Chapter 1: Struggle

Surviving the wild is hard. Surviving wild magic is harder.

Idris grunted as he collided with the animal. Its horns provided him a good place to

grip and push, but even with his feet firmly planted, he was still losing ground. The beast was optimized for this sort of contest: the tamers referred to mulchers as the moose’s smaller cousin, while the hunters joked they were more like a goat’s big brother. Regardless, the species was evolved to fight this way, and despite a full week of trying, Idris wasn’t about to overcome that affinity.

Cascata took another swig of her drink as Idris was once again pushed onto his back. The mulcher sensed its victory early, and was careful not to step on Idris when he fell. The hunter matron wasn’t sure if she was more impressed by the mulcher’s ability to learn or Lyn’s ability to train. Regardless, the beast had served Cascata well over the years. Nothing bulked an apprentice up like grappling with this bundle of muscle.

“I can’t believe her feet,” Svara observed. She and Dahlia sat on either side of Cascata, taking a break from their dances to watch Idris and Jaquan train. “Can she grab stuff?”

It was the mulcher’s strangest feature, Cascata had no doubt. It had actual feet where the hooves should go, with toes as long as fingers and twice as thick. “Nah. It’s got little plates all underneath, even on th’ toes. They feel like hooves, Minimulch’ll let ya feel if ya want. Sure, they c’n bend lots, but it ain’t like they could make fists ‘er nothin’.”

“Ya should see ‘er climb!” Dahlia bragged. “Mulchers love it. We get to th’ rockier areas, you’ll see. They run straight up boulders an’ li’l bluffs. I seen Minimulch standin’ on a smooth cliff, no lyin’. Just lookin’ me right’n the eye and chewin’ whatever plant she found like it was the normalest thing ever.”

“Is she really smaller than her kin?” Svara asked. “Idris has a pretty solid build and he doesn’t last very long.”

“Aye, she’s a famous runt. ‘at’s why she’s Lyn’s favorite mulcher. Look fer yerself next time ye’re near the herd, you’ll see. Soko thinks she might be like a mule, got a regular deer for a dad or somethin’. She had another name once, but then someone called ‘er Minimulch and e’eryone decided that was more fun ta say. Anyway, none o’ me hunters could win a wrestle with the regular mulchers.”

“I could!” Dahlia boasted.

“Try it,” Cascata goaded. “Jus’ don’ come cryin’ ta me when ya get trampled.”

“Does anybody ever get hurt doing this?” Svara asked.

“Not with Minimulch,” Cascata said. “Lyn’s been doin’ this with her since she was a calf. Most of ‘em do it when they mad at each other, but to Minimulch i’s just play. Lyn taught her ta stop once she’s got ya down, the others don’t got that kind o’ mercy.”

As if to prove Cascata’s point, Minimulch nudged Idris’s forehead with her own, encouraging him to try again. He smiled patiently and scratched behind her ears to distract her as he caught his breath.

“I never knew the Dawnless Woods contained such gentle creatures,” Svara confessed. “In the North, all the tales are so… demonic.”

“Wha’s ‘demonic’?” Dahlia asked. Cascata took a gulp of her drink, hoping Svara would explain before the matron had to admit she didn’t know the word either.

“I guess I don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t know religion.” Svara chuckled. “It means ‘monstrous,’ more or less.”

“There’s monsters in’ere too.” Cascata wiped her mouth. “That’s righ’, you knew that already. Ya killed one!”

Cascata still struggled to believe it, but she’d watched this young foreigner kill the biggest creature she’d ever encountered. They called if Fleahorn, and it was already a staple of the clan’s fireside tales. Taller than three men and heavier than twenty, it had a nose like an enormous sword and sheltered four dog-sized bloodsuckers on its neck. It killed more than ten warriors - most of them enemies of the clan - before this girl opened its belly. She had some help from Dahlia and was happy to share the credit, but the warrior matron was still impressed.

“I think he must be an outlier, though,” Svara continued. “There’s not one beast in your herd I’ve ever seen before. They all come from the forest, don’t they? Yet here they are, living in harmony with the family.”

“That’s ‘cause they’re part o’ the family,” Dahlia explained. “The woods ain’t good or bad, even if they’s unique. Ain’t do nobody any good to pretend they’re more than they is.”

Dahlia’s words weren’t wrong, but Cascata suspected she didn’t respect the environment as much as she should. It didn’t matter much; she would soon.

His legs shook, but Idris climbed back to his feet. Grabbing Minimulch by the horns prompted her to resume her play, and once again Idris’s feet dug tiny trenches through the weeds and soil as he was pushed back.

“He’s tenacious,” Svara observed. “Gotta respect that spirit.”

“This is kinda unlike him,” Cascata admitted. “‘tis a good sign. ‘es a sleepy lad, not used ta workin’ ‘ard. Glad ta see he can.”

“‘e ain’t makin’ great progress though,” Dahlia teased. “I was already winnin’ by this point.”

“Were ya now?” Cascata snuck her good arm behind Dahlia’s neck and trapped her in a headlock. “I seem ta remember it diff’rently!”

“Memory fades-,” Dahlia grunted as she struggled to free herself. “With age!”

“Even if that were true, ya got at least twelve years on poor Minimulch!” The hunter matron dug her knuckles into the student’s scalp. “She was just a babe when you was doin’ this. Idris ain’t wrestlin’ the same mulcher you was, ‘e’s got it ‘arder!”

Dahlia managed to slip loose by surprising Cascata with a squeeze of the ticklish bit around her knee. “Ya ain’t gotta make excuses for him, my records ain’t easy ta beat…”

“Hey matron, is he okay?” Svara interrupted.

The roughhousing women paused to look at Idris. He was still grasping Minimulch’s horns, but now he was on both knees and heaving. Minimulch had stopped pushing, but kept nudging him playfully. Idris didn’t seem to notice; after a couple seconds, he vomited.

“Oi, Id!” Cascata climbed to her feet and jogged towards him. “Wha’s a’matter, lad?”

He was shivering despite the heat, and was breathing too heavily to answer. It meant he’d either agreed to the exercise while being ill or had just exerted himself too much. Either way, it didn’t do anyone any good to have him push this much.

“Ya passed the puke point,” Dahlia observed. “Ya ain’t supposed ta pass th’ puke point, dummy.”

“What’s wrong?!” Jaquan panted, looking terrified as he arrived from the other direction. He still clutched a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. “Is he hurt?!”

“Relax, lad, ‘e’ll be fine,” Cascata assured. At least, she hoped he’d be okay; the ‘puke point’ was taught her hunters about, but this wasn’t the type of training she usually used to help them determine where that point was. Idris hadn’t gotten that far yet. A person wouldn’t usually push themselves that far without some harsh encouragement. What was Idris so ‘encouraged’ by?

“Please - “ he managed a plea between breaths. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“Why would I do tha’?” Cascata asked, flummoxed. “I’m the one tha’ talked ya into this, lad. I ain’t seen anything that would change me mind.”

Idris slowly raised his head to meet her gaze. “For real?”

“Fer double real,” Cascata gave his forehead a playful flick. She’d need to ask the elder about this later; some broken thoughts were probably tormenting him, and the hunter matron wasn’t confident about fixing those without guidance. “Time fer a break. Get some water and a snack.”

“Not sure I’m hungry…” Idris said.

“You’ll thank me after. C’mon, take me hand.” Cascata helped him to his feet and stayed close in case he got unsteady. Minimulch continued her playful butting against Idris’ ribs, so Cascata plucked a handful of weeds and offered it to the mulcher. “You too, smelly. Break time.”

She was surrounded by such bounty, but the plants must have looked tastier from a person’s hand. Minimulch accepted the treat and began munching. These animals were known to eat just about anything that resembled a plant. Cascata was pretty sure they got their name from eating mulch.

After a moment to consider, Cascata decided it might be good to distract Dahlia, too. “Oi, I lost my entertainment. You two wanna get back ta dancin’ for me? Svara looked ta have the ‘vantage last I remember.”

“Ya goin’ blind as well as senile?!” Dahlia raged. “C’mon Svara, I’ma put ya on yer butt!”

“C’mon now,” Svara rubbed the back of her head. “I’m not the one who said it, don’t take it out on me!”

“No whinin’!” Dahlia commanded. “We ain’t allowed ta take it easy anyway, remember?”

Svara sighed and gave Cascata a sarcastic smile. “Thanks so much, matron.”

“Any time, lass,” Cascata winked. She expected all of them knew that Svara was too strong for Dahlia to bully. “Don’ turn yer back on ‘er, she can play dirty.”

Dahlia took the matron’s words as a cue, and Svara narrowly avoided a cheap shot. The two apprentice warriors were sparring again, as much with word as body. Cascata turned to Jaquan, who still watched Idris with a look of concern. “Ya hittin’ the target more often?”

“Yes,” Jaquan wasn’t one to boast. As he was with everything, he seemed intimidated by his new duties. “Are you really okay, Id?”

“Yeah,” Idris nodded and smiled. He’d finally caught his breath. “Get back to it, brother.”

Jaquan smiled and trotted away. Cascata and Idris walked back toward the blanket, where several waterskins and a pot of nuts and dry berries waited.

“She ain’t the biggest beastie in th’ herd,” Cascata said. “But she is a bundle o’ muscle. It’s gonna take lots o’ days and lots o’ food ‘fore you get the muscle ta match, Id. Turnin’ yer tummy inside-out ain’t gonna make that happen faster. Rest when ya need to.”

Idris looked at her for several seconds without saying anything. The same feature that qualified him to be a warrior was the one that prevented him from being a hunter: like Jedrek and Lyn, he was prone to daydreams. It was the sort of smart that made Inga such a good elder, the sort of smart that would distract him in the complete darkness of the Dawnless Woods. She couldn’t teach him the focus she had, the focus that let her hunt while blind.

It also means ya can’t leave me guessin’ about what’s bother’n ya, ‘cause I’ll never guess right. Maybe Mum can, but not me.

“Makes sense to me,” he shrugged. “I’ll pay closer attention to my fatigue from now on. Sorry if I scared ya.”

Actin’ brave, which means ya think I can’t help ya. Fine, ye’re prob’ly right. There’s more goin’ on, though, ya can’t fool me so easy.

“We leave tomorrow.” Idris said.

“Tha’s righ’,” Cascata took a swig of water. She didn’t want to think about this.

“How many are still out?” Idris asked anyway.

“Eight,” the matron replied. More than they’d ever lost on a single hunt by very wide margin. It meant the elder was right, it meant they’d angered the forest’s master. She wondered how much of this Idris knew about.

“That’s more than we usually lose in a year.” Idris observed.

“Aye. Aye, we’re in for a rough walk.” Was this what tortured him? She doubted Idris was that simple; he was more likely trying to distract her from his pain by choosing a subject she’d obsess about.

As they watched Dahlia and Svara in silence, she supposed it didn’t have to be one thing or the other. He could easily be bothered by both at once.


The End

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