"Thank you again for letting me use your table for a while," Shanku bowed again to the little old woman.
"You're welcome, honey," she nodded.
"So ya think ya can end th' raids?" huffed her husband from his stump chair on his porch.
"I hope so. No guarantees, they don't like me much," Shanku said uneasily.
"Heh, probably because ya can be reasoned with," he said.
"If I recall, I paid you good silver to keep calm so I could write my letters," Shanku chuckled.
"Kri!" Innugati trilled as she hovered by Shanku's shoulder.
"Off with ye! Heh!" The little old man brandished his cane at the pair.
"I'll see it delivered, honey," smiled the old woman. "I have kin in Wynfall."
"You have my deepest thanks," Shanku placed her hands together and gave a deep bow to the couple.
"Good luck! Hope you succeed!" the old woman waved after Shanku.
"Thank you again!" Shanku called over her shoulder, and muttered under her breath, "I hope I do too."
Innugati trilled reassurance and came to rest on Shanku's shoulder. The little fairy dragon curled her tail just so behind her and brought her six dragonfly wings to rest.
Shanku had made it across the great Lura plains and was near the outskirts of the Nyre forest when she had happened across a little cottage. An elderly couple lived there and the husband had been very suspicious of Shanku when she had flown up. Having been one who grew up hearing of the great winged beasts of the plains, he had been downright uncooperative when Shanku had asked if she could write some letters.
After being presented with some of the silver coins Shanku had earned during her time seeking the Kurach of the north, along with a plump pheasant, he finally consented and let her come inside to write her letters. His wife had been much kinder and offered Shanku some fresh water, and Shanku told her of some dear friends in Wynfall by the name of Birchfield she used to know.
The couple had been planning on making the long trip to Wynfall for provisions and to see family, and promised to take her letters to the Birchfields.
Thus satisfied she had finally provided a long overdue explanation to Dai and Zihna for her sudden disappearance years ago when she was abducted by the Brelland Seacat, Shanku continued on her way home. She leapt into the air, caught a good breeze, and continued her slow flight.
The sun was warm, the air was cool, and all below her were the bright green leaves of new growth as spring came on. Behind her, the prairie became smaller and smaller as she travelled deeper into the forest.
Shanku had stored the pale grey tunic she had made in the mountains in her pack, and now wore the soft brown tunic she had made of yak hair while on the tundra. The one she had made in the mountains had a longer tail, and a split by the legs and at the tail. Her newer grey one she had made in the fashion her mother had so many years ago when she was young, ending just at the thigh. She kept on the dark grey breeches she had made while in the mountains. As always, she had the dagger Rhett had given her tied to her left hip, and a little pouch on her right containing a flint and steel and other small items.
Ten years. Ten long years... Shanku thought wistfully. In a spring ten years past, she had jeopardized the clan by roaming into places she shouldn't have, and befriending things she shouldn't have, until a few came too close to the clan's den looking for her. Though they had been young and quite harmless, the Scissortail clan still feared what harm could have befallen the clan if the gryphons and dragons became to relaxed around the Kurach, and had banished Shanku until she had learned proper fear and respect of the other denizens of the Nyre.
A shadow fell over Shanku and she looked down at the canopies to see the shape. Her own winged shape had been replaced by another. She looked up to see a brown and spotted gryphon flying above her. Shanku swallowed hard. Her last encounter with gryphons had been far away in the mountains across the plains, and the sabrewings hadn't been the friendliest gryphons she had met.
This one proved to be about the same. With an aquiline screech, the gryphon dove at her. Shanku tucked her wings and rolled out of the way. Innugati, now dislodged from her position on Shanku's back, trilled, chirped, and squeaked angrily at the attacking gryphon.
Shanku righted herself, Innugati flying near her ear, and waited to see what the gryphon would do next. He flew below her for a few tense moments, his head cocked to the side as he watched her.
"Hey, don't I know you?" he asked at length.
"Kirill?" Shanku grinned broadly. Surely not my old playmate!
"Shanku!" Kirill flapped awkwardly in attempt to hover.
Shanku dove down past him to the trees. She maneuvered through the branches and cupped her wings for a landing. Kirill came in not far behind her.
"How've you been?" Kirill asked, bobbing his head animatedly as he folded his wings.
"Varied, you?" Shanku said and sat down on the ground.
"Good, good," Kirill began to settle and stop pawing at the ground. "Where've you been? And why are you out here?"
"A very long answer to both," Shanku laughed.
"Well, tell me! You're the first unbloodied Sylvan I've seen in months!" Kirill said, his ears pricked forward.
"Huh?" Shanku asked in surprise. "What do you mean 'unbloodied'?"
"Don't you know?" Kirill cocked his head to the side, his furred and feathered ears standing up. "The Sylvans are officially feuding. Imperial versus Feral."
"Over what!?" Shanku asked, flabbergasted.
"I dunno, they've never been friendly with each other," Kirill shrugged his wings. "It's bad enough the minocentaur are giving them a wide berth."
"I guess that's why you dove at me? Didn't want another fightin' mad Sylvan nearby?" Shanku giggled.
"No offense," Kirill said sheepishly as he ducked his head and laid back his ears.
"And I guess that's why you're way out here in dragon territory?" Shanku asked. The edges of the Nyre were often where the larger dragons preferred to reside, despite any claims Kurach had to the area.
"Yes," Kirill shuddered and drew his wings up around him. "The Sylvans be crazy!"
Shanku burst out laughing.
Kirill clicked his beak and turned his head to the side. "What's so funny?"
"Ah, nothing," Shanku composed herself. "I've long forgotten the pleasures of keeping company with a fellow bird."
Kirill fluffed his feathers and gave a disgruntled trill.
"It's great to see you again, but I really gotta get going now. I'm on my way home after being exiled for ten years."
"That explains a lot," Kirill nodded. And added, "Well, not a lot. We have catching up to do!"
"And I promise I will seek you out after I'm finished," Shanku bowed her head to him, and leapt into the air. "Good winds, Kirill."
"Good winds!" Kirill called after her over the beating of her wings. "And good luck!"
Shanku was lost in thought as she glided over the tree tops.
"What could they be fighting about? And would it be safer to skulk under the brush?" Shanku asked absently as she looked down at the passing branches. "Do you think the Imperial are raiding because of the feud? Or is the feud due to the Imperial raiding?"
Innugati trilled lowly and flew along beside Shanku, her little delicate wings a blur with movement. She started suddenly when Shanku cried out in frustration.
"Gah! Why can't I just go home and relax!?" Shanku said exasperatedly. "Stupid squabbling Sylvans..."
Innugati caught a glimpse of something large. She looked up and then began to chatter rapidly.
"Oh good grief, now what?" Shanku asked tiredly as she recognized the sounds of alarm. She also looked up, and felt her stomach drop. "Ohhhh, bugger... Land, land!"
Shanku made a sharp dive for the trees again as a large dragon came diving in from a higher distance. Shanku took cover by an old oak from the wind as the dragon's massive wings cupped and he dropped to the ground.
The dragon was a deep purple color. His belly scales, wings, and dorsal fin were a pale blue. And he did not look very happy.
Well, this certainly brings back memories. Shanku gulped as she looked up at the towering dragon. She barely came up to his elbow.
The dragon leaned his head down until was level with the Kurach. He narrowed his eyes and studied her for a few moments. His tongue flicked out a few times as he tasted the air.
"Do I know you?" the dragon asked at length in his deep voice.
"That depends, is it a good know or a bad know?" Shanku asked nervously and held a finger up to his nose.
"...Shanku?" The dragon narrowed his eyes further and tilted his head slightly to the side.
"How many other blackwings are there in the Nyre, Halvor?" Shanku asked as she bowed low with a flourish.
"How many keep company with dragons is a better question," Halvor stated. Shanku shivered as he felt his thick voice resonate in her bones. Innugati trilled thoughtfully from the side of the oak.
"You got big..." Shanku said wistfully as she looked up at him. "How do you find enough to eat?"
"Whales. Minocentaur. Moose," Halvor chuckled and raised up. "Assuming smaller forms."
"Ah," Shanku nodded. "I didn't know dragons could do that."
"Some, but not all. What are you doing out here?" Halvor turned a suspicious eye to her. "You're not abandoning a post or scouting for an attack, are you?"
"Hey, I've been exiled for ten years and I'm going home for the first time right now," Shanku put her hands up before her defensively. "Whatever they're squabbling over, I'm not involved with it! Er, what is it they're fussing about, anyway?
"Ya got me," Halvor shook his head. "Little varmints never made much sense."
"Nor to me, either," Shanku giggled.
"Scamper on, then," Halvor said and stretched his wings out beside him. He began to walk off and turned his head back to her. "But stay out of trouble!"
"I'll try!" Shanku waved after him. She watched until he had taken flight and was long gone. Shanku sighed and turned to Innugati, who was still clinging to the side of the old oak. "So we got fed up dragons to deal with too?"
Innugati trilled and hopped back onto Shanku's shoulder.
"Better skulk it then," Shanku said with reservation and turned to look at the thick brush of the forest. It was going to be such much longer of a journey on foot. But, for now, the floor was a mix of grass and fallen leaves. It would be a pleasant walk so long as she minded fallen limbs and painful seedpods like pine cones and sweetgum balls.
"Be on the lookout for things like minocentaur and goblins. Lotsa mean things out here in the woods," Shanku warned.
"Kriii," Innugati trilled in return as she buzzed along beside Shanku for a brief moment.
Ahead, Shanku saw a mother minocentaur advising her calf.
"Be very careful! There are lots of mean things in the woods, like Kurach," she admonished.
"Yes, Mama," the calf nodded dutifully.
The cow threw a glare in Shanku's direction and began to lead her calf away.
Okay, I had that one coming. Shanku chuckled. "Let's find some place to bunk down."
The two wandered through the forest for a while, inspecting various rocks, crevices, and trees for a potential bed for the night. In time, they came to another great tree of the forest. Shanku noticed the heavy branches at the top seemed to spread out rather than branch off of a main shoot that would dwindle to nothing, like the surrounding elms, birches, and poplars. She climbed carefully to the top, and found that it had indeed a hollow in the middled, full of old leaves and twigs.
"This is either leaf litter or an abandoned nest," Shanku mused as she crawled into it. "Mine for now, eh?"
Shanku cleaned out the twigs and spread out the leaves to make a nice bed. She took off her backpack and set it to the side along with her belt and knife.
"Wouldn't it be my luck to get jumped by a bobcat or something tonight?" Shanku asked as she combed her hair.
Innugati simply blinked at her. She made her own little bed inside the coils of Shanku's belt.
"Ah, well," Shanku chuckled as she returned her comb to her backpack. "G'night, 'Gati." Shanku took her cloak out of her backpack and curled up in it for a blanket.
The night creatures of the Nyre began to come out. Far away in hidden streams came the chorus of frogs. Crickets chirped from the forest floor below. Off in the distance came the calls of a few owls and whipporwills. Shanku fell into a peaceful sleep, serenaded by sweet sounds she hadn't heard in years.
A ring of cubs stood around Hilael. Mocking, shoving, hitting. What they always did. Hilael stood there quietly, just watching. As he always did. They would lose interest if he didn't respond. They always did. But today, they did not.
One of the cubs picked up a sharp stick. Hilael felt a twinge of fear. And as usual, there was nothing he could say for he seemed to have lost his ability to speak. Rather frustrating, really.
Luckily for Hilael, his younger brother was never too far away. He seemed to have a sixth sense for when the other cubs meant Hilael harm. Muso had climbed high in a tree and prepared to dive. He had seen his mother perform a dive once when hunting a deer, and he had taken up the trick for defending Hilael.
Hilael watched as Muso leapt from a tree, but to his alarm the ring of cubs discovered him and the one with the sharp stick turned to face Muso as he descended. Quite worried, Hilael took the ring by surprise and shoved the cub holding the stick to the ground. This in turn evoked a reaction from the others. Hilael was scratched harshly by two while the third was knocked viciously to the ground by his diving brother.
It was chaotic and confusing for Hilael the next few minutes as he was aware of little pricks of pain as he received a few more scratches, and he saw a blur and flash of feathers and claws as his little brother fought off the four like the little devil he was. Hilael stumbled a bit and backed away as the fight finished and the four cubs left them.
Muso had received a few scratches and bruises, but he was not discouraged and stood his ground triumphantly. He smirked as he watched the retreating forms of the other cubs, and gave them a little wave despite any snide remarks they tried to wound him with. Muso snorted in their direction after they were long gone and turned to Hilael.
"How come you never fight, 'Lael?" Muso plopped down on a tree root near his brother.
"I..." Hilael started, but that's all he could manage. He shook his head slowly and forced himself to take a deep breath. How frustrating it was that he couldn't talk when he was terribly upset!
"I know, can't talk," Muso nodded. "You're weird like that."
Hilael stared blankly ahead and exhaled.
"Maybe you should just stay with me all the time instead of going off alone?" Muso grinned.
Hilael squeezed his eyes shut and focused on trying to breathe.
"I know, I know. It really tucks you out being stuck around somebody all the time. I don't mind keeping my distance," Muso nodded. "And I quite enjoy ambushing them anyway."
Muso sat quietly with Hilael as he calmed down. At length, Hilael stood up. Muso nodded and jumped to his feet.
"Come on, let's go see Granny Misen. She's the best for cleaning ouchies," Muso said as he stretched animatedly.
Hilael nodded and fell quietly in behind his little brother.
Muso was often teased as well. Many remembered when their eldest sibling Shanku was exiled from the clan and just as many seemed to know about their long lost uncle Turai being exiled. It was funny, their funny little family. Two exiles, their great-great-grandam Shanku having risen from Gatherer to Hunter, their father leaving the council to take a place as a Warrior and wed a Hunter. And then there was Muso. He grinned to himself. I am the perfect sneak! None can catch me! If only Shanku had still been around, I could have taught her a few things and she'd never have gotten caught either. And like her, I'm a good fighter too. I wonder why Hilael isn't?
Hilael, the quiet one. When he could be persuaded to speak, he seemed to know a great deal about the forest. He was a little clumsy and often spent time alone. Despite being rather scrawny, he often seemed not to be hungry. Granny Misen with a knowing wink would say he simply hadn't found his calling yet. She felt he would blossom into a great individual someday.
Well, it'd better get here soon! Muso glanced back over his shoulder at Hilael. As per his usual, Hilael was a pace behind and watching Muso's feet as he guided them home. He often wiped away the trickle of blood as soon as it started.
"How come you barely know when you get cut but always know exactly when you bleed?" Muso asked, puzzled.
"It is very, very annoying," Hilael said flatly. Hilael often spoke flatly. Gentle, but with little emotion to it. Perhaps Muso and Shanku had soaked up all the viciousness of the family and that was why Hilael was left with only passiveness to inherit from their parents?
Before long, they arrived to the great cave where the clan lived. From the outside, it was nothing more than an overhang, with a few crevices here and there appearing at different places in the area. Little chimney holes and their little rocky peaks to ward off the rain dotted the ground above. But inside, it was a great cave. With many passages and chambers, some of which had been hollowed out and reinforced by the clan. In went Muso, followed as always by Hilael. He picked his way through the passages and soon arrived where his mother's parents lived.
"Granny Mi—sen!" Muso called out cheerfully and skipped on in.
Misen was inside, minding the fire and cooking a supper for her and Haro. She hissed and clucked her tongue when she saw her grandcubs, and went to fetch her dressing.
Hilael sat quietly and was compliant as Misen tended to his scratches and bruises, and she fussed roundly about the other cubs. Muso yipped and squirmed as Misen tended to him because the medicine did sting, and she scolded him for not being as good as his older brother.
If he was as good as me we wouldn't be getting mauled in the first place! Muso thought hotly as he stretched his aching muscles.
"Why do you never fight back, dear?" Misen shook her head sadly.
"It would not be good," Hilael said softly. There was a look in his eyes Misen couldn't quite understand, but it worried her.
"But I bet they'd leave you alone after!" Muso grinned mischievously. "Of course, unless your clumsiness came out in full swing and you were so bad they'd pick on you more."
"Muso, don't discourage him," Misen scolded.
"Well, it's a possibility! He's not the most graceful deer in the forest," Muso huffed.
"Sparrow," Hilael said. "I'm a Sparrow."
"Now who told you that?" Misen asked curiously.
"Probably somebody who saw him looking at something all twitchy like the little sparrows do," Muso kidded.
"No," Hilael said in his gentle way.
"Deer, sparrow, or Kurach, you are both my grandcubs. And your mother is sure to have your supper ready soon, so scamper on. You know where I'll be if they come after you again," Misen said. "Go on."
Hilael nodded and left. Muso paused, and watched him leave.
"You do good, seeing after him," Misen said softly. "He needs somebody to look out for him now that Shanku's gone."
"But what if something happens to me?" Muso asked sadly.
"You are just nine summers and too young to be worrying about such things," Misen said matter-of-factly. "Hilael will come through some day. He just needs more time."
"Well I hope that day hurries up and gets here," Muso sighed. "It's hard enough finding a playmate when both of your older siblings are outcasts, and your uncle too, even if your grandsire is on the Council and your great-great-granddam was one of the best hunters the Scissortails ever saw."
Misen watched sadly as Muso went home. If only Shanku had stayed home! Hilael would still be Hilael, but things would be much easier for Muso. She couldn't imagine how much rougher it would be for the youngest either. She sighed and shook her head, and returned to tending supper as she waited for Haro to come home.
Muso walked through the forest, half-heartedly kicking pinecones and brushing low-hanging branches away. His mother had not been happy to see her sons come home with cuts and bruises again. That morning, Hilael had been taken with her on one of hunts and to be gone the rest of the day. His father had conducted his morning training with Muso with renewed vigor. Zanzen knew the fault did not lay with Muso's skills. In fact, he often praised Muso for his prowess. But neither could understand why Hilael either could not or would not defend himself.
It was a quiet spring day as Muso wandered along. Little flowers were budding and blooming, the tree tops were a-chatter with little birds, and just out of sight he could hear the various scurrying and scampering of rodents and other small animals. Patches of vivid blue sky could be seen between the leaves of the canopy.
Ahead, Muso heard voices. Curious, he began to tiptoe toward them. He squatted behind a bush and listened. It was his sire and grandsire. It wasn't polite to eavesdrop, but he was terribly curious.
"I don't know what to do with that cub," Zanzen sighed as he paced. "He's a good hunter, but he barely eats, he barely speaks, he's barely home, and he doesn't defend himself. He only says 'it would not be good'. What does that mean?"
"Too great a moral conviction?" Bibot shrugged. "Fear of ending up like his uncle?"
"You know I don't like to speak of that," Zanzen said tensely. "I wish I'd never accepted his challenge."
"What's done is done, no sense in trying to deny or hide it," Bibot said.
Zanzen said nothing and continued to pace. The two remained in silence for several moments.
Muso lowered his ears sadly. It was all the greater his duty to see that he made his parents proud, to ease some of the suffering caused by his other relatives. Why did he have to have such a weird family? Not that he loved them any less or anything. Everything was just so... complicated.
"Misen swears he's a Sparrow," Zanzen said at length and sat down.
"A Sparrow, eh?" Bibot whistled. "Not that common, but it would be your luck to have one."
"Lucky me," Zanzen grumbled and sighed. "He's a good cub. All of them are good cubs, even my lost one. She was just too curious for her own good. And Muso is too smart for his own good."
Muso became perfectly still. Had he caused unhappiness as well?
"And with a bright future," Bibot nodded. "He'd be miserable following after his ol' grandsire. Too much legal work and sitting about. He'd make a fine warrior, out there on his feet and testing his wits. Maybe even a captain. He's got the cunning for it."
Muso held his breath. Captain? What an honor!
"Aye," Zanzen smiled. "And also why I'm glad he takes to Hilael as much as he does. Hilael knows so much about the land. Those two would be quite a force to be reckoned with if they stick together. They could have a good life either together or separate."
Muso smiled. It was reassuring to hear both him and Hilael spokenly highly of by his sire and grandsire. Perhaps they weren't doing so bad after all? Muso quietly backed away and retreated into the forest. A captain? To command a flank of Kurach and stand against the minocentaur! Muso returned home slowly, his mind dancing with dreams and fancies of one day becoming a captain. He was quite determined to make that happen.
Earlier that same morning, there was a ruckus and commotion of frightened birds as false dawn began to break.
"Bad kitty!" Shanku growled as she dangled a bobcat out over the forest floor by the scruff of its neck. "Do it again, and I'm chunking you overboard!"
"Riaow!" The bobcat twisted and spit at her, making awful cat noises. Shanku tossed it to the other side of the hollow in the tree, where it promptly turned on its heel and ran down.
"Cats have no concept of sleeping in," Shankhu hrmphed. Ryoichi had often woken her up on the Brelland Seacat when he was anxious for some fresh fish. Shanku sighed and began her morning routine. "Told ya we'd have trouble, 'Gati. Time to get up anyway," she sighed.
After she had groomed herself, she gathered up her belongings, folded them snugly in her pack, and jumped out of the tree to glide to the ground.
"This is gonna take so much longer if I can't fly home!" Shanku groaned. She made her way slowly through the trees, dealing with bramble, bushes, and other problems of the foerst. "Yar! Sneaky briers!" Shanku yipped as the top of her foot was thoroughly scratched from a blackberry sprout. Ooo, da nelly! Bigger ones! Shanku paused and carefully peeled a viny thorn off her shoulder. Did I block these from memory, or are there more than I remember?
She came upon a large patch of bushes that grew clear up to the lowest branches of the trees. Either she could walk a long ways around, or crawl under them. With resignation, Shanku dropped to her hands and knees, and began to crawl. It was a slow process. While she could protect her sides with her wings, twigs and branches still grabbed at her legs, back, and her pack. She often had to pause and untangle herself. Why did Father Koru ever want to walk upright? This would be so much easier if I was on four natural feet! She grumbled bitterly. Eventually, the bushes ended. Beyond them was a series of giant rocks protrudeing from the ground. Rocks. Why did it have to be rocks?
Shanku wriggled out from under the bushes, and with a few wingbeats, was to the top of the closest rock.
"Eh, the rock is a good place for breakfast, no?" Shanku asked as she landed. She looked up to the clear skies, and out around her. "I missed these hills," she said softly. "Briers, rocks, and all."
Innugati trilled patiently as Shanku passed out some dried meat for their breakfast.
"Do you think I'll fit in this time?" Shanku asked. Innugati paused her nibbling and stared at the young Sylvan. "Yeah, probably not," Shanku sighed sadly.
"How different can I be?" she wondered aloud as she took a bite. "We're all Kurach." Shanku looked down at Innugati as she was finished her tidbit. "I guess you are proof enough that I'm different from the others." Innugati licked her forepaws clean and flicked her tail.
"Back on the road," Shanku stated after she finished her own breakfast. She replaced her pack, patted herself briskly, and stood on the edge of the rock before smiling at the little dragon fluttering near her head. "Thanks for the talk." With a leap, she glided to the ground, and continued her journey.
The brush began to clear away and the area looked like it was routinely maintained. A large stone stuck up out of the ground, and had many symbols and designed carved into it.
"Hey, look, 'Gati! A rune post!" Shanku said excitedly. She bent over and studied it. "'Scissortail'. Yup, nearly there!" Shanku chirped and straighted up. Then it felt like that runepost had been thrown inside her stomach. Butterflies now. I'm scared.
Shanku was much closer to home than she had been in years, and was very anxious. Her thoughts raced many ways at once as she started to follow familiar trails toward her old home den.
Familiar trees and smells I thought I'd never witness again waited for me in the Nyre. It's been too long. I wonder if anybody will recognize me?
~ Shanku Ravenwing