The ground dwindled beneath Skywise as feathered wings bore him aloft into the night sky, closer to the stars that had always held his fascination since he was a wee cub.
He flew like the great birds and edged higher and higher –
Until something caught his eye below. Against his will, he dove to get a closer look.
His chief ran below him, Nightrunner by his side. But Nightrunner was long dead, and so was Warfrost. It should be Timmain running beside Cutter, the ancient High One lost once more to the wolf inside her.
The sight of his chief - the grown elf that used to tag alongside Skywise when he was a mere cub and looking to the silver maned elf for guidance - tugged on his soul, dragging him back down to the land below, warring with his desire to fly.
It had always been thus, but at least before Cutters massive quest, Skywise hadn’t needed to choose – then again, what was there to choose when Cutter had left him?
<Tam! Don’t leave me!>
He landed beside his chief who didn’t seem to see his wings. With a smile, Skywise reached for Cutter, only to watch with abject loss as a beautiful dark-skinned hand with gold bangles adorning the wrist wrapped around the moon pale skin of his best friend and sometimes lover. Another joined it, and Cutter turned aside, turned his back on him, on Skywise.
Just like he had before.
No! It wasn’t the same! Leetah had warmed to him too, had she not? They both shared Cutters soulname – both earned in Recognition, though his was the lesser claim. Cutter hadn’t truly left him then, why would he do so now?
Grief and loneliness filled Skywise and he launched himself into the air again, joined by Auroree who had no wings of her own but a will to fly. She was one of the only Gliders who had never looked down on him for his wolf-blood, for the one thing he’d had that made him special.
Now he didn’t have that anymore.
He’d given it up, ripped away his wolf blood to become a pure Elf, like the High Ones of old. He’d begged Leetah to do it, to change him, never dreaming how much it would and wouldn’t change in the end.
It wasn’t holding him down to the ground anymore, and the years had opened up before him just as he’d planned, returning to him the potentiality of long life that his Wolf blood had taken from him, from all the Wolfriders. He was free in a way no Wolfrider had ever been and it should have made him cry out his exultation.
But he had not the magic of the High Ones and now he was lost between two worlds – neither one, nor the other. Without the blood of the wolves, his senses were dulled and even as a full elf, he had no magic other than Sending.
Skywise had sacrificed that part of himself for good cause – for the time he would need to become more than he was so he could find his lost chief even though in truth, it had been him, Leetah and the cubs who’d been lost, thanks to Rayek.
He looked back down to the ground and cried out in horror, feathers falling from his wings in his terror.
Cutter was aging before his eyes… him and all the rest of the Wolfriders were getting older, but Skywise alone remained the same – the oldest Wolfrider aside from Timmain and she wasn’t even a true Wolfrider. She was a shape changer, with no actual wolf blood in her veins.
Neither did he, any more. He would watch everyone he loved grow old and die, the curse of the wolf’s blood.
He watched in anguish as he lost Cutter – <Tam! > – once more.
How many times would Skywise lose him?
To Leetah, to his own desire for the sky, to inevitable old age and the wolf’s blood?
Was this what Winnowill had hinted at in her taunts when the Wolfriders had been captives of Blue Mountain and later captive guests and hostages?
She was a healer. She had known. She had to have known.
And so did Leetah, for she was a healer too.
He angled downward on crippled wings, reaching for Cutter, watching Cutter’s skin wrinkling faster than it should by any rights. Leetah stood by him, as young as she ever was, not lifting a finger, turning away, seemingly uncaring or simply blind. How could she…
He struggled but the ground drew no nearer, the wind buffeted his suddenly broken wings, shoving Skywise higher, keeping Cutter out of reach.
Auroree and Tyldak and Lord Voll and other long dead Gliders circled him, laughing at his lack of control. He realized then that his wings were fake things, tied to his arms and disintegrating under the heat of the sun so hot! and the strength of the wind as he tumbled further from his kin.
<Tam! > He screamed. He watched as Cutters body fell, frail and broken, to the earth. He landed on a cliff, bracketed by the forest, his wings crumbling behind him, the sun setting on Cutters life.
<Tam! > He ran forward to his chiefs’ side, no trace of his once lover left behind, eyes vacant, skin ashen gray, the blonde white of his hair just an eerie silver white, wrinkles covering every inch of a too thin frame that lay unmoving.
Around Cutter and Skywise lay the bodies of all the other Wolfriders. Leetah and the cubs walked away, unfazed, unchanged, joining the waiting Sunfolk.
But he was flying, he was flying now. Searching for… what was he searching for? He flew away from the Palace, that quest of so many, past Blue Mountain, through the Holt as it had been before humans had burned it down, through the troll caverns where he’d gotten the lode stone that had saved countless lives, before rolling down over the desert.
Here he watched his memories – of how he’d lost his chief to the beautiful Healer of the desert, Leetah, determined not to become as jealous and possessive of Cutter as Rayek was of Leetah, though his bond with Cutter had been infinitely stronger than Rayeks and Leetah’s had been.
He watched helplessly once more as Cutter left his side, the grief from watching his chief and tribe dying still fresh in his mind.
It made Skywise all the more desperate to grab onto Cutter and hold on for all he was worth, to make the most of the little time he had to spend with Cutter.
<Tam!> He sent, again and again, tears streaming down his face. His skin was hot under the sun at Sorrow’s End.
For Skywise, it was anything but.
It was a symbol of the things he’d lost.
If they’d stayed in the Holt – if the humans hadn’t burned it down hot, so hot, was it always this hot in the Sun Village? and they hadn’t had to leave the cool, comforting confines of their ancestral home, the Quest would never have happened. The Palace would never have been found. Cutter would not have been taken from him.
<Fahr! Wake up! Stay with me! Leetah’s on her way!>
Skywise dreamed unknowingly and he burned.
<Fahr! Please!> Skywise gasped at the sound of his chief begging, such a rare thing. He spun about the Sun Village, hoping to catch a glimpse of Cutter, to be at his side, as ever, however he needed. <Don’t make me lose you again. I couldn’t bear it.>
<Tam! Tam, where are you?>
<I’m here, love. We’re here. Leetah’s here. You’ll be okay.>
Something cool washed over Skywise and night fell on the Sun Village. His eyes fluttered closed and when they opened again –
He stared up into the worried eyes of his chief. Cutter, his white blond hair and that facial fur Skywise was still having trouble remembering should even be there – Tam had aged so much in the time that Skywise, Leetah and the cubs had been gone. So much lost time, never to be recovered. All that Wolf’s Blood, a snare that would spring up and catch the unwary – was staring down at Skywise with tears streaming down his face, silent but painful to see.
It had always hurt Skywise to see Cutter in any sort of pain. Slowly, he reached his hand up to wipe away Tam’s tears – why was his hand trembling? – sliding along the pale skin till Cutter grasped Skywise’s wandering hand in both of his, pressing it against his face, his eyes closing, his throat working to hold something back.
<You scared me, Fahr.> Cutters Sending soothed Skywise, who was always glad that at least he hadn’t lost that when he’d become pure Elf again. Many of the lost tribes he and Cutter had found had become silent in that regard.
Some, like Leetah, didn’t even have soulnames.
<I can’t lose you. We can’t lose you.>
Another set of hands joined Cutters; the warm brown hands cupping their pale skin, the dark auburn curls of hair falling into Skywises face as the Healer embraced him and Cutter both.
“We’ve all been through too much to lose any one of us now,” Leetah whispered softly. “I was almost too late.” Her voice cracked and she stopped, hers and Cutters hands wrapping fully around Skywise now, drawing him down into their shared bed furs – when had he gotten back to the new Holt? – and holding him tight.
Eventually, he remembered the Hunt that had taken them too far afield, the strange sickness that had overcome him and Cutters desperation to get him back to Leetah in time.
The rest had been fever dreams, Skywise realized, though they’d drawn upon some very real fears.
He clutched at Cutter even as both Cutter and his mate embraced him tightly. How Skywise longed for the Now of Wolf Thought, that would allow him to enjoy whatever was left of their time together freely. Nothing would stop Cutter from dying, or Skywise from living on without him.
He wasn’t sure he’d want to.
For the first time, Skywise perhaps understood Bearclaws desperation and singlemindedness when Joyleaf had been taken from him by Madcoil. He remembered all too clearly, Clearbrook’s deadeye stare when her mate had been killed during the Troll War, the war that led to the reclaiming of the Palace.
Skywise might survive Cutters passing physically, but in all other ways, he wasn’t sure he would ever truly live again, even with Leetah by his side.
It was too painful to think on, and he pushed the dreams away, focusing instead on Cutter and Leetahs breathing, on their warm bodies bracketing him in their furs - so different from the all-consuming heat of his fever. Slowly he relaxed from their comforting closeness, drifting off into a thankfully dreamless sleep.
The last thing he heard was a mingled, sleepy sending from both his lovers,
<<We have you, Fahr. We’re here. Rest now, our beloved.>>
So he did, content in the knowledge that he wasn't, at least for now, alone.