(This story was an entry for Clue #7 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! )
The afternoon sunlight sparkled off the surface of the fast-flowing river, at times so bright that it hurt Newt's eyes to look. He sat in the shade of a willow tree on a rise overlooking the stone weir, twisting tough water grasses into a long length of cordage and trying not to feel sorry for himself as he watched his friends splash and play in the river. Getting dunked repeatedly by Otter really wasn't all that much fun after all, he told himself sternly; having Crackle slip a crawfish down the back of your breechclout was really no fun. It was more entertaining to watch such misadventures suffered by others, he told himself sternly. It was much more entertaining to laugh along with his playmates from a distance than it would be to broil himself red again like last time — and Greenweave and Suddendusk were both very impressed with the cordage he could weave, so it wasn't like he was wasting his afternoon playing like his friends were...
There was a whisper of sound as the willow branches parted, and Newt looked up to find Farscout beside him, with his daughter strapped to his back with a soft doe-hide wrap. Farscout glanced down at the three youths sporting noisily in the river, then smiled at Newt, while over his shoulder, young Copper blinked soberly at him, as silent and round-eyed as an owlet.
"Come, little cousin," Farscout said. "Come hunting with us."
He did not have to be asked twice. Newt grinned and scrambled to his feet, stuffing the cordage in his belt pouch to work on again later.
Before his long sleep in wrapstuff, Newt had often gone hunting with Farscout when his cousin was not away on long patrols. "You? Why you?" Otter had grumbled after Newt's first hunting trip with Farscout in this time, after waking from wrapstuff. "No fair! You're half blind and a lousy shot!"
Crackle had smacked the older boy for that blunt truth. "Don't mind fish-for-brains," Crackle had countered. "He's just jealous because Farscout's never asked either of us anywhere. What's it like hunting with him?"
"Quiet," Newt had answered, chuffed up to think that he had some special experience to boast of. "Real quiet. He doesn't like to talk — but my cousin likes to teach, if you listen and pay attention."
They traveled in silence now, picking their way through the forest along Laughing Creek, where it was flanked by the tall thornwall. Grouse ate the berries it grew and roosted among the tangled, interwoven branches. Newt rode on Browncoat’s back, while Farscout’s black Flea trailed at Browncoat’s heels. Farscout was afoot behind them, letting the wolves sniff along the thornwall in hopes of flushing prey.
A ruffled grouse exploded from the brush a hairs-breadth from Flea’s nose; the she-wolf gave a startled yelp, and Newt felt his own heart give a startled jolt, while beneath him, Browncoat lunged after the bird in chase. Newt squinted after the flurry of russet wings and threw his hunting-stick for all he was worth. The bird kept rising. Something painted yellow-red sailed past him, striking the grouse with a burst of feathers. It dropped.
Flea lunged forward and pounced on the grouse, pinning it under her paws. Newt slipped from Browncoat’s back and scrambled to find his rabbit-stick; he spotted Farscout’s first and snatched it up before spotting his own. When he gathered his stick up and turned, Farscout had claimed the grouse from Flea. Farscout wrung its neck, then gave Newt a questioning look.
Newt nodded and tossed Farscout the red-and-yellow rabbit-stick, while Farscout tossed the dead grouse to him. Newt grabbed it with both hands. “I remember how,” he said, rightfully interpreting his cousin’s silent question. He placed one foot on each wing, then pulled up on the feet as hard as he could. There was a wet tearing noise as the dead bird’s skin peeled off. Newt stopped when he reached the neck; he then jabbed a stiff finger just beneath the bird’s exposed breast bone. A quick jab was all it took -- he reached inside and scooped out all of the bird’s internal organs and tossed them toward Browncoat, who happily snatched his snack out of mid-air. “Field dressing a grouse is easy!” Newt said, proud to have remembered and proud to have done the task competently. “You can’t do this as neatly with any other bird, either. Duck and pheasant are too tough, and anything smaller like quail are too fragile.”
Farscout nodded; he took the dressed bird back from Newt and put it in the leather game-bag he carried at his belt. All the while, young Copper clung to her father’s neck with chubby little-cub hands, her blue-violet eyes watching everything avidly. The girl made a soft cooing noise from time to time; she only got fussy when back at the Holt. Her parents at learned the best way to quiet the baby was to just start walking — little Copper seemed to have inherited her parents’ mutual wanderlust, and her father’s preference for silence.
Newt knelt beside the creek and quickly washed his bloody hands clean. “I missed it. Again,” he said mournfully. “All of the practice I do doesn’t seem to help. I wish Willow could fix my eyes, because I just can’t see well enough to hit things.”
**A good hunter does not have to make a killing blow to contribute,** Farscout sent, waiting beside Flea for Newt to finish. **Watch how the pack hunts. Each member of the pack has a role that suits their individual strengths.**
Newt dried his hands on his pant legs and climbed astride Flea. “I know,” he said mournfully. “But it’s not the same. Otter and Crackle are always bragging on about how they killed this, and how they killed that. And I can’t even hit something, much less kill it.”
Farscout’s expression was more eloquent than words. He began walking, and Browncoat immediately surged ahead, putting himself to the fore and ahead of lower-ranked Flea. **Some cubs have more energy than sense,** Farscout finally sent, with a wry undertone that left Newt feeling exactly which camp his cousin considered Newt to fall in. That was a balm of sorts, Newt decided.
**I’d hit the birds if I could see them better,** Newt said. He rode in silence for a time, letting Browncoat carry him along, and thought through his own muddle of emotions. **And really, I don’t even want to hit the birds all that much. I don’t want to kill things. It doesn’t make me happy, not like it does Otter and Crackle both. I just wish I could, the same as they can.**
He felt the empathetic pulse of Farscout’s mindtouch, as firm a gesture as a hand to the shoulder. **You have different strengths; that does not make you stronger or weaker. Just more valuable.**
There was a thread of amusement to his cousin’s sending that Newt did not quite follow. He began to turn to look at Farscout and ask — but then there was an explosion of feathers as Browncoat flushed another grouse from the brush along the thornwall. Again, Flea yelped, Browncoat surged after the bird in chase, and Newt’s heart gave a jolt at the thunder of wings. He could feel the lunge of adrenaline which propelled his wolf-friend to pursue his prey, even though the bird was rising away from them and out of the wolf’s reach. The adrenaline flood made his blood pound and his mouth water — for that moment, at least, the wolf-need to chase and hunt and kill was visceral and all-consuming. But then his heart found its true beat and his senses cleared from the rush. The wolf in his blood settled again, and the moment had passed.
This time, he did not even try to throw his rabbit stick. Farscout’s brought the grouse down, and again, Flea scrambled to catch it, in case her rider’s blow had only stunned it. Farscout cleaned the bird himself this time, while Copper made soft burbling noises and made a grasping gesture until her father had given her one of the bird’s striped tail-feathers as a souvenir. She promptly stuck it in her mouth and began to chew on it.
Newt scrambled from Browncoat’s back. Weak as his eyes were during summer daylight, he still recognized the distinctive bark of a river birch. He knew the season and he knew what to look for around the forest loam at the base of a hardwood tree. He quickly spotted the wavy yellow curls of the top of a yellow funnel mushroom, and scooped it up. “Here,” he said, trotting back to offer the mushroom to the cubling. “This will taste much, much better.”
Copper snatched his offering away and dropped the gnawed feather, substituting the orange-yellow mushroom with glee. Newt grinned at her as she smacked her lips in approval.
“Can we hunt for more of these?” he asked his elder as he turned to gather the rest of the cluster of yellow funnels. “After last week’s rain, there should be a mob of these fruiting up in the capnut grove up the rise near the springhead.”
Farscout sent a silent affirmation; Newt felt his cousin’s pleasure at the suggestion as Farscout handed him the game-bag. Newt stuffed the yellow funnels he had gathered into the bag, and tied it to his own belt as he scrambled back astride his wolf and turned Browncoat’s nose uphill. Newt knew exactly where he wanted to go for this prey, and did not hesitate to take the lead. Maybe that was the lesson he might be able to teach Crackle and Otter someday, Newt thought with some satisfaction — that real hunting did not always require a kill.