4. Puddlepaws

…formed a circle and shoved Dindi back and forth, finally pushing her into the dust. They laughed and flounced away.

The dust tasted like dung. They were right. No one from Lost Swan Clan had ever passed the test given during the year children disappeared for Initiation rites. She could be taken for Initiation any day now, Dindi thought. And all omens indicated she’d fail miserably. Like her mother. And her grandmother. And every single person in her whole clan since the days of the Lost Swan Clan’s great-mother.

Her basket had fallen. A tiny meow and skritching came from inside. She pulled her kitten out of the basket. His fur stood on end and he looked outraged. She’d rescued the kitten from a grolwuf, a cat-eating goblin, who had already devoured mama cat and the other kits. The little thing had been snow white, eyes sticky shut, but since then his ears, nose, paws and tail had darkened to black, as if he’d pranced in mud, so she’d named him Puddlepaws. She petted and kissed him until his fur settled and he purred to let her know the upset basket was forgiven.

The purring kitten on her shoulder and the beauty of the day rinsed away her gloom on the walk home. Rolling green hills stretched out in every direction under a perfect blue sky marked only with the V of migrating swans. Everything smelled fresh. The corn was shoulder high, while inside the pale green husks, the kernels flushed deeper gold with each passing day. Innumerable clouds of tiny willawisps hazed the fields like sparkling mists. Maize sprites clambered nimbly to the tips of the straight-backed stalks to wave at Dindi when she brushed by them. Pixies of every color fluttered on luminous wings around her head, making her dizzy. Puddlepaws batted at them.

“Wait up, Dindi,” called her cousin, Hadi, puffing behind her. “Aunt Sullana asked me to find you.” 

He posed with his spear, in an attempt to look stern. Unseen by Hadi, a pixie banged the butt of Hadi’s dangling spear on his knee.

“Ow.” He dropped the spear and hopped about on one foot. He glowered suspiciously at his spear when he picked it up, and then at Dindi. “There aren’t any fae around, are there?”

“Hardly any,” Dindi assured him.

The pixies laughed as he plowed right past them without seeing them. Most people could not see the fae. Kittens could. Puddlepaws leaped from her shoulder, trying to catch a pixie, missed, of course, and flipped in the air before landing in the dirt.

“I’m not a wayward goat,” said Dindi. “I don’t need herding.”

“I’m older than you and I’m the closest you have to a brother, so yes, I am your keeper,” he said, brandishing his spear. “Once I pass Initiation, and I am a Man, my duty will be to protect your honor from all who threaten it—”

The mischievous purple pixie crouched at his feet, fiddling with…

* * *


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