Within a week the caravan had arrived at the Skihva village and stopped to rest their camels, stock up on provisions, and gather any who would be returning with them to the desert. Shanku circled the camels many times, staring at them curiously.
"What long spider legs!" Shanku said as she rubbed the shoulder of a camel. "Long legs, long necks, long lips, long tongues, long lashes, tall backs, and then those stubby little tails and ears! I thought horses were an odd beast to ride, but how do you perch on a hump?"
"You could walk if such a thing distresses you," its owner said grumpily.
"And miss such an interesting experience?" Shanku asked with a twinkle in her eye. "I'm in love with this creature already!" She paused and stared into the distance for a moment. "Where will we be in about two moons?"
"Near the edge of the jungle," the handler responded.
"Do you usually stop for a few days before striking out into the desert?" Shanku asked.
"Yes, why?" the handler asked.
"Oh, you know, new territory! I'd like to take a bit to admire it before just stomping out over it like it didn't mean anything," Shanku said quickly and bowed her head. "I must go prepare for the journey!" She scampered off and left the camel handler very confused.
"Shanku, a word," Hilael hissed to his sister from the shadow of a hut as she tried to dart by.
She raised an eyebrow and stopped. "What's wrong?"
"Ina has spring fever and I'm trying to hide," he said and glanced over his shoulder.
"She's not the only one," Shanku grumbled.
"What was that?" Hilael asked as he turned back to her.
"Nothing, um, I guess I could try to distract her, but the caravan heads out in the morning, so I can't exactly drag her into the jungle to rescue you from her," Shanku said uneasily.
"My other concern is where we'll be in two months," Hilael continued. "Will we be anywhere somewhat private?"
"Just checked. Edge of the jungle," Shanku sighed. "They'll stop for camp."
"Good timing," Hilael nodded and slipped away to find a new hiding place. Shanku shook her head and tried to remember where she was going when she was suddenly tackled from behind.
"Hiya! Have you seen your brother?" Ina asked giddily.
"Ina, you do realize you have a problem with self-control, right?" Shanku grumbled and tried to extricate herself from the blonde bundle of happiness.
"Compared to you, probably not as much of a problem!" Ina laughed and squeazed the unusually asocial kurach. "I'm in such a good mood, I could go for a run through the jungle! What do you say? Want to fluff up and go wild for a few days?"
"I can't believe I'm turning this down, but, no. The caravan leaves tomorrow morning and I'd like to leave with them," Shanku said. "We should be packing."
"Humans are slow, and those long-legged things will have to slow down for those on foot. We can cover lost ground quickly on the wing and have fun for a few nights," Ina said with a grin. "I'm sure Hilael would appreciate it if I left him behind for a bit, he's too much of a killjoy for me right now. Do you think one of those cute Long Ear initiates would want to come out with us?"
"I say we enjoy a rare night of just us gals and forget the guys for a few nights," Shanku said uneasily and finally managed to free herself. "After all, can't raise cubs on the wing!"
"Who said anything about cubs?" Ina asked. "I just want to enjoy the Flower Festival as best I can this far off from home."
"All the more reason for it to be sans-dudes," Shanku shuddered.
"You never much cared for that festival, did you?" Ina grumped.
"I got exiled after the Flower Festival, so I can't say it holds fonds memories," Shanku deflected. "C'mon, ladies night out. We'll go grab our packs and enjoy our last nights with the Skihva in the bush."
"Sounds great!" Ina chirped and grabbed Shanku by the hand, nearly dragging her along. Katari was still in the guest quarters when they arrived and Ina let go of Shanku to pounce on him. "I have an idea! You should come with us! Both of you! It's our last time to be alone without anybody barking orders before getting stuck with that long caravan, so let's all go have some fun!"
"Say what?" Katari asked nervously. "Where are you wanting to go?"
"Out in the jungle to celebrate the beginning of a new journey," Shanku explained. "We can catch up to the caravan later since flying is faster than walking."
"What do you think, Hilael?" Katari called over his shoulder and tried to squirm away from Ina. Hilael glared at him from around the doorway. "Ina, I know you're affectionate, but, please, get off of me."
"You're no fun," Ina pouted and let go. "C'mon! Get packed, let's go!" Ina squealed and dashed off to gather her things.
"What's gotten into her?" Katari asked, baffled.
"Spring fever," Shanku groaned and hit her head against the wall. "Which gives me cabin fever. It was supposed to be just me and her out there to protect you two, but that's flown the coop now."
"Neither sound pleasant at the moment," Katari shuddered. "I guess I'd better hurry and finish. We should at least give a proper farewell to Yaj, Padma, and Salim after all the hospitality they've shown us."
Shanku nodded and went to sort her belongings. When all of them had their satchels gathered and ready, they expressed their sincerest gratitudes to their hosts and struck out into the jungle.
"Would it be inappropriate to sedate her?" Shanku whispered to Hilael. Ina was chattier than usual and bouncing between all three of them.
"She won't let me concentrate long enough to make a sedative," Hilael whispered back. "Good job distracting her for a few days."
"She's too distracted to be distracted," Shanku hissed back.
"What are you two whispering about?" Ina asked as she suddenly popped up behind them and looped her arms around their necks, causing them both to yip in surprise.
"Just observing what a nice day it is before the storms try to drown us again," Shanku said with a forced smile.
"Let the beautiful rains come!" Ina said and squeazed the siblings to her. "Katari made us such nice raincoats out of those fanged deer skins, we'll be fine!"
Shanku patted Ina on the back with her mouth stretched thin. Speak for yourself! That afternoon, right on time, they had to don their raincoats as another short flood came from the moody sky. Ina was in such a gay mood that she gave her pack to Shanku and went prancing out in the rain in feral form.
"I don't know which is better; the cool rain on your bare skin or soaked into your fur!" Ina laughed as she gave herself a good shake and inadvertently sprayed her friends.
"Skin. Definitely skin," Shanku said flatly and wiped a few drops of water off her cheek. "There's enough water falling from the sky without it flying off your back."
"Well, at least I no longer have to doubt if you two are related," Ina frowned and bounded ahead of them.
"Algod, give me strength," Shanku prayed under her breath.
The plucky kurach was not discouraged for long and was soon back to her bubbly self as she basked in the explosion of new life that had come over the jungle. She had sniffed and admired just about every blossom they had passed by and even picked one to set above her ear. When the band settled down to make camp for the night, Ina crept off with Shanku in search of dry firewood.
"You're his sister, so do you know how I can get him to loosen up and be with me a little?" Ina asked when they were out of earshot. "I always had my pick of companions back home for today, but I can't even get two words out of him!"
"Not really, and isn't your judgment a little clouded right now?" Shanku asked skeptically.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ina demanded.
"Spring fever," Shanku replied. "You're obviously in the full throes of it."
Ina blushed deeply and looked away. "I didn't think it was that noticeable..."
"Oh, it is," Shanku said grumpily, and added quietly. "And you're not the only one."
"Oh, really?" Ina asked slyly. "Is that why you've been so delightful today?"
"Not exactly my favorite topic," Shanku growled.
"I always thought it funny they call us 'bucks' and 'does', but it's us that go into rut and not the guys," Ina giggled.
"Hilarious," Shanku said with biting sarcasm.
"Alright, so I may have been leaning that way toward your brother, but, in general, how can I get him to be my friend? I thought maybe if we went on the Foterutu together, things would change, but it hasn't!"
"Hilael is a lot more stubborn than many give him credit for," Shanku shrugged. "How did you two even meet, anyway?"
"Jagan, of course," Ina rolled her eyes. "I was out trying to gather some plants to make into ink when I came up on him attacking Hilael and I just got so mad I got between them. I told him off pretty good and hoped that would be the end of it, but I found out later that Hilael got a worse thrashing because of it," Ina sighed. "I never interfered directly again, but I started trying to make it up to Hilael and never really spoke to Jagan after that. Ignoring the grandson of a prominent council member isn't a good suggestion for a scribe, but I can't condone how Jagan acts. You don't think he actually hates me for that, do you?"
"Not for the beating, no," Shanku started slowly. "But he is a very private person, and you're very friendly. Quite bluntly, you exhaust him. You are literally a walking headache."
"Well, gee, no need to spare my feelings, you know," Ina grumbled. "I'm glad this is only going to be once a year for you for a while. Don't you have any romantic or even friendly inclinations at all? Are you just pranks and anger?"
"Eh, not really," Shanku said uneasily. "All I want to do, or ever do, is just explore."
"There's such a fun world to explore right here!" Ina exclaimed and threw a hand behind her toward the camp. "Back there are two bucks doomed to spend this Flower Festival alone and unwanted, in part due to you for a multitude of reasons, so the least you could do is give them a good evening on the holiday that celebrates friendship."
"Define 'good evening'," Shanku asked suspiciously. "I know you're more than squishing on Hilael."
"And probably nothing will ever happen since I always give a headache," Ina retorted. "Squishing is good. We'll just settle for a squishy-squashy evening between all of us. I'll even give you permission to keep me in check so I don't overwhelm Hilael."
"Only if you do the same for me and Katari," Shanku said quickly. "That's one adventure I don't want to go on anytime soon... with anybody!"
"Deal," Ina nodded. "So, spill it, tell me what I need to do to get Hilael to liven up a bit."
"Believe it or not, he's a painfully simple varmint. Don't talk to him much, don't poke him without permission, and ask him how his plants are doing every now and then. He'll open up if he feels relaxed."
"That just feels so rude!" Ina said in horror. "I would be ignoring him!"
"You'd make him blissfully happy," Shanku said.
Ina just stared at Shanku for a long while and finally said, "you two are so weird." She sighed and turned away. "Let's get the kindling and get back to our squashing."
When they returned with what dry twigs they could find, Katari had a nice fire pit cleared out and was working on crafting some hammocks for them to spend the night in off the ground. Shanku gave her supplies to Hilael and went to give Katari a hand. Ina helped Hilael get the fire started and for once was not talking his ears off. He was relieved, but also suspicious and somewhat worried he may have somehow offended her, and thus, would have to deal with the fallout later. Ina noticed Hilael was frequently glancing at her and was a little excited that Shanku's advice seemed to be working.
"Well, the hammocks are up, so who wants supper? We've got dried meat, dried fruit, dried rice cakes, all appetizing, I assure you," Katari said grandly as he began to pull supplies out of the food bag the Skihva had sent with them as a parting gift. "Not much of a feast for our festival, I'm afraid."
"Part of this festival is gratitude for what you've got," Ina affirmed. "A feast is a feast so long as you walk away with a full belly."
"Cheers, then," Katari laughed and began passing around what they had. Hilael picked a few bamboo shoots growing nearby and put them on the fire to roast for a little extra variety. Dusk had settled in deeply when they had finished eating. The young kurach were feeling relaxed and were lounging around the fire, reminiscing and swapping stories as the night creatures came out and sang their evening chorus. Some of them became sleepy, so they settled who would take the night watches and curled up in the hammocks to sleep. Shanku always took the final watch so she could rise early and get her daily training out of the way before they travelled.
Ina was still a ball of energy the next morning but was trying to keep it under control as the four of them searched for the desert-bound caravan. When they found them the caravan had stopped to rest for midday meal and the kurach landed to join them.
"I was starting to think you had changed your mind," said one of the travellers.
"Sylvan customs had to be fulfilled," Ina said cheerfully. "We had to honor the midpoint of spring!"
The traveller shook his head and returned to tending his beast. "It is a long trek across the desert. Do you have provisions? Each must earn their own keep. We merely travel together under the protection of guards."
"How much do we need?" Katari asked. "How long will it be until we get to where we're going?"
"We will be keeping to the edge of the desert until we reach it's narrowest point four months from now and it will take about a six weeks to cross it until we reach the grasslands on the other side. There will be marketplaces along the way to restock your supplies, but the next one is not until we leave the jungle."
"Are we permitted to forage?" Katari asked. "There are many edible things in the jungle we could gather to support ourselves."
"Do as you must, so long as you do not steal from others and do not expect us to wait for you," the traveller said. "What the caravan master says is absolute, so you must be willing to follow orders, or you will be turned out."
"Understood," Katari nodded.
"What are we being guarded from?" Shanku asked. "Animals?"
"Somewhat, but there are marauders and thieves along the highways that must be avoided," he replied.
"Can't be much worse than what I've already dealt with, I'm not worried," Shanku said with a grin. "We'll be fine."
The caravan began to stir and continue on toward the far away city across the desert. The Sylvans found themselves the subject of much initial attention and frequently questioned about their travels. Ina was the most eager to engage in conversation and glad to tell them all about the Scissortails and their journey across the continents. With a little charm, she managed to get information out of their travelling companions about the nature of the caravan and the location of crossroads, outposts, and marketplaces they would be coming to.
"So it would seem those big fancy curtained boxes hold wealthy merchants trading spices and medicines," Ina explained to her fellow Sylvans one evening as they settled down for the night. "Tea, pepper, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, something like stackadad..."
"Cardamom," Shanku corrected.
"Yeah, that," Ina nodded, "and they are very grateful for any extra protection from thieves. Maybe if we help them out on their way through the desert, they might give us some seeds we can take home."
Hilael gave her a sideways glance.
"What?" Ina asked innocently.
Hilael sighed and shook his head. "Seeds are finicky. They may sprout, but most likely won't make the journey home."
"Only one way to find out," Ina said cheerily. "Let's join guard duty!"
"Shanku and I will join guard duty, if any of us do at all," Katari said quickly. "Neither of you are fighters or hunters and you've got more important work to do than just brawling."
"Brawling has it's uses too," Shanku added. "But, I agree with him. Just enjoy the trip and leave all the fighting work to us."
"Perhaps I could just keep an eye out for potential trouble?" Katari asked nervously.
"A scout would be beneficial," Shanku replied thoughtfully. "And if I'm going to be of any use, I should familiarize myself with the guards and whatever combat style these bandits may have."
"Fighting is fighting, isn't it?" Ina asked innocently. "Just don't get hit, right?"
Shanku stared at her wide-eyed in silence for a moment. "Not by a long shot. There are different individuals in different clans in different regions, all with unique histories and experiences that blend together to their unique styles! It can be quite complex!"
"Ah, like calligraphy! Yeah, you should go study. Shoo!" Ina said and motioned for Shanku to leave. "I want some spices to take home!"
Hilael looked like he wished to expand on the reasons why that probably wouldn't work, but chose to stay silent. Shanku shrugged, got up, and left.
Katari exhaled slowly and shook his head. "I'd much rather not get attacked by bandits."
"It would be such an exciting entry in my journal," Ina said dreamily. "Something I could much more easily write about and share when we get back home! Threshing rice is boring and the Scissortails aren't ready for so much shapeshifting, but defending a profitable caravan from marauding thieves? I can entertain people for years with that!"
"This isn't a fairytail, many could get seriously hurt or killed!" Katari scolded her.
"All the more reason you should be right behind her learning how to be a better fighter," Ina said slyly. "You, shoo, too!" Defeated, Katari got up and left as well. "Annnd then there were two," Ina said and shifted her attention to Hilael. She fixed him with a mischievous gaze and he was sure she had spent too much time with his sister.
"I don't fight," Hilael said quickly.
"No, you learn, and study, and pick plants. Every place has to have plants, so shouldn't you find out what there is to pluck out in the sand?" Ina asked with a growing grin.
"It's late and I'm tired," Hilael replied, not hiding the weariness in his voice. The nonstop presence of others over the past year was getting to him and he found it harder to keep up his calm front. He started to roll out his blanket to go to bed. Ina tilted her head and watched him curiously, remembering what Shanku had said and wondering if perhaps she had pushed Hilael too far again.
The moon was high in the sky when Shanku and Katari returned. Ina greeted them warmly and quietly, warning them not to wake up Hilael. She volunteered first watch, Katari took the middle, and Shanku of course took the last. Shanku stepped out a short ways from her sleeping companions to practice her morning stretches and stances when it was her turn to keep watch. The guards were doing the same to keep themselves in shape during the march and exchanged nods with the kurach. Shanku couldn't help but smile. They had a friendly drink the night before and she was well on her way to earning enough trust to have some sparring practices with them in the future.
Until that day arrived, Katari was showing more interest in practicing with her and gave her plenty of distraction while Ina and Hilael prepared breakfast each morning. It became obvious that he hadn't been in hardly any fights or had much experience, and Shanku delighted in sharing what she had learned. While initially nervous to engage with her, Katari found that Shanku's mischievous nature completely changed when she was teaching him, and seemed earnest and passionate about helping him improve.
"Well, I don't know how well you'd last against these bandits we'll cross some day, but you won't immediately die like a chicken," Shanku chuckled and hauled Katari to his feet after catching him off guard and knocking him to the ground.
"Perhaps I should learn to just fly the coop faster," Katari said as he gingerly rubbed his hip.
"Oo, yes, an aerial attack! We should work on that too!" Shanku said gleefully. "You did well with a spear out hunting bison, you could do similar during an attack!"
"That's not what I meant," Katari said weakly as Shanku began to scramble to find a spear. The other guards were getting curious and lent two spears to the bouncy kurach. She bowed low to say thanks and dashed back to Katari.
"C'mon, Katari, up in the air! Let's practice our dives! This'll be just like fishing for me and bisoning for you," Shanku said as she spread her wings.
"I don't think 'bisoning' is a word," Katari groaned and prepared to follow her to the sky. "What's our target?"
"Between these two sticks," said one of the guards as he jabbed two long poles into the ground. "Whether you hit a bandit on the ground or on his camel makes no difference for now." The kurach nodded, climbed into the sky, and began taking turns diving and aiming for the space between the poles. Shanku regained her skill quickly and was soon swooping between the poles with ease.
"This is a lot of fun! Wonder what all you could catch with this?" Shanku asked after she had landed and caught her breath.
"Sunburn," Katari said between breaths when he had landed.
"You two are a natural for it," the guard said. "I will help you prepare for the sands."
"We're very grateful," Katari said with a brisk nod.
The guards wielded broad, curved swords and wriggly daggers in addition to the javelins, spears, and glaives they carried. Shanku was fascinated with their weapons, while Katari was more interested in their armour. He could not reproduce the scale mail tunic they wore over their arms, chest, and upper thighs, but the leather bracers over their forearms and shins caught his eye.
"How much of that do you think you can wear and not be too heavy to fly?" Katari asked her one day.
"No metal," Shanku said.
"Well, of course not, but the leather bits," Katari said. "You probably don't need to keep getting all cut up like with the boar, or those fanged deer we hunted. These bandits are sure to be fiercer opponents."
"I suppose not," Shanku agreed. "If you want to, I won't turn down any armour. I do kinda tend to get hurt..."
Katari nodded briskly and began making plans for how much leather and what kind to gather before arriving at the outpost where he heard an armour maker lived.
Ina was in higher spirits than usual as the caravan wandered through the jungle. One of the lines of camels was dedicated to carrying pilgrams and their belongings on their way to a large temple in the heart of Bhadarukia, and Ina had wasted no time in befriending them to learn about their customs. Hilael had already learned what he needed to know in the Skihva village about the jungle plants' uses, and politely declined to joined Ina in her gleaning of information. Shanku of course was enamoured with the guards and spent as much waking time as possible with them swapping stories and techniques. Katari was enjoying the blissful freedom away from studies, and the beautiful spring days passed into summer.
The humidity slowly began to fall along their journey, the plants became shorter and more coarse until the trees faded away altogether. The caravan master lead them to the last outpost to rest a week before they would begin to cross the grasslands along the edge of the desert, and eventually reach the next marketplace. There the merchants would sell enough of their wares to afford fodder to cross the desert and reach their destination at the shimmering city on the other side.
The outpost was a large, four-cornered building. The lower level was dedicated to stables for various kinds of beasts of burden, while the second level was full of sleeping and storage rooms. One corner of the outpost was dedicated to forging for any quick repairs to tools, weapons, and other items. Merchants, guards, pilgrims, and all dispursed throughout the outpost to tend their animals and have a rest. Shanku was grateful for the reprieve and turned her focus to a more personal matter. Ina likewise disappeared into the safety of the nearby trees for a few days.
Katari had been kept moving so much he hadn't had time to hunt, much less tan any hides along the way, and had nothing to offer the armour maker. He was allowed to admire completed works, and was mentally making notes of their construction for when he was able to make some himself. Shanku was the first to return to her fellow Scissortails and didn't ask any questions of Ina's whereabouts.
Granny Misen had left no topic uncovered in her lessons, and Hilael finally went out to look for the gravid dam with an empty sack in hand and his faithful fairy dragon clinging to his shoulder. He spent nearly a full day airborn and looking for her before he finally found her holed up in a thicket. She was asleep, and pale. Hilael gently roused her. "Ina?"
"Hrm?" Ina said groggily and smiled weakly as her eyes came into focus.
"Have you eaten recently?" Hilael asked and sat down as she sat up with a grimace.
"I still have a few rice cakes left," she murmered.
"You need meat, seeds, and salads," Hilael said sternly.
"Rice is a seed," Ina countered.
Hilael frowned at her. "Stay here, don't leave yet." He took to the air again and began scouring the nearby area for what he needed. After many landings, he had collected plants until his empty bag became full to bursting even without Innugati's oversight, and returned to his patient. Hilael began to sort his findings and some he put into a bowl immedately for Ina to eat.
"What's inspired you to be my personal chef?" Ina asked with a chuckle.
"You've lost too much blood," Hilael said flatly. "You need to get your strength up before we start travelling again."
"Oh, you know," Ina said weakly and looked away. Innugati alighted on her shoulder and rubbed up against her cheek. Ina reached up to stroke the little dragon's back with a finger.
With resignation and a cringe, he continued. "How often does this happen?"
"Every time," Ina whispered with embarrassment. "I got it from ma's side. Eventually it should be just once every year or two."
"You should have told us about this problem when you joined us," Hilael said. "What if we went looking for you too late?"
"It's been several generations since one of us died from this, I'll be fine," Ina said hotly.
"Not only is this the Foterutu, we're out in unknown lands far away from our own kind," Hilael said coldly. "You and Shanku are the only female kurach in the caravan and I haven't seen signs of others for weeks. There aren't any experienced dams or midwives around. You could end up in serious trouble if you're not careful."
"Well it's not exactly like this is something I enjoy talking about! It's a private matter, and you haven't exactly been the most personable person to confide in," Ina said with great hurt in her voice. Hilael held out the bowl full of various leaves for her to begin eating so he could begin work on a second meal. "Your bedside manner needs a lot of work, too."
"Just eat," Hilael said with a deep frown. Ina took the bowl from him and began chewing on the bitter, bitter greens. Hilael sighed and looked away as he began to work on a stew. His voice softened and he continued, "I'm sorry it's so bland. This next batch should taste better. Um, were you able to pass it?"
"Yes," Ina said after she swallowed another bite of her unseasoned salad. "The last time any of us were fatally egg-bound was my great-great-granddam toward the end of her fertile days. They think the heat got her."
"Heat, stress, and poor diet all can cause it. The usual culprits. Granny Misen said the highborns often struggle with laying because they spend too much time in the cool cave so they can't handle the summer heat as well as the working dams. None of us are very rested or eating well on the move, and spirits know I'm under plenty of stress. If it wasn't for the fact Shanku is used to this life, she'd probably be in trouble, too," Hilael said. "This will get you started recovering, but you'll need a good, fresh kill when we get back to the others. Lots of organ meat. I'm sorry I'm not a good hunter, or I'd get you a rabbit or something."
"Honestly, Hilael, the fact you're going through this much effort over me is good enough. I would have been able to skulk back to camp on my own and somehow managed to rustle up what I needed to recover, so you've already gotten me ahead with these nasty shrubs."
"Don't look too far into it," Hilael said quickly as he got a fire going. "You'll need to drink the broth, too."
"You're the healer," Ina said cheerily and continued to choke down her raw plants. "If you don't kill me in the process with this, anyway." Hilael exhaled audibly and focused on completing his stew. He had found a few roots and mushrooms to give it added flavor and nutrients. When it was finished, he ladeled out a bowlful and promptly gave it to Ina, and wouldn't give her any peace until she had eaten at least two bowls of it.
"You need food too, so eat up!" Ina said at least. "I can't swallow another bite or drink another swig." To her relief, Hilael finally started tending to himself. Evening began to settle in and Hilael made sure they had a supply of firewood. The early summer nights were still chilly, and when Hilael saw Ina was softly shivering, he extended a wing around her to help her stay warm. To his displeasure, she curled up against him and fell asleep with her head on his chest, but at least she stopped shaking.
I can't imagine what blessings I'm earning with this, Hilael sighed. Perhaps the fates will be kind and never put me in this position again? Hilael slept in fits as he kept watch over the fire and for any trouble during the night. The next morning, some of Ina's colour had returned and she was more like her perky self. After another day of rest they returned to the caravan and entered the room Katari and Shanku had claimed during their stay.
"Where did you two go?" Katari asked curiously when they had returned.
"Getting stuffed with more salads than anyone should ever have to eat in a lifetime!" Ina joked and laughed loudly. "I could seriously use some good ol' meat! Katari, do you have any good stashes on hand?"
"No, but I have time for a quick pheasant or rabbit before we go," Katari replied.
"Would you or Shanku be so kind to fetch some? I think some roasted breasts, thighs, liver, and kidneys would be just the thing to fortify us for the grasslands."
"You do seem a bit pale. Some meat would do you good." With a shrug and a nod, Katari and Shanku disappeared beyond the walls of the outpost. Ina sighed and curled up on an empty bed in the room the Scissortails were using. Hilael sat down in the corner of the room to make sure his gear was ready for the resume of their journey in the morning.
The guides and guards who had been escorting the caravan were traded out for a new set. The Sylvans learned that the caravan would change hands at every outpost to be protected by those who specialized in the terrain they would be crossing. With new companions, the travellers were on the move once more.
"We've got two months to gather up enough game and stuff to sell at the marketplace for what we'll need to cross the desert," Shanku stated as they passed under the heavy gates with the caravan. "Protective clothes, spare waterskins, provisions..."
"If all else fails, I can sell most of my hides," Katari suggested. "I doubt I'll have time to catch and tan anything on this part of the train than I did the jungle part.
"It may be a little heavy and bulky, but the bison hide is waterproof, and could be cut into clothes," Shanku argued. "We should keep it."
"Very little rain falls in the desert. That's why it's so dry," Katari countered. "We just need something light to keep the blowing sand and sun out."
"I'll take turns with you carrying it," Shanku offered. "It's a very soft bed on hard ground and I'd like to keep it as long as possible."
"You certainly seem determined for us to keep it," Katari said with a wry grin. "Alright, absolutely last resort then." Shanku seemed satisfied and began swapping other ideas for how to earn coins. They did not have many days to contemplate the matter or even act on what they could decide upon before trouble began.
Shanku sat sternly upright, ears twitching against the breeze.
"What's wrong?" Katari whispered.
"Hoofbeats," Shanku said lowly. "Lots of them."
It wasn't long before horns were being sounded to rouse the guards to their feet. After they were a week's travel away from the outpost, the caravan was attacked during the night by raiders. It was a fast and furious assault, almost over as quickly as it started, as the charging bandits attempted to make a single pass through the camp and only carry off what they could grab without dismounting from their streamlined horses.
Shanku's demeanor completely changed and not because she had assumed her feral form. She fought and growled with a ferocity her companions hadn't seen before. Shanku leapt and tackled the first bandit that came too close to their section of the camp and quickly overpowered him. She had mercilessly torn his throat out with her fangs and leapt from his cooling corpse to the bandit right behind him. She had killed three before the bandits began avoiding the "winged werewolf". When the last of the thieves galloped off into the night, Shanku returned to her common form and knelt on one knee as she tried to steady her breathing.
"We would appreciate any further assistance you wish to give," one guard said firmly to her as he extended a hand. Shanku nodded and grasped his hand, and he hauled her to her feet. "Thousands of years ago, our people feared yours. But, as time passed, you have proved to be a valuable ally, and we welcome your assistance on these journeys."
"So I was told once by an ambassador and his kurach guard," Shanku said grimly. "But my priorities lie with my three companions."
"Acceptable," the guard nodded. "Return to them, and rest. Bandits do not make two passes in a night. We will help you dispose of the bodies."
Katari and Hilael were glad to see Shanku alive and well. Ina was nervously avoiding her and trying to get back to sleep. Shanku and the guards pulled the corpses out away from the camp, took what useful items they could find, and left the bodies to scavengers.
"I'm glad you three are alright," Shanku said tiredly as she laid down with them.
"When you took off after that last one I was worried you wouldn't come back," Katari said. "That was some raid!"
"And plenty more to come according to the guards," Shanku said and closed her eyes. She was soon sleeping peacefully, leaving the others to tend to their anxieties alone. Each managed to fall asleep at some point during the night. The caravan began its slow and steady march early the next morning, as if nothing had happened the night before.
The walk through the grasses was as dangerous as the hike through the jungle had been peaceful. Bands of marauders and thieves began to plague the caravan. A week had passed when the next wave of robbers attacked. Driven from wanderlust to bloodlust, Shanku again brought down any who came too close to her kin and kith, including one frantic horse. This earned her the respect from the guards, admiration from other travellers, and fear from her fellow Sylvans who became increasingly concerned about her sudden lack of frivolity. She began exercising her right of first claim to items and weapons before letting others scavenge her kills.
"Shanku's smiling, but it's not reaching her eyes," Ina shuddered while the kurach in question was off talking to other guards. "Do you think she was like this when she was travelling alone?"
"It didn't sound like it from her stories, but now I wonder," Katari replied back. "She did have the nickname of Black Plague aboard the pirate ship and has regained the 'winged werewolf' title again."
"I didn't think I would say it, but I miss her being an utter nuisance," Ina said sadly. "She's kind of... cruel now."
"It's only been a few weeks. Maybe she hasn't changed for good," Katari suggested. Ina nodded and they walked together as silently as Hilael.
The caravan was over halfway to the marketplace and the travellers were increasingly nervous to have made it thus far with as few casualties as they had suffered. Once more, they were hit by another fast-moving band of thieves. Shanku was in the thick of their attack as the other Scissortails took to the air to stay out of harm's way.
These bandits had carried spears with them into battle and one set his sights on Shanku. She noticed him barreling toward her with the tip aimed straight for her heart. She quickly side-stepped, grabbed the shaft of the spear, and deftly wrenched it away. Another bandit was behind him, making the same attempt. Shanku gripped the spear firmly, charged, and with a leap managed to skewer the rider off his horse before he got her.
The bandits began to ride away from her and she went running to intercept the nearest one who seemed to have turned his attention to a young kurach trying desperately to rouse a stubborn camel who would rather chew its cud than get to safety. He brought his arms up to shield his face and body as the bandit came nearly on top of him when he was knocked roughly to the ground. The bandit tried to pierce the pack on the camel's back and make off with it as if it were a fish in a stream, but missed and rode away.
Shanku scrambled off the foolhardy buck and snarled at the last of the bandits as they began to disappear into the night. The raid was over and after disposing of and gleaning the bodies she had left behind, she wandered back to where she and the other Scissortails had been camping. The others landed and said nothing as Shanku began grooming and removing the blood she had acquired, and now kept a sturdy spear at her side.
The next day as they were walking along, one of the few kurach travelling in the caravan approached them with a camel and strange, striped beasts similar to a camel but with a barely noticeable hump, pointed horns, and a pronounced tuft on their tails.
"I wanted to thank you for saving me last night," he started nervously.
Shanku turned her head to face him and looked him up and down. He was young, probably about her own age, as tanned and loosely dressed as the Long Ear kurach they had met, but with very pale wings of white, cream, and grey. "You must have something very valuable to risk your life like that," Shanku said coldly.
"Er, I do," he said lowly. "And, that's why... can I hire you?"
Shanku almost stopped in her tracks and raised an eyebrow. "I'm not a mercenary or sword-for-hire."
"But if you intend to cross the desert, even for as short a trip as a month, you will need provisions. Without a camel to carry that, you won't make it. I can let you carry supplies on my camel if you'll protect me from future thieves," he offered.
"My brother and friends come first," Shanku warned. "I will protect their lives before yours."
"Second-hand protection is better than potentially no protection from guards trying to save more important travellers," he said with a weak smile.
"We could use any help we get as well," Katari pressed. "Take care of him, too, Shank."
"If you want to walk with us, I won't object," Shanku said at length. "Stay close at night."
The pale-winged kurach grinned broadly and fell in line beside them.
"So, what's your name?" Ina asked pleasantly.
"Niku," he said warmly. "Who are you?"
Ina introduced the four of them and little Innugati, and asked, "what are you carrying, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Mostly, Lita and her two daughters," Niku said and nodded to the striped beasts. "My family breed aqilans, and we want to increase our stock. They come from a good, strong line, and we're hoping they'll be a powerful addition to our bloodlines."
"What do you use them for?" Ina asked curiously and looked back at the placid creature plodding along behind his camel.
"A less grouchy, albeit less hardy alternative to camels," Niku explained. "They have much longer, softer coats in the winter than these dromedaries, and goods made of it can fetch a higher price."
"So it's more like a big sheep then," Ina said. "Our people keep sheep for their wool to make clothes and things."
"Aqilan hair is also less itchy than wool," Niku said.
"Where does your family live? I think I should like to buy a new dress," Ina said wistfully.
"In a province outside the city across the desert," Niku replied. "It's no less dangerous on the other side, so I wouldn't complain if you came with me all the way home."
"I think we will, won't we, Shanku?" Ina asked. Shanku grunted. "Then it's settled! I promise she's not usually this unsociable," Ina said pointedly and glared at Shanku. "What has gotten into you!?"
"Pirates," Shanku growled.
"We're having troubles with bandits, not pirates," Ina said with annoyance.
"A pirate is a pirate, whether at sea or across land, and should be given no quarter," Shanku said coldly.
"I'm sure she is frustrating for you now, but she will be invaluable across the sands," Niku said softly. "My escort fell just before we reached the jungle, and I haven't been able to obtain another."
"I'm sorry," Ina said.
"It's the way of things," Niku said. "So what are you out here for? You don't look like any of the kurach I've met before."
"We're Sylvan Scissortails!" Ina said proudly. "Our people traditionally send our young adults into the wild to prove themselves worthy of their rank and status in the clan. Normally they just stay in the forest, and we figured, since we can't go home for five years, why not go wherever the winds take us?"
"Interesting!" Niku exclaimed. "Where are the Sylvans from?"
Ina began telling him in grand detail about the Nyre and asking him questions about his clan. They were even whispering tales after dark as the others tried to sleep. Hilael was relieved that her attention had finally been turned away from himself and had a restful sleep.
"I think you have competition," Katari teased lowly as Ina and Niku continued to be lost in conversation all the next day as well.
"If I throw the match, do you think he'll keep her?" Hilael asked.
"If it wasn't for the fact she's a scribe and we're hunters and gatherers, I'd say go for it. She's a beautiful dam, somewhat refined, great personality..." Katari trailed off.
"You are welcome to distract her attentions to your heart's content," Hilael said gruffly.
Katari shook his head. He was beginning to get lonely on the long, boring walks and not even an occasional forage into the surrounding hills for fresh game could entertain him. Ina was distracted, Shanku was cross, Hilael was never much company, and the miniscule dragon could only chirp. Maybe the marketplace will be worth it.
On one miserably hot afternoon a blazing sea of sand appeared in the distance, and that evening they could see the soft glow of the marketplace's fires. It was more of a sizable caravansary that had collected permanent merchants geared toward restocking travellers than it was a trading center. Many of the camels that had come with them were traded for livestock that had been fattening on the grasses during the summer. Those meant for the long trek to the northernmost parts of Bhadarukia remained on reserve, to eat all the summer had to offer before being put on their dangerous voyage.
Shanku was rewarded by the caravan master for her bravery and willingness to help defend his trains, and gave her a modest payment. She wasn't impressed with the sum, but had enough sense to accept it graciously. She immediately put a portion of it to equipping the Scissortails. Niku saw to it they were well supplied and even purchased a spare camel to carry additional water and preserved foods. After another week of rest, the caravan set out, again with a new set of guards who were trained for the challenges of the desert. The landscape changed considerably. Sand, cacti, and tough plants covered the ground for days, and suddenly gave away to towering dunes. The Scissortails brought their scarves up over their noses to protect their faces from the grains dancing in the air as the caravan shifted to travelling at night. They rested during the height of day when the blistering heat was its worse and moved during the biting cold of night.
"We would surely freeze to death if we tried to sleep at night like normal people!" Ina said as her teeth chattered.
"The temperatures are even more intense further north where it gets much colder at night. Sometimes, even in summer, in some parts of the desert your water will freeze and must be thawed in the morning heat."
Katari reached for his waterskin and Niku shook his head, urging him to conserve. "You have been through this desert before. We'll have to trust you on how to ration our food and water," Katari said with resignation.
"Thirst is your most constant companion here," Niku said distantly. The first rays of dawn burst over a distant dune and Niku warned them to be alert. "The desert mauraders like to strike in the twilight like coyotes, when shadow and light are both gone, and it's hard to see." Shanku nodded and became even less talkative at the between times of the day than she already was.
To try to distract his new companions from the unrelenting thirst and the boredom of trudging over the monotonous tawny orange dunes, he began to tell tales about paupers who turned their fortune by finding hidden caves, discovering magical items, married royals and nobles, controlled great birds, being cursed to become birds, swapping riddles with crafty sphinxes, and many other wondrous subjects. Ina was enraptured with his stories and made him promise to tell them to her all over again when they arrived at his sire's house so she would have time to write them all down.
Fortune seemed to smile on them in that there was only one attack during the trek across the desert, however, it wasn't a hit and run like in the grasslands. This was a vicious onslaught from what felt like a small army. Their war cries were enough warning for Shanku to assume her feral form and strip down to her fur, as she expected this fight to be particularly nasty and she had little desire to ruin her clothes with sprays of blood. Niku pulled Ina and Hilael onto his camel to attempt to carry them to safer places away from the fighting as Katari helped Shanku defend them. Shanku was a furious fighter as always, ducking under and darting around the camels, skewering any who came too close to her charges with the long spear she had pillaged from a previous raid; a blur of grey fur and black feathers.
Katari struggled to keep up and fought as bravely as he could after the lessons Shanku had given him, but, ultimately, he was not a trained fighter. He was caught off guard by an attack from behind and stabbed in the side. Katari's yip of pain as he fell to the ground immediately attracted Shanku's attention and the next thing he saw was her standing over him. She advanced forward to grab the thief's hand after dodging a jab from his dagger, and then Katari's night became darker. First Shanku broke the brigand's wrist and continued twisting it back until she snapped his arm. What followed next was a series of tearing bites and stabs from the thief's own dagger she had taken from his shattered arm. Katari lay on the ground, clutching his side, and watched with horror as Shanku slowly killed the scoundrel, almost seeming to relish in each cry of pain she extracted from him until finally she silenced him for good with a quick jerk of her head upon his neck.
Shanku's head snapped to another advancing bandit and Katari saw her eyes burning with a hatred he had not seen before. The knave was not easily frightened, nor deterred by the body of his mangled comrade beneath the beast's snarling maw dripping with fresh blood. He made a bold attempt, but Shanku dropped to four feet below his strike and sprang almost straight up to clutch him in her jaws and claws. He did not last long.
Hilael slid off the camel and began inspecting Katari's injuries. Katari tried to wave him off, but Hilael was determined to at least push some cloth into him to stem the bleeding.
"Don't get yourself killed over me," Katari argued.
"Shanku is so far gone not even a flea is going to be able to get near us. Let me work," Hilael said sharply.
The bandits began to flee and had managed to make off with several items and people who would undoubtedly be sold as slaves. Mournful cries were heard throughout the camp as people were accounted for and the dead and missing were grieved. Tents were pitched so injuries could be tended and damage tallied. Wealthy merchants lavished praises on the guards for protecting as many as they had, turning back the bandits, and attempting to console the mourners with grand words.
Hilael set to working on Katari more properly. "You're lucky none of your organs were injured," he said as he finished cleaning the wound. Katari just continued to stare at the twinkling stars above as he lay on the sand, and barely reacted when Hilael sewed him up. Ina was nearby, clinging to Niku, who was softly stroking her hair and whispering things in her ear to calm her.
Shanku was keeping her distance after helping the guards dispose of the bodies of the bandits. She returned to her common form, scrubbed off the blood as best she could with the sand, got dressed, and sat alone with her knees drawn to her chest and her wings tight around her. Old memories were flooding her mind and mingling with fresh ones. She sobbed softly and quietly long after the others had gone to bed.
"You should ride, friend," Niku said to Katari and bade him to mount a camel before it rose to its feet. Katari did not have the energy to argue and even appreciated the consideration. Niku took the rope hanging from the camel's halter and began to lead it away from the setting sun. Ina walked close to Niku and they engaged in casual conversation. Hilael walked beside Katari's injured side so he could check for bleeding throughout the day. Shanku stayed in the back, behind the tethered aqilans and supply camel, seemingly guarding their rear.
"We're over half the way, and the odds of a second attack are slim," Niku said when they began to settle down as the sun was well into its daily climb. "Try to rest as much as possible."
Morale steadily improved in the camp the further away they went from where they were attacked. The summer heat was beginning to ease and they were traversing more and more during the day. The travellers were in good spirits and became excited when the glow of the distant city lit up the edge of the horizon. Katari had healed enough he could spend some time walking again.
"We should reach it tomorrow night," Niku said cheerily. "There will still be a threat of mauraders outside of the city, but soldiers frequently travel the road to my village and there are many watch towers. It will be a safer journey than here in the wilderness."
"Thank the spirits for that. I don't think I can handle much more!" Ina said fearfully.
"I'll certainly be no help for a while," Katari said glumly. "Has anybody seen much of Shanku lately?" Hilael had been strict about Katari resting as much as possible and had verily limited him to riding the camel and resting in bed, going so far as to bring his meals to him.
"No," Ina shook her head. "She watches our backs on the move and sleeps with the beasts at rest. She won't come near us except to fill her bowl and then disappears again. She hasn't spoken to us since you got hurt."
Katari cast a suspicious eye toward the resting camels and aqilans. He excused himself and made his way over to the reclusive kurach. Shanku was sitting again in the long shadows of the dunes cast by the setting sun, with her knees drawn to her chest, her wings around her, and her head resting on her arms.
She didn't stir. Katari sat down beside her in silence for a few moments, watching the shadows lengthen and then begin to disappear as the stars came out.
"Why don't you come back to the fire with us? You'll get too cold out here by yourself, even if you are with the animals," Katari began innocently. Despite the darkness, Shanku's wings appeared to pull a little tighter around her.
"You saved my life, you know," Katari said seriously. "If you hadn't jumped in, he would have..."
"Skewered you like a damned briny salmon, just like Dr. Newbury. And Templeton, and Marley, and Whitten, and Arrington, and Patton, and..." Shanku trailed off as her voice cracked. She raised her head to stare at the sands in the distance, watching the unseen ghosts still haunting her.
"But he didn't, because you jumped in in time," Katari said gently, trying to ignore his own memories of that cold, cold look that was on her face that night. He raised a hand up, withdrew it a moment, and reached out again to cup her cheek and turn her toward him. "All of us would have died out here a long time ago if not for you."
"And because of me you're out here in the first place," Shanku said icily and looked down to the place between his ribs and hips. "That was too close... Far too close, Katari." She snarled and pulled away from him. "After we finish taking Niku to his village, we should go home to the Nyre."
"And end our great adventure early?" Katari asked lightly.
"It's too dangerous to stay out here," Shanku snapped. "I can deal with getting tangled up in thorns and laid open to the bone by a stupid pig, but these sands are too much for me to handle! I wasn't strong enough then and I wasn't enough now. You got stabbed, Katari!"
"I know, I was there," Katari said bluntly. "It didn't tickle either. And quite frankly, you've been scaring the hell out of me since that first raid, a lot more than the raiders themselves have. However," Katari paused and breathed in deeply. "I don't want to go back just yet. Despite constantly thinking about fresh, cool water in this dry, miserable land and everything else that's happened, I'm enjoying myself. I want to see more, and," Katari paused again and gently placed his hand on the side of her face again, easing her gaze back to his before continuing gently. "I want to see you back to your old, playful self again."
Shanku locked her eyes with his, barely raising an eyebrow and lowering an ear, clearly conveying her doubt of his truthfulness. Her stare was just as firm and frigid as her chilled jaw in the cool night air.
"Look, we're all still alive. And it's not even that bad, see?" Katari said and took one of her hands to place on his side. "I'm not missing anything important, it's not infected, and, most importantly, did not and will not kill me. I lived. I'll recover. You were enough." And, quite frankly, too much, but I'm praying to all the spirits I can snap you out of this before you snap anything else off somebody and get even worse. "We'll be at the city by tomorrow night, and then the desert will be behind us."
"We'll have to cross it again to get home," Shanku said harshly and pulled her hand back.
"Says who?" Katari countered. "If it's that big of a deal, then we'll just keep going ahead, board a ship, and sail around the world until we arrive on the western shores of L'aernth and the Nyre."
"There's a whole lot of water between those two shores in that direction. Nobody has ever sailed out there before, and probably never will."
"Maybe we should be the first then?" Katari suggested coyly.
"You are incorrigible tonight," Shanku sighed.
"You know I'm not going to stop until you come back to the fire with us. We've been travelling together for over a year, and I've learned much about being an insufferable pest," Katari said with a playful grin. "So, come on, who's coming back to camp with me?"
Shanku watched him suspiciously from the corner of her eye and didn't rise. Feeling as though he was taking his life into his hands, he finally started to pinch and poke at her arms until she withdrew from him, and then he began to harass her ribs. She growled and grabbed his forearms to restrain him, so he resorted to gently biting her shoulders. She squirmed and drew up, and he set to nipping her neck and ears. Finally she began to squeal and laugh.
"Oh, golly, quit it, Katari!" Shanku giggled and let go of his wrists to try to push him away. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, continuing to nibble on her ears.
"Come back to the fire and I'll stop!" Katari teased and sent delightful shivers down her spine when he began to purposely sniff fervently behind her ear.
"That's just cruel, you know how much that tickles!" Shanku squealed. "Alright, alright, just cut it out!"
"Ah, good, because I think I reopened it a little," Katari grimaced and clutched his wounded side.
"I should smack you for hurting yourself," Shanku frowned. "I know you're worried, but, seriously, I would have started coming around again on my own when we got out of here."
"I just wanted to make sure. That look in your eyes on that night... It was one of the scariest things I've ever seen. Then the way you..." Katari trailed off and closed his eyes.
"Hey, now, don't you go locking up on me, either," Shanku said sternly. "So maybe I was a bit out of line and went a little too feral on that particular brute. But, maybe, I also scared some of his buddies enough they may think twice about attacking another caravan."
"And perhaps you were, for a moment, the hand of fate and dealing out a just punishment. Just as likely, you lost it out there," Katari said solemnly. "I don't know which it was, and I don't want to know. Just... try not to go that far again, okay? Ina's been having non-stop nightmares and none of us are getting any sleep."
"I'm kind of embarrassed to face any of them again," Shanku said and pulled her knees to her chest again. "What if they start calling me a 'monster', too?"
"If they were going to do that, they would have started a long time ago, like when you stood up to that boar demon. They're more worried about you spiraling and reclusing than they are how viciously you tried to protect them," Katari said. "Please come back to camp? Things just aren't the same without all of us together."
Shanku finally relaxed and gave him a genuine smile. She helped him to his feet and they returned to the others. Niku gave her a hearty welcome. Ina bashfully greeted her. Innugati trilled and Hilael merely nodded and offered some of their leftovers.
"So, you two were gone a while, what were you doing?" Ina asked naughtily.
Shanku flushed and batted some sand at her, and the others laughed. Shanku chuckled a little with them. It's good to be back.