(Ed. Note: this story follows on from the events seen in ”Like Wine and Leather” and ”Taking Root”.)
As he lay on his side, watching the creeping rivers of red spread outward from his body in rivulets and sink into the stained snow, over and over, it occurred to Thornbow that he had never lain in a pool of his own blood before. Injuries he’d had a-plenty, but he couldn’t recall ever bleeding quite so much. It didn’t seem possible. How could he have lived eights upon eights of seasons and never felt pain like this?
‘Pain,’ he thought. ‘Oh that’s right. I’m in pain.’
As though summoned, his broken body howled, voicing every agony in unison. Thornbow tipped his head back and tried to cry out, anything to relieve the pressure of pain, but a distressing amount of blood was clogged in his throat. A rivulet of crimson and a pitiful gurgle was all that escaped his lips. If he could have, Thornbow would have chuckled. He sounded like a brook, like where his sister had fished when she was little, bright like sunlight, dipping in and out, in and out of that dark water. He sounded like a little stream, a soft little stream, so cool, so black, so soothing. A place without pain, without conflict, without weight or breath. Simply floating among the dead leaves, under silt and mud, through the branches of fallen trees. Flowing and floating… and flowing away.
The wolf in him snapped awake. Its hackles rose along every fiber of his being and, snapping, snarling, tearing, lunging, it forced its way up through the sleepy tide that was sweeping him away to sink its teeth into his brain. He jolted back from the edge of emptiness with a ragged howl, drawing air into his tattered lungs. This victory was not without a price. The quick jump back to reality came hand-in-hand with pain’s return. He took hold of that terrible edge in both hands and whittled his thoughts to a clear point.
Stay focused, stay alert, stay alive.
**Windburn, I… I think I might be… needing some help. I think… I’m not sure… but maybe I might be bleeding to death. Just a little. But maybe help might be…**
A wave of agony broke the dam of his consciousness and he finished his sending with a burst of pain. Then all he saw was black.
The impact of the sending almost knocked Windburn from Whirl’s back. Breath exploded from his lungs and into the frozen air where it hung above the wolf’s head in a big white cloud. He grabbed two fistfuls of her fur to keep his balance and pulled so tightly that she wheeled about and whined. He drew in a deep, wheezing breath and pressed his hand to his side.
‘It’s alright,’ he reassured his reeling brain. ‘It’s not your side that was stuck through.’ It was not his guts that were bleeding out; he was hale and whole. It was Thornbow, not he, who was overcome with agony. He let more air into his lungs and with it came clarity.
He steadied Whirl and cast his mind out to his friend but received only the faintest of replies.
“Windburn!” Windsong’s voice was at his shoulder, uncharacteristically harsh with worry. “What is it, what’s wrong?”
She reached out and steadied him, then ran her hands over his chest, checking for injury. He brushed her off impatiently.
“It’s not me, it’s Thornbow. He’s hurt!”
He took stock of his hunting party. Windsong and Thumper were at his side. Longshot and Rambler milled just a reach beyond, the tiny form of Muckabout twined in his hair. Eight strong they were, eight! They’d been hunting a solitary male branch-horn when a second male, a younger one, had surprised them. He’d answered the challenge of the second branch-horn, and Windsong and Longshot had flanked him. No words, no sendings were exchanged. None were needed. The wolf-blood had been thrumming strong and three of them had cornered the beast within minutes. Now it lay dead, its severed throat leaking into the snow, a killing done by instinct alone. But instinct had failed them. They were eight! Eight predators against two prey, that meant two elves and two wolves for each branch horn, regardless of surprise. But Thornbow must have rushed after the second prey with the hunt in his ears, assuming one of them was at his back. And they, so caught up in the battle… they had let him go.
Windburn swallowed his fear and sent for Willow. The healer replied instantly, a-flurry with questions. He responded only with the location and an order to hurry.
**I don’t know what happened. I just know it’s bad. Be swift and be ready for the worst.**
He closed his mind to her and addressed the others.
“Something must have happened to him. He’s hurt badly, but I don’t know how dire. You two stay here and ready the kill for transport home. The instant you see Willow you send her after me and see that nothing slows her down.”
Windsong had obeyed without question, leaping from Thumper’s back into the bloody snow where she busied her hands with the kill. Longshot hesitated.
“What if he’s truly hurt? Let me come with you, you’ll need —“
Windburn cut him off with a snarl.
“That kill is food, Longshot, food, do you understand? This is the leanest time of winter, everything left alive out there is hungry. If we don’t move fast enough this kill goes to another beast and I don’t intend to have my tribe starve this winter! Show me you understand that and obey me!”
Longshot's eyes flared for a moment, with shock and a hint of indignation. His chief was acting harsh and strange, and not at all as he should. But he saw the tremors traveling the length of Windburn's body and the clear and bright glint in his eyes. In this moment, his chief was not his chief. He was a wolf, and one with its hackles up. Longshot bowed his head and Windburn was gone without a backward glance, the tiny purple streak of Muckabout trailing after him.
As he pounded down his friend’s scent-trail Windburn fought hard to regain the stable chief’s mind he had honed over the years of leadership. But the edges of his thoughts were flooded with a sick worry he couldn’t control.
‘I can fix this,’ he thought. ‘This time. This time. This time.’
the heart-sickeningly sweet scent of silk, the touch of dark hair upon his chest, the flutter of breath against his ear
These memories flared bright through his mind, leaving no room for anything but the heartbeat-like refrain: This time. This time. This time. This time.
His reason, his tactics, the common sense and stability that guided him through his chiefdom were gone. There was only space for one thought.
‘This time. This time I will get there. I will get there in time and I will fix it.’
Before he saw anything else, he saw blood in the snow. It covered the trampled ground in a sickly pink blanket that spread out like a pair of great wings. At the center of the blood-wingspan lay Thornbow. He was on his side, his back to Windburn, one arm outstretched, pillowing his head in a way that looked almost as though the fallen elf had simply lain down for a comfortable rest. The other arm was clasped around his body, hiding a wound whose extent Windburn could only imagine.
The wolf chief sprang from Whirl’s back and immediately sank knee-deep into the soggy spring snow. He stumbled and lurched toward his friend’s side, cursing last night’s unexpected, late-term storm and its deep, slushy snow that was forcing him to a sickeningly comical, terrible, nightmarishly slow pace. After what seemed like ages, he flung himself down where the blood was thickest, right at Thornbow’s side. He scooped a hand into the snow beneath his friend’s body to roll him over. When his fingers came free from the snow they were caked with the pink-stained stuff. It looked odd, like shards of soggy flesh against his fingers. His stomach turned and he pulled Thornbow to him. He gently lifted the arm that was pressed against Thornbow’s right side. It was impossible to see the wound that lay beneath for the sheer amount of blood that caked Thornbow’s tunic and continued to seep into the white. Windburn reached out and seized a fistful of fresh snow and packed it against the wound, hoping to stall the bleeding.
He glanced around the clearing. The snow was trodden with prints of elf, wolf, and branch-horn. Thief was nowhere to be seen, but a trail of tracks showed a wolf in hot pursuit of prey heading out of the clearing. Thief must have chased after the deer, his elf-friend’s fate unbeknownst to him. He knelt down and pressed his free hand against the pale face that lay in the crook of his arm. Thornbow’s cheek was frozen with cold and his lips had already gone blue. Tiny puffs of steam from between his teeth were the only indication that his friend still lived.
**Thornbow,** he sent, **I’m here.**
The archer’s mind stirred against his. There was only the vaguest hint of pain in his thoughts, moreover his sending was detached and fuzzy. His eyes flickered open for a moment and then his face creased in pain and he closed them again.
**Yes, I’m here.** Windburn clutched his friend closer. **I’m here, I’ve got you, you’re going to be alright.**
**Maybe… I think maybe… I might be hurt. Hurt. Bad. I think.**
**Yes.** Windburn tried his best to stifle the worry that was seeping into his sending. **Yes, you are. But Willow is on her way; she’ll be here soon. I have to know what happened. I have to know… I have to know how bad it is.**
Thornbow began to drift.
**Thornbow!** He shook him a little. The archer cried out but his eyes focused. **How did you get hurt? Tell me!**
**The buck. He lunged. Knocked me off Thief. Attacked him apart, the two of us. Thief lunged, so did I but… I… got a kick. In the chest. Knocked me back… I landed on the…**
He made a vague, waving gesture across the clearing. Windburn followed and his eyes landed on the broken stub of a sapling. Its jagged peak was dark and stained with blood. Windburn swallowed and made his face impassive. When he looked down, Thornbow was smiling at him, his eyes glazed and hazy.
**Stuck on that thing like a fish on a pike. Had to lift myself off it,** he sent. **Now that… that really hurt.**
**I’m sure it did,** he tightened his grip around his friend. **But it’s alright now. Willow is going to be here soon and —**
There was an impact against his shoulder. Muckabout had finally caught up. He nodded to the Preserver and the little creature went to work. Before the first sticky threads were in place, a sharp flick from Thornbow sent Muckabout sailing down into the snow.
**Pesky flies... Don't crowd at me.... Not dead. Not dead yet...**
**Not flies, Thornbow! A Preserver! It's here to help!**
Muckabout went back to work, only to be flicked away again. It chattered angrily.
**You're dazed, you don't know what you're saying —**
His eyes were clearer now.
**I don't want to sleep, Windburn. Not like Honey. Not just right now.**
Windburn agonized for a moment, then he brushed Muckabout to one side and reached out to Willow. She sent back to him.
**Hurrying... On my way... How bad?**
**Bad. Keep hurrying.**
He sent her an image of the injuries and then shut her out. Were this anyone else, any other tribe member bleeding in the snow he would keep his mind linked with Willow, guiding her, calming her if need be. But it wasn’t anyone. It was Thornbow. And that meant every fiber of Windburn’s being was focused on the stricken archer.
**Alright.** he sent. **No sleeping. Not right now. But Willow's on her way. Can you wait for her? Can you do that for me?**
**I didn’t tell her goodbye.**
**Nightstorm. We spent the day together, yesterday. It was very… very nice. She made this tunic for me,** he fumbled at his coat front, his fingers pulled back just enough of the dark brown leather of his cloak to reveal a hint of smoky green beneath. The rubbing of the leather against the wound drew a hiss from his lips and Windburn caught his hand and pulled it away. Thornbow plucked his fingers free and waved them about, the pain forgotten in his haze. **She’s a pretty one, isn’t she? I hadn’t noticed before… A bit harsh around the edges, perhaps, but she’s so… so bright. I think… I think I should have said goodbye before I left.**
He began to fade again. Windburn’s heart sped up and he sent for Windsong and Willow. Windsong sent back that she was nearing the Dentrees and Willow was on her way to meet her. He turned his thoughts to Thornbow, trying to keep him present.
**Yes, she’s beautiful, Nightstorm is. But I’ve never seen you cast more than a spare glance her way.**
**We don’t speak much but…**
Thornbow replied with a soft image of the impulsive tanner, laughing over her shoulder, hair in her face, sunlight shadowing the dimple on her left cheek. The image was altered, perhaps not as the tanner really looked, but this was how Thornbow saw her. The image flooded Windburn’s mind and he slowly blotted it out.
**Sometimes,** he sent, half to Thornbow, half to himself. **It’s hard to look at her. I still see so much of Whispersilk in her. I still see Whispersilk everywhere.**
His reverie stopped short as Thornbow’s head slipped to the side and the archer went limp.
**No!** He lowered the broken body to the ground and patted the palm of his hand against Thornbow’s frighteningly pale cheek. **No, High Ones, no, come on, stay with me! Please, please stay with me!**
Suddenly, for no reasons he could name, Windburn’s fear and worry was washed away in a tide of clear, sharp anger. He struck the archer flat across the face.
**You aren’t going anywhere, archer! Don’t think you get off this easy! I’ve lost too much to lose you too, curse it, so open your rutting eyes!**
For a moment, the entire wood seemed to fall silent. The air only came rushing back when twin slivers of green slid open and peered up as though from the bottom of an icy lake. Windburn held that gaze until he felt the tremors of approaching paws rattling the snow beneath them.
“Are you ever planning on getting up? Or should I have Cloudfern shape you straight into the wall?”
When Thornbow opened his eyes, his world was filled with Honey. His impetuous sister had left the post she had been occupying for the past few nights and was beside him, her nose a hair’s breath from his own. He’d been told that from the moment Willow and Windburn had borne him back into the holt she had been at his side. Willow had been able to close the hole in his side and repair his mangled guts, but the blood that had soaked into the snow had left him half-drained of life. The nights and days that followed had seen him flat on his back in Windburn’s den (for the chief would hear of nothing but having his best friend right where he could keep an eye on him) with the life slowly running back into him while his sister watched over him like a mother wolf. But now that he had begun to emerge from his haze, she was slowly slipping back into the familiar role of little sister.
**I will move when I am ready, thank you.**
Honey shifted off a bit, her playfully impatient look softening for a moment. It was only Thornbow’s long-term training as her older brother that allowed him to see her mask slip for a heartbeat. He could see a flicker of the bone-deep worry that had doubtlessly plagued her face. Her petulant sister act was a ploy to get his dander up and get him ready to rejoin the living. He knew her too well to think that she was truly pushing him out of the den. If she was the Honey he knew, she would rather keep him pinned safe under the furs where she could keep her hawk eyes on him. As she turned away from him, he could see the curve that constant worry had worked into her spine.
“Hey.” It was more of a croak than a word. This was the first time he had used his voice since the fateful hunt and in the close air of the den he could hear it sounded both harsh and reedy, barely recognizable as his own. It apparently had no affect on Honey, who kept her back turned to him.
“Hey,” he said a bit louder. “Let me see those pretty eyes of yours.”
When she turned to him, he instantly saw that shiny, hard look in her eyes. He’s seen it countless times before, all the way back to the days of childhood cruelty, days when he’d steal her toys just to watch her struggle with this same fierce, internal resolve not to cry. It was a look that usually blossomed moments before that resolve shattered and she ran bawling angrily into the night. But this time there was no tantrum brewing, just his pretty little sister, sitting there trying not to show weakness.
“See?” He tapped his chest. “I’m not planning on slipping off and out of my skin anytime soon. I’ve no eagerness to hop out of the den just yet, that’s all.”
Honey dropped her eyes and stared resolutely at the floor.
“But why are you still here, pretty one?” He tried to catch her eyes. “You’ve been spending all your time looking after Cinder, and he’s growing like a weed. You don’t need to look after another helpless cub, especially one stuck in a full grown body.”
He grinned at her, fishing for a laugh. None came.
“Cinder is hardly a helpless cub. He’s not a baby anymore. In fact he needs me less and less these days. And he certainly doesn’t need me right now.”
“So you’re just sitting here because you’re not needed? I can smell a spring breeze from in here. Come now, dew drop, you need some of that fresh air. I won’t fall apart if you step past that den flap.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need a break.”
“That’s the truth?”
**Try sending that, then.**
**I —** Her sending broke like an ice dam on a spring-fed fishing stream. Images of him, dangling from Windburn’s arms, pale like a dead fish, of Willow, slumped over her own wolf, near exhausted just from healing him, of Windburn carrying him to the chief’s den while Honey clasped his cold hand, thoughts of mother-gone-father-gone-lifemate-left-old-life-over-not-you-too-notyoutoonotyoutoo.
Her thoughts fell silent and she dropped her head into her hands. For the first time in nights, Thornbow flattened his palms to the floor and pushed himself slowly to a sitting position.
**I’m sorry, sweet one.**
He reached his hands out and took her by her shoulders.
**But I’m not going anywhere. With Willow laying her hands on me all the time, and with Cloudfern stuffing me to the gills with tea and broth, I’ll have more blood flowing through my veins than I’ll know what to do with. You’ll see, I’ll be back in no time.**
He fit his thumb into the familiar hollow space on the underside of her chin and lifted her face until their eyes met.
**You’re stuck with me for a while.**
At last, she chuckled.
**Now stop fussing,** he said, shaking her chin a little. **I’m fi —**
The head rush from sitting up for the first time in days swept up the back of his neck, over the top of his skull, and blacked out his eyes. His head rolled back and he toppled back onto the furs; Honey catching his head seconds before it smacked against the floor.
He sent a quick order for Honey not to worry, and then he was hurtling back through the habitual black tunnels of unconsciousness.
There was candlelight the next time he opened his eyes, and a strange sense of warmth radiating near his side. Without turning his head, Thornbow was able to twist his eyes about until he noticed the little bundle that was Cinder, curled cozily against him. The cub’s eyes were wide open in a way that dared sleep to try and overtake him, but his fingers were lazily pulling at the furs as though he were already lost in wolf dreams. Thornbow threaded a finger into one tiny fist. The cub immediately popped it into his mouth and fell the rest of the way asleep. Thornbow chuckled to himself. Though Cinder spent a lot of his waking hours blustering about and trying to prove he was no longer a baby, here, on the edge of dreams, the little elf knew only that the sensation of something warm against his lips was a comfort.
Thornbow let his head roll to the side. The candle was perched on the worktable, its dancing glow tickling and caressing the busy fingers of his chief. Windburn was seated, straight and still as a wolf perched at a cliff top. His craggy features were all focused and pointing at the slab of sandstone below him. The knife in his hands was wearing its edges away with a slowness and a deftness that out of every tribe member, only he seemed to have mastered.
While all the skills of the tribe wheeled about like the shifting dance of the stars, Windburn was the one steady hub with a carving knife in his hand. Or so it seemed to Thornbow.
The archer’s body called out to him, showing him exactly how long he had been lying still, and just which joints ached because of it. He shifted slightly, but not slightly enough to escape Windburn’s wolf-sharp ears. Their eyes met, and for a moment, they simply watched each other. And then Windburn smiled in that odd way that only he could: his mouth remaining perfectly still, lips pressed into their thin pensive line while wrinkles gathered at the corners of his eyes. Of all the smiles Thornbow had seen in his life, Windburn’s was the only one that could beam through the eyes alone.
**Good to see you with your eyes open.**
Cautiously, Thornbow pushed himself up on his elbows.
**Good to be able to keep ‘em open. What part of the night is it?**
**Just a little before dawn. You slept through most of the night. Wish I could say the same for your sister. Seeing as she no longer sleeps days, she could use it.**
He nodded across the table toward the sleeping form of his sister. She was hunched over the table, her face burrowed into her folded arms just so.
**Fell asleep right there a short while ago. I tried to carry her to the furs, but she shifted about and snorted any time I came close to touching her.**
Thornbow smiled and sent a wave of warmth toward his sleeping sister, hoping it would leach into her dreams to make them good ones.
**Well,** he sent to Windburn. **How much longer do you think I will be taking up this space on your furs?**
Windburn set down his sandstone and relaxed in his seat.
**If all goes well, not too much longer. Between Cloudfern’s barrage of broths and water and Willow’s special touch we’ve been getting you filled back up to the brim. This is a more delicate process that Willow is used to, but soon you’ll have more blood in your body than you’ll know what to do with.**
“Ha, that’s what I said. Well, good. I’m about worn out with sleeping.”
The wolf chief stretched and slid onto the floor, his back propped against his workbench and his legs extending across the floor with the stiff shakiness of an old wolf. Thornbow watched his friend wince and shift as the inevitable cramps worked their way through his body.
“You’ve been sitting here all night, haven’t you?”
He got a single nod in reply.
“You are a fine chief, my friend,” Thornbow reached across the furs and rested his hand on his friend’s booted foot. “You’ve kept your head up and you’ve weathered every storm.”
He accompanied the word ‘storm’ with a sending, the briefest flicker of a pale face framed with dark, wind-whipped hair. He knew it was a dangerous move, for the silent agony of the beautiful weaver’s loss still raged in his friend’s soul as violently as the storm that had torn her from him. But even through the pain of his injury, Thornbow remembered the confessions Windburn had sent to him, there in the bloody snow. They were thoughts that were meant to keep the archer alive and focused, but had also opened a slow healing wound to the air.
**You are a fine chief.**
**Sometimes. Of late... It's been harder to stay that way.**
There was a flash of Longshot's face, shocked, uncertain, and a flurry of rage and terror aimed at the young archer.
**I owe him an apology. An explanation.**
**Maybe. But that is the lot of a good chief. A chief who has had his fair share of trials. A chief who sits up night and day to watch over any and all of his tribe when they needed him.**
Windburn leaned forward and clasped the wrist that lay against his boot. His eyes bore straight into Thornbow, blue, fierce, and steady.
**My being chief has nothing to with my being here. If I were the lowest ranking wolf in the pack I would be right here at your side. There is nowhere else I could be. Understand?**
Thornbow let the warmth in his chest spread upward and fill his face with a smile.
“Ah! Did the sun move closer while I slept? What in the Wolfsister’s name makes it this bright?”
Thornbow blocked the golden evening light with one hand, his other arm firmly in Windburn’s grasp.
“You’ve been out of both moonlight and daylight too long, brother,” Honey said, coming up beside him to take his free arm. “You’ve turned into a cave bat!”
The three of them stepped over the threshold of Windburn’s den and let the flap fall shut behind them. The cool air played across Thornbow’s naked chest. His breeches had survived the accident relatively unscathed, so he was wearing them now, but he had no notion of where his bloodstained tunic had gone. The air was more like spring than ever, so his lack of a shirt didn’t bother him.
Many of his tribemates had gathered about to see their tribemate rejoin the ranks of the living, though the majority were yawning and blinking owlishly in the early evening air. Thornbow barely had enough time to breathe his first draught of fresh air in nights before teasing voices and shouts of congratulations surrounded him. Honey snipped at the well wishes, hissing at them to back off and give her brother room to breathe. Windburn, too, gave a few terse commands for space, but Thornbow waved them both off.
“Thank you both for everything,” he laughed. “But I think it’s time I walked on my own two feet.” He stumbled a bit. “Such as they are. I’m a bit wobbly, but a bit of time on my own will do me good. Please.”
Honey and Windburn backed off reluctantly, though each sent to him to be careful. Smiling at them reassuringly, he broke away from his caregivers and made his way through the crowd, grinning, clasping arms, and responding to all the questions and friendly concerns with a smile and a kind word or two. Windsong hugged him as tight as his weakened state would allow, and it was next to impossible to break free from Beetle when she got her arms around him. It occurred to him as he went that this was the first time he had been at the center of so much attention in a very long time. Being surrounded by all this love was an unusual, but not wholly unpleasant sensation. As he moved about, he scanned the throng for Nightstorm’s pretty face, but there was no sign of her. He swallowed a grain of disappointment. She hadn’t come to see him in his recovery bed. He didn't want to admit it, but that stung.
After he had been sure to greet everyone present and the crowd had begun to disperse, he allowed himself to breathe deeply. He answered Windburn’s concerned sending with calm reassurance of health and an intention to go for a solitary walk around the den trees. After he had concluded with his chief, he sent for Thief. He had barely finished the thought by the time the big wolf had bounded around a corner and rushed up to him with kisses ready.
**There you are, you rascal,** he sent to the prancing wolf. **I’m not sure I’ve forgiven you, letting the hunt thrum up such a blood lust in your ears that you didn’t even notice I’d been broken.**
The wolf’s tail tucked and he whined. Thornbow let it last a moment.
**Ah, but blast it all, Windburn told me you brought that pesky buck down after all. All’s forgiven.**
Thornbow wrestled with his bond as much as he was able, and then convinced him to settle into a walk. After a time, Thornbow’s legs began to protest and he heaved himself awkwardly onto Thief’s back. He told himself they were just wandering, but after a while, he found himself casting about for the spicy, dusky scent of Nightstorm. Her trail led him all the way to the Craft-trees. He sauntered closer but the strain of riding after such a long rest caught up with him. He slid off his wolf’s back and settled against the bulk of the outermost Craft-tree, content to drink in the cool evening air tinged with the spice of Nightstorm. He would send to her in a moment and they could share the moonrise together. But for now it was pleasant enough just to be sitting there and breathing, with the knowledge that she was nearby.
“Oh, well, if it isn’t the great hunter, come back to life!”
Thornbow jumped and whirled about. A few wolf-lengths behind him, hands on her hips and a frown on her face, stood the source of the scent that had led him here.
“Ah, yes,” he said, his surprise at being snuck up on like a foolish cub all across his face. “Willow said that I was whole enough to move about again, so I took her at her word. It’s my first night back on my feet and since I saw just about everyone else, I thought I would…”
“Oh, I see,” the sweet voice was tinged with more than a modicum of annoyance. “You thought, ‘I’m back on my feet, so why not head down to the Craft-trees and see if I can add on to Nightstorm’s work load,’ did you?”
“I — What?”
“Well, think again. You got one work of art out of me, don’t expect a second one!”
Any defensiveness he might have been feeling was blotted out by sheer confusion.
“Nightstorm,” he said, slowly, carefully. “Please. What are you talking about?”
She huffed and held up one finger in a quick, angry gesture and vanished back into the craft-den. A few perplexed heartbeats later she was back, stomping up to him with a bundle of cloth in her fist.
“This!” She brandished it in his face. The bundle unfurled and Thornbow recognized it at last. Though its smoky green color was all but obscured beneath the black and brown stains of his own blood, the fine tailoring of Nightstorm’s tunic was unmistakable. So this was what she was upset about. Not the fact that it had taken all of the combined skills of Willow and Cloudfern to patch him up or that he still had a hard time standing upright without a wave of dizziness. No, she was chasing her tail about his ruined shirt of all things. All of the calm and the life affirming joy he had been feeling faded and was replaced with a rising anger. A snarl lifted one side of his lip. He stifled it and turned his back on the irate maiden. Nightstorm, however, wasn’t finished with him. She punched one hand into her hip and waved the blood-stiff tunic about with the other so that it was inescapably in his face.
“A perfectly good shirt, ruined,” she barked. “If it’s new clothes you want, you’ll have to go to Moss!”
“You called?” Moss's voice drifted down from the tree-tops.
“Keep out of this, you!” Nightstorm spat.
Moss, all too familiar with his Recognized’s temper, fell silent.
“It’s all my fault, really,” Nightstorm went on. “I should have known better than handing off some of my best work to a slow-witted hunter who can’t tell the difference between a hunt and a death wish! If this is how you treat my handiwork, well then, don’t expect me to jump at the idea of wasting more time on you!”
That was enough. Thornbow gathered two fistfuls of Thief’s fur and pulled himself upright. His head spun and he fought to clear his head with deep breaths. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nightstorm’s expression soften and she half reached out to steady him but he stopped her with a glare.
“Waste your time on me?” he said, his voice barely more than a growl. “I’d never expect that of you, seeing as how you didn’t come to see me once since I was gutted. I made excuses for you, all kinds of excuses. I thought our friendship meant something to you. I thought that you’d give more than a stripe-tail’s squirt that I’m on my feet again. I should have known better. Clearly you care more for your craft than for your tribemates.”
Even as he saw his words hit their mark, he heard how petty and self-pitying they sounded. But after all the words that had flown from her lips, he hardly thought pettiness was out of the ordinary for the evening.
“But don’t worry, tanner, I won’t keep you from your art.”
He strode off into the trees as swiftly as his dizziness would allow. He could sense Nightstorm's eyes on his back, but he didn’t turn. He let his anger carry him as far as it could before he was out of breath and ready to sit down again. He found a hollow spot at the base of an aging oak and gave into his body’s complaints.
He had barely let his eyes close when a cry of “Hullooo” followed by a sharp impact shook the ground nearby. He shook himself and got to his feet, just as Moss jumped up from the crouch he’d landed in.
“Did that deer swipe your nose as well, archer?” he called out, his eyes twinkling. “Time was, you’d notice someone tree-stalking you long before they got the pounce on you!”
“There was a time, yes,” Thornbow laughed, as good naturedly as he could. “I suppose I’m still a but woozy, is all.”
“Are you too fragile for a Moss-style greeting? You’re not going to shatter if I touch you, are you?”
“I shouldn’t think so —”
The last words were strangled out of him by the massive bear hug that only the cheerful drummer seemed to be capable of giving.
“Welcome back, my friend.”
They parted with a heavy clap to each other’s backs and the two of them settled against the bark of the tree.
“You do know how to give a hearty welcome, I will give you that,” Thornbow let his head flop back. ‘If only all of my greetings were so jovial,’ he concluded silently.
“Ah,” Moss let out a long sigh as his head dropped back against the tree. “I know that look all too well. Many a time I’ve had it plastered across my own face. Nightstorm, yes?”
Thornbow opened his mouth to speak, but simply sighed. Moss chuckled and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I was up in the trees trying to get some time with my harp, but she shoo-ed me and my “infernal string plucking” away like flies. Ah, well, the tree tops are good for carrying a tune. Can’t say that I didn’t hear every word of your little row just now, though.”
Thornbow rolled his eyes ruefully, and Moss laughed again.
“I don’t understand her,” Thornbow growled. “It’s as though she’s some kind of sharp-eyed scavenger bird. You think you know what she wants, what she’s hopping after, and then she just flutters off after some new shiny thing like it’s all that matters in the world.”
“Hold on now, that seems a tad harsh.”
“You can’t say that I’m not right. She was more concerned with the state of that shirt than me.”
“You think so?”
“You heard her. She never even came to see me.”
“True,” said Moss. “But she near bloodied the ears of every visitor you did have with questions about you.”
“Aye. She isn’t an easy one, that’s for sure. As thorny as a briar and as quick changing as spring weather, eh? One thing I will say for her though, the lass knows what she wants. She just isn’t the always best at… well, the more difficult emotions that crop up when she’s close to… the thing she wants.”
Thornbow lifted his eyes and there was Moss, staring right back into them, all of the jest gone from his face.
“You know that fight had nothing to do with the shirt, don’t you?”
Moss gave him a playful shove. Thornbow gasped in pain. Moss winced and sent a soothing apology. Then he shoved again, though more gently this time.
“High Ones, Thornbow, you spend all your days thinking you’re second best. You mean more to this tribe than you think. And you mean more to some than others. To some you are second to none. Just something to think about.”
He was up in the trees before Thornbow could respond.
“Well, I’m off,” he called down as he disappeared from sight. “Great works of beauty don’t write themselves! Good to see you with all your guts back on the inside.”
And like that, he was gone.
Shadows lengthened and changed direction. Thornbow sat still. When the night was full born and his thoughts sorted, he was on his feet and moving. The soft shhk-shhk-shhk of knife blade against hide betrayed Nightstorm’s presence. It continued, even as the archer’s lean shadow filled the doorway.
“I see you’re back,” she muttered, not looking up, her knife blade going.
“Well, my mind hasn’t changed, so you can just —”
The knife and hide hit the floor as Nightstorm was swept up from her perch and into a hungry kiss. She was out of breath when at last they parted. She stared at him, wild eyed, the kiss completely unexpected and utterly out of character. Thornbow ran his rough thumb over the swell and hollow of her cheek. Then he suddenly seemed to realize where he was and who he was touching. He stepped back.
“I’m sorry… I just… It’s been good to see you.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He didn’t expect one. He was already astride Thief and riding away when he sent to her.
**And don’t worry about that bloodstain overmuch. If you can’t get it out, I’ll keep it. It’ll be a good reminder of… It’ll be a reminder.**
The shadows swallowed him up as he took a deep breath of night air, happy to have at least one more night where he could do so.