Chapter 35: Preparation

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Representatives from each clan were sent to neutral grounds to determine how many warriors from each clan were allowed to compete in the games. After much deliberation, they settled on five warriors apiece for a total of twenty on each team. The raiding team consisted of the Falnor, Sushaw, Waebre, and fundamental Fernwick. The Nyre team consisted of the rebel Fernwick, Blade, Weolcen, and Scissortail. The three lower clans of the Nyre simply were too far away to be very interested in competing.

Small parties were sent by the Ferals and Imperials to clean up the ruins and prepare them for the upcoming tournament that was one short month away.

The Keeper remained perched atop his crumbling lair and watched as the Sylvans tidied up the ruins. It seemed the old gryphon never slept or ate, and never stepped foot inside his nest. He never spoke to the Sylvans either. Just kept his seemingly blank stare on them at all times, day and night.

If any of the Sylvans began to be hostile toward each other, the Keeper would let a low growl. Not wanting to chance his wrath, or the wrath of whatever put him there, the Sylvans would bite their tongues and return to work.

Vines and bramble were cleared away, rubble and fallen stones were put back in their proper places or removed, and before long the ruins started to be whole again.

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As the ruins were straightened up and cleaned, the Elders of the various clans gathered together to determine the rules and activities to settle the disputes by showing which had the greatest strength, speed, skill, and discipline. The final event would involve a melée between the two sides until one warrior was left standing.

The individual activities would be performed by a different warrior from the five selected for each clan.

Speed was quickly determined to be shown once on foot and once in the air by the fastest flyer and fastest runner.

A contest of strength could be arranged with rocks, logs, or perhaps wrestling a large animal.

The feat of skill was tricky and long disputed. Ferals typically did not enjoy weapons, whereas Imperials found them quite useful. Begrudgingly, the Ferals finally consented to a shooting range where the warrior best with a sling would take out sitting and moving targets.

And of course, with the fifth activity being combat, the very best warrior would be representing each clan.

With the activities decided, the Elders dismissed themselves and went to their respective clans to inform the captains to begin picking their five best warriors and the criteria to use during their selection.

While not thrilled with what was in essence a talent show, the captains complied.

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The Sylvans were now left with just one problem. Who was to judge these competitions? None trusted the other to remain unbiased, and the Imperials didn't trust the Prairie Kurach to remain neutral either. The Keeper seemed to be blind, not to mention disinterested. So, out was sent a request for a mediator to help them determine the best performer for each activity.

To their surprise, many took interest.

The cervitaurs, being the most fleet footed of the forest, would test the runners.

The dragons, priding themselves as masters of the air, decided they should judge the flying competition.

The dwarves, feeling they were the toughest things around, would oversee the strongest contenders.

The nimble kirshani felt they were the most qualified at determining feats of skill.

The Sylvans were able to agree on the judges for the upcoming games and sent out tokens of gratitude to each species.

With that decided, they returned their focus to preparing the ruins, training their warriors, and being harassed by the more festive of their clans who wished to make sure the ruins were also properly prepared for the coinciding autumn celebrations. They were organizing their own contests for food, crafts, music, decorations, and dances. It was sure to be a grand event.

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"Do you think Da will get to be able to participate?" Shanku asked excitedly. "What kinds of games do you think they'll play?"

"You're asking the wrong person," Nari laughed. "But I do hope he doesn't get hurt."

"Maybe they'll have races," Shanku mused. "On foot and on wing."

"Maybe they'll have to face a minobull!" Muso beamed. "Wouldn't that be exciting?"

"No, no. The minocentaur have settled down a good bit with the truce, we don't want them to get angry with being used for sport," Nari said quickly.

"Knowing them, they'd love the chance to off a few Kurach," Shanku shuddered.

"Do you think they'll let them use the feral form?" Banhi asked.

"Good question. Ironically, none of the Ferals really use the feral form or even remember how to do it," Shanku replied. "I wonder if the rebel Fernwick warriors will teach it to them?"

"I doubt they'd be allowed," Nari shook her head. "The Elders all still have a lot of reservations about shifting and magic in general. I'd be surprised if they haven't scolded the Fernwick rebels about it."

"And risk ticking off their only Imperial ally? Surely they're not that stupid," Shanku frowned.

"They exiled four cubs within the past fifty years. I don't think too highly of their intellectual capacities," Nari said flatly.

"There is that..." Shanku trailed off.

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"Ever wonder why we don't just focus on raising a bunch of big, meaty goats so we don't have to go prowling through the brush all the time?" Shanku asked as she helped Katari search for a goat.

"Then we'd be spending all our time out with the herds to keep other things from hunting them," Katari replied. "At least this way we're getting some exercise."

"Sigrid had me help a shepherd once when trying to figure out how to put me to good use in the mountains. You'd be surprised at how much running you have to do when the kids feel frisky!" Shanku giggled. "Or adventurous. Or plain ol' dumb. There was one that was always getting lost or left behind. I hauled that thing much too often."

"Sounds like fighting brambling is easier than fighting a stubborn ol' goat then," Katari teased.

"So, ah, how set are they on having this goat we're looking for?" Shanku asked.

"It's a favorite. Why?" Katari asked.

"I dunno. Been a while since I went fishing," Shanku shrugged. "It's a pretty day for sitting on a bank next to a creek."

"Been a while since I had a good turtle too," Katari nodded. "Tomorrow. We'll go fishing tomorrow for some fish and turtles."

"Sounds good to me!" Shanku chirped. "What kind of fish have we got around here, anyway? I never got to go before my little holiday."

"Catfish, gar, bass..." Katari began listing.

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The next day, Katari took Shanku fishing as he said he would. She was a giddy pup bouncing from tree to tree, which brought Katari a good bit of amusement.

"Have you ever been at all?" he asked.

"When I was up north," Shanku nodded. "I got them a lot of soggy kindling!"

"So you've never caught a fish?"

"Nope! But I was very distracted last time sitting on a frozen lake and having to stab the hole to keep it from freezing over again. This time, it'll be nice and warm."

"And generally not a good idea to stab the water out at the creek," Katari grinned. "You'd scare all the fish away."

"What about your turtles?" Shanku asked curiously.

"The little painted turtles, likely. An alligator snapping turtle? I've never known one to be afraid of anything. Rather grumpy little reptiles too," Katari replied.

They arrived at the creek and Katari set out lines for his desired turtles before settling on the bank next to Shanku to try their luck for whatever fish happened to come by. A few hints and tips later, and Shanku was pulling in a couple of fish nearly as well as her fishing buddy.

By the end of the day, Katari had managed to get two turtles and three catfish, while Shanku caught a bass and two crappie.

"Not bad for a beginner," Katari teased.

"Not bad for supper either!" Shanku beamed and proudly hauled her catch home.

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"Your wish came true. Your sire will be participating," Nari sighed to Shanku.

"What will he be doing?" Shanku asked excitedly. "The melée?"

"No, that will be a fellow named Gadon," Nari answered. "He will be in the running competition."

"I didn't know he was that fast footed," Shanku said and tilted her head to the side.

"You didn't stay long enough to find out what happens when you get in trouble," Muso shuddered. "Da can move."

"Anything we can do to help him out?" Shanku wondered.

"Considering he is about to enter his prime and you're not quite grown yet, I'm not sure what you could do," Nari replied.

"I might could figure something out," Shanku shrugged. "Or cheer him on, at least."

"Families generally aren't allowed near when training is going on," Nari shook her head. "We may not get to see him until the games begin."

"But that's still a month away!" Shanku groaned.

"If we can wait ten years for you, you can wait a month for him," Nari chided gently.

Shanku grumbled something incoherent and focused on carding wool.

"You can teach me how to fight," Muso grinned mischievously as he picked bramble out of wool to be washed and carded. "I might could teach you something too."

"Why not?" Shanku chuckled and nodded.

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After what felt like months of grading, scouring, carding, combing, and spinning, Shanku and Muso finally had the free time to spar with each other as Nari and other hunter and gatherers joined the spinners to turn all the prepped wool into yarn and eventually woven into cloth.

"Since it's been up to you to save Hilael's hide all this time, let's see how good you are or how bad those thugs are," Shanku taunted playfully as she assumed a ready stance.

"Oh, I'm gonna be a captain someday, so I'm not something to take lightly!" Muso teased back as he stretched.

"Not if you don't survive being a grunt first!" Shanku laughed and leapt at him.

While perhaps not much more than rough housing between siblings, and certainly appearing that way to anybody who happened to notice, Shanku and Muso sparred for hours. Muso was very light on his feet and much more nimble than Shanku expected, and Shanku in turn was more flexible and precise than Muso expected.

"Maybe you're not so bad, for a little runt," Shanku grinned as she breathed heavily.

"Have to be," Muso panted. "But I usually do have to catch those guys by surprise."

"No shame in an ambush. Saves strength and the element of surprise is invaluable as a hunter too," Shanku replied and sat down.

"So, we gonna do this regularly?" Muso asked. To his delight, Shanku agreed.

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Banhi, of course, had no interest in Shanku and Muso's brawling, and never thought too highly of Hilael's incessant brooding. She dutifully helped her mother in whatever ways her small hands could, even if that meant only braiding her mother's hair so it wouldn't be in her way.

Sometimes she would be asked to fetch water for the spinners while they worked and Banhi would happily oblige. There were other small female cubs like her that were helping in what ways they could, and they would often play together when they couldn't find anything useful to do.

"My mother is going to hold a contest for us," said one cub. "Which is the prettiest and has the best ribbons!"

They often talked of what they would wear, what beads they would use when they would get to go to the greatly talked about festivities, and how they would show off their finest in that mother's pageant.

The more shy were nervous at the thought of it and the more roguish had greater interest in the cooking and craft displays that would be there.

The nearby mothers would chuckle and shake their heads as their daughters gossiped and planned on a level that would put some of their elderly great-grandmothers to shame.

"We'll have our work cut out making some of this happen for them," laughed one mother.

"But they're worth it," nodded another.

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At long last, the day finally arrived that the contested clans were to travel to the ruins for the games and the autumn festival. Naturally, some stayed behind to guard the dens, the ill, and the elderly who couldn't travel.

Shanku was quite excited to be on the road with her family. It seemed as though several of her passions had come together and things were going well for once in her life. She almost forgot about the ominous goblin hound, but Hilael's expression being more somber than usual was an ever present reminder.

"Our kind has gotten outta worse scrapes," Shanku offered quietly. Hilael simply looked at her and said nothing.

It's here! It's finally here! Sure, the Highland had their training games and all, but this is a lot different with higher stakes, and Da even got picked to compete too!

I wish Hilael and Ma wouldn't worry so much about that demon dog. What if it turns out he's just got a bad case of fleas or something? But at the same time, I kinda hope he doesn't show up...

~ Shanku Ravenwing