"Hilael, you once asked that if I were to ever take off again that I would take you with me," Shanku said warmly and extended a hand. "Do you want to come?"
Hilael hesitated and eyed his sister cautiously as he thought over his answer. Things were a bit better now with the tribes at peace with each other, and Jagan had finally matured a little more and come to accept Hilael enough not to physically torment him anymore. Yet those scars, physically and emotionally, still remained. With a nod, he shook his sister's hand. "Let's go." Shanku nodded once enthusiastically and began to prepare for the next journey.
Shanku was now twenty years old, and it was customary for kurach upon reaching adulthood to take off into the forest alone or in small groups for five years as part of a coming-of-age tradition called the Foterutu. It was a grand ceremony held two weeks after the beginning of spring where all the cubs that had turned twenty years during the past year were blessed by their families and the village elders before setting off to test their survival skills. Although Hilael was only eighteen, his willingness to travel to and communicate with the hostile Fernwick marked him as mature enough to take off with his sister if she had asked.
Their family was reluctant to let them go after having had Shanku back home for such a short time since the end of her exile, but with loving and confident reassurances, and a private promise to her mother to sneak messages through the fae lines, they gave the cubs their blessing.
The clan was buzzing with preparations for the annual spring festival marking the beginning of the season, but the eldest of the cubs were all focused on their upcoming trial. Some never came back from the Foterutu and the more unfortunate and clumsy cubs were nervous about their odds, and seeking alliances with more capable cubs to increase their chances of survival. When the day came, all the cubs that were to leave were lined up in the central chamber where the Elders, priestesses, and their families had gathered.
"You will be gone for a length of five years, where your skills will be tested. If you return home early," Niranjan paused and glared briefly at Shanku, "you will be shamed and never be truly part of Scissortail society. Whereas those of you who manage the whole five years will be granted full rights and honors. Your places among the clan should be decided by now, and you shall enter that line of work when you return." Niranjan stepped back and allowed the priestesses to come up and bless the cubs, smacking them with green branches to imbue them with the health and vitality of the tree the branches were taken from and to grant them luck, and praying over them.
How strange that getting a swatted with a switch as a cub was a thing we all dreaded, but now have to enjoy it as an adult, Shanku mused. She was a little nervous and felt she was almost reliving the day she was banished as a cub, but when she looked over to her family they were all grinning proudly to see their two oldest going away on this revered trip. Shanku took a breath to steady her nerves.
The cubs were then told to exit the cave. The warriors had lined up along the entrance to slap the cubs as they passed, to grant them their strength. Shanku thought her father hit her on the head much harder than he did the other cubs, and given that he was grinning as devilishly as she normally did, she was convinced of it. I think I preferred the send off when I was a wee cub!
Nari watched sadly as her two oldest cubs disappeared into the forest. "We've lost her again, Zanzen, and this time, Hilael, too."
"But this time is much different. This time, she's supposed to go, and who better to watch after Hilael on the Foterutu?" Zanzen said proudly.
"Oh, I know," Nari replied with a sigh. "At least I'll have them all home for a few years again before it's Muso and Banhi's turns."
Zanzen gave his mate's shoulder a reasurring squeaze before returning to his duties.
"I cannot believe I let you talk me into this," Katari groaned and readjusted his pack on his shoulders as they began to enter the forest.
"Oh, quit your fussing. You're going to have a grand time! Out on the roads, sleeping under the stars, seeing strange and faraway things..." Shanku trailed off dreamily.
"Out in the rain, sleeping on the hard ground, seeing large and dangerous predators..." Katari added.
"Must you be so depressing?" Shanku frowned.
"I'm being realistic," Katari answered flatly.
"I just hope you two don't start a family before we get back. Granny Misen has taught me a lot of things, but midwifery was not a subject I pursued enthusiastically," Hilael shuddered.
"I'm positive I can handle that on my own just as easily as I have everything else I had to," Shanku said mischievously as Katari sputtered in embarrasment. "Now, let's be off!" Shanku shouted cheerily and began to march away from the Scissortail village. Katari sighed and started behind his friend. Innugati trilled from atop Hilael's shoulder as he fell in line behind them.
They had been walking for a fair length of time when they heard a voice cry out behind them.
"Wait! Wait! Don't forget about me!" came the frantic call. The trio turned to see a flash of long blonde hair and golden wings. Hilael groaned audibly and smacked his forehead into his hand.
"Ina?" Shanku asked curiously. "What are you doing out here?"
"Coming along, of course!" Ina chirped cheerily as she adjusted her pack.
"But, you're a highborn. You have boring political stuff to attend to, like fraternizing with other clans and stuff," Shanku said as an ear flicked back to reflect her confusion. I know we made plans for our careers, but this is the Foterutu...
"Oh, tish tosh," Ina laughed as she brushed her hand through her bangs. "There will be plenty of time available to study kurach policies when I get back. Besides, if I wish to be a good diplomat someday, I will need real world experience, not just Feral or even Nyre experience. I am also primarily a scribe who needs real hands-on experience in recording events, and where better to get such things than tagging along with you lot? I doubt you'll stay in the forest like all the others! After all, there are no rules on where you can go during the Foterutu so long as you don't go home."
"And I suppose this is all just an innocent little bit of studying and internship then?" Shanku asked with a devilish grin as her brother glared daggers in her direction.
"Naturally!" Ina giggled and stood uncomfortably close to Hilael.
"The more the merrier I suppose. Onward then," Shanku chuckled as they started walking again.
"So, do you have any particular direction you want to go in?" Katari asked.
"Actually, I do," Shanku said softly. "I promised Dai and Zihna a visit after everything got settled."
"We're not going to Wynfall, are we?" Katari asked leerily. "Unlike you, I haven't spent time with man before and I don't want to start by getting dropped into a swarm of them."
"Oh, no, we're not going to any cities just yet," Shanku began.
"'Yet?'" Katari interrupted worriedly.
"'Yet?'" Ina repeated excitedly.
"This time of year Dai and Zihna are out on the grass with the cattle," Shanku continued. "Most likely near the river."
Their journey went smoothly as they travelled through the Nyre and across the plains. They often stayed aloft after they left the forest. Shanku kept a sharp eye out for any signs of the urych or the Heyen, and before long she spotted them. She beckoned to her little group and steered them toward familiar old faces.
"Hallo there!" Shanku called out as she pulled her wings around her to break her speed and land safely.
Dai sat up quickly and turned to see who was calling. He looked at the landing kurach curiously as Jakko ran over to them, barking the whole way. He stopped as he neared Shanku and began to sniff her furiously, trying to place her smell and ignoring the trilling dragon on Hilael's shoulder.
"C'mon, Jakko, it's me!" Shanku laughed and rubbed his ears. Jakko licked her cheek, seemingly satisfied, and began to examine the others who were with her.
"Shanku?" Dai exclaimed in surprise. "My, how you've grown!"
"I was younger than Hinto the last time I saw you," Shanku grinned as she nodded to a boy who came walking up to them, curious about these strange looking kurach. "Did you get my last letters?"
"Yes, yes, we did," Dai replied. "Quite a tale you sent us."
"Ah! Where are my manners? Dai, this is my brother, Hilael, with his fairy dragon, Innugati, and our friends, Katari and Ina. And this is Dai, Hinto, Jakko, and here comes Zihna with Bena!" Greetings were exchanged as Zihna joined them with a young cub in tow.
Jakko flopped down with a groan and soon fell asleep.
"I fear this may be Jakko's last year out here," Dai remarked. "He's getting older. It's harder to keep up with the urych and I don't want to think what would happen if he tangled with a rivercat."
Shanku looked down and said nothing. She'd had to lay a little goblin friend to rest shortly before her last visit on the plains to see Zihna's brother, Eru, and well before then she'd lost too many during the time she spent on the sea.
Ina was positively taken with the Birchfields. "I never saw humans before. You look so much like us! Are you a blended family or are these both your cubs? I've heard so much about the plains kurach before but I never imagined how beautiful those hawk wings would look at this size!"
"You're a curious one, aren't you?" Zihna asked and took her aside to answer her plethora of questions.
"What brings you out here today?" Dai asked as he lead them back to camp.
"Kurach coming of age tradition," Shanku explained. "They boot us out for five years to see if we learned anything about how to take care of ourselves while growing up."
"You're still alive, so that should count for something," Dai remarked.
"It's a wonder though, eh?" Shanku asked with a sad smile.
"What do your people do to mark the transition to adulthood?" Ina asked.
"Nothing that special with my people," Dai replied. "After a certain age you're expected to be as responsible as an adult is all."
"We honor the dams who pass their first egg, and the sires must go out and take bison minocentaur," Zihna explained.
"Like our Cave of Stones!" Ina beamed and Shanku cringed.
"Thankfully we don't have to challenge minocentaur," Katari shuddered. "We just have to hunt a boar. On that note, you are out here early, Hilael. Have you been on a boar hunt yet?"
"Nope, and don't want to," Hilael said flatly. Katari just shook his head and didn't respond.
"How far out are we from the Heyen clan?" Shanku asked.
"A few days," Dai replied. "You're welcome to stay and rest for the night."
"Sounds delightful," Ina said quickly. Hilael asked Zihna if she needed help gathering anything for the evening meal and she invited him to go picking with her.
"I suppose you are the primary gatherer?" Zihna asked when they were some ways from the others. Hilael nodded. "Have you spent any time on the prairie before?" Hilael shook his head. "I'll show you a few extra plants to watch for later in the year that will help you keep them fed."
Zihna found Hilael to be a very attentive student and a quick learner. When he began identifying some of the plants with medicinal properties, she took the time to point out a few that would help with common ailments.
"You have the potential to be a great healer someday," Zihna nodded as they returned from their trip. Hilael flushed and glanced away. He helped her prepare a stew with some cured urych meat, and at supper many tales were swapped over the campfire, including how Dai and Zihna originally met.
"You had to have two marriages to please both the Heyens and Arnthians?" Ina asked. "If you two aren't official by now, something is wrong."
"How has Mrs. Birchfield not suspected anything by now?" Shanku asked curiously. "There aren't any nomadic humans out here."
"They think there are, but only because we're very careful around travellers," Zihna explained. "But, more and more travellers pass by, and it's only a matter of time before we're discovered."
"What will you do then?" Hilael asked.
"Do not borrow trouble from tomorrow when you have plenty today," Dai answered.
"Sounds fair," Katari nodded.
"Do you plan to go to Wynfall or any other cities?" Dai asked.
"Later on, yes," Shanku nodded. "We'll probably have to go visit Onami before we leave."
"Definitely. I'll put out the way in the morning," Dai said.
The night passed with relative peacefulness, until the sun began to rise.
"Good golly, Jakko, I swear, you are incapable of sleeping unless you're on top of me!" Shanku growled at the half-slumbering pooch lazily thumping his tail as she attempted to crawl out from under him.
"That certainly brings back memories," Dai said groggily as he rose and stretched. After a quick breakfast, Dai directed them to where the Heyen had set up camp. With a fond farewell, Shanku lead the Sylvans to the Heyen clan.
"Well, there's a familiar face!" Katari called out cheerily as he landed beside Bara. "Collecting herbs again?"
"Collecting, drying, grinding, storing, and living the herb life to the fullest," laughed Bara. "How have you been, Katari?"
"Out earning my right to my own apprenticeship," Katari replied. "Looks like you're doing well with yours."
"Time will tell. If you're looking for Onami, he's out by his home, hanging some fresh gatherings," Bara said and pointed.
"Thanks," Katari nodded and followed Shanku as she began to walk off.
"Hullo, Onami!" Shanku greeted him as he came into view. "Need help with anything?"
"No, but I suspect you do," he said with a smile. "Out roaming with permission, I hope?"
"Foterutu," Shanku said proudly. "We got kicked out the right way."
"Not the description most would use, Shank," Katari sighed.
"Same difference, we can't go home for five years," Shanku shrugged.
"Can your friends become human?" Onami asked.
"They're all yours," Shanku said with a broad grin and stepped back, her arms extended grandly.
"But it's forbidden!" Ina yipped.
"We're not in Scissortail territory anymore. Fair game now," Shanku chuckled evilly. Ina glared at her and Shanku laughed more. "If I survived it, you will. C'mon, it's not that bad! How can you cast water protection on your feathers if you don't get your feet wet?"
"We better not get caught," Ina grumbled.
"When would you like to begin?" Onami asked them.
"When you're ready," Katari replied. "Do you need our help with anything until then?"
"Sit. Tell me your future goals when your journey is completed," Onami gestured before him as he continued to hang leaves and stems to his drying rack. The Sylvans complied and helped Onami pass the time by indulging in conversation and aspirations. He invited them to stay for the summer, suggesting that Katari could go on hunting trips with the Heyen to learn how to take prairie game, Ina could study with their storytellers, and Hilael could assist Bara and learn more about the plants in the fields. Shanku, of course, would be tasked with helping him teach the Sylvans how to change forms in between general chores. The cubs found this quite acceptable and looked forward to their summer stay among the Heyen clan.
"Are we going to have to be separated?" Shanku asked uneasily. "The last time we visited, we stayed with Vikeso and Makehe, and she didn't really let me see my brother the whole time we were there."
"I am afraid that is the way of things at your age," Onami apologized. "I am sure she would be happy to have you again. I will need your help in teaching them, so I can promise some regular contact."
"Thank you, Onami," Shanku said and bowed her head to him before turning to the others. "C'mon, let's get this over with."
"How many times do you think you'll get yourself smacked with the spoon this time?" Katari teased.
"Too many," Shanku said flatly. Makehe often built her home near the same neighbors each time the clan moved, which made it easy for Shanku to find her.
"Greetings, Makehe!" Shanku said as she approached the matriarch.
"Ah, you have returned," Makehe nodded, and noted Ina. "I see you have a new friend along this time."
"This is Ina, she's traveling with us on our Foterutu," Shanku said as she introduced them. "Shaman Onami asked us to stay for the summer so he could teach them how to change forms properly."
"I hope you're prepared to work while you're here," Makehe said sternly. "There is much to be done in the summer."
"If it's the only way to repay your for your hospitality, we are glad to help where able, ma'am," Katari said.
"Smart lad," Makehe chuckled. "You two, go to Vikeso, and you two, come with me."
Katari and Hilael left to find Vikeso as Shanku and Ina joined Makehe in tending the garden of corn, squash, and beans, helping weave, and mending and washing clothes.
"You are unaccustomed to work," Makehe frowned as Ina stumbled through many of the tasks.
"I have worked for many years at home, it was just in the library," Ina stated. "I am a scribe. It was my job to help preserve books. I have helped us maintain our history and further our knowledge."
"Which doesn't get supper cooked," Makehe said and gave her a pot full of dirty roots.
"And now you learn new things to put in new books and enrich our people even more," Shanku said warmly and took her to the fire. "Forgive her. She lost her only daughter many years ago and was never quite the same afterward. Neither was her daughter's mate."
"What happened?" Ina asked as she scoured the roots.
"The war never ended here on the plains. One day, Tashina, Anoki, and his parents passed too close to some Arnthian soldiers. Anoki was the only one who survived," Shanku explained. "Many Arnthians are still very leery of kurach, which is why this had to be our first stop if we were to leave the Nyre."
"I see," Ina said quietly. "How long does it take to master the shift?"
"I had Shalu trained within a few nights," Shanku answered. "It shouldn't take us that long to get you three ready to go further out into the world."
"I'm a bit more open to it now," Ina said. "I wouldn't want to put my own family through that. What's the first step?"
"Well," Shanku looked up at the sky thoughtfully. "You have to be able to feel the magical energy down deep in your gut before you can use it. Onami is the one who awakens it in those who've never managed it before. I think he said he'd try to work with you three tomorrow morning so you can get started. It's a little harder to do when you're older, that's why he usually starts with cubs, and probably why he asked us to stay for a season; to make sure you've got it down."
They finished with the roots and began to boil them. Makehe joined them with spices and a bit of meat to make a proper stew as they waited for Vikeso and the others to join them for supper. Kadin was very glad to see them again, but Shanku had to regretfully inform him she was under orders to behave herself and couldn't disrupt the entire camp with an impromptu ball game.
"Traitor," Kadin grumbled under his breath before he was shooed away to prepare for bed.
The Sylvans were up and ready for the morning lessons before the sun rose and eagerly waiting for Onami to begin teaching them. He was pleased with their enthusiasm when he found them outside his door and set to work. Shanku stayed back off to the side as Onami began.
"This is usually taught at a much younger age, but should have no impact on your success. Magic is woven into every living thing, from the sky, to the grass, to the insects, to you. It is a sacred gift from the spirits beyond. It would be unwise to misuse it, and doing so can come with dire consequences. I will awaken your sleeping potential," Onami said and extended his staff toward the leery Sylvans before him. They bore mixed looks of curiosity and unease as they felt the energy for the first time. "This is similar to what you would feel before you shift. To use this, you must focus. Concentrate on this feeling and channel it. Feel your wings melt into the air," Onami said as his features began to fade with a demonstration. "With a little faith, you'll reach your goal. But, remember, you had best learn it on your own. Having somebody do it for you can be painful," he finished sternly and cast a suspicious glance at Shanku.
Ina cocked her head to the side and looked very concerned. "Are you human now?"
"Yes, cub, I am," Onami nodded. "Or as human as kurach can ever be."
"What did you mean by 'have somebody do it for you'?" Katari asked.
"It is possible to trigger the shift in another person by imparting your energy into them, but such spellcasting is generally uncomfortable and unnatural," Onami explained. "As your impish friend here learned once, you can guide another into shifting safely, but if you're not careful, you can cause some serious damage."
"I think I want to figure it out on my own," Ina said with a grin. "This seems fun."
"Yes, you each should try to raise your spirit on your own now," Onami nodded. "Try to concentrate on creating a ball of light between your hands."
The Sylvans dutifully began their attempt. Katari and Ina managed little static arcs that fizzled out quickly. Hilael, to his own surprise, held a small and steady sphere of light over his palms. Onami continued to work with them until the sun was high in the sky before he had to tend to other duties.
"Not bad!" Shanku said proudly. "The only ball I managed when I was a wee thing was the one I curled into waiting for class to be over."
"I must admit I'm still nervous, but, I'm enjoying myself," Ina admitted. "How long did it take you to do it your first time?"
"I got it that night. Eru and I cheated," Shanku giggled. "We joined hands, channeled together, and shifted at the same time."
Hilael looked down at his hands while the others were talking. Innugati trilled softly to him and he glanced at her. He carefully began to summon the ball of light again. It sat poised between his hands, making his palms tingle. Hilael stared at it curiously, thinking about Onami's human form, and slowly the change spread up his arms and throughout him.
"Humans have absolutely horrible hearing," Hilael said grumpily. "Still doesn't tune out you chatterboxes."
"That was fast," Shanku remarked, her head tilted to the side and an ear flicked back. "How'd you manage it so quick?"
"Just... concentrated on the light," Hilael shrugged. "Instinct, kind of. I don't know how to explain it."
Ina circled around him, looking over the changes. Hilael shifted his weight uncomfortably as he waited for her to finish. "I'm gonna try again." She sat down, closed her eyes, and became lost in thought.
Katari nodded and sat down not far away. "Papa didn't raise a quitter."
Shanku and Hilael settled into the grass nearby as Ina and Katari concentrated. The sun was low and the shadows were long when finally there was a golden flash and Ina managed to become human.
"Wow, they really can't hear, can they?" she laughed and tried to stand. "And their balance is terrible too!"
"No, that's all you, honey," Shanku chuckled. "Take it easy as you get used to not having your tail or wings."
"Fah! This is hard," Katari groaned. "I am hungry and can't think straight. Let's go find something to eat."
Hilael allowed Ina to hold on to him as she went staggering back to Makehe's home, chattering nonstop with excitement.
"I may ask for a bit of help," Katari said lowly.
"After they all go to bed then," Shanku whispered back.
Much later that night, when the moon was high, Shanku and Katari met out away from the village.
"If we get caught, we are so dead," Katari said.
"Don't think about getting caught, and you won't," Shanku said.
"And how'd that work out for you how many times now?" Katari teased.
"Many more times than it didn't!" Shanku laughed.
"So, how does this work?" Katari asked.
Shanku sat down and held her hands out above her knees. Katari sat across from her and placed his hands on hers. She held their hands up, laced their fingers, and closed her eyes. Katari followed suit and tried to concentrate on the tingling that started in his hands. Shanku had changed forms so many times that she was having trouble remembering the basics. Katari yipped and pulled back his hands.
"What's wrong?" Shanku asked.
"It started to burn and prick," Katari said as he rubbed his palms. "Was that supposed to happen?"
"Nope. Sorry about that," Shanku said sheepishly. "I'm just going to raise my awareness and not try to shift. You lead."
Gingerly, Katari locked his hands with hers and they tried again. He felt the warmth in his hands and the pit of his stomach again. After a moment, he sneaked a peak and saw that he was surrounded by a silver aura, and Shanku in a blue one. Fascinated, he tried to push it a bit farther, and slowly he began to feel a change. His claws and ears shortened and changed shape. His wings and tail seemed to melt away into nothingness. His senses became dulled and muffled. Katari broke free from Shanku and stumbled back.
"And they can't smell worth a flip either!" Katari exclaimed.
"I missed scent the most too," Shanku laughed. "Eru seemed to think I looked good as a human. Personally, I think all of us look just plain weird."
"I feel so much lighter... and weaker," Katari murmured as he tried to stand and nearly lost his balance. Shanku sprang to her feet and caught him by the arms.
"Your bones are a bit weaker, and you'll learn in time how to compensate without the extra weight on your back," she said as she held him steady. "If you think this is strange, wait until you go feral the first time! It's a trip."
"I'll worry about that another day. Let's get back to bed. I'm sure we'll have plenty of chores tomorrow," Katari said.
"Don't ya know it!" Shanku sighed as they made their way back to Makehe and Vikeso's home.
Makehe had them all up early in the morning to continue their lessons with Onami and booted them out the door before the sun had fully broken over the horizon.
"I'm going to assume that's her way of being supportive," Ina remarked as they made their way to Onami.
Each of the students had reverted back to their common forms, but Onami lavished praises on them for having achieved a full shift on their first day. He helped them return to their human forms and gave them instructions on how to maintain it before releasing them to chores for the day. Their task was to stay human for as long as possible as they carried out their work. In an attempt to keep it fair, Shanku chose to stay as a human as she kept company with Ina. Katari sought out Vikeso to assist him, Shanku and Ina went looking for Rajé, and Hilael was assigned to be Bara's helper.
"You're back!" Rajé said excitedly as the Sylvans came into view. "Who's your friend?"
"Rajé, this is Ina, one of the highborn of our clan who has decided to tag along with us on our Foterutu," Shanku said as she introduced them.
"It seems Scissortails are always looking for an excuse to be rid of their cubs," Rajé chuckled. "I assume you conduct yourself a little better than our scruffy friend?"
"Indeed," Ina replied with a curtsy. "I was raised to be a lady."
"I think we can grow to be good friends," Rajé nodded and invited them to help gather some grasses she needed for future baskets. "There's plenty of weaving to be done during the winter, and if you're going to be here all summer, I'd appreciate the help collecting what I need."
"Fun in the sun, let's go," Shanku nodded. After Rajé had gathered some bags for them to store the grass in, they went out onto the prairie, passing by Bara and Hilael as they gathered their own plants.
Meanwhile, Katari was helping Vikeso sharpen spears and arrows for an upcoming hunt. There were scouting parties out searching for flocks of birds and herds of antelope and bison, and the hunters left behind were to prepare the weaponry that would be used.
"They don't let us use tools at home. It's all teeth and claws," Katari said as he carefully rubbed a thumb over a flint arrowhead. "Sometimes even with the ferocious boars if they're small enough."
"I would not want to take a bull down with my bare hands," Vikeso said. "They may appear to run like frightened rabbits, but if they stand and fight, you will lose."
"But you use arrows on the birds and rodents too, don't you?" Katari asked.
"Yes, and sometimes traps. If the grass is short enough, we may simply stalk them until they stop running and can be taken," Vikeso explained.
"I've had to do that with several deer. Sometimes I'd have to follow them for days before they finally were too tired to run anymore. Sometimes, I was almost too tired to take them home," Katari chuckled.
"Is it your job to provide for your small family on your journey?" Vikeso asked.
"I suppose so," Katari replied thoughtfully. "Shanku is a decent hunter, but her primary purpose is to lead us to new places and keep us safe."
"What of the other two?"
"Hilael was training to be an apothecary back home, so he is our healer, and I'm not really sure what use Ina is," Katari said with a bit of embarrasment. "She's the daughter of a scribe and a calligrapher, and not used to spending much time out in the wild."
"Even story-tellers have their uses," Vikeso shrugged. "Perhaps she can record your deeds and tell of them when you return. Bring home new recipes!"
"I'll request bison stew to be at the top of the list," Katari said with a grin.
"You'll request more than that when we return from the hunt," Vikeso blustered. "Our dams are the finest cooks on the hills. We'll make you fat before summer ends!"
"If we don't work it all off first!" Katari laughed.
Vikeso spent several days showing Katari how to create spears, knives, and tools, and teaching him how to use them properly. By the time the scouts returned, Katari was almost as skilled as the hunting party he would be travelling with. What piqued his curiosity was the ritual purification that was to be performed in the days leading up to the hunt.
"Come, little Sylvan," Vikeso beckoned to Katari as they left the village to go camp out by the river. "I will teach you the rules. The first is that you cannot have had a tryst in the past few days, and especially not before the hunt. Have you been chaste? You do sneak off with Shanku nearly every night."
"Good heavens, no, I have done no such thing!" Katari sputtered and blushed. "I don't even think of her like that. She's just an old hunting partner that I played with as a cub."
Vikeso raised an eyebrow suspiciously. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! Xretatir do not couple," Katari answered vehemently. "I don't want to question it or entertain the idea."
Vikeso tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as he stared ahead of them. "You two are an interesting pair. And what of the other doe with you?"
"She's outside my class, I wouldn't dream of bringing her family's wrath on mine," Katari shuddered.
"Very well, the next few days we must follow a strict regimen of honoring the spirits. I will teach you."
The hunting party gathered by the river for four days to honor each of the four spirits they wished blessings from. Shaman Onami lead the rituals and offerings, accompanied by his apprentice Bara and by Hilael, whom he felt would benefit from learning how to help Katari prepare before each of his hunts to provide for the Sylvans after they left the Heyen. The first was earth, since it was one of earth's creatures they were going to take. The second was air, since they would be hunting on the wing and didn't want to be blown into the ground. The third was water, to not become weak from thirst. The fourth was fire, to beg a cool temper from the beast that it would not be enraged and turn on them. They were fed many roots, cured strips of meat, and dark salads to bolster their strength. Katari was very excited and could hardly sleep the night before they were to go out. It felt good to be walking out through the long grasses to take strong game.
"Can your little crow wings keep up?" Aenoh teased playfully.
"This isn't my first hunt, wait until you see what this crow can do," Katari boasted.
"I was sad Dai could not join us in the air for bison hunts since he is such a good partner on the antelope hunts," Aenoh remarked wistfully. "May you do as well on the wing as he on a horse."
"Thank you," Katari said earnestly. "I hope so too."
It was almost a week's trek before they caught up with the bison herd. Katari took a spare moment to marvel at how large and thick-bodied the bison were, noting how the short, curly horns were reminiscent of the cruel tusks that were on the boar he had to face back home before earning his right to leave for the Foterutu. After carefully stalking the herd and fanning out, the signal was finally given to start. The ambushers went out, yipping and flashing their wings to spook the herd toward where the hunters waited to dive down from the sky and skewer them with their lances.
One by one, the airborn hunters dived, struck out at a fleeing bison's neck, and climbed back into the sky for another attempt. What Katari lacked in diving speed and endurance, he made up for in agility from years of hunting among trees and brush. If his target suddenly bolted to the side, he could flick a wing to follow it enough to land a blow before having to climb upwards again to avoid falling too low or getting knocked out of the air by an angry bull. A call echoed throughout the hunting party to cease, and each were able to land. Breathing heavy and tired, the divers rested while the ambushers came up to count how many had been taken.
"A good hunt!," exclaimed one of the ambushers. "We have thirty." One of the fastest scouts was sent back to call those tending the horses to come and collect their kills. Each of the fallen bison were thanked for their sacrifice and honored before the hunters began to butcher them.
"A valiant hunt, little crow!" Aenoh bragged on Katari. "Here, to restore your strength," Aenoh said and cut out the heart of the bison that Katari was working on. "Eat, eat, we have a long day and long return home."
"Well, at least we have that ritual in common," Katari chuckled and gratefully accepted the organ.
"You must come out to see us again after your journey has finished," Aenoh nodded. "Sylvans make good hunting partners."
"As do Prairies," Katari said with a broad grin.
The riders soon arrived with many spare horses and baskets in tow. Every last bit of their kills were taken apart and loaded up to be taken back to the village.
The hunting party was met with cheers and praises when they returned to the Heyen village. All of the clan came out to help work the materials that were brought back. What meat and organs were not to be consumed or used within the next few days were carefully smoked or dried, the hides were separated depending on whether they were to keep the hair or not, sinews were being spun into string, and bones and hooves were taken away to be made into tools.
Tanning the hides fell mostly to the dams, and they were quick to begin. Zihna had come back to the village with her daughter Bena to assist Makehe after the hunt, and Shanku and Ina were sent to help Katari with the bison he had taken.
"You got a good one, Katari!" Shanku applauded him as she helped him unload his baskets. "This will feed us on the road for quite a while."
"Of course, I'll be giving a lot of parts away to the Heyen since most of it we can't carry with us," Katari said.
"Naturally," Shanku nodded. "They're kind enough to put up with us, gotta do something in return, no?"
"What will we get to keep?" Ina asked curiously as she grouped the baskets together based on their contents.
"All of the hide, which I'll be tanning since that's part of my duties back home. A bit of the meat, the brains, some fat, maybe some sinew for sewing and repairs, and perhaps a bone to carve. I'm pretty happy with my wooden bowl, so I don't think I'll take any hoof bowls."
"Why the brains?" Ina asked.
"Because every varmint has enough brains and fat to cure its own hide," Katari replied, which made Ina cringe.
"I had to do a bit of sewing back home. I think I'll tackle that part," Ina nodded and began to sort out the sinew. "Come on, Hilael, you can help. I figure these two will be all over the yucky parts." Hilael actually appeared to be a little relieved, and gladly sat down with her to start working.
"Have you ever worked sinew before?" Katari asked.
"No, but I've read about it," Ina replied.
"Alright, first thing, pound it out with a round rock until it's a pile of fluff, then give it a good quick chew, let it dry a bit, and then start spinning or braiding it."
"Tasty," Ina giggled, and she and Hilael followed his instructions.
"I've done plenty of skinning, butchering, and jerky, but never much tanning," Shanku said slowly as she scratched the side of her head. "What do you want me to do?"
"Food," Katari nodded to the baskets laden with meat. "The hide is mine, and that should have us set."
"Aye, aye, captain," Shanku grinned and began sorting the meat baskets.
"Good hunt," Kya said as she strode over to Katari. "I highly doubt you have your own frame, so you can bring your hide over to my place. I have a spare you can use. I'm next to Rajé and her family, and they could use help with their hides as well."
"Much obliged," Katari nodded and followed her when she took her own hide away. He stretched the bison skin on the frame she allowed him to borrow and started scraping away bits of fat and other residual bits he had missed after it was freshly skinned. When he had finished, he began working on a solution of brains and fat to apply to the skin after it had a chance to dry and stiffen in the sun.
"You seem to know what you're doing," Kya gestured to him the day he was able to start applying his tanning solution.
"It's what we hunters do, as you should know," Katari said as he rubbed the paste into the hide. "This is my first time with a bison, but I've done deer, goats, rabbits, and many other animals."
"I have worked with bison, antelope, rabbits, and a few coyotes," Kya said as she worked on hers. "What are your intentions? I'm needing a new cover to my tipi."
"I haven't decided yet, honestly," Katari replied. "I suppose for now we could use it as a type of blanket or even part of a tent while we're out. I'm sure there are other game we can take if we need new clothes, although I'm tempted to make us some rain coats. I doubt we'll be able to weave any cloth the next few years, and I guess I'm our tailor now."
"What is your cloth made from?" Kya asked curiously.
"Mostly sheep's wool, and some of the outlying villages grow cotton, hemp, and flax. I prefer buckskin and leather," Katari said. "Much less rough and itchy compared to wool."
"I wonder if the Scissortails would be willing to trade some bison skins for some of their cloth?" Kya wondered aloud.
"Probably," Katari shrugged. "This hide is huge and would be very useful back home."
"I think I'll bring it up next time we winter in the Nyre," Kya said cheerily.
Ina and Hilael had finished with the sinew thread, so Ina wandered around to find Katari and Hilael went back to shadowing Bara. "Can I help with anything else?" Ina asked eagerly.
"Do you want to help rub in the brains?" Katari asked.
"Do you need help with anything else?" Ina asked nervously as she began to fidget.
"Go help Shanku smoke the meat, you can help me rub the stuff off after it's cured," Katari laughed.
"Thank you!" Ina chirped and went off to find Shanku.
"She'll be plenty useful during the next part," Rajé remarked as she finished rubbing down her own hide. "There! That should do it. I think we have a nice set over here. Why did you keep so much of the neck and legs, Katari?"
"I need a few small bags," Katari explained. "These will be a good size to stitch together."
Rajé nodded and stretched. "Mother's stew should be about finished, so I bid you a good night." Katari and Kya nodded to her, and before long were finished with their own and retired for the evening.
Makehe had supper ready for her family and Sylvan guests as they came in shortly after sunset. She would not admit to it verbally, but she was quite pleased with how easily they had fit in to Heyen society and readily tried to pull their weight around camp. Katari had given her a few good slabs of meat from his kill to compensate for several meals she had provided to them, Hilael had gathered many fresh herbs and greens for her, Zihna had made some butter from the milk urych Dai had given to his in-laws earlier that year, and Makehe saw to it she had a stout meal ready for her large brood.
"I could get used to having house guests," Vikeso remarked after supper.
"I could get used to living out here," Katari said contentedly. "I miss the trees, but life is pleasant on these hills."
"I miss bed," Shanku said tiredly and excused herself for the night.
The neverending chores resumed in the morning. Shanku continued to preserve their meat, Hilael studied with Bara, and Katari took Ina with him to begin softening the bison skin.
"This is kind of fun!" Ina said as she pounded the skin. To Ina's relief, the brains had already been fully applied to the hide, so now they only needed to rub off the solution and stretch it until it was flexible again and ready to be smoked.
"Never had to do a day's lick of hard work in her life," Katari whispered to Rajé.
"Even these human ears heard that," Ina grumbled.
When the hides had finished smoking, Rajé wished to decorate hers similar to the old one she was replacing.
"What are you doing?" Ina asked.
"Preserving the stories from the worn covering," Rajé said as she prepared her paints.
"Sounds like you need my help with this part more than the other," Ina said excitedly. "I am a scribe, and that's my job!" Ina began to ask her detailed questions about the pictures and scenes that were displayed on the deteriorating skin as she helped mix the pigments. When she began, Rajé was impressed with her skill and steady hand, and eventually resigned to giving instructions.
"I must say, I'm impressed," Rajé said as she looked over Ina's completed drawings. "This will be a beauty for many years." Ina beamed with pride as she and Shanku helped Rajé replace the covering on her tipi.
"You two did an excellent job," Katari nodded as he finished sewing up a few small pouches.
"What's next on the list?" Ina asked.
"Fresh hip pouches for all of us," Katari said and gave one of his creations to Ina.
"Neat! What do I keep in it?" Ina asked as she looked it over.
"Whatever you want," Katari shrugged. "Anything quick and handy you don't want to dig around in your backpack for."
"Say, Rajé, do you have any paint I can use?" Ina asked.
"Even better, I have some beads you can use," Rajé replied.
Ina grinned broadly and squealed as artistic ideas began flooding her mind when she saw Rajé's collection.
"I think I'll go make my deliveries to the others now," Katari said nervously before Ina could decorate his own pouch.
"Hey, Shank, head's up!" Katari called and tossed one of his bags to Shanku.
She caught it midair, ears pricked forward with keen interest as she turned it over and studied it. "Oo, nice! Thanks, Katari!"
"The thread still needs a good coating of wax or resin to make it waterproof," Katari said. "I saw a few bee nests while we were out hunting. I might can get some beeswax later this summer."
"And some honey!" Shanku said excitedly. "I'm up for a little stroll tomorrow if you'd like help."
"I'll take all the help I can get when bees are involved," Katari replied.
Summer came to the prairie and passed peacefully. The Sylvans kept themselves busy with various chores, alternating between staying with the Heyen and visiting the Birchfields out with the urych herd.
"Want some honey?" Katari asked Dai one sweltering day just after the height of summer.
"If the bees aren't burnt to a crisp in this heat, yes, honey would be nice," Dai replied.
Armed with a few clay pots, kindling, a waterskin, and what was effectively a hooded dress, Katari went out into the hills and very carefully smoked a few hives and took a portion of their honeycomb. After covering again each of the hives, he returned back to the Birchfields with his prize.
"That waterskin depleted much too quickly for my liking," Katari said as he quickly removed his robe, his skin glistening in the sun from just how horribly hot and sweaty he had gotten. Shanku started snorting and giggling.
"What's so funny?" Katari asked with annoyance.
"Your hair and feathers are sticking up all over the place!" Shanku guffawed. "You should have shifted human to avoid half that."
Katari rolled his eyes and promptly jumped into the river to cool down. "Much better!"
"Watch for kitties and turtles!" Shanku called after him.
"I'm more worried about thieves taking my beeswax!" Katari called back as he washed off the grime.
"We'll keep her out of it, don't worry," Dai chuckled.
Shanku stretched out on her stomach on a grassy bank nearby as Katari bathed. "So when'd you learn to hunt bees?"
"It's one of the last things they teach you before the journey," Katari replied. "Not something for little cubs since you have to be slow and patient, otherwise, you might get stung to death."
"I always thought you just hunted for meat," Shanku said as she tilted her head.
"We learn to hunt animals of land, water, and air, their caches, and give back to each of them somehow," Katari said. "For bees, you cover their hive again, and only take a little at a time. There are beekeepers back home that only do bees and wax, so some of us others are basically just rudimentary scouts to find new hives in case something happens unexpectedly to our colonies."
"Out of curiosity, did you bother to bring fresh drawers with you to the river?" Shanku asked slyly.
Katari paused for a moment, and then groaned. "Would you mind fetching a pair for me?"
"I'll think about it," Shanku smirked and got up. Katari just glared at her as she left with a foreboding grin.
Ina stared at Shanku curiously as she started to dig around in Katari's pack. "What are you doing?"
"Somebody forgot their clean clothes before hopping into a bath," Shanku giggled. "Jumped in, pants and all!"
"Can't say I'd blame him with you nearby. I haven't forgotten how you put my shirt on high branches in the Nyre!"
"Helped build your wings for the long flights, didn't it?" Shanku replied, still grinning like a fox.
Ina sighed and watched helplessly as Shanku returned to the river. "Mercy be on the poor lad for whatever she has planned."
Shanku simply laid his pants on a convenient rock and disappeared again. Katari was greatly suspicious and frequently watched her out of the corner of his eye when he returned to the Birchfield camp.
"What?" Shanku asked innocently.
"What prank have you planned that I haven't triggered yet?" Katari asked distrustfully.
Shanku started grinning again. "Maybe I have to be good from time to time, just to keep you on your toes." Katari just watched her further. "Oh, just enjoy the fruits of your labor this afternoon and relax!" Shanku exclaimed and gave him one of his pots.
Katari quickly looked down into the pot to check the contents. "I'm surprised nothing is missing."
"Again, gotta keep you on your toes," Shanku said sweetly. Katari sighed and began separating the honey and beeswax so he could wax future threads. After a few days of careful work, each of the Sylvans had a new hip pouch for carrying small things in quick reach.
The Sylvans stayed long enough to enjoy the Heyen clan's annual autumnal celebration before their annual return to the edge of the Nyre, while the Sylvans afterward took their leave to explore a new direction.