Wolf-blooded as he might be, the halfling Crow had taken to spending more and more of his time with his feathered friends than he did with his kin. But you could always get his attention, if you knew how to ask.
"**Father!**" Little Feather cried, wearing her weighted net like a cape as she hiked up the forested ridge. "**Father!**" she shouted as well as sent.
Crow dived down from the trees and scooped his daughter up in both arms; she managed to whip off the net only at the last moment, or it would have been caught between them as he hugged her to his chest. Crow arrowed back up, whipping through the branches of the cedar grove the crows roosted in each night. As he burst out of the treeline and up over the top of the ridge, more than a dozen of the flock followed after him, in what sounded to Feather's ears like excitement.
**Hunt!** the little girl sent eagerly, clutching her net close, so that the wind of their passage could not tear it away. **Hunt!** she sent, spicing her plea with the image of the ducks she had seen swimming on the pond near the Holt, with the thought of their meat, and the way their fire-roasted skin crackled beneath her tongue.
She felt the rough touch of her father's mind in agreement, and he banked sharply in order to swoop down the forested slope. Behind them came the birds, more and more of them joining in like a wide, dark shadow. Feather laughed with delight, loving the speed and the twists and turns of her father's wild flights — only the fastest of his flock of friends could keep up with them when he flew as fast as he did now, skimming over the treetops toward Goose Pond.
The ducks were there, a whole crowd of them, having flown south to winter over in the Holt's forest. They were wary for sky-predators like eagles and the largest of hawks, sometimes even a great horned owl. But they were unfamiliar with the spear-like silhouette Crow's gliding form made overhead, and were slow to take wing. He howled as he swooped down on the attack; Feather joined her voice with his and tried to shake out her net. One of the stone weights was caught through a loop of the netting, tangling it, but enough of the rest of the net swung loose, just in time for the collision.
A wave of fat mallards were rising up, as the glider and his child swooped down. Crow grabbed one by the neck and snapped it, while a second bird couldn't avoid it when Crow and Feather slammed into its body. The bird squawked desperately and began to fall, but Feather swung as much as she could of her net at it, and managed to wrap the weighted stones around its body. The combined weight of the bird and the heavy net was too much for her, and she dropped it. The bird plummeted, hitting the surface of the pond and sinking.
**Shore,** was Crow's sharp thought. He angled down and deposited his daughter on the marshy shore of the pond, giving her his kill to hold onto. Then he swept back to the center of the circle of rings still rippled out from the impact of the netted duck. The dark-haired glider hovered for a moment, squinting — then stabbed an arm down and fished around up to his shoulder in the water before hauling out the second duck and the net.
The crows were still calling their harsh chorus as Crow settled on the shore beside his daughter. Her cleanly-killed fowl he put aside, for his daughter to carry home with her to the Holt, where it would be hung for two days to intensify the flavor, then plucked and roasted with herbs. His kill, however, was to share with his friends. First, he twisted off the head, which came off with half of the neck where he had broken it. Together, Feather and Crow tore off the mallard's wings, then gutted it with their bone knives. The wings and the head and the guts they spread across the shore, and the crows came sailing in to enjoy their feast.
"Look!" Feather squealed, as they began to skin the duck's body. "It's orange!"
Crow gave his rough, growling laugh at the skin of the duck's brightly colored naked body. "Bird ate good," he grunted, while sending the image of a fat duck eating shellfish. He felt along the bird's breastbone, then stabbed his finger in underneath, and tore the chest in opposite directions, neatly pulling free the bird's pink breast meat. He gave one to his daughter, then tore free the second for himself. The rest of the carcass he tossed aside, to the remaining crows who were waiting for it. "Our turn now," he added with a chuckle, as he sank his teeth into the fatty hunk of duck breast he was holding.
Feather had been gliding behind the pack, so she did not see it happen when the mortally wounded stag reared up and drove its sharp rack of antlers into her father's chest. But she heard the screams of the other hunters ahead who did see it, and she felt her father’s anguished spark of a sending pulse — and then go dark.
The big branch-horn was thrashing in its own death-throes on the ground by the time Feather reached it. Her father was still tangled in the creature's horns, his head limp and lolling, his limbs as boneless as a doll's. Try as they might, they could not free her father’s body from those horns; in the end, Crest used his axe to cut the tines away from the stag’s rack, shattering it on the very last.
They wrapped her father’s body in the stag’s hide, and carried him home on a litter of their spears. Feather walked, shouldering her share of the burden during that long journey home, stumbling beneath it as though a sleepwalker. She would have flown him home if she could have, but even Crow’s own considerable gliding talent would have been unable to sustain that effort. Feather was mute with grief, until the curve of the winding Clickdeer River showed them the Speartip ahead, and rising beyond that, the high ridge where the crows made their nests.
“Help me,” she said then, to Greenleaf, Raft and Crest, who each carried an end of the litter. She pointed up toward the old cedars at the summit of that ridge, which looked no bigger than twigs from this distance. “We need to carry my father back to where the wolfbirds roost, and I cannot carry him alone.”
Crest and Raft traded worried looks, as though maybe they thought her mad. But Greenleaf simply nodded and shifted the spear-butt he carried to rest on his other shoulder.
“Take the meat home,” their eldest told the rest of the solemn hunting party. “Tell them what has happened.”
There were no further questions. The four walked on. By midday, they had climbed the ridge and had reached its peak.
Others had come to join them, streaming up the slope from the Holt far below. The crowd was quiet except for the sound of weeping. Feather looked up and saw the crows had gathered as well. Her father had always argued fiercely that the birds were smarter than wolves, and capable of speech all their own. If they did have their own bird-language, they held their silence now.
“Help me,” Feather had said to Sweetslip and Littlepaw, who both had Recognized her father and bore him cubs.
“Let us carry him home,” Feverease had said — she was the next eldest of the tribe behind Greenleaf and Crow; they and Littlepaw were the last of their generation, and the healer’s honest grief at the halfling’s death was palpable. “He can join the others we’ve sent downstream; he can join your mother and Moth, and little Tadpole and your sister Sparrow.”
“No,” Feather said, shaking her head. “No. He’d want to be here.”
“Feather’s right,” said her half-brother Fisher, stepping up beside her. “We bury our kinfolk in the river for our own comfort. This is where Father would want to be.”
“Yes,” agreed Littlepaw, through her tears. “Crow would not want the water. He would want the sky.”
Feather and her living half-siblings — Ripple, Fisher and Carver — stretched the branch-horn’s hide out between the trunks of the cedar trees, lashing it in place like a strange hammock. Then Butterfly and Blue Jay, Feather’s children who had inherited the gliding magic Feather had shared with her father, carried their grandsire’s empty shell aloft, and laid him out there, beneath the open sky. After that, the grieving tribe slipped away one-by-one through the trees, heading back home on the trail down the ridge.
“Mother, come home,” Butterfly said, trying to coax Feather away as she stood there, gazing up through the cedar branches toward her father’s makeshift bier. She could have glided up and hovered beside him in his resting place, but her weary feet felt anchored, rooted to the ground.
**Father?** Feather sent instead, even knowing that the rough-edged humor and gruff strength she had relied on her entire life was gone, that there would be only silence. She remembered another hunt, the taste of duck and the sight of shockingly orange skin, a childhood memory long-cherished along with the rush of wind and the sensation of flight and of being held close co-mingled.
The birds began to stir. One by one, they fluttered like fragments of shadow, moving from their roosts to land on the suspended bier. Feather thought of them as another tribe, gathering to say a goodbye of its own.
She reached for her daughter’s hand and squeezed it tight, and walked with her away, down the ridge for home.