This seemed cruel. Dahlia must have heard the speeches a thousand times, but she couldn’t have understood until now. This was why they said hunting was so hard, and no amount of talent would make it any easier.
The beast before her didn’t make much sense. Its claws and muscles were nothing to scoff at, but its shape didn’t seem to make good use of those features. Its belly hung a meager distance off the ground, one man’s worth suspended along five pairs of stumpy legs. Its tail extended that same distance behind, counterbalancing the weight of an almost-as-long neck, which ended in a snout that resembled an oversized scallop.
Dahlia thought scallops were supposed to open, though. This one didn’t look like it did. How did something with a body like a lizard and legs like a bug grow fur like a cat, anyway?
The problem wasn’t the fearsome tremors she felt as it stamped and brayed. The problem came from its quirks. They made it seem cute, like Jedrek or Trent or Lyn. She’d decided to hunt in order to protect and provide for those people. She never expected it might mean hunting beasts that resembled them.
With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and recalled the old lectures. “The leaf has as much right as the doe, who has as much as the wolf, who has as much as the hunter. They might kill to eat. They might kill to not be eaten. Either way, the killing is righteous. That is the tragedy of survival.”
There were hints of how hard this would be, but all the carcasses seemed so ferocious when she saw them after the violence was done. She’d never seen this side, when the beast was docile and scared. She stood between it and its home, the forest behind her, and all it wanted was to move past her. She very much wanted to let it go.
But she wouldn’t. With a deep breath, she drew her knife and assumed an aggressive stance. How long will this fill their bellies? How many winters will the hide last, and how many of my kin will it keep warm? It’s more than enough. I will do this.
She was thankful for its reaction to her charge. It looked more like the monsters that the hunters were always dragging home. Its eyes seemed to have malice now, its claws becoming more prominent than its adorable spots. The roaring sounded feral and aggressive, as though it were the one that forced this fight.
The hardest part was over.
It turned and threw its neck at her, but without momentum, she was able to just slide over the blow. Its ten feet shuffled busily to continue the turn, and though the tail lashed fast enough to do damage, she was given plenty of time to predict and vault the appendage.
She stopped abruptly when she realized it was still building speed. The next pass would be bad…
With a pitch forward, she abandoned her footing and used her arms to cushion her head. Gravity barely brought her prone before the beast jumped into a full spin. She could both hear and feel the tail and neck whipping over her, at least once each. They would have broken her in half, had one of them hit.
At least guilt wouldn’t be an issue anymore. She didn’t know why, but she was sure this would be so.
Its landing shook the ground. The beast’s body coiled and its feet scrambled to kill the remaining momentum. Despite this opportunity, she was distracted by a collective cry of concern.
She’d tried to forget she had an audience. Their reaction to the animal’s acrobatics wasn’t welcome.
She pushed herself up as she considered. That probably looked okay, didn’t it? It hadn’t hadn’t hit her, and if the beast intimidated her peers, she’d get more respect for slaying it. Yes, her showing was bound to be good…
She was rushing her prey while her mind was on her audience. It pedaled backward from her faster than her instincts anticipated, and with her focus elsewhere, she didn’t realize what its arched neck meant.
When it straightened into an abrupt thrust, she was completely unprepared for the blow. The force of the scallop snout against her stomach threw her off her feet and onto her back.
“Right, hunt’s done.” The matron’s hand cupped her shoulder as she sat up, startling her. Hadn’t the she been back with the others?
“Nothing’s done!” She shrugged the hand away and tried to get back on her feet. “It’s not like it hurt me!”
“It definitely hurt ya.” Despite the fact that they were the same height now, the matron scooped her up with one arm. “Killed ya, I’d say.”
“Then how’m I arguin’ with ya?!” The younger woman knew that no amount of struggling would let her escape the matron’s grip. Not the physical kind, at least.
“Bled ya at the tummy. Take a look.”
The younger hunter obeyed as the matron shifted to carry Dahlia over her good shoulder. Red dust caked her hide tunic, marking the spot where her prey had struck.
“Colordust? Why’s it got colordust on it?” The clan could make the stuff in any shade they liked, but she didn’t understand why a beast would be wearing it.
“Same reason it’s got the muzzle.”
“Muzzle?” Dahlia stared at the beast as the matron draped her over her good shoulder. The scallop wasn’t part of its body? Looking closely, she supposed it could be red wood.
The beast’s continued agitation distracted her from the muzzle. It, too, didn’t seem to think the fight was over.
“Soko,” the matron called.
“Lyn,” the patron reacted by addressing the girl at his side. “Go.”
“Yes, patron.” Lyn moved with trepidation, but still ran to obey.
The matron grunted as she watched Lyn go. Dahlia thought she heard disapproval and disgust in the noise. Dahlia didn’t want Lyn to do this duty either, but for a different reason. The thought that Lyn might be ready for duty before her was mortifying, even if Lyn’s duty was much safer.
The beast reacted queerly to Lyn as she approached. It tried to keep its own body between the matron and the young tamer, as though it were protecting its own calf. After that initial increase in its agitation, though, Lyn’s cooing started to take effect, and the beast began to calm down.
The matron sighed in relief and began to walk towards those that had gathered to watch. Something about the tension in the matron’s shoulders told Dahlia that Soko wasn’t going to have a pleasant evening.
Dahlia gritted her teeth. It was too soon for the matron to be thinking of lecturing her colleague. They weren’t done talking.
“No, Dahlia,” she interrupted, as though she knew what Dahlia wanted to say. “I’ll show ya why yer dead in a minute. Don’t work yerself up. You did better than I expected.”
The matron may have meant it as praise, but Dahlia didn’t feel any better. She averted her eyes as they drew closer to their kin. The matron hadn’t let her finish her performance, but she doubted they’d account for that in their teasing.
“Isn’t often we find this kind o’ quarry outside the woods,” the matron addressed Dahlia’s peers as she bent to unload the student from her shoulder. “Anybody else want a shot at this poor bladelash ‘fore I turn it o’er to Soko?”
Dahlia glanced at her peers, and was surprised to find so many pale faces and nervous shivers. This wasn’t the reaction she was expecting.
“Bring that colordust here, wouldja?” The matron beckoned at the boy carrying the clay pot of it. Once he obeyed, she thrust her hand inside it. “The first steps towards bein’ a hunter involve workin’ up the nerve ta kill an innocent beastie and learnin’ how not to be afraid of it killin’ you. I di’n’t think any of you were even that far yet, but Dahlia woulda killed this here ‘lasher if it let her. It’s also clear she’s too dumb to be afraid of it, even though it killed her.”
Some of Dahlia’s peers snickered as the matron pulled her hand out, her arm dyed crimson down to the elbow.
“Now, now, it’s a good thing. I’ll have failed you lot if I can’t teach you to be so dumb. Dahlia’s jus’ lucky it comes naturally to her.”
Dahlia didn’t know if she was being praised or insulted, so she continued scowling at the ground.
“However you look at it, Dahlia has taken them first steps. The biggest thing she lacks is something we haven’t talked about yet. Today I’m going to show you lot what a dance looks like.”
“Dance?” Dahlia cocked an eyebrow at the matron. “We see those every night, at the fire. How would dancing help us hunt?”
“It’s a different step, lass.” The matron turned to one of her fellow hunters. “Blind me, wouldja?”
“Cascata,” the hunter gave her bad shoulder a look of concern.
She replied with a gentle smile. “It’s a ‘lasher outside the woods durin’ daylight. If the normal hunt carried this ‘no war’ guarantee, I’d still be huntin’.”
This seemed to comfort the man, which confused Dahlia. As he tied a strip of hide over the matron’s eyes,
Dahlia wondered when the matron would finally explain what war was.
“Now Dahlia’s dance wasn’t too bad, considering she’s never done it before. But the sun’s ‘bout as high as it’s gonna get, and if you’re gonna dance with one of these in there…” the matron motioned at the woods. “…then ya ain’t gonna be able to use your eyes the way that Dahlia was.”
Dahlia and her peers all turned to look at the woods. If one squinted, they could just make out the first enormous tree trunks within the blackness of that place. The unnatural ceiling of cloud hanging low over the forest – their older kin claimed that the trees rose above it – made a kind of filter for the sunlight, breaking it into golden rays to mark the threshold at the forest’s edge.
The clouds covered an enormous area. Outsiders called this place the Dawnless Woods, because it was darker than a moonless night in there. To the clan, it was simply ‘the woods,’ and their lives were made possible by what the hunters were able to bring out of it.
None of them questioned why the matron would need to blind herself to demonstrate the kind of dance she talked about. If a hunter was to kill a bladelash within that darkness, then they’d need to avoid its deadly-fast neck and tail without being able to see.
The prospect intimidated Dahlia. It had been hard enough when she could see the strikes coming. She couldn’t imagine how that could be done without using her eyes. Still, the larger part dreaded the knowledge that the matron would prove, without a doubt, that it could be done.
“Lyn,” the matron called. “I’m ready ta start. Wouldja come on back for me?”
Lyn hesitated. “Matron, must we kill him? After so much torment…”
The matron donned her reassuring smile again. “I’m killin’ it in the same way it killed Dahlia. That’s all. Maybe you could ask it join the herd afterward?”
Lyn’s relief was infectious. She gave the beast one last coo before jogging back towards the group.
The matron strode confidently to stand between the beast and the forest. It watched her go, its head cocked with an aloof curiosity. Dahlia had always wondered how Lyn and the other tamers managed to calm their herd whenever something spooked them. She’d always assumed it was because the animals knew their handlers, but from the way that Lyn had instantly befriended this wild bladelash, Dahlia knew there must be something more to the art.
Several moments passed. Despite being blindfolded, the matron seemed to be staring her quarry down. As if taking a cue that only she could see, she began to walk toward the bladelash, holding her red-dusted left arm in front of her to keep it from rubbing against her clothes.
The beast reverted back to its rage. It stamped and postured menacingly, warning the matron to respect its space. The matron ignored its good advice, encroaching without any sign of hesitation.
The moment she came within reach, the beast began to repeat the routine it used against Dahlia. The matron avoided the first, slower swing of the neck much the same way her student had. She wrapped her arm around its neck as she bent against the motion and flipped over, so smoothly that it almost seemed like the blow passed through her.
The maneuver left a red spiral of colordust around the bladelash’s neck. Dahlia clenched her jaw. Killed it already. When Dahlia had done this part, she hadn’t thought of using her knife to slash the neck veins. She’d been too focused on avoiding the blow.
The matron held her left arm at an angle to her side as she continued her stroll. The beast’s fur had taken all the red off the underside.
The animal continued its spin to bring the tail hurtling towards the matron, but with a casual flourish of her feet, she skipped over this second lash.
Dahlia sharpened her focus as the bladelash entered the final phase of its spin, the one where it would jump. When she considered how she might confront a bladelash in the dark, the only solution she could conjure was to duck under this final attack when the timing felt right. She knew what the matron would want to say about that, though.
That would mean you timed things out while you could see the creature. To hunt in the woods, you need to be able to slay a beast without ever having lain eyes on it before. You need to be able to sense the strike, discern its nature, and calculate your response all without seeing it.
The movements of both the bladelash and the matron seemed to slow as Dahlia watched. In its first rotation, the animal’s legs had needed to alternate steps. A few had remained planted so the body could pivot on them, and the others shuffled to propel the spin. Now that the circular motion was started, though, all its feet were on the ground, and its knees were bent.
They all stayed this was for only a fraction of a moment, but that fraction was important.
The grass and weeds under its paws strained, flattened, or broke. Their neighbors sort of rippled in the tiny wind created by the creature’s muscle tension as it began to rise. Something about the entire environment seemed elastic as the bladelash jumped.
The matron could feel that elasticity, Dahlia was certain. The matron could sense what was happening to the plants or the soil or the air, or maybe all of them at once, and those gave her the same information that Dahlia’s eyes did.
This was certain, because the way the matron bent her knees and fell back to rest on her good arm was timed too perfectly. She wasn’t guessing that the bladelash would strike now. She was reacting to her dance partner’s step, following his lead.
Dahlia doubted she could mimic this dance without instruction, but she now understood that it was a dance.
The beast spun a full circle as quickly as a tamer could crack a whip. The head and tail flew by so fast and so close to the matron’s belly that her clothes rustled. Its feet plowed up clods of soil and weed as it landed and fought to kill the rotation.
The matron was back on her feet with one thrust of her arm. She performed an exaggerated pantomime, grabbing an imaginary spear from her back before assuming a lunging stance. Before the animal could recover its balance, she pounced, driving her shoulder into its flank in a way that would have buried most of a spear into her prey.
This left another red mark on the beast’s fur where the colordust on the back of the matron’s arm had rubbed off. She killed it again.
Her tackle had staggered the beast even more, but it still recovered quickly. The matron followed it as it backpedaled away from her the same way it had from Dahlia. Only this time, when it arched its neck to drive its scallop into its attacker like a striking snake, the matron reversed course.
The beast’s thrust stopped just short of the matron’s midsection, and as it hung there, she brought her good elbow down and her left knee up. The wooden, scallop-shaped muzzled was pinched between the limbs and crumpled easily. It fell away from the beast as it flinched.
Without the muzzle, the audience could see why the matron had said the beast killed Dahlia. Its snout was actually a horizontal crescent of razor-sharp bone. Had it not been muzzled, the beast’s snout would have buried itself into Dahlia’s belly as easily as one of the hunters’ enormous axes. In fact…
Dahlia glanced at the axe slung across the back of the hunter who blinded the matron. The blade’s crescent matched, it had the same metallic glint to the bone, and she could even see where the eyes used to go, near where the blade was attached to the haft. There was no doubt. The bladelash’s snout was so lethal, the clan’s hunters didn’t need to change much in order to salvage a new weapon from a successful kill.
The matron had been right. If Dahlia’s fight had happened before they’d muzzled her opponent, it would have killed her. It hadn’t even needed the advantage that darkness would have given it. There was more to the hunt than she’d expected.
The beast and its hunter faced each other for several second before the matron turned away. With a slow and rhythmic gait, she disengaged and called to Lyn.
“I s’pose you’ll be wantin’ some time with it, Lyn? He’s all yours.”
Dahlia glanced around at her peers and was relieved to find them in awe of their matron. While Dahlia wasn’t as good as she had hoped, she was still ahead of the other hunters-in-training.
Lyn began to jog towards the beast, but stopped after a few steps.
“Patron, may I name it?” she turned to ask Soko with a glee that Dahlia had never seen in her before.
The tamer patron shrugged his permission, and Lyn sprinted towards her new best friend.
Dahlia strolled to meet the returning Cascata, but it soon became clear that she wanted to have words with Soko first.
“I expect Lyn could use your help, Soko.”
“No,” the patron replied with a sly smile. “This is her duty now.”
The matron narrowed her eyes and frowned. “I also think she’ll be fine, but why risk it?”
“I’ve been trusted to teach the tamers, Cascata. This is my decision, not yours. Lyn will tame this ‘lasher without instruction.”
Dahlia grimaced and looked to Lyn. The bladelash had a blissful glaze to its eyes as Lyn rubbed its head like she would a puppy’s. She still didn’t like the idea that Lyn was ready for her duty before Dahlia, but she supposed it wasn’t so bad. Lyn wasn’t the type to brag about it.
The matron’s eyes remained locked on her colleague’s. “The clan trusts you, but that trust can be lost. It’s too soon to be pushin’ her out the nest, Soko.”
“It’s not.” The patron wasn’t intimidated. “She can fly, so she will. Or she’ll fall. It’s important that some fall. It would be bad for the forest if all chicks flew.”
“Not ours,” Cascata growled.
“I don’t have to answer to my equals, Cascata. So why should I have to answer to a mere fraction of one?”
Dahlia glanced at her matron’s bad arm as she realized what Soko was saying, then fixed him with a scowl. While Dahlia agreed that some risks should be taken, anyone who thought less of Cascata because of her injury was bound to be wrong; so wrong that she began to think maybe the matron was right to worry about Lyn.
“I haven’t asked you to. I’m offerin’ advice, not givin’ orders. Watch her, Soko.” Cascata donned a cocky smirk. “And watch yer mouth while yer at it.”
Soko gave an aloof scoff before turning to walk towards camp.
Dahlia and Cascata watched him go for several seconds before the matron broke the silence. “Spend too much time with the beasties and yeh start to think like one. Anyway, how ya feelin’, Dahlia? Yeh unnerstand why we ain’t sendin’ ya into the woods yet?”
Dahlia had been dreading a lecture ever since the matron had stopped her hunt. Now that there was no sign of any such thing, she felt inexplicably giddy.
“Will you teach me how to dance?!” She clasped her hands together and held them to her chest, as though pleading.
“Aye,” Cascata smiled matronly. “Yer ready.”
Dahlia threw her fists into the air above her. “Yes! Let’s get started.”
“Whoa there, lass.” Cascata chuckled. “Lyn might need us to hang around to teach her pet that we ain’t its enemies. We riled it up good.”
This didn’t damper Dahlia’s mood any. She was sure the matron just wanted to make sure Lyn didn’t lose control of the bladelash before she was sure it was tamed. Dahlia thought this was best, since Soko refused play his part.
Besides, Dahlia thought as they began their careful approach. There’s one other thing she can teach me while we do this.
“Matron, you mentioned it again. What is war?”
Cascata gave her a sidelong glance, frowning in consideration. “That’s a heavy lesson. I’d need the elder’s help, too. But we can do that ‘fore we try dancin’, if ya like.”
Dahlia noticed the matron’s mood had become somber, but still, she wanted to know. She nodded.
“Alright. Let’s learn our new friend’s name, first.”
“Moondancer,” Lyn heard this last part, and called the answer to them. “He’s Moondancer.”
“Moondancer?” Dahlia repeated teasingly. “I don’t see it. How about Bonebeard, or Axesnout?”
“No, Dahlia,” even in protest, Lyn seemed timid. “His nose looks like the moon and he danced with you and Matron Cascata. Patron Soko did say I could name him…”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Dahlia chuckled. She liked to tease Lyn, but she had to be gentle. Besides, the blade did look like a crescent moon. “He’s Moondancer. How ya feelin’, Moondancer?”
The bladelash glanced dumbly at her before turning its attention back to Lyn. Dahlia was a little relieved that the beast seemed to forgive her. Perhaps it was just too dumb to remember, now that it was distracted by Lyn’s doting. Dahlia was convinced she could hear it purring as Lyn lovingly scratched and cooed.
“I’m glad yer family and not food, Moondancer,” the matron placed a gentle palm on the beast’s brow.
“Matron, why can’t they all be family?” Lyn asked.
“Well, first, that choice belongs to each beastie,” the matron replied. “Second, starving is just as sad as bein’ eaten. Until the world’s better, everyone’s gotta hunt, beasts and people both.”
“When will the world be better?” Lyn’s voice sounded just as naïve as the question.
“When people can make meat grow out the ground,” Dahlia teased.
Cascata laughed. “It’s true, Dahlia. Only ya sound like ya don’t think that’ll ever happen. Don’ be so sure. Always someone out there who can surprise ya.”
“Then while the world isn’t better,” Lyn bit her lower lip and considered a moment. “How do you know when it’s okay to kill?”
“That’s easier than ya think.” Cascata got a sad look in her eyes. “When killing means less death. That’s when it’s okay. ”
1. Were you entertained?
2. Was there tension/suspense? In other words, did you feel the kind of stress or curiosity that kept you reading Harry Potter/The Da Vinci Code/your favorite books?
3. Did you understand what was going on? Not behind the scenes, mind you; hopefully it's obvious that there are things I'm not going to tell you yet, events that are referenced but not explained. Did you understand what was happening in the present? To put it another way, did you feel like you could follow the action?
4. Did you ever struggle with the language? Was there ever a time you couldn't determine a word's meaning without looking it up? It's fine if you could tell what it meant from the context of the words around it.
5. This one may not be fair, but if you had stumbled upon this post by accident, would you have suspected it was me who wrote it? Was it obviously amateur, or could you believe it was written by a professional?
6. Did you have trouble with any dialogue? Were you ever unclear on which character was currently speaking?
And then, for extra credit, we go into the meta critique. Feel free to simply go off your memory of the prologue, but if you're feeling really motivated, skim through it again!
A. Was it clear that the "Dawnless Woods" in this chapter was the same area that Robin Priest altered during his battle with Miracle? You know, when he turned off the lights before attacking Miracle with his black hole-type spell. Were you able to make the connection between that area and the Dawnless Woods?
B. Was the prologue too long/did it provide too much information? Dahlia and the clan is where our attention is going to remain for the remainder of this book. Seeing as nothing in this project is set in stone, would you like to see the prologue chopped a bit? At least two people have already said they would, but would you cut more now that you know what comes next?