(This story is part of the "Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
With the Howl to welcome Brightwood back to the tribe now in the past, life was supposed to return to normal.
Blacksnake watched Windburn and his hunters prepare and then ride away from the Holt, the first such party to set out in over three hands of days. In some ways it was strange to think it had only been that long since Fletcher’s death. It felt like longer, he thought, rubbing tired eyes. So much had happened, crowded into those days, that it felt like much longer.
A part of him wished he were riding out, like Windburn. Astride his wolf, back out into the world beyond the Dentrees, trailing prey and planning the hunt, chasing, killing, howling… that would clear anyone’s head, even his. And High Ones, how he needed that right now. His thoughts still buzzed with the unsettled memories that he and his fellow elders had called up to share with the tribe. Brightwood’s return to their lives was a joy that grew stronger by the day, but her presence also contributed to the sense of confusion that crept up on him in the ongoing struggle to wrestle memories back into their proper place and regain a sense of the Now.
Riding out on the hunt would have helped with that – but there was one more thing that Blacksnake needed to do before he could allow himself that reward. There was still the matter of Willow, gnawing at his conscience.
He had not spoken with her, not really, since the day they had shared the sending about Owl. After that had come her shunning, and even when she had rejoined the tribe, Blacksnake had hung back, waiting. One look at her, and he could see that what she needed first was to reconnect with those closest to her – her family, and her lovemate, and her friends. The young healer had been shaken by her experience, and he needed to let her regain some of her sense of self and her place in the tribe, before he approached her.
That, he knew, was also why Windburn had ridden away. With Willow’s punishment over, the matter should be ended, in the chief’s eyes. But it wasn’t ended. There were still things that lay between the healer and her chief that needed resolving, before either of them could truly move on. A hand of days for both to clear their heads, though — that was probably a good idea. Blacksnake guessed that was his son’s reasoning, at least. He didn’t think that Windburn was running away from what had to be done.
For himself, putting it off any longer would stop being a kindness to the young healer, even if it was kindly meant. By now he knew very well the danger that lay in allowing Willow to stew in her own thoughts for too long.
The raspberry patch was west of the wolves’ den, nearly to the slopes of the Home Ridge, where a streamlet snaked through a narrow meadow on its way to the Den’s Creek. It was off the usual traveled paths, and lusher than some of the stands along the Den’s Creek that most of the tribe’s gatherers favored. But the laughter of young elves from the direction of the stream identified some of the berry-pickers. Blacksnake’s ears could tell that was Pathmark and Evervale, though who knew who else was nearby and simply making less noise.
He was surprised by the sound for a moment. He’d thought Willow might have come this way alone — not far from the Dentrees, but just far enough to worry him, when he thought about how likely a spot this was for a bear encounter. Nothing was so likely to attract bears as laden berry-bushes in midsummer. And Willow had always favored her own secret sources for sought-after harvest like berries, just as she had always jealously guarded the location of the best honey-bee hives she found. Even here, in fact, she had her buzzing companions — bees attracted by the bee-charmer, or by the basket of fruit and crushed remnants scattered around? Or perhaps the reason she knew of this patch was a honey-tree nearby.
Yet it seemed this time she had shared the location with her brother and his lovemate. He would bet that she’d done it only grudgingly… but at least she’d done it, still obeying the chief’s orders that she not go far from the Dentrees alone.
Still, that apparently did not mean she couldn’t distance herself from her companions as much as she was able. The other berry-pickers were many wolf-lengths away, hidden from view by the underbrush and tall grasses of the small clearing he followed her scent to. Even here, though, within earshot of the others but out of sight, he discovered she wasn’t truly alone. He could hear the distinctive chatter of at least two of the Preservers. And soon after, he startled Willow’s wolf-friend, Sky, where the she-wolf lay in the shade.
What little breeze there was on this still summer day was blowing in his face, and he might have surprised the younger elf completely if the wolf’s questioning half-bark hadn’t alerted her. Expressions chased themselves across Willow’s face — irritation, surprise, guilt, wariness — before her eyes dropped back to her task.
Submission was not what Blacksnake needed from her now, though. He knew that she was sorry, that she had learned a lesson from what they had tried to show her, and from her experience severed from the tribe’s company. He didn’t need more proof of that. He needed her to talk to him. “I didn’t expect to have to track you all the way out here,” he called to her, stopping just short of making it a question.
Without looking back up at him, Willow shrugged. “Wanted to get away from the Dentrees.”
His eyebrow went up. “I would have thought you’d had your fill of that, recently,” he said, before he thought to wonder if a reminder of her shunning was such a good idea.
It was hard to read the flicker of expression that caused — a wince, or a reflexive snarl, perhaps. The young healer took a deep breath, pushed the hair from her eyes, and reached after a particularly low-set clump of berries. “It’s a little too much right now,” she finally said.
“That doesn’t surprise me.” It was easy to imagine. To shun a tribemate was equally hard on those doing the shunning. It might be a necessary lesson, but it went against everyone’s instincts, and it was worse for those who were closest to the elf or elves being shunned. Small wonder that they were eager to welcome her back into their lives, to erase the painful feeling of separation — or that their attentions might feel suffocating from time to time.
“But,” he went on, “I’m not sure running away is the best idea. In fact, I’m sure of it.” For he was sure that it wasn’t only the crowding of her family and friends driving her to seek some relative solitude. Recent events had given Willow a great deal to wrestle with, and it was foolish to think that four days alone had been enough to work through it all.
“I wasn’t planning on staying out here all night,” she told him, her tone sharper now. “Besides, it’s not like I’m hard to find if someone’s looking for me.”
Blacksnake smiled to himself at her familiar tactic — answer the surface concern and dodge his deeper meaning. “No. You weren’t. And to tell the truth, it’s just as well.” That earned him a wary glance as she tried to guess whether she should be alarmed, though all he meant was that he preferred to avoid an audience, just as he was sure she would. But Pathmark and Evervale were already giving her some space to herself, and that was enough to suit his purpose. “Willow,” he said seriously, “it’s time we talked.”
Finally, she sat back, giving him her undivided attention. She looked resigned rather than receptive.
Well, he hadn’t expected her to make this easy. He dropped down to sit cross-legged in front of her, pleased to see her flash of surprise. But he needed not to be looking down on her, for this. “You’ve had a lot to think about over these past few hands of days,” he began. “You learned things that you needed to know – things we should have figured out how to tell you long before everything went out of control.” Blacksnake could see by her expression that she was bracing herself for another recounting of her mistakes and faults, so his smile was wry as he said, “But there are still things you need to hear, starting with this — I’m sorry.”
Whatever she had expected him to say, it clearly wasn’t that. The look she shot him was questioning. “You’re sorry? For what?” Her mouth twisted unhappily. “I thought I was the one who completely fouled things up. Not you.”
Blacksnake shook his head. “When you first came into your magic, I watched you closely enough to see when you needed help, but had gotten yourself tied up in knots so tight you didn’t know how to ask for it.” She nodded, remembering the day he had followed her to the hot-springs. He’d helped her cut through some of those knots, that day, and after that, he’d given her what help he could. He’d also gotten her to stop hiding away, and to start relying on others. “But once you started asking others for help, I stopped watching as closely as I should have.”
He meant that admission seriously, but she seemed to shrug it off. “I don’t think one more set of eyes would have made a difference,” she said, and the resignation in her voice, her easy dismissal of the idea that anything could have changed the path she had taken, made his reply to her sharper than he intended.
“One more voice might have,” he pointed out. “Not just trying to get through your thick skull, although that’s a tall enough task on the best of days — but trying to help you get through Windburn’s, as well.”
Willow seemed to be at a loss when Windburn’s name was mentioned. She seemed to be searching for the right words to say, and eventually settled on, “I don’t think arguing with him would have done much good, either.”
“Exactly,” Blacksnake told her, his tone still impatient. “Arguing wasn’t doing either of you any good, and you weren’t coming up with better ideas on your own.” He could see her bristling at his tone, and the look he gave her was pointedly challenging. “Which is why I seem to recall telling you to ask for help, if you needed it. Especially if it came to you having trouble with others pushing you too hard — or making you feel hemmed in.”
Willow’s face darkened at his words. “Why would I have asked you for help?” she demanded, letting through some of the anger she had buried but clearly not forgotten. “You and Windburn seemed to be eye to eye as far as my affairs were concerned.”
But he’d had time enough himself to think on where things had gone wrong, and where the mistakes and miscommunications had multiplied. “Willow,” he said, keeping his voice as level as hers had been heated, “I gave you my trust, long ago. I trusted that you had the strength to master your powers. I trusted that you would work to gain control over them, and you did. I trusted that you would ask others for help to do that, and you did that too. But you were supposed to trust my word that I would help you if you came to me.”
And he admitted it, that hurt. He’d thought the two of them had reached some kind of understanding, new and unexpected as it was to the patterns they had followed before that. And though Blacksnake blamed himself for failing to heed the warning signs that he had seen… she had failed to hold him to his promise, as well.
Now she looked away again, and he sensed the defeatism in her that he finally realized was the greatest warning there could be. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she said heavily. “What’s done is done. I made my den, and now I’ll sleep in it.”
“No!” His finger stabbed towards her, startling her. “That’s the last thing you need to do. That’s what brought you here,” he told her bluntly. “You need to get out of your own head, not burrow down deeper into it and pull the hole in behind you.”
“What is it you think I need to do, then?” Willow snapped back at him, and he was pleased with that. It was better to have her snapping than to have her withdrawn.
He was still pointing at her. “Question yourself, catch yourself, when you start to think that you know what’s in everyone else’s mind. You assumed you knew what was in my mind, without asking me. You decided that coming to me for help would fail, because when you played those encounters out in your head, that’s all you could see.” The frown on her face now looked more thoughtful than angry, and Blacksnake knew he had gotten her attention. “You can’t afford to do that any longer, Willow. It makes you talk yourself into a course of action that you’ve decided is the only path open to you. But you don’t know, because you haven’t truly looked at those other paths. You only imagined them.”
When her answer came, though, it seemed as if she hadn’t heard him. “I know I should have waited,” said the healer, and from her tone it sounded as if she was saying words that she had said so many times to herself that they had become a chant, “I know I was wrong. I was angry and felt like no one wanted to listen.” Her brows drew together, and she searched for words for a moment before adding, “It would have been easier to have been told no, if I could have just said what was on my mind rather than being told I was some spoiled cub who was whining for attention.”
But that was not the argument that Blacksnake wanted to have, at this point. Though there was one piece of it that he could seize on, and try to make her see in a different way. “It won’t be a comfort to hear this, I know,” he told her, “but you’re going to have to learn to recognize when your anger is leading your decisions, as well.” Why she had been angry was one thing, but she had to learn to separate the reasons from the consequences of her anger.
When he saw her open her mouth to reply, he held up his hand, shaking his head. “No, it isn’t fair — but your powers are a great gift, and a great weapon in your hands, as well. All of us learn as cubs that it’s dangerous to wield a weapon when we are angry. And this is part of the same problem, Willow. Anger is what closes your ears, and makes you imagine what others are saying, instead of hearing them.” Above anything else, he needed her to hear that, now. “Knowing you were wrong and should have waited, that was only one of the lessons you needed to learn, and I’m glad to hear you say it. But all the lessons we tried to teach you were in vain, if we don’t figure out the roots of what caused the problem.”
He held up one finger, again asking her to wait before speaking, and then he angled his hand to turn the gesture into ’first’. “One of those roots is my son, our chief, and how hard his heels dig in when his own stubborn anger is aroused. Some of the roots belong to the rest of us, and the things we did and didn’t do. And one of them is surely yours.” Blacksnake let his hand drop after he’d raised that third finger. “Accepting the responsibility for what you did, showing you understand it – that’s important. But you have to learn ways to prevent it from becoming that bad again.”
Willow spread her hands. “I can’t argue with Windburn when he thinks he’s right and won’t listen. And, as far as I know, he’ll still think I need to be sheltered back here at the Holt because I’ll be needed to help someone else.” Her frustration with that idea came through loud and clear in her tone. But then, she took a deep breath, and her shoulders slumped again. “And I suppose I shouldn’t expect any freedom when he doesn’t trust me. I accept that, too.”
“Then here is where we try something different,” Blacksnake declared, “instead of staying trapped in the same old patterns. You still don’t know what’s really in Windburn’s mind, until you talk to him,” he pointed out. “And a talk between he and you is coming, you can count on that. If he’s been giving you room up until now, as I have, it’s only because he wants you to have a chance to regain your balance, before you and he revisit what’s between you. But you don’t have to do that alone.” He made his voice as persuasive as he could, even though he was more used to giving orders than talking youngsters into what he wanted them to do. “Let me stand with you, and see if between us, we can get him to consider a different path.”
She didn’t look convinced. “You can stand by my side if you think it will help, but I hope you’ll understand if I go into this without any expectations.”
That made him quirk an eyebrow at her. “You doubt my ability to convince our chief to follow my advice? I’m wounded,” he told her, his tone heavy with irony.
But she didn’t respond, still sunk in her pessimism. “He’s your son, and as you say, his heels are dug in deep. He won’t change his mind unless he’s absolutely sure there’s no danger in his doing so.”
“But he has seen the danger, now,” Blacksnake reminded her. “Seen it, and felt it. That sending was for his benefit as well, after all. You both saw how full a life Owl led, and what good it was for him. A healthy and happy healer is what a tribe needs – and maybe we all showed him enough of what that looks like, to stand out against the alternative.”
Even if the horror of the alternative was enough to overwhelm all their memories, they had shown that other side to Owl as well, and the days when he was a vital and trusted member of the tribe. “I’m asking you to try, Willow. Instead of giving up beforehand because you’ve played out the failure in your head. And this time I’m prompting you to ask for my help, because I intend to prove to you that it’s worth having.” And though he did not say it, it was the only way he could think to make amends to her for having let her down.
Meeting his eyes soberly, Willow nodded. “I’ll try. And yes, I want you to help me.”
Blacksnake smiled. “Good. Then when our chief returns, let’s see what good the two of us can do when we stand together.”
The hunt had gone well; at least as well as it should have. Neither Windburn's head nor heart had been in the chase, and even as the kills were dressed and being taken back to the Holt for the tribe to feast upon, he found he didn't really hunger for the kill. He had other things that concerned him more right now.
Images from the sending two hands of days before still seemed to burn in his mind, as he was sure it had been seared into others: that of a sick and dying tribe, of a healer gone mad, and of a chieftess' difficult decision to have to cut down one of her own tribe in order to keep what had not been twisted and decimated safe. What he had learned there had been nothing new; the tribe had been telling stories about Owl's madness for as long as he had lived, and then some. That yarn was something always guaranteed to be spoken about on the darkest, blackest, and eeriest nights. Those images, while disturbing, did not bother him.
Others, however, did. As he and the hunters with him loped over grass-covered knolls and moonlit-dappled forest to bring the kill home, his mind couldn't help but to be drawn to images of One-Leg's sharing early on during the whole ceremony: of Owl in the midst of the hunt, in the thick of danger, competing with his tribemates to score the kill.
His mother had not sheltered Owl, even though with every dangerous day, there had been the possibility that something might have happened that could have brought the old healer's life to an end.
Certainly, his mother would have handled this whole situation differently. She was always better with words than he had been. She was good at persuading people to do what she wanted. Perhaps she could have gotten through the young healer's thick skull about why Willow needed to be patient and careful, and why there was no rush to get the last of the wrapstuffed elves out of their cocoons.
He realized, too, that Easysinger probably wouldn't have sat on Willow so hard, either.
But he was not his mother. He was, however, chief. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few; that was a reality he, as chief, had come to understand quite quickly when he had taken on the responsibility of leading his tribe. And now that Willow had come into her powers, he wanted her to realize that, too.
But maybe, he admitted to himself, just maybe, he had sat on the healer a little more than he had needed to.
A wolfrider’s life was full of risks. A chief might want to shelter his tribemates from those risks, but he couldn’t, not fully. Even the most precious, guarded cubs could be threatened in the middle of the Holt, where everyone thought they were safe. The risks of life had to be accepted, and lived with. Each day had to be lived to the fullest, and every wolfrider had earned the right to live that way. No one’s skills or powers were so valuable that it warranted trying to shut them away, keeping them from living. Not even a healer. She was a wolfrider first… just as Owl had been.
As his little hunting group crested the last little rise leading into the Holt proper, the others behind him howled to announce the arrival of food and fresh meat. Windburn did not join in. Instead, as he spied Willow emerge from the Mother Tree with Beetle and Notch to greet the hunting party, he veered toward them.
“Willow!” he called out to her. He hadn't intended for his voice to be so sharp, but there it was. He noticed that it wasn't only Willow who looked up at the sound of his voice. Willow's friends started at the call, as did various others around the Dentrees. He also noticed Blacksnake emerge from the entrance to the Father Tree, and begin crossing to where Willow and her friends stood. Many nearby turned to look at Willow, wondering what was going on.
Windburn brought Whirl to a stop near Willow's little group of friends. He looked down as an unusually-wide-eyed healer stared at him. He gave her little time to react before he said, “You are allowed to go out by yourself again, within the Thornwall — provided you use your brain for once and try to keep yourself out of trouble.”
There, he'd said it. It was done. He began to turn away.
“Really?” the healer's words of disbelief stopped him in his tracks. He turned to look at her again, his eyebrow raised, and she continued, blurting, “I didn't think you'd change your mind.”
Windburn looked Willow in the eye. “But I did... and maybe I should have considered changing it long ago. Now, let's see you prove I'm right to have done so.”
He saw Willow swallow, and then nod.
“The hunt as well?” came his father’s voice, as if prompting a question nearly forgotten. Willow shot him a look, as if fearful to push her luck.
The image of Owl and his kill was still fresh in the chief’s mind, though. “Yes,” he said, simply.
Both Beetle and Notch broke out in smiles, and Notch clapped Willow congratulatorily on the back, hard enough to make her grunt in discomfort.
As Windburn turned away again, he caught the briefest glimpse of Willow casting a questioning glance over at Blacksnake.
His father shrugged and said, “I told you to stop guessing.”
For a moment — a long moment — he wondered what Blacksnake meant by that. But, in the end, the chief shook his head and pointed Whirl back toward the fresh-brought kill. It had been a long evening on the hunt and now he was hungry.