Chapter 17: Eager Student

Shanku was awakened by the sound of knocking at her door. She clenched her fists grumpily as she heard the grating sound of the lock being turned.

"G'morning!" said a cheerful she-Kurach as she stepped inside with a steaming pot on a tray. She had the typical light grey fur with a white patch on her face, a white throat, and white fade on her arms, legs, and tail. Her long, blonde mane was braided back and she had a red scarf on her head with holes cut for her ears. Her wings were a tan, brown, and black with spots and bars on the lower sets. Her shoulder feathers bore many stripes, as did her four "tail feathers". She wore the pocketed apron Shanku had seen some wear. Two buttons pinned the top of her apron and a leather belt was fastened around her waist with two pouches tied to the sides.

"I am Sigrid, and you are my charge," Sigrid grinned.

Shanku groaned and buried her face into the mat.

"Get up and have breakfast. We have a long day ahead of us," Sigrid said as she took a few items off the shelf.

Ha! As if. You don't. I do, Shanku thought grumpily. Sigrid seemed to be enjoying herself. Shanku was not quite as thrilled about the arrangement. "What kind o' day?"

"Replacing those torn rags you're wearing, judging your general usefulness, and a skill assessment to see how much work I have to do," Sgirid said as she set the table.

"Great," Shanku groaned and was taken by a coughing fit, which rather caught Sigrid's attention.

"But first after breakfast, we fix that cough," Sigrid said. She poured a bowl for them both of boiled pork and cabbage. It didn't smell that appetizing to Shanku, but Sigrid licked her bowl clean.

After the meal, Sigrid lead her down the tower and out of the Quarters. The sun hadn't broke over the mountains yet and the sky was still a deep purple with a faint glow on the horizon. Down the trail they went to the town square. The Highland had paved all the walkways with the same pale stone they favored for their towers. The long wooden buildings were arranged in a circle around the large circular building in the center. Each had an arched doorway, usually bench outside, and some had wares on display outside. Sigrid brought Shanku around to one of the buildings that simply had benches out front. Sitting on one was a darker grey male with a striped nose, a mane that was thin on top and gathered at the back, and cream and brown wings. He wore a dark leather apron and was very plucky.

Sigrid explained the nature of her visit to the healer and he happily beckoned them inside. The walls were lined with many shelves and even more jars of all shapes and sizes. Dryings herbs hang from the ceiling and a counter stood in the middle with an assortment of small burners and tools.

The healer bid Shanku stand near to him. To her surprise, and mostly to her disturbance, he lifted one of her arms up and put his ear to her ribs. He scratched his chin thoughtfully and mumbled a few "mmhmms". He dropped her arm and darted behind his counter. The healer took some of the jars off his shelves, combined a few items into a stone bowl, and ground them for a few moments with his pestle. He placed a cup of water on one of the boilers to warm for a moment, sprinkled some of his concoction into it, and then held it out to Shanku.

"Sniff for a few moments then drink," he instructed cheerfully.

Shanku took a few cautious sniffs and wrinkled her nose. It was a mixture of bitter, sweet, and spicy. She took a slow sip. She shook her head fervently and made an awful face.

"Twice a day, for a week," the healer told Sigrid as he handed her a bag of the medicine. "Should clear that cough and fever right up!"

Shanku managed to finish her drink and handed it back to the healer.

"If de fever don' kill me, dat may do it," Shanku shuddered. "Where to now?"

"Clothes," Sigrid said curtly. "We each sew our own and you will too."

They came to another building, although this one didn't have anything outside. Inside, there were a few shelves and counters with cloth on display of many colors and materials. Shanku looked around curiously and wondered if she'd recognize any. She often helped the Meriweather crew load goods and sometimes Doctor Newbury had her help him inspect some of them.

"Although," Sigrid said at length as she watched her charge with a hand on her hip. "Are you stuck like that?"

"Eh?" Shanku asked. "Like what?"

"Have you ascended yet?" Sigrid asked skeptically.

"Descended?" Shanku corrected as she hunched her wings up around her in shame. "Yes."

Sigrid backhanded her with a fierce growl. Shanku rubbed her sore cheek as Sigrid leaned directly before her face.

"Heresy!" she snarled. "The form is a gift! A mark of strength and control!" She raised up and glared at Shanku from the corner of her eye. "Only the weak remain in your form."

"In me experience, dere is no such ting as control as a furball," Shanku grumbled.

"Then you have no real experience," Sigrid said coldly. "Come. Buy cloth, make clothes."

Shanku grabbed a nearby stack and thrust it at her escort. Gift? Curse. And yer bad behaviour is proof o' dat, ya cur. She glared at Sigrid as she bought the cloth from the merchant. Barbarians, dem all...

Sigrid took Shanku briskly back to the tower in the Quarters. Shanku sat sullenly beside the door as Sigrid unlocked the chest by the table.

"You may wear your new pinnafore only if you learn control in ascension," Sigrid said firmly.

"And ya propose dat how?" Shanku snapped.

"Training," Sigrid said as she took some scissors, a needle pouch, and thread from the chest. She faced her charge, and continued, "The bloodlust is like the fang. Can bite others, but also bite you. Learn to wield it, use it, be one with it."

"Tame de beast," Shanku said sarcastically.

"In a sense," Sigrid nodded.

"Whats de first step?" Shanku asked.

"Ascend. Remain thus daily," Sigrid said as she spread the cloth over the floor.

"And de rampage ovah minor tings such as a stubbed toe?" Shanku asked with a foot held in the air and pointed toe for emphasis.

"If you do not reign it in, I will." Sigrid said with an evil grin. She looked back to the cloth and began to point at different places on it. "Come, cut here and here for the body. Here for the strap."

Shanku obeyed and began to cut the cloth with the scissors provided.

"Can you sew?" Sigrid asked.

"Sew, mend, crochet, knit, cook, clean," Shanku began naming off the things she had been expected to learn in days past to be a proper lady, and then decided to name off the things she had enjoyed learning, "Read, write, calculate, chart a ship course, fish..."

"Can you hunt?" Sigrid interrupted.

"Small game," Shanku shrugged.

"Fight?" Sigrid asked.

"Brawl. Bit wit a knife," Shanku said thoughtfully. Held me own fairly well in some of those.

"No formal fighting or group hunting?" Sigrid asked with surprise. "You'll be here longer than I thought."

"Fantastic!" Shanku exclaimed sarcastically as she began to hem what was to be the strap of her pinnafore.

"What can you write?" Sigrid asked curiously.

"Bit o' the Kurach language. Mostly man's languages. Arnthian, Mruhan, some Bhadarukian."

"What of Byrobhad?" Sigrid asked.

"Beerrrabhad?" Shanku asked slowly, trying to roll it right.

"The old language of our kind," Sigrid explained.

"Nah, not a bit," Shanku shook her head. "It was lost a long time ago."

"Well, if you know the new, it's not that hard to learn the old," Sigrid said as she dipped a cup into the water barrel.

"Do ya know how ta become human?" Shanku asked.

"It's taught, but not practiced," Sigrid said with mild disgust. "Besides, no Kurach ever becomes fully human. There is always the wish to fly, run, hunt, and dig that can never be supressed."

Sigrid finished her drink and set the cup on the water barrel. She got down on four feet, her wings raised above her, and strode until her snout was just a few inches from Shanku.

"Now, ascend," Sigrid said roughly.

"I... can't?" Shanku replied nervously.

Sigrid's black lips pulled back in a snarl, revealing her sharp teeth, and her ears stood stiffly on her head. She began to growl, low and rumbling, louder and louder until it was a rather vicious roar.

Shanku winced and ducked down as Sigrid's maw snapped shut where Shanku's face had been a moment before. Shanku rolled to the side as a clawed paw fiercely slapped down where she had previously sat. Sigrid pounced before Shanku had a chance to right herself. Reacting on old fear and instinct, Shanku felt herself shift as she held her hands out in front of her and pushed her hands against Sigrid's shoulders, Sigrid's snarling nose barely an inch from Shanku's own nose.

"Stop!" Shanku cried angrily. She breathed heavily, wanting terribly to growl but afraid of riling Sigrid more.

"Good!" Sigrid said perkily and tapped Shanku on the nose with the pad of a finger. "Now hold this shape and finish your pinnafore."

Sigrid got off of Shanku and began to straighten her pinnafore and her head scarf.

"Ya did all dat on purpose!?" Shanku demanded angrily as she rolled to her stomach.

"Of course!" Sigrid laughed and looked over her shoulder at Shanku. "All teachers train their students in this manner."

"Ya society is seriously messed up," Shanku said with narrowed eyes and ears laid back.

"At least we don't banish cubs," Sigrid smirked. "We've got enough sense to work with them. Back to sewing. When you finish, we'll have a good grooming."

"If'n I change back?" Shanku asked.

Sigrid pulled a wing back to let Shanku see her ducked head and all her sharp teeth bared in a snarl.

"Got it," Shanku said solemnly. She took up a needle and continued to hem her pinnafore. It wasn't hard to maintain her feral form. She was very tense and on edge after Sigrid's apparent attempt to cause her harm. It took longer than she expected to finish her simple apron because her hands were still shaking and she often missed the cloth. While the escort seemed to be preoccupied with arranging some items in a satchel, Shanku had no doubt she was still being watched. When she was finally done, she held it up for Sigrid's approval.

"Good," Sigrid nodded. "Come."

Shanku was lead once more from the Quarters. This time, Sigrid took flight at the mouth of the cave and Shanku followed suit. Sigrid flew up above the Quarters and back off behind it. In a valley between one of the many ridges in the mountains was a pool of water set with stones and surrounded by a paved circle.

Sigrid removed her head scarf and her pinnafore, unbraided her hair, and slipped into the water.

"Mmm..." she purred and propped her elbows on the edge of the pool. "Water's perfect."

"No need to be body shy," Sigrid laughed as she started to wash her hair. "No males in their right minds would dare spy on bathing damsels."

"Not dat I've seen some o' ya to be all dat modest in town," Shanku said.

"Strolling about is a different matter. It's not very engaging and your feathers are dry. A bath, however, renders your wings useless, and an uninvited guest can very easily be mistaken as a threat wanting to take advantage of your not being able to get away. We have many tales of assassins who would lurk at bathing springs to off a rival," Sigrid explained.

"Fair enough," Shanku nodded. She walked over to the pool and eyed it strangely. Was that steam coming up from the water? She got down on her stomach and reached for the water gingerly.

"How does this work? It's hot," Shanku asked.

"Under the ground where the dragons live is boiling rock that heats deep rivers, which flow up to the surface in hot springs such as this. We build a little shed such as over there," Sigrid gestured to a door in the nearby hillside, "and from there we let it flow into our dug baths as we wish through this channel here, and we also keep a separate tank of rainwater to flow in down that other channel should the water be too hot," Sigrid finished as she cleaned a foot.

"Dragons?" Shanku asked excitedly.

"Dragons," Sigrid nodded. She took her tail and began to wash her face with the tip. "Dragons. Dwarves. Giants. All are our allies."

"Gryphons?" Shanku asked hopefully.

"Enemies," Sigrid said quickly, her face serious. "Especially the Sabrewings."

"Ever tried talkin' to dem?" Shanku asked boredly as she undressed.

"Gryphons don't talk. They are mindless, agressive brutes," Sigrid said loftily.

Sounds familiar, Shanku flattened her ears. Birds of a feather don't always flock together, eh? She said a quick spell for her feathers as she was taught by Kisona back in Mruha and lowered herself into the water. It was a bit warmer than she liked, but still bearable. The heat did feel good on her sore muscles and the steam provided some relief for her lungs. She began to scrub the grime and grit that had built into her mane.

"De gryphons back home could talk," she said as she fervently scrubbed behind an ear. "Fun ta fly wit too."

"You flew with gryphons?" Sigrid asked in shock. She laid down on a largle slab of stone and spread her wings around her to dry.

"And dragons too," Shanku shook her head briskly to get rid of the excess water and then looked over to Sigrid. "How else do ya tink I got here?"

"Honestly? I thought you'd gotten lost or kidnapped," Sigrid chuckled.

Dat happened a few times... Shanku thought sadly. At least nobody died this time.

"So what is your story, anyway? Sargund tells me you were exiled, but not much beyond that."

"Not much to tell. Got banished, roamed a bit, came here," Shanku said quickly as she finished bathing. She climbed out of the water and lay on her stomach on one of the large stone slabs that apparently were there just for drying and sunning. The autumn air was cool and the afternoon sun was warm.

Sigrid peered at Shanku's wings, tilting her head one way and another as she eyed them.

"What?" Shanku asked.

"Now I know that you've got glossy wings, but they don't seem to be a bit shiny from being wet," Sigrid said suspiciously.

"Gift from de Gull 'Rach. In addition to da heavy oils in their glands, dey also have a trick to keep them fully dry in de water," Shanku explained.

"Curious," Sigrid tilted her head to the side. "I may request you teach it to me sometime."

Sigrid yawned and laid her head down on the stone. Shanku was thankful for the silence. She slipped in and out of consciousness as she dozed in the warm sun. When Sigrid became mostly dry, she opened the satchel she had prepared while Shanku was sewing and laid out items to finish their grooming. Shanku greatly appreciated being able to have a good brushing and to attend to her claws. Months alone in the wild had made her quite shabby and ragged. After they were dry and their grooming finished, they began to dress themselves.

"I feel good," Shanku said happily as she finished tying her knife back to her hip, oblivious to the fact she had become relaxed and returned to her natural form. "I needed that."

Sigrid suddenly leapt at her with a growl. Shanku growled and leapt back with an arm up defensively, and shifted back into her feral form without realizing it.

"Dat's gonna get really old, really fast!" She snapped and brandished a clawed finger at Sigrid.

"Gotta learn!" Sigrid chuckeled.

"Isn't dere an easier way!?" Shanku demanded.

"Not at all!" Sigrid laughed and began to walk back to the Quarters.

Dis is gonna be a loooong sentence, Shanku grumbled. At least I might get to meet some dragons. It would be the only thing to make this bearable! She followed Sigrid back to the tower. Sigrid brewed some more of the awful medicine and had Shanku drink it before she left for the night.

Shanku curled up on the bed and tried to fall asleep. Her first day wasn't as bad as she was afraid it would have been, but she still didn't like being trapped. Maybe she could find some way to shorten her sentence? Shanku tossed and turned before falling into an uneasy sleep. With the prospect of meeting dragons, she found a reason for her stay to become bearable.

Feather Divider

Shanku hit the ground with a resounding thud.

"You fight like a brigand," her trainer said with disgust.

For a brief moment, memories of the faces of the pirates Shanku had served with flashed through her mind. She laid her ears back as a twinge of guilt struck her. What other nasty habits did I pick up? Shanku got back up on her feet and braced herself for another round with Sigrid.

Shanku's fever had broken and the worst of her cough was gone after about a week of the apotehcary's strange concoction. Slowly over the following weeks she forced out old habits of rushing an opponent and swinging her claws wildly. She began to learn precision and how to distribute her strength to last longer in a fight. Every morning Sigrid brought her to a flat training ground where other young Kurach were taught how to fight properly.

Once again, her thoughts drifted back to her brother and her best friend. She wondered what they were learning. Likely Hilael is being trained as a Gatherer and Katari is being trained as a Hunter. She growled softly to herself. Not that they'd be allowed out of their families' social classes. She relaxed a bit. But Hilael might have a choice. Ma might have been a Hunter-born-Gatherer, but Grandsire Bibot was a member of the council. Her ears drooped sadly. Would Hilael be like one of those that exiled me?

It had been eight years since she last saw her family. Eight long years in exile. Away from those who had loved her more than any other. Shanku barely ducked in time as Sigrid took a swing at her.

"Pay attention! Where is your mind today, pup?" Sigrid demanded.

"Sorry," Shanku shook her head to free herself of old worries and memories. "Again?"

Sigrid nodded and continued to spar with Shanku. It was relaxing in its own way. The stances, the forms, the short routines where attack and defense were combined. The rhythm and rules reminded her a bit of a dance. A dance where one was likely to end bruised and bleeding, but a dance nonetheless.

It also provided some relief for the rage Shanku had built up over the past few years. Secure in the knowledge Sigrid could handle anything Shanku threw at her, Shanku would vent her frustration in an aggressive flurry of blows. Sometimes she would catch Sigrid by surprise when a particularly nasty memory came to mind, but Sigrid was always able to counter her.

One old habit Shanku was happy to leave behind was that of making a fist. The Highland stuck with open palms, sometimes with fingers extended and sometimes with them laid flat against their palm, and mostly punched with the heel of their hands. Punching closed-fist with claws was often painful. Another strike Shanku enjoyed was how precisely they struck with the side of their hands and with their fingers together to make a nasty gash on an opponent. Not that Shanku had been allowed to see that done properly. It was considered a bit dishonorable and only for desparate situations.

No surprise, the Highland Kurach didn't teach her how to fight with any weapons. As with the Sylvans, it was a point of pride to know how to use claws and teeth correctly and only the elderly could use them without shame. Except the Highland preferred the blunt force of paws, elbows, and knees, unlike the Sylvans' preference of claws and teeth.

As much as she looked forward to sparring with Sigrid in the morning and being able to physically vent her frustrations, she equally dreaded the laps. First, Sigrid would have her fly around the field several times until Shanku would drop to the ground thoroughly winded. Sigrid would grant her a break for water and then have her run laps around the field a few times.

The purpose was to build her lung and wing strength. While her many hours spent fishing on the Meriweather and Brelland Seacat had greatly improved her stamina, she fell short of the level her new companions had reached. The Highland had to remain airborne for great lengths on patrols and during serious situations. Whether Shanku was to be with them for a long time or dangerously go off alone once more, she would need endurance.

"You're lasting a bit longer," Sigrid nodded with approval and landed gracefully as Shanku dropped to her feet and then to her knees and hands after a round of flying.

"Hrelly?" Shanku gasped, her speech slurred as she panted heavily.

"You're almost as tough as a fledgling now," Sigrid gestured to some of the cubs barely ten years old. Shanku scoffed and sat back on her heels.

"I really don't think de Sylvans were made for dis. If you'll notice, I'm a good bit more lightly built than ya are," Shanku said, irritated.

"No excuse not to be at your peak possible condition," Sigrid shook a finger at her. "Now, a drink, and run the field."

Shanku groaned and gratefully indulged in a long drink. She gave herself a shake and began her laps around the field.

Sigrid jogged along beside her. It was a bit of fun to take it easy in her own exercises. Usually she was assigned very fit criminals to oversee!

After their morning exercises they would have midday meal in a large dining hall built on an outcrop over the town square.

In the evenings Sigrid would take her back to the Quarters and teach her about the old language of the Kurach before leaving her for the night.

About once a week, Sigrid would take Shanku out into the forests at the base of the mountain with other older Kurach cubs and teach them how to work together to bring down larger game instead of just the hares and goats they were only capable of taking by themselves.

Shanku was fascinated with this. While she had done a bit of this on the plains with Dai and the antelope, and Ryoichi had her help him catch strange birds and ambush pigs, she had never been able to take on something like the nearby great elk, caribou, or the moose. The juvenile cubs worked together well and Sigrid didn't have many cases of their excitement ruining a hunt.

One thing Shanku had trouble with was that the Highland did not hunt while wearing any clothing. While she understood the logic and was personally familiar with how cloth liked to get hung on briers and branches, she wasn't fully comfortable with it. Sigrid agreed that as an outsider she was not bound to all of their laws, and let her hunt simply in her pinnafore instead. Thus, Shanku learned she was thought highly of enough to now wear what she had sewn a few weeks past.

Sigrid often had them practice both the chase and the catch by swapping out their assigned roles. But as with all serious training exercises, accidents were bound to happen. Twice that month while chasing one of the great deer-kin a cub received a mighty kick. The first was lucky, he saw the kick coming and managed to dodge enough he only received a nasty bruise and some cracked ribs. The second cub, not so much. His arm was shattered and the hunt had to be abandoned to take him to the healer.

The Highland cubs were fleet-footed and Shanku often had trouble keeping up with their long, quick strides. But even they had trouble keeping up with the deer-kin and they weren't always successful in catching it in their trap.

One day when it was Shanku's turn to be part of the ambush, she took flight long before an elk was due to come their way, much to the irritation of her comrades. When the elk was barreling on his way towards the ambush, Shanku tucked her wings in for a steep dive, and barely pulled up in time enough to swing her feet around for a stout kick into the elk's shoulder.

Caught completely by surprise, the elk had tumbled a few times from his own momentum, and Shanku had to roll to the ground as well to keep from craashing. The Highland cubs were on it in an instant and knew they would bring a prize home with them that day.

Sigrid was not as impressed as the cubs celebrating their impending meal and scolded Shanku roundly for taking such a risky dive that could have broken many of her bones, or landed her impaled on the elk's antlers if her timing was off, and many other painful things Shanku hadn't fully considered. Shanku had promised not to attempt it again during one of their hunts.

But no guarantees I won't try it again on me own! Shanku giggled quietly as they prepared their usual net to carry the elk when they flew back up the mountain. Despite having very little freedom to do as she wished, Shanku was indeed enjoying herself for the first time in a long while. Even if she did have to stay in the feral form for the bulk of her stay.