tired. She was so tired.
How many dreams had it been, now? A hand? Two? Willow was perched on Newt's old bier at the moment, and shook her head to herself. She'd lost count of how many nightmares she'd had now. She could vaguely remember a time when sleep was a sweet relief from the stresses of the day, but now closing her eyes became something she was beginning to dread. She couldn't sleep without having those awful dreams, and they kept getting worse. She could remember the details of each one with impeccable clarity.
In the one she'd just had, she'd grown angry at Beetle over something stupid, something she couldn't even believe she was angry over now – something she promised herself she'd never do again, after the fight they'd had just nights ago. However, in her dream her anger had grown until it had become unbearable, and before she knew it, she had lashed out with a pain-touch that had sent her lovemate sprawling.
She tried to tell herself that she'd never do such a thing, but her self-arguments were worthless. She had already done such things – twice – and it hadn't been in her dreams. She'd brought Blacksnake to his knees that day he'd followed her to the hot-springs. And she'd hurt Evervale that time when the plantshaper had approached her near the river. She'd seared them both with touches that harmed, just as Owl had done to others those countless years ago.
Willow crossed her arms over her chest and tucked her hands into her armpits. She stared blankly at the floor, and her forehead furrowed. She had seen what Owl had been capable of, and now she knew – it was undeniable fact – that the power to harm others flowed in her, too, and she was capable of using it.
She felt horror and anguish rise up in her, unbidden.
“I am not that elf,” she croaked desperately through her parched throat, adding to the countless other times she'd repeated that today alone. But did she really believe that? She asked herself that question, and didn't really know if she did believe it any more.
Willow groaned to herself. 'Tired. Tired of feeling like this.' Guilt, regret, and shame plagued her constantly when she was awake, and increasingly frightening dreams tormented her when she was asleep.
She just wanted a moment's peace. Peace.
Her feet felt like they were rooted as she slid off the bier and onto the ground. She directed herself to move toward the entrance to the wrapstuff den and then down one of the narrow hallways to one of the food-storage hollows she'd plundered more than a few times now since she'd come down here. However, food or water wasn't what she had come here for. Her appetite had vanished what seemed like an oak's age ago.
For long moments, she wasn't even sure what she was looking for was there, or if she'd just imagined seeing it on her last visit. But then she stumbled upon it – a skin full of hard cider. She popped the stopper off the end of it and took a long swig. It burned going down, but it felt good. She was thirsty.
She took another draw from the skin and started to make her way back toward the wrapstuff den, but when she was halfway there, a scent from above – the smell of damp soil and rain – tickled Willow's nose. It smelled wet and cool and soothing, and still carried a hint of dust; which meant the rain had just recently started.
It called to her, just as the wrapstuff den had called to her before. She didn't know why, but the draw of it led her through the subterranean tunnels, until she could hear the drumming of rain on the ground over her head, and then up the stairs that led up under the Child Tree. She paused at the arch that led down below, and leaned against the side of the door, peering out at the Holt.
The sun hadn't yet set, but it was nearing evening. The pregnant clouds overhead were thick and black, which led to the eerie feeling of dusk being closer than it should be. Rain came down from the sky in pulsing sheets and collected into growing, muddy puddles in the clearing between the Dentrees and the river. Lightning arced overhead – forks unseen, but light pointed and blinding. Thunder boomed echoingly down the river, growing fainter with each roll.
Willow watched as elves who had been caught in the sudden downpour scurried for cover. She saw Crackle run, screaming and laughing, toward her parents' den. She saw Moss and Goldspice grab one anothers' hands and dash toward a protective overhang of interlaced tree branches nearby. Others didn't seem to care as much about getting wet. Rainpace was at the far side of the common area with his arms outstretched to welcome the rain, until Notch pelted him squarely in the back of his head with a handful of mud. Willow laughed. High Ones, she ached to call out to both of her friends, but she kept her mouth closed. They wouldn't listen to her if she did, anyway. They couldn't.
Her eyes drifted back to the rain itself.
Tentatively, Willow took a step out into it. The coldness of it was an almost pleasant shock, and it made her laugh again. Then, without hesitation, she stepped out into the middle of the gathering area between the three Dentrees. She closed her eyes and tilted her face up into it just to let the chill wash over her, and wished it could wash everything she had done wrong away. She opened her eyes and looked up between raindrops – up to the higher reaches of the Mother Tree to her den. Was Beetle there, tucked away from the rain? Was Beetle thinking of her like she was thinking of Beetle right now?
'I miss you,' Willow thought. She would have sent it, if she could.
She realized, at that moment, coming up here had been a mistake. Loneliness seized at her insides, as well as another fear that had been at the back of her mind since she had first gone down to the wrapstuff den. What if, when it was time for this segregation to be over, no one wanted her near? What if they chased her away?
Beetle, Notch, Foxtail... they and others had all made promises that they'd be there, waiting when this was over. But that was before everyone knew what really happened the day Owl died. That was before she knew what miserable, wrong things she'd done. Wrong. She wished she could take everything back. But that could never happen.
Her head lowered, almost involuntarily, until her gaze rested on top of her boots. She felt lower than low.
She took a huge swig of hard cider to try and wash her misery back down her throat, but it did little good. The rain falling on her no longer felt cool and crisp; her leathers were drenched and heavy. Her disheveled hair was sticking to her neck and face, and she was cold. Still, instead of walking back below ground to the wrapstuff den, which would have been much warmer than standing out here, she trudged down to the Holt's River, and plopped herself down in the mud at the base of a favorite gnarled old oak that was on a ledge overlooking the muddy waters as they churned by. She found herself wondering if the heavy rains would make the river waters rise this evening, and managed to lose herself for a while by looking at the waters rushing past.
A breeze blew down the riverbed. Willow began to shiver again. She guzzled the rest of the cider in hopes that it would warm her belly and, in turn, warm her. It didn't work; it merely made her feel light-headed.
Sometime or another, though Willow didn't realize quite when, it stopped raining. Only droplets remained on leaves overhead to splatter in absent patterns on the ground and on Willow below.
The healer supposed she should get up and try and find some kind of warm shelter, but suddenly it seemed like way too much work. Her clothes were wet and heavy; her body felt heavy. Her spirit felt heavy. She was so tired. She closed her eyes.
A gust of wind wended its way down the riverbed, making Willow shiver. A voice in the back of her mind – her own – whispered, 'Cold. You're cold.' She shivered violently for what seemed like forever. Everything began to feel numb. It was wrong to stay here, Willow knew, but it was such a relief that Willow didn't care.
But then, after a while, the shivering slowly stopped. She heard the empty wineskin she had been clutching slide to the ground, but she didn't recall having let it go.
...that was when a warm, wet nose snuffled her face, and a rough tongue began to lap her cheek. Weakly, Willow tried to shoo the nose and tongue away, but whatever was there had a lot more drive than she had. Her nose told her she knew who was next to her, but she cracked open her left eye to take a peek, anyway.
Sky, Willow's wolf-friend, stopped licking and sat back on her haunches.
“Go 'way,” Willow drunkenly groaned. “You're not s'posed to be here.”
Sky whined and leaned in close to lick her elf-bond's face again. Images of **kin-cold, huddling up for warmth,** flooded Willow's mind.
“Go 'way,” Willow repeated again, squeezing her eyes closed. She was being shunned. Sky wasn't supposed to be here, was she? Or, wait, maybe it was all right for Sky to be close. Her head was too numb right now to think straight or to remember, save for the fact she was lonely and desperately wanted company. She didn't want to get into trouble, though. So, just in case, to drive her point home, the healer sent the wolf images of, **elf done wrong, driven from pack with tail between legs. Maybe packless. No way, now, to know.**
**Willow-kin, us-together,** Sky imaged then, along with warm, comforting feelings of **pack-acceptance, love, belonging.** Then, the she-wolf promptly positioned herself next to her elf-friend and laid down beside Willow to bring some warmth back into her cold skin.
This was too much. This was more than Willow deserved after what she'd done. Willow choked back a sob. She tried to speak, but couldn't. When warmth started to return to Willow's limbs, she wrapped her arms around Sky and buried her face in the wolf's scruff before she drifted off into an exhausted, yet fitful, sleep.
2503.07.20, near dawn
The forest floor raced beneath her feet as she ran. She was elf, yet wolf. She was being chased away, driven from the pack. She had done wrong. She was sorry. Her tail was tucked and her head hung in submission. She was sorry, but they didn't care. Some wrongs could not be forgiven, and what she had done was one of the unforgivable things. The pack did not want her here.
She zigged and zagged, like rabbits did when chased, trying to get away. She ducked low under branches and passed through shrubs that tore at her skin. The distance between her and her pursuers grew larger.
And then, her foot snagged a root. She fell, face-first, to the ground. There was no time to pick herself up before the pack was on her, biting and snarling. There would be no second chances. She would not be spared. The pack would kill her, just as they had Owl-kin, for taking away the power of choice.
Willow cried out. She threw her arms up to try and protect herself, but they were seized by sharp, tearing teeth.
The sending seemed out of place. It cut through the noise of angry growls and snarls, and through a vague sense of pain of flesh being torn from bone.
That was Windburn's voice. It was as much a summon as it was a message. The shunning was over now. It was over, and he wanted to see her. It pulled her mind to wakefulness and her thoughts back into the Now.
Willow forced her eyes open. No easy task, because they were swollen from crying. Her eyelids felt heavy. Her head started to ache and her mouth felt like it was stuffed full of websilk. She regretted drinking that whole skin of cider.
**Are you coming?** Windburn seemed to be growing impatient, and as Willow nudged her wolf-friend's head off her lap and stiffly pushed herself to her feet, she sent back to him that she had heard. She was on her way.
She was on her way, but her pace was slow. Her leathers had dried stiff; they were probably ruined unless she found some way she could tend to them. Her hair had dried just as stiffly – her braid was caked with mud from the ground where she had been sitting. A glance to her side showed that Sky was in just as sorry-looking a state as she was.
However, it wasn't mud or stiff clothing that slowed her. It was fear. Fear of rejection, fear of the tribe's recourse. Fear that now that the whole tribe knew of the choices Owl had tried and failed to take; and, comparatively, what she had tried and succeeded to steal away, there would never be acceptance or forgiveness for her to find here. How could there be when there was no way to take back what terrible things she had done?
She reached the edge of the Holt proper and stopped. The scents of many tribemates drifted to her nose. They were waiting on her, all of them. She took a deep breath, and she could almost see the scene she would be walking into: Family and friends. Chief. Farscout and Brightwood – whom she had wronged the most. All standing between the sheltered gathering area between the Dentrees, all waiting on her.
Sky nudged Willow's leg to push her forward and to show support, and the healer swallowed hard. A confident wolf would at least be given a fighting chance to stay in the pack, wouldn't it? What if she just went out there and admitted she was wrong...?
She looked down at her wolf-friend and decided then and there that she would try her best to keep her place here. This was her pack, her Holt. Her home.
She lifted her chin, then took a step forward to break into that clearing with Sky in-step at her side. Everyone was gathered almost exactly as Willow had imagined. Something deep in her gut tried to push her head down, to edge her into a submissive posture, but she fought that instinct, despite the fact that her heart was pounding frantically in her chest. It was thundering so loudly that she thought surely the rest of the tribe could hear it.
She kept her eyes focused forward – to the head of the group where the chief and Farscout – and Brightwood – were standing. She thought she could feel angry stares piercing her from both sides, but she didn't dare look any way but ahead, lest she drop her bravado. She heard muttering, but couldn't make out words. She assumed they were saying the worst about her, and that, soon, they'd drive her away.
She thought she saw True Edge glowering at her from the corner of her eye, and, ahead, Farscout looked little, if any, happier. Brightwood, stranger to her, was hard to read. Willow swallowed hard and reminded herself that whatever happened here, she had brought this upon herself. She deserved what she was getting. All of it.
Willow finally found herself at the head of that gathering. She looked up at the elves before her; her gaze swept across their faces again. Her heart pounded harder and harder in her chest until she felt blood rushing in her ears. She thought her hands were shaking. She balled them into fists to try and keep them still. She set her jaw.
It seemed, then, everything fell silent. For a moment, Willow felt like she would melt away under the pressure of what she felt were so many accusing stares. She forced herself to remain upright, to appear confident and calm.
A single bird began sing to the coming dawn somewhere in the distance. Crickets chirruped nearby, below the Dentrees.
“Do you have anything to say?” Windburn asked, breaking the silence.
Willow swallowed hard, and her mind began to race. She opened up her mouth, trying to figure out what she should say. Could she even say anything right now to redeem herself? Would words even make a difference? Were there even words to describe how horrid she felt?
Her mouth closed. No, there were no words.
“Well?” Windburn prodded, characteristic impatience coming to the surface again.
Her gaze dropped to the muddy, scuffed top of her boots. **Guilt,** she uttered in sending first, dredging up that terrible feeling in the pit of her gut, and then she bared her soul as she finished with the rest of it. **Wrong. Know that now. Truly, truly sorry. Shame. Foolish. Cub-stupid. Regret. Regret what I've done.** Her sent words were as heavy and as sorrowful as her heart felt. She hoped there could be no doubt that she was sorry, that she knew she had been wrong. Very wrong. She had never intended to take the steps that Owl had taken that fateful eve so long ago. She had never meant to take away others' choices. Her actions had been a mistake she had made in anger, confusion, and self-pity.
She felt a tremor shake her entire frame, but she managed, somehow, to keep tears back. She took a deep breath, and dared to lift her head somewhat, to stare straight ahead. A little confidence welled up in her, then, and flooded every syllable of what she said next: **Don't know what it will take to make this right, but, somehow, I'll find a way to do it. I will.**
There was silence – a long enough period of it that Willow felt her apprehension growing by multitudes. Then, Willow felt the chief put his hand on her shoulder.
“The punishment is over,” he said softly. “Now that you know what you've done, use that knowledge to make a difference.”
Willow was still for the briefest of moments. She was in shock.
Then she blinked and nodded, and tentatively looked at him. Windburn nodded at her, and it occurred to her that though they didn't seem it, that Windburn's words were supposed to be encouraging. She knew, in his eyes, the punishment was through.
But why didn't she feel any better?
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Farscout nod after some hesitation, but, for some reason, Willow was certain she hadn't won the tall elder's trust.
She glanced at Brightwood then. This stranger-elf – the one whom Willow had healed – was standing hale and whole before her now. The two hadn't even had a chance to speak since Willow had healed her. They did not know one another. But was that a smile Brightwood gave her before turning away to follow her lifemate elsewhere?
After that, Willow saw some of her tribe turn and walk away. They were quiet as they left. What were they thinking? She knew some were probably still angry. Others – lovemate, family, friends – gathered around and embraced her and told her how good it was that she was one of them again.
She felt some mind-touches containing heartfelt forgiveness, and while those sendings gave her relief, it didn't even lift a small portion of the burden that had settled over her heart like a dark, dark fog.
It was past. She was forgiven. She was loved. She was still welcome here. She was home.
She tried oh so hard to let those comforting thoughts and words flow into her soul, but images of Owl and what he'd done, of her and what she'd done flashed through her mind like skyfire and blended together, blocking the way. Willow closed her eyes and tried vainly to push those thoughts out of her mind.
'I am not him. Not Owl. I am not that elf,' she told herself. It had become habit to do so by now. But she didn't believe what she said. Had she been foolish enough to ever believe it had been the truth? That question had taken seed the night she'd had that first, horrible dream. Now, it was rooted deep in her heart, blossoming fully. The flower it had become taunted her in all its ugly glory.
It asked her if she could ever really, truly, forgive herself.