(This story makes reference to recent events in the ”Return of the Fierce Ones” storyline – see listing for related stories.)
Crackle slipped to the edge of the meadow where the golden-haired archer already stood, drawing an arrow and quickly loosing it at his target. The arrow made a satisfying smack as it struck the stuffed leather target dead-center, pinning it to the tree where it was lashed.
While still behind him, the girl let out a huff of air, letting her shoulders drop. She waited for Thornbow to pull his next arrow from his quiver. But he stood still, his bow slightly lowered from his aim position.
“You can come out, Crackle. I won't bite, I promise.”
“Uh… I was hoping to get in some practice.” Crackle stepped out into the early morning light. “But if that’d bother you… I can come back later.” The young huntress felt her stomach muscles clench. She felt nervous, even though she had shot with Thornbow before. This time was different. With the Fierce Ones having been seen in their hunting grounds, there was more at stake. The safety of her tribe depended heavily on the competency of their archers. She felt the weight of her desire to defend her tribe, and if needed, she was determined that her skills would not be found wanting.
Thornbow smiled, unaware of the seriousness of Crackle's thoughts. “I'd enjoy some company.” He inclined his head in invitation while he looked her over appraisingly, sizing up his some-time pupil. “Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you shoot.”
“Yeah, I know,” Crackle murmured, making her way to where Thornbow stood.
“Want to shoot next?” Thornbow asked, already falling back to allow her space in front of the target.
“All right.” Crackle pulled her first arrow out of her smaller quiver and placed it to her bowstring. She planted her feet carefully and found her stance. Her heart and mind raced as she reviewed the advice he and others had given her. Pull smoothly and lock with a straight wrist. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Keep your bow arm from wavering. When she had finished her checklist, she let the arrow fly. She winced as it hit the bottom edge of the target.
“Hey — not bad,” Thornbow praised as he clapped her on the shoulder. “Looks like you’ve been practicing.”
Crackle gripped her bow tightly, trying to hold in her frustration. “It’s not good enough.” She fought to keep the edge out of her voice. “I need to do better!”
“Easy now. Don’t force it.” Thornbow counseled softly, nodding at the target. “Try it again.”
“No. I want you to show me how you do it.” Crackle dropped her bow and backed away, looking at Thornbow determinedly.
“Eh? I’ve shown you many times, cub. But if you wish.” Thornbow slipped an arrow from his quiver in an easy motion and pulled the bowstring back into firing position.
“No,” Crackle said, lightly touching his forearm with her free hand. **Show me here —** Her leaf-green eyes were steady as tapped her forehead. **I want to see it from your eyes. Feel the arrow leave your fingertips.**
Thornbow’s pull on the bowstring eased as he looked over his shoulder at her, eyes bright with amusement. **I'm not sure that it will help,** he turned back to sight in the target, **but as you wish.**
Crackle drew in her breath and closed her eyes, letting her mind focus on what he saw. But it was not what he saw that moved her. His mind was calm, his heartbeat gentle and relaxed. There was no litany of commands and corrections. There was only the target in front of him, and the bow, not something held, but a part of him, waiting only for the moment when body and bow found its proper shape. Then his fingers snapped open, releasing the arrow to sail to its target, almost as though with a mind of its own.
His tone was almost teasing as he sent to her. **Now it’s your turn, young one.**
Crackle’s eyes opened and wordlessly she pulled another arrow. Quickly she fitted it to her string. Still bound in a lock-send, his mental touch brushed over her and his thoughts triggered the adjustments she had heard from him so many times in speech. Before she thought she was ready, her fingers released and her arrow sped away. She caught her breath as the arrow embedded itself three fingers from the center.
“I hit it!” Crackle let her bow drop to her side, as she stared dumbfounded at the stuffed leather mark. “I hit it good…”
Thornbow smiled. “Yes, you did. You hit it good.”
“That was amazing — no, you are amazing!” Crackle blinked at him in awe.
Thornbow pulled another arrow from the young archer’s quiver. “The shot was yours, Crackle. You just need to trust yourself. Let your body do the thinking for you.” He offered the arrow to her. “Try again.”
Crackle took a deep breath and bit her lip. Her hand reached out for the missile. She took one more breath and closed her eyes, trying to recapture the previous experience. It hung in her mind like a warm, living memory and she let it enfold her. She nocked the arrow and in a fluid movement, pulled the bow back. Her eyes briefly focused on the arrow-tip and then to the target. She released. The dull thud was heard again in the meadow.
Crackle squinted to see. “It’s right next to my last one.” A grin spread on her face.
“Yep,” Thornbow agreed. “It looks like you pull a bit to the left, but not a hard fix.”
Crackle planted her feet a shoulder’s distance apart. She had been an admirer of Thornbow ever since he made a bow for her and took her and Otter out to shoot. She was just a weed back then. Crackle straightened. Now, she was a huntress, maybe not a perfect one, but a huntress none-the-less, and here she was, shooting with Thornbow. “You wanna go next?”
“I think I’ll leave the tree killing to you, cub,” Thornbow nodded his head. “It looks like I’ve already struck my target.” He gripped her shoulder before he stepped around her. “Keep up the practicing, and next time you'll be showing me a thing or two.”
Crackle felt a warm flush on her cheeks as he walked towards the forest behind her. Thornbow would shoot with her again. She reached for another arrow. She would not waste this lesson.
Thornbow watched the red-haired girl as she examined the trail they had been following. The night sky was beginning to lighten as the promised morning approached. As a cub, Crackle was known for not being much of a day-sleeper. Thornbow chuckled to himself. Apparently, Crackle had not changed much, since she seemed intent to follow this sign until full dawn. She had come to him earlier with beaming eyes, promising her practice had gone well and wanting to show it by going on a hunt with him. Even though late in the eve, the archer could not refuse her request.
Thornbow hung back and let the girl do the work. Like so many other youths, she was eager to prove herself. He fell in place behind her slender form as she trotted along her new found trail. She moved silently and with the grace of her mother, Windsong. Thornbow smiled as he noted the resemblance. Usually, Crackle’s traits followed after Suddendusk. Her flamboyance, quick wit, even her thick spikey hair. But her movement and poise was all Windsong’s.
**They’re not far ahead of us now.** Crackle’s send interrupted his musings. **Are you coming?**
Thornbow grinned as he noted the excited tone in her send. He moved to close the small gap that had developed between them. The deer sign followed a slope that made its way upward. They would have to be careful not to be seen by the game. Likely the small herd was looking to bed down after a night of foraging.
The underbrush became thicker and the trees pressed in around them. In front, Crackle crouched down lower to avoid rustling against the brambles and making noise. With his larger bulk, Thornbow found it difficult to follow after the spindly youth.
The forest archer raised his eyes at the girl’s mental calling. In the graying dawn, he could see figures moving above them in the trees. The herd was casually milling around a patch of hilly ground. Thornbow maneuvered his way past a leafy bush and settled next to Crackle. She had hunched down behind a fallen log amidst the foliage, hidden from the herd.
**I see three,** she sent, her eyes locked on the animals above.
**Not an easy vantage point,** Thornbow responded. **Shooting uphill can be a challenge and they will be able to spot us more easily if we try to get closer.** He frowned. It was not likely Crackle could shoot that far. It was a good span between them and even though the girl was wiry and strong, she did not have the pull he or some of the other more experienced archers had.
**I’ll need to get closer.** Crackle sent.
Thornbow stole a sideways glance at her and a half-smile appeared on his face. The hunt was not just about the skill of the shot, but also knowing of one's limitations and working within them. **It’ll be a hard job to get closer. They have a good chance of seeing you.**
**Watch and learn.** Crackle tipped her head back at him and grinned. The excitement of the challenge was all over her face as her white teeth flashed at him. **Being sneaky is my thing.**
Thornbow suppressed a snort. **Well then, great huntress — off with you. I'll just sit back and watch.” His tone turned earnest, offering reassurance. **But I'll have your back if you need it.**
She raised her brows and tossed him a smug look as she slipped along the log to make her way into the underbrush.
The more experienced elf pulled an arrow out of his quiver, just in case he needed to make a shot. He remembered it was not so long ago when Crackle was just a knee-high cub, all eyes, hair and limbs. She had not changed much, he thought. She was still eyes, hair and limbs; just taller now. Shaking off the memories of days past, he focused on the scene before him. The deer above were still at ease, flicking their ears and tails. The closest pawed the ground and nosed through some odd bits of foliage. Thornbow frowned, as he lost sight of his young hunting partner. He let his eyes drift away from the herd, searching the foreground until he saw a red patch of hair moving through the scenery before him.
The dawn was fast approaching, but the colors were still subdued and made everything look flat. Crackle was meticulously making her way from tree to tree and working uphill. She flowed over the ground like water over a creek-bed. Thornbow squinted to watch her. It felt like his eyes were playing a trick on him. She did not seem to be moving, but rather hovering like a shadow. His heart beat faster as he realized she had chosen her place. She gracefully rose with an arrow already in place and aimed for the deer he had been watching before. He heard the twang of the bowstring and the deer fell to one knee and then jumped to its feet again.
Thornbow instinctively fitted his own arrow as he focused on the floundering but moving injured deer. Her arrow had pierced its side a little too high and at an odd angle. He rose and pulled his arrow back and let it fly, singing as it went.
The brush between him and Crackle exploded as two more deer jumped up from where they had bedded down. Alarmed, they spun and fled from him, snorting as they panicked.
Crackle was already facing the two approaching deer. Thornbow just saw a glimpse of her face before the rushing deer blocked his view. He had an arrow already in hand when he heard the twang of her bowstring and the deer closest to her stumbled and fell. Its partner was still on the move and stuck Crackle with its shoulder as it swerved to follow the other fleeing animals.
Thornbow bounded over the fallen log in front of him and rushed up the tree covered hill. **Crackle!** He ran past the doe that lay still and prone on the ground. **Crackle!**
He spotted her on the forest floor, laying flat out with her bow still gripped in her fist. Thornbow skidded to a stop and fell to his knees by her side, letting his bow fall next to him.
**Hey!** He leaned over her. Her green eyes were open and staring at the sky above her. **Crackle?**
“Wow — that was crazy!” she panted, still not moving. “Did you see that?”
Thornbow frowned. She was still looking at the sky, not at him. “Cub, are you all right?” He reached out and grasped her shoulder. She winced and looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“Are you all right?” he repeated, still feeling his heart beating powerfully in his chest. His anxious eyes searched her face.
“Yeah — yeah,” she said, still not moving. “It just knocked the wind out of me, but I’m fine.” She shook her head. “Maybe you could help me up?”
Thornbow’s frown faded as he took the hand held out to him and hauled her to her feet. She wavered and he caught her around the waist, keeping her on her feet. She put an arm around his shoulders to steady herself.
“Whoa… everything’s black…”
Thornbow felt her weight as her legs buckled and her bow fell from her grip. Grunting, he bent over to pick her up and walked to a nearby boulder. Sitting her down, he held her by the shoulders to keep her from swaying.
**Are you sure you’re all right?** This time he sent, wanting the truth from her mind.
With closed eyes, Crackle nodded at him.
**No, tell me,** the archer sent, putting his face close to hers.
Her eyes flicked open and she blinked at his intense stare. **I’m fine — really. Just a little shaken, that’s all.** As if to confirm her words, she sat up straighter and looked over his shoulder. “I got it, didn’t I?”
Thornbow let go of her shoulders and turned to follow her glance. Behind them lay the doe Crackle hastily shot. An arrow protruded from the center of her chest. “I’d say you did, young one,” he acknowledged. “A shot made by instinct is the best indication of one’s skill. You did well,” he added, standing and giving her space.
“What happened to the first one I shot?” Crackle shifted to get to her feet, but Thornbow gently pushed her down to stay in a sitting position.
“Not so fast. Let’s take it slower this time. As for your first deer,” He turned to her right. “She has been put down over there. It took two arrows, but it’ll taste just the same.”
“Not such a hot shot on my part, eh?” The girl let her head drop.
Thornbow directed a level look at her. “You struck home when needed. That's what matters.”
A fire sparked in her eyes. “No — that’s not what matters,” she hissed. “It was a lousy shot and could have cost someone’s life.” Crackle shifted her glaring gaze to the ground.
“Well, of course it could have. That's always a danger on the hunt.” Thornbow looked hard at the fuming elf. This was not the youngster who had come home aglow with triumph after her first hunt, one where she had spent hours perilously caught between a stag's antlers. The Crackle he knew didn't balk at risks. “You know that as well as anyone. What's this really about?”
“If it had been a Fierce One, he would have killed the ones I was trying to protect…” The words slipped from her lips in a rush. Crackle grimaced and shifted sideways on her rock seat.
The archer repositioned himself in front the girl and crouched down before her. “That's what you're worried about? The Fierce Ones?”
Crackle turned her face into her shoulder in an effort to hide from his powerful stare. “If I don’t do the best I can,” Crackle whispered. “And someone is put at risk, hurt or killed because of it, then it will be my fault.” The girl still kept her face turned, avoiding his eyes.
Thornbow put a finger under her chin and turned her face towards him. “Look at me.”
His direct command made her eyes rise and the fire in them had faded as she held his gaze.
“You are old enough to understand what happened last time the Fierce Ones came — what happened to Brightwood and Cloudfern and their family. Do you think they didn't 'do their best'?” He dropped the hand holding her chin. “Lynx and Frost, Cedarwing and Shyheart, do you think they didn't do all they could to protect their home and each other? Would you dare suggest that to Brightwood or Farscout?”
Crackle shook her head.
“Of course not. We all do the best we can for each other. The wolf is safest when it's in its pack. But even a wolf pack doesn't go looking for a fight. They know the same thing as the grayest old grizzly or the largest-racked stag in rutting season — the fight you can't win is a fight you don't want to start. That's survival. And that's smart.”
“And let me tell you something. Your sire Suddendusk is about the slyest old wolf I know. And you get your smarts from him. So, while your arrows may not find their mark every time, I'd trust my life to your cunning. After all, being sneaky is your thing, right?”
He ruffled her hair as he had when she was just a small cub.
“Now, sneaky one, we have some work to do.” He helped her up to her feet and directed her to the closest deer. “And why complain over two shots in one outing, eh?”
Crackle let a smile appear on her face and reached for her knife.