[AW] waiting for the change of seasons, waiting for a lucky break
#1
Early March. Branta Stretch, south of the Serpentine Mountains.



The morning had dawned cold and misty. A light haze of rain hung in the air around him and walking through it felt like pressing through a wall of someone's chilled sneeze. He stretched his maw, trying to prevent his frown from settling too long and too deeply into his face, but it always returned in the next moment.

Here was yet another flooded plain. The snow was scattered in patches for as far as he could see, and interspersed between them were wide swaths of mud, shallow pools of melt, and dead or dying grass. Beside him, his horse snorted wearily. Her legs, like his, were still caked with mud and grime from the previous day. She was tired and hungry, and he was too, but there would be no grass for her and no rabbit for him until they found a forest or meadow that wasn't filled to the brim with mud.

Soliloquy didn't know how anyone was supposed to stay motivated in winter. The sky looked the same every day and the silence stretched on forever. Where were they even going?

"Come on," the hybrid mumbled. He hated how loud his voice sounded in the open field.

Carefully, he tested his footing on a patch of tall grass, though all the stalks had been crushed and collapsed on their sides. Grip firm on his horse's halter, he led her slowly across the marshy plain.
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#2
Sometimes, Skeleton liked to look back on his life and reflect what was going right even though he still felt like a directionless acorn. First, he hadn’t been randomly assaulted in months and that really felt like something he should celebrate. Second, someone in the pack had helped him and they hadn’t even been that mean about it. And third, he’d bumped into someone who might one day make their way from acquaintance to friend. All in all, he was feeling ready: today was the day he was going to stop being either afraid of or hungering after horses. He’d kicked the ‘horses are food’ thought to the curb years ago, but they—and Evelyn—still scared the shit out of him and probably with good reason. He’d been kicked by deer, caribou, and all manner of hooved creatures, so he knew what he was going up against. But he’d never really been able to shake the feeling that him and horses didn’t click. Well, that was going to change today because he had decided it. That was it; his mind was made up.

Luckily, Del Cenere Gang was not want for horses, but Skeleton was still a bit embarrassed that he’d have to go to anyone, aged as he was, and admit he still didn’t ‘get’ horses. He couldn’t ride them, he couldn’t dress them up in their horse clothes, and he certainly couldn’t feed one (he didn’t remember where the food was stored), which meant he couldn’t bribe one. No, he needed a beginner horse to ease him into the process.

So, he went scouting. Apparently his aunt Wraith had been a scout in Inferni, so maybe he had inherited her ability to… look around places goodly. He had known he wasn’t destined to be a scout—probably because it was too fucking basic—but he knew the ropes well enough.

As he journeyed west from the packlands, he found himself getting bogged down more and more in the wet, sinking, muddy plains. This was not a place for a creature so delicate and nimble as he; his tiny, twig like legs kept getting slurped right into the earth. Not fair, earth.

Eventually, he decided to take a rest when the earth demanded it. Carefully maneuvering his legs out of their soon-to-be final resting place, Skeleton negotiated himself onto a fallen log to assess the situation. Verdict: not great. He stood up to begin the journey back to Del Cenere Gang when he noticed a scent on the wind: a loner and their horse. What luck! He followed the scent farther north and then heard the hybrid say something to his companion. He watched as the two drew closer, slowly making their way across the plain.

As they came near, Skeleton waved a hand and shouted across the wind: “hey! You need some help with your horse there?” Maybe he could negotiate his way into a horse lesson just be offering to lend a hand.

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#3
The wind came in strange bursts, cutting suddenly through the layer of mist like a blade, then continuing on past him in a rush, leaving behind the same cold haze. His eyes were tired from squinting through it, and from opening and closing and opening again. Leading a horse around patches of mud on a windy winter morning was supremely mundane, and yet it took so much concentration and effort, testing each step and moving forward slowly.

Soliloquy mostly wanted to go back to sleep, but he had already gone to the trouble of getting up and doubted that the conditions would improve any time soon, and so the sooner he made it back into a sheltered forest, the better. He didn't expect to encounter anyone on the open plain though. At the sudden voice, he looked forward, startled.

The stranger was a coyote, unclothed, probably unarmed, apparently alone. Soliloquy slowed his pace as the wind shifted again. Smoke, ash, horses, and other coyotes. It was someone that belonged to a pack. The voice had been cheerful, which struck the mostly white hybrid as odd for some reason. He shook his head and kept his expression as neutral as he could.

"No, I'm all right," he said. "Just figured it was easier to lead her around the mud than to ride through more of it."

He came to stop a few paces from the other. "Do you know how much further it is to dryer land?"
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#4
Skeleton hadn’t realized this until just now, but the fellow and his horse sort of matched. Was that something folks usually tried to do on purpose? Maybe it was a horse owner thing, some sort of well-known secret in their ranks and something that, if asked, would reveal him as a horse newbie. He decided to keep quiet, but couldn’t help but glance between the hybrid and his horse every so often once he spoke up.

“Oh! Hmm, how long have you been walking through this? It’s about… I dunno, a ten minute walk back. After that, it’s smooth sailing though,” Skeleton explained, eager to be helpful and get in the know with Matching Horse Guy.

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#5
In fact, Soliloquy had thought before that it was ridiculous that he and his horse shared a vaguely similar coat pattern and that the visual similarity was strangely embarrassing, though he couldn't say why. The contrast between himself and his previous black gelding had not been something he had ever consider as a benefit. It was obvious, of course, that he was not his horse, and no amount of color matching mattered in that, but still. It looked weird, and he didn't like to catch their reflection in streams.

His overly large ears perked at the estimated time and his relief must have showed in his shoulders. "It's been days," the hybrid said with a short laugh. "Only ten more minutes sounds amazing."

He wanted to continue straight on, but it seemed impolite to immediately abandon the stranger, who seemed eager -- for conversation? For company? For a chance to swindle a loner? It was unclear. "Are you from around here?" Soliloquy asked after an awkward pause. This was a safe and somewhat boring question, but though there were some conclusions he could draw from the other's scent alone, it didn't hurt to be further educated, he supposed.
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#6
“Days?” Skeleton gasped, shocked that someone could handle such misery for so long. He shook his head and then laughed and added: “and I thought you were gonna say you’d only been walking for a few minutes.”

The fellow seemed eager to continue on, so Skeleton hopped out of the way and then realized that it might be easier to lead the way since he had just walked through the muck and had some recollection of what was solid versus soupy ground.

“Yeah, from the pack just a bit to the east: Del Cenere Gang. It’s full of coyotes and hybrids. Mostly coydogs, some coywolves - you know how it is,” he explained, not even himself really knowing ‘how it was.’ There would always be coywolf hybrids, but it did seem as though coyotes got along with dogs better than wolves and perhaps jackals too.

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#7
Soliloquy had learned very quickly that packs were often very different from one another, and that despite his experience in trading and diplomacy with Shawnee Valley, he wasn't necessarily equipped to deal with packs of other sorts. The casual way the other man indicated the species of his pack was interesting, as if this was information that was useful or important.

Perhaps species prejudice was prominent here? The valley had been full of dogs and coyotes and hybrids thereof. Wolves were rare, and if they were hybridized in with the rest, it was difficult to tell. He wasn't sure if the pack would have been less friendly if he and his family had been more wolfish in appearance.

Species seemed like a largely insignificant detail to him, especially if dogs were so varied in their "native" attributes. It often felt that any characteristic that wasn't natural for wolves or coyotes was due to dog blood -- this was, at least, what his mother had attributed his spots and shaggy fur to, but who decided what was natural for wolves and coyotes anyway? Maybe it was just a size thing, but that difference was largely erased in their two-legged forms. Thinking about the borders between species, or lack thereof, always made his head hurt if he went too long on it though.

"Are there a lot of wolves here?" he asked. He started forward again, leading his mare carefully through the minefield of muddy sinkholes. Thankfully, this made for a relatively conversational pace. "It's probably inevitable that everyone is a hybrid eventually though... I don't think I've met anyone who wasn't mixed in a long time."

Blue eyes glanced forward at the coyote-shaped stranger. "Does that sort of thing matter a lot around here?"
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#8
At the fellow’s question, Skeleton gave a noncommittal shrug and replied: “there are enough. They are definitely the biggest population in these parts and they can sometimes try to make our lives rough,” he explained. Unlike some coyotes, he didn’t hate wolves with a seething rage, but he did understand the power dynamics at work: they were bigger, stronger, and sometimes faster, too, and there were more of them. They could work together to take down bigger prey, so they were necessarily better-fed and had bigger hunting grounds. Some packs had more wolf members than coyote members and ‘wolf’ tended to be the default canine, if not the majority. In comparison, Del Cenere Gang had to create a space where they could be safe because if they didn’t they’d be overrun. That was just how it was; if they wanted to be safe, they had to make their world safe.

“That’s fair, though. Most are mixed these days. It’s hard not to, though some try. I’m probably less so than most. As far as I know, my family’s coyotes all the way down, though, my grandfather was named ‘Hybrid’, so that suggests something to the contrary,” he replied, with a saucy grin. Oh, that dirty bird. Who fucked and made him?

“Overall, it… kind of matters. Sometimes you get into trouble. There are still some wolves out there who fucking hate coyotes. They’ve beat the shit out of me a few times. And I was absolutely annihilated by uh… a coyote? Or a jackal? Or something. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Dunno if that helps much,” he explained, concluding with a half-hearted wag of his head.

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#9
He had gotten plenty of careful assessment gazes over the years from strangers who were obviously trying to make some sort of judgment call based on his appearance. Invariably, those characters would ask him about his heritage and Soliloquy felt more and more self-satisfied each time he gave the simple truth -- that he had absolutely no idea. This always seemed to annoy the asker, who would then make guesses based on this or that while the obvious hybrid continued to shrug.

The only sure thing was that he was mixed and that there was dog in his blood somewhere, but prejudice against dogs seemed less than that towards wolves or coyotes. He supposed it made sense for there to be an old feud in the days before they came to favour their two-legged forms. Soliloquy didn't have much of an understanding of that time though, and he had no real idea of how many generations ago that had been. While he and his family had always made frequent use of their other forms, a bipedal stature and use of hands nonetheless made up a crucial part of their lifestyle.

Soliloquy took in the information with a vague frown. The tawny coyote spoke of his past violent encounters casually, but maybe he spoke of all things this way?

"Sorry to hear about that," he said after a moment. "My name is Soliloquy Asylum. You are...?"
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#10
The loner fellow seemed a bit concerned about Skeleton’s response which, honestly, was fair. There were some violent as fuck folks around here. Luckily, Skeleton didn’t come across them too often; he was sure there had to be others out there who had worse luck than he did, but it still sucked, y’know? No one was ever on the receiving end of a black eye thinking, as someone beat them so badly that their eyes swelled shut for a week, ‘well, at least this doesn’t happen that often.’

“Ehn, thanks,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m Skeleton Key. It’s good to meet you, Solilquoy,” he replied, then added with a grin: “good to meet someone who’s got a stylish name like me. Most people think my name’s weird, but it’s just fuckin’ cool,” he boasted.

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#11
Names were a peculiar thing and over the years, he had encountered a full gamut of them: simple ones, fashioned out of the world around them, disturbing ones, that seemed to harkened to sinister things, and plain ones, that seemed to him without any particular meaning at all (though many claimed that they did have meanings from forgotten times). And weird ones, he supposed, like his own, and his sister's. Soliloquy would have probably put Skeleton's name in the middle category, but the fellow's personality put him squarely in "weird" and if that was how he'd classify it himself, then so it was.

"It is cool," the hybrid agreed, though there wasn't nearly as much conviction in his voice as the other's. "There's nothing wrong with weird, either, though." The statement wasn't particularly defensive, but still, he was used to having to defend himself.

Though Skeleton had said that the end of the muddy trenches wasn't far off, the soft, wet dirt beneath the grass seemed to be getting weaker as they went. Soliloquy's pace had slowed considerably as he tested and re-tested patches of earth, only to find that they were too soft to step on without sinking. Beside him, Raindew had begun to flick her tail in annoyance and toss her head slightly.

"Shh," Soliloquy chided out of habit. "I want to get out of this as much as you do, you know."

In the next moment, his right leg was suddenly knee-deep in mud as he seemed to sink straight into the ground. Unbalanced, the hybrid grabbed onto his horse for balance. She pulled backwards -- certainly more to get away from the sinkhole than to help -- and dragged her rider back up as she moved. Soliloquy stumbled back to his feet, half-sinking here and there before he found his footing again.

"This place is the worst," he grumbled dramatically.
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#12
He hadn’t given Soliloquy much choice, so he was pleased when the guy agreed with him. Skeleton bobbed his head in response. At some point, it had seemed, he had just plain decided that he liked his name. It felt liberating. He’d gotten enough jokes about his name that he knew folks thought it was unusual, but it had never really bothered him; or so he’d thought. But now that he’d made his decision, he realized how much space he’d given to thinking about his name. Not a lot, but just enough that deciding that he liked, having an opinion, was freeing. What if he could do that in other areas of his life? Baby steps, perhaps.

As they continued on, Skeleton realized that Soliloquy and his horse had begun to slow and that Skeleton was putting a bit too much distance between them. If they’d been friends, it could have been rude, but since they were merely acquaintances, it was just awkward. So, Skeleton slowed and hung back to hear the other fellow try to soothe his horse.

Eyeing the horse while also managing to be too slow to help, Skeleton lurched forward to do something, but was too late. The fellow’s horse managed to pull him free, while Skeleton stood, helpfully, doing nothing.

“Yeah,” he replied with a nervous laugh. He eyed the horse again. “Shouldn’t be long… uh, I hope. It didn’t feel like I’d been walking that long. It can’t be much more,” he added. “Is there any way I can help…?” Maybe asking would make him feel less useless.

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#13
"Sorry," Soliloquy said before he thought much about what he was apologising for. "You don't need to trouble yourself with me if you've got somewhere to be," he said, smiling weakly. "We can find our way--"

The dappled grey mare was still pulling forward and the blue-eyed hybrid had to let go to keep his balance. Raindew made her way around the sinkhole with surprising ease, as if to say she had never needed him to lead the way, or that he'd done a very bad job of it. She continued in the direction they'd been going and for a moment, Soliloquy felt a surge of panic that she might simply run off -- this was unfounded, of course; if the mare had wanted freedom, she would have taken it long ago.

Instead, the horse paused a several yards away and turned back to look at him, and Soliloquy could swear she was rolling her eyes at him.

"Horses are smartasses," he mumbled decidedly, then glanced back towards Skeleton as he started forward again. "I'd say they're more trouble than they're worth, but I don't actually think that." He laughed a little. "Does your pack keep horses?"
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#14
When Soliloquy apologized, Skeleton wanted to tell him ‘no, that’s my line,’ but managed to resist the urge. Is that what he sounded like, always apologizing without needing to? It made Skeleton feel weird, as if he made Soliloquy do it or as if he deserved it even though he knew he didn’t. He knew he felt bad because the poor guy was struggling, not because of something else. Skeleton resolved to try and apologize less, or at least, only do it when it was necessary rather than as a linguistic crutch because he was uncomfortable.

“Oh, uh, no that’s okay, I need to head back this way now that I’ve seen the state of this mess,” he explained with a wave of the hand. Plus, it was nice to have company. He wasn’t a loner anymore and he needed to keep reminding himself that.

At Soliloquy’s horse comment, Skeleton grinned broadly, as if he was also in on the joke.

“Yeah, they do, but uh… I didn’t grow up with them and I made a few too many jokes that revealed my ineptitude and I’ve more or less been ordered to learn more about them. I uh, haven’t been very proactive, so I mostly just kinda… look at them… sometimes and consider their uh, enormous size, and coyote-smashing hooves,” he said, once again warily eyeing another unfamiliar horse. But, he wasn’t a sad sack - not anymore! So, he bravely added: “but I do want to learn more! What’s it like? Why are they smartasses? How do you not get stomped to death?” The question at the top of his mind, ‘why doesn’t anyone eat horses?’ was left unsaid because he knew that was not a popular one.

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#15
Though he'd met individuals who straight-up didn't understand why others kept or used horses before, he didn't think such people were common, at least not in the wilds, and at least not that he'd met. But he travelers getting by on their own feet could not carry much, which meant they likely weren't interested in little trading towns -- or else, if they were carrying goods, were more wary of thieves, and so avoided strangers. It was hard to defend property while weighed down said property.

It was easier for a given clansmember to get by without a luggage animal -- he had a home to stow things in -- and especially so if others in his pack had the responsibility of travel and trade. And there were plenty, too, that got by without accumulating or wanting for unnecessary items.

Soliloquy didn't need even a fraction of what he carried, but it seemed a shame to give them up. It was the same with his mare, in the end -- he didn't really need her, but he appreciated her company, and he understood her to be a valuable asset. His mother had worked hard to gather what "wealth" they had; it'd be foolish to simply abandon that, right?

"They're smarter than they look," the hybrid said, shrugging as he continued through the mud. Ahead of him, Raindew faced forward again and also resumed walking, as if to suggest that she would lead the way now. "I think they understand more than most give them credit for, so they can have attitudes and be cheeky when they feel like it."

Soliloquy didn't really know why they didn't all get stomped to death, but he also didn't really know much about horses as wild animals either -- he'd never encountered a wild herd, and so he didn't know if they were like deer or elk. They seemed smarter than both though, so perhaps they understood the mutual benefit of their partnership with canines, or otherwise accepted their role. He'd seen horses treated poorly, who seemed to have no will left. Those animals probably understood that escape was futile, as they had no herd to disappear into, and so their masters outnumbered them.

And the animals treated better did not have as much incentive for escape, did they? His family had protected their horses from other predators and ensured that they didn't have to compete with other beasts for access to fields and grass. They could have fled at any time, but to what end?

"I don't think there's much reason for them to want to stomp you, if you're not threatening them... but as I said, they're smarter than they look. A horse by itself could maybe take out one of us, but then what would it do? It's alone, so it would get recaptured or killed, eventually."
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#16
Skeleton nodded quickly, glancing at the horse knowingly. They were smart; too smart, in fact, which made him wondering if there was some kind of huge conspiracy in that all horses could understand high speech, but just chose to keep that information to themselves. No, that was preposterous; someone would have found out by now, right? But either way, they were smart—smart enough to keep those hooves and huge teeth handy for when Skeleton got ‘smart.’

Soliloquy offered a reasonable explanation, but it made Skeleton wonder something new: if they were so smart, why were they so comfortable with wolves, coyotes, and jackals keeping them as pets and work animals? Sure, the humans had done it, but after the humans had died off, it meant that all the canines had their chance to roam about. Why weren’t the horses like that? Perhaps they were questions to ponder after a few drinks rather than firing them rapid fire-like to every stranger he happened upon.

“That makes sense,” he replied, mulling the information over and preening a bit internally at his own self control. “So what’s it like having a horse then? How do you learn how to ride them? Does it take long? I’ve taken a while to… look into it, so I feel a bit late to the game,” he explained. It had only taken him two years, right?

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#17
Even with the remnants of their civilisation still scattered everywhere, Soliloquy did not often think about how humans had shaped their world. When he had been young, he had simply assumed that cabins and buildings were a part of the natural world and that they'd spring out of the ground the same as trees. There had been no reason for him to think that there had been creatures that'd come before them, or that they had built many grand things that had since been abandoned to time.

Humans were an ever-present ghost, a formless shape that blanketed the world and weighed it down with the image of what used to be, but Soliloquy was well aware that there was far too much he still didn't understand and likely would never understand. He suspected, too, that most people didn't and wouldn't, and those who said they did were only fooling themselves.

"Umm, it depends on the horse," he said of learning to ride. "Some are more patient than others, which means you can make some mistakes and they won't throw you for it... as quickly." He laughed weakly. "The horse has to be trained for a rider, too. You can't just jump on any animal and expect it to know what touches and commands mean. Some horses are only trained to pull carts and wouldn't know what to do if you got on its back.

"I don't really remember how long it took for me to learn to ride, but my sister took to it faster than me." Fiction had had an attitude that rivaled the most stubborn of horses and a strong need to succeed in general; Soliloquy suspected that she'd been driven in part by the freedom and prestige riding offered. She could have run off on her own without a horse, of course, but they had both been raised around them, and even more than shifting, they had both considered having a horse of their own to command their true coming of age.

"Does your pack have a lot of horses? Do you know if they're mostly for riding or pulling?"
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