Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.
Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.
Time commenced once more. She tucked and rolled out of instinct, coming to a stop on all fours, her bow still gripped in one hand, the arrow lost in her flight.
She stood up. Nothing felt broken. She was lucky her people hadn’t burned this prairie recently, the tallgrass growing thick enough here to cushion her fall.
Shadow was rising to her feet and seemed unhurt. Then Jun’s shout: “Look out, it’s coming back!” With its wide horns, the beast had found no escape in the dense forest. Now Sila stood in its only path to escape.
Somehow, one arrow remained in her quiver after the fall. She nocked it just as the beast began its charge, slowed somewhat by the arrow Jun had put in it, the one that should have killed it. She crouched, letting it come closer. Her aim and timing would have to be perfect, more perfect than ever in the past. The beast lowered its head, its long, curving horns aimed right at her.
“Sila!” Jun shouted again, his horse racing past as he tried to distract the animal, his second arrow flying high of its mark. The bison kept coming.
Forty paces. Thirty. Twenty. There was the spot, the narrow span of chest visible between its shoulder and the massive bulk of its head. She let the arrow fly and leapt aside, narrowly avoiding a slashing horn. She rolled and came up in a crouch, then ran toward Shadow to retrieve her spear.
But there was no need. The animal was down and breathing its last. She walked over to it, her heartbeat gradually returning to normal. Jun, now off his horse, approached from the other side, silent for now. He knew not to interrupt such a sacred moment.
The animal’s eyes still glowed with the light of life. She spoke the traditional words of thanks to the bison for giving its life so that the People might live, and to the Goddess Ada, for ensuring the game was plentiful. The prayer done, she ended the animal’s suffering, drawing her knife, the one with the especially sharp chert edge, across its windpipe. The beast’s lifeblood gushed onto the green summer grass, the light went out of its eyes, and it was over.
She looked up at Jun. He was still breathing hard, his light brown skin glistening as his chest rose and fell, the sunlight playing across the ripples of his abdomen. She concentrated on his eyes, two wide, pale moons.
“Sila, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking to bring food to our people. What were you thinking?”
“That I was about to see my best friend trampled. You know better than to get separated from the rest of the hunt, especially so close to the Howling Forest.”
The forest wasn’t living up to its name today. No wolves howling, nor any other beast out of nightmares. The horses were even grazing calmly nearby, not rearing and snorting and threatening to run off, as they usually would.
“You’re the one who’s always wondering what’s in there, and beyond.”
He gave the trees a glance, then turned back to her. “But what if…?” The lost look on his face was both sweet and provoking.
“What if what?” She turned away to check on Shadow. The horse seemed all right, but she had to make sure. It was a miracle the mare hadn’t snapped a leg. Then there would have been two animals to butcher, and a long walk home for her.
“What if…” His voice was quieter now, as if he didn’t want to speak his fear. “What if you hadn’t jumped in time?”
“But I did.” She took a strip of old, soft leather and began cleaning her knife.
“You might have slipped. Or jumped too late.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Would you ask Drin or Tio these questions?”
He shook his head. “Sila, you know that’s different.”
He looked away. “Don’t make me say it.”
Of course he couldn’t say it. It was forbidden. No young hunter could take a girl from his own village as a mate. Not that she wanted a man anyway, not Jun or any other young hunter. Yet she sometimes had to remind herself of this when Jun was nearby.
“I understand,” she said, her tone softening. “But I’m fine. I know what I’m doing, little brother.”
“Don’t call me that!” He always protested when she used this pet name for him, and not only because at nineteen he was only a year younger and had long ago grown a hand taller. They were of different parents, though the Wise Women called all the children of the village brothers and sisters. She just called him “brother” to put him off.
He was still glaring at her when the rest of the hunting party came riding up. She braced herself for the tongue lashing from Drin, Chief of the Hunt. It would be a thousand times worse than anything Jun could offer. She hoped to one day take Drin’s place as Chief of the Hunt, but this was no way to do it.
She put a brave face on it, gesturing at the fallen animal as her leader dismounted. “Ada provides, my chief.”
“I see Ada hasn’t provided you with the sense of a gopher. You’re a fine hunter, Sila, but if you do that again, you’ll be foraging for tubers and berries with your mother and sister full-time.”
She felt the color rise in her cheeks. Off to one side, Jun covered his grin.