The night bugs sang in the long grass, almost loud enough to drown out the sound of the bubbling stream. Thin, delicate slivers of the twin moons hung in the sky above, casting what little blue-white light they had over everything, washing out the colours. The forest was made of black shapes and blacker shapes, and Longshot picked his way down the path more by memory than by sight. "Why couldn't we have picked a night with full moons?" he asked.
"Because you didn't want to wait," Thornbow retorted. "I swear, once you get an idea in your head, you have to do it now. You have no patience."
"You could have said something," Longshot complained.
"But then I'd be listening to you complaining about having to wait," came the reply from the darkness. "I tell you, I just can't win with you."
Longshot grinned at that, his teeth glinting in the scant light.
Bowflight chuckled. "You walked right into that one, Thornbow."
Thornbow sighed. "I didn't mean it that way," he said. "I'll win tonight, you'll see."
"We could have done it during the day," suggested Longshot.
Thornbow grunted. "My eyes work better at night," he said.
"That's right," Longshot patted him on the shoulder. "You need all the advantages you can get."
Thornbow's luminous eyes narrowed, but he remained silent on the issue. "I still don't know how you convinced me to do this," he said. "This is silly and a waste of time. If we wanted to compete, we should do so on a hunt, while doing something useful."
Longshot looked up into the star-studded sky and took a deep breath of fragrant summer air. "There's plenty of time for hunting," he replied. "Too much, actually. We've got plenty of food. What's wrong with a little fun? The weather's been fine all season, and the next big hunt isn't going to be announced for a while. We can relax." He studied the shape of Thornbow's stern face. "You can think of it as honing our skills, if you prefer," he suggested. "No sense in wasting good meat."
"Are we there yet?" Bowflight sounded impatient.
"That depends on how close you two think you need to be to the target," Longshot said, pointing up to a small clifftop, a respectable distance in such light. A broad piece of wood with a dark animal shape painted on it stood propped up at the top.
"Do you think we ought to get closer? I could hit that from here, but I don't want to speak for either of you."
Thornbow squinted. "I can see that," he said.
Bowflight looked less certain, but he nodded. "We can try it from here."
"Try?" Longshot slung his bow from his back and strung it. "You can try. I'll do it."
Bowflight gave an exasperated look to Thornbow. "Does he ever quit?"
"Not in my experience."
"Stop chittering and shoot, you two." Longshot was already taking careful aim. "How many arrows did we agree on?"
"Three each," Thornbow stated. "You use your red feathers, Longshot, I'll use white, and Bowflight, you use your black ones."
"Black?" Bowflight sounded worried. "I only brought white. Do you have black ones you can use?"
Thornbow sighed and looked in his quiver. The night shadows made it difficult to determine colour. He held one arrow up to what little light there was. "These are black. At least, black enough."
Bowflight looked relieved.
Longshot notched an arrow and took aim. "All right, three arrows each, and then we go up to settle this once and for all."
"Fine. Maybe then you'll shut up about it." Thornbow scowled and notched one of his own.
Bowflight pulled his own arrow back with a faint hint of a smile. "That's the plan."
With a whistled twang, all three arrows shot out into the night to disappear briefly in the gloom before sharp elven ears heard the distinctive, distant thunks of arrows finding their marks. All three archers squinted, trying to see the results. In the faint light from the slivers of the moons, it was difficult. "I see your white one, Bowflight," Longshot said. "But the other two… puckernuts! I can't tell colour from this distance."
"It's not the distance, it's the moonlight," Thornbow said. "It dyes everything the same colour. No matter. We'll be able to see them properly once we go to fetch them."
Bowflight frowned, trying to see. "Your eyes are better than mine," he said to Longshot. "I can't see any of them."
Longshot laughed. "Can you even see the target? You're so far off the mark I'd be surprised if you could."
Thornbow cuffed the young elf—just a reprimand, nothing serious. "Competition is one thing, but insults are another. Mind your tongue."
Longshot flushed and looked abashed. His attempt at a good-natured jibe had apparently failed, but he notched a second arrow. He was determined that it would be the only thing he did tonight that failed. "Two more shots. Let's finish this."
"Yes, let's." Thornbow's limited patience was wearing thin.
Twice more, arrows shot through the darkness and found purchase in the wooden target at the top of the cliff. Longshot kept a running commentary on how easy this was and how next time, they should try something truly difficult. "We're the only three archers in the tribe who'd be able to hit that thing at all," Bowflight shot at him. He was starting to feel affronted. "And I hit it. All three times."
"You hit the wood the target's painted on," Longshot allowed, "But they're nowhere near the target itself."
"Let's go see who won this silly game," Thornbow growled. He shoved Longshot down the path ahead of him. **Don't let him get to you,** he lock-sent to Bowflight as the two older elves followed.
**I'm a great archer,** Bowflight sent back. **Perhaps not quite as good as either of you, but he makes it sound like I couldn't hit the long side of a dead treehorn.**
**I know. Hopefully, this stupid contest will put things to rest for a while.**
Bowflight didn't answer, and Thornbow didn't see his smile.
It took a while to reach the clifftop; the elves couldn't follow their arrows' straight and swift journey to the target, and they walked for a while through the deeply shadowed forest, following the winding path that took them gradually up the steep terrain. They eventuallycame to the clifftop and pulled the target down. Bowflight's white-fletched arrows nearly glowed in comparison to the other two colours, and just as Longshot had said, they were on the piece of wood, but hadn't touched the painted target. Bowflight pulled them out without comment, and it was only Thornbow's firm hand on Longshot's shoulder that prevented any further ribbing on the subject.
Even at this close range, it was somewhat difficult to tell the red arrows from the black, especially when the thin clouds scudded across the moons, taking away what little light there was. They pulled the arrows out one by one, starting with those that were furthest from the target. The first was black. Then red. Then red again. Then black. It was down to two arrows. The one closest to the target, dead-centre on the little spot they'd marked, was black. Thornbow had won the contest, although only just. Longshot's shoulders slumped.
"I was sure I'd—"
"You were sure of what?" Thornbow challenged. His patience had finally run out, and he was angry. **You wanted to play this game, so we played it. You're a fantastic archer, Longshot, you really are, and I've no doubt you will eventually overcome me in skill, but you've got to learn to lose with grace. It'll teach you how to win with grace when it happens. And it will.**
Dropping out of lock-sending, Thornbow said, "Now just drop it and let's get back to the Holt."
Sullen and unhappy that he'd upset them with something that was supposed to be a bit of fun, Longshot shoved his arrows back into his quiver and loped off for home, not waiting for the other two. They took their time gathering their things and Thornbow noticed Bowflight's barely-concealed grin. Suspicious, Thornbow looked at the ground around the target. Someone else had been up here. Recently. He shot Bowflight a questioning look.
"Coyote," Bowflight confessed. "I owe him three fine pelts for this. One for switching the arrows around while we hiked up here, and two for keeping his mouth shut about it. I just couldn't let that young fool Longshot show you up, not the way he'd been crowing about having out-shot you on the last hunt. I needed to shut him up."
"He's better than me already, there's no shame in that," Thornbow pointed out. "I don't really care."
"I know. But he was climbing too high, too fast. I just wanted to take him down a branch or two. His pride needed bursting."
Thornbow shook his head and picked up the target. He headed back to the Holt saying, "You know he's just going to practice until his fingers bleed and then challenge us again."
Bowflight followed along behind. "I know. I'll need another three pelts."