“Are you sure?”
Ash, as always, managed to make the question sound challenging.
“Yes, cub, I’m sure. I’ve been tracking branch-horns since before you were even a twinkle in Wolfmane’s eye. This is the one you shot earlier.”
Ash bristled a bit at being called ‘cub’, but didn’t rise to the bait. He merely glared at Hawkcall and went back to studying the prints in the soft ground before them.
**Baiting the boy again, brother? This is his hunt after all, we are just here to teach him.**
Hawkcall looked sourly towards his brother. Snaptwig was one of the few who could get through to him when he was in one of his moods without getting growled at.
**He’s got it coming, doesn’t he? Insufferable little whelp. Every word out of his mouth sounds of challenge. Why did we come to help him if he doesn’t want to learn?**
Snaptwig rolled his eyes and walked along beside his brother as they both followed Ash, who, now willing to accept that this was the same branch-horn he had wounded earlier, once again began to stalk their prey. Hawkcall knew full well why they were here. He just had to work through his agitation with Ash to accept the answer.
**I know you suggested that it would be good practice for me… learn how to talk to someone younger and all that, but surely no cub of mine will ever be so stuck on himself.**
**Oh?** Snaptwig queried. **You think he will take after his mother then?**
Hawkcall glared at his brother for a moment and then sighed.
**All right, so, I can be a bit disagreeable. So what? **
**So what? So young Ash is a lot like you were at that age. Remember, I was there when you were whelped. If nature plays out your cub might be as hard-headed as you, and you might as well get used to it.**
Thinking on the cub Ice bore, his cub which was due in another two seasons, Hawkcall’s expression softened. Nothing in life had affected him so profoundly as the expectation of being a father. The idea had consumed him since the moment he and Ice had Recognized. She was not the most maternal of elves, but he looked forward to the birth with every fiber of his being. All of his hopes and dreams were tied up now in raising and caring for the son he knew was coming soon.
**All right. Point taken. I don’t know what my son will be like, but whatever he is I’ll be there for him. Not sure if following this whelp around will help with that, but Ash needs a lot more training to make his skill match his opinion of himself.**
Snaptwig snorted a bit, which prompted Ash to look back in irritation. The three wolfriders and their mounts were being extra stealthy, as they expected the wounded branch-horn to be close at hand. The wound it had suffered earlier was no doubt weakening it, but it likely still had some fight left. Now, attention focused clearly on the trail before him, Ash went back to his stalking with the two older wolfriders observing from their private conversation.
**I’ll admit, brother, it was a shock when you Recognized Ice. Impending fatherhood, though, seems to be a good thing for you. You’ve matured a lot from the brash hunter you were. Even Oakhand commented on it.**
**Oh has he now? Mature I may be, but I’ll prove myself a better hunter than he one of these nights. Fatherhood is just a delay of that challenge, not the end of it.**
Hawkcall mused a bit on the long-standing competition between himself and the older hunter. He constantly matched his skills against Oakhand, only to be bested again and again. Maybe what Snaptwig said was true and he was growing older and wiser. That would, in the long run, only make him a better hunter, he thought. Oakhand had everything that Hawkcall could aspire to having, so naturally he pitted himself against the older hunter and chief‘s mate. One day he would be the Hunt Leader or die trying. There was plenty of time for that though, he supposed.
**Keep challenging Oakhand and you’ll keep getting your nose rubbed in it. Sure, the challenge makes you fight to be better, but it drives him on too. Only he has a lot of time on you, age-wise. How do you plan to match that?**
**Why, with cunning and persistence, brother. How else?**
The two of them stopped as they realized that Ash had come to a halt ahead of them. The younger elf tilted his head up to sniff the air for a hint of their quarry. He looked back at the others, more for confirmation of his own decision rather then guidance, and then finally motioned for them to wait while he snuck on ahead towards the wounded animal.
**Heh. The pup's confident, I’ll give him that. He wants the kill for himself.**
**Of course he does, Hawkcall. He’s showing off for us. You offered to teach him and he accepted because he wanted to show us that he really didn’t need the lesson. Let him have his victory… or we can pick him up and dust him off if he fouls it up.**
The two hunters waited in silence for a several minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. Hawkcall’s mind wandered back to only a few short nights before when Ice had told him for certain that it was a male cub she bore. He had placed his hand over her enlarged belly and felt the little one kick and roll with more force than he could have imagined that one so young could muster. A smile spread across his face as he imagined what the boy would be like, who he would look like and all the other details that an expecting parent fussed over. Eventually though, he noticed Snaptwig grinning at him.
**I was doing it again, wasn’t I?**
**Yeah, but I wont begrudge you the joy. It must really be a wonderful thing. Being a father will be good for you and I’m sure you’ll take to it like a squirrel to the branches.**
Their thoughts were interrupted just then by a noise from just over the ridge. The sounds of a scuffle were umistakeable and the two brothers looked at one another for only a moment before sprinting to the top of the rise and peering over. Before them, several wolf-lengths away, lay the branch-horn, now mortally wounded. Standing over his prey and howling his victory was the now triumphant Ash. He had managed to sneak close enough to the wounded animal to drive his spear into its side. The struggle had been brief but spirited as witnessed by the bruises Ash now wore, but he had won and was announcing his victory to the world.
“It’s done. Come, share my kill with me.”
Snaptwig and Hawkcall smiled knowingly. The thrill of the kill was something all wolfriders shared, and even Hawkcall couldn’t begrudge the lad his moment. They waited a bit while Ash’s knife opened up the animal to carve out the best bits, the victor's portion, for himself, and then stood aside to allow them to the carcass. Gathering around it the three of them ate their fill. The rest they would return to the Holt to share with the rest of the tribe.
**He didn’t do so badly after all, did he? You might have competition for that Hunt Leader job one day,** Snaptwig sent in jest.
Hawkcall gave Ash a long, appraising look, and then returned to his meal.
**Maybe… maybe long after my time. I don’t want to dwell on that now though. We’ll take the remains back to the Holt. I want to see Ice well-fed for the cub's sake. Maybe then I can carve him something nice from the bones… if our young ‘Hunt Leader’ will share.**
They finished their meal in silence and then packed the carcass back to the waiting tribe. There would be enough meat to feed Ice and the rest of the tribe besides for awhile. For his part, Hawkcall was pleased. Soon his son would be born and he could get to know the elf he would become. Nothing else really mattered when he got down to it.
**Hurry to me son… I’ll be waiting,** he sent, though he knew that from here the cub couldn’t hear him. His hope was just so strong and he was so anxious. Maybe he would try sending to the boy while he was with Ice. He would let him know how much he was being expected and the hopes his father had for him. The thought of that, and the future with his boy, set another smile to Hawkcall's face. Soon his son would arrive and their life together would start. He just wished the cub would hurry. Wolfriders' lives were never certain and patience was never his strong point. Still, though, it wouldn’t be much longer. All he had to do was wait a little bit more.