Flies were buzzing. He heard them from a distance; awareness came and went in tidal flows. He was only conscious of the scent of blood, of flesh that had begun to sweeten with decomposition, and of the weight of his own heart, which still beat relentlessly, like a beast too dumb to yet recognize its own death.
A rain shower passed with in a gentle pattering of drops through the forest leaves. He didn’t feel the rain. Physical sensation had retreated to a distance, as had all awareness of passing time. He could have been sitting there for a handful of moments or and endless stretch of days -- it was all the same to him. It was all nothing. He had retreated to a numb place where there was nothing left to feel.
He wasn’t aware of the rain when it began to fall in stinging sheets. It was only when a leather coat materialized to settle over his shoulders and a was hood gently tugged up over his head that Blacksnake roused enough from his stupor to feel the damp chill of his soaked leathers.
For a brief moment, Farscout’s scent enveloped him along with the stained coat. Blacksnake watched, mute, as his tribemate left him to approach the cold carcass of the spirit bear stretched out on the ground in front of him. The rain had matted the silvery fur; lethargic flies crawled over that pelt, too meat-heavy to take flight when Farscout tried to wave them off.
“Leave it be,” Blacksnake rasped, surprising himself with the words. “Let it rot.”
The other hunter gave him a brief, measuring stare, then went back to what he had been doing. He grabbed hold of one of the sow’s paws and wrestled the beast from its side over onto its back. Gas bubbled noisily from the carcass, but it wasn’t bloated enough that there was a threat of a burst.
“The meat’s wasted, but you’re a fool to waste the hide,” Farscout answered, drawing his knife.
Blacksnake watched the other hunter skin the kill he had made, and the numb, empty safety he had achieved began to fade, burned away by the return of anger. Brutal anger, soul-chilling anger – an anger he embraced over its alternatives.
“I told you – leave it!” he growled.
Farscout glanced at him, then kept at his work. “She was nursing cubs. Have you accounted for them?”
Blacksnake glared instead of answering that question. His mind refused to grapple with it, as sluggish as one of the meat-drunk blowflies. Truth was – he couldn’t remember. Remembering was to embrace misery; his mind shied off from that burden.
Farscout skinned the dead bear quickly and efficiently, ignoring the rain which dripped from his hair. Blacksnake began to shiver; Farscout’s coat had warmed him enough for his body to feel the chill again, or more likely, the anger had roused him. With the shivering and the chill came a sense of exhaustion, and a strange sense of age. Blacksnake knew he had lived for centuries, but he had never felt those years before. He felt each of his years now, felt them in the weight of his bones and the ache in his knees.
Farscout finished skinning the bear. He dragged the hide aside, scraped off the worst of the skin-side gore, then rolled the heavy hide up as tightly as he could and bound it with lengths of vines. Then he pushed the rolled hide aside. There was a second carcass to be dealt with as well – Blacksnake noticed that only belatedly, when Farscout pulled the mangled remains of Lop-Ear from the brush the wolf had been trampled into. He watched bleakly as the hunter laid the dead wolf out gently on the ground. Blacksnake couldn’t remember the moment during the battle when his wolf-friend had been killed, and he was too numb now to feel her loss. He was aware of Farscout looking his way for direction, but could not rouse himself enough to respond. Farscout finished smoothing out the she-wolf's broken body, straightening a shattered hind limb, stroking the blood-matted fur to cover the worst of a gaping wound, closing the sightless eyes. “I came to find you as soon as I heard,” he said as he worked.
A fragment of memory. Farscout had been dispatched to the eastern borders of the territory several days before –
Blacksnake's mind shied off again, darting away from danger like a hare.
Farscout finished, and was looking at him again expectantly. When Blacksnake said nothing, the scout moved to sit down beside him, bracing his back against the fallen log Blacksnake had come to rest against when—
-- more fragments of memory, this time heated with fury. Blacksnake had tracked the bear to this place, and the battle that had followed could have killed him.
should have his heart whispered, should have
Farscout’s shoulder brushed his. The scout pulled a waterskin from the leather pouch he wore slung over one shoulder. He took a sip, then offered the skin to Blacksnake. He had not realized how thirsty he was until he took that first drink. He drained the waterskin dry before handing it back. Farscout took it back without comment or expression, but Blacksnake had known the other elf for too long not to sense the other man’s satisfaction with that, like a low-ranking wolf who had gotten away with stealing a mouthful from beneath a pack leader’s nose.
They sat in silence. Farscout’s body heat warmed Blacksnake on the one side. The rain stopped. Returned. Stopped again. Time stretched and drifted again, but Farscout’s silent company had interrupted something. The tidal flow of awareness had steadied enough that Blacksnake could not continue to lose himself in it.
Tyrlee The song his heart had sung to him for centuries had become a dirge. Tyrlee
His lifemate – his Tyrlee – was dead. There was no solace from the grief, there was only the hope of forgetting, of retreating to the numbness. Left alone, he could find his way to forgetfulness.
In his centuries, Blacksnake had watched other grief-gutted tribemates choose to die. He had never thought he would be susceptible to that decision himself. He had always thought it a sign of fragility. Passivity. Weakness. But even the death of his firstborn son hadn’t been able to prepare him for this crippling ennui. One swing of a startled she-bear’s paw, and the brilliance of his Tyrlee was extinguished. In those first, searing moments of shock, he had known in his soul that his better half was gone from him forever. He had let the need for revenge consume him, because that burn and fury had been better than this sucking emptiness that enfolded him now.
A fox ghosted through the brush. It skirted around to the bear’s far side and began to gorge, its wary eyes never leaving the two silent, still elves.
“It was quick,” Blacksnake said, for his own benefit more than his companion’s. “She didn’t feel a thing, I don’t think she even had time enough to know what was happening.”
“Sunlight and True Edge told me. They carried her back to the tribe.”
Blacksnake nodded at that, a brief and shallow gesture. The tribe. He had almost forgotten them, lost as he had been in his private anguish. The whole tribe would mourn the chieftess who had ruled the Holt for over 800 years.
“Windburn has been made chief,” Farscout added, some time later.
“What?” The jolt of anger startled him. He turned on the hunter beside him, fixing the other elf with a fierce look. Farscout gazed back at him, steady in the face of that storm, his expression measured and cautious.
“The pack can’t hunt without a leader,” Farscout said reasonably. “With your mate gone, and you missing, they’ve turned to your son.”
The flavor of this anger was different, bitter as wolfsbane. It wasn’t a driving anger that compelled him to action – yet it was a form of refuge, just the same. “Windburn’s a fair hunter, but he’ll never be half the leader his mother was,” Blacksnake growled. “I’m still their Hunt Leader. They can’t take the boy as a chief.”
“You were nowhere to be found. They feared you went off to seek your own death.”
Blacksnake snorted at that, as if it weren’t the truth. “The boy’s as dull as clay. I’ll set things right when I get back to the tribe. I was chief’s mate for far too long to be displaced now by my own pup.” He continued to stare at his companion. “Windburn send you to find my bones?”
“Your brothers knew you’d hunt down that bear; I came for myself, to see which way you’d go after you’d killed it.”
Blacksnake regarded the other hunter’s steady expression; Farscout’s pale eyes were grey, not winter-blue, but for a moment, Blacksnake heard someone else in that calm, gentle challenge.
Tyrlee would have said such a thing. His lifemate would have challenged him to overcome the grief. Easysinger would have cajoled him to his feet and sent him with a gentle push back toward the Holt, his tribe, and their children.
Blacksnake drew in a breath, making his decision before he had fully accepted the question. His knees ached as he stood gingerly; there was a dull pain in his side where he had been scraped raw by the bear, and his back and shoulders throbbed from strain. But for good or ill, he was still alive.
Blacksnake pulled off the coat and passed it back to Farscout, He reached down for the rolled bear hide, cut it free of its bindings, and slung the stinking raw hide across his shoulders to serve as cloak.
“That whelp of mine needs help to find his own backside with both hands,” he muttered. “The tribe’ll be lost without me to set the boy straight.”
Blacksnake waited for his tribemate to rise, then turned and faced toward home, confident that his friend would follow.