THE HUMAN MEMOIRS
It's no fun
Being an illegal alien
I'm a New Yorker, born and bred.
Well, maybe not born. Jersey's where I spent the first few years of my life. I was too young to remember anything but vague impressions of that time, and just a few years later when I was two, there was that accident.
The friends who adopted me were a young couple living across the waters in New York, in Brooklyn Heights, in an established neighbourhood near the old Plymouth Church. That's a time I do remember, quite fondly: the house was a big old place, built from old wood, crowned with a steep shingled roof, crestings, and defunct chimneys. Birds roosted in the gables and in the huge old trees around the property. Over the near-century it had been standing, additions and extensions had sprung up, some of them seemingly spontaneous or whimsical. You could walk from a nineteenth-century study into a living room added in the nineteen twenties and furnished in rococo. In some places there were two floors, in others three. I had one friend compare it with the Adams' place. Still, the place took money to keep and maintain, so with more rooms than we could ever use it only made sense to take in lodgers.
Until I could legally change it back to my given name, my surname was Jerald. Not that I had anything against my foster parents, they were as good a parents any kid could wish for, but I just wanted the name I was born with. They both worked, my father owning a bookshop and my mother in a boutique over in Manhattan. Still, even though they were away a lot of the time, the house wasn't a dull place by a long shot. There were always the lodgers. We were careful who we took in, generally preferring students, artists, trampers, young couples, people who looked like they could be trusted. My parents were pretty good judges of character, and we only had a few incidents. It was a sort of word-of-mouth institution, and believe me, we got some classics through there. It seems strange to say it, but I became closer to some of those people than I did to my own parents. They taught me odds and ends: playing the guitar, harmonica, keyboard, also to draw and paint. From an ex-bikie I learned to strip down a Harlie blindfolded and I could rewire a house by the time I was fourteen. And they talked; I heard stories of all kinds from all over the country, so eventually I decided to see some of these places for myself. Well, the army gave me a chance to do that. Sort of.
As something I grew up with, the Manhattan Island skyline was mundane, simply a spectacle I could see every day if I wished. When I did sign up for my time, some of the more rural postings came as a bit of culture shock. Still, I'd had more contact with 'the great outdoors' than a lot of New Yorkers. Town or country; either way, it was a lifestyle far removed from anything any Sathe could imagine.
As far removed as the life I was living now was from anything I could have imagined: On the road with an over-evolved cat, riding a rickety wooden wagon as it crested a final hill and I was looking at Mainport, lying peacefully under leaden afternoon skies.
There were no towering skyscraper or glass-faced condos - I hadn't expected any - but still the city was impressive. I guess it's comparable with the feeling you get when exploring an ancient human city or medieval castle: compared with modern constructs they're not much, but you can't help but be impressed with the strength and solidity of these edifices that have endured for generations.
By Sathe reckoning Mainport was a large city. Built on the north-western tip of what I knew as Staten Island with the kill to the north, The Narrows to the east. Covering an area of maybe sixteen square kays, it was a huge, bustling metropolis to them. However to me, faced with what continued to be my prospective home, it was far less glamorous. But I had to admit the Citadel itself was something else again.
Towering over the city proper, the Citadel was a gigantic mass of battlements, walls, towers, and buttresses lying on the crest of the hill like some massive reptile sunning itself upon a rock.
Once, long ago - it was only later I would learn just how long ago - I supposed the central keep had stood alone on that hilltop, just a small settlement. As time passed the Citadel had grown, spreading like granite ivy on a gargantuan scale down upon the town below where buildings been razed to make way for the encroaching walls. Against the backdrop of grey skies, the sight was impressive and - strangely - depressing.
I had lived here in this place that had once been my home and now threatened to be my home again. I thought that I recognized various marks in the landscape: Hills, ridges, gullies. Probably my imagination. The geography wasn't that exact: the Arthur Kill that normally separates Staten Island from the mainland didn't exist here. Also, New York was built upon a foundation engineered by humans; if nature's design didn't fit in with what was on their drawing boards and computer terminals, it was removed, so the landscape I knew was probably not even natural.
God, the polluted grandeur of New York, the sky-climbing dreams and schemes of human beings, the sound of traffic, television, music, hot showers, toilet paper, Oreos. All those little things that make life worth living, all those things I had take to be inalienable, gone.
Tahr tapped my shoulder and clambered over the back of the seat to sat beside me. The wooden plank that had weathered so much protested under the extra load. "Why have you stopped?" she asked, then saw my face. "Your eyes... What is wrong?"
I blinked back tears and muttered, "Nothing. I was just thinking."
"That wetness is a sign of grief... is it not?" she inquired with head cocked to one side. "Why? We are safe here. We are home."
I stared at her. Home?
"Oh..." Understanding flashed behind her eyes, subdued her, "I forgot. My home, not yours."
I didn't say anything.
From there I could see wisps of smoke rising from chimneys, could hear the faint cries of gulls. At last Tahr's voice was a slow, measured rumble: lower than any human woman's could be. She was trying to be gentle but still businesslike: "I think it would be for the best if I drove the rest of the way."
"Are we doing the animal act?"
"No," she said. "Not here. Just do not do or say anything until I tell you, yes?"
"Yes." Resignedly, I nodded.
She flicked the reins and the llamas started plodding down the hill, toward the city.
The fields surrounding the town were many and varied, containing crops and livestock: goats, llama, bison, some even held deer behind high split log fences. From the air the land would have looked like a jigsaw of angular green and brown shapes.
The fields and the houses held Sathe, living out their lives as they must have done for generations. Some of them saw us and paused at their chores, resting behind their ploughs or looking up from butter churns and gardens. It was a well-travelled road so they would be accustomed to strangers, but I was a stranger a few notches of strange above the rest.
I was so busy rubbernecking back at them that the sudden change in the sound of the wagon's wheels startled me. Tahr hissed at my surprise and proudly pointed out that the road was paved and drained. It was also much wider, in places becoming two laned!
Necessary. The nearer we got to the city, the more traffic. It was like every Sathe from miles around decided to tag along with us. Gawking at me.
"Market day," Tahr explained.
The wall surrounding the city was imposing, reaching up five stories and constructed of huge blocks of stone - each about a metre high and two metres in length - set with a precision to turn an Inca green with envy. As we drew up to the barbican a disparity in the age of the blocks became obvious. Some stones looked old; ancient. Edges and corners rounded and weathered from countless years exposure to the elements while other blocks of granite still bore the chisel marks from the stonemasons who shaped them.
The gatehouse and barbican were built from the newer stonework. The massive supports around the gate were elaborately decorated with Sathe script and carvings. Strange to see aliens as the main theme of a carving; where you expect to see humans there are bipedal cats in their stead.
Sathe guards were everywhere: on the walls, below the walls, around the gates, watching the steady stream of carts and wagons that went past them and looking bored. Occasionally they would stop one that caught their attention and examine the cargo.
And of course we caught their attention.
Three Sathe troopers in leather armour trimmed with blue and silver moved out to catch the llamas' reigns and lead us off to one side of the gate; watching us warily. They were young, probably younger than Tahr, but even so, they all carried scars and nicks from past fights. And they all had one hand draped - almost casually - over the pommel of their scimitars.
"What is your business in Mainport?"
The one who spoke wore three small gold crescents on his cuirass. If they were badges of rank, he was superior to the others: they had only one apiece.
"I have business at the Citadel," replied Tahr, looking perplexed. "What is this? Why all the security?"
The guard waved his hand in a shrug and continued in a conversational manner. "I am not sure. There have been growlings about trouble with the Gulf Realm. More guard duties have been assigned and we have orders to search all strangers entering the city." He scratched under his armour, then peered at Tahr again. "The Citadel you say. Is there any reason they should be expecting you? What is your name? Business?"
Tahr considered for a second before saying, "My name is Tahr ai Shirai. My business is my own."
"Tahr ai Shirai? THE Tahr ai Shirai?"
"Is there another?"
His muzzle wrinkled. "Ahh... Of course, and I am a Clan Lord in my off-shift. Is that intended to be a joke?"
Uncertain, he hesitated, then his fur began to bristle; standing up as if electrified. "You think that is amusing?! Start laughing, shave you! I could drag you in for a claim like that!"
Tahr also began to seethe. "And I could have you demoted so fast your head will spin! I am serious!"
"Then where is your entourage! Where are your guards! You look like a goatherd and you smell like... I wonder the llamas can stand it!" He waved at his subordinates: "All right, check that wagon out from ears to toes! And as for you..." he levelled a finger at Tahr.
His troops were moving around to start searching the wagon and found themselves staring up at me. "Uh-uh, guys," I said, then slowly grinned.
"What?!" he snarled irritably and stepped around to see what their trouble was. He stopped and gaped at me, his ears drooping like wet facecloths.
"Is..." he swallowed: hard, "Is it dangerous?" he squeaked.
"Very," she hissed.
"Get it out of the wagon. Now!" he yelled at her reluctance. "You too! Down!"
Snarling furiously she waved for me to get down and dismounted herself. I took up my rifle as I dropped to the ground. She saw me cock the weapon and shook her head in a gesture I could understand. I frowned, but left the safety on.
The Sathe looked all the more apprehensive when they saw my size and kept a respectful distance as they inspected the cart.
Three Star watched me, keeping himself at a safe distance holding the llamas' reigns. Tahr cast a glance over her shoulder at the guard searching the wagonbed, then turned back to their commander. "You! I want your name and that of your superior."
At that moment, one of the guards chose to point out the fact that we had weapons in the back.
Holding the sword by pommel and blade, Three Star scrutinized the blade just below the cross guard where Sathe pictoglyphs were engraved. He looked up at Tahr, his ears slowly flattening back on his skull. "Weapons... Gulf weapons. And what were you going to be doing with these?"
Tahr had just started to open her mouth when a voice bellowed from the ramparts atop the gatehouse:
Everyone in earshot looked up at a soldier leaning over the wall, in serious danger of teetering over. "You!" he pointed in our direction. "Wait there! Don't move!" He pulled back out of our sight.
The guards had their swords drawn. If we had wanted to move it would have become bloody. I think I could have taken them, but the archers on the walls would probably get me. We all waited in a nervous tableau, the Sathe shifting and sniffing at me. There was a racket in the tunnel, a sprinting Sathe - in all likelihood the guy who was on the wall - dodged around the noses of a team of bison, prompting curses from the driver. He slowed as he crossed that sharp line dividing sunlight and shadow, his flapping cloak turning from black to grey and settling around his ankles. He was staring at Tahr.
"By my Ancestors, Tahr! It is you!"
"S'sahr?" Tahr squinted in the sunlight and dust, shifting uncertainly, her ears going back. Twitching. She was expecting something. I shifted the rifle uneasily, unsure of what to do.
The one named S'sahr laughed, that hissing Sathe laugh: "Himself. You can relax, young one. Those days are past."
Tahr relaxed only a little, and the cloaked Sathe came nearer.
I stared. The scar ran from where S'sahr's right ear used to be, down between his eyes, and ending up on the left side of his mouth. A three centimetre wide strip of puckered, furless skin. None of the others seemed startled by it.
However the officer was thunder-struck, more by his words than appearance.
"You... You ARE Tahr ai Shirai?... I did not know..." If he could have blanched he would have gone whiter than bleach. He looked back and forth from S'sahr to Tahr, the captured Gulf sword forgotten in his hands, visualizing his career slipping down the tubes.
S'shar strode forward until he was eye to eye with the hapless guard. "Yes, saf! Tahr ai Shirai." He whispered this, then bellowed, "YOU DID NOT KNOW?!"
"Sir," the guard squeaked, cringing before the scarred veteran's fury.
"S'shar," Tahr held out a hand to forestall his anger. "Leave him. I am too tired for that now."
The grizzled Sathe dismissed the guard with a disgusted hiss and a swat across the ears that tore the fragile membrane. Blood welled and the guard yelped and scurried back a few steps. One of his subordinates was tactless enough to hiss amusement and he in turn had his ears slashed.
"Young one," S'shar reached out to clap Tahr on the shoulder. "Or would High One be more appropriate?"
As if she was about to embrace him, Tahr stepped forward, but stopped and hugged her arms about herself. "No, no. You have known me too long for that." She looked around at the watching Sathe. We were beginning to attract attention. "Perhaps we should continue this later," Tahr suggested, then glared at the guard: "May I pass now?"
The guard hastily backed away, bleeding ears twitching nervously. "Saaa... yes, of course."
"May I have the honour of escorting you?" S'shar asked. Coming from the torn old Sathe, the courteousy was a little out of place.
Tahr smiled: "I think that I will be able to tolerate that."
She climbed up onto the drivers bench. S'shar leapt up and settled beside her. He turned and stared at me in surprise when I vaulted up onto the bed of the cart. "What is that..." he started to say.
"Hai!" Tahr barked and cracked the reins, getting the llamas moving.
Through the main gate was a broad plaza, paved, surrounded by buildings and shops. A road main avenue followed a winding path up to where a switchback road climbed the steep hillside up to the Citadel. I was surpised to see ancient trees overhanging the road, their roots buckling the cobbles in some places. I hadn't expected a fortress city to waste space on extraneous objects like trees. Still, they looked good.
If Baytown had been busy, this place exceeded it by a factor of ten. Shops and stalls lined both side of the main street while vendors roamed, hawking their wares, selling everything from adze and abaci to zinc ore and zaxs. The buildings the shops were in were usually two stories high; a ground floor store and the first floor a living area. A few buildings were only one floor and I didn't see anything above three. Lines criss-crossed the street from the first floors. Not power lines: washing. Alien laundry drying in the cool sea breeze above the streets.
Despite the small size of the buildings, Mainport was an unbelievable busy place. Close on one hundred thousand Sathe lived there and they all seemed to be on the streets at the same time, all of them as varied as those I'd seen elsewhere in the Realm. As I ogled at them, many stared back at me and excited chatter started up behind us.
"If you wanted to be unobtrusive then bringing your pet along was not such a wise move. What is it anyway?" S'sahr was staring at me in bemusement. "I thought I was quite knowledgable when it came to wildlife, but this thing... Some kind of freak bear?"
Tahr looked back at me - a warning glance - then told S'shar, "Ah... There are a few things I will have to explain, at the Citadel. My... pet is one of them."
Yeah, didn't want him falling out of the cart in shock. Being a freak to every new Sathe I met was getting pretty tiresome. It was something I was going to have to get used to, no matter how it irked me.
As the Citadel drew closer,Tahr hung a right, taking us down a side street that wasn't half as spacious as the main avenue, but was still every bit as busy.
"You have business at the docks?" S'sahr asked.
"Yes. There is a ship I have to find. I have some cargo due me."
On the docks she stopped to study a large board with dozens of smaller painted tags hanging from it. Some kind of directory. She quickly scanned it.
"Captain Hafair... building five."
Of course the docks were bigger and busier than Baytown's wooden wharves. These were solid stone, with an artificial breakwater surrounding the harbour. The dock had slipways cut into it, for hauling boats into and out of the water. Above it all, the walls of the Citadel had vantages commanding the whole bay.
During the storms of winter ships in the harbour were drydocked for repairs and refitting. Already there were six vessels sitting high and dry on the quayside. Many more were still waiting at anchor out in the harbour, sheltered by the embrace of the harbour walls. I thought I recognized Hafair's command out in the forest of masts. No, perhaps not.
Tahr was reading what had to be numbers painted in faded black paint on boards on the fronts of waterside buildings. Finally she reined in the llamas outside one particular structure. "This is it."
"Here?" S'sahr wrinkled his nose. "What kind of cargo?"
"Just something I have to collect for a friend," Tahr said. "This should not take long. Wait here."
"Hold," S'sahr stalled her. "Tahr, this thing," he jabbed a finger in my direction, "Is it dangerous?"
Tahr flashed a scintillating grin and smile at the same time and replied, "Only when provoked." Then she pushed her way through a knot of Sathe outside the front door of the warehouse and was gone.
"Only when provoked," S'shar muttered staring after her, then rubbed absently at the remains of his right ear. "Ah, she has changed... dragging pets around." He sighed and turned to face me. "You have got to be the weirdest thing I have ever seen! Where did she dig up something like you from?"
I took it to be a rhetorical question.
He noticed the bulky tarpaulin behind the drivers bench and picked up a corner, then threw it aside revealing the pile of Gulf weaponry: scimitars, daggers, crossbows, and bolts.
"One sword I could understand, but all this..." His eyes lit upon the M-16 and he reached out a furry paw to pick it up. I also grabbed at it and a brief tug-of-war ensued, ending when I deliberately bared my teeth and gave him a low growl. He hastily released the rifle and went for his sword. I sat still and he hesitated with the sword half-drawn, then looked around at the pedestrians who'd stopped and were in turn watching him. He blinked, then sheathed the weapon and sat studying me.
It's amazing. Even when faced with someting that walks like a Sathe, wears cloths and has hands, he didn't even consider the possibility that it might be more than a dumb animal. Most Sathe wouldn't consider it intelligent unless it could actually persuade them it is. They had never explored the possibility of other intelligences in the universe.
Well... give them some more time and someone would've hit upon the concept. Until after the industrial revolution and men had more leisure time, humans never considered it. All they had was themselves and the Gods. The Sathe did not even have those, they only really lived for the present, and each clan was fiercely proud of being self sufficient.
We both waited for Tahr to return. She took her time.
The gates of the Citadel were even more impressive close up. Three sets of huge wooden doors - each reinforced with iron and covered with bronze sheets beaten onto astonishingly detailed mosaics - hung beneath the barbican that had been hewn from large blocks of solid granite. It is hard to describe just how MASSIVE the whole place was. Built to last for a thousand generations.
The Citadel guards moved toward us, but took one look at S'shar and waved us on. There were two more gatehouses inside. The Citadel was built like an onion, layer within layer, all with their own guardposts.
Tahr had collected my pack. While the wagon rolled through the streets I'd sorted through it, making sure that nothing was missing. Everything seemed to be in order and even my customised cloak was still there. I wish I could have seen Hafair's expression when she walked in on him.
We couldn't take the wagon all the way into the Citadel. I guess they also had their security, or perhaps just problems with traffic. The only traffic going through were goods wagons. S'shar pointed out to Tahr that she had the right to take the wagon all the way to the Keep, but she declined, saying she was just as capable of walking as any other. After the third barbican we had to leave the cart in a dark stable that reeked of animals and rotting hay. A stablehand - still a cub - had the monotony of his day broken. Tahr, still chatting away with S'shar, tossed the reigns to the cub who was staring at me. They slapped across his chest; his reflexive grab missed. I stooped, picked them up and handed them to him with a smile. He stared at me, then at the straps in my hand, but didn't move to take them. I sighed, pressed them into his hand and patted his shoulder, then took off after the others.
I was rubbernecking like a country rube fresh to the big city as I crossed the yard to where S'shar led the way up a narrow staircase into a postern gate. We walked through narrow passages and dark corridors, occasionally being stopped by guards. S'shar got us past these. An old veteran supervising three younger guards at a gateway recognized Tahr and bowed to her. After a moments hesitation, the others followed suit.
"Excuse me highness, but should you be taking that," he eyed me, "into the Keep?"
"It is alright," she reassured him. "He goes where I go."
The old 'sergeant' bowed his head again, then muttered something to one of the soldiers who took off ahead of us with a spattering of claws on worn stone.
"You may pass, High Ones." That was a change, being addressed with respect instead of scorn. From rags to riches. Ah, the whims of fortune.
Tahr and S'shar led, chatting amicably between themselves, swapping titbits of news. I trailed after them, occasionally lagging behind to crane my head around an open doorway or peer into a cavernous gallery. This place was humongous!
But as we went deeper into the Citadel I began to stick closer to the Sathes' heels. Hunters' vision had an affect on Sathe architecture. This far inside the walls of the citadel windows were impossible, but the Sathe didn't compensate by adding more artificial lighting. They didn't need to. What lamps existed were dim, widely spaced oil lamps that left most of the corridors in near-blackness. Tahr and S'shar had no trouble: their night vision was superb. However in the worst of these places I could hardly see my hand in front of my face, and I sure as hell couldn't see those steps going down.
While Tahr collected the M-16, I leaned against the wall and tested my right wrist that had take the brunt of my fall. Thankfully it didn't seem broken, just damn sore.
I jumped as something patted my shoulder. "K'hy, it is me," Tahr's voice spoke into my ears. "Are you alright?"
I nodded. All I could really see of them were vague solid shapes in the dark, their eyes catching and reflecting what little light there was.
"What?" That was S'shar. "Who are you... You are not talking to that... ?"
Tahr ignored him. "What happened?" she asked me.
"My fault," I said. "I cannot see my hand in front of my face."
There was a hissing sound as S'shar sucked air.
"Oh, I keep forgetting." There was a rustling sound, then a small metal cylinder was pushed into my hand. I gratefully flicked the anglehead on.
Tahr squinted and threw up her hand to shield her eyes when the white light lit upon her. I moved the beam and spotlighted S'shar standing plastered against the far wall of the corridor, his single ear down hard against his skull and eyes wide. "It can... talk?" he sputtered.
"Amazing," I muttered with a shake of my head, "what powers of observation."
"K'hy, hush!" Tahr warned me.
"Tahr," S'shar almost growled. "Enough is enough. What IS that thing!?"
"His name is K'hy, something-unpronounceable, and he is a male H'man. That is the nearest I can pronounce his titles. Do not worry, he will not hurt you."
"That would be difficult, he has the teeth and claws." I held up my fingers and wiggled them: longer than a Sathe's, but of course without the claws. It did little to reassure the veteran. When we made it to a better lit section I saw that he did indeed have his own claws out.
The passage travelled up and down more flights of stairs and along corridors flanked on either side by open doorways. The rooms beyond were obviously living quarters; equally obviously deserted for a long time. Judging by what I'd seen so far they looked plush, with tapestries, carved wood and stone panels, and furniture, all crumbling, mildewed, and generally dilapidated.
"Why is this place so empty?" I finally asked. "All these empty rooms. You redecorating?"
Both S'shar and Tahr looked around as though noticing the abandoned chambers for the first time.
"These were once servants quarters," Tahr explained. "As the Citadel is expanded they move to the new areas, where they are needed. These are abandoned. They might be used again as the population grows."
"How long will that take?"
She didn't answer immediately. "A long time."
"Then why build all this if you have no real use for it?"
S'shar answered that. "There is always work being done on the Citadel. There are plans for a sixth wall outside the town..." he wound down as though suddenly realizing what he was talking to.
"K'hy, h'mans also build all the time, do they not? You have told me about your cities. Is that not the same?"
"Ah... well, I do not think it is exactly the same thing." I replied.
"Cities?" S'shar stopped in his tracks, then hurried to catch up. "Do you mean there are more of these? They have cities?!"
"Yes, it is difficult to explain, but there is a whole world of them."
S'shar went quiet, his ear wilting.
We passed another guard post, the sentries there expecting us. They stiffened to attention as we passed, but I felt eyes on my back. A small postern beyond the guard room opened into bright sunlight and a vast expanse of cobbled court. I stepped out into the glare, blinking. The Sathes' slit pupils snapped to pinpricks. Despite the pervading odour of animal shit the air was nowhere near as oppressive as the dark, heavy atmosphere of the corridors beneath the walls.
My first glimpse of the Citadel's Keep: I was rubbernecking like a tourist.
It was big, really big: the equivalent of three or four football fields at least, encircled by three-story high walls on the outside, the mountain of the Keep offset at the northern end. A large gate stood open in the easternmost wall, admitting the heavy traffic. To get into this courtyard the llama drawn vehicles would have had to have entered the main gates, then gone right, following the curve of the wall around, then through another set of gates, followed the wall further - uphill all the way - then that final gate. Any hostile forces trying the same manoeuvre would have found themselves under fire from the battlements all the way.
As we started across the cobbled space I saw that it was already dotted with Sathe: in groups and alone, carrying barrels or boxes, cutting wood. There were buildings up against the outer wall: small wooden structures with tile roofs. Smoke trickled from the chimney of what looked like a blacksmith's shop, other places must have stables and sheds for wagons. Anything you wouldn't want to keep inside. Off to my right I saw clusters of Sathe in armour standing watching a pair sparring. Swords flashed and the noises rang off the walls. A row of archers fired a volley at straw buttes strung up against a wall; I didn't see any miss.
The doors to the central Keep - The Circle the guard had called it - were hanging open. I got a sudden insight as to the scale of the place when a small group emerged, a central individual surrounded by others. They were dwarfed by the portals. What were the hinges made of?!
"Rehr is waiting," S'shar informed Tahr. All I could see was an indistinct individual in rust red robes. "You remember him?"
"Of course. How could I forget? Has he changed much?"
"About as much as the Circle."
Tahr smiled at that, then spoke to me. "K'hy, stay behind us and whatever you do, make no sudden moves. I think you will make them nervous." I slowed down so that she and S'shar were a few paces ahead of me as we approached the entrance.
The huge metal-bound doors hung open at the top of a short flight of steps. All around the portal were carvings of Sathe in various poses and activities. Above these towered the walls, leaning slightly away from us. That must be Rehr waiting at the top of the steps.
He was an old Sathe. His fawn pelt was peppered with white and grey, especially around his nose and ears and he was wearing red robes, things something like a monk's cassock. Escorting him were over a dozen armed Sathe in blue and silver leather armour, their crossbow not quite aimed at us, but too many of them were eyeing me and flexing their grips on their weapons.
The elder said, "Thank you, S'shar."
S'shar ducked his head and stepped back into the small ring of curious Sathe who had gathered to watch.
"Tahr, your arrival was... unexpected."
She bowed before answering, "I wished to keep it that way. There were... complications."
Rehr looked her up and down for a second, taking in her worn and soiled kilt, her matted and tangled mane.
"Please, this way." He turned and swept through the gates.
"Follow," she hissed to me, following him.
Totally lost, I did as she bade me... Only to freeze in my tracks when about twenty crossbows suddenly came to bear on me.
"Let him pass!" Tahr snapped.
The soldiers hesitated then lowered their bows and we were inside.
The interior of the Keep was dimly lit, but enough light came in through the open doors and from oil lamps to let me see.
A lacquered wooden floor - the polish marred by scratches from careless claws - gleamed in the light. Columns supporting the roof were inlaid with elaborate, seemingly aimless designs; tantalizingly intricate, almost gaudy. Balconies with carved railings looked out over the floor. Tapestries the size of swiming pools covered bare stone walls. There were stained-glass panels concealed above the door, throwing a rose of tinted light across the hall. I followed the Sathe on automatic, staring at everything as Rehr led us up a staircase and along passages that twisted and turned, through chambers and galleries where fires and torches blazed, illuminating mind-twisting frescoes and carvings of Sathe: playing instruments, dancing, fighting, mating...
I did a double take. Mating: those were quite explicit. That was how they did it! Like a cat. Figures.
There was no doubting this section of the Citadel was occupied. Sathe bustled everywhere: guards, others carrying bundles of cloth or wood, others dressed in expensive finery. They all stood aside as we approached. I could feel their eyes on my back, but there was too much else to look at. The corridors were well lit and clean with sculptures every few metres. One that caught my eye seemed to be a mass of bubbles in blown glass. I wasn't quite sure whether it was meant to be abstract or representational. Other artifacts were made out of boned wood, polished stone, and dark metal.
Down a cul de sac a guard opened an inconspicuous door and stepped aside as Rehr entered. Tahr and I followed. The guards behind us started to follow, but he waved them back.
"No, wait outside."
"But, Sir," one protested. "What of that?" she nodded at me.
Rehr glanced at Tahr who made an obscure little gesture with her hands. The red-robed elder studied me, then dismissed the guards. They bowed and stepped back, closing the door behind them.
He led the way down a short hall that terminated in a room full of what had to be a lifetime of assorted knick-knacks. A massive desk of dark wood sat in front of a pair of large mullioned windows. The tinted glass let the light in, but the view through them was rather distorted. Shelves and racks along the walls held dozens of scrolls, leather bound books, polished rocks, small carvings, combs and brushes, small widgets made of sticks and string and other things I couldn't name. Beside the desk stood a crude spyglass made out of brass and decorated with elaborate scrollwork. A polished copper oil lamp with three wicks hung from the ceiling above the desk and, astonishingly, a globe on carved wooden stand stood nearby although only a fraction of the surface had been charted, the rest decorated with fanciful. Dark-red carpets were soft underfoot and several small tables and chairs were scattered around.
A faint but distinct cloying scent hung in the air. I rubbed my nose. Staleness? No, not quite. Over by the windows a pair of globe-shaped ceramic bowls with perforated lids smoked gently: some kind of incense. Whatever it was it smelled sickly sweet, something like pot. A whiff gave me a lightheaded feeling: I snorted softly to try and clear the smell. Neither of the Sathe seemed to notice.
Settling into the chair behind the desk, Rehr linked his fingers together on the desk in front of him and stared at Tahr out of impassive green eyes while I waited quietly in the background.
"Tahr, you look terrible."
Indeed, in contrast to Rehr - clean and well groomed - sitting in his study, Tahr did look terrible. Her once gleaming coat was matted, torn, and smeared with the dirt of days on the road. The scar across her ribs was very visible. I probably wasn't any better off.
"Yes, High One," Tahr ducked her head.
Rehr snorted. "Enough of that, young one. I have known you since you were a cub and you may soon be my superior. There is no need for the formalities." He leaned back in the chair." Did you know that you are only the third heir to arrive."
Tahr was startled. "But I left the manor months ago! I was sure I would be among the last to arrive."
"Saaa, we will continue to wait, but there is not much time left," he said, then gestured at me. "I take it you had a good reason for bringing this along. Tell me, why is it wearing clothing. Is it cold?"
"Rehr, he is intelligent."
He blinked. "Intelligent? You did say 'intelligent'?"
"Yes, Rehr. It is quite a story. We have been travelling together for some time and been through a lot. He has kept my hide intact several times."
"She has been able to return the favour," I added.
"Rehr, this is K'hy, a h'man. K'hy, this is Rehr, Adviser to the Born-To-Rule, to the Shirai."
I bowed: "I am honoured to meet you." Straightening, pink floaters flashed in my eyes. I was feeling strange. The atmosphere seemed stifling, the sweet, sickly smell in the air was unbearable. I blinked and took a deep breath. It didn't help.
"Tahr, where did you find such a... person."
I listened as well as I could while Tahr once again went over the story of how we had met. As she went on it got harder to concentrate. Her voice, a low, steady susuruss that began to merge with the pulse of blood in my ears. Listening, but not hearing, not feeling anything. As though through a heavy sheet I heard my voice.
"Tahr?... I think I am..."
And the room reeled. I felt myself hit the floor. Not pain, just the pressure, a dull thud through my bones. Then I was sprawled on cold wood, Sathe feet - all toes - in front of my face. I was rolled over and Sathe, ten kilometres high, loomed over me. I was choking in that smell, smothered in pollen.
If someone was trying to speak to me, I didn't hear it. I wasn't even aware when it went dark.
It was dark.
I opened my eyes.
It was still dark and there was a heavy metal concert going into a drum solo behind my eyes. For a while I just lay quietly, breathing lightly to stop my head exploding and it was a few minutes before I felt like taking stock. I was lying in my shorts in the dark on a bed, a real one: bowl-shaped, but with a real mattress and soft sheets. Sitting up made my head pound. I groaned and clutched my throbbing skull. Something had died on my tongue.
There was moonlight enough to let me see as I lurched to my feet and half-walk, half-stagger across the wooden floor to the open window, almost tripping on the edge of a rug in the process.
I clung to the windowsill and breathed deeply of the cool, clear night air. That helped to clear my spinning head a bit. I could see that I was in one of the highest points of the Citadel, looking down on all of Mainport.
The clouds that had blocked the sun during the day had dissipated, scattered by the winds to reveal the stars sprawled in all their glory across the sky. Beneath me, bathed in a bluish moonlight, lay the dark streets of Mainport. The harbour was still, the waters reflecting the moon in the heavens and the occasional lantern on the dockside.
I didn't hear the latch lift, nor the door swing open. It was the pool of light spilling through from the other room that startled me. Turning too quickly and the room wallowed like a ship's deck. I just managed to catch myself on the window sill before I hit the floor again.
"K'hy!" Tahr hissed. She moved to help me off my knees and back to the bed where I sagged down. She sat down beside me and stroked my brow. "I am glad to see you are up. You are feeling better?"
"Uhnn," I croaked. My throat hurt. I worked my jaw to get some saliva flowing. "W... What the fuck happened?"
She pressed a damp cloth to my forehead, wiped my face with it. "I am not sure. We think it was the thamil."
"Thamil," she enunciated. "Rehr was burning it in his study. It is just a scent... usually." I could see her eyes glowing in the starlight. "It seemed to have a more adverse effect on you."
I groaned and rubbed my face. My head felt as though it was full of guncotton. "You can say that again. Please, is there any water?"
Tahr lifted the cloth away and padded across to a chest beside the door. There was the gurgling of liquid being poured. She returned and pressed the mug into my hands: "Here." It was water: cool and wet.
A minute later I felt ready to make another effort to stand upright. "No, I am all right," I protested, shrugging off Tahr's hands. I made it back to the window on my own, "Where am I?"
"Safe now." Tahr stood beside me at the window, ready to catch me if I collapsed again. "These are your chambers now. You are officially my guest here."
I didn't know what to say. I hedged around it: "It is beautiful out there."
Her head moved to look, a slight breeze ruffling the fur of her mane.
"Thank you for everything, Tahr, but I do not know how long I will be able to stay."
There was a second's silence.
"You want to find other H'mans."
I nodded, aware of how hopeless that sounded; "If possible." I turned back to the window.
"They must be out there, they've got to be."
There was more silence, then needle sharp claws caught my shoulder, squeezed gently. When they released me I slipped my arm around the warm figure beside me.
We stayed like that for about a minute, then she disengaged from my arm and silently padded over to the door.
"Will you be all right?"
"Then you should sleep now. Good night, K'hy."
As the door closed behind her, I smiled slightly. 'Good night'. She'd picked that off me. I stared at the mug in my hand, then tossed back the final mouthful of water and clambered back onto the bed.
I ignored the hand that was gently shaking me until claws started to dig into my shoulder. "Ouch! Christ!" I rolled and squinted into the sunlight streaming in through the window.
"Good morning," Tahr smiled down at me. "Are you feeling better?"
I began to answer, then squinted at the Sathe, not quite so sure. "Tahr?"
It was her. The bedraggled young Sathe from Rehr's study had washed and brushed her fur until it shone with a glossy sheen I'd never seen before, turned to a silver nimbus by a sunbeam that touched her. Her breeches were immaculate: green with intricate gold trim. In the months I had known her I'd never seen her looking like this. She looked like... royalty.
She preened, pretending to examine a claw. "You like?" she asked.
"I like," I confirmed.
She batted a hand against my cheek, then stood and went to stare out the window, her back to me. From the slant of the sun I guessed it was about nine o'clock. I glanced at my wrist; my watch was gone. "You were talking in your sleep last night," Tahr said. "Your noises."
"Oh," I said. I didn't remember anything.
She turned to lean against the window sill. "Do you feel like walking?" she asked. "There is someone who wants to see us."
Again: "Oh? Who?"
She smiled then, blinking peacefully in happy reminiscence, "Someone special. Someone I have not seen in a long time."
"Ah, for you I think I can manage that." I unfolded myself from the bowl-shaped bed, muscles unused to sleeping on such a shape and softness protesting.
The room was not as small as it had seemed the previous night. The bed was the largest piece of furniture in the room and stood against the south wall, opposite the door. The window in the east wall admitted both light and cold air. Woollen rugs in subdued earthy shades lay across the wooden floor. A large metal-bound chest stood near the door.
"Where are my clothes?"
Tahr opened the chest and drew out a pair of blue Sathe breeches and my customised cloak. "Wear these."
That didn't really answer my question. The breeches were too short in the legs and the crotch and the cloak hung open, exposing my scarred chest. I had to hold it shut with one hand.
"I feel ridiculous," I muttered.
Tahr looked me up and down. "You will need some more clothes made for you. Those do not exactly flatter you."
"Understatement of the year."
She smiled. "Hurry, or we will be late."
Through the door was another room; a study. A desk stood in front of a window in the east wall and there were empty shelves along the far wall. A fireplace with a stone slab hearth stood in the northeast corner, a small pile of wood beside it. A door in the west wall led to the corridor. I walked beside Tahr as she stalked along the passage with feline grace. She pointed out another door down the hall. "My chambers," she told me.
We moved deeper into the maze of the Keep's corridors, meeting Sathe everywhere. Most greeted Tahr and gave me dubious looks. Carved slabs of stone, reaching from floor to ceiling, decorated the halls. Like the passages in the outer walls, some stones looked new while others were obviously ancient. In one particularly ancient carving, something seemed strange about the worn Sathe figures etched into it, but we passed before I could make out exactly what.
There were more stairs, then a guardroom. A Sathe was there waiting for us; a servant decked out in simple brown breeches. "High One," he greeted Tahr. "Please, follow me."
Weird. He hardly spared me a second glance.
Beyond that the halls changed. The walls were panelled in wood, the floor covered in carpets decorated with curlicues to rival any Persian rug. Heavy, metal-reinforced doors stood every few metres, with guards posted alternately, like statues in blue and silver armour, sheathed swords in hand, their heads turning to follow us as we passed by. Halfway down our guide stopped us, directing us through a doorway.
"Here?" Tahr sounded surprised. "What about the royal chambers?"
The servant ducked his head. "They have not been used for some time."
"The Lord has not had need of them."
I saw the wrinkles across Tahr's brow. Something was puzzling her.
These might not have been the royal chambers, but they were plush enough, and big. Paintings hung from the walls and blown glass sculptures decorated shelves. A large map of the eastern States - the Eastern Realm I should say - hung from a wall behind a desk. The entire floor was covered by a huge rug woven in complex geometric patterns and curtains partitioned off other areas of the chambers. Something made from moving metal parts, wood, and water dripped away in a corner. A clock? I whistled softly. Whoever lived here would have to be areal bigwig. The Lord, the servant had called him.
"Please, wait," the servant bowed, then disappeared through the curtains.
"The Lord?" I whispered to Tahr.
"The Born Ruler," She smiled. "My Ancestors, it has been a long time."
The curtains rustled and Rehr stood there, still wearing the red robes. Tahr bowed to him, and I imitated her.
"High one." He bowed to Tahr, then studied me, up and down. "I hope you are feeling better. I never thought thamil would have such an effect on anyone." He turned and parted the drapes. "Please, he is waiting for both of you."
I followed Tahr through the curtains. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. Some light filtered through the drapes that had been pulled across the window and I saw the room was dominated by the typical bowl-bed favoured by Sathe.
"That would be Tahr."
I heard her hiss of breath, then she was kneeling by the bed, clasping the hand of the shrivelled and grey-furred Sathe lying there, her ears canted sideways and a mournful expression on her face. With his free hand, the old Sathe on the bed reached out and gently felt her face; the sides of her muzzle, her ears and the silver ring there. I realized with a start that he was blind.
"Father!... I did not... When did this happen to you?"
The torn ears twitched in a smile.
"Months ago. An attempt on my life."
She hung her head. "I never heard."
"I did not want you to know." He sank back on the cushions with a sigh that seemed to come from his bones. "I was afraid it might affect your studies."
She lifted one hand and oh so softly batted the side of his face. He smiled up at her. "You are well?"
"I am fine."
"How is Saerae?"
Pushing the subject away from himself, trying to spare her thinking about it. But of all the things on the face of the planet, why did he have to ask about Saerae?
Tahr flinched back; in shock, perhaps in memory. "You knew?"
"Saaa, daughter. You think I would not know when you chose the one to sire your young?"
I slowly shook my head. Oh, Tahr.
"But you did not know that he is dead."
The Shirai was silent, his milk-white eyes closed. "No... I did not know. I am so, so sorry. How..."
"On our way here, Gulf mercenaries... They knew Father! They knew. It was only through coincidence that I escaped."
"Yes, I have heard about your 'Coincidence'," he murmured.
Tahr laid her head on his shoulder and was silent. I felt like an interloper. As quietly as I could, I pushed back through the heavy draperies.
Rehr was at his desk, scratching away with a quill pen. He looked up as I left the room, but said nothing.
God, she was daughter to the old king or whatever he was. She had never told me. That word they used to describe her position 'candidates'. I thought she was just a nominee running for the position of Shirai.
Shirai: not just a title but a name. I hadn't known that either. I had a recollection of the dark-furred Hymath, and the questions she asked me about Tahr, about her clan name. I hadn't realised.
And for a homecoming, to find her father dying. Christ! How many of those closest to her had she already lost? How many more? Why? There were circumstances beyond my control, and they'd already drawn me in out of my depth. How much further could I go?
We'd had an agreement, Tahr and I. There was that afternoon on the hill above Traders Meet when I'd agreed to help her get to Mainport. Now my part of that agreement had been fulfilled and things were still changing. There was something happening here I didn't understand. Someone was trying to kill her, had tried to kill her father, had perhaps killed the other Candidates.
Would she still need me?
In my mind I recalled what we'd been through, how we met, some of those early summer days when it had almost seemed a game to learn about one another. It had changed. We had grown from that simple childhood state. My life back home - if I could call it home - now seemed like something far removed. It had been real, I had lived it, but somehow it was starting to feel like nothing more than an elaborate memory. And this... this craziness, this was reality.
Shit. You could drive yourself mad thinking like that.
I wandered across to the room to stand and study that tapestry covering a wall: an ornate, pictorial representation of the Eastern Realm. The brilliant colours, idiographic text, and seemingly abstract designs that meandered their way across the fabric never obscured the actual land that was being portrayed.
And I knew that land. I'd been staring at pictorial renditions of that land throughout high school and college. Perhaps I'd had some doubts when Tahr scratched her crude map in the dirt, but now... I couldn't doubt any longer.
There was the east coastline, florida, and the area around the Gulf of Mexico. There were graphics representing cities and towns, mostly scattered up and down the east coast, around the northern area of the Gulf, and around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where Canada should be; There were hardly any settlements in Florida.
That was all there was - the east seaboard of the states and Canada, the Florida peninsula, and the Gulf of Mexico - the rest of the map was a blank. Terra Incognito.
Exactly what had happened to me was a mystery I was sure I was never going to unravel. This WAS earth, but yet it wasn't. This WAS America, yet again it wasn't. An alternate earth where the big cats of the Americas had ascended well beyond the threshold of simple animal awareness.
They were well the equal of any evolved ape.
On that subject, what had happened to the apes over in Africa? What had they been doing while the Sathe were busy evolving?
I didn't have the answer to that either. Well, the Sathe would definitely be interested in sending ships east across the Atlantic. A whole new world over there to explore, with new produces, animals, and deposits of precious metals. That would be bait enough to tempt the most sceptical soul.
An alternate earth, as if every time a choice, a decision, was made, a new reality was created. If I were to flip a coin, would that create universes in which it landed heads, tails, perhaps even a universe where it landed on edge?
Could an action as frivolous, as inconsequential, as tossing a coin create worlds?
Or perhaps it took an event that could change a world, such as a pseudo-cat overcoming its fear of a lightning-struck fire, using it for warmth on a cold night, learning to feed the flames to keep it alive.
"You are not going to collapse again?"
I wheeled at the voice. Rehr was hovering beside his desk, dithering between perhaps helping me or making for the door. He gestured towards me: "You do not need help?"
"No," I shook my head. "Thank you, but I will be alright."
"You have been standing there for some time... You are familiar with maps?"
"Yes," I nodded and gestured at the illuminated tapestry. "My people use them. Same things. Ah... How old is this one?"
"That particular one," Rehr nodded at the illuminated tapestry, "was woven by Methres ai Ch'athr, not four years ago."
"I can see you have still got a lot to explore."
"What do you mean?"
I shrugged. "I have seen maps that are more... complete."
"Of our lands? Tahr told me you said you came from another world. 'One that is ours but not ours'. I cannot quite comprehend that. You mean your world's geography is identical to ours?"
"Very similar," I said. "I can look out the window in my room and see the area where I was raised, but it is not the same place at all."
"A strange idea."
Rehr was quiet for a second, ears twitching in thought.
"Is there anything out there?" he finally asked me.
I looked at where his claw had jabbed the map, about where England would be.
"Well, if it is consistent, there should be lands to the south of this one, below the Gulf Realm, a continent bigger than this one over to the east, and another one down here somewhere. Also on the top and bottom of the word." I pointed them out as I spoke. "The world is a big place."
Some time later Rehr was still staring at the map when Tahr laid a hand on my shoulder. I hadn't heard her come out.
"He wishes to... see you," she said.
"Why did you not tell me he was your father."
She gave me a small, sad smile. "You never asked. Go now, quickly."
I pushed the drapes aside as I stepped back into the dim room and stood for a second, blinking.
"You must be Ka... K'hy," said the gruff voice.
"Yes, High One."
There was a slight pause.
"She said you are not Sathe. You sound different."
He was sitting propped up against his cushions. His rheumy eyes were wandering sightlessly, but his ears were locked on me and twitching.
"I am... different. Quite different."
"Please, come here." A hand patted the left side of the bed. I went and knelt down beside him.
He reached to touch me and I pulled back a little, forestalling him. "Sir, you are sure that you want to do that?" I asked, for some reason worried he might have a heart condition. "I am not Sathe. You may be... startled."
"Tahr told me what to expect," he assured me.
He touched my hand and in that instant his pads touched me, I saw him flinch, then relax again. For a while he just touched my skin, then he began mapping the shape of my hand, examining the fingertips and nails, which way my fingers bent. He ran his fingers up my arm, feeling the light hair that grew there, the pads on the undersides of his fingers cool and dry and slightly rough against my skin.
I managed not to flinch when he reached my face and explored that; feeling the bone structure, my nose and lips. He followed the contours of my ears and felt the bristles of my beard. He finally ran his fingers through my hair, feeling the shape of my skull.
"I would never have believed it," he murmured and sank back against the cushions.
"I suppose I do take some getting used to," I said.
"Huh! Hearing about you is one thing. Actually seeing you..." he smiled then, "So to speak, it is something else altogether. You are truly from another world?"
"In a way; yes I am."
"Yes, Tahr did try to explain," the old Shirai sighed and turned those blank eyes my way. "I wish I could see you. She told me so much... For what you have done for my daughter I will be forever grateful."
"High One..." I started but he cut me off with a wave of his hand. "I know the sacrifices that you have made for her; willingly and otherwise. I do not care what you look like: you have the heart of a Sathe."
"I..." Shit! I didn't know how to put it into words. "I thank you, High One."
"You have known Tahr for several months; have travelled with her, fought with her. You would know, better than I..."
He gave a small smile. "I am not going to deny I am dying, but it would make it easier if I knew... Would Tahr make a good successor?"
Dumbstruck, I floundered for a response. "I... ah... I do not think that I can be the judge of that. I am not sure that I know what abilities a Sathe ruler must have, High one."
He snorted faintly. "Just tell me what you know of her, what you have seen in her."
"Sir... I can honestly say that I have never known anybody like her. Being able to call her a friend is something I can take pride in. She is warm, caring, loyal, intelligent, and brave. If those are qualities you value, I think that she would be a worthy heir."
"Thank you," he murmured and was still for a time. Then: "Do you feel the same way about her as she does about you?"
"I do not understand," I said, although I already had a glimmering of what he was getting at.
"She has told me about her Time and I am curious to know how you found it."
"Uh... You..." I stammered to halt and swallowed hard.
The Shirai's blind eyes closed and he hissed in amusement. "My Ancestors! She was right: you are shy!"
I felt the flush crawling up my neck.
"No," he calmed down again. "Do not worry about that. Tell me: what do you think her feelings for you are?"
I floundered for words: embarrassed. "I... I know that she does not hate or fear the way I look, but as for what happened... she could not help herself then... could she? There is no way that she can think of me as a Sathe."
"She cares for you a great deal, Strange One," the old Shirai was staring sightlessly at the low ceilings with its massive rafters. "She knows that she can never have you as a mate, but still she cares for you. You have her friendship, and her love."
I shook my head. I had believed that night in the cave was more... hormones than anything else. I tossed things over in my head; The times I had woken up from dreams and she was there, the times she cared for me when I was ill and no-one else would, the time in the sun-warmed grass when she had bitten me.
"Well?" he asked. "Am I wrong?"
"No." I bit my lip; unable to deny it. "I think not."
He smiled: "Good."
"Yes." Those blind eyes turned in my direction. "Sometimes a bitter looking fruit hides a sweet centre. She cares for you, a great deal, no matter what you look like on the outside. I know my daughter and she is no fool. I do not know you as well, but from what I have heard she judged correctly. If she can continue to do so well, I think she will make a worthy successor. No?"
I sank back in the hot water with a grateful sigh and closed my eyes as the tendrils of steam wound their way across the surface of the pool. The water I disturbed slapped lazily against the sides before settling back to quiescence.
Whether by luck or design the citadel had been built over natural hot springs and the Sathe were not reluctant to make use of them. Several rooms in the lower levels of the Keep had been built as baths, with receptacles the size of small swimming pools cut into the stone floors and filled with deliciously hot water. Benches hewn into the sides of the pools were worn smooth and clean by water and Sathe behinds. In the centre of each of these pools stood a large, dark stone like Sathe's fang with the edges chiselled sharp, a half-metre poking above the water. Decoration? It reminded me of a shark's fin.
The water was clean, with no algae or deuterus. Light came from oil fires burning in niches in the walls. I had one of the rooms for myself and that probably wasn't normal. Had it been cleared for my befit or the Sathes'?
Whatever. I wasn't going to pass up the chance for the first hot bath in half a year. I dunked my head and held my breath as long as I could while giving my head a good scrubbing, hoping to kill or dislodge any passengers I might have picked up over the last couple of weeks. When I surfaced, Tahr was sitting on the edge of the pool, her feet trailing in the water. Beside her sat my boots.
"They were not happy to give them up," she said.
"Who and what?" I asked.
"Scholars." She stood up and began shucking her breeches, still talking. "Engineers, smiths. They are examining your possessions... They have not made much progress."
Her clothes lying in a pile behind her, she slowly descended the steps into the pool. I watched the water slowly climbing her body - her fur billowed out in a ruff at the waterline - until it stopped at her neck. She hissed in pleasure and sank onto one of the benches.
"But do they have to examine my clothes? They are just cloth."
She snorted. "Just cloth! Some of the cloth is recognizable, but most of it is an enigma. The tightness of the weave, the strength... They have never seen anything like it."
I slouched lower into the water, staring at the worn stonework on the far side of the pool. In the centre of the bath there was that large piece of jagged rock sticking up out of the water, roughly triangular in shape. Sathe have strange artwork, but still it didn't resemble that.
"What is that?" I asked, staring at it.
For an answer, she stood and waded out to the stone. There was an underwater dais around it, bringing the water up to her shoulders. She leant her back against one of the chiselled edges of the monolith and started rubbing against it like a housecat, her eyes closed and her ears back in a smile.
"Come, join me." She grinned at me.
I grinned back and waded across the pool and leaned against the rock. The surface was rough behind my back, like sharp-edged pumice. Not unpleasant. I laughed at the sensation.
"Nice. But is this all they're for? Backscratchers?"
"Nice?" Tahr moved around in front of me, mane plastered across her shoulders, bemusement wrinkling her brow. "Is that all it is to you?"
"Huh? What do you mean?" I asked, not understanding
She kicked my feet out from under me and when I got my head above water again and sneezed the water out of my nose, she was sitting against the side of the pool.
"What was THAT for?" I implored.
"You are impossible. You are just so different. I try to treat you as though you are normal male," she raised her hands and rubbed the side of her muzzle, wetting the fine fur there, "but you do not ACT like a normal male." She dropped her hand and it splashed into the water.
I pushed my way through the pool to sit beside her, silent.
"What did you and my father talk about?" she asked.
"I thought as much. What about me?"
"He wanted to know if I thought you would make a good successor."
She smiled and cocked her head delicately to one side: "I am pleased someone has faith in me. What else did you talk about?"
I felt the corners of my mouth twitch. "I think that you already have an idea."
"Ah," she nodded slowly. "And what did you say about us?"
I leaned my head back against the edge of the pool and stared up at the ceiling. There were things her father had said... I wanted to know if they were true. Were her feelings towards me something I could understand, or were they a drive so alien that they could mean the world to her but nothing to me?
"You know," I finally said, "your father cares a great deal for you."
"I know," she said. "And I for him."
"After what you told him about us, he wanted to know how I felt about you: did I feel the same for you as you do for me."
"And do you?"
I lowered my head and spoke to the water's surface: "I... cannot say. I do not know... what you feel."
Tahr's eyes widened, then her ears danced. "Did that night in the cave not tell you?"
I shrugged, sending ripples right across the pool. "Tahr, you do not understand me and often I cannot understand you. That night... I do not know if you made love to me through want or NEED. You did not seem to be... yourself."
She was quiet for a while then she said softly, "Times are difficult for us, but I knew what I wanted. I like that term you used, 'making love'. For me that is what it was."
It went that deep. Damnation, couldn't she see it wouldn't work! How could she have feelings like that for me? We were different species! How could she love me?!
And why was I so hurt by the realization it was impossible?
"K'hy," she touched my arm. "I know that you cannot be everything a Sathe male is: I know that you cannot replace Saerae. But there are other paths of friendship: you are my companion, you have saved my life and you have lived with me and loved with me. K'hy, I love you as a friend."
She leaned against me and I could feel her fur moving in the gentle currents in the water. I felt her breath against the side of my face a split second before she touched her mouth to my cheek in her version of a human kiss.
When she pulled her lithe and dripping form out of the bath, the temperature of the liquid seemed to drop slightly. She dried herself by shaking and rubbing down with a piece of cloth off a pile by the door. I got out soon after she left the room. It's not so much fun by yourself.
That evening I waited for my food to arrive as it had at lunch, delivered by a wide eyed cub who practically dropped the food and ran.
I was sitting on the desk staring out the window at the lights of Mainport and humming disjointed snatches of dimly remembered songs. What Tahr had told me earlier echoed in my head, but the warm feeling that conjured shared rent with a nagging foreboding: could friendship be stretched too far?
When the scratch at the door pulled me from my reverie I went to answer it, getting ready in case he dropped the tray as he had earlier. It wasn't room service.
"Tahr..." I broke off and stared.
She was dressed in bright red breeches tied with a cord inlaid with silver thread. Her tan fur had been brushed until it glowed and her mane was strung around her shoulders in artful disarrangement. Around her neck, she wore a necklace of fine silver wire twisted and woven into fine designs. On her right wrist she wore a light bracelet of a similar design, but this had a large blue stone imbedded in it: a single bluebottle trapped in a silver filigree web. Hanging from her left hip was a scabbard made of laminated walnut and inlaid with silver. The protruding scimitar handle was bound with some kind of dark twine with a dark stone mounted on the pommel, set in silver.
I swallowed. "You have outdone yourself."
"Thank you," she smiled and pushed passed me into the room. Tucked under her arm was bundle of green cloth with what looked like a scabbard rolled up in it, she spread the lot out on the desk.
"I am sorry that I have not had time to find a tailor to make you some proper clothes, so these will have to do in their stead." She waved a hand at the undersized breeches I was wearing and said, "Get rid of those and put these on, we have a dinner to attend."
My fatigue pants were there, as well as my shirt, belt, and sheath knife. I was right about the scabbard: it was wood, coated with black lacquer, and definitely contained a sword.
I stripped off the five-sizes-too-small pair of breeches I was wearing and pulled on the trousers. They'd been washed and ironed or pressed, but not starched, so the seams were not as crisp as they could have been; likewise with the shirt. Also, the cleaning couldn't do anything about the faded and worn cloth, nor the repaired tear, but it was a great relief to get into clean, comfortable clothes again.
I buckled on the belt and clipped the knife to it, then hefted the sword gingerly.
"Do I wear this?"
"Yes. Here, on your belt. That is right."
After that came my boots - cleaning them up with a bit of spit and polish. Not exactly parade ground standard, but better than nothing.
Tahr eyed me critically.
"Not too bad... sit down." I did so.
She stood behind the chair and began to rake her claws through my hair, straightening it, pulling it back. Another advantage of claws: built in combs.
Sitting with another person combing your hair is strangely relaxing; built-in social grooming habits I guess. I could have easily dozed off, but she finished quickly, and with a final flick of hair, she stood back to examine her work.
"Much better. You look presentable. Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"And for that I need a sword?"
"Oh, bring your knife also."
I grabbed the knife and slipped it into a pocket, snuffed out the oil lamp, and followed her out the door, slamming it behind me.
As we marched down the corridor, I patted the scabbard banging against my leg. "What am I supposed to do with this? I do not even know how to use the thing. Would not my rifle be better?"
Tahr waved a 'no'. "There should be no need to use it. The sword in any case is purely ceremonial. Offer it at the door, but keep your knife. Stand against the wall, directly behind my chair. Do not speak unless spoken to directly, and always be courteous."
"Tahr, why am I doing this?"
"I need an escort. You are the only one that I trust enough. The others will have escorts from their personal staff. You are all I have."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"I did not mean it like that."
"Who are these 'others'?"
She smoothed down a bit of fur on her chest. "Why, the returned heirs of course."
We stopped in a small antechamber, opposite a set of heavy wood doors with guards posted. They opened the doors for us.
The room wasn't the grand hall with huge banquet table I'd been half-expecting. A low ceiling was supported by massive wooden beams. Through twin archways in the far wall a balcony commanded a view over the outer Citadel walls towards the forest and farmland to the west. There was a table and at least it wasn't too different from what I'd imagined.
Massively built. Dark wood, polished to a high sheen anchored upon a strangely carved central pedestal. Out of a possible fourteen places five had been set; two on each side and one at the far end. A conical brass candelabra with three tiers of candles sat in the centre of the table, providing illumination. Two seat at the table were occupied.
The two Sathe - one male, one female - sitting opposite each other at the table turned to face us as we came in. The looks they gave Tahr were definitely not friendly and the one she gave in return told me there was no love lost between them. When their eyes turned to me it was obvious that they forgot about Tahr there and then. Nostrils and eyes flared wide as neurological hardwiring tensed them against possible threat.
Following Tahr's example I left my sword on a side table covered with a red velvet cloth beside the door. Tahr leisurely selected a place on the right side of the table, opposite the other female. I pulled her chair out and held it while she seated herself, then stepped back into a shadowed niche in the wall, settling into an at-ease stance. Behind each of the other heirs, in similar niches, were two more Sathe: escorts. All I could see of them in the shadows and dimness was that they were large.
"I am surprised to see you here, Tahr," one of the heirs - the male - said.
"Really? Is there any reason you thought I might not make it?" Tahr asked. "Perhaps you thought I may have an accident."
"Perhaps," the other agreed with the merest twitch of a lip. "There have been a lot of them going around."
Tahr hissed. The male smiled and said, "Control yourself."
"I think you speak too lightly of others' misfortune," Tahr retorted acidly.
"I am afraid she is right, Schai," the female said. "But Tahr, I am curious about your... companion. Have you taken to travelling with animals now? It will not foul the floor?"
"He is not..." Tahr began, but her retort was interrupted when the door opened and the final heir entered. That was one Sathe I figured I wouldn't have any trouble recognizing in a crowd: his fur was a shocking, almost-metallic silver. His escort was also different from the others... Well, perhaps not as different as Tahr's escort, but for a bodyguard she was extremely small. Her eyes would perhaps be level with my chest.
Behind them Rehr flowed in like a red bishop and turned to close the heavy doors.
The Advisor wasn't surprised to see me. He hardly spared me a glance as he swept past on his way to the seat at the head of the table. The other two seemed more startled: they stared for a second before Silver Fur removed his sword and laid it on the table, closely followed by his diminutive consort.
As he took his seat opposite Tahr, he gave her a cordial nod, "Tahr, it has been to long."
"R'rrhaesh." She returned the nod. "You have not changed much."
The other female chose that moment to add her two cents worth. "True. He still refuses to dye his fur!"
Tahr turned and hissed at her with ears down, but R'rrhaesh stopped her.
"Do not trouble yourself, I am quite used to it."
I felt a twinge of sympathy for him, of course I know what it's like being a misfit, but surely the colour of his fur didn't matter that much? Huh! A human should talk! Across the room the glow of candlelight reflected from a pair of eyes caught my attention. The small female who'd had come in with R'rrhaesh was looking at me. No... not looking, staring. She was eyeing me from head to foot as though weighing me up. For R'rrhaesh to have chosen her for an escort, he must have had a good reason. Looking at the heavies the other two had brought, she was a striking contrast.
She must have been only about four foot eight. A pleated leather skirt with suspender-like straps criss-crossing her chest was her only clothing, her fur like chocolate with swirls of milk through it. She carried herself with poise - inherent in Sathe - but I got an impression of exceptional grace about her. When our eyes met and locked she huffed, fur bristling, and gave me a stare I could almost feel, daring me to look away first.
I wasn't about to try outstare a Sathe. I flashed her a wink and turned my attention back to the table.
Rehr waited until everyone was settled before standing again. There was no need to call for attention; all eyes went to him.
"Four. Only four." Rehr looked at each of the heirs in turn. "This should be a time for rejoicing. The youth, the offspring of the realm's Lords, the best of their Clans, returning to demonstrate their prowess and ability in the final Challenge, choosing from among the best the one who is to rule our lands. Instead, there are too many Clans who have been mourning the loss of prized youth."
He sighed and sank back into the chair, looking old.
"To those who are here tonight. Old friends, young friends, I greet you. The Shirai clan greets you. Their food is yours, their drink is yours, their roof is yours."
As if this was a signal, servants seemed to materialize from the shadows. Platters of veal, spare ribs, corn, bread, and goblets of ale were set on the table and the Sathe set in with a will.
Watching a Sathe dinner party isn't a sight you forget in a hurry. I'd become somewhat immunized to the spectacle of Sathe eating over the past months, but mealtimes made sure that I would not overlook the differences in physiology.
The meat was usually done rare, at the best. Large bones were never wasted, powerful jaws and sharp teeth splintered them then the marrow was fastidiously picked out. Sathe do not have the molars that humans use for masticating their food and it is impossible for them to keep their mouths shut while chewing. Any Sathe meal is accompanied by the sounds of loud chewing, swallowing, and bone crunching. They were eating things they probably considered delicacies, but to me looked suspiciously like internal organs of various animals. One taste treat I found particularly distressing were the rabbits brought in, pinned down on boards, still alive. They actually screamed when the Sathe slit them open for the steaming organs. I saw Tahr use her jaws to crack open a skull and scoop out the brains.
Shit, you think you know someone...
Fighting a roiling stomach, I stood there and suffered the twofold punishment of watching them eat, and smelling the aroma of cooked food that filled the room. When Tahr had said that we were going to dinner, I, for some strange reason, got the impression that I might be eating as well. Still, watching them eat pretty much did for my appetite.
As the meal progressed I could see their attitudes toward one another. They all seemed to be mutually distrustful of each other, although Tahr and R'rrhaesh did not seem to be as cautious towards each other as they towards the others. The other two, the male and the female were called, respectively, Schai and Eaher.
Throughout Rehr stayed neutral. In conversation he took care not to become involved with either side, and of course the obvious subject came up; Me.
"Tahr," said R'rrhaesh, "I am curious, where did you find your escort."
"Actually it was he who found me," she replied. "He saved my life after I lost my staff."
I think she said more than she had meant to then.
"So," Eaher put in thoughtfully, "THAT is your entire staff?"
Tahr's ears twitched in annoyance.
"He is quite adequate."
"Exactly what is it?" asked Schai.
"He calls himself a 'h'man'," Tahr replied.
"Really?" Eaher asked in what had to be a sarcastic tone. "Of course, how foolish of me, I should have realized it TALKS." She snorted the word.
Tahr's jaw muscles twitched in a barely restrained hostile grin. "Oh yes, he talks."
Eaher looked at me. "You talk do you? Say something."
I remembered Tahr's warning to be polite, so I bowed my head before saying. "Is there something you would like to hear me say, High One?"
Tahr's ears twitched in a smile as everyone but Rehr expressed various degrees of surprise then rapidly tried to hide it.
"I did tell you he spoke Sathe," she said.
"Why is it... he wearing such strange clothing?" R'rrhaesh asked. "Looks like a walking bush."
"That is his own clothing," Tahr replied.
R'rrhaesh, sitting opposite Tahr, lifted his spouted goblet to his mouth and took a swallow, staring at me over the rim.
"Do you know where he is from?"
"No," Tahr plucked something out of the rabbit carcass in front of her and popped it into her mouth, "not really."
"'Not really'," Schai echoed, "Has he not told you?"
"He has told me, but it is difficult to comprehend. Imagine a world that is ours, but not ours."
"You talk in riddles Tahr," said R'rrhaesh. "How can that possibly be?"
Tahr attempted to explain my theory of what had happened. A theory that was only a patchy framework built from what I had seen and experienced. Her audience listened sceptically, taking occasional draughts from their cups. When she finished, there was silence for a few seconds.
"Huh... you expect us to believe that," Schai snorted into his ale.
"Believe what you will." Tahr picked a bone off her plate." He is here, and that is the best way I have heard of explaining his presence." She bit into it with a loud crunch.
"Have you not thought of the fact that he may have come from across the sea?" Eaher asked.
"Yes... and I prefer the other explanation. You have not seen some of the devices he has with him, they are far in advance of anything we can produce. He says his people are warlike and I for one would far rather have them on another world than on the other side of a stretch of water," Tahr replied smoothly. She used her tongue to lick the marrow out of the bone.
After the last bone had been split, Rehr leaned back in his chair surrounded by his red robes. He must have been hot in them even though for me it was a cold night.
"You have all been summoned here as the guests of Shirai. He knows that he does not have long to live and so he has ordered that the Ceremony be held whilst he lives. Now, as in ages past, on the eve of the winter [solstice], you shall meet for your final trial, the Challenge to determine who shall rule."
On the delivery of this cheerful note, Rehr rose and brushed out of the room.
Walking alone down the dim corridors was a strange experience. The only light came from the occasional torch in its sconce or the dim glow from under closed doors. My footfalls echoed loudly. Occasionally I would see a Sathe who would hurry past me. I started whistling softly, then hastily stopped as the sound was amplified eerily in the stone halls.
I found what I hoped was the right spiral staircase and came out on what I recognised as my floor. When I arrived at my door I put my hand on the latch, then hesitated.
"Ah... what the hell..." I sighed.
I knocked on the door just a few steps down the corridor.
"Come in K'hy," Tahr said, her voice muffled by the wood.
Her room must have been one of the first class guest rooms. Wooden furnishings that fairly glowed with age and polish, ample lighting, colourful rugs on the floor.
She sat at her desk, a quill pen in one hand and sheaves of parchment on the desktop in front of her. The jewellery had been removed and her fur was ruffled, as though she had been running her hand through it. She cocked her head to one side as I stuck my head in.
"I will leave if you are busy, it was not important," I said.
She leaned back in her chair. "No. Please, come in. I could use a distraction."
I closed the door behind me and went over and perched on the side of her desk. The parchments were covered with the streamlined scratches of Sathe script.
"Sometime I will have to learn to read," I said.
She looked surprised for a second. "I had forgotten that you cannot. Do you have a written language?"
"Could you show me some of your script?" she asked, and handed me the quill and pushed an inkwell across the desk.
I took up the quill awkwardly. Tahr had to show me the proper way to hold it and dip it in the ink. As neatly as I could, I wrote on a scrap of parchment
'KILROY WAS HERE'
Tahr eyed the text curiously, but didn't ask what it meant.
"Can you spell my name in your language?"
I spelled her name as well as I could: phonetically. Alongside it, she scratched something in Sathe.
"That is my name."
It looked vaguely like a Pi symbol preceding a trident.
"Tahr, Rehr said that only four heirs have made it. How many were there supposed to be?"
Tahr glanced at me, then gave a body wracking shudder. "K'hy... there should have been twelve heirs tonight."
"What do you think happened to them?"
"What nearly happened to us."
"Dead? Eight of them?"
She waved an affirmative miserably. "Eight plus their staffs."
I was silent for a while.
"But they were your rivals. I saw how you did not get along with the others tonight."
"True. They are my rivals, but I grew up with them. I get... got along with some of them better than I did with those fools Schai and Eaher... K'hy, some were my friends."
I didn't understand it. "But why kill them?" I asked. "Why try to kill you? The Gulf Realm again? What does the Gulf Realm have to gain from that?"
"Confusion," Tahr began to explain. "Perhaps more land. All the heirs hail from the most affluent Clans, the Clan Lords' offspring. On the night of the Choosing only the best will be the High Lord of the Eastern Realm, and their Clan name shall be their title - as Shirai is my Father's." Tahr dipped her quill in the inkwell and wrote a few characters then began absently tapping the nib on the paper.
"Should the Gulf realm succeed in killing us all, the hierarchy that the Eastern Realm is built upon will be undermined for a time. Other Clans, less-reputable clans - undoubtedly some of the southern families sympathetic to Gulf causes - will squabble for the opportunity to send Candidates to Mainport. There would be clashes between clans and the possibility of the Realm itself being fractured, the centre of power being dislodged from Mainport."
Tahr dipped the pen again. "If the Gulf wanted to invade, they could not pick a better time. For a long time the Realm would be staggering around like a headless bird..." she left that scenario for me to finish off.
"But they have not killed you all," I said. "What happens now? You know the Gulf Realm is behind what has happened."
"At the best?" her ears drooped. "I do not know... At the best I see the Gulf Realm being sanctioned by other Realms until there is a reduction in military forces and then as a goodwill gesture handing us the disputed territories along the Borderline River. Temporary.
"At worst they deny the accusations. They continue to stockpile troops and weapons along the Borderline River while playing for time. When they are ready they will fabricate some excuse and invade anyway, 'to reclaim lands snatched from their ancestors'!" Tahr snorted in disgust and jabbed viciously at the paper. A wonder the quill didn't break.
"What about your army?" I asked. "Allies?"
"Our army cannot compare with theirs!" she spat. "We could perhaps match the numbers with conscripts, but the number of well trained and equipped personnel would be on their side.
"As for allies... Perhaps the Lake Trader coalition. They are an unknown, but as things stand now the Eastern Realm is a warm coat of fur between them and the chill of the Gulf Realm. They would be reluctant to lose us, but how reluctant I do not know." She slammed her hand down on the paper. Now the quill snapped, the feather fluttering to the floor. Tahr's nose wrinkled at the mess of ink-blots she'd made on the paper. "Now look: I have ruined a perfectly good piece of parchment," she said with a strained smile that rapidly vanished. Her head dropped into her hands. "My Ancestors, K'hy! All I see is war! Do I want to be High Lord?"
I didn't know what to say. I got up and stood behind her, putting my hand on her shoulder. Her muscles were bunched up like steel knots under her fur.
"Hey, whatever happens I believe in you."
She leaned forward and moaned softly. I could sympathize. She had come home to find her father blind and dying and most of her childhood friends dead. I couldn't advise her. I felt useless.
"Tahr," I stroked her shoulder, the fur, "there is something my people do to relax. Relieve some tension. And it feels good. I am not sure if it would work on you, but do you want to try?"
She reached up and softly batted my face. "Why not."
"Can we use your bed?"
Her eyes widened. "K'hy..."
"No, no," I hastened. "It is not that."
"I should have guessed," she smiled. Sadly?
We moved through to the bedchamber, Tahr starting to light the lamp.
I caught her hand. "I do not think we need that. Just lie down, on your front."
She did so, leaning on her elbows, and I knelt over her, making myself comfortable. I didn't have any oil, besides, her fur would make that messily impractical.
She twitched and yipped in surprise when I took hold of her shoulders and started kneading the muscles.
"Hai! What are you doing?" she yelped at the first pinching.
"Just relax," I reassured her. "It is supposed to hurt a little."
She was tense. Hah! Understatement. Under her fur her muscles were like knots in steel cable. She didn't work out and still had musculature like an athlete. I really had to work at it, but as I continued I could feel the tightness slipping out. She sighed like a deflating balloon, put her arms to her side, and fell lax.
Rubing steadily, kneading, slowly squeezing muscles between my knuckles, running my fingers along the vertebrae and shoulder blades, pushing folds of skin with the heel of my hand.
Her furry back felt really strange under my hands, the muscles not where I expected them to be. As she relaxed, her skin softened, rolling under my hands in loose folds. I was no professional masseur, but a girl I had once known back home had shown me the basics. No, I was no pro, but I learned as I worked. Her muscles were strange and it took me time, reading the ridges and hollows, making a map in my mind.
Tahr lay there, eyes closed, breathing softly and steadily with a deep burring sounding faintly in her chest. After about twenty minutes or so she stirred herself to say, "I thought you said that this was not to be sexual."
I hesitated. "It is not," I said, confused. Only then did I remember how she had acted in the pool. Rubbing her back got her...
"No, don't stop," she murmured in a dozy, slurred voice as I faltered in indecision. A rumbling purr escaped her. "Don' worry, not in the mood..." her voice drifted off.
"I think I am glad to hear it," I whispered.
I kept up the massage for another half hour, at the end of which her closed eyes, steady breathing, and gentle purrs told me she was asleep. She stirred slightly as I eased off her expensive breeches, folded them carefully, and covered her with a thin sheet. Calm again, she didn't stir.
I tiptoed out of her room, pausing in the doorway to look back and wonder what her dreams were like.
A light but steady snow was drifting down outside, covering Mainport and the Citadel in a chill white blanket.
Inside the keep, for the past week or so, it had not seemed any warmer than the air outside. I had taken to wearing my cloak inside and was not pleased when Tahr assured me that it would be getting colder.
We walked down a passage, our breath visible in the chill air as we talked. Central heating was something this place could really use.
Tahr was trying to describe the layout of the Keep and not having a great deal of success. It seemed like the place had been designed by a hundred different architects, all of them having something different in mind and quite possibly more than a few not knowing what they were doing at all. A lot of the place was actually built into the hill itself, like they took a granite crag and chipped away at it to turn the whole thing into the citadel. Actually, that wasn't too far from the truth; and if you think that would've taken a while, you'd be right.
I myself couldn't quite grasp how old the place was. Now Tahr was taking me to a section where some of the original construction remained. It was a place I'd been through before, but now she took me down a side corridor. "Look."
"The carvings. Take a good look."
I did. There was something funny about the Sathe in them...
"They've got tails!"
Well, stubby, short ones, but they were unmistakably tails. There were other differences as well. The posture, the shape of the head, there were probably more, but the granite was too worn to tell.
"You see now?" she spread her hands. "This was an early part of the Citadel, walled up and only recently uncovered. We do not really know exactly how old it is."
"But... but how can the..." I was so flustered I found myself speaking in English. I tried again. "But this is CARVED into the wall! Sathe must have had tails... a... a very long time ago. Uh-uh. No way. I do not believe the Citadel is that old."
She hissed in exasperation, then caught my arm. "Come on."
I followed her through the dim corridors deeper in to the Citadel. Deeper than I had ever been before. Tracks had been worn in solid stone by the passage of millions of pairs of feet. The walls were covered with script, some looking fresh, others just faint impressions in the rock. The rooms were smaller and not as well constructed as the ones in the outer areas of the Citadel, more primitive.
We emerged from a doorway into a cloister surrounding a huge open field: the very core of the Citadel. The snow had formed a hard crust over the grass that lay underneath. As we walked across it, we left two different sorts of tracks: my bootprints, and Tahr's strange four-toed prints.
The snow drifted down, losing the Citadel walls on the far side of the circle in swirling whiteness. At first the objects in the centre of the circle were similarly masked, slowly becoming clearer as we approached. I felt my jaw begin to sag.
A circle of huge stones stood out in the middle of the white carpet, snow-iced granite slabs about fifteen feet tall and six thick standing on end and joined together, edge to edge, at the very core of the Citadel. Time had worn down edges, leaving the stones ragged, uneven. It would have been like Stonehenge or one of those places, but for the stones being joined together, making a nearly solid ring, or perhaps a wall. With snow, the silence, there was an air of dreamlike silence - timelessness - about the place.
Tahr touched my hand, beckoning me to follow. Through a gap between the monoliths: a gate. Inside, snow was backed around the inside of the wall, hiding a rampart. There were lumps in the snow: squares and rectangles. Ancient stubs of walls buried, the remains of buildings. A small village, houses gathered around a central gathering place.
I followed Tahr to the centre of the circle. She brushed snow from a buried stone and sat down, flakes settling on her fur. She wore no cloak yet seemed unaffected by the still, cold air.
No sound made it through the curtain of snow, and I stood there in the silence, turning around on the spot, my cloak wrapped around me against the cold. The stones were huge, ghostly shapes in the whiteness. It was a cold, timeless place. A circle of memories and ghosts, none of them human.
"What is this place?" I finally whispered.
"This is the Circle," she replied quietly. "This is the heart of the Citadel, of Mainport, of the Eastern realm."
I cleared the rock beside her. Lichen grew there, hidden under the snow. Beneath that there were indentations in the rock that at one time may have been carvings. I sat, turning to watch her. She continued.
"No one knows just how long ago it was... certainly it was before any records were kept, before written language even, when Sathe still had tails. The stones you see here are old, but not as old as the Clan ground we stand on. We were born here, birthed from the womb of time, here we grew and learned. From the forgetfulness of the past to today. Sathe pass, but the land endures.
"Across the Realms, in ages past, Sathe came together to grow. Where they succeeded there are the ancient Clan grounds. Where they failed: nothing but dust and a few fallen stones."
She waved her arm in a gesture encompassing what lay beyond the white wall surrounding us.
"As you can see, the eastern Realm succeeded. We have kept building the Citadel, our heritage, each Born Ruler adding to it so their descendants will always know their Clan was standing over the Realm. It has pushed the town out as the walls moved outwards. Only recently have we started building new settlements."
"How recent is 'recently'?" I asked.
"About three or four hundred years ago." Tahr replied.
I looked around at the time worn rocks.
"Sometimes we find caves," she continued in quiet tones, almost as if she were speaking to herself. "Sometimes tools, sometimes skeletons of... we think Sathe, but they have no hands.
"Now do you believe?"
I nodded slowly. "I do not have much choice. You can be very convincing."
She hissed and swatted me on the arm.
"Hang on... If you have been building this place for those thousands of years, then why are there not enough Sathe to fill all those empty rooms in the citadel?"
She looked away from, then back at me as though trying to make a decision about something.
"Many families have left for the frontier towns. There are not nearly as many Sathe in Mainport as there were fifty years ago. I am starting to get cold, so you must be frozen... yes, you are shivering. I think we should go back now."
It was true I was starting to shiver, but for some reason I her story about families emigrating grated. Why would whole families up and move out? I was sure that there weren't television adds and glossy sales brochures advertising a life of easy riches in the small towns. This is not the kind of culture where people just move on a whim: where they live is all they know. Adventure is a risk.
She had something she didn't want to tell me. Well, that was her perogative, I wouldn't push her... but I was curious as hell.
Behind us, the stone circle disappeared in the drifting snow.
Back in my room, I banked up the fire until I had a roaring blaze going. Then I pulled the drapes on the evening snowscape outside, stripped, wrapped myself up in a sheet and flopped down before the warm hearth. Standing around in the snow had gotten me soaked. The cloak was not - of course - water resistant, and the melting snow had seeped right through the fabric.
I huddled in front of the fire and prayed that the stuffy feeling in my sinuses wasn't another cold coming on. I could foresee that they would be a irritation all too common here.
I could pay my way in this world I discovered. I didn't have any particular skill, but a little knowledge can go a long way: far better than American Express. Accepted in more places as well.
Those long months ago Tahr had tolerated me because I seemed to be an intelligent animal of some kind - a novelty. As time passed she realised there was more to me than met the eye, had come to understand what I could mean for her people. She had so nearly betrayed the Eastern Realm to protect not only me, but the learning I carried.
Now her gambling could bear some fruit.
Textiles, both linen and llama-wool based cloth, were a major trade item in the Sathe culture, especially in the Eastern Realm where the climate was ideal for cotton plants.
Collected by hand, the wool would be laboriously cleaned then wound by hand onto spindles: a slow, tedious process that produced yarn with patches that were sometimes too thin, sometimes to coarse.
It was only a matter of a week to build spinning wheels and improve on the looms.
With these the weavers and draperers could not only greatly increase their productivity, the yarn and cloth would be of a much higher quality and able to fetch a higher price from the merchants of other Realms.
The success of those projects boosted my confidence and the faith of the Sathe. I asked for - and received - some tools to help me: A draughting board, T-squares, quills and ink, a plentiful supply of paper. Some of the stuff like protractors and compasses I had to design from scratch and I worried about how inaccurate they were.
It's a paradox: how did you build precision machinery without precise measuring equipment? and how do you make precise measuring equipment without precision machinery?
I had trouble with that one when I had to come up with a solution to the problem of putting a regular thread on a lathe to be used for making the threads on screws, bolts, drill-bits, etc. The answer I came up with had to do with heavy weights turning a mechanism that etched a spiral line up a rotating steel rod...
But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
There are any number of inventions that can claim to have had a significant effect on my own history: the wheel, gunpowder, the aircraft, television, the microchip - to name a few. And they all did.
They weren't quite what I was after. A couple the Sathe were already familiar with, others were impossible with the materials I had to work with, or I didn't want them. Aircraft: now I thought about balloons for a while, but decided there was something that was perhaps not as impressive, but was simpler, safer, and could have just as much of an impact in the long run...
Invented in my world by Johannes Gutenberg, the letterpress printing press made mass communication possible, suddenly presenting a way to print thousands of pamphlets, documents, or books in a fraction of the time it took scribes to write it out by hand. It meant that classical works and teachings - previously only available to the clergy or wealthy - could become available to the man on the street.
It took longer than the spinning wheel, but eventually I had a working printing press based on one of those old mimeograph machines. It was bulky, and the letterheads gave me a headache. I started with a batch made from copper, but they were not an outstanding success: ink just doesn't adhere well to copper and the metal fluctuates too severely under temperature changes. Another batch made from a softer, coarser tin-lead-antimony mixture finally worked.
Some of the other things I came up with were even simpler, but they had their place.
My hair had grown ridiculously long over the past weeks, and I was not entertained by the idea of hacking it off with a knife: it gives a lousy cut and hurts into the bargain. I had taken to wearing it tied back with a headband, but now I was starting to look like a damn hippy.
Well, necessity IS the mother of invention.
I did a trade with one of the blacksmiths in the Keep's smithy: I gave him several tips on producing higher-grade steel and sword blades and in return he helped me make a pair of scissors out of a couple of daggers. He profited all the way in that one, being so impressed by the simplicity of the idea that I had no doubts he would probably start to sell a few on the side.
There was no way that I could cut my hair myself, even if I did have a good mirror, which I didn't. Sathe don't cut their fur - they shed.
So where the hell am I going to find a barber?
Tahr was astonished when I knocked on her door and told her what I needed.
"You would like me to WHAT?!"
I repeated myself: "I need some help cutting my hair, if you could."
She stared at me as though I was crazy.
"But why would you want to cut it?"
I sighed. "My hair does not stop growing while it is short, like your fur. It grows. It becomes uncomfortable." I untied the headband to demonstrate.
"Ah... I see what you mean," she said, obviously amused, then gave an overly-dramatic sigh. "I, the Shirai, grooming animals..."
"Well, if you don't want to, I could always go down to the stables and ask a groom..." I gave her an expectant look.
"Oh, very well," she hissed. "I will cut your fur."
I bowed deeply. "Thank you, High One. I will be forever in your..."
"Ah, stop the noise," she playfully cuffed me over the ears, grinning. "Now, sit down. How do you use these things?"
She worked slowly and carefully at first, then picked up speed, using her claws to rake the hair into position, then trimming it with rapid snips of the scissors. I watched red clumps falling onto my lap.
"Do all h'mans have to do this?" Tahr asked.
"Most of them," I said. "There are humans who specialize in... ah... cutting hair. That is their job."
She came around front and looked at my face to see if I was joking. "You are serious. They actually make money just shaving each other?"
"Someone has to do it."
She snorted. "I have said it before and I will say it again: your world sounds strange."
"Yours is rather weird," I retorted, then yelped as she yanked out a few strands of hair with one pull.
"Oh, I am so sorry," she said smugly.
"Sure you are."
She didn't answer, but I could imagine her smirking to herself as she returned to the business of cropping back my hair.
There was quite a pile of copper coloured hair in a ring around the chair when she finished. I checked the result in a small mirror she had.
Interesting style. It resembled a Sathe mane: shorter on top, longer at the back and sides.
"Hey, not bad..."
"And not good?" she grinned.
"No, it is good." Well, it was... different. "Have you done this before?"
"Well," she looked coy. "I have groomed llamas before; there is not a great deal of difference."
"Thanks a lot."
While I cleared up the strands of hair lying around, Tahr was examining the scissors. "Can these cut other things?" she asked.
"What?" I looked up from my work with the small brush. "Oh, yes. They can cut parchment, cloth... better ones can cut metal."
She picked up a sheaf of parchment lying on her desk. The scissors cut through the yellowish material cleanly and easily. "What other devices are you dreaming up?" she asked.
"Well, I left your scholars in the library drooling over a device that can print a document over and over, as many times as is necessary. Humans call it a printing press. There are hundreds of other things that I should be able to think of."
I dropped the hair into the fire, where it sputtered and curled before being consumed by the flames. The chimney was drawing well and the smoke was quickly sucked out of the room.
"Since I groomed your fur, there is something you can do for me," Tahr smiled.
With some trepidation: "What?"
"That thing you did to my back the other night. Could you show me how?"
"Um... fair enough."
Despite the chill in her bedroom she stripped off and sprawled on the bed while I settled beside her. She sighed and rumbled softly while I showed her how to rub and pinch flesh between the fingers, how to read the muscles. I'm not even sure she was listening, just lying there, half-dozing while I worked. Her fur was so different from human skin: coarse, dark on the outside, softer, lighter in near her skin. I couldn't use oil, but the fur helped some. Her rump wriggled as I ran my fingers down the side of her spine.
"I must try this on a Sathe male," she murmured after a while, "It will drive him crazy."
I didn't say anything.
"What about you, K'hy?" she suddenly rolled over and arched her back, her fur-tufted crotch thrusting up. "This would not do anything for you, would it?"
I yanked my hands back like she'd turned red hot, unable to tell if she was joking or not. "Umm... Look, Tahr, we have been through this before. You are... beautiful, but I just cannot..." I trailed off.
"You did not seem to find it so difficult back in the cave," she retorted. "I KNOW you enjoyed it as much as I... By my Ancestors, why are you not more like us in the mind?" she lounged back and tapped her temple with a claw.
I was flustered, embarrassed, and a bit angry. "You want me to act like a Sathe? Before the unsuspecting Tahr could move, I grabbed her and pinned her arms to the bed. She just stared back at me in surprise. "Is that what you want me to do?" I demanded. "To take you like Tarsha did?"
Her eyes sudden turned big and black and I realized what I had just said.
"Oh God! Tahr, I am... I am sorry." I rolled and lay beside her on the bed, covering my face with my arm. "That was... I did not mean it like that."
She didn't say anything, but I felt her hand on my chest, her other one drawing my arm away from my face. "K'hy, your eyes are watering." She reached out and caught a tear on a clawtip as it meandered down my cheek.
"Aw, shit," I muttered and wiped my sleeve across my face.
"You do want to join, do you not?" she smiled at me: that lackadaisical drooping of her ears. With one hand she toyed with a strand of my hair. Her other hand...
"I... Tahr, but... Jesus!" I was out of the bed, backing away from her. "Tahr, don't..." I stumbled out the door, my head swimming in confusion.
She was sitting there staring at me as I fled back to my quarters. How could she be so... so blase about it?
She's alien, that's how!
My desk was covered in paper; plans and sketches and ideas. I stood and stared gloomily at them for a while, then one sweep of my arm sent them fluttering to the floor. The inkwell made a satisfying crash as the heavy glass shattered and the contents stained the floorboards.
I screamed it at the top of my voice. Of course there was no reply.
Mainport shone in the moonlight, the light being reflected from the snow that softened the contours of the landscape. Five floors below me, the snow-covered courtyard surrounding the Keep was almost glowing: black shadows and silver-blue snow dotted with the tracks of the Sathe who had crossed it in the day. A few were still moving around, dark shadows on the pale backdrop.
Five floors down... would it be quick?
God! What was I thinking?!
I shook my head and slowly made my way to bed, tugging off my boots and bouncing them off the walls. The bed was cold and empty. I huddled there, knowing it always would be.
Tahr on the wagon fending off shadowy assailants. On both side her comrades and friends were dying on steel blades. The water flowed red, a solid red. The whole river ran blood.
She turned to me, eyes wide with fear, pleading. Blood; her's and her companions' made her fur soggy. She held out a hand.
I slow motion I saw the crossbow bolt hit her in the chest, sinking in. Her head flew back, mouth open in a red tinted scream, before she crumpled out of sight...
The M-16 in my hands vanished as I moved forward, toward the figure lying in the mud amidst the corpses. I nudged it over with a boot.
Tahr lay with her ribs laid open, spilling her lifeblood into the earth. Her eyes flickered open, her mouth working in agony and we were on a gravel beach, her blood streaming over the stones to a red sea.
"K'hy? Help me..."
"Tahr... No! Oh, God,no!"
I turned away. Turned away and started off down a road that stretched over the horizon.
I was walking back down the road. Behind me a dark shape sprawled in the mud, joining the earth and stones in unmovingness.
Death isn't a state of mind - it's a condition...
Tahr stood before me in the water, wet fur clinging to her curves, a playful grin on her face.
I continued, walked past her.
Tahr sprawled out on her cloak near my feet in that relaxed attitude that only cats can adopt, her fur blending in well with the golden grasses.
"Dreams can say a lot about one. What are your dreams, K'hy?"
I left her again.
She crouched on the soft sand in a cave, the light of a dying fire flickering across her tan fur. She was naked. Glowing eyes watched me, then she stabbed a sword into the sand between us.
"You can't even accept what you want. Hah! Find yourself, K'hy."
I turned my back and walked on.
"Tahr! No... Wait!"
The whole scene grew smaller, dwindling in the distance behind me.
There were flames, heat. Through the roiling inferno I could see a figure writhing: dying. Sometimes human, sometimes not. Then there was a flare of whiteness and everything faded...
Like a film looping. Back at the ford, I saw her die again.
There was a lurch like falling and I woke up grabbing at sheets, my heart hammering.
The darkness of my room surrounded my like a comforting blanket. My own were in disarray, half on the bed, half on the floor. The whole bed was drenched and chill with sweat.
For a long time I lay there, watching moonlight waxing and waning across the far wall, listening to my heartbeat settling down. The floorboards were rough and cold under my feet when I swung out of bed, crossing the pool of blue light from the window to the water jug by the door. I took a long drink straight out of the pitcher, then dashed a handful across my face and leaned against the chill stones of the wall, clenching and unclenching my white-knuckled hands, shivering.
What was that old poem I'd learned way back? There'd been an old drifter who'd stopped by for lodgings with his ragged hat and scarf, everything he owned in a beat-up pack. He'd been a history professor or some such once and was an encyclopedia of personal observations of the world. There was something he'd told me, original or from some old sonnet, I never knew:
Here we all are, by day; by night we're hurled
By dreams, each one, into sev'ral worlds
I was living a dream. When was dawn due? I sighed down at the jug in my hands. I wanted to wake up.
I whirled, banged my shin against the chest. There was the shadowy man/ not man shape of a Sathe standing just inside the door:
"It is me."
Tahr. I opened my mouth, then closed it again, looking away from her.
"The guards summoned me. You were crying out. They were not sure what to do." She paused, then asked, "The dreams again?"
"No... not those," I ran my hand through my hair, surprised at the trembling. "Different," I said. "It is nothing."
Her shadow moved: "You were screaming. Nothing?"
She came closer. "You are shaking all over. Get back to bed, you will freeze!"
It was then I realized that I was still naked, and so was she, but she grasped my arm firmly and with and almost clinical detachment led me back to the bed where I collapsed on the fine cotton sheets. She drew the heavy fur covers up over me then perched herself on the edge of the bed and studied my face for a while before speaking.
"Not the same?" she asked with wrinkles marching up her muzzle. "Worse?"
I closed my aching eyes and swallowed. "Different."
There was an awkward hesitation, a tension, then she shifted. "You will be all right?" she asked.
I nodded and she patted my shoulder then stood to leave.
"Tahr." The name caught in my throat.
She stopped and turned, eyes flashing with a titanium shimmer.
I held my hand out to her: "Please, I need a friend tonight."
She stared at my hand, then took it. I pulled her and she fell on me and pinned my arms to the bed: gently, hissing soft laughter.
Something was tickling my nose.
I pulled my head away from Tahr's furry side; snorted. She didn't stir. I reached over to touch her, gently, then lay back and idly ran my fingers through the soft fur on her mane, thinking.
Last night had been... good. Bewilderingly strange, but good. I was coming to realise just how much this strange woman meant to me. There'd been none of the fumbling from the first time, more laughing and teasing, biting and careless claws, and this morning there was none of that guilt that had plagued me last time; instead I had a craving for a cigarette.
Outside it was snowing again; fat flakes adhering to the fogged windowpanes like intricate lacework, the clouds looking like lumps of lead against a steel grey background. The air in the room was chill but the bed was as warm as blood.
Tahr stirred against me, rolling over and nestling up against me, still curled up in a small ball. I ran a finger up the top of her broad nose, tracing out the light stripes that pushed over her forehead. She was warm and soft, so was the bed. I dozed for a while.
I opened my eyes when I felt her stir and shift as if to get up.
Tahr blinked down at me. "Oh, I thought you were asleep."
"No." I stretched out and rubbed my eyes then put my arms behind my head and blinked sleepily, "Not really."
She placed splayed fingers on my chest and leaned over to stare down into my face. "Feeling better now?" she asked.
"Much," I smiled back.
"Huh, I too," she grinned at me. "You know some interesting tricks. Last night, it was fun."
"That is the idea."
She shook her head in slow imitation of me. "Fun? So often they climb on and pump away until THEY are satisfied. I have never had a male work to please ME before. I have never been able to look down on the male before, I have never been able to set my own pace. Different. Fun."
"Gee," I scratched my head. "I have been called many things by women, but not usually 'fun'."
Tahr laughed and raked claws lightly down my ribs, then squirmed so she was lying on top of me like a warm, heavy rug. I could feel her breathing, her heartbeat. "You are so strange, my strange one," she murmured, stroking my face. "In your body and your mind and your moods. Your moods, perhaps they are the strangest thing about you. You turn me down so vehemently, then you join with me with such intensity... Why did you change your mind?"
I casually laid my arms around her. Her fur was strange against my naked skin, the tough guard hairs and the softer down-like insulating layers beneath. Warm. Erotic in a way.
"I do not really know," I half-lied.
And Tahr watched me with an amused expression. "Huh," she breathed gently. "That nightmare must have been a bad one."
Lying there with her pinning me I couldn't turn away to avoid her eyes. Instead I stared up past her at the ceiling, the wood and the rafters. "Just say it made me realise what you mean to me. I needed a friend; you were there."
"Just a friend?" she dipped her head and rasped a tongue like wet sandpaper around my nipple, nipping with sharp teeth.
I yelped. "Alright! More than just a friend!"
"Hmmm," she purred.
"You vicious female." I stroked the fur along her spine, lightly tracing the ridges of vertebrae. She gave a stuttering hiss. Ticklish?
"Vicious?" she grinned, carnivore teeth near my face. "Reminds me. You are still interested in using a sword?"
"This afternoon," she said, "I want to do some sparring. I need the practice. You may want to come along to watch. See how it is done."
She laughed down at me and licked my neck and chin. "Do you feel in the mood again? A? Good! This time I am on top!"
It was in the early afternoon, after a remarkably stimulating morning, that I followed Tahr to the exercise hall.
The hall was in the innermost ring of the citadel, the ring just before the central keep. To get to it we had to cross the central courtyard, ankle deep in drifts, the falling snow cutting visibility way down. The ice on the cobbles made footing treacherous... well, treacherous for me anyway; Tahr's claws stopped her feet from going where she didn't want them to. At least my boots kept the cold out. Even the thick pads on Tahr's feet wouldn't be enough to keep out the biting chill; she must have been rather uncomfortable by the time we got across.
In the shelter of a doorway I batted snow off my cloak while Tahr did the same with her fur.
"Jesus. Are winters here usually like this?"
She looked up at the leaden skies. "Not usually. It is rather mild for this time of year."
I followed her up the narrow circular staircase. Sathe coming down stepped aside as we made our way up.
"Mild?!... It must be twenty below out there!"
"Twenty below what?"
Mild! God, we never had it this bad back home, not even during New York winters.
At the top of the stairs a cold stone hallway was flanked by rooms filled with racks and displays of battered armour and weapons. Sathe in the corridor bore arms and armour of various types. I could feel their eyes on my back as we passed. Tahr ignored them.
The size and temperature of the room at the end of the hall took my breath away.
Like the Citadel, it was built on a grand scale. Rectangular in shape, it must have been about the size of a large cathedral, a football field. High around the rim - just below the heavy wooden ceiling - narrow windows let in scattered beams of light. It was rather dim for me, but the Sathe there seemed to be having no trouble. It was also cold, with my breath frosting in the chill air.
Sathe were everywhere: drilling, standing around watching others fighting. The room was echoing to the clashing of metal as soldiers sparred. Others were using wooden swords, much like the ones used in Kendo. Circular mats of woven straw covered the floor and on these hand to hand combat was underway. Unlike human gyms, there was no smell of stale sweat in the air.
"I have to get some equipment," Tahr told me. "You can look around for a while. Just watch at first, see if you learn anything."
"Go ahead," I said to her retreating back.
I wandered around, staying near the wall out of the way of the trainers and trainees. There was a large noisy crowd standing around watching something that I couldn't quite see. Anyway, curiosity got the better of me.
The sathe in the back of the crowd didn't notice me when I came up behind them; they were so absorbed in trying to watch what was going on in front of them. I was able to see over their heads without to much trouble.
A Sathe soldier was warily circling one of the biggest Sathe I have ever seen. He came very close to matching my five-foot eleven, maybe a couple of inches shorter. His build matched his height; muscles along his arms and across his chest rippled under the dark-cream fur.
Their breath was fast, hanging in glittering clouds in the cold air as they circled each other. Fur was standing on end and their ears were flattened back. Each of them had their hands and feet wrapped in strips of cloth, preventing them from using their claws.
The crowd was obviously divided: Some were supporting the rather worried looking soldier, and the rest the giant. The two circled each other on the straw mats... well, the soldier was doing all the circling; the giant just stood there grinning at his opponent.
This continued for about a half a minute before the soldier made his move. He darted in and swung a punch at the giant's head. The giant hardly seemed to move, he swayed back just far enough to avoid the blow and swung his own hand in a blow that sent his opponent staggering back.
The blows had seemed more like slaps: arms swinging wide before striking. I wondered at this before I realised that a Sathe couldn't punch! Think about it. A Sathe has claws in the ends of his fingers, as well as the tendons for retracting and extending them. If a Sathe made a fist and punched something, he would be crushing the tendons and muscles around those claws between the claw and the bones in his hand. Despite the padding, there would be serious chance of the claw punching through the palm of the hand itself. Kind of like clenching your fist with overgrown nails then punching something.
When not fighting in earnest, Sathe usually slapped their opponents. It may not sound like a very dangerous way to fight - pretty pathetic in fact - but I know from experience that a good hit could still rattle your brains; and if the claws were drawn, it could easily be lethal.
The soldier had gathered his wits about him again and was once again trying to commit grievous bodily damage to his opponent.
"Hah! come on, little one. You are having some trouble?" the giant goaded.
The crowed cheered and jeered him on.
The soldier mustered his courage and moved in again. The giant blocked his blow and the returning one sent him spinning to the mat where he stayed for the count.
The crowd burst into excited chatter. Cash changed hands amidst cries of triumph and curses of disappointment.
"Anyone else feel like trying their luck?" the giant grinned.
I wondered if some idiot was going to volunteer.
"Huh, Thraest!" called some smartass in the crowd, "Why don't you try THAT one?" I felt eyes start to turn in my direction and others took up the cry. Uh-uh, I began to back away but the crowd closed in behind me and a corridor opened up, clearing the way between the overgrown rug and myself.
Thraest swaggered across to me, weighing me up with his eyes all the way. He stopped and deliberately grinned again. I tell you, a Sathe who can actually look you straight in the eyes and give you a smile like he'd like to have you for dinner don't inspire confidence.
"Can you understand me?" he asked.
"Yes," I nodded cautiously.
There was a slight murmuring around us but he did not seem very perturbed. He slowly looked me up and down. "So, do you have a name?"
"K'hy." He wrinkled his muzzle like he didn't like the taste. "All right, K'hy, I am Thraest."
"Get on with it!" someone yelled.
Thraest turned and snarled at the crowd. The front ranks shrank back a pace or so. The giant rumbled in his throat, then spoke to me again, "Are you a good fighter?"
I shrugged: "I can usually hold my own."
"Ah, modest," his scarred ears twitched slightly. "Would you be interested in placing a wager on a match between the two of us? Just a friendly match."
I looked pointedly over at his previous opponent, who was being carried off. A few spectators in the back rows egged me on. "And what would the wager be?" I asked. "I have no coin."
Again his ears flicked. "Well, I suppose a bet is not necessary. I have not had a decent sparring partner for some time. And it could be an interesting match, that is if you are not afraid... and I will not use my claws," he added with a glance at my hands.
Goading me. He was the king of the heap and I was a new kid on the block who needed to be put in his place. It didn't matter that I really had no interest in their pecking order; I was bigger than he was and therefore a potential threat.
One of his fingers was stroking the tooled leather of a padded glove.
"Very well," I nodded slowly.
The crowd cheered its approval.
And that little voice inside said You're gonna be sorreee...
We moved onto the mat and there was a brief burst of chatter as bets were placed. The crowd was growing quite rapidly, more Sathe converging on the crowd.
"What are the rules?" I asked.
"That is it?"
"That is it," he grinned and the gloves creaked as he flexed his hands.
My heart hammered as we each moved to opposite sides of the mat, dropped into defensive crouches. The mat crackled and rustled under our feet as we circled.
Thraest darted forward, fast, and swung: a wide, sweeping blow that I dodged without too much effort, but only just managed to avoid his other shot: faster and closer. Then he danced back, out of reach.
He's faster, maybe stronger, used to this. I've got the reach, the stamina, and this is MY kind of fighting.
I ducked forward and feinted with my left hand, a wide swing mimicking the Sathe technique, while my right jabbed up, nailed Thraest in the gut.
It was like punching a tree. I nearly broke my goddamned knuckles. Still, his breath deserted him with a 'whuff' and he staggered back a few steps.
He recovered quickly and managed to block the hook I threw at his head, stepping inside the blow. Before I knew it, we were grappling. Thraest had the edge on me in arm strength, but his grip was surprisingly weak. We swayed back and forth for a few seconds before he hooked his foot behind my leg and shoved me over backwards.
Reflex made me keep my grip on his arm - pulling it over my head as I fell - and plant a foot in his stomach. He flew over me and hit the mat with a loud thud and exhalation of air. Some of the crowd cheered.
He was up again, shaking his head to clear it, and came at me. No style this time, just brute force and a flurry of blows. I went into the classic boxing stance and managed to block and dodge most of them, but the ones that got through left me with a split lip and spinning head. I staggered back a couple of steps with blood running down my chin. Then, as he followed, I punched him hard, a straight right jab to the nose.
Thraest yowled, hands flying up to his face as he reeled back. When he lowered them blood was pouring in a steady flow from his nostrils. I followed that blow by pivoting on my left heel and bringing my right boot around into his ribs: hard, staggering him again.
And the crowd was going wild! Blood drawn on both sides.
He was mad now, his muzzle wrinkled back in a blood-bespattered snarl. A thread of glistening saliva snapped into droplets as he shook his head. Then he crouched, yowled and rushed me.
I brought my boot up; hard under his chin and practically flipped him over onto his back.
Sweat trickled down my face. Breathing hard, I backed off and wiped my face. He was down for the...
He rolled onto all fours, worked his jaw, then clambered to his feet.
He wants MORE ?!
Again he came at me and again I took a couple to the head. By that time neither of us were steady on our feet and the room seemed to be waltzing up and down. I shook my head and managed to dodge a foot aimed at my groin. He caught me off balance; charging in again and grappling, bearing me over backwards. I tried to throw him again but he twisted and I hit the mat hard and he landed on top of me, a blood-smeared puma face baring teeth at me. A glove smashed into the side of my head and redness swam acoss my vision. Desperately I tried to push him off. Christ! he weighed a ton! His foot came up and raked down my leg and there weren't any gloves on his toe claws. I cried out, my hand fumbled through coarse fur and locked around his throat. I squeezed.
He was raising his arm for another strike when I got his neck. He jerked away. Perhaps that might have broken a Sathe's grip on his throat, but my grip's a lot stronger than a Sathe's. I held on while his eyes widened, then he gagged and tried to pull away again. I squeezed harder, my own face aching from the savage grin plastered across it.
He was making choking noises. His gloves pawed at my face and arms, trying to claw, his mouth hung open, his tongue curling as he made faint hacking noises. I held on, held on even when pale membranes began to cover his eyes. Then he went limp and heavy.
I was panting hard enough for both of us. I pushed him aside and he fell to the mat, suddenly sucking air in huge, gulping lungfuls. I wobbled to my feet and stood over him, fist raised, waiting.
It wasn't necessary: this time he wasn't getting up again.
I don't know who was more surprised; me or the spectators. I released him and just stood there while a ragged cheer went up and my supporters started collecting their bets. Quite a few seemed to have put their money on me. Suddenly my legs refused to hold me up any more and I found myself sitting on the coarse matting while my brains tried to unscramble themselves. Damnation; I can't see how anyone could get any enjoyment out of boxing. The scratches on my leg were oozing thick blood, matting into the hairs. Shit.
At least Thraest was still alive. He'd rolled over and was lying on his back gasping for breath. The blood leaking from his nostril bubbled in time with his breathing. I touched my own lip and looked at the smear of red on my hand then back over to the fallen Sathe giant. His head lolled around and he squinted at me through the swelling around his eyes. For a time he just stared at me, then - ignoring the Sathe gathered around - hauled himself across the couple of metres separating us to sit beside me. "So," he began, then coughed and rubbed his throat, "you do bleed."
"What did you think I would do?" I retorted, rubbing my jaw. "Leak sawdust?"
He blinked, then - slowly - his ears dipped in a smile. "Saaa! But it was a good fight. How can you hold on like that?"
I held up my hand, rotating it. "Put together differently."
He stared at my hand also, his muzzle twitching, then asked, "Where did you learn those tricks?"
"Part of my job."
"What was that?"
"Same as you: a warrior."
He lifted his hand, then dropped it to the mat again. "I did not know there are more like you. Where are they?"
"Long way from here," was all I said as I climbed to my feet.
"Ah," He reached up to wipe the blood from his nose. "You know, we should try again some time. I might have better luck."
Now he knew how I fought? Shit, he'd probably wipe the floor with me. I shrugged and said, "I shall see."
When I found Tahr, she was already busy; sparring with a young Sathe male decked out in purple lacquered leather leg, arm, and chest armour. They were both damn good.
The blades of the wooden swords they were wielding were hardly visible. Held in a two-handed grip, the laminated blades slashed and parried at an incredible speed, meeting with abrupt smacks of wood on wood, but always under control.
I slumped down on a convenient bench, and dabbed at my split lip, watching them for half an hour as they danced around each other. They would face off, eyes locked in concentration, raise the blade in a salute, then blur forward to meet in the centre of the mat. Maybe thirty seconds at most and a blade would make contact. I'd always thought they aimed at the heart or something; you know, those movies where the hero would swing in on a chandelier and dispach the villian with a thrust through the heart. The Sathe weren't playing that game: they were aiming for the arms, the wrists, legs, a stomach if there was an opening. Just a tap and they would fall back, salute, start over. For an hour they kept this ritual going until they started slowing and making obvious mistakes. They both seemed to come to a tacit agreement to call it a day. Tahr looked around and came over to me, working at the ties on her cuirass. She stopped cold when she got a goot look at my face.
"K'hy... By my mother's tits! what happened to you?!"
"I got into a bit of a... competition," I slurred, thanks to my battered mouth.
She looked exasperated. "Can I not leave you alone for a few minutes without you getting into trouble?"
"Sorry," I mumbled: chagrined.
Tahr stared down at me, her wooden scimitar swinging idly in her hands. "Well... who won?"
"Really?" she affected surprise. "If you won, I would hate to see what the loser looks like. Who was it anyway?"
"Some arrogant asshole called Thraest. Not such a bad guy after you beat the stuffing out of him."
Tahr turned to the Sathe she had been sparring with, standing a discreet distance behind her: "Who is this Thraest?"
"Thraest? Ma'am, he is captain of the guard in the northern quarters, also the biggest Sathe and ego in the Eastern Realm." His muzzle wrinkled in a grin, "Huh, I would have paid to see him finally have his ears clipped. High One, this is the individual I have been hearing about?"
"I do not know what you have been hearing, but his name is K'hy... K'hy, this is H'rrasch."
I stood and bowed slightly to him. He looked surprised and hesitantly returned the gesture.
"K'hy, bowing is not necessary. He is simply a warrior," Tahr sighed, raking claws through her mane. "Why did you choose a fight?"
"I did not have much of a choice."
Her ears began to lay back: "Explain."
"Well, he challenged me and I could not back down from that."
She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. "Too proud to back away from a fight? Let me guess: he suggested you were afraid."
"Well what would you have done?" I retorted. "I can not imagine you walking away from a fight. And as for pride, I have been dragged all around the countryside while you passed me off for a pet. I have been attacked, tortured, and generally walked over. I think I have the right to try and salvage a little self respect."
She blinked, her ears drooping slightly, then batted me softly on the side of the face. "Yes, I suppose you do. Come on, it is time we started back."
I waited with that trooper - H'rrasch - near the stairs while Tahr returned her weapon and padding to the nearby armoury. The young male was wrapped in an awkward silence, unsure of my status.
"Was that a good work out?" I asked him, trying to break the ice.
It didn't translate. He looked up at me: surprised, almost scared: "Work out?"
"I mean the practice; did it go well?"
"Oh, ah... yes. Yes, very well. A good challenge."
"Tahr is good with a sword?"
"I... I have seen much worse," he said, flicking ears back. Then he asked, "How long have you known her?"
"Tahr?" God, how long has it been. "I think about three quarters of a year, I am not entirely sure... Why do you ask?"
He made an absent gesture with one hand. "Huh, never before have I heard anyone speak to a Candidate in such a... casual manner."
"I guess I have never really thought of her as a candidate," I replied. "In fact I only recently found out that she was the Shirai's daughter."
"Why did she not tell you before?"
I gave a small laugh. "I never asked."
He didn't have time to answer, Tahr appeared through a door beside us. She noticed our abrupt silence.
"Anything I might have missed?" she asked.
"Uh, no ma'am," H'rrasch hastily replied.
I was sore and aching when I got back to my dark and cold room. It was still early - about 8:00 pm - and I didn't feel like turning in yet. The day's activities had left me drenched in sweat. It didn't bother me too much, but a Sathe would really have something to turn his nose up at.
Without television, radio, or books, the bath was one way to pass the cold winter days. The warmth of the water warmed the air and my bones, loosening the muscles. The tiny windows kept the room dark, so I could stretch out on one of the submerged benches and just doze; listening to the gurgling of the water.
I barely opened my eyes when the door opened, admitting a dim patch of light from the corridor and a trio of Sathe. I didn't expect them to stay at the sight of me, but to my surprise they stripped off and slipped into the steaming water on the other side of the pool.
They chatted amongst themselves and I listened to the low, sibilant sounds of their voices without really listening to what they were saying. I felt a strange, warm glow that had nothing to do with the temperature of the water: they were beginning to accept me.
The fire in the hearth in the Great Hall blazed fiercely, logs that were not completely dry sputtering and popping as the flames licked up around them. The fireplace itself was about three metres long, and the heat it gave off warmed a large arc of the big room.
Overhead, coloured banners hung from wooden rafters. Swords and crossbows of various types hung from the stone walls, interspaced with oil lamps every several metres.
I lounged in a chair in front of the fire. Despite the heat coming from the fireplace, it was still cool in the room, and I was wrapped in my cloak, not paying to much attention to the goings on around me.
This Great Hall was the social centre for the inhabitants of the inner keep. Sathe of all walks of life, male and female, sat or stood; drinking, talking, laughing. Games were also popular; I saw what looked like a variation of checkers being played by a pair off in a corner. Elsewhere a group of pre-adolescent cubs were kicking a small leather sack around, and bets were being placed on a pair of females who were arm wrestling.
Things near the fire were a bit quieter. A troubadour had a small audience gathered around her, the flickering orange light on their fur turning the scene into something surreal. The instrument that she was playing was a lot like the one I had seen being played in The Reptile all those weeks ago.
The bulky instrument had a very deep, mellow sound that the troubadour used to a good effect in her songs. The music was strange to me, even though I'd had time to grow accustomed to it, I was used to the fast paced music of home. Sathe music is slow and flowing, the sounds blend into one another. Once you get used to the weird pitch, it's beautiful in its own way.
The songs she sung were heavy with dialect, but comprehensible; songs of ancient leaders and heroes and wars. Nothing like modern human music. I wish that this journal could bring across some measure of this music, but translated... I feel it would mean very little. In Sathe they have ryhme and metre; in English, they'd be awkward, nonsensical.
Yet in reality, it was something I enjoyed listening to. I still do.
The deep notes put forth by the pseudo-lute were something you could lose yourself in. I dozed, lulled by the flowing notes; somehow they reminded me of water, drippping in a forest after heavy rain, waves on a lake shore...
I guess I was almost asleep when a tug on my sleeve jolted me awake. "Huh?" I looked around, then down into a pair of green eyes.
"Why do you look so funny?" the tiny Sathe cub asked, his claws still snagged in my sleeve. He twisted his hands to untangle them, then he discovered my watch and started poking at the liquid crystal display behind the glass. I stared, not quite sure what to do.
"Hfay! Stop that!" A young female cub had appeared from between a couple of tables and was making a beeline for the small ball of fluff who immediately abandoned my watch and ducked behind my chair, squealing. The girl stopped a few metres away from me, obviously worried.
"I am most sorry, High One. He did not mean to disturb you. I swear it will not happen again," she said, her hands fidgiting nervously.
"It is all right. He is not causing any problems." At the moment, the object of our discussion had found how different my fingers were and was trying to find out what ways they bent. "Is he your brother?"
"N... No High One, I just look after him."
"Hey, do not be afraid of me," I said. "I do not bite. Promise."
Hfay clambered into my lap. "Tell me a story," he demanded.
Fifteen minutes later I had a small group of Sathe sitting in a circle around me. Almost all of them were cubs, but there were a couple of adults including the troubadour listening attentively as well. I was not sure how well ghost or horror stories would go down. Sathe do not have religion or believe in a afterlife, and I did not want to risk scaring the cubs. I shouldn't really have worried about that.
"... and so the crow opened her beak and let out a terrible screech. The cheese that she had held in her beak dropped down to the waiting fox who grabbed and swallowed it."
"That is boring," piped up a tan cub with black stripes. Various sounds of agreement rose from the small group.
Well, not everyone would like Aesop's fables. I sighed and looked across at the troubadour where she sat, ears flickering in amusement. "Any suggestions?" I asked.
"Interesting," she smiled. "Stories about talking animals, bearing a lesson. I must remember those... but I think they would like something a little more lively, with some action and excitement in it. A tale of a great hero perhaps? Do you know anything like that?"
Something more lively... a great hero, Okay. I spent a few seconds gathering my thoughts.
"In a land unimaginably far from here, a mighty warrior returned from a war in another distant land. A war in which he had given up his sanity for his homeland. The horrors he had seen in this war, the misery he had endured, the comrades he had seen fight so valiantly then be betrayed by his masters. It was because of this, it was because this was all he knew, that his mind had been twisted. He walked on the thin, razor edge of madness, unable to return to a peaceful life.
"The name of this warrior was Rambo..."
Hell, they loved it.
The heavy black oak door swung to behind me with a muffled moan of protesting hinges.
My quarters were cold and dark, the flames in the hearth having died to a small pile of glowing embers. I sighed, wished for an electric heater, then set down to the task of rekindling the fire.
So few places back home still have fireplaces and those who do seem to think they're a charming anachronism, quaint and pleasant, a luxury. I can tell you that when they're your only source of heat they aren't so pleasant. You can't just say, I don't feel like lighting the blasted thing tonight' and turn on a radiator. You light the thing or freeze.
I stuck another twig into the growing fire and wondered how many fireplaces there were in the Citadel. Pity the miserable sod who had the task of cleaning the chimneys.
When the small pile was blazing, I tossed on a back log and got myself a goblet of bittersweet wine. I had been telling rehashed human stories for the past two hours and my mouth was raw. Astonished how well mindless crap like Rambo went down. There's definitely a market for action adventure amongst the young, no matter what their race, creed, colour, or species. And the astonished look on the troubadour's face when I got going... that's something I'm going to remember for a long time. I'll have to try Star Wars on her some time.
Sitting on the desk, sipping from the pewter receptacle, I stared absently out the window. The myriad diamond-shaped glass panes that made up the window were acting like hundreds of tiny mirrors; in each of them I could see myself outlined in the dancing firelight, the stars showing faintly through the dopplegangers.
A scratching at the door disturbed my thoughts like a stone tossed into a still pond and I started, spilling dark droplets of wine.
"K'hy?" called a voice; muffled through the door.
"It's open," I called. "Come in."
The young Shirai did so, letting the door close behind her. A large Sathe armchair made of interwoven leather straps and wood had been moved into my chambers and she flopped down in it: heavily.
"Hiya, Tahr. What is up?"
"Figure of speech. I meant: what is happening?"
"Oh," she waved a hand vaguely. "There are matters of state to attend to... and my father."
"Ah." I looked at the slender goblet. It offered no revelations so I drained it. "Would you like some?" I offered.
She waved a No.
"So, how is he? Any change?"
Again she waved her hand vaguely then let it drop back onto the carved arm of the chair. "Yes, but not for the better I fear."
I was quiet for a second, shifting nervously. "I am sorry."
She was quiet as well, there was something on her mind. "I... I do have something to tell you K'hy. You know that the Challenge will be tomorrow?"
I looked at the date on my watch; the 20th of December, the winter solstice would be on the evening of the 21st. Tomorrow.
"Uh, yeah! I had lost track of the time. So?"
She waved her hand, palm down. "I do not think you know what is going to happen. I have not told you everything."
An alarm went off inside me.
"K'hy, we fight for the position of Born Ruler."
"What do you mean 'fight'?" It sounded like a stupid question... Hell, it was, but she took it in her stride.
"Tomorrow night, at midnight, the candidates go to the Circle and there they fight. They fight two at a time, the victor of one battle, fighting the victor of another. Do you understand?"
I nodded, the message still seeping in. Elimination rounds. God, it sounded like the ancient Roman Circus Maximus. "To the death?"
Now she hesitated, scratched at that strange little furred web between her fingers with a clawtip. "That... It depends upon the Sathe fighting," she finally replied. "Sometimes in the madness of battle they can kill... Or after. It is up to the victor to decide."
One corner of her mouth twitched in a blatant imitation of my grin: a flash of white teeth. "Saaa! There have been no deaths for a long time now. However..."
The artificial smile stayed, like an actor's mask, hiding what was really beneath. "We live in interesting times. Things can happen, change."
"You think they would go as far as to kill you?"
"Huh!" She delicately scratched her muzzle with a claw tip. "I cannot say for certain what may happen. There is a great deal at stake: Power, an entire Realm, and you."
"Yes." She hugged herself, as if suddenly cold, one hand rubbing at the opposite arm. "K'hy, understand this: whoever controls the Eastern Realm also controls you and your knowledge."
"You as well?"
"Saaa! K'hy, I would do anything for you! But I also love my people. I want to work WITH you, to help you as you help us, but there are others who will use you as a means to an end. No offence intended, K'hy, but to many Sathe you are an..."
"... ugly misfit," I finished glumly. "None taken."
I sighed heavily and got up from the desk to lean against the window sill. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the window for a second. Goddamn, where had I lost control? There were things going on that I had no control - no knowledge - of. Here I was being bandied about like a prize at a county fair and my closest friend and lover was telling me she may die the next day!
"Shit! Damnation!" On my feet, I went over to lean spread-eagle against the window frame, swearing impotently at nothing. "Why the hell do you have to do this?"
From behind me she said, "Because I was born to do this. All of my life I have trained and been taught to do this one thing. For eighteen years. Now the time is here, and I must go.
"I have talked to Rehr. He has promised that if anything should happen to me, he will try to ensure sure that you are well treated. That is all he can do."
I turned to face her again. "Tahr, if you died I..." I began, then trailed off.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing," I shook my head. Oh, Jeeze! If she died...
"K'hy. If I should..." now she stopped and studied me for a few second. "I really cannot ask you to promise anything, can I."
Again I shook my head. "You are the only real friend I have here." In response to her look of surprise I explained: "I do not get out much - for some reason people seem to avoid me."
The feeble joke did little to ease the tension.
"Your weapons..." I started to say.
Now she shook her head in a mimic of my gesture. "We must use the weapons of tradition: Swords, our claws, our teeth; no more. To use your weapon is out of the question."
"Oh," I said, my hopes deflated, then almost angrily demanded, "Why did you not tell me earlier?"
She hunched forward. "I did not want you to worry," she said.
"You did not want me to... Oh God," I knelt down beside the chair and leaned my head against her furry shoulder. "You should have told me, Tahr. You should have told me."
Midnight. The moon had reached its apex.
In the Circle - the very heart of the Citadel - a procession of nearly fifty Sathe and one human made its way across frozen snow toward the ring of ancient monoliths. The sky was clear, the moon casting a cold light on the snow covered ground, giving everything a distinct shadow against the white background. The warm circles of light cast by torches the Sathe bore were lost in the vastness of the court.
I followed close behind Tahr as she padded through the whiteness. A path had been cleared through the deeper drifts, but still a crust of ice covered the ground. I pulled my cloak a bit tighter as a gust of wind whipped powder snow from a nearby drift and swirled it around us in a chill flurry.
Not that it bothered Sathe. Pelts fluffed out like fur coats while flakes speckled them with white. Cloaks were dark colors - blood red, night-sky blue, earth brown, kelly green - that the strange mixture of moon and torchlight turned into shades of black. The four Candidates wore only a pleated leather kilt, a cloak, and carried their swords. Tahr was bearing the sword that she had worn when meeting the other Candidates for the first time; the one with the dark stone inlaid in silver set into the pommel. A heirloom of the Shirai Clan I had learned. Handed down from generation to generation. Tahr didn't know how old it was.
They were all there, stalking across the windlown drifts: Tahr, R'rrhaesh, Schai, and Eaher. Ready - although perhaps not willing - to kill each other.
The circle was eerie in the moonlight. Towering above the procession, the great, black monoliths cast short, black shadows as dark and chill as the ocean depths. In the very centre of the Circle an oval area had been cleared of snow. The generations-old remains of collapsed dwellings lying silent and shrouded in cold whiteness made a labyrinth of blue-white windswept mounds and icy gullies.
The column had split up and Sathe were moving around the edges of the cleared area, pushing the bases of their torches into the frost-tempered ground around the perimeter of the arena, then left to take their places on the earth ramparts inside the standing stones, brushing the snow away before sitting down: like spectators taking their places at a football game. And like those spectators there were polarized groups, followers and hangers-on to the Candidates.
She didn't look at me. Her voice strange, undertones of something not human. "Go. Sit down."
Nothing more to say. I opened and closed my mouth, then left her. Alone, I found my own seat.
The figures in the centre were quite visible in the moon and torchlight against the white ground. I could now see that the unknown individual in the centre was wearing red armour beneath his dark robes: Rehr. He lectured the four Candidates at length, then departed the arena.
The Candidates paired off: Tahr with Eaher, Schai with R'rrhaesh. I guess it was just luck of the draw, who got who. There were no speeches or announcements, they just moved to opposite ends of the oval arena and drew their swords.
For a few seconds each pair just faced each other. I could see their breath condensing and drifting away in small clouds. The torchlight sent rippling highlights of orange running up and down the naked steel of the swords.
R'rrhaesh was the first to move, blurring his sword around in a two-handed arc that ending in a ringing clang on Schai's blade as he parried, then thrust in return.
As soon as R'rrhaesh's sword met Schai's, Tahr moved. She swung her scimitar in a slash to Eaher's side. Eaher blocked - with a blindingly swift move - twisting Tahr's blade vertical and sending it flicking harmlessly away.
There in that cold, snowswept arena, four intelligent beings fought each other for control of their land. I felt so out of place there; isolated, sitting there at on that white-shrouded embankment watching them fight while all around me Sathe sat silently huddling in their dark cloaks, watching the spectacle taking place before them.
The two battles being fought down in the arena among the remains of the first Sathe settlement seemed to drag on forever; thrust, parry, riposte. However it was only about fifteen seconds before first blood was drawn.
Schai was pressing his attack on R'rrhaesh who was defending well, but not quite well enough. A sword thrust darted through R'rrhaesh's defence and was in and out of his arm before he could respond. He backed off a short distance and glanced at the blood welling from the gash and soaking into his fur, then was instantly on the defensive again.
However, he was not reacting with the same speed and strength he had been, and continually retreated before Schai's onslaught. The contest became a foregone conclusion.
R'rrhaesh did his best, but as he moved backward, he lost his footing on something buried beneath the snow; a stone or something. It didn't really matter what it was, for as he stumbled, Schai took advantage of the moment and caught R'rrhaesh with a solid slash across the thigh that his leather kilt couldn't turn. R'rrhaesh collapsed backwards into the snow as his leg gave way beneath him, his sword spinning out of reach.
R'rrhaesh lay there spread-eagle, totally helpless, with blood oozing from his arm and through the hole that had been slashed in his kilt. I could see him lay his head back and close his eyes, knowing he'd lost.
I don't know what I was expecting. Tahr had said it could be a fight to the death, but since Schai had obviously won, I thought he would let R'rrhaesh surrender. I don't think anybody expected what came next.
R'rrhaesh opened his eyes in time to see the final stroke coming, in time to start a scream, not in time to avoid it. Schai's scimitar took him through the exposed throat, pinning him to the ground like a butterfly on a board. Even from fifty metres away I could hear R'rrhaesh's cry cut off abruptly and see the snow start to turn pink beneath him as he briefly thrashed about.
"Jesus Christ." My face twisted in shock.
Down in the arena Tahr and Eaher still battled. Schai pulled his sword from the now-still form of R'rrhaesh lying like a discarded marionette on the frozen ground. Calmly, methodically, he proceeded to wipe the blade clean on the corpse's fur. There was a disturbed stirring among the spectators, but besides that: nothing.
Tahr and Eaher seemed to be evenly matched and after their initial flurry of blows, were concentrating on strategy: a war of attrition. They circled each other warily, probing for weak spots, defending themselves.
Eaher abruptly turned to the offensive, stepping in with a lunge at Tahr's shoulder, sword at arm's length. That was the opening that Tahr needed. She avoided the swing, stepped inside a return cut, and grabbed Eaher's arm and pushed it. A foot behind Eaher's leg was all that was needed to make her sit down heavily.
Before Eaher could move to get up, she found herself staring at the blade of a scimitar poised just centimetres from her neck. She dropped her sword and tilted her head back in a gesture of submission.
That tableau held for a few seconds: Eaher sitting on the ground staring up at Tahr. Tahr standing with her ears laid back against her skull and her sword at Eaher's throat. Then Tahr said something, lowered her sword, and arrogantly stalked from the arena with scarcely a drop of blood being shed.
Eaher shakily got to her feet and looked around. Besides her, the only other occupant of the arena was the cold corpse of R'rrhaesh staring at the sky. She picked her sword up from the snow, shook it and wiped it clean. Then she slipped it back into the sheath and without looking about walked from the oval of light cast by the torches.
R'rrhaesh's body lay there until four Sathe came out to carry it away. There was no coffin or stretcher, they just lifted it between them and carted it off into the darkness. A single small figure trailed after them. His bodyguard.
I was cold all the way through, both from the snow that had melted from my body heat and from what I had seen. I hugged my knees to my chest and buried my head in my arms. I thought I had become immunized to death to a certain extent, but what I had seen here... killing an opponent who had surrendered, in cold blood... in front of an AUDIENCE for Christ's sake!
I almost missed the beginning of the final round. I lifted my head when the muttering from the crowd died down in time to see the two finalists walk into the arena; Tahr from the right and Schai from the left. Again they started without preliminaries.
They both fought ferociously: twisting and turning, thrusting and parrying, using all the tricks that they could think of or had been taught: Kicking ice at the other's face, tripping, slashing with claws, yowling abruptly to distract the opponent. Not a model display of sportsmanship.
Despite my reactions at seeing what had happened to R'rrhaesh, I found myself mesmerised by the two Sathe combatants, by their blurring swords. Reflected firelight flashed as they fought and an occasional spark jumped as the scimitars clashed.
However they were both tiring rapidly, starting to make mistakes, slowing down. Tahr had blocked Schai's blade so that it glanced off her scimitar, but she misjudged what he would do next.
A quick reversal by Schai sent his sword blade slamming into Tahr's. Not her blade, her fingers.
I could hear her scream and see the trampled snow become stippled with dark spots. Tahr lurched back until she was almost at the edge of the arena, her left hand clenched into a fist and tucked under her right arm. She still held her sword, but limply clutched in her right hand.
Schai came on remorselessly, and from the way he renewed his attack on her I could see that he wouldn't be satisfied until Tahr ended up like R'rrhaesh, and there was fuck all I could do about it.
Tahr continued retreating before Schai, leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind her and starting to stagger. She almost lost her sword as she desperately tried to block another blow, but instead of stepping back, she surprised Schai by jumping straight at him.
Schai was still in his follow through and wide open when Tahr came at him, abandoning her sword and attacking him with her bare hands. With her wound forgotten, she cannoned into him, knocking him over backwards with her on top. They struggled frantically in the snow as they fought for their lives. I could hear their snarls and yowls; it sounded like a catfight. Suddenly Schai exerted himself and rolled over on top of Tahr, pinning her arms with his body and struggling to reach for her throat with claws extruded.
He would have killed her but for the fact that he had his face too close to her's.
"..., our teeth and our claws,"
I watched, wide-eyed, as Schai thrashed about in the snow, reflexes from limbs that did not yet know they were dead. Blood pumped from the gaping wound in his neck where Tahr had torn his throat out with her teeth.
She dragged herself out from under his still-twitching body and stood. For a few seconds she wavered back and forth, then collapsed face first over the not-quite-dead Sathe beneath her.
The snow slowed me down, made me stumble and fall face-first, filling my shirt with ice before I reached the two bodies in the arena split seconds ahead of the Sathe.
I rolled Tahr over.
The blood that drenched her was a gory conglomerate of her own and Schai's. She was still breathing, but faintly, her body wracked by tremors. The last two fingers on her left hand were hanging from the palm by flaps of skin while blood pulsed from the stumps, staining the snow with crimson blotches. My belt made a satisfactory tourniquet around her arm, but I felt queasy as I tightened it. I needed a pressure bandage...
"Dammit Tahr. Come on, don't you dare die on me..." I wasn't aware I was muttering in English until Rehr put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me aside to let a Sathe physician crouch beside her.
"You," the physician pointed out two of the surrounding Sathe, "take her to her quarters."
The two he had told to carry her moved to pick her up; one grabbing her feet and the other her shoulders.
"Fuck it!" I screamed. "Get away from her!" They were so startled, they almost dropped her. I scooped her up in my arms and pushed my way through they crowd toward the gateway. I could feel the blood seeping through my shirt: cold and sticky.
The morning sun was just starting to shine over the wild hills on the far side of The Narrows and in through the windows of Tahr's room.
She lay on the bed, her bandaged hand resting on the sheet that covered her. The worst of the blood had been washed off, leaving enough to make her look out of place among the clean sheets. From the time we'd brought her in she'd laid in shock, slipping in and out of consciousness.
The physician they called had had to remove the two fingers, there was absolutely nothing we could do to save them. All I was able to do was to put antiseptic on the remaining stumps and stand by with the morphine in case it was needed. Afterwards I sat and kept an eye on her as the night passed.
Morning found her with a fever and delirious. She muttered and moaned in her sleep, her skin, her nose, had grown hot to the touch. Through the night she was panting and thrashing in her sleep, sometimes screaming out. The several times I heard Tarsha's name I tried to calm her with cool cloths and water.
Rehr returned the following morning, fifty hours after the duel. Fifty hours without sleep. It was the advisior who ordered me to go and get some rest. "You will be told if she wakes. Now get out of here. Go on, before you collapse!"
I wearily acquiesced and stumbled back to my room, almost knocking over one of the guards who had been posted outside Tahr's room. In my quarters I fumbled with the buttons of my shirt, but in the end I couldn't be bothered. I just fell onto the bed, pulled a sheet up, and was asleep.
I awoke to sickly light outside. Dawn? My watch told me that it was 19:32. Shit! I'd slept most of the day away! Pausing only to grab an apple and a mouthful of water, I double-timed it back to Tahr's room, pushing past the guards at the door.
The doctor was carefully packing a bundle of herbs away into a small bag as I barged in. He looked up and jumped. "Rot! What is that?!"
I ignored that. "How is she?"
He swallowed and said in a small voice, "What?"
"What word did you not understand," I growled. "How is she?"
"Ah... well, the fever has passed, but she is still very weak. What ARE you?"
"Is there anything else you can do?"
He stared, then waved a 'no'. "I have done all I can, and I have other patients to attend to. I... ah... I will be back later." He picked up the bag and sidled past me out of the room, keeping an eye on me until he was out of the room.
I went over to the side of the low bed and looked down at Tahr as she slept. Someone had cleaned her up; the clotted blood had gone and her mane and fur had been combed out. The bandages on her left hand had been changed for clean ones. They were doing their best, but I would have traded my soul for a real hospital with proper equipment. I knelt down and touched her mane where it pushed over the crown of her head between her pointed ears, then moved my hand down to the damp leather of her nose; she did feel cooler.
"You'll be fine."
I gave her fur a final stroke while wishing I could feel as certain as I sounded, then got up and walked around to the window, where I leaned against the sill and watched her; she didn't even twitch.
Outside the window, an icicle had stretched down from a stone that stuck out from the wall above it. It acted like a prism on the setting sunlight striking it, refracting the light in much the same way as a crystal would. Moving pinpoints of light were formed by water running down the side of the icicle, dangling from the end, and either freezing solid or being blown away by a gust of wind.
Hours passed, the icicle growing as the sun vanished. Attendants scurried about the room lighting lamps and candles. I watched the darkness spreading. A soft flurry of snow damped any lights in Mainport.
I almost tripped over my feet turning. Tahr was watching me through half-closed eyes.
"God, you had us worried. How are you feeling?" I sat down on the side of the bed.
She closed her eyes before answering. "Alright I think..." Her eyes snapped open and she tried to sit up. "My hand!"
"Steady... lie back." I gently forced her back down on the bed. "I will get you a drink." I patted her shoulder then ducked out to the other room and poured a mug of water from the jug there, at the same time telling one of the guards outside her door to inform Rehr that Tahr was awake. When I got back, Tahr was resting her bandaged hand on the sheets covering her chest, her other hand was gently caressing it.
"I have lost them, have I not." It was not really a question.
I sat down on the bed again. "Yes, I am afraid you have... but it could have been worse. Here, try this... slowly." I propped her up as she sipped at the water and set the mug aside when she said she'd had enough.
When she spoke again, her question was strange: "Why did Schai spare me?"
"Why did Schai not kill me? I was... it would have been to easy," she seemed to sag as she said this; difficult when you're lying down. Before I could answer, the bedroom door opened and Rehr walked in, slowly and cautiously, carrying a small satchel and closely followed by the physician. I got up and went to lean against the window sill.
"Shirai," Rehr bowed respectfully.
"Rehr, what is going on? Is this some kind of joke?" Tahr demanded, struggling up on her elbows looking distressed and confused.
Rehr was startled at this. "Excuse me, High One?"
"Tahr," I interrupted gently, "You won. You now rule the Eastern Realm... You won."
She sank back and looked from Rehr to me, the doctor lurked in the background and kept his mouth shut. "I won?" she whispered. I nodded. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them to stare at the ceiling. "I do not remember... How?"
Rehr told her.
Having seen it once already, I didn't need reminding. I stared out the window while Rehr spoke and tried not to listen.
When he finished, there was a silence, broken when the doctor asked to examine her.
"There is no need; I feel fine," she protested, not very wholeheartedly. I wondered just how much use it would be having this sawbones examining her, then realised that while he may not know much about the finer points of medicine, he could at least recognise what were good and bad signs in a Sathe. More than I could do.
He took her pulse then her temperature, touching her nose and holding his hand there for a second. She shifted uncomfortably. Unwrapping the bandages on Tahr's hand, he examined the stumps where she had lost the fingers. Tahr stared in horified fascination, then looked away. Living meat, clotted blood and bone. I felt queezy myself. Tahr grimaced when the surgeon rubbed a oily looking salve on them.
"She will be alright," he diagnosed. "Give her rest and a lot of liquid to make up for the blood she lost. She should not do anything too active for the next week or so." So saying he dropped his little jar of ointment into a bag. "I will check on you from time to time," he said as he left.
"Is there something you wanted, Rehr?" Tahr asked after the physician had gone.
"There were a couple of matters of state that I wished to discuss," he replied. "There are the matter of the Succession Honours."
"Rehr, I am tired. I do not think that I would be able to make the best decisions at the moment. Is it so urgent that it cannot wait until the morning?"
"I suppose they can wait High One. I will let you rest." He backed out the door and pulled it closed behind him.
"I had best leave as well then," I said and started to move toward the door. Tahr stopped me.
"No K'hy. That was just to get rid of him." She patted the bed beside her. "Here. sit." I did so. She coughed and touched her bandaged hand. "I am sorry that you had to see that," she said. "But it was your choice."
"I know," I nodded. "You did not have much of a choice."
"But you still cannot get used to it, can you?" she said.
"No, I suppose I cannot."
"It is strange," she mused. "You have killed almost a dozen times, yet you say that death disturbs you."
"It is a lot easier to kill someone when they are trying to kill you than to sit and watch someone tear out another's throat," I said.
"Yes, and this time I was the one who had to kill or be killed," Tahr replied. "As you said: I had little choice in the matter."
I ran a hand through my hair. "I know. I cannot help it."
"Enough about that," she raised and dropped her uninjured hand on the sheet, as though chopping the previous conversation off short. "Do you think there is any chance of these growing back again?" She lifted her bandaged hand.
I shook my head. "No. I am sorry."
"Huh," she snorted and glared at the hand as if it had offended her.
"But your wound is clean and should heal well," I tried to console her. "Just keep it clean; make sure that anyone who touches it while it heals has clean hands and boil any bandages before using them. It will be fine."
"Yes, our doctors know to keep wounds and sores clean... but why boil bandages? You had me do that, for your chest."
I tried to explain about microbes, viruses, but my heart wasn't really in it. There were other concerns. Still, it seemed to help Tahr take her mind of the pain in her arm. She listened attentively, grimacing occasionally.
When I finished she grinned at me; pained. "What I wouldn't give for one of your physicians. Saaa... Your home sounds like a dream: a world free of disease."
I shifted and shrugged. "In some places, yes... others, no. There are Realms that are more advanced and wealthy than others. The wealthier ones have destroyed many disease, in other places the poor suffer from the most common of them. Some people in more isolated areas were given the knowledge to let them and their children live longer, but before they could use it properly. Now there is starvation and drought in many areas where there are more people than the land can support.
"And we are not free of diseases. There is one that recently appeared. It lingers in the body, then kills. We have no cure for it and more forms of it are appearing all the time. Last I heard about sixty million humans were infected, most of them from the poorer Realms."
For a while the only sound was the wind howling around the walls of the Citadel. "I have been here long enough, you should rest." I patted her shoulder as I got up to leave.
Just as I put my hand on the door latch, she stopped me: "You are not too disgusted by me are you?"
I shook my head, then grinned. "I guess I will have to learn to put up with you, disgusting as you are."
"Get out of here!"
As I pulled the door shut behind me, I heard a brief hiss of laughter.
I ate my dinner in the great hall, sitting at the end of one of the long tables with my legs stuck out to the side. The furniture hadn't been built with my frame in mind.
The Sathe at the table watched me curiously as I ate. I was used to their bolting chunks of food, but to them, taking small bites and chewing them thoroughly would be most unusual. I finished off the meal loaf I was eating and washed the dry, half-stale bread down with a swig of water from the wrong side of a mug, much to the amusement of my table companions.
One of them seemed a little too amused, was laughing too loudly and his voice was slurred as he called out, "Hai, Ugly One!"
I kept drinking.
"Ugly One! Shave-face! Yes, you!"
I lowered my mug and weighed him up. Not very big, just an oversized mouth. Too drunk. Yeah, the last time I'd seen drunk Sathe it'd been a rape. Did they always lose it that bad? I hoped not. "My name is Kelly."
He hissed and sputtered into his mug. A silence began to travel around the table like a row of tumbling dominoes as Sathe stopped their conversations. "As ridiculous as the rest of you. Look, Bald One, you do not even know the right way to hold a drink!"
I drummed my fingers, beginning to get annoyed.
He grinned. "Were your parents as deformed as you?"
THAT did it. I froze, then turned to him and smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "All right, what do you have on your mind? If you will pardon the exaggeration."
He opened his mouth, then frowned and cocked his head to one side? "What?"
"Deaf as well as an idiot," I shook my head. "Well, what you lack in intelligence, you more than make up for in stupidity."
There was a hissing of laughter from others, and the Sathe who had spoken took a while to get it. When he did, he bristled - literally - and started to reach for something at his belt. One of his comrades grabbed his hand and whispered something; the fire went out of his eyes. He was helped out of the room, none to steady on his feet.
Well, that could have gone worse. Didn't even have to fight. I looked around at the Sathe staring at me. "Everyone's a critic," I growled and finished my meal in peace.
That kind of thing is one of the reasons I don't eat out that often. It's also the kind of thing that can play on your mind. The walk back to my quarters gave my mind plenty of time for playing, so I was pretty wrapped up in my own thoughts when a Sathe stepped out before me. "Shit!"
I knew I'd seen him somewhere before. "You are... Hrach?" I asked.
"H'rrasch, High One," he corrected. Oh yeah, the young male who'd sparred with Tahr in the exercise rooms. He was fidgeting, his eyes locked on me with iris black and wide. "You have seen T... uh, the Shirai have you not, sir?"
"No 'sir' please," I smiled, "I do not think I deserve that. Yes, I have seen her."
He looked uncomfortable, clearing his throat before speaking. "Huh... uh, how is she? She was hurt badly. I heard..."
"She will be fine," I forestalled him. "She is just resting at the moment."
He looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. That look was more than just a loyal soldier would have. I studied him thoughtfully and he squirmed. "Do you need to see her about something?" I asked.
"I thought... she might remember..." he trailed off, clenching his hands.
I smiled, "She is beautiful, is she not?"
He looked up at me and I swear his eyes seemed to glow, "Yes, she is..." Then he appeared to realize what he was saying and who he was saying it to. "Uh... yes sir. Thank you sir. I am sorry I disturbed you."
"Anytime." I replied automatically. Watching his back as he disappeared down the corridor, I broke into a grin. Seems like Tahr has got herself a not-so-secret admirer.
I was in my room later that evening, practising on the harmonica I had acquired aboard Hafair's ship. Why was it I only felt able to work melancholic airs that night? My solo performance came to an end when guard appeared at my door, saying Tahr wanted to see me. I reluctantly left the relative warmth of my room and followed her.
Tahr was still bedriddden, propped up by a small mound of pillows. A glowing oil lamp threw dull-redish light on pieces of paper scattered on the sheets in front of her: some covered with the bird scratchings of Sathe writing and others with what looked like maps. She wasn't alone: In a chair beside the bed a piece of night turned around and stared at me with wide green eyes. I stared back. It was a Sathe, a female, but her fur was black... or a brown so near black it didn't make much difference. I'd seen her around before, but she'd always kept her distance.
A snort from Tahr interrupted our mutual scrutiny. She waved a hand as she made the introductions: "Remae, this is K'hy, my escort and friend. K'hy, this is Remae, [Marshal] of the Eastern Realm's forces."
I bowed my head to her, and she uncertainly returned the gesture, then she turned to Tahr. "Do you really think that... he may be able to help?" she asked.
"I hope so," Tahr replied. "K'hy, look at these. Do you recognize them? The area?"
She handed me several rough maps of the eastern seaboard of America and Canada, and the area around the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. So, this was going to be a geography lesson?
"I recognise them."
"Do you know where Mainport is?"
Where Mainport was was there; a triangle drawn in green ink. I pointed it out.
"Very good. This area, from the tip of the Swamp Lands, up along the far side of the Sky Scratcher mountains and ending in a line from the Great Lakes to the Eastern Sea. "Many of these names were new to me, but I translated them as best I could, surprised that the Sathe also called those lakes bordering Canada the Great Lakes.
Tahr continued: "The Gulf Realm lies here, on the southern coastline, from the Borderline River extending down the peninsula here, and up the Slow River here. Their capitol - Riverport - lies here," she pointed out the spot where New Orleans should have been.
"Here, northeast of the Eastern Realm are three more Clan lands. This area around the Great lakes is the domain of the Lake Traders." She traced the area out with the crescent of a claw.
"They are actually two seperate Realms with an ancient bond of allegiance between them. Alone, they are small, but together they are as large as the Gulf Realm, and much larger than us.
"On the far side of the Sky Scratchers is the Open Realm. It is probably the largest realm in sheer size, but in terms of cultivated and inhabited lands, cities and the like, it is the smallest and weakest realm."
"Open Realm. Why that name?" I asked.
"Because of the vast plains that make up most of it," Tahr explained.
Tahr put the maps back on the bed, and picked out one particular one. "Remae, explain to him what has been happening," she handed the map to the Marshal, then sank back against the cushions, curled her legs up under the sheets, and closed her eyes.
"Shirai, you are prepared to continue?" Remae leaned forward, concerned.
Tahr opened her eyes again. "I am fine, just tired."
Remae's ears flickered with worry. "Should I have some Thamil brought in? It would help relax you."
"Uh..." I started to speak, but Tahr beat me.
"No," she gave me a smile, a small flicker of her ears. "We want to talk to K'hy, not listen to his snoring."
Remae looked confused. "I do not understand."
"Do not concern yourself... No, no Thamil now... maybe later. Now tell him."
Remae blinked. In the dim light, it was as if her eyes had flashed off and on again, she held the map while I peered over her shoulder. I could see she was nervous having me so close, her ears were at full alert and opalescent claws poked indentations in the paper.
"Over the past few months," she began, "small Eastern villages, outposts, and caravans around this area have been attacked, most destroyed completely." She pointed out an area covering the lower Appalachian mountains - the Sky Scratchers - down the Appalachicola river in Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico.
"The smaller towns on our side of the Borderline River have been raided, with crops burned, outlying farmsteads looted, Sathe killed. The Gulf Realm claims that settlements on their side have been attacked."
Uh-huh. I had an inkling where this was leading. I scratched my chin and asked, "Who has been doing the raiding? Bandits?"
The black Sathe looked surprised. "Ahh, the survivors say bandits. But bandits do not usually attack armed convoys, nor garrison towns. And these bandits did not fight like bandits: they were too well trained and equipped."
I remembered being bound and helpless in the back of a wagon by Sathe soldiers wearing tattered cloaks concealing red and black armour. I said so.
"Yes, the Shirai has told us as much," Remae replied. "We know they are smuggling troops into our borders, we just cannot prove anything."
"Why?" I asked.
"We have never been able to catch them."
"No. I mean why are they doing this?"
"War seems most likely," she grimaced. "Internal upset. Disrupt supplies to outpost settlements. Destroy food supplies. Spy on our resources. Propaganda. They will probably complain to the other realms that we are not able to conduct our own affairs. They will insist upon sending a 'peacekeeping' force across the Borderline, posting troops in key areas such as river crossings, major towns, seaports. That would put them in an excellent position for an invasion. With the river crossings already controlled, they would be able to move more troops into our Realm virtuable unopposed."
She bared her teeth in a snarl at the implications of that. "The Gulf forces would bite off a major chunk of us before any of the other Realms could send aid, even if they deign to assist us.
"But at the moment, the bandits are our greatest worry. They strike and are gone before we can get soldiers there." A frown creased her face, "It is not an honourable way to fight a war. Aside from disrupting traffic across the Realm they are causing much death, destruction, and fear amongst innocent people."
Guerilla Warfare I thought.
Aloud I said. "You said that I may be able to help... how?"
Tahr looked both awkward and hopeful at once, "Do you know of anything that might help us?"
I sighed. I had been kind of expecting this. "Weapons and such? Yes."
"What about finding those suppurating bandits? You have had experience with that kind before?"
"I know of them," I admitted. "We have the same kind of fighting back home. Same kind of problems. All you can do is be smarter or stronger. Difficult. Send oldiers with the present caravans, even make entire fake caravans to lure them out and trap them."
Remae tapped her leg with a clawtip. "Yes, we HAD thought of that."
"Well, I might think of something more original. Tahr," I looked to her and held out my hands helplessly, "I am not a genius. I cannot do the impossible. I can give you some ideas and new tools, but working wonders is not my field... my expertise. All I can do is the best I can."
Tahr's ears flickered and she gave me a pleased grin. "I know. That is all we ask. Thank you, K'hy. You will have all the aid we can give you."
I smiled back. "Thank you. Oh, and a merry christmas to you."
I started to learn the tactics the Sathe used in battle. They were simple to the point of ridicule: not really so different from the way we did it a few hundred years back.
The opposing sides would meet each other on an open field and combat would take place in much the same way it'd done in the human middle ages. Archers would soften up the enemy with long-range fire. As the forces closed upon each other, the archers stopped firing because of the chances of hitting one of their own. After that things started to break down: communications were lost, units seperated and the battle was left up to the individual soldier with his or her sword.
Disorganised and chaotic with much loss of blood on both sides.
I watched the Citadel guard drilling in the exercise hall. I examined their swords.
I saw something that threatened to really screw my plans up.
The Sathe used their light swords two-handed. Okay, I had noticed that, but I hadn't realized why.
Humans are descended from apes; brachiating creatures who are at home hanging from branches. Apes' hands are crude, but they are built for grasping. Even a chimp has a powerful grip, much more powerful than a human's but without the finesse.
Sathe are descended from (no prizes for guessing), cats. Probably some kind of large hunting cat, maybe the bobcat or puma, it doesn't really matter. I don't know how it happened, but somewhere in the convolutions of evolution, Sathe started manipulating things.
Starting from paws they had a lot further to go than the apes of my world, and even now they lack the grip that my simian ancestry has given me. With their claws and speed, they never had to rely upon being able to grip a tree branch or weapon to escape from or fight predators, and it is only with the development of their tools that they had need of a strong grip.
But their grip was not as strong as is needed to swing a sword one handed and hold against the shock as it meets an opponent's blade, armour, or flesh. With two hands they were wicked swordsmen, but they were incapable of holding a shield at the same time as their scimitars.
I trashed my plans of skirmish lines based upon the ancient Roman and Greek ranks and started anew.
The target mounted on the straw bales at the far end of the hall settled between the V of the modified sights. I squeezed the trigger, and without waiting to see if the quarrel would hit the target, braced the cross bow against my hip and pulled the lever that re-cocked it. As the bow-string caught on the catch that held it back, another quarrel dropped into place from the magazine. I raised the bow and fired, repeating the operation several times.
Remae and several others whom I had been told were other high ranking Sathe officials and Clan Lords stood off to the side, their breath turning into small clouds on the chill air in the hall. They eyed the target and looked fairly impressed.
One of the Sathe, a scholar by the name of Sthrae stepped forward to speak. He could say and express ideas that I had trouble saying in Sathe. "Imagine archers armed with these bows. They can fire several times as fast as a normal crossbow. Imagine what a toll they would take upon infantry."
There was a brief conversation between the officials on the side, before Remae called out. "Continue."
"Of course." Sthrae bent over and picked up a sack, pulling out the next item. The chain metal links rattled and glittered dully in the light coming through the windows along the top of the hall. He gave it to me and I carried it over to the watching Sathe, they tensed as I came near.
"This is a type of armour that you do not have, Sthrae has called it link-armour." I handed the chain-mail hauberk to Remae. She turned it over in her hands, flexing the steel links.
"Is this worn as it is?" one of the other Sathe, a grizzled looking veteran, asked.
"It can be worn like that, but is more effective over leather armour," I said. "Padding helps: It stops the links pinching the flesh, although I think that will not be so much of a problem for Sathe."
There were a few smiles.
I had been thinking about a suit of plate-mail armour. With a few modifications in the design and materials, I'd be able to both cut down on the weight and make it tougher. I'd decided against it. The Sathe favoured their speed over a lot of armour. After all, if you can't be hit, then there's no need for hot, clumsy armour.
Devices such as the five metre long pikes and halberds they'd never seen before. The long pole arms had simple leather straps a Sathe soldier could sling over his shoulder to help him hold the unwieldy wooden poles. They found these interesting, especially the news that a formation of these were practically invulnerable to attack by swordsmen, but the real piece de risistance had no blades.
I unwrapped the bulky cloth bundle and sorted out its contents. The airtight ceramic and steel-bound cylinders I slung over my shoulders on their straps. There was a metal tube that stuck out the bottom of the right cylinder and then made a ninety degree turn and continued on for another sixty centimetres before ending in a tapering nozzle with a simple mechanical mechanism attached to it. I tucked this nozzle under my right arm so that it stuck out in front of me.
"High Ones, if you would kindly move back..." a couple of guards ushered the watching Sathe officials back to what I hoped was a safe distance.
My hands were steady enough as I lit the small taper that stuck out in front of the nozzle and opened a valve on the pipe; we had tested this before, but something could still go wrong. Too wrong and they'd be scraping me off the walls with a spatula.
I advanced on the target, the bale of straw, until I was about six metres away, then I took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
The stream of compressed methane, oil, and coal tar shot from the muzzle in a pressurized stream, igniting as it passed over the taper, and flying in a blazing orange-blue arc to the target.
Three more two second shots, each blast of flame throwing dancing light on the walls, floor, and spectators. When I lowered the sputtering muzzle of the flame thrower, the bale of straw was a pillar of flame dancing up towards the roof, sparks floating up and extinguishing themselves before reaching the huge timbers of the rafters.
I turned back toward the Sathe spectators, my shadow flickering and wavering in front of me. Snuffing out the taper, I shrugged out of the harness and let the riveted cylinders fall to the floor with a metallic clang.
The Sathe were staring at the pyre behind me, their eyes wide and filled with the sparks that danced behind me. I couldn't tell if they were delighted, overawed, or shocked.
"You asked for a weapon... you got it."
Not waiting around for an answer, I tucked my hands in my pockets and walked out, still feeling the heat from the fire on my back.
There was a tower in the citadel, not one of the highest, but it still commanded a complete view of Mainport below. Occasionally, a guard on punishment detail huddled in the lee of a merlon, but more often than not the tower was deserted. As it was now.
It was a place I could go whenever I wanted to be alone. Maybe that sounds strange coming from someone who is about alone as one is ever going to get, but it was another kind of solitude I sought.
I leaned on the embrasure between the teeth of the merlons and watched the activity on the streets below slowly die as the shadows drew longer. The temperature hovered around three degrees celsius, it would have been colder if it weren't for the wind that whirled and twisted through the walls and turrets of the Citadel.
Wrapping my cloak a bit tighter around my shoulders and settling the hood, I watched as the setting sun tried to beat its way through the layers of granite cloud that blockaded the western horizon, backlighting them with a corona of orange.
I've always loved sunsets. Usually they're restful, but tonight...
"Do you often come up here?"
I jumped, turning, then relaxed when I saw who'd spoken. "So they let you out."
"It took a bit of persuasion," Tahr smiled. "I had begun to wonder if I was Clan Lord or prisoner."
"How did you find me?"
She adjusted her own cloak and propped a shoulder against the grey stone of the ramparts. "You are not exactly inconspicuous, K'hy. I just had to ask." Green eyes looked out at the clouds - now faded to a dull magenta - and her mane whipped in the wind. She brushed it back out of her eyes with her right hand, the left one still swathed in bandages. "I want to thank you for what you have given us."
I didn't reply.
She reached up and took my chin between two fingers, turning my head, studying my expression. "You are upset... why?"
I jerked my head out of her hands and stared fiercely back at the alien world disappearing into the night. "I thought it was obvious." I turned away from the view and leaned against the solid, wind-worn granite of the merlon, watching Tahr. She looked as if she fitted there; standing on top of a tower amid small drifts of blown snow, the wind sending her mane into periodic flurries about her head. I continued:
"Those weapons will be used, will they not?... of course they will," I sighed. "So in a way I will be responsible for the death or injury of everyone that those things are used against."
Tahr gave a quiet sigh, betrayed by the mist that condensed in front of her nostrils. "Yes, that is not a thought that gives me great joy, but they are for the protection of the Realm. Surely that counts for something?"
I nodded curtly. "That was why I gave them to you. I owe you Tahr, but I do not know whether that justifies making new ways to kill people. I think I have started something terrible."
"It cannot be that bad, can it?" she tried to soothe me.
"Dammit Tahr, have you ever thought about what it would be like to be burned to death? To be maimed for life by flame? I had a friend who died by fire, I saw his body." I shuddered at the memory.
"From these will probably come bigger weapons, able to kill at greater distances. You will make a fire that cannot be put out, even under water it will burn to the bone."
Tahr opened her mouth to say something, but I got my say in before her, "In my world, entire towns were burned to the ground by this flame: Buildings, animals, trees, males, females, and children. The stuff was dropped by flying machines in a blanket that covered and destroyed everything below.
"If you think that you will be able to keep it a secret, it will not work. The idea is too simple. My Realm developed the most powerful type of weapon that my world has. They thought that they could keep it to themselves. Within a few years, the rest of the world also had these weapons."
I let her think about that.
K'hy," she finally said, "It was your choice. If you really felt so strongly about it, why did you give it to us?"
I slapped my palm against rock; once lightly, again harder. "I said I owed you. You needed a weapon to help you, I give you that. I thought that they would be too limited to be of too much use. I could not give you the secret of my gun..." I broke off. I'd begun something that I didn't really want brought up.
She came up to me and leaned against my side. "You could not... or would not?"
I didn't answer. She prodded. "K'hy? Please tell me."
Goddamn, could I trust her for something that could be the pivotal point to the future of her Realm; life or death of her people? I wasn't sure.
Maybe she read my mind. "Please, K'hy, you can trust me. It will go no further than these ears."
"My weapon, can be far more... deadly than any fire..." I choked off.
She looked down at the town, now lying dormant beneath a growing cloak of darkness. The suns rays were just a glimmer behind the clouds, "You would not want to be responsible for that... I do not think I would either."
"Someone will discover it, you can be sure of that. Then you will be able to kill each other all you like."
Her eyes opened wide in shock and I realized what I had said.
"Tahr... I did not mean that." I stuttered. I wanted to say something, to take it back, but the words failed me. I just hugged her close and hard. I could feel her claws tense and then relax against my back as the fur on her muzzle tickled against my neck.
Still pressed against my chest, she touched my cheek. "You are as cold as a stone! Come, let us get you into the warmth." A claw snagged my sleeve, and she led me toward the stairs.
Selected Sathe trained with the new weapons, getting the feel of them and learning techniques and strategies that may someday save their lives. I shared my time between the exercise hall where most of the training was carried out, and the workshops where work was being carried out on the flame throwers.
I wasn't satisfied with the strength of the cylinders in which the pressurised, volatile mixture was carried, and I wanted more tests carried out on the safety valve intended to prevent blowbacks. If one of those throwers exploded, there wouldn't be enough left of the operator to pick up with tweezers and an electron microscope.
The dashing to and fro between the two places left me totally exhausted at the end of each day, but the effort was paying off.
After a couple of weeks, the pike-Sathe were becoming quite adept at using the long unwieldy weapons. They could form a skirmish line and hold it steady. While retreating or wheeling to face an imaginary charge on an exposed flank, they kept in perfect formation, the swordsmen and archers spaced in among them moving to stay in their positions.
Buckles and other pieces of loose metal clattered and clinked as they manoeuvred, pike and swordsmen crouching to allow the archers to fire volleys over their shoulders, then standing and awaiting orders.
Their commanding officer drove them hard, but finally told the weary troops to fall out. He noticed me watching from the shadows of the cloister that ran around the outside of the training hall and started in my direction. I recognized his scarred face from a distance.
"They are much improved," I told S'sahr as he fiddled with the straps of his battered practice armour.
He gave me a weary smile. "They have had a lot of practice, but with all these new weapons and tactics, it is hard for them and us." The 'us' must have meant the officers. He snorted then: "We have only a little more idea of what we are doing than they do."
He opened a door and stepped through, holding it open for me; I had to duck my head to get through the Sathe sized portal. The room long, narrow room was filled with the stuff they used in combat practice: wooden swords by the barrel-load, blunt and bent arrows, basic leather armour hung from pegs on the walls.
"Why did you not go with Tahr on her parade the other day?" S'sahr asked as he pulled off his brass-studded leather skirt and scarred cuirass.
A couple of days ago, Tahr had gone down to the town, amidst great pomp and pomposity. She told me that it was a P.R. exercise, showing the people that she was alive and well. I had watched from the Citadel as the procession made it's way on a roundabout route through the streets of Mainport, Sathe thronging to see it.
"I am not really sure," I shrugged. "I think that she did not want me seen by the townspeople."
S'sahr's one ear gave a flicker of amusement as he grabbed a pair of breeches from where they hung amongst several others. "K'hy, there are rumours all over Mainport that the Shirai has her own, personal monster. I do not see why she would not want you to be seen... you are not very fearsome."
I leaned back against a handy post, "I seem to remember a certain Sathe who was scared shitless when he was, uh, introduced to me."
He tightened his waistband and gathered up his dark blue cloak. "I was taken by surprise," he sniffed.
I laughed out loud and he looked at me curiously, then snorted in an aloof manner; S'sahr, captain of the guard was not used to being laughed at.
As we walked down to the wide central courtyard I listened while S'sahr told me how the training of the various companies was going. They were making slow but steady progress, adapting the tactics that I remembered from my history class, as well as adding their own. I listened, but there was very little I could actually contribute.
We parted company in the courtyard. He headed off towards the outer walls and his stations, and as I made my way back towards my room, I realized that I had a little free time on my hands, so I ignored the stairs that led to my quarters and instead headed for the baths.
As the weather had grown colder, so the baths had grown more crowded. Heads - and maybe a few stomachs - still turned when I entered one of the bathrooms, but by now most of the patrons only gave me a cursory glance when I entered.
There was, however, still muted talk between others. That and the fact that the baths were unisex, made it the more embarrassing. However, the warmth that seeped through my cold body from the water made it worth the trouble.
With my hair still damp, I stoked up the fire in my room, and headed for the bedroom, rubbing at my hair with a coarse towel. I'd eaten and bathed and was feeling comfortably warm and tired. The circular bed creaked slightly as I collapsed on it and pulled the heavy sheets up to my chest.
Outside was still, the moon just a ghostly glow behind the clouds. There was scarcely enough light coming through the windows to cast a shadow from the window's lattice across the floor and the 'foot' of the bed. I found myself wondering if I had done the right thing with the weapons, for the hundredth time, before I dropped off.
The first sensation I was aware of was my head throbbing, feeling as though it had swollen to twice its normal size. The next was the pain as I tried to lift my hands to my head.
Muscles that had been tied in one position for too long screamed and protested as I tried to move. I couldn't budge.
My knees were up against my chest, my arms wrapped around them, wrists tied to ankles. I was naked and freezing and gagged with a saliva-sodden rag shoved in my mouth and tied in place.
I was lying on my side, crammed into a tiny, wooden, straw-lined space barely large enough for me. Shafts of light danced in through gaps between the planks. Creakings and the rumbling of wheels could be heard and occasional bumps jolted me. I could hear the muted sound of Sathe voices, but the words were muffled beyond comprehension.
Trying to struggle free of the ropes proved useless, my arms were stiff and sore from the unnatural position and hard boards. The ropes were tightly tied and a lot thicker than they needed to be.
Unable to move at all, I lay there and suffered, confused and scared shitless. It was hours before the rattling and bumping slowed, then stopped.
There was a pause, then the sound of bolts being drawn. A hatch above me was flung open and I clenched my eyes shut against the light that poured in on me. Furry hands grabbed me, holding my head and yanking the gag out. I gasped air and something was shoved into my mouth, water went down my windpipe. I choked and coughed, spraying water.
"Drink, rot you!"
I managed several mouthfuls, then the water was withdrawn and something that smoked was passed under my nose. I recognized the sweet, pungent odour and tried to pull back; tried to hold my breath.
The hands held me fast, claws puncturing my skin, and eventually I had to breath.
After several choking breaths the world floated into pinkness, spun a few times, then spiralled down and away. Blackness swam over me.
Groaning out loud, I woke. A migraine that had to be the granddaddy of all headaches pounded in my skull. I was frozen, the uncontrollable shivering doing nothing to help the pulsing in my temples. Trying to move, coarse hemp rasped against my skin, straw or grass rustled and poked at me.
"Look. It moved."
"It is waking. Go tell the commander. Go!"
My hands were tied behind me and my ankles were bound together. The gag was still firmly in place. I felt hands tugging at the ropes, testing them. My eyelids stuck and ached as I forced them open and squinted at my surroundings.
A Sathe snarled and hissed in my face.
I gave a muffled yelp through the gag.
She moved to crouch down at my feet, her hands on the hilt of a sword resting tip-down on the dirt floor, and gave me a glistening grin. "You behave. No trouble."
I tried to say, fuck you!
When she growled again and stood up, I caught a glimpse of the red and black armour she wore underneath her green cloak.
I shuddered violently, not entirely from the cold, twisted my hands against the ropes. No go.
Where was I? It looked like a... stable? A stable. There was that permeating smell of animals and damp straw, the bleat of a llama came from a neighbouring stall. Heavy wooden rafters supported the gabled roof, all held together with wooden pegs. What little light there was had to fight its way through chinks in the walls. Opposite the stall I lay in, several stools sat around a rickety table covered with scraps of food. Blankets were spread out on the dirt floor. The Sathe guard settled herself on a stool, leaned back against the wall and watched me intently as I shivered. It was literally freezing.
Minutes dragged themselves by on broken legs. Eventually there was the sound of voices: "... paid when we see it."
"I assure you it is fine."
"And nobody saw you?"
"Nobody, High One."
Shadows fell across me as several Sathe appeared at my stall. Four of them: three dressed in the red and black armour of the Gulf Realm, the other wearing an ordinary dun cloak.
One of the armoured ones sported the gold chevrons of an officer on his cuirass. He eyed me, then turned to the guard. "Kas, has it done anything?"
"Kicked around a bit, sir. Tried the ropes."
Shit! She'd noticed. Not too slack.
"Huh!" The officer turned back to me, looking at me like I was a particularly suspicious lump in his stew. He kicked my foot and I growled back.
"Well, it seems to be in good condition. Here," he pulled a pouch from his belt and tossed it to the civilian in the cloak, "you earned it."
The cloaked Sathe snatched it out of the air and poured pieces of gold into his palm, counting them. Him. He was the bastard who'd snatched me! If I ever caught up with him he'd begin a new career as a fur hat!
Oblivious to my glare he tipped the gold back into the bag and bowed, "Thank you High One. It has been a pleasure doing business with you."
"Likewise," the officer snorted. "Get out of here!"
The cloaked sathe scampered off, leaving the other three staring down at me. The female guard sat at the table in the background, watching with interest.
The Gulf officer then casually squatted by my head, studying me with interest before he yanked the gag out. I sucked air, watching him while he watched me. "Tell me your name," he said.
Shivering violently, I clamped my mouth shut. It stopped my teeth rattling.
Smoothly, before I could react, his hand darted out and grabbed my hair. I yelped as my head was forced back then froze when his claws began tickling my throat. "Now," he continued, unruffled. "You CAN talk. You know it and I know it. Tell me your name."
He wouldn't kill me. He'd gone to too much trouble to get his paws on me. He wasn't going to kill me...
A minute later I was writhing and choking in pain on the stable floor, something moist trickling down the side of my throbbing face. He raised his hand again, the claws peeking out. I tried to cower away and the hand came down and took another fistful of hair, forcing me to look up at him.
"Your name!" he hissed.
I licked my lips, tasting blood. My nose ached, bubbled when I breathed. Scratches down the side of my face stung. There was a limit to how far I could push him and he was teetering on that line. "Kelly," I croaked, deflated.
"Was that your name?"
"That is better. Ka... K'hy," he did an acceptable job of wrapping his long jaws around the name. "Do not be such a fool. You will find things a lot more comfortable if you co-operate with us. Do you understand?"
"Very good." He said, then checked my bonds. He huffed with satisfaction, and before I could say anything, he grabbed my jaws and rammed the gag back in, "Since you do not seem to enjoy talking, you can stay quiet."
"Sir," the female guard ventured from across the room as he turned to leave, "is that safe? He has no fur - he looks cold."
I made muffled noises and frantically tried to nod my agreement.
He stopped and looked at me again. "I think it will survive... You can stay as you are. No games next time, a?" He grinned, then with a final word to the guards, he was gone.
I turned my incoherent appeal on the guard, who looked at me, then settled her cloak closer about her shoulders and leaned back in her chair. Desperate now, I began to struggle.
The ropes didn't give at all. My efforts warmed me for a while, but in no time they left me exhausted and with wrists burning and slippery. I moaned into my gag and collapsed into a shivering heap.
A cold aching throughout my body, my limbs leaden and numb. The shivering had died to spasmodic twitches and then even they stopped. Totally spent I just closed my eyes as a vague warmth began seeping through me.
"... a blanket. Hurry!"
Hands grabbed me. If there were claws I couldn't feel them, but they lifted me and a biting wind wound its way around and through me. When I tried to open my eyes, all I could see was swirling whiteness. It wasn't worth it: I closed them again and a door slammed then there Sathe voices all around, questioning.
"... know! It is frozen!"
"... it alive?"
"Over here... by the fire."
They dropped me. Soft surface, hands grabbing me warm around me. There was a tingling in my limbs like pins and needles that grew more and more intense, like aching like real needles, then like fire under my skin, then something beyond burning. I screamed. I screamed until my throat was raw, struggling and thrashing like a beached fish with the ropes biting into me and adding to the pain. Shouts, growls in my ear, fur and armour against me as they pinned me. And the pain grew.
The pain changed, going beyond pain, becoming other sensations. I moaned, unable to move, suffering until the flow ebbed. They released me. I just lay there, sobbing for breath.
Furry arms propped me up, something soft was thrown around my shoulders and warmth was forced between my chapped lips. I could smell food; some kind of hot broth against my lips. I swallowed eagerly and choked as it went down the wrong way. When I recovered, I was allowed another sip, then another. I could feel the heat tracing a warm trail through my gullet, warming from the inside.
More pain lanced through my head as I opened an eye. Sparks jumped and swirled in the open fireplace before me. All around, glimpses of polished wood, heavy rafters, the glitter of brass and Sathe eyes.
And there was someone touching me, helping me sit up. The bowl was raised to my lips and again I drank. My gaze followed the furry hand holding the steaming bowl, travelled up the arm until I was nose to muzzle with the female guard from out in the barn. Her eyes - the same emerald green - locked with mine for all of two seconds, then she pushed me away.
Unable to support myself I fell back into the soft embrace of the furs. The room swam and I moaned, clutching at the furs to stop myself falling onto the ceiling.
A Sathe leaning over me, staring into my face: "... you hear me?"
There were other voices in the background: inconsequential static.
I rolled my head away and the noises faded as I sank into simple, untainted sleep; the only drug used this time being exhaustion.
I hunkered down in the cold corner beside the fireplace, huddled against the fire-warmed stones of the chimney for the meagre warmth they provided. I was still cold: they hadn't given me clothing or even a blanket. Covered in goosebumps, my privates retracted up around my lungs. I was hungry. Miserably I made myself as small as possible and stared at my chains.
While I'd slept they'd replaced the hemp ropes with manacles. The fetters upon my feet were linked with heavy chain with just enough give for me to hobble. On my wrists the manacles were joined by a solid iron bar just long enough that I couldn't touch my fingertips together.
The chain rattled as I picked it up, weighing the links. A guard looked up at the sound. "Drop it," he hissed, hand going for his sword. Others looked around.
I dropped it.
Placated, but still wary, the guard settled back into his chair. I heaved a shuddering sigh and stared at my irons.
It's a demoralising thing to have your every movement restricted by cold metal. If I wanted to move one hand, I had to move the other, yet I couldn't bring them together. If I couldn't so much as touch two fingertips together, then how the hell was I supposed to do something like picking the locks? crude as they were.
Damnation! It was going to be hard enough to eat!
I glumly turned to survey my prison again. Perhaps there was something I'd missed.
A single room combining kitchen and living area. The walls were rough wooden logs, cracks caulked with clay. Black rafters supporting a thatch roof; solid, utilitarian wooden furniture with that interior glow of well-used wood were scattered about the room, the most elaborate a pair of chairs before the fire. Crockery, a few metal pots, and strings of food: ears of corn, and various spices sat on shelves or hung from the heavy rafters, slung lower than they would be in a human house.
Two doorways in opposite walls, one sealed by a door of half-logs, the other by a heavy tattered curtain. Wind howled around the wooden door, rattling it in its frame.
Yeah. The room wasn't much of a cell, but there were bars.
In the dim light of a lantern and the fireplace they lounged around, looking as bored as waiting soldiers everywhere. Some slept, using their armour as pillows. Some played games of chance. Every so often a trooper would don armour and cloak to go and relieve a guard on duty outside.
Sathe returned with their fur coated in ice and snow. The hearth was littered with drying cloth, armour, and a single soldier who'd assured himself that I wasn't a threat before stripping and falling asleep.
The air was heavy with the smells of cloth and wet fur.
Where were they taking me?
The Gulf Realm was a pretty safe bet.
And what would happen when they got me there?
That one I had no answer for. But someone had gone to a lot of trouble to see that I dropped by and someone obviously didn't give a flying fuck about my comfort. Whoever it was definitely wanted to ask a few questions as well, and I guessed they wouldn't want to talk about the weather.
Again I shivered.
Time passed slowly in the gloom. With the windows shuttered, not a whisker of light penetrating the storm outside, I didn't know what the hour was. Hell, I didn't even know if it was night or day!
Later, a drab-brown female with nervous eyes and ears prepared a meal. Civilian, had to be. I watched her working at a pot over the fire, adding herbs and meat and it was obvious that she was no part of the Gulf retinue. Who then? One of the original residents of the building I guessed. A farmer?
After a time the tangy aroma of stew prevailed above even the Sathes' miasma, setting leathery nostrils to twitching. A pre-adolescent male cub (the farmers' son?) scampered around the room ladling food into the soldiers' bowls, dodging half-hearted cuffs from claws. Saliva flooded my mouth as I watched the troopers begin to eat and the cramps in my stomach made me realise how hungry I was. How long had it been since I'd had a decent meal?
Damnation! I was starving!
"Hey!" I called. A guard looked up from his meal, his head bobbing and throat pulsing as he swallowed his mouthful. "Please," I glanced hungrily at his bowl. "I need food."
There was silence. Heads turning to stare at me.
"Talking now," said another voice. The Sathe officer rose from his seat in the shadows across the room and approached me. I pressed further back into the corner as he stood over me. "Hungry?"
"No, I am just making conversation," I growled, mustering all the courage left in me. "Goddamn, You are killing me. I am starving and freezing."
His ears set back and his muzzle rumpled up like a rug. "Suddenly you seem to have become very verbose. Perhaps I should leave you as you are and see what else you may say."
"Dead people say very little."
"People!" He hissed in amusement. "You do presume a lot upon yourself!" Nevertheless he snapped an order at a trooper and the Sathe filled a bowl from the communal pot. Eagerly I took the carved wooden bowl in both hands, almost drooling, then asked, "Think you could take these things off so I can eat?"
The Sathe officer bared his teeth.
"Thought not," I sighed. I was forced to put the bowl on the ground and kneel before it, carrying the greasy, undercooked lumps of meat to my mouth with both hands chained together.
They had a good laugh.
He sat there in his chair before the fire, just staring at me. For half an hour, just staring at me, until I couldn't meet his eyes and curled up, hiding my head.
I slowly looked up at him.
The Sathe commander gestured at the impressive bearskin rug lying in front of the hearth. "Come here."
I hesitated in my niche by the fire, then, as guards began to move towards me, awkwardly shuffled out with chains rattling to kneel on the rug. He flickered his ears at my sullen glare.
"Sit," he invited cordially.
"Huh!" he huffed and cocked his head, chin propped with a fist, elbow resting on the arm of the chair. "You really are a delicate creature, aren't you? Not as dangerous as you look. Such a thin hide..."
"What do you want?" I demanded wearily. I was tired and cold.
"I want to talk. Scent the wind and understand, K'hy. We are your friends."
"Friends!" God, that was so pathetic I found the energy to laugh. "Friends! You have drugged me. Kidnapped, frozen, and starved me! I would be safer with my enemies!"
He sat there and regarded me for a time. Then gave me a wide, glistening grin: "You really are not as stupid as you look."
Damnation! Keep your mouth shut, Davies!
"Now, K'hy, I would like to know a little about you."
"I need clothing. Please."
"Perhaps," he said pleasantly. "That will depend on how cooperative you are."
"No answers, no clothes."
"Exactly." The chair creaked as he settled back. "What are you?"
What would it hurt? "Human."
"Human," I repeated. "That is what I am: Human."
"H'man," he mused. "Where are you from?"
His ears laid back slowly and his eyes slitted. "Are you," he hissed, "playing games again? These words mean nothing!"
"What did you expect?" I snapped. "Sathe do not have the words for what I am or where I am from. I can only tell you in the words of my kind."
"How can you have any other kind of words?" he sneered. "If a hand is not a hand, then what is it?" He emphasized by leaning forward to wave his hand in front of my face, making sure I saw the claws.
I flinched back: "A hand is a hand whether you call it by that name or something else. My people use different sounds, but they mean the same things. I still do not know all your words."
He leaned back, mulling that over. "You have had to learn our speech, like a newborn cub."
He used a clawtip to scratch at his muzzle, a rumbling sounding in his throat. Finally he said, "Very well. This Hew-ork, where is it?"
"I do not know."
"Then how did you come to the Eastern Realm?" He was sounding impatient again.
"I had no choice in the matter. I am a... a..." Nervously I fumbled for a phrase I didn't have. "I do not know the words... survivor of an accident."
"A [castaway]," he prodded. "You are perhaps from the continent to the south?"
"Perhaps," I nodded vaguely, trying to blur that distinct line. Don't press it! "I just do not know!"
"Then why did you go to the Eastern Realm for assistance!" he demanded.
"I did not choose! I did not know where I was, I did not understand Sathe. I was looking for my own kind, but I found yours."
"You found the Shirai female!" he corrected sharply. His mane began to bristle and he reached up to pat it smooth. "Why did you interfere? It was not your concern!"
"I was defending myself," I said. "It was not planned."
"If it was not planned, then why do you stay with her? Why do you aid them? give them weapons?
"Why do you feel you have to help them so much?"
I didn't answer.
The blow that caught me around the ears knocked me to the floor. Dazed, I looked up at the officer who calmly knelt above me: "Come now, if you expect me to answer your questions, you must answer mine. That is only fair, is it not?"
I clenched my fists helplessly and struggled back to a sitting position, thinking unprintable thoughts. "You forced me to choose sides!" I snarled. "You dragged me into your war, and while they have helped me, your people have invaded their land, killing their people, and trying to kill me. You have seen the scars on my chest? Did you think they were natural? They are a gift from one of your own. Perhaps you knew him; a shit called Tarsha."
The Sathe commander looked at my clenched fists. "Yes, I knew him, and I can profess no love for his techniques. I also saw his remains after the carrion birds had finished with him; his corpse and the remains of his patrol. I do not know how you killed them all, but I am not taking chances with you.
"Whatever you are, you have made some people nervous and they do not like that. My orders are to return with you alive. Alive, they made that quite clear; as long as you are alive, they do not care if you are missing fingers, testicles, or toes.
"Now, I have heard tell of interesting new devices that are appearing in Mainport: New tools... and new weapons also. Did you perchance have anything to do with these? Yes?"
"Perhaps," I said.
He cuffed me around the ears again.
I looked up at him through watering eyes.
"Yes?" he asked mildly.
"Yes," I growled.
"Good. Now, do you give them this knowledge from the goodness of you being, or is there payment involved?"
"I try to pay my way," I said.
"Saaaa!" His ears twitched. "Is that all? Perhaps it is in return for the favours she shows you? What is coupling with her like, ah?" The Sathe grinned and his ears flickered when he saw that hit home. "Tell me this: Why do you think she is willing to do that with you? Why would any female couple with you? Do you really believe she is ATTRACTED to you? To YOU?! Huh!"
I didn't want to hear this.
He turned to the troopers behind him, addressed a female: "Mer'ap! Would you ever consider coupling with... with this?"
"Perhaps in nightmares," came the cheerful reply.
There was the water-on-shale sound of amusement hissed from a dozen throats. The commander turned his attentions back to me. "The Shirai could never feel for you," he grinned. "Anymore than I could feel for my llama."
"I would not put it past you," I growled.
He flashed teeth. "Insults now? That is not really the subject. You realise how you have been manipulated?"
"Shut your face!" I snarled.
"Why? Are you afraid to hear the truth?"
"What would you know of truth!"
"Use your mind, if you are capable of it. You are ugly. What could she possibly see in you but a means to an end? You are just a stone she is stepping on to cross a stream and when she is finished with you she will leave you behind."
I shook my head, trying not to listen. Inside a seditious voice was murmuring, It could be true!
"She is simply using you," the Sathe's voice went on. "And you are such a fool as to believe she has affections for you! A fool!"
"I must be, to be snatched by assholes like you."
His eyes flickered. I grinned and he struck me again. Even after the dizziness settled there was a stinging pain in my ear and wetness on my shoulder. Blood dripped to the rug. The bastard had had his claws out that time. I swallowed and glared at him.
"Take care," he growled. "You might hurt yourself."
He wasn't funny. I didn't reply.
Then he leaned forward and held his hand up for me to see; flecks of blood stippled his fingertips. "Some advice: mind your mouth. Some people are not as patient as I am... and your Shirai is not here to watch over you and lick you clean."
I reached up to touch my ear. It stung. "She will find you."
Somehow, as a threat, it fell kind of flat.
"I doubt it," he grinned. "We have put some thought into this. You will disappear like you had never been. The Shirai... well, we have you, her sire is dying and as for her: poison, a crossbow, some kind of accident... once you are safely tucked away, of course."
That... My hands stopped trembling as I met his eyes. I simply said, "I am going to kill you."
He spat and raised his hand to hit me again.
There were guards around us, and I think he may have been half expecting it, but they still weren't fast enough. I hit him hard. He swung wildly, claws extending, striking my shoulder when I cannoned into him, taking him over backward, me landing on top of him.
He managed to roll over, to clamber to his knees. I swung and clubbed him on the side of the jaw with the manacles, sending him tumbling. Then I was looping my arms around his neck, trying to use the bar between the manacles as a garrotte. He squalled and ducked his chin. Instead of crossing his neck the metal slipped into his mouth, like a horse's bit. His claws scrabbled at my arms with growing desperation as I hauled back, cutting the skin, drawing blood, scraping against the fetters that dug into my wrists.
Perhaps - given time - I could've broken his neck. But I didn't have time. It was less than seconds before the guards got there and piled on.
I hit the floorboards hard, ending up in a tumbled heap back in a corner by the fireplace. Claw cuts burned across my body. My right shoulder howled pain, cutting through the confusion when I tried to move. I couldn't. My hands and legs were pinned. Sharp points dug at my throat, hot breath and spittle against my skin. I froze, gasping, just moving my eyes. The Sathe with my throat in his jaws growled and twisted his head to glare up at me. Teeth and tongue rasped against my skin. I almost shit myself.
"Alive!" another voice screamed. "We need it alive!"
Reluctantly, the jaws loosened and the Sathe snarled into my face. There were other troopers holding - sitting on - my arms and legs. Over there was the Sathe officer: hanging half-supported between two of his captains, displaying curved tongue and an impressive array of dentures as he hacked and coughed, blood-tinted spittle running from the corners of his mouth. The troopers carried him bodily from the room, through the curtain.
More guards approached, heavy chains draped over their arms.
Now a short chain led from my ankle fetters to an iron staple hammered into the floor. Also my wrists and ankles were connected by a heavy chain. I was completely hobbled, any hopes of escaping retreating further across the horizon.
Damnation, I should have just sat and let it wash past. He was just trying to goad me, to see how far he could push me. I should have sat there and taken it, let them think me helpless and subdued, bide my time until an opportunity came to make a break for it. Now my stupidity had landed me with more chains and bruises. Their punishment had been none too gentle; working me over good, but taking care not to cause any damage that would be permanent. Then I was dumped back into my corner where I could use the night to nurse my aches.
Now the morning meal was being prepared, the cub once again passed among the waking soldiery passing out bowls of food with deferential ducks of his head. His mother worked by the fire, stirring a pot, occasionally adding water. She warily watched me as I struggled to sit up, propping my back against the rough wall. My shoulder was swelling up and moved only with aching protest.
"You want food?" a soft, hesitant voice ventured: childish tones. The cub sidled a little closer, bowl and spoon in hand. Over his shoulder his mother was watching with concern foremost in her expression.
"Thank you," I grated hoarsely, taking the bowl that he proffered at arms length. My own arms were chained down at waist height; I had to double over to get my mouth down to the bowl. I fumbled awkwardly with the spoon before it twisted out of my fingers. I stared at the bowl in growing frustration.
"Here," the cub offered, leaning forward and taking the bowl from my hands, holding it while I used the spoon. It was long, narrow, and deep - shaped for Sathe mouths' - but it worked. I shoveled mouthfuls as fast as I could...
"Saaaaa! Boy!" from behind the cub there came a cry and a clatter of wooden utensils being hastily cast aside. The cub yelped, dropped the bowl with what little stew was left in it, and instinctively dashed to his mother's side as several guards bore down upon us. They shoved the female aside as she tried to protect her child and lunged for the kid. He dodged their grasp and tried to duck around them, but they had him cornered. As a guard moved in I flicked the chain securing my ankle to the staple, hooking it about the Sathe's feet and pulling. The guard squalled and hit the floor in a clatter of toughened leather and metal buckles. Taking advantage of the opening, the cub was over the body, gone.
The trooper snarled, shook the chain away from his leg, then kicked out at me, his toe claws catching me just above the knee, ripping up my leg. The tingling burning of the pain came almost as quickly as the blood, rivulets merging and pooling. I gasped and looked up to see the Sathe raising his hand for another blow.
"HOLD!" Another Sathe snarled and a hand grabbed the trooper and shoved him out of the way. The Gulf officer was standing above me with his muzzle drawn back in a white snarl. Beneath his fur his face was the worse for wear: one side swollen while the corners of his mouth were raw and red with patches of clotted blood. Breath hissed through flared nostrils and his eyes were furious black pools, ears laid back flat against his skull. "You," his words were scarcely understandable, they were so distorted by his fury, "are going to learn!"
I shrank back, but there were enough of them to drag me out and pin me down by kneeling on my arms and legs. Casually the officer strolled across to the fire and squatted there. I couldn't see what he was doing, but when he turned back to me he was holding a smoking poker, the tip glowing red.
"Hey..." I tried to shrink away, but they just held me tighter. "No. No, please, do not..."
He didn't speak, just waved it slowly in front of my eyes. I could smell hot metal and burnt pine. I could feel the heat, going light headed with sudden fear and he just stood there with his eyes locked on mine, pointing the poker down at me, waving it around my face. Slowly he moved it down and I could feel the heat on my chin, my neck, my chest.
Then he jammed it up against my left nipple.
A hissing, feeling like ice at first, then... I screamed, uncontrollably, thrashing and bucking and twisting madly. Sathe shouted, more held me. The poker twisted and I think I passed out then.
Seconds... He was crouched over me, looking down into my face, still holding the poker. I could smell burnt meat. The pain in both my chest and leg was dull now and I was shivering, dimly realised I was in shock. His voice growled, then he grabbed my jaw and shook me until he was certain he had my attention. "You understand now?" he hissed. "You try something like that again, and we will simply hamstring you."
"Ness..." I croaked. My jaw didn't want to work. "Next time... better job."
His eyes widened and he glanced down at my chest. I had no urge to see what was there. Already the pain was returning. My leg spasmed and I could feel the blood drying there. It'd been sliced down to the muscle.
"You want to die?" He stared at me, as though not quite believing it, then snorted. "Ah, such loyalty and stupidity." Turning to his troops he gestured at me, "Alright, get that cleaned and patched." Then he gathered up his cloak and pushed out into the cold whiteness outside. The others dragged me back to the fireplace and dumped me there. Christ, but it hurt: almost like I was going to pass out, but it never quite happened.
A trooper approached me, a small bag in her hand. She crouched down near me and produced herbs, small sealed pots, a grey-brown stuff that looked like moss, and strips of cloth. I recognised her as the guard I'd had in the barn, the one who'd fed me. "I want to help you," she said slowly; enunciating. "I have your word you will behave?"
I nodded vaguely, "Yes."
Catching a breath she inched forward and chirred to herself. I didn't move as she worked on the wound on my leg, washed it clean, pressed the moss against it, then began binding it, wrapping coarse cloth around my leg. Considering where the gash was located - my upper-outer thigh - it was an extremely personal operation.
"Stay still," she hissed through her teeth when I flinched at an errant brush of fur against sensitive flesh. Oh God! Don't let me get an erection!
But of course, even with the pain, just thinking about it...
The Gulf Troops saw it, laughter hissed:
"Kas! I think it likes you!"
"Careful. You could hurt yourself there!"
"Ha, pity Mer'ap's not here! That could change her mind!"
The one working on my wound looked up at my face and hissed in amusement. "Not so different then. I am surprised you are in the mood."
I felt the heat rising in my ears. Her's fluttered madly as she settled the bandages, then moved on to my chest.
My nipple was gone, turned to a red and black ruin. Not as bad as it looked. He hadn't gone deep, being careful not to damage me too seriously. Still, it hurt enough when the female began to treat it and put the salve on, almost as much as when it happened.
The room had gone silent, the Gulf Sathe standing and watching as I moaned and ground my teeth, fighting to keep from striking out at the female ministering to me. I don't remember when she finished, just that one moment she was pressing ointment against the charred skin, the next she was packing up her equipment. "Finished," she told me. "You will be all right." Then she leaned closer to my head. "Take my advice," she whispered sotto voce. "Do not provoke the commander. He can be most unpleasant." Then louder she said, "Try not to do anything stupid that might reopen that. I will change it later."
"What? That mean jogging's out?" I panted in english. She scratched her neck, head cocked to one side in puzzlement, then she snorted and gathered up her kit.
The storm was still blowing the next day. It stopped us from going anywhere, but it also stopped any pursuit there might be. A stalemate. I wasn't going anywhere either. Outside, without clothing and in my condition, I would freeze to death before I could get a mile.
Still, they watched me. When I had to relieve myself, they sent a guard along. There was a shuttered window in the freezing little room that I would probably have been able to squeeze out of, but with the temperature outside hovering around zero, I wasn't about to try.
Now I had an idea of just how many of them there were: approximately twenty, a large number to be moving around deep in enemy territory. Capturing lill' ol' me was their only directive? I found that hard to swallow.
I guess I should've been flattered.
As the wind howled around outside and wormed its way through gaps that you could have sworn weren't there a minute ago, the seven Sathe sitting at the table played a game of chance that I guess must be universal; dice. Others were outside: barracked in the stables, on picket duty. My wrists and ankles were beginning to chafe from the constant rubbing of the iron manacles. Both my leg and chest wounds were continuous sources of nagging pain. I couldn't do much moving without gritting my teeth. The Sathe who was guarding me sat in a chair nearby, cleaning his already-gleaming sword, always keeping a green eye on me.
Bone dice rattled on the rough wooden table top amid the muted sibilants of Sathe voices and occasional bout of laughing and curses when someone won.
The day dragged by slowly. The evening meal was a kind of sausage. Like a dog I was fed the table scraps.
The manacles stayed on.
Afterwards, the cub was crouched by the fire cleaning the dirty pots in a tub of melt water, the iron and copper utensils clattering and rattling. As he worked he stared at me where I sat near him on the rug before the fire, at the extreme extension of my tether and trying to get as near to the heat as I could. Several times it looked as if he might say something, only to change his mind at the last second. So I sat in silence, watching him work.
As the evening dragged on into night the temperature plummeted again. I huddled up into a small ball in front of the open fire, for all the good that did. An icy draught needled across the room, wending its way up the chimney and leaving me shivering violently in its wake. My wounds ached as my muscles knotted up.
"Huh," a Sathe coughed. It was that female, the one who'd patched me up. She knelt beside me, looking me over. "What is the matter with you? Huh? Your leg?" She touched a hand to my leg and swore, "Mother's milk! You are still cold?" She stared then waved a shrug and left me again, going through the curtain to the back of the house. A few minutes later the commander himself appeared with a bundle tucked under one arm. Guards shifted and stirred themselves when he snapped orders, several baring their teeth and approaching me, their clawed feet clicking against wooden floorboards. Instinctively I tried to move back, away from them. They leapt forward and I yelped in pain when claws sank in. One of them grabbed me by the hair; dragging me to my knees, forcing my head back and laying bared claws alongside my throat. My chest roared pain. I began to raise my hands; the claws pressed harder. I froze motionless.
The Gulf commander stepped around in front of me, showing me the bundle. "You," he said slowly and clearly, "are going to get your clothing. Your chains will be removed and you will do exactly as I say. Anything else and you will be hamstrung. Cause trouble and we kill you. Your choice."
As simply as that. From the corners of my eyes I could see swords glinting.
"Understand?" the Sathe asked.
"Yes," I croaked.
I was hauled to my feet, the claws still at my throat whilst keys rattled in locks. The weights upon my wrists and ankles were lifted away with a clashing of heavy iron links.
The claws at my neck tightened still more, breathing became difficult, my leg and chest ached.
"Now, you will take the clothes and put them on... slowly and carefully. Understand?"
"Y... yes." I could hardly speak.
The claws released me and I gasped air, starting to reach for my throat. A sword tip tickled the skin of my back and I stopped moving, stopped breathing.
"Good," the Commander grinned, making sure I could see all his teeth. "Now these."
I carefully took the clothes from him. Rough-spun brown breeches and ragged cloak; tight for me, my leg hurt, my nipple burned as fabric brushed it, but they were warm and that was all I cared about. I wrapped the cloak around my shoulders and looked at the officer. Standing, I was almost a full head taller than he. Something flickered in his eyes, ears went back and nostrils flared. I knew fear when I saw it.
And that look vanished under anger and he snapped an order and the chains were brought forward again. I retreated a single small step and suddenly the claws were at my neck again, a low growling in my ear. I went rigid, forced to submit to the chill iron of the restraints again.
The Gulf Commander personally examined the manacles. "Keep your hands in sight all the time," he warned me. "Tomorrow the storm should have abated enough for us to leave. You are going to need the clothing. If the guards have cause to be suspicious of you, if you cause trouble, you will be punished. We do not want to kill you, but you will stay quiet even if we have to fill your skull with drugs."
He signalled for the soldier to release me and I sagged to the floor. They didn't try and stop me when I raised my hands to rub my sore neck; red smears on my fingertips when I looked at them.
"Fragile," the commander hissed.
"Fuck you!" I hissed right back.
He spread his hands in a Sathe shrug and then turned his back on me.
End of conversation.
The soldiers who had clustered around drifted back to their games of chance and story telling, leaving me huddled there, pulling the cloak tight around myself. There was little talking among them, the scrape of chair legs, the clatter of a keyring...
That got my attention. There on the table, the keyring, just eight, ten metres...
Damnation! I slumped again. They might as well be back in Mainport. Here am I, unarmed, chained to the floor, in a room full of hostiles. I was just going to get up, waltz over and say, "'scuse me, just borrowing these. Alright?"
Face it, Kelly. Your future don't look too bright.
More footsteps; a half-hearted kick at my ribs to get my attention as the female guard who'd patched me up crouched beside me: "Turn around." I complied. "Hold out your arms," she ordered.
"Do you enjoy this as much as I do?" I muttered as that female double-checked my bonds with a critical eye.
She gave the chains a tug, making sure the links were secure. As if I had a chance of breaking them. "I am only doing my job... can you move your fingers?"
"Yeah, right, sure..." I muttered in English as I wriggled my digits. Just doing her job. I'd heard that one before.
Her claws caught my shoulder. "Those noises, are they words?"
"What do you think?"
She growled. "I think you do not know when to keep your mouth shut. What did you say?"
"It was not important," I muttered. She squeezed my shoulder once - hard.
But the hands stayed on my shoulder even when the claws had retracted. Her eyes narrowed and she cocked her head, scrutinising my face. She had a curious ring of white fur that poked out from under the fringe of her mane, encircling her left ear and eye. When she moved her hand upwards, toward my face, I flinched away. She waited, then gently - almost tenderly - touched her fingers to my overgrown hair. She stroked once, twice, then dropped her hand again.
"What..." I began and automatically tried to lift my hands to my head only to be stopped when they reached the limit of their chain. "Why did you do that?"
She shrugged "I wanted to see what it felt like. Softer than it looks."
I wasn't sure when I'd started trembling, but then I was aware my chains were rattling. Suddenly I had to know... "What is going to happen to me?" I blurted.
That startled her. She stared at me, her nostrils flaring, then she shook her head. "You are to be taken to Riverport. Beyond that, I cannot be sure. I have heard rumours..." She broke off and looked around quickly. "There are whisperings that you can sway the balance of the war, ensuring victory for whoever owns you."
"Dammit, all I want is to return to my home! How am I supposed to sway the balance of the war if I cannot even remove these?!" the manacles clattered as I shook them.
She looked at the irons, then met my eyes for the briefest moment. "Listen," she lowered her voice to a whisper. "I will have nothing to do with helping you escape, but if you so choose, I can arrange a death that is a lot quicker." Her hand touched the silver inlaid wood of her scabbard as she spoke. "It could be far preferable to what will probably happen to you in Riverport."
I didn't say anything. She suddenly looked around as if embarrassed and flowed to her feet in one smooth move. "Sleep now, all right?"
I nodded mutely, not caring if she understood or not, and curled up, my cheek against the rug. Was she trying to be friendly? That offer she had made... Was it going to be that bad?
I shuddered at the cold chill that ran down my spine.
The shadows on the rough wood walls danced and flickered into unearthly shapes. Nooks and corners had their own little pools of darkness. Sathe moved around the room without trouble in the dimness, cat's eyes acting like little green mirrors when the firelight caught them.
There was a rattle of metal on metal from the corner by the fireplace. I looked up. The cub gave me a startled look, then gathered up his pots and pans from where he had been taking entirely too long cleaning up.
I slept badly that night: long, indeterminable periods of uneasy wakefulness interspaced with dreams.
I dreamt badly that night.
Dashboard lights. Outside, signposts flashed through the headlights, too fast to read. Tenny was at the wheel, cigar clamped in a corner of his mouth. In the hellish green glow of the dash lights I could see he was grinning, laughing about something. I couldn't hear over the growl and crackle of the engine.
I looked at the sky out my window: glowing red, The air was thick and cloying: like smog, like the choking reek of thamil. Trees were dark shapes like jagged teeth, fangs and claws with a sullen slit of a moon hanging over them.
The sky blinked.
Now there were flames, a searing heat, only this time it was me inside the inferno. Through the flames licking over the windshield I saw a shape blurred by the heat: a human figure standing with head bowed and shoulders slumped, a helmet dangling forgotten from a hand. The heat and noise became unbearable...
I thrashed and cried out and opened my eyes to flames not a foot from my face.
"Jesus!" I swallowed a lungfull of smoke. Choking and coughing I backpedalled to the end of my chain, retreating into the corner between stone fireplace and the wall.
The centre of the room was ablaze, a pool of blue-orange fire spreading from the shattered remains of an oil lamp, crawling across the floor between me and the rest of the room. Already it was climbing wooden posts, crackling into the rafters. Ah shit! The roof was thatch!
The chain still refused to give. I grabbed at the tether and hauled back frantically. "Goddamn! You bastards! HELP! Goddamn! HELP ME!"
Beyond the flames and smoke the Sathe were frantically fighting a losing battle against the fire; already being pushed back. Several of them manhandled a bulky object over to the fire and tipped it. Water poured across the floor, washing burning oil aside, but not extinguishing it. The oil just floated on the water, but it created a causeway through fire. A single trooper in leather armour, arm across face, pushed through. That female again.
Already her fur was curling and smoking with the heat. She pulled at the shackles then yelled back through the fire, "KEYS! WHERE ARE THE KEYS!"
There was blurred activity. "I do not know!" came the reply from the other side of the flames.
"They are not here!"
Then the thatch caught.
There was a soundless explosion of light, a pressure as air was torn from the room. The female looked up in panic, then turned and fled. The flames roared up behind her.
"Nooo! GODDAMN YOU!" I screamed uselessly into the fire, grabbing onto the chain and yanking until my skin burned and tore and bled, screaming and the staple pulled out of the floor sending me recoiling into the wall.
Now the chains tangled my legs.
Flames spun about me, burning, as I coughed and hacked and tried to scramble for a footing. Smoke rushed into my lungs and I doubled up; coughing. The cold stones of the fireplace were hard up against my back, the flames drawing closer. A rafter collapsed in a shower of sparks and a hand grabbed my shoulder, sharp points digging in. A white-shrouded figure was leaning over me and for a split second I wondered if perhaps I should have adopted a religion.
It shouted somethin inaudible over the roar of flames and fumbled with the locks on my ankles. I felt the fetters on my feet fall away.
Part of the ceiling fell in, steam hissing and sputtering as snow plunged into the flames and was evaporated.
"Hurry!" it screamed into my ear.
I was on my knees, gagging on pain, smoke-blinded, trying to stay low as I stumbled after my guide through the smoke until the Sathe vanished. Where... ?
I all but fell into the hole. A hand grabbed my arm and tugged. "Come on!"
A tunnel, dark as pitch and tiny, meant for Sathe stature. I struggled through on belly and elbows, cobwebs dragging at my hair. Every time my chest or leg scraped the ground I wanted to scream, feeling myself go lightheaded, but I couldn't pass out, not there. It was impossible to see, but I could feel, feel the moist earth, wooden supports, bugs that crunched under my hands. Fear when my shoulders wedged and dirt pattered on my neck.
God! Not a cave-in.
Yet, amazingly, it held as I frantically pushed my way through. There was smoke in the tunnel now and breathing was becoming harder by the second. Head down, I crawled...
Right into the feet of the Sathe ahead of me. He did something and a cold, dim light filtered past him, along with freezing, fresh air.
"Come on!" he hissed.
I followed him, spilling out of the hole like a worm from its tunnel, rolling into the shock of snow in a low culvert. Red glare shone from the farm fifty metres or so behind us. I snatched a peek: just a pyre of flame with the skeleton of the house in the heart. Silhouettes of Sathe dashing around in confusion. What did all the light do to their night vision? Could they see me?
A hand grabbed my arm, pulling me along. Then we were running, stumbling across a night-cloaked white landscape, roaring of fire hiding the noise of chains, perfect white crystals, glittering with red and orange light, crunching under my feet. So soon after that scorching heat it was bitterly cold. My damaged leg buckled, sending me sprawling, ice crystals scratching at my skin. I spat snow and scrambled after my rescuer.
Again I dove headlong, rolling, landing in a drift in a ditch, almost screaming as my nipple ripped along the snow. I shook ice from my face, feeling the aching chill lancing into my skin again. For a time we lay there before a swat on my back got me up and running again. Across a wide space; blue-dark under the inconstant moonlight. My heart hammered; surely they would see us... a shout... a crossbow bolt... pursuit. They would catch me! I couldn't outrun Sathe!
There was no outcry. Snow-covered fields merged with woodland. Night and shadow mixed under trees. Branches I couldn't see tore at me as I stumbled over invisible roots. Thank god my feet were so numb, I didn't feel the pain as I stubbed my toe yet again. My wounded leg collapsed twice more and the second time only the other's aid got me back on my feet.
He was short, so small... The cub! By God! the cub. The mask against the smoke had fallen from his muzzle and his eyes were wide as he glanced back past me, then at me.
"Th... thank you," I managed to get past my rattling teeth.
He waved that aside, hissing, "Come on! Run!"
"I cannot see! It is too dark."
A small hand caught mine and pulled. "Follow!"
We ran. I followed him through the trees, not seeing anything else, just holding his hand and trusting him absolutely. Branches lashed me and I held my other arm over my face, protecting my eyes.
Now the cub stopped me, made me kneel, guided my head into absolute darkness. With my hands I felt another earthen tunnel - this one not more than a metre long - then a tiny round chamber, soft leaves and scraps of cloth lining the floor, the heavy smell of loam and... and something else. Here I collapsed, gasping air, the acrid aftertaste of smoke lining my mouth and throat.
"Wait here," I was told.
"W... what? Where are you..." There was a scrabbling sound.
"Hello?" I ventured.
After a time I reached out, trying to determine the limits of my burrow. My shivering hands touched cold earth, then cloth. A few blankets of coarse-woven cloth; something like canvass. I grabbed handfuls and wrapped myself, trying to get away from the freezing earth and air, huddling in the dark, slowly thawing.
The cub was a while returning. I heard the panting in the entrance to the den and remembered wolves before a quiet voice reassured me. There was a metallic tinkling, then hands pushed aside the blankets to work at my irons. It was only seconds before tumblers clicked and the shackles came off.
"Y... y... you have the k... k..." my teeth were chattering so hard I couldn't work my mouth around the Sathe words.
"Quiet down," he growled. "Your hands." The manacles were quickly removed.
"T... thank you."
Fur and leathery pads on small fingers touched my skin. "You are still cold? There are more coverings. Here..." It was almost a bed he helped me find in the darkness: soft furs under me and blankets - albeit thin and feeling worn to my fingertips - on top. He settled me there, then said, "I have to go now."
"Hey! Please wait..."
"They will miss me. There is some food over there. I will come back," he told me, then there were scuffling sounds and his presence was gone.
"Wait!" I called after him. "Don't..." I trailed off into the silence.
There was no reply.
I crouched at the border of field and forest, hidden behind the snow-dusted skeleton of a bush and a drift banked against a fallen trunk.
Now the storm had passed, the sky was a pure cobalt blue with a white sun and the world was a clean as a blank sheet of paper. Over there, a stark contrast to the crystalline snow and achingly clear sunlight, the farm was a cluster of low outbuildings around a blackened mound of timbers. A stiff breeze whisked tails of powder across the fields, piled it millimetre by millimetre against the buildings, making it even colder. And over there a hare worried at the a few remaining leaves on the lower branches of a bush.
There was no other sign of life.
That morning I'd woken alone to light at the entrance to the burrow. It was a strange little chamber and I spent a time trying to puzzle out what animal had dug it: a badger set? Too big. Wolf? Perhaps, but I didn't think so.
There was food, as the cub had told me the previous night, but precious little. I ate, rationing myself. The dried meat was tough, like old leather, but it filled a hole.
For some time I waited there, hiding. Would my abductors think I'd died in the blaze, or would they be looking for me? Should I stay put or make tracks out of there? Where the hell was I? I spent hours waiting, hoping the cub would return, but there was no sign of him.
Finally I crawled out of my sanctuary.
Strange how people who have never before encountered snow have the impression that is soft, dry, and fluffy. It is none of these things. It is inimical to humans. New-fallen powder may be soft, but after a time it can compress, melt, form a layer of ice on its surface that is quite capable of breaking the skin. My impromptu marathon the last night had left me with lacerations that only that morning were beginning to make themselves noticed. Could've been worse. I'd torn the blankets into strips, divided them between makeshift moccasins and mittens. They'd provide some protection against that, but they weren't waterproof. Frostbite: I'd have to take my chances.
Outside, I squinted in the sunlight, the first I'd seen in God-knows-how-long. I was somewhere in the forest, snow knee-deep all around me. The kid had done a good job of covering our tracks, but I was able to trace tell-tale signs - a half-covered footprint, trampled bracken - back the way we'd come.
The tunnel opening was gone; closed and buried under snow. Just as well. There were the prints of adult Sathe along the culvert: most likely Gulf Sathe. Just making sure.
I limped over to the homestead and spent a while poking through the wreckage. The farmhouse was a gutted ruin. The chimney had collapsed into a pile of rubble. Some of the stones had been moved in an aborted attempt by someone to search the debris, a few beams shifted, but otherwise the ruins were undisturbed.
I pulled the cloak tighter about my shoulders and nudged a blackened beam; it shifted with a grating and a slight cloud of soot. Not very thorough on their part. If they HAD searched the remains they'd have discovered the lack of a body, or even of the chains.
Outside the stable there were the wheel marks of wagons, hoofprints of llamas and bison, already half filled with wind-blown snow. Inside, there were half a dozen crude pallets arranged about the remains of a small fire. Nothing there. The other rickety outbuilding was a storage shed of some kind. Any food had been cleaned out, but there was still some heavy canvass sacking, a few farm implements.
I took up a rusty knife with a handle bound in varnished string and set to work.
A few hours later I was leaving the farm again, this time for the last time. Even through the crude padded jacket and leggings I'd made from the sacking I felt the bite of the wind.
New England winters are harsh.
Most of the day was behind me by the time I reached the road. Like all Sathe roads this far from habitation it was little more than wheel ruts following the path of least resistance around boulders, steep hills, lakes, and gorges. I had almost passed it; missing it completely. Buried beneath the snow it was all but invisible.
I tightened my hold on the cloak around my shoulders and set off at jog... well, a fast walk actually, following the road north. At a guess, my captors would have been taking me south, toward the Gulf realm... But then again they might have been headed west, into the neutral territory of the Open Realm. No, not at this time of year. The Appalachians... Skyscratchers would be impassable. And this road was the only way to anywhere I had, so I stuck with it.
Kilometre after kilometre crawled by. The cloth wrapped around my feet became torn and soaked. Through the damp, chilling cloth my feet grew cold, numb. They felt as if they weren't even really there; just abstract lumps on the ends of my legs I'd dreamed up to walk on. Muscles that hadn't been used in the long months in the Citadel started complaining, occasionally balking, causing me to stumble. The gash on my thigh throbbed, adding to the pain. I'm not sure when it reopened, but blood began seeping through the rags and running down my leg to chill in a sticky mess.
My jog turned to a walk, to a stagger.
Finally, my legs gave out completely, leaving me sprawled and exhausted in a rut.
An ancient conifer, a pine, with branches that formed a curtain to the ground. Inside this circle, near the trunk, the snow had not encroached and the ground was dry, covered with needles.
I pushed the branches out of the way and wearily sank down on the needles, leaning against the trunk. Huddled in the cloak, I tore at a strip of the dried meat with my teeth, too exhausted to make much of an impression on it. I dropped the meat and closed my eyes.
"Just five minutes," I told myself.
I don't know exactly how long I slept.
A llama's whining bleat sounded through the veils of sleep, jolting me to bleary awareness.
Dim light - morning light - was filtering in through the branches of the tree, throwing moving, stippled light across the ground and me. Beyond the branches, I caught a glimpse of rapid movement before they were pushed aside amidst a deluge of pine needles and snow crystals.
Two cloaked Sathe were silhouetted against the morning sun shining over their shoulder, dazzling me. I gave a yell; fear and desperation turning it into an animal's howl, and hurled myself at them.
They seemed as surprised as I was, falling backwards as they fumbled for their weapons. I pushed past them, knocking them aside, and found myself in a circle of Sathe.
My leg screamed pain as I spun on the spot, but found that the two I'd knocked down had recovered, their swords in their hands. I kept turning, looking only for a way out of there; all I saw was the glittering steel of swords and knives, the swirl of cloaks, shaggy faces with flattened ears snarling.
Something landed on me from behind, clinging and tangling: a net. I tried to throw it off again, but someone tackled me and I hit the ground hard. Thrashing and kicking, I tried to wriggle free, but my legs were pinned. I jabbed with my fingers and elbows and was rewarded with a grunt of pain. A hand grabbed my arm, trying to hold that down as well, hit my chest, sending skyrockets of agony bursting in my skull. I twisted my wrist, caught hold of the hand and wrenched the arm, aiming to crack the elbow. A Sathe howled in pain.
Then they all piled on and hammered away until the lights went out.
Something sent a white-hot burst of stars through the back of my skull and made me whimper with pain.
I was curled up on a hard surface covered with a thin smattering of reeking straw. Everything was shaking and jolting. There was the distant clattering of wheels and squeaking of axles. A bump, and again the lump on the back of my head met the floor with agonising results.
Dim. A low, wooden roof, metal bars and beyond those a rough, canvass fabric with pale, yellow light filtering through. Animal stink was overwhelmingly strong. My clothes, the rags I'd cobbled together, they were all gone, but the temperature was bearable. Barely; I was still shivering with the cold.
I rolled over onto my hands and knees, my head hanging and my vision blurring in time to the throbbing in my skull. A low growling made me look up into a set of amber eyes and bared fangs. I flung myself backwards against the bars of my cage as the wolf in the next cage snapped and snarled viciously at me.
Cages of all sizes stacked in the back of the wagon, animals of all kinds locked within them: Minks, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, gophers, birds of various kinds, a badger, and the beady, bespectacled eyes of a ferret watched me. There were furs of all kinds hanging stacked in piles, other fresher ones hanging from the roof. My prison was a cube about a metre on all sides; not nearly enough room to let me stand or stretch out. The bars were grids of solid iron, a couple of centimetres thick. A clay container with a few dregs of water left in it was strapped to one of the bars. The door was just a hinged side of the cage, held shut by an iron bolt; no lock.
The wolf and I were the largest creatures in the menagerie. It stopped lunging at the bars but retreated to a far corner of its cage and kept growling while it watched me strain my fingers through the bars to reach for the bolt. No go. The thing was rusted stuck, my trembling fingers couldn't budge it.
My throat was parched and swollen. The water in the dish looked fresh, probably melted snow. I drank it all; then shaking wildly, I curled up into a small ball in a corner of the cage, futilely trying to burrow into the straw for as much warmth as I could.
They'd got me again, but why wasn't I guarded? Why was I shut in here? It didn't look as if I were going anywhere, but wouldn't they at least have someone watching me?
What would they do with me?
The wagon creaked and groaned on through the day and occasionally, I could catch snatches of Sathe voices from outside. When we finally stopped there was a long heart-pounding wait before the flap at the back was flung open.
The wolf shrank back, snarling and I cowered back with an arm flung up against the half-blinding light. The Sathe who rocked the wagon as he clambered into the back of the wagon was a complete stranger, not wearing armour, just a pair of dirty breeches and a thick leather guard around his left wrist. From the wooden bucket he was carrying he pulled something that he tossed into the wolf's cage, then dipped his hand back into the bucket and threw a lump into mine.
For a time I stared at it. I was starving.
But raw meat?!
I snatched it up, ripped a chunk off and forced it down. Cold and raw, juices trickling over my hands, like rubber in my mouth.
The wolf had already devoured his meal and was snuffling around in case he'd missed anything when my stomach clenched violently. I doubled over and puked, bringing back up what'd just gone down, heaving until my stomach was empty and I was curled up in a retching, trembling ball.
"It looks ill, Ma'am," a rough voice grated. "It hasn't even tried to eat anything since it vomited everywhere."
I lay quietly, staring dully at the Sathe who appeared beyond the bars of my cage. A female, decked in blue and dark green; a cloak and breeches. She stared at me, then turned to address someone behind her, "What have you been feeding it?"
"Meat. It ate some, then was sick and has touched nothing since."
Something sharp jabbed me and I tried to press further back into the unyielding iron. "Try something else," she said. "Try and keep it alive. Incredibly ugly thing. Have you ever heard of anything like it before?"
"Saaaa," there was a long drawn-out hiss. "Neither have I. That rare. It is bound to be worth something then. Perhaps it prefers plants: berries and leaves."
"But then it would not have touched the meat."
"Huh! Depends how hungry it was. Bears eat both. Try it." She turned to leave.
"Who are you?" I tried to say, my voice seizing in my swollen throat.
The female's head snapped around to her companion. "What? Did you say..."
I licked my lips and forced my mouth around the Sathe words. "Who are you?"
"My Ancestors..." Sathe gaped at me. "It TALKS!"
I struggled to sit up, finally propping my back against the bars and panting with the effort. "Who... who are you?"
The female squatted before the cage, staring at me. "Can you understand us?"
She didn't KNOW! My heart leapt. "You are not Gulf?"
There were more faces appearing behind her, all staring at me.
Again she looked me over, as if unable to believe what she was seeing. Slowly her ears went back and she hissed, "No, Eastern. What are you?"
But I was just staring at her. "Eastern?"
"Ohjesus!" I buried my head in my hands and sobbed in sheer relief.
"Answer me!" the female hissed. "What ARE you!"
I looked at her, at her face, the anger and pure distaste in her eyes. I suddenly felt fear. "My n... name is Kelly. Please, let me out."
"Let you out?!" she snorted incredulously. "Something like you must be worth a fortune!"
"Wha..." My heart lurched into doubletime. "No! You cannot..."
"But I can," she smiled. "Who did you escape from. Who was your previous owner? Ah, I can make a lot of profit from you and I do not intend to lose you!"
I made a small noise, not really believing what I was hearing. "But... No owner... I am... I am not an... animal."
"You smell like one! You stay in there."
"No!" I lunged forward, grabbing at her through the bars.
She was faster than anything has a right to be. Her sword jabbed my shoulder, drawing a stream of blood. I scrambled back with a yelp and clutched at the wound, panting.
"Please. Do not do this. I am not... dangerous... I am a friend to the Shirai. Please! You have my word I... I will stay!"
Her muzzle wrinkled, baring white, pointed teeth and she ran her gaze over me, taking in the tattered and torn clothing, bandages across my chest and leg, the red marks on my wrists...
"A friend to the Shirai you say," she sneered. "Not dangerous... Animal, you just tried to attack me. You have broken S'kasavienr's arm and the Shirai would never consort with a reeking pile of filth such as you." With that she turned and jumped from the wagon. I saw Sathe had gathered behind the wagon where they were staring at me. "What are you gaping at!" the female snarled at them. "Move your tails! Go! Get out of here! There is work to do!"
She turned to the Sathe with the leather wristguards. The gamekeeper, I realised with a hollow feeling. "I want that thing chained," she ordered. "Keep it alive, but do not let it out on any account."
The gamekeeper looked at me. "But if it knows the Shirai..."
"You do not believe that?! Look at it! Look at the marks on its wrists! It has been chained recently and I am willing to lay bets that it escaped from someone's collection. Perhaps even the Shirai's."
"No," I croaked in disbelief. "No! I did..."
"You shut it!" she snarled at me. "Keep it shut! We can always take your tongue!" Then she turned back to the gamekeeper: "You heard how anxious it was to learn if we were Eastern. It may be worth a fortune." The Sathe looked at me and I stared back in shock. "I know several collectors who would pay a great deal for a rare specimen like this."
Later on, several of the Sathe opened the cage and forced me to lie face-down at sword point. I couldn't do anything while they fastened an iron collar around my neck and riveted it shut with hammers. When they withdrew I just stared at the heavy links of the chain running from my collar to the bars of the cage.
"It is an animal," the female had said. "Keep it alive, but whatever you do, don't let it escape. If it even gets out of that cage I will have your hides for blankets!"
The shivering and fever got worse.
They fed me pieces of raw meat or stale bread, ignoring my protests. At first I tried to force the meals down, but I just couldn't stomach it, there wasn't enough water and gradually I couldn't be bothered to make the effort to eat at all. I had to live with rotting food and the stink of my own wastes until they were cleaned away by a perfunctionary bucket of freezing water sloshed into my cage when someone got around to it.
The days were hot and cold blurs of darkness and nauseating jolting and Sathe faces thrusting inedible food upon me. My leg throbbed in pain, the wound turning black and foul-smelling. My body kept trying to vomit, but there was nothing left. All I could do was lie there, staring dully at the bars, the wounds the collar had chafed in my neck stinging painfully. Noises of the animals chittering and squeaking merged with the dull pounding in my skull. Time stretched, melting with the misery until even that died into a drifting detachment.
I was almost dead by the time the caravan reached Sand Circle.
Winter sunlight streamed in as the canvass flap across the back of the wagon was thrown aside.
The Sathe soldier in blue and silver livery looked bored as he carried out his inspection of the wagon. His eyes travelled over me, to the wolf curled up and staring sullenly back at him, to the other cages, then back to me. He leaned closer, blinked in mild bemusement, his muzzle wrinkling at the stench from my cage, then took a scroll from its case at his belt and unrolled it. With widening eyes, he looked from the scroll to me then back to the scroll.
I stared back without really seeing him.
Then he was gone and I faded out again.
The voices woke me up. The cage door hung open and Sathe leaned over me, their voices loud as they called to others, but their hands were gentle as they touched me. Anger set their ears back when they examined the black collar biting into my neck, then tools were working at the metal.
"Careful! He's been burned."
"Tortured you mean... By my mother's tits! Look at his leg!"
"I wouldn't keep my llama like this!"
"Rot you, move! Out of the way!" Another face - familiar black fur - pushing others aside and freezing in shock. "Oh, my Ancestors. K'hy? K'hy Do not move! My Ancestors. Do not try to speak. You are safe now. Hear me? Safe. Rot it! Get him out of there!"
I croaked something unintelligible and tried to touch her face. She caught my hands and clasped them in her own, then a blanket covered me; warmth after so long. When they lifted me onto a makeshift stretcher she stayed by me, stroking my face. I remember glimpses of blue sky and a sun that dazzled me, also a furious female Sathe being held by guards, her hide slashed and bleeding from marks left by raking claws. There was shouting, then a pause while several unfamiliar Sathe leaned over to stare down at me. One of them said something, then I was moved again.
Indoors, carried through doors, up stairs, along corridors. In a bright room Sathe fussed over my leg and chest while the dark-furred female stroked my brow and calmed me during the pain. After that came the warmth and vague pleasure of a bath, hands with fur slicked down by water washing me then carefully rubbing me down with rough towels. There were the cool sheets of a bed against my bare skin, then the salty flavour of something hot forced between my lips. Hands held my mouth closed while I choked and gagged and finally swallowed and then the fever hit me again.
I awoke with a gasp in almost complete darkness. Sweat beaded on my face and body, the clammy cotton sheets adhering to my skin. For several minutes I just lay there, gasping and listening to my heart settling down to a regular pulse. The dream was already fading back into the recesses of my mind, but it still left me shaking. Flashes - barely remembered glimpses of pain, bars and blades, hate and claws...
I let out a shuddering sigh, finally taking a breath and looking around. Blackness, the faint glow of a dying fire. The only door was delineated by the thin spread of light shining through from the other side.
The sanded floorboards were cool and smooth under my bare feet as I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood, grabbing for the side of the bed as my legs buckled beneath me. I rested, examining my wounds. My upper thigh was heavily bandaged and was throbbing angrily. My ruined nipple was scabbed over and looked absolutely terrible, but seemed clean. I grimaced and rested a few seconds, then tried again. This time I made it to the door, but even that exhausted me. I had to lean against the frame as I fumbled with the latch. The door swung open with a squeal of misaligned hinges and I squinted into glow of the lantern on the wall opposite.
A long corridor panelled in a dark wood, rugs on the floor and paintings on the walls. Closed doorways flanked either side of the passage while at one end it finished in a latticed window - dark outside - and at the other in the blank wall of a T-junction. I made it three-quarters of the way to the junction before I had to rest, slumped against a panel beside a portrait of a Sathe noble with a condescending gaze.
A Sathe carrying a tray and decked out in the simple kilt of a servant turned into the corridor, saw me and jerked back with a startled bark. The tray hit the floor with a crash and a rattle as several bowls rolled to a standstill, their contents staining a rug brown.
For a second he just gaped at me while I watched him nervously. He was a stranger, and recently I had had some bad experiences with strange Sathe. When he closed his mouth and came towards me, I flinched away.
"Hai, no." He stopped, setting his face in what he must have hoped was a reassuring expression. "You should not be out here," he said in the same kind of tone one might use on a child. A couple of paces away from me he stopped, held out his hand, then drew it back again. "Can you understand?" he asked, unsure of himself. "You must go back to your room."
"No," I shook my head. "Where is Tahr?"
"Your room, please!"
"Fuck off, runt !" I pushed past him and lurched off down the corridor, reeling against walls. The domicile scurried after, futilely pleading that I return to my quarters, that he would send Remae to me. Sathe appeared in doorways, stepping back as I passed. Finally several soldiers in the livery of the Eastern Realm burst into the corridor in front of me. I snarled at them, sweat running down my face, and they started to crouch, their hands going for their swords.
"No, do not hurt him!" the servant yelled.
"Hurt HIM?!" one of the guards snarled. "He was not the one I was worried about!" However they left their swords and claws sheathed and began to move in on me. I only struggled briefly, futilely. I could scarcely stand. What hope did I have against armed troopers? I gave in, letting them half-walk, half-carry me back to my room.
I lay limply on the bed and simply stared at the ceiling while a fire was laid and lit and guards stared at me. I could feel the traces of fever burning in my body; just dying embers, an echo of the heat that had raged and stormed through my dreams.
When the door opened again, I turned my head to see the moving blackness that was Remae enter. Her eyes flared briefly in my direction before she turned to the guards. There was a brief exchange with several references to yours truly, then the troopers bowed and left. Remae snagged a chair and brought it over to my bedside, sitting down and leaning forward with hands clasped on her knees.
There was a pause.
"How are you feeling?" she finally asked.
I lolled my head over to see her better. "Where is Tahr?"
Her ears matted, "Still in Mainport. A messenger has been dispatched."
"Uhhh?" I looked around. "I thought this was Mainport."
Her hand waved as she waved a negative. "No, Sand Circle. Mainport is six days away. The trappers who found you brought you here."
I closed my eyes and grimaced. It was a haze. "Trappers?"
"You do not remember?"
I tried. "There were Sathe and... and a cage. Only pieces... I am sorry."
Remae leaned back into the chair and steepled her hands, her chin resting on two fingers. It almost looked as if she were praying and that might have been funny at another place, another time.
"There's no need to be, K'hy. Their intention was to take you to Mainport, to sell you, but I doubt that you would have survived the journey." She reached out and took my arm. Her stubby thumb and forefinger were able to close around my forearm. "It is nothing I would wish to remember. You were nothing but bones with a little flesh attached. You still are. That little walk you took will not help. You must rest..."
There was an interruption then as the door opened and a servant entered with a tray. Remae waited until he had placed it upon a table and left, then the Marshal rose and poured water from a jug into a strangely wrought cup: all lopsided with swirls and bulges in the glass. She picked up a small sachet and looked at me. "This is to help you sleep. It is tasteless and quite safe for you; we have been using it to quell the dreams you have been having."
I drew back slightly into the cushions. More drugs. "Do you really think I need it?"
I sighed: "Very well."
With a delicate claw she tore sachet open and poured a powdery substance into the water, stirred it slowly with a swizzle stick. I cautiously sniffed the concoction, then while Remae propped my shoulders up, I drank. She was right, there was absolutely no taste and the water was the best thing I'd felt in ages. "It will take a short time to work," she said as she laid the glass aside.
I lay back and waited for my awareness to start to fade.
After a while: "K'hy?"
"Hmmph?" I mumbled, already floating away on warm waves.
"Can you forgive us? For everything Sathe have done to you, can you forgive us?"
"I will work on it," I said, then smiled and fumbled after her hand. She hesitated, then clasped it: just lightly at first.
The Marshal of the Eastern Realm held my hand and watched me until I slept again.
Thri ai Hast, lord of the Hast clan sat at the head of the table. A young, slightly-built male Sathe. Red breeches went well with his reddish-brown fur and a distinctive white fur blaize marked his chest fur over his sternum, if that's what you call it on a Sathe.
Beside him, his mate was a female who looked young... well, no older than Tahr, with fawn-coloured fur, dark stripes on her forearms, blue breeches. In each ear she bore a single, silver ring. Opposite, Remae was a black, muscular figure innocuously sipping delicately at her spouted wine goblet.
The room wasn't the large hall where banquets and meals were held to impress visiting nobility, it was a more informal place. Dark wooden panels and a few tapestries lined the walls while a pine table dominated the centre of the room. A fireplace set in one wall blazed fiercely, keeping the room and the food set on an iron grid before it, warm.
Neither of the nobles seemed to know what to make of me.
There was no doubt that they'd had plently of time to study me while I slept. I had a hazy recollection of the Clan Lord's female standing over me, hastily pulling her hand away from the scars on my chest as I opened my eyes. What had she been thinking? Disgust? fear? perhaps sympathy?
And now they watched me again. The small amount of meat on the platter before me had been specially overcooked, tasting fantastic to me, but the looks upon the faces of the Sathe as they ate their own almost-raw fare made it obvious that they wondered how I could eat the charred stuff.
Of course they asked me what I was, where I was from, how I came here. So - once again - I told my story. It was starting to become a litany, but what the hell; it was great for breaking the ice. Eventually the conversation worked its way on through the smalltalk to the point where Remae explained what had happened after my abduction:
"We did not know what had happened when you disappeared, K'hy." Remae paused to rip a gobbet of meat from the haunch she held in both hands, then continued with juices matting the fur around her mouth. "Tahr went ordered immediate searches of the town, the Citadel, and the countryside. Messengers were sent to all the nearby towns to alert the garrisons.
"At first we did not know what had happened to you. They said you'd gone and we didn't know if you had decided to leave us of your own will or had been taken by force, but when we found traces of thamil in your quarters the Shirai went berserk. She ordered a massive search of all towns and roads between Mainport and the western borders."
"Excuse me, Marshal," Thri looked slightly puzzled. "Thamil? What relevance does that have?"
Remae looked at me before answering. "From what I have been told, it does not affect him as it does us. To him it is a powerful soporific. That is why we have been using a derivative of it to help him sleep."
"Thamil?" Thri repeated, looking at me. "Why?"
I shrugged. "I am not entirely sure. I... work differently from you. Things like thamil have different effects on me. Not so pleasant."
The Sathe still looked bewildered. Their nobility used thamil as humans used designer drugs or used to use expensive tobacco; how could it be dangerous to anyone? That was the point when the conversation turned to human vices and pleasures. Awkward and somewhat embarrassing to me, filled with entertaining titbits for the Sathe. It was some time later before it wound its way back to the present situation.
"Remae, how long have I been gone?"
"Two and a half weeks now."
What? God, how long had they kept me drugged? Everything had been so chaotic, I'd lost all track. How long had it been since the trappers had found me? Since the fire?
"Do you think they will be all right?" I asked quietly.
Thri looked away while Remae stared into her goblet, swirled the wine inside. "We will not know until the patrol returns... It will depend upon the Gulf troops," Thri answered.
I swallowed hard to choke back the lump forming in my throat.
"K'hy," Remae said, I looked at her and saw her expression was gentle and a little sad, "We will not be able to wait for the patrol."
"Yeah, I know." I sighed. "Please, if you will excuse me."
"Of course," Thri said.
"Do you need help?" Remae asked.
I shook my head. The marshall cocked her head, watching me shuffle out on my walking stick.
The room was simple, wooden panelling, a shuttered window, a few pieces of furniture and of course the circular bed in the centre of the room. The only light came from the fire that had been laid so the room would be a comfortable temperature for me. Even so, I sat with my legs crossed in the middle of the bed, the blankets pulled up around my shoulders like a shawl. In my mind I ran over what I had done... what I could have done.
I should've realised what would happen to the family. With me gone, the bastards would have had no further use for them when they moved out... They were alien, I was alien, but that family had set light to their own home to help me. At what cost to themselves... ?
The door squeaked slightly as it swung open. I looked up, startled. Remae stepped into the room, one hand holding the door. She was almost invisible in the dim light, her dark fur blurring in with the shadows, but her eyes burned like green coals. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I am fine," I forced a smile. "Did you want something?"
"I was just checking on you. Tahr would have my pelt if anything..." She trailed off then with a gentle hiss. She closed the door and came to stand by the edge of the bed. "K'hy, I noticed it downstairs. What is wrong?" The glowing embers of the fire shone through her fur, outlining her in flickering orange. "Do you want to talk?"
"What makes you think there is something the matter?"
She snorted. "I have stood here and watched you scream as you lived the emotions of your dreams: fear, pain, hatred, love, pleasure... I think I have known you long enough to be able to read your moods. I can tell when something is bothering you. Do you want to talk?"
"No," I shuddered. "Please, just leave me alone." It just washed over me: I couldn't face the... the ALIEN in front of me. I was scared and alone in a world where I was a pawn in a game I only half understood. All I wanted to do was curl up and wait till it went away.
She ducked her head. "All right, then. As you wish." She walked back to the door and placed one hand on the latch. "They would have killed them anyway. Do not blame it on yourself... Good sleep, K'hy."
The door's hinges screamed like a comment behind her.
The cellars of the Keep were cold, dark. They reeked of urine and something less tangible. Fear? Beneath my feet the steps were damp and slimy, as were all things down here. The stones of the walls leaked moisture and lichen abounded in these dank corridors and stairs. It was a screaming contrast to the culture of the panelled and ornate hallways upstairs. A textbook dungeon.
The torch of the Sathe guard in front of me began to gutter and he paused to pull another pair from a rust-encrusted iron sconce in the wall. The wood sputtered and smoked into life and the guard continued down the passage that was an inch deep in opaque water.
"Here," he finally said, stopping at a heavy door barred by a wooden beam. He started to open it, then hesitated, tipping his head and asking, "Are you sure?"
"Just open it," I snapped, nerves making me touchy.
He shrugged then removed the beam and stood it aside while he pulled the door open. Warped from the moisture, it stuck halfway. The fetid stench that wafted out of that hole was indescribable, had me dry-retching.
The cell was tiny: two metres by two, and not tall enough for me to stand upright. I held the torch up, squinting past the flame to make sense of the cell's shadows. It was the only light, without it the cell would've been a black, wet, reeking hole. Opposite, in a niche carved into the damp stone wall, the lone occupant was shielding her eyes from the sudden light, blinking, dazzled. Then she made a small, strangled noise.
"N... No... No," she choked. "Guard... GUARDS!"
The rough stone walls seemed to swallow her cry. Even so, the guard outside must have heard her, but he didn't respond. Oh Jeeze, she was a pathetic sight: There were dark scratches down her muzzle, one of her ears was ripped and torn, her fur was filthy and plastered to her skin by water and dirt, and she had obviously not been eating. Rust-stained manacles around her wrists were chained to an iron loop in the wall. They rattled as she held her hands out as if trying to push me away.
"GUARD!" she screamed again, then her eyes seemed to glaze, refusing to focus on me. "Go... Go... Get out, get outgetoutgetoutgetout..." she was panting wildly.
I held the torch out to the side as I approached her, sidestepping a puddle in the centre of the cell. She shrank away, as if she were trying to ooze into the cracks in the wall, covering her head with her arms.
I crouched down in front of her. "I am not going to hurt you," I said, then waited for some kind of response. Nothing: she just huddled there, trembling. "Look," I continued. "I just want to ask you something... Hey!"
She gave no indication that she'd even heard me.
"Please, listen to me! Either after or before you... found me, did you see anyone else? Another convoy? Just some Sathe? Anyone?"
In the silence afterwards I heard the guard outside cough, water drip from the ceiling. She didn't answer. After everything she'd done to me, almost killed me... Damnation! I was going to get something! That anger lent me strength to seize her mane and twist her around to face me. She mewed and tried to hiss, then started panting again, staring at me with fascinated terror. "Fuck it! Listen to me!" I yelled into her face, shaking her.
She started chittering uncontrollably.
With that my strength deserted me. My head reeled and I lurched back away from her, breathing hard from the exertion. No... I wasn't going to collapse, not here. The whites of her eyes were showing as she stared, teeth glinting. This was something I'd never seen in a Sathe before.
"Get away from me," she moaned.
"Tell me," I replied. "Did you see anyone?"
"No!" she tried to bury her head again, then raised it, looking anywhere but at me and her words turned to a babble, "No! I... There was a caravan. Going the other way. In a hurry. I did not see..."
"They had a cub with them?"
"I did not see! I DID NOT SEE!""
"How do I know?"
The torch flickered in a draft, the smoke staining the ceiling black and stinging my eyes. I blinked, weighing up the female huddled there. She buried her head again, trembling violently. Scared. Too scared to lie? How was I supposed to tell? She'd never shown the slightest compassion or mercy toward me; what was to say she was being honest with me now?
"You are sure."
"I do not know." The voice was so small, tiny in the stillness of the dungeon.
I stood there for some time, watching her. She stared back, breathing fast and shallow with the white of that third eyelid partially eclipsing her eyes, glittering technicolour with the torchlight. Moisture dripped and glittered in the dimness. The guard coughed again.
Finally, I nodded, slowly and told her, "I am going to believe you, but let me tell you: if I find I have been lied to, I will be back. You understand that?"
She just stared at me, huddling in on herself. Closer, and I caught the sharp smell hanging over the general miasma: the stink of fresh urine. It stopped me in my tracks and I was sure she wasn't lying and that her terror was genuine. That feeling, to have someone so petrified of you they lost control of themselves; it's not pleasant to learn you're a deepest and darkest nightmare come to life. It hurt with the pain I feel when cubs run from me in fright.
My tongue failed me. I did the first thing I could think of, unbuttoning my cloak and draping it over her. I waited awkwardly for a few seconds while she just... just stared at me, at my chest, as though looking right through me. With goosebumps breaking out on my skin I left that reeking little hole.
The guard stared at me and I ignored him. He didn't say anything and there was a hollow thud as he dropped the bar back into place across the door. I could imagine her curling up in a small ball on the icy stone as the darkness closed in around her.
It was a long, cold walk back up from those depths.
Remae intercepted me on the ground floor as I came past the guards. She took one look and whipped her own cloak off, throwing it about my shoulders. "Rot you, you fool! By the Plagues! Why did you go down there? And you gave her your cloak, didn't you?"
I didn't bother answering, just pushed past her and started off down the hall. She caught me before I'd gone five steps, hooking claws into my sleeves and pulling me up short, pushing me against a wall to snarl up at me. "Shave you, K'hy! What were you doing down there?!"
I shrugged. "Looking for answers."
Her head drew back. "Did you find them?"
I looked at the floor: "No."
She hissed softly and disengaged her claws from the folds of the sleeve, then turned to chase after the guard who'd let me down there.
"Let her go."
"Who?" She blinked. "The one down below?"
"Yeah," I nodded. "Let her go."
She cocked her head and frowned, furrows wrinkling the velvet of her muzzle. "What? Why?"
"What laws has she broken?"
Remae stopped with her mouth hanging open, surprise at my question turning to a level stare, as if she were trying to see what was going on in my head. "K'hy, you must understand. Laws are dictated from ages past; they can be difficult. When a person is taken against their will there is no..."
"Would I be considered a person by your laws?"
Her mouth snapped shut. A tic twitched at her jaw.
I nodded slowly, my legs feeling rubbery. I'd thought as much; When it came down to the crunch, I wasn't a person. I swallowed bile and began to turn to head back to my rooms and the promise of warmth there, pausing to say again to the Marshal, "Remae, let her go."
Morninglight; the white landscape bathed in that crisp light and shadow that is the early morning. The blue vault of the sky was of a hue that made it appear almost solid, the airy clouds across the horizon cloaking mountain peaks in mist.
Cocooned in furs I was bundled into the back of a wagon hitched to a pair of bison encrusted in sparkling ice-crystals, steam snorting from their nostrils. The iron-bound wheels of the wagons and hooves of the llamas clattered and skidded on the ice-coated cobbles as the small caravan wound its way out of the town and across the whitewashed landscape.
It didn't take me long to realise I was getting the bird in the gilded cage treatment. The wagon was comfortable; luxurious by Sathe standards with padded benches, cushions, warm furs and sheets; all obviously put there with me in mind. But there were also the guards, two of them, one male the other female. I know they were there for my own protection, but I was sick of being watched over.
The pair were stony-silent as we put the town behind us, both of them avoiding my eyes. At midday the caravan paused to rest the animals and let the riders stretch their legs, however I was lucky to be able to talk Remae into letting me out of the wagon. Well, 'talk' isn't exactly the right word; rant would be better. She gave way to my anger looking more than a little surprised.
I lay dozing, half-in half-out of sleep, suffused with that warm glow that comes after eating. There was the rocking, lurching movement of the wagon that I'd almost learned to ignore, the rumbling and fingernail-on-blackboard screech of badly greased axles that I hadn't, and the soft sibilants of Sathe talking. About me.
"If you have something to say about me," I said, "why do you not simply ask me. Instead of whispering behind my back." I stretched and rolled over to see them staring at me. "Well? you were talking about me?"
They looked embarassed. "Saaa! Yes... Sir," the female began, then looked to the male.
"Sir," he took over, "are you the one all the madness has been about?"
"Sir... most of the Citadel troops are searching for you... also the militia of a dozen towns. You must be important to someone."
"There were rumours around Mainport that the Shirai had herself a fearsome creature... you do not look so fearsome."
"That would depend upon the mood I am in," I grinned back at him and they both stiffened at the sight of my teeth. "Sorry, that is how I smile," I apologised. They still looked pensive.
Of course they asked what I was. I gave my usual answer.
"Your name is H'ey?"
"Kelly," I corrected. "It has a 'K'."
"K'hy." They tried, but their pronunciations still missed the palatal ells, transforming my name into a cough with a hiss in its train.
"Strange name," the female said.
"Yes," I sighed. No point in disputing that. Here - to alien ears - it is a weird name.
The male was called Chirthi, and the female...
"R'Raschhhh..." I broke off, almost choking on the tongue-twister.
"No... R'R'Rhasct, it is easy," she said and repeated her name, enunciating. It sounded like a cat being deep fried.
My efforts to get the pronunciation of her name correct had them in hysterics; a pair of armed cats hissing their heads off with laughter. But eventually they took mercy on me, letting me call her Rhasct. Even though - to Sathe - it was a totally different name, I could at least pronounce it.
I wondered how they would cope with a name like 'Elizabeth'.
They confessed they had been 'volunteered' by their superiors to be my guard, but it seems they had the last laugh. It was a cushy job, I wasn't too unpleasant, and they got to ride in comfort and warmth. They couldn't understand why I wrapped so many blankets around myself.
They taught me to play Thsaa, a game in which small, flattened sticks with various dotted patterns on them were used in place of cards. The object of the game was to get several sets of various different patterns. The sets you had to collect were determined by the first hand you were dealt. You could dispose of sticks and pick up new ones. The first to get the necessary hand was the winner. It was a simple game and helped pass the time.
When we stopped for the night, I once again had a guard with me when I had to relieve myself. Sleeping arrangements stuck me in the wagon with my guards, both the Sathe taking it in shifts to keep watch. I huddled under my piles of sheets and furs, unable to sleep, watching Rhasct's silhouette perched at the front of the wagon. In the dark I felt a furry arm bump against my back as its owner rolled over in his sleep. What a crazy universe.