Chapter 16: Freedom Lost

"How could she just disappear!?" Turai demanded of the forest as he spread his arms and wings in frustration. They had searched the forest thoroughly nearby and were now perched on a collection of boulders level with the tree tops.

"I have no idea. Not even a good scent trail.," Ryoichi said innocently. He had placed a dangerous bet on the night before on Turai not being able to smell well while covered in so much blood. "At least she isn't dead..." he trailed off and his ears went askew. "I think."

"No," Turai agreed. He sat down and propped an arm on his knee. "We'd have found blood, a body, both, or just something. Anything."

"Give her time. When's she's ready, she'll return," Ryoichi said lazily as he stretched.

"That's not a bad idea," Turai said softly.

"About time you listened to me. Cats always know best," Ryoichi said proudly. "In fact, we wouldn't even be out here with who-knows-how-many thieves and thugs wanting revenge on us for killing some of their friends if you'd listened to me several times over."

"No, not that," Turai said. He was relaxed. His wings were by his side, he sat cross-legged and gripped his ankles like a cub, and looked to the sky hopefully. "'Return'. I'm going home."

"What home? You turned on the only ones who would give you a home," Ryoichi demanded with his head ducked and ears askew. "Give or take a few gully hens."

"In the Nyre forest across the plains. My exile ended years ago," Turai said as he stood and stretched. "It's time to go home and start over."

"Exile?" Ryoichi asked.

"It's a long story," Turai said swung his arms a few times to ease the soreness in them from yesterday. "She's in a situation similar to mine. And she'll do the same when the time is right."

"There had better be some fish for me in this," Ryoichi grumbled and followed a cheerful Turai off the boulders and into the forest.

Turai strode cheerfully through the forest with Ryoichi padding quietly along beside him. There was a tension and ache in his muscles from the exertion the day before, but overall he felt like his life had taken a turn for the better. He was finally back on land for good, under the trees and in the dirt where he belonged. Although there's no telling how long it'll take to get the salt out of me! He chuckled. Will my parents recognize me?

Off in the distance, the cat and Kurach were being watched. A ranger had tracked him this far and was preparing to finish his hunt. For all the crimes and horrors committed at sea and on land, he would make this Kurach pay. He slipped silently through the trees and waited for his chance.

Later that evening, Turai began to settle down at the intersection of two fallen trees. They were well positioned to keep the wind off his back. He scratched up some of the surrounding leaves to make a warm nest for himself. Ryoichi simply perched on the logs and curled up.

Night settled over the forest. All was quiet and still, except for one creature stirring.

Rhett readied his dagger and prepared to end the life of the one he had stalked. Slowly, quietly, he crept to where Turai slept among the leaves. He poised his dagger as he took his final step to where the accursed Kurach slept.

"Riaow!" came a piercing scream that caught him off guard. The cat had awoken! Rhett recoiled and took several steps back.

"Who goes?" Turai demanded as he jumped to his feet.

Cursing under his breath, Rhett turned to run. He didn't make it far before he was knocked to the ground. Ryoichi picked Rhett's dagger up with his mouth and tossed a few paces away. Rhett struggled to get loose, but the cat was heavy and sitting square on his back.

"What have you got there, R'ichi?" Turai asked as he strode over to the cat.

"A hunter, methinks," Ryoichi cocked his head to the side and sniffed the back of Rhett's head. "He was after you."

"Was he now?" Turai asked curiously, and squatted before Rhett. "What did you want with me?"

Rhett growled and said nothing.

"Alright, then," Turai said. "Do you even know who I am?"

"A dog of the Brelland Seacat," Rhett snarled.

"Good, good, you know me then. But I don't know you. Who are you?" Turai grinned maliciously. "I'll promise to make it quick."

"Rhett Talbot," Rhett growled.

"Rhett Talbot?" Turai asked in surprise. He gestured for Ryoichi to get off of him. Turai held a hand out to to him to help him up. "My niece has spoke highly of you!"

Rhett knocked his hand away and stood. "Niece?"

"You remember, don't you? Little Ravenwing!" Turai grinned.

"I remember," Rhett glared at Turai, loath to hear the name he had given her during happier times. "Little demon became a pirate."

"Now, don't blame her for that, that was my doing," Turai said quickly.

"Nonetheless, she must answer for her crimes," Rhett stated firmly.

"My, you are as surly as she said," Turai muttered.

"What was that?" Rhett snapped.

"Ah, nothing," Turai chuckled. "Look, I mean you no harm, and I hope you mean none toward me any longer."

Rhett continued to glare at him.

"Maybe you do..." Turai shrugged. "I'm still willing to let you go. Unless you want to travel with me back to the Nyre."

Rhett raised a wary eyebrow at him. "And what then? To plunder more cities?"

"Nope, my plundering days are done! In fact, I think I have much penance to make," Turai said sheepishly. Then his face lit up. "Say, you wouldn't need a hand keeping an eye on the forest, would you?"

"What?" Rhett asked in surprise.

"Shanku told me you made it your job to watch over the Nyre back behind Port Tephras. I have no guarantee my clan would let me back in anyway, and I'm not sure how I'd find my place with them if they did. I could help you keep the port out of mischief."

"You do realize he just tried to kill you a few moments ago and you're bound to have several bounties on your head in places like Port Tephras, right?" Ryoichi asked dubiously.

"I must agree with the cat," Rhett said slowly. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Not a bit," Turai laughed. He scooped up Rhett's discarded dagger and held it back out to him. "What do you say? Partners?"

Rhett took his dagger back slowly. He held it for a moment, obviously weighing his next decision. Kill the Kurach or not? Was it a ruse? After a long, unblinking stare, Rhett sheathed his dagger.

"I must be out of my mind," Rhett shook his head.

"I have to agree," Ryoichi said incredulously.

"What is this, 'pick on Turai' night?" Turai harrumphed.

"So, you said you're Shanku's uncle?" Rhett asked.

"The one and only! Well, one of two. I have a brother back home," Turai stated. "Do you have family?"

"No," Rhett said curtly.

"You don't talk much, do you?"

"No."

"Just as well, I guess. Let's get some sleep, it's a long way back to my old stomping grounds," Turai laughed.

Rhett disappeared back into the woods a bit to make his own camp. Despite his camaraderie, Turai was quite suspicious of Rhett and slept fitfully, half expecting Rhett to return and finish the job he started. Neither slept well, each suspecting trouble during the night. Ryoichi also slept light, having felt it his duty to watch over the Kurach. Their fears proved unfounded, for as they travelled together over the following weeks, Turai was true to his word about helping lost stragglers and Rhett did not make another attempt on his life.

Feather Divider

Good meal. Last many days, Shanku thought pensively as she perched atop a rock, watching a herd graze. But strong. Dangerous. And I can't outrun it if it gets mad.

A pebble bounced off a rock and fell to the ground. A great elk raised its head and looked around warily before walking away from the noisy pebble.

Shanku grumbled to herself and slinked back into the trees.

No supper again tonight, she thought sadly. Tomorra, I'm goin' up da mountains. She curled up under a collection of mossy rocks and logs she had been calling home. I know I can snag a goat.

Shanku glided over the trees and made her way up the mountain looming above her. She landed roughly on a rock covered with coarse grass and woody flowers.

I nevah shoulda left de plains, Shanku thought bitterly. Stupid little wharf rat. Had ta see da world. See de Gull 'Rach shame demselves. See da good doctah slain. She glared down at the world below her. See de pirates pillage and plundah. She winced and drew her wings close around her. See da monstah inside o' me...

No more! Shanku stood suddenly and looked ahead of her. No more do I wish to see. I will stay here. Away. Alone. She walked quietly across the rocks and brittle grass. Where none can be hurt by my foolishness.

Sometime later she came across a white mountain goat nibbling at the grasses growing sparesely in the high altitude. Shanku gathered herself and sprang with a flash of claws and black feathers. The goat reared up in half-surprise, half-preparation to defend itself with a deft butt of its sharp horns. Shanku grabbed his nose, pulled him to the ground, and quickly ended his life.

Supper. Finally. She was relieved. Her victory was short lived and she turned her head to see what made the sound of an angry footfall nearby. To her horror stood the largest Kurach she had ever seen, and to make matters worse, he was in his feral form. His teeth and claws were longer and sharper than any Sylvan's, his wings were long and broad like an eagle's, and beneath the thick fur were signs of knotted muscles. He wore leather bracers on his forearms, a leather loincloth, and had leather thigh-guards.

"You're in the wrong territory," he growled. "We allowed you to roam freely in our foothills. Yet you dare repay us by coming onto our mountain and taking one of our flock?"

"I didn' know th' area was claimed," Shanku said fearfully and began to back away. She laid her ears down on her neck, tucked her tail, and kept her wings close.

"This insult will not go unpunished," the intimidating Kurach continued with a snarl.

"Hey, I'm sorry! I didn' know you owned dose goats!" Shanku yipped. "So cut me some slack! I don' even know who de fluff ya are!"

"The council will decided your fate, thief," he said menacingly and began to reach for her.

Shanku eyed those long, black claws.

"Scat if they do, feather brain!" She yelped and leapt into the air as he lunged for her.

The giant Kurach glared as she flew off and quickly took pursuit. Shanku looked back worriedly as he began to gain on her.

Follow dis! Desparately, she clasped her hands before her, extended her arms and legs, pulled her wings close for a quick dive, and muttered a quick spell for her feathers. The giant Kurach tried to follow her, but broke away as she continued straight into a lake.

Crazy pup, he shook his head and glided over to the bank. I can wait. You cannot. He sat cross-legged in the grass, propped his hands on his thighs, and watched the water intently for any signs of disturbance.

Crazy furball, Shanku grumbled well below the water's murky surface. She steadied her wings out beside her and paddled her arms and legs, hoping to stay close to the bottom. Stupid little wharf rat. What do ya plan to do now that a monsta be chasin' your tail? The pressure worked quickly on her lungs and she hurried to a nearby bank that hung over the water. She came up for air and tried with difficulty to keep her gasp as quiet as possible. She stayed still for many moments, listening carefully for the giant Kurach who had chased her. She made her way under the overhang, carefully stepping around branches and swimming short distances to other overhangs to keep her cover. She followed the edge of the lake to an alcove out of sight of the waiting Kurach.

Too cold for swimmin'. Shanku shivered as she crawled out of the water on to some slick rocks. She stumbled a few times and even struck her chin unintentionally once when she slipped. She rubbed her scraped chin and grumbled as she made her way back to the rocks she had been calling home. Since her time with Rhett, she made a habit of keeping a bit of flint and steel tucked inside her clothes for emergency fires. She gathered some of the wood nearby and proceeded to make a fire.

Free or caught, dead for sure now! Shanku thought miserably as she tried to get warm. She laid down in her little den, nearly too exhausted to shiver. It had been two days since she had eaten the last of the meat she had smoked from her last kill. While she might have managed another hunt or two, the chase and swim and used up the last of her energy.

The giant Kurach and another watched from high on the mountain at the little smoke trail coming up through the trees.

Shanku slept fitfully. She jumped at the sound of every snapping twig. As dawn slowly came on, she finally got up and tried to find anything to eat. Roots, mushrooms, something that couldn't run away, just enough to tide her over to be able to catch an animal.

Bleh, I feel awful! Shanku supported herself on a nearby tree trunk. She gingerly held her spinning head and tried to ignore the stabbing pain in her stomach. Of all ways to die! To make matters worse, her skin was burning to the touch and her face felt flushed. The cold swim had surely given her a fever, if not something worse.

Her thoughts were interrupted as she saw a pair of furry feet before her. She looked up slowly to see that same giant Kurach who chased her the day before. Oh, sweet Algod, why ya doin' dis ta me?

The giant Kurach leaned in, glaring at her. Shanku looked away and prayed he would kill her as painlessly as possible. To her surprise, but not necessarily to her relief, he and his friend bound her hands and feet to a sturdy rod they had brought with them. Each took an end and took flight with Shanku suspended between them.

Ta da pluckin' council, den, Shanku grumbled. It was a rather uncomfortable way to travel, with the ropes cutting into her wrists and ankles, and it didn't help her headache much either. If she had been in a better humour, it would have been almost fun to watch the trees and rocks come at her upside-down. Then she saw something strange that took her quite by surprise.

Holy mackerel! A city! A whole Kurach city! Shanku stared in shock at the buildings that her captors were bringing her to. Most were long buildings with straw-thatched roofs and towers of stone and wood. At the center of what appeared to be the main town was a large, circular building, as if an overfed tower, and a similar building atop a hill where Shanku was being taken.

Shanku was dropped to the ground without much grace and her captors untied her. Shanku looked around at those who were watching. Not a single Kurach around wasn't in their feral form. Some wore simple aprons, the guards wore bracers, loinclothes, and thigh guards, but most wore nothing at all. Shanku gulped nervously.

The one who'd originally chased her grabbed her by her upper arm and began to drag her inside.

"Hey, hey, easy! I'm a lot shorter den ya!" Shanku yipped as she half-hopped beside him. He grunted and didn't slow his pace.

The doorway arched high above them and the building was very spacious inside. The stone floor tiles were set in a growing circle from the center. Around the walls were open rooms with benches and candles set inside the walls. In the middle of the room, there seemed to be a giant pillar supporting the building. It was, in fact, hollow on the inside. An inner chamber revealed a semi-circle of steps leading up to a set of seven chairs high in the room. Each was filled with a serious looking Kurach of varying ages and formal attire.

Meep! Shanku squeaked as she saw the committee before her. The last time she was in this situation, she had been separated from her mother for eight years.

"This is the cub that took two days to catch?" asked the one on the far right. Kol had black fur and dark wings. He didn't look very impressed.

"Well, hullo ta ya too," Shanku grumbled.

"A fledgling robbed our flocks!" said Aegir incredulously, a sandy-colored one on the far left, to Geirolf the one nearest him, a grey with a dark stripe on his nose and over his head.

"A cub not of our own, obviously," Geirolf remarked back to Aegir.

Sargund, a very old and very shaggy one in the tallest seat in the middle of the council, motioned for his fellows to be quiet.

"We art the council of the Eagle clan, of the Snow Crest Tribe, of the Highland Kurach," Sargund stated and asked, "What is thine name?"

"Shanku Ravenwing," Shanku stated.

"Thy clan? Thy home?" Sargund asked further.

"Scissortail clan, Feral Sylvan tribe," Shanku said and put her hands on her hips. "De Nyre was me home, before dey exiled me eight years ago."

"A Sylvan? We hath had not thy kind hither in centuries," Sargund gestured to her.

"A Sylvan?" asked Magnor, the one who sat to the left of Sargund.

"Exiled a cub? Oh my..." said the heavyset Hrolleif, who sat to the right of Sargund. He stroked his chin in concern.

"Such an odd name," said Bodolf with the striped nose and dark ears, who sat between Hrollief and Kol.

"Quit yer gossipin'," Shanku muttered, embarrassed, as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Ya sound like a bunch o' gully hens."

"Hold your tongue, pup!" Rin snapped at her.

"Make me!" Shanku stuck her tongue out at him.

"Hrmph! How rude," Kol growled.

"Aye," Sargund eyed her. "But, keep in mind she hath not her kin in many crucial years."

Sargund rose to his feet. "Thou wilt remain hither, forbidden to leave," he pointed straight at her. "Until thou provest proper to be released into the world once more."

"What?" Shanku asked. How strange it was to be called improper after all the work Doctor Newbury had put into her.

"And whilst hither, shalt work off they debt," Sargund finished and tucked his paws into the sleeves of his robe.

Shanku stared at him blankly for a moment. "What!?" She demanded again and then bristled with frustration. "Awwww... Pluck!"

"Rin, kindly take our guest to her new quarters," Sargund asked. "She shall be assigned an escort on the morrow."

Rin bowed to the council and dragged Shanku away.

"You got off lucky," Rin grumbled as they stepped back into the sunlight. "Thieves are normally given hard labor and vegetables."

"Ya tink veggies be bad? Try hard tack an' gruel for months on end," Shanku rolled her eyes.

"What?" Rin asked.

"Weevil-ridden rock-hard bread an' flour soup," Shanku explained. "It's as tasty as it sounds."

"Yuck," Rin grimaced.

"Yup," Shanku nodded. She looked down at where he still held her wrist. "Ya can let go, ya know. T'ain't like I'll be gettin' far wit all dese birds flyin' 'round."

"No," Rin said.

"Why not?"

"Because then we'll both have escorts in the morning," Rin said flatly.

"You won't be me escort, right?" Shanku asked, visibly disgusted.

"No," Rin firmly confirmed.

"Dat's a relief," Shanku breathed heavily.

"But I will be outside your door until she arrives," Rin added.

"She?" Shanku asked.

"Your escort," Rin said as he directed her up the trail that lead to a great, gaping cave. "Male captive, male escort. Female captive, female escort. No pups later on."

"I'm not o' age for pups! I'm still a pup meself!" Shanku said defensively and pulled back against him.

"Would you prefer to stay in the hatchery with a wetnurse then?" Rin narrowed his eyes at her and tightened his grip.

"No," Shanku said quietly.

"Then quit whining so much and accept the hand dealt you," Rin snapped.

They continued the rest of the way in silence. Inside the cave were many towers with rounded tops. Each was three levels tall and had a staircase winding around the outside of it. Large windows were cut into the sides where the staircase didn't wrap. Even with the steps there would be one wooden door per level braced with iron trappings. Torches were spaced apart on the railings to provide a warm, dim light. Shanku wondered how much hassle it was to maintain those torches.

Deep in the cave, close to the back, Rin finally began to lead Shanku up one of the towers. All the windows on this tower had bars on the window. At the top, Rin unlocked the heavy wooden door and pushed it open with a low creak. Rin shoved her inside uncermoniously.

"Make yourself at home. You'll be here a long time," he said stuffily. "A maid will be along shortly to bring your supper."

He closed the door behind him as he left and Shanku could hear the grinding and metallic click as the key was turned in the lock. Aside from the light of the torches coming through the barred windows, it was dark inside.

Hope de maid brings some light too. Shanku grumpily looked around. There were solid ledges or tables before each window that curved with the walls and the tiles in the room. One had a mat on top of it and a small straw pillow. Assuming it to be the closest thing to a bed she would get, she sat down on the edge of it and drew her knees to her chest with her wings resting over the side. There wasn't much of a view. The next two rows of towers before her looked to also have bars on the windows. Some looked to be occupied, most seemed vacant.

After some time, the sounds of a she-Kurach talking with Rin came from outside her door. The lock turned and in stepped the maid. She had grey fur and a dark mane. Her wings were a deep brown and black. Shanku kept quiet and continued to stare out the window. The maid also kept quiet. She put down a plate of food and an oil lamp on a table by the other window. The light revealed there to be a water barrel between the bed and supper table, and a shelf as well holding shallow bowls, spoons, and cups. The maid filled one of the cups with water, set it on the table, and promptly left.

Shanku looked over at the plate the maid had left. A bit of bread, some dried meat, and hard cheese. Shanku's stomach growled loudly and she didn't mind how tough the meal was. She remembered tales Doctor Newbury had told her of those starving that accidentally killed themselves by eating too heavily and too hastily when they had food again. With great difficulty, Shanku restrained herself to nibbling at one thing for a long time until it was finished with ample drinks of water inbetween.

After having her greatest test of patience, she looked around the rest of them room. It was a plain, soft grey, as the rest of the tower. The floor and ceiling were a reddish color. The walls were cut from large blocks of stone easily a foot thick and three feet wide. The tiles she presumed would be even thicker and were about a foot wide. Aside from the bed, table, and cutlery, the only other item in the room was a chest on the other side of the table. Naturally, it was locked.

Shanku shook her head and stretched out on the bed with her wings cupped to her sides. She must now wait in this room of stone and iron to see who or what this "escort" will be, and how long she would have to be held prisoner of the Highland Kurach.