THE HUMAN MEMOIRS
When so many are lonely
as seem to be lonely,
it would be inexcusably
selfish to be lonely
The day started as it had way back when Tahr and I were on the road. How long ago was that now? God, almost a year now. Ah, things were simpler then, when we'd first met, back in the good ol' days: Living day to day, up with the sun, break camp, and eat a cold breakfast on the move. Usually what was left of last night's dinner.
A clear, crisp morning; one of those days that winter lives for. A translucent, half-hearted mist clung to the snowy countryside, sinking like an insubstantial tide as the sun slowly warmed it. The sky was a cobalt blue so sharp it cut.
Off in the distance a flock of geese - flying in V-formation - skimmed low over the mirror-perfect surface of a lake that for some reason had remained unfrozen, the still water reflecting the birds and the bare trees along its shore... until the birds touched down, their wakes spreading ripples of distortion out across the crystal surface.
New England would have looked like this, before the Europeans arrived. Indeed it was a paradise, but when everyone turns up expecting a share of paradise, it very rapidly becomes something else. Was that going to happen back home? Had it already happened?
I reached out to push the flap back further. The outside air was cold, but fresh. I'd been cooped up for too long already.
It was Chirthi. He reached past me to close the flap again. "I am sorry sir, but I cannot let you do that."
"Huh? Do what?"
"Sit like that, where someone might see you."
I didn't quite believe this. "Say what? Why?"
"Orders, sir." He ducked his head.
I drew a deep breath. "Chirthi, you cannot read my expressions very well, can you. Do you know how I'm feeling?"
He looked wary - rightly so. "Ah, no sir."
"Annoyed!" I snarled. "Who told you to keep me inside?!"
He cringed back, ears flattening. "The Marshal, sir. She ordered us to keep you in the wagon, out of sight, even if we have to chain you. If anything happened to you, or if you even got out to relieve yourself unaccompanied, she would drown us in the nearest river."
I wanted to punch something. "All right then," I grated, "I will not try to make your job any harder."
"We would appreciate that," R'R'Rhasct smiled. I rolled my eyes and wished the sarcasm wouldn't go past them so easily; took the fun out of it. Oh, shit, I sighed and settled back into the cushions. Tired. I still wore out easily. If my guards wanted to physically restrain me, they'd have little trouble.
It was later that evening, when Remae brought me my food, I had the chance to ask her why I was being treated like I was under house arrest.
"Your safety, K'hy," she said. "Look, if they were Gulf Realm who abducted you, then there could be a war brewing. They outnumber us, badly."
"But, those maps you showed me. The Realms are about the same size. Anyway, what has that to do with me not being able to go and relieve myself without a cub watcher?" I demanded.
"Huh... Those maps show the land we hold, not the number of Sathe on the land. The Swamp Lands to the south are almost worthless; too hot and wet. Insects, diseases, and hurricanes... There are not many Sathe who would wish to make their homes there."
Yeah, it'd been a long time before the Florida peninsula back home was settled.
"Also," she continued, "the Gulf realm has grown a lot over the past fifty years, they have built three new towns in the west."
Three towns in fifty years was a LOT?! I was about to ask about that but she kept talking.
"We knew they were increasing the sizes of their armed forces, but we did not realise the magnitude of these increases. They did it subtly, never marshalling large numbers of troops in one place. We just never knew just how many they had. When they recalled garrisons from outlying settlements they had a trained army that hopelessly outnumbers our own. Putting it simply, they are equipped for a war, we are not. So we need something to even the odds. You and you knowledge may be it, and they know it. They have tried to steal you from us once and failed. They may try again, or... or they might to decide to eliminate the thing that could possibly help to balance our forces."
Why didn't she just say it? "Kill me."
"Yes." She twitched a shoulder; an imitation shrug? I wasn't sure. "You see why I have ordered you kept under guard and out of sight. If they think you have been lost in the wilderness, all the better."
"You think they will try again?"
"I am not sure, but if their spies report you alive and causing trouble, I think there is a very good chance they will. This time they may not bother with trying to take you alive either. A well-aimed crossbow bolt would put an end to their problems. It all depends on how large a risk they consider you."
"Thanks," I grimaced. "That makes me feel a whole lot better." I doubted they would have gone to all the trouble of kidnapping me if they thought I would be a minor irritation. Up to that point they had contented themselves with hit and run operations, making sure that their operatives struck at targets they could be sure of destroying while remaining anonymous. Now, with my abduction that had changed. They were willing to risk the disapproval of the other major powers just to snatch at a relatively unimportant target.
How unimportant was I?
Damnation! Given long enough a dedicated interrogator could get enough information out of me to give them a serious edge, technology-wise. I knew how to make gunpowder, I knew how to make a steam engine, or a glider or an electrical generator. I knew more efficient methods of refining iron ore, of smelting steel and of casting it.
Perhaps the Eastern Realm had not deemed it an extravagance to put most of their forces on the watch for me. Now I knew that both sides wanted me... Bad.
But perhaps there was a difference in their motives.
"Six-eyes again!" R'R'Rhasct laughed. "Full set. That's two hundred and five golds you owe me, K'hy."
"Shit!" I muttered. "All right, another hand. I cannot keep losing."
"Perhaps," Chirthi grinned, "but you are pretty consistent."
"Ah! Fuck you!"
"I was just congratulating you on your luck," I replied airily. They both laughed at that and R'R'Rhasct swirled her hand, spreading the sticks in a starburst - marked faces down - and plucked one at random, then another, and another, finally setting one back: "Your draw."
I picked my chits, and selected the trio: three dots in an equilateral triangle. As Chirthi took his turn, I asked, "What can you do for entertainment in Mainport?"
"Well," R'R'Rhasct began with a glint in her eyes, "You can buy anything and anyone: males, females. I am sure you can find someone who would..."
"Not that kind of entertainment," I broke in. They both hissed their amusement. "Seriously."
"Seriously," Chirthi said. "There are inns and taverns everywhere. Also a couple of theatres and libraries." That sounded interesting. I wondered what a Sathe play would be like. "Or - if it is more to your liking - you may be able to find a fight-pit."
"You do not know of them? Well, I suppose they are not spoken of a great deal. Well, two or more Sathe are placed in an arena where they..."
"Fight," I finished.
"Sort of predictable, ah?" R'R'Rhasct grinned. "Sometimes Sathe against Sathe; sometimes Sathe against animals."
I shook my head. "Uh-Uh. It does not sound like my kind of place."
They looked at each other in surprise. "Fighting is not to your liking?"
"Just say I have grown very tired of it," I said picking up another stick. "Alright... What are the taverns like?"
"Huh!" R'R'Rhasct coughed. "Best in the Realm. But the water holes up in the Citadel are too to heavily policed. They are tame, boring. Only the clawless retainers patronise them. You should try the ones down by the docks. I would recommend the Red Sails."
"Best food by far," Chirthi agreed. "They have actually got someone who knows how to cook. Also good ale and musicians, and at that place I think they would not even notice one such as yourself!" he laughed again and rejected another stick. R'R'Rhasct also laughed and picked one up.
"Hahh!" she grinned and laid her hand out: TWO full sets this time - four quads and the five pentagons.
The wagon clattered and squealed through the cobblestone streets of Mainport as the small procession wound its way up toward the massive shape of the Citadel looming on the skyline. Sathe melted away to the sides as we passed.
Chirthi and R'R'Rhasct made sure I was hidden in the wagon while they settled themselves on guard before the opening at the back. I couldn't see what was going on outside, but I could hear the sounds of the city: the rattling of metal bound wheels, the bleating of llamas, and the multitude of Sathe voices forming a sibilant background noise, like surf on a shingle beach.
The tailgate was lowered into the shadows of a postern gate where my guards of four days helped me out into the arms of Royal Citadel guards in their spit-and-polish armour. Walking still took a bit out of me.
Armour clattered as my guards dropped down beside me. Green eyes blinked up at me, then a hand flashed up to pat my cheek. "Perhaps I see you again some time, ah? Good luck, K'hy," R'R'Rhasct bade me.
"Thank you, Rhasct."
"R'R'Rhasct," she corrected and she laughed and gave a final wave as the soldiers hustled me off into the cover of the Keep. Through the labyrinth of passages inside the Citadel they guided me, going higher all the time. All those twisting corridors and stairs completely screwed up my sense of direction, I didn't know where we were. And I wasn't in the greatest shape; those stairs exhausted me. The guards caught my elbows when I stumbled and helped me up the few final flights to a place I recognised from a long time ago.
The corridor was wide and brightly lit with several guards posted in niches along its length. They were guarding the Royal chambers; the rooms where the old Shirai lay. My escorts stopped at a heavy door, only a couple of rooms down from the heavy doors of the Royal chambers. After unlocking the room with a bulky iron key from a large keyring already jangling with other keys, two of the score of Sathe guards checked the room, then they left me to wait.
I didn't have much choice. When the door closed I heard the key turn in the lock.
I poked around the room. It was similar to my old quarters, but plusher: Rugs covered the finely polished wooden floor and several pieces of wooden furniture were arranged around the room. A wide, if low, desk was set before a narrow window filled with latticed glass, a highbacked, carved wooden chair behind it. A couch and single-place chair made from leather cushions supported in wooden frames sat before a fireplace with logs and kindling already laid. Empty, expansive shelves and a large mirror hung from the wall; large for a world where mirrors had to be backed with silver, say, about as big as my head. Through another door: the bedroom.
The whole room had the air of one that has'nt been used for a while, but there was not a speck of dust to be found anywhere.
Looking out the window, I saw that the room was somewhere on the southern side of the keep. It didn't have the view of the bay that my last room did, but the main gates of the town below were visible, standing above the rooftops. Directly above the window were the eaves of a tiled roof; a bit surprising to find that on a fortress. About six or seven metres below was a wide, flagstone parapet overlooking the courtyard.
My clothes were waiting in the bedroom, my twentieth century garments lying clean and folded on the concave bed. I didn't put them on. In my unwashed condition, I would only make them filthy again.
There was another door in the bedroom. Upon examination, I was surprised to find that it led to an ensuite toilet. Nothing fancy, just a long drop, probably leading to a cistern that served several other jakes, but it was a luxury here. Even though it was a bit draughty. My previous quarters were served by a communal crapper on the same floor. Unisex bathrooms. They didn't reek nearly as much as some gas station restrooms I've used.
I collapsed into the couch to wait. Same problem as will all Sathe furniture: built to the wrong proportions, either me or the chair.
Finally, keys rattled in the lock. I was on my feet, starting to demand to see...
Tahr hadn't changed. Had I really expected her to? I'd only been away for about a fortnight, but it seemed longer.
For what seemed like ages we just stood and stared at each other. I remember what she looked like perfectly: every piece of fur standing out in sharp relief, brushed to a glossy sheen, her breeches green and gold. That silver ring hung from her ear, bracelets from her wrists. Against that I was woefully bedraggled.
When the rush of relief hit me, it couldn't be described. All the trials and tribulations of the past weeks seemed remote: nightmares banished by the dawn. She was an anchor, a stable pillar of support in a land of unpredictable landscapes.
"Tahr," I choked and she was holding me, and I was hugging her, resting my head against hers. Her musty scent, like a cat after it's been lying in the sun. With one hand, she stroked the back of my neck; there were not as many fingers as there should have been.
Water lapped softly. A monotonous sound, like a metronome, changing slightly whenever I moved.
I floated there in the warm dimness, eyes closed and listening to the water and the sound of my pulse. It was hot and peaceful and I could stay there forever, letting the heat melt away the aches from old bruises and ease the stiffness in my leg. Returning to the womb? I smiled lazily to myself. Not such a bad idea.
There were voices at the door, then a wedge of light as it opened and closed again. Almost inaudible footsteps sounded on the flagstones and I turned my head to follow the Sathe as she moved to crouch by the pool and dip a finger into the water. Ripples spread as she moved her hand in slow circles.
"Hello, K'hy," Tahr's face twisted into her parody of a human smile. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes," I stood and moved to sit on one of the underwater benches carved from the stone. "Much." I cleared my throat. "Ahh, about earlier, grabbing you like that... Sorry."
She stood, shucked her breeches then slipped into the steaming water, her fur floating out in a ruff at the waterline. Sinking a little lower, she hissed softly, not meeting my eyes. "I cannot blame you," she said. "You have been through a lot." Her eyes drifted and I knew she was looking at the pale scars on my chest, legacy of a previous meeting with soldiers of the Gulf Realm. "I heard... How is your leg?"
"Oh," she ducked her eyes. "They did hurt you... Your chest..."
"This, you mean," I glanced down and almost touched the red tissue where my left nipple had been. "They were trying to... to make me behave. I was not exactly cooperating."
Tahr frowned. "You are too delicate to play games like that. Just a wrong touch can scratch you and they would not have known that. Without clothing you could have frozen..." She gave me a sharp look: "They did give you clothing?"
"Not a first, no. They did not know how... harmful cold is to me." Not a pleasant memory. I didn't go into details about that and tossed her the greyish lump that passed for soap.
Tahr caught it and held it for a second. What was she thinking? Damn that furry face; so inscrutable, like a mask with the expression only in the eyes. Windows to the soul? More so in Sathe. She didn't press the conversation, lathering the soap, rubbing the slimy result into her mane and face fur, then ducking her head to rinse it off.
"Tahr, how did they get me out of the Citadel? All the guards and gates..."
"I do not know that part." The bar of soap twisted in her hands. "All we do know is that they used their agents to drug and take you; a great gamble on their part. The agents they used were highly placed within the servants ranks. We caught one, but she killed herself."
"There was a Sathe who was not a soldier," I remembered. "The officer in charge paid him... For delivering me. I think he was the one who took me."
Tahr's ears flicked to attention. "He was their contact? Would you recognise him if you saw him again?"
"Uhm, well, I am not sure," I confessed. "Many Sathe look alike to me."
"What?" That surprised her. "You cannot tell us apart?"
"Oh, Sathe I am familiar with I can, but I cannot see someone in passing and remember his face." I grinned sheepishly. "Many of you look alike."
She shook her head; quickly, as if trying to shake water from her ears. "You continue to puzzle me, K'hy."
"Huh, stop SAYING that!" She punctuated that with a splash at my face, then settled back so only her head was above water, wisps of mist drifting around her. "Well, we will find him. Meantime, anyone trying that again will not find it so easy."
"Tahr, I have been wanting to ask you about that."
Her ears pricked up. I cleared my throat and continued.
"When I asked to take a bath, the captain in charge of the guards wanted to bring a tub into my room. God's sake, Tahr, I know that you are trying to protect me, but how long must this go on? I cannot live my life surrounded by soldiers and walls. I think I would rather..." I cut that off and bit nervously at my lower lip, waiting for her answer.
For a few seconds, the only sound was that of the water.
She finally shrugged, sending wavelets racing each other across the pool. "I do not know how long, but it is important that you do remain safe."
"Because of the weapons I can give you?"
She hissed, "Because of your knowledge, and because I want you to be safe."
I hung my head. "I am sorry."
"It does not matter," she said gently, then she flared in mock anger. "Will you stop apologising!"
"Sorry," I smirked, then ducked underwater to dodge the torrent of water she splashed at me.
When I came up thirty seconds later, it wasn't where I'd submerged. Tahr's back was to me as she cast about in the dark water: "K'hy?"
She whirled with a yelp, just in time to get a faceful of water. Sputtering, she jumped forward and pushed me over backwards onto one of the benches carved out of the side of the bath. Waves splashed over the side.
I found myself face to face with her, my small nose almost touching her broad, valentine shaped one. She had me pinned against the side of the bath. Below, her fur rubbed against me, feeling like the weird caress of some marine plant. "Now you have got me, what are you going to do with me?" I grinned.
She glared at me, and her ears flicked, flinging droplets of water. "For a beginning, how about this?" Her head darted like a snake and sharp little teeth nipped my nose. I yelped in mock pain and she pulled back, laughing. Abruptly serious again she studied my face, then darted forward to place her lips against my cheek and withdrew again. "I missed you. You and your strange ways."
"Same here. Sometimes you almost seem human."
"Is that intended as a compliment?" she smiled, then intercepted my hand as I tried to bat the side of her face, staring at it. "Do you know your hands are wrinkled?"
"It is just the water."
She didn't let go of my hand, inspecting it like an entomologist with a new butterfly. "Does water make you wrinkle?"
"Only if I have been in for too long," I said and she laughed at that. "At least," I added with a lopsided grin, "our fur does not block the drains."
She stopped laughing.
I hauled myself out of the water and scraped excess moisture off with the blades of my hands. Tahr lounged in the pool, arms up on the side and chin rested on laced fingers.
"I have to say I am relieved," she said.
"That." She pointed. "Male llamas and bison can be made easier to handle by removal of..."
"Not funny!" I cut her off - wincing - threw a towel around my waist and grabbed for my clothes.
"My help?" I asked Remae.
A flare of lightning burst beyond the rain-lashed windows, outlining the dark Sathe Marshal in a flickering nimbus of electrical light. Her ears pulled back tight to her head and she turned away from me to snarl back at the storm that seethed outside. I waited.
I had been doing a lot of that for the past couple of weeks; waiting in my chambers, seeing little of either Tahr or Remae. Very early on I had discovered that the guards outside my door had their orders to - however politely - restrain me in my quarters.
That time I used for working, for sketching out some ideas I had about my future. A way I could give the Sathe advanced tech, but also make sure that they understood it. A way to produce not just a few limited handmade articles that would rapidly reach ridiculous prices the further they went from the source, but a way in which an entire economy could be kicked - if into not the twentieth - then into the nineteenth century. From there, hopefully it would be self perpetuating. More concentrated progress has been made in the past hundred-fifty years than in the entire history of mankind.
However, that time quickly palled. Days passed, each like the one before, each promising to be like the one to come. I had begun to slip into a blue funk, unnoticed by the menials who fed and watered me. Tahr, when she had time for me, was often preoccupied and tired. Her arguments that this was all for my own good fell flat with me.
Now Remae was here asking for my help. You can understand why I was a little dubious.
"My help?" I repeated. "How?"
She shuddered and reached out a black hand to yank the heavy drapes across the window as thunder from the strike rolled over the Citadel, rattling the thin panes in their lattice. The dim orange-tinted lamps were inadequate, shadows casting the subtle illusion of the room being much larger than it really was. The marshal propped herself up on the corner of the desk. "Storms make my fur stand on end," she muttered then twisted to look to where I slouched in the leather-web armchair, a mug of warm wine in my hand. "K'hy, we have been unable to find the Gulf forces who abducted you."
I nodded. "Big surprise."
"Do not be facetious," she reproached. "We simply do not have the wherewithal to cover every square span of the Realm. So it has been decided that if we cannot go to them, then they must come to us."
It didn't take much to fill in the blanks. "And you want me to be bait."
She coughed and scratched at her muzzle. "If you wish to put it that bluntly: Yes."
"Uh-huh," I mused. "Sounds like barrels of laughs. What is the game plan?"
"Game plan? Oh, I see. Well, first it hinges upon you being able to identify the one who abducted you. Do you think you can?"
"I am not sure. I sometimes have trouble telling Sathe apart, but I think I should be able to recognise him."
"Excellent. Then we lead him to believe that you are being moved from the Citadel with all possible haste. For speed your escort shall only be small.
"However, that escort shall be armed with the flame throwers and elite guards. Also, many small patrols shall have been sent out over the previous weeks. Some of those shall not return, but shall instead shadow the convoy, ready to reinforce you."
"Sounds good... on the surface," I said. "But a few rough points... One: How can you be sure that the bastard who kidnapped me would fall for that? If he has heard I am back, he would be doubly wary about being identified. In fact, there is a good chance he has decided to see what the living standards in some of the other Realms are like.
"Two: If the Gulf Realm gets wind of it being a trap, or their outriders spot the tails... the reinforcements, they simply vanish and we traipse along our merry way to nowhere." I sipped from my wine before speaking my third point.
"Three: What if there are many more Gulf forces in the Eastern Realm than you know of. Flame throwers make exceedingly good terror weapons, and they are useful for defence, but they are only good for a few shots, after which they are only so much junk. They would be of limited use against hundreds of opponents."
"True," Remae agreed. "But we have done our best to make sure that none but a few selected guards know of your return. We intend to make it appear as if you are simply stopping here for a while to recuperate, then moving on. The traitor will receive the information in the most discreet way possible.
"As for the Gulf Realm suspecting a trap, well, there is little we can do about that except be a cautious as possible."
"And what about three?" I asked.
She gave a fluttering sigh, her nostrils flaring open and shut again. "Their attacks on convoys... They choose only small targets and strike from ambush."
"That proves little," I said. "They have limited resources, so they are careful to so completely overwhelm the opposition that they suffer few or no casualties. There could also be quite a few small groups out there, and if they got together they could become quite a formidable force."
"Still not as many as we intend to use," she shot back. "Most people have little love for fire... our fur. With your weapons you should be able to send them running straight into our arms."
"'Should' being the operative word," I muttered.
Still she heard me. "K'hy, we need your help. You must be on that caravan, be seen leaving the town," she entreated. "They are killing us. Every week caravans are reported missing. Trade is being stifled as merchants are reluctant to enter or leave small towns that cannot protect them or gather enough vehicles to make a convoy large enough to deter attackers. Small merchants are being stripped trying to provide guards for their wares."
I drained the rest of my wine in a lump that burned all the way down. "Whatever happens is better than sitting around here gathering dust. Alright, you have got your bait."
The great hall was filled with the sounds of Sathe enjoying themselves. Gambling, arm wrestling, and drinking bouts went on at various locales scattered about the room. Down there, in her traditional place by the hearth, a minstrel wove her tales to an attentive audience of cubs and mature Sathe.
And I was watching it from high up in one of the walls.
I should have expected secret passages in a construction as massive and as ancient as the Citadel; in fact I had thought about it, but never asked anyone. The passage ran the length of the hall. Peepholes at strategic points along its length admitted pencils of light.
"How many of these passages are there?" I asked Remae.
"Nobody really knows," she said, brushing aside a cobweb. "Every dynasty has built them since the Citadel began and many have been forgotten. I think that mapping them would be near impossible. But the ones that are known come in useful... keep watching."
I turned back to the narrow peephole between the stones. The light wasn't the greatest, the field of vision was narrow, and it was a long way down. "I am not sure I will be able to recognise him."
I bumbled my way down the narrow passage, awkwardly. The only light came from the dim spots seeping through the spy-holes and the white beam from my flashlight. The floor of the corridor was not level: beams and other obstructions poked through the walls at interesting heights. Several times I wacked my shins and Remae hushed my curses.
She didn't seem to have any such problems.
The next hole was the second to last one, looking out over a place near the fire. I skipped over the children and the females, trying to get a glimpse of the males...
"There, Remae!" her fur brushed against my face as she pushed her head in close to peer out the narrow gap. "Down there, in the corner beside the fire. Dark brown fur, talking to that female. You see him?"
"Yes... You are sure that is him?"
I frowned, hesitating until the figure below us turned around to give me a good look at him.
"Yeah... That is him."
"All right, now we set the bait and make sure the wolf catches the scent."
The covered wagon rumbled through the day, as it had the past four days and nights.
Inside it was dim, stuffy, and crowded. The smell of nervous cat overpowering any smell of nervous human. There were nine in the back of that wagon, one human and eight Sathe, and after four days, tempers were a bit short. The bulky packages by the soldiers' feet did nothing to ease tensions.
Outside the wagon, I knew there were two more of the slow moving vehicles as well as half a dozen llama mounted cavalry. For a moment I wondered if the Sathe had such a thing as a coordinated charge with mounted troops, then dismissed the idea. One would be better off using donkeys than llamas.
Time, and the caravan plodded on.
I was fiddling with the straps on my helmet, for the thousandth time, when the cry came from someone outside. "Ambush! Ambu..." The yell cut off abruptly.
I slammed my helmet on my head and followed Sathe out the back of the back of the wagon, hitting the ground in a crouch with the M-16 at the ready.
Already there were two riderless llamas stamping around in panic. Sathe in red and black armour were racing from the trees on both sides of the road, too many to count. I didn't try, just raised the rifle and pulled the trigger as fast as I could, blazing away on full automatic.
Some Sathe stumbled as though they'd been tripped. Holes appeared in armour as if by magic. The M-16A1 is a fairly lightweight weapon, lacking the punch of a Kalashnikov or ant like dum-dums, the concussion smashing bone and pulverising flesh.
The rifle ran dry. I popped the clip, snatched another from my belt and rammed it into the well.
An Eastern realm soldier was falling back under the onslaught of three red and black armoured figures. She ducked wildly as slugs hissed past her head and the Gulf warriors had their strings cut, jerking and falling.
I clamped the Armalite under my arm, firing with one hand as I reached for the handle of the flare pistol tucked into my belt. Muttering a silent prayer to whoever may be listening, I pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
Heads on both sides turned as a trail of smoke shot into the sky and a glowing red sun swung slowly to earth. Come on, Remae! Be there!
The Eastern soldiers were fighting to clear areas about the wagons, and only just succeeding. The gulf forces were pressing us hard, especially around my wagon. Dropping the flare pistol, I spun to fire on attackers behind me when something hit my helmet with an impact that nearly broke my neck; a crossbow bolt fell to the ground.
Their archers had reloaded and fired a second volley; Eastern soldiers fell, dead and wounded.
"Assholes!!" I screamed and emptied the magazine at the archers as they tried to reload, they scattered for cover, many of them falling. The Gulf forces were closing in.
"MOVE IT!" Our backup was taking too long.
"Furless bastard!" A Gulf warrior howled and hurled himself at me, claws glittering red and shedding tufts of flesh and fur swinging for my throat. I ducked away and felt him hit my helmet.
He also fell back, crouching to snarl, "You should be dead!"
I recognised him then: the officer from the farm. He took advantage of my moment of shock to rush in again, to meet the muzzle of my M-16 in his stomach and I found out the rifle wasn't dry. The shock of impact jarred my trigger finger and his back exploded in a pink and grey spray.
Everything seemed to stop.
I was staring into his eyes when he dropped. His hands fell to fumble at the barrel of my rifle, his fur curling from the heat, then his mouth opened and he a made small sound. Not loud, but pained. Then his legs folded and another Gulf soldier appeared in front of me, and I was busy dodging his blade. I stepped inside his swing and grappled with him, trying to keep his claws from my face, forcing him back, but it was taking too long; at any second I could have been skewered by another Gulf soldier. His leg came up and I instinctively twisted my hips to protect my crotch. He wasn't using his knee however. Toe claws dug into my calf and raked downward. Through the adrenalin the pain was nothing. I screamed my rage at him and drove my helmet into his face, used the room that gave me to finish the job with my rifle butt. He no longer looked like a Sathe.
More Eastern Sathe started spilling from the wagons. Instead of swords or crossbows, they carried bulky cylinders on their backs, tubes poking out from under their right arms. They formed a circle at the back of each wagon, and at a shouted signal, Eastern realm soldiers disengaged from their opponents and scampered into that circle.
I ducked past one of the Sathe at the perimeter of the circle, changing the stick on my M-16 at the same time. I stood amidst a small knot of panting Sathe, staring past bulky packs at the Gulf Soldiers.
They didn't charge, sensing something strange was going on, staring at the flickering flame burning on the taper in front of the nozzles pointing at them. At last one of their officers started the charge across the few metres that separated us.
From where I stood, I couldn't see what happened behind the curtain of greasy orange flame that sprayed out. That was probably a blessing, listening to the screams.
The flames died for a second then flared out again, the Sathe carrying the flame throwers started to advance, moving outward for as long as their fuel lasted.
That wasn't napalm in those flame throwers; it didn't cling and keep burning with the sadistic vigour of jellied petroleum, but it did burn, almost as well as Sathe fur. Gulf Soldiers fled into the woods, those who could flee. Others staggered about screaming, their fur crackling and burning brightly with a hideous smell. Sickened, I shot several flaming, screaming figures, no longer identifiable as their faces burned; mercy killing. It was no longer a battle, it was a massacre.
The fuel in the flame throwers was exhausted quickly, but puddles of oil still burned on the ground and charred corpses sizzled and smouldered, lying twisted with blackened lips pulled back baring teeth in rictus of agony. Many had been killed not by the flame itself, but by merciful sword thrusts up under the ribs or through the throat.
Out in the woods the remnants of the Gulf forces were fleeing; shapes disappearing into the depths of the woods. We waited.
Distant shouts came soon, the faint clash of steel upon steel as an unseen battle was waged. We defenders of the wagon train clutched our weapons and waited.
Figures appeared in the trees on both sides, not many this time, and they weren't attacking. Gulf soldiers - many of them wounded - staggered back onto the road and dropped their weapons, standing their with their arms at their side and their necks bared. In the woods behind came shouts as Remae's troops rounded up stragglers and wounded.
For a few seconds I contemplated the crumpled corpse with its spine blown out, then limped over to help collect our prisoners.
The funeral pyre threw sparks into the air as wood settled. The dark shapes standing around the fire had their heads dipped, in mourning for their friends and comrades who died. We had our quarry, but Eastern Sathe had died for it.
I leaned back against the wagon wheel and inspected the bandages around my calf. Ten metres away, the prisoners clustered around a campfire.
They were a sorry looking lot. Their armour had been taken from them, and now they huddled together around the fire for warmth. Several Eastern Realm guards stood watch over the fifteen or so prisoners.
There was little speaking among the prisoners, the loudest sound was that of moaning. At the back of the group, farthest from the fire, a Sathe with its back to me sat beside a limp bundle of blood-smeared fur on the ground, every now and then reaching out to touch and caress with a manacled hand.
The guard was worrying at a slab of meat. He turned when he heard me approach. "What is wrong with that one?" I asked, pointing at the two figures.
He swallowed and licked his jowls, looking at them. "Oh, him. Just a burn," he snorted. "Not worth worrying about." He took another huge bite.
I blinked at him. It couldn't be... Nah, Sathe don't eat each other. Shaking my head I limped over to the figures, the one sitting down turned its... her head away. Kneeling down, I examined the one lying down.
'Just a burn' the guard had said.
Mercifully, the Sathe was unconscious. The arm and part of his neck and chest was red and oozing blood and a clear, watery fluid. Skin had burned, crisped, blackened, and peeled away, red muscle showed where the skin had split. The hand was curled up into a mangled claw, and there was a manacle on the roasted wrist.
"Oh, Jesus..." I winced, sickened, then yelled, "Guard!"
Still worrying at his steak he sauntered over, only moving faster when I started to rise, intending to drag him. "You," I snapped and pointed at the manacle. "Take that off. Now!"
"Ah... I cannot do that," he said about to take another bite of his meal.
I stood and knocked it out of his hand, glaring down at him. "I said 'take it off'. NOW!"
He glanced at the meat lying in the dust, then looked up at me, worried. "Uh, sir... I cannot, without the commander's word..."
"Fuck that!" I roared, drawing stares from all over the camp. "Unlock this, or I will shove your arm into that fire myself!" If he had been wearing a shirt I'd have hoisted him up by the lapels.
"But if the commander finds..."
"I will take responsibility," I growled.
He quickly grabbed a keyring from his belt and unlocked the chain on the burned wrist. The crippled Sathe moaned and hissed as his arm was moved.
"Thank you," his companion whispered. I frowned. There was something...
I caught her mane, lifting her head so I could see her face properly. The crusted blood and soot didn't hide the circlet of white fur around her left eye.
Oh Beejeezus, a small world.
My guard from the farm shrank back, her heavy chains rattling as she threw up an arm to shield her face. She was terrified.
I stared back at her, surprised to find I was unable to feel anything. As drained of emotion as some of the derelicts I'd seen in new York. I was exhausted and my leg was throbbing. "Okay," I sighed, unclenching my fist. "I was not expecting to see you again."
She didn't reply. Just stared at me.
I met her gaze. "Who is he?" I gestured at the wounded male.
She started shaking then. I thought for a second she wouldn't answer, before she sucked air and stuttered: "M... My mate."
Damnation! But she was a mess as well. Blood matted her fur from a wound in her neck, and she kept one arm tight against her chest. "Do not hurt him," she bolstered her courage and bared her teeth at me.
Behind me there was a susurrus of metal on leather. "Hold it!" I stopped the guard as he was drawing his scimitar. Then I swung my pack around, opened it, and pulled out what I needed.
She stared at the gleaming steel needle as I pulled a styrette from its sterile packaging. "What are you doing?"
"This will help ease the pain for a while," I told her. She whimpered as the needle slid into the flesh of the burned Sathe. "That is all I can do for him. Do not worry, it is only to stop the pain. I swear it."
Seconds after the shot, the Sathe began to relax, sleeping deeper. I packed away the medkit, grabbed my pack by its strap and limped back to the wagon where I would be sleeping. Tossing the pack over the tailgate, I clambered in after it.
The moon sent shafts of blue light through rents in the canvas top and the open flaps at the back of the wagon. Outside I could see the sky was clear, with the milky way spilled across it, a lot like a stream of crystallised milk. The sounds of the night and Sathe were all around.
After the events of the day, I was exhausted, but I couldn't sleep. My leg throbbed and itched as I lay there and stared at the sky, a cloak and sheets wrapped tightly around my shoulders. I don't know how long I watched the heavens revolve before I started to drop off.
"K'hy, are you awake?" someone hissed.
Oh, shit! "Huh? What?" Blinking, I sat up, pulling the cloak around me.
The wagon rocked slightly as a black figure vaulted up onto the bed. All I could see were the eyes. "Who are you?"
"Sorry, I forgot. It is Remae." She moved until she was sitting in the pool of moonlight just inside the flaps. "Is that any better?"
"Yeah, I can see enough." I could just see the shifting patterns of her face and ears as she spoke, enough that she was more than just a voice in the blackness. "What did you want?"
"Do you know that female?" She moved her hand in a vague pointing gesture. The guard must have reported what I had done.
"The prisoner out there? Yes, we have met before."
I explained how I knew her, how she had been my guard, and a bit of company; even if she hadn't exactly been a sparkling conversationalist. Out loud, I recalled how she had touched my hair. When I had finished, Remae hesitated before speaking.
"Why did you aid her mate?" the Marshall finally asked.
"I was going to help him before I saw who she was. I did not know she was a prisoner until then."
"But you still helped when you did know."
I sighed. "He was in pain. His arm is badly burned and I am not sure he will live, but there was no point in his pain. Besides she did not treat me too badly; she did help me when I needed it."
"But after what they did to you... and they are the enemy," her tone was the one I had seen Sathe using on their children.
"That does not mean they need to suffer," I protested. Hell, I was the root cause of a lot of the woundeds' suffering; me and my weapons.
Remae was quiet for a second. "You are strange, K'hy."
"I am human."
"H'man... you are so different from us. You seem to think differently," She moved further into the shadows, all I could see was a blot of moving blackness, slightly more solid than its surroundings. Something touched my head, my hair, and I started. A hand stopped mine as I reached up.
I didn't know what to do. I just froze while she ran her hand through my hair, around my ear, and down the side of my face. When she finished, she retreated back to the moonlit patch.
"Why did you... ?" My voice died out before I finished the sentence.
"I wondered what it felt like."
I found I was trembling. My pulse pounded in my ears, there was a tension in my abdomen and my breath caught in my throat: Fear blossomed inside. "Please, Remae... please do not do that."
Her eyes opened wide. "Did I hurt you?"
"No... no. It... I... Please, do you never sleep?"
She took the hint: "I am sorry."
The wagon shook almost imperceptibly as she left. I curled up under the cloak and blankets as I tried to get my breathing back under control.
I rubbed a fingernail along the slight scratch in my helmet while watching the detachment of soldiers from the Citadel as they formed a cordon around the prisoners. This was as much for their own protection as to prevent them from trying to escape as they were taken through the streets of Mainport.
It had been a slow trip back. The prisoners who could walk did so, surrounded by Sathe soldiers on llama-back; the badly wounded - there were several of them - rode dispersed among the wagons. The one in our wagon was a male Gulf Sathe whose leg had been shattered by a bullet.
A bullet. In wars back home, anyone could have been hit by a bullet and never know who had shot him, but here it was like a signature. I knew I had done it, and he knew I had done it. Many times I turned to find him glaring at me. He would have cheerfully slit my throat given half a chance.
Now inside the city gates the prisoners cowered on the back of a wagon as they were carted up to the Citadel. As the word spread, more and more Sathe appeared on the sides of the streets to jeer, snarl, and hiss at them. I watched it all from inside another wagon with the hood of my cloak pulled well down so my face was - I hoped - hidden by shadow.
Wheels clattered and slipped as the procession made its way up the switchback road to the Citadel. Soldiers and staff watched from windows, doors, and battlements as we passed from bailey to bailey until we reached the courtyard around the huge central keep.
The prisoners were chained together at the wrists and neck and led away, the wounded carried by Eastern guards. The burned Sathe had survived, even though I had not expected him to. I watched as he was supported by his mate, his arm was badly twisted and I doubted it would ever totally heal.
"K'hy, are you coming?" Remae called.
"No, I always walk this way." I slung my pack over my shoulder and jogged over to where she was waiting on the steps outside the massive wooden doors to the Keep. "Where are they being taken?" I jerked a thumb in the direction of the Gulf captives.
"Downstairs... the dungeons of course."
"Oh... of course." I had never wondered if this place had dungeons; not too surprising to find it did. "What will happen to them?"
She greeted a pair of Sathe we passed in a corridor before answering. "Well, they will have the choice of pledging their sword, their allegiance, and their lives to the Eastern Realm, or they keep their honour and lose their lives."
"They become slaves, or die?! Is that not a bit... harsh?"
"What else could we do with... why are you looking at me like that?"
I ran my hand through my hair. "I am sorry, it is a... um... different way from the way I am used to. We used to do it your way, but that was hundreds of years ago. The custom now among my people is to hold the prisoners until after the war is over, then they are released. Usually."
"But that is ridiculous," Remae said in disbelief. "How much effort is needed to keep them fed and guarded? And what happens when they return home, surely they would just take up arms again?"
"A lot of effort is needed to keep them, but after some of the things that went on in our last world war... things occurred that no sane human would ever want to see happen again, so the effort is made."
Her claws clicked as she tapped her fingertips together. "If they really wish to live, they will join us, and some of the strongest may be lose their claws and be sold, but they will almost certainly all choose to die."
I blinked stupidly at her while what she said sunk in. "Why?"
"They are elite soldiers, even if they are Gulf Realm. They could not disgrace their clan by turning traitor to their Realm. Their Families are bound to their lords by oath; to break that oath would be to destroy the honour of their clans."
I stopped and leaned against the wall. I hadn't know this... I'd had no idea. I'd been in Gulf hands, would they have given me that choice? IF I'd refused to help them, they probably wouldn't have sold me as a slave.
In a alcove in the wall in front of me was a small, blown-glass sculpture. Slightly greenish glass in an abstract pattern of teardrops connected together by gracefully arching tubes... A thing of beauty, a delicate thing; fashioned by those same hands.
Oh, they rewarded me for what I had done. Like all the other soldiers who had been in that expedition, I came out of it a bit richer. Actually, in my case it was a lot richer. My previous net wealth had been exactly zilch.
I stood in front of the window in my room and weighed the ten gold pieces in my hand, a lot to be paid by Sathe standards. Now, whereas before I had nothing, I at least had some money to my name, but what could I do with it? The guards outside my door were adverse to me even touching the latch.
Bright, warm sparks of lamps and fireplaces showed that there was life down in Mainport. The lights were alluring, and I stared at them, wondering what kind of night-life the place had. Below, a Sathe guard strolled along the parapet, paused to stretch and yawn, then moved on.
I looked down at the battlement, it was about six metres down, and a grin spread over my face. "Why not? I need the exercise..."
The wind whipped around me as I hung from the windowsill, tugging at my jacket. Don't try this at home kids... I took a breath, and let go. The flagstones of the parapet hit my feet hard and I lost my balance, rolled onto my shoulder, coming up in a crouch. The bundle that was my rolled up cloak containing my knife lay in front of my nose, the flashlight was tucked into the waistband at the back of my pants.
My boots thudded dully against the worn stones as I walked along parapet, staying close to the wall. When I found a small iron door, I fumbled with the latch until it swung open. On the other side was a long hallway, several torches along its length casting pools of twisting light. Two Sathe engrossed in conversation were passing one of those lamps, the features clear and familiar: Remae and Tahr. Coming this way.
Of all the fucking places to run into them...
As carefully as I could, I shut the door and ducked behind a buttress, gathering my cloak close and shrinking back into the shadows.
The door squealed as it opened and a pair of shadows were cast against the battlements opposite. Their voices were blown to me by the wind.
"... here in a few weeks. It takes so long to get reports."
I think it was Tahr who said that. I peeped around the buttress, they were leaning against the ramparts, looking outwards, their backs to me.
"Does K'hy know any way to send messages long distances quickly?" asked Remae.
"He has never mentioned it," Tahr said. "Still, there is quite a lot about himself he has not told me."
Remae snorted. There was a silence over which I could hear distant shouts, laughs... other everyday night noises. Then Remae's voice asked, "What is it about him?"
"K'hy?" Tahr asked.
"Your strange one, yes. There is something about him that... I just find it attractive. I see it does the same to you... and there is a Gulf prisoner, a female, she has been asking after him."
Tahr wrapped her arms around herself. "A Gulf Warrior. How does she know of him?"
"She was among those who kidnapped him. K'hy helped her Mate who was injured in the fighting."
I saw Tahr stiffen and there was a long pause.
"He used a concoction of his own that stopped the pain for a time," Remae continued.
"On a GULF warrior?!" Tahr asked, incredulous.
Tahr raised her head and sighed into the wind, then slapped her hands against the stone of the battlements. "It is times like this that I feel I will never understand him."
"Then why are you so close to him?"
"Saaaaa ," Tahr breathed again. "I am not sure. He is rather clumsy and slow, and there are definitely better looking males around." Remae hissed her laughter at that. "Maybe it is his sentimentality; for someone so large and grotesque, he is kind, caring. Maybe it is his eyes, they always appear to be so afraid."
"I noticed. Yes, sometimes he does look like a lost cub," Remae agreed thoughtfully, "but he is definitely no coward, he fights like a bear."
"Why did you ask about him?" Tahr asked. Remae turned around and I ducked back behind the buttress.
"I visited him after the fighting, at night. I... ah... touched his fur and..."
"... And you probably scared him to moult." Tahr laughed. "If he does moult, that is."
"I must have. He asked me to leave," Remae replied.
"Huh... He is one of the shyest males I have ever seen. He embarrasses easily. It seems his people - or at least he - think mating is a completely private thing." The voices were growing fainter. I stuck my head around the side of the buttress and saw only their backs as they ambled away from me along the parapet.
"You have coupled with him, have you not?" Remae asked. My eyebrows shot up. Come on, surely Tahr wouldn't tell her...
"Ah... that. Yes."
"What was it like?"
"Huh, you agree never to let him know I told you? I can just see his face changing color if he found out. Hah!"
Remae also chortled. "Agreed."
"Well, he is different..." Then the wind and night swallowed their voices.
I leaned against the damp stone of the buttress, tilting my head to follow the line of the sheer wall up to where the ghosts of clouds raced before the moon.
"You bitch," I told it.
The guards at the main gate were busy inspecting a wagon by torchlight, so, thankfully, they hardly spared me a glance as I strolled out. My hood masked my face in shadows, but my height and gait still marked me as different from Sathe.
The road down to the town was almost deserted. Apart from a band of drunk Sathe soldiers headed up towards the Citadel, the only other life I saw was a raccoon that dashed across the road, pausing to stare at me, then disappearing into a snow-covered bush on the roadside.
Dirty snow lying on the cobblestone squeaked beneath my boots I walked between the dark buildings. The moon was almost full, with wisps of cloud scudding across its face, so there was enough light for me to see where I was going. A cool breeze wound through the narrow streets, and the tang of the sea was stronger.
The waterfront was also dead, an empty stretch of dock littered with bits of rope, fish, and other such trash. A forest of masts from the boats that were still in the breakwater stood out against the night sky, and underlying everything was the steady murmuring of the sea and the groaning of the boats' timbers. I threw back my hood and ran my hands through my hair, relishing the fresh air, feeling more alive than I had for some weeks.
With my hands jammed into my pockets, I wandered along the waterfront staring out at the sea. Somewhere out of my sight in the darkness, waves crashed against the breakwater.
The only thing to mar the evening was the thought of Tahr's conversation with Remae. Damnation! Why did Remae seem to be developing an interest in me as well? I couldn't handle two of them!
When I reached the southernmost end of the dock, almost at the town walls, another kind of crash made me jump. Close behind me, a group of Sathe spilled out of a door that had been thrown open. From the opening came Sathe voices and yellow light, dimmed by the amount of smoke that also spilled out; the smell of cooking food was strong on the air. The door slammed shut again, obviously an exclusive club ejecting some of its more... rowdy customers.
I hastily pulled my hood back up again as the Sathe that could walk gathered up their pissed friends and helped them stagger off. One of them careened off my shoulder and clutched at my arm, peering into the shadows of my hood and blinking, then recoiling. I ducked out of sight into an alley before he could bring me to the attention of his friends.
The city at night was like a termite mound: On the outside it was quiet, just superficial signs of life: a guard dozing beside a brazier, lights in a bakery as Sathe bakers prepared the next day's dough. Underneath, I guessed, the silent town had its own nightlife, the pubs and the brothels. I think the Sathe had them, I personally had no reason to seek one out.
As one neared the centre of the city the back streets narrowed, divided, became a warren of alleys, cul de sacs and tunnels beneath houses arching over the streets. The cleaning of the streets seemed up to the tenants of the buildings around them as some sections of paving were fairly clean, whilst others abounded in filth of various indescribable types.
The disjointed rooftops and chimneys threw shadows on the grounds that grew sharp, then faded away into darkness again as clouds swept across in front of the moon. Windows were holes of darkness, the few that had glass in them glinting in the moonlight. I walked the deserted streets as quietly as I could, my cloak flapping around my heels like dark, enshrouding wings.
I halted in mid stride.
Lit from below by light escaping a small window in a closed door, the sign depicted a sloop with oversized flame-red sails billowing. Red Sails. Could only be that place R'R'Rhasct and Chirthi had described. A trio of Sathe approached and simply walked in. As the door opened and closed I could smell warmth and food and smoke on the tangy sea air.
For a time I lurked in the shadows a couple of buildings away, nervous and indecisive, then shrugged. Why not?
That front door opened easily onto a small, Spartan chamber, another door in the far wall. Music, the clatter of metal and glass, Sathe voices sounded through. I pushed that door open and stood on the landing at the top of a wooden stair. Down below, the smoke-filled basement room was filled with a snug gloom. Oil lamps hanging from massive rafters added to the hazy atmosphere. Brass fittings and copper utensils rippled and glowed with reflected firelight. Wooden furniture: tables and benches in secluded alcoves, wooden floor, the bar counter along the far wall, all boned and burnished until they shone with that soft glow of natural wood. The strong, slightly unpleasant smell of mingled Sathe and food.
The room was full of them. At tables and at the bar, in the heat of the room most of them wearing only their pelts, almost giving the illusion that the room was carpeted in patched furs. As I stepped down the stairs more and more of them began to stare at me, surprised silence spreading like ripples in a pond. At the foot of the stairs a pair of burly Sathe glanced at each other, then hesitantly moved to block me off, their ears back.
"Alright! Joke's over! What get of a diseased goat let THAT in here?!"
A Sathe was pushing his way out from behind the bar, mad as hell, fur bristling as he glared at the crowd. He stopped at the foot of the stairs, behind the bouncers: "WELL?!"
There was hesitant laughter hissing from the crowd.
I cleared my throat. "Good sir," I ventured. He whipped around to stare at me. "I let myself in," I smiled. "You are the owner of this place?"
He goggled. "You... you... you..." He sounded like a stuck record.
I leant against the railing. "Yes, I can talk. I had noticed. I am not looking for any trouble, all I want is a drink and some food... however if your employee who is trying to sneak up on me tries anything, he will be wearing his asshole as a necklace." I turned and levelled a finger at the startled Sathe bouncer frozen with one foot raised on the stair behind me: "Got that?"
That was bluff, pure and simple. I don't know if I could have handled the muscle, especially if the other two piled in, but there was more laughter from the crowd and the Sathe bouncer hastily backpedalled up the stairs.
The barkeep was still staring. I stepped down - the bouncers retreating before me. "Nice place you have here," I said, glancing casually around.
"You cannot..." the tavern master began to protest, then noticed the three gold coins in my hand. He goggled again.
"Change of mind?" I asked.
There was the briefest hesitation before he snatched the golds from my palm, claws barely nicking my skin. Oversized canines dented the soft metal and meticulous eyes examined it. "Very well," he finally said. "If you can pay, you can drink, eat."
"Thank you," I said. Hell, capitalism is universal. Whatever you are, if you can pay they don't have any objections.
"Uh... wait," he stopped me as I began to head for the fireplace at the far end of the room. "Do you have any weapons?"
I stopped and stared at him for a time, watching him squirm. "Perhaps."
"You must check them at the bar."
I kept staring.
None of the other patrons appeared to be carrying any hardware. I couldn't see any knives or swords. Difficult to hide weapons; many of them wore only small pouches for valuables.
The bartender - a small female with dark fur spattered by droplets of liquid and patched in a couple of places, scars showing - froze like a rabbit, panting hard, as I unstrapped the knife and set it on the bar. She took the combat knife, turning it over in her hands and stroking curious finger pads along the rubberised waterproof sheathing.
"I am going to be wanting that back," I warned her. "It had better still be here when I get back."
"Yes... sir," she said, uncertain as to my gender, then hastily tucked the weapon under the bar.
Covert eyes and a wake of silence followed me through the tavern.
The minstrel hunched over his instrument, completely absorbed in his playing. His tongue poked forgotten from his lips as claws in lieu of picks danced across strings. He was acceptably good and the worn leather satchel on the floor at his feet had a sprinkling of copper coins dusted across its battered surface.
I idly toyed with the mug. The single candle on the table in the small alcove was guttering, barely a centimetre of stem with the wick flickering. I stared moodily into the flame reflecting on the twists and turns my life had taken, trying to find a path for the future. I'd seriously debated leaving Mainport, just slipping away one night and trying to make my own way. Harder to hit a moving target.
But then I'd have the hunters of two Realms after me, perhaps five if the others got wind of the hunt. This land is big, but I couldn't hide forever. All it would take would be a careless glimpse, a farmer or villager reporting to the authorities and I'd be running again. Even Tahr, even with what we had between us, she would be duty-bound to find me.
And behind the other door... staying here in Mainport, with a roof over my head, food, and a sitting duck for assassins. Tahr had told me on the night of the Choosing that I was a prize. I was the one who had precipitated the killing in the Circle. I was the one who had so nearly - however indirectly - caused the death of my friend and lover.
My reverie was interrupted at that point by the arrival of one of the tavern staff bringing my meal. I tipped her and she stared incredulously at the gold coin, then made it vanish into the empty-looking pouch that swung lightly from her belt.
The meat was rare; cut into chunks that took me forever to chew and swallow, but the rich gravy and the vegetables were excellent. The minstrel paused to scratch vigorously at his mane, then began on another solo. Most Sathe just ignored him. Just muzak.
From my little recessed alcove all I could see of the room was the fire, the musician, and a couple of other tables discreetly tucked away in nooks and corners of the room, so when Sathe voices began to raise down the other end, I poked my head around the corner of the booth for a look-see, then hastily pulled back again.
Five, six guards in their blue and silver livery were having a heated debate with a group of the locals. Looking for me? I glanced around again. Those two guards... Shit! I knew them! Chirthi and wasshername... R'R'Rhasct? Yeah, that's it. What the hell were they doing here? Looking for me already? They'd checked their weapons. Perhaps they were just in for a meal or a drink.
A yowl of pain rose above the general hubub. I looked around in time to see a small-scale riot breaking out - the Citadel troops were tussling with disreputable-looking Sathe who were either naked or wearing tough leather breeks: labourers or fishers I guessed, but they outnumbered the troopers three to one. Two of the combatants rolled onto a table that promptly collapsed under their weight, scattering wooden bowls and patrons left and right. A trio of locals were working a trooper over; two holding him while the other went to work on his ears: tearing with claws. Chirthi decked the one he was grappling with, then turned to help. The fallen dockhand clambered into a crouch, then reached into the back of his waistband.
I had his arm bent behind his back before he could draw the concealed knife from its sheath. "Naughty, naughty," I growled in his ear as I confiscated it. A wicked thing, like an icepick, with a slender blade designed for slipping in through chinks in armour. Nice balance too. A flick of my wrist and the dirk was imbedded in a wall.
Now the Sathe I was holding twisted around and yelped at what he saw. Two of his friends - perhaps drunk beyond caring - tried to jump me. I shifted my weight and kicked out at one of them with my right boot, catching him on the hip and sending him sprawling. The Sathe in my hands was a burden; I shoved him into a chair, spun and crouched in time to avoid a slashing sweep from the other Sathe. He didn't manage to dodge a straight line-drive to his stomach and doubled over as the air was knocked out of him.
Another male faced me, crouched low in a fighters stance, arms curled with all claws extruded. Too cautious. I twisted my face into a mask of rage, roared, then while he was still startled, introduced his groin to my combat boot; right on the penile sheath.
He just grunted, lunged forward and tried to open the side of my face.
Someone landed on my back and hooked a muscular, furry arm around my windpipe, legs around my waist. I stumbled backwards under the unexpected weight, then lunged forwards, trying to send the Sathe flying. Claws scrabbled for my throat. I punched a fist back over my shoulder. Damp, leathery tissue gave way, the Sathe yowled and collapsed.
I tripped on something and went over backwards, landed on a furry body that yelped and gasped. In the resulting tussle a fur-covered elbow filled my vision and pain exploded down the side of my face. I swore and kicked out again, feeling my boot strike solid flesh, another yelp amongst the cacophony of snarls, growls, and howls filling the room. Toe claws raked at my side as one bastard tried to slice me open while I was down, then he was tackled by a blur in blue armour. They landed with an almighty crash on a table in a booth, fur flying in clouds as they battered at each other's head and neck.
Then another civilian tried for me, claws snagging in the heavy material of my shirt as he clawed at my neck. I caught that hand, blocked the other, spun him, then snatched him up by the belt of his breeches and strung him up from a lamp sconce on a nearby post. He thrashed and squealed as the breeches bit deeply.
His friends had had enough.
Pads and claws thudded against the wooden stairs as the gang of dockhands high-tailed it. The door slammed and suddenly the room was very quiet, my laboured breathing and pounding blood inordinately loud in my ears.
Other patrons had retreated to the walls of the room, watching the fight from a distance. Not a one of them had abandoned their drinks. Several Sathe - blue armour, naked fur, and civi breeches - were sprawled about, some semi-conscious and nursing wounds, others dead to the world. The Citadel troops in their blue armour stood looking around uncertainly as they came down off their adrenal high.
Another sound: a creaking and metallic click.
I turned to see the barkeeper raising a crossbow above the bar, levelling it at me. The quarrel nestling in the groove was fitted with a triangular hunting tip. I stared at the pinpoints of light gleaming from the head of the quarrel, frozen as my guts turned to ice.
Her finger was tightening on the trigger...
"Stop!" a Sathe cried. "Hold!" Chirthi pushed in front of me, a bleeding ear, holding out a hand to the bartender. She lowered the weapon with pure, undiluted surprise scrawled across her face. "Wha..."
"He did not start this!" Chirthi began to explain.
"That one over there had a blade," one of the other patrons called. "The animal stopped him using it."
Now the innkeeper pushed through the door behind the bar. He froze at the sight of the damage and his hands went to his head in a melodramatic display of horror. "Saaaa... My life! I am ruined! Aiiii, I am but a lowly merchant! How am I to pay for such destruction?!"
There was some laughter from the room, flattening ears and hisses from the troopers - the equivalent of rolling their eyes.
"You find this humorous?!" The tavern master raged at the patrons. "I should throw you out, the lot of you!"
"Get real, Chaereth," Chirthi chuckled. "They can pay the usual amount for damages," he gestured at the prostrate civies on the floor.
"And I suppose you didn't have a claw in this?"
"There are forty witnesses here who can vouch for us."
The innkeeper - Chaereth - snorted. "Very well, but if they do not have enough, you shall make up the difference. Your commander turns from brawling amongst his troops."
"Agreed," Chirthi signed consent with a twitch of his ears. "And good sir, would your employee mind pointing that thing somewhere else. I think she is making my friend here slightly nervous."
"Friend?" Chaereth inquired with a wrinkle of his muzzle, then, "Very well." He waved a hand and the bartender reluctantly lowered the crossbow, taking out the quarrel then pulling the trigger. The bow released with a sharp snap sounding like a small-calibre pistol shot.
"Thanks," I told Chirthi, then asked, "Get real?"
"I heard you use it before," he said with a slight flash of teeth. "Sounded good. I have been waiting for a chance to use it."
A hand touched my shoulder, claws tickled my skin through the shirt; friendly. "We had wondered if you would show," the small female said.
"Rhasct..." I began.
"R'R'Rhasct," she interrupted; laughing. "You will never learn to say it, will you."
By now their friends had gathered around. Sathe in blue armour, silver trim. None taller than five and a half foot, all of them scuffed, several bleeding from scratches, cut ears and muzzles. "I have seen this around the Citadel," one of them said. "You know it?"
"Him," R'R'Rhasct corrected. "His name is K'hy. He is... what are you again?"
"Human," I provided.
"H'man, that noise," she grinned at me. "I have not seen any sign of you since that Sand Circle affair. What are you doing down here tonight?"
"I was looking for a drink, and a bit of peace and quiet."
There was Sathe laughter. "You are not such a good hunter," Chirthi said as he dabbed at his torn ear. "This is not the best place to look for peace and quiet."
"Drinks, however," R'R'Rhasct said, "perhaps those could be found here. Do you need help looking?"
I grinned back, making those Sathe who weren't familiar with my expression of amusement shift back uneasily. "I would welcome the company."
"Lonely, a?" R'R'Rhasct gave me a thoughtful look, then patted my shoulder. "Not too surprising. Come on, we will get you that drink."
The bed was warm, the sheets coarse, the furry body beside me soft, pulsing gently with breath. I closed my bleary eyes again and cuddled up close, feeling fur rubbing softly against my naked skin.
There was shouting from outside, the rattle of iron-bound wheels on cobbles. The noise went right through my head.
I groaned, rolled over onto my back, and threw an arm across my eyes, wincing at the pounding behind my temples, the gummy taste on the roof of my mouth. Eventually I took my arm away and squinted at the ceiling.
Somehow it seemed different that morning...
Perhaps because it wasn't my ceiling.
Low, peaked ceiling of huge slate shingles with rafters of old, black wood; warped and twisted. Walls of rough wood, small window with slats missing from the shutter, a faint, blurry light outside. Black floor polished smooth to a gleaming finish.
This wasn't my room! I didn't recognise it at all!
Beside me the Sathe muttered and chirred in her sleep, in waking. I stared. Her fur was brown, a dark van dyke brown with faint stripes of white and black on her ribs.
I'd never really understood that term, 'your heart skipping a beat'. Not until then, that is. If I hadn't been lying down I'd have collapsed. This isn't happening. I just froze, staring. She abruptly rolled over and opened her eyes, meeting mine.
With a yell I was out of the bed and against the wall by the window, wide-eyed and gasping and stark naked as I stared at her.
"K'hy?" she asked.
"Oh my god!" I squeaked.
"What was that?" she smiled and stretched out. "You know I do not understand those noises."
"W... who are you?" I croaked. "Oh Jesus! What happened?! Where am I?!"
She stared at me, speechless, then sat up; one arm looped over a knee. "Saaa! You do not remember? Last night?"
I shook my head miserably, trying to remember what happened. "I... I had some drinks... Rhasct and Chirthi. After that..."
After that... nothing. Some confusing emotions maybe, otherwise zilch.
A scratch at the door. I jumped as another female poked her head around. "I heard..." R'R'Rhasct began and trailed off as she saw the tableau: Me naked, in a defensive crouch, facing off the strange female I'd woken up with.
At that moment my exposure was the last thing on my mind. I rounded on the female guard: "Rhasct! What the fuck is going on here?! What happened?! We were drinking, then I wake up here..." I looked at the female on the bed again, saw the scars on her pelt. "Shit! You were at the bar. Took my knife, then nearly speared me with a crossbow."
"I did apologise," she retorted, almost insulted.
"Uhnnn!" I grated between clenched teeth, turned away and leaned spread-eagle against the window frame. Dawn was trying to creep between the slats of the shutter. I took a deep breath: "Did anything... happen last night? Between us?"
There was hesitation before she answered. "Yes. Yes, we coupled. I do not..."
"Oh God!" I hissed with my stomach tying itself in knots. "She's going to kill me!"
"K'hy?" R'R'Rhasct ventured. "What is the matter with you?"
"WITH ME?!" I spun on them in a flaring rage that made both Sathe start, then gasped air as I fought to calm down, my head pounding. "Oh Jeez, Rhasct, what happened?" I pleaded, then looked to the female in the bed with abrupt horror: "I did... I did not PAY you, did I?"
"No," the wide-eyed female replied.
"You had quite a few ales," R'R'Rhasct volunteered.
"Oh, I am not sure. About three tankards I should imagine."
"Three..." I rubbed my forehead. The stuff they brew here is far from potent. Hell, compared with that ale, even Coors - the piss of the lager industry - packs a punch. Three tankards; not including the few I'd downed earlier. Damnation! I'd drunk more than that before and still been able to thread a needle.
I didn't get it.
R'R'Rhasct's ears trembled and again she glanced between me and the recumbent female on the sheets. "Does it... does simple sex really upset you so much?"
"Rhasct," I said, then sighed, fighting to think clearly. "I do not have anything against simple sex. Could you enjoy it if you wake remembering nothing of it? Also, she and I... I am too different to make it simple sex. Our differences are not just physical. Sex to me is... emotional." God, I'd had a hard enough time coping with Tahr's advances. Now I was fooling around? My head was throbbing again and I heavily sat down on the edge of the bed, rubbing my temples. "Thank you, Rhasct. Please, leave us?"
She quietly closed the door behind her.
I jumped at a touch on my shoulder. Leathery finger pads and furry knuckles pressed against my neck and down alongside my spine and across my shoulders, rubbing, pressing, kneading. Slowly, my tension drained under the backrub. The pain in my head subsided.
"I taught you this?" I asked.
"Yesss," she spoke that monosyllable in English, drawing it out into a hiss. "The last night you were not so touchy."
I groaned. "The last night I was not exactly myself."
Again she laughed.
"You are not afraid of me," I said, aware the instant I spoke of the foolishness of the question.
"How can I be," she softly rebuked.
"Huhnn... I did not... hurt you?"
"No," she said. Warm, insubstantial breath hovered against my shoulder as if sharp teeth hesitated, then moved away again. "No, never." Her hands described small circles over the region of my kidneys, traced the ridge of my vertebrae upwards. "It was a lot of fun actually; for both of us I thought. There is another female, is there not? Another Sathe?"
"How did you know?" I asked; surprised. "Did I talk about her last night?"
"No," she said and I felt the bed move as she resettled herself. Her hands pressed at my shoulders, each squeeze bringing the claws partly out to kiss my skin. "You knew me too well for this to have been your first time with a Sathe."
"Ahhh," I nodded. The fur of her stomach rustled against my back as she pressed up closer. It was then I realised what was happening.
"Hey!" I yelped and yanked away. "What are you doing?!"
Startled, she knelt on the bed with her feet tucked back beneath her. "You ARE different this morning."
"I am SOBER this morning!"
"Saaa! I think I prefer you drunk. You were not afraid to have fun then." She cocked her head to one side. "I know you enjoyed yourself as much as I did."
"That was then, this is now," I growled.
Her ears and muzzle dipped in annoyance: "Do you have the same trouble with your female?"
My female... Holy Shit!
I dashed to the shutters and wrenched them open. There - to the east - the velvet sky was lightening, high streaks of cloud glowing with the coming of the dawn.
"Shit! I have to get out of here! Now!"
"What? What is wrong!"
My clothes were scattered around the room. I began to hunt around for the various bits and pieces. "Look," I tried to explain as I caught my underwear up from the 'foot' of the circular bed. "I am not supposed to be here."
"Here!" I waved my arm as I hopped on one leg trying to get into the shorts. "In the town. In Mainport. If I am not back at the Citadel before they know I am gone, I am going to be in a lot of trouble." I found my boots and shirt.
"Trouble? With whom?"
"Damnation! The Shirai!"
"The Shirai! You know her?"
"Know her! Huh!" I half-laughed. "Listen; that other female... that's her."
"Oh!" Her eyes went impossibly wide. "What would happen..."
I shook my head. "No idea. She does not seem to be the type to get jealous, but I do not want to risk it."
She hissed and wrinkled her muzzle at me. "It was not jea..."
I couldn't find my pants. "My breeches! Damnation! Where are my breeches?!" I demanded. She stared at me, then flicked an ear and pointed up.
There, draped over a rafter, were my pants. I cursed and snagged them down. Now my socks...
"You are looking for these?" she asked, sticking a foot out.
The trio of bored guards lounging around outside my door had kittens when I appeared. Hands shot to sword hilts, fur bristled.
"Hey guys!" I smiled and waved at them.
"You... How..." they stuttered with jaws dropping. "Where have you been? What have you done?!" the senior howled.
"I got tired of the view and took a walk," I said. "Now if you will excuse me..."
"A walk!" The guard started to hyperventilate. "The Shirai will have our hides for this!"
"What she does not know cannot hurt her," I pointed out. "I am here, I am safe. Just keep your mouths shut and nobody will know."
He gaped and was about to argue when his associates caught his shoulder and drew him aside to put their heads together. Eventually they came to a solution that was of mutual satisfaction to them all. The trio returned to their posts, staring past me. "If anyone asks, we never saw you leave your room."
I grinned and opened the door.
From the rampart below my window a bird was singing its respects to the morning sun.
"Oh, Jesus... Why haven't they invented coffee?" I moaned to myself, clasping my head between my hands. Water had to do instead. I took a mouthful, swilled, spat, then drank.
Nah, it's just not the same.
Christ on a crutch! How much had I drunk last night? R'R'Rhasct had said it was only three mugs. Bullshit! I'd never feel like this after only three beers. It reminded me more of the after-effects of Thamil. Still, whatever it had been, it had been more than enough to persuade me to go all the way with yet another Sathe female, one I didn't even know! "This is a habit I've got to break," I muttered, then dropped back down on the couch, nursing my water. My head was still aching, even when I put my head down and closed my eyes for a second...
Five localised points of pain lanced through my shoulder. I yelped, rolled over, and fell off the couch. From my position on the wooden floor, I looked up at Remae leaning over the back of the chair, her claws still poking from her fingertips. "Oh, sorry," the Marshal apologised, "I forgot how thin your skin... what has happened to your face?"
"Huh?" I touched my cheek and winced. "Oh, I just had a small accident last night. Fell over. Nothing serious." Outside, the sun was high in the sky. How long had I been asleep?
"Good to hear. Have you looked at yourself?"
There was a mirror in my room, a tiny square of smoky glass. Unfamiliar features stared back at me. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the damned thing, I looked... wrong, and this time I looked even worse than usual. My left eye was almost swollen shut and surrounded by black and blue skin, a real shiner. I touched the tenderised meat and winced. "Ouch. That's going to be a beauty."
Reflected in the mirror, I saw Remae standing behind the couch, staring at me. The contrast between the brilliance of her eyes and the darkness of her fur was incredible; like the catseyes down the middle of a road, shining in a car's headlights. It made me nervous.
"Fell over," she mused. "Did you trip over someone's claws?"
"Those scratches down your side."
I glanced down at the tears in my shirt with the red scratches showing through. Shit! I'd forgotten... "Was there something you wanted?" I snapped and turned to face her.
"The guard said that you were asleep when he brought in your food, that you had been all day. I just stopped off to see if you were all right."
I bent over to picked up the mug I'd knocked over when I fell off the couch and set it back beside the pitcher of water on the desk. "Oh, thanks... I would be better if I could get out more often, but that is not possible is it," I said with a meaningful glance in her direction.
She rubbed behind one triangular ear; amused. As if she knew something... "No, I am afraid not."
I rolled my eyes, sighed, and she turned to leave. "Hold on a sec," I stalled her. "Can I see that Gulf prisoner? The female, the one whose mate was injured."
She stopped in her tracks. "What in the Name of the Clan do you want to see her for?"
I shrugged. "There are a few questions I want to ask her."
"Are there?" she stared at me, her ears tilting back. "Why? She is the enemy."
"Remae, to me she is a Sathe... as are you, Tahr, and Rehr. I find it very difficult to hate any of you because of your backgrounds and histories; they do not mean as much to me as they do to you... Please, can I see her?"
Remae's hand was resting on the door latch but she made no move to open it. She stood there for a few seconds, her muzzle wrinkled in puzzlement and those unblinking eyes fixed on me.
"We shall see," she said, then she swept out and the door was swinging shut behind her.
I watched the door after it had shut, thinking about what I had heard Remae and Tahr talking about the night before. What had Tahr told her about us? Judging from the way she had been staring at me, I guessed it was a lot.
"What is it with them? We're different goddamn SPECIES!" I wondered if talking to yourself really was a sign of cracking up.
Papers on the drawing board fluttered in a draught coming straight through the closed windows. Sparks danced up around the stew simmering over the fire, the smell wafting around the room.
As the papers rustled again, I jotted down a note in the margins: DOUBLE GLAZING.
They hadn't let me see that Gulf prisoner, but I'd got my drawing board moved in. Those long winter evenings dragged on, working was one way to pass the time. I spent hundreds of hours at that desk with quill and ink, scratching away, putting ideas to paper. Technical works for the most part, tools and machinery I tried to recreate from memory, but tucked away in a drawer were a few sketches of a more personal nature.
One slow day I'd found myself doodling, sketching a line drawing of Tahr's face. It just went from there, drawing the faces of the Sathe I'd met, trying to catch the individuality of the alien bone structures and furry faces; emotions expressed in ways a human couldn't; ways a human found difficult to relate to. I never actually showed the pictures to anyone - embarrassed they might just laugh at my interpretation of Sathe. They were something to do when I was bored or when I needed something else to think about. I kept them tucked away in a drawer and slowly - over the months - their numbers grew.
On the board in front of me at the moment were rough notes for part of a wind-powered sawmill, the mechanism that would move eight saw blades while pulling a log through them; not to difficult to put down on paper, but I wondered what the gears and ratchets could be made from... it looked like it would have to be wood. Steel would have to wait until I got a Bessemer converter - or a satisfactory analogue - worked out.
There was a scratch on the door. "Come in," I called out absently in English, my mind really on the paper in front of me. No matter. Remae came in and shut the door behind herself.
Without preamble she said. "I have the person that you wanted to see. She is outside... Do you still wish to see her?"
I tossed the quill I was writing with on the drawing board and leaned back in the chair. The sharpened feather made a small blot of ink as the tip touched the yellowish paper. "She is here? Sure."
She stared at me then started to open the door.
"Remae," I got her attention again. "Why do you keep... ah... looking at me like that. Is there something strange about me? More than normal I mean."
She favoured me with a smile. "Apologies. I did not mean to stare. It is nothing." She disappeared into the corridor.
I cleared the papers off the desk. "Nothing... right. Sure."
What HAD Tahr said about me?
When I looked up again that female Gulf soldier was standing in the doorway, a pair of armed and armoured guards flanking her. Remae hovered behind them.
"Can we be alone?" I asked her.
She gave the Gulf trooper a dubious look, then asked me, "Will you be all right?"
Of all the stupid... "Does she look as though she can hurt me?" I snapped.
That was true. It looked as if she was having trouble standing; her wrists were chained and her fur was matted and bedraggled, tufts missing with patches of cut skin showing through. With dull eyes she watched me, but her nose was twitching. I saw her glance at the fire and the pot of stew simmering on the hearth.
Remae and the guards left.
"You do not look so good," I said.
She just stared at me.
"Have a seat." I sat down in one of the armchairs and gestured at the other one. She just stood there.
"Come on. You can sit down now, or I can carry you to a chair when you collapse... Look at yourself, you can hardly stand."
She seemed to wilt even more, if that was possible, and settled in the chair nearest the fire, tucking her feet up and lowering her head, her eyes still watching me.
"I do not even know your name," I realised. "Do you want to tell me?"
She didn't say anything.
"Listen, please. I am sorry about what happened to you and your mate. I wish we could be meeting under different circumstances, but I am afraid I really have no say in the matter."
"Kass," she said.
"My name is Kass... Kass ai Shila." Her head lifted slightly.
"Kass," I pronounced the name correctly and looked at her sitting there, small, defenceless, scared, but with a spark of defiance burning within her. I saw the dirty muzzle, fur stretched taut over her ribs, and I saw her furtive glances at the pot of stew steaming softly beside the fire. A thread of saliva hung from her mouth and she licked her chops.
Startled, she looked back at me and pointedly clamped her mouth shut.
I shrugged, picked up a clean bowl and ladled a generous helping of stew into it. Beside the fireplace a spoon I had carved for myself hung alongside Sathe spoons; I took one of the long Sathe ones. "Here, take it." I offered the bowl to her.
She hesitated, but was soon shoving spoonfuls of stew into her mouth as fast as she could, holding the bowl awkwardly because of her chains.
"Careful." She flinched when I touched her hand. "Go slowly." She kept eating, but at a more sedate pace. When she finished, I gave her a mug of water. "When was the last time you ate?"
She belched and looked surprised. "I told you to take it easy," I said.
She snorted then looked at me suspiciously. "What do you want?"
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
"I just want to ask you a few questions."
Her eyes narrowed as a guarded look crossed her face: Obviously she had been asked some questions before.
"No, no," I hastily assured her. "You will have nothing to lose by answering... at least I do not think you will. I just want to know what happened to the family at the farm."
She still looked wary and scared.
"For Christ's sake... Look, I just want to know what happened to them. I will not hold your answer against you." I hoped.
"Can I ask you a question first?" she countered.
"You will answer my question if I answer yours?"
"Yes, I swear it."
"I will take you on your word. What is it?"
"What ARE you? Those months ago I was told we go to capture a strange creature aiding the Eastern Realm. We do this task," her chains rattled as she clenched a fist. "The creature talks, it seems to burn to death, then it returns to capture US!" She sagged and stared at the black chains around her wrists, then almost pleaded: "What are you?"
I couldn't blame her for wanting to know that, but should I tell her? What could it hurt? "It is a long story."
"I am not going anywhere."
Well then. I poured myself a mug of water, settled and began to tell her my tale. She listened attentively.
"That is true?" she asked once I had finished.
"Yes, every word. Now I have answered your question, it is your turn."
She took a deep breath that hissed like steam escaping from a kettle and tucked her feet in closer. "They were executed."
"Oh, God... You fucking..."
She cowered back, wide-eyed in terror as I stood and took a step toard her, jaw and fists clenched in fury. All she could do was cringe back, like she was trying to push through the back of the chair. She raised her hands to ward me off, the chains rattled, and the rage abruptly faded. I sat down again. She couldn't read my expression, shrinking away as I raised my head from my hands, moisture streaming from my eyes.
"We had to do it," she gabbled. "We had to! If we didn't, he would have had us impaled and skinned for disobeying his orders if he had found out!"
I half-listened to her. Why hadn't he come with me!?
He had his family.
"Why are they any concern of yours though? You never knew them."
That snapped my attention back to the present. "Oh, I knew them! I knew them. They gambled everything to save my life, and they lost.
"I owe them everything, Kass!"
Bewildered by my outburst she gaped, then stuttered, "You... cared for them?" it was an unbelieving question.
"Yes, I cared. I can care you know. I can love and hate, laugh and cry... everything a Sathe can feel, so can I. When you had me chained, did you think I enjoyed it?! Did you think I LIKED being tortured?! What did you think I AM?!"
"I still do not know," she mumbled.
My anger abruptly died. As tired as if I had been running for my life, I sagged and ran my fingers over my scalp. "You were asking the guards about me; why?"
"I wanted to know more about you. What... who you are."
"Have I answered your questions?"
Her chains rattled as she waved a sign of acknowledgment. There was a silence, then: "You are alone? There are no more of your kind?"
"I do not know," I replied. "You have not heard any stories or rumours about anything like myself?"
"If you listen to enough tale-weavers you will eventually hear anything you like," she said," but I have never heard tell of anything like you."
I sighed to myself and stared out the window. Droplets of water impacted against the wavery glass as the sky outside began to open. "Alright, Kass. Tell me about the Gulf Realm."
Instantly her ears went back and she clammed up.
"Hey! No. My mistake. All I wish to know about is what your life in the Gulf Realm was like. Where you were born, what your Clan and family is like. I know nothing of what life outside the Eastern Realm is like."
Kass stared at me in surprise, but the hostility was still there.
"Okay," I shrugged then got up, took her bowl, refilled it, and handed it back to her. "You do not have to tell me anything you do not wish to."
She looked at the steaming bowl she held and I could see her nostrils flare. Saliva glistened on her thin, black lips. A time of thought, then she started speaking.
Her Clan was not prominent. They hailed from a fairly insignificant settlement in the western borderland of the Gulf Realm. Farming and herding was a major part of their lifestyle. She described in wistful detail the small outpost and the countryside about it: the golden prairies that 'vanished beyond a glowing purple horizon', the rivers and glades.
She was a long way from home.
Six years ago, at the age of thirteen, she had been drafted into the Gulf military forces to do her time as all able-bodied Sathe were required to do. She had seen action on their north-western frontier against the nomadic tribesathe of the Open Realm when the Gulf Realm carved itself several thousand square klicks of new land. She returned to their capital a vet and was initiated into the Guard where she had earned the trust and recognition of her superiors.
Although she had fond memories of it, she really harboured no wish to return to her little backwater town. She'd found a job that offered to let her see more of the world than she could ever see swabbing out llama stalls.
"However I did not realise that the world would include the inside of an Eastern dungeon," she finished wryly.
While her story was doubtless biased, what she had told me gave me a picture of how her Realm functioned. To begin with, while the Eastern Realms form of blanket government was what could be coined a benevolent monarchy, the Gulf Realm was reigned over by a militant dictatorship.
For generations now, the Clan leading the Realm had been the Mharah Dynasty, of whom Hraasa ai Mharah was the current Born Ruler. They had the Gulf Realm in a stranglehold, stifling opposition by ensuring that the other Clans in the Realm were all firmly under their control.
There were the compulsory draft regulations. Clans must send a certain number of their young to serve in the Gulf military for a time. That left the Mharah Clan with a standing army of immense size under its almost exclusive control, funded by taxes from the other clans of the Realm.
I also saw how the Gulf Realm had been nibbling at its neighbours, taking tiny bites from here and there. And now there were Gulf troops infiltrating the Eastern Realm; pushing far beyond the borders nearly undetected. The Eastern Realm knew they were there, but couldn't find them. Like fleas on a dog.
Their push was going to turn to shove real soon.
I turned from my ruminating back to Kass: "Thank you. You have been most helpful."
Her catlike ears went back flat and the green eyes she shared with the rest of her kind, regardless of their Realm, widened in alarm. I could almost hear her thoughts: what did I say?!
The guards came when I called them and yanked Kass to her feet. I growled at them to be gentle and they took their hands off her, but they still kept a hand on their sword hilts.
"Hold it," I said before they carted her away. The guards stopped and she looked around at me. "Kass, one more thing. You know the choices available to you. Make your one count. I do believe that no ideal is worth dying for."
"I will in no way dishonour my Clan or my mate," she said. "I will make my own choice."
I shrugged. "Spoken like a true fanatic."
She bristled. The guards hissed.
"I hope I see you again," I said sincerely, then waved for the guards to take her away.
Remae drifted in, turning in the doorway to watch the Eastern Warrior being taken away, and sat down in the chair that Kass had just vacated. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
I glared at her. "Cut that out. I found out what I wanted to know."
Remae idly scratched at the arm of the chair with a claw, "What was that?"
"A little about the Gulf Realm."
"We could have told you anything you wanted to know."
"I know," I shrugged, "But I wanted to hear the other side." From the horse's mouth, so to speak.
"Then you see what we fear. Do you think we are right or wrong to desire your weapons to protect ourselves?"
"Christ, Remae, I do not think I am the right one to make moral decisions of this kind. I can only hope I am doing the right thing."
"Believe me," she said. "You are!"
"Thanks a lot," I said dryly, then dropped down in the chair behind my desk: "What she said as she was leaving... I think she really would rather die than surrender to you. Are all Sathe like that?"
Remae's eyes hardened: "Gulf they may be, but they are also Guard. They are the most trusted of the Clan Lord's followers for good reasons: They are good, and they are loyal. It is a code: Loyalty, courage, and honour above all else. Why did you not believe me when I told you that they would live and die by this code?"
"I guess I was thinking like a human."
"Would you not die for your Clan and Realm?"
"Ah... we do not have Clans like you do."
"I do not know." I couldn't explain all the differences between our two cultures. "I do not think so."
Remae's head rocked back as if my words had been a slap in the face. "But you are a warrior. It is your duty to defend your Realm!"
"A duty I can perform much better if I am alive," I countered. "I will follow my superior if he leads me to Hell and back. I would fight for my... Realm, I would not betray it, but I would not give my life. Shit, I do not want to die; nobody in their right mind does. No honour is worth that."
"Saaa! K'hy, honour is everything!"
To you, Remae, perhaps.
To me it just seemed like another name for pride. A means of inflaming youthful imagination to do the bidding of those who would use them.
But when in Rome...
I sighed and nodded vaguely.
She stared at me, then shook her head as though dispelling a cloud of midges. I didn't hear Remae step up beside me, but I felt it when she brushed against my sleeve.
"I am sorry, maybe you are right," I apologised, then changed the subject: "I have not seen much of Tahr lately. Is she too busy to see me?"
"You have not heard?... No, of course you would not have. The old Born Ruler is much worse. She has been seeing as much of him as possible." The black velvet of her muzzle wrinkled slightly. "I do not like to believe it, but I do not think he has long to live."
"Oh," I said.
She laid a black-furred hand on my shoulder. "Do not worry, she has not forgotten you."
"I understand. She has a life to lead as well." I astonished Remae by putting an arm around her shoulders and giving her a hug, "Thank you, Remae. For everything."
Something disturbed me that night: The creak of a floorboard, scraping of furniture, I don't know what it was, but I rolled and opened my eyes to stare up at a raised thread of steel, glittering like the startled Sathe eyes behind the mask.
The face reared back even as I yelled and kicked out, sending sheets flying up at the figure standing over me, sending it reeling back, flailing at the cloth and I rammed into its midriff, feeling something like an icicle push into my back, then we both slammed into the wall and slid to the floor. Her head was in my arms and I was about to break her neck when pain ripped into my shoulders and tore down my arms. Reflexively I lurched backwards with a cry of pain and tripped over something in the dark. My arms gave out when I tried to cushion my fall and I hit the floor hard. Agony shot through my back, the cold feeling turning to paralyzing pain.
She pulled the blankets off, her claws glistening oily with steel and blood, snatched something small from her belt and cocked her arm ready to throw. In the turmoil the black mask had been torn off and I saw her face.
"Hymath?" I gasped, eyes wide, trying to focus while arching away from the pain.
She hesitated, and at that moment I heard the door in the other room burst open. A blur in the darkness, she turned and disappeared.
There was shouting, a cry of pain, the sound of furniture being overturned, then guards were milling around me and I was lifted and laid facedown on the bed and my back was throbbing and everything whirling, then a claw moved in my back, below my shoulder blade, a grating of bone on... something. I began to scream, hands held me and jammed something that tasted of leather into my mouth. I bit down hard as a cold length was pulled out of my back.
A Sathe doctor fussed over me. Salves and paste on my shoulders, on my back. I shuddered weakly as it burned and stung, then burned again, like a poker in my trapezius. I was able to mumble a warning and someone grabbed a chamber pot, holding it while I puked my guts out. Hot water was brought in, they cleaned me. The surgeon mixed powders from various small vials on a single piece of parchment, then tipped them into a mug.
I was almost eager to drink the sedative, my bolt-hole from the pain.
They kept me drugged for three days, half-waking me only to give me food and water and the chamber pot. The last of the antiseptic from my medical kit was used to keep the sutures clean.
I dreamed, or so they said. I would cry out in my sleep and toss around, threatening to tear the stitches open. Whatever those dreams were, all I can remember are flashes of fire and teeth and bloodied steel.
I awoke with that hangover usually characteristic of Thamil. My head was throbbing and I couldn't move either arm without feeling pain in my shoulders. The sun was streaming in through the window, water was dripping off the eaves outside, and Tahr was there; back turned to me as she stared out the window.
"I will break the legs of the next person who gives me that stuff." I growled, then sputtered to get fur out of my mouth as Tahr hugged me.
"You are sure it was her?" Tahr asked.
Perched on the edged of my bed, she was turning a dagger over in her hands. It was a wicked-looking piece of steel, with a long, polished blade and an ornate wooded handle, finely carved in minute detail to resemble a Sathe's head. It was the dagger they'd pulled out of my back.
"It was Hymath. She was as close to me as you are, and she recognised me as well. She could have killed me then, instead she ran away."
Tahr flicked the knife and it became a silver blur in the air before thudding to rest in the doorframe. She went to retrieve it. "It could have been her. She was a Scirth Warrior, the weapons are those favoured by them," she said as she pulled the dagger from the wood. "This is a ceremonial dagger, used for assassinations, and the wounds on your shoulders were probably caused by Iron Claws."
Tahr extruded her claws; sharp, black crescents. "They are pieces of sharpened steel that fit over one's claws... like so. Only Scirth Warriors use them."
"I am sure that it was her," I stated adamantly. "But if she was going to kill me, why did she not go through with it?"
"She is a mercenary," Tahr reminded me. "She may have been hired to kill someone, but was not told who. She did not seem to be the type who would kill a friend."
"You have got to admire her, it was a brave attempt."
Hymath had broken into the apartments directly below mine and cut a hole in the roof, the floor to my room. When the guards burst in, she dropped back down through the hole and lost them in the corridors of the Citadel. The scratches she'd left me in my shoulder were deep and painful, but not life-threatening. Her knife, that had gone in at a sharp angle, scraping against my shoulder blade and sinking deep into the muscle.
"Someone tries to kill you, and you admire her," Tahr's muzzle wrinkled. "I simply do not understand you, K'hy... Well, she has given you enough scars to remember her by."
"I am starting to look like a map," I looked down at the tracks of old scars beneath the sparse hairs on my torso. "If I get any more punctures, I will start to leak." I saw her worried face and hastened to clarify: "That is a joke Tahr."
"Huh, you have a strange sense of humour."
"You should talk," I retorted, then yelped as her claws pinched my arm. "Alright! I take it back! No fair," I grumbled, "picking on a helpless invalid."
She gently stroked my arm with the pads on the tips of her fingers. "I am sorry," she grinned, looking anything but. Then, while I couldn't retaliate, those hands ran up my arm and caressed my face. "What happened to your eye? That was not from Hymath."
"You are very accident prone," she smiled and patted my cheek, which she knew annoyed me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I threw a few light hearted insults after her as she left.
It was a clear night, but the moon had chosen to hide behind the only cloud in the sky. The air was cold and a stiff wind had blown up, howling down corridors like a banshee. There was no snow on the ground, the rain of the past few days had washed it away.
The Keep walls surrounding the central courtyard where the Circle lay rose away from the courtyard like giant steps, each tier made up of walkways, buttresses, balconies, and archways. It was plain for all to see that this face of the Citadel was not intended to be a fortress: the masonry was artistic and intricately carved, letting the walls soar.
Five floors above the courtyard I huddled into my cloak. My wounds still ached, the stitches itching, but I couldn't miss this. My two Sathe bodyguards stood like statues, not noticing the chill. On either side of us along the length of the cloistered corridor Sathe were standing silently, watching what went on below.
Beneath the gaze of thousands of Sathe around the walls and the watchful squinting eye of the quarter moon appearing from behind its cloud, the old King lay dead on a litter carried by a small entourage of Sathe as they headed across the frozen ground toward the stone circle.
In the centre of the circle, in the centre of the arena where the Candidates had fought, the litter was placed upon a rectangular stack of logs. The Sathe moved out until they formed a circle with the deathbed in the middle, then several Sathe stepped forward with torches.
The pyre burned slowly at first, a flickering glow around the base, but it quickly grew until a tower of flames leapt up into the night, sparks ascending until they faded from sight. Light danced and wove among the Sathe, playing with their long shadows and finally losing itself in the darkness. A single figure stepped toward the pyre and a mournful cry of loss and sorrow tore up into the night.
The cry was echoed.
From a thousand Sathe throats, the same sound reverberated, sending electric shivers up and down my spine. Every Sathe head I could see was thrown back, howling like coyotes baying at the moon. Their eyes were shut tight and their ears plastered back against their skulls. The fire settled, the collapsing timbers setting a shower of sparks to dancing above the Circle.
Slowly the sound faded as Sathe started to drift away. After a time, only one Sathe was left standing by the pyre that blazed in the circle. Even from that distance, I could see the grief in the way she stood. I stood there and watched her until a guard touched my arm, telling me it was time to leave.
Back in my room, I sat and stared into the fire. Tahr had lost her father now, the last person whom she had been very close to. I didn't know how I would take it if I found out that everyone I used to know was dead... Hell, I didn't know if they were still alive, I just kept myself sane by telling myself they had to be, but how could I be sure...
I tore my thoughts away from that track and tried to think about something else, but my mind kept drifting back to the funeral and that eerie howling. All the Sathe I could see had cried out at the same time with no apparent prompting. I wondered if it was a custom that went on at all their funerals, then decided it couldn't have been. There had been no howling on that night after we had captured the Gulf forces. The Eastern Realm soldiers had mourned the loss of their comrades with silence. No, it was another ritual, something reserved for their nobility.
There were voices in the corridor outside, then a scratch on the door. "The Born Ruler sent for you," a guard told me. "We are here to escort you."
I nodded and went with them.
Tahr's quarters were dark and cold. I hesitated inside the door, waiting for my eyes to adjust. "Tahr?"
There was a movement near the window, a flash of emerald eyes. "Hello, K'hy," the voice was flat, emotionless.
I picked my way across the dark room, feeling ridiculously clumsy as I bumped against furniture. "I am sorry," I said. "I am as blind as a bat."
Perhaps she smiled. "But bats do not walk into things."
I shrugged. She reached out and took my hand, her much smaller one almost engulfed in my paw. "K'hy, I just wanted someone to talk to."
"I know you."
My eyes had adjusted to the faint moonlight coming in through the window. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her against my side. "I am sorry about your father," I whispered.
She tensed under my arm. "I can remember what he was like when I was a cub," she finally said. "Before I was sent to the estate, I remember we would go to the market. I always loved that. The strange Sathe, their wares. I could eat sweetmeats, enjoy myself. Sometimes we would go to nearby towns by ourselves for a few days, get away from the court. He was much stronger in those days, able to take care of himself," she was staring out the window, trembling violently. "I remember... I..." she broke off, shivering, chittering.
I'd never seen a Sathe cry before.
I held her close, resting my head against the fur of her mane while she shook against me. By involuntary reflex her claws dug deep into my back; I gritted my teeth and did nothing. I just held her until she cried herself out.
"Why?" she gasped. "Why is it like this? We mourn their death, but it is we, the ones who live, who suffer. We mourn for them, but they no longer care." She leaned her head against my chest again and I gently rocked her back and forth.
"I know... I know," I murmured softly and gently scratched her behind the ears. "Among my people, there is a belief that a person lives even after death. The body might wither and die, but the thing that is the person, the essence, the soul lives on."
Tahr stirred against me. "Is this so?"
"I do not know. Many people like to believe it is so... and nobody has every proved it not true," I stroked her muzzle with the tip of one finger and smiled at her. Inside I felt a tinge of regret, I might have just made a big mistake. At best Religion is a touchy subject.
"It is a nice thought," she murmured and snuggled in close, looking out the window. I ran my hand through that long fur that made up her mane. Slightly coarser than human hair, it was still warm and soft. "Will you stay with me?" she asked.
"I am not going anywhere," I reassured her.
I stayed there, holding her, stroking her mane until her eyes closed and she relaxed against me. Then I set her to bed and watched her until I also dozed off.
The sword swung at me again and I managed to block it with the edge of my thin blade. Deflected, it somehow snaked around and came at me again. I blocked the one as well, then swung a stroke of my own. The Sathe snarled and lifted his blade, sagging under the force of my blow. Then my sword skittered off his blade and his leapt forward. Frantically I moved to parry.
It'd only been a feint. While I was off balance the Sathe slipped under my guard and slammed his blade into my unprotected left side.
"Ow!" I yelped.
"Alright! Stop!" S'shar snapped. "You are dead!" He flipped the weighted blade of his wooden sword over his shoulder and wearily rubbed at his facial fur, then rounded on me. "What by all the Plagues were you doing?! Using the edge of your blade to parry!" He gave a disgusted snort. "Are you seriously trying?"
Doubled over, gasping air and with sweat running down my neck, I nodded. My introduction to swordplay was not going well. During my regular lessons we attracted a small crowd of Sathe who lounged around on the grass growing on the balcony garden, having a great laugh at my expense.
I put my hands on my hips and leaned back, taking a deep breath and squinting at the chittering Sathe watching us. "We should charge admission. Could clean up."
S'shar was not amused. He ignored that and slung the mock-sword over his shoulder. "I do not know!" he spat air in disgust and frustration: "Teach you to use a sword! Huh! It is hopeless! You are slow. You favour your right hand too much. You cannot guard your left side correctly. You have enough strength behind your blows... but first you have to hit me... and even then I think there is a chance you would break your blade or get it stuck!"
I looked at the battered imitation scimitar in my hand. Sathe held theirs' in a two-handed grip, but I could manage one-handed without difficulty, something S'shar often chewed me out about. He couldn't seem to understand that I was built differently. The mock-ups weren't as dangerous as the real things, but they could still bruise. With his fur S'shar didn't bother with protection, but the body armour the Sathe had issued me with was leather, and on that day in May it was hot enough in that sweat-suit to fry eggs. I sank down in the shade of a tree making the windbreak that sheltered the garden from the wind off the Atlantic. The Citadel landscapers did good work.
The swordsmaster loomed over me: "K'hy, most cubs are better than you are."
"Gee... thanks for the constructive criticism," I snapped. "I cannot move as fast as you can. If you would just stand still, it would make everything a lot easier."
"I doubt that many opponents will stand still for you to take pieces out of him," he gave a rumbling laugh, then glanced past my shoulder. "Company. Saaa... she will not be pleased."
I looked to see who 'she' was. Oh, Remae. She was brushing through the wild grasses that Sathe preferred to close-cropped lawns.
"Oh shit!" I closed my eyes and groaned. "Report card time!"
"S'shar," Remae said in way of greeting, stopping beside me and reaching down to ruffle my hair. I patted it flat again. "How is your pupil doing?"
S'shar gave me a single, despairing look, then said, "Not well. I fear that I can never see him being any good at all with a blade."
Remae looked astonished.
"Hey! I am not superman," I said grudgingly.
"He is just a beginner. He is really that bad?"
The swordsmaster took a deep breath, then launched into a litany of my faults. While she listened the Marshal stared at me: I leaned back against the tree, propped my head up with a hand and tapped at my cheek with a finger, trying to hide my embarrassment.
"K'hy," Remae finally said when the vet had finished, "pick up your sword." She in turn took up S'shar's wooden scimitar and swung it experimentally. I groaned and struggled to my feet. I was still tired from my previous rounds with my tutor, my muscles aching from days of non-too-gentle whacks and jabs that signalled I had lost the match.
The creature duelling with the Marshal... Sathe out enjoying the sun sat up to take notice.
Remae touched her blade to mine, took a few steps back.
... and the rounded tip of her blade was spearing for my guts. I danced backwards and knocked it aside with a Clack of wood on wood. Again and again.
Step by step she was forcing me backwards. As sweat dripped down my face I realised with shock that she was playing with me, pushing me just so far that she could see what I could do. Goddamn, she was even better than S'shar.
And I fought back to the best of my ability, for all the good that did. S'shar had taught me to fight the way he had been taught: grip the hilt with both hands and rely upon nimbleness to be your shield. It worked for Sathe. It didn't work for me.
Air whistled as my sword passed through the space Remae had occupied a split-second earlier.
"You are slow," she hissed from a compact crouch, then she blurred forward. You really have to see it to realise just how fast Sathe are; just snap your fingers and they're... there. Frantically I twisted to cover my left side, but there was a stinging slap against my arm, then I was facing Remae down a lacquered wooden blade at my throat.
From his comfortable seat in the shade of the tree S'shar waved his hand philosophically at Remae: "You see?"
"I see." Remae's ears went flat in disgust. She practically threw the sword at the veteran who deftly caught it in one hand and ran a finger over the notched blade. "You really have never even SEEN a plague-touched sword before, have you? Did your army teach you nothing about swordplay?"
"No," I shook my head, "Never needed to. In one of our wars they would only be good for chopping firewood."
Remae's muzzle rumpled in disgust. "There is no honour in your kind of fighting."
"There is no honour in any kind of fighting. If you want to pussyfoot around, you should not be fighting!"
"You are farting though your mouth!" she bristled. "Fighting should involving meeting your enemy face to face and defeating him, watching his eyes when he dies."
I cast an exasperated look heavenwards. "Oh, of course. How foolish of me! That is what honour is: Seeing a fellow Sathe holding his entrails in with his hands, watching him coughing blood on the end of your sword? Better..."
"EXCUSE ME!" S'shar bellowed. Both Remae and I halted our tirade in mid-broadside to glare at him. "I apologise," he said in milder tones, "but I think that the point of this was not the discussion of personal philosophies.
"K'hy, are you trying your utmost? You do not think you can improve?"
"I am trying, but these are your rules we are playing by. I cannot match you there."
"Then do you have any of your tricks that might help?" Remae inquired.
Almost I said no, then paused with my mouth open and thought for a second or two. "Perhaps," I finally admitted. "Perhaps I may have an idea or two..."
Shrouded from head to foot in heavy leather apron and mask, the Sathe blacksmith resembled some extra from an Italian B-grade sci-fi movie. White-hot glare exploded around him as he pulled the door of the furnace open. Shielding his face with a leather-clad arm he poked a hook into the scorching heat and slowly swung the miniature Bessemer converter out on its arm. The converter was shaped like an inverted bell, scored and coated with carbon, spitting sparks of molten metal as apprentices continued pumping high-velocity compressed air through the viscous ore.
The smith wrapped a paw protected by an oversized leather glove around a handle on the converter and tipped it, directing a cascade of orange-white metal and sparks into the mould, letting it envelope the thin core of brittle, low-carbon steel. An assistant swung the converter back into the crucible, leaving the smith free to turn his attention to the liquid steel in the mould.
Before it had cooled the smith was passing the glowing rod through the trip hammer, more sparks flying and rebounding from his apron as the length of metal was pounded and folded around the slat of the central core. A hand-held hammer knocked off extraneous pieces of metal, crudely shaped it.
The metal hissed furiously as the smith quenched it in a trough of oil.
Now the Sathe smith turned to where I was standing out of his way and held the blade up to the light spilling from the furnace. With a claw he pulled the mask from his face.
You can always recognise a Sathe blacksmith: the fur around the eyes, crown, ears, and mane - unprotected by their masks and aprons - has been curled, withered by heat, blackened by soot.
From that mask of soot, green eyes gleamed as the blacksmith ran a critical finger over the black bar, still glistening with oil: slivers of carbon peeled off, metal gleamed and wavered.
It was the final draft, the finished copy. The other lumps of ore, the small daggers and blades that had been forged in the weeks before were dry runs, practice. I was giving the Sathe a quick way to produce large amounts of high-quality steel much faster than they could produce with their conventional smelting and manual metal-folding techniques. I think it was fair enough that this be the first finished article to be produced.
The practice hall was almost deserted, the occasional couple of Sathe sparring with hands or weapons, their feet raising dust from the straw mats. Cold midwinter sunlight from those small windows high in the walls threw puddles of light against the opposite walls.
S'shar held the new practice sword I'd built in both hands, turning the long wooden blade over and over as he scrutinised it: the crosspiece, the hilt moulded for the contours of a completely different palm. The captain tried to wield the sword with one hand, swore as his grasp slipped and weapon's blunt tip dropped to the mat, missing his foot by mere inches. Unlike the curved Sathe scimitars the sword was based upon the two handed broadsword: longer, heavier, and definitely meaner looking. "You actually intend to use something like this? And... that?" he jabbed a finger at the buckler I was strapping to my arm.
"I am going to try."
"I will believe it when I see it," he hissed, then tossed the sword to me. I caught it in one hand, slipped the strap over my wrist, then spun it in a blurring figure eight before settling it comfortably and stepping onto the mat.
"Alright," his sword leapt from sheath to his hand, he padded into a ready stance. "Surprise me."
Remae touched her blade to mine in salute, then lunged. I barely had time to parry her first blow with the shield before she was coming around again, sword raised and teeth bared in a white grimace. This time her practice sword hit mine and she was staggered, knocked back as my heavier weapon waved hers aside. She scuttled back a couple of steps and began circling.
"That is better," she said.
I didn't waste breath answering.
Now she dashed forward again and barely dodged the tip of my longer blade as I jabbed at her, again forcing the Marshal to retreat. Now she began to look interested.
Her toe claws were out, digging into the grass as she sidled through the long grass. Dry stems crunched under my boots as I pivoted, watching her, then defending as she feinted left, moved right, then to my left again. I couldn't bring my sword around to block that, but my shield dropped and deflected the blow Remae had aimed at my legs. At the same time my sword was driving at her right side. She wheeled to stop that, again staggering back a step, then coming in again fast and low.
I hit her with the shield: hard.
There was a commotion from the watching Sathe as the Marshal was knocked over onto her back, then I was over her with sword raised.
Before I had a chance to bring the weighted practice blade down, she kicked up and planted a foot in my stomach. I felt needles dig through my shirt and into my skin and froze, afraid of how deep they'd gone and what might happen if I tried to pull away. On her back on the ground Remae grinned up at me, then hissed. "Much better, but there are weapons besides swords."
I looked down and swallowed.
"Alright," Remae said with a smile, ears fluttering against the grass that framed her. "K'hy, could you untangle my claws please. They are caught in your clothing."
I winced as she moved. "Ahhh, shit! ... That is not my clothes."
It took a while to untangle her claws. A crescent of five bloody pinpoints began to seep through the shirt where it touched my skin.
"Oh," Remae said with a sheepish look. "Sorry. I forgot."
"No problem," I grimaced. "Shit."
Remae had been convinced that all that paraphernalia wouldn't help me improve and in a way she was right. At first it didn't. It took time and practice to learn to use the shield and heavy blade to their full advantage. Slowly, but surely, I improved.
Holding my own against S'shar took work, many hours of his time, but he was a good teacher. At first he invariably beat me black and blue. When the end of the day dragged around I would collapse on my bed, my joints so stiff I imagined them squeaking.
I exercised. To help build up my arm muscles I began to wear several kilograms of lead in leather bracelets on my wrists. The added weight made my arms and shoulders ache even more, but after a week I stopped noticing the hindrance, and when the handicaps came off, my sword felt as light as air.
And often, during her spare time, Remae would come to practice with me.
As time passed I stopped making a complete asshole of myself and graduated to mere incompetence. Sometimes we even had a small audience watching the Marshal and her unusual partner sparring. It was obvious that compared to a Sathe I would never be much better than mediocre at swordplay, certainly never as good as Remae. But then she was one of the best.
Spring dragged on.
Remae's sword danced around the side of my shield as she yowled in my face. I batted it aside with the edge of the shield and lunged with my wooden blade, straight at her padded chest.
Surprised, she danced back a step, then retaliated with an attack again absorbed by my shield. I made a feint with my sword, and lashed out with the shield, never expecting to hit her.
She gasped as I caught her a solid hit on the shoulder and went over backwards, taking me with her. Cursing seconds untangling ourselves, then she called time. I sat down on the grass beside her while she propped herself up on her elbows.
"What happened?" I asked. "That was too easy... or am I too good for you now?" I grinned at her.
"Ah... you were lucky," she panted, licked her chops and stared at me - suddenly disturbingly intensely - then blinked and shook her head. "I think we had best stop now."
"But we have only just started," I protested.
"That will be all!" she snapped and began to bustle with her equipment, intent on what she was doing. As if she didn't want to look at me.
"What is the matter with you?" I asked.
"Not your business," she snarled with bared teeth.
"Alright," I said, taken aback. "Sorry I asked." I got up to leave.
I stopped and looked at the Eastern Marshal. She blinked, then furiously scrubbed at her face with her hands as though trying to wash off something I couldn't see. Was she cracking up?
Remae stopped her rubbing and stared at her hands. "I had hoped this would not happen yet," she muttered angrily. "It is my Time, K'hy."
I rocked back on my heels, "Uh-oh."
Well, it had to happen. Spring was well and truly there, and things were hotting up... in more ways than just the weather. Spring was the time when Sathe females had their first Time of the year, and the number of females I had seen walking around the Citadel with a horny male entourage in tow was growing. In some places even I could smell the scent of heat in the air, a spicy musk that did nothing for me. I hadn't really thought about Remae having her Time, and now it was here, I was a bit nonplussed.
"Do I make you so nervous?" she asked, wiping her sword down.
Yes, she did.
As we headed back through the corridors of the Citadel, I was aware of how closely she was walking beside me. Once, a male going in the opposite direction stopped and stared at her, his nostrils flaring as they worked overtime. Remae turned and rumpled her nose in a grin that bared teeth. He hurried on his way and Remae huddled a little closer to my side.
I'm with HIM! was the message she was broadcasting to all and sundry.
"Remae?" When she didn't answer I nudged her. "Remae!"
"Huh?" She blinked in surprise, and moved a hasty step away. "I am sorry... I did not realise," she paused, and I caught a whiff of something... familiar: a faint, musty scent which was quickly wafted away. We moved on down the corridor and she was silent, lost in the turmoil that oestrus brings them.
Until she suddenly grabbed my arm. "K'hy, stay with me tonight."
Oh, shit. I'd been hoping she wouldn't ask. "Oh, Christ on a... Remae, WHY?"
She let go of me. We stopped outside the door to her quarters and she met my gaze with her huge eyes. "I like you," she said. "And I want to. I wanted to ask you that night in the wagon, but you seemed afraid of me."
Was it that? Or was it curiosity, something new, something the Shirai had told her. I reached out and stroked the dark fur on the side of her neck. It was soft, but not like a human woman's hair; slightly coarser. She twitched slightly as my fingers touched, ran down her mane and along her jaw. "Shit... Please Remae. I like you - a lot - but I cannot. I mean... You are Sathe, I am Human... Look at me: We are as different as it is possible to get. I saw how that male back there looked at you. He could respond in the right ways. And there are plenty more Sathe males: plenty of fish in the sea. Please, understand." I leaned forward and kissed her gently on her muzzle.
She regarded me with ears drooping slightly. Maybe she was the Marshal of the Eastern Realm; maybe she did have fur and fangs, but she also had feelings. "What of you and Tahr?" she asked.
"We have been through a lot together," I tried to explain. "She has helped me, she has been my guide, my friend, my teacher... and my lover. It just... happened. I do not really know how. Circumstances I suppose. She told you what it was like."
Remae flinched. "How did you... ?" she blurted, then bit the question off and looked embarrassed. "So Tahr was the lucky one."
"Hey! No! Remae, she and I are too different. I cannot give her cubs, and she is not... right for me. In a way, I love her, but it can never be love as I would love another human, or she another Sathe.
"Remae, it is nothing personal, it is just... I... I suppose it is the relationship. I mean, you might be able to have sex and maintain a casual friendship, but I do not think I can do that. I like having you as a friend, but if I stayed with you that would change. Do you understand?"
She hesitated before answering. "Yes... I think so," Her ears flickered in a smile. "Well, as you say, there are many more fish in the sea."
I watched the door of her apartments close and sighed. With my armour feeling like it weighed a ton I trudged back to my rooms.
"Do you think you did the right thing?"
"I just do not know. That was why I was asking you. Did I hurt her feelings?"
The fire crackled. Tahr was warm against my side as we sat together on the couch. She had her feet drawn up behind her and was leaning against my shoulder, wearing only her fur. There was a faint musky scent hanging around her. Familiar. "You did what you thought was best... Did you mean what you said about relationships?"
"Tahr, it is true. Someday you will find a male you are attracted to..."
"I am attracted to you."
"You know what I mean! You will find a Sathe male who is right for you and you will settle down together."
"Settle down?" Tahr cocked her head, puzzled.
I chuckled. "Start a home... a family. You know, the patter of tiny feet and all that."
"Cubs." She flinched, then stared fixedly at the fire and said, "You are right. The years are running by and I am not getting any younger. Soon, a cub."
"Why only one? Have a few."
Again she twitched.
"I mean one would get lonely all alone..."
She looked right at me, her face clouded over, her pupils turning to black pools and wrinkles marching up her nose. I trailed off.
"Hey, what did I say?"
She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Her ears went back up, but still they trembled slightly. "No... I am sorry. I over-reacted." She raked her hand through my hair and I was aware her claws were not completely pulled. "It is difficult to talk about... some things during a Time."
I was still confused. "I am sorry, I do not know what I said."
"Cubs. Birthing. It is not something that is to be taken lightly." She heaved several deep breaths. "You said several cubs... Why?"
"Why, because that is..." I swallowed. "Do not tell me: that is not normal for you, is it."
She clenched her fists. "No! It is wonderful, it is what any female dreams of, but never normal."
I blinked. I'd always taken it for granted they had litters, like cats would. "But your breasts..." I blurted.
"What about them?" she inquired softly.
And for my next trick, I'll put my other foot in my mouth. "Ah... you have six. I thought that would mean that... you would have many babies."
Her ears started to lower again, but she pulled them up with an effort. "You are right. We have... five, sometimes six cubs." Her claws flexed in and out of their sheaths as she spoke, like a sharp heartbeat.
I touched her shoulder, "If you do not want to talk about this..." I said, but she cut me off.
"No... It is better I do, before you get torn to pieces by a female who does not understand you." She took another breath. "K'hy, is it easy for a human female to become pregnant?"
"Yes. Sometimes all too..."
She kept on, as if I wasn't talking. "It can take many Times, many matings, sometimes several years. When it happens, we have four or five cubs... But only one... rarely two, only they are normal; the others, they are... they are animals in the shape of Sathe. They cannot talk, eat, or think." I gritted my teeth as her claws sank through my pants and into my leg. "The mother she has to... to... she has to kill them. She..." shaking violently she broke off, then suddenly rounded on me, ears down tight against her skull, her eyes all dark pupil, and her teeth bared in an open-mouthed snarl.
I jerked away, throwing up an arm to protect my face.
And Tahr changed again, the fury evaporating and horror replacing it. "Saaaaa! K'hy! I did not..." Her hands shook as she held them up before her, the claws retracting. "It is hard to talk..."
There was nothing I could say. I reached out and put my hand to her bowed shoulder; she flinched under my touch. Her fur was standing on end, like filaments of wire. I stroked, smoothing her ruffled pelt. Beneath that she was tense: coiled springs of her muscle to the wire of her fur, like she was ready to fight for her life.
She shifted slightly as my hands moved, the stroking turning to rubbbing. Like ice melting under my fingers she relaxed, luxuriating in the massage. There was a remote buzzing in her throat when she craned around to gently nuzzle my neck. I moved my hands down, down her back, tracing the ridge of her spine, until I was stroking the spot just above her buttocks, that spot that sent shudders through her body. She gave a moan of pleasure, her breath warm against my neck.
I slowly stood, gathering her into my arms. She rubbed against my face and neck, running her hands through my hair as I carried her into the bedroom, then her hands were clenching against my back, claws scratching lightly...
When we were finished, she curled up against my side and immediately fell asleep, twitching occasionally in her dreams. I lay back in the warm bedclothes, aware of her musky scent covering the linen and myself. With the tip of one finger I drew small sworls in her ruffled fur and stared at a patch of moonlight on the stone wall beside the door.
I wasn't sleeping. I couldn't stop thinking about what she had said.
They kill their children! They kill their goddamn children...
The morbid litany plagued my thoughts. Little more than animals, she had said. Their mothers had to kill them, 'She cannot help it'.
My mind went back to that day I had played with those cubs in that stream outside of Bay town. I remembered their teddy bear-like cuteness, their friendliness, and tried not to think about what had happened to their brothers and sisters. Tahr stirred in her sleep, and I wondered if she ever thought about what her siblings may have been like.
Over the years, piece by piece, I would find out that for their females childbirth was a fever much like their Times. Uncontrollable; instincts trying to run rampant over their thoughts. They would want to be alone, and most times they would leave their homes to find solitude for the birthing: a hollow beneath a tree, a basement, a barn or hayloft... anywhere they felt alone. There the female would litter, and always, just after they were born, she would kill most of them.
I don't know how they choose. Maybe scent, maybe maternal instinct, but somehow, they choose them. I have since read old Sathe texts where attempts have been made to save cubs - usually if the mother dies in labour. If they are taken while she is alive, she goes berserk. None of those attempts have met with any success. As Tahr had told me, most of the cubs are severely retarded, little more than animated lumps of flesh and bone.
I had no idea of that while I lay there beside my impossible lover. I touched her soft fur and a heavy lump settled inside me. This could not go on. I'd already told Remae that, I had told Tahr that, then I went right ahead and did it anyway.
"Fucking hypocrite," I cursed myself: sotto voce.
Beside me, Tahr rolled over and nestled closer into my side.
I stood beside the window and finished my breakfast, looking through the open door at Tahr lying sprawled out on the rumpled sheets in the bedroom. It was already the third day of her Time, and it showed no sign of ending. I sighed and remembered her last one, it had only lasted about a day, but this one...
God, I was exhausted.
There was something going on in the Citadel. Banners were flying above the gates and Sathe in polished armour paraded the walls. Some kind of holiday?
I was just about to take Tahr's breakfast through to her, when there was a scratch at the door. "It is open, come in." I called.
A young Sathe guard hesitantly stepped into the room. I thought I recognised him. "Sir, a message."
The penny dropped. "I know you. H'rrasch? is it?"
He bowed his head. "Yes sir."
"I thought I told you not to call me that," I told him. Last time I'd seen him he seemed to be pretty much head over heels for Tahr. I fought back a grin. "Alright, you said you had a message."
"Ah... The High Lord's adviser requests your presence. He asks that you wear... the things you had when you first came here." H'rrasch's tufted ears flicked in apology. "I am afraid I do not know what that means."
"S'okay, I do. Any idea what he wants to see me about?" I asked while opening the chest that held my camouflage fatigues. I hadn't worn them recently, saving wear and tear by wearing Sathe clothing that had been altered to fit me. They were folded and stacked neatly, the Kevlar helmet perched on top. Would I need that too? To be on the safe side I tucked it under my arm.
When I turned around, H'rrasch was staring avidly at Tahr through the open doorway. She was still asleep, sprawled naked on the bed. He saw me watching, and quickly ducked his head.
I pursed my lips in amusement, then had a thought. Would it... ? Nah... But still, he didn't seem a bad sort and surely she could make up her own mind...
"You like her?" I asked.
He didn't say anything, but his left ear drooped before he caught it. "Do not worry," I laughed, "I do not blame you." I pulled the pants on and wrapped the web belt around my waist.
"Sir, may I ask you a question?"
"Go ahead... and stop calling me 'sir'!"
"Why does she sleep with you?"
Such a straightforward, direct question; just what you have to expect from a Sathe. I sighed again, "I'm afraid that you would have to ask her that."
The camouflage jacket was a little tight across the shoulders, but I shrugged into it. After pulling on my socks and boots, I inspected myself in the mirror; I could have done with another haircut.
In the bedroom, Tahr turned over and gave a small sneeze before settling back again. I saw H'rrasch glance her way, his ears drooping.
Should I do it?
"Ah, H'rrasch," I cleared my throat. "Would you like to meet her?"
"Just take her breakfast in." I gestured at the tray. "You can also tell her where I have gone."
His eyes widened. "I... I cannot. It is her Time... she will want too..."
"Exactly," I grinned.
"But... but she is yours."
"She belongs to nobody but herself," I said. "Please. I think she needs you more than she needs me."
He hesitated, and I could see the indecision on his face. He licked his lips, glanced at the doorway again, and asked, "Is that an order?"
"Yes," I grinned and he flinched. "Now, where is Rehr?"
"There are warriors outside who will take you to him... and sir?" He stopped me as I was about to leave.
"You would have time to bathe before you see him." He taped the claws on his index fingers together nervously. "Sir, you smell like the Shirai."
I blinked in surprise, I had forgotten about their noses... I smelled like... I laughed at that. H'rrasch's muzzled was wrinkled in puzzlement as I closed the door, still laughing.
When a guard told me to go in, I pushed the door open and stepped through. The room suddenly went very quiet.
Intricately woven tapestries full of vibrant colours covered the stone walls, portraits of Sathe made from woven thread. An exquisite deep, dark-blue carpet covered the floor, wall to wall, it must have been incredibly expensive. In the centre of the room there was a table with a top that looked like it was carved from of a single chunk of obsidian, scraps of paper scattered around on it. The attention of the Sathe who sat around the table was riveted on me as I stood in the doorway, at a loss as to what was expected of me.
"Here," Rehr ordered without looking around, and I ducked my head to the staring Sathe and went over to take position beside his chair at the head of the table. He'd never even glanced at me, watching the four others as they stared at me towering over his chair, his ears canted in vague amusement.
I stared back at them, memorising the patterns and texture of the fur that helped me tell Sathe apart. They were all fairly elderly males. All of them looking wealthy and important in their fine robes and jewellery. All of them staring back at me with various odd expressions.
"My lords," Rehr addressed them. "This is K'hy, a h'man. I know he looks... unusual, but despite his appearance, he is probably as intelligent as any Sathe." He waited for that to settle in. "Twice now, he has been abducted by outland warriors, once from within Mainport itself, and there has been a direct attempt on his life. Of course, these attempts failed." He was scratching a claw back and forth on the shiny table top. "However, he has had some excellent opportunities to get good looks at these outlanders. K'hy, would you please describe the warriors you saw."
I wasn't sure what was going on. Was this some kind of court of inquiry?
"Yes, sir." I saw it the instant I spoke; all around the table there were those involuntary twitches, the flaring of nostrils and irises. I saw it in all of them, with the exception of one - as if he already knew what I was. Reddish-brown fur streaked with grey, especially around the tufted fur in his ears. Not especially unique, but his gorget was made out of what looked like alligator hide.
He began to bristle under my scrutiny. The others were beginning to wonder what I was staring at. Turning away I cleared my throat and began to describe what had happened, the armour and weapons of the troops I'd had run-ins with before. I told them about the ambush on the wagon train from Traders Meet, the attack on Tahr and I on our journey from Bay Town, and the Sathe who kidnapped me from the Citadel. I also told them about the bandits I'd killed when I first met Tahr, although I couldn't say whether or not they were more than they had seemed.
They were staring at Rehr when I finished.
"You expect us to believe this?!" It was that Sathe with the grey tufted ears. He was glaring at me. "This... You would believe something like... like THAT?!"
"So you do not deny having warriors in our Realm," Rehr replied.
"I do deny it!" the other spat. "I would say that if the Eastern Realm cannot handle bandits within its borders, then that is none of our concern. However, the fact that our lands and trade routes are threatened by your inability to deal with your own internal affairs compels us to act."
His ears rose with his spirits as he felt that he was taking control of the situation. "The Gulf Realm is willing to send warriors to aid the Eastern Realm in ridding themselves of this... bandit problem."
Four... No, five of them. Ambassadors from the other Realms. Judging from what he had said, Tufted Ears would be from the Gulf Realm. The others would be from the three other Realms: Open Realm, and the alliance of the Lake Traders.
Rehr bared his teeth slightly. "My lords," he addressed the other three Sathe at the table. "Do you really believe that the Gulf Realm would send troops to HELP us? I doubt that very much. I am sure that you all remember that Daycross River incident in the Open Realm."
That didn't mean anything to me, but it obviously did to the other Sathe. The one with a very light fawn pelt sitting opposite Tufted Ears fleered his lips back in a grin. I took a stab in the dark: that was the emissary from the Open Realm.
"Lord Samth," Rehr said to the Gulf emissary, "you deny having warriors in the Eastern Realm?"
"Then would you please explain this."
On some signal that I didn't catch, the door opened and with a rattling of manacles, several prisoners were led in, still in their red and black armour; officers who had been captured. They were all battered, bloodied, and tired. They saw me, then the Sathe gathered around the table and they sagged, as if something inside them had died.
Rehr grinned at the emissaries. "You recognise them? Good. Honoured ones, you may ask them questions. They will answer. K'hy, thank you."
Rehr was alone in the conference room when I returned. It was dark outside, the only light coming from a dim lantern on the paper-littered obsidian table top. He had his head buried in his hands.
"Sir?" I ventured uneasily. I felt like I was intruding on something. "They said you wanted to see me about something else."
He looked up at me waiting for him and sighed. "Ah, K'hy... I am getting old and tired... Please, sit down." He gave me a wan smile; the barest twitch of his ears. "Yes, I have some news that may interest you." He handed me a crumpled and stained piece of vellum marked with Sathe ideograms in black ink.
"Uh... I cannot read," I confessed.
"No?" he looked vaguely surprised. "Well, I guess one cannot expect everything... You know that while the Born Ruler is... indisposed, I take over her duties?" He waved his hand over the piece of paper, cream in the flickering orange light.
"That would figure."
"Well, this was brought in from the village of Singing Rock, a small village. It is not too far, but well away from the main routes. It would seem they are having trouble with a strange creature."
My heart leapt into my throat. Rehr continued.
"Apparently it is two legged, leaves very strange tracks, steals food, and kills wolves with 'a loud noise'. Sound familiar?"
I nodded dumbly.
"They want some help in tracking it down." He folded the paper carefully and handed it to me. "Would you be interested in going there and finding out what is going on?"
My mouth worked silently for a couple of times before I asked, "How soon would I be able to leave?"
He twitched his ears in amusement. "I can have an escort ready for you by morning. Be ready then."
I turned to the door, still staring at the paper in my hand, and hardly daring to hope. Could it be possible...?
I had my hand on the latch when I remembered. "Sir?"
"May I ask how the conference went?"
"You may." He drummed his claws on the obsidian. "It looks as if we may be at war."
The door to my quarters creaked as I closed it behind me, but there was no sound from within. In the dimness, I half-felt my way across the room and peered through into the bedroom.
There were pieces of armour and clothing strewn everywhere. Two figures were curled against each other, lying in an errant patch of moonlight in the centre of the bed with rumpled sheets surrounding them. I mouthed a silent 'oops' and started to close the bedroom door.
Tahr had lifted her head and was blinking first at the figure lying beside her, then at me. Smoothly, she extricated herself from beneath his arm and slid out of bed. He made a noise, smacked his jaws and settled down again, never quite waking.
Once the bedroom door was closed behind us I smothered a smile and asked, "How are you feeling?"
Tahr settled cross-legged into a chair, still naked. "Confused... WHO is he?" She jerked her thumb at the closed door.
"You do not remember?" I shook my head. "Well, you needed someone to look after you; his name is H'rrasch." I squatted down beside her.
"I have coupled with him?" she cast a bemused glance down at her groin. It was quite obvious what she'd been up to.
"It would look like it," I said. "You do not remember?"
Her muzzle wrinkled. "You were there, then suddenly he was there..."
Her Time. Jesus, what went on in her head while it was going on? It was like she became something else; like there was a deeper, more animalistic side to her that ran closer to the surface than in humans. Despite the intimacy, she scared me sometimes; holding her, looking into her eyes to see the pure hunger staring back and for a second SHE wasn't there. Perhaps some thing were never meant to be.
"You seemed to be getting along well enough," I observed with nod towards the bedroom door.
"Yes, but... I mean this should not happen. He is just a soldier."
"So am I."
"K'hy, how can you ever be just a soldier?" she chuckled and reached up to stroke my face.
I smiled and touched that little tuft of fur on her chin, then remembered the note in my pocket. "Tahr, I am going to have to go away for a while. Out of Mainport. Tomorrow."
"What? Where are you going? What has happened?"
"Hold it, slow down," I touched her lips and she was quiet. "Rehr has let me go at my own request. Here..." I produced the message and handed it over. Tahr scanned it, then read it over again.
"Well, what do you think?" I asked eagerly.
She shook her head quickly, then stared down at the paper. "It could be anything you know... a trickster, bandits, maybe an animal of some kind or..." She trailed off when she saw my face.
I took a shuddering breath. "Oh God, I hope not..."
When Rehr had said that the village of Singing Rock was off the beaten track, he hadn't been kidding. One day west by wagon, then another two and a half days on foot.
The main road had been a joke, but this one...
The parallel ruts someone had felt like calling a road were overgrown with bushes and weeds, near nonexistent. There were felled trees across the track, and in places young trees were actually growing in the road. Getting a wagon through that lot just wasn't worth it. The equipment we needed we carted in on llama-back.
Wary of 'bandit' activity in the area, Rehr had provided us with an escort: fifteen Sathe troopers altogether, all armed and all male. It was that time of year, and a female coming into season could cause a few problems amongst the troops. The commander was a Sathe I already knew: the scarred veteran S'sahr.
Singing Rock itself was a small village, self-sufficient. With that road it wasn't surprising. The buildings were mostly wood, just a few built from what looked like fired clay bricks or adobe, arranged around a larger central home. Streets were just dirt and dust, riddled with rain-worn gulleys and ditches. Fields surrounded the entire village, surrounded in turn by forest, thinned by woodcutting and clearance for pastures. Away on the edge of the fields a shallow river glittered invitingly.
It was late afternoon when we trooped into the village, escorted by a few gawking cubs who had intercepted us almost a kilometre out, alerted by their own information network. Most of them had never even seen a Sathe soldier before, let alone anything like me. Older Sathe working in the fields and around the village paused in their work. A pair working at loading a kiln stopped their work, exchanged some comments and began following us. There were females, just a few who must have been in their last days of estrus skittering nervously. I saw soldiers' heads turn and nostrils twitch distractedly. Thankfully nothing more.
The Clan lord met us at the door to his home in the middle of the village; A big Sathe, just starting to turn grey about the ears. He gaped at the procession in front of his house.
"My lord Scrai," S'sahr bowed his head. "We are here at your call."
"By my ancestors!" the Sathe lord scratched at his heavy mane. "I did not expect they would send so many!"
The three-quarter moon was creeping above the trees on a ridge, huge and shining. Somewhere a wolf howled and was answered with a more distant cry that wavered and echoed between the hills.
I shivered and tossed another branch on the fire that burned outside the tent flaps. Beside me, a Sathe soldier lying on his blanket muttered in his sleep and scratched vigorously at a hitchhiker. Other tents were scattered around in a rough circle, many of them with tired Sathe sprawled asleep outside, taking advantage of the mild weather.
From where I was sitting, I could see other warriors with more stamina enjoying themselves with the villagers. Music and shouting drifted on the air. The incredible silhouettes of Sathe weaved and bobbed in front of a bonfire.
There was a noise behind me; the sound of feet rustling in grass. Five cubs - most of the small village's complement of kids - were standing half-hidden beside the tent, staring at me.
"Hi, Hello," I greeted them.
They stared at me.
"It is all right; I do not bite. See, I do not even need a leash."
They muttered and shifted, pushing each other forward until one of them took a hesitant step. "S... sir, Lord S'sahr wants to see you."
"Oh? About what?"
"I... I... I... I..." One of the others hit him in the back and he blurted out, "I do n... n... not know."
Did the kid have a stutter? or was it just fear?
"Alright, I will be right with you." I started pulling on my boots. Their ears pricked up in surprise and they watched in fascination as I tied the laces. "Lead on."
S'sahr turned in his chair when I literally ducked in through the door. "We have been waiting," he said simply.
"I am sorry," I apologized.
Lord Scrai, sitting opposite under a flickering lantern, tapped the goblet he held with his claws and invited me to make myself comfortable. He studied me for some time before saying, "So you are K'hy... Honoured S'sahr has told me why you are here... You can understand me?"
"Well enough, Sir."
He stiffened and his tongue flicked at his lips like a nervous little snake, "You speak very well."
He cast a glance at S'Sahr, then leaned back and asked me, "Do you really think that this animal could be another... uh... another one of you?"
"I had hoped..." I stopped, glancing down at my clenched fists. I made a conscious effort to relax and started over. "High one, I had hoped. I do not know for sure, that is why I came; hoping to find out. Please, could you tell me more about what has been going on?"
"Most certainly. Ah... we first saw it about four weeks ago. A farmer heard something disturbing his stock, he went to investigate and caught a glimpse of something running across the fields. He thought perhaps it was a Sathe, but the tracks he found were like nothing he had ever seen before."
"They would not still be there?" I asked hopefully.
"Unfortunately not. We have had some heavy rain. They were washed away," he said, lowering his ears in apology. Of course they never thought to cover a couple.
"Things also started to disappear. A farmer found that some of his grain and meat stocks had gone, and also a crossbow was taken, along with quarrels." The lord cocked his head at me: "We are not wealthy and those things mean a lot to the farmer that lost them. Does your kind steal a lot?"
I shrugged. "Sir, it would depend upon the circumstances. If that is one of my people out there; he is probably hungry, cold, scared," I remembered how I had felt when I saw Traders Meet; that hollow feeling when the world dropped out from under my feet, "and lonely."
"There was something else as well," S'sahr scratched his muzzle.
"Yes... It was two nights before you arrived. A wolf had killed a goat. The farmer who owned the animal was in time to see the wolf dragging it into the forest. A short time later there was a noise - like a small thunderclap.
"Several Sathe went to investigate the next morning. They found the body of the wolf, the head had been split open by something that had gone straight through it. The goat had been dragged off and was nowhere to be seen. After seeing what had happened to the wolf, they were reluctant to follow the trail."
Probably just as well.
"They did find this." He reached into a pouch hanging from his waist and pulled out a small object that flashed dully in the light. He handed it to me. "Do you know what it is?"
I turned the small brass cylinder over in my hands. On the baseplate, for all the world to see, there was a tiny dimple and the legend 'FC 60 MATCH'.
Someone was using a 9mm pistol round manufactured in Wisconsin.
All the Sathe were panting hard by the time we got to the top of the ridge. S'sahr barked an order and there were groans, but the troopers spread out keeping eyes open for any traces or tracks. Way below us the village nestled in the elbow of the river bend, looking like a model.
"Good view, a?" S'sahr panted, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. "You do not even look tired."
They were fast, unbelievably so, but they little stamina.
I glanced at the swords and crossbows. "Perhaps if you didn't have to carry those..."
"There are things out here that do not like Sathe," he grunted and turned to watch the Sathe troopers searching the ridgeline, shading his eyes with his hands. "You heard the wolves last night."
"I would bet they like chasing Sathe." I grinned. In joke: he wouldn't understand.
"At a scent. Vicious creatures."
"You have never tried to tame them?"
He looked disgusted at the mere idea. "Tame them? What for? They cannot pull wagons or ploughs. You cannot even eat them! Stringy meat."
Difference in priorities. Why would natural predators need help?
We kept moving, following the ridgeline looking for tracks, leftovers, anything. It took a while, but finally a warrior hit paydirt: "There is spoor here!"
I scrambled across to where he was using a stick to trace out a shoe-shaped impression in the dirt. He looked up at me, "Sir, could you just put your foot here."
I planted my foot where he indicated, right beside the marks. He compared the prints. Whoever had left the tracks was wearing sneakers. Reeboks.
"Smaller than you are," the soldier said. "And quite recent. Perhaps this morning. Obviously went off that way." He pointed along the top of the ridge, in a southerly direction.
"Alright," S'sahr said. "Lead the way."
The soldier glared at him, but complied. I wondered if they had been hearing tales about the dead wolf. That would make them a bit leery about charging around hunting for a creature that could do that.
The spoor crested the ridge, then started down the far side of the hill, into a gully carved by a stream running down to the river, almost hidden in the dappled shadows beneath the overhanging trees. The Sathe tracker stopped to examine the tracks where they appeared to cross the stream. "These are more recent than I thought... a few hours at most."
He poked a stick at the tracks, measuring their depth, then started poking around on the same side of the stream. "Hah!" he grinned, showing an impressive array of dentures. "Tried to fool us... look, you can see where he stood on the rocks to hide the tracks." There were flakes of mud on the rocks, and some looked like they had been moved, but I wouldn't have spotted it if it hadn't been pointed out to me. The tracks began again, heading upstream.
S'sahr snorted and flicked his ears as a sandfly tried to settle. "Looks like whoever it is does not want company." He turned to the archers, "Load up."
"Hey!" They were cocking the bows. "No! What are you doing! We are not here to kill him!"
"And we are not here to sacrifice our lives," he replied as he shifted his sword around. "K'hy, I put the lives of my troops first. We will not do anything unless our lives are threatened. All right?"
I forced myself to think, to try and see it his way. It wasn't easy; another human, so close!
"All right," I reluctantly nodded.
We pushed on. In some places we had to force our way through heavy undergrowth, while in others we could walk unimpeded on a carpet of pine needle between the huge trunks of ancient conifers. The tracks turned into a distinct path through the grass alongside the river.
"Whoever it is comes this way a lot," S'sahr said and pointed to a prominent footprint. "And he is not very careful."
"He is probably watching the village a lot of the time," I replied. "From that ridge. It is the best place around here."
"See here!" A warrior called, pointing at something on the ground a little way off the track.
A rabbit was hanging dead in a nylon snare.
"We may be getting close." S'sahr said. "I would not put a trap too far from my camp. Cut that down and bring it with us."
One of the soldiers grabbed the cord and tugged, trying to snap the deceptively thin string. Of course nothing happened. He tugged harder.
"Cut it," I suggested.
He glared at the thin cord, but pulled out a small utility knife and sawed through it, hanging the dead rabbit from his belt.
We walked for another fifty metres before the soldier on point yelped and fell on his face. Cursing, he rolled over and squinted at something like a thick spiderweb stretched across the path at ankle height.
"Plagues! What is it?" the soldier asked, squinting at the fine stuff.
I knelt down and squinted at it. "Fishing line. Well, whoever it is, now he knows we are here." I flicked the line with a finger, it was stretched taut, looped around a tree-trunk and headed off in the direction we were going. Probably tied to a bell of some kind.
Fifty metres down the track we found the camp. The clearing at the edge of the river was broad and warmed in the midday sun. A lazy breeze stirred the grass around the wheels of the red Toyota SR5 pickup and stole the smoke from the fire smouldering in front of the blue Alpine tent. The wailing of a slide guitar sounded faintly from the cab of the truck, but otherwise there wasn't a sign of life.
"He knows that we are here alright," I muttered. "Nobody around."
"What about the noise from that thing," S'sahr whispered, pointing at the truck with his sword pommel.
I sighed. I wasn't about to try and explain stereos to him at that time. "Don't worry about it. It is just a machine making the noise... and will you put that goat-sticker away!" I hissed at him. He stared at me, and reluctantly sheathed his sword.
"Thank you. Hold this," I handed him the M-16 then pushed aside the bushes, stepping into the clearing.
"Hi!" I shouted in English. "HEY! Anyone here?"
I slowly walked across to the Toyota. From a sophisticated stereo system in the dash came the voice of Freddie Mercury, the almost operatic strains of the Bohemian Rhapsody wailing above the sound of the river. I reached in and punched STOP. The silence was deafening. There was a Sathe crossbow in the footwell, a few books on the dash: Ben Elton, Roget's Thesaurus, a college text on Revolution and Triumph, a Shell road atlas. I popped the glovebox: a flashlight, a box of 9mm shells: half empty. Hmmm. A glance in the backseat and I saw the underwear.
I swallowed: hard.
"HEY! HELLO!" I stood in front of the truck and scanned the edges of the clearing, seeing nothing but leaves moving in the wind.
"Hey! I know you're out there!" I called again. "It's all right; I'm here to help."
"Listen. I can help you, but if you don't want it, I'm out of here. Okay? Your choice."
This time the shadows under an old oak moved.
She stepped into the clearing.
I'd swear my heart stopped. She. It was beyond anything I could have dreamed of, the most beautiful thing in this world. Short, almost on average with a Sathe, with angular, elfin features, bright blue eyes contrasting sharply with aburn hair.
Those baby blues were staring at me over the barrel of a pistol; incredible those small hands could hold a cannon like that.
"Hey! Hold it lady," I backed into the grill of the truck, holding my hands in front of me. "I'm not armed."
She slowly straightened, lowering the gun. I caught a glimpse of the grip of another weapon tucked into the waistband of her blue jeans and concealed by the bomber jacket she wore. "God! At last. Where the hell have you been?"
"Huh? What?" That was not what I had expected.
"I've been waiting for weeks for somebody to show up!" she stormed over and jabbed a finger at my chest. "Do you realize there's a town full of fucking ALIENS over there!" She jabbed the gun in the direction of Singing Rock.
I couldn't believe this.
"What? Lady, I hate to break this to you... Do you think we're... HEY!" I threw out my arms as the gun pointed at me again.
"SHIT! They're here!"
Not me. Sathe were emerging from the bushes behind me, S'sahr and the others. "NO!" I lunged, hitting her wrists just as the pistol went off, the slug whining away into the treetops. "No! Don't, dammit! They're..."
That was when her knee came up, fast and well aimed and I dropped like a rock.
Doubled up on the ground, clutching myself and choking on bile. Ohshitohshit... Phosphors exploded behind my eyes, muscles went to jelly. Worse than torture. Blood pounding in my ears, cries and screams that I scarcely heard, closing my eyes and grasping my aching balls.
"You are all right?" S'sahr knelt beside me, his sword in hand.
"Gnnnnnaggh..." I moaned.
"What is the matter? You are hurt? Where?"
Through gritted teeth I moaned, "Shit! Where do you think! Oh, shitohshitohshit!"
There were more of them around me while I lay there, biting back the vomit. They didn't know what was wrong with me, searching for a stab wound and finding nothing. When they finally twigged to my problem I didn't get a whole lot of sympathy. The minutes that passed before I could move without threatening to toss my cookies they spent laughing. As if my pride also needed bruising. Troopers grinned and snickered as I limped across to where the soliders surrounded the human girl lying crumpled face-down in the grass with blood seeping into her hair. "She dead?" I asked.
"She? That is a female?" He looked at her again, "She looks even stranger than you do... No, she is not dead."
I sighed in relief.
Lying in the shade of a sycamore tree, the girl twitched in her sleep.
The third human to drop in here since I'd arrived. The third in a year. Why'd this link between the worlds choose to start up now? How much longer was it going to continue? Had this happened before in Sathe history? Maybe Humans had come through before, long ago. If so, what had happened to them? Were there any records or stories of strange animals? Maybe some of the other Realms would know something. And there were other continents. That thing, that portal, whatever it was, seemed to like metal: First the truck, then that helicopter crewman, now a pickup, one out at sea the others scattered around on land. Would there be more?
If I said I wished there would be, would that be too selfish? It's not a fate I'd want someone to wish on me. At least now there was someone else, someone I could actually talk to in my own language.
I watched her, just trying to figure my emotions out; On one hand I found her beautiful, but on the other, she seemed wrong... alien. I'd been seeing only Sathe for so long, they appeared to be the norm. This human girl didn't have enough fur... hair, except for the thick crop of wavy hair on her head. The face was the wrong shape, and those breasts...
She was beautiful, but strange... Much as Tahr had seemed the first time I saw her.
I turned my attention to the pair of firearms in my lap. The one she'd had tucked into her waistband was a Walther PPK automatic. The other one was a pistol I'd never seen before.
Heckler & Koch VP70Z, Made in West Germany, 9 9400 ts, or so the stamp on the side read. Streamlined. The thing had no right angles on it, just rounded metal and a flowing, synthetic grip. No safety either. I buttoned the magazine out and checked the rounds. 9mm. Eighteen of them. When I hefted it, the gun felt solid in my hand and took definite pressure on the trigger before the hammer clicked.
I dropped the guns and stared at them. Why was she packing artillery like this?
She stirred and muttered something.
I uncapped my canteen and cradled her head in my lap. "Hey you alright?"
She blinked up at me, still not focusing.
"You took a nasty knock," I told her. "Here, try this. It's just water." She groggily gulped the water, then her eyes widened and she knocked the canteen out of my hand.
"You bastard!" Nails slashed at my face. I ducked back and caught her flailing wrists.
"Cut that out! God's sake, I'm trying to help you."
She struggled against my grip for a second, then slumped back against the tree. I let her go and retreated a couple of steps. She looked at me, then reached around to touch the back of her neck, wincing. Then her face froze when she saw the two Sathe guards watching us.
"They won't hurt you," I assured her. She stared at them, and they stared back. "Look, you can have these back." I handed her the pistols, with their magazines out. Grabbing them, she rammed the clips back into the wells and actually cocked the weapons, then hesitated, glancing from me to the motionless guards. Slowly she lowered the guns and I could see the suspicion written all over her face.
"Who the hell are you anyway?" she demanded.
"My name is Kelly... Kelly Davies. From New York. Pleased to meet you."
"Maxine Wayne," she replied automatically. "What the fuck is going on here?!"
I shook my head. She really didn't know. "I don't know exactly. Didn't you notice things were a bit... different? What happened to you?"
She shrugged. "I was camping out, just getting away from home for a while. I don't know, I was driving at night, on a back road looking for a campsite. There was one hell of a weird lightning strike and I just about drove into the river. The road was gone and everything was different." She gestured at the wilderness around us. "I waited around for days, but no-one came. I couldn't get anything on the radio. I tried to walk out down the river, until I found that... village. I was just about to walk into it when I saw them. What the hell are they?"
"They're called Sathe."
"I told you they won't hurt you. You don't have to be scared of them."
She looked at the guards and at the other Sathe who were resting in the sun, talking, looking in the Toyota's windows. "Why? For Christsake, how could you not be scared of things that look like casting rejects from The Howling?! AND they shot me."
"They shot me! I went down there to see if I could scrounge up some food... Hey, I was starving, okay? I turned a corner and just about walked slap bam into one of them. It tried to shoot me with a crossbow. It missed. I ran before it could reload."
I frowned. They hadn't told me about that. "You scared the farmer as much as he scared you. They're really just like humans... Well, some of the time."
"How do you know? How long have you been here?"
"I've been here about a year," I told her.
Her nostril dilated as she sucked breath and there was a hesitation. "A year?" I could see the panic building and wished I'd kept my trap shut.
"Yeah... Well, anyway it looks like we'll be spending the night here. I think the commander would be interested in meeting who he came all this way to find. His name is S'sahr. Don't worry: he acts tough but underneath he's really a pussycat."
She wasn't amused.
Several of the Sathe soldiers jumped backward with fur bottling when the pickup's engine started up. S'sahr himself nearly bolted, taking a couple of steps back with teeth bared before composing himself.
Through the windscreen I could see Maxine grinning at their shock. The engine revved as she gunned it, then inched it forward and down over the bank onto the solid gravel beside the water. There she stopped and waited, engine idling.
"It is impossible!" S'sahr tried to assure himself.
"No, it is a Toyota," I grinned.
The ute moved down the river in midstream, its wheels flinging water left right and centre as it powered its way downstream. Over their initial shock the Sathe taking their turn on the bed laughed and shouted ribaldry at the others slogging their way through the water. They got used to the truck quickly enough, and like most cats, Sathe aren't overly fond of cold, running water.
The sound of the engine carried. By the time we arrived at back at the village, an armed reception committee was waiting for us. Farmers armed with farm implements and a few crossbows retreated as the truck hauled itself out of the river, its wheels churning the loam. Maxine parked on the edge of the village and turned the engine off, then just sat there staring out the windows. The truck rocked as Sathe leapt off the bed. Outside, villagers were starting to gather around. "What now?" she asked.
"Stay close. They aren't going to hurt you."
Sodden troopers gathered around us to escort us to the village Lord's central house. Villagers gathered around to stare at the pair of us while Maxine stared back, jumping in alarm when a group of cubs scampered across in front of us. Several farmers pushed through and started shouting at S'sahr, demanding recompense for the damages done to their stocks.
I stood beside Maxine and S'sahr in the Lord's home. Maxine was nervous, flinching as Scrai made a sudden movement. Unconsciously, she pressed up against my arm. "What's going on. Are they talking? What are they saying?" she whispered, referring to the discussion going on between Scrai and S'sahr.
"S'sahr is telling the chief there that you didn't mean any harm and that the Shir... Uh, the government will reimburse for any damages done," I translated quietly. "I'm afraid you caused a bit of a stir around here."
She hung her head and shuddered. I could feel it.
That night I lay awake in my tent, listening to the snores of the Sathe around me. After the day's activities I was exhausted, but still had a buzz singing through me. I couldn't sleep.
The night air was cool on my bare skin as I pulled aside the flaps of the tent. A Sathe inside stirred, rolled over, and went to sleep again. A piece of wood dropped on the dying embers in the fire soon burst into flame.
Across the way was a dome-shaped tent; un-Sathe. An electric lamp blazed steadily inside, a silhouette cast upon the side of the tent: Maxine was sitting in the middle of her tent, head in her hands. I think she was crying.
The light went out after a few more minutes.
"K'hy, " S'sahr quietly acknowledged me as he sat down and looked across at the dark tent, then back at me. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," I sighed.
"You have been doing nothing for quite a while now," he said, his one ear tilted back. "Something the matter?"
I picked up a stick and idly poked at the fire, then in the direction of the dark tent. "She is... she is. I do not know how to say it." I rubbed my face. "I have been waiting for a year, and now... I do not know. I feel as if I am whole again."
"That sounds serious," he gave me an amused smile.
"It is," I grinned back. "I never dreamed this would happen... A female human."
His claws gleamed black as they slid out. He clicked them together softly. "She looks so different from you. That fur and breasts," he cupped a hand over his chest to emphasize and I also chuckled, "... and those eyes... Do all female h'mans have blue eyes?"
"No, there are other colours: greens, browns, greys..."
"It looks so... strange." He suddenly stared intently at me. "Is she with child?"
"What? ... I doubt it. Why do you say that?"
"Females' breasts grow when they are pregnant... Sathe females to be more specific," he said. "H'man females?"
I shook my head, "I guess so, a little, but I did not know about Sathe."
He looked into that fire. "That is right," he murmured, seemingly to himself. "Tahr has taught you, has she not? ... Yes, well she would not have spoken much about that."
I remembered the look in her eyes, the wildness, when I asked her about Sathe childbirth. I shuddered. "She told me never to ask a female Sathe about that. I found out why."
There was a moment's silence. "They change," he said eventually. "I knew a man. He accidentally came across his mate in the hayloft while she was giving birth... he still has the scars."
The scars across his own face stood out in the firelight. I decided not to say anything, to change the subject, "Tahr told me that you were her teacher once."
"Huh... a long time ago. For her swordcraft. She was still a cub."
"What was she like?"
He blinked,then smiled. "Mischief in fur. She was everywhere she was not wanted and never where she was." Emerald eyes turned to the stars, "I taught her how to hold a sword, and she was a natural at it... which was just as well. Every chance she had, she was down in the town playing with other cubs.
"I remember a particularly unsociable farmer who caught them playing on his land. He punished several of Tahr's friends," S'sahr grinned; half-humour, half-something else. "He returned home from market one day to find his house and barn had been painted the most hideous shade of pink imaginable."
"Tahr did that?!"
"Nobody could ever prove it."
"Oh, God!" I laughed. "That I cannot believe."
"You have never played jokes? done something like that?"
I smiled at a memory, "Once, a long time ago."
Senior high-school days, the end of term.
There were always pranks played at that time of year. It had come to be a sort of ritual; loved by the students and feared by the teachers. Sticking the Head's furniture to the ceiling, a car in the corridors, Cherry Kool-aid in shower heads, crank phone calls... all those had become mundane, we wanted to go a step better, bigger...
The staff are probably still trying to figure out how we got that bus onto the stage in the auditorium. After I explained what a bus was, S'sahr laughed:
"YOU playing jokes? Just the idea of you going to a school is strange."
"Sometimes we are not so different."
There was a silence which S'sahr used to toss another branch upon the fire. Sparks jumped.
"Who was her mother?" I asked.
"Ah... her mother." S'sahr gave a sad smile. "Looking at Tahr, it is like seeing Saja in her youth all over again: same eyes, fur..." He broke off and trailed a finger in the sand, the clawtip drawing patterns I couldn't see through the fire." She died when Tahr was at the Manor... An illness that the physicians could not cure."
God, she would've only been in her mid twenties. Their lives were so short, less than half a human life span. Not even just a modern human life span: there was that guy back in the eighteenth century who lived to one hundred and thirteen. I would probably live to see the Sathe I knew grow old and die, their children, and maybe even their grandchildren.
There were a few Sathe moving around the tents. Dark shadows, their sibilant voices carrying even though they spoke quietly.
"I will have to do some teaching of my own," I said absently.
"Teaching whom?" S'sahr asked.
"Maxine," I replied. "She will have to learn to speak Sathe, to learn your ways. That will be difficult, I am not sure of them myself. Just as I think I understand you, something comes up to confuse me." I pursed my lips, "It is not going to be easy."
There was no sign of movement from her darkened tent.
"A year!" Maxine Wayne didn't sound enthused. "You've been stuck in this hell for a year?! Haven't you TRIED to get out?"
"Tried? Sure, how?" I rolled the smooth stone in my hand, then snorted and hurled it. The rock skipped eight times across the water before vanishing into the bushes on the other side of the river. I turned to Maxine. "What, exactly, could I do? I don't have any more idea of how I got here than you do!"
Maxine dropped onto a rock and hugged her knee up against her chest, biting on her knuckles.
I swore to myself and felt like tearing my hair out. Crouching down beside her I said, "Miss Wayne, I know what it's like. Believe me. When I came here I had absolutely no idea what was going on. It was pure fluke I was able to make friends with a local. I had to learn everything firsthand, including the language, the customs."
"Tough shit!" she shouted. "That's supposed to help me?!"
"Look. It isn't that bad..."
"Not that bad... Not that bad?! They don't even have electricity for Christ's sake! You think I don't know my history? I KNOW what medieval societies were like, and I DON'T want to live the rest of my life in one!" Now she clutched at her leg again, rocking back and forth. "And they aren't even human, they aren't even fucking HUMAN!"
After her outburst the countryside seemed quiet. Distant birds still sang, the river flowed, lapping at its banks. Smoke rose from chimneys in the distant village, the traceries of smoke vertical in the crisp morning air. A few farmers in their fields glanced over our way.
And I could understand the girl's anger. She'd been scared, disorientated, confused, now angry. I sympathised. How had Tahr seen me those first weeks? The day we spied Traders Meet? I'd been in much the same way.
"I know," I said. "I know. I've been through it."
"Why the hell should I go with you anyway?!" she demanded. "Why shouldn't I just take off and find my own way home?!"
"If you really want to..." I waved a hand in a sweeping gesture taking in the wilderness around us. "All I can offer is a warm roof over your head and regular meals."
But for how long?
I didn't tell her about the dark clouds brewing over the Gulf Realm.
S'shar was a veteran warrior. He'd been in skirmishes ranging in size and viciousness from simple brawls up to full-blown battles. He had killed and had many an opportunity to see his own blood.
However the ride back to Mainport had him scared to death.
Along with another guard who'd been hyperventilating in near-panic, he sat silent in the back seat, staring wide-eyed out the window and digging his claws into the seat's upholstery.
The sight of the pair of them in their blue and silver leather cuirasses and segmented kilts, strapped into human-sized seats with seatbelts and surrounded by plastic, glass, and rubber was incongruous to say the least. Hell, it was downright bizarre.
Already we had left the rest of the troops far behind. They'd take two days to reach their wagons, but that rutted track didn't pose too much of a problem for the pickup and even though we had to take it carefully, we could still travel much faster than foot infantry. Holding the truck back to their speed would be tough on both the engine and fuel consumption. There were two jerry cans of gas in the back: both full. We didn't have to worry about running out before making Mainport.
Maxine was driving. She'd insisted and, well... it was her truck. I glanced sidelong at her. Her window was down a little, the breeze blowing through ruffling her hair, her eyes hidden behind wraparound Bolli cycling glasses tinted like oily water. She kept the vehicle on the narrow, winding track with the languid ease born of long experience. I wondered how old she was. I wondered where she had come from.
"You done ogling me yet?" Maxine asked dryly.
"You've been staring at me for the past five minutes." She frowned behind the glasses savagely worked the shift, changing down.
"Sorry," I said. "I was thinking."
"I bet," she said. "You've been here a year. No women. I bet you were thinking."
"Hey! No!" I protested. "Not about that! I swear!"
Ummm... well, not entirely about that.
An eyebrow arched. "What then?"
"Ah... who was first man on the moon?"
"Armstrong, of course."
Uh-huh. That fit.
"Okay... What was Martin Luther King's famous speech?"
"'I have a dream'," she said instantly. "What is..."
"How many died in the Challenger disaster?"
"Seven. Hold it soldier! What's with the Mastermind routine?"
"I was wondering whether your USA is the same one I'm from."
"You familiar with the parallel universe theorems?"
"Other earths in the same place but not the same universe, like in that TV series, what was it called? Otherworld? Something like that." Her knuckles whitened on the wheel. "I'd usually call it sci-fi crap..." she dropped the sentence with a shrug.
"This is earth," I said, waiting for a second for that to sink in. "I've seen Sathe maps and the eastern United States - that's all they've really charted - from Lake Ontario down to the Florida Keys is pretty much identical. Only difference is that here the big cats evolved."
She was looking a bit white. Perhaps she should pull over...
"You sure it's the same?" she asked.
"Miss Wayne. From where we're going you can look out your window and see Long Island as it was before the settlers."
"Oh joy," she laughed bitterly. "And you think that we could actually be from different worlds. Did my answers satisfy you?"
"No," I shook my head. "Not really. Your world could be identical to mine in every respect but one. One tiny, insignificant detail. Hell, you could be from a world where I never got into this mess in the first place!"
"Or perhaps I'm just dreaming all this," she said.
"Want me to pinch you and see?" I asked.
The glasses turned my way, like a tank turret traversing. I couldn't see her eyes but I could imagine a glare fit to freeze methane.
"Sorry," I flashed her a smile in return.
She didn't answer. Instead she reached over to the stereo, turned a dial, and pressed PLAY. I found myself busy trying to stop our Sathe passengers from bailing out as Joe Satriani began blasting the cab with quadrophonic sound. Surfing with the Alien: appropriate.
We passed though two more settlements on the way back to Mainport. Neither was large, little more than villages. Too small to warrant walls.
Of course we drew stares as we passed. Villagers - farmers and merchants and tradesmen - gaped as the ute slowed to a crawl to pass through their hamlets. Even cubs were reluctant to trail behind us.
Each time we left the boundaries of the towns Maxine would put her foot down in a surge of acceleration. I noticed her face: chalk-white, jaw set so rigid the tendons in her neck stood out.
Damnation! this would be even harder for her than it had been for me! I'd travelled with Tahr for weeks before I stumbled across that first Sathe town. I'd had time to acclimatize. Here she was, barely twenty four hours since learning what had happened, travelling through three alien townsteads, soon to come to a capital where Sathe numbered in their thousands.
How would she handle that?
Finally we topped one last rise, the one where so long ago I'd caught my first glimpse of Mainport.
Mainport sat beside the bay on the point that had been Staten island, the towers of the Citadel looming over it. Massive guardians of granite. Several errant beams of sunlight flickered through the heavy cloud, spearing down upon the town and spotlighting it in patches of shifting light.
"That's it?" Maxine finally asked after a stark silence.
"That's it," I confirmed.
"Jesus," she finally said, staring at the sprawling edifice and the dark skies behind it. "Is Dracula in?"
I knocked on the door and waited. There was no reply. I tried again, "Ms Wayne?" I called in English. The two Sathe guards looked curiously at me.
There was another pause, then the latch clicked. I pushed the door open. Maxine was backing away from the door. Before she turned away I saw her eyes.
"You've been crying."
She sank down on the sofa in front of the cold fire. I crouched down on the floor beside her, "Hey, you've only been here a day. I felt the same way when I first arrived. You get used it."
"How?!" She grabbed my shoulder. "How the hell can you get used to them?!"
"That's what really bothers you? The Sathe?"
I gently took her hand. She made no move to pull it away; glad for the human contact. The bare skin felt... strange. "Listen, Ms Wayne. They're not bad, not at all. In some ways they're a lot like us... only hairier."
She only shook her head.
"You know, you're going to have to make a start on the language. You'll at least have me here to help, I had to learn on my own."
"Why are there guards outside the door?" she muttered.
"I've got them too. They're there for our protection. Look, there are some things I'll have to tell you about the situation here..."
But I didn't have a chance to, there was a scratch at the door. "Who is it?" I called in Sathe.
"Tahr... may I enter?"
I looked at Maxine. "It's a Sathe called Tahr. She's the... umm... I guess you'd have to call her the queen." I grinned weakly. "Pun not intended... Can she come in?"
Maxine looked scared, then swallowed. "I guess I have to get used to them sometime... It's not a bad dream is it."
Tahr moved slowly, keeping her hands in sight, as if she were dealing with a skittish animal. If she was trying to make a good first impression, she probably succeeded: Finely woven green and blue cotton breeks came down to the top of her calves, an intricate golden armlet wound around her upper-right arm; two lengths of gold, winding and entwining around each other, embracing a dark blue opal. The silver earring she habitually wore glinted as her ear flicked.
"She's always been a snappy dresser," I confided to Maxine.
Maxine blinked at me, then stared at Tahr. "Do I have to bow or something?" she asked as Tahr slowly sat down in a chair opposite her, drawing her legs up so they were curled under her.
"No, she's a friend," I replied.
"F'nd," Tahr echoed, trying an english word she knew.
The two females stared at each other across a gulf that was far larger than the couple of metres physically separating them. Finally Maxine broke the silence: "Can I touch her?"
That surprised me a little. I asked Tahr and she mutely nodded; a human gesture Maxine could understand.
Kneeling, Maxine reached out and gently touched Tahr's wrist, running her fingers through the fur on her arm. "Soft," she murmured. "But not like my cat back home."
Tahr lifted her other arm. Maxine just bit her lip as a clawed fingertip moved toward her face and traced her jawbone. "She has no face fur like you do," Tahr said; puzzled.
"That is quite normal," I smiled.
Tahr's hand moved down. Gently she touched one of Maxine's breasts. Maxine stiffened, pulling back slightly. "Hey!"
"Tahr," I touched her shoulder. "Don't. Not there."
"Oh," The Sathe dropped her arm. "Sorry."
Maxine looked down at herself. "What'd she do that for?"
"Curiosity. They don't have the extra padding... She said she's sorry."
There was another uncomfortable silence while the two females stared at each other.
"Is she comfortable?" Tahr asked. I translated.
"Well, she wonders where her possessions are. She would like to have a change of clothes."
Tahr looked at the dirty and worn denims and shirt Maxine was wearing, "We can give her breeches. Satin. And a cloak."
"I think she will want her own clothes. She will want to keep her breasts covered. Custom."
"Oh," Tahr said. Then: "I will have them sent up here."
I passed that on to Maxine. She looked a bit relieved, "At least they don't lose the luggage... Can I get cleaned up as well?"
I grinned. "Well, that's one luxury you won't have to go without. They've got baths here. Hot springs actually. Sort of a cross between a swimming pool and a jacuzzi. Better than some motels."
Maxine had gone off for her bath, guided by her guards who had orders that nobody was to go into the baths while she was in there. They had accepted their orders deadpan. They would have time later on to wonder at our weird idiosyncrasies.
"Do you think she will be able to adapt?" I asked Tahr.
Tahr clicked her claws together. "You managed."
"I am not her. She seems so... uncomfortable with Sathe around."
"Give her some time." Tahr stretched. We were in the corridor near my rooms, and she leaned up against one of the walls, heedless of the ancient and expensive tapestry draped there. "A year ago, you were very hesitant to touch me."
"A year ago you were ready to claw my eyes out if I came too close!"
Tahr's ears drooped sadly, but her eyes were laughing. She reached out and cuffed me lightly on the cheek. "But you have managed to change... H'rrasch is a very surprised and pleased male indeed. Some of those things you showed me can be used on a Sathe."
Laughing, she nudged me as I blushed.
"I must thank you for introducing us. He is a most charming person, although, like you, he is a bit shy." Still grinning in good humour, she disappeared off down the corridor with a spattering of claws.
Oh God. I stood in the middle of the corridor and watched her leave, running my fingers through my hair. If Maxine found out about us, then it would really hit the fan.
Absorbed in the ramifications of this, I automatically lit a taper from a lamp in the hall and carried it through to light the oil lantern that hung in my room. Sitting down at the desk, I absently leafed through the papers I had left there over a week ago, then paused at one particular sheaf.
On the flip side of the sketch I had done of Tahr, there was another picture, one I hadn't done. Despite the odd bone structure, the oversized eyes with slightly oval pupils, the hair that looked more like fur, the picture was unmistakably of me.
I shook my head, sending beads of sweat flying from my face, then crouched back behind my shield and squared off with Remae.
Panting, she held her scimitar upright in front of her, both hands clasped around the hilt. Luck was the only reason I'd been able to hold off her last onslaught. I'd improved a lot, enough that we were using real blades that would really hurt, but not nearly enough to make it an even match. "Had enough?" she managed between pants.
"Not likely," I gasped back.
"Your face is leaking water."
"Careful you do not trip over your tongue," I retorted.
She grinned, then her gaze went over my shoulder and she stood up, lowering her blade. "Is that your female?"
Sure enough, Maxine was sitting on the grass, watching me and trying out her limited Sathe on the guard beside her.
In turning my head to watch her, I almost lost it. Remae's sword hit my shield and stuck in the wood for an instant, giving me the time I needed to recover.
"Dirty trick," I swallowed as we faced off again.
"Old trick. Foolish to lower your guard." She fleered her lips back in a full grin and came at me again.
For a few seconds we bandied back and forth, my shield turning her tricky blows and her superb blade work redirecting mine. Moving to dodge the shield as I shoved it at her, she made a stupid mistake, brushing against my arm. She yelped as I grabbed and swung her around, holding her in a firm half-nelson with my sword at her throat.
"Now," I grinned. "Had enough?"
There was a sudden stinging pain in my stomach. She craned her head around and grinned at me, needle-sharp teeth gleaming. "Look down," she suggested.
I did: "Shit! Where did that come from?"
In Remae's left hand was a slim dagger, its tip digging through the cloth just below the edge of my armour. "A draw?" she suggested.
While tucking the dirk back into its sheath under her skirt she reamed me out for what I had done. "Any good warrior carries more than one weapon, and is not afraid to use it... My ancestors, with your thin skin, I would have been able to shred you with my bare claws. K'hy, never, NEVER try to hold a Sathe like that! She could gut you before you knew what was happening."
I wiped my brow and unlaced my cuirass, hauling it off over my head. My tunic was drenched, dark sweat-stains under the arms and across the back. I bundled my weapons and armour together while Remae finished her tirade.
Maxine was looking confused when I dropped down beside her. That was the first time she had seen me practising... probably the first time she'd ever seen a sword fight.
"Hey, it's only practice," I reassured her as I flopped back on the grass. A pair of seagulls were promenading along the balustrade that ran around the perimeter of the balcony garden, watching us with beady eyes.
"Only practice?" Maxine brushed her hair back and looked across at the Sathe Marshal. "It looked like you were trying to kill each other. How often do you do that?"
"First time for a while, Ms Wayne. I need the practice."
"Max," she said.
"What?" I squinted at her, the sun in my eyes.
"My name. Call me Max." She was watching the seagulls watching us.
"Oh... Okay then; Max it is," I nodded.
"Who's that cat you're fighting with anyway? It came to my rooms the other day, just to stare at me."
"'It's' a she. Remae. She a sort of military liason to the Shirai."
"You've got friends in high places."
"Yeah, one's a window cleaner on the Empire State."
She grinned, then asked, "Why's she doing it? I'd have thought she'd have better things to do than give fencing lessons."
I shrugged. "Dunno. I guess you could say she's got a vested interest in me. Someone said I'd never be any good with a sword. She's trying to prove him wrong."
"Well, she can still kick my ass most of the time," I confessed and looked around to see just where Remae was. She had her kit rolled up and was just leaving. I returned her parting wave just as a servant in messenger livery sprinted up to her, throwing a salute as he passed a scroll over.
Remae popped the seal. The messenger was dismissed with a casual wave of her hand.
"Davies? What is it?" Max was asking me.
"Just a sec," I shushed her.
Remae read the note, then read it again, then she seemed to cave in.
"Remae?" I called.
She didn't even notice. With the scroll dangling forgotten from her hand, she walked over to the carved stone railing and collapsed against it, shoulders bowed.
"Oh Jesus!" I muttered to Maxine as I scrambled to my feet. "Something's happened."
Remae didn't answer when I spoke her name, but she flinched when I touched her shoulder. "Remae?"
Her claws actually left scratches on the granite balustrade, one of them snapping. She held her hand up and dully watched the blood start to flow from the stub. "Gone," she whispered, then turned wounded eyes on me: "It is gone... all gone."
She just handed me the scroll. I held it helplessly, the complex symbols meaningless. "Remae, I... I cannot read this."
Her muzzle twisted in a snarl, then she began telling me. Hunter's Moon... A small town in the southern Eastern Realm, near the upper reaches of the Borderline River. It wasn't that much, just rural community, not even on the main trade routes. All it had to warrant the presence of the small garrison was its value as a border post. It was also Remae's hometown. Her Clan home.
Was her Clan home. The attack had razed it. The garrison barracks had burned, along with most of the town. Most had died, only a few escaped to the surround hills... just a few. The rest, the males, females, cubs were slaughtered.
Remae's home, her clan and family.
Under Maxine's uncomprehending and shocked gaze, I held the Eastern Marshal close while she shook.
Tahr was sitting at her desk, head buried in her hands. She looked up when I came in.
Without saying anything I walked over and unslung my rifle, dropping it with a clatter on the desk in front of her. "There are more weapons. I can get them. I can train Sathe in their use."
She didn't seem at all surprised. "What made you change? Something to do with Remae's misfortune?"
I didn't say anything.
"Or maybe now you have something else to protect... Hmm?" If she'd had eyebrows, they'd have shot up.
"Tahr, I do not like what I am doing, but under the circumstances I believe it is the right thing. What happened to Hunter's Moon will happen again. I know that I can help prevent it."
"Why did you not tell me this earlier?"
"I had hoped that you would be able to settle matters at the conference table."
Tahr tucked her legs up. "So far, I am sorry to say, that has come to very little. The Gulf Realm is prepared and we are not and they know it. Of course they are not passing up such a chance." She sighed and turned back to the assault rifle on the desk: "Where are these weapons?"
"About two days walk from where we met. I would have to go along to find them. Nobody else would have a hope."
"That is quite a journey," Tahr said. "Long - and with all the trouble brewing - dangerous. Are you sure that you have to go?"
I shrugged. "As I said, nobody else could find that place, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
"Cute metaphor. A h'man proverb?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "Also I have a promise to keep."
"Just something I said I would do for a friend," I said. "A long time ago."
"What? You are referring to the other h'man? Your friend?"
She looked puzzled. "He is dead, is he not?"
I nodded slightly. Even after this time, thinking of Tenny touched a sore spot. "Tahr, it is my business. Our way of showing respect for the dead. I really do not want... I think it would be best not to discuss it."
"Huh." Tahr was confused, one ear canted back. She was silent a moment, then shook her head and huffed again. "Very well. You said something about training Sathe?"
I told her what I needed: A dozen intelligent Sathe who were capable with crossbows and willing to take orders from me. No xenophobes. I also wanted to take them on the journey to collect the hardware; it would give them time both to become accustomed to me and to get used to using the weapons."
"A tall order," Tahr studied me, a claw tapping on the desk, then she smiled. "Very well. You shall have them."
An hour later, I was wandering the corridors on my way back to my room. Even though I had become a familiar sight around the Keep, Sathe still spotted me from a distance and either found another route to their destination, or decide that it wasn't really worth going to in the first place.
Damnation! The guns again... Was there any other option? I had weighed the choices - few enough of them - and made my decision.
Giving Sathe gunpowder was out.
The modern weapons they could use, but they couldn't copy them. The machining was beyond them and the ammunition was a far cry from primitive blackpowder. I doubted that even the Sathe - despite their surprisingly advanced chemists - could duplicate it. Perhaps they could find a substitute: compressed air, springs, maybe develop their own powder, but I'd be damned if they'd get any help from me.
Distracted, I recoiled in shock as a strange figure abruptly rounded a corner before me.
"Kelly!" Maxine spotted me and her face lit up.
"Christ, Ms... Max," I caught a breath to settle my heart, then smiled. "Lost, eh?"
"Hey!" She looked dour. "It's not funny."
"No, sorry. You're right. It's easy to do," I sympathised. "Here, I'll walk you back."
After a time, she spoke. "What was going on today? Between you and that... Sathe? She's important isn't she?"
"She's a friend who's hit hard times," I said. "She needed someone."
"I'll bet," Maxine muttered.
I stopped and glared at her. "Ms Wayne. She is one of the only friends I have got here, one of the ones who actually LIKES me." My voice was rising. "Today she just found out that her home town was burned to the ground. Her family, all of them, dead! Alright?!"
"Hey!" she protested. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"You..." I began, then broke off. "No... You couldn't."
We continued in silence.
And I had something else to worry about.
Despite her denial, I'd heard the disapproval in her voice. She was a borderline xenophobe. If she reacted like that over a simple hug, then what would happen when she found out about Tahr and I?
I glanced sidelong at her. Aburn hair and smooth, hairless face and breasts. Petite nose, wearing human clothing: worn and faded blue jeans, printed sweatshirt, leather bomber jacket with the Eagles' logo stencilled across the back.
Could she change? Could she accept their ways? Could she learn to see Sathe as people beyond their fur and claws? Damnation! She had to!
My footsteps flagged as we approached a staircase. I stopped. "You'll know the way from here," I told her. "Straight ahead, second on the left, first on the right, then up the stairs."
"Hey!" She called after me as I started down the stairs. "Wait up! Where're you going?"
I stopped and turned. "I, Ms Wayne, am going to go down to Mainport to find a certain establishment I know of where I intend to get myself totally and absolutely pissed."
"It's been one of those days, huh?"
"You said it."
"Mind if I tag along?"
That got me. I blinked at her, "You sure you want to? I mean, the place will be full of cats."
She grinned. "And you think I'm prejudiced."
She stuck her hands on hips and cocked her head: "C'mon!"
"I had wondered," I confessed, then grinned back at her. "Alright. You're on."
"You'll have to buy," she said. "They don't take Visa, do they."
The massive rafters of the Red Sails were low, with wisps of cooking smoke winding their way around the hanging oil lamps. The warmth in there was a pleasant change from the chilling night wind blasting its way through the streets outside. The smell of mingled food and Sathe was something you had to get used to.
It was a busy night. With nothing else to do many Sathe chose to while away the evenings down at the local watering hole and the basement room hissed to the sound of conversation and the chanting of a Sathe bard weaving a story about the hopeless affair between two lovers from different Realms. Over behind the bar the female bartender had caught my eye as I came in and flashed me an unmistakable wink that I prayed Maxine didn't notice.
Many were the times Sathe patrons turned in their chairs to stare at Maxine and I sitting at a table in a secluded alcove with a single lantern hanging above it. Some of those patrons knew me from the last time I had been in there; they didn't pay us much attention, but the newcomers really had something to gawk at.
"Don't stare," I told Max after a mouthful of ale. "It's not polite."
"Don't stare?" She reached for a knife and fork that weren't there, scowled, then resorted to her fingers. "I can't believe you can be so blase about this. God, it's unreal. Salvador Dali would have had a ball here." She sniffed the food: "And this meat is almost raw."
I pointed the way to the kitchen. "You can complain to the chef if you like, but don't be surprised if he decides to make you into a side dish. You're lucky you don't have to hold your meal down on the plate. That's the way they like their meat."
Again she glared at the platter, then resignedly picked up a rib and began working at it with juice running down her chin.
I jumped at the english greeting. The dun-furred bartender, the one with whom I'd had my one night stand, stood by our table wiping a tray with a towel that looked like it could do with a little burning. She flicked me a smile. "You come by without stopping to spare some greetings? You wound me, K'hy."
I grinned at that. "Sorry, but there was a mug of ale with my name on it. Anyway, you looked busy."
The female smiled and grinned back, like a piranha trying to be friendly. She had learned a lot from me in that one night. "Hah! Excuses! I will always have time for you, K'hy. Now, who is your friend? Not very talkative." She peered curiously at Maxine. "She, is it? Your mate?"
"Ah... no," I hastily corrected. "I mean, she is a female, but she is not my mate."
She looked surprised. "Then there is another female like that around here?"
"No," I admitted. "But..."
"Ah!" she swatted me on the arm. "Then with the way you react to sex with Sathe, I think you do not have much choice!"
"Very funny!" I fumed. Thank God Max couldn't understand.
She laughed. "I trust the Shirai was not too harsh on you after last time."
I shook my head. "I think I managed to get away with it," I said, then glared at her. "You have not been spreading stories?"
"I? No. I gave my word, did I not?"
Yeah, she did. I only hoped I could hold her to it.
"Kelly," Maxine interrupted me in english. "What's going on? Who is this?"
"Just a second," I told her. "She's a friend."
Maxine looked up at the Sathe who stared back at her, then twitched her ears.
"I have never seen anything with blue eyes before," said the Sathe. "Is that the way you talk? How can you make those sounds?"
"Believe me, it is much easier than speaking your way," I said. "I sometimes wonder how I make THESE sounds. That can really dry you out."
"Ah, a not-so-subtle way of saying you need another drink. Very well," she flashed an overdone genuflection and a grin and vanished back into the crowd.
Maxine had a peculiar look on her face. "Who the hell was that?"
"She works here," I explained vaguely. "I met her last time I was down in town."
"She seemed to like you."
"Ummm," I nodded and toyed with my near-empty mug. How clean did they keep things here? I'd bet my eye-teeth there wasn't a health inspector. Things probably went on in those kitchens that'd have one tossing his cookies in the back alley.
Maxine frowned and pushed the dish away. She propped her chin up with her fist, elbow resting on the table-top that had been scarred by hundreds of sets of claws. "What happened, Kelly? What's going on here?"
I looked at the food on her plate. "Finish that. They don't chuck stuff out here. It's not the Waldorf you know, but the food cost about the same. Now what are you talking about?"
"Whatever... up at the castle, when you hugged her. Also all the soldiers around the place, the crossbows and swords being forged. What's going on?"
"Oh, shit. Complicated." I sighed and watched the dregs of ale in my mug as they turned lazy circles. Then I started to try and explain the situation she had fallen into; about the fine balance of power between the five Realms and the weight that was trying to tip that balance; the Gulf Realm.
She listened attentively, but I could see that she was confused about some points... as was I. Rubbing my eyes, I was just about to launch into an explanation of the Sathes' low population growth when activity at the steps that led down to the basement tavern caught my eye.
Someone had just come in, and was receiving a welcome much like the one Max and I had got. A wake of silence marked the black-cloaked figure's progress between the tables, then she was standing in front of us.
"Hymath." I swallowed, my finger tightening on the trigger of the M-16 under the table. "You are the last person I expected to see around here."
She held her hands in front of her, in clear view. "May I sit down?" she asked.
Maxine made a choked noise when I set the M-16 on top of the table, so Hymath was staring down the muzzle. "I should repay your favour and drill you full of holes..."
She didn't even blink. "I want to explain."
I stared at her. That female could easily have killed me that night... I clicked the safety on and set the gun down. "Sit."
Hymath glared at the watching Sathe around us. They hastily averted their gaze and business in the tavern went back to normal. She snagged a chair and sat down. "I am glad to see you are still alive... I did not know how badly I had hurt you. There was a lot of blood."
I nodded. "I have a few new scars to remember you by. So, why did you do it?"
"K'hy, you have made yourself some powerful enemies." She tossed her head, throwing the black hood back. "I was only doing my job."
There was a pause during which the bartender stepped forward to place a mug of ale before me, grab my empty one, then hastily retreat without so much as a word. Now THAT wasn't like her. She was as wary of Hymath as the rest of the surrounding Sathe, as if the Scirth warrior was someone none of them wanted any truck with. I took a sip of honeyed ale before asking, "Your job. Meet interesting people, then kill them, ah?"
She looked pained at that. "I do what I am paid to do. No Scirth Warrior makes many friends, but the ones we do, we would never deliberately harm them. I did not know it was you"
While I was digesting this, she turned to Maxine who probably had been able to follow only a word in fifty, maybe less. "Who is this?"
I hesitated, then introduced them to each other. "A female?" Hymath asked.
I nodded: she was a Sathe who could understand that.
"Strange... blue eyes," the mercenary mused.
I tried to find out who had set her on to me, but she confessed that she herself did not know. A masked intermediary had given her half her fee in advance, the rest forthcoming when she had completed her assignment. She had never tried to find out the identity of her client. I wondered that they would not try to cheat her.
"Nobody would cheat a Scirth Warrior," was her response, as if that explained everything. "K'hy, I know apologies cannot really make a difference, so perhaps this will help."
I tensed as she reached inside her cape, but all she produced was a small, silver circlet that she tossed onto the table where it rolled to a stop before me. "A gift. Take it."
I took the trinket: a small earring made of silver; intricately woven silver threads that wound around themselves, all coming together in a tiny silver Sathe's head. "What is it?" I asked.
The answer she gave me didn't translate. She had to elaborate: "If you ever have trouble that you cannot handle yourself, show this to any Scirth Warrior. They will do what they can to help you." She reached over the table and cuffed me lightly on the cheek, then she was gone into the crowd.
"What was that about?" Maxine was asking.
"Huh?" I rolled the ring in my fingers, then tucked it into a pocket. "Oh, just an old friend."
"Another?" her eyebrows arched. "Female also... You must be popular."
"Let's just say I stand out in a crowd," I said. "I think we've attracted a bit too much attention around here."
If Hymath could learn of our whereabouts in Mainport, probably just from local scuttlebutt and word of mouth, then anyone else could also find us. Maybe they wouldn't be as friendly. "Finish your meal." I told Max. "I think we'd better make tracks."
"Why? Something wrong?"
"I hope not," I said.
I held the door open for her as we ducked out onto the street. The moon had hidden itself behind a cloud, and the Sathe who passed spared us only a glance as they hurried to wherever it was they were hurrying to. Nobody followed us outside and there didn't seem to be any untoward interest in us, so I relaxed a bit. Perhaps that should've alerted me in the first place.
"This place is incredible," Maxine said, rubbernecking at the buildings. "It's just like the small places in France and England, without the street lighting of course."
"You've been there?"
"Oh. That's something I'd been wanting to do. Never had the cash though."
"My parent's paid for most of it."
"Pretty much. Daddy's the managing director of Integrated Solutions."
"Oh, yeah... Integrated Solutions. Never heard of it."
"What?" She blinked at me. "You don't know anything about software? Computers?"
I shrugged. "Not really."
"Oh," she looked somewhat surprised. "Well, anyway, it's a big company, so we've got the money to travel."
I shouldered the rifle. "Lucky. I wanted to see Europe, but the money always seemed to go to more important things... You know: college books, food, gas... Hey, but not many people can say they've had the chance to see another world."
"Who're you going to tell?"
"Good point. So what's Europe like?"
We turned off into a side street, the Citadel visible above the rooftops at the end of it. "The big places like Paris and London are nothing really special," she said. "They got some attractions, but after a while they all look the same: big and dirty. You know, not much different from Chicago, except the buildings are older. But the small European towns, they're really something you shouldn't miss. There's a place in Normandie, that's in France, Mont St. Michelle. It kind of looks like the... do you have any other friends that you might bump into tonight?"
"What? No, I don't think so. Why?"
She stopped suddenly and turned around, peering at the shadows. "I think we're being followed."
I stopped to look and saw nothing. Nevertheless I tightened my grip on the rifle strap. "You're sure?"
"Uh... I thought I heard something." She looked doubtful.
The darkness of the narrow uphill street with its low steps, dim light gleaming from wet cobblestones, the occasional black slit of an alleyway. If there was anything there, I couldn't see it.
"Don't worry about it," I told her, trying to reassure her. "It's probably some drunk trying to sneak in the back... Unghhh!"
I didn't get to finish my sentence when something struck me across the back hard enough to send me sprawling face down in the muck on the street with lights exploding behind my eyes. Hands were trying to pull the rife away. I grabbed at the strap in desperation, the Sathe at the other end drawing his sword and swinging. I rolled. The blade struck sparks from the cobblestones beside me, but he wouldn't miss a second time.
I hauled back on the webbing, toppling him off-balance. On his way down his head met my boot going up. There was a wet crack and he dropped like a stone.
A Sathe was levelling a crossbow at me.
Gunshots slammed through the narrow street. The archer squalled and went over backwards. The Walther in Maxine's hands looked huge. It cracked and bucked again; a howling Sathe with raised sword doubled over clutching his guts, the sword clattering to the street.
More Sathe, bolting from alleyways, some snarling and sprinting toward us. Maxine was pulling the trigger again and again and again, shifting from one Sathe to another, the retorts blending into a single roar in the narrow alley. Running Sathe twitched and fell under the impact of the 9mm rounds.
I grabbed the M-16, locked and loaded in one move. Kneeling, I fired from the hip, hosing at Sathe figures milling in confusion. Muzzleflash strobed in the darkness, the hammering of the rifle and cracking of the pistol merging and rolling of the alley walls in a roar that could probably be heard on the other side of the city.
Finally there were no more targets.
Maxine and I were back to back in the darkness. I could feel her gasping air. My own nostrils burned with the stink of hot brass, lead, and propellant. Faint groans and mewlings sounded in the darkness.
There was a scratching of claws on cobbles at the far end of the street and a single Sathe darted from the doorway he'd been hiding him. He made it to the end of the street before the pistol cracked twice more, sending him sprawling, clutching at his upper leg. Max stood with the gun aimed, then lowered it again and just stood there staring at the Sathe writhing in agony.
"Jesus... Max," that was all I could say.
She waved the gun a bit to cool it, then tucked it back inside her jacket while I hauled myself to my feet. The Sathe who had been about to skewer me was lying on his back near me, jaw slack and eyes glazed over in death. Broken neck. I'd kicked harder than I thought.
Maxine was nudging a corpse with her foot. I touched her shoulder. "Come on. We'd better get out of here."
She didn't speak all the way back to the Citadel. I could sympathize with the way she felt; I'd been through it before.
"You are mad!" Tahr was aghast. "You must be! Going into the town like that. With no escort and without telling anyone! Were you LOOKING for trouble?"
"No, it just found us. I-am-sorry Tahr, I did not mean for anything to happen, it just did."
Tahr sighed and drifted over to the window. Her profile stood out against the light flooding in through the panes. "Seven Sathe dead and four wounded, and it was not even you who did it. Do all h'mans draw trouble upon themselves like iron flakes to a lodestone?"
I shrugged. "Most humans do not find themselves up to their eyeballs in situations like this. Who were they, anyway?"
"Debris," she snorted. "Dockers, criminals. Someone filled them with ale, then paid them to get you. They did not know what they were getting into."
"No, but do not worry about that."
"I wasn't, particularly."
"Ah," She shrugged. "What about Mas?"
"Max." I corrected automatically, before realising the uselessness of it. She had gone straight to her quarters and I hadn't seen hide nor hair of her for the past several hours. "She is upset over what happened... I think." I said.
Tahr came over and batted me gently on a cheek. "I do not think that your relationship is off to a very good start."
"You can say that again." I muttered. She had become used to that little anecdote and only laughed.
"Why do you not go and see her?" She said. "I have got a... what did you call it? ... A date with H'rrasch and I am sure that Mas would be grateful of some company."
There was no answer when I knocked at Max's door. I persevered and eventually she answered. Her room was taking on personality, in fact it was starting to look like a second hand shop with the stuff she had Brought Through with her cluttering it up.
There were a few paperbacks on the shelves. The desk was cluttered with scraps of notebook paper and pens, also several college textbooks. A Coleman lantern stood on a table alongside a useless radio while a blue Rockgas cylinder squatted in a corner. An almost new Kathmandu rucksack sat on a worn, tooled leather chair and modern cotton clothes hung from hooks on ancient panelled walls. Throughout the room, human trinkets and technology stood out against Sathe craftmanship.
"You alright?" I asked. She said nothing, just stared at out the window. "I know it's tough," I said, "but you'll get over it."
"Get over it!" she spat the words out, then turned on me. "Fuck it, Davies! They tried to KILL me last night! Fucking furballs! How do you 'Get Over' something like that! Huh?"
"It's hard," I agreed. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any easy answers."
She blinked at me, choking back her rage.
"Ms. Wayne, this is a tough culture. The Sathe are like we were a few hundred years back. They have a low rate of childbirth, plus high mortality, plus primitive agriculture, with no room for those who can't contribute. It's not quite survival of the fittest, but it's close, and it is a violent culture. There's something you haven't seen... Here, look."
I unbuttoned my shirt. Her face went slack at the sight. The scars on my torso stood out: white worm-tracks making twisting tangles across my chest. The marks that a vindictive Sathe named Tarsha had gouged into my chest were still very visible; almost making patterns. My ruined left nipple was a twisted piece of scar tissue while the much more recent marks on my shoulders and upper arms were red and swollen. "Before I came here I didn't have a scratch on me. That wasn't much over a year ago."
"Let's see now... These ones on my arms and this one on my back were done by that Sathe in the tavern, and that was a mistake. If she had finished her job, you would probably still be out there, with the village hunting you. The others... I picked them up here and there. I repeat; this is a tough place."
She tried not to stare at the scars, but I saw her eyes flickering to them as I rebuttoned my shirt.
"Have you killed many of them... I mean, besides last night?"
She turned away and was quiet for a while, then her shoulders started shaking. Feeling helpless I touched her arm. "Hey, it's okay."
"I just wanted to get away from it all for a few days," she blurted, then raised her fists to the ceiling. "Goddamit, I want to go HOME!"
The hoarse scream rattled the windows.
I couldn't say anything, promise anything.
Eventually, she quietened down. "Please, get out. Leave me alone for a while."
I didn't move. "I've felt like that a few times. Feeling lost and alone and scared. You won't do anything stupid will you?"
She didn't answer.
"You know," I said, "guns are the best method for a suicide. They're more stylish than a razor blade and drugs are too chancy; you might get the dosage wrong and just have a good time."
Max looked at me strangely. "You're mad."
I shrugged and grinned. "Probably, it's the only thing that keeps me sane. Come on, cheer up. There is a cure for depression."
"A long, hot bath."
"Hey, it's always worked for me."
She laughed and it was like the sun coming out. With the tears still damp on her cheeks, she cocked her head at me. "You're something else, you know that?"
A woman's moods; they change with the wind, with the seasons. She stared at me, then cleared her throat.
"How did you survive?"
I shrugged. "Luck mostly. I guess I've always been a bit of a loner. It wasn't too hard once I found out what was what... and Tahr helped me a lot."
"You like her?"
"She's... special to me." I wasn't sure if she caught the hesitation, but there was an awkward silence. I broke it. "I'm going to have to go away for a while. Maybe a month, maybe longer, I'm not exactly sure."
"Down south." I gestured vaguely. "Some stuff the Sathe want, and I gotta show them where it's at."
"Do you have to go?"
It took four and a half weeks, round trip.
At first we travelled by sea, on a three-masted ship; a fat-hulled cross between a trader and a warship that looked like something out of an old pirate film. I almost expected to see the Jolly Roger flying from the masthead.
A larger vessel than Hafair's, with more crew, it was both faster and could sail twenty four hours a day. The prevailing winds bore us southwards against the gulf stream while the coastline was a cloud-covered blur on the horizon.
A few seagulls found us and floated lazily alongside the ship, resting their weary wings in the rigging for a while before moving on again. They didn't hang around with a beady eye out for food, nothing edible was wasted.
It took us a week by sea to get from Mainport down to another port called Sea Watch, a slowly growing city further south than Bay Town, near the Pamlico Sound. From there it was inland, westward to a small settlement called Ch'ie's climb. That town was actually closer to the point I'd arrived than Traders Meet had been.
I said us.
Besides S'sahr and the ten Royal Guards who went with us, my request for a dozen good Sathe soldiers had been granted.
Chirthi, R'R'Rhasct, two friends of previous acquaintance who had volunteered, along with ten others: Hosf, Eor'sf, Hraisc, Fasir, H'Ses, Finder, Haiscraf, Fen, Chir, and Ihhm.
I was told they were all capable warriors, all of them had seen combat of various kinds, and all of them were crack shots with crossbows. The majority were males, with three females including R'R'Rhasct. At first I thought that might be a problem. I knew they could handle themselves all right, I just wasn't sure if there might be some trouble with relationships or jealousies. I guess I was thinking like a human again. It was something I'd get over.
Chirthi and R'R'Rhasct proved invaluable, both as friends I could talk to and also as buffers between me and the others who weren't so familair with me. There were times when I wasn't around and I knew there was talk behind my back: jokes, insults, complaining. I know they stuck up for me on more than one occasion. It was with their help that I was able to get the others to accept me as more than an oversized, furless animal.
Whilst on board the boat, there was precious little us landlubbers could do but try and stay out of the way of the crew. Once on the road however, I took every opportunity I could to work with them, to teach them tactics and concepts that would help them learn a way of fighting radically different from anything in any Sathe army.
We marched in shifts: ten klicks on foot, ten in wagons, another ten on foot. Sathe may be faster than a greyhound with a rocket up its ass when running, but they don't have a lot of stamina. I wanted to see just how far I could push them, then try for a bit further.
Late at night, they would limp back to their tents. In the wee small hours I could hear them bitching through the tent canvass. Since I marched with them, I suffered also, although I did my best to hide it.
It took a long time just to find a place I found familiar; several days. We followed the narrow trail north until it linked up with the road to Traders Meet. Disturbing. That branching in the trail was familar territory, from way back when Tahr took me off down the other road, the other choice, the other life. If I'd gone the other way, what would have happened? Had it happened, somewhere Else?
The clearing was still there. I stood alone in the middle of it, hands in pockets, staring moodily at the place we'd camped. That place where we'd actually met, where she'd almost shot me, where we'd first spoken, however limited those first exchanges might have been.
"You've come a long way, huh, Kelly?"
"What was that?"
Startled, I jumped. S'sahr was right behind me. "Oh, I did not notice you. It was nothing."
"What are you doing?"
"Ah." He turned full circle on the spot, trying to see just what I found so fascinating. "You have been here before."
"Yes. A while ago now."
"Is there anything here?"
Memories. Regrets. Wonder...
I shook my head. "No. Not really. Come on, we should keep moving."
The river wasn't difficult to find at all. It was smaller than I remembered it. Just a stream and a road under the shady branches of huge old trees. There was no sign there'd ever been a fight.
"You are sure it was here?" S'sahr asked.
Then a Sathe found the skeletons. A jumbled mix of mouldy bones and skulls that stared out from the bushes that had grown around them. What clothing and weapons there'd been had either rotted away or been taken by other travellers. A Sathe skull. I'd never seen one before. The teeth were gone.
Finding the place where I'd first stumbled across the road was much harder. From there it was over a day's walk through the wilderness to find that clearing.
It was still there, but a year's worth of undergrowth had claimed the site as home and already the wreck was overgrown with ivy and other flora. Metal covered with rust and glass was being buried by dust and dirt. The camouflage over the crates had died away long ago, leaving the pile covered with dead leaves and the remains of a squirrel nest. Nature always reclaims its own.
While Sathe labourers hired from the last town packed olive-green crates with stencilled markings on them onto the backs of draft llamas, my small force watched silently from a distance as I kept a promise.
There wasn't much left to bury.
Workers swarmed over the docks, shouting and snarling at each other as they milled round in well-ordered chaos, grabbing for the ropes thrown from ship. Sailors leaned over the railing, yelling suggestions and cautions as the ship was brought in to bump against the wharf.
Home again. Huh, I smiled to find myself thinking of Mainport as home. Still, it would be good to be back on dry land, in a room that doesn't move, and be able to relieve myself without hanging over the side of a ship.
The twelve Sathe I'd been training were watching their home as well, laughing and whiling away the time with idle chatter. Watching them, I grinned. Twelve Sathe perched around and on the ship's central cabin, stripped to the waist and wearing old US army issue camouflage trousers, some with their decorated scabbards strung from equipment belts.
It was almost amusing.
Four and a half weeks and they had changed. Experienced soldiers, they knew how to follow orders. As archers they understood missile weapons and the principles involved, but the guns left them in awe, and not a little fearful. As it was something they'd had no experience with they were leery at first, flinching at a gunshot. Only to be expected; I'd known enough people in basic training with the same reaction, but for Sathe it was something a little more physical: I think the noise hurt their ears. The flinch they could overcome, the noise... There wasn't much I could do about that. Whenever they used the rifles, they did so with ears flattened back into their manes.
Uniforms. Uniforms were something else I hadn't considered. Sathe leather armour is bulky, not exactly inconspicuous, and also has a tendency to creak, but there wasn't much we could do about that. That was until a trooper asked a passing question about my fatigues. Could he get a shirt like that?
Three of those cases held shirts - green t-shirts and tank-tops, another two of trousers and jackets as well as others with a scattering of belts, old Claymore carrybags and universal pouches, M-16 clip bandoliers and miscellaneous other junk. There'd been socks and boots in the inventory, articles that must have gone up with the truck. No great loss there. It was the pants and jackets I had plans for.
Back aboard the ship, the sailmaker-come-seamstress grumbled and swore when she heard what I needed, but still she managed to work wonders. The results... they wouldn't win any fashion awards back home, but they worked and the Sathe liked them. The trousers were taken in, turning them into something like the breeches so popular among Sathe. The jackets were cut into things almost resembling safari jackets, with ventilation slits along the sleeves and across the back. Useless in a sword fight they were, but the Sathe testified they were more comfortable than the armour, and the pockets were great novelties. They laughed outright at the pants' zippers.
They had changed.
I leaned on the railing and watched teams of dockhands transferring crates to the waiting wagons. They worked methodically and naked in the heat of the midday sun. It seemed that no two were the same, their fur marking had all the disparity of snowflakes. They weren't the only dock crews working; further up and down the docks other labourers were loading bigger vessels. One of the ships was taking on a contingent of Eastern soldiers.
A hand clapped me on the shoulder. "Are you coming, or waiting for the tide?" S'sahr asked.
"Yeah, coming." There were wagons waiting for us, along with more Royal guards. On cobbled streets the unsprung cart was more of a pain in the ass than a bike without a saddle, and on some of the steeper thoroughfares you held on or kissed the pavement. I held on, watching Mainport pass by. The narrow, winding streets with their rounded paving stones, the precarious buildings that'd never known an architect's touch. At the northeastern tip of the peninsula I'd once known as Staten Island, the tiers of the Citadel's walls stood over the town like a sculpted mountain.
It all looked normal, just everyday life going on as normal. Shops and stalls were open, Sathe dickering over the price of some trinket. Farmers came and went, selling their wares. A side street was blocked by a dozen or so carts and wagons, their drivers shouting and snarling over just who had the right of way. A Sathe on a llama threaded his way through the snarl of vehicles and animals, hardly slowing. From an alley in this city made of alleys erupted a pack of squealing cubs, gleefully engrossed in a ball game with no rules that were immediately apparent. They chased after us for a time before barrelling off down another street.
The carefree days of childhood.
They probably didn't know what was happening. Even if they did, how could they care? It was a world beyond their ken. Like the cubs in Traders Meet, in Bay Town... like the cubs in Hunter's Moon. They'd deserved more; they'd a least deserved a life. How many more towns had to go like that?
At least now I had some say in the matter.
I watched the other Sathe as they bantered and jawed among themselves. The world's first rifle platoon... this world's first. Okay, so they weren't Marines or SEALs: their training was haphazard and brief, their equipment was still new to them and they'd never fired a shot in battle. Neophytes. Unblooded. Nevertheless, they packed more firepower than a world war one infantry company - an overwhelming advantage against Sathe weapons.
It was a start.
Looking back on that day now: those guards probably got labelled with the moniker the instant they stepped ashore. Green was the color of their clothes and equipment and, hell, the name stuck. They became known as Greens; among friend and foe alike.
The walls of the passage were solid and rough, hewn from the granite outcropping upon which the Citadel stood. The air was damp and slightly stale, with only the tiniest breeze to move the atmosphere through the warren of passages and corridors under the Keep.
Tahr watched as guards locked and bolted the heavy door to the strongroom where the cargo from the wreck had been stacked. Some crates were filled with items useless to Sathe: boots, helmets, gloves. Others held more valuable things: ammunition, guns, grenades, mortar rounds and fuzes, things that could kill, could maim...
"M-16s." I muttered. Mostly to myself.
"What?" Tahr turned her shoulders to look at me as we climbed the steps back to more habitable areas of the Keep. Three guards followed us at a discrete distance.
"I wish I had something a bit more powerful than those." I jerked my thumb back down the stairs. A couple of gunships or tanks, even a few heavy machine guns.
"You have those bigger guns," she said, referring to the M-60s.
"There are larger ones available. I wish we had a few."
Her ears flattened and she gestured at the storeroom. "Then you think that those will not help?"
If my ears were as expressive as her's they'd have also laid back. "Sure, they will help, but they will not win the war. That is up to your soldiers. I will do the best that I can."
She reached up and put her hand on my shoulder. Squeezed, claws just denting my skin. "And I am grateful. You will be well paid when this is over."
If I survive, I thought to myself. Aloud, I said, "Thank you, but I am not sure what I would do with money."
She laughed. "It does not have to be money. Anything within my power. You could lord over a town if you wished."
I chuckled at that, then had second thoughts. "I'll have to think on that one. There are possibilities there..."
Surprise made her ears dance, maybe a bit of amusement. "Well, we can sort that out when the time is right. Why do you not go and get cleaned up." She snuffled. "You are rather... aromatic."
I guess I was. I couldn't remember when my last bath had been.
Tahr cuffed my arm. "Then you go and groom yourself. I will meet you afterwards, there is much to talk about. Go to the room of your mate, alright?"
My mate? Maxine?
"She is not my..." The sound of Tahr's claws spattering on the granite were fading as she disappeared off down a side passage. "...mate," I finished. I looked at the guard who had remained with me, dogging my heels; he stared back at me. "Oh well. Come on then, shadow of mine."
After scratching Sathe-style on the door, I leaned against the jamb, waiting. A pause, voices, the latch rattled and the door opened and Maxine stared.
"Good afternoon," I smiled. "Have you ever considered the advantages of owning a really good set of encyclopedias?"
"Kelly!" Her surprise transformed into a grin then it was my turn to be surprised when she jumped forward to hug me, then just as quickly let go and stepped back, looking suddenly embarrassed. "Hey, it's good to see you."
"Same here. You're looking good, Ms Wayne."
"Max," she corrected immediately and her smile flickered for a second as she stared at me, then it flashed back again. "Come in. We've been waiting for you."
The room was still cluttered with poignant reminders of a place I'd left behind. The lantern was on the desk alongside with pens, several textbooks and papers, as if she'd been working at night and needed more light than candles could provide. Her leather bomber jacket hung from the back of a chair. A Sony DCC walkman, earplugs and tapes perched on a shelf beside a small stack of dogeared paperbacks.
Unlike mine, her quarters were on the inner walls of the Keep, with a small balcony built onto one of the tiers overlooking the central Circle. Sunlight streamed in through the open doors, and Tahr was leaning against the carved stone balustrade, watching our greeting with her ears perked up in interest. I don't know if she could understand: we were speaking in English.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting." I said to Maxine.
"Don't worry about it." Max waved my apology aside then changed to the modulated coughing, hisses and growling of Sathe, "Tahr... explained to me. You have been on the road a long time."
"Could've knocked a skunk cold at fifty paces... Hey, your Sathe's improving."
She smiled proudly. "I have something for you, a home-come gift."
"Accent needs work though," I mused and grinned as she shot me a sharp look. "Hey! Just kidding! Peace!"
"Bastard!" She produced a chilly bin and rooted around inside then tossed me an object I plucked out of the air. "My God! Heiniken! I never thought I'd see that again."
"Been saving it," she smiled and ushered me outside onto the balcony where Tahr was waiting.
"Feeling better?" the Sathe asked.
I ran my hand through my still-damp hair. "Yes, much."
"Smelling better as well," she smiled, then motioned toward the can I was still holding. "What is that stuff?"
"Ale," I said and popped the tab. Tahr blinked, flared her nostrils at the can as it spat and hissed. I proffered the can to her. "Try some."
She took the can, sniffed it, then spent a while trying to find the best way to wrap her almost-nonexistant lips around the opening. She finally managed a swig and almost choked on it. Her ears twisted until they stuck out sideways, she took several rasping breaths. "My Ancestors... you actually DRINK this?!"
I took the can from her and took a swing myself. Maxine stared: I hadn't bothered to even wipe the rim. "Bit warm," I judged, "otherwise nothing wrong with it."
Tahr hissed and shook her head. "You must have gullets of iron. I will stay with something a bit milder. Come, K'hy, tell us what happened. How are the midland towns taking the news of the war?"
"You would be better off asking that of S'Sahr. Sathe in the towns never got very... friendly with me for some reason." I grinned. "What I saw seemed obvious enough. Storing food, preparing defences. There were already garrison troopers recruiting."
So Tahr sipped Sathe wine while Maxine and I drank beer and filled each other in on what had been happening over the past few weeks.
Another village had been hit, farther along the border than the others. It seemed that the Invaders weren't going for a direct lunge at the heart of the Eastern Realm. They were advancing slowly in three points across the Realm, wiping out anything that stood against them.
"At that rate they will not have anything left to conquer," I said.
"This tactic is only temporary." Tahr flexed her claws. "They terrorise the settlements. Soon they will not even try to resist; they will surrender straight away."
"You cannot really blame them, can you," Maxine said softly.
The death of your family and yourself as well as the destruction of your town... or surrender. No, you couldn't blame them. And there was no way the Eastern Realm could quickly field and army to help. Even if they had one ready, it would have to reach the enemy. Shit, it took two weeks for just a couple of dozen of us to travel less than half the length of the Eastern Realm.
And the Realm was in Tahr's hands.
Nursing my drink, I leaned against the granite balustrade beside Tahr. "There are going to be hard times."
Tahr took a pull of her drink, then stared at it as if wishing it were something stronger. "A," she muttered. "Hard times indeed."
I reached across and took her furry hand and gently squeezed it, drawing forth a flicker of her ears before she returned the pressure.
"You..." Maxine was staring at us, looking from our hands to me to Tahr to me. "You two... What is between you two?"
For a second I all I could think about was that that was how I must have sounded; heavily accented Sathe from a throat that was never meant to make those sounds. Then the actual question registered.
"What?" Tahr beat me to it.
Maxine looked at the can she was holding. "You two. I talk to a guard, he say... he..." She swallowed and made vague motions with her hands, a bit of beer spilled. "Have you... ah..." She couldn't find the words in Sathe and switched to English. "Kelly, have you two... slept together?"
For a second the beating of my heart seemed to be the only sound in the world.
Even though she couldn't understand exactly what was being said, Tahr must have guessed the question. Her ears slowly flattened back and she looked to me.
It had to happen... "You would find out about it sooner or later," I sighed. "Look, Tahr, please, this would be easier in our own language."
Tahr ducked her head, "All right. I understand."
I could feel her eyes on us as Maxine and I retreated back into her room. Sex. Most Sathe wouldn't... they couldn't understand. Already I'd bedded - or perhaps been bedded by - two and propositioned by a third. They had no problems with it, to them it was just sex, just enjoyment and pleasure. For me... Only Tahr really had an inkling how different it was for me and she watched, partially understanding just what was happening.
How much did she really comprehend?
Maxine was staring at me.
"So," I began, moving behind the high-backed wooden chair, using it as a podium to hide behind, "now you know."
Maxine Wayne sat down on the edge of the desk, looking stunned. This was not going well. "Shit. I never believed it. I thought he was joking. You really... did it."
I nodded, glancing at Tahr. Out on the balcony she ducked her head, turning away to stare out across the Circle.
"Jesus Christ," the human woman was shaking her head. "I didn't believe it. You really did it, you actually screwed her?! That's sick! God's sake, how the hell could you DO it?!"
She was almost shouting, gesturing with clenched hands. My own were gripping the back of the chair. Shit, the way she was putting it...
"Look, I was cold, confused, scared and lonely. I didn't really know what was happening, it just..."
"You saying she raped you?" Maxine snorted.
Stung, I softly answered, "That's not funny."
"She'd been raped."
Maxine's mouth opened, then closed again. "Oh. Sorry." Then: "They catch him?"
"She killed him."
There was a short silence, then Maxine almost pleaded: "Jesus, Kelly, she's not even Human!" She looked out the balcony doors at where Tahr was leaning on the balustrade, her back toward us.
That coarse mane flowed down her back, sharply defined muscles rolling under fur turned golden by the sun. Red breeches were tied with white cord at her waist and calves. That silver ring glinted as her ears twitched toward us.
"She's not ugly, is she?" I asked. "Just different. Inside, she's the most beautiful person I've ever met. I mean, you don't just fall in love with someone's looks."
"You love her!?" Maxine's eyes went wide.
I turned away, raked my hair back in frustration, then spun back to face the human girl. "Dammit! I don't know how else to say it! It's not that kind of love! We've been through shit together; she's been there when I've needed her, and I've helped her now and again."
"I can imagine," she said drily, then her hands waved as she exploded again, "Shit, man! What about diseases. I mean she could be carrying something that makes AIDS look like a cold!"
"I don't think so."
"How'd you know?!"
"How'd you know I didn't give HER something?!"
That stopped her for a second, giving me time to continue: "We just did what seemed right at the time... can't you stop acting so catty."
"Me!? Acting catty!? What about her! THAT'S catty," she jab a thumb at Tahr who'd turned and was watching us with a troubled expression. She couldn't understand what we were saying, but she could follow the tone well enough.
"That was not what I meant," I was feeling weary. "You don't understand."
"What's to understand."
"Everything! I've been here to nursemaid you. You haven't got a clue what it's like to be absolutely alone and never sure if you'd ever see another human again! Not able to understand anything of what's going on around you! If Tahr hadn't been there I'd be dead several times over; either from Sathe, wild animals, or my own stupidity! I owe her a lot!"
"And that's how you repay it?"
"It's not a question of payment! It just happened! Spontaneous. I think it took her as much by surprise as it did me." I shook my head and watched her, looking for some sign of softening, my heart sinking as she stared back. Chagrined, I continued in gentler tones, "I do love her... but you just can't understand, can you."
"No. I can't," She shrugged. "I guess I shouldn't be prying. It's really your own affair... No pun intended." Again she looked at Tahr, then said, "It was her Time was it?"
"You know about that?"
"That guard came on to me..."
"I don't see what you're looking so shocked about, with what you've been doing. This guard came on to me. He asked me when my Time was and I asked him what the hell a Time was. They have seasons, don't they. Like cats."
"They're not cats, dammit!"
"That was the only reason you got together? She was too randy to keep her paws off you?"
Oh, God. That hit hard. "Ms Wayne," My voice choked on me. I started again. "It wasn't like that. We didn't... I don't know; perhaps it started like that, but it changed. That first time, I was as shocked as you. I didn't know what the hell I'd done. I didn't know why I'd done it and the later times... I did it because I wanted to. I did it because it was the way to show how I really felt about her, everything she'd done for me."
I didn't know how else to say it.
She stared back at me, then looked at Tahr. "You were right: I don't understand."
Of course things changed. I knew they would.
Over the next few days Maxine did her best to avoid me. When I did see her she had few words for me and always pressing business elsewhere. I could understand her reactions and didn't try to push it. Give her time.
Meanwhile there were other things to keep me busy.
The war was spreading. Fighting continued in the southern provinces of the Eastern Realm and all the time shiploads and wagon trains of troops left the city. Recruits drilled and trained continuously in the Citadel's courts. Much of the time Sathe I knew were occupied: S'sahr southbound for the central Eastern Realm, Remae and Tahr engaged for hours at a time in conference with Eastern commanders, sifting over the news filtering in from around the Realm.
I couldn't sit in on any of these meetings: I would be too... distracting. The disjointed snippets of news I did pick up around the place through rumours and gossipmongering were more confusing than anything else. I spent most of my time working with the Greens, drilling with them. Even with the limited ammunition available some of them were becoming quite adequate marksmen, even though I found their eyes couldn't discern fine stationary detail nearly as well as I could.
It was almost two weeks before Tahr sent for me to fill me in about just what the hell was going on.
"Here, here, here, and here," Remae's claws stabbed at points on the map. "We do not have enough troops down south to cover all this area. These villages will be defenceless."
"We may have to evacuate some of them, move the inhabitants to towns that we can defend," Tahr said.
The room was one I was familiar with, the conference room with the huge obsidian table and pile carpet. A wood and brass chandelier hung over the table, oil lamps hanging from it. Three Sathe and a human sat around the table on which maps and pieces of vellum and parchment were spread.
Remae was looking terrible. Her ribs were showing through fur which itself lacked lustre, was actually coming out in places. The corners of her eyes were crusty with goop. I knew she'd been under stress, but she was going to kill herself.
"The villagers would be vulnerable while they are being moved," Rehr observed. "Again they would need armed escorts. Could we spare that many?"
"I do not think so," Remae said and ran her claws through her mane, staring dully at the handful of fur that came away. "We have lost several scouting parties without trace, and they were not small."
"We have lost too many troops," Tahr sighed.
Indeed, the map was dotted with small red triangles; places where battles and Sathe had been lost.
"We just do not know exactly what they are doing," Remae said. "Their main host is reported to be about here... and they have others scattered along here." She drew a line from east to west at the top of the Florida peninsula. "We are trying to muster forces to meet them."
"And how many victories have been ours to date?" Rehr asked softly.
"Precious few I am afraid. Commander Rsef managed to defeat a flanking force much larger than his own by luring them into swampland where their own numbers were a liability. They lost over a thousand troops, but they will not make the mistake of baring their necks like that again." Remae rubbed her eyes. "K'hy, are your troops ready?"
I frowned. "I would have liked to have given them a bit more time, but they are soldiers, they are ready."
"Commander S'Sahr wishes to move a Company to this town." She pointed at a circle set on a squiggly line that led to the sea south of us. "Weather Rock. It lies on the river Broken Tooth, ten days south by sea.
"It is not a large town, but wealthy, able to afford its own small garrison. And it controls the only bridge over that part of the river. The last news placed the Gulf forces about... here," she pointed at the line on the map, "but we simply cannot afford to spend a company holding a place the Gulf forces may never approach. The Greens are few, but you said they can stand against much greater numbers. Could they secure the bridge against a Gulf strike?"
"What is the opposition likely to be?"
"Ah... that we cannot be sure about, but if they do assault the town, it will most likely be with their easternmost force... this one. Reports are too sketchy to give an accurate size, but it will not be as large as their central one. I would go out on a ledge and guess perhaps two, three thousand."
I nodded. "And the town? What kind of a position is it in? Defensible?"
There were some troubled looks. "That... we are also not sure about."
"We spoke with some traders who'd been through about seven months ago. According to them there were siege engines being built and the walls were in terrible condition. They cannot say if repairs have been made since then."
"Wonderful," I scowled. "This is sounding better all the time."
"The town... here," she pulled out another map. "It straddles the river, with quarters on the north and south banks. The river at this point is wide, but shallower and slower than elsewhere; suitable for a bridge and ferries."
"Could it be forded?"
"Ah... that is doubtful. In mid-summer during a heatwave, perhaps. Otherwise, I think not. The surrounding land is flat and open farmland surrounded by forest. There are three roads leading in through the forest: two from the north, one from the south."
"How much open ground between the walls and the forest."
"I have no idea. Can it be defended?"
I considered, then nodded. "I think so. We will have some good fields of fire."
"And, K'hy," Tahr leaned forward. "You will not be going."
"You heard well enough. We do not want to lose you, K'hy. You will remain behind, and that is an order."
"High One, they are my unit, I have to go with them. I will not sit around on my fundament while they go out there, maybe get hurt or killed!"
"K'hy, you are staying even if I have to have you chained in the dungeons," growled Tahr.
"No! We are a unit!" I protested. "I trained them to work as a team, like a machine! Listen, if you take a working part out of a machine you end up with junk! Also, I am the only one who understand how the weapons work, I know what their strengths and weaknesses are. If you send those Greens out without an experienced commander, it would be like having a huge army with a cub in charge; a shrewd enemy could beat them." She didn't look convinced. I turned to appeal to a professional soldier: "Remae, you must know what I am talking about."
Remae rubbed the side of her muzzle. Tufts of fur drifted down and she quickly stopped. "Well, yes. I think he is right, High One."
"It does sound reasonable to me," the elderly advisor confessed. "Can you name any commander who would know how to use a gun?" He hiccuped a bit on the foreign name.
"You too?" Tahr was outnumbered. "I shall have to think on this," Tahr tapped her claws together and looked at the black-furred Remae; her worn expression, the shedding fur. "Remae, when did you last rest?"
Remae blinked at Tahr through crusty eyes. "Why just... It was..."
"Go and get some sleep," Tahr snapped. "Before you fall on your face."
Remae hauled herself to her feet and went to the door, a very different kind of movement to her normal graceful stalking walk; heavy and tired. She hesitated at the door like she was going to say something, then she left.
Tahr stared at the closing door. "She will kill herself if she keeps on like this. I should have said something before."
"There is much to be done," Rehr said. "These are hard times for us all... You yourself look as if you could do with some rest."
"I am fine," Tahr muttered.
"If you say so High One," Rehr stood up with a rustle of red robes. "You will find decisions easier if you are rested... By your leave?"
Tahr watched the door close behind the advisor then got up and went to the window, throwing it open. The breeze that blew into the room put the lamps out but was also welcome breath of fresh air. She stood in front of the window cutting a black swathe out of the stars, her mane moving in the breeze. "You actually want to go and fight."
I shook my head. "No, I want to finish what I started. You cannot send them off by themselves. I KNOW they are not ready for that."
She sighed, her shoulders rising and falling. "You make tried and proven soldiers sound like cubs."
"They are like cubs," I said. "If they were soldiers in my world, one enemy could kill them while they all sat around their fire telling tales," I remembered what I had shown them, how chagrined they had been when I jumped them. They had had a guard posted, but in full camouflage and enough bush, a man can become almost invisible.
That was how they learned that heavy armour is not the only kind of protection: What you can't see, you can't hurt.
"By my Ancestors, Tahr. They were sitting guard duty around a goddamned CAMPFIRE!"
"But this is not your world, K'hy, and they know it better than you do. What can you still teach them?"
"They are too smart for their own goods."
Her ears flicked: "Explain."
"Those weapons do not make them... all powerful. They are simply tools, just like an axe or adze, and only as good as the person using them. It is good that they feel confident in themselves, but not foolishly so. A crossbow bolt or sword would have just the same effect on them as on any other. They are just raw recruits... Green is a good name for them: they are as green as a new sapling."
"Then do you really think they are ready to go?"
"As you said, they are soldiers. They have to learn somewhere... why not there? Also, how many conventional troops would you have to send in their stead, ah? Troops you are going to need."
The shadow moved away from the window and there was a muted footfall on the carpet behind my chair. Then smooth, hard crescents were running gently over the bare skin on my cheek and neck. "My furless strange one... Down inside you are not so different from the rest of us. Why do you decide that you want to fight now?"
"I have been trying to adapt, to fit in," I said. "There is so much to un-learn."
She sat down on the empty chair to my right and hunched forward, toward me, her hands hanging between her knees. "You want to fit in by fighting? My Ancestors... K'hy, we fight, that I cannot and do not deny, but it is not a way of life for us. You do not have to try and prove yourself by doing that."
I blinked in surprise. "I never said anything about proving myself."
"I think that you do not always say what you want to say K'hy," she looked dour. "Is there nobody else who could go in your stead?"
I shook my head.
"Do not do that," the pads on the tips of her fingers touched my chin, rubbing against the stubble. "Very well, you impossible fool, go if you must." Then her breath was a warm breeze against my neck as she leaned close.
"But I shall be very angry if you get yourself killed."
The Born Ruler's Advisor looked up from his desk, starting to put paper away in a drawer before he saw who had spoken. "I am busy, K'hy. Can this not wait?"
"Please sir, it will not take very long."
"Very well." He stood his quill pen in a rack on the desk, beside an inkwell. "I think I can make time. What do you want?"
I pulled the sealed envelope out of my breast pocket and stroked the creamy paper with a finger before dropping in front of Rehr. He picked it up and glanced at the handwritten English message on the outside: To Maxine Wayne.
"What is this?" Rehr asked.
"A letter," I replied, then took a deep breath. "If something should happen to me, could you see that Maxine gets this?"
Rehr stared at me, then at the parchment in his hand, then back at me." Why did you not ask Tahr to do this? You are close."
"I am not sure," I admitted. "We are maybe too close. Please. I am asking you because I think I can trust you."
He slowly ducked his head, his greying mane bobbing. "You honour me. Very well. It shall be as you ask, but I hope I will not have to pass it on."
I worried about that letter. There were things written on that indifferent paper I'd lost sleep over.
Amongst other things, I had left Maxine with a decision which I had had to make once. She knew a bit about firearms; she could certainly fire a gun well enough...
I had left the complete formula for black gunpowder and detailed instructions for forging cannon and muskets.
When we finally rode into Weather Rock I was hot, tired and covered with yellowish dust blown up from the road. We all were. The Broken Claw river flowing through the town beckoned invitingly, but there were formalities to go through first; time for bathing later.
First impressions of the township of Weather Rock were of a set from a movie, a western. A single unpaved avenue split the town down the middle, from north to south, the river quartering it east to west. The buildings were slightly more auspicious. Large - some of them actually had two floors - and made of wood, brick and something like adobe.
The Sathe inhabitants quickly dispelled any illusion of similarity that Weather Rock had to Dodge City.
By then I was used to the kind of welcome we received; locals stopping and staring at us from the street and their dwellings, bolder cubs falling in behind the soldiers in an impromptu procession. I just smiled wearily at them and blinked dust out of my eyes.
The curtain wall around the town was not very imposing, in fact it was rather pathetic. Parts lay in disrepair with ivy and lichen growing over fallen stones. In a couple of places - mainly around the gates - the walls had been repaired, I suppose for appearances's sake, but still there were a few merlons missing and one tower bore the blackening of a fire. Weather Rock was not a prime example of a fortified stronghold.
We definitely didn't look any better; worse if anything. The Greens were only wearing their trousers, rolled up to their knees, and these were all a uniform shade of mud brown from airborne dust. Sathe fur was caked with grime and the llamas were exhausted.
An awe-inspiring sight we were not.
The ruling clan in Weather Rock was the Fres's Clan. R'R'Rhasct had told me that it was a powerful Clan, and one friendly to the Shirai Clan so their loyalty was assured. They had control over two towns in the Eastern Realm and were purely traders; their Clan Elders had never had any desire for any power other than that brought from trading.
So the Fres's clan had always remained totally loyal to the Eastern Realm, and despite the attempts of rival clans to use them as political leverage, they had prospered.
The dilapidated state of the city walls belied the wealth of the town behind them. The buildings were well-maintained, painted, glass in the windows. The streets were clean with the populace looking well-fed. The air of affluence exuded by the Keep more than made up for any unfavourable impressions the walls may have given.
Pennants and flags waved at us in the breeze while sunlight glittered off a multitude of windows; far more than a building designed to keep people out would have. Servants stopped in their tracks and gaped at us, at me. We clattered into a courtyard while guards still stumbled out of their barracks to intercept us. Their armour was spotless and highly embossed while their weapons had that air of something straight off the rack. Probably still had the price tags on them.
If they were the police around here, who upheld the law?
Amongst us, we had already agreed that the Green called Fen would meet with the Clan Lord as our representative. He was educated, intelligent and being raised in a wealthy family, knew something about court protocol. It would make things easier if the Clan Lord only had talk to him, and not try and get used to someone like me.
Fen dropped stiffly from his saddle and waited while the guards approached him, surrounding us. Up on towers around the courtyard, archers were taking up positions, their crossbows cocked but not levelled. An officer stepped forward and there followed a spirited conversation that I couldn't hear. Fen eventually produced the sealed document from Tahr and brandished it in front of the other's nose.
The officer's muzzle wrinkled when he saw the red seal on the document and he looked us over again, then he gestured and led Fen off through the surrounding ring of guards. A small entourage of soldiers followed the pair.
They disappeared through a wrought iron gateway and I looked around at the remaining Fres's guards. They were watching us, but all of the crystal-green eyes surrounding us seemed to be fixed on one object; Me.
I raised my face to the sky, squinting into the glare of the sun. Anything but look at them.
The Sathe up on the walls stared back at me.
Chirthi and R'R'Rhasct walked with me along the southern fortifications of Weather Rock.
"This is pitiful," R'R'Rhasct gestured angrily at the wall. "If any modest number of cubs ever attacked these walls, they could take it within the day!"
She was absolutely right. The gatehouses on the roads leading into the town was solid and sound, as were the gates over the river, but the walls on either side of the town, each curving around to meet the river, were low and falling apart.
Barely three metres tall, the walls' catwalks were crumbling and eroded. Lichen and ivy were growing over the ramparts and we disturbed birds in their nests as we passed. The only things that were in decent repair were the few arbalest and catapults, mainly maintained, I suspected, for show.
"The only chance this town would have would be to stop an attacker from getting near the walls," said Chirthi.
The ground out there was flat, just fields and grazing land away to the forest. Even with crossbows a determined charge could swarm the walls.
As we walked back to the keep where the Greens were barracked, the two Sathe carried on a spirited conversation, recalling old battles where defenders were in similar conditions, and what they had done. I found the references they were using totally meaningless, instead I watched the stalls and shops, the Sathe who went to and fro, until a stall caught my eye.
"Chirthi, Rhasct. Hold on," I tapped their shoulders to stall then ducked across the dusty throughfare to take a closer look.
It was one of those shops with front shutters that rotated on a central pivot. At night they'd be swung up to close up the shop while during business hours they hinged down to produce instant display tables. The tables were covered with small metal trinkets and jewellery of all kinds, from tiny locks to spring-loaded flint and steel fire strikers to gold and jade earrings. I bent low to admired the craftsmanship. Without machinery or advanced tools someone had made these from scratch and they were as much pieces of art as pieces of metal. Delicate shapes hand-crafted from gold and silver wire, a small quarter-sized medallion that was unmistakeably a bald eagle. That one caught my eye: I'd been wondering what I could use for a sort of cease-fire offering to a certain non-Sathe I knew and that might to the job. If I ever had the chance.
The proprietor of the shop, an oldster with long fingers and much grey in his fur, watched me with his ears flattened back as I picked up the medallion. He looked like he wasn't sure whether he wanted to watch and laugh or run for help.
Strands of gold filigree made up the body and outstretched wings while silver wire outlined the head, feathers. The chain was also solid silver. I'd have never believed Sathe fingers were nimble enough to make something like that. Whoever'd made it must have used a microscope. I whistled softly and turned to the proprietor, "Sir, how much does this cost?"
"You... speak?" He gaped.
I sighed, "Yes, I speak. Now, is this for sale or not?"
A businessman through and through. Almost instantly he had pulled himself together and quoted a ridiculous price. I got the idea and countered with an offer of my own. We bantered back and forth and when a price was finally settled on and I dropped three pieces of gold into his palm, he seemed inordinately cheerful. No guesses who'd ended up with the better end of the deal. Chirthi and R'R'Rhasct were waiting, sitting on the stoop, leaning against each other and chuckling at something. They squinted up at me as I came out. "We are at war and you go shopping?" R'R'Rhasct smiled.
I shrugged and scratched at my jaw. My beard needed a trim. "What can I say? It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it."
"Ahh... true," Chirthi chuckled. "What have you got there?"
I showed them. They both laughed when I told them how much I had paid for it, saying I had been done out of a gold piece. R'R'Rhasct was ready to go and get it back, but I stopped her, "He probably needs it more than I do."
"You would throw away a gold piece?!" They were astonished.
I shrugged and grinned, "I have to learn the right way to do it. If I make a mistake, I should pay."
"The place you come from, do you buy things there?" Chirthi asked.
"Yes, pretty much the same." I was thinking about check books and credit cards. "But there is usually no haggling over prices."
"But that takes all the fun out of it!" exclaimed R'R'Rhasct, sounding genuinely horrified.
The tiny bird of prey gleamed dully in my fingers as I lay under the rough grey blanket, holding the medallion in a pale moonbeam. The chain rattled almost inaudibly as I slipped it back into the pocket of my jacket lying beside the bed.
Down the other end of the long, second floor room, I heard the surf-like sound of Sathe whispering; Chirthi had joined R'R'Rhasct in her bed where they murmured softly to each other. I couldn't hear what they were saying, and I didn't try to. The deep, steady breathing of the other sleeping Sathe filled the room.
I stretched my legs off the end of the Sathe-sized pallet, then curled up and slept.
The shouting woke me.
"ATTACK! Rot it! THEY'RE ATTACKING!"
Someone was shaking me and I scrambled out of bed, still wondering what time it was. It was still dark out, but a flickering red glow shone through the dusty windows. Coming from across the river.
"What's going on?!" I snapped as I pulled my shirt on, grabbing my rifle and stuffing extra clips into my pockets.
"Attack, sir," Eor'sf shouted. "The town is under attack!"
Fasir clattered up the stairs with wild eyes. "From the south!" he yelled as he grabbed for his weapons. "They're burning the town! Trying for the bridge!"
Outside was chaos.
Sathe were starting to appear in other buildings while from across the river came the source of the glow. Buildings over there were burning, the bridge swarmed with the dark shapes of fleeing Sathe. Behind them I could hear screams and cries and see steel glinting in the firelight as weapons were swung. Figures escaping burning and collapsing buildings milled in confusion before being cut down. Wolves in a flock.
Armoured figures started to head for the bridge, swords and firebrands ready.
"Two teams!" I yelled at the Greens. "Six on each side of the road. Crossfire on that bridge, then fire and manoeuvre. Let them come to us, try to get as many as possible on the bridge... Watch out for the civilians! Go!"
Toe claws scrabbled on wooden stairs as they got, with me right behind them.
By night and firelight Weather Rock had become downtown Pandemonium. Flickering orange-red light and the alien shapes of terrified Sathe. Someone bumped into me, and I got a glimpse of a terrified face and managed to duck a frenzied swipe at my face before I was past. Up ahead Greens, naked but for their belts and ammunition, were spreading out on each side of the bridge. Kneeling behind walls, barrels, and any other available cover to steady the M-16s.
The Enemy were already on the bridge, dozens of them, red and black armour turned into something more sinister in the mad light. As they ran toward us they howled, and I saw bared fangs, eyes wide with battle-lust.
Then the guns started chattering, the racket of concentrated gunfire mingling into a metallic-sounding snarl.
I took cover beside a Green and added my own fire, her spent brass flying across in front of me in erratic bursts. On the bridge invading armoured Sathe caught in the gunfire went down like skittles, spun and fell, doubled over and fell, fell and died.
Their assault melted away into piles of bodies on the bridge. A few survivors turned to dash back the way they'd come, howling ambush. Some of them made it back to the end of the bridge. None of the ones who'd chosen to run the other way made it. The Greens howled in triumph, but didn't rush to follow. Every second soldier ran forward under covering fire from the rest of us, then it was our turn to leapfrog them. Fire and manoeuvre until we had the bridge.
That was a blessing. Their first fight and they didn't get carried away, go wild and charge off on their own.
Wounded and dying Gulf Sathe shied away from me as I crossed the bridge, some rolling under the parapets and into the dark water below; the light, spinning rounds from the M-16 are not always mercifully quick. The Greens remedied much of that suffering; their claws and knives were messy, but fast.
Across the bridge, the street was littered with bodies. A few Gulf corpses lay scattered around, but most of them were Eastern Sathe; Men, women, and children.
Any sympathy I felt for the Gulf soldiers on the bridge vanished.
The next half hour was a time of killing. All I can really remember is the light; that bloody, red light from burning buildings. Armed Sathe came at me and were cut down by my weapon, or the fire of other Greens. With only swords out they came from the buildings, being cut down before they came near. Blasts of gunfire cut through the night. Muzzle flashes strobed along the street as teams of Sathe moved and hunted down the Gulf forces.
I remember a Gulf soldier standing over the bodies of a unarmed male and his cub, claws still dripping. I remember the look of surprised horror on his face as my gun butt stove in his skull.
A group of Sathe with crossbows firing at us from the cover of a window. Greens firing a burst that stitched across the wall, letting me get close enough to throw a grenade in. The concussion kicked the door off its hinges and knocked wooden slats from the walls, then the top floor caved in.
A Gulf warrior with a firebrand coming out of a building while flames licked up in the windows, he saw me, his eyes widening then the muzzle flash of my rifle strobed across him. I remember firing until my gun jammed, or ran dry, then using it as a club. I remember pain from minor wounds. I joined the chase as the remaining troops fled for the walls and the gun just clicked as I tried to fire on fleeing troops...
I stood on the crumbling town wall. The body of a guard lay at my feet, his throat slit by a Gulf blade. I stared down at the corpse, feeling utterly drained, like I'd run a marathon. There were still bursts of gunfire - on the wall and in the fields beyond - as Greens and local guards rooted out enemy troops, firing on the few who were retreating across the fields to the woods beyond.
Chirthi repeated my name. I looked at him, winded, unable to reply. His ears were back, blood matted his fur. I looked down at myself. Gore covered me; blood, my own and others', glistening black in the light of burning buildings. Gently he reached out and took the gun from my unresisting hands, then led me back down to mainstreet.
That central street was still in chaos. Buildings burned, filling the air with sparks and smoke. Sathe were forming bucket chains to the river: soldiers and civilians. What good could that do? The buildings still burned, and would continue to do so: right to the ground.
I stared, strangely detached as flames begin licking at another building. There was a movement at a window above the covered porch; a small head that barely reached above the sill and hands fighting at thick glass.
Cries rose from behind me: "K'hy! NO! Stop! Stop him!"
I was inside the building before I realised what I was doing, still going on automatic. The stairwell was filling with smoke. Red light and flames danced through cracks in the wooden stairs. I could feel the heat through the wood against my bare feet, but the stairs held.
Smoke filled the corridor in the top floor... What the hell am I doing here!? The door was locked, barred from the inside, but gave way under a kick. Flames climbed one wall of the room and I choked and hacked as heat and smoke seared my lungs; blistering my skin.
A small form hunched under a window, a stink of burning fur. I grabbed the cub and turned just as the lintel above the door collapsed in a shower of sparks, blocking the portal with flaming debris. I crouched over the cub, sheltering it as the heat tightened the skin on my face and hands.
Below, on the street outside, Sathe milled about, pointing towards me, the heat rising from the flames making their images blur, twist, writhe... The window exploded into a thousand glittering shards of glass and wood as I heaved a chair through it, then as the flames exploded around me, fuelled by the influx of fresh oxygen. I hit the eaves outside the window, stumbled, and fell.
The burning world spun and came up and missed me as I hit something soft that collapsed beneath me. Hands were pulling me away from the small body I had wrapped mine around in an unthinking effort to protect it: an instinct I never knew I had.
Voices were rising around me, calling and shouting. A Green - Finder - was propping me up, trying to get my attention, shouting something about the fingers he was holding up. I pushed his hand away and looked to where more Sathe were clustered around a small shape.
"He is not breathing." A Sathe looked down at me. "I am sorry."
"Bullshit!" I gasped and tore from their grasps, claws inadvertently tearing my skin as I half scrambled through the crowd. The cub lay sprawled on his side, his baby-fur scorched, shrivelled, and curled from heat.
I didn't bother checking for a pulse. The ring of Sathe around us stirred and shifted in indecision as I tilted the limp head back and clamped my lips over the small mouth. His chest rose and fell as I breathed in and out; I could taste soot on his breath.
Desperately I blew, watching the chest move feebly. I couldn't make a proper seal around the alien mouth!
Damn you! BREATH, damn it!
A shudder in the body. I pulled back as the chest started to move on its own. Then the kid started convulsing, and I pawed him over onto his side. A thin trickle of vomit ran from the corner his mouth, pooling on the sand. His breathing settled down to a steady rhythm. I sat there with his head cradled in my lap, gently stroking the singed fur over and over and it was another cub I was holding, one I'd never had the chance to thank.
"I'm sorry. Oh, god, I'm sorry I wasn't there..."
Sathe hands gently took him away, then took me away.
The guard who'd been bending over me jumped back in alarm as I opened my eyes, then he dashed out. I listened to claws clattering in stone, a door slam, and looked around in bewilderment. Where the hell was I?
The room was large, spacious, and spartan. Big shuttered windows along one wall were hanging open a warm summer breeze blowing through. The off-white walls were covered with what looked like polished granite slabs, as was the floor. The round bed I was lying on was in the middle of the wall directly opposite the door, and I was lying stark naked on white satin-soft sheets.
I had enough small cuts and bruises to add to my collection of scars. I ached, pain outside and in. Both my feet were bandaged, and there was another bandage around my right forearm, another around my stomach.
My clothes were nowhere in sight.
I sat up and gingerly put my feet on the floor, wincing at the pain. Running around on stones and broken glass with no boots. Not a good idea. Slowly I put more weight on them. Ouch.
Sathe burst through the door, R'R'Rhasct and Chirthi, with Weather Rock guards close behind.
"Hi," I greeted the pair.
"Out," R'R'Rhasct ordered the other guards, then strode over to stand over me, arms folded and wrinkles on her nose: "What do you think you are doing?!"
"What does it look like? Where are my clothes?"
"Oh, no. You are staying right there," Chirthi told me.
R'R'Rhasct pushed me back onto the mattress and perched herself beside me. Belatedly, I realised what I wasn't wearing and made a grab for the sheets. Pointless really: she'd seen me in the buff before, and in a far more compromising situation: straight after my little soiree with the bartender at the Red Sail.
"The physician said that you must stay off your feet until they heal," she scolded me. "You are not to walk for at least a few days."
"There is nothing wrong with them," I protested. "They are a little sore, but that..."
"Sir," Chirthi said from where he was standing by the windows, "You looked half-dead when we carried you in here." He rubbed his mane. "The physician did good work on your feet. You'd been dancing on glass; they looked like burnt mincemeat."
"Same as the rest of you. You are not fireproof," R'R'Rhasct added. "And you were not acting quite... normally."
"Well, I feel fine now," I lied. Then blinked around at the opulent room. "Where am I anyway?"
"A guest of the Clan Lord," Chirthi said. "In the Keep. We could not leave you with the other wounded. It was too crowded, and there would be some who would not accept you."
The other wounded...
"How many did we lose?" I asked fearfully.
Chirthi looked at R'R'Rhasct. "Twenty-four wounded and thirty-seven dead. Thirteen of them soldiers."
"Oh, shit!" I moaned to the ceiling.
"Are you alright?" A hand touched my shoulder.
I looked up at her. I wanted to cry. "Thirty-seven?"
"There would have been many more if we had not been here." Chirthi stared at me, "Do all h'mans fight like that?"
"Huh? Like what?" I asked, confused.
"Never mind." They looked at each other.
I ignored that, didn't really attach too much importance to it. Thirty-seven...
I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. "Fuck doctor's orders. There are things to be done. I have work to do... where are my damn clothes?"
"Please sir," Chirthi pleaded, "We are already doing everything. Do not do this!"
"I am fine," I insisted as R'R'Rhasct passed me a mug half filled with water. Water... I was parched. Unthinkingly I drained it and tossed it aside. She retrieved it from the bedspread to set it back on a tray on the floor by the bed, smiling a bit. "I do not want to lie here like a fucking invalid!" I snapped. "Bring me my clothes, and that is an Goddamned ORDER!"
'Rhasct!" I snarled, furious. "Now!"
The Sathe looked at each other, then Chirthi said, "Sir, before we left, the Shirai gave us other orders, to make sure... Sir, she outranks you. We cannot let you.
"Tahr!" Goddamit, she had no business... giving me fucking BABYSITTERS! "I don't care what she told you! Bring me my clothes!" I managed to get to my feet, then my muscles turned to jello. The Sathe caught me as I collapsed and lowered me back to the bed. I tried to grab them, then lost the use of even my arm. I twitched helplessly.
"The water," I croaked. "Rhasct, you bitch!"
R'R'Rhasct straightened the sheets, brushed hair from my eyes, then stood up beside Chirthi who gently nuzzled her neck, his eyes still on me. "I am sorry, K'hy," R'R'Rhasct told me, even sounding sincere. "The Marshal told us it is quite safe for you. It will just help you relax and sleep. You will heal better."
I tried to swear at them as they left, but my tongue had turned to a slab of dead meat. All that came out was an incoherent mumble and then the drug rolled over me like a velvet bulldozer.
Hands gently shook me awake. Faces, hovering over me. Blood pounded dully in my ears. There were noises, voices talking and words washing over me without registering. I mumbled some meaningless protest and let my eyes close. Again hands were slapping at my face. I tried to push them away and don't know if I even lifted my hands.
Another face, a small face, pelted with long cinnamon fur shrivelled and curled, green eyes blinked down at me. A hand, fingers, white bandages, feather-touch my face. I moved my arm to catch fur, hold a small hand. Teeth bared, fear blossoming in the eyes before voices rang. Green blinked, curiosity and wonder...
To the south of the Broken Claw river the town of Weather Rock was in ruins.
Great black swathes were burned in jumble of buildings, patches where the fires had burned unchecked, levelling the wooden structures as effectively as if they had been dynamited. Sathe were swarming through the streets. If there had been a time for mourning, I'd missed it. I'd been flat on my back for the better half of a week, dead to the world while the town pulled itself together again. Admittedly the Greens had done good work: the walls were being repaired and reinforced. Food and equipment being stored.
Still, not all the Sathe were choosing to stay and fight. Over on the river, flat-bottomed barges being loaded with cargo and refugees headed off down the river. Occasional clusters of refugees were leaving by the main gates; going north in their search for protection.
Those were the outsiders; the ones from outside the Fres's clan. The majority of the towns population had found shelter on the untouched northern bank. It was crowded, but they were coping.
I leaned against the parapet to take some of the weight off my feet. They were almost healed, but I still treated them with respect. I turned around in time to see a Sathe messenger pop out of the stairwell... The clan lord wished to see me.
The messenger was a talkative Sathe, as well as curious. He asked me all the usual questions: What am I? Where do I come from? Am I male or female?
He shut up as we got near the centre of the keep. Four guards outside a set of reinforced oak doors sprang to attention as we approached. The messenger disappeared off down a side-passage, and the guards opened the doors as I approached.
And closed them behind me again.
"Sir," R'R'Rhasct greeted me in a small voice, her ears plastered back.
"You... !" I pulled up short when she stepped back, baring her neck to me.
"No! It was not her fault, sir."
I turned around to face Chirthi and a bemused Fen. Chirthi continued:
"We were only obeying orders," he saw me glance at Fen. "The others knew nothing about it... We did it for your own good."
I looked down at my fists and forced my hands to relax. "NEVER do that again! Ever!" I snapped through my teeth.
They said they wouldn't... I wish I could have believed them.
"IF you have quite finished," a cold voice interrupted. Another pair of double doors were open, a female standing between them.
She was wearing only dark green breeches, belted around her waist and fastened just above the knees by gold clasps. On her right arm there was another gold ornament, an armlet of fine gold wire that showed up well against her chocolate-brown fur. Her eyes glowed green from under a rust-red mane, and a silver earring glinted in the fold of her ear. Hanging at her waist, the hilt of a dagger protruded from its lacquered wooden scabbard.
Fres's. The Clan Lord.
The Sathe around me instantly adopted postures of submission; lowering their heads as her gaze swept over us. Her eyes locked with mine as I stared back at her, still silently fuming at R'R'Rhasct. The Clan Lord's ears flickered in amusement. "You are not a very docile one, are you. Now get in here!"
The room that Fres's led us into was a private study. A large desk sat before a fireplace and the wooden floor was covered with fur rugs. There were seats arranged around the desk.
"Sit down," Fres's told us as she settled down behind the desk, picking up a quill and absently stroking the feather. "You should have told me that... he," she indicated me with the tip of her quill, "is your commander."
"We felt that it would be easier for you to talk to someone normal," Fen said, then his ears flattened and he hastily apologised to me, "No offence intended, sir."
"None taken," I said. "I am really only an... uh... advisor. I command them in battle... but that seems to be the only time I hold any authority," I glared at R'R'Rhasct. She wrinkled her muzzle in hurt.
"Your wounds are healed?"
She ran her gaze over me again, staring at my clawless fingers and flat face. "That was a brave thing that you did, saving the child. You have the clan's thanks."
"Heroes do not usually live very long," R'R'Rhasct muttered.
The Clan Lord glared at her, "Do you have a reason for disliking what he did?"
The Green clicked her claws together nervously. "He has a knack for getting himself into trouble."
"So," I said, "They were ordered - by the Shirai - not to let anything happen to me. I suspect there was a punishment involved?" Neither Chirthi nor R'R'Rhasct could meet my eyes.
"Well," Fres's said grimly, "if she does not want you damaged, I would suggest you leave as soon as possible. If you will look at this:"
I leaned forward as she pulled a map out of a drawer in the desk and smoothed it out. "You see Weather Rock is here, on the Broken Claw river. Up here it turns into lakes while downstream it becomes even wider and the land becomes like mud. If you want to cross it is either here or three hundred kilometres upstream. I can tell you that first attack was their outriders. They must have nearly killed their llamas to make such good time because they are almost two weeks ahead of their main body... and as best we can tell that is about here," she stabbed a claw into the map. "About five thousand Sathe, I would say they are now about four days out and coming this way."
She spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness, "I know very little of warfare. The Fres's Clan have always been traders, not fighters. We are simply not prepared for an attack, as you have doubtless noticed.
"The other night your warriors had stopped those motherless bastards almost before our guards were out of their beds. Your troops have done a lot of work helping us ready our fortifications. You seem to know what you are doing." The next thing she said obviously hurt her pride, "I think it best for all of us that I leave the defence of Weather Rock to you."
"Thank you, High One," I nodded.
"Can your weapons stop them?" Fres's asked, and the Greens looked at me.
I walked across to the south-facing window. Even with what had been done to them, the pitiful excuses for town walls wouldn't hold that number for long. Beyond the walls, fields surrounded the town. Open fields stretching off for about one and a half kilometres until they ended in a solid line of trees. A single road led out of the forest.
"The guns will help," I said. "But they are not going to be enough just by themselves. Your town will be difficult to defend. Being on flat, open ground and with the walls..." I shrugged.
Fres's slumped behind her desk, "You do not have to stay."
"Hey, that is what we are here for, to help you" I said. R'R'Rhasct started to say something but changed her mind at a sharp look from me.
The Clan Lord flicked her ears wanly, "I thank you, but against five thousand, there is not much that you can do."
"Do not be too sure of that," I replied. "There is more we can do to make life difficult for them. Smaller numbers than ours have held off vastly larger armies for some time."
Fres's snorted. "But doubtless it was not in such an indefensible spot, and that is just part of the largest armies the world has ever seen."
"Not that big," I shrugged.
She stared at me then flashed an unsure smile; was that supposed to be a joke? The Clan Lord obviously wasn't sure. As if annoyed by that indecision, she dismissed Fen, R'R'Rhasct, and Chirthi.
"We will be outside," Fen told me. The last to leave, he closed the ornate double doors behind them.
Fres's bade me sit down again. "I am very curious about you," she said, coming around the desk and moving around behind me; a blur in my peripheral vision. "I had heard that the new Shirai had an... unusual favourite, but you..." The sentence trailed off.
I just stared at an ornament on her desk, a glass paperweight riddled with air bubbles. She was reflected in it, standing behind me, one hand resting on her belt near the dagger.
"The things that I have heard about you are difficult to believe," she said. "Are you truly from another world?"
"Have you ever seen anything like me on this one?" I replied.
A soft hiss of laughter. "No. Never in all my days."
I also grinned, then said, "You seem to know quite a bit about me."
"I have my sources," Fres's said. "There has been a lot said about you and your exploits. As your minder said, you have a gift for finding trouble."
The reflection in the paperweight shifted.
"As Clan Lord, I have a responsibility to my town," she said. "I have to know if there is any chance of holding the Gulf forces. I will not order my people to stand and be butchered for a hopeless task."
I rubbed my temples with my fingers. "So you put the burden upon my shoulders... I cannot make promises that they can be stopped, but there is a good chance we can delay them. At least until reinforcements arrive, but we are going to have to work on the walls. We have brought some materials with us, but we are going to need help from you: mainly labour, also some materials... Chirthi has a list."
There was absolute silence for a while, then a feather-light touch on my hair. "You will have whatever you need. We are not fighters, but we can learn."
Fight: How I was coming to loath that word.