"Do you think Grandpa Bibot can help any?" Shanku asked nervously as she finished explaining to her father where she had been and why she had come home so quickly.
"I'm not sure. Between my and your actions, he's lost some of his influence," Zanzen said. "He might can get an audience for you to let you state your case."
"Sweetie, you might want to let somebody else handle the talking," Nari said with an uneasy smile. She served a mushroom stew to her family that she had prepared while her daughter and mate talked.
"Why?" Shanku asked.
"You are a lot like your father," Nari said as diplomatically as she could. "You both are wonderful warriors..."
"But you've got the grace of a drunken mino-bull!" Muso teased with a mouthful of mushrooms and roots.
"Hey, I'm a lot better than I used to be!" Shanku huffed.
"I'll do it," Hilael said.
Shanku tilted her head and turned her ears toward him curiously. "Can you?"
"You're not so good at talking people outta things either," Muso rolled his eyes.
"This is different," Hilael said simply.
"That will be a short audience," Muso muttered. Banhi smacked the back of his head. "Ow! What's that for?"
"Hilael is a lot nicer than you, and I am glad he doesn't talk as much as you do either!" Banhi said with her hands on her hips.
"So who does that little fireball take after?" Shanku whispered to her mother.
"Granny Misen," Nari shuddered.
"And proud of it!" Banhi winked. "So, Hilael and Shanku go to court. What then?"
"Then they state their case," Zanzen replied. "Explain that the Arctic, northern Plains, and some human villages are about to band together and attack all the Sylvans they find."
"However doubtful it may be that the humans will actually work with the Kurach. We are widely regarded as demons in Arnthian society," Shanku said slowly. "I'm not sure if I ever convinced Rhett otherwise."
The family ate in thoughtful silence, each wondering different things. Banhi seemed the least troubled by it and finished her small bowl the quickest.
"We'll have to go to the Imperials if the council won't listen," Hilael said at length.
"What?" Zanzen asked in shock and looked at his son.
"It's the logical step. The Heyen and other southern Plains clans are on our side and most of the Ferals work with them. The whole of the Arctic tribes and the northern Plains tribes aren't happy with the Imperials. With so many of us angry at them for their actions, and they responsible for all the fighting, it should be them that we try the hardest to convince to end this. And if they won't, we should seek allegiance with the Arctic and Plains," Hilael finished calmly.
"I think that's the most I've ever heard you say in one go!" Muso said, thoroughly impressed.
"And a good point," Zanzen nodded in agreement. "Perhaps that should be the core of your argument tomorrow."
"So, assuming the council doesn't know the finer points, that's what we should do then? Basically play messenger?" Shanku asked curiously.
"It's pretty much what the Arctic sent you here to do," Nari nodded. "With your gathered intelligence across most of L'aernth, it would be a help to the council. And with Hilael's tact, it might be received better."
"And if it doesn't work, off we go, eh?" Shanku grinned. "Sounds like we got a plan!"
"With one problem. You're technically not supposed to be back for another two weeks!" Nari said worriedly.
"I'm hoping they overlook that little detail," Shanku said sheepishly and scratched the back of her head, her wings drawn up a bit around her and her ears laid back.
"We need a good sleep tonight," Zanzen said and stood with a stretch. "Off to bed, all of us. It's going to be a long day tomorrow. I need to first talk with my father to get this started."
Nari nodded and began to usher her cubs to bed.
"Um, where do I sleep?" Shanku asked.
Zanzen and Nari had a straw nest to themselves, Hilael and Muso shared a nest, and little Banhi had a place off to herself.
"You can sleep with me," Banhi grinned and patted her small nest.
"Oi carendo," Shanku shook her head. "I won't fit. I'll just use it as a pillow. Wouldn't be the first time I slept on the floor. I guess tomorrow I'll be busy making a nest, eh?"
"We'll help!" Muso grinned. "I'll bet Jagan and his little pack will be itching to try something tomorrow."
Hilael shook his head fervently and pushed Muso down into the nest. "You should go to sleep."
Shanku giggled and settled down with Banhi. "Goodnight."
The following morning, Shanku was the first to rise. She stepped away from the beds quietly and looked around the dimly lit room. The chimney allowed a faint bit of the morning light to trickle in. Last night's fire was smouldering in the fire pit, providing a dull, red light. The fire pit had a small oven made of cut bricks in the center where the wood was to be burned in, a sandy bottom with old ashes, and a ring of rocks surrounded the sand. The inside was open enough to hang a pot over the fire. In the middle was a chamber that was the actual oven itself for cooking food. The top of the oven had one large, flat piece of rock for cooking things slowly.
The nests were in the very back of the room. Directly ahead was the curtained doorway. To her left were closests and chests for storing belongings. Off to her right was the simple wooden table and straw-stuffed cushions that the family often shared their meals on. Shanku smiled sadly when she noted that there were six cushions, and could not help but wonder if they had been waiting for her to come home the whole time she had been gone.
Hanging above the table was a platform suspended by braided strings where the oil lamp would hang and provide a bit of light at night. Near the table was a series of shelves holding plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, and various pots and other cooking equipment. There were shelves and frames of different shapes around the small den for things to be stored, like blankets, tools, memoirs, and many baskets and pots full of items, food, and water. In the center was the fire pit where the meals were cooked. The walls and floor were smooth, grey stone. A few rugs lined the floor in areas, undoubtedly rugs that Nari had crocheted.
Shanku walked over to the cushions where she had left her pack. She sat down and began her morning routine of combing her hair, brushing her teeth, checking her claws, and preening her feathers. By the time she had nearly finished, Nari had woken and began to get up for the day. Soon, their little den was stirring with life and Nari was preparing a quick breakfast made from berry jelly, sheep's milk, lard, and the flour of ground acorns.
"Shanku, Hilael, come," Zanzen nodded to them after breakfast. Shanku and Hilael obediently fell in behind their father and followed him out into the passageway. He lead them through many twisting corridors. Shanku noted that the inscriptions on the walls became more elaborate and intricate. The curtains over the doorways here were embroidered with many colorful threads, some bearing the family name, some of various scenes. They were surely passing from the common quarters to those of the elite of Scissortail society. Zanzen stopped before one of many curtained doors, a dark green with yellow needlework.
"Sir Bibot?" Zanzen called politely.
"Come in," was the gruff reply.
Zanzen pulled back the curatins.
"Ah, Zanzen!" Bibot nodded. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Howdy, Grandpa Bibot!" Shanku said cheerfully and stepped in beside Zanzen. "I'm back!"
"Oh, my!" Ysu covered her mouth. "Shanku, you came home?"
Shanku darted over to her grandparents and happily gave and received hugs.
"Have you learned your lesson, young doe?" Bibot asked sternly.
"I have learned many lessons," Shanku said with a twinkle in her eye. "But that doesn't matter at the moment."
Bibot looked at her curiously.
"Sir Bibot, Shanku comes bearing news far from the north, from the Arctic tribes," Zanzen started. He then explained the situation and the need for Hilael and Shanku to stand before the council.
Bibot listened intently, nodding from time to time, and stroking his beard. "You do understand the one problem with this, correct?" He asked when Zanzen had finished.
"Shanku is two weeks early," Zanzen said grimly.
"She may be punished, even in these circumstances," Bibot shook his head and paced the room.
"I could go to Peridæ territory and wait for them there," Shanku suggested. "The Peridæ seemed to like me alright enough. Or at least, they never had anything to do with me."
"Ah, but the Scissortail council stepping into their territory without informing them beforehand could cause trouble, and this is too urgent to wait for a messenger to go between our respective Elders," Bibot shook his head again. "And surely some know now that you've returned."
"Threatening Jagan probably secured that," Shanku grinned devilishly.
"You threatened the grandson of Niranjan?" Bibot asked in shock.
"Is that bad?" Shanku asked.
"Niranjan is the leading member of the council, the one and the same who handed down your sentence, and Jagan is in line behind him!" Bibot said, very flustered. "He's practically a prince!"
"Some leader," Shanku grumbled. "He sure doesn't treat his clanmates very well. Can't we vote him out or something?"
"I'm afraid not, this kind of behaviour has been going on long before your time," Bibot shook his head sadly.
"Will you help us, Sir Bibot?" Hilael asked.
"Aye, yes. I will," Bibot nodded. "I will send for you later. I just hope I can talk to the others before Jagan wants compensation."
"What was I supposed to do, let that little twerp pick on my little brother?" Shanku demanded. "What if I want compensation?"
"You're not supposed to be here. Technically, you have no rights," Bibot sighed.
"What of Hilael? Certainly he has rights, does he not?" Shanku laid her ears back and crossed her arms.
"It's complicated," Hilael said. "Come, let's go. Let him work."
"I will see what I can do," Bibot nodded. "Run along."
Shank hugged her grandparents one more time before Zanzen lead them back toward their own den.
"Looks bad for us, don't it?" Shanku asked glumly.
"Aye," Zanzen said quietly.
"What happens if they get too focused on my exile?"
"We go to the Imperials," Hilael said simply.
"I must agree with Hilael," Zanzen nodded.
"We don't all need to go," Shanku said quietly as they came to stop before their den. "Muso and Banhi are too young to go that far. I'm used to surviving almost completely on my own around all sorts of things, but I wouldn't dare risk them being attacked by a minocentaur."
"I know," Zanzen said grimly. "I need to stay behind as well, to watch over them. Jagan and the others wouldn't risk trying anything so long as I am here."
"They wouldn't dare attack you, would they?" Shanku asked quickly.
"No, not me," Zanzen said and faced her. "But some weren't shy about attacking your mother when we were courting. They may overlook Muso and Banhi, but they will not overlook you, nor Hilael by this point."
"I do what's right and still get into trouble? What's wrong with these people?" Shanku growled vehemently.
"Politics," Zanzen snarled in disgust and lead them inside.
"How did it go?" Nari asked as she worked on some of her crocheting.
"He will see what he can do," Zanzen said. "Until they've met, we should prepare a kit for the cubs should they have to leave immediately for Imperial lands."
"I'm ready to go," Shanku shrugged. "I've been living out of my pack for months. So long as I've got it, I'm good."
"Then you can help me prepare Hilael," Nari nodded and gestured for Shanku to join her.
"That tickles!" Muso laughed as Innugati slithered up his arm and neck to rest on his head.
"And we should keep that thing a secret as well," Zanzen shuddered. Innugati flicked her tongue at him.
"Don't you like her? She's pretty!" Banhi said and stroked Innugati's green scales.
"She's fae," Zanzen shook his head. "What is wrong with my family?"
"Absolutely nothing," Banhi said sweetly and kissed her father on his arm, which was about as high as she could reach. "Let's go, I want to go outside and play! Devi and Valli and I were going to play with our dolls by the berry bushes just outside the den today."
"And we can't miss that," Zanzen chuckled and lead his daughter outside.
Shanku helped Nari pick out various supplies that would be good for Hilael to carry, with a little input from Hilael himself. They decided on at least a spare change of clothes, a comb, a cloak, a wooden cup, a spare needle and thread should he need to perform minor repairs, a cloth to keep his teeth wiped down, and a few thick pieces of wood for him and Shanku to chew on to help keep their teeth clean. One thing Hilael insisted upon was several strips of cloth and a stone rock and bowl he liked to keep.
"I think we're set!" Shanku said excitedly. "Some part of me actually hopes we get to go."
Nari was silent and looked at her sadly.
"I know, Ma," Shanku said with a weak smile. "It's just wanderlust. It comes in handy sometimes, you know. I met some people in Mruha, a Bhadarukian and a Long Ear of the Plains Kurach. His people had wanderlust too, and they ended up in a desert just in time to save some Bhadarukians from being slaughtered by raiders. They're a strong co-clan now."
"I just don't want anything bad to happen to my babies," Nari said softly.
"We'll be fine," Hilael said gently, and gave a rare smile.
Afterward, Shanku spent the day gathering up leaves in a sack to expand Banhi's bed so they both could sleep together. Hilael and Muso kept close by to help her. Shanku strode off lightly into the forest, looking to find a bit of moss as well for their shared bed.
"I wonder if we'll bump into your fella out here?" Muso asked.
"I don't have a fella," Shanku replied, a bit puzzled.
"You sure? I saw you two making puppy eyes yesterday," Muso teased. "He did walk you home too!"
"We live in the same hole in the ground!" Shanku exclaimed. "That doesn't make him my fellow."
"But you were thinking about it!" Muso laughed. "You talked to him more than us yesterday."
Shanku popped the back of his head and told him to hush. "I'm too young for that."
"Aw, come on. Even Banhi has a little playmate that she likes to hover around all the time," Muso grinned as he rubbed the back of his head.
Shanku sighed and chose to ignore him. She found plenty of good, dry leaves for their bed, and even found some of the moss she was hunting for.
"Hey, look! Hilael's gotten some good mushrooms," Muso pointed. Hilael had been gathering a few mushrooms and plants along the way.
"Want to put them in here?" Shanku asked and extended her sack to him. Hilael nodded and placed them gently on the moss. The siblings started on their way back to the den when Jagan and his followers stepped out.
"Oh, good grief, don't you lot have anything better to do with your day?" Shanku asked grumpily.
"We have a score to settle, Shanku Ravenwing," Jagan growled.
Shanku passed her sack back to Hilael and he backed up behind her. Muso stepped forward even with his sister, flaring his wings in defiance.
"Bring it on!" Muso shouted shrilly and held his fists up in front of him.
"Open your palm and use the heel," Shanku whispered to him. "You'll hurt yourself too much close-fisted."
Jagan rushed them with a growl. Shanku came forward and side-stepped as he was on top of them and brought a knee up to drive into his stomach. With a groan, he dropped to the ground to catch his breath.
Muso tilted his head curiously. "That was fast."
"Anybody else?" Shanku asked boredly. "You can still go away."
With a quick look between each other, the remaining three rushed her at once. Shanku shoved Muso out of the way and rolled to the side. She sprang and kicked the nearest one in the hip. Tilak yipped loudly and staggered back. His friends came around him quickly.
Shanku tensed and launched herself at the nearest, driving her elbow into his chest. As Gunjan fell off of her, she quickly turned and and slung her arm out behind her to backhand the third across the face, causing Hiral to stagger as well. She stepped back and assumed another ready stance.
Jagan got up on his hands and knees, and coughed a few times. Tilak was favoring a leg, Hiral was rubbing his jaw, and Gunjan was getting back on his feet while clutching his chest.
"Again?" Shanku asked calmly. All she got was a few growls in return. "If you're quite finished, you should return home."
To Shanku's relief, Jagan began to lead them away. Shanku watched them curiously as they disappeared from sight.
"That was great!" Muso hopped up and down. "Can you teach me how to fight like that?"
"Someday," Shanku chuckled. "Maybe. Da could teach you just as well, most of it is just practice anyway."
Hilael handed her sack out to her with a smile. Shanku nodded and took it back.
"So is this a daily thing or something?" Shanku asked as they started back toward the Scissortail den.
"Almost. Well, about twice a week," Muso shrugged. "I think you embarrassed him pretty good this time, so maybe he'll leave us alone for a while."
They returned without further incident. There were many whispers in the great hall as they passed through. Muso looked around uncomfortably. Hilael and Shanku ignored it. Until a dam stepped directly in front of them.
"Can I help you?" Shanku asked, an ear laid back and one pricked forward.
"Did you do that to Jagan and his pack?" she asked.
"Do what?" Shanku asked innocently.
"That cub has been such a handful! It's about time somebody put him in his place," she said firmly. "Maybe now he'll learn some manners."
"You're welcome," Shanku said deviously. She nodded to the dam and entered the passages that lead to their little den. As soon as they arrived home, Muso began jabbering incessantly to Nari about the day they had. Shanku gave her mother the mushrooms that Hilael had gathered and began to work on her and Banhi's bed.
"You've barely been home a day and you're already getting into fights again?" Nari sighed and tossed her hands into the air. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Let me go see Granny Misen and Grampa Haro?" Shanku asked sweetly.
"Go on then," Nari shook her head. "Be back in time for supper. No brawling between now and then, ya hear?"
Shanku nodded and started out the door. She was not surprised to find Muso and Hilael tag along behind her. Muso was about to dart into their grandparents' home when Shanku put a hand on his shoulder.
"They haven't seen me in a while, remember?" she reminded him. Muso nodded impatiently and half-shoved her in the door.
"What's going on over there?" Misen demanded. She was heavyset, with long greyed hair pulled up in a bun. Her feathers and fur were soft shades of brown and she wore a simple tunic.
"Hey, Gran!" Shanku said as she pulled back the curtain. "Remember me?"
"Land sakes!" Misen exclaimed. "Come in, cubs, come in!"
Shanku was knocked into the doorway as Muso bolted in. "Shanku beat up Jagan!"
"Niranjan's grandson?" Misen asked in surprise.
"Yeah, that jerk that's always picking on Hilael. Shanku got him this morning!" Muso squealed.
"And you couldn't have come see your Gran before him?" Misen demanded.
"I didn't plan it that way!" Shanku said defensively. "I just got home last night and there he was picking on Hilael. I went out this morning to get some more bedding so I could get some rest tonight, and he confronted us again."
"Because you embarrassed him yesterday," Muso grinned.
"I suppose that's why Hilael wasn't as cut up as usual?" Misen growled and shook her head. "I was wondering who was doing that. You're right, Hilael. If you'd fought back, it 'would not have been good'."
"So he's an Elder's grandson. That doesn't give him the right to do whatever he wants. If he expects to be on the council someday, he's going to have to learn to behave himself," Shanku rolled her eyes.
"You sound just like your mother," Misen chuckled. "I just don't know if I should tell Gramp Haro about you and Jagan, he takes a little too much pleasure in these kinds of things."
"Don't tell Gramp Haro what?" Haro demanded as he came into the room. He was just as old and spindly as ever and still had a crooked cane to walk with.
"Shanku beat up Jagan!" Muso said quickly.
"Let's not over-glorify it, now," Shanku shook her head and turned to Hilael. "I don't blame you for not fighting back, Muso would get on my last nerve too."
Hilael chuckled as Muso went into exaggerated details of the brief tussle. "He has someone to look up to, now," Hilael replied.
"You're not that bad of a role model, either," Shanku said back quietly as Haro went into one of his usual rants about the ruling class of the Scissortail clan.
"But with our father being a warrior, certain things are expected of the rest of us," Hilael said grimly.
"Aye, I know. Like how my hunting was judged so harshly by our teachers," Shanku nodded. She felt very safe around Hilael and hoped they could have some time alone to catch up. Their conversation was ended as Haro, Misen, and Muso turned their attention toward Shanku and Hilael. Shanku stepped forward for an overdue hug from her grandparents and their happy tears to see her again. They had a pleasant visit. Misen brought out some baked goods for them to nibble on as Shanku told her tale.
Haro shook his head as Shanku finished and had told them of one of the reasons she had returned. "Not good. Magic is always trouble."
Not always, Shanku thought. But she knew better to argue with them about magic. Her mother and siblings were the only ones she expected to be fairly lax about the subject. Shanku then explained their current plan to go before the council and see about adjusting talks with the Imperial before things got further out of hand.
After voicing their concerns and their own ideas for the audience, Misen ushered them out the door to go home for supper. "Go now. It's suppertime and your ma is sure to want you!" When they got home, Zanzen had a good laugh during supper when he heard about Shanku and Jagan's skirmish.
"Nari, do you remember when we were courting and you slashed up Devani and Eila?" Zanzen asked Nari.
"How could I forget? Those hussies started accusing me of being a witch because you were chasing me and not them," Nari shuddered.
"Looks like that was heriditary," Zanzen chuckled. "Shanku likes to spar with the ruling class too!"
"That's not funny, Zanzen," Nari said coldly.
Zanzen chuckled again and cleared away the supper dishes.
Shanku was finishing breakfast with her family when they heard somebody by the door.
"Who's there?" Zanzen called warily.
"Good morning, sir," Katari nodded as he pulled back the curatin.
"Hiya, Katari!" Shanku squeaked. "Come, sit!"
"What brings you here so early?" Zanzen asked and motioned for Katari to join them.
"I know Shanku is going before the council and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind that I went with her," Katari said nervously.
"How come? You think we can't handle it?" Shanku grinned.
"No," Katari said and sat down. "I'm just wanting to get at damage control quickly for when you get into another fight."
"What makes you think I'm going to go around cracking heads?" Shanku asked.
"You've tangled twice with Jagan in the two days you've been home," Katari said flatly. "You're getting a new reputation, and it's a lot like your old one."
"Do your parents know about me already?" Shanku asked curiously.
"And they let you come over here anyway with the evil little trouble maker?"
"No," Katari chuckled. "But that never stopped me before."
"She always was good at corrupting your better judgment," Nari squeazed him on the shoulder and cleared away the breakfast dishes.
"I know," Katari replied and grinned at Shanku.
There was another stirring at the door. Bibot announced himself and entered the room.
"Hiya, Grampa!" Banhi said cheerfully. Bibot smiled and rubbed the top of her head.
"Shanku, Hilael. I have gotten an audience for you this afternoon," he stated. "I'm afraid it won't be very pleasant."
"I'm not surprised," Shanku said uneasily.
"You will also be judged for coming in two weeks early," Bibot said heavily. "I don't know how easy they will be on you, considering..."
"Considering my history and how I keep running into Jagan," Shanku finished.
"Thank you, sir Bibot," Nari said tiredly. "Would you like to stay for a moment?"
"No, I fear I have much work to do. It was good seeing you again, Zanzen and Nari. Cubs," Bibot nodded to them and excused himself.
Shanku waited nervously with her parents and Katari as she waited for the summons. Hilael seemed pleasantly distracted while he worked on some crocheting. Banhi and Muso were playing quietly in the floor. Katari was chatting casually with Zanzen. Nari was working on a stew to feed them for a few days. Shanku changed into her nicer tunic for the audience after she had helped her mother get the stew going.
After what seemed like much longer than it actually was, an escort arrived to call forth Shanku and Hilael. Nari wished them luck and out they went into the passageway. Shanku thought at first they were being lead to the the great hall, but the escort turned off near the entrance and lead them down a different path.
Shanku noted an immediate change in the cut of the stone. The walls and floor were smoother, and the passageway was straighter. The brackets on the walls holding torches and candles were more ornate. The passage opened into a great cavern. Seats had been carved out of various stalagmites. Shanku looked up to see parts of the ceiling were of glass, which explained the glass above ground. It let in sunlight and lessened the need for torches during the day.
The escort lead them to the center where a semi-circle of the seven elders and surrounding members of the council sat. They came to a stop. Hilael stood in the center behind the escort, with Shanku on his right and Katari on his left.
"Hilael and Shanku, cubs of Zanzen, and Katari, cub of Ritava, come to seek audience pertaining to the Imperial raiding parties," the escort announced. The leader of the elders, Niranjan, nodded and dismissed him.
"State your case," Niranjan said flatly.
"We have received word from the far north that the Imperial Sylvan are raiding not just their Feral kinsmen, but also some of the Arctic and northern Plains Kurach. They have agitated our fellow Kurach to the point the Arctic and northern Plains are close to declaring war on all the Sylvan if the raids are not stopped," Hilael spoke clearly and calmly, with a gentle monotone that put Shanku at ease.
"This is truly troubling. Where did you hear such things? You are just a hunter, are you not?" Niranjan asked.
"My sister, Shanku, has travelled many places, and spent time with the Arctic Kurach, where she was given the message to bring back to us," Hilael replied.
The Elder turned his gaze toward Shanku, who was standing quietly by her brother. "We sentenced you to exile, did we not?"
"Yes, sir," Shanku nodded. She tried to speak with the same evenness as Hilael, but her voice wavered a bit. She was not trembling, but she was still very nervous. And that pesky twinge in her chest was back, sharper than ever.
"And if memory serves, you were not due back yet," Niranjan narrowed his eyes. The other members of the council began to whisper to one another.
"No, sir," Shanku inhaled deeply. "But I am barely two weeks early. I felt the message was more important."
"Do you remember why we exiled you?" Niranjan peered at her.
"Because I had made friends with a gryphon and dragon," Shanku said simply. "I was accused of wanderlust."
"And did your banishment not discourage you from seeking further allies where you should not?"
"With all due respect, sir, I would have died if I had not sought new allies since my current ones had abandoned me," Shanku said and clasped her hands behind her back. This is not going well... She clenched her jaw and tried to ignore the growing sensation in her teeth.
"I certainly hoped you would have learned your lesson," the Elder said coldly as he stared down his nose at Shanku. "But it doesn't appear that you have."
"Please, sir, there are more important matters at hand," Shanku said slowly. She looked down and away. There was a throbbing in her head that was harder to ignore than the other sensations.
"Do you know the penalty for returning early from exile?" Niranjan asked coldly as he leaned in toward her.
"Do you have any idea what kind of life I've had because of your stupid decision?" Shanku growled vehemently as the Elder tried to go into a long lecture. That twinge in her chest was burning and how her teeth itched so!
"Oh, jeepers, here we go," Katari muttered. Waves of almost a tangible sense of aggression were pulsing from her and Katari cautiously took a step away.
"I had to fight a minocentaur and nether monsters to save a town from being eaten. I got stuck on a ship with a crabby crewman and a chef obsessed with potatoes for years, then my entire crew was slaughtered before my eyes by pirates who then kidnapped me and made me turn into a big, angry hairball. Then, when I escaped them, I was taken prisoner by a bunch of big, angry hairballs who made me haul grit for a bleedin' dragon, who later sent me to work in a smothering forge with an overbearing dwarven smith! On my way home, I got caught in a blizzard and nearly froze to death. I went toe to toe with a yeti to protect one of the Arctic Kurach and then I got threatened by a priestess because of the stupid Sylvan raids!" Shanku drew herself up to her full height, her ears laid back and her wings flaring around her dangerously as her growls became more aggressive.
"And that's not the worst of it. I was taught how to hunt by humans and a cat. A cat! What Kurach is taught to hunt by a dang cat!?" A blue aura started to form around her. "You have failed in your duties as an Elder. You are a disappointment far worse than I ever was!" With a sharp growl, Shanku felt herself transform into her feral form. She jabbed a clawed finger in his direction. "Don't you dare start in with that 'hope you learned your lesson' crap again, and don't even think about trying to exile me again, because I'll be teaching you a lesson this time! The whole clane could die and all you care about is your arrogant, irrelevant rules!"
The entire hall fall silent as a Feral gone feral stood breathing heavily among them, her black lips drawn in a vicious snarl. Her whole body felt on fire to finally said what she had wanted to say for years. The only thing that could make it better was if she could actually sink her teeth into those who had torn her from her family, who had made her face that frightening minocentaur, who had condemned her aboard that cursed ship to take so many innocent lives.
Two guards came forth to take her away. With a flash of her eyes, Shanku struck one fiercely in the jaw with the heel of her hand, and just as quickly spun around and kicked the other in the stomach with the pad of her foot. She held her stance a moment, ready to kick again. It took a great measure of control to restrain herself from continuing. Both of the guards were dazed and edged back a few paces. Shanku did not pursue, returned her foot to the ground, and turned to face the lead Elder again without further incident. Hilael, unfazed, had merely stepped aside so he would not be struck by a falling guard. Katari had ducked his head and held his face in his hand, shaking his head slowly in embarrassment.
"Cub," the Elder began. "I think you need to calm down."
"I am calm!" Shanku's eyes flashed dangerously. "I spent months in the mountains being taught control by the Highland, instead of cowering in fear in a hole in the ground, afraid of anything that so much as reflected light."
Hilael stared at the ground, quiet as always. This couldn't get much worse, he thought with a bit of amusement. While his own emotions were fairly level, if not a little blank, he could feel Shanku's anger radiating out of her in strong waves. It was strange, how he rarely felt passionate about anything, yet could feel the passion of others as if they were his own. He hadn't met many who also experienced that, so as usual he kept quiet about it.
Katari was also staring at the ground, wishing a hole would just open up and swallow him so he would not have to be present at this disaster in diplomacy. Why did I want to come along again?
"If the Imperials are going feral as the Arctic said, you're not going to stand a chance against them," Shanku said and crossed her arms, finally starting to feel calmer. Her impulses were still tickling her senses and trying to cloud her judgement, but she could suppress them again without much thought. "There's more to being feral than just being angry. They're stronger, faster, their senses are keener. Their hides are thicker and their claws are sharper. If these skirmishes escalate, they will slice you to ribbons before you so much as tickle them. If your guards couldn't take me, a mere cub on the cusp of adulthood, what hope do you have against a flank of fully grown Sylvans with years of training who've gone feral?"
Hushed whispers echoed throughout the hall as various Elders and council members conferred with one another. Shanku waited patiently, all the while keeping a steely gaze locked on the eldest of the lot. Katari risked a glance up at the Elder to see his reaction.
Niranjan glared coldly down his nose at the three cubs before him. Two were meek and quiet, as they should be. But that one cub, that one bothersome, rogue cub, who dared stand before him and evoke magic. Even worse, assumed the forbidden form! However, she was dangerous. Much too dangerous for them to keep in the clan.
"I do believe," Niranjan said at length. "It is time to send you away once more."
Shanku narrowed her eyes at him, silently daring him to try her patience and banish her once more.
"You and your brother should go, and we will send an escort with you to the Imperial Grove," Niranjan said cooly. And give me time to seek a permanent solution about you.
"What are your wishes?" Hilael asked calmly.
"Reconnaissance," Niranjan nodded. "If what you say is true, we will need to confirm it for ourselves."
"Sir, I'd like to volunteer as scout," Katari spoke up. "I'm a trained hunter and used to passing through quietly."
"It will be dangerous cub. But if you insist, you will be the scout," Niranjan nodded.
"Thank you, sir," Katari said solemnly and bowed.
"Yay!" Shanku chirped, irreverant as always, and allowed herself to return to her natural form.
"Hilael, you are to be our primary spokesperson. This brash sister of yours is bound to get us all killed. I've still half a mind to lock her away," Niranjan said and laid his ears back in irritation. Hilael nodded and Shanku crossed her arms indignantly.
"There's one other matter," Shanku said coldly.
"What now, cub? You try my patience," Niranjan sighed.
"Your grandson. When I came in the other day, I found him and his friends attacking my younger brother. I've since learned this has been going on for a long time, with complaints from other clan members as well," Shanku started. Hilael nudged her to be quiet, but Shanku continued. "And this isn't the first time those of the highborn have picked on us lowborns for the dumbest of reasons, especially my family. Either it stops, or I put a stop to it."
"I will speak to him. Back to the matter at hand," Niranjan said. So this is who cracked his friends' ribs and jaws.
There was still tension in the room, but not due to having a cub gone feral this time. The council and the Elders began to discuss with one another and the cubs about what they would do when they reached the Imperial Grove. With the focus returned back to Hilael, he was able to help the council create a thorough plan for their journey, and for what they should do if the Imperial refused to listen.
"How did it go?" Zanzen asked anxiously as his cubs and Katari returned to his den. Both his and Nari's parents were waiting as well, and for once weren't bickering with each other.
"Shanku nearly got us all arrested!" Katari exclaimed and sat down on a chair. He put his head in his hands and shook his head in frustration.
"Shanku, what did you do?" Zanzen asked sternly.
"She only went full feral in front of the council members and assaulted two guards!" Katari groaned. "Madam Nari, do you have any wine about?"
"I think I'll have some as well," Nari muttered and went to fetch some for all who wanted it.
"Can you not behave yourself even for a few candlemarks?" Zanzen demanded. Bibot was beyond words and just glared at the rebellious cub.
"Hey, it got the point across!" Shanku said and crossed her arms over her chest. "Hilael made a good case, but they were too distracted by my stupid exile to focus. After I settled that, Hilael was able to do his thing again."
"So, what happens now?" Haro asked.
"We're being sent to the Imperial Grove to talk to them directly," Hilael said. "Confirm reports of raids and shapeshifting, learn why they're doing it."
"We'll be sent with an escort too. It'll be the three of us!" Shanku grinned. "Kind of exciting!"
"And very dangerous. How do you plan to get their plans?" Bibot asked, very worried.
"Ask them," Hilael said simply.
"What if they're not feeling very talkative?" Bibot pressed.
Hilael began to fall silent and looked away.
"Hilael, I am speaking to you!" Bibot said roughly.
"Hey, give the cub a break," Haro bopped Bibot on the head with his cane. "Ya know the cub's had a rough day and needs some quiet time."
"Something he needs to get over he wants to make any progress," Bibot growled back.
"Enough!" Shanku barked. "Grandpa Bibot, you need to learn to accept Hilael as he is! For every gift, there is a price. Hilael is very intelligent, he's a great planner, he can be a great diplomat, but the cost is that he needs time to rest and gather himself. Especially true with sparrows. So deal with it! And Grandpa Haro, quit smacking him so much, I've about had it with your bickering."
Nari looked at her daughter curiously and Zanzen stared in shock at Shanku. Bibot and Haro both flustered, but did not retaliate. Ysu sighed heavily and Misen surpressed a snicker. She is my granddaughter! Misen chuckled quietly.
"Um, Shanku, should you talk that sharply to your grandsires?" Katari asked awkwardly.
"Only when they start acting like fledglings," Shanku grumbled. "We've never been able to do much as a family because they're always bickering."
"Coming from the one who fluffed up at the council?" Katari asked flatly.
"It got the point across," Shanku shrugged. "And I've been holding that in for several years. It was going to eat me alive if I didn't get it off my chest. It's not like I've been telling it to them for years and years on end like those two are always doing."
"Alright, then," Nari quickly downed what was left of her wine. "I think that's enough for one day."
She ushered her guests out the door, and then her family to bed as soon as Muso and Banhi came back from visiting their friends.
Late that night, Nari lay awake in her nest by her mate. Her family all seemed to be sleeping so peacefully. All around her was their gentle breathing as they slept. Carefully, she got up and left her nest. She crept over to the cupboard for a glass so she could get herself a drink from their water vase. Nari crossed the room and sat down on one of the cushions at the table as she slowly sipped her water, her mind racing with thoughts and worries.
She pricked her ears forward at a soft rustling. In the dim light she saw Hilael get up and join her. Nari smiled softly. His breathing was always so calm and so controlled she rarely knew when he was asleep or just lying awake. Hilael seemed to have inherited her trouble falling asleep.
"I lose two cubs this time," Nari whispered softly.
"Not for long," Hilael replied, whispering as well.
"I'm going to miss my gathering buddy," Nari smiled gently. "But at least I know Shanku will be in good hands."
Hilael ducked his head shyly. "Katari will be there too."
"He's a good cub and a good hunter, with a bright future," Nari nodded. "But you are one of the best gatherers of the cubs. They'll need your knowledge should they become ill or injured, or if game is scarce."
Hilael sat quietly and said nothing.
"How do you feel about this trip?" Nari asked.
"Not much," Hilael said slowly after some thought. "But, a lot too. Nervous about doing something I've never done before, travelling with an escort I don't know, going into a new territory with new smells and trees..." Hilael shuddered.
"Lots of new changes and experiences," Nari nodded.
"But I'm curious, so it won't be so bad," Hilael shrugged. "Katari will be there, and Shanku is a good fighter. We'll be safe."
"Good enough a fighter to hold off an Imperial fleet if things go wrong?" Nari asked worriedly.
"Between her good fortune and my cunning, we should get away," Hilael grinned. "Better to be exiled from the Imperials than the Ferals."
"Try to get some sleep, sweetie," Nari chuckled. She finished her cup of water, kissed her son on the cheek, and went back to bed. Hilael sat at the table a moment longer before returning to his nest with Muso.
"What? What do you mean you're leaving? For the Imperials?" Muso asked in distress as Shanku gathered up her belongings the following morning. Muso and Banhi had been out playing with other cubs and had missed last night's exchange. Hilael was waiting patiently by the door. He had already said his goodbyes.
"Yes, I'm going to see if they can be made to see sense," Shanku nodded as she finished packing. "It was Hilael's idea, remember? You were there when we made plans. And we're under orders from the council to do so!"
"But... but..." Muso scrambled. He had just gotten his eldest sibling back, and now she was leaving again. And taking Hilael with her! And worse, what if...? "Do you know what this is going to do to me? I'm going to be captain! I'm already getting picked on enough because of you, and this is just going to make it worse! They won't let me be captain!" he cried.
Shanku stopped for a moment and looked at her little brother. He was trembling and full of passion. And he was right. Her actions long ago had certainly caused her family so much more harm than she had thought it would. She knelt down to look at him levelly and took his hands gently into her hands.
"I know, and I am so sorry now for what was. This is something I must do. And you must do what you must. If it is right for you to be captain, and I am in the way, you must declare separation," Shanku said.
"But—" Muso protested.
"No 'buts'," Shanku shook her head. "Disown me, Muso, if that's what it takes. We each must live our own lives. If I fail, I may never get to come back. And you must not let that get in the way of your being happy or doing what you were meant to do," Shanku kissed his little fingers and stood. "I know you'll be a fantastic captain someday. The Scissortails are probably going to need you all the more if this doesn't work."
Shanku gathered her backpack, kissed him on the cheek, and left their den. Muso was speechless. He looked about frantically, trying to think of some way to keep her from going, from making things worse. He screamed his frustration, curled up in his nest, and sobbed bitterly.
Outside, Shanku brushed away a tear of her own. She simply had to succeed now, for both the sake of her kind, and for that of her family's. Muso and Banhi could not be allowed to grow up as Hilael had! Or worse, as she had when she was with the pirates and forced to kill regularly. With new determination, she strode off to where she and Hilael were to meet Katari and their escort on their way to Imperial territory.
Ah, familiar old Elders. Still the same old fools who had me thrown out. I should thank them, for I'd never have met the people I did otherwise.
But what new repercussions do I have to worry about for my family and friends?
~ Shanku Ravenwing