"Most of you know we shift forms at the Autumn Festival," Shaman Onami began. "Some of you have even tried it and nearly succeeded."
A black-haired cub elbowed a red-headed cub in the ribs and giggled. Shanku sat at the end of the line of five cubs. This was a stupid idea... She crossed her arms over her chest and pulled her wings up defensively. Rajé sat beside her, listening intently to the old shaman, oblivious to her glowering new friend.
"This is how you should feel right before you shift," Shaman Onami extended his staff towards the cubs. As it emitted a soft, golden glow, so did the cubs. The cubs exclaimed various expressions from excitement to confusion to pleasure.
Shanku, however, expressed a bit of a surprise and dislike. It was a strange, tingling sensation down deep in her stomach. Perhaps what frightened her most was that she liked it. Was she not already in enough trouble without wanting to indulge in magic as well?
"To use it, you must focus," Shaman Onami continued. "Concentrate on that feeling and try to channel it."
The golden glow extended to Shaman Onami. Every feather was outlined and began to fade, as did his tail. His claws shrank and became fingernails. His ears also diminished and lost their fur, leaving human ears in their place.
"With a little faith, you'll reach your goal," he smiled warmly. Then he warned, "But, remember, you'd best learn it on your own. Having somebody do it for you can be painful. I once had a cub who was struggling with the transformation had his older sister try to channel her energy into him without changing herself as well. I nearly lost him before I could set him right again."
The cubs began to try to shift on their own. The red-headed cub laid back his ears and his feathers and tail were fluffed in frustration. Bara developed a red double-ringed aura as he growled in concentration, but he did not shift.
The black-haired cub raised his hands before him. A small, orange ball of light formed between his palms but disappeared with a small pop. Eru stared at his hands in confusion, but was unable to shift as well, or create an aura again.
A young female with a tan aura clasped her hands together and concentrated. Kya's features faded in and out of sight, but she was not able to accomplish more than that.
Rajé was enveloped in a golden aura. Her eyes were shut and she looked positively delighted. Although it seemed she was more interested in basking in her new-found power rather than using it.
Shanku did not even try. She lay on the ground with her wings huddled around her and her hands on top of her head. Wine. Wine, now... What have I gotten myself in to?
Shaman Onami continued to work with the cubs until the sun began to set. He was able to get the four Heyen cubs up to Kya's level.
"That was a good try for today. Most of you were able to get a feel for what you should do and some where very close. We'll try again tomorrow. Goodnight, cubs. Return to your families," Shaman Onami nodded his head to the cubs and left to retire to his tipi.
Shanku's wings and ears drooped as she breathed a tired sigh. What a day.
"I think I can get it tomorrow. Goodnight, Shanku!" Rajé chirped.
Shanku gave an uneasy smile as her new friend skipped away.
"So, you're Shanku?" The black-haired cub from class stood over her.
"Who're you?" Shanku asked bluntly.
"I'm Eru, Anoki and Zihna's little brother," Eru said cheerfully. "You're staying with Dai and Zihna, right?"
"Yep," Shanku raised an eyebrow and placed her hands on her hips. "They haven't mentioned you.
"Give 'em time, I drive them nuts," Eru laughed. "You going with them to Wynfall?"
Shanku crossed her arms over her chest again. "I guess."
"Great! We both need to master shifting, so let's team up!" Eru said enthusiastically.
"Why's this so important?"
"Humans don't like us that much. Sometimes they hunt us..." Eru trailed off.
Story of my life, Shanku thought glumly. No point in fighting it, I guess. She shrugged. "Eh, why not?"
"Our disguises will be perfect before you know it!" Eru said encouragingly. He took her by the hand and began to lead her deeper into the nomadic clan's village.
"Looks like the cubs found each other," Dai remarked to Anoki.
"Brilliant observation skills," Anoki said sarcastically. "It'll do him good to have another orphan to play with."
"I think she's just a runaway cub," Dai said slowly.
"Either way," Anoki shrugged. "Neither have their parents here to keep an eye on them."
"Why don't you and the boys come with us to Wynfall this year?" Dai offered.
"So Eru and Kadin can die like their mothers?" Anoki growled, very tense and his wings flared high around him. "I don't really like Zihna going there either, even if she can pass off as one of them."
"Nevermind," Dai said quickly. While Anoki begrudgingly accepted Dai as Zihna's mate, it would be much longer still, if ever, that he would accept other men.
"Let's see... Concentrate... Focus..." Eru mumbled, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration.
"Are you sure this'll work?" Shanku asked skeptically as she sat cross-legged from him, their hands clasped together.
"Yeah. Zihna did it with Anoki. Now shut up and do your part," Eru rattled off quickly.
"Here goes nothing," Shanku rolled her eyes.
They sat across from each other, holding each other's hands up before them. A soft glow began at their fingers and slowly spread across their bodies. Eru's orange glow quickly encompassed him and covered him down to his smallest feather. Shanku's deep blue aura took a bit longer, but in time also completely covered her.
The sun had long set and their auras glinted off the grass in shades of orange and blue. Eru strengthened his focus as their energies combined and worked together, and Shanku began to try as well. Slowly, their wings, tails, and ears began to change. Their tails and wings melted into their bodies, and their ears and claws slowly reshaped into human features.
Eru let go of Shanku's hands and sat up straight. Shanku propped herself back on one hand and looked intently at the other.
"This feels really weird..." Shanku muttered, noting a sharp decrease in her senses.
"I kinda like it on you," Eru grinned.
"Scratch that, you're really weird!" Shanku shuddered. She stood slowly, trying to learn her new balance.
Eru got up with ease and considerably less stumbling. He offered his arm to her. Embarrassed, Shanku looped her arm with his to steady her stride and they began their way back home.
"I wonder where the cubs are?" Dai mused.
"Supper grows cold," Zihna said flatly as she fed another spoonful to her young son. The little cast iron pot was suspended above a campfire and was in no danger of losing heat, but it made her feel better to say it was. Anoki's son Kadin quickly downed what was left in his bowl.
"They're too yong for real mischief," Anoki laughed. "I'm not worried."
"Anoki, Anoki!" Eru called out to his brother as he and Shanku came to their campfire. "Look! We can go with Zihna this year!"
Anoki was quite started to find a boyish Eru come up to him, with Shanku just as girlish right behind him.
"Craaaaaaap..." Anoki dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his temples.
"Woohoo!" Kadin whooped. "Goin' ta town!"
"You two managed it on your first day?" Zihna asked suspiciously.
"Teamwork accomplishes much!" Eru nodded proudly with his arms akimbo. Shanku just grinned mischievously from behind him.
"Cheaters," Anoki grumbled.
"You're one to speak, brother," Zihna smiled coyly, making Anoki uncomfortable.
"Well, Kadin can't shift yet, so we'll be going to the forest," Anoki said quickly.
Kadin hrmphed and crossed his arms over his chest grumpily.
"Too bad," Eru said, clearly disappointed. He sat down near the fire beside his nephew.
"Soup?" Shanku asked cheerfully and plopped down beside Eru. Not much could dampen her appetite!
"Have supper and go to bed, cubs," Zihna said. "Anoki and I need to talk."
Anoki curled his tail around his hips worriedly as his sister gave him a stern look. Eru picked up on his tension and was reluctant to move. Dai was silent and spooned out some stew for the cubs. Shanku, oblivious, gladly tucked into a bowl of stew.
After Dai had taken the cubs away and put them to bed, Zihna beckoned for Anoki to walk with her. They walked in silence for a ways and stopped on a grassy knoll overlooking the settlement and the Urych sleepily grazing nearby.
"Why?" was all Anoki asked.
"To learn their scent," Zihna said coldly. "I have not forgotten that day any more than you have. I want him to learn their scent and learn their patterns, so he can avoid them more easily in the future during the migration."
"Is Dai's scent not enough? Smelled one, smelled them all."
Zihna shook her head. "Not quite. The metal of their armour, the oil of their equipment, it's much different than a herder. A herder smells earthy, almost as us. Soldiers... are different."
"You mean you intend to bring him close to them?" Anoki asked warily.
"No. Just close enough for him to see them. To recognize them and learn their movements. Just in case..."
Anoki sighed heavily and stared out over the gently rolling hills. At length, he spoke again. "Very well."
Zihna nodded. They sat together a few moments longer and watched the grazing beasts before returning to the village.
The following day, Shaman Onami strode out to where the cubs were waiting for him to find two had already transformed on their own after yesterday's class.
"I see that some of you worked through the night. Very well, return to your families while I work with the others," the shaman smiled warmly.
Bara nudged Eru sullenly. Eru was beaming.
"Good job, Shanku!" Rajé whispered excitedly to Shanku.
Shanku grinned uneasily and grabbed Eru by the hand. They returned to his siblings to help them prepare for the upcoming festival.
Before long, the others also succeeded after a few days work.
"Very good, cubs," Shaman Onami smiled warmly.
"Thank you, Shaman!" Rajé chirped, her hands clasped before her in excitement. Bara stood proudly with his arms crossed over his chest and Kya nodded once. They were very pleased to have completed this rite of passage.
The village was a buzz with excitement in preparation for the migration and festival. Families gathered supplies, sorted and organized belongings, and set building a travois for each of them or their horse to drag along that would carry their belongings.
Then the day of the Autumn Festival finally arrived. The clan gathered in the center of the village early in the morning for a long day of celebrations. Drums began to beat softly near the edges of the festivities.
The shaman came dressed in many feathers and strips of leather to represent the Kurach form. The chief came as a human, having transformed before the ceremony. The two began their yearly dance and song, fleeing from and chasing each other in representation of the inner struggle each of the clan faced withn themselves each year to chase away the animal form. One by one, each member of the clan joined in the chants, and they formed a long chain as they danced around the chief and shaman.
In turn, the chief and shaman would reach out to various members of the clan. Some would laugh and shy away, others would transform into men and stand their ground if the "Kurach" shaman approached them. At the end of the ceremony when only the shaman had wings, he took off his carved mask and discarded the false wings to reveal he had transformed as well and to symbolize each had assumed their forms for the year.
After the dance, a last meal was served that the clan shared together before each went to take down their homes and load them upon the travois they had recently built. They began their slow march towards the forest after the last person had packed. The drums and chants softened as the sun set and they continued their quiet journey to safety.
For several days the clan would walk many miles during the day and huddle together at night. The horses and people would drop their burdens for a sleep before they were loaded up again the following morning.
Dai was not explicitly with the clan. He and his family kept a short distance from them. Soon enough, it was time for him to leave the Heyen behind and return to Wynfall. Anoki and Kadin were bid goodbye as Zihna and Eru followed Dai to the city.
Wynfall was just a stony blip on the horizon after a few days' travel, but Zihna was vigilant in seeing that the cubs did not transform back to their natural state. She often walked beside her horse and let the cubs take turns riding Calamri. She had very few belongings tied to her horse as Anoki was often charged with seeing after the tipi they shared.
As the great stone walls of the city loomed above them, Dai prepared to say farewell to his wife and son for a few days. He would have to herd the Urych on to the stockyards as his wife sought out his mother, Mrs. Birchfield.
Iris Birchfield always welcomed her family with open arms and looked forward to their arrival every year. Her son's income afforded her to live comfortably and she saw to it they were well fussed over during their stay.
Dai spent his days reviewing the other herds and solving their problems. While he had his own herd, he was over many other herds who had invested in his family's cattle. His nights were spent with his family. He especially enjoyed reading stories to his son.
Eru and Shanku did not enjoy their days as much. To start with, they had to dress in clothes they were not used to. It itched and pinched, it was stiff in many places, and perhaps worst of all it covered their backs. Should they have needed their wings, it would have been painful to shift back to their natural forms. With all the layers of clothing they had to wear, it would have been downright impossible to remove them all in time so they could freely use their wings. Zihna did her best to teach them how to rely on their dulled senses and to read their surroundings so they would not be caught by surprise as often and would know how to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Mrs. Birchfield hired a tutor to oversee them. Master Woodstock lectured them from morning to afternoon on histories, theories, and many other things that bored Shanku to no end. Eru was not very entertained either. When not being instructed by Master Woodstock, they were tasked to many chores around Mrs. Birchfield's home to teach them responsibility. Mrs. Birchfield also saw to it to teach both of the cubs how to sew and knit.
"Cookin' and cleanin' all day long!" Shanku complained roundly to Eru one chilly afternoon as she carried a basket of dirty laundry.
"Except for school in the mornings," Eru sighed as the window he was cleaning squeaked.
"And why do I have to wear this thing?" Shanku growled as she tripped over the hem of her skirt once more. "I hate dresses!"
"Wynfall is a strange place," Eru frowned. He didn't much care for his clothes either. They were tight and scratchy, and at times he wasn't sure if he or Shanku was covered in the most layers.
"Time to rise, cubs," Zihna said softly as she did every morning. All three cubs slept in a nursery across the hall from Dai and Zihna's room.
Shanku moaned with displeasure. Eru sat up and began to wash and get dressed.
"Please, Shanku, not today," Zihna chided and pulled the covers back.
Shanku grumbled, growled, and muttered under her breath as she rolled off the bed. She dipped her hands into the basin on the stand between her and Eru's beds. She chirped and shivered as she washed her hands and splashed her face with the icy water.
"Today we go to market to pick up a few things," Zihna said as she got Hinto up.
"No chores?" Shanku asked excitedly as she yanked off her nightgown and tossed it onto the bed.
"There's always chores, Shanku," Eru said as he dealt with a tangle in his long hair.
"No school then?" Shanku asked hopefully as she struggled with a petticoat.
"No school today," Zihna nodded.
Shanku whooped and quickly buttoned her dress. She began to comb her ever-tangled hair. As usual, Eru had to take the brush from her before she flung it across the room and help her with her grooming. Shanku instead went to lacing up her shoes.
Fully dressed and ready, Eru and Shanku followed Zihna and Eru into the kitchen for a quick breakfast of porridge. Zihna saw to it that the cubs had good coats on before leading them all out the door, except for Hinto who was given a kiss and left behind with his grandmother. Snow was beginning to softly fall as they walked down the path toward the rest of the city.
Even at this hour, the streets were crowded with horses, carts, wagons, and people. Zihna expertly navigated them through the throng on to the market. Shanku looked up in wonder at the horses and all their trappings as they passed by. She stuck close by to Eru and Zihna for fear of getting trampled. Eru took her hand in his to better guide her through the streets and Shanku gratefully squeazed his hand in appreciation. With her senses dulled and her loss of wings this was all quite overwhelming and scary to her.
They arrived at the street vendors where many wares were on display. Zihna wandered slowly from stall to stall, examining the various breads, flours, and greenhouse vegetables she was considering purchasing.
Shanku looked curiously around her at all the strange things. The unusual clothes of those around her, their unique scents, and all the unknown structures and creations.
Eru was also observing his surroundings as Zihna conducted her shopping. He nudged Shanku and pointed at an odd person up the street. A shady character who had his collar pulled high was passing slowly through the crowd.
"Did he just... take that woman's coinpurse?" Shanku whispered to Eru.
Eru nodded silently and kept a sharp eye on the pickpocket, but avoided eye contact. Shanku watched Eru curiously.
The thief soon came close to them. As he reached out for another woman, to both his surprise and Eru's, Shanku suddenly grabbed and bit down on his hand. The thief howled with shock and pain as Shanku stepped back to Eru.
Zihna looked up bewildered and quickly realized part of what had gone on. "Shanku!" she exclaimed.
"He took her coinpurse!" Shanku pointed and shouted.
"I 'ave done no such thing," the thief blustered, shaking his near-bleeding hand.
"Did too! We saw you! That lady, and that lady up the street, and probably another's!" Shanku said hotly.
"It's true, I saw it too," Eru agreed as he surpressed a laugh at the red semicircle on the thief's hand.
Having now caught the attention of a few others, various women and men began to check their pockets and discover missing belongings. The guards began to come over and investigate, and soon the thief was being searched and items returned.
Zihna quietly paid for her goods and began to lead the cubs home.
"That was a good thing you did cubs. But you shouldn't bite people, Shanku," she chided softly.
"What else did you expect me to do in all these bulky clothes?" Shanku demanded. "It's not like I got claws anymore I can scratch him with."
"True, but never bite humans. For one thing, some might figure out who we are," Zihna reminded. "And for another, some of them carry terrible diseases in the blood you do not want."
Shanku nodded and followed on behind them.
When they returned, Zihna went to put away her purchases as the cubs were tasked out to various chores once more.
Autumn slowly rolled into winter and the city was blanketed in soft snow. The cubs soon learned of a strange custom. Various people of the city began to prepare for a new year's celebration!
"Whoever heard of celebrating a new year in the middle of winter!?" Shanku asked incredulously. "The new year begins when new life begins! Don't they know that? That's like starting the day in the middle of the night instead of at dawn!"
"Hush, do not wake Hinto. Hold still," Zihna chided gently as she combed through Shanku's hair.
"This is a very strange place," Eru arched an eyebrow. He quickly finished tying his hair back and straightened his tunic.
"We never said these people would make sense," Zihna chuckled. She faced them, and bent over with her hands on her knees. "Now, smile for me. It's time to go downstairs."
As Zihna walked out the door, Shanku crossed her arms over her chest and glanced back at Eru.
"I am not doing this next year," she said hotly. "This dress is even frillier than the others!"
"Me neither," Eru glumly replied. "I'd rather be hunting a buck."
Eru and Shanku exited the nursery and followed Zihna down the stairs to the parlor where many guests were gathered and engaged in animated conversation and laughter. Dai met his wife at the bottom and offered his hand to her as she descended.
"Hey, look! Food!" Shanku said excitedly as she peered over the banister.
"Is that all you think about?" Eru asked with evident disappointment. "Food?"
"Gotta eat to live, so I live to eat!" Shanku chirped and hopped to the floor.
"You are painfully simple minded, Shanku," Eru sighed as he stepped off the stairs.
"At least I have a mind!" Shanku giggled and offered a biscuit to him.
"For appetizers," Eru shook his head and accepted a biscuit. He smiled as he heard the first strains of a violin. "The band's started."
"I'm busy," Shanku said quickly and took a bite of her biscuit. "Go find a pretty lady if you want to dance."
Eru shook his head again and left Shanku by the finger foods. He bowed to a group of girls and offered his arm. With a giggle, one with curly red hair accepted and they walked off to the dance floor.
Shanku watched as Eru waltzed with his dance partner. He looks like he's really enjoying himself, Shanku thought to herself. She had a brief twinge of longing, but quickly brushed it off. That's not for me. Ribbons and frou frou comes naturally to them, but I belong in the dirt and under the trees. Not here. She began to look for a drink and didn't give it another thought.
"Attention, please!" Mrs. Birchfield waved a handkerchief after a few songs had played. She lowered her kerchief when the parlor had quieted and turned toward her. "I'd like to thank you all for coming. The patron will now speak."
"'Twas a good year," Master Woodstock began, who had been patiently standing nearby. "Crops were up and trade was superb. Monsters were minimal! All thanks to our fine citizens doing their parts."
"'Monsters minimal.' Yeah, right," Eru laughed and looked over at Shanku.
"What?" Shanku shrugged, confused. "I'm not that bad!"
"Before we feast...," Master Woodstock paused and looked to Mrs. Birchfield. "I wonder if this fine woman would perfect my year by consenting to be my bride."
A hush fell over the room as Mrs. Birchfield covered her mouth in surprise.
"I would be honored!" she said gladly and gracefully placed her hand over her chest.
"Splendid!" Master Woodstock beamed. "Now, we feast!"
The guests applauded and began to make their way to the dining hall.
"I didn't see that coming," Dai chuckled.
"Why else do you think he taught the cubs so eagerly?" Zihna asked slyly. Dai shook his head and offered his arm to his wife. She accepted and they followed the crowd.
"More food?" Shanku asked excitedly.
"Algod help you, you glutton," Eru groaned and followed after her.
Eru and Shanku took a seat near Dai and Zihna as the cooks began to bring out various dishes.
"After dinner, you two must go to bed," Dai reminded them as they began to serve themselves.
"Yes, sir," Eru nodded.
Shanku was mostly oblivious as she tucked into all sorts of meats, breads, and baked things being served.
"Etiquette classes were wasted on you, Shanku," Eru teased.
"Was not, Eru!" Shanku snapped back, her mouth full of food.
Eru shook his head with resignation and tried to enjoy the meal.
Iris Birchfield and Master Woodstock were married in the spring. A few days later it was time for Dai and his family to return to the plains to let the Urychy graze and fatten back up, and to find the Heyen clan once more. He gave his mother a long hug goodbye and lead them away.
Shanku and Eru were quite glad to be back in their normal clothes, and even more glad to leave their cramped room behind and be back under the skies once again. Shanku felt like she hadn't been able to breathe that easily in weeks.
On and on they travelled back out into the rolling hills and new grasses covering the plains. There was still a chill in the air, but the days were growing warmer and warmer.
"We should be meeting up with the clan soon," Zihna said happily as she laid out their bed rolls for the night.
"Finally!" Eru exclaimed. It had been just last night Zihna had given him the 'all clear' to shift back into his natural form.
"Shanku, do you wish to stay with me? Or go back with Zihna?" Dai asked softly as he held a sleeping Hinto.
"Actually I was thinking..." Shanku paused. "Maybe going back to the Nyre."
"Aw, really? Why?" Eru asked sadly.
"Aren't you a little too young to be travelling alone?" Zihna asked.
"Did it before," Shanku shrugged. "I don't belong in the open or in the city. I belong in the branches."
"If that is what you wish, Shanku," Dai nodded. "But you will always have a place with us."
The next morning, Shanku bid farewell to her friends and began her journey back to her homeland as the Birchfield family returned to their own territory. She waved to them as they waved to her, and Jakko howled a long, plaintive howl as she disappeared from sight.