Svara was making better progress on her food than she’d expected. The spectacle was so engrossing that she didn’t realize how often she was reaching for more.
Jedrek sat beside her on the hilltop. At the bottom, the hunter matron was sparring with one of her apprentices. That’s how Svara interpreted it, at least. Jedrek called it ‘dancing,’ but this joyless exercise couldn’t possibly be a dance. To Svara, it looked like punishment.
Both were blindfolded. Svara understood how that would help them learn to survive without their sight. Matron Cascata wasn’t using her right arm, and despite the handicap, she was dominating her apprentice, Dahlia. Cascata was pummeling her like a soldier beats an untouchable who didn’t show them the proper respect. If Svara had stumbled upon this scene without speaking to Jedrek, she would have been convinced that’s what she was watching.
Dahlia wasn’t submitting, though. She fought like she stood a chance. She kept her feet, or when she didn’t, she was quick to regain them. Both women were breathing heavily, but neither seemed ready to quit. That was doubly impressive for the girl on the losing end.
“Hunting must be tough, if you call this practice,” Svara observed as she chewed. “I don’t know if I could handle watching the real thing.”
“The forest is brutal.” Jedrek was biting his thumbnail, and for the first time, Svara realized he was just as surprised by this ‘dance’ as she was. “The hunters need to learn to play by its rules.”
When he introduced himself outside the elder’s tent, Svara had wondered if Jedrek fancied her. He was exceptionally considerate during all of their interactions, and something about that attention reminded her of all the warnings the older women gave her back home. Men who wanted her would act a certain way,and she needed to be extra wary of them. Jedrek conjured those memories, so Svara felt wary of him.
“The matron became the matron because she knows the skill best.” Jedrek was beginning to recite these rules without her prompting. He was disturbed by what was going on here, and that concern made Svara wonder if he actually fancied Dahlia.
Everything Jedrek did made her wonder who he fancied. Why was that? It hadn’t happened with Trent or Evan. Were Jedrek’s actions suspect, or was she paranoid?
Svara shook her head. If Jedrek fancied one of them, she hoped it was Dahlia. She knew that much, and that’s all the thought she needed to give the subject.
Dahlia doubled over Cascata’s fist as it was thrust into her gut. The wind escaped her lungs with such force that it carried strings of spittle with it. The matron really was merciless.
“How long do they go between breaks?” Svara asked.
“I don’t know.” Jedrek shrugged. “I don’t usually watch them. The only other time I did was when they first started, and… well, this is nothing like then.”
That was news to Svara. She wondered what was really happening here today.
Dahlia rose to her hands and knees, but paused. She began to tremble, and then punched the ground so hard that Svara was convinced she broke some fingers.
“Oi!” Matron Cascata shouted. She rushed over to her fallen apprentice and kneeled beside her. They were too far away for their observers to hear what was being said, but from the matron’s posture, Svara thought she was trying to comfort her apprentice.
“I don’t really understand what’s happening,” Svara confessed. “Is there some lesson here?”
“I’m just as lost as you,” Jedrek replied. “I don’t know if I can sit through much more of it. Think we should tell the elder?”
“Maybe?” Svara was surprised he’d ask her for advice about this. She was the stranger here.
They must have reached some kind of reconciliation at the bottom of the hill, because both women were on their feet again. They were removing their blindfolds, and Cascata was walking away from a grinning Dahlia.
“Oh? Are they finally taking a break?” Svara asked.
The matron turned around and said something to Dahlia. Dahlia nodded, and the matron sprang forward. Two steps, then she pivoted and jumped; the her fist lashed out and the back struck Dahlia’s cheek.
The force lifted the apprentice off her feet. Dahlia spun once in the air before collapsing in a heap.
“Dahlia!” Jedrek shouted. He was already on his feet and sprinting down the hill.
Svara’s eyes were wide, and she gritted her teeth. That was a magnificent strike. It made the most of both muscle and weight. It would be a miracle if it hadn’t snapped Dahlia’s neck.
Svara began to stand. She was deciding whether she should confront the matron or retreat to camp when she saw Dahlia sit up. Jedrek tried to fuss over her, but she put him in a playful headlock. The matron stood a few feet away, looking up at Svara with an embarrassed expression.
Svara wasn’t sure what to think. She supposed it was safe to approach, though, so she did.
“I di’n’t think ta see if anyone were watchin’,” Cascata explained when Svara was close enough.
Is it okay to hit her like that if nobody’s watching? Instead of speaking her mind, Svara smiled and looked to Dahlia. “I’m just surprised she’s conscious. Impressed, I should say.”
Dahlia grinned back, but didn’t relax her hold on Jedrek. It seemed Svara could make a quick friend with a few well-timed compliments. “Weren’t nothin’. I could take more!”
“Oh?” The matron cocked a mischievous eyebrow. “Wanna try?”
“N-nah.” Dahlia conceded. “I could, but that don’ mean it’s fun.”
Jedrek began beating his fist against Dahlia’s shoulder. While it didn’t seem to hurt, Dahlia was startled by his zeal. She released him, and he scrambled backward on all fours. His face was red - not from exertion, Svara decided - and his eyes shone with fresh tears.
“What were you two doing?!” he demanded. “How is any of this okay?!”
Svara glanced between Dahlia and Cascata; she, too, would like that question answered. Dahlia, however, seemed confused about why Jedrek would think anything was wrong, and the matron looked away like she just wanted the whole thing to disappear.
“Well, that big hit was Dahlia’s idea…” Cascatta rubbed the top of her head, a sign that she knew how insufficient the answer was.
“I saw lots of big hits, matron!” Jedrek retorted. “Svara and I couldn’t believe what we were watching!”
“You really were letting her have it,” Svara admitted.
“Tha’s jus’ how it’s done,” Dahlia said dismissively.
“So she wasn’t hurting you?” Jedrek demanded.
“Nah.” Dahlia didn’t sound like she was lying. “Well, ‘cept for that last one, but I told ‘er ta do it. The rest wasn’t any diff’rent than ‘ow all the hunters dance.”
“Not exactly, Dahl,” the matron confessed.
They all looked at her expectantly.
“Jus’ before ya wanted ta feel what it was like if I really hit ya, I told ya you were makin’ better progress than anyone else I ever taught. Tha’s still true, but it was also a different sort o’ progress.”
“How ya mean?” Dahlia prodded. Svara suppressed a giggle; Dahlia obviously still loved this praise.
“E’er since we started doin’ this, I began ta notice you’d tense up ‘fore I’d tap ya. Not just yer body in general, neither, ya’d tense the part I’d be aimin’ fer. Ya knew the hits were comin’, and even though ya couldn’t avoid ‘em, ya prepared ta take the hit, ta make th’ damage smaller instead. Tha’s really good when ya can’t see. I still can’t let ya hunt until ya can avoid them hits, but ya learned they was comin’ way earlier’n anybody else ever did.”
Dahlia beamed at the assessment.
“This is where I done ya wrong, Dahl. Most apprentices whine when I start tappin’ em while dancin’, but you only ever got mad at yerself. Never me. I got curious, started tappin’ ya harder n’ ‘arder, an’ nothin’ changed. I stopped goin’ easy on ya, stopped bein’ slower on purpose ‘cause I wanted to see ‘ow bad ya ‘ad ta be losin’ ‘fore ya whined at me.”
“I’d whine about that las’ one,” Dahlia confessed, rubbing the enormous bruise on her left cheek. Svara wondered how she still had those teeth.
“Tha’s jus’ it, Dahl. Ya wan’ed me ta hit ya fer real, but I been hittin’ ya fer real fer days now. That las’ hit was jus’ extra real, like me tryin’ ta put a bruise on Chomp real.”
“What’s Chomp?” Svara mouthed to Jedrek.
“He lives in there,” Jedrek mouthed back, pointing at the woods. Svara shuddered at the thought.
“That hit woulda killed Jedrek or this li’l stranger ‘ere. I ain’t been trainin’ ya ta hunt these past couple weeks, Dahl, I been tryin’ to learn yer limits. We’ve been dancin’ not ta teach ya, but because I need to learn to teach.”
“You need to learn what to teach, matron,” Jedrek corrected. Svara thought he must not be angry anymore if he was trying to help the matron speak with more precision. “You know how to teach, you just didn’t know the subject yet.”
The matron just shrugged. She probably didn’t understand or care about the distinction.
“I’m tough, I know it,” Dahlia said flippantly. “Why’s tha’ mean ya gotta teach me diff’rent?”
“ ‘Cause you’re so diff’rent that there may be a way that works better fer you than my way works fer me.” Cascatta scratched at her cheek thoughtfully. “Jedrek, ya know the elements?”
“Do I know the elements?” Jedrek scoffed. “Do you?”
“Er, right,” the matron grinned sheepishly. “Well, ta live is ta do magic, right? Our bodies are made up of all the seven elements, so just livin’ is sorta like casting a spell?”
“So the elder says…” Jedrek seemed to be having an epiphany.
“An’ each element ‘as personality, jus’ like we do. Only theirs be less, because our attitudes’re made from their attitudes, jus’ like our bodies are built from their bodies. Most people’re are born in a way where one o’ them elements’ attitudes comes out stronger’n the others. The person is like that element. Wha’s that word, Jedrek?”
“Affinity,” Jedrek answered. “You think Dahlia has an affinity for earth.”
“Tha’s the one. And aye. The elder says I’m like a waterfall, and I think Dahlia’s like a rock.”
“More like a mountain,” Dahlia boasted with a grin.
“More like a pebble!” Cascata leapt at Dahlia and began playfully grinding her knuckles against the girl’s scalp. “More like a piece o’ gravel tha’ gets caught in me shoe an’ bugs all th’ nice outta me!”
Svara chuckled and shook her head as the two wrestled. She doubted Dahlia actually understood what they were talking about. This was Svara’s family trade: to teach members of the soldier caste, ones with the proper air affinity, to Breathe. It was fascinating to see someone as uneducated as Cascata make lectures on the subject. Svara had always wondered, but now she knew the upper castes didn’t give the masses enough credit.
“It’s worth bringing up to the elder,” Jedrek admitted. “Why haven’t you?:
Cascata shrugged. “I like doin’ things on me own, I guess. But the ‘urt in me arm does make me feel sure that Dahl’s earthy. May as well go talk ta the elder now.”
“Could you have these two handle that, matron?” Svara asked. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk to you. It’s about the people who were chasing me. I won’t be staying long, but there may be more coming after me, and they may come for your family, too.”
“Aye, I wondered ‘bout that.” The matron nodded. “Don’ let it concern ya, lass. It weren’t your fault, we made the war.”
“Yes, your people helped me by their own choice.” Svara felt guiltier than she let on. “And I want to help you by my own choice. The people chasing me have an affinity for air. I have that same affinity, and I know how they’re going to use it. I can help you be ready.”
The matron paused, inspected the look in Svara’s eyes. “The elder says magic’s like a country’s best weapon, can be more important than their army. Keepin’ it secret keeps yer enemies guessin’, makes ‘em think twice ‘fore makin’ war. We ain’t enemies, but ya sure ya wanna be sharin’ those secrets?”
Svara wasn’t, but she nodded anyway. “You’re good people. Better than the ones who are after me. I couldn’t bear the thought of your family suffering because of my art.”
The matron gave a respectful nod. “I’m grateful. Jedrek, take Dahl and talk ta the elder bout them affinity things. Dahl, when ya done with the elder, come back and bring the other ‘unters.”
“Sure,” Dahlia stood up and slugged Jedrek’s shoulder. He gave her a scornful scowl, and Svara began to second-guess her earlier suspicions about his interest in Dahlia. She wondered if he had any idea about the cues he was giving.
“Been a while since I been th’ ‘prentice,” Cascata chuckled. “Ya ever been th’ teacher before?”
“Yes.” It had been far too early to put her in charge, but Svara’s family had been raising her to lead their monastery. “Am I correct in guessing you learn best by doing?”
“Then let’s begin.” Svara took a deep breath.
1.) My biggest concern with this chapter is the 'Jedrek's fancy' element. The idea is to bring another symptom of culture shock into the equation; Svara comes from a culture where women are taught to mistrust men, particularly strangers who are nice to them. It must mean they're after something, right? Ulterior motives, for certain! Meanwhile, Jedrek's just a very nice kid and the clan has never seen any reason not to nurture that. I want these interactions to have a culture shock flavor, but also an urban-vs-rural flavor.
There's supposed to be a question in there. Here it is! Does this element work? Does it feel forced or unnatural? Am I touching a nerve without realizing it?
2.) Were you able to follow the events in this chapter? It's more about interaction than plot advancement, but some of the latter's still happening. Mostly, I want to make sure we're understanding the magic discussion. Were ya?
3.) Any issues with dialogue? The hunters and their rough dialect are back!
A.) Did we remember everybody? It's been a while since we saw Cascata, Dahlia, and Jedrek firsthand.
B.) I know we haven't seen a ton of magic yet, but still: does anything introduced in this chapter conflict with anything you read earlier?
As always, feel free to ignore the questions and yell at me for any other issues you had.