She’s not trying to humiliate me.
It was an important mantra, because Dahlia was humiliated. While blindfolded, she was even more at the matron’s mercy than usual. Patron Soko had implied that Matron Cascata was only half of what she had been when both arms were good; afterward, Dahlia had asked her if that was true. The matron smiled while she recited her own math, reckoning she was actually only a quarter of what she once was.
“It wouldn’ be so bad,” the matron had said. “If it were only a useless arm. But it hurts when I move anything wrong. I gotta think ‘bout where my weight is with each step, ‘cause it hurts if the stingers git rubbed. Jumpin’s hard, crouchin’s hard, and worst of all, I can’t surprise anythin’. I gotta plan mah movement, and when yer forced ta plan, there’s always th’ chance yer prey or yer enemy can predict that plan.”
The matron was only a quarter of the old Cascata. The thought made Dahlia smile,when she heard it. It meant, in her prime, the matron was twice as good as Lyn’s patron.
Now, though, she wasn’t smiling. What did Dahlia amount to, if she was this helpless against her crippled mentor?
“Yer gettin’ worse. We best cool for a few.”
Dahlia felt a twitch in the corner of her lips. “No need.”
“Yes need.” The matron insisted. “It’s hard ta listen when ya angry, and it needs ta be easy if yer ta have any chance. Anger an’ fear turn yer senses down, ‘cause it helps ya manage pain. That helps, in the light. It’s bad in the dark, though.”
Dahlia exhaled some of her frustration and yanked her blindfold away. The matron was right. “Okay. Sorry, matron.”
“S’alright.” The matron pulled her own blindfold off. “I hated this too, when I done it.”
The matron was repeating herself a lot, but Dahlia knew she needed to keep hearing it. She had trouble absorbing the fact that the clan didn’t need Dahlia to reach her peak any time soon. They had plenty right now, the family didn’t need more. It was best for everyone if Dahlia bloomed as the other hunters wilted, and none were wilting.
Still, she wasn’t satisfied with her progress. If she were better now, it meant her peak would be that much higher. This struggle made her feel like her prime would disappoint her. Luckily, even though Dahlia hadn’t shared this fear, the matron knew it was there. She had to; otherwise, how were all her words designed to assuage it?
“Yeh only feel short now ‘cause ya ain’t growin’ as fast as ya have been. Growth ain’t constant though, it slows and speeds when ya least ‘spect it. You’ll feel disappointed now, but after that, yer gonna surprise yerself.”
Dahlia suspected that Cascata was a lot like her when she was young. To be so proactive about comforting Dahlia, the matron must remember what this pining felt like. Something about that made Dahlia really sad and angry; she expected the matron must be devastated by her handicap. It didn’t show, but Dahlia was certain the mental wound was just as bad as the physical one.
“Aaay-UP!” The familiar cry came from the direction of camp. It was a strange crescendo, low-toned and emotionless so any clanmember who heard it would know it came from the family.
“Here!” Matron Cascata bellowed back. Both were silent, in case anyone else answered. “Must be us they lookin’ fer. C’mon, let’s meet ‘em ‘alfway.”
“Mmm,” Dahlia grunted and turned to follow. This wasn’t a welcome interruption.
“Yeh alright, lass?”
“I will be.”
“Yeh were born with everythin’ ‘cept experience.” The matron considered. “Well, maybe patience too. But them’re both things yeh can learn afterward. In fact, I think this dancin’ be more about patience than improvin’ yer movin’. For the nex’ round, think about outlastin’ me, not outmovin’ me.”
Strangely, this resonated with Dahlia. That genuinely hadn’t occurred to her. She’d simply been trying to be faster and stronger than Matron Cascata while they were both fresh. If she tried to avoid, rather than attack…
“Oi, Cas,” Nikhil called as he jogged towards them. He was one of Dahlia’s favorite hunters. “We got problems.”
“Don’t like those,” the matron grumbled. “Wha’s wrong?”
“Le’s walk and talk,” Nikhil suggested, pointing down the gap between the camp and woods. “Yer gonna wanna see.”
It wasn’t a long jog, but it felt that way. Nikhil had brought problems, just as he promised. Nobody had gotten a great look at the creature, but it was clearly a new kind. They came across new beasts all the time, but even though nobody was saying it, this one reminded everyone of Stinger.
They arrived near the forest’s edge. The only object of interest was the abandoned carcass of a tuskridge lying on a litter, the one that Conan and Gelilah had been pulling. They all stared at it in silence for several long seconds.
“They wouldn’t chase, would they?” the matron asked.
“Nah,” Nikhil responded. “They got a kill righ’ ‘ere. Everyone knows we got extra food an’ everythin’ else righ’ now, too, so we shouldn’t get greedy.”
“And we’ve all ‘eard the parable o’ the fatwolves,” Dahlia added. The fatwolves were a crafty breed, known for the gluttony of their alphas. This caused them be mistaken for weaker, leaf-munching prey, and the alphas would use that to lead other predators into an ambush. “There’s no way Conan and Gelilah would do somethin’ so stupid.”
“So it came out for them, then,” Matron Casata concluded. “Into the light.”
Dahlia bit her lower lip. This wasn’t like when Moondancer came out. Leaf-munchers wandered wherever their grazing happened to bring them. Predators wouldn’t leave their territory like that. This was worse than a predator. This was something the Stinger would do; something that wasn’t certain to have a purpose. War.
“ ‘Ow long’s Kadmus been out, Nik?” The matron asked. Dahlia remembered she’d told the elder it was eight days, but supposed she wanted confirmation.
Nikhil shrugged. “At least six days. Ain’t ten yet.”
“We’ll give ‘em six ta come back, then. Nobody goes huntin’ ‘til then. If these three don’ come home by then, we move on.”
Dahlia found herself short of breath. The clan had lost hunters before, but only one or two a year. Were they really going to leave three behind? Was Kadmus really one of those three? He was their best…
“Will the elder agree to tha’?” Nikhil raised an eyebrow.
“I ain’t orderin’, I’m guessin’ at what she’s gonna say,” the matron clarified. “Whatever her decision, we’ll be on constant watch ‘til we go. Get the ‘unters gathered for me?”
“Aye.” Nikhil turned to leave, but stopped. “Don’ linger too long.”
Matron Cascata didn’t answer for several seconds, staring stonily into the darkness. More than ever, Dahlia was certain Matron Cascata was cursing herself. Dahlia knew this because she also wanted to go looking for them.
“Aye,” the matron finally replied, sounding defeated.
Dahlia glanced at Nikhil as he walked away. He wasn’t supposed wait for the matron’s response like he did. It was clear that he hadn’t wanted to be left behind if the matron had done something stupid.
“No blood, Dahl,” the matron said.
“It left no blood, not enough to matter. It means it kills without cuttin’, maybe even without pokin’. It kills by chokin’, breakin’, or maybe poison. It’s big enough ta carry two strong hunters at once, so my bet’s on breakin’...”
“We don’t know they’re dead, matron.” Dahlia was surprised to find herself fighting back tears. “Maybe there’s somethin’ we ain’t thought of, maybe…”
“It didn’t nab a forager, they all ‘counted fer. You ‘eard Nikhil. There was no reason ta chase if it didn’t grab nobody. They better not ‘o chased!” The matron gritted her teeth. “I might kill ‘em myself if they did.” Dahlia knew she didn’t mean that. “Probably kills by breakin’, Dahlia, and it’s pro’bly war. If it were fer food, it woulda taken th’ tuskridge.
Dahlia glanced at the kill. The matron was right. Tuskridges were a hard kill for beasts, but they wouldn’t hesitate to drag a dead one off. Any predator would prefer the fat beasts to the clan’s hunters.
“Breakin’,” Dahlia repeated. “Yer pro’bly right. What should that mean to me?”
“It means ya don’t try ta kill those types by breakin’ back,” the matron said. “Cuttin’, pokin’, poison. Be fast, don’t get too close. Strike, get out, strike again. Outlast and out-move, don’t overpower.”
“Aye,” Dahlia lowered her eyes. She got the impression this wasn’t really a lesson; just a way for the matron to comfort herself, to feel like she was helping someone. If there was something to be gained from this, the matron was desperate to get it.
Dahlia understood the urge. She wanted to help, too, but couldn’t. The matron thought it got Kadmus. Kadmus was better than the injured matron, and the matron was still many times better than her. To this enemy, Dahlia probably seemed as weak as Jaquan.
The comparison was mortifying, but she knew it was true. Through her dances with the matron, she was beginning to understand what futility was.
They’d lost hunters before. Occasionally, one just wouldn’t come home. Nobody would ever find the body, but that was the nature of the hunt. If the prey won, it was righteous. But this wasn’t a hunt, and they’d lost three at once. Three of her family had been killed, murdered without need.
The tears were streaming now, her jaw clenched and her lip trembed. She involuntarily snuffled and took an angry swipe at her nose. There was a tremendous hatred welling up, and she desperately wished she had an image of the enemy that caused it. She felt even more impotent without something to direct this feeling at.
“Come on, lass. We needs get back. I’ve got a watch ta coord’nate.”
Dahlia blinked her tears away and steeled her resolve. With any luck, the enemy would grow even bolder, and the clan would have its vengeance. If she could help it, she’d be around to watch it happen.
1.) Were you entertained? Did ya get fed up with the characters' frustrations?
2.) Any trouble grasping what was going on?
3,) Any difficulty telling which character was speaking? Any trouble with the hunters' rough grammar?
4.) Any vocabulary issues? We don't want ya to feel like ya need a dictionary.
Extra credit: meta-critique.
A.) Were you able to connect this with earlier chapters? Did we recognize the apish leaf-muncher that stole Kadmus's sloth-strider in Chapter 3 and then appeared at the forest's edge in Chapter 5?
And, as always, share any concerns you have outside the survey questions. Thanks, pals!