The girl lead Shanku to the outskirts of the collection of wood and hide hovels. She had the snowy wings Shanku had come to notice the Arctics had. Her hair was a glossy black like Dakota's and she also wore tattoos. She had the two stripes on her chin like Dakota, but only one of the stripes on her cheeks.
"You may stay with me for now," the girl stated as she opened the flap to her wigwam.
"Thanks," Shanku looked inside. "Oh, very nice! It reminds me of the homes some of my friends had on the plains. They had pretty paintings on their houses too."
"Thank you," she paused. "I am Huata. May we talk, lady to lady?"
"One might argue whether or not I'm a lady, but sure!" Shanku smiled. "What would you like to talk about?"
"I am not the most... accomplished one of the clan. Frankly, there were expectations I would never have a mate," Huata paused, and then continued. "But Dakota chose me anyway. I want your word that your time with him was innocent and you have no affections for him."
Shanku blinked a few times, as she processed what was being asked of her, and then held her hands up before her defensively as realization dawned on her. "Oh, golly, no!" She exclaimed, taken aback. "Ma'am, I assure you, my intentions do not lie that way toward anyone yet and I still find the notion quite disgusting. I've barely seventeen winters to me."
Huata looked relieved, and then surprised. "Only seventeen? But you're so big... I thought surely you were older than I was, nearer thirty!"
"Heavens no," Shanku shuddered. "I'm mostly certain I'm of normal young adult height for my kind. It's been about nine years since I've seen 'em, but I'm still mostly certain."
"I'm sorry," Huata said, covering her mouth in shock and embarrassment. "I didn't realize you were still a cub."
"Ah, don't be! I'm not. Angry, hurt, and vindictive, but not sorry. I've got to see things I wouldn't have otherwise if I'd stayed home," Shanku said.
"I meant for my suspicions of you. I didn't realize you were still a cub."
"Oh, that. No worries! The things I've seen and been through, you have every right to be territorial when another hen comes flapping around your fella, pullet or no."
"'Hen'? We're not chickens..." Huata raised an eyebrow. "You are a strange one."
"Let that be a lesson not to keep company with dwarves and dragons then!" Shanku laughed. "So, ya hungry? I might can cook up something stranger than me that I've learned on my travels."
"I think I should do the cooking during your stay. I am the bride-to-be and I need the practice," Huata smiled warmly.
"And I am a glutton that would be happy to assist you on perfecting that talent," Shanku grinned. "If'n ya don' mind me askin', what's supposed to be so bad about you you're not expected to be wedded off?"
"M-many things," Huata stammered. "Mostly little stuff, but the worst is that I haven't fully ascended yet."
"You can't turn into a hulking hairball like me and Dakota?" Shanku asked.
"No, no, I can do that. I have not yet reached the stage beyond," Huata said quietly.
"There's another?" Shanku asked surprised.
"I guess you haven't either then?"
"Nope. What comes next?" Shanku asked, very curious.
"We return to the old ways of the time when we were winged wolves and not flying men," Huata explained. "Only those of clear minds achieve it."
"Interesting," Shanku nodded. "And there's not this seething rage like with the feral form?"
"No!" Huata exclaimed. "The greater form is peace and clarity, confidence and nobility. None of the things that plague us in the lesser forms."
"Ahh, okay. Hrm..." Shanku thought for a moment. Innugati trilled suspiciously as Shanku seemed to have various thoughts run through her mind. Then Shanku smiled kindly. "You know, you remind me a lot of my old friend Rajé."
"You are not friends any longer?" Huata asked slowly.
"I don't know. I guess we are. I haven't heard from her in— goodness, probably two or three years. It's my fault though. I became, ah, preoccupied with other matters these past few years. I hope to get back in touch with her when I leave here."
"You make plans to leave already?" Huata inquired curiously.
"Not because I don't like it here! I've just never stayed in one place for very long since I left home and I'm hoping be able to return this spring. I haven't been home in nearly ten years."
"Why have you left your family behind for so long? And why did you leave at such a young age?" Huata raised an eyebrow.
"That is a long tale best told on a full stomach. Let's make some lunch," Shanku smiled sadly.
Huata nodded and they prepared to have lunch. It was a stew made of bear meat that Shanku found to be quite delicious. Shanku then told Huata her tale while they ate.
"And then I came here. While I was waiting in the cave for the storm to finish, in came Dakota, passed out and half frozen. I pulled him to my fire, we spent a day bored out of our heads in the cave, and here we are today."
"They seriously exiled you when you were eight?" Huata asked in disbelief.
"Yeah, most people get stuck on that too," Shanku laughed. "I don't fully understand it either. I'm understanding better the more I see and the more I learn about our tribe's history, but I still don't really get it. I know they're scared and hiding, and I guess they were afraid I'd bring man home with me and it'd start another long war that might drive us extinct this time. "
"Ridiculous," Huata shook her head. "Perhaps they feared you would one day bring man home with you?" Huata suggested.
"Perhaps. I was roaming farther and farther, and Dai was surprisingly close. But still, they can't hide forever. Man didn't stop their roaming just because we did, and Rhett often went into the Nyre. How he never saw one of the Peridæ clan, I'll never know. They're the clan between us and the ocean where Port Tephras lies. Come to think of it, I didn't see them either," Shanku scratched the back of her head thoughtfully.
"Perhaps they did not see you?" Huata suggested.
"Oh no, I'm sure they saw me alright," Shanku shook her head. "Sylvans are horribly suspicious of strangers in their land."
"And for good reason. The northenmost clan is full of raiders," Huata said glumly. "They might fear you would bring one of the raiding clans back with you."
"A Sylvan clan full of raiders?" Shanku asked in surprise. "I thought only the outcasts ventured out of their home territories."
"Not this clan. Some of the Arctic ones south of us have trouble from them each winter."
"That is very interesting," Shanku noted. That explains why Dakota was so uneasy around me and leery of me. Maybe that's why he lied about where we were? He probably thought I was a scout too. She then wondered aloud, "I wonder if I'll see them?"
"Doubtful. They rarely come this far north," Huata replied. "And I do not recommend seeking them out."
"I suppose I won't," Shanku shrugged. "I've had my fill of brigands."
"Huuuata!" came a call from outside the wigwam.
"In here, Kanguq!" Huata called back.
A broad face poked in. She was smiling and her teeth were quite sharp. She had two stripes on her chin and cheeks, a diamond between her eyes, the triangles on her jawbone, and then a double triangle on her forehead. Her long hair was gathered into two long braids and looped at her ears.
"Hey, Huata! Is this the new girl?" she asked.
"This is Shanku Ravenwing, a Scissortail Feral Sylvan from the south," Huata introduced Shanku and Innugati.
"Nice ta meet ya!" Kanguq thrust out a hand and shook Shanku's heartily. "Sack my village and I sack you," she said through a forced grin that bared her sharp teeth.
"Duly noted," Shanku nodded and smiled uneasily.
"Kanguq and I grew up together. She's like my sister," Huata told Shanku.
"Ya know, ya don't see many Sylvans that can go Feral. Well, go Feral and remain civil. But I guess that's why you're called Ferals, eh?" Huata sat down in the wigwam with them.
"Not with my clan. Magic, and definitely shapeshifting, is forbidden."
"No wonder you're out here by yourself then," Kanguq nodded. "Gettin' busted breakin' the rules isn't good for you."
"No, not exactly," Shanku laughed.
"So, you gonna be fuzzy your whole time here or stay like that?" Kanguq asked.
"Huh? Oh, feral. Yeah, probably. It's cold up here!" Shanku shivered. "I need all the extra heat I can get."
"That's understandable. Well, if you intend to stay long, you'll either need to make your own coat or shift to something heavier if you want to stay warm this winter," Kanguq warned.
"I haven't exactly achieved the heaviest yet," Shanku said nervously.
"Well, you two will make a good pair then!" Kanguq stood and clapped Shanku and Huata on the back. "Maybe you'll figure it out together so we can get her hitched!"
"Wait. You have to shift to get married around here? You cannot wed until you go beyond feral?" Shanku asked in surprise.
Huata shook her head sadly. "No, not to Dakota. Not as his First Wife. A match must match."
"And if she doesn't manage it by spring, the next girl in line will be his," Kanguq said with mild disgust as she sat back down and propped her cheek on her fist.
"What does Dakota have to say to that?" Shanku asked. "And... 'first wife'?"
"It's the way it is. He doesn't have much choice in the matter. Our matches are mostly arranged by our parents and the clan. We may choose our first if we wish, but if it doesn't work out with the ones we pick and they do not live up to expectations, our parents arrange our matches and our final decision is made for us," Huata explained. "A first wife is self explanatory. Those you marry first are the most important in your life. You may have other husbands and other wives, but all children belong to the married couple and you show greatest loyalty to each other."
"And I thought my clan was cruel," Shanku shuddered. Innugati trilled in concern.
"It's not so bad," Kanguq shrugged. "I'm married to my parents' pick."
"What was wrong with you?" Shanku asked.
"I was too much for that cute little mouse! He said I was too hard to handle. He was so shy and soft spoken, I could have eat him up! And I am fully ascended. He got stuck at feral," Kanguq sighed wistfully. "My husband is a good guy and a fine fellow, but he's too brash and outspoken much of the time, about as much as I am!"
"A perfect match," Huata teased.
"We match too well!" Kanguq exclaimed.
"Were you able to take your first pick as a second husband?" Shanku asked curiously.
"Yes, but I would have liked to have raised our twins with him. It's alright though. We all look after each other since it's key to survival. Well, I'll leave you two to yourselves. I have a daddy to relieve," Kanguq bowed her head and ducked out of the wigwam.
"She seems nice," Shanku remarked to Huata. Innugati trilled her opinion. Shanku giggled and continued. "So, any work I can help you do around here?"
"I'm glad you asked," Huata responded sweetly.
Shanku soon found herself running for her life while chasing a wayward yak calf lowing in fright from being chased by a feral Kurach and a little dragon clinging to the back of its head as its furious and snorting mother stayed hot on Shanku's tail.
"Nevermind the dri! Just catch the calf!" Huata shouted encouragingly to Shanku.
Easy for you to say. You're over there!" Shanku called back over her shoulder. She made a wild grab and managed to get her arms around the calf.
"Got it"! Shanku quicky heaved the calf over her shoulder, never breaking stride, and took off in a new direction as quickly as she could. "Where do you want!?" Shanku called out frantically to Huata as Innugati continued to cling to the calf's head and trill incessantly to inform Shanku of the proximity of the enraged yak.
"Over here!" Huata called back as she opened the gate to an enclosure. Shanku turned on her heel and came darting past as quick as she could, the yak not far behind. Shanku unceremoniously dropped the calf to the ground and went leaping over the other side of the pen, the yak continuing to chase her until it had to stop short at the fence. She snorted at the Kurach and walked back to her panting calf. Huata shut and locked the gate as Shanku dropped to the ground to regain her breath. Huata walked up to Shanku while holding a clay pot. "Good job! Now we just have to milk her."
"Do you have less dangerous ways of staying warm around here?" Shanku asked between breaths.
"Well, it was your decision to assume your feral form before engaging in the chase," Huata laughed. "You could always collect the droppings."
"To burn for your fires?" Shanku asked.
"How'd you know?" Huata asked curiously as Shanku took the pot.
"Zihna had me picking up dried Urych pies for the same reason," she replied in disgust as she crawled over the fence. She carefully crept up to the yak cow, who to her surprise was no longer interested in trying to stomp her into the ground. "Ya know, I expected worse," Shanku remarked as she begin to milk the yak.
"Yaks are very sweet creatures," Huata nodded as she propped up on the fence. "Like all mothers, they don't like their kids frightened by things with sharp teeth. And he's not used to use yet," she said as she nodded to the calf curled up and resting in the snow."
"Here ya be!" Shanku stated proudly when she had finished. She held out the pot to Huata. "What other dangers await?"
"Something considerably less dangerous," Huata replied. She put the milk away and then gestured for Shanku to follow her. Huata lead them off the cliff down into the bit of forest below the cliffs.
"This isn't so bad!" Shanku nodded. She looked around at the quiet trees as they walked between them. "What are we here for again?"
"Air fresheners," Huata responded and held up one of the twigs from the pine trees.
"Mmm... Piney," Shanku giggled, then stopped as she heard the soft and muffled crunch of snow being tread on, and turned her head with her ears standing straight up. "Hey, what's that?"
A winged wolf loped through the trees. The wolf was pure white except for small black flecks on his wings. He was accompanied by other winged wolves, some white as he, some a soft grey color. One even had a black stripe running down his back.
"Hellooo, what is that over there?" Shanku asked.
"That would be a hunting party from the village. Dakota is the scout in the front. He is likely leading them to a herd of caribou he saw earlier."
"So that must be the final form, eh?" Shanku asked.
"Well, I can see why you want to wed that! He has a gorgeous gait. And that tail is pretty cute too," Shanku teased.
Huata slapped her arm indignantly. "That is my betrothed, thank you! I would appreciate it if you'd avert your eyes from his hindquarters!"
"Just sayin'," Shanku laughed. "C'mon, let's get to work on levelin' you up. I'd hate to think you'd have to be denied that fluffy little thing!"
"He's not that little!" Huata said hotly and continued to glare at her. "He is tall for our clan."
"No offense, Huata," Shanku grinned apologetically. "I guess I'm just enjoying it a bit too much to not be the bitty one for once. The Highland really left an impression on me." Shanku glanced in the direction the hunting party had gone. "So, how exactly are you supposed to turn into that?"
"I'm not certain," Huata said sadly.
"Do you think it's triggered by emotion, like the feral form?" Shanku asked. "I know it's not from anger, or I would have got there a looong time ago."
"And you propose to do that how, exactly?" Huata asked skeptically with one ear laid back for emphasis.
"I have no clue!" Shanku laughed. "I'm sure we'll think of something." She stopped and offered out a nice and bushy pine twig. "Air freshener?"
"Do you t hink it might be possible to achieve the final form the same way Eru and Scarlet became human?" Huata asked quietly after a few moments of silence.
"It could be worth a try," Shanku shrugged. "But wouldn't it be considered cheating?"
"I don't know. I've never heard of anybody who's tried it before," Huata said excitedly.
"First time for everything then!" Shanku winked. And so Huata and Shanku began to make their plans to help Huata obtain the final form.
That night, as Shanku slept soundly, Huata left the hut. She crossed the silent village, the snow making soft crunching noises as she stepped. Kanguq was waiting for her.
"Well?" Kanguq asked sharply.
Huata shook her head. "I believe she is not one of the raiding Sylvan."
"Are you sure?" Kanguq asked sternly. "They have been known to lie to us."
"Not this one," Huata replied. "When is the last time we found a Sylvan who could remain civil in their feral form? And she is not as pale as the others we've seen in the Nyre."
"Point," Kanguq shifted her weight uneasily. "But I don't like her being here. The sooner she goes, the better, and hopefully she will not return with force."
"Agreed," Huata nodded. "If she truly is in exile, it ends soon. I will continue to keep an eye on her."
Huata and Kanguc parted ways and returned to their beds.