(This story is part of the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see the Collection for related stories, or see the forum listing here.)
The icy wind blowing through the mountain pass was nothing compared to the cold feeling in True Edge's heart. He knelt beside the prone form of Charm as she shivered on the stone floor of a small cave not too far from the main cavern where his tribemates waited. Even now, in her final moments, she was still apart from the pack. At the very least he had hoped she could spend her final moments near the Holt, but even that simple desire was denied to them. True Edge silently added that to the growing list of things the Fierce Ones had cost him.
The bad news from further afield was putting him even more on edge than the situation with his dying wolf friend did. Kestrel had shared all the news she had upon coming into her sending range and not a bit of it was good. Curse Blacksnake's hide, letting a human cub see him. Nothing good could come of that and now not only the scouts but the whole tribe was in even worse danger.
True Edge was distracted from these worries as Charm shuddered again. He lay beside her, offering what comfort he could. Charm was beyond replying to his concerned mental touch now, though it was clear she recognized his presence and drew comfort from it. On the other side her daughter Branch, one of the cubs she had borne which caused her to be expelled from the pack, settled in to wait as well. She had been less vicious to her mother than the rest of the pack and had taken to following True Edge around of late. It seemed to him that Charm had known her end was coming and had prevailed upon the other wolf to look after him.
Most would say that might be beyond the reasoning of a wolf, but he felt it was true. Charm had always been one of the most caring and protective of wolf-friends. He was going to miss her terribly once she had passed. It pained him that her end was so drawn out and painful. It was no fit way for a wolf to die.
Just as he pondered whether or not to mercifully end her suffering, a great spasm wracked her body. True Edge touched her mind one final time, feeling her final moments as she was released from her pain. As it passed and she was finally free from the nagging injuries and exhaustion that had brought her low, his head snapped back and a mournful howl issued from his lips. This was followed a moment later by one from Branch, and then very shortly after, more howls from the main part of Bluestone Cave. It was no matter now that she hadn't been part of the pack. All elves and wolves joined in saying farewell.
A short while later, as Branch looked on, he took the dead wolf's hide. True Edge had cubs on the way and it felt right somehow that Charm would still be there, after a fashion, to keep them warm as she had him over the turning of the seasons. He and Branch didn't have a full bond yet, but it seemed like it was coming. That, too, felt right and proper.
With that grisly chore done, he exited the cramped cave and stretched his tired muscles. True Edge's thoughts were all in a whirl, but at least he felt some sense of closure now... at least for that one issue. He was still far from home and away from his mates’ sides. There were still humans far too near the Holt and his tribefolk were in great danger. All this had him even more on edge than he might normally be and that was saying something. Before he could go far, though, a gentle sending touched his mind.
**True Edge? Can you hear me? I heard the howls. What happened?**
He paused, relief and joy replacing fatigue and sorrow in his heart for that brief moment. It felt like Kestrel was still some distance away but approaching fast. In that short mental touch he got the impression of her in flight, wind whistling through her hair. It seemed she was pushing herself hard to get here as quickly as possible.
**It was Charm,** he replied simply. **Her last hunt and the trip here proved too much for her.**
The next touch was more a wave of emotion than any actual words. She sent him condolences and support and the idea she would be by his side soon. In like fashion, he returned a wave of his own feelings: relief, joy for her presence, but an overwhelming sense of fatigue. True Edge had pushed himself too hard of late. With her arrival he could make the excuse to himself to just let go and rest for a bit.
Knowing she would be there soon, he made his way back to the main cave. The other elves offered him kind words and regrets. He merely nodded and said nothing. True Edge knew he had been harsh of late, more so than was normal even for him. His tribe, though, understood his ways and his moods and still accepted him as he was. In that he took some comfort as he went to the small side cavern in the larger cave that he used as his own den. Kestrel would be with them soon and he wanted to take at least a little rest before she arrived.
Her arrival had been an occasion of joy for the small group of elves stationed there. This business with the humans, and being apart from the rest of the tribe, was difficult on them all. Anything that offered some relief was a welcome diversion.
True Edge stayed a bit apart from the rest, watching impassively as she made her greetings and shared news. Though none of it was good the rest seemed to take it in stride. They had shared a brief mental touch and physical embrace before she was mobbed by the others. There would be time for them once she had reassured the rest of their tribemates and delivered the medicinal herbs Cloudfern had sent for.
Despite the turmoil he felt inside, it did his heart good to see the smiles on the faces of the rest. Deep down, True Edge had always felt he must protect his tribe, and in that regard he had felt mighty helpless of late. Kestrel's arrival had done much to raise their spirits, not to mention his. For that he felt both relief and gratitude. It gave him some hope that they could go home soon and maybe... just maybe... put all of this fear behind them.
The others didn't monopolize her time for long. Kestrel was tired after her flight and needed her rest, and it was nearing dawn so the others were tired as well. Bit by bit the small crowd of elves thinned and went their separate ways. Only Cloudfern lingered, though just for a moment, and exchanged what appeared to be a quick sending with Kestrel. This seemed curious to True Edge but not very concerning. Now, without the distraction of the others, he led his mate away and towards his own den so that she could rest.
All was quiet for a long moment as they settled in to the furs, sharing a quiet embrace that conveyed more feeling than most sendings could. Neither spoke a word for the longest time, almost as if they feared breaking the relief of the moment. His hand rested protectively over her belly and Kestrel smiled as she seemed to read his intention.
“The cub is fine. The mother is just tired... as is the father, I see. You've been pushing yourself too hard up here, haven't you?”
True Edge shrugged a bit but didn't say anything. He could see how tired she was, and maybe more than just tired. All of the flying she was having to do was taking its toll on her, especially considering her condition. Seeing that, he was not about to complain about his own exhaustion.
“I'm so sorry about Charm, but now her pain is over. Don't let yours overwhelm you.”
She meant more than his grief over his wolf-friend, of course. Much like Snowfall always did, Kestrel had looked straight into his heart and saw the source of his anxiety. He looked deep into her eyes then, as if searching for something. When he saw her momentary confusion True Edge couldn't help but smile, though in a rather tired, grim sort of way.
“I was looking to see if we had Recognized and I'd missed it somehow. Has Snowfall taught you to see my heart so clearly?”
At that, Kestrel gave an equally sad smile.
“One doesn't always need Recognition to see such things. I like to believe that I've learned how you think over the last few turns, though I believe it's obvious to anyone that all of this is hurting you a lot. Won't you let me — let all of us — help you?”
True Edge growled a bit, deep in the back of his throat, but didn't pull away. Kestrel seemed to understand that the growl wasn't intended for her and continued to hold her ground, and him, with a fierce determination. Before he could speak again she continued.
“It's only natural to feel uneasy, even fearful perhaps in a time like this. We all...”
That was as far as she got before the growl deepened and he sat bolt upright.
“I don't fear the humans,” he said with a trifle more venom than he meant. “I hate them... every one of them. There is a difference.”
He regretted the words, no matter how true they might be, just as soon as he had said them. Kestrel didn't back away, though. She merely regarded him with a patient expression. It seemed she understood he now had something to get off of his chest and was waiting to let him do so. After a moment's hesitation, True Edge pressed on, though in a much lower tone.
“It's not the Way to hate... I know that. It shames me to feel this way, but it's the truth. If I could kill them all — the Fierce Ones... those tame humans near the Holt... all of them — then I would feel a lot better.”
“The others aren't a danger to us,” she said quietly, “at least not like the Fierce Ones. We can and have learned a lot from them.”
True Edge shook his head sadly at her words. She was correct, of course. Even he realized that. It still didn't change what he felt, though.
“Maybe someday I'll have more trust for them,” he said regarding the humans Kestrel and the others studied. “But it might well be an oak's age before that happens. You see, the Fierce Ones already taught me a lot. They taught me how to hate and how to feel pain deeper than anything I've ever known. They taught me so well that I can't forget it. I can't get deep enough into the wolf-thought to let it go and grow past it like I ought to. I think they taught me to be just like them. All they do is kill, and I want to return the favor before I lose anyone else.”
Kestrel reached out a comforting hand and placed it on his cheek. True Edge took in her sorrowful expression and gentle touch. He had no more words but felt a profound relief in her presence. While he floundered for what to say or do next she touched his mind as gently as the breeze caresses the trees.
**I know it hurts... but don't let your pain destroy you. I need you here with me... Snowfall needs you... the cubs need you... High Ones, the whole tribe needs you... especially now.**
He wanted to argue, to express his rage for all that he had lost and still feared to lose. Her expression, though, and the honest love he felt in that simple sending, diffused even his famous temper. All True Edge could do was hang his head for a moment in both shame and a feeling of helplessness. While he gathered himself, she moved closer, wrapping her arms around him and just sending comforting feelings till he could reply again.
“It's hard, beloved,” he whispered, trying to convey his own feelings for her in that simple word. How had a cantankerous old son of a she-wolf like him become so lucky to have two mates who took such good care of him? “Windburn sent me here to keep me from running off after Brightwood to seek my revenge. I probably would have done the same thing if I had been him... but he needn't have bothered. While I would gladly have gone if sent, even I know how careful we have to be now. Snowfall has taught me some restraint since the first time they came.”
“And thank the High Ones she did,” Kestrel said, giving him a tight squeeze. “We can't change what happened but we can be clever in how we go forward. Whatever comes, we will face it together... all of us. That is the Way... and you know it better than most.”
True Edge relaxed a bit, letting Kestrel's gentle wisdom soothe the rage he felt... even the old guilt he still had about not being there when his family had been slaughtered. Long ago he had realized he probably couldn't have done much, but the thought that maybe one of his relatives could have returned home alive or that Brightwood might not have been near death for so long still gnawed at him. That was when he remembered the long moment Kestrel had shared with Cloudfern before they had retired to his den.
“My nephew told you what a grouchy old thing I've been lately, didn't he?” True Edge asked, just a hint of amusement showing through all the dark feelings still swirling in the back of his mind.
“He told me you had been over-working yourself and snapping at everyone. Then he asked me if I could help you to feel better. He was worried about you... they all were.”
True Edge nodded, past the point of being embarrassed or angry about such a thing.
“Well, tell him later that you did,” he said, giving her a tight squeeze. “You've helped me a lot.”
There were no more words between them that day. No more were needed. They still had a long road ahead of them before life could return to normal. For now at least, True Edge had more hope that they would all reach that time together.