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a gift given freely

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After many years spent uncertainly watching the stars and waiting for the Nightwings' return, the Fate had finally earned their chance at freedom. The Liberation Rite loomed on the horizon as the sun began to sink lower, into oranges and reds; with every hour that passed, Almer's mood only grew worse, even as he dutifully went through the ritual preparations with his foster father.

Finally, Dalbert could no longer ignore the heavy sighs that kept interrupting their prayers and chants. "Come, my son, be cheerful! We have earned a great honor, and we should be thankful for it."

Almer's scowl only deepened. "It doesn't feel like it, father. These Nightwings, they do not take us seriously. That girl, and their Reader..." He glowered and kicked at the dirt of the sacred path, earning him a soft whuff of rebuke from Dalbert. "They look down on us. What if...what if they intend to throw the match?"

Dalbert shook his head, sitting back on his hind paws and stretching, with some difficulty, up to his fullest height. "My son, you assume the worst of their intentions. The Nightwings have shown themselves to be quite honorable. If they choose to give us the right to freedom on this night, who are we to turn them down? All shall be as Jomuer Many-Mane and his seven comrades would will it to be." He was shaking somewhat with the effort of staying upright, yet despite that, and despite the fact that he only came up to Almer's waist, he gave off an air of calm and venerable experience. "A gift given willingly and with good intent is something to be cherished, not rebuked. I have tried to teach you this."

"...Yes, father." Almer hung his head, glancing off to the side.

Silence hung between them for a long moment.

Slowly, Dalbert lowered himself back onto all fours. "Let us beseech the Alpha-Chief, my son. Perhaps he shall show us his favor on this grand occasion."

Together they turned their eyes to the steadily darkening sky; together they ran through the words of greeting, the words of favor, the words of thanks, all as familiar and natural as breathing. It was meditative, and by the end, Almer found himself breathing a little easier. He turned back to the Blackwagon, where their companions awaited their return. "Come, father. We should rest, and save our energy for the Rite."

"Well said. But there is perhaps one last thing we should do." With a small jerk of his painted nose, Dalbert indicated a spot on the ground across from him. "Sit with me a moment, my son."

Almer dropped gracefully to the ground, sitting cross-legged, his gaze both worried and questioning. "What is it, father? Are you feeling unwell? Do you have further instruction for me? Or-"

"Be still, my son. It is nothing like that." Even so, there was a solemnity to the way Dalbert held his head that only deepened the worried creases on his son's face.

"Father..."

"I think it fitting that we say our farewells now. If we prevail, we shall have precious little time together upon the summit before we are separated.”

"Father!" There was hurt, and shock, and disbelief in that cry, but Dalbert pressed on.

"I feel, my son, that our time is upon us. And even if it is not, these words shall not be wasted, for they are not words one should ever tire of hearing, or tire of telling. Life is filled with comings and goings."

His words had the ring of the sacred, although Almer could not recall where his father might be quoting from. Nonetheless he felt the meaning pressing into his heart, and he bowed his head in acceptance, feeling tears threatening to well up from behind his eyes. He had hardly considered that they might win, but the possibility that they might be apart very soon... When Dalbert spoke of it like that, it began to take on the weight not just of potential, but of truth.

Almer found he couldn't yet speak around the lump in his throat, so he shook his head, his vision blurring a bit. Thankfully his father seemed to take the meaning, and cleared his throat in a dignified manner. "Almer, my son. Some of our pack had their doubts when I took you in, but I knew from the moment I found you that the Scribes had meant for us to be bonded thus. No chief could have asked for a better aide, and no father for a more dedicated son." Under Dalbert's words, the occasional sniffle was audible. He paused for a moment, letting the sounds stifle themselves. "I cannot be by your side forever, nor you by mine. This is the way of things. Even so, I pray that you will be able to find the happiness and freedom to run as you please. Do not be fearful, or mourn overmuch, such that you cannot see the good that life gives you. You will always be a member of clan Oldheart, and we shall all meet again, if not in this life, then in the next."

Almer's sleeve was pulled over his mouth and his breath stuttered and caught in his throat; he half-expected to be scolded for dirtying the raiments in such a way, but he merely felt the cold, soothing touch of Dalbert's nose on his forehead. It was a long moment before he felt he could speak. He rubbed his hands roughly over his eyes, his fingers coming away tinged blue from his markings (he'd have to fix those before the rite), as he searched for the right words to say in response. Eloquence wasn't his strength, not like his father. "Thank you, father...I..." He let the weight of what might happen in just a few short hours really settle into his chest, and willed the words to flow from it. Instead, it seemed to stifle them. "I am also...I am blessed to be your son, and, I..." He found himself sniffling again and Dalbert rested his head on his shoulder, murmuring the words of an old cur blessing just as he had done when Almer was but a pup. The boy raised one hand to his father's head, running his fingers through the fur between his drooping ears. He calmed himself, and tried to continue. "If you gain your freedom...when you do, I want you to live as you please, without the burden of this competition-" He wrinkled his smudgy nose. "-sacred though it may be. I want you to rest, father, and be happy. Promise me that, and...I think I will be able to say goodbye."

"You have my word, my son," Dalbert murmured, letting out a huff that stirred Almer's hair a bit. They sat like that for a while, until their companions began to call out from the wagon. The rite was going to begin soon.

A bit panicked, Almer raised his fingers to his smudged markings, and Dalbert let out a wheezy laugh. "Come, let us finish our preparations. We shall be adversaries worthy of the Nightwings' presence."

*******

The Scribes must have heard their prayers, for they prevailed that night. They embraced tightly before the Shimmer-Pool. Too late, Almer heard the words murmured in his ear, a prayer he had almost forgotten: the prayer of anointment. There was one last touch of cold on his forehead, still sweaty and too-warm from the exertion of the right, and then he was glowing, and falling backwards into the cascade of light. His voice echoed out as he was swept away. Dalbert sighed – the boy was so quick to forget what he himself had promised he would do. A gift, given freely and with good intent, is something to be cherished.

Dalbert said farewell one last time, saluting his opponents before shuffling slowly back down the summit, to where the Blackwagon awaited. He would collect his belongings, but then, he would do as he had promised: it was time for him, at long last, to rest, and to be happy knowing that his son had a long and bright future ahead of him.