Keenblaze   2506.06.04*  
Written By: Whitney Ware
Crackle finds that not everything comes easy, while Otter discovers an unexpected talent.
Posted: 08/05/11      [12 Comments]

Illustration by Joanne P.
The bow was a thing of beauty. Crackle found herself holding her breath as she took it into her hands for the first time. It was a fluid triple curve in shape, crafted out of aged birch, and the fine, pale wood had been stained a shadowy forest green. The bow felt sleek and powerful in her hands, and Crackle felt as if she herself had grown a hand in height, just by holding the weapon.

“Can I name it?” she asked Thornbow reverently.

The bowyer smiled and nodded. “If you wish.”

Beside her, Otter was holding his own new bow. It was a slightly longer recurve, the applewood of the bowshaft oiled and polished to a glowing shade of amber. Otter hugged the bow gleefully. “Longshot says you taught him to shoot,” the youth said. “Can you teach us, too?”

Thornbow smiled and nodded again. “It would be my pleasure.

Thornbow had two quivers of simple cane arrows prepared for them, and led his pupils down to the corner of the Big Meadow where archery was often practiced. A new target had been strung between two trees at the meadow’s edge. It was a big hide stuffed with dried grass, onto which a whimsical looking cross-eyed marshbeast bull had been painted. Crackle recognized the bull as Nightstorm’s work — very possibly, she and Thornbow had coordinated their timing in setting up the new target at the same time when Crackle and Otter were presented their new real bows.

This wasn’t the first time Crackle had held a bow. Her parents had given her a child’s bow, two winters before. She had played with it for a couple of days, and while it had proven a fine prop in games of make-believe, the bow’s draw had been flabby and it had shot slow. Her slingshot had been a much more efficient weapon for squirrels or treewees, and One-Leg had made her an excellent rabbit-stick for rabbit hunting, so the child’s bow had been abandoned as soon as the new wore off. But this new bow she carried now was nearly as big as a grown-up bow, and it looked like deadly business. This was not something she could outgrow in a season, or maybe even over many years. This bow promised adventure and excitement unlike anything she had yet experienced. Crackle stroked the bow and imagined herself carrying it as she and Muddypaws rode to the hunt. With this fine weapon, she could take down bucks and click-deer and branch-horns. She would hunt stranger-wolves who invaded the Holt's territory; she would hunt mountain lions and bear. She would be a stealthy scout. She would prove herself a mighty hunter. She and Muddypaws would do courageous things and explore far beyond the boundaries of the Holt… This was a real bow, and it promised so many adventures she could hardly wait to experience. Crackle felt almost dizzy with anticipation. Walking felt unnecessary; she felt herself floating above the ground as she followed Thornbow out into the Big Meadow.

“To be a skilled archer, you must learn to see clearly and without distraction,” Thornbow said, gesturing for his students to take up their positions, a great many paces back from the painted hide target. “But first — you must know how to stand. Balance your weight over the balls of your feet. Stand tall and with your spine straight — but stand loose, not stiff, because your body will need to absorb the shock of your bow's recoil. Place your back foot like so, and angle your front foot like so, toward the target, with your knees relaxed...”

Crackle listened with only half an ear, her thoughts still dancing with anticipation. She already knew how to stand. Crackle had watched her elders shoot bows her entire life, so nothing Thornbow was saying so sternly was new to her. Crackle caressed her bow again, marveling at Keenblaze's deadly beauty.

“Visualization is key to this art,” Thornblaze said, moving to adjust the angle of Otter's shoulders. “You must picture yourself making the perfect shot in order for that shot to happen. Now — place the nock of your arrow onto the bowstring.”

With delight, Crackle pulled one of the cane arrows from her new hip quiver, and nocked it to the bowstring, delighting in the sight of the crimson-dyed fletching. Someone had made these just for her, and Otter’s had been made just for him, with the feathers of his fletching dyed a rich nut-brown, nearly the same shade as his hair. “Nock the arrow with the odd feather up and out, away from the bow,” Thornbow continued. “Always grasp the bow exactly the same way — consistency in your draw is crucial to developing accuracy. Take a comfortable grip on your bow Keep it comfortable, never tight. Crackle — loosen your grip. Don't clench the bow. Good. That's better. Remember to always keep your wrist straight but never rigid. Now, raise the bow toward the target. Lock your bow arm into position and turn your elbow out. Otter — out. Like that. Good.”

The bow in her hands felt like a living thing. Crackle felt herself almost quivering with anticipation as she stood with Keenblaze held out before her, an arrow set to the string. Oh, what adventures she and Keenblaze would have! The mysterious places they would discover. The hunts they would run on! Stinkbears and grizzlies, tuftcats and mountain lions – they would all tread carefully in fear of her now, of her and of Keenblaze in her hands!

“This is important: once you've begun to draw an arrow, you must always complete your draw. Do not let your arms learn the feel of an abortive attempt. Draw your arrows now. The forefinger of your string hand rests against the top of the nock, your second and third fingers below it. Push with the shoulder of your bow arm while you pull with the shoulder of your arrow arm. Draw the bowstring back until the fletching touches your cheek. You'll find your elbow should have stopped behind and slightly above your bow-arm shoulder. Good form, Crackle. Otter, elbow up just a hair — yes. Like that. Good.”

At once, Keenblaze's drawing strength made the muscles of her shoulders burn with strain. It was a good draw, a powerful draw — there would be force enough in an arrow shot from this bow to punch clean through a bull branch-horn, Crackle was certain of it.

“Now — feel how your hand and the arrow touch your cheek,” Thornbow continued. “This is your anchor point. You must draw the arrow back to the same anchor point before you take aim or release your arrow. Again — consistency is key. You must develop consistency to shoot well. Now. To aim, concentrate on a tiny spot on the target. Focus on that spot. Aim for that spot.”

Crackle looked down the shaft of her arrow, finding the exact spot in between the target's big blue-painted eyes. She smiled with delicious anticipation.

“Now,” Thornbow said. “Shoot.”

Crackle let her arrow fly, and heard the echoing twang of Otter's bowstring only half of a heartbeat later. To Crackle's disbelief, her arrow skimmed past the top of the hide target and disappeared into the brush beyond; it was the brown-fletched arrow that struck the target and quivered there, in the empty space between the hide marshbeast's painted antlers.

“It's harder than it looks, isn't it?” Thornbow asked, a tone of amused satisfaction in his voice. “When you release the arrow, you do so in a single, fluid action. Don't jerk your hand. Merely allow your fingers to slide from the bowstring. Then, once you've taken the shot, you want to retain the same stance and form you held before the arrow's release. Consistency will be your key in building any real accuracy. Now. Let's try it again. Find your stance. Nock your arrow. Draw.”

Crackle could feel the flush of heat in her face as she did as Thornbow instructed. The crimson fletching tickled against her cheek as she drew the arrow back. She pinned her gaze on the center spot between the target’s painted eyes, determined that her previous failure had been a simple fluke.

“Crackle,” Thornbow said as he prowled behind his two students. “Straighten your elbow. Remember — consistency of form. That’s good. Otter, good form. Find the exact point on the target that you choose to hit. See that spot. Focus on that spot. The bow is simply a part of you as you feel your way to that spot. When you’re there — shoot.”

Crackle concentrated hard on the point she had selected, so hard that the twang of Otter’s bowstring as he took his shot almost caused her to jump. She released the arrow, confident that this time —

The arrow which quivered next to the marshbeast bull’s eye was brown-fletched, not crimson. Crackle’s own arrow quivered where it pierced the hide target. This time she had hit the target, but it struck in between the spiky tines of the painted marshbeast’s rack of horns, a hand or more away from the space between its eyes. Crackle gazed at her arrow in dismay, certain that she had aimed just right.

“Fine shots,” Thornbow said from behind his students. “Otter, that would have been a kill shot. Crackle, you did well. You made the target hide this time. Try again. You both have arrows left in your quivers. So now comes practice. Only with practice you’ll find true and consistent accuracy.”

From the corner of her eye, Crackle could see Otter’s beaming grin of pride. She refused to look at her childhood playmate, and refused to feel the sting of having been bested. It wasn’t her fault after all, she realized. She’d only missed because Otter had broken her concentration. Crackle focused her attention on the target beyond, determined to set the course of things right.

If a little practice was all it would take to master this skill, then a little practice it would be.

By the end of their second practice session, Thornbow no longer had to remind his students about the importance of consistency in their draws. By the end of their third session with Thornbow, Otter was hitting the target with remarkable accuracy, even clustering his shots so close that the fletchings touched. But to her dismay, Crackle’s improvement was much less impressive. When Thornbow dismissed them at moonshigh after that third session, Crackle was only irregularly placing her arrows within the borders of the painted marshbeast target.

“Let’s keep practicing,” Otter had suggested, buoyant with the thrill of his own newly discovered talent.

Crackle scowled at the suggestion. She did not want to admit to anyone that Otter was going to beat her so easily at anything — and it stung that he proved so quickly able to master this skill, while she herself was struggling. The girl thought of a distraction and dived for it. “We’ll need more target arrows,” she had replied. “Let’s go down to the river and gather more cane.”

Otter had cheerfully followed her down to the river, and Crackle had complemented herself on her wit. She knew her playmate. Otter wouldn’t be able to resist going for a swim, and once he started swimming, something else would catch his eye and capture his enthusiasm — after all, something always did. Otter was too much like his fickle, playful namesake to stick to any chore for long. So Crackle had determined set to work with enthusiasm, cutting lengths of cane as long as her arm to be fashioned into arrows, confident that once Otter’s attention was diverted by something new, she would be able slip away and sulk in peace.

But once again, Crackle didn’t prove so lucky. As they reached the riverside, a big humpback fish leapt the stone weir, landing with a splash. The spawning season for humpbacks had only just begun, but already hundreds of the distinctively shaped, spotted salmon were passing over the weir on their way to their spawning grounds to the northeast.

At the sound of the splash, Otter’s head turned and his eyes locked on the weir, waiting. Crackle saw him counting under his breath until the next fish breeched the weir.

“C’mon, let’s practice!” Otter said then, scrambling with his bow out across the exposed stones of the weir-ford. He stopped beside the boulder that marked an approximate quarter-point of the river during its high spring runs. “Crackle, c’mon! This is better than any painted old hide!”

Crackle followed sullenly. Only the thought that a leaping salmon would prove impossible for Otter to hit got her out onto the rocks beside her agemate. Let Otter make a fool of himself, and he would quickly lose all interest in this new sport.

Otter whistled for his wolf-friend Splash. “You want first shot?” he asked Crackle.

“I don’t want to waste my good arrows,” Crackle said.

Otter gave her a strange glance, then shrugged. He gestured for Splash, who bounded up behind them and was dancing in anticipating some great new game. Otter put an arrow to the string of his bow, drew, and waited, only the slight quiver of his arm betraying the strain of his bow’s strong pull.

Several heartbeats passed, and then a fat humpback leaped over the stones of the weir, a good 50 paces away. Otter’s bowstring sang. The humpback hit the water impaled by an arrow, and Splash launched into the river. The she-wolf paddled after it furiously, then got the dying fish between her jaws and swam for shore.

“I did it!” Otter whooped. He danced in a tight circle, waving his bow and arms in the air triumphantly. Crackle ducked to avoid being hit, and Otter narrowly avoided smacking the boulder beside them. “I did it!” Otter cried. “This is soooo much better than target hides! We can eat ‘m! Your turn, Crackle! Your turn!”

“I don’t want to waste my good arrows—” Crackle began to protest again.

Otter’s brown-eyed grin suddenly became challenging. “Don’t be silly! These are just cane arrows, only the fletching is worth anything! They’re less likely to be damaged shooting at fish than they are a stuffed target hide.”

“I don’t want to get all wet going after them—“ Crackle tried next.

Otter snorted. “So what? Splash’ll fetch for us both. Just look at her — she loves to fetch! And I’ll betcha Muddypaws’d probably do the same if you asked him. He’d enjoy it, especially if he got to eat some fish.”

Crackle scowled. She wasn’t used to hearing this much logic out of her fun-loving agemate. And she wasn’t able to think of a ready excuse to get out of this. It was a calm night — there was hardly enough of a breeze to stir the leaves in the trees, or she could have maybe used weather as a reason. A big humpback jumped over the weir not a dozen paces away, almost as if mocking her reluctance; Otter spun at the sound, saw the spreading ripples from where the salmon had landed, and spun back around again. The boy was radiant with exuberance.

“Do what you want,” he said, putting an arrow to the string of his amber-stained recurve bow. “But I’m going to take home a big string of fat fish and show ‘m off to everyone, and then I’ll tell ‘m all you were too scared to even try to bow-fish with me!”

That was an insufferable thought. Crackle grit her teeth and put on a brave face. She was no one’s coward, least of all Otter’s. Maybe this would prove a good idea, after all. Maybe the only reason she had a hard time hitting the target in the first place was because of all of Thornbow’s staring and pacing. Crackle put a fresh arrow to her bowstring, finding herself suddenly in a better humor. Yes, that was it. It was hard for anyone of sense not to be distracted with someone staring at them as pitilessly as a hawk. Which explained, of course, why Otter was so blasted good a shot. Otter was fun and had a game heart, but her own father often said that Otter hadn’t the good sense given to a bald-rumped blue-nosed —

A humpback salmon leaped out of the river maybe 20 paces off. She drew and tried to draw back quickly, painfully conscious of consistency of form —

Otter’s arrow hissed as it left his bowstring. The salmon flopped back into the river, brown fletching visible against its gills. Having dropped the first humpback on the river bank, Splash vaulted back into the water after the second.

“Hey!” Crackle cried in outrage. “Give a body a chance!”

Otter gave her an apologetic grin. “Sorry,” he said. “I got excited. You can have the next one.”

Crackle rolled her shoulders back, trying to shake off the tension. She rolled her head on her neck, then nocked her arrow again. She could do this. She’d watched archers all her life. She knew what she was doing. Her aim with a sling was excellent. This wasn’t so hard after all, with no Thornbow prowling around glaring at her. The next humpback that breached would be hers – easy as plucking a berry from a bush —

Splash! A spotted humpback sailed into the air. Crackle drew and released. The fish hit the water; her arrow hit the rocky riverbank on the river’s far side with the crack of a shattering arrowhead.

“Rotted wind!” Crackle snapped irritably. She felt Otter’s look and ignored him. She set another arrow to string and waited.

It wasn’t long before another humpback jumped the weir, this one less than eight paces away. She took the shot with a surge of adrenaline, knowing that fish was too close to miss.

Somehow, she missed anyway.

“These arrows are terrible!” she snapped. “You can feel how unbalanced they are!”

From the corner of her eye, she saw Otter look down, his shoulders hunched. Somehow, that made her mad-feeling even worse. Crackle growled under her breath as she set another arrow to the string.

Another salmon leapt into the air. This time, her shot almost hit it. Almost.

“That was better,” Otter said helpfully.

“It was not!” Crackle spun on her friend and glared at him. “Stop staring at me! It’s impossible to shoot when you’re staring at me like some gap-beaked owl!”

Otter retreated to the shore, out of range of her wrath. Crackle glared at him until he was well out of reach, then turned back to take another shot. This time, she’d skewer a rutting fish, even if she had to run it down and stab it through with an arrow —

Splash! In a sparkling glitter of water droplets, another humpback sprang into the air. It was only two wolflengths away. Crackle made the shot, but knew, even as she released the arrow, that she’d missed. The arrow hit the far riverside, and the salmon escaped to continue its journey upstream to its spawning grounds.

Crackle snarled with rage. If it had been a sling in her hands, she would have hit the rotten fish in the eye! It was Keenblaze itself at fault — her trusty old sling would never have failed her like this bow had! Her anger felt bottomless. Impulsively, Crackle swung the bow, seeing a fish in her minds’s eye and grimly imagining that she was clubbing it with Keenblaze and sending it hurtling across the river from the force of her hit —

Instead of her make-believe fish, Crackle slammed her bow into the side of the boulder.

The shock of impact stunned her and jolted her arm in pain. Keenblaze made a terrible crack and broke in two. The broken part of the bow fell, still connected by the suddenly-slack bowstring.

“Crackle!” she heard Otter shout. “What have you done?”

Crackle’s wrath had evaporated with a jolt just as bad as the jolt of pain to her arms. She starred in horror at the broken bow in her hands.

“Crackle!” Otter was still shouting. She looked at her agemate, and saw his face contorted with anger. To her mortification, he advanced on her, his brown eyes blazing. “How dare you? How dare you?”

“I didn’t mean to break Keenblaze,” she murmured, feeling sick to her stomach. “I didn’t mean to.”

Otter had no sympathy for her. “How can you do that?” he yelled, his face only a finger’s length from her own. “How can you just break your bow like that? Do you know how many nights Thornbow must have spent making that bow for you? He probably was working on our bows all winter! How can you have just done that?”

“I didn’t mean to!” Crackle said weakly.

“You did too! I saw you! You hit the boulder as hard as you could! And why? It wasn’t the bow’s fault! You blame the bow, you blame the arrows, you blame the fish, you blame the wind when there isn’t any — you blame everything but yourself because you can’t do just this one thing perfect and easy, when it’s no one’s fault but yours!” Otter’s face was red and his nose was running; his fists were balled up at his side. Crackle had never seen her friend this angry about anything. Ever. She hadn’t ever thought that good-natured Otter could even get this angry. “You’re just so smart and so good at everything else! But now you can’t handle it when something doesn’t go easy for you! Well guess what? You don’t get to be best at everything, all of the time!”

Otter stopped yelling. He stood his ground, still staring at her fiercely. Crackle blinked back at him, shocked to the core by her friend’s anger.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Otter sniffed and wiped his nose against the back of one hand. He retreated a step backwards on the slick rocks of the ford, and looked away toward the far riverbank, as if embarrassed by his outburst. “Yeah. Sure. So now you know how it feels. You don’t get to whine and come up with good stories to shift the blame. Not about this you don’t.” He turned his shoulder to her and calmly nocked an arrow to his bowstring, waiting for a humpback to jump.

Crackle cradled the broken halves of her bow against her chest. The nausea in the pit of her stomach only grew worse as the weight of Otter’s words sunk in. She shifted her weight awkwardly, too proud to retreat, but knowing herself to be just as much in the wrong as her friend had accused her of being.

A salmon jumped close to the far shore. Otter’s accuracy was remarkable — he got it in the tail, not a killing shot maybe, but certainly it was a shot any of their elders would have been proud to have made. Crackle swallowed down her sick feeling.

“That was a really good shot,” she said quietly. Crackle realized she hadn’t yet said anything to her friend in praise of his new-found talent, and the self-disappointment stung. “I mean it. You’re really good.”

Otter nodded, but didn’t quite look her way. “You owe the apology to Thornbow,” he said quietly.

Crackle watched her playmate put another arrow to the string. She nodded, and clutching her broken bow close, she turned to do just that.

Thornbow listened dispassionately to her halting, strangled apology. “I really didn’t mean to do it,” Crackle said at the last, unable to look her elder in the eye. Thornbow held both halves of Keenblaze in his hands, and she found she couldn’t look up past the remains of the broken bow. “I just… and then…” She shrugged painfully.

“And then…” Thornbow echoed, one golden eyebrow arching.

Crackle traced a circle in the dirt with her toe. “I was jealous of Otter,” she whispered in confession. “He can shoot so much better than me. It comes easy to him.”

“And you’re not used to that, are you?” Thornbow’s words were rhetorical, but she nodded sheepishly anyway.

“I’m sorry.” Tears burned in her eyes. Crackle dragged a sleeve across them fiercely. “I know you’ll never want to make another bow for me again. But I hope you’ll forgive me someday. And I’m going to see if I can borrow Evervale’s bow. If she’ll lend me hers, I want to keep practicing with you… if you’ll still have me, that is.”

Another golden arch of another golden eyebrow. Thornbow studied her solemnly for a long, silent moment. Crackle risked a glance at him, and was startled to see an almost-smile lurking on her elder’s lips.

“For most of us, life is hard work,” Thornbow said. He laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “You may never shoot as well as Otter can today — but the accuracy you will learn will be worthy of the effort. I can promise you that.” He squeezed her shoulder again, then let her loose. “Go and ask Evervale. I doubt she will deny you.”

Crackle nodded and turned to go. Then she stopped and turned back. “Can I have Keenblaze back?” she asked.

Again, the brow went up. Thornbow held out the halves of the bow. “It cannot be fixed. Not even a shaper as skilled as Brightwood can regain the whole draw strength when the bowshaft has been broken,” the bowyer warned her.

Crackle nodded and took the broken bow from him. “I know. But someday, when I have a den of my own, I want to hang Keenblaze on the wall. So I can look up at it and remember that sometimes I have a whole lot more to learn than I think I do.”

Thornbow did smile at her then. “Do that, cub. And when I see Keenblaze there, I’ll be able to say — look, it may be broken, but isn’t it still a thing of beauty? And I’ll be proud of this thing I have helped to make.”

The sick feeling in the pit of her gut had begun to lift. Crackle hugged Keenblaze and went to do as she had promised.

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