"Last wedding I saw was in Wynfall nine years ago," Shanku mused. It was a beautiful day. The air was light and crisp, the small and wispy clouds were sparse, and a waxing moon could be seen high in the sky. Bear skins were set out in the center of the village where the ceremony was to take place and the villagers milled about in preparation.
"Last one I saw was my cousin's last summer," Kanguq said.
"Anything special I need to know?" Shanku asked.
"Don't get between the groom and the deer shank," Kanguq grinned deviously.
"Sound advice," Shanku agreed. "So, what's this winter ceremony like?"
"Bidding the sun farewell. It won't rise again for many moons," Kanguq explained.
"What!?" Shanku yelped. Innugati trilled in surprise and hovered by Shanku's shoulder.
"Didn't you notice the nights getting longer?" Kanguq laughed as Innugati settled back down.
"Yeah, but just gone!?"
"It'll come back, don't worry."
"I certainly hope so," Shanku muttered and stared up at the sky.
"Still going to winter here?"
"Oh yeah," Shanku grinned. "I wouldn't miss this kind of a chance to see something like this!"
"The bride!" Kanguq exclaimed and tapped Shanku on the leg. Shanku looked up excitedly to see Huata arriving. Her hair was down and shinier than ever with butter combed through it. Her furred dress had various decorative lines dyed on it and she wore a carved whale bone necklace. A few weeks had passed for her tattoos to heal she was grinning broadly with the pain gone.
Dakota was brought out and adorned smilarly in a decorative long coat. The high priestess performed the ceremony with song and blessings as she danced around them. Then she took out a long string. They tied the knot, literally, and per tradition remained bound together by the hands until they retired to Huata's home where they both were to live together henceforth.
Shanku watched the village celebrate the union and indulge in the wedding feast. She rather enjoyed watching her friends get married off. The thought crossed her mind that she might one day be a bride, but she chuckled and shook her head. Who could ever want to travel the world with her? Well, aside from little Innugati. She smiled warmly down at the dragon and stroked her back before joining in with the celebrations.
After the ceremony, Shanku of course needed a new place to stay. It wouldn't have been proper to intrude upon Dakota and Huata's honeymoon! With permission, Shanku chose to stay in the cave where she had originally bumped into Dakota.
Then came the day Shanku didn't enjoy as much as Dakota and Huata's union. Bidding the sun farewell. Shanku was reminded of how the Heyen clan broke camp and went to the forest since it was much the same thing. A large meal was served, songs were sung, gifts were exchanged, and then it was time to disassemble their homes. During the winter, the Imnek packed up their belongings and left their cliffside village to go further east to the coast since they took mostly to fishing while the large game on land was further south.
The singing was quite unlike anything Shanku had heard before. It was deep, growling, and very primal, accompanied only by drums. It sent chills through her that even the cold wind wasn't capable of doing, and invoked a feeling in her she wasn't quite sure what to make of. The men and women also had different ways of singing. The men were more guttural and more bestial, often reminiscent of animals calls. The women were more melodic in their growling, seeming to mimic the rolling of the wind and sea. Together, they told tales of various animals living in the cold north. The progression of the grandest song started with the Imnek in their natural form and ended with all in either their feral or final form. The grand finale resulted in the clan joining in a howl. Shanku couldn't resist and tilted her nose to the sky with them.
Shanku was rather quiet when the festival had finished, feeling a strange sense of belonging she hadn't felt in a long time. She helped pack sleds and also helped pull one to the winter settlement.
"It's dark," Shanku remarked some days later after they had created their winter camp.
"Of course, it's night," Huata's sister, Yakone, replied.
"Five months!?" Shanku asked with great concern.
"Five months," Yakone nodded.
"Ow!" Shanku yipped as she banged her leg against a rock. She sat down on the ground and rubbed her sore leg. "Shoulda made shin guards yesterday."
"You'll get used to it. Starlight's not so bad," Yakone laughed.
"I prefer moonlight," Shanku grumbled. Innugati trilled in amusement. Shanku gave her a sideways glance and continued. "So, how do you know how much time passes?"
"The moon, how else?" Yakone responded. "Also, if you'll notice, we have a bit of twilight every day around what would have been noon."
"Aye, I know, I know. I'm just not used to that. And five moon cycles until a real dawn?" Shanku asked.
"Yes," Yakone confirmed.
"I'll never make it!" Shanku groaned and flopped onto the ground.
"If ya think this is frustrating, wait until the White Nights!" Yakone giggled.
"What's that? Snow storm season?" Shanku asked grumpily.
"No," Yakone said coyly. "The sun never sets."
"Gah!" Shanku grabbed her head with her hands and squeazed her eyes shut.
"Heh, it keeps you raiders away since you can't sleep with all that sunlight," Yakone said deviously as she knelt down beside the Sylvan. Shanku raised up, propping herself on her elbows, and clasped her hands together.
"Might I remind you that I am not a raider," Shanku said coldly.
"You were once," Yakone snapped bitterly.
"Not by choice, I assure you," Shanku grumbled and sighed. "So, spring and autumn is when the raiders come?"
"Yep. Not that safe then, the changing weather makes for some nasty storms," Yakone shrugged.
"Yeah, I'm acquainted with one of them," Shanku shuddered, remembering the strong storm that trapped her in the cave for a few days. She began to get back on her feet. "Now, let's try this again." But as she stepped forward, she tripped over the same rock that she had previously bumped into. She gave a loud yip and face planted right back into the snow. She grabbed Innugati, held her out in front, and gave a gentle squeeze that caused the dragon to disperse a flame. "Much better!" Shanku laughed as the fire temporarily lit up the immediate area. Innugatti trilled indignantly and nipped Shanku's hand.
So Shanku learned how to cope without the sun. It was a strange thing to watch as the sun hovered lower and lower to the horizon, staying gone for longer periods at a time, and an extended twilight appearing in its stead. To Shanku's relief, the sun only completely vanished for about a moon's cycle before beginning to peak at the village once more. But, when the sun had vanished, a beautiful green mist seemed to dance in the sky in its place. Once she learned how brilliantly the stars could shine along with the moon and the mist, she realized there would never be complete and utter darkness, and settled in happily. Except for the windstorms, those proved to be something fierce.
Before long though, she began to feel restless, and wanted to join in with the fishing parties to feel useful. Before she was allowed to help, she was instructed on very strict and specific rituals regarding the capture and death of the creatures they would eat. Should disrespect be shown to the creatures who gave their lives for the Kurach to live, the sea may prevent them from being captured, and thus, they would starve. Shanku strongly suspected the spirit of the sea would not punish the Imnek for any misdeeds on her part as the Imnek were able to routinely bring in fish and seals while Shanku instead was only able to catch sticks. Maybe I should have listened to Dai about honouring the dead before I eat 'em?
With great resignation, she realized she was being only somewhat helpful as the gatherer of soggy firewood, and felt herself most useful spinning and working the hair of the yak and musk ox that had been gathered. The ladies would gather into an ice cave to be sheltered from the wind, and there would spin and knit. Before Shanku could join in, she had to carve her own needle from one of the bones kept reserved for such endeavers. Shanku instead carved herself a crochet hook instead of a knitting needle. Curious, Huata and the others asked about her technique, and Shanku explained how the Scissortails preferred to crochet instead of knit. Also that she never quite got the hang of knitting, which the ladies were quite happy to help her fine tune her technique and remove the clumsiness she had with it. So Shanku learned a few tricks and taught a few.
Little Innugati made herself useful as well. She found many herbs and spices in the snow from the summer that had been buried, which Shanku and Huata took full advantage of. Using some of the driftwood Shanku had fished up, they would make a small fire and boil the leaves to make a soothing tea. A small cup was carved for the dragon, and perhaps Innugait enjoyed the fruits of her labor as well. She certainly did not refuse a draught of the tea.
One evening, as Shanku was working on her crocheting in her cave that she had found and claimed at the new settlement, Huata came to call.
"Shanku? Are you home?" Huata asked as she peaked into the mouth of the cave.
"Nope. Pretty far from the Nyre at the moment," Shanku laughed. "Whatcha want?"
"Not me. The priestess should like to see you," Huata replied.
"Did I do something?" Shanku asked with an eyebrow raised and an ear laid back.
"Not that I know of, but we should go," Huata pressed.
"Alrighty," Shanku agreed and followed her to the priestess' home. To Shanku's surprise, Huata did not stay, and instead flew back to her own home.
"Ma'am?" Shanku called out tentatively as she peaked inside the dwelling.
"Come in, c'min! I'm just doing some knitting," came the friendly reply. Shanku crawled inside. Many herbs were drying along the walls and her home was full of baskets.
"Huata said you wanted to see me?" Shanku asked slowly.
"Indeed! How would you like a history lesson?" Chena asked.
"Sure, I guess. What of?" Shanku tilted her head curiously.
"Us," Chena stated.
"'Us', as in the Imnek, or 'us', as in the Kurach?"
"Yes, our history of the Kurach as a people," Chena nodded.
"How we started shifting?"
"No, but we may need to go over that. Do you know the tale of Father Koru?"
"Father Koru?" Shanku asked, quite puzzled.
"Do you not know the tale of Koru? The father of all upright Kurach?"
Shanku shook her head. "All I've heard about is some little power-hungry Kurach who made a deal with the fae."
"Where did you hear that?" Chena asked.
"From a glasscraft dragon back in the mountains," Shanku replied.
"Ah, of course. Leave it to a glasscraft to get it wrong," Chena shook her head. "Too busy singing badly and playing in their pits of sand."
Shanku suppressed a chuckle. Doane had been rather engaged in his glass work.
"Allow me to tell you about what really happened," Chena said sternly, and began her tale. "Long ago, the Kurach were tormented by a terrible creature, an ugly little thing with jagged teeth and a mighty club. It ruined our hunts, it beat our pups, and nowhere could we seek refuge from it.
"So one day, Mother Yiki cried out for deliverance from this creature. The kindly fae heard her pleas, and came to visit the one who would be destined to help her bear a new race of Kurach that could withstand the horrible monster and defeat it.
"Father Koru was leery at first, and tried a number of ways to handle the monster on his own, but was beaten every time. Finally, under Mother Yiki's guidance, he sought out the benevolent fae.
"He first had to pass a test to prove he was worthy of their help. So three of the fae sent him on an errand each. One to seek out the mushrooms that grew high on a mighty tree, one to find the moss that grew under thick thorns and bushes, and one to find the sweet little nuts of a prickly pine. He succeeded, and brought all three their requests.
"So the fae gathered around him and gave him and Yiki their blessing. Koru was able to walk on two legs, in what we now call the feral form. With his new strength, he fought off the monster and drove it off forever.
"Koru and Yiki became a pair, and their children became who we are today," Chena finished her tale, ever-working on her knitting. "They were also blessed with longevity, so now we live for well over a century."
"Interesting," Shanku nodded. "So how did we get four forms?"
"That is a tale for another day," Chena winked. "So, you have your human form, your tame, and your feral. But you have not yet achieved your true form, pup?"
Shanku shook her head. "Not yet."
"Ah, well. You will in time. Now, down to business," Chena became stern. "The reason why I called you here tonight.
"Long, long ago, but not long after we gained the bipedal form, there were five brothers and their families. They wanted to see the world! So they made an agreement to seek their fortune and come back every so often to tell of what they say," Chena continued, her knitting needles clicking rapidly. "One brother went south. One brother went north. Two went east because they were already far to the west. And one brother stayed behind to watch over their parents and extended family."
"The brother who went south ended up in the tropics. He became the forefather of those who now live in Mruha.
"The brother who went north ended up here. He became the forefather of all those in the arctic and subarctic.
"The brother who went farthest east ended up in the mountains. He became the forefather of the Highland.
"The one not-so-east was the forefather of the Prairie, and later of those now in the Bhadarukian deserts.
"And of course, he who stayed behind was the forefather of the Nyre and Eor Sylvans," Chena paused a moment to unravel a knot in her yarn.
"So, did they visit?" Shanku asked.
"For a time," Chena said as she pulled the knot free. "Once every ten years. Then twenty. Then fifty. Then a hundred. Then they stopped. The Sylvans stopped first, what with the squabble with the humans and all."
"How'd you know about all that? The Highlands and Islanders didn't even know," Shanku inquired.
"It wasn't long after that that the raiding parties started," Chena said flatly, her ears just as flat by her head.
"Oh," Shanku said quietly and looked down.
"Yeah. Big 'oh'," Chena growled. "Not just us, the northern Prairie clans and sometimes the humans too."
"Gee..." Shanku said nervously as she scratched the back of her head. "I knew the Ferals and Imperials had issues with each other. That might be why. My clan harbors Prairie folk during the winter."
"I don't know which tribe is responsible, but either way, you can not stay here!" Chena said as she put down her knitting and glared at Shanku. "We're on the verge of declaring war on the Sylvans, and the Prairie clans will join us regardless of any help given to their southern kin."
"H-hey! It's not my fault!" Shanku stammered. "I've been exiled for ten years!"
"I know. Which is why you weren't killed shortly after being spotted near our village. We need you as teh only Sylvan who'd listen," Chena said firmly and then pointed a finger at her. "When your exile ends this spring, you will go home and you will make our intentions clear. If you fail, we'll also hold you accountable and you won't be spared." Shanku yipped and drew herself up as Chena snarled at her. "You may go now," Chena said curtly. Shanku wasted no time in scampering out the door.
Chena sat in silence as she resumed her knitting, her thoughts racing through her mind.
"Did she understand?" asked her mate as he crawled through her door.
"I hope so," Chena sighed and glared at him. "I don't particularly like to threaten cubs, Varuk."
"Neither do I, but she's our only hope to put an end to it," Varuk said softly. "Our southern clans no longer wish to talk. The northern Sylvan don't care. We need help from someone who knows how to talk to them."
"Oh, yes, great chance of the Sylvans listening to a cub they banished for breaking their strictest law! We'd better off to use her accumulated knowledge of the five to win the war. Now she's more likely to be put to death for further insubordination," Chena vented.
"Not if my little Innugati can help it, her kind has helped us for centuries," Varuk sid as he gestured with one hand. "Maybe she can help us guide the Sylbans back to the fae and we can be a peaceful and united people once again."
"I don't know," Chena shook her head. "The Sylvans took more after Father Koru than Mother Yiki. Mother Yiki taught us to respect the fae. Father Koru hated them. I don't think they'll be that willing."
"I know," Varuk nodded. "It's okay if not all come back. Just enough to bring us together. This isn't how we were meant to be."
"Maybe it was?" Chena shrugged. "Humans are one of the worst to bicker and squabble, not much better than kobolds, and for whatever reason we were given their form as a secondary. Time will tell."
Varuk fell silent and they sat together quietly as Chena worked on her knitting and Varuk began to whittle.
Meanwhile, Shanku was sitting in her cave and feeling very stressed. "Oh, crap... Crap, crap, crap, crap..." Shanku moaned as she held her temples. "What am I gonna do, Innugati?"
Innugati trilled inquisitively.
"I really wanna go home. I miss Ma and Da, and even Hilael. All my grandparents... I want to see Katari again too," Shanku put her hands down and faced Innugati. "The Elders don't even like me, what hope do I have of getting them to contact the northern clans and put an end to the raids?" Shanku through her hands up in frustration and exclaimed, "Why are they even doing it in the first place!?"
Innugati flicked her wings and tilted her head at Shanku.
"Is that what I gotta do? The whole reason I've been put through this mess?" Shanku shook her head. "I don't even believe in fate! How can I negotiate a trade agreement between the Sylvan, Prairie, and these snow puppies so they can all get stuff without stealing it? 'Cause that's what it's going to take to make everybody ehappy."
The little dragon yawned and resettled herself atop her rock.
"Wouldn't it be nifty if I fully ascended like Huata did with the yeti?" Shanku asked wistfully. Then startled and grabbed her head again. "'Ascended'...? Gah! Now I'm talking like those looney hairballs in the mountains! I have got to get out of here and get back home."
Shanku sighed heavily and covered herself up with her cloak. "This just got a lot more complicated. Those Sylvans are going to be the death of me yet!" She culled up into a sullen ball and tried to go to sleep. Innugati trilled and curled up on the Kurach's head. Shanku did not mentioned a word of her conversation to Huata or the other friends she had made during her stay, and simple joined in their hunting, fishing, and other chores.
The moon continued her slow dance through the sky until the time came that the sun broke past the horizon once more. This marked a new year for the northern Kurach, and an end to Shanku's stay with them. She stayed long enough to witness their festival celebrating the return of the sun. It was certainly much more lively than bidding it farewell. The Imnek confirmed they would have enough food to last until spring and the time to follow the herds back to their summer home. Dancers formed long chains and snaked their way around all the homes in the settlement and delicacies from the sea were served.
"It is time for me to bid ye farewell," Shanku said grandly with a bow the day after the festival. "Me exile shall finish within the month, and no matter how fierce the storms or raids or grumpy the Sylvans, I intend to go home as and get there as quickly as possible!"
"Safe travels, Shanku," Huata said warmly and embraced her. Shanku hugged her in return.
"But not for you!" Shanku pointed a finger at Dakota's nose. "Yer a married mister now! Of all the strange things I've ever been accused of, a mate-stealin' hussy shall not be one of them!"
"Oh, come here you mate-stealin' hussy and hug me," Dakota laughed and gave her a hug.
"You, sir, have shamed me," Shanku laughed. She embraced each of the new friends she had made before gathering up her pack and beginning on her way home. Shanku looked back only once to wave farewell one more time before she focused strictly on the journey ahead, with the little faery dragon buzzing along behind her.
And so, Shanku began her journey home.
And so I left them behind. Many things have happened since I left home. I can only wonder what will happen when I return.
And that's what's happened in the past ten years and how I got to be there. I've met many, loved a few, hated a few more, and learned so much more than I would have if I'd remained home.
So, my dear Dai and Zihna, I hope you understand why I haven't written, and understand that it may be a while still until I write again. I have matters at home to attend to, then I hope I will have even more to tell you.
~ Shanku Ravenwing