Shanku she set her bowl and cup on the table and plopped down heavily on a bench in the dwarves' dining hall after a long day of work. The sun was setting behind the mountains and she looked forward to a restful evening. She was now welcome among the Highland, but she wasn't comfortable around them. Being much smaller and having a preference for her natural form, she always felt judged around the larger Kurach. Most of her suppers she preferred to take with the dwarves. Here she was also judged, but dwarves made allowances for other species as they deemed them all inferior. Tonight there were a few other young Kurach here whom Shanku recognized as not some of the best and brightest from the training fields.
"My first hammer was so lopsided it made bent things more crooked!" laughed one young smith at a nearby table.
"I thought he was going to throw me out of the forge one day when I dropped the half-heated block on his foot" another said.
"Oy, that's nothin'," said a third who just joined them. "Today I nearly cut me trainer's beard off! He'll keep his shield raised tomorry!"
"I yanked a few feathers off of my trainer," one of the young Kurach added sheepishly.
Shanku listened as the young dwarves and Kurach around her bragged of their failures and mistakes. Of how they had disappointed their instructors. She couldn't believe how they could be proud of such disgraces. Anything below perfection was a mark of being unworthy of the time spent on your education. Was that not what she was taught as a pup when learning to hunt back in the Nyre? And yet, here they all were. Imperfect, accident-prone, and all well on their way to becoming smiths of their own forges, great warriors, scholars, or craftsmen someday. She stirred her soup sluggishly. Part of her was disgusted with how sloppy they were in their work, and yet, a part of her was jealous at how relaxed they were allowed to be. Why couldn't the rest of the clan have been as kind as her mother?
"I hear you've found work," Sigrid said behind her, unknowingly interrupting Shanku's thoughts.
"Yeah, hunting of all things!" Shanku laughed. Sigrid was a welcome distraction. "The visit from the giant ambassador tomorrow has kept me busy."
"I'll bet," Sigrid chuckled. She looked Shanku up and down a moment, noting the tunic she now wore beneath her pinnafore. "More clothes?"
"Aye," Shanku nodded. "Tunics are the style of my people as the pinnafore is yours. Got a pair of breeches made for when I leave."
"Returning to the lesser form?" Sigrid asked suspiciously. Her ears lowered and she did not hide her disdain.
"It's warmer in the valley and fur is much too hot!" Shanku said matter-of-factly.
"There is no hope for you," Sigrid sighed and shook her head. "Do you really wish to leave? It isn't safe for Kurach to travel alone. We need our clans."
"I don't have much choice in that, now do I? My clan is on the other side of the plains!" Shanku chuckled. "If anything, I'd imagine you would encourage me to go home."
"Hardly," Sigrid said. "Barely a fledgling and expected to survive gryphons all by yourself."
"I'll take a gryphon any day over minocentaurs," Shanku shuddered. "I remember one rogue bull who attacked the den when I was very small. Ma was trying to hurry us inside when the bull suddenly broke from the warriors and charged at us," Shanku paused and furrowed her brow. "Something odd happened... Granny Misen grabbed me and Hilael and dove into the den, but my Ma turned and growled something loudly at the bull. He stopped in his tracks and went to attack the warriors again. I still don't know why he did that."
"Quite an event," Sigrid nodded. "Perhaps he knew not to bother a dam's cubs?"
Shanku shrugged. It had been more than that, but she couldn't put her finger on it. She stood and stretched.
"Goodnight, Sigrid. Tomorrow night is the feast and I intend to get a good rest," Shanku nodded to Sigrid and left the dining hall. She took flight and went out a good ways to a grassy ledge far above the town.
Ah, under the stars again. Shanku sighed happily. It might have been chilly with winter just around the corner, but the extra fur kept her fairly snug. Somewhat to her surprise, she found herself growing a thicker coat for the winter.
The follow morning, Shanku stretched when she awoke as she usually did. This morning, there was a commotion going on a little ways off to her right and she looked curiously toward it.
"You, the foothills. You, the caves. You, the forest," a captain was directing a group of scouts.
Shanku trotted up to one of the scouts in the back.
"What's going on?" she asked him.
"The ambassador's child is missing!" he said quickly.
Well, that didn't take long, Shanku chuckled quietly. She held her hands out to her sides in a friendly shrug. "Maybe he just wandered off and will be back soon?" she offered.
"Losing the children of ambassadors and emissaries can be grounds for war," the scout said gravely.
"Oh," Shanku mumbled. She bit her lower lip a moment, then asked, "Where was he last seen?"
"The hot springs, I think," the scout scratched his chin thoughtfully. "But I am going to wait for my orders. Make sure you stay out of our way."
"Will do," Shanku nodded and flew off. She glided high and soon arrived at the hot springs the Highland were so fond to bathe in.
Let's see, if I were an adveturous cub somewhere new, where would I go? Shanku wondered as she made a slow, wide circle around the springs. She looked intently at what was around. A few cliffs, a forest, and in the distance she heard the familiar roar she had been dismissing for most of her time there. Waterfalls!
Shanku altered course and glided out to the massive falls thundering down to the valley. She landed just before the trees that separated the springs and falls. She got down on four feet and crept through the woods.
Those huge hairballs aren't suited to trawling through forests like we Sylvans, she thought proudly. The underbrush was dense, the canopy was thick, and it would be a great way for a small child to slip away from overprotective adults.
One advantage to not being over seven feet tall, Shanku giggled internally as she slipped under a bush. She caught scent of a strange earthy scent and began to sneak as quiety as she could past two trolls sat nearby discussing last night's star readings. And having been raised near minocentaurs. Ick, trolls!
The woods were mostly full of thick pines, ferns, mosses, and briers. The air was heavy with the sweet perfume of the pines. Shanku picked her way carefully over a collection of fallen pinecones. Thick forest, thich canopy, thick underbrush, thick mountains, Shanku prattled. And therefore, thick-headed Kurach! It would seem Arloda's pride had rubbed off on Shanku.
The roaring of the falls became louder and Shanku found herself on the muddy banks of a creek.
Ah the waterfalls! She thought excitedly. Something about being so close to the falls gave her a rush and an energetic feeling. She forced herself to focus and look around past the rippling and bubbling water and the rocks that had been pounded smooth.
And there's the kid! Big fella, Shanku noted. She shouldn't have been surprised to see that the giant's pudgy child was easily taller than the Highlands. Rin happened to be there for her sizing comparison.
Rin's found the kid. Good. Rin had his wings flared before him and was standing between the upset child and three hissing sabrewing gryphons.
Gryphons circling. Bad. Shanku laid her ears back. And Rin can't get that kid off because of those featherheads. She looked up to the sky in search of any help. The next patrol is too far away. She looked back down at Rin and the child. With a sinking feeling in her gut, she crouched low to the ground. Oh, lucky me.
She quietly backed away from the stand-off between Rin and the gryphons to a nearby clearing where there was a break in the canopy. She took flight and climbed high into the air. You owe me, Rin!
Below, the gryphons continued their slow advance, pacing and writhing on the bank adjacent to Rin and their target. Their heads were low, their wings flared, and their bodies tense as if prepared to spring at any moment.
To Rin's surprise, the gryphon's behaviour suddenly changed quite a bit. They stood tall, their ears erect, and wings tight to their sides as they looked all around them, trilling softly in curiousity.
Suddenly, there was a flash of feathers as three gryphons squawked, scrambled, and fled as fast as they could.
Rin looked in confusion at the hastily shed feathers floating in the air to see Shanku laying where the gryphons had stood.
"Shanku?" he asked incredibly.
"Howdy, Rin!" Shanku gave a big smile.
"You lunatic!" Rin growled and stroked the bridge of his nose in frustration. He pointed at a trail behind him. "They won't be gone long. Take him up that trail back to the city."
Shanku shook off one of the discarded feathers that had landed on her head. She hopped over the stream of water that had been separating Rin from the gryphons. Shanku took the hand of the child in her own and smiled up at him warmly. "C'mon, kid!"
"I'll keep them at bay," Rin said and took flight as an angry gryphon began to dive in their direction.
Quickly, Shanku ushered the child up the trail and away from the aerial dogfight. The trail was steep and lead up to the top of the waterfalls. It sprawled over a series of ledges that would eventually join with the trail between the springs and the town.
"Enjoy your adventure?" Shanku asked the boy.
"No," he pouted and looked downcast. "I'm in trouble now."
"That's only half of it," Shanku laughed. "It was quite a thrill to do some exploring without getting nagged the whole time."
"How would you know?" he asked suspiciously.
"Ohhhhh," Shanku said slyly. "Just a hunch."
"You're real little," the boy said with surprise, and held his thumb and forefinger close for emphasis.
"And you're really big," Shanku said as she looked up at him. The top of her head barely came to the bottom of his chest.
The trail joined in with the one between the springs and town, and before long the buildings of the town square were in sight.
"Well, here we are. Back in the city," Shanku nodded proudly.
From around the buildings stood an enormous woman a good twenty feet tall. Shanku's eyes widened and her ears flattened against her head in fear as the woman saw them and began to run in their direction. I've known smaller trees!
"My baby!" she cried. As she thundered toward them, Kurach could be seen squawking and trying desparately to flee the tons of skirts and baubles dashing by. Discarded feathers were floating in the air as she grabbed her son up and pressed their faces together until their cheeks were squished together in an unflattering fashion.
"Don't ever do that again!" the giantess scolded him. She kissed him a few times and then scolded him soundly.
"Good job, pup," spoke the captain Shanku had seen that morning.
"Eh, Rin found 'im," Shanku grinned and placed her hands behind her back. She nodded behind the captain as Rin came gliding in for a landing. "I just herded him back to the flock."
The captain congratulated him heartily. Rin accepted his praise, dismissed it as duty, and the captain went off to retrieve his other scouts.
"You came back fast," Shanku grinned as she trotted up to him.
"The sabrewings lost interest and it's faster to fly back than walk," Rin said simply. "How did you think to do something that crazy back there?"
"Old Sylvan hunting trick for pheasants. Works good for fish too," Shanku licked her lips and pretended to hold a fish. "Works good for spooking goblins too."
"And gryphons, apparently," Rin chuckled.
"You two simply must come tonight as my guests," the giantess beamed and extended a hand to Rin and Shanku.
"Aye," Rin blushed and kissed her extended fingers.
"Thankie, ma'am!" Shanku said much more informally.
"I have to go back on duty," Rin nodded to the giantess and to Shanku.
"See ya tonight!" Shanku waved to Rin as he flew off to patrol. The giantess also left and took her son to their tents.
I need to be presentable. My last fancy feast was in Wynfall! Shanku suddenly realized. She began to walk back through the forest toward the mountain where Doane and the dwarves worked. Let's see, I can probably take my spare pinnafore and... She pondered over the different ways she could alter her pinnafore.
Arloda had been letting Shanku live with her. She didn't mind the company, and to her surprise Shanku even volunteered to help in the forge on nights she wasn't out late hunting. Shanku had even confided in Arloda of her origins and misfortunes. As was the nature of a dwarf, Arloda didn't gossip to Sigrid or any other, and to Shanku's relief didn't tell her what she did wrong or should have done better.
Shanku was just finishing her final embellishments on her spare pinnafore when Arloda walked in, fresh from a bath after a long day in the forge.
"Yer goin' too, pup?" Arloda asked as she browsed her closet.
Shanku nodded. "Would you believe I got an invite from a giantess because her kid ran away and Rin wanted me to sneak him back while he fought some gryphons?"
"Ye'd think she'd keep a leash on that kid by now," Arloda laughed. "Last year Doane pulled him from his sand pit. Said it took him a week to tear down all those castles the kid had made. They gave him a big elk bull for his trouble."
"Ah," Shanku nodded. So my rescue was nothing special. Oh well, I still get to go to a feast!
Arloda combed her hair and braided it back to her favorite style. One braided chain around her head tied in the back, and one braid at each temple. She donned a white dress with loose sleeves, a v-cut collar, and long cloth belt. She had put on some earrings and a silver and sapphire necklace. Shanku felt silly next to her. All she had managed to do differently was to add some decorative triangles to her spare pinnafore.
"You clean up nicely, Arloda," Shanku said bashfully.
"And ye do some nice needlework," Arloda clapped Shanku on the back. "Coom, coom, we have mugs with our names on them!"
Arloda lead the way to the feast. In a hollow between some nearby ridges there had been constructed a large place to entertain the giants. The Kurach had taken their pale stones and paved a huge court. Then they had erected three massive tables strong enough to bear the wait of the giants. On the end where the Kurach sat were four stone tables to their size and one long table at the very end to serve food from. Half the court was surrounded by two layers of stone archways. A series of torches encased the other half of the court and one torch stood between each column of the lower layer of arches.
There were many already attending by the time Arloda and Shanku arrived. The center of the three large tables was occupied by the giant ambassador, his wife, his child, and their entourage. The four tables for the Kurach were mostly filled with both Kurach and dwarves, and many more Kurach were flying in the air, either choosing to watch from atop the arches or delivering food to the serving table or to the giants. The giants had been served some of the finest elk and stews, and the bakers had done their best to bake some rolls that were easy for the giants to grab.
All were dressed in their finest. Kurach in ornate pinnafores, dwarves in loose clothes and an ample amount of jewelry, and the giants were most splendid of all. Geometric designs covered nearly every bit of their clothes and bright borders separated each design from another. They wore tall, fancy hats, and much jewelry of their own.
"Is th' knife necessary?" Arloda asked and nodded toward the dagger Shanku had always carried on her hip since they met.
"I feel naked without it," Shanku said demurely, one hand on her hip to accentuate the dagger and another gesturing before her.
"So, have ye decided yet where yer goin'?" Arloda asked as she took a seat near the edge of the party.
Shanku shook her head.
"How about goin' abroad? See th' foreign lands?" Arloda asked and gestured with a spoon.
"Been there, done that," Shanku said as she spooned some carrots onto her plate. "I would be reminded of Doctor Newbury and start to miss him too much."
"Ye can't hang on forever. Let him go," Arloda said softly. Then in her more usual fashion, she held herself up proudly. "Only dwarves are allowed ta be so stubborn anyway."
"Glad to hear you care so much," Shanku laughed and added, "about any threats to your reputation."
"Why not go north?" Sigrid said as she joined them. She had donned an intricately designed pinnafore of her own and had left her hair loose. It flowed softly over her shoulder and she looked much more approachable, even if she was making rounds and checking in on her past delinquents.
"North? Why?" Shanku asked. She couldn't imagine anything to rekindle her desire to travel.
"Old legends tell of Kurach who live on the ends of the world. Kurach who could disappear with the snow and tell the future," Sigrid winked. "It'd be quite an adventure to find them."
Old legends? New Kurach? Far north where very little live for me to get killed? Shanku pondered for a moment. "North it is!"
"Wanderlust, much?" Arloda whispered to Shanku and nudged her in the ribs.
"Of course," Shanku agreed. "Let's eat!"
As the meal was being finished among Kurach, dwarf, and giant alike, the eldest council member, Sargund, lighted onto the table next to the ambassador. The old Kurach bowed to the giant. The ambassador bowed his head to him in return.
"Welcome to our city!" Sargund greeted them warmly.
"It is our pleasure to be here," smiled the ambassador.
Sargund then gave his customary speech where he formally welcomed the giants, told the residents of their city what an honour it was to receive them, and his wishes for a bright future and continuing relations.
Over the next few days, Sargund and the ambassador discussed legal matters of territory, trade, promises of aid should dangerous situations arise, and such things. With alliances renewed, the giants were on their way within a week back to the higher peaks they called home.
Winter settled into the mountains and the snow fell regularly. If the Highland Kurach were hairy before, they were downright shaggy now in their thick, winter coats. Shanku was a bit fluffier above her norm, but being from a warmer climate she was more inclined to being indoors near a fire than her larger friends.
There were new lessons to learn about hunting in the snow, such as don't let your wings arch too high above when stalking below limbs heavy with snow built up. There were many amused elk and caribou who went plodding on their way as a surprised and muffled yip came from under a large deposit of snow after it was disturbed from the branches.
Shanku willingly joined the other older cubs in their morning training exercises. Although she was smaller and weaker, she was faster. It was often great fun for all of them as the little Sylvan darted in and around them during their sparring matches. Often she was referred to as "that pesky gnat".
As winter prepared to leave with the coming of spring, so did Shanku. There was still plenty of snow on the ground, but the days were growing longer and plants were trying to grow.
"That should do it," she said perkily as she added a few last items to her backpack. Inside she had placed her usual necessary items. A comb, a pair of scissors, a file for her claws, a brass mirror, a toothbrush, a sewing needle, a spool of thread, a tin cup, and this time she added a whetstone for keeping her knife sharp, along with the glass ball Doane had made for her. She also packed her spare pinnafore and the breeches she had made should she need to pass through human villages. On her left hip she kept the knife Rhett had given her and on her right hip she now carried a small leather pouch to keep her flint rock and any small coins she may gather on her journey. She was quite satisfied with her pack and felt adequately prepared for life alone, unlike when she had fled the pirates.
"Hrmph! A real Kurach doesn't need anything in the wild," Sigrid grumphed as she prepared to bid Shanku farewell.
"Nor do they cook their meat," Shanku teased.
"A pleasant treat I could easily do without," Sigrid said with playful airs," unlike you with your bag."
"Suuuure," Shanku giggled.
"Good winds!" Sigrid waved to Shanku.
"Take care, Sigrid," Shanku nodded back to her as she took flight and set off to find the elusive Kurach of the north.
Thus concluded my time with the Highland Kurach. While it was irritating, uncomfortable, and downright unpleasant to have been kept like a canary in a cage during the first part of my stay, I learned many valuable lessons from them. Yes, even from Arloda and Doane.
Sigrid polished off my fighting skills and I was finally properly taught how to hunt by a fellow Kurach! Sigrid also rekindled my Wanderlust and I owe her much for that.
~ Shanku Ravenwing