North of Sookandil the forest had been left almost untouched. There were few settlers here -- trappers, hunters, forest-dwellers --, most of them not even on their own free will, but fugitives from creditors, cheated husbands, or the Drunlord's Guard. The forest could swallow hundreds of poor souls: no one would ever find them. Only a few lived voluntarily in the solitude of the woods; some earned their living by selling firewood to passing skippers.
Even farther north, at the foot of the Lakenda Mountains, the settlements began anew. Wheat and oat farmers owned vast fields there; animal breeding too was easier than in the dense forests of the Armygan. The native farmers were almost exclusively Oo'men, only a few of the Furryfolk had advanced this far.
Sookandil was the last greater outpost of the Furryfolk inhabiting the Armygan. There were not many merchants who travelled the long and strenuous route to Oo'men country -- mostly Otters, voyaging in small boats which could not carry greater loads. Thus the route from Sookandil northward via Saskeeld, Hanmur and Kandrin -- all Oo'men cities, outposts of a giant legendary empire called Dharwil, almost unknown to the Furryfolk -- was more profitable than the southward journey across the Armygan, which was used by dozens of ships. The nearer Drun'kaal, the Armygan capital, the keener the competition, the harder the business.
On the other hand, Khiray thought, life so far away from the cities was a little stale and boring. There were no dangers, no excitement, never something different, and all the news from the capital arrived three months late. Sookandil was an outpost, as were the Oo'men cities. Their ship, the 'Silver Ansicc', travelled on the borderline between the two realms, forever far away from the interesting events. Khiray was of opinion that life only pulsed in the towns around Drun'kaal and that Sookandil was a sleepy, gods-forsaken place full of boring people.
He was prejudiced, of course. Three years ago, when he just had become fourteen, the 'Silver Ansicc' had travelled to Drun'kaal. A little profitable journey, but with a very special purpose. Khiray's father Saswin wanted to purchase a heat loop from a magician. Equipped with that magic source of energy, the 'Silver Ansicc' needed no more firewood for the boilers, but could travel even the greatest distances without a break. No firewood meant no expenses and more storage space. Business gained in three ways. But heat loops were expensive -- Saswin had to raise a loan despite all his life's savings -- and only available in Drun'kaal.
Drun'kaal was greater, wilder, more fantastic than Khiray had ever imagined. Hundreds of ships in the harbour. Thousands of booths on the market. Tens of thousands of people. And beyond the city, the unending sea. Otters set out for fishing, and sometimes a far-travelling ship of the Oo'men or other exotic folk arrived after defying the oceanside storms.
He lost his virginity in Drun'kaal (to a young Leopard lady who listened entirely fascinated to his stories about Oo'men cities, and who found his tale really captivating although he did not even boast - much). Shortly after, he made friends with two Vixens who enthusiastically dragged him away to a little city apartment (and who disappeared at the end of an exhausting night, after lifting his pockets with even greater enthusiasm).
Drun'kaal, yes. That was a city. But his father finished the purchase after a few days, and they returned to their usual route, beyond Sookandil, beyond everything Khiray thought interesting.
Khiray was Fox, member of the third largest race of the Furryfolk. There were ten races in the Armygan: Rat, Rabbit, Fox, Wolf, Cat, Badger, Otter, Deer, Leopard, and Bear, with the Rats most numerous and the Bears extremely rare, and solitary too. All ten races shared the body structure with the Oo'men, they walked erect, had four fingers and a thumb on both hands, they could use tools and had a language (or better, four languages and countless dialects). The Furryfolk differed from the Oo'men, of course, in their fur, but in their tails and paws, too. The legs of the Furrys were similar to the legs of an Oo'men standing on the pads of his feet; the heel of the Oo'men equalled the additional leg joint in the Furryfolk, as could be proved by skeleton examinations. Furryfolk ears and muzzles resembled the animals the races were called after, although there was a similarity to Oo'men heads too. And the bodies likewise showed a stature between Oo'men and animal.
One Oo'men once did express it rather rudely: the Furryfolk looked as if a very powerful magician tried to change animals into Oo'men and lost interest halfway between. A Rat put it into different words: Oo'men looked as if that very magician had a fit, threw a Furry against a wall until his nose had been dented in, tore off his tail and fur, hammered his feet onto the ground till they were bent flat, and finally kneaded his head until the most important sense organs disappeared in a grotesque round ball. The magician left only the hair on the head, so the Oo'man could tear it out in frustration when looking into a mirror -- and the hair around the genitals to get crab-lice with.
There were other stories concerning the anchestry of the Furryfolk, both more believable and more interesting, even told by Oo'men. One tale (which Khiray had heard in Drun'kaal although he was not supposed to) stated the Furryfolk came into being when certain Oo'men copulated with animals. Khiray thought the idea rather absurd. Oo'men and true wolf? Maybe. Oo'men and rat, fox, rabbit or badger? Impossible, the animals were much too small. Oo'men and leopard or bear? Never, the Oo'men would have been torn apart.
Probably there was no connection of whatever nature between Oo'men and Furryfolk at all. Khiray had listened to the priests who claimed Oo'men and Furryfolk were the creation of different gods, even. Khiray didn't know much about gods and was not too interested, anyway. But he knew that the continent where the Armygan was situated was Oo'men territory since times forgotten, and that the Furryfolk had stranded here more than thousand years ago. Chronology dated back to this time, 1322 years ago.
Allegedly the continent itself was a thousand times bigger than the Armygan. But Khiray had traveled the far route from Drun'kaal to Sookandil and from Sookandil to Kandrin, he had seen the mountains and the vast plains at their foot -- he could not believe, not even imagine, that the world was that much bigger.
But Kandrin was a far-off village for Oo'men standards. Only beyond the Lakenda Mountains the land Dharwil stretched, the Oo'men empire. Sometimes Khiray didn't dream of Drun'kaal but of Dharwil, the mysterious, tempting distance, a realm beyond all fantasy. But Dharwil was in truth even beyond dreams. The paths of his life were set. He had learnt the merchant trade from his father and would command the 'Silver Ansicc' one day.
And as much he wished to break free from dull everyday life and to experience true excitement: he knew his duty. He would travel the same route -- because it was profitable. Maybe he would return to Drun'kaal one day to find a wife, possibly a rich merchant's daughter. Love was not the question, marriage was a matter of business. He could buy another ship. Beget sons. Hire captains. Do business as usual.
As he had been doing for all his life.
Khiray threw a flat stone into the water. Silver fish dashed in all directions. Drun'kaal. Dharwil. Dreams. Here on the river there were no adventures. Even though they told stories in the capital -- about how dangerous it was that far out, about bandits infesting the forest, about the bleached bones of luckless adventurers lining the shores --, the greatest dangers were illness and injury, and in the safety of a ship and its crew both seldom turned out deadly.
The clouds slowly drifted away, and the sun came out. The glittering water was dangerous, because it hid flotsam and sand-banks in a whirl of light, but the river itself was harmless at this point. Only a few kilometers downriver Sookandil waited.
A little house-boat sailed upriver towards the 'Silver Ansicc'. It was the type Otters preferred: a catamaran, broad and low, with a little house in the center and two masts. The masts made a keel for both rumps necessary to keep the boat maneuvrable. Nothing in comparison with the giant paddle-wheels of the 'Silver Ansicc', but the Otters handled their boats so skilfully that they were able to outmaneuver the great side-wheeler any day. Otters were born boat-people, but somewhat careless and hot-headed. More than one Otter boat found its last rest on the ground of the river because its crew didn't get out of the way of a steamer in time.
Here in the north accidents were few, the ship traffic was simply not dense enough. The Otters on the boat had already seen the 'Silver Ansicc' and steered clear of the ship. Two of them waved their hands and shouted greetings.
Khiray waved back. Otters were friendly folks and no great competition as merchants. The freight of the 'Silver Ansicc' -- tons of oats and wheat, cotton, dried fruits and Oo'men stuff -- was not the Otters' domain; too heavy for their small boats. They traded jewelry, little clever utensils, more or less rare stones, and herbs.
A shadow broke the surface of the river from below, jumped straight up, and grabbed for the rail of the ship in a shower of silvery drops. Before Khiray could jump back in alarm, the visitor had climbed aboard. An Otter, of course. Lysh.
"Hello, Khiray", she said. "You are late."
"We had difficulties with the boilers. We will have to repair them in Sookandil. You are travelling again?"
"On the move, as ever." The Otter girl gave a ringing laugh. "What do they say? The fish must swim."
"Do you take standard route?"
"Saskeeld, yes. But if you have to repair the boilers first, you will not catch up with us. After Saskeeld, we'll journey the mountains." The Saskeeld mountains. Damn. The 'Silver Ansicc' could not travel the torrential mountain rivers. That meant he would not see Lysh again until they met accidentally during a stop.
"Don't look at me that way. You'll find another girl." Lysh grinned into his face. "The fish must swim. Farewell." She gave him a wet Otter kiss on the muzzle and jumped backwards into the river. Khiray watched her slender figure darting through the water.
He sighed. Now the last hopeful prospect for Sookandil was gone. Lysh was not exactly his dream girl, being an Otter, but she was nice and smart and permissive. His father, Saswin, had never trusted their friendship, but he had not objected, either. Furryfolk bred true, there was no possibility of unwanted cubs, and fortunately there were only very few diseases infecting both Otter and Fox. As long as it was not bad for business or stood in the way of a marriage suitable to his station later...
But Lysh visited other shores now, and who could say when he'd see her again? Or what might happen until then. There were a lot of Otters on the river, good-looking, attractive Otters... Khiray hit the rail with his fist. Two weeks' stay in Sookandil, and all he had to do was his usual work. Oh, well. Maybe the book-merchant had got a new adventure novel from the capital. Those books were exceedingly costly, and Saswin frowned upon unnecessary expenses, but the preciously rare novels made it possible for Khiray to become a hero and have adventures -- in his fantasy. Even if the contents was imaginary a hundred times over.
The trees at the shore receded, made room for farms and single houses. At the bank the water wheel of the old mill turned; a short distance away a second wheel had been erected for the irrigation of the fields. Khiray hadn't seen it the last time. Sookandil grew, slowly but steadily. One day it would be a trade center, a really interesting city like Drun'kaal.
And one day the moons would drop from the heavens. Yeah, sure. But not in his lifetime.
Khiray left his place on the bow deck and climbed over the broad stairway and the ladders upwards to the upper deck where his father stood at the wheel. He seldom thought about how impressing the 'Silver Ansicc' was: a wheel-steamer, sixty meters long with huge side wheels, three stories high -- four if he counted the high freight deck doubly --, with more than enough room for the twelve crewmen and two dozen passengers. Two great and two small smoke-stacks rose not far from the wheels, but since the installation of the heat loop they didn't smoke any longer. The white wooden panelling had become a little shabby over the years, and the painting of the metal rail needed a refresh. But the functional parts of the ship were as good as new -- with the exception of the damn boilers which hadn't been new the day Saswin inherited the ship from his father --, and the machinery ran as well as on the first day.
Khiray could not understand why some landfolk envied him. The praised journeys were boring and repeated year after year. While on the river, there was no work at all -- if things went smooth -- or too much work -- when a storm shook the ship, the river got upset or when the steamer had to be loaded or unloaded. He worked until he fell into his bed with aching muscles, or he was bored to death. The fish must swim, as Lysh had said; there was no time to stop over and go hunting; no time to wait in a city for a theater performance or a musician; no time for friends. Khiray only knew a few Furrys not in the crew, some distant friends in different cities who would never know each other. Lysh was his only true friend and lover (and the latter only when it pleased her; she was not exactly waiting for him).
Boat-people and landfolk lived different lifes. Khiray knew that some children ashore had to sleep with three brothers or sisters in a single bed, that cattle stayed in the house overnight, that poor families ate meat only once a month. Compared with them, his own family was rich. But he knew too that in Drun'kaal people lived in palaces, inlaid with Oo'men gold, with crystal domes spanning over treasures beyond imagination; that some Furrys had nothing to do but to go to parties and celebrate themselves in endless festivities. They didn't work but lived off the taxes of farmers and merchants. Compared with them, his family was poor.
He knew he had no reason for being discontented. He was young, healthy, strong and good-looking. His fur shone in a red and golden brown, his teeth were white and sharp, his tail brushed, bushy with a white tip. He had no nicks in his ears and no scars on his body. Ashore in the cities he had money in his pockets, and his future was safe.
But whenever he assured himself how easy his life was, how bright his prospects, how happy his fate: the burning emptiness remained, a nagging hole in his heart which never truly disappeared.
Saswin stood at the wheel which was imbedded in the deck by half and steered the ship calmly in the middle of the river. From the wheelman's post he had a great view across water and land, far beyond the bank. But Khiray had not a glance for the fields and pastures surrounding Sookandil. "Father?"
"Hm?" Saswin didn't move his head. He was a born riverman, he would never abandon his duties for even a second.
"How long will we stay in Sookandil?"
"Depends. We may have the boilers repaired fast enough. Two weeks, I'd say. Maybe less, the tinkers in Sookandil don't have that much to do. But we have to test the machines afterwards. I would not recommend drifting in the middle of the forest with busted boilers."
Khiray nodded. He had expected nothing else, and he was too smart to try persuading his father into leaving early.
"Will you take over for docking? I'll have a look at the freight." Khiray took the smooth-polished handles of the wheel. His father disappeared in the bowels of the ship. Saswins fur might have become grayish but he was as swift as a Fox ten years younger.
Khiray shook his fur and tugged at his loincloth, his only piece of clothing. Two weeks of Sookandil, at least. Well, he would try to make the best of it.
The bright ribbon of water stretched in front of him like a street into the unknown, to the horizon and beyond. But he knew he would never set a paw on it. His journey ended in Sookandil. Today -- and ever after.