Chapter 51: Reunion

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With the coming of winter it wouldn't be long before the Heyen clan came to seek shelter in the Nyre from the fierce snows on the prairie. After all that had happened over the past few years, the Scissortails were no longer secretive about it, and word soon spread among them. Shanku was particularly excited since she hadn't seen the Heyens in many years.

"Do you think I could go out and meet them?" Shanku asked her grandsire.

"Haven't you done enough roaming for a while?" Bibot asked with mild annoyance.

"I wouldn't be going off on a new adventure, exactly," Shanku replied. "I did stay with them for a season once. I just want to greet old friends."

"I don't suppose there would be any harm, or none I can foresee. You be sure and behave yourself, and tell your parents before you scamper off," Bibot said sternly.

"No worries, I will!" Shanku chirped. She skipped off to prepare for a new journey.

Bibot just shook his head as he watched her go. "Thankfully Muso and Banhi are more normal. I should like to see great-grandcubs someday. I doubt that one there will ever settle down." With another shake of his head, he returned to his duties.

When Shanku had found her mother and explained her wishes, Nari simply chuckled. "It took you longer to ask than expected. Yes, go on. Be good, be kind, watch out for gryphons, minocentaur, and all that good stuff."

"So, um, does anybody want to come with me and meet them?" Shanku asked sheepishly.

"Perhaps some other time. I have a lot of work to do," Nari replied gently. "Your father has training and the little ones have studying to do."

"So... Hilael then?" Shanku asked and looked hopefully to her brother who was at the table grinding poultices. He shrugged and nodded. Shanku grinned. "I wonder if I should invite Katari too?"

"You could try, but I'm not sure he could. His parents are probably still nervous that he's friends with the one that brazenly petted the fearsome demon lord," Nari smirked playfully.

"Aw, now, Kleu isn't so bad!" Shanku protested. "He was just lonely. And he's a goblin, not a demon."

Danæ wasn't kidding when she said Shanku would be just like me, Nari noted. "It's still going to take some time for everybody to see him as something else."

"I guess it'll be just me until then," Shanku said as she scratched the back of her head. "Oh well. Their loss. I'm going to go ask him anyway." She ducked under the curtain over their doorway and disappeared.

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"I guess you should start packing then," Nari observed to her son.

"I never unpacked for this reason," Hilael replied.

"Smart lad," Nari chuckled and returned her focus to the blanket she was working on.

Katari was relaxing in the sun and enjoying the heat after being in the chill of the autumn morning having to gather fallen nuts and seeds. He had almost dozed off to sleep when he was jolted roughly awake from a pounce by his best friend.

"What do you want, Shanku?" he asked gruffly.

"Up for another trip?" Shanku asked gleefully.

"Don't you ever stay home?" Katari groaned. "We just got back from a long trip!"

"The cold winter winds are calling and say old friends are coming around," Shanku said with a grin as the tip of her tail flicked back and forth. "I would love to introduce you to them."

"Who are they?" Katari asked.

"The Heyen clan! The ones who looked after me right after I was exiled," Shanku said excitedly. "Dai and Zihna won't be with them, but Eru might, and Shaman Onami definitely will, as will Rajé, Anoki, and Kadin."

"Aren't they some of the prairie kurach?"

"Yep. They winter in our forest because the winds can get a little strong out there without any trees to temper 'em," Shanku nodded. "Makes it hard to keep your feathers tidy. I should know, they were worse up on the tundra. Or colder, at any rate."

"I suppose I'll tag along," Katari sighed.

"Don't you need permission first?" Shanku teased.

"Don't remind me," Katari groaned. "Maybe if I promise to bring back a good buck or two they'll overlook who I'm taking off with."

"Maybe I could throw in a few good birds or something and they'd not mind so much my visiting you either," Shanku suggested.

"Let's not push our luck just yet," Katari chuckled. "When are you wanting to leave?"

"I guess in a day or two," Shanku shrugged. "They start moving at the turn of the season, and it takes them a bit to get to the Nyre. They're either already here, or close to it."

"It's set then," Katari nodded. Shanku grinned and flopped down next to him to enjoy the sparse autumn sunshine.

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A few days later, Shanku and Hilael met up with Katari one misty morning after his parents had reluctantly allowed him to leave.

"So, uh, is it going to be just us, or are we going to have a certain unmentionable companion?" Katari asked.

"Who, Kleu?" Shanku asked as she tilted her head to the side, and Katari flinched at the name. "I don't expect to see him, but I guess if he pops up, it's alright."

"Part of the conditions of me coming along was that I was to keep my distance from him," Katari explained.

"It's not like we can control the goblin hound," Shanku sighed in frustration. "What they don't know won't hurt them."

"I won't tell if you won't, then," Katari said lowly. Shanku raised an eyebrow at him but he didn't continue that part of the conversation. "Any idea where the Heyen winter at, Shank?"

"Northeast of here, from what I understand," Shanku replied. "They shouldn't be hard to find. We can skirt the edge of the forest for quite a ways and probably find at least one of them."

"I've never been that far out," Katari said wistfully.

"Someday, we'll go even farther together," Shanku said with a broad grin. "I would love to take you both all the way out there."

"Some day," Katari repeated cheerfully.

Another convert! Shanku giggled. The trees were covered with the morning dew and the air was heavy with the fog snaking around them. The afternoon was just as damp and cold with the clouds lying low over the forest as the day alternated between mist and drizzle, and the weather continued the same way for the entirety of their journey to the edge of the Nyre. Most of their kills were eaten raw since none really wanted to fight the wetness to get a fire started. Shanku's spirits weren't dampened in the least, and instead she grew more excited the closer she got to the prairie.

"Not much gets you down, does it?" Katari teased. He gave his head a good shake after accidentally brushing against a low-hanging branch and it deposited the water it had gathered into his ears.

"Plenty does, I would just rather live in the moment and push it out of mind," Shanku replied nonchalantly. "Life's too short and there's too much to see to brood on all the nasty garbage I've been through."

Katari raised an eyebrow thoughtfully and then nodded. "So, we should be about out of the Nyre by now, shouldn't we?"

"Pretty close, I think," Shanku replied slowly as she flicked her ears around. "The mist is so heavy I can't really hear much. One moment." Shanku crouched and sprang with a few firm wingbeats to get herself airborn and above the canopy. She flew a wide circle as she listened and looked intently for any signs of other kurach.

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"Well, flitter," she grumbled when she had landed by her brother and best friend. "I haven't the foggiest idea where they are."

"Plenty of fog though," Katari chuckled. "Let's all just take to wing and see if we can track them down faster."

They each took flight and spread out until they were just faint shadows and silhouettes to their companions. Innugati shivered against the damp cold and curled up tighter between Hilael's pack and his back. He tilted his wings to curve his flight more toward the plains and kept low near the tree tops. Hilael noticed someone moving and cupped his wings up to stop.

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"Can I help you, friend?" Bara asked as a stranger dropped nearby.

"My sister is seeking old acquaintances," Hilael explained. "She once knew the Heyen clan."

"Well, you've found us," Bara replied. "Who is your sister?"

"Shanku Ravenwing of the Scissortails," Hilael stated.

Bara grinned. "Yes, I remember her. Strange little black feathered cub that stayed with us for a few seasons many years ago. Is she far behind?"

"Not at all!" Shanku chirped as she landed not far away. "Hallo, Bara! It's been too long! I see you've met my little brother. The one just coming in is Katari."

"Greetings," Bara chuckled. "Come with me, I'm sure Onami and Eru will be glad to see you again."

Shanku fell in behind the crimson kurach as he lead them to the Heyen's camp. "So, how've you been?"

"Fairly well," Bara replied. "I am Onami's apprentice now. I was out gathering some herbs he needed."

"Congratulations!" Shanku said enthusiastically.

"Thank you," Bara nodded. "And what have you been up to all this time?"

"Eh, roaming, of course," Shanku shrugged. "What else?"

"What else?" Bara shook his head. "We haven't seen you since you left for Wynfall. The wind calls quite loudly to you."

"That it does," Shanku said mischievously.

The Heyen camp was set up in an area with patches of clearings among the trees. Bara directed them to where Anoki was staying with his son and brother, along with instructions of where to find Onami, before he took his leave of them. Shanku strode out briskly, and when she saw Eru sitting on the ground tending to a stew, she couldn't resist the urge to pounce on him. Eru yipped quite audibly when he was suddenly tackled from behind.

"What the...? Kadin!" Eru growled as he threw himself back quickly to dislodge his attacker and stood up to scold his nephew. Instead, he found a cackling Sylvan. "Shanku?"

"Well, I'm not Kadin!" Shanku laughed as she got to her feet. "How've you been?"

"Pretty good before some lost behemoth squashed me," Eru chuckled. "And you?"

"Good! I heard you were back in the Nyre, so I came to visit for a few days."

"I suppose your sailing days are done?" Eru asked with reservation.

"I guess..." Shanku trailed off and tilted her head. Eru wasn't seeming as friendly as he just was. Her eyes widened as realization dawned on her. "I guess Dai and Zihna haven't had time to get my letter and relay any of it back to you."

"An explanation would certainly be nice, Black Plague," Eru said coldly.

"Haven't heard that one in years," Shanku replied with a wince. "Alright, let's sit back down and I'll tell you my tale. It's a long one."

Katari and Hilael exchanged a look and sat down nearby as Shanku retold her story to Eru, from the time she was exiled until she came out to see the Heyen today.

"And you two willingly keep company with this pup?" Eru asked with a laugh.

"Never a dull moment," Katari chuckled.

"We're kin," Hilael remarked. "No escaping her."

"So supportive," Shanku grumbled and laid her ears down.

"You should definitely go see Onami before you leave," Eru continued. "I'm sure he would love to hear about Kleu."

"Trying to get rid of me already?" Shanku asked.

"Nah, not this close to supper. I suppose you are still the insufferable glutton you've always been," Eru teased.

"You know me too well," Shanku laughed. "Do I have time to go see Rajé first?"

Eru nodded and directed Shanku to where she could find her. Katari and Hilael stayed behind with Eru to rest after their journey. Shanku and her neverending supply of energy happily sought out another old friend across the camp.

"Rajé!" Shanku squealed as she came across the young dam. Rajé turned curiously to see who was calling her and began to grin.

"Well, about time! I've been coming here for years expecting to find you, but you've been gone!" Rajé playfully scolded Shanku as she wrapped her up in a quick hug.

"I've been just a tad bit busy," Shanku giggled. "Swashbuckling adventures at sea, frozen solid in the far north, threatened within an inch of my life, threatening an elder within an inch of his life, and I petted The Goblin Hound."

"All quite unbecoming of a lady," Rajé teased.

"I ain't no lady," Shanku huffed.

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"Your vocabulary certainly suggests so," Rajé sighed as she pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. "I'd heard rumour a Scissortail had been brazen enough to just walk up to him. I should have guessed it was you. And precisely why did you pet Kleu like a common dog?"

"It seemed appropriate at the time," Shanku shrugged. "Everybody was scared of him, he thought we hated him, I figured I'd show a bit of friendliness."

"I suppose it worked," Rajé replied as she tilted her head. "Are the Sylvans more relaxed with the fae and goblin folk now?"

"No, not exactly," Shanku said uneasily. "If anything, I think they're more nervous than before after Kleu said he would 'take away' the 'bad' ones now."

"Oh well, it can't be helped," Rajé frowned. "I suppose they need a bit more time."

"I take it the Prairie kurach spend time with them regularly then?" Shanku asked.

"To some degree, yes. We don't actively avoid them, but we don't seek them out that often either. Speaking of which, you should go find Onami. He's been asking about you as much as I have, if not more so," Rajé suggested.

"Given that you're the second to tell me that, I suppose I should. Until next time," Shanku saluted her friend and began to make her way through the camp to try and find the shaman.

The Heyen clan members were bundled up against the light drizzle as they tended their suppers, repaired garments, and watched cubs play nearby. None really paid any mind to Shanku as she moved among them, looking around for the white haired elder that had once guided her through the initial emotional turmoil she had experienced shortly after being banished from the Nyre. At length, she began to make inquiries as to where he was at. When she was informed he was out among the trees gathering autumn herbs and spices, she set back out into the forest to find him.

The dampness enhanced the various smells below the canopy. The saturated bark, the glistening grapes and berries, mushrooms everywhere, the sour dill, the spiky chestnuts waiting to injure an inattentive passerby... Shanku had poked a toe on the latter and had to stop to remove the thorny tine. Afterward, she continued following Onami's scent until she found him collecting nuts, burdock, and late blooming flowers.

"Need an extra hand?" Shanku offered as she trotted up to him. Onami gave her a basket and instructed her how to gather what he was looking for.

"What brings you out here?" Onami asked.

"Multiple suggestions," Shanku chuckled. "Mostly revolving around the goblin hound."

"Kleu," Onami said wistfully. "What an honor to meet him. You must show him great respect."

"I reckon," Shanku shrugged as she plucked a rather bumpy mushroom and placed it in her basket. "A big, bat-winged kurach from what I saw. What is he, our grandpappy or something?"

"To some degree, yes," Onami nodded.

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"Are you going to make me beg for the story?" Shanku asked eagerly, on the verge of a whine.

"I don't know much of it, honestly," Onami replied. "Kleu created us, the fairies gave us the ability to walk on two feet, and at some point after that he ceased contact with us."

"And we used that ability to walk on away from him, as he told it," Shanku said glumly. "I was hoping the story was longer."

"It was a very long time ago, long before our kind started keeping records. Perhaps you could ask him about it directly," Onami suggested.

"So what is he, anyway?" Shanku asked. "God or demon? Most I talk to err on the side of 'demon'."

"Neither. He is simply goblin," Onami replied. "A powerful goblin, and immortal, but just a goblin."

"I wasn't aware that anything but the divine had the power to create life," Shanku remarked, quite puzzled.

"According to the little folk, a very long time ago, many mortals could," Onami said thoughtfully. "But they abused the ability, and it was taken away. Kleu may have created us during then."

"We're not goblins then, are we?" Shanku asked as she wrinkled her nose.

"In a sense, I suppose we are," Onami said and chuckled softly. "Which makes the little green goblins in the woods our cousins."

"I'm not likin' this story so far," Shanku shuddered. "So, when we're on four feet, we're goblins, but when we're on two, we're fae? We kind of look like them..."

"Oh, no, kurach are not fae at all," Onami explained quickly. "We may carry a gift given by the fae, but we are not one of them."

"So do the Prairie ever walk on four feet?" Shanku asked curiously. "So far only those I've met in the far north do."

"It is a sacred thing not commonly done," Onami said quietly. "Only shaman and medicinal kurach may assume the shape, and only after proper preparation."

"Those up north do it to hunt," Shanku remarked. "It's a bit of a big deal whether you're able to do it or not."

Onami looked worried and made a quick gesture before him. "You have not yet, have you?"

"No, not yet," Shanku sighed. "My friend, Huata, managed it not long after I arrived, but she wouldn't share the secret to it."

"It must come with age and wisdom," Onami said sternly. "It is not something to be taken lightly."

"Heh, those featherheads in the mountain felt the same way about the feral form," Shanku giggled. "That was their mark of strength and higher being."

"We test our warriors with it," Onami said. "If they can hold the form and control themselves, they may defend the clan. Otherwise, they are never allowed to assume it again."

"A wise choice," Shanku said. "It's not an easy one to manage. So, now that my basket is full, what else do you need?"

"That should be all for now," Onami replied. The elderly kurach lead her back to the camp and bid her farewell for the evening. Shanku returned to her brother and friends to join them for supper.

"Did you enjoy yourself then?" Katari asked as he, Hilael, and Eru finished their supper.

"Yep!" Shanku chirped as she sat down with them. "Went pickin' mushrooms and flowers with Onami."

"Since you've earned your keep for the day, have some stew," Eru chuckled and passed her a hot bowl.

"Much obliged," Shanku said with a broad grin, and then her stomach audibly growled. "Very much obliged."

"How long will you three be staying with us?" Eru asked.

"Not sure," Shanku replied between mouthfuls. "We'll definitely head out before the snows start."

"Preferably after the current rains have finished as well," Katari grumbled and shook his head as the rain began to come down again.

"That could be a week or more then," Eru chuckled as he raised an arm before him defensively against the small spray sent flying from Katari. "Take care should the winds pick up too."

"Aye, no flyin' in windstorms," Shanku nodded. "Bane of my life at sea. Made me think we were gonna capsize too many times for comfort."

"Most of the Coyote clan was lost last spring," Eru said solemnly. "A squall line came through with three days of storms and thundershowers, and lots of whirlwinds. It cut right through them during the night."

Katari gave a low whistle and the others said nothing. Shanku finished her stew.

"Well, that was delicious, Eru. You're a good cook," Shanku said cheerily. "So, um, what happened to the rest of the Coyote clan?"

"They're still together," Eru replied. "They may be able to rebuild their numbers, but they'll have to take quite a few new mates to do so. Only about a couple of them are able to bear cubs."

"That must have been from the same storm that hit us," Katari mused. "We got a nasty one that lasted for a while and took down some weaker trees. The Peridae really took a hit off it too, they got the worst of it."

"I hope Port Tephras is alright then. They would have been right in the way of it blowing in," Shanku added. "They almost always got hit after we did at sea, and then the Peridæ would confirm they got some of it around the same time too."

"How big can one bloody storm be?" Katari asked incredulously.

"Pretty damn big, apparently," Eru chuckled.

"So, how's your brother been?" Shanku asked.

"He's fine," Eru replied. "Kadin has grown up well, and should be by any moment. He always comes to see me right at sunset."

Indeed, as if on que, Kadin came striding up not long after, and sat down by his uncle. "You have friends tonight. Nice to meet you! I'm Kadin."

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"Gracious, you've really sprouted up," Shanku exclaimed. "You were just a wee thing last I saw you." Kadin was now in his midteens, with a strong back, unkempt hair, and as broadwinged as his elders.

"Um, who are you?" Kadin asked slowly. "You're not that much older than I am."

"Shanku, that stray cub that stayed with me and Zihna in Wynfall, and used to write to us every winter," Eru explained.

"The brazen Black Death buccaneer, eh?" Kadin laughed.

"'Plague', and I'm trying to forget that nickname," Shanku said glumly as she drew her wings around her.

"Well, you obviously gave it up, so I'm not that concerned about it. I'm much more laid back than my uncles," Kadin bragged as he stretched. "Or especially my papa."

"Has he let you go to Wynfall yet?" Shanku asked with a sly grin.

"Of course not," Kadin shook his head with a huff. "I'll have to wait until I'm no longer under his rule before I can do that."

"You're not missing anything," Eru said flatly as he looked at his nephew from the corner of his eye. "It's very crowded, noisy, and smells weird."

"Ah, like cattle then!" Kadin beamed. "Won't be any different than helping Dai and Hinto wrestle urych. I shouldn't have the first trouble." Eru glared at Shanku in a "see what you have started" kind of way, to which Shanku grinned as sweetly as she could. Innugati trilled disprovingly.

"Well, hello there," Kadin said curiously when he noticed the fairy dragon. "You have an interesting companion."

"I found Innugati, or rather, she stole my breakfast, when I was up in the northern forests. When I came back to the Nyre, she took up with Hilael," Shanku explained.

"Not the first dragon she ever dragged home either," Katari added.

"Why don't you ever bring anything interesting home like that?" Kadin demanded. "You go off alone all the time, and so far all you've found is Tlvdatsi!"

"A cougar is interesting enough," Eru retorted. "She does very well keeping me company, and scares off any coyotes or other cougars that might want to make a meal of me while I'm out."

"But she's not a dragon," Kadin grumbled as he stroked Innugati's back. "I should be going. You know how grandma gets when it's close to bed." Kadin nodded to his uncle and friends before disappearing back into the camp.

"I take it he gets along well with Hinto then?" Shanku asked.

"Inseparable when Hinto comes back from Wynfall. They'll probably work the urych together, much to Anoki's displeasure," Eru replied.

"Anything particularly wrong with Wynfall?" Katari asked curiously.

"The guards killed mine and Anoki's parents, and his wife," Eru replied bitterly. "The are generally not very welcoming towards kurach. Zihna always has to assume the human form when she goes with Dai, as did I and Shanku the year we went with them."

"Oh," Katari replied. "I can't say I blame him for that then. I wouldn't want my cubs anywhere near there either. I suppose Hinto must change as well?"

"Nah," Eru shook his head. "He's always looked human. I'm not sure he even can become kurach, despite being half. His little sister Bena can though, but I think it's because she was hatched instead of was born. Good thing for all of us too, Zihna was a nightmare to be around when she was forced to carry Hinto like a human woman for three seasons. Three! She almost immediately went back to her kurach form right after she delivered him."

"Oh, wow, that long?" Shanku asked as she tilted her head to the side. "I never kept much company with the women when I was with humans. They generally didn't sail as much as the men did."

"That may be why. Trapped on a tiny boat for weeks on end with that cantankerous thing on deck with you and nowhere to hide from it? I'd jump overboard," Eru chuckled. "Ah, well, it's getting late. I'm sure Anoki's parents-in-law won't mind if you stay with us tonight, although you'll be staying with his mother, Shanku."

"Eh? Why?" Shanku asked curiously.

"'Cause you're a she and they and I are a he, and at our age, shes and hes are to be kept properly separated, especially at night," Eru said sternly as he gestured for them to follow him.

"Oh, flitter," Shanku rolled her eyes as she fell in line behind Eru. "I miss Mruha and swimming with everybody under moonlight."

"Them's the rules," Katari teased as he nudged her in the ribs. "We can swim during the day after summer gets here."

Anoki's mother-in-law, Makehe, was quick to separate Shanku from her brother and friends, and saw to it the young dam spent the night with her, while her husband, Vikeso, stayed with the others.

The skies had finally cleared enough the afternoons were sunny and bright, yet the mornings remained hazy and foggy. Makehe made sure Shanku earned their keep by having her help prepare meals and keep their hut tidy. Katari and Hilael were free to come and go as they pleased, and mostly kept company with Eru. Katari enjoyed swapping hunting and trapping tips with Eru, and Hilael was intrigued by the different plants to be found out in the prairie. Little was seen of Anoki as he was busy helping repair and reinforce the Heyen's longhouse they kept in the Nyre.

"Well, cub, I wasn't sure how useful you'd be, but I've been pleasantly surprised," Makehe commented as Shanku helped her gather some plants for meals and medicine.

"I've done my fair share of mending and minding across L'aernth," Shanku remarked. "And I did live on my own for months at a time. I'm fairly sufficient."

"You'll make that cub a good wife some day," Makehe nodded approvingly.

"Who?" Shanku asked warily. She wasn't sure if the older dam was referencing Eru or Katari, and at the moment, she wasn't sure which one she would want referenced.

"Either one, I suppose," Makehe shrugged. "When you're of age."

"Well I hope that's still a long ways off," Shanku shuddered. "I'm not ready to settle down yet. There's too much left to see and do!"

"Eru would be a good match for you, then," Makehe said. "He has a touch of wanderlust himself. He could go with you. But, I suppose your young friend does as well, otherwise he wouldn't be out here with you, although he doesn't seem as keen on it."

"Eh, he's followed me farther than this before," Shanku said. "His parents just don't approve of us spending much time together since most Sylvans think ill of wanderlust."

"Perhaps they will come around. A little roaming never hurt anybody," Makehe said. "After all, if you don't wander at least a little bit, you never meet anybody new, and the family blood starts to get stale."

"Yeah, I know," Shanku replied. "It's why there are rules that after every two generations, you have to take a mate from one of the other villages, and after every five it has to be from another clan."

"We satisfied that quite well by letting Zihna go off with Dai," Makehe chuckled. "I just hope we didn't weaken her line by doing so."

"I don't think so," Shanku said. "Those in Mruha do it every so often, and they're just as stout and fiesty as any other kurach."

"Where will you go after you have left us?" Makehe asked pleasantly.

"Home, I suppose," Shanku replied thoughtfully. "I don't really have anywhere else to go at the moment. I used to travel the Nyre regularly during the winter, and I do feel a pull to go south again, but it feels too soon for that."

"Follow your gut and the winds will never lead you astray," Makehe advised. "The old animal instincts in us are much wiser than our heads."

"Duly noted," Shanku said warmly. The conversation drifted to plants, cooking, and other delectable subjects that kept Shanku's full focus for the remainder of their gathering.

The evenings were about the only time she got to see much of Eru or Kadin, and those two were about as opposite as Shanku and Hilael. Eru was serious and withdrawn, while Kadin was more rambunctious and playful, and often could bring out Eru's playful side if he pestered his uncle enough. Twice Shanku and Kadin were able to sneak in a game of batting around a ball made of sewn leather stuffed with straw, and when caught had to quickly break it up. The second time they had managed to get a lot of the other cubs involved.

"I think she's just mad because we were winning," Shanku whispered to Kadin.

"Probably so. You'd think she'd be happy I can beat them so easily," Kadin whispered back.

Both received a swat from a wooden spoon to the tops of their heads and a gesture to separate.

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"I thought Sylvans were strict!" Shanku grumbled.

"Different kind of strict. Sylvans just toss you into the wild when you won't behave. We get nagged to death!" Kadin sighed.

"And you two in particular need more supervision than normal cubs. There's no telling what mischief you would make if I did not keep you on a short leash!" Makehe scolded them.

"I'd make that spoon disappear, for starters," Kadin muttered, and was promptly swatted again.

Despite not being allowed to spend as much time with Eru and Kadin as she would have liked, she did have ample time to visit with Rajé and Kya, both of which happily invited her on their own gathering trips and other household chores. They were a few years older than Shanku, and most of their conversation was filled with their upcoming courtships.

"So, let me get this straight, the dams own the houses and pretty much run everything, but the sires have to do all the courting?" Shanku asked.

"Well, of course!" Rajé laughed. "We can't be expected to do it all, they have to do some of the work, and if they want to live under our roof, they must be prepared to please us."

"Catching horses sounds like an awful bit of work," Shanku said. "What do you even do with that many beasts?"

"Breeding, mostly," Rajé replied. "Some are kept for work, the others are carefully released into our herds as brood stock. But, still, a hopeful sire must prove he's capable of handling them by capturing a few and presenting them."

"Where are the herds now?" Shanku asked curiously.

"They stay behind in the grasses, sometimes seeking shelter under what few trees they can find," Rajé said. "If they can survive the winter out there, they are worthy to be our companions."

"Why don't you stay out there?" Shanku asked innocently. "Not that we Scissortails mind, we enjoy the company and trade."

"There are a lot of plants we rely on in the Nyre," Rajé explained. "We come in to harvest them, and also gather other supplies we can't find out on the plains."

"Fair enough," Shanku shrugged. "So, can I expect to find you two married off the next time I pass through then?"

"Highly doubtful," Rajé giggled. "A proper courtship takes at least four years! What of you? Do you have plans between now and then?"

"Not really," Shanku mumbled as she scratched the back of her head. "I'm not even sure how the Sylvans go about it, to be honest. I haven't really asked."

"An adventure for another day then," Rajé teased. "Until then, we'll catch you up on how us Red Wings manage it."

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They told Shanku tales of how their mothers and fathers got together, with grand stories of archery competitions, hunting expeditions, races, dances, musical performances, and, of course, getting to stand under a blanket for hours at a time to do all the plotting, planning, and talking otherwise not allowed due to the chaperones keeping them separated.

"No wonder Makehe yanked me from Katari and Eru!" Shanku exclaimed. "If Sylvans do all that too, I reckon Hilael will be single forever, unless they manage a healing competition."

"Your brother is a healer, then?" Rajé asked curiously.

"Well on his way to being one. When we were going up to the Fernwick lands, I got a good scratch off a yamaer, and he made this horribly stinkin' concoction that drew the poison out. I don't know what shape I would have been in otherwise."

"Dead. You would be dead," Kya said flatly. "Those cave lizards are highly toxic. It's a miracle he saved you, even if it was just a scratch."

"Like I said, he's good at what he does," Shanku grinned. The young dams finished their gathering as Rajé and Kya questioned Shanku about her brother's skills, and she in turn asked questions on how to properly flirt.

The Syvlan cubs spent a week with Eru and his brother's family before they went back home. A fond farewell was exchanged between them before they left the camp behind. The weather was still moody and threatened to rain again, but they were fortunate enough to have a dry journey back.

"Well, that was a pleasant trip," Katari commented to Shanku. "Very educational."

"Indeed," Shanku replied slyly. "How about you, Hilael?"

"Quite. I should like to go out to the grassy sea someday and find some of the plants he mentioned," Hilael replied.

"And the game," Katari added.

"Is that a request?" Shanku teased.

"Not yet," Hilael replied quickly. Innugati trilled with disappointment.

"At least she wants to go with me," Shanku said as she pretended to sulk.

"Someday, but not today," Katari laughed. "I have no doubt you'll end up dragging us over the entirety of L'aernth in the future."

"I can live with a raincheck," Shanku grinned.

Their families were glad to see them home when they returned, and Katari's parents didn't seem too frustrated when he came back to them.

It was so nice to see the Heyen again after all these years! Now if I can just see Dai and Zihna again. I hope they'll be as quick to forgive me as Eru was.

~ Shanku Ravenwing


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