As soon as Willa saw her father was safely ahead of the bears, she was up on her feet. She drew her bow and fired an arrow at one of the bears that chased him. She nocked another, but by the time she was ready to fire, it was out of range. From her left, two of the green monstrosities crashed out of the woods. She turned and fired, impaling one of them in the mouth as it roared. The arrow penetrated up through the grizzly’s palette and into its brain. Its roar was abruptly cut off, and it collapsed head first into the ground, rolling over one time before coming to rest on its side.
The second grizzly was closing too fast for her to get another shot. ”Ez, RUN!” she yelled, grabbing his hand and dragging him off the rocks. “Faster,” she yelled a couple of steps later as she slung her bow across her back. “He’s going to catch us!”
The brother and sister ran for all they were worth. Willa was fast and knew she could easily outpace the bears. She’d been running in this terrain her whole life. Her long legs allowed for her to take one stride for every one and a half of Ezekiel’s, and her abnormally long toes allowed her to grip and maintain her balance on the rocks.
Her brother, on the other hand, was not made for speed. He was a distance runner. He could run all day and all night without stopping, and he could move almost as silently as their father at his top speed, but it wasn’t enough.
They ran into a group of trees. Weaving in and out of the trees, Willa grabbed her brother and set him on her shoulders. “When you can, grab a branch and swing up into the tree. We’re not going to get away,” she said as she lifted him. She looked for just the right tree. It had to be small enough that Ez could climb quickly but big enough that the bear couldn’t push it down.
The bear chasing them was about forty feet behind her when she found the right tree and pointed it out to her brother. Ezekiel grabbed the branch and swung himself up, and within a few paces Willa was back at her full stride. “If he follows me, count to three hundred and run to the burrow!” she yelled as she sped off.
The bear showed no interest in Ezekiel, instead following Willa out towards the river she’d found earlier that day. She was young enough not to think about the fact that she’d run forty miles already that day and only had half a fish to eat but smart enough to know that she couldn’t go that far from her brother.
Her hope was use the scent of her tracks from earlier that day to lead him off that way, and she knew the only way she’d be able to do that is if it lost sight of her. She opened up her stride and sprinted as hard as she could towards the trail she’d left. She wiped sweat from her brow with her hand and slung it down onto the dirt as she turned and followed her own trail out of the woods into the rock field that made up most of Minnesota.
She ran for another three or four minutes, well ahead of the bear. When he was fully out of sight, she pulled out her water skin and sprayed a rock to the left before hopping on to it. The clever girl bounded from rock to rock on the balls of her feet. Before each step, she sprayed a little water on the rock before she put her foot down.
Most of her scent would evaporate with the water on the hot rocks. She only hoped it was enough that the bear would keep going. She hopped like this with the wind at her back as long as she felt she could; if it got within sight of her, the ruse wouldn’t work.
Finally, when she was about a hundred paces off her trail, she ducked down behind a large piece of bedrock and waited, the hot morning wind blowing in her face. She knew she was miles from where she was supposed to be and even more miles from wherever her father was.
She thought differently than he did. He always played it safe. Willa wondered if he’d always been that way or if it was more-so as he aged. Willa, on the other hand, never underestimated herself.
She knew she could handle one bear. She’d killed one already with a lucky arrow and wounded another. She was thinking that maybe she should just kill this one when she spotted it running down her trail. It passed the spot where she’d lept off her trail without pausing, nose to the rocks, raised its head, and galloped off towards the river she’d found that morning.
Willa waited for five minutes before springing towards the burrow, desperate to make it back before the sun was fully out. She slowed as she approached their underground home. Silently, the huntress crept towards the opening with the wind in her face, sniffing and listening for any sign of the experimental bears.
The burrow door was firmly closed, and there was no sign of them. She knocked twice, paused, and knocked twice more. That was her knock, the signal that it was Willa, but the door didn’t move. She gingerly opened the door to their hole and called inside. “Ez? Are you in there?” But there was no answer.
They’d been in the area for weeks now. The territory was very familiar. The sun was almost up, but she paid no attention to the growing heat as she closed the door to their home and ran off looking for Ezekiel. She knew she only had a small window of time left; the sun was now fully over the horizon, and she could already feel its heat in her skin as she ran.
She made wider and wider circles, looping around the burrow. Her panic was growing with each circuit. It took nearly an hour before she found Ezekiel, unconscious and leaned against a tree. Beside him, the corpse of a grizzly lay still, covered in blood.
It was almost eleven in the morning. Her skin was red and burning. She didn’t stop to even look him over. Willa picked up her little brother and ran as fast as her weary legs would take her towards the safety and shade of the burrow. Once she was safely inside, she laid Ezekiel down on the floor and went to the water bucket.
As she washed the blood from her little brother, she was once again grateful for this burrow. Her father had built a network of underground houses, each about half a day’s journey from the next. Each year, at the beginning of the season, before they’d gathered anything, the three of them spent a week working on the next burrow. Each evening, a little before sunset, they would take off for the next site, covered head to toe. They would run for four hours to the next location and dig. All three of them dug, using whatever they could find, for three hours, and then they started the run back. They had to do it early in the season while the days were shortest and the nights were longest.
The family had completed this burrow last year. It was small, compared to some of the first ones, when both her mother and father had worked on them, plus the first one outside of town was almost as old as Ezekiel. Each year, Joe improved on each of the burrows as they passed through. The first burrow was three rooms plus a large storage room. It was Willa’s favorite; she kept a few of her most prized possessions in her bedroom there, and she always looked forward to the one week per year they got to stay there.
This last one, which Ezekiel had ironically named Rock Mountain, was only one room plus the storage room. The three of them each had their own raised platform to lay out their bedrolls. Joe had started work on the first bedroom, but it was only a few square feet. There was no dead wood here, so they had to use rocks to shore up the burrow, and that made digging rooms more difficult. They had to haul the rocks in and store them inside for when her father needed them.
After several minutes of washing and inspecting her brother, Willa peeled his tunic up and found a cut across his belly. It wasn’t large or bleeding profusely, but it had ugly brown streaks at the edges. She washed the wound and noticed some dried greenish puss at the bottom. Ezekiel was burning up, and his legs were shaking. She had no idea what to do.
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