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Areluu looked at the basket and pursed her lips, listening for the tell-tale sounds of the others in her age-set over the wind in the birch trees and the cry of the birds.
Lenarai's precious basket was alone here - filled almost to the top with the yarn she'd spent the last hour carefully rinsing for Laisesu. The dyer had made an enormous fuss about trusting her newest lot to Lenarai, and Lenarai had lapped it up like it was sweet reed tea, all pretentious blushing and ridiculously fake denial.
Wet, the yarn was heavy, and Lenarai had abandoned it here, carefully tucked away from the trail under a protective canopy of blackberries, when the urgent alarm whistle had come from Lenaroth, just downstream.
Areluu was no idiot. She knew that the little 'excursion' their age-set had suddenly been 'invited' on was no coincidence, and that Laisesu had been playing a role to get Lenarai out, just like Lenaroth had when he proposed the berry-picking trip down the river, suspiciously close to where the yarn rinsing would be. The alarm whistle had announced the beginning of their last age-set test. Areluu wasn't sure what the test was going to be like: anyone who took it was sworn to secrecy, but she knew that there was a second survival element to it. The age-set had finished their summer tests just before coming back to the winter village, where their youngest female member had finally gotten her courses, and now they were all waiting and waiting for last test to be sprung on them.
Areluu wasn't worried about passing. She was smarter than plenty of people who had passed their tests, and she knew enough about the outdoors to get by. Their age-set had capable people in it, even Lenarai was more likely to help them pass than to hold them back, though Areluu was reluctant to admit it. She was so disgusting in her eagerness to please - Areluu couldn't understand why no one else could see how self-serving she was about ingratiating herself to everyone.
She glared at the basket, and without thinking about it longer, reached a foot out to tip it over.
Lenarai had protected it well, it took a good kick to knock it over. A slow smile crept over Areluu's face at the sight of the pale, yellow yarn as it tumbled into the dirt and puddles on the trail. A few skeins even rolled over the edge of the path into the brush beyond. Laisesu would be so angry and disappointed. Areluu had attempted to mentor with the dyer - the glamor of Laisesu was undeniable, and Areluu had hoped some of the woman's popularity would rub off on her, or at least that she would be able to make herself some of the brilliantly dyed colors that Laisesu so jealously controlled. But Laisesu was impossibly demanding and unreasonable, and had, in a temper, forbidden Areluu from touching any of her dye projects, ever again. It would serve her right to lose a batch of good dyework to the clay mudstains of this area.
Then Areluu turned uphill, instead of down, to approach the group from another direction, and ran right into Enlaar.
"We can't go that way," she said quickly. Enlaar was an idiot, but even he would be able to put together the spilled basket with Areluu's presence.
"The alarm whistle..."
"It's our age-set test," Areluu said, with a sly smile and a suggestive motion towards her necklace.
Enlaar's eyes lit up. "Is it? Do you think so?" He dug into a pocket and drew out a bead, as if they'd already passed. "I've got one for you," he said, so eager he was almost drooling. Areluu had let him kiss her, and even cautiously explore beyond, and loved the power it gave her over him. She was looking forward to being an adult almost as much as he was, interested to see how much more power she could gain when they were exchanging actual beads, and not just play-pieces.
"We haven't passed yet," Areluu had to remind him. "Put that, and that, back in your pocket." She gestured at his pants. "If we go around to that slope there, we can get a good view of the whole area and exchange hand-speech." The long-distance, non-verbal method of communication had already been tested, as part of the summer tests, but that didn't mean it couldn't be part of this test, too.
Enlaar looked at her without comprehension, clearly still thinking about the bead he was holding.
"Oh, come on," Areluu said, losing patience. She took him by his empty hand, and dragged him back to the group.
The final test was over.
Lenaroth pretended that he had broken his leg, across the river from where their snowies were hobbled, and they had to find a way to get him back across and all the way to the village, with all of their harvest. It hadn't taken them long to find a safe ford and rig a sling between two snowies to carry him across. Areluu had taken charge of ensuring that the field stitching was strong enough to hold the sling, and let Lenarai boss the rest of them around at other jobs.
"All of our harvest!" Tekoth remembered, as they were preparing to return to Itadesh. "What about Laisesu's yarn, Lenarai?"
Areluu bit back a smirk.
"Oh!" Lenarai exclaimed. "I left it in a safe place, just up the trail."
'Not safe enough,' Areluu thought in triumph. She wanted to go with Lenarai, if only to see her face when she found the dirtied yarn, but knew it would be suspicious to volunteer. In fact... "Maybe we should get Lenaroth back by ourselves while you go get the yarn," she suggested innocently. It wasn't out of character to want to leave Lenarai behind. "If he really had a broken leg, he should see a healer as soon as possible. And we don't want anyone to get hypothermia."
Lenaroth looked pleased with that, and Areluu couldn't quite help smirking that time.
"I'll wait with our snowies for you, Lenarai," Tekoth volunteered.
Waiting at Itadesh was nearly unbearable.
Areluu knew they had passed, and Enlaar had a good idea of it, too - he wouldn't leave her side for a moment, until she finally rounded on him and said sharply, "Go be anywhere else, you yiirk." He slunk away in defeat, to make moon eyes at her from across the village.
Lenarai's reddened, tear-stained face was the perfect reward for Areluu's patience and cleverness. Areluu wasn't waiting in the right place to see the beginning of Laisesu's rip-down when she was presented the stained basket of yarn, but she was there for the end of it, and took enormous satisfaction from the dyer's scathing closing comments. Lenarai took the blame without protest, though Tekoth tried to argue that it wasn't her fault, and Areluu was just close enough to hear her offer to take the yarn out the next day and rinse what she could from it again.
"Are you going to step in?" Lenaroth asked, from behind her shoulder.
A pang of suspicion colored Areluu's enjoyment of the moment. "Why should I?" she asked, innocently. "Lenarai was in charge of that yarn."
"You brought back a lot of berries," Lenaroth said, changing the topic. "Where was it you said you were picking them?"
Areluu hesitated, then described a location that put her significantly off the path from Lenarai's basket.
Lenaroth nodded thoughtfully. "That's a good patch," he said, and Areluu relaxed. "I know, because I picked it clean with Dlameda a few days ago."
Areluu looked at him in alarm.
"And Enlaar mentioned that you were much closer to the river than that."
His words were low and quiet near her ear, and Areluu felt a hot blush stain her cheeks. 'Play it off,' she reminded herself. "Oh, I probably got turned around, then," she said casually. The end of the very long autumn day was close at hand, and the sky was beginning to color - perhaps that would hide the blush. "It's a good thing that knowing exactly where I was wasn't the topic of the test. I know to find the river and follow it, if I get lost."
Lenaroth leaned back against the edge of the building. "You know what was really strange?" he asked leadingly.
Areluu didn't reply.
"When I sent Dlameda to tip over Lenarai's basket, it had already been done."
Areluu's jaw dropped. "You, what?"
The elder's smile was wide and knowing. "The last age-set test is about teamwork, and adversity," he said chidingly. "You didn't have nearly enough adversity wrestling me over the river." He didn't say anything about their teamwork; he didn't have to.
"Will give me twice the cut-down that she just gave Lenarai when she finds out what was done. She might even apologize to Lenarai, the poor dear, though I wouldn't bet a hide on it."
There was a hint of something at the end of the sentence. "Did we all pass, then?"
Lenaroth's smile took a hint of steel. "Not all of you did," he said with a significant look. "Ilav failed to respond to the alarm whistle." Areluu waited. "And you failed to demonstrate teamwork."
Areluu felt her color drain. She had failed. It doesn't matter, she told herself firmly. It only mattered if they passed as a group. If she and Ilav had failed... it only mattered if everyone else had passed.
"The last part of this test was Lenarai's," Lenaroth said quietly near her ear. "You can thank her for passing your age-set."
Areluu's gut churned. She didn't want to thank Lenarai for anything, and knew she never would.
"It doesn't matter," she repeated out loud. "If we passed, we're adults now, and I don't have to be part of her age-set anymore."
Lenaroth was shaking his head, and Areluu thought he looked a little sad. "You're always a part of your age-set," he said.
Areluu made a snort of dismissal, keeping her chin high. Despite her best effort, one betrayal of a tear spilled out of her eye. She blinked hard to choke the rest down, then laughed and shrugged as if it didn't matter.
She owed Lenarai her adulthood - and Areluu could never forgive her for that.