Story by James Todd Lewis; Chapter and section breaks by Kat Miller!
An extension of the story told in The Summit (available as an eBook from Amazon)!
(c) All characters copyright of James Todd Lewis (2015)
Sharing Joys and Pains
About an interval later, with all just finishing up a fine evening meal, Vanarra stood up and addressed the group. “Again, I want to thank all of you for coming out here tonight, and I know this is going to be a really special time for all of us. For some of us, we’re looking and hoping for new beginnings; for some of us, it’s the opportunity to reunite with old … and dear friends,” she said, looking over at Sahnassa warmly. Turning back to the group, she continued, “For all of us, I hope there is a desire to become even closer to the ones we depend on. Now, in that spirit, I am going to suggest that, from now until we retire for the night, we spend the time telling stories. Stories are our experiences and our feelings, and as Rahni said—” Saletta flinched at that, but Van put up a paw-finger. “No titles out here, remember? Even for Grand Matriarchs.”
Saletta sighed and agreed with a smirk, “Oh, alright, Vannie.”
“Oh, what fun I’m opening myself up for here,” Van groaned. “As I was about to say, Rahni once said that the path to understanding is through storytelling, and I agree, so – towards that end – that is what I would like for us to do tonight. Who wants to start?”
The group looked around at each other nervously, trying to decide. “I’ll start,” Tresk piped up. Van suppressed the urge to flinch and then nodded and sat down. “I … I think it’s finally time that you all … knew what happened to me, why I … well, why it’s just Tresk. I grew up on Loritan, and my father, he was the owner of a watering hole. We were never the pride of the de Kestrick family in the first place, so the tack our matron took was to just see us as little as possible. So long as no one was complaining about us, it was fine. Well, my mother was pretty sick most of the time, and we didn’t have a lot. My dad – my dad kind of got tired of not having a mate willing or able to hunt so … he decided to start up some new hunts of his own. As for me, I grew up seeing that, and I pretty much grew up at the watering hole. When I came home, that’s where I went. Our lair was a place we slept, more or less, that’s all.”
Tresk stopped looking at the fire and glanced at the faces – all were attentive, so he continued. “When I was a teen, one of my dad’s other hunts made it into our place, angry as crap that she was now pregnant by him. She brought her brothers with her. They pinned my dad to the wall and started beating him up. Now, I didn’t much respect the old cub, but he was my father. Somehow, my dad had come across a military grade firearm which he kept hidden in case something went bad. Well, in my mind at the time, that qualified, so I got it and got behind the two males who were beating him. I was going to shoot them in the back, but … I decided they didn’t deserve that so, I went for the legs.”
Tresk sighed before he continued. “I got them both, took them down, and the female – she ran. She came back with more enforcement than I’d ever seen in like one pass flat. Me and my dad were trying to bandage up what I’d done, but … I got hauled away, put in jail, and … stayed there for awhile. My dad was so angry with me he told me never to come back home, and you can imagine what my matron said to me. So there. Van, you never ask about our pasts, and I’m grateful for that, but … it looks like you all are the only family I have. I thought you should know.”
He felt a paw on his shoulder and turned around. Liana was looking at him, her eyes streaming tears. She squeezed his shoulder gently in support, and he patted it with his paw. “Thank you, kit,” he said softly.
“Thank you, Tresk,” Flint offered. “And, if I had been in your situation, I don’t know if I could have done anything different.” Everyone around the fire told him thank you, which made him cry a little, too.
“Who else?” Van offered softly.
Buck then shared his story about how and why he was disavowed from de Caterra for twisting tails with a Vulpi, Nissalani, and what they did to her afterwards, and the reconciliation both Vanarra and he had with her not long ago. As he told the story, Vanarra noticed that Tana was looking at him intensely, absorbing every detail. As those around the fire offered their thanks, Vanarra quietly asked again, “Who else?”
“I would like to take a turn, if it’s okay?” Tana asked. At Vanarra’s nod, she began. “I know some find my … devotion to Van a little … odd, but I want you to understand why.” At this, even Vanarra’s ears perked up a little, and Liana actually leaned forward. “I grew up on a de Caterra estate on Thuratan, never leaving it. My mother was a caretaker of what was called the Noble Halls of Tilleah Za.” Buck nodded in understanding as she glanced at him. “Within the walls of our estates are – sorry, were places, special places where the family kept monuments to its honor and glory. I grew up on stories of our family’s accomplishments, all of the great de Caterra that had reigned over the house or brought honor to the family. I heard the stories so much, that … I grew immune to them. I developed the skill of looking like I was spellbound by the wonderful things being told me, all the while sun-dreaming or letting my mind wander. Unfortunately, my trick worked too well. I had been working in an office off the estate, around all kinds of Thurians, but my mother had me brought before my sire’s sibling to work as his aid in cataloging the wonderful accomplishments of our family.”
Tana shook her head. “It was miserable work for me, and it left me alone with this … rabid male for many more intervals than it should have. Sol after sol I deflected or avoided his attempts to hunt me. It didn’t matter that we were too closely related – he was alone and aging and … well, desperate. One sol, he grew tired of my resistance and went after me. He found out that I was prepared, and soon found himself in the arms of enforcement. For his attempted rape-mating, he was not punished. They released him and reassigned me. When I tried to pursue the matter with the civil authorities, they made me a matron, and I was told to give up my suit against him. As a matron, they stuffed me in a corner, made me do the tasks none of the other matrons wanted, including being an escort to Dame Katur.”
She took a breath and sighed. “I have never been more terrified or more … disheartened by anything in my life as being in her service. I couldn’t even stand to be in a room where someone was telling a glowing story of our family’s honor. I had seen too much. The cover records were unknown to me, but still, it didn’t take the cover records to know how lost and empty everyone around you was.”
Tana looked up at Van and then smiled. “Then, my path crossed with Vanarra Anasto’s; that’s who she was, then. Her clever deception of all of the other de Caterra, her … boldness, the way she spoke and her confidence and … so many other things about her were completely new to me. At the time, I knew it was ridiculous, but it brought back the memory of someone I lost, a mixed blood friend I once had named Asuala, I … I couldn’t keep myself from somehow wanting to set her free. Van … she promised that I could have a real family, where I could care about who I wanted to care about and just … live and be free. It was a faint hope at the time, it seemed, but she made it come true. Through those she knew and how she stood up and fought for me, she made it come true. Then, I learned that she had done that for so many others, and I wanted to be a part of that. At the orphanage, I saw it over and over again, didn’t I, Mauft?”
The gray one nodded and replied, “Tana was in tears for intervals when we placed the baby kit she had taken care of – and it was joy for her, not sadness.”
“My life,” Tana continued, “has been transformed from fear and emptiness to joy by Vanarra. Every sol I have the privilege to help do the most wonderful things for those who need it – to see the … love and adoration of so many kits and cubs in that place. I’m … I’m attached to each one; I care for each one. Okay, the truth is, I love every one of them.”
“Even Dexer?” Mauft tossed in.
“Even … Dexer, although he does take effort,” Tana chuckled, but then looked at Vanarra, her eyes welling. “It’s only because of her support that I can do these things. I … am dedicated to Vanarra because of what she has done for me – more than anyone else in my life ever has.”
Vanarra stood and walked over to Tana, who rose, and the two embraced, crying. Respectful applause and affirmations surrounded them. After a few moments, the two parted, and Van dried her eyes as best she could and sniffed before saying, “Who … else? Huh?”
Kylie stood. “As Tana has dedicated herself to Vanarra, I have pledged myself to Sahnassa. Maybe not all of you know this, but when I was first training Sahni, there was an accident. I … I had been sick, and one night, when I was training, my hormones peaked above the level needed for rut trance. Sahnassa … came in. She wanted to spar with me. I went after her, very fiercely. I can’t say from where, but she summoned something up and actually managed to beat me.”
“How did she do that?!” Flint asked.
“I just got lucky, and … I was desperate,” Sahni interjected.
“To make a long story short, however, she actually managed to pin me, and … down I went. I was in rut trance. She didn’t know what was happening; neither of us did. Just talking to me, trying to figure out what was wrong with me and draw me out, she gave me a bunch of commands. When I left her lair the next morning, my life started falling apart. I did … weird things I’d never done before, and I had all these compulsions I couldn’t understand. When I finally did figure it out, the de Caterra controlled doctors told me that I had to be institutionalized or continue to suffer. Do you know where they wanted to put me? It was going to be at a de Caterra indoctrination facility that masqueraded as a mental hospital. I found that out by reading the cover records.”
“I … I didn’t know that,” Sahnassa gasped, and she held onto Tallen tightly.
Kylie continued, “I was terrified of going to a mental hospital and trying to live like how I was. So, I thought of another solution.” Ashamed, Kylie admitted, “It was to have Sahni do it to me again.” She looked around and saw faces, in particularly Saiphar and Solana, looking at her intently. Tresk was aghast, and Liana had her head bowed, and her paws over her eyes. “Sahni … bless her, did as I asked. She … she didn’t control me, turn me into what she wanted me to be. That wonderful Nephti did everything she could … to give me my life back. Before there was Reticin, there was Sahni. So, when I learned about the ceremony of pledging from the old times, I … I couldn’t think of anyone in my life who deserved it more. Sahnassa – she was so gracious. She … knew the ceremony or, at least, her heart understood what was happening,” Kylie explained, warmly.
“I … I have never been more honored, kit,” Sahni replied, tears streaming down her cheek fur. “Never.”
“Nor I,” Kylie replied, sniffling. “That’s why I am like you are, Tana. That’s why I’ve pledged myself to Sahnassa, to be there for her whenever she calls for me, whatever she asks. She could have made me her slave, but … Sahni, you made me free.” Now, it was Sahnassa and Kylie who stood and embraced.
As they separated and Kylie sat down, Saiphar asked, “Please forgive me, Kylie, but … how did you ever find the courage to go back, knowing what she could do to you?”
“I was terrified, Saiphar. I was. I was just terrified of the way I was more,” she confessed.
“There’s a ceremony? For pledging yourself to another?” Tana asked, looking at Van.
“I’ve … never heard of it, kit, honestly,” Vanarra explained. “Even with all this matron stuff, it’s never come up.”
“I’ve been in the family matriarchy for quite a while,” Saletta piped in. “I’ve never heard of it, either.”
“I am not surprised. It’s about as old and forgotten as it can be, but it’s there,” Kylie assured them, “if you know where to look.”
Glancing at Tana, Vanarra instantly understood the request in her pleading eyes. “Kylie, if you would be so kind as to share that with me, I think … I think Tana and I would like to look into it.”
“Certainly, Van, Tana. I’d be happy to.”
“Thank you, kit. Sahni, I want some help from you on this, okay?”
“Of course,” the Nephti replied, reaching over and grasping Van’s paw.
Vanarra nodded and asked, “Who else?”
Tresk stood up, and there was an audible groan from several in the group. “Now, now, kits and cubs, I know I’ve already had my turn, but I’m going to tell a story for someone else.” The group seemed to settle down at that point, willing to accept Tresk’s second go. “Liana’s been in our group for more than a few sols now, and she’s quiet. She’s so quiet you may not have noticed how much she’s done. Well, when you go back to work in a sol or two, you’re going to see how hard she worked. You remember all of those damned shelves in the back? The ones we swore only stayed together because the wood rot refused to let go?” There were chuckles from a few at that, Flint included. “Well, this kit went with me, and she managed to get us a deal on shelves that are the best … ever. Shelves that should have set us back 100,000 or more we got for a fraction of that. Then, she helped put them in. I wanted to go home, but she wouldn’t have it. She wanted to stay until it was done.”
He looked down at Liana, who was looking up at him amazed. “Whenever you go in the back to get a pack of crackers or a chafing dish or those awful purple plates with the brittle finish, just remember that she had a big part in that, and it wouldn’t have gotten done without her.”
“You … you worked many intervals, too, Tresk,” Liana countered softly.
“May be, but if it had been only me – it wouldn’t have gotten done. So there you go,” he said to her, and sat down.
“I’m glad to have you here, kit, and yes, Tresk, we are grateful to you, too,” Van offered. “I have to tell you all I was stunned to see what they had done. You both have made our livelihoods more efficient and safer than they were before. Thank you.” Thanks were echoed around the fire, and then Van asked, “Who next?”
“I’ll take a turn,” Mauft offered. Raising her eyebrow fur, Vanarra nodded. “I … have a confession to make. I’ve read Flint’s book.”
“Oh, damn!” Flint cursed. “Not this again.”
Mauft leered at him, and Saletta tried to calm him down. “No, not that book, Flint, your new one. The one about the three friends. The interesting story was how I ended up with a copy of it. See, I’m a de Dothnar now, and … well, I’ve been going to some of their – I mean our, functions. I’ve … met with a matron a few times, yeah, but usually, I just kind of show up where I’m supposed to, stay in the back, and leave as soon as it’s over. Unfortunately, I couldn’t exactly do that the last time I was there. It was sort of a tour of the de Dothnar estate. I was in the back, just kind of watching things and listening about the statues and the libraries and so forth when I get the sense that someone is behind me. I turn around, and … well, there she is – the Grand Matriarch. I’m about to bow and greet her when Dame Dania steps out from behind her and orders the rest of the tour to keep going. I … I don’t even think the rest of them saw me being stopped.”
“You had to be terrified, Mauft,” Tana breathed. “That would have scared the fur off of me!”
“I … I was just about to pull a Flint—”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“When you like passed out and fell on your boss, Muscles! It isn’t too hard to figure out,” Van sniped with a sly smirk on her face. This elicited a scowl from Flint in Van’s direction.
“Anyway,” Mauft continued, “she told me that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and she just wanted to talk. She asked a lot of questions, questions about the things in your book, Flint. She wanted to know if I had any similar stories. Well, I … I wasn’t familiar with the book, I told her, and she suggested she would like me to be, so she gave me a copy. I think it was the same copy that Matriarch Amyra borrowed from Dame Saletta. So, I … read your book, Flint, over the next few nights while I rocked the children at the orphanage. I have to say, what you wrote mattered. It mattered to me. Later, when I went back for my appointment with the matriarch, we … we talked for a long time, and Dame Dania took lots of notes. She thinks the orphanage and what happens there is worth a book, but … I don’t know how to put one together.” Mauft’s blush furs rose slightly, and abruptly, she stopped her story.
“Flint,” Saletta prodded, “would you possibly consider … helping Mauft put together a book?” Flint looked at her as if she had just suggested he should consider tying the moons together with a rope made out of Quick Glue. She raised her eyebrow fur, questioningly, and the cant of her head warned him he had better consider what she was suggesting.
“Well, I … I suppose I could work with you on it, some,” Flint offered, a little grudgingly.
“Thanks,” the gray one replied, sitting down and obviously through with her story.
Van chuckled a bit, but then asked, “Who else?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll go,” Tallen announced after the silence had hung in the air for a moment or two. “I have a confession to make; you’re all probably going to find out sooner or later. See, when Matron Saletta – at the time – brought me in for my first interview at Celebrations by Vanarra, well, it wasn’t exactly my first … sort of … interview. In fact, by the time I went for my formal interview, Van had pretty much already offered me the job.” At this, Van covered her eyes with her paw, smiling wickedly and avoiding the baleful stare of her dame. “Kylie had set up what was supposed to be kind of a quick … tour sort of a thing, so I could kind of figure things out. Well, I get there, and cake is about to hit the floor. I jump in – stupidly – and stick myself under it while Flint goes to get the cart. It was pretty much the longest pass of my life.”
“I thought he was going to snap like a dried harlock twig,” Flint put in.
“I think that actually helped my posture, believe it or not,” Tallen chuckled. “Well, the next thing I know, I’m working at a major event like I’m one of the regular staff. I … I don’t even know anyone’s name, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but everyone was just great, and we all got through the event. Well, Van brings me back to the office, and when we get there, she tells me Sahni is there. Now, I’d run into Sahni in the gym where Kylie works and seeing her – well, it almost made my heart stop. So, I was pretty nervous. We get there, and she’s really tired; Kylie had pretty much worn her out.”
“Was that the night I put you through your trials?” Kylie asked.
“Yes,” Sahnassa groaned. “I … I was about in tears when I got back to the office and found out we had been hacked again.”
Kylie shook her head in apology as Tallen continued, “Well, she explains what’s happening, and it sounds just like some of the things I’d heard Scooter – he was my professor – say about professional attacks and the Retail Network Array. I know Scoot’s working late shift so I offer to check with him and see if he can help. He agreed, after a little convincing from Sahni, and then we went to go tell Vanarra. She agreed, and we got to work. Well, after awhile, we ended up in this long stretch of file uploading where there wasn’t much to do. Scooter and I are chatting back and forth, but when I turn around to ask Sahnassa how she’s doing, I look back, and she’s fast asleep.”
“Oh, great,” Sahnassa groaned. “Go and tell them that part.”
“Well, I don’t know if many of you have ever seen Sahnassa sleeping, but … she’s beautiful. She’s like that the rest of the time, but when she’s sleeping, the way she relaxes … it’s just … so incredibly special, at least to me. I looked at her for a long time, and I felt so … privileged by so many things – that she would talk to me, that she would let me help, that she trusted me, that she felt comfortable enough to close her eyes and rest near me. After everything I’d heard and after seeing her speak to the rest of my house, I felt like I would remember those moments for the rest of my life.”
He had been looking at her intently but then turned back towards the fire and shrugged. “And, then it was over, and I thought that would be it. She’d move on to her matron duties, I’d take over her responsibilities, and she’d go onto greater things and grander souls than I. The greatest surprise I have ever had and the greatest blessing I’ve ever known is that it wasn’t over; our time was just starting. We’ve known each other for awhile now, and … we’re close. We … need each other,” he said looking back at her. “You are the prey that was too grand for me to ever think of hunting, but you … slowed down for me and cared for me as I pursued you – making my path easier. Now, I want more than anything else for the hunt to be over.” Sahni’s eyes were wide and her mouth was opened in surprise as he continued, “I want to claim a prize so grand that it eclipses any other. Will you, dearest Sahni, favor me and join your path to mine?” he asked, holding up an expensive jeweled bracelet by its clasps, offering it to her.
He raised his eyebrow fur hopefully and nodded. Sahnassa’s features melted into a warm and loving smile, and as everyone else held their breath, she delicately placed her wrist into the half circle he had made with the bracelet, her paw open and facing up. Smiling more than he ever had before, he fastened the bracelet to her and then took her paw in his. “I will, Tallen,” she said, “and I’m honored.”
The cheers that went up from around the campfire were so loud that they echoed across the lake.
About an interval later, as the merry-making and the celebrating finally started to die down, Vanarra pulled Sahnassa away from the fire with a quick word in Tallen’s ear. As she walked Sahni back towards the lake, the Nephti asked, “Did you know he was going to ask me tonight?”
“I didn’t, actually. I felt he was close to doing it, but he didn’t do anything to tip me off at all. That little cub did it all on his own. I don’t know if anyone in the office knew, to judge from their reactions. I’m so happy for you, Sahni. I’m … overjoyed, actually,” Vanarra offered, drawing the Nephti close by putting her arm around her shoulder. “Since Buck and I have been joined, it’s been amazing. Just to have that assurance with one another.”
“I know. I feel like one of the biggest worries in my life just got lifted off my back, and I don’t think I understood until now how much I’d been worrying about if he would or not. I … really love him. It’s real, too, not … not something that just flashes into existence, but real.”
“How do you think Theo will react?” she asked evenly.
“If I know him well enough, he’ll be happy for me, and … maybe even a little proud of me.” Sahnassa looked at her friend, who had turned away to look at the lake, and then gently reached out with the stone. “Van, you’re … hurting. What’s wrong?”
“How can you know that, Sahni?” Van whispered. “I try every trick I know to keep this feeling from you, and damn if you don’t still find it – see right through me! Yes. I … I am totally hung up on Theo in a way I’ve never been before. I’m … I’m obsessing over him, Sahni; I really am! Why? I have a lair mate, great friends, my father, and I’m part of a family – why does Theo de freaking Allarrae still keep popping up in my head!?”
Sahnassa probed a little further, and felt her friend’s confusion, but unlike Vanarra, Sahnassa knew this emotion all too well. “Perhaps, you miss him, like I do, when he’s gone. You made him your surrogate father for a reason.”
“I want nothing more right now than to go to him and just talk – just be with him! I don’t want him as my lair mate, not even for a little side hunt, I … I just – I do miss him. We’re sitting there, and Tallen is proposing to you. You know what I’m thinking? I wish Theo were here to see this! Why is that?”
“He’s just about the only one who isn’t here, minus the matriarchs. He’s special to us both, Van. He will be forever, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Hey, I’ll put out the call to Theo, tell him where we are—”
“And wish him luck,” Vanarra chuckled. “Amyra’s got this place sealed up tight. To get in, he’d have to go through channels, and the matriarch is on Ricia right now. That is unless he can just … appear or something.”
“Oh, a challenge!” Sahni laughed. “Oh, he’d like that! He might just come for that alone!”
Vanarra laughed, as well. “Oh just once! Just once, I would like to see him being brought up the road in binders – not that we’d keep him there, of course, but to have him try to sneak in and get caught.” Vanarra sighed, “Oh, but then that’s probably not all that realistic, is it?”
“Probably not,” Sahni replied, shaking her head. “Although it is a pretty funny image when you think about it. I’ll contact him and tell him he needs to come as soon as he can.”
“You really don’t have to do all that, seriously, though, kit. Just … just tell him that I miss him, so much.”
“I will, Van. I will,” Sahni replied, smiling.
“Thanks. Now, let’s get back to the fire before someone fills your dear Tallen with so much fermentum that he’s of no use at all!”
“Oh, dear. I hadn’t thought of that,” Sahni replied, seeming concerned.
“I’m sure it’s alright. Come on!”