Year 760-761 of the New Age
The winter was a bitter one. The earth had become as solid as the antlers decorating the brows of many of the Blackwoods inhabitants, and feed had become nearly impossible to find without digging through feet of snow. Rook had taken to chewing copious amounts of bark to keep the hunger at bay, though even bark was becoming scarce. Some of the weaker members were already looking gaunt, and one of Rook’s yearmates had developed a rattling, gasping cough. The sickly colt was putting on a brave face, but it was abundantly clear that the spiker would not be seeing out the year.
Unsure of how to properly respond to such a situation, Rook gave his friend comfort the only way he knew how- by ignoring the problem and pretending everything was fine. The black stagling kept his friend company, playing and practising sparring, and both stags resolutely ignored the fact that the sick colt could spar for only a fraction of the time Rook could before having to rest. The ill stag, Thicket, spoke only of his approaching Coming of Age ceremony in complete defiance of the elders who were both subtly and overtly suggesting that he not join in on the ceremony that year.
“We don’t need the wolves getting fed! That fool colt will just be giving them a meal if he insist on trying to take one of the dogs down.”
Taking a break near the wheezing colt, Rook gave Thicket a friendly nudge to his shoulder.
“Ignore them, Thicket. You’ve got a great pair of horns coming in, I know you’ll be taking down an ice bear when you go for your ceremony!”
Hacking out another rattling cough, Thicket grinned wryly at the dark colt, shakily climbing to his feet once more and lowering his head in preparation for another charge. As he laboured, he spoke to Rook. “Well, if you have such high hopes for me then I’d best go after a whole pack of wolves, shan’t I?”
As Thickets ceremony grew nearer, the thin colt got sicker. Rooks rack had sprouted into a fine pair of study horns, and his legs seemed to stretch into infinity as he grew like a weed on the sparse grazing available. Thicket, however, had stopped growing entirely; his antlers had remained as buds, and though his face was gaunt, it still retained the rounded planes of youth. Rook brought the youngling what spare feed he could, but there was little that could be done. Thickets chest rattled with each breath, and he could barely raise himself to his feet unassisted. The thin colt was still insistent on completing his ceremony, wobbling to his feet whenever an elder approached and tried to talk some sense into the young stag. Rook spent most of his day helping Thicket move around in a constantly decreasing circle, and stopped mentioning anything about the encroaching test in the hope that Thicket may just forget the ritual entirely and spend his days resting peacefully instead of nearly killing himself getting ready for what was destined to be his funeral.
Thicket saw through Rooks pitiful attempts at subtlety, and pulled the black colt aside one chilly afternoon.
“Rook, do you understand why I am doing this? “ Thicket asked, fixing the stag with a serious, unreadable look. At Rooks confused expression, the sick colt smiled sadly.
“It is because I cannot call myself a Blackwood if I do not try this. I’m going to die out there, no doubt about it. But I will die as a warrior, rather than dying hidden in a den like some cowardly Glenmore. I will go out there and meet my fate head on, and I will go to the Mother with a smile on my face knowing that I died a good death. Do you understand?” Thicket asked earnestly, gazing up at Rook.
Not trusting himself to say anything, Rook merely nodded, burying his face in Thickets soft mane, still thick from his fawn coat. Thicket sighed, leaning against Rook a little harder as his lungs rattled through another breath.
“This is just how things go, Rook.”
The morning of Thickets coming of age ceremony, Thicket passed away.
The colt had lost what little weight there was left to loose, and lay quietly wheezing on the ground as Rook tried desperately to urge him to his feet. But Thicket had nothing left to give, and could only fight for his next breath with what strength he had left. Rook gently lay next to him, folding his legs under the sick colt to help prop the spiker up. Thicket opened his eyes slightly, blearily watching Rook arrange himself.
Smiling weakly, Rook tried to lighten the mood as he gently cajoled Thicket. “If you don’t get up soon, you’ll miss your own ceremony, sleepyhead!”. Gently nosing the side of Thickets face, Rook tried to keep the despair out of his voice as he encouraged the downed colt. “Do you really want to let those elders be right about you not going through your ceremony?”
Wheezing out a breathless laugh, Thicket lay still as his eyes slipped back closed. “Just tell them I’ll do it tomorrow”, he joked quietly. “It's not like those old bags of bones have anything better to do but wait the winter out.”
The two lay quietly for a few minutes, before Thicket mustered the energy to talk once more.
“Rook”, he said, watching the dark stag with a ferocious intensity. “Rook, you need to complete my ceremony for me. I can’t even walk to the proving grounds anymore, and I can't die knowing that I never got to try. Even if its just in name only, it's better than nothing!”
Throwing his head back in shock, Rook stared at Thicket in disbelief. “Thicket, I haven’t even started to prepare for a ceremony! I’d have no idea what to go after! I don’t even know if I can-“
“Please” Thicket whispered, staring intently at the gangly stag. Gingerly turning his head to hide in Rooks scruffy mane, Thicket whispered so quietly that Rook had to strain to hear him.
“Please. I won't ever ask anything of you again. Please. Take my name with you when you go through your ceremony, and let the mother know I did my best.” Wilting under Thickets intent stare, the dying colts words rattled around in Rook's head. 'I won't ask anything of you again'. Only then did it truly hit Rook that this was the end of the path for his dear friend. There would be no more requests for ‘Just one last spar, Rook!’. After this day, there would be nothing left of the willful colt but a cold grave and some bleached bones for the scavengers to pick over.
Huffing out a watery laugh, Rook buried his nose in Thickets fur, internally despairing over how cold Thickets skin felt. “Well, when you put it like that, how can I say no?”
Smiling softly, Thicket closed his eyes and relaxed against Rooks side. Time marched on, heedless of the quiet pleas from one sad, lonely colt to give him just a few minutes more with his friend.
Nearly a year later, Rook stood before the proving grounds, where the stories of so many of his kin ended. Looking on the grounds brought Rook no fear, only a strange kind of acceptance as he stepped foot onto the sacred ground. His fate was in the hands of the Mother now, and he had but one last task to complete before he began his quest. Dropping his head in respect, he began.
“Blessed Mother, I dedicate this ceremony both to showing you I am worthy to call myself your child, and to bring honour to my dear friend Thicket, who rests in your great glades. While his body failed him, his soul was strong and devoted solely to you. May his sacrifice bring you pride, and may I prove my worth to you this night.”
And Rook set into the forest, heading for his future with a determined glint in his eye and a smile upon his face.