Chapter 21: Travelling North

A lone doe browsed casually through the forest, nibbling on leaves and chewing on the backs of trees. It was a beautifully mild spring day, and it was making her feel lazy. Unknown to her, a black winged Kurach lay in wait in the branches above her.

As she passed through a deceptively safe clearing, Shanku dove from the limbs and kicked the surprised doe to the ground. Shanku had nearly perfected her striking style of hunting and managed to fall onto the doe instead of needing to roll and right herself. She ended the doe's life quickly.

Shanku retrieved her clothes and backpack she had stashed in the tree and got dressed. It was much more comfortable hunting in the buff when she was alone than when she was surrounded by a pack of Highland cubs. She shifted from her feral form to that of a girl and hoisted the deer on her shoulders. Shanku walked through the forest until she came to a break in the trees.

Down below in a shallow valley was a quaint village of mortar and thatched buildings. The cobblestone streets were busy with the day's business as shopkeepers sold their wares to passersby. Shanku made her way among them to the local butcher. She laid the deer on a table and smiled at the butcher.

The butcher examined the doe carefully. He scratched his chin a moment then nodded. He paid her for the third and final deer he had requested. Shanku happily counted her coins when she left and then made her way to the general store. She purchased a heavy cloak and pair of leather boots from the shopkeeper and cheerfully went on her way. She had been travelling for a few months and it was getting a bit nippy the further north she followed the mountain ranges.

As she left the village and returned to the woods, she heard the sound of heavy footfalls behind her. She chose to ignore it for a while, until the owner of those footfalls spoke up.

"It's dangerous for women to walk alone in the woods," came a gutteral voice behind her.

"Good thing I'm not a woman," Shanku chuckled and shook her head. She removed her cloak and hung it on a nearby tree.

"Finish undressing and come over here, whatever you are then," came the laugh in return.

Shanku took off her backpack and her boots. She glanced over her shoulder with the face of a large canine. "Gladly."

A shriek rang out through the forest as the one following her was viciously clawed, thrown to the ground, and pinned on his stomach.

"It's dangerous for men to walk alone in the woods," Shanku snarled sadistically in his ear with his arm and head pinned below her forepaws and her knee keeping pressure on his lower back.

"Don't kill me!" he squeaked and tried to pull away.

"You'll live," Shanku rolled her eyes. She slipped a hand down to his belt and relieved him of the leather pouch tied there. "Just without your coin purse."

"Have fun explaining to your buddies how you lost it!" Shanku dangled her prize before his face after she had gotten it off of him. With a cruel laugh, she gathered her belongings and left him.

Shanku was mostly able to stay among the trees and avoid contact with man. When she needed supplies, she would trade game and fur for silver or supplies, or sometimes for a soft bed for a night.

She would often travel on the rough roads between towns as she followed the mountain range through the Eor forest to the northern lands the mysterious Kurach were rumoured to be. It was a quiet and solitary way to travel for the most part. But there were highwaymen to contend with and she looked forward to tangling with them. They were nothing more than pirates on land to her and she enjoyed stealing from them.

And woe to them if she caught them in the act of robbing another!

As Shanku was making her way from one village, she happened on a couple in a wagon that were in the process of being threatened roundly for their goods. She quietly climbed a tree, set her pack aside safely, found a sturdy limb to leap from, and withdrew her dagger.

"Oi!" Shanku called down to the thieves. "Take on something more your size!"

The thieves grinned cruelly when they saw a girl challenging them. Confidence quickly changed to fear when Shanku fell upon them in her feral form. Old hatred of the pirates she sailed with plagued her and she didn't spare a single thief, even the one who tried to flee.

The couple in the wagon weren't thankful so much as frightened and goaded their horses to run for the road. Shanku was a bit embarrassed and ashamed she had spooked the wrong people. She would need to be more careful in future rescues to keep her human form guarded in case she scared the victims too. As she saw no harm in stealing from thieves, she took what gold and valuables the brigands had upon them, gathered her own belongings, and continued down the road.

One evening as she was enjoying a hot meal at an inn, she overheard a couple at a nearby table complaining about a "winged werewolf" on the roads. Shanku smiled to herself. It wasn't much more flattering than "the black plague". She had the comfort of knowing this time that the ones she hurt were thieves and brigands, not merchants and honest men.

Well, mostly honest men. Shanku furrowed her brows angrily as she remembered one of the men she thought had been a good mate of his ship was selling some of the jewels he had stolen in one of the seedier ports they frequented.

Sometimes news of the "winged werewolf" would reach a town before her and she would be treated with heavy suspicion when she arrived. Shanku would conduct what business she needed and quickly be on her way.

Highwaymen and mistrusting townsfolk weren't Shanku's only issue. Instead of goblins like in the Nyre, the Eor forest had kobolds. They were the height of goblins, but were much more like lizards with a rat's tail. They had a pair of horns growing from the tops of their heads and spines, along their jaw and down their backs, and sharp claws on the ends of their fingers and toes. And did they bark! Shanku passed by many clans of kobolds and each time they would hide on a nearby ridge to bark at her as she passed. Often Shanku would give in to her feral side and bark right back at them.

To her surprise, she even found a minocentaur in the Eor. But the spotted minocentaur didn't see her as he browsed among the lower limbs. Shanku flew high above him and the tree tops to avoid being seen. Her fear of them only seemed to grow the older she got.

Shanku came to rest on one of the rocky ridges and sighed with relief. Relief became annoyance as the familiar angry yips came from behind a nearby rock.

"How much further do I have to go before I'm rid of you mongrels?" Shanku huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"You're going west!" snapped the kobold and he pointed off behind her. "That way is north!"

"Thanks, I guess," Shanku grumbled as she spread her wings.

"Shoo!" the kobold hissed at her, and shouted after her as she left, "And don't come back!"

The leaves began to change color and the weather was getting cooler. Autumn was coming to the mountains once again. It seemed the summer got shorter the further north she went. Shanku sat roasting a rabbit one chilly night over her fire, becoming annoyed.

"How much further!?" she shouted in frustration and bit her cloak. I've been flappin' and hoofin' it for four months now! She relaxed and sighed. Although, as Dawson would say, "Some things are worth the wait." I certainly hope so and that this isn't some goose chase. Shanku enjoyed her supper and pulled her cloak around her as she went to sleep.

She woke the next morning to see a bright green lizard with a black and white striped tail looking at her intently.

"Are you going to bark at me too?" Shanku asked tiredly.

The little lizard tilted its curly-horned head and darted forward to lick her on the cheek. Shanku recoiled in disgust and ferverntly wiped her cheek.

"What was that for!?" she demanded. But it was gone. She looked all around her and found him perched on the remains of last night's supper.

"Just go help yourself to my breakfast then," she grumbled grumpily with arms and legs crossed.

The little lizard trilled happily and nibbled on her rabbit. Shanku ignored him and folded her cloak, placed it into her pack, and slipped it on. Cloaks were awkward to wear when she was in her natural form and at best made good blankets at night.

Shanku continued on through the forest, absentmindedly stepping around ferns and dodging thorns. She heard a fluttering behind her and turned to see the lizard on a treebranch close to her head. She finally noticed the lizard was in fact a small fae dragon, and had six insect-like wings sprouting from his shoulders.

"I suppose I'm stuck with you?" she asked.

The little dragon tilted its head and climbed onto the top of her head, its tail curled around her ear for balance.

"Very well," Shanku raised an eyebrow. The dragon leaned over her face to look her in the eye and trilled. "You do realize that where I'm going gets much colder, right mate?"

The little dragon curled up in a ball on the top of her head.

"Make yourself at home then," Shanku sighed. With the faery dragon in tow, Shanku began her journey again. The forest gave way to an open expanse of yellow and brown grasses, greenish brown shrubs, and yellow and purple flowers.

"Kind of heathery," Shanku nodded as she looked around. She saw the grasses wave and a chill breeze washed over her. The little dragon tensed in shock and quickly dove down behind her shoulder for cover.

"Kri! Krikrikrikri, bleh!" he chittered and complained.

"Yeah, mean wind," Shanku laughed, a wing before her body for her own protection. She took off her pack and kneeled on the ground. The faery dragon tilted his head to the side and watched curiously as Shanku pulled out a cloak and her boots. She fastened the cloak around her as she became a girl and then slipped on her boots.

"Happy now?" she asked.

The dragon trilled in approval.

Shanku looked at her pack still sitting on the ground.

"In retrospect, I should have put the bag on before the cloak. Oops," she muttered bashfully. She shrugged and grabbed it by the straps. "At least I remembered to grab my boots beforehand."

The warm sun did little to counteract the cold breeze. It made the grasses and Shanku's hair dance and sway. Her cloak rippled and billowed as it was filled by the wind. So much for a little extra heat. At least it wards off some of the wind.

"I don't have a tiny dragon sweater. And I doubt I can generate enough body heat for the both of us," she said at length as she crossed the gently rolling hills. "Maybe you should go home."

The little dragon narrowed his eyes at her, turned his head, and belched a brilliant blue flame.

"Alright, so you can make your own," she said weakly. The flame had been very hot. The dragon trilled matter-of-factly and snuggled into her cloak.

"How much further do you think?" Shanku asked as she hiked up the side of a ridge. She looked out at the vast land before her. "Hrm, a lot."

She took a moment to look around. Far away in the distance, she saw a few collections of trees growing together. Long streaks of late-blooming flowers stretched over the hills and rocks jutted from the ground in many places.

"Wonder what there is to eat here?" Shanku wondered aloud. Large game would likely be hard to find. Deer-kin preferred the trees and she hadn't seen any kind of wild cattle in a long time.

The faery dragon coiled onto her shoulder and sprang off. His six wings beat fervently with a whirring sound and he curled his tail just so beneath him as he buzzed off.

He flew much faster than Shanku expected him to be capable of and jogged a ways behind him. Where could that little lizard be going?

With a sudden dive, the dragon landed behind a bush. Shanku heard angry screeches from both the dragon and what sounded to be a rodent. Shanku stepped around the bush to find the little dragon smiling in his little lizard way up at her from his fresh kill.

"Yay, a rabbit," Shanku said. After all the rabbits she had been forced to live off of at the beginning of her exile and when she first escaped the pirates, they were not at the top of her preferred menu. She knealt down and drew her knife. "If you'd like it roasted, go find some kindling while I dress it."

The dragon trilled and buzzed off once again. He landed many times here and there, gathering sticks and dried leaves. As he went to reach for one final twig, it was yanked away from him! Mouth gaping in shock, he looked around to see what could have stolen his beautiful twig. He met the angry glare of a rat. The rat was wanting to impress his potential mate with a twig for her nest. Rat and dragon glared at each other.

Shanku saw a cloud of smoke poof up from the grass. Not to her surprise, she saw the dragon return with a half-burned rat.

"Got a supper all to yourself then?" she chuckled. The dragon trilled and set about to enjoy his prize.

The faery dragon gave Shanku the kindling he had collected and Shanku took some dried limbs from the nearby bushes. "Lucky this bush had a few dry limbs, eh?" She asked as she made a fire. She placed strips of meat on the end of a sharp stick and roasted bits of the rabbit the dragon had been kind enough to catch for her.

"Where do you suppose we find shelter out here?" She asked as she turned her stick over the fire.

A muffled trill came from the dragon and Shanku looked to see the hindquarters of the rat hanging from the dragon's mouth.

"Please do not talk with your mouth full," Shanku shuddered. She looked behind her to the bush. "I reckon we'll make the most of this bush."

It was the largest thing she had seen out here. When they finished their meal, Shanku put out the fire and smothered it with dirt lest the wind catch it during the night and catch the dry grasses on fire. She did not want to wake up to being burned.

Shanku curled up under the bush and drew the cloak tight around her. She laid her head on her pack and used it as a lumpy pillow. The little dragon curled up next to her stomach and laid himself down. They had finally arrived in the northern tundra. Now to find the Kurach rumoured to live here.

Bid here for: