High above, the venting holes for the cookfires showed the stars. Niaan remembered a time when she’d lain on the ledge, demanding to see the stars. Kaivelt’s stars. Xanaas had stood for her, even against the Huntleader’s wishes, made walls of furs so that she could see, and still be warm and tended.
She’d dreamed of Kaivelt – but he was absent from her mind, now, as he sometimes was.
She needed him now, but he was out there somewhere circling a small yellow star on a planet called Earth, or Terra 3. Strange, faraway names. Would that world sing to him, as Aletris once had for her?
If the stars were lower, closer to the ground of her world, could she reach up, and dance her way back to Kaivelt, as she had when she was a child, and so was he?
Would they ever come together, truly?
“I’m not your -” But she stopped herself. She couldn’t continue to refuse the name they’d given to her, or the role it assigned to her. Tacivaar was gone, stalking her as his prey. Shinjao was gone, off to seek what was needed for the days to come. Xanaas was gone to the End Hunt – or whatever awaited a healer who had served long and with compassion. Sylain and Teslyn did as much as they could – but they were not Hunters, and not Trueborn, and had not the knowing that came of all those lessons trapped in the stifling little room in Mother’s Keep, meant to make a Kai out of her while Vaara was hidden away in a forgotten chamber.
“I beg pardon of you, Huntleader -”
Teslyn’s voice was soft, hesitant – lost, as Niaan had never thought to hear it. They were all lost. The Tribeless who had escaped with their lives, and nothing more than those. The wounded, some of whom still might not live, even more so now that Xanaas did not.
All of the Pridekeep, lost, bereft of their Huntleader, so that they put her in his place, and made of her what they had need of from her.
“No pardon is needed of me, Teslyn. I beg mine of you. I heard the child’s missive, and did nay come.”
“I would I had nay need of you. Sleep is what Sylain says Xanaas ordered…but there is no other fit to light his pyre. I thought mayhap you would -”
“Yes. It will be honor to offer him his Final Welcoming.” She pried herself out of the nest. She could smell the fires, and the lingering scent of those Welcomed yesternight, and the two nights before. How many more nights, before there were no more dead to tend to?
She followed Teslyn to the entrance of the Pridekeep, wondering why her limbs felt like the heaviest of Osiraan’s branches.
She heard the Pride before she saw them. They made a music of their sorrow, with all notes woven into the tapestry. Her mind played with the thought of Rachyl weaving this song into patterns and colors – the borders the lowest of the moans and the highest keening wails….