(This story is part of the ”Trying to have a child outside of Recognition” storyline - see list for related stories..)
It was quieter than usual at the Holt. One-Leg had taken out a large group of word-hunters with him the night previously. They wouldn't be returning until the night after tomorrow, at the earliest. And Blacksnake had taken another hand of elves on a hunt to help replenish some of the dwindling meat stores before the next snowstorm hit. Cinder had been playing all eve with Rill and had chosen to sleep at his friend's den.
Windburn didn't mind some time without questions or drama or noise. In fact, he was enjoying this rare evening of quiet. The Gathering Den, normally a hub of activity, had been empty for a good part of the night, and he had chosen that as the perfect place to spend his evening painting a couple of large clay bowls. And now, even though the sun was rising, he had no intention of going to bed any time soon. Nights like this were too few and far between. He had another bowl that was unfinished, and he was about to go grab it when the sound of footsteps and a shadow across the doorway drew his attention.
He looked up as Willow stepped into the den, and thought she surely must be drunk as she took a shaky step inside and staggered toward the stairs leading further up into the Mother Tree. She evidently thought better of the climb and changed direction to head over to a pile of furs near the center of the room. She practically collapsed upon them.
Windburn was about to comment to her on her state when, from across the room, he could smell not wine, but sweat, exhaustion, and frustration swirling poignantly with her scent... along with not-so-subtle undertones of physical need.
It took a moment, but it occurred to Windburn that True Edge, Snowfall, and Kestrel must have been trying make a cub again, with the healer's help. It looked like the healer had exhausted herself by constantly channeling her magic in the process.
He pushed his paints and bowls aside and rose to his feet, asking, “Why isn't anyone helping you?” However, he realized the answer to his question before the sentence was out of his mouth. Beetle and all of Willow's friends were out hunting for game or near the human camp trying to learn their words. The three upstairs in the den in the Father Tree were probably as exhausted as Willow was, and he could understand her not wanting to spend the day there with them. But why hadn't she asked someone who was there and available?
Willow's surprised look said all too well that she hadn't seen him in the room. She held up a shaking hand and waved him off. “I'm all right. Don't let me bother you. I just need a minute to catch my breath before climbing the stairs to my den.”
Stubborn, stubborn cub! There were times when he could see that Willow had matured by leaps and bounds since her healing powers had manifested, but every once in a while, she would still do something that reminded Windburn of the stubborn, feckless spirit that the healer had been before — the one who thought she could do everything on her own and drive herself to the brink of exhaustion on something not life-threatening. Fine. If she was too proud to ask him for help, he would freely offer help to her. He crossed the room to stand across from her. “Let me get you some of Cloudfern's tea for your head.”
The mere suggestion made Willow's face go green. “I don't want any of that frog piss.” She put her head in her hands and mumbled, “I'll take my chances with a headache. Better that than to throw up.”
So much for his peaceful evening. Willow's refusal irritated him, and he was about to repeat that she should drink the tea because it would help both her stomach and her head. However, a sudden slump of Willow's shoulders made him stop short and reconsider. Instead of repeating his request, he pulled a pile of furs over close to Willow, and sat down.
“How can I help you, then?” he asked, trying his hardest to push his irritation aside. To his surprise, it eased.
Willow responded, “No luck again.” It wasn't the answer Windburn was looking for. It was a status report — a response that a tribemate would give a chief. And it was one the chief hadn't needed to hear. He knew from Willow's dejected demeanor that the attempts to make a cub had been unsuccessful again.
Windburn nodded, then brusquely responded, “I'm sorry to hear that. But can I help you now?” He wondered if the best thing for her would be to help her up to her den so she could get some much-needed sleep and was about to suggest just that.
Willow shook her head. “Not unless you have any idea what Owl or Feverease or Ambergold knew about that I don't know yet.” Frustration crept into her voice. “Maybe it has something to do with having Recognized someone else. Maybe that's it. Maybe I don't know what I'm doing because I don't know what Recognition feels like.”
Windburn shook his head, as well, even though he knew the healer couldn't see it. Willow was like a stubborn wolf too focused on a splinter of bone. Her focus was all chew and no sustenance, and she needed to move on. He tried suggesting what he had thought of before. “You're tired. There will be other chances for you to figure out what you need to do. Nothing is going to come of your mulling it over now. Sleep, and your mind will be more clear come the evening.” He gestured toward the stairs.
“No. If I sleep, I'll forget.”
“How can you forget? You've been trying this for months. I'd have thought everything you've been trying must be carved deep into your brain by now.”
Willow shook her head again. “You don't understand. This isn't like using a sling or pulling a bowstring. I have to remember what I did before that didn't work. I have to remember how things feel...”
“It doesn't seem all that different to me, if you put it that way. And I seem to recall that sleep helped me puzzle things out when I was trying to learn how to get better aim.”
“And you could wake up after and go practice again. I can't do that.”
Windburn suppressed a sigh. Stubborn, stubborn! He wasn't going to change her mind, and he was quickly losing patience with this fruitless conversation. “You will have another chance. I'm sure they'll ask you to try again soon. You're not helping you or them right now, like this.”
**Letting them down.** Willow had switched to sending now, and emotions tumbled quick-fire from her exhausted mind like rock from a fragile cliffside: **frustration, self-doubt. fear of disappointing loved ones. loathing the thought of having to spend a cold day in the furs without her lovemate. fear of failure. frustration.** She sighed and blearily looked at a dark-colored spot on the floor. “I hate seeing the disappointment on their face each time I tell them I've failed. I don't know how much more I can keep doing this and not find the answer they're looking for. I know how badly they want this to happen. I thought, before, I could do this. But maybe I'm not as gifted with this as Owl or as Ambergold. Maybe I'm not strong enough to make it happen. And, if that's the truth, how do I tell them that?”
Windburn found Willow's admission made him uncomfortable. This was a side of the healer he had rarely seen. She had always been careful to show him her stubborn, rough-and-tumble, ride-this-side-of-obedience self. The few times when he had seen her vulnerable, it was because she had pushed herself as hard as she could and had refused to admit defeat. Here, she had used up all of her options, but was now ready to admit that maybe she couldn't do what had asked of her.
He wasn't sure what to say. This was a time, he was sure, that his father, or Beetle, or one of Willow's other close friends, could choose the right words to encourage her. But words weren't his strong point. Actions always held more strength and truth in his eyes than words alone ever would.
“You tried,” he finally said. “And that should be enough for them.”
Willow's half-nod told him that he had chosen the wrong thing to say. But he didn't feel like getting into nuances with her right now. The irritation he had managed to push aside before was starting to push back.
“Go to sleep,” he repeated, and this time, it was an order. “This isn't the last time you'll try. And I know you're not ready to give up on this yet. Do I have to go find a skin of wine to force down your throat just to get you to let this go for a while? Sleep!”
A resigned sigh escaped from Willow's lips and she nodded again. She pushed herself to her feet and took a few shaky steps toward the stairs before looking over her shoulder at him. “Could you at least help a tired healer up to her den?”
“Yes,” he replied, his tone less stern now. At least now Willow was moving forward, and she would see that his predictions were right. She'd have a clearer mind come morning. This night might seem like a failure to her now, but it would prove to be a source of feedback. He rose from his pile of furs, walked over to Willow, and put an arm around her waist. She leaned heavily into him and they took the steps, upward, one-by-one.
When they reached her den-door, he let her go. She wasn't a child; he didn't need to tuck her in for the night. He turned to go back down the stairs, but thought better of leaving without words.
“You know,” he called over to her as she headed toward her bedbowl. “I have faith in you. Whatever it is you're looking for, you'll find it.”
The healer cast a rare smile at him as he headed back down to his bowls and his paints.