Written by Kathleen & Wordgazer
The thing is, that it’s the trees.
Strongbow is in the trees, and they are around him one moment, gone the next. He’s wandered into a thorny grove.
Suddenly, they close and lock, and he’s inside. Green scent doesn’t matter, soft grass doesn’t matter, especially not when it’s outside and he’s behind thorns as long and as sharp as his fingers. Thorns that would close in and kill him if he let them. If the black-maned snake would let him.
Winnowill is outside.
She is hurting him, she will keep hurting him. He doesn’t know whether to escape, or to lie very still and hope she doesn’t see him.
All locked away as far as he can put them. She mustn’t see them.
The cubs don’t understand, the wolves don’t understand, no one anywhere understands
None save one.
She comes to him, when he shivers in the thorns, lays a hand on his shoulder.
He looks up.
Tall and fair, Aroree is, all long legs, and reed-thin beauty. Her eyes are polished river stones, and he sees how lovely she is, in the same instant that he sees she is neither Moonshade, nor the pain giver.
Her face is lovely, but cold in a way he knows from seeing reflected back to him in a pool.
He takes her hand. She lifts him to his feet.
He is in the trees.
They are around him.
She is beside him.
She is in the air.
Her tears are no different than his.
She wipes them away, smiles tremulously, and floats away, to the caves she shares with the Go Back and the Bird Elf.
Moonshade is behind him. Her arms are around him.
He’s fine, he’s wonderful, his heart is racing, but he also smiles. He wants to tell her this, but she knows.
Aroree is flash of white near the caves. He wants to go to her, take his Eyrn to her, show her everything will be alright. He knows it will, even if he doesn’t. He wants to hold her, to heal her.
Moonshade’s arms are slim, but strong. Her heart is full and open.
**Go to her.**
Moonshade’s eyes are made like flowers, to bend and sway in the wind. Moonshade’s hair, her body, all call hidden creeks to mind.
She is in the trees with him. She has her hand in his. She is leading him to the caves.
She holds him, just outside those caves. Her hands on him, her mind against his, as comfortable as an old bow, with plenty of shots left in it. Practiced, familiar.
**Tell her, what she cannot tell herself.** Moonshade has to push him into the caves. **Tell her what you tell me.**
It will be alright.
Aroree is still, and surprisingly small at the back of the cave. She has curled in on herself, crying in a way that allows tears, but no breath and no movement.
Strongbow thinks she knows he is here, sees it confirmed in the way she flinches. She is, he sees, for what feels like the first time, a sparrow, small and dusty. She is tasty prey for a hawk, but not the hawk he had thought her, when Moonshade had been in her birds talons.
She is slim in his arms, as he takes her close. She cries as Moonshade had, when Crescent died, when Dart made up his mind to stay in Sorrow’s End. She is silent tears, overflowing, with no more given forth than is left behind.
The scent of her is tangy-sweet, like Leetah, like Winkin after Winnowill got through with him.
He holds her gently. Holds her like Dart, Like Crescent, Like Moonshade, like Cutter on the very few times it’s been him who’s been at his chief’s side when the boy breaks down.
She sobs, then. Sobs, and sendings flow through his mind.
**you want to be loyal, don’t you, Aroree? I’ll help you.**
No, don’t pleaseithurts,Ican’tpleasestop…
**Lord Voll would hate you, hate even look at you. What? Are you still thinking of him ?**
**Pathetic twit! I will show you true power, true life!**
**You’re a good child now, Aroree. Let’s see if you can stay that way.**
**I have a task for you.**
She has stopped crying, but he feels, as he has felt in his own throat, the ache in her heart, and the lump in her throat.
She looks up at him, shyly, under long lashes. He finds a small, unused smile.
**It will be alright.**
Outside is Moonshade, and he has already decided, on day, when the Go Back baby is loud, and Aroree, tall, strange, sad Aroree, wants a break, she will den with them, and they will make her new leathers. Let down her hair.
Let her out her soul, to shine.
** We will be alright.**
Winnowill is gone, Aroree thought. We banished her together– Cutter, Strongbow, and I. No more hold on my mind, or my heart.
Except she wasn’t gone.
In the silent times, in the caves, in the treetops– whenever Aroree was alone, the ghost of the black snake hissed at her. The memories would attack out of nowhere, driving back reality, twisting her stomach, leaving the bitter salt of tears on her tongue. She began to think she would never be free.
Then one evening, as the sun dusted soft colors across the sky, as Aroree flitted from the caves to the Holt, she saw him.
Strongbow huddled in a small stand of trees, as still as one of them. Strongbow on his knees, pulling himself into his shoulders. It brought her closer, her heart rising quietly into her throat. As she glided into the trees, she saw that he was shivering. He lifted eyes to her that didn’t see her. Eyes like holes, empty.
She laid a hand on his shoulder, left it there till his soul came back into his eyes and he saw her. Saw her the way she’d seen him the day he first showed her compassion, the day she saw him for the first time.
She smiled at him then, but her heart wept. Tears were on his cheeks. She felt her own face wet, knew it must be shining moistly in the fading light. She lifted a hand to her face, smoothing away her tears. Then, almost of its own will, her hand reached out, brushed at the wetness on his face.
He was staring at her. There were no words.
She turned and left him, gliding shakily back to the caves. The pain in his eyes had brought her own rushing in, like waves of the Vastdeep, submerging her. She found her furs and curled into them.
She cried tears that brought no relief.
He was there. The silent presence that she used to fear, that she still feared sometimes even now. He was standing there watching her, and her shame made her flinch away, wishing there were some place to hide.
Noiselessly he approached, and she huddled away from him, her body shaking with sobs as silent as he was. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think.
She was in his arms.
Strongbow crouching beside her, his head bent over hers, his dark hair brushing her face. He was gentle, so gentle.
She put her face in his shoulder and let the sobs have a voice. His mind touched hers as it had that day when he took her deep into herself. His mind gathered hers in, and together they were feeling, were experiencing those days. The days of fear and hopeless suffering. The days of the Black Snake.
His strength, his rage where she had felt only shame, rose within her, sustaining her. Holding nothing back from her.
Together they knew. All of it.
Moonshade was waiting outside. Aroree saw it in his mind, saw the kindness in those violet eyes that had sent him in here to her cave.
Her tears subsided, but her throat, her eyes still stung. She looked up at Strongbow under her lashes.
Astonishingly, he smiled, a small, quiet smile like a lover’s. Like a father’s.
**It will be alright.**
He brushed back a strand of her hair that had come loose from its bonds. She felt all at once tired and relaxed like a child. Like she wasn’t ages older than he. She smiled back.