Even before dawn broke, there was the buzzing and excitement among the Sylvans as the first of the games would soon commence. The grounds and best perching places surrounding the start of the races were full of spectators by the time the sun was starting to peak through the trees.
Little Banhi was still sleepily rubbing her eyes as Shanku carried her and searched for a good place where her family could watch the races.
"Are you sure we will be able to see Da from up here?" Muso asked dubiously.
"He's the only one of 'em with mostly snow-white hair and wings, he'll be a breeze to spot!" Shanku replied.
Nari settled down on their perch and opened the basket she had brought. "You lot should eat something. You ran out in such a hurry for a good seat, you didn't even have breakfast!"
Shanku grinned sheepishly and had a biscuit.
"It's not every day I get to see Da run pell-mell after somebody else!" Muso said mischievously.
"You know that lady is happy to share mino pies. All you ever had to do was ask," Nari responded flatly.
"Adults, maybe. Us kids always had to do chores to get them!"
"It builds character, Nari said curtly.
"And a sneaky disposition," Muso said with a wide grin.
The spectators were starting to become restless. The sun had fully broke over the trees when the runners were lead out to the starting point. The crowd cheered and called out various things that were largely indiscernible due to the quanitity of them.
One of the cervitaur stags gestured for the runners to make a line. The Imperial Sylvans kept to once side, the Ferals to another, with the warring Fernwick were between them both.
"Let's keep this fair. This will be a race based purely on speed. No interfering with another runner. No tripping another, shoving, or such, or you will be disqualified," he stated firmly as he paced.
"The race will be ten furlongs. Five out, five back. There will be cervitaur to guide you. Now, since you are forest kurach, there will be forest obstacles to prove your worthiness to stay in our forest. We have placed rocks, logs, thorns, and even found some convenient stump holes in the track," the cervitaur came to stop in front of them.
"Sirs and madame, let's have a good race. Good luck to you," he finished, and walked slowly behind them.
The racers nodded, readied themselves, and waited for the signal to go. A hush fell over the onlookers. The cervitaur watched them for a moment, still as a statue. The Kurach were patiently waiting, anxious to go, with a few twitches of wings and tails the only thing giving them away. The cervitaur finally gave the command to run, and they were off.
Many obstacles had certainly been placed for the runners. There was very little smooth track to run on, a furlong at most. Where the smooth dirt ended began a series of bolders and rubble which required the runners to be alert and to jump from rock to rock, and under a few logs placed atop the rocks. A few scraped elbows and knees were earned here.
Beyond this were the stump holes, and they had been laced with thorns. One wrong step and a leg would be ensnared to the knee or higher, and would likely require assistance to be removed.
With a sharp cry, one of the runners fell. Khan of the Blade clan was unfortunate enough to become tangled in a stray thorn vine, and was left behind as he removed it from his upper leg. He was cursing solidly and aggressively brushed off any help from the cervitaurs. Undeterred, he resumed the race, ignoring the blood trickling down his leg.
To their relief, the next stretch was through trees and dodging ferns and bushes. All went well until they came to a sizable body of water lined with craggy rocks and thick weeds. It could either be swam through or gone around as flying was not permitted in a foot race. Some decided to swim and some decided to evade. This was the slowest part and the sun was starting to get high in the sky by the time all had made their way past this obstacle.
"How are we supposed to know how they're doing?" Muso huffed.
They were becoming rather tired by the time they cleared the trees, and the final stretch toward the finish line lay ahead. With renewed vigor, they gave it their all.
Arne, the runner for the rebel Fernwick clan, dashed past the marker first, with Zanzen close behind. They came to a stop, breathing heavily, as the others made their way to them. The cervitaur judge announced the winner and Arne held his fist in the air to the cheering of the Nyre teams. Arne and Zanzen were lead to a bench where they could rest while the remaining runners came across the line.
Terrence of the fundamental Fernwick placed third, followed by Mona of Waebre, Roan of Sushaw, Chek of Weolcen, Holt of Falnor, and finally Khan came limping on through. With the race over, he finally allowed his injuries to be treated. The cervitaur judges awarded each of them points, eight to the first down to one to the last, and the tally was added to the grand score that would be kept for each team for the duration of the games.
It was now time for midday meal, and as they had completed their portion, the runners were allowed to return to their families.
"You almost had it! You were right on his heels!" Muso squealed excitedly when Zanzen came back to them.
"But Arne was faster," Zanzen nodded. "I'm just glad to be back."
"I'll be glad when you've bathed!" Nari laughed and kissed his sweaty cheek.
"Will you join me?" Zanzen growled playfully and pulled her close.
"Oh, get a room!" Shanku groaned and covered Banhi's eyes. "Can we not just get something to eat?"
"Food sounds wonderful," Zanzen smiled and lead his family off to the tables for midday meal.
"So what all have you been doing since we last saw you?" Muso asked eagerly after they had each fixed a bowl of food and found a soft patch of ground to sit upon.
"Well, we were taken out to the Scissortail training grounds," Zanzen began. "They had us all running, lifting, shooting, flying, and sparring for a few weeks to figure out who their top five were and how likely we were to place well in the games. They seriously considered me for the melée, but Gadon was far more experienced. I was more comfortable with him having that job anyway."
"Did they have as many thorns in training?" Shanku asked.
"There were no thorns at all," Zanzen shook his head, eyes wide in disbelief. "I think there were a few ulterior motives with that stunt."
"That one guy got tangled up good," Muso grimaced. "He was limpin' something awful when he got done."
"Well, that's Nyre Sylvan for you," Zanzen shrugged. "Whatever we may lack in grace we make up for in stubborness and tenacity."
"What happened in the trees? We couldn't see anything," Muso huffed.
"It was steady for a ways, and then there was a lake," Zanzen replied. "With some of the thickest weeds I've ever seen around water. "We couldn't fly, so it was either trudge or swim. I swam. Most of the Imperials tried to go around and ended up getting stuck in bramble and mud. Too snaky for my liking. Better up here than down in Crawfen territory though. They have alligators everywhere."
With the midday meal finished, it was time for the next event. The Kurach eagerly returned to the arena where now the strongest of the competing clans would demonstrate their capabilities.
Out strode a broad dwarf and beckoned impatiently for the contestants. As they were still lining up, the dwarf began.
"Orright, ye gat three things to do and ye'd better do 'em well. Firstly, we got some rocks. See these rocks?" the dwarf pointed to nine stones of seemingly the same size. "Ya throw 'em. Farthest throw wins the game. No gettin' a runnin' go either." He picked up a round stone and hurled it a good distance. "Do that. Chop! Chop!"
The Kurach each took a stone and threw it as hard as they could in the direction of the dwarf's stone. All fell short, but one managed to land closely behind.
"Well, lessee if ye do any better with sticks," he grumbled. "Secondly, we have some wee sticks. See them sticks?" the dwarf pointed at a pile of logs. "Pick 'em up, and chunk 'em. Hold 'em straight up and down, then throw them as hard as you can. And they had better go straight from ye! No rollin' or leanin' or comin' back. Straight as an arrow, if ye ain't too ignorant to know what an arrow is. Aw, fiddle biscuits, let me show you featherheads how," the dwarf grumbled. He marched over to the logs and grabbed one that was easily six times his length. He kept it perfectly upright and balanced as he ran a short distance and then threw it with all his might. It flew up, turned over once, and when its other end hit the ground, it fell away from him. "Like that. Hop to it! Toss, toss, toss! The more the better before the waterclock ends!"
One by one, they took their turns lifting, balancing, and throwing from the pile of logs to see how many they could throw before the small bucket of water ran out. Most averaged about six or eight logs before their time was up. One poor fellow only managed four. Two managed to throw nine logs, but one lost points because his log fell back toward him.
Clearly dissatisfied, the dwarf let them rest, and then ushered them on to the next portion.
"Ye ain't much better than some o' our young'uns fresh outta nappies, but we'll see how ye do with this one. See that big ol' rock? Yer pickin' it up. Off the ground and over your shoulder before the water runs out, and then you put it back down gently," he barked. Once again, he demonstrated. He squatted down, grabbed the boulder firmly by the base, stood up, and held it proudly on his shoulder for a moment before easing it back to the ground. "Hop to it!"
The small boulder was about the weight of two of the competitors put together, and being smooth didn't help matters much. But, they all managed to at least get it off the ground. Some only got to their knees, a few to their waist, a few to their chest, and one held the stone atop his shoulders.
With a sigh and shake of his head, he then brought them over to some smaller stones on pedestals and some empty pedestals a few paces away. "Take these three stones and put 'em over there on the other stands."
Growing tired, but unwilling to lose face, they again gave it their best. Attending dwarves reset the stones after each attempt. With fatigue setting in, the most capable among them barely managed to place the final stone, and it trickled down from there. The weakest sat down his second stone halfway and had to bow out.
Their marks were tallied, and they were given another rest before the final feat.
"Alright, fluffballs, it's the last one. We're gonna yoke ye up like a couple o' asses and yer gonna carry a load. First one to the other side gets the highest score," the dwarf explained and pointed to a couple of beams with buckets full of rocks on the ends. This was bound to rub off a few feathers, but they quietly accepted their burden as they knealt down for the dwarves to place them on their shoulders. To show off his own capabilities, the dwarf picked up one of the loaded beams and signaled for the Kurach to follow.
By this point, some had become thoroughly agitated with the dwarf's blustering and belittling, and put the last bit of their strength into trying to best him. Half of them suceeded, and the other half were shortly behind.
"About time ye put them long legs to good use," the dwarf remarked as they arrived to the other side of the field. He set his load down and looked the Kurach up and down. "I suppose that will do for now. Mind ye don't try to compete with us dwarves in the future. Ye wouldn't want to embarrass yerselves."
Having dismissed them, the dwarf turned and left, and the competitors were free to return to their clans and rest.
"Snarky little guy, wasn't he?" Muso asked with a shudder. "I'm glad I didn't have to deal with him! I'd have bopped him on the head!"
"That's dwarves for ya!" Shanku giggled. "They're stout little buggers, I'll give 'em that, and equally grumpy! I swear, Arloda snipped and snapped from the time she got up until the time she got liquored up!"
"So, how's the standings so far?" Muso asked.
"Let's find out," Zanzen replied and directed his family toward the wall where they were hanging numbered boards. "Well, it would seem the rebel Fernwick are in the lead. They've bested both competitions so far."
"They must really not want to go back to Imperial rule," Shanku noted. "But the loyal ones are right on their tails at three points down. Oh, look! Scissortails are in third!"
"Aye, it's rebels, loyals, Scissortail, Waebre, Blade, Sushaw and Weolcen, and then Falnor dragging with three points," Zanzen said. "Collectively, the Nyre has forty points and the Eor has thirty-two."
"I guess somebody has to come in last, but, daggum," Shanku muttered. "But, on the bright side, if we maintain this much of a lead, we don't have to worry about dealing with whatever nonsense they want to force on us."
"What happens if we win?" asked Muso.
"I think the deal was that the raiders had to stop attacking everybody and to some degree make peace with us and the plains and snow Kurach. I'm not sure how they'll handle the human settlements. Just disappear?" Zanzen shrugged.
"That's not going to help our overall reputation," Shanku said uneasily. "Way down south on the seas it's not so bad because the islanders are pretty friendly, but up here we're mostly regarded as mysterious monsters that just pop up, kill, and vanish again."
"At least they'll leave us alone if they're scared of us enough," Zanzen nodded.
Shanku sighed and said nothing.
The evening feasting and dancing proceeded as usual. The leading teams were a bit more festive than the previous night, and the lagging teams were more pensive. The visitors from the Eor forest were becoming impressed with their distant kin.
Things were going peacefully enough without more than a few taunts or brief tussles disrupting events. The cubs were collectively having some of the most fun they'd had in a while with so many new playmates for hoop races and whatnot.
But the Kurach were uneasy. Every so often, someone would catch a glimpse of the strange calopus, and whispers kept alive the cryptic threats that had been issued months before they came together.
Tonight at supper we had a play! I never knew Sylvans did much theatre work. Although it was kind of embarrassing that Muso and Banhi both knew the story of this hero by heart and I'd never heard hide nor hair of it before. I wonder if the Scissortails have some kind of library? I'd like to know more about my people's folk lore.
~ Shanku Ravenwing