Murmurs and whispers buzzed through the darkened hall. No one had any idea why the elders had called a meet, but that did not hinder them from thinking up reasons. Some believed that it was merely a routine meeting to discuss the upcoming harvest celebration, though they could not explain why it was conducted in such secrecy. Others stoutly maintained that the worst had happened; someone outside the Arborus clan had learned the sacred healing-knowledge and they were called to meeting to discuss how to react to the threat.
A group of girls near the front of the hall were particularly talkative, whispering and giggling loudly among themselves. One of the girls participated little in the conversation, but listened and smiled at the exuberance of her friends. She was one of the few not targeted in the girls' good-natured teasing; for a reason no one could explain, Keris was off limits. Though she was well-liked to an extent, the girls seemed to understand that she was somewhat different; Keris had always been on the edges of the girls' activities. But she assumed a wistful expression when no one was looking, for Keris was desperately uncomfortable with her position on the outskirts, though she knew she didn't belong in the inner group.
An elder stepped onto the speaking platform at the front, and even the girls' lively chatter died down as everyone hushed in expectation. It was Elder Larch, the spokeswoman for the elders and in charge of mediating disputes among the clan. She stepped to the front of the platform and spoke, her voice reaching to every corner of the hall.
"Friends," she began with a small smile, "we know all of you are wondering why the elders have called you here today. Many of you will have noted that Elder Oak has been in failing health for the past several months. He feels his ailment has begun to interfere with his duties as healer."
A murmur of polite dissent rippled through the hall, but many of the clan secretly agreed with the elder. How could someone flawed in body be entrusted with the most sacred knowledge of the entire clan?
"Therefore," continued Elder Larch, raising her voice above the murmurs, "he has decided to take an apprentice, one to whom he can pass on his knowledge, and who will take over his duties when he leaves us. This meet was called so that he may announce his choice for apprentice."
Now the murmur was more excited, as everyone wondered aloud who the apprentice would be.
All but Keris. She sat stiffly in her chair, a look of realization slowly spreading over her face and leaving her eyes wide in an almost terrified expression. She knew that when apprentices were called, the elders almost always chose young people on the outside of their social group. This way, they would be willing to leave their age group and devote their lives to learning their calling. Keris knew that she fit the requirement, but she was sure the elders did not know that part of her wanted, and wanted desperately, to fit in and be accepted, even while the other part knew that she would never truly be a part of her peer group.
With a sense of inevitability, Keris watched Elder Oak step shakily into the speaking area. She was probably the only one in the hall not surprised at all when he announced formally, "Keris Noltera, I, Elder Oak, call you to bind yourself to the learning of the healing knowledge, to be my apprentice and acolyte from this day until the day I leave the clan forever." Then he smiled kindly and, looking at her for the first time, added, "Now, my dear, you must come up here and say your part of the oath."
Numbly, hardly noticing the gasps and congratulations of her friends, Keris stood up and walked to the front of the hall. Her heart had dropped out. She felt nothing but a vague sadness, and for her, that was hardly unusual. She ascended the stairs at the side of the platform and joined the elder. He motioned for her to turn and face the crowd. As she did so, words flew into her mind. She gasped and looked incredulously at the frail elder, hardly believing he could be capable of such power. But he merely nodded and smiled, gently urging her to go ahead. Taking a deep breath, she recited what she knew must be her part of the apprentice's oath.
"I, Keris Noltera, do accept the call of Elder Oak and agree to bind myself to the learning of the healing-knowledge, to be his apprentice and acolyte until the day he leaves the clan forever."
After she finished speaking, she felt a connection begin between herself and the elder. This strange presence in her mind filled her with curiosity, but she was pulled back from exploring it by Elder Oak, who stepped to the front of the stage and announced, "Tonight, there will be a celebration in honor of my new apprentice."
Masked by the murmur of anticipation, the elder told Keris, "You will have the rest of the day, including the celebration, to say your good-byes and move your belongings out of your family's home. I will take you to your new lodgings after the celebration. You know where I live, don't you?"
Keris nodded. Though she had never come close enough to see the old man's dwelling, everyone in the clan knew where it was, several miles into the dense forest to the west of the clan's village.
Even after the healer moved off, Keris could hardly believe the ceremony was over; it had happened so quickly. In a few minutes her very destiny with the clan had been determined, and her childhood ended. No longer would she live with her family, or even associate with them or her friends. She was now an acolyte.
* * *
As soon as they could get away from the congratulations, Keris and her family walked home, none knowing what to say. Finally, little Allia burst out, "Are you going away forever?"
Keris smiled sadly. "Not forever, but I won't live with you and Mommy and Daddy anymore. I don't know if I can visit very often, but I'll think of you every day." Her words had no effect on the forlorn expression her little sister wore. Then Mother smiled bravely, and, picking up Allia, said, "It seems we all have to get used to this change, don't we?"
At home, Keris fled to her room. She couldn't stand the awkward silence of her family and busied herself with stuffing clothes into a carrying bag. She was finished quickly, so she sat on her bed and silently contemplated her room, nearly bare except for the bookshelves that lined the walls.
Absorbed in her melancholy thoughts, Keris did not hear her parents enter the room until Mother said quietly, "Keris, your father and I want you to know how proud we are of you. Becoming an apprentice to the healer, especially at your age, is very unusual, and an honor to you and our family. We found it hard to say that earlier because, well, you're still our little girl . . ."
Keris groaned, "Mom . . ." but she smiled. "Mommy's little girl" was a family joke, especially now, since Keris was no longer a little girl. It was comforting to hear it from Mother, a familiar word in the midst of all the changes she was going through. Mother came and sat on the bed, and Father cleared his throat and added, "It's hard for us to think of you as a young woman, or an apprentice, and I know it's difficult for you too. And now that you're leaving home . . ."
"Oh, Dad! Of course it's hard! But it's time I became more independent. All apprentices are my age, or a year or two older. It's normal. Trust me, I'll be fine."
Father smiled and Mother ruffled Keris's hair, at which Keris rolled her eyes. Mother chuckled, "Of course you will, honey. But can you understand what it's like for parents to watch their little girl leave the nest?"
"Yes, Mother," Keris replied with a relieved grin. Leaving home wasn't so hard, at least as long as Allia didn't appear suddenly and complicate things . . .
As if on cue, her sister burst through the door. She rushed to the bed and threw her arms around Keris, sobbing, "I don't want you to go away!"
Keris was touched, and hugged her sister gently. She said, "Part of me doesn't want to go either, but it's not my choice. I'm going to be an apprentice now, and that's a hard move to make for all of us. But I'll think of you every day, and anyway, the healer's house isn't so far away. I'll bet you can even see the top of the chimney over the trees."
As Allia ran to the window to see, Keris felt herself wishing desperately that her words were true. She had no idea; in fact, she did not even know if the elder's house had a chimney. After all, he might have some magic to make a fire for himself with no smoke. But her sister's grin as she turned away from the window let her breathe a sigh of relief.
"You're right!" Allia squealed. "Your new house isn't so far away!" Giggling, she dashed out of the room.
Keris's mother stood up. Father spoke.
"Well, Keris, I'm glad we could talk for a little while. I hope you'll be happy as an apprentice. We'll all miss you, and I know you'll miss us, but I think it's really for the best. You need to have an experience of being on your own, and this seems to be the perfect one."
Keris smiled. "I hope so."
After her parents had left, she sat on her bed again. An emptiness was slowly growing inside her, and with a flash of terror she realized what it was. Something was happening within her to separate her from her family. She didn't think she would even miss them as an apprentice, and that scared her even as it filled her with a strange exhilaration. She was truly beginning a new life. Shaken, Keris wasn't sure whether she wanted to grieve for her sudden loss or rejoice for her rebirth.
* * *
At the celebration, her friends were distant, regarding her with something like fear in their eyes even as they greeted her. She had known this would happen; deep within her, she knew that her uncomfortable relationship with her peer group could not go on forever, and it was almost a relief to have her ties to her friends severed in one stroke. Many other clanspeople gave her congratulations, but Keris already felt detached, and replied with distant politeness. At the end of the celebration, Elder Oak appeared.
"When you're ready, Keris, I'll take you home."
She smiled and nodded. Her family had stayed nearby throughout the event, and now they stood next to her.
"Well," started Father, "I guess this is it. We'll miss you, Keris."
Mother and Allia nodded, but Keris sensed in them the same detachment she felt herself. There was no more to say, except . . . "Good-bye," she whispered. Silently, she hugged all three, then turned to find Elder Oak. Her last ties to her former life had been severed.
Without a backward glance, she followed the healer out of the village and into the forest. He cleared his throat and spoke.
"Tomorrow we begin work in the forest, identifying trees and herbs. I will teach you the preliminary spells, and we'll see how it goes from there."
Keris smiled and nodded. At the moment, she felt empty, but it was an eager emptiness; she was ready to be filled with new knowledge and her new life as the healer's apprentice.
She fell asleep quickly and easily that night, feeling as though she was finally home.
The next morning was the first morning in a long time that she woke up smiling.