A cold wind danced lightly over the long stalks of grass yellowing on the softly rolling hills. A small creek wound its way in the hinted valleys. Grass gave way to rocks and sand on the banks, more so when the water entered the ancient forest. The gnarled and weathered branches offered a safe haven to the birds that called them home. A family of rabbits sniffed at the late flowers dotting the meadow, nibbling at the grass at their own want as they prepared to fatten for winter, and frequently swiveling their ears for the first signs of trouble. Even on calm autumn days as this, danger was ever present. A cloud rolled over the sun offering a glancing shade before passing on by in that distant fleet of fluff sailing in the crystal autumn sky that threatened of coming snows.
Hilael rested against the trunk of a lone tree near the middle of the meadow, listening to the sounds of nature. Glad to be away from his clan's village, he dozed in the shadows, his furred ears relaxed and drooping. One ear flicked up at the distant sound of bramble snapping deep in the forest. Not really being in the mood to get involved unintentionally with a fight, he climbed up into the tree he had been resting under, and perched on a limb. The sounds of the fight grew closer. Hilael gripped the branch harder, his claws digging into the bark.
"So much for a quiet day," he growled under his breath.
Out from the bushes at the forest edge emerged the fight. A wild boar was defending its right to live against its hunters. The boar was tired but still indignant from being hunted and was therefore fighting with all of its might. The hunters, however, were injured only from thorn scratches and not very tired in the least. His clan had demanded a ham shank for the upcoming festival celebrating the coming of winter. He watched boredly as the struggle proceeded on past, deeper into the meadow. All wildlife had vanished. They didn't much care for the noise either.
Shaking his head with a sigh, he slid off the limb to the ground. After a stretch of his wings, he started back home. There would be much work to do when he arrived and he might as well get started on it. A final squeal rose hauntingly over the meadow as Hilael disappeared in the trees. He picked his way carefully through the forest. He was nearly grown now, but that didn't prevent him from potentially becoming prey himself.
On the path home he had to pass by the opening of a deep cave. He crept by as silently as possible, the canopy too tightly woven for him to take flight around this. His ears detected the sound of air being briskly pulled into two flared nostrils and exhaled just as quickly. Hilael swallowed nervously, and ducked behind trees and brushes. A minocentaur wasn't something a kurach could handle alone, especially one as small as he. He came to a stop, his ears standing fully alert as he crouched behind the shrubbery. There, standing a good nineteen hands tall at the ears was the minocentaur. Average for a young adult, but nonetheless more aggressive than was necessary, as all creatures coming into their own are.
As it scanned the area with its yellow eyes, Hilael remained very still. He could see the throbbing veins on its underbelly and limbs. A glob of drool hit the ground with a splat, the only other sound outside of the heavy breathing. He took a step forward, the muscles knotted and twitching visibly under his thick hide. He began to patrol the immediate territory outside his cave. A heavy thud of a hoof came closer than Hilael was comfortable with and he rolled under the bush beside him to stay clear of the thing's sight. The minocentaur heard him and loosed a primal roar. He began to thrash and break through the shrubbery, looking for the intruder. Hilael picked up a rock from his position and threw it beyond the bull monster. It fell for the diversion and chased after the new noise as Hilael took the opportunity to bolt, and disappeared out of the minocentaur's sight in time. The hefty beast looked around to see what he had heard scamper away. Finding nothing, he tromped back into his cave.
Breathing heavily, Hilael hid in the leaves of an old rowan, waiting for his breath to steady. When he felt it was safe to continue on, he returned to the ground, his bare feet treading softly on the leaves and dirt of the forest floor. Hilael was lost in thought and was not expecting the pair of arms that came from behind. He was tackled and dragged to the ground. Completely pinned on his stomach in a matter of seconds, he craned his neck around to see who his attacker was this time.
Shanku burst out laughing as she released and kneeled beside him, Hilael scowling all the while as he got up.
"Damn you, Shanku," he snarled as he got the dirt off. "You know I don't like that."
"You'll get over it," she stuck her tongue out at him and stood.
Still grumbling, Hilael rose. Shanku leaned against a tree, ears perked as she watched him curiously. He hated being watched and she knew it. His ears flattened and he walked by sulkily. She let him pass then followed after him. The tip of her tail twitching as she knew he was trying to pretend she wasn't there. Oh, but she was very much there. Hilael wouldn't be given the chance to forget. One small hike seemed longer than the winding river. Shanku loved to talk. Hilael preferred to keep silent. He was ready to pull his hair out by the time they returned to the clan.
Eyes dancing at the sight of a friend, Shanku bid her leave of the withdrawn Hilael by the way of an energetic hug before skipping away to go be with Katari as he came into view. Hilael watched her quietly as the pair left. He shuddered and climbed up into a leafy burrow in the limbs of a nearby tree. The thick foliage of trees made him feel safe. He never knew why he needed that feeling as much as he did. Despite the recent skirmishes of the clans, times were very peaceful. All were well fed and the weather didn't present a constant threat. He sighed and drew his knees to his chest. Perhaps such insecurities stemmed from his bullying elder classmates. Sure, there were no bruises anymore since his sister had come home and put a stop to it, but he could just sense it. The look in their eyes and the slight change of stance when he passed by. Yes, they regarded him differently than the other cubs.
He tugged at a stray strand of his hair. His hair wasn't dual toned like the others. It wasn't uncommon for wings to be of one color, but the ears, tail, and locks always had two. Hilael, poor pup, had just one. Tail, wings, and all were a deep brown. Come to think of it, Shanku and Katari were the only ones who bothered to be friends with him. Were they actually not as shallow and petty as the others he knew, or did they just accept him to spite the others? There was much they did out of spite and for the sake sheer aggravation.
Tired for now of worries and thoughts, Hilael turned his gaze and attention to the quieting evening life of their central Scissortail village. Young cubs were being called in as the twilight settled in, hunters and gatherers returning home with their prizes, and happy couples trying to sneak a few more precious moments alone outdoors. The past days were bustling and happy. This village loved holidays and festivals more than the other villages of the Scissortails. Few could beat the energy and life they gave for social events.
Hilael didn't belong here.
"It's snowing!" Muso squealed as he dashed through the trees on that frigid morning. The gold tinted cub was as frisky as a spring lamb and happy as a lark as he frolicked in the wintry weather.
"Yup. White, wet stuff falling out of the sky," Shanku remarked drily. "Never seen it before at all."
"Aw, don't you like snow?" Muso asked in between catching snowflakes on his tongue. "It's so pretty!"
"I spent one winter in the mountains and another winter in the far north," Shanku shuddered. "I'm good on snow."
"Well, I'm not!" Muso crowed as he continued to play.
"How can you stand it?" Shanku asked as she shivered. "The mountains and all were cold, but at least it was dry. This soggy cold feels like it's cutting straight through me!"
"Nothing like a good ol' bone cold," Muso laughed. "You'll get used to it. Just make sure you don't brush up against a tree or anything to make some fall on you."
"Been there, done that, don't want to do it again." Shanku drew her wings tighter around her until she appeared to be wearing a black feathered cloak, starting to think now the thickness of her long sleeves and breeches were not thick enough. "Let's just get the kindling for Ma and Da and get back underground to the fire."
Autumn was passing into winter, and soon it would be time to properly welcome it on the longest night of the year. As the gay coulors of autumn browned and darkened to the calm blandness of the colder season, the Sylvan den lit up with ribbons, lanterns, evergreen branches, and decorations. The last of the fruit to be gathered was being made into wines and ciders, filling their caves with a delicious sweet and spicy scent. The great central firepit in the main chamber had been filled with the trunk of a great ash tree, cut to fit the pit, and adorned with many brightly coulored ribbons and strips of incense that would add to the air as they were slowly burned during the upcoming festivities. The hall was quite crowded as Shanku and Muso tried to make their way through and return to their parents' den.
"It's been a while. What holiday is this again?" Shanku asked as she stacked the gathered twigs and sticks by the wall to be later used in their stone oven for heat and cooking.
"Dolagog, of course!" Muso exclaimed. "Don't you know anything about Sylvans? Winter may be around the bend, but the long nights are over. The sun is coming back, and will be up more and more until finally it brings spring again. It's time to show some gratitude for it!"
"Yeah, I suppose so, given that it runs away altogether in other places," Shanku chuckled. "Let's be properly hospitable so it doesn't get an idea to do that to us down here."
"You can start by helping me hang the vines," Nari suggested from a stool she was standing on to reach the top of their living quarters. As she tilted her head back to request her daughter's assistance, her long, silky black hair reached nearly to her knees.
"How long are you going to grow it, Ma?" Shanku asked as she stepped up onto another stool to hold the vines as her mother pinned them in place.
"Oh, I don't know," Nari replied absently. "As long as I can stand it, I suppose."
"Mine will never get any longer if I use that method," Shanku giggled.
"You could try braiding it, or keeping it up another way," Nari replied as she nodded to her daughter's brown and blonde-tipped hair. "It's well down your back, you have plenty to work with."
"Perhaps, but as coarse and bushy as it is, it's not easy. I'll just keep tying it back and hoping it doesn't develop a life of its own," Shanku joked as the last of the vines were put up. "Now what?"
"Mistletoe and holly!" Nari replied and brought out a basket with green sprigs of white and red berries. "The mistletoe in particular is to go over the entryways."
"Why?" Shanku asked curiously as she tied some above the doorway to the den and another to the opening to the family bedroom.
"A lot of birds and butterflies love to eat mistletoe, so we hope to bring good luck by bringing such an important plant inside, as well as offer a place for any little spirits who want to come in out of the cold. It's toxic too, and thus wards off any bad spirits that may try to sneak in during the night," Nari explained. "As such, no quarreling is allowed while under a mistletoe, otherwise it breaks its power and allows bad spirits to enter. So always be nice when you're below it!"
"I guess this is the only time of the year Sylvans are tolerant of the little spirits then. And the holly?" Shanku asked.
"Medicine," Nari said simply. "With all the delectable sweet stuff we'll soon be eating, we'll need a lot of it on hand for the upcoming toothaches."
"Anything special about all the pine and cedar that's been brought in?" Shanku asked as she gestured to the various vases containing the evergreen branches in question.
"They smell nice," Nari answered. "The vines in a loop around the room of course represents the ever-turning circle of life. The sun has gone and is to come again, as it has done many times before and will do many times after."
"Interesting," Shanku mumbled as she helped her mother hang the holly around the room. "How long will all this last?"
"Two weeks," Nari replied. "And on the first day, we'll be going to a special chamber at sunrise built just for Dolagog for a day of feasting, drinking, dancing, and music."
"Can't wait to see what you do for New Years then," Shanku chuckled.
"I keep forgetting you came in after spring began last year," Nari mused. "And after the lambing as well."
"I'll be here for the next ones though, and I look forward to it," Shanku said gladly.
The days leading up to the much awaited morning were filled with many preparations. Late root vegetables like beets, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, carrots, and onions and other cured, dried, and preserved foods were brought out for the upcoming meals. The smell of stews and meals being prepared saturated the hallways of the living quarters, causing some residents to be perpetually hungry, and a few to become sick of the constant smell of food.
The first morning and afternoon of Dolagog involved the ritual slaughter and preparation of animals, most of which the Scissortails had intentionally raised during the year. Some of the smaller portions of meat had been prepared for tonight, while the larger portions were still being roasted and smoked for use during the rest of the celebration and for the upcoming cold months before spring. As Nari and Shanku were the hunters for their family, they was involved with the barbecuing process, and Zanzen and the other cubs were tasked with the annual winter cleaning. Nari and Shanku returned about midday with the smaller cuts to prepare for the evening after getting their kills set in one of the Scissortail smokehouses. After they had cleaned up, all began to fix dishes to bring to the evening gathering.
Innugati stayed behind to guard Hilael's medcine bag as he went with his family to the first night of celebrations. His family had been dressed in their best and each had a dish to bring with them to the festivities, most of it to feed their family and some to share with others as part of the community bonding. Zanzen carried the succulent, pit-roasted pork, and had even donned a red uniform denoting his rank as a warrior. Nari held a pot of boiled potatoes and turnips seasoned with salt and herbs, and had a black dress with green vines snaking across the legs. The little cubs, Muso and Banhi, brought plates of tarts and treats, and Banhi had ribbons in her hair. Hilael had a jug of wine, looking about the same as he always did. His eldest sister, being true to her odd self, had pulled out that strange pinnafore she had made in the mountains with the Highland kurach and was a strange mishmash of their customs and Sylvan, with a pan full of smoked rabbit, as well as carrying the bowls and cups they would use. There was a sense of annoyance and grim acceptance whenever she looked at rabbit meat.
Hilael's brow furrowed as the corridor began to open up and reveal the great hall. Other chambers had been unsealed, and it seemed the entirety of the Scissortail clan was present from even the most remote villages. It was crowded and noisy, musicians were scattered among them and each playing their own tunes, there was mix of smells from spices to fare to incense, and the whole chaotic lot of it made a familiar throb start above his ears. Tonight was the first night of two weeks of thronging hell. Steeling himself with a deep breath, he tried to focus on his family as they wandered through the happy and squealing Dolagog participants. Nari found a gap large enough for them to sit down to supper, and spread out a blanket for them to sit on. The younger cubs eagerly placed their dishes on the blanket and waited impatiently to eat.
As the provider and keeper of the hearth of their family, Nari served the others before herself, and lead the toast to the good health of their loved ones, gratitude for another good year, and hopeful wishes for the upcoming year before they indulged in their meal. Hilael ate silently as he watched his family interact. Muso and Banhi reaching for the same item at the same time and growling at each other, Nari and Zanzen scolding them and reminding them to be patient and share, and Shanku teasing her little siblings. He was grateful they had accepted how withdrawn he was, and did not engage him further than seeing to him getting a full belly. Besides, his parents had their hands full with the other three!
A hush fell over the great hall and adjoining chambers when all had ate their fill. A platform had been erected near the large fire pit in the center, and all eyes and furry ears turned to Niranjan, eldest of the elders, climb up the stage to address the clan.
"Welcome, Scissortails, to the first night of Dolagog," he stated firmly. "Tonight is the night of industry, hard work, and respect to our mothers. We have certainly worked hard this year, and have finally seen an end to the Fernwick conflict! We are grateful to our warriors for protecting us and fighting for us, to our clan mates who provided for us, and to our mothers for supporting us and holding us together through it all. There is a long road ahead of us, but we are resilient. We will not only survive, but we will thrive."
A whoop went out among the clan, and Niranjan stepped down to allow the priestesses to take his place. They were one of the few who actively studied the old language, and as per tradition, they sang a blessing a cappella passed down among their spiritual sisters. It was a long song, lasting a full candlemark, haunting and ancient, and a tribute to the days long past where strength and comradeship was paramount to survival. When they finished, they retreated back to their sanctum, and the musicians gathered to perform playful and lively pieces for the remainder of the evening.
The time-keeping candles had nearly burned themselves down to a nub before the Scissortails began to return to their homes. Sleepy cubs were carried to their beds and final farewells were shared between friends and relatives.
Shanku carried little Banhi as she snored softly, and Zanzen carried dozing Muso. Innugati trilled happily to see them return. Perhaps it was the season, perhaps it was the wine, or perhaps it was finally acceptance, but Zanzen smiled at the tiny fairy dragon and even stroked her back after she settled onto Hilael's shoulder. The little cubs were promptly tucked into bed before the others readied for bed as well, and cleaned their supper dishes.
The following days were celebrated privately among family and friends instead of the great hall. With the cold, dead of winter, the Scissortails stayed mostly in their dens. The second day marked the first day of winter after the turn of the season, and many whispered warnings were shared to beware the fae as the veil between the forest and the fae lands was still thin. Those out during night were most susceptible to being swept up by the fae and never to be seen again. The virtue of perseverence was preached, and reminded that its rewards would also include protection from the evil fae.
Shanku was a little confused by this as she had spent many cold winter nights out in the Nyre during her sailing days when the Meriweather would dock until spring. Her curiosity to explore the frozen Nyre under the moonlight was tempered by the second day being filled with a day of baking buns and rolls.
The third day celebrated courage, and that some of the delicious smoking and barbecuing was ready. Most wouldn't be cured until the end of Dolagog, and the available meats were spiced and happily served. Shanku particularly cherished this night, as each in her family was toasted to for their fearlessness and strength during the difficulty of the past year.
The fourth day was of love and friendship, so Shanku spent most of the day visiting her grandparents and Katari, and the others likewise visited relatives and friends. Hilael once again could not avoid Ina, but felt he should at least make an effort to be civil toward her for the sake of the holiday.
The fifth day was of community, so again Hilael's day was filled with Ina by his side, and moreover she dragged him with her as she engaged in her large circle of acquaintances. Games were held inside and outside the Scissortail den, and Hilael felt he had been present for every single one of them by the time he was permitted to return home. Shanku was the opposite, having very few friends, and relished every competition she participated in, not caring if she won or lost so long as she had fun.
After the gay abandonment of the fifth day came the disciplined sixth day of justice, fairness, and prudence, in which Shanku felt she was unfairly singled out for many examples of poor judgment and impulse.
Assistance was the theme of the seventh day, and a week of merrymaking had left the area rather disheveled and some chores had been let go. It was a long day of cleaning and mending, but the company was pleasant, and there was much gossip and planning to be had while hands were kept busy with menial tasks. The holiday was half over.
Truth marked the eighth day as the Scissortails huddled indoors away from the icy storm blowing outside, and as they sat around their fires and swapped stories many details were called into question. Among the more mischievous Sylvans, this was also the day of skilled deception as they fooled young cubs with tall tales.
The ninth day came, marking the reverence of honor and the fathers. Shanku made herself scarce as she wrestled with memories of deeds done while she sailed on the Brelland Seacat pirate ship. Muso and Banhi happily pounced on Zanzen as they had Nari during the day honoring mothers. At length, Zanzen sought out Shanku to bring her back, and gave her a gentle reminder that she could not be held at full fault for her past sins as she had tried the best she could to avoid them, and as she was still a young cub at the time the weight of the sins were not as heavy as they would be if she had been an adult and cheerily committed them. Shanku finally began to forgive herself, and happily rejoined her family for the day.
Justice was reverenced on the tenth day. Shanku and Hilael both struggled with the traditional notions often accompanied with the seventh day, but they received little sympathy from Muso who aspired to be a captain and Banhi who was determined to be a lady of the higher court. The cubs debated among each other much of the day.
The following day represented self-reliance, and Shanku felt she had managed that quite well in the past years. Nari sternly reminded her that she may not fare so well when the day of humility arrived, and Shanku grinned sheepishly at her mother.
The twelfth day was about temperance and moderation, which many struggled with after being outright gluttons with all the delicious feasts that were being had.
The thirteenth day and day of humility arrived, where pride was corrected and kept in check, and those who were self-loathing were gently guided back to being fair toward themselves. To Hilael's dismay, Shanku had picked up on his insecurities, and spent the day subtly praising and encouraging him.
At last, the fourteenth and final night of Dolagog arrived. It was time for the grandest feast and the last lesson of the holiday: wisdom and learning from past mistakes. The veil to the fae realm would begin to close, and the Scissortails would stay up through the night to count their blessings and good fortunes, and welcome the dawn and growing strength of the sun.
"Well, that was fun," Shanku said sleepily as she rubbed her eyes in the bright morning light. "Haven't pulled an all-nighter like that in ages, and I think I gained a stone or two after all that eating. How long can we sleep after this?"
"A quick nap, and then back to daily chores," Nari explained as she ushered her family back to their home. "Must work off that extra weight now, now haven't we?"
"How about I keep the weight and just not eat for a few weeks while I hibernate like a bear?" Shanku groaned.
"Because we are not bears," Nari replied primly. "You can rest for two candlemarks, then it will be time to go get your little siblings from my parents and begin the day."
"Alright then," was Shanku's muffled reply as she stifled a yawn. She didn't even bother to get undressed when they arrived home and flopped down in her nest, soon fast asleep and snoring softly.
Those two candlemarks passed much quicker than Shanku wished and soon Nari was gently nudging her slumbering cubs to rise.
"Who needs sleep anyway?" Shanku groaned as she sat up and stretched with her arms above her. She extended her wings and then gave them a quick flap to ease the stiffness in them. Hilael rose more quietly than his sister and sat at the table as he collected himself. "What was I supposed to do, again?"
"Fetch Muso and Banhi," Nari reminded her.
"Aye, cap'n," Shanku slurred and staggered through the curtain over the family door. Two curtains down and she arrived at her granddam's doorway. She groggily pushed back the curtain, and announced herself.
"Don't tell me you can't stay up late anymore?" Turai teased her as he was preparing a meal.
"Late? Yes. Past dawn? No," Shanku grumbled. "Where's Ryoichi?"
"Cursing the cold weather!" Ryoichi complained from the other side of the oven, where he was curled up against it as tightly as he could without singing his fur. "Not even good minnows around here. I should have gone back to Bhadarukia."
"And miss out on Mama Misen's salt pork you like so much?" Turai asked and flipped a small piece of it on the ground near Ryoichi's head. The jungle cat glared down his nose disdainfully at his kurach friend and then gobbled up the bit of meat when nobody was looking.
"Where is she and Haro anyway?" Shanku asked. "Or the cubs?"
"Out putting Tahir's cubs back in their den," Turai replied as he flipped over a piece of pork. "Those two don't waste an opportunity to see their cousins, even though they just saw them last night. They'll be back in time for breakfast. So, how've you been? I haven't seen much of you since the start of the games."
"Alright enough," Shanku shrugged. "Trying to relearn how to be a Sylvan now that things are quiet again."
"I suppose it's a bit harder for you since you were younger when you left," Turai mused. "Muso said you barely remembered Dolagog."
"I remembered a lot of smells and pretty lights, but that was it," Shanku said. "And I remember a few other feasts during the year. Can't tell you what they're about though."
"Four to celebrate the change of season, and four to celebrate mid-season," Turai explained. "That's the big ones."
"And the little ones?" Shanku asked.
"Birthdays of legendary figures and the like," Turai replied. "Nothing really worth noting, in my opinion."
"The Arnthians celebrate their king's birthday every year, and of a past king that lived some six thousand years ago. Apparently he was the first to quell the chaos of the old era," Shanku added. "The Highlands honored a few wars, the Islanders remembered when various treaties were made, and the Plains revered breakthroughs in medicine."
"Bhadarukians seemed to be a rather solemn folk keen on trying to starve themselves to death," Turai remarked. "Always fasting over one thing or another. They're skinny enough as is!"
"Granny Misen could probably fatten 'em up," Shanku giggled. "Speaking of which, has she paired you off with anybody yet?"
Turai shuddered and began to remove the pans from the stove. "Let's not talk about her vile plotting and planning."
Misen returned with Haro and two of their grandcubs in tow, and talked Shanku into staying with them for breakfast before Shanku returned her younger siblings to her mother. It was time for life to return to normal, and they had to resume their studies. Nari sat them down at the table and started their lessons. Shanku slipped out the door to let them focus on what they were doing. Bored and still a little sleepy, she wandered around the Scissortail halls for a while. Decorations were being taken down and put away, a bit of cleaning was being done, and they were ignoring each other to a degree after all the heavy socializing they had done over the past two weeks.
Shanku received little more than passing glances as she found her way to the entrance of the modified cave. Above ground, the air hard a sharp nip to it, and the barren branches waved and twitched in the light wind. The gardens seemed so empty without flowers. The shrubs, holly, and witch hazel were still hanging on, but Shanku missed the more delicate species. It was now winter, and would be a few months before she got to see the silken splashes of color again.
As she wandered out away from the den, the chill began to stir memories, and she felt a desire to shift. Shanku looked around nervously. With the foliage scattered on the ground, there was a greater chance of being seen, and the Scissortails still hadn't warmed up to changing forms that much. She sighed and just kept walking. Shanku came to large, craggy rocks, and finally decided she had had enough walking for one day. With a few flaps and jumps, she was on top of the rocks, and launched into the air.
It felt great to be airborn again!
Hilael watched as his sister passed overhead, oblivious to his presence. He had found a shallow cave to have a rest in and munch on some treats Nari had sent with him. Innugati trilled and he stroked her back. She seemed content with beetles, insects, and small animals, but didn't turn down the occasional crumb. Innugati tilted her head and looked up at him with one eye.
Yes, time to move again. Hilael picked up his pack and put it on. Innugati perched on his shoulder as they walked out into the forest again. It was peaceful out here. Well, excluding the louder-than-normal crunching of leaves underfoot since the trees had freshly shed this year's leaves. He had managed to wander almost on top of a creek before realizing it was there. The chilly, dry air had kept the scent of the water hidden as well. Hilael noticed there was a kurach fishing from one of the protruding rocks, and he turned to leave.
"Come, sit," the kurach called out to him, without turning to look at the unintentional inruder.
Reluctantly, Hilael joined the fisher as Innugati slithered down to hide under his wing. He sat down about a wing breadth away and stared out at the water where the line submerged. Hilael tried to observe him as best he could through his peripheral vision without fully cutting his eyes over. Somewhat to his alarm, he realized he was sitting beside Gadon, the one hailed as the champion of the Scissortails for winning the combat portion of the games. Hilael began calculating when and how was the appropriate way to dismiss himself as quickly and politely as possible.
"You are Zanzen's oldest lad, aren't you?" Gadon asked.
"Yes, sir," Hilael mumbled.
"I've known him for many years," Gadon said and gave his cane pole a small bob. "We trained together a lot as young warriors. He got me out of a few scrapes too."
Hilael risked a quick glance at the older fisher. He suspected this conversation was going to focus on him soon, but to what end or point, he wasn't sure. He wasn't in the mood for another lecture on his unwillingness to fight.
"Zanzen was braver than I was. He was supposed to sit on the council, but was determined to join the guard. I put in a good word for him to help him out. I would have liked a quieter life as a gatherer, where I didn't have to fight anything worse than thorns and blackberry briars. But I was not comfortable defying my place, and accepted my assigned role. I've tried to limit my involvement to what's necessary."
"What are you getting at?" Hilael asked slowly, hoping he wasn't being too blunt.
"I've heard about how your siblings must stand up for you, and that you have a knack for healing," Gadon explained. "Don't let anybody talk you out of your principals if you can help it. I could teach you how to defend yourself so you won't lose control like you fear you will."
Hilael was stunned and stared silently at the fishing line for a while. "How did you know?"
"I had the same fear for the longest," Gadon replied. He felt a tug and quickly pulled in a catfish. Gadon tossed it into a shallow hole beside him that he had dammed up to keep his catch fresh until he was ready to leave. "Truth be told, I don't even enjoy killing these fish. But, they are delicious, and my mate wants one tonight."
Hilael looked curiously up at the warrior. "You are a dyrtrar, and so is your mate."
"An observation many have missed," Gadon nodded. "And would cause quite an upset if it was discovered a dyrtrar had been forced into a xretatir's role all these years."
"I'm sorry," Hilael said.
"Don't be. Worse mistakes have been made," Gadon shrugged. "If I am not too old, would you teach me some of your gathering skills?"
"Yes, sir," Hilael replied.
"Much obliged," Gadon nodded. "I'll need something to do when I retire from the guard besides instruct new cadets."
"I guess it won't hurt if I learn a few things as well..." Hilael trailed off uneasily.
"When you're ready. I won't force you into it. It wasn't a pleasant thing for me as a young cadet either. Furthermore," Gadon turned to Hilael with a wry smile. "The little fairy dragon is welcome to show herself."
Innugati promptly slithered up to Hilael's shoulder, chattering furiously from how long she had been cramped up between Hilael's shoulders. Hilael stayed with Gadon for the duration of his fishing excursion, and as they walked back to the Scissortail den, he pointed out various trees and plants and explained some of their uses.
Nari noticed her son seemed more relaxed than he usually was when he came home that evening. Hilael realized he was being scrutinized, but did not offer an explanation. Nari knew that when he was ready to talk, he would, and she let him be. He knew his mother was dying of curiosity, but unlike her eldest daughter, she could keep hers contained. While on the one hand he knew this would give him some breathing room, on the other, he knew he would have to tell her eventually, so it was still a little stressful and pressuring. Shanku seemed to note a change in him, but was too preoccupied with pestering the two younger cubs to harass him.
The family sat down to supper and began their usual routine. Nari served her family and Innugati, Shanku and Muso teasing each other, Zanzen trying to referee them, Banhi taking longer than the others to eat because she was concerned with not making a mess, and Hilael trying to avoid drawing attention to himself. Dishes were cleaned, pajamas were donned, clothes were washed and left to dry by the stove, and the family went to bed. Hilael laid awake, as usual, staring at the ceiling, and letting his thoughts roam. Hilael glanced over at his older sister curled up in the nest she shared with Banhi, softly snoring. Would she be jealous he would be training with Gadon, champion of the Scissortails, and she would not?
Hilael shifted his weight uneasily. His secret just got a lot more stressful. It was just going to take time to get used to this. He fell into a fitful sleep.
Morning came, as did the morning routine. Zanzen rose first and made sure the fire was still going in the oven. Nari rose next and combed her hair before getting the porridge on. The cubs rolled out of bed as they smelled breakfast cooking. Another typical meal together and dishes were cleaned. The two youngest were sat down for morning studies with Nari as Zanzen went to train outside, before both would take the cubs outside for their afternoon studies. Shanku often tagged along to share the tidbits she had learned and to help Zanzen spar with Muso. Hilael would alternate studying with his granddam Misen, and wandering outside and trying to identify the plants she taught him about. Innugati of course was always available to show him new ones and new uses for old ones.
But now, he had a new addition to his routine. Twice a week he would meet with Gadon deep in the forest and learn how to defend himself, and in return, pass on what he knew of gathering and medicine. Many of the other days were spent practicing by himself. He was careful to make sure he wasn't followed during any of his practices. It would be absolutely mortifying if he was discovered and he might not be able to continue afterward.
Shanku's tail twitched as she waited near one of Hilael's trails, expecting him to arrive soon. He was delightfully predictable, and by now even her previously erratic behaviour should be unsurprising. The leaves were all gone from the trees and bushes, and it was harder for her to hide from him on his way home. Shanku had found a convenient boulder that kept her out of sight as Hilael came into hers. As Hilael passed by, Shanku pounced. She was completely caught off guard as Hilael immediately threw her to the ground.
"Well, aren't you full of surprises!" Shanku giggled from flat on her back. Hilael looked at her with growing horror. Did he just give himself away? "I've been doing this for months trying to get your reaction time up, and you finally did it!" Shanku chirped as she got back on her feet.
"What?" Hilael asked numbly.
"Just like not all fights are fair, not all training is formal," Shanku grinned and patted him on the back. "There is hope for you yet! Jagan hasn't come around in a while, and maybe if he does again, you'll at least be able to stand your ground enough to get away." Shanku continued to banter and gossip as she escorted him back to their home for the evening. Hilael was even quieter than usual. "Aw, c'mon, 'Lael! Don't feel bad, I wanted you to do something like that," Shanku offered supportively. "Cheer up! Let's go see Misen before supper."
Hilael sighed and followed her. He seemed to be only replacing one fear for another.
An icy breeze blew through the trees the following morning in the middle of winter, a subtle reminder of the fiercer cold that would be coming that night. Hilael subconsciously pulled his wings closer to him as he stared at the creek flowing in front of him. The edges and rocks were iced over, but the center was too swift to be subdued.
"Fancy meeting you out here! I haven't seen you in over a month," came a cheery voice behind him that he knew all too well. Ina came to a stop beside him. "How've you been?"
"Alright," Hilael murmured.
"I don't see how you're not frozen to the rock. It's cold out here! How long have you been sitting there?" Ina said with a shiver and gingerly sat down.
"I hadn't noticed," Hilael replied, just now becoming aware of the burning in his backside from being too chilled. He wouldn't be able to leave now until after she left because he would have to stagger to his feet.
"Must be nice to just shut off your nerves like that," Ina remarked as she shifted her weight. "Oh well, since you're never chatty, I'll catch you up with what's been going on with me."
Hilael suppressed a groan as Ina began to tell him about practicing calligraphy with her mother and her father letting her help him transcribe history books and informational pieces. Her particularly neat handwriting had already caught the eye of other scribes and they were discussing how perhaps she should be one of the decorative workers who embellished other works to make them more visually appealing, but she was still undecided since she had a few more years left to make up her mind.
"Who knows? Maybe I'll even become a writer and make new stories to be passed down! What do you think?" Ina asked.
"I think you should do what makes you happy," Hilael replied, his teeth unintentionally chattering since he couldn't grit them shut while speaking.
"Oh, you poor thing! I've talked too long again," Ina exclaimed and sprang up. "Come on, time to go back to the den before you're a pupcicle."
Hilael audibly groaned this time, not just from the pun, but also as he was hauled to his feet and came to realize just how numb his legs had become. To his frustration, Ina held him by his arm until he was stable enough to stand on his own.
"How are your studies going with your granddam? Still on your way to being a proficient healer?" Ina asked as they began to walk back to the Scissortail den.
"I suppose so," Hilael answered her.
"'Suppose so'? Doesn't anything fire you up?" Ina asked playfully as she grabbed his arm again. She let go when she felt Hilael recoil. It seemed his boundaries were perpetually the battlefield upon which she had to fight for her friendship with him.
Hilael merely grunted. He did not want to lie to her, but he didn't want to talk to her either.
"Nobody can glare at a half-frozen creek like that and not have a passion for something," Ina teased as she wagged a finger at him. "Whatever it is, you need to go for it. You should do what makes you happy too!"
Hilael just looked away bashfully. Right now, what made him happy was teaching Gadon about medicine. Ina had suggested writing down what he knew once, and while he hadn't been comfortable pursuing the idea with her, he had been testing the possibility of sharing data with others through the informal lessons. He had found he did enjoy it to some degree. Which meant now it was possible he would face the future embarassment of having to admit to her he would want her to document the techniques and remedies he had learned.
Ina bid him a fond farewell when they arrived in the great chamber, and left him to his brooding as she skipped off to her home.
Fourteen wonderful nights of Dolagog! What a holiday! I look forward to doing this again next year. Onward into the cold, barrenness of winter!
~ Shanku Ravenwing