Talk to the Animals

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Talk to the Animals

Post by Ladybug on Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:54 am

As a child, Iris had loved to watch the horses in the fields of the farms near her home. They had seemed so free and happy as they pranced in the pasture. It had always seemed a shame to her to tie such graceful beasts to a plow and force them to carry people too lazy to walk themselves. She had outgrown that mindset as she grew, and as of an hour ago had abandoned it entirely.

She had been walking since very early that morning, and the sun was now high among the clouds, judging from what little of the sky she could see through the thick forest. The terrain was rough and uneven, and her feet ached. Perhaps it would have been wiser to stay at the university in Pharetra a while longer if this was what self-directed study was normally like. She wasn't as used to the outdoors as it seemed to require, and she was fairly certain that this was not what she had signed up for doing.

But then, she thought to herself, what exactly did I think I was going to find when I said I would study in Therion? It was common knowledge to any Fatuan that their southern neighbor was hardly the acme of sophistication, and she was there to study Fauna Supplicans as it was. Of course she'd be seeing a lot of nature in the days to come. She forced a smile. Nature truly was lovely. There were flowers and butterflies and the stars and...the mosses and gnats and spiders and snakes. She had turned around and gone several paces before catching herself.

"No," she said aloud. "You said you were going to become a great petitioner, and by golly, that is exactly what you are going to do. No matter how much mud and yuck it involves."

She inhaled deeply and set off again, continuing south. She closed her eyes and murmured quietly to herself in the language of the body, calling on her Health to take away some of the pain in her feet. That taken care of, the journey became much more tolerable. Iris smiled wildly, her green eyes twinkling with a fiendish glee. That was more like it. She wasn't a soft city lass. She was a powerful petitioner, bending the world to her will. Or almost one. Once she finished these last few apprenticeships, she would be.

It was roughly another hour of walking before she found the city she'd been told she would find. Granted, "city" was probably not the word she would have chosen. Or "town," for that matter, though she supposed it was close enough. It was too large for a village. She searched for a proper adjective, and all she could find was "rustic." That would do. She walked into the rustic little town, trying not to feel self-conscious.

There were a number of people here, as expected, and none of them seemed to take much notice of her despite her obvious visual clash with her surroundings. She had not thought to dress for the occasion and was very clearly garbed as a foreigner - while the Therion custom was to wear furs and leathers, she wore cotton. Their outfits were simple and useful for day to day work - tunics and trousers, basic dresses -, but she wore a long swirling skirt that looked more like a patchwork quilt with a cape to match it. Their lifestyle geared to the outdoors had tanned their skin; Iris' was fair from years of studying inside. Their hair varied in shades of browns and blondes; hers was brilliant red and unruly. She kept smiling, hoping her nerves weren't as obvious as she was certain they were.

She adjusted her grip on her rucksack and continued walking. She knew she was expected. Her Flora instructor at the university had put her into contact with the person she sought. Iris had exchanged several letters with her setting up an agreement to study there. Unfortunately, she had no idea what the woman looked like. Iris frowned as she made her way through the streets. She glanced at the buildings as she passed, frowning slightly in thought. This was much different from the style of buildings she had seen growing up in Amarantius. These were simpler. Smaller. More open. It meshed with what she'd heard of the culture, but she hoped not everything she'd heard was so accurate.

"Excuse me."

Iris jumped and whirled around, whispering a quick spell from pure instinct. Small sparks of light surrounded her, Fire's answer. She noticed what she'd done and blushed, the color mixing badly with that of her hair. "Y-yes?" she said sheepishly.

He stepped back. "I did not mean to startle you."

"Oh, you didn't! I'm fine!" She grinned broadly, waving her hands wildly.

He frowned. "Uh-huh. You lost?"

"Oh." She relaxed and, as an afterthought, allowed the sparks to fade. She'd forgotten they were there. "Do I look that out of place?"

The man just looked at her, folding his arms across his chest. He cleared his throat.

Iris sighed. "I'm looking for Ruby." She debated adding the career name Sorcere as was customary - she herself had recently adopted the appellation - but decided against it. She had never added it in her letters, nor had she given any sort of surname for that matter. This had struck Iris as odd; she wasn't familiar enough with Therion naming customs to know if this was common.

"I’ll take you," said the man. He held out a hand. Iris noticed a tattoo on his forearm, a set of three curving blue lines. She blinked to stop herself staring and shook his hand, smiling politely.

If he noticed her rudeness, he said nothing. Instead, he began walking, and she scurried to keep up. He led her straight through the town and back out of it again. Iris scrunched her face in confusement, looking briefly backward at the now receding skyline. They had reentered the forest, and Iris had found herself suddenly highly aware of the sheer numbers of the area's wild population. She saw very little but felt an overwhelming presence of life pressing down on her senses. She wasn't sure if she was comfortable with it and pulled her cape tightly around her shoulders.

They walked down a tiny path beaten into the underbrush. Iris hefted her skirts and stepped carefully over the roots. She stumbled a few times, once falling forward into her guide. He helped her steady herself with hardly a change in expression. She was finding Old Stoneface to be the oddest thing she'd yet come across.

He stopped walking after about ten minutes. Iris smacked into him and staggered back. She regained her balance and peered around him. They were at the edge of a clearing, and the sunlight struck the ground in front of the small cabin he pointed at. Iris started. It defied her expectations for such a famous petitioner to live there. She gave the man a curious look. He shook his head slightly and walked forward, Iris in his wake, and knocked at the door.

Iris bit her lip and rocked on her heels. She had no idea what to expect anymore and was at this point half hoping that Ruby wouldn't be in. She had no problem finding a room at an inn and trying again the next day. In fact, she was almost looking forward to it. She had actually begun to turn around when the door creaked open.

"Why, hello, River!" The voice was unmistakably motherly, a low, rich, and authoritarian tone.

"Ruby." River shrugged toward Iris. "Girl was looking for you. She's a petitioner."

"How did you know?" gasped Iris.

River looked at her flatly. "You sparked earlier, and you're looking for Ruby. Not hard."

"Oh." It was all she could think to say.

She looked at the woman as River gave a slight bow and left, allowing her a clearer look. This, to her university educated and city raised mind, was not a petitioner famed for feats of courage and strength. This was a favorite aunt or grandmother, short and squat with a wrinkled face and a merry smile, an expression that said she was about to share with you a terribly embarrassing story of something your father did as a boy. Her reddish-brown hair, an odd enough color in this town indeed, was streaked with gray. Beneath her fur cape, she wore a simple tunic to her knees and leggings beneath that, both leather. She was barefoot. Her hazel eyes scanned Iris from head to toe, and Iris suddenly felt very exposed.

"You must be Iris Mikhaelslass," Ruby finally said.

"Sorcere, actually," she corrected. "Journeymen are allowed the title."

Ruby chuckled and shook her head. "You Fatuans and your names. Best to pick one and keep it!" She stepped forward and cuffed Iris lightly on the shoulder. Iris winced. Ruby frowned. "You weren't kidding about a lack of athletic training, were you?"

Iris rubbed her arm and shook her head. "What would I need it for?"

"For one thing, endurance. I can tell by the way you're standing that you've blisters."

"What?" She paused a moment. That could be true. She very likely could have just asked the pain to stop rather than actually fixing the source of the discomfort.

Ruby shook her head. "Come inside, lass. We'll get those feet treated and discuss your future here."

The cabin was as small as it had appeared from the outside, but it was sparsely furnished enough to not matter too much. Ruby gestured for her to sit, and it was a long moment before the lack of furniture truly registered in her mind. She finally got the idea and sat on the floor, allowing her skirts to fall around her in a wide circle on the floor. She slipped off her oversized boots and double layer of socks and winced. There were indeed blisters. They had probably been there earlier from the looks of them. Iris sighed. On the one hand, she could successfully numb pain. On the other, it was yet another occasion where stopping to check the full situation would have made things much better in the long run. One day, she would have to work at that.

She thought for a moment about trying again to heal the blisters, but properly this time. She was about to begin asking the magic when Ruby turned from the hearth and wrapped some cloth around her feet.

"Let's not waste any more energy. There's an herbal solution on that, and it should help, though it will sting a bit."

Iris looked at her oddly. "I can't feel it."

Ruby's lips twitched upwards. "Perhaps because you've not yet allowed them to feel pain again."

She hesitated before dismissing the spell. She considered arguing but stopped upon realizing that her protest would include the phrase "But it will hurt if I let it feel pain." Iris released the energy and felt the feeling flood back into her feet, wincing as the pain set in from both blisters and medicine.

"You'll want to be more careful in the future," said Ruby. "And don't worry, I'll make sure you're up to snuff once you're walking without wincing."

Iris somehow managed to turn her look of dismay into a small smile. "That sounds wonderful," she squeaked.

Ruby barked a laugh and sat on the floor beside her. "Would you relax? I'm not even going to start you on fauna petitioning yet."

That was not at all what she'd expected. She'd gotten the impression from her letters that Ruby was very brisk and businesslike and hated to waste time. She asked, "Then why did you want me here so quickly?"

Ruby shook her head. "You aren't ready. Pharetra might think you can learn all you need from a book, but that's not how I teach. You're not in the right mindset for fauna. You need to learn to ask the magic rather than just bossing it. I know a bit about how things work up north, lass." She wagged a finger teasingly. "I've been doing this for nigh on forty years, and I've never used a book for any of it."

Iris blinked. She figured she should have been suspicious when the woman agreed to teach her so readily. She was fine with taking a journey by foot. She loved walking so long as she could find a nice inn to stay the night in. But this was sounding suspiciously like camping and dirty work. Granted, a good deal of petitioning did involve things like that. She'd passed the basics of earth and flora, and even healing had put her against some very nasty looking messes. She wasn't sure how to feel about it.

However, she had heard very good things about Ruby, though the woman seemed set on defying every expectation Iris set, and her teachers at the university spoke highly of her. This was not an opportunity to be tossed aside because of a little dirt and grime. Or a lot. Maybe she would learn more here than she would have at home. And maybe Ruby would show just why she had such respect in her field. That would be worth it. She hoped.

After a moment, Iris nodded. "We'll begin tomorrow?"

"At first light. But first," Ruby stood and opened the door at the back of the cabin. Iris gaped as a shadow fell across the threshold. A huge creature, easily to Ruby's chest, loped inside. It left a trail of muddy prints across the floor, and its fur was matted down, soaking wet. Water trailed from its body, fur and horns alike. "This is Capri," said Ruby.

"Pleasure," squeaked Iris. A goatwolf. The woman had a pet goatwolf. She tried to keep herself from screaming.

Capri saw her and bounded over. Two paws pinned her to the ground, and a tongue darted over her face. Iris went white.

Ruby smiled. "She likes you!"

A sudden pang of regret and survival instinct flared up in Iris's gut, as did everything she'd eaten that day. She suppressed both with difficulty and forced a smile. This was going to be worth it. Because if it wasn't, there was going to be an issue.


Iris had seen bedrolls for sale in town before, but she'd never actually used one as she'd never been anywhere that didn't have some sort of mattress. She'd heard they were comfortable, though. And now that she'd tried it out, she decided that they were a cruel torture device and not fit for human use. Sadly, it was still an improvement from the wood floor. She held this thought in mind to refrain from destroying it, instead turning her mind to the task of finding a method of doing so in each domain she had learned.

She'd been successful in her brainstorming, though she'd only formally studied eight of the twelve, needing weather, textile, and metal after mastering fauna. Speaking of...

After a restless night and a poor sleep, she felt a puff of hot air on her face. Her bloodshot eyes shot open, and her gaze fell on gleaming fangs dripping saliva. Iris shrieked and scrambled backwards. The sound that answered was somewhere between a bleat and a bark. As her eyesight and heart rate stabilized, she recognized Capri.

"Stupid dog-sheep whatever," she muttered, getting to her feet. She glanced around the room. Ruby was nowhere to be seen.

She was glad to find that her feet were at least feeling better. The blisters were still there, but they didn't hurt quite as badly. Feeling adventurous, she petitioned again to heal her feet, this time paying close attention to what the power did. Within moments, the blisters were gone. She was stiff, a near certain side-effect of magical healing, but that would pass. She walked outside.

To her displeasure, the sun had not yet risen. Iris closed her eyes and snorted. She wouldn't be able to fall back asleep, not now. The forest was still, though the sounds of wildlife could be clearly heard. She walked a short distance, still within sight of the clearing. She looked up at the sky, catching sight of a few stars between the leaves. She had to admit it was rather pretty, and a sight she'd not get to see in a city. It didn't change the fact that she'd very much rather be there.

She sighed. She didn't want to be the useless complainer she knew she must come across as being. She'd hoped she would be able to adapt as she traveled and trained, but she hadn't counted on everything being this different. Even at home, she'd never felt this out of place, and that was saying something.

A pang of guilt struck her. She hadn't written to her family since she'd left for university. Though she sincerely doubted they'd wish to speak to her, a nagging voice in her head urged her to write them. Four years was a long time, after all. They might have forgiven her. Even though she didn't feel she'd done anything wrong. Her father had said the money was an investment in her future, after all. She had simply found tuition for studying petitioning to be a better use for it than a dowry.

Iris kept walking and tried to force her mind to other subjects. This wasn't getting her any closer to progress on anything.

She played with the air around her as she walked, creating little whirlwinds and trying to stop leaves from hitting the ground. It was an exercise she'd found helped her ability to multitask. She had four leaves easily aloft and was working on a fifth when a twig snapped behind her. Startled, she jumped and whirled around, pleased to see that her whirlwinds remained intact. From the darkness loomed an enormous dark and shaggy shape. There was too little light to see it properly, but Iris knew what pointy claws looked like when she saw them. She dragged her whirlwinds together and thrust them into the dirt, creating a smokescreen. She then petitioned time and space, granting herself great speed and darting past the beast and back to the cabin, where she slammed and threw herself against the door. Capri looked at her in bewilderment.

"Silence, you," muttered Iris, panting. She released the speed spell and felt her heart rate slowly return to normal. To her great surprise, the thing didn't seem to have followed. She closed her eyes and practically collapsed in relief.

Her curiosity shortly got the better of her. Armed with the knowledge that she'd a vicious predator behind her, even if the stupid beast was chasing her tail at the moment, Iris opened the door a crack. She saw nothing. The clearing was deserted, and there was no sign of any creature of the type she'd seen. Her jaw dropped. She flung the door open and stomped outside, determined to prove to herself that she had actually seen it, knowing that she knew very little about tracking. Five minutes of searching proved fruitless. There were footprints, that was certain. It was the wilderness, of course there were footprints. But she could hardly pick out her own, let alone which were new. She kicked at the ground in frustration.

"You're up early for a city lass," drawled Ruby's voice behind her.

Iris squeaked in alarm as she whirled around. She hadn't even heard her approach. "Where did you come from?!"

"Around," said Ruby. "We'll need to work on that excitability of yours."

Iris sighed. "I suppose we're going to start right into training."

"You're up and in great need of it."

"Before breakfast?"

"Training will include breakfast."

Iris had never in her life been so hesitant to eat.

The sun had begun its nightly descent, painting the forest with pinks and oranges. Had she been able to move without aching, Iris would have found the sight lovely. As it was, it mocked her. She kept moving, knowing Ruby would poke her with the stick again if she stopped. Something about building endurance and preventing muscle cramps. They had been moving since before sunrise, and the training had been more varied than she had anticipated.

True to her word, no petitioning had been on the agenda. Ruby had not considered her ready yet and instead started her on what she considered the very basics. Her first lesson, for instance, had been to gather food. Ruby kept a few chickens in a tiny coop a bit off to the side of her cabin. Iris' first task had been to gather eggs. She offered no instruction. Iris had charged right in to complete her work. Looking back, she should have found Ruby's broad grin suspicious. After several attempts and peck wounds, her teacher had shown her the proper method on one hen and had her try again on the others. This yielded success. The next task had been more daunting.

"You want me to what?" Iris stammered.

"Get milk," said Ruby.

Iris looked from the woman to the goatwolf. "You have got to be pulling my leg."

"Why would you think that?" asked Ruby, folding her arms.

Capri wound around Iris' legs, tangling herself in her skirts. Iris reached down and freed the creature before anything else could happen. "I've heard tales of masters who haze their apprentices to see if they're up to the task. The usual end to this is either quitting or calling the master on the prime fertilizer it is."

Ruby shook her head. "No need for any of that nonsense here. We've little enough resources, so those who can try to raise their own food as much as possible. Goatwolf milk is as good as any cow's, and learning to handle animals the normal way is as important to your training as petitioning nature." She looked Iris in the eye. "How do you expect to learn this if you can't handle a beast as docile as Capri?"

The little sycophant headbutted her back gently and looked up, tongue lolling out in a friendly expression. Iris closed her eyes.

She supposed it could have gone worse.

The day hadn't improved from there. Ruby had noticed her healed feet. If she suspected the shortcut Iris had used, she said nothing. She had instead taken advantage of this and started her on an exercise regimen. Iris had expected a short walk and a few calisthenics. She mentioned this. Ruby laughed.

They had walked, that part was accurate. Short, however, was not. Ruby led her through the woods, over every path she knew. As they walked, she quizzed her about her knowledge of flora, offering no opening for other conversation. She had allowed a small break for a midday meal and resumed the march immediately after finishing eating. They were only now approaching the cabin. Iris wanted to die.

As soon as they stepped inside the shelter, she allowed her legs to give out. She collapsed onto her back and closed her eyes.

A sharp prod in the stomach jolted her eyes open. "What?"

"Stretch," said Ruby.

"But-"

"Trust me," said Ruby. Without further ado, she followed her own advice.

Iris groaned and sat up, leaning forward to touch her toes. She refused to admit that it did feel good. When she finished, she looked around. Ruby had vanished again. Iris considered finding a way to secure a bell to the woman. She looked around the room, wondering how she could tolerate such accommodations. No decoration, she could understand. No bed? Less so.

Capri settled herself on the ground beside her and sneaked her head into Iris' lap. Absentmindedly, Iris began scratching the thing behind the horns. She looked down and caught herself. "You," she said, "are a damned nuisance." The goatwolf barked and seemed to grin.

A moment later, Ruby returned, holding a paper-wrapped parcel and a bucket of water. "Iris, would you mind getting some firewood from out back? It slipped my mind."

"Yes, ma'am," Iris said. She slowly got to her feet and made her way outside. Capri whined at being deprived of her pillow. "Oh, hush." She shut the door behind her.

The woodpile was stacked against the outhouse, yet another entry on her growing list for why she hated everything. She knew there was actual plumbing in town. She had no idea why Ruby couldn't manage an actual latrine. There was no reason for it but sheer stubbornness, and there were far far better things to be stubborn about. She held her breath as she gathered a few logs and carried them inside.

Ruby gratefully accepted the timber, and before she could get a match, Iris had impatiently petitioned a fire to life beneath the kettle.

"That works," said the older woman, hiding a smile.

Within the hour, Ruby had prepared a stew and served up three bowls. She took one for herself and gave one each to Iris and Capri. Hungry as she was, Iris showed barely more restraint than the wild animal as she swallowed the food greedily. She hardly registered the taste of the meat and vegetables. Ruby, for her part, ate much more slowly. It was some time before Iris was able to remember her manners, and she flushed as red as her hair.

"Sorry," she said quietly.

Ruby chuckled. "So concerned with little niceties. You can relax, dear. No one's judging you on that."

Iris set the bowl down, quickly picking it back up when Capri edged her snout close to it. "No. Bad." Capri whined, the sound morphing into a soft bleat. "You had yours!"

"Don't let her bully you, girl," said Ruby. "We can't let her lose her hunter's instincts by overfeeding her. If she wants seconds, she can hunt for them in the woods." She shot a maternal glare toward the animal, who assumed a submissive position.

Iris gaped. "How did you do that? She just laughs at me."

"I established myself as the alpha," said Ruby. "You do this for every creature you need to housebreak, unless you want them to run the household."

"Oh." Iris blinked. "Wait, what does that make me?"

"Currently? The omega."

Iris scoffed. "Can't even get a blasted puppy to obey me."

"You will in time." Ruby set her bowl on the ground. Capri once again edged toward it, but a sharp gesture from her mistress cowed her. She curled up on a ball on the ground, sad eyes watching the food.

"So," asked Iris, "why did you agree to teach me if you didn't think I was ready?"

Ruby shrugged. "Because you asked. You'd be surprised at how often that works."

"What."

"You're only the third apprentice I've had. Not many think to ask. Actually, your letter says it all."

Iris cocked her head to the side. "Says what?"

"'I'm sure you have hundreds of prospective students and are very busy, being such a renowned petitioner.' Most of you youngsters assume that because we did something big years ago, we're still busy as bees." She shook her head. "Whereas if you'd just ask, you might learn that we've no problem taking an eager pupil under our wings."

"So this isn't a quirk of fame, retiring to the secrecy of the forest?" asked Iris.

"Oh, heavens no!" laughed Ruby. "I've always lived like this. My father was a fur trapper." She smiled. "Bit inconvenient if you're used to the modern age, but heavenly if you value a bit of privacy. Raising a goatwolf helps scare off the odd intruder as well."

Iris fell silent. She'd had the impression of a revered public figure driven into hermitude from the pressure of expectations, not a naturally reclusive old lady with a fondness for pets. The last bits of the pedestal she'd mentally built up fell away. She wanted to just ask Ruby about the history books, but she couldn't help finding the question rude. All she'd been taught was that a fauna petitioner from Therion named Ruby had singlehandedly defended a town from a faction of brigands and slavers. There had been no details given, due to the tightlipped testimony of the locals and the incoherencies spewed forth from the captured criminals. She wanted to know what the woman had done to gain such widespread respect and remain so humble about it.

Ruby broke the silence. "I bet I know what you're wondering."

Iris sat straight up. "You do?"

She nodded. "Unfortunately, the answer is yes. We will be repeating today's routine. When it stops tiring you out so, I'll start teaching you some self-defense." She glanced out the window at the skyline. "I'd recommend getting some rest. Our days here are early."

Iris deflated.


Much to her simultaneous relief and chagrin, things fell quickly into a schedule at the little woodland cabin. Within a week, she had ceased entirely to rely on health petitioning for the daily walk, which Ruby had started to turn into a jog, and she was handling the kept animals without incident. Within two weeks, she'd stopped being winded at the end of the day, and she was almost ready to admit to liking Capri, though she still called her variations of pest.

Ruby had finally begun showing her various ways of fending off attackers. Unfortunately, there was no alternative to demonstrating on each other, so a new set of aches and bruises replaced the old. The third day of this, after Ruby had once again thrown her into a tree, she expressed concern about giving her a knife.

"I won't hurt you, I promise!" said Iris.

"That was not my first concern."

She was no closer to learning any fauna petitioning than she was to asking about the brigands. She wondered if one would lead to the other.

As a small consolation, she had started to learn about wildlife in general. She knew what most of the species were that lived in the forest around them and something about how they lived and what they ate. Some, she could even track up to a point. To her mixed pleasure and irritation, she had not seen the giant beast from her first night again.

She'd met most of the little town as well, which she'd learned was called Greenoak. It was far from the most creative name she'd ever seen for a place, but then her home city-state was also named after a plant, so she was in no position to judge it. The people were friendly enough, if a bit brusque. Ruby was the only one she seemed to be able to get more than three words out of at a time. She had initially thought it was because she was an outsider, but time had proven that no, they were terse to each other as well. Greenoak just wasn't big on conversation. If they were any indicator, it was small wonder Fatuans knew little of Therion.

She'd adapted to the place better than she had expected. She'd adopted the simpler fashions within days of staying with Ruby, both out of the practicality of design and a lack of clothing to her usual tastes. She kept her normal leggings and boots but did find herself appreciating the shorter skirt to some degree. She'd also started tying her hair back, the same as she did every time she began studying a new domain of magic. It had become an odd habit of hers, refusing to let her hair fall free until she had mastered the basics. Granted, her first lessons had been in fire, so there was practical basis for it.

Ruby had appointed her as official errand runner and buyer of goods that Capri and the chickens - she'd forgotten their names but remembered that they were quite silly - could not produce. To her surprise, given the lack of free time she generally was allowed, she'd actually developed a friendship with Fern, one of the girls in town. Fern looked to be about fifteen, only four years Iris' junior, and her short hair fell in mousy brown curls. She had struck Iris as very grounded and levelheaded, but she seemed very excited at the discovery that Iris was a petitioner.

"You're studying with Ruby Bearskin?" she said, her eyes wide.

"She has a surname?"

"It's not a surname, silly. It's a title. She's earned it." Fern had not elaborated further, dismissing the subject with a wave of her hand. Iris noticed a flash of green on her forearm and almost succeeded in not staring. Fern caught her. "Something wrong?"

Iris shook her head. "I've just seen tattoos on everyone around here, it seems."

"Oh, of course you have," said Fern. She held it up for inspection, looking around to make sure no one was watching. "Here, go on and look. Rude to stare around here, but you'll be forgiven, seeing as you're foreign and all. It's my name."

Iris peered closer. It was indeed a delicately traced fern leaf with curling fronds. "So everyone has one?"

"As soon as we're old enough to say it, aye."

She shook her head. "Seems awfully permanent."

Fern grinned. "We keep an identity for life. Then there's you Fatuans who change your name like a pair of stockings. It's amazing you can find anyone with a custom like that."

Iris laughed and ceded the point. She gathered up her purchases for the day and headed back to the cabin.

Ruby completely blindsided her one day. Their routine had been the same physical fitness regimen as always, but it had gradually come to include a verbal exam. She would ask Iris questions about the local wildlife during their runs, in the middle of their sparring sessions. The questions were varied in their subject and difficulty - Iris could describe the appearance of a bird's egg and the number that could generally be found in a nest as easily as she could list the same bird's role in the food chain. She had actually just listed all of these attributes for a mourning jay when Ruby threw something entirely different at her.

"What is the most important aspect of fauna supplicans?"

Iris misstepped mid-dodge and walked straight into Ruby's stick. She wheezed in pain. Ruby immediately pulled back the makeshift weapon and stepped in to steady her student.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You're usually able to dodge that."

"S'fine," gasped Iris, rubbing her abdomen. She was not looking forward to the bruise that would result and had to try very hard indeed to refrain from healing it straightaway.

"What happened?" Ruby asked, frowning.

"That's the first you've mentioned petitioning since I arrived," Iris said. "Unless it was just a feint to make me drop my guard," she added with a faint scowl.

Ruby leaned on the stick. "It wasn't." She dropped to a squat, and Iris mimicked her pose. "What is the most important aspect of fauna?"

Iris answered instantly. "Commanding nature to adapt to you."

The stick came down on her shoulder.

"Ow!"

"Incorrect, and continuing with that mindset will cause you more trouble than you know." She dropped the stick. "Fauna is not like the other domains. Those are suitable to your belief. They allow you to manipulate energies and objects. Even flora, though it works similarly with living things, is different. Plants generally have no minds. But with fauna?" She gestured at a bird perched on a branch nearby. "Fauna works with the living. With thinking creatures blessed with free will. Your goal in petitioning nature to have animals act in certain ways is essentially to order about the animal directly. And while your approach may work for the feeblest of creatures, I would not advise trying it on anything truly threatening."

"All right," said Iris, rubbing what she was certain was a growing bruise. "If I'm not to petition nature, how exactly am I supposed to do anything?"

Ruby smiled. "You'll need to be able to answer me that, dearie." She stood in a single fluid motion.

Iris scowled and blew a strand of vibrant orange hair from her eyes. She scrambled to her feet with far less grace. She couldn't tell whether Ruby wanted her to press further or not. It was hard to tell with the woman. Her lessons had been equal direct information and self-discovery.

She sighed. "Commanding yourself to adapt?"

Ruby's grin held steady. "Is that it?"

Iris scowled. So asking directly got her nothing. Good to know. "Perhaps," she said, forcing her voice to stay level.

Ruby patted her on the shoulder. "We'll break for today, then." She turned and began to leave.

"What do you need from town?" asked Iris.

"Nothing today. The day is yours." With that, she faded into the woods, moving as silently as only an experienced tracker could.

Iris stared after her for a long moment, craning her ears for any sign of the woman. When she was certain she was alone, Iris kicked at the ground, sending up a flurry of fallen leaves and dirt. "Figure it out for yourself," she muttered, affecting a harsh growl, a rough approximation and poor imitation of her mentor's voice. She dropped to the ground and sat in a pout. "If I wanted to figure it out on my own, I'd've stayed in Fatua and taught myself." She looked around. Her options were limited. From her understanding, she could neither command herself nor her targets to get a desired result. What was left?

She sighed. This was getting her nowhere. She again rose and dusted herself off. Birdsong pierced her thoughts, and Iris barely kept herself from yelling in anger and frustration. Balling her hands into fists, she stomped off into the forest.

An hour had passed before she finally cooled her temper. She sighed and leaned against a tree, first checking to make certain it wasn't poison oak or covered in a dangerous moss or anything. She looked around, recognizing nothing. Iris swore. She was hungry and lost and, worst of all, no closer to learning anything about fauna.

Iris closed her eyes, trying to collect her thoughts. Surely she could find a way to get herself out of this mess. Her knowledge of flora could help her at least navigate, ordering the trees to point her way. She opened her eyes and began to whisper her command.

Something darted across her leg, and she shrieked in surprise. She looked down to find a flash of green - a tiny garter snake. Iris' eyes widened, and she stiffened in revulsion. Snakes. Ugh. The little snake coiled around her ankle and lifted its head. Its tongue darted out. Iris continued to ignore it.

After several minutes, it was clear to her that the creature was here to stay. Iris sighed. This was just another complication to an already irritating problem. She looked down, still keeping her legs locked stiffly, though they were starting to hurt.

"Hello," she said, wondering why she was talking to a snake. "Um, would you mind terribly just scooting off? I rather need that leg for moving."

There was a long pause. The little snake moved its head in what she was certain was a nod and quickly slithered back down to the ground where it settled in an emerald coil. It looked up at her expectantly.

Iris stared. That hadn't just happened. It was a coincidence; she couldn't have just petitioned. It couldn't be that stupidly simple. She tried again. "Thank you. If I asked you, could you take me someplace?" Another nod. Iris grinned wildly. It was that stupidly simple. She thought quickly, trying to phrase her request. She was probably closer to the cabin than the town, but she wasn't sure the snake would know what those meant or if it knew Ruby. "Can you take me to where people are?" It had found her. It knew what people were.

The snake again nodded and slithered off. Iris walked quickly after it, careful to keep it in sight. Its path was a straight one, and Iris was surprised that there were few natural obstacles along the way. Scarcely even a root stuck up from the ground.

Suddenly, the snake stopped. Iris skidded to a halt as well and reeled to avoid falling on it. The snake again nodded at her and slithered away. She took in her surroundings and frowned. She was now completely lost. Clearly it hadn't worked. There wasn't anything here but

"You 'ear somethin'?"

...trees.

"Nah, yer imaginin' things again."

"If y'say so."

Iris' breath caught in her chest. All right, it had worked. Those were definitely people, though she doubted they were in any way the kind who could help her. A quick flora petition concealed her among the leaves, and she crept closer, curiosity overcoming fear.

There were five of them that she could see. Big men, most of them, well-muscled and better armed. The apparent leader was the exception, being the smallest. Iris assumed him to be the brains of the group or at least the wallet. Perhaps both. After all, if a body had enough of one, it was generally easy to fake the other.

She looked past them. They had a cart loaded for bear - and with it. She had no idea what they wanted with the cub, but it was likely not good. The area around Greenoak was designated as out-of-bounds for hunting by non-locals. Ruby herself policed this, and for most, her reputation was enough to put would-be poachers down. Iris had never heard of anyone crossing her and was not sure what would happen to one who did. But, the thought occurred to her, if she waited long enough, she'd likely learn.

Two long minutes passed. No Ruby. Iris bit her lip nervously. It was possible that Ruby might not make it. This was, if she had her bearings, quite far from the cabin, and it was very likely no one but her had seen them. Her eyes darted around nervously and settled on the bear. The cub looked at her pleadingly. Without a second thought, Iris nodded. She might not be able to use the wilderness as a weapon, but she was far from helpless.

She petitioned the wind.

A strong breeze came from the east, knocking the smaller man into one of his companions. Before they could react, she sent a gust from the west, calling upon water and fire as well. Mist shrouded the glade, intercut with brilliant sparks. One fell on the net trapping the bear, burning a small hole in it.

Iris rose to her full height, dismissing her concealment in the same motion as she called upon the grass to trap the men's feet. Another request to the air granted her the effects of a megaphone, amplifying her rich voice.

"Who dares?"

"What in tarnation is that?!"

The leader alone showed minimal fear. "Parlor tricks," he snarled. "Show yourself, petitioner!"

Iris laughed wildly, hoping to mask her panic. She'd really been hoping for a band of superstitious bumpkins who would take her for an act of the powers that be. She called upon a hidden root to shoot forth and unbalance him. He stumbled, drawing his pistol.

A crack followed, and a bullet struck a branch a mere foot from her head. The situation ceased to amuse in any way. She fell silent.

"Get rid of the fog."

She did not respond. A shot fired, and this one whizzed by, two feet off on her left.

"Missy, I got plenny o' ammo, more'n enough t'find you."

She ignored him again. The third shot was two inches above her head.

"Wager the next'll find you," drawled the man. "Last chance."

Iris swallowed. The fog vanished at her command. The glade cleared, leaving a band of confused, heavily-armed men with a clear line of sight to an unarmed young woman. She tried to hide her fear.

The shooter looked at her, his eyes narrowed. "Just a kid."

"Your bear's gone," she retorted.

The men turned to look. Their prey had indeed escaped, chewing on the hole Iris had begun and fleeing in the confusion. The leader snarled and trained his pistol on her. "Think you're so clever, eh, girl. Clever enough t'be alone an' unarmed when you play the hero. You'll not make that mistake again!"

Iris closed her eyes, wondering how quickly she could manage a healing petition. She began to whisper.

"Shut it!" She did. The gun remained fixed on her heart. "Now, I might be persuaded t'spare you. Provided o' course you can earn the favor."

She didn't get a chance to respond. A thunderous noise sounded in the distance, and within moments, a dark shape crashed through the trees to join them. Iris gaped.

An angry bear, she assumed the cub's mother, snarled at the men, spit flying from her muzzle and landing on the men's faces. Iris took her cue to release their feet. All but the leader fled, leaving him to stand alone with the threat. He raised the gun to her, but the bear lunged forward and swatted the pistol from his hands. Its mouth opened, and, to Iris' surprise, a human voice came forth.

"BEGONE WITH YE."

A voice she recognized.

The man turned and fled. Within moments, even the sound of his footsteps had faded into nothing. The bear padded over to Iris and reared on its hind legs.

"Ruby?"

A paw went to its shoulder. Something in the air shimmered - no, not shimmered, Iris decided. Shimmer was too showy. This was less a transition and more being A one moment and B the next. Where the grizzly had stood, Ruby now was, adjusting the fur cape she always wore.

"Did you guess it?" asked Ruby.

Iris shook her head. "Had no clue. But the name makes sense now!"

"Are you well?"

Iris hesitated before nodding. "They didn't touch me. And the cub got away." She paused. "How did you find me?"

"A little bird told me," she said, smiling. "Or rather, a little snake." She patted Iris on the shoulder. "Come, let's head back."

"No," said Ruby, swatting Iris’s hand away. "Don't scratch it."

Iris reluctantly lowered her hand. The tattoo was still fresh on her forearm and had begun to itch like mad. "But-" she protested.

"If you want to smudge it and have everyone confuse your name for Inkblot, be my guest," said Ruby.

She wasn't too familiar with the ins and outs of tattooing, so it was equally likely to Iris that this would happen as it was that Ruby was flat-out lying like a parent to a child. She folded her hands in her lap and changed the subject. "So, since I've figured out the great secret of fauna petitioning..."

Ruby laughed. "Secret? Iris, dear, all you did was remember that to petition means to ask, not to order!"

Iris ignored this. "Since I've learned so much, could you show me how to do that?"

"Do what? Take animal form?"

She nodded. "I've never seen anything like it. I didn't know it was even possible!"

Ruby shook her head. "For you, it isn't."

Iris' face fell. "Why?"

"You're not a specialist. You know as well as I do that a jack-of-all-trades like yourself cannot do the advanced workings of most petitioning. There isn't space in the brain for it - you test them all out or specialize in mastering a few. No, you'll never manage what I did, dear."

"Oh..."

Ruby continued smiling. "However, it is very simple to take on aspects of a creature." She whistled, and Capri rose from her bed in the corner to lay her head in her mistress's lap. "What sense do you feel is strongest in a goatwolf?"

"Hearing or smell." The response was automatic. "But, Ruby-"

"Ask Capri."

Iris frowned. She put her hand on the beast's head and whispered her request. Moments later, all was pain. She clutched her head.

"You'll adjust," whispered Ruby. "Didn't realize there were so many sounds out here, did you?"

Iris shook her head, "No..."

The cacophony faded, and Iris craned to hear everything. So many night birds and crickets chirped in the still air, creating a beautiful symphony. She sighed. She could get used to this.
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