Vixen tucked her black wool bag with her most essential shaman tools into the larger basket that already held her hand-craft tools, and paused to rub the new tattoos on her palms. No matter how much effort and energy she put into healing them more rapidly, they still itched.

“Stop scratching them, love,” Aerfen said calmly, without even looking up from neatly folding Vixen's tunics and undershirts into a compact pile that could join two sweaters, light and heavy, and two pairs of trousers, one leather and one woven for warm weather, in a sturdy leather pack.

“I have too much stuff,” Vixen sighed. “I think part of me thought I'd never leave here. Part of me wishes that I wasn't.”

“Willow River's only a few days away. We can visit you there. And I think you'd best expect to visit here, where you'll be much missed, hm?”

“Of course I will. But this is the first place I've ever really felt like I have a home. How can I go somewhere else? Asking a hill that's never met me to accept a human shaman is a lot.”

Aerfen brushed back the one tendril of pale blonde hair that she somehow never managed to catch while braiding it, and sat on the edge of Vixen's bed to look at her. Her favourite necklace, one Shabra had made her years ago, wwas vivid against her pale skin in the brighter light of Vixen's room: multiple strands, the beads of the longest red and those of the shortest violet. “Shamans have a responsibility to go where they're needed. There are never so many that each one isn't important. There are small hills out there without their own shaman, who have to rely on the nearest larger hill. If you stayed here, there'd be one more community without a shaman.”

“How can I even call myself a shaman? I'm good at healing, and I do well enough at dealing with the spirit world, but I can't teach history and traditions when I still have huge holes in what I know.”

“Then for that, you rely on the elders of the community, who do know it,” Aerfen said patiently. “No shaman knows everything. The parts that only a shaman can do, you do very well, otherwise you wouldn't have those tattoos. The rest, others can and will do, while you continue to learn. You wanted a life you could live as yourself, and for you, that includes helping others. Which you will do, more than you can see right now.”

Vixen sat down beside her, and Aerfen slid an arm around her waist. “There are a number of old human stories about the dangers of getting exactly what you wish for.”

“Mad humans, then. Could you have asked for anything else, and still be here?”

“No,” Vixen said quietly. “I couldn't have.”

“But what we gain, we repay. That keeps the world in balance. Willow River needs a shaman. You need a community to be shaman to. Do you think Sano and Nuriel would simply send you off to the first hill they heard of that needs a shaman? They chose Willow River because they are certain it will be a good place for you and that you will be good for them. Communities that might be less open-minded about your history are typically farther into the highlands. The ones nearer the edge, who trade with humans regularly, are more practical and less prejudiced. Willow River's witch has talked to her community and they've decided to give you the same chance any shaman has.” She chuckled. “And you can get that mad cat of yours out of here. Ellai's in absolute despair as far as teaching the cubs to hunt like wolves, instead of in a hybrid version of wolf and puma styles. I gather she found one of them up a tree a few days ago, waiting for the other to chase game underneath, the way Dayr and the wolves hunt deer together.”

Vixen couldn't help laughing at the image that created. The adult wolves and Dayr had found ways to integrate their varied strengths into a single lethal and efficient whole. The cubs imitated everything, not only their parents, and Dayr played with them often—which mostly meant roughhousing and hunting games. “That would've been so funny to see.”

“I'm sure it was.”

“Maybe Dayr and the puma at Willow River will turn out to like each other. If they don't, I'm not sure I'll be able to stay. A male puma around would reduce her odds of finding a mate she considers acceptable, and Dayr would be stuck in one place with no hope of a mate. I couldn't do that to them. I know Dayr won't leave me and go somewhere else. I don't know what I did, but I don't think I could get rid of him if I tried.”

“I agree, you couldn't. From what I've heard from Nuriel, the puma at Willow River has been extremely fussy and has yet to encounter a male who meets her standards, but she's quite intrigued by the idea of one who went out of his way to save a lost human and stayed to watch over you. An open mind is as much as one can ask. Just as well, however, if Dayr isn't expecting anything.”

“I won't tell him.” Vixen heaved a sigh. “I suppose I should get back to packing. I was hoping that it would be just me and Dayr with no more than we could carry, but I think that's hopeless and it's going to take donkey strength for all this. Which means Chira coming along so he can bring the donkeys back here.”

“He doesn't mind. And did you truly believe we'd allow you to leave here with so little? What will I have to do with my time but weave more, with both my daughters having flown the nest, hm?”

Vixen gave her a one-armed hug. “I'm going to miss you. I can't even begin to tell you how much you've given me.”

“I know, love,” Aerfen said gently. “But that goes both ways. Now, up you get, or we'll never get finished.”

* * *

Copper Springs' pair of sturdy strong donkeys found the weight of clothes, bedding, camping gear, extra food, and miscellaneous other possessions negligible. It would have been quite possible to load it all on one, and for Vixen to ride the other, but six years of learning to watch the world around her meant frequent pauses to gather these leaves or that root for later use, edible or medicinal. The donkeys used those pauses to snatch a few bites of food, being far more flexible in their tastes than horses and equally amenable to browsing on bushes or grazing on grass. Dayr and Chira spent much of their time four-footed, wandering off to investigate this scent or that sound.

All being accustomed to the shyani pattern of sleeping twice but shorter periods, at noon and midnight, and since allowing the donkeys a break was good anyway, they travelled in the morning and the evening, pausing for a simple camp in between. At least one of the two weyres was always near Vixen and the donkeys.

A few times, they didn't need to camp, but were able to stay as guests of another hill. Only the nearest had heard about Sanovas' human adopted daughter and student; Chira responded to Vixen's surprise with a shrug.

“The tarika will do you no harm now, not with those tattoos on your palms. Had they heard about you too soon, there could have been trouble. It has been difficult for Sano not to sing your praises all over the highlands, but we all wanted you safe.”

“Oh.” Yet again, Copper Springs had been protecting her, and this time, she hadn't even known—early on she hadn't known about the existence of the tarika or the threat they could have been to her, and more recently, she simply hadn't thought about it, too used to her new life as it was. She'd been outside Copper Springs with her immediate family, visiting Aerfen's parents in one hill, Sano's in another, Shabra in Rainbow Falls once she'd settled in there, but those were safe places where people had seen her as family first, human only somewhere after that. “Thank you.”

Chira shrugged and smiled. “It was well worth it.”

“Likely just as well,” the elderly female shaman of this hill said briskly. “If Red Fox and Sanovas are certain you can do the job, then we need you, and who cares where you were born? You can stay with me tonight, my children are long since out on their own and my mate died a few years ago.” The hill's much younger male witch had been quietly unstrapping the packs from the donkeys during the discussion; he laid a hand on the forehead of each, and they followed him eagerly around the side of the hill to join the two resident donkeys, one of them with a small foal.

That sort of welcome went a long way towards easing Vixen's fears, but there was a very large difference between offering hospitality to a human, which hills had been known to do even if that human wasn't travelling with two weyres and shaman tattoos, and accepting a human in a key role within the community.

She knew rationally that there was always a period of mutual assessment, not unlike a courting couple—which was an analogy that made her think sadly of Tethan, and wonder whether she'd done the right thing. But though she loved him dearly, and wanted him to be happy, something in her simply refused to acknowledge settling down with him for life as the correct path. He'd accepted that better than she'd feared, though with sorrow that had made her ache.

What if Willow River similarly felt that it wasn't quite right? It did no good for anyone if a community felt uncomfortable confiding in their shaman, or if the mutual respect and trust necessary between witch and shaman was lacking, and it was better for the shaman to simply try another community.

It didn't help, telling herself over and over that it happened and that it was a mismatch rather than a failure and that she could simply go back to Copper Springs until another possibility turned up. It would feel like she'd failed and disgraced herself and all the endless patient teaching by Sano and Copper Springs collectively.

Chira trotted back into sight, while Vixen was on one knee collecting sprigs of a low-growing plant, and changed to human. “We're close, we're finding signs of the woodland being managed. Coppiced trees, a hill of blueberries with stone paths through it to make them easier to reach, that sort of thing. We'll be there today.” He grinned. “And the scent of Willow River's lone weyre certainly got Dayr's full attention in a hurry.”

Vixen smiled. “Even weyres create expectations that can keep them from taking things as they are, so I was asked not to mention that.” She stood up and stowed her newest finds in a basket, pausing to stroke the neck of the smaller donkey, trying not to show her own nervousness. All efforts not to speculate about what this first meeting would be like had been in vain, and she'd played through it so many times in her own mind that it was going to be a relief when it was over—but she was still apprehensive.

Dayr bounded into sight and skidded to a halt, tail high and ears perked forward. He changed to human, slightly out of breath from running.

“You'll be able to see the hill once you come around the next curve in the track. And there's someone waiting for us, a shyani and a weyre, both female, between here and the hill. I don't think they saw me. And the weyre's a puma! You didn't tell me that!”

“Does it matter?”

Dayr tilted his head to one side, considering that. “No, I suppose not. But if they're waiting for us, maybe we can not stop to pick flowers on the way?”

Vixen nodded. “No more stops.” She took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. There was nothing to fear, right? She was who and what she was, and Willow River would see her as nothing else. She had Dayr with her always, and Chira was here for the next few days, until he and the donkeys retraced their route back to Copper Springs. Willow River knew what they were getting, there'd be no surprises.

Both weyres went back to four feet, that being easier than bare skin and bare feet, but they stayed close. The donkeys were too accustomed to weyres to care about the wolf and the puma padding along next to them.

As Dayr had said, they came around a curve in the track, past a particularly large oak, and she could then see the top of the regularly-shaped mound some way ahead.

Dayr looped back to rub the full length of his body along her leg, purring reassuringly. Always alert to her moods, he must be picking up on her tangled emotions. She ran a hand over his head and along his back. That loyalty was something she found inexplicable and invaluable to roughly equal degree, and she was profoundly grateful for it.

I hope I never start to take him for granted. What would I do without Dayr?

Please, please, let him be happy at Willow River too. I'd rather leave than stay anywhere he won't be happy.

A splash of colour between the trees, deep rose pink, a colour readily available from local materials in and popular with shyani, who found it pleasant and easy to see. Before they'd gone much farther, the pink resolved itself into the tunic of a shyani woman perched on an outcropping of rock. Her hair was a deeper gold than average, edging into amber, and matching rose ribbons were woven into the two long narrow front braids in cheerful contrast. The wide-spread wings of a bird with a great deal of blue in its colouring, rendered in intricate beadwork, rested against her bare upper chest. If that was the Willow River witch Irisan, which seemed likely, then she was no more than a decade Vixen's senior.

Typically and ideally, shaman and witch in a community were of quite different ages, staggering experience and transitions, fostering continuity. Though simply an accident of timing, an otherwise promising hill having lost a shaman earlier than expected, Vixen suspected that Sano also believed her more likely to be comfortable and confident working with a peer rather than someone old enough to be one of her parents.

That, and Willow River being near enough to a thriving human village that they traded regularly and were on good terms with their human neighbours, and the presence of a female puma who was of an age to start a family but had no mate yet, must have made Willow River look like a perfect place for Sano to send his human daughter and her inseparable feline shadow.

She hoped he was right.

Less visible was the lithe naked woman sitting on the ground at the rose-clad witch's feet, her thick tawny hair shoulder-length and tousled.

Then it wasn't a woman, it was a puma, who took a few steps toward them, all her attention focused on Dayr.

The cat at Vixen's side hesitated, though she could feel muscles tense in his shoulders under her hand. Torn between conflicting impulses, she thought.

“I'm all right,” she murmured. “Go meet her.”

He rubbed his cheek against her hand, and trotted forward, slowing to a walk when he was a couple of body-lengths away, and within a few more steps they were close enough to sniff at each other inquisitively.

The shyani woman left her rock and circled around the two pumas.

“Best to leave them to it,” she said, and her tone and her smile both were affectionate with perhaps traces of indulgence and amusement. “Vixen? I'm Irisan. That's Fero. Welcome to Willow River. I hope the journey here wasn't too terrible.”

“No,” Vixen said. “There are advantages to travelling with weyres. That's Dayr, and the wolf is Chira.”

Irisan laughed. “Unquestionably there are. We've been looking forward to your arrival and to meeting you. We'll wait until you have a chance to rest and clean up and all first, before inflicting forty new names and faces on you. Your apartment is waiting for you, and everyone is making something for a common evening meal that I'm sure will be more than we can all eat. But after days of road food, I'm sure a proper meal will taste good, and a chance to eat without further travel to look forward to.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Vixen took a deep breath. “Well, I do want to meet everyone, but I'm certainly not going to make the best impression after days on the road, no matter how welcoming the hills between there and here have been, without a little time.”

Irisan rubbed the larger donkey's forelock, and the donkey leaned into it happily. “Then let's get home, shall we?”

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