Timeline: November, 2008
The smell of coffee and the sounds of someone moving around in the kitchen downstairs pulled Rey out of a deep sleep. She rolled over and looked at her clock with bleary eyes. “Who the heck is making coffee at three in the morning?” Yawning, she stumbled out of bed, grabbed her robe against the slight chill in the air, and walked down the stairs.
Ironclaw stood there in beige overalls and a hunting cap with two cups of coffee. He held one out for Rey. “‘Bout time, sleepy head. Don’t you know what time it is?”
“Three oh seven a.m.” She stared at the cup. “Why are you here? Why are you wearing…? What? You mean you want to go hunting? Now?”
He nodded and grinned. “Yup. Here,” he said gesturing slightly with the hot cup again. “You’ll need this.”
Rey groaned but accepted the cup. She took a sip and grimaced. “That’s the last time you make the coffee. I’ll go get dressed.” She went upstairs, but dashed back down the stairs a minute later wearing nothing but her panties and bra. “I forgot my stuff was down here.” She ran past him into the store room and pulled on her hunting gear.
Under Ironclaw’s guidance, she’d bought stuff that was lightweight, warm, and would resist brambles and thorns in the underbrush. She’d paid a bit more to get stuff that could be layered, an important factor given the weather in and around Eldon Well. Once she was properly attired, she returned to the kitchen area.
Now wide awake, she retrieved her cup and drank more. “Do I have time to grab a quick bite to eat, or do we have to go right now?”
“Yup,” he said again. He had apparently planned for at least a bit of decent morning prep. “And be sure you eat plenty. If the deer are sparse or if you screw up the hunt, we could be out for a good part of the day.” He grinned again. “I decided a challenge is on order,” he added. “We’ll be going up the Mountain.”
By that, Rey knew he meant Mount Washington. It was perhaps the most brutal mountain in all the Appalachians and had the reputation for having the most some of the vicious weather on the planet. It also bordered the pack’s territory, making it one of the tougher regions to patrol.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Rey blinked at him, and felt a huge lump forming her her throat. After what happened with Jyn, the last place she wanted to go was into the mountains. She looked at his face, and forced herself to swallow the lump down. He’d never have suggested it if he hadn’t thought she was up to at least attempting it. In fact, she realized how much confidence he must have in her abilities if he was willing to take her that far out and into those conditions. “Can I bring some stuff with me, like jerky and trail mix, or is hunger going to be my motivation?” She gave him a little smile.
“No, you should bring any trail snacks you can. It will keep your energy level up and that’s important.” Ironclaw noticed her stress level, though. “Don’t worry, Rey. I saw deer tracks all over that mountain. I have a reasonable hope that we won’t have to be out there long. And in any case, we won’t be chasing them; you’ll pick a good spot for us to wait and that’s what we’ll do.”
“Okay. It’s just that my last trip to the mountains didn’t exactly end on a high note.” She gave a little shrug, hoping to sound nonchalant. “I can’t hide in town for the rest of my life. I’ll be fine.” Setting her coffee down, she set about getting herself a good breakfast.
While it was cooking, she got the rest of her gear together and went over it, making sure everything was there and in good condition. Into the backpack went all the jerky she had (which really wasn’t much, given Grey had found her stash) and a gallon bag full of trail mix that was mostly nuts and dried fruit.
He watched her as he considered something. Rey had evidently never discovered what had happened to her friend. After consideration, he decided it was better for her alpha to tell her rather than let her continue to suffer the loss of her friend all those months ago.
“She’s alive, Rey,” he told her.
She looked at him in surprise. “Who is?”
“Your friend,” he said. “I believe her names was Jeani? Jenny?” He scratched his chin. “No, I think it’s Jyn. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Rey nodded, speechless for a moment, then a huge smile covered her face. “Oh, thank god. What did they do to help her?” It was obvious to Ironclaw that Rey really didn’t care what the answer was, so long as her friend – or the person who used to be her friend – was okay.
“She was beyond medical treatment, I would presume, so Dark Sun had to resort to extreme measures,” Ironclaw explained. “Jyn has joined up with Dark Sun’s gang. I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of what that means, but I do know that it requires a lot of adjustment. Deathstryders aren’t necessarily born with their shapeshifting abilities,” he told her. “As I understand it, some are but others are… inducted. I believe that in order to repair Jyn’s body, they had to grant her the power to do so. And they had no time to seek outside assistance, for instance from the witch-healer Ariyah.
“So the good news is that your friend is nearby. When she’s ready, I’m sure you’ll see her again. Our pack remains on good terms with Dark Sun’s people.” He winked at Rey.
She gave a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad they were able to help her. I still dream about the ledge giving way underneath us. That’s why the thought of heading up the mountain made me nervous.” She closed her backpack. “I’ve been telling myself that I did all I could, and not to dwell on it so that if she didn’t make it, because if I did, it might prevent her from moving on.”
Ironclaw remained watchfully silent while Rey got her breakfast and sat at the table to eat. It was a larger breakfast than she normally ate – in fact, unless Grey was there, she normally only had a piece of toast or a cereal bar – but she wanted to be able to go as long as possible for eating, and simply getting to the mountain would take a lot of energy. She smiled, and wondered if Grey had mentioned his frustration with her eating habits, but Ironclaw didn’t seem to be taking much note of what she ate. Instead, he eventually turned his gaze out the window, looking away from the dawn into the west.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
There was a small smile on his lips and humor dancing at the corners of his eyes when he turned back to Rey. “Pleasant memories. And usually, they go for something more valuable than that.”
“Yeah, well, tell my boss to give me a raise and next time I’ll offer more.” She grinned. “How about a steak from my first successful hunt?”
He grinned back at her. “You haven’t had a first successful hunt yet,” he reminded her. “Finish yer breakfast so we can get moving.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” she replied, then stuffed the last sausage in her mouth before quickly washing her dishes and the frying pan. “Let’s go.”
It was a long march from Rey’s cabin to the mountain. This early, things were still pitch black and Ironclaw had Rey carry her own gear. It made trying to be quiet and stealthy a very difficult proposition. Luckily, Ironclaw didn’t seem bothered by the racket she made stumbling through the dark.
They stopped only a few times for rest. The upward rise was relentless and the downhills were murder on knees, but it was amazing was a couple minutes cool-down could do for aching joints.
The tops of evergreens were beginning to be outlined in blue and the stars were fading at the time of the most recent break. Ironclaw had produced some jerky to chew on from somewhere and shared it with Rey while they watched the night begin to fade. He was looking at the trees around them while she caught her breath.
She looked around as well, seeing if there was an off-chance she’d spot something. Not particularly hungry, she took a bite of the jerky anyway. She didn’t want to fall into the trap of being distracted by hunger.
“This works,” he said briefly. He pointed at a nearby tree and handed her a small, folding platform and a camping hatchet. The hatchet was useful for chopping wood, but it also was used for hammering spikes into the ground. In this case she could use it to hammer the platform in place in the tree. That’s where she’d stand, waiting for deer to pass by.
She looked up the tree, glad she’d been playing in the outdoors with Grey and Lyla. Thinking about the best place to put the platform and what she’d learned about deer hunting, she set her pack down. “Here goes,” she said, took a deep breath, and started to climb the tree.
She managed to hammer it in place. Ironclaw said he’d be watching but that this part was all on her own. The only thing left to do was wait and hope that they had indeed found a deer trail and that she was positioned well above a deer’s line of sight. If not, then it was likely no deer would come close.
Hours ticked by and the cold felt like it was seeping into her bones. Small animals chittered and moved about around her but aside from that there was little to look at or find to amuse herself. All she really had while she lay in wait was her own thoughts.
The fact she was sitting here in a tree, deer hunting, was still something of a marvel to her. Growing up, the closest she’d gotten to nature outside school trips to the zoo was watching National Geographic specials on tv. Back then, when she even cared to think about her future, she’d always seen herself in a city somewhere, making potions and casting curses for whomever could pay her parents’ prices. Her mother, the consummate socialite, would have been horrified at the idea of what her daughter was doing now.
Rey shoved aside thoughts of her parents to concentrate on what she was doing, and wished she’d thought to pack some of those small hot packs to keep herself warm.
Finally, there was a rustling that sounded heavier than that of a small animal. Looking around, Rey spotted a single male deer with a rack of six points. It pushed its way through a thick hedge, paused to nibble at it and then looked around. It didn’t seem to notice Rey. She decided to let it go, figuring to show nature respect by never making the first kill.
It was hours later when the next good target wandered by. This one was a doe. She wasn’t large, Rey noticed as the animal cautiously stepped out onto the little deer trail about twenty yards from Rey’s position. She didn’t see Ironclaw anywhere near, and hadn’t since he’d left her there to await her prey.
She lifted her rifle, and the deer heard the noise. Rey quickly aimed as best she could and squeezed the trigger, hitting her mark. The deer bounded off in a panic. Rey had never done this next part and wasn’t sure what she should do. She fretted that the deer was only wounded and in pain.
By the time she reached the ground, Ironclaw was there. He gave her an approving nod. “Now we track our prey.” He gestured for her to lead the way.
Rifle in hand (but with safety on), Rey went to where she’d last seen the doe. She thought about everything she’d been taught about tracking and, giving her lucky penny a pat through her coat, started to follow the animal’s trail.
She’d learned her skill well. She tracked the wounded doe for over a half mile, following it’s trail of blood. At last, she’d found where the doe had bled out, stumbled and fell. Under Ironclaw’s watchful eye, she put the doe down and bled it out of the vein in its leg. Finished, she hefted the deer, but Ironclaw intervened.
“A test of strength is not necessary,” he said with a smile. He lifted the doe off of her shoulders and onto his own. “You’ve already passed your first rite of passage as a hunter. Now let’s go home and take care of your kill. Young Father Bear will be pleased.”