The carnage was familiar, but the scale was not. Everyone had assumed Lyn would become a tamer, so they’d exposed her to the horrors of survival at a very young age. The idea wasn’t new: her dear friends could - no, must - sometimes kill each other. The struggle had been long and difficult, but she learned to accept the need for violence. Something so ubiquitous just had to be necessary.
Seeing so much of it, when her family was the target, was falling victim to such a needless brand of it…
Lyn could do more than accept its existence now. She actually wanted to be a little violent herself.
The battle had inched its way towards them, and now the hunters fought with their backs against the caravan. The enemy wasn’t trying to bypass the line anymore, but the hunters were struggling with the remaining monsters. The weak were the first to die, and the survivors’ strength only made their deaths slower.
The scene was maddening. So why was Soko so aloof about this?
So much of this was unprecedented. She’d never doubted her patron before, and she knew she still shouldn’t. He was chosen to lead the herd, nobody in the clan had ever argued that. Surely that faith was needed now more than ever, but she couldn’t muster it. This situation was wrong, and the clan should rally to make it right. Why wasn’t the herd doing its part?
“Patron,” Lyn needed reassurance.
“Mm?” He mumbled, distracted. Was he daydreaming?
“Shouldn’t we help?” She asked.
“Oi,” he offered one of the gentler smiles she’d seen from him. “We warriors now? Did nobody tell me?”
“No,” Lyn answered, despite the probability his question was rhetorical. “Well, you sort of are, I guess. And the herd would be, if they were wild. They would fight. They would win!”
“True, both o those be true. But we have our duty and tha’ Cascata has hers. If she thinks she can ‘andle it, we better let ‘er.”
Lyn looked back to the battle. The clan’s warriors pried one of their own from a strange jaw-like weapon on a dead enemy. The victim’s eye were wild from rage and pain.
“Perhaps we could persuade her by showing what we have to offer,” Lyn offered. “Maybe we can save somebody who would’ve died without our help. I- what would we do if somebody died and we could have stopped it.”
“There’s been a whole lot of that through the years. ‘What if’ ain’t a question either of us be smart enough ta answer. The rest of the leadership be half as wise as they think they are, they c’n come ask us ta help.”
Lyn couldn’t tell if he was being wise or indignant about some old slight. Every lesson the clan ever taught was about survival. She never truly felt like that had been at risk before, so maybe this anxiety was just a symptom of the first time she’d witnessed a real threat. Something felt right about leaving things to the system, but what if they’d missed something? And what if the leadership was as conflicted as she was about this?
Maybe she was just as helpless as she felt. Maybe the only thing she could do is try to endure this.
The battle ground on without any sign of an advantage on either side. For brief, hopeful moments, the two sides would part. The clan would take the opportunity to rest and give the attackers a chance to retreat, but eventually one of the monsters would succumb to a frenzy and reignite the war.
When the fighting was on, the hunters would attack in squads. They outnumbered the monsters now, which was fortunate because many would stumble during their charge or find their weapons slip out of a weakening grip. The hunters had cooperation and numbers, but the monsters were built better and showed no signs of tiring.
It could go on for hours. The elder might know what they should do. Where could she find her? She knew one answer: not here. She began to walk towards her huddled family.
“Oi. Where ya think ye’re goin’?”
“Oh. Um, may I go see the elder, patron? I feel like she could calm me down.”
“It’s not safe. Stay with me, I’ll protect you. If you’re unsettled, don’t watch.”
Like that’s an option. You think I want to? “Please, patron. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Please let me see her.”
“I said no, Lyn.”
“Soko!” She whirled and stomped. “You may be my patron, but you don’t own me!”
This surprised even her. Where had these words come from? Was this just how she was feeling now, a temporary thing? I’m no poet, I don’t think I can find the words the moment they’re born…
The tamer patron was surprised, but also a little amused. “I’m your father, Lyn. As your patron, I’m your most important father. I know best. You will stay.”
“I won’t!” She knew better than this. She knew how to get what she needed from him, and this wasn’t it. Obstinance would only provoke him, so why?
The situation was confusing - her own reaction was confusing - but it wouldn’t change her mind. She bolted towards her family.
“Lyn! Dammit girl, stop!” She heard him come after her.
Most of the herd had been watching the fight with hackles raised, so her sprint startled individual members as she ran past. There wasn’t time to apologize; she needed to escape.
The gap between the battle and the clan had all but disappeared. The civilian members seemed conflicted over whether they should join the fight or flee. With the forest at their backs, Lyn supposed the latter wasn’t a real option.
She recognized a potter on the close end of the battle lines. Somehow he’d been forced to grapple with a monster and gone unnoticed by the warriors. His duties weren’t physically demanding, and he wasn’t a particularly large man, but he was still managing to keep the creature at bay.
The monster became an easy target for Lyn’s mounting frustration. It was at the closest edge of the caravan anyway. At best, she’d help a father in need. At worst, the torment would stop.
Lyn charged him and dove into his side with all her might. She bounced like a ball off a wall and fell on her butt. Her target looked down at her with a look of malice, and she wondered if she was about to die.
What did it matter? She had no regrets, and she wouldn’t get up. She began to climb back up.
A full-grown mulcher clomped up beside her and slammed into the monster, sending him flying. The potter lost his grip and stumbled, but smiled in gratitude. A blur of fur and multiple tails streaked to the fallen monster and mauled it without mercy. It would seem that Soko wasn’t the only one to chase her.
The ground rumbled under the herd’s stampede. The faster beasts were already plowing into the enemy with fangs, claws, and horns adapted to surviving the brutal environment inside the Dawnless Woods. The bulk of the herd couldn’t even get close before the monsters began to flee; the hunters had fought them to a standstill, so even these abominations couldn’t hope to stand up to the herd. In an instant, the battle had been decided.
The hunters were far too tired to chase. Most doubled over or collapsed where they stood, panting. The greater part of the clan was quiet as they watched the enemy run, too stricken by the loss of their dead to celebrate. The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and the world settled into a tense stillness.
“Lyn!” Soko seemed to be the only living thing who was numb to the new atmosphere. He panted a little as he finally caught up. “What’s gotten inta yer idiot head?!”
“Come on, Soko,” the potter who Lyn tried to help stepped between them. “I don’t know what’s got you so angry, but don’t take it out on her. Lyn probably saved my life. Let that compensate for whatever she did.”
“Savin’ you is what she did wrong!” Soko shoved him aside. “Shut yer worthless mouth and stay outta my way!”
The potter didn’t appear to know how he wanted to react, but Soko didn’t give him time to decide. “Ye’re mah best apprentice. Ya give me the best results with the least trouble. But if ye’re gonna be actin’ out every time things get tough, then we ‘ave problems!”
“We do have problems!” Lyn yelled back. “I don’t give you much trouble because your whims don’t trouble me either. Tonight was different, and what I did had nothing to do with my duties! I’m not your slave, patron!”
“Endangerin’ the herd has nothin’ ta do with yer duties, lass?!” Soko loomed over her. “I just watched ya lead me flock into battle without me preparation, lass. I’d say that has somethin’ ta do with tamin’!”
Lyn looked away and blushed. He had a point. “I-I never meant to…”
“Easy, patron,” the potter matron appeared at their side, trying to insert herself between them. “Tensions are high, and the situation was chaotic. We all lost control of things, one way or another. Let’s…”
“Go carve it into a vase, potter, I ain’t got time for you!”
“I’ll carve it on yer corpse, ya keep this up!” Cascata sheparded Lyn behind her and touched her forehead to Soko’s. She was an intimidating figure, especially when mad, especially when smeared with blood and grime. “I never hear ya talkin’ bad about the spirits ye’re always suckin’ down. Who ya think makes th’ pots those’re stored in.”
“Ah, the failure matron, steppin’ in ta defend the family!” Soko wasn’t intimidated. “Ya sure you wanna pick this fight? Who’s gonna save ya from me when I’m th’ one who just saved ya from them?”
“Ya hit yer head recently, Soko? Ya were just yellin’ at yer apprentice ‘cause she took charge when you refused to. I don’t gotta worry about failure ‘cause I know if, by some miracle, you manage to put up a fight, I got Lyn ta help me out. We both know why ye’re mad, little man. When it mattered, th’ herd turned to its real leader. Th’ pack followed its alpha -female dog- an’ left its toothless ol’ mutt ta fend fer himself. No amount o’ barkin’s gonna change what we all saw!”
Soko opened and closed his mouth several times, but words failed him. His face reddened and he clenched his fists.
“Do it, dropout. Gimme an excuse.”
“Stop it, both of you!” the potter matron whispered. “The elder is barely holding on as it is!”
Lyn scanned the clan until she found her. The old woman looked frailer than Lyn had ever seen her, pale and limp and dead-eyed. The elder finally looked her age, and Lyn knew that was a very bad sign.
Cascata also seemed affected by the sight. “Look, I ‘ad me own apprentices breakin’ rank tonight. If they ‘adn’t, Idris and a bunch of others might be dead too. We weren’t prepared, Soko, neither of us. Maybe my part o’ that was worse than yours, I’m down ten-odd hunters. Can we stow the lectures until we figure out what ta do when they come back?”
He was still fuming, but Lyn knew that Cascata had forced his hand. This was a challenge from who he saw as his primary rival. He would not back down.
“Ya failed tonight, matron,” Soko said loudly, more to the clan than Cascata. “When them critters come back, I’ll be the one ta decide ‘ow they die.”
“Fair enough,” Cascata conceded. “The warriors an’ I’ll be at yer service.”
Soko turned and stormed away, whistling for the herd to follow. Lyn would usually fall into line to prepare them for the night, but she wasn’t ready to suspend her newfound resentment for the patron yet. She felt a little guilty for putting more burden on the other apprentices, but hoped they would understand.
Besides, she needed to attend to another matter. “It wasn’t quite what you think, matron.”
“Hm?” The matron’s mind must have been elsewhere. “Wha’s that, lass?”
“I didn’t lead the herd anywhere. I just wanted to find the elder. I just wanted some comfort. The way things happened, it was just a misunderstanding. An accident.”
“A blessed one,” Cascata smiled and pulled Lyn into an embrace. “Soko’n me got history, but that ‘ad nothin’ to do wit’ me words. Ya can lead by shoutin’ an’ you can lead by deed, lass. Ya done good tonight, accident or no. Thankya Lyn. You’s a treasure b’yond measure!”
To Lyn’s surprise, tears clouded her vision. What was this about? Sure, Soko never gave praise, but a lack of belittlement was just as good. Wasn’t it? This reaction surprised her, and it wasn’t the first time such a thing happened that night. Something big had changed.
“Give yer idiot patron some time to cool down, alrigh’? Let him ‘andle the ‘erd, you just help with camp tonight. I gotta tend to some other things, you gonna be okay?”
Lyn tried to wipe her eyes so the matron wouldn’t notice, then pulled away and nodded. Cascata gave her one more smile, then walked towards a distant figure.
“‘ow ya feelin’, Kirana? Find somethin’ interestin’ out there?” the hunter matron called.
The tension was thick and tempers were flaring, but the clan had begun to prepare camp for the night. Lyn left Cascata to her duties and joined Dahlia, Svara, and her other somber siblings. The clan had both won and lost that night, and like the others, Lyn didn’t think the final score was one to celebrate.