(This story is a sequel to “Gone.” It is also part of the ”Trying to have a child outside of Recognition” storyline - see list for related stories..)
Blacksnake and his hunters returned to the Holt with a catch that would have been cause for celebration at any other time. The two whitetail bucks would have made an immediate feast, and the young eagle that had unwisely tried to steal one of the kills would become the fletching for many good arrows. But the triumph of a good and lucky hunt was dampened as soon as the hunters came back into range, and heard the somber news that put an almost visible pall over the Dentrees.
It was worse, perhaps, because it was so shocking. They had all rejoiced with the trio of elders only a few hands of days ago, when Willow's success meant not just that another cub was on its way to the tribe, but that a great healer's skill lost with their ancestors might be found once again. Some had been skeptical that it could be done at all -- a healer sparking a pregnancy was the stuff of tribal legend, hard to imagine happening in reality. But the gamble and persistence had paid off, it seemed, and who could deny the benefit to the tribe, or the happiness that suffused Snowfall and True Edge and Kestrel, almost as wonderful as Recognition's glow?
Joy and the anticipation of new life -- that, the tribe knew how to celebrate, even if the occasion for it didn't happen as often as anyone would wish. This... they had no experience to brace them for. This did not happen. Not in anyone's memory, nor in the stories the tribe preserved and told.
Blacksnake left the others to deal with the carcasses. Their appetites were dulled now. He sent, and followed the echo of the response until he found his son, down in the Craft-dens.
The grind of stone against stone ceased when Blacksnake appeared in the den's door, and Windburn looked up from the pigments he was grinding. "You've heard," the chief said, simply.
Blacksnake nodded. "Were you here? What happened?"
Windburn shook his head. "I was here. But I don't know, not really. They say, in one breath Snowfall was fine, and in the next..." He shared in sending the impression he had received from those who were there: the scent of blood, the shock and dismay, the fear and helplessness.
Blacksnake recoiled with the sending, eyes going wide, nostrils flaring as if the scent was there in the den. That it ended with Willow healing Snowfall, and the elder's recovery, was little comfort to how wrong the scene felt. "Willow --"
"She could heal Snowfall, but she seems no wiser than anyone else about how it happened, or why. The cub was lost."
Blacksnake sat, resting his chin in hand and staring at nothing while he absorbed that. "There was a cub..." he finally said, not quite a question.
Windburn put another handful of beetle shells into the mortar and began to grind again. "Willow says so. So does Snowfall." He was confident in their judgement. Snowfall knew what it was like to carry a cub. Willow had had opportunity before this to feel, through her powers, the differences in a pregnant elf's body.
"And something must have happened, or else Snowfall's body would not have made ready to carry a cub..." his father mused.
"No." Blacksnake didn't even need to ask if there had been any accident, any injury that might have explained it. There would not have been such a mystery about it, if so. "Then how could it be lost?
"There's no shortage of questions," the chief agreed. "It's just that nobody has any answers. Snowfall herself is howlkeeper, and if even she and Kestrel can't remember a word of this in any of the tribe's stories..."
"No," Blacksnake said again, slowly. But an idea was taking hold, and his frown grew more thoughtful.
Windburn looked up, recognizing that tone in his father's voice. "But?" When the elder remained silent, his eyes distant, the chief went back to his task, knowing that Blacksnake would speak when he was ready.
This would have been a scene repeated many times in the tribe in the past hand of days -- others searching for answers, even knowing that there might be none to be found. For this did not affect only the trio of elders who, with Willow, had decided to try to succeed at something rare and precious and nearly impossible. Their hopes were dashed, but so were the hopes of the whole tribe -- those who might be waiting to see if it could be done, imagining doing it themselves in turn, as well as those who only knew how important every child was to their small numbers. And they had all known, they had to know, that maybe it wouldn't be possible at all. They had been ready to accept that. But success followed so closely by failure, with no explanation -- that was more unsettling than failure would have been alone.
"Why do we rely on Recognition?" is what Blacksnake said, finally.
Windburn's expression said that he wasn't sure of the point of the question; wasn't sure it was even a question to be asked. "Recognition is the Way."
"Yes, but why? It's a fickle Way, when you think about it. There's little rhyme or reason to it."
Every elf knew that, of course. And some questioned it, from time to time; especially those waiting for it to happen to them, with no way of knowing how long it might be until it did. Why Recognition waited often made no sense, but it had to be accepted, and perhaps that went along with another certainty of the elves' lives: that Recognition always chose for the best.
"There's less rhyme or reason to cubs happening without it," the chief pointed out. "Recognition may be fickle, but cubs born without it are even rarer."
Blacksnake nodded. "Exactly. So there must be a reason that we rely on it for nearly all our cubs. And it's only we elves who need it. Not the wolves."
"No." Windburn thought for a moment. "I don't know if a she-wolf can lose her cubs, but I know sometimes a wolf-cub will be stillborn." But that was something that he had never questioned the why of. It was just a part of life.
Blacksnake had seen it, too. Not just in wolves, but in their prey as well. Badly-formed offspring, that could never have lived beyond birth. Births gone wrong, taking the mother's life as well. They had all come across plenty of evidence of that, among the herds they hunted. "That never happens with Recognition. Neither happens. We don't lose our cubs, and they are never stillborn or malformed."
Another thing always taken for granted, the chief realized. "We breed so seldom, that's a good thing." It was strange to consider, but... "That's why we need Recognition?"
"Maybe," said his father, trying to decide the worth of that idea himself. "Maybe that's one of the reasons. And we know this, too: what Willow was trying to do, that wasn't Recognition."
"Well, no." Everyone had understood that. A healer couldn't make Recognition happen. She could only -- maybe -- help make a cub happen, the same way cubs sometimes happened outside of Recognition, the way Starskimmer had had Otter, or Newt's parents had had Newt.
"So, if Recognition ensures a healthy cub, one that will always be strong and survive... and if that's a magic beyond the skill of any healer..." Blacksnake was putting the words together carefully, feeling them out as he went.
Windburn thought again of the occasional stillborn wolf-cub, or weak litter. "But our ancestors..."
"Yes." They all knew that their ancestors had done it. The legends told of Feverease, with all the strength of a High One, helping to spark many cubs; and even her daughter Ambergold had done it as well, but... Ambergold had been pureblooded. Ambergold's son Owl was the first of the tribe's healers to have wolfblood; he had found it more difficult than his mother or grandmother to spark cubs outside of Recognition, and had found the results of such efforts lacking. By the time Blacksnake had been born, the tribe's numbers were healthy, and they didn't need to spark children like they had needed to do in Wolfsister's day. Owl had chosen not to spark cubs... until very near the end of his days, when, desperate at the thought that his own line was dying out without another surviving healer, he had done it for himself, with Beesting.
"Our tribe's stories don't tell us of times when it didn't work, but maybe... maybe that doesn't mean there weren't such times. Maybe our stories are of the successes because that's what our ancestors wanted to celebrate, and they didn't need to talk about the failures. Maybe," said Blacksnake, with more conviction than he felt, "they accepted the risk of failure as part of the Way. As worth risking, against the successes they did have."
As new a thought as that was, there was something about it that felt right. The life of a wolfrider was about accepting risk, not hiding from it. And cubs, so important to the tribe -- especially to the tribe when it was new, and its numbers were small -- it would have been worth risking much, instead of waiting for Recognition's lightning-strikes.
"When I felt what happened to Snowfall, through the sending... I almost wanted to go and tell Willow never to try such a thing again," Windburn admitted. "They say that Snowfall was never in as much danger as it seemed, but still. I could see how hard it was on her, on True Edge and Kestrel too. On Willow. On the tribe."
Blacksnake's eyebrows went up. He knew his son's nature, driven more by feeling than his own kind of calculation. Holding back, and second-guessing, did not come easily to this chief -- or it hadn't, once. "Almost? But you didn't."
"No. I couldn't put the words to it, but maybe what I felt was what you just said. If it was easy to do, then it wouldn't have been lost to the tribe for so long. And..." Windburn paused, thinking about his next words. "There are some risks a chief can tell a tribemate they shouldn't take. But I can't say, even now, that the goal isn't worth it. And I can't decide for anyone else whether they should take this risk, or not. Now that we know the pain we're risking."
That was a decision, Blacksnake thought, that many in the tribe might be contemplating for themselves, in the seasons to come. "Sometimes, it's hardest for a chief to know when to step back and let others decide for themselves. To let them try, and fail. I think," he said, with a half-smile, knowing how much his next words would mean, "your mother would have struggled with that desire to protect the tribe. I think... she would have come to the same conclusion."
For an instant, expressions chased themselves across Windburn's face: surprise, hope, and finally relief, before he put on again the mask of a leader. "Willow may not want to try again, after this. Maybe no one else will want to try, either."
"We'll see." Blacksnake wasn't willing to bet on that. True, the pain of this loss was harder than anyone had expected it to be. Physical pain, wolfriders expected, and could endure, or ignore. The pain of lost hopes hit harder. It was time that healed that pain of the heart, or made it easier to bear, at least. In time...
In time, who knew what risks any of them would be willing to take, what pain they would be willing to endure, if the reward was desired strongly enough. A cub? A new life made from the love shared between two elves? Even Blacksnake, who had already felt that joy three times in his life, and seen it happen to his children in turn, could feel the pull of that idea. And even if part of him could not, at this moment, imagine sharing that joy with anyone but his departed Tyrlee... it was strong enough to make him feel sure of the pull it would have on others.