Dawn came; from all the doomsaying she’d heard over the night, Cascata supposed she ought to be surprised. She didn’t know victory could ever be so gloomy.
Well, they did have a point. It wasn’t so much the victory as it was the price. The clan had experienced several expensive victories lately, and this was the costliest. The trend couldn’t continue. Cascata would see what she could do about that.
As sensational as some of them were, the clan had finally managed to sleep. Their fear must not have translated into insomnia. As usual, the only civilian she encountered in her morning rounds was Idris.
“Oi Lad. Should ya be movin’ already?”
“Turns out it was nothing to worry about,” Idris shrugged. “That spine was long enough to hit the heart, but it didn’t. I guess he just couldn’t push through that mess between the ribs.”
That seemed unlikely, but Cascata wasn’t there to see it and Idris was understandably traumatized at the time. Whatever the case, she was relieved.
“Glad ta hear that. I’m told th’ heart’s kinda important,” Cascata clapped him on the shoulder.
He laughed. “That’s what they tell me. Have you seen Jaquan? He wasn’t in the apprentice tent.”
That could be a problem. Cascata doubted he was brave enough to go anywhere dangerous, but still… “Nah, ain’t seen ‘im. This unlike ‘im?”
“Not really,” Idris admitted. “But he was acting weird after the battle. Not like I blame him, but it does have me a little worried.”
“Weird how?” Cascata asked.
“Quiet and hard-to-find weird.” Idris replied.
Shoulda known. “Ah’ll send him yer way when I’m done wit’ ‘im. I wanna have Kirana give ‘im her thoughts on his arch’ry. May as well get that started now.”
“Alright. Thanks Matron.”
She mussed his hair and moved on. Where would that squirt go when he was upset? Historically, the answer was ‘to Idris.’ If he was avoiding his favorite brother on purpose, something had to be wrong.
The Elder told Cascata all about the pair when she suggested they become warrior apprentices. Cascata had a good laugh when she heard about how the nurses first paired them together. They kept having to save Jaquan from an unending sequence of imaginary crises, and Idris was causing constant panics when a nursery headcount came up short because he was napping while the group moved on.
Someone finally realized they should put the human dynamo and his toys next to the human sedative, and they’d been inseparable ever since. It wasn’t long before they could just lay a blanket down with a few hours worth of easier craftswork, and leave the pair be for half a day. Even the adults found sleepy Idris to be a relaxing presence, so he was like an insatiable leech for Jaquan’s anxiety. Likewise, Jaquan’s boundless enthusiasm kept Idris engaged.
Even when Idris’s sleeping problems began and the Elder had him start sleeping in the sun, Jaquan likened the bigger boy to a sleeping bear and felt safest making his crafts next to him. The success of the pairing inspired the nurses to experiment grouping other children into groups of complementary personalities.
Cascata doubted they had a particular affinity for war, but who ever did? She thought of that boy she killed when the Breathers attacked; The type ya shouldn’t let make war, that’s who. The clan needed warriors, so affinity or no, the cooperative apprentice-age boys made good candidates. She hoped they would forgive her.
She’d wandered through most of the camp and still hadn’t found Jaquan. What had him so bothered? The answer could be any of too many possibilities: the boy most scared of dying had just been confronted with the most credible threat to his life yet. The clan just lost a lot of good people, and for all Cascata knew, some of them were especially dear to him. Plus, his best friend was injured by a monster right in front of him.
Hm. Now it feels like I’m gettin’ somewhere.
She spun on her heel and headed towards the woods. If Jaquan was avoiding Idris, it probably had everything to do with Idris. The boy’s personality was nothing like hers, so she wasn’t sure how Idris’s injury affected him. She may not understand ‘why,’ but at least she knew ‘what.’
Once free of the tents and waking family, it was easy to spot him a short distance down the slope. He stood staring at the forest, shivering a little in the morning chill.
“Hey lad,” she greeted, stopping next to him.
“This is the closest I can get.” He said, nodding at the woods. “Even one step further and I just shut down.”
“Good,” Cascata knocked on his head like she would a door. “Ya got no business in there. Wouldn’t do nobody no good.”
“How do you do it, matron?” he asked. “How do you turn you fear off.”
“I ‘unno how other people do. I just don’t think I feel it like you do.”
“So I’m just not good enough…”
“Who says yer way’s worse’n mine? I ain’t sure bein’ numb ta fear means I’m better, what math led ya to think that?”
“Idris almost died because I was too scared to move!”
“Nuh-uh,” Cascata denied. “Idris almost died ‘cause he wrestled a monster.”
“If I weren’t such a coward, if I could have held my bow steady, maybe I could have helped him!”
“And if ya farted fire, we wouldn’t need flint and tinder no more.”
Jaquan jerked his head to look at her like she was insane.
“It’s true, ain’t it? The fantasy don’t do us no good, though. Maybe if you’da shot the critter, you’da saved Id. Or maybe you’d have just ticked it off and died too. There’s a lot coulda happened diff’rent. If my choice were ‘both you an’ Idris die’ or ‘one of you dies and one of you runs away,’ I choose th’ second one. By my math, that means the coward’s better than th’ brave one.”
“Then why even bother making me your apprentice?!” Jaquan demanded. “Why pretend I can do something you know I can’t?!”
“I can’t teach ya ta fart fire. I bet somebody can, but I don’t know ‘em. I can teach ya ta save Idris from monsters, though. I just ain’t had the time yet. The whole point is: there’s lots o’ things people can’t do just by bein’ people. Learnin’ ain’t instant. Quit settin’ dumb stand’rds fer yerself and quit bein’ dramatic.”
“Yeah? It’ll all be okay if I just trust in you and wait? Does that make it your fault if I fail next time and Idris dies?”
“Only if I’m the one tha’ killed him. I gotta take the blame fer e’eryone that dies while I’m alive? Are me hunters’t died last night my fault too? People die. Ain’t nobody I ever heard of was so good they lived forever and saved everyone else while they was at it. ‘ave you? Is that th’ person ya tryin’ to model after?”
Jaquan just glared at her, but she had his attention.
“If I was proper scared, I might be able to use me right arm,” Cascata rubbed her shoulder where Stinger’s claws were still buried. “I did the best I could with me numbness, though. Jus’ do the best ya can with yer sens’tivity and find a way ta do yer duty tha’ makes use of it. ‘cause one day, somethin’ or other’s gonna kill Idris and somethin’s gonna kill you and hopefully sooner’n both o’ them, somethin’s gonna kill me. Ain’t gonna be shame in any one o’ those deaths or for any o’ the survivors, ‘cause e’ery other person ever was an’ ever will be gonna join ya in dyin’.”
Jaquan sighed, and the indignance faded. “You’re not as bad at math as I would have thought.”
Cascata grinned at him. “That had some sass in it. That takes some bravery too, ya know.”
“You don’t scare me, mum,” he turned and hugged her around the waist.
This wasn’t Cascata’s specialty, but it wasn’t unpleasant. She squeezed the shrimp back. “Tha’s alright. You’ll learn ta be brave, you’ll learn how ta shoot when Idris is dumb enough ta wrestle somethin’ he shouldn’t, and more than anything, you’ll learn ta fear me.”
“Challenge accepted, on all counts.”
“Alrigh’, good. Idris was lookin’ for ya. Go sing ‘im a lullaby or whatever, I got stuff ta do.”
“I know. Farting fire, right? You’ll share the secret when you’ve mastered it?”
“Right on yer face, when ye’re asleep. Git on, squirt!”
That was one task off the list. Cascata wondered where Kirana was. They hadn’t finalized the plans for their defense, and Kirana’s experience from the last battle might be exploited.
Cascata found her breaking fast with Evan and Nuray by the remains of last night’s fire.
“Ya had ta see it,” Evan said. “Ya gave me the opening! Right under the mand’ble, remember?"
“No, Evan. I didn’t see you, and I don’t believe you.” Kirana didn’t look up from her food.
“It’s a neat idea at least, Evan,” Nuray teased. “Put it ta use next time!”
“I will! In front o’ both o’ ya, and I’ll save th’ jawbone an’ wear it as a tiara so Kirana don’t forget the next damn mornin’!”
“Great plan there, Princess Evan,” Cascata said. “I was beginnin’ ta worry we’d run outta stuff to make fun of ya for.”
“Mornin’ Cas!” Evan could be graceful about the teasing, when he felt like it. “Wan’ some grub?”
“Yep, but I got some ‘structions for Kirana first. Ya mind, Kira?”
“‘s gotta be more interesting than Evan’s valor fantasies.” She grunted as she stood. Evan stuck his tongue out at her and stole her leftovers.
“Whatcha need, boss?” Kirana asked when they were far enough away.
“Was thinkin’ ‘bout that blabbermouth ya met last night.” Cascata said.
“Yeah? Wanna see if they’ll trade fer Evan?”
“There’s no way they’d agree,” Cascata chuckled. “Was more thinkin’ you use them ears o’ yours an’ find ‘im again.”
“Want his head?”
“Nah, wancha ta see if he’ll negotiate with ya.”
“‘e wouldn’t tell me why they attacked, why’d he cooperate now?”
“‘cause ‘e was under threat. Ya didn’ promise ‘im nothin’. See if we got somethin’ ‘e wants. See if he cares ‘bout ‘is fellow monster. See if sweet talk works where hard talk don’t.”
“Might wanna send a sweeter talker’n me, then,” Kirana cracked her knuckles. “I ain’t gonna tolerate much hagglin’.”
“Then don’t. I can’t send a babysitter with nobody, it’s gotta be somebody who can take care o’ themself and somebody who knows what they lookin’ for. Ya ain’t gotta act like somebody else, jus’ think about whether he’s really wronged ya and, if not, what kinda chance ya’d give ‘im.”
“Easy enough. Ya ain’t gonna complain if it goes bad an’ he dies?”
“Nah. If we both live through this, I won’t have nothin’ ta complain about. If we both die, I won’t be around ta complain. Ya can’t lose.”