The bit of metal was suspended between Trent’s index fingers. He stared into it like he could see what he was looking for, but there wasn’t enough of it to see. The only sign it was there was the tingle in his fingertips.
“Did it work?” The elder asked softly. He appreciated her caution, but it wasn’t necessary.
“Yes.” Trent never spoke more than necessary.
“Will it last?”
“Not for long.” He sighed. “Still, this is progress.”
“Can you understand what it wants?” The elder knew what questions to ask. Trent liked that.
“Somewhat.” He knew how strange his smile must have looked, because it felt strange, too. “You were right, it likes the metal. It likes the metal the same way we like the road. But the road is not home. The road is open and easy, good for travel but bad for sleep.”
“Brilliant.” The elder returned his smile. “You’re taking the clan somewhere it’s never been before, Trent. You should be proud.”
Trent didn’t know how to respond to that. He didn’t understand pride, and didn’t much care to.
Thankfully, Cascata and Dahlia came into the tent before the elder could continue on that topic. He decided that if she ever needed information on pride, he’d direct her to any of the hunters.
“Oi Trent!” Dahlia greeted him with a wide grin. “Whatcha doin’ there? That rod some kind o’ puzzle?”
“Mmm.” Trent grunted.
“Ah, welcome,” the elder hurried to greet them. Trent thought she worried too much. She was always trying to protect him from distractions, but she didn’t seem to understand which sorts of things distracted him. “What can I do for the hunters today, Cascata?”
"I’m here to show Dahlia the Stinger.” Cascata’s voice sounded strange.
“You are?” The elder seemed reluctant.
“You are?” Dahlia sounded disappointed. This amused Trent. It was just like her to lack appreciation for the most interesting object in this tent.
“She proved she’s ready ta dance,” Cascata explained. “So she’s ready ta know war.”
The elder sighed. “I trust your judgment. We all do. Still, I can’t say I’m pleased that this day has come.”
“Me neither,” Cascata agreed. “It had to, though.”
“I suppose so.” The elder beckoned to the two hunters. “Come.”
Trent stood up, careful not to disturb the rod between his fingers. He’d seen Stinger more times than he could count, but it would be interesting to see Dahlia’s reaction to it.
The elder reached its corner of the tent and hobbled to pull its curtain out of the way. Dahlia gasped as it came into view.
It stood on two legs and had two arms, just like a person. Its shell made it different, though; where a human had skin, it had armor as black as the woods were dark. It reminded him of a beetle.
Every joint had some kind of blade incorporated into it; some seemed to be for stabbing, others slicing. Trent was pretty sure the beast had been designed specifically for cutting.
It occurred to him that ‘design’ might not be the right word. How could it be ‘designed’ to do anything? Nothing could design its own offspring. He knew because everyone was always surprised by one feature or another when one was born. Could the creature design itself, then?Trent doubted it; if he had designed himself in the womb, he wouldn’t have come out looking like he did.
“What is it?” Dahlia seemed to have trouble with even these simple words. Her gaze was fixed to the monster.
“We call it Stinger.” The elder answered. “It’s the only one we’ve ever seen, and we think it’s the only one of its kind.”
Trent was still certain it was designed. That’s the only way it could be such a perfect image of terror. He concluded there must be a way to design living things, but he doubted many people knew the secret.
“This has something to do with war.” Dahlia’s words weren’t a question.
“Aye,” Cascata confirmed as she slipped her bad shoulder free of her tunic. She kneeled on one knee so the teenagers could see it better. As Trent marveled at the mangled scar between her right collarbone and shoulder blade, he supposed it was also okay for him to learn about war. He’d known of Stinger, but he hadn’t known it had made Matron Cascata’s arm go bad.
“I found it hunting. Well, it foun’ me. I was alone, but all of a sudden, I wasn’t. It stuck its nails in ‘ere.” Cascata ran her fingertip along the row of four round recesses in her enormous scar. “An’ I tell ya, it laughed when it done it. Ain’t nothin’ ever snuck up on me in them woods before, but this thing did. It stuck its stingers inside me shoulder, it knew exactly ‘ow bad I was hurtin’, an’ it thought that was just the funniest thing it ever done.”
Trent glanced at its left hand. He’d never noticed before: the right hand had four half-finger-long claws where human nails were supposed to go, and the other didn’t. The points were definitely sharp enough to cut deep enough to get buried in the matron’s shoulder, and there were ridges to cut the opposite way all along the back. They were like a wasp’s stinger, only designed to make sure whoever got stung would never be able to get them out.
“How did you survive?” Dahlia seemed impressed with her matron.
“I live ‘cause it was dumb enough ta laugh,” Cascata smirked. “Look.”
She palmed its skull - a solid mound of black armor broken only by two slits where the nose should go - and twisted it off the body. It came away with a hollow sound, like lifting the lid off a clay pot.
“I killed it just like that. I’ve picked fish bones outta my teeth that were thicker’n this thing’s spine. It laughed when it stung me, remember, an’ that laugh told me where ta grab. I tell ya, Dahlia, I’ve never been madder in my whole life. I s’pose I took a cheap shot, but ‘e started it.”
“Don’t talk like that, Cas,” the elder gave her a sad look. “War is never fair. You took the best action possible.”
The matron shrugged with her good shoulder. “Ya may be right. Tha’s what I’d want Dahlia ta do if it were her huntin’ that day.”
“Wait, so that was war?” Dahlia asked. “You were huntin’, and then you were attacked, and in the next second you killed it. What made that one second into war, why wasn’t that a hunt?”
“Ya hunt ta survive, lass,” Cascata answered. “Fer food and hide and bone. Ya use the kill. Wha’s more, look at ‘im, Dahlia. Ya ever see a beastie like that? That’s more than beast.”
Trent agreed. It wasn’t human, but it was more than animal. He supposed it could be more than human.
“Stinger wasn’t gonna kill me fer food or hide or bone. Stinger hurt me for the sake of the hurt, and I killed him because I wanted ‘im ta hurt back. A bad part o’ me came ragin’ out and that’s when Stinger n’ me made war. It weren’t as animals fightin’ ta survive, was more’n that. We were both more’n animal, worse than animal. Ya unnerstan’?
Dahlia frowned at Stinger’s skull. It grinned back with its needle teeth, laughing the same laugh as when it died. “I think so. I hate this thing, matron. I’ve never hated anything before, I don’t think. But I know I hate this.”
“Hate ain’t okay, Dahlia.” The matron sighed. “But the world ain’t okay either, so hate’s gonna happen.”
“I’m afraid it’s true,” the elder agreed. “The woods are vast, Dahlia. We’ve no idea what else might be in there. There could be more like Stinger. Our prey is dangerous enough, but the reason you haven’t hunted yet is because there’s war in there, too. We don’t know the enemy, but if you cross its path, it will know you. We want to make sure you’re as ready as you can be, in case they find you.”
Dahlia frowned. Trent hadn’t ever regarded her as a thinker, so he was pleasantly surprised to see she was capable of it now.
“Guess you see why I was holdin’ ya back a bit, yeah?” The matron chuckled as she pushed herself up. Without realizing it, she bumped Trent’s arm as she rose. The metal between his fingers slipped free. “Yer spirit will serve ya well, but it don’t make ya ready to go out there before learnin’ ‘ow ta dance.”
Trent’s lower lip trembled as he glared at the tiny rod lying on the ground. She let it out! He felt heat rising in his cheeks; his thoughts left him for a moment, and by the time they returned, he had latched on to Matron Cascata’s bad arm and squeezed it tight.
Cascata snarled in pain and her hand reflexively found its way to his head. Her fingertips tightened on his skull.
The tent was silent for a tense moment. Dahlia and the elder must have been holding their breath for some reason, because Trent heard them exhale heavily as he felt Cascata release her grip.
“Trent! What was that for?” The elder shouted. “Release her immediately! You’re hurting her!”
He obeyed quickly. Part of him was sorry, but part was still sullen.
“I thought we’d made more progress than this, Trent!” The elder was angrier than Trent might have expected. “She feels pain just like you do. In fact, she’s felt pains worse than you can imagine! Just because it doesn’t hurt you doesn’t mean it’s okay to cause pain on an impulse, Trent!”
He couldn’t abide that last part. “It wasn’t an impulse!”
“Aye, I’m not sure I’m innocent, elder.” Cascata rubbed her wound with her good hand. “Did I ruin yer puzzle, Trent? Sorry, sonny.”
Trent nodded. It hadn’t really been a puzzle, but for once, he didn’t feel like making that distinction. “You let the spark escape.”
“Spark?” Dahlia arched a curious eyebrow. “What’s a spark?”
The elder frowned and scanned the ground. “We can make another, Trent. Regardless, it was an accident. You shouldn’t have to be passive if someone wrongs you on purpose, but you must show mercy when someone meant no harm.”
“Elder, i’s alright. I know-” Cascata began.
“Cas.” The elder interrupted with that familiar look on her face. Trent knew it well, knew she probably thought he was oblivious to its meaning. She used it when someone was interfering with a lesson. He hadn’t figured out why she felt like she needed to be theatrical, why she needed Cascata to pretend she was angry. Still, because it was her, he was sure there was a reason.
“What’s a spark?” Dahlia repeated.
The elder grumbled something in frustration. “Trent. Apologize.”
For just a moment, Trent wanted to argue. He didn’t have any idea what the matron had felt, so part of him thought maybe she was faking pain to spite him.
His mind caught up with his anger, though, and he understood she wasn’t faking the pain. He’d never seen a wound that bad before. Besides, he’d grabbed her arm because he specifically wanted to hurt her for letting the spark escape. The elder was right, he should be sorry. He decided he would try to be.
“Sorry, Matron Cascata.” Trent averted his eyes. “I lost to my anger.”
“I been there before.” The matron smiled at him. “Yer forgiven, lad.”
“What’s a spark?” Dahlia persisted.
After Trent’s apology, the elder’s mood transformed. She was suddenly eager to teach. “It’s a tiny bit of lightning.”
“Lightning?” Dahlia scoffed. “Elder, that don’ make sense. Ya can’t break lightning into bits.”
“It’s like a lake, dear.” The elder explained. “You can’t really break a lake, but you can still take bits from it. Water comes off without needing to break anything, right? Think, what do you call a tiny bit of water?”
“I ‘unno.” Dahlia shrugged. “A drop?”
“Precisely. A spark is a drop of lightning.”
“Oh.” Dahlia couldn’t truly understand, but Trent expected she thought she did. “What were ya gonna do with that? Collect it and make full lightning?”
“Perhaps,” the elder chuckled. “But not necessarily. Think, If you collect water, is a lake the only thing you can make?”
Dahlia pondered for a moment, and to Trent’s surprise, a sly smile crept across her lips. Maybe she was more clever than he thought.
“Cas,” the elder turned to the matron. “Before I forget, has Kadmus returned?”
“Nah.” Cascata frowned. “Don’ think so, anyway. Someone’d find me, he usually has somethin’ needs bringin’. I could use him ‘bout now too, he’d be the best for partnerin’ with Dahlia when I teach her ta dance. Should I send ‘im yer way first?”
“Oh, no.” The matron waved her hand dismissively. “I just feel like he’s later than usual.”
“No use worryin’, mum.” Cascata smiled. “Kadmus may be our best, but it’s jus’ as righteous if ‘is prey kills ‘im as it is when he brings in a kill. The wild is jus’ as right as we is.”
Trent wished the elder were stricter about proper speech. He liked Matron Cascata, but sometimes it was hard to tolerate a conversation with her.
“Won’t make me miss him any less, should the woods claim him,” the elder grumbled. “I know he leaves earliest and comes back latest. I’d swear he did that to spite me if I didn’t know how much he enjoys the hunt.”
“Yer frettin’ fer e’eryone the moment they set foot in there, mum. You don’t see us scoldin’ you when ya go collectin’ lummush on yer own.”
“Don’t I?” the elder muttered, then cleared her throat. “Let’s not get dramatic. Twas only a question! Are we done with Stinger?”
“Aye.” The matron smiled at her pupil. “Dahlia’n me are gonna go learn ta dance now.”
“Be gentle,” the elder chuckled as she pulled the curtain back to obscure Stinger. “Trent, shall we get you another spark before I step out?”
“Yes.” Trent retrieved the bit of metal as the elder collected the shaggy hide they’d used to make the first spark. “Where are you going, though?”
“Just to have a word with Jedrek. I won’t be gone long.”
Trent supposed it didn’t matter. He didn’t expect he’d make a breakthrough with the spark before the dinner fire.
1. Were you entertained? Was a chapter of mostly dialogue too boring, or did the subject matter and characters give things enough tension?
2. Any trouble with particular words? Did you ever have the urge to look one up? Kinda doubt it, this time around.
3. Was the dialogue alright? Were you ever unsure of who was talking? Was it ever hard to understand the matron's rough dialect?
4. Did it feel professional, or was there ever a moment you could definitely tell this was an amateur's work?
Extra credit! Meta-critique: things as they relate to other chapters.
A. Characters. Remember who was in other chapters? Feel like you got to know the new characters a little?
B. Were you able to connect this scene with Chapter 2? Cascata and Dahlia came from the Moondancer scene to the elder's tent; if you read chapters 2, 3, and 4 in one sitting, would you have been able to make the connections between 2 and 4?
C. Did the Stinger seem ominous, scary, or imposing? Did you successfully make a mental image of him, or would you rather see a bit more description? Most importantly, did he help you understand that, even though the clan mostly regards the woods as a hunting ground, even they acknowledge that the woods are special in a possibly not-good way?