The hour came without any sign of Inga’s missing children, but she’d waited as long as she dared. Perhaps she’d waited too long and doomed them all. She knew it could be true, even knew that it was likely; time was on her nameless enemy’s side. All the same, she could barely bring herself to give the order.
The sun wasn’t up yet, and the lack of moon and star meant the morning would be gloomy. On such a dark dawn, she felt just as lost in the woods as her missing children. It even felt like Kadmus or Gelilah were right over the next hill. Her companions wouldn’t likely appreciate that perspective, but in her current mood, Inga wouldn’t mind joining them. The longer life went, the more death seemed like a respite.
For all the lectures over youthful fantasies and unrealistic goals, it seemed right that she’d learn to be as dark and moody as her own elders had been. It was a melancholy progression, had the distinct flavor of those tragic plays the some of the other founders tried to pass down to their progeny. They’d been gone too long to try and recite now, but Inga thought she might be able to appreciate that kind of poetry now.
“Ya gonna sulk all day, Mum?” Cascata’s voice smiled in the darkness above Inga. Without any sign of effort, she scooped the older woman up in one arm and helped her into the saddle. “Ya feel that cloud-cover, don’tcha? Tha’s you. You draggin’ they mood down.”
“You’ve got it backwards, Cas,” Inga wasn’t feeling the snark, but she wasn’t about to let Cascata win. “They’re the ones keeping me down. I’m not an anchor, they’re a ceiling!”
Cascata’s grin sounded wider. “Ah, my mistake.” A torch approached them, but Inga couldn’t see the bearer’s face. Cascata quietly acknowledged them. “We ready, do it.”
She saw Evan’s face flash in the torchlight as he wound back to throw it. It twirled in an arc to land in the deep-but-narrow firepit, dug in the center of an arrow shape they’d flattened in the field flora.
It was only a gesture; even a toddler could deduce which direction the clan had gone. Still, Inga couldn’t bear the thought of having a child come home and feel abandoned. At least this way they knew home was still waiting, would always wait.
The torch was the signal. The black seemed just a little brighter from the shouts and sounds of marching. This would be the longest trek the clan had ever attempted. Inga didn’t feel much like cheering up, but she also knew she wouldn’t last if this anxiety persisted. Distraction would be prudent.
“How are the new apprentices doing?” She asked, hoping Cascata hadn’t wandered off.
“Well. You’d be proud, I think,” Cascata hesitated. “I was meanin’ ta ask ya, though. Was Idris born to us?”
Inga was surprised by the question, mostly because Cascata should know better. “He’s your son, Cas. Everyone of age is his mother or father. You know we don’t distinguish lineage like that, so why ask?”
“‘Cause for the first time ever I ‘spect it might help ta know,” Cascata was unfazed. “Somethin’ be eatin’ at ‘im, Mum.”
Mum. Why can’t they all call me Mum? Why can’t she call me Mum when others are around? Why call me Mum when the implications behind your question would mean I’m not your Mum?
“What do you think it might be, to think his birthplace matters?” Inga asked.
“I ask because I’m graspin’ at nothin’. Babes sometimes look like they sires, right? Can they also share some of they torments like they share eyes or hair?”
Proof that insight can be learned. “Sure. I see why you might ask now, but it’s the wrong question. Tell me what happened, Cas.”
“‘e pushed himself too hard yesterday. I’ve seen it before, but not like this. It’s usually from diff’rent personality, ones like Dahlia or Trent. Either that or the trainer messes up an’ encourages ‘em beyond their limit. Idris ain’t like that, y’know? He’s sorta lazy.”
“I do know what you mean,” Inga admitted. She wouldn’t use the word ‘lazy,’ though. “I suppose he may have just wanted to impress you.”
“Ya may not be far off, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The first thing ‘e said was like ‘don’t give up on me.’”
To believe Cascata might give up on an apprentice she picked was to misunderstand the hunter matron. Why did he believe she might, then? Inga recalled the troubles Idris used to have; the nightmares, the sleep talking and walking, his confusion between memories of reality and those of dreams he’d had. These problems seemed to stop when she had him sleep in the sun, but maybe some psychological damage lingered.
She hadn’t seen half as much of him since she prescribed the new sleep schedule. It kept him up through most of the night, after all. Maybe she’d assumed the problem was solved before it really was.
“So ah’m right ta worry a bit?” Cascata interpreted Inga’s silence.
“Yes. It’s important we don’t overreact, though. If we pry too much, he may feel invaded and withdraw. It’s likely an odd one-off, but it would be wise to watch for other signs.”
“Is there anythin’ else I should know? ‘as anything ‘appened to ‘im that I wasn’t around ta see?”
That’s just the same question with different words. Inga sighed. She happened to know the answer, and she also knew Cascata understood the philosophy of communal parentage. Inga may as well share.
“He descends from Midway refugees, from people born of people who were with us at the beginning. He’s never been away from us. Any damage he’s suffered, he’s suffered with us. You keep that to yourself, Cas. It could damage the children whose lineage we’ll never know.”
“Aye, I know. That leaves me a little lost though, Mum. What should I do?”
“Remember when I said it’s probably a one-off? That means the solution is bound to be simpler than we expect. Assume that request he made came from a place of desperation, that it was the most honest thing he ever said yesterday. All you need to do is not give up on him.”
It sounded like Cascata’s smile had returned. “I ain’t used ta easy answers when it comes ta people who’re smarter than me.”
“It’s just a different kind of smart, dear. A complicated kind.”
“If ya say so. Don’ really bother me!” Cascata chuckled. “I got plenty other assets.”
Inga laughed. “That you do, dear.”
The distraction worked. The grey sky brightened with the rising sun, and despite her family’s somber mood, Inga didn’t feel her waking despair. The woods still seemed even more ominous than usual, like the darkness could stretch out to claim its revenge at any moment. The difference was that Inga now cared about whether or not that happened.
The hunters walked between the rest of the clan and the woods, as they always did between camps. Per instruction, they seemed more wary today, though the threat of storm and their missing siblings likely gave them more reason than their matron’s aloof authority.
Svara travelled one degree closer to the woods. She was always moving, her Breathing art allowing her to sprint without exertion. She ran up and down the line, shifting with the wind to stay ahead of any threat it might betray.
The tension survived most of the morning, but as midday approached, their formation became more fluid. Members, particularly children, darted between groups as they became bored with the march’s slow pace. Many came to greet the elder or feed her shaggy mount some fruit.
The clouds eventually thinned, which boded well for their schedule. Rain made for unpleasant travel and would slow the herd’s march. As the sun began to dip, Inga found hope that the first day would end without incident. Things were finally feeling familiar, like the countless other marches they’d completed before.
“Other side!” The moment Svara’s voice reached her, Inga knew that their old way of life was over. “Switch, quick!”
“Oi!” Cascata bellowed. “To me, Svara.”
The young scout followed the sound and rushed to her matron. Her face was even paler than normal. “We need to put our defenses on the other side. Something’s coming, but not from the forest.”
“Weird,” Cascata commented, but heeded her apprentice. “Aaay-UP!”
The warrior matron’s voice carried far, and other hunters relayed the call along the line. They streamed towards her, and the rest of the family began to collapse into a more defendable group.
“Svara, can ya tell where they’ll come?”
She nodded. “Yes, but… I can’t tell you what they are.”
“Which means it’s still the enemy we expected. Show us where to set up and then join the apprentices, lass. We’ll take care o’ this.”
“Follow Svara!” Cascata shouted. “Time ta avenge the fallen, ya meatheads. Make sure ta get all the anger out ye’re systems, we ain’t gonna let ‘em bring us a second round!”
The hunters’ roaring response almost reassured Inga, but the guilt was too much. She’d been right all along, had lingered too long. The field sloped up as it stretched away from the forest, so they couldn’t see the collection of horror coming their way until it was almost on them.
“Cute,” Cascata’s smirk could be heard in her voice as she walked away. “Le’s hope they fight better’n they think!”
Inga had no such hope. It had never been certain, but she’d wanted more Fleahorns, more singular opponents. The horde that bore down on them was a sign of organization, of intelligence. If the clan ever had an advantage over Midway’s usurper, it would have been its individuals’ cunning over the woods’ feral denizens. It now appeared that no such advantage ever existed.
If this battle could be won, it would not be without cost. More of her children were about to die, and Inga knew it was all her fault.