For the first time, someone I knew ahead of time wins my contest. As I stated, these get judged on a higher scale than more "anonymous" writing, as my friends know a little more of what I look for. So go ahead and analyze it. Somewhere in here is the answer to how to win this contest. But darned if I know. It's still all intangible to me!

Links to the writer can be found at the end of the story.

(And here's the picture for it)

Cailorenne Ai'Shican, adopted of the Clan of the Cat, sat in a straight backed chair and oiled a glove. The repetitive action allowed her freedom to think, and she reflected on the simple joy of such a task. The glove was a long, leather birthing glove, one that stretched from hand all the way to the shoulder. It was used by her clan to help mares who were having trouble giving birth. Once upon a time, she would have let someone else use magic to clean the glove, rather than boiling it and then oiling it, as she did now. The strange land she was currently living in prohibited such action, however, and she had found she didn't mind. These simple things harbored a hidden treasure, and she reveled in finding it. The glove was aged, and showed that it had been used before. She ran sensitive fingertips over the scratches and scuffs, before rubbing the oil into it again. Footsteps made her tufted ears twitch, and she glanced up, searching the horizon.

She spotted her companion, approaching through the nearby forests, and smiled to herself. They had arrived here, together, nearly a year ago for a funeral, and neither had been able to leave. The petite woman moved slowly, even her waist-length braid seemed to sway with fatigue, and Cai knew the anti-magic aura of this land was wearing to the
healer-mage. We will have to leave soon, she thought, or she will wither. The logical conclusion to that thought sprang up, but was quickly cut down. Cai refused to consider the possibility.

The baskets Deya carried were full of herbs, and under her arm she carried a twist of flowers, riotous colors of red, white, and yellow bright against the stark grey of her tunic. Cai lifted a winged brow, her midnight blue cat-eyes curious. "Flowers, Deya?" She asked, her ruined voice barely a croak, taking one of the baskets from her friend.

"Aye," Deya responded quietly. "They're f'r th' grave."

"Oh." Cai felt a bit abashed. The funeral they had arrived for had been the death of the father of Deya's twin sons, and though they had not remained close, Deya had loved him once. The wound was still tender, even after a year. "Brennan, again?"

Deya's twin sons were as different as siblings could be. The older, Alex, was serious, quiet, and a warrior from the toes of his polished boots to the severe style of his hair. Brennan, the younger, was curious, inquisitive, and studious. He excelled only at horsemanship, though his swordplay was not horrible, and because of his mage gift, he was often plagued by nightmares. This land was not kind to those with the gift of magic. He felt the loss of his father keenly, as they had not been close. Michael Damascus had understood his warrior-son far better than the studious twin. Deya had stayed to assuage as much of the loss as she could. She nodded in response to Cai's query, and softly spoke again. "He wants t' leave with me."

Cai was surprised, for the twins had expressed often that they did not ever want to be separated, and as heir, Alex could not leave. She remained silent, the only sound the scraping of the brush as she rubbed oil into the glove. She brushed at a bit of oil on her
blue tunic, avoiding Deya's gaze. "That's a bit of a change, isn't it?"

"Aye." The mage sat, pulling a bucket over and tearing blooms from one of the herbs she had picked. She had gone to get some to make a salve for the foal's umbilical cords, and the others she had picked would make more cream for the mares' udders. Mare's milk was a delicacy both women enjoyed.

They sat in companionable silence for a time, each working on her separate tasks, until finally Cai stirred. She spoke little, as her ruined voice still bothered her. "Breaghanna is not well."

"Aye." Deya paused in her picking. "I'm thinkin' there is somethin' wrong with th' foal."

"More than likely." Cai pushed her long white braid behind her shoulder again, trying to keep the tip out of the oil. It was rare for her to wear a braid, as she didn't like revealing her pointed, tufted ears. The white hair and cat-slitted eyes were bad enough, but the black and white tufts of hair at the top of her pointed ears could be hidden- and often were. They marked her as very different in a land that didn't like such things. But working with her hair down was a worse prospect- and the only people that would come to the stables lately were Deya and her son. "Such a shame. I had high hopes for this foal."

"Oh, aye. 'Twas a good match, matin' her with Segandur. We'll 'ave t' try again."

"Yes." Cai looked up at Deya. "After she recovers from the birth, I'm going home."

Deya turned, her pale eyebrows lifted in surprise. Her eyes were storm cloud silver today, darkened to near-black with pain and worry. She brushed seedlings from her lap, and regarded the cat-woman for a moment. Cai met her gaze without faltering. "Home?" A
thousand questions were contained within that one word. Cai nodded without speaking.

Deya closed her eyes, trying not to show how moved she was. It had been a hard battle, gaining the shapeshifter acceptance into the clans. The leader and Gaitan of the Clan of the Cat accepted Cailorenne, and thus the rest of the clan should have- but many did not. They were not accustomed to calling shapeshifters friend, having battled many of the warlike tribe. Cai was not a warrior, not any longer, and thus could not be a part of her own people. This lack of acceptance had worn on her, also. Deya was relieved to hear Cai refer to the Clan as home. She nodded. "Aye, 'tis time f'r me t' return t' my home,
as well. Brennan will have a long road ahead o' him, learnin' our ways."

"It is good, though, for him to leave." Cai watched the petite mage, as she stripped more blossoms from a twig.

"Aye." Deya tucked the final twigs back into the basket, putting both baskets beside the chair, and picked up the bucket of blooms. "Call if'n ye need me." Cai nodded. The mage made her way back to the greathouse, leaving Cai to her task.


Cai lifted the lantern carefully, peering into the stall. Breaghanna's dark coat made her difficult to discern from the shadows, but Cai's cat-eyes found her quickly. The mare's dark eyes glinted in the faint light. They were pain filled, and she snorted uneasily. "Easy, mi croi." Cai soothed the mare. She had been pacing for hours, and Cai knew the time was near. She hung the lantern, brought one of the birthing gloves, and entered the stall. The mare crowded close, seeking comfort. Cai stroked the soft nose, speaking soft nonsense. She had raised this mare from the time she was a tiny foal, and they shared a special bond. This was only her second foal. The first was a strapping filly, born two years past. Cai had hoped for even more this time around, as the sire was one of the finest of Deya's Clan's warline.

Breaghanna turned, pacing, and finally lay down, snorting again. Cai checked the mare's belly, gently pressing to feel the foal. It felt wrong, and she shook her head. "I won't lose you, Breaghanna."

She pulled on the glove, and began hours of painstaking pulling, pushing, and stretching. By the end of it, both the mare and the woman were soaked with sweat, and Cai was covered with blood. The stillborn colt lay beside her, his legs malformed. Cai was relieved he was dead. It would have been far harder to cull him. She wiped her forehead, leaving yet another smear of blood, and patted the mare. Breaghanna sniffed the foal, and stood, shaking herself. Cai gathered up the foal and the afterbirth, and left the stall. She would return later. For now, she had a task.

Though she was far from the Clan, she had found a hillock nearby that reminded her of a Tor. To the Clans, the Tors were sacred space, places where the land and the Paths met. She ascended the hill, carrying her gruesome burden, and laid the foal on the windswept peak. She knelt next to the body, looking up at the stars.

Technically, any of the Clan could walk the Paths, but for years only the Gaitan did so. Deya had taught Cai, with the approval of the Cat-Clan's Gaitan, and Cai had attempted it only once before. Her God was different from that of the Clans, but she had discovered, to her joy, that he responded. Tonight, she would try again.

The night swirled around her as she began the breathing, but quickly, it stilled and she felt the familiar warm chill of the Paths. She breathed her God's name, softly, and heard no response. She spoke again, and was lost.

When she awoke, she was alone. The small, crooked body was gone. She wept, quietly, for the potential lost, and for the knowledge that her offering had been received. She stood, and looked up into the lightening sky. "Thank you."

The puff of wind was surely only a morning breeze.

She found Deya waiting for her, her dark eyes filled with sympathy. "The mare will be all right." Deya then looked more closely at her companion, surprise filling her eyes. Cai, ye did attend th' birth?"

Cai frowned, and then looked down. The glove appeared unused. Her arms were clean- the soft white fuzz that covered her skin showed no spots of blood, and her long, free-flowing white hair waved freely in the breeze, no trace of the braid it had been in mere
moments before. She lifted her midnight-blue eyes, with their cat-slitted pupils to the sky, and smiled, revealing the fangs that marked her as 'Other.' "I did. He was a Gift."

Deya gasped softly, and covered her mouth with one slender hand. "Boriilan's blessings on us both."

"No." Cai spoke softly, touching the ankh necklace at her throat. "Thoth."

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