The two elves crouched in the cover of a leatherleaf thicket, watching the big bull branch-horn avidly as it browsed its way up the slope of Crow's Ridge toward them.
**Look at all of those points in his rack!** Otter sent, his eagerness to make this kill giving his sending an almost coppery flavor.
Starskimmer couldn't help but smile at her son's excitement. **Patience,** she counseled. **If you can wait until he gets broadside, the kill zone over his heart and lungs will be as long as my arm. But it'll be a much smaller target area straight on like this, no longer than two or three handspans .**
**I could hit that shot! Only half a dozen more steps and he'll be just in range of my bow. You'll see — I could pin a moth’s wing to his chest, even from this distance. And then I'll have taken down the biggest branch-horn bull anyone in the tribe has seen since Kestrel was a cub! The Hunt Leader will have to start including me, when he sees I've bagged this bull!**
Starskimmer laughed silently, letting his boasts go unremarked. She was proud of what a good shot Otter had proven to be with the bow, once he'd finally picked it up and spent some time with Thornbow in training. **Patience is still the wise hunter's friend,** she sent. **The wind is still in our favor, and he has no idea that we're here. Let him come closer before you risk a shot.**
Otter's teeth glinted in the moonlight as he grinned at her. **That old bull is already walking dead, he just doesn't know it yet. I'll bring him down in one shot.** The youth glanced at his mother and winked. **After all — whoever I got my ability to shoot a bow from, it sure wasn’t you, Mother!**
Starskimmer smiled back, taking her son's teasing in stride. They had started their night by tracking a blacktail stag. Starskimmer had taken a shot at the buck from only a few wolf-lengths away. She had missed the deer entirely, just parting a few hairs from its shoulder. The deer had bolted away from them like a flash... but his retreating tracks had crossed paths with this massive old branch-horn.
**I might have missed that deer this morning, son, but I don’t miss often, as you well know!** Starskimmer replied cheerfully. She considered herself a capable enough hunter — but tonight, it was less the thrill of the hunt that she enjoyed so much as time spent with her youngest child. It seemed she only had to close her eyes and he'd grown another hand in height — sometimes, it seemed to her only yesterday that Otter been just an apple-cheeked boy still learning to swim. Now he was a tall, strong youth, who she believed someday soon could well challenge Longshot as best shot in the tribe. **I only missed that buck for a reason, you know. I knew we'd find something better.**
The branch-horn came a few more steps toward them, then stopped and turned to rake his antlers against a birch tree. The breeze still blew in their faces, bringing the old bull's scent to them.
**I'm moving over to that thicket,** Otter told her as he began to creep to a better vantage.
Starskimmer stayed put, watching the big old branch-horn as he rubbed his antlers against the tree, shredding the pale bark into strips. She touched her wolf-friend Tenor's mind for a moment, reaffirming her earlier command to him to sit still and quiet, back on the other side of Crow's Ridge. Now would be a terrible moment for the wolves to move and spook the bull. She would hate to see her son so disappointed — big trophy bulls like this seldom came anywhere near the Holt, and were few and far between even outside of the thornwalls. She crouched and watched the branch-horn in anticipation, her bow in one hand and her other hand idly stroking the goose-feather fletching of one of the arrows in the quiver at her hip.
Something rustled in the brush to her left; the branch-horn looked that way and Starskimmer was aware of her son's sudden movement as he stood upright to shoot. Then the big bull was wheeling and bolting, and something huge and dark was hurtling out of the trees toward Otter.
“Bear!” she heard her son shout, as he bolted toward her. “Mother, run!”
The brown bear was an avalanche of fur, claws and teeth. Starskimmer found herself unable to run, knowing that the bruin was too close, that her son would have no chance to outrun it. Otter’s eyes were wide with shock and fear. One stride was all he could take. In a heartbeat, the bear was on top of him.
Starskimmer lost sight of her son beneath the bear. She heard Otter scream as the bear bit down. The beast flung Otter aside – the youth somersaulted to his feet and ran toward the closest trees, trying to dodge between their close-set trunks. But the bear sprang after him, and Otter went down again beneath a murderous swipe of the bear's claws.
Starskimmer hadn't the time for fear. All she could feel was the weight of Otter in her arms again, just a sweet suckling babe at her breast, helpless and entirely dependent on his mother.
“Not my boy!” Starskimmer wasn't aware of the shout when it passed her lips. She wasn't aware of the bow as she raised it. All she knew was the draw of the arrow in her hand; the pull of the bowstring was weightless. She released the arrow, and in the same moment, she heard her child's cry.
Starskimmer roared and leaped for the bear. She brought the bow down twice across its head before the weapon broke in two. She kept on striking it with the broken remains, while behind her she heard Tenor and Splash charge snarling into the fray.
The bear suddenly released Otter and began to stumble downhill, the wolves hard at its heels. Starskimmer flung herself beside her son, horrified by the amount of blood.
“Oh baby,” she cried, lifting his blood-splattered head into her lap. “Oh my baby!”
Otter's eyes snapped open and he winced. “Don't call me that,” he grumbled, trying to push her away. Then he groaned and sat up, clutching his left arm against his chest.
**Healer!** Starskimmer sent openly – she was only an average sender and knew she could not reach all the way to the Holt from the eastern flanks of Crow Ridge, but other minds in the mid-distance heard her call and relayed it on. Greenweave and Newt were there, fishing at the Braided River; even closer was Pathmark, who was hunting for shellfish at the mouth of Deer-Lick Creek. She shared their location and let them know, **We've been attacked by a bear,** she sent. **A bear has mauled my son!**
**I'm not hurt that bad,** Otter sent for himself, still clutching his arm against his chest. “He crunched my elbow and clawed up my hand; my ribs hurt something horrible,” he added verbally.
Starskimmer feverishly inspected her son's injuries, expecting far, far worse than she found. Otter’s left elbow was badly bitten, and his left hand and forearm had deep lacerations. His back and shoulders were striped with shallower cuts as well, but most of the blood that had drenched Otter was not his own. She pulled off her waterskin and began to clean the worst of her son’s wounds.
**I’m on my way, I’ll find you!** Pathmark sent, having relayed Starskimmer’s send back to the Holt. **Willow and Beetle are coming, they’ll rendezvous with us as soon as can be managed.**
Starskimmer became aware of the continuing snarls and growls of their wolf-friends. She turned her head and looked downhill. The bear was down, and Tenor and Splash were biting its hind legs. It wasn’t fighting them — and there was a heavy bloodtrail marking its path downhill.
“The bear —” Otter squirmed around and wiped blood from his eyes, staring downhill at the carcass the wolves were worrying at. He gaped at the bear’s bulk for a long moment, then turned back to his mother as Starskimmer shrugged off her coat began to cut away the suede hem to use as bandaging material. “What happened to the bear?”
“I shot it, I guess,” Starskimmer replied. She began to bandage her son’s hand first, which was bleeding the hardest.
Otter was still gaping at the dead bear. “You shot it? It’s dead? You killed it?”
“Only shot I could take — I made it a good one, I guess,” Starskimmer admitted, her attention focused on her son’s wounds. Once his lacerated arm was bandaged, she would have to put his arm in a sling and bind it to his chest to keep the injured arm and elbow secure. She spared another look for the carcass of the dead brown bear. Once her son was in Willow’s hands, she would come back with Pathmark and Nightstorm and butcher it then. But for now, the hide and any of the gamey bear meat they might want to claim could wait.
Shock was setting in, and Otter’s expression was growing glassy. “Not fair,” he murmured, as his mother strapped his left arm to his chest. “It was supposed to me making the best shot of the hunt!”
Starskimmer draped her coat over her son’s shoulders, then summoned the wolves. “Let’s just get you to the healer,” she said. “Once you’ve been healed and rested up, we’ll find that branch-horn bull again. You’ll get him next time.”
Otter grimaced with pain as they began to ride down Crow’s Ridge for the Braided River, where they hoped to rendezvous with their rescuers. “But even when I do,” he said mournfully, “it’ll still be your kill shot with that bear everyone will still be talking about. That was the best shot ever.”
Starskimmer looked at her son — bloodied and battered and shakey on his wolf’s back — and she had to agree. She had just made the best shot ever. That her youngest child was still alive proved it.