Written by Tkiana
Strongbow wiped his sweat-dampened hair impatiently away from his eyes. It was midsummer, and even hours past sunset the heat was oppressive. A poor night’s hunt hadn’t improved the archer’s temper. He had only a couple of rabbits to bring back to the tribe. While that wasn’t as bad an outcome as it would be in the white-cold season, it still irritated him.
He walked silently along the shadowy treebranches, making his way back to the Father Tree. The sky overhead was crowded with fat gray clouds, hiding the moons from view. A faint breeze whistled through the leaves. His nostrils flared as he tested the scents carried on the wind. Trees, water, but no animal sign.
*Lifemate?* Moonshade’s gentle presence brushed against his mind.
*I’m on my way back,* he told her.
That made Strongbow pause only briefly. *Ohh, owl pellets…* He glanced down, catching a glimpse of golden-brown hair and mischievous eyes, before she darted out of sight. *Why does she keep following me?*
Nightfall wasn’t his cub–well, not that that mattered–all the Wolfriders looked after one another. Her recent fascination with his comings and goings, however, was a puzzle.
*You’re the best archer of the tribe,* Moonshade pointed out matter-of-factly. *She may still be too young to hunt alone, but not too young to start learning.*
Strongbow mulled that over. A slight frown crossed his face. *Hmph. Well, we’ll see.*
He descended to the forest floor.
Nightfall watched him hopefully as he approached her. “Could I–”
*Send, cub,* he admonished her. *Voices carry. *
While there had been no recent trouble with the humans, Strongbow felt caution was a habit his tribemates needed to try harder to practice. A memory, less raw but still painful, swam to the surface of his mind; another girl-cub’s face, leathers soaked with blood…He pushed the thought firmly away. That was then; this was Now. At ten years, Nightfall was old enough to learn, and it was her right to ask her elders for help. Her best protection was to grow skilled and confident.
*Could I try to shoot your bow?* Nightfall persisted.
*No. * Strongbow held up a hand to cut off her protest. *This one isn’t suited for you; you’ve only half my size and reach. We’ll have to craft you a bow to your own measure. You’ll need your own, too, might as well be now.*
Her eyes widened. She tried to hide a grin, unsuccessfully.
*Come. I saw a fallen oak tree branch by the creekbed. We should be able to carve one of the pieces to the right shape, back at the Holt.*
They returned to the Holt a short time later, Nightfall dragging the branch with some help from her wolf-friend. Seeing them, her parents came to watch.
Strongbow took up one of the knives he used for making arrows. *The wood’s dry, but not fragile or too soft. Yew, oak, or ash are usually the best if they’re in reach.*
The work was tedious, but quickly done. Nightfall took on part of the carving, with Strongbow or Longbranch directing her. Her hands might’ve been blistered by the time they’d finished, but she didn’t complain, he noted approvingly.
“Time to rest, wolfling,” Brownberry finally told her daughter. “It’s almost sunrise.”
Nightfall blinked, and looked up to the lightening sky. “Oh!”
Strongbow found himself suppressing a yawn. Nightfall gave him an apologetic look. He smiled faintly. *Tonight,* he promised her. *We’ll have your first lesson as soon as you’re ready.*
“Thankyouthankyou!” Impulsively, she hugged him.
Surprised, he nonetheless hugged her back, a little stiffly. Turning the rabbits over to Bearclaw, to be divided amongst the tribe, he went to his den.
Moonshade was awake, waiting for him. HIs lifemate smiled as he entered. *Wyl…* Joy, love, pride,warmth wrapped around the thought like a wolf cub’s soft fur.
He enfolded her in his arms, and gave over thinking about past or future for a while.
Nightfall woke long before sunset. She tried not to fidget as she waited for her parents to rouse. Their den had two separate hollows within the Father Tree, but only one entrance; she couldn’t go outside without disturbing them.
Finally, she couldn’t stand to wait any longer. She dressed, left her sleep-furs, tiptoeing–
–and found her parents already awake, waiting for her.
“Ready to work, sleepyhead?” Longbranch teased. “We were beginning to think you’d gone into season-sleep like a bear!”
Nightfall heroically defeated the urge to roll her eyes.
His words reminded her of something else. She darted back into her lair, returning with a handful of arrows, fletched with black and grey feathers.
” Did I make them right?”
Turning serious, Brownberry took one of the arrows to examine it more closely. “They look sound. Well made.”
Her praise made Nightfall’s worry fade away like fog in sunlight.
A wolf’s howl echoed through the holt. Other wolves’ voices joined in–and then Wolfriders’.
Nightfall joined the chorus as she hurried outside. Strongbow, true to his word, was waiting.
*We’re going to join the pack,* Longbranch sent to her.
Nightfall gave a little sigh of relief. She hadn’t wanted to hurt her parents’ feelings, but an audience for her first lesson was something she’d rather avoid.
Strongbow led her away from the others, uphill, to a deep patch of woods. They moved quietly; the archer wasn’t the sort for chatter.
Briersting, his wolf-friend, and Nightfall’s Woodshaver, followed the elves. Strongbow didn’t comment, except to send a short *No barking* to all three of them.
He patiently showed her how to string her bow, then demonstrated the correct stance and grip for her–*No, not so hard. Relax your hands. If you grip that strongly, the force will skew your arrows to the left or right.*
Her first shot missed the target he’d hung, on a branch about a treelength away. Her second and third tries came closer.
To her surprise–and annoyance–once she’d managed to hit the target twice, Strongbow moved it slightly higher. At her brief glare, he smiled wryly. *When an animal hears or smells hunters, it doesn’t sit still for long.*
They spent most of the night in practice. The wolves stayed nearby. Nightfall wondered why they didn’t go eat. *Woodshaver, aren’t you hungry?*
*No. I hunt for you,* he offered. *Lot of rabbits here.”
Nightfall had noticed that, too, in the back of her mind. Her stomach rumbled.
Strongbow glanced at the pair. *Enough for tonight,* he decreed. *We’ll work on moving targets next time. You’ve done well so far, Nightfall. You have the eye and quickness for this.*
A flicker off in the bushes caught his attention. *Stay still and quiet.* He fitted an arrow to his own bow, took quick and careful aim. His shot took the badger in its neck; a clean killing shot. Strongbow went to retrieve it. As he crouched to pick it up, Nightfall saw his lips move. A bare whisper…thank you…
*Always honor your kill,* he told her. *We have to hunt to live, but that doesn’t mean being ungrateful or cruel. And if you wound rather than kill on the first shot, finish what you’ve started. Don’t leave the prey to suffer and die slow. Especially not one of the bigger animals like a bear or elk. Wounded and in pain can be more dangerous than untouched. They turn vicious. *
*I will,* Nightfall promised solemnly.
*Good. * He straightened; slung the carcass over one shoulder.
Slinging her bow and quiver across her back, Nightfall followed her teacher home.