THE HUMAN MEMOIRS
Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger;
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.
-High Country Weather
-1945 James K. Baxter
It was going to be close. The deadline was finally catching up with us.
Huh, deadline: perhaps not the greatest choice of words. Death was something I for one was trying not to think about. Now refugees trudged along mainstreet, whole villages and bedraggled individuals carrying what they could. They would beg food, but we how could we feed them all? We could only stand and watch the exhausted stream passing through the town. Some stayed; those incapable of going any further and those sick of running. The others just kept their eyes on the road and continued onwards. Some had fled from as far as the Savannah district; That's over four hundred klicks. It was like watching a procession of the damned.
That strike by the Gulf outriders was a mixed blessing. It gave us warning that they were close, and that Weather Rock was a target, but we'd lost buildings, resources, and all too many people.
Yet the Gulf Forces had come off even worse. The town had been littered with their corpses. Seventy three bodies, the majority of them scattered along the length of the bridge. We had a few prisoners, but they weren't very helpful and the Fres's interrogators hadn't had a lot of practice. All we could get out of them was their equivalent of name, rank and serial number.
Oh yeah. And most of them boasted about the Gulf army marching on Weather Rock. Tens of thousands of troops. Break us like a bone. Stand over our corpse. Etc. Fres's had lost her temper after the fifth. The next one who tried that died with his throat ripped out by her claws.
The midday sun was raising shimmering heat waves from the packed dust. The ramparts still swarmed with activity as carpenters and stonemasons laboured at reinforcing Weather Rock's flimsy fortifications. I stepped aside to let a couple of guards struggling with barrels of quarrels to pass, followed in turn by more Sathe carrying awkward bundles of crossbows.
I ducked into the south gate's barbican. Inside the tower the sounds of pounding hammers and Sathe shouting echoed up and down the circular stairwell. A female dashed down the narrow steps at a suicidal pace, sidestepping me in a grey swirl of fur, patches of green fabric, a spattering of claws upon raw stone.
The rooms in the gatehouse towers and the single gallery that ran above the gates - housing the winch for the portcullis - were filled almost to overflowing with casks and crates of water, food, quarrels, pitch, rocks, arbalest bolts, and oil. Several Sathe were arguing over a barrel, one of them brandishing a scrap of foolscap beneath the others' noses. Leaving them to sort it out for themselves I clambered up the wooden ladder to the fortified roof.
Already three arbalests had been put together and were squatting on the ramparts, looking like crossbows titans might use, their sweeping horns embracing the arc of landscape visible through the crenelle. Another was being built; a trio of carpenters cursing as they battled to string the massive fibre and gut bow. Overhead, heavy frameworks roofed with sandbags and half-rounds of timber shielded the ramparts from the heat of the sun and any heavy objects that might decide to drop in.
Beyond the town walls the road ran in a near-straight line to the point where it entered the forest, a couple of kilometres off. On either side of the road the fields were deceptively peaceful. Stalks of grain were sprouting in the fields and a few small farm buildings stood a good distance from the town's curtain wall. Those were the fields over which the Gulf forces would have to march to reach the town, and we had made sure that it would not be easy for them.
A few Claymores would've been useful. So would a few M1 tanks or Appaches. We had to make do with what was available.
The fields to the south of the town were sown with booby traps and obstacles of all types. Caltrops, sharpened spikes, punji stakes and pits, 'venus flytraps', abatis ditches, everything we could think of that would slow an attack. Close to the town the obstacles were even denser and anyone trying to clear them would come under rifle and MG fire. The road itself wasn't booby trapped, but the punji-filled trenches running along either side gradually closed in. It was a neat trick of perspective that concealed the constriction: where a row of ten Sathe abreast may enter the gauntlet, there would only be room for seven at the end. Guaranteed to screw up a concerted charge any day.
I pulled my dogeared notebook from a cargo pocket, flipped it open and ran a finger down the list. There were still a few items to be checked off.
"Sir?" A lieutenant of the Weather Rock guard stepped up and raised his muzzle in a salute. "The western wall reports that all is ready, but the eastern side is having trouble with the catapults. One of them tipped over: they are still trying to right it."
"Shift some of the engineers from the western side to give them a hand. And what about the river gates and clearing that wreckage away from the walls?"
"The chains and nets are in place," he reported. "Nothing is going to be coming down the river. The rubble around the south bank, that is going to take a while to clear away."
"Okay. How long until the rest of the supplies are stored?"
"I would guess at the end of this day, sir. But the crops were not ready. There will not be enough to withstand a long siege. Perhaps two months at the most."
Should be ample. "What about the positions on the corner towers?"
"Ah, those bags of sand are in place, as are the overhead shields. Extra strong as you ordered."
I nodded then dismissed him.
Things were moving smoothly. I guess I'm a pessimist, but I always felt it was going too well; any moment Murphy'd rear his head and it'd hit the fan. Of course we had our share of drawbacks, but thankfully nothing terminally major.
The Gulf army had to be close by now. The refugees and the few scouts we had risked sending out had come back with news of razed homesteads and villages in the wake of the army that advanced on us. Reports on their muster fluctuated between four thousand and eight thousand warriors. However all agreed that they were headed in this direction.
Already there had been encounters between Gulf outriders and the skirmishers we'd posted in the wilderness to the south of Weather Rock to ensure that Gulf spies didn't get close enough to take notes on the town's defences. There were only two small groups of town guards - no more than ten - but the two Greens per platoon made sure they could hold their own in a fight against a force four times their size.
Bipedal cats in fur, leather, and metal and armed with scimitars, accompanied by other felids in camouflaged battle dress slung with webbing, ammo pouches and carrying assault rifles is a sight that has to be seen to be believed.
But I've seen it, and even then it's difficult to swallow.
"How are things going here?" Lady Fres's stepped up beside me and looked out over her lands; standing straight, her hands linked behind her back.
"So far everything is on time, High One," I replied, pushing my hands into my pockets and following her gaze. There were still labourers out there, struggling to manoeuver an abatis into position. "Your people are hard workers."
"It is their home they are working to save," Fres's pointed out, wandering over to an arbalest and laying a hand on a curved tines. "You are placing great stock on missile weapons. Why did you have so many more crossbows built? Nearly a hundred more."
I nodded. "I want to keep the Gulf Realm at arm's length. They will outnumber us in trained troops. You know a lot of farmers and peasants cannot use a sword, but most of them are familiar with crossbows. A few hundred more archers in the right place at the right time will make a vast difference."
"I see you have made some changes."
"Uh-huh." I called a sentry over and took his weapon to show Fres's. "It is twice as powerful as the old design."
The Clan Lord hefted the weapon. "Heavier also." She tried to cock it and was barely able to pull the string halfway back.
"Here, it is easier with this," I grinned, tapping the lever built into the forestock of the bow. She fiddled with it briefly, then easily cocked the weapon, slotted a dart into place and took aim at a stanchion. There was a sound like a sharp handclap and red fletchings were sprouting from the post. That was all you could see of the bolt, it was buried over halfway into the wood.
"Saaa!" The Clan Lord hissed and bared her teeth in a toothy grin as she tossed the weapon back to the guard. "Alright. So we have better claws. How long do you think these will hold them back?"
I shrugged. "Until the sun went out if we had enough ammunition. But we do not, so I cannot really say. We do know they have about five or six thousand well armed and trained warriors, along with archers and engineers with siege engines and equipment. We do NOT know how well supplied they are, what reinforcements and equipment they may have."
"Agreed. What would be your best guess?"
"Perhaps two weeks... perhaps. Do not quote me on that."
She snickered; a throaty hiss. "Well, we shall make them pay for every handspan."
There was a shout of triumph as the carpenters struggling with the recalcitrant arbalest finally managed to string the bow.
Suddenly it all seemed remote, as though I were seeing the whole thing through someone else's eyes. The mottled gridwork of shadows cast by the frame above my head, the gape-toothed grin of the battlements, the faint heat shimmer of earth baking beneath the sun, the thunderheads on the horizon.
I could die here.
Away in the distance birds burst into the air from the sanctuary of the shady treetops. It was almost a full second before I heard what had startled them.
Then a long volley of gunfire. A brief lull, then the distant pops of automatic weapons on full auto. It slowly died out to the sporadic shot interspaced with rolling rattles of snapping.
Then Sathe were on the edge of the woods; tiny dots bolting towards the safety of the town walls. I watched as they covered the distance at top speed, long legs blurring, mouths gaping; over a kilometre in about a minute and a half.
Chirthi popped out of the trapdoor to the parapet of the gatehouse like a piece of toast from a toaster. Tongue lolling, he hitched the webbing of the rifle's carry-strap with a clawed thumb and pattered over.
The M-16 reeked of hot propellant.
"They are here," he announced; unnecessarily.
"WE didn't." He grinned and slapped the receiver of his weapon; claws clattered against metal.
Sathe citizens and warriors of Weather Rock were converging on the town walls as the news spread. The white noise of their massed voices rose in volume then abruptly there was silence, like the flipping of a switch on a radio.
The scouts came first. Cautious, nervous, they darted like wasps on the fringes of the treeline as they scoured the area for further ambushes.
Then came the rest.
Streams of Sathe soldiery - on foot, riding llamas, wagons, and carts - were leaving the confines of the road through the forest, spreading out across the fields, their numbers growing steadily until they stretched along the front of the forest. And still they came.
The afternoon stretched on and the sun traipsed lazily along on its arc across the slate-blue sky. As the shadows grew, long red and violet streaks dashed the clouds. The tiny sparks of campfires started to spring up in the Gulf encampment.
I hugged my jacket around me and shuddered in a breeze that came entirely from my mind. Shadows stretched and merged, gradually climbing up the trunks of the trees until only the crowns were illuminated in the twilight, then even that was gone as the sun finally sank below the horizon and there were only the fires of the Gulf Realm.
It was the kind of morning when even the sun seemed to have trouble rising.
A light mist covered the ground in grey tendrils of damp moisture. The air was perfectly still and chill. Droplets of crystal condensed on grey stone, making the walls greasy to the touch. I pulled my cowl a bit closer and watched through the approaching rider through the small cloud my breath made.
Leaving his llama huffing to itself he approached the town on foot. His red and black armour was clean and polished, without a buckle out of place. Three small chevrons embossed on a pauldron gleamed silver in the crisp morning light, denoting his rank. No scabbard hung from his belt; he appeared to be unarmed.
He did not look worried as he stopped, easily within earshot of the gatehouse.
"I want to speak to your commander!" he yelled.
Fres's had already been summoned. She looked at the small group of Greens standing around with weapons at the ready and stepped forward to the crenellation, drawing herself up to address the Gulf Messenger: "I am the Clan Lord of Weather Rock. You and your forces are in breach of all treaties between our Realms and I warn you, the consequences will be dire."
"For whom?" The other's ears dipped in amusement. "Hystf Fres's... Yes, we know you. My lords also know that your town has no chance against us. You are not fighters," he spread his arms in a gesture of supplication. "In their magnanimous generosity they offer you sanctuary if you surrender to us. This is sworn upon the honour of the S'erst Clan."
"I would speak with your commander," Fres's called. "If he is so sincere in his offer, why does he not come himself?"
"The Mharah has no wish for words with you, Fres's," the messenger bared his teeth in a savage grin. "You may have until noon to decide what your choice will be. Please choose carefully, there are five thousand warriors who eagerly await your decision." He snorted, turned his back, then raked his feet to scuff dirt in our direction before going back to his mount and riding off toward the dark ranks of enemy troops massed along the treeline.
Fres's sagged against the rampart, looking haggard and worried. Unfortunately the Furball on the llama was right; She was no fighter. The daughter of a merchant mariner - now deceased - she had made a successful career of trading and returned to her home to succeed the previous Clan Lord.
But this was never in the job description.
With the fate of the whole town resting upon her decision, she was scared and confused. Fres's turned to us with the muscles on the side of her muzzle twitching in a nervous tic. "He swears upon his Clan name," she said. "If we surrender they must keep their word."
"It stinks," I said. Surrendering to The Gulf Realm was not an attractive option, especially for me. Besides, I wouldn't trust him any further than a Bosnian Cease fire. "It is not Hraasa's style to offer terms."
"Huh! You are right," Fres's agreed. "But I think that he does not know about those weapons that you have. After that skirmish in the woods their commander knows we have some new weapon, but he is probably still certain that he can take Weather Rock. Probably expects us to be cowering in fear of sharing the same fate that the border towns faced, willing to surrender to him. Also he wishes to save himself the slight inconvenience that attacking us will bring. Also, there is little point in gaining a Realm if it is peopled with corpses and its buildings are gutted ruins."
I nodded. "I think he would be more worried that if we did stand against him, we would have time enough to fire the bridge and make sure it burns completely."
"But our forces need that bridge as much as they," Chirthi mused.
We had no idea of how far behind us reinforcements were, but any Eastern army that was following us would need that bridge to cross the river and mount their own offensive. If this arm of the Gulf forces took the town, they could delay the Eastern forces long enough for the other prongs of their army, moving northwards further inland, to swing in from behind.
All they had to do was take the town.
"I think that they will find Weather Rock a tough nut to crack," I grinned. "High One, we have decent defences and we have these," I slapped my palm against the receiver of my assault rifle. "Twelve of these firing can fire three hundred and sixty bullets at eight hundred a minute, every one of those is deadly. The larger weapons... they can turn any attack into vulture-food. That should make them think twice."
Chirthi backed me up: "It is true. At a distance one Sathe armed with one of these is more than a match for a hundred with swords. We wiped out an entire advance force of their elite scouts before they knew what was happening."
Fres's looked across at the bustle of the enemy encampment and grinned a Sathe grin, nervously running her tongue over her teeth. "You believe that we have a chance?"
"Twenty to one?" I returned her grin. "Yeah!"
True to his word, the Gulf officer returned - punctually - at noon. The sun was beating down on the battlements, the contingent of Eastern Sathe waiting shaded by the shields placed to protect archers from ballistic weapons.
The intermediary was squinting into the dazzling sunlight as he reined his mount up on the road below the gatehouse, not even bothering to dismount.
"You have had time enough to make your decision," the officer called up to us. "What will it be?"
Fres's scratched her jaw, then set her ears back and snarled, "You can tell your superior we reject your offer!"
The Gulf warrior leaned forward in his saddle and squinted up at us, twitching his ears. "Prize fools, ah? Your last chance. No? Ah, well, not to worry. It should not take us more than a day to walk over this hovel and urinate on your clan ground."
"You talk too much!" Fres's growled.
"You think that you..." the Sathe started to say and Fres's gave me a pointed glance and tipped her head toward the messenger.
I grinned, raised the M-16 and squeezed off three shots. Three spurts of dust kicked up in front of the llama and the animal reared as the rounds impacted, one ricocheting away with a ululating whine. The officer was thrown, landing heavily on his back. The llama bolted back down the road, away from the town.
Fres's spat at the groaning figure sprawled below. "You little piece of offal! Nothing here would abase itself enough to bow to festering cesspits like you. You can crawl back your superior and tell him that we will meet you in combat... if you are capable of it!"
With that done she opened her mouth in a hostile hiss, then spun and stalked off.
Soldiers lined the walls, laughing as they watched the Gulf warrior stagger to his feet. His armour was covered with ochre dust. Blood stained his muzzle: he'd probably bitten his tongue. He stared up at me.
I tipped my helmet back and grinned.
It certainly had an affect on the Sathe. He stood, staring, his ears down and mouth moving vaguely with words I couldn't hear, then he started retreating, stumbling backwards before turning and limping wildly back toward the Gulf camp, casting panicked looks over his shoulder as though he thought I was going to go after him.
The laughter of the Eastern troops on the walls of Weather Rock hissed after him like a mocking ocean.
The warning gongs sounded from the gatehouse, booming across the town. The Sathe cubs and elderly looked up at the sound, but stayed put, diligently spreading layers of linseed oil on the seams of the mass of cloth spread before them while I grabbed my equipment and double timed it to the southern gate.
Sathe at the base of the walls were already in action: loading catapults with the medieval equivalent of a beehive round, carting bushels of crossbow quarrels to the troops upon the battlements, boiling oil.
Other Sathe, Sathe who only a couple of weeks ago had been merchants, shopkeepers, farmers, craftsmen, they also hurried to their positions on the walls, all of them grasping their bows.
They had the numbers, but not the training. How would they hold up?
God help us !
The Gulf host was readying itself. Lines of their troops shifted and writhed as they formed into groups of fifty Sathe, six of them altogether. I frowned: three hundred, that was about a hundred more attackers than there were experienced defenders. That certainly wasn't large enough a number to ensure they took the walls. Why didn't they swarm in en masse?
What was Hraasa playing at?
"Testing us." R'R'Rhasct came up beside me to answer that question. "You have been a thorn in their feet for some time, and now they find you, they are not sure what you can do."
"If they keep coming as they are, I will put more than thorns in them," I muttered. I was still sore at the Sathe bitch, tense every time she was around. She must've known that, but she still talked to me, trying to be friendly. For some reason that in itself annoyed me.
I sighed and slapped a magazine into the well of the M16. "Everyone ready? Alright! We let the crossbows handle this lot. Have the archers fire in volleys. The Greens hold their fire unless they get within a hundred spans."
R'R'Rhasct grabbed her rifle and sprinted over to the group of Sathe who functioned as our communications centre, taking courier reports from the east and west ends of the walls. She had words with one of them and came back. "Everything and everyone is ready."
"All right. Now the next move is up to them."
I propped the M16 on a sandbag in the embrasure in front of me and squinted through the scope.
Officers were strutting around before their troops, waving swords and yowling, psyching them up.
R'R'Rhasct snorted something.
"What was that?" I asked.
"Conscripts," she repeated. "In the front ranks. There are a few elite there in the back, but the rest are rabble."
Cannon fodder. Almost made me feel sorry for them. Almost.
Now the Gulf scouting forces were advancing, slowly, then the lines began to break up as they began to rush the western end of the wall.
That charged faltered badly as they crossed the fields. That'll teach them not to scout the terrain properly: What looked like sprouting crops at a distance were in fact slivers of wood stuck in the ground. Those and the six-spined metal caltrops buried in the soft sod played hell upon unshod Sathe feet. Those pads might have been as tough as leather, but they couldn't stand up to sharpened iron spikes.
The charge faltered amongst curses and cries of pain. Their screaming officers got them going again, much more slowly.
I ducked as a crossbow quarrel clattered against stone near my head. Okay, that's far enough!
A shout sounded out along the parapet. Peaked ears appeared along the wall, weapons raised to crenelles. The snap of close on two hundred crossbows firing in a ragged volley was a sound like sharp applause. A cloud of quarrels rose, then fell again, following shallow arcs into the thick of the Gulf forces.
The Gulf archers had been firing at extreme range, their shots striking our positions with little accuracy. Our archers were a rag-tag bunch of farmers and traders fighting for their homes. They might not have had training, but most of them were quite at home with a crossbow. When hunting was a way of providing food, straight shooting often decided whether they ate or not. Along with that they had superior weapons, a height advantage, and a fortified position to ready their aim.
Screams sounded as near fifty Gulf soldiers were hit. The next volley - scant seconds later - claimed even more victims as the archers got their range.
This one got the Sathe officer. He jerked rigid, then doubled over clutching frantically at a spot just above his hip. Another bolt hit his leg, knocking it from under him, leaving him writhing in an incredibly energetic manner for a dying man... Sathe... whatever.
The Gulf assault wavered visibly. Despite the elite troops at their backs the forward ranks began to falter. Their archers had been cut down in those volleys.
Another swarm of arrows hissed out from the walls. And another.
Now, with little more than a quarter their original numbers left the attack crumbled, the ranks shattering and falling apart like a house of cards collapsing. Forward ranks pushed back, darting past the elite guards at their backs as they fled for their own lines.
The elite guards broke also, snarling. Toward us. All twenty seven of them, trying to push their way through a hedge of sharpened stakes.
To be cut down by a fusillade of quarrels that left them scattered where they fell, looking like so many multicolored pincushions. A few of them lived for over half an hour.
It was hardly a decisive victory, but it did wonders for morale. Any rumours that may have been circulating about the Gulf Realm being an unstoppable juggernaut had just been stabbed in the back. There were well over a hundred-fifty dead and wounded scattered out there like so many cast-off dolls.
"What the hell was that?!" I muttered in English, shaking my head.
"What?" R'R'Rhasct was standing right behind me.
"That fiasco," I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. "Whoever their commander is, he just threw away over a hundred of his troops, for no real purpose. He knew that there were not enough to successfully charge the walls. A fucking rout!"
"As I said, just testing our defences. Besides, now they are a hundred less."
"Yeah... Fantastic," I scowled.
It was late that day, the sun burning into a hazy, red, orb on the horizon. That first Gulf attack - little more than a cautionary probe - had been beaten off. Our casualties? A minor scratch.
Now they were preparing again. Would they fight all night? With their night-vision it was a possiblity. Shit! Our twelve Sathe qulified to use firearms couldn't stay on duty twenty-four hours a day.
Their troops were forming up again. Along a much larger front this time. Those units of fifty they'd used last time were being formed again, only many more this time. I counted twenty units. Several of them composed of archers. More of Gulf Regulars.
A thousand warriors. Perhaps one-fifth their number. They weren't screwing around.
Our crossbows had superior range but they obviously believed they'd be able to storm our positions. If crossbows were all we had there was no doubt they'd break through. As it was things would be tough.
I was nervous, sick to my stomach as I checked the M60 for the third time in an hour. I removed the barrel and switched it for one I'd taken off the last time I cleaned it.
A Green. Fasir. A lanky, barely post-pubescent cub. But he was a soldier, had been since he was twelve, and he was also turning out to be a damn fine shot. He ducked in under the heavy overhead of sandbags. "The other positions are ready. No problems." He was referring to the other M60 in its sandbagged embrasure on the western tower.
"Good," I nodded as I snapped the breech down on a round. "Make yourself comfortable. Now we wait."
Fasir settled himself down to my left, in a position to link and feed the fifty round belts into the GPMG. As my second, it was his job to make sure the links went in without a hitch. He crouched beside the gun, staring out along the barrel at the Gulf forces.
Drums boomed in the distance, the distorted echoes rolling across the fields towards us. Already carrion birds had found the dead: the dusk swarmed with black feathered bodies squabbling and fighting as they pecked and tore at fur and flesh.
"Sir?" Fasir asked without taking his eyes off the Gulf forces. "You ever afraid?"
I flashed a tight grin. "Hell yes. Be a damn fool not to be."
The tide of the Gulf swept forward, the troops breaking into a long-legged lopping stride that rapidly devoured the distance separating us. Swords were out of their sheaths, hundreds of them glittering in the setting sun as soldiers sprinted toward us. The traps took their toll, leaving screaming soldiers impaled on punji stakes in pits and ditches, but nobody had ever expected them to stop everything.
I drew a bead on a company of archers, took a breath, and fired and the muzzle retort was like a palpable force in the shelter. Sathe tumbled like ninepins as their legs were shattered, ripped apart. So sudden they just lay there, unable to understand what'd happened.
I raised my sights a couple of notches.
The stopping power of a 7.62mm round is awesomely lethal. The Sathe archers might just as well have not bothered with their armour. Machine gun fire from the other M-60 in the west tower ripped into their flank, decimating them. A higher-pitched clattering started as the Greens opened up with the M-16s and entire ranks of Sathe went down.
Beside me Fasir was coughing on the propellant fumes as he worked at linking the belts together and feeding them hand over hand into the pig. I slapped the stock of the weapon to bring it to bear on another target: elite guards. This lot were closer. I could see the effect the impacting rounds had.
An officer turned from seeing his troops being cut down by something they couldn't fight, turned and looked straight at my position as I fired. Through the haze and shock waves around the muzzle I saw flowers bloom on his chest and red spatter the dust behind him. Small, harmless looking red patches. He was kicked back several feet and bounced in the dust before lying still.
The gun ran dry. Fasir set up another case while I changed the barrel, already shimmering from the heat. Spent brass casings rolled around underfoot as I swung the weapon to find another target.
The Gulf forces were in complete disarray. Some were trying to push their way back through their lines while others were still trying to advance. I aimed at the largest congregation of troops. Finder on the other gun had the same idea.
Two M60s caught the same area in a crossfire. The effect was devastating. Rows of Sathe toppled like grass in a strong wind, but these ranks of flesh and blood stayed down. Sathe screamed and howled, trying to tun, some hugging the ground which was turning into a reddish, viscous mud. Had this been what the legendary charge of the light brigade had been like?
Pity the poor sods.
Through half a case of ammo I kept firing.
When - finally - the firing sputtered to a halt the silence was deafening. An acrid cloud of propellant hung about the gun, the stench of hot steel and brass stinging at my eyes. The Gulf attack was in full retreat, the field littered with their dead.
We'd hammered them badly, but how much ammunition had it cost us? A more than considerable amount of the limited 7.62mm stuff and a fair bit of the 5.56mm ammo for the M-16s.
At least it'd gone down the way I'd wanted it: to draw them into a serious assault, then hit them back hard. That'd slow them down a lot, buy us some time until our reinforcements arrived.
Fasir was also watching the fleeing gulf soldiery. His eyes were red-rimmed and watery, his nose running. The gun fumes in the confined space really didn't agree with him. He sneezed.
Along the battlements a mass howl rose after the retreating red and black uniforms. Weather Rock Sathe were dancing on the ramparts, yowling obscenities at the Gulfs' backs. They were alive while the ones who'd tried to kill them were dead. Can you blame their exuberance?
"You alright, kid?" I asked Fasir.
He rubbed his eyes, spat in distaste and flicked his ears. "I will live. Will it all be this easy?"
"We can only hope."
"They cannot take losses like that for long."
"Yeah. Unfortunately we cannot hold off attacks like that for too long. How much ammo did we use?"
He did a quick check. "Almost two cases."
I whistled. "A lot of lead."
"They will have trouble swimming."
I laughed at that. It broke the tension.
"Good work," I grinned, then slapped him on the shoulder and clambered out of that goddamned little nest of sandbags and half-rounds. The other Sathe on the tower were distinctly more disposed to approach Fasir with their congratulations rather than me.
Didn't bother me too much. You get used to it. I was content to lean against the wall and stare at the Gulf positions, wondering what they'd get up to.
"Hey, Chirthi. How did it go along there?"
"Incredible. Oh... we had one casualty. She took an arrow through the eye. Had her head in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"One..." I shook my head. "Could have been a lot worse. What about ammunition?"
"The small guns used maybe seven percent. The big one... about thirty at a rough guess."
"Ahhh... shit! Maybe they will not be stupid enough to try another couple of attacks like that one."
"If they do they will be climbing over their own bodies."
"But how many can they afford to loose?" I asked myself and went back to the wall, leaning against a merlon and staring at the enemy encampment. There was a small bunch of Sathe on llama-back out in front of their lines, I caught flash of light off glass; a telescope? Sathe had them - in fact Rehr had one in his study - but the clarity of the lenses left a lot to be desired. Whoever it was, they were watching us.
I lifted my M-16 to the parapet and squinted through the scope. So you're the opposition.
The central Sathe was holding something with a golden, metallic sheen to it. An expansive red cloak surrounded the body, but I got a glimpse of white fur on the head. The others in the group were military types; red and black armour with matching cloaks.
Lowering the rifle I squinted across at the enemy lines. At that distance they were indistinct, like dolls, but their uniforms stood out like sore thumbs. A real snappily dressed bunch. Officers.
How far? Two hundred yards? A little over probably. I raised the rifle again, propping it on a sandbag and fiddling with the sights. About right. I snugged the rifle into my shoulder, relaxing...
I hardly noticed the retort. Through the scope a second passed, then one of the llamas went down, taking its rider with it. Hastily the others reigned around and put some more distance between us.
The fallen officer struggled out from under his beast and raced after the others, leaving his mount on the road. I fired two more rounds without much effect. They were still over there, carrying on a very animated conversation. The central figure raised the spyglass, staring straight at me.
I gave a tight, humourless grin and waved back.
There was no moon that night. Heavy banks of clouds covered the sky, only a pale glow seeping through. In the gloom I could barely see two yards.
Lights glowed in the town behind us, friendly warm-orange windows and doors. Promises of warmth. On the walls there was nothing, not even a torch. Screwed up a Sathe's night vision and made them sitting duck to any enemy snipers who might try to sneak in. Still, on a night like that, even they couldn't see much.
"There you are." A shadowy figure approached me.
"Chirthi?" I squinted into the gloom.
"Yes. So, what do you see out there tonight?" He laughed.
"Very funny, I do not think."
He hissed. "I thought you had good eyes. Hitting a llama from this distance, that was impressive shooting. Tell me: was there a reason for that particular one? Ah, advisor to their commander, a?"
I smiled. "Well, it will make them keep their heads down." But it wouldn't stop them. Even now they were probably trying to sneak troops across the river upstream, downstream, anywhere they could. Cut us off eventually.
"Sir?" Chirthi broke into my thoughts, sounding uncomfortable. "Do you mind if I ask... Is it true that you were a... a quartermaster?"
I nodded: "Yes, among other things."
He used a single finger to scratch beneath his cuirass and grinned in the moonlight. "Somehow you do not seem like just a box pusher. I mean, that thing you are putting together in town, how did you learn to build something like that? You did other work?"
"I repaired machinery. I think you would call that an engineer." That didn't translate perfectly into Sathe.
"You built seige engines?"
"No, not those. There were other machines... We use them instead of wagons. Also things like..." I trailed off helplessly. "I think your speech does not have the words for them."
"Well, then where did you learn your strategy?"
"History is a good teacher," I replied, touching the cold stone of a merlon. Off in the distance a wolf howled and another even more distant answered. "I have been trained... and my kind has had a long time to learn about things like this."
His green eyes blinked at me. "You have not actually been in a situation like this before?"
"You have been in any kind of battle?"
"Only war games."
"Games?" He sounded incredulous. "You have not actually fought?"
I shrugged. "Our last war... well I never saw action. My unit was not assigned. The games were just larger versions of the exercises I had you do, more soldiers, weapons... all that. Our way of life is... different from yours, so we had to be taught things you would take for granted."
"Oh? Such as?"
"Hunting. Killing and preparing food."
He looked like I'd offered to shave him. "But that... who does not know how to do that?!"
Well, here perhaps. There were enough people back home who'd never had to kill anything in their lives. With all their food provided by others, their idea of roughing it is to park a Winnebago in a campsite and worry that they won't be able to use their satellite dish when the extension cord doesn't reach the outlet.
I shrugged. "Like I said, life is... was different."
"You miss it?"
"What, with all this to keep me busy?" I waved a hand at the town and battlefield somewhere out there in the dark. "Yes."
Chirthi's ears flickered then settled down, slanting backward slightly: Caution. "You often go off to be alone, sir." His tongue flicked around his thin lips and he scratched his muzzle with a clawtip. "You are uncomfortable around us?"
"It is not that simply put." I turned and leaned my forehead against the cool stones of the wall. "It is not you personally, it is just that sometimes... I do not know how to say it; I need time to sort things out with myself." I paused, then added. "Sathe are strange."
He hissed. "You find US strange?"
I shrugged. "You have lived with it all your life. I am always finding out new things about you. Some of the things I learn are... disturbing, such as childbirth."
"Ahh," his head rocked back a touch, a stiffening of his posture, then: "It is not proper to talk about that." I saw him glance toward me, "Your kind do not... that does not happen to you, does it."
There was another silence. There was a thin mist forming in the darkness, moisture falling from the clouds. Droplets were beading on his pelt, glittering in the tufted fur of his ears like minute pearls, scattering when his ears twitched. "Did you hear that?"
Nothing but a few voices back in the town, rattle of a wagon as supplies were moved from damaged warehouses.
"Rot it! I heard something. Voices, out there."
"You see anything?"
"Uh... No. Plagues! I heard it!"
I hadn't heard anything, but I wasn't one to question a Sathe's hearing; as good as their night vision. I couldn't compete, but I could compensate. I snapped open a cargo pouch and produced the flare pistol. "Do not leave home without it". The orange plastic gun kicked in my hands and a trail of smoke snaked up into the darkness above the fields.
Even through the mists the flash of light was dazzling. A red sun hung in the sky, spitting sparks and smoke while casting blood-red light on the ground below. The four Gulf troopers out in the fields were thrown into sharp relief, freezing motionless in surprise and fear. The three wounded soldiers they were trying to drag back to their own lines must have been lying there all day. They were covered in muck: dried mud and blood. Those of the conscious ones stared back at me along the barrel of the rifle, another closed his eyes and kicked feebly with his legs, whimpering something.
I took my finger off the trigger. They were unarmed and unarmored and in no condition to fight anyway.
The flare drew attention from both camps, guards shouting and running to see what the commotion was. Eastern sentries leaned over the battlements, waiting for me to blow the Gulf Sathe to hell and back. I didn't, I lowered my gun and shouted out, "YOU! GET YOUR WOUNDED AND GET OUT OF HERE! GO ON, MOVE!"
The flare sputtered and died and the darkness rolled back in.
"Are they going?"
Chirthi squinted into the darkness. "I think so... yes. Why did you do that?" he hissed.
I slipped the safety on again. "They were unarmed. It could not hurt to let them reclaim their wounded."
"But that is crazy! We are trying to kill them and you help them?!"
I sighed and leaned against the wall, damp stone soaked my jacket. "Also, if we let them take their wounded back, they have to look after them, do they not?"
He turned and flicked his ears in an amused smile. "So they have still more useless mouths to feed. More of a strain on their resources and supplies."
I looked at him and twisted my mouth. I had a sudden craving for a cigarette. "Yeah, that too."
My eyes snapped open as soon as I felt the touch on my shoulder, my heart jumped into my throat, my fist stopping before I decked the Green. I'd grown touchy; three days with about six hours sleep all told was beginning to take its toll.
"What the fuck do you want?!" I rasped. My mouth tasted like a stable floor.
"Apologies, High One!" he blurted. "Sir, R'R'Rhasct sent for you. It is important."
"Uhnn," I muttered, sat up, swearing as I struggled into my boots. "Okay, where to?"
The guards at north gate had spotted the wagon as it approached the town not ten minutes ago. There was nobody driving it, the llamas pulling it just ambled up to the gates at their own lazy pace and began rooting up grass.
Now it rested just inside the gate, a few guards in a wide circle around it.
I gave it a second look. Just a wagon: wooden, with spoked metal-bound wheels, two llamas... Whatever was in the bed was lumpy, immoving, and covered by a stained burlap tarpaulin. There was no sign of any driver or passengers.
R'R'Rhasct intercepted me as I approached. Her ears were drooping and there was an expression on her face that I can only describe as glazed. "We are cut off," she said. "There are Gulf forces to the north. Probably not many at this time, but enough to stop caravans going through."
"You are sure?"
She hooked my elbow and drew me to the back of the wagon. There was a fetid, heavy stench that stuck in the back of my throat. When a couple of guards pulled the tarp back a cloud of flies rose into the air. I gagged, the smell was overwhelming. It took a while before I understood what I was looking at.
Eventually the garish lumps lying in there - mounds streaked and ribbed with red, yellow-white, and purplish-blue - focused: There an arm, a head resting on a leg. Five Sathe, four adults and a cub.
They'd been skinned. All of them had been skinned.
My last meal tried to climb back up.
"Their teeth," R'R'Rhasct said in a flat voice. "Their teeth and their claws. Gone. Trophies, decorations."
I gagged and turned away as my stomach leapt, clutching the side of the wagon and breathing hard to keep my last meal down. R'R'Rhasct caught my arm, led me away from the grisly scene. "You alright?" she asked.
"Y... yes," I choked. "Give me a minute." I sat down heavily on a porch fronting one of the buildings lining main street. "Oh, shit."
"You were right," she said. "They are around behind us. We are cut off. We do not know how many of them there are. We cannot afford to escort caravans out of the town..." she trailed off. Her pink tongue whipped around her thin black lips and her leathery nostrils flared.
I nodded. Unless we got reinforcements, we weren't going anywhere.
"Sir," she said. "I am sorry you had to see that. I did not know you would be so badly... affected."
I shook my head. "No. You did right. It gives me a reason to fight them." I looked at the sky, then dropped my head into my clenched fists. "Damnation! They were Sathe. They were people!" I hissed.
The Sathe's eyes went wide. "Rhasct," I grated. "If any Sathe under my command treats a prisoner like... like that, I swear I will have his ears for a necklace! Spread it!"
The M60 hammered and Sathe howled and tumbled to the dirt. I shifted my aim to a clump of enemy infantry and clamped the trigger back, the spent brass ringing off the stones beside me.
They were trying again. This time at least trying to plan their attack: a massed, two-pronged attack at the east and west corners of the town walls where the least amount of firepower could be brought to bear. The problem with that manoeuvre was that they tended to bunch up, presenting choice pickings for the Greens and their automatic rifles and GPMGs.
A crossbow quarrel thunked into a nearby sandbag. A nearby green took aim and felled an archer who was busy recocking his bow. They had advanced beyond the punji spikes even though many of them had been left clutching their feet and limping wildly, but there were more surprises.
Give them full marks for guts though! Or stupidity. The regulars charged forward, into the teeth of automatic fire, then they hit the covered trenches. The front lines just vanished as the ground collased under their feet and the close packed ranks behind them tried to stop or jump the sudden hazzard. Some stopped, some teetered, then went over. The trenches were too wide to jump.
And they were lined with three-foot long spikes. You could hear the screams from the walls. Like dropping a bag of cats into a food processor.
It was enough to make the Gulf Charge falter. Soldiers stood on the sides of the trenches, just staring, trying to find a way across. Some were reaching down, trying to help comrades out even as quarrels and bullets rained down on them. They had guts, but whatever nerve they had deserted them when the balloon went up.
As big as a house, it rose over the buildings of Weather Rock. A patchwork canopy climbing into the still evening air, swaying slightly in an errant breeze. It steadily lifted, higher and higher, until it was hanging a hundred metres above the town.
For the Gulf forces it was the final straw. Many threw down their arms as they turned and fled. One by one, the defenders on the walls realised that the Gulf soldiers were running from something behind them. They turned and stared at the balloon floating above their town, not a few of them looked like they were about to go over the walls after their enemies.
I tipped my helmet back to stare up at the balloon. "Well, I'll be damned, it works!"
Getting it put together in time had been a real bitch. To start with, the Sathe don't have silk, not real silk. How can they? The caterpillars that produce the silk don't exist in the States, not in this world nor mine. The closest they can come is a tight-woven, lightweight cotton that doesn't hold air that well by itself. But lacquer it with a coat of the varnish Sathe make from pine gum and it'll hold air well enough to get you off the ground. What with the weight of the bag, the thing couldn't take much in the way of a payload, but it could manage an observer and enough fuel to keep it up for a while. Provided the weather decided to cooperate. For intelligence it was invaluable, giving us a birds eye view of the entire battlefield. We knew what the Gulf forces were up too almost as soon as they did. We could pinpoint troop concentrations and foresee just where they would strike next. That gave us the time to move arbalests and mangonels into position along the walls.
It also gave us the first warning of the worst news possible.
From the gondola of the balloon I watched in dismay as more ranks of Sathe marched from the forest road. Reinforcements; swelling the diminished ranks of the Gulf army beseiging Weather Rock. Tendrils of soldiers were making their way eastwards, forming another camp downstream from us. In the town below Sathe were crowded along the ramparts, watching the enemy reinforcements in silence.
There were a hell of a lot more than five thousand; eight, maybe nine thousand at a guesstimation. Where had they come from? I guessed that the Gulf armies were sweeping up through Eastern territory in three prongs, maybe more. We had stopped one of those prongs, and now another had joined it; whether through a request for reinforcements or a prearranged meeting, I didn't know.
I sighed. At least the air up there was clean. Down at ground level the miasma from the dead of war was noticeable all the time, at its worst around midday. Up there the stink the coke fire burning above my head. I looked across at the Gulf encampment, a hollow feeling settling inside me. Maybe we could hold them for a bit longer, but not forever. Never forever. It was only going to be a matter of time. A gust of wind set the basket rocking gently, creaking. For a few seconds I eyed the guy rope: it'd be so easy to cut it, float away over another world.
Yeah, it'd be easy. Shaking my head I waved to the ground crew way below. The balloon bobbed once, then started to descend.
Someone over there, maybe the commander of the recent reinforcements, had started to use his grey matter.
Trenches and low walls of earth braced with wooden beams zig-zagged their way across the fields to where Gulf troops laboured at raising bulwarks against rifle fire. They'd learned to keep their heads down when they discovered that three hundred metres is not an M-16's maximum effective range. Nobody bothered - or dared - to recover the bodies, they still sprawled on the earthen breastworks that grew hourly.
Now they stretched in a gentle crescent the width of the town, east to west.
Again, thank god for our eye-in-the-sky. From the walls - even the three-story ramparts of the Keep - it was impossible to see what was going on behind those bulwarks. From over a hundred metres above the town it was obvious, but there wasn't much we could do about it.
With a crack and spray of granite chips, a rock the size of my head struck the top of the wall and pulverised a merlon. Another arced over and kicked up a dusty cloud as it impacted the packed earth of the courtyard. A soldier was being carried off, screaming and thrashing with a smashed leg.
The battery of Gulf catapults were hidden from line of sight behind hastily constructed breastworks. I could see their spotters giving directions. There was a volley of muffled thumps and dark shapes curved towards us.
I ducked back behind a merlon as stones clattered against the wall. There were muted impacts as more hit the sandbags over our heads.
Chirthi looked across at me from behind his piece of cover. "So, what do we do now?"
"I am working on it. Can our catapults hit those things?"
He peered around the stone. "Only with small stones. They may crack a few skulls, but nothing we could throw would have much effect on their machines."
"Even if we could, they would simply build new ones," R'R'Rhasct pointed out.
"How many have they got?"
"Last count: fourteen. They fire them in volleys."
Another projectile flew in with a whirling hiss to shatter against the wall, knocking another merlon loose. The piece of fortification tumbled out of sight.
Shit! You ever have one of those days... ?
I tipped my helmet off and scratched my head. I needed a bath. "Okay, the Sathe using those things, they are their engineers? The ones who build their equipment?"
"Then we will have to take the catapults and their operators out at the same time."
"Wonderful, "Chirthi said. "Just one question: How? You have an idea?"
"Uh-huh." I surveyed the town for a few seconds. "Okay, get the balloon up with a spotter crew and get the catapults ready and crewed." Messengers scampered off into the town.
"Alright, Chirthi," I said, slapped my hand on his shoulder to pull him along. "I will explain on the way."
The smoke-stained wall - all that remained of what had once been a house - shattered under the impact of a boulder. I heard the crack and turned in time to see Sathe scurrying clear as the two story shell of a building slowly folded down on itself in a rumble of falling masonry and a rising cloud of dust.
Weather Rock mangonels thumped in response, sending stones sailing back at the Gulf lines on lazy, graceful arcs to land with inaudible thuds and puffs of dust against the Gulf breastworks.
Gulf soldiers waved back at us, their jeers carrying on the wind along with the stench of rotting carrion.
I leaned back against merlon and squinted up at the balloon, the chaos of colors, like a patchwork beachball against the bottomless blue of the sky. I patted the M-60's forearm assembly then swung the weapon up to settle it on a sandbag. About forty metres out. Dial the sights. Ease breath out, hold it, relax, first pressure, adjust aim, squeeze...
Muzzle flash burst and the Gulf trooper flipped over backwards. Instantly the others were down in the mud, scrambling back for their lines. The one I'd just hit was still kicking, the round had been a little low.
I ducked back behind the merlon and yelled down to the Greens in the courtyard behind the south gate, "Down, three marks."
Finder waved back to me. "Ready!"
I gave the signal: "Fire one."
The hollow phthonk of a 81mm mortar firing echoed off the town walls like a firework in a trash can. Seconds later a blur plunged down into the Gulf fortifications. The blast of high explosive sent a cloud of dust fountaining into the air. I could see a log flip upwards, tumbling end over end to hit the ground and cartwheel to a standstill like a caber. Perhaps the throwing arm from a catapult.
In the balloon above us a spotter sent the signal 'on target'. A lucky first shot. The spotters changed their flags, waving out corrections to the mortars.
There were more distant thumps and a volley of heavy boulders slammed into the walls, knocking masonry loose. I saw one knock a chunk out of the corner of the gatehouse where it rose above the walls, spraying chips of pulverised rock and clouds of mortar on the parapets below.
The three mortars fired more volleys, one after the other, in a dozen raggedly spaced coughs. Sathe cavorted on the walls, howls and yelps of triumph rising as the rounds burst along the length of the Sathe trenches. Columns of dust and smoke rose and spread above their fortifications, drifting down like a black fog as the concussion of the blasts died beyond even the rolling thunder of echoes. Sathe emerged from the haze; just a few, dazed and wounded, hauling themselves over the breastworks to lie twitching in the mud and trampled grain.
From the balloon I heard a cry, "In their heart!" The flags waved directions for the next volley: down fifteen marks, left two.
A single mortar thumped. The round struck further back, amidst the tents and pavilions of the Gulf camp. Again the spotters waved corrections and again the mortar fired; five more times. The Weather Rock catapults joined in, lobbing grenades over into the Gulf positions, the sharp explosions mixing with the blasts from HE mortar shells. Even when the mortars fell silent - with only a few rounds left - the catapults continued firing. Sathe, male and female, stripped in the heat of the day, laboured to haul down the ponderous oak arms. The whole assembly kicked like a mule when those arms slammed up, one after the other, three more volleys of six grenades. Then more towers of smoke were climbing toward the sky; screams wailed across the fields.
In their heart!
Two hours later and trails of oily smoke were still rising from the Gulf seigeworks, the sounds of panicked shouting shrilling on the air. Chirthi turned his furry back on the panorama and regarded me with bright eyes. "What other tricks have you got hidden away?"
"Not enough," I ran my fingers through greasy hair. "I saw the Gulf messenger. What was that about?"
"They wish to parley and Fres's accepted the offer."
"Uh," I nodded. "Good. At least we can buy time." A thought struck me and I bit my lip. "That WAS her reason?" I asked. "Just buying time? She does not plan to..."
He turned and led the way toward the southern gatehouse. "I think so sir, but..." he broke off.
"But what?" I prompted.
"She has to consider her people. There is the chance - however remote - that perhaps she does wish to surrender, despite her oaths to the Realm."
"I think that she is not the type for that," I replied. She had already defied the Gulf Realm, and seriously pissed them off. If she surrendered, they might just pound the Fres's clan into the dust from sheer spite.
"I hope you are a good judge of character, because there is now no doubt that the Gulf realm would do anything to get your knowledge."
"It is one thing to have the mind, but it is another to find out what is inside it," I grinned at Chirthi with a lot more confidence than I felt.
He didn't look convinced. "Failing that, I think Hraasa would be satisfied to have you impaled and roasted over a spit."
I grimaced. "Thanks. Hey, if something does happen to me, make sure that Rehr knows about it. It is very important. All right?"
He bowed his head: "As you wish."
Fres's was waiting at the southern gate along with several of her lieutenants. I caught the scroll she carelessly tossed me and stared at it helplessly. The Clan Lord looked surprised when I ruefully told her I could not read.
"Their lord says that he wishes to meet on the road halfway between our camps. There are to be no more than five in our party," she looked at me, "and it must include you and myself."
Going out there. Finally face to face with the bastard who'd put me through hell and back. I felt my heart lurch and glanced toward the heavy wooden gates. "You are agreeing, High One?"
"Do you wish to surrender?"
She hesitated before answering: "I do not know. You have seen their new forces arriving, they have siege engines and many thousands of fresh troops." Her claws punched through the paper she was holding, "Unless you know of a way to stop them cold... No? I did not think so; and your weapons will not stop them forever. If nothing else, I may be able to give us some time."
"Do you really think they will offer reasonable terms?"
"No, but I have to search every branch for a solution," she rubbed her muzzle. "Are you willing to accompany me?"
I nodded. "Yes."
"Sir!" Chirthi protested. "You cannot..."
"Yes I can!" I snapped, wiping my hand across my face, bringing it away covered in grime.
"You don't trust that turd?"
"No, I don't. There is something I need from the barracks..."
R'R'Rhasct's yowling shriek echoed off the walls behind us as our small group rode out of the gatehouse.
"I told you she would not be happy," Chirthi muttered.
I glanced back over my shoulder. "That was a good reason for not letting her know." Felt good to get back at that furball for what she'd done to me. Behind us, I could hear Sathe voices howling in argument as R'R'Rhasct tried to persuade the wardens to open the gate. They had their orders and they stayed shut.
The smell around us became incredible as we passed through the centre of the battlefield, the Sathe riding and me walking: nothing would persuade me to try and ride a llama. I'd look ridiculous. Besides, it was extremely doubtful they could carry my weight any distance. Flies buzzed around bloated corpses, what remained of the casualties from earlier battles after the scavengers had eaten their fill. Flesh had putrefied, turned to black slime. Faces from which the fur had fallen swollen and black, bone and eye sockets and rib cages squirming with maggots and decaying flesh. More recent cadavers were still recognizable as individuals, unseeing eyes - their third eyelid half drawn in death - staring at us.
I shuddered and turned my head away, to see the same view on the other side. The Sathe were gasping through their mouths and for once I pitied their superior sense of smell.
As we drew further away from the town, the stench grew less. It was by pure misfortune that the town lay on the down side of the prevailing winds. In the distance ahead we could see riders setting out from the Gulf camp to our south.
"There are more than five of them," Chirthi observed glumly.
"They're holding the cards," I said. The Sathe all looked at me. "Forget it."
The two parties stopped a goodly distance away from each other. Nine warriors in their black and red armour cloaks, all carrying swords and bows at the ready, spread out across the road while their leader rode forward to meet Fres's halfway.
Hraasa. Hraasa, the enemy I had plenty of reasons to fear and hate but had never seen. Now I was looking at him. I wasn't that impressed.
True, as a High Lord, an autocrat in the Sathe aristocracy, he was larger than most, but beyond that he wasn't staggeringly exotic. A patch of silver-white fur on his muzzle made an arrow targeted on his broad nose, but otherwise his fur was an unobtrusive fawn. His armour was a matt black that seemed to soak up the sun. Hot.
The wind whirled small clouds of dust over my boots as I stood and waited for something to happen.
Finally Hraasa laid his ears back slightly and looked down his nose at Fres's. "I am glad that you decided to listen to our terms, Fres's."
"I had nothing better to do," she replied just as easily, as if talking to an old acquaintance. How many noticed one corner of her thin lips curled to show a flash of white? "What is it that you want?"
"I want to know why you continue to resist us," he snapped, all pretence of amicability vanishing under the sodium harshness of his glare. "You know that you cannot win. We have thirteen thousand warriors and engines of war. More than enough to level your pathetic town to rubble.
"I am not ungenerous. I am offering you the chance to Any of your warriors who accept my amnesty will be gladly welcomed and well treated. Surely you do not want to be responsible for the complete demise of the Fres's Clan."
"The Fres's Clan has chosen, unanimously, to fight you," Fres's replied; level and cool. "You have played games with honour, you have murdered, stolen, lied, raped, and destroyed. There is no way that I would surrender our cubs to your soiled claws."
He bowed his head slightly. "Only an idiot would claim that war is a clean exercise," he said. "Those traps that litter the ground outside your walls, are they honourable? I think not. We are taking back the land that is rightfully ours. I know when you stole it from us, you showed us no mercy."
Fres's looked incredulous. "That was so long ago there are not even any records. Our Realms did not even know of each other's existence! And there was no mercy needed; there was no fighting. That land was empty! You cannot claim what no-one owned!" Fres's spat.
"Temper; outbursts like that do not become you," the other growled. Then looked over Fres's' shoulder, seeing me as if for the first time. "I have heard much about this creature, Clan Lord, but it is even stranger and uglier in the flesh. You: come here!"
I looked at Fres's. At her beckon, I reluctantly handed my M-16 to Chirthi, then stepped up alongside Fres's'. All the Gulf warriors stared at me and I tried to ignore them.
"You have caused me much pain," the Gulf commander told me.
"You should talk," I replied coldly.
His eyes widened slightly, then he flickered his ears in amusement. "Ah, you speak better than I had expected. Do you know that when I was told that a monster had saved the life of Tahr ai Shirai, I had those responsible for the failure executed? Huh..." He shook his head.
"I can believe that," Fres's muttered.
He ignored her. "Your name is K'hy? Yes? Good. You see, I endeavoured to find out as much about you as I possible could when I learned that indeed you did exist. You would be most interested to find out how that came about." He cocked his head to one side; inviting me to ask.
"How did you learn?" I asked through clenched teeth.
"There was a commotion on the docks one day. A fishing boat had come in with a strange catch; a yellow boat literally made from air, and an incredible creature," he said, then grinned at me. "Unfortunately we did not realise how ill the creature was. We took his reluctance to cooperate as belligerence; He died in our... care."
I felt numb, hollow. I gritted my teeth and said nothing. A man. Another human, and he had killed him. That HURT!
"Tell me," he continued. "Why do you fight for the Eastern Realm? I can offer you great power, wealth, whatever you wish."
It was my turn to laugh; grimly. "What I want, you cannot possibly offer."
"You wish to return home?"
"You have done your homework." First Fres's and now him. Was there a book out about me or something?
He tipped his head quizically but didn't ask, instead said, "Why do you oppose me? This war is really none of you business you know. It is a Sathe affair, Outsider."
"No," I shook my head. "You made it my business. It has been my business since I came here and witnessed murder. It has been my business since you had me drugged and kidnapped, beaten and tortured. You would not leave me be. I had to take sides."
He wrinkled his muzzle, the silver fur rippling and the thin black lips drawing back in a grin, "But if you are killed here, then what will become of your female?"
That jolted me again. "If something happens to either of us, you will be the one to regret it."
He looked amused. "I doubt that you have that kind of power."
"You have no real idea of what powers I have," I grinned deliberately. "I have made sure that should we fail here, the Eastern Realm will be even more powerful."
He smiled lazily. "If indeed you do have such powers, why do you not use them against us?"
"Perhaps it is because I have a... conscience. Should I become responsible for the death of not just these thousands, but untold millions in the future, I would be no better than you."
"Ah, very noble," he grinned. "Yet you would happily decimate our brave troops with your weapons."
"Not happily," I replied. "Never happily. But I would rather kill those I consider my enemies than have my friends killed."
"You would consider THESE your friends?"
I looked at the Eastern Sathe lined up behind me, then turned back. "Yes."
"What do you see in them that is lacking in us?"
"Do you really want a list?"
That got him. His jaw tightened and ears trembled; Looked like he wasn't used to people talking back. "Fres's," he hissed to the Clan Lord. "There is another path that you may take, one that should be more appealing to you. I offer you the chance to end this war here and now.
"Look around you, look at the death. You can also see that your town really has no chance. You are their Clan Lord. It is your duty and your honour to protect them, to let them live. You can still do this."
I could see the truck coming.
Fres's bit: "How?"
"Simply give this... this abomination into my hands."
It wasn't such a surprise but my heart lurched then began a staccato dance against my breastbone.
The Gulf Lord continued without so much as a blink: "I swear - as I am willing to before an assembly of Clan Lords of all realms - that all our forces will return to the Borderland River and the southern provinces will be acknowledged as belonging to the Eastern Realm.
"Think of it Hystf ai Fres's. You could end this fighting simply by handing the outsider into our care."
It was bait well chosen and Fres's nibbled like a trout after a dry-fly. It was me or her Clan. I looked at her sitting as though frozen on her tooled leather saddle. It was her decision.
I knew, as I had never been certain about anything, what it would be like if Hraasa got me. I don't claim to have much of a threshold for pain and Hraasa had had a human. There had been time for him to have his little games. He would know how I worked, what made me tick... what made me scream.
And there were their drugs.
Perhaps deep down that scared me more.
Perhaps I could beat torture, but chemicals... I didn't know.
Damnation, they're chemists before their time. Their thamil would knock me cold with just a whiff. They had other concoctions to paralyse, neuromuscular paralytics that would disconnect the brain from the muscles, opiates that would leave me babbling at clouds for hours afterwards. They had other substances - more refined and effective - that they used on each other. If they had anything like thiopentone sodium...
I couldn't fight something that ate away from the inside, leaving me malleable like a piece of wet clay on the potter's wheel.
Eventually Hraasa would have what he wanted from me, then the Gulf Realm would be back, swarming over the Eastern Realm like ugly on a bulldog.
And Hystf ai Fres's knew this.
And she hesitated.
"Think," Hraasa goaded, his voice becoming silky-smooth. "The chance to finish this dying lies in your claws; simply reach out and grasp the opportunity!"
The Clan Lord of Weather Rock clenched her right hand, then flexed it and gazed with slitted eyes at the tiny opalescent scythes that curved from her fingertips as Hraasa's words washed over her.
"Why do you hesitate, Fres's? Do you place this creature above the safety Clan, above the lives of your cubs? What Outsider can mean so much? You heard it say it has the ability to destroy us, yet it chooses not to. Instead it plays games with your people, watching them die to save its own miserable hide." Hraasa smiled slowly, smugly. "I leave the decision in your hands. Decide, Fres's."
She made her decision.
"Hraasa, you can shove it."
Hraasa's ears shot up. He must've been as surprised as I was. Where the hell had she learned that? She must have overheard something I said.
"That means no?" Hraasa asked.
"Then I think this meeting is at an end," the Gulf Commander said, nodding slightly in a token gesture of respect. Fres's returned the hollow honour and reined her llama about. I turned to follow but was stalled by the Gulf Lord's soft voice, for my ears only:
I stopped and turned to him.
"A gift from your fellow creature." He pulled a small bundle out of a pouch at his belt and threw it. The bundle unrolled in the air, dumping the contents on the ground.
A severed hand lay there in the bleached dust; a human hand.
I just stared at it, not quite believing what I was seeing.
"I thought that you would like to know his hide is still intact... excepting that piece of course," Hraasa continued. "A shame the skin is so delicate though; it makes stuffing that much harder. At this time his hide is the centrepiece of attraction in the great hall, the rest of him... really, he was delicious."
The words took a second to sink in, then I slowly raised my head to stare at him, the shock turning to anger.
"You... did not."
He grinned, then ran his tongue around his lips.
"You... you Motherfucker!" The one step I took toward him was all the provocation he needed.
One smooth move and the Gulf commander was holding a stubby .38 revolver. For a split second I was staring down a muzzle that to me seemed the size of a cannon's bore, the savage grin of Hraasa behind it.
Even as I tried to dodge thunder exploded in my face, burning pain and another hammer and dirt and dust was choking me while I gasped for a breath that wouldn't come. Another hammer...
"Get him inside! No, gently! Gently! ... over there! Where is that festering physician! Hurry!"
Hands caught at me and every muscle in my chest tried to tear itself apart. I was aware of being carried, then the heat of the sun was cut off, as was the noise.
"How is he? I had no idea that..."
"You! Because of you this happened! Look at him! His death is something you are going to have to explain to the Shirai!"
The voice sounded familiar, and it was annoying me.
My face burned, my mouth was swollen, sore, and filled with a metallic taste. Every shallow breath hurt.
"Fool! You had your orders not to let him risk himself, but what do you do? You go and..."
There were other sounds in the distance: The muted sibilants of Sathe shouting, the bleat of llamas, the distant bustle of the town. That voice was familiar:
"Rhasct," I croaked. "Shut up."
She did - abruptly - then hands touching my cheeks. "K'hy?"
I opened my eyes, staring straight into her astonished face. Chirthi looked just as surprised.
"K'hy?" R'R'Rhasct wiped fingers down my chin: they came away red. "Bring water!" she snapped at a guard who disappeared out the door. I was lying on a stretcher in a small room with solid stone walls, cool air. The gatehouse?
I moved my arm and moaned out loud. Damnation! This is what a punching bag must feel like. My entire front felt like a single bruise, my head throbbed in time with the lights in front of my eyes and there was an overwhelming taste of copper in my mouth.
I felt fantastic.
"Stay still," R'R'Rhasct urged, pushing me back. "Do not move."
"Bullshit!" I mumbled again. My nose... shit, it felt like it was broken. That explained the blood. With a groan I sat up and started fumbling with my cloak. "Oh, shit! Chirthi, help me with this."
He started to, but R'R'Rhasct slapped a hand into his chest, stopping him, "You have done quite enough..."
"Rhasct!" I said softly and she shut up. She watched as Chirthi helped me remove the cloak and shirt; he had to cut them away as I couldn't lift my arms without pain. Two Sathe - one a guard and the other a physician - hovered in the doorway.
"He knew what he was doing," Chirthi said.
The Kevlar and glass-fibre flak vest had stopped the .38 softnosed rounds, spreading the shock of their impact out across my entire torso. The bullets hadn't penetrated, but my entire chest was burned and bruised. Better than dead any day. Chirthi fumbled with the straps and fastenings and I grimaced in pain when he lifted it off over my head. Two deformed bullets fell from the tattered glass fibres to rattle on the floor.
R'R'Rhasct's ears went flat when she saw my torso: old scar tissue, black and blue, but unpunctured.
Chirthi snarled at her, then threw the flak vest aside and stalked out, pushing past the physician on his way through the door. The doctor glanced after the retreating soldier, then said, "I was told there was an emergency."
R'R'Rhasct spat, then snapped, "Yes. Him."
"Him," she snarled. "Check him. See if there is much damage. And K'hy," she levelled a finger at me, "one word of complaint, we have ten guards in here to hold you down. Understand?"
I opened my mouth, then shut it again.
"Good." She slapped the physician on the shoulder. "He is all yours."
I don't think the doc even really knew what he was looking at. He grimaced at the scars covering me and gingerly began his examination, hissing, exclaiming to himself, looking up at Rhasct in surprise. "Is he supposed to have twelve ribs here?"
"Yes," I muttered. "Shit! Ouch! Careful."
"Sorry," he said, then reared back in shock.
"Yes," Rhasct sighed, "he talks. Keep working."
He did so. I forced myself to lie back and capitulate to his poking and prodding. Ribs flexed and nerves screamed their protests under his pads. A rib sprained or cracked. Nothing broken, so the physician said.
I'd never dreamed that Hraasa may actually have a gun!
The skin on my abdomen was starred by contusions, rapidly turning black and blue, the muscles knotting and cramping painfully. "See, Rhasct? Nothing wrong with me." I tried to stand, gasped and went light-headed with pain, and sat back down on the edge of the bed, hugging myself. My nose started bleeding again.
"I hear you are going to live." Fres's was standing in the doorway.
"High one..." Rhasct started to speak.
"Out," Fres's jerked her hand, indicating R'R'Rhasct and the doctor. They left. She closed the door behind them.
"High one," I tried to stand again, to bow...
"Do not even try it," she pushed me down again. "You look terrible... Saaa! Your nose."
"Nothing serious." I dabbed at the blood on my upper lip.
She hissed again. "Shave you! Perhaps I should have gifted you to the Gulf Realm, K'hy. That was an incredibly stupid thing to do. If Hraasa had known that you lived we would not have been able to stop him taking you. You would not have woken in Weather Rock."
"Yeah," I said dryly. "That would have come as a bit of a surprise."
She fleered lips away from needle teeth. "It is no joking matter. I saw you when Hraasa offered those terms; you were terrified! You know as well as I what would happen if they hooked their claws in you."
I winced slightly. Did she have to use that metaphor? "Then why did you take so long to turn him down?" I asked.
She looked guilty, then confessed, "It was a... tempting offer. Tell me, would it be so bad for the Gulf realm to have you?"
I started to say something, stopped, tried to put it another way and couldn't, remembering the pain of claws, the hissing of Sathe voices, the hand falling in the dirt and a mental picture of a human figure, motionless, gazing out across a smoke-filled room, aswarm with shadowy cat-like figures, the fireflies of torches reflected from cold glass eyes...
A lionesses face was staring into mine, her breath hot and rank. My muscles were still trembling but my voice unnaturally calm, "High One, should they take me, kill me. Please."
From high on the walls of the keep I watched yet another assault on Weather Rock being beaten back. Someone in the Gulf camp had been using his grey matter. They had advanced behind shields this time.
There had been a lull in the fighting, then the Gulf forces advanced from two sides, sheltering behind two metre high shields made from heavy half-rounds that needed several Sathe to move them. They managed to absorb the crossbow fire. The catapults could bowl them over like ninepins, but they were too slow, too unwieldy. It was the guns that stopped them. Even a round from an M-16 went straight through, and the M-60s chopped the shields to toothpicks and tore into the masses ranks behind. I guess they were screaming, but with the distance and roaring of gunfire, I couldn't hear anything. Even so, a small group of them actually managed to make it on to the walls, where they quickly disappeared under the blades and flamethrowers of the defenders.
Black shafts of smoke drifted up from the battlefield. Seen from my angle the fires that caused them were hidden behind the city walls. Surviving Gulf warriors - those who were left - fled back to their respective hosts. There were not many of them.
My chest ached as I limped down the narrow stairs, stepping aside to let the occasional surprised warrior past. The halls of the keep were large and airy, with polished stone floors and huge lattice windows. Tapestries, paintings, and glass sculptures decorated the hallways and chambers.
I jumped as I almost collided with a guard coming around a corner, his arm and sky-blue armour sodden and dripping blood onto the marble flooring. He gazed at me with tired eyes and limped off down the corridor. I stared after him and felt guilty.
The barracks were empty when I got back; the beds lying empty and shafts of sunlight streaming in through the dusty windows. A panicked mouse scuttled across the floor and vanished into a hole between two ill-fitting planks in the floor. I rubbed a clear spot in the grime coating the small window overlooking the street and watched as a precious few Sathe went about their business.
Subdued groups of cubs wandered about, many of them had probably had their homes burnt on that night a year... No, only a couple of weeks ago. Wagons clattered by, taking weapons and supplies to the walls; bringing the wounded and the dead back across the river. Work had been started on a barricade on the bridge, but nobody held many illusions about being able to hold the Gulf Realm with that.
Despite the drawbacks it could cause to the Eastern forces, it had already been decided to destroy the bridge rather than let it fall into enemy hands. That would only delay them for the few days it would take them to build another bridge or ford, but it was better than nothing.
The wooden stairs creaked as six of the Greens wearily stalked into the room. They chattered quietly as they took off their jackets and bulkier pieces of equipment and left them strewn about on their pallets. Going off for food, they said. Perhaps sex as well. Alright, food I could believe, but if they had the energy to get it up after their extended shifts they had more stamina than I gave them credit for. I wished them luck and declined an invitation to tag along, warning them to have their pants on if the alarm gongs sounded. They laughed, slung their weapons over their shoulders and left, jokingly remarking that that may be the last chance they would have to enjoy themselves.
Maybe they're right.
But God only knew where they got the energy.
I stood at the dusty window, watching the traffic down on the street. God, sleep was something I needed, but there was so much to think over, so many things to do. How long would the ammo last? What if the weather didn't hold and we couldn't fly the balloon, where would they attack? Could we hold out? Would I die here?
Outside, I saw R'R'Rhasct cross the street, walking slowly toward the barracks. She paused and looked back the way she had come - toward the walls - then entered the building. A few moments later she trudged up the stairs and went straight to her pallet where she dropped her rifle and rubbed her fawn mane with her hands, raking her claws through the tangles. Tired, worn, and upset.
R'R'Rhasct whipped around, then relaxed. "Oh, sir. I did not notice you."
"That is a first," I smiled.
Still watching me, she sat down on her mattress. "Sir... K'hy, may I talk with you?"
"Sure," I went over to sit on the pallet opposite her. "What is up?
"What is... ?" she began.
"I meant what is happening."
"Oh," she rubbed at her muzzle, then it twitched into a half-hearted snarl. "We fight against impossible odds and... My Ancestors! Why are males like that? I was wrong! I admit that freely. Why does he hold that against me?!" She suddenly turned away from me and curled up, trembling violently.
"Hey!" I reached out and cautiously touched her bowed shoulder; surprised and puzzled. "This is Chirthi you are talking about?"
"Of course. Who did you think..." she broke off into an agitated chittering, her jaw jerking.
"Hey, Calm down," I touched her mane, stroked it. "Please, Rhasct, what are you talking about?"
Still curled in on herself she muttered, "I asked him... and he refused."
"What did you ask him?"
The trembling resumed. "To be my mate of course, what else?"
That threw me. I flinched back, then carefully asked, "Rhasct, I am not so sure I can help you with this. Would it not be better to talk about this with another Sathe?"
She hugged tighter in upon herself and hissed, long and slowly, like a tyre being deflated. "Sir... K'hy... you are different. Male, yet not male. And you know so many things. I can trust you," she forced a smile then and I touched her furry ears.
"Thank you, I think." I smiled uncertainly, pleased but also bewildered. Why did she come to me like this? I was no ancient, white-bearded philosopher; able to hand out profound advice on call, but maybe I could help...
"K'hy, why did he say no?" she mewed piteously. "What is wrong with him?"
"You hurt him, Rhasct."
"What? I never harmed him! I never would!"
"I am afraid you did," I glumly observed. "You did call him a fool..."
"I was afraid for you!" R'R'Rhasct protested.
"And angry at him," I pointed out. She began to tuck her head under again. "Rhasct, come on!" I implored. "Please do not do that! It is not all that bad. Give him a bit of time, apologize, explain, talk to him for Christ' sake! He will understand, just give him time."
"We do not have time," she whispered.
For that I had no reply. Again I touched the luxuriant fur of her mane; so soft. "How old are you?" I asked.
So young! God, a soldier at the age of fifteen. Perhaps be killed in battle at the age of fifteen.
She was still trembling as I touched the bunched muscles around her shoulder blades, then her neck, started rubbing them...
She started in surprise. "What are you doing?"
"It is to help you calm down," I told her as I kept kneading her muscles. I felt her flex inquisitively under my fingertips, then, one muscle after another, the tension begin to drain away. The young female... woman... slowly straightened out, rumbling slightly, until she was sprawled out on her stomach.
"That is... wonderful," she murmured drowsily. "Can you not go lower?"
I flushed: "That is not for me, Rhasct."
She gave a small snarl of mock protest but didn't protest again as I kept my hands up out of those dangerous areas.
"How long have you known Chirthi?" I inquired carefully.
Her voice was steady this time. "Ahhhh, since I enlisted," she said. "We were in basic training together, then assigned to the same garrison-house in Mainport. That was... ah, two years now."
"Two years... You took your time getting serious about your relationship," I said. "There must have been better times to ask him."
"Uh... Yes," she shuddered under my hands. "We have copulated a couple of times. It was some of the best I remember. I should have asked then, but it was not serious. I always thought that there would be a better time. Now it seems, perhaps not."
"It is not impossible," I somehow managed to sound assuring. "The Gulf forces are getting nowhere fast. We just have to hold them back until reinforcements arrive."
"And when will that be?" she hissed. "Perhaps not until after the Gulf realm have overrun the walls."
It was my turn to shudder. Past run-ins with Gulf forces were still black scars across my memories.
"Saaa!" R'R'Rhasct hissed. "Not so hard!"
"Sorry." I eased off.
"Where did you learn to do this?"
"A female of my kind, she taught me."
"Back at Mainport, that one?" the Sathe rumbled.
"No, not her. Years ago. I was still going through school."
"She must have taught you well."
I chuckled. "I am almost less than an amateur. There are those who do this professionally. I would not try and compare my skills to theirs'. Also your... bodies are different."
"And fur must be different from bare flesh," she hissed, then turned her head and reached up to touch my hand where it was rubbing her shoulder. "Your skin is so thin. What does it feel like to have no fur? Cold?"
"Sometimes," I admitted. "Very cold sometimes. But I feel more than you do: the wind, sun, rain... and I do not have to worry about fleas so much."
Her ears flagged amusement before she settled down and was quiet. I let my hands move in their own patterns. Why was I doing this for her? I was supposed to be her superior, and here I was giving her a rub-down! Also there was the little matter of the fact that she'd drugged me, played nursemaid. I know it was under Tahr's orders, but how was I supposed to get anything done if she kept deciding it was too dangerous?
Well, despite all that, I still liked her; she and her seemingly stormy relationship with Chirthi. Give them both a little time... God and the Gulf willing. Chirthi was a little pissed with her at the moment, but they were both right for each other, they just needed to realise it.
Or was it right to encourage this? They were part of a team, and what we didn't need at this time was someone's personal feelings distracting them from their duty. If one was in trouble I didn't want the other doing something stupid and risking more lives.
Damnation! The Sathe army had no segregation of the sexes in its ranks. Males and females bunked in the same barracks. If a pair wanted to screw: fine. They went for it. They didn't worry about pregnancy: outside of their Times it was impossible for a female to get knocked up. Even during their Times it was a mixture of hard work and luck. Because the sexes were so evenly matched physically, a single male couldn't force a female, nor vice versa.
However, that was just a casual hump. I didn't know just what their pair bonding entails. I knew it was more relaxed than marriage, but not much more than that. Was it for life? Did they divorce? How would it affect their...
I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts I never noticed the floorboards creak behind me. A wordless snarl, claws grabbed my neck and sent me sprawling over the bed and onto the floor, rolling to scuttle away from whoever was attacking me.
"Get away from her!" he almost howled and launched himself again as I tried to clamber to my feet. I scrambled backwards. "Chirthi! Hold it! Goddam it! I don't want to fight..."
He lashed out. Claws stung on my arm as I raised it to block. "Shit! Chirthi..."
"Chirthi... stop!" R'R'Rhasct caught his arm, drawing him up. "He was not trying to harm me," she tried to explain. "It was not sex!"
Chirthi stopped but still glared at me, burning with something I had never seen in a Sathe before. This was a Sathe who knew me, knew how I fought, and he was armed with claws and teeth. I was scared and he could smell it, his nostrils twitching violently as he scented the air, my sweat. "Do you want to challenge me for her?" he growled.
"No!" I gasped, hands out before me. "Chirthi, I was not trying to do anything!"
He snarled at me - a rumbling, bass roar that froze my muscles - then turned to R'R'Rhasct, kneeling down beside her and laying his cheek against hers. "R'R'Rhasct, what you asked me earlier... I accept." He moved his head and gently bit her neck. R'R'Rhasct looked at me over his back, her eyes wide in surprise. Then her eyes closed and she nuzzled him in return.
I stared at the pair for a second, then made a break for the door.
The air on the keep's battlements was clear, the night sky glittering with stars while the fireflies that were the campfires of the Gulf camp seemed like harmless sparks on the distant horizon. The scratch on my arm had crusted over. I picked idly at the scab. I don't know how Chirthi found me up there, but I started in fright when a hand touched my shoulder.
"No, Sir, I will not do that again," Chirthi said, glancing at my cocked fist. "I am sorry about what happened today."
"I was not trying to hurt her," I said. "I was not trying to do anything with her..."
"Sir," he waved me to silence. "I know," he said. "R'R'Rhasct explained. I am sorry... I came in and saw you and I misunderstood."
"Why?" I couldn't understand this. "Do you think I would try to... steal her from you?!"
He looked at me, then twitched his ears in rueful laughter and moved back a couple of steps until all I could see of him was his silhouette against the grey nimbus surrounding the moon. "Your wording is strange. No, I think you would not, but another Sathe male might try... I am afraid I was thinking of you as a Sathe. There was that female in the Red Sails whom you had howling the walls down," I saw his ears flicker again, "then there was the reputation you have."
"You do not know?!" he laughed incredulously as I shook my head. "That way you have with females. We have kept our mouths shut, I swear it, but it was all over the citadel how you had both the Marshal and the Shirai vying after your services. There have been suggestions going around the female quarters that you have a 'way' with sex. Quite a few have been curious about that." He leaned against a merlon and grinned when he said that.
"Oh, Christ on a crutch!" I grimaced and leaned my head against cool stones.
"What is wrong?"
I rubbed my hand across my face. "I never knew about that," I told him. "That is the last thing that I need."
"What is the matter with that?"
"Just say that I do not WANT females chasing after me," I muttered. Well, not Sathe females anyway.
"Do not want... !" Chirthi hissed incredulously, scratched industriously at his crotch. "You are beyond understanding, K'hy... but you know why I was worried about R'R'Rhasct?"
"Yeah, I understand," I replied. "She told me why she was sharp with you and I think that not all of the blame lies with her. I am sorry Chirthi, I should have told her about what we were going to do, about the armour I was wearing."
Chirthi cocked his head to one side. "How did you know he would do that?"
"He is an asshole," I explained. "I was expecting something like that, but not the gun." I had an all too vivid recollection of that pistol's barrel.
"I heard what he was saying about that other... H'man they found," Chirthi said. "I am sorry." I heard him sigh and his ears, silhouetted against the sky, flicked and dipped. Then he looked directly at me: "How many have come here from your land?"
"I wish I knew," I shrugged.
I skidded around a corner, gasping out a curse as my shoulder slammed against a wall, staggering me.
The news from the balloon was not good: Gulf forces were amassing for another attack against the town and although the fields were strewn with their dead like wheat after harvesting, there were still thousands of them.
They were preparing themselves on two fronts, getting ready to assault sections of the walls weakened by previous attacks. When we put the data the Sathe aeronauts had complied onto the maps of the area, there was one fact that was instantly obvious: "I think we're up Shit Creek!"
It was midday when they made their move.
There'd been reports from the North gate. The few guards who'd been posted there had seen Gulf troops out beyond the walls skulking about, watching the town.
I'd gone to check it out.
Now I was headed south again. As fast as my feet could move me.
My boots beat a tattoo against the flagstones on the bridge and the sounds of battle grew louder: the clashing of steel, the sound of battle cries and death screams. Like the sound of the sea it was; a continuous roaring, a riot of white noise mixed with clashing of metal.
I sprinted around the corner of a blackened and gutted house to find myself in the middle of the fighting around the gatehouse. A young Weather Rock soldier was being pushed back by the vicious onslaught of an obviously more experienced Gulf warrior. The black and red armoured warrior tried to turn as he heard something behind him and his jaws shut with a sharp CLOP when I hit him with an uppercut. He dropped his sword as the Eastern warrior ran him through, then left him to die noisily, scrabbling at the hole in his gut.
My rifle was on the wall, the south wall, and there were Gulf between us. The Gulf Warrior's sword felt insubstantial, like a toothpick. However, those toothpicks were lethal and a Sathe could wield one a hell of a lot better than I ever could. I threw the scimitar aside and cast around for something a bit more substantial. The only thing that immediately came to hand was an iron bar, about six feet long, rusty, but it had reach and heft.
The Gulf forces had broken through the wall to the east of the gate and every second that went by more of them clambered to the top of the wall. Militia reinforcements and Greens with grenades and automatic weapons were rushing to defend the breech and the fighting on the ramparts and on the ground below it was a small war unto itself; bloody and fierce.
A Gulf warrior finished off his opponent with a slash of his claws and turned to face me, his eyes burning with battle-lust. He was so far gone my appearance didn't faze him in the slightest. His scimitar struck sparks off my bar as he slashed and lunged and I parried for my life, blocking a stroke at my neck, dodging back, then swinging the bar like a baseball bat in a move S'sahr or Remae would've chewed me out for.
Hell, it worked.
He was good, but he couldn't block the raw power behind my blow; the bar punched right through his guard, clipping his head, stunning him. My boot came up into his stomach and he doubled over. A blow on the back of his head and he was sprawled at my feet, blood seeping into his mane.
Almost immediately I found myself facing another Gulf soldier with blood on her sword and fur. More cautious this one. She jabbed and I knocked the blade away. My return blow scraped her jaw, making her jump back. Blocking her again, I almost lost my fingers in the process. Again her sword came around and I kicked out at her wrist. She dodged that and fell back a step, looking surprised then wary.
As she sized me up, a Gulf Warrior behind her brought his blade around in a shimmering backhanded arc that caught his Eastern opponent by surprise, slashing across his forearm, cutting to the bone. With one arm out, the hapless soldier was quickly disarmed, then dispatched by a chop across his neck as he turned to run.
The Gulf warrior looked around then moved to aid the one attacking me.
Shit! Two on one... that's not fair!
Fair or not, those two didn't look like they gave a damn. They spread out to give each other room to work and advanced slowly on me. I retreated before them, waving the bar before me, until I found I was backing into the ruins of a gutted house, rubble crunching under my boots. Maybe they'd step on a nail...
The one on my left attacked, her scimitar a flickering blur in the midday sun. I frantically spun the bar out and the sword spanged! away in a flurry of sparks. That was when the other one moved and I was barely able to bring the metal around to block his swing. I felt the jar go up my arm when metal met metal and his sword had a notch in it when he drew it away.
The two went back to circling me, their swords still describing slow patterns in the air before them, trying to distract me. I took another step backwards and found myself up against a crumbling wall. The two Sathe slowly spread their lips in vicious grins and their movements became more deliberate.
I licked my own parched lips and my hands were sweaty on the bar, I could feel iron flakes sticking to my palm. Suddenly things seemed to go into slow motion; the Sathe both moved, one aiming high and the other low. The bar in my hands spun wildly and the impacts struck sparks from the iron. Several more times they attacked with blinding speed and somehow I managed to turn or dodge the worst of their blows, but when they did drop back, I was gasping for air and bleeding from a minor gash on my leg and another across my shoulder. There was no way I was going to win this.
Frantically I looked around. I was in a cul-de-sac, the shell of a gutted building, with broken, sooty walls on either side hiding this particular little tussle from the Sathe on the fortifications...
My foot stumbled against something, a length of two by four. Clutching my bar in my right hand, I scooped the wood up with my left... just as the Sathe attacked again.
The female's sword flashed around on my left and I threw my left hand up, feeling splinters lance at my hand as the wood was torn from my grasp. In my other hand the metal bar rang and was knocked against my neck. I gripped it tightly with both white-knuckled hands.
The female cursed loudly, her sword stuck in the wood. In the second she spent trying to shake it loose, I spun the bar and landed a solid blow across the side of her face, another into her stomach, across the bridge of the muzzle, on the back of her head...
There was a faint look of puzzlement on her ruined face as she fell.
The male stepped aside as she collapsed. I shifted my grip on my weapon and parried as he feinted at me. His blade flickered around my guard like a live thing and caressed my arm. Blood welled, reluctantly at first, then flowing freely down my arm.
I winced and he plastered his ears flat against his head and grinned.
It was then I realised I really didn't have a chance. Only my reach and the strength in my blows were holding him back, but I was tiring. I clipped him a couple of times, he recovered too fast. It was only a matter of time, that time coming too soon when I stepped on something that rolled treacherously under my feet, taking other pieces of rubble with it. My feet shot out from under me and my only defence flew out of my grasp and clattered loudly to the ground as I went over backwards.
With sweat running down my face I faced the Sathe and knew that I was going to die; everything but the Sathe went out of focus. I opened my mouth...
He gave a triumphant yowl and lunged, then his cry cut off and he sprawled across my body with a force that knocked the breath out of me, then lay in a twitching heap over my stomach. I just lay there for a second, then frantically shoved him off, scrambled away and crouched staring at the feathered shaft that protruded from the back of his neck then looked up at the Sathe who stood on a pile of rubble, still holding a spent crossbow, an M-16 slung over her shoulder, grenades at her belt.
"My Ancestors... You just cannot stay out of trouble can you?"
Then she rushed forward in concern as I doubled over and threw up.
The arrangement of copper tubes and the brass kettle hanging over the fire hissed and dripped. I winced and twitched as Fen bandaged my arm. "Hold still," he muttered as he tightened and tied it off. I flexed my hand; stiff and sore, but it still worked.
"Will I be able to play the mandolin when this comes off?" I asked.
"Of course," Fen said.
"Incredible! I have never been able to play it before," I said, straight faced. He looked uncertain, then laughed. Old joke, but new here. I grinned, then flexed my hand again, "Damn!"
R'R'Rhasct was sitting on a pallet nearby, staring at me.
"I guess I had better thank you," I said to her.
That was enough to set her off. Her ears flattened and she hissed, teeth bared. "What were you thinking!?" she exploded. "Attacking Gulf warriors without even armour or sword! Where was your own weapon?"
"Sitting on the other side of a couple-dozen Sathe who wanted to make sushi out of me!" I retorted, taken aback at the outburst.
"You are crazy!" Her eyes were wide.
"You must be the hundredth person to tell me that. Perhaps there is something in it." Some of the things that I had done recently would get me locked up in an asylum back home. I was doing what the Sathe were doing, almost imitating them, maybe I had gone further than I had realised in trying to be accepted. Would the old Kelly Davies have rushed into a burning building? Maybe. Would he have raced headlong to almost get himself killed?
I doubt it. But things have changed and I am one of them.
"I guess I owe you one," I said to R'R'Rhasct.
"One what?" she looked suspicious.
"Anything," I said. "You did save my life."
"That is not necessary," she said, but her mane fluffed up.
"I think that it is. I am rather attached to this life you know. I have got used to it and it fits me well."
She twitched her ears. "It is my job to protect you. You do not make it an easy one."
One of the Greens, Hraisc, had stopped a crossbow quarrel with his shoulder. He was in a lot of pain as the steel tip grated against bone, but getting the thing out had to wait until we could get him relatively clean and have a patch ready. The few physicians that Weather Rock had were working on the many other wounded but Chir had done stuff like this before - God only knows where - so the task of removing the quarrel fell to her.
Hraisc's teeth clenched on the solid lump of wood between his jaws and he spasmed as Chir worked the bolt. She paused in her work: "Sir, he's going to have to be held down."
"Oath," R'R'Rhasch muttered, then looked at me: "K'hy, do you think you could make your size useful?"
So I held his arms while R'R'Rhasct sat on his legs.
Hraisc was breathing heavily and his jaws quivered as Chir grasped the slippery quarrel with both hands, braced herself, and yanked. The sticky tearing of the quarrel coming out was accompanied by a crackling sound as Hraisc bit the wood clean through. Two pieces of tooth-mutilated wood fell from Hraisc's suddenly slack mouth to lie beside his head on the pallet.
The bloodstained shaft clattered to the floor as Chir moved to staunch the blood that pumped from the shoulder. The bandages were still steaming from their boiling. Until my makeshift still bore fruit - so to speak - we'd have to make do with heat.
The unconscious Sathe twitched as Chir tied the bandages in place. He was not the only one suffering. In the town outside there were thirty dead Sathe and over forty more wounded.
That left us with about two hundred trained soldiers and another three hundred possibly unreliable militia to hold against perhaps ten thousand experienced opponents. We had very little ammunition for the rifles left - about sixty rounds for each of the eleven remaining Greens. The defences outside the walls had been breached in two places, and then there were the ridiculously low walls themselves.
Through the windows horizon was starting to turn red and the sky to cirrus-streaked blood. I was drowsily tending the fire, watching almost pure alcohol plunking drop at a time into a small bowl, steady as a water clock.
"Is it working?" R'R'Rhasct knelt down beside me and blinked at the arrangement.
She gingerly sniffed the glass bowl then drew her head back quickly, wrinkling her muzzle. She sneezed once then looked at me. "It takes its time. That is supposed to be a medicine?" she said with suspicion. "It smells like it can peel paint."
"Uh-huh. You can use it for that too," I agreed. "Or you can drink it."
She stared at the miniature still and made a sound like 'ugh', then was quiet for a while before speaking. "That thing you were doing to my back the other night, would you be willing to do that again?" she asked hopefully.
"Would Chirthi object?"
"Go ahead, K'hy," a voice from behind us called out.
The firelight washed across her, waking gold ripples from her fur as she lay on her stomach before the hearth. A low rumbling sounding from deep within her throat as I rubbed her shoulders. Despite our situation she was lax, completely relaxed, almost boneless in fact. Occasionally she gave vent to a Sathe 'ouch' as I touched a sensitive area, then sank back again with a sigh. "You could make a living doing this," she murmured after a time.
"Very. I would that you could teach this to me, but..." the low rumble in her throat stopped. "K'hy, before the sun rises tomorrow, you leave."
"Oh. You..." My hands froze when what she'd said clicked. "Say what?"
She twisted around so she could see me better. "Tomorrow you go," she said firmly, staunching any protest I tried to make. "You said that you owed me; now I am calling your debt."
She sure didn't wait around. I swallowed: "You are sure?"
I simply couldn't think of anything to say. Finally I just nodded, "And what will you do?"
"Before it is light there will be some troops taking the last of the cubs and as many wounded as possible out. You go with them and try to get them past the Gulf forces to the north."
"The rest of you... ?"
"The rest of us will stay and fight."
Her muzzle wrinkled but she said nothing. The fire crackled away happily, highlights from the copper kettle gleaming in red, orange, and gold. "My Ancestors, Rhasct! There is nothing you can do now. Get everyone out of the town."
"No," she simply said. "We swore to protect the Realm and we swore to protect you. We will do both; We protect you by sending you back to Mainport; we protect the Realm by staying to fight."
I turned to the rest of the Greens, "You are all of the same mind?"
"It would seem I have a mutiny on my hands," I sighed and looked at the glass bowl; it was almost full of a colourless liquid. I dashed a bit on a hearthstone and touched a glowing splint to it: an almost invisible blue flame sprang up. Good, the stuff was pure enough.
Hraisc was sleeping. He stirred and opened his eyes as I moved the bandages aside. "This will sting," I warned him, but couldn't be sure he understood me.
He whimpered when I poured raw alcohol over the wound in his shoulder, but that was all. I washed the red flesh out with boiled water and dashed a bit more alcohol over the hole then replaced the dirty bandages with freshly sterilised cloth. All I could do.
A hand touched my arm. "K'hy?" R'R'Rhasct was kneeling beside me. "You will go? You will not try any tricks?"
"Yeah," I said in English.
"What was that noise?"
"Yes," I reluctantly rephrased my answer. "I will go."
I didn't know how I felt about that. It was a chance to get out alive, but in doing so I'd be deserting my squad. Hell, I didn't want to die! But the Sathe soldiers seemed to have death wish; a loyalty to their Realm that went beyond all logical bounds. As if they didn't have any thoughts of the future. But I'd lived with them, I'd fought alongside them; I knew they had lives and dreams and hopes and fears. Why were they so willing to throw them away? To their minds it was something that was perfectly natural to do, to die protecting their territory. I couldn't compete with their single-minded devotion to duty.
The sun hadn't yet even appeared as a glow on the horizon but Weather Rock's northern gate was bustling with activity. Llamas bleated and complained, axles squealed, wheels rumbled. Milling Sathe stood aside to let the small caravan leave, silently watching after it.
I watched the dark shadows of the town walls falling back behind us. Above the walls hung a giant Chinese lantern, the technicolor envelope lit from within glowing softly. Seen against the dawn sky it was an impressively beautiful sight. I began to get an inkling of how the Gulf Sathe saw it, but it wouldn't stop them from storming the walls again, for what would probably be the last time. Perhaps the balloonists would be able to get away. At the least they would burn the balloon, as they would poison the wells and food supplies. Except for the swords of the soldiers, there was nothing else to hold the Gulf Sathe back.
Several boxes sat near my feet. In those boxes were the M-16s and machine guns.
"Take them with you," Chirthi had said. "It would be disaster for them to fall into Gulf hands. You will likely need them if you should run into any Gulf bandits. With our ammunition, I think you will be alright."
The convoy rattled and squeaked through the early dawn; the last convoy that would be leaving the town. I looked around at the cubs. The oldest were also staring back at their home, the youngest keening in distress, unable to understand what was happening.
Why wouldn't the Sathe leave?
The question persecuted me as we drew further and further away from the doomed Weather Rock. I hung my legs over the back of the wagon and put my head in my hands, rubbing my temples. They were cats - highly evolved cats - but cats nevertheless. They still had very strong feline instincts, as their mating habits showed. I guessed that their territorial instincts were just as strong, perhaps even linked in some way.
You may wonder how a race that is governed by its hormones could survive. Well, there are more than a few humans who're ruled by their glands: what about phobias? And as for being socially oriented, humans are perhaps more so than Sathe. We flock together in herds of millions, we have a strong family instinct, and also a strong instinct to propagate the species. We live in a perpetual, almost hard-wired distrust of each other. Every human claims to hold a wish for world peace and brotherly love, but when you get large groups of them together, there is almost always some kind of argument involved. About the only time when people get together to enjoy themselves without some kind of conflict would be at concerts.
Are we really so different? Are THEY really so different?
It was a moot subject. I pushed my thoughts into a corner of my mind and closed the door on the musty chambers of memory to draw out and ponder over later. Meantime there were other worries. Gulf Sathe to the north of Weather Rock. I knew they were there; somewhere. Where?
As the sky to the east brightened, sunlight cycling from red through orange to yellow-white dashing across distant altocumulus clouds, the town was ten klicks behind us. I kept looking back, but saw nothing but the wilderness around us. It was one of the adolescent cubs who grabbed my sleeve and pointed out the armed Sathe riders blocking the road in front of us.
I cursed and grabbed for the loaded M-60 at my feet, readying the weapon while the riders milled and reined their beasts toward us. Then I hesitated: The riders were wearing armour of grey with green embossing, colours that I had never seen before... who the hell were they?!
Then I saw the blue and silver armour of Eastern Realm troops amongst the grey riders.
"This is K'hy," Tahr said.
One wall of the blue pavilion was drawn aside, providing a vista of wind-stirred treetops surrounding the hill. Sun streamed in through small holes in the sides and roof of the tent, speckling the inhabitants with tiny spots of light, moving as the tent fabric moved in the breeze.
Two guards stood on duty just outside the entrance, hands resting on their sword pommels; one dressed in blue and silver, the other in grey and green.
Inside the tent, I was standing facing five Sathe. Tahr glittered in her gold and silver jewellery and blue breeks, two rings jingling in her ear. Remae in her comparatively drab armour waited a respectful distance behind her. The male to whom Tahr was speaking stared at me, his heavy pelt of red-brown fur turning grey in places, but it gave him a distinguished air. He was only wearing jewellery: a single silver wristguard.
A male and a female - his marshal and advisor - both wearing their grey and green and an occasional piece of silver or gold decoration, stood behind him.
"Tahr ai Shirai, I had heard reports, but even seeing it in the fur, it is hard to believe," the male wondered, his eyes taking in the details of my face and uniform.
"You grow accustomed to him," Tahr responded airily.
"He talks," Tahr gestured to me. "High one, this is K'hy, a H'man and a guest of our Realm. K'hy, I am honoured to introduce you to K'Soo ai Sthr't." His first title, it sounded like a sneeze. "Commander of our Lake Trader allies."
I bowed, a little stiffly. "Sir, it is an honour."
K'Soo's eyes widened and his claws peeked out of his fingertips, but he bowed in return; also stiffly. "He sounds strange, but perfectly comprehensible," he said to Tahr then looked back at me. "I never believed..." He made an obscure gesture with his hands and Tahr gave a subdued hiss of laughter.
I ground my teeth. What were they doing? Every second wasted was one Weather Rock could not afford. "Tahr! Please!"
The Sathe looked at me, K'Soo's ears flattened a bit and he glanced at Tahr. "Forgive him," she appealed. "There are some things he cannot understand." She turned to me and gestured at a corner of the pavilion strewn with colourful cushions. "Sit."
I did so, followed by the two Sathe. The others remained standing unobtrusively against the tent walls.
"Now, K'hy, what has happened?"
I took a deep breath and managed to compress the major events of the past couple of weeks into a few sentences. The Sathe listened to what I had to say, but not all of them took me at my word.
"It is impossible!" K'soo snorted. "You cannot seriously expect me to believe that?!"
Tahr touched his arm. "Sir, when you have known K'hy as long as I have, you will find out that he does something impossible or at least highly improbable almost every day."
For a second he stared at her as if she'd flipped her lid, then at me. "How could twelve Sathe and... him, stop the Gulf Forces dead?"
"He just told us," Tahr said, deadpan.
He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again and growled. "All right. The fastest scouts can be there within two hours." He flowed to his feet and swept from the tent, his two lieutenants in tow.
Tahr turned to her Marshal. "Remae, I want the First and Second scouts on their way already. Get the Shoso, R'sest, and Sireth clans ready for forced march. The others are to break camp and start after them as soon as possible."
Remae bowed, then was gone, the two guards at the door moving aside to let her pass.
Suddenly warm, furry arms were flung around my neck. "We got a single message from you, then nothing," Tahr rumbled against my chest. "I thought we were too late."
The guards at the entrance exchanged brief glances then turned their gaze outwards again.
Beneath the midday sun, the grass on the gentle hillside was swaying in the breeze, spreading like waves or ripples on water, two faint tracks of trampled stalks following us to the crest.
In the valley below, an army was on the move.
Columns of soldiers, like ants, were marching away from circular clusters of tents, pennants and flags emblazoned with garish clan devices fluttering in the breeze. The lines of troops, the wagons and carts, the mounted scouts, stretched off as far as I could see, until they were lost beneath the foliage of the trees to the north.
Rank upon rank of swordsathe, archers, engineers and messengers scurrying around between clusters of troops. Tents were being broken down and stowed away. Several squads were shifting wagons stacked with pikes. Hah, that brought on a twinge of pride. Now I knew pikes WOULD work. They were practical. Gulf tactics were to rush and overwhelm their opposition, their forces spreading out as the faster outpaced the rest. They didn't hit as a solid, cohesive unit; the proverbial irresistible force. But the Sathe pikes fully intended being the Immovable Object. With archers and regulars in support, they should be able to stand against any infantry charge.
In the valley below there was a disturbance, troops moving aside as over a hundred Sathe on llamas passed them at what on a llama passed for a canter. On their backs the riders wore bulky cylinders. Real firepower. I hoped they'd make it in time.
Tahr had flopped down in the long grass, her nostrils flaring as she tested the breeze, the distinct duskiness of sunbleached grass and airborne pollen. Then she sneezed and blinked up at me. I sank down beside her and watched the distant troops.
"You never did say why you left," she said.
"I did not have much choice. Rhasct... she had me by a promise I made. Anyway, I think that if I had not agreed to go that way, I would have woken to find myself drugged and chained in the back of a wagon." I looked at Tahr. "Why did you do it?"
"Their orders... is that what you mean?" She was suddenly interested in her hands, stubby fingers busy plaiting three strands of grass.
"You know it is."
"Perhaps I care about you." She threw the small braid aside and looked directly at me, "K'hy, you are a troublemaker. I do not know if you do it deliberately, but you always seem to be in the thick of something. I gave the other Greens explicit orders to make sure that nothing befalls you. But I never expected anything like this.
"All our intelligence told us their main forces were pushing up through the centre of the Realm," she moved her hands to illustrate her point. "If your messenger had not arrived, we would be marching to the west while the Gulf forces stepped neatly around us and tripped us from behind. They would hold the only river crossing for hundreds of kilometres."
"Maybe they do," I said, staring at the marching troops below. Clouds of dust were being raised by feet, hooves, and wheels. They were moving, but it was so fucking slow!
"We are trying," Tahr growled.
"Yeah, I know," I absently agreed, noticing her ear. I'd seen it before, but it hadn't registered. I reached over and brushed the fur in her ear. "Where did the new ring come from?"
"You finally noticed." She smiled and the two rings chimed delicately. "I am now mated to H'rrasch," she proudly stated.
That rocked me. I blinked stupidly. Pleasure at her good fortune? There was that, but also... disappointment? I never thought she would go so far as to take him as her mate; I'd kind of thought of him as my stunt-double, filling in where I couldn't. I kept staring, unable to think of anything to say.
Tahr cocked her head, giving me a funny look. "What?"
"Uh... I had hoped that you two would get along, but this I did not expect," I shook my head, then broke into a grin, "I think that congratulations are in order, Tahr."
She laughed and rolled on her back in the sunlight. "I thank you."
"Where is H'rrasch?"
"Still at mainport." She swiped at a bug and her jaw set, "I will not lose another."
It was simple enough. She'd lost too many already: old friends, her father, a lover murdered while she watched. There been too many deaths all round.
"You will not," I promised her and smiled: "I hope that you will both be very happy together."
"We will!" she hissed, and rolling onto her stomach, she linked her fingers, planted her elbows on the ground, and rested her head on her laced fingers. "K'hy, you are truly the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me."
Again I was lost for words and Tahr laughed again at my flustered expression.
Below and to our right, a group of blue and silver guards appeared from amongst a group of tents, looked around, and doubletimed it our way.
"Huh!" Tahr snorted. "That is the problem with leadership: everyone is always following you."
I plucked a stem of grass and chewed on it while watching the soldiers running toward us.
R'R'Rhasct had changed out of her camouflage fatigues into a 'normal' flanged kilt and ribbed leather armour, as had the rest of the Greens; outfits better suited for swordplay. Fur still matted with dust and dirt and blood, reeking of smoke and blood, she stood to attention as Tahr and Remae swept into the room, then flinched when she saw me.
Tahr saw that. "It is all right. I ordered him to return with us," she told R'R'Rhasct. "He has told me that you tried to follow my orders, but as you know, he is a difficult thing to keep out of trouble."
I glared at R'R'Rhasct, then looked around at the other Greens and my heart sank: two missing. Wounded? Dead?
There wasn't time to find out. An orderly swung the ornate double doors at the far end of the room open and signalled us to enter. Tahr took point into Fres's's study, with Remae and I bringing up the rear. I caught a glimpse of R'R'Rhasct sagging in relief before the closing doors hid her from view.
The Clan Lord of Weather Rock was standing over at the window but she turned as the Shirai entered and returned to her desk. "High One, I thank you for coming." Shit, she looked exhausted. Her eyes were wide, her milky-white third eyelids were just visible, covering the corners of her green pupils, and her mane had been hastily raked back. "Please, sit," she gestured to us.
"Thank you," Tahr replied as she chose one of the chairs facing the desk. The Clan Lord sank down into the leather and carved wood monstrosity behind the desk. Remae and I quietly took the two chairs flanking Tahr. Damn Sathe furniture, still doesn't feel comfortable.
"Honoured Shirai," Fres's sounded as tired as she looked. "On the behalf of my Clan, I lay my arms at your feet and bare my throat for your claws. We shall follow your tail and may none stray from the path you lead."
The litany had been recited in a sing-song, in her eagerness to get it over and done with. I got the vague impression that she wasn't all that impressed with either Tahr or the formalities. With her town at stake, who could blame her?
I watched as Tahr touched her fingertips to Fres's's throat, just once, just enough to drag her claws lightly through fur. "Hystf Fres's. I return your arms to you. I stay my hand. I accept your submission. Now," she cocked her head as she regarded the Fres's Clan Lord, "I would know exactly what has happened here."
Fres's took a shuddering breath and began her tale. I listened as she described the days leading up to the Greens' arrival. They had heard tales and rumours of destruction in the south, but little was being done until the night when a quarter of the town was razed to the ground by the torches of the Gulf Realm. Tahr looked at me when she heard about the part I'd played that night, but she said nothing.
For over an hour Fres's went on, answering questions and reeling off figures and facts that meant little to me. Even though I thought that I was fluent in Sathe, her steady talking and frequent references to people, places, and politics that meant nothing to me often left me behind. There were still a lot of words I didn't know.
"... it was this morning when I ordered that the cubs remaining in the town evacuated. It was only a couple of hours later. We had scarcely three hundred warriors on the walls when they attacked again." She took a deep breath and licked her thin black lips.
"They came as they had before, from two directions and we simply did not have the numbers to cover both approaches. They grew bolder when only crossbows were fired and they were on the walls almost immediately. It was like trying to hold the tide with your hands... We could not stop them.
"High One, if it had not been for your scouts and their flame weapons... We would have fallen. When your banners started to fly from the ramparts, they were routed. Still, it was not without a high cost." She opened a drawer beside in the desk and pulled out a bundle of thick, yellow papers. She dropped them on the desk and quickly put her hands on the desk, one resting on top of the other, but I had time enough to see how unsteady they were. "High One, this is a list of our casualties. The ones we know of."
Tahr silently picked up the bulky manuscript and turned to the first page. All the Sathe who had died protecting their home, immortalised and impersonalized on pieces of yellowing paper.
She was still holding the book and just staring at it when a scratch sounded at the door. At a gesture from Fres's, Remae was at the door, opening it on the steward waiting there.
"My apologies High Ones," he bowed. "The Gulf Commander is waiting beyond the south gate. He has called Challenge."
Tahr snarled softly and flexed the remaining fingers of her maimed left hand.
From the small room in the gatehouse I could hear the gates squeal as they swung wide. Through the arrow slit in the south wall a swathe of the road was visible, a group of three Gulf warriors waiting there with their llamas shifting nervously.
Off in the distance, the masses of the Gulf army watched.
The sound of hoofbeats in the tunnel under the gate. Six more Sathe appeared in my field of vision, riding towards the waiting delegation. Tahr was one of those riders and Hraasa had a gun.
My hands and armpits were damp and clammy with sweat. Beside me R'R'Rhasct's nostrils twitched as she caught scent-traces of my distress, but she said nothing.
The Eastern delegation met the Gulf riders. Terse bows were exchanged, then they talked. Whatever was said it was swallowed by the distance, but there were gestures: ears flattening, the twitch of a hand upon the pommel of a sword, movements stiffened by anger and hostility.
The sun had moved several degrees by the time they had finished. As the two groups started to move away from each other, Hraasa called out and the Eastern delegates stopped, Tahr rearmost turning her mount to face him. The Gulf Commander said something that caused Tahr's ears to flatten.
She spat something back at him and reined about, galloping past the waiting Eastern Sathe and leading them back to the safety of the town walls.
The Gulf Warriors followed their leader back through the fields of death to their camps.
"Tahr, please! I am lost! What is going to happen?"
It was dark outside, and the small study in the keep was dimly lit by a single flickering candle. Tahr was honing her claws on a piece of wood while poring over reports scattered on her low desk. She looked up at me and twitched her ears in mild annoyance. "K'hy, at some times your ignorance can amaze even me."
I was on the floor, sitting on a brightly coloured cushion, my back against the wall. Besides the desk and chair, it was the only furniture in the room. Chagrined by her words, I hung my head, "I-am-sorry Tahr."
Those slitted emerald and gold eyes watched me for a second, then she ran her fingers through her mane and gave a faint hiss of amusement; or was it exasperation? "Do not do that, K'hy. It makes you look like a half-drowned cub." She sighed and pushed the papers aside, stretching with a crackling of joints: "Very well. Hraasa knows that he cannot be sure of a victory. He knows how many of his troops will die if he continues with this conflict, so he has called a Challenge. It will be as it was at Mainport, at the Choosing. Two individuals will fight: tooth to tooth, claw to claw, to the death. The winner," She tilted her hands in a shrug, "The winner will survive. The winner's Realm will survive."
"The losing side will just... surrender?"
She looked pained. "The losing Clan will surrender, clans allied with them... it depends. Most will sway their alliances, others might ccontinue to fight, others will grab for the opening, but they will lose. Without doubt they will lose."
"Then why bother with the armies?" I protested. "Why not just have the Challenge at the beginning and save all this bloodshed?"
Her claw tore a deep gouge in the piece of wood she held. "K'hy, it is an ancient prerogative of the Clan Lords. Fighting with armies always leaves some options: escape, retreat... This leaves nothing save complete domination for the victor and complete submission for the loser. If I recall correctly, the last time it was used was two hundred and twenty five years ago in the dispute between the Shirai and N'Fense clans; two rather insignificant clans."
"Please, tell nobody I said that," she told me, then continued. "After Syfee ai Shirai defeated his opponent, the N'Fense clan merged with the Shirai. His descendant became the first Shirai to stand above the Eastern Realm."
"'Stand above'? What does that mean?"
"Why... uh... it is a term used to show... dominance." Tahr's muzzle wrinkled as she tried to explain something she'd always taken for granted. "From long ago. A chief would force any challengers to lie on their backs, baring their throats and stomachs in submission. Do you understand?"
"Uh... Yes," I replied. "When you are called High One, does that mean the same thing?"
"These days it is just a term of respect, but yes, it does mean the same thing." Her claws were making scritch-scratch sounds on the bit of wood. "Ah, K'hy, you wander from the trail... you were asking about the Challenge."
"Yes... you said that two individuals would fight."
"I did," she agreed.
She looked at the stick in her hands, then deliberately set it down on the desk and came around to squat down beside me, her hands dangling between her knees. "K'hy, we will have the choice of selecting champions, or fighting claw to claw; him against me."
I'd grabbed her arm before she could move, making her gasp. "Champions! Tahr, I want to fight him. Dammit, I want to kill him!"
"You are hurting me!"
I looked down and saw how deeply my fingers were pressing into her arm. She fell back when I let go, rubbing the spot and staring at me; the remaining claws on her left hand were poking out. Again I hung my head whilst my stomach sank, "I am sorry, Tahr."
Her pupils flared, then contracted and she laid her left hand upon my knee. Slowly, the claws flexed. "You will not fight. I do not know if Hraasa would fight personally. He may simply choose another champion to oppose you; and whoever Hraasa chooses, you can be certain that they will be good. I know that you can fight - in your own way - but could you have bested Thraest if he had used his claws and you had to fight naked?"
Remembering that fight, I shook my head. No. He would have taken me to pieces.
"I thought not... K'hy, your opponent would be just as good as Thraest, perhaps better. He would slice you to shreds at his leisure." To emphasize her point she jabbed her claws into my leg, making me wince.
"Perhaps more importantly there is also the fact that you are not Shirai, Eastern, or even Sathe," she continued. "If you did manage to win - and with your luck that is a possibility - Hraasa or other Gulf Lords would doubtless claim the Challenge forfeit. You would simply waste your time."
Defeated, I slumped back against the wall and realised what could happen. "Tahr, if Hraasa does win, what will happen to the Eastern Realm?"
She sighed, a slow hissing like the life was leaking out of her. "The Shirai clan will be taken into the Mharah Clan. Dissolved. The Realm would collapse. My defeat would be the defeat of the Shirai Clan. Shirai is the Realm. Without the Born Ruler, there is no cohesion, no Realm. Clans would fall apart: Some might continue to fight, some would lie down for the Gulf Realm, others might decide they are the ones to replace the Shirai clan. Lords would argue, clans would fight amongst themselves.
"Given time they would settle, a new Born Ruler would stand above the rest to bring the Clans together. There would be no time. The Lake Traders would return to their own lands and there would be nothing to stand before the Gulf Realm.
"The Lake Traders would return to their own lands. The Eastern Realm would be carved up among the Gulf Clans, any Lords who resist would be executed along with their kin. Few would choose to do so.
"It is traditional to destroy the symbol of a defeated Clan's, the heart of their strength. They would have the right to march into Mainport and destroy it until there is no trace of Eastern power left. Small towns and villages would have to turn to Gulf clans for protection against bandits, animals, and other Realms while any remaining Eastern warriors would be branded as outlaws and hunted to death.
"The Eastern Realm would be only a memory, and memories eventually fade."
A whole nation gone, just... gone. As Carthage was levelled by the Romans; when even the rubble of the city was ploughed level and sown with salt so nothing could grow there, so the Hraasa would do to the Eastern capital.
And what would happen to me? I was sure that Hraasa would not let me rest easy... and what about Maxine? Goddamn it, there was no way he was going to get to her! If I had to commit suicide by walking into his tent and gunning him down, I'd do it...
"What?" I looked up; Tahr had spoken.
"You have a problem," she repeated.
"No, it is nothing," I tried to shrug it off.
"You worry about what will happen to yourself and Mas?"
That startled me. "That transparent?"
"I have had time to learn to see through you, K'hy." Her ears danced and the rings chimed. "I have also given that some thought. If the worst does transpire, make all possible haste in returning to Mainport. Take Mas and flee. Go north, west... it does not matter, just leave this Realm."
"Do not argue, just do it! K'hy, consider it my dying wish, alright?"
I started to say something, then swallowed the lump in my throat. "Alright," I whispered.
"Good." She relaxed; satisfied. "Huh... Just stay out of sight and you will not have to worry about pursuit; they think that you are dead."
I blinked. "What?"
"Hraasa boasted to me how he had rid the world of the... Well, what he said is not important," nor - I guessed - very flattering, "but the Gulf Realm believes that you are dead."
But surely I had been seen by Gulf Warriors since then! ... Hadn't I?
"He seemed sure you were dead," Tahr assured me.
Ah me. If only the Sathe were superstitious, believed in ghosts or something, then maybe I could just jump out in front of Hraasa and yell "BOO!" and he would keel over...
While I'm at it, if only an aircraft carrier would happen by. Ifs are nice to dream about, but they aren't always very practical.
"You will go?" she beseeched me.
A small question, how could it hurt so much? I nodded minutely, "Yeah."
She reached out for my face and I felt a clawtip touch my cheek; it came away with a droplet of moisture hanging from it. The tear glittered as Tahr turned her hand, examining it as though it were a rare gem, then she stared at me.
"Good luck, Tahr," I choked.
She didn't say anything, she just hugged me. In return I drew her close, just holding her, feeling her muzzle press against my cheek, then a rough tongue rasp against my skin.
"Salt," she murmured almost to herself.
The shadows among the ruined buildings of Weather Rock were deep. The darkness and the piles and latticeworks of shattered masonry and timbers themselves sheltering me from wandering Sathe eyes. I wrapped the cloak tighter against the cool evening breeze that stirred the soot and the leaves of small plants starting to sprout amongst the debris.
In the space before the south gate of the town, inside the walls, a circle had been marked out on the ground; about five metres radius. It was deserted.
Far enough from the circle to escape scent and sound detection I crouched down in the shadows on a pile of rubble and leaned against a wall to wait.
A squirrel scampered into the circle. Start, stop, test the air, scamper onwards. It sat up in the circle and quickly preened itself, then suddenly bolted and disappeared over the town wall as though the obstacle wasn't there.
An even dozen red and black armoured warriors who appeared in the town gates. After all we'd been through to keep them on the other side of the walls, now they just walked in unopposed. Equipment creaked and jangled as the warriors crossed the court to form a crescent on one side of the circle. They stood like obsidian statues, even their ears motionless.
Blue and silver troops marched into view. Just as silently they took up positions facing the Gulf warriors, hands resting upon sword pommels.
It was so still that I found I was holding my breath. I let it out as silently as I could. Still it seemed as if they would hear me.
I wasn't supposed to be there. Except for these bodyguards, nobody was. They were the elite from both sides, impartial witnesses. By now the rest of the town would be deserted. The confusion as the populace left had been more than enough to cover my tracks as I slipped away, and now... I waited.
My field of view was limited to the circle, the soldiers flanking it, and the gateway beyond. The soldiers stiffened as a cloaked figure materialised from the darkness beneath the gatehouse and approached. From the other direction came another, the pair stalking toward each other from opposite sides of the circle.
Tahr and Hraasa.
They stepped within the boundary lines and slowly circled until Tahr was on the side nearest the Gulf soldiers and Hraasa the Eastern soldiers. Briefly they spoke; the soft words carried away from me by the breeze, then they stripped off their cloaks, throwing them aside. But for their fur they were both naked
My heart fell when I saw them together. Not only was Hraasa taller than Tahr, but he was broader and must have outweighed her by fifteen kilos, and judging from the way he moved none of it was fat.
Tahr was worried as well. Her hands flexed; clenching and unclenching as she and her opponent exchanged stiff bows. When the claws came out and fangs were bared, I knew with a sick despair why Hraasa had declined a Challenge of champions.
There was a storm in the circle; the lightning strokes of claws slashed out and the thunder of snarls reverberated almost subsonically amongst the quiescent ruins. Tahr was fighting with every ounce of her speed and skill, and I could see it wasn't enough.
Dodging past Hraasa after the initial onslaught, Tahr fell back to the opposite side of the circle, panting heavily. The fur on her arms was starting to turn several shades darker as liquid seeped through it. Hraasa turned and advanced slowly upon her, and again Tahr darted past him, landing a raking blow across his ribs.
Looking surprised, Hraasa touched the mark and glanced at his hand, then quickly back at Tahr.
Tahr just hissed, jaws wide.
His ears flicking, Hraasa moved on his smaller opponent and again she tried to dart past him, but he moved, fast, and a blow from his hand snagged her shoulder. For a second he held her, then she twisted, slashing back at him and the skin and fur gave way and she ripped free.
Another rivulet started down her arm.
I watched helplessly. I'd been unable to get my hands upon my gun unnoticed, and if I tried to interfere the guards would doubtless cut me down and declare the contest forfeit to the Gulf Realm. Hraasa had only a few superficial scratches, but Tahr was being sliced and diced... slowly.
Tahr was faltering badly, unable to block many of Hraasa's strikes. For a second he paused as she shook her head, then went for her again. She dodged the first slashing left, and sidestepped a right, but then Hraasa was upon her, his jaws gaping, saliva glistening.
Their snarls were punctuated by cries of pain, too many of them Tahr's, and then they were rolling in the dust near the edge of the circle; grappling to keep claws and fangs at bay. Tahr was pinned and shaken like a dog, the back of her head impacting the ground with an audible thud.
Dark drops spattered on the ground and she stilled.
Hraasa climbed to his feet, his chest heaving and his eyes glued on Tahr's prostrate form. For a couple of seconds she just lay there, then her chest heaved and she rolled over onto her hands and knees, spitting blood. Hraasa gave her a second, then kicked her in the head: hard. Tahr was flipped over onto her back, spasming like a beached fish in a mixture of dust and her own blood, coating herself.
Her nemesis took a step back, falling into a combat stance, watching as she slowly recovered, sucked air and hauled herself to her feet.
My God, after that pounding, she could barely stand!
I stared, horrified, unable to do anything. It must have been willpower alone keeping her on her feet, and Hraasa knew it.
He snarled at her, circling her slowly like a waiting shark and she turned, staggering wildly with her head rolling as she tried to focus on him. Deliberately he stepped away from her, moving close to edge of the circle. There, he lowered his arms and grinned at her, taunting. She almost took a step but her leg betrayed her and she went down, kneeling before Hraasa with the blood covering her head and shoulders glistening like oil.
In his triumph Hraasa threw his head back as if to howl.
Perhaps it was the moonlight on my skin, or just that he was at exactly the right angle, or the shadows shifting enough. Whatever it was, he saw me.
And froze solid, staring straight at me.
I don't know how she did it, nor where she found the strength. Her lunge was feeble, but enough; her claws hooked into his chest and ripped down, just scratching, but pushing him back a step...
... out of the circle.
He didn't even notice.
Ignoring Tahr moving weakly on the ground before him, he spun to his guards, and I was gone. As I ducked out of sight into the shadows of the ruined houses, I could hear him screaming orders to his bodyguard.
And the soldiers as they scrambled over the rubble scant metres from where I hid, trying to stop my teeth chattering: "What is he talking about? Did you see anything? There is nothing here!"
"I know what I saw! It was that... that thing!" Hraasa hissed, then rounded on his aide and snarled, "And do not dare say that my mind must have wandered!"
The other Sathe cringed. "Sir, nobody saw anything. The warriors found no trace of it. I myself saw you kill it, I saw it fall. I saw the holes in it. How could it possibly be here tonight?"
On the other side of the tumbled wall, I pressed my back against the masonry and tried to melt into the stones. Turning my head, I could just see through holes made by fallen bricks to where Hraasa in his grey and black cloak was snarling at a subordinate.
"How do you expect me to know what tricks that thing holds... perhaps it had armour."
There was a pause. "Sir, you have seen what that weapon can do; it ignores armour." There was another pause, even longer. "It did say it had powers..."
"Shut it!" Hraasa turned on the other, eyes blazing and his ears laid back tight against his skull. "I will hear nothing of talk about 'powers'. That... thing is as alive as you or I, and I swear that its revolting head will lie on the ground before me, no matter what I must do to get it!"
"Sir! You forfeited! The Lords are going to be..."
"There are still paths open to me," he snarled. "Some care only about the gold and silver in their hands; the affairs of Clans they could not care less about. They will remain loyal to whomever holds their payment and they are the path I shall take. Saaa! I swear: for all it has done to me, it is going to suffer. That creature's female will go first..."
My heart stopped. No! Oh Christ, no! He couldn't! He'd lost! It was supposed to be over. It was supposed to be done with. Feeling faint I leaned against fire-blackened brickwork, clenching my eyes shut. After everything... the bastard had threatened Maxine. He wasn't going to stop; I saw that then. He'd never stop. Wherever we went in the Realms, Hraasa's agents would dog our heels.
Their voices died away as Hraasa strode through the arch beneath the gatehouse, his retinue strung out behind him. After a while there came the sound of many hoofbeats, fading off into the distance.
As long as I lived he would hunt me... us.
I leaned my head back against the wall and looked up at the clouds pushing across in front of the moon. The stars were glimmering like things alive; laughing at me, a lunatic.
As long as I lived...
... or as long as he lived.
My fist slammed against the wall as I made my decision, then I was off: South.
Scratching at my door. I gritted my teeth and wrapped the sheets a little closer before answering. Remae's dark form was waiting outside. Sickly dawn light glowed through the small window at the end of the corridor. "God! Remae! How is she? What happened?"
"I knew that would be the first thing you would ask." She pushed passed me, closing the door and leaning against it. "The Shirai is... badly hurt."
"What? How badly?! REMAE..."
"Do not shout," the Marshal said as she gathered her thoughts. "She has lost a lot of blood, her collarbone and jaw have maybe been fractured, and she has been badly bruised, especially around her face. She sleeps now. The physicians cannot say..."
I sat down on the edge of the circular bed and hitched the sheets up, trying to hide the discomfort that caused. It wouldn't do to have them slip down. "She won?"
"Yes, she won, but I cannot fathom out why. She was more than three wholes dead while Hraasa was hardly scratched. Then... something happened: he seemed to freeze. She caught him unawares and pushed him out of the circle." She waved her hands in a shrug, "He was winning. He had her. I cannot understand why he would falter like that, can you?" Remae was suddenly watching me intently, sniffing.
"How should I know?" I hastily provided, trying to look innocent.
"Some have been saying he saw something."
"I am not sure. Something that startled him enough to throw away the Challenge. Where were you last night, K'hy?"
My guts clenched. "Around. Worrying."
"Ah. I do not recall seeing you."
"Why, I did not see you either. What a coincidence."
"You were not anywhere near the Challenge?"
"You know nobody was supposed to be around there... Wait. You think I was... Damnation! If you want to know what Hraasa saw, why do you not just ask him?!"
She studied me, then carefully sniffed the air and her muzzle wrinkled, "An excellent suggestion. You do not know that Hraasa is dead?"
"Wha... What? When? How?!"
"There have been rumours from the Gulf camp that he was found dead early this morning. He died in the night. Perhaps honourable suicide after what happened last night?"
"That would sound reasonable." That look again: "The rumours also say that he was found dead in his bed, still warm; and but for the cuts Tahr had given him, there wasn't a scratch on his body, however his throat had been crushed. Completely crushed. I would wonder how he managed to do that to himself... In fact, I would wonder how anyone could manage to do it; and the guards saw and heard nothing.
"I have never heard of anything like it... And there was a purse of gold right beside the bed. It had not been touched. Who would pass by something like that?!" She paused, then grinned, "I suppose nobody would wish to take that furball's foul money."
"You do not sound like you will miss him."
Remae hissed, missing my sarcasm. "Miss that impotent bastard?! He was responsible for the destruction of my home! Miss him? ... Huh!" she snorted in disgust at the thought.
I was quiet for a while. "Would I be able to see Tahr?"
"I thought you would also ask that," she sighed and scrubbed at her facial fur. "I do not know... I will tell you when she wakes. The physicians still are not sure... are you all right? You look... strange."
"Yes, I am fine... just worried." I smiled at her.
"I understand," she grimaced in an imitation human-style smile and then the door was swinging shut behind her.
I stood there, just staring at the carved wooden panels of the door. Shit, she suspected me. If she'd arrived just a few minutes earlier... Shaking my head I returned to the desk, sat down and opened the drawer where'd I'd swept the small bottle and bloodstained cloths when Remae had scratched at the door. Letting the sheets drop to the floor I laid my bare arm on the desk.
My arms, my shoulders, my chest were slashed and streaked with burning red lacerations where claws had flailed at me; first in disbelief, then in utter desperation.
The alcohol ached terribly as I rubbed the contents into the wounds, but there were limits to what it could wash away. I grimaced, salt water running through my beard, dripping and stinging as much as the alcohol.
Two more weeks on the road.
Two weeks of making sure I stayed covered up to avoid awkward questions about the new wounds that adorned my arms; the painful red ribbons wrapping themselves around and over old scars. Keeping them clean was hard; almost impossible. I'd had my tetanus jabs, but nevertheless my right arm started to stiffen up, the muscles around a slash on my biceps twitching.
Mercifully, that was all that happened. My muscles bunched up and my whole left arm ached abominably for a while, but it went no further than that.
The allied armies were moving north again, their numbers much depleted, but not by losses. About seventy percent of the Eastern forces had continued southwards, sweeping the Realm clean of any remaining pockets of Gulf troops. Twenty percent of the forces of the Lake Trader alliance had gone with them and they would march to the southern border between the Eastern Realm and the Gulf territories. They would draw Eastern Clans to them as they passed the remaining small southern settlements and towns of the occupied territories, further bolstering their numbers with conscripts and garrison troops.
I guessed that they wouldn't stop at the Borderline River.
The army of the Gulf Realm had collapsed like a house of cards. A couple of Clans tried to rally and fight, but... they never had a chance. Weather Rock was littered with surrendered weapons and armour, shocked and confused Gulf Troopers hundreds of kilometres from their homes just dropping them were they stood. Now the few hundred being escorted nortward had nothing, not even clothing. The few light tunics were tattered and torn. They were fortunate that in the heat of summer clothing was not really a problem.
It was difficult for me to understand, to accept. They just... surrendered. Remae had reared back in disbelief when I asked what would happen if they reneged on their surrender.
"K'hy, they would not!"
It was gospel. Whether it was a single individual or a whole realm; if you surrendered, you surrendered. There were no ifs, whys, or buts.
The Gulf warriors were a formidable force no longer. Their Clans had been torn apart by their captors, their Clan crests burned and the ashes trampled into the dirt, then their left ears were lopped off to show they were POWs. Frightened and homeless Sathe were then taken into Eastern and Lake trader clans as slaves. No... I think serfs would be a better word. They would work on the land and in the holdings of their foster Clans. They would have very few rights: Being forbidden to possess weapons, living in conditions bordering upon poverty, but they were bound by oath to their Clan Lord, and in turn to the Realm itself.
Oh, in time they could gain status. Perhaps their grandchildren would become successful traders and landholders. Perhaps they would see the land their ancestors had left behind. Perhaps...
But in the meantime, these soldiers were soldiers no more. They could try to forget about any families they might have, but I wondered if any of them would succeed.
For the lower clans and families, their loss in the conflict just meant a change of bosses, not too much of a change in the daily routines of life.
However the larger, older, and more influential clans would not alter their allegiances so readily. There would be fighting and probably Challenges and certainly more deaths... But the war was all but over.
Yes, the war was over. Those few words are easy enough to say, but always there were reminders. Reminders such as the twenty five wagons in the train behind us.
On bad nights I sometimes still have nightmares about what those wagons carried.
The army stopped for a day or so, taking on water and hunting food. You'd be amazed how much it took to feed this many hungry Sathe, and that food had to be hunted. It was during this break that Remae had come to me asking if I could help their physicians. I protested that I was no doctor, especially when it came to Sathe, but she persisted. Sathe were still dying from wounds that the physicians had no experience with.
I finally gave in to her requests. While we camped the wounded were tended to in shelters set up well away from the bustle of the central camp. You could hear the moans and cries and smell the stench from well outside the tents. Inside...
I burst out again, retching and gasping. "Shit! Oh, Jesus!"
If just the smells had been indescribable, the things I saw in those tents were in another reality, straight out of the worst slasher flick..
A favourite target of the sword is the gut. Large and soft, the blade flickers in and out, often without killing, but leaving the victim open for the killing blow. If that blow doesn't come, the agony before death would be maddening.
Sathe lay in that sweltering tent with dressings and bandages the only things holding their intestines in: Peritonitis would be inevitable for most of them. In others cases sword strokes had laid the flesh on arms bare to the bone - like whittling with limbs.
Sathe with glazed and dull eyes watched me. Many of them were Gulf. When the Eastern Realm had defeated them, so they had taken their wounded, and the Gulf Realm had many, many wounded. Teeth and bone jutted from torn skin and fur. The air was thick, hot and muggy, a heavy cloying smell floating in it... like a slaughterhouse on a hot day. My gorge did somersaults. I swallowed hard to keep my last meal down and pay attention as Remae introduced me to a harrased, be-spattered Sathe medic.
They were trying, working to the best of their ability, but there just wasn't much they could do. The physicians and their assistants had patched the wounded as best they could and now all they could do was hope they'd heal.
Hope they'd heal.
Jesus. For those Sathe troopers, being patched up could mean anything from having a banage slapped on to a limb sawn off. After that it was even odds if they lived or died. Infection got some, shock and blood loss others. I don't know what the mortality rate was, but in one hour three died. To make matters worse, they were dealing with a new kind of wound: the entry holes were small, but they shattered bones, pulverised organs and left a hole the size of a tennis ball on the way out.
The physicians took me around the tents, a guided tour of things I hoped I'd be able to forget. I was shown cases with gunshot wounds who just weren't improving. Most were laid out with torso wounds. They'd been sutured or bandaged, but the Sathe physicians had to be shown the fragments of metal and splintered bone floating around the body cavity; the lethal slivers that could rupture vital organs. As time went on, I fought my queasiness and began fishing pieces out myself; Ape-descended fingertips were more nimble than Sathe pads burdened with their retractile claws.
There were a few other suggestions I could give, seeing about getting some clean air in there. Tearing the flaps covering the entrances torn into vertical strips let fresh air in and kept flies out. Bandages and instruments and water needed sterilizing. Hands and what bedding they had needed washing. Sulfur could be used as an antiseptic, as could alcohol. Not much, I know, but it was all I had to offer.
Of course, there were a few not exactly ecstatic for my help.
I remember a female, her fur almost bronze colored. Her upper-right arm had been smashed by a bullet. The compound fracture had been hastily set in a crude splint; if left like that she would probably have had to lose the arm, an operation that would in all likelihood kill her.
Screaming imprecations and struggling wildly, she had to be held down by several guards while I cut the splint off her arm. She gasped once and passed out when the bones clicked into place. The scabbed-over wound where the bone had punctured the hide had to be cut open again and cleaned out. Probably just as well she wasn't conscious to feel that.
I did my best at helping, but it isn't easy when although you know that a limb could be saved, there is no way you can do it when there is no operating theatre, no skilled doctors, no blood transfusion or I.V. feeding facilities, no sterile instruments, no oxygen; just knives, saws, and bandages that were seldom clean. The Sathe did have drugs that could be used as crude anaesthetics in an emergency, but not nearly enough to go around. They were reserved for the very worst cases amongst the elite.
For the two days we camped I spent time working in that hell of shattered bodies. Two days of slaving over wounds I knew I could have caused. Every bullet that I pulled out was one that I could have fired and without a doubt, some of them were. But there were so many of them, and the simple soldiers weren't the only casualties of war.
A bloated fly buzzed drunkenly around in the stuffy heat of the covered wagon, repeatedly butting against the canvass roof.
The gaunt figure lying on the cushions moved her head and opened her eyes, trying to focus on me. Her fur was coming away in tufts, patches of bare skin showing around the bandages that covered the worst of her wounds. But for the bruising and swelling, her naked skin was paler and greyer than mine. "Hmmph? ... Hello, K'hy."
"How are you feeling?"
Through the bandages, her ears twitched mirthlessly and she grimaced as the wagon lurched. "I have... been better."
That fight had nearly killed her. It still might.
She was covered with scratches and bruises, minor and serious. Her jaw was fractured, and I was no doctor but I knew concussion when I saw it. Half dead after the fight, she had insisted she was alright, then promptly collapsed.
She went downhill from there, losing weight at an alarming rate. We had to practically force water into her and food she couldn't handle at all. Consciousness came and went. Sometimes she was lucid; others she mumbled with glazed eyes.
I had watched over her while she slept, listening to her chirr in pain as the wagon bumped her around...
"Do you feel like eating?"
She gagged slightly. "No..."
Tufts of fur stuck to my hand when I stroked her mane.
Tahr saw. "If... goes on... I'll look like you," she tried to joke, but it fell flat. "You think I'll make it?"
"Course you will!"
She smiled slightly; ever so slightly. "Huh... don't hold your breath," she breathed. "Oh, K'hy. The strangest dreams..." Then the light in her eyes faded and her muscles sagged.
"Tahr!" I grabbed for her wrist, then her neck. The pulse was there, but faint. For Christ's sake, this can't go on!
When we stopped for the evening, Remae was at the wagon, anxious for news.
"It is not good," I told her, then looked at Tahr. She twitched in her sleep. I took Remae outside: even unconscious ears can hear. "She is... She took a lot of punishment. I do not know how serious it is, but she needs time to recover. Not in THAT thing though, the ride is killing her. She needs somewhere quiet, clean, and still."
Remae hugged herself and laid her ears flat. "There is a town: Ice Blue. But it is off our path."
"It is the nearest?"
I rubbed the side of my head, hissing through my teeth. "Nothing for it then. How far?"
"Perhaps a day's ride."
And it was that and a bit more. It was the middle of the night when we arrived: a troop of soldiers and a single wagon riding into the small town of Ice Blue.
The inn was a simple, single-floor half-timber construction - not large - and the innkeeper was not happy about being roused out of his sleep in the small hours. He tried to take out his annoyance on Remae, haggling over the price with her, until I stepped into the room with Tahr slumped in my arms and a pair of armed guards at my side.
"Good sir." I reined in my temper with difficulty. "The price can be settled later. We require any available room immediately. And hurry; I am tired and hungry." I placed particular emphasis on the last word and grinned.
He didn't even notice the other Sathe, just gaped up at me, his ears going flat against his skull. "Saaa... of course, of course. Here, this way madam. Here... a fine room..." he prattled on as he scurried into a back hall. Remae threw me a warning look and followed. I trailed after. The innkeeper took great care to keep the Marshal between us as he led us to a room. "This is what you are wanting?"
I pushed past him into the small room and set Tahr down on the circular bed of animal furs as gently as possible. She stirred, as if she was waking, then slipped back under again.
"All right?" Remae asked me.
"It will do." I'd have preferred an emergency room in a proper hospital.
"Very well." She looked at Tahr and I saw the worry crawling across her face. "I will get the others settled down and arrange a guard. She will be as safe with you as with anyone."
"Guards!?" the innkeeper yelped. "Good lady, what is going on? You are not leaving THAT here? High One?..." He cast me a terrified look and dashed off after her.
The rickety door creaked shut by itself. Slumping down to the floor beside the bed, I watched over my friend.
Remae came in with the sun, bearing a tray laden with food: A loaf of meal and meat, some fruit, and water. "How is she?"
I glanced at Tahr, the skin showing through the patchy fuzz on her muzzle, her ribs like sticks under fabric. "She slept better last night," I said. "Quieter."
Remae handed me the tray and watched as I tore a hunk off the loaf and bit into it. "Did you have to say that to the innkeeper last night?"
"About you being hungry. You scared him half to moult. He called the local guard and I had to answer some questions by the Clan Lord."
"Well," I shrugged, "I was hungry... I just didn't say what I ate."
"K'hy!" Remae warned.
"I am sorry," I said, feeling a deep ache when I looked at Tahr's emaciated figure. It'd been a typical male human reaction: When worried, act flippant. Be tough, be macho. I stared at the half-eaten bun in my hand then at Remae. "It worked out did it? That business with the Clan Lord I mean."
"Of course. We have their full cooperation," she looked a little surprised. "Who would refuse to help the Shirai?"
"Oh yeah, of course," I muttered as I took a bite out of the bun.
"We have been offered shelter in the town's Keep," Remae said, "but I am thinking that this inn will serve us well enough. And it is better that we do not move her too much."
Sounds from outside drifted into the room: Sathe, draft animals, wagons. The sounds of a town.
"K'hy," Remae asked, her head tipped to one side and a thoughtful expression on her face, "I wanted to ask you: are you happy about Tahr and H'rrasch?"
I stopped chewing for a second; the question had taken me unaware. I swallowed the mouthful. "Uh... What exactly do you mean? I am pleased that she found a mate with whom she is happy. They seemed to get on well enough..."
"Yes," she agreed, "They do. I just know you were close to her and was wondering if perhaps you might be slightly... ah..."
"Envious?" I chuckled. "You are right. I am. I envy him because I know that anything between Tahr and I would have been impossible. He is something that I could never replace. She is Sathe and I am human. East is east and west is west. It could never have worked."
Remae's head tilted to one side as she regarded the Shirai. "True. Still it is strange that one of her status would take a mate who is no more than just a common soldier."
I also looked at Tahr. "Does it really matter who it is as long as they are right for each other?"
"I suppose it does not. Still, it is uncommon," she sighed, then scratched her muzzle. "I wonder what caused them to meet in the first place. She was with you during her Time, then suddenly he appeared..."
Remae stopped as two and two fell into place with an almost audible click. She stared at me with emerald eyes: "You... you had a hand in this?"
I considered lying, just for a second. "Uh... sort of. I did not actually think it would go this far."
She was staring at me in open amusement. "My Ancestors, you seem to have a claw in the flesh of everyones' lives. I would wonder how else you have affected her life."
I laughed with her then. More than you know, Remae. More than you know.
I shook Tahr gently to try to wake her up. Her jaw quivered, then her eyes opened, her milky-white third eyelid half extruded. Propping her up gently I tried to persuade her to take a bit of soup. She mumbled incoherent protests, struggled weakly, her eyes closing again.
"No! Tahr, don't!" I dampened a cloth and dabbed at her face, wiping the crusting stuff around her eyes and nose, trying to keep her awake. "Tahr you must eat! Please! C'mon, just a sip. A little, please."
She tried to turn her head aside, but I held her and put the spout of the mug between her lips. She swallowed a few drops and I gently stroked her threadbare mane whilst waiting for the soup to settle on her empty stomach.
After a few minutes, I made her take a bit more, then a bit more, until the mug was half-empty and she raised her hand to clumsily paw it away.
"That was good, Tahr, very good," I whispered softly and patted her shoulder as she snored and muttered. It was the first sustenance she'd had in days.
It was a slow, anxious time patched with moments of alarm, but over the following days she continued to improve, starting to become more aware of her surroundings. Sometimes I think she recognised me in her lucid moments. I stayed in her room, eating my meals there and sleeping on a pallet on the floor beside her sickbed, only occasionally taking a brief walk outside when Remae insisted I stretch and get some air.
The reactions of the townspeople were the usual and still succeeded in making me remember what I was.
Tahr slept soundly and heavily, but often she would wake me in the middle of the night when her breathing became laboured and she cried out; sometimes in what sounded like pain, sometimes in something else. Occasionally I heard my name. For hours after she had settled down again I would lie awake and listen to her rasping snores. What was she dreaming?
The weather that day had been miserable. Low-lying grey clouds looking like lumps of half-molten lead roiled across the sky. Strong gusts of wind rattled the shutters in their frames, driving the rain against the slate roof with such vigour it sounded like hail.
That was the way it stayed all day. At night I leaned back in the darkness, dozing, listening to the sounds of the wind, the creaking of the building, and Tahr's measured breathing.
The steady rhythm sped up, became deeper. There was a small, puzzled-sounding mewl, then a silence, not even breathing:
"Tahr?" Fear clutched at me. "Tahr!"
"Who... ? K'hy?"
I groped after my jacket and fumbled the lighter out of the pocket, touching the flame to a lamp. The walls danced with red ochre light as the flame sputtered, spat, and caught. Tahr was flat on her back, her head turned to watch me. Her eyes glowed when the light struck them, the pupils contracting slightly. Threadbare patches in her fur and mane shone dull against the her tawny pelt. The swelling of her jaw had gone down but there were still bruises. Slowly, she blinked at me: "How long have you been there?"
"A while. You have not been at your best."
"Oh." She looked up to where the invisible rain was drumming a steady tattoo on the roof. Distant thunder rolled, long and low. "Where is this place?"
"A town called Ice Blue. We had to stop here. The travelling was not doing you any good."
She kept staring at the roof. "I remember... I have been sick some time."
Sick? Oh, Jesus, Tahr. "Over a week. How do you feel?"
A sigh, then her head lolled over. "Alive," she replied and raised a stick-thin arm, staring at it as if it wasn't part of her own body. "I look like an old rug."
"Yes. Look at me. You could have kept the moths off me, K'hy." Then she smiled and those eyes flickered with a vibrancy I hadn't seen for too long. "We talk?"
After those days of lying there playing tag with the old Reaper, she suddenly wanted to chat. "You are sure? Your mouth looks sore. You do not want to rest?"
"No," she said calmly, meaning it.
"All right," I nodded slowly. "If you think you can manage it, Okay, talk. Talk about what?"
"Huh," she looked up at the roof, gathering her thoughts. "What has happened? The armies? What are the Lake Traders doing? Hraasa? Has he been taken? Why did he forfeit like that?"
I tried to answer as best I could, telling her what I knew. What I didn't know Remae could fill in later. Tahr listened, staring up at the ceiling while her chest moved slowly. When I told her about Hraasa she stiffened then squinted at me. "Dead?"
"No. Remae said he was murdered." I filled her in on those details also, what Remae had told me, keeping it brief.
"Rot his honour," Tahr hissed when I was finished. "I wanted the privilege. No ideas who did it?"
"No. There was a lot of confusion that night. Please, are you sure you do not want to rest."
She raised her hand in a feeble swipe at me. "Ah! Do not mother me. You look too strange for that." There was a hesitation, a faint clicking sound audible over the rain: Tahr tapping her claws together, then she said, "K'hy. What are you going to do now? You and your female."
I blinked. "Why that?" Twenty Questions time and the first thing she asks about's my private life.
She squirmed, a pink tongue running over sharp teeth. "I... I had some strange dreams. You and Mas..." she searched for words, then surrendered. "I cannot explain. What are you going to do with her?"
"You make her sound like a possession. Not MY female, Tahr. She has a will of her own. I am not even sure what her opinion of me is."
Tahr out on the balcony watching Maxine and I arguing...
"You are afraid," Tahr said abruptly. "Our mating. You are afraid of what she thinks."
I sat up and crossed my legs, leaning back against the rough wooden planks of the wall while staring at the flickering lamp flame. Dammit, what had she been dreaming about in that delirium? She'd hit the nail on the head. That WAS what I was worried about! How could I ever expect Maxine to accept me after what I had done.
"I am sorry, my strange one."
I looked up, surprised. "What? Why"
"I never realised how it would affect you. I had no idea that anyone could be upset by what we did." She lolled her head back, staring up at the rafters. "I was wrong to lead you on as I did. At first... I thought it a game."
"Tahr..." The floor creaked as I hauled myseelf to my feet and perched myself on the edge of the bed. Her fur was still soft under my hand. "Look, do not go around blaming yourself. I was as much a part of that as you were. I enjoyed it as much as you, and I do not regret it."
God, how to explain it to the human woman? I didn't know how Maxine thought of the Sathe. Did she regard them as just exotic animals, or did she see them as people in their own rights? Pray she'd learned to identify with that side of them. After all, what is wrong with love between two people?
I patted the fur beneath my hand. "I worry about what she thinks, but I may be worrying over nothing. I do not know... After all, who can understand the workings of the female mind?"
"You... !" Tahr gave a mock-hiss and swiped weakly at my arm; claws pulled. "How can YOU say that?" she sputtered in amusement.
"It is true! You are female and many times I cannot understand how your mind..."
Although still weak, the hand that grabbed my shoulder and pulled me over backwards onto the bed didn't feel like one belonging to someone who had been semi-comatose for over a week. The room seemed to lurch, and suddenly I was lying on my back staring up into brilliant emerald eyes. She was panting after the exertion, her breath warm as blood and harsh enough to blister paint as she lightly nuzzled my bearded cheek and neck. "K'hy, why could you not have been Sathe?"
I touched her tufted ears and ran my fingers down into her mane. "Or you Human?"
It was soothing to just lie there; her fur warm, moving slightly with every breath she took. I sighed and relaxed, with her weight against me like a warm and heavy blanket, my arms around her, just holding her close, feeling her heart beating.
"Anyway, K'hy. What will you and Mas do now?" Tahr murmured after too short a time.
I twisted around and looked at her face. "The fighting is over?"
"I believe so."
"I have given it little thought, actually," I said, glancing at the window as a gust rattled the shutters. "I think that maybe it would be best if we went out on our own. Away from the Citadel, Mainport."
"What?" She started slightly in surprise. "K'hy, why?"
I swallowed and swirled the fur on her stomach between my thumb and forefinger. "You have a life to lead, and the two of us hanging around you may be a... burden."
"No! K'hy, you would never be a..."
"Yes, Tahr! I... we would be just that," I interjected. "You know things are never easy with us around. The way Sathe react to us... You could not live a normal life with us around and Maxine and I will have to learn to live without your help."
She drew back slightly. "Why? I can provide for you as long as..." she trailed off as she remembered. "Oh."
The difference in our lifespans. Although perhaps we couldn't expect to live as long as we would back home, barring accidents we could live to sixty, maybe seventy, maybe more.
And the average Sathe lifespan is what? Forty five?
"You cannot always be around; we will have to learn to fend for ourselves. Between us there must be some skills or knowledge we can scrape a living from."
"I think that you will manage. I was told that you built a flying device. Is that true?"
"We got lucky," I smiled.
"K'hy, just building and selling those devices alone would make you wealthy for life."
"Maybe, but any idiot can look at one of those and see how to build another."
"True, but they would not understand it. You built it. You know how and why it works and how to use it. Perhaps they could be used to go to the moon."
I laughed at that, and she growled, then pushed closer against me. Difficult to carry out a constructive conversation with a hot, soft body like that rubbing against your own. She also knew a few things about me... like where and how to touch to elicit a response.
"Tahr!" I caught her wrist and pushed her hand away. "No! You are supposed to be sick for Christ's sake! Besides, you are mated now."
She hissed and pushed back against my hand. "So? How could H'rrasch be jealous of you? It would be ridiculous." She tried a smile with her mouth. I could just about count her back teeth.
"Ridiculous, huh?" I grinned back. "Well, I will tell you an interesting tale. Something ridiculous happened to me not so long ago. I almost got my face ripped off by a male who thought I was trying to... ah... seduce his female."
"You?!" Tahr did a poor job of stifling a laugh.
"He did have a good reason," I continued. "It would seem there is a rumour going around the citadel. Something about a 'reputation' I have."
"A... a reputation?" Tahr asked, suddenly cautious. She wasn't laughing anymore.
"Uh-huh. Something about the way I am built. Also, that I have 'a way with sex'." I propped myself up on my elbows and raised an eyebrow, "I would wonder where that came from, eh?"
"Oh," said Tahr.
"Tahr, I am flattered by the praise, but it makes things most difficult for me when Maxine hears of our exploits from Sathe I do not even know, and when angry males feel the urge to rebuild my face with their claws."
Her ears went back in a hesitant, almost sheepish smile. "I was wrong. I had no idea that it would go this far."
"Just please do not talk about us anymore," I asked. "Please."
"Very well, K'hy," she sighed, then hissed in her version of a giggle. "It will cost you," she smiled.
I sat up; wary. "How much?"
For a reply she stiffly rolled over onto her stomach and wriggled her shoulders, "Please, ease my muscles."
"You have a nerve," I half-snorted, half-laughed, amused at her gall, then settled beside her and started kneading the threadbare hide of her back. With a low sigh she went limp under my hands, luxuriating in the massage. Those times I'd been bed-ridden sprang to mind. God, could I have used something like this back then. Maybe it was fifteen minutes later when the scratch at the flimsy door disturbed us.
Remae was waiting there. The faint, flickering, reddish-orange from the guttering oil lamp out there did weird things to her black fur and green eyes. Off down the corridor from the common room came the muted background sound of crockery and ironmongery rattling, Sathe talking, laughing.
"High One," Remae murmured, ducking her head in surprise and respect when she saw Tahr sprawled on the bed, half-awake and watching her. "How are you feeling?"
Tahr smiled back. "Tired, stiff and sore, but much better, thank you."
"I am pleased," Remae smiled. "I came to tell K'hy that food is ready and to..." She looked from Tahr to me to the rumpled sheets, back to me, and realization dawned in her eyes that she may have committed a boo-boo. "Saaa... I did not mean to intrude."
For a second both Sathe were watching me. Then Tahr's ears flicked back in amusement, "No, Remae, there was nothing going on. Please, come in... and, K'hy, there is no need to look like that."
I felt heat rising into my face like mercury in a thermometer. Hastily I backed out of the room, closing the door behind me. I tried not to imagine the two friends laughing.
The inn was busy that night. Other travellers sheltering from the unseasonal downpour. They kept pretty much to themselves, but they choked and sputtered on their food when I made my appearance. The fare was simple: a meat and vegetable stew, bread, and a choice of water (a risky choice from a village well), llama milk, or ale, but the Eastern soldiers seemed to enjoy it enough. I wondered if they ever got splinters in their tongues from licking the wooden bowls clean.
It was another three days before the storm abated and the mud on the roads had dried out enough to make travel possible. The innkeeper was not unhappy to see us depart, even though he made a handsome profit from our layover.
Very quickly the fields and pastures surrounding the small town gave way to wilderness. The road forded small creeks swollen from the rain, wound its way through evergreen woodland, crossed broad stretches of gold and green grassland.
We worked our way north; a single covered wagon and seventeen housecarls mounted upon lamas. We took our time; taking it slow and easy. The weather remained fine after the storm, the skies were crystal clear and the nights warm.
And Tahr had recovered with a vengeance. During the first few days she ate enough for two, rapidly filling out the gap beneath her ribs that she'd cultivated during her convalescence. When we stopped for the night, her almost hyperactive restlessness would often lead her to disappear into the wilderness, causing consternation amongst her guard.
And I had a lot of thinking to do.
Light shifted through the intertwining branches of the trees above the small pool, playing across the surface of the water that rippled every so slightly as invisible cat's paws stirred it. A rivulet of water trickled through moss-covered rocks; sparkling and glittering as it dropped the metre or so into the pond.
A soft splash. Ripples spread.
Settled in a patch of grass, my back against the solid trunk of a sugar maple, I flicked another pebble from the small horde I clutched in my hand. Light twinkled as more ripples spread before the first had entirely stilled.
Tahr had been in the right with her questioning at the inn; what WAS I going to do with my life now?
I'd been born and raised in a culture where it was always someone else who had the knowledge, the skills. Whatever I needed, I just went out and bought and all the skill needed was the ability to drive a car and write a check.
Oh, I was pretty mechanically inclined. More than average. Certainly I was no technical prodigy, but I was comfortable around machinery. My general knowledge was pretty good, I knew how things worked and how they were made. I was capable in metal and woodworking, but that was with tools far more advanced than anything the Sathe used. I could easily plane a length of wood or weld up sheet metal, but would I be as effective if all I had to work with was an adze or forge?
And how many gaps were there in my knowledge?
Another stone plunked into the water.
For my entire life up to the point when I arrived here, I had been deluged with the continual flood of disjointed snippets of information I picked up from television, radio, and casual reading. I could draw a detailed diagram of an internal combustion engine and how it's supposed to work, but what of the materials it's made from? How exactly do you make a magneto?
I shifted the M-16 into my lap, running a finger along the scratched and scarred stock. The gun had taken a lot of abuse, the metal itself was nicked in places; gleaming steel exposed on the raised sections of the mat black surfaces. I wasn't sure I knew how to forge a metal like that, let alone how to make the synthetic compounds that made the stock and foregrip.
No, I frowned, that was still not the real problem.
Would I... we - aliens - be able to make a home in this society; not live out our entire, overly long lives as freaks on display for all to see? I mean, we couldn't exactly settle down in the town, could we...
I say, George. Look what's just moved in next door.
Oh, shit. There goes the neighbourhood.
And what about children...
My God, children.
My thoughts were interrupted by a splash. I looked up to see ripples spreading out across the water. I hadn't thrown that...
"Why so dour, K'hy?"
Tahr got up from where she had been crouched on a boulder across the other side of the small pool, her head cocked to one side in her study of me.
"You followed me," I accused her.
There wasn't a sound as she dropped from a rock onto deep moss. The worn blue and brown cuirass and kilt she wore didn't quite blend in with the foliage behind her: "No. I was out by myself. I just found you here."
My thumb flicked the safety catch back on as I looked up at her. Twigs and small leaves were matted into her mane as though she'd been lying on the ground. "You have been running off by yourself a lot lately. Any reason?"
She laughed and flopped down beside me, leaning up against my arm. "Just restless. My legs just want to stretch after all that time doing nothing." I reached out and plucked a twig from her fur. "It is good to have a chance to run, to hunt." She stretched, then craned around to look at me. "Do you never have the urge to do that?"
I blinked. "To run... sometimes, but not usually to hunt."
She gave a half-hearted snort and watched as I flipped another pebble into the water. "I was watching you for a while," she said. "What was troubling you?"
"Oh, K'hy." She flashed teeth in annoyance. "No games! Your face has more expressions tucked away than a piece of soft clay. I think I can read many of them well enough to see that you were... well... not happy."
"Okay, point taken," I sighed and told her.
"Children?" she was puzzled. "I do not think I understand."
I got up and paced a couple of times before slumping against a boulder. "Tahr, if Maxine and I reproduce, the result will be human children."
"'Reproduce'," Tahr's ears twitched in a smile while the velvet of her nose wrinkled at the same time. "You know, there are words for that which bear more warmth."
"I was not trying to be poetic."
"Sorry. Please continue."
"If we have children, they will be human. Eventually Max and I will both die and they would be alone here. Absolutely alone." I swung around to face Tahr. "Do you understand now? All they would know of where they originally came from would be what Max and I told them. They would be... different. All their lives."
Tahr got up and slowly ambled past me. Leaves rustled as she pushed aside a branch. "Yes, I can understand that."
I fell in beside her as she padded through the forest. My boots made a lot more noise than her bare pads. Aside from the wind and the incidental sounds of nature, that was the only noise there was for a quite a while, then: "K'hy, what do you know about Hraasa's death?"
"Well, Remae told me he had died in his sleep."
She paused before answering. "He was killed in his sleep; yes," she agreed. "Strangled... his throat crushed. Not an accidental death. There is no assassin I know of who would use such tactics." Her green eyes latched upon mine. "No Sathe assassin."
I stopped in my tracks and stared at her.
She also drew up short, folding her arms, hands hooked over her shoulders. "K'hy, the Marshal has done some asking around, and the thing that strikes both her and myself as peculiar is the fact that nobody can remember seeing you on the night of the Challenge."
I felt my jaw twitch.
"Remae has also seen Hraasa's corpse. She inspected it perhaps a little more thoroughly than did the guards who found him. He did not die peacefully; he fought. His bedding was soiled with blood that did not come from the scratches I had given him. There were traces of a strange scent on his body. There was more blood on his fingers and claws and chest. She also found shreds of flesh under his claws that did not come from the challenge. They did not come from a Sathe. She saw you the next day. You smelt of blood and medicine.
"K'hy, your tunic. Take it off."
I swallowed and stepped back a pace, backed up against a tree. "Tahr... I..." I shook my head and bit my lip.
"I thought as much," she rumbled. "Did you also have something to do with his loss in the Challenge?"
My shoulders sagged. I gave her a feeble, glum nod.
Birds startled by her cry flapped into the air. "K'hy!" she blazed, turning to howl at the forest. "You could have ruined everything! Why, in the name of my Ancestors! Why did you do it?!"
I shook my head helplessly, despairing at her anger. "He was going to kill Maxine."
Tahr stopped in mid snarl, half-turning with bared teeth. "No, K'hy, impossible! Hraasa gave his surrender! His troops saw! He could not have!"
"He was going to use a Scirth Warrior," I told her. "Are they not outside the agreements that bind you and the other Clans?"
"Scirth Warriors?!" she choked on the title. "K'hy, they are lethal! I hold no power over them; no Clan does!" Her jaw twitched violently. "If he has hired one to kill Mas she is..."
"I took care of it," I said.
She gaped at me, her expressions spinning between fury and astonishment at a mile a minute. Finally: "I am lost. Now - from the beginning - tell me what happened that night."
We started walking again while I talked. I reluctantly told her about the accidental part I had played in Hraasa losing the Challenge and went on to tell her about the conversation I had later overheard.
"I swam the river. Your kind are not the best swimmers, so there were very few guards. Hraasa's tent was around the other side of their camp... Anyway, I dodged the sentries and circled around.
"He had a physician come to dress his wounds, then someone in a black cloak was brought to see him. I was able to get close enough to hear their conversation. He was talking with a Scirth Warrior, hiring him... Did you know that the going rate for the assassination of a human is twenty five gold pieces?"
Tahr said nothing.
"Well, anyway, I followed the Scirth Warrior when he left. I caught up with him and managed to persuade him to forget about his job."
"How did you do that?" Tahr queried. "I cannot see even you defeating a Scirth warrior unarmed and walking away from it."
I fished a small metal circlet out of my pocket and tossed it to her.
She snatched the ring out of the air, turned it over, and stared in surprise again. "This... Where did you get this?!"
"Hymath. Remember her? She gave it to me."
Tahr stared at the ring, then slowly gave it back to me. "When? Why did you not tell me?"
"You never asked."
Tahr made a disgusted noise. "K'hy, take good care of that ring. I think that you do not know just how valuable it is."
That ring; the tiny silver Sathe's head baring minute fangs in a snarl. She was absolutely right; it was valuable in ways that went far beyond just the exquisite craftsmanship. I closed my hand over it and slipped it back within my pocket. "Where was I? Oh yeah. He was reluctant about going back on his word, but he agreed not to take the assignment. Before he left, he gave me the gold he had accepted... to return to Hraasa.
"I went back to the camp and hid until the lamp in Hraasa's tent went out. Their whole camp was... it was like they were going mad. There were fires and fights all over the place. The guards were watching a group fighting nearby. I got in under the side of the tent. They never saw me.
"There was just enough light for me to see by. I guess I wasn't as quiet as I should have been," I licked my lips and turned away from Tahr, suddenly finding something of interest in the patterns of pine bark. "He must have heard me... he woke. I hit him hard... here, in the throat. I crushed his throat, but it took time. He was... was awake - fighting - the whole time... I... he..."
I choked off and slumped against a tree. Tahr said nothing while I pulled myself together again. "I left the money there and just... put my hood up and just walked away... nobody noticed me. That was the only reason I got away... Nobody noticed. Sheer, dumb luck. I swam across the river and circled around to come back in the northern gate."
"K'hy," Tahr stared at me. "It was suicide."
I didn't respond. I had known.
Her ears went back flat against her skull and she moved closer, her eyes about level with my shoulders. Reaching up she fumbled with my shirt buttons. I caught her hand. "K'hy," she almost growled, her ears going down.
I let my hand drop.
Buttons, one at a time down my chest, then she spread my shirt open. "My Ancestors!" Another tug and my arms were bared. Her wide eyes met mine, like pain-filled greenstone. "K'hy!"
The smooth curve of a claw traced a line of red scar and scab up my chest to the point where it ended just below my throat. Just one of a multitude. "My Strange One," she moaned, gently touching my chest again, then stepping away. "It is an ancient tradition you have violated. It is not so much you killing him, as the fact that you biased the outcome of the Challenge... you were NOT supposed to be there!"
I started walking again, rebuttoning my shirt. Tahr fell into step, slightly behind me. High above us the wind set the treetops swaying and rustling. "What will you do with me now?" I asked.
Tahr grimaced and took a swipe at a pine tree she was passing. Four horizontal scrapes appeared across the bark. "I am not sure. In a sense I am the law, but there are limits to my jurisdiction. I am the Shirai, but even I cannot change what has always been, and what will probably always be."
"Did you understand before?"
I bit my lip and studied the ground in front of me. "Yeah."
She breathed a steam-kettle hiss, her lips pulling away from her teeth. "And if you were found?! Did you think what your discovery could have meant for the Shirai clan, for the entire Eastern Realm?! You could have destroyed everything that we have fought to achieve! All the loss and sacrifice, all the death, everything would have been for nothing!"
I flinched away from the claws that were now hovering near my face, turned and sat on a fallen log smothered in moss. Tahr stood, keeping her distance, a shaft of sunlight cutting the air between us, glittering on the wings of insects. Suddenly I remembered a time a headstrong creature had tried to make her own way back to her people with her side held together with string and a prayer. Memories of chasing after her and finding her waiting for me, calmly waiting with her wound seeping blood.
Now her eyes burned with anger.
"Tahr," I said, "look at me."
She tossed her mane, her teeth flaring white. "I have been looking at you for the best part of two years now. What else..."
"Damnation! LOOK AT ME!" I exploded. "Look at me as other Sathe see me!"
Her eyes narrowed, then she spun and took a few steps away before turning back to study me again. Then she slowly squatted and took a stick in her hands, twisting it in her fingers. "What are you trying to say?"
I sighed. "You have grown too familiar with me. What am I? I am not of the Shirai clan. I am not of the Eastern Realm. I am not even Sathe! I am as an animal under your laws! If a... a squirrel had made Hraasa forfeit the challenge, could he blame the Eastern Realm?"
The Shirai stabbed at the ground with her stick, then slowly twitched her ears: "No, I think not."
"I made my decision and I am prepared to stand by it and take the consequences. I think that you would have done the same."
The stick moved again as Tahr pondered. "You have thought this out, haven't you," she growled.
"I tried to. It happened so fast."
"Then you know that while your... status may give you immunity from the laws of the Realms and Clans - and even that I am not sure of - it also means that you have no rights at all in our Realm, that you are, in fact, an animal in the care of the Shirai Clan. You could be brought and sold or even killed without the stigma that would be attached to such treatment of a normal... person."
I nodded. "I had suspected."
Tahr's muzzle wrinkled so as much of her teeth and gums as possible were bared. Her ears vanished into her mane and the stick scratched violent patterns into the forest floor, then she snarled and sent the stick bouncing off a tree trunk, splitting into two pieces. When she looked at me it was the look predator gave prey. "Rot it all, K'hy! When I think you understand, you go and do something like this. If anyone learns..."
I stood, carefully went to lay a hand on her shoulder. "He would have killed you. I..."
She snarled again and her hand whipped up, catching me across the side of the head. I yelped and staggered back. My face burned. I touched that place and there was blood on my hand. I stared at her in shock.
Tahr's snarl evaporated, turning to confusion, then... something else. She opened her mouth, then turned and bolted into the forest. Undergrowth hissed around her, then the foilage stilled and she was gone.
"Shit." I said, touched my bleeding face again, winced. Gone. No way I could catch her. Did I want to? I turned and set off back to camp.
Remae caught me as I walked back into camp. "K'hy, they need... what happened to your face?"
"Branch scratched it," I mumbled.
"Angry branch," she observed. She knew. Of course she knew, but she let it lie.
I went and sat by myself. The Sathe muttered and gossiped, glancing at me, but they left me alone. I touched the scratches on my face again. Why had she done that?
Anger? Fear? Exasperation?
Perhaps everything. Perhaps I deserved it. I didn't know. And she's never told me.
Goddamn it! A Sathe might be able to stand aside and watch while a friend was torn apart, but I'm not a Sathe. What I did I did of my own volition. If it came down to it I would take the blame, but no-one could drag Tahr or her clan into it. Hell, if someone wanted to they could pick a fight with the Davies clan. Good luck to finding them.
Tahr returned that night. A stiff wind whipped sparks into the night sky while we ate. I never noticed until Remae flinched, then laid her platter aside and went to join a figure standing in the gloom of the treeline. They exchanged a few words and eyes flashed metallic light as they glanced my way. I stared down at my meal. When I looked up again they were gone, into the trees: out of sight and earshot. I put my plate aside, not hungry anymore.
The Citadel loomed above us as the tiny convoy made its way along the narrow lane between massive inner and outer walls. Covered walkways spanned the gap high above our heads, arching over from one towering vertice to another. It was a lot like being in an alley between two skyscrapers.
The inner gate was open, the uphill-sloping tunnel beneath the gatehouse dark and chill. The sounds of llamas' hooves and iron-bound wheels clattering and grinding echoed from the walls of solid granite, then we were through.
For a second the sunlight breaking through the clouds above the vast courtyard dazzled me, then the monumental bulk of the Citadel's Keep blotted out the sky; layer upon layer of walls and towers enveloping the granite crown of the hill, dwarfing even the outer walls.
Tahr's small fist tapped my shoulder: "Home." Her ears flicked in her smile. I blinked blearily and twitched my own lips at her.
The last few days and nights had been spent on the road, travelling nonstop, doing our best to catch forty winks in the wagons. I hadn't got much sleep. None of us had. The walking dead, that was us. I just wanted to lie down and die for a week or two.
The stir we'd caused in the town below had reached the Citadel ahead of us. Two ranks of Citadel Guards lined the steps and approach to the Keep. Faces massed at windows and parapets all around the courtyard as the small convoy drew to a halt.
As Tahr adjusted her armour and dropped from the back of the wagon, Remae caught my arm. "Walk with me." It wasn't a request.
Tahr preceeded us, her head held high and the clean armour she had materialised from God-knows-where flashing as inlaid silver caught the sun. Remae had no clean armour, but the blue and silver cloak she wore hid the scars, nicks, and stains in the purely functional battle dress she was wearing. Against them, I stood out like a cow in church.
Head and shoulders above the Sathe, my hair had grown so long the last couple of months that it resembled a Sathe mane escaping from beneath my helmet, even if the copper was so different from the more subdued, earthy tones of Sathe coloration. My cloak flapped around my ankles, not quite hiding my tattered, stained fatigues. I looked around at the continuously growing crowd and nervously hitched up the battle-scarred assault rifle, feeling exposed and vulnerable crossing that huge courtyard.
Cheering had started as soon as Tahr had appeared from the wagon, the howling sound of Sathe cheering. With Remae's claw hooked into my sleeve, I stepped out into a confusion of faces and sound. The Marshal noticed my nervousness. "K'hy, this way!" she hissed and tugged me along. "Don't worry so."
I'd been shot at, burned and beaten and given a choice I'd have rather been on the battlefield than in that courtyard anyday. Sathe everywhere, more than I'd ever seen in one place before, the entire population of the Citadel it appeared and most of them were looking at me. I scanned the balconies and ramparts and windows and doors, looking for distinctive non-Sathe features. If she was there I didn't see her.
More Sathe awaited us within the massive doors of the Keep. The entry hall echoed with hushed Sathe voices, the clatter of claws and metal accessories. Expansive cloaks with clan crests embroidered in glittering thread brushed against the lacquered parquetry in the wooden floor as their wearers bowed their heads before Tahr.
"High One," the honorific murmured from the tapestry-hung walls of the chamber, resounding among the galleries and balconies that rose to the vaulted ceiling far above.
Tahr respectfully returned the bows to the Clan Lords ranked before her and murmured something that caused ears to twitch in amusement; quickly suppressed. Finally Tahr approached the red-robed figure patiently awaiting her. "Shirai," he bowed when she stopped in front of him.
And there was one more Sathe waiting for her. Not a Clan Lord or high-ranking official. It took a second to sink in just who he was. A far cry from the embarrassed trooper who had worried about Tahr in the corridor so long ago. Now wearing the armour of the royal guards, a silver ring in his ear.
H'rrasch bowed. "Shirai," he said, and there was an emotion running far deeper than respect there. She touched his shoulder and he looked up. "I am glad you made it back," then he ducked his head again as though he was embarrassed. Tahr gave a stuttering hiss, then they were embracing and nuzzling each other.
Been doing some matchmaking, Kelly ?
Behind them, Rehr made an Excuse-Me-For-Butting-In kind of sound, interrupting Tahr's personal homecoming. "Excuse me, Shirai, but there are a few thousand people clamouring to see you."
Welcome home, Tahr ai Shirai.
I was exhausted and hungry and exhausted and tired. The dust of the weeks on the road had ground its way into my very pores; a gritty feeling like sandpaper rubbing against my flesh. That last day had been the toughest, travelling all night so that we would make it to Mainport while there was still light.
The sounds of cheering and jubilation were swallowed by the tremendous solidity of the walls of the Keep; the stone absorbing sounds so that none reached the deserted corridor where I walked. Occasionally a servant would scurry past, but otherwise the place had all the air of a mausoleum. All along the corridors the walls between the doors were carved in bas-relief, ancient depictions of tailed Sathe: living and dying, laughing and crying. The joy and sheer exuberance of felinoid life immortalized in stone. I gave a jaw-cracking yawned and concentrated on planting one foot in front of the other.
The corridor opened into a T-junction in a groin vault serving as a landing for a broad, dimly-lit staircase. The steps were bare, undressed rock stairs cut directly into the hill and worn to almost-marble smoothness by the buffing of countless feet. How long ago had this part of the Keep been hewn? A passage to be measured in centuries or millennia?
The shout echoed down the corridor behind me, followed by the pounding of footsteps as a figure in checkered flannel shirt and blue jeans ran towards me. I lowered my pack to the floor and gave her a weary smile as she slowed down to a walk, staring as she approached. "I know," I forestalled her with an upraised hand, "I look like shit."
She flinched and gave me rueful grin. "Sorry." Then she stepped close and hugged me. I stiffened, then slowly hugged her back, uncomfortably aware of the feelings her human femininity sparked off inside me. Her hair was clean, soft, and smelling of... womanhood.
She suddenly stepped back, nervously avoiding my eyes, then smiled shyly. "Welcome home."
I blinked. "Last I knew you weren't talking to me."
She flashed a tight smile, like the ones I did with Sathe; trying not to show teeth. Was she developing that habit also? Whatever it was she smiled and said, "I'm just glad you made it back in one piece."
I managed a smile in return. "Thanks... Max."
"Here, I'll take that," she said and before I could protest she'd caught up my pack and slung it over her shoulder. "I tried to catch you back there with the others, but you took off alone."
"Yeah, well I wasn't expecting anyone to meet me. I thought I'd skip the homecoming. They won't miss me, and I'm beat."
It was a familiar route, one I'd walked many times before. The corridors became better lit, the tapestries, murals, and friezes covering the bare stone of the walls became more and more ornate and well-kept; banishing the spartan atmosphere of the less-populated areas of the Keep.
Maxine was keeping up a cheerful banter all the way to my rooms, but by then I was too tired to reply in more than monosyllables between the yawns. I fumbled with the latch, then stumbled inside.
The room was just as I had left it: papers sitting on the desk, a pair of breeches carelessly draped over the back of a chair. Although the air was stuffy with an atmosphere like a house that hasn't been lived in for a while, there wasn't a speck of dust to be seen anywhere.
"... realised what you must have felt like when you were here," Maxine was saying. "I wasn't sure if you were coming back or not."
I looked at her, then unslung the rifle and propped it against the desk. It overbalanced, clattering to the floor. "Hold on. Sorry, I've just got to sit down for a while... I'm stuffed." I nearly collapsed into a chair.
Maxine was suddenly kneeling beside me in a near panic. "Hey, c'mon! Don't flake out on me here! I can't carry you!"
I mumbled an incoherent protest as she hauled me to my feet again and guided me as I stumbled through to the bedroom. I don't even remember hitting the bed.
I was still rubbing my hair dry as I approached my quarters, whistling cheerfully. With the layers of grime I'd collected on the roads sloughed off in a blissfully hot bath, I felt ready to take on the world: any of them, or even all at once. That morning there was someone waiting at my door. I broke into a grin and called out, "Morning, Ms Wayne."
"Afternoon you mean. I've never seen anyone go out like that."
She didn't blame me for sleeping in. I had - she agreed - looked like shit. While I changed in the bedroom we exchanged smalltalk through the open door. I had countless shirts, all in a stylish shade of olive drab: part of the cargo from the wreck of the truck, but only a single pair of pants. The hardships these'd been through were beginning to show in the worn knees, the stains and holes in the heavy fabric. I glumly poked a finger through a rent in the seat, then chucked the pants aside and fished a pair of Sathe-made breeches from the chest. They were the type that finished around the knees, and I felt absolutely ridiculous in them.
"Why don't you try one of those kilts?" Maxine giggled.
"Too cold," I replied. "You know what the draughts in this place are like."
She laughed and watched as I tied the laces on my boots. "You know, I learned a lot about them while you were away. The Sathe that is."
I looked up at her. "You feel better about them now?"
"I don't really know. They're easier to get along with, but they're still... weird. Sometimes I just feel like it's not real, like it's all just a dream." She sighed deeply and looked at me. "How was it for you?"
"Eating, sleeping, drinking and crapping together. You have to get used to them," I replied absently, then looked up at her. "I never said it was easy, Max."
"Was the fighting bad?"
I felt my jaw tighten. There's no way I'll ever forget those weeks. "How can it ever be good? You know: war is hell and the food sucks."
She forced a smile, then said, "If you don't want to talk about it..."
"Thanks," I pushed my fingers through my overgrown thatch of hair, "Maybe... later, I think."
The rifle was on the desk, black and vicious against the creamy sheets of parchment lying underneath it. I picked the weapon up and touched the scarred and nicked receiver. There were gouges in the stock and the paint had chipped off the selector switch.
"So what do I do with this?" I asked myself.
The vault was buried deep underground, as is a vault's wont. The air was chill, the rough-hewn granite walls and vaulted ceiling glittering with moisture, streaked with soot from the sputtering torches in sconces. It was just one of a string of such rooms storing the wealth of a realm. Inside, in the dimness, I could catch the glitter of gold and silver: Bars of precious metal, ornate weapons slung in racks. Locked iron-bound chests labelled with Sathe script were everywhere. Maxine picked up a gold statue the size of her hand, weighing it. It looked like solid gold. Nearer the door olive-green boxes and crates were stacked in neat rows around the walls, black stencilled letters and numbers seeming to twist and writhe in the shifting light.
Sathe guards and a single human woman were watching me as I checked the seals on the last case. The Sathe-made laminated box would remain airtight until either the wood rotted away or someone broke the seal around the lid. The rifle and ammunition inside were sealed in a solid block of wax, preserving both indefinitely.
I hefted the box and set it on a rack with the other cases.
The guards took the torches and swung the heavy door to as I left. The dull boom as it closed echoed down the dim corridor and the guards returned to their station. It was a safe bet that as soon as Max and I were out of sight they would be back to their game of dice. You couldn't really blame them; it was a boring duty to pull.
Maxine flicked on the electric lantern she was carrying, filling the corridor with a crisp, bluish light that was strange after the faint orange illumination of the torches.
I had that sensation you feel when you've been wearing a watch for years and suddenly it comes off for some reason: You feel as if part of your wrist is missing. That rifle had been near at hand for so long it had almost seemed a part of me. Now it was locked away behind more than a dozen metres of rock, I felt... naked. A comforting and familiar weight was gone. My hand kept reaching for a shoulder strap that was no longer there.
Maxine noticed my twitching. "Withdrawal symptoms already. You going to be all right without your little toy?"
"No problem, I'll just use the one you're carrying."
She looked startled. "How'd you know?"
"If you want to keep it hidden, you shouldn't bend over like that. Why are you carrying it anyway?"
"After what happened down in the town, I didn't want to take any chances."
THAT wasn't still an issue, was it? I thought it was history, just 'a day in the life of' to me. I suppose it had been a real shock for her, but it concerned me that she was still nervous about it. How long had it been now? Months, at least.
Sathe claws spattered on stone. A servant dashed down a staircase ahead of us and pulled up short, blinking, in the glare of the electric lantern. "High one, the Shirai's advisor requests your presence as soon as is convenient." I saw him glance at Maxine. "Ah... alone."
Maxine shrugged and held up the light. "You're going to need this. I'll walk you up a few levels."
The guard was bobbing tensely. "All right," I told him. "Lead on."
There was no reply to my knock.
"You are sure that he is here?" I asked.
"He must be," the guard outside the door replied, puzzled. "He has not left."
The door was unlocked, opening easily when I lifted the latch. The guard was close behind me as I stepped inside the room, expecting the worst. Rehr wasn't getting any younger...
He was sitting in his chair at the desk, his back to me as he stared out the window. All I could see was the back of his head and his pointed ears. It was all I needed to see. Grinning, I assured the guard everything was alright. He frowned, but he left.
I reached for the Sony DAC Walkman on the desk and switched it off.
The Advisor was fast for his age. He jumped with a yelp of surprise, turning, his shock turning to a glare. He plucked the earphones out. "K'hy," he said softly; dangerously. "You could have thought about announcing yourself."
"I am sorry, sir," I bowed my head. "I did... scratch; several times. You did not answer and I was concerned for you."
He glared at me, then looked at the Walkman. The thunderclouds behind his eyes cleared and his grey-tufted ears flickered. "Ah... No. The fault was not yours. I borrowed this thing from your mate. She said it was music from your world."
I took the proffered earphones and held one to my ear; the music he'd been so engrossed in was Nigel Kennedy's rendition of The Four Seasons. I pressed the reverse button. The flipside was halfway through QueensRyche, Silent Lucidity. Hmmm, eclectic tastes.
"You like it?" I asked.
"It is a change," he answered diplomatically. "So many different kinds of instruments, different music..." The Sathe gave a steam-kettle hiss as he laid the Walkman on his lap. "Some of it is appealing, some of it is just... unusual." He tapped the stereo with a claw and looked up at me. "K'hy, I look at this object and I am afraid. Your people can make objects like this. They can build devices like that vehicle of your mate's. What would happen if your people could find a way to travel between our worlds at will?"
I shrugged helplessly and picked up a spare tape from the desk: Robert Plant, Fate of Nations. "I cannot say. I just do not know. In our exploration of our own world, we made many mistakes, but I am not certain that we would not make the same mistakes here."
"You speak against your own people?!"
"I merely say what is the truth... or what I believe to be the truth."
The Advisor rested his chin upon steepled fingers and stared at me, thoughtful. Had I said something wrong? Then his ears flicked like a fly had buzzed him and he asked, "What could your people do?"
I stared back at him. That was one question I didn't want to answer, for several reasons, the least being the paranoia it might generate toward the humans who were here. "I... I do not know exactly," I hedged. "I suppose it would depend on who found whom. Is this why you sent for me?"
"Not entirely," he said, looking momentarily disappointed. "I thought that you would want this back." He reached into a drawer and pulled out a yellowish rectangle of parchment with a glaring red wax seal: the letter I given him for safekeeping.
"Thank you, Sir," I took the letter and tucked it safely inside my jacket.
"I am pleased to be able to return it to you." He hissed again as he sank back into his chair, then smiled. "Hearing of some of your... ah, exploits, I am mildly surprised that you are standing before me today."
"I got lucky."
"Lucky! Saaa! There is the understatement of a lifetime!" He pulled another scroll from a wooden stand beside the desk and held it up in front of me. "Some of your Greens have given a written report on your actions and the Shirai is still trying to decide just what is to be done with you."
Seeing me stiffen, he hastily set the scroll aside and coughed, almost apologetically. "Huh... I think that can wait. Ah yes, there was one other thing that I am not sure you know about."
In five days time there was to be a... a party? No, that wasn't the word for it; I think reception, or perhaps formal ball would be more accurate. It was a celebration of the Eastern Realms victory amongst the high fliers of Sathe society: the Clan Lords of surrounding towns and the most prominent merchants.
"It is for them to pay their respects and pledge their loyalty to the Shirai," Rehr told me. "There will also be Gulfers present. A formal surrender of their Clan lands before an assembly after Tahr proved herself at the challenge."
THAT was something I'd screwed up royally. If I hadn't interfered in Sathe business - in that Challenge - Tahr would be dead. However, I had, and she was alive. Did that make her any less capable of ruling the Eastern Realm? I doubted it. Hraasa, now that was one I would definitely NOT like to see in the White House. Having Gengis Khan as your lord would've been only marginally worse.
"Is something bothering you?"
"Oh, no. No." I gave him a weak grin. "A party; and here I am without a thing to wear."
"Something will be provided," he assured me.
Lights, torches and lanterns, were burning throughout the Citadel. Windows small and large all over the faces of the ancient structure were lit; thousands of points of light against the dark vertices of stone walls and towers.
The air that night was warm. A breeze curling in through the open window made the lamps in my quarters flicker and carried the raucous sound of Sathe carrying out preparations for the night to come.
Two females, each so different from the other, turned together when I walked through the door. Remae had never seen me in anything other than worn army fatigues or Sathe clothing, altered and cobbled together to fit my frame. Now she blinked in surprise.
Both tunic and trousers were black, with aquamarine trim, silver piping on sleeves and legs. The broad leather belt was glossy black with a simple silver buckle matching the buttons. The cut was a sort of cross between dress uniform and a tuxedo, except neither of those styles would have the cloak slung across my shoulder: night black.
"Isn't this overdoing it?" I asked Max. "Didn't you have a tux?"
"Quit complaining!" she snapped back. "You look great." She fiddled with something on my collar and asked Remae, "That is good?"
The Sathe Marshal rubbed at the small tuft of fur on her chin while she cast a critical eye over me. "Good," she finally proclaimed it. "Very good. Muted, yet suits him well, but you will have to something about his fur. Rot you K'hy, stop squirming! You will be amongst some of the most influential individuals in the realms, you must make a good impression upon them. Now sit and be still!"
I was pushed down into a chair to endure their fussing over me; adjusting this and that detail, what would look best. Fingers both hairless and furred yanked my head this way and that, claws raked and tugged at my hair and beard: pulling and rearranging while the two women debated between themselves what look I should have. A bit off here? no, it looked better long, like a mane. Tie it back. Did Sathe kids play with dolls? I didn't know.
Maxine had indeed come a long way. Her accent was still strong and her vocabulary was not quite as extensive as mine, but now she was able to work hand in hand with a Sathe. It wasn't that long ago that just a Sathe's touch made her shy away.
The sound of Sathe shouting drifted in through the window on the breeze and Maxine started to go to work on my patchy beard with a pair of nail scissors she'd produced from somewhere. While her hands tilted my head this way and that I had to wonder what she would be wearing to the reception the next night.
I rapped my knuckles against the door. "Ms Wayne? You ready?"
Sathe Clan Lords and their retinues had been arriving in Mainport for the past week and the town was buzzing as merchants made the most of the sudden boom in trade. Further down the corridor a group of Sathe soldiers stopped to stare openly at us: probably out-of-town troops just looking around the Citadel. I glared back and they hastily moved off again.
The door opened. I turned back and began to say hello and left my jaw hanging open.
"You like?" Max asked.
I got a blurred impression of chiffon, lace, and flesh.
"I take it that drooling means yes?" Maxine smiled innocently, disarmingly.
I nodded stupidly, blinked several times. She was wearing... something not quite like a jumpsuit, not a blouse or dress, but unlike any evening gown I had ever heard of: white and tantalisingly semi-transparent in places. An intricate and somewhat daring neckline that would be completely lost on Sathe, looping down around her modest cleavage, melding with bloused sleeves. Down the sides of her thighs and hips the light fabric bloused out again, cut into vertical slits that hid just enough. Below the knees and elbows the white fabric was inlaid with silver and gold wire that made it hug the contours of her forearms and calves. More silver filigree wound through the auburn hair that fell about her shoulders. Shoes must have been a problem as the Sathe don't have anything approaching a cobbler: she was wearing white leather moccasins.
The evening-blue, floor-length mantle was fastened at her shoulder with a small disk of engraved silver. It made her eyes seem to glow.
"Well?" she smiled, "Are you going to stop gaping and escort me?" She didn't wait for me to answer, but hooked her arm through mine; half-dragging me, the cloak swirling behind her, brushing and flirting with mine.
There were guards waiting for us. They stared unabashedly as we passed, then hastily fell in behind us. More bodyguards.
"Where the hell DID you get that from?!" I finally blurted.
Maxine laughed and touched the filmy fabric of a sleeve. "Made it... with a bit of help and a few suggestions from friends."
"Who? Delmonte de Sathe?"
She didn't answer that, just smiled at me in a way that had me wanting to climb the walls.
The corridors throughout the uppermost tiers of the Keep were flooded with light; scores of servants replacing and relighting torches and lamps that had burnt themselves out. The smoke hung to the ceiling like inverted mist, escaping out open windows and doors. I could feel Maxine pressing against my side as we drew nearer our destination, then we ascended the final staircase and through the final doorway.
If I had harboured any fears that maybe we were dressed a smidgen... flamboyantly, those doubts were dispelled upon the first glimpse of the reception area ahead.
One entire wall of the massive room opened onto a terraced garden that overlooked the central courtyard of the Keep. Flowing arches and trellises wrapped in greenery blurred the interface between the interior and exterior, almost making it difficult to tell where the marbled floors and walls ended and the long grass of the garden began.
The doorway we were standing in was flanked on either side by columns towering up to the vaulted ceiling high above. A totally different type of architecture to that used in the great hall where massive rafters supported the weight of the roof by brute force. Here, the magic of slender arches easily shrugged off the mass of the ceiling. A cascade of broad marble steps paved the way down into a sea of furry bodies.
The room was a riot of colour. Clan devices and flags festooned the walls and ceiling while the Sathe themselves were an insane palette of color and styles: breeches, parade armour, sashes, cloaks, furs, decorative splashes of paint on fur... all manner of Sathe fashions and all in brilliant colours: Reds, greens, blues, pinks, yellows, purples, blacks. All these colours and more swirled and mixed while the sometimes-discordant, sometimes-smooth sound of Sathe music from a small knot of musicians drifted above the muted hiss of the crowd.
A sea of catlike faces swinging our way, green eyes widening, leathery nostrils flaring. Sathe leaned towards their neighbours, whispered questions spreading in a susurrus across the hall. As we two humans moved down into the room Sathe stared at us, some moving away, others standing their ground, but laying their ears back. Claws slipped from fingertips in unconscious reflex as the owners were faced with something they did not understand.
Many of them had heard that the Shirai had... strange... guests but didn't realise just HOW strange. Although nobody felt inclined to start chatting with us we did make a nice topic of conversation and a babble of Sathe voices rose in our wake. Being alone in a crowded room isn't a pleasant feeling.
Maxine and I moved across the room to an archway bordering upon the garden. The Sathe ideal of an aesthetically pleasing garden differed from that of neatly trimmed lawns favoured by most humans; they preferred the grass wild, burrs and weeds and all.
I snagged a couple of ales from a passing tray and handed one to Maxine.
"You're welcome." I took a sip and pulled a face. "If this's their best brew, it's going to be a long night."
"Do you know anyone?"
I looked back into the crowded room. "Can't see any famliar ears."
"What about her?" Maxine indicated someone standing behind me.
Surprised, I turned and looked down at the chocolate-brown Sathe who raised her goblet in salute and smiled up at me. Her mane was still the rust-red it had been in Weather Rock, but this time it was set off by golden strands of wire wound through it, individual strands coming together over her brow. Both her breeches and the light leather harness entwined about her torso were coloured brick-red and dark green, sometimes blending into, sometimes in contrast to her fur. The needle-like slashes of brilliant yellow and crimson across her harness were not a touch any human would have chosen. "It is good to see you again. There is so much that I did not get a chance to thank you for," Fres's said.
"Please, High One" I protested, "that is not necessary. It was my job. If you must thank someone, thank Tahr..."
"Ah, no," she waved my words aside. "You remember what Hraasa said? This was not your fight, yet you so nearly gave your life for us. For what you have done the Fres's Clan shall always thank you. You are welcome within our Clan circle and will always be welcome at any of our holdings."
"High One. I... I thank you." I didn't know what else to say.
The Clan Lord showed amusement at my confusion. Her ears flinched and she looked back at the crowd of Sathe in the room. "You would seem to be a little out of place here."
"We just do not seem to fit in, High One," I replied. "I cannot understand why."
The ears of the Clan Lord of Weather Rock twitched in mirth. "Aye, I would wonder how that can be." Then she turned to Maxine; blinked. "This is your mate? I had no idea that she would look so different from you."
Maxine looked sidelong at me. One of those 'give-me-a-break' looks.
"Uh, she is not exactly my mate."
"No? I would have thought that you would not have much of a choice whom you took." Why did everyone say that? "Tell me, does she have a name?"
"I-am-sorry. High One, this is Maxine. Maxine; Fres's, Clan Lord of Weather Rock."
Manners impeccable, Maxine bowed her head. "I am honoured, High One, but most Sathe find it easier to call me Mas."
Fres's ears perked up. "She speaks as well as you do!"
"Thank you," Maxine smiled.
By that time we had attracted a small congregation of amused and bemused Sathe dignitaries. A male decked out in gaudily decorated leather armour that would only have been of use on the parade ground stepped forwards: cautiously. "Fres's... you KNOW these?!"
Wrinkles formed up Fres's's muzzle. "Of course. I make it a point to become acquainted with all potential customers. Honoured folks, these are K'hy and Mas. They are H'mans." She clapped a hand on my shoulder - claws pulled - and grinned, "I should say they are more nervous of us than we are of them."
As if that was a signal, the Sathe moved closer, curiosity beating back their caution. Soon I found myself sitting upon a dark granite bench, one of several arranged in a circle in the overgrown garden beneath the dark branches of a Red Maple. Sathe clustered around on other benches, questioning me, commenting, laughing. I put up with curious hands touching my skin and hair, tracing unfamiliar bone structures, examining my hands.
As time marched on, Sathe drifted away, but there were always more to take their places. In so many ways these cream of the Sathe aristocracy were identical to the Sathe cubs I'd met: their curiosity, their questioning and touching. Curiosity killed... etc., etc.
Nearby, Maxine was engaged in conversation with a young male in greens and golds. I glanced their way in time to see him fondling her breasts.
Sathe eyes went wide and ears laid back as I vaulted the back of the bench and advanced upon the youth, my fingers clenching into fists. He turned at my shout then yelped and retreated before my advance. Sathe turned to watch. Several who had been talking to me followed me and I couldn't be sure if they would help or hinder me.
"Kelly!" Maxine had my arm. "What the hell're you doing?! God's sake, calm down! He was just looking."
"Dammit, he TOUCHED you!"
"So? They've all been touching you," she snapped, then her brows shot up and she grinned, "Jealousy?"
"Kelly, are you actually jealous?" She gave an incredulous laugh.
I grimaced and scratched at my head as I turned to the Sathe youth. "Sir, the mistake was mine. I misunderstood. I-am-sorry."
Maxine smiled at the Sathe. "He only thought he was protecting me. Please understand; forgive."
The youth looked from her to me, then back again. Abruptly his ears flicked. "Ah... of course. You are mated. Of course I understand." He stalked off to the watching crowd where he explained - loudly - to his friends that I was only thinking to protect my mate. She was, after all, the only one I had.
Embarrassed, I brushed through the long grass to lean on the railing of the garden. Far below - beyond the multitude of tiers - the granite of the ancient monoliths of the Clan Circle gleamed in the moonlight.
I didn't answer.
"Hey, it's nothing to get like that over. I mean, I'm flattered that you cared enough. You did stand up for what you thought was right."
I started as I felt a hand come to rest upon my shoulder. Maxine was looking up at me, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes. God, but she was beautiful that night. Things, emotions, dreams stirred inside. Slowly, I raised my hand to her cheek, brushing my knuckles over her skin. Wonder. Almost forgotten how soft it was. She smiled, pressed against my chest. I bent to meet her upturned face.
That moment between us snapped and dissolved into the ether, fading as if it had never been.
Remae stood nearby, waiting with a puzzled tilt of her head. The Marshal knew she'd interrupted something, but didn't understand what. "K'hy?"
Maxine stiffened and stepped away from me.
I swear, Remae, this had better be good!
"The Shirai has arrived. The ceremony is to begin."
"Honoured Shirai. On the behalf of my Clan, I lay my arms at your feet and bare my throat for your claws. We shall follow your tail and may none stray from the path you lead."
The voice of the Clan Lord echoed in the quiet of the room. The musicians had fallen silent while the multitude of Sathe had formed into ranked groups. Individual Clans gathered beneath their standards whilst listening to the litany being recited on the raised dais at one end of the room.
Tahr raised her arm to his throat and I saw claws stroking the fur there. "I return your arms to you," she replied. "I stay my hand. I accept your submission and your allegiance. In return, as your protector, I swear to defend you, to aid you, to watch over you and your kin. My food is yours. My drink is yours drink, and my roof is yours. All I ask of you is your allegiance."
"High one, our hands are your own. We shall follow," he promised.
Tahr leaned closer, to breath into his face. His nostrils widened as he inhaled and she stepped back again.
"Shirai," the Clan Lord bowed then stepped down from the dais.
Without protraction another Clan Lord was called forth, toward the platform where Tahr ai Shirai awaited. She was wearing orange and red breeches, tied just below the knees and at the waist with tassled cords. Around her shoulders rested a high-collared mantle: a light reddish-ochre with patterns of black spots like a leopards hide. The clasps that fastened it at her throat bore a blood-red stone the size of an egg.
Again and again, for Lord after Lord the litany was repeated. Tahr touched claws to throats, breathed into the muzzles and accepted their allegiance, one after another.
A Lord in red and black with a jagged ear.
My jaw clenched: Gulf Realm.
The Gulf Lord wasn't openly hostile, but there were hints: the stiffness in his posture, his clipped replies as he took the oath and resigned himself to the Claws of the Eastern Lord. Perhaps she applied a touch more pressure than she had upon the previous Lords; the muzzle of the Gulf Lord twitched slightly, as if in discomfort.
Finally the last Clan Lord returned to his retinue. There was a pause, then the next name was called:
"K'herry ai Yaviis."
The human name was pronounced with great strain, a lot of practice behind it. And it took a second or so for me to realise that name was mine.
Maxine nudged me out of my shock. "Go on," she grinned.
A corridor lined with dumbfounded Sathe had opened ahead of me, guiding the way to the dais. My boots echoed on the marbled floor as I crossed the huge room, climbing the steps slowly until I was level with the green eyes of the Shirai.
"For an Outsider to be adopted by a Clan is not unknown," she said, almost as if she were speaking intimately to me, yet loud enough for her voice to heard throughout the room. "However, for a Clan to accept one who is not even Sathe, that is an unprecedented event."
Tahr turned to confront the stares of the nobles below. "Not Sathe, but a person of intelligence and sensitivity enough to compare to any. It was nearly two years ago when this being and I first met. He saved my life and agreed to aid me, a time during which we both came to know each other and I say that he became much more than a friend to me. Were that he were Sathe, I would have taken him for a mate," she met my eyes again; ice-cool green depths, nevertheless glowing with warmth.
"That, however, was impossible.
"He has been through great pain at the hands of Sathe, yet still he bears us no malice, freely sharing gifts of knowledge from a distant and powerful civilization."
That drew some subdued muttering.
"And it was through his courage and honour that this Realm was able to hold its borders to itself. He has saved Sathe land and lives, putting his own at risk, more than once.
"It is with great respect that I ask this one whether he would accept the protection and loyalty of the Shirai Clan. Would he offer himself to the Shirai Clan."
I met her level gaze and swallowed. "High One, I would be honoured."
Claws touched my throat, gently, almost tickling. Through the pounding in my ears I heard Tahr speaking; asking me questions: "Do you swear to follow the Clan wherever it may lead? ... You shall defend the common ground, the circle... Always uphold the name of the Ancestors..."
Questions, a lot of them. The ritual went on for longer than the previous ones had. It was a more important ceremony, for taking an Outsider into a Clan was not something to be taken lightly, the Clan Lord had to have complete confidence in the other's character.
Tahr knew me, knew me with the intimacy with which I knew myself. I could almost see memories flickering like pictures in her eyes as she gazed at my face. She had to know that some of the things she was asking of me were impossible, meaningless. A Sathe warrior would hold fast to these oaths until the end, but I couldn't place the same value on them.
Her breath was warm and tartly sweet.
"K'hy ai Shirai, you are now of the Clan."
There was a breath of silence, then hissing cheers of approval started. I turned to look out upon the hundreds of Sathe faces, the noise crescendoing until it sounded like a storm-swept sea breaking upon a gravel shore. It took an effort to keep my face in a neutral expression; breaking into a grin could prove disastrous amongst people to whom the baring of teeth was an insult or challenge.
There were individuals and small, scattered groups who weren't so happy; looking either puzzled or downright dissatisfied. Notably, several types in red and black turned and stalked from the room.
Things turned far less formal afterwards. The music started up again and other stimulants were produced. Some Sathe nobility added powders to their drinks, others took drags from small pipes, producing sickly-sweet clouds of smoke I went out of my way to avoid. The food was brought out on long tables decorated with patterned cloths and elaborate candelabra were laden with delicacies of all descriptions... well, the Sathe would call them delicacies. I'd have to be damn hungry before I'd get started on some of that stuff: raw and underdone meat, bowls of pinkish-grey things that looked suspiciously like brains; other small, round things that stared back at you, internal organs, external organs. I tried a small pastie that looked safe, but the meat inside was so tough I had to swallow it nearly whole after chewing for a couple of minutes.
Maxine was also exploring the tables. She'd found some other kind of pasties, nibbled at one, then taken a larger bite. I was close enough to hear when she asked a servant what was in it. The Sathe gave a brief, one-word answer and bustled off in to the crowd. Maxine looked puzzled, then saw me, "What was that? Thifki? I don't know that word."
I swallowed, fighting a lurch in my guts. "Uh... You don't want to know."
"Yes, I do."
I shrugged and grimaced. "Alright... Testicles. Llamas'."
Maxine coughed and gagged, dropping the pastie like it was burning and grabbing at her mouth. Sathe who'd witnessed the exchange gave us curious stares mingled with sporadic laughter.
"You okay?" I asked.
"I think I need some air," Maxine gulped, looking decidedly green.
It was fresher outside. We left the noise and drug-stinks and lights behind as we walked the garden tier. Off to the right the time-worn balustrade overlooked the other levels leading down to the inner circle; like a stadium with the ranks of bleachers rising up around the field. Long, nightbound grasses parted like shadows before us as we walked, the music losing to the sound of the wind in the terrace trees and the soft voices of Sathe also out walking. Flickering oil lamps on poles were dotted around the garden, throwing lonely little pools of light. More lights burned around the interior of the Keep, far more lamps than usual, sparkling in the darkness like a grotto of fireflies.
"Feeling better?" I asked Max.
"Uh... Yes. Thanks. Goddamn. I thought there was supposed to be food here tonight."
"Same here," I sighed and looked up at the stars. They didn't twinkle in quite the same way as I remembered from back home. "You knew what was going to happen tonight," I said. Not really accusing her.
Maxine glanced at me. "Uh-huh. Tahr and Rehr talked to me about it earlier."
"Damnation, someone could have told me."
A grin creased her face. Pure humour that almost startled me. "We wanted it to be a surprise."
"Well better luck next time," I said nonchalantly.
"What? Bullshit!" she affected outrage. "You should have seen your face. If that wasn't surprise, I don't know what is."
"Okay, you got me. Guilty as charged."
"Those pledges you had to take. What where they? I didn't get all the words."
"Sort of like 'I pledge allegiance to the flag'. The Sathe version though, with things about following the High Lord, never straying from the trail, share the kill with clan and hearth. Etcetera, etcetera."
"They really are hunters," she breathed.
"Yeah. I wonder how old that ceremony is? As old as the Circle maybe."
She gave me a sidelong look: "How old's that?"
I was mildly surprised she didn't know. Still there was a lot for both of us to learn about Sathe. So, as we walked through the wild grass and trees and trimmed bushes and occasional oasis of lamplight, I told her.
It was peaceful out there. That garden ran around the interior of the Keep, a small park in itself. The Sathe we did meet - in pairs or small groups - sometimes greeted us, sometimes avoided us. The outer wall of the garden was the upper level of the Keep, hidden behind ivy-covered trellises. Down the far end of the garden we came across a simple railess staircase climbing upwards to the top of the wall.
Maxine gazed up to where the wall eclipsed the stars. "Shall we?"
"Do you want to ruin that outfit?" I asked.
"I'll chance it," she grinned back.
I followed close behind her up the narrow steps. The view was worth it.
The Keep's ramparts and roofs dropped away below us to the courtyard where bonfires burned. Further out, like contours lines on a map, the staggered walls of the Citadel wrapped the hill in concentric circles. Then there were the lights of Mainport, as bright as I had ever remembered. North, boats at anchor bobbed in the harbour with their lanterns shimmering on the water and beyond that the unbroken heartland of the continent stretched off into the moonlight. Millions upon millions of acres of unbroken wilderness. A new frontier.
Maxine wrapped her cloak closer against the cool breeze that wound its way amongst the towers of the Citadel, her hair stirring softly.
The light that fell upon the trees was such that it gave the illusion of moving water, as if the woodlands were some vast sea. Dotted around the horizon - indescribably faint - the lights of small farms and settlements, like ships in the night.
"Times like this I don't regret leaving the rest behind," I said.
Maxine nodded agreement. "Yeah, I know what you mean. It's beautiful." For a while we stood there; just watching, then she asked, "How did it happen? All this I mean," she amended, turning and sweeping her arm in an arc that encompassed the wilderness in front of us and the Sathe civilization behind. "The land, the plants, the animals, they're exactly the same as back home. I mean, if the Sathe evolved from native cats - something like the mountain lion or lynx - then wouldn't that've screwed up the food chain? I mean, they were one of the major predators. If they became agrarian, what happened to the herbivores?"
"Well, the Sathe still hunt them, and there would have been a corresponding increase in the number of other predators, you know: wolves and bears and all that."
"Yeah," she sighed. "Still, there should have been changes - major changes - right through the ecosystem. It's like tumbling Dominoes, you topple one, and the whole lot goes, one after the other. Something would've changed. Maybe new species popping up or something. There's also the geography; it's pretty much identical."
"'Cept the Arthur Kill's gone," I pointed out. "This isn't an island anymore. More like Staten peninsula. There must be more changes. I'd like to get a chance to see Arizona. You know, that meteor crater. Even Niagara would do."
"You could ask the Sathe about that. They've got settlements up there haven't they?"
The sounds of music drifted up from behind us. Sliding strains of an alien melody. Almost oriental. I crossed the battlements to look down on the garden where the party was still in full swing. Light spilled from the arches of the hall where multicolored figures moved between the towering columns. In the shadows and darkness of the garden there were glimpses of half-seen figures amongst the trees and bushes: Sathe, some walking, others - less inhibited than humans - enjoying themselves. I could still smell the food on the air and despite everything, it actually smelled pretty good.
Maxine was across the battlements, leaning against a merlon stained by weather and moss. "Can I ask something? About the fighting?"
That wasn't something I really wanted to talk about, nevertheless I shrugged, "What?"
Her eyes looked really strange in this light. I guess I'd been seeing only Sathe for far too long. "I did some asking around. Some of the things they say about you... are those things they say you did true? Running into a burning building to save a cub, defeating ten warriors singlehanded?"
I hesitated before answering. "Rumours."
"Are they true?"
"I never defeated ten warriors in single combat! For the most part I was just trying to stay alive."
"But you did save a cub from a fire?" she asked. When I just shrugged vaguely, she smiled and said, "That does sound like the kind of stuff legends are made of. Kelly, why'd you think they cheered you in there? They've heard what you've done for them, they respect you. Tahr gave you what she feels is the greatest honour that can be given. What you've done won't be forgotten in a hurry."
How right she was about that? Was that reason Tahr had adopted me into the Clan? Or was it something else, something political. The hierarchy of Sathe nobility was a snarl of intrigues, alliances, misdirections, and misconceptions, all buried so deeply beneath facades of goodwill that only someone born and raised into the system could truly have a hope of understanding it; let alone manipulating it.
My interference in the Challenge had really pissed Tahr off. I still had the scratches. But there hadn't been just anger in her reations, there was also fear. I hadn't been Eastern, not even Sathe; an enigma in the metaphorical eyes of the law. How could a person be recognised as such if they didn't even have clan and family? The Sathe word 'animal' translates as 'not Sathe'. That was us. By Sathe law I couldn't be called before a tribunal to be judged as a proper 'person' could but there was action could be taken against me... of an unofficial sort, a terminal sort, in a back room or side-street.
Eliminate the only random factor: Politics isn't a personal affair - it's cold and remote. Like an iceberg, most of it's hidden beneath the surface, and it's that part you can't see that's dangerous.
Thinking about that clenched a cold hand around my guts. If I was found out, if Sathe learned what had actually learned what had happened at Weather Rock, the best I could've hoped for was that caution to anger the Shirai Clan and reluctance to do away with something that could prove an asset to the entire Sathe race would at least preserve my life. That ceremony wasn't just an honor; it was an insurance policy, a shield. It wrapped me in the protection of the Shirai Clan.
But what would be done with Maxine?
"Max, has anyone said anything about getting you into the clan?"
She looked puzzled. "Uh... yeah. Tahr spoke about it earlier. She said that it'd 'take care of itself and in time you will join with the clan.' What'd she mean?"
"I'm not sure," I frowned. That certainly didn't sound like Tahr; too corny. What was she talking about... Then I put a couple of those words into the Sathe context. That could be what it meant... Could it? No... couldn't be. Still, thank God Maxine's Sathe wasn't quite up to nuances, riddles and puns. "You sure that's what she said?"
"Uh-huh. Word for word."
I shook my head. "I can't really say. I think I need a little talk with her." Again the smell of food drifted up to us and my stomach tried to remind me of all the hours since I'd last had a good meal. "Say, you hungry?"
She also sniffed the air. "Yeah, but not for Llama nuts."
I grinned. "Then how about we go somewhere we can get some decent food."
She brightened. "Sure. Where?"
"Uh, I think the Red Sails is about the only place in town that'd serve us."
At that her expression changed again. "Oh. What about what happened last time."
"That won't happen. They were in the Gulf payroll and we don't have to worry about that anymore. If you want we could get some Citadel guards to tag along."
I put one hand to my chest. "I swear. Scouts honour."
She pursed her lips, then shrugged lightly. "Alright. You're on. I'd like to get out of here for a while."
"You don't want the guards?"
"Nah, but do you mind if I get changed out of this lot?" she indicated the white eveningwear. "It's not the best stuff for walking around town in."
"Sure." To tell the truth, I wanted to get into something a little less conspicuous. I gave an exaggerated bow and held out my arm. "May I escort you to your quarters, madam?"
She giggled and took my arm, affecting a southern accent, "Why, sah. I'd be downraht honoured."
Ten minutes later I met Maxine at her door where she was still brushing her hair. She'd changed into levis, sweater, her leather bomber jacket, and solid hiking boots, all human made. I painted quite a different picture in a mixture of human OD shirt, boots, and my Sathe cloak and black breeches. Max looked me up and down.
"Sorry," I shrugged apologetically. "My other suit's at the cleaners."
She laughed. "Don't worry. You look... uh, great."
"Right. 'Uh, great' she says. Hell, who knows - maybe the look'll catch on. So, shall we go?" I fell into step beside her.
"You know," she said as we walked, "I don't really know much about you. I mean, where're you from? What did you do? What about your family? Huh?"
"Alright." I sighed and gathered my thoughts. "I'm from New Jersey originally. My parents, were killed in train crash when I was about two. I was adopted by friends of the family and grew up across the water in New York."
"Oh. I'm sorry," she said. I'd heard that too often. It seemed to be an automatic response from anyone who heard I'd lost someone.
"What? That I grew up in New York?"
She looked surprised. "No, that your parents were killed."
"There's no need to be. My foster parents were a great couple. I had a childhood a lot of kids would gladly trade their own parents to have. Anyway, it was a long time ago. Another world."
"Oh," she said again. "Why'd you join up?"
"Pay my way through the final years of college mostly," I said. "And I thought it'd be a change."
"No shit? Was it?"
"Well, yeah. I tell you though, I'd never realised how much I hated other people telling me what to do. I wonder what they've got me down as now: missing, AWOL, deserter..."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Maxine grinned. "What are they going to do anyway. Arrest you?"
"I don't know. If we ever get back there it could make it difficult. 'Gee, well you see Sarge, there was this planet inhabited by cats and they had a war and I was invited. Did I miss anything?'"
Guards in ornamental armour stationed at corridor intersections stared as we passed, those who knew me standing to attention.
"Anyway," I said. "What about you? Your family? You told me your father's big in computer circles."
"Yeah. Well, he's got his Integrated Solutions and mom has her teaching job. We don't really need the money, but she enjoys it. The last of the philanthropists, I guess."
"Brothers or sisters?"
"Nope. Only child. I was on break from college and just wanted to get away from it all for a few days. I've got... had a thesis due and thought I might get some inspirations out in the mountains. Huh! Got a bit more than that, didn't I."
"What're you studying?"
"Ahhh... Textile designs, some of the soft sciences: biology, psychology, English, struggling through calculus."
"Textile design," I noted. "That explains the dress."
She laughed, "Yeah. I showed Tahr sketches from my portfolio and she picked it out. I don't know what she thought of the other stuff in there."
The main entry hall of the Keep was around us now, our voices taking on the hollow tone they may acquire in a great cathedral. "I wish I could have seen that," I smiled, picturing it. "I think we confuse her enough as it is."
And we were down the steps and in the courtyard, walking through the pools of heat surrounding the bonfires that burned there, still chatting and learning. Servants bustled around, stacking wagonload upon wagonload of wood and keeping the fires stoked.
"You want to take the ute down?" Maxine asked me.
"Uhh... I don't think that'd work very well; we'd probably start a riot. Anyway, the parking's hopeless; probably get clamped. How about public transport instead?"
"Huh? What public transport?"
"I'll show you."
A few minutes later and we were riding. It hadn't taken much fast talking to get one of the Sathe carting wood up to give us a lift down; I think he was too terrified to argue. Anyway, he just sat there and drove, holding the reigns and trembling violently while Maxine and I sat back on the bed chatting away. We got off at the bottom of the switchback road down from the Citadel and thanked him. He didn't speak, just continued to sit and stare at us with a stupefied expression.
Despite the hour, the town was busy and festive. There were stalls in the streets lit with strings of colorful paper lanterns. Merchants shouted, cheerfully praising their wares while decrying their competitors' produce. There were troubadours and acrobats performing. Maxine and I paused to join a small crowd watching a troupe tumbling and leaping with a little less facility than human acrobats could achieve and when we turned away we found there was a larger crowd watching us.
Oh, well. Only to be expected I suppose.
The Red Sails was a welcome haven. I greeted the bouncers at the door and they admitted us without a fifth glance. From the top of the stairs the crowd inside seemed about normal; the usual mix of wharfies, traders, craftsmen, and a few guards on their off-shift. The smoke of cooking and the oil lamps used still gave the place its own cloud ceiling. The odours of Sathe and food mixed and mingled with the clatter of mugs and cutlery, the snarls and spats of voices. Some Sathe stared, which was usual, and some actually greeted me, which wasn't. I suppose hearsay of the Red Sail's unusual patrons had spread.
"Hi, K'hy!" The cheerful greeting in a familiar mangled English came from behind the bar. Dun colored fur and a flash of white teeth came from behind a pile of dishes balanced precariously on a tray. "Be right with you," she called, navigating with the ease of long practice through the clutter behind the bar to the door leading to the kitchens.
She returned half a minute later wiping her hands on a grimy rag and once again I wondered about the health regulations in this place. "K'hy. Mas. It has been a long time. Good to see you."
"Same here," I smiled back. "How is life treating you?"
"A?" she blinked, then grinned and leaned against the stained countertop. "Ah! Not too badly. Not too badly at all. Now, what have you been doing with yourselves?"
"Not a lot. Max has been working on her speaking."
She looked at Maxine. "Any improvement?"
"I like to think so," Maxine replied.
"Hah!" the Sathe female flinched back in surprise. "She speaks as well as you!"
"Well," I waggled my hand in an 'iffy' sort of way, "almost as well... uhnn!" I drew back as Max cocked her elbow again. "Alright! Uncle! As well as I do!"
"You are lucky she does not have claws, K'hy," the Sathe chuckled. "Now, are you drinking?"
"Oh, sure. Max?"
"You have any Steinlager? Thought not... Ah, ale for me."
"Same here, two ales please," I asked. "Also a meal if you could."
"Ah," she grimaced. "Your burnt meat? I thought there would be ample food at the Citadel this night."
I glanced at Maxine who made a face "It is not to our taste. Too... fancy for us. We prefer something simpler; like last time, no internal organs. Oh, and you'll also want this." I handed my knife across.
She took it, flipped it over, then slipped it under the bar. "Remind me to return it, all right? Very well. There is something cooking back there; I'll make sure it is dead and burnt. Find a table."
"Thanks..." I started to say, but she was already skittering off to the kitchen.
We found our table, scratched black wood in a dim alcove. A single beeswax candle flickered, the wax running down the side to puddle on the tabletop. Jeeze, against this just the formica and cheap plastic of a truck stop would look like a five-star restaurant. Maxine squeezed in opposite me, settling herself on the rough planks that served for seats. The candle threw deep shadows across her face, but her eyes glittered. "Kelly, what's her name?"
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"I thought so. How long have you known her?"
I scratched my head. "Ahhh... Not sure. I met her a while back, before you arrived. She almost put a quarrel through me. I guess things went uphill from there."
"Yeah." God, that she was alright. No prejudices neither, as that night way back then had proven. "It helps, you know."
"How do you mean?"
I drummed a short tattoo on the claw-torn tabletop: "A Sathe being so openly friendly. I mean, you know the looks you get just walking around the Citadel. When they're friendly it makes me feel like a person."
She nodded. "Oh. Gives you hope they'll maybe be able to treat us as human beings and not some kind of freaks?"
The two are kind of synonymous here, but I knew what she meant. "I hope so. Kind of weird though: humans of different races still haven't learned to live together and here we are trying to do that with a different species."
"You really think we'll have better luck?" she asked, brushing a strand of dark hair back.
"I hope so," I replied. "Damn, I hope so."
We were quiet a while, watching the Sathe watching us. I wondered what they were thinking when they saw the two of us sitting here. So many of them covertly glanced our way, met my eye, then hastily turned away again.
"Hmmm?" she turned back to me.
"Something I picked up." I reached into a pocket and pulled out the heavy little circlet. It glittered dully in the candlelight, the filigree head of the eagle shining silver. "I thought you might like it."
She blinked at me, then picked up the amulet by the thin chain, holding it dangling and twisting in the light before breaking into a smile. "Kelly, it's... thank you."
I smiled back. "Try it on."
She did so, tossing her hair forward to slip the chain over her head - it didn't have a clasp - then she touched the dime-sized circlet where it nestled against her throat. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah, it is," I agreed, meeting her eyes. "But it can't compete."
I think she blushed then. Damn candlelight: you can't see a thing.
Two pewter mugs banged down in front of us, spilling liquid. Furry muscular arms leaned on the table and a muzzled face grinned down. After that brief normality of Maxine it came as a slight shock. "Alright," she said, "Two ales. Warm and honeyed." Then she spied the pendant. "Ah... Very nice. A gift?"
"From Kelly," replied Maxine.
"Sathe made? I thought so, but I don't recognise the style. Not local?"
Max shrugged: "I do not know. Kelly? did you find this down south?"
The Sathe started. "South? What were you doing down there? The war..." Then it clicked: "Weather Rock?"
"Then it WAS you! My Ancestors! I heard stories coming back about the fighting there. There was talking about a handful of Eastern warriors stopping the Gulf advance in its tracks and leaving the fields covered with their bodies. They said there was a monst... uh, something not-Sathe helping us and I thought it might be you, but every description I heard was different. Hai, were some of those things they said you did true? Killing hundreds of them? Tearing a Gulf officer's heart out?"
I flinched in shock. "Where did you hear THAT?"
"I do not know. Just some troopers. Rumours."
Rumours. More stories. Lies. I felt a surge of anger. "Shit, rumours like that I do not need."
I think she noticed my irritation; Her nostrils flared. "I get your food."
I watched her melt back into the crowd, one cat among so many, then I sighed.
"Hey." Maxine swatted at my hand. "Don't let it get you. Not all of those rumours are bullshit. I mean, you did save lives. You had to take sides somewhere."
A flash of waves of Sathe going down under machinegun fire...
I shook my head: "Did I? We could've run."
"Where? They'd just come after us, wouldn't they? We couldn't hide forever... What's so funny?"
I shook my head. "It's just an argument I had with myself a while back. Do I run? Where do I go?"
"Oh." She glanced out of the booth at the room. "You talked yourself out of it."
"Yeah. Like you said, I couldn't spend the rest of my life running."
"No." She took a sip from her mug, grimaced. "If you hadn't got involved in the first place..."
"Hmmm? How do you mean?"
"Tahr. When you first saw her... I mean, why did you help her?"
I tasted my own drink: warm and malt and slightly sweet. I'd had a conversation along these lines before. "I didn't have much of a choice at the time. They were trying to kill me. Afterwards... well, she was almost dead and I wanted to find out just what the hell was going on. I just couldn't leave her." I watched another bead of wax run down the side of the candle.
"You weren't scared of her? I think I would've run."
"Scared? Of her?" I chuckled. "Bleeding, half-dead... Hell, yeah, she scared me shitless at first. I mean, I didn't know her language, I expected to wake up with my throat ripped out. It took time before... well... before we... before we knew each other."
There was an awkward silence. Maxine took a hasty drag from her drink and I stared uncomfortably down at my own mug and mentally kicked myself in the head. Why did THAT have to rear its head? however unintentionally?
Then she cleared her throat. I saw something awkward coming. "Ah, Kelly... I never really apologized."
"Huh? What for?"
"What I said about you and Tahr," she replied, not able to meet my gaze. "You were right: I didn't understand. I thought... I didn't know what you'd been through together. I'm sorry."
Those words. Amazing how just that little bit of forgiveness lifted a weight. "Thank you."
She touched the amulet. "While you were gone, she was worried about you. I've never seen her... She was scared, Kelly, scared for you!"
"So was I."
And our food arrived, stacked high on a tray adroitly waltzed through the crowd by the female bartender. Back to her buoyant self she handed out the steaming dishes. "As you wanted: just flesh and burnt."
Burnt... Now that was a relative turn. Medium-rare was more like it. Still, it looked one hell of a lot more appetizing than that stuff lurking in the bowls back up at the citadel. The meat was actually cooked, and there were more plants than any Sathe would want: potatoes and a leaf that looked a bit like lettuce. A thick gravy smelling like peanuts spread across the meat and chunks of rough bread perched on the side of the dishes.
"Hrilya likes a challenge, but he cannot understand why you would want to ruin a perfectly good meal. 'Why not just throw it into the fire', he said."
I poked at a steak. "It looks fine to me."
She hissed. "I would imagine they would have delicacies you could only dream at up there tonight. A rare occasion indeed."
"Has this kind of occasion happened before?"
She scratched her chin. "Ahhh, I cannot say for sure. There was something. It was way before my life though. There was also the Lake Traders, but they settled their differences. Now they are gaining more land in the South. You would have seen their representatives at the Citadel this night."
"Yes, they took oaths from several Gulf Clan Lords."
"Only fair. They helped us, so we repay them." She picked up the tray and seemed about to leave, then stopped and cocked her head at me, then at Maxine. "What about you two. How did the Shirai thank you?"
"A new name."
She nearly dropped the tray: "You are serious?!"
She stared, the tip of her tongue lolling from a corner of her mouth. "I would never have believed it. So, now what is your name?"
"Kelly ai Shirai."
"The Shirai herself. K'hy, you have some powerful friends. I would never have thought anyone would bring... people," a hesitation there, "like you and Mas into their clan. I mean, you are..." she trailed off, looking embarrassed.
"Yeah," I nodded. "But she only named me into the Clan. What about Mas?"
"Huh?" she blinked, then her ears flickered. "No, K'hy. You do not understand; You have been named into the Clan so your mate also carries the name."
"But we are not mated."
"What?" She looked taken aback at that. "Not mated?"
"I would have thought..."
She looked up at the shout from across the room. That male who'd stopped me the first time I'd come here was glaring our way. "Shave you, Ferhia! You are not paid to move your mouth all night!"
"I'm not paid enough to do anything else!" she muttered. "Alright!" she called back, then gave us an apologetic smile as I paid her. "Sorry. If you need anything else...
"ALRIGHT!" she bellowed back. "Clear the way! Coming through!" and she was weaving her ways through the tables and Sathe back toward the bar.
We were quiet for a while.
"Uh, yeah, well." I picked up a rib and was about to take a mouthful.
Max was just watching me, ignoring her meal. "That's what Tahr was talking about, isn't it. That shit about 'in time'. I'm supposed to be your... mate, as she so delicately put it. Shit! Why'd she DO that?!"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Perhaps she thought she was helping us..."
"Helping?!" she looked insulted.
"Look. She was pretty torn up when she found out you were upset about... us sleeping together. She thought she'd been helping me, then she saw you were so shocked by what had happened. It confused her. She would never deliberately do anything that'd hurt us."
"No." Maxine quietened. "She wouldn't." Then she startled me: "She really loves you, you know."
I shrugged vaguely, trying to damp down the emotions her words stirred. What had they talked about while I was away? A lot, by the sounds of things, and Maxine had come to learn a little more about Sathe... and me. "It... it wouldn't have worked out."
"No." A corner of her mouth twitched. "I don't think so."
The next few minutes there wasn't much said. Three meals a day and not a lot of hope of anything in between, cold buildings, it all added up; You got hungry, and when food was available, you ate.
We ate. In silence. Every so often I'd look up to meet Maxine's blue eyes, watching me. The amulet at her neck burned warm red-gold in the candlelight, a circlet of reflected fire against the paleness of her skin.
Not fur; skin.
It wouldn't have worked.
She glanced up, her eyes meeting mine, then ducking away again. Blue eyes, with their whites startling in the dimness. It wasn't fear; it was normal.
Normal? What was normal?
Two females, one not even human, the other... Well, when we first met she'd tried to give me three adam's apples. Normal?
But she was beautiful. Not in the same way Tahr was; it wasn't that lean, predatory sleekness. It was something different: the delicacy of the face, the cheekbones and nose, the eyes, the waves of dark hair of a texture and sheen no Sathe mane could ever match.
"Huh?" I'd been staring. I blinked and smiled. "Yeah?"
She ran a piece of bread around the remnants of her meal, sponging up gravy. "What're we going to do now? I mean... can we go home?"
I shook my head. "I don't know... Tahr... you know a while back she offered some land. I laughed then, but now... well I might just take her up on that."
"Land? What for?"
"Make our own home," I said. "Get used to living here and find some way to make it on our own. I can't keep freeloading off her forever."
"Oh," she tore a piece of dark bread off and nibbled at it. "Somehow I can't see myself spending the rest of my life here, with them. It just doesn't... I mean, forever: it's a long time..."
"Hey," I reached over to touch her hand as she trailed off, getting that anxious look about her. She flinched, but didn't pull away. "Look; you're one hell of a gutsy and beautiful woman. You're not the kind to let this get to you." I held her hand.
She clenched mine back, then mumbled, "I can't," and slid out of the alcove, turning and stopping like she'd forgotten something; just standing staring across a smoky room of Sathe. A few turned to stare as she stood there, green eyes blinking curiously, voices muttering. More looked and she continued to just stand there, frozen on the spot, like a kid out on stage for the first time staring dumbly back at the audience. I saw her hand trembling.
Table legs squeaked on the floor as I pushed it aside, touched her shoulder. "Hey. Max?"
She just grabbed me and held on, her face buried against my neck as if trying to block the world out and I was holding her tightly, feeling her heart racing and her hands digging into my back.
The noise around us died.
Damn! I'd never thought! What had she been through? I'd had Tahr. I'd had a close friend, someone I could talk to, someone who'd been a warm presence on those dark nights. Soft words and gentle hands to comfort me when I'd had enough of the world, when I didn't understand. Max... she'd had no-one. I'd gone away and she hadn't known if I'd ever be coming back. For her Tahr was a stranger, even stranger than me, who'd had the best intentions, but who probably still frightened her.
How often had she woken up from nightmares? as I'd done.
So, in that crowded tavern, reeking of food and staring, overheated Sathe, I just held her, murmuring reassurances while she clutched me and shook. I don't know how long it was until a hand touched my shoulder. Greenstone eyes, ears tipped, concern:
"You are all right?" the barkeeper - Ferhia - asked.
"Max?" I whispered.
She pulled back a little with eyes running water, nodded.
"You want to go back now?"
She flinched. "Kelly, it's cold... empty..."
Cold. Yeah, it was. Perhaps I'd grown used to it... She'd never spoken and the Sathe had never known; how could they?
"Ferhia? Could we... ?" I glanced toward the ceiling. She understood.
"Ah... certainly. Here, this way."
We followed and I felt eyes on us as we left and I really couldn't give a damn.
It was a different room. She had the decorum for that at least. There was a window and a bed and a tiny fireplace. Ferhia lit a few candles and pointed at the logs in the hearth. "If you are cold..." she trailed off, then gave me a subdued smile and closed the door behind her.
Maxine slumped on the bed, her English out of place in that dark little room. "Oh, God. I made a dork of myself down there."
"I've done worse," I smiled as I checked the window. Quiet outside; Gibbous blue moon over the harbour. "Just get some rest, okay? It'll help."
In the dim candlelight she nodded. That bowl-shaped bed creaked as she leaned back into the furs and sheets. I moved to snuff a candle. "I'll sleep on the floor, okay? Just get some blankets and that. Used to do it all the time when I was with Tahr. I'm used to it."
"Yeah?" I hesitated with my arm outstretched, ready to snuff another candle.
"Would you stay? I mean, with me? ... Please?"
I clenched my fist to hide the sudden trembling in my hand. Unexpected? Of course the idea we'd get horizontal had reared its head. How could it not? That 'if I was the last guy on Earth...' line taken to extremes. But that's all they'd been: ideas. Dreams.
Now, by the light of one candle she was mostly shadows, eyes watching me. Carefully, like I was walking on ice, I settled beside her, just sitting and putting an arm around her, holding her close. Strange muscles shifted and smooth fingertips stroked my arm, my hand. "Max." I choked. I didn't know how to tell her. "We can't... If you get..."
Her hand took mine and guided it, touching her forearm and the tiny tube just under the skin. "Norplant." Her voice husked. "No kids, guaranteed."
Now, by the light of one candle the shadows shifted, a corner of her mouth quirked in a smile, the rest of her face hidden behind a fan of hair. Like mist on my hand when I brushed it aside...
A warm morning.
Sounds of the town woke me. Across the room, early light was trying to peek through cracks in the shutter, throwing dime-sized spots of light on the wall above me. Still half asleep I stretched, then rolled, draping an arm across warm skin and spooning up to a smooth back, lightly nuzzled the short hairs on the nape of a neck, drinking in our mingled scents. Married now... Well, sort of married. Funny, but I'd always thought I'd have known when it happened.
"Huhhnnn?" Maxine made a sleepy noise.
"Morning and waking," I greeted her.
Maxine stirred, yawned, rolling over and snugging up against me, her breasts pressing against my side and an arm draped over my chest. "Morning to you too, lover," she smiled lazily. "How you doing?"
"Ah. Not too bad. Better than I have for a while." I replied.
From outside came the cries of gulls, a baker shouting that the morning bread was ready, the best in the Realm. Llamas bleated and hooves and wheels squealed and rattled on cobblestones.
A normal morning.
"What day is it?" Maxine asked.
"Huh? How'd you know?"
"Feels like a sunday."
She giggled and slapped my arm and for a long while we shared pillow-talk. You know... the kind of vital nonsense relationships are built from; just chatting about the weather, each other, whether or not Sathe could play baseball, why exactly do escalator rails move just that bit faster than the thing you stand on. Those little nothings. While we talked and laughed and touched, the sounds outside grew louder and the light brighter until the new day was something we just couldn't ignore.
"Ah, shit," I sighed, lounging back into the warmth of the sheets. "I guess we'd better start thinking about going back."
"Awww... Why?" she groaned and stroked my chest, carefully tracing the raised tracks of the scars that had startled her so much at first. "I was starting to like it here."
"Must be the company."
She looked thoughtful. "Nooo... I don't think so."
"Hey!" I affected hurt, clasping hand to my heart. "That wounds."
Her gentle touch turned to a playful thump on my chest, then she propped chin on fist and smiled down at me. "A good night?"
I let my fingertips play across her cheek. "The best."
"Better than a Sathe?"
"Hey! Sorry. Joke. All right?" she slapped my chest again and stared into my face, concerned. Blue eyes, smooth skin, aburn hair soft like fur like green eyes white sharp teeth...
Maybe Maxine saw the twitch in my eyes, maybe it was some other cue. Anyway, she smiled, then leaned forward to plant lips against mine. I responded and our breath mixed as our tongues wrestled until she pulled back, panting and smiling. "Is there somewhere around here to clean up?"
Ensuite bathrooms are not an option in Sathe inns. The nearest hot water would be down in the kitchens, and there was no room service.
So I was the one groping my way down a dark stairwell, fumbling with the buttons on my shirt and trying to avoid splinters in my bare feet. The door at the foot of the stairs opened into the Red Sails tavern and I stepped through, bracing myself for the stares and...
The room was empty. Chairs were stacked on the tables as in any human bar after hours. There were a couple of narrow, barred street-level windows adding their dusty streams of sunlight to the feeble sputtering of oil lamps. The fire that had roared in the hearth was just glowing embers now. She was sitting at a single table in the centre of the room, a pitcher and two mugs before her.
"Morning, K'hy." Her voice was hollow in the empty room.
I stared in shock. "What the hell... ? What are you doing here?"
"You vanished last night. No warning. You had a lot of people worried."
Not really an answer. "How did you find us?"
She shrugged. "Sathe see things. They talk..."
Floorboards creaked as I wove my way through the deserted tables, plucked a chair and lowered myself into it, still nonplussed. "We were followed, right?"
She actually shrugged, human style. "A drink? You sound dry."
I nodded and took it.
"So," she breathed, "Mas also has a new name this morning."
"I scent. You reek of her. It is hard not to notice." Her hands toyed with the mug, batting it back and forth on the table. "I had thought you were worried about cubs."
Yeah. I had been. Thank God for Norplant. "It... it is something we do not have to worry about for a while."
"And you claim not to be driven like us," she smiled. "You enjoyed yourself?"
Second person that morning to ask me...
"Immensely... but, Tahr, why did you have to play games with us like that?"
"At the ceremony, could you not have done the same for Maxine there and then? Why this way? It seems so... risky."
"Risky?" she looked confused. "In what way? It is perfectly normal for one of a pair of mates to take the oaths. K'hy, people took you for mates from the instant they saw you. It would have been... awkward to name the pair of you. Questions would have been asked. Besides, what would we do if we had to name every bond servant in the Gulf Realm? I could never finish it in my lifetime! Anyway, it worked: you are mated and she is Shirai."
"But if we had not mated?"
"Why would you not?" she asked. "You are the only h'mans around. You are male, she is female. You are both leery of sex with Sathe. I think that limits your options."
"Tahr... Oh, Damnation! Tahr. Please, believe me! It does not work like that."
Her muzzle wrinkled, then her right ear slowly drooped. "I did wrong?"
"Yes," I nodded, then smiled. "But thank you. Your heart was in the right place."
She glanced down at her pelted chest, but the ears came up again.
I took a taste from my mug: Wine, slightly tart. Uhnn. I put the mug down again and asked Tahr, "How did things go at the Citadel?"
"Southerners gave their oaths to the Realm and the Lake Traders. The Northerners were pleased with that. Easy victory and easy land: a couple of lesser seaports around the Gulf. There were questions asked about Hraasa's death."
"It was not from their Born Ruler. A couple of their Lords were asking some questions that were... well... enlightened guesses. They got no answers that could help them." She gave me a despairing look, "Strange One, why could you not have been a little more circumspect?"
My Furry One, if I'd had the choice, I'd have taken him out with a fucking tactical nuke.
However, I kept my mouth shut.
"Ah, well," she sighed. "As long as they do not try and follow the scent further, I think things will be interesting enough. Here, there is something I think you would like to see."
Outside, a body of royal guards was blockading the front door; that explained why the place was dead. Where was the staff? The guards stiffened to attention as we stepped out, some glancing at my bare feet. Tahr ignored them and pointed up the street to where the walls and towers of the Citadel were visible over the shingle roofs. Beyond those walls a patchwork, tear-drop shape was ponderously hauling its way into the flat, blue sky. The mismatched colours, the reds, greens, purples, blues, greys, yellows caught the sun as it rose from the shadow of the Keep and gleamed like a technicolor rainbow. I could hear shouts rising from the surrounding town and even jaws in the stolid Royal Guard dropped.
"You brought it back!" I stated the obvious, in case she hadn't noticed.
"Of course," Tahr's greenstone eyes were riveted on the rag-tag orb hanging above the ramparts and towers of the Citadel. "There were protests about your being brought into the Clan. Now that flies to show what you can give us." She smiled, "It has swayed more than a few opinions in your favour. Here, inside. I have a few more words."
Inside again. Tahr talking as she led the way back downstairs, "You see, that can be your future. There is no limit to what a Clan Lord would pay for knowledge like that. Enough trade goods or coinage to keep you in luxury for the rest of your days. It was a reason the Lake Traders did not press the land issue: they saw what you were capable of at Weather Rock and suddenly they are being uncommonly courteous in their dealings with us.
"You built that machine for the library and the scholars went mad over it. Already they are stretching the paper supplies, but they are sending quality texts across the Realm." She snorted, "Huh! some of them even began printing sheets of gossip and news compiled from traders and selling them around the town and the Citadel."
Huh? I blinked. Tabloids already? Sheesh, they didn't wait around. I rubbed my chin. "Tahr, bits and pieces here and there look good and may be fun to play with, but I would like to do more to help your people."
She stared back at me for a long while. "Do we need help?"
"Uh... I did not mean it to sound like that."
"Then how did you mean it to sound?"
"Knowledge like that is like a part of a puzzle, but only a very small part. I do not know exactly how to put this... Umm... Humans used to live to only about thirty or forty years."
"Wait," she tapped at her ear. "I could have sworn you told me you live to seventy or eighty."
"Now we do," I explained. "After many centuries of hard work." I went on to briefly recount the ages leading up to the time I had left behind: The Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, up to our own Atomic Era. "They always took us a little further forward in our knowledge, but we had to make sacrifices. Tahr, I have given it some thought and I think we can show you where some of the mistakes lie. We can save a lot of lives."
"But what does that leave us?" she replied gently. "What of our dreams? How would your people feel if a more advanced culture suddenly appeared on your world and told you how you should run your lives?"
"Yes," I wagged my head in a half-nod and shrugged, "I can understand that. But look, farmers may work themselves near to death just to try and scratch out enough to see them through winter. If I know ways that would triple their crop yield, would that be interfering? I know that I could not just watch a cub die from illness or injury when there are ways of preventing or curing it. That would be murder. Where do you cross the line between helping and interfering?"
Tahr stopped, scratching her jaw while dust motes danced around each other in the sunbeam behind her. "Well, I think we can say that you are not forcing us to adopt your customs. I believe, if anything, the opposite has occurred." She looked pointedly at my Sathe breeks, then stepped closer to reach up and brush her hand against my face, stroke my hair where it hung to my shoulder.
"Kelly?" Maxine was at the door, watching us. I should've guessed she'd walk in... "What are you doing?"
"Having a mad, passionate affair with Tahr," I replied lightly. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason," she smiled as she walked towards us, swinging her hips and jutting breasts out more than normal; trying to catch my attention. She saw Tahr as a threat? Possible. "What's she doing here," she asked in English and that question was silk wrapped around sharp steel.
"I asked her the same thing." I spoke Sathe. "We left in rather a hurry last night. She came to see we are all right."
"You had a good night?" Tahr asked Maxine, her nostrils twitching.
"Very good," Maxine smiled back. I put my arm around her and felt her relax against me. Tahr's nose was working overtime. "What were you talking about?"
"Our future," I provided.
"With the things you already have you can be wealthy," Tahr said. "But K'hy had some other ideas."
"Hmmm?" Maxine looked interested. "Like what, lover?"
Tahr's ears flicked like heliograph shutters and I felt my own burning. "Ummm... starting from scratch, from the beginning. Tahr, you remember you said we may be able to gain some land of our own?"
"Yes. You laughed."
I nodded. "I remember... Tahr, I do not think we can stay at Mainport and live off your generosity. We have to learn to make our own way in your world. What I am asking would take time and effort before it started making a profit, but I think we can make it work. What I am asking for is a home."
The pressurised oil lantern hanging over my desk burned brightly. I'd copied Max's Coleman, improving on the Sathe design by putting a pale glass bulb and chimney around a hollow wick. My dinner sat on the edge of the desk, practically untouched; cold. The light threw shadows around the cluttered room as I rubbed my eyes, and sighed at the lines on the drawing board.
Six hours I'd been there, working on a way to improve our vacuum pumps. The filaments in the lightbulbs we'd started manufacturing kept burning up. Filling the bulbs with an inert gas was out of the question at the moment, the best we could do was a vacuum, but our current pumps weren't efficient enough. Yet.
"Put that away, lover," came a quiet voice from behind me. "You've been working at that all day. It's nearly midnight."
"Oh," I stretched and glanced at my watch. "God, I never noticed."
Maxine stepped up behind the chair and put her arms around my neck. "Come to bed," she murmured in my ear.
I pushed the board away and reached up to hold those arms. "Hmmm, alright. I'll just clear up here."
I laughed and got up, hugging her against my chest with a mock growl. She squealed and put up a token struggle before relaxing and wrapping her arms around my waist. We just held each other for a while.
"Told you we could make it," I murmured.
"Know-it-all," she retorted and a Sathe burst through the door, ears flattening when he saw what he'd interrupted. "Ah, High Ones? There are alarms. Possibly bandits."
Outside the skeleton of the windmill rose above the packed dirt of the courtyard; wooden bones cutting geometric shapes out of the night sky. Beyond the felled trees on the edge of the lower meadow, the forest was black, the night as dark as night, the branches a wooden tangle shades darker than the nightblue of the sky behind them. Faint light spilled onto the dirt as the doors to bunkhouses were thrown open, the Sathe inside spilling out, still buckling their armour on and preparing their weapons. The best fighters drawing their swords while the rest cocked their repeating crossbows and took their posts on rooftops and lumber piles around the courtyard.
The fortified roof of the guard house overlooked the whole area. Sathe waited there in absolute blackness, bleary-eyed workers. The officer in charge of the guards met us as we came up the stairs. "Sir, the alarms on the main road gave them away, then there were more on the game trails circling around."
"Not a chance."
"Alright," I looked out toward the main road. Clouds were blowing across the moon; at some moments I could see as far as the treeline across the meadow, at other times hardly the Sathe in the guard tower with me. Sathe weren't so handicapped. "How many?"
"They must be feeling lucky." In the dimness his teeth flashed. "About twenty on the main trail, another fifteen around the back."
Altogether our forces numbered sixty-five, but there were only a dozen professional guards. We never intended to do much fighting, but we could look after ourselves if we had to. I unlocked the cage covering a series of knife switches and pressed a small button; a needle clicked. The cells were charged and ready.
"Tell me when they reach the markers," I muttered at the officer. He nodded; a mannerism some of them had picked up from me and liked to copy for some reason I never had been able to figure out.
"There!" one of the Sathe pointed.
They coagulated from the utter darkness of the trees. One minute the meadow was empty, the next silent shadows running up the track towards us. Their hope was to take us by surprise.
"They are about to pass the markers... NOW!"
I flipped half the switches down.
Down in the field, flashes of flame lit the night. Gouts of dirt and dust were flung into the air, preceding the pile-driver retorts of the explosives. The screams started before the echoes had died away.
The mines were intended as anti-personnel devices, jury-rigged claymores. Just an angled trench with a sealed barrel of powder at the bottom and a mixture of heavy and small rocks stacked on top. When the mine was detonated it sent a spray of debris blasting out across the fields before it like a beehive round in a field piece.
They were surprisingly effective.
The echoes of the explosions resounded off the distant hills of the broad valley, fading away, leaving only the cries of wounded and shell-shocked raiders: Piercing screams and whimpers that were even more horrible for all their helplessness. From the buildings behind us came a few final snaps and yells as crossbows finished off the raiders. Darkness is no great handicap for a Sathe archer.
Howls rang out and metal-wielding silhouettes dashed out from the buildings, running towards the ruined figures of the raiders where they sprawled and huddled. The few raiders who tried to flee were quickly brought down.
I pulled the key from the console in front of me and tucked it into my shirt before going to join the workers as they rounded up the survivors.
All five of them.
I looked down at them huddled in the dust, hands bound behind their backs. Their clothing was tatty scraps of leather cobbled together to form some semblance of armour; grime seemed to be the only thing preventing many of the filthy outfits from falling apart again. All their swords were clean and gleaming, showing that care had been lavished upon the tools by which the bandits hewed their living. At least there weren't any glimpses of Gulf armour beneath the rags.
I picked up the weapon of one survivor: it was an Eastern soldier's scimitar. The wounded owner frantically tried to scramble away from me as I pulled the scabbard from his waist and sheathed the weapon, then lifted his kilt and took the dirk concealed on the inside of the leather strips. Seeing that, the workers searched the other captives for hidden weapons.
A small arsenal stacked up on the ground.
"Sir?" Tlase - the Sathe I considered the foreman - was waiting, a crossbow cradled in his arms. "What do we do with them?" he asked, pointing at the bandits.
"Lock them up under guard," I said. "We will turn them over to the garrison in Last Hunt tomorrow. The bodies... Bury them. They will make good fertiliser."
The foreman signed assent and stalked off, hissing orders as he organized the workers into guard details. I grabbed one of the bandits by his scruff and hauled him to his feet. He whimpered at my touch; a pathetic sound. They were locked away in a small, sturdy building normally used to store wheelbarrows.
There was a commotion from over where the Sathe were dragging corpses from the road and stripping them before burial. I started over in that direction and several of them saw me coming, breaking off and running towards me. Their excited gabble came so fast I was swamped, unable to follow them:
They fell silent.
"Now, what is the matter?"
"Sir!" One of the workers - a young male, grey in the darkness - held out a handful of trinkets: rings, a few strips of intricately embroidered cloth, a small chain with pendant. "Sir, my uncle... Nresan. These are his. He has a farm just north of here. These are his!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! Sir, my father gave this armband to his mate just last summer!"
My heart lurched. Were we the bandits only targets that night, or had they been busy... "When was the last time you saw them?"
"Ah... A few days ago. It was after..."
"Oh, shit!" I was already halfway to the shed where the ute was kept, yelling over my shoulder: "Tlase, get four of those guards! Now!"
The engine ground a couple of times, then turned over with a growl I hadn't heard for a long time. I revved a couple of times, watching the gas needle climb and settle at just over half-full. The passenger door opened and Maxine jumped up into the cab, the VP-70 still clutched in her hand. "What's up?!"
I tried to explain as I snapped the lights on, shifted into gear and floored it, the wheels spinning and throwing dirt against the shed walls. Tlase was running towards us with the four Sathe guards in tow. They all shied aside as the headlamps swept over them and the truck skidded to a halt. "Get in!" I bellowed out the window.
The Sathe fumbled with the lock, then yanked the door open. Three piled into the back while the other two vaulted into the bed behind the cab. I put my foot down weaving through the buildings that turned to forest flashing through the lights as the truck barrelled down the narrow track, trees whipping past on both sides. Behind me, a Sathe in the back seat was keening in terror as the truck bounced and crashed on tortured suspension, the ruts twisted and wound in the headlights. For that split second it was something I'd been through before: road gone, headlamps sweeping across bush and grass, metal protesting...
A Sathe yelled and a wagon appeared across the road in front of us. The ute slewed sideways, not far enough, and wood splintered, crashing across the hood and windscreen and then the smashed remains of the wagon were vanishing in the glow of the taillights, the llamas tangling themselves in their harnesses as they struggled in panic.
The silence after the engine shut off was palpable. I stepped from the cab, one hand resting on the door as I stared at the remains of the farmhouse.
Fully a third of it was charred rubble. By some fluke, the fire had died away, but that hadn't saved the rest of the building. The door was lying several metres away, amid the remains of smashed furniture and tattered clothing strewn in front of the small house. The front porch had collapsed at one end where the supports had been eaten away by the fire and what looked like a bundle of rags had been wrapped around a post flanking the steps.
As we got nearer I saw they weren't rags.
I've seen a lot of senseless, horrific things over the years; they've acclimatised me to violence, but things like that... it was the remains of the farmer tied there. He'd been skinned and gutted, his innards dangling from the gash in his stomach, castrated. What was tied there didn't resemble a Sathe at all.
There were rumbling growls from the Sathe. Maxine turned green and bit her lip.
Tlase and I found the remains of his mate in the bedroom. Naked, stinking, and skinned. The remains tied spread-eagle on the stained furs of the small bed still had fur on the hands and feet and head, like her mate... Why? Why skin them!? Who the hell would buy a Sathe pelt?! It was sick.
I didn't let Maxine go in there.
We staggered out of that charnel house and slumped down in the cold glare of the Ute's headlights. I looked around at the faces of the other Sathe. One of them was the one who had said this had been his uncle. He stared at me with wide eyes and all I could do was shake my head. "I am sorry."
"They had cubs," he said in a faint voice. "Two."
While Maxine and three of the others searched the outlying farm buildings - the barn and ploughshed - the rest of us searched the little farmhouse from top to bottom. Finally a shout from one of the Sathe brought us running.
She was kneeling over a hole in the floor of the main room. The cover that had concealed the crawlspace was flung aside. It had been hidden by smeared ash spilled from the fireplace. The Sathe reached in and lifted out a couple of bundles of cloth and laid them on the floor then looked at me.
I knelt and looked at the tiny balls of fur in the bundles, neither larger than both my spread hands. The little one squealed as I picked it up, wrinkled face with shocking blue eyes baring its minuscule teeth in an instinctive snarl. The claws were still soft as the hands grasped at my finger when I touched the thin fuzz of fur that covered its face.
"Kelly..." Maxine stooped down beside me and gasped as she saw the cubs. "My God," she murmured and I smiled as she scooped the other bundle up, cradling it against her breast and touching the tiny muzzle with a delicate finger.
"Two cubs," Tlase was staring openly. "They were very lucky."
Lucky... In some ways, yes.
I looked up at the Sathe; the nephew of the deceased farmer. "Would your Clan take these in to care for them?" I asked him. He gaped back at me and his ears went back in shocked surprise.
"Sir... it is impossible... you know..." he trailed off, nervous and uncomprehending, looking to Tlase for support.
Oh, shit. Yeah, I remembered about Sathe and their offspring. No matter what happened, it was only a matter of time. Shocked and lost, I looked down at the mewling bundle in my arms, then up at the faces of the Sathe. "They cannot just be left here..."
"No," Tlase agreed with a mournful look at the cubs. "All we can do is make sure that they do not suffer."
"You cannot mean KILL them?!"
"Well there is not much else we can do," he said sadly and with perhaps a touch of anger. It was a deep-seated wound in the Sathe psyche that I had touched; their inability to nurse another's cubs. It was natural - a part of them - but they were never able to completely accept it. Children were a rare and precious thing to them, and to be forced to kill them out mercy rather than let them die of neglect... that hurt deeply.
"No!" Maxine stood up and put her foot down.
Tlase stepped back, afraid of his employer's anger.
"Max..." I started to say.
"Kelly!" she snapped, horrified. "You can't! Look at them!"
I did. I looked down at the minuscule bundle of life I held in my arms. The tiny buzz of a purr was coming from its throat as it nuzzled up against me. Maxine moved over to me and leaned her head against my shoulder, the two purring cubs nestled between our bodies.
I gritted my teeth and made my decision. For better or for worse...
The snow was being driven before the wind in a howling, opaque blizzard. From the windows of the house it was only occasionally possible to see the dark blades of the mills and the warm fireflies that were lights in the other dwellings as the flurries shifted and moved. A few Sathe muffled in cloaks and parkas pushed their way through the drifts as they tended miscellaneous tasks.
It was amazing the way a small town had erupted from what had been a cluster group of buildings only two years ago. And it was still growing. There were Sathe immigrants of all descriptions and professions, many of whom had just been drifters, passing through on their way from nowhere to nowhere, attracted by the jobs and technology that promised if not riches, at least a living. Even so, we were usually short-handed.
I let the heavy drapes fall back across the window and turned to look around the room with pride. The A-frame house was the product of two years hard work by Sathe and humans; a test of the construction techniques used for the other buildings around the growing community. It was also our home.
The living room was large and open plan with a sunken living area in the middle and a dining area situated off to one side. The circular stove in the centre of the living space was the first fruit of the cast iron industry we were firing up. The copper coils encircling it were part of the wet-back water-heating system, but would also become part of the central-heating once our steel-working techniques became refined enough to manufacture the necessary pumps. Above, the room stretched upwards to the peak of the roof while a mezzanine balcony led to the rooms on the second floor.
Wood proliferated throughout the room. The strong grain of varnished and sanded oak softened and highlighted at the same time by the illumination of gas and pale electric lamps. There were rugs on the bare wood floor and pieces of furniture scattered about: a couch, cushions, a low table, and a couple of chairs in the living area. The stove door was wide open, the fire inside throwing light and heat upon the massive bearskin lying before it.
Maxine and I didn't have many possessions as yet and we definitely weren't what you'd call wealthy; both the funding we received and all the profits we made being invested in new ventures, but the trade our community was doing in textiles and other goods such as cast-iron stoves, spinning wheels, medicinal alcohol, clothes pegs, safety pins, cement, lumber, extruded wire, tools and a multitude of other utensils was booming. I'd seen the bearskin among the wares of a merchant passing through Last Hunt and brought it on impulse. For 'sentimental' reasons if you will.
I sank down on the cushions before the fire and relaxed in the warmth that poured from the open door. Within the stove the coals were glowing red, orange, and white; like untouchable gem stones.
I looked around and smiled as Maxine came down the stairs and padded bare-footed across the room to curl up beside me on the rug. She hadn't changed much: perhaps slightly taller, darker, and more muscular... well, we both were. We had to work hard to live.
"What are you staring at?" she murmured.
"The only thing around here worth staring at," I smiled and accepted her noncommittal 'hmmp' as my due. "How are they?"
"Out like lights."
"Busy day for them, huh?"
"They loved the kite, lover. You know, you spoil them with those toys."
"Huh," I chuckled and caught her around the waist, snuggling up, just lying there together in a warm glow. Now we had a home. Beside me Maxine relaxed and for a while we both just stared at the fire before I got up to fetch some wine from the rack.
However the two goblets sat forgotten on the low black-lacquered table as we lay entwined in one another, her fingers playing with the small hairs on the nape of my neck. The wind moaned as it sought its way around the walls, but from the snow that seared the sky outside in cold flurries there wasn't a sound.
But the woman beside me was warm, so warm, and my fingers were beginning to wander...
Of course the doorbell jangled. "Oh, shit no!" I groaned. "Not now! Who the Hell's that?!"
Snow whipped into the small reception room as I pulled the front door open. It was well below zero out there and already drifts over two metres deep were banked up. Even with their fur, the Sathe waiting on the landing were bundled up against the cold: our guards wearing new quilted, down-filled jackets and carrying crossbows, the other three Sathe wearing ice-encrusted animal furs and cloaks, frost on the pieces of cloth pulled over their muzzles for what little protection they offered against the biting wind.
One of them reached up wearily to snag the mask with a claw and pull it down; smiled stiffly at me through the frost beading her fur.
There were guest quarters that any Sathe noble would have considered extravagantly luxurious with insulated walls, indoor plumbing, centrally heated rooms, double layers of glass in the windows and rugs on the floor. The guards at the gates had already taken the liberty of having the Shirai's escorts boarded there, dripping melting ice and looking half-frozen and slightly numb at some of the devices around them. It was going to be necessary to provide a staff to assist the guests who had no knowledge of stoves or electricity.
Tahr and H'rrasch would stay in the house.
I helped them hang up their frozen clothes to thaw off and dry out. The ice and snow covering them was beginning to melt, soaking them through and through. Incredible that they could actually walk through that blizzard outside without any footwear whatsoever, not a touch of frostbite.
I opened the inner door and led them into the house proper. Their eyes went wide and they stared at the alien architecture and the steady glow of the lamps. "My Ancestors," Tahr rubbernecked. "K'hy, you have been busy!"
"There is still much to do." I smiled then as she moved to hug me. Her fur still held that old, familiar scent of sun-dried straw, brushing against me as I returned the embrace. "Tahr, I have missed you."
"A year is a long time," she agreed.
Maxine was waiting to greet them, hugging both Sathe with abandon, then offering them clothing. The Sathe politely declined, they were quite warm enough in their fur. Together they sank into a chair before the fire with every indication of relief and H'rrasch stared at the cast iron oven with a wondering eye.
"Now," I said. "What the hell are you doing out here? I doubt that you were just passing and decided to drop in. What is up?"
"Kelly," Maxine touched my arm. "Haven't you noticed?"
I blinked. "What?"
"Dammit!" She punched my arm. "Look at her. She is pregnant!"
I did. My eyes wandered down to her midriff. There WAS a slight bulging...
"True?" I asked.
"True," she smiled and burrowed a little nearer to H'rrasch's side as he slipped an arm around her and nuzzled at her neck. "I am surprised you did not notice, K'hy," she said.
I realized I was still staring and broke into an uncontrolled, shit-eating grin. Tahr would understand what it meant. "Congratulations!"
"You asked why we are here," H'rrasch said. "That is the reason. Would it be possible for Tahr to stay until her term is done?"
"It will be a few months. I need a quiet place. Somewhere I can leave easily when the need takes me," Tahr added quietly.
"Of course!" Max answered instantly. "I'll get the spare room ready."
"Tahr, H'rrasch... You are always welcome here, you know that," I said.
They thanked us profusely and unnecessarily. I left the Sathe curled up on the chair together to get more wine and goblets. Perhaps some day we'd have crystal glasses and decanters, but that would be way in the future. We sipped at the rather... ah... immature table wine whilst our guests recounted the affairs of Mainport and we reciprocated with news of what had been happening in our enclave.
Tahr suddenly broke off and was staring past us, at the staircase where two small faces were peering through the railings. "K'hy, Mas... who is that?" she asked.
"Some members of our house you have not yet met... Kids, come over here!" I called.
There was a moments hesitation then the two cubs stood and clattered down the stairs. Brother and sister, still with their thick spotted baby-fur, neither of them taller than my hip. They scampered across the room - forgetting their toe claws again - and stopped, suddenly shy, staring at our guests. I held out my arm and they burrowed in against my side, still staring.
"This is our son, Shane, and his sister, Sasha," I smiled. "Adopted of course. Kids, this is the Shirai and her mate, H'rrasch."
"Tahr?" Sasha craned around to look up at me.
"Yes. That's her."
"You told us 'bout her," Sasha solemnly told me, then left my side to walk across to Tahr, staring up at her. "You are pretty," she said, "Like father said you were."
Tahr blinked at me, then looked down at Sasha's upturned face again and slowly reached out to stroke her muzzle, obviously confused. I could see the questions and incredulity stirring; questions that Maxine and I had answered innumerable times before. With a final ruffle of the children's manes I said, "Come on, back to bed with you."
"Aw, father," Shane protested.
"Hey," I cautioned with a gentle tweak of his ears. "It is late and there will be plenty of time to talk to them later on, okay?"
"'Kay," Sasha went willingly, but Shane was a little more truculent.
"I'll take them," Maxine volunteered.
"Shit!" Shane mumbled under his breath as Maxine herded the pair of them back upstairs. Where'd he learned that?!
"K'hy," Tahr was still staring after them with her ears wilted like dying plants, "I do not understand? How is it... Who are they?!"
I sighed and leaned forward. "Their parents were both killed - murdered. We found them, looked after them as best we could. Tahr, you know we are unable to have children of our own... they are all we have; they are our family."
"But how?!" she demanded. Her fur was starting to bristle. God knew I'd done a lot of things Sathe found new and strange, but this... I knew Sathe had been trying for so long. For us to succeed where so many of them had failed, it couldn't help but touch some tender spots.
"To raise another's children as your own... ! How did you do it?!"
I shrugged. "I am not entirely sure myself. Perhaps because we are not Sathe."
"You live by your noses," I said. "Your Times, reflexes, and childbirth are ruled by scent. The way you respond has been deeply... uh... built into your minds. H'rrasch, you know how you feel during Times. You cannot help yourself."
He signed assent.
"Sathe cubs probably learn their mother's scent when they are born, but it is not the absence of that scent that make them refuse to feed, I think that rather it is the presence of another Sathe scent." I looked at my hands then back up at the Sathe. "If the newborn cub scents a mature female who is not its mother - perhaps even mature males - it just will not feed. I do not know why."
"But why did that not happen to you?" H'rrasch asked.
"As I said, because we are not Sathe. Neither Maxine or I make nor respond to Sathe scents... You could say that we are neutral," I gave a small grin. "But that is just a theory. I could be completely wrong."
"K'hy - incorrect or not..." Tahr stopped speaking and huddled even closer to her mate staring at me with an expression of wonder. "What you have done is just... impossible! It is against everything I have ever..." again she trailed off and just stared at me.
I said to her, "I could never leave them to die without trying to do something. You know that." The fire had died to a pile of small, glowing coals that scattered into a shower of sparks when I threw a pair of logs in. After a few seconds they caught and were soon blazing away. I closed the door and stood with my back to the stove, my hands clasped behind me, staring at the Sathe as they stared back at me.
"Yes," Tahr finally acknowledged as Maxine came back downstairs, "I know, but what about the cubs? I mean no offence, but does it not... uh... disturb them to call you 'Father' and 'Mother'?"
"They know we are different from Sathe," Maxine said. "There are enough other Sathe and cubs out there for them to see the difference, but they have grown up with us. To them we are family."
Tahr's head went back but she kept her eyes locked on us. Finally her muzzle wrinkled as she said, "And they are all you have. I think I can only wish you well with them."
Outside, the snowstorm had died away as quickly as it had sprung up. The black lid of the clouds were sliding aside and the stars were casting their aloof light down over the countryside made white; harsh angles softened by drifts.
Inside, the fire burned low while the Sathe ate a small meal, then - warm, full, and extremely tired - collapsed in the spare room we'd prepared. Tahr had caught a glimpse of our human-style bed in our room:
"Alien," she said, shaking her head and grinning in her imitation of a human smile. "Square beds... You never told me about that, K'hy. Does it make sex more interesting?"
Max and I left them to laugh themselves to sleep.
Spring was a time of sudden warmth and growing things pushing their way through the retreating crust of snow. Grass grew, foliage returned to trees' canopies, and blooming flowers proliferated.
The mills were turning again and the foundries coughed smoke, steam, and gouts of molten metal. They were small by modern standards, but considered incredibly efficient by the Sathe of the day. With the refinements in glass manufacturing I had introduced - the addition of sodium carbonate and producing sheet glass by congealing it on a bed of molten tin - the demand for the clear, glass vessels and sheets we could provide had taken off. By employing mass-production techniques the profits were quite considerable; enough to build a school and employ Sathe teachers for the growing number of cubs in the community.
That was something else that happened in spring.
Sathe females began disappearing into the virgin forest that surrounded us on all sides. The remaining Sathe treated it as absolutely normal and over the past years I had learned not to worry too much about it.
Until Tahr vanished.
"Do not fret so! She will manage," H'rrasch assured me as we stood on the edge of a meadow at the outskirts of town looking out towards the tree-covered hills, the mountains blue shadows in the distance, snow still heavy on their peaks. He had brought me the news that his mate had gone on her sabbatical. "She will be fine."
I stared at the treeline. The last time I'd seen her she had been uncharacteristically crabby, almost hostile. Her abdomen was swollen, her six breasts had tumefied and turned pink, poking through her fur, sometimes leaking droplets of milk. She'd vanished two days ago. I worried about her.
Damnation, it was dangerous out there and she was unarmed, probably naked as she discarded clothing in her maternal madness, with only her claws and fur for protection.
"It will be enough," H'rrasch insisted. He touched my arm and looked at my face, as if trying to fathom my emotions. "There are very few things out there that would want to tangle with a female near her term."
A few bison - massive, shaggy mountains of stupidity - eyed us dispassionately as we stopped beside the fence around their pasture, then returned to tearing up mouthfuls of grass.
"So, are you looking forward to being a father?" I asked the Sathe.
He started to laugh then stopped and looked puzzled. "I do not really know," he confessed.
"Come on," I said. "Yes or no."
"Really, I do not know." His muzzle wrinkled. "I have watched you playing with Shane and Sasha and I envy you, but I also fear the responsibility. By my Ancestors, I do not know what to do!"
That took me back to the problems we had had raising our Sathe children; those sleepless nights and the headaches. But there were also the fun times, the happiness and pleasure they brought Maxine and I. We may have broken every rule in the Sathe child-raising book, but at least we'd done something, we had something to show for all our labours.
"H'rrasch, you will know what to do. You can bet on that. It is hard work..." what was he smirking at... ?
Something small, furry, and muscular tackled me around the knees from behind, knocking me over into the grass and another furry something landed on top of me. I rolled aside, roared with mock anger and scooped up the two squealing cubs, one under each arm.
The Shirai's mate was leaning against the nearby fence, hissing his amusement.
"It can also be a lot of fun," I grinned at him as the cubs hung themselves around my neck with furry little arms.
It was seven days later, the dead of night, when Tahr returned.
Maxine heard the noise first, dragging me out of bed by an arm even as she was bolting for the door. I untangled myself from the sheets and stumbled after her.
H'rrasch had beaten us both.
Below us, in the living room, Tahr was a dirty, haggard shape dressed only in scraps of clothing sitting cross-legged on the rug before the glowing remains of embers in the fireplace. She looked up as H'rrasch slowly approached and her muzzle suddenly distorted into a snarl, the bundle she was cradling tucked protectively against her breast.
Slowly, oh so slowly, her mate went to his knees in front of her and for a while they just stared at each other. Then her head lowered and in the dying light from the fire she seemed to make up her mind, reverently passed her precious burden to H'rrasch. He took one of the tiny fists in his hand and bent his head low, his muzzle touching in what seemed an almost human kiss.
I put my arm around Maxine and drew her close, taking in the scent of her hair as together we watched the silent ritual taking place below. It was only when Tahr slowly collapsed into an exhausted heap on the floor that we went down to help ease her off to bed.
She wouldn't sleep soundly until the baby boy was placed in her arms and H'rrasch was curled protectively around them.
Later that night as Maxine and I lay in bed, barely awake and listening to the wind in distant trees, Max touched my leg, "Kelly?"
"What do you think about having a child."
"We have kids," I replied, stupid through doziness. Her hand lightly thumped me, "I mean have a child," she berated me. "One of our own. Human."
Human. I didn't know how to answer that. A child. How could we... a child, here. What kind of a life would it be? I thought of our adopted offspring asleep down the hall, two children, not human but they were our children. We loved them. A human baby, part of us, raising it into this world.
She caught my hesitation. "I never meant we should. Just asking."
"Oh." It raised awkward feelings. "I don't know."
"Just asking," she murmured, then in Sathe, "Just asking."
Dreams that night: Sathe playing with human children, tall buildings of glass and steel and streets alive with people. Through it all the feeling of my wife as I moved close to her and went back to dreaming of a place I'd once called home.
Introductions first I think. My name is Shane ai Davies.
If you have not heard of me, then you have probably heard tell of my parents: the most... unusual in the known world. As for myself, my only claim to fame is that I am also somewhat unique in the world, being the only person who can claim to even approach fluency in the noises and writings that humans call English.
It has not been easy.
This, the translation of the first of my father's journals, has been the real test of my abilities. The years of reading, re-reading, referencing, and trying to understand have - as my parents would say - 'paid off'. You have just read the result.
And I can understand the shock you are probably feeling.
It came as just a great a blow to myself to learn what really happened at the Battle of Weather Rock and I have debated long and hard as whether or not to pass this on, finally deciding to leave this particular manuscript where it will be found... eventually, long after my parents are gone.
I only yearn that this revelation will not disrupt the peaceful and productive relationships that have grown between our realms. Many Sathe and two humans have devoted their lives to this cause and I would be loathe to see the successful results rendered and scattered to the wind by an incident far in the past.
And the future is not going to be kind to them. In the eighteen years since they adopted my sister and myself they have hardly changed; perhaps their hides have grown darker and thicker in appearance, but that is all.
I look at the Shirai - the one whom in my irreverent youth I knew as aunt Tahr - and I see how grey her fur has grown, the age catching up to her. She is still strong, still many years left, but I know the day is inevitable.
And I know that with her end, a part of my father will die.
Pain to be added on pain, it will not end there. I know that they will outlive all the Sathe friends they have known since their arrival, and - I am fairly certain - they will most probably outlive myself and Sasha. They will have to suffer the deaths of so many friends.
But what they have done for us...
I can look out my window and see how my home has changed; grown. In my memories of a small town with few buildings and Sathe and many open spaces I was a cub, carefree and living for the present. Now, in these memories of the present that I am chronicling, I am an adult, nineteen years and mated with a cub of my own, and I see a city made of dreams.
The roads of New Home are broad and clean, never flooding. Buildings of stone, wood and amounts of glass and metal unthinkable ten years ago flank the tree-lined thoroughfares, their positioning, shape, and materials such that they remain cool in the heat of summer and warm in winter. As darkness falls, the streets and buildings glow with lights that burn steadily in wind and rain. A strange and wondrous place, but indisputably beautiful.
And the population has grown incredibly. With the trained healers and improved sanitation there has been a drastic drop in the mortality rate due to illness and accident. Sathe are healthy and happy and well-fed, with well-groomed coats wherever one looks.
It would seem that once the wheel of progress has started rolling, it is self-perpetuating; indeed, it actually gathers momentum. Cubs, adolescents, and no few adults are trained at the new crafts and skills available. Their invaluable labours open time to such as myself, artisans and thinkers whose work does not directly contribute to the survival of the community. That work can produce more ideas to produce still more leisure time for thinking.
Distant clans and the great Clans of other Realms are willing to pay great amounts to have their craftsmen - even their cubs! - sent the distances to be educated here. To the surprise of and consternation many in Mainport my father wholeheartedly endorses this, steadfastly refusing to ban the other Realms from Home. If it was not for his relationship with the Shirai and the prosperity he was bringing the Realm there would have been an outcry demanding a trial on the basis of treason against the Realm.
You really have to know him to understand that what he does he is doing for the good of all Sathe, not just the Eastern Realm. He freely shares his knowledge and ideas, but he makes a point of encouraging students to think of new ways to utilise and improve the tools. I suspect that several times he has deliberately designed inefficient devices to see if Sathe could see the ways in which they could be improved.
And he refuses to have anything to do with accepting commisions to produce anythings specifically intended for warfare, although as he justly states, a toothpick could be used for murder.
He learned that some students were attempting to emulate the substance he calls 'gunpowder'. On receiving the news he just bobbed his head, as if he had been expecting something like that. I know that that night he went to the university to speak with the students working on those projects. I do not know what he said to them, but from that time there was no further news of their work. It is not as if they stopped what they were doing, just that there was no news of successes, nor of failure. The deans claimed to know nothing of what was transpiring and I tend to believe that. If the students are working under anybody's direction, it is my father's. I think he knows what he is doing.
The maps he and my mother have drawn have led great ships across the seas to discover new lands and civilisations that are only now beginning to be explored. Huge vessels ply the skies between Realms and towns, carrying trade goods and those passengers brave or foolhardy enough. Messages cross the distances between cities with the speed of thought.
Two beings have given us the keys to a new age and with them they have entrusted us with the vast responsibility of using it wisely. Let their faith in us not be in vain.
The final page of text on the wall screen faded to whiteness. With ponderous, overly-dramatic slowness, the tome swung shut, its cover gleaming with texture-mapped polished leather and gold trim. An arm reached out to tap a key on the board. The screen snapped off and the only light in the room was the unobtrusive glow from the terminal monitor.
There was a moment of silence in which the hum of the ventilators seemed loud.
"So? What'd you think?" he finally asked, swivelling his chair around to watch her.
She was highlighted in the muted glow from the screen, a subtle aurora that changed her, bringing her features out in sharp contrasts: highlights and shadows, sharp bone and smoother curves. The chair's leather creaked and rustled mutedly as she settled back into it, one hand coming up to stroke her angular cheek. "Strange... I guess. An outsiders view of us. Those are really his words?"
"It probably lost something in the translation. And he makes references to things nobody but nobody understands; like that 'god', whatever or whoever that is."
Mas nodded vaguely, still staring at the wall. He blinked, then leaned forward to touch her arm lightly. "You all right?" he ventured.
"Huh? Yes, fine. Just thinking." She abruptly glared at his intruding fingers and he reluctantly pulled his hand back. Her fur, a deep blue-grey, had a softness that belied its almost metallic lustre. Actually, he reflected, he wouldn't mind touching her in a more tender manner, perhaps she...
"Don't even think about it!" she snapped, ears back.
"I can wait until your Time," he said with a grin, then ducked back to avoid a clawed hand that hissed through the space his face had been occupying a heartbeat before. "Just kidding!" he yelped, casting oil on dangerous seas. "I'm sorry!"
She rumbled a growl deep in her throat; mollified, but barely.
There it was again, he reflected, that damnable wall she built around herself whenever anybody tried to approach her. He couldn't believe that anyone with her looks could be a virgin, but there were tales about her, that she actually took suppressives when her Time came around. He doubted that, but what did it take to reach her? What kind of upbringing could possibly do this to someone?
The growl faded but those eyes still smouldered.
"I'm sorry," he repeated. "Back to business. Alright? Any questions?"
Mas hissed and drew a deep breath. "Does anyone have any real idea of what happened to them?"
"Nothing you could build a house on," he replied. "Let's see... It was a hundred and fifty years ago, fourteen years after Shane's translation. Tahr had acquiesced her titles, her only son winning the challenges and becoming the new Shirai. She lived to see her grandchildren born, then Tahr ai Shirai died in her sleep. Peacefully. Fifty-three years old.
"The K'hy and your namesake left a few months later. Nobody knows where they went. One night they took an airship and headed west and vanished into history. The other h'mans couldn't or wouldn't say where they were going. People are still saying they've seen them; like that sighting last week."
"That would make them about a hundred and eighty years old."
"About that," he chuckled.
"No other traces?"
He scratched himself. "Nothing. But, it's a big continent. Maybe one day we'll find something."
"Or perhaps they went home," she wondered aloud.
"That's one theory. Home; or perhaps somewhere else." He waved a hand toward the screen. "As K'hy said, who knows how many other realities there are."
Mas reached out for the keyboard and hesitated, a claw clicking against plastic as it described small, indecisive circles on the console. She was drifting again. Thinking. Had that narrative actually touched her in some way? Now she leaned forward and began pulling more pictures from the disk, displaying them on the wall screen. He settled back in his chair and watched, just an observer.
Light and colour: monochrome and truecolor.
Oils and watercolours, charcoal sketches, portraits, anatomical details, ancient photographs that - despite their poor definition - were made all the more forceful by the knowledge that the subject before the lens was REALITY, not an elaborate costume. They flowed past in a mesmerising collage of high resolution images that imprinted themselves upon the retina and in the memory.
The student glanced sideways at his companion. Her profile illuminated with flickering reflections, glowing eyes locked on the screen. Then her hand twitched, freezing the display. When his eyes returned to the monitor, he understood why she'd stopped.
"That one," he nodded at the screen, "is hanging in the Hall of Memoirs. Very nice."
It was a portrait. Two portraits actually. A strikingly beautiful middle-aged female gazed coolly outward, levelly meeting the eyes of any observer. The other figure stood at her left side, hairless fingertips lightly resting on the fur of her shoulder, gazing past her with the eyes that had captivated so many.
"He looks so... terrified," Mas said. "The white around his eyes."
He knew it was normal for humans, that forsaken gaze, but it certainly appealed to the females. For some reason it drew them in like flotsam into a whirlpool. It fascinated him too; the look of a lost cub.
"You can see it there," Mas said.
She flicked a hand toward the screen as if trying to snatch the words out of the air: "That rapport between them. It's in the eyes, the way he's touching her... Hard to explain exactly what it is." She stared at the picture, her head cocked to one side. "You know, the artist has done an incredible job on him. Far better than the other pictures I've seen. All the others make him look too... sathelike."
The student flicked his ears as he answered. "She should have. Sasha ai Davies was quite familiar with the subject."
Mas slouched back into the chair. "Saaa! I had no idea she was an artist."
"Oath! What planet've you been on? Never mind. She's done scores of portrayals of Sathe and humans. They're all down in the Hall of Memories and the museum." He studied the picture again. Ah, but Tahr had been beautiful: lean, muscular, ears with a few nicks, her mane plain and unadorned in the old style. Beautiful and...
He blinked. Familiar? He glanced at the female sitting beside him, back to the picture. Was it...
"What?" Mas was glaring at him.
No. No way.
"Uh, nothing." Coincidence, or a trick of the light. She was still watching him suspiciously and any resemblance was gone. He yawned and stretched - sinews crackling - then glanced at his watch, blinking the glowing numerals into focus. He blinked again and swore, "Chastity! We've got lectures tomorrow... today... whatever. The other volumes are going to have to wait."
She hissed softly and slapped the arm of the chair. "I guess so. Do you think we'll have time to see them all?"
His ears twitched. "You a fast writer?"
He shrugged. "Then we should be able to fit them in. You coming?"
"Go ahead. I'll catch up."
"All right. Don't forget the disk."
Again Mas was staring at the wall screen, the chromed claw of her index finger idly scratching at the arm of the chair. Almost lazily she reached out and pressed two keypads simultaneously. The printer hummed, spat out a glossy ten by ten. Mas took it and stared at it. Those eyes had round pupils.
Where are you?
"You ready?" came a voice from the door.
"What? Huh! Yes, coming," she slipped the picture into her bag and took the disk from the drive, still thinking. She'd learned a lot that night, more than even her lessons back at the Manor had taught her: things about the Sathe past, and also some of her own history. They had told her there was a resemblance, but she herself had never been able to see it.
Still, perhaps someone else had. Thoughtfully she touched her face as she left.
He closed the door behind her, sealed it. "I guess I'll see you in lectures, a?"
"All right. Oh, and thanks for your help."
"Anytime," he smiled, then took the plunge. "Ah, I was wondering: are you going to be doing anything this coming break day?"
Mas stared at him, waiting as his ears slowly wilted under her scrutiny. "You had something in mind?" she finally asked.
"I... I thought maybe a meal? a play or film?"
She stared again, then flashed a smile, "All right."
"I just... All right?"
She almost laughed at that befuddled expression. "Why not? Just one condition."
"You help me finish this. Work with me."
"Done." That hopeful way his ears perked up again - her own twitched. He was useful: a little naive, but useful. It wouldn't hurt to humour him. Anyway, she found him less objectionable than many of the other males - even some of the tutors - who'd tried to paw her. Not unattractive - and cute; in his own naive sort of way.
She smiled and patted his arm. "Perhaps we should get some rest now."
He fell in beside her as they walked back across the library floor. "Good idea. Your place or mine?"
"Don't push it, male."
The voices and padding footsteps of the Sathe faded into the vast silence of the Citadel, the miles of corridors. Overhead, the huge banks of lights snapped off, one by one, leaving the broad foyer permeated with the almost imperceptible glow filtering through the high dome and storm beyond.
Rain drummed against old glass, but there was nobody to hear it. Away in the distance lightning flashed: once, then again and again...