Chapter 5: Encroachment

Keeping her balance on Moondancer’s back was harder than Lyn anticipated. Even though he was only grazing, she still needed to use both arms just to keep herself from falling off with any slight step. She decided this wouldn’t be practical, most of the time.

A pause in Moondancer’s munching brought the approaching clanmate to her attention. She was relieved to see it was Jedrek, and therefore, unlikely to have anything to do with Soko.

“Hey Lyn,” he called. “What’re you doing out here?”

“Not a lot,” she shrugged. Soko had decided he couldn’t tolerate Moondancer for whatever reason, so she’d brought him here. “Am I needed somewhere?”

“Nah.” Jedrek shook his head. “I’m lookin’ for Jaquan and Idris. Have you seen them?”

“Of course.” Lyn pointed. “You’ll miss them if you look for two, though. Idris is probably napping.”

“A safe bet if I’ve ever heard one,” Jedrek chuckled. “Thanks Lyn.”

“Whatcha need them for?” Lyn slid off Moondancer’s back. “Doesn’t seem like any of the leaders are eager to bring those two into their groups.”

“They’ve been learning from the foragers,” Jedrek replied. “We’ve got plenty of supplies right now, though. I think the clan just doesn’t have enough work for everyone right now.”

Lyn got the same impression. Several foragers were scattered around the field, lazily scanning the flora for anything the clan might need more of. None of them were carrying much.

“I guess whoever’s asking for them will be glad they’re not busy, then.” Lyn observed.

Jedrek shrugged. “It’s the elder. She just wants them to stay out here ‘til dinner, or until they see Kadmus.”

“Ah. She worried?”

“Yeah. Trying to pretend she isn’t, too.”

“Everything must be normal, then.” Lyn joked.

Jedrek smiled. “Seems that way.”

She clicked her tongue to get Moondancer’s attention, then projected the feeling that he should follow her. It was all a tamer needed to pique a leaf-muncher’s obedient instincts.

Lyn wasn’t sure why she was following Jedrek on his errand, but she supposed she didn’t need a reason. Jedrek didn’t seem to mind. It did seem curious that the elder would send Jedrek on an errand concerning Kadmus; she got the impression they didn’t like each other.

“Is Kadmus unkind to you?” she asked.

“No.” Jedrek’s response wasn’t what she expected. “You’re not the only one to ask me that. Does it seem like I avoid him?”

“A bit,” Lyn admitted. “Don’t feel like I’d be able to explain why, though.”

“I don’t much like the way he has to judge how good every little thing would or wouldn’t be for hunting.” Jedrek explained. “After all, most of us aren’t hunters. But it barely bothers me. Kadmus is okay. Truth told, if there’s someone I avoid, it’s Soko.”

“You too?” Lyn frowned. She wasn’t surprised, but Soko’s unpopularity made her uneasy. He was her patron, so if he was mistreating other family members, she’d need to be careful not to learn that from him. There probably wasn’t much danger of that, though; he’d always been rough, and she knew her own reputation was anything but. “He’s just used to being aggressive. It’s how he keeps the herd under control. I don’t think he’s trying to be mean.”

“Yet mean he is.” Jedrek gave her a concerned look. “Even to you, and you’ve never given anyone a reason to be mean.”

Lyn didn’t have a response for that. Jedrek wasn’t wrong, but she hoped he didn’t have bad feelings for Soko on her behalf. She could tolerate Soko’s words much more easily than he could go without using them, so she believed it was best for everyone if she was tolerant.

“All that means is that he treats me the same as everyone else. That’s just fair.”

“He could be a nicer kind of fair,” Jedrek grumbled.

They could see Jaquan’s head above the overgrown grass now. The scrawny, pale boy always seemed to be shivering, and knowing that Idris was lying beside him, Lyn thought Jaquan looked like those anxious little birds that perched on the backs of bison. That would make Idris the sleepiest bull ever. The likeness made her giggle.

“Hey Lyn, Jedrek,” Jaquan called. It was difficult to sneak up on him, and nobody ever tried that prank twice; he panicked too much when startled. “Is that thing tame?”

Lyn knew he could only be referring to Moondancer. She wished Jaquan would acknowledge him as a member of the clan, but few people ever gave the herd that sort of respect. “Yes, he’s safe.”

Jaquan nodded, but watched Moondancer intently. He blindly grasped for the pot of berries, seeds, and nuts at his side, missed it twice before his hand found it. Jaquan was constantly munching, yet he was still the clan’s scrawniest member.

“Are we needed for somethin’?” He asked. “Or you just wanna share the day?”

“Both, kinda,” Jedrek answered. “The elder wants us to watch for Kadmus returning. Will you help me?”

“Sure!” Jaquan was oddly enthusiastic about the idea. “Why Kadmus? He isn’t the only one out there.”

“He went earliest though.” Jedrek took his place on their hide blanket. Lyn suspected he’d know that Jaquan would be most comfortable sitting between him and Idris, who was curled up and snoring to his left. It would make him feel safe. “I doubt it does anybody any good to worry about him. Still, she knows things nobody else does. If she asks, I’ll help.”

“Me too.” Jaquan nodded. Lyn made some soft, incoherent noises to Moondancer; the feeling came through, and he went back to grazing. “I don’t think she’s wrong to worry. I don’t understand how anyone can go out there.”

Lyn took a spot to Jedrek’s right, slightly behind. Everyone knew Kadmus liked to talk about why Jedrek and many other apprentices wouldn’t make good hunters, but he never spoke of Jaquan’s potential. Maybe it was just too obvious that he wasn’t right for it.

“The elder says it’s like going out to pee at night,” Jedrek explained. “It’s just something you get bored of fearing.”

Jaquan hugged his knees nervously. “I still don’t even like going alone at night.”

Jedrek smiled patiently. If Jedrek was older than Jaquan, it wasn’t by much, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at them. “Sooner or later, that fear will get boring. No need to rush it.”

Lyn smiled guiltily. She was sure Jaquan got his share of teasing for that.

“Do I see someone coming out?” Jedrek shielded his eyes and squinted into the woods. Following his gaze, Lyn thought she could see the swirling Lummush patterns of a hunter bobbing in the dark.

“I see two,” Jaquan confirmed. “Conan came back earlier to get help hauling a kill. I think that’s going to be him and Gelilah.”

“Oh.” Jedrek lowered his hand as they came into the light, straining against the weight on a litter behind them. “Well, glad they’re back safe.”

Idris snorted and shifted his weight around. Jedrek glanced at him, amused. “What is he, a bear?”

“Bears wake up when spring comes,” Jaquan argued with a chuckle. “Idris just keeps hibernating. If he’s trying to be a bear, he’s doing it wrong; he clearly forgot the part about fattening up before the long sleep.”

The three shared a chuckle. While not nearly as thin as Jaquan, Idris was still lanky. If he wanted to live like a bear, he still had a lot of learning to do.

“Lucky for him, he’s got you around.” Jedrek  observed.

Jaquan fought his grin and averted his eyes. “How ya figure, Jed?”

“I dunno, Jaquan.” Jedrek gave a sly smile and sifted through Jaquan’s snack pot until he found a hard-shelled nut. He handed it to Jaquan. “I just have this random suspicion.”

Jaquan giggled as he took aim. With a sideways flick of his wrist, the nut flew into Idris’s  open mouth and smacked against the back of his throat. Idris hacked and coughed uncomfortably, but by some miracle, he didn’t wake up. As though it were all part of his dream, he crunched his way through the shell and swallowed between snores.

“We may never know how the noble Idris manages to survive the wilds when it spends its whole life sleeping.” Jaquan pitched a berry in next. Lyn was impressed; he’d obviously had a lot of practice. “Perhaps the beast is only made nobler by that mystery.”

They laughed again. Lyn thought Jaquan did a pretty good impression of the older clanmates when they were trying to mystify the younger members with tales around the dinner fire.

There was a pause in the rhythm of Moondancer’s chewing. Lyn looked to find it staring towards Conan and Gelilah as they hauled their prize away from the forest. She soon decided the hunters weren’t the ones holding his attention, but once Moondancer’s chomping resumed, she concluded that whatever it detected wasn’t a threat.

“How’s your new friend adapting to the herd, Lyn?” Jedrek asked.

“Quickly.” Lyn didn’t have to think about the answer. “He’s very docile, especially for something that came from the woods. The tamers get through to him easy, and because the tamers act as parts of the herd, he decided he’s adopted the other animals, too. We could use more like him.”

“Why isn’t he with the others now?” Jaquan was still uneasy around Moondancer. Lyn didn’t like that, but she knew he couldn’t help it.

“He wanted to see where I was going,” Lyn began. “Just like how I came with Jedrek. We’re curious types. Should I take him somewhere else?”

“Oh, no, it’s alright,” Jaquan gaze sank with guilt. “I was just curious too.”

“Is the herd accepting him like he accepts them?” If Jedrek noticed any tension, he was good at pretending he didn’t.

“Aye.” Lyn was glad they weren’t dwelling on Jaquan’s discomfort. “Leaf-munchers know other leaf-munchers. Soko says predators have different posture. Plus, he’s big, and we think he must smell big too.”

“Smell big?” Jedrek repeated with a smile. “I didn’t realize you could smell size.”

“If your nose is good enough.” Lyn felt a little embarrassed; it must have sounded ridiculous to somebody who didn’t tame or hunt. “It might be better to say they can smell who deserves their respect. The other animals treat him like a tamer, even though he’s never asserted dominance on them.”

The topic made her think. Who would smell biggest of the four of them? It definitely wasn’t Jaquan; she supposed it must be Idris. If Dahlia were here, though, she’d be the clear favorite.

One of the foragers near the forest shrieked.

Jaquan was the first to stand. His weight was on the back foot as his eyes darted to find the source of the scream. Jedrek and Lyn stood more slowly, and in their relative calm, were quicker to find the one who screamed.

He had dropped the tiny bundle he’d been carrying and was running towards them. Because he was trying to shout to Conan and Gelilah, he stumbled frequently. His voice was shrill from panic.

The hunters didn’t seem to be heeding him; they’d released the litter they’d been pulling and were calmly discussing something that stood in the dusky threshold between the woods and the field.

Lyn couldn’t see anything for several seconds. The first thing to come into focus was the teeth, a white smile floating in the black. They were wide and flat, hallmark signs of a leaf-muncher.

It had two arms and legs, like an ape; even hunched to lean on its knuckles, it was a man-and-a-half tall. It might have looked goofy, if it weren’t for the lack of light. The scant beams that penetrated the clouds on the edge of the woods cast menacing shadows in the valleys between muscles. Its lack of cheeks and the protruding snout gave it a perpetual grin, like it was always laughing. At that moment, Lyn couldn’t help feeling that laugh was the sadistic kind.

“Children! Children, come along.” The forager had reached them. He was short of breath and quite terrified. “We should make ourselves scarce.”

Children? Lyn didn’t think that was true anymore. It wasn’t worth arguing, though. Something else bothered her more.

She glanced at Moondancer. How was this different from when he emerged from the woods? The hunter matron hadn’t made them run, then; she’d actually sent for her students. Was this the proper reaction?

Then Lyn remembered a word the matron had used, the one that always made Dahlia curious: war. Maybe they should leave.

Jedrek and Jaquan were certainly eager enough. Jaquan was already several back-steps towards camp, and Jedrek was trying to be both gentle and hasty in waking Idris.

“That’s not how you do it.” Jaquan’s impatience overcame his fear. He sprinted back to Idris and gave him a vicious kick to the stomach, almost a stomp. Lyn was actually worried about injury, even considering Jaquan’s size. “Wake up, idiot! Get up, right now!”

Idris yawned and rubbed his midsection casually, to Lyn’s relief. It seemed he was more durable than he looked. “Wha’s goin’ on? We needed for somefin?”

“Come on!” The panicked forager grabbed Idris’s arm and pulled. “We must get back to camp!”

“That’s a serious chomp over there,” Idris observed, looking towards the beast. “Betcha he could get through a trunk in one bite.”

Lyn thought that was an exaggeration, but it gave her the shivers to think what might happen if an arm got caught between those jaws. She was sure it could dust the bone.

“Move!” The forager wasn’t interested in Idris’s curiosity.

Lyn turned to follow them, but stopped upon seeing Moondancer. He was still chewing lazily and giving the beast a blank stare. This must have been what attracted his attention earlier. Still, despite everyone’s agitation, Moondancer wasn’t intimidated.

Lyn clicked her tongue and projected her desire to leave. Moondancer obeyed with ambivalence. She took one final look at the scene, at the staredown between the hunters and the creature that had followed them out of the forest. Lyn couldn’t decide whether they were about to fight or break into conversation.

Maybe it was only her family’s agitation being infectious, but she decided it was best to oblige the forager as he herded them back towards camp.

-CUT-

1. Were you entertained? Any 'Get on with it!' moments?

 2. Any characters or names you just can't stand? Any 'we get it already, they have a character quirk!' moments? The name choices aren't near and dear to me, I'm just trying to be diverse in terms of origin, so I can randomly assign a new one =P.

 3. Any problems with the dialogue? Any times you weren't sure which character was speaking?

 4. Any issues with a particular word? Feel like ya needed to look it up?

Extra credit: meta-critique

A. Were you able to connect everything to earlier chapters? Lummush patterns, the monster that Kadmus encountered, Lyn, and Moondancer? Further, did you remember who Soko was (Lyn and Jedrek talked about him)

 

The End

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