Snowfall brought up the rear of her little hunting party. Her young niece, Foxtail, was in the lead. The girl was three hands plus one turns of the seasons, and she was eager to prove her tracking skills. Her fiery curls bobbed and swayed as she turned her head this way and that, searching for clues showing where their “prey” had gone. This time the prey was Moss, who had taken himself off to hide southeast of the Cattail Marsh, leaving behind a trail that wasn’t too hard for young hunters to follow.
Snowfall smiled with quiet pride. Her niece was doing an admirable job tracking her tribemate. The smile quickly turned into a snort of amusement when she glanced at her other charge. Tremor marched boldly behind his cousin with the index finger of one hand over his lips to remind him to be quiet and the other fist planted firmly on his hip to keep it from wandering into mischief. His short, black dreadlocks bounced with every happy step. Snowfall shook her head a little and rolled her eyes. He was obeying the rules she had set, but just barely.
What neither cub realized was that Snowfall had not planned for this to be merely a track-and-find mission. This evening was to be a lesson on paying attention to one's surroundings while hunting. An unobservant hunter could easily become prey for another predator. She had enlisted the help of her lifemate, True Edge, for this lesson. He had shadowed them for a while and then had moved off ahead of them to prepare his ambush. That was why Snowfall had insisted that the group leave their wolves back at the Holt. It wasn’t that the cubs needed to run off excess energy, as she had stated at the time. She didn’t want their bonds to give away the ruse.
Foxtail held up a hand to signal a stop. Snowfall could almost feel the girl’s excitement when the small party obeyed her unspoken command. When Foxtail crouched to examine the ground, the white-haired huntress moved up to crouch beside her. The older elf’s senses quickly took in all the information to be gathered from the smudged track before them. However, she wanted to know what her students could discern from it.
**What do you see?** Snowfall asked as she motioned Tremor into a squat between them.
Foxtail frowned in concentration. **It’s a footprint. The impression is much deeper at the ball of the foot and the heel barely made a mark at all. So he was running.**
Snowfall nodded. **Good. Can you tell how long ago the track was made?**
Foxtail considered the question and the footprint carefully. For a moment she looked perplexed. **Oh! The ground is slightly marshy here but only a tiny bit of water has settled in the print. So he came through here not too long ago.**
**Very good.** Approval colored Snowfall’s sending and Foxtail beamed in response. The girl's spine straightened a little and her chest puffed a bit with pride.
Glancing at Tremor, Snowfall asked, **How do we know this is the footprint of the elf we are tracking and not some other elf out hunting?**
The cub leaned forward, bracing himself with his hands on his knees and sniffed deep and loud. He turned toward his aunt. “That-” he started but stopped suddenly at her quick finger over his lips and pointed look.
He flushed as she pulled her hand back. **Oops. Sorry.** Tremor placed his own finger back over his lips. **That’s my father’s scent. He was working with the purple moonberry dye before we started tonight and I can smell that too.**
Snowfall gave a slight nod, acknowledging the cub’s answer. However, it wasn’t the one she was looking for. **What if we were not hunting your father? What if this were someone else? Some stranger elf? How would you know we were on the right track?**
Tremor looked puzzled at the thought of a stranger elf. **Umm… The scent is the same as the first one we smelled?**
Snowfall nodded. **Yes. Now can you tell which direction our quarry travelled from here?**
Foxtail leaned in eagerly, ready to answer, but the older huntress put out a restraining hand and lock sent, **I know that you know, niece. Let’s test your cousin’s knowledge.** The girl settled back on her haunches with a satisfied look on her face.
The black-haired cub glanced at the track and then rose and moved forward a few steps. His blue eyes scanned the area. Snowfall heard a faint rustle in the undergrowth a few wolf-lengths ahead and to the right just as Tremor made a small sound of discovery. She scented the air and smiled secretly. True Edge was downwind.
**Look! See the broken twigs over there. He went that way!** The sharp-eyed cub took a few more steps, pointing to the bush with a couple of leaves hanging from a broken stem about ten wolf-lengths away.
Snowfall lock-sent to her lifemate. **So soon, Zeik? I thought we were doing this closer to Arrow Ridge.**
Another tiny sound came from the undergrowth, but something about it seemed off to her. Instantly, she was on her feet, brandishing her spear in the direction of the noise. She was already moving towards Tremor when she received a lock-send of pure puzzlement from True Edge. A startled Foxtail rose to her feet a breath after her aunt, gripping her spear tightly and glancing around nervously.
Snowfall had nearly reached the oblivious male cub when the leaves parted and a snarling, tawny blur leapt at Tremor. **Down!** she sent commandingly at him. Her spear was at the wrong angle to stab at the creature so she dashed forward a step to slam her shoulder into its ribs mid-jump. Her shove and the cub moving to obey deflected the animal’s arc enough to prevent its sharp claws from connecting. The mountain cat landed on the far side of Tremor and whirled on its attacker.
|Illustration by Melanie D.|
Snowfall noted the youth of the animal and the emaciated state of its body even as she thrust her spear. She stabbed it deep where the neck met the shoulder, cutting the big vein there. A moment later, Foxtail stabbed it in the side and promptly lost her spear as the mortally wounded mountain cat staggered a few steps away and collapsed, bleeding profusely.
Chests heaving and hearts pumping from adrenaline, the cubs stared wide-eyed at the animal. Snowfall scanned the area and listened hard for any other threats, though. After a little while, when no further danger presented itself and the mountain cat stopped its last feeble movements, she moved cautiously toward it.
Still instructing her charges despite the turn her plans had taken, Snowfall said, “Never get in range of the claws until you are certain a mountain cat is dead. Many an elf has returned home with scars because of an incautious moment.” The animal’s eyes were glassy and it had stopped breathing, but she poked the cat with the butt of her spear from a safe distance away just to illustrate her point. She pointed at her niece’s spear standing up from the cat’s side. “And avoid the ribs next time, Foxtail. They will bind your spear up and leave you weaponless.”
Foxtail nodded solemnly. “Will we be able to get the spearhead back intact?”
“Maybe,” Snowfall said with a shrug.
“Why did it attack us, Aunt?” Tremor asked.
“It went for you because of your size and you were separated from us a little.” She gave him a serious look. Tremor gulped and shivered a little bit as he glanced back at the mountain cat.
She explained, “It was young, inexperienced, and, judging from the way its bones protrude, desperately hungry. It didn’t learn the hunting lessons necessary for success from its mother. Perhaps it didn’t pay attention.” Snowfall raised a white eyebrow, staring at him pointedly. Tremor fidgeted nervously. “Or perhaps it just had bad luck,” she continued.
Snowfall felt her lifemate approaching before he broke through the underbrush around them, followed closely by Moss. The tanner rushed forward and scooped up his son for a tight hug.
Tremor returned the embrace and laughed a little. “I’m all right, Father. Snowfall was there to keep me safe.”
Moss sent his thanks to the huntress so she could feel the depth of his relief and gratitude without scaring his son more with how close the cub had come to disaster. Moss pressed his forehead against Tremor’s and looked into his eyes. “Snowfall is very talented but a father is allowed to worry.”
Tremor nodded sagely. “But I want you to teach me the bow, Father. I don’t want to lose my spear like Foxtail just did.”
True Edge laughed and moved up to put his arm around Snowfall’s shoulders. “I bet you won’t make that mistake again, will you Foxtail?”
The girl shook her head.
Moss set his son back on the ground and strode toward the mountain cat, pulling his skinning knife as he went. “Well, come on cubs! Let’s have a lesson in field dressing while we are out here. We might not be able to eat the meat but a lot of things can be made from this hide even though it’s not in the best of condition. We’ll make sure to take the claws and teeth too.”
The three moved off, leaving Snowfall and True Edge standing together alone. He squeezed his lifemate with the arm around her shoulders and pressed his lips against her ear. “A good lesson on how the hunter can become the hunted,” he whispered. “But next time, can we try to stick to the plan?”
Snowfall laughed and pushed at True Edge playfully. “If you want in on the action, you have to stay close. Now let’s go watch the skinning lesson. I’m sure you will have some advice for them.”
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