(This story is a sequel to "All in a Name" and comes just before "Another Very Long Walk". It's part of the ”Romance between One-Leg and Doeskin” and "One-Leg loses his leg" storylines – see listings for related stories. )
Traptease stopped running, and her rider dismounted. The exhausted wolf went for the nearest patch of shade. She lay down panting heavily, her tongue drooped over one side of her mouth. A leather travel pack landed beside her, discarded half-handedly.
The weary elf leaned heavily into his walking stick as he picked a course around the uneven terrain. Not for sake of the stone-strewn ground, which was far sturdier than the eroded incline just above, which rose for tree-lengths in an uneven incline. No, it was the sudden sense of vertigo that that high and pockmarked visage brought to him that sapped his sturdiness. The hard memories of the last time he’d seen this face of Elder Peak. Tumbling head-over-end to the doom under his foot. This was the spot where Axehand had lost his name. He just hadn't known it at the time.
The mental calls had been coming for some time, and were becoming more frequent. He’d told those in earshot that he wanted some time alone with his thoughts. He let them think he was keeping within the supposed safety of the Thornwall. Once everyone realized they’d been suckered, someone or someones started trying to reach out. No, not reach out. Reel him back in. But he had a stronger will than he was getting credit for lately, and nothing else to do but bat aside the fishing lines. Set in his misery as he was, he didn’t need to put much effort all in into shield himself from —
**Khash,** It was the first time Doeskin had used his soul-name — ever!— and it cut through every one of his defenses like they weren’t there at all. The eye-popping shock of that moment might have put a sorely needed smile on his face, if not for the next word his lovemate used. **One-Leg-**
**Don’t call me that!** he snarled, head snapping at the direction of the call. Toward the Blackfang. **Accepting that name was the biggest blunder I ever made! Shards upon shards, I might as well have gone back to Giggle for all the good that fool's wager has done me!**
The flood of relief oozing from Doeskin’s direction became speckled with indignation. **Well if you were wagering I wouldn’t work out where you were going, you lost. And if you bet I was going to enjoy being left out of your scheme, you lost again.**
**Well enough, that I did, then! All I ever do any more is lose! I’ve lost my place in the pack! In my family! In my world! My shin was but the first piece of me to be hacked away!**
**I have tasted heart’s blood!** he sent -– and shouted — with fury enough to set his own ears rattling. Twin fists raised to the moons, he demanded of the High Ones, and of his mate, **Why am I treated like less than a hunter now? When I had no more height on me than a crook-necked goose, I picked up a wolf pup not big enough to take my weight and I walked around our whole territory! Why am I treated like less than a cub now? Tell me! Tell me!** Without waiting for a reply, the rising tempest charged into his next grievance, this one directed at his very startled bond-friend. **I’ll tell you what I’ve never done! I’ve never scouted my hunt team into a cooking spit! That’s what I was never blind fool enough to do! Why am I less worthy of the land and sky than the one who did! Why were they snatched out of my hands while he is allowed to go out and about for moons on end, mocking me with every step, eh?**
The storm crested, more than the air in his lungs drained, he fell his knees, hands clawing into the dirt. **Beesting won’t even look at me when she leaves. Or Blacksnake. My own blood. I begged him for a place on his team after my own abandoned me. Begged him, Doeskin! You heard what he said. You saw how he looked at me when he said it.** When had he gone from wailing to weeping? **Like someone who didn’t understand how foolish they were for asking to be included at all. Like I should already know the answer should and will always be ‘no’. ‘You are not wanted here’.**
His head cast a wide turn, but he wasn’t seeing the trees. **And my beloved chieftess. Shoving me to the back of the pack, chiding me for popping my head up. For daring to want a life past the Dentrees. Like I should accept that I’ll forever be the lowest-ranked wolf in her eyes. Like I deserve to be ignored.** It was the betrayal of a brother that had started him on the path back up Elder Mountain. But knowing he’d lost the respect of his chief-wolf had him asking if he should ever bother coming back down. He couldn’t even bring himself to find words for how his daughter was behaving. As though she were the parent and he the child. So desperate to keep him from harming himself by doing such silly thing as living that he couldn’t breathe for her restrictive attentions. Don’t climb that, I’ll get it for you. Don’t go out there, the sun’s too bright and you’ll trip over something. Don’t, don’t, don’t!
**My pack is starving me out. And the worst part is I let it happen. I gave everyone permission!** Seething through eyes red as his hair, he snarled the words, ** When I let them name me One-Leg.** Well enough that he couldn’t see his wooden leash through the bulk of his own rump, for he couldn’t bear to look at it in any case. ** Just one piece of note, here. Feel free to shun the rest.** Speaking at all was becoming harder for the trembling in his chest. And kneeling too, for the same cause. As his head touched the ground he managed the words, ** It’s all meat to be wasted.**
His nose didn’t stay down long, for the earth soon took on the stink of rotting flesh. His flesh. He’d never truly escaped that gut-kicking miasma, even though its source was long gone. Confined to his nightmares after the amputation, it had started finding ways into his wakeful hours. Billowing off the breath of everyone who told him ‘you can’t.’
His stomach twisted when Doeskin produced a response. **You can’t honestly believe that, after all your tribemates have done to comfort and support you... oh…**
It was clear that she’d regretted the two words as soon as they came out of her head. But, ravenous for any victory over anyone, the shaggy male pounced. **Containment is not comfort, mate-of-mine! Coddling is not support! I want to catch my own food! I want to breathe open air! And I want to be at it before what meat I have left gets so flabby from lack of exercise that I really do need to be carried about place to place like some slime-sucking slug! Is that so much to ask?**
More than once, the nimble-fingered tanner had confided that she wished she had some measure of his art with words. So she could give him a good swearing-out when he needed one. **So what’s your plan then? Sulking about up where you are, counting your pains?**
Her mate threw up his hands, this time in furious defeat. **I don’t know! Does that please you? I don’t have any plan! I haven’t a skunk-poking clue what I’ll be at next! All I know was I cannot spend one more night in that thrice-cursed piss-pot of a Holt!**
**That ‘piss-pot’ is my home. Our home.** Doeskin had stopped moving. As though she’d leapt off Goldscruff just to dig in her heels.
**It doesn’t feel like any home to me!** he spat back. Could brains spit? It was as good an answer to the riddle of tears as any. **It’s a snare-cage and I’ve got to be free of it. Oh, Doeskin. Love, you’re the only home I have left. The only thing that hasn’t tumbled out from under me.** Such was a rootless home indeed. But a home that could go anywhere! She wanted a plan, he’d give her one! He couldn’t see her yet, but he could see what was above her head. Sparkling with life, alluring in their neutrality. **We could go south. Follow the songs of the ancestors, and the stars you love so much. We could seek them out, the lost folk Wolfsister left behind.**
**That is an old dream, and I’ve outgrown it.** There was a distinct tension in Doeskin’s mind-voice. Were this a proper lover’s quarrel, its use would have marked the point where she stopped absorbing her mate’s growls and started barking back. **Indulging in such a cubbish whim does not become someone who says he hates being made to feel like one.**
In that much, at least, he relented. He slumped down to his backside, letting his legs show before him. **I suppose they wouldn’t want anything to do with a couple of wolf-bloods anyway. Probably ran the last ones out by now. But If I’m doomed to waste away no matter what I do, at least it would be an interesting way to go.” Desperate certainty took him, as tight around his chest as the wrap that bound peg to stump. **I am doomed, if things go on this way. If this Way becomes set. I can feel it in my bones. In the shinbone that isn’t even there anymore.”
Doeskin knew all too well how real his ghost-pains were. The wish to take those aches onto herself preceded her next words. **If anyone was going to starve you out it would have been the wolves. But Traptease came back to you. Do you remember how happy you were then? Your eyes were so bright. You likened it to getting four of your legs back. Then you led me over to the furs, onto my back…** Her laughter sounded through her mindvoice as the slightest mental ‘hiccup.’
**Fool pup tried her best to be rid of me first,** he snipped, though with markedly lighter tone. **And what good is a wolf when none but my mate will ride alongside me?**
A calmness came over Doeskin, as though she actually had an answer. **You know, I think I worked that out on the way up here. Are you ready to hear? Or will there be more big speeches first?**
He could fell his shields coming back up from annoyance at being led about. **Skyfire’s shriveled sack, if you have any stones to toss, let’s have them.**
**Because you are Khash. And you are loved. Not only by me,** was her reply, and with it came not only her love but something else, as deep and as true to her as that love. It encompassed Flash, Easysinger, Blacksnake, Beesting, and all the rest. Given strength by the weight of his soul-name, he couldn't help but feel it, let it in.
Hope. **Feels like forever since I‘ve tasted that,** he sent solemnly.
Doeskin answered in kind. **It’s what led our forebears out of the unwelcoming south. It built this home we have here. Your home.**
The tension he hadn’t noticed within his breast loosened; just a bit, but enough to be discerned. A new plan began forming within that fissure of light. One that would end more happily, perchance, for the still-melancholy male. **Maybe I’ll take the long way getting back there.**
**But you will come home?** A flush of concern.
**Yes. When I have a clearer head about what home is.** His spirits were lifted, but the long path to peace-of-heart was only just starting.
**Now that sounds like a plan!** The smile on Doeskin’s face was evident, even from a starlit sky away.
Those stars, and everything beneath, were starting to look more inviting. All the love she had sent to him in these dark hours, he returned with growing vigor. **Now that I give it a thought, you don’t feel to be that far off. I can wait up. You could ride alongside me?**
**No, love. I think I’ll stay back. Leave a false trail for you. But we both know someone will see past it. So get that gorgeous rump of yours moving.** Belief in a happier future for her mate again reached out to him.
He took it, held it close to his inmost self. Promised them both he would never let it go again. **I’d best be about it, then. Anyone who does come will see what someone with three limbs can do.** He collected his pack and crooked a finger at the wary-eyed she-wolf who had slinked further back into the brush after having been shouted at. “Come on, lazy-bones. If I’m to stay in this land, I might do well to get reacquainted with it. Starting with more of this mountain.”
One-Leg started walking.
(This story's sequel is "Another Very Long Walk"