The dinner fire was always a celebration, but this one seemed extra special to Dahlia. She just wished more of the hunters were home so she could share them with Svara - or maybe she wanted to share Svara with them.
It was easy to lose such longings in her present company. As usual, several of her apprentice-aged clanmates sat in her circle - Jedrek, Idris, and Jaquan were nightly companions. Tonight, though, even the matron had abandoned her usual older crowd to dine with Svara.
Every sunset was supposed to be a victory; the elder always said that attitude was the only reason the clan had survived as long as it did. It was a nice sentiment, but Dahlia knew that sense of celebration wasn’t something you could conjure every day. Survival might be hard, but it was still pretty ordinary. A real celebration needed something extraordinary, and the clan’s reaction to Svara only proved it. Even Idris didn’t look as miserable as he usually did when he woke from his daily hibernation.
“No teasin’, Jaq,” Dahlia continued. “Jumped the matron as easy as I c’n jump this log! Coulda gone higher, betcha anythin’.”
“Is it true, Matron Cascata?” Jaquan’s eyes were even starrier in the firelight.
“Aye lad,” the matron confirmed. “Di’n’t even exert ‘erself. I seen birds that ‘ave a harder time gettin’ that high.”
“That’s about as high as I can jump,” Svara confessed. Dahlia was confused by how modest she seemed. “There’s no real need to go any higher. And it’s not like I can do it because I’m strong, I can just make myself really light.
“You really don’t think there’s a need?” Jaquan asked. “I wish I could jump high enough to touch the clouds! Just imagine: if you could do that, nobody could catch you. You’d be the freest person ever!”
Svara chuckled. “Big dreamer, isn’t he?”
Dahlia and the rest of the circle laughed so hard that Svara seemed confused. Apparently, what she said was funnier to people who knew Jaquan.
“Aye, that he is,” Cascata said as her laughter tapered off. She palmed the top of his head and mussed his hair. Jaquan was so small that her hand seemed like a giant’s by comparison “Has all these goals the rest of us don’t us’ally think about. It’s usually fluff, but sometimes he dreams up somethin’ useful.”
“Does ‘e? Where was I when that ‘appened?” Dahlia teased.
Jaquan smiled. He was better than he looked at taking Dahlia’s jabs. “It’s okay, Dahl. It takes a genius to recognize genius, I can’t fault ya for that.”
“Is that where my dreams go?” Idris asked with a chuckle. “Do you take ‘em while I sleep and then sell them as your own?”
“I could,” Jaquan laughed. “You talk a lot when you do. How don’t you remember? Today you tried to sell me produce while you slept.”
“I did?” Idris seemed genuinely oblivious. He gave Idris a sly smile. “Were ya gullible enough to buy it?”
“Of course, I couldn’t let your imaginary landlord evict you!” Idris returned the smirk. “Hope my imaginary money satisfies him, unlike your imaginary apples did for my stomach. You totally conned me!”
“Yeah righ’!” Dahlia interjected. “Look atcha, yer still eatin’! Even Matron Cascata ate her fill, and she eats like a monster! Where do you keep it all?”
“I burn it,” Jaquan took a bite. “Elder says it’s how jumpy creatures do. We eat more to keep our energy up to keep our eyes and ears open for predators.”
“Eat up, then.” Dahlia eyed Idris. “Idris’ll need ya ta rouse ‘im when ya spot a monster sneakin’ up on ‘im.
The circle shared another chuckle. The clan loved to tease Jaquan and Idris for being opposites, yet spending so much time together. Jaquan was like those birds who sat on the backs of greater beasts and warned them when danger approached, and Idris was the sleepy grazer who barely noticed the extra weight on his back.
“Do you sleep all night, too?” Svara asked.
All the apprentices protested at once. Nobody wanted Idris to be encouraged to try that again.
“If ‘e sleeps at night, none of us get to!” Dahlia proclaimed. She realized that Svara might still be naive enough to try fixing Idris. “When ‘e tries, ‘e panics more’n Jaq ever has.”
“Really?” Svara seemed fascinated. “You get bad dreams if you sleep at night?”
Idris shrugged. “Apparently.”
“He never gets ‘em in the day,” Jaquan added. “The elder has me make sure he sleeps in the sun, too. She says that’s what helps him.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Svara said.
“We’ve never seen anything like it either. I guess everyone has their own-”
Jaquan’s eyes went wide and he whimpered. Cascata was on suddenly on her feet, so Dahlia jumped up too. As Dahlia tried to identify what had startled them, she heard the beginnings of panic from the outer edge of camp.
Dahlia blinked, and when her eyes opened, the matron was grappling with an unfamiliar woman. The stranger had been trying to sprint past her, but with that subtle fluidity Cascata was so famous for, she used the stranger’s momentum to flip her off her feet and straight into the bonfire.
Strangely, the woman’s scream lasted only a fraction of a second. Like a leaf or piece of parchment, the fire consumed her in mere moments.
“Kirana!” Cascata shouted. “Is it them?”
“Aye!” Kirana shouted back. “We’re down two, matron.”
“Don’t move.” Cascata pointed at Svara as she stood. “Jus’ stay right there.”
“But-” Svara was trembling.
“Don’t you dare,” the matron insisted. She called to Kirana again. “Is anyone still fightin’?”
“Nah,” Kirana called back. “Standin’ off.”
“Oi!” Cascata bellowed even louder. “Wanna tell me why yer so eager ta die?”
It was quiet for a long moment. The voice that came back seemed subdued by comparison, and the accent reminded Dahlia of Svara’s.
“I took two of your warriors. By my count, you owe me six more.”
“Oh? My math be different!” Cascata countered. “Three of my warriors took eight o’ yours in a fairer fight. I just took another one durin’ yer cheap shot. By my math, my warriors be worth more’n four o’ yours. I think ya best be on yer way before we show ya jus’ how low ya rate.”
Most of those present were deathly silent, but Dahlia recognized several hunters’ laughter. She’d felt a bit of fear at the start, but their confidence was reinforcing hers. She forced a late chuckle.
“Nobody looks to a savage to do their math,” the foreign man called back. “How about this: give us the girl, and we’ll call it even.”
“Which girl?” Cascata didn’t give him time to answer. “Don’ matter. Ya can’t have any of our women, stranger. Yer best hope would be we’d wait ‘til afer ya gave us a baby before we kill ya and come right back home. Yeh’d best slink on back home, little boy.”
“Why?” Svara asked. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t think they’d possibly catch up this quick. But it’s over, just give…”
“Ain’t about you, girlie!” Cascata snapped. “Yeh planned ta leave us tomorrow, but tanight, yer family. These cowards killed two o’ me brothers, I ain’t about to give ‘em my daughter. This is war, and it’s happenin’ whether they kill ya or not. If ya don’t want more of us dyin’ while we run after ya, you just stay right where ya are.”
Dahlia finally realized Cascata hadn’t dined with them purely for the pleasure of their company. The matron had joined them just in case this happened. Dahlia hoped she could be as smart as Cascata one day.
The matron called out again, but only loud enough for her hunters to hear. “Anyone willin’ ta switch with me? Turns out I don’ think I can ‘andle this.”
“I can.” Dahlia couldn’t tell who answered. “Ya sure? Yer arm…”
“I’m sure.” Cascata preempted. Dahlia doubted she needed to hear any advice about her injury. “It ain’t the deep woods, and there’s a bright moon. Will ya switch?”
As Cascata moved toward the enemy, Dahlia heard Jaquan whimper again. Was he just afraid to have the hunter matron leave him? Then she felt a tremor, heard rumbling like boulders down a hill. Another followed, then another; were they footsteps? Growls?
“That a friend o’ yours?” Cascata bellowed as she walked. She sounded annoyed “Meet yerself some new allies in th’ woods?”
“Not a chance,” the enemy’s liaison shouted back. “That’s a primitive tactic. We’ve seen the company you keep, if anyone brought that here, it’s you.”
Dahlia felt a little satisfied about the fear in the enemy’s voice. Then the rumbling felt closer, and there was another sound with it; like a horse’s nickering made ominous. Nothing like this had ever happened before. They’d seen beasts outside the woods before, but never heard them at night, and had certainly never encountered anything big enough to make these noises. What changed? What made tonight so special?
She heard the sounds of struggle again, and decided such questions could wait.