In many ways, the second day started different from the first. The sun was high in the sky before they started moving. This happened despite the lack of ceremony for those who probably wouldn’t be coming home. Unlike the lot who never returned from the last hunt, they knew for certain which hunters would not feel abandoned by the clan moving on without them.
Inga’s was no longer the only voice expressing doubt about their ability to continue living off the woods. This was where the changes had looped back around to feel familiar again: Inga couldn’t decide if she was more guilty about the mistakes she’d just made or the ones she was about to make.
“Ya ever think ya might bring about yer own bad luck by bein’ so broody?” Cascata’s tolerance for her malaise was also familiar.
“No, Cas,” Inga retorted. “I don’t! Because all my life, I’ve been the bright-eyed optimist, the dreamer, the one who comforts the brooders! So no, I don’t think brooding brings bad luck. I think life is just a series of bad luck, and it eventually wears us down until we become brooders.”
“I think ye’re actually still that optimus type,” Cascata replied. “I think ya just ain’t ate breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry.” Inga pouted.
“Then eat ‘cause ridin’s boring. And ‘cause you’re buggin’ me.” Cascata reached up and dropped a banana into Inga’s lap. Inga continued pouting, but peeled the banana.
“I’m not wrong about the change, you know.” Inga took a bite. Everything felt different ever since she woke up after the Breather attack, and the moment she saw that horde yesterday she knew for certain that things could never be the same. “This way of life might not be viable anymore.”
“Aye, somethin’s changed, ya ain’t wrong about tha’,” Cascata conceded, much to Inga’s surprise. “I ain’t sold on the idea that everythin’s gotta change ‘cause of it, though.”
“We may not have long to decide, Cas! Think if we’re attacked in those numbers again tonight, and then again the day after, and on and on. Where does that road lead?”
Cascata shrugged. “We all die and get ate by monsters.”
“We all die and get eaten by monsters!” Inga repeated with increased volume.
“Well o’ course it’s gonna sound bad when ya scream it...” Cascata muttered.
“It sounds bad no matter how you say it! There is literally nothing worse!!”
“Well, it may not be good, but I can think o’ worse. C’mon Mum, that was always the worst-case. Me ‘unters face that threat e’ery hunt.”
“The chances of it happening are much worse now. Believe me, I don’t want to leave the woods. I just don’t see any mitigating factor. Do you?”
I dunno what mini-gating is, but I do know we shouldn’t decide stuff when we got things we ain’t sure about.” Cascata’s face lit up. “Tha’s right, I forgot ta tell ya about Kirana’s loudmouth!”
“Her mouth isn’t so loud as it is sharp,” Inga observed.
“Ha!” Cascata must have just realized what it sounded like she said. “No, I don’ mean Kirana’s loud mouth, I mean the loudmouth she met in th’ group o’ monsters. One of ‘em talked, Mum, talked and listened to ‘er. She tried ta kill it, o’ course, and it fought back, but maybe they ain’t all jus’ madness and murder. Maybe we c’n settle the war without winnin’ or losin’, by usin’ that other method ya told me about.”
“Diplomacy,” Inga offered. “And you’re serious? Kirana spoke with one?”
“She ain’t Evan, she wouldn’t lie ‘bout that.”
Inga considered. If it were true, this could be huge. There were countless implications to a talking denizen of the Dawnless Woods, particularly if one or more were disgruntled…
“Did you just say ‘of course she tried to kill it?’ How is that ‘of course?!’ When someone or something talks to Kirana, her first instinct should not be to kill it!”
“It’s what I woulda done, if a monster talked to me!”
“I don’t doubt it! That’s still a problem, Cascata!”
“Train a dog to sic rabbits then complain when it bring ya one…”
“I’m angry with any talking dog that kills a talking rabbit!”
Cascata scoffed. “Ye’re impossible to please some days, ya know that?”
“You tell your hunters to be nice to any talking monsters, and you tell them to introduce me to them!”
“‘kay, I done the first part already! And ya don’t have ta yell, I’ll do the second part.”
“Okay, good,” Inga sighed heavily. “Child, you’ll be the death of me.”
“Never gonna get that mercy from me, Mum.” Cascata grinned and dropped an apple in her lap. “After today, I ain’t never lettin’ ya skip breakfast again, neither.”
“You’re not my Mum,” Inga grumbled, but rubbed the dirt off her apple and took a bite.
“Ya think we can find some sorta common int’rest with ‘em?” Cascata asked.
“No. But I’m not sure I believe they can talk, either. If I’m wrong about one, I might be wrong about the other. Besides, if it can talk but refuses to compromise, there are other ways it can be useful.”
“‘e ain’t gonna be easy to capture if ‘e doesn’t like us. Not when we fightin’ all the other ones. Kirana says e’s pretty strong.”
“Even if he weren’t, we’re stretched too thin to try. You’re right about that. We’re not even sure if we’ll see him again. Then again, if there’s one speaker, there are likely others...”
“I’n’t this one of those things we can only plan so much for?”
“I’m afraid it likely is,” Inga sighed. “Let your warriors offer peace and protection. If they decline the offer, forget about them and focus on the battle. If we survive this new crisis, then we can focus on hunting a live speaker.”
Inga frowned at her apple. Either Cascata was right about breakfast, or discussing practical matters was helping her mood. The one matter was settled, why not try another?
“What’s wrong with Soko?” Inga asked.
Cascata scoffed. “Now ya notice? I been tellin’ ya all my life that he ain’t right.”
“Yes, the hyperbole is nice,” Inga rolled her eyes. Cascata had complained before, but it was hardly ‘all her life.’ “But I mean it. You managed to stop his rampage, you must understand something about how his mind works.”
“Tha’s jus’ insulting…” Cascata grumbled.
“Okay, I phrased that poorly. I don’t expect you’ll know why, but can you tell me why you think he didn’t lead the herd to the warriors’ aid? Why did Lyn have to take the lead, and why did he get mad at her for it?” Inga felt a little embarrassed to admit this, but: “I didn’t even know we could use the herd that way.”
“Whatcha think th’ meat-eaters be for? They don’t lift stuff, they don’t taste good, only half of ‘em are any good fer snugglin’...”
“‘e always said he was trainin’ em to help fight! He’s never made sense, he does stuff an’ I get confused about why, then he gets mad ‘n claims he’s got some plan but it never happens. ‘is brain don’t work right, Mum. He does stuff and then thinks about why after. It ain’t even thinkin’, he just takes guesses as to why he done it.”
Yet you wonder why I’d say you think like him. Inga resisted the urge to say it out loud. She was beginning to think there really was more to this than she assumed. Neither of them had been her apprentices when they were children, but Cascata often came to the elder to share both victories and worries. Soko never did. Inga assumed he’d simply bonded with another adult, but maybe he never shared his burden with anyone else. Maybe his problems just kept adding up until they became a much bigger problem.
“So what made you think to give him command of the defense?” Inga asked. “How did you know that would appease him?”
“Tha’ was ‘is idea,” Cascata corrected. “I just admitted I failed.”
A much bigger problem it is. “Oh Cas, you didn’t fail…”
“I know that,” Cascata grinned. “I’m great. I jus’ told ‘im so ta shut him up. Think it gave ‘im the idea ta take charge? Wants ta show me how much better he’d do it?”
“Maybe.” Inga stroked her chin thoughtfully. “I’ll keep a much, much closer eye on him. In the meantime, don’t leave it all up to him. Stay involved.”
“Oh, ya ain’t gotta worry ‘bout that,” Cascata smirked.
The atmosphere had been tense when they left, but as the trek continued, the clan seemed to get bored with the fear. The formation loosened, and it wasn’t long before people were migrating between groups again. The night’s attack had been unprecedented, but they were still a hardy bunch. Loss and anxiety were familiar concepts, so even when they came in larger doses, the family was quick to recover.
The less the civilians talked about war, the better. Inga shelved those discussions when her children came to visit. This could be their last day together, and even if it meant diminished chances of survival, she wouldn’t make it any more somber than it had to be.
The sun lazed across the sky as the caravan plodded its way over the grass. Progress was slow on both fronts, but such was the nature of things. Eventually, both would reach their destinations, and as the sun neared its end the clan began to erect an early camp.
Only a dumb or honorable enemy would attack at the same time on consecutive days. After the things she’d seen, Inga couldn’t be certain whether these monsters could wear either label. She watched with her kin as the sun touched the horizon.
They heard the rumbling even before Svara came sprinting back to camp with the bad news. It came with rhythm this time, with purposeful march instead of the incessant quake caused by a frenzied charge.
They blackened a nearby hill as they slowly swarmed over it. Inga didn’t need Svara to know their numbers were greater than before. The new signs of organization were just as ominous. At least this time they had the herd’s cooperation to begin with, and the enemy wasn’t surprising them.
This wasn’t Inga’s duty, it never had been. Still, even as the players began their game, she wracked her mind for a way to kill or rout a host of this size. The histories of human conflict didn’t yield much wisdom about defeating an army of monsters. Maybe she could only pray the monsters knew even less about humans.