Author's Note (7 feb, 2012): Check out 'chapter 2' for the rewritten story.
Everyone was stunned about the outcome of Timmain's story, a story they had been hoping for, for so long. Some were staring at the Scrolls, not be able to comprehend what they had just experienced. Other ones were arguing with their tribes mates or other elves… and even with trolls.
While Leetah and Ember were talking with Suntop, Cutter looked around to observe everything, when he spotted Strongbow in the opening of the great chamber. The archer was leaning against the wall, his back turned to everyone inside, including Cutter. Head down and his left hand firmly placed against his right side, where he was wounded. The young chief had the feeling something wasn't quite right and approached him.
**What do you think?** He asked. Strongbow kept staring in front of him, and for a moment it seemed he hadn't heard the question.
"…That Winnowill's tortures were easier to bear… than this," the archer started, his voice barely more than a whisper. Cutter frowned and a sound similar to "huh" escaped his lips.
"Timmain began the Wolfriders..." Strongbow went on, "but next to her… we're lower than worms." Cutter didn't understand why he had to talk. Everyone knew he disliked audible speech and the chieftain had difficulties to understand him. But Strongbow just went on, eyes still fixed on the floor in front of him. "She's had so many shapes – How can 'the Way' mean anything to her? No… It's finished. Let it die." Cutter wanted to answer something like "what!", but instead he just said; "You talk. But what are you saying?"
Now, the archer turned his head to face his chief and this time Cutter could see his eyes, eyes that had lost their belief and now seemed empty. "When I challenged you and lost... I knew that nothing could keep you from changing our lives forever." A quiet sigh escaped his lips as he paused. "It had to be. I don't blame you anymore." He closed eyes, as if he was too tired to keep them open.
Cutter, who thought he was finished, was about to say something, but when he parted his lips, Strongbow continued. "-But I don't envy you either. If clinging to 'The Way' was a kind of blindness, then I wish... I had never been made-" His muscles stiffened and his head turned suddenly away, pain drawn on his face. Teeth gritted and the hand, that rested on his side, was firmly pushed against the wound.
Cutter wanted to catch Strongbow, when he fell, but couldn't do more than watching him fall. With a loud "thud" Strongbow made contact with the cold stone palace floor. "Strongb-?" was all the young chieftain could get from his lips, as he watched.
Strongbow only felt the pain in his body, not only from the wound. It burned through his entire body and he couldn't move. He could feel the warm blood seeping from his side and knew he couldn't do a thing. He didn't care what happened, he only wanted rest, even if it meant death. He wondered briefly if this was what dying was all about. He didn't feel himself falling on the ground, he just found himself there, the cold penetrating his back, making it stiffen up. Far away he could swear Moonshade calling his name.
"Lifemate!" Moonshade's cry was like a knife in the sudden silence. She came running up to Strongbow, now lying on the ground, eyes closed and in obvious pain. She knelt beside him and laid her hands on his shoulders to shake him gently. "Beloved?" she whispered in his ear, not getting any response, apart from the heavy breathing, which reassured her a little. "Come on, stay with me," she now said in a more stern voice. She lifted him closer, so that he half rested on her lap and held him close to her.
Cutter just stood next to them, watching the scene. He sighed when he saw Strongbow coming back to reality, eyes weary and full of pain. He didn't even step aside when Treestump came to help the archer. "We all knew he was wounded, but he just shrugged us off," The yellow bearded elder grumbled, frowning at the sight of the wound. "Sword must've jabbed through the seam where his metal vest was buckled together... deeper than we thought."
Pike had just arrived next to Cutter and looked down to the archer, sighing as he said; "Just like him... he never made a sound." Cutter nodded, only half hearing what the spearthrower said. He, too, knew it was all too much like Strongbow. Strongbow was much older than Cutter, but that didn't make him wiser, not at these things.
"Where is Leetah?" Moonshade asked, an edge of despair in her voice. But Strongbow grabbed her arm painfully hard and pulled at it a little. "No!" He whispered, followed by a gasp as Treestump tried to pull off the bandage from the wound, at the point where it had stuck to the flesh. "Let her be," he continued, jaw firmly set. "I know what she feels... She doesn't need more pain."
Accidently Treestump pulled too hard at the bandage, resulting in ripping it harshly off the skin. This caused Strongbow stiffen even more as he tried to contain the cry that rested on his lips. "And so just let you die, eh?" Treestump said angrily. "That'll please her surely! Isn't One-Eye enough?" The frown on his face grew even deeper as he started to examine the wound closely. Cutter stepped closer to the archer and looked at him for a second as Moonshade got a better hold of him, just to share his pain.
"It's easy, isn't it?" He said suddenly, and Moonshade and Strongow looked up at him, surprise on Moonshade's face and Strongbow's face only showed pain and tiredness. "So easy to give up and let go... I know." Cutter was dead serious. "But for you... and me... the easy path is somehow never the right one." He paused, seeing Strongbow slipping into thoughts, whatever thoughts that were, turning his head aside, as if afraid to look at Cutter any longer. But the young chieftain knelt down to get the attention of the archer. " 'The Way' must live Strongbow..." He waited until Strongbow had turned his head back to look at his chief before he continued. "If I was meant to start and finish the quest, you wre meant to stand fast against the storm of change." He tried to speak as calm as he could, but still trying to pursuade Strongbow, not letting his gaze wander off from him. "I need you with your roots sunk deep, like the fathertree-" he continued, now standing up again. "-to challenge the worth of every 'strange notion' I'll ever have. That is... if you still want me fro your chief."
"Who says otherwise?" Treestump questioned, taking his attention away from Strongbow's wound, while he was pressing against it with one hand. "You did all you set out to do, and more. No other Wolfrider chief ever did so much, and at your age. Hoo!"
"We've come to the palace. We know what we are now." Nightfall had arrived next to Cutter and seized his hand. "No matter where we go the truth will go with us." Kneeling in front of Cutter, like he was some kind of saint, she looked right into his face while she spoke. "We can be proud of it, or we can fear it, but it doesn't have to break us. 'The Way' is a small truth inside a bigger one. For me, day to day, the smaller is enough."
Leetah had just heard about Strongbow and came walking, slowly, eyes focused on the floor, still a little guilty about One-Eye. Never in her life had she failed to heal someone, and the fact that she failed at One-Eye had a lot of effect at her selfconfidence. But she could never let someone just die. And she would never let Strongbow die. She was still a little afraid of the archer, but now, after such a long journey she had gotten to know him more than she had ever thought she would know him. And oddly, she started to respect him in a different way than before.
At the start of the Wolfrider's life in the Sun Village, she could only see him as the silent, gruff archer, never able to adjust to others and detesting the Sun Villagers. But in time she had seen he had his reasons, why he was so reserved and protective and why he was so much against changes. But in the end he always stood by his chief when he had to. She had come to admire that.
An now, she couldn't let him die, not like she had let One-Eye die. And she could do it, she kept telling herself. She looked up when she almost reached Strongbow and saw him lying in the floor, his head resting on Moonshade's lap and eyes closed. Moonshade ha her hands on his shoulders and looked down on her lifemate, worried and afraid. Leetah paused an instant to look at the scene, but realized she shouldn't be waiting. With hands together she arrived next to the archer, not daring to look at him as she sat down.
Slowly, Strongbow opened his eyes, but they were barely more than slits. The silence seemed too long for Leetah, but when the archer touched her hand with his, she looked up, seeing the state he was in. And she was surprisingly shocked. And she could feel it too. He was hurt, more hurt than she had ever felt. Not even in Blue Mountain had he been so torn apart from the inside. What Winnowill had done was wrong, but it was not entirely her fault.
**I must never forget...** she started weakly, **My power over death gives me no right to impose my will on the soul of another.** Very slowly Strongbow nodded, as if he understood. He had been through a lot, so he should.
**Will you allow me?** This question, Leetah had never asked before to anyone. Why did she ask him? Because she felt like? Or because she had to? Because he was stronger than she was? His answer, however was not as strong as he could be most of the time. It was rather weak, as if everything he had been through had become too much for him. She couldn't blame him. She would've died long before.
**If it wil help you...** he sent, pain obvious in every word. **...Help me.** Then he closed his eyes, not to reopen them again, until she was done...