(This story is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
Thornbow awoke to a world that was still pleasantly fuzzy around the edges from the previous night's revelry. He didn't want to move, luxuriating in the languid stupor of muscles watery and relaxed from joining with Quick Fang. He rolled over and pulled the still-warm furs close, her scent raising little shivers down his back, recalling a hundred little nibbles, sharp teeth raking soft flesh.
He was not surprised to find her gone. She wasn't one to linger once dusk came calling. He breathed in deeply. He could hold her memory, if not her body, and he wasn't ready to leave the furs just yet.
The night was half-gone before he managed to rouse himself from his warm nest. He grabbed his knife and his latest bow-in-progress, thinking to spend what little of the night there was left in his favorite copse, getting the final shaping down. On reaching the base of the Dentrees, he noticed a very different mood in the tribe this night. Normally playful Otter was brooding quietly to the side, like a tail-between-the-legs cub that had been snapped at one time too many. Across the way, he could see One-Leg and Windsong in some kind of disagreement, him blustering in agitation as she determinedly tried to turn him away.
Thornbow waited until One-Leg had decided he'd had enough and stomped off, then approached Windsong.
“What's going on?”
Windsong sighed and leaned against the tree trunk, allowing her muscles to relax from the confrontation with One-Leg. Her eyes followed him as he strode across the clearing, narrowing when he met up with Blacksnake and began gesturing. She turned her attention to Thornbow. “Suddendusk is... not well.”
Thornbow couldn't help but notice the edginess in Windsong's manner, or the shadow of bewilderment in her eyes. Whatever was wrong with Suddendusk was something serious.
Windsong closed her eyes, and Thornbow saw the wetness grow around her eyelashes and the weariness overtake her. Her voice was rough when she answered. “I can't tell you. Not right now.”
He reached out and gently touched her arm. “He'll be all right. You'll see. Cloudfern and Starskimmer are good healers. They'll do all they can.”
Her lips twisted into a rueful smile, her eyes opened, but her expression was unreadable.
He grabbed her arm more firmly, quietly seeking her attention. “If there's anything you need...”
She nodded. “I know.”
Thornbow was making his way down the Father Tree, loaded with his hunting supplies, when he noticed Longshot lounging in the crook of a branch outside their dens.
“Ayooah, Longshot! Aren't you getting ready to ride out?”
“Haven't you heard? There'll be no hunt tonight.” Longshot's eyes sparkled with amusement. “Suddendusk and Quick Fang have Recognized!”
Thornbow nearly lost his footing in surprise. He swung onto the branch next to Longshot as his tribemate continued relaying the news.
“The she-wolf will have none of it! Silly elf fled, thinking to outrun it. Snowfall and True Edge are tracking her now. Hopefully they'll help her gain some sense!”
The words were like a blow to Thornbow's gut.
“Of course, Blacksnake's not going anywhere until this all gets worked out.” Longshot paused as he noticed the look on Thornbow's face. “Don't worry. This won't last long. It can't! We'll be hunting soon.”
Thornbow smiled weakly and gave Longshot a farewell wave as he continued on his way.
The current practice target was a drawing of a tuft-cat, snarling and rearing, its foreleg slashing through the air at some imaginary assailant. Thornbow held himself in check, arms raised, bowstring taut, as he focused all his attention on the animal's eye until the bright yellow paint shifted to a bright green, green as Suddendusk's, mocking him, taunting him, taking those he held dear, Windsong and Quick Fang, each in turn, until Thornbow was left with nothing.
He let loose the arrow, and it flew straight to the center of that eye, rending the pupil with a thunk that reverberated in the empty spaces of Thornbow's soul. It was little comfort.
He pulled another arrow from his quiver and fixed on the target, the new missile following the trajectory of the last. Again and again he fired, until his quiver was spent and the target was just a tattered rag, the features of his nemesis no longer recognizable, but still it did not quiet the rage that burned inside him. The wolf in him howled at the injustice of it, that Suddendusk should once again, again, be blessed with the bestowal of a soul-name, should get to look forward to another cub!
Wounded! raged the wolf inside. Suddendusk was an elder, higher-ranking, but he was not whole.Weak! Wolf-sense said he should have been driven out long ago, not tolerated to be still around, siring new cubs. It longed to challenge, to take back what should have been his.
The elf in him was troubled, too. Quick Fang had just left his den! If she had just stayed longer in the furs, might it be him that was looking forward to sharing the new life to come? Must he stand guard like a rutting stag? Was it just a matter of timing?
Or was it something else? Was it something in him that was lacking? He was the oldest elf in the tribe that had not experienced Recognition, while several younger had. If it was guided by the High Ones, why had they passed him over? What was wrong?
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't hear the footsteps enter the clearing. It was only the movement at the corner of his eye that caught his attention. He turned to see Windsong drifting into sight, almost as oblivious to her surroundings, looking only inward, consumed in her own thoughts. He yanked an arrow from the target and she looked up at the sound, startled.
“Oh, Thornbow!” She looked around confusedly, as if seeing where she was for the first time. “I didn't see you there. I just needed to get away... just for a while.”
She slumped down on a worn rock that protruded from the ground and tucked her legs up to her chest. Her eyes again became glazed and unfocused as she fell back into her interior world. “I can't believe this has happened. I never expected...”
Her head snapped up and she looked at Thornbow imploringly. “We were so happy together... Crackle's not even full-grown... how could this happen... now?”
“Ha!” The sound exploded from Thornbow, forceful, mirthless. “I guess you got back, good as you gave!”
The softness left Windsong's face and she recoiled in shock. She and Thornbow had been lovermates a long time, and she knew his temper was often like summer clouds, building slowly and silently, til they toppled over in a sudden, thunderous outpouring. Often, she had been the calm in the storm, waiting out its raging. But not today. She had been through enough already to put up with this.
“Now, you wait! I didn't ask for Recognition to happen, any more than Suddendusk and Quick Fang asked for it now.”
“Yet, when it did, you went with Suddendusk. Left me to be with him.”
Windsong was taken aback for a minute, frozen by the echo of her own fears. “It meant so much to him, that we try to build a life together —”
“We had a life together!”
“We did. And it was a good one. But with Suddendusk, there was more to consider. The whole world changed, there was a cub — our cub — to make us a family.” She sighed in exasperation. “You wouldn't understand, you've never —” She stopped as his glare burned into her, daring her to finish what wasn't spoken. You've never Recognized.
She didn't say it, just returned his own angry look. He turned back to the target, working an arrow out with a slow back and forth movement. For a while the only sound was the breeze through the newly-budded tree branches and the rattling of the last few dry leaves still hanging on. Finally, the arrow popped free and Thornbow turned around. Pushing the wounded wolf deep down within himself, he walked to sit next to Windsong.
“You're right. There are some things I don't understand. But I do understand how it feels when one you love Recognizes another.”
He hazarded putting an arm around her, and was relieved when she leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. “I'm sorry for what I've said. My offer still stands. Anything you need from me, you have it. I promise.”
Her fingers brushed over his hand, gently moving to entwine themselves in his. Her voice was so low he could barely catch it. “What if he chooses her?”
Thornbow felt the pain in his own breast, remembering those first days in the empty den after Windsong left. He planted a kiss on the crown of her golden head. “Then he chooses her. And you go on living the best you can. Enjoying your beautiful daughters and cherishing the time you spent together. And remember,” he grinned. “You still have me!”
She pushed him away, shaking her head but with a faint smile fighting through. “Small consolation!”