(This story is a sequel to ”Lost Son”.)
Bowflight slowly grabbed his long-unused bow; the once-familiar feel of it didn’t do much to lend him any comfort. He had spent a good part of the day turning over and over in his mind the things his mother had said to him, and finally, he had come to a reluctant decision. Tentatively, Bowflight had sent to Thornbow that he wanted to join the hunt and, though surprised, Thornbow had been eager to have his old friend ride with them. Now, Bowflight made his way down the steps of the Dentrees to where his companion was waiting for him. When he reached the ground, his wolf, Stubtail, was waiting for him as well and was obviously excited at the prospect of finally hunting with her bond after so long. Bowflight patted her absently, though he didn’t share her excitement over the upcoming event. He began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t too late to rethink his decision.
**You’re not going to back out on us, Bowflight, are you?** Bearheart sent as he came out of his den, spear in hand, his mind-touch gentle and understanding, but also firm in his conviction that Bowflight needed to join this hunt, for his own good.
Bowflight realized that his expression and body language must have given away his thoughts. He bristled at the implications of his tribemate’s send; true, he hadn’t been on a hunt in a considerable period of time, but did his tribemates really think him so far gone that he could no longer even participate in a simple hunt? His sense of pride nudged at him, and his resolve was reinforced somewhat, temporarily winning out over his apathy.
**Of course not. I’m ready to go,** he answered, and in turn saw Bearheart smile, his expression approving. Bowflight knew that his send would betray his mixed feelings beyond a shadow of a doubt, but he hoped that it would also convey that he was ready to regain the parts of himself that he had nearly lost. His elder’s smile, along with the relieved face of Thornbow, served to lift Bowflight’s spirits somewhat. He found himself starting to look forward to the hunt ever so slightly, even though the day before, hunting had been the furthest thing from his mind.
As the group started moving away from the Dentrees, Willow arrived astride Whitefoot. Bowflight’s eyes widened — he hadn’t realized his daughter was going on the hunt as well. She greeted the others cheerfully, then faced him. **I’m glad you’re hunting again, Father,** she sent simply.
He found that despite his irritation, Willow’s approval did much to convince Bowflight that he really was doing the right thing. The only thing that would have been more convincing, Bowflight realized, would have been approval from Finch herself. It was amazing how thoughts of his lifemate could be joyful to him one moment and weigh him down the next, as he again began to feel his previously uplifting thoughts turn to pangs of longing for her. Would they always be so strong? How could he hunt effectively when all he wanted was to lose himself, just one more time, in Finch’s embrace? The only way for that to happen would be to join her in death... a thought that had tempted him since that fateful moment when she’d been mauled by the mountain lion. He hadn’t given in, though, tempting as it had been. Despite what he wanted, he had felt that taking that way out of the pain would be selfish.
Realizing he had again gotten lost in his thoughts as they rode, Bowflight looked around him; they were headed north; he knew they would cross Laughing Creek and past the Speartip. He guessed that if they found game before crossing the Braided River, the hunt would be a quick one. If they didn’t, they’d cross the river and head toward the meadow near Stoneback Lake.
Bowflight stole a glance at each of his riding-mates, realizing that a considerable amount of time had gone by and no one had attempted to send to him. Perhaps they have forgotten how to talk to me, he thought ruefully. His daughter, he noticed, could hardly take her eyes off of him. He began to think that her reason for coming along was simply to watch out for him lest he lapse back into himself. Again, that niggling feeling of wounded pride prodded at him. With that, Bowflight’s mind steadily grew more focused on the task at hand.
It was Thornbow’s wolf, Biter, who first scented something nearby, as evidenced by her ears pricking up in alertness. The rest of the wolves soon followed suit, and Bowflight’s pulse started to quicken in anticipation of the hunt beginning.
Bowflight never thought to consider how it was that wolves and elves knew how to ride, how to hunt together — it was The Way, and had been since Wolfsister’s time. Wolves not of the tribe were hunters in their own right, of course, and always had been — but the elves brought something more to the hunt; hunting was not all by scent and instinct. The elves had weapons and could use them to end a hunt more quickly. He’d heard that regular wolf packs would sometimes hunt an animal for two hands of days or more. This wolf pack, with their bonds, would have the hunt finished before the night was out.
The scent reached his nostrils — branch-horn; a mid-sized male, northeast along the Braided River. He didn’t scent more than the one — perhaps it had gotten separated from its herd. Already, wolves and riders were moving as one. Bearheart’s wolf directed the others. Thornbow’s wolf was in the lead, and Willow’s Whitefoot went toward the left, while Bowflight and Stubtail went toward the right. They would surround the branch-horn at the river, and though it might run, there were enough strong archers to take it down without a long, drawn out chase.
They moved quickly, and soon, they were in place. Bowflight sent that he wanted to take the shot, and did so without waiting for a response. He knew the instant he let go of the bowstring that his aim was a bit off. It was not a kill-hit, and instead the branch-horn reared up angrily, one of its hooves knocking Whitefoot square in the chest. As the blonde archer watched in horror, wolf and rider went flying backwards towards the river. Whitefoot landed just beside the river, obviously dazed, but Willow had not been able to hold on, and she disappeared into the water.
“Willow!!” Bowflight heard himself shout, though the voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away. All thoughts of the danger of the branch-horn had fled his mind, and only one remained — Willow must not die. Riding over to the spot where his daughter had fallen in, Bowflight spotted her a bit further down the river, being carried by the current. Why doesn’t she pull herself out? he thought to himself frantically. He urged Stubtail toward her. Bowflight leapt off the wolf and reached into the water, scooping his daughter out and laying her down on the ground beside him. To his immense relief, she immediately turned to her side and coughed.
“Thank the High Ones,” Bowflight breathed. “I thought I might have lost you.”
“Not so easily,” Willow responded with a laugh, then, growing serious for a moment, added, “Looks like we’ve found you again, Father!”
Bowflight knew what she meant, and it hurt to acknowledge that he had been lost — and that his children had missed him. He knew, had really always known, that his children still needed him. Truthfully, it was they that had kept him treed — from seeking the mountain lion and death. His precious children were what had kept him alive, though he had not demonstrated that in the time since Finch’s death. The archer chose to send, so that the feelings he’d held locked within would no longer be hidden, **I’m sorry, Willow. miss your mother so much, hard without her, empty places, letting you and Mouse down, forgive me?**
He saw the tears in her eyes, and felt his own, and then they were holding each other, both weeping. Bowflight felt a release from the hold he’d had on Finch’s memory — she would not be forgotten, of course, but he could, would, must, go on. Now.
Their embrace was interrupted by Bearheart. **Are you two done? We could use some help over here!**
His mind-touch was neither critical nor impatient, and Bowflight could sense relief from him as well. **We’re on our way, elder,** he responded.
Standing, he reached down to help Willow up. Together, they went to prepare the now-dead branch-horn. Judging by the arrow that had killed the beast, it had been Thornbow that had taken it down, though he did not gloat about it. Bowflight found he wasn’t overly concerned about his missed shot, and it seemed no one else was, either. The other two acknowledged their relief that Willow was all right, and kept right on working.
Bowflight and Willow joined in, and soon, the hunting party was on its way back to the Holt.