Inga opened her eyes to a sunny sky. Hadn’t she just been in her tent, laying on the ground near the man she killed? That was moments ago, she was certain! She sat with a start.
Cascata glanced over as Inga regretted her maneuver. She’d be feeling that in her lower back for the rest of the day. Of course that wasn’t moments ago, you old fool. You’ve probably been out a whole day.
“How long was I asleep?” Inga asked.
“All night.” Cascata answered. “It’s almos’ midday now.”
How was that possible? Inga considered. If she’d absorbed enough sunlight, then maybe... “You brought me out here as soon as the sun rose?”
“Aye. Trent said ya used too much light. I remember ya started ‘avin’ Idris sleep outside and durin’ the day ‘cause he don’t hold light as well. Figured this was worth a shot.”
Cascata had gotten better at her calculations. Even after all this time, Inga was surprised at her continued growth. “What happened?”
“Where ta start?” Cascata shrugged. “We won, fer starters. Take a gander’t that kill.”
It took a moment to get her bearings. The matron and elder were on a hide blanket in the field, not far from camp. An enormous carcass jutted out of the foliage between. Her family was crawling over it like ants, slowly peeling bits of armor and flesh away and walking it back to camp. Whatever it had been in life, it was now the single biggest butchering the clan had ever attempted.
“Is that a type we’ve seen before?” Inga squinted and shielded her eyes.
“Nah.” Cascata shook her head. “We callin’ it Fleahorn, and we’re pretty sure it’s like Stinger and Chomp. I doubt we’ll ever see one like it again.”
There was smoke on the air. Wincing as her back protested, Inga twisted to look behind her. Countless fires were burning a good distance away.
“The enemy?” Inga asked.
“No survivors, near’s we c’n tell. Some were dumb enough ta get ate by the herd, and there’s th’ one you killed. I guess there could be more, but we think they all grouped up when Fleahorn came out.”
This was all good news. Inga was sure there would be bad news to come with it, and she had to force herself to ask. “What did this cost us?”
“Three hunters,” Cascata took a swig from her waterskin. “Nor, Uda, and Hadar.”
Their faces flashed in Inga’s mind as Cascata recited their names. She felt like her heart had been pierced. Falling onto her back and covering her eyes as she wailed at the sky. Nor and Hadar had been born to the clan, and Uda had been in his mother’s arms when she stumbled into camp. They were all children to Inga. Why did they have to be taken before she was?
Inga fought the grief as best she could, but trying to suppress the sobs only sent them wracking through her body. It made sitting back up that much harder. All the while, Cascata remained silent, taking long drafts from her waterskin and staring straight ahead.
“You think crying makes me weak?” Inga hated blubbering like this in front of her children; this child, in particular. It added a touch of indignance to her grief.
“Nah. Does not crying make me a monster?” Cascata replied.
Inga sniffed and wiped her nose. “No, dear, no. Sorry.”
They sat without speaking for a long time, taking turns on Cascata’s waterskin as Inga let the tears dry out. There was much to discuss and much to be done, and Inga didn’t really know where to start.
“Trent’s okay?” Inga asked.
“Everyone’s fine. Lael took a couple too many slashes, but yer healers’re lettin’ Jedrek practice on ‘er, so she can’t be that bad. Everythin’ else is jus’ scratches n’ bruises.”
“How many enemies were there?”
Too many. This didn’t make sense. “How did you beat so many, Cascata?”
The younger woman rubbed the back of her head. “C’mon, ya know I ain’t good with numbers. There were like four for e’ery one of us, jus’ like when Kirana’n them killed the first ones.”
“The first wave was exhausted when they found Evan and Nuray. I’ll count the numbers, dear. Just tell me how the fight went.”
“Oh, ‘kay!” Cascata seemed more excited now. “So I was kinda duelin’ one guy far from e’eryone else…”
“I wish you hadn’t been,” Inga interrupted, pointing at Cascata’s injury.
Cascata just shrugged. “... so I couldn’t really watch. But Kirana’s story kin’a explains how e’eryone did it! First off, numbers weren’t so bad ‘cause some died away from our fight.”
Inga killed one, and Cascata claimed the herd killed three more. 26, at fewest.
“They ambushed us ‘fore we knew they was there, righ’? We los’ 2 and they los’ 1 then, so whatever that brings us to…”
25 to 11.
“Then when the real fight started, that’s when it went bad for ‘em. Kirana says e’eryone did somethin’ like her: two or three were rushin’ one of us, all aimin’ for soft spots like Svara ‘ad us practice. So we moved all unpredictable, right? Kirana jumps torward ‘em even though she’s usin’ a bow, and they get all confuse’ and she takes one down before the other two know what ‘appened. About ‘alf my hunters did somethin’ like that, they lost lots on their first charge.”
20 to 11. Cascata had claimed it was originally four to one, but Inga expected it was more like three; by this point, it had become two to one.
“Then it slowed down lots ‘cause Fleahorn was in play. It killed 2 o’ them first, an’ the second guy was they leader. They sorta panicked or got angry after that. Fleahorn got half of the rest, we did the other half.”
Then the monster brought us to one-to-one. Not so miraculous as it was just bad fortune for the enemy. We were prepared, and Fleahorn was much worse for them than it was for us.
Inga sighed. The price was still far too high, but… “We were fortunate. They could have ended us. With so few hunters home, their numbers were enough to kill us all.”
“Well, the herd woulda been fine.” Cascata argued. “Soko might even get bothered ta sic ‘em on the enemy, if it got bad enough.”
“They were many and they were skilled, Cass,” Inga said. “Were it not for for Svara’s guidance, the herd might be all that was left of us now. If it had been 30 against 13, and especially without Svara’s tactics, their survivors could have killed the rest of us at their leisure.”
“Aye,” Cascata admitted. “Aye. It coulda been much worse.”
Despite the night’s overexertion - Inga knew it could have killed her - she now felt restless. How many children will I sacrifice before I’m satisfied? How long can this go on before I lose them all? She’d lost count of the years, but she knew it must be close to a century since she played in Midway’s sunny meadows. Was there any hope for reclaiming her homeland?
There were still no traces of Robin Priest, or even the city’s ruling council. They must have fallen to that faceless enemy who took the light away. Without speakers of their caliber, what chance did the clan have?
Is there anything left to save? Do I risk leaving this agenda as my sole, spiteful legacy?
“It may be time we abandon the woods, Cascata.” Inga hated the thought, but she could bear the guilt even less.
The hunter matron laughed. “Good luck with that! Ya got enough argument ta convince the hunters - convince anyone - o’ that?”
It wasn’t the response Inga expected, but she knew Cascata was right. Inga had never shared her own agenda with anyone; she wasn’t the original leader, and her predecessors’ purpose here had never involved Midway. Hers was always a secondary objective. Why had she thought she was subjecting anyone to unnecessary danger?
“Perhaps,” Inga bluffed. She still had concerns. “If we remain, I think we need to increase the amount of hunters. No, increase the amount of warriors. We are always finding family among political exiles, and while none of them have lead to a confrontation until last night, we also need to confront the possibility that we encounter a group who doesn’t need such a reason to attack us. We’ve become too big, we have things that other people are willing to kill for. We need to have a force devoted to protection at all times.”
There was movement near Fleahorn’s carcass. Inga recognized Svara as she emerged from the crowd. It looked like she was headed their way.
“Sounds good ta me,” Cascata shrugged. “I have lots o’ time to train youngin’s, and we got lots o’ chil’ren who ain’t apprenticed yet. Idris n’ Jaquan’re both prime.”
“Really?” Inga was surprised she said those names first. “Jaquan’s fears will be hard to conquer. They’re very deeply-routed. And Idris? He’s a large boy, but something in his body doesn’t work right. I don’t know if he’s capable of the endurance he would need.”
“Combat’s compl’cated,” Cascata replied. “I know ye’re used ta thinkin’, but ya only got yer first kill las’ night, right? War’s a new kinda math fer you, I been doin’ it longer. I got some ideas on how ta use cowards n’ sloths. Trus’ me, they got potential.”
Inga shuddered as she remembered the boy she killed. For decades she’d been lecturing on how traumatic the first kill was. As she feared, her imagination had fallen short of reality.
“I suppose I’m not as worried about their competence as I am about their wellbeing,” Inga confessed. “Won’t it break them?”
“It’s jus’ work, like any o’ the other duties,” Cascata replied. “If they’re suited for it, they’ll be fine. If they’re not, I’ll let ya know, they can do somethin’ else.”
Like any other duty? Inga had her doubts, but she trusted Cascata’s judgment more than most - perhaps any- of her childrens’. It wouldn’t hurt to let her try.
Svara was close enough for Inga to be certain of her destination. She sighed, expecting she was coming to say goodbye. It was bound to be a bittersweet conversation, but she supposed she ought to finish this talk before that one started.
“So Idris and Jaquan. Do you have any other names in mind?” Inga asked.
“I have one!” Svara called. Inga furrowed her brow. How had the girl heard her?
The older women watched as Svara increased her pace. Each step was more like a leap, but the jumps lacked any sign of exertion. It looked like she was skipping in reduced gravity. Inga felt a pang of envy; it looked like fun.
Svara came to an abrupt stop at the edge of their blanket. “You should accept me as one of your warriors.”
Inga nearly choked on her breath, but Cascata didn’t seem surprised. “Oh? Weren’t ya gonna move on?”
“When I was being chased, yes, that was the plan,” Svara nodded. “You freed me from the chase. The way I see it, I owe you.”
“You don’t owe us,” Inga argued. “If you stay, it should be because you want to. Don’t get me wrong, you’re welcome to! But don’t do it for the wrong reasons…”
“I have to and I want to and I need to. Right, wrong, I’m doing it for every sort of reason there is.” Svara’s smile was so sincere that Inga couldn’t muster any more resistance. She wanted this daughter, and she wouldn’t turn her away.
“Then welcome to the family, child.” Tears began to cloud her vision again. “Still, are you sure you want to be a warrior? It sounds glamorous, but there’s a heavy cost. To take a life…”
“She can ‘andle it, she done it once,” Cascata pointed at Fleahorn. “She and Dahlia done him in.”
“That monster?!” Inga’s eyes bulged a little. “How? And why did you allow them to fight?!”
Cascata rubbed the back of her head. “I didn’t really ‘allow’ nothin’...”
“I was raised to spy and kill, Elder Inga,” Svara said. “Well, raised to teach those arts, at least. It’s more or less the same.”
With a thoughtful frown, Inga considered. She glanced at Cascata. “She’d be your charge, matron. What do you say?”
“I wouldn’ let ‘er hunt yet. I’d let ‘er fight. Well, maybe. We’ll dance wit’ ‘er, get her ta add the things we do well ta her art.”
“In the meantime, I’m an ideal scout,” Svara added. “I can cover lots of ground, and the wind brings me rumors. I came over here because I heard your voice on the breeze.”
If that was true, then Svara was uniquely qualified for keeping watch. If the wind acted as an extra sense for her, then she could serve a warrior’s purpose without endangering herself. Inga didn’t need any more convincing.
“I’m satisfied. You have auspicious timing, dear. I fear we might make immediate use of you.”
“Yeah?” Svara tilted her head. “Why’s that?”
“The Elder’s jus’ rattled ‘bout last night,” Cascata claimed before taking another gulp of her drink.
“Cavalier as ever,” Inga grumbled. “No, Cass. I appreciate your resilience, but we’ve taken big losses. Kadmus, Gelilah, Nikhil, Conan…” Inga counted them off with her fingers. “Seven hunters between the last two camps. That’s about as many as we lost in the entire year before, Cass. Something is changing.”
“Hm.” Cascata smirked. “Maybe ye’re right. Maybe something fun is comin’.”
Inga sighed, but she actually envied Cascata’s attitude. It would help see them through this. “The entity who took the light away is still in there. It’s still perverting the woods with monsters like Fleahorn and Stinger, and it can’t be a coincidence that Fleahorn appeared when the Breathers did. We’ve now killed two of the war-types, Cass. Its creator might not appreciate that.”
“Ya can’t create beasties,” Cascata scoffed.
“And you can’t take the sun away from an entire nation!” Inga retorted. “But something can, and we’re neighbors with it. If it had any affection for Fleahorn, then we might have earned its anger.”
Svara looked pale, even for a Northerner. “Have… have I doomed us?”
“What? No!” Inga smiled and shook her head. “No, child, it had to die. You should be proud, you did a great thing. I’m just saying that survival has consequences.”
“And we’re hopin’ these cons’quences’ll be fun, lass,” Cascata said. “Ya done me two favors by killin’ Fleahorn.”
Inga groaned. “You reacted to the circumstances. That should be celebrated. I’m just trying to prepare for what comes next.”
“Only so much we can do when we don’ know what’s comin’,” Cascata observed.
“Could we actively try to find out?” Svara asked. “Or maybe find a more defensible place we could go?”
“Yes, to both!” Inga said. “But we’ll need to wait for the hunters to return. Our next camp is unique, and I’ll feel much more comfortable once we’re there.”
Thinking of the destination was comforting, though it would mean skipping one of their usual stops. Inga had a sister and a son waiting at the end of the coming trek. Their unique nature inspired them to make a permanent home there. The reunion was always joyous, but there would be an extra layer of comfort this time. The two of them had survived the longest excursion into these woods than anyone she’d ever known. They were certain to have some insight.
“Avoid the city and don’t follow any roads; don’t make extra stops on the trail and don’t extend the migration; if you hear a river or reach the silence, you’ve gone too far.” Her sister gave lots of advice, but was reluctant to share the memories related to that wisdom. Perhaps it was time to ask a difficult favor.
That would have to wait. The clan needed to get there before it could solicit advice, and Inga doubted this would be the leisurely hike they were used to. The path had been safe for centuries, but the currents of history were as fickle as the winds. Sooner or later, they would have to shift.