"Dek has been arrested", Khiray reminded him. He stared at the remains of the small Foxtaur booth, destroyed, trampled and deserted. The artful carvings were broken, the finely weaved cloths thrown into the dirt. Nofurry had removed what was left, as if all the people in Sookandil agreed on leaving them alone as a remembrance.
The view saddened Khiray. To destroy pointlessly things made with love wouldn't bring Saswin back.
The Fox had been burned as it was customary, and almost a third of the inhabitants of Sookandil had attended the ceremony. Not because Saswin was a most reputable and well-known citizen, although he had a good reputation as merchant; but because the murderer was a stranger, a Foxtaur, someone who didn't belong into the Armygan. Even while the burning took place, the first rumors were spread. The anger came over the crowd, and no sooner the last words had been spoken than the armed mob set out against the Foxtaurs.
They destroyed everything they could get hold of. The Foxtaurs fled without resistance; they could have killed dozens of townsfurrys with the weapons they still had, but they didn't. No one made the effort to ask them about the affair. Had they been caught, they would have been hanged even before Dek.
And that surely was Dek's fate to come. The very same night Khiray reported the murder to the night watch the guards had set off. The young fox had never seen that many uniformed men-at-arms before, not even in Drun'kaal. It certainly looked as if Galbren had recruited half the town. The streets were brightly lit with torches, and the thundering march step wakened most of the citizens.
Dek hadn't been among the Foxtaurs who slept behind their booth; he was nowhere to be found the next morning too. Only about noon he returned to the city -- probably troubled by remorse, since he didn't resist his arrest. Mikhoi of the Steep Path, the leader of the Foxtaurs, complained to Galbren but the arrest was within the law. The evidence against Dek was overwhelming, and Mikhoi had no arguments to provide. He finally had to admit that he didn't know himself where Dek had been that night.
During the day the citizens became restless. They didn't feel safe with the strangers in their midst. Who would be the next to be cruelly killed, who was the one to know the reason?
To Khiray's surprise Farlin made himself speaker of the Foxtaur haters. Never before Khiray had seen his uncle as excited and furious as he was now. The big Fox had always seemed so calm and self-controlled; nothing could ruffle his fur. Now he had lost his composure altogether. He barely even took the time to sleep; again and again he spoke with guards and citizens and fanned the flames of hatred.
In the meantime Khiray found himself confronted with concerned customers and mourning guests. Almost all of Saswin's former business partners lined up in front of the 'Silver Ansicc' to express their condolences -- and to ensure their business advantage behind a mask of feigned sympathy. Khiray found it difficult to consider the good of the business. Grief and depression troubled him, and he rather would have been somewhere else, alone. But finally all important matters were settled, the business consolidated, all contracts confirmed. He was the captain of the ship now, his father's successor as merchant.
Alone with himself and his thoughts he stood in the wheel cabin high above the hull of the 'Silver Ansicc' and stared across the town, darkly brooding. Why, just why did Dek commit that gruesome murder? The Foxtaur lay in chains in the dungeons below the palace and awaited his certain death. He never could've escaped the guards even if he hadn't returned by his own volition; they'd simply have the other Foxtaurs arrested to enforce his surrender. He couldn't fight against all the city's guards.
But where was the reason for this murder? He could have taken the weapons and boldly walked away without trouble. Neither Farlin nor Saswin were adequate adversaries for a young, healthy, strong Foxtaur.
And why bother stealing the weapons at all? Khiray had offered the Foxtaurs a share of the profit. Was it more honorable, in Dek's opinion, to rob things than to accept a plain and honest business? It didn't fit. The weapons had been intended for sale; they weren't sacred items (maybe with the exception of the dream knifes) or things with another special significance. Merchandise, nothing more.
Revenge? Did Dek want to hurt Khiray? No. He'd had the opportunity to kill the Fox, and he didn't use it. Besides, a cowardly murder was not like him at all.
Nothing fitted. It was a puzzle without a solution.
Khiray met his customers again at the cremation ceremony. They indulged in endless unctuous speeches of comfort which seemed to last forever. Farlin, who'd hardly been aboard the ship the last two days, spoke vehemently against the Foxtaurs until the priest himself had to ask him to keep peace and dignity.
The mob had set out...
Khiray picked up one of the broken carvings. So much work destroyed.
"I won't rest until this Dek hangs from the gallows." Farlin looked around, demanding approval, but no one was near to welcome his words. Two days had passed since the cremation ceremony, and the city had picked up its normal bustle again. Since the Foxtaurs weren't there anymore and Dek was safely locked away in the dungeons, no one was available to hate. A certain insecurity still was present, and there was not a single citizen who questioned the necessity for reinforced guards. But the blazing fury had ceased.
Nevertheless Khiray found the general mood scary. Dek had not been sentenced yet, and the other Foxtaurs were not even accused. But the good citizens of Sookandil would have liked to see all of them hanged. Here and there they even spoke against the Oo'men as if they were responsible for the deeds of the Foxtaurs.
The loudest voices came from those who had never talked with the Foxtaurs, never even seen an Oo'men. Strangers out of town! The Armygan to Furryfolk alone!
In view of that hostility Khiray should have worried about the business. The route to the Oo'men, after all, brought the profit the crew of the 'Silver Ansicc' lived of. But grief held him in a firm grasp.
Grief, and the riddle.
Slowly Khiray and Farlin walked back to the ship. Farlin didn't tire sounding off about the wickedness of the Foxtaurs. Finally he said: "I'm going to leave the ship."
"What?" Khiray thought he missed something. Farlin -- leaving the ship? The Fox was not young anymore. Where did he want to make a new beginning as a merchant? He had no right to a share of the ship, and Khiray couldn't pay him riches if he left. Without gold and goods he would have a hard time finding a new living.
"I'll join the guards." That really was the limit. Farlin and the guards? Farlin the soldier? The thought was almost too absurd to be followed any farther, but the Fox meant it. "I talked with Galbren this morning. He offered me a position as captain. Experienced men who had seen their share of the world are always in demand. I'll learn everything about strategy and tactics and lead a troop in the guards." He glanced up at the sky, avoided looking at Khiray.
"Uncle!" the young Fox said urgently. "You know more about business than about being a soldier. Merchants are always needed. Soldiers are only for war, and there hasn't been any sort of war for a thousand years now!"
"Guards", Farlin corrected. "Boy, maybe the time of peace is gone for good. Galbren opened my eyes. Many things have become worse during the last years. And now this... this cowardly murder! Strangers are coming to the Armygan, more and more foreigners. Someone has to keep the peace. Down in Drun'kaal they don't really mind. They don't care as long as they get their share of the taxes. They don't see what happens here! The Oo'men are becoming less friendly every trip we make. Khiray, maybe they are planning the first step into the war!"
Khiray couldn't believe what he heard. The Oo'men had never cared about the Armygan. Both races had never been in any actual confrontation since the Furryfolk arrived here. The Empire Dharwil beyond the Oo'men mountains was many times bigger than the Armygan. They couldn't care less about if the river-marbled woodland belonged to their sphere of influence or not. It was just a tiny speck on their maps, far below the attention of the Emperor. Khiray had never seen any hint that the Oo'men planned anything against the Furryfolk.
And Farlin never had expressed any suspicion like that. He seemed to be totally changed.
Khiray could understand him. But on the other hand... life went on. There were travels to undertake, deals to honor, profits to win. He still couldn't comprehend fully that he was the one to captain the ship now, that he was responsible for his own life, the life of the crew and the old family business. But Saswin had him well prepared, and although the day had come much too early -- Khiray had decided to prove himself worthy of Saswin's heritage.
Grief didn't last forever. He was no young cub anymore, like years before when his mother died. He knew he would miss Saswin for a long time to come, maybe for years, but he had a life to live. And as soon as justice be done and Dek was hanging from the gallows...
Dek's death would hardly serve justice, rather revenge and the satisfaction of the dark rage of the citizens. Farlin would not find his peace through that.
And to be honest, he was not fully convinced that Dek committed the murder at all. There might be bits and pieces of evidence. But too many parts of the puzzle didn't fit together for his liking. What did the worm-advisor say?
" Little furry being. Pawn in a game you don't understand, you don't suspect."
Khiray gritted his teeth. Maybe he didn't understand the game. But he had come to a decision.
"The boilers are mended now." Delley's eyes were bloodshot, and he radiated an aura of deepest exhaustion. With few breaks for sleep he had worked throughout the last days, burying himself in his machines as if they alone provided comfort. The tinkers were at the verge of a nervous breakdown. Khiray decided to grant them a substantial tip. "The pipes are all tested and strenghtened. The weak parts are exchanged, the rusty bits replaced. As good as new." He sighed. "Okay, not as good as new, but as good as possible. It should last a few years." He blinked at Khiray, not so much cheerfully but dead tired. "I'll go now and get drunk in honor of Saswin."
"No", Khiray said.
"No?" Delley brushed back his ears in surprise. "Why not?"
"I need you sober. Listen. No, come into the navigator's cabin first." Khiray looked around. "Here on deck the planks have ears."
"I'm dirty." Delley showed his oil-blackened hands.
"Doesn't matter." Khiray went upstairs to the second deck where the navigator's cabin was. That room, full of maps and measuring instuments, devices and compasses of magical and mundane type, was the most important place aboard the 'Silver Ansicc' and always locked. The only reliable way to travel the Armygan was on the rivers, a network of great streams and tiny brooks, big and small water arms, and the true, good maps were expensive. One had to study at a university to become map-maker. The boats of the map-makers journeyed the rivers year in, year out, controlled and surveyed the dangerous points, the changes of the river runs, all the shallows and rapids.
Not all of the maps in the room were new. Few merchants could afford a complete set of maps for all the Armygan and keep it up to date. But the surrounding area of Sookandil and a good part of the route down to Drun'kaal was shown on newer maps.
Moreover, the gold reserves of the family were hidden in the navigator's cabin; only Saswin, Khiray and Farlin knew about those. But Khiray was not interested in gold right now. It was a matter of justice.
Khiray locked the cabin door behind Delley and himself.
"What's that mystery-mongering good for?" Delley was in a bad mood. The young Fox could tell that the Rat thought to need a blast badly.
"Do you think Dek did it?"
Delley opened his eyes wide. "What? What's that supposed to mean? Of course he did it!"
"Oh, Khiray! You saw him in the bar, didn't you? He would have beaten you up with that chair leg, considering himself a swell guy all the way through! You heard what the captain said. The evidence. He's arrested. Do you really want to defend him now?"
Khiray shook his head. "There is no evidence. No one has seen him coming aboard. He did not leave any paw prints."
"It was his knife. He admitted it."
"He admitted it was his knife, not that he murdered Saswin. He had no motive. If he wanted to kill someone, it would have been me. He didn't even know father."
"He confused you two."
"Now, Delley! You've seen the Foxtaurs only once, and you can still keep them apart. They are much easier to distinguish than Rabbits or Bears! And that's probably true the other way round. My father was a good deal older than I am. Dek would never have confused us."
"At night? If he was drunken?"
Khiray waved the objection aside. "It's just not his character. I spoke with him."
"...almost had yourself killed, I know..."
"He didn't do it! He wanted to earn a name for himself. Murder and theft would only bring new shame upon his tribe. He knew. He never would have done it, his name was way too important for him!"
"Think of it! Do you still believe he did it? Considering all possibilities?"
Khiray's ears dropped. "Then it's pointless. Thank you anyway for listening." He unlocked the door again.
"Khiray?" Delley put his hand on Khiray's arm, dirty as it was. "Whatever you may plan... if you really believe in it, I'm on your side."
"Really? Although you think Dek's guilty?"
"I don't know what you want to do... Galbren will have him hanged. You cannot rescue him from the dungeons. But if you really succeed in saving his life... and if I learn he's guilty anyway... I'll bite his throat and throw his corpse to the fishes at the deepest part of the river." The Rat stared challengingly at Khiray.
Khiray smiled. "I'd expect no less of you, my friend."
The forest was moist and dark. A rainy night had soaked the ground, and drops of water still fell from the leaves. Khiray trodded sullenly through the muck of the path. That far away from the city the streets were muddy trails of compressed loam, full of holes and carelessly fixed parts.
Cold mire welled up between his toes. He had to do without shoes here; he didn't own boots to protect his feet anyway, and he cringed at the thought of ruining his sandals in the woods.
"Saljin?" he called out yet again. "Saljin of the Stones?"
He didn't get any response. He was some kilometers away from the town by now, had passed by two farms and fought his way through a small brook which was only passable though a ford. But there was not a trace of the Foxtaurs.
This was the street which led the farthest way inland, away from the river into the direction of the mountains. From here the Foxtaurs had come, and probably they had retreated to this place as well. The other roads followed the river, described circles around Sookandil, extended only as far as the small settlements amidst the fields, or ended in the middle of the neverending forests, paths of the hunters and forestfurrys, woodcutters and herb-collectors. There really was no reason for the Foxtaurs to take another road, except maybe they hid in the woods and had not chosen any street at all. Khiray couldn't find their trail; the rain had washed away every trace or track.
They had to be here somewhere. Khiray didn't assume that they had left Dek to his fate that easily, returning to their home. Or did they believe in Dek's guilt? Did they think he deserved his lot? No. They had their own concept of justice. Even if they really considered Dek guilty, even if they knew he was the murderer, they would rather judge him by their own laws than to leave him to the mercy of the townsfurrys.
"Saljin! Damn, where are you? Mikhoi! I have to talk with you!"
A loud thud made him spin around. One of the Foxtaurs -- not Saljin or Mikhoi, but Halann -- stood behind him. He must have jumped from the tree. Khiray hadn't known that Foxtaurs were even able to climb with their four legs.
"What do you want? Where are the others?"
"What others?" Khiray growled. He didn't like at all being received in such a hostile way. He came with the best intentions, after all... except of course that his good intentions had led to more and more disastrous results lately.
"Do you want to make me believe you came alone?" Halann swung his Dekka'shin around in a playful manner.
"No. I brought all the guards of Sookandil with me. Don't you hear them stomping around?"
Halann didn't turn his head. Not even his ears twitched. He knew Khiray was alone; probably he had watched him for a while already. "Come with me."
They left the path and traveled across the forest. The underwood was less dense than it appeared. After a short while they reached a clearing. Years ago a giant tree had fallen here, leaving a gap in the thicket of younger trees. No one had used the trunk, and by now mushrooms and moss proliferated on the wood. The moldy smell of decaying bark filled the air. Some animals dug their dens under the arc of the trunk which towered higher than Khiray's head.
It would have been a beautiful place, but moisture dripped from the branches, and the ground was muddy and soaked.
The Foxtaurs had made camp here. Blankets and lether bags lay in a dry, raised spot. Part of it was unknown to Khiray. It looked as if the Foxtaurs had never brought all their belongings to the town but left part of it here in a hiding-place.
More weapons, leather doublets looking almost like armoured suits. The parts -- arched leather pieces studded with steel rivets and belts and straps of all kind -- didn't mean anything to Khiray at first; he couldn't figure how they fit together. Then he saw Mikhoi in full armour and understood.
The Foxtaurs were preparing for battle.
Mikhoi wore a leather vest which was tied together under the arms, set with small metal rings on chest and back. The fox part of his body was equipped with a similar vest closed at the belly and fox-chest. Straps were holding it in its place. Movable flaps protected the hindquarters and the flanks. The arms and part of the legs stuck in sleevelike armour-parts. Tail and paws were free, but the hands were enveloped in steel-ridged gloves up to the elbows.
The Foxtaur looked somewhat strange in this armour, but the effectivity of protection seemed to be no worse than in the guard's uniforms. There were unprotected body-parts, but a compromise between safety and movability obviously had to be found. However, the individual leather parts were studded with intertwined rings, probably made from Troll steel. Maybe the Foxtaur armour was even better than the average guard uniform. But Khiray didn't dare to form an opinion about this; his experience in battle was limited anyway to bar brawls, minor attacks of desperate bandits on the river and the occasional difference of opinion with caught thieves. War weapons and armour had never been his speciality.
"We have a visitor, I notice", Mikhoi said and swung his Dekka'shin. He carried other, smaller weapons attached to his belt, but the Dekka'shin apparently seemed to be the preferred weapon of the Foxtaurs.
The others didn't prepare for war yet and wore only naked fur. Saljin rose when she saw Khiray.
"Did you come to demand blood money?" she asked.
"Blood money? No, whatever you mean by that." He slowly shook his head.
"Why, then? If you came alone to take revenge you are badly advised." The Foxtauress looked puzzled.
"Nothing of this. I have to talk with you. About Dek."
"There is nothing to say", Aryfaa interfered. "We cannot leave him to your justice. No matter if he is guilty or not, only we are permitted to judge him."
"I don't think he did it", Khiray said.
The heads of the Foxtaurs went up. "What?" Mikhoi asked in astonishment.
"He didn't do it. It does not fit. There are too many inconsistencies. And he hasn't a character like that. I simply don't believe it." For a moment his resolution wavered. Did the Foxtaurs themselves believe in Dek's guilt?
Then Mikhoi nodded gravely. "Tell us what you think. Who was the murderer?"
Khiray shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. It could have been anyone. Someone who knew about the weapons. Someone who wanted to get them before they disappeared forever in Galbren's arsenal." More, actually. The supernatural manifesting in the shape of the worm-advisor could play a role in this. But Khiray hadn't told anyfurry about this encounter, not even Delley or Pallys. They'd thought he'd be crazy.
"If the true murderer keeps his freedom, Dek will have to atone for his deed", Aryfaa said. "How are we supposed to find him, or her?"
"I don't have a clue", Khiray replied. "Maybe there is something the guards have overlooked. Some kind of evidence, a trace, a hint to track down the murderer. But we have no time to search for it. Dek's trial is today already."
"We know that", Saljin murmured.
"And Galbren is not squeamish in his sentence, nor does he wait long before carrying it out."
"That is well known to us, too", Mikhoi growled. "What shall we do, then?"
Khiray nodded. "We have to convince Galbren of Dek's innocence, or at least of the possibility of his innocence. He cannot judge Dek with a clean conscience then, and we'll have some time to find the true murderer." He turned to Saljin. "Will you accompany me back to the city, to the trial?"
"That is way too dangerous", Aryfaa objected. "The townsfurrys hate us."
Saljin looked down. Khiray could imagine well what thoughts occupied her mind. Her brother's life was at stake.
"I'll accompany you", she finally said. "Let's go."