(This story is part of the "The death of Whispersilk, and Aftermath" storyline - see listing for related stories.)
The winds had gusted all day as the hunting party made its way northward and away from the Holt. When night fell, the winds didn't die down as they tended to do when the sun set; instead, they picked up and grew stronger until they howled like a ravenous wolf.
That, Willow knew, was usually a bad omen, and when a storm blew in that ripped branches from trees and pelted rain so hard against the hunters' skins that they had to abandon the chase and take cover, she thought that was the end of it.
But no, the wind had carried something else besides a storm upon its heels. Shortly after the thunderstorm had passed, another kind of howling reached the elves' ears, and this one bore even more dire portents.
Whispersilk was dead.
In disbelief, Blacksnake led the Hunt back to the Holt as fast as their fleet wolves could carry them. And when they arrived back home nearly two evenings later, the group immediately splintered with nary a word to one another.
Information and rumors crackled around the Dentrees like skyfire; so much so that they nearly made Willow's head hurt: Windburn had gone soul-mad, it seemed. He was growling and snapping at anyone who dared get close. She also heard of how Foxtail had saved Cinder's life -- Foxtail had been pinned by the tree that had taken Whispersilk, too, and she had cradled the cub so that he was not harmed.
And Whispersilk was gone.
"Willow!" As the healer dismounted her wolf-friend, Beetle practically flew from the Gathering Den and into Willow's arms. "I'm so glad you're here. So glad you're safe," she whispered in a voice heavy with tears.
Willow embraced her lovemate. "There was nothing to worry about over me," she soothed, but squeezed Beetle all the more tightly as she spoke. It could have been anyone pinned beneath that tree. "I'm glad you're all right, too."
She felt Beetle nod against her shoulder, and Willow finally let her lovemate go. The healer felt her eyes water and felt the unmistakable well of grief gathering in the back of her throat, and she bit it back. Whispersilk's loss hurt all the tribe, but she knew all too well that it was hurting others far, far worse than it was hurting her.
She was familiar with loss and what it could do. Images of events that had happened to her not long enough ago, that she had thought she'd forced into unreachable places of her mind, swirled all too easily into her head at the news of Whispersilk's death. Foxtail, like Willow, had just been an arm's breadth away from a parent when tragedy had struck. Were the feelings of doubt and guilt that had plagued the healer now racing through Foxtail's mind now, too?
"Have you seen Foxtail?" Willow blurted. Immediately the healer knew she had to find her friend. Willow had to be there, had to be a strength, had to let Foxtail know she wasn't hurting alone.
Beetle shook her head. “She might be watching Windburn, or she might be beside the tree where....”
Willow nodded. Beetle didn't have to finish that statement. Willow put her arms around her lovemate again. "I need to go see her."
"I'll go with you," Beetle offered.
"Could you put my things away for me first?" Willow asked, making a thin excuse for privacy. She knew that her lovemate wanted nothing more than to comfort Foxtail during this time of sorrow, too, but Willow wanted, for now, to try and talk to Foxtail alone.
Beetle nodded, and there was a look in her eye that said she knew the excuse was weak, but that she understood. "All right," she whispered. "Go find her, then. I'll be along soon, I hope."
Willow nodded and watched her lovemate depart, and then searched out her grieving friend with her mind. **Foxtail?** At first, there was no answer, so Willow sent again, underpinning the request with, **grief, concern, compassion, there for you if you need me.**
A silent emptiness greeted her again, her heartfelt emotions seeming to make no more impression than a shadow on the ground. Then, weakly, Foxtail's answering send crossed the distance, **Willow? Here.** There was no need to ask where here was. Given the thick, painful echoes in her response, the only place Foxtail could be was at the scene of her loss. There was a chilling rawness in the words that sent a shiver through Willow. Foxtail barely felt like herself, barely showed what she had been. **Mother's... gone.**
And that was all. Silence again fell into place where Foxtail's presence was.
There was an unexplained urgency to Willow's steps as she wended her way around the Dentrees, and then out into the forest toward where Foxtail's sending had come. There was a part of Willow -- a small but growing part -- that didn't want to see what she knew would be at that scene. She knew it would be too familiar, too painful, and that it would dredge up memories that were still hard to bury and let be.
But now, those events – those memories – had happened to someone else. And, maybe, she knew the road away from those horrible visions and could share that path so that Foxtail wouldn't have to agonize over the accident that had caused Whispersilk's death like Willow had when her father had been killed.
The smell of blood, of death, and of tears reached Willow's nose on an errant breeze long before she reached where the great tree had fallen. Though the tribe had already moved Whispersilk's lifeless form back to the Holt, in preparation to send it down the river in farewell, scattered leaves, snapped branches, and the large tree's giant root ball still clinging uselessly to a clump of ground told beyond a doubt that this was the place where the chief's lifemate had died.
And then, she saw Foxtail. The faint scent of others lingered over the stink of salt and blood for a fleeting moment, speaking volumes of who else had sat at the place Whispersilk had died, but they quickly vanished.
Willow cleared her throat and walked to where Foxtail sat, and then sat down next to her. She pulled her knees up close to her chest, then crossed her arms over them and looked out at the mess of debris strewn out across the forest floor.
It hit her again. Whispersilk was dead. Gone. A beloved tribemate was gone, and would never return. And it had all happened so quickly.
"I'm sorry," she finally said to her friend. To be honest, she didn't really know what else to say. Her throat felt tight.
Silence answered her words but Foxtail glanced around after a moment, observed their current isolation, and then leaned to the side, quietly resting her head on the healer's shoulder. She shifted to press her cheek more firmly against bone and closed her eyes tightly. "Me, too," she finally whispered. She sniffed then and seemed to shrink against Willow. Her entire frame resonated with misery and a sort of damp chill layered over her skin; Willow could feel it in the contact but resisted the instinct to draw away.
Foxtail drew a shaky breath. "I mean it," she continued carefully and it sounded as if she were choosing her words from somewhere far back in her own mind. "Mother and I..." She swallowed hard. **It happened so fast. I couldn't do anything. I had Cinder.** The switch to sending opened the rawness within to Willow and it felt like a swirling, black whirlpool. Beneath it all, though, was the recognizable thread of Foxtail's pride. **Cinder's safe.**
Willow held back a shudder. She shifted so she could put her arms around Foxtail then, and held her friend close.
**Not your fault,** the healer sent. She did her best to hold back any sensation of familiarity from her sending, but she couldn't keep from choking up, no matter how hard she tried. She knew how much it hurt to wonder about if things had just been a little different. She'd learned the hard way that it did no good to try and wonder what might have happened. **You did what you could. You saved him.**
Shaking slightly, Foxtail curled into the warm clutch of her friend's arms. If she noticed any of Willow's echoing discomfort, she gave no sign. "H-had to," she whispered. She let the tenuous control she had on herself slip in the face of Willow's comfort and the older elf abruptly received a headful of tangled emotions, **loss fear pain lonely angry relief.** Hearing the resultant gasp, Foxtail winced and drew back. A look of unusual sheepish apology turned her full mouth downwards and she kept her eyes focused low. "I had him and there was no way I could let him go," she continued in a low, slow voice. Control seemed to be edging back again and the dangerous quality of her mind retreated. "It was... luck that I didn't crush him."
"Hold onto that," Willow whispered, then. She was suddenly afraid to say anything too loudly, lest it be the final blow to her last, crumbling wall of control over her emotions. Now was the time to be strong for her friend; to show Foxtail that someone who knew and understood was there for her. "Hold onto your pride, and what you did to save your brother, and don't let the unknowns that will want to lurk in the shadows come out and attack you like..." she trailed off, deciding her words were trying to take a different turn than she intended them to take. She blinked and tears spilled down over her cheeks. She squeezed Foxtail all the more tightly then. **Here for you as long as you need me,** Willow sent. **Know you're hurting.**
**Won't stop.** Foxtail swallowed hard and again cleared her throat with a sad, little cough. "Father almost went completely howling," she informed her friend and a quiet, tired sort of awe shaded the words. "He's still not..." She hesitated and met Willow's eyes with the strangest of expressions. She seemed to be hovering on the knife-edge of hope and despair. If Windburn really had been affected so deeply and with Blacksnake off on the hunt... Willow felt her breath catch in the back of her throat as her familiarity with her friend allowed her to piece the story together. With Windburn's grief-stricken madness and Blacksnake's absence, the untested Foxtail had been given temporary control and the weight of it sobered and scared her more than she could have guessed. All this was made worse in the wake of the redhead's own heart-sick mourning.
Willow held her tongue, though, and waited, watching as Foxtail's gaze shifted to somewhere just over her shoulder. "Father's still not completely himself," Foxtail finished quietly. "Cinder doesn't really know yet. I just..." Suddenly, she hugged Willow back fiercely. "I don't want this. It's not fair."
**I know.** Willow felt herself squeezing Foxtail with all her might, and a ragged sob escaped her lips. She ached for her friend. She could relate to the miserable experience Foxtail was enduring right now. **I know the hurt gets more bearable with time. You hurt now, and it might not stop, and nothing anyone can say will help you. But it will get better. For now, know that you aren't alone. Others who are hurting -- your father, maybe even your brother... Knowing that you're there, and that you love them can make all the difference.**
Long moments passed before Willow felt a shiver run through the elf in her arms, something ragged and raw like a vicious fever-shake, and then Foxtail pulled back to look her full in the face. Her eyes opened wide as if to fight the reaction, tears nonetheless slid down her cheeks soundlessly, a picture of pure exhaustion and misery. It was a face Willow knew only too well. Then a heart-broken whimper escaped the younger elf's tightly compressed lips and she threw herself back into Willow's arms. A wave of woven sorrow and pain washed over the healer but, strangely beneath everything, an echo of apology and sympathy appeared.
Willow squeezed Foxtail with all her might, then, almost as if the younger elf's very life depended on being hugged. She didn't release her hold, even when she whispered, "Have you been able to sleep? Sometimes that can help -- even if it's just a little bit." She had shared all she would of the past; now it was time to help her friend through this horrible time.
Foxtail started to shake her head but paused and then nodded slowly. "A little," she admitted quietly. "Just here and there." She chewed on her lower lip and shifted against Willow to cuddle in for more comfort and warmth. "If I sleep in Father and Moth --" she caught herself with a swallow and corrected. "If I sleep in Father's den with Cinder, it only works for so long. Denning with Notch helps some but then I wake up and we just stare at each other." She sighed, closing her eyes tightly. "I don't think I'm sending but would any of you tell me if I was? I see it all the time in my head now."
"I'd tell you," Willow confidently answered, leaning her head against Foxtail's. "I'd wake you up right then and there, or at least try to get through to you so you'd stop." She fell quiet for a moment, then, thinking. She might be able to help in another way, but she still felt hesitant to offer. What if what she was thinking of doing was overstepping some line? Hadn't Owl done the same thing? But she would be using this for good – to help a friend in need. Indecision crept over her for a moment, and she didn't like that, at all. However, finally, she blurted, "I could help you sleep if you wanted.... if you needed me to. Just for an eve so you could rest. Sometimes things don't seem as...” she closed her eyes, trying to think of the right words, “...hard to deal with when you're not tired."
Foxtail started at the offer and drew back slightly to look up at the Healer with wide, shining eyes. "What... I don't understand," she finally admitted. "You can make me sleep? Make it all go away for a little bit?"
Willow nodded. "I can make you sleep. It won't make what happened go away, no -- but I can make the sleep deep enough so you can rest. Kind of like drinking some of Cloudfern's tea, I guess, but faster... and the sleep is deeper." She paused, and quickly added, "But only if you want. When you wake up, it'll all still be there for you to look at, but maybe it won't seem quite as overwhelming if you're not tired."
The redhead wavered, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth until she finally dropped her eyes to stare at her hands. Willow waited patiently; she could easily read the waves of exhaustion sliding from her friend and wondered when Foxtail really had last slept. With the other elf's gaze lowered now, she studied her drawn expression and the red rimming her eyes. Suddenly, those brilliant green eyes lifted to meet her own and another painful, grateful sending moved between them. **If,** Foxtail began quietly, **if I do, will you promise me something?**
"Anything," Willow answered softly, aloud.
"Will you and Notch and Rainpace be there when I wake up?"
Willow smiled and nodded without even having to think. "I can't make promises for them, but I can for me. I'll be there all throughout, if that's what you want."
**Yes, please, always. Lonely, sad, empty, cold.**Foxtail curled into her friend's hold and sighed softly. "When? Soon? Notch went to hunt, but he should be back soon."
Willow squeezed Foxtail again at the content of that sending. She wished she could do more than just this -- it seemed so simple, like it wasn't enough. **Soon,** Willow replied. **Whenever you want. Even now. I can tell Notch that you want him to stay, and he will... If he doesn't, I'll box him on the ears until he does.**
A weak, lopsided smile was Willow's reward. **Gratitude, love, warmth.** Then the redhead took a deep, cleansing breath, shoulders lifting and dropping definitively. "When he gets back, we'll tell him and then," she hesitated again and looked towards the heavy trunk still stretched out across the leaf-littered ground. She shivered. "Then we'll find Rainpace and go to my den and..." She turned to face Willow. **I'll sleep. No dreams.**
**No dreams,** Willow promised. And with that promise, she silently swore to herself that she'd do her best to live up to her word.