The walk out of the forest was very different from Dahlia’s trip into it. First, it was slowed by the constant need to stop and paint a rotting log or pile of animal remains. The silence was gone, lost to her companions’ constant calls and the usual flirt-argument between Evan and Nuray. She swore the noise made the darkness brighter, somehow.
Dahlia could hear other noises, from time to time, but whatever was making them never seemed to come any closer. Chomp was as powerful a deterrent as the elder had expected.
What made the path familiar was Dahlia’s growing animosity. Perhaps it was the distracting banter of Evan and Nuray, the snails’ pace they were making because the elder was intent on exhausting the lummush they’d brought, or the creeping fatigue from her earlier insomnia, but all of it felt like hatred for what Chomp had done to her older siblings.
It had fluctuated with each of the many events that night, had retreated when other matters took precedence. Now that the danger was over, there was nothing between Dahlia and her need for vengeance. If she understood the elder, Dahlia would not be getting that vengeance, and that was becoming less acceptable with each passing second.
The elder could see in the dark, Dahlia had become sure of it. It was a mysterious knowledge, because she was accepting it without understanding how it could be true. After the elder finally took a break from overseeing the lummush planting, Dahlia began to suspect the crone could feel other people’s emotions, too. Why else would she use that time to lecture the apprentice hunter?
“What happened tonight, Dahlia?” the elder asked.
“Huh?” Dahlia didn’t grasp her meaning. Hadn’t the elder been paying attention?
“I’d like to hear your version of the story, dear. What happened, starting from when you first saw Chomp?”
“ ‘e killed Nikhil.” Dahlia scowled. “Chomp marched inta camp and took me older brother from me, broke ‘is neck in front of me. I tried ta kill ‘im m’self, followed ‘im into the woods when that di’in’t work. Nuray n’ Evan followed mah trail, then you did, and we brought Chomp down, but only for a moment. Then you…” Dahlia did her very best not to sound accusatory, but she was sure she failed. “... you made friends with ‘im.”
Dahlia couldn’t see, yet she was convinced the elder nodded. “Aye, that seems accurate enough. You made a very good choice tonight, Dahlia, do you know which choice that was?”
Dahlia considered. “Followin’ Chomp so we wouldn’ lose ‘im.”
“Very good, that is correct,” the elder confirmed. “It was very brave, lass, and very smart. Now, you also made a mistake tonight. Do you know what that was?”
Dahlia frowned. “No.”
“You attacked Chomp before you followed him,” the elder replied. “You attacked him even after Nikhil did, even after seeing the consequence of that attack. You were inviting death, dear, provoking someone so much stronger than yourself. I understand why you did. Can you tell me why you shouldn’t, though?”
“No.” Dahlia knew the elder was right, that Chomp could have killed her. Still... “I’m still breathin’, so it weren’t a mistake.”
“Just because a mistake goes unpunished doesn’t mean it stops being a mistake.” The elder paused to consider her words. “Think, dear, if he had decided to fight back. You’d be dead, you’d never have followed Chomp, and we’d be down five hunters instead of four. He might have hunted us for years to come, might have forced us to never make camp here again.”
Dahlia didn’t respond. She didn’t like what the elder was saying, but she couldn’t deny it.
“There’s no shame in making mistakes as long as you don’t make them twice.” The elder sounded patient, and Dahlia knew she wouldn’t let this go. “I need to know that you understand your mistake.”
Dahlia growled, frustrated but defeated. “Aye, ‘twas a mistake. If I had another try, I’d do things different.”
“Very good. You made a mistake and a brilliant maneuver tonight. Now that you understand them, you can be proud of both.”
Dahlia considered. The idea felt good. At first, she didn’t think someone could be proud of their mistakes. Now, though, she thought mistakes might have the same appeal as scars. People loved to brag about their scars.
“Now we need to talk about Chomp, Dahlia.” The elder sounded nervous.
Dahlia scowled into the dark. “What about ‘im?”
“You still hate him.” The elder wasn’t asking a question. That was good; if the elder had to ask, it would mean she was too stupid to realize that Dahlia shouldn’t be the only one who hated him.
“ ‘e killed some of our family!” Dahlia trembled in her fury. “ ‘e wronged us and wasn’ punished for it! It’s wrong, elder, ya shoulda let Nuray keep the rope tight and starve ‘is brain.”
“We were wronged, it’s true.” Despite the acid in Dahlia’s words, the elder was composed. “But he didn’t know he was wronging us, Dahlia. He made a mistake. Four mistakes. Now that he knows they’re mistakes, it doesn’t do any good to punish him. He’ll hurt forever for what he’s done to us, Dahlia. He’s been punished as much as will ever matter.”
“An’ how will ya show yer face to us if ‘e ever does it again?” Dahlia spat. “ ‘ow’re we supposed ta go inta camp and explain why we ain’t done right by Kadmus an’ Conan, Gelilah, an’ Nikhil? They gonna be jus’ as mad as I am because this furry idiot still breathes and four of me family don’t.”
“Aye, they’ll be angry. You let me worry about their anger. If I can manage yours, I can manage theirs.”
“Ya ain’t done mine yet.”
“Sure, you’re still mad. Now, and for a long time to come. There’s no way to undo the hurt when a bone is broken, the memory will always be there. You’ll have to feel it, you’ll have to remember. You don’t have any choice about that. But even if you break all the bones on every creature you come across for the rest of your life, this won’t be any less true: Breaking other bones doesn’t cure your hurt.”
“ ‘e should hurt right along with me.” Dahlia insisted.
“Perhaps. I’d say he is, but I understand you don’t believe me.”
“If he was, if he unnerstands, then why’d he kill ‘em in th’ first place?!”
“For the lummush plants, dear, it was a hunt.”
The elder paused, seemed confused. “Oh, right. Forgive me child, I forgot. The glowing bush and mushrooms, I’m sure you saw them, right? You certainly can’t see much else in here.”
“They were growing out of Kadmus’s body. The smaller ones took root in Gelilah and Conan.”
Dahlia needed a few moments to make the connections. “So ‘e killed Kadmus…”
“Or perhaps found his body,” the elder interrutped.
“... and thought tha’ any people with the lummush marks would grow inta food when they died.”
“And they would, as it turns out. The mistake was that he doesn’t need the people to make them grow, that the lummush doesn’t come from our bodies. He thought he was hunting for survival, Dahlia. He didn’t understand there was a better way. Now he does, or he will when all these markings begin to grow. The world is better for this night. Nobody benefits by making an enemy of Chomp.”
“He hurt us more than ‘e’s hurtin’. That still ain’t right.”
The elder sighed. They walked in silence for a moment.
“Oy, spread it out more, big guy!” Evan was lecturing Chomp as if his student understood. “Th’ seeds’re gonna need room ta breathe! The paste ain’t like you, fatso. If it gets bulkier, i’s just gonna smother i’self.”
“Say we attacked him again, Dahl,” The elder said. “Say we fought and we got him, but just as he died, he lashes out and smashes Evan. Think of how that would make you feel.”
Dahlia cringed, but didn’t say anything.
“With that in mind, ask yourself this question: If you only had two choices, which of these would you choose: Evan and Chomp both die, or they both live. Which do you choose?”
It wasn’t a realistic question. Reality was never that simple. Dahlia knew that Chomp could be killed without losing anybody, just like she knew there was a chance Chomp could kill more hunters and then escape. The elder had to know that too, yet she asked anyway, and part of Dahlia knew there was wisdom in the question.
“Survival comes first, Dahl, comes before anything. When we started this clan - I was there at the start, did you know that? - anyway, when we started, we came together even though none of us knew each other. Most of us hadn’t even come from the same nations. We had nothing to bind us together aside from the fact that none of us had anywhere to go. Our only choice was to create a place, to work together in order to endure the harsh wild. We used each person’s strengths to compensate for another’s weakness.”
“Aye,” Dahlia agreed. She hadn’t really known the history, but she did know that’s exactly what the clan had done ever since she’d been part of it. “We’re family, an’ that makes us strong.”
“Yes.” The elder smiled, Dahlia could hear it in her voice. “We didn’t know that we’d be family when we started, though. We cooperated because we needed to, but before long, we were cooperating because we wanted to. There were less arguments, less complaints, more volunteering. The work was harder than anything we’d known before, but once we got accustomed to it, we all wanted to do our part.”
Dahlia hadn’t been there, but she could imagine it.
“That’s because we fell in love with each other, Dahlia. Our need for a stranger’s strengths became more than a need. We remembered when someone did us favors, and others remembered the ones we’d done them. None of us were blood, but we became family because the family bond is what makes us human. It seemed to happen by accident, but it wasn’t an accident, Dahl. People became more than animals because we are capable of love, because love lets us work together in ways that most beasts don’t. To love is to survive, and survival comes first.”
“I ‘aven’t forgotten love, elder.” Dahlia assured. “I’m angry, but I still love my family.”
“I know, child. I just want to be sure you put that love above your hate. If the world were better, maybe it would be best for Chomp to die for what he’s done. But in this world, we’d be risking someone we love to make that happen. I don’t think it’s worth the risk, Dahlia. That’s all I’ve been trying to say. I love you, child, and nothing could make me sadder than losing you because you couldn’t beat your hate.”
Dahlia heard a scraping of wood from high above them.
“Dahl!” The elder cried.
“Aye!” Dahlia assumed a defensive posture.
Chomp grunted, and a mighty rush of air brushed over their heads. There was an impact, followed by a pained squeak. Whatever had been dropping down bounced hard off the ground before rolling away.
Their attacker’s fellow stalkers pounced. There were several seconds of slashing, piercing, splashing, and screeching. A few faint glimmers of light and an enormous sigh marked the creature’s death. The ensuing silence was abrupt and heavy.
Once they were sure it was over, the elder and the older hunters laughed.
“Kinda tense, ain’t they?” Evan chuckled.
“That first one couldn’ handle it.” Nuray agreed. “Poor thing wouldn’t ‘ave lasted long even if ‘e’d never met Chomp. Gotta be patient in ‘ere.”
“This doesn’t redeem you, Chomp,” the elder warned. “But it’s a good start.”
Dahlia turned to look towards Chomp, knowing she couldn’t see him. The combination of the elder’s lecture and his handling of the interruption caused her to forget her hatred again. This time, she couldn’t feel it creeping back, and she was grateful.
“Let’s paint the carcass,” the elder suggested. “It should yield a good crop.”
“They di’n’t take it?” Dahlia was surprised.
“We ain’t followed by hungry hunters, Dahl,” Nuray explained. “These be killers, like Stinger. I’d say we should be grateful fer Chomp, but ‘e’s the one who took us that deep, an’ made all the noise tha’ brought ‘em to us.”
“Forget the blame,” the elder said. “Let’s be grateful.”
They continued their slow trek long into the night. By the time they reached the forest’s edge, they’d used all but a quarter-ball of the twelve lummush lumps they’d entered with.
“Give that last bit to Chomp,” the elder ordered. “It’s just going to dry out if we keep it.”
Curiously, Chomp didn’t seem tempted to eat it. At different times, Dahlia thought Chomp was surprisingly smart or unbelievably stupid. She was becoming more certain of the former; maybe he’d actually learned the lesson that the elder was working so hard to teach him.
The rest of her family was waiting when they returned to camp, and as the returning group expected, they didn’t react well to seeing Chomp return with them. After the initial panic wore off, most of the clan was ready to mob him.
The elder, Evan, and Nuray all began to voice their personal arguments at the same time, but Dahlia’s patience had been exhausted. She yelled loudest, which seemed to surprise her audience. They yielded their voices to hers.
“What would any of ya do if a clan o’ rabbits came lookin’ ta gut us fer all the bunnies we ate?”
Nobody answered in the pause she gave them.
“Wouldja lay down and let ‘em nibble yer heads off? Wouldja fight back? They ain’t likely ta win if ya do, ain’t no amount of rabbits can take a hunter down. Whichever ya chose, I can tell ya one thing fer certain: if ya knew th’ rabbits wanted revenge for all the soup we’ve made, ya know ya’d never hunt rabbits afterward.”
She didn’t wait for an argument, nor did anyone offer one. Dahlia trudged back towards her tent, head stooped and shoulders sagging. The elder was explaining her plans for Chomp, something about how he’d remain and they’d seek him out next time they came, but she was too tired for details.
There was much to be done before everyone could go back to sleep, and she was grateful the clan wouldn’t need her to be among those who toiled into the morning. Despite the void he’d created, despite the trouble he’d caused, Dahlia felt sorry for Chomp. He’d never had this luxury, could never trust someone else with his survival when all he wanted was a little rest.
If Dahlia were in his situation, she wasn’t sure she could resist harvesting a few hunters for some easy food, even if she was aware of how it hurt their kin. At least the kin would still have each other. No matter how strong Chomp was, his solitude would be a fatal weakness, a burden far heavier than any Dahlia would have to carry.
Dahlia collapsed onto her furs, praying that she’d still be this wise in the morning.
1.) Too much dialogue in this one? Did the conversations keep your interest? And as always, was there ever a moment where you couldn't tell who was talking?
2.) How were dem feels? Were you emotionally invested, could you feel sympathy for each character?
3.) Any trouble understanding what was going on?
Extra credit: the meta-critique.
A.) Tension is created by asking questions the reader wants to see answered. We keep reading because we want to see some payoff for our investment. So? Any satisfaction in the payoff in this book?
B.) Were you disappointed we didn't see more of any given character or feature we've been exposed to? Any "whatever happened to ______"?
C.) You've seen some of my vision for Arbiter as a series, a very small tidbit of the atmosphere I felt inspired by. There's a lot more to come, some huge themes I couldn't touch on yet. Still; you have an idea about the world the clan lives in, you have a setting (the Dawnless Woods and its edge), you know a few of the people who live there, and you've experienced some of the challenges they face. Summarily:
Is there anything you get from Arbiter, any hints in this story, any moments that suggest you can find some feature here that you aren't likely to find in other fiction? Even if the answer is 'no,' is the stuff you've seen before enjoyable enough to make you interested in the next installment?