Written for RTH's "Changes" fic contest, and neatly enough came out first place. Chief Windburn is an NPC; Thornbow belongs to holtmate Rachel Presto.
The morning of his Parting, it rained as it hadn't rained that whole season. "Even the sky is weeping for Riskrunner," Dreamberry said, and Windburn knew it was true.
The rain was hard enough to make the river brown; it battered the small group of elves and got into their furs and past their leathers. Chieftess Easysinger's hair hung in wet, thick clumps around her face, heavy enough to tug her head down until she had to bow it. Her lifemate stood behind her with his face like a hard-drawn mask, shoulders hunched hard against the wind. A little way behind, Farscout was physically supporting a dazed Sparkle, holding her up where her buckling knees could not. Opposite the chieftess' son, on the other side of the thin raft holding Riskrunner's body, water coursed down from both of Suddendusk's eyes, seeing and missing. The river flowed thick and the trees, helpless captives of their sprawling roots, batted at each other.
The rain washed Riskrunner's wounds clean, though he didn't look to be only sleeping. His face had already begun to deform.
There were other shapes further back, concealed by trees and the mist of water, but Windburn barely saw them. He knew the tribe was there. Open mourning would come later, when they raised their voices to the moons remembering tribemate, hunter, chief's heir, father, son. They huddled under the trees now and watched death become a reality. A slight shove only, and Riskrunner went to the river. He would not ride into the Holt tonight, tall and merry on Grayflash's broad back, sweep his cub into his arms and trade jokes of the hunt with his father. He would not come to Easysinger's den to offer the teeth or feathers of his catch, and boast of his hunter's glories 'til she rolled back with laughter.
A splash – the river was so swollen that even the light weight of the raft made it shift. Sparkle gave a heaving cry and Farscout held her silently as she collapsed against him. Windburn saw his father's fists flex close, his mother's legs shake.
He always came back from the hunt, though, the chieftess' son thought, still feeling the texture of the raft on his fingers, and, subtly, a remaining sense-memory, the hint of the heat of spurting blood beneath it. It had happened fast – very fast. The great cat burst like lightning out of her den, and arrows flew everywhere, and Riskrunner leapt – then nothing.
A Wolfrider's life was fast and sometimes short, Easysinger had always said, and Windburn listened. But not Riskrunner, because Riskrunner always came back.
The ride back to the den trees was slow and almost aimless, because they had nothing to bring back and nothing awaiting them back at Holt proper. Nobody was left behind and the only cub was with them. Easysinger rode ahead, her winter cloak wrapped tight around her. Stormdancer and Leather fell into pace on both her sides while Blacksnake lingered a little back, alone in the group, his pack of hunters giving him a wide berth. They huddled among themselves in their own shock. "If only I'd have smelled the cat…" Ringtail was muttering.
"It isn't your fault," Beesting muttered to him. "No one could have stopped it." They both stared past the group, at Blacksnake's back. Windburn knew they hoped he hadn't heard them. Someone should have stopped it, that was all his father could say. Someone.
Thornbow exchanged a word with Honey then lingered back from the party, riding up next to Windburn as he came to put a hand on his friend's shoulders. "You couldn't have done anything either," he told Windburn softly, but the younger elf only shook his head. He knew that already.
Windburn didn't want to go to his parents' den, to witness his mother's tears, or his father's grieving rage. The wind howled outside his den door and he barely managed to close the curtain, thinking that elves would be huddled together in every den. Others would have him, if he felt cold; Thornbow or True Edge or Finch. But he could not go to them, not now. He glanced skywards; if the rain was not so heavy the daystar would just be beginning its steady climb. They'd labored all through the last of the night to bring Riskrunner back, and no one had the breath to howl. It would wait till moonrise, howls have waited before.
He guided Silentrun around and past the Den Trees, through the undergrowth that drank up the rain, grateful. All ropes, hammocks and decorations had been pulled in lest they get wet. Starskimmer's brewing tree stood downcast, no scents rising from its, no wisps of fermentation and sweetness. The water wore ceaselessly at the leathers hanging half-done where Doeskin abandoned them in a hurry and drove color away from Ringtail's best bow, left some steps away. All was a uniform gray, and Windburn barely knew one step his wolf was taking from another. He only noticed his mother when Easysinger was next to him, on foot and not wolf-back, her hand delicately on his.
"You will speak of him tonight," she said softly, "not only as his brother, but as chief's heir."
Pain seemed to leap up from her hand and into his arm, and he fought not to flinch away, looking down into her face. What she said was not a question because there was only one answer, and slowly, he gave her a nod. She moved away, back – back to the dens, he knew, to her lifemate and tribe and her grieving granddaughter, and he rode on, struggling to maintain direction in the masked gray woods.
He'd been there not half the night prior, with the other hunters, but everything had happened too fast, too fast to really grasp. Maybe, despite the rain, the tracks were still fresh enough…
"Don't do it, Windburn."
The chieftess' son whirled in shock, moving as one with his wolf-bond, and stared back at True Edge and Thornbow. He neither heard not smelled their coming, although they rode openly behind him on their bonds. The archer moved forward, obvious worry in his eyes, and why not – Windburn was none too gifted a hunter, but such carelessness was beyond him.
"I told you, there was noting you could've done," Thornbow stressed, catching his friend's gaze. "Going back there can't help him. At least wait till the sky clears."
Without thinking, Windburn shifted back, as though the earnest look holding his own was a challenge. "That might be all day."
"He's dead, Windburn," True Edge said starkly. "A day won't make a difference."
Thornbow hesitated, pained, but nodded, and of course it was true. Riskrunner was dead and nothing would make a difference, but Windburn spoke to them in a low, steady voice. "I'm chief's heir now, and I want to see the place where my brother died."
What he did not say was "don't come with me" and Windburn said what he meant, so they did.
They rode up a slight incline, a familiar track for many eights of turns, between branches that dripped and across a forest floor that was deserted. Thunders split the distance. The marks of elfin passage were blurred by rain, yet immediately known to the three of them. It was strange to be just three up that trail. Windburn recognized a place where Grayflash, burdened with his elf-friend's body, had stumbled on the way back, and led the others carefully around it. The rain poured into his eyes when he raised his head and forced him to look down at the road.
"Have you left something of his behind?" True Edge queried, pushing his Nightmist to walk a little faster. "You can't be after that cat's hide – one arrow wouldn't have killed her – "
"There's probably nothing there anymore," Thornbow mused. "Not even blood."
"I barely remember what happened," Windburn answered quietly. He leaned forward, over Silentrun's back, and frowned as he tried to focus his gaze ahead. "Once we're there, I might recall."
He pushed a fall of willows out of the way, passing on river's edge where the wolves walked gingerly. It was an ordinary enough place to hunt, not even unusual to have ran into a tuft cat there. "You've been there many times before," True Edge pointed out. Windburn nodded, it was true, he knew that. They'd both been there many times, Riskrunner and him.
"And we always came back," he answered. "My brother was a great hunter, much better than me. But here I am, and he is not."
"Windburn – " Thornbow began, a worried, warning note.
"I know," the chieftess' son sighed. "It isn't my fault." But how could it be real?
They tracked the river, the wolves' legs brown with mud up to the knee. The ground began to rise again, the forest floor thicker where the canopy was thin, the scene resolving into a familiar browsing ground. Water washed through grass, little floods snaking, trailing down across the open ground and towards the river, to be swallowed past return. The earth stretched undisturbed between the swollen waterway and the wall of capnut trees, and the tuft cat's deserted den still gaped black beneath the bushes at the patch's edge. She was long gone into a new den, probably,, licking her own wounds and nestling with the kittens she had fought to protect. True Edge frowned at the den, but Windburn felt a bitter twinge of sympathy. Her fur had almost been the color of Easysinger's hair.
The wet ground was disturbed here and there by hoof-prints, last marks of the hunters' struggle. There was even a little blood where it was trodden deep into the mud. The wolves prowled curiously and smelled the place they had left only hours before, glancing, unsure, at their riders, but there was nothing else. Even the scent of the she-cat had gone cold and faded. The river sounded the same, its roar only louder from endless rain.
True Edge walked by Nightmist's side, his boots making sucking sounds against the wet grass. Rain turned his hair into a great weight of gold. He poked the bloodied spot in the ground with his spear, as though expecting the wound to open anew, but nothing came of it, and he left the spear in and leaned on it. His eyes searched his companions. "There's nothing here," he announced, and there wasn't.
As though nothing had happened at all.
Thornbow's Redmuzzle was sniffing the she-cat's empty den, while the archer himself walked across the clearing, arm raised to shield his face from the rain, uncertain of what he was meant to find. Windburn could not help him. He slid off Silentrun's back and stood, and looked. There was nothing else he could do, after all. He watched and tried to remember – colors and sounds, cries, arrows whistling, attack, realization, blood – who had the tuft cat gone for first? Did Riskrunner leap in to help? Or was he merely in her way, flattened down, and had no chance to fight before she opened his neck and breast? And later – a second later, before they realized he would not be rising, what did Blacksnake send to him - ? He must've sent something, not only a wordless cry, knowing Riskrunner would rise –
The wetness on his face was oddly warm. He dared not reach up to wipe it away. He kept his eyes opened and looked and tried to understand.
"There's nothing here, Windburn," Thornbow echoed more softly, still walking, gaze bowed by rain. "The cat's gone, and we brought him back. There's nothing here."
Nothing; just the scene of a hunt gone wrong, one out of countless. A Wolfrider's life was fast and sometimes short, Easysinger had always said, and Windburn, at least, had listened…
His friends were both by his side then. He realized that he was on his knees, one arm still around Silentrun's shoulders, while the other rose to his eyes as he sniffed, swallowed hard and breathed in. Raindrops fell into his open mouth, cold and clear. True Edge knelt by him, a hand on his back – he always knew what was right, and it was right to grieve for one's brother. Thornbow grasped his shoulders. They were steady and strong both, in the face of the empty clearing.
"He was a great hunter – " Thornbow began quietly.
"He was chief's heir," Windburn murmured. "He was quick and strong and good, he was my brother… and he was flesh and blood. Just like me."
True Edge leaned a touch closer, and Thornbow's warm grip tightened a little. They may have exchanged glances over his head, he didn't see, but they flanked him from either side as he rose to his feet, following, rather than keeping watch. As they mounted their wolves, they stayed a touch behind, letting him take the point of the arrowhead. They took nothing from the clearing; they had what they came for.
"Let's go home," Windburn said quietly, and at his side Thornbow nodded.
"Lead on, my chief-to-be."