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As sunset neared, Arnold, on his way across the city, was resting on a park bench and waiting for the next tram to take him back. Suddenly, he started as Lisa appeared in front of him, seemingly out of thin air. She was not wearing her maid’s uniform, he noticed, but the same sort of ragged urchins’ clothing she’d typically worn before starting work at the asylum. “Come,” she said a little imperatively. “The Elders are waiting for us at the meeting place outside the city.”
She turned to go, but paused at his puzzled look. “You do still want a face name, don’t you?” He nodded once and at his assent, she said, “Well, now is the time. Follow me.”
He followed her in nervous excitement as she led the way toward the city gate. She explained that meetings of the cat folk were typically held on the night of the full moon. News would be passed along, stories would be shared, and when there were kittens, they would be named before the meeting started. “It’s too early in the year for kittens,” she said, “but the Elders have made arrangements to see you now.” Lisa did not tell him that it had taken her this long to convince them all to do this. She rather thought he’d be nervous enough without that added burden.
Once out of the main gate, she took them across the open fields, where the snow was beginning to settle and melt in the air that was finally taking a turn for the warmer. Their footsteps, sinking into the snowpack, obscured the faint pawprints Lisa was following toward a distant knot of trees and brush.
There was no discernable path through the bare vegetation, but Lisa confidently led the way into the thick of it, threading her way through, even crawling forward a couple of times beneath thick bushes. After a couple of minutes, they reached a clearing. Looking across, Arnold saw three cats sitting in similar poses in the snow, tails curled around their paws.
Lisa began speaking in the Feline language, introducing the three Elders. Fenceshadow was an orange tabby; his dark, thin stripes were nearly as straight and regular as fence posts. Darkleap was a black cat, with grey starting to shade his muzzle. The third Elder, Swiftswipe, was a grey cat who seemed to wear an air of perpetual dissatisfaction.
Arnold watched them nervously, and lowered his head slightly under their scrutiny, waiting for some indication that they weren’t going to just turn away in disdain. Seeing them here, as they were, he wished he had not worn so many M’an clothes to this meeting.
Fenceshadow stood up and paced forward, his whiskers arched forward, trying to project a welcoming aura. “Before we start, we need to know–do you wish to join in our community?”
Arnold looked at Lisa helplessly. She hastened to explain. “As I told you, Namings are usually done just before a Meeting. It’s a way for the Folk to meet the new kittens and bring them into the community. If you want to do that, we can wait until others come. If not, the Elders can name you now. It’s your choice.”
Arnold stared at Lisa and then turned back to the Elders, making his decision quickly, “I would like to enter the community…if you will have me…”
Fenceshadow looked pleased. “You will be welcome, as the one who helped to save our Folk from the strange lizard-M’an. Others will come as Meerclar’s Eye rises.”
“The moon,” Lisa murmured in Arnold’s ear. He twitched his ear slightly to show he heard, but didn’t look away from Fenceshadow yet. He was surprised the Elders knew about Doctor Dinosaur. His own memories of the dinosaur had somewhat returned. but he hadn’t expected the cats would know… he supposed, now taking a glance at Lisa, he should have known better.
“I, too, will take part in this Naming.” Lisa started at the unknown voice, and saw a cat emerge from the thicket behind the other Elders. This one was a striking black-and-white cat in his prime, with a deep voice that was appealing even to Lisa’s now-human ears.
Fenceshadow looked back in surprise, then turned again to Lisa and Arnold. “This is Nightsinger, an Oel-cir’va. He arrived here only yesterday.” He looked keenly at Lisa, but said nothing more.
Lisa could feel Fenceshadow’s gaze, but ignored it as she turned to Arnold, guessing he’d need another explanation. “Nightsinger is a Master Old-Singer. He has studied our songs and stories, and can use them for teaching, or just for entertainment. Master Old-Singers are very wise.” She was hiding her surprise that this stranger would volunteer to take part, though she wondered if perhaps he simply couldn’t pass up a unique opportunity such as this.
Arnold wished that he could remember any of this; he was sure that he wouldn’t have felt so lost if not for his wound, but he tried to keep up and remember it: Oel-cir’va were very respected and learned cats, and one of them had unexpectedly wanted to be part of his naming.
Lisa looked down at Nightsinger. “What brings you to visit our group, sir?” she asked politely.
He looked up, whiskers arched forward in amusement. “You, actually. But we can talk about that later.”
Lisa swallowed down her startled exclamation, hearing her sister Cloudpaw call out in greeting. The moon was rising, sending silvered light filtering through the bare branches, and the clearing was beginning to fill with cats–some from the wilderness around, but most making their way out from the city. Friends were hailed, sniffs and rubs were exchanged. Some, who had seen Arnold before, stepped forward to give him a more formal greeting, which he returned slowly at first, until he became more comfortable with their approaches.
When the moon had reached a certain point in the sky, Fenceshadow waved his tail, waiting for the conversations around the clearing to die down. “This one has come to us for a Naming,” he said, his voice carrying easily to all the assembled cats. He stalked toward Arnold, the other two Elders following. Lisa, from her position, heard Swiftswipe muttering, “Still think this is a waste of time,” and she glared at him until he subsided. The Elders, and Nightsinger, began circling Arnold, sniffing him carefully.
“I smell…” Fenceshadow murmured, then looked up at Arnold, compassion radiating from him. “Oh, so much trouble you’ve had. So much sorrow.”
“Yes,” replied Nightsinger, his tone both gentle and amused. “He seems to attract strife the way Growlers attract fleas.”
“And yet, he has not given in to the troubles.” Swiftswipe now had a look of reluctant respect on his face. “He meets them with claws ready, even when he doesn’t want to.” Darkleap’s whiskers arched forward in agreement with this assessment.
“Indeed.” Fenceshadow met Arnold’s eyes, and pitched his voice to be heard by all. “I name you Strifeclaw. Join the Meeting.”
Strifeclaw stared at the Elders, shocked and awed to his core by the events that had just taken place. He wondered what had happened, and how, but he finally moved back and joined Lisa and the family as Strifeclaw. It was, to him, a truer name than Arnold.
((To be continued…))