Ed. Note: Sequel to "Nightmare", references to the stories "Green Fingers" and "Worked to the Bone".
The sending was a light one, like a hand on your shoulder meant to get your attention. Cloudfern sent back a feeling of acknowledgment and waited for Newt to step into his work den.
"Are you busy?" were the first words out of Newt's mouth. He stood at the entrance of the den with an air about him that Cloudfern couldn’t quite place. Worry, yes, but something else too. Hesitation? No, not quite.
"Not at the moment. What's the matter?"
Of all the things Newt could have said, that was a bit unexpected. Cloudfern had noted Newt sneaking out during the previous day and had thought that was what the conversation would be about. But maybe those two things were connected?
Puzzled, he put down his tools and turned to fully face the den's entrance. "Is something wrong?"
Newt stepped fully into the work den and looked over his shoulder, as if expecting someone to be standing right behind him, eavesdropping. "Ever since we got back and she started training I can tell she's not been feeling well."
Cloudfern frowned. He tried to recall when he'd last seen Fadestar for more than a few moments, but came up blank. She had been training an awful lot, both with her sister and on her own. "You think she's overexerting herself?"
There was no hesitation in Newt's answering nod. “She’s been hiding it really well and everyone’s so busy…I don’t think she wants anyone to notice. But she’s having nightmares and she’s always so tired.”
Ah, Newt. Always ready to lend a shoulder to cry on and so attuned to others' emotions. Cloudfern found himself feeling grateful Newt had come to him with this issue — being so eager to help others with their doubts and fears could wear one down to the bones if one didn't take time to oneself now and then.
"And you think I can help her?" Cloudfern asked, his own doubts creeping up on him though he tried to push them away.
Another nod, no hesitation in this one either. "Yes."
"Despite the…" Cloudfern fumbled for a good word, "talk we had up at Bluestone Cave?"
Newt took a deep breath. "I trust you. Before Bluestone Cave you weren't a teacher who put unreasonable pressure on his students, and you haven't been one since then either. I know your demands on others will be far more reasonable than those you still make of yourself." A small smile touched his lips. “You’re a good teacher.”
Cloudfern put his hands on Newt's shoulders and leaned their foreheads together. "And you're a good friend and student both."
They stood like that for a handful of heartbeat. Cloudfern felt tension bleed out of Newt's muscles, his shoulders lowering and his breathing deepening.
"You look like you could do with some more sleep," Cloudfern said as he took a step back. "I'll go talk to Fadestar."
With a grateful nod Newt turned around and walked out of the work-den. Cloudfern wasn't far behind him.
Fadestar blinked away the blurriness from her vision and focused on the bowl hovering before her. She hadn't been able to go back to sleep for long after she and Newt had returned from their walk.
Training had seemed a good thing to occupy herself with after she'd gotten some food. More sleep hadn't been an option and no one had immediate need of her. Pathmark and True Edge were taking care of the long range scouting for now and it wasn't time for Kestrel to fly out and make contact with them yet. She wouldn't need Fadestar's assistance until then and there had been no training planned for tonight. So Fadestar had arranged for her own training, simple as that.
At first the bowl hadn't been heavier than a feather, but the longer she floated it the shakier her grip on it grew. The purple glow around it grew dim if she didn't focus her full attention on it. Beads of sweat decorated her forehead and kept spilling into her eyes, but she couldn't spare the energy to wipe them away. Only a few heartbeats longer…
The bowl fell to floor, the resulting clatter deafening in the otherwise silent den. Cloudfern stood at the entrance of her den; inside, with the doorflap tied shut.
"Oh," Fadestar said, feeling her cheeks heat up. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in."
Cloudfern knelt down next to where she sat crossed-legged on the floor. His expression was serious, but not grim or forboding. "Newt told me you haven't been sleeping well."
Fadestar's blush burned brighter at those words. She lowered her eyes to the floor before her thoughts caught up with her reaction. What shame was there in having bad dreams? And of all elves, why should she feel shame in front of Cloudfern when restless sleep was the topic of conversation? He was all but famous for his bad dreams!
"Newt is worried about me, isn't he?" she asked, forcing herself to look up and meet Cloudfern's gaze. She got a nod in response. "T-there's no need for him to be! It was just a bad dream. We all have those, once in a while, right?"
"Yes, once in a while," answered Cloudfern, taking one of her hands. "But exhaustion can make them come back again and again."
Fadestar hadn't realized her hands were trembling until they ended ended up in Cloudfern's steadier grip. She searched for words and ended up with: "Windburn said—"
"—that you weren't to strain yourself," Cloudfern cut in as Fadestar fought to formulate her thoughts into a full sentence. No accusation shone in Cloudfern's gaze, only concern. "We're all doing our best to prepare for whatever may come. I'm just worried you're pushing yourself too hard."
Fadestar's heart skipped a beat at that, in the worst of ways. She didn't pull her hands back, but that took quite a bit of willpower. "I'm…" She swallowed. "I'm only trying to get better. My sister can't keep flying so far away from the Holt much longer. I have to be ready!"
It was more than one and a half turns until Kestrel would be giving birth. But no matter if she were four days into her pregnancy or four moons, as things now stood, flying out far from the Dentrees still meant being far away from a healer if something happened to the child, as it had for Snowfall. That tragedy wasn't even a turn behind them yet.
Cloudfern squeezed Fadestar's hands gently, bringing her out of her downward spiral of worry. "I'm not saying you shouldn't practice," he said, his tone as kind as his hold on her. "I'm asking you what would happen if someone called for your help and you were too exhausted to go to their aid? Or what if you made yourself sick by training so much — who would fly out then?"
That was far too easy to picture. The nightmare of being too late to fly Newt out of the way of the avalanche was joined by other possible scenarios; tribemates swept away by a torrent; a mountain hunt gone wrong and a tribemate falling to their death or breaking their leg and no one being able to reach them in time. The disasters lined themselves up in her mind, playing over and over again, the faces of the dying elves changing.
It would be her fault.
"Sssh. There's no need for guilt," Cloudfern said and pulled Fadestar into a hug that she was too wrung out to either welcome or resist. She must have spoke her thoughts out loud — and how tired did she have to be to have done such a thing?
"You've been doing your best. More than anyone could ever ask of you," Cloudfern whispered to her as he held her close. "And I'm sorry no one but Newt has noticed how you've been pushing yourself. I know how easy it is to get lost in oneself when one feels responsible for others. One can end up doing very foolish things with the best of intentions."
A fair share of self-deprecation colored Cloudfern's words, which pushed Fadestar's panicked thoughts off their path of shame. She pulled back a little, enough to be able to look Cloudfern in the eye. She didn't say anything, but he spoke all the same, as if she'd asked him a question:
"When I first came into my magic, I was terrified." Cloudfern shook his head at himself and gave Fadestar a small smile. "I had three plantshapers to live up to — my grandfather Cedarwing, my aunt Sunlight, and of course Brightwood — and only one of them around to teach me. I wanted to get better as quickly as possible, to be of as much help to the tribe as I could be. Do you know what my aunt Sunlight told me then?"
"The same thing you're telling me now?" Fadestar guessed, finding herself answering Cloudfern's smile with a tired one of her own.
Cloudfern nodded. "More or less. She made very clear to me that she was proud of me and my wish to be helpful to the tribe, but that she had no intention of seeing me work myself to the bone — both for my own sake and the tribe's. No one was to goad me on or they'd get an earful from her."
"No one told me to push myself," Fadestar hurried to say, not wanting to put blame were none had been earned.
"I didn't think so," came Cloudfern's reassuring answer. "But no one seems to have told you to slow down either. And times are dire for us now as they were when I learned of my plantshaping, though in slightly different ways. It's only natural you worry and wish to do your best. That means you're a good tribemate to have."
Tears began to prickle Fadestar's eyes. She blinked them away quickly and pulled out of his embrace fully. Different emotions fought and snarled at each other inside of her, but that storm was beginning to calm down, covered by a blanket of relief.
"Thank you," Fadestar said at last. What he'd told her hadn't exactly been news. But knowing a thing and hearing it said out loud, face-to-face with an elder, that helped settle it.
"Thank you," Cloudfern said, putting a hand on one of Fadestar's shoulders, "for being such a dependable tribemate." He took a deep breath through his nose, as if he too were calming down; though he hadn't exactly seemed overly emotional during their talk. "I know waiting to get better can be frustrating. I'd like to help you ease that frustration as best as I can."
That brought Fadestar up short. Her head felt as if it were wrapped in rabbit fur and now that she allowed herself to feel how tired she was she could barely keep her eyes open. Still she found the energy to ask: "How?"
"Kestrel is and will be your best teacher. That said, she has her own duties besides teaching you. We'll all be very busy for the foreseeable future, as things stand now." Cloudfern said. "Therefore, I'd like to offer myself as an adviser on magic when Kestrel is too busy to guide you or answer questions."
"An adviser?" Fadestar asked and then had to stifle a yawn.
Cloudfern nodded. "I wouldn't call myself a teacher, since I don't have your talent. But I do think I can be helpful. I can't fly, but I know a thing or two about using magic. About how far one can push oneself, for one, and what kind of exhaustion to keep wary of. Kestrel has probably told you all about that already, but it can take some time to get a grip on when one is feeling merely tired and when one has pushed past that, when it comes to magic. If you feel insecure about any of that, you can send to me, if Kestrel isn't within range. And if I'm not in range either we'll find you a third person to send to. And a fourth. I'm sure we'll have plenty of volunteers."
Fadestar shook her head, trying to keep away sleep. "I wouldn't want to—"
"—bother anyone?" Cloudfern chuckled. "Dear one, asking for aid with something as important as your training will not be a bother. Never think that. Any magic user in the Holt will be happy to give you advice."
There should be more she could say about this, Fadestar was sure of it. But at the same time it was getting harder and harder to string words together. The stress that had been keeping her awake and alert had all but bled out of her, leaving her slow and dazed.
"And now," she heard Cloudfenr say, "I think I shall leave you to sleep. You look like you need it."
It didn't feel like she was done. Despite all Cloudfern had said, Fadestar couldn't help but feel there was more to be done before the sun rose. "It's in the middle of the night—"
"And you haven't slept." Cloudfern's tone brokered no argument. It was his healer voice, the one he used on elves who tried to sneak out of bed before they'd fully recovered. Fadestar had known few elves stubborn or foolish enough to try and challenge him when he used that voice.
With a little aid from Cloudfern, Fadestar found herself back in her bedbowl. She was asleep before her head hit the furs.