It happened again. They all felt the tremors and heard the rumbling, and every eye looked toward the distant source. Every eye but the tamer patron, Soko’s.
Lyn bit her bottom lip and sank back into Moondancer’s flank. They weren’t agitated yet, but the herd was concerned. Something very big had come out of the forest, and whatever it was, the animals didn’t want it coming any closer. She was safe with the bulk of her family between her and the intruder. It was no threat to her, but she might have preferred it to be. A monster would be much more intimidated by this collection of musks than those of her human siblings.
Soko was unconcerned, however, and the herd would not move unless he told it to. The tone his jug’s sloshing was getting higher, and that meant Soko’s spirits would also rise. If something were to interrupt his drinking, though…
Lyn wanted to check on the dinner fire, but her absence could ruin the herd’s night if Soko noticed. The other tamers would suffer his wrath, and it would be her fault. Besides, what could she do, if the hunters needed help? All of her ideas involved Soko, and he wouldn’t like those ideas unless they came from his own head.
What would the elder say? Lyn expected it would involve trusting her patron. He became the patron because he knew best, right? If he wasn’t worried, then she shouldn’t be.
A few of the animals looked in a new direction, but they seemed more curious than wary. Lyn sat up to follow their gaze: three figures were weaving their way through the resting herd. They moved quickly and silently, but their postures betrayed their fear. Lyn knew they must be strangers, because everyone from the clan knew the herd was family. This trio was treading too lightly to be her siblings.
“Oi there!” Soko called to the strangers, who jumped at the sound. They scanned their surroundings, as if afraid the tamer had sicced his pets on them. “Ya lost, or just lookin’ fer some drinkin’ comp’ny? I hope ya brought yer own, ‘cause I ain’t got enough as it is!”
Soko laughed loud and long, and again Lyn wondered if the patron’s drink was magic. He thought everything hilarious when he drank, and she couldn’t imagine why that might be.
“I think you have plenty of company,” one of the strangers - a woman - observed. “I’ve never seen a collection like this. Any one of these makes the beasts of my land look like puppies. Isn’t it dangerous to keep them together?”
“Ah, nah,” Soko slapped the scaly hide of the beast he was lounging on. “Once they tame, they may’s well be sheep! Sheep tha’ keep th’ wolves away, ha ha!”
Soko laughed and swayed as he stood up. One of the male strangers chuckled. “This is the first shepard I’ve ever met who would want that kind of sheep.”
“Well, yeh can only do so much with wool, y’know?” Soko stumbled closer. “These sheep’re all from out the woods, which got more breed o’ e’ery beastie than ya could ever count. Ferget the tailors n’ the butchers, blacksmiths n’ carpenters n’ all manner o’ craftsmen clamor ta work with ol’ Soko’s sheep!”
“Strange, I was just about to say that most of these look like they were made by blacksmiths,” the woman said. “So much fang and claw…”
“Aye, forged ta survive the darkness, they was.” Soko motioned towards the woods. “Don’t mean they have ta like it, though! We invite ‘em to th’ family, an’ in return, they help us survive just outside the darkness.”
“I wouldn’t have thought they could be tamed,” the last man admitted. “I’m impressed.”
“Aye, whichever ancestor first tried it musta been crazy!” Soko laughed. “Some kind o’ crazy that the rest of us could catch, too. Come, sit, tell me how ya came ta be here!”
The drink really must have been magic; normally, Soko avoided other people, particularly strangers. Perhaps he fancied the woman?
“How gracious,” the woman replied. “Forgive me, but we were actually wondering if you could help us first.”
“Oh, ya need help?” Soko seemed ready to accomodate. “Whatcha need?”
“You see, my young partner here-” the stranger motioned to the younger of her companions. “-fancies a certain young woman in your clan. He’s a little shy, though, so we were hoping we might get someone from inside the clan to introduce him.”
“Ah, eyein’ our goods, are yeh?” Soko wagged his finger playfully. “Better be careful, lad. Our women ain’t th’ submittin’ types. They’ll love ya ‘til they don’t, and when they don’t, they’ll move on. If ya ain’t ready ta accept that, ya best give up now. My sheep may not tame easy, but my family don’t tame at all!”
The strangers all glanced at each other before the woman spoke. “I don’t think that will be a problem for us.”
“Alrigh’,” Soko shrugged. “Le’s get o’er ta the dinner fire an’ see what she thinks, shall we?”
“Ah, kind host,” the woman seemed hesitant. “As you can see, he’s a young one. Plus, we’d hate to interrupt you in your cups. Perhaps we’d all be best-served if we borrowed some of your wards? Like this young girl here?”
Before the woman motioned her way, Lyn wasn’t sure if she’d been noticed. Their attention made her nervous, made her question the authenticity of their request. Now that she thought about it, wasn’t it strange that they came here with that request? Why not someone in the camp?
“Ya want Lyn? Ya want my apprentices?” Soko could barely be heard as he contemplated. He needed time to consider even simple problems when he drank. “He fancies one of our girls, ya say?”
“That’s right,” the woman confirmed. “So we need faces she’d recognize, that she’s comfortable with. After all, we want to make a good impression!”
Lyn’s chest was feeling tighter by the moment. They weren’t being genuine, she was certain now. How could she convince Soko, though? The look on his face was one of disappointment, not suspicion. He wouldn’t respond well if he thought Lyn noticed their ill intentions before him, and as suspicious as these people were, Soko’s anger might be even more dangerous.
“Dinner time!” Soko’s voice boomed, startling every human present. The words themselves weren’t a command; that’s not how tamers tamed. The herd smelled his fury, heard the context in his tone, felt the aggression in his posture. To the beasts, Soko’s word choice was irrelevant. The kill command came from his body language.
Lyn breathed a sigh of relief; Soko hadn’t drunk all his cunning away.
Moondancer darted from behind Lyn to put himself between her and the threat while a man-sized cat lashed out and clamped its jaws on the closest stranger’s thigh. The wound spurted mud and water as well as blood. Lyn knew that a wound was critical when the body began to revert to its elemental ingredients.
The doomed man’s companions cried out and leapt in separate directions with the grace of wind, but it was futile. For every jawful of fangs they could see, there was a claw, talon, or beak encroaching from behind.
The intruders drew their curved blades, but it was like trying to fend off an army with a shaving razor. After a few meager seconds, they were dragged down by the tide of angry beast, and the sounds of their panic gave way to the munching of the meat-eaters.
Soko returned to the lizard he’d been lounging on and uncorked his drink. “There’s jus’ no savin’ some people. Can’t recognize when they shouldn’t take things’t don’t belong ta them…”
Between the distant rumblings and whatever mischief these intruders had attempted, Lyn was certain they were all in danger. Would they try to fool Soko if they had the numbers to cull the herd? Unlikely, but even while she might be safe here, survival was pointless if she was alone. If the others were in danger, and she wanted to share the load. How could she convince Soko to let her go?
She knew the answer: by making it his idea.
“Patron!” She ran towards him. “Are we safe here? Are there more?”
He gave her a scornful, sidelong glance. “Me buzz was already dyin’. Ya don’t wanna be finishin’ it, Lyn.”
“Can you keep me safe, patron?” Lyn tried to seem hysterical. “You have to protect me!”
“Get outta my sight,” he growled.
It was exactly what she needed. Manipulating Soko was always a risky thing, but it was easier when he was drunk. A few more swigs and he’d forget she’d ever been there. There was little chance he’d interpret this as a challenge to his authority, so she should be safe from his wrath.
She clicked her tongue as she ran past Moondancer, who grunted and rose to follow her. Lyn was no warrior, and she didn’t know how she could help when she couldn’t fight, but she supposed it wasn’t about that. This was about being there. This had never happened to the clan, not while she’d been part of it. Come victory or defeat, they should face it together.