Chapter 54: Questions

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"I've been home almost a whole year now!" Shanku exclaimed. "One whole blessed year! Wow, time flies."

"Indeed," Nari replied. "You came in just after the flower festival last year."

"I must admit, it comes with a mild sense of trepidation since I was exiled right after the flower festival too," Shanku remarked grimly. "What do normal kurach do who aren't running for their lives at this time of year?"

"Shameless flirting," Nari said wistfully. "Cuddling under the trees, rolling in the long grass, whispering sweet nothings others cannot hear..."

"Ma," Shanku interrupted her with wide, horrified eyes. "Young ears."

"You're nearly grown. I don't have to censor myself much longer," Nari replied. "Little cubs are sent to bed early, but older cubs are encouraged to spend the day with friends, and special friends if they have them. It is the season to celebrate life and how well the season has progressed since Candle Day. All the rains of the past moon have made the waterways swollen, the flowers blossom so fully, and the crops grow so well, and now is a good time to collect fresh drinking and bathing water."

"Sounds fun. Please tell me food is involved," Shanku said eagerly. "What lovely culinary delights are there to enjoy?"

"Oatcakes and milk sweetened with honey are the main two things," Nari said. "I'll make plenty for us."

"It's a party then," Shanku said.

"The real party is when the sun goes down and we get to spend all night in the woods," Nari teased.

"Please, Ma, no!" Shanku yipped and darted out the door, leaving her mother to chuckle to herself.

"I don't know if I'm cut out for this one," Shanku shuddered. Despite her reservations, she joined in as eagerly as she had the past festivities. Nari and her daughters got up early and braided their hair as was traditional for the holiday before the whole family went out. Shanku had even let herself get talked into wearing a more decorative dress. The other Scissortails were all in a very light mood as they enjoyed the fresh air and gathered fresh water. The cubs frolicked and played games as the older ones basked in the warm sunlight and enjoyed the beautiful day.

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"You two go on and spend time with your friends!" Nari urged her two oldest. "This isn't a day for family, it's a day for friends, and I know you both have friends."

"Come on, Hilael. Let's go have some fun!" Shanku agreed with her mother and took Hilael by the hand.

"I think she over-estimates my social skills," Hilael murmured.

"Nonsense! Surely there is somebody around here you'd like to spend the day with," Shanku said.

"Yeah, my favorite tree," Hilael said dryly.

"Then go to your favorite tree," Shanku said cheerily. "Every tree has a spirit and I'm sure it likes you as much as you like it."

"Are you mocking me?" Hilael demanded.

"Nah, not at all. Wait a minute, do Scissortails believe in tree spirits...?" Shanku asked.

"Generally, no," Hilael sighed. "Where did you pick that one up from?"

"Shaman Onami, of course, and I should think a shaman knowledgeable on these things. Now, shoo, your tree is probably lonely standing there by itself."

"I owe you one then," Hilael said and gave his sister a brief smile before retreating.

"I suppose that's my good deed for the day then," Shanku chuckled.

Shanku wandered around, observing other families and couples interacting and enjoying the day. Mostly the elderly kurach were watching the cubs while the rest were living up to the "shameless flirting" Nari had told Shanku about as they gathered water, picked flowers, and snacked on decadent treats.

"Where are you going?" asked a voice behind her.

"No particular place," Shanku replied. "I'm surprised to see you alone, Katari! I thought you had more friends than just me."

"I do, but they're all busy," Katari shrugged. "I just happened across you. Don't you have more friends than just me?"

"Yep, but they're busy too," Shanku laughed. "I guess us who are left behind have to stick together. How've you been? I haven't seen much of you in a while."

"Busy work, of course," Katari replied. "Winter and spring are a good time to work the skins we've been collecting and curing over the summer and autumn. Gives me something to do during the quieter months when game is scarce. How about you?"

"I spent most of the winter darting all over the place trying to figure out what to do with my life, and settled on a life as a warrior," Shanku said. "Then it was regular practice on the training grounds and studying with Granny Misen."

"Learning herbs too?" Katari asked curiously and started to walk.

"Eyep," Shanku nodded as she fell in line beside him. "I've had a few close calls that make me think I need to know how to take care of myself when I'm out and about."

"Planning another adventure?" Katari teased. "It is that time of year for you."

"Har har har," Shanku laughed sarcastically. "Truth be told, if Grandsire Bibot can convince the council of it, Captain Falak will appoint me to specifically travel abroad and learn new fighting styles."

"Did you seriously weasel a captain of the guard into letting you officially scamper off?" Katari asked, quite amused.

"Grandsire Bibot also seemed to credit me with a greater sense of manipulation than I actually possess," Shanku remarked with a roll of her eyes. "I didn't try to push him to it, that's just how things worked out."

Katari and Shanku ended up deep in the forest before they realized it. The sounds of the creek snapped them back to their surroundings, and they had a laugh when they noticed how far out they had gone.

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"Well, if I'd known you wanted to go out this far, I would have brought my pole and caught some fish!" Katari said and sat down on a rock warm from the afternoon sunshine.

"This wasn't my intentions either! Geez, I don't seem to be in control of anything these days," Shanku said with a shake of her head and sat down next to him. Their conversation ceased as they enjoyed the simplicity of the afternoon and the melody of the flowing water. The sun began to set and cast long shadows across the ground.

"Even if you didn't mean to, thanks for coming out here with me. I haven't really had anybody to spend the flower festival with," Katari said warmly and smiled at her.

Shanku nodded and looked up at him, and felt a warmth in her cheeks that wasn't from the fading sunlight. Suddenly it flashed through her mind the conversation she had had with Hilael in the prickly cedar last year on the trip to the Fernwick, and all the signs Misen had taught her to watch for. Suppressing an increasing sense of panic, she stood up and stretched.

"And thank you too for letting me have such a pleasant day out," Shanku said and instantly kicked herself mentally for her word choice as she began to overthink every last one of her actions. "I am famished, so I'm going to head back home and get some supper. Misen is cooking tonight since Ma and Da are out for the evening."

"So are my parents," Katari said and stood. "'Tis the season, I suppose. I'll walk you back."

Shanku grinned weakly and didn't protest. She had no way to explain herself without arousing suspicion and was unusually reserved on the walk back home.

"Are you alright?" Katari asked. "You're quiet, and you're never quiet."

"Predators don't celebrate the flower festival and I don't want to be a snack caught off-guard is all, and speaking of which, I could really use a snack," Shanku said quickly. I didn't think I'd ever admit this, but, why did I get so far away from home?

"They'd be crazy to mess with the best upcoming hunter and warrior in the clan," Katari teased and gave her a playful shove. Shivers when up her spine and she silently cursed her body roundly. When they finally returned to the den, Shanku bid him a short goodnight and quickly disappeared inside.

"Has she always been this weird when she's hungry?" Katari asked as he scratched his head. After a while he shrugged and went to his own home.

"Welcome back, Shanku!" Misen said cheerily as her oldest grandcub came in. "Did you have a good festival?"

"Misen, can we we talk? Privately? Now?" Shanku whispered lowly through gritted teeth.

"Come give me a hand in the back," Misen replied and left Haro with the little cubs as she went into a back chamber safely out of earshot. "What's the matter?"

"It's now," Shanku exclaimed with exasperation. "I was having a wonderful evening with Katari and then it hit out of nowhere, bam, and I've never had such an embarassing night!"

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"It is the flower festival, nobody would think ill of you if you..." Misen began before Shanku cut her off.

"Oh, goodness, no, nothing happened other than me making a tongue-tied fool of myself," Shanku said quickly. "I can't handle this right now. I swear, this holiday is cursed. Bad things seem to happen to me this time of year. I'm going to leave tonight and I'm not coming back until it's over. Can you please let Ma and Da know? Don't get too specific, but don't leave them in the dark, and..." Shanku trailed off as she got more frustrated.

"Your gran has it covered," Misen said softly and gave her a hug. "You go off and deal with this, and I'll make sure nobody worries too much about you. Remember all I taught you about the First Stone ceremony."

"Yes, I will, but please don't mention that again any time soon," Shanku said as she flushed again.

"Go and pack," Misen chuckled. "Take care of yourself."

Shanku gave her granddam a quick hug and said a short greeting to her grandsire and siblings before scampering out the door.

"Why does this have to happen tonight of all nights?" Shanku groaned as she got her pack out of storage. "Lucky for me Falak gave us a few weeks off as part of all the celebrations..."

The sun was long gone when Shanku left the Scissortails behind. Travelling at night wasn't her preference, but the full moon let her fly a good ways from the Scissortail den before she finally stopped to roost in a tall tree for the night. She didn't sleep well since she wasn't used to being on the trail anymore. She was up again at false dawn and pressed onward, going further and further southeast. In some ways, she felt she was reliving the times when she left Dai and Zihna after staying with them in Wynfall.

Within a few days, she was in Peridæ territory. She kept to the edge of the forest and began travelling due south. As tempting as the prairie was from waving to her, she felt no desire to go out to it. Shanku's thoughts frequently went to Katari and that evening spent in the setting sunlight. Even her attempts at practicing the stances she had learned and her attempts at meditation couldn't clear her mind.

"At least Ma said this is the worst until I hit my prime," Shanku remarked sulkily. "No less miserable now though."

Shanku noted a marked change in temperature as the rain clouds finally blew away. The hot air kept her attention on the environment better and she found a bit of relief from her racing thoughts. The scenery became more familiar and soon Shanku recognized the way she used to take into the Nyre to see Grubber.

"Well, I made it this far," Shanku shrugged and turned sharply to the west. "I haven't see the little guy in years." He lived somewhat close to the edge of the forest, so Shanku wasn't worried about drawing attention from the Peridæ for trespassing.

When she reached his stump, she noticed it was rather quiet, and what constituted as his yard was cluttered with fallen leaves and sticks instead of being kept tidy. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she opened the door on the stump and poked her head inside.

"Grubber? Are you home?" Shanku asked nervously. "It's your old friend, Shanku."

Shanku staggered back suddenly as she was hit in the face by a flittering of leathery wings. "Nice to see you too, Gremmy," Shanku said as she carefully pulled the little gremlin off of her. Gremmy was chattering rapidly and Shanku couldn't understand what he was saying. She entered the little house and blinked a few times to let her eyes get adjusted to the dim light. Gremmy tried to push a stick to her toward the old, burnt out firepit, and Shanku obliged him by making a fire.

Finally, she could see. Cobwebs covered the corners. The dishes appeared to have had dried food stuck to them for weeks. The firepit had many small twigs scattered around where Gremmy had been trying to keep the fire going. But what was most concerning was Grubber. He was laid up in his tiny bed, covered in his tattered blanket patched with unskilled hands, eyes closed and barely breathing, with his frail and skeletal hand draped over his bony chest. He looked even thinner than before, and so much older. Shanku suddenly remembered goblins had short life spans and felt very guilty for not having visited sooner.

"Grubber?" Shanku asked softly. He didn't stir.

Gremmy started dragging a spoon toward Shanku and she took the hint to try to make something to eat for the old goblin. She found some unspoiled vegetables in his larder and made a stew. The smell of the stew cooking caused him to open his eyes.

"Gremmy? You cooking?" he asked weakly. "You too little to cook."

"No, Grubber. It's me. Shanku. I'm back," Shanku said, trying to keep her voice from cracking. "I'm back to look after you."

"Oh, so close to death to start seeing ghosts," Grubber sighed. "No see pretty bugs at end, just drowned wolfbirds."

"I'm no ghost, Grubber," Shanku laughed weakly. "I was captured at sea, and escaped."

"Hunter and mama wolfbird said you drowned," Grubber said sadly. "Visited me years ago. Hunter sometimes visits. Cub bring stories?"

"Of course," Shanku said. As she finished cooking the stew and fed her old friend, she told him about even more faraway places than she had before, going into grand detail about them, including the excitement of the Sylvan games, but was careful to omit the tales of war. Grubber seemed fragile enough without such things to worry him.

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"I may never see it. But, all I want to see is bugs again," Grubber said sadly and stopped eating. Gremmy lighted on Shanku's shoulder and looked at her pitifully. Shanku's ears dropped as they agreed silently on Grubber's last trip. Shanku smothered the fire and then picked up the frail old goblin.

"Come on, Grubber. Let's go see those pretty bugs," Shanku said and tried to keep her voice steady. He was very weak and could barely hold his head up, much less keep his arms tucked on his chest. Shanku tried to keep him from dangling as much as possible as she carefully exited his burrow and took him to the pool the fairies frequented. The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to see Grubber's eyes were nearly white. She wondered if he had lost his will to live when he went blind and could probably no longer see the fairies.

They arrived by the quiet little pool surrounded by reeds and waited for the fairies to come. After the sun was gone, little glimmers of light began to appear and were reflected on the still water below. Grubber turned his head and smiled. "Oh, pretty bugs..." The fairies began their nightly dance across the water and eventually made their way to the watching trio. They flittered and dashed all around them as they used to years ago.

"Why so still?" asked one little fairy. "You do not dance anymore."

"I'm afraid he's dying," Shanku said gently and couldn't bear to look at the emaciated thing in her arms.

"We feared as much when he no longer came to play," said another.

"We always had so much fun," pouted another. "You mortals are too short-lived."

"Cub see pretty place?" Grubbed asked as he gazed at some distant thing she couldn't see.

"The old one can see the faelands?" the first fairy asked curiously.

"So beautiful..." Grubber said weakly.

The first fairy flittered up close to him. "You could live there. It's a rare thing for mortals to be able to see the faelands. However, you could never come home."

"Live with pretty bugs?" Grubber asked hopefully. "Gremmy too?"

"We could make an exception and let him come with you," the fairy replied when she saw how tightly the gremlin clinged to the goblin. Grubber placed a hand over Gremmy and reached out toward the fairy. The fairies gathered around the two and began to dance differently than before. Shanku let go as she felt him lifted out of his arms. The fairies spun faster and faster around him and he began to glow. The last she saw of him before he faded away was a look of pure bliss on his face before she was alone in the dark.

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"Why am I always the one left behind!?" Shanku cried out and wept bitterly beside the pool. Why am I always left alone?

It was late in the night when she finally stood and made her way aimlessly back toward Grubber's stump. It seemed so ominous now in the disheveled clearing that was being closed in on by saplings and new growth. Just a dead, vacant shell, like her friend would have been if he had stayed on this plane much longer. Shanku choked back fresh tears and crawled inside. She relit the fire in the firepit and looked around. His home was plain and barren, filled with decaying food and plants he had brought in to decorate with. It wasn't the cozy second home she once knew.

"There's no way I can stay here tonight," Shanku said sadly and felt a tear roll down her cheek. Before she left, she relit the fire and searched for the little chest she had left behind all these years ago containing the things she cherished, and the things she had made for him that he had cherished. She didn't have long to look as he had kept it on a shelf by the bed. It had the least amount of dust on it. When she opened it, the book she had been making for him was on top. Shanku's heart ached as she realized he had been trying to look at it even after he lost his vision. She closed it up quickly, smothered the fire one last time, and left the abandoned burrow behind.

Unable to sleep and barely able to focus, she clutched the wooden box to her chest as she stumbled through the trees. Her mind kept playing back to her the goblin's final moments and those of her lost crew. Dawn was beginning to break when she was too exhausted to keep walking. She curled up in an old tree and slept fitfully, haunted by nightmares.

The next few weeks passed in a haze of grief, frustration, and stormy weather until finally came the event Shanku had been dreading since she left home. She had managed to find a cave near a stream to take shelter in while she had been waiting for it and prepare for the oh-so-special mandatory ceremony that she saw no reason in carrying out. By this point, she was so emotionally exhausted from the past month that she was able to focus on the task at hand without any distracting thoughts. She dug a hole and lined it with leaves and sand to represent a future nest. I guess it won't hurt to go ahead and practice. Who knows? Maybe I'll be fortunate enough to raise my own pipsqueaks some day.

She disrobed as the time approached and waitied. The actual act went much more simply than she expected. Perhaps not taking longer than a candlemark. She cleaned off the egg, annointed it with the oil she had been given by Misen, and laid it in the symbolic nest. Shanku gathered together the kindling she had set aside and kept dry from the rains, piled it atop the egg, and lit it. This is going to make future adventures in the kitchen a lot more awkward... Before the fire went out, she buried the entire ensemble, and covered it with rocks. Kind of looks like a little grave. How appropriate considering how this trip has gone.

With the first half of the ritual finished, it was time for the bath. She strode out to the stream and waded in. "Aye-yi-yi! Spring springs make me want to spring right on out!" Shanku yipped. She did not take her time, but she did complete a head-to-toe washing, including her hair and feathers. Thoroughly chilled, and somewhat invigorated by it, Shanku returned to the cave and built a cozy fire to dry herself by.

"Okay, so that wasn't so bad," Shanku shrugged. "I don't know if the water has any healing properties like Misen said it was believed to have, but I do feel a bit better."

When she was sufficiently dry, she got dressed again. Shanku took some line out of her pack, grabbed a stout stick, and went fishing for some supper. She successfully managed to get one good fish and two little ones. After supper, she curled up in the big pile of leaves she had made to sleep in, and went to bed for the night.

After the horrible, unpleasant business she had been resisting had been attended to the day before, Shanku had a sudden realization over some of Grubber's last words. "Wait a moment... Mama wolfbird!?" Well, at least I finally figured out how she'd been checking up on me, Shanku grumbled. This sparked her curiousity. How many times had Nari ventured out of Scissortial territory? The dames in her family were catching her interest much more quickly. Ysu hadn't condemned her adventures, and her mother had shown a great deal of interest when she had come home.

Shanku gave her head a good shake and took a deep breath as she assumed the beginning pose for her morning training. She had been making good progress memorizing the meditative dance the warriors engaged during their early drills. She quietly mulled over her suspicions as she practiced. No sense getting weak and rusty when on the road! But with her tasks completed, it was time to go home.

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"But I don't want to," Shanku groaned.

With her business in the forest finished, Shanku trudged glumly north. However, she still was not ready to return. Every step felt heavier and heavier as she had a growing sense of repulsion. Finally, she couldn't bear it any longer and quickly directed herself toward the prairie. Shanku was happy to see the grassy sea once again and travelled a long ways out until the only trees she could see where the diminuitive stragglers dotting the expansive fields. She sat down under one of these blessed givers of shade to rest as the midday sun bore down. It had been oppressively hot and humid for a few days. The sky began to cloud up again and Shanku decided to find a place to burrow in to. She found a crevice near some hills and waited for the storm to begin.

In the distance she saw long lines of thick clouds, undoubtedly flooding the ground below them. What was most curious was that one cloud appeared to have a large horn or claw. The sky suddenly darkened as the rest of the wall of weather came upon her, and she ducked down into the hole she had found.

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What a storm it was! The wind began to howl and the rain poured buckets. Shanku was starting to worry if her hiding spot was to be her last. Chunks of ice began to roll into the entrance and she became more worried. Constant flashes of lighting and immediate peals of thunder kept her full attention until it all suddenly stopped. Then came a familiar roaring and rumbling that turned her blood as cold as the frozen marbles on the floor. What I wouldn't give for a rope!

It passed by more quickly than it felt like it did and soon the world was calm again. Shanku cautiously crept out of her temporary burrow and looked around. She tilted her head curiously as she watched a dirty cloud dance on the ground behind all the rain before it vanished.

"Well, that was weird," Shanku shuddered as she hiked up to a hill. "I don't want to do that one again."

After having a good stretch, she leapt into the air and took flight to curiously inspect the storm damage and the odd path left in the grass.

Days passed walking and flying casually as Shanku followed the graceful curve of the Nyre up to Heyen lands until she spotted a lone figure on the ground bearing a tan and brown pattern she knew very well. She pulled her wings in for a dive and landed before an old friend. "Fancy meeting you out here!" Shanku exclaimed cheerily to Eru.

"Likewise," Eru nodded. "Out roaming once more?"

"Something like that," Shanku grinned devilishly. "Perhaps I should roam on away, seeing as how 'shes and hes are to be kept properly separated' and all that."

"Makehe is not here to swat us with a spoon, nor are prying eyes and wagging tongues here to give us away, so I'm not overly concerned about that," Eru replied primly.

"Well, then, let's have a proper catch-up without interruptions this time!" Shanku beamed and joined him. "Not a cloud in the sky! I hope it stays that way," Shanku remarked to Eru as they trudged through the tall grass.

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"Oh, it won't," Eru responded. " 'When spring blows her horn, it's good for hay and corn.' Spring is known for tumultuous weather, and heralds a good growing season. Also, 'a wet beginning to summer makes for a dry end', and the start of summer looks to be full of storms."

"I never really noticed that before," Shanku said thoughtfully.

"I've picked up a few old wives' tales out here," Eru shrugged.

"I did notice a very unpleasant storm the other day," Shanku remarked.

"Yeah, that was a good one. Probably dropped a few tornadoes," Eru nodded.

"Sounded like a hurricane to me with all that wind," Shanku shuddered. "A good bit smaller, but still spooky."

"Pretty normal here," Eru remarked. "One reason why our clan tends to go further north during the spring and summer. The storms aren't pleasant down here."

"What made you take up wandering?" Shanku asked curiously.

"As much as my brother would like to blame you, it started not long after I found Tlvdatsi," Eru said and gestured to the cougar who walked beside him. "I raised her up, taught her to hunt, and gradually started spending more and more time out here until I just took to staying gone."

"Ta-lan-wha?" Shanku asked, befuddled.

"Tlan-dah-chee," Eru said slowly. "It means 'panther'. Original, I know," he chuckled.

"Better than naming her after an herb," Shanku giggled.

"Sage has been a good horse, so long as he has good grass." Eru replied. "So, what brings you back out here?"

"...Denial," Shanku said after a pause. "I just buried an old friend."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Eru said earnestly.

"I guess 'bury' isn't the right word... But, he's left this realm, and won't be back," Shanku sighed. "He walks, or flutters as it may be, with the little spirits now."

"Ah," Eru acknowledged. "Immortality, but at the cost of never being in our world any more. It's not such a bad way to go, so long as you don't mind taking your spirit out of the Great Circle."

"I think he just really, really liked fairies. As morbid as it sounds, I think I'd rather die," Shanku shuddered. "I'm not ready to adventure on another plane yet. I'd like to stay as far away from Kleu and his kind as possible too."

"Kleu is not so evil as he appears," Eru said softly. "He is what he is."

"Big. Scary. Twice as hairy as us. Lonely. So, so complicated," Shanku listed.

"See? We have much in common!" Eru laughed.

"Are we going anywhere in particular?" Shanku asked curiously.

"Not really," Eru replied. "I'm just enjoying the day and the company."

"Are you lonely out here then?"

"Sometimes," he shrugged. "I never get more than a few week's distance by wing away from the clan. How long have you been gone from home this time?"

"Oh, um..." Shanku fumbled. "A little after spring began."

"Why?"

It was a simple question, but it didn't have so simple an answer. A year ago she was searching for the kurach of the cold north. After she found them, her life got turned upside down so much worse than how she thought it already had. She was silent for a moment as she thought of how to word her answer. Eru was ever patient and did not rush her.

"It's just been such a busy year," Shanku said at length with a loud huff. "Two summers ago, things were still simple. I was on the road, travelling from one town to the next, no real pressure to do anything except to just enjoy life. Then I got to the north, the high priestess told me about the impending war and made me responsible for trying to get it to end, then there was the tournament, although that part was actually a lot of fun, and then when I got back home all the old drama, resentment, and doctrines were back. 'Mind your place', 'stay in your caste', 'don't do this', 'don't do that', and, oh, hey, 'your first season is around the corner and somebody is already flirting with you'!" Shanku finished with an exasperated shout.

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"So you ran away?" Eru asked without judgment.

"Yeah, I guess, in a way I did," Shanku said quietly.

"That was a good deal to put on a young dam," Eru remarked. "A return to simpler times does seem a wise course until you're ready to continue."

"I don't know if I want to though," Shanku sighed. "All the rules, regulations, expectations, the sneers and jeers. But I need to hurry up and get over this, because Muso isn't quite big enough to keep protecting Hilael, even if they're starting to cut him some slack, I've got responsibilities as a warrior-in-training, and I dunno if anybody will ever have Katari..."

"I suppose Katari was the one flirting with you?" Eru asked shrewdly.

"Yes," Shanku blushed. "Yes, it was Katari. My old childhood friend before I got given the boot."

"Do you actually care for him or just feel responsible for him?" Eru pried.

"That's the thing. I don't know," Shanku shifted uneasily. "I never really thought about him that like that. Or anybody like that. Ma says 'your first is always your worst', and I didn't want to risk doing something I'd regret in a surge of misguided passion."

"Understandable," Eru nodded. He looked at her uncomfortably from the corner of his eye.

"It's already come and gone, you're safe," Shanku said flatly. Eru tried to hide his sigh of relief. "Any suggestions?" she asked.

"Just keep an open mind and open heart when you go back," Eru replied thoughtfully. "Both feelings are bound to be there. Just see if the one that matters is stronger. You're a full dam now, you can make your own decisions."

"I don't feel full grown though," Shanku said.

"Nobody ever does," Eru said with a grin. "Zihna said it took her until Hinto was talking well until she felt grown."

"How about you then?" Shanku asked. "Have you felt the 'call of the wild' yet?"

"No, not yet," Eru chuckled. "We live for nearly two hundred years. Why rush it?"

"To see great-great-great-great-great-grandcubs if everybody cooperates and has their first at twenty-five summers?" Shanku suggested.

"I would go from 'wanderer' to 'hermit' if I had to deal with that many cubs," Eru shuddered.

"Not one for a bunch of mini Erus running around?" Shanku teased.

"Maybe if I find the right dam," Eru repled, "and maybe after I've got a few more seasons on me. Right now, I just don't think I could handle the demands of providing for them."

"I know what you mean," Shanku nodded. "Katari wants cubs. I still want to find out what's on the other side of whatever rock I chance upon. How can you raise a cub on the road? Um, no offense to the Heyen..."

"None taken," Eru laughed. "Should you have cubs and want to continue roaming, come ask us for some tips. We're experts on nomadic cub rearing."

The sun was very low on the horizon. Eru settled down in a clearing where the grass was much shorter. Shanku sat down beside him and he wrapped a wing around her against the chill of a late-spring's night. They sat in silence as they watched the stars come out.

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"It seemed so, so much simpler when we were little cubs," Shanku said wistfully. "The hardest thing we had to deal with was Master Woodstock's longwinded lectures and those scratchy clothes."

"It is not wise to speak ill of the dead," Eru said softly.

"Oh, he died?" Shanku asked in shock.

"He was over seventy," Eru replied.

"I'll never get used to how short-lived humans are," Shanku said as she shook her head. "How's the missus then?"

"In her sixties, coping with having been widowed twice. I don't know if she's going to go for a third," Eru said.

"Do you go back to Wynfall often?" Shanku asked.

"Sometimes," Eru said slowly. "It's as crowded and strange-smelling as ever. I've thought about trying to get a book to bring with me out here. I do enjoy reading."

"I miss it," Shanku agreed. "It was nice. The Scissortails have a few scrolls and lots of carvings and paintings, but they don't really have books yet."

"Perhaps you should make the first?" Eru suggested.

"What of? 'How to not die while exiled'?" Shanku laughed. "That'd go over very well! Trying to write about things far away would probably be the same. I don't think they'll ever encourage wandering off and exploring things."

"Unless by telling of what would be found they would be less inclined to go find out," Eru argued with a grin. "It could work both ways."

The two chatted on into the night until sleep overtook them and they curled up together for warmth. In the morning, Shanku bid Eru farewell and he gave her a good hug before she decided to return to the Nyre.

I feel a little better now after chancing into Eru like that. Alright, admittedly, I may have planned it a bit. I think I'm ready to go back home and see what happens.

~ Shanku Ravenwing


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