The supple wood flexed and flowed under her fingers. Eyes shut, Brightwood almost began to hum a low song; sometimes it was good to sing while shaping, as music flowed as readily as wood, turning sometimes-straining magic to instinct. Now she was too focused, though, too mindful of the shape she wanted, which was calculated rather than dreamlike. She held the stave lightly with an end in each hand and felt it curve downwards from its stiff straightness, water-smooth, losing the rough channels and ridges of its bark in favor of a sleeker hide. The edges tapered and began to delicately curl. But no — she hindered her fancy with a small frown between her brows and bent her mind back to the practicality of the task. She felt for the fine balance between stiff and springy, the wood's strength and its yield, the stave's own character in how far it was ready to flow with her will.
Even for a plantshaper of her strength and experience, such focus was difficult to maintain for long. She opened her eyes again and blinked. Redbrush had come up and sat next to her, dozing, but there was another, more alert presence nearby. Thornbow nodded a greeting. He had a piece of wood of his own in hand, and a carving knife.
“May I join you?” he asked.
“Of course.” There was no need for Brightwood to move where she sat and make room for him, but she did so nonetheless, shifting in the crook of the root where she sat so that Thornbow could sit with his back to the wood. She pointed her chin at the stave in his hands. “Whose bow will that be?”
“My sister's.” A faint note of pride was in the archer's voice. “Honey mastered the short bow quicker than anyone could've guessed. Now she's asked for something with more range.”
Though she'd once done her share of turning her nose up at Honey's antics, now Brightwood had to concur. “Even Blacksnake's impressed with her lately, and that old stinkbear's harder to soften than a salted scrap of travel-meat,” she noted, happy to echo Thornbow's wide smile. She lay her half-shaped stave down, cautious, and reached out a hand in asking. He placed his wood into her hands and watched as she felt and turned it. In the remnants of her shaping trance, she felt the flexible heart of the white ash, the quality of its seasoning, the knotted strength of its fibres. The quality of the material made her fingers tingle, the glow of her magic eager. “This is the finest bit of wood I've seen in moons. Been saving it, have you?”
“Everyone has some pieces that they save,” Thornbow said with a satisfied grin. Then he glanced down at the stave that lay before her, and shrugged. “Though it's different for a shaper, I suppose.”
There was an odd note in his voice that Brightwood placed only after a moment, scoffing as she did. Envy seemed especially strange from Thornbow, who was easily as steady as the Father Tree, and as gracefully dependable. But it was clear in his face, and she understood its origin with little trouble.
She liked Thornbow, for all that Tallow's son inherited the old crafter's often humorless nature and her tranquil, methodical mind more than the quicksilver cleverness that Brightwood enjoyed. He was much like Farscout in his constance and his quiet strength (though duller than her lifemate; but then, she thought wryly, every elf thought their heart's choice unique.) Brightwood didn't think of herself as too given to sympathy, certainly not for lost causes and pointless regrets. Yet here she felt a pang in her own gut. This kind of unhappiness was as unnatural on her stoic companion in the hunt as a thunderstorm in high summer.
“And who are you shaping for?” Thornbow asked, bringing her out of her brief reverie. She looked down at the stave and tapped her fingers along its length.
“Windsong. She asked me for a bow in Sunlight's style. My aunt was a stronger shaper than me, though, for all that I was born first and my powers came first... I'm not sure I can match her.”
“Sunlight's bows were the best I've ever drawn,” Thornbow said simply. He took his stave back from her and looked it over for a long moment before choosing a spot to start his carving from. His hands moved in fast and steady stroke, musical in their sure rhythm, hypnotically sure.
Brightwood found that she couldn't quite regain her focus. Her own hands still hovered over her own choice of wood, little ripples of magic brushing her heartsong to its own, but Thornbow's knife-strokes held the bulk of her fascination. As a youngster, she remembered with a rueful grin, such squint-work had bored her stiff, hours after hours of cutting and scraping and carving and rubbing... she couldn't recall when she'd learned better. Her lifemate's influence in this as well, no doubt, teaching her patience. But now she enjoyed the slow birth under the bowyer's capable hands. More than practised skill moved Thornbow's carving, fluent moreso than methodical, with bird's-wing elegance that showed the craft as natural to him as breathing. To watch genius at work was a rare delight. Not flashy, wicked-sharp genius perhaps, of the sort that Blacksnake and her father were so fond of in the hunt, but she nonetheless found herself staring with eyes wide and glittering. Very easily, she could superimpose the memory of Tallow's hands on her son's.
Thornbow's chuckle surprised her. Brightwood glanced up, bristling slightly at being caught in her fascination. The bowyer never stopped in his work as he caught her eye, and jerked his chin at the direction of her forgotten stave.
“I didn't mean to distract you. I could go elsewhere,” he said. “Though...” he hesitated, and his hands faltered a touch. Brightwood cocked an eyebrow and he continued, “I'd hoped to see a bow like Sunlight's born. An archer-shaper's weapon.”
Brightwood couldn't help a snort of laughter, as another memory from Tallow suddenly surfaced. “Your mother's ears would've burned. She hated shaped bows.”
“Did she?” He sounded surprised, which, unbidden, caused a small lurch in the pit of Brightwood's stomach, a sense of deep disorientation. She was sure of her memories of Tallow, but that was all that they were: memories. By the time that Thornbow was born, Brightwood had been wrapped for an elm's age. An elf could change, particularly in so fickle a thing as a preference for a weapon. But that didn't mean that the strict and proud crafter that Brightwood had known, who had always complained that shaped weapons were too easy, too smooth, had not existed too in her time.
She nodded, reeling back in the long, fine line of memory. “Yes. Old Tallow always said that magic was a cheat. That she could only really trust a bow she'd made with skills that she understood — as if shaping's not a skill that takes its time and effort!” It had been a bone of contention between them once, but now she grinned to remember it. “Your mother had pride pricklier than a nettle. But even Sunlight preferred her arrows to anyone else's.”
Thornbow was listening with rapt attention — though, Brightwood noticed with a pang of envy of her own, his crafting hands never paused. “She did always prefer to craft everything herself, tools, weapons and all,” he mused. “I don't recall that she complained about magic, though...” he hesitated again, and Brightwood was about to needle him for what seemed like a tasty morsel of information, when he said, “she had a lap-loom that Cedarwing had shaped, that was her particular favourite. Maybe she changed her mind, after...”
He didn't add anything more, and Brightwood was honestly thankful for that. Most days, she disliked the others skirting the subject around her — rot it all, she was no wilting flower, and she intended to establish that as firmly as she needed in this so-changed tribe that she had awakened into. But now it piled an added weight on the knot of discomfort that was already there, thinking about how her friend Tallow differed from Thornbow's mother Tallow, and how the blade that had cut her own life through the middle had cut so deeply into many other lives as well. She turned the barely-shaped stave over in her hands, sure now that she was not going to find the deep, serene focus that a proper shaping trance asked for. She didn't need to sink into it fully to shape a serviceable bow, but to evoke her aunt's skill for Sunlight's daughter was another thing.
“You'd laugh,” she said to Thornbow, “but the truth is, I don't know how to craft a bow.”
He didn't laugh, though his eyes widened. For a moment he looked unsure of whether she was laughing at him. With slight annoyance at that, Brightwood switched to sending, **I was a cub when my magic woke, and my grandsire taught me this way instead, and Sunlight too when her powers woke. Cedarwing never hunted with anyone's bows but his own. Just like your mother.** She shrugged. She'd never felt the absence of the skill, any more than she felt need to have four legs of her own when a wolf-friend did just fine.
It wasn't quite that, now, not that kind of envy, but there was something there that niggled. She was entirely used to relying on the skills that had served her from birth to the moment of cutting, of wrapping. But that had been before. The world had been overturned. Perhaps it was time to take a sniff down Tallow's track.
“You've never wanted to learn?” Thornbow still sounded surprised, as if the idea of an archer who didn't care about how a bow was crafted was completely baffling. Then he shrugged one-shouldered. “It would seem like make-work, wouldn't it, when you can just call a bow out of the wood like — “
“Now you sound like your sister,” Brightwood cut him off, with such acid wryness that the other hunter actually paused in his carving, ears pricked, nostrils twitching with defensive hurt on both his and Honey's accounts. He shot a look at her, green eyes flinty. Brightwood tossed back her hair and met that look unmoved. “You know it isn't 'just call a bow out'. You have your skill and I have mine and both've taken hard seasons to master. If it's biting up your bum that I can shape and you can't, then say just that, and you'll hear for yourself how foolish that is!”
She didn't expect Thornbow to look startled again, but so he did, as if the thought had never quite crystallized in this clarity in his mind. An absurd thought. He had a streak of that too, she thought, irate, that quiet-like way that Honey, before she'd been welcomed by the hunters, made a show of having no trouble and no stake in an argument when in fact she had plenty. Brightwood had no patience for that. She thought better of Thornbow, much preferred to think that he was as capable as Tallow of baring his teeth when his calm had been ruffled enough.
“I'll make you a deal,” she threw. “You let me watch you, show me the basics, I want to understand the roots of the craft. Then I'll let you watch my shaping, and I'll send with you — as best as I can — and share how it feels. Just as my grandfather did with me when I was learning, and we both did for Sunlight to get her talent to bloom even brighter than mine. And then,” she smirked, “we can decide who works harder. We can make a bet on it, if you want.”
Thornbow stared at her, his hands gone slack. “You'll... share shaping? With me?”
“Why not? I don't know what it'll feel like, for you, but it can hardly do any harm. I should hope it digs that burr out from under your tail. And I'll get mine in return — something I should've learned as a cub, if I didn't have that fool notion in my head that magic's oh-so-special that I'll not need anything else.”
She hadn't meant it as a joke, but was still satisfied to see the corners of Thornbow's lips quirk up. Another uncommon expression from the serious bowyer, but one she liked much better. This time it was Birdcatcher that she was reminded of, her good-natured agemate who always tried to draw the sweet from the sour. A beat of something like gratitude passed through her, that even with all the turnings of all the seasons, parents lived on in their offspring; that in the face of every stranger she could sometimes see, silvering to the surface, the faces of two friends.
“So?” she tossed her hair again, the cant of her head a challenge, and grinned when Thornbow nodded. It was a thoughtful nod, awed almost, but she saw how his wariness eased with it, curiosity smoothing it over. Her own curiosity well and roused now, she lay her barely-worked stave aside. It'll keep, she thought. Perhaps from watching him, she might gain some insight that would help bridge the gap between Sunlight's power and her own.
“Here,” Thornbow said when she was settled a step closer, watching with a furrow of concentration between her eyebrows. He put the tip of his carving knife to the wood, and gently marked out the lines that he would be following. “Since you want it from the start, like a cub learning... watch how I hold the stave and knife. You must be careful when holding your knife and in the way you carve, since the limbs must be perfectly balanced, and a bow is always at risk of splitting. Honey likes a thin grip and a ledge for her arrows, so I will shape that first, though roughly. The most important thing is the evenness of the limbs. It has to be perfect — absolutely perfect...”
Magic tingled in Brightwood's hands, a restlessness, an itch. It was easy to make even limbs when she felt them as closely as her own. She looked at Thornbow's own hands in their easy drifting across the wood, his words blurring a moment into a slow, sure, resonant hum. She thought of all that she had to relearn.
Patience, she thought, and watched the bow take shape.