THE HUMAN MEMOIRS
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made
Running feet pattered and clicked on worn flagstones, the sound echoing hollowly through the Library's cold stone corridors. Of course running in the Citadel was frowned upon, but at this hour the halls were practically deserted; the only ones around to witness such infractions were the rats and mice, and they couldn't care less.
The cavernous oval floor of the foyer - packed with students during daylight hours - was as deserted as the rest of the Library. Beyond the antique leaded glass of the high ceiling dome, night-bound clouds scudded across the sky, seemingly just arm's length outside. He blinked up at fat raindrops blatting against the glass and shivered; the heating was turned down for the night, not that it ever made much of a difference in a room this size anyway. Somewhere in the library an old water clock chimed the hour, making him glance at his timepiece for confirmation. He grimaced. Rot it! Late enough already.
In the dimness, terminals - a few with green characters flickering up their screen - stared glassily from their cubicles. Beyond the glass partitions, row upon row of ancient shelves stretched off into the shadowy vaults. The soundproofed viewing and study chambers were tucked away in a quiet corner behind a row of wood-panelled doors, one with the 'IN USE' plate glowing. He sighed and took a guess at exactly what she'd say, then opened the door.
"You took your time!"
He grinned. Close enough.
Mas swung her feet off the edge of the desk, spun the chair around and glared up at him as the door hissed shut behind him. One finger was impatiently drumming a tattoo on the well-worn upholstered armrest. "So, did you bring it?"
"Love you too," he retorted, flopping into the second chair. She glared at him. "Alright! I got it," he waved the plastic case under her nose. "Why did you have to wait for the last minute anyway?"
"I had other business," she growled.
He'd heard that one before. "Sure. More important than your finishing grade?"
"Oh? What? Someone die?"
She stared at him, then began to bristle. "None of your business!"
"Alright." He shrugged. "Sorry. Forget it. Anyway, you could have booked some of the libraries disks earlier in the year."
"I didn't know they'd all be booked out. That festering video they showed; suddenly everyone wants the disks. Great timing," Mas scratched fingers against the wooden countertop, "Just in time for a thesis. Why on earth did they set THIS as the topic?!"
"Come on. You know it's customary for every Academy graduate to do it."
"Every year?" she asked with a wrinkle of her nose. "You'd think the 'Great Learned Ones' would be filled to the back teeth reading all those recycled essays. Most of the students just load a thesis saved a year ago and rewrite it. If you look through the files you'll see they all seem remarkably similar."
"Those files're supposed to be locked!"
"Huh!" she snorted. "You of all people should know the locks they use are a joke. There's no way they can keep a dedicated system wanderer out. If you know the right people and right software, you can get access to anything."
She just grinned at him.
Perhaps she would. That was her style: all take and no give. He didn't know why he'd agreed to help her. A strange one she was: Only recently arrived at the Academy, perhaps not even from the east coast. Intelligent enough - in the Academy that went without saying - probably smarter than he was, but also incredibly aloof and arrogant. Nobody knew anything more about her other than that she kept herself separate from everyone else, never entering into relationships: a frigid bitch to all appearances. He'd never known anyone who had even claimed to have spent a night with her. He had never found her files in the admin system. She seemed to be a nobody, but nevertheless she held some kind of sway over the establishment, that was the only way they'd been able to bend the rules and get into the Library after hours.
Her arrival at his dorm had come as a complete surprise and her request... no, her demand for help on this project had left him flustered and tongue-tied. Perhaps if he'd been thinking straight he wouldn't have agreed to help. It was his high academic achievements that'd caught her attention and he knew in his gut that when she'd squeezed him for all he was worth, she'd dump him.
Somehow, he didn't care.
Frigid she may be, but she was also undeniably attractive; any red-blooded male would gladly give a testicle for a chance to be shut in a cubicle with her. A shame she had a tendency to turn it into an experience akin to being shut in refrigerator. A real waste.
He sighed... Oh well. "If you're going to do it that way, what do you need me for? I'll just let you get on with it." He began to stand but she kicked his feet out so he fell back into the chair.
"Sit down! You're a walking encyclopedia when it comes to this kind of thing. And I know you get a rush out of doing it. Already got a career planned out, haven't you? What was it? Historics and Research?"
"Uh... yes. How'd you know?"
"Heard you in the canteen."
"Oh." When had that been? He hadn't been to the canteen for...
"I can't understand why you enjoy this kind of thing," she snorted. "We could be researching something practical, like matrix memory, or the space probes and parallel junction projects."
"And where'd those come from?" He waved the disk. "Aren't you forgetting who actually suggested those ideas. We've just developed the capabilities to actually build them."
"History!" she muttered. "Shackles of expectations!"
"Nothing." She shook her head. "Just forget it."
"Forget it? You like riddles?"
"No. It's nothing. Just something my father once told me."
"Don't ask!" she snapped. "Now we've got work to do. That video: how accurate was it?"
"Uh..." her sudden change of tact had thrown him. Her father, that was a fascinating slip. There was more there... but later. "I... It was fairly well done, but of course you could still tell they were costumes. And they 'cleaned it up' a little: rearranged parts to make it more interesting." He flipped the disk box in the air and caught it again. "This transcription is copied verbatim from the original translation. Well, as close as possible anyway. Everything's there."
"Great," she muttered unenthusiastically. "Ah, well. What about the museum? You recommend it?"
"Definitely! You haven't seen anything until you've seen them in the flesh, so to speak. Weird!" he chuckled, then added, "And you should look up their mating habits. That's got some interesting titbits."
Mas snorted, snatched the case and popped it open, checking the disk's label before dropping it into the drive. The screen flickered, the manufacturer's logo blinking across the top, then the disk's boot sectors took over and a menu appeared, icons arranged in neat rows. Mas selected one, pressed the puck's button and the drive light flickered for a second, then the high-resolution digitised graphic of an ancient, worn leather volume appeared on the screen along with title and dates. Beat his old system back home clear out of the running speedwise, and the graphics were so clear they seemed to jump out of the glass. Another few seconds then the screen cleared and the text of the translation began to scroll down the VDU.
"Put it up on the big screen," he suggested, then after a few seconds added, "Who knows, you might even find this interesting."
She bared teeth back at him and he smiled to himself.
At the touch of a key, the featureless black wall above the monitor flickered, text appeared on it, the lights dimmed. Without another word the pair settled back in their chairs and began to read.
THE HUMAN MEMOIRS
This ain't no technological breakdown, this is the road to hell...
Chris Rea's voice faded in a burst of white noise, then pulsed back to full strength again as the transistor radio swung like a electronic pendulum from the dash. The headlamps of the world-weary Deuce n' a Half illuminated the road ahead for fifty metres in the clear night air, the catseyes down the centre glaring back at the truck as the lights swept over and past them. I squirmed on the uncomfortable seat, trying to work some feeling back into my numb tailbone. I think they cut cost in the earlier models: welding the axle directly to the chassis without bothering with suspension.
"Will you stop squirming like that!" Tenny Dalton shifted gear and glared at me, his face turned into a cragged monstrosity by the faint green glow of the dash. The stub of cigar jutting from his mouth glowed like a malevolent LED. "You got a rash or something?"
"Not yet," I groaned and stretched melodramatically, "but it's only a matter of time. Where are we anyway?"
"How should I know? You've got the map."
"You don't NEED a map!" I protested, then rubbed my eyes and picked up the flashlight from the dash, illuminating my watch. "Shit. We should have caught up with them an hour ago."
"Hey! I've been going where you tell me. You sure it's the right damned road?"
I leaned back and flashed the battered old angelhead at the map strapped to the dash. "Uh, what's this road?"
"Ah... last sign was US29 to Charlottesville."
"Uh-huh." I squinted at the map. "Uh... Yeah, that's what I've got here. How long ago was that? Half an hour?"
"Well, next stop's..." I peered at the confusion of lines, "Lynchburg... I think. That's not too far now. Might catch up there."
"Shit. Better hope we do," Tenny growled. "Can't you imagine it? Trundling into camp two hours after the others. A truckload of live ammo rolling around the countryside unescorted, SOP out the window... Shit, Jefferson'd have a field day." He slapped the wheel in disgust, then reached over to fiddle with the radio as it faded out again. "What the fuck's wrong with this thing?"
"You put fresh batteries in it? Try another station. If the coil hadn't died on us back there there..."
"Oh, yeah. Whose fault was that? You're the mechanical whizkid. You were supposed to overhaul it in the pool. 'Sure,' you said, 'get right on it' you said." He clamped down on the cigar again; the tip glowed furiously as he puffed away on the reeking thing. "And get your feet down."
"I did the coil," I snorted, dropped my feet and made a show of dusting off the scratched metal. "It'd take me years to fix everything on this heap."
"Heap?" He actually sounded outraged. "Don't criticise a classic piece of machinery. "He patted the worn steering wheel affectionately. "She don't like that kind of abuse, do ya girl?"
"Talking to a truck..." I shook my head despairingly. "Have you ever thought about professional help? Or at least a long, long vacation?"
He laughed and took his right hand off the wheel to flick me the finger. "You're going to eat them words," he grinned. "It's a good truck. I like the way it handles."
I stuck my feet up on the dash again, unintimidated. "You're only saying that cause you keep drawing the short straw. It handles like a four ton lump of shit. I mean, hell, even SLEP didn't want anything to do with it."
"Really?" he asked lightly and the truck lurched over to the right.
I glanced over at him, "You trying to prove... OHSHIT!!" I yelled and grabbed for the dash as a car's lights glared from around a corner, the driver hit his horn and Tenny held it to the last second. Tires screamed as the truck lurched back to the left side of the road and a seconds later the vehicle itself flashed past us.
"Might have been," Tenny said with a glance in the mirror. "I didn't see."
I shook my head. Join the Army; See interesting places; Meet interesting people. It's a man's life... And then there's the Quartermasters Corps. It's a living. It pays more than regular army, and I was scraping for every cent I could. These days college really costs.
One of the rules engraved in the rank and files' unofficial handbook is 'never volunteer'. Okay. That's no problem. You don't have to volunteer: they do it for you. You can wake up one morning and find you've pulled a duty riding shotgun on a fifty year old truck on a run from Fort Delvoir out of DC down to Fort Jackson with a couple of tons of outdated military hardware on the bed.
And then to cap it all was the driver...
Tenny Dalton: PFC, old friend. Oh, he could drive all right. In fact the way he handled a truck was downright uncanny, as were some of the other things he did. Everything he did he accomplished well and with a slight air of indifference, as though he really wasn't trying. This applied whether he was overhauling an engine or coming on to one of the noble Ladies in a dive in Jacksonville. Still, they weren't as annoying as his insistence on smoking: cigars of all things.
I coughed and tried to fan a streamer of smoke aside. Useless to ask him to chuck it; he'd sooner amputate his right hand. I don't know where the hell he got them from, but he only smoked Havanahs.
I just wound the window down a bit further and let cold air whip around my face. When the local FM station vanished completely into the sea of static, Tenny spent only a few seconds fiddling with the dial, then snapped it off.
The engine growled and the transmission grated, then settled down again as the truck started up a grade. The shadows of the trees along the roadside blurred past in the darkness and occasionally the bluish-white smear of the cloud-covered moon was visible through the black crests of trees and mountains.
With nothing to see or say, I yawned, then settled back to doze. Well, I meant to doze. Not my fault I dropped off completely.
A slap on my shoulder snapped me out of my slumber. "Davies. HEY! Davies!"
I yawned, shook my head and roled my shoulders. Damn kink in my neck. "Huh? Wassup?" There was no sign of civilisation outside. Just trees, darkness, trees, and more darkness. "Where are we?"
"Somewhere near Roanoke." He was leaning forward, trying to watch the sky.
"Oh... WHAT?" I grabbed for the map. "Damnation! You decide to take the scenic route did you?" How the hell did I sleep through that? "Why didn't you wake me?"
That wasn't a rhetorical question, but he still didn't answer. "Hey! The power was out when we went through Lynchburg. Lights and everything. I took the wrong turnoff... Look, there's something weird going on. Check the sky and tell me if you see anything."
"Huh? The martians coming?"
"Goddammit! Will you look!"
What the hell was he on about? I shrugged and wound down the window. "Oh, wow man!"
"You see it?" he urged, just about smearing his face across the dusty windshield in his efforts to see upwards.
"There's nothing there," I told him. "You were perhaps expecting the Hindenburg? You should check those cigars: anything besides tobacco in there?" I grinned and looked up in time to see a bolt of white-blue lighting arc across the sky. Less than a second later the horizon ahead flashed with a white glare that died just as fast.
"You see that?" Tenny yelled, his voice too loud in the cab. "You see it?!"
"Yeah. Weirdest lightning I ever saw... There's another!"
The bolts had all originated at different places in the sky, but they all seemed to finish at the same spot, out of sight down the road. The sky just over the hill was pulsing like a gigantic strobelight. I stared as more pulses of blue-white light snapped across the night sky. The clouds had cleared, the stars bright.
"No clouds," I muttered.
Tenny glanced at me, then fixed his attention on the road again. His fingers flexed on the wheel. "Yeah, I noticed... What the fuck is it?"
"Fireballs. A kind of lightning... maybe." I leaned out of the side window, peering ahead. "I can't see anything, I... SHIT!" I cursed and ducked as the air above my head was ionized.
That time the bolt came from behind us, 'bout ten metres above the road and going straight ahead, it disappeared into the darkness ahead. A couple of seconds later, the sharp crack of its passage hit.
Tenny hadn't even noticed the near miss, he was staring at something else.
SOMETHING was forming in the air ahead... no, all around us. No real shape to it, a whirlpool of the deepest blue hanging in the air, like one of those laser light shows. Jagged bolts of cyan and electric blue lighting materialized out of thin air and shot into the vortice, highlighting it and the surrounding landscape in strobing flashes of surreal color.
We were heading right for the hub of the thing.
The hood of the truck blazed with dazzling corona discharges and St. Elmo's fire coruscated around the headlamps and other metal fixtures. The radio blared to life with a scream of static as electrical sparks flared on the antenna.
"STOP!!" I screamed. There was a continuous almost sub-sonic rumble from the mega-high voltage plasma sculpture building in front of us.
He snarled something back. Bitten in half, the glowing stub of the cigar dropped into the foot well. He had already floored the brake and clutch. Nothing. He jammed the transmission into reverse: A spectacular shower of sparks gouted from the back wheels and tortured metal under the truck screamed, but we kept going.
I grabbed for the dash and yelped as fat blue sparks kicked me back.
Whatever it was, we hit it at seventy five...
And kept going, right through it.
Hit something with an impact that almost broke my neck, the front of the truck leaving the ground, superstructure protesting while the engine noise went off into an earsplitting whine. There was a retort that could only be an axle breaking, then the headlights illuminated flashing glimpses of grass, stones, and trees.
Pounding and crashing as the crates in the back broke loose. I was thrown against Tenny, then against the door as the truck fishtailed, threatening to roll, then the door broke open and everything was still for long seconds then a giant backhanded me and everything spun, rolling and bouncing against bushes and rocks. Stunned, I didn't have time to do anything but lie there gasping for air as the back of the truck slewed past, just missing my head.
It flipped, again and again, rolling and skidding along on its side, sparks flying, canvass flapping and cargo crates tumbling end over end, metal screaming, then something caught and it became a fireball slamming into rocks where it stuck, burning with a vengeance.
The explosion ripped the night apart as cargo cooked off, more fireballs bursting to life. There was a sound like machinegun fire. Thousands of tiny trails of smoke arced and corkscrewed high into the air and fell back to earth as smoking and glowing debris was hurled away from the mass of flames. Tracers whined overhead like mad skyrockets.
I lurched to my feet, then promptly keeled over again.
Warmth on my face woke me.
I opened my eyes, then closed them nearly immediately, groaning as the morning sun dazzled me. I rolled over onto my hands and knees. The movement startled a family of deer on the edge of the forest. With graceful precision they melted into the trees. I stared after them, then remembered.
The road... the lightning... the crash... Tenny.
It hadn't been a nightmare. Smoke was still curling up from the wreckage of the truck. Blackened and twisted debris was scattered far and wide over across the gentle slope, like driftwood on a beach.
The shattered skeleton was still ticking and pinging as I picked my way around warped pieces of metal, olive crates with blistered paint and contents data stencilled on the sides, small craters gouged in the earth by ordinance cooking off. Gobs of melted lead and objects that were just identifiable as fragments of shell-casings littered the ground. Actually it was surprising that there was this much left of the vehicle. If so much of the cargo hadn't been thrown clear as the bed broke up, the truck would probably have been reduced to pieces to small to find.
Now there was just a framework, the cab scored black with carbon, crumpled like an accordion and tipped to one side. The door on the drivers side was still closed, jammed into place and facing the sky. Where the windshield had been was a hole framed by shards of glass: a mouth with jagged black teeth grinning at me.
Behind it... Tenny hadn't gotten out.
I turned away and vomited, hard and violently; heaving until I gagged on bile, felt it running from my nose. Help. Where was help? Surely someone had seen the fire! The road... there were cars, trucks... I coughed on smoke and puke then ran for the road.
A few paces into the forest I stumbled to a halt, leaning against the slender bole of a pine. The road! Where was the fuck was the freeway?!
A road isn't something that wanders off by itself. People don't steal them. Still, it wasn't there. For fruitless hours I searched for it; wandering around in circles, climbing hills and trees. All around me, as far as I could see to the east: trees, trees, and trees, finally fading into the horizon. Westwards were The Smokies, seemingly unchanged in the brilliant afternoon sun.
There was no, repeat no, road.
Numb, not understanding I returned to the clearing to wait. Something else I noticed. The scars the truck had torn into the grass: They ran about forty metres from the wreck before stopping.
In the middle of a gently sloping grade, covered with summer-gold grass, the tracks just... stopped.
The night was chill. I curled up close to the small fire, lying there with my eyes open, watching the flames. Strange to be almost killed by fire, to have friend die by flame, then use fire to keep me alive. I shuddered, then closed my eyes and tried not to dream.
Something that night woke me.
There was movement on the periphery of the light cast from the dying campfire. Shadows, like circling sharks orbiting just beyond the terminator. Many eyes glowed dull red, feet brushed against grass and pine needles. A low rumbling hung in the air.
I rolled to my feet, reaching for a knife that wasn't there. Out of the darkness, like a ghost from the shadows, a grey wolf materialized, head low and growling.
"Uh, sit boy," I said.
It snarled. I yelled as it lunged toward me, teeth bared. It hit me low, tumbling me backwards. I caught handfuls of fur and kicked, sent the animal flying over my head. Sparks exploded into the night and a terrified howling cut the air as the wolf landed in the fire. Coat blazing, it scrambled to its feet and fled. I could see it running across the field like a flare, its fur burning brighter and streaming sparks.
There were still more of them out there. I took up a hefty branch, only just smouldering, and fanned it in the air until the glowing end burst into flame. Another wolf lunged towards me and I jammed the brand into its mouth. It yelped and turned tail and ran as fire lapped from its mouth, catching on its facial fur. Waving the burning branch, I yelled and charged the remaining wolves. They retreated before me, but stopped when I stopped.
I turned in time to jab another attacking creature in the eye. It leapt backwards and rolled on the ground, yelping in agony, then bolted blindly for the trees. Now they'd had enough. The pack melted away into the night, in search of easier prey.
I stood there panting hard. Wolves?! In Virginia! Attacking a human! This was beyond bizarre.
For the rest of the night I didn't sleep. Instead sitting by the fire, snapping awake with my heart pounding whenever I began nodding off.
I used the piece of spring steel to prise the lid off another case from which the stencilled lettering had been obliterated by heat. The top came off with a screech of nails, revealing neatly stacked rows of olive green 81mm mortar shells. Thank god they still had their handling caps on. If they'd cooked off in the crash, I wouldn't be writing this. In another case I found the fuzes for the shells. Impact fuzes. Another box yielded grenades. Another a trio of M-60 GPMGs, one with its bipod twisted and carry handle snapped off. Three 81mm mortar tubes survived intact, along with five of the Stokes-Brandt bases. Hell, those thing were practically indestructible.
Case after case I went through. We'd been hauling a miscellaneous shipment, surplus and outdated equipment, everything from ammunition and weapons to socks to the old cans of C-rations. While some stuff'd been turned to charcoal briquettes, a surprising amount had survived intact. I sorted through the mess of crates and boxes, gathered together some bits and pieces to keep me alive and kicking if I had to walk out of here: food concentrates, canteen, pack, knife, and a few other odds and ends.
However the object I had really been seeking I finally found lying under a bush: a case with the legend M-16A1 GI867503 PROPERTY OF US ARMY stencilled in black on olive green. I tore the box open and hefted one of the black weapons. Inspection revealed no firing pins in the rifle. I had to crack open a case of spares for those. And for the ammunition...
I knew for a fact that we'd had twenty ammo cases with one thousand twenty four rounds each of the old 5.56 ammunition, about five of the standard IMR NATO 5.56 rounds, another twenty of 7.62mm, and fifteen 12.7mm listed on the inventory. I found twelve metal cases of the smaller caliber rifle ammunition and four catering to the heavier 7.62 GPMG rounds. Although I also found five containers of 12.7mm ammo, they were useless. Even if I did have a weapon of that caliber, I wouldn't be carrying it around with me. However it might have been useful in case I came up against - say - a hostile tank.
Not that likely in Virginia.
I overloaded on ammo: three hundred and sixty rounds of Armalite ammo, enough to fill twelve thirty round magazines. I scrounged six clips and filled those, the excess rounds I loaded into canvas belt pouches.
Obsolete hardware. Surplus. Scorched and dented, but more than enough had come through to ensure that if those crazy canines came back I didn't have to worry about being turned into dog food.
So, from the remains of the truck I came away with an M-16 with an Armalon optical sight and three hundred and sixty rounds of 5.56mm ammunition. A silver-anodized survival blanket sealed in its packet, the small anglehead flashlight that'd also survived intact, one canteen, a couple of C-Rations packs, a pizo-electric cigarette lighter (almost full), a digital Casio watch, a small notebook and ballpoint pen. The small medical kit contained antiseptics, antibiotics, a vial and styrettes of morphine, old fashioned gauze bandages, surgical suture and needles, three syringes(Disposable).
The small tool kit for the M-16 yielded a set of allen wrenches, a couple of small screwdrivers, some three-in-one oil, and some spare screws, nuts, and firing pins. My sheath knife had the standard Bowie blade with a hollow pommel concealing a spool of approximately ten metres of single-strand nylon fishing line, five hooks, and five needles and thread. A gimbaled compass was built into the pommel.
My pack was a canvass job; singed, acceptably waterproof and very tough. My helmet was my own, one of the new kevlar coalscuttle jobs. I'd found it near the ruined cab: slightly scorched, but otherwise fine.
For clothing I had what I was wearing on my back as well as a lifetimes supply of oversized shirts and socks. Didn't bother me too much. It wouldn't take me that long to find a house or gas station; somewhere I could use a phone or stop a car. I'd survived basic training so I could live off the land if need be. This wouldn't be too much different.
That out of the way I took another two hours to collect the dangerous hardware together and hide it a short distance away in the trees. The branches I cut to cover the pile would die and turn brown eventually, a dead giveaway, but it would keep until someone came for it. Leaving it lying around for some redneck or hillbilly to stumble across wasn't a fantastic idea.
Then there was time for a parting look at the blackened mass of twisted metal that was Tenny's impromptu coffin. That one look into the cab had been one look too many. It was hard to believe that what I had seen had once been a good friend. I swallowed hard.
"I'll be back," I choked. "Promise. Get you a decent burial."
A final informal salute, then I slung my pack over my shoulder, plonked the helmet on my head, and set off eastwards. I looked back several times, until the wreck was hidden by trees.
As the day went on I grew more and more disquieted. There was no way that I could have walked that long without seeing SOME sign of man.
But I had.
It was creepy.
I didn't sleep well that night. Several times I awoke abruptly, heart beating a tattoo on my breastbone as I strained to hear something that was no longer there. Something seemed very wrong, but I couldn't place it. I laid back and tried to pinpoint it until I slept again.
Next day I started east again. Damnation! I was in the middle of some of the most populated land in the U.S.: there was no way that I could walk for any distance without coming across some sign of civilization: a house, a road, a gas station, even a plane... anything. At this rate my next stop would be the Atlantic ocean.
I saw more animals: raccoons and red squirrels chittered at me, deer that placidly watched as I passed by. I heard the deep belling of a moose or elk. This far south?! Nothing was right. Was I in the middle of a wildlife park? How?
Later that day I did come across a road running north-south. Well... not exactly a road, more of a track. Maybe a trail used by rangers. It did seem well used, but the tracks were weird: much too narrow to be car or truck. Perhaps bicycle or trailbike tracks. I shrugged, then decided which way to go. North or south.
"Eenie, menie, minie, moe...."
South I went.
The twin tracks of packed earth in the grass rose over an exposed and eroded crest then slowly turned and dipped into a broad, shallow valley. Lush greenery - huge trees of every description - cloaked the length and breadth of the valley floor while fields of wind-blown grasses grew along the gentle slopes: turning golden from the summer sun that also coaxed heat-shimmers from the ground.
And the track simply dipped down to follow the valley, two faint ruts through the long grass before it vanished from sight in the treeline below.
Sweating in the midday heat and humidity, my shirt stripped away and used as padding between the straps of the backpack and my chafed collarbone, I shaded my eyes with the blade of my hand and looked around. I was starting to feel desperate... and scared! It was impossible, utterly impossible that I could have walked for so long and yet have seen absolutely nobody. Still there was nothing. Not a building or vehicle anywhere. I sighed, spat phlegm, hitched the pack up and started down into the valley.
It was like something out of the fucking Twilight Zone: There had to be somebody somewhere!
The steady tramp, tramp of my boots was a continuous, monotonous, mindless rhythm that went on and on. Each footstep raised a small cloud of dusty ochre Virginia clay, turning the olive drab of my fatigues a rusty red. At least nearer the river it was cooler, the more luxurious flora offering some shade.
Shadows began to stretch out again as noon passed and the afternoon crawled across the countryside. High overhead a hawk circled and hovered before diving upon some unsuspecting rodent. I sighed a deep breath, wiped sweat from my forehead then threw the pack and rifle aside and sprawled out in the grass on the verge. For a few seconds I considered taking my boots off, then thought better of it: I'd never be able to get them on again. The water in the canteen was warm - almost hot - but it was wet. I took a mouthful, swilled it around, then spat out a mixture of water and the grit that I'd accumulated. I raised the canteen again and this time took a deep draught. And froze with the bottle against my lips, water spilling down my chin. The faint sound of metal grating on metal.
I lowered the canteen and listened hard. Wind rustled leaves and birdsong was bantered back and forth through the trees.
Then it came again; slowly growing louder, more distinct, closer. A faint creaking and the unmistakable rumble of wheels being tested to destruction on the pathetic excuse for a road. It was coming from behind me; back the way I had come.
"Alright!" I whooped, then my grin faded: there was no engine sound.
No matter. I fumbled the camp back on the canteen and and grabbed my equipment. Tipping my helmet back on my head I stood to wait for them. The day no longer seeming so stifling, a cooling breeze seemed to have sprung up from somewhere. There were a few questions I wanted to ask whoever this was. One that came to mind was: where the hell was I? a private estate of some kind?
Abruptly they rounded the corner, shafts of sunlight shining through the canopy above illuminating patches of dust as the breeze wafted it away from wagon wheels and the llamas' hooves.
I stumbled to a halt and just stared stupidly as they clattered to an abrupt standstill, bleating and tossing their heads. I stared at them, then at the riders.
Is this a joke?!
The llamas skittered impatiently and moved forward and I saw it was for real.
Branches and leaves tore at my face and arms and roots tried to steal my feet from under me as I stumbled and careened blindly through the foliage with yowling cries sounding behind me. Then there was an embankment rising before me: A near-vertical face of dark, crumbling earth, carpeted with multi-fronded ferns and held together by a labyrinth of tree roots. I hardly slowed as I clawed my way to the top, to fall flat on my face and scramble around to see if they'd followed.
The road was just visible through the boughs, trunks, and foliage; less than thirty metres away. I wiped sweat from my eyes, liberally smearing myself with dirt at the same time, and saw the riders staring back, gesticulating wildly amongst themselves, pointing towards me.
"Oh Christohchristohchrist..." I was babbling to myself as I leaned back against a moss-covered boulder, out of sight for the moment. When I looked again, they were still there. One of them had dismounted and come a few paces into the trees. I grabbed for the rifle and snapped the bolt back, safety off, but held my fire.
Eyes the green of molten emerald held my disbelieving stare and I shivered at the chill that ran up and down my spine on spider's feet. For an eternity the tableau held; that thing staring at me, our eyes locked. It can't be...
And I jumped backwards when the creature turned and barked at the others then it caught its llama's reigns and swung back into the saddle, waving the others on past. They left quickly, the single wagon gathering speed and rumbling off after them.
For a few moments the single remaining creature on its llama did nothing but watch me, then the furred muzzle wrinkled and sharp teeth grinned at me. My finger tightened on the trigger, but the rider had reigned its llama about and was hurrying to catch the others.
The sounds of their passage faded into the distance.
Several minutes later, my heart pounding, I climbed back down to the road. There wasn't a sound, not a sign of the creatures. I stepped into one of the dusty ruts with the rifle at the ready.
But there were the hoof marks, llama droppings, and thin hard lines like bike tracks gouged into the clay by iron-bound wheels.
Perhaps I should have gone the other way. Perhaps it would have been for the better, but hindsight tells me that my fate would almost certainly have been a grisly death... or worse. I have spent my time in a cage and do not relish the thought of living my life out in one.
"WHAT'S HAPPENING TO ME?!"
My scream to the heavens echoed through the trees and hills, scaring birds, but eliciting no other answer. What WAS going on? I couldn't explain it and my brain was threatening to curl up and play peek-a-boo from some remote corner of my cranium. I wanted to head for the hills, anywhere.
But then you'll never know what happened.
I don't WANT to know!
Yes, you do...
Chalk one up for human curiosity. I followed them.
The river - a broad, shallow stream actually - followed its meandering path through the valley an oversized ice cube had gouged millennia ago as it inched its way down from the polar icecaps, then retreated again. Along its banks, the trees cast their branches out over the water to form a leafy corridor that didn't quite meet in the middle. Pines: loblolly pines, longleaf pines, slash pines, overcup oaks... My knowledge of botany gave out on me.
A cormorant - surprised while drying its wings - took to the air as I approached. It dropped off its perch, skimmed the water and climbed away from the stream that continued burbling along its way.
The road itself twisted and contorted as much as the river as it dodged through and around clusters of trees and boulders: indigenous and erratics. At times it ran along the river bank, while at others it had climbed halfway back up the side of the valley: always following the easiest route. I followed the track, always keeping an eye peeled on forest around me.
The afternoon was beginning to cool off, the shadows growing longer and deeper when I heard the sounds coming from down the road: ringing of metal on metal through the trees. Animal cries and howls wailed through the valley.
What the hell?!
My heart started to pound as I took my rifle into my hands and cocked it. Keeping to the side of the track I moved forward, carefully, like I was walking on glass. Every damn broken twig sounded like a gunshot, but with the noise from ahead, there was no way anything could have heard me.
Then I rounded a tree and saw them,
There was a ford here where the track crossed the river. The wagon sat in the middle, tipped crazily to one side, one of the front wheels almost completely sunken beneath the waterline. The driver was a bundle of cloth and limbs lying face down in the water, the current gently butting the corpse against a rock and wafting a trail of red blood away downstream.
More corpses lay in the shallow current, some still kicking their life away, turning the water to a pinkish froth.
There were others still fighting.
They had to be soldiers of a sort, those creatures from the caravan. Wearing stained and battered leather armour, trimmed with blue and silver designs that despite the dirt were still recognisable as a uniform of a kind. They waded knee-deep in the water fighting wildly against others garbed in a hodge-podge assortment of armour.
And they were losing.
Hampered by the water and the treacherous footing, they didn't stand a chance against their opposition safely entrenched along the banks. Swords whirled and gleamed and grew red, another yowling scream rang out and another of the soldiers fell. Now only four of them left against at least ten assailants.
A couple of the soldiers may have made it out as together they overcame an opponent on the riverbank, then they both twisted and went over backwards, falling with stubby feathered shafts embedded in their necks and chests.
I ducked as more bandits stalked into view between the trees on my side of the river. Just twenty metres away, their backs to me as they recocked their crossbows. Why were they bothering to get their feet wet assaulting the wagon? They could've just shot them all from a distance.
I sank a little lower behind the tree.
The last soldier was crouched low and slowly turning to face its opponents as they circled, slowly closing in. Backed up against the wagon there was nowhere for it to run, it had no chance, but it still clutched its sword.
I began to move out, leaving the cover of the tree to retreat back down the track. The last thing I wanted here was to be involved in a firefight with... with whatever they were. I was out of my league. I didn't know what kind of shit I was in, but whatever it was, I was in it over my head.
Two loud cries came at the same time: one a truncated yowl as that last soldier fell, and the other from the archer who spotted me.
I ducked automatically and a hastily aimed quarrel fired from the hip bisected the space I had occupied a split second earlier. Shit! I ducked behind a pine trunk and there was a sharp Thwok! as a stubby bolt sprouted from the wood near my head.
Red feathers, I thought as I stared idiotically at the arrow, spun around wideeyed to see bows being aimed again and started running as another blur hissed past my ear, then a hollow sound and someone hit my pack with a baseball bat and I stumbled, then dove for cover, headlong into the bracken and undergrowth. Ferns and bushes crackled around me as I scrambled on all fours while more quarrels rattled into the thicket over and around me. A fallen log offered some solid protection and I took it, diving over it and hugging the ground.
There were no more quarrels. Reloading?
Gasping air as quietly as possible, I struggled out of my pack, wincing as leaves and branches rustled. Red feathers were protruding a few centimetres from the canvass. If it hadn't hit something solid, I doubted my backbone would have stopped it. Bastards. Where were they? What were they doing? I listened, hearing wind in the treetops, water burbling, and a faint growling and the crackling of bracken.
I risked a peek, then hugged the dirt again, mud and slimy leaves rubbing against me.
They were coming after me!
Not many options...
I charged the rifle, checking for a flash of bronze in the breach to make sure a round was seated then gripped the rifle, flexing my fingers against chill metal and feeling the checkered grips grow slippery with sweat. Three of them, with swords, taking it slow. The archers didn't have a good angle on me. Just three of them, a few metres apart. I took a breath, clicked the safety off and swung the M-16 up and over, not aiming, squeezing the trigger, the rifle kicking like a jackhammer in my hands, plants jigging wildly in the muzzle blast. Not three - four of them, one down, the others staring, now starting to react, screaming, skidding and spinning to the dirt as the bursts of slugs buzzsawed into them. First rounds were low and wild, kicking their feet out from under them. I compensated and hit torsos, heads, splintering bone and shredding flesh. They fell, two howling and threshing.
Over the log, dodging and firing at the others. They'd frozen, some standing in the middle of the stream, on the wagon, on the far bank, staring wildly. The archers tried to fire, their shots going wide as I hit the deck again and sprayed them with a wild burst. The first one's head split open like an overripe melon and the corpse crumpled like a deflating balloon; Small, red roses sprouted on the others' torsos and they died slower. NOW the others were turning, running.
I was on my feet again, staying low as I ran and dodged for the cover of rocks and trees by the stream. One of the creatures I'd first hit was rolling and thrashing in the bracken. I shot it in the head on the way past and it bucked once then was still. A bolt from a crossbow struck glittering sparks from a rock near my head.
"Fuck you!" I screamed, firing back, emptying my weapon into the fleeing figures: mowing several down like scythed wheat. When the bolt clicked on an empty chamber I automatically buttoned out the magazine, plucked a fresh one from my belt, and rammed it into the well. I emptied half the magazine at shadows running into the trees, kicking dust and wood chips from the trees, sending rounds ricocheting. I don't think I actually hit any of the bastards. They were fast!
Then they were gone.
Ten seconds perhaps.
Heart still pounding I looked around, clutching the rifle like it was the only solid thing in the world.
In the trees, a couple of birds ventured hesitant calls while the stream continued enthusiastically on its way. There was the slow drip drip as the blood from a corpse on the river bank ran down a rock, beaded on the edge as if gathering its courage before dropping into the swirling water. The wagon rocked as the beasts pulling it - bison, I noticed with dull surprise - tugged at their harnesses. The corpses weren't neat, with chunks of meat the size of baseballs ripped out of them. Blood... it was red. Red and glistening like wet paint. A cloying, fecund smell hung heavy in the air: the flatulence of death.
A coughing, moaning sound from the water.
One of the creatures - one of the ones in blue armour - struggled weakly on all fours half in, half out of the water, blood from a gaping slash in its side swirling away with the current. It was dragging itself out of the stream by its hands, kneeling coughing and retching in the mud of the ford.
When my shadow fell across it, it stiffened, raised its head to see my boots, then shuddered and collapsed on its side with a grunt: eyes closed, one outstretched hand curled half-shut, chest heaving while blood mingled with the mud.
I was standing above a creature that could never be, my rifle levelled at it and staring in mute shock while my credulity took a beating.
Putting it bluntly, it was a cat.
Well, my transport problem - probably the least of my worries - was solved... sort of.
The hole the wagon wheel had been trapped in had been deliberately dug, deep enough that the wagon couldn't be pulled out. The axle was a solid iron bar that I sincerely hoped was tough enough to take that kind of treatment. To get the damn thing out I had to drench myself in water that felt like it was runoff from a glacier, digging away one side of the hole with my bare hands until the bison were able to pull the wagon out.
They were huge, stupid, reeking beasts, these bison. Not the plains variety every American should be familiar with, but rather Wood Bison: a much rarer breed. So rare in fact, they were an endangered species. Not recommended as beasts of burden.
Endangered or not, and despite their problems with personal hygiene, they seemed docile and efficient: hauling the wagon from the water on the southern side of the stream and waiting with moronic patience, chewing and farting.
Hmmm... and people wonder why I hate horses. I shook my head and tried to wring the last of the water from my shirt, then hesitated and looked back across the stream at where a furry body was still sprawled in the mud; one among many.
Water splashed around my ankles, but there wasn't a sign of life as I cautiously approached. Motionless, eyes closed, twisted crippled-looking hand clenched in the mud. The wound was a sodden mess, the blood as thick as the mud it was sprawled in. Liquid bubbled in a nostril.
Incredible, it was still breathing. I poked it with my toe.
The thing didn't budge.
I bent down and touched it cautiously. It didn't respond. The fur was soggy wet, the flesh beneath nearly hot to my fingers. Kill it? Uh-uh. That didn't feel right. It couldn't hurt me. So, do I just leave it lying here?
"Damned if I do, damned if I don't," I sighed.
Now, how the hell do I do this?
Gingerly, awkwardly, I scooped the sodden creature up.
The felinoid was a limp weight in my arms, its limbs completely lax and bumping against my own legs as I lifted. Its head lolled and saliva drooled from a corner of the mouth with its thin, black lips. Water washed around my legs again as I crossed the stream; carefully, unsteady with my burden. The thing was surprisingly heavy; I had to struggle to lift it into the back of the cart. This creature was much shorter than my five foot eleven - probably an even foot shorter, maybe more - but it was solid; not fat either. There was already a blue-armoured corpse in the wagon that I hauled out and dumped on the ground to make room for the still-living creature.
The upper half of the creature was almost completely encrusted in drying mud while the lower was sopping wet where it'd been lying in the water. Covering its upper legs was a sodden kilt made from wide strips of tooled leather, weighted at the lower ends with brass disks. Blood continued to ooze from a slash high in its left side, seeping through the reinforcing strips of the once-ornate leather cuirass it was wearing.
First, get that armour off. That had me scratching my head: there were no zippers, buckles, or buttons; just leather ties securing it up the left side and on the shoulders. The wet leather had swollen; resisted all attempts to untie them. Finally I settled for cutting them and peeling both the cuirass and kilt off in one piece.
Judging by the way the plumbing was arranged, it was a she. There were no breasts to speak of, just twin columns of three black teats buried in the fur.
The sword had broken through the tough-looking skin and cut into the side at an angle before being deflected by a rib, ripping away one of those teats as it went. There was a non-too-modest flap of flesh dangling loose while a lot of blood had pumped out, covering and matting the fur. Still more had been lost to the earth and the river.
What was lying in front of me was way beyond anything I'd ever covered in my basic medical training. Perhaps nothing serious had been hit; then again, perhaps it had. How was it put together? Was its metabolism anything like mine? What medicines could I use? How the hell was I suposed to know? Stuff like simple aspirin can kill a cat.
Was it worth it? I bit my lip, then swore and reached for my pack.
The quarrel was still stuck into it, stopped by a pack of C-rations. I turned the dented tin over in my hands, not quite believing it. Saved by a freeze-dried meal. I knew the stuff was tough, but using it instead of a flak vest..?
Of course the med kit had wound up at the bottom. I snapped it open, and selected a small plastic bottle of antiseptic and a roll of gauze. Nothing to lose. I used my knife, methodically cutting away the fur and dirt around the wound, washing away filth: clotted blood, mud, and grass with water from my canteen. That wouldn't be enough.
The creature stirred and its jaw spasmed as I prised the wound open with my fingers and squirted antiseptic from the squeeze bottle into it. I swabbed it out, then tore open a large sterilised gauze pad, bandaging it tightly in place even as blood started welling again.
Tossing aside the ruined armour, I stripped one of the cleaner cloaks off a corpse and settled that over the cat, again finding I was hesitant to touch it. Its breathing was rapid, almost panting.
All the others were as dead as luncheon meat.
I avoided the messy body with half a face grinning uselessly at the clouds when I examined the corpses. One of the other archers was sprawled in the middle of a bush, his/her chest punctured where the rounds had smashed through. The shock would have killed faster than the wound. S/he was dressed in rag-tag cloak, but the armour underneath looked well used and functional. Red and black. It looked like a uniform. The crossbow lying nearby wasn't that large or powerful, but that was simply due to the diminutive stature of the user. It was well made: laminated wood and metal, with recurved tines of wood and bone and some kind of twisted fibre. Six quarrels were clamped to the stock; each about twenty centimetres long with a wicked triangular iron tip.
I weighed it in my hands. Oh, well. You never know when something like that might come in handy. Then another thought struck me and I frowned at the creature in the back of the wagon. Its armour was in pieces. Would it want clothes?
What was I thinking? Clothes?!
I shook my head, but still managed to scrounge some stuff from a soldier. It'd been stabbed through the throat, covering the front of the cuirass with blood. Nevertheless, it was in much better condition than the stuff I'd cut off.
The creature's sword: a beautifully crafted scimitar. I found it in the middle of the stream where it'd dropped it. I picked it up, shaking and wiping the water and mud off it and holding it up so the sun threw dazzling reflections off the slightly curving blade. Nice piece of metal. I tried a few practice swings and nearly took my own leg off. Hastily I stuck it back in the sheath then tucked it up on the drivers bench, out of reach of furry hands.
I looked back over the scene. Like something out of a picture: the stream, lush greenery dappled by light and tall trees, patches of sky and clouds. Then there were the figures tumbled like distorted shop mannequins, blue against green, water running over glittering metal and leather, teeth bared in hopeless snarls at the sun. Shaking my head, I tried to figure the reigns out. How DO you drive bison? To start with, there's no clutch...
I made camp several klicks further down the river valley.
The road split at a junction: one branch continuing eastwards along the river, the other climbing out of the valley, going south. I rubbed my tired eyes then decided not to make a decision, not until I could learn more about my passenger and what was going on.
It wouldn't hurt to hang around a few days; I doubted that the bandits would be back, and there was a terrible feeling that there wouldn't be any search parties out looking for me.
It took a while to find a suitable campsite, but I finally settled on a small, grassy clearing. Close enough to the stream for convenience and far enough from the road that any fire couldn't be seen. Roughly triangular in shape it was, with a pile of huge boulders - broken and whole - in the northernmost apex, small conifers persistently hanging on in small patches of earth between the rocks. I hitched the bison up to a tree, leaving them contentedly cropping away at the grass. Watching them eat set my own stomach to snarling.
I didn't have to go too far to find a rabbit that was too curious for its own good. It was the matter of a single round from the M-16 and dinner was laid on. The rest of the daylight was spent skinning and gutting and laying a fire, then while waiting for a bed of coals I turned my attention back to the wagon and the cat lying in the back. The bandages were working. The wound had stopped bleeding, but the fur covering its chest and side was completely matted and plastered with clotted blood and mud. Mud covered its broad face and one of the pointed ears was stuck down against the head. I splashed water onto a rag torn from a cloak and began to sponge away the worst of the blood.
Still unconscious she flinched away from my touch, her jaw twitched and she made a high chittering noise.
Her eyes flicked open, focused on me, then widened until the a rim of white circumnavigated the huge pupils: Green, flecked with specks of copper. A small, strangled noise escaped her and she scrambled backwards into the hay until she was backed up against the drivers bench, unable to retreat any further. The face contorted, wrinkles marching up the muzzle as she bared a glistening array of needle teeth, canines, and a curled, pink tongue. Centimetre-long, ivory-colored claws slid from her fingertips.
The bandages around her chest and shoulder flexed and shifted.
I jumped out of the back of the wagon and held my hands in front of me, trying to look harmless. If she tried to move any more, that wound was gonna reopen. "Hey," I coaxed. "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you."
"Fegar s'sahrorna nieck herasti... fe, fe!"
Well that's what it sounded like. Not a high yowling as you'd expect a cat to make. They were modulated, sibilant sounds, fairly deep, probably due to length of the throat. It was a language, no doubting that. I'd bet her vocal chords were just as sophisticated as mine.
You, the reader of this journal will probably already know what I was looking at, but I'll still take the time to describe what I saw.
We stared at each other, man to cat, eye to eye. Her head was mounted on her shoulders, she had two ears and eyes, one nose, one mouth, bilaterally symmetrical, but there the resemblance to a human ended.
Take the classic feline features and anthropomorphise them; just the slightest touch. Shorten the muzzle a little. Raise the brow and bring more expressive musculature into the features. The result would be something like the visage I was looking at.
That face came out into a classic cat's muzzle, complete with a broad, leathery, valentine-shaped nose and hare-lipped mouth with thin black lips. Sharp, triangular furtufted ears were half buried in the mane of fur that grew from the crest of her head and continued on down her neck. One ear was pierced by a single silver earring. Her entire face was covered with the same fawn coloured fur that enveloped the rest of her body, highlighted with lighter gold stripes pushing over between the ears to disperse into that mane.
The arms ended in a hand with four short fingers and a thumb. No fingernails. Instead those claws slid into sheaths in the tops of the stubby fingers. Except for the black pads on palms and fingertips, her hands were completely covered in fur.
Her feet - especially her feet - were so different from a human's. More like a cat's pads. In fact her feet were all toe, her heel the leg joint above them - digitigrade, not plantigrade. Must have balanced on those clawed toes, walking on toe tips only. That sleek, streamlined face was somewhat marred by the mess of blood and clay, but there was no doubting the purpose and intelligence in the being I was staring at. Nor the reality. There was no way that this was some kind of costume; a joke or hallucination.
"Rsacen esc na fe sfecer?" she sputtered, then shouted to the surrounding silence: "FARES WHER'R RSE FE! SAE EI!"
If she was expecting someone to answer - one of her kind - she was disappointed. The branches of the trees hung heavy in the darkness and the stillness, but there was no other sound. She turned back to me, the iris dilated to turn the eyes to wide pools of black.
"Fe," she almost breathed the sound.
"Sorry, but I don't speak the lingo," I said with a shrug and a smile.
She plastered herself against the end of the wagon and bared her own teeth in a grin that was definitely NOT friendly. My bared teeth she perceived as a threat. I closed my mouth and made placating gestures with my hands. That only served to get her even more agitated. I couldn't speak to her and she was completely vulnerable.
"Goddamn it! I'm not going to hurt you!"
"Look! Hands empty! No weapons. Savvy? Shit, look! Here, take this."
She looked as if she would go catatonic when I drew my knife, her eyes riveted on the watery steel blade. Carefully, slowly, I laid the knife on the wagonbed and pushed it towards her - hilt first - and stepped back to once more raise my hands. Just as slowly she leaned forward, then snatched the knife, both hands wrapped around the hilt as if it were a lifeline.
"Feel safer?" I asked.
She was still panting hard, but those eyes had changed: not so much terror, calculating.
I unclipped the canteen from my belt and sloshed it around a couple of times, then unscrewed the lid and took a sip out of it before slowly holding it out to her. She shrank back, shivering and with teeth bared. I continued to hold it out to her, and after a few seconds, she screwed up enough courage to take it, claws clicking on the plastic, she raised it to her nose and sniffed warily, her eyes still on me. She took a careful sip, then tilted it back and gulped greedily, spilling much of it down her front. Her jaw was just the wrong shape.
"Hey, watch it. You'll be sick if you drink it like that!"
At the sound of my voice she dropped the canteen as though it had suddenly become red-hot. The knife came up again, wavering wildly. Then white membranes slid from the corners of her eyes and her hand flopped heavily to her side.
But her chest was moving steadily, breath whistling through her nostrils. I found a pulse in the hollow of her neck and it was strong and regular. She voiced a low growling moan when I moved my hand. Just passed out.
I stood and stared at her for a while. Just leave her; let her wake up and find I hadn't touched her. That'd be the best way to tell her I didn't want to hurt her. Shrugging, I set off to put another bit of wood on the fire. It'd been one of those days.
It was an amazingly clear night, one of those nights when you can literally see forever. The galaxy was a stream of white dust spilled across the heavens...
And all of the constellations were there.
I must have sat atop the granite crag for an hour in the dark, just staring at those flickering beacons in the sky. They hadn't changed at all. That red dot was Mars... That was the sky of Earth in the late 20th century.
I must be on Earth... so where did THEY come from ?
Aliens? Huh, I doubted it. If they had the technology to make it from another star to Earth, why did they wear flimsy leather armour, use antique weapons, and ride around on animal powered vehicles?
Why did I feel so out of place?
There was something I was missing here.
The felinoid was still lying in the back of the wagon, asleep in the warm night air. Nearby, the fire I had started had died down to a glowing bank of coals, the skinned carcasses of the rabbits lying nearby: ready to be spitted and cooked.
Soon the smell of roasting rabbit was drifting through the clearing. I turned the meat on the spit and glanced up to see the felid awake and watching me over the side of the wagon, her eyes flicking from me to the fire then back to me again. She licked her lips and a string of spittle dripped from her jaws.
Smiling, I reached out to tear a haunch off the browned carcass and then - slowly and carefully, every movement deliberate - I got up and walked to the side of the wagon and offered the meat at arms length.
Just as cautiously, she snagged the proffered morsel with a claw and after sniffing it, took a small nibble, looked at me, then started tearing at the meat with dagger-sharp teeth, taking big mouthfuls, chewing noisily, then swallowing hard.
So, she had an appetite. Tough little thing.
And some appetite too.
Whilst she was absorbed in satisfying her hunger I sat down on the tailgate, swinging my legs over the side while watching her. She finished the meat and stared back, her eyes catching the firelight and reflecting it, the rest of her matted coat dull and indistinct in the flickering firelight. Her claws were still at the ready.
"Uh... hi," I said.
"I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Kelly," I said. She just stared. "Kelly," I enunciated with exaggerated gestures toward myself and repeated the name twice, three times.
She blinked at me.
I tried again.
"Freh ash an shirai se fe," she hissed.
"That's not your name, is it?"
"Hers a saf, s'shesaf."
I'm no linguist, but that was no language I'd ever heard before. Gutteral, with hisses, growls merging with sibilants. All right, I thought I could manage that: "'Hers a saf... uh... shesaf' to you too."
She jumped as though I'd suddenly grown another head. "Hers a saf, s'shesaf" she repeated slowly, watching me intently. I got the idea. "Hers a saf, s'shesaf," I echoed her, completely oblivious of what I was actually saying.
"Sthre ts'ref n'esur s'shesaf, surio saf fe," she hissed slowly. I tried to repeat her, stuttering and stumbling over the sibilants. She repeated herself twice. Finally I managed the sentence with a modicum of accuracy.
Her jaw dropped, then closed with a hollow clop.
I leaned forward, touched my chest and said, "Kelly."
Her eyes went even wider as she twigged. That was my name! I had a language of my own! By gum, what a concept! She stared at me, opened her mouth, and gave a croak, cleared her throat and tried again, "She'ae." The consonants of the kay and ells lost completely, my name turned into what sounded like a steam leak.
"No, no, no. Kelly," I repeated.
With that mouth, she couldn't get the ells at all. I shrugged then pointed at myself, repeated my name, and then pointed at her and shrugged. She got my point and said something that sounded like:
She moved her hand in a gesture that must mean'no': a horizontal slash in the air with the hand open and palm down. "Tahr," she corrected.
We went on like this until I got it right. She was willing to let my name slide, but when it came to her's, she wanted it perfect. Afterwards, we tried a few more of her words. With each new one I learned she stared at me; like she couldn't believe it.
By now the fire had died down to a few feeble embers; warmer than the moonlight albeit not as bright. I squinted at my watch and decided to call it a night: she needed her sleep.
With my pack as a pillow, the smooth, metallic creases of the survival blanket over me and the cold ground below, I watched the stars reeling through the familiar sky overhead until I dropped off.
The morning was perfection.
I squinted against the glare of sunlight and groaned, finally managing to unwrap myself from the silver folds of the sheet I stood and stretched. My joints popped and crackled, stiff muscles stretched and relaxed again. The felid was still sleeping, half curled up under her cloak. I stared at it for some time, feeling an uneasiness at the very centre of my being.
This was the way my distant ancestors would have felt when a sabre-tooth appeared on the skyline.
Damnation! I clenched my hand to stop it trembling and abruptly turned away from the blanketed figure. A furred, clawed, twisted foot was poking out from under the cloak, hinting at what lay beneath.
I got out of there.
For all our civilization we are still primitive at heart I reflected as I crouched by the river. The water was a cold shock against my skin as I dunked my head, then shook it dry. The droplets flew in all directions, glittering in the morning sun.
We'd come a long way: we have electrically lit homes, kept warm in winter and cool in summer. We travel thousands of kilometres in hours, move mountains out of the way of our roads without really thinking about it.
That's right, we hardly ever think about it.
How many people are there in the world who can say they actually know how an electric light works? How a radio works? Who can even light a fire without matches? For most people, all they need to know is how to flip a switch, press a button, turn a dial. Tasks a moronic chimp can carry out. If their transistor radio breaks down through a loose wire or burnt-out resistor, they chuck it out and get a new one: a disposable civilization.
We have reached the moon and sent automated probes beyond the farthest corners of our solar system. There are instruments to explore the macroscopic and microscopic worlds: Electromagnetic telescopes that can detect a nebula's fart light years away, microscopes that can give a visual image of xenon atoms we've manipulated to spell IBM.
And still there are those who hang crosses and prayer beads in their shiny new cars. It's as if they need someone, like an imaginary friend that children conjure up: someone or something to whom you can attribute the inexplicable.
Damnation! I don't consider myself an complete ignoramus. I didn't have to let my emotions and instincts overrule logical thought.
But that thing gave me the willies.
I cupped my hands and drank. Water ran through my fingers and dribbled back into the river. Several times I dipped my hands into the stream, then opened them to let the water trickle out. Finally I sat back against a rock that hadn't had time to warm in the sun, was still cool from the night. The fingers of my left hand trailing in the stream.
I looked at myself.
My fatigues were covered with dust and dark stains that could only be dried blood. Not mine. Not even human, but just as red. I stripped off and staked my clothes down in the current then scrubbed at them until my hands were raw.
The felid was awake when I returned.
In fact she was out of the wagon, leaning heavily on the tailgate with one hand clutched against the bandages. She stared at me when I appeared and her lips parted slightly in a smile that showed the whiteness of her teeth.
Returning the smile I took a step forward, then froze when her hand darted into the back of the wagon and came back with a cocked and loaded crossbow wobbling in her unsteady grip. Her eyes wobbled, seeming to lose their focus, then snapping back again. Her grin broadened. I swallowed hard. Remind me to take the string with me next time.
"K'hy," she snarled - literally - and gestured sharply with the bow and I slowly raised my hands, freezing motionless again when her ears went back flat against her skull and she barked something at me. Her ears slowly came up again when she saw I wasn't trying anything. The end of the crossbow jerked and again she snarled something at me: "R'rtsa!"
What the hell did that mean? I just stood there.
She snorted and wagged the crossbow at the ground, "R'rtsa!"
I took a guess and sat down.
Her ears flicked and she stood there staring at me.
I stared back, noticing her shifting on her feet, as though she was about to collapse. And that crossbow was wobbling dangerously. I licked my lips. "Rtsa," I invited, gesturing slowly at the ground.
She blinked at me, then her ears twitched. Slowly, her face contorting in what could have been a wince, she settled until she was sitting cross-legged, facing me across the remains of the fire. Metres away, she glanced down at the bow, then at me again as if she were trying to decide to use it or not. I hadn't hurt her; I'd patched her wounds. Perhaps she just felt the need to take some kind of control.
With my hands still in the air, I carefully pointed one finger at the bow and said, "Fe?... Tahr."
Muscles in her face ticked and pulled and she sputtered something at me. The crossbow stayed targeted upon my guts.
"Shit! Look, you can't point that thing at me all day!"
Warily, I lowered my hands.
She flinched and snarled.
"Okay," I coaxed. "I'm not going to hurt you. Tahr."
When I moved again she gasped, head going back and eyes fixed on me. I saw her muscles trembling as I carefully - inch at a time - reached out and plucked a single blade of grass, holding it up. "Grass," I said.
Her eyes flicked down to the small green leaf, then she said, "Frwuch," a deep, guttural sound coming from the throat. I repeated it as best I could, then she picked a blade and said a short sentence with her word for grass in it, then pointed at me and said slightly different phrase. I repeated them:
[have/hold] I grass.
[have/hold] you grass.
For a few different items - sticks, pebbles, dirt - we did this. The words were difficult to pronounce. The basic sentence structure was predicate-subject, reversed from english. That threw me several times, but she corrected me.
Several minutes later she put the crossbow aside in order to use both hands to get a point across. The weapon lay in the grass, easily within her reach, and both of us stolidly ignored it and concentrated upon the language lesson.
Morning dew was beading on the blanket and grass around my head; tiny crystal beads sparkling in the dawn. I closed my eyes and rolled onto my back.
Something touched my shoulder.
I opened my eyes and looked up into a puma's face, a bobcat's face, eyes like cold jade with a slit of night etched into them. A hand, twisted, furred and clawed, was reaching for my face.
With a lurch of terror I tried to scramble backwards, slipped on the wet grass, fell on my back with dew soaking me. The cat kneeled above me, reached for my throat... and gently touched, feeling the pulse racing there.
"Scre ne fe ther ri seth m'resh," she hissed, fast, too fast, impossible for me to follow. Her head was cocked to one side like a cat regarding a bird in a cage. The rising sun was behind her, still barely a glow over the horizon turning the streamers of clouds above it russet and gold. Seeing that I was as nervous of her as she was of me gave her that touch of confidence.
Her hand moved down to touch my chest in the vee of my shirt, touched the sparse gold hair there, then travelled up, stroking my skin. If anything, she looked puzzled. The question she asked I couldn't understand, so she continued examining me in silence, her hands moving to touch my face. I shivered slightly as she pressed a finger against my cheek, rubbing gently. I could feel the almost-leathery pad on her fingertip grating on stubble. Growing bolder, she traced my jaw, tracing the bones. I flinched when she tried to peel my lips back to examine my teeth: she pulled her hand back, then patted my cheek. So I suffered claws tapping against my teeth, fingers touching my canines. Delicately she bent my nose from side to side, then ran a fingertip around my eyes and eyebrows and ears. Finally she stroked my hair for a while, tugging at it curiously, then sat back, still staring at me as if I were a specimen on a lab table.
"You [ ]?" she asked.
"No understand," I replied. The first phrase I'd learnt, and the one I'd be using for a long time to come.
Her ears flicked - as though routing invisible flies - then she touched her chest. "I sathe," she said.
Sathe. That could be her species name, family name, job, or just mean she was hungry. Well, I took a gamble on it being her species. "Sathe," at least that word came easily to my lips.
"Yes. Right. Good," she approved, then waited.
"I human," I hastily provided.
"H'man," she tried the word, tasting it. "H'man."
I sat up and reached out my hand, to touch her. With a start she pulled away from me. She stood just out of reach, one hand almost unconsciously clutching the bandages over her ribs, that arm cradled in turn by her other. "H'man," she murmured, then turned and limped back to the wagon.
Goddamn it! She wanted to leave. With her wound still red, swollen, and threatening to tear itself open, she actually wanted to hit the road!
"Damnation! No! I'm not going to help you!" I stormed in frustration, slouched back against a tree and crossed my arms. She hissed something back and threw the bisons' harnesses to the ground in disgust, being unable, in her condition, to lift the wagon tongue. She glared at me, then caught up a crossbow from the wagon.
For a second I thought she was considering using it on me, but without another glance my way she started off on her own.
I watched her limp off into the trees and disappear from my view.
"Anyway, the road's THATAWAY!" I yelled at the forest.
Christ on a crutch, she's serious!
So what? What did I care for her? If she wanted to kill herself, that was her business. Wasn't it? I mean, it wasn't like I owed her anything. Anyway, I wrestled with my conscience for a couple of minutes.
What can I tell you:
"Shit! GODDAM IT! WAIT!"
I found her twenty or so metres into the forest, perched on a sun-warmed rock and obviously waiting for me.
"Okay lady," I gritted my teeth and rubbed the bridge of my nose, forcing the words out, "You win."
She bared her teeth at me and hissed slowly and clearly, "We go?"
"Yeah, sure... We go."
She looked down and dropped her hand away from her breast: the bandages were stained red with the blood seeping out under them. "Oh, Christ," I shook my head. This was one stubborn and determined bitch.
The beast-lady lay quietly in the back of the wagon, staring up at branches and clouds moving past. I glanced back at her, assured myself the new bandages were still in place, then turned to look out over the mountainous shaggy backs of the bison as they plodded along.
This Tahr knew where she was going. At the fork in the road she had directed that we should continue eastwards, toward the remote sea. I briefly considered debating this, then shrugged. Why not? I wondered what destination she had in mind and felt the fear again.
Were there more of them? How many? Where were we going? Christsake, I didn't have to go along with this! All I had to do was dump her somewhere. I didn't need her... did I?
I don't know!
So we travelled together, strange companions, each trying to come to know the other. Learning her language - Sathe - was hard.
English was next to impossible for her. Her mouth, all of her vocal apparatus from her larynx to her tongue to the shape of her jaw weren't as flexible as mine. With effort I was able to imitate the growls, snarls, and sibilant noises that made up the Sathe language, but she could barely manage a coherent english sentence at all.
Also there was the fact that she wasn't human... or that I wasn't Sathe, whichever way you want to look at it.
Language is a means to communicate ideas and impressions, its development influenced by the environment, by physiological and psychological traits. This creature I was learning from was mammalian, bipedal, and bilaterally symmetrical. We seemed to have a fair bit in common.
But wereas my distant ancestors were brachiating primates hastily adapted for lives on open plains, her's were dedicated hunters, perhaps forest-dwelling quadrupeds who - God knows how or when - began to use tools. As we'd evolved from such distant and diverse beginnings, so had our languages. There were terms she used to refer to things she could see at night, to sounds I couldn't hear and to things I couldn't smell. Conversely, I was unable to find words for differentiating between certain tints of a color... and there were no words to describe things I had grown up with. Different outlook. Different mindsets. How do you describe color to a blind person?
Given time I'd eventually come to grips with that language, but for the time I had to live with my questions. And she had to live with her's.
So the language lessons continued every day as we made our leisurely way east. The grammar wasn't that hard to pick up, but my vocabulary was extremely rudimentary. I would point things out or have them shown to me, then Tahr would give me her name for them. It was that way I learned the cat... Sathe terms for fascinating things like tree, bush, rock, road, bison, wood, bird, and other things that would come in handy if I intended to live the rest of my life in the wilderness. The only man/Sathe made things we had to work from were the things we had with us, the wagon, Tahr's possessions, and my things.
My things: the contents of the pack, my rifle and clothing. These fascinated and bemused her. She scrutinized everything from the fabric of my clothes to my gun (a puzzle I quickly confiscated, to her obvious annoyance and indignation). She tapped the aluminium of my canteen, tried to bend the laminated steel of my knife blade, stared and poked at the compass mounted it its perspex bubble in the hilt. Just what I could be doing with such things was confusing and frustrating her.
Looking at it from my point of view there wasn't all that much, but I was thankful for what I had, especially the automatic rifle. All Tahr had to call her own was her sword and the tattered remains of her armour.
And the days went by. Sometimes the merciless Virginia sun, sometimes rain that brought the bugs and mud. The lessons continued and increased in complexity, graduated to abstracts, there was more confusion and more late nights sitting around a campfire struggling to grasp a concept. How can you describe something that you can't simply hold in your hand; something such as thought, hope, or fear? Miming just didn't work too effectively on a creature who used different body language.
Things progressed slowly, at their own speed and as I learned more, I was able to fill in the blanks. But is was so maddeningly slow! There's nothing more frustrating than wanting to ask something but not having the words to do so.
Apparently there were also questions that Tahr wanted to ask me, and she did try as best she could. What was I? Where did I come from? Things along those veins. Because of that I was slightly grateful for the barrier between us. Despite my equipment she still sometimes seemed to think of me as little more than a well-trained animal: sit, wait, fetch this, fetch that. I played along. It was easier to go with the flow until I found out more about my situation.
Mid-summer. Hot and dusty after days without rain. Insects buzzed in irritating clouds around the bison. Grit from the road hung around in the air before finally settling in hair, mouth, and clothes. I was itching and covered in an irritating coating of dust and sweat.
Of course when I had the chance to bathe, I took it.
As the sun sank low - a red eye over the hills to the west - the moon was already high in the sky. The temperature was starting to drop.
I pulled my head up from underwater and gasped air, shaking water out of my hair in a spray of droplets. Arggh, cold. Goddamn, it was good to be clean, but I was looking forward to getting back to the campsite where I had left Tahr and a hot fire. I rubbed my hair as dry as I could and turned to where my clothes were drying.
Sitting among the shadows on the mossy bank with my clothes beside her, Tahr was watching me, one hand pressing lightly against her bandaged ribs. She was regarding me with her head cocked to one side, expression unfathomable. Damnation! How long had she been watching while I was gathering goosebumps in my birthday suit? She continued to watch me as I waded over to collect my clothes. Damnation, she was studying me as... as I had studied her. I felt an embarassed flush burning up under my skin, then even more embarrasement at feeling like this in front of something that wasn't even human. I guess she had a right to be curious about something she obviously had never seen before, or perhaps she was feeling hungry. Those greenstone eyes followed my fingers on the closures as I pulled on my damp clothes." So what are you staring at!" I snapped. "Never seen red hair before?"
In return she gave me a glistening grin.
"Damn peeping tom alien bitch," I muttered as I finished dressing. "Satisfied?" I asked sarcastically.
She hissed something in obtuse sibilants, struggled to her feet with a open mouthed gasp, then pointed at the water. "Help me?" she mimed washing herself.
"A cat that likes water, eh? You sure? It's getting cold..."
She hissed and fumbled with her kilt, dropping it at her feet. I had to help her into the pool, where she settled slowly, yelping as her wound went under. I'd have to clean that again later on. Soon I found myself scrubbing her back. Actually it wasn't too much different from washing a dog, but this one cooperated. Caked blood, dust, and mud swirled away downstream. Finally, a soggy arm about my shoulders, I helped her back to the camp and the fire.
As we huddled close to the fire I couldn't help but stare at the felid on the far side of the flames. With the wet fur plastered to her skin she took on an appearance somewhere between ludicrous and pathetic. Her inhuman skeleton was accentuated: the long legs and short torso with broad chest. The bones in her legs and arms looked... wrong; twisted about each other the wrong way, perhaps a few too many.
That ridiculously bedraggled fur slowly dried as she meticulously groomed herself with her claws, puffing out as it did so. By the time a slab of venison was roasting over the coals it was a glowing, glossy tan. Cleaned up she looked much better than before; sleek, warm... cuddly?
Her pelt was a dark tan with lighter streaks around the ribs and on the stomach. She didn't have whiskers, but there was that mane: actually long fur that began at the crown of her head and along her cheeks and grew in thick strands down her neck. Small was not an accurate description of her size; compact would be much more suitable. As I had noticed when lifting her, she was heavy for her size. There was more muscle tucked away there than her stature revealed. Was her's denser than human muscle tissue?
She glanced up from the haunch she was rapidly reducing to bone and saw me studying her: "Thresss n'rethi ai sa fe r'rescast. Fe'si?"
I recognised it as a question, but that was all. As I looked away in sudden embarrassment Tahr broke into a shuttering, uncontrolled hiss.
Tahr seemed certain she knew where we were. With much waving of hands and drawing with sticks in the dirt, she managed to convey the fact that were near a small place-with-[house?]-many called Traders Meet.
"Town? Traders... Meet?" I asked, struggling over the pronunciation. You try and emulate what sounds like a hybrid catfight-leaking boiler. It would get easier with practice. Strange name. Still, I guess it's no weirder than Los Angeles or Buffalo.
But a town.
"Where this? Where town is?" I asked.
Tahr pointed ahead down the road.
"No. Not understand you not..." I scratched my head in bewilderment. God, how to ask this? I picked up a stick and began to draw a rough map of the road we had come down, the stream we had just crossed, the river where I had saved her sodden hide. "We here," I scratched out an X about where we were. "Town?" I asked and passed the stick to the felid. She was staring at the map with a strange expression, then she took the stick and put in a triangle for the town. Further down the road.
I moved my hand to indicate a much larger area. "Here?" I asked. "Show?"
Tahr hesitated, then began drawing, filling in the blanks.
She drew a recognisable map of the east coast, Canada, of florida, part of the gulf, the Appalachians, the heartland, the Great Lakes. This was America. The States! But where was everybody, everything? It didn't fit. I opened my mouth to speak, but she wasn't done yet.
She was dividing the map up into sections, lines splitting it up into four... no, five parts.
I stared, perplexed. Tahr pointed to the eastern-most section. "Kerr'sther Hytors," she named it and started adding more details.
"Hey! Whoa! Hold it!" Tahr looked up in surprise. "What the fuck's this!" I demanded in English, jabbing my finger at the map. "This! What's going on... Oh, shit! What's the point in asking you!"
"Kerr'sther Hytors," she repeated; looking confused.
I suppose I must've looked just as puzzled, staring at her map without understanding. Finally I nodded. Very well, cat, we shall see. We shall see.
"Kerster Hytors," I acknowledged, pointing at that place on the map.
There were five Realms - she explained - and the one we were in was named Kerr'sther Hytors: the Eastern Realm; so called because - no prizes here - of its location on the eastern seaboard. The four other Realms she tried to describe, but there the language barrier slammed in our faces.
No matter where she thought we were and despite the fact I had seen no sign of civilization for over a week, I was not yet willing to believe that I was anywhere but some obscure backwoods block of Virginia with a town around the next bend. Everything, the flora and the fauna, was absolutely identical. Even the lay of the land was approximately the same: the Appalachians levelling out to the wide coastal plains covered in a mixture of coniferous and semi-deciduous forests. It was just this damned cat!
Well, she said we were making for a town. When we got there I would see what was what.
As my grasp of the Sathe language progressed, I tried to ask some of the questions that had been bothering me for some time:
"Tahr. Who you? Why you attacked?"
Her wound was healing well. I had taken the stained bandages off and thrown them away, but that angry red scar would be with her for some time. One of her fingers absently traced it out as she turned to blink at me from where she sat on my right. From what I could read of her expressions, she seemed startled by the question.
"I [ ] not you give. Understand?" she said. I frowned, trying to think that one through. Finally I had to give up. "No understand I," I said.
"I do not understand," she corrected my grammar to Sathe proper and tried to explain. "I like [ ]. I give you thing; you give me other thing. We [trade]. I do this. I trader, [merchant]."
"You give what?" I asked. "You have no... give things. You have much... Sathe with swords. You no merchant, yes?"
Her eyes flickered away from me for a second. "One my [mate, husband?]."
Ah. I had trodden upon hallowed ground here. She was trying to change the subject. I got the message. I dropped my questioning about what she was and instead asked about the unknown word. It turned out it meant a prospective mate, she was [courting?] him, a boyfriend. "Tahr..." What could I say? "I sorry." It seemed inadequate.
She looked at me in brief surprise, then turned away, ears down and subject successfully changed. If she was telling the truth about her friend, I was sorry, but I was itching to find out what she was really doing. A trader with no trade goods or even supplies and a number of guards. I believed her story about as far as I could throw the Washington monument.
Well, two could play at that game. If she wasn't being entirely honest with me, then there were a few snippets that I could withhold from her. Not exactly lying, just not offering all the information.
The next few days drifted by with monotonous similarity. By now Tahr was able to take her turn driving so we took shifts watching the bison - not that they needed much, they seemed to have a natural autopilot; just point 'em the right way and they keep going - and continued language lessons. In the late afternoon we'd stop and set up camp; a short ceremony where one of us'd start a fire and the other would go and kill some food.
Tahr would get a fire going with my cigarette lighter (she fascinated in flicking it and watching the sparks fly). If we had nothing from the night before, I'd set off with the crossbow and go hunting small game. Of course the Sathe weapon wasn't as powerful or accurate as my twentieth century firearm, but it was adequate and spared ammunition for other contingencies.
We drifted along following this pattern and slowly, one after the other, the days turned to weeks before we came to Traders Meet.
From the cover of the wooded ridge I looked down onto the walled town lying on the crossroads below. It sure wasn't Richmond, Virginia.
The James river was there; faithful to form as it wound blue and serene between hills. And the beautiful countryside of Virginia was all around us, verdant and vibrant green, even if the city that should be there... wasn't.
Smoke curled from the chimneys of the wooden buildings below, nothing larger than two stories high. Afternoon sunlight glinted off the glass windows of some of the buildings, the rest all boasted wooden shutters. The entire town was arranged around a large square and it looked like it was market day.
Small figures scuttled through the streets and amongst the brightly coloured stalls in the square. The 4x power magnification of my sight was enough to let me pick out the various colours of the inhabitants' fur.
I sank back against a tree and shook my head. I had hoped that I wouldn't be seeing this, but there it was, large as life. A whole fucking community of furry sapients, slap bang where the state capitol of Virginia should be. Somewhere I'd taken one hell of a wrong turn.
Shit! I thought this kind of thing only happened to little girls with small dogs.
"What wrong?" Tahr asked, turning from where she had been sharing the view. She stared at me with her head cocked to one side.
Oh no! Whatever could be wrong? I've just been whisked off to the Planet of the Cats. I'll have to spend the rest of my life eating Tender Vittles, and she asks if anything is wrong!?!
"No, all fine," I lied. Understanding Sathe was easier than speaking it, especially with such bitterness choking from the inside. I took another look at the town below, "This where you go?" I waved my hand at the town; offering it to her: "You here. All fine."
Good luck lady, this is where I get off.
I walked back through the trees to where we had left the wagon, the bison placidly cropping away at the grass.
I snagged my pack and pulled it on. The M-16 I left dangling by the strap as I set off back the way we had come, my feet dragging up dust.
"K'hy!" Claws caught my sleeve and stopped me in my tracks, pulling me around. "Where you go?"
"I go," I pointed west, the direction I was facing.
"Where?" Her hand was still on my arm.
I just shrugged. How should I know?
"You come with me?"
I stared at her, then started shaking again. She twisted her hand to disengage her claws and stepped back. "K'hy?"
"I not," I said.
"Please! Much please. I [ ] you [ ] come. Please." Much of what she said was totally incomprehensible to me, but she seemed desperate about something.
"I afraid. I much afraid!" I blurted out.
She stared at me in what could only be astonishment. Then her hand reached out and gingerly touched my beginnings of a beard. I flinched from her touch and she hesitated, then withdrew her fingers. "Saaa," she hissed. "I afraid too. Help, please."
I looked at her, then at the wilderness surrounding us. There was really nowhere for me to go. It would take me weeks to get anywhere on foot, and now, now I knew I wouldn't find a human city... I wouldn't find another human.
I sagged. "Yes."
So we entered Traders Meet with me riding in the back of the wagon, disillusioned and scared and trying to look harmless. All my equipment had been shoved under a pile of hay up front. All I had were my clothes... and my knife strapped around my ankle. Tahr's ears had laid back when she'd seen me concealing it there, but she'd said nothing.
Tahr had not wanted me to be too conspicuous, as I would have been if riding up front. She was vague about the reasons, but she didn't want to advertise the fact I was intelligent - relatively - nor that I could talk. Again I submitted to her wishes and rode in the hay.
First there were the farms: Small clusters of buildings surrounded by their fields. Cattle - deer, bison, and goats - roamed everywhere. Not surprising when you look at a Sathe's teeth. What was surprising were the number of fields sown with crops. I'd never seen Tahr eat anything besides meat: cooked or raw, but then I'd never offered anything else. I guess becoming omnivorous would be a plus in the evolution of a species.
On the outskirts of the town lay the manors: the homes of the affluent, set among shady, stately trees and grass: not manicured lawns but long, wild grasses that stirred languidly in the heavy breeze. They were beautiful, those estates: white walls with exposed beams stained lamp black - Tudor, I think the style's called. Big, rambling affairs with glass in the mullioned windows.
Just outside the town walls were the rundown piles of lumber that the lowest classes called home. They had their own streets; dusty little alleys branching off everywhere. Inside the walls were the rest, the ones who fell into the middle, the lower merchants, traders, dealers, hawkers, along with business of all kinds crammed into the walls.
Small, narrow streets laid out to no set plan, just placed according to whim and need. Some were cobbled in rough-cut stones while others were just bare earth packed down rock-solid by feet and iron bound wheels. A heavy, pervading stench from garbage and shit hung in the air, but it wasn't as bad as I'd been expecting. Periodic gratings in the street meant there was a sewage system working. It also probably meant there was seepage through to the water table. I'd better be careful about the water I drank.
Wood, brick, plaster, tiles. Buildings with stained whitewash splashed on their walls between old creosote-stained timbers and the second stories hanging out over the streets to form dark, reeking tunnels. Stalls with faded cloth that at one time was probably brightly coloured - a few still were - fronted shops. Smoke poured from the stacks of smithies and from the open doors of alehouses came raucous yowling. So like a medieval European fortified town, yet the inhabitants set it apart as markedly different.
Noise: that was everywhere.
A modern city is has its own pulse: the beat of traffic, sirens, bustling humanity, shouting, engines, planes, music. In the night halogen and neon lights beckon while spires of reinforced concrete create their own skyline with uncounted millions of illuminated windows. The streets throb to the subway hurtling beneath them and humanity is a neverending flow and ebb, like the tides, regular as the night and day: Vendors, salesmen, loners, delinquents, businessmen, punks, mavericks, pimps, fat-rich contessas, hookers, winos, teenagers, actors, children, queens, losers, writers, dreamers, drifters... A true city can be a representational cross-section of humanity. It was an exhilarating, terrifying experience to an out-of-towner, but just everyday life to the cityborn. This town was alive in its own way. The shouting of pedlars, hawkers, and merchants competing with the bass rumble of heavy wheels and the clamouring of animals. As we passed the city gates I studied my Sathe. She was relaxed, an alert glint in her eye. This was no stranger to city life, she had grown up in a place such as this.
Maybe even this town?
The next thing I noticed was how everything seemed to stop as we passed. Everyone dropped what they were doing and stared at us. Well, at me.
They all looked the same, yet they were all different. The same features: long muzzle, sharp triangular ears, green slit-pupiled eyes, stripped fur, compact bodies with well proportioned limbs. And all seemed different: A different shade of fur: some light, some dark. I saw one female with a pelt of silver-grey. There were scars on the body or nicks in the ears, flecks of gold in the eyes. Sizes varied enormously. Some were about Tahr's size - fairly large for a Sathe - and the young (would you call them children or cubs?), looking for all the world like ambulatory teddy bears, would come to about hip height on me. Males were slightly larger than the females, with heavier manes, thinner hips, and lacking the unobtrusive twin rows of three teats, but there didn't seem to be any obvious segregation of the sexes. Females haggled with males over the cost of bread while other males seemed quite content to keep the cubs in line.
Fashions obviously played a role in Sathe culture, to judge from the riot of colour on the felids staring at us. Although many wore nothing but their fur - male and female genitalia hidden by the tufted fur at their groins, hinting at a very relaxed or nonexistent nudity taboo - a large number wore breeches or cloaks in various styles and various colors: eye-searingly brilliant colours to mud drab. Nearly every one of them was armed. Daggers, blades, scimitars like Tahr's looked to be the weapon of preference.
And some saw me, slapped their neighbour's shoulder and pointed. More and more heads turned. There was laughter from some, silence from others.
This isn't happening!
The weirdest sensation, like my brain was cringing in my skull, staring out at the world through the eye sockets, yet not really seeing. All I could do was huddle in the back of the wagon and try to make myself invisible. I wasn't very good at it. I became abruptly aware that my teeth were chattering. In fact I was shaking all over.
Tahr seemed to know where she was going, slipping into the halting flow of creaking, rattling animal-drawn vehicles, yowling at other wagoners and pedestrians. As we moved slowly through the town we picked up a small entourage of cubs who ran after us. I was the attraction and they scurried after us, hissing and pointing at me.
She pulled off the street and into a gateway leading to a small cobbled court surrounded by doorways with wooden gates blocking off the lower half. A strong animal smell permeated the air and various animal heads poked out of the stalls; I recognised llamas and bison. Must be a stable.
As she reined in the bison a portly individual, greying about the ears, ran out of an open doorway and chased our young followers off with shouts and snarls. The cubs avoided him with ease, scampered off to a safe distance and returned the calls with obvious glee.
Dismissing them with a disgusted wave of a paw the Sathe turned back to our wagon. Tahr jumped to the ground, hissing as the jolt put sudden pressure on her still tender wound and went to meet him. Seen from the back, her walk was a lot like a human woman's. The fact that she walked on tiptoes with her heels off the ground almost gave the illusion that she was wearing high heels.
The Sathe looked past her at the wagon, and his eyes met mine.
With the number of flies that were buzzing around the stalls I'd have thought it was a rather risky to stand around with your mouth hanging open like that.
Tahr had to raise her voice to catch his attention. He finally managed to tear his eyes off me and pay her some heed. Their conversation seemed to have a lot to do with the wagon, the bison, and me; They were to far away for me to catch details, but Tahr would say something, the male would sign a 'no', until finally they seemed to settle on something. They approached, the stable owned watching me with eyes as green as Tahr's. He relaxed a bit when I backed away from him as if afraid. It wasn't all an act. "Is it dangerous?" he asked Tahr
"Only [ ]," her ears flicked up and down in her version of a smile.
This was doing a whole lot for my ego.
He considered a moment, then agreed to let her leave the wagon and bison in the courtyard. After the pair slapped paws in a what I guessed was their version of a handshake, he wandered back into the stalls muttering something to himself.
Tahr scrambled into the wagon bed and grabbed my pack. She slapped my leg and before I could protest - ask what was happening - whispered, "I back. Not long." Then she was out of the wagon and off across the courtyard.
I sighed and dropped back into the hay, squinting up into the muggy sky. God, my head hurt. Too much, too strange, too quickly. I tried not to think about Tahr selling me or handing me over to the authorities. I didn't know what they would do to something like me, but spending the rest of my life in a zoo or medieval laboratory was not on my retirement plans.
What's happened to me?
Another planet? Not likely. Everything but the local inhabitants were the same. The flora and fauna identical to that back home. No two worlds in the same universe could have evolved so perfectly, so exactly.
Not in the same universe, the same reality.
But there were theories, not necessarily restricted to the bounds of science fiction. Realities are numberless, superimposed on each other like frames in a movie. And like that film each is different. In each of those realities, whenever a certain point is reached - a certain decision is made - another universe is created, branching off from the main trunk like a branch from a tree, a twig from that branch...
Hah! That theory was so full of holes you could curdle it and call it Swiss cheese, but it was the best one I had. It was the only one I had.
Two hours passed. Fear passed into exhaustion and despite my predicament I dozed.
The lurch as the wagon began to move jolted me awake again. Not seeing anyone in the drivers bench I sat up alarmed. A Sathe, perhaps a stablehand judging by the pitchfork he... no, she was carrying, was leading the bison by the reins, moving them to clear an access way. The movement as I sat up caught her eye. She turned, squalled, and dropped both the reins and her pitchfork as she backpedalled wildly.
On all fours she crouched on the cobblestones with her mouth gaping, teeth bared, chest heaving. She reminded me of Tahr back when she first laid eyes on me. Over in a stable door another Sathe, I think it was the one Tahr had been talking to, appeared and yelled at the stable hand. She stood and yowled back at him, too fast for me to get a grasp on. He gave a snort and vanished back into the brick building.
I guess the owner of the place hadn't briefed his staff on their unusual visitor. I smiled nervously at the stablehand who was scooping up her pitchfork. She snarled and went to catch the reins.
She sputtered something back at me.
"Fuck you too," I said and flopped back into the hay to wait.
The hay itched, the afternoon sun was hot, and the flies were an incessant irritation. Once and only once I went to stand at the entrance to the courtyard and stare out at the activity on the street. Inconspicuous I wasn't and I soon retreated back to the wagon as I started attracting attention. I had the feeling that if I stepped out of the bounds of the stables I'd be fair game.
I was starting to feel slightly nauseous.
Tahr didn't get back until late. The sun was low over the stable buildings, the shadows growing. For hours I had been waiting for her, and I was beginning to despair that she may have ditched me. But she came marching back into the courtyard, my pack slung over her shoulder, engaged in animated conversation with a Sathe decked in heavy utilitarian breeks, several carved, wooden bracelets around one wrist. They clattered as he waved his arm at the wagon.
I had trouble keeping up with the rapid-fire chatter, but I was able to pick up that she was trying to make a deal of some kind with this guy.
Currency was something my language lessons hadn't covered, however that seemed to be the main topic of their conversation. Tahr was trying to sell something.
The Sathe went around to the front of the wagon where the one in green began to inspect the bison: lifting their legs to check the hooves, inspecting their teeth and eyes. He obviously found something he didn't like and barked something at Tahr. She spread her hands and hissed in reply.
The other grunted and moved on to inspect the cart.
They finally came to a mutual agreement and slapped palms. Tahr came around to the back of the wagon. "K'hy, we go," she said slowly, beckoning me. "Come."
I hesitated, then uncovered the pack and slung it over my shoulder. She caught the crossbow I tossed her and settled its carry strap around her shoulder while I caught up the assault rifle and dropped off the end of the wagon.
I towered over the two Sathe and the one who had just bought our faithful transport looked me up and down(nervously?). He asked Tahr a question.
"No, he will behave," Tahr said. Slow and deliberate enough for me to understand and with a stern look thrown in for good measure.
I nodded and said, "Okay Kimo Sabe," in English.
They both looked at me.
"Very well," the unnamed Sathe said uncertainly. He reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a small leather purse. From this he counted nine roughly-circular gold coloured coins, each about the size of a dime, and handed them over to Tahr, who passed them on to me.
Heavy as gold. I examined them closely, then bit them and looked at the tooth marks in the soft metal. Shit, real gold. Probably not pure, but worth a pretty penny nevertheless. I dropped the weighty gold lumps into one of the cargo pockets down the leg of my fatigue pants. The buyer looked astonished; had he never seen pockets before? "You would give [money] to an animal?" he asked.
"He is [reliable? trustworthy?]," Tahr glanced at me again, "And who would [mug?] [something] like him? K'hy, come. Follow."
I followed her out of the sheltered courtyard and into the street, into pandemonium. On the wagon I'd been above the foot traffic; now I was in the middle of it, buffeted by a sea of colourful, furry bodies.
Heavily laden wagons rumbled and clattered over the cobbles and clay of the streets while pedestrians scurried out of the way. Sathe shopkeepers yowled and hissed at the passerbys, hawking their wares. Brilliantly textured, dyed rugs, and tapestries hung on display in some shops, others sold bowls and implements, some delicately carved, others crude hunks of wood, while still other stalls sold goods that I couldn't imagine a use for. The air was heady with the hissing white noise of a thousand cats fighting, the scents of spices, and fur, animals and shit and decaying meat. Flies swarmed around a butcher's stall, occasionally swatted away by a bored cub wielding a whisk.
No matter how thick the crowd was a small island of empty space remained about Tahr and I as Sathe melted away from me like ice from a blowtorch. Green eyes stared at me, multicoloured, multitextured muzzles turning aside to confer with neighbours. Questions were howled at Tahr and she growled or sputtered her replies. Many times laughter hissed back.
It wasn't as if the town was big, and it was primitive - worse than Jersey - but everywhere I looked over the heads of the aborigines there were more. And more. The streets were full of them, as were the buildings. The smells were thick and heavy and often nauseating, so many of them, almost tangible. My senses were overwhelmed, overloaded by too much strangeness too soon. I felt my mind cringing and fought back a rising panic. All I could do was follow Tahr automatically, dodging around a wagon and onto the porch of a large, two-story building with a sign depicting what looked like a blue stormcloud hanging above the front door. A cub cautiously stopped Tahr at the threshold and in neutrally respectful tones asked something to fast for me to follow. Tahr answered and the cub looked from her to me, then scampered back into the building. A minute later a fawn and cream female with grizzled fur stepped out onto the landing, looking Tahr up and down with the air of someone who has just discovered what the dog has trekked across the carpet. I guess Tahr's stained and battered armour, the tooling all but buried beneath strata of dust, didn't make for much of a first impression.
"You want a [room]?" she asked. "You and that [ ]?"
"I do," Tahr replied, head bowed.
She glanced at me. "It is [ugly]! No!" Without another word she turned her back to leave. Tahr looked startled, reached out to touch her arm, then jumped back when the other swung her claws in a vicious slash that just missed Tahr, ears flattened and snarled something too impassioned for me to understand. Tahr straightened and snapped back.
Their voices rose in volume as the argument gained momentum; fur bristling, snarls and spats like tesla coils. Tahr was obviously furious and the other female was determined to stand her ground. Finally Tahr gave a disgusted hiss, turned her back and stalked off, snagging my sleeve with a claw to drag me along.
She smoothed her fur down with a hand as we walked, occasionally glancing at me. I was too stunned by my surroundings to really notice it.
At the next place - inn - we stopped, the innkeeper didn't waste time arguing; he slammed the door in Tahr's face. A few seconds later it opened again, a furry arm snaked out, hung a sign in a crabbed script from the door, then whisked out of sight again.
Tahr snarled impotently at the door.
Back on the main thoroughfare again, the jolting unreality of the situation all around me. Tahr was still seething to herself, running her hands repeatedly over fur that refused to lie flat. She looked around, then made a beeline for a nearby stall, unadorned flat planks displaying wickerwork baskets. The boards bounced as Tahr leaned a closed fist on them, half shouting at the merchant behind the counter to be heard above the streetnoise. He pointed a fur-tufted finger - small knuckles - up the street and gave directions. Tahr thanked him.
Again I followed. There was nowhere else to go.
It was a two storey building with a picture of what looked like a rabbit or hare hung above the door. The sign also had a line of that text: indecipherable, scratch-like marks done in black paint. There was no resemblance to the greek alphabet english utilises; more like a coalition of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese ideography.
I had to stoop to get in through the front door.
Inside there was just enough headroom for me to stand upright, provided I stayed put. To walk about I'd have had to duck under or avoid the oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. Not that there was much room to walk around. Sathe are small of stature and their buildings are built to their scale, not accommodating to my build.
Most of the ground floor was a common room, a long split-log table and benches in the middle of it. Over the fire hung a black-iron pot, bubbling, filled with what smelled like some kind of stew. A narrow, flimsy staircase led through a hole in the ceiling to another floor upstairs. A couple of doors led to what could have been a kitchen and the landlord's quarters. The room was also full of Sathe.
They sat at the communal table, some eating, some just talking; six of them. As I stooped into the room they forgot about their food and goggled. A Sathe, male, fur grey and stippled with jet like a dark ocelot pushed his way into the room from the kitchen, wiping his hands on the apron wrapped around his waist. Abruptly he froze, eyes locked on me, then without shifting his gaze demanded, "What is this?"
"I ask for a room for a few nights," she said. "For my [ ] and I."
The innkeeper stared at her incredulously. There were a few hisses from the other guests. "You are [ ]," he finally said. "I will not have [ ]! What do you take me for, a [ ]?!"
"Sir, he is [ ] and quiet. He will be no [trouble]. I [ ] you I can pay!"
He huffed and planted his hands on his hips, stalking across and looking up at me. His breath reeked of fish and meat. "What is it [ ]?"
Tahr answered him with a string of words I couldn't cut through. From then on their haggling became indecipherable; fast and curt, slang and honourifics, vocabulary beyond my primer stage. But Tahr seemed to be getting somewhere; at least we hadn't been thrown out on our ears this time.
Finally he feigned spitting: "I [yield?]." He waved a hand at the stairs. "Pay in [ ]. But it had better give no [difficulties]. It is your [responsibility]!" Tahr flipped a gold coin that he plucked cleanly from the air, and led me toward the stairs. The patrons watched me warily.
Our room was small; little more than a cupboard with one thin mattress rolled up on the floor, a stool, and a small slit in the wall that served for a window. The wooden floor was rough, dirty and the room had a faint but definite odour of pine and urine and wet fur. Great place. The Holiday Inn would seem palatial in comparison.
That window and a small tallow candle were all the lighting we had. It didn't seem to bother Tahr in the slightest. I recalled the way in which her eyes caught firelight, how she seemed to have little difficulty moving at night. Cats' eyes. She could see one hell of a lot better in the dark than I could.
Tahr glanced around and huffed slightly: "Huh! Well, it will serve. Wait here." The door swung shut and the piece of wood that served for a latch made a hollow thok as it dropped into place.
I was in no hurry to go anywhere. It had been a long, weird day. I unrolled the pallet, sat down, and leaned back against the wall to wait. She was pretty quick, back within a few minutes carrying a pair of steaming bowls and two cups on a tray.
Whatever was in those bowls smelled unbelievably good. I was drooling even before she'd kicked the door closed behind her. She set the tray down and passed me a bowl: a stew of some kind with a weird implement stuck in it, a sort of cross between a fork and a spoon. Tahr watched in unfettered amusement as I fumbled with it. To her the idea of me doing something as civilised as eating with a tool would be unusual. She'd seen me using my knife to cut food, but watching me trying to imitate her facility was something different. She ate from her own bowl, but still watched me over each noisy mouthful she took.
The cups were unusual: they had a small spout on one side, made for different jaws. Only water. I didn't try and drink from it. The water would have come from the local well and I didn't want to know what varieties of microscopic entities called that well home. The stew was nothing special: The meat was undercooked and might have been slightly gammy, but the worst was covered by the plentiful addition of spices. Vegetables were a surprise: you just have to see a Sathe grin once to swear on your mother's grave they're pure carnivores.
Still, my hunger made that the best meal I'd ever ate. I wolfed down my share in no time, revealing a rib bone at the bottom. Tahr also had one, but she could do something with it: picking it up and biting through it with jaws that treated the bone as though it were no more than marshmallow. Meticulously, and with obvious relish she worked the marrow out with her tongue.
I'd left my rib lying in my bowl. She had noticed I'd never bothered with the bones as she had, but up to now she'd never commented.
Tahr ran her tongue around her mouth. "Not eat?" she asked, gesturing at the bone.
"I cannot," I explained. "My teeth... cannot."
"Saaa!" she hissed in understanding and twitched her ears. Picking up the other bone she bit it cleanly in half, then handed half to me. "Here. Try."
Gingerly I took the morsel. Tahr watched intently and with obvious amusement as I tried to work the marrow out. It didn't taste of anything much: a little salty, perhaps a bit sweet. Not to my taste. The felid laughed outright as I passed it back to her. Within a minute she'd polished it off and let the stool lean back against the wall, the bowl dropping to the floor. She closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and belched loudly and contentedly.
The light coming in through the thin window slit came from the late afternoon sun, still following its inexorable path from east to west. After the meal I was feeling pleasantly drowsy. Tahr was stretched out on the pallet, looking like the proverbial cat that's swallowed the canary. What the hell do we do now? Watch TV? Go down to the bar? find the swimming pool? Shit, I sighed, leaned back against a wall and picked up the M16, idly running a finger through the dust and grime coating the receiver.
When the rifles had first been issued to the troops in Vietnam, they'd been handed out with the message that the rifle was so efficient that it never needed cleaning. Of course the troops were happy to accept such statements and never did clean their rifles. How many good men had that snafu killed?
I was using the old ball ammunition, M193, a dirty-burning propellant that would eventually clog up the barrel with residue. The new IMR stuff was cleaner and more effective, but not compatible with the M16A1s. I buttoned out the magazine and opened the chamber, holding the weapon up to the light as I squinted through the barrel, frowning at the grime. I was tired, but this gun had saved my life and kept me fed. I started breaking it down for cleaning.
I put a couple of drops of oil into the barrel and then pulled a cloth through, clearing away crystalline traces of propellant. As I was scrubbing the rotary lug bolt a floorboard creaked. Tahr squatted down beside me.
She picked up the forestock assembly, turning it over in her hands, the black pads on her fingertips stroking the synthetic materials and the blued steel. "You never tell. What is this? What is it for?"
Perhaps she had guessed it was a weapon of some kind. Although I hadn't told her what it was and made sure that I was well away from the camp when using it for hunting, the facts were there if she had cared to look at them: I left the camp carrying the otherworldly device and came back with meat that had obviously been killed by some means other than a knife or crossbow.
Now she was asking me directly. Well, she hadn't been completely straight with me...
"Hunting," I replied vaguely.
"Hunting? How?" she pressed. "What do you do? Club the animal to death?" She mimed beating some small creature with the stock.
"I not understand," I lied, looking confused. She sighed and turned back to the assembly in her hands: "Where is this from?"
I thought about what I should say. Should I tell her where I came from? No, not yet. That was something I wasn't sure she would take too well. Finally I answered with, "My people make. My kind."
"So small, so fine," she murmured testing the machined steel with a claw. "Your people, where are they? West?"
I thought hard again before answering.
"My people are far away. I not think I can go back to them. I here, no way back. Tahr, what you do with me?" This was her terrain. She was my lifeline, without her I was lost. Besides, I liked her.
"You help me, I help you. I try to go north. Town named Mainport. You come, help me?"
I slipped the barrel back into place, tightened it. A magazine slipped into place with a smooth click, the bolt slid back and forth freely. I squinted through the Armalon optical sight. The lens was smudged and dirty. I cleaned it with the tail of my shirt, not exactly spotless, but passable.
"What you there do?"
She uneasily turned away to look out the window.
She stood and made for the door. "I back soon." With that she was gone. "Damnation!" I swore and pounded my fist against the floor in frustration.
In the narrow street below the inn a couple of teamsters were arguing over who had the right of way. Their shouting sounded like a catfight, and the noise grew louder when they started taking swipes at each other and passerbys stopped to shout encouragement.
There was a fair-sized crowd out there when I slammed the shutters on the window and slumped against the wall, sliding down to sit on the floor where I buried my head in my hands. On the wall opposite, pale, horizontal bars of dusty light from the slatted shutters covered the wall and door, filling the room with a muted orange twilight.
"I back soon," she'd said.
Again I was waiting and hoping that she would return. What could I do if she didn't? I had the feeling that I wouldn't make it hundred yards down the street without her, so I was effectively trapped in here until either she returned or the streets cleared enough for me to make my way to the gate.
Amongst these felids I'd just be an exotic animal; rare and possibly worth a lot. I caught a shuddering breath, leaned my head back against the rough wall and closed my eyes.
And what if she doesn't come back ?
She has to. She said she would.
Yeah, but if...
I tried not to think about that.
How long was this going to go on? How long would I be stuck here? There were things I wanted to do, places I wanted to see. Nothing I'd ever been in any particular hurry to accomplish, but now they all seemed that much more important.
There had been the flash of light and a truck scattered across a hillside and Tenny dead and I was here. That was all there was to it.
I covered my face again and moaned.
When the latch on the door rattled I could scarcely hear it above the cacophony from the fight taking place on street outside. I looked up, but it wasn't Tahr who stepped into the room.
And it wasn't room service.
Two Sathe males dressed in nondescript tattered breeches stepped inside, casting a glance out into the hall before carefully closing the door. One of them - a dark-grey with a dappled pattern of dark spots on his fur - hissed something to the brown-furred one and began sidling towards my pack. Brown Fur slipped a slender dirk from his belt and moved slowly towards me, beckoning with his free hand and making coaxing noises. The assault rifle was with the pack: on the other side of the room. But my knife... Brown Fur was looking worried, tossing his blade from one hand to the other. Grey looked around at him and hissed something I COULD understand: "Kill it!"
Brown Fur almost skewered me. The blade whispered past my cheek as I dodged blindly and kicked out with a heavy boot. I was rewarded with a solid impact, a grunt of pain and the Sathe staggering backwards.
I scrambled to my feet and Brown Fur's eyes widened when he saw that my head almost brushed the ceiling. He lunged again, fast and scared. I dodged again - barely - and caught his hand and kept him going, straight into the wall with his wrist taking the brunt of the impact. There was a crackling snap and yowl of pain as his wrist broke.
His howl changed as I swung him and launched him at the window. He hit hard, shutters splintered and cracked as he went through them. The howl cut off to the accompaniment of something heavy bouncing off the shingles of the porch roof outside, then shouts rang out as he dropped in unexpectedly on the Sathe below.
Breathing hard I turned to face Grey. He had drawn his own dagger and was down in a low crouch, his claws and fangs bared and a deep rumbling sounding in his chest.
I snarled back at him and pulled my knife from its boot sheath. The steel blade slithered out with a hiss. "I cut your heart out!" I snarled with my best scowl smeared across my face.
The Sathe stared at my trench knife; its blade twice the size of his and wickedly serrated. He stared at me, at something that spoke Sathe and threw them out second-floor windows.
His ears went back, then he turned and fled.
I dove for the rifle and was out the door after him, slamming into the wall opposite with my shoulder in time to see him reach the stairs. I fired from the hip on full auto. My burst shattered the wall above his head as he took the stairs full tilt; sending wood chips flying, half-deafening me and filling the tiny hallway with the acrid stench of cordite and hot lead. There were alien screams from down below but I dashed back into the room and to the window. From there I saw him help his semi-conscious accomplice to his feet and then the both of them disappeared down an alleyway. I tracked them but didn't fire: too many bystanders.
Whom - I realised - all seemed to be staring at me now their little fight had been unexpectedly upstaged. I jumped away from the window and stood shaking as shouting sounding like hot iron being quenched in water came from outside.
The innkeeper was seething at the damage done to his property.
I squatted on the thin mattress holding the rifle against my chest, its butt resting on the pallet, the blue steel of its barrel cool against my cheek. Vaguely, downstairs I could hear the snarls and yowls of Sathe arguing. As yet nobody had ventured upstairs. I waited, staring at the door hanging drunkenly from its broken hinges.
When a Sathe stepped into view, I almost shot her.
Tahr stopped in the doorway, one hand resting on the frame as she surveyed the wreckage of the room, then me; crouched scared behind the assault rifle. When she moved, it was slowly, cautiously, as one would approach a cornered animal.
She was afraid of me.
"Oh God!" I breathed in despair and let the weapon fall aside as I buried my face in my hands. "Tahr..."
A hesitant hand touched my hair, stroked it.
I looked up and she froze with her hand still extended. "I not hurt you," I said in my clumsy Sathe and she lowered it slowly. I opened my mouth, wanting to tell her, to try and explain what I was feeling, then hung my head. It was hopeless; I didn't have the words.
"K'hy," she said quietly, firmly, and hooked a claw under my chin to tilt my head up so we were eye to eye, "what happened?"
It took time, but she was patient; coaxing and helping me when I didn't know how to tell her. When she finally had the whole story she sighed and picked up the dagger that the intruder had dropped. Her ears were back tight against her mane. "This is [ ]?" she asked.
"I do not understand," I replied.
She looked surprised, then those sharp, tufted ears twitched up and down in her version of a smile. She held up a paw: "This hand. You do not say this not hand? You say the [truth]?"
"Yes!" I nodded vehemently.
She slowly imitated my nod.
Furious, the innkeeper was, but he was also scared of me. He wanted to throw us out, but in order to do that he had to come upstairs to challenge Tahr face to face. I watched them growling and sizzling at each other, occasionally punctuating their argument with basso roars. It was hard to think of them as actually talking.
Tahr was just as pissed as the other. She blamed the innkeeper for what'd happened, saying that I was harmless unless provoked and it was his fault that the intruders had got in to provoke me in the first place. I had just been protecting myself. The innkeeper insisted that she pay for the damage to the premises, then quoted a price. Tahr's mouth dropped in outrage.
That was half of all we had!
"Saaa!" he hissed at her. "You do not pay and I shall make sure that you find it very [difficult] to leave. The [garrison?] here can make a few simple questions a matter of running against the wind for outsiders."
Tahr opened her mouth, about to snap something in return, then she closed it again and looked helplessly at me. "Give, K'hy," she told me.
I opened my pocket and counted out four of the bulky coins. The innkeeper didn't move to take them, so I handed them to Tahr who passed them on to the agitated male. He grabbed the cash and glanced at it, then turned to leave.
Halfway to the door he did a double-take and squinted at me. "It can count?!" he asked.
Tahr sighed wearily. "Yes. Why? Do you wish to take him from me as well?"
The innkeeper cocked his head to one side in his scrutiny of me. "No, it is ugly; I would not want it. Is it strong? able to work?"
Tahr glanced at me. I nodded slightly. "Yes," she said.
"Perhaps it will be able to earn you some of that money back," the innkeeper mused. "There are some jobs it might be able to do."
Tahr glanced at her hands. There was fire in her eyes as she seemed to will her claws back into their sheaths in her fingertips. Finally she growled, "Show him what to do. He will understand. But it is growing late and he does not see well in the dark." "Tomorrow then," he replied. "You may sleep here, but cause any more trouble and you are out with the llamas. Understood?"
"Understood," Tahr said to the innkeeper's retreating back, then she muttered something she hadn't taught me - probably obscene - and forced the door closed.
I had picked up the dagger dropped by my assailants and was turning it over in my hands, examining it. It was cheap, poorly crafted, with a simple wooden hilt bound with some kind of plant fibre. I looked up at Tahr; she met my gaze for a split second, then turned away and pretended to be busy fiddling with the string on her crossbow.
She was worried. Scared?
Why was she nervous about the law? Those Sathe I'd wasted in the hills; were they bandits or something else? Why would common thieves waste their time with someone who was well protected and obviously didn't have much in the way of material possessions? And why did she lie to me about who and what she was?
Shit! There was so much about this strange female that didn't click.
"Tahr, who are you?"
She flinched when I spoke, then faced me with her ears back. "I do not understand, K'hy."
"Don't give me that!" I snarled and she took a step backwards, glancing at the naked blade in my hands. "Christ on a crutch! I not hurt you!" I dropped the knife and held out open hands, "Who are you? No merchant, I know. How help you I if you not say the... truth?"
Her ears came up a little and she combed her claws through her ragged mane as she regarded me. "Truth," she murmured. "Very well, I tell you.
"Do you know what 'Born-to-rule' is?"
I rolled my eyes. "Someone born to rule?"
Awkwardly, laboriously she told me.
Their ruler - the one who is born to rule - is an individual whose entire upbringing and education has been geared - from birth - to leading and being a figurehead for their people. They are trained in politics and diplomacy, economics and trading, weapons and tactics.
They are raised on private estates - private schools - being tutored by old masters, returning to the Capital only when the former monarch became incapable of effectively leading the Realm, through either illness or death.
Tahr was one of the candidates. She had received news that the former ruler - the Shirai - was dying. She had left her southern estate with sixteen armed Sathe, one of them her prospective mate.
"We were attacked three times," she held up a hand with three claws out, retracting them in sequence, like a human ticking events off on his fingers.
"First we drive them off, lost four soldiers. Second time we escape, lost [six] and also supplies. Third time, we have six Sathe left, my mate one of them, he killed by arrow." She dropped her eyes. God, if I had just been a few seconds faster...
That got me. They had been engaged... or whatever it was they did. Did that loss hurt her? Could she actually feel that kind of pain? How could I tell? Her face remained as inscrutable as a statue's.
"My [life] I owe you."
That line... Jesus, I'd never dreamed I'd hear that anywhere in the real world.
"You help me?" she asked.
I stared, meeting eyes that hit like an electric shock. All she'd told me... "You say the truth?"
Goddamn if she didn't look hurt. "K'hy, yes!"
"Who were they?"
"I do not know."
"Yes you do. Are they soldiers?"
She gaped. Outrage or astonishment, I wasn't sure. Finally she just said, "Perhaps. Not Eastern soldiers... others. I am not sure."
I weighed that up.
She was on the run, not from the forces of this realm, but from others. If that was the case, then why didn't she go to the garrison posted in this town? Surely they would help her.
"[ ]," she said.
"Not understand," I said.
Her fingers twined together as she tried to explain. "Some who not want me. Some who belong to others. They try and stop me. Dangerous. Easier if they do not know where I am."
"Where do you go?" I asked
"North. Very big town."
Shit, I had nothing else to do, why not help a cat princess?
"Yes, I help."
She smiled and held out her hand. Uncertainly I touched palms with her; Shake.
The old iron axe imbedded itself in the wood with a shock I felt up my arm. I shifted my grip on the straight, worn handle and hauled the piece of wood up over my head, then brought it down hard on the chopping block with a sharp BANG. The wood split, the halves flying apart. I took a moment to lean against the axe and wipe the sweat from my brow. My hands were sticky with resin and the scent of pine added a fresh touch to air that smelled predominantly of animal shit. A couple of cubs scurried forward. One tossed the stuff I'd just split on the woodpile while the other set another piece up on the block.
"Thanks, kids," I smiled at them. They chattered and hissed and snarled back at me. I had a small audience gathered around sitting in the shade of the rickety fence surrounding the dusty yard behind the inn. The cubs of the town of Traders Meet loved me. Better than a circus.
Early that morning - shortly after I'd started on the daunting pile of uncut wood - they'd been nervous little shadows: watching me, but vanishing whenever I so much as glanced in their direction.
However, they learned that I wasn't about to come after them, bellowing, screaming, and brandishing the axe. Now they crowded around, following and touching me. They weren't as sleek as their elders. Instead they looked more like overgrown teddy bears with oversized heads, hands, and feet, their gangling limbs lending them an air of awkwardness. Cute as hell. When I went to the local well to fetch water for the inn, I returned carrying a bucket in one hand and a squealing, laughing cub in the other. I was almost enjoying myself.
And Tahr was as twitchy as a cat in the rain.
Later that evening she had perched herself on the windowsill to stare moodily at the setting sun, her chin resting upon a clenched fist. Money, that was her concern. She had counted on getting enough for the wagon to buy passage on a caravan bound for the seaport of Bay Town. While we could have used the wagon ourselves to get there, Tahr decided that we would get more for it in a small town where vehicles of any kind were always in demand, and we would attract less attention arriving as passengers in among other Sathe. Also, I guessed she was counting on the value of protection in numbers.
"Although after today I doubt you could be [inconspicuous] if I were to put you in a box," Tahr sighed while examining her claws. "Why did you [encourage] the cubs?"
"What do I?" I asked with a shrug. "Give them scared? Make them run? Not good for my image."
"Huh!" she snorted and ran her forefinger down the window frame. A single gouge in the wood appeared, following her digit, wood curling away from her claw. "You did not speak to them?"
I shook my head and gave a twisted smile. "No."
Tahr muttered something that I translated as 'thank God for small favours' and dropped her chin back onto her fist.
"He not pay?" I asked after a minutes silence.
Her head snapped about and she glared at me, then gave the classical hissing spit of a furious cat. "He not pay," she confirmed.
Bastard! I work my butt off and get shafted...
I nodded and thought for a second, then opened my pack and rooted around in the depths. My fingers closed on what I was groping for and I pulled it out.
She looked curiously at what I was holding.
The velcro fastenings on my wallet made their characteristic ripping sound as I pulled it open. Before I handed it over to Tahr I took the credit cards, old photos, and receipt slips from a pocket. She took it hesitantly.
"I have not seen this before," she said as she stroked the nylon fabric then opened and closed it several times, squinting at the closures. From inside she pulled a fifty dollar note and held it up to the light.
"Strange... What is it?"
"Money," I replied. "Human money."
"Money?!" she looked and sounded incredulous and examined a bill more closely. "Strange," she repeated, "but what am I to do with it?"
"Can you sell it?"
"Sell?" Her hands froze in their inspection of the wallet and she looked up at me, a spark catching in her eyes. "Yes. Yes! Any leather worker would be interested in the pouch and I can find an artisan or [somesuch] who would be interested in the pictures."
"Enough?" I asked.
"Enough?" She smiled. "Yes, I think there is plenty." Then she sobered and stood up to touch my face.
I flinched as that hand brushed my skin: fur on the back of the hand, knuckles, fingers. Black pads on fingertips and palms. Strange joints and bones. Tips of claws poking from small indentations where the fingernail should be.
"Do you want to?" she asked.
I shrugged. "It is... nothing. Small thing."
"Not much... !" Again she opened the wallet. "I thank you... what is this?" she pulled a couple of small foil packets from inside the wallet, sniffed at them and quickly jerked her head back, looking affronted.
"Ah," I coughed and reached over to pluck them from her fingers. "Not sell those." No, Condoms might not be appreciated... or comprehended.
"And you are sure you want to sell this?" Tahr asked again.
"How else get money?"
She laughed. "Not hard, perhaps not [nice]. Always [ ] to sell."
"I not understand."
She frowned, rubbed at the wrinkles marching up the velvet of her nose. "Ah... Thing-make-more Sathe. Between male and female: [Sex]. Do you understand?"
She stared, then her ears dipped sideways and twitched. She was laughing at me, however silently. "Is it the same with h'mans?" she asked.
"Is the same," I replied.
"Always male looking for female not in [ ]."
I didn't even ask what that meant but I suddenly realised that I may never see another human woman again. And that thought hurt.
Before we left I took time to clean myself up. It may have been a bit of a mistake, but I was still living and thinking by human standards. That would change in time; so slowly and gradually that I wasn't always aware of what was happening to me, but it would change.
After getting my hands on hot water - you can't just turn on a faucet here - I did my best at shaving my scraggly beginnings of a beard away. Saying that it's not easy shaving with a knife is a classic understatement. It's fucking difficult... and unless you've got skin like a buffalo's backside, it hurts!
Tahr was astonished by the whole performance. She sat and watched my selfmutilation for a time before hissing something to herself and leaving. At least afterwards I felt human again.
For the two days we had before we left Traders Meet time passed slowly. Nights were long, jolted awake sweating from disturbingly vague and shadowy dreams. Days were spent sitting at the window watching the street outside while Tahr continued my education in the Sathe language and culture. Late into the night she would sit with me and patiently correct me as I practised my grammar and vocabulary. More often than not her exasperated and slightly pained expression could only hint at the atrocities I had committed upon her native tongue.
"Three Realms I have travelled, but I have never seen the likes of this!"
The wagon master, a stocky, grizzled Sathe with brown fur lanced with grey stripes, circled me, examining me with amazement. Across the street naked Sathe labourers were panting from exertion in the morning coolness as they loaded sacks onto the back of a wagon. Early traffic rumbled along the cobbled streets and there was already the sound of merchants shouting.
It had been the same every morning.
"I had heard rumours of a Sathe with a strange pet," he said. "Tell me, where did you find it?"
"West. In the mountains," Tahr said. "Yes, rare indeed."
"You are a [trapper?]" he asked. "Hunting such a creature?"
"Not exactly," Tahr replied with a twitch of her ears, "he found me. I think he [ ]." Whatever she said, the wagon masters thought it hilarious.
"Very well," he said when he had finished hissing his laughter. "If the others will allow it, it may ride in the wagon." He waved his hand in the general direction of a wagon with a pair of rough passenger benches in the rear half of the cargo bed.
"Thank you, sir," Tahr smiled and stooped to pick the pack up from the dust. The wagon master turned to shout at some of his employees, then looked at me again.
"Why is he wearing clothes?"
"To keep him warm, of course," Tahr said. "He has hardly any fur of his own."
"Strange that you should find it in the mountains then," he mused. "I would think that he would be more comfortable further south." He looked me up and down again, then snapped his jaws and returned to his work.
Tahr took me aside into the shade of a nearby porch. Away from the dust and bustle of the street; also away from sharp Sathe ears.
"Pet?" I almost spat the word out.
"I am sorry, K'hy..."
"You not... do not look sorry," I sulked.
"It is the easiest way," she tried to explain, clicking the claws on her index fingers together in frustration. "Do not attract too much attention."
I snorted. "Do not speak?"
"Perhaps a week."
"A week?! I do not know if I can..."
She touched my sleeve. "I will try to find time to speak with you. I will try."
I closed my eyes for a second, then opened them and nodded. "Alright. Your pet am I."
Shades of Lassie.
"Good. Thank you K'hy." She surprised me by flashing me a grin that could only be an imitation of one of my smiles, then she swatted my arm to get me moving. Her claws weren't completely pulled.
I trudged along beside the llama as it made its steady way along the rough road with the caravan. There were three Bison drawn wagons, two carrying cargo and supplies, the other carrying the passengers. Two guards on llamas brought up the rear. There were ten... I'll call them people in the caravan: nine Sathe and one human. The wagon master - name of Char - drove the passenger wagon in the centre of the convoy. The two cargo vehicles led the way with two Sathe wagoners apiece, one driving while the other either rode shotgun or - more often - stretched out asleep on the canvass covering the wagon bed.
Aside from Tahr and myself, there were only two paying passengers in the caravan. I had plenty of time to watch and listen to them, learning about them.
Elmerth was a merchant from a small town with the morbid name of Lost Lives. He was predominantly brown-furred with only a faint stippling of red ochre. As his wares were textiles, it was fitting that his breeches were made of something that looked expensive, as was his jewellery: silver filigree bracelets and armlets. Fancy. Damned impractical out there.
A young female Sathe wearing a black cloak and leather kilt spent most of her time dozing in the warmth of the sun. She was called Hymath. She seemed to be a bodyguard to Elmerth, and even though she didn't seem like much, Tahr warned me she could be very dangerous. That I found out for myself. Later.
The two guards, each decked out in leather armour, kilt and carrying a scimitar, were called Kharm and Samath. A pair of male youths hired to escort the caravan. They were there more as protection against errant animals than against trouble of the twolegged kind. Animals here are not as scared of the Sathe as animals in our world are of humans, there had been a few incidents of trouble with bears and wolves after the easy food at campsites. Not many, but enough to warrant a guard.
Two days. Two days of the same contryside, the trees, the dust and bugs. Everyone was bored, especially me. Plodding on, hour in, hour out. The Sathe who weren't occupied with driving rode in the back, some wrapped in their own thoughts, other dozing, the only sign they were alive were their ears twitching at persistent insects.
Just to the north of what could have been the Pamunkey River. The road had started across the hilly, rolling plains to the east of the Chesapeake Bay. Everywhere you looked sweetgum, green ash, yellow poplar, hickory, chestnut oak, white oak, red oak, Loblolly. The deciduous proliferated; the number of conifers slowly waning. Grouse, quail, and wild turkey made sure that we didn't go hungry. In the low twenties, the weather was warm and muggy, but not oppressive. Typical for Virginia. The passengers in the cart dozed in the sun.
The first quarrel took the driver of the first wagon through the throat, he fell sideways in his seat, the bison kept moving. The second got Kharm through his right arm, pinning it to his armour. He howled and toppled off his llama.
By that time I was moving. Scrambling full tilt toward the passenger wagon with my head down. I heard the soft swish of a steel blade leaving a leather lined sheath as Samath dismounted, facing off the twelve red and black armoured Sathe coming at us from both sides of the road, six to a side. Three archers slung aside their crossbows and drew swords.
Three?... I'd only seen two arrows.
Elmerth was sprawled on his back, collapsed over a pile of his wares with the black shaft of a quarrel poking from his mouth. Fur glistened red. A hand twitched.
I was staring. Someone howled my name, jerking my attention away as other Sathe left the wagon: Hymath vaulted over the left side in a swirl of black cloak, looking for all the world like some giant predatory bird. Tahr went over the other side, her blade sweeping out of the sheath in a glittering arc and mouth gaping in a vicious grimace that was ninety percent teeth. If she made a noise - snarled something - I didn't hear it as I dove onto the wagonbed, scrabbling for my gear half-buried among the other cargo, pulling frantically when the M-16 snagged on something. The closest Sathe were only a couple of metres away when I swung the muzzle up, cocking and firing.
At that range, I couldn't miss. The slugs smashed into their chests, the muzzle blast punching charred discs across their fur. They stopped as if a wall had hit them.
For a second the entire skirmish seemed to freeze, all the Sathe staring at me with obvious shock on their faces. A shout rang out from the trees and more of them burst from the foliage. I saw a crossbow being raised towards me and put four rounds into the Sathe wielding it. And they kept coming. Something that killed them before they could get near and they kept fighting. That spoke volumes about their training: they were good, or fanatic, or perhaps there was something more terrifying than my weapon awaiting if they fled.
Tahr was facing three, her scimitar parrying and thrusting at an amazing speed, a blur of steel. She was damned good but she didn't have a prayer of defeating all of them, the best she could do was delay them for a few seconds. It was enough.
One attacker fell, with her point in his stomach, clutching at his entrails. Then I fired: One attacker's head half-shattered in a pink and grey spray. The other took a round through her throat and died slower, thrashing on her comrades' remains as the dusty road turned sticky with blood. I saw Kharm huddled on the ground, clutching at the quarrel through his arm. One of the attackers paused in her rush and was almost casually raising her sword for a stab at his unprotected throat. The crosshairs settled on her neck and she spasmed as a small red flower seemed to bloom there. Hot brass rattled to the floor of the wagon.
I'd underestimated their speed. There were two of them at the tailgate of the wagon...
I jumped straight up. A sword hissed under my feet and I planted the sole of my boot in his face on the way down. He fell back out of sight.
The other one lunged forwards, sword point aimed at my guts. I dodged... and staggered when the wagon unexpectedly jerked forward: The bison had decided enough was enough: they were leaving, taking my balance with them and my feet skidded out from under me and my helmet cracked on the tailgate...
Flat on my back, choking on bile, a red and black figure looming over me, sword raised then spinning in sunlight as a body toppled, pinning me. A sharp, metallic-tinged warmth spread across my shoulder. Tahr stood over me, fighting something that clattered like a manic typewriter. Hot brass spattered against my cheek. Everything just faded out.
Heat on my face.
Sunlight? bright in my eyes, dazzling, motes of dust drifting above me, buzzing dots circling and blurring in and out...
Pain... My head was throbbing in time with a pounding in my ears. Where? Why was I lying here? The sky lurched and circled, floaters bloomed before my eyes.
There was fighting, there was pain. I didn't want to be here. Where was here again? I didn't know. Home...
Where was home?
I was on my feet. There were tall shapes... trees, solid against my shoulder with bright light glaring down in shafts that dazzled to look at. There, in the distance, that hill. I knew home was just beyond that hill. I'd go to that hill... The world reeled, or was it me? The ground hard against my feet with every step, trees rough under my hands. That hill; it was just over that hill.
Sharp pain in my arm, pulling me around...
Animals, attacking me, claws and teeth and eyes, and teeth, and catching me, and I was falling and screaming and they were over me as I struggled and twisted then coughed bile and vomited and choked as something stroked at my hair and closed my eyes so tired...
I awoke to night, a neon blue moon braving the cloud-cover and riding low above the crests of pines atop a distant ridge. Crickets or some other night insect rasped and clicked in the dark. Distant wind hissed through branches overhead with a sound like surf on shale. I looked up at dark branches silhouetted against a leaden sky.
Night. How long had I been out?
Then the throbbing ache in my head hit me.
"Uhhnnn..." I groaned.
The voice sounded from the dark nearby, followed by a rustling, as of feet on pine needles and a Sathe's head eclipsed the moon and clouds. A hand - fur with the softness of sable - touched my face then pulled away. "You are awake?"
"Huhnnn... Tahr?" I couldn't see her and it was all I could do to croak her name; my throat was like sandpaper, foul with the lingering aftertaste of old vomit. I tried to reach up and found I couldn't move my arms. There was something wrapped around my wrists.
"Yes, it is me." She hesitated, "You are sane again?"
Sane? What was she talking about?
I closed my eyes at the memory. "Please... drink?"
A creak of leather armour as she held a bowl to my mouth, trickling water between my lips. I drank greedily, but she pulled it away again.
"Thank you." Speaking was easier.
"How are you feeling?" A damp cloth dabbed at my face and came away stained with dust and something dark as dried blood.
How was I feeling? Like shit.
A jaw feeling swollen and stiff. The most god awful headache...
"There are little Sathe with hammers in my head," I groaned and tried to reach up again.
"Oh..." Hands began fumbling with the bindings that held my wrists crossed on my stomach. "We had to. You were fighting us and screaming and you would not listen, you just spoke your own noises." She pulled away a length of rope padded with cloth. "I am sorry."
I didn't really know what to feel: anger, hurt... what? I wasn't quite firing on all cylinders. Almost absently I rubbed at my wrists. Despite the padding there was some tenderness, as there would be if I'd been struggling?
"All right," I sighed. "I remember... I did a few... strange things."
She hissed and stroked hair back from my face, fingers brushing lightly at my cheeks and forehead.
"How long was I out?"
"Out?" her muzzle wrinkled. "Sleeping? For the better part of two days since you fell. You worried me."
"Two days?" I winced. "I will be more careful next time. We won?..."
Tahr's ears flickered sideways. "You are talking to me, are you not?" True. But what was the cost? I'd seen... how many fall? I couldn't remember. I gritted my teeth and turned my head. I was wrapped in a blanket, propped up against some sacks under a pine. A small campfire popped and sputtered nearby, its light and warmth lost in the dimness. A supine figure lay motionless under a stack of blankets. I stared hard before recognising Kharm. Under blankets; with his fur? His eyes were closed and his right arm lay on the blanket, a crude bandage - stained brown - wrapped around his bicep. Beside him, Hymath huddled, lost in her black cloak.
"He live?" I asked Tahr, mangling my Sathe again..
"Might. His arm, it will [ ]."
Tahr scratched her ribs. "Go bad. Bad smelling, black, then die. Understand?"
Damnation! Infection. Gritting my teeth I touched the lump on the back of my skull. I nearly screamed. Tender. Clotted blood matted my hair. So infection was something I had to worry about also. And it was a safe bet that the Sathe didn't have penicillin or quinine. "Yes, understand. In my pack -" I grimaced. It was difficult to think, my mind kept wandering to other things. I wanted to sleep again. With an effort I dragged my brain back online," - box with red, uh... thing on it..."
Tahr didn't wait for me to finish. She jumped to her feet and scurried to the wagon. Char sat beside the fire while on the other side two furry lumps were two wagoners curled up and asleep. The wagonmaster's eyes met mine, held for a second, then dropped. Probably trying to figure out what he had gotten himself into.
There was no sign of Samath.
Tahr dropped beside me clutching my medical kit. "This?"
I opened the small kit and popped a penicillin tablet. Then directed Tahr as she applied antiseptics to the cuts on my head. She hesitated when I winced and my fingers curled, clutching handfuls of sod, then she clamped her jaws tight together and continued.
I was panting hard when she finished up. Lightheaded. Tahr sat beside me while I caught my breath and my pulse slowed down again. "That is all right?" she asked, concerned.
"Yes. Good." I rubbed at my temples, then popped the question, "Who was killed?" She grimaced, her nose bunching up showing her sharp teeth. "Four. Samath, two teamsters, and Elmerth."
"Samath?" I tried to take that in. It was difficult to grasp.
"You liked him?" Tahr asked after a short pause.
She ducked her head: "He fought well."
I closed my eyes and was quiet for a few seconds.
"Do you know who they were?" I asked without opening my eyes.
"They wore the uniform of the soldiers of the Gulf Realm."
The land to the southwest of the Eastern Realm, I remembered. Along the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico. "Why they attack us?"
She shrugged and bared her teeth. "Difficult to explain. Ahh... I will try to keep it simple." She lowered her voice as she spoke. "Their ruler wants this province. If Hraasa stops the [candidates] getting to Mainport, the Eastern realm will be without a High Lord or heir to the line."
"Who?... Rasa?" I was still a few steps behind her.
"Hraasa," Tahr corrected me. "The High Lord, the Born-To-Rule of the gulf realm."
I tried again to pronounce the name, failing. "I am sorry," I said with a forced smile. "It hurts to think."
Tahr's ears twitched and she dabbed the cloth against the side of my face. I reached up and held it there, the cool moisture bringing a little relief against the pounding behind my temples.
"You were not honest about that weapon," Tahr finally said, sounding a little hurt. Or perhaps I was reading too much into that statement. Anthropomorphising. It was tough not to.
"Oh," I hesitated, then confessed, "I thought it would be best."
I looked at her beseechingly. "Tahr, please. I cannot explain. I do not know how." "Can you not try?" she asked. "You come into my life so suddenly, yet you tell me so little about yourself. I know you have a weapon beyond anything I have ever seen before. But how much more about you is there that I do not know?"
"I am asking myself the same question," another voice broke in. Hymath appeared from the shadows and crouched down beside Tahr. Her hands were toying with something that looked sharp and glittered with the watery ripples of steel. Not a threat. Not exactly. "Both you and your... pet are much more than you seem to be." Then she turned to adress me directly: "Do you have a name?"
I glanced at Tahr. She moved her hand in an unobtrusive gesture of assent. "My name is Kelly," I said; nervously aware that this was the first Sathe besides Tahr with whom I had ever spoken.
"K'hy." She tried the name, again giving the hard consonant of the 'K' and the aitch a sibilant sound, just as Tahr did. "That is all? Just K'hy? You have no Clan name?"
"It would mean nothing to you."
Hymath turned to Tahr. "My oath! Where did you find this one?"
"I have told you the truth about that," Tahr answered, looking guarded.
"And you do not know where it... he comes from?"
"I think that perhaps he comes from far to the west, but he has never been clear on that. He claims that there are others of his kind - his people, but he cannot return to them," Tahr said.
Hymath's muzzle wrinkled. "You have been [ ]?" she asked me.
"I am sorry, I do not understand," I said.
Hymath looked at Tahr in surprise and Tahr explained: "He is still learning to speak our way."
"There is another?"
"He has... sounds of his own."
"Those noises he was making earlier?"
"Yes, those. I cannot pronounce many of them, but they are words to him," Tahr told the other. "K'hy, she asked if you had been [ ]. Did your people make you leave? Is that why you cannot return?"
"No. I cannot return because I do not know how."
"You are lost?" Hymath asked.
"And what about that weapon you used?"
Why was she giving me the third degree like this? Tahr was doing nothing to stop her and indeed seemed to be wary of this small female in her black cloak. Her arrogant attitude made me think cop, but Tahr had told me she was a mercenary of some kind: Dangerous. Still, what business was it of hers?
"It is mine," I finally said. "Among my people I am a soldier. That is the weapon we use.
"Something happen... happened that I do not understand. I cannot explain. I was lost in the mountains. I walked much... many days before I meet Tahr. She help me. Before I see her, I not... did not even know that Sathe exist... existed."
The fire crackled loudly while the Sathe digested that.
"How is Kharm?" I asked into the silence.
"In great pain," Hymath replied. "Do you understand infection?"
"Yes," I nodded. "If that is trouble, I can help. I have... things to stop infection and others to fix wound."
"Are they safe?" Tahr asked suspiciously.
"They worked on you," I pointed out.
Tahr's ears flickered, a smile. Her finger absently stroked her chest where the scar still showed, then she gently reached out and batted me on the cheek with the palm of her hand, fingers curled. What did that mean?
Whatever it was, it meant something to Hymath; her ears went down.
"Yes, they did." Tahr looked back to Hymath. "His drugs are safe, I assure you." My head pounded as I tightened the clean bandage around Kharm's side. The wound looked serious; perhaps more than serious than it actually was, but I didn't want to take chances with it.
The quarrel had gone through the flesh of his upper arm, pinning it to his side like a butterfly to a board. It was a small blessing that they didn't have barbed heads on the bolts. The simple, pointed tip they used made a clean hole and was fairly easy to remove. A triangular head would have lodged in between his ribs and been pure hell to get out. Perhaps even impossible.
Each of the wounds were gory holes of half-clotted blood, tufts of fur, and the white substance of fat. I had to shave away the surrounding fur then rinse each of them with antiseptics then stitch them shut. Thank God there was plenty of surgical suture thread on the spool in the kit.
The hole in his side was pretty deep. The quarrel had ripped through muscle and just missed a rib. I still had no idea how a Sathe's vital organs were arranged, so I couldn't tell how serious it was. This I cleaned as well as I could and stitched it up, then bandaged it using the last of my clean gauze bandages. A penicillin tablet completed the treatment.
"Are you a [ ]?" Hymath asked, fingering the gauze bandages.
I was sitting sucking air with my head between my knees, dizzy after that work. I looked up: "What? I do not know that word."
"A [ ], one who heals."
Oh. A Doctor, Physician, Shaman.
"No, but I was, um... taught to help until a real... healer could arrive." Hymath stared at me, hard and long. Finally in a soft voice she just said, "Where are your people, K'hy? Truth this time."
I met her gaze for a couple of seconds, then looked away. The crests of the surrounding trees were silhouetted against the night sky, the stars. Uncounted billions of suns up there - all equally insignificant, all equally important.
"I do not know..." I murmured. "I do not know."
Alone. Stranded in a way that made distance meaningless. This WAS earth, but it wasn't MY earth!
(My people Hymath? Sure. Take the first space/time warp to the fifth dimension then it's the third wormhole on the right.)
The loneliness hit me then, as it would do often in the times to come. I swallowed hard and noisily and looked away from those myriads of worlds, away from the Sathe. Not fast enough.
"What is happening?" Hymath asked, head cocked to one side. "Your eyes are watering. Are you ill again?"
I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the nausea and dizziness, and staggered away from the fire, away from those things. Behind me I heard them arguing. Tahr sounded pissed with Hymath. I ignored them. I just wanted to be alone to wallow in self-pity. In the shelter of a wagon I sank down, curled up and buried my aching head in my arms, sobbing myself to sleep. As I slipped into the muzzy darkness bordering on nothing, I thought I felt a soft paw on my shoulder.
The morning came with daylight forcing its way under my eyelids. I groaned and sat up, rubbing small granules from my sore eyes. My head still throbbed, but not as fiercely as the night before. I ached from sleeping on the hard ground. Sometime in the night, someone had wrapped me in the anodised survival blanket.
It was a calm morning. Dew still lay on the ground, slowly evaporating into a thin mist. Birds screeched at each other in the treetops. The sun was a white glare on the horizon, and two five-foot cats fixed breakfast while four more snored away under blankets.
Char and Hymath looked up as I approached. I cleared my throat uncomfortably. "Good morning, Hymath"
"Is it?" The small female slowly stirred the stew. "You are feeling better? I had not expected something like you to react like that."
I shrugged. There was a pregnant silence. Kharm broke it by moving under his blanket and muttering something. "How is he?" I asked, moving over to kneel beside the young mercenary.
"He woke for a short time last night," Hymath instantly responded, obviously glad of the distraction. "And his wounds do not seem to be getting any worse. It is still too early to tell."
I lifted the bandage on his arm. He stirred as I moved the limb. Well, he seemed to be stable: I couldn't see any dirt or fur in the scab and the surrounding skin looked a healthy tone. His breathing looked normal for a sleeping Sathe. He was hot, but I'd noticed their body temperature was a little above my own. I didn't think he was running a fever.
He would live, but for a time he would be in considerable pain. That was something I couldn't do anything about.
When time came to leave, he was cautiously and gently lifted onto the wagon. I hated to move him, but I had to agree with the others' decision; waiting around could be unacceptably risky. The lurching of the wagon caused me almost as much pain as it did Kharm. My head still felt like an eggshell filled with nitroglycerine. I suffered in silence, trying not to groan when a wheel went one on one with an exceptionally deep rut in the road.
The foothills were behind us and now the land was broad, rolling vales and plains swathed in dense semi-continuous forests. Copses of trees defended their own individual territories, fields of grass and small shrubs in between; like no-mansland.
Something landed in the hay beside me. I turned my head to squint at it: the M-16. "Yours," Tahr said shortly.
"Thank you," I nodded and picked up the rifle to examine it. None the worse for wear, but the magazine was empty and the selector was locked on full auto. She'd emptied the weapon.
"Did you have a reason for not telling me what that was?" asked Tahr.
"I wanted to... understand, to learn about you," I said. "I did not want you to be afraid of me."
Her muzzle wrinkled. "Because your people are more powerful than ours?"
I shrugged. "Uh... Sort of."
She scratched her elbow with a delicate claw and looked around at the passing trees. "K'hy," she began without looking at me, "is there a reason you are here?"
The wagon lurched and I grabbed for a support. "I do not know. But if there is I would very much like to know what it is."
Her pupils abruptly went to pinpricks. "What I mean is did you come here to examine us? to watch us?"
"No!" I shook my head. "You think I am a... a..."
"Jesus H... Why the hell do you think that?! I have told you the truth: I am lost!" Hymath was still facing forward, watching the bison, but her ears had rotated backwards, toward us. Tahr seemed not to notice. "You say that before you met me, you never knew that Sathe even existed. If you come from the west, you would have to pass through at least one other Realm: there is no way that you would not see another Sathe!"
I hung my head, then looked up. "That is very good, Tahr." Her ears twitched and I also smiled: "But you forget. I never said I came from the west - that was you."
"But you... you never saw a Sathe before me?"
"Then where did you come from? Did you simply appear in the middle of the Eastern Realm?" She gave a disgusted snort and started honing her claws against the bench. I swallowed and stared at the strands of wood curling away from her claws. A threat? I wasn't sure. "Will you at least show me how to use your weapon properly?"
Still watching her claws shredding the wood, I nodded. Tahr watched me pushing cartridges into the magazine.
"When these are gone, that is it. No more." I had about two hundred and sixty rounds left. I showed her how to insert the magazine, then pulled it out again and handed her the rifle.
"Should that not be in it?" she asked, pointing at the clip.
"I just want to see how you hold it," I said. She uncertainly raised the rifle to her shoulder. The M-16's not a big weapon, but it was still awkward for her diminutive stature. I shifted around until I was behind her, my arms lightly around her to help her adjust her grip. I could feel her twitching and tense; her fur bristling, muscles bunched like springs.
"No," I coaxed. "Relax. I will not bite... That is better. Pull it into you shoulder. Now press the trigger - that... Yes. Use your whole hand." I put my hand around hers and showed her how to squeeze the whole grip.
It didn't take long to show her the mechanics of the weapon, but proficiency comes with practice - hands on experience - and I didn't have enough ammunition for that.
"And your warriors are all armed with these?"
"Such a force would be [invincible]," she said.
"Until they meet a force armed in the same fashion," I retorted. Tahr looked surprised, then thoughtful.
Eventually she said, "True. It is a [ ] device, but only when the wielder is ready. If Hymath had not helped you, you would be dead."
"If Hymath had..."
"I know what you said, but I do not understand. What happened?"
"Do you not remember?"
"Uh... I remember I was on the ground, then something happened. I thought it was you." I rubbed at the shoulder of my shirt, the spot Sathe blood had stained black. I glanced to where Hymath sat in her black cloak, the hood back, her ears occasionally twitching as insects buzzed around them.
"That was Hymath, she is [scirth]," Tahr explained. "A special fighter. Like Born Rulers they are trained from the time they were cubs in the use of a variety of weapons and [techniques] known only to them. They are usually employed as mercenaries or bodyguards... And they are very, very good at their work."
I took some time to translate and mull over this information, then clambered up front to sit next to Hymath, grabbing at available handholds as the wagon lurched over the potholes the track seemed to be made of. The driver's bench was simply a plank with a backrest, the whole thing perched at the front of the wagon, much like the wagons you see in western films. Hymath glanced up as I swung up beside her.
"Hello, bald one."
I let that lie. "I want to thank you," I started awkwardly. "I want to thank you for what you did... ah... maybe I can repay you someday."
Her ears flickered in a smile. "Maybe you already have, ah? You repaid me several times over I think. I couldn't fight them all."
She was quiet for a time, then spoke again. "Why is the Gulf Realm so interested in you?" she asked.
"In me? I do not understand."
"Why else would they risk an [international incident] by coming this far into our Realm unless they were in pursuit of something extremely valuable to them," she said. "Would the [ ] in the [ ] know if they took you?"
"The what in the what?" I asked. "I do not understand! I cannot value to... be of value to them!"
"Who else?" Hymath said, then her muzzle wrinkled as her lips pulled back. She half-glanced back at Tahr, then lowered her voice. "Tahr... is her clan name Shirai?"
"I do not know," I confessed. "She has not told me."
"You are bound for Mainport?"
She twitched the reins and gave a low, warbling hiss: "Srrraaa. It is her." I half turned in my seat to look back: Tahr had her back to us, idly watching a small bird catching insects on the wing. Her ears were relaxed, but I wondered just how much of what we said she could hear. "Hymath," I was concerned. "You will not..."
"I will talk to whom I choose," she interrupted smoothly, correctly anticipating my request.
I was silent.
"But I am choosy about whom I talk to," she finally said with a small twitch of her ears.
The remaining two days passed slowly, the muggy hours dragging on under the unchanging slow, southern sky. It was a tedious and tense time. Tahr was nervous, and it seemed to rub off on the rest of us.
Kharm's recovery was slow, and for a couple of days was only able to hold liquids, but thankfully his wounds stayed clean. It was a shock for him to awaken to find me tending his bandages, but after Tahr and Hymath persuaded him not to shred my face and to get off me, he settled down and became quite amicable.
I kept up my language lessons and continued to learn just how similar and just how really alien they were.
And they learned more about me...
"Tahr, how old are you?"
Sprawled out in the beside Kharm, she cracked an eyelid open against the sun and lolled her head to look at me. "Sixteen years of age, K'hy, soon to be seventeen."
I stared at her, then echoed, "Seventeen?!"
"Yes," she looked slightly puzzled. "Seventeen. There is a problem?"
"So young," I blurted. "Just a cub!"
"A cub!" Tahr stared at me, her fur beginning to bristle. "K'hy, I came of age three years ago! How can you call me a cub!?"
Oh, shit. I grimaced awkwardly. "I am sorry. I did not mean it like that. It is just... to me you seem very young."
She growled and brushed at the upright fur on her shoulder. "Alright, strange one, what about you? How young?"
"I am twenty one years."
She blinked. "And you are definitely no cub."
I stared at her. "By our ways I am. How long do Sathe live?"
"Some have been known to reach five and forty years."
My mind spun wheels for a few seconds before it got a grip on that. "Forty five?!" I choked.
"Yes." She blinked. "That surprises you?"
"Tahr, humans live to about eighty, and one hundred is not that rare."
Silence. Wide eyes.
"Truth?" Tahr said. "No [joke]?"
"H... How can you live so long?" Kharm finally asked.
"Our... our knowledge, our medicines help."
"Then you would know your great grandsires," he murmured in an awed voice.
"What were your's like?"
"Ah," I looked away. "Most do; not I. I lost many of my clan and family when I was a... cub. An accident. We have those too." I shrugged.
It was an uncomfortable silence this time.
"How many h'mans are there?" Kharm finally asked, if only to change the subject.
Oh God, I didn't know the numbers to tell them. I pondered for a few seconds then said, "I think that our largest city would have more humans than there are Sathe in this world."
I barely had time to realise my mistake before Tahr pounced on it:
"What do you mean, 'this world' ?" Tahr demanded, leaning toward me. "Where, K'hy? Where are you really from?"
Oh shit! The cat was out of the bag, literally.
"K'hy?" Tahr prompted as I hesitated.
"Hey, have I told you about the time..."
"K'hy!" This time her claws came out. "No games!"
"Do really want to talk about this here?" I asked.
"Yes. Now! Talk!"
I looked around at the Sathe faces staring at me and swallowed hard. It would have to come out some time, and if I satisfied her curiosity she'd stop pressing me.
"Very well. It was night..."
I told them everything I knew.
There was a long silence when I finished. The creaking of the wagon and the scuffing of the llamas' hooves were loud noises in the stillness.
It was Kharm who broke the silence. "Well, a tale like that... It is so incredible I do not think you could be lying." Then his ears twitched and he added, "All those bald hides. I think I would not like to live in a land like that."
Tahr said nothing. She watched me from under half-closed eyelids with what may have been pity... or something else entirely.
The Chesapeake Bay was different in the twilight.
It was quiet, still. There were no pleasure craft on the water, no sounds of traffic, none of the multitude of lights that normally cover the water. None of the details that man had added: the houses, offices, and other edifices man raised for himself. Instead the bay was clear and clean, surrounded by woodland swarming with wildlife.
Bay Town sprawled on the southern bank of the Potomac, near the estuary where the slow river entered the huge bay - an asymmetrical mass of red-tiled roofs, walls, and towers behind the protective embrace of crenellated battlements catching the last light of a setting sun.
Much larger than Traders Meet, the town was an interface for the traffic of land and water. A place where goods were traded and travellers could buy passage, be it a ferry across the Potomac or transport on to another Sathe port by sea or land.
The entire northern quarter of Bay Town was dockside. Wooden wharves embraced by sea walls stretched out into the bay to where ships were moored. A small forest of masts were gathered around the docks; small wooden scows and fishing vessels tied to the larger seagoing ships.
To the south and west the entire town was surrounded by farmland. A lot of farmland devoted to cattle, others planted with crops, others left fallow. They wouldn't have farming machinery which would explain why the farms were so small and why there were so many of them. Easier for many to manage smaller parcels of land, especially when engaged in continual battle with the wilderness that threatened to overrun their farms and their lives.
Although not nearly as large as the average American town, Bay Town was swarming with Sathe. I estimated about four to six thousand. The town was a maze of broad streets leading to a central marketplace like spokes on a misshapen wheel, with countless small alleys connecting the streets. On all sides the rough buildings leaned over the streets as if trying to rest their gables against each other, none more than two stories high and with small windows, some with rough glass in them.
Stores, smithies, stables, coopers, carpenters... a hundred and one kinds of small businesses slotted in among homes and dwellings. The smell wasn't as bad as I had expected. Tahr explained that they had a sewage system flowing under the streets. There were many public toilets and fountains where residents could dispose of nightsoil and get fresh water.
Even though I lay low in the back of the wagon and tried not to attract attention we still drew stares as the wagons clattered through the streets of the outer town, headed toward the docks.
The warehouse was a large building with stone walls with a few small windows and a wooden roof. There was a shop connected to it with a sign above the door. Dim light from lanterns shone through the small windows. I didn't know what the sign said: I still didn't know how to read the chicken scratchings the Sathe called writing.
Char wearily dropped from his wagon and pushed the door open. Shortly later a group of Sathe emerged, grumbling and yawning and scratching, and started working at unloading the supply wagons. Another Sathe - obviously in charge - appeared, carrying on a animated conversation with Char.
"All right, K'hy. This is where we make our own way," Tahr told me and helped gather my gear. I noticed she took the rifle and knife along with her sword and crossbow, slinging the rifle and bow over her shoulder. Armed like that, she didn't look like someone to be trifled with. The pack was surprisingly heavy as I slung it over my shoulders. I didn't remember it weighing that much.
Anyway, Hymath took a couple of minutes to say farewell to us, clapping Tahr on the shoulder in a gesture that startled me with its humanness and wishing her luck. Me, she patted on my arm as she passed, then the black-cloaked mercenary set off toward the centre of Bay Town with a confident stride.
I would be seeing Hymath again.
Tahr looked around, then caught Kharm before he also vanished into the town. "Kharm, do you know a place where we could get a room around here?"
The guard looked at me and rubbed his prominent jaw dubiously. "Any place would take you, but K'hy... The only place I can think of that might accept him is the Reptile, they get a lot of trappers with their animals passing through. They would have the facilities..."
I gave Tahr a pained look.
"I am sorry, K'hy," she sighed. "All right, I think that will have to do. Where is this Reptile?"
Kharm snorted and twitched his ears. "Along the docks, that way. It is comfortable, nothing more," he said and gave directions and Tahr thanked him then set off with me in tow. Looking back I saw Kharm staring after us. He hesitantly returned my parting wave and with a final pat at his scabbard, followed Hymath into the town.
The roughly paved streets were very dim and full of shadows. Of course there was no lighting. The inn so delicately called the Reptile was located in the southeast corner of the town; in the cheap sector not far from the wharves.
The wooden sign hanging over the door was illuminated by the orangish light that spilled out of the open portal. An unidentifiable lizard lay basking under a stylised sun while indecipherable ideographs were dotted beneath. From inside the building the sounds of a stringed instrument drifted outside: methodic scales that never quite sounded right, eerie. The hairs on my neck crawled. Tahr stopped and petted her fur smooth.
"I hope we get a better reception than we did in Traders Meet," I muttered. She grinned and swiped me on the shoulder, then ducked in the door, pulling me after her.
The interior layout of the Reptile was much the same as that of the establishment we had stayed in at Traders Meet: a large (relatively speaking) common room opened on to what smelled like a kitchen while another doorway led to the owners' quarters. A narrow staircase against one wall led up to the guest rooms. The major difference between the two buildings was the quality of the finishing. While the Rabbit - or whatever it had been - in Traders Meet was rough, unpolished wood, all timber in this room was varnished and polished to a deep shine. Two common tables and their benches, the stairs, the chairs near the fire, the door frames, were all worn smooth and shiny from years of contact with furry bodies. Rough tapestries were hung on the wall and copper implements of various types were neatly displayed on shelves. The overall effect of the room was that of reassuring cosiness. It was a welcome change after the dark streets and the cool evening breeze.
The music was coming from a stringed instrument being played by a Sathe sitting in the rosy light cast by the fire and several tinted lanterns. The instrument looked like one of those old lutes: a large resonating chamber connected to a long, slender neck. The Sathe was playing it like a guitar, but the sounds produced were much deeper, much more mellow. I found myself staring at his hands as they danced over the strings. No pick, just a claw. Four other Sathe sat around at the tables and in other chairs at the fire, they all looked up as we entered, but the minstrel didn't even falter in his playing.
One of the figures by the fire - a female - got to her feet, smoothed down her fur with one hand, and came over to us. She didn't seem too perturbed at the sight of me. Our chances for a room were already looking good. I unshouldered the pack with a grateful sigh and placed it at my feet.
"It is late for travellers," the female greeted us. She looked like she was getting on a bit. She had a slight limp, her fur was tinged with grey, especially around her ears. "Can I help you?"
"Greetings," Tahr replied, looking around with interest. "I would like a room for a few nights, with meals. Also, is it possible to shelter my pet?"
I rolled my eyes. The goddamned pet routine again.
"Ahrrr," the innkeeper dubiously looked me up and down. "It will cost extra to put your creature there in the [Kennels?] and take care of it. I have to comment though: in all my years of seeing strange animals, I have never seen one like that. Where did you find it?"
"In the swamplands to the south," Tahr smiled. "However I have a somewhat unusual request. He is more of a pet and because he is such a rare creature, I wish to keep him in my room. He is quite tricky and I fear he could escape from a cage, but I can assure you he is harmless and clean. He will not foul the room."
Yeah, and I don't even have fleas!
The landlady looked me up and down, sizing me up. "A truly unusual request... A truly unusual creature. Why is it wearing clothing?"
"He is used to a warmer climate, that of the lands to the southwest. He was suffering in our cooler lands, so I altered some clothes to fit him."
God she was smooth, I had trouble keeping a straight face. Then I remembered that these people didn't know what a human smile was, so I broke into one.
"You are sure it... he is safe and clean?"
"Of course. He is very docile. See, I do not even have to worry about restraints. He is amiable and quiet."
The landlady tossed her mane and sized me up. "Very well, but he is your responsibility and I will require [collateral]." She looked at Tahr's somewhat ragged cloak and travel-stained breeches. "How will you pay?"
That had the ring of a euphemism for 'can you pay?'. How did Tahr plan to do that? We had spent our last silver on the ride here, how could we pay? Wash the dishes?
Tahr surprised me again. She grabbed my pack and opened it, pulling out a couple of bolts of cloth: blue and green. SO that was why the thing was so heavy. Those she handed to the landlady. "Will this do?"
She examined the bundles with a critical eye, rubbing the cloth between furry thumb and furry index finger, then she smiled and said, "That will do nicely madam."
I couldn't help myself. Visualising a five foot furry cat doing a credit card commercial, I cracked up. I leaned against a doorpost and shook with laughter, drawing alarmed looks from the other guests.
"K'hy!" Tahr warned me.
Our host looked from Tahr to me. "He is your responsibility, remember." "Alright. He will calm down," Tahr growled. "Now."
I bit my lip and swallowed another laugh.
The innkeeper blinked, then squinted at me and scratched her chin. "Saaa... yes. Well, provided it is clean... And I want no loud noises in the night."
Tahr looked at me and hissed in her own laughter. There was something there that I had missed. But Tahr left me no time to puzzle it out, she gave me a swat on the butt with claws only partially retracted: "Move along, [ ]."
I jumped and moved, but I don't think it was that that drew amused hisses from the other patrons.
Our room was set at the front of the inn, overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. In the dark there was very little to see but the stars and moon. There were only a couple of faint lights shining across the water from boats or houses. I closed the shutters and turned away.
The room was a simple affair. Hell, a Holiday Inn would have seemed palatial beside it. A single wooden frame bed, almost round in shape and depressed in the middle like a huge bowl. A table with a small candle, and a chair all made out wood - albeit quite adequately finished - completed the set. I walked over to where a straw pallet had been set out on the floor and flopped down onto it, using my pack as a pillow. I looked across at the shadowy form of Tahr stretched out on the bed.
"Everywhere we go, I sleep on the floor."
Tahr looked back at me in mock surprise. "But you are just a dumb animal, you cannot talk."
"Do want to know what this dumb animal has to say to that?"
She laughed, a hiss of released air between nearly closed lips.
I lay there in the dark for another half hour, I was almost asleep before a thought struck me.
"Where you get the cloth?"
Ah well, I guess he wouldn't be needing it any longer.
I reflected on the morality of this for a few seconds, before turning over and falling asleep.
The next morning I was up before Tahr. At 6:15 I was looking out the window at the sun rising over the bay. The town was already active; Sathe going about their business, whatever that may have been. The sun turned high wisps of scattered clouds to streaks of purple and rose as it rose over the hills on the eastern side of the bay, throwing a ray of morning light across the dim room.
I looked at Tahr, sprawled out naked on the bowl shaped bed, the light cotton sheet down around her ankles, her fur keeping her warm enough. The sunbeam speared across the room, illuminating swirling dust motes in the air and settling across her back, setting the fur shining and highlighting the ridges of her spine, the jutting of her shoulder blades, muscles gently twitching as she slept. She really was very beautiful in a soft, sleek, inhuman sort of way.
I turned back to the window, thinking about how I could get home again... after I had helped Tahr - I had promised. The only thing that came to mind would be to go back to the place I had come through and hope that the portal or whatever it was would return and take me back. Of course even if it did return, there was the chance that I would end up somewhere else again, maybe a world where Earth had an atmosphere of methane, or life had never formed. There were endless, hideous possibilities.
A noise from behind me interrupted my chain of thought. Tahr was sitting up and stretching, a very human looking movement.
"Sleep well, fur-face?"
She blinked at me and yawned in a very unhuman way that bared her sharp teeth. "Very, shave-face." She got up, scratched thoroughly, and started getting dressed. "And how was your floor?"
"Hard." I also scratched at my head and stared at my pallet. "You know, I do not think I was alone there last night. This place has a few small, crawling no-paying guests."
Tahr smiled and finished tying the breeches up around her waist. "I will bring breakfast." She padded out the door.
Breakfast was a welcome change from the cold gruel and meat we had been having over the past few days: some kind of wheat flapjacks along with citrus fruits - I wondered where they grew them - and what was probably goat's milk. I polished it off rapidly then asked Tahr what she planned to do.
She smiled. "First we get you a bath."
"What?" I looked down at myself. I was dusty and my shirt was covered with dried blood. All those days on the road sweating under a hot sun had not really made me into an aesthetic delight. I was itching all over, my hair was lank and dirty, and I guess I didn't exactly smell like a rose, especially to a Sathe's sensitive nose. "Yes. I guess you are right."
If they had public baths in Bay Town, I wasn't going to be invited to use them. In fact, we had to leave the town itself, out to the wilderness to find a secluded stream. The spot we found actually wasn't too bad: a swimming hole straight out of Tom Sawyer, complete with shading trees and sun-warmed rocks off to the side.
God, but that water looked good. I left my clothes in a pile and dove in, coming to the surface gasping and swearing. The sun had not yet warmed the neck-deep water and it was still a cold as a witch's tits. It took a short time a few more dives before my body acclimatised and I began to enjoy it.
Tahr too had stripped off her clothes and had been rummaging around in my pack, searching for something. Now she tossed me a small greyish lump and waded in, grimacing and yelping as the water climbed. I looked at the slippery mess in my hands, then sniffed it. It bore a vague resemblance to soap, but I wouldn't want to swear on it. Then something yanked my feet out from under me and I fell backward into the pool and came up sputtering. Tahr darted back out of reach with wet fur clinging to lithe curves, ears twitching.
"Why you little..."
I cupped my hands and sent water jetting at the cat that wasn't afraid of getting wet. She tried to dodge and fell over backwards, floating there in a swirl of fur, laughing at me. I fished around the stony bottom of the pool and managed to find the soap. "I will do your back if you will do mine."
She laughed again, so I casually reached over and dunked her, then lathered up and proceeded to get clean. The soap was coarse, not Lifebuoy. There was sand in it and it was so alkaline I could have used it in lieu of sandpaper, but it got the dirt off. I idly wondered how long it would take Tahr to give herself a scrubdown. With all that fur it should take hours.
Perhaps her skin doesn't secrete as much oil. Anyway, all she did was give herself a quick lather over with the soap then ducked her head underwater and came up shaking out a glittering spray of water. Then she sank down and watched me.
"Why do you spend so long cleaning your fur, K'hy? You have so little of it... and in unusual places."
Fucking nosy... I self-consciously sank a little lower in the water, my eyes still screwed up against the fierce soap as I scrubbed my hair. I heard her moving around, then a sting as claws tweaked me underwater.
I dunked my head and shook soap out of my eyes. "What are you doing?"
Her ears went back. "Your skin is changing color... I have upset you?"
"Yes, Dammit! Can you not keep your hands to yourself?" I was angry and embarrassed at the same time although I really had no reason to be. It wasn't that long ago when she hadn't been able to abide my touch. I mean, she was a different species, she wouldn't be interested in me... would she? I found her... attractive, but I could control myself, couldn't I?
"I am sorry," her ears drooped, large eyes with vertical slit pupils regarded me sadly. "It was only jest. I mean, you are... it looks so different from our males. I apologise."
I sat back in the water. "Yeah, okay. I should not have reacted so strongly." I forced a smiled at her and she flashed her teeth in imitation. My anger dispelled and I splashed her in the face, a favour she returned very readily.
The warm breeze brushed across my bare skin and rustled the tall, green grass that surrounded and shrouded me where I sprawled on the ground, letting the sun dry me. I'd never been much for sunbathing au naturel. My shorts were still damp, but drying.
Tahr had left me there whilst she went to take care of business in town. I didn't argue, after all, I'd just be a burden following her around in a busy town... and this was better than waiting in a small, stuffy attic room.
Several gossamer seed pod drifted past overhead just as the sun appeared from behind a drifting cloud, making the fragile airborne pods glow with a white aurora. I drowsily threw my arm over my eyes against the glare, then rolled over. Strange, not having to worry about burn time, ozone depletion...
In front of my nose a ladybird was industriously climbing a stem of crab grass.
Trees, sun, moving grass, insects, polymorphic clouds.
Seed pods floating.
The sounds of the wind and lazy water.
Something thumped my shoulder, jolting me fully awake. The small bundle lay beside me:
A small, brightly coloured patchwork ball made from pieces of multicoloured cloth.
I curiously poked it with a finger, then picked it up and looked around. Sathe laughter and voices sounded from the trees, then died as the Sathe in question appeared.
The three cubs froze and stared at me crouched there in the grass. A couple of seconds passed before I glanced at the ball in my hand, then gently tossed it towards them. It landed about a metre in front of them.
They glanced at the ball, then back at me, then at each other.
Like the cubs back in Traders Meet. None of them were over four feet tall, all covered in thick fur - one a light brown and the others more reddish - making them resemble large, walking teddy-bears. Like all feline young their hands, feet, and head seemed disproportionately large and bulky: they still had to grow into them. They were wearing nothing but their fur, but the largest of them was wearing a belt with a leather thong for holding a small knife. The aforementioned instrument he was holding tightly in his hand.
"Uh... Hello," I ventured.
The small one with the light-chocolate fur bolted and hid behind a tree, peering around it with impossibly wide eyes. The other two looked frantically at each other, but held their ground.
"I am sorry if I frightened you." I slowly stood, holding out my hand. "It is all right. I am not dangerous."
"You... you can... talk?" the one with knife stammered.
"Well, last time I looked I could," I smiled.
"Not frightened," the other one declared, drawing himself up to his full three-foot ten and looking anything but unafraid. "We were just surprised."
"Sure. Of course you were." I smothered a grin, then glanced at the knife in his hand. "You don't actually need that you know."
It didn't waver. "What are you?"
"My name is Kelly. I am a human..."
I was interrupted by hissing laughter and looked in slightly hurt surprise for the source: the smallest cub - a female. "What is so funny?" I asked.
She emerged from her hiding place with a hand clapped over her mouth in a futile effort to stifle her giggles: still her ears fluttered like flags. "Ssss... n... names... funny. And why do you talk wrong?"
That was the first time anyone had actually criticized my Sathe. "What is wrong with the way I talk?" I asked.
She giggled again. "It sounds wrong." Then she surprised me by coming right up to me. "You look funny too. All bald. Can I touch your fur?"
I obliged, bending over so she could touch my hair. In fearless fascination she stroked and tugged at my copper-coloured strands. Sathe pelts had a variety of colours, but copper wasn't among them.
"Ha!" she gave a squeak and grabbed at my hand. "Why do you have flat claws?" she demanded as she manipulated my fingers.
"Why do you have pointed ears?"
She paused, reached up and touched her left ear. "I do not know. I just do."
"Why, that is also the reason I have flat claws."
She thought that was funny too.
With the ice broken the two boys approached, the elder one's grip upon his knife less certain. He stared at me, then his face twitched and without watching his hand, he sheathed the knife in a single, smooth movement.
I suddenly realised that he knew how to use that thing. They knew how to look after themselves, these kids did.
But they were still children, even if they did look a little strange. They asked all the questions children would find important: Are those your clothes? Why do you wear so many? What are those things on your feet? Do you have any food? Do you have cubs? What are they like?
It was a peculiar tableau that greeted Tahr when she returned a few hours later. A trio of Sathe cubs, a laughing little girl lost in the folds of my jacket perched high on my shoulders while the older boys chased and squabbled over the boomerang I'd carved for them.
Tahr perched herself precariously on the window ledge watching the evening activity along the wharves: fishing boats being tied, cargo being unloaded, sails being reefed and mended. I leaned against the wall beside her and watched and learned as she pointed out objects and named them.
As the day gradually wound down, fewer and fewer passerbys wandered the quayside below our window. The cool breeze picked up and waves lapped against the worn stone of the dockside.
"It has been a long time since I last through this way," Tahr abruptly said. "I was little more than a cub. My father brought me here." She laughed in an abstracted way. "I remember he brought me a top. A top... it is a small toy that spins quickly without falling over. Ahhh, I wonder where that is now." She leaned back against the window sill and slowly, lazily her ears twitched in a smile. She had happy memories to treasure.
"Your father... he is still alive?" I asked.
"The last news I heard he was," she said. "He is waiting at Mainport. Saaa! It will be good to see him again."
"How long have you been away?" I asked.
"Eight years?! And you have not seen him in all this time?"
"Oh, a few times," she was suddenly more subdued. "I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it. Eight years of learning..." she trailed off with a wrinkle of her muzzle. I stepped aside as she stood and padded across to the bed. The wooden frame creaked and settled as she sank down into the middle of the bowl.
I took a final look out the window. Nothing was happening out there, the sun going through its daily death. "I see the sun, and I say, it's alright," I murmured to myself.
"What was that?"
"Not important," I told her and closed the shutters. With the window blocked the twilight inside the room became a deeper gloom in which Tahr was a shadow against the lighter brown of the sheets. I stripped down to my Calvin Kleins and sat down crosslegged on my pallet, rubbing at my stubble.
"Did you know them?" Tahr suddenly asked from the concealment of her bed. "Who?"
"Your parents. Did you know them?"
"No," I shook my head. "I was not even two. They had left me with friends while they went away for several days to another city with their parents. There was a... the vehicle they were travelling in crashed. They died along with thirty others. No, I never really knew them, but I do have... had some pictures. Do not know why I kept them, I just hung onto the over the years. It is not often..." I was babbling. I shut up.
"I am sorry," Tahr said after a few pause. "I suppose I should not have started it..."
"No. Not your fault. I am not usually so sensitive. It is just... talking to you..." I started trembling, clenched my hands together. "Tahr..."
"We will speak no more of that tonight," she said with finality. "Did you enjoy yourself this day?"
I forced myself away from the bout of xenophobia, forced myself to think about her question. "I... Yeah I did." A memory of the little girl in a coat eight times to large for her in the heat of the afternoon sun. I grinned. "Your cubs are... cute."
Tahr laughed. "They are also impossible. I suspect they were avoiding their chores."
"Not a whole lot of difference there," I grinned as I lay back.
She chuckled again and for a time all was quiet.
"Did you have... cubs?"
I sighed and stared at the rafters. A spider was lurking in the silver ghost of its web in a corner. "No," I replied. "No."
I wished she hadn't asked me that. I felt a pang and quickly sidetracked her:
"By the way, what were you doing today?"
Sheets rustled as Tahr stretched out on her bed. "I found passage for us to Mainport aboard a ship." She waved an obscure hand toward the window and the harbour. "We leave the day after tomorrow."
Her smooth body was hot, like a fire inside, lips finding mine, pressed hard, crushing them, biting at my lower lip. My hands rubbed the small of her back then worked down over her buttocks. I could feel hot skin moving silkily against my own. A delicate nose nuzzled my ear and warm breath whispered:
Someone was shaking me. "K'hy, wake. Please wake."
I struggled and woke, heart racing, sweating, looking into a pair of concerned goldflecked green eyes, vertical pupils. "You were making noises in your sleep. You are all right?"
I looked down at myself. The groundsheet was around my ankles. My erection peeked out of the top of my underwear. Tahr looked down at the bulge in my jockey shorts. Her nostrils flared.
"Damn it! Get away from me!" I snapped, yanking the blanket up. She drew away from me, looked hurt. "I was just trying to help."
"You were... Shit." I shook my head, shifting my legs. "Sorry."
"You were calling out." She looked around at the walls, up at the ceiling, at me. "I hope you did not waken anyone."
I closed my eyes and held my hands over my face, rubbed my eyes. Then turned to the barely-visible slivers of night sky through the tiny slits in the shutters: anything to escape her questioning gaze. "What was I saying?"
"I could not understand. It was in your way of speaking... but your noises, just the way you were... it was obvious enough. K'hy, I worry about you."
I didn't say anything. She continued:
"You are very like our males in some ways." Her eyes flickered as she gathered her thoughts. "I know... I know that a Sathe... I do not think a Sathe could live properly without... another. A male completly alone." Then softly: "I think I would fear for his sanity."
She rubbed her muzzle, then stared at me. "Are you the same?"
I sat up, wrapping my arms about my knees and resting my chin on them. How to answer that? Did I know? How did I feel as each day passed and home was no closer?
Alone. That I can handle, but knowing it's going to be the same day after day, year on year, for the rest of my life, that thought clutched at my guts with a cold hand.
"Yeah," I muttered. "I could be."
"K'hy, what are you going to do?"
I hesitated. "Try to find a way home."
"And if you cannot?"
I looked in her eyes: Deep, feline, beautiful... and felt a knot of fear clutch at my guts. "I do not know, Tahr. I do not know."
She put an arm around my bare shoulders and hugged me close, a familiar gesture I could understand, one that filled and empty space deep inside me. Her fur was warm, with a close, musty scent: like sun-dried straw. "I will help you," she said. "I will do all I can."
There was silence.
She got to her feet and made her way back to her bed. "Try to sleep, we may not get many more nights on land for a while. Ships are not the best places to close your eyes."
I sat in silence. For how long I don't know. Finally I rolled over and managed to get to sleep.
Thank God, I didn't dream.
The next day passed slowly. I spent it in our room cleaning my equipment, preparing for a long sea voyage, and doing my best to shave while outside a light rain fell from leaden skies. Tahr catnapped for most of the day, in the late afternoon she went out into the drizzle. I waited, then fell asleep.
I groggily lifted my head as Tahr was closing the door behind her. The open window showed only night sky and my watch said 22:32. So, I must have been asleep for hours.
"Come on, get up," she urged me as she pushed my gear under the bed, so with luck anyone glancing in the door would miss it. No locks on the doors in these hotels. Pulling on my jacket I asked her, "Where are we going?"
"To get you some proper clothes."
Thanks a lot. That explains everything.
The streets were dark and all but deserted; we only saw two figures off in the distance in the dim streets. The drizzle had tapered off to a damp mist hanging in the air.
Tahr's pads were silent on the damp paving stones, but my boots made a muted scuffing sound as I walked. Dim lights shone through the shutters on a few of the houses while others were as dark as abandoned buildings. Without electric lighting most folks rose and went to bed with the sun. So much for cats being nocturnal.
Tahr led us to the door of a shop on one of the smaller streets. She didn't knock, instead scratched with her claws on the rough wood. A few seconds passed before it opened a crack, spilling a strip of orange-tinted light onto the street.
"Only me," Tahr said.
The elderly Sathe behind the door hissed, then bade her, "Come in," as he released a chain on the other side. His facial fur was greying and wiry, one ear was torn and ragged and his left foot was twisted, looking crushed. But that didn't stop him from jumping back in alarm the instant he laid eyes on me.
"It is all right, good sir," soothed Tahr. "This is the one I ordered the item for."
He stared at me. "That?! What in the name of my Ancestors IS it?"
Tahr gave a sigh through her nostrils. "The tale is too long. It would take all night to tell, but I can assure you, he is friendly. I would not be walking around these streets at night with him if he were not."
The old one looked me up and down with an intensely critical eye, as though I was something he'd found stuck in his fur. "All right," he grudgingly conceded. "Come in."
Well, if he wasn't a tailor I was Michael Jordan. Clothing and scraps of cloth in various stages of construction and repair hung from hooks and covered spare surfaces. Knives of all shapes and sizes hung on racks and lay on tables, whetstones handy. Bobbins and spools of thread hung from raccks of wooden pegs. A small loom squatted in a corner and there wasn't a sign of any sewing machines. All work must have been done painstakingly, by hand.
The elderly tailor walked over to a bench and picked up a parcel of folded darkgreen cloth. "This is what you asked for." He looked at me critically and muttered, "I can see why you were vague about the sizes."
I almost said something, but Tahr's look made me be content with sulking to myself. The tailor unfurled the object. Holding it up at arms length, he managed to keep the edges of the cloak from dragging on the ground.
Tahr took the cloak from him and handed it to me. "Put it on."
I settled the cloak and fastened the neck clasp. The weight of the fabric was heavy on my shoulders; heavy and warm. There was a thin cotton lining and the weave was coarse wool. Weights had been sewn into the hem to stop it blowing around to much. My first piece of Sathe clothing... Obi-wan, eat your heart out. I felt like an idiot.
"It is a little short around the hood," the tailor mused, picking up a pincushion lacerated with needles and thread, also choosing a thin knife. I hastily turned to watch him when he tried to get behind me. One thing I'm still not that fond of is an armed Sathe behind me. I've already got a few too many scars.
"K'hy," Tahr reprimanded me. "Let him work." The tailor bobbed his head at her and I stood still while he scurried behind me and hands started tugging at the fabric around my shoulders, shifting the hood. I could feel him fixing the seam with one of those oversized needles. Finally there was a snap of thread being cut and he said, "That will hold."
"Good." Tahr nodded approvingly.
"Ow!" Something stuck in my arm. I pulled out a ridiculously long pin that had been holding a seam together. I rubbed my arm and handed the near nail-sized sliver of metal to the tailor who took it dubiously.
Tahr looked me up and down, took a couple of steps backward to squint at me, then turned to the tailor. "I will take it," she said, fishing in the canvas belt pouch she was using as a purse and crossed his palm with silver: "Here is the cost of your time." She tossed over another gold piece, "And that should cover the cost of your silence.
He grabbed at the silver and gold. "I know it is none of my business, but why clothes for an animal?"
Tahr paused in the doorway. "You are right, it is none of your business. Farewell." Out on the street: "Why do I need this anyway?" I asked, fingering the coarse weave. "I feel ridiculous."
"It may be wise if you are... ah... less conspicuous at times. And it looks better than those strange things you wear."
"Yeah? Well, at least they do not itch."
She twitched her ears and we walked. It'd started drizzling again and a trickle of water wound its way down the centre of the street.
A disguise? Well it might work, in dim light and at a distance - say two kilometres. At least it kept the drizzle off my neck. But why would she want me to wear a disguise? Damnation, I didn't want to get involved in any of the politics here. I thought we'd made an agreement, however long ago that was; I'd help her get where she was going, then...
"K'hy." Tahr caught my arm, pulling me up short. "Wait."
"No, wait." She cocked her head to one side and hissed, "Listen!"
Her hearing was better than mine. "I cannot hear anything. I... Hey! wait!" But then she was off, ducking down a side alley, a dark blur. I followed, cursing as my boots slipped on the slime coating the wet cobblestones, dodging around piles of garbage, well into the alleyway before I heard the sounds: Muffled squeals and yelps, Sathe curses, grunts, snarling...
"Damnation! Is this any of our business?"
I rounded a corner and drew up short, hugging the shadows while I blinked and tried to see just what the hell was going on.
Shadows changed, sliding over the cul-de-sac as the moon tried to peep through the clouds. Among a pile of trash in the dead end five figures were clustered around one on the ground, four held it down while another...
"Hai!" Tahr snarled, going down into a crouch. "Get away from her!" she literally spat the words out.
The five figures jumped to their feet while the one on the ground gathered the remains of its... her cloak around herself and scrambled for the illusion of protection offered by the shadows.
"Let her go!" Tahr hissed, not a trace of humour in that sound. "Then get out of here!"
"Hah! It is only one more female," one of the others observed, his words slurred. He growled something to his friends and they began moving to circle Tahr, blocking her retreat.
"You are drunk," she snarled, moving to try and watch all of them. "Get out of here. Now. Before you get hurt."
"Saaa, don't worry about us," one of them said. "We will be very careful. "There was hissing laughter.
So we WERE involved now, and this type, human or non, was a sort I held little love for. The nearest of the drunks heard something and turned just as I reached him and grabbed him by his collar, swung him around and half-threw him across the alley where his head hit a rain barrel with a solid thonk and left him sprawled on the ground, moaning and clutching at his face.
But for the mewling of the female in the shadows there was no sound as the drunken Sathe stared at me. In that dimness, with my hood up against the drizzle, they probably had trouble understanding just what they were seeing.
"Saaa!" The one who seemed to have some sway over the others hissed. "He is only one. Who wants to kill him!"
"All right," I tossed back my hood to give them a better look, "Who wants to try first? Come on, do not be shy."
One of the Sathe broke and stumbled away, swearing off drink forever. The leader gave a bit of ground, then held firm and grinned back; large, white fangs and rain-damped fur gleaming in the dim light. He was too pissed or too stupid to be scared. "Uhhh, Creshr," one of the others ventured. "Do you not think it is..." "I can handle it," he snarled, waving them back.
"Listen to your friends and get out of here before I kill you," I said, surprised to find I meant it.
His ears went back and his pupils went to pinpricks, then he yowled and threw himself at me.
Even drunk he was fast and strong. His claws slashed at my arm, catching and tearing through two layers of thick cloth to scratch my skin. He danced back a step and looked at my hands. "Saaa! No claws! You have no claws!"
Then he rushed me again and claws raked for my face.
This time I caught his right arm and twisted. He yowled and doubled over as I pulled it straight out and kept twisting, then he screamed in pain as I kicked his elbow. There was an audible snap. I kicked him again in the stomach and his scream turned to a choking gurgle.
I dropped him retching into a puddle and turned back to the other thugs. The one I had flattened first was only just starting to stir. He vomited loudly.
"Who is next?" I hissed.
They scattered into the night.
I picked the moaning Sathe with the broken arm up by the scruff of his neck and slammed him face-first up against a wall, his feet a couple of inches off the ground, his arm dangling uselessly by his side and whispered in his pointed ear, "Try this again, and I will come back. I will rip out your heart and show it to you. Do you understand?"
"Yes! Yes!" His hoarse answer was a bit muffled by the fact his face was being flattened by the wall.
"Bastard!" I spat then carried him to the mouth of the alley and threw him on his face. I waited until he'd hauled himself to his feet and staggered off into the dark streets, then dusted off my hands and went over to join Tahr who was comforting the victim.
She was young; probably attractive. Her soft facial fur was marred by blood trickling from one nostril and she had claw marks on her arms, chest, and stomach. More wetness glistened on her thighs and between her legs where Tahr was examining her. Not pretty.
My foot bumped against a tattered pair of breeches lying on the cobbles. I picked them up, wringing water out, then offering them to Tahr. "Is she all right?"
The trembling young Sathe shrank back, her claws sliding out. Tahr put her hands over the young female's and stroked her temples, avoiding the scratches across her muzzle. "It is alright, he will not hurt you," Tahr assured her. "He did save your life. Here, your breeches."
The female didn't take her eyes off me, wincing when Tahr pulled the tattered and ripped breeches up, tying the drawstring around her waist. "There. Do you want to tell me your name?" Tahr coaxed.
The female hesitated, then said, "Heama."
"All right, Heama, I will take you home. K'hy, I think you should... Ai! You are hurt!"
I glanced at the blood on my arm. "It is nothing, just a scratch," I assured her.
"If you are sure," she frowned, the wet fur of her forehead twisting. "Alright. Why do you not go back to the Reptile. You are getting her fur on... I mean: she is not comfortable with you around."
I nodded. "Okay... I will wait for you there. Are you going to be all right? She can walk?"
"I can walk," Heama mumbled.
"I think we can manage. Thank you," Tahr smiled at me and I watched as she helped the young Sathe from the alley, then gathered up my cloak against the drizzle and made my way back to The Reptile.
The inn was dark, the front door shut and locked. My pounding on the door roused the landlady from her sweet dreams. Surprised was a mild word for her reaction when she opened the door and I pushed past her and bumbled my way through a room lit only by the feeble glow of embers in the grate. She poked her head out to look around. "So where is your mistress?" A rhetorical question. She locked the door again and went back to her quarters muttering something about stray animals.
I negotiated the railless stairs and dark corridor without too much injury to my person, and managed to fumble the wooden latch open. I shook the water off my cloak before hanging it on a convenient peg in the wall then settled down on my pallet and waited. I never noticed when I dozed off, certainly it was before Tahr got back.
I woke late.
The sun was already well over the hills on the far side of the bay onto Bay Town and residents were busy going about their business on what promised to be a warm, muggy day.
Tahr snuffled from where she was curled up in middle of the round bed. Her nose twitched, then she sneezed and opened her eyes and lay there, blinking contentedly in the morning light.
"What happened last night?" I asked
She rolled over onto her back and draped her head over the side of the bed, looking at me upside-down. "Good morning and waking to you too," she smiled.
"She was all right?"
"We met her mate who was just setting out to look for her. We took her to a physician who said she was sore and bruised and there was some damage to her [vagina], but nothing that rest would not cure. All we could do was take her home and set her to bed."
Again she rolled over to sprawl on her stomach. It was rather disconcerting as she was naked, but it was also fascinating: she was supple as a... well, as a big cat, her movements and muscles flowing like quicksilver. I realised I was staring and tore my attention away from her body and back to the window, listening with half an ear to her narrative of the way she spent the previous night.
It seems that Heama's husband had repaid Tahr with both coin and in a way that would not be considered proper back home. As a result, Tahr was in an exceptionally good mood this morning. At least she could get some when she wanted it.
After breakfast (scones, meat, and water), we put our gear into my pack which I had the honour of carrying. Tahr took her sword and my M-16. The crossbow was strapped to the pack with my newly acquired cloak, then I followed her downstairs.
"I thank you for your [hospitality]," she bade our hostess goodbye. "Here is the rest of the money we owe you."
The landlady took the coin and put it in a purse hanging from her belt. "Journey well, good madam. You know you shouldn't let your animal wander at night. It came in last night, scared the breath out of me. You were lucky, you could have lost it for good."
Tahr showed amusement. "He knows where his next meal comes from and he will stay around me to make sure that he gets it. I thank you for your hospitality. Farewell."
Just before I ducked out the door, I couldn't help whispering, "Thank you." I left her with her jaw hanging open. Gracious, a talking monkey... imagine that.
The docks stretched the width of the town, from wall to wall, a cobbled waterfront avenue with two wharves jutting out into the bay, embraced by the arms of the breakwater. Warehouses and shops were dotted around the edge of the open yard.
Tahr led the way to one of the larger warehouses, on the opposite side of the square from the place Char had unloaded. I waited just outside the door as Tahr went inside, down an isle lined with floor-to-ceiling stacks of barrels, bales, crates, and sacks of goods. There was a counter at the end where she had to yell several times to catch someone's attention. I couldn't hear the conversation, but the harassed looking Sathe behind the counter handed her a scrap of paper then pointed out to the wharve, to where a certain boat was moored.
I found out that the boat had no name. No Sathe ship did. When talking about a ship, one would say Tom's ship or Bob's ship or whoever happened to own the thing. Tahr found the fact that we named our ships very amusing.
Thinking about it, perhaps she's right; It is a weird thing to do.
But then one of the qualities that sets the human race apart from Sathe is the weird, strange, stupid, and outright crazy things we do just for the hell of it. Things like religion, the amount we spend on sports: we find reasons to justify these things while Sathe don't go for them at all.
I took in the details of the boat as we approached: twin masts, the triangular sails rigged fore and aft, the small shelter mounted on the aft cabin for the helmsman, the high prow, and the small dingy hanging off the back. A dangerously narrow-looking gangplank from the wharve to the ship rose and fell gently as the boat moved. A Sathe sailors working on the rigging noticed us. A shout caused other faces to swing toward us.
The Sathe that met us at the top of the gangplank was swarthily built and dressed in stained grey breeches that matched the greyish fur around his eyes, giving him the appearance of wearing spectacles. He stared at us - at me rather - then exclaimed, "My Ancestors. Not another one."
No matter how you twisted the word, our quarters were not what could be called 'comfortable'. They were cramped, hot, and smelled of fish and something indefinable.
I sat on the lower bunk built into the wall of our tiny box and stared at the article of clothing I held in my hand. The green flight suit jacket had a name stitched onto the breast pocket.
"Lieutenant D. Laurence." I murmured out loud.
Tahr sat at the head of the bunk sifting through the contents of a wooden chest reinforced with iron bars: the classic pirate treasure chest. But the treasure was not of Sathe manufacture... Human articles of clothing and personal effects.
Boots, socks, pants, underclothing, the jacket. A set of dogtags confirmed that D. Laurence had indeed been a marine helicopter pilot off the USS FORRESTAL. Also a day-glo yellow life jacket, a plastic very pistol and flares - both cartridges for the pistol and sticks for the life jacket, a small packet of food concentrates, a useless locator beacon and pack of dye, and a harmonica. The last item I picked out and stared at.
Pewter and pearl. There was an engraving on the slightly tarnished metal. I rubbed it hard against my pants to clean it and read:
Daniel. Make music and think of me. Love forever, Clara.
Corny, but it left me feeling terrible.
Captain Hafair leaned against the far wall. "We found him drifting much further south than we are now, near the islands, about half a year ago. He was clinging to a piece of wreckage of some kind and was unconscious. He would have drowned if not for his floating device." He pointed at the worn marine life jacket.
"We took him and on board and searched the area for hours, we found nothing but pieces of metal and other strange materials. We did our best to help him, but he was coughing blood. He woke only once, he saw me and made sounds, then passed out again. He died an hour later. We disposed of the body overboard."
Of course they would have to. With no freezer or anything, the corpse would quickly turn foul.
He had heard my story, Tahr and I had told it to him in turns. He believed it. Of course he would have to after what he had seen.
"K'hy, look at this." Tahr was holding an open water-stained leather wallet in one hand, in the other was a piece of laminated white, glossy paper; a photograph. "The purse is like the one that you carried, but what is this?"
I looked at the picture. An attractive young woman stood smiling at the camera. Around her shoulder rested the arm of a clean shaven man in jeans, Eagles T-shirt, and baseball cap. Maybe in his late twenties-early thirties, he held a boy of about seven on his shoulders.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. "His family. They will never know what happened to him. Missing in action. "
I looked again at the inscription on the harmonica again. His epitaph?
Hafair took the picture in his hands and rubbed it with a fingertip. "I have never seen a painting so fine, so lifelike. Was it done by others of your kind?"
"Yes." I didn't feel like getting into a discussion about cameras and photography and everything else that would entail.
"You have incredibly skilled artisans," Hafair marvelled. "It is almost as if it is a window looking upon the scene. If your kind are ever willing to open trading, I know many Sathe who would pay handsomely for a portrait of that quality."
I just shrugged and pulled three flare cartridges out of a pocket on the lifevest. He cocked his head to one side and stared at me through deep green eyes. "I must see to my crew. We will be sailing with the tide."
Stopping at the door of the cabin, he turned and pointed at the harmonica. "I am curious: what is that thing for?"
"It is a musical instrument." I raised it to my lips and blew a C sharp. The sharp taste of salt and alkaline was tangy on my lips.
He stared, then blinked and left.
Shortly we heard him shouting out orders on deck. Tahr vaulted up into the top bunk then poked her head out of the narrow gap between the edges of the concave bunk and the ceiling and cocked her head quizzically. "You are quiet."
"He had a family," I said in way of explanation, "a female who loved him."
"We can love, we can hate," I replied. "I was thinking of his family, what they must be feeling."
"Yes, I am sorry." A few seconds later she said, "Before that time you... spoke of your family, I had never thought of you having parents. I was not even sure that others like you existed."
I nodded and ran my finger over the inscription in the harmonica. For several seconds I just stared at it, then wrapped it in a scrap of leather and slipped it into my pack.
Perhaps some day I would be able to return it to his family.
Days after Bay Town was lost among the hills of the coastline the novelty of shipboard life began to pall very quickly. As a passenger whose knowledge of sailing could be engraved on the head of a pin with room left over for a chorus line of angels, there was very little for me to do but watch the shore scroll by like some patchwork quilt gone wild.
There were only ten crew members (not including captain Hafair and Tahr): six male and four females. Sathe seafarers believed in recruiting a mixed crew and I doubted it was for religious reasons. I had seen no sign of any belief in gods or deities in the Sathe society, not even of vague superstitions. I guess that the reason for it was for crew satisfaction and morale on long voyages. Later observations confirmed that hypothesis.
The ship was on the last leg of its journey, heading back to Mainport from Bay Town after a long sojourn around the Florida peninsula and the settlements of the Gulf Realm. Their annual trade route headed south during the early summer, then looped back north again with their goods as winter approached. During those cold months of storms and ice, ships were harboured against the full fury of the Atlantic's elements and overhauled.
The crew worked on a rotational basis with a couple of them eating, sleeping, or playing some obscure dice game while the others worked in the rigging or patching sails or any other of the multitude of mundane shipboard duties they could pull.
They were friendly enough. All of them had seen the human pilot they had pulled from the water so I was not a totally new experience. However a couple of them were not convinced that I was much more than an animal. When you're stuck on a floating cigar box with things with attitudes like that, it gets very annoying very fast.
During the day we sailed with the prevailing northerly, the small vessel cutting through the water at a steady clip. Flying clouds of spray from the bow wave made the wooden planking on the deck slippery as it drifted across the boat. A couple of times dolphins flashed alongside, playing beneath the bowsprit, their buzzing, chattering, and razzing audible through the hull.
I laughed as I watched them leaping through the waves. Even here they still performed their aquabatics: their somersaults and tailstands. If they were surprised to see me, it didn't show through their perpetual smiles as they lined up to splash water at me.
We sat at rest in a small bay as we did every night. Travelling close to shore in the dark in a boat without radar, sonar, satellite navigation systems or other hit-tech gear is plain suicide. Especially in a boat that can have the bottom torn open by drifting log.
The night was cool to my skin but perfectly acceptable to the Sathe with their natural fur coats. The only light was from the moon and stars: quite enough to see by on clear nights.
It was peaceful: the waves slapping against the hull, the ocean aglow with cold, blue phosphorescence - almost a net of glittering cyan and light. Surrealistic, beautiful. And the soft hissing of Sathe voices could be mistaken for waves on a distant shore.
The crew would sit on the deck in the still and darkness of the late evening and tell stories and jokes: the latest tales they had heard in the last port, or something they had made up themselves.
"... then found they were supposed to be there when half the farm washed way in the next rains."
Sathe laughter hissed around the deck and Tahmihr, the storyteller, took this as his due and sat down again, taking a deep pull from his mug.
Everyone had been drinking; some more than others. As silence settled, Chmiha - one of the females - got up and pulled an equally tipsy Shatimae to his feet. Together they lurched off belowdecks. I stared after them, aware of what they were probably going to get up to. Nobody else seemed to give a damn.
A Sathe sitting beside me swallowed a lump of dried meat, belched, then asked me, "What do things like you do for entertainment?"
Others heard him and he was quickly backed up by a chorus of voices demanding me to do something, including a laughing Tahr. Jokes were out: I didn't know what they found funny. I was unable to think of a story on the spur of the moment.
"What about that instrument?" Tahr suggested and before I had a chance to protest she dived below-decks to get it. Well, she seemed to be feeling better; the last couple of days had seen her a little green around the gills, several times making an offering of the contents of her stomach to the gods of the sea.
Within a minute she was back, handing me the little leather bundle. Silver glittered when I unrolled it.
It was an instrument I could play, probably the one I was best at. Living in barracks meant that you either got good at playing something quickly, or someone would ram it down your throat.
Sitting in the dark on a wooden coaster with an audience of drunk cats, I began to play. A couple of bars of Home on the Range to warm up with. I followed that with Led Zep's The Immigrant Song, then The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Stairway to Heaven, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Rough Boy and other pieces, both old and new, mixing lively tunes with more sedate ones.
The sounds of the harmonica were alien here, wailing across the night-cloaked waters. I looked around over my cupped hands at the dim faces of the Sathe, shadows strong and their eyes seeming to glow. There was no sound from them as they listened, no sign of derision. I took heart from that and smiled to myself as I returned my complete attention to the music.
I played for about an hour, doing the pieces I was best at. The moon was high before I finished, and only two of the Sathe had left during my solo performance. Well... I couldn't expect them all to be music lovers.
When I finally ran out of breath they showed their approval by laughing (hissing all round) and passing me a drink. That I could use: my mouth tasted of dry metal from the harmonica. The ale was strange, like beer in a vague way, but weaker, flat and sweet with the distinct taste of honey.
A few mugfulls of the ale was enough to trace a warm path through my insides and as the crew drifted off to their berths, Tahr had to help me down the pitch-black companionway and corridor to our box of a cabin. She found it extremely amusing when I missed a step and skidded down on my posterior.
I couldn't see her, but I could feel Tahr's eyes on me as I stripped off in the dark and climbed into bed. The coarse sheets were irritating, but they were all there were and at least it was a bed. Wood creaked as Tahr clambered into the upper bunk, then came the thunk as she hit her head against the low ceiling.
"You alright?" I called up.
She snarled out a few choice curses. "Yes, I am fine... Saaa!"
That paid her back for my indignation in the corridor. I laughed and rolled over, pulling the thin sheet up, wishing that I had a pelt like her's: the nights were definitely getting cooler as we moved north.
....She was warm under me, hair fanned out on the pillow in a dark web, her eyes closed in ecstasy and she was warm as we moved together. I buried my head in her shoulder and rubbed my cheek against the smooth skin. She shuddered under me; tensing and relaxing, again and again. I lifted myself with my arms and looked at her face. She opened her eyes.
Impossibly large green eyes; green with flecks of gold swimming deep inside... inhuman eyes.
I snapped awake with a gasping cry, the sheets twisted around my legs and clammy with cooling sweat. There was no sound from the bunk above.
We were at anchor in a bay somewhere around near where Atlantic city should be. The crew were lowering the dingy from the back of the sloop, the ropes creaking under the weight of the small boat loaded with empty water barrels.
That was the reason for us stopping. Tahr told me such a small ship does not have a lot of room for carrying supplies such as food and water. Since the ship was a coaster and never far from the shore it was more practical to stop - either at a port or somewhere along the coast - than carry provisions needed for several weeks journey.
Tahr and I stood watching them prepare the dingy. "It will be good to walk on solid ground again," she sighed.
I had to agree with her. Going on an Atlantic cruise may be fun to some people, but not when the boat rises and falls with the tiniest swell and the head is a bucket.
Four of the crew clambered down to the boat and took up oars. With the barrels there was only room for one more. Captain Hafair saw the situation.
"They will have to make two trips."
That was something the rowers didn't want to hear. They muttered among themselves.
"No need," I said. "Tahr, you go... take these." I gave her the M-16, then stripped down to my shorts, bundled all my clothes up in my jacket and handed her the package. The crew stared at my body with a mixture of amusement and disgust. I heard whispers pertaining to my lack of fur and guesses at other physiological arrangements.
Tahr looked at the water with distaste. "You can swim that far?"
"Sure. It is not that far." It was only about sixty metres, no sweat. Sathe aren't very good swimmers: Not only the fact that their fur became waterlogged, but they were just natural sinkers. Too much muscle to float I guess. "Race you."
She wiggled her ears and tossed my clothes down into the boat, slung the rifle over her shoulder and swarmed down the horizontal slats on the hull that served as a ladder. I stepped over the hemp railings and balanced on the edge of the boat for a second. The water suddenly seemed a lot further down. Oh well... With some attention to style I launched myself into a swan dive and broke the water cleanly.
I came up gasping. The Atlantic was damned COLD! I looked around for the rowboat and saw they had already started, putting their backs into it. I hitched up my shorts and struck out for shore, bodysurfing the mediocre waves.
The beach was just a small spit of silty sand, carried down from inland by a narrow stream. The rest of the shoreline was rock, worn smooth from the constant action of the waves. As yet the trees around the bay hadn't begun to loose their leaves, but it wouldn't be long before they turned russet red-gold.
Puffing and blowing like a seal I hauled myself out of the water, adjusting my shorts while I grinned at the dingy still several metres out and riding the waves in. I waded out again and gave them a hand by dragging the boat up to the watermark.
"Show off," Tahr chastised me as she leaped out onto dry sand.
"Hey," I grinned back at her while splashing ashore. "I am allowed some fun in life."
She spat in mock disgust, then laughed and tossed my bundle of clothes at me. I caught it and began to sort my clothes out.
"So, did you enjoy your swim?" Tahr asked.
"Very pleasant," I grinned, then nearly fell over trying to get my legs into my pants. Solid ground felt strange after a heaving deck.
While the crew filled the water flasks and drew straws for the hunting detail, Tahr and I struck off on our own, following the stream inland through the utterly deserted forest. Not a sign of Sathe habitation anywhere, only birdsong. The sky was clear with only a trace of clouds, small animals scuttled through the undergrowth doing whatever it is that small animals that live in the undergrowth do.
"It is beautiful here," I said.
"What?" she gave me the Sathe version of a blank stare.
"I forget, you grew up with this."
As a New Yorker myself, I only recently started seeing anything of the great outdoors, and even then nothing as outdoor as this. "You should be grateful, there is not a lot of untouched countryside left in my world."
She looked around. "Your world sounds like a very strange place. How could anyone destroy land? It is... always. There is just so much of it."
"It is not that hard to do, believe me."
She was silent for a while, looking at me, studying me. "You have changed, strange one."
"Your skin... It is much darker, and the fur on your face is thicker."
I looked down at myself. I don't tan easily, but all those days outdoors had weathered me, and given me restless nights suffering from sunburn. Using a knife to shave is a very uncomfortable experience. The last time I'd tried it was well over a week ago in The Reptile and by now my beard was quite distinctive. Patchy, yes, but distinctive.
"I think I had better cut it back again."
Tahr craned around to look. "No, do not. You look better with it on."
"You think so?" I scratched at the bristles.
She bobbed her head in an exaggerated nod. "It hides your... baldness." Then she added, almost as an afterthought, "And it is a nice color."
I laughed: "Flattery will get you everywhere."
"Another saying from your world?"
The source of the stream was a small lake about two kilometres inland. Not very large, just enough to hold the water that drained from the local land. It was picturesque: a small valley between four hills covered in a canopy of greenery: oak, ash, beech, birch, as well as a spattering of pine.
We had settled under a tree in a small glade near the lake, me leaning against the trunk and Tahr lying sprawled out on her cloak near my feet in that relaxed attitude that only cats can adopt, her fur blending in with the golden grasses around us.
I took a swing of water out of my canteen then offered her some. She accepted it and I watched as she put it to her almost non-existent black lips and tilted her head back, dribbling water down her chin and chest. Her mouth really was not built to drink out of a vessel shaped like that. Sathe canteens are flexible leather bags with long, flattened necks... much like botas.
"Tahr, what happens when we get to Mainport?"
She wiped a trickle of water off her chin and tossed the canteen back to me. "Ssaaa... You mean what happens to you?"
"Uh," I ducked my head somewhat sheepishly, "Yes... You are my only friend here. I know very little of your customs and I am not skilled in the crafts that your people value. There are none of my own kind. I am a... a stranger in a strange land."
"Very poetic, K'hy." She reached out and patted my leg. "Do not worry. You forget; I am not a figure of unimportance there. I will make sure that you are looked after. Also our scholars will be fascinated in you, your devices, and your knowledge."
I slowly shook my head. "That was not really what I meant. Tahr, you are a friend, but still you are Sathe. You are all Sathe. It gets... lonely."
She plucked a blade of grass, twisting it in her hands. "You pine after others like yourself? There was that other... h'man. If both you and he came here there may be others. What do you think the chances are?"
I shook my head, "I would not have the faintest idea. People - my kind of people - disappear all the time, but I doubt it is quite the same thing."
There were all those legends and stories of people and machines who vanished without trace. The tales of the ancient civilizations of Atlantis, Eldorado, and Vilcabamba and the more contemporary Bermuda Triangle, the Marie Celeste.
Would Tenny and I be included with these? Nah, I doubted it. We'd just go down in a government computer somewhere, along with that ever-growing list of missing persons. How many of them had suffered this same fate... or worse. If this was another Earth that had just taken a different turnpike somewhere in time, then how many others could there be? an infinite number? every major and minor decision in history causing another branching with an alternate Earth? or just periodic breaches along the way.
Hell, I could count my blessings. I could have ended up on an earth that had never developed an atmosphere!
How many could that have happened to?
"Tahr, perhaps a few of my kind have come here before, but as you said, there is a lot of land. Also, they may have not wished to be found by your people."
"Think about it."
"Oh..." She touched her face. "Our appearance?"
I nodded and she tried to look indignant. "You remember that when I first saw you I did not wait around for introductions. I very nearly left you in that river."
"But it was my personality that won you over, ah?" She laughed and ran a clawtip along the strip on her side where no fur grew, then rolled on her back, spread eagle. "Am I really that hideous?" she smiled at the sun - her earring glittering as her ear flickered - and stretched. I cleared my throat. From where I was sitting her position was rather... revealing.
She stretched a tawny leg out and ran her bare foot up the inside of my calf, as far as the knee.
"Ahh... no, I would definitely not call you hideous."
She grinned and rolled again to end up on her stomach, resting her head on her laced fingers; her expression growing serious once more. "K'hy, the last few nights your sleep has been... restless. You have been having those dreams again?"
So, so, so. She had noticed. For a couple of seconds I stared at her, then sighed and said, "I was hoping you had not noticed. Why now?"
"A boat is not the most private of places, and you are... touchy about this. Is it the same dream?"
I shrugged. "Sort of."
"Ah... what was this dream?"
"Look, Doctor Ruth!" I was starting to feel flustered and threatened by her line of questioning. "Why do you keep prying into my affairs?!"
"I do not understand," she said; genuinely puzzled. "I just want to help. It can help to discuss your problems with a friend." She gave me her most endearing human-style smile, exposing pointed white teeth.
It still startled me. Tahr saw me flinch and her face straightened, almost looked hurt. Damnation, she was for real, caring about my problem. I swallowed and relaxed a little. So, now she's a psychiatrist, okay. Haltingly, embarrassed, I told her about the dream. Nightmare. Whatever.
Afterwards she was silent, looking at me with those eyes the liquid green of ocean depths.
I stared back, all too aware of that gulf between us. So different, she with her fur and claws and teeth and predator's manners. Her kind used to prey upon mine.
"Tahr," I choked. "What am I? I mean, when you look at me, what do you see?"
She pondered over that. "A friend, I think," she said thoughtfully. "Perhaps a tall, clumsy, bald, half-blind and deaf friend, but you are a friend nevertheless. Beside, you have cute fur."
Cute... I flushed. "What I said before... I hope I did not offend."
She smiled. "It offends me far less than it embarrasses you, K'hy. Dreams can say a lot about a person: what they are thinking, what they want... Saaa, K'hy." She cocked her head and asked, "And what am I to you?"
Oh Jeeze! "I... Ah... I have known many females, but you are unique."
She gave a small snort.
I continued, trying to explain. "You are stronger inside. You are... There is an animal my people often used to represent grace, power, cunning, and beauty: you strongly resemble this creature."
"Are you calling me an animal!" she bristled.
"No, no... I... er... that was a... a..." Damn, I didn't know the words. It wasn't necessary.
Her anger evaporated into laughter. She moved over and squatted down beside me. A claw lightly traced long my jawbone. "I know what you meant." Then she shifted and there was warm breath on my neck and a second later I almost screamed when she bit me lightly on the shoulder, teeth closing, then releasing again.
"Jesus," I gasped when my heart settled down again. "What was THAT for?!"
She scratched her own neck and looked bewildered. "It shows... affection. Do you not have such a gesture?"
"Uh... yes. It is... uh..." I didn't know how to say it. Impulsively I leaned over, placing my lips against her cheek. Just a touch. Her fur was warm from the sun, with that now-familiar musty scent. I hesitated, then impulsively shifted and bit her lightly on her right shoulder; she trembled slightly, then relaxed.
"That touch," she felt her cheek. "Is that it?"
"A kiss," I said, embarrassed. "There is more to it, but you... you are not... I do not think it would work."
Ha! The metal picture of getting into a serious mouth match with a Sathe was both ludicrous and faintly repellant.
"A chiss... We both have a lot to learn," she murmured; then, more loudly. "Come on. I think it is time we went back."
I lagged a few steps behind her, discreetly trying to get fur out of my mouth.
But for the rowboat, the beach was deserted.
Waves lapped around the dingy where it lay in the surf. Water casks lay upended on the beach with their contents spilled back to the sea. There were also dark stains on the white sand: small droplets and larger patches of a sticky, reddish liquid already drying. Fifty metres out on the ship we could see the crew waving their arms and shouting something swallowed by the distance.
Tahr grabbed me, pushing me back toward the trees, hissing, "Out of here! Move!" Sathe were waiting with loaded crossbows levelled.
I grabbed for my rifle but Tahr caught my arm and stopped me, "No! K'hy!"
"Submit! Now!" A Sathe snarled. "Do it!"
I hesitated, looked at Tahr in confusion. It almost got me shot: a crossbow bolt whirred past my head. I froze rigid.
"You!" the Sathe growled at Tahr. "Get that thing under control!"
"Like this," Tahr hissed at me. She hung her arms loosely away from her side and looked up at the sky, exposing her throat. I imitated her example.
Hands grabbed my hair, yanking my head back even further while claws rested at my throat; I broke out in a cold sweat. Others took my gun and tied my hands behind my back: tightly. Tahr was tied likewise, then we were led at crossbow-point into the forest. The crewmembers were there: stripped bodies dumped behind bushes. Well enough hidden so we'd missed them on the way in. Guards pushed me past the corpses, stumbling at a gruelling pace through the trees, then uphill. On a windswept hilltop overlooking the bay, I looked back to see the ship still lying at anchor. It looked like a toy. That was how the Sathe had known we were there: they had probably watched the ship sailing in and the rest was easy. How many crew were left? Could they get help? I doubted it.
Wagons and llamas waited on the other side of the hill. In short order Tahr and I were stripped of our clothing, had our ropes replaced by manacles, and were left lying like a couple of sacks of meal in the back of a cart. Right in front of my nose a canvass blanket covered a lumpy pile. A corner had shifted and I caught a glimpse of armour hidden underneath: blood red and coal black.
Tahr glared at the back of wagoner, then went back to staring at her bonds: two small stocks, one for the wrists and another for the ankles, chained together and secured with a crude but efficient lock: like wooden handcuffs. She had limited movement, but me they were taking no chances with.
They'd crammed my hands into the same kind of manacles - too small for my wrists - also they'd hog-tied me: linking my wrist and ankle restraints behind my back with rope, then running another loop of cord up to my neck. If I so much as twitched my hands the noose began to bite into my windpipe.
Perhaps I could've coped with that, but the sheer terror when one of the bastards - a female - had jabbed me with a dagger, then held it between my legs and debated amongst her comrades whether or not she should take a trophy was like nothing I've ever felt before.
They thought it was hilarious.
Tahr was snarling and spitting in helpless fury as the laughing Sathe poked and prodded and jabbed at me until an officer dispersed them, snarling they didn't want me damaged too badly.
Now several hours later - cuts and scratches stinging and oozing, my muscles aching from lying on hard wood in the back of the cart, shaking uncontrollably - I wondered what they had in mind for us and why it was every time we moved, someone jumped on us. Tahr must be really important to someone.
The Sathe on the llama behind the wagon had grown tired of jeering at us; laughing at me and making proposals to Tahr, who stolidly ignored them. However, they still kept a close eye on us.
Toward evening we left the road and started through the trees. The jolting while the cart was on the road was bad enough; offroad it was unbelievable. Black and blue, I was almost relieved when we rolled into a campsite. Several small fires were crackling away and shelters were slung between trees. Some were tent shaped, others just a heavy sheet with one end tied to a rope and the other pegged to the ground.
Two Sathe climbed into the back of the cart, two more stood at guard on the ground. One of them cautiously untied my ropes, then gestured to Tahr with sword drawn. "Out." He looked at me: "That too."
I got to my feet, my joints popping from being locked in the same position for hours on end, and waited while our captors removed our hobbles. They led us at swordpoint to one of the larger pavilions where our leg shackles were replaced and chained to a stake driven deep into the ground. Guards waited outside.
I looked around. Shabby, water-stained canvass draped over a rope. There were a couple of blankets on the trampled grass, but besides that; nothing.
"They are Gulf Realm?" I asked Tahr.
Unable to sign the affirmative with her hands she nodded human style instead. "Yes, Gulf Realm," she almost spat. "Warriors of Hraasa, that impotent, fatherless, son-of-a..."
"Talking about others when they are not present. Where ARE your manners?"
The mild voice broke Tahr off in mid-curse. We both looked to where a male Sathe was watching us through the pavilion's flaps. The newcomer laid his ears back in a smile that held little warmth. "A pleasant catch. Tahr ai Shirai herself. Almost too much to hope for. I've heard many promising things about you, and I am pleased to see they are true." He settled himself opposite her, his nostrils flaring.
"Who are you!" Tahr snarled. "And what is this outrage! Gulf troops violating all the conventions and interfering with a Candidate and her entourage. The assembly shall demand a tribunal of inquiry."
"Entourage?" the other smirked. "THIS?" he stared at me, "is your entourage? You are in a bad way, Tahr."
"Who are you!"
"Ah, my manners! I suppose I should introduce myself: I am Tarsha."
This Tarsha was hefty for a Sathe: about five foot three. His fur was dark gold in the fading sunlight, lighter stripes running down his muzzle. He wore a kilt of black leather outlined with red trim, his black cloak was decorated likewise.
He moved closer to her; his clean features and her ragged fur were silhouetted against the light filtering through the tent fabric. When he combed a claw through her mane she snapped at it, but his hand was already out of reach.
"Huh... Yes, you are the one alright. I think I shall find you very enjoyable tonight."
"Fuck off... Get your paws off her you mother-copulator!" I lunged forward, straining at the wooden stocks. They creaked, but unfortunately held.
Tarsha turned his attention to me. "It DOES talk! You do find some strange friends Tahr. Strange and ugly."
"The best part of you ran down your father's leg!" I snarled at him.
Tarsha looked surprised, then his eyes narrowed. He stepped towards me and crouched down. With a single quick movement he grabbed my hair and forced my head back. A black claw traced up and down the curve of my throat, pausing to circle the soft hollow below my adams apple. I swallowed. "Tahr, does it not know that it is not nice to say things like that. What is it, Tahr? Some friend of yours perhaps?"
The claw meandered down to my chest, then started to apply pressure. I winced, then ground my teeth. Sweat and blood started to flow. I was all too aware of how easy it would be for him to gut me with a single slash.
"Stop, Tarsha," Tahr sounded weary. "Don't hurt him."
"Huh." He drew back, suddenly thoughtful. "Compassion for something like this? Interesting. I wonder why?" He withdrew his claw from the small furrow it had made in my chest and brushed his fingers across my forehead, frowning at the moisture on his fingertips. "You hear her, Creature? She cares for you." He released his hold on my hair and signalled for a guard. "Get it out of here."
"Where do you want it, High One?"
He sighed, like he didn't really care. "I do not know. Take it and chain it to a tree or something. Make sure it is well guarded."
They did. Chain me to a tree. Without clothing, neither beneath shelter nor near a fire. A guard sat like a furry idol under a nearby bivouac, a sword and cocked crossbow close at hand. A half-hearted tug at the chain that bound me to the tree only earned me a kick in the side of the head.
Day fled and nighttime stole across the camp, broken only by the oasis of light around the campfires. None of the Sathe around them reacted much when the snarls of protest came from that one tent; turning to sounds of pain and struggle.
"BASTARD!" I started screaming also, struggling against my chains while Tahr cried out. Several guards finally used the butts of their crossbows to shut me up.
The morning arrived to find me soaking wet, shaking, miserable, and sick as a dog. It'd been a long, cold night with the moon lost behind clouds and a persistent drizzle soaking me. Water dripped from the tree. After shivering all night I was exhausted, hungry, bruised, possibly concussed and - almost unbelievably - thirsty. What water had pooled in nearby leaves wasn't enough to ease the burning in my swollen throat. My breath rasped in my throat and deeper, right in my lungs.
My guard had been changed, and the Sathe watching me was still vigilant, if bored. The camp quickly roused itself, the sodden remains of fires were turned and dry wood set alight. They must have been very confident in themselves to risk someone spotting the smoke, little as there was. Altogether there must have been about fifteen of them, of mixed sexes. Breakfast was set to cooking, sending a smell of roasting meat and grain wafting that started my mouth watering and stomach churning. When was the last time I had eaten? I huddled up and watched them eat. They ignored me. Not feeding time.
"I heard it speak, I tell you. It insulted the commander."
Three of the red and black clad Sathe, all males, were standing over me. I curled up, put my knees up against my chest and tried to stop shivering.
"How could THAT speak." Another batted at the first speakers head, playfully. Their way of speaking, the inflections on the words were different from the other Sathe I had heard in the towns I noted dully; a different accent?
The first one bent down beside me and grabbed my bound hands. "Look, no claws," he observed, then extended the talon on his index finger and ran it down the side of my face, from ear to jaw, scratching bruised skin. "But it can talk. SAY something!" He emphasized that with a jab at my cheek. A small noise escaped me and I felt something warm start to flow down the side of my face.
"Get bent," I mumbled in Sathe, then broke down in a hacking cough.
"You were right, it can talk, sort of... but what is it? and what is wrong with it," puzzled Number Two.
I managed to stop coughing and was taking rasping breaths.
Number Three spoke for the first time. "It is ill. Look, it has no fur and you can see how thin its skin is. It must have frozen last night."
I closed my eyes and tried to ignore them; that got me a kick in the ribs.
"No, don't go to sleep now, tell us about yourself." That was Number One again. He yanked my head back by the hair and that triggered another spasm of coughing and gasping.
"I do not think it is feeling very talkative," another observed.
"A." The first agreed and tugged on my hair a few more times. "Give me a knife."
Number Two handed one across. "What are you doing?"
"Look at this stuff." Another yank on my hair. "I would not mind a belt this color."
"Are you sure..."
He was. The knife slashed and cut, painfully as he hacked away handfuls of hair, bunching them in his fist and sawing the knife across. When he was finished he let me drop and stuffed his trophies into a pouch on his belt. "Might be worth something.
Number three bent down to peer into my face. "You know, I think it is really sick. Perhaps the [captain] should know. He does not want it dead."
"Ah, you worry too much," one of the others laughed. They poked me a few more times before losing interest and stalking off.
For half the day I lay there. The sky remained overcast and the air chill. I curled into a small ball wracked with shivering and coughing. If I'm lucky, it's only a bad cold. God, don't let it be pneumonia.
Sometime in the late morning, a pair of arms raised my head: "Drink this." A wooden bowl was pressed against my lips and water dribbled over my face. I choked, managed to drink, then I was dropped and left again.
About midday I was given water again, then unchained and half-dragged by a bevy of guards to Tarsha's tent. I wasn't expecting a friendly chat, and I didn't have one.
"Tahr, what is the matter with your... friend?"
She looked at me huddled and shivering violently, hovering on the edge of hypothermia. "Has it not seeped into your tiny mind, he is ill!" she snarled. "What have you DONE to him?!"
She was still chained. Bruises were visible through her fur, one eye was half closed, and there were small scratches along her side. My stomach turned when I saw the spatters of blood on her thighs.
But she had at least gotten in a few of her own. Tarsha sported a beautiful slash along the side of his face, from below his left eye to the top of his nose, and there was a crescent of small punctures on his arm; about the right shape for a jaw full of sharp teeth.
He bared his own at her, V-shaped wrinkles forming up the bridge of his muzzle. "Be careful how you choose your words. You could easily find yourself regretting them. We might be able to help your companion."
Tahr's eyes flickered from him to me. "Why can you not leave him alone!"
"But I thought that you would want us to help... him. You see? He does seem to be suffering, does he not? I can ensure that he is treated well."
God, Tahr! No!
"Across the other side," Tarsha continued, "I can also make things very unpleasant for him if you do not co-operate. Now are you willing to talk with me? or do you want a demonstration?" He waited for her to respond.
Tahr gave me an agonized look, started to speak, then hung her head and was silent.
The Gulf Sathe waved a curt signal to the warriors.
Tahr still didn't speak, but that look on her face spoke volumes as four guards laid hands on me, dragging me outside. I struggled, for all the good it did; there were enough of them to hold me still.
A rope was tied to my manacles, the other end thrown though a high fork in a tree. I gasped in pain as they hauled me up, my back to the tree, the cramped muscles in my arms and back screaming their protest and my skin being scraped raw against the bark. My feet - a foot off the ground - were tied so I couldn't kick out and I hung there, fighting to breath.
Tahr tried to reach me, snapping at her guard, but a vicious cuff about the ears staggered and silenced her.
"Now..." Tarsha strolled around to stand in front of me, contemplating me like someone might study a picture on the wall. He reached up, a finger tracing the scab of the wound he had given me the previous day, "I have some questions to ask of you, Tahr."
Tahr glared at him sullenly.
The Sathe's claw came out and slashed downward, cutting through skin and muscle. The shock of the pain was like a kick in the stomach and I gagged on the agony that ripped through my stretched pectorals. Again Tarsha's claws cut into my skin, slicing methodically, tracing a red rectangle on my chest. Then he caught one end and started peeling the strip of skin off.
You wouldn't believe the pain. I couldn't help it; I screamed, bucking and thrashing enough to almost dislocate my shoulder and knock myself silly against the tree.
Tarsha calmly raised his hand and sniffed at the blood that stained the fur of his fingers, gazing coolly up at me while I tried to focus through watering eyes. "Tahr, you do surprise me," he turned to face her. "I had thought you would be stronger than this."
Tahr snarled helplessly, looking haggard, tired. "If you kill him, you are the greater fool," she hissed. "You do not know what he is! what he means for all Sathe!"
"Really?" Tarsha purred. "I must confess I had been curious. Maybe there will be time for that later. Now, the other Born Rulers: what routes will they be following to Mainport?"
"What? I do not know that!"
Again I twisted as Tarsha's claws slipped under my skin and began skinning another strip. The strange noises I was hearing I only later realised came from my own mouth.
"STOP!" Tahr screamed. "I DO NOT KNOW! I do not know. You know I cannot!"
Tarsha grinned up at me. "Yes, you are right. I know." He wiped a finger through the blood streaming down my front, then methodically licked it clean. "Have you ever wondered what your pet would taste like? Maybe filleted?"
Tahr yowled incoherently at him.
Tarsha laughed, then continued while Tahr was still seething; half-furious, half-terrified. "My superiors have long been curious about the strength of the garrison at River Plain. What is its strength? Are there any plans to reinforce it?" His claw flexed again, I felt its hard curve tracing a pattern in my blood.
Tahr hesitated, then answered. A Gulf trooper scribbled notes.
"Good, Tahr," Tarsha smiled. "I may tame you yet."
She gaped her mouth and hissed.
Tarsha asked more and more questions, scattering his demands for information with things he already knew. Every time he caught Tahr lying, he made me scream. Even when she was simply unsure of an answer, a claw slowly ripped through my skin.
It seemed like an eternity I was up there. The world blurred out of focus, my ears rang. Time became meaningless; all that existed was the pain, then even that started to blur into the distance. I never really noticed when Tarsha had finished and Tahr was being dragged off, yowling.
They left me up there until I started choking.
Through the haze I saw soldiers approaching, a sword being drawn. They moved around behind the tree, then the rope went slack and the ground smashed up.
The cool, damp cloth on my forehead felt good, a sensation beside the constant pain across my chest and through my joints. I just lay there with my eyes shut, shivering.
"K'hy, are you awake? Can you hear me?"
Fuck off! Leave me alone!
The voice was familiar, and persistent.
I forced my eyes open and blinked to focus. Tahr was leaning over me. Several guards lurked just outside the shelter: a sheet of canvass draped over a rope. I tried to speak, but nothing came out, my throat felt as if it were swollen to twice its normal size and lined with sandpaper.
"Try to drink," Tahr coaxed. Her wrist manacles had been removed but her ankle restraints still rattled. With one arm around my shoulders she helped me sit up. I nearly passed out again as muscles and skin moved on my lacerated chest. Tahr held a small cup to my lips so I could drink. The water was wonderful, but she pulled it away after only a few sips.
She looked at me mournfully, at the raw wounds on my chest still oozing blood and clear lymphatic fluid. So, I hadn't been out for very long: I was absolutely covered in clotting blood, dust and dirt.
Then I went into paroxysms of uncontrollable shuddering and coughing.
Tahr grabbed my head and a rough hand touched my nose, my cheeks, then my forehead. For a couple of seconds she studied me. "What have they done to you," she murmured, then called the guard: "For pity's sake, get him some clothes, a covering! Please!"
The guard turned and bent to stare in at us, then waggled a hand in a shrug. "Not my responsibility."
"Then get Tarsha!"
The soldier grinned at her, "I would have thought you would have enough of talking with him."
Tahr snarled incoherently, then spat, "If he dies, your hide will be nailed to a tree for the crows!"
This time the guard's grin lack conviction. She backed out, leaving another warrior staring in at us.
Tahr ignored them.
"I am sorry, K'hy," she lamented, touching the sticky blood that coated my arm.
Don't be. Not your fault. I couldn't speak it, I just started coughing again and the pain from that movement brought tears to my eyes; I ground my teeth. Tahr gave me more water and that eased the raging fires in my throat a little and for a while I lay quietly, looking up at her. She stroked my forehead, glancing up at the guards outside the tent occasionally, tension drawing muscles in her neck into sharp relief, fatigue and fear matting her coat.
"He... hurt you?" I grated in what could pass for a voice.
"Hurt ME?!" She looked surprised, then leaned back and met my eye, abruptly cold and pragmatic. "Yes, he raped me."
I was feeling very weary. Ill and injured in a primitive world with beings who looked and thought alien: another world, time, and morality. After what had happened to her she was steady on the outside, but one look at her face, at the burning in her eyes, chilled me.
Someone was going to be paying.
Tarsha pushed into the opening at the end of the bivvy followed by the guard who handed a bulky sack to her commander and left. The large red and black clad Sathe loomed over me, stooping a bit under the low cloth roof of the shelter.
Tahr turned and the anger burned brighter.
"What do you want, Tahr ai mine?" He half smiled, half grinned; a predator's grin. Then he glanced at me. "I see your pet is awake. How are you feeling? A? Still full of words?"
Her nostril flared. "He is seriously ill. I think he is dying. He needs warmth and his wounds need tending."
"Perhaps you would like me to send for a physician," Tarsha snarled sarcastically. He sneered at me lying chained on the floor: "For all his size he has a very delicate hide. I had considered skinning him to make breeches out it, but the stuff might be too fragile for that."
Tahr flinched and put a hand on my shoulder. "You... you said you would help him if I cooperated!"
"That is true," he shrugged. "Ah well, I suppose that we really do not want him dying upon us. I suspect that you might most uncooperative if he was not here to help... persuade you."
Tahr's ears plastered down flat against her skull and she trembled as Tarsha's hand caressed her mane. Her eyes slitted, but she bore it with restraint.
The Gulf officer smiled at her, at her subservience: "Good, my Tahr. Very good."
Then abruptly he pushed her away: hard, so Tahr sprawled backwards on the ground. "Here," he said laconically and drew a blanket from the bag and threw it in her face, "For your friend."
Tahr yanked the blanket off with extruded claws and a snarl, then turned her back on the officer and tried to be as gentle as possible as she wrapped me in the blanket. I shivered beneath the rough cloth while Tarsha sorted out the other contents of the sack.
Merry Christmas I though inanely.
My clothes. My watch, my ballpoint pen, notebook, cigarette lighter, my boots and my M-16 lay in the jumbled pile. Mute testimony of a society I might never see again. Tarsha picked up my watch and waved it under Tahr's nose.
"What are these things? Your friend was wearing this and carrying all that other stuff. What is it? What makes these marks behind the glass move?"
Tahr hesitated; looked at me.
"Tahr, do you really want me to have to persuade you to answer again?" Tarsha warned, his claws resting on my leg. I couldn't help wincing as they dug in. "Your friend's fingers DO look fragile. I am sure that they break easily."
Tahr growled; her lips parting in a snarl that showed her teeth. "Very well."
"Excellent," Tarsha smiled. "I just knew you would cooperate."
"It is a time-piece," Tahr choked the words out. "To be worn on the wrist."
"A clock? Do not lie to me, Tahr."
"I am not lying," she muttered tersely. "It is a clock. You can believe me or not, but it is the truth."
Tarsha studied her, then snorted and turned his attentions to the watch, pressing the button on the side, ears flinching as it beeped. He stared at the watch for a while, pressing the mode button over and over and watching the crystal characters flicker from one display to another. "What makes the patterns change? What is that noise it makes," he asked. "How do you make something like this?"
"I do not know. I DO NOT KNOW!" she shouted it as Tarsha's claw pressed harder. He looked at her, then grunted and retracted his claw. Blood welled.
He dropped the watch and selected another item; the lighter. The small rectangle of silver metal clicked against his claws as he flipped the lid open, the electric spark igniting the gas in a blue flame that wavered in a draught.
"A fire starter. But again: how does it work?" He removed his thumb and the flame died. He turned the lighter over in his hands, tracing out my initials with his finger. "Your people of the east could not have made these, nor - I admit - could mine. There are materials I have never seen or heard of in these," he held up the notebook and pen. "The paper is so smooth and this writing instrument; I can see how it works, but the craftsmanship is impossibly fine."
He dropped the pen and notebook. "Where did you get these?"
"They are his," Tahr spat, jerking her head at me.
Of course he didn't believe her.
"Huh..." Tarsha grinned at her. "Well, that does not matter right now, I will find out... later."
He picked up the M-16. "And this thing? What is this for?"
Without looking at me Tahr sullenly said, "Hunting."
"How does it work?"
"May I show you?" Tahr was being very casual, maybe too casual - Tarsha looked thoughtful.
"I think not, Tahr," he said. "Something has already killed too many of my people." He looked at me, "Although I cannot believe THAT pitiful creature did it.
"No, Shirai, you will tell me how to use it." He experimentally hefted three and a half kilograms of armalite then wrapped his hand around the grip, flexing his dark fingers.
Tahr licked her thin, black lips and said nothing.
"Tahr," Tarsha reminded her mildly, "your friend..."
Tahr looked at me.
No, Tahr, don't do it!
"There is a small knob on the side there. Pull it backwards until it clicks and let it go again," she said. "All right, now push that little thing there forward."
Holding the rifle casually in one hand Tarsha did as she said. "Now what?" he asked.
Tahr sighed, looking about as threatening as a dandelion. "Just pull that lever underneath."
Confident in our helplessness, Tarsha pulled the trigger.
The gun rattled out a short, wild burst, the noise and recoil taking the Sathe completely by surprise. He instinctively spun around and threw up his arm to protect his face as the recoil kicked the weapon from his grasp and bullets stitched blackened holes through the fabric of the shelter.
Tahr had the gun before it hit the ground
The Sathe didn't have time to react before Tahr had assault rifle aimed at the two guards behind Tarsha. The gun burped and the small shelter was filled with the acrid smell of propellant and burned leather, fur, and flesh. The guards were kicked backwards by an invisible mule, the first one's chest imploded and the next one's head whipped around in a spray of pink; she had not accounted for the muzzle kick and hit the second one higher than she had intended.
Tarsha had only just begun to move, turning in time to receive the butt of the gun in his face as Tahr turned to face the other two guards. Tarsha swayed indecisively then toppled at my feet.
The other two guards had hesitated a second before drawing their swords. That cost them their lives. One fell spasming on the ground with a sucking hole through her chest, the other had three holes up the torso as Tahr 'walked' the shots up his body. She missed with two rounds.
She started searching Tarsha; for the key to the manacles I guessed, then kicked him aside and aimed the rifle at the wooden stocks. Two shots in quick succession tore the wood into flinders that she kicked away and fumbled through Tarsha's sack, coming up with another magazine then darted from the shelter, out of my sight. Shouts and cries came from outside, many cut off abruptly with the sharp crack of rifle fire. A crossbow quarrel tore through the canvass near the top of the shelter, in one side and out the other. The M-16 clattered, short bursts mixed with screaming. A long rattle of gunfire, then single shots, then there was silence.
"Tahr!" I croaked past the burning in my throat. Long seconds passed before Tahr pushed her way into the bivvy, stepping over the bodies lying outside. She was over the edge of a berserker rage: every hair upon her body seemed to be standing upright while her ears were plastered down tight, almost lost in her mane. Those greenstone eyes were black pools, the iris dilated until the green of her pupils was all but obliterated. The sound of her breathing was a hoarse rasping as she gulped air.
"Tahr... ?" She dropped to her knees and the gun fell aside with a clatter, then my face was buried in her mane as she hugged me, her cheek pressed close against mine.
I couldn't believe the whimper came from my own throat. It hurt like hell as Tahr wiped the steaming-hot cloth across the mess of blood on my chest, clearing it away so my skin and the scratches themselves were visible. A couple of them began slowly weeping blood again as soon as they were bared to the air. Kneeling over me she inspected the cuts, then sat back until she was resting on her ankles. Judging by her expression it was not good.
Tahr confirmed my fears: "They are deep, and there are so many of them. K'hy... It is not good."
There was a groan from the still-unconscious form of Tarsha lying there in the restraints that until recently I'd been wearing. Tahr looked at him and gaped her mouth in a hiss of pure malice.
I sagged back and stared at the mottled, off-white fabric of the tent roof. Trees outside cast a hypnotic pattern of moving leaves and branches it: a shifting pattern swaying back and forth.
Tahr spoke again, giving me something to focus on, "Is there nothing that you can do?"
I slowly shook my head. My medical kit was in my pack and that was on the boat and God only knew where that was now. What would Rambo do? I thought numbly to myself: Sew himself up with fish gut and a six-inch nail and not give a damn about infection. I had to give a damn about it. I was already running a fever and there was no way that my body could cope with both.
Was there anything I could do? I knew that you made penicillin from moulds, but I wasn't about to wait around for a few weeks for an orange to turn green. Besides, once you've got a mouldy orange, what the hell do you DO with it?
I remembered the clean, antiseptic smell of hospitals, the hint of alcohol in the atmosphere...
"Tahr, how do you make ale?"
"What?" her muzzle wrinkled up in confusion.
She scratched her muzzle and thought for a second. "Uhnn... grain or corn is left until it starts to grow, then it is cooked and mixed with water. I think it is then left until a foam appears on the surface. It is flavoured with honey or spices."
I pawed at her and she trailed off. It was all I needed to know and everything I wanted to hear. "Is there any ale here?"
"Thirsty? I can bring you water..."
"No, no. Please, just see if they have any."
With a bob of her head she was gone from the shelter to return in a few minutes with the news that there were two kegs of the liquor in the supplies of the Gulf troops.
"This had better work," I muttered to myself. "Help me up. I have work to do," I held out my arm to her.
"No. Hold. You are not moving," Tahr pushed me back down. "Tell me what to do." I protested, but she remained firm. No amount of arguing on my part was going to sway her. Finally I had to acquiesce and tell her what to do.
"Boil ale and catch the vapours?" she wrinkled her muzzle in puzzlement. "I do not understand."
"Please." I was so tired. I just wanted to sleep. "Just do it."
She batted my face gently and then was gone again. Outside I could hear the clattering of ironmongery.
Tarsha stirred, turning over.
My chest ached, sharps pangs lancing through it as I reached for the M-16's strap, took it up. I really have no idea if there were any rounds left in it.
I rested the trembling weapon across my lap, muzzle toward the unconscious Gulf officer.
His muzzle was covered with blood, as was the surrounding fur. A blueish lump was starting to show through the fur. Red-tinged spittle drooled from the corner of his mouth: I wouldn't have been surprised if he had lost a tooth or two as a result of Tahr's work with the gun butt.
As I watched him, he groaned and tied to raise his hands to his face; the chain from his wrist to his ankle manacles stopped him. Then he opened his eyes and looked up at me with an expression of undisguised horror.
Really, he had no reason to be scared of me. Not of me. Of Tahr, now that was something else altogether.
Tahr squeezed the cloth and a single drop of liquid seemed to burn a hole through my tongue, the smell tearing a passage through my sinuses. I gasped and coughed. "Goddamn!" To Tahr's bewildered face I said, "Good."
"What do I do?" she asked.
"My belt." She passed it to me. With trembling fingers I doubled it over. "Just pour it on," I said and jammed the tough webbing of the belt between my teeth.
She hesitated. "This will hurt you?"
I nodded and growled, "G'on wi't!"
Even the diluted liquid was icy-cold against my skin for a second, then it seemed as if tongues of fire were raging through my nerves, burning slashes on my chest reaching inside me and searing to the core. I squeezed my eyes shut and my teeth clenched hard on the rough nylon in my mouth.
Slowly it faded as Tahr paused, then she moved again and a strangled whimper escaped my throat, sweat breaking out as she wiped the cloth across my wounds. I think I passed out for a few seconds.
Cool finger-pads were patting my cheek, then slapping. I groaned and felt the belt slip from between my teeth. "K'hy?"
"I have finished. If you can sit up, I will put the bandages on." There was the sound of claws clicking together, then: "It will hurt."
It did, but it was nothing compared to the cold searing of the alcohol. I sucked in air through my teeth as she put pads of hot cloth on my chest then wrapped hot bandages around my torso, covering the still bleeding cuts. When she finished, I was covered in mismatched cloth from nipples to navel.
Tahr surveyed her work and was apparently satisfied. She let me rest for a brief while before waking me. "K'hy, we have to leave this place. Can you walk?"
"Don't know," I croaked, but tried: lurching to my feet, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the sheet of pain across my chest. Then my knees buckled and Tahr only just managed to catch me.
"Obviously not. Here," she slipped a shoulder under my arm and together we staggered outside. "My Ancestors, do you have to weigh so much?"
It was like the aftermath on a battlefield. All around the campsite Sathe bodies lay in various poses, some still clutching weapons, several had holes in the forehead; mercy shots. Amongst the treeline lay more shapes, the marks on their backs showed they had not been trying to fight. Already black carrion birds were squabbling in branches overhead and they would not wait long.
There was a small, four-wheeled wagon with two llamas already hitched to the tongue. Tahr boosted me up into the wagonbed, laid me back and pulled a pile of blankets across, swaddling me in cloth that quickly warmed to my body heat. I was tired, my skin burning. I wanted to throw the blankets off to cool down.
Tahr squatted at the tailgate and sniffed her shoulder where I had leaned on her. "It is time you had another bath," she smiled.
As a joke it fell a bit flat. "You killed them all," I grated.
She looked around, "Not all of them, some got away. You worry about them? My ancestors, K'hy, they would have killed us." She looked back at the tent. "And it is not over yet."
She walked back to the tent, stooping to pry a sword from a dead soldier's fingers before disappearing inside. I closed my eyes when the screaming started, but I couldn't close my ears.
The fever grew worse: a debilitating, strength-sapping heat and shivering that dragged me under, burning at my skin and keeping me floating in and out of sleep, babbling at Tahr in a patchwork of English and Sathe as she nursed me.
My memory of what happened after we left the Gulf encampment behind us is pretty hazy. I slept for hours on end, drifting in and out of dimly remembered dreams. At times, when Tahr roused me and did her best to feed and water me I would wake confused and disoriented, the Sathe terrifying me as I mixed her with the nightmares in my deliriums. I fought her. I can remember that, struggling against her, then just a picture of her holding me, stroking my face and hair, murmuring, crooning something soft and incomprehensible and reassuring.
I've never spoken to her about that. How did she feel knowing she was a thing of nightmares and horror for me? Were there times she felt the same way about me?
We travelled west: inland, towards the setting sun. Sometimes it rained and I would wake in humid darkness, the sound of water drumming against cloth. Tahr's fur was warm as she lay beside me under the canvass covering us.
Days later the fever broke, shortly after Tahr got us onto a road that took us northwards, towards Mainport. There was no doubting her relief. I rose from the fever to find her tired and haggard - actually shedding - after driving day and night as well as trying to tend to me. Another two days passed before I was strong enough to sit up and take my turn on the bench. When I insisted on doing my shift, she handed over the reins with only token resistance.
Hours later I turned around to see how my passenger was faring, the scars across my chest pulling uncomfortably. She was sprawled on her back in the sun, one leg propped up on the side of the wagon, head back, mouth open, and snoring like a chainsaw.
There are many times I've missed having a camera.
It was only later that I had a chance to talk to her. She had sacrificed a lot because of me. Looking back, I realise how blind I had been in reading her true feelings for me. Perhaps I should have realised that there was more than friendship there when she almost betrayed her people for my sake.
"You play dangerous games, Tahr."
"How so?" she inquired blandly with a twitch on the reins.
The knife in my hands slipped when the wagon hit a rut, nicking a rogue gouge from the piece of wood I was absently whittling down to a toothpick. I frowned at the mar, then tossed the wood away into the grass verge. "I think you know. Why did you try so hard to protect me? If you had not been so sure that you could get your hands upon the gun would you have played such games with them?"
Tahr's ears flickered up and down; as though someone had just blown into them. "I was protecting my own interests just as much as yours. As I told Tarsha, he did not realise just what you mean to our people. Your knowledge is more valuable than anything I could have offered him." She gestured at my chest. "The trick you performed with the ale, it seems to have worked wonders."
"There was a lot of luck there," I said, wiping the blade of my knife on my shirt. There was sap stuck to the gleaming steel and something made me want to polish the blade until there was not a trace of imperfection upon it. The sap was reluctant to come off, but I was in no hurry.
"Perhaps, but you can save many lives with that stuff."
"Yeah, it also makes a rather nice drink among other things," I said, then realised what she was doing.
"But you are pulling me off the subject again!" I fumed and she threw back her head and hissed at the sky and at me. "You risked you home and your people for me! I do not understand you!"
She stopped laughing and looked at her hands, then at me: "Would you have not done the same for me?"
I opened my mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Would I have done the same... ?
Tahr saw my indecision and simply smiled into the sun. "It did work out though. Did it not?"
"Well, yes," I admitted.
"Then why worry?"
I shook my head in hopeless disgust. A few minutes later I asked. "What did you do to him?"
Tahr's head whipped around and her unmoving green eyes locked on me.
Slowly, her ears went down, "Ahhh, that is why you bring this up... Do you really want to know?"
I remembered the noises from the tent and gave a mental shudder. "No," I said: subdued, "I do not think I do."
"Why are you so upset about his death? Did you want to bring him with us after what he did to you?"
Shit, she was right, I shouldn't be concerned about him. He had raped her and tortured me. The bastard'd had it coming.
But what had she done with that sword?... I shuddered again.
"Why does it worry you so much? You have killed before: Many times." "Tahr..." I didn't quite know how to say it. "Before I came here I had never even seen a death. I certainly had never really expected I would have to kill. It..." I broke off with a dismissive wave of my hand.
She was amazed. "But a warrior... how could you not consider the possibility that someday you may have to fight? to kill?!"
"I had considered it, but I never really expected that I would have to." I ran my hand through my hair and rubbed my neck as I wondered how best to explain. "Our ideas of armies are most probably different. You use yours as a... deterrent? To make other Realms respect your borders and lands?"
"Yes," Tahr said.
"My people do not rely so much upon their individual warriors for that," I said. "There are... agreements between Realms to make sure that no small Realm is abused."
"This does not make much sense," Tahr mused.
"I do not know how to explain it fully," I confessed. "I am not entirely sure that anyone does."
"Politics are the same for your kind, huh?" she smiled. "But what does that have to do with a soldier not being prepared to kill?"
Damnation! There were some things that I really didn't want to talk about. The Damocles Sword of nuclear weapons one of them. Finally I sighed and said, "Our warriors are not... always warriors. Most of them are civilians who serve a short time in the military and there are many other skill that are taught besides simply fighting. I was one of those trained among to... look after vehicles and distribute supplies. Things like that."
"A [quartermaster]?!" Tahr looked astonished. "I had always thought of you as... as being of a higher ranking."
"Sorry," I said, feeling slightly hurt. "We have a large army. Someone has to do the dirty work."
"True," she agreed, still sounding disillusioned. "How large?"
"Around about... I think your number is, million?"
Tahr's jaw hit ground floor. "A million? A thousand thousand?!" she squeaked. "K'hy, there are not that many warriors in all the armies in all the Realms!"
"Then you can imagine the difficulty in supplying it."
There were questions flitting across her face like flies over a sheep's carcass. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times then turned her head to stare out straight ahead. Finally she glanced sidelong at me, "Were you good at your job?"
"It was a living," I said.
Still the questions lurked just beneath the surface, but she choked them back. Instead she said: "Then when you killed, it was the first time in your life - for me. Was it worth it?" I stared back at her then chuckled. It turned into a cough. "I believe so."
Or was it?
Maybe if I had stayed by the truck the Portal would have come back. Maybe I could have stayed up in the hills, away from alien politics and fighting. Maybe... There were too many maybe's. I was in it now, in it way over my head. Riding with an exotic, high-ranking alien female, hunted, future uncertain but not looking very good. Tahr said this was the main road from the Bay Town district to Mainport. Well, she called it a road; all I saw was a strip where the grass had two parallel ruts in it, a typical Sathe highway. E.T.A. at Mainport: one week, maybe a little longer.
When asked why we weren't going back to the ship, Tahr asked me what I would do if I was a captain on a ship that was running a tight schedule to make port before the Autumn storms set in, and had just lost a quarter or more of its crew. Would you waste time searching for two careless passengers who had gotten themselves captured by bandits after paying half the fare and leaving behind a pack full of unique trinkets worth a small fortune?
Neither would I.
The storm blew up on our fifth day on the road.
These past couple of days Tahr had been restless, with an agitation I couldn't explain and she denied when I asked her about it. Now with the thunderheads brewing on the horizon she was even more distracted.
"I think we should make camp soon," I suggested, watching the darkening sky. "Huh?..." She looked at me with a glazed stare, then she blinked and her eyes focused. She looked at the sky. "What did you say?"
"I said we should make camp, it is going to urinate down."
"What... Oh... yes, you are right." Her muzzle wrinkled as she judged the massive thunderheads looming on the horizon like the prows of titanic ships. "If I remember... I think there should be a good site a few kilometres ahead. We might make it in time." She squirmed on the seat, scooting her butt across the plank.
"You are twitchy. Are you all right?" I asked.
She looked at me in a funny way. "Yes, I... I am fine."
She turned back to the llamas. I thought I heard her muttering something to herself, something about 'it being already', but the wind garbled and tore the words. I shrugged it off.
The wind picked up to the accompaniment of distant thunder and several fat drops of rainwater spattered onto the wooden bed of the cart. I grabbed a sheet of canvass from the back (one of the shelters that the gulf soldiers would no longer be needing. We also had a small armoury of 'liberated' swords and crossbows) and went to sit by Tahr, lunging for hand-holds as the cart lurched over the rough track. I felt a twinge in my chest as the scarred skin there moved.
"Move over a bit." I sat beside her and held the heavy material in place over us. It kept the rain off as we kept moving.
Thousands of years ago, two huge slabs of granite had fallen against each other forming an upside down V shape, blocked at one end. Plants had grown atop them, sealing the gap where the two monoliths met. The floor of the resulting cave was covered with a variety of stones, but these had been cleared away by Sathe travellers who made good use of this convenient shelter, leaving clean sand. Fires had been lit at the mouth, always in one ring of fire blackened stones. The walls had been decorated with Sathe graffiti drawn in charcoal: strange Ideographs and hieroglyphics.
It was pissing down when we finally arrived, the canvass soaked and rivulets of mud streaming down into the road. Tahr made for the cave while I unhitched and tethered the llamas, dodging a spray of saliva as one of the bastards spat at me. Let me tell you, until you've smelt wet llama fleece, you haven't smelt anything. I wished I had a wet dog along to freshen the air.
There was a small stack of dry wood and kindling in the cave. Not enough to last the night. The pair of us braved the downpour and dashed out to retrieve more to stack and dry off. We were both soaked to the skin, Tahr dripping and trying to shake herself dry, looking so miserably bedraggled I had to laugh. She favoured me with a sharp white smile, then a playful cuff with a muddy paw. Chuckling, she went to stack the kindling. With some aid from my lighter a bright blaze was soon crackling in the hearth.
"Home sweet home," I said cheerfully, glad to be out of the driving rain. Thunder rolled across the hills outside and the light faded quickly.
Tahr had found herself a warm spot and was just sitting, staring into the sheets of rain. I sat down on the sand beside her. She smelled strange... not the usual kind of musky; a distinct, almost-spicy smell just on the edge of detection. Wet fur I guessed.
"Tahr, do you think... Tahr? Hey, Earth to Tahr, come in space cadet."
Her head whipped around and those big eyes fixed on me. "Huh?... What is it?" "I've been thinking... About using a sword. I mean, I am going to have to learn sometime. Can you teach me?"
"You do not know how to use blade?" She sounded incredulous. "No, of course you don't." She rubbed at her face, smearing her hands across her cheeks.
"I never thought that I would need to know how to use one. They are not very popular in my world."
"You have told me before," she sighed. "Yes, I shall be happy to teach you."
"Great! Shall we get started?" There were swords in the back of the cart, I started to get up.
"No, K'hy, no." She gave me a sidelong glance then flicked her gaze back to the rain. "I... not now. You choose your moments! Can you not be patient?!" She almost snapped out the last words. Then looked surprised, then chagrined. "I am sorry," she mumbled. "I think I need to sleep."
Was she trembling? or was it just the flickering light? I didn't say anything as she stiffly climbed to her feet and moved further back into the cave to where we had laid bedrolls on the soft sand, out of the reach of any streams of water that might find their way inside.
A fork of lightning seared the clouds outside. I stared at it long after it had vanished, the after-image imprinted on my retina. It reminded me of the Portal that had brought me... us here. I thought about Tenny Dalton for the first time in a long while.
A night out on the town during leave, visiting the nightclubs. Sometimes there were girls, and they...
Nooo! No more girls. No more women! Nothing!
And Tahr was pissed at me for some reason.
Thunder cracked and rolled.
If the weather cleared up during the night, we could get an early start in the morning. Perhaps things would look better then. I kicked a log into the fire; it lay sputtering, flames licking around it as I stripped off my boots, fatigue pants, and jacket, left them lying in a pile and wrapped myself in sheets of canvass: uncomfortable, but warm.
Tahr was lump under her cloak. I could tell she was still awake, and tense.
She didn't answer.
"What is wrong? Is it something I said? What?"
When she rolled over, her eyes reflected firelight: two shimmering green points of liquid emerald. For a few seconds she stared at me, then sat up, gathered her cloak about her shoulders and came over to me, kneeling less than a metre away, watching me. The musky smell about her was strong. Now I realised it wasn't wet fur. "K'hy, I... I did not expect my Time to come so soon."
What the hell was she talking about? Time? The way she said that... was she ill? "Tahr, what... I do not understand."
She squirmed uncomfortably and explained. "It is the season for my Time. I am ready for mating."
My wheels spun for a full second before that clicked. "You are... Holy shit! You are in... estrus?"
She saw the confusion on my face and moved back slightly, surprised herself. "You do not... Oh. Your females... Do not tell me: they do not have Times, do they?"
I shook my head.
"Oh," is a good transliteration of her next noise. Then: "No wonder you are so... It is all new to you. I am sorry if I hurt or offend you... you do not know what it is like."
"There is nothing I can do?"
She glanced sharply at me, then tipped her hands in a shrugged. "I do not think so. It... It is a hard thing to describe. Sometimes hot, craving, siskrtch; An emptiness, a... a..." She hunted for words, her hands writhing about each other.
"An itch you cannot scratch," I suggested. I had a feeling that I did understand. "Yes, that is... it." Her eyes started to lose their focus again and she shook her head wildly, sending her mane whipping about her face. "Uhnnn... If I am impatient with you, please try and understand."
"I will remember. Good night, Tahr." I rolled over, away from her. After a few seconds her voice murmured:
"Good sleeping, K'hy."
Tahr twitched violently in her sleep, like a dog chasing something in its dreams, the small mews and snarls she voiced reminiscent of a wild animal.
I leant over her, touched her shoulder and gently shook her then tried to duck as she swung wildly, backhanded, catching me across the ear and I went over backward with my head swimming. When my vision cleared, Tahr was kneeling over me, her hands fluttering with indecision.
"Ow, Goddamn, you've got a good left." I sat up rubbing my temple. Lucky she hadn't had her claws out.
"Saaa! Scthe n'sert ctsre a'n kreths..." she started off in a babble I couldn't follow at all, then abruptly buried her face in her hands and looked up again. "I am sorry, K'hy, I could not stop myself!" she raked claws through facial fur and mane. "This is the first Time I have been through with no-one around. I cannot..."
"All right," I tried to soothe her. "Do not worry about it."
She flowed to her feet and paced, tossing her head back and forth. A bolt of lighting flashed outside, illuminating her in relief and she froze to stare at the flash like a possum caught in a car's headlights. I could hear her murmur, "You do not know what it is like, alone..." she broke off and turned to stare at me. My jaws twitched in a tight little smile and I saw her ears wilt as she realized that she was talking to a being who was one of a kind in her world.
Yeah, Tahr. I know. I understand. I had known it these past months. I had lived with it; More alone than she would ever be, could ever imagine.
"Oh, K'hy... strange one. If this is what it is like for you every day..." She let it hang and was silent. In the darkness her eyes were shadows trying to read my brown ones.
There was nothing I could say. I just looked down at my hands, feeling so awkward. Rain hissed outside, drowning the sound of her footsteps on sand, but I heard fur rustle as she sat down beside me on the soft sand, leaning against me, and I instinctively put an arm around her, feeling her warmth and solidity in the dim firelight. Her musky scent hung heavy on the damp air; it brought back memories of hot nights back home, women.
Tahr was motionless against me, breathing softly, her head leaning on my shoulder. I tensed when I felt her move, kneeling beside me. Fur brushed against my arm, hands moving, looping around in a warm embrace, a warm breath against my ear, then sharp teeth bit gently into the juncture of shoulder and neck, just hard enough to be felt, a rough tongue rasped after.
"Tahr," my voice cracked. This was... It was leading... I knew where it was leading and it set emotions into conflict: fear and something else... "Please... think."
"I have," she rumbled in my ear, her voice deep; almost a purr. "I have thought most carefully."
"But we are not... I mean... You are a Sathe..."
"And you are not. I had noticed." Hands stroked my hair. Thunder rolled outside. The rain picked up and the fire flickered as a cool wind blew through. She moved, looking up into my face. A single rough finger pad stroked down my cheek. "H'man. I know what you are."
The wind blew again. I shivered violently and hung my head. "I... I do not want to hurt you..."
I think she smiled then: "I know," she whispered, soft tones like the moving of air. "You could never hurt me."
Again I shivered. It was the cold, I told myself, not that knot of agony inside... how could I lie to myself? "I am afraid."
And now she cupped my face in her hands, holding me when I flinched, bent my face toward her muzzle. Delicately she licked my eyes with the tip of her rough tongue. That felt strange: tickling, oddly comforting.
"Tahr..." I suddenly needed more air.
A furred finger crossed my lips to hush me.
Her hands lowered, sliding down my neck and across my chest, then hooking my shirt and sliding it off. Confused, I didn't resist. That familiar tension inside kept me trembling, uncertain, not knowing whether to run or reciprocate, a shiver when she nuzzled gently at the hollow of my neck. Seemingly of their own accord my arms went around her, holding her close, feeling her heartbeat, her breathing, my face to the dusty sunlight of her mane. She made a low noise: not a purr, not quite a growl and I released a shuddering breath into the encompassing warmth of her fur.
Then her hands were in my waistband and - somehow - my shorts were lying on the sand and we were kneeling before the fire; touching, exploring each other in ways infinitely more intimate than we had ever done before, in ways I'd never dreamed of. Her fur was so slightly coarse and exquisitely pleasurable as she moved closer and wriggled against me, warm, muscular, embracing me as I hugged her close, claws digging into my back. My fingers combed through her fur, across her back, her breath hot past my ear. As sensitive as a woman... No, she was a woman... No... I...
We tried. And it was confusing. I didn't know what I wanted, I didn't know what she wanted. For what seemed like breathless years we were writhing on the sand, gasping and yelping and fumbling, fur twining between my fingers and her claws nicking my back. Like the first time I'd ever been with a woman all over again: that same clumsiness and uncontrollable excitement that sets your heart pounding with an intensity even running for your life can't match. But there hadn't been the fur then, nor the claws or teeth nipping at my chest and arms.
Hugging her, her back arched, spine hard against my chest, arms around her rubbing across her chest and the bumps of her leathery nipples, her hands caught at mine, head twisting to nuzzle my neck and then she knelt beneath me, down-covered rump raised and wriggling. I hesitated, unsure, then she was there to guide me, into alien heat. I heaved a shuddering breath and she gave a yelp of what could have been surprise. Warmth and silken, strong, and strange muscle enveloped me. She shifted to and fro beneath me and I was moving also, through a chaos of darkness, flickering firelight and flashbulbs of lightning and familiar sensations that were still like nothing I'd felt before. Eyes closed and hands clenched in fur. The scent in my nose was heavy and musky: the smell of sex and there were moments of heat, of slipping, clenching hands in fur, warm moving encompassing everything.
When everything became a blur of pleasure that turned to an explosion of heat - the culmination - Tahr's cry of release rose, echoing in competition with the storm outside.
We lay spooned together for a time, my sweat forming a sheen on my bare skin, fur adhering in sticky clumps. Tahr stirred against me, twisting to nuzzle my chin and lick my neck. "Hai? K'hy?"
"Again?" she murmured, reaching back to rake her claws lightly up my hip.
"A," She rolled over, hooking arms behind my neck and drawing me closer. I could feel her breath on my cheek, rough tongue lathing my chin: "Please?"
I hesitated, responding already, then wrapped my arms around her, drawing her still closer.
Slower, this time. Slower, more feeling, teaching her a thing or two.
By morning the storm had eased. I awoke to fragmented beams of sunlight streaming into the cave, the sounds of birdsong. Tahr was nestled against me, her head in the crook of my arm.
I just lay there for a while, watching the sunbeams crawling along the floor of the cave, up our legs. Tahr's fur scattering the light into smaller beams, like prisms. I could see how her fur changed from place to place across her body: light on the inside of her thighs, on her stomach and face. Growing heavier on the outside of her legs, her crotch, up her spine, her mane. Highlights, a corona of white and gold where that sun stroked across the landscape of her torso. Her ribs moving as she breathed, teeth glinting through partly opened black lips...
And by the light of day she was unutterably, indisputably alien.
My God! What've I done ?!
We walked the cart down to the road where the mud was steaming; fighting a slow, losing battle with the morning sun. In places the ruts were ankle-deep in an ooze that clung to the spokes on the wheels and spattered us. Breakfast was eaten on the move, the cold remains of a deer shot with a crossbow the other day. I ate little, my mind wandering back to the previous night.
Of all the things I'd ever done, I'd never felt such a... a lust, a loss of control. It scared me. I couldn't justify it, but I also couldn't forget it.
Despite the minor scratches and bite marks she'd left me with, she'd been gentle; in her own, feline way. She'd told me she was experienced, but the one description that came to mind when recalling her lovemaking was naive. Energetic; yes, very, but naive.
She only knew a single position: submissive, with the male mounting from behind, and nothing at all about playing, spinning the pleasure out... I'd learned I didn't have the recuperative power of their males, but in that one night I'd shown her more tricks than she had learned in a lifetime! Sathe just didn't experiment when it came to their primal urges. It probably had something to do with their males: when they get a whiff of a female in season they get that glassy-eyed look, then the only way to hold them back is to nail them down.
I'd shown her new moves, opened new horizons for her, and she, in turn, had given me both a new experience and shown me there was somebody there for me.
But she wasn't even human!
Not on the outside, but what about inside?
Not there, either.
I didn't understand this. Last night riding on the crest of lust it had all seemed so natural, so right. Now this guilt trip. She wasn't human, but she wasn't an animal... or was I just looking for an excuse to justify myself.
"You are very quiet this morning. Share your thoughts?"
I'd been staring off at nothing. I blinked and focused on Tahr.
"Last night?" she asked.
That hit. I nodded.
"Do you regret what happened?
"I don't know," I said then hesitated before I added, "My people would consider what we did as wrong."
"You are not even human!" I blurted it out then looked at my feet.
"Well," she said dryly, "it was me or the llamas."
"K'hy, what could be shameful about giving comfort and pleasure? We are different, I will grant you that, but not so far apart. I know you are very like a Sathe in many of your ways. Also, you are not in your world any longer. This is mine. I think my people are not as... ah... fussy as your own when it comes to mating." Her sharp eyes caught the slight flush around my ears and her ears flickered in amusement. "You are still uncomfortable talking about matters of sex."
I swallowed, but plunged on, "Are all your... uh... Times so short?"
She kept a straight face when she answered, but those green and gold eyes laughed at me, sensing my discomfort. "It varies. Sometimes for days, sometimes for only a few hours." She was silent for a few seconds. Then:
"I remember my first time, it was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I was still in the Citadel at Mainport, still a student. It was spring and I woke with sensations I'd never had before. In an academic way I knew what was happening to me, but was still afraid of the feelings I had no control over, the yearnings." Her ears flickered in the ghost of a smile.
"Ah, the fluster of my male friends when they first scented me. I think they were even more confused than I. Even so, they helped me. They chose one. He stayed with me for those nights. Did you have a female back on your world?"
There she goes again, changing tack more often than a sailing ship into a blustering headwind. Well, yes, I had known women, but I wasn't what you could call a casanova. There had been affairs - a few - but they had faded: I hadn't been ready for the commitment.
"Do you still fear it?" she asked.
"It was not fear," I said, trying to recall why I had been so reluctant. "I supposed I thought of females as a... almost a burden," I realised how that must have sounded and laughed at myself.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. "And now it is something I regret most deeply." Tahr didn't press the subject.
The days passed slowly, the temperature and weather changing all the time; sometimes warmer, sometimes colder. The air grew crisper as we travelled: less muggy and sedentary.
As we progressed north we came across other traffic: carts, wagons, and individual riders on their llamas. Most of the time they were going the other way, but once we overtook a lumbering procession of wagons laden with barrels and boxes and casks of various types also northbound.
Gawking Sathe stared at us for a long time as we passed them, until they passed from sight.
There were several small settlements along the way: towns the size of Traders Meet built at river crossings and crossroads, small villages along the road, tiny hamlets and farms half-hidden among the trees. The largest of these settlements - First Step South - was a proper town, similar in size to Baytown. Tahr told me that it was the first settlement built outside the traditional clan grounds, the last town before the ancient walls of Mainport.