(This story is a sequel to ”Tempests”, and is part of the "The death of Whispersilk, and Aftermath" storyline - see listing for related stories.)
The misery of an icy, late-spring storm was compounded by scant shelter to be found in the open country to the east of Stoneback Lake. The best that Blacksnake’s small hunting party could do was find a hollow in the rolling land, and huddle there, a group of wolves and elves with their backs to the biting wind. Every creature with any sense was doing the same.
Even in their hollow, it was an exposed feeling. In true, indecisive spring fashion, ice-pellets rattled against the elves’ leather hoods, while thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the wide sky.
Blacksnake had himself fitted into the lee of Wasp’s partly-curled body, glad that he’d read the weather rightly and chosen to wear his winter-weight bearskin cloak. The three wolves’ bodies together created a wind-break of sorts, and just beyond his knees, Willow was wedged between Sky’s thick pelt and Longshot’s warm back. The archer dozed, features entirely obscured by his pulled-down hood. Willow had just awoken, and now she pushed her own hood just enough out of the way to see out from under it, even though it was still dark and there was nothing to see.
She sighed with resignation, stretched the stiffness from her back and legs, and then favored Blacksnake with a wry smile. **No use complaining when this is exactly what I’ve been asking for.**
**Been dreaming of getting stranded by a storm far from the Holt, freezing your tail off?** he returned, letting his amusement show.
She chuckled. **Dreaming of being out again, riding on the hunt.** Unspoken but clear in her sending – clear to Blacksnake, at least – were all the things that went along with that: the sharp anticipation of trailing prey, reading the signs and choosing which to follow, the chase to look forward to. Forgetting, for a blissful hand of days, her healing powers… if her hunt-mates were kind enough to avoid injury. Being just another hunter… and grateful that Longshot and Blacksnake were treating her that way.
Even the storm didn’t seem like such a bad thing to the youngster. It wasn’t comfortable, but they were relatively safe, so that the hardship took on the feel of an adventure.
Blacksnake snorted. Youth.. **Your watch,** he sent to her, feeling her acknowledgement as he settled down further to lay his head against Wasp’s shoulder. It was likely to be an uneventful night, in any case. Nothing would be moving until the storm passed.
But it didn’t pass. Dawn came in grey and chill, and still wet and blustery. The wind howled as loudly as ever, and beyond the shelter of their little rise of land, it looked like it would be a struggle to make their way through it, even if they could do so safely.
Blacksnake eyed the weather sourly. They only carried so much with them as provisions, usually counting on being able to hunt and gather small things to eat along the way. But the small prey would be holed up as tightly as the larger beasts, and at a certain point it didn’t make sense to sit out here for days.
**Can’t we wait it out?** Willow sent to him, as if reading his consideration of a retreat from the look on his face.
He could feel her eagerness. She wouldn’t want to have this opportunity cut short, after two days’ ride just to get here. **It’s been blowing for two days. It could keep blowing for two more,** he pointed out.
**Our supplies will last that long,** the young healer countered. **And once the storm’s over, everything will be desperate to be out and foraging for food. We can still have a hunt worth the name…**
**Besides,** Longshot chimed in, **if we head home, we have to go back into the forest. The wind’s only blowing little stuff at us out here, but the ice could be bringing heavy branches down in the forest. Wouldn’t it be safer to wait it out here?**
That, in fact, Blacksnake knew, was the best argument in favor of staying. They could find plenty of fresh water, and if they couldn’t bring down a deer to stave off hunger, then he was a hunter who didn’t deserve his facefur…
Then the wolves’ ears pricked up. In a pause in the wind, then, Blacksnake heard it too – a different howl, coming faintly from the south. It wavered, and held, and then repeated. They could all hear it now.
Kin – dead – home. Kin – dead – home.
Wasp’s head went up and his muzzle lifted, and an answering howl soon rose from him – the same message, repeating, acknowledging.
“Who --?” said Longshot, looking to Blacksnake, whose eyes were trained intently south, as if they could penetrate that distance.
“Patchface, I think.” The unbonded wolves of the pack sometimes ranged abroad on hunts of their own for hands of days at a time. Or they would follow one of the hunting parties of elves and wolves, then peel off. “Picking up the message from someone closer to the Holt.”
“No, I mean, who…” The archer trailed off, as if he couldn’t bear to voice the rest of the thought.
The apprehension in the archer’s voice was echoed in Willow’s expression as she pushed her hood back to hear better. The howl would be different if it was a wolf that had died. Kin meant elf, but…
“Only one way to find out,” said the Hunt Leader grimly. He rose to a crouch, holding his leather hood to keep it from being blown from his face. Beside him, Wasp rose as well, intent and businesslike. “Get ready to ride, cubs.”
It wasn’t good weather to be riding in. It would be slower going back to the Holt than any of them would like. They had nothing to show for the two days it had taken already to ride here. But all of them were now anxious to be gone – anxious to get themselves back into sending range of others, and to hear more news.
One of their tribe was dead.
It didn’t feel real. Yet there could be no other meaning behind that faint howled message, though. One of their tribe was dead, but a wolf’s howl couldn’t tell them who. Until they could receive an elf’s sending, it could be anyone.
It could be anyone.
They mounted their wolves and rode off into the storm.
It can’t be Windburn. It can’t be Chicory.
Those two thoughts chased each other’s tails in Blacksnake’s mind as he leaned into the wind and tried to keep from urging Wasp to a quicker pace. He knew the wolf was hurrying as much as the conditions would allow. The canny old chief-wolf knew the seriousness of the message without his elf-friend having to tell him. He’d never needed Blacksnake to tell him such things.
If it had been either of his children, Blacksnake would have known. He would have felt it. He knew what the brush of a departing spirit felt like. He tried not to remember that very often, but right now, it was almost like a comfort. He’d felt his older son’s passing as Riskrunner’s spirit flew free. He’d known the very moment that Easysinger’s life was taken from her. If Windburn or Chicory had died, he would know it already.
That was only the scantest comfort, though, for it left the question of who, a question with far too many possible answers. And it was times like this when the weight in his heart reminded him that any answer was unbearable. Any answer was a tribemate known since earliest memories, or from their earliest moments. Trying to count which loss would hurt more or less was a useless exercise, even if names whispered in his mind and faces appeared unbidden.
Behind him the youngsters rode in commendable silence. Both had family, and lovemates, and unlike him they did not have the certainty of knowing anyone safe, among the possibilities. At least they didn’t pester him for false comfort that he wouldn’t have given. They would know when they came back in sending range of the tribe. They would get there as soon as their wolves and the weather would allow.
It was hard to tell the time of day in the grey twilight of the storm. But Blacksnake thought they had been riding for a half a day when the first whisper of a lock-sending touched his mind.
**--snake – Blacksnake – Blacksnake – Blacksnake –**
**Here,** he responded, with all the strength he could put into the connection. It was Kestrel’s mind reaching out to him, and while she wasn’t among the tribe’s strongest senders, every moment brought her closer to them, flying faster than a wolf could run.
**Blacksnake!** she acknowledged, relief evident in finding him, along with a thread of other emotions: exhaustion, shock, sorrow, worry. **Whispersilk is dead.**
He leaned his weight back in his seat and Wasp’s ground-eating trot slowed and then stopped. Beside him, Longshot and Willow came to a halt, looking at him in confusion.
**Whispersilk --** his mind echoed back at the glider, trying to come to terms with that news, and in answer she shared impressions and images more than words…
**The storm – ice-heavy branches and howling winds – Foxtail and Cinder safe – a toppled giant – the chief crouched, snarling, by the body of his lifemate… **
**We are coming,** Blacksnake replied, and then he opened his mind to the two younger elves watching him, sharing all the news that Kestrel had given him.
It was impossible not to feel some kind of relief at the news. Useless to feel guilty for that relief. Those thoughts passed between them as well.
So they gathered themselves, and rode on.
The fog of madness – without sense of self, without rational thought – world narrowed to a wolf’s focus and one goal – unwolfish fury, yearning for revenge, yearning to destroy – blood-hazed vision – numb to the body’s weariness and pain, numb beside the gaping, ragged-edged hole in his soul where Tyrlee – where Tyrlee –
The worst part of such soul-madness was that if you survived it, it wasn’t something ever forgotten completely. Year after year of living in the Now dulled the strength of the memories’ feelings, but not the knowing of them, not for him. Once, it had seemed that only death could end his soul’s anguish. Time could not end it, only mute it so that living was possible.
These thoughts pounded through his head in rhythm to his steady jog as he ran alongside his wolf-friend, one hand’s fingers anchored deep in the wolf’s ruff. It helped to conserve the wolves’ energy at the relentless pace they were keeping. Neither of the youngsters complained. They were probably as glad of the occasional exertion as he was.
But running did nothing to still his thoughts, and they kept come back to the same thing. How would Windburn take his lifemate’s death?
Blacksnake couldn’t predict that with any certainty. He had watched many elves react to the death of a Recognized. He’d seen some survive, finding strength somewhere within the living tribe. He’d seen others run wild, or wither and die. Even when he watched his beloved Tyrlee wrestle with Oakhand’s death, sharing the pain in her soul and offering his own as an anchor – he hadn’t understood, fully. Not until it had happened to him.
Kestrel’s last report said that Windburn hadn’t run off. Maybe that was a good sign, but Blacksnake wasn’t sure. Whispersilk had been killed by chance, and there would be no obvious outlet for her bereaved Recognized’s anger or pain. What Kestrel showed them proved that the chief was not himself, either. He did not seem to know or care whose hand it was he snapped at – whether it was his sister, or his daughter, or his friend.
Would he come back to himself on his own? Would he refuse to eat or drink, to see or hear, until he wasted away before their eyes? Would they give Whispersilk’s broken body to the river, and watch their chief walk in after her and surrender to the spring flood?
That last image, too vivid, drew a muttered curse from Blacksnake that the wind snatched away before either of his companions could hear him. He snarled, angry at the fear that had him by the throat. Whispersilk was dead, there was no changing that and no one could have prevented it. Windburn’s fate wasn’t decided yet, and all Blacksnake’s mind could do was offer visions of how death might still claim him.
Windburn could still die.
As fast as the wolves’ lope carried them towards home, it was still yet out of reach. He was as helpless now as he had been when a tuftcat’s claws had torn open Riskrunner’s throat; as he had been when his Tyrlee had faced a mother bear alone, without him by her side…
His son might still die.
Unless he got there in time to do something about it.
When he could drag his mind away from imagining disaster after disaster, another weighty matter settled on him, threatening to entangle him like strangleweed.
What of the tribe? If their chief had lost himself, what would they do? Who would they look to? Who led them now, and gave them the comfort of a strong and steady hand?
When Oakhand had been killed, isolating Easysinger in her grief, Blacksnake had been there to stand by her and offer everything he had, all his strength and all the comfort he could give. The tribe had accepted him then, in Oakhand’s place, as the chief’s mate and as a leader. For Easysinger, the tribe and its need of her, her child, and her lifemate had been what she herself needed to give her the will to raise herself above the flood of sorrow threatening to drown her.
But when Easysinger was killed, losing her had been one of the greatest losses to the tribe that many in it could ever remember suffering. It had taken Blacksnake long years to accept the way he had failed the tribe then – consumed with the desire for revenge and with the desire to follow her. His lifemate had cared more for the welfare of her tribe than for anything, and as her mate, as hunt leader, he had cared, too, but not enough – not enough to remember their needs before his own. So Windburn had become the strong leader the tribe needed. And Blacksnake had not forgiven his son for being what he himself had failed to be, not for a very long time.
What would Foxtail have done, with her mother dead and her father lost within his grief?
For years now Blacksnake had watched his granddaughter wrestle with the question of who she was and what she wanted to be. Being born of the previous chief did not a good chief make. It took more than just parentage. He had seen that Foxtail wanted it, or thought that she did. But he wasn’t sure she understood it enough to know whether she wanted it or not. He wasn’t sure she understood that it wasn’t a prize or a pretty bauble, but a burden and an instinct. An instinct that not every chief’s offspring had.
Was he riding back to find that Foxtail had risen to this crisis, and the tribe’s need? Or was he riding back to a tribe still looking for a leader?
He had come to terms with his faults from long ago. He understood, finally, that he was not the leader his chieftess lifemate had been. Even when he had supported her after Oakhand’s death, and been accepted as a leader in his own right – if he was honest with himself, he had done that not for the tribe, but for her, and for himself in terror of losing her. And when he finally lost her, he’d done what the pain in his soul demanded, without a thought for what he owed to the tribe or his children or anyone else.
The tribe didn’t need him now. It needed its chief. How fitting, then, that what they needed was also what he wanted -- if he could be for his son now what he had been for his lifemate long ago.
Finally they came to the moment when they rode between the familiar, encircling trees, and the Dentrees were in front of them. It was the moment when all of the thoughts and plans and worries within Blacksnake’s mind went quiet, because at last, there were real things to see and scent, and grasp.
The scent of death lingered over the still, humid air of the Dentrees’ clearing – the storm was finally gone, replaced with grey light and lingering ground-mist over the swiftly-melting dusting of snow. Nearer to the river, he could see One-Leg and Moss and Suddendusk huddled around something on the ground… the raft, he realized, when Greenweave approached them, bearing thin branches in his arms. From the corner of his eye, he could see Beetle running to help Willow dismount on stiff legs from her wolf’s back, and Evervale and Pathmark climbing down the winding foot- and handholds of the Mother Tree, making for Longshot. Wordless sendings touched Blacksnake’s mind, and as they overlapped and he returned them he felt the mood of the tribe, subdued and grieved and waiting, their attention divided between those most touched by the tragedy –
**Father --!** One sending broke through the rest, rose to the fore, at the same moment that a small body collided with his chest. Chicory’s arms wrapped around his waist fiercely, her face half-hidden in the ruff of his bearskin cloak.
**I’m here,** he soothed her, and felt her heave a shaking sigh of relief.
“It’s awful,” she whispered, finally looking up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “Windburn won’t eat or sleep and he hasn’t left her side –“
“Where is he?” Every other question could wait, until he had that answer.
“In the cocoon den,” said Snowfall, coming up behind him. “With my sister’s body.”
Composed as her face was, Blacksnake could see the toll the past few days had taken on the white-haired elder. If he knew her at all, he knew that she would have been trying to be strong for the others who needed her. It couldn’t have helped for one of her lovemates to have been sent flying off immediately, carrying word to those who were far from the Holt when tragedy struck. He had wondered if True Edge too had been absent from the Holt – but Blacksnake had just felt the blond hunter’s mindtouch amongst the sendings that had greeted him, so Snowfall had her Recognized’s strength at her back, at least.
Blacksnake freed an arm to reach for Snowfall’s shoulder, hoping that touch and his expression and a quick, strong sending was enough to convey his sympathy to her… and that he had banished all impatience from it, even as he began to move in the direction of the Gathering Den’s entrance.
Snowfall and Chicory followed him, the taller huntress keeping up better with his long strides. “By this morning,” the elder went on, “he was too weak with hunger and thirst to be a real threat any longer, and we were able to dig her out from beneath the tree. He trailed behind us, and hasn’t stirred from her side since. We should not wait past this evening to give her to the river…” Snowfall’s voice caught, but when he glanced at her, she had regained her self-control.
“No,” he agreed, and paused at the head of the stairway leading down to the warren of dens below the Mother Tree. The air from below was thicker with the heavy, sickly scent. They were lucky the weather had been as unseasonably cold as it was.
The path down the steps and around to the opening of the den that had held the wrapstuff cocoons of the tribe’s sleeping members was a long-familiar one. He’d thought himself done with that room, now that the sleepers had been wakened – but it still held their empty biers, so it made sense as a place to allow a tribemate’s body to rest for a short time, before the raft was ready to carry it away. But as the death-scent strengthened, Blacksnake thought that they should have chosen differently, and left her in the air above.
When he rounded the corner, he understood their reasoning. The cocoon den had only two entrances, each easily watched. Far easier to keep an eye on Windburn here, instead of above where he might have run off at any moment. Farscout stood leaning against the wall just outside the den’s main entrance. There would be someone watching the other entryway, no doubt of that. Blacksnake could feel his old friend’s eyes on him, but he was too intent now on what lay inside to spare him a glance. Part of him noted with approval that Farscout remained in the doorway, behind the rest of them as they entered – a last bulwark against the possibility of Windburn’s sudden flight.
And Farscout was not the only watcher. All the Preservers of the Holt were within that den, keeping vigil in their tireless, protective way. Flutterby and Muckabout sat near the head of the bier that held the remains of the elf they had spent so much happy time with, silent and with wings drooping. The others ranged around the room, equally and uncharacteristically subdued, but intently watching the two elves within – one living and one dead.
Blacksnake’s eyes went immediately to the living one, and the moment he saw Windburn, crouched beside the bier, bedraggled hair falling around and hiding his face, a great weight fell from him. Still alive… still a chance. Not lost yet.
He didn’t need the halting warnings that Chicory and Snowfall began to send to him, nor the cautionary hand held out by Thornbow – the watcher on the other entrance. He knew what to expect, and he approached his son’s still figure cautiously. Several of the Preservers began to flutter anxiously, sensing the rising tension in the room. When he was near enough, Blacksnake reached out and deliberately drew back the raw silken fabric draped over the still figure.
All of his senses told him without question that she was dead. It wasn’t that he needed to see for himself. His movement caused the huddled figure to stir. After a moment, a faint growl became more audible, hoarse and ragged, but growing in strength. That was what Blacksnake had wanted. Windburn was not so far gone, then, that he would take no notice of others’ presence or actions. That was good, that was something. He had a chance, so long as his son was not unreachable.
“It will be time for her to go to the river, soon,” he began, ignoring the low growling. “Before we howl for her, the way she deserves. You should be there for that,” he added, meaning it, whether the other heard or understood the words or not. “You’ll regret it later, if you aren’t.” Blacksnake himself regretted it, still. Shared sendings were not enough.
The white, undyed covering – some of the crafter’s own last work, he guessed – had hidden the obvious, violent evidence of how she had died, and the damage done by how long she had been left out there, crushed under the great weight of the tree before the tribe could retrieve her. It no longer looked very much like the beautiful, enigmatic weaver. That was for the best, maybe – this was not the image anyone would want to remember of her. With the Howl they would hold for her, and the dreamberries they would pass around, they would start to replace this image with happier memories. But he could see, at least, that her death would have come instantly, and that was better than it could have been. He tugged the mothwing-light drape back over the shell of flesh that was Whispersilk no longer –
Because he was watching for it, hoping for it, Blacksnake was ready for Windburn’s lunge towards him. He twisted back and away, letting the younger elf come at him, quickly catching and immobilizing one wrist, then using momentum to swing him around so that Blacksnake’s other arm wrapped around him from behind. Windburn was indeed weakened, thankfully. In this maddened state he would have been hard to subdue otherwise, but it wasn’t Blacksnake’s plan to try to hold him like this for long, anyway.
Head bowed until they were touching, temple to temple, Blacksnake gathered every ounce of will he had and put it into lock-sending. **Vyc. Enough. Enough.**
At the touch of his soul-name, Windburn went rigid in his father’s arms. He inhaled sharply, his snarl turned into a strangled sound. Blacksnake continued sending. **You are not alone, Vyc. Your soul is hurting, I know -- I know -- but there is still a world for you here beyond that hurt. Come back to it. Come back to us.**
It wasn’t the words that were important, but everything else he could layer in behind them, beneath them, through them, using the key of his son’s soul-name – that had lain unused for so long, High Ones, for so very, very long, not since Windburn’s deeply private, guarded personality had begun to discourage that intimacy – using it to make the rest of his message unignorable: **tribe and son and daughter… friends, family… grief and fear of further loss… **
And in Blacksnake’s mind and heart, he did not mean only the tribe’s fear that the loss of the beautiful mother-sister-weaver-friend, hard enough to bear, would become also the loss of their chief. In sending he could not hide the truth of his meaning – and that was why he sent it, along with a soul-name he had not used in too long – that the fear was his own, snapping at his heels through all the long ride back to the Holt. **Too many loves lost – not this one too.**
It was to that admission that he felt the first stirring of a response, and knew that he’d done the right thing. That the reaction to it was **surprise** made him want to laugh and sob at once. He seized on that awareness, that spark of reaction. **Yes, Vyc. Afraid of losing you. My son. **
Painful, to feel the slowness to accept that revelation. Pain Blacksnake had to accept for his own part in it, within the honesty of such deep sending. Hard to open himself so much to a child, to this child, but it had done what he had needed it to do. It had jolted Windburn out of his inward-turned, endlessly spiralling thoughts.
His ears told him that they were both breathing hard, loud in the close confines of the cocoon den, though Windburn had ceased his struggles and they had been doing nothing but kneeling on the smooth floor. He sent nothing more, just waited, open to the connection they still shared.
When it came, the response he had been waiting for, it was only a halting question. **… Father?** But it still felt like a triumph, because it was his son’s mind and awareness behind it, and no longer only the unthinking, snapping wolf.
He felt hope, and didn’t try to hide that feeling. **I’m here. We all are. All your tribe.**
“My tribe…” Windburn rasped out loud, licking dry lips as if the words tasted strange.
“Waits for you above,” said Blacksnake quietly, beginning to loosen the tight hold he’d been keeping on the younger elf all this time. “Will you join them, my chief?”
They waited to grieve with him, to say farewell to one of their own. They waited for their chief to be their chief again, and they would give him all the love and support they had to give, so that he could be what they needed him to be – if he would take that first step towards them, and accept what they offered.
At length, Windburn nodded, and allowed his father to help him rise.