Chapter 53: Healing

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While the Nyre didn't receive as much as snow as what she had experienced last winter on the tundra, Shanku did not appreciate seeing it again nonetheless. It was bitingly cold and stuck to her like cockleburs.

"Would it be inappropriate to go south to Peridæ territory for the season?" Shanku grumbled as she kicked some of it off her toes. It stuck to her socks worse than her skin! She set her foot down and stared absentmindedly toward the sky. Perhaps going south wasn't such a bad idea? It had been so long since she had seen her little goblin friend, Grubber. Turai said it was part of his regular rounds with Rhett to check on him, and Rhett was surely continuing to keep an eye on him, but, still. They wouldn't tell him stories like she would.

With a shake of her head she started walking again. Many of the others were preoccupied with winter activities. From a distance, sledding and sitting around a fire telling fantastical stories looked like a lot of fun, but her heart just wasn't in it. She needed to find a place in the clan. Others her age had already found a line of work to pursue after they came of age. Shanku had little idea what was even available.

"I guess I have no choice but to try them all," Shanku shrugged. "If I can protect a ship, be the aid to a dragon and dwarf, and somehow help feed the giants, how hard can fitting in with Sylvans be?" Feeling a bit better, she decided to enjoy what was left of her last self-appointed free day.

The next morning she was up bright and early, off to seek her role. There were lots of things to do! There were the torches and lamps that lit the passageways, cleaning, laundry, sewing, creating scrolls, writing or drawing on scrolls or even the walls, music, cooking, tanning, and a multitude of crafts with wood and leather. Then of course the more clerical things such as bookkeeping, records, and so much more that already bored her to tears to think about. Surely one of the more interesting professions would have an opening? The hopeful cub's first stop down the long workers' tunnel was with the woodworkers. She strode up confidently to one of the first kurach she came across.

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"Can I help you?" Myra asked skeptically.

"I need a job," Shanku said boldly. "I don't know what I'm good for, so I'm trying to find out."

"I suppose we could always use a spare hand," Myra shrugged. "You can sweep or process sawdust, assist with the saws and planers, or assist the manufacturers."

"Process sawdust?" Shanku asked curiosly. "What can you do with sawdust?"

"This time of year we mainly work on charcoal and keeping the stone paths up top from getting too icy. The villages close to the edge of the Nyre use it for sheep bedding. Come spring, we'll need to direct as much as possible to the farmers for their fields," Myra explained. "You would also have to keep the piles small and spread out, because if they get too big they may erupt."

Intrigued, Shanku went to investigate being a sweeper. Besides, since she would have to keep the floor clean, it would let her see much of the rest of the kinds of work available. The woodworkers had their own special entrance and exit built to the forest, as well as their own groves to harvest trees. Many of the rooms were arranged around this entrance. There was another young kurach sweeping and Shanku was sent to be his shadow.

"Hallo! I'm Shanku," she said cheerily. "You're stuck with me today."

"Rachit," he nodded and handed her a mask. "You're gonna want this. It gets cold in here this time of year and you don't wanna get a coughing fit from breathing in the dust around the sanders. I have little to do right now, so come with me." Rachit brought Shanku first to the covered pits outdoors where they stored the chips and dust, and explained where each pile came from in the manufacturing process, and what each pile was commonly used for.

"Ah, a wheelbarrow! Something I am rather familiar with," Shanku noted when she saw a few propped up against the wall.

"Yep. Easiest way to haul it down here," Rachit nodded.

"I'm assuming sweeping and stocking are for us pups, so what are you planning to do when you're old enough to do something else?" Shanku asked.

"Chests," Rachit replied. "When I come back from my journey, I'll be an apprentice for many containers and furniture that require careful arrangement. My brother prefers larger work, so he's a joiner, and helps build and design larger structures like barns and sheds. We'll work out of the same 'barrow today, I don't want to risk a spill." Rachit grabbed a wheelbarrow and they returned to the processing area. Shanku spent the day with him collecting stripped bark from fresh trees, chips from the plants, dust from the sanders, as well as cleaning the tools between uses.

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"See anything that caught your fancy?" Rachit asked as they were dismissed for the day.

"I saw why you liked chest making so much. All those different tools looked fun to play with! Not too different from the blacksmithing tools I got to use in the mountains," Shanku said. "I'm not cut out for the saws or wedges, so I don't think I'd be much use as a lumberjack or making planks. The architects were interesting too. It wouldn't be too hard to brush up on my math and give them a hand, but I suspect their math is way over my head. What about all those small limbs I saw being collected?"

"That's for the basket weavers, toy makers, and crafters of other small items like spoons, knitting needles, and hair pins," Rachit said. "They deposit their own dust they make since it's so little they don't need me to clean up for them."

"Well, I thank ye for your time," Shanku said warmly and bid him goodnight.

The woodworking tools had piqued her interest and the next day she sought out the smiths. They were located near the woodworkers and miners since they often needed wood and coal to fuel their forges. Shanku was rusty, but it didn't take her long to fall back into her old routine of working the bellows and fetching tools. One of the smiths even humoured her and let her help repair one of the broken tools a crafter had brought in.

"Well, pup, you do have a knack for this!" Divit laughed.

"Best place to work during the winter, I think," Shanku said as wiped some sweat off her forehead. "I'd forgotten how hot it is down here. Did the Sylvans learn from dwarves too?"

"A bit, yeah," Divit nodded. "It was a few centuries ago though, back when a mutual tolerance was first struck between us. We spent some time doing leatherwork in exchange for learning the trade. There are very few kurach miners, so we also have to regularly trade with them to get the ores we need."

"Are there any kurach brightsmiths?" Shanku asked.

"A few, but it's harder to find things to trade for dwarven gems than it is their ore, so only the highest of the high get to work with them, and they tend to be rather reclusive. Don't want us blacksmiths knowing how to do their job, I reckon."

Shanku giggled, and said, "I really enjoyed today. I'll have to come back another time."

"Before you go, you need a bath," Divit laughed and poked her in the ribs. "You have gotten absolutely filthy, and I won't have your mama skinning me for letting you go home in such a state."

Shanku agreed and went to the bath house before returning home.

Nari was working on a new dress for Banhi when her older cubs came home. Shanku was quite chatty as she told of her occupational explorations and Hilael was looking tired again but relaxed. She smiled fondly at them and was glad that things finally seemed to be turning around for them. There might be hope for them having a good life after all. Shanku spent the winter darting all over the crafting wing, learning about tools, fabric, soap, dyes, candles, hammers, baskets, and every conceivable item used in Scissortail society, but growing no closer to a decision.

"Now that you seem to have thoroughly exhausted that, have you considered going with your father on one of his training sessions?" Nari asked.

"I didn't think it was an option," Shanku said sheepishly. "Da, can I?"

"I don't see why not. We could always use a few more good fighters," Zanzen replied. "You'll have to get up when I do."

"Deal!" Shanku nodded. Zanzen was amused by her eagerness when she even turned in earlier than usual so she could be well rested.

Zanzen woke Shanku to help him with his morning duties. Their firewood was running low, so they would have to bring some more back with them. After breakfast, Shanku left with Zanzen. A ways from the den was a clearing the Scissortail warriors used specifically to practice. At first, Shanku was nervous, and expected it to be a grueling as Highland training. To her relief, the flying and running were not as lengthy. Like the Highlands, the Scissortails did wear weights through most of their exercises. These memories came back to her more easily than the forge and she fell in line with the others as a captain lead them through the stances. By the time they were being paired off for sparring, she was well warmed up and back in her old rhythm.

Shanku was matched to Tiya instead of her father since the captain didn't want him to take it easy on her. Her tail was twitching as she squared off against Tiya. They began with a few light blows to test each other, and began in earnest. Shanku noticed that Tiya focused heavily on upper-body attacks like boxing and grappling, and at most would deploy a knee. Sigrid had drilled Shanku in kicking, and now she caught Tiya off-guard multiple times with a quick kick, sometimes as high as her head.

"Where in the world did you learn to do that?" Tiya asked with mild frustration as she had to duck under another foot.

"Highland fluffballs, of course!" Shanku giggled, and found it harder to resist the prankishness she had learned from them. At one point, Shanku managed to get behind Tiya, and pulled her tail.

"What the pluck!?" Tiya exclaimed and spun around immediately.

"Nothing encourages ya more to keep facing your opponent like the prospect of a wee yank," Shanku giggled.

Amused, the captain finally told them to separate and rest.

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"Sending her abroad has certainly set her apart from us, Zanzen," Falak said. "I'm not sure if she has a future with us, but I wouldn't mind picking some of her training apart to see if it would be useful for us."

"Excluding the tail pulling," Zanzen sighed.

"Especially the tail pulling," Falak laughed. "It certainly did keep Tiya's attention better!"

With the setting of the sun, everybody was sent home for the evening.

"Well, what did you think?" Nari asked as her mate and daughter came home.

"That was fun!" Shanku chirped. "Do you think there's a place for a travelling soldier? I want to go out and learn from other cultures and bring things back for us."

"That's certainly a unique position," Zanzen remarked. "After today, I'd say Captain Falak would even be on board."

"Perhaps you've found a place then," Nari offered.

"Perhaps, but I don't want to rush anything just yet," Shanku replied. "There's a lot of thought to put into intentional roaming like that. It was a fight and a half reaching the beginning of trade agreements between an Arnthian port and a Bhadarukian one, could you imagine how much work it would be to convince another society to give up their martial secrets?"

"Sounds like something you're cut out for," Zanzen said. "You do have a knack for it."

"And imagine the leg up you're going to have on the competition if you decide to be a warrior after sparring with me so much, Muso!" Shanku said and clapped her little brother on the shoulder.

"Either that, or they send me away too," Muso sighed. "I don't want to travel, I want to stay home!"

"Your mother does not disapprove of that," Nari said quickly. "Anything else on your occupational checklist, Shanku?"

"I could accompany Hilael for a day and see if I'm any good at gathering and medicine," Shanku suggested, and Hilael's ears drooped in annoyance. "Or see if Ina wants me to help her out with some of the more refined trades," Shanku added slyly when she noticed her brother's reluctance.

"It's not easy to get into that line of work. That is more strictly passed down among family than our jobs," Zanzen warned.

"Aw, drat," Shanku pouted. "Well, spring is around the corner, and I'm sure the farmers and shepherds could use a hand."

"You'd have to go to one of the outlying villages to pursue a career in farming or shepherding," Nari said. "There aren't any good places here for fields for vegetables or sheep."

"When do I have to make a decision, anyway? I keep bumping into other cubs who say they've already got apprenticeships lined up when they come back from a journey," Shanku asked.

"Pretty much before you leave on your coming-of-age journey," Nari replied. "I figure you only have another year or two before it's time for yours."

"Sounds fun. I'll worry about it when it gets here," Shanku remarked. "Until then, I'm going to keep bouncing around."

To Hilael's relief, Shanku went to spend the following day with Misen instead of him.

"What can your gran help you with?" Misen asked cheerily when Shanku dropped by.

"Trying to find a job," Shanku replied. "I've got to find my place, and I'm at a loss of what to do."

"What have you tried so far?" Misen asked. Shanku recounted her experiences over the past several weeks lending a hand with multiple trades. "It would seem you've tried plenty."

"And I would like to know if I'm any good at herbs and being a healer," Shanku added. "Hilael has been learning from you and he's pretty good at it, and as private as he is I know I'd just get on his nerves if I followed him around for a day, or several days."

"There's an awful lot to herbs," Misen warned. "It will take years of memorizing the different plants, how to use them, when not to use them, and how to gather them. And, technically, Hilael and I are apothecaries, not healers."

"Oh, well. Hrm... I've memorized lots of strange things, and, besides, if Captain Falak is serious about sending me off to learn new martial styles, then maybe I can find new plants to bring home too!" Shanku said happily.

"It'd be difficult managing two jobs," Misen warned.

"True, so I was leaning toward at least knowing enough I could look after myself," Shanku replied sheepishly. "Nearly met my end after I left the ships, and probably would have if Sigrid hadn't dragged me to that crazy old guy and he about slathered me to death in a foul-smelling thing that made my lungs stop burning. Then there was that time with the yamaer that Hilael fixed up."

"If you're going to go wandering about on your own, you may want to visit a real healer and learn how to go about setting bones," Misen advised.

"Then I suppose I'll do that next," Shanku agreed. Misen brought out her scrolls and began teaching her about treating issues with plants. She served a light lunch of some preserved squash and cheese before continuing her lessons.

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"You'll need to see me several times a week if you're serious about this," Misen said when it was time for Shanku to leave.

"Aye, I will, and probably alternate with Hilael so I don't slow him down," Shanku nodded. "See you again later, Granny Misen!"

Late winter flowers were beginning to bloom and marked the coming end of winter. Seeds were being prepared and the first of the lambs were being welcomed. It was the season of renewal, and rooms and hearths were being cleaned fervently to welcome spring. Special candles were lit and set upon the supper tables as herbal teas were served at midday.

"Six more weeks until spring!" Ina exclaimed giddily. "And of good weather until then!"

"What makes you so sure of that?" Shanku asked.

"The old rhyme," Ina explained. "'If Candle Day be cheery and bright, winter will have another flight. If Candle Day be drab and drear, winter is gone until next year.' And Candle Day was beautifully gloomy and overcast!"

"'Overcast' is one way to describe it," Shanku said. "It's downright stormy!"

"And well worth it!" Ina giggled. "As much as I love the gaiety of sunshine, flowers, and fresh air, admittedly, you have to have a little down time sometimes. Otherwise, you won't appreciate the pretty days as much."

"That's true, I guess," Shanku shrugged.

"So, I hear you've been roaming all over the den lately trying to find a job," Ina started. "Have you found one yet?"

"Not yet, but I'm close," Shanku replied. "I want to explore some of the more prestigious jobs, but I'm not sure I'd be all that welcome. A lot of the ones I tried I was treated a bit coldly. I guess my reputation is still working against me."

"A little bit, but they'll get over it someday," Ina rolled her eyes. "Once they find out how much fun you are, they'll relax."

"I hope so," Shanku sighed. "It is rather annoying to deal with the stares and stuff. So what was it you do again? Write?"

"To put it crudely, yes," Ina answered. "I am trained mostly in my mother's art of beautiful writing, and my father is a transcriber who makes sure older texts are not lost to decay by writing them on new scrolls. Together, I am making scrolls that are both informational and pleasing to look at."

"Do you like it?" Shanku asked.

"Yes, but my passion lies in fantasy," Ina said dreamily. "Folklore, fantasy, fables, and blissful fiction. But, that's not very practical for most besides nagging others with fables, so I'm also looking to add in new stories and record new facts to add to our library."

"You sound like an old friend of mine," Shanku said warmly. "He was working to make a chronicle of all the people and creatures he met so he could bring them home, in a manner of speaking."

"Did he ever finish it?" Ina asked curiously.

"No," Shanku replied sadly. "He got to publish a few books before he died. If I ever get to go back to Port Tephras south of the Peridæ, I want to get a copy of them."

"Please let me see them if you do!" Ina said excitedly. "Maybe I could add some of it to our library."

Shanku looked at her strangely. "I am getting an idea."

"Oh?" Ina asked curiously.

"What if... we travelled together? I have an offer, or a passing suggestion made during conversation, to go study other martial styles. I'm perfectly fine going a long distance, and what if you came with me to gather other information to bring back home, like new recipes and medicines?" Shanku suggested. "With my focus on fighting, I could very easily guard and protect you."

"Oo, that would be so much fun!" Ina said excitedly. "We should do that when we're officially adults. Think of how much we could enrich the Scissortails!"

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Shanku grinned broadly and the two began plotting and planning a possible future together. There was a small voice in the back of her mind warning her about passing her wanderlust on to another, but the prospects were so tempting she chose to ignore it. Finally, she was beginning to feel she had a future in the clan.

Spring erupted in the Nyre with a flurry of new growth and new animals, and time for one of the four major seasonal celebrations. Those with long hair braided flowers into their hair and everybody tied brilliantly coloured ribbons to their wrists and arms. As the kurach New Year's Day, many nights were spent baking treats to share with loved ones and plenty of wine was brought out of the community cellar. The weather was improving and as per tradition many spent the day outside enjoying a picnic. Small cubs carried dolls shaped like rabbits and birds. There was music, singing, and dancing, and couples who were young and frisky frequently sneaked away to celebrate the festival of new life privately. The next days were spent in the gardens, planting seeds and preparing for crops.

The following week after the festivities had settled down, there was a mild commotion as many dams and damsels made their way off into the forest. Shanku cocked her head to the side curiously as she watched how animated and excited they were.

"Come along, Shanku. It's time for you to become familiar with this," Nari said and nudged Shanku along after them. Curiosity building, Shanku trailed along the end of the procession.

The joyful group went a few leagues out away from the Scissortail den to a different den. The area before the doorway was spacious and well-maintained, the edge marked by a low stone wall, and at the center was a fire pit. Just beyond the wall was a small pond fed by a nearby stream. Some of the damsels were separated from the rest and brought forward. The elder dams began to sing and dance around them, slowly joined by the next oldest until only the celebrated damsels and those left by the wall were quiet and still.

"What are we doing?" Shanku whispered to the one beside her.

"Don't you know?" Adhira whispered back. "It's the coming of age ritual. They have passed their first stones."

Stones? Shanku had a sense of apprehension and continued to watch. Each of the damsels at the center of the dance were carrying a clay pot, presumably with the stone inside. The eldest dam was chanting instead of singing, and commanding the damsels through gestures. One by one, each threw their clay pot into the fire. Shanku stared keenly and discovered small eggs lay among the broken pottery. The damsels were then lead to the pond where they undressed, and were bathed and annointed by the eldest dam before returning to the fire where they joined the dance and took turns leaping over the flames.

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"The pots represent the nests they will someday build, the fire the heat they must share to let the cubs grow, and they leap over the fire to show how they will impart their heat to the eggs by laying over them," Adhira explained quietly to Shanku when she noted the puzzled look she wore. "It will soon be our turn. We're not much younger than them." Shanku nodded her thanks.

At the end of the dance, the elderly dam announced the damsels were at the end of their youth and had reached adulthood. They were cheered and congratulated by the singers and dancers, given new tunics, and placed in seats of honor as prepared meals were brought forth. Nari returned to Shanku with a bit of food and sat by her as they ate.

"So what happens now?" Shanku asked.

"Now we will return to the den, while they are kept here to be taught about the duties and responsibilities of eggs and motherhood," Nari explained. "Before they are released, their hair and feathers will be dyed and beaded, they'll find a mate, and begin their lives as adults.

"For how long do they stay in there?" Shanku asked leerily.

"About a season," Nari replied.

"There's that much to learn?" Shanku asked as she choked on her meal.

"It's not only that, they also determine what role you're most suited for," Nari said after a swallow. "While we largely follow our families' professions, they make sure you understand what all that entails."

"So could a gatherer become some kind of artisan?" Shanku asked.

"Yes, but typically limited to things that she could craft from what she gathers," Nari explained.

"Was all my exploring during the winter pointless then?" Shanku asked sadly.

"Not at all! Cubs are encouraged to try out various professions as it's no good to the clan to have a clumsy oaf in a career they don't want," Nari said. "It's a very prestigious event to be taken to the Cave of Stones."

"I'm almost afraid to ask, but what are these 'stones'?" Shanku asked tentatively.

"The unfertilized egg that's been passed," Nari replied. "You'll do this once a year for a few years, then three to five times a year until you're about seventy."

"Fifty years of this?" Shanku squeaked.

"Not this ritual, no," Nari chuckled. "This is for the first stone, and you'll be taught how to properly return them to the earth."

"But, Ma, I don't want all this glamour and attention and flibbertijibbetery nonsense," Shanku protested quietly. "I just want to deal with it privately. Can't you just teach me at home? With our clothes on?"

"It's just the way things are," Nari shrugged. "I didn't like it all that much either, but I went through with it. It is a point of pride to celebrate the coming of age here. However, you may want to take advantage of your wanderlust when your first heat comes on, 'cause it will make you want to give in to this one more than the others, at least, until you hit your prime."

Shanku said nothing as a greater sense of unease built up in her chest. Her breath became shallow and she tensed. Days spent with the pirates kept flashing through her mind, their vulgarities echoing in her head, all those times she had to defend herself... and now she was expected to be put on display and groped by some wrinkly old dam? For what? Some ritual of a society that had previously made it clear she was not desired or one of them until they wanted to see her naked? No. Why should she have to do all the changing and compromising to please them when they would not do the same for her, especially on something so personal? She inhaled deeply and then exhaled slowly, trying to steady her nerves. Shanku looked over at the pool and thought of Sigrid and the Highland kurach. Was this body freedom something all kurach felt and she had been denied to understand or experience due to having been exiled at such a young age, before she was taught how to be a kurach? From being raised with Arnthian humans? Shanku felt her skin crawl and almost a tangible barrier form between her and the celebrating dams and damsels around her. How strange it was to be so similar, yet so alien to them.

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I don't belong here, Shanku sadly realized. The Nyre was not her home. It was simply her origins. The Scissortails were her kith and kin, but shared little more in common with her than that. Feeling more isolated than when she was wandering lost across the prairie as a young cub, Shanku numbly finished her meal, as unaware of the celebrators as they were of her. The older dams then instructed the cubs of the proper way to handle their stones when their day came. Afterward, the young dams were taken into the cave for guidance by their relatives and the rest of the Scissortails returned to their homes.

After a few days had passed, Shanku sought out her granddam, Misen.

"What brings you out here today?" Misen asked cheerily. "More herbal studies?"

"I need to learn how to dispose of stones," Shanku said boldly.

"Are you ready yet?" Misen asked suspiciously.

"No. But I'm not going to that cave. I just... can't," Shanku said through clenched teeth. Misen raised an eyebrow at her, and Shanku exhaled sharply.

"How will you find your place in Scissortail society if you do not? It's more than just stones, and you've worked so hard these past few months," Misen prodded.

"I don't have a place in this society," Shanku growled. "I barely know our ways and I lack the familiarity granted to those who were allowed to stay. Why should I abide by the rules of a people who rejected me when I was too young to fully understand what was expected of me?"

"It doesn't get much more simple than staying home," Misen said sternly.

"But nobody bothered to tell me why," Shanku urged. "I learned to be careful with minocentaur. But what was so bad about gryphons and dragons? They were friendly! Most I've met have been friendly. It didn't make sense to avoid them then, it surely doesn't make sense now after all the help they gave us during the war games, and honestly I'd rather get back out there with them because they seemed to like me and I'm not wanted here."

"We want you!" Misen protested.

"Yeah, I know," Shanku sighed. "Of course family wants me, and I want to be with you too, but I don't fit in with the Scissortails. Never have, never will. I've been forced to miss some crucial experiences that I'll never be able to catch up on. I think it'd be best if I just kept my distance and came to visit from time to time. Take Captain Falak up on his offer as a traveling martial artist."

"If I teach you what there is to be learned at the cave, will you stay?" Misen asked.

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"I'll try," Shanku answered at length. "I just don't see how it will work out in the long run." Misen looked very sad and Shanku felt her ears and wings droop. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I've tried to make it work. I really have. I've met some folks that I really enjoyed over the winter, but plenty more that keep shunning me and making rude comments... I get false promises of 'I'll be your friend if you just...' and then when I do it, they still turn their backs on me and look down on me. I'm tired of it. I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not. I should be able to visit every two to five years. Tirhanon isn't that big by wing."

"Very well," Misen said with resignation. "I will teach you how to perform the First Stone ceremony on your own. In return, you'll come with me to the Mother so she and the Sisters can perform their blessings on you and impart their wisdom."

"Do I have to get naked?" Shanku asked.

"No, that will be part of the ceremony I'll teach you," Misen replied. "You're not that unusual. Some damsels really struggle with that part, so allowances have been settled on so you can have your rite of passage and still be eligible for the youth's journey later on."

"A journey which I shall worry about when the time comes," Shanku said quickly. "First, I have to tackle this problem."

Misen did not argue with her and made arrangements for her new lessons to be added in with her usual lessons on herbs.

Having made up her mind, Shanku formally announced to her father that she wished to join the guard, and see if Captain Falak was serious about making her a travelling martial artist to bring home new techniques for evaluation. Zanzen and Nari were both happy she had found a role to work toward, and instructed her to start joining Zanzen regularly at the training grounds. Shanku felt she had made a pretty good decision, as this role would allow her enough stability to please those around her, and enough travel and flexibility to keep her from feeling too trapped and caged in.

Shanku was a little nervous the morning she went to meet with Captain Falak again. It still felt so final!

"Captain Falak! Shanku wants to talk to you," Zanzen called out cheerily as they arrived to the clearing.

"What about, pup?" Falak asked as the two came to stop before him.

"I, uh," Shanku stuttered. She cleared her throat and spoke more confidently. "You had mentioned last time that I may be useful training with other warriors to share what I learned with the Highland. I would like to do that on a grander scale. Maybe intentionally studying with many others to bring home new techniques for the Scissortails."

Falak nodded and stroked his scruffy chin as he thought. "I can't just send you away on a whim. It'll have to be cleared with the council so they don't think we're starting to make our own decisions independent of the consideration of the clan. Perhaps you should speak with your grandfather and see about making the position easier to get. Until then, off to your stances. And remember: initiative only goes so far in the miliatry, so prioritize following orders."

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Shanku bowed to him and joined the others for a day of practice and training. She felt her nerves easing and her mind steadying as she wore her body out on the field with the others. Tiya looked happy to see her back, and Shanku couldn't help but smile. Indeed, of all the places she had tried, she had felt most at home here on the battlefield. She was given grey weighted wristbands. She noted the others wore different colors. Tiya was to be her primary partner, and Shanku asked her many questions during their sparring matches.

"So, what are the ranks and the meanings of the coloured bands?" Shanku asked as she ducked a jab. "What am I?"

"First rodh have been officially accepted as one of us and have a white band," Tiya explained as she continued to swap blows with Shanku. "Grey bands are for cubs who are most likely to join our ranks as adults. You will hold the position of first rodh for at least six months. There are ten ranks in all. White ekrodh, red dorodh, orange tinrodh, yellow charodh, green panrodh, blue charodh, purple sathrodh, pink athrodh, silver naurodh, and gold dasrodh."

"Ah, you're a dorodh then. How long does it take to get to gold?" Shanku asked as dropped to the ground and knocked Tiya off her feet with a sweeping kick.

"Oof!" Tiya groaned as she hit the ground. "A very long time. Those are the older warriors and the masters." Tiya got back on her feet as the signal was given for sparring to cease. "However, at charodh, you can start to specialize. There are the bears, wolves, cougars, eagles, and vipers."

"What do they do?" Shanku asked after they were instructed to began jogging laps.

"The bears are the strongest, the wolves are always in groups, eagles focus on striking from above, cougars are cunning ambushers, and the vipers are those who work with weapons the most," Tiya explained. "We all must learn how to use each weapon, but the vipers are most proficient with them. Bears prefer clubs, wolves prefer spears, eagles prefer slings, cougars prefer blades, and vipers work with bows and poisoned darts."

"Tough choices," Shanku panted. "I'm not that strong, I was never good with a blade, and I've run alone so much I'm not sure I can fight well in a pack. I'm torn between eagle and viper."

"I'm going for cougar," Tiya said proudly. "I would love to have a set of throwing knives."

"Best of luck then," Shanku said between breaths. "Oh, it's been too long since I had to do this much running!"

"We'll whip you into shape before you know it," Tiya said with a wink.

Shanku was thoroughly exhausted after she returned from training.

"Well, is this what you want to do?" Nari asked cautiously.

"Never felt better!" Shanku beamed from a collapsed heap in the floor. "Falak says to come three times a week until I'm a dorodh, then I'll be going as often as Da. I'll talk to Sir Bibot first thing in the morning about getting approved to be a travelling fighter."

"Sounds like you've got a good plan," Nari remarked. "It should fit you well."

"I think so," Shanku said happily. "I still have to study with Misen, and eventually one of them bone-settin' healers. If I'm going to be out and about in who-knows-where, I need to know enough first aid to stay alive."

Meeting with her grandfather the next morning was more intimidating than talking to the captain. Shanku paced a few moments outside his door before finally entering. "Sir Bibot? Are you in?" Shanku asked nervously.

"Aye, cub. What brings you here today?" Bibot asked cheerily as he finished his breakfast.

"Well, I think I may have found a role in the clan," Shanku started. "I'm going to be a warrior."

"Very good," Bibot nodded. "Zanzen has done well for himself as a warrior, perhaps you shall too."

"I hope so. The thing is, my captain made a suggestion for my position, but it doesn't exist yet, and it needs to be approved before I can take it," Shanku said slowly.

"Oh? And what position is this?" Bibot asked through narrowed eyes.

"The captain noticed I have a different fighting style than other Scissortails due to how much time I spent practicing with the Highlands, so he thinks it may be beneficial if I go to other societies and learn how they fight, and bring home new techniques to see if it will make our warriors stronger," Shanku explained.

"An interesting notion," Bibot remarked. "Did you and your wanderlust put him up to this?"

"Not entirely," Shanku said uneasily. "I wouldn't have brought it up to him if he hadn't show interest."

"I'll have to talk it over with the others," Bibot replied. "If you'll excuse me, it is time for my morning duties." Bibot bid farewell to his mate and granddaughter as he left for the day.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," Ysu said when he had left. "You know your grandsire, always so resistant to any kind of change!"

"It's often discouraging," Shanku sighed.

"That's the point," Ysu replied. "And he does it so well. You don't seem as resilient to it as you once were."

"It has gotten harder lately," Shanku admitted as she sat down sadly and propped her arms on her legs. "I'm not ready to give in, but, I'm tired."

"You look so much like your father right now, back when he first told Sir Bibot that he intended to join the military to support that young mate of his. What a fight those two had! You've made it this far, dear," Ysu said. "You're this close to a lifetime of being allowed to wander and explore. Don't give up just yet. Go out, see the world, and bring us new treasures."

Shanku smiled. "I never would have guessed you'd have such a scandalously rebellious nature."

"Zanzen didn't get his desire to break family tradition from his father, nor did he have the resolve on his own to carry through with it," Ysu said with a wry smile. "If I had been just a touch braver, a may have gotten myself exiled at a young age too, and confronted Bibot more directly." Ysu placed a reassuring hand on her grandcub's knee. "Please, tell me all about your journeys. We haven't had a chance to talk in years!"

Shanku grinned more broadly and enjoyed connecting with her other granddam.

illustration

This winter was quite interesting, and this spring is turning out to be even more interesting! Who knew Ysu was where I got my "worst" traits from?

~ Shanku Ravenwing


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