Fel (James Galloway)

Axe of the Dwarven King

Chapter 3

Though it was furious and powerful, it was also brief. The sandstorm blew itself out just before dawn, leaving a pall of light dust hanging in the frosty morning air like a haze, causing the very air itself to almost glow as the red rays of the rising sun reflected off the tiny motes. It was a glorious morning, as far as Tarrin was concerned, for it was a day filled to overflowing with possibilities. He'd forgotten what that had felt like, waking up in the morning and having an entire world full of things laid out before him, not knowing where he was going or what was going to happen, a day ripe with chances for discovery and excitement. Perhaps that strange feeling was why Were-cats were so nomadic, rarely staying in their chosen territory for very long, always out and about and wandering the land. He hadn't felt this way since he was out hunting the Firestaff, waking up every day uncertain what was to come, but in a very strange way, enjoying it for its diversity and excitement. Back home, he woke up and did the same thing more or less, just about every day. But today...today was new, it was unknown, it was different. And he found himself almost pacing waiting for the others to get ready to move. He wanted to go see what would cross his path this day, what new challenges and new discoveries were waiting for him just over the horizon.

Despite everything that had happened, Tarrin still had something of an adventurous spirit, a throwback to his youth, before he was turned Were. A youth spent aimlessly wandering in places he wasn't supposed to be, doing things he wasn't supposed to do, and living a life of exploration and discovery. Perhaps that part of him would never disappear...and Tarrin hoped fervently that it never would.

The cubs were up and finishing breakfast, something that Allia had ventured out and killed as the sandstorm died off. Eron had found the idea of eating something he couldn't even name to be quite fun, but Jasana didn't seem to have her brother's enthusiasm. Tarrin could tell by looking at her that she was already feeling like this trip wasn't going as she envisioned it, and he knew why. Tarrin forbidding her from using magic had already begun to wear on her. Back home, Jasana went out of her way to use magic to do almost everything, from her daily chores to fetching a cup from a counter. She almost relied on it the same way the Sha'Kar did, and already he could feel her fingers itching to use Sorcery to perform the most mundane tasks. Jasana had always been fascinated by Sorcery, almost obsessed with it, ever since Jenna had started training her. Tarrin didn't mind her learning--he wanted her to learn--but he shared Jesmind's reservations that perhaps she used Sorcery maybe a little too much. Bringing her out here, where she was forbidden to use magic, was a very dramatic and blunt manner of showing her that. Several times since she'd awakened, he felt her very nearly use Sorcery, but a withering stare from her father reminded her that doing so would bring swift and unwanted punishment. He knew his daughter, and he knew that as soon as she felt that coming to the desert had exhausted all possibilities for her, she would intentionally disobey him, specifically to be sent home, a punishment that would in itself be her salvation from an unwanted situation. He had quite a surprise for her when she did, because she wasn't going.

Tarrin worried about his daughter, because, to put it quite bluntly and fully blaming himself, she was spoiled. She wasn't doted upon, nor was she given all that she desired, her kind of spoiling was the kind of a child that would stoop to any means necessary to get her own way. That was just as bad as a doting parent lavishing a child with gifts, but it was alot harder to break, because of Jasana's very powerful will. A year or more of concentrated effort from both parents had done very little to break their cub of her conceited mannerisms, an outlook where what she wanted was more important than absolutely everything else in the world. Tarrin blamed himself because he still had yet to change her. Even now, she was just as conniving, cunning, underhanded, and ruthless as she had been when he'd first met her. Her tactics had changed somewhat, but that was only because things recently hadn't required anything absolutely drastic in order to secure her own desires. He had little doubt that if she was continually refused her wishes, she would resort to drastic acts to secure her desired outcome. Tarrin was dealing with a child that had intentionally put herself in danger by tapping into her magical power to force her father to remain with her, then intentionally turned him against his will because she wanted him to be Were. This was a child capable of almost anything if she wasn't getting what she wanted, and given her power and her magical gifts, that was a combination that had disastrous possibilities. She had to learn responsibility, responisiblity for her actions and a responsibility in using her magical gifts. And the desert was an excellent teacher of responsibility.

Tarrin knew Jasana very well, probably better than she knew herself. He knew all the signs of when her mind was at work, and if he knew what she wanted, he could usually predict what she was going to do. That insight into his daughter's complicated little mind, an insight that, admittedly, was partially granted to him because of his experience with Keritanima, was his one true weapon in his war to change her.

Perhaps he should have known that it was going to be much harder. The Were-cat mind itself made it very difficult to force change from outside, because of the tendency to ignore the past. A Were-cat lived now, and what happened in the past, though remembered, carried very little weight or impact to them. It could be said with great certainty that Were-cats were doomed to endlessly repeat the mistakes they made in the past, because the learning experience from those mistakes didn't impact them as much as it did most other sentient beings. Since it was in the past, it really didn't matter. That attitude allowed them to forget fights and other things that could be forgotten, but it also made it harder for them to learn from their mistakes. Tarrin himself suffered from that phenomenon to some degree, but not nearly as bad as some other Were-cats, like Jesmind. Tarrin tended to overlook things in the past that didn't have such an impact that they stood out in his mind, meaning that only things that killed someone really made him sit up and take notice of them.

That wasn't to say that Jasana hadn't had some traumatic work done on her. The punishment she'd received after turning Tarrin Were was brutal, almost merciless, but unlike an adult, who would mark those consequences and strive to avoid having it happen in the future, Jasana hadn't shown the same wisdom. She was only a child, no matter how mature she seemed from time to time. Jasana's child mind had buried that wicked punishment, ignored it, tried to forget it, and once the consequences were taken off the table in her mind, that left her free to pursue the acts that brought about the punishment in the first place. In a way, he was sure that before she embarked on her crusades of connivery, she did consider the consequences, if only for a moment. But unless the punishment was something so ghastly that it wasn't worth it, she would make the attempt. Jasana was a very subtle little girl sometimes, and all of her manipulation wasn't always evident, even to him.

The question he always asked himself was what it would take. If not even turning her father, a crime punishable by death in the laws of Fae-da'Nar, had been enough to dissuade her, then what would? What would it take to finally open Jasana's eyes to the simple fact that life wasn't about getting her own way all the time? Punishing her didn't seem to do it, because the nature of the Were-cat mind would make her give the consequences less and less weight in her mind. He knew that he had to make her want to change, that was the only way that it was going to happen. No Were-cat could be forced to do something they didn't want to do. It was a simple truth. And maybe Tarrin and Jesmind pushing on Jasana was making her resistant to it, just the same as her parents. Both of them were incredibly stubborn, and they would often dig in their heels and resist something with all their might, even if they were wrong or if it needed to be done. That kind of pig-headed contrariness wasn't something he was proud of, but he had to admit that he was like that. So was Jesmind. That was something that he hadn't really considered before, but it certainly seemed possible. Maybe the key to changing Jasana's behavior was not to try.

Yes. Now he understood. And coming to the desert would probably give him the opportunity to do to Jasana what she'd been doing to them ever since she was born...manipulate someone to gain his own way. In fact, now that he looked at the idea and the possibilities the desert presented, he realized that he'd have any number of chances here.

Tarrin glanced at his daughter, who was chewing on what looked like the leg of some reptillian animal without too much enthusiasm, her face screwed up in a mask of distaste. He was absolutely certain now that she wouldn't like the desert at all.

Allyn joined him as Allia finished packing her things, getting ready to move. "You're quiet," he noted as he looked out towards the southeast.

"Just organizing some things," he answered. "So, now that I have you where Allia can't overhear, how is it?"

Allyn understood what he meant. "Alot harder than I thought, but not as hard as I feared," he answered. "But I'll persevere. She's worth it in my eyes."

"She's worth anything, Allyn," Tarrin told her sincerely.

"I knew you'd understand how I feel," the Sha'Kar laughed quietly.

"How is her clan handling it?"

"Not well," he frowned. "Her father doesn't like me, and most of her tribe thinks I have no right being here. I think they're alot harder on me because they want me to fail, to have a reason to exile me from the clan."

"Then that will make the success all the sweeter," Tarrin told him.

"I know," he answered. "Now, I endure just to see the looks on their faces when they're finally proven wrong. When I earn the brands, I fully intend to get all the revenge I'll ever want."

Tarrin chuckled. "That Sha'Kar pettiness is showing."

"Better honest pettiness than dishonest friendship," he said bluntly. "Some of the Selani pretend to be my friend, and they're trying to give me advice that's going to make me fail. Allia's already had several squabbles with Selani that used to be her friends because of it, and that worries me, Tarrin," he sighed. "I love her, but I don't want her to be a pariah in her own tribe. Her father's unhappy with her, and her tribe resents her bringing me here. Even if I prove myself and earn the brands, I don't think they'll ever accept me."

"Allia's resilient, Allyn," he said confidently. "And you don't understand Selani very well. If you do earn the brands, then you'll cease being a Sha'Kar and become a Selani. At that point, all the hostility you've seen from her tribe and clan will disappear like it never happened. Those brands come from Fara'Nae, not the clan. And the clan won't even dare to presume that they know more about someone than the Holy Mother."

"Is that how they see you?"

"I have no idea how they see me," he answered. "Allia broke the rules when she branded me, and I'm sure I'll get a little hostility from the Selani because of it. But they won't be openly hostile. The fact that I did get the brands means that Fara'Nae allowed Allia to carry it out, and that means that I'm accepted by the Holy Mother. That's an awfully powerful argument on my side."

"What do you mean, get the brands?"

"They don't use a branding iron, Allyn," he told him. "The power that brands you comes from Fara'Nae. The Selani really have nothing to do with it, outside of a little ceremony beforehand. If she doesn't think you're ready, you're not branded. If she thinks you're ready, but you flinch, you take a bad brand, and that's a colossal social blunder. Selani who take bad brands leave the clans and usually die alone in the desert. A Selani has two chances to take a brand. Two chances to see if Fara'Nae thinks he's ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. If the Holy Mother won't brand you the second time, it's just like taking a bad brand. It means that the Holy Mother doesn't think you're responsible enough to be an adult, and it's social death for the Selani in question."

"Allia never told me that," Allyn mused.

"She won't. The tribe's Priest is responsible for teaching you about the customs involving the Holy Mother. No lay Selani would dare speak to you about them, because they would never presume to speak for the Holy Mother. Has the tribe's Priest talked to you yet? Aren't you sitting in with the other children when she teaches them about those things?"

"She's one of the ones most adamant about seeing me fail," he said glumly. "She won't let me anywhere near her."

"Now that's wrong," Tarrin frowned. "She'd better be real careful, or Fara'Nae's going to get very mad at her. Does Allia know about this?"

Allyn shook his head. "I don't put those things on her, Tarrin. I don't want her feeling any more unhappy than she is now. I feel guilty enough about it as it is." He looked up at Tarrin curiously. "Aren't you worried about speaking for Fara'Nae, Tarrin?" he asked with a slight smile.

"Gods don't scare me, Allyn," he said offhandedly. "You can blame Mother for my rather cavalier attitude concerning them."

From out of nowhere, a very hot wind passed over them, conveying some measure of indignance, but also some measure of amusement.

"See?" Tarrin said, holding out a paw. "That was Fara'Nae. She thinks my attitude is funny, but she can't help but be a little offended. I guess even gods have preconceptions."

Allyn laughed. "I think I'd better step clear of you before a lightning bolt comes out of the blue and fries you where you stand," he teased.

"I'm sure they're standing in line for the opportunity," he said dryly. "I'll bet they've been drawing lots or something."

Allyn laughed again, putting his hand on Tarrin's shoulder, having to reach up a considerable amount to do so. "Well, I see when Allia said that travelling with you would be entertaining, she wasn't lying."

They were ready to go quickly after that, and after Allia fed Kedaira, they were on the move. Tarrin begged off at first, telling them they'd catch up, and watched them run towards the southeast. Eron and Jasana had no trouble keeping up, but he could see the petulant gait of his daughter, broadcasting her displeasure with having to run. He had the feeling that someone wanted him to wait a moment, and he had an idea who that was. "I take it you had something to say?" he asked aloud.

I am not that petty, kitten, the voice of Fara'Nae touched him, tinged with amusement.

"All gods are petty, Holy Mother," he retorted with a sly smile. "This is about Allyn, I take it?" he asked absently, watching them move away from him. "Do you want me to do something to the tribe's Priest?"

I am more than capable of dealing with her, kitten, she answered. And no, it's not about Allyn. It's about you. I know what you have in mind, and I agree with what you're doing. Do you need my help?

He hadn't considered that before. "Actually, I think you could put a beneficial hand in here and there. Since you know what I'm doing, I think you'll know best how to help, the same as you did with me. I bow to your wisdom in the matter, Holy Mother."

I already have an idea or two in mind, she answered. I had a talk with Niami, and she's agreed to allow me to deal with Jasana, just as she let me deal with you.

"You'd better be careful, Holy Mother, or you're going to become the repository for dealing with problem Were-cats."

She laughed. I have a quota, my child. Jasana fills it for the century. After this, the next problem Were-cat is some other god's handful, not mine.

"Well, I'm glad it was you this century. I feel confident putting my daughter in your hands, Holy Mother."

I appreciate your trust, my kitten, she told him.

"I hope you got some serious concessions out of Mother, Fara'Nae," he told her. "If Mother keeps dumping her problem children on you, anyway."

Tarrin! You behave! the voice of the Goddess touched him, a rather tart and authoritative one.

"Yes, Mother," he said mockingly.

Do you see what I have to deal with, sister? the voice of the Goddess echoed plaintively in his mind, obviously using him as a conduit through which to communicate with Fara'Nae. Now do you understand why I have gray hair?

It's your own fault, old friend, Fara'Nae laughed. You're the one that gives him such leeway. Don't be surprised when it rears up and bites you on the butt.

"You're the one that's always told me to be honest, Mother," he said with a light smile. "Besides, I'm talking to the Holy Mother, not Ayise or another Elder God, someone who knows my mind. She knows I'm not being serious. She knows how highly I regard you, and she also knows that it's alright for loved ones to occasionally tease one another."

Well, he can fast-talk almost as well as Jasana, that much is apparent, Fara'Nae chuckled.

Where do you think she got it from? the Goddess replied.

I think you'd better catch up with the others, before your Mother spanks you, Tarrin, Fara'Nae's voice touched him, rich with amusement. It's not going to be easy on her, but I think I can do something about your cub. You know what I have in mind?

Tarrin nodded. "She's not going to sleep very well for a while, is she?"

It worked on you, I think it will work on her, she affirmed.

Tarrin sighed. "I'm not going to like watching her go through that, but I guess it's necessary."

Necessity overcomes parental compassion all the time, my child. I'm certain she'll be furious with you when she finds out you had a hand in it.

"I can deal with that, Holy Mother."

Then let me deal with her. You can continue your own plans, but please scale them back. You know how it will go on her.

"I have an idea. If I push too hard, let me know, Holy Mother. I'll back off."

I will keep you advised, kitten.

If only you were so conciliatory for me, the voice of the Goddess intruded, which made Tarrin laugh. He knew it for the bald-faced lie that it was.

"Just for that, I'm going to be extra-unmanagable, Mother," he teased.

You mean you can be even more stubborn than you are now? the Goddess retorted with open amusement.

"I think I could, if I really put my mind to it," he answered her, which made both goddesses laugh. That pleased him to no end, that he could do that.

You have to catch up to them, kitten, so off with you, Fara'Nae commanded. I don't like repeating myself.

"As you command, Holy Mother," he said. He glanced up at the morning sky, then he put on his visor and stretched out into a ground-eating lope that would allow him to catch up with the slower moving figures ahead very quickly.

Tarrin found out that Jasana didn't like a whole lot of physical activity that day.

What started out as sullen silence became petulant whining by lunchtime, as Jasana complained about running and kept at her father to have her carry them to where they were going. This mystified Tarrin, since she was a Were-cat, and that meant that physical exertion was something that would be nothing to her. It wasn't like she was getting tired or anything, and the desert's blistering heat didn't affect her. And she was rather active back home, staying out with Eron all day and playing in the forest, easily being more active than she was being now. Allia had set a ridiculously slow pace just for the children, barely more than a jog, because she didn't want to overheat Eron as he got acclimated to the brutal desert climate. He realized that she wasn't complaining because of the exertion, she was complaining because she simply didn't want to run. She wanted to be there now, and running wouldn't get them there now. Again, it was Jasana trying to get what Jasana wanted, despite the fact that she would be breaking Selani tradition and law, and none of the others wanted to do what she wanted to do. Tarrin ignored her complaints during lunch, as they waited out the hottest part of the day in the shade of an overhang looming over them from a rather large rock spire.

When they started again, Jasana's whining turned into incessant compaints and unflattering observations about the desert. She got more and more acidic as the day progressed, as she voiced her displeasure by being as disagreeable as she could possibly be. She even tried Allia's patience, and Allia had incredible patience when dealing with her beloved niece. But when she said that it was stupid that the Selani ran everywhere, insulting Allia's customs, she crossed the line. Tarrin stopped them and chastised his daughter on the spot, and he was not gentle in his spanking of her. A Were-cat as big as him had some formidable power in his arms, and he unleashed it on his daughter's bare backside without mercy. Then he told her in no uncertain terms that she was going to run because he told her she was going to run, and no amount of whining or complaining was going to change it, so she'd better just shut up and do what she was told, or he'd really get angry. Jasana had seen her father angry before, and even she knew that that was the one thing she did not want to happen.

For his part, Tarrin was flabbergasted. He'd never seen her act like this before, and he was privately very worried. He had no idea what was causing such terrible behavior, and he'd never heard of any Were-cat cub that acted like that before. At least in one thing he was grateful, though, and that was that the Holy Mother would start on her as soon as she went to sleep. Fara'Nae's assistance in showing his daughter the danger of her behavior was a very welcome thing.

When they stopped for the night, camping against a low cliff that ran for several hundred spans, they got the fire going and enjoyed a dinner of wild sukk. Tarrin rather liked sukk, for it was richer and more flavorful than any other bird he'd eaten, kind of like a spicy texture within the dense, somewhat tough meat. Eron ate enough for three of him, and even Jasana, who had complained all day, had to admit that she liked it as well. She didn't do it very graciously, making it sound like sukk meat was the only good thing in the entire desert, but it was a concession that not everything in the desert was bad. After dinner, Tarrin sent both cubs to bed, and spent time talking with Allia and Allyn around the fire. He kept a close eye on the tent holding Eron and Jasana, for he knew what was coming. It may take some time for Fara'Nae to get into her dreams, but it would happen.

Well after Allia and Allyn retired to their tent, Tarrin stayed by the fire, not really noticing its heat as he stared out into the darkness. He could hear the plaintive moaning of at least two Sandmen out there, the strange creatures that roamed the desert at night. Legend said that they were the souls of those who had died due to the desert's harsh environment, and now roamed the desert seeking out sentient beings on which to release their wrath. They would ignore animals, only attacking sentients like Selani or humans, enveloping them in their insubstantial bodies and trying to smother them with the sand trapped in the swirling air that made up their corporeal forms. Tarrin had never seen one, only having had them described to him, and he wasn't entirely curious about seeing one, either. Some things were best left a mystery. Kedaira padded over closer to the fire, beside Tarrin, and hunkered down sedately. Tarrin put his paw on her head and stroked it absently as he listened to the empty moaning of the Sandmen, using their sounds to determine that they were well away from the fire, well away from the light which repelled them, and they were no threat.

His ears swivelled when he heard Jasana's strangled gasp, and a few seconds later she erupted from the tent quickly. Her eyes locked on him, and the most profound look of relief he had ever seen washed over her face. She padded to him quickly and climbed into his lap.

"What's the matter with you, cub?" he asked gently, knowing the answer.

"I had a bad dream," she said in a little-girl voice, a voice he didn't hear very often anymore. Lately, Jasana had been trying to act more mature, like an adult, using Triana as her model. But the voice he heard from her now was one of total vulnerability, very much the child needing comfort. Tarrin wrapped his arm around her and let her snuggle in against him, and he felt how she clutched at him with her little paws, even digging her claws in, felt how fast her heart was beating as it hammered against him, through her chest. That had to be some nightmare, he realized. Fara'Nae always did know the most cutting way into one's soul.

It pained him to see her so upset, but he knew that it had to be done. Of course, the logical part of him had a hard time convincing the nurturing parent in him that it was necessary, not when he had his child in his arms, trying to soothe her after her nightmare. Tarrin had learned long ago that Jasana didn't require coddling or cooing when she was upset. All she wanted was an open lap, warm arms to enfold her, and just the calming presence of one of her parents. For her, that was enough. So Tarrin didn't baby-talk her or stroke her hair--at least not that much--just letting her feel him holding her, letting her fill her nose with his scent, letting her take comfort in his nearness to allow her to calm down.

He looked down at her while she calmed down, her heart slowed, her grip on him eased. Such a unique little child. He still found it hard to believe that she was one of the most powerful magicians on Sennadar, but all he had to do was look at her to see that. The Weave pulled towards her just as it did for him, pulled towards her as all the excess magical energy in the local strands pooled around her, as if getting as close to her as it could in case she had need to call upon it. She attracted magical energy just like he did, and when they were so close together, their combined effect on the Weave was almost enough to pull flows out of the strands without any intent from them. Maybe it was a good thing that she was so obsessed with Sorcery, since it taught her how to control her immense power. But then again, he was more worried about how she would use that power, not how well she could control it. She had to learn the responsbility of her power, not just the power itself, or she could be a problem.

Problem or not, she was still his daughter, and come what may, he would love her. He felt her totally relax against him, felt her breathing change as she fell asleep, and how much of a terror she was when she was awake was totally forgotten. When they weren't causing trouble, children were absolute delights. The problem was, all children seemed to have an instinctual need to cause trouble.

It was the parents' curse, he mused with a silent chuckle. He couldn't count the times he'd heard his parents tell him "when you have children, I hope they're as much trouble as you are!" A powerful curse, that one. And totally effective.

Tarrin held her like that for quite a while, letting her sleep, until Allia awoke and took over sentry duty from him. The look she gave him when he told her Jasana had had a nightmare was direct and profound; he had the feeling that Allia had an idea what was happening. How she knew, he had no idea, but he thought that she did. Then again, there was quite a bit more to Allia than met the eye, even surprising him sometimes. Tarrin didn't feel very sleepy, so he put Jasana back into her bedroll and sat up with Allia, and they took the opportunity to talk without others there to hear them, catching up on things and telling each other all those secrets they'd been saving up for when they were face to face, renewing the powerful bond that made them so close.

Jasana had no other nightmares that night, but she looked sandy-eyed and a bit haunted when she woke up in the morning. Tarrin didn't make any kind of show out of it, and he was surprised that it had left her so subdued. She didn't complain at all during breakfast, and she ran with them without any snide comments or acidic observations about the desert. He could smell her inner turmoil whenever he got close to her, and Eron could too; in fact, Eron could sense more about it than Tarrin could, for his son had an exceptionally acute sense of smell, even for a Were-cat. Where Tarrin could smell emotions and smell it when people lied, Eron could smell changes in very subtle moods, and he could tell just from scent exactly how strong an emotion was in someone. Tarrin couldn't do that. Jasana's being upset had an effect on Eron, as he went out of his way to try to be accommodating for her, and trying to cheer her up. But he didn't ask her what the problem was, and that made Tarrin a little curious. He asked his son when they stopped for the midday heat, taking shade behind a rock spire. "I know she had a nightmare, Papa," he told him. "She woke me up when she got out of the tent, and I never smelled so much fear on her. I think the nightmare scared her more than just any old nightmare. Scary things like that aren't easy to forget."

That surprised Tarrin. Not that his son had noticed Jasana's nightmare, but that he seemed to understand what kind of an effect one could have on someone. Very little scared Eron or put him off, which both made him an amusing cub and made him a handful when trying to keep his paws out of danger, but Tarrin saw that Eron had an understanding of it, even if it didn't really affect him. It also told him that Fara'Nae's technique was already at work. Tarrin remembered how the nightmares had affected him, had quite nearly drove him mad. Even to this day, the eyeless face sent chills through him and made him cringe inwardly. Fara'Nae was quite adept at finding what would work most effectively and unleashing it on her subject. He pitied his daughter, but knew that it was necessary.

For three days and nights, it was the same. Jasana grew withdrawn and morose by day, and every night she stumbled from the tent and sought refuge in her father's arms after another nightmare. She trembled more and more every night, and it took her longer and longer to calm down afterwards, to the point where Tarrin was starting to get worried and very nearly asked Fara'Nae to stop. But that was the concern of a parent who hated seeing his child in pain, and he knew it. The other part of him knew that it had to continue, or else Jasana would do something to cause more pain to others or herself than this.

On the fourth night, Tarrin felt that it was time to try to do something about it. After Jasana had come out to seek comfort from him after another nightmare, well after she had calmed down but before she fell asleep, Tarrin finally broached the subject. "Sometimes it helps to talk about it, cub," he said gently. "This is four nights in a row. Sometimes how we feel makes us have bad dreams, so if we can find out what's making the bad dreams, we can try to fix it. So, what's on your mind?"

"I-It's nothing, Papa."

"What are the dreams about, cub? Maybe that will help. Tell me about it."

"I don't remember," she lied, not even sounding half convincing about it.

"Well, when you're ready to talk about it, I'll be here, Jasana."

She was silent a considerable time. "Papa?"

"What is it, cub?"

"I'm sorry."

"What about?"

"About putting the blood in the potion. I just wanted you back, like you're supposed to be."

Tarrin smiled gently, though she couldn't see it. So, that's how she went about it. "It's alright, cub. Everything worked out, and you paid for it. Boy, did you ever pay for it," he chuckled humorlessly.

"I never told you I was sorry. Well, not when I meant it," she said in a vulnerable voice.

"You weren't sorry, Jasana," he said in a gentle yet firm voice. "I still don't think you're sorry. But I'll accept your apology anyway, regardless of how fake I think it is."

Despite everything, that provoked a short giggle from her. She put her claws into him just a little and hugged him. "I love you, Papa."

"And I love you, you terrible little pain in the neck," he said with a gentle smile, putting his arm around her.

As if the confession had lifted a burden from her, Jasana was more cheerful the next day. She didn't speak much, but her expression lacked the somber quality it had had the last few days. Allyn mentioned it to Tarrin as they ran that morning, and Tarrin explained that Jasana was having something of a conscious attack about her past misdeeds. Allyn accepted it as the half-truth it was, glancing meaningfully at the little girl as she jogged along beside Eron behind them, with Kedaira bringing up the rear.

They stopped for a break in the late morning in a wide flat plain filled with green scrub bushes and large rocks scattered among them. There was a very small flock of wild sukk on the far side of the scrub meadow, which was considerably large, almost a square longspan of it, new growth from where the water table under the ground had shifted and rose, supplying more water to the deep roots of the plants above. They rested a bit as Allia got her bearings, then she called happily and pointed to the wavering horizon. "Dust!" she called. "The tribe is moving north, and we'll intercept them in a few hours!" She scanned the terrain. "There's a Scout over there, and I think he sees us. Yes, he does, he's signalling." She lifted both arms and waved them back and forth, then dropped one and held the other over her head, then brought it parallel with the ground. Some kind of pre-arranged signal of sorts. She put her hands over her visor and shielded her eyes from the sun to watch the other Scout. "It's Feri. He says the way is clear up to where he is."

"How far is he?" Allyn asked.

"About six longspans."

Tarrin looked in that direction, but all he saw was hazy desert, the heat radiating from the ground distorting the distance to his eyes. How Allia could see through that and see the other Scout when he was six longspans away boggled his mind.

"Papa, what's that smell?" Eron asked. Tarrin turned to see his son on all fours, sniffing at the ground. "It smells like living rock. I've never smelled it before."

Tarrin joined his cub, and was joined by Jasana, as the three of them tried to find the scent that Eron was talking about. Allyn chuckled and mentioned something about how silly they all looked on all fours snuffling at the ground, but the Were-cats ignored him as the not understanding underprivileged fellow he was. Tarrin eventually found the scent, an extremely faint and old scent, that did indeed smell like stone in a way, but it was actually an animal. Tarrin knew that scent, and looked at his son in wonder and pride. "That's a kajat, cub," he said. "That nose of yours, I should have figured you'd pick up that scent long before any of us."

"A kajat?" Allia asked. "Where?"

"It's old, Aunt Allia," Eron told her. "Real old. I don't think it's around here anymore. It smells like a youngster."

"I don't smell anything," Jasana complained.

"I've smelled it before, cub, I know what to look for," Tarrin told her. "Let me bring the scent up for you." He put his will against the Weave and wove a quick spell that isolated the kajat and made it stronger. Jasana closed her eyes and took in the scent.

"Oh, I smell it now. It does smell like rock, doesn't it?"

"I think it's sand that gets wedged into their scales that gives them that smell," Tarrin surmised. "They roll around in dirt and sand to camaflauge themselves, and probably to hide their smells."

"Why do that?" Eron asked.

"Kajat are primarily ambush hunters, cubling," Allia told him. "They like hiding and pouncing on prey from surprise."

"How can something so big hide?" Jasana asked.

"Practice," Tarrin told her.

"Cub, I saw a kajat hiding out in the middle of the open desert," Allyn told her. "Allia pointed it out to me. The thing looked like a big rock. If she hadn't have pointed it out, I'd have never imagined that it was a living thing."

"I once jumped on one because I thought it was a rock," Tarrin admitted. "Trust me, cub, you'd never tell until you're right on top of it. They're very good at it."

"They curl up in such a way that they look like boulders, cubling," Allia told her. "Since their prey can't see them for what they are and can't smell them, they wander right up to them."

"They sound like really smart animals," Eron mused.

"Kajat have learned very well," Allia nodded with a smile. "We respect them a great deal, and try to avoid them whenever we can."

"If they're so dangerous, why not kill them?" Jasana asked.

"Because in the desert, everything has a place and a use," Allia told her seriously. "Kajat are dangerous, but they keep the populations of the sukk and chisa in check, so they don't become so numerous they strip the desert bare of vegetation. They also prey on inu, so they also keep the inu in managable numbers. Without the kajat, there wouldn't be any other desert animals, and we need them. We depend on them, even if they are a danger to us."

"Oh. That makes sense."

"Eron! Get your paw out of that hole!" Tarrin snapped without even looking.

"It's alright, Papa, I saw what went in it," the child responded. "It was one of those purple scorpions!"

"Didn't I tell you not to go sticking your paws in holes?"

"You said don't do it because I wouldn't know what's inside," he said quickly, his arm inside the hole up to his shoulder as he fished for the scorpion. "I know what's in this one!"

Baring one fang in a bit of half snarl, Tarrin whirled and grabbed his cub by the back of his pants and hauled him off the ground. He had the scorpion in the paw that came out of the hole, holding it by the tail. "Drop it!" he commanded, and Eron did so immediately. The startled arachnid hit the ground with a dusty fwump and immediately scuttled back towards its hole. "Don't mince words with me, cub," Tarrin warned, holding his cub up to his eye level by his trousers. "Don't stick your paw down holes means don't stick your paw down holes. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Papa," he said meekly.

"You're starting to be as bad as Jasana," he huffed as he abruptly lowered Eron and then dropped him, letting him fall about a span to the ground. "Is that Scout saying anything else, deshaida?" Tarrin asked.

Allia, who had kept her eyes on the other Selani Scout the whole time, nodded. "He says the tribe hasn't stopped yet. If we really move, we just might catch up to them while they're resting out the day's heat."

"You said that the tribe is moving towards grazing?" Tarrin asked.

"Yes."

"Don't you think there's grazing galore right here?"

Allia glanced at him, then looked around. Then she laughed. "I do believe that there is," she agreed, then she started making those wide-armed signals to the other Scout. They waited in silence, though Eron eyed the hole into which the scorpion had fled with undisguised longing. "Feri is relaying it back to the tribe," she announced after a few moments. "My father will have to decide whether to come here or not."

"Relay?" Eron asked.

"The Scouts are staggered in their distance from the main tribe, cubling," she told him. "Feri is the Scout that's farthest out. He's going to signal the Scout behind him, and that one will signal the Scout behind him, and so on and so on until the message gets back to the tribe. Then the Scout with the tribe will send my father's reply back."

"It sounds pretty complicated."

"I think it's clever," Jasana said.

"It works, cubs," she told them. "That's all that matters. It'll take Feri some time to get the Scout's attention, so it may take a while before we have an answer. Either way, just waiting here is the best thing."

"What about the Scouts that range out, sister?" Tarrin asked.

"They're not part of what Feri is doing, deshida," she answered. "They're hunters. Feri and the Scouts not searching for grazing are searching for threats to the tribe while it's on the move."

"But they weren't moving this way," Eron noted.

"No, but threats have a way of being drawn to the tribe on the move," she answered him. "Feri is looking for inu and kajat. Sometimes they try to set themselves in the path of the tribe while it's moving and ambush us, trying to take some of our sukk and run away before we can catch them. He's making sure none sneak in from the flanks."

"Oh, I get it," Eron nodded. "How do the sukk keep up?" he asked impulsively. "I've seen you run, Aunt Allia. I don't think they could keep up with you."

"Sukk run very fast, cubling," she laughed. "They have no trouble keeping up."

"Enough questions, Eron," Tarrin told him. "To keep you out of trouble, let's go see if we can't catch one of those wild sukk over there, alright?"

"Oooh, can I come?" Jasana asked excitedly.

"The more we have, the better chance we'll catch something," he told her. "Come on, Kedaira, let's hunt."

The inu hissed slightly and lifted its head, then gave a throaty growl and quickly moved to join the three Were-cats as they started towards the distant birds.

"I'll stay here with Allia," Allyn called after them. "So she can watch for a reply without worrying."

Hunting sukk was something that Eron and Jasana had never done before, so Tarrin made sure to teach them basics as they sidled in that general direction. The air was still, which meant that their scents wouldn't give them away for a while, and the fifteen birds were happily grazing on the tough springy scrub bushes that were so common in the desert. "They're very fast, cubs," he explained as they moved towards them. "They move fast, they run fast, and they have fast reflexes. They don't see very well, but they have sharp ears, so you have to be quiet when you hunt them. When we do chase them down, you have to be careful, because sometimes they'll turn and attack. Their beaks are very sharp, but it's the feet you have to watch. They have really big talons and their legs are very, very strong. A kick from a sukk could take your head right off."

"I saw the claws on that one Allia killed," Eron said, nodding in comprehension.

"Then I hope you appreciate that they're not easy kills," Tarrin told his son. "If they turn on you and attack, run away. Let me or Kedaira deal with them if they chase you."

"I've never hunted something bigger than me before," Jasana said in excitement.

"Because of that, I hope you understand when I tell you that I want you to let me or Kedaira make the kill," he told her. "You're half the size of a sukk, cub. It won't be very afraid of you."

"What do you want us to do?"

"Sukk startle easily," Tarrin told her. "I want you and Eron to wait while me and Kedaira circle around behind them. When we get in position, I want you two to jump up and rush them, yelling and screaming. That'll drive them right to me and Kedaira, since we're going to be waiting for them."

"Smart idea," Eron nodded.

"It's how the inu do it, and I've noticed that they seem to know the best technique for hunting anything in the desert," Tarrin told him.

"Inu really are smart, aren't they, Papa?" Jasana noted.

"They're very smart, cub," Tarrin said absently, watching the distant figures. "Alright, we're going to separate here. Now, you two sneak up on them slowly and give me and Kedaira time to circle them. I'll Whisper to you when I'm ready, Jasana. Don't rush them until I signal you, and when you do rush them, don't chase them after they start running. I just want you to startle them into bolting, and they'll do that if you make enough noise and bluster enough. If you chase them, they'll realize you're half their size, and they'll probably turn around and attack you. Do you understand?"

"I understand, Papa," they said in unison, Eron flexing his claws in anticipation. Tarrin had hunted with them, but never anything dangerous. For them, this was a new, exciting idea, and their very first hunt with the adults when they hunted something that could fight back. Tarrin had little fear for them, because as impulsive and uncontrollable as they could be most of the time, the instinct to hunt was in both of them, and they'd do very well. They'd obey him because they knew that was what it was going to take to have a successful hunt. And they wouldn't be in much danger so long as they obeyed his instructions.

"Good. Now remember, slow, steady, and low. When you're about fifty spans from them, stop and wait."

"We got it, Papa," Jasana said as she hunkered down, partially behind a scrub bush, then crept up to another, staying low. Eron copied her, and Tarrin nodded in satisfaction. He glanced at Kedaira and started loping off parallel to the sukk, a move Kedaira instantly understood. They would be circling the prey, using a hunting tactic that she knew very, very well.

It took Tarrin and Kedaira about ten minutes to get into position, circling very wide of the sukk, beyond their ability to see, moving quietly and smoothly. When they were on the opposite side, they stalked up on the flock, Tarrin literally moving on all fours to keep most of his body below the level of the scrub, as Kedaira did more or less the same thing, her belly almost scraping the rocky ground as she hunkered down and waddled towards the sukk. They moved with practiced ease, sliding up into a position about fifty spans from the flock, which had not registered either them or the cubs, still grazing contentedly on the scrub. Tarrin's predatory instincts were ruling him, and he watched the huge birds with intensity, his ears fully forward to catch any sound they made, his eyes unblinking as he studied his prey. He remembered the cubs and absently raised up his consciousness partially into the Weave, and Whispered out to his daughter. "Alright, cub, we're in position. Are you ready?"

There was a brief pause. "We're ready, Papa."

"Anytime you want, then."

A few seconds later, he heard both of his cubs suddenly start screaming at the top of their lungs. Tarrin raised his eyes over the scrub enough to look past the birds, and he saw them charging the sukk, flailing their arms and raising a big racket. Doing exactly what he wanted them to do. The sukk all flinched from that sudden eruption of sound, then they turned and bolted away from it in a harmonious motion. Tarrin and Kedaira stayed hunkered down as the fifteen nine-span tall birds scrambled towards them, until the lead was so close that Tarrin could almost reach out and grab it. Both he and the inu leaped from their concealment right in the face of the running flock, so quickly that the lead bird didn't even see Tarrin until his huge clawed paw caught it right on the side of its head, a vicious sideswipe that ripped out its eye and broke its neck, sending it tumbling into the scrub in a cloud of dust and dislodged feathers. Kedaira jumped into the air at the next closest with a high-pitched roar, the oversized claws on her hind legs extended forward and ready. She impacted the sukk as it tried to turn away, her forepaws latching onto its flank as she brought her formidable weapons to bear. Those huge claws sank into the bird's side, penetrating so deeply that the bird gave out a single squeal of pain and immediately dropped lifeless to the ground. The inu grabbed the bird's neck in her powerful jaws and thrashed it back and forth to make sure of her kill. The remaining flock scattered while still moving in the same general direction in which they had originally fled, going around the Were-cat and the inu and fleeing for safety.

Eron and Jasana ran up to them with broad smiles on their faces. "You got one, Papa!" Eron said happily.

"See, cub? When you do it right, hunting can be easy," Tarrin told him, reaching down and grabbing the leg of the sukk he killed. Kedaira had already started tearing into the bird she killed, enjoying the spoils of her labor. "Let's leave Kedaira here so she can eat and we'll take this back to Allia and have some lunch."

"I can't wait til I'm big enough to be on the other side!" Eron said breathlessly, looking at the sukk from every angle while Tarrin dragged it behind him as he moved back towards Allia.

"It would have been easier to use Sorcery," Jasana noted, but then she smiled at her father. "But not as much fun."

"That's the spirit, cub," Tarrin smiled in reply.

By the time they returned with their meal, Allia had a response. "Father's going to come here," she told him with bright eyes. "Feri just got the message back to me. He wants us to scout out the best place for the camp and start preparing for them."

"I thought we were going to eat!" Eron protested. "I'm hungry!"

"It won't take long, cubling," Allia smiled. "In fact, I know exactly where to start."

"What do we have to do to prepare?" Jasana asked.

"Whatever we can to make it fast and easy for the tribe to set up camp," Allia answered. "The first thing we have to do is make sure there aren't any inu or kajat lurking nearby. After we're sure of that, we could dig firepits, or clear rocks out of openings between scrub bushes for tents, or gather up rollbrush for firewood, or look for zubu burrows and other holes and mark them so nobody steps in one by accident."

"Why do we have to do all the work?" Jasana complained.

"Because we are here," Allia answered. "We're making sure the tribe can set up camp and rest as quickly as possible, cubling. We're doing what we can for them. Wouldn't you do what you can for your family?"

"Well, I guess," she admitted with a slightly annoyed look at the Selani.

"We won't be along long, Jasana," Allia told her. "Feri and the other Scouts are moving towards us. As they arrive, they'll start helping us too."

"Oh, that's alright, then," she proclaimed. "Where do we start?"

They started with the well. It was the first thing that Selani did when setting a camp outside of searching for predators. Tarrin and Allia started digging after Allia surveyed the scrub plain, finding the place where the water would be closest to the surface. It took her about ten minutes before she had decided on a spot, and then they started digging with tools Tarrin Conjured. The hole was excavated quickly with Tarrin's immense strength, and he was surprised at what he found. They only had to dig down about four spans before water started seeping through the sandy soil, and another span down was where they struck ground water. It took a very long time for the deep hole to fill with water, little more than a trickle, but it showed him how clever the Selani were. They got their water from wells, which was how they could travel such distances between known oases. Now that he thought of it, he understood why he found so many old half-filled holes in the desert floor, and why he often saw sukk digging into the ground with their powerful feet and legs. They weren't digging for roots, as he first thought, they were digging for water.

Amusing, he thought. A vast desert, one of the dryest places in the world, and one only had to go about five spans in order to find water. Five spans down.

At least here, he realized. The Selani--and the desert animals--had to move where the seasonal forces brought the water closest to the surface, places marked by sudden growth of the scrubby brush and vegetation of the desert. He was certain that in other parts of the desert right now, the water was so far down that digging for it would be fruitless. It explained how such big animals could survive in such a hostile environment, for as big as kajat were, he knew that they had to drink vast amounts of water in order to survive. They just dug for it and patiently lapped up all the water they needed as it slowly filled the hole.

And the sandstorms filled up those holes with dirt, sand, and dust as they passed, concealing the evidence of how the desert dwellers found their water. Clever.

Then again, there was the gold. Tarrin had to toss a few impressive nuggets aside while digging. Gold was like rocks out in the desert, as common as stone and literally littering the ground in some places. Almost anywhere in the Desert of Swirling Sands, one could find a few tiny nuggets of gold with a little patient sifting of the soil. He wondered what caused gold to be so abundant there--

--and he suddenly understood Mala Myrr. The only Dwarven city above ground, in a place where a Dwarf would not like to be. But Dwarves were avaricious, most books agreed, always seeking out precious metals and gems, and this place had to be some kind of heaven for them. An area so stuffed with gold that one could find it laying on the ground. They had built their city out in the low foothills, in those intersecting valleys, so they could mine the gold just under the hillsides. The gold perfectly explained the presence of the Dwarves, who preferred rugged mountains, places like Daltochan, the mountains around PetalLakes, or the Sandshield, rather than the low foothills near the Sandshield.

While Tarrin and Allia dug for water, Allyn showed the children what to do. They went out into the plain to locate any possible dangers to the sukk that would pasture there, starting with predators, but then searching for things like holes or umuni, the lethally venemous lizards of the desert. Tarrin didn't pay much attention to them until Eron came back carrying a juvenile umuni by the neck, being careful not to hurt it. Tarrin wondered absently just what it was about venemous animals that so attracted his son's attention. He just couldn't leave them alone. A bit annoyed, Tarrin told the umuni that they'd do it no harm and not to get upset, and had his son let it go on the edge of the area Allia said the Selani would occupy while they were there. Allia wanted to eat it, but he wouldn't allow it. Once Tarrin spoke to an animal, it was the same as him acknowledging the animal, and he would not hurt it. Druids didn't do that. He had a responsibility to the reputation of the Druids as well as the trust the animal put in him after he made contact with it. He wouldn't abuse either.

Besides, they had a fresh sukk carcass waiting for them, already attracting attention from vultures.

After the sweep was done, Allyn had the children clearing open spaces of rocks and debris for tents while he started digging a firepit with a short-handled shovel he'd been carrying in his pack. Tarrin mused at the Sha'Kar while he worked, marvelling that a Sha'Kar could act so much like a Selani. He wondered how Allyn was handling the task of learning the Dance, of having to do physical violence, which was against everything for which the Sha'Kar stood. But then again, he really wasn't a Sha'Kar anymore, he was a Selani in training, and that meant embracing a radically different culture. Tarrin saw the strength in Allyn then, not just his physical endurance but his fierce will, and knew that he would make it.

Not long after the well was finished, as Tarrin and Allia covered it with a blanket Allia kept rolled up in her pack to keep the desert sun from evaporating the water, the first of the Selani Scouts arrived, the male Feri. Feri was rather short for a Selani, which meant that he was still rather tall for a human, a few fingers taller than Allyn. He was thin as a reed, so obvious that it was easy to tell even through his baggy clothes, but Tarrin could see just by how he moved that he was a sleek, fast adversary, and would be quite a handful in a fight. He had a tail of blond hair peeking out from under his loose head covering, flowing down his back. Feri didn't make any kind of greeting or show of his arrival, he simply dropped his pack and grabbed a corner of the blanket, holding it while Allia tied off her end to a short stick she'd picked up off the ground. "Feri," Allia greeted absently.

"Allia," he returned in a slightly gravelly voice. "I see you weren't kidding. He is tall."

"Would I lie to you, old friend?" she asked with a winsome smile. "Who's behind you?"

"Zumar," he answered. "Targi and Melila are just behind him."

"The clan?"

"About an hour," he answered. "More than enough time."

"Feri, may I present Tarrin, my deshida. Tarrin, this is Feri, a fellow Scout and a friend."

"May the Holy Mother shade your steps and give you sweet water," Feri said formally.

"I'm not that stuffy, Feri," Tarrin told him without looking as he put his corner under a heavy nugget of gold he'd excavated from the ground earlier. "A simple hello will suffice."

Feri laughed. "Sorry, but someone as big as you gets a formal greeting from me every time."

Tarrin glanced at him and almost smiled. "At least he's not stupid, sister," Tarrin noted.

"No, Feri is a shrewd one," Allia said with a sly look at her friend.

"You took good brands. Surprising in an outlander."

"I'm full of surprises, Feri," Tarrin told him. "Eron!"

"I didn't do anything!" Eron protested, hiding the oversized, highly venemous wasp in his paw behind his back.

Tarrin affixed his son with an ugly stare, who immediately let the insect go. It wobbled a bit in the air before buzzing off to safety.

Tarrin didn't have much of a chance to talk to or observe Feri before the next Scout arrived, a much taller, more stocky Selani named Zumar. Zumar had white hair, not far from Allia's silver-white, and actually had red eyes, the color of a rose. Tarrin had never seen a Selani with rose-colored irises before. Zumar was a very tight-lipped fellow, not even speaking when greeted by the other two Scouts, immediately kneeling and starting to pull out materials to build a fire, whose smoke would guide the moving tribe to them. The other two Feri mentioned, Targi and Melila, arrived but moments later. They were both female, shorter than Allia, but they moved much like her. One had sand-colored hair, the other was a redhead, something of a rarity among Selani. Unlike Zumar, they introduced themselves with open smiles, and both of them seemed quite talkative. They started on Tarrin almost as soon as they were introduced, asking about him and the wetlands and his children. Allyn was still herding the cubs, trying to keep them together and near the center of the activity, but that didn't last long. Eron was running around, talking very fast to the four newcomer Selani, sometimes so quickly that he forgot what he was talking about and raced off to talk to another. Jasana abandoned Allyn and took refuge with her father, reverting to the curiously quiet and shy girl she often became when in the presence of strangers, watching the Selani with uncertain eyes. She even grabbed the end of his tail and held onto it, much as she had done when she was younger. Both Selani females looked at her and tried to talk to her, but she simply hid behind her father's legs. It reminded Tarrin how wide-ranging his daughter's personality was, bluffing maturity in one moment and showing how much of a child she was the next.

Jasana followed her father around as they tried to set things up for the approaching clan, clearing space for the tents as the two female Selani dug firepits in strategic areas, defense against the Sandmen that infested the desert during the cold night, a ring of protection around the projected border of the encampment. Zumar seemed content with staying to himself, but Feri tried to engage Tarrin in conversation. It wasn't the chattiness the females had exhibited, it was a more enlightened series of questions about Tarrin's home, family, and home region that he guessed was meant to give the Selani an idea of what kind of person Tarrin was.

For his part, Tarrin was just a little wary and anxious about all this. He'd heard quite a bit about Allia's family and her clan--tribe, as the case may be, since the Selani word for both was the same, its meaning made clear by a context that was often deliberately left vague--and what Allyn had had to say didn't bolster him very much. He had no doubt that he could pass muster with Allia's very demanding father, but he was more worried about the overall effect he may have on Allia's reputation given that she was already in hot water over Allyn. She had come home with an outlander for a fianceè and another outlander branded by Selani custom without the approval of the clan king. That was two major infractions of rule and custom, and violating the rules was dishonorable. He knew for a fact that Allia's honor had been damaged by her behavior, at least in the eyes of the Selani, and she was on very unstable ground. If Allyn failed to prove himself, she would be in even more trouble, maybe enough to bring her position as princess under examination. She had to have much greater honor than the average Selani, because she was next in line for her father's position. She could be an honorable Selani, but not have the honor necessary to garner the clan's respect. That would disqualify her for the position, and that would be a serious stain on her honor, almost to the point where she would choose to exile herself from the clan rather than continue to live among those who felt that she wasn't fit enough to command them.

At least Allyn understood Allia's precarious position, and was working with all of his energy and will towards proving himself. If he took good brands, then all of this would die away. The fact that Tarrin had brands was a powerful weight on his side of the balance, since he'd already been accepted by the Holy Mother, had proved his worth. If the Holy Mother made it clear through the tribe's Priest that he was in her favor, they would not say a word to him, and would in fact welcome him into the clan. Why Fara'Nae had to go through a Priest was beyond him, since she had a habit of directly answering the prayers of her children. Why couldn't she tell them how she felt without using a Priest? But then again, to every god his or her own, he guessed. It wasn't his place to tell Fara'Nae how to run her own organization.

Tarrin was so caught up in his worry and concerns for his sister that he honestly didn't realize that so much time had passed. He looked up and saw the Selani, Allyn, and Eron all looking towards the west, and he realized that the clan had arrived. In their lead had to be Kallan, Allia's father, a very tall, imposing figure loping along at the head of a disorganized column of Selani all wearing those sand-colored desert outfits, heads covered by the loosely wrapped cloths and with visors and veils protecting their faces from the harshness of the desert wind, and the majority of them carrying spears or bows. He could see the sukk flocks in the middle of the Selani host, running with their handlers with very little effort involved, though they were moving faster and becoming a little hard to keep grouped now that they could see the green of the desert scrub plain laid out before them. Tarrin saw several chisa in the host, loaded with the heavy gear that the Selani couldn't easily carry and run, such as tents and large bales and bundles of wood, and a few of them had Selani riding on them. They were mainly the very, very young, but there was one Selani that was not young riding on the back of one of those large reptillian quadrapeds. That had to be Kaila, Allia's mother, who had a bad leg as a result from injuries suffered from an attack from a pack of inu. Since she was injured, it was not dishonorable for her to ride a beast of burden, something no healthy Selani would ever think of doing. Tarrin saw that the older children ran with their parents, though most of them were at the rear of the host, and the group was followed by some fifteen Selani carrying long spears. He had to dredge his memory to remember who they were. The al'bai, the Defenders, Selani who specialized in defending the flanks and rear of a moving Selani clan, as the Scouts defended its front and ferreted out possible dangers. They used their long spears to defend against inu and kajat, engaging the beasts to give the host time to get away from them. They were highly respected for their almost suicidal bravery and tenacity when defending the clan against threat,and their skill in battling against their reptillian animal foes was exceptional. They made a habit of knowing everything there was to know about the inu and kajat, so that they could battle them more effectively should they threaten the clan. That didn't mean that they were pushovers when facing humanoids, either. The al'bai were some of the strongest and most skilled fighters the Selani had.

Kedaira padded up to Tarrin's side, issuing a very low growl from her throat. "Easy," he told her. "I'm here to fix that, remember?"

She looked up at him, her reptillian eyes calm, and she shivered her head noncommitally.

Despite knowing that they were Allia's clan, something in Tarrin just couldn't help but feel a little...uneasy. Even though it had been many, many months since placed in a position like he was in now, the time had done very little to ease his lingering ferality. He didn't feel comfortable surrounded by strangers, and he simply could not help but feel a little defensive. Without thought, as the All seemed to respond to his unease and concern, Tarrin Summoned the Cat's Claws from their resting place in the trunk at the foot of his bed. They appeared around his wrists and forearms, and Tarrin was a little surprised to see them there, as he had no honest memory of Summoning them. But he had to admit, feeling their comforting weight on his arms, sensing their powerful magic, lovingly woven into them by his dear sister, he felt much more secure. The invisible, phantom armor they provided was comfort enough, but knowing that they were also lethal weapons which could be employed by speed of thought made him feel much more confident about facing unknown strangers.

Even after everything that had happened and all the peace he had enjoyed, Tarrin was still feral, and always would be. Its impact on him may change, but it would never be completely purged from him.

Adjusting them a bit to keep them from snarling in the fetlocks on the outsides of his wrists, Tarrin regarded the advancing Selani with a calm, almost calculating eye. "What's the matter, Papa?" Jasana asked. "Are they bad people?"

"No, cub," he answered her. "But you know how I feel about strangers."

"I know," she sighed.

Tarrin decided that now, since the Selani were in sight, it would be a good time to remind his cubs of a few things. "Eron!" Tarrin barked, "come here!"

Tarrin knelt as his son ran up from where he'd been following Zumar around, pestering him with endless questions and observations. He made both of them stand before him, looking down at them with stern eyes. "Alright then, I want both of you to remember what we talked about earlier," he told them. "How you behave is going to reflect on me and your Aunt Allia. You have to be very, very good, or you're going to get us in trouble with Allia's father. Do you understand?"

"I understand, Papa," Jasana said seriously.

"You told us that already, Papa!" Eron compained.

"I'm making sure you understood it, cub," Tarrin told him with a steely look. "This isn't a game where you can just take something back. If you embarass me or Allia, we're stuck with it, and it might make Allia's father send us home. How would you like to be kicked out of the desert because you couldn't behave yourself? How do you think your mother is going to react when she finds out why we came home early?"

Few things could cow Eron like mentioning his mother and the possibility of punishment. Mist wasn't cruel to him, but she knew how to punish him. Usually she put him in a small room with absolutely nothing within to catch his interest and made him stew for a while. The boredom drove the slightly hyper Were-cat cub absolutely crazy. "I'll be good, Papa," he promised.

"I also wanted to remind you two to be gentle if any of the Selani children play with you," he told them. "You know how the other races are, cubs. They're very weak and very fragile. You have to be very gentle with them, or you'll hurt them. It's alright to play with them, but don't forget that. We don't want anyone getting hurt by accident, alright?"

"I can be gentle, Papa," Eron proclaimed immediately. "It's like playing with one of the dogs on Gramma and Grandpa's farm. I won't hurt anyone."

"That's all I need to hear. You can go play now," he told them gently, reaching out and tapping Eron on the tip of his nose with a huge finger. Eron flinched and giggled, then immediately ran off to go back to pestering Zumar once again.

"Do you really think that Allia's father will be that mean to us?" Jasana asked.

"I'm not sure, cub," he said seriously. Jasana was much more mature of mind than Eron, and that meant that he would occassionally talk to her about such things. "He's not very happy with Allia at the moment, and remember, I'm another one of those things that he's probably mad at her about. I don't want to give him any reason to think any worse of us or her than he already does. We're here to try to help Allia with her father, not make things worse."

"I understand," she said with a single nod.

"I thought you might, cub," he said. "It's hard to remember that you're as young as you are sometimes." He gave her a gentle smile. "And sometimes, it's as obvious as the day is long."

Jasana flushed a little, but said nothing. "Shouldn't you go meet him?" she asked.

"No. I'm not going to run over there like a fawning bootlicker, cub. I have my pride, and I think it's important that gets put on the table at the outset. When Allia's father wants to see me, he'll send for me. Until then, he's of no concern of mine."

"Won't he think you're being stuck up?"

"You don't know the Selani very well, cub," he told her. "Trust me. I'm doing exactly what I need to do to make the proper first impression."

"What do we do until he calls us?"

"What we were doing before, cub," he told her. "Allyn is over there helping that Scout dig a firepit. Let's give them a hand."

Kedaira stayed close to Tarrin for some reason, but he gave it no mind as he and Jasana went over and helped Allyn and the female Selani Scout, Melila, dig a wide, shallow firepit to be used to ward off Sandmen at night. They had already prepared enough of them to form a perimeter on the eastern edge of the planned campsite, and Tarrin realized that they would encircle the camp with them to protect against Sandmen. Tarrin looked back to the arriving clan and realized that they didn't have enough firewood to set that many fires and make them last all night. But then again, they had to have some kind of a plan, so Tarrin didn't worry about it too much.

The clan arrived moments later, and immediately flowed into the projected campsite and started work. Tarrin watched a moment with Jasana as Selani guided chisa into the camp and started unloading them, looking like families handled their own tents and possessions themselves. They moved with a casual certainty about them, an absent efficiency that came with performing an action repeatedly over many years. They had set up camps almost every day of their lives since they could walk, so they were quite good at it. Before the last Selani filed into the campsite, the first of the tents were already erected. They used surprisingly large, low-ceilinged pyramid-like tents that smelled like they were made out of the plant fiber from which their clothing was constructed. A single tent occupied a great deal of ground area, but was little more than ten spans high at its center, and when they were erected, their sides were pulled surprisingly taut. Tarrin realized that they were made that way to help deflect the wind, being low to the ground and with very long sides, letting the wind flow over them without catching on the tent and tearing it away.

The Selani couldn't help but stare at him, and Tarrin noticed that the very first place they looked was at his shoulders. They were looking at his brands. Tarrin looked back calmly at the smaller, lithe Selani, who had taken off their veils but continued to wear their visors, trying to get their tents up so they could duck inside and get out of the midday heat. Many of them looked at Jasana as well, and he wasn't sure if their expressions were disapproving or simply disinterested. Tarrin was about to go back to helping Allyn when Allia's shrill, loud whistle caught his attention. She was standing with her parents and another Selani, and she beckoned to him with her hand when he looked in her direction, literally looking over the heads of all the Selani around him.

"Looks like it's time, cub," Tarrin said absently. "Do me a favor and go corral Eron and bring him to us."

"Alright, Papa," Jasana acknowledged, letting go of his tail and scurrying off in the direction of the careening Were-cat.

Tarrin stalked through the swarming Selani as they labored to set up their camp, looking over and seeing that the sukk were being led out into the scrub to graze, loosely circled by Selani holding spears and bows with arrows nocked. They had about a hundred of them, quite a large flock, along with about fifteen or so chisa. The larger reptillians were easy to pick out amond the sukk. Tarrin advanced on Allia's position with a blank face, that same emotionless mask that he had seen on Triana's face so many times, an expression that he had learned was most effective when dealing with unknown people. He stalked up on the four of them, Kallan, Kaila, probably Allia's aunt Dulai, and Allia herself, scrutinizing each of them in turn. Kallan was a very tall Selani, thin as a whip but absolutely exuding authority. He had that same sense as Triana, an aura of unshakable will and power that affected everyone around him, though Kallan's sense of presence was absolutely nothing compared to Triana's. He was a handsome Selani, with thin, high features and a faint scar over his right eyebrow. Kallan's hair was a kind of light beige, the color of pampas grass, not quite white yet not quite anything but white. His large eyes were blue, just like Allia's. His face and hands were all of him that Tarrin could see, but it was enough to tell that Kallan was strong and tough as an old thistle.

Kaila's injuries were more apparent when one got close to her, for she had a hideous scar that ran from the left side of her face, running out from her blond hair and under a band of ragged leather serving as an eye patch that most likely covered an empty eye socket, and then down her cheek to her jaw, a deep, jagged scar made by an animal with very long, very sharp claws, marring what had been a very lovely face before her injury. Her left hand and half of her forearm was missing, and her right leg moved as if it did not have a knee. But despite that, there was a kind of vibrancy about the woman that seemed to jump out at him, a woman with a powerful will to live but also enjoying the life that she had. He could tell immediately that she did not mourn the loss of her hand, eye, and mobility. She had put it behind her, and continued to live life to its fullest. This was a very strong woman.

The third woman, probably Dulai, looked much like Kallan did, which marked her as Kallan's sister. She was very tall for a Selani, nearly as tall as Allia, which meant that Allia's height came from her father's side of the family. She had wide, almost cherubic cheekbones that reminded him of Faalken for an irrational moment, but had dark blue, brooding eyes that seemed cold and cunning. She did have white hair, just like Allia, draping out from under her turban in a very long tail that nearly dragged the ground behind her. She seemed...uptight. That wasn't a good description of the sense he got from her, but there was something about her that was very unrelaxed. That seemed as good an explanation as any. When he got close enough to scent her, his sense of that was reinforced. Dulai was a worrier, or neurotic, or something along those lines.

Tarrin reached them and came to a stop, looking down at them with slightly narrowed eyes, as the old sense of trepidation rose up in him at facing strangers. It was much easier to control now, allowing him to crush it under a thought that these were Allia's family, and as such should not be treated as most other strangers. He let them look up at him, and what was more important, he let them realize that he had absolutely no fear of any of them. His gaze was predatory, penetrating, and it was a gaze that Dulai could not hold for more than a moment before looking away. Kallan stared back at him with equal intensity, neither speaking nor moving, until Kaila laughed and broke both of their stares with her distraction.

"By the Holy Mother's grace, daughter," she chuckled, looking up at him. "You said he was tall, but I didn't expect him to be tall."

"Father, may I present Tarrin Kael, my deshida," Allia said in very formal tones.

Kallan's first look at Tarrin--anywhere but his eyes, anyway--was at his shoulders. When he saw the brands there, one of his eyebrows rose in a curious, almost quizzical manner. "My daughter speaks very highly of you, Tarrin Kael," he said in a calm voice. "She gives you much honor. It is my intent to discover if you are worth it."

"You don't trust your daughter's judgement, kirza?" Tarrin asked, using the Selani term for king, which was exactly what Kallan was.

"Given that she brings a soft near-cousin of our people home with her to marry, brings home an inu as a pet, and broke some of our oldest and most sacred laws when she did what she did with you, let us say that I think it is possible her ability to judge wisely was damaged while she was among the wetlanders," he countered.

"Time will tell," Tarrin told him calmly, almost cooly.

"Yes, it will," Kallan agreed.

"Well, let me say that I've been looking forward to meeting you, Tarrin Kael," Kaira said with a light, genuine smile, extending her hand. Tarrin took it, swallowing it up in his paw. "Kallan and Allia may fight about her behavior, but I don't think even my husband can deny the love our daughter has for you."

"I'm glad you feel that way," he told her, feeling her light touch on his pads. Touching her, he couldn't help but send a short weave through her, assessing the extent of her injuries. They had all healed, but he sensed from his probing weave that they had done no damage to any of her organs or bones, only the obvious damage she displayed. The problem with her knee was that the the bite that inflicted the wound had partially damaged or totally severed all the tendons and ligaments in her knee, and she had lost most of the tissue surrounding it. The inu had literally stripped her knee area to the bone. Scar tissue completely consumed the joint now, making it immovable, and the damaged ligaments and tendons wouldn't allow the muscles to move the joint anyway. The scar tissue actually served to aid her, stiffening the damaged joint and keeping it from buckling every time she put weight on it.

Forgetting himself in the moment, he reached up and pulled the eyepatch away, inspecting the wound to her face. The eye socket was still intact; that was a good sign. The claw had snagged her eye and literally pulled it out, instead of ripping apart the bone and musculature that held it in place. Kaila didn't seem to object, but he missed Kallan's infuriated look as he gently turned the woman's head to the side, checking the scar. That would be easy enough to repair.

"Remove your hands from my wife!" Kallan hissed in an offended tone.

"Tarrin is not harming her, father," Allia said quickly. "His powers of magic also include healing. I think he is assessing whether or not he can do anything for mother. He means no disrespect."

"It would be prudent to warn someone, you know," Kaila told him with a light smile.

"I apologize," he said sincerely, letting go. "I tend to ignore the wishes of others from time to time. Call it a peculiarity of my race."

"That's a peculiarity of almost any race," Kaila told him with a wink of her remaining eye.

Tarrin immediately started to like Allia's mother.

"Well, what can you do for me, Tarrin?" she asked with a light smile and an almost mischevious look in her single eye. Her banter seemed to defuse Kallan, who took a less stiff posture.

"What do you want done?" he asked in reply. "I can fix all of this. I can even give you back your hand."

"I'm sure you could," she smiled, reaching up and pushing his paw down. "But so could the Holy Mother's voice here in the clan, our Priestess. The Holy Mother has not deigned to heal my wounds yet. Perhaps she feels that there is something more I need to learn before she allows it to be done, and as in all things, I will bow to her will. When the Holy Mother feels it is time for me to be healed, I will be healed. But until then, I will continue on as I am now."

Tarrin blinked, removing his paw, surprised by her response. And in a way, he couldn't refute her. If she had that much faith in Fara'Nae, it was not his place to try to usurp it by healing her before she felt that Fara'Nae felt she was ready. But Tarrin did file that little bit of information away in the back of his mind, fully intending to confront her over it the next time they talked. If Kaila wasn't ready to be healed, then nobody was. She was so strong, so full of life, not even her injuries could slow her down. She deserved to be healed.

"I would hope that you'd have known Selani custom better, and known that to do what you have just done is not considered honorable," Kallan told him stiffly.

"Oh come now, Kallan, he did no harm," Kaila told him. "And he is an outlander. He has his own customs, and nobody can fault him for accidentally reverting to them. Touching me like that was some kind of custom, wasn't it?" she asked him.

"In a way," Tarrin answered. "It would be hard to explain."

"Besides, he was doing what he did out of a desire to do good. Doesn't that count for something?"

Kallan said nothing, but Kaila's argument obviously hit a nerve. Tarrin could tell that Kallan was extremely defensive about his wife, so he made a note to be delicate about that subject from then on.

In a moment of clarity, Tarrin understood why Kaila wasn't healed. It wasn't because of her, it was because of her husband. There was something going on here, some kind of subtle interaction between them that was enough to prevent Fara'Nae's hand. The lesson to be learned wouldn't be learned by Kaila, it would be learned by Kallan. When he discovered that truth, Fara'Nae would relent. It seemed wrong to force Kaila to continue to be impaired in this lesson, but he realized that her faith and her liveliness wouldn't allow her to get depressed or self-pitying. She was happy to go on living, no matter how it was that she lived.

Quite a few people could learn something from Allia's surprising mother.

Tarrin put that out of his mind and looked at Kallan. So far, Tarrin hadn't done much to impress the Selani clan king, but he could tell that Kallan hadn't quite made up his mind about Tarrin yet. Kaila's defense of Tarrin had defused that somewhat, enough to where Kallan was again speculative instead of hostile.

"Are you ready to perform the task I have asked you to perform?" Kallan asked him.

"I can take care of that at your earliest convenience, kirza," he answered. "It may take me a couple of days, because I have to talk to each of your animals one at a time. I didn't realize you had quite this many."

"You can tend to that later. For right now, I want to see what my daughter has taught you," he said, looking right into Tarrin's eyes. "When the camp is fully set up, I will see what you know."

Tarrin had no doubt that Kallan meant to test his fighting ability, to test his mettle and see what kind of a man he was in a fight. Tarrin had fully expected that, and in a way, he welcomed it. He'd been curious for a long time to see if Kallan was of equal measure to his daughter.

Tarrin reached within, through the Cat, and made contact with the boundless energy of the All. The image and intent in his mind were clear, and the All responded to them quickly and effortlessly. Two foul-smelling gloves appeared in his paw, the Trollskin gloves that Allia and others had used in order to spar against him. "Here," he said, offering them to the Selani leader.

"What are these?" he asked, taking them.

"They're magical artifacts that will give you the strength of a Troll," he answered as Allia gave him a narrow-eyed yet highly approving look. "They'll make it a fair fight."

"You think I cannot best you without help?" Kallan asked with sudden heat.

"Yes, I do," he answered with brutal honesty. "I think Allia's described me to you, kirza. Did you think she was exaggerating? I really am that strong. I'd only have to hit you once, and the match would be over."

Kallan gave him a hot look.

"If you don't want to use the gloves, that's your decision," Tarrin told him. "But when I beat you, I wouldn't consider it to be a fair test. I'd feel there was no honor in it. I want to fight you on equal ground, kirza, where I can test my skill against yours when I have no outrageous advantage over you. Unless you wear those gloves, it won't be a contest on an equal level. I want it to be an honorable contest."

Tarrin knew Selani, and he knew he'd just smoothed over Kallan's anger and earned a few points besides. It would sound arrogant to anyone but a Selani about his confidence in being able to take Kallan without the gloves, but that was only simple truth. And Tarrin explained it as such. Without those gloves, he really would only have to hit Kallan once, and the fight was over. With the gloves, Tarrin would have no strength advantage, and it would truly be skill against skill, a contest between equals. That that was what Tarrin was seeking was a testament to his honor. He knew Kallan would wear the gloves because he could not deny Tarrin's logic, use them to test Tarrin's skill in battle. But he also knew that as soon as Kallan got a feel for Tarrin in the match, after he had assessed Tarrin's ability, he would put the gloves aside and try to defeat Tarrin without them. Defeating an enemy with an overwhelming advantage brought a warrior a tremendous amount of honor. Kallan would not resist the temptation of trying. And even if he lost, he would gain honor, for simply taking up the challenge of battling a stronger opponent was an honorable undertaking.

Tarrin could respect that, and he really wanted to fight Kallan on equal ground. He wanted to see if Kallan was a match for Allia, one of the very few living beings that Tarrin respected enough to fear having to fight. If Kallan was half of Allia, he would be a formidable opponent.

"I can accept your argument, Tarrin," Kallan announced in a much smoother, almost appreciative tone. "My daughter has described your unique advantages in the past, and it would be more of a test if we stood on level ground. I will wear the gloves. But when the test is done, I will test myself against you without them, to test my ability. And I expect you to give me everything you have, whether I wear them or not," he ordered.

"I would never hold back, kirza," Tarrin said calmly.

Jasana brought Eron up to them, and Tarrin looked down to see them. "Kirza, these are my children, Jasana and Eron," he said.

"Why would you bring your children here?" Kallan asked.

"To teach them about the homeland of their aunt Allia," he answered. "So far, they've done very well, though my son Eron keeps trying to catch just about anything poisonous."

Kallan actually chuckled, kneeling down. "Well now, that Allia's deshida would bring his children to be taught our ways speaks highly of his devotion to the clan," he admitted, putting a slender hand on Jasana's shoulder. Kallan reached for Eron, who tried to take his hand.

"Gently!" Tarrin warned when Eron grabbed hold of Kallan's hand.

Kallan winced. "He has quite a grip."

"You wouldn't want to experience the full grip, kirza, believe me," Tarrin told him bluntly. "Say hello, cubs."

"Hullo," Jasana said shyly.

"Are you Aunt Allia's Papa?" Eron asked excitedly.

"I am," Kallan replied.

"We were told we had to be extra-good while we're with you, or Papa will be really mad at us," Eron announced.

"Well, I appreciate that," Kallan said with a sly smile at Tarrin.

"Papa said Aunt Allia has a nephew. Where is he?"

"Zakra is with the other children," the woman Dulai finally spoke. "He'll be along as soon as they're ready.

"Ooh, can I go play with the Selani, Papa?" Eron asked hastily.

"They won't be able to play for a bit yet," Kallan warned. "They have duties to perform before they can play. But maybe you'd like to go with them? It would let you see what our children do when the camp is set up."

"I would!" Eron said quickly.

"May I stay with Papa?" Jasana asked politely, grabbing hold of the end of his tail.

"If you wish, youngling," Kallan told her, standing up. "We all have duties to see to," he announced. "Go with Allia, Tarrin. When the camp is set up, you and I will test ourselves against one another in the Dance."

"I'm looking forward to it, kirza," Tarrin said with a slight smile.