Early winter rains had arrived with a cold vengeance, and with the promise of clear weather after several days of being cooped up within the Dentrees, the tribe's cubs were brimming with excess energy. Back for a handful of days in between patrol assignments, Farscout volunteered to cubsit, and channeled that energy into learning a new weapon, and the promise of a hunt to follow. He had kept the children busy for the last hours of the night painting decorations on curved, shaped sticks, and as the dawn rose clear and crisp, he guided them all outside and across the Den's Creek to the Broad Meadow.
Sprinting ahead of the rest, Rill was first to reach the frost-rimed meadow. On the verge of the trees, he stopped and drew in a deep breath, held it until his lungs began to burn, then exhaled hard. The plume of his exhalation made an impressive fog cloud in the crisp morning sunlight. He heard the crunch of footsteps in the frost-crisped fallen leaves behind him as the others joined him at the edge of Broad Meadow.
“You're all too noisy!” Rill muttered, pretending his own footsteps hadn't made the same sound. He frowned at Cinder as his friend jostled up beside him. “The rabbits will have heard you and all run away by now!”
A hand closed on his shoulder. Rill glanced up and saw Farscout was behind them, smiling in amusement. **Your voice will carry farther than footsteps,** the elder sent openly. “But you can use your voices for this hunt. The rabbits in the meadow will hear you and it will make then nervous – but since we are not getting closer, they won't run. Not yet.”
Glow had already winded herself, racing to keep up with Cinder and Rill, and having refused Copper's offering of riding astride Flea. The youngest cub looked out over the frost-rimed meadow and tugged at the sleeve of Farscout's longcoat. “Up! Up!” she demanded.
Farscout swung the youngest and smallest of the cubs up to sit on his shoulders, while at the same time, his daughter Copper slid down from her she-wolf's back. Flea was the only wolf to join them for this morning's outing, as the rest of their wolf-friends were fat-bellied and lazing off a feast of salmon, as Windburn had cleaned out a section of old provisions in anticipation of the upcoming winter Chum salmon runs. Copper slipped in beside Cinder, holding her own rabbit-stick gingerly.
“There's lots and lots of rabbits out there,” Cinder said eagerly, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. Rill knew his friend was right — usually only owls and hawks were comfortable hunting this side of the Broad Meadow, so close to the dens of the large wolf packs. Since the days of Hunt Leader Oakhand, the Holt's own hunters largely left the rabbit population of the Broad Meadow alone — it seen was a hunting grounds for the cubs and the oldest of the wolves, and as a reserve against direst need.
“A rabbit-stick is the simplest of weapons,” Farscout said, his soft voice carrying, “but that does not lessen its value. The rabbit-stick is a scout's good friend — it is quicker to use than a bow or a sling to take down a bird and or some game you've flushed out as you travel, and it will double as a digging tool. And it is easy to craft in the field. In a pinch a short stick alone will do, so long as it is weighted or curved on one end so that it flies straight and does not wobble when you throw it.”
Rill gripped his rabbit-stick tightly. The curved piece of hardwood was wide but flat, and heavy enough that he was curious to see how far he'd actually be able to throw it. He'd been able to hit a target across the wrapstuff-chamber down in the storage dens, and he was eager to be the first among his playmates to bag a rabbit with their new hunting weapons.
“You must always know the land you stand on,” Farscout continued. He stood with one hand resting on Glow's leg to steady her on his shoulders, holding her yellow-splashed rabbit-stick in the other hand. “That, and know your prey. Mornings like this are best for pufftail rabbits. When it’s wet and it’s chilly like this, rabbits will stick to thick cover. Hunt with your wolf-friend when you can – send your wolf out to flush the rabbit, and keep an eye to dense brush. Be ready to throw your stick, hard and fast, when a rabbit bolts from cover.”
Flea was already sniffing about with interest. She glanced back at Farscout, poised tense with her tail high, and when he signaled to her, the she-wolf launched forward, nose to the ground as she followed a scent-trail.
“The damp weather and ground moisture means it's easy to pick up fresh scent,” Farscout continued, with a quick look at the cubs to assess whether or not they were still paying attention. Satisfied that they were, he continued. “Send your wolf-friend for the thick cover along the edges of the meadow. Together, you and your wolf-friend want to work the patches of good cover, flushing pufftails out into the meadow where you'll have the clearest shot at them. Watch Flea — she knows well how to do this.”
The she-wolf had an eager bounce to her step as she trotted, following one particular scent-trail from the meadow into the trees. Almost on cue, a beige blur broke from the side of the thicket Flea was sticking her nose into. Farscout threw Glow's rabbit-stick so fast that Rill had only just begun to register the pufftail's dash when the rabbit-stick hit it with a hard, solid crunch. The limp body spun away into the grass, and Flea vaulted after it.
“If you don't kill it with your strike, you'll have dazed it enough or broken limbs, so that you or your wolf-friend can catch it easily,” Farscout said, as Flea came prancing back to them with a dead rabbit dangling from her jaws. Still carrying Glow, Farscout walked into the meadow to retrieve the rabbit-stick while Flea dropped the dead rabbit proudly at Copper's feet. Copper gathered it up silently.
“Remember – rabbits always run in circles,” Farscout said as he recovered the rabbit-stick. “When you spook one from cover, find a good place to take a stand and look well ahead of your running wolf-friend. That is where the rabbit will be — running and dodging in a wide circle. In the deep woods, rabbits like to head for clear spaces where they can run their fastest — so position yourself in a stretch of open timber and watch the edges of the field. Where you're standing now is a good vantage point.”
Farscout rejoined them and Flea trotted back into the meadow, casting about for a short while until she'd found a new scent trail. She followed it eagerly, every line of her body happy and alert. Rill traded a glance with Cinder, realizing that if the black she-wolf flushed another rabbit, they could attempt to hit it. He clutched his painted rabbit-stick, aware of its weight in his hand and remembering the feel of throwing it at the makeshift practice target down in the wrapstuff-den. The key, Farscout had taught them, was to throw it so that it spun sideways, not end-over-end, giving the weapon the most surface area to hit prey with. Rill imagined himself throwing the rabbit-stick as hard and fast as they'd just seen Farscout demonstrate. He imagined being first to hit the rabbit, and how proud his mother would be of him when she came home from hunting with the chief and —
Cinder threw his stick just as Rill was startled from his reverie to see that a rabbit bounding out of the brush. Cinder's throw missed, and Rill's own was too late as the pufftail leaped, leaped, and leaped once more, out of their range and out of sight as Flea chased after it through the tall grass.
**If you pick up your sticks fast enough, you might get another chance at it as it circles,** Farscout sent, while Glow cheered Flea along in the chase.
Rill didn't need to be told twice. He bolted into the meadow, with Cinder only half a step behind him. He had painted bold blue arrows on his stick, while Cinder had painted running wolves in a pattern of red, green, yellow and blue, so the boys could easily tell which rabbit-stick was which. They both snatched their sticks up and spun around, eager for another chance at the rabbit — only to see Copper throwing her own green-and-purple stick as the pufftail came hurtling around from the meadow, heading for its hole among the trees. Copper managed to strike the rabbit a glancing blow, slowing it down enough for Flea snatch it up in a wild lunge. The rabbit gave a piercing shriek — and then went silent.
“Next one is mine,” Rill muttered as the boys jogged back to where Farscout stood watching.
“Not if I get it first!” Cinder retorted cheerfully.
By mid-morning, rainclouds had begun to scud in from the west and the wind had picked up again, so that their hands were chilled and their noses run. Both Copper and Cinder had bagged two rabbits each and Rill was proud to be carrying home three, while Glow had run after Flea on rabbit-flushing duty until exhausted. She slept in Farscout's arms as they walked home, the brisk, cold wind at their backs.
Copper was walking alongside Rill and Cinder as they crossed the Den's Creek, where there was a log ford where the creek ran through a small clearing. As they crossed the creek, Copper suddenly stopped and turned, facing into the wind. She held her rabbit-stick in an angled grip, cocked it back, and stepped forward sharply as she threw it. The rabbit-stick flew nearly end-over-end across the clearing behind them, falling just short of the trees.
“Did you see a squirrel or something?” Cinder asked.
“You got to throw it on its side to hit something,” Rill added, trying to spot whatever-it-was the girl had tried to hit.
While Flea splashed across the creek to retrieve the rabbit-stick, Copper stood and scowled at the treeline until her father gently touched her arm. “It was supposed to come back to me,” she said with a shrug.
For a moment, the expression on their elder's face was strange. “The rabbit-stick?” Farscout said.
“It felt too heavy and too thick,” Copper replied. “But I thought if I threw it just right, it might still circle back to me like a rabbit.”
“Sticks don't fly back to you,” Cinder said helpfully. “But your wolf-friend is good at bringing them back!”
“No,” Farscout said, “sometimes you can make a throwing stick that will fly in a loop and return to you.”
“You can do that?” Rill asked, seizing on the notion with excitement. When you threw a rabbit-stick and it missed, you had to run to retrieve it, or else have a second one ready. But if it could fly back to you itself, you didn't have to run so much. “I want one!”
Flea returned with Copper's stick as a fresh blast of cold wind ruffled all of their hair and spattered them with the first chilly drops of rain with it. Farscout encouraged them to get moving again, and as tired as the rabbit hunt had left them, the cubs were only too eager to get home before the winter rain returned in earnest.
“Rill, your great-great grandfather Snaptwig used to have a whirl-stick,” Farscout said as he walked, the cubs trotting fast to keep up with his long stride. “It was mostly just a toy, but sometimes he would use it as a hunting decoy. Game birds would react to it as they would a bird of prey, so he could us it as a decoy to flush frightened birds.”
“I want one!” Rill repeated. “I really want one!”
“Are they hard to make?” Cinder asked.
“My lifemate would remember how to shape one,” Farscout said. “A good carver could carve one as well — but the balance for a whirl-stick is a delicate thing. They're far more difficult to craft than a rabbit-stick is.”
They made it back to the Dentrees just ahead of the rain's leading edge. Farscout and Copper climbed up the Mother Tree to take Glow to her mother's den before returning to their own, while Cinder and Rill rushed to present their kills to Suddendusk, as Cinder was spending a hand of days in Rill's family den while Windburn was leading a team of hunters down along the Rushwater.
“These are fine, fat rabbits!” Suddendusk said, taking one of Rill's rabbits and hefting it appreciatively
“Farscout says you can make a throwing stick that'll fly in a circle and come back to you!” Rill gushed. “Can you make me one?”
Suddendusk blinked in surprise, then sat back and stroked his face-fur thoughtfully. “A whirl-stick! I haven't even thought about one of those in... well, a long, long time. Too bad Brightwood is out with the word-hunters, I remember her shaping a four-armed one once for Snaptwig, and it worked beautifully... Of course, we could carve one as well. Snaptwig used to make his own just as avidly as Thornbow makes his bows. However, I'm afraid carving a whirl-stick can be a long trial-by-error process to get the weight of it just right — we could spend days carving one, only to find the balance was off and it wouldn't fly true.”
“If Brightwood can shape one, couldn't Cloudfern, too?” Rill suggested.
“We can always ask if he's willing to try,” Suddendusk said.
Cinder grinned and handed both of his rabbits to Rill. “We can always offer to trade him. Five fine, fat rabbits would make for a good trade, wouldn't it?”
“Let's ask him!” Rill said, bouncing in his excitement. “Let's go and ask him right now!”
Cloudfern had been willing to try, and had accepted the boys' game in trade with suitable respect and appreciation. As it turned out, he had shaped whirl-sticks before, and had even practiced on some whimsical designs with Snaptwig.
“Snaptwig loved playing with these,” Cloudfern said as he shaped a piece of aged birch into a thin, broad “V”. “When crafting one, you have to make each arm of the whirl-stick angled like this on one side, and flat like this on the other. And then you throw them into the wind, not against it. I never quite got the hang of throwing them, but if you do it just right, it sails around and comes back to you.”
“And if you don't get it just right, watch out!” Suddendusk added with a chuckle. “I seem to recall they'll sail straight up into the air instead.”
“They're no better for hunting than a good rabbit-stick,” Cloudfern continued.
“Worse, actually – a good rabbit-stick will have more weight to it,” Suddendusk countered.
“You're right,” Cloudfern agreed. “But Snaptwig would use his as a decoy to help flush birds for other hunters, or to drive birds into a prepared net.”
“Remember when he hit Dagger with one, that one summer? Left Dagger with some nasty bruises,” Suddendusk chuckled.
“Really nasty bruises,” Cloudfern reminisced, wincing at the memory.
Rill hugged himself tightly as he listened to his elders, his eyes locked on the sleek wedge of wood taking shape between Cloudfern's hands. He hungered for that whirl-stick so very, very badly — he couldn't think of anything in his whole life he'd ever wanted as much as this, except maybe Softjoy. The boy couldn't find words for why he felt the way he did – other than the thought of throwing a weapon and having it come back to him as if it had a mind of its own was fantastical. And no one else had one. Some ancestor who'd died way back before Windburn was even the chief had last favored a whirl-stick, and no one else since had taken them up. That made a whirl-stick even more strange — and more special, too. Rill would have promised Cloudfern a rabbit a night for the rest of forever, if he had needed to in order to get the plantshaper to make him one.
'And I can make one too, someday,' Rill thought to himself. If his great-great grandfather Snaptwig had carved whirl-sticks for himself, then Rill could, too. Especially once Cloudfern had shaped him one that worked just right, so Rill would know by feel what the correct shape and correct balance of a good whirl-stick should be.
At length, Cloudfern handed the completed whirl-stick to Rill. “I may have remembered the balance of it wrong. So if it won't fly right, bring it back to me and I'll experiment with it. Suddendusk, do you remember how to throw one of these?”
“I'm sure once I get started, it'll all come back to me,” Suddendusk replied. “I went through a season or two there where I threw a lot of them, just trying to figure out how and why they circled back they way they do. I never figured it out, but I wore out my shoulder trying!”
Rill clutched his new whirl-stick against his chest as they left Cloudfern's den and climbed down the stairs to their own. “Can you teach me how to throw it? Can you teach me now?” he asked breathlessly.
“It's raining again. We'll have to wait until there's another break in the weather,” Suddendusk replied.
“We could just throw at the rabbit-stick target Farscout put up for us down in the wrapstuff-den!” Cinder supplied helpfully, clearly eager himself to give the whirl-stick a try.
“Not enough room. We'll need a great deal more open space than that,” Suddendusk said. He saw the misery on his son's face at that, and clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Let's go downstairs anyway and get some paints. You can beautify your new whirl-stick in anticipation of its first flight.”
The whirl-stick left Suddendusk's hand and sailed across the Broad Meadow. Rill held his breath as he watched, dismayed at first when it flew straight, but then he saw it began to curve left in its flight. The whirl-stick climbed gently before leveling out parallel to them, then arced around and returned in a descent. Suddendusk had to run forward several strides to catch it as it stalled and dropped. Rill and Cinder both cheered as Suddendusk caught it before it hit the grass.
“Ouch! I'd forgotten – you have to be careful where you stick your fingers when catching!” Suddendusk laughed shaking his right hand after tossing the whirl-stick to his left. “It's best to use both hands when catching it!” He sucked a sore finger for a moment as the boys rushed to join him, then handed the whirl-stick to Rill. “All right, son. You saw me do it. Now it's your turn.”
Rill took the whirl-stick gingerly, feeling almost light-headed with anticipation. He had studied his father's movements closely, but he hesitated now until his father began to guide him.. “First, feel what the wind is,” Suddendusk said, while Rill took his first steps into a throwing position, facing into the cold breeze. “Always feel the wind on your left cheek. You always throw slightly off to the right of the wind wind is at, and farther right the stronger the wind is. Take a step to your right... good, now just one more. Perfect. Stand sideways, just like that, your feet apart and left foot forward, pointing the way you intend your stick to fly. Good, that's just right! Now hold the whirl-stick on its right wing-tip, flat side down, your thumb on top and fingers below... yes, good, just like that. Now tilt it like so... good! You'll find each whirl-stick will ask you for a different angle, you'll have to throw until you find the perfect angle for yours, but that right now looks good for starters. Now – cock it back in your hand to ensure a good spin. Just like that, good! To throw it, you'll step forward and throw it just like you're throwing a spear. Just like your mother taught you with the spear — aim your whirl-stick by pointing with your left arm as you throw — hard! — with your right. Now at the end of your throw, you'll give a whip-like flick with your fingers — you felt how I did that in my sending, right? Good. Your form looks good. So go ahead and throw!”
|Illustration by Holly H.|
His heart in his throat, Rill threw his whirl-stick for the first time.
Except for the last flick of his fingers at the end, and a hyper-awareness of the breeze against his left cheek, it felt to Rill just like throwing a spear. He watched as the whirl-stick sailed straight away from him. It did not circle back to him — not precisely. But like Suddendusk's throw immediately before his own, Rill watched breathlessly as the whirl-stick flew away from him, then banked to the right and began to climb before arching yet again and sailing straight back. Rill had to run to meet it, but when it dropped within his reach he snapped both hands closed toegether over it, so that the hardwood wings didn't sting his skin too hard.
And then – it was done. Rill had thrown his whirl-stick. And it was back again, in his hands. Rill turned and grinned at his father and best friend in triumph.
“Did you see that?” he crowed. “Watch while I do it again!”
Rill threw it again. And again. Then he froze in mid-throw on his third attempt.
**Cinder!** he sent in excitement. **Do you see that rabbit? There at the edge of the meadow near the old willow tree?**
Cinder looked where his friend directed, and saw the small, brown lump of a browsing rabbit. He raised his own rabbit-stick but stopped when he realized it was too far away for him to possibly hit.
**Can you spook it?** Cinder asked hopefully. **If it runs this way, I can maybe get it!**
Rill flashed a grin back at his friend, then took careful aim with his new whirl-stick and threw it as hard as he could. The whirl-stick went straight, then turned in its arc — and just as Rill had aimed it, it skimmed through the leaves of the willow as it angled back.
The pufftail somersaulted and bolted, just as if it had heard a hawk coming at it down through the leaves. The rabbit ran straight for its hole — and straight into Cinder's range with the rabbit-stick. It was the pufftail's last mistake.
Both boys cheered and raced to collect their prey. “We did it!” Cinder yelled as he scooped up the dead rabbit and his rabbit-stick both.
Rill hugged his whirl-stick close. It was unique. It was special. And it was his alone.
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