Lightjaw's death had been a quiet thing, her last breaths mingling with the lengthening shadows of a chill spring evening. Her departure was notable not only for being marked by a gentleness unusual to the death of any wolf, but the suddenness with which it struck, leaving her presence even more keenly missed within her little family than it might have been otherwise. Cloudfern was saddened, Newt was inconsolable, and even Browncoat seemed to miss the absence of the female who seemed to find amusement in completely defusing his attempts to jostle for rank.
As might have been expected, Greenweave took her death hardest. If anything, the quiet of her passing seemed to make it harder for him to accept that it had happened at all.
"There was no reason for it." The words had become all but mantra as the last hour of the night had faded into silvery predawn with Greenweave in the circle of Cloudfern's arms, chest-to-chest, the sleeping furs pulled up to their chins.
"It was her time," Cloudfern pointed out, gently and not for the first time.
Greenweave shook his head. "She wasn't old, not for one of ours. She wasn't sickly, not even stiff -- there was no reason!" There was nothing to say to that, no logic that would counter death, and they both knew it. Cloudfern had simply held Greenweave until his beloved ran out of ways to try and defy the loss, and spent his tears on his lifemate's shoulder in a brief, devastating storm. Though weeping passed, the grief remained as Greenweave knew it would. Tears alone were never enough to lave away the hurts that hooked into his heart and festered. In time, this new ache would work its way through and free, he knew that, but until then, he had it to look forward to as a constant companion.
He closed his eyes and found himself fighting through the bushes that grew thick on the banks of the Clickdeer, the burn in his lungs echoing the rawness of his rope-burned hands. Thorns and branches tore at his skin, but all he could think was that he could not let them slow him up. Nothing mattered but keeping pace with the river. He scanned the swollen current in panic, searching for a glimpse of russet-tinged tresses or a flash of bright cloth tumbling through the choppy water.
He raced toward the rocky choke point nearer the Holt, sending frantically for help as hope lent a new swiftness to his legs. He could catch her here. He...
A sickening spasm of memory wrenched him out of the moment, transposing remembrance with foreknowledge of the past. These rocks had given way before spring floods so long before that the turns were almost beyond counting -- this formation of stones existed only in memory. But no matter how he struggled to assert himself, he could not will his feet to turn aside from a path burned into his mind. His stride never broke, and he scrambled over the rocks making a hazardous and uneven trail from the bank, losing his feet more than once on the slick, half-submerged stones as he pushed himself desperately toward the pile of river garbage jammed up against the most closely-crowded rocks. Spring debris -- driftwood, stones, uprooted plants going slimy and rotten, the waterlogged carcasses of animals that had braved the swollen current and ultimately fallen to it...
Still tangled in her own net and now pinned against the makeshift dam by the surging force of the river, Nettle lay with her head and shoulders only just above water. Her eyes were glassy with shock as she fought for air, her skin pale and tinged blue, bruised, torn and bleeding from where she'd been swept across the stony bed or thrown against stone and wood.
The splintered ends of wood and rough stone dragged across Greenweave's belly as he clawed his way along the pile to tangle his bleeding hands in the net and haul his mother into his arms with a desperate sob of breath. Maybe this time, maybe...
Nettle lay motionless in his arms, save for her violent shivers and gasps for breath. Her body was twisted at an unnatural angle, knees and belly facing the earth, her brown eyes glazed and staring up at a painfully bright sky.
The grotesquery of the moment pinned Greenweave's breath in his chest. All wrong. It hadn't been like this. No one had realized how badly she had been battered until they had gotten her back, not until...
The cold, the sun, and the river fell away to the dim confines of his parent's den, long since shaped over. Greenweave remained at his mother's side, but now he knelt beside her bed. His mother was, if anything, more still now, her legs useless, her eyes closed. He knew she'd been cleaned, had done it himself, but the smell of her waste hung in the air, not in the least hidden by the scents of melting tallow candles and cold broth gone untouched. He trembled still, not with the chill of the river, but at the intensity of the moment as he tried to will himself to share the knowledge passing between his parents in locksend. Tossfur's misery was as easy to read as Nettle's resolved serenity, and the private battle between them had stretched out for many strained heartbeats already. There were others present -- Doeskin, Chieftess Easysinger, and Cloudfern the healer -- but none of them mattered. His hands bunched into trembling fists at his sides as he watched his father's expression slide from beseeching desperation, to capitulation and grief. Greenweave's blood turned to water as his father finally spoke, never looking away from Nettle, though his words were meant for Cloudfern and the bowl of cooling death held in the plantshaper's hands.
**NO!** Greenweave's send was wordless, a soul-deep surge of filial protectiveness and utter denial of the decision. **You worthless, tuck-tailed rabbit-hearted waste -- you have to show throat even in this? In this? Mother...!** He gripped her limp hand in his own, trying to ignore how cold it felt, despite the furs piled on the bed. **Mother, don't do this. Please. You'll sleep... you'll just sleep. You'll dream for a while, and then we will see each other again once there's a healer and it will be all right, you'll see... please...**
**My sweet cub...** Her fingers tightened around his briefly, a faint shadow of what should have been a sure, cord-roughened grip. **I'm not so much a weaver that I have any wish to be a spindle for dreamsilk. I am sorry, so sorry to leave you, but I would rather be an ache in your memory than a dream that tangles your forward steps. Try to understand... I love you and your father too much to wake without you, or to make you wait for me.**
"No. Mother, you can't..." He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud until he felt the pleading words crack and splinter in of his own tightening throat. "You can't just leave us."
The scrape of a soft boot-sole across the floor intruded on his anguish, followed by Cloudfern's voice. "This is not your say, Greenweave." The words were not unkind, but they were unyielding. "It has been nearly two hands of days now, and she is wasting away, not mending. Hear me this time, please: her body will not right itself. This is her choice, and it is a mercy."
Greenweave rounded on him in an instant. Any interloping wolf would have known the deep snarl twisting its way out of his throat for the deadly warning it was.
**Stay away from her!**
In sending there was only truth, and the force of Greenweave's sending rocked Cloudfern back a step in surprise. But even truth may be denied in the face of experience, and the idea that Nettle and Tossfur's soft-hearted child would attack anyone, especially now, refused to catch. Cloudfern's eyes narrowed as he caught Greenweave's furious gaze.
**Are you so selfish that you -- **
The send had been accompanied by a single step forward, nothing more than Cloudfern regaining his lost ground, but still too close. Greenweave lunged forward, the knife usually tucked into his belt for everyday use now clenched in his fist, the blade pointed at Cloudfern's heart.
They were supposed to grab him. Even as he threw himself at the healer, Greenweave remembered -- Easysinger, Doeskin, and Tossfur had caught him, wrestled him outside. One-Leg had been close and had helped the Chieftess to hold him down. The pair had even tried to cuff him into submission when his frenzied thrashing and snapping had put him beyond the reach of sending and reason and he'd seemed as likely to do damage to himself as to those trying to restrain him.
There were no strong hands on his shoulders now, no bruising grip of the Chieftess upon his wrist, stilling his hand. There was only the wide-eyed shock on Cloudfern's face as the knife slid cleanly between his ribs and struck home. The thrall of memory broke and Greenweave could only stare in horror as his lifemate's blood pumped across his hand, hot and slick. The bowl of black draught fell, and still Greenweave could not move until Cloudfern pushed him away with feeble arms. The plantshaper crumpled to the floor, stained fingers wrapped around the handle of the knife.
"I didn't..." Greenweave whispered, recoiling. The denial did nothing to staunch the flow of blood, or halt the dark stains -- the blood and the brackish decoction from the upended bowl -- running across the naked wood of the floor to soak into Cloudfern's hair. "I didn't. I never..." Another step back, and it was gone. Blood, body, tribemates all dissolved into persistent shadow, leaving only Greenweave and the still figure on the bed. But Nettle was gone too. Tossfur lay in her place, his deep green eyes clouded in death and staring up at nothing. A stippling of blood stood out on his ashen skin, clinging to his beard and sprayed across his nose and brow like freckles. Greenweave had no stomach to look lower and see again the mess of his father's stomach and bowels twisted in his shredded tunic.
If there had been any place to flee, Greenweave would have gone without a second thought, for the guilt and shame and fresh grief tearing at his heart were almost more than he could bear. His vision doubled, then blurred to uselessness as tears came in a stinging flood, but there was nowhere to go. Nothing but this ghost of a den, the bed before him, and this infrequent dream that left him at the mercy of his own mind. Step by trembling step, he forced himself to draw near the bed, for there was no way out but to go forward. He struggled for the calm simply to breathe over a churn of conflicting emotions, old and new. More than horror at the sight of his father's broken corpse, it was the regret that choked him. Regret that his own rage and hurt had left both of them mourning Nettle alone. Regret for the sharp words he had thrown that night, and for the ones that had followed for turns after. For the loss of the closeness they had shared, the bond repaired with time and reconciliation, but never fully mended.
Tossfur's head did not move, but those sightless eyes, eyes that had been clouded over and sucked dry by the summer heat by the time the hunters had come back, rolled in their sockets until they locked on Greenweave's own.
**You think it was better this way.**
The send was pitiless, like dunking his soul through the rotting ice over a swift, black current. The accusation left Greenweave too stunned to even attempt a defense.
**I know your soul, Arn, and its rejoicing.** Tossfur's body heaved, shifting jerkily on the stinking bedfurs. The clotted wound at his belly yawned open wide enough to allow a trio of pale arms to reach forth, groping blindly in the dim light. The corpse swelled, bloating as if it were a cocoon itself. The faint, halting purr of splitting flesh reached Greenweave's ears as the gash widened. Bodies moved beneath his father's skin, offering only disjointed glimpses through the sagging wound -- the flash of a child's hand, an instant of feminine lips, momentary glimpses of pristine locks, blonde and white.
It was not fear that moved Greenweave in the next instant, but a building outrage at this mockery of his father's death and his own guilt and fear. He charged the monstrosity with a growl, intent on tearing it apart with his bare hands if that was what it took to destroy it and free the others -- !
He opened his eyes to the intrusive fingers of daylight that peered through into the den from around the entry flap, and the roar of his own blood in his ears. Normally, Greenweave hated waking in the day, especially with dreams fresh in his mind -- the sun always left him feeling laid bare and vulnerable. Today, however, it let him see that everything was as it should be: Cloudfern soundly asleep beside him (for Greenweave never sleep-sent, had never, even when he was very young), the quiet rhythm of Newt's breathing... and Lightjaw's empty spot between the bed and wall.
Aching, Greenweave started to reach for his lifemate, then stilled. The last thing he wished to do was speak of his dreams, and if Cloudfern woke to him smelling of fear and fight, there would be questions. He allowed himself the comfort of the faintest stroke of fingers through the pale warmth of Cloudfern's hair, then rolled onto his back to wait for sundown, his heart racing in his chest and his thoughts far away.