Chapter 35: Calm Before the Storm

"So, how are you holding up?" Shanku asked cheerfully as she plopped down on the ground beside her brother. It was another beautiful afternoon and her spirits were high.

"Can you get Ina to leave me alone like you did Jagan?" Hilael responded grumpily.

"Who's Ina?" Shanku asked curiously.

"Hiiii!" chirped a cheery voice behind them.

"She's Ina," Hilael groaned.

"Time for an elder sister evalutaion," Shanku snickered quietly and turned to face Ina. "Come sit by me!"

Ina slumped over the old log and propped her chin in her hands.

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"You must be the infamous Shanku!" she grinned.

"The hunter or the...?" Shanku asked slowly.

"The Wanderlusting gryphon-lovin' cub who beat the feathers off Jagan," Ina replied with a grin.

"He still had most of them left, I thank ye," Shanku said with a naughty twinkle in her eye.

"He had it coming. Seriously, some of the other highborns are so snobby I'm about ready to send them all north!" Ina rolled her eyes. "I get a bad reputation because of them through association and I behave myself!"

"You're a highborn then?" Shanku asked.

"Yup. Father's a scribe," Ina nodded. "Mother's a calligrapher, and teaching me her trade."

Shanku nudged Hilael in the ribs and he gave his sister the most wondrous glare.

"So what all do you technically do in the clan?" Ina asked curiously.

"I haven't really been given a job yet," Shanku shrugged. "I missed having an apprenticeship from cubhood like most others. Right now I'm just lending a hand wherever I'm asked. Gathering, hunting, mending, odd requests to talk to gryphons."

"What do you want to do though?" Ina pressed. "Everybody gets a bit of a choice."

"I don't know," Shanku said thoughtfully. "When I was much younger, I wanted to be a huntress, like my great-great-grandmother."

"What changed?" Ina asked.

"A pack of sabrewings, a yeti, and a threat. I think... I want to be like my da."

"Zanzen is pretty good at what he does," Ina nodded. "Not a bad goal. Do you think you can start as old as you are?"

"I've already started," Shanku retorted. "I've had a decent amount of combat training on my travels and I still practice it regularly."

"If you say so," Ina shrugged. "You'll have to work pretty hard to make up for lost time."

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"Never have I been one to shy from a challenge," Shanku boasted.

"Oh, really?" Ina said with an evil twinkle in her eye. "Never, ever?"

"Never, ever," Shanku said firmly and laid back an ear. "...What do you want?"

"Ink," Ina said innocently.

"Scribes make ink. You need components," Shanku stated.

"I need a basket of oak apples, ochre, and indigo," Ina said with a widening grin.

"I'll get to climbing, digging, and plucking," Shanku sighed.

"You're familiar with ink ingredients?" Ina asked curiously.

"I spent many years with an Arnthian scribe. Just don't ask me to assist in making the dye, I'm still regrowing nose hairs burnt off from the process," Shanku said with an annoyed frown.

"Maybe Hilael would like to help me make dyes then? Not that different than medicine, you just mix, soak, and boil stuff," Ina began and Hilael quickly jumped up.

"She needs ingredients," Hilael said pointedly to Shanku.

"So she does," Shanku agreed. "We'll have them for you soon! Go prepare your vats."

Ina pouted as the siblings disappeared quickly from sight and made her way back to the Scissortail den.

"You were supposed to get rid of her, not make her our taskmaster," Hilael complained.

"In due time," Shanku said. "After all, the first step is to find out why she is all over you before I can effectively turn her interest."

"If she ends up becoming fascinated with you then I'll have to avoid you to avoid her," Hilael said.

"I hope it won't come to that," Shanku said nervously. "Could you imagine how badly she would get reamed hanging around me? She seems nice enough, I don't want her parents chewing her like Katari's does him."

"Don't you think she's already have been through that by keeping company with me?" Hilael asked flatly. "There is no deterring that stubborn dam. She even confronts Jagan and runs him off on occasion."

"Then why don't you build on a relationship with her?" Shanku asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Because I don't want any attention," Hilael said darkly. "I don't want to be attacked, I don't want to be fawned over, I just want to be left alone."

"Then why are you still tagging along with me?"

"Because until a few moments ago, you are the only one my age who hasn't nagged me about my social life."

"Then I retract my inquiry and apologize," Shanku said warmly. "You're welcome to keep company as much as you like."

Hilael nodded and Shanku was content to have company as she gathered supplies to help make ink. When they had managed to find everything Ina had requested, Hilael made himself scarce when Shanku made her delivery.

"Here you go, all your items in proper quantities and of decent quality!" Shanku said triumphantly after she had found Ina relaxing in the gardens on top of the Scissortail den.

"That was fast!" Ina said with excitement. "Did Hilael help you get everything faster since he's an apothecary's apprentice?"

"He did seem to know what he was looking for, yes," Shanku said. "Is that why you're around him so often? You want him to help you find ink stuff?"

"Oh please, I'm more than capable of gathering materials myself and I have plenty of aspiring suitors and assistants that would be happy to fetch supplies for me," Ina said with a roll of her eyes. "What I need is a partner not interested in using me to further their social prestige. Hilael is basic and straight to the point without any ulterior motives, and scribes and apothecaries have so much overlap that we'd be a great team. But every time I try to foster a relationship, he shies away."

"Hilael's not a very outgoing person and he's been through a lot," Shanku said thoughtfully. "Take it easy with him and you two might stand a shot at it someday."

"Really?" Ina's eyes lit up hopefully.

"Might," Shanku reiterated hastily. "He barely wants to spend time with family right now and it's a wonder he hasn't slinked away on his own yet. A firm hand may soften the nettle but it crushes the bloom."

Ina tapped her chin thoughtfully as she stared at the sky. "I suppose I could scale it back some. Maybe a more casual relationship for now."

"Maybe," Shanku said with a forced grin. "I must return home. 'Twas nice to meet you, Miss Ina."

"Likewise!" Ina said and tilted her head to the side with a genuine smile. "You're welcome to come visit me again."

Shanku nodded and turned on her heel to leave. It's not perfect, but it's a start. She seems awfully eager for somebody just wanting a busines partner. Shanku shrugged and dismissed at as the eccentricity of scribes, and gave it no more thought.

Katari came jogging up to Shanku when he caught sight of her in the passageways. "Are you free the next few days?"

"Why?" Shanku asked suspiciously.

"I have to get a deer every couple of months and having to go it alone puts me at a disadvantage," Katari explained. "I've got one family requesting meat and another requesting leather, and Da can't get away from working hides for other families to help me out."

"Then I guess I'm free for a few days," Shanku said. "What time are we heading out?"

"First light tomorrow," Katari replied. "Meet me at the entrance?"

"Will do," Shanku nodded. Katari thanked her and excused himself. Shanku continued on her way home for supper. Nari was the only one inside and was just starting to chop vegetables. Shanku picked up a knife and started to help her.

"Did you have a good day today?" Nari asked pleasantly.

"For the most part," Shanku replied. "Some scribe apprentice wanted some materials to make ink, so Hilael and I finished gathering some up for her today. On my way in, Katari flagged me down and asked me to go out with him for a few days on a hunt. Mind if I go?"

"Go ahead," Nari said. "Things are safer right now with Fernwick taken."

"Any more news on that yet?" Shanku asked curiously.

"No, but Zanzen is doing long, daily drills now," Nari sighed. "The Elders expect a heated confrontation and all the warriors have to be at the ready to help defend the Fernwick rebels."

"Sounds exciting!" Shanku said.

"It's frightening," Nari shuddered. "Life has been relatively peaceful for many years and the worst we've had to contend with were rogue minocentaur and a few attempts from hobgoblins. I hope this doesn't go much further."

Shanku didn't say anything as she put her batch of choppings into the soup pot. A twinge of anxiety had flexed in her chest. Deep down, she didn't want it to go very far either. Conversation turned to more mundane topics as they waited for the family to come home and later retire for the evening. Shanku was excited for her hunting trip and woke up very early. She grabbed her pack and quietly scrambled out the door while her family slept softly in their nests.

Excitement caused her heart to pound in her chest and her steps to quicken. My first Sylvan hunting trip! Oh, I hope it isn't the last! Shanku had a big, silly grin on her face she couldn't control when she caught sight of Katari sleepily walking up to the entrance where she was impatiently waiting.

"You've always been a morning person," Katari said groggily and stifled a yawn. "Are you ready then?"

"Yes!" Shanku squeaked and restlessly shifted her pack on her back.

"And as hyper as always on a hunt," Katari muttered. "Try not to scare the game away."

"Now did I spook any suppers when we were hikin' up to Fernwick?" Shanku demanded as they left the Scissortail den.

"No, but you weren't as bouncy out there as you are here," Katari said with a frown. "What's gotten in to you?"

"That was survival. This is hunting!" Shanku said eagerly. "Very different circumstances."

"Well I hope you packed some rations, otherwise it'll turn into survival," Katari sighed.

"Aye, Ma sent some bread and jerky along," Shanku said cheerily. "And a bit of sheep's cheese. I'll trade some if you've got some different stuff."

"Swapping school lunches now, are we?" Katari asked playfully.

"Never pass an opportunity for a good meal," Shanku said seriously.

"Truth," Katari mused.

The deeper into the forest they walked, the more settled Shanku became and to Katari's surprise she travelled with him in silence for most of the trip. Shanku had been much more animated during their journey north not long ago and he had his reservations about asking her for help. Or perhaps the humid heat of late spring had distracted her? The early year storms were lessening and quieting down into just rain, and today was brilliantly sunny with a gentle breeze.

Katari and Shanku found themselves as relaxed as the gaily singing songbirds as they watched the ground for signs of tracks. When a fresh set was spotted, both of them turned serious and began following the hoof prints. The closer they got the more Shanku had to resist the urge to assume her feral form and become Katari's hunting hound. She knew better than to even suggest the idea. Instead, she requested first sprint. Katari had no objections and crept by to set up the ambush.

The sprightly pair made a brilliant tag-team. Excitable, boisterous Shanku exploded from the brush to spook the targeted deer into a panic that drove it right into Katari's waiting claws. He ended the hunt swiftly and murmured the hunter's prayer of thanks before getting down to work. Shanku sat down nearby and panted heavily, still calming her nerves. When Katari had finished tying the deer's feet to a pole, Shanku readily stood up and offered to help him carry it back. With a pole slung over a shoulder each, they began the walk back home.

"How long do you think it'll be before the Eor Sylvans arrive?" Katari asked. "We all know it's a matter of time. The suspense is driving me batty!"

"I dunno," Shanku shrugged. "Just 'cause my grandsire is on the council doesn't mean I'm privy to formal speculations."

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"I'd settle for informal speculations," Katari grumbled.

"Well, I know it took me a few months to make the flight across the plains, and I was coming from Austmont territory," Shanku said thoughtfully and rubbed her chin. "Waebre is the closest, so probably less than a month for them to get to the Nyre. So maybe two months for all of the Eor to hit the Nyre?"

"The Fernwick has been taken for about two months now," Katari shook his head. "So it could be any day now."

"I guess so. I don't know how long it takes for them to gather everybody up. They are all mostly raiders, from what I hear. They're probably used to getting up and moving pretty fast," Shanku shuddered. "Huata would sometimes tell me tales of villages that got hit by the Falnor. Not pretty."

"Did Huata mention anything else helpful?"

"...No, but her sister did. During this time of year are the White Nights of summer. The sun never sets. The raiders don't come. They are all going to be available," Shanku said as she suddenly remembered Yakone's gloating. "I gotta go find Grandsire Bibot!"

"How could you forget a detail like that?" Katari groaned.

"Well next time I get exiled I'll be sure to drag your fluffy bum right along with me so you can be my personal record keeper," Shanku grumbled.

After arriving back at the Scissortail den, Shanku quickly sought out her grandfather to inform him of the bit of information she recently remembered about the raiding clans. Bibot agreed it was something they should take into consideration and dismissed her.

"How'd it go?" Katari asked her.

"...Good? His eyebrows did a little dance, so I'm guessing I did the right thing," Shanku scratched her head in confusion.

"It couldn't hurt, at any rate," Katari shrugged. "Come on, let's go get that deer dressed. My sister needs a new blanket and this is a pretty good size for her." Shanku nodded and followed behind him.

"I guess it makes sense for a hunting and tanning family to use hide for blankets more than wool, no?" Shanku asked curiously.

"Especially when they're as cold-natured as Jnya," Katari said. "I don't know how she'll make it as a hunter. She's determined, but she stays so chilled all the time. That won't do her much good on long treks in the winter."

"Where are we going to dress the deer...?" Shanku asked slowly as they started down the backward slope outside the Scissortail den.

"Crafters' quarters, of course," Katari replied, and looked back at her with a puzzled expression. "It's where I live, you know."

"Don't your parents still hate me?" Shanku asked nervously.

"You're not their favorite, but there are those they dislike considerably more than you," Katari answered with a wry grin.

"That's not very inspiring," Shanku hissed.

"I gave credit where credit is due, and when they asked me how I managed to stay so well fed on the trip up north, I told them you helped me," Katari said. "They weren't pleased with me, but they didn't argue against the results."

"So if I help you keep feeding them then we can finally openly spend time together?" Shanku asked hopefully.

"Don't hold your breath," Katari said uneasily. "I can't guarantee they won't send you away as soon as we get there."

Shanku grew increasingly nervous as she saw the gaping doors of the crafters' quarters come into view. Katari picked his way easily to the tanners. Katari's father was working rabbit skins and sharply raised an eyebrow when he saw who was with his son.

"You're back from your hunt early," he said gruffly.

"I had a little help, Da," Katari said in a friendly manner.

"I think you're relying a little too much on help lately," Ritava frowned.

"I'd like to rely on it a bit more. She did help me capture the deer, she deserves payment," Katari said quietly.

Ritava shook his head in disapproval and scowled. "Make it quick."

Katari gestured to Shanku where to drop the game from their shoulders, fetched some tools, and gave her a knife to help him work. Shanku knew how to obtain what she needed from a hunt from her lessons with Dai Birchfield on the plains, the one who took her in immediately after her exile, and also from Ryoichi the jungle cat who would take her on hunts in his tangled home. The delicate talent of skinning, however, was new to her. She watched with awe as Katari's skilled hands quickly removed the hide and set it aside. Butchering was more her pace. She and Katari made short work of the carcass and had the various parts neatly separated for stew meat, pie, smoking, sausage, steaks, thread, and other desires.

"Did you know every animal has enough brains to tan its own hide?" Katari asked casually as his father took away the meat before it could spoil.

"Never worked with tanning hides before, so, no," Shanku replied.

"The meat is all spoken for, but, I may can set your reward to be to help me work the hide," Katari said lowly.

"Will your parents skin me right next to those rabbits if I ask?" Shanku asked in whisper right back.

"I'll make sure you're skinned gently," Katari winked.

As if on cue, Katari's mother walked out with her hands on her hips and a frown to match her mate's. "You are owed for aiding my confused son on the hunt. What is your price?"

"Can I help him, or at least watch him, tan the deer hide?" Shanku ventured.

Palani turned a scrutinizing eye on Katari and glared at him for what felt like a full candlemark. "Sit to the side, stay out of the way, and do not spread your foul misfortune to my daughter's blanket, or I'll string you like a goat."

"Thank you, ma'am," Shanku said with a quick nod and sat down a long way away from the deer. Katari frowned at her and motioned for her to come closer after his mother went back inside. Shanku slowly and nervously scooted up until Katari was satisfied.

"How did a frightened pup like you face down a yamaer? Did you bring the bull, gryphon, and dragon to the den by fleeing from them?" Ritava asked. Shanku could only sport a sheepish grin and could think of no good answer to give him. Ritava shook his head and went back to working the rabbit skins.

"A hunter faint of heart won't last on their own, and you roamed for years alone, so what gives?" Katari asked in hushed tones.

"Never did well around knives," Shanku diverted. "'Tis why I'm no good with mine."

"Says the butcher," Katari argued. "Be yourself! They'll never loosen up towards you if all they know is rumours and your awkwardness."

"You'd better be chief mourner at my funeral then," Shanku said quickly. She drew a deep breath, sighed, and tried to start a conversation at normal volume. "So what all do you like to catch?"

"Mostly goats, deer, rabbits, and squirrels," Katari answered. "I also like quail, doves, fish, snakes, and turtles."

"You're the only person I've ever seen get excited when a rattler's tail starts twitching," Shanku said. "Good stew though."

"If you manage to stay here for a while, I'll roast all sorts of things for you," Katari offered. "Bring Hilael when you can. He found plenty of delicious accompaniments when we were on the trail."

"Ah, now you're speakin' my language: food!" Shanku said gleefully. "I got by well enough when I was on my own with plain roasting, but it gets old when that's all you've got for weeks at a time. I've eaten more rabbits than I ever care to have..."

"You always hated catching rabbits, didn't you?" Katari asked with a mischievous grin. "What you got against those sweet, delicious cottontails?"

"Repitition and monotony," Shanku sighed exasperatedly. "At this rate, I'm going to turn into a rabbit!"

"Or a wolpertinger," Katari suggested. "You'd make a very nice wolpertinger pelt with your grey fur and black wings."

"I'm starting to think you're wanting me to get skinned," Shanku said with narrowed eyes.

"If I skin you and stuff you, you can't leave again," Katari said with a broad, teasing grin.

"If you skin me and stuff me, I can't help you hunt anymore either!" Shanku retorted.

"I'll make a pocket-version of you and keep you as a good luck charm on my belt when I hunt," Katari said.

"Are you sure your history with me is the reason why nobody in the clan spends time with you?" Shanku asked warily and eyed up him and down.

"Positive," Katari said, and before Shanku could jerk away, he took a finger and tapped her on the nose.

"Bleh!" Shanku yipped and feverishly scrubbed the end of her nose. "Your hands are all mucky in brains and fur!"

"You'll live," Katari said after a guffawing laugh. "I would say the yamaer was the nastiest thing you've had on your face, why should this bother you?"

Completely flustered, she cuffed him on the back of the head and left. Katari was still chuckling to himself when Shanku was long out of sight. His younger sister was propped up in the doorway and shaking her head and frowning.

"I know what you're doing," Jnya said.

"Stretching the skin of your new blanket?" Katari asked innocently.

"You're flirting with that bounder!" Jnya said and swept her arm in the direction that Shanku had left. "What do you see in her?"

"She's fun," Katari said with a shrug. "She's never grumpy for long and upbeat. It's nice."

"She dragged you along on a dangerous walk north to the border skirmishes into the heart of Fernwick territory where you nearly got ate by a yamaer on the way, sleeping on the cold, hard ground out in the elements the whole way up, and then could have been locked away or killed by the Imperials!" Jnya cried. "How is any of that fun?"

"Sleeping on the cold, hard ground out in the elements is normal for hunters," Katari replied.

"And the rest?" Jnya demanded.

"She gives me new things to think about," Katari replied. "It's refreshing."

"Outlaws aren't 'refreshing', they are destructive and harmful, and outlaws for a reason," Jnya scowled.

"Right now I don't really care what the Scissortails consider as an outlaw," Katari snapped. "The crime of being an innocent and friendly cub has been held against me my whole life, and by this point, I'm not interested in pandering to them anymore. I enjoy her company, she doesn't judge me, and that's that."

"Slippery slope, zuznre," Jnya sighed sadly. "I don't want to see you get hurt."

"Shanku is the wildest, craziest, luckiest person I know. I think I'm safe in her company," Katari said with a soft smile. "Don't worry about me. I'm not that incapable myself."

"Just be careful," Jnya said gently and went back inside. Katari watched her leave from the corner of his eye. His mind started straying down dark paths, so he struck up a song to distract himself as he worked. Before long the negative thoughts were gone and he was in a cheery mood when he finished the first part of tanning the deer hide. Supper would soon be ready and he lightly strode inside to sit with his family and do any needlework his father needed help with.

It was down to the final days before the Imperial Sylvans were sure to strike. There was an apprehension in the air as any day now the first reports would start rolling in. The skies were watched eagerly for messenger gryphons.

I spent so many years wishing to be back with my people, with my family, and my friends. Now that I'm back... I just want to leave again. These are not the Sylvans I remembered. I'm torn between abandoning them as they did me, and trying to strengthen my people. The new den is very nice, but not familiar.

I learned a few more interesting things from the Weolcen while we were with them. It was the Imperials who abolished magic and shifting, and not the Ferals? And caused such chaos with that old war? Complicated. Everything is so complicated! One big, muddled mess. Although, some little part of me is curious if things are finally about to mend.

The Fernwick rebels are being friendly with the Ferals and we haven't seen anything of the Eor Imperials yet. Jagan has backed down for now and I've met the mystery girl after Hilael. Katari even lets me tag along as his partner when he's doing his hunting duties.

I reckon everything is going well enough then, despite everything. And I think I know what I want to do with my life in the clan. But how do I proceed with it?

~ Shanku Ravenwing


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