(This story is part of the ”Trying to have a child outside of Recognition” storyline - see list for related stories..)
“He’s a big one all right,” True Edge said as he examined the tracks. “And the way he’s walking it looks like he is favoring that hind leg just like you said.”
Nearby, Snowfall looked on, her expression bemused as her lifemate confirmed for himself what she had already told him. After all of these turns they both knew that he wouldn’t believe a thing fully until he saw it with his own eyes.
“Now that we have confirmed that shall we go and put him out of his misery? That will be enough meat to feed the Holt for a hand of days.”
Kestrel’s tone seemed amused, as was the expression on her face. True Edge gave both of his mates a sidelong glance and then a snort of feigned indignation. After all, it was part of the game; part of how they related to one another. All three of them were willful and strong. Differences of opinion, sometimes over trivial things, were bound to happen... especially where he was concerned. They were all past the point of making a big deal over it most of the time.
“So I’m not convinced until I see it for myself. It’s hardly a crime,” he said, though with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. “We did promise Windburn we would be careful after all.”
There was that, of course. Hunting a marshbeast was a serious undertaking and normally only for a full hunting party. When Snowfall had returned from the hunt a few nights before with a report of a lone male, apparently crippled and stomping around in the tribe's territory, they had all considered it a serious matter. The beast could prove dangerous and had already ruined some of the trappers' snares.
The three of them had decided that they wanted to take down the beast, sort of as a family hunt, and in the end the chief had allowed it. That had taken some convincing as he was in a mood to go as well, but finally relented to let them have this to themselves. They were three of his best hunters and had a great deal of experience between them.
With his two mates seeming to agree, for the moment anyway, with the sentiment of caution, True Edge tested the air for any hint of the beast's scent.
“I think he is about half a night gone from here, but he isn’t walking very fast. We can catch up to him before morning.”
No one argued the point, so the three elves mounted their wolves and rode, albeit warily, in the direction the marshbeast had gone. Following his track wasn’t in the least difficult considering his size and the swath of destruction he was leaving through the forest. That was in part what made this one so dangerous. He was obviously wounded, or perhaps old and crippled. Either pain or general irritability was causing him to stomp down everything he came across and that could spell disaster for the unwary.
The sun was nearly risen when they saw that the tracks they were following were now nearly fresh. Their quarry was close at hand and that made the wolf-blood sing in their veins. The call of the hunt was one of the most powerful of emotions for the wolfriders and these three intended to savor it.
“He’s very near,” Snowfall stated, sniffing the air. “The scent is still strong.”
All three elves got off their wolves and began to look about cautiously. The wolves likewise began to sniff and look for signs of their prey.
“There is a stream not too far from here. Just over the next ridge I think,” True Edge said, trying to remember the lay of the land. “He’s probably grazing at the water.”
As one, the elves and wolves crouched low and snuck up to the edge of the ridge and peered over. Sure enough, at what would be long range for their bows, a truly enormous marshbeast stood at the water's edge. For the moment anyway he was contentedly munching on the water-plants by the stream. It was also clear, from the way he stood, that he was favoring one of his hind legs.
“That is one big animal,” Kestrel whispered to them. “That will be enough to feed the Holt for awhile.”
There was awe in her voice, but also a tinge of excitement. The call to hunt was upon them and it wouldn’t be satisfied till they had felled their prey. This day they, and their tribemates, would eat well.
“The stream is shallow here. It won't provide him any cover,” True Edge stated simply. “So we will have to keep him from running too far up- or down-stream where he could get into deeper water.”
That the beast might run was only of marginal importance, given the injured leg. Still, even if he couldn’t get far they didn’t want to have to haul him out of deep water in order to butcher the carcass. Being wounded, he might just stand and fight. Marshbeasts could be that way sometimes and given their power and size were quite fearsome when they did so.
“I can fly, you know,” Kestrel added in a teasing tone. “If he runs it should be easy enough to spook him back the way we want to go.”
Snowfall grinned, pleased by the playful banter between her mates. True Edge sighed a bit, though he was smiling as well, at her playful verbal jab.
“Yes, I know you can fly. That will of course be important to our plan.”
He tried to effect a long-suffering tone to his voice, playing along with the joke. The three of them had been together long enough to fall into playful bickering as opposed to more serious arguing most of the time. Besides, they were all three so experienced as hunters that talking out the situation was not something they really needed, though he did still have a tendency to lecture which they now teased him over.
Getting more serious about the task at hand, though, the three elders prepared themselves and moved into position. Snowfall on her wolf went one way, True Edge on foot with the other two wolves went another, and Kestrel took to the sky. They would harry the brute from multiple directions and, whenever he choose to stand and fight, they would weaken him with hit and run tactics till he was too weak to fight back anymore. That was how the wolf packs hunted and the wolfriders, adding elven wit to wolfish instinct, practiced the art to elegant perfection.
True Edge went first, putting an arrow into the beast's massive flank as he and the two wolves jumped from cover and ran towards the animal. This was more to draw it out than anything, to see if it would stand and fight or might try to flee. For the moment anyway it choose the latter and turned to lumber away from it’s tiny tormentors. The pain from the arrow wasn’t really registering for it yet so the more they could tire it out the better.
Running was also second nature to the wolves and their riders. They usually did it to chase their prey, though, as opposed to running for their lives as the marshbeast now did. With the wolves running at his side True Edge gave chase, running on his own two legs as he was wont to do. The wolfsong roared in his veins as he chased the prey towards its fate.
Once it had run a short way Snowfall also emerged from cover. From wolfback she also sent arrows towards the marshbeast and tried to harry it towards the more open areas where they could better fight it when the time came. This giant, though, was having none of that. Sensing that the trap had been sprung, and unable to run for far with its bad leg, the beast turned to fight. It charged at Snowfall but the elder huntress easily avoided it.
For its troubles the marauding beast was rewarded with more arrows as True Edge and his wolves closed the gap on the other side. It was classical hunt tactics for wolves and riders. Harass the prey but stay just beyond its reach until it was tired enough for the finishing blow. For several long moments they seemed to dance with the animal. Every little bit a wolf would lunge forward to nip at its back side, then, when it would turn or try to charge a new tormentor everyone would dodge again, or fill its flanks with arrows. Even as powerful a beast as this had to wear down eventually.
That however would be a while coming with such a strong animal. Snowfall and True Edge put aside the bows in favor of their spears. Though they had to get closer the damage done was more severe and their own dexterity was enough to keep them from the beast's grasp. There were a few near misses. though. as fighting a monster such as this was no easy matter. Soon. though. it did begin to wear down. Blood loss and fatigue were doing their work.
As all of this played out it was almost time for Kestrel to take her turn. She had been watching from a nearby tree and could see the signs of exhaustion setting in. The marshbeast's breathing was labored and flecked with blood. The time had come to put it out of its misery and to her would go the honor of the kill. Moving silently she flew to the scene, spear at the ready. When the prey was distracted with turning to charge True Edge she struck from above and buried her spear deep within its vulnerable flank.
Her aim was true, and coming from such an unexpected angle was enough to finish the beast. It gasped once, stomped the ground once or twice and then sort of staggered another step or two. The spear had found its heart and it seemed to know that, though it fought against the inevitable. One more step and the marshbeast gave them a last defiant bellow and fell to the ground.
The elves paused briefly, both in respect and to allow their prey to finish dying. It was still big enough that even a reflexive kick as it lay on the ground could prove fatal. As it was, thoug,h they only had a short while before death fully claimed it and the marshbeast would move no more. Only then did they approach and begin the job of butchering the thing.
Some time later, with full bellies and a bit of well-earned time to rest, the elves were reflecting on both their accomplishments and life in general. Snowfall in particular was feeling rather pleased with herself.
“Told you he was a big one,” she said playfully, that being mostly directed towards True Edge who had argued the point as a matter of principle.
“You were right,” he mumbled, though he did it with a smile. Even he was hard-pressed to want to argue with such a full belly. At that Kestrel piped up, seeming to be highly amused at the other two's good natured bickering.
“So, the work is done, or at least will be once we get this back to the Holt... and I think we can get plenty of help with that. I think that will leave us the whole night to ourselves if we want it... and I know that I do.”
Her suggestive glance made it clear what she wanted, and neither of the other two elders could find fault with it.
“Maybe a trip to the hot-spring to clean up first?” True Edge suggested, “and then... whatever comes to us.” His voice too had taken on a bit of a husky quality as he eyed the both of them.
“Only this time without Willow’s help. We can try that again later of course, but for tonight I don’t want to share either of you with anyone else.”
The three mates seemed to be in agreement. They had tried a few times with Willow's help to bring another cub into the world. The lack of success had been disappointing but it did feel like they were making some progress. One night soon they would hopefully succeed, but for tonight, though, they wanted to love just for love's sake. Willow could have them on some other night.
With their plan now in place they finished with the beast and then put together a sled for the wolves to pull. What had taken the better part of a night spent in tracking would go a little quicker when traveling in a straight line, even carrying the better part of a marshbeast behind them. That should give them some time to rest as well as to engage in more pleasant diversions. Life was good and they meant to enjoy it.