Chapter 5

With a sinking heart, Skywise approached Cedarbark and knelt beside her. He held out his hand and she nuzzled it weakly, inhaling his scent. Then he lifted it to stroke her head, all the while telling her by wolf-send that he was here to help and all would be well.

The wound is very bad, he thought to himself.

Foxfur and Cedarbark had bonded when he'd still been a young cub, a few Turns before he'd even bonded with Starjumper. Without parents or playmates, he'd often been a lonely cub and had loved rolling and romping about with the little red-brown wolf cub, telling her his secrets, crying into her fur over some pain he couldn't even remember, riding on her with Foxfur when she got bigger.

It's festered. And who knows what poison was in Madcoil.

Starjumper had loved playing with her too. She'd been like a big sister, like Rainsong with Pike, and yet she'd still be young enough to chase him with cub-like abandon in their wolf games.

It couldn't be healed, even if Rain wasn't

He stroked her head until she closed her eyes. His breath shuddered in his chest and tears ran down his cheeks, leaving hot and burning tracks on his skin, even in the rain.

She's in pain.

He drew his sword.

It was the right thing to do, the only thing.

But it was like killing the last part of Fox-fur.

-x-

In the end, he moved her remains to a shaded clearing not far from the stream. He hadn't wanted to take her far away - in her weakened state she must have instinctively come to a place that was familiar and maybe even loved - but neither had it felt right to just leave her lying there with her head half in and out of the water. Besides, once the other animals had taken what they would of her, what was left would return to the soil much easier with the soft ground he'd found for her, than it would on the stones near the stream.

But it was an exhausting job for a lone, grieving elf and so it was well into the night by the time his weary footsteps carried him back to the Holt.

Voices came to him through the trees; his tribe was up and about, and that stopped him. Not yet ready for company, he quickly turned before anyone could sense him and headed away from the Father Tree. The rain had stopped and any clear sky automatically drew the stargazer's gaze upwards. Without a thought, his path turned in the direction of one of his favourite star-watching spots. He'd only gone a few strides, though, when a soft snuff and a welcome scent told him he'd have some company at least. Sudden tears pricked at his eyes once more as Starjumper came to him and licked his hand.

Skywise bent over the wolf, wrapping his arms tightly around Starjumper's neck. *Oh, my friend, I'm so glad to see you,* he sent.

*Friend hurt?* Starjumper asked, sniffing him in concern.

*Only in my heart, dear friend,* Skywise reassured him. *Will you come and look at the stars with me?*

Even as he asked it, Skywise knew he hadn't needed to. His beloved wolf-friend brushed against him as if to say, "Let's go," and the two set off together, only to be stopped a moment later by Cutter's voice.

"Skywise, is that you? Where have you been?" the young chief demanded as he strode up to them.

"I'm sorry, Cutter. I - "

"Well, you should be!" Cutter snapped, and Skywise could see his friend was in a fine snit. "How could you just take off all day and half the night? Don't you know there are things to do?"

Not just in a snit, Skywise realized. Worried, too. Worried and not wanting to show it. "I didn't mean to be gone so long but - "

"Don't you know - " Cutter interrupted, but paused to rub a hand over tired eyes. He began again, voice quieter but just as angry, "Don't you know how much I already have to deal with? Do you think I want to have to worry about you too?"

"Cutter, I - "

"I just don't know how you could be so selfish!"

Skywise bristled. "Selfish?"

"Don't you think I've lost enough loved ones?"

Skywise's keen eyes saw the exhaustion and tension radiating from every clenched muscle of the younger elf's body, and his sudden prickliness blew away as quickly as it had blown in as his heart went out to his chief. "Cutter, come and look at the stars with me," he asked. "It's been ages since we did it last."

"For High One's sake, Skywise! I don't have time to look at the stars with you! I've got a tribe to look after now."

"And if you're going to be any good to them at all, you're going to have to take your ease some time, brother!"

"Skywise… "

"Puckernuts, Cutter! The only cub in the tribe is Dart; everyone else is old enough to see to themselves for half a night."

Cutter shook his head. "Skywise, you don't understand - "

"Yes I do, Cutter. You think you have to be alert every moment of the day, or the tribe won't take you seriously, that they'll say you're too young and irresponsible for the task. And when you're not thinking that, you're afraid to turn your head for an instant because you think something bad will happen if you do and you'll lose someone else. But brother, you're going to run yourself ragged if you keep up this pace, and then where will the tribe be? Not to mention, that if you don't stop sitting on us every moment, soon enough the tribe'll be biting at each other and snapping at the air like mad wolves."

"You think I'm doing a bad job? Is that it?" Cutter growled.

"No!" Skywise protested. "That's not what I meant at all!"

Cutter's shoulders slumped; he looked defeated. "Do you think it's easy? Don't you think I wish Bearclaw was still alive? That Joyleaf was still here to talk to? Everyone is looking to me to tell them what to do, and I don't even know myself! And I've got no one to help me."

"So I'm no one?" Skywise asked. "Cutter, you foolish cub, you've got me! And you've got the whole tribe. Do you really think we won't help you?"

"It's not that easy, Skywise. A chief has to lead. The tribe needs the security of someone there to see that they're safe, to have the answers and tell them what to do when something happens. A chief can't go running to his tribemates every time something goes wrong! If he does, then they won't have enough confidence in him to follow when he needs them to, and then he won't be able to keep them together. " Cutter turned and started to walk away. "Oh, what's the use? You don't have any idea what it's like to be so alone!"

Skywise stiffened, the blood running out of his face. "What?"

Cutter looked back.

"How…How could you say that to me?" Skywise asked in a broken voice.

Cutter took a step towards him, a flicker of puzzlement crossing his face. "Skywise?"

But Skywise backed away, unwilling to let Cutter touch him. Starjumper's ears pricked up as he sensed his elf-friend's hurt, but he whined with confusion - this was Skywise's friend! But Skywise didn't care; jaw clenched, quivering with abrupt rage, he glared at his chief.

*Fahr?* Cutter sent, fearful now, knowing something had suddenly spun horribly out of control here, but not knowing what.

Skywise lunged and knocked Cutter off his feet, pinning him to the ground. The younger elf, too stunned to fight, stared up at him, his eyes widening as he saw that Skywise was weeping.

*HOW! HOW?* Skywise's sobbing thought-voice demanded in fury, *HOW IS IT YOU CAN KNOW MY SOUL NAME AND YET KNOW SO LITTLE ABOUT ME?*

*Brbrother? I - I - * But, shocked by tremendous pain in his soul-brother's sending, nothing came to Cutter.

Skywise leapt off of him and rushed to Starjumper. He was aback the wolf and gone before his young chief even knew what had happened.