“Put your hips into it!” One-Leg bellowed. ”Move your body, and the axe will follow!” His young student moved through the umpteenth routine of the night, from one ready attack position to the next. Her long-handled axe weaved circles of imagined destruction through the air. She knew the positions well enough for her level of training. But in too many places, though, she slowed, overcompensated, lost the battle against inertia.
“Keep the blade moving, girl! Loss of momentum is your enemy! There is no defending with this weapon! You have to keep on the offensive! All! Or! Nothing!” One-Leg lunged forward, and with but three deft swings of his own weapon, he’d knocked hers out of position and sent her retreating backward. Getting away was all she could do; were this a real fight, in the time it would take to get that top-heavy beast back into position for a counter-strike, the fight would be over.
“I yield!” Panting for breath, Fadestar planted her weapon butt-first into the ground the moment One-Leg backed away. She leaned into it for support, worn but still smirking with confidence. “…For now.”
Sly gleam in the corner of his eye, he waited until she’d started her refreshment to press, “Right then, out with it.”
Fadestar wiped her mouth dry. “I don’t take your meaning, teacher.
“I mean whatever’s in your head that’s been crowding out all that’s happening in the moment! I could see it floating around the backs of your eyes like a dead fish. Shards, lass, half the things I just said over there are trifles I thought you already had down cold.” The girl had first come to him to learn the axe some two turns prior, and had been a diligent student ever since. Whatever was distracting her had washed away moons of experience.
And her tongue, apparently, as she she sat quiet as a tree trunk for too many moments, lost in whatever had her brain by the stem. It didn’t look good, whatever it was.
With a harumph and a twitching of his whiskers he made a move to draw her out. “Right, then. This session is over. I’m not going to swing live stone around with someone whose head is in the leaves. Might be mine that gets lopped off.” The elder started leveraging himself up to his feet. “Go sort yourself out. If you won’t talk to me maybe you can say it to your sister or one of your agemates —”
“Not Kestrel!” the lass squeaked, head darting about side to side, up and up, as if trying to spy out a place her sister might be listening from. “I can’t… She can’t... Shouldn’t have to… Maybe she already...” words tripped over each other on her tongue, but no more managed to find their way out of her mouth.
One-Leg pantomimed konking her noggin with a cane made of air. “That dead fish isn’t going to do you anything but ill if you leave it in there to rot. The way I figure it, getting rid of a hard thought is like throwing an axe. Set your legs, suck in your gut, and let it fly.”
Fadestar looked up at One-Leg for the briefest of moments — eyes starting to water — before she nodded, braced herself, swallowed, then plunged into it. “What if Flicker or Spark end up sick like I was? Or both of them?” Before One-Leg could respond with more than a surprised widening of his eyes, the dam had broken, and everything Fadestar had been holding tightly inside came pouring out. “What if they get so sick that Willow can’t help them, like she did me? Like how it was with Fletcher. Not enough life left to save.”
“Shards, lass. Whatever put such a worry into you? Is this because they’re spark-cubs?”
Fadestar’s deep grey eyes were haunted as if beset upon by the ‘ghosts’ One-Leg’s own girl Flash used to muse about. Though if those ghosts took the shapes of the past or future, he couldn’t fathom. “Recognition takes only the best of the parents, makes the baby strong, strong enough to endure most anything. That’s what Father used to tell me, when I was laid up all the time.” She sighed a pained breeze. “If that were really true, though, I’d be a lot older right now. And they don’t even have that ‘advantage’.”
One-Leg’s frowning whiskers may well have been weighed down by a day’s rain. In the face of the youngster’s fears, he found himself oddly at a loss for a sufficiently unique curse. “Shards again, Newt’s not a child of Recognition either. There’s still the question of just who skipped over that guff there. You don’t see him filling up any sickbeds.”
“Newt doesn’t have the best of eyes, or skin,” she replied, with a slight tremor. “Maybe he got off lucky.”
One-Leg wasn’t about to give his student up to despair. Not after being the one who brought it out so far that she couldn’t ignore it anymore. He made to get upright for real. “Come on to my den, then. I think I’ve got some smoked salmon there yet, and a few tasties left over from the last time I had company. Memories always come faster on a full stomach. And I think I’ve got one that may help you to see a bright future for your cousins.” Fadestar was reluctant to leave her seat, at first, but did silently consent to take him up on the offer. As they started walking toward the Dentrees, he couldn’t help but try to lighten the mood with a jest. “Try not to mind the scents on the bedfurs, my last guest and I didn’t do much in the way of talking.”
Ahead on the game trail, Birch lifted a green-gloved hand. Axehand and the other two hunters froze in place while the older elf knelt to examine faint traces on the packed ground.
Brightwood already had an arrow nocked to her bowstring, and though Axehand kept his eye on the white-haired hunter in the lead, he could see the young huntress begin to draw back on the bow. Lynx’s daughter was eager for a shot at some game, but Axehand didn’t think she was likely to get it at this moment. Birch was studying tracks, not scenting quarry just around the next bend in the path.
Still, he hefted his axe, feeling the weight of it, ready to throw. Then he spared a glance behind him for the youngest member of the hunting party.
Raven had taken the signal to freeze at its word, and he was poised mid-stride, wide-eyed, one hand resting on a nearby treetrunk for balance. Only four-hands-and-two years old, a growth-spurt had shot the youngster up until he was taller than Axehand or Blacksnake — taller even than Farscout, and with even less meat on him. It was still far too soon to tell whether Raven would grow into the bulk of his grandfather Stoneback, or stay lean like his father Owl. For now, he had all the grace of a drowned heron — with a beak of a nose to match that he hadn’t grown into yet — and about as much coordination.
Axehand studied the lad critically, looking for faults, and could see that Raven had a finger around an arrow in his bow-holding hand. That, he thought, could go either way. Raven wasn’t skilled enough at the spear yet, but he was a good enough shot with the bow to be allowed on this hunt — a purposefully easy hunt, close to the Holt, to give the youngster more practice. But Axehand had seen him fumble arrows before, trying to find the best way to carry them at the ready. Brightwood’s form was better, but then, the young plantshaper had several hands more turns of the seasons’ practice.
**Three deer, not that far ahead,** came Birch’s wordless sending, loosing them all from their frozen stance to resume stalking.
Axehand saw the way Raven stumbled a little, just slightly off-balance as he stepped forward, and smiled to himself. The youngster’s height had come on so quickly, he didn’t always have full control over his limbs yet, as if it took longer for his orders to reach them. Axehand wasn’t so old that he didn’t remember that feeling himself. **Steady, little uncle,** he sent, with mock-concern, and received a sarcastic smirk in return.
So Axehand focused on his own feet, silently following in Brightwood’s steps. Ahead, he could see Birch cautiously rounding a stand of willow saplings. The deer could be just about anywhere, but Axehand thought he could guess where they’d find them. The sky was lightening towards dawn, and the four hunters were creeping steadily towards the open expanse of Froghome Marsh. The deer would be making for the tall grass along the marsh’s edge, close enough to retreat to the safety of the trees if they sensed danger. He’d seen plenty of deer in this same place many times over the years. The tribe didn’t hunt here too often, to avoid scaring the deer away entirely. But it made for a good training run for a young hunter.
The sky was light violet now, instead of blue-black, and the stars were almost all gone. It was already possible to sense the break in the trees ahead as the forest opened out into meadow and marsh. With a pulse of sending as a signal, Axehand moved past Brightwood, closing in on Birch’s back. Birch with his spear and he with his throwing-axes were best in front, where they could aim and throw as soon as they caught sight of prey. If they flushed the prey, or missed with their first throws and the deer bolted, then it would be time for the archers to take their shots.
The meadow was still cool and blue in the shadow of the hills to the east, even as the rising sun turned the clouds in the sky above to pink and orange. The grasses weren’t as tall as they had been in the summer, when they could easily top even a tall elf’s head, but even withered and turning brown and gold they were tall enough to hide behind as first Birch and then Axehand reached and crouched at the treeline.
The deer were there, much further into the meadow; too far for an axe-throw or spear. They were nearly to the reeds where the ground would turn wet and marshy, and footing would become treacherous. Birch glanced at him from under the point of his green cap, and Axehand raised his eyebrows in reply. It could be worth trying to get closer for a throw.
**I can hit one easily from here,** came Brightwood’s confident sending.
Axehand didn’t doubt it. But there were three deer, and he would like more to show for their trouble than just one kill. The question was, could Raven —
**Anyone could hit one from here,** the younger elf countered. **I know I can. Can you hit one as it starts to run once the first one drops?**
Through the open sending, they could sense Brightwood’s prickling interest and considerable pride. Well out of earshot of both of them, Axehand chuckled. Raven probably wasn’t sure enough of his own skills to take that second shot, but he’d neatly set up the plantshaper to try for it, knowing she wouldn’t resist that challenge. It was a ploy Axehand himself had used on his over-confident younger brother in his day, with much the same results.
Next to him, Birch again asked a question with just his eyes, and Axehand shrugged. If the youngsters missed this chance, they could surely find more deer later. They were here for training, after all.
**Then let’s see you do it, cub,** sent the white-haired hunter, giving permission.
Slowly, the two archers moved into place on either side of the crouched hunters. They drew at the same time, Brightwood ready to shoot as soon as Raven’s arrow had done its work. Axehand could hear the youngster take a deep breath as he drew his longbow to its full length, then pause as he aimed. Axehand found himself holding his own breath, waiting for the other to exhale and take the shot. He sensed that rather than heard it, and waited for Raven to loose the arrow —
With a sound that seemed as loud as thunder in the still dawn air, a handful of quail shot up into the air a bowshot away from the deer, who jerked just as the arrow left Raven’s bow. With the deer already in motion, the arrow grazed a bloody furrow across the flank of the doe the youngster had been aiming for, and Raven barked out a pained, “Scat-caked shards!” — one of Axehand’s own favorite curses and one he was doubtless responsible for the lad picking up. Brightwood’s exclamation was wordless as she hurried to shoot after the bolting deer, but her arrow was too late as well.
“Well, that’s just bad luck, lad,” said Axehand heartily, clapping the youngster on the shoulder and causing him to stagger slightly.
“Anyone could hit one from here?” Brightwood asked, sardonically; which wasn’t fair at all, given the quail.
But Raven just shot her an unimpressed look that made him seem older than his two-eights-and-two. “I didn’t see your deer drop, either.”
“Now now, cubs,” called Birch cheerfully as the older hunter moved out into the meadow. “Every hunter has a bit of bad luck now and then…”
The others were moving after him — Axehand expected they would circle around Froghome Marsh and south towards Deer Marsh and Bluespear Lake, in hopes of picking up the trail of some other deer — when there was a crashing noise from the direction in which the deer had fled, that stopped all of them instinctively in their tracks. They all stared at the willow thicket, and with a sinking sense of dread, Axehand thought he could see a shadow shifting on the other side of it...
Then the thicket shook, branches cracked, and a marshbeast bull heaved itself upright from its resting place, disturbed by the stampeding deer. It bellowed, an irritated sound, and its swinging head with its enormous, battle-worn rack — wider than any elf in the tribe was tall — came around until it was staring right back at the hunters.
**Nobody move…** Birch sent, but that was unnecessary. All four were rooted to the spot, each no doubt hoping that by not moving, the bull would overlook them and go on its way, preferably in the opposite direction.
Axehand held his breath, and thought that if the others were smart, they would be, too. The marshbeast pawed the ground and shook its huge head, its rack waving in a menacing way. Did it see them, or had they frozen in time?
With another bellow, the bull charged.
**Everybody move!** Axehand sent urgently, already suiting thought to action.
Their only hope lay back in the treeline. A bull with a rack that big wouldn’t move easily amongst the trees, so if they could lose it in a stand thick enough…
He ran, and he wasn’t known as the tribe’s fastest runner for nothing, but this wasn’t just playing at footraces and he couldn’t escape and just leave his tribemates to their fate. He was close enough to Birch to grab the older elf’s wrist, propelling the other along with him as he ran. Brightwood and Raven had been closer to the treeline, and they were nearly there. Both had inherited their respective fathers’ long legs, and were making the most of them, though Axehand’s heart leapt in his throat when he saw Raven stumble, maybe on some unseen hole. He didn’t need to glance behind to see how quickly the marshbeast was gaining on them, with its impossibly long strides — he could hear it all too well.
He was ready to angle his path to come up and push the youngsters ahead of him. To his relief he saw Brightwood scramble up the nearest trunk as soon as she made the treeline, and Raven dash by under her a moment later. Her tree was well-chosen, a thick old sugartree that the marshbeast wouldn’t easily damage even if it tried to. Axehand and Birch crashed into the forest a moment later and in a flash had scaled the trunk of a sturdy oak not far from Brightwood’s tree. And then Axehand looked for Raven… only to see the lad still running, just as the marshbeast hit the treeline, clearing the undergrowth and snapping a couple of saplings in its path.
**Oriny’s orbs, get up into the trees, you bufflehead!** Axehand’s sending blazed towards the youngster. Then he saw what Raven was running towards, a big, broad pine with a low enough branch…
Two more long strides of his stork-legs and then Raven leaped — and Axehand had to admit, it was a good jump, higher than he might have tried himself, with anything but a marshbeast on his tail. The lad’s hands caught the branch and he swung himself up and over, spoiling the effect a bit by landing on the branch heavily on his stomach, but firmly enough he wasn’t in danger of falling off. Winded, he heaved himself to sit astride the branch, and Axehand saw with approval that the lad had managed to keep from dropping either his bow or his quiver. Not bad for a pup who hadn’t even gotten his full growth yet.
He hadn’t been fast enough, though, for the marshbeast bull to miss where he’d gone, and now it was pacing around at the foot of their trees, circling and continuing to thrash saplings with its spread of antlers. It was good and agitated, the line of hair all along its shoulder hump and back standing up in a stiff ridge. It didn’t like being thwarted.
**Everyone safe for the moment?** even Birch’s sending sounded somewhat breathless, as did the shaky acknowledgments he received. **Good! Well, that bull will lose interest eventually — Raven, lad, what are you doing?**
Axehand turned from looking to reassure himself of Brightwood’s position, to see Raven nocking an arrow and beginning to draw his bow.
**Well,** sent the youngster, his half-smile coming through in the sending, **anyone could hit the target from here.**
**Don’t play games, feather-head,** said Brightwood, sharply; underneath, the sending was flavored with a hint of jealousy that the younger elf was in a position to show off his skill on such impressive prey, and dismay that she hadn’t thought of it in time to try herself. But Raven didn’t rise to her bait, this time.
**I’m not.** And he did sound calm and confident, despite the bellowing monster swinging its rack a mere wolf-length from his dangling feet…
It was still a tricky shot, no matter the distance — maybe, because of it, and the way the bull was pacing around. It was a bad angle, Axehand could see, and it gave an archer few options for a clean kill. Even with a longbow as big as Raven’s, Axehand wasn’t sure that a head-shot would work on a marshbeast’s thick skull, and it was thrashing around too much for the eye to be a good target. He knew that a well-placed throw of his axe could crack the beast’s skull, or break one of its legs, but perched in a tree, he wasn’t sure he could get as much force behind a throw as he’d need to do the job...
**Make some noise?** Raven asked them, with his bow at nearly full draw, and it only took a moment for Axehand to understand the lad’s plan…
He and Birch began shouting and waving their arms, and sure enough it caused the bull to swing in their direction, raising its great head and bellowing before lowering its rack, as if it would charge their tree. But it had only taken a few steps, before dropping, first to its knees and then to its side, snapping the arrow in its ribs beneath it. Axehand whooped, soon echoed by Birch and Brightwood. Raven had managed to hit the bull from behind and above, under the shoulder-blade and through the ribs! He must have hit the heart squarely for the bull to drop that fast.
As first kills went, it would definitely be one to howl about...
One-Leg addressed his audience of one from atop a pile of furs. "So there you have it. Raven was a spark-baby, but he turned out just fine. A strong hunter, Recognized twice himself, had two strong daughters — one of them not much bigger than you, and she learned to use an axe just as big as you're trying to master — and four grandchildren, one of them the same healer who sparked your sister's baby. Who's to say these two won't turn out just as well?
Sitting cross-legged against the rim of his den’s doorway, Fadestar’s haunted frown had been replaced by a cheery smile well before One-Leg’s tale was done.”Thanks. That helped. A lot.”
“Good to hear,” he grinned. “Now if you’re ready to get back to training…”
“Yes! Ready, willing, and able!” her tear-free eyes were satisfactorily void of any more debris. Fish, ghosts, or otherwise.
"Then go run a few laps round the Dentrees while I get myself back to the practice area. Now that your head’s back on the ground, it’s high time you put some meat on those legs so your axe will stay grounded too!”