Light on Shattered Water

Part 2

          "Christ, Riley, I'm just asking you to take a few days off.  Look... I've got this place in the Smokies.  A cabin.  Great place: heating, utilities, all the mod cons... I can give you loan of that for a week if you want.  Fishing, climbing... you're into hiking, right?"
          I leaned back in my chair in front of the SunSparc workstation and pinched the bridge of my nose then looked up at him.  "Now?  Christ, Elliot, I wish you'd make up your mind.  You break our backs over that deadline, now you're telling me to take a vacation.  There's something I'm missing here?"
          "You're on schedule, right?"
          "Yeah, but I was on a roll and DeFriet's having trouble with the decompression algorithm.  With the sound routine going on a stock pentium with under sixteen megs, it can't find enough space to..."
          Elliot interrupted me, shaking his head and sending his extra chins swinging.  "That's DeFriet's problem, not yours.  Look, I know you've been burning the candle, but you're going to burn right out and that puts us out of a graphics man.  You've done your work, now go and take a sabatical somewhere away from these things." He waved an arm at the 21 inch flatscreens scattered around the cluttered lab.  The screen saver had appeared on mine: hippos in tutus parachuting down on tiny umbrellas.
          "Bonus pay?" I grinned.
          His beady eyes narrowed.  "Paid leave.  Don't push it.  Go on.  Take a week." Then he turned and moved off with all the grace of a Sherman tank in the Ardennes.  Incredible, after two years and I'd never seen him actually bump into anything.  It's a wonder that any heart's powerful enough to circulate blood though a lump of protoplasm that big.  I waited until he'd gone then stood and leant over the partition.  "Hey, Rita, what's with Elliot?  Has he found philanthropy?"
          She gave me a reproachful look over her glasses.  "Are you kidding?"
          "Yeah, actually, I am.  What gives?"
          She rolled her eyes.  "A deal on the side.  He's got some other outfit paying him mucho dough for some time on big iron."
          "On Bessie?!"
          Rita gave me an exasperated look and tapped a few keys.  "It's a Sun SparcStation.  Why do you have to give it such a... a bovine name?"
          "Why not?" I grinned, "It's for good cows."
          She winced.  "Don't start that again.  I don't think I could take it a second time.  Look, he's given you time off: take it.  It'd be good to get away from the office for a while.  You're too paranoid.  Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."
          I nodded, "That's something I've never been a bull to do."
          She grimaced, "Ah, you're full of sheep."
          "So ewe me."
          So I packed my kit and set off up north in search of the great outdoors.  Vermont.  The northwestern lakes and hills.  The Green mountains.  Incredible to think that 50 years ago so much had been deforested, and now native flora and fauna was growing back again.  Still, camping yes; wilderness... I don't know.  Can you call it a wilderness when there's a souvenir stand around every corner, flush toilets, no camping signs, no fishing, no fires... And people.  I'd seen small towns with fewer people on the streets.
          But it was outside and it was away from the office and monitors and deadlines and systems going down before you'd saved and backup discs being used for home videos.  I had my laptop with me, but I took the chance to get back to the ancient art of graphics, the pad and pencil way.  It'd been some time since I'd done any landscapes so I experimented a bit: pencil, inks, washes.  Black and white.
          It was the third day and I was just walking my merry way along under a majestic grove of native American high-tension power lines when I remember hearing a loud snap sound and looking up into a growing sun to see an isolator shattering and parts of the structure glowing white hot where a line was welding itself to the tower then there was a pressure that popped my ears and a painful tingle like I'd grabbed hold of a live wire.

          Agony ripping through my shoulder.  Going on and on.  Like molten lead in my bones and hornets in my skin, pushing deeper and deeper and I couldn't stop it and couldn't fight it while monsters loomed over me, grinning viciously and I couldn't move at all, couldn't do anything except scream.

          I'd woken face down in pine needles and crushed leaves.  Groaned and rolled, squinting into morning sunlight, aching in every joint and disoriented.  I was on a wooded hillside, surrounded by mature pines and dew-damped bracken and a deep silence.  Through the trees I could see the far side of a narrow wooded valley.
          Somewhere a bird sang.
          The air was motionless, cool with a reminder of the past night, smelling of earth and plants and water.  A red bundle in the bracken nearby turned out to be my pack.  I crawled over to it and sat again while I pulled the straps open and rummaged through it.  Everything was there, including my wallet, laptop, canteen.  I took a long drink.
          What'd happened?
          I sat down in the middle of that forest and tried to recall.  Shit, I had a headache that was a dull pounding behind my forehead.  There'd been the line falling and after that...
          Nothing.  A blank.
          Concussion?  Shock?  Amnesia?  I must have wandered.  Certainly this was nothing like the place I remembered.  Confused, I sat a while, resting and finishing a bar of trail-mix while the sun climbed and the dew burned off in faint mist.  As the temperature rose with the passing day I pulled out my map and pondered over that for a while.  Last I knew, I'd been about... here; on the road about ten kilometres south of Montpelier, bound for Burlington.  Now... I didn't have any idea; there was nothing I could use as a landmark.  Still, if the road had been curving around, then it should be over that way somewhere.  I sat a while longer, then gathered my stuff, faced into the sun and started walking.

          I don't know how much time I lost.
          I'd nearly died in the barn that day.  I'd lost a lot of blood; I was bruised and torn, suffering from hypothermia and shock and trauma.  Most of my memories of that time are fragmented to say the least: memories of pain and vomiting and shadowy figures moving and touching me; sometimes water or some other liquid dribbled over my lips; glimpses of wood and cloth; occasionally an inhuman face leaning close as I opened my eyes, jerking away and leaving me in darkness before I slept again.
          The first time I woke with any semblance of real awareness.  I opened my eyes and saw wood above me: stained planks, dark, grain running through it like veins, indistinct in the dimness.  I don't know how long I just stared at that before enough of me was awake to take stock of my surroundings.
          I was lying on something soft that rustled gently when I moved: A bed, built into a recessed alcove in a wall.  A box bed.  Scarcely long enough for me.  Clothes gone.  The sheets covering me were warm; thick wool or something.  Itchy.  No pillow, a mattress of what sounded like straw ticking underneath linen bedding.  And my arms and legs were tied down with ropes padded with cloth, another across my chest.  There were thick bandages around my shoulder, holding something like a gauze pad.  I let my head loll to the side, gritting my teeth.  The slightest movement and my shoulder screamed bloody murder.  From what I could see the room was dark and austere: shutters on the windows, a closed door, a table with what was maybe a jug on it.  I couldn't see anything else.  I just lay there in the dimness, unable to move while the fear grew, not knowing where I was, too scared at what might answer to call out.
          Some time later there was a noise at the door and a flickering light moved into the room.  A candle, the dancing flame illuminating the inhumanly twisted hand of a native.  I froze, not even breathing as the underlit shadows of the creature's face shifted to stare at me and hesitated when it saw I was awake and aware: Its eyes glowed with a rainbow shimmer like titanium steel as light changed and a cold shiver skittled over my flesh.  For a while it just stood there, watching me, then suddenly moved: an incredibly fluid, springing gait on those peculiar ankle joints as it crossed to the rickety table.  Metal clinked on glass as it fiddled with something, using the candle to light a lamp: a wick sputtered, glowed faintly, then brighter.  As the creature leaned closer to huff out the candle, I saw who this felid was: Chihirae.  Her shadow flickered across the wall behind her, tail lashing in disquiet, inhuman muscles shifting as she moved.  And while she watched me I stared back, petrified and helpless.
          After a while she spoke and it was just noise: incomprehensible coughs and snarls.  I couldn't move, just shivered violently while those amber eyes transfixed me.  Muscles in that visage spasmed, her head twitched and she spoke again: slowly, and this time I could make out the words, "Can you understand?"
          I licked my lips and tried to think, to pull some words together, and presently rasped my first words: "Yes.  Understand."
          She reared back, her jaw gaping with a hissing noise.  I saw her hand fidgeting around her belt.  There was a knife there.  Then she leaned forward, teeth bared in a snarl as she demanded, "What are you.  Where [something].  Why are you [something].  You [something] us..."
          "I... not understand," I stumbled through the phrase then licked my parched lips, trying to draw some moisture into my mouth.  "Slow."
          It stopped her.  She gaped for a few seconds, then raked her fingers through those tufts of fur on her cheeks and turned aside to pull a stool up to the bedside.  She sat, a safe couple of meters from the bed, then glanced at the ropes and scooted closer.  When she spoke this time it was slowly, enunciating clearly; like I had heard her use in class when trying to explain something to a pupil who was having trouble.  "What are you?"
          "I have... name.  Michael Riley."
          She cocked her head to one side, creases furrowing her muzzle.  "Mikah Rry?"
          Uh, she couldn't say it.  Same problem I had with their words.  "Yes," I told her, then ventured, "Chihirae?"
          She flinched, then twitched an ear.  "Yes.  How [did] you [know]?"
          "Say... you." I winced, trying to pull the words back out of memory, trying to remember the lessons and the meagre handful of inhuman words I'd spent all those hours fighting to comprehend.  "See you.  What you?"
          My question was ignored.  "How long?"
          How long?  I closed my eyes to think and only opened them with an effort.  "Ah... You come here." I tried a smile and winced as scratches on my face made themselves felt, "You... teach good, well.  I listen.  I understand... small."
          No, it wasn't that easy.  About two minutes just to fumble my way to a point where I was that comprehensible.  Then she sat there a while, watching me, as if she didn't know quite what to think.  Though this face-to-face was hard on me, I didn't know what it'd be like for her.  I guess I'd had a bit longer to get used to them, to realise they could think rationally, whereas she was trying to come to grips with the fact I could talk at all.  "Water?" I grated, hoping it was the right word.  "Please?  Water?"
          She twitched that ear again and for a while I thought she wasn't going to respond.  Then she slowly stood and stepped across to the table, returning with an earthenware jug.  She was careful not to touch me, to keep her distance as she held it to my lips, but the water was a welcome relief.  I drank until she drew away and sat there, cradling the jug while she watched me.  I lay quietly, staring back at her and shivering involuntarily until she stood and left the room, locking the door behind her.  In a few minutes she was back, carrying my sketch pad.  She flipped through the pages and showed me my last unfinished notes, the ones I'd been copying from her book, spattered with dark brown droplets.  Dried blood I realised.  "Yours?"
          The blood or the book?  "Yes."
          She flipped back to the beginning, my sketches.  "Did you [draw]?"
          She gave me another hard look.  "They are good."
          An art critic?  I almost laughed and tried to raise my arm to rub my face.  The ropes were padded, but quite secure.  I couldn't move and she watched my muscles tense and relax again, her eyes flicking from my hands to my face.  "I go?" I asked.
          She stood then and seemed to smile at me, but that baring of sharp, pointed teeth didn't seem very friendly.  "No." Then she picked up the pad, extinguished the lamp and left me.  I heard a lock click shut behind her.  I just lay there, staring up at patterns in the grain in the wood over my head, feeling the knot in my guts ache almost as bad as my physical wounds.
          What is she going to do with me?

          Low sibilant noises pulled me out of dreams of cold ocean waves washing on a shale beach.  I blinked to muzzy awareness, licked dry lips and tried to rub bleary eyes, only to be brought up short by the restraints and a lance of pain through my wounds.  That brought back rememberance of where I was.  The room was lighter, with wedges of sunlight working their way around the edges of the shutters and casting golden streams across the room.  My shoulder, my hip... both were throbbing unmercifully and I groaned, wishing to go back to that place where it didn't hurt so much.  What kind of chance did I have?  Did they know how to prevent infection?  If I could get my medical kit... Which was back at the tent, so much for that idea.
          The noises were still there, faint but audible.  Not waves but voices, inhuman sounds coming through from the other side of the door, muffled by the wall.  I couldn't make out any words.
          Minutes later the latch rattled and the door opened.  Five of the creatures filed in, eyes immediately drawn to the bed.  I thought I recognised Chihirae coming in among them, standing to the side and watching me as they gathered in a loose semicircle around the bed to study me intently.  Feline voices were guttural and sibilant words, an unearthly sound as they talked and gesticulated animatedly, all tails twitching like hyperactive snakes.  Males and females?  I wasn't sure.  Some had discernably wider hips, like Chihirae.  Otherwise they were androgynous shapes, fears made flesh and fur.  In the gloom they were... terrifying: nightmarish shapes against the slivers of light seeping through the chinks in the shutters, overbearingly huge from my perspective.  The light from behind alternately blinded and left me in darkness as they shifted and snarled, their discussion?  argument?  heated and fluent so I was only able to pick out a few words here and there.  Then I heard words I understood: 'kill it'.
          My ribs tried to strangle my heart.  Frantically I searched the faces, trying to find the one who'd spoken.  One of them, a female?  glared back with an intensity and hatred I could feel like a hot wind in my face.  Several, including that one, were wearing knives at their belts.  I started shaking and Chihirae pushed through and stopped, a half-meter or so away.  "Mikah.  You can talk?"
          "Chihirae," I leapt on the opportunity, my lifeline.  "Yes.  I talk.  Chihirae, what happen?  What?"
          There was a moment of silence from the others, then a babble that sounded like a catfight in a blender, some directing questions and demands at me and Chihirae in a torrent I couldn't follow.  I shrank back as far as I could from the glares and snarls, my heart racing, feeling dizzy and confused and scared.  Then Chihirae was leaning closer, asking, "What were you doing?"
          "What?  I do not understand."
          "In the barn.  Why were you [something]?"
          Watching?  Was that what she meant?  Were they pissed about that?  "Oh... I... I learn.  You teach... cubs.  I listen.  I learn."
          "Why do you [something]?"
          "I do not understand."
          "Why did you [hide]?"
          "I here..." I tried to piece the words together, tried to find the right words.  There were so many missing.  "They try... hurt me.  Two."
          "They [tried to] hurt you?  Two?"
          "Try one.  Later, try two."
          "Tried to hurt you [twice]?"
          "Twice.  Yes."
          There was more arguing, yowling, then the sheets were pulled off and I gasped at the shock of the cold air against my skin.  Embarrassing being naked in front of them, vulnerable in that nakedness, terrifying not being able to move.  Freezing cold air set me trembling, the tension enhancing the aching in my wounds.  Then one of them leaned forward into the cubby and poked the bandage across my shoulder.  I screamed, feeling like someone had grabbed a handful of nerves and dunked them in acid and Chihirae swung around and backhanded the other away, snarling with bared teeth.  The chastised one growled back then turned and stalked out.  She faced me again, watching until I caught my breath.  "Mikah, did you hurt [anyone]?  Understand?  Did you hurt?"
          What was she talking about?  "I not understand," I breathed and shuddered again.  "Please, Cold."
          She said something else, but the room and alien faces were spinning and melting together, my shoulder aching unbearably where it'd been jabbed.  "Cold," I mumbled and blacked out again.

          There were low noises, sounds that resolved into growling voices murmuring.  Something touched my face.  I flinched and opened my eyes to sharp teeth, broad valentine nose and amber, inhuman eyes with intelligence glittering in their depths.  Terror forced a small noise from me and the felid pulled away.
          "[something] awake?" I heard a voice in the background call.
          "Yes," the felid at my bedside said, then added something I didn't understand.  The creature moved to touch my shoulder and I tried to struggle, ignoring the agony that blazed through my chest and side.  The felid was shouting something, then Chihirae was beside him and she caught my arm and was speaking, murmuring, "They are gone.  [something] he is [something]." I couldn't understand, but it wasn't what she was saying, it was the way she was saying it: calming, stroking my arm with leathery fingertips.  "Be still.  He [is trying to] help you."
          Why should I trust her?  She'd shot me, almost killed me, now I was locked away, tied down.  But she'd let me live, she'd tended my wounds and looked after me.  I looked up at her face: broad, leathery nose pad, Lynx-like tufts of fur and intense amber eyes.
          I was still shivering, I could feel it, but the fear was settling.  "Be quiet?" she asked, patting my arm.
          "Yes," I choked through tightened vocal chords.  She looked at the male and said, "Be [something]," then moved aside.  The male pulled a chair closer to my bedside and hung the lamp from a hook above the bed, the shadows oscillating as it swung gently.  When I looked back at the male he was holding a small, scalpel-like knife, the cutting edge a single line of glittering light.  I started trembling again, unable to take my eyes off that blade.
          "Calm," Chihirae urged me.
          The male pulled the sheets down and cocked his head at me, hesitating before carefully slipping the knife under the bandage to cut them away.  I winced as he laid the bandages aside, then started on moving the pads underneath away.  Skin and sticky yellow serum adhered to them, hurting as he tugged it away.  I could see the purplish-blue flesh below from the corner of my eye.  He made a hissing noise through his teeth and gingerly touched the wound with a finger.  I flinched and gasped and he stopped immediately.  He sat back, then looked at Chihirae, "This will not [work].  I have to [untie] him."
          "Is that [something]?"
          The doctor waved a hand at me and said something I didn't catch.
          Her muzzle wrinkled and she looked at me, hand touching the knife at her waist, then she knelt and undid the knots on the ropes.  I lay absolutely still as she hesitated, then flipped them aside.  The male - a doctor? - carefully took my wrist and said, "[Does] this hurt?"
          He raised my arm and I gagged on the pain this caused, feeling torn muscles in my shoulder shifting.  He moved it again, trying the range, but my shoulder was so swollen he could only move it a few degrees before the pain got too much.  What the hell had they done to me?  It felt like there was a hole right through, in the front and out the back.
          Turned out there was.  It'd been the only way to get the triangular head out.  Push it right through.  Thank God I don't remember any of that.  He half-rolled me to examine the exit wound, then took a small vial from his kit and spread a foul-smelling yellowish powder over both wounds before replacing the bandages and gauze with fresh ones.  The wound on my side wasn't as clean.  He had to lance and drain that.  Chihirae ducked her head and laid her ears back when I screamed and went rigid, slipping half-under while the doctor tended the puncture and mopped the fluids that seeped out.  I was just hanging to consciousness by a thread when he finished.
          Light glinted on metal as he wiped his knives off packing them away, glaring like flares in my blurry vision.  A figure leaned over me, a shape resolving into Chihirae bending over to hold my wrist and retie the straps.  I moved, trying to struggle, and she caught my hands, bared teeth in my face.  I stopped fighting and lay panting.  "No," I croaked, almost inaudibly.
          Her muzzle smoothed.  She cocked her head.
          "Please... no."
          She looked at the doctor; he waved a hand in a gesture that could have been a shrug and muttered something.  Once more she looked at my face, meeting my eyes, then just patted my leg and pulled the sheets up.  I think I thanked her, just before falling asleep with them watching me.

          I woke with a start into darkness, wondering where I was all over again.  It was a second before the memory surfaced, and when it did I raised my hands and turned them slowly, not quite believing the freedom.  I sagged back, staring up at the shadows of grain patterns on the top of the cubbyhole, remembering, listening.  Silence.  That muffled stillness of a sleeping house.  The light that'd been seeping around the shutters was gone, so it was dark outside.  Did that mean I'd slept away a few hours, or an entire day?
          My bladder was screaming for relief.
          Slowly, I managed to sit myself up, gritting my teeth as my wounds ached and my head spun.  There was just enough room in the bed's cubby to sit upright with my hair brushing the overhead as I rested a while, breathing hard.  Then I took a deep breath and swung my legs over the side of the cot.  By slow, painful steps I clambered to my feet, wobbling uncertainly on the rough wooden floor.  The roof was low, the room seemed to sweep in and out, like there was a tide in my skull.  How much blood had I scattered across the landscape?  Too much.
          There was something I took to be a chamberpot beside the bed.  Well, I'd never actually seen a chamberpot before, but it was all there was.  I leaned against a wall while urinating, getting most of it in the pot.  Hard to see in the dimness.  Hope it was a chamberpot, not a valued piece of crockery or funeral urn and I was pissing all over some dear-departed's ashes.
          Cold.  I was shivering.  Despite that, I staggered over to the window hoping to at least get an idea of where I was.  It was shut, and the shutters couldn't be opened from inside.  I leaned my head against the window, the thick, distorted panes cool against my face.  Through cracks in the shutters I could catch glimpses of slivers of moonlight on snow, a starry sky, silhouettes of pinetrees like fractal sets against the skyline.  Her house, had to be.
          There was a soft noise from behind me as the door opened.  I turned, stumbling and collapsing and falling and crying out loud in pain as my wounds shifted and I banged elbows against walls and floorboards on my way to the ground.  I scrambled back and huddled on the grimy floor below the window, something body-warm and wet started seeping from my shoulder wound, a dark stain against my bare skin in the dimness.  A shadow moved in the door, light gleaming from eyes and a length of steel.  The fear returned.
          Chihirae slowly moved into the room, keeping the table between us and the knife ready.  As if she thought I was going to jump at her.  She was fidgeting and her tail lashing, like she was nervous and unsure.
          I sagged back on the cold floor, my voice faltering as I rasped, "I not hurt you."
          She cocked her head, made a chittering sound and broke off when I tried to move, tried to stand up again only to collapse again with a groan.  Chihirae hesitated, then sheathed the knife and moved closer, making up her mind.  Her leathery palms caught my arm and helped me up.  I staggered and she hauled my arm over her furry shoulder, half-carrying me back to the bed even though I loomed over her by about a foot.  Hard muscles under that soft hide, deceptively strong arms, a furry tail flicking against my bare legs.
          I lay back on the mattress, shaking from fatigue and the cold and the fading adrenaline rush.  Chihirae wiped the trickle of blood away, then collected the sheets from where they had fallen and laid them across my waist.  "That was [something]," she admonished me.
          I didn't know the word, but I could guess.  Stupid, dumb, idiotic, moronic.  There wasn't much I could say to that.
          She cocked her head, then hissed softly, "You are all right?"
          The wounds were aching furiously again, but I nodded.  "Yes."
          She stared at me, her pupils dark pools in her eyes, then she stood and left me.  I noticed this time she left the door open, but I made no move to go anywhere.  I just lay still, letting the pain and cold slowly ebb.
          She was back again within half an hour, carrying a tray.  She sat beside the bed, the tray on her lap holding a mug and plate with several pieces of something that could have been bread on it.  She handed me the mug.  "You are hungry[question].  Here."
          It was warm milk.  I hadn't had warm milk since I was... shit, I can't remember the last time I'd had warm milk.  I sipped: It tasted... strange, watery, but it was still milk.  The images of home and security and familiarity bubbled up from the depths, battering me to my soul with an impact that was almost palpable: here, away from everything and everyone I'd ever known and loved, huddled in a tiny bunk, clutching an earthenware mug of warm milk, eyes swimming while a furry alien straddled a chair and watched me.  I choked back a sob and drank to hide the tears.  It didn't work.
          "What is wrong?" I looked at Chihirae.  She gestured at my face.  "Your eyes; they are [watering]."
          My arm ached when I wiped my face.  "Nothing.  All fine."
          She twitched her ears, then carefully reached out to take back the mug.  Her hand brushed mine and I shivered again at the feeling of fur against my skin.  "Do you want?" She offered me the plate.  I took a piece of bread: warm with something like butter melted over it.  It tasted even better than it smelt and my shrunken stomach welcomed it with growls.
          All this time Chihirae was sitting, watching me, everything I did.  I was on my second piece when she asked, "[something] you [what] are you?"
          I blinked at her.  "I do not understand."
          She took a breath, "What are you?"
          "Hu'an?" She tried the word, trying to work her narrow black lips, long tongue and jaw around it.  "Hu'an." She was silent for a while, then, "I have [never] seen a [thing] like you."
          "I am same.  I have [never] seen a [thing] like you," I forced a smile, echoing her words.
          She leant forward, "Where are you from?  Why are you here?"
          "I am... I am," I struggled with my vocabulary, trying to remember the alien sounds that were words never meant to be spoken by a human throat.  "I am from home.  Many... me's there.  I do not understand how I am here.  I home," snapped my fingers and she jumped, "I am here.  I do not understand." I met her inhuman gaze and asked the question that had been burning in me, as it had in her, "What are you?  All you.  What are you?"
          Her mouth opened, then she blinked.  "Rris.  I am Rris.  My name is Chihirae aesh Hiasamra'thsi.  I am a teacher."
          "Rris," I tried it.  The word started with a noise from my throat, fading into a hiss.  Her full name... I tried it a couple of times, still not sure I'd be able to remember the full pronunciation.  "What is this place?"
          "My house.  This [town] is called [west]water."
          "You are not from... Westwater."
          "No.  I come here to teach.  In [winter].  Cold weather.  Understand?"
          "Yes." I forced a pained smile.  "Good teacher.  You should be not so good shot."
          She flinched, then hissed.  "You hurt.  You [frightened] me."
          "I will not hurt you," I said softly.
          She looked away from me, her ears flattening.  "I did not know." Then she reached to touch my right shoulder, the bandages there.  "I [thought] you were [something].  I [worried] for the cubs."
          I flinched at her touch, then sank back into the coarse mattress.  "You thought I was what?"
          "You did not hurt anyone?"
          "No.  They try to hurt me.  I run.  Why?  You ask... before."
          Her muzzle twitched, she rubbed the side of it.  Like she was nervous.  Then looked right at me: "Someone was [something]."
          "I do not understand."
          This time the twitch was more pronounced.  "[something].  Stopped.  Made no [something].  Not [breathe].  Not live.  Stop."
          "Dead" I blurted it in english, "You think I killed someone?!"
          She jumped, pulling away like I was coming after her.  I was panting hard, trembling again.  I tried calming myself.  "No.  I not.  I not!  I not hurt!"
          She didn't say anything.
          "You... think I... do it?" I ventured.
          Her ears went back.  "Not me.  Others do.  They think you are a [animal].  They think you [kill] him."
          Shit.  I felt faint again, heart pounding on top of fear and bloodloss.  Bedridden, wounded and lost in a land where I wasn't only a stranger but an alien and now a murder suspect.  "What do they do?"
          "They are [something].  They do not [know what to do] with you.  I say you did not kill.  Some still say you did.  They are not [sure]."
          I looked at her morosely.  I never killed anyone.  I knew that and it was so hard to say it.  "I not... did not kill."
          "I know."
          That stopped me.  Confused, I asked, "How?"
          Her ears twitched.  "You were in the barn, watching us."
          "You knew."
          "I saw the [something]."
          Dust.  Sifting down through the floor as I moved.  Very visible in the sunlight.  She made a small chittering noise when I stared at her.  And I'd thought I'd thought of everything.
          "Dust," she hissed.  "Also your hands."
          My hands?  I didn't understand, not until she moved - fast - and her hand was in front of my face: Opalescent claws hooked from her fingertips.  "The dead one, he was [torn] from these.  You not do that."
          I stared at those little crescents.  She didn't need the knife: Those were quite capable of shredding me.  Then she patted my arm again and said something I didn't understand at all, then added, "You rest now.  We talk more tomorrow."
          She was looking after me, feeding me and - if her story was true - defending me.  She'd shot me, but she'd also saved my life.  Maybe if she hadn't caught me the others would have come after me, convinced I was dangerous.  They might have been even better shots.  No matter what the reasons, I trusted her.  It was just a feeling, something she exuded.
          She paused at the door.
          "I have other things." I told her, then took a deep breath and tried to explain about my camp, where it was.  She listened, then ducked her head and said she would look for it.  Then the door closed and this time I didn't hear the bolt slide home.

          Chihirae roused me the next morning, bringing me breakfast: grain cakes and water and some strips of near-raw meat.  She was in a hurry, her class was waiting and I wasn't enough to pull her away from that.  Snowing out, she said and left me again.  I nibbled at the bread, ignored the meat, then slept.
          That's all I did all morning, too exhausted to do anything more.  Around noon the noise of the front door slamming roused me.  Chihirae entered the gloom of my room, brushing snow out of her fur.  "Greeting, [something]." She noticed the leftovers.  "You do not like meat?"
          "I cannot eat.  Have to... fire more."
          "Cook more," she corrected and looked at the meat.  "You are not [easy] to look after." Her nose twitched and she popped a piece in her mouth as she left the room.  She returned after a few minutes later and I had to do a double take.  She was wearing my jacket.  I stared, not sure whether to laugh or shout at her.  A bipedal cat adjusting the fit of my green ArcTec jacket.  "Strange [something].  Nice," she said, stroking the spidersilk fabric, then asked me, "How do these [work]?" indicating the fasteners.
          I showed her how to work the zips and buttons and Velcro tabs.  She fiddled with them, chittering to herself, then grinned.  I was beginning to realise it wasn't a friendly grin.  "Your place had [better] be [something].  I do not want to be walking around the hills all night."
          "You find," I assured her and she snorted and turned and left me.  I lay there and listened to the door slam and then to a silence that seemed bottomless.

          I had weird dreams.  Flashes of memories from home mixed with stranger things.  That knight again, chasing me through what was sometimes a maze and sometimes a labyrinth of unfamiliar streets.  Hang gliding high over some unfamiliar terrain, never losing any altitude and looking for something.  A nurse and her lioness face grinned at me and she growled something I can't remember and reached for me with stainless steel claws.
          The pain ripping through my wounds when I flinched woke me and I found myself looking up at a group of feline faces: tiny faces, just visible over the edge of the bed.  Yelps sounded and they scattered with a skittering of claws on the floor.  Cubs.  I blinked, collecting my wits, then turning my head to see them better.  Still daylight, with sunbeams filtering through the shutters.  Small heads with puffed fur were peering around the door, watching me like a cat watches a dog on the other side of the street: ready to bolt at the slightest sign.  Muttering at each other.
          "Told you it [something] here."
          "[something].  What is it?"
          "[something] said it [something]."
          "Teacher said it was [harmless].  It was just [lost]."
          "Right, cub-spots.  Does that look harmless?"
          And I recognised one of them.  "Feher?" I ventured.
          There was a silence in which they drew back a half-step, their fur bottling.  The one called Feher looking particularly stricken as he realised it was him I was addressing.  "How is your... sled?" I managed, proud of myself for that sentence.
          He took a step backward, mouth working but nothing coming out.  Then he dropped his jaw and hissed, fur going up like a bottlebrush.  The others chittered and his ears dropped like wet tissues.  He was a few seconds pulling himself together, drawing himself up to his full three foot height.  "You can talk?"
          "Yes." It was amusing.  Their cubs can only be described as 'cute'.  Scarcely over my hips with voluminous fur and gangling limbs, they seemed to be all heads, puffed-out tails, hands and feet.  No clothes; they wouldn't need any with all that fur.  Warmth and androgyny; I couldn't tell boy from girl.  Melting snow speckled their thick pelts.  "Where is Chihirae?"
          They all looked at each other but none answered.  "Not know you here," I guessed.  Ears went down.  I chuckled, winced.
          "What are you?" one of them asked.
          "How did you know my name?" Feher demanded.
          "I saw you," I said.  "I am Michael."
          They shifted around, six of them moving to see me better.  Furry bodies eclipsed the fans of light spilling through the shutters, turning the scene surreal.  The small room was getting crowded.  "Teacher shot you?" one asked.
          "I saw the [blood].  They are saying you [something] [something] Sherrith."
          "What?  Talk slow.  I do not understand lot words."
          "You killed [something] Sherrith?"
          My gut lurched.  How many thought I'd killed whoever it was?  "No." Six pairs of amber and green eyes watched me.  "I not killed."
          They exchanged glances again.  That one who'd asked if Chihirae had shot me said, "Teacher said you didn't do it."
          I didn't know what to say to that.  She trusted me... sort of.  She was trying to protect me against the others.  "Who is Sherrith?" I asked.
          "You don't know?" another cub asked.
          "I do not know much."
          They chittered and one shifted closer for a better look.  "He was [something] at the [something]," the talkative one said, "up the valley, near [something]."
          "I did not understand.  I do not know some words."
          "Why?" another cub piped up.
          "I learning talk."
          There was more chittering, a smaller one said, "You are not very good at it."
          "That is why you were in the barn?" The tallest asked.
          "Why were you hiding?"
          "I not knew you.  Some tried to... hurt me.  They see me, they try to hurt me."
          There was a short silence, then one of the smaller cubs blurted, "You were afraid of us?"
          I looked from one intently interested catlike face to another, suddenly embarrassed about how the confession would sound to them.  "Yes."
          "That is [stupid]."
          I pulled the sheet down, just enough to expose my shoulder and the bandages over purple-black skin.  "Stupid?"
          Their reactions were mixed and unreadable; grimaces and hisses.  I kept trying to read something human into their body language and nothing made sense.
          "You are [lucky] she is not a better shot," Feher observed.
          "Why don't you have any fur?"
          Heads swivelled toward the one who'd asked that question.  He or she ducked its head and flashed teeth.  I gave a small smile, "I am from... not cold place.  Need do not... Don't need fur so much."
          "Are you like that all over?"
          "Cold," one said.  Another muttered something I didn't catch, but it brought forth a chorus of chittering, which was abruptly stilled when the one who'd asked about my lack of fur ventured, "Can I touch you?"
          I think a few of them stopped breathing then, watching me for my response.  I slowly nodded.  "Yes."
          The cub was cautious, like he was going to pet a strange dog.  I lay still, watching him approach, reach out an arm and touch my right forearm with a single finger.  I stayed motionless as he stroked my arm: gingerly at first, then with more confidence.
          As if that were a sign the others gathered around the bedside, stroking and poking and touching, keeping well clear of my wounds.  They wanted to touch my hair, stroke my growing beard, chittered at my feet: They thought they were funny, like they thought pulling the blankets off was funny.  Why were my feet funny?  Why didn't I have fur?  a tail?  I grabbed and caught the sheets, but not before one asked why my [something] was all outside.  I flushed red and they chittered again, but only until a growl interrupted them, "What are you doing?"
          Chihirae stepped into the room and slowly bared her teeth.  The cubs shrank back, their ears going down while she walked forward and looked down at Feher, "You are [something] them here?  Why am I not [something].  [something]!  I will talk with you [tomorrow].  Go on." She aimed a swat at his head as the cubs made for the door and I heard their chittering laughter fading away.  Chihirae looked out the door after them, then huffed a breath that left a white cloud in the air and turned back to stare at me.
          "They not hurt," I said in a small voice.
          She regarded me levelly for a second, then snorted again and came over to gather the sheets back into some kind of order: "They come into my house.  It is [rude?].  Cubs, they never do what I say."
          "You are not..." I stumbled, tried to figure out how to word it properly.  "That is new to you?"
          She looked at me and twitched her ears, then smoothed the sheets and paused.  "I found your camp." There was a faint clicking sound that took me a second to pinpoint: she was tapping her claws together, a preoccupied little mannerism.  "How long you there?"
          I didn't really know.  "Before leaves fell."
          "[Autumn]," she supplied.  Kept staring at me.  "You have some strange [something].  It is... I have never seen the like.  Where is it made?"
          "Where I am from."
          I opened my mouth.  Several times, then confessed, "I not know words."
          Her lip twitched over teeth.  Then she made a snorting sound and stood, leaving me.  "Chihirae," I called after her and she stopped at the door, a sunbeam catching her shoulder and turning the fur golden-white.  I swallowed, embarrassed, not knowing how to ask an alien this.  "I need to..." I didn't know the words for that either.  "I need to... use the small room?"
          "What?" Her muzzle wrinkled.  Was that confusion?
          "Ah..." there was that phrase I'd heard in the barn when a cub asked to be excused.  I repeated it as best I could.
          She blinked, then made that chittering sound.  "You mean you have to [defecate]."
          "Yes... defecate?"
          "Ah," she rubbed a claw along the side of her muzzle.  "Have to move you again."
          She did, and it hurt again.  I gritted my teeth and suffered as she helped me out of bed: sit up, then get her shoulder under my good arm and stand up with the cold teasing goosebumps from my naked hide.  She was a solid crutch under my arm as she helped me, one step at a time, to the door.  There was a narrow, dark corridor there that bisected the house, a curtain at one end, a door at the other and in each wall.  I hesitated and Chihirae let me rest, then it was couple of steps to the end of the corridor and the curtain there.  It was a tiny room behind it, with a seat that was a weird affair that resembled a potty: a seat with a raised cup that jotted up in front of my groin.  I didn't know what that said about their anatomy.  Freezing in there.  My breath frosting in the air.  "Here," Chihirae panted, her breath as white as mine, "The smallest room, huh?" she chittered again.
          Cold, draughty, with the hole leading to a bucket outside.  It would reek in the summer.  A handful of straw and a half-frozen bucket of water to clean off with after.  Chihirae hovered around the curtain, not seemingly bothered by my activities.  They're less squeamish about bodily functions than we are, but that didn't make it any more comfortable for me.  When I was done she began to help me up, laid a hand on my arm and stopped.  "You are [something] cold."
          I was; shivering and embarrassed.  My wounds throbbed with an aching I could feel in my bones.  When Chihirae half-lifed me to my feet I could feel her warmth, her skin almost hot under her fur.  I was shaking hard when she got me back to bed and set me down.  Any trace of body warmth had already vanished from the sheets and the mattress was as cold as the room.  Chihirae looked down on me as I huddled, then leaned a little closer; I saw her nostrils twitching before she pulled the sheets up again.  "I think you need [something]."
          "What.  I do not... Chihirae?  Chirae?" but the door was already closing behind her.  I laid my head back and tried to puzzle out what she'd meant by that.  I didn't know the word.
          But I guessed what it was when she returned about half an hour later, a steaming bowl in one hand, cloth draped over her arm.  Bath.
          "Here," she laid the implements down on the table, then turned to me and gave a slow, deliberate grin.  "You be still, all right?"
          "I do not..."
          "You need to [wash].  You [smell] like a [something]." She dipped a cloth into the water, wrung it out, then grinned at me again: "You be quiet?  I can tie you again."
          I opened my mouth to protest, saw the lay of her ears, and realised she wasn't joking.  I closed my mouth again, nodding and laying back.
          Shit!  That cloth was hot!  I gasped at the first dab and Chihirae hastily pulled away, then slowly resumed again.  It was hot, but it was a heat that gradually ebbed, sinking in as she wiped the cloth down my face: softly.  Down my neck, across my chest.  I lay back, relaxing, beginning to lose myself in the warmth and clean feeling that followed the cloth.
          She moved lower.
          "Huh?" I started to wake at the feelings.  A hand touched my face: "No.  [something] looking.  Nothing new there," she murmured and I just lay still, aware of what was washing between my legs, embarrassed, wondering at the ridiculousness of it all, converting binary to decimal in my head; anything to keep the blood out of the wrong places.  Despite the cold, despite what was doing it, it just felt... good.
          Mercifully she was quick: down my legs, around my feet.  She had to help me roll over and then I could only lie with my arms at my side, but she was slow and thorough, the cloth hot and rough as it scraped my back, leaving a cold, fresh trail to chill in the air.  My pulse settled, relaxing under the unintended massage, the occasional brushing of warm fur.  It seemed too soon before she said, "Finished."
          A hand patted my shoulder.  "Finished.  [something].  Turn over?" I gritted my teeth as she helped me, panting slightly when I was finally settled.  Chihirae caught the sheets to pull them up and hesitated, then asked, "Why IS your [something] all outside?"
          She touched me then: a furry hand flicked lightly against my dick.  "Your [penis], why is it outside?" she asked as casually as one might inquire about the weather.
          I could only croak, "I don't know."
          She blinked at me, then pulled the sheets up and patted my shoulder, "I will bring food later."
          I stared after her as she left, then slept again.

          Something touched my cheek, nudging me.  I made one of those half-hearted, incoherent complaints that's such a part of waking and opened my eyes to a candlelit feline face, the dancing light doing weird things with shadows.  "Chi'ra?" Everything was muzzy with sleep.
          She withdrew her hand and said simply, "We talk."
          "Huhnn?" It was dark out, the single stubby candle the only light in the room.  "What?"
          "This." She produced a flat black box, a little smaller than a directory.  She fumbled with it, hinged the lid open and touched a red button.  The screen blinked to life, the desktop popping up.  "This.  What is it?"
          Candlelight one side: the other twisted active array illumination.  "Oh," I said and lay back.  She'd brought that back with her.  How much other stuff had she brought back?  There was a low growl from Chihirae and I looked up at the shadows of her eyes.  "It is a... a thing I... Like you are teacher, use book.  I use that for what I do.  It is like a book."
          "A book," she echoed.  "This is not a book." She touched the lens over the CCD while her tail lashed against her legs.
          "Like a book," I repeated.
          She cocked her head and I saw her tongue flicker around her lips before she said, "I don't understand."  A claw clicked on plastic as she ran a finger over the keyboard.  "What are these marks."
          "Writing..." her head came up and shadowy pools of her eyes were locked on my face, then she looked down and a fingertip touched a key.  "It isn't Rris.  You [something] a writing of [something] your own?"
          "I don't understand," I said and she stared at me again.  "What you said.  It not Rris.  Is mine... my people."
          "You have writing."
          "What ARE you?" she asked and this time there was emphasis on words, an emotion imparted that was something I couldn't understand.
          "I am..." I started to say but the words weren't there.  "Human," I said.
          "What does that mean?"
          "Look," I pointed at the laptop.  "Pictures on that."
          She looked confused.
          There was a stylus: a cross between a mouse and a tablet pen.  I told her how to hold the stylus, how to open some files.  I had about a dozen 28gig PCMCIA flashcards with me, loaded with all kinds of stuff: from my work to art packages to novels and films.  Easier than lugging a library around with you.  She was slow and clumsy at first, but not too bad for someone who'd never even conceived of a computer.  I couldn't say 'open that window' or 'use the file selector', I had to take her through it as a complete newbie.
          Only this was a neophyte who'd never imagined anything like one of todays PCs.  I gave her a simple walkthrough, demonstrating sound; She'd never heard her voice played back before and stared quizzically at the speaker, conjuring images of some feline perversion of 'his master's voice'.  She was uncomprehending when I pointed the laptop at her and ran the video capture for a few seconds.  When I played it back she leaned close to see what was moving on the screen then reared back:
          "That's me!  [Something] me!  How do you do that?"
          It was graphical tricks like that that really got her.  I'm a digital graphics specialist so the card was packed with clip images and animations of every description: from a tour of Manhattan to models displaying the latest fashions to helicopter gunships in action.  She didn't speak as the pictures flicked across the screen, bathing her features in a light so familiar to me, so out of place here.
          "What is this?" she asked finally, still not looking at me.  A picture of New York from the air, Central Park central in the POV while a travelogue droned on, muted to near-inaudibility.  "Where?"
          "Home," I said.
          "Where?" she insisted and I thought she sounded a little scared.
          I sighed, my ribs flexing painfully.  "I do not know how I come here.  I was walking.  I walked.  It changed.  It all other... it go away and I go here."
          Her head drew back.  "You do not make [sense]."
          "I home, then I here.  I do not understand.  I do not know how.  It changed." I tried to make her understand.  "It changed.  My home, then here.  I do not know how.  I was walking and something happen.  I wake here.  I walk some days.  I see houses." Just lying there in that cold little room, it hit me again: that hollow, empty feeling.  An entire world gone forever, stolen from me.  Not just the world, there were the people, the friends and family.  My job.  I had a mental picture of myself trying to explain this to Elliot:
          "Sorry I'm late back but I got a bit lost.  Ended up on another world and there were these cats and one shot me.  Don't suppose I could have my job back?"
          Rita; Jackie - my flatemate, my friend, and more than that; my parents in Chicago; friends: Gareth had been about to open an exhibition of his kinetic and laser sculptures.  I'd promised I'd be there but somehow I didn't think I'd be able to keep that appointment.  What were they doing now?  I'd have been expected back a month ago.  Were there people searching?  Fat fucking load of good it'd do.
          A hand touched my arm, pulling me out of my fugue, back into the moment.  Amber eyes were meeting mine.  A screen flickered in the dimness and she flinched violently.  Pink hippos parachuting with umbrellas.  I looked at that frivolity and the tears came.
          "Mikah?  Your eyes are leaking again."
          I rubbed my good hand across my eyes.
          "You do that when you hurt?" she asked.  When I didn't answer she tilted her head, then snorted, tucked the laptop under her arm and left me lying in the darkness.

          Chihirae did her best, but sometimes that wasn't the best for me.  There were the times she tried feeding me raw meat, a time she tried giving me some concoction she insisted was a medicine that had me vomiting my guts out.  I'd no idea what was in it, was damned lucky it didn't kill me.  She was a better teacher; in the evenings she would sit at my bedside and we would talk.  She'd made trips back to the campsite, bringing all my stuff back with her.  Of course she hadn't been able to figure out how to pack the tent away, so she just piled everything inside and used the tent as a sack.  The Compaq; she played around on that until I had to show her how to connect the solarpack to recharge it.  My clothes were a source of great puzzlement to her, I don't know what she thought of my boots, but she seemed to have taken a fancy to my jacket.  My medical kit was a blessing, once I'd managed to tell Chihirae what I needed.  She brought it in to me and I could tell as soon as I opened it that she'd been rifling through it.  I popped a couple of antibiotic tablets, then Chihirae dusted my wounds with antiseptic dust and replaced the bandages with the sterile gauze pads.  Two days later the swelling around the punctures had reduced, the aching had subsided.  It still hurt like hell to move but I was healing.
          My waking hours were long and boring and cold.  Chihirae was gone for long periods during which I either dozed or lay and stared at the ceiling.  There was no way I could go anywhere on my own: my injuries and two weeks bedridden left me hopelessly weak.  Chihirae spent time with me in the afternoons and evenings, helping me with her language, teaching me new words and correcting my grammar.  She said I couldn't say some of the words correctly, but that was more of a physical difficulty and there wasn't a lot I could do about it.

          The front door slamming and the loud snarls of Rris voices shouting woke me.  I started awake and lay blinking in the dimness.  Evening.  Chihirae was a lot later than was usual for her and judging by the sounds she wasn't alone.  The voices became a lot louder when the door opened and three Rris pushed in with Chihirae behind them.  Two of them were male: one of them I thought I recognised as the doctor who'd treated me, but my recollection of him was kind of fuzzy, but the other as the male who'd spoken about killing me.  The last was a female and she was arguing vehemently with Chihirae in a stream of fluent Rris impossible to follow.  She rounded on me, levelling a clawed finger and snarling.  I shrank away and stared at Chihirae helplessly.  Her muzzle wrinkled and she made a placating gesture in my direction: "It is all right, Mikah."
          "It is a killer," the other male snapped.
          "I kill no one," I protested.  They stared, momentarily nonplussed.  "I did not kill," I said again.
          "[something] you!  [something] Sherrith said he saw something like you," the female snapped.  "Two days later he is dead.  Where were you!  What [something] you.  Teacher, it is [something].  Kill it [something]..." I couldn't follow.
          "It said it [something] the [children].  It [something] kill them also?"
          "No," I croaked, shocked and scared at what they were implying.
          "He cannot have," the Doc stepped in, on my side I hoped.  "Look:" he came close and pulled the blankets away to show my hand.  "No claws.  How could he [something the something] killed Sherrith.  And there are no [something].  There was blood under his claws.  No [something] here."
          The female seized the blankets and threw them across the room, pointing out the red scratches across my hide where branches had torn me when I fell down the hillside.  "And what [something] these?"
          He snorted.  "Not claw [marks]."
          "He is right," Chihirae snarled, actually bristling, her fur bottling out in a furious ruff as she launched into a snarling tirade.  The female flinched, then spat something back and stalked out with the male in tow.  The others swept out behind them and I heard shouting carrying off down the corridor, leaving me lying naked in a room with the temperature hovering around zero, the sheets scattered around the floor.  It still hurt when I tried to move and just sitting up moved muscles that shouldn't be disturbed.  Walking was agony and - as I soon found out - a stupid idea.
          Chihirae returned to find me slumped against the table unable to get the blankets, unable to get back to the bed, doing my best just to stay on my feet.  "What are you doing?!"
          "Cold," I said in way of explanation and tried to make it back to the bed by myself.  She caught me before I did myself some serious damage.  "Ai, you are like ice," she exclaimed as soon as she touched me.
          "Cold," I said again.
          She cocked her head, then her tail flicked against my calf as she slipped a shoulder beneath my arm and took some of my weight.  I limped where she led, which was not back to the bed as I'd expected, but rather to the door and then a few paces down the cramped hallway to the other door.
          The house's other room was a little larger than the one I'd been in, but this one wasn't a barren, cold cell.  It looked lived in.  The window was unshuttered with blackness outside and frost lacing the glass.  Like the other room there was a single unmade bed set in an alcove, but here there were also cupboards and stocked shelves in the surrounding walls; a glowing lantern hanging above a table with old books stacked on it.  Scattered around the room were items of my own: the tent clumsily rolled up in a corner along with my pack.  On the table my laptop and pens and lamp sat alongside a candle stub.  In the far corner a small, cast-iron stove squatted like a black gnome, a workspace with a few kitchen implements such as bowls and skillets beside it.  A pyramid of wood was stacked against the wall alongside.  On the floor in front of the stove was something that looked like a beanbag chair or large, lopsided cushion.
          Chihirae helped me across to settle down on the cushion.  The fabric was richly woven, embroidered with hundreds of tiny pictures I didn't have time to examine.  It was stuffed with something soft that rustled and smelt pleasant: a potpourri aroma.  She gave me a grubby blanket and crouched down in front of the fire while I huddled and shivered.  The sight of her tail poking through the green fabric of her pants was unsettling and something I found difficult to take my eyes off: just so strange.  She talked to me as she coaxed the fire to life:
          "They are afraid of you.  They think you killed and they do not want to listen.  Some of the town think you are [innocent], others think you killed.  They want you killed."
          "They kill me?" I asked, not really feeling anything.  It had all been too much; the emotions had burned down, like the fire.
          Chihirae twisted to look at me: a flash of titanium in the lamplight.  Her tailtip twitched, "No.  I am [something].  If they [something] I told them I bring [something]." She chittered again, "They are quieter, but they have sent for [something or someone]."
          "I do not understand," I told her in a small voice.
          A sigh escaped her.  She pushed a larger piece of wood into the stove and closed the thick door.  Cast iron I suddenly realised.  The most sophisticated thing I'd seen here.  Did that mean they had industry?  Steam power?  Electricity?  Chihirae was talking again, explaining.
          "I work for... [people] who..." she made aimless motions as she searched for a simple word I knew, "[something]?  Teach us.  Tell us.  Make land work."
          "I am a Teacher.  A town asks for one, I go.  Stay for a while.  They try to hurt you I tell them I tell my [superiors].  No more help.  Make life hard for them.  They send for [something].  He say if you have killed or not.  What he says is [final].  I cannot change."
          So, she was a government employee, blackmailing them.  They kill me, the officials make things tough for the villagers.  They'd gone over her head and sent for a... a cop?  Judge?
          "You want to show me to your... superiors."
          Her jaw twitched.  "You go?  You talk?"
          What kind of choices did I have?  Not many.  "If you say, I go."
          She might have heard the resignation, anyway, something made her look around and meet my eye.  "I will not hurt you," she told me.
          "Too late," I smiled slightly.
          She returned a hesitant twitch of her ears and popped the stove door to throw another piece of wood in.  God!  The warmth that flooded out was bliss.  I'd been lying in that icebox with only my own bodywarmth for heat for so long, now this just felt incredible.  It seeped into me, easing the aching in my side and shoulder.  Chihirae was speaking again, but her words became a background droning that made it all the harder to stay awake.  I just let my head sink back into the cushion and gave in.

          In the days that followed Chihirae settled me down with my own sleeping bag and mat in a corner near the fire.  It proved to be a judicious move as my health took a turn for the better: I wasn't as tired, and when I did sleep, it was longer and deeper.  The swelling around the punctures subsided even more, but I guess that could have been due to the antibiotics I was stoking myself with.  At the time I never realised just what a risk Chihirae felt she was taking in having me in the same room; I later learned she didn't sleep nearly as well on those first couple of nights.  I guess if I were in her place I wouldn't rest so easy either.
          The first four days passed pretty much as usual: she would give me some food in the morning and leave me to go off to her class.  Clothes rubbed painfully against bruised and swollen wounds so I had to make do with blankets and the stove.  It was stoked in the morning, then damped down so it was just ticking over while Chihirae was out with her classes.  Her evenings and other spare time she spent with me, spending hours nursing and patiently tutoring me in that cramped little room, teaching me her language, her customs and her life.  Her books were possessions she valued more than anything but she still let me leaf through them.  All the while she was watching with attentive eyes, ready to pounce if I made a move that might damage her treasures.  Of course so many of the words were just chicken scratchings to me, but I could look at the pictures and try to make what I could out of the ones I did know.  While she was out I spent the time reviewing my notes, trying to make my mouth wrap itself around sounds it was never intended for.  After a few hours I inevitably ended up with a sore throat; Hell, I still do.
          And there was that cop.
          "A [something]," Chihirae explained.
          "I do not know that word, [something]."
          Her muzzle wrinkled and she scratched a clawtip against the desktop as she pondered, "Someone who balances?  If there is a problem between people, they will [judge] and make a decision.  They hold the [power] of the [government].  Their word is what-must-be.  [Law].  Do you understand that?"
          "Yes." A cross between police and judges?  The closest I could come to an accurate translation was mediator; although whenever Chihirae mentioned the name it was always Mediator... with a capital 'M'.  "They are..." I didn't know how to say important, "big?  People listen them?"
          "To them," she corrected automatically.  "Yes.  Yes they do." She stared at me, then looked away hastily.
          She was worried about this Mediator.
          That scared me.

End Light on Shattered Water 2