Light on Shattered Water


          My first excursion outside.
          Sunset was turning high streaks of wind-blown clouds into wisps of pink and russet gold, the horizon lost behind the hills cupping the valley.  Snow squeaked under my boots - materialised from somewhere by the Mediator - as I hunched down into my jacket against the evening chill and followed the track as it wound through snow-bound farmland toward the town.  The Rris flanked me: Chihirae wrapped in a tattered old coat of her own had a loose grip on my left arm, helping me whenever I stumbled.  On my right the Mediator stalked along with his long coat flapping around his calves, wearing his breeches and quilted vest, my bulky tramping pack slung over his shoulders: incongruous for such a scene, might have been amusing if it weren't for glimpses of the knife and gun at his waist.
          I shuddered.  Chihirae glanced up at me and squeezed my arm; reassuring me?  I faltered and she caught me, reaching up to pat my shoulder.  "Mikah?  Please, do not be so afraid."
          "How do you know?" I asked, staring at the cluster of buildings ahead.  There were Rris moving around on the street.
          "You smell [something]," she said.  "Calm down.  They will smell it also, it will make things harder for you.  You did nothing, there is nothing to be afraid of."
          "They do not know I didn't do it," I nodded toward the town buildings, feeling my heart constricting in my chest.  I balked, drawing the Rris up short, Chihirae looking worried and the Mediator wary.  "Chihirae... it is so strange, all different.  I do not know what has happened, I do not know what will happen.  I do not understand all you say, what you do." Then I reached down and grasped her hand, feeling her flinch like she'd touched a live wire.  Strange muscles flexed there, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  Her nostrils flared anew and I touched the hard curves of claws in her fingertips, "You have these, your teeth..." I trailed off, shaking slightly.
          "You," comprehension dawned in her eyes, a shocked look.  "You are afraid of us?"
          I looked from her to the Mediator, neither of them taller than my shoulder, both of them staring back and thinking God-only-knows-what.  When I released Chihirae's hand she drew away so slightly.  I wiped my own clammy palms and started walking again.  After a couple of seconds I heard snow crunching under their pads and this time the Mediator was beside me, watching me.  He worked a thumb under a strap to hitch the pack up and said, "It explains a lot.  Are you going to be all right?"
          I nodded.
          "That is yes?"
          "Yes.  I think so."
          He sighed, his breath crystallising in the evening air.  "Just, be calm tonight.  Don't let them get your claws out."
          Disquieting image.  A hand touched my other arm, drawing my attention.  Chihirae smiled at me, "You will be all right."
          Rris gathered around as we entered the town.  Not much to it: just a dirt street that snow and feet had turned to ice and mud in places, a dozen or so small buildings spaced along its length.  Different types of buildings: clapboard sheathing on some; others timber frame, the exposed beams stained black or reddish.  Only one building with two floors, the roofs covered with slate or thatch or wood-tile.  There was glass in the windows of a couple of places, goods visible behind the panes.  Shops?  Groups of Rris gathered on the porches fronting the building, staring openly.  Some cubs ran close, a couple of them cubs I knew; then adults shouted and the cubs stopped, reluctantly looking back at their parents who beckoned angrily.  The chastened cubs retreated again and waved to me from a distance.  I smiled at that, gave a small wave in return and they laughed and sat down on a stoop across the street to watch.
          Our destination was about halfway along the short street: a single-floor, wood-clad building with a fanlight above double doors.  Rris waiting on the verandah outside stood aside as we approached and I hesitated again.  Chihirae touched my arm, gently urging me on.
          "Mediator," one of the Rris, a female, called, "is it safe to have that thing walking around?"
          "He won't hurt anyone," Shyia reassured the uneasy cats watching me.  Chihirae tugged my arm again, up the steps.  I had to duck my head getting through the door and inside it was dim, orangish light from a few lanterns and candles.  I blinked, my eyes adjusting.
          I didn't know what the building was usually used for.  There were a few boxes and barrels stacked against a far wall, the rest of the wooden floorspace was cleared.  Plain wooden chairs were arranged in a semicircle, another in the center facing them: like a meeting of alcoholics anonymous.  Rris were waiting, standing as I came in, their eyes glowing with oil-on-water shimmers from the slight evening light seeping in from behind me.  A closed, dark room with Rris, a lot of them, more than I'd ever seen in one place before.  I started shaking again and Chihirae's grip tightened perceptibly.  "Sit," she told me.  "There.  Sit and wait."
          That seat in the middle of course.  I sat and the chair groaned alarmingly, but it held.  Chihirae stayed by my side while a susurrus of Rris voices rose and ebbed around us and floorboards creaked as furry bodies shifted.  A lamp was eclipsed and I turned to find myself eyeballs-to-upper-row-of-nipples with a Rris, looked up to see a muzzle drawn back over glistening teeth.
          "Leave him alone," Chihirae growled.
          The muzzle shifted, like the barrel of a gun, levelling on Chihirae.  "It's walking now.  You let it go where it wants?"
          "He hasn't run, has he?"
          The face turned back to me, looking me up and down.  "I don't think it could if it wanted.  How's your shoulder?  Hah?  Still sore?" she moved to jab my shoulder and without thinking my left hand was up and locked around her wrist.
          Noise in the room hit a brick wall: stopped.
          Inhuman bones and muscle flexed under my hand, a pressure as she tried to pull away.  A pulse rocketed and I froze with my hand locked in a deathgrip around her wrist, staring at a grin that slowly spread into a snarl.  I felt the blood drain from my face but couldn't move.  Her other hand came up with her fingers splayed to extrude the claws, ready to slash at me.
          "Mikah." Chihirae's voice was very low, very steady in my ear.  "Let go.  Now.  Let her go."
          Slowly, I loosened my grip and she jumped back.  "It is dangerous!"
          "He was trying to protect himself."
          "Hai!" another voice snapped and the Mediator was pushing through the crowd around us.  "Now what [something]?"
          "That thing [something] me," the other female snarled waving her hand at me.
          The Mediator gave me a look.  "Did you?"
          "I stopped her.  She try to hit me, here," I gestured at my damaged shoulder.
          He turned back to the female, "Why were you doing that?  Why were you so close that he could [grab] you?"
          She snarled at me.  "It is dangerous!" Then she stalked back into the ring of Rris surrounding us, a cluster of her cronies grouping around her.
          As things settled down again Chihirae crouched before me, "Mikah, please, just stay there.  Do not move.  Do not let them [provoke] you.  Do you understand?"
          "Yes.  I... I am sorry."
          She patted my leg, then stood and walked off into the gloom.  "Chihirae... ?" I asked after her as she left me alone, not knowing what to do, but my words fell on empty air.
          The doors closed, then, shutting me in a room with over a dozen Rris.  A voice called out, telling them to settle down, and Rris seated themselves on a mismatch of assorted chairs, a couple perching themselves on barrels and bales over against the wall.  I looked around trying to catch a familiar face, finding them totally anonymous, androgynous, male and female blurring in the shadows.  Their chattering dropped to a few hissing whispers and I looked around the semicircle, seeing inhuman eyes staring back.  Chihirae?  Where was...
          The Mediator stepped forward, an unfamiliar Rris at his side.  "Have you met Kenth?"
          I looked at the Rris: shorter than the Mediator, matted-looking fur.  Male, I guessed.  The tufts on his cheeks were trimmed to be squarish in shape.  "I... I do not think so."
          "We have," the other - Kenth - said.  "At the teacher's.  He was off [something].  [something] when Ki touched his wound."
          THAT I remembered.  Not their faces, that still eludes me sometimes, but I remembered the pain.  "Oh, yes."
          "You don't remember?" Shyia asked me.
          "Not really."
          "He's the [something]," the Mediator explained.
          "I do not know that word, Itchis ?"
          "He looks after Westwater, a voice to talk to [government] in Lying Scales.  Do you understand that?"
          A councilman?  mayor?  I wasn't sure so I decided to stick with mayor, trying to hang a familiar label on something that maybe didn't have a translatable equivalent.  "Uh, yes," I said.
          The mayor gave me an uncomfortable look, then made a remarkably human-sounding throat-clearing noise before saying, "You know why you are here?"
          "You say I killed.  You bring me here."
          "Uh... yes.  The Mediator will hear what you have to say and what [something] has to say.  He will decide if you are guilty."
          There was a snarl from the audience and a female - the same one as earlier? - stood, jabbing a claw in my direction and snarling something in impassioned Rris.
          "What she say?  I did not understand," I appealed to Shyia.
          "It cannot even speak properly!" the female spat, clearly intending me to understand that.
          "Too fast," I said but there was more snarling, more arguing that went over my head.  I licked my lips, feeling beads of sweat start to tickle my armpits.  How could I defend myself if I didn't know what the fuck they were talking about?  Finally Shyia snapped something at her and I caught the ending words, "... sit down!"
          She did.  Glowering at us, me.  The Mediator shook his head like a dog drying itself, then looked around and spoke slowly, clearly:
          "To begin with, you should all understand that this creature is not a [something] animal.  His name is Mikah and he calls himself a Hu'an.  I do not know [something] where he comes from or how he came here, he [something] that was an accident.  If what he has shown me is the truth, then his [something] are a lot like ourselves: they have language, they have cities and towns.  He is not a [something] animal."
          "Looks like one," a voice growled.
          "Why the strange clothes?" another asked.
          "No fur," the Mediator said.  "Not his fault."
          There was some laughter.  Didn't help me much: I still felt like the entrée at a lions' picnic.
          "It still looks like an animal." It was that female again.  I was beginning to really dislike her.  "How could something like that have towns or cities.  If you don't even know where it comes from, how do you know that?  Perhaps it told you?  And you believed it?"
          The Mediator flicked his ears, then went over to where my pack leaned against the wall and produced the flat black slab of my laptop and handed it to me.  "Show them what you showed me."
          I did.
          I sat the laptop on my lap, turned the screen so my audience could see it.  The flatscreen monitor glowed under the lanterns.  There were muttered comments when I started a video from the encyclopedia, the guided tour of New York again.  I saw Rris tipping and tilting their heads, trying to make sense of what they saw on the screen, then when it clicked they almost went over backwards.  Some left their seats to get a closer look.
          "[something]," a stocky male hissed, "What is it?"
          "City where I come from," I said.
          A panorama from the top of the World trade center showing the suburbs sprawling into the reddish haze of a sunset; stone and concrete as far as the eye could see.  When that presentation was played out I ran through a couple of short clips: a potter working at her wheel, some shots of the Isle of Man motorbike race, kayaking on the Yukon, an evening Delta Clipper launch, nut-cases skiing a black pearl slope.  Then I stuck my clip-art card in and just let it go through a slideshow, a new image every ten seconds.  I didn't watch but I knew what it'd be showing: people, animals, vehicles... everything from a world I'd never see again.
          The Mayor chose that time to ask, "What is that thing?"
          "A tool," the Mediator explained.  "Mikah says they are quite [something] among his kind."
          "Tricks and toys," the female growled, then exploded, "[Something] my [something]!  That thing is a murderer.  It killed Sherrith!  It could [something] any of us next, and you show us toys!"
          "He never killed anyone!" another voice spat.  Chihirae.
          "Shut them!" Kenth snapped and there was a silence in the room, a faint shout drifting in from outside.
          "Mikah," the Mediator looked at me again, "tell them everything that happened.  From the beginning, what you told Chihirae and I." Then he turned to my audience: "Please, listen.  He is just learning to speak so he does not know many words, he has trouble saying others.  Just listen to him.  Mikah," he gestured to me to begin.
          I swallowed, licked my lips and began my story.  It was the third time I'd told it.  My Rris had improved, I'd had practice, but I was still far from fluent.  Still, they listened.  Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing something like myself struggling with their language, an animal performing tricks for their amusement, whatever it was they listened.  The ones who believed me, the ones who loathed me, they all listened.  And when I was finished...
          "That is [something]!" the female snorted.
          "I do not understand," I told her.
          She glared at me, a muscle-rigid jaw-locked flash of hatred.  "That is not true!"
          "It is."
          "No!" Then she spoke clearly, spitting the words at me, "We didn't have anyone else on the farm!  Sherrith and I were alone!  He shot at it and it ran off.  It came back later to kill him."
          "No," I croaked.  "There were others.  Two, I think.  Maybe more.  I thought they helpers..."
          "We could [something] help?" She chittered laughter: a high, forced-sounding noise.
          "Could you be mistaken?" the Mayor asked me.
          I shook my head and his lips twitched.  "No!  I saw them."
          "How can you see what isn't there!" the female snarled.
          "Raeya," the Mediator addressed the female, "Tell us what you saw."
          "You already know.  The truth!"
          "Humor me."
          She sighed and used both hands to brush the tufts of her furry mane, then began her story and I couldn't understand.  She was talking too fast, gesticulating, ignoring me as she addressed her peers.
          "Too fast," I ventured.
          She ignored me and kept talking.
          "Please," I repeated, "I cannot understand.  Too fast."
          "Slow down," the Mediator spoke up.  "Raeya, I want him to hear this too."
          Her ears went down and she hesitated.  When she started speaking again it was slower, almost mockingly so, but it was slow enough for me to keep up with.  And I thought I wasn't hearing her properly.
          They'd first seen it in the months before winter, when they were storing feed for the animals.  She'd been in the house when she heard a shout from outside.  When she went to investigate she was attacked by a vicious creature.  Sherrith had shot at it and missed, but that was enough to frighten it off.  It ran into the hills and nobody believed when they tried to speak about it.
          Then it came back.  Several times meat had gone missing from their storehouse, some of the remaining stuff half-eaten.  A bison was taken.  Just over two months after the first sighting, Sherrith went out to the barn in the morning, while that part of the valley was still in shadow.  She hadn't thought anything amiss until he didn't answer her calls.  When she went outside she saw the creature running across the outlying fields again, running away from the farm.  She found Sherrith in the barn, his throat ripped out.
          Her mate, I thought.
          Oh.  That explained that anger.
          "[something] Rahtei," the Mediator addressed a Rris sitting in the shadows at the back, perched on one of the barrels up against the wall, "you said you also saw him."
          The male shifted awkwardly, standing up.  He was big, hefty.  "Huhnn, yes.  Like it... he said, we were finishing eveningmeal.  Saw it through the window.  Didn't know what it was and it was gone before I could shoot it.  Never saw it again after that... 'till now.  Never took anything, hurt us." He looked uncomfortable then, ducking his head and laying his ears back when he said, "the cubs aren't afraid of him.  They like him."
          Chihirae was the next one the Mediator called on.  She stepped up behind me and I felt a hand brush across my shoulder before she began.
          She'd heard the stories about a strange creature poking around the town but hadn't paid too much attention.  Every town had its stories.  She'd been working with her pupils for a month without any troubles save the usual ones found in any classroom.  Then one of her books went missing.
          "That upset me.  I thought one of the cubs was playing games, but no-one [owned up].  I went around the town, thinking perhaps someone had seen it, but nobody knew anything.  It worried me.  I couldn't [something] a [replacement].
          "A few days later when I arrived for class it was waiting for me on my desk.  None of cubs admitted to putting it there or seeing anyone leave it there.  I was going to go around their families and find who'd left home early that morning, then saw dust falling from the loft.  I realised someone was up there, moving around." She sighed, looked at me.  "I had the cubs to think of.  I couldn't let them get hurt, so I tried to be [something], not let [something] in the loft [something].
          "I finished the lessons without [something].  It was only later I heard of the murder." Chihirae paused then, scratching at the fur of her chest.  "They said it was an animal.  I'd thought it was a person in the loft, but that started me thinking.  There had been a strange scent on the book, stronger in the loft.  I borrowed a crossbow from Kenth, said I was worried about animals.
          "Next day was quiet.  I didn't see any dust, didn't hear anything unusual.  I thought maybe I'd [something] it.  When class finished I left a book... like I'd forgotten it."
          "Later, I came back... with the crossbow.  He was there.  All I saw was his face when he looked up at me.  It was... terrifying.  I shot him." She didn't look at me.  "He fell and I was reloading.  He had an [arrow] sticking out of him and he ran, out the back.  I followed and fired from the door and hit him again.  He kept running and I wasn't going to follow a wounded animal so I went back to town for help.  There were enough interested in chasing him; [something] after the murder.  I was still trying to get the taste out of my mouth so I returned to the barn to clean up.  I found a book that wasn't mine, filled with drawings and writing, both in normal writing and other stuff that was like nothing I've ever seen.  I was trying to make some sense of that when he returned.  Almost shot him again, but he spoke.  Hard to understand, but they were words.  He asked me to help him, then collapsed."
          She hissed, a sound like the final dregs of air escaping a deflating tyre.  "I guess... he was helpless, covered in blood, looking most-way dead, and I [something] he wasn't an animal.  I didn't let them kill him." She looked at me then and smiled slightly, "It was the right choice."
          "You say that about a murdering [something]!" the dead Rris' mate - Raeya - spat.
          "You are very [something] it was him," Shyia said and she grinned at him.  He studied her for a short time, then picked out another Rris.  Familiar.  His face rang a bell, but it was only when he began speaking that I realised it was the doctor, the one who'd helped patch me up.
          "You [treated] his wounds, didn't you," The Mediator asked.
          "A," the doctor acknowledged.  "Bad.  Almost killed him getting that quarrel out.  I'm surprised he's still alive.  Bleeding bad, inside and out."
          "What sort of wounds did he have?"
          The doc scratched his jaw thoughtfully, "A few.  Ahh, worst one was the [something] in his shoulder.  Also a tear in his side where a quarrel went through.  There were a lot of other bruises and scratches on his head, arms."
          "Scratches from claws?"
          "No, no.  From when he fell.  Thin skin.  Mostly branches and bushes."
          The Mediator plucked thoughtfully at his vest with his claws and asked, "You saw Sherrith's body?"
          "What kinds of wounds did he have?"
          "Cuts and scratches.  From claws.  His throat was torn out, quite deeply.  There were more cuts on his arms and back.  Whoever did it was strong and had claws." He glanced at me, "He doesn't."
          "I saw it," the female snarled and there were murmurs from the other Rris in the room.  "[something] you!  I saw it!"
          "How?" the Mediator asked.  "At the time Sherrith was murdered, Mikah was in the loft in the barn.  He was there all morning.  He had to have been if he returned the book before the class began."
          Raeya opened her mouth, then grinned at me.  "He could have left it there the previous night!  [something]!  You [something] properly!" She yowled something at the Mediator then: so furious I couldn't understand it.  His tail twitched and he glanced at me, then at Chihirae.  Raeya said something else and there was some more arguing, too fast for me to follow.
          Chihirae touched my shoulder and knelt beside me, "Be calm, all right?"
          "What is happening?" I was shaking again.
          She stroked my arm.  "All right.  It is usual, but we'd hoped... Shyia wants to use [something].  It is usual, just a medicine.  It makes you want to talk, more likely to tell the truth."
          Rris murmured and the Mediator came close.  He had a small ceramic pot in one hand, not much bigger than a 35mm film canister.  Chihirae pulled my sleeve up a few centimetres and said, "He just has to scratch you."
          "Hey!" I was confused, suddenly terrified by the sliver of a knife the Mediator was lowering toward my arm.  Chihirae tightened her grip on my arm and behind her Raeya was grinning viciously.  "Chihirae!  No..."
          There was a brief sting, a bit of blood welling from a centimetre long scratch.  "All right," Chihirae soothed me.  "Didn't hurt much."
          I was hyperventilating, my head spinning.  Something was nagging away in the back of my skull, but I was too distracted to worry it out, fixated by the sight of Shyia dipping the tip of the knife into the jar and withdrawing a small dollop of a dark syrupy liquid.  Chihirae was still holding my right arm, tight enough to stop me flinching away when he spread the goop over the scratch.  Then I had a flash of what happened the last time Chihirae gave me Rris medicine: "Chihirae..."
          "Finished," she told me with a final pat on my arm then the Mediator was asking me something.  I blinked at him.  "Tell us what happened again.  Exactly what happened."
          I licked my lips and did just that.  I started talking, breaking out in a nervous sweat while I spoke.  That other medicine, it'd really hit hard.  The stuff they'd just given me... I couldn't help thinking about it, what it was doing to me, and that fear grew as I felt a growing heat prickling all over my body.  I choked off, then continued, trying to keep going.  My heart lurched, of its own accord, the pounding in my breast increasing steadily until it hurt like I was running for my life, a hand grabbed my guts and bowels and started squeezing.  Rris stared as I broke off again, wincing, then tried to continue.  Everything was spinning: a dark room with shadows writhing with lives of their own, glowing eyes and inhuman shapes everywhere, shapes that stirred my deepest fears, the fear that my distant forefathers must have felt when confronted with a bear and their hindbrains screamed at them as mine did at me then 'get the fuck out of here!'.  A twisted limb caught my arm, another thing snarled and I was trembling uncontrollably, muscles spasming while hot prickling flushes swept over me.  Dizziness sent the room spinning, my guts clenched and I doubled over, gagging.  A hand grabbed my hair and yanked my head up to a snarling face.  Howling in my ears.
          I shoved the face away, another, a blow across the head sent me stumbling before I felt the pain, competing with the other pain and I swung a fist and felt it connect.  A snarling face lunged for me with gleaming metal raised high then an explosion stunned me, stinking smoke filled the room and I bolted in pure terror, fumbling at the doors before they opened and I was out of the reeking atmosphere into cold night air that hit like a slap across the face and I stumbled and fell into ice and mud and there were more of them circling, closing on me, more weapons being raised and I cried out, scrambled to my feet and just ran, ducked away between buildings and ran while howls rose behind me...
          The howls were growing louder again as they chased me, working their way more cautiously down the bank I'd slipped and fallen down.  Sheer terror moved me.  I staggered, clothes soaking and sticking in a mixture that was half-mud and half-blood.  Out of the trees and there were houses in front of me.  I sobbed and choked, frustrated, terrified, unable to think while the world around me rushed onward.  Nowhere to go, there was no one to help me.  They would kill me as soon as they saw me.
          Scenes from elsewhen flashed in my head, reality gone.  I ran.
          Snowbound fields turned monochrome by moonlight, cold and clear as silicon, cutting cold.  Trembling, dazed and confused, drugged out of my skull I ran until the fields were gone and the woods were around me and the moonlight was gone and I was blind, blundering.  There in the darkness I collapsed, vomited repeatedly until I was dry heaving, shuddering and shivering while my skin burned and prickled and my muscles tightened like cables ached and my heart raced and I've no idea how long I lay there in the freezing snow and darkness while the Rris drug ran rampant through my system.
          The voice came from nowhere and I wasn't sure if it wasn't something from inside my head.  I couldn't see anything.
          "Mikah?" This time something touched my leg; a fleeting touch and it was gone.  I flinched, trying to curl into a foetal ball.  "Are you... can you hear me?"
          I raised my head slightly.  "Who?" I croaked.
          "It's me." A bit of darkness against the blackness shifted, an inhuman silhouette moving slightly.  "Chihirae."
          "Chihirae." I coughed, the taste of puke lingering in my mouth and nose.  Freezing pinches of snow found their way into my sleeves, down my shirt.  Wrung out a million miles: totally wasted.  Exhaustion sweeping in on the tail of madness and hallucinations.  "Chihirae," I started shaking, crying.  "Fuck, Oh, shit, Sheera, what... What happened?  What happened to me?"
          "You're all right," she said and I felt her arm around me, helping me sit up.  I just leaned into her warmth and clung there with my fingers entwined in the fur under her coat, shaking.
          An age later a furry hand brushed gently along the back of my neck.  "It's all right.  You didn't hurt anyone.  It's over now.  Come on, you're like ice.  Come on."
          She had to help me to my feet, then hooked my arm over her shoulder as she guided me through the blackness of the trees and onto the moonlit whiteness of the fields.  I was shivering violently now, from exhaustion and cold, my face stung and the new scratches there ached deeply.  Somewhere, a wolf howled and I flinched at the noise but Chihirae kept going.  Town lights flickered across the fields before us, then other shapes moved.  There were Rris there, a crowd of them waiting.  Several of them carried burning torches and I had a flash of old horror films, the mob of villagers going after the mad scientist and his monster.  I faltered and Chihirae reassured me, urging me on through nervously shifting Rris.
          The Mediator met us on the stoop of the makeshift courthouse.  "[something]!  How is he?  What happened?"
          "I don't think he remembers much.  What about her?"
          "She'll live."
          I felt Chihirae give a quick shudder.  "It was the [something].  Help me.  He is heavy." The Mediator took my other arm and between them they half-carried me inside.  I collapsed to sit in a huddle on the floor and Chihirae was there a second later to wrap a blanket around me.
          Shouting.  Rris shouting, a catfight.
          That female, Raeya, with the doc trying to work over her, patching her blood-matted nostrils and muzzle while she yowled at the Mediator and pointed at me.  I felt sick, giddy, strung out between exhaustion and fear and the lingering traces of that drug.  I just closed my eyes and let the noise turn into a dull roaring in my ears.
          "Mikah?" Someone was gently shaking me.  "Come on.  Stand up.  Go home now."
          "Home," I mumbled and let the Rris maneuver me.
          "It's a murderer!" another voice screamed.  "It attacked me!  You let it live?  [something] your [something]!  I want it [something]!  It is dangerous!"
          Chihirae held me steady and led me out of the building while Raeya raged behind us.  "I not hurt her," I tried to tell Chihirae.  "I not."
          "I know," she assured me but I really couldn't tell if she meant it or was just trying to comfort me.  There was a sled waiting outside, the bison in the harness steaming in the chill.  It was snowing again, a few flakes appearing from the black sky and settling on the beast's shaggy haunches.  Chihirae helped me onto a bench in the back and made sure I was settled.  I just pulled the blanket a little more closely around my shoulders and sat and shivered while small groups of Rris clustered on the frozen street and watched me.  Chihirae returned with a Rris who stared at me then climbed onto the driver's bench while Chihirae settled next to me.  A brief lurch and we moved: bumping over mud, then smoothly over deeper snow.
          "All right?" she asked me, then reached up to touch my face.  "You are hot."
          I shrugged away from her touch and raised my own hand to my forehead; Feeling flushed, nauseous, dizzy, not too good.  Under the moonlight I could see the scratch the Mediator had given me, a dark black line across my wrist in that light.  It stung, I still felt ill.
          "Mikah?" Chihirae was leaning forward, trying to see my face.
          "What was that?" I asked, showed her my wrist.  "Here?"
          "Ah." she gently took my wrist in her own hand: her leathery fingerpads felt cold against my skin, but her own skin was warm.  "[something] of [something].  Called Isti Firth.  It is not supposed to do that."
          I looked at her hands, then at her face.  I hadn't done that.  Not very often.  I don't know why exactly; like I heard her voice and tried to visualise a person... a human saying it.  I looked at her hands, her shoulders, neck... now her eyes were dark pools in the moonlight, shimmering as she tipped her head quizzically in one of those contemplative looks that cats are such masters of.  Amber rings glittered around the blackness while the cold moonlight outlined her tan fur in icy-white highlights.  It stunned me, that night, just the sheer impossibility of it all.  "I didn't want to hurt," I whispered.  "I am sorry."
          "All right," she said, "you just [something] her a bit." I think she smiled then: "No claws and you [something] her.  I think if you were [something] you would eat her easily."
          I didn't know what that meant, I didn't know how to respond.  What might have been an innuendo in English didn't mean the same thing here.  All I could think of to say was, "I don't eat raw meat."
          She chittered: laughter.  "No you don't." Then she abruptly sobered and looked out at the nightbound hills that vanished then reappeared as a cloud scudded across the face of the moon.  "No, you don't, do you."

          How long had that night been?  I'm not sure, but I remember the moon was high: near midnight, maybe past it.  Over six hours of hell for me.  Back in the house I just collapsed, hardly even noticed as Chihirae tried to pull my freshly bloodstained clothes off, didn't really care.
          I knew they were dreams, but it still didn't help.  It never does.
          Huge, silent corridors.  Bright.  White stone, but an air of decay everywhere.  There was something following me and no matter where I turned there were shadows on the walls, muted footfalls behind me.  My heart pounded harder as I tried to see what hunted me.  Trying to run and there were always shadows and shapes ahead of me no matter which way I went.  Another corner and it caught me and light flashed in my face and claws ripped deep into my cheek and an animal face snarled and glistening teeth went for my throat and I...
          ...screamed as I woke and the snarling features still hung over me, fighting me and yowling in my face.  I fought as it howled and pinned me, and I became aware of where I was, who this was holding me down and telling me, "Calm!  You're all right.  I've got you.  Mikah, it's all right.  You hear me?  Only a dream."
          And I quit fighting her and just collapsed back into my sleeping bag, damp from sweat, shaking violently and I could feel her heart beating as violently as mine through her ribs.  Still night outside, some ungodly small hour.  A lantern burned orange, casting dancing orange light and black shadows across the walls.  I looked at her hands pinning mine, back to her wide amber eyes fixed on me, then I couldn't stop the tears that seemed to be squeezed out by the spasms that rocked me.
          Everything gone.  My life, my friends and family.  Everything and everyone I'd ever known and loved was gone, lost over a distance beyond measuring.  Now what did I have?  a few mementos of home, a few trinkets, and a future alone in a land where I wasn't even considered a person, where animals that walked like people held my life in their clawed hands.  I cried with the fear of the new, the unknown, the lost.
          "Your eyes," Chihirae murmured after a while.  "Watering... It is pain, isn't it.  From inside.  You are [crying]." Her hand moved up and stroked my face, my skin, just above my beard, touching the dampness of my tears.  "Why?"
          "I shouldn't be here," I choked.  "Why am I here?"
          For a while she was quiet, then replied, "I don't know." Her voice was a low growl I guess was intended to be gentle.
          "I never wanted this.  I... I never wanted to be here, I not want hurt anyone..." I couldn't speak anymore and Chihirae gave a small yelp when I grabbed her and clenched my hands into her fur, sobbing and babbling; confused and lost and alone and I didn't understand what was happening to me and she relaxed and held me close while I just let it all out.
          I remember that dark night I fell asleep again with her arms around me, legs entwined, her fur warm against the freezing air and her voice, softly:
          "It is all right, Mikah.  You will be fine..."

          Cold outside, freezing on my face, warm in the sleeping bag, almost hot.  Stiff, drowsy, and erect.  I stretched out and felt muscles twinge and fur rubbed against me.  There was a muffled noise and a furry arm slid over my side.  I opened my eyes to razor teeth and an inhuman face mere inches from my own.  Her eyes were closed, mouth hanging open just slightly with her harsh breath rasping steadily.  She'd stayed with me all night?  Confused, I shifted, tried to move away a bit and she murmured something then twitched and lazily opened her eyes, blinked a couple of times. "Huhhnn?  Good sleep, Mikah?"
          I tried to scoot away, but there's not that much room in a sleeping bag.  She chuckled, then stretched and gave a sharp little intake of breath when some part of her came in contact with that part of me over which I had little control.  "What is..." she looked puzzled and her hand moved down my stomach, then lower still to touch sensitive flesh.  I gasped and she froze, then yanked her hand away and turned a wide-eyed stare on me.  Her ears laid back.
          "I'm sorry," I blurted, trying to turn away.  "I can't stop it... in the mornings it... I cannot stop it."
          She gave me a hard look and a brief flash of teeth, then threw the unzipped side of the bag open and swung her legs out.  Naked excepting her sleep-matted fur; sitting with her tail twitching.  "I am sorry," I repeated miserably.
          "Huhn," she looked back at me, my face and then my groin.  I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but her ears were still flat against her skull.  "Mornings huh?  That happens many mornings?"
          Embarrassed, I yanked the sleeping bag back up again, the subject in question just starting to realise it wasn't wanted. "Yes," I said in a small voice.
          She snorted, then shook her head violently and climbed to her feet.  "I don't know which is stranger, your mind or your body." She stretched, a tendon-crackling reach for the sky, totally oblivious to both the chill in the room and the fact she was only wearing her fur.  She was a good one to talk about strange bodies, especially that damn tail.  I stared, wondering what it felt like to have a backbone as long as you're tall, then tore my eyes away and awkwardly sat myself up on the mat, hitching the sleeping bag up around my shoulders while she busied herself in her search for clothes.
          "Huhn?" she grunted as she tested a pair of pants for flexibility.
          "Last night... I slept better.  Thank you for staying."
          She cocked her head, then smiled at me.  "It was cold.  Warmer with two.  Yes?"
          "Yes." I smiled also.
          "I thought you needed it.  You were quite [something] last night."
          I hesitated, looked at my feet and swallowed hard before asking.  "I don't remember... I did not hurt her?"
          "Raeya?" Chihirae tightened the waistband of her trousers, scratched at her stomach and chuckled, "I think you might have [something] her nose.  No one is [something] you; they saw you were defending yourself.  Oh, I think [something] had better look at those," she gestured at my face.  I raised a hand and winced when I touched the clotted scratches across my cheek.
          It was a half-hour later before the Mediator turned up.  I heard the front door slam and he sauntered in, his fur disheveled, like he hadn't had much sleep.  He sat down at the desk and lowered his head into his hands.
          Chihirae looked up from where she was working a log into the stove.  "News?"
          "They are not happy about what Mikah did." His voice sounded muffled, speaking through his fingers.  He raised his head, leaned back, and sighed.  "They still think he could be dangerous.  [something], they believe me."
          Chihirae almost dropped the poker.  I put down the egg I was about to crack into the bowl and the Mediator nodded toward me, "Mikah, you are [something].  You understand?  You are not under [something]."
          "Free?" I ventured.
          He looked taken aback, then gave an ear twitch, their version of a nod and something I'd never be able to emulate.  "Yes.  Free."
          Chihirae vented a startled squawk when I embraced her, then hurriedly released her.  "Sorry," I said as she smoothed her fur again, but I couldn't stop grinning.  Okay, so I was still stuck here, but if they'd decided they weren't going to string me up, that was one less thing to worry about.
          Why'd they decided I wasn't the one they were after?  I guess it was several reasons, not the least being the Mediator could be very convincing.  Basically, Raeya's story didn't hold water: The townsfolk believed Chihirae's account, that I was in the barn when Raeya claimed the murder occurred; I couldn't have caused those wounds, I just wasn't equipped for it, and none of my own wounds were from claws.  Then again there was Raeya's account of her looted storehouse, the food that had been stolen and eaten on the spot.
          "Like he said," Chihirae remembered, "he doesn't eat raw meat."
          The Mediator snorted.  "That isn't normal." To emphasize his opinion he reached over and speared a chunk of diced meat from the tray waiting to go in with the scrambled eggs and swallowed it whole.
          "One thing," Chihirae said after a while.  "If Mikah didn't do it, who did?"
          Yeah, that had been nagging at me.
          "That I don't know." Shyia speared another piece on a claw and studied it.  "I am interested in finding out," he said before polishing the morsel off.

End Light on Shattered Water 4