When spring began thawing the lower pastures in the mountains of Phasga, the adult males of the Ursi clan would awaken refreshed from their long winter sleep. The cubs in the keep who'd reached the age of eighteen would be eagerly anticipating their first transformation and what they devoutly hoped would be a pleasant, lazy summer under the tutelage of one of the older watchers.
Had Linnea Aasedaater not chosen an outsider to father him that would have been Justin de Raven's future, too. But now? He didn't know. Would he finally transform as Ursi males were supposed to? Or would he forever remain human and hairless?
Justin and his mother, the tribe's Supreme Chief, had discussed his dilemma shortly before he and Hathor Ben Levi, the Ursi's Seiran business manager, merchant and trade representative, left for their winter rounds of the Interplanetary Synod's marketplaces. Linnea's solution was to have Justin return in secret just before the herds were due to leave, then wait in the empty West Barn until the time for his transformation was past.
If he transformed he would go up to her pasture to spend the summer guarding her herd from the mountain predators with his Uncle Ander. If he didn't... Justin decided one problem at a time was enough and determinedly told himself not to think about it anymore.
On the final day of the Ursi spring festival the stripping of the winter coats from the Ursi's black goats and its preparation for shipping were finally over. With the last of the precious underwool combed and bundled, the great bales were piled in the keep's courtyard, then draped in rainproof coverings. As usual, the dancing and feasting went on until the small hours of the morning, and there would be little sleep for either the herders or their guardians until they reached their assigned pastures on the following day.
After the last of the herds was finally on its way a crew of grandmothers and cubs cleaned the empty barns. Then the remaining males carried the goat wool inside and left it ready for Hathor's shippers. Only then were they free to seek their summer homes and their biannual transformation.
When all the males had left the keep Justin's solitary figure came down from Freya's Pass and slipped through the north postern gate. The grandmothers and cubs were already at their classes inside the main building and there was no one else around.
Hugging the walls and darting from one building to the next, he finally reached the deserted West Barn. Once inside, he left the door ajar. Then, with his communicator beside him, he settled among the packs of wool to wait. Toward the end of the day he heard a sound at the door and looked up.
It was his twelve-year-old cousin, Leif.
The cub saw his look of alarm. "It's all right. Aunt Linnea told me to come as soon as my classes were over. If all goes as she hopes I'll hide your communicator and clothes so no one will know you were here. If not..."
Justin sighed. "I'll be spending the rest of my life in exile."
Leif took a couple of apples from his pocket and offered him one. Chewing thoughtfully on the other, he settled against one of the bales. "They say it takes longer for some than for others. Especially the first time. There are a few hours yet."
An owl's screech woke Justin. When he saw moonlight silvering the barn's interior he knew without even checking his timepiece that it was too late. Beside him, Leif stirred and yawned. Then he sat up. "Well, at least you have your answer."
Justin reached for his communicator. "I'd best notify my pilot."
"Where is he?"
"Camped in Freya's Pass. We'll be out of there at first light."
"Justin, I-I'm sorry."
They clasped hands. "So am I. Tell my mother --"
"She said if you didn't transform..." Leif's voice caught in his throat. "But you're still welcome here -- as long as you stay in the foreigners' compound."
Justin gave him a wry smile. "She told me."
"That's it, then."
As Linnea had instructed him, Leif accompanied Justin to Freya's Pass. There he duly admired the blue-and-gold flyer, chatted with the waiting pilot and bade his silvery-haired cousin a final farewell. After they took off, he watched until the flyer disappeared into the dawn sky. Then he began climbing the path that led to the upper pastures.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby