Chapter 55: Danæ

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Now the question was whether to confront her mother, or go to see her granddame Misen. She decided on her mother, and went looking for her as she neared the capital's territory. Either way, she would probably have the embarrasment of having to discuss her trip, and with her mother she would be able to quickly change the subject to Grubber. She found Nari out in the forest gathering fresh bedding.

"Ma?" Shanku started.

"Welcome back," Nari greeted her warmly. "All go well?"

"Yeah, I guess," Shanku said quickly. "You never told me how you were checking up on me those first few years."

"You didn't ask," Nari shrugged.

"I did ask. You brushed me off to hear my story. Grubber is dead," Shanku said flatly.

"I know," Nari said softly. "I knew it wouldn't be long."

"How?" Shanku demanded suspiciously. "And why didn't you tell me?"

"First, you must promise to keep it between us," Nari warned darkly. "You know how our kind can be, and you are not discreet. You'll get us both killed."

Shanku tilted her head to the side. "Of course. This isn't my first secret."

"Come with me tonight," Nari said. "Help me get this bedding home."

Shanku was very curious, but kept quiet as she helped her mother carry bags of fresh straw and leaves back to their burrow. "Well, since it will be a bit, I have other obligations," Shanku said begrudgingly. "I'll be back." Shanku made her way to her granddam's chambers and steeled herself for the upcoming interrogation.

"Granddam Misen? I'm back," Shanku called out cautiously.

"Ah, Shanku! You've returned!" Misen said cheerily. "How did it go?"

"Good," Shanku said tersely. "What was it you needed to see me about?"

"Oh, just to make sure you were alright. I've already been talking to the priestesses and they assure me they'll have you sneaked into the back during the next Stones ceremony. There are a few other shy dams, so you'll be in a separate area to learn all the normal stuff privately. It won't go unnoticed by the other young dams that you never went into the main chamber, so no doubt there will be a bit more gossip and shunning later on, but I suppose you're fine with that."

"Thank you," Shanku mumbled. "I guess I have that to look forward to next year?"

"Oh, no," Misen laughed. "This actually happens a few times a year, because next spring is your Foterutu."

"My what?" Shanku asked.

"The coming of age journey we keep trying to tell you about and you keep avoiding," Misen admonished. "After the spring festival, you'll be sent on the honorable journey of adulthood."

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Shanku asked warily.

"You can't come home for five years," Misen explained.

"I'm getting exiled again!?" Shanku groaned. "Maybe Sylvan life isn't meant for me."

"Oh, but this one is quite different. You'll be given a grand send off with the clan's blessings instead of curses!" Misen said joyfully.

"I'm getting exiled again!" Shanku exclaimed as she sat down and held her head in her hands.

"But this is your chance to redeem yourself," Misen said excitedly. "You and a few friends, an excuse for a grand adventure, and returning as a proper adult and ready to take your place among our warriors. Of course, there are the try-outs you'll have to go through first. Falak may not be your captain."

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"I know, I've heard," Shanku replied, still holding her head. "Later this summer there will be a competition and all us cubs are going to get gambled on. They'll write our names down for future consideration. I thought this Foterutu was some short month-long thing or something, and I'd be going straight to my captain afterward. No wonder everybody was so nervous about trying to earn their right to serve under their preferred captain when they came back. What if I forget everything?"

"Zanzen had the same worries," Misen chuckled. "I had to tell him he'd better practice every single day he was gone, or else, I was going to give him the worst poultice I was capable of to bolster his confidence. It worked! He got right on in without my intervention."

"Ah, so you are aware of how vile your concoctions are, eh?" Shanku demanded playfully.

"They get their job done. All of their jobs," Misen replied with a grin.

"Well, when can I expect this Stone ceremony?" Shanku asked with resignation.

"The next one is due at the beginning of summer," Misen replied.

"I'll miss the try-outs!" Shanku cried. "I can't go for a whole season into that cave at the start of summer."

"Which is why the priestesses agreed we can let you delay until autumn," Misen said with a twinkle in her eye. "I told you your gran had this all taken care of. You're not the first young dam they've had passionate about a military career."

"Thank you, Misen," Shanku said warmly and gave her a hug. She spent the afternoon with her to resume her medicinal studies.

That night after the others were long asleep, Nari roused Shanku and they went deep into the forest. "I've had the fairies keep an eye on Grubber ever since you two met," Nari explained as they walked. "I was recently told they let him cross over. They got attached to him over the years."

"I didn't know you talked to fairies," Shanku said, a little excited.

"Not many do," Nari replied. "It's fairly well forbidden, and it doesn't end well if you get caught."

"So are we going anywhere special?" Shanku asked.

"Yes. I am taking you to meet Danæ," Nari replied.

"Who's that?"

"The spirit I've had watching over you."

"My own fae stalker?"

"No, she just asked various fae wherever you were to tell her of your wellbeing so she could answer me," Nari said. "I was never given any specifics other than that you were well."

"Then how did you know about me and that minocentaur warlock?" Shanku asked. "Grubber didn't know. Did Kyros tell you?"

"No," Nari began slowly. "I went south to find you one year. We encountered Rhett Talbot, and he lead us to Grubber. We heard from him about how you two met, and we had to break the news to Grubber that you were feared to be lost."

"Aw, dang, poor Grubber," Shanku said sadly. "I didn't even realize what he meant when he thought I was a ghost."

"I asked the fae to keep an eye on him for me after that. They didn't need much convincing," Nari said.

They began to enter the old, twisted, and gnarled part of the forest that the other Scissortails avoided.

"Charming," Shanku nodded as she looked around. "I could live here. It's quite cozy. How old do you think some of these trees are?"

"Ancient," Nari answered. She directed her daughter to a little pool tucked under the roots of one of the giants of the forest. "Here." Shanku looked curiously at the unusually vibrant flowers lining the banks as Nari gently ran her fingers across the surface of the water.

"It was about time you returned," said a green face just under the water. It rose up and the naiad sat on the surface of the water, as thin and wispy as new tendrils, her hair still rippling and swaying in the unseen currents. "Ah! And you brought the wayward cub this time."

"Nice to meet you!" Shanku said cheerily.

"Nice to see you succeeded," Danæ nodded to her. "We were starting to think no kurach sent out would ever fix this growing problem."

"Excuse me?" Shanku asked warily. "What do you mean 'sent out'?"

"The Sylvans have been divided for much too long," the naiad replied. "We tried to bestow favors on the wanderlusting ones and hope they'd make the journey necessary to reunite the Sylvans, but none of them succeeded."

"What kind of fae manipulation is this?" Shanku asked with annoyance as Nari looked nervously at her daughter. "Did you do this to me?"

"Not at all!" Danæ said quickly. "The wanderlust is a gift from Kleu himself, albeit resulted in unpleasant circumstances where nobody was speaking to each other anymore. We knew someday they would reunite, but also knew things could get very out of hand if too much time passed before then, so we were trying to speed up the process a bit before real chaos broke out in the Nyre. And when a fae fears chaos, it is some very bad chaos."

"I still feel a little used," Shanku said with annoyance.

"Oh, don't flatter yourself, pup," Danæ teased. "Even if you hadn't been sent on that little errand trip, the rebellious Fernwicks would have met up with some Ferals at some point, the games would have happened anyway, and peace would have been restored. You just happened to be in the right place to be one of the many vessels Fate had available to use."

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"Still feeling used," Shanku said flatly.

"Most mortals do have trouble understanding how free will and Fate can coexist in the same existence," Danæ giggled. "We have been trying to help increase the luck of those that chose to work toward a more manageable solution. It seems to have worked!"

"Congratulations," Shanku grumped.

"Well, you do not have to worry about much more interference from us," Danæ said with a sly smile. "You've earned another's favor."

"Who?" Shanku asked warily.

"Like I've told your mother, mysteries and the future is not for mortals to know until the proper time!" Danæ said with a cackle. "You two scamper on and get some rest. It was good seeing you again, Nari, and nice to meet her naughty cub! Come see me again, both of you."

"Ma, you got some 'splainin' ta do," Shanku said with a shake of her head as Nari lead them home with a sheepish grin.

"Well, now you know," Nari said after they had left the gnarly old grove.

"Some secret you've been keeping," Shanku said with a wry grin as she glanced at her mother from the corner of her eye.

"I figured I could trust you," Nari said. "Or at least, I'm hoping you've learned enough discretion I can trust you."

"My lips are sealed and my actions are guarded," Shanku nodded. "I haven't told anybody about somebody else's little secret of their talents."

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"That Hilael's miracle cure for the yamaer came from Innugati?" Nari asked bluntly.

"Yep," Shanku said. "I knew by how she was acting when he was grinding up that gunk that she was whispering to him in her own way how to do it."

"Hilael wondered if you knew, but he was too nervous to ask," Nari said.

"Why?" Shanku asked, puzzled.

"I guess he was concerned you'd think he was a fraud or out him," Nari shrugged. "Or perhaps be less grateful? He didn't expand on it."

"Oh, well, I've known all along, and I'm still thankful he listened to her," Shanku replied. "I hope he keeps studying with both Misen and Innugati, and I'm not about to jeopardize that."

"I'm sure he will," Nari chuckled. "I don't think many realize just how stubborn and sneaky he is."

"Speaking of which, where is he going these days?" Shanku asked. "He's been acting odd, even for him."

"I noticed that too, but, please, don't follow him. If he hasn't even told me about it, then he doesn't want to be discovered. Whatever it is, it's making him happy and more confident, and he needs it," Nari warned.

"All good here," Shanku giggled. "I just hope he spills the beans someday!"

"So do I, baby. My own curiosity is about to eat me alive too!" Nari laughed.

"I am going to be so useless tomorrow," Shanku said sleepily and rubbed her eyes. "It was worth it to stay up this late though."

"Maybe the captain will go easy on you," Nari teased.

"Doubtful. Tiya won't cut me any slack either," Shanku said. "And I can't let her get a chance to pull my tail after all the harrassing I've given her!"

"Sounds like you'll have some good practice tomorrow then," Nari said and nudged her daughter with her elbow.

Shanku groaned and was thankful when they eventually arrived home. It felt like the night passed entirely too quickly to when she had to get up again.

"Let's make sure you didn't get rusty out there, no?" Tiya said with a gleam in her eye as she prepared to practice with Shanku.

"Hardly," Shanku murmured sleepily. She had the sleep fully knocked out of her after a good blow to the side of the head and did a much better job of keeping her guard up afterward, and with renewed vigor.

"Now I know where your wake point is kept," Tiya laughed. "I'll remember to avoid it in the future to get an easy win."

"In the future I'll remember to get a proper meal before bed so I'm not up all night hungry!" Shanku teased back. She was still relieved when it was time to stop sparring and time to run and fly laps. She was out of shape compared to what she used to be, but the Sylvan regimen was still easier than the Highland one. Shanku found herself falling into old rhythms quite easily and it wasn't terribly difficult for her to keep up. She spent half her mornings with the guard, the other half with her granddam Misen learning about herbs and healing, and she began sneaking afternoons with her mother to learn more about her dealings with the faefolk.

"I really shouldn't be surprised you're this curious about them," Nari chuckled as they sat together on the bank of the creek.

"Have you ever known me to shun what the clan fears?" Shanku asked slyly.

"Never," Nari sighed, remembering all too well the history her daughter had.

"How exactly did you ever begin talking to them anyway?"

"I saw something shiny," Nari began bashfully. "It was the strangest little butterfly I had ever seen, and it could speak. I started looking for them and talking to them, and before I knew it, I was a fae witch."

"Isn't that the big, bad, evil witch they hang you for in the clan?" Shanku asked warily.

"Yes, and literally. You can practice nearly any craft you want but fae craft," Nari replied. "Fae, demon, and many other spirits are considered too dangerous to consort with and are forbidden."

"Are they?" Shanku asked.

"It just depends on which ones you deal with," Nari replied with a shrug. "You learn who you can talk to and who you should avoid. Fae are tricky little things, so you do have to know how their games are played so you don't get caught up in a mess."

"What about that naiad in the pool? Has she ever tricked you into something?" Shanku turned to face her mother and studied her closely.

"No, naiads, dryads, and similar spirits are more trustworthy, although not by much. They can usually be satisfied with gifts and offerings," Nari said.

"What did you talk to her about before Turai and I were exiled?"

"Hunting, mostly. To better understand the forest so I could better provide for my family. I made it clear I did not desire an inappropriate amount of wealth, power, or other things, just what was necesarry to take care of us comfortably."

"What did that cost?"

"An awful lot of time and proving that I knew how to keep the balance in the forest without taking so much I disrupted life too much," Nari replied as she looked up to the sky. "I had to learn what animals could be taken in what seasons, how to take them as quickly and painlessly as possible, and how to set out food for them and care for them at other times so they could flourish. I was further tasked with trying to teach it to the other hunters as much as possible without getting caught. It's a lot of work, really, but worth it."

"Might as well have an official herd to look after like Dai does with his cattle," Shanku giggled. "It'd be a bit easier."

"Perhaps, but there is something to be gained by stalking your prey for hours until it's exhausted," Nari replied with a grin.

"What are they afraid a fae witch will do?" Shanku asked after a moment.

"They fear new curses," Nari answered. "Koru paid a high price for going to them for help with a minor problem, then another paid even more dearly when he angered a spirit, and of course many others who didn't leave a permanent mark on our people but still destroyed their own lives. I often wonder how much the fae could better our lives if we let them become more involved with us, but I don't think the clan would ever go for it."

"If they are as tricksy a bunch as you say, it may be just as well," Shanku said thoughtfully. "Could you imagine the havoc I could have unleashed on us if I had gotten mixed up with fae instead of gryphons and dragons? We would all be blue-spotted hop-toads or something!"

"That is a good point," Nari laughed.

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"Do you think Hilael is a fae witch? Innugati is a fairy dragon, after all. She may count," Shanku said.

"Time will tell. Little creatures like her are a bit different, but I have been suspicious of her intentions. I don't know if she is one of many rogues, or if she was sent by somebody. She certainly took a liking to the two of you."

"Hilael more than me," Shanku said and drew her knees to her chest. "She never seemed too happy with me, but went almost immediately to Hilael when she set eyes on him. I haven't really spent much time with her since I came home."

"All the more curious," Nari nodded. "They are quirky beings. She may simply like him."

"Well, she'd better, 'cause if she hurts him, I'll swat her," Shanku teased. "But, at least I know she'd do the same if I ever inadvertently did something to him too."

"But what is your interest in them?" Nari asked with a raised eyebrow. "What mischief are you planning now?"

"Understanding," Shanku said coldly. "I want to know what they're like so I can better avoid them. I don't fancy getting caught in any more traps or schemes."

"Fair enough," Nari said. "Come on, it's about time to head home and feed everybody."

Food was becoming an increasingly delicious topic for Shanku as the earliest of harvests came at the end of spring, although she found herself trying to compliment her salads with as much grain and heavy items as possible because they were just too light for her level of activity. There were only so many beets, nettles, and carrots she could eat before screaming. Spring began to intensify until summer was around the bend and it was time to take a much deserved break from all the hard work from the beginning of the year. As the longest day of the year arrived, so did the full blooms of the wisteria, and the start of the summer games.

Shanku eagerly awaited the solstice celebration as that's when the Scissortail guard would evaluate hopeful young cubs. Many other professions also wagered on prospective apprentices, and eventually the Wisteria Festival had become known as the "hysteria festival" as sub-adults worked themselves half to death in hopes of getting a good master.

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"I don't remember it being this hectic last year," Shanku commented to Katari as they walked up to the shrine, each carrying a small package.

"Last year we didn't have to compete," Katari remarked.

"Precisely what kind of apprenticeship can a hunter get?" Shanku asked.

"Long, big game hunts," Katari replied. "Until now, the most I've been able to do is get a deer about every month or so. If I can prove my skills out in the games, I might can get selected by a master that will teach me how to get larger creatures, like minocentaur and huge hogs. Which is why I, like many others, am going to leave an offering at the shrine and hope the forest blesses my endeavors."

"Why would the forest bless you to kill some of its denizens?" Shanku asked with a raised eyebrow.

"We don't just idly take, you know," Katari replied. "Being a hunter has a lot of responsibility. We have to show respect to our kills, dress them the right way, leave certain parts behind to feed the scavengers who help maintain the population's health, knowing when to take a creature or let it be, and help keep the living healthy by giving them good food and helping the injured ones, or killing the ones too injured to continue. Otherwise, they may spread diseases or attract very unwelcome scavengers. Being able to take the largest challenges isn't just about a big trophy and proof of strength, it also shows you've learned how to do your job exceptionally well."

"Fancy shepherds," Shanku teased, and couldn't help but remember the conversation with her mother of how she'd been tasked with teaching other Scissortail hunters.

"Shepherds don't have as much risk of getting gored or mauled," Katari said flatly.

"Depends on what you shepherd," Shanku said. "Cattle have a habit of it, including minocentaur."

Katari groaned. "You never give in on anything."

"And what warrior would I be if I did?" Shanku grinned.

"A wise one. Even warriors know when a retreat is recommended."

"You got me on that one," Shanku shrugged. "You win."

"What did you choose to leave as an offering?" Katari asked.

"Something I'm not tired of eating," Shanku said with resignation. "I don't suppose it'd been nice if I left a beet stew considering how much I dislike it right now."

"It smells good," Katari commented.

"It's mushroom bread, slathered in fat, salt, and cheese. It's a bit of a test of willpower not to devour it before getting to the shrine. What did you bring?"

"Something hard for me to resist too. A good slab of cured ham."

"Maybe the forest will at least grant us a minimum of a passing glance then!" Shanku giggled.

The shrine at the top of the hill was already laden with many wrapped parcels, each smelling as delicious as the next one. Shanku gulped nervously and placed hers on a free patch of ground.

"A passing glance may be too much to ask," Katari murmured. Each bowed their head a moment with their hands pressed together before them, begging a silent prayer for good favour at the games before they began to make their way back to the Scissortail den. Tomorrow would decide the fates of many nervous cubs.

Very few of the older cubs slept well and many were up and stirring before their parents rolled out of their nests. As with all kurach celebrations, there was a hearty feast prepared for the day of fun and relaxing. Or as relaxing as the summer games ever were. There were a multitude of races, wrestling matches, and throwing contests to be had, and of course the festival's namesake had been grown around the fair grounds to create a colorful and sweet-scented day. The cubs that were trying to impress a master and land a good apprenticeship had numbers pinned to their hips.

"Explain to me again how this is relevant for picking out apprentices for the fancy mental stuff like healing?" Shanku asked skeptically as she lined up at the starting line.

"These games test the three basics of speed, strength, and skill. For healers, that would be tending to their patient quickly, ability to move a compromised patient, and having steady hands for more delicate work," Rachit explained. "Since my goal is delicate chest work, my performance in the throwing part will depend more on speed and aim rather than how hard I can chunk anything."

"Interesting appraisal system, especially since they have all of us lumped in together," Shanku mused. "I still intend to be your first customer, so you better ace this."

"I intend to, even without the incentive," Rachit laughed. "But's let's see how the daughter of the fastest runner in the clan fares, eh?"

"Oh, c'mon, dude, I'm under enough pressure as is!" Shanku groaned.

"The future guard of my exported wares had better do well," Rachit said with a wink before the signal was given to start.

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The first race was a simple sprint of a half furlong to gauge who were the quickest on their feet. Shanku did manage to place in the top ten by tying with another cub, but that didn't mean much since there were only twenty-five cubs competing.

"I expected better from you," Jagan remarked.

"Still beat your ass, didn't I?" Shanku replied back with a devilish grin.

"I'll be sure to put in a good word on your little traveling grunt idea just to get you out of my sight," Jagan laughed.

"Sounds good to me, thanks," Shanku grinned and Jagan chuckled. Ina came straggling in with the last group.

"Oh, my!" Ina panted. "I'm not cut out for this."

"Hang in there, we still have to do the endurance run," Shanku said encouragingly.

"Don't tell me that!" Ina shuddered.

"How can we tour the world if you can't do the endurance run?" Shanku asked.

"Ah, point. I better get into shape!" Ina replied and marched up to the second starting line. "May even have to join you warriors a few times a week before we go."

The second challenge for the cubs was about to begin and came with the promise of getting fed afterward. Those who completed the one league would have their pick of various pies and sweets. With years of travel under her belt and her reputation of being a glutton, it came as little surprise to her family that Shanku dominated the endurance run.

"Perhaps I should have put a pastry on the finishing line for the sprint?" Zanzen kidded Shanku as she tucked into a turkey leg.

"My burst speed is limited to ambushes," Shanku said after a mouthful. "And if I miss, at least I have a chance of chasing it down. We can't all be the fastest runner in the clan, Da."

"Perhaps you should consider the cougars instead of the vipers," Zanzen suggested.

"I dunno, I seem to have a knack of silently slithering off without being detected," Shanku replied with a sly grin.

"Definitely an unabashed viper," Zanzen sighed.

"How did y'all do?" Shanku asked her siblings.

"I was the fastest in the sprint, but I didn't do so well in the endurance run," Muso sulked. Banhi and Hilael just shook their heads to indicate how poor their own performances were.

"At least all of you get the same reward regardless of performance," Shanku offered. "There's always next year!"

"Until then, we all have some rock throwing to do," Nari said. "It's time for us less swift kurach to prove our skill and coordination."

Shanku performed well in the rock throwing in both accuracy and strength, but was solidly beat by her mother and Muso. The final contest involved grappling and wrestling, in which Shanku and Muso performed well in, and the rest of their family not so much. "Well, you're bound to catch somebody's eyes in a few years, Muso!" Shanku said proudly, and then muttered under breath, "or put it out, one."

"Captain of the Eagles! Just you wait and see," Muso beamed.

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"While you two plan your military careers, I am going to enjoy this beautiful day and all this full-blossomed wisteria with a bit of wine," Nari said with a wry smile and twinkle in her eye. "Go on and play with your friends. We'll meet up later this evening."

The family went their separate ways to enjoy the afternoon of music, dancing, and watching others who chose to compete later in the day.

"Now we know who's faster," Katari teased Shanku as he came up to her.

"But I've got you beat in the long haul," Shanku teased back.

"Now that we've completed the Hysteria Festival, let's move on to the Wisteria Festival," Katari suggested and started walking toward some of the flowering bushes. Shanku felt much more relaxed than their previous fair together and fell in beside him.

"Do you think you'll get a good review?" she asked.

"If I'm lucky, yeah," Katari replied. "I was one of the better performers of the older hunters."

"Um, 'older' hunters?"

"They also watch how the younger ones do, to see if they should select one of us, or just wait until one of the upcoming cubs are ready," Katari explained.

"Oh," Shanku replied lowly. "This is quite a competition then."

"You came in first on one round, so I'm sure you've gotten somebody's attention," Katari said warmly. "The best I got was second on the sprint."

"Eh, that comes in handy on an ambush, and the first place position went to a candlemaker. I think you did just fine," Shanku said.

Katari grinned broadly as they sat near one of the flowering bushes to watch other players. As the sun began to set, the bonfires were lit in the shape of a large circle to symbolize the sun. Music began to be played for the evening dances. Katari invited Shanku out onto the grounds and she obliged him. Where the spring holidays honoured females, the summer holidays honoured the males, and they would perform an aerial dance where they had to fly over each of the bonfires at least once before returning to the ground or their partners. The moon was quite ready to set when the last of the celebrating kurach were ready to go to bed for the night.

"When will we know who got picked for what?" Shanku asked eagerly the next morning at breakfast.

"When you get back from your journey and compete again," Zanzen replied.

"Say what!?" Shanku squeaked. "I just worried myself sick over nothing?"

"Not at all. You're not just going on an extended vacation, you've got to improve yourself while you're out. Yesterday they established a baseline for your performance. When you come back, you've got to do better."

Shanku groaned and let her forehead thump onto the table. "What if some wee sprout impresses them more than I did while I'm gone?"

"All the more reason to work hard the next five years," Zanzen chuckled. "I barely placed third in the races before I left. I was unmatched when I returned, and so far, still am."

"It's a wonder you weren't taken up by the couriers," Shanku remarked glumly.

"Those are winged races, and since there are no openings for that, they were just for pleasure this year."

"I guess you're too young to get a number pinned to you, 'Lael?" Shanku asked her brother.

"It wouldn't matter. I only want to study under Misen, and she doesn't take on enough students for it to matter." Hilael said.

"What if they send you to somebody else, though?"

"Apothecaries are about as picky as scribes and Elders. I'm not worried," Hilael shrugged.

Shanku's ears went flat out beside her head as she looked at her brother with supreme annoyance. "Lucky you."

"You now have less than a year before you set out again. It's time to buckle down on your studies and memorize what you can. They will be testing you to see how disciplined you were out there when you come back," Zanzen warned.

"Then I'll go every day," Shanku said proudly.

"Part of practicing following orders, Shanku," Zanzen said as he shook his head. "Only thrice a week until you're a dorodh."

"There's no rule saying I can't practice out in the forest on my days off!" Shanku called after her father as he left for the morning.

"You still need to study with Misen, and there is still plenty to learn from her," Nari offered.

"I know, Ma. But I'm still confusing a lot of plants. I'm more likely to poison myself than create an antidote," Shanku sighed. She glanced over at Hilael and gave him such a curious look that he started to feel uncomfortable. Innugati trilled at her and Shanku looked away again when she realized she was staring. "I'm heading out. I'll be back in later."

After another long and frustrating morning with her granddam trying to memorize remedies and ingredients, Shanku set out into the forest to relieve a pounding headache. Misen was surprisingly patient and encouraging, but this was proving to be one of the hardest things Shanku had attempted. When she arrived at one of her favorite clearings, she paused, breathed in deeply a few times, and began going through her martial stances to ease her mind. Even if she couldn't get the pain to stop, perhaps she could at least redirect it to a different part of her body. Stances and streches became training, and before she knew it, she had exerted herself too much and gotten sore.

"I can't get anything right today," Shanku growled and made her way to the creek. After casting a quick protection on her feathers, she stripped down and eased into the water, enjoying the cool sensation on her hot and overworked muscles. She squeaked and ducked under the water quickly when she was spoken to.

"You too, eh?" Ina asked cheerily from the otherside of a rock.

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"Me too, what?" Shanku asked cautiously, wondering how she could have missed the brilliantly golden aspiring scribe.

"Enjoying this beautiful day in this wonderful creek!" Ina explained and stretched out in the water. "Some say it's still too early for a swim, but, I disagree."

"Are we the only ones out here, then?" Shanku asked.

"Naturally," Ina nodded.

A little too natural for my liking, Shanku shuddered to herself. I guess I should get used to having to bathe with her if we're going to travel together someday. "How did you do in the games?"

"Ugh, I don't want to talk about it!" Ina groaned. "I'm a horrible sprinter, I came crawling in last on the run, I nearly crashed into the ground a few times on the flight, I can't hit anything, and I pretty much pinned myself in the grappling part."

"But you kinda did talk about it. All of it," Shanku chuckled.

"My future line of work is considerably less atheltic," Ina sighed. "It is so pointless to have us do those competitions."

"A healthy body keeps a healthy mind," Shanku said. "The better you keep up yourself, the longer you can write and draw."

"Oh, I know. Doesn't mean I enjoy it though," Ina huffed. "I guess you did alright then?"

"Well enough, I suppose. Another hopeful warrior outperformed me, but I beat out the others," Shanku replied. "What worries me is Katari saying we'll have to compete again when we get home."

"Yep. Got to make sure you're worth taking in after five years out in the wild," Ina nodded. "Um, just how wild are we going to be living, anyway?"

"That just depends on how far you want to go," Shanku replied devilishly. "Want to be a good pup and stay in the Nyre?"

"Anything goes on the journey," Ina remarked casually with a twinkle in her eye.

"By this point I'm not sure who is the worse influence," Shanku said gleefully. "I am turning into a prune and would like to get out now."

"Ah, same here," Ina stated and swam toward the bank. She climbed out of the water and began to wring out her hair, shake her feathers, and try to dry off. She stole a glance at Shanku after she began to get dressed and noticed something curious. "How did your feathers dry so fast?"

"Islander trick," Shanku replied. "They cast a water protection spell on their feathers. I learned it while I was exiled."

"Magic can get you in a lot of trouble, you know," Ina warned.

"So can wet feathers if a minocentaur pops up out of nowhere," Shanku responded.

"Fair enough," Ina shrugged. "Just don't get caught. But you better teach me that when we set out."

"Deal," Shanku nodded firmly with a grin. "I suppose I'm worse for you than you are me then."

"Wait until we're on the road," Ina said coyly before wandering off into the forest. Shanku chuckled and walked with her back to the Scissortail den.

Summer passed peacefully and as the leaves brightened with late summer, Shanku's mood began to darken. Soon it would be time for her to enter the Cave of Stones to learn how to properly be a she-kurach, and she was dreading it. How could she possibly stand being trapped in a hollow rock for weeks with a bunch of females squealing about ribbons, mates, and talking about their intimate places? Shanku tried to push the horror of it out of her mind as she attended the annual festival of the first harvest, but the night it ended she would have to go into the cursed cave and she couldn't get her mind off of it.

"Um, Shanku?" asked a timid voice behind her. Shanku turned around to find Adhira, the tousle-haired lass who had helped explain the cave to her a half year ago.

"What is it?" Shanku asked gruffly, not wanting a further reminder of her impending doom.

"Are you, um... Are you going to...?" Adhira stuttered.

"Am I what? Spit it out," Shanku said with mild annoyance.

"Are you going through with the ceremony tomorrow night?" Adhira asked quickly. "The bath and all?"

"I'd much rather not, why?" Shanku asked slowly.

"I-don't-think-I-can-do-it," Adhira squeaked out quickly. She covered her face and pulled her wings up around her shoulders. "It's so frightful! All those eyes watching at once? I can't bear it!"

Shanku winced with a twinge of guilt at being so snappish a moment before. "Well, me neither. I guess you'll sneak in the back too, then?"

"Is that an option?" Adhira asked and peaked through her fingers.

"According to Granddam Misen, yeah," Shanku said quietly. "She said it's not too uncommon for young dams to struggle with it and the priestesses will make exceptions in certain cases. It wouldn't be good to be so nervous you break down and fall into the fire mid-leap."

"Will you go with me?" Adhira asked and clasped her hands before her. "I don't want to be the only one this year too cowardly to go through with it!"

"Whoa, now, nobody said anything about being a coward," Shanku said and her feathers ruffled. "I have a very legitimate reason for not wanting to get put on display, and it entails some very grabby humans. What's yours?"

"It's silly," Adhira stammered and started to back away.

"Can't be that silly if you're shying away from what many claim to be one of the most important rituals in our lives. What happened?" Shanku asked gently.

"I broke a vase," Adhira said in a voice so small it was barely above a whisper.

"Ooookay...?" Shanku said slowly, more than a little confused. "That's the beginning of the ritual, you should ace that part."

"No, as a cub. It was a very important vase. The other cubs made a big deal of it and teased me for years because I'm really clumsy, and I just don't do well when a lot of people are looking at me anymore," Adhira admitted sadly and stared at the ground. "What if I throw the pot on the priestess' foot, or drown one in the pond, or, or..."

"Or generally do something to embarrass yourself and get teased relentlessly again?" Shanku offered. Adhira silently nodded. "Well I'm not sure hanging with an outcast like me is going to help your reputation, but, you're welcome to come with me through the back."

"I kinda think you're brave," Adhira said sheepishly. "You got exiled at such a young age, and then came back early, yelled at Niranjan and took down two guards and it's a wonder that didn't get you killed, and you talked to... him which is even more surprising you didn't get killed when you touched his nose, and... I... kinda like you."

Shanku laid her ears back and her eyes went wide. "Uh, you do?"

Adhira blushed very deeply and looked away.

"Aw, hell, naw, no you don't. I've already got one person flirting with me, I don't need another" Shanku groaned.

"I'm sorry," Adhira stammered and shrank down, starting to back away again.

"No, stay, don't scamper off. It's nothing personal, it's just... not really my area of expertise," Shanku sighed. "Can't say I'm fond of the subject at all."

"Well, of course not, you're a xretatir. It's the job of us dyrtrar to handle all that!" Adhira giggled, and then became nervous again. "I guess that's kind of why this is so hard for you. I'll be there for you during the ceremony and help."

"Bear in mind I'll be doing the full ceremony now," Shanku said quickly. "I don't want anybody thinking being a xretatir is a handicap or something. I'm just as capable as the next dam."

"I guess if you can do the Cave of Stones, I can too," Adhira said with a budding smile and straightened up.

"At least I can encourage proper behaviour on some occasions," Shanku said with a weak chuckle, and beginning to dread what her big mouth just go her in to. Then she realized she had already disposed of her first stone and let out a frustrated groan.

"Is something wrong?" Adhira asked.

"I did the first part of the ceremony by myself," Shanku said and slapped the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Bloody hell, how am I going to pull this off?"

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"You could substitute with a turkey egg, like me," Adhira said. "I kind of dropped mine, and had to improvise too. They're about the same size as the first one anyway. I can sneak one from the pantry for you."

"I would be in your debt then," Shanku said.

"Just don't laugh when I make a klutz of myself at the ceremony and we'll call it even," Adhira giggled.

Shanku allowed Adhira to follow her around for the rest of the evening, talking about nothing in particular and trying to enjoy the food, music, and crafts of the harvest.

As the autumnal celebration ended, so symbolically did the youth of four more dams as they were lead to the Cave of Stones. Shanku was the last in the procession, so she could give encouraging smiles to Adhira in front of her. Misen had been quite surprised at Shanku's change of heart, and helped her prepare a clay pot for use at the ceremony. Shanku felt quite silly with the imposter turkey egg, and overall found the whole thing ridiculous. But, it was tradition, and she was on strict orders to learn to follow orders, so she intended to try to make the best of it.

Dancing with a turkey egg in a pot quickly became one of the strangest things Shanku had ever done in her life. While the other three dams were smiling with pride with the honor being bestowed upon them, Shanku's irreverant sense of humour was fueling her own grin, and was a welcome distraction to help her through the ceremony. When it came time for her to toss the pot into the fire, she had to suppress a giggle at the lovely pun of the flames gobbling up the turkey contents before time for the bath.

Undressing at the pond was not as unpleasant as how frightfully cold the pond was at this time of year. Shanku nearly jumped out of the water and into the fire. Thankfully, the bath was more about ritual than cleanliness, and after a cursory swab from an annointed wash cloth, the dams were allowed to dry off and return to the blessedly warm fire. With continued encouragement from Shanku, not once did Adhira make a mistake, such as falling into the flames when required to leap over them.

When that was finished, it was finally time to get dressed again and protect themselves against some of the chill in the air. With the worst of the ceremony over, Shanku relaxed and indulged in the fine feast that had been prepared for the celebrated night. The last thing Shanku saw before they were ushered into the cave was the look of sheer pride on her mother and granddams' faces. One of her last thoughts was that was preferably the final time her relatives ever saw her naked.

Now it was time for the mysterious innards of the Cave of Stones. The first several walls were bare and boring. The central chamber was painted up with several murals detailing many points of adult life, some of which Shanku could have done without seeing. The first month inside the cave involved learning how to create cubs. Shanku couldn't help but wonder how the sworn unpaired high priestess was considered an expert on that subject. Perhaps she drilled her priestesses for information since they were allowed to marry? The true answer was far more concerning to Shanku, as the high priestess explained she had dedicated herself to a life of solitude for the sole purpose of being able to aid couples in distress. The second month revolved around the eggs and cubs. How to keep them warm, turn them frequently, when to crack open the shell for a struggling infant, and many basics of caring for cubs.

The final weeks involved career evaluation, courting, and compatibility with future mates, of which Shanku was nervous about since she still hadn't been accepted into the guard and lacked the nigh lifelong commitment other cubs had. The priestesses bombarded them with questions and tasks now that the studying had concluded. Shanku's domestic skills were passable, but she was quickly ruled out as being the keeper of a nest. To her surprise, the priestess said she was to work hard on her military career and scolded her roundly for not being stronger than she already was.

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"You are a fine set of dams, ready to take the journey," the high priestess nodded when the day finally came for them to be released back into Scissortail society. "You may take a companion whenever you are ready, but it is recommended you wait until after you return before taking a mate. You should find a sire within the next ten years to have a chance to produce the healthiest cubs possible. It is unwise to wait too long."

"What if we're not interested in either a companion or sire?" Shanku asked, to Adhira's disappointment.

"Then you'll be the primary nominee for dangerous missions without any widows or orphans to leave behind," the high priestess said coldly.

"Somebody's gotta do the dirty work," Shanku remarked with a shrug.

The high priestess sighed and turned them away to seek out their families and prepare for their final rite of passage.

"Welcome back!" Nari said heartily as Shanku entered their home. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

"Not a bit," Shanku said with an unhinged grin. "But at least I'm out in time to go visit the Heyen, eh?"

"I figured you would bolt as soon as you escaped," Nari chuckled. "You're practically an adult now. The only one you answer to is your captain. Be sure and get his permission before you vanish south."

"Naturally," Shanku nodded. "Any takers on this trip?" To Shanku's disappointment, she would be going alone this year after the largest harvest festival. To her relief, her captain did give her permission to leave, and Shanku got a blissful month of solitude and travel after having been cooped up for three months underground. She even welcomed the mists and rains of autumn. After a pleasant visit with old friends, it was time to return home and buckle down on the final bit of studying she could get in before spring arrived. Shanku was the top candidate among the other hopeful cubs wishing to join the guard. There was only one last trial left: the great journey the other cubs whispered excitedly about.

If I ever hear the word "stone" again I may just very well scream! And damn my curiosity for making me open my mouth. Apparently holy dams aren't interested in hearing about gully hens and the various ways humans occupy themselves at sea, and definitely not when at port. I think after all the rigid rules and rituals I just went through, it's time to shake things up again. I am looking forward to this journey, even if it means I can't come home for five years. Who should I take with me?

~ Shanku Ravenwing


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