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Yarleda used a length of bright blue cloth to tie her summer dress in. It made the soft green material billow out over her hips. Her tent-mates were dressing up too -- two different age-sets were taking the summer tests, and unpartnered men and women were headed out to cheer the young people on and hopefully welcome them to adulthood by evening. One group was taking the test for a second time, and was likely to succeed; the second group had requested to test too, though their raisers weren't sure they were ready. But they had worked extra hard all summer, and the elders decided they deserved the chance to try. Yarleda felt as excited as a young woman and smiled at her own feelings. Author's Notes
"Are you ready?" A familiar voice startled her, and she looked up to see Ivara smiling at her. The old woman's hair had been braided so that she had the silver parts coiled around her head and the mostly black ends hanging down to her shoulders, and she wore her red dancing dress and a lacy knit shawl.
"Ivara!" Yarleda spun, letting her skirt twirl around her legs, and hugged the older woman. She had studied Itadesh genealogy with her the previous summer. "You look wonderful!"
"You're looking good too. How's that new baby?"
"Not so new any more, and in good health. He's mostly weaned."
Yarleda lifted the long blue hair ribbon that held the cage beads from each of her pregnancies, and tied it into her curly black hair. The hair was speckled with frost lines, now, but was still long and thick. It still tangled stubbornly if she didn't comb it constantly, so she tied the cord on her comb to the blue belt. She smiled. She might not be as pretty as most of the younger women, but her fertility would make up for that. She picked up several new leather strands and her own pouch of beads. "Ready."
They walked out together and found places to sit near the elders who were officially observing the tests. Yarleda settled down on the ground with her back against a tree, and untied her necklace. The leather she'd been using all winter was discolored with sweat and skin oil, and pulled almost threadbare in places. She picked the old necklace apart as she watched one age-set set up an emergency storm shelter while the other set up a small summer camp, the sort that an age-set or a few couples might set up to harvest food in one of the several sheltered valleys where fruit trees had been planted and taken root.
Both groups were just starting fires when two men dressed in furs came from behind the crowd. Each roared and leapt onto a bystander, miming a vicious attack. Red streaks appeared on the old clothes the mock victims were wearing. The mock bear and mock snow-cat attacked again and more red appeared.
Yarleda laid out beads for her necklace, changing out a few beads, as she watched the two age-sets explode into motion, yelling, pulling out slings and knives, and moving to try to rescue the victims. The storm-shelter group's firemaker had gotten enough of a fire going to approach with a burning branch; the mock snow-cat backed away from that, snarling. After being hit in the forelegs and chest with seven or eight eggs (eggs were plentiful enough in summer to be used as stand-ins for the rocks normally used in the slings), the mock snow-cat limped off into the woods. The harvesting group had better aim, and several eggs hit the mock bear in the face and eyes. The mock bear reared up and roared in pain, then mimed a very dramatic death.
Ivara laughed. "Alikii is such a clown."
"He is, isn't he?" Yarleda smiled, and started assembling her necklace. Alikii was the father of one of her children, and they'd had a lot of fun while she'd worn his bead. If she didn't get pregnant this summer, she'd see if he was willing to try again, though one of the joys of summer gather was spending time with people from other villages. Even people like Ivara, who spent most of her months with Lenaroth, usually spent time with someone new during the summer.
"So, have you reconsidered the importance of being a child bearer?" Ivara nodded toward the ribbon with its cage beads as she carded some of the wool she'd brought from the tent.
"I never thought it was unimportant! But I worked hard to become a good hunter; I'd rather be recognized for my skills than good luck in bearing children." Yarleda frowned as she worked a bead with a small hole over the leather strip in her hands. "But learning the bloodlines makes it rather starkly clear -- " she paused, glancing at the youths performing their test. It felt unlucky to talk of death and dwindling population at the moment. She lowered her voice. "It's just that I've become aware of how badly we need more children." One drought or earthquake could bring their numbers down too far. She shook her head, and reached for her age-set bead, stringing the necklace so it would be tied at the front center. "My body is apparently still willing, so I'm aiming to have another child, and perhaps another after that."
Ivara nodded. "That's hard on an older woman. Are you giving up the life of a hunter?"
"Never -- or at least not any time soon!" Yarleda considered the tiny wire snare, then sighed and put it back in the pouch, taking up the soft one made of green yarn instead. The wire one was beautiful, but always poked her neck at night. It was hard enough to sleep in summer without a wire poking her awake. "The hardest part about pregnancy and nursing a new infant is the time spent living like a domestic."
Behind Ivara, two very young women discussed the boys in the storm shelter group, giggling quietly. Some young men nearby were discussing the skills and attractiveness of the girls. A couple of older women speculated about Alikii's bed-skills, noting the dangle-bead they had glimpsed under the furs he wore, testimony of his fertility.
The dangle beads for each of Yarleda's children needed new loops of leather, and she cut and tied those, knotting the beads securely before laying them on the ground in front of her.
While they talked, the stories in front of them continued. One member of the harvesting group crept forward with a large knife to mime cutting the mock-bear's throat, to be sure it was truly dead, while the other members ran to assist the mock victim and render medical aid. On the storm shelter side, they rushed to move the injured woman near the fire. Two girls worked on her medical needs while the rest built up the fire and set up a lean-to to keep her warm. They discussed which would be more dangerous -- leaving the injured, burnt beast out there or hunting it down, and decided that the best hunters would at least scout to see if it was still nearby.
When Yarleda looked back at the harvesting group, she saw that the mock bear had been replaced with a recently slain sheep; the youths had the mock victim comfortable by a small fire and were dividing tasks up again; soon someone was dressing the carcass while other people headed out to gather the rest of a dinner and healing plants.
The mood of the onlookers was mostly festive, though there were two clumps of adults that looked nearly as nervous as the youths taking the tests. Yarleda recognized them as the raisers of each of the age-sets testing, joined by a few parents or other family members.
By the time the storm shelter group's hunters had returned with a partially-butchered sheep on their shoulders (the stand-in for the mock snow-cat), Yarleda had her necklace restrung. She tied it around her neck, making sure that the empty spot in the middle was properly placed.
Seeing that Yarleda was finished with her necklace, Ivara handed her the basket of wool and carding combs. Then Ivara stood and dropped a spindle, swinging her hips and almost dancing as she spun the wool into a strand of yarn. The yarn she spun was even and soft, much better than Yarleda could make.
Without warning, an age-set of small children ran into each area, and the testing children immediately reacted to that challenge too, keeping the small ones safe from the fires and other dangers, real and imagined. The storm shelter group gathered them together in the lean-to and a tall boy started telling a story to keep them quiet, while the harvesting group organized their small visitors to hunt for edible greens and flowers.
Soon, their raisers called the younger age-sets away again, though they waited until the story was finished.
Then the elders stepped in, moving to quiz the members of the two age-sets separately. One boy or girl at a time was called to the front to recite their family tree, and to name all of the people, including close and complicated cousins, who they must not partner with to have the best chance for healthy children.
The onlookers grew quieter, though the crowd grew thicker. This was what many of them had been waiting for, to learn who among the new-adults they could -- and could not -- share a month with. So far, the youths in both groups had done well. If they passed this very important part of the test, there would be a lot of adults celebrating tonight. But one way or another, Yarleda planned to slide a new month-bead onto her necklace during the dance tonight.
She had already commissioned a new cage-bead from one of the Itrelir carvers. If she didn't need it, perhaps one of these girls would. But her rising sense of excitement let her hope that by the end of winter, the new bead would join the other cage-beads on her ribbon. She leaned forward to listen to the youth who was reciting his lineage, a smile on her face.
This was inspired by the prompt Summer Gather in the April 2014 Muse Fusion. We've seen the adulthood tests from the kids' point of view, so I wondered what it would be like to watch them as an adult.