Katari was the first to stir when the sun shone on them. He held the hand of his good arm over his eyes and sat up. A grey and white muzzle was soon in his face and licked his cheek once.
"C'mon, Shank. No doggie kisses," Katari said groggily as his vision came into focus and realized what he was looking at. "Holy crow-feathers, you shifted!?" Hilael and Ina were startled awake and sat up immediately to see what the commotion was about. Shanku bumped each of them with her muzzle and rubbed the length of her body against them affectionately before settling down with her head in Katari's lap, looking up at him with her dark blue eyes and lazily thumping her tail against the ground. "Well, congratulations then," he said with a smile as he scratched her ears. "Get some rest." Shanku soon dozed off in the warm morning sunlight.
Hilael stretched his stiff muscles and began to rummage around in his pack for what he needed to tend to both Ina and Katari. For once they didn't complain as he treated them. Katari was stroking Shanku's fur with his left hand as Hilael checked his right arm for signs of bleeding, poisoning, infection, and other worrisome things.
"I wonder what triggered it? She was feral when we went to sleep," Ina wondered aloud. "She's a right true kurach now."
"Stob's research said it was simple, innocent desire," Katari said. "She seems pretty happy. Kind of odd after all that's happened out here."
"Maybe she's just that grateful we're all still alive and not reveling in the murder and mayhem," Ina suggested with a grimace. "At this rate, I'm going to be so relieved to see grass I may just poof into four feet when I step on it!" Hilael raised an eyebrow but didn't respond as he finished checking her stitches. "You've managed it, too. What did you feel when you shifted?"
"I'd rather not talk about it," Hilael said shortly. "However, with Katari down for now, I'll have to go hunting with Shanku when she wakes. You need lots of organ meat to get back what you lost, Katari."
"Ugh, I know," Katari grumbled weakly, having already had to lie down again. Shanku repositioned in her sleep to rest her chin and neck across his stomach. He was absent-mindedly scratching the thick mane on the side of her neck.
"We need to build some sort of shelter, too, so we don't fry in the sun," Hilael said with a frown. "The wind feels nice, but the coming sunburn won't."
"We can all shift feral," Ina suggested. "It'll keep the sun from boring directly into our skin."
"Are you going to keep your nose, ears, and bellies tucked until sunset?" Hilael asked skeptically. Ina looked away and didn't answer. "I'm going to go for a flight and see if I can find a cave or something we can hide in." Hilael pulled his shirt off, shifted feral, removed his pants with his back turned to the others, and then shifted to his wolven form before diving off the side of the giant boulder.
"Now that's just showing off and rubbing it in that we can't do that yet!" Ina flustered.
"Hilael and Shanku have both achieved it during or after really stressful situations. I am not immediately interested in finding out how much more I'm going to have to take before I can do it," Katari said. "Getting the goblin form was stressful enough!"
While waiting for Hilael to return, Ina managed to construct a very makeshift tent for her and Katari using the large, flowing outfits Niku had bought for them to cross the desert comfortably. She had set up their packs as support beams, tucked the edges of the fabric under them so the wind couldn't blow it away, paused a moment to repress memories of how they were blanketed and secured with rocks at night by the hobgoblins, and crawled underneath with him to get the worst of the sun off. It would have been miserably hot under there if the breeze had not been blowing.
The sun had climbed much higher by the time Hilael had returned, and with two hares in his mouth. He dropped them on the ground nearby. "Not much, but it'll get you started." Katari was disoriented and slowly regressing into a more primal state of mind. When he saw the gift, he couldn't resist morphing into the goblin form, staggering over to one hare, and tucking his muzzle into it. Hilael flicked his tail in approval and sat down near Ina and Shanku, the latter was still sound asleep.
"We're not far from the grasslands. I could see glimmers of green in the distance when I went as high as the winds would support me. If Shanku can handle it, we should make a dash for it," Hilael said softly.
"I agree," Ina said solemnly. "Did you find a cave?"
"None I would be comfortable staying in, but I'll present the options to Katari and Shanku later for their opinion," Hilael replied.
Shanku stirred after a few hours. First her hindquarters went up and she dipped into a bow, she gradually leaned forward as her hind legs dragged behind her in a noisy, groaning stretch, and finally gave herself a good shake. Her bestial muzzle broke into a wide, toothy grin, and she laughed out loud. "I have become Jakko!"
"You should eat," Hilael said and Ina extended a handful of rations to her. Shanku began to drool and quickly gulped them down. Ina wiped his hand off with a frown. "Can you hunt?" he asked. "We all need a real meal. We're close to the edge, and with one final run after a good bellyful, we can be free of this place. If we have to stay another night, I found a few caves."
"Leave it to me!" Shanku said cheerily and began to spread her wings as she turned. "No caves necessary."
"Hang it, wait for me," Hilael said quickly and ran after her.
"Is that why you were waiting in true?" Shanku teased and wagged her tail.
"Partially," Hilael said uneasily.
"C'mon, 'Lael, let's go!" Shanku said eagerly, suddenly bolted to the edge of the boulder, and snapped her wings open as she leapt into the air. Hilael nearly tripped over his paws as he chased after her and tried to keep up. Innugati stayed behind to curl up on Katari's chest, who was still feral.
"Hullo, since when do you keep up with me?" Katari asked. Innugati flicked her forked tongue at his injured arm. "Oh," Katari murmured. Hilael's little tattletail. Of course. He sulkily curled up and tried to rest some more. Innugati slithered to the top of his shoulder and splayed out.
Shanku stayed aloft for a while before spotting suitable game that would give them the fuel they needed to complete their flight from the badlands. She landed on a distant rock to explain her plan to Hilael. He alighted beside her with his ears laid back. She cocked her head to the side curiously. "What's up?"
"I went feral on Gadon during your first winter home," Hilael blurted out shamefully. His eyes were squeezed shut, his head was ducked, tail tucked, ears flat against his skull, wings tight against his body, and partially crouched down. He appeared almost half her size.
Shanku tilted her head into the other direction and studied him a moment. He seemed to only draw up tighter as he waited for the verbal flaying he felt he deserved for withholding information. She gently licked his muzzle and stepped forward until their chests were nearly touching so she could lean her head over him and squeeze his neck with hers.
"You're... not angry?" Hilael ventured as he peeked cautiously from one eye.
"I had heavy suspicions you didn't really skip the goblin form, but I wasn't going to call you out on it," Shanku said softly and raised up. "Obviously you didn't want to talk about it." She backed away to face him again. "Although that certainly explains that nice little throw you did to me!"
Hilael remorsefully ducked his head again. "I didn't want you to be jealous that Gadon was practicing with me and not you."
"Jealous?" Shanku asked and was taken aback. She sat down and stared at the ground beside them, her ears flicking and skewing into various directions as she pondered his concerns. "You know... I think the last time I felt any kind of jealousy was with the Highland kurach when I overheard some apprentices bragging about their failures. I was jealous they could be so imperfect without harsh consequences. Training with Gadon? I can't be resentful! That sounds like such a wonderful opportunity and I got a little excited you had such fortunate luck! What was it like?" Shanku asked and eagerly faced him again, standing on four feet and her tail high in the air with excitement.
Hilael froze, trying to think of the right thing to say. Gadon had shared a lot of personal secrets that did not need to be divulged. "Just defensive things, like throws," Hilael said quietly. "Because of Jagan and all." Shanku cocked her head to the side again as she studied him and her tail stilled. He knew he was being scrutinized, and he knew she knew he wasn't being completely forthcoming. Hilael was soon regretting having said anything to her and wished he had let the guilt eat him alive.
Shanku licked the ruff of his cheek and pushed his nose up with hers so she could look him in the eye. "If I didn't harass you and give you hell for not telling me about where you learned that throw all this time, you think I'm going to bug you for details about Gadon? He's a great warrior, and he trusts you for a reason. I can't condemn you for being loyal to a friend and I can't ask you to betray him."
Hilael finally began to soften and relax. "Thank you. And... I'm sorry I didn't have more faith in you," Hilael said and lowered his head again. "I thought we would never be free of the hobgoblins."
"For a while, I was starting to fear the same thing," Shanku admitted reluctantly. "But, that is the past. We survived. We shouldn't try to dwell more than necessary." The playful grey dam bumped his neck playfully with her nose and pranced to the edge of the boulder. "Now, see those things down there?" She began with a wildly wagging tail. Hilael joined her and she explained to him how she intended to catch one and how he could help her, along with tips to deal with the gusts channeled through through the towering rocks and how little she wanted him flying through them if he felt unsafe doing so. Hilael turned his focus to the hunt with a renewed trust and confidence in his unpredictable sister.
The sound of laboured wingbeats caught Katari's attention and, carefully this time, he rose up to investigate. Shanku had assumed her feral form to be able to carry back their game. She dropped some sort of hooved thing unceremoniously before her hungry companions and landed heavily. Hilael was not far behind and joined them more gracefully.
"Where will we get kindling?" Ina asked. Shanku and Katari both flashed her a fanged grin. "Raw?" Ina asked with wide eyes.
"Like she said, we've been cooped up in civilization too long," Katari said hungrily.
"C-can it at least be butchered?" Ina pleaded. "I don't want hair all in my mouth!"
"As you wish!" Shanku said and grabbed a knife. With finesse she skinned and carved up their pending meal. Hilael had strong opinions about dividing it up and was keenly interested in getting Katari back to full health quickly. "He's not going to recover overnight, and I reserve hunter's rights for the heart!" Shanku protested.
While the other three were arguing and devouring their portions, Ina was nibbling with more reservation. It was certainly more appetizing looking than it had been when she was in her common form, but not enough for her to hit it as ravenously as her companions. Innugati did not even try to take from the hungry kurach and had caught herself a small rodent to enjoy. At least back in the grasses there should be some kind of weed Hilael can pick to add some flavour! Ina ate what she could, and Shanku took what she wasn't able to get down and cut into strips to dry overnight to include with their rations.
The sky began to light up in the brilliant scarlet and coral hues, and Hilael volunteered the first watch. Shanku agreed, assumed her full form once again for the additional visual acuity when Hilael woke her for the second watch, and calmly kept guard under the waxing moon.
A small light began to dance along the edge of the rock they were roosting on. Shanku stood up, her wings softly lifted from beside her body as her hackles involuntarily rose, and watched it. The pale blue orb floated gently on an unknown breeze, swaying to and fro, and Shanku considered waking the others for a quick escape. It split into two and a dark shadow began to materialize around what became two eyes. Shanku visibly relaxed as she approached it, but gave several cautious sniffs.
"It's me, Ravenwing," Kleu laughed. "I thought I would check on my fearless wanderer. Smells like your packmate there got a little nibble from one of those sallow parasites. And look at you!" Kleu slowly circled the young dam and wagged his tail in approval. "All grown up properly, like a kurach should be."
"How are your charges doing?" Shanku asked in a friendly manner.
"One was able to go home, and the other is soon to depart as well," Kleu replied. "I will be alone, again."
"I nearly called you recently," Shanku confessed. "They were captured by hobgoblins. I was alone for several days."
"Oh?" Kleu asked and sat down. "Do tell. Obviously they are free now."
"Ate a few. Threw their heads at their captain as a challenge. Fought for their freedom, killed the captain, new captain unsurprisingly would not honour the pact with the prior, but it was enough of a diversion for Innugati to sever the ropes for us to escape," Shanku explained.
"That's my pup!" Kleu said heartily. "They have a distinct musky flavour, but, when you need to be stern..."
"That was my thought, exactly," Shanku said uneasily and tilted her head to the side.
"I do not manipulate, influence, or cast mind-altering charms like other spirits," Kleu said grumpily when he noted the way she was staring at him through narrowed eyes. "Your choices are you own and independent of mine, however similar. You are, of course, welcome to call me when you are in trouble. Why didn't you?"
"The Foterutu is supposed to teach full independence," Shanku sighed. "We push the line frequently enough by visiting so many settlements. Neither of our winters were spent on our own. I worry we may fail our task."
"Didn't stop that blond fellow. Grandson of the eldest Elder, I do believe?" Kleu said slyly.
"Jagan called on you?" Shanku asked incredulously as she snapped her head up to face him.
"Slip of the tongue," Kleu said with a wide, fanged grin. "Summoned me, nonetheless. Got himself into a slight conundrum. Cornered by some large, angry birds after robbing their nests for breakfast. I was amused. He was not. I soothed the harpies, and advised him that the taste and hassle of harpy eggs just was not worth it."
"I feel less ridiculous now," Shanku said with a broad grin. Kleu fell silent and gazed at her with an intensity that spoke more than words could have. "You are welcome to visit me any time, Kleu. I need to avoid relying on you for help, but your company is not undesirable. Well," Shanku cocked her head to the side with an impish smile. "I don't find it undesirable. Katari glared daggers when I suggested it!"
"Perhaps he will consider it more readily now that he was kissed by the pale death," Kleu chuckled darkly. Shanku began to study him again, and he added quickly, "I did not send them! Not my way. Speaking of which, have you met any of the northern spirits?"
"Not yet," Shanku shrugged. "Some were pounding on the door at our host's house during Dolagog, but I didn't go outside to say 'hello'. They didn't seem too friendly."
"Ah, pfft," Kleu tossed his head and rolled his eyes. "Grouchy winter fae always looking for mortals to bite. Ignore those. 'Tis a shame. Perhaps you can still meet one before you skip across the straights to northern Mruha. I must leave you once again." The goblin hound stood and gave himself a shake. "Leave quickly in the morning. More ghouls gather in the distance and the smell of blood from your hoof-foot there is attracting their attention. They must hide during the day so that pale skin does not fry to a crisp in the delightful sunshine, but you won't last another night on this rock."
"I am very grateful," Shanku said and bowed her head lowly to him. The last she saw was a fanged grin and twinkle where his fiery blue eyes had been. Shanku looked over at the sleeping kurach, again huddled up together against the cool desert night. Ready or not, it's time to go.
The kurach were concerned when Shanku relayed her message in the morning. "Are you well enough to travel?" Shanku asked Katari.
"I'm still weak and dealing with dizzy spells," Katari admitted.
"Can you glide between formations?" Shanku pressed. "We can carry you as a last resort, but it will make us larger targets in case any hobgoblins are still alive out there and holding a grudge."
"I can try," Katari said more calmly than how he felt.
"Let's get started," Shanku said grimly. She shifted to her feral form and helped Ina and Hilael ready for departure. Katari's gear was distributed amongst them to keep his burden as light as possible until he had recovered from the sudden blood loss. When they were composed and collected, Shanku lead the way, followed by Katari off to her right and Ina to her left, and Hilael finishing up the small V-formation where he could monitor the well-being of the others. It was slow progress as they hopped between the tops of the canyons and until they reached the last stretch of sand and stones before the vegetation took back the ground surface.
"We're almost home free," Ina said excitedly and placed a hand on Katari's shoulder. "Think you can make it?"
"You really think there aren't ghouls in the grass?" Katari asked.
"We haven't seen any before and I don't want to start worrying about it now," Ina said and removed her hand with a passing rub before stepping forward to admire the landscape.
"Kleu didn't warn me about any, but, he's not obligated to either," Shanku commented. "I'm hoping for simple, garden variety deadly predators. Big cats, packs of dogs, sneaky snakes."
"I'm hoping we're left well alone," Katari said. "Those aren't much better."
"We're not going to meet them hanging around here. If you can move, we should move," Hilael scolded.
Katari was mildly surprised at getting nagged by Hilael who had previously been pushing for each of them to get as much rest as possible when they were injured. Shanku dove off the side of the last towering cliff and lead them in a long glide with infrequent wing strokes until they could gently bring their wings up to break speed and drop to the ground. Katari promptly had to sit down and recover.
"If we hadn't lost the spears, we could make a quick tent and get out of the heat," Shanku commented. "I am definitely going to make a new one as soon as we're around trees again."
"Likewise," Katari confessed. "Screw the moral dilemma of proud kurach being strictly hands-on. It's a useful tool and I'm more productive with one around." When he had managed to steady his breathing and get his head to stop spinning, they began walking. A simple recommendation of due west was easy enough to follow and they hoped that no matter how badly they had been thrown off course by the hobgoblins and ghouls that the advice still applied.
Scraggly bushes, spiky plants, and prickly cacti were becoming more and more frequent. Sometimes to the point the kurach had to make short flights over it. They climbed a small hill and had to rest again. Dead and struggling grasses could be seen growing, or having grown, in greater frequency on the other side.
"Never thought I'd be so excited to see such a pronounced lack of shelter!" Shanku said excitedly.
"It's surprisingly tall. We could temporarily tie the tops of some of it and make tiny little huts to sit in when we make camp," Hilael noted.
"Everything we eat will have to be raw or dried," Katari added. "See how dry that stuff is? We'll be the main course if we're not careful. Fire ban."
The last of the cacti were behind them by nightfall and they were fully in grassland again. At Hilael's suggestion, they made four short domes of grass. Shanku had been awake for many hours and was unable to keep the first watch. She had passed out almost as soon as she had curled up inside her nest and was oblivious as to who would be awake when.
"She didn't even eat," Ina said with a frown.
"When a bottomless pit chooses bed over supper, that's a good indication of just how tired they are," Katari said with a soft smile. "Let her sleep."
For the first time since before they had been captured by the hobgoblins, the kurach were able to have a peaceful night without any threats hanging over them. They rested at their camp for a few days, relishing in the relief, and moved forward at a relaxed pace when it was time to continue once again.
"Trees!" Ina squealed.
"More like oversized bushes scattered worse than dandelion seeds, but, hells, such a sight for sore eyes!" Katari said.
"Not spear quality with all those wriggly little branches," Shanku pouted. "Just right for shade, though."
Ina plopped down happily under one of the short trees and rested against the trunk. "If we can rest and sleep under these things from here on out instead of our miniature huts, that would be nice." Shanku, Katari, and Hilael joined her. Innugati slithered up the trunk to rest on one of the branches, trilling softly as she inspected the back for tiny, tasty insects.
"I wonder if I'll get a small pet dragon before we get home?" Katari wondered aloud. Shanku cocked her head so far to the side she had nearly twisted it upside down to stare at him. "What? You're a bad influence. Got me rambling the far corners of the world, hunting with weapons, and chatting up other species. Might as well get an exotic pet!"
Innugati squawked harshly at him.
"From the mouths of lizards, she ain't no pet," Shanku stated. "She's a strong, independent dragon who will do what she wants, when she wants, and she ain't mine no more. She's Hilael's wee shoulder-warmer now."
"I want a map," Ina said softly.
"Why?" Shanku asked curiously. "We know the Nyre runs all up the western edge of L'aernth, and if we keep going west, eventually we'll hit the forest and it'd be easy to get home from there, or hit the coast and follow the curve into to the trees."
"It'd just be nice to know exactly where we are," Ina replied. "Presumably, we're still in Bhadarukia, and soon we'll be skipping over Mruha again to get back to L'aernth. But what all will we hit between here and there?"
"The mountains," Shanku said casually. "Giants, giant kurach, and not-so-giant dwarves who complain about even-less-giant gnomes."
"But are we poised to bump into the ones you know, or will we meet a different clan? Will they even be friendly?"
"Erk, dunno," Shanku admitted quietly. "The Eagle clan takes up almost all of the lower end of the range, but I didn't get to know any of them that ran the upper half, or the tribe that roamed the tundras above the mountains. As much as I'd like to winter by ourselves, the mountains aren't the friendliest place to do that."
"It's been a little over two years since we left. We still have three winters left," Katari offered.
"You three will have plenty of time to deliberate while we wait here for Katari and Ina's wounds to finish closing," Hilael said firmly. "This tree will be sufficient shade against the sun and we're not moving forward again unless Shanku and I can't find a clean water source."
"No arguments here," Katari muttered and Ina settled down more comfortably against the tree.
"I should go ahead and scout out any game, too," Shanku said and flexed her wings. She paused for a moment as she looked out over the tall, waving grass. "There are bound to be so, so many scents in that..." Without another warning, she began stripping as she shifted to her feral form, and then took off into the brush in her wolven form.
"I know they told us to spend the Foterutu with somebody you're comfortable with, but I think she's getting just a bit too comfortable around us," Katari said uneasily.
"At least you're not getting routinely flashed by your sister," Hilael grumbled through his palm as he slumped over and held his face in his hand.
"Come to think of it, Ina's the only one who's managed to keep her clothes on at all times, except for when Salim took us into the jungle and she went. The rest of us popping in and out of forms from necessity hasn't given us that luxury," Katari remarked. A few saucy thoughts crossed Ina's mind and she looked away as innocently as possible. Katari glanced at her and noticed she was blushing and trying not to grin. "You're enjoying it, too, aren't you?"
"Oh, lookie there, something cute wandered into the brush, I think I'll follow it," Ina rambled and darted off into the grasses opposite of the direction Shanku had disappeared in.
"You know, I've got it easy compared to you," Hilael started slowly. "I'm related to one of them. I only have to fend off the other. You're fair game for both."
"Don't remind me," Katari groaned. "I need to avoid anything with either because they both come with taboos and complications. Having to huddle for warmth in the badlands certainly didn't help matters any."
"No, it didn't," Hilael agreed softly.
"Your parents broke class rules, didn't they?" Katari asked.
"To a degree," Hilael said with a shrug. "Grandsire Bibot is a lesser noble, as you know. He isn't part of the Elders and thus does not have final say on any laws or other decisions, but he does serve as an advisor on the council and coordinates meetings between them and parts of the clan. Granddame Ysu was the daughter of a similar advisor, and while as a dyrtrar she prefers to mind the nest, she often serves as an open ear for him to work out his thoughts in the evenings, and organizes dinners among other council members to keep inner relations smooth. Our sire, Zanzen, was supposed to take his place, until he saw our dame, Nari Zefana, skillfully take a stag. Grandsire Haro was an average hunter injured many years ago. Granddame Misen's granddame, Shanku, was a superb hunter, but Misen is a proficient gatherer and apothecary whom I am the sole apprentice of. Da was always one of the most active young nobles and spent much of his time competing with the warriors. He gave up his seat on the council to become a warrior so he could be paired with Ma with less opposition. They don't talk about it much, but Grandsire Haro and Granddame Misen have mentioned a few times that they were frequently verbally and physically attacked before he stepped down. Ma's brother, Turai, did not approve. He challenged Da, lost, and was exiled, as per duel law."
"My parents frequently quoted that bit of history to try to deter me from spending time with you," Katari sighed.
"I appreciate you trying to look after me all those years," Hilael said quietly with averted eyes. "I don't care if you only did it out of memory of my sister."
"No, it wasn't for that reason," Katari replied thoughtufully. "Yeah, I enjoyed her company more because she was a lot of fun, but I considered you a friend, too. You needed one more than I did. I'm sorry I couldn't help Muso protect you better."
"It's alright," Hilael shrugged. "As Da frequently pointed out, I should have tried to protect myself. I just... couldn't. I was too clumsy, too slow, too unsure of myself..." Hilael trailed off and laid his ears back.
"As Shanku said when she came back, you're not a fighter. That's why we don't mind taking up for you," Katari said fondly.
"So, uh, should we be concerned how long the dams have been gone?" Hilael asked uncomfortably and changed the subject.
"Ina shouldn't have gotten off far. We should be able to hear her if she gets into trouble," Katari said. "Unless you just want to go look for her."
"Not really," Hilael muttered. "I just want a nap."
"You rest then and I'll keep an ear out for them," Katari said warmly. Hilael didn't argue, laid down in the shade, and stilled.
Ina was actually nearby, silently eavesdropping in the long grasses. Her ears had drooped as their conversation had been a grim reminder of why Hilael had always been so reluctant and avoided her. He had been tormented enough by other cubs and it would have only increased if he had given in to her affections. Part of her wished they could just stay gone and never return home so that would no longer be an issue. After she waited what she felt was an appropriate amount of time, she came out of the grasses and joined them again under the scraggly tree. Katari greeted her and she flopped down to watch the clouds high in the sky. Feeling relaxed, Katari laid down as well and they passed the time describing the shapes far above.
Shanku was meanwhile chasing smells throughout various trails in the grasses. She had almost forgotten why she had ran off and quickly launched into the air to begin soaring above waving leafy blades below. The wolven form came with so much more depth of smell and sound, but it was harder to concentrate on duty. She just wanted to play and enjoy life. A shimmering gleam caught her eye and somewhat blinded it, and she dove down to investigate. It was a merry little creek. Shanku lapped at the cool, clear waters and quenched her thirst. It would be sufficient for their waterskins, long overdue bathing, and if she was careful she might could find some hoofed things to eat. Satisfied, she took another running leap back to the sky and with chipper beats of her wings was well on her way back to the resting kurach.
When she spotted them, Hilael was curled up asleep under the tree, and Katari and Ina were lying close together and chatting away. It was good to see them bonding and Ina returning to her cheery self. They were oblivious to Shanku coming in with their attentions on each other, and she was in such a light mood, she couldn't control her playfulness. Katari and Ina both yelped as they were suddenly surrounded by black feathers and a slobbery tongue licking them all over their faces.
"No doggie ki—bleh!" Katari began before he got a mouthful of thin, pink, and slobbery affection. Ina and Katari managed to push the excited dam off them with their good arms. "What has gotten into you?"
Shanku stood there panting happily with her tongue lolling out of her snout and wagging her tail. "Found water!"
"Yeah, and now it's all over my face," Katari frowned.
"Oh, let me get that off of you," Shanku said deviously and stepped forward. Katari quickly scooted back.
"I've got it, thanks," he deflected. "I think I felt your tongue on my teeth!"
"Yes, and they were pleasantly sharp. You have good teeth," Shanku nodded.
Katari flushed and glared at her. "Could you please return to something that walks on two feet so you're not quite so lacking in reservations?"
Shanku sat down and shifted to her feral form. "Alright then, better?"
"Put some clothes on!" Katari groaned and ducked his head under his arm.
"My, you're touchy today," Shanku smirked and went to get dressed.
I don't need the temptation, Katari stressed. When he was composed and she was clad, he attempted a debriefing. "How far away is water and what is it like?"
Shanku described the creek, the presence of fish and a few shade trees, tracks along the banks, and mentioned good river stones for ammunition. "I wouldn't mind camping over there for a while."
"Just an afternoon to have a bath again would be nice," Ina added. "I say we move."
"It's not that far. Hilael shouldn't have any objections to you two being moved again so soon," Shanku said.
"Aye, we'll mention it when he wakes up," Katari agreed. "No doubt his supplies are getting low as many gunky goos he's had to put on us, so having a good camp would give him more time to gather and restock, assuming there is anything around here he can use."
Hilael was laying still nearby. The commotion from Shanku's noisy landing had woken him up, but he was too tired to rise at the time, and had quietly listened in on their exchange. He realized they valued his input and trusted him, and that brought a certain kind of pang in his chest he did not understand. When the sting had subsided enough he could mask it, he sat up. Shanku bounded over to him to fill him in on their request, and he pretended like it was the first time he had heard it. Hilael made no objections and they gathered their things together to set out for the creek. They chose a tree on a bank that was a decent pace away from the tracks of a herd.
"Avert thine eyes, bashful young buck," Shanku teased as she prepared to go for a swim.
"Two can play that game," Katari said defiantly and whipped off his shirt.
Hilael buried his head as the two frisky kurach stripped, streaked, and jumped into the water, and were shortly joined by the other overly exuberant and bare-skinned member of their party.
"C'mon, Hilael, the water feels great!" Ina called to him.
"I'll take my turn later," Hilael called back. Good job avoiding the dams, Hilael thought grumpily as they wrestled and squealed in the creek. "The least you lot could have done was take your nasty clothes with you and washed those, too."
"Oh, I'll come get them!" Ina said cheerily and started to rise out of the water.
"That won't be necessary," Hilael said quickly. "I'll bring them to you." Innugati trilled a warning at him. "I'll take my chances," Hilael muttered to her as he gathered up their clothes. Innugati shook her head and settled down on the new branch she had chosen to perch on. He eased down to the bank, debating on whether to set them down on a rock or toss them into the creek, when Ina and Shanku both moved with surprising speed and pulled him into the water. Hilael yipped when he hit the cold water and scrambled to get away, but the dams easily overpowered him.
"Oh, no, you think we haven't noticed you reek as much as we do? Bath time!" Shanku laughed.
"Katari, help!" Hilael pleaded.
"I did. I rescued our clothes you dropped before they could float away!" Katari said with a broad grin and tossed them onto the bank.
"Katari!" Hilael scowled with a look of desperation.
"Well, if you insist," Katari said wryly. He looped his good arm around Shanku's waist and half-pulled, half-threw her onto the other side of him with a big splash, and then did Ina the same way. The dams playfully growled and pounced on him. "I got 'em off, but if you run for it, I won't be able to survive their fury a second time!"
"He's right! So just enjoy the warm day with us, and take a well deserved swim," Ina said cheerily. Hilael kept his distance, but finally disrobed under water and started working at the dirt and grime that had embedded itself into him. Katari was the first of the rambunctious kurach to settle down when a throbbing set up in his injured arm. He turned his attention to finishing his bath and then giving his clothes a scrub. Ina and Shanku frolicked for a while longer, splashing and swimming around until the sun was well on its way to sinking toward the horizon before they started washing their garments. Hilael had been the first to finish up and was half dry by the time Katari joined him on the warm grass. He also laid down on his stomach to dry his feathers, and stretched his wings beside him.
"So is that sunburn or embarrassment?" Katari asked coyly. Hilael laid his ears back and didn't answer him. "Oh, well, it was fun to have a bit of fun after all that stress."
"Why the change of heart?" Hilael asked pointedly. "Looks like you gave in."
"There's only so much teasing anybody can take, and," Katari paused. "Pluck, I'm so lonely," he finished softly. "To all the hells with the consequences. Life is too short and can change drastically in a moment, and it's not like anybody is waiting for me back home."
Hilael fell silent as they watched the dams finish in the creek and later went further downstream to rest on their bellies to dry. Evening came on and as always they set their watches before settling down for the night.
Ina was the first to rise the next morning and Shanku greeted her warmly. "You're up early."
"Summer will be here soon and the nights too warm to cuddle up with everybody, so I'm taking advantage of good sleep while I can," Ina said.
"Are you ready to start taking night watches again?" Shanku asked. Ina winced and shook her head quickly. "Well, when you're ready, let us know." Ina felt guilty but was still too anxious to stand guard again.
I can't hunt, I don't know how to gather, I can barely cook, and the one thing I could do, I nod off and we get netted, Ina berated herself as she dug around in her pack to find her comb. Shanku had already completed her daily grooming at the beginning of her watch, and gotten back to her usual routine of practicing her martial stances before the others rose for the day. Ina was locked into mortal combat with the tangles in her hair when Katari and Hilael woke up. Now that they were all awake, Shanku began setting up targets and practicing with the sling.
"Oh my goodness, I'm tempted to just cut it all off!" Ina fumed.
"Here, let me help," Katari offered. Ina sighed in exasperation and handed her comb off to him. She parted her wings slightly so he could sit down comfortably behind her without having to watch out for her feathers and he began working through her knotted mess.
"You're actually not that bad at it," Ina commented as he steadily made progress.
"I have a very short-tempered little sister," Katari explained. "When our parents would be tied up with an important order, it was up to me to help her and keep her level-headed so she wouldn't do anything drastic she would regret. Your wings are a mess, too."
"Like your feathers are any better," Ina countered. "I've seen all the breaks in your pinions. You need a preening as bad as I do!"
"Just as soon as I'm done with you, I promise I'll attend to my unsightly plumage," Katari said curtly. When he had finished with her hair, he set to working on his wings, and Ina preened her own.
"Need some help?" Ina asked after she had finished and noticed Katari was barely half done.
"I'm struggling to reach a few right now," Katari admitted. His right arm had mostly healed from where the ghoul had bitten down on him, but the fangs had sunken deeply and still caused him pain.
"I can return the favour early then," Ina said cheerily. She sat beside and a bit behind his left side. After rubbing her fingers on his preen gland at the base of the two protruding shoulder feathers, she began working over his wing for him.
"Oo, allopreening alert," Shanku whispered naughtily to Hilael as he was brushing his teeth with a splintered stick.
"Jealous?" Hilael asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Are you?" Shanku asked with a twinkle in her eye.
"No," Hilael replied calmly. "The more he distracts her, the less she's my problem."
"Have you been intentionally trying to pair them off?" Shanku asked warily.
"Nope," Hilael replied. "Haven't been doing that either, and to some degree have been trying to discourage any pairing. I've got my hands full keeping you three alive. I don't need any kits darting underfoot, and the situations we keep ending up in aren't right for rearing cubs either. I'm surprised you aren't more concerned considering how much you've been flirting lately."
"I have no—, hrm," Shanku began and cut herself off short. "I guess I have..."
"The more he distracts her, the more she's your problem," Hilael pointed out. "It's kept me between a rock and a hard place."
"Well, she is the soft, delicate type, and I can take a hit as well as he can, if not better," Shanku mumbled.
"They're both also desperate for attention," Hilael said softly. "I can keep anything from happening between me and Ina, but I'm not sure how long I can withstand all the poking and hugging. Can you offer any relief for Katari?"
"Do I look like I know how to be all sweet and snugly like that?" Shanku asked. "My idea of caring contact has always been to bite and wrestle. We should just let them be and hope they have enough restraint nothing gets hatched. Neither of us are sufficient for what they need."
After Ina had finished preening and straightening Katari's wing, he began to gather a few long, sturdy strands of grass and braid them together. "What are you making?" she asked curiously.
"It's been a long time since we had fish," Katari answered. "I've got some hooks in my bag, and the creek looked promising. Why not some smoked fish tonight?"
"Sounds good!" Ina said enthusiastically. "Can I come? I need to write in my journal. I can sit still and not disturb the fish while I do it."
"I wouldn't mind the company," Katari said pleasantly and smiled at her.
Ina gathered up her journal and pencils as Katari finished his line. He retrieved his hooks, took some of their jerky for bait, and together they went down to the creek side.
Shanku watched them wistfully with lowered ears. She always enjoyed tagging along on fishing and hunting trips, but Katari needed a kind of companionship she could not provide, and she sadly deferred to the golden dam. You better take care of him. Another thought crossed her mind and she assumed her wolven form. Shanku trotted up to her brother and gave him the best puppy-dog eyes she could muster. "Do you need herbs?"
"I do, actually," Hilael said. He grabbed one of his empty sacks he kept for collecting plants and together they went out into the grasses to see what they could forage. Naturally, Innugati had claimed her position on Hilael's shoulder for a foraging run, and would descend only to point out things she felt he should take.
The simple mind of the wolven form kept Shanku's more complex emotions at bay and allowed her to enjoy the beautiful late spring day loping through the long grass, sniffing out strange weeds, and take pleasure in the simple delight of seeing Hilael's face light up when she would find something he was needing. When Innugati would select a plant, Shanku would give it a good sniff, and keep a nose out for those kinds as well. They returned later in the afternoon to find Katari and Ina had several fish skewered on sharpened sticks and almost ready to eat. Hilael sat down under the tree and hung his herbs on the branches to dry while he waited for the food to finish cooking. Katari had made a few more pouches for him over the winter at Arbos, and Hilael was glad to refill them again after the toll the badlands had taken on his supplies.
Night watches fell to the old routine of Hilael taking first, Katari taking second, and Shanku taking the final to be able to get her morning training out of the way before the day began. They would curl up together at night for warmth, spend their days resting in the shade when they didn't need to restock their proverbial pantry, and hide under the bison hide when any rain showers came.
So passed a month by the creek until it came time for the dams to deal with their eggs. Katari awoke one morning to Shanku and Ina both having gone, and Hilael looking unconcerned and going about his day as normal. Shanku returned late in the evening looking tired but otherwise in good spirits, and with a few hares which she dressed and gave many good, choice cuts to Hilael, including prime organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys. He nodded his thanks and then disappeared into the night.
"What's going on?" Katari asked warily.
"'Tis custom among us dams," Shanku said curtly. "And not open for discussion, unless Ina is feeling chatty the next time you two wander off together."
"So why did Hilael run off if it's a dam thing?" Katari asked with a puzzled expression.
"Not my business, and not my place," Shanku said and looked away. "Definitely something you'd have to talk to Ina about."
"I will," Katari said with concern. "You gave up the hearts for her."
Don't remind me, Shanku brooded. "We'll have to run long watches. Do you think you can take half of Hilael's usual turn?"
"Yeah, of course," Katari nodded. He laid an ear back while he watched Shanku lie down a ways from him and curl up in a ball in her wolven form. Katari got up and sat down beside her, resting his back against the tree. She looked up at him suspiciously. Katari merely scratched her cheek ruff and gave her a reassuring smile. Shanku's ears laid flat against her skull pitifully and she laid her head in his lap. Katari softly scratched her cheeks and mane until she fell asleep. His concern for the other two easily kept him up until it was Shanku's turn to stand guard, and even the sweet chirping of insects couldn't lull him to sleep easily when he laid down for the night.
Elsewhere, Hilael had assumed his wolven form as well and was carrying his pack awkwardly strapped between his wings as he searched in the dim light of the crescent moon for Ina. Innugati was flying instead of riding and helped him look for her. A sudden chitter and Hilael immediately flicked his wings to change course and followed Innugati to the ground. Once again, Ina had managed to find a tangle of briars to hide under.
"Hullo, Hilael," Ina said cheerily. She was curled up in her feral form and looking composed.
"Are you alright?" he asked slowly.
"A little freaked out at an unusual instinctual urge that came from seeing if the goblin form would make it easier, but otherwise, not as bad as last time," Ina replied sheepishly.
"Do I want to know?" Hilael asked with his ears pulled back.
"I ate it," Ina shuddered. "Shell and all. I feel a little better, though."
He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. "Not much different than the sheep eating afterbirth. Here, I brought you some meat to get you back on your feet faster." Hilael presented the bits of rabbit, which Ina wolfed down eagerly.
"I guess your hunting is improving," Ina complimented him and licked her chops.
"I asked Shanku to bring me a few when she came back from dealing with her own situation," Hilael admitted.
"Does she know about me?" Ina asked in horror. "Or Katari?"
"All I told her was that I needed some rabbits," Hilael said quickly with his hands before him. "I haven't said a word about either of you to Katari. He's been scratching his head and looking around all day, but I offered no information."
Ina rested her head on her paws and stared pensively at the ground.
"You've kept it secret from them for two years. Are you going to be able to for the next three?" Hilael asked after he sat down.
"There's no way to have that talk without it being unbelievably awkward," Ina squirmed. "It's still just once a year. It can wait."
"Try having to avoid it when the buck you've been shadowing and hot and heavy over wants to know why you vanished for a whole day without a word," Hilael said flatly. "That's going to be your alternative, and it was awkward enough for me as your stand-in today."
"We're not hot and heavy," Ina sniffed and held her head high.
"You have slept on his chest every night for weeks," Hilael pointed out.
"Well I won't be tonight," Ina pouted and laid her head back on her paws. "Stupid eggs..."
"If you're still hungry, I brought a salad, too. It's properly seasoned this time," Hilael offered. "I found lots of flavorful plants that offset the bitterness. It's even got a few flowers in it that should help you get your strength up again." Hilael got out the bowl he had carefully wrapped and presented it. With a grimace, Ina took it, and choked it down. She settled back down, looking a tad grumpy as she rested her chin on her paws. Hilael cautiously inquired to her well being again.
Ina lifted her head and studied him. "What are we, Hilael?"
"Excuse me?" Hilael asked and blinked a few times.
"Shanku and I are friends. Katari and I are just friends, no matter how nice of a pillow he makes," Ina said. "But you? You run, you hide, you avoid me, yet for all your grump and dismissal, you don't waste any time coming to my aid."
"I work quickly on Shanku and Katari, too," Hilael responded uncomfortably. "Mid-battle, even! It's my responsibility." Ina raised up and crawled a step forward, keeping her bestial eyes focused on him. Hilael subconsciously leaned back and braced himself on his hands with his shoulders shrugged up near his jaw, and laid his ears back nervously as his wings partly flared.
"Quite eager for just a 'responsibility'." Ina advanced until she was hovering over him, propped up on her own hands and knees with her toes dug into the ground, and almost nose to nose with him, her eyes more predatory than friendly. Hilael shrugged down deeper. "What are you playing at?" she asked as one lip played up in a snarl.
"I'm not playing anything! It's just my nature," Hilael sputtered.
"Oh, just your nature to push me away all the time until I'm vulnerable, and then you swoop in all sweet and caring like, stay the night with me, and then vanish again in the day?" Ina raised an eyebrow and did not back down, both lips now curled up. "I'm pretty easy-going, but I do not like getting yanked around like that."
Hilael squeazed his eyes shut, ducked his head until his chin was on his chest, and blurted out, "We're both dyrtrar from different classes! Getting involved with you would be a death sentence. I'm just trying to keep you alive now without getting skinned alive later when we get back home."
She looked at him curiously and backed up to sit down on her haunches across from him. Hilael drew his knees to his chest with his arms wrapped around his legs, rested his forehead on his knees, and drew his wings close around him. "Why didn't you just say so?" Ina asked gently. "You don't have to hide being a dyrtrar. It explains a lot."
"Most bucks aren't dyrtrar," Hilael answered with a choked voice, and whispered, "you know what happens to male dyrtrars when yobs like Jagan find out." Ever so slightly, he was trembling.
He really is afraid. Ina noted and returned to her common form. "Well, I never really expected you to be my xreta', however nice that would have been, so you can stop worrying about that if you are," Ina replied.
"That actually is a huge load off of me," Hilael admitted shakily. He took a moment to compose himself. "What do you expect of me? You're so... grabby..."
"After two winters into the Foterutu and years prior of trying to talk to you, I expect to be more than just strained acquaintances by now," Ina said bluntly. "I get that you're private and guarded, and that doesn't mesh well with somebody more hands-on like me. Katari told me about how the other cubs wouldn't play with you, then at the festivals only invited you along as a cruel joke, and of course their families didn't interfere or listen to your family's concerns because 'cubs will be cubs'. I've been trying to show you not all of us are like that."
"Lowborn gatherers aren't regarded too highly and the most I could safely associate with you is to find ingredients for ink," Hilael said glumly. "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but at the same time, it scares the hell out of me. I don't mind being alone. It's safer that way."
"Even while out in unknown lands on the Foterutu?" Ina asked flatly. "C'mon, Hilael. Do you know how many times I would wake up because my shoulder was bothering me, and you'd tighten up around me in your sleep when I stirred?"
Hilael did not reply or look at her. Many times his nerves were simply bothering him and coming into contact with others sent unpleasant and painful ripples through his body. But during those few times when his nerves weren't flaring up, he had kind of liked it. To a certain degree, he even desired it. He didn't want to admit it, but Katari and Ina weren't the only ones craving some attention. He just didn't want as much as they did.
"It's late. We should rest, and I've made sure to pick a fortified nest for the night," Ina said tiredly. She pulled some of the brambly vines over the exit and laid down on the blanket she had been using as a bed for most of the day. Ina was on her side and raised her wing to indicate he was welcome to join her. Hilael reluctantly settled down beside her, offset slightly so he wouldn't have her breathing in his face all night, although was concerned his own exhales would bother her neck. Ina rested her chin on top of his head, propped an arm up on his side and was gently stroking his shoulder with her thumb, and extended her top wing over him to help them stay warm.
Memories returned of his secret training sessions with Gadon, and of the day he broke down and the older kurach had comforted him. Ina was handling him with the same kindness in her touch as Gadon had, and he felt a tightness in his throat that was hard to control. Tentatively, Hilael began to stop resisting, and allowed himself to be pulled closer. Most of the time, she was a loquacious ditz. Now, like the day she had stood between him and Jagan, she let out her mothering and protective side. She was calm and quiet, softly embracing him and stroking the hair behind one of his ears with her other hand. For once, he didn't mind coming into contact with her. Hilael nervously slipped an arm over her ribs and feared a backlash. Ina bent down to kiss his forehead and wish him goodnight before nodding off to sleep. He laid awake for a while longer, lost in thought and arguing with himself if it truly was safe to let his guard down around her, before sleep was able to take him away. Innugati slithered among the vines and bushes, and kept a watchful eye over her resting charges.
It was mid-morning before Ina, Hilael, and Innugati returned to camp. Katari was looking no less baffled and concerned. "Could somebody please clue me in to what's going on?"
"Walk with me," Ina offered. Katari glanced at the siblings, who were looking away and finding other things to do. He raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and strode off with her. Ina gave him a crash course in the "dam customs" Shanku had so vaguely explained to him, and her personal issues as they walked along the creek bank. Perhaps she was a little too amused at how embarrassed he looked at times.
"I had no idea," he muttered.
"The priestesses say we are to inform our mates about these things and gave us plenty of details about their anatomy, but I suppose there is no formal discussion like that among the bucks?" Ina asked.
"None at all," Katari swallowed nervously. "Some of the raunchier give opinions on how to, ah, 'please' a dam, but a lot of it sounded so far-fetched and impractical, I never paid much attention to it."
"Now that is a whole other topic that the priestess spent a great deal of time on," Ina said with a twinkle in her eye. "I could give you some real advice from the experts, if you need it."
"I'd rather get back to camp now," Katari said directly. "This is so awkward... So, what was Hilael doing with you out there, then?" He paused and then eyed her warily. "Or do I even want to know?"
"Misen taught him well," Ina replied. "He figured out what was wrong on his own last year when we stopped outside the jungle, and fed me as many weeds as he could think of to help me recover. No doubt his insistence to rest by the creek for so long was to make sure we had to a good place to lay."
"He can elevate himself to highborn status if he sticks with it," Katari mused.
"And then get badgered and harassed by everybody for the least little stubbed toe? He would start brewing poisons instead!" Ina laughed. Their conversation switched to more mundane topics and they began to wander their way back to camp.
Hilael was curiously subdued and withdrawn, even for him. Shanku was not in a particularly chatty mood but allowed her concern to override her own desire to recluse.
"Are you alright? Your ears are really droopy," Shanku asked.
"It's nothing," he said at length and faked a smile. "Just got a little rattled last night, is all."
"Those two are still way down the bank. If you need to talk, you know I'll listen," Shanku offered. "You're a terrible liar, anyway. She seems in pretty good shape, so I doubt she was in trouble. Did you two have a fight or something?"
"Kinda," Hilael sighed. "It was something really personal and I don't want to talk about it."
"Suit yourself," Shanku shrugged. "Always here if ya need me."
Ina and Katari returned soon after. "Well, I suppose about another week here for me and Shanku to recover, and off we go again!" Ina said merrily, and effectively made Katari and Shanku uncomfortable.
"I think I'll see if I can get some more fish for supper tonight," he mumbled as he dug around in his pack for his line and hooks.
"I think I'll join you," Shanku said quickly. Katari's ears flicked back momentarily, but he did not protest when she joined him.
Ina watched them leave and then turned her gaze to Hilael when a thought crossed her mind. "You're surprisingly well-behaved in your goblin form. When did you learn to control it?" Hilael jumped up and bolted into the grass. "Well, that went well," Ina said flatly and shook her head slowly. She laid down under the tree and listened to the very loud and noisy insects hiding in the tall, waving grasses around her.
After a week had passed and Ina had time to regain her strength, they gathered up and began travelling west again. The height of summer was approaching, and they began changing their daily routine where they were resting longer during the heat of the day and walking more in the early mornings and evenings.
"I'm surprised we haven't bumped into any more settlements or nomads," Katari remarked when they were resting one balmy noon. "There are plenty of herds here to follow around."
"Maybe we've passed by plenty but they haven't wanted to bump into us," Shanku suggested. "We do pass by funny tracks and signs of camp from time to time. Do we know anything with big, soft feet and only two or three toes?"
"Trolls," Katari replied.
"What are the odds they'll see us as trespassers or merchandise like the Bhadarukian hobgoblins?" Shanku asked warily.
"You've spent more time out in the world than we have, you tell me!" Katari said.
"Sedu Niyama was the most I've seen of trolls. What did you think of them?" Shanku asked. "Don't they teach you this kind of stuff in hunting classes since y'all have such a high risk of running into them while out and about?"
"Well, shouldn't they have taught you this as a potential warrior for political relations or something? We're just told to avoid them."
"We're just told to follow orders and leave diplomatic relations to the diplomats!"
A giggling in the grass alerted them to the presence of another person and the kurach jumped to their feet defensively.
"Who's there?" Shanku demanded.
"'allo!" squeaked a short little green troll with wild hair who barely stood tall enough to reach their waists.
"Er... if you don't mind my asking, are you a troll or a goblin?" Shanku said with a confused look on her face.
"Troll, of course!" she said and held up her hands to show she had three fingers on each hand. "Goblins have four fingers!"
"Next question: you don't find kurach to be tasty, pets, or both, do you?"
"Oh, goodness, no!" she said and looked horrified. "We are vegetarian! Hunting and butchering is such messy, smelly business. We get enough of that from melons! We do think your eggs and milk are tasty. Do you have eggs or milk for us?"
Shanku gave her an incredulous look with her left eyebrow furrowed and lip corner raised.
"No, sorry, we do not," Ina said with an uneasy smile. "But, we would be happy to help gather a few things in exchange for safe passage through your territory."
"Why would you worry about unsafe passage?" she asked with an innocent smile.
"Because we just came out of the canyons where the hobgoblins thought they could sell us as slaves, and as their neighbor, you undoubtedly have to be equally fierce to fend them off," Shanku said sternly.
"Lazy hobgoblins know better than to tangle with us," she said and flashed them a tusked smile. "We have ways of keeping them in the badlands." The Sylvans exchanged a glance.
"Well, we're much more peaceful than hobgoblins," Ina said with feigned calmness. "We just want to return to L'aernth. Nothing more, nothing less. If you do not wish us to be in your settlements or camps, we are happy to bypass them, and we have no desire to take your resources either."
"But you will eat our animals, won't you?" she asked sweetly.
"If there is a river that leads to outside your lands, we can follow it and not harm your animals," Katari suggested.
"And sacrifice our fish?" she asked with that faux-sweet smile.
"If you could point the fastest way out of your territory, that would prevent us from harming any of your wildlife," Ina said.
"But it doesn't seem you're any better than the gull 'rach across the wide, wide rivers," she said wistfully. "The only good kurach, in the end, are dead ones."
"Up, now," Shanku hissed to the others. They snapped their wings open, leapt straight upward, and beat their wings as hard and fast as they could to gain altitude where they could see many more trolls had been closing in on their location. "As high as you dare. We don't know the range of their weapons." Shanku lead them away in their pronged formation and kept a sharp eye on the ground for signs of other hostile trolls.
"Well, it's not like we expected trolls to be friendly anyway," Katari called to the others. "How big of a territory can such short legs have?"
"Big enough we haven't seen other kurach in quite a while," Shanku shouted back. "The mountains have to be ahead, somewhere, and we don't know how long the troll lands are if we try to go north or south around them. Do you want to just make a run for it?"
"Hells, why not?" Katari grinned. "We've rested for over a month and I feel great!"
Shanku nodded, double-checked the position of the sun, and altered their course to due west.