Jedrek struggled to understand what he saw when he left camp to find Soko in the herd. From a distance, it was just an occasional blur of fur and glint of sunlight on metal. As he drew closer, he noticed Lyn standing near the familiar shape of her newest pet Moondancer.
She was surrounded by stacks of fist-sized orange blocks and was holding one in front of Moondancer’s crescent-blade snout. In an abrupt motion, she tossed it into the air and took several steps back. Moondancer shifted its weight, then lashed with its long neck. Its timing was perfect; the blade connected with the brick, and it exploded with a sound like a shattering pot.
By now, Jedrek had come close enough to speak. “That’s a neat idea. Did the potters fire those for you?”
Lyn hadn’t noticed him until now. She smiled and nodded. “They told me as long as I gathered the clay, they’d make as many as I wanted. I told ‘em I didn’t need any specific shape, but they made them stack real easy.”
With an impressed whistle, Jedrek audited the amount of bricks around her. “You gathered all this yourself? Must have been a lot of work.”
Lyn shook her head. “Nah, I had help. I have lots of friends in the herd! You’d be surprised at what they can do with a little guidance. This only took us a couple hours.”
“Lots of friends,” Jedrek repeated. “I think you’re understating it. Isn’t every member of the herd your friend?”
Lyn just grinned. “Need somethin’ Jedrek? Moondancer’s pretty much mastered this, we can help.”
“I might take you up on that!” Jedrek said. “I gotta talk to Soko first, though.”
Her grin faded. “About what?”
“Elder wants to move the schedule up and leave at first light tomorrow. We figure we should haul a bunch of stuff closer to the herd so we can load ‘em up quicker around dawn.”
Jedrek wasn’t sure if Lyn’s sigh was of relief or exasperation. “We might be able to help with that. Give me some time to work on him, though.”
Work on who? Jedrek wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but he should hurry. The Elder was anxious enough as it was. “Don’t worry about it just yet. I’ll see what Soko has to say.”
“I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Jed,” Lyn warned.
“If it’s not, I’m sure he’ll tell me so.” Jedrek wasn’t sure if he understood her concern, but he wanted to keep moving. “Keep doing your own thing for now, I’ll let you know what he says.”
He gave Moondancer a friendly scratch under the chin as he passed, but couldn’t tell if the gesture was appreciated. After a few paces, he glanced back over his shoulder. Both Lyn and Moondancer were watching him go and looking uneasy. They made him feel like some kind of alien.
Spend enough time with the beasties…
Weaving his way through the herd, Jedrek felt a renewed appreciation for the tamers. It couldn’t have been easy to collect this menagerie, much less acclimate each species to the presence of people. Many in the clan were shy about going near the herd, but Jedrek knew there was nothing to fear. Sure, most of these beasties could rip him limb from limb if they wanted, but how was that different from the hunters?
Jedrek wasn’t a tamer himself - the Elder had decided he should be a healer - but he could certainly appreciate the appeal. Spending so much time with the Elder had taught him a lot about distant lands; ‘normal’ lands. Jedrek knew the distinction between their herd and normal domesticated animals like cows and dogs.
These creatures were so much more robust. They tread the lines between all the different animal clades; mammals with feathers, amphibians with compound eyes, birds with shells. Their anatomies were all varied and fascinating, and their minds were even more extraordinary.
The elder said it was because their lightless environment was so brutal. To survive, they must be smart, be even more brutal, or both. That was why the herd could learn, could cooperate, could function as full members of the family.
To cope with the dark, they became bright. Jedrek chuckled; he loved puns.
He spotted Soko lounging on a long-necked reptile. It had fine downy feathers all along its midsection. Jedrek could see why Soko would rest here.
“Hey Soko,” Jedrek greeted. “The elder wants to accelerate things and get all the stuff we won’t need tonight stacked up next to herd.”
“Tha’ so?” Soko asked, taking a long draft from his drink. “She’d better get ‘er people started. That might take all night.”
“Well, yeah,” Jedrek hadn’t expected this response. He figured Soko would notice the implied request for help. “That’s why we need the herd’s help.”
“And how might you go about securin’ that?” Soko shot Jedrek a nasty glance, and Jedrek gulped. It seems he’d made a mistake.
“Oh, um, sorry Patron.” Jedrek adopted a more humble demeanor. “Might we make use of some of the carrier beasts? We’d be most grateful.”
The Elder had taught Jedrek some international etiquette, at least enough to help him be polite with any member of the clockwork nations. He wasn’t used to the idea of being so formal with members of his own family.
“Nah, nah, I don’t like this.” Soko stood to loom over Jedrek. The scent of the tamer patron’s drink lingered on his breath. “Ya came here expecting obedience. What makes ya think I’m at ye’re beck and call, boy?!”
Motion from the corner of his vision caught Jedrek’s attention. Lyn was jogging between different members of the herd, leaning over to whisper in each of their ears before moving on to the next. Those she spoke to lazily fell in line to follow her. Jedrek quickly returned his gaze to meet Soko’s, fearing wrath if the patron thought he wasn’t heeding his lecture.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Jedrek said in genuine apology. “You’re right, I was expecting you wouldn’t say no. I’m not sure what gave me that idea, but it wasn’t right of me. I was wrong.”
“Aye, ya was. It’s a damn good thing ya recognize it. Good luck wit ya haulin’.” Soko turned to returned to his lounging.
“Patron, could I implore you to reconsider?” Jedrek asked. He knew he was being overly-formal now, but he didn’t know what else to do. “Please think of the Elder. She’s frantic about the missing hunters…”
Jedrek flinched as Soko turned to scowl at him, but whatever he was about to say was interrupted by the feathered lizard.
“Bo.” The pitch was so low that Jedrek could feel it rumble on the air.
Both men gave the beast a confused glance. It hadn’t opened its eyes or moved any, but the sound had definitely come from its mouth.
Soko growled in frustration, but he somehow seemed less angry at Jedrek. “Listen, boy. The herd has its own preparations to make. Ya can’t imagine the challenge of movin’ these stupid beasties such a distance…”
As Soko continued his lecture, Jedrek noticed the ambience had changed. The feathered lizard wasn’t the only one making strange vocalizations. In fact, the chirping, howling, and barking had an order to it. He was certain now, they carried a melody.
He dared to glance towards Lyn again. She was sitting cross-legged with her back to Jedrek and Soko, facing a semicircle of assorted animals. More were approaching her: smaller breeds rushed, like they were excited by the opportunity, while larger ones ambled with either reluctance or ambivalence. Some simply chose to make their contribution from where they lay or grazed.
Lyn had created a beastly choir. The melody was fragmented - Lyn would sing a tone, which cued a sequence of one note per animal - but it was still much more coordinated than Jedrek would have thought possible. He was in awe, but he had just enough presence of mind to pretend he was still listening to Soko.
The only flaw was Moondancer. Either he hadn’t been trained to stay in sequence - or how to hit his note - or Lyn had never invited him to participate, and he was just mimicking the others.
“...lots of us are here ‘cause we ain’t the type ta be ruled over! E’eryone treats the crone like a queen, but she ain’t-”
“-that. So don’t go fancyin’ yerself as some kind o’ prince! I lead the herd because I was mos’ qualified ta do so. The crone was not, and neither are you!”
“Bo.” The feathered lizard seemed to have a prominent baritone role in the musical sequence.
“Remember that next time! I don’t have ta-”
“-answer to anyone, and -”
Are his portions becoming more frequent? Jedrek wondered.
“Just get lost!” Soko gave up. “Lyn! Take ya damn chorus somewhere I can’t hear it, I ain’t in th’ mood!”
Soko gave the lizard a fierce kick on the flank. Jedrek recoiled at the violence, but the lizard was only bothered enough to open one eye and grunt its annoyance. It closed again as Soko skulked to find a new spot to drink.
Jedrek had his suspicions about what just happened, but figured Lyn would be served best if he left without her. He couldn’t believe that Soko had been so uncooperative - and so cruel about it.
Did Lyn always had to put up with that? “C’mon Bo!” He heard her whisper to the lizard as he walked away; she seemed unfazed by Soko’s outburst. If she was always subjected to that temper, how did she manage to remain so upbeat?
That must be the scenario. She tried to warn him beforehand, he just hadn’t been listening. He’d assumed Soko would be amenable, like the rest of his family. Lyn knew different from the start.
He’d walked a good distance away before he felt the rumbling. He turned with a smile to see Lyn riding Bo, flanked by her choir and many of the carrier beasts Jedrek had come to request. With a wink, she grinned back at him.
“You’re kind of amazing, Lyn.” Jedrek said.
She furrowed her brow. “I am?”
“You need to show the rest of the family your trick. That singing is strange but beautiful.”
“Oh, that?” Lyn was genuinely surprised. “I just did that for me, for fun. It’s one of the few things Soko actually encouraged when he caught me doing it. If it weren’t for him trying to talk while I cycled through Bo’s sections, he wouldn’t have been annoyed by it.”
“I should have listened when you said you needed to work on him. You really understand how he thinks. You shouldn’t have to tolerate his abuse though, Lyn. I’m telling the Elder.”
She rubbed the back of her head. “Awh, I don’t know. It’s not all that bad. Like you saw, there are ways to get him to cooperate. You’ve just got to let the favor be his idea, his command.”
“What happens if he finds out you’re not teaching them to sing and you’re actually helping the Elder? He’ll punish you, we both know it. And you shouldn’t be punished for helping your family!”
“How would he find out?” Lyn shrugged. “All he knows is that I’m out of his way, just as he ordered. He’s rough, but it helps him keep control. Dominance is key when it comes to the herd.”
“They listen to you just fine, and you’re not mean.” Jedrek said.
“They don’t obey me like they do him. I’m not giving commands, I’m asking favors.”
“-and you get the same results, near as I can tell.”
“He’s patron for a reason, Jedrek. He’s a father to us, even if he is a little harsh.”
More than a little. Jedrek knew he was more sensitive than some, but he also knew his lecture was probably much less severe than the ones Soko gave his apprentices. Imagining what those must be like made him grind his teeth in anger. And that kick, even if it didn’t hurt Bo...
“Maybe I won’t bother the Elder with it just yet, but I’ll be watching him. She’s got enough to worry about right now. We got off course, thanks for your help Lyn. These guys will get the work done in a fraction of the time.”
“You’re welcome, Jed. Just help me sneak them some extra scraps tonight.”
“Count on it!”