Takes place between Hammer 24th and 29th
It is cloudy and cold when Alyenna and I set out for the forest, but at least the blizzard has stopped, and I do not see another storm coming for at least six or seven days. Any other student, I would keep until the spring when the wilds are gentler, but Aly is an unusually skilled woodswoman, and she wants to leave to go to Alsea.
We leave quietly. Aly does not want the other initiates making a fuss over her. We leave only one set of tracks. Zuni's boots and my own soft step carry us over the surface of the snow, leaving no trace as we walk at Aly's side.
When we reach the forest itself, we pause. I don the shape I have already chosen for this journey, the same one I took after the Battle of Willowdale when I pushed myself to exhaustion and slept in the cold streets. A shaggy grey beast, half dog, half wolf. I had seen one once, when I was five years old. My family was passing through a small town and I caught a glimpse of it outside a fur trapper's cabin. The friendly trapper warned me away from his hunting animal, saying that the wolf blood made it just a little wild, not to be trusted around children. I looked at the wolf-dog, lying on the dirt with his tongue hanging out, and felt sad for him. It was unfair to be distrusted because of wild blood. When I later experimented with changing my shape, the wolf-dog's skin felt familiar.
Aly puts a hand on my now furry shoulder. I wuff gently and wait for her to take the lead, to find her campsite. She walks forwards, a slow measured step. After two hours she settles on a spot by a running stream, well-sheltered by close-growing trees. She gathers branches, moving slowly and steadily. Mustn't break a sweat. The water inside her winter clothes would soon chill. At her direction, I dig a shelter in the snow. I can help build this shelter, for I will be sharing it, though the knowledge and direction must come from her. She sets snares for birds, rabbits, squirrels, and travels a little way along the stream to find a spot to fish. I leave her with Zuni and head off a little ways to catch my own dinner. I sneak up on a grouse and two squirrels, and crunch down bones, feathers, and fur. When I return, Aly is smoking a few small fish over a fire and one of her snares has caught a rabbit.
Did you thank them? I ask through the ring now melded into my left paw. It is always important to be mindful of the gift of your food, be it herb or fruit or flesh, and doubly important to observe this gift when in the middle of the Areid.
“I did,” she says.
Her goshawk meanwhile tears into a squirrel. Zuni is sitting by the shelter chewing on a pile of hay. The herd usually winters further south, and Zuni would be with them but for her devotion to me and her warming boots. Thus I do not ask her to forage. Druids must fend for themselves in this journey for the sake of ritual and mindfulness, but we would not impose needless hardship on our bonded beasts.
We crawl into the snow cave together at night. In the morning, I notice the beginnings of frostbite on her fingers.
The hunting is poor the second day. Alyenna boils bark tea to supplement her catch. Her frostbite is getting worse. I wonder if this was a bad idea, if it was wrong to ask her to complete this task in the winter. She catches me staring at her fingers and says “I'll be all right.” Because I know that she's not in danger of losing them yet, and because I do not want to risk turning back from an Areid, we continue. In the evening I briefly regain my native form in order to offer Alyenna the sacred herbs. She refuses, for I mentioned to her once that some consider it proper to wait until the third night to take them, and she is committed to doing this right.
The third day is better. Aly's snares again yield game, and she no longer slips and leaves her face or fingers exposed to the cold. But the spirits are quiet. I see only a few kachina. Even here, I expect they are sluggish along with the sap and with so many animals hibernating. I offer her again the herbs and this time she accepts and throws one of the Firewalkers' bundles onto the embers. She gives herself over to their influence and drifts in and out of self-awareness all night as I lie beside her and we share each others' heat. But in the morning it is clear she has not yet had her proper vision.
“What if they don't want me?” she asks.
Patience. And then, because I see she still doubts: If the spirits do not claim you, it is because 'you are better as a huntress than as a druid. And then the fault is mine for trying to turn you into something you are not.
I am surprised it is taking this long. Aly is with her wood-lore almost a druid already. The Areid is a mysterious and potent ritual, but in her case, I'd considered it almost a formality. And in these harsh conditions, visions should by all rights come faster. I truly expected that by the third day, the herbs would be all she needed.
The subdued mood lifts somewhat as Aly finds while checking her snares an old boar, and brings him down with a twinned arrow in the heart. The rest of the day is given over to harvesting this bounty. I suggest that she use the boar's skin for her spirit bag. She uses the quick-tanning charm to speed the soaking and softening, and gets to work preparing the bag. She seems barely to notice the cold at all.
That evening, boarhide now a serviceable leather, she again takes the shaman's herbs.
As the night just begins to bend to morning, still long before the dawn, she wakes and leaves the shelter. I snap awake as well as soon as I am disturbed, and follow her. She seems almost to be sleepwalking. We travel some distance from the camp. Her tread is sure. She does not hesitate or stumble. Soon, we find ourselves at a small lake surrounded by willow trees. I have not seen this lake or these trees before. Aly stands at the edge of the lake. Her lips move as if she is talking to someone. I sense a presence, but see, hear, and smell nothing. This is all right. The vision was not meant for me.
It is not long before Aly sits on the snow with her patch of boarhide, marking on it the rune meaning “Moon-huntress.” When she is done, she looks up and notices me. I again leave the wolf-dog for my native form, and give her the final vows.
“You are a druid now,” I say when we're done. “Congratulations. How would you like to celebrate?”
“Could we see the Firewalkers?” She wants to make friends before leaving for the elves.
The Firewalkers are most impressed when she lights three daggers on fire and starts to juggle.