She was weary to the bone. It was hardly the first time that Kestrel had exhausted herself in the straining of her magic to its limits, but she couldn't recall when last so many things had come together to sap and suck every last bit of strength from her. The strain of her long flight itself, the thick winter that frosted the air that she rushed through, the constant watchfulness and awareness of how much responsibility rested on her, the tribe's only glider – all of these were already thick enough clouds around her. But worst was the lightning of momentary tension that burst from the back of her mind whenever another's mind touched hers. Though gone in an eye-blink, there was always that moment in which she did not know what news she was about to hear. And there were so much bad news that could be had.
What got to her, in the end, and made her fall loose-limbed and breathless into her improvised nest on the flanks of Three-Fingers Hill, was none of that; it was the cub in her belly, faint, unfelt first-glimmer that it yet was. Though barely two moons had passed since the healer-sparked conception, her body was already changing, and some of the changes were hard to predict. An oak's age had passed since she'd borne Bowflight, a full half of her many, many seasons. And then every pregnancy was different, or so she'd heard from others. And this one made her a touch more sensitive to the cold and brought sleepiness before she was ready to acknowledge it. She shifted in her hastily made bed, trying to focus on the satisfaction of having covered as much distance as she had with her burden of supplies. But lying still only made her more aware of the numb weight that had settled under her muscles and coated the backs of her eyes. She was exhausted, and not looking forward to the rest of her long, hurried journey.
Kestrel put a hand on her belly. A small unbidden thought pulsed through the different layers of her anxiety. Snowfall's lost almost-cub... she had lived long enough to see pregnant wolves lose unborn litters when conditions were dire. Willow said that the seed had been planted well in her – but the healer couldn't have foreseen this test that the little roots would have to endure.
It was a useless worry. She could hardly do other than her utmost in her duty to the tribe. All worries were useless, in the end, when she had her clear mission from the chief whose judgement she trusted. Thinking about the humans was just as bad a waste of her time and mental energy. They were all doing their best already. This tiny spark of life in her, its brother inside her lovemate's belly, her young sister, the tribe's other cubs older and younger – they were all doing their best for them. What use was there in dwelling on her fears? It would do nothing but trouble her sleep, to acknowledge how uneasy she was, and how far from home...
She stared into the night for a long time, then into the darkness behind her eyelids for even longer. When at last her mind was as tired as her body, it was an uneasy sleep that it found, and she sank into the shallows of a dark dream-memory.
She hid under every last fur in her family den, the wooden floor hard against her spine, and shivered while the storm ran rampant outside. One of those spring storms that her mother loved so dearly. Most times, her father would be there with her to battle this fear with his gentle eyes and gentle hands. But today he'd stepped out. He'd said that her mother would come, and little Chestnut waited, wide eyed and hiccuping with helpless little whimpers. Her mother loved the storms. She could curl up safely in her father's arms to banish any fear, but to shiver like this because of the thunder in front of her mother – the shame was almost worse than the fear.
She knew she could be brave. All the adults said as much, praised her for it. So why couldn't she be brave now?
An oak's age seemed to pass until she heard the door cover being unlashed and shifted aside. Chestnut smelled the storm in her mother's hair. Stormdancer came in wet and energized, breathing a little hard from her spinning, twirling joy out in the rain. The glider pulled on the corner of one of the furs to dry her hair with it, and only realized that Chestnut was hiding when she exposed her foot. Before the cub could pull it back, Stormdancer laughed and caught her ankle.
“Look what I found!”
Her fingers tickled, but Chestnut was too busy crying to laugh. Stormdancer made a small disconcerted sound. She bunched her hand through the furs and, to Chestnut's painful embarrassment, peeled them all back to reveal her snivelling cub on the wooden bottom of the bed-bowl. Chestnut was curled on her side with her hands hugging her knees. Please don't laugh at me, she thought desperately. She never doubted that her mother loved her, but the elders sometimes said that Stormdancer was still little more than a cub herself. Being her daughter, her quiet, sometimes timid daughter, wasn't always easy.
“Poor kitling.” Stormdancer didn't laugh, though Chestnut could hear a smile in her voice. “You know the thunder can't hurt you.”
She always said that, and of course Chestnut knew; that was the frustrating part, that she knew, but it seemed like her heart didn't, and the fear always came back. Nothing but her father's hugs could soothe it, and he wasn't there. Her mother – Chestnut wasn't sure that her mother knew what fear was.
“I'm s-sorry,” she whimpered. “I'm sorry, Mother. I'm trying but I'm still s-s-scared.”
“If you're trying, it's a start,” Stormdancer said, sounding pleased, which helped a little. “Chestnut, sweet thing, as high as I've ever flown, me or your grandmother, neither of us could ever reach anywhere near the storm clouds. So you, safe and snug in your den, definitely have nothing to worry about.”
She gave an encouraging pat to Chestnut's head. Chestnut sniffed, swallowed through the thick tears in her throat and pulled herself up a little bit, rolling unevenly onto her bottom. Brave, she reminded herself. Brave and mature and bound to inherit her mother's gliding magic so that one day she'd also be gliding through storms, scouting and hunting for the tribe. So she had to start now. Seven turns of the season was surely old enough. Her mother smiled at her, which briefly filled her heart with enough pride to push out the fear. Stormdancer reached out a hand.
“Why don't we go outside?”
Against all her efforts, Chestnut recoiled. “Outside?"
“That's right. Put your raincoat on.” Her mother still smiled.“I'll carry you. When the sky yells at us we can yell right back!”
There was nothing in the world that Chestnut wanted more than to say yes – or rather, nothing more she wanted than to want to say yes. But instead the thought made her feel like the icy rain had already soaked into her bones. All she managed was a jerking shake of her head, keeping her eyes down, not wanting to see any disappointment that might be on Stormdancer's face.
“Come on, little scared-mouse, we'll be just fine.” There was still loving laughter in Stormdancer's voice, Chestnut's mother was patient in waiting for the 'yes' that she was certain was coming. And Chestnut tried hard to find that 'yes' in herself, to push it out of her mouth and show her mother that she was not a scared mouse, she was Stormdancer's daughter and she wasn't afraid of any great bolt of skyfire or horrible hammering thunder that sounded like the roar of some dreadfully enormous bear or...
White light flashed outside the door-flap. Within two breathes a bellowing crash followed, the storm's loudest yet.
Chestnut's courage fled like a panicked bird off its perch. Blind to everything but the terror of the thunder, she dived forward into the only set of arms available, forgetting whose they were.
When she came to herself a moment later, she was surprised to realize that her mother had caught her, and that Stormdancer now held her fast. Her face burned with shame. This was the very opposite of what her mother had wanted, what Chestnut herself had wanted. She shivered a little, torn between waiting breathlessly for the next burst and pushing herself away, burying herself again in the furs so her mother wouldn't look at her, wouldn't sigh at her silliness and cowardice. Stormdancer held her close, though, firm to her bosom. She was making a low, soothing sound. What made her change, Chestnut didn't know; but her mother held her closely and was warm, and Chestnut snuggled against her, whimpering happily when Stormdancer stroked her hair. She could feel that her mother was a little awkward, that she didn't quite know how to hold against the thunder as well as her father did, so her grip was just a little bit tight. Her mother did something that her father never did, though. She started to sing quietly.
“The bear will not harm you
With fangs sharp and hard;
Your mother's a she-bear
Your mother stands guard.”
Her mother's voice was average, but to Chestnut it was the sweetest sound in the world. Stormdancer arranged her a little more comfortably in her lap, and said nothing when Chestnut wiped her damp eyes on her tunic. She rocked the girl a little, gentle, growing more assured in her rhythm.
“The tuft-cat won't harm you
He'll never come near;
Your mother's a she-cat
Your mother is here.”
Another flash of lightning blazed through the world outside, and the thunder crashed on top of the Dentrees. Chestnut shivered, but only a little. The thunder was still frightening, yes, she was still terrified of it. But with her mother singing to her, she started to feel that maybe it couldn't hurt her after all.
“The thunder won't harm you
Skyfire won't touch;
Your mother is sunlight
Your mother stands watch.”
Kestrel drifted, slow and blinking, out of sleep.
She gave her head a shake and straightened in her little nest, looking around, ears perked for the sound of nightfall. The moon was covered and the night was dark, and snow lay all around her, gathering a pristine new layer as thin flurries drifted down. She was a little stiff from the less than ideal sleeping conditions, but surprisingly well-rested. Where last night, suppressed fear had eaten at her insides, now there was a resonating strength. Not lightness, no – of course she was afraid. But she was stronger than her fears.
The song rang in her head, both old and new, fresh and familiar. She had forgotten it. An oak's age and more had passed since she'd heard the lullaby, thought about that storm, and her mother and her had bonded much closer in time when she had come into her gliding magic. But something about the darkness of this day called back the darkness of that past one – and its light, her mother's song reaching out from the deep well of her memories to reassure her with a promise passed on to Stormdancer's new grandchild.
She basked in its warmth in her mind, this little treasure brought back up from the depth, even as she hefted her pack back up and leapt off the tree and into the air. It was too early now, but soon she could send and sing it to the little treasure inside of her. Soon, she thought, humming the tune as she flew. Soon, in the peace after the storm.
“There's no need to shiver
There's no need to hide;
Your mother, sweet cubling
Will stay by your side.”