They'd been sitting quietly side by side for the better part of the evening. Cloudfern had made no comment when Blacksnake had taken a seat by the foot of the tree, nor had he pointed out that carving by clouded starlight was a task that usually ended in bloodied fingers.
The herbs Cloudfern had been grinding were little more than mush. Thankfully he'd been wise enough to pick herbs which suited that goal — this time.
He was waiting, as much as Blacksnake was waiting. For each strike of the pestle against the green and the mortar he could feel his head clear, his thoughts drift away from all the 'what ifs' and 'whys' and back into the Now. Not completely; the wounds were too fresh for that. But he was no longer standing on the shore, calling Raven's name. He was here, now, and while he was grieving he was also thinking.
"It's a strong madness," Blacksnake said, as if the thought had just struck him. Cloudfern knew it hadn't. The words carried great weight, as if they were tied to stones. They weren't followed by a 'I should know' or 'It nearly took me as well', but they might as well have been.
The loss of Chieftess Easysinger and Blacksnake's actions that followed were only two turns past. Few heard the wolfsong loud enough to push such terrible memories to the back of their mind that soon. The stars called often enough to Cloudfern he feared there were nights he'd never forget.
"I didn't think it would happen to him." The statement felt both obvious and hollow, yet it was a relief to say it out loud. "They were Recognized, yes, but not lifemates."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Blacksnake hold up what he was working on, as if using the muted starlight to get a closer look at its details would help. Cloudfern took a deep breath and tipped the herb mush out of the mortar and into a second bowl, where other ingredients waited.
Blacksnake shifted his weight in a way other elves would have cleared their throat. "Are Starskimmer and the cub well?"
"Oh yes, she's well, as is the cub. Growing each day." Cloudfern had to smile at that. The thought of a tiny new life on the way, after so much loss, and a life that he had fathered at that, was a sweet balm.
There was less than a year to wait before he could hold his cub for the first time — but he didn't dare say that out loud. It was silly, really, as if speaking could attract disaster, but with all the tragedy that had swept through the Holt of late he felt he couldn't risk courting bad luck in any way.
To distract himself from that thought path, Cloudfern turned to observe Blacksnake and his work. He wouldn't have called the look Blacksnake gave him pointed. There was no accusation in it, no belittling. It was more searching, as if Cloudfern were a pond full of skittish fish and Blacksnake stood ready with a spear.
Cloudfern shook his head. "I know I shouldn't speak about something I've never lived. I've tried to imagine the pain, but…" The words were lost on him, leaving him with sending or silence. He reached out to Blacksnake, making it clear with feelings and images that he had no wish to push for a sharing, merely wanting to make his own thoughts clear. There was a moment's hesitation before he felt Blacksnake let his thoughts in fully.
**I've tried to imagine it as it was when I lost —** There were no names in his sending, only the sight of his father riding out to hunt, the sensation of his mother ruffling his hair, dulled by age. **But that is a cub's grief. And while they were my parents and knew me heart and spirit, I can't claim they were tied as closely to me as Starskimmer is now. Or as Farscout is, by choice if not Recognition.**
As memories of Lynx passed between them Cloudfern saw the faintest of twitches at the corner of Blacksnake's mouth. There was no telling if it had aimed to be a smile or a flinch.
Busying his hands with mixing the last of the ingredients, Cloudfern broke the sending and said:
"I would howl my throat raw if Starskimmer were lost before me." The mere thought of it was nauseating, with other losses so recent, with the cub on the way and also at risk. He tasted acid and swallow hard, once, twice. "In a way, the same goes for Farscout. We might have shared soul names by choice, but that doesn't mean I know him any less than I know Starskimmer. Yet I can't see myself doing what… what Raven did."
Blacksnake blew at the wood he was carving, sending tiny splinters flying, before catching Cloudfern's eye and raising an eyebrow. There was a hint of challenge in the gesture and Cloudfern found that the familiarity of it was soothing.
He tried to smile again and was relieved when one came easily. It might have been worn at the edges, but it didn't strain his cheeks and for the moment his eyes remained dry.
"I might not have your turns of the seasons, old wolf," he said to Blacksnake, his voice carrying despite the waver in it. "I've not seen as many rafts, but I've seen enough to know myself, at least a little."
Blacksnake opened his mouth. Before he could speak, Cloudfern continued:
"You don't need to fret about me," he said and smile wider at the frown that wrinkled Blacksnake's brow. "Don't think you've tricked me or anyone else with your silent worrying. You've been keeping an eye on everyone after —" The word 'flood' wouldn't make it past his lips, smile or no. "Well, after everything."
There was something akin to a stare-down between them for a heartbeat or two. Blacksnake's expression was neutral and he stayed quiet, only watching, as if he could get into Cloudfern's head without sending and see what really lurked in there.
"I admit I can't know for certain what I would do if it had been I who'd lost my Recognized and not Raven." Cloudfern paused, weighing his words carefully. "I can, however, promise I have no plans of doing anything foolish or dangerous while I grieve."
"Good." Cloudfern knew Blacksnake well enough to hear all that was meant to be said with that word.
The mortar was empty. The ingredients were mixed. His hands were dirty. The storm inside his head had settled, if only until daylight.
"Is it a wolf?" Cloudfern asked, squinting at the outline of the carving.
"Best toy for a young cub, once they're old enough to play," Blacksnake said as he set about forming the curve of the wooden animal's back. "Best too that you give your son or daughter something to occupy themselves with. You might have another Coyote on your hands soon." There was a light in his eye that Cloudfern hadn't seen for a long while.
Cloudfern sighed, but the sigh was followed by a chuckle. "Yes, we might. But I think we shall manage."
The night fell silent around them again. Cloudfern cleaned his tools, then went to work on his next mixture. Blacksnake kept on carving. They stayed like that until the sun began to rise.