Written by Nevaratoiel
The chamber of Scrolls was quiet. Timmain’s tale, through Suntop’s physical body, had stunned everyone into silence, all awkwardly gaping across the distance, not being able to comprehend what had just happened. Most of them, especially the Go-Backs, shunning magic, couldn’t possibly understand what the High One, mother of the Wolfriders, had done to the yellow haired boy.
Leetah sat next to Suntop, Ember on the other side of her brother, trying to get through to the boy, and healing where necessary, a motherly frown on her face. But Suntop was only tired, being young and not used to such a surge of magic.
Cutter, equally concerned for his son, as was his life mate, watched them with both a heavy and a light heart. He knew the truth about his folk, about how they came to be and how they had come to be who they were today. And Strongbow had been right. They were Wolfriders first.
He hadn’t seen the archer ever since they had entered the Palace of the High Ones. He’d seen him before that, having been tended to by Moonshade. He had been wounded, but kept insisting he’d be fine. Knowing Strongbow’s nature, he’d left it at that and accepted a wry, apologising smile from the tanner.
Now he was indeed wondering where Strongbow had gone to and slowly walked around the chamber, seeing that both elves and trolls were starting to recover and some were even arguing with others. But his eyes focused on something else. Far in the back, in the opening of the great chamber, where they had all stepped through when they entered, stood the object of his search.
The archer leaned against the side of the doorway, his back turned to the room. Head down and his left hand firmly pressed against the bandages where he had been wounded. The young chief approached him slowly, as if not wanting to startle the elder elf. Strongbow did not look up, not even when Cutter laid a gentle hand upon his shoulder.
**What do you think?** He felt the question form in his mind. He didn’t really know why he had let it slip, but Strongbow was the Keeper of The Way, and maybe it was just a natural reaction. Maybe they now understood what The Way was and how it was kept.
Strongbow’s lack of reaction was not what Cutter had expected and he grew even more concerned when he noticed the archer’s eyes were closed and upon closer inspection Strongbow’s breathing seemed to be a bit laboured.
**Strongbow,** he pressed gently, **What do you think?**
The archer sucked in a breath, but seemed to pull himself together. Expecting a Sending, Cutter was not prepared for what came next.
“…That Winnowill’s tortures were easier to bear… than this,” Strongbow said, his voice barely more than a raspy whisper.
Cutter was confused. Why did he speak? In all the time he knew the older elf, he never heard him speak once. He had asked his mother about it, but she had waved it away, saying that it was part of Strongbow’s past. And Cutter had often wondered what past he held. But he would never ask directly.
Strongbow was speaking again. “Timmain began the Wolfriders…” His voice was breathless and difficult to decipher. Cutter had to lean in closer to be able to discern the words. “But, next to her… we’re lower than worms.” The archer moved slowly and leaned his head into the door frame as if to draw strength from it. Eyes now opened slightly, fixated on the floor.
“She’s had so many shapes. How can ‘The Way’ mean anything to her?”
“No…” Strongbow breathed, “It’s finished. Let it die…”
Cutter was completely lost. He had listened and had understood the words, but had not understood the words. He frowned; “You talk. But what are you saying?”
Now, the archer turned his head to face his chief. It had been the first time he had looked into his chief’s eyes ever since they had entered the Palace. And this time Cutter could see these eyes, normally so full of fire, emotion and determination, were cool, composed and now seemed empty. But they were lucid, which meant Strongbow was not rambling like a lost fool.
“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 too tired to keep them open.
Cutter parted his lips, thinking Strongbow was finished. But before he could say anything, the archer spoke again.
“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 to s-” His muscles stiffened and his head suddenly swung to the side, now white as the snow outside. The hand that had been pressed to his side now clutched it, and his other hand balled into a fist.
It all happened so fast. Strongbow was slipping. His knees buckled, his legs gave way. And Cutter was unable to soften the fall, though he tried. He moved forward, but the archer already had made contact with the cold stone Palace floor. And there were no words to say.
His blood ran cold, though he did not know where it came from. He only felt the pain in his body, and not just from the wound. It burned through his entire body and he briefly wondered how one could be hot and cold at the same time. He didn’t feel himself fall to the ground. He just found himself there, another cold feeling, this time running up his back, stiffening the muscles everywhere it went.
Time, never an interest to him, seemed to have slowed. It felt like all his movements were slowed, even his thoughts slowed down to the point where he couldn’t think straight. Vision blurred, eyes willed themselves closed. His body wanted rest, it was beyond fatigue.
Somehow, far away, he could’ve sworn someone called his name before his vision failed altogether and the world went black.
“Strongbow, life mate!” Moonshade’s cry knifed into the sudden silence. She came running up behind Cutter and knelt beside Strongbow, who now lay unconscious on the ground. No words needed to be said; Cutter knelt down as well and helped move Strongbow’s head and upper body against the tanner, upon her lap. Then stood up, watching her gently trying to rouse her soul mate. She would not lose him yet.
Cutter had no idea how long it took for Strongbow to gain consciousness. But when he did, the chieftain’s heart fluttered with relief. Strongbow’s eyes were glassy, weary and it seemed he was not fully aware of his surroundings. And Cutter only watched.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and stepped aside to let Treestump pass.
“We all knew he was wounded, but he just shrugged us off,” The yellow bearded elder grumbled as he crouched down beside the archer, frowning at the sight of the wound. “The sword must’ve jabbed through the seam where his metal vest was buckled together… deeper than we thought.” It was not a pretty sight. The wound was red and infected, and it had spread over his side. I wound like this could be fatal and Cutter could not imagine that happening. Strongbow was so many years older than Cutter, and he had been, more than once, a wise counsel to him. He looked down upon him and noticed that the archer was looking at his wound without any real interest.
“Just like him… he never made a sound,” Pike said, suddenly standing just behind Cutter. When and how he had come to be there, the young chieftain didn’t know. Pike had been standing a long distance away. As he looked around, he saw that Nightfall and Redlance had also closed in and had sympathetic eyes on the fallen archer.
It was all too much like Strongbow. Strongbow had a tendency to downplay his injuries. Cutter remembered after they had arrived in the Sun Village. Strongbow had been as much sunburned as the others. But where the other members of the tribe had been complaining and eventually asked the villagers for something to ease the pain, Strongbow had just endured and had refused any help.
And Cutter knew the archer had deep wounds from Winnowill’s torments, but, again, had refused any pain relief from Leetah. He said he wanted this to be a reminder, no matter how painful it was or would be.
“Where is Leetah?” Moonshade suddenly asked, interrupting Cutter’s thoughts. The edge of despair in her voice made Cutter cringe. But before she could call for the healer Strongbow grabbed her arm painfully hard and slightly pulled at it.
“No!” he whispered with an emotion Cutter had never heard from the archer. It was defeat. He had given up.
Strongbow then gasped as Treestump tried to pull off the bandage from his wound where it had been stuck to the flesh. “Let her be,” he continued, jaw firmly set. “I know what she feels… She doesn’t need more pain.”
Cutter knew what he was talking about; One Eye’s death. She had not been able to bring his spirit back to his body from where it had been, between life and death. And she lost him. But not only that, she had also failed in healing Winnnowill, which had been the greatest effort up until then. She had failed twice in the short span of time.
Accidentally Treestump pulled too hard at the bandage, resulting in ripping it harshly off the skin. This caused Strongbow to stiffen even more as he tried to stifle the cry that lingered on his lips. But he could not prevent an audible gasp from escaping.
“And so just let you die, eh?” Treestump angrily said. “That’ll please her surely! Isn’t One Eye enough?” The frown on his bearded face grew even deeper when he started to closely examine the wound. Cutter stepped closer as he observed Moonshade getting a better grip on her life mate, trying to share his pain through the link of their recognition.
“It’s easy, isn’t it?” He suddenly said, breaking the moment between the two life mates. Moonshade looked up at him in surprise and even Strongbow’s eyes betrayed some of the same emotion, but overshadowed by pain and now fatigue as well. “So easy to give up and let go, I know.” Cutter was very serious. The thought of another one of his tribe, another part of his large family, dying was unthinkable.
“But, for you, and me, the easy path is, somehow, never the right one.” He paused, wondering if what he had just said had gotten through to Strongbow. The archer turned his face aside, as if not able to look his chief in the eye, and then sighed. But Cutter knelt down, closer, wanting every bit of attention from the other he could get, as long as he needed it.
“‘The Way’ must live, Strongbow.” He stopped, letting the words carry on their meaning to the wounded archer. Then Strongbow looked up to his young chief and Cutter continued. “If I was meant to start and finish the Quest, you were meant to stand vast against the storm of change.” Speaking as calm and composed as he could, he tried through to the archer’s stubborn mind, not letting his eyes wander off from Strongbow’s.
“I need you, with your roots, sunk deep, like the Father Tree—” He rose from his crouched position. “—to challenge the worth of every ‘strange notion’ I’ll ever have.” He paused again, taking on a slightly insecure stance. “That is,” he said, almost cheekily, “if you still want me for your chief.”
“Who says otherwise?” Treestump questioned, taking his attention away from Strongbow’s wound, putting pressure on it to stem the blood flow. “You did all you set out to do, and more. No other Wolfrider chief ever did so much. And that at your age!” He whistled in amazement.
“We’ve come to the Palace,” another voice joined the conversation. It was Nightfall, accompanied by Redlance, who was right beside her. She knelt in front of Cutter, showing him the respect that she felt he deserved, and took his hands in her own. “No matter where we go the truth will go with us.” She looked straight at him and he could not tear his eyes from her. “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.” Then she smiled at him and drew away. She was proud of him. She was his friend and that would never change.
In the meantime Leetah had come over, having heard what happened. She stood behind her life mate, listening to Nightfall speaking to him. She had seen that Strongbow had been badly injured, but still didn’t know the extent. She could see him lying on the tiled floor, face drained from any blood, eyes closed, and head resting on Moonshade’s lap.
When Leetah walked up to the pair, Moonshade did look up and looked at the healer with sad, but hopeful, eyes. Leetah’s eyes were focused on the floor, still shaken by the events that had taken place the last handful of days. Never in her life had she failed to heal someone, and the fact that she had failed to revive One Eye gnawed at her soul. Things would never be the same. But she would not just let anyone die. She would not let Strongbow die.
Even after all those years she lived with the Wolfriders, she still hadn’t gotten to know Strongbow very well. She had ‘touched’ him with her healing powers in Blue Mountain, where he had been mentally tortured by Winnowill. She understood, the moment she touched his hand, that it wouldn’t have lasted much longer before Winnowill would’ve broken his will. He had been very close to giving up. He had let her enter his mind, but she hadn’t dared to go in further.
She had felt, however, all the hardships he had been through in his life. He was, at least, several hundred years older than she was and she had felt the bitterness about the loss of lives, more than one, the tortures he had been through, the hatred for humans, and many more indefinable emotions. No specifics, just general feelings. She just could not imagine how hard life was in the Wolfriders had lived in for so many generations. She had gotten to know him more than she ever thought she would. And she had come to respect him, maybe more than any of the Wolfriders, or perhaps just differently.
When the Wolfriders came to the Sun Village, the image she had of him was a silent, gruff archer, not able to adjust to a different life and detesting anyone who thought differently, which evidently meant he had a grounded dislike for the Villagers. In time she learned that these feelings were deeply rooted, just like the Father Tree Cutter had told her about more than once. He was a Wolfrider in heart and soul. He was the protector of ‘The Way’. And he would stand by his chief when he was needed. He had proven that more than once.
Leetah understood now.
And she would not let him die, like she had let One Eye die. She was able to do it, she kept telling herself.
When she stood next to the pair, she did look up. Her mind was whirling with thoughts and emotions, and she wasn’t able to look them in the eye. Strongbow was lying on the floor, his head resting on Moonshade’s lap. She, in turn, had her hands on his shoulders and now looked down to gaze worriedly at her injured life mate.
She sat down on her knee, next to Strongbow, hands folded in her lap, still not able to look up. Strongbow opened his eyes, slowly, and seemingly with effort, and they were slightly more than slits. The silence seemed to be taking too long for Leetah, but when the archer touched her hands with his she finally did look up. And the eyes she looked into were that of a stranger. This didn’t seem to be the normally fiery and confident archer she had known through the years. He had been hurt, and badly so. Not even in Blue Mountain, after Winnowill’s torture had he been so torn apart.
**I must never forget…** she hesitantly started, **My power over death gives me no right to impose my will on the soul of another.** She sighed, and closed her eyes for a moment, as if to draw courage from within.
**Will you allow me?**
Leetah had never asked this to anyone before; normally the injured came to her. But it felt right to ask him. She was aware he had not wanted her to come. She had known clearly he wanted to die, have the eternal rest in the Palace of the High Ones. She would have died long before.
**If it will help you—** he sent, weary, his mental voice weak. **—help me.** She nodded slightly and squeezed his hand, as if to ensure him everything would be alright. It would be, as long as he would allow her to touch his inner being.
Strongbow seemed to relax under as he weakly returned her squeeze. Then the healer set her mind to the task she was expected to do. Healing, that was it. She would never have to doubt herself again.