"Chin up, back straight," Dai reminded Shanku again as he checked her stance. They were out practicing her archery again. Slowly, but surely, Dai was able to teach her how to use a bow properly. He still needed to help her pull back the string, but she was able to manage after that. Today, they were targeting a group of pheasants.
Shanku trembled with excitement but tried hard to hold still and steady her aim. She wanted nothing more than to leap into the air and hit one of the birds in a full dive, to feel her claws sink into one of the colorful birds. But, if she hoped to be able to start tackling larger game like the antelope on her own at her age, she would need to use a tool.
The arrow let loose with a soft twang and sailed through the air. Shanku whooped as it struck one of the pheasants. She thrust Dai's bow back to him and jumped off the hill. She glided smoothly to the downed pheasant, reached down to pluck the pheasant off the ground by its neck, and curve her flight back to Dai.
Dai waited paitently on the ridge as Shanku landed halfway up the hill and jogged back to him.
"Look, look! Good shot!" she squeaked.
Indeed, her aim was good, but he suspected she had snapped its neck intentionally when she picked it up.
"Good job, Shanku," Dai nodded. Shanku skipped alongside him as they returned to their current camp.
Dai found his hands full with his curious new friend. Headstrong, stubborn, reckless, very curious, and secretive about her origins. However, she was eager to please and tried hard. She was less quick to have an angry outburst these past few weeks as he worked with her and at least seemed to be down to the level of aggressiveness natural to her.
He had kept his distance from his wife and her clan should Shanku's family come looking for her. If she was a sign of what her family was like, Dai didn't want to risk endangering the Heyen should Shanku's clan suspect they held her against her will.
About once a week his wife, Zihna, would fly out to him and check on him. She didn't recognize the lost cub either and kept her distance, only visiting at night after the cub was asleep. Zihna would always warn her husband to be careful and she would promise to keep quiet about the strange cub for the time being before she would return to her clan.
Soon though, he would have to return to Wynfall, and by that point something would have to be done about his new charge.
The sun beat down on the browning prairie as a chilly autumn wind blew through the waves of grass. The Urych herd plodded steadily on as Dai continued to guide them behind the Heyen. He had gotten out of range and hoped to see them again soon. Across his saddle was a young calf he had found a few days ago with its mother following behind.
Shanku was laying on top of the cow and enjoying the warm sunshine. She saw a small trickle of grey snaking up to the sky.
"Dai, smoke!" She exclaimed, sitting straight up on the cow.
"I know," Dai said nonchalantly. "There's a clan over that rise."
"Clan?" Shanku laid her ears back warily and her wings cupped around her. "What clan?"
"The Heyen Clan of the Red Wing. They might be some of your relatives," Dai said in a bid to goad her into telling of her origins. Despite his efforts over the past few months, she had been very tight-lipped on the subject.
"Oh, I doubt it." Shanku laughed and crossed her arms. "No high and mighty Feral dares leave the forest. Especially those of my clan, the Scissortails," she scoffed.
"You're a Sylvan?" Dai asked in surprise, partially at his plan working and partially because the Sylvans supposedly were extinct. He turned around in his saddle to face her directly. "I thought the Sylvans had died out centuries ago?"
"No way. They withdrew from everyone for some reason or another way back when," Shanku shrugged off his question as vaguely as she could. Even she wasn't really sure why the Sylvans behaved as they did.
"Why? What was the reason?" Dai pressed.
"Ta heck if I know," Shanku said grumpily and pointed at a young Kurach near Jakko. "And that cub's about to get eaten."
The cub in question swung a leg over Jakko's shoulders and the two set off. He squealed and laughed as he rode Jakko around Sage and the Urych.
"Or not," Shanku muttered.
Dai chuckled as they were circled by the happily frolicking pair.
They continued to approach a collection of conical structures of wood and hide. Some had depictions of hunting scenes on them, some bore those of the seasons, some of strange fantastical creatures. Passing in and out of the tipis were many Kurach with noticeably longer ears and tails, and blunter wings that were marked with spots and bars. Shanku and the new Kurach looked at each other strangely but neither said a word.
One of the males, who had only two feathers protruding from his shoulders rather than three like the other males of this clan, approached Dai as he dismounted Sage. "Ah, you've finally returned!" He greeted them warmly.
"It's been a long time, Anoki," Dai said cheerfully as he placed the calf on the ground. The two took a step back as Jakko and his rider came skidding to a stop nearby.
"Kadin has missed his playmate," laughed Anoki.
"Heh, so I see. All has been well, then?"
"I see you brought a milch cow," Anoki gestured towards the Urych licking her calf profusely now that he had been returned to her.
"I did," nodded Dai.
They stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment as Anoki gazed at Shanku atop the mother Urych. "I thought you only had one cub," he said at length.
"I thought so too," Dai sighed.
"Hey!" Shanku growled. "I'm not his cub!"
"But in my care, at present," Dai replied.
A cub about Shanku's age with twin braids appeared beside Anoki and presented a clay jar to him.
"Would you go play with Rajé while I talk with Anoki?" Dai motioned to a girl.
"Sure," Shanku slid off the Urych. "Beats sitting on a cow, at any rate."
Anoki gave the girls time to leave as Rajé began introducing herself and welcoming Shanku to her clan's current stead. He studied the newcomer closely until she was out of sight.
"That's neither your cub nor one of our tribe," Anoki said at length. "Who is she?"
"Shanku of the Ferals," Dai shrugged as he placed the clay jar under the mother Urych.
"Didn't they die out?"
"Nope. They hid."
"It's said that of the Tribes, the Feral had the least control of their rage and often became creatures of nightmare," Anoki shuddered. "There are tales of how long ago they slaughtered many of your kind."
"Aye, I remember. Shanku has a few anger problems, but doesn't seem to be anything like those tales so far as I know."
"Let's hope she never finds her trigger," Anoki said worriedly. "If her kind has survived and are beginning to roam once more, it's only a matter of time before another war."
Dai said nothing and continued to milk the Urych.
Grunts and growls of discomfort were heard across the stead as Rajé combined through Shanku's tangled hair. She had been fascinated by the neat gatherings Rajé kept of her own hair and was quickly reconsidering her request for a set.
"When is the last time you combed your hair?" Rajé asked politely.
"I keep my feathers neat. Ain't that all the upkeep I gotta do?" Shanku growled. She yipped as Rajé rapped her knuckles smartly to the back of Shanku's head. "What was that for!?"
"A lady keeps herself groomed," Rajé said sternly.
Shanku stared at her sullenly. "On second thought, don't braid my hair."
"As you wish," Rajé sighed, somewhat relieved. "Where are you from?"
"Why do you ask?" Shanku asked as she gathered her unkempt mane back into a pony-tail.
"I've never seen black wings or ears so short before."
Shanku poked one of her ears. "They're normal at home... Oh well, I'm from the forest." She grinned and stood to her full height and flared her wings around herself. "Where the bears are!" she growled playfully, swiping at the air.
"I've heard of them," Rajé chuckled nervously.
"I've also heard of evil bull monsters that live in the forest."
"Yep," Shanku paused and glanced back at the herd that was grazing just beyond the tipis. "Maybe that's why I don't like the Urych all that much..." she shuddered. "Those things are awful! We always had to hide in the trees if one of those things came around until the warriors could kill it. The bulls can easily stomp us into the ground and some of them actually eat us."
"Now I see!" Rajé clasped her hands together. "Your parents sent you to us to keep you safe! I was wondering why you would be so far from home without them."
"Yeah, something like that..." Shanku looked at the ground sadly and rubbed her arm.
"Come, it's supper time!" Rajé tugged at Shanku's arm in a friendly matter. Shanku followed Rajé quietly as she told the dark-winged cub of what kind of dishes to look forward to from her clan. They soon arrived at the tipi Rajé's parents lived in. After a few quick introductions, Shanku took her leave to seek out Dai.
"Evening, Shanku," Dai greeted the cub warmly as she neared his campfire. He had a pot bubbling merrily above the fire.
"Hey, Dai," she said forlornly and plopped down near the fire.
"Is something wrong?" Dai stopped stirring the pot.
"Do you still miss your parents?" Shanku asked as she stared into the flames.
"Every day. But I get to see my mother each winter when I go to Wynfall."
"Does your son live with her there?"
"No, he doesn't. He lives here with my wife, Zihna."
"Greetings," nodded a lady Kurach.
"Eh?" Shanku had completely overlooked the dam and the human child beside her.
"How'd you do that?" Shanku asked, flabbergasted. "How does a man and dam make a man-cub?"
"By becoming human myself, of course," laughed Zihna.
"Explanation?" Shanku asked cautiously.
"Well," Zihna closed her eyes. A content look spread across her face as her ears rippled and shrank to the sides of her head. Her claws and fangs did the same, and her wings disappeared altogether.
Dai laughed as Shanku stared dumbfounded at her. "Hunting and magic? Have you been taught nothing?"
"Bedtime, Jakko!" Shanku said hurriedly and fled behind the tipi. Jakko gave a happy bark and followed after her.
"Apparently not," Dai chuckled and served some of his soup to his wife.
The following morning an angry shout could be heard clear across the plains.
The dog in question had chosen Shanku as his mattress for the night.
"The whole plains and you have to sleep on me!?" Shanku demanded indignantly of the husky. Jakko wagged his tail and yawned lazily.
"Well, two can play at that game," Shanku sat down on the husky as he continued to lie on her lower legs.
"Come on you two. Time to visit the shaman," Zihna laughed.
"At this time of day?" Shanku stared at her. "Wonder what's so important?"
"Arf?" Jakko didn't know either.
"Probably to cleanse you, demon dog!" Shanku laughed and chased after Zihna.
Jakko growled in offense and wandered off to find Kadin.
Shanku kept her distance as she followed Zihna. She had her arms crossed over her chest and her ears laid back. Shape shifting Kurach? She wondered. Bah! She has them fooled, but not me. She must be a fairy... Big fairy. Nah, too big. Goblin thing? Nah, too sweet. Hobgoblin? Nah, too pretty. Unless she's a witch! Shanku nodded once in concurrence with herself. I'm gonna keep an eye on her.
They approached an elderly Kurach. He was in front of a wooden rack and tying leaves to strings. Other racks around him suggested he was drying herbs.
"Ah, Zihna! Preparing early for the festival?" He asked, noting Zihna's human appearance.
"Not quite. I have a guest for you today." Zihna stepped aside to reveal Shanku. "We cannot prepare Shanku properly."
Shanku squeaked in fright. Prepare me for what? Frog stew?
"I'll see what I can do," the elderly Kurach smiled.
"Thank you Onami," Zihna nodded to him and left.
Thanks for abandoning me, witch, Shanku growled, her ears still flat.
"The Sylvans are a proud people, albeit a little ignorant," the old Kurach sat back down to tie more herbs to his strings. "I do not believe I have seen one outside the Nyre in years."
"And even parts of that they daren't leave. You actually know my kind then?" Shanku relaxed.
"Quite. There is an old alliance between our tribes."
"Really?" Shanku sat beside him.
"Do you know why they never leave the Nyre?"
"Ah, that is a long tale..."
"Does it look like I'm going anywhere soon?" Shanku smiled sadly. If he knows my people, he probably knows what I've done.
"Follow me," Shaman Onami stood and dusted himself off. He led the cub to his nearby tipi and invited her inside. "Draw it behind you, please. The others do not need to hear this story."
"What's so special about me then?" Shanku asked suspiciously as she did as she was told.
"Your breed," he said simply. "Now sit down."
Shanku once again did as she was told. Shaman Onami reached into a leather pouch and revealed a glittering dust. He threw this over the fire before him. The flames burst and began to twist as the smoke thickened.
"Long ago, the Sylvans were a very different people." Shaman Onami waved his hand through the smoke and it began to change. Images of Kurach began to form in the twisting smoke.
"Nomads, who travelled as far as their wings would take them." He waved his hand again. "Then, Men came to our land." The smoke swirled and formed an image of a Kurach and Man standing beside one another on a broad land.
"Tempers raged as our children mingled. The Sylvans stopped visiting us of the plains and sought to destroy the men." The shapes of the Kurach and Man multiplied, and the forms clashed with one another.
This is better than the puppet shows back home! Shanku thought excitedly as the smoke puppets vanquished one another.
"For many years, they fought one another. By the time a truce was made, many lives had been lost." Funeral pyres and graves formed as the Kurach and men disappeared.
"The Sylvans blamed the losses on their nomadic life. They reclused into their forest and made us swear not to tell of their existence to outsiders." Shaman Onami waved his hand a final time and the smoke returned to its trickle.
"So that's why they won't leave the forest?" Shanku asked.
"Yes," Shaman Onami nodded solemnly. "It would appear that you still have their Wanderlust."
Shanku ducked her head in shame. He knows.
"That's not a bad thing," Shaman Onami said gently. He stood and exited his tipi.
"Maybe not for you, you still have your family!" Shanku called mournfully after him.
"My ancestors took the journey a long time ago and as Shaman I have taken no mate."
"So you're all alone?" Shanku peered at him from inside the tipi, her wings drawn close around her.
"Far from it. The clan is my family. I tend to them as any sire does his cubs. There is no difference to me."
Shanku's eyes narrowed. "Like I said, you still have your family," she said darkly.
"Dai cares for you the same as he does his own little one, does he not?" he asked her.
Shanku remained quiet.
"Family is not so far away," the shaman smiled kindly at her. "I must go. Many need my help in preparing for our festival."
Shanku stared pensively at the grass as he left. I guess so. Dai's been pretty nice, for an adult. He's teaching me to shoot a bow, too.
"But he married a witch! I can't trust his judgment, can I!?" Shanku exclaimed, throwing her hands up. Oh, yeah. Shanku rubbed her chin thoughtfully. I need to get back to tailing her.
Shanku yelped as Jakko suddenly came up to her and gave her a big, slobbery lick across her cheek.
"Quick, Jakko! We have a clan to save!" Shanku stated with determination and set out to find Zihna. She wandered throughout the clan. Everybody was bustling about and preparing for their upcoming festival. Costumes and decorations were being crafted. Colorful beads and feathers could be seen adorning many tipis.
Shanku finally found Zihna. She was stringing beads onto a necklace as another seemingly human woman sewed together a dress.
Another witch! Shanku sat behind a tipi and rubbed her chin. This complicates things.
"Are you spying on Mother and Zihna?" Rajé stood behind Shanku with her hands clasped together.
"Your mother...?" Shanku asked in a small voice.
"Yes," Rajé raised an eyebrow. "What's with you?"
"Clueless," Shanku dropped her head. "We have our work cut out, Jakko."
Jakko gave a dramatic sigh and drooped his head as well.
Rajé rolled her eyes and sat down. "Doesn't your clan shift at the Autumn Festival too?"
"No. Why should yours?" Shanku asked.
"Things must be different for your clan. We must pass a human city each autumn on our way to the forest where we spend the winter. We have to assume their shape to avoid conflict," Rajé explained patiently.
"You too...?" Shanku asked fearfully and pointed towards the braided cub.
"My first time this year!" Rajé said excitedly. "The shaman will be teaching us cubs this afternoon!"
"That traitor. We're all doomed," Shanku said dejectedly.
"You should come with us! Dai and Zihna always go into that city. You'll need to know how to disguise yourself if you stay with them."
Back to the forest... Magic... Back to the forest... Ah, dilemma! Shanku rubbed her chin as her ears fell askew.
"What part of the forest?" Shanku asked slowly.
"Scissortail territory, I think," Rajé replied slowly. "But I've never seen them. You're the first Nyre Kurach I've ever met!"
"Woo, class!" Shanku grabbed Jakko and pumped her fist in the air. "We're in!" Shanku laughed nervously. If only Katari could see me now.
And so Dai's newest cub learned to somewhat come to terms with her exile, even if it meant doing something she couldn't bring herself to trust was the right thing to do.