It was the time of the hunt.
The party had tracked the three young branch-horns for a good half a day now, under a heavy cover of autumn clouds. These were the high days of rutting season, and males bashed horns all across the hunting trails, from the Holt’s river to the Guardian Mountains. Outcast herds, the weaker bachelors who will not breed this season if at all, made tempting targets for the cunning predator – the fang, the claw, the arrow and spear. And they knew it.
Longshot crouched low, one knee touching the grass damp with a fresh drizzle, counting on that rain to mask his scent. From his place on the low rise, the stags grazing along the little vale stood out dark and wary against the greenery. Further off and upwind, the woods began to draw a cover. Shadows moved within when a gust whipped rain off the branches.
Then one of the shadows leapt, untangling from the mask of foliage, and Blacksnake and Snowfall rode down on the bachelor herd with hungry howls.
Longshot sprang to his feet, himself like an arrow shot, and pulled his bowstring, a tremor running from it up his fingers and into his spine. The two elder hunters’ plan was perfect; the herd was small, and the effort of tracking it would yet prove worth every step. Paws thundered behind him as Windsong led her party up the rise, Quick Fang snarling, Foxtail with a satisfied grin. On the rise opposite him, Thornbow appeared like a ghost out of the grass and nocked an arrow of his own.
‘Perfect,’ Longshot thought with a rushing thrill. ‘Perfect!’
There was nothing like the hunt. The riders terrorized the branch-horns into a wild run, harrying them between one team and another, howling and growling and whistling. And the archers were waiting, tense, ready for that most perfect of moments, the moment it was all for, waiting as only archers could understand it.
“Ayooah, Windsong!” Blacksnake’s cry was deep and hoarse with the hunt’s thrill as his spear went flying, biting out. Longshot noted with glee that Icestalker was first in the running, nipping at the heels of the slowest stag, far past Blacksnake’s Wasp. Windsong added her whistle to the clamor, urging Halftail for a leap. Growler, young and nimble, crossed the distance in lunges. They slammed into the herd. A stag screamed, bone cracked, blood gushed, meat hit the ground.
Blacksnake’s spear was jutting from the hindquarters of a second stag – the Hunt Leader snarled at the shot gone bad, but the injured animal was still stumbling, struggling along, until Thornbow shot it perfectly between neck and shoulder, deep into the ribcage. Longshot’s breath caught briefly. Quick Fang was so close, the arrow whistling past her ear – but the shot was just right. The huntress laughed at the kill at her feet.
It always had to be just right. There was no triumph greater.
He wanted to send a cheer to Thornbow for his good shot, but couldn’t allow himself to be distracted from his nocked arrow, his bowstring, the muscles that crackled with energy in his arm. Any moment now. That last stag was waiting just for him. He could see it already, as he always could, when the target was still far, far away – he could already taste the blood. There was no weapon like the bow. Only another archer could understand.
They were all arrows in the hunt. Longshot steadied his shoulder against a beat of wind. The last stag, the largest of the three, zigzagged wildly to avoid its pursuers, dealing a kick to Growler’s ear as the wolf came too close. No such pain for the archer. The young elf felt his ribs lock in a terse breath that awaited release with his shaft. Not while the others were so close… Foxtail cast her spear, but it went wide as the animal changed directions. He heard Quick Fang snap a curse, but there was no need. One more moment, one more breathe. He’ll do it without a drop of sweat.
His fingers shifted on the string. The arrow flew, true as song. And suddenly the stag was changing directions again, avoiding the shot altogether, and storming uphill, blind in its run and directly towards him. It was going very fast.
Longshot scrambled for another arrow, his fingers suddenly slippery with fear, the mind-shouts of his packmates a distraction. The beast was coming close. Close. It happened in a heartbeat. He could see the foam at its mouth.
The gleam of its horns.
The whites of its eyes.
But too close – too close – that single, rushing danger where there was supposed to be none – he had an arrow nocked, but at this distance –
He raised the bow in what felt like a still instant, time frozen as a river in winter. Only another archer could understand –
The stag tumbled in its dash and fell, its collapsing bulk dropping like a shadow over Longshot and concealing the young hunter from the eyes of his tribemates. Quick Fang shouted, already on her wolf and racing up the low hill, Foxtail and her bond hot on her heels. Blacksnake and Snowfall were staring, pale. **Longshot!** The Hunt Leader thundered. **Longshot, answer!**
Foxtail and Quick Fang grabbed the hind legs of the stag and yanked it backwards –
**I’m here.** Longshot lay dazed in a pool of blood, his bow broken, his chest heaving and leathers filthy. His arrow had gone straight through the stag’s eye, felling the animal before it could lay as much as the tip of a hoof on him.
Foxtail’s eyes were wide and bright. “Perfect shot,” she muttered, admiring the dead beast. Quick Fang was not so articulate – she just crushed Longshot in a relieved hug, grabbed his right arm and squeezed the good muscle there with a grin of triumph. The elder hunters were already up the hill, Thornbow behind them. Windsong exploded in a thrilled whistle. “You did it, archer!”
“I’d have bet the kill that it was past your range.” Blacksnake was actually shocked. “Last I’ve seen a deer charge an archer like that…”
“High Ones…” Snowfall circled the stag once. “That’s just how Fletcher…”
She glanced at Longshot.
“I know,” the young archer said. “It wasn’t just my hands on that bow.”
Thornbow approached from behind to clasp him on the shoulder. “Can you stand?” Longshot wavered a little, but it was remaining excitement and not lasting injury that made him wobble. He grinned brightly at his elder. Thornbow smiled back, a spark of understanding in his eyes, as only an archer could have.
“Fletcher never missed his mark twice,” he said.