Chapter 22: Blizzard

"The sky is clouding up," Shanku said. "And I don't like the feel of that wind."

The wind whipped across the tundra, stirring up the grass and scattering seeds. Above, dark clouds hung low and heavy, swirling and drifting quickly on the wind.

Shanku took off her pack. She removed her cloak, carefully placed it and her boots within her pack, and shifted to her feral form as she tied her pack back on to her back. The little faery dragon clung to her leg, his little claws digging deeply into the fabric to keep from being thrown by the harsh wind. Shanku scooped him up in her hands.

"Are you ready?" Shanku asked.

The dragon trilled shrilly and wrapped his tail around her wrist. Shanku cupped her hands around him, and with a powerful leap and laborous beating of her wings, she was airborne. Shanku struggled in the air against the wind.

One powerful gust bowled her over. She yipped and righted herself from the roll.

"I hate flying in strong winds!" Shanku barked. She gritted her teeth. "But we're going to need shelter, soon."

Shanku tried using the fickle wind to her advantage as best she could. However tedious and difficult, she was still gaining ground faster than if she had walked.

A pine forest grew up ahead beside a steep cliff. While pines were dangerous in storms because of their lack of taproot, the cliff might possibly have a few good hiding holes nearby. She noticed a trail of smoke trying to curl its way to the sky from atop the cliffs, and Shanku felt sorry for what may live there during the coming storm. Shanku directed her flight as best she could and made her way for below the cliffs. As expected, the cliffs made for interesting flying conditions and Shanku flew low to avoid some of the more dangerous currents swirling off the rocks.

Cupping her wings around her, Shanku broke her speed and dropped to the ground on three feet, her hand clutched to her chest to keep the dragon from being landed upon.

The angry wind still sought her out, but it was greatly hindered by the trees. Shanku looked at the tops swaying wildly and shivered. Keeping her hands close around the dragon to keep him warm in the chill air, Shanku made her way through the pines and sought shelter. As she had hoped, she saw a hole at the base of the cliffs. She looked inside, gave her eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light, and was happy to find a nicely spacious cave. She stepped inside and examined it.

"It's chilly, but out of the wind," she said. She sat the dragon down on a rock. Shanku stepped over to the side and removed her pack and her clothes. She folded her clothes neatly, laid her pack upon them, and crouched to the ground on four feet.

"Let's get some wood and supper," she grinned. The dragon climbed aboard her shoulders and they went back out of the cave.

Shanku looked thoughtfully at the cave entrance. She stood and pressed the pads of her hands firmly onto the stone and on some of the surrounding rocks. She sniffed them a few times to see if the glands in her paws had left a strong enough scent for her to identify. Satisfied, she headed out into the forest.

The residents were just as uneasy as she and preparing for the coming storm. Little rodents hid within their burrows and larger game huddled in thickets. Shanku managed to spook one deer-kin into fleeing his bramble and took him back to her cave for her supper.

As she slowly roasted the young buck over her fire, she looked out into the darkness beyond the cave as snow gusted and blew down.

"The storm is starting," she remarked softly. The little dragon lay beside her, watching the snow come down.

"Don't worry, I've never known one to last more than a few days," Shanku laughed. The dragon trilled and resettled himself.

"If we eat light, we'll be fine," Shanku said as she lay down on her stomach. She grinned slyly at the dragon. "Wanna have a snowball fight later?"

The dragon trilled indignantly at her and turned away.

As best they could tell, night came on. The darkness outside became blacker and the wind howled fiercely outside. Shanku passed the time cutting cooked meat off of her buck and setting it aside so it wouldn't burn. When she was thirsty, she would go to the entrace of the cave, scoop some of the snow into her tin cup, and set it by the fire to slowly melt.

"Ya know, the trouble with storms is how boring they are. And when you're bored, you wish to eat!" Shanku said restlessly. She made a wild gesture at the cave entrance. "Of course, we can't just go out there and get something! We'd be lost in the white and freeze to death."

Suddenly, she was interrupted by the sound of something hitting the rocky floor with a wet flop.

"Something dropping in works fine too," Shanku grinned. She trotted over to inspect what gift the storm had given her. Shanku frowned. "Hrm, nevermind. I don't eat my own kind."

Below her was either a lad or small adult. Cold, wet, and unconscious. Shanku was probably a quarter of his size larger.

"Well, let's get him in outta th' weather," Shanku said to the little dragon and picked up her sleeping guest. Shanku giggled. "Think we should warm him up or let him thaw on his own?"

The faery dragon growled at her and curled up on the stranger's chest.

"I was just kidding," Shanku laughed and brought her guest to the fire. She removed his wet clothes and dried him off as best she could with her cloak. Then she took her spare tunic from her pack and dressed him.

Shanku scratched her head for a minute. He was in the lesser form and didn't have fur to keep him warm as she did. She held her cloak near the fire to get it dry and warm, and bundled him up in it.

"There. I've done my good deed for the day," Shanku said with a nod. She took some of her spare firewood and made a rack to put his wet clothes on. "With any luck, these will be good and dry by the time he awakes." Shanku looked at him again. She remembered her time with the pirates and how guarded she had learned to be of her body, and then how very relaxed the Highland Kurach had taught her to be. What if he felt the same way as she used to feel? Shanku fanned his clothes with the end of her tunic in the hopes to have them dry and him dressed before he awoke. Embarassing the poor fellow was no way to begin a friendship!

Luckily for her, he was still asleep and she was able to dress him and wrap him again in her cloak with him none the wiser. Shanku added a few more logs to the fire and curled up to go to sleep for the night. The dragon assumed his usual place on her shoulder for warmth.

Shanku awoke some time later and stretched as she usually did while the little dragon flew down to a nearby rock.

"Is it morning? I can't tell time much anymore," Shanku yawned. "So, how's our snow angel?"

The dragon trilled and stayed on his rock.

Shanku had been fairly concerned for him last night and hadn't paid him much mind beyond what was required to assess injuries and problems. Now she decided to have a proper look at him.

The stranger was indeed small. Scarcely five foot tall. His skin was a creamy tan color and tattooed. Two long stripes across his cheeks, two short stripes down his chin, and a chevron at the corner of each jaw. His hair was a glossy black like her wings and part of the back of it was gathered near the top of his head. His ears and tail were short and covered in soft, white fur. His claws and wings were short as well. His wings were broad and white with small, black spots at the end of his feather shafts, much like some of the owls she had seen here. His clothes were simple tanned leather with long fur on the inside, likely for warmth, and then another coat over the top of a short fur. What Shanku really took note of was the necklace he wore. Carved bone and wood about a bit of leather. She was reminded a bit of her old friend Eru.

The owl-winged Kurach groaned and began to stir. The dragon slithered up onto his head and watched him intently a few inches from his nose.

The stranger opened his eyes and tried to blink his vision into focus. The first thing he saw clearly was what appeared to be the cold gaze of a curly-horned snake. The stranger yelped and jumped back, which scared the dragon who also squeaked, and then slithered off quickly behind Shanku.

"It's okay!" Shanku gasped between laughs. "He's just a little dragon with no respect for personal space."

The little faery dragon trilled at her angrily and stayed hid behind her thigh.

"Where am I?" The stranger asked as he steadied his breathing.

"A cave," Shanku said simply.

"Obviously. Where's the cave?"

"No clue. Thirsty?" Shanku offered him a cup of melted snow.

"Thanks. So, I'm not in your clan's territory, at least?" The stranger ventured.

"Definitely not! They are much further south," Shanku grinned.

The stranger nodded and drank some water.

"So, how many years old are you? You seem too small to be out in this weather alone."

"I've twenty-five winters, thank you," the stranger said shortly.

"Eight over me?" Shanku was surprised. "I wonder if this is how Sigrid felt."

"Who is Sigrid?" The stranger raised an eyebrow.

"A Highland from the mountains, also much further south. It's cold there too, and has big Kurach."

"Bigger than you?" The stranger asked worriedly.

"Two whole feet taller!" Shanku said excited and held her hand above her head for emphasis.

The strangers eyes widened and he said nothing. I hope they stay in the mountains!

"If you're hungry, there's some nice, juicy strips of meat over by the fire. It's not much, but we won't starve before this storm lets up. I was only planning for me and the dragon for about three days."

"I understand," Dakota nodded and gave her a scrutinizing look. "Did you thank the deer for its sacrifice?"

Well, no Dai, I just kind of stabbed it and hauled it in here, Shanku sarcastically snapped internally and then smiled sweetly. "Yes."

"Good. It should be plenty. Our early autumn snow storms aren't very long. We should be fine."

"Good, because I'm starting to think I didn't find enough wood either," Shanku laughed. "So, how'd you end up in this hole?"

"I was sent to scout around the edges of our territory. The wind was a bit fiercer than I expected and I got lost in the snow," he shrugged. "What are you doing here?"

"The short of it is that I like explore and I hadn't been north yet," Shanku smiled, a twinkle in her eye. "I am Shanku. Shanku Ravenwing of the Feral Sylvan clan Scissortail."

"I am Dakota, of the Imnek Arctic clan Iceling," he smiled for the first time since his arrival. "Nice to meet you."

"You too," Shanku nodded.

"Kriii," the dragon trilled.

"And who is she?" Dakota asked.

"Dunno. Haven't named hi—, ah, her, yet and if she already has one, she hasn't told me."

Dakota leaned over to the dragon. "How do you feel about 'Innugati'?"

The little dragon cocked her head to one side and then the other. With a nod, she buzzed her little wings so she could climb up on Dakota's head.

"I think she likes it," Dakota said.

They sat together in silence for a moment. Shanku tended the fire and stared at it.

"So, uh, know any good games?" Shanku asked.

"Been a while since you had any company of your kind?" Dakota laid an ear back.

"Maaaaybe," Shanku said in a sing-song voice.

Dakota shook his head.

Shanku and Dakota revisited as many games from their youth as they could remember. They held up rocks and their hands in front of the fire to cast silly shadows on the wall and tell stories. They would take turns falling silent and acting out different things for the other to guess. They would have battles by making shapes with their hands to see who would create the superior shape each round.

Shanku began to feel rather playful and began a wrestling match. Dakota squirmed and struggled against her, trying to regain his feet to either win or flee. But Shanku, having great fun, deftly pinned him on his back with her hands holding down his wrists and her feet over his ankles.

"I win!" Shanku laughed and got off of him.

He growled and shifted to his feral form. Shanku ran on four feet and he chased in the same manner. Shanku turned suddenly on her heel, grabbed his wrist, and pulled it under him to flip him on his back and pin him once again.

"I win again!" Shanku gloated.

"Oh, let me up, you big brute," Dakota sulked.

"It's nice to win for once. Back when I was with the Highlands, I always lost," Shanku sat down and stretched her legs out.

"I'm not surprised if they were as much bigger than you as you say," Dakota responded.

"Eh, size is a bit o' it, but not the end o' it. I got my tail kicked by a pup once too, and she was one of the few Highland I was bigger than!"

"They sound... violent. So what is your story anyway?" he asked.

"Now that is a long tale," Shanku nodded.

"The storm doesn't look like it's letting up tonight," he said pointedly.

"Suit yourself," Shanku shrugged. She proceeded to tell him her tale.

Dakota sat silently as she finished, without much more than a nod from time to time.

"You've had quite a time," he said quietly.

"Eh, I guess. It hasn't killed me yet. Maybe Turai was right, black wings are lucky. Some days I don't know how I'm still alive."

"Perhaps." Dakota looked at her thoughtfully for a moment.

"So, a long day of play, a few stories, a good night's rest, and tomorrow we leave from here?" Shanku asked.

"I hope so. I'm sure my clan's worried about me," Dakota said as he settled down.

"Do you mind? There's not much wood left and it's certain to get cold tonight," Shanku asked and sat down beside him. Dakota shook his head.

As the last of the firewood burned down, both remained in their feral form and huddled together for warmth, with Innugati curled up between them for her own heat.

Shanku awoke suddenly to the sound of howls outside the cave.

"Finally!" Dakota said and went outside. He answered the calls with a long one of his own. Shanku gave a puzzled look to Innugati, who simply cocked her head to the side. One more howl responded before he ducked his head back into the cave.

"Let's go," Dakota said with a smile.

"Your clan?" Shanku asked and fastened her pack to her back.

Dakota nodded.

Outside, they stretched their wings and leapt into the air. The sky was clear without a cloud to be seen and the sun shone brightly. Mounds upon mounds of snow sparkling brilliantly in the sunlight clung to the branches and piled high upon the ground. Shanku blinked against the blinding white. She followed Dakota up away from the trees and over the side of the cliff. To her surprise, they were making their way for the settlement she had seen briefly on her way in.

I didn't realize I was so close to their nest, Shanku noted with concern. That could have gone very badly. No wonder he was so wary. Although didn't he say we were on the edge of their territory?

They landed without incident in a large clearing near the center, obviously set aside for comings and goings such as this. Dakota and Shanku returned to their natural forms as they were greeted.

"You made it!" A girl squealed and came running from the side. She wrapped Dakota in a hug, and became immediately suspicious of him having another female's scent. She noticed Shanku as she pulled away from him. "Who's your friend?"

"Her? Shanku Ravenwing, a Feral Sylvan of the Scissortails," Dakota gestured.

"Hi!" Shanku waved. "Nice ta meet ya!"

"Aptly named," the girl muttered.

"She pulled me in for the storm. I might not have made it if it hadn't been for her," he continued.

"And for that, I owe you," the girl bowed her head. "Thank you, for rescuing my betrothed."

"Aye," Shanku returned her bow. "I hope your clan doesn't mind if I stay the winter? I'm not familiar with this area."

"Of course. Come," the girl beckoned for Shanku to follow.

Dakota went off to seek his family and let them know of his safe return.

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