Khiray stared into the darkness and tried to guess the other ships' intentions by watching their movements. He couldn't make out much, of course - the body language of a living being was easier to interpret than the rocking of a ship -, but he had spent all his life on the river, and every detail of their course was familiar to him. He knew what it meant when the big vessels accelerated, when the mighty paddle-wheels increased their speed or slowed down their turning, when the ship fought a hidden current or avoided an obstacle below the water line. He could interpret the crew's excited flurry on deck or their bored sluggishness, crewmen just standing at the rail, swiveling the night lights or putting out the marking lamps. He had seen smugglers' boats hiding under overhanging willow branches and messenger ships hurrying in a frenzy against the river's current. He knew to tell Otter boats from Wolf freighters. And if the wind favoured him, he could even recognize from the smoke's scent what kind of burning material the ship fired and where it possibly came from.
"Duck", he whispered to Saljin. "If someone over there looks at our steering cabin through a telescope, you may look funny to him."
Saljin wrinkled her muzzle. "Thanks a lot!", she growled, but did as she had been told.
Except the unseemly hurry the steamships displayed, everything seemed normal to Khiray. He watched the riverfurrys through the telescope. No, they didn't look nervous or secretive. There was no trace of hidden soldiers either. And although the captains must have recognized the 'Silver Ansicc' long since, the steamers didn't leave their course a wee bit.
"They ain't heading for us", a relieved Delley murmured. "They stay on their side!" The river was certainly wide enough at this point to allow four ships safe passage side by side. It was custom that steamers kept to the right bank.
On the other hand, it was custom as well that captains greeted each other, rather than to pass by under full steam.
"Am I mistaken, or are those ships really slower than yours?" Saljin wanted to know.
Khiray nodded. "We travel with the current, they sail against it. And the 'Laidanna' has to wait for the 'Gold Nugget'. Ships with a heat loop are somewhat faster than those without. But it doesn't make that big a difference. Look, the 'Laidanna' is of the same basic type as the 'Silver Ansicc'. The cabins are a little bit different."
Delley inspected Saljin worriedly. "Just stay in hiding!"
Khiray waved it aside. "Her upper body looks certainly like Fox. As long as she keeps the rest down, there's hardly something to happen. And besides, what do they know of Foxtaurs over there." He was sure by now that the other captains didn't plan any attack. They were too fast. Ships couldn't be turned around on the spot like a riding animal. And they obeyed the minimal rules of politeness: they swayed the night lights down and right to prevent blinding the steersman of the 'Silver Ansicc'.
The rush of the water pouring down from three pairs of paddle-wheels grew to a steady roar. Now the combined noise of the engines aboard the other two ships was louder already than the deep rumble in the bowels of the 'Silver Ansicc'. A flock of birds took flight in the trees ashore, complainingly screeching.
Galbren's ships passed by. Khiray operated the steam whistle and got a double echo from the 'Laidanna' and the 'Gold Nugget'.
No one attacked.
Then the other steamers switched the night lights to full beam again and continued their rush towards Sookandil. Khiray didn't look after them. Only the foam tracks on the water remained of the nightmarish minutes. The three breathed a sigh of relief.
"They didn't want anything from us. We are much too paranoid already", Khiray stated.
"One can never be too paranoid", Pallys' voice remarked from behind. The Rabbit strutted into the steering cabin. "Rather be a little suspicious than be a little dead."
"Experience from a long life, eh?" Delley asked mockingly. He caught a cross look from Pallys. "Well, I'd better have a look at the engines. It's getting crowded in here." The Rat sneaked out.
Pallys looked after him. "There are people whom you simply can't trust with a secret. Either they don't believe you, or they ridicule you."
"He's a Rat", Khiray murmured, as if that simple statement explained everything.
"Are we making headway? Every kilometer between us and the Demons is a kilometer to safety." Pallys' ears twitched.
"We do so make good speed, as far as possible at night. This part of the river is relatively safe." Khiray decided not to tell Pallys about his nocturnal encounter. "There's more traffic farther down, near Farlish, and a lot of dead wood is drifting around. I'd rather not pass by Farlish at night." He shook his head. "Although that would be best, perhaps - less eyes to see us. Saljin, please hold the rudder for a moment."
The Foxtauress took the big steering wheel and held it somewhat nervously. She obviously had never traveled on such a big ship, far less been at the helm. Pallys watched her sharply while Khiray fetched a large-scale overview map. The Rabbit was likewise nervous. The Fox put the map into a frame and looked from one face to the other. Here on the river he hardly felt any fear, even Khezzarrik khi Valangassis seemed to stay behind in the realm of dreams. He smiled encouragingly at Saljin and took the helm again.
The Foxtauress looked attentively at the map. "The Armygan is bigger than I thought."
"Don't you have any maps?"
Saljin shrugged. "Not of the Armygan. We enter your land only occasionally. We know the port cities; some inhabitants of the Golden Shore travel the coast with ships. But my clan comes from the inland. The paths into your land are handed down, but little more. Look, the Foxtaur Territory lies here, approximately." She circled a piece of land west of the Edora Mountains with her hand, not quite half as big as the Armygan. Those parts, as far as they were still on the map, were only sketched roughly and spotted with white, marking unknown country.
Khiray was astonished, nevertheless. The Foxtaurs alone occupied a land of this size? The Armygan, after all, was home for ten different races, and a big part of it was only thinly populated. "How many Foxtaurs are there, all in all?"
"We never counted ourselves." Saljin laughed ringingly. "Why should we? We can travel the plains for weeks without meeting another clan. The land is big, much bigger than we'd ever need. Remember, we did share it with the Trolls for more than a millennium without ever seeing them. And there are other races, hiding themselves in rivers and forests, almost unknown to us." She wandered with a finger across the map. "It looks so small that way. But it really isn't."
Khiray thought about how Galbren might put that knowledge to use. Unknown races? Tens of thousands of Foxtaurs in mighty warrior clans? The governor would splendidly construct a new threat for the Armygan. But were the Foxtaurs warlike, after all? What did he knew of them!
"That river here - it runs through the mountains!" Saljin pointed at a thin blue line. "I think I know its other side. In our land, the Sulyan and the Daymotal merge and form that stream. What's its name on this side? Trader's Bane?" She laid her ears back. "That's one funny name."
Khiray nodded. "Many good merchants lost their lives in those treacherous waters, searching a way through the Edora Mountains that is navigable for our ships."
The Foxtauress frowned. "Impossible. There is a secret path along the river that has been used once by my folk. But it is difficult to walk even without a load to carry." She looked at Khiray's paws. "Especially with only two legs. But the river itself rushes through narrow ravines, and there are two big waterfalls."
"That's just what the merchant-explorers found out. The land is wild and impassable there, and all the troubles and suffering the explorers went through while searching for that passage were for nothing. Since that time, this arm of the river is called Trader's Bane."
Saljin follower the further run of the river on the map. "How quaint! All the rivers in the Armygan are linked together. And those swamps! The land must be very flat."
"Flatter's almost impossible", Pallys grumbled. "If there's a big flood one day, only Rabbit Hills will be left of all the inhabited Armygan."
"Only the main rivers are shown on the map", Khiray remarked. "There are hundreds of tributaries leading up to little villages."
"Or down to the swamps", Pallys griped, "or simply nowhere."
"Our land is different", Saljin explained. "Wide plains. Hills, rising to the north on and on. Endless steppes of grass, as far as the eye can see. You can run for days without reaching their limits."
"You are living there?" Khiray wanted to know.
"Live? Well, we travel the steppes during the summer. In the winter months we live in the clan cities. Oh, you would just call them villages. They offer little more room than necessary for two or three clans. We spend the winter manufacturing utilities and stuff, telling stories, singing at the fire..." She sighed. "And we assure each other what splendid names we'll find on our summer wanderings, or how we'll honor our names and the clan if we already found a name. Last winter I've been a little loud-mouthed, I fear... Traveling the mountains, talking to foreign races is not an everyday thing to do."
"What better way to honor a name like this - Saljin of the Stones?" Khiray smiled. "How else but by a really exceptional adventure?"
The Foxtauress winked at him. "How else, yes? Being hunted by Demons is not the kind of adventure I'd recommend." She embraced Khiray gently. "Nevertheless, thank you."
Pallys looked studiously aside and mustered the map concentratedly. "How much longer until we reach Farlish?"
"From Sookandil to Farlish it's about five hundred kilometers, all river bends included." Khiray started to calculate. "The 'Silver Ansicc' does fifteen kilometers per hour at max, currently maybe ten. We travel with the current, three to four kilometers per hour. With one day's journey, that's twenty-four times fourteen, equals about three hundred and forty kilometers. Then, a hundred and sixty are left till Farlish. Ten hours, if we steam up a little in the daylight."
"Too slow!" Pallys followed the rest of the river with a finger. "One and a half day for such a short distance? That'd be nine days to Drun'kaal! That's far too much!"
Khiray screwed his eyes up. "Much? Even a very fast courier boat needs seven days! A ship like the 'Silver Ansicc' doesn't normally sail by night to avoid collisions with drifting trees. We always rested the engines, overhauled them, traded a little in the river cities... It's a several weeks' journey to Drun'kaal that way! If we really make it in nine days to Drun'kaal without crashing into flotsam or another boat, without the engines burning out or the crew mutinying, that'd be a new record!"
"Crew?" Pallys laughed bitterly. "What crew?"
Khiray waved the thought aside. "If we'll have to hold that kind of speed, I'm mutinying myself."
Pallys flared up. "That's not the time for jokes! If we want to escape the Demons, we'll have to hurry!"
"One good idea is worth as much as eight quick paws", Saljin remarked. "I don't know if we can run from those beings. But maybe we can fool them."
"I won't bet my life on it", the Rabbit growled worriedly.
Khiray thought about it. "If we use a route no one expects..."
Saljin pointed at the map. "The part of the river called Long Run is the shortest connection. Every other course would be longer."
"Not necessarily. The Long Run is a slow stretch of water, and not without risk either. Normally, speed isn't the main factor except with perishable goods. There's always enough time to watch the course, lie low during bad weather, anchor the ship when the sight is bad. But when every day counts... then not the shortest link is the course of choice, but the connection where you can sail full speed."
Pallys' ears paled. "No."
"Yes", Khiray said happily.
"Only Otters take that course. And they are mad, as everyone knows."
"One reason more. The Demons won't expect us there."
The Foxtauress looked from Pallys to Khiray and back, confused. "What's the matter?"
Pallys moaned. "Otterpath. He wants to sail the Otterpath. In a ship like this one."
Saljin examined the map again. "What's the problem? The river seems to be slightly longer to me, but... What do those symbols mean?"
"Rapids", Pallys moaned. "Dorn's Rapids. Only Otters travel that point. And even them only in small boats. No one ever tried to pass them with a steamer. No one!"
Khiray raised his hand. "Did too. Dorn himself tried."
"Dorn drowned", Pallys explained in a strained voice.
The Fox grinned. "One more reason to do better."
Khiray would have liked Pallys to give them some new informations about Demons. The Rabbit, after all, was the first one to raise that point: neither he nor Delley had known about the denizens of Hell before. And a well-known enemy was only half as dangerous as an unknown one.
But Pallys claimed his knowledge didn't come from a personal encounter but only from old books. The Demons had never haunted the Armygan, at least not in those centuries since furryfolk settled here, and Pallys had never seen an actual Demon during his journeys through the world beyond the Armygan, either. The Archangels, as he saw it, watched sharp-eyed over the world and kept Hell's plague away.
Khiray didn't knew whether to believe the Rabbit or not. Pallys' reaction when the Fox told him about his encounter with the worm-being had shown more terror than a mere rummage through dusty books could ever cause. Pallys probably met Demons before, and that meeting had been all but enjoyable. Khiray had to recall that he himself didn't tell Pallys and Delley everything about his run-in with Khezzarrik khi Valangassis either - that was an unpleasant memory he'd never share with anyone but Saljin. The Rabbit could keep his secrets. The centuries had transformed Pallys into a secretive Furry, but he had to know that every hint about how the Demons could be defeated was important. Details of that kind he couldn't keep to himself.
Pallys and Delley had used the time while Khiray entered Galbren's dungeons to bring some books from the immortal Rabbit's collection aboard, especially books about Demons and magic. But the hints found there weren't exactly a great help. Most of it was only applicable by magicians - methods for finding, expelling or binding Demons, or to call and conjure the Hellbeings. Even if one of them had been a magician, Khiray had thought twice about putting the arcane secrets to use, because every single page sprouted warning hints, signs of danger and headlines of the "Only for experienced magicians"-kind.
"Most of the books here had been forbidden, banished or even burnt at some time or another", Pallys explained. "Among magicians, Demons count as most dangerous, and if you know the magicians' willingness to take a risk, that means a lot. I found most of those tomes over a long time, in forgotten libraries, ruins of towers once owned by sorcerers, in lost cities that had been reclaimed by the jungle centuries ago. I don't think there is someone on this world who owns an equal collection." His eyes got clouded, as if he just recalled in grief the masses of books he had left in Sookandil.
Khiray had a hard time to tell truth and fiction apart in those Demon books. Like in his own adventure stories, many authors mixed rumors and facts, poetry and proof, fantasy and truth. Many claims and assertions contradicted each other. But there was only one conclusion to reach, anyway: They couldn't fight Demons with bare hands. They needed a magician - and the only magicians formidable enough to fight Demons were gathered in Drun'kaal at the court of the Drunlord. Or they needed an Archangel, and not even Pallys could guess where to find one.
They had only one choice, after all: to flee, to escape, to be as fast as possible. A fight would be hopeless: even the Foxtaurs lost the battle against Galbren's minions, and they had been experienced, seasoned fighters.
The Otterpath was the only possibility that came to Khiray's mind. East of the Otterpath and south of the Rabbit Hills the Armygan consisted of flat, swampy land; the river arms there were wide and flowed sluggishly. However, the Otterpath itself led along the mountains; the land was all rock and stone and forced the river into a narrow, fast-running bed.
The river was older than the mountains. Khiray knew that even mountains weren't eternal, even if they counted time in hundreds of millennia, but rose from the floods and were worn down again by winds and weather. That was one of the advantages of trading with Oo'men: he could learn things that were little known in the Armygan. The Empire Dharwil had a culture thousands of years old and possessed scientific and magicial knowledge surpassing the Armygan's by far.
The arm known as Trader's Bane was in truth no tributary of the giant delta traversing the Armygan, but the main river. Saljin had said that the rivers Sulyan and Daymotal in the Foxtaur Territory merged to form Trader's Bane, and an even more thorough examination of the maps proved that the Daymotal wound down from the north, bypassing the Lakenda Mountains and thus originating nowhere else but in the Empire Dharwil, where it was doubtlessly known by another name.
Saljin furthermore reported that Oo'men merchants traveled along and on the Daymotal down to the Foxtaurs; not many of them, but enough to ensure a steady contact.
Khiray couldn't help but wonder. The Foxtaurs were almost unknown here, and even among the Oo'men he had never heard of them; nevertheless, the four-leggers traded with Oo'men just like his own family did. Foxtaur Territory and the Armygan existed side by side, but the peoples of the flat swamp and the inhabitants of the wide plains had remained strangers to each other. And even the Trolls belonged to the hidden world that lay directly beneath their muzzles. What wonders the world might have to offer, far off from the Armygan! What strange creatures, what fabulous cities, what exotic countries! Khiray's old dream awoke anew and showed him visions from far away.
But the thought of Demons brought him quickly back to reality.
The Daymotal crossed the Empire of Dharwil, turned south and then east. Here, it probably flowed into the ocean once, before the Edora Mountains rose from the depth of the earth. Defiantly facing the uprising stone, the Daymotal ate its way through the rock, pebble by pebble, century by century, until the Edora Mountains had reached their current height and the Daymotal rushed through an endlessly deep gorge, marking its way through millions of years. The new land in the east with its hills and plains became a playfield for the Daymotal and all the brooks and arms and tributaries that the mighty river swallowed. It might even be that all of the swampy south of the Armygan consisted of nothing else but the eroded rock and washed-out earth the Daymotal carried into the ocean over the ages.
The Long Run was the main stream which finally led down to Drun'kaal and Landing Point. The Otterpath was considered a side arm, but it didn't hold much less water than Long Run - at Farlish, where the stream forked, two almost equal rivers emerged. But while the Long Run took the easy route, Otterpath wound along the eastern rim of the mountains, where a minor ridge of the Edora Mountains marked the end of the highlands and the beginning of the plains. Confined by a rocky bed, the Otterpath's current was more than twice as fast as the Long Run.
Khiray had joined the Otters one and a half year ago for some months to learn about their way of trade and their life (and to be together with Lysh, a fact that in his opinion no one was supposed to know but everyone guessed anyway - he had been younger then). The Otters were cheerful but unruly Furrys, obliged to no one and always ready for an adventure. Theirs was the only one among the ten races of the Armygan to travel the full length of the Otterpath - called after them for obvious reasons -, and to take the risk of shallows and rocks, rapids and reefs up and down the river.
Dorn's Rapids were among the greater risks of the journey. They didn't represented a problem for the light, fast Otter boats, catamarans with little draught, at least during high water. At times when the river carried little water, even Otters started to flounder.
He had passed Dorn's Rapids on the ship of Lysh's family four times and knew to judge the dangers of the Otterpath. Khiray wasn't someone, a yearning for adventure or not, who would risk life and ship without consideration. After Dorn, the only Wolf ever to travel Otterpath, failed at the rapids and drowned, no merchant tried his luck on this arm of the river. Steamers had too much draught, were too slow, too ponderous; they became easy prey for sharp-toothed rocks.
But Khiray wouldn't have chosen this course if he hadn't seen a chance to survive it. At this time of the year the river carried most water. The melting snow in the mountains was perceptible everywhere; trees at the banks now stood in the water, decaying jetties of sleepy villages were flooded, and the swamps claimed parts of the nearby fields. Moreover, the 'Silver Ansicc' had no freight and needed no firewood or expensive coal due to the heat loop. The ship couldn't get any lighter than that, unless they threw the furniture overboard.
High water and reduced draught should work together with Khiray's experience and carry the 'Silver Ansicc' right over the rapids. If that wasn't enough... well, then they didn't need to worry about Demons any more.
Of course, Delley was against it. He considered a crossing of the rapids impossible and believed they all were doomed to drown. Pallys' fear of the dangers of the Otterpath, on the other hand, was almost completely natural for him - Rabbits weren't bad swimmers, but their heroic disposition left a great deal to be desired.
Pakkaht agreed to Khiray's plan enthusiastically. Pallys thought the deer was mad at least, or stricken by suicidal tendencies. But Khiray was the captain, and he alone had to decide about the future course. Thus, they steered south at Farlish without stopping once.
The dock workers of Farlish might have wondered - about the course of the steamer als well as the fact that it didn't moor in the city. Farlish was bigger and more important than Sookandil, and the fertile hinterland always provided more than enough freight for ships. Moreover, Khiray had the identification lamps put out, hoping that this detail would not be noticed in the light of the day. With a little luck the workers would forget the steamer in the next pub, and Galbren would not get answers to his questions.
That was, if he made the effort at all to ask people in Farlish. The obvious course led down Long Run. The Otterpath was something only madfurrys or really desperate Furryfolk would try.
But desperate they were. Khiray just asked himself whether Galbren knew.
Khiray himself stood most of the time at the wheel and allowed Pallys, Delley or Kinnih to relieve him only during the night. The northern part of the Otterpath was fast, but not dangerous. As soon as the first dangerous parts would come up, he was bound to stay at the rudder full time anyway - Pallys showed quite some expertise at the wheel (although he didn't tell where or when he got his experience with ships), but the Rabbit had lived too many years as a teacher in Sookandil; the river wasn't in his blood anymore. Delley was engineer, not helmsman, and Kinnih was too inexperienced.
At early dawn Saljin knocked at the door of Khiray's quarter. "Delley says the river is getting faster."
The Fox blinked sleepily. "That's just a narrow passage. Somewhere near is an Otter village."
"He doesn't seem too thrilled."
Tiredly, Khiray rose. "I'm coming already." He girded his loincloth and followed Saljin up to the steering cabin. A single look at the river was enough to determine the problem. The high water didn't only ensure that there were fewer shallows and there was always enough water below the keel. It also strengthened the torrent.
He had to admit that he had never seen the land passing by faster than this in all his years on this ship.
The narrow passage demanded his full concentration. The steamer reacted only sluggishly, so he had to determine the course in advance. The water surface foamed and boiled along the bank rocks and hid with white spray and dazzling reflections what might hide below.
Pallys just looked once outside, then he returned to his cabin. Khiray had never seen someone who got seasick on a river, but he had to admit that this was not the kind of journey he himself knew and liked. It was a hellride down a river nobody else wanted to travel. Except Otters - but Otters even journeyed up mountain brooks.
Some kilometers downriver the torrent calmed, but Khiray knew that this narrow passage was but a tiny foretaste of what would wait for them at Dorn's Rapids. He left the rudder to Kinnih. "There's a village some kilometers downriver. We'll moor there", he decided. Kinnih didn't ask why. The young Badger was proud to be trusted with the ship at all.
To sail the ship fully concentrated for hours had left Khiray more deeply tired than he cared to admit. He fetched some food from the galley and returned to his quarters.
Saljin waited for him. "I knew you wouldn't want to stay at the wheel all day long."
"The next dangerous point is quite some distance downriver." Khiray started to eat. "Kinnih can steer until we arrive at the Otter village. It's about time for us to entrust someone with our secret."
"Can we trust the Otters?"
The Fox smiled. "If not them, then no one. They are a little mad, but they are always honorable, loyal and obliged to no one but themselves and their promises. Galbren's plans won't find any great support among them."
"Why don't we leave the ship there, swap it for an Otter boat and cross the rapids with that one? You said you already traveled with Otters. Surely their boats are better suited for this trip than the 'Silver Ansicc'!"
Khiray shook his head. "I thought about it - leaving the ship as security or possibly hire the Otters to take us to Drun'kaal. But as soon as the Otterpath leaves the mountains, it becomes as slow as the Long Run. Otter ships generally have no engines, but sail with the wind. We'd be at the mercy of the weather. Without freight, the 'Silver Ansicc' is almost as fast as an Otter boat and completely independent. Along the Otterpath they've got an advantage, but there are one and a half thousand kilometers beyond that before we reach Drun'kaal." He took another bite.
"What about the overland route?"
Khiray looked at Saljin uncomprehendingly. Then it slowly dawned upon him why she had to ask. Her people lived somewhat nomadic for half of the year. Traveling by land simply was more natural for her than a journey on the river. "There are no streets in the Armygan, no open plains like there are in your country. The forest is wild and impenetrable, the swamps impassable except with flat boats. The river is the only, best and most convenient road through the Armygan. Only the south has genuine streets at all." He thought about it for a moment. "It would be possible, of course... We could turn south from the Otterpath instead of returning to the Long Run. That route leads to another port city, Larynedd. There is a street from Larynedd to Drun'kaal, or we could rent a sea ship." Worriedly, he thought of the gold his father had saved for an emergency. This was an emergency for sure - but if they had to rent ships, the stock of money would soon be used up.
"With the Otters down south... to Larynedd, then... across the ocean to Drun'kaal", Saljin summarized. She followed the route on the copy of the overview map Khiray had in his cabin. "Would Galbren suspect that we leave the ship and take this way?"
"Probably not." The thought of leaving behind the ship he had spent almost all his life on didn't please Khiray. But it would be an excellent cover. "We could even split up. Delley and Kaslin-Ray return to Farlish with an Otter boat and spread rumors that will lead Galbren on a wild goose chase if he asks for us. I, Pallys and Sarmeen travel on towards Larynedd. You can accompany us and then return home by sea. Pakkaht, Shooshun and Kinnih - well, I don't really trust the Deer, and Kinnih and Shooshun shouldn't get too involved with the whole matter anyway. We won't need them if we travel with the Otters; Kinnih and Shooshun may look for another job in Farlish, and Pakkaht can do whatever Deer do."
"You are in quite a hurry to get rid of us."
Khiray recognized that she wanted to say "get rid of me". "No, of course not. It's just..." He made an embarrassed pause. "You don't have anything to do with all this. I dragged you all into Galbren's machinations, somehow. You'll have to warn your clan; no one should be sent to Sookandil until Galbren is deprived of his power. And... I... don't want anything happen to you." He raised his hand before she could say anything. "I know, I know. You can take care of yourself. And you are a master of the Dekka'shin, while I'm an amateur with weapons. And you survived the way to Sookandil, and the battle, and all the rest. But..."
Saljin smiled at him. "That's sweet of you. But it's not really your fault, is it? It was Galbren's plan."
Khiray nodded without saying a word. It might have been Galbren's plan. But he had been the pawn in the game who was supposed to be sacrificed. And who had been stupid and greedy enough to play along. He should never have left the path of honorable trade.
Saljin turned to examine Khiray's shelves of collected treasures to play over the embarassing silence. Books, some souvenirs, and of course the statuette that showed Saljin herself. The Foxtauress smiled. Then she took a small round comb covered with wax-sealed metal bristles and ran it through her fur. "I'm probably looking all shaggy."
"Uh", Khiray made. It was really strange to see Saljin with that comb. The Nashi'tarr, the round comb, originated from the old common culture of the Furryfolk, reaching back in time to when the ten races lived in the half-forgotten Homelands, thousands of years ago. The Nashi'tarr was all but a plain comb, it was used for mutual fur grooming among close partners or friends, and it had an erotic significance Saljin couldn't know, since she came from another culture altogether.
Moreover, the Nashi'tarr was a present from Lysh. To watch the dull bristles gliding through Saljins dense fur awakened emotions Khiray preferred not to have right now.
"Your ears are all red", Saljin remarked.
Khiray ran his hands over the pointed ears that followed every movement of the Foxtauress exitedly, as if they developed a life of their own. Damn the body language. Damn the all-too-tight loincloth. Saljin giggled. "Did I put my paw in it, in some very meaningful way?"
Khiray sighed and explained to Saljin the true meaning of the Nashi'tarr. He couldn't avoid to mention who Lysh was, and he didn't keep quiet about his first night in Drun'kaal either, although no one had given a Nashi'tarr to him then. On the contrary, rather; the two Vixens with the mischievous convictions would have stolen such an item, too. From the distance of the years, the memory was quite funny, although his awakening had been rather unpleasant at the time.
As a compensation, Saljin told him what Foxtaurs did in the night of being declared adults - Saljin was, according to the custom, an adult since her sixteenth year - and how to prepare for it. She also told him the story of Drymasaar the Joker, who had been declared an adult five times in one year by five different clans (and she didn't forget to mention that this story was one of the less spicy tales of Drymasaar).
Eventually, she stretched out her hand with the Nashi'tarr. Khiray held his breath, and he hesitated to take it. Did the Foxtauress knew what kind of offer she was making? Was that really what she wanted? At a meeting of Furrys from very different cultures, one had to be very, very careful with assumptions. But he had explained the implications of the round comb to her, didn't he? Therefore, he finally accepted the Nashi'tarr.
In the Oo'men cities, he had heard various rumors about how Furryfolk made love. Some of the hairless ones claimed it was no different from horses or cattle, a matter of thirty seconds, performed only when the "female" was in heat. (After a bit of listening around, Khiray decided that the thirty seconds were a problem of Oo'men, rather.) Of course, the opposite had been sworn as well: Furrys were always ready, anytime able, and simply tireless. A kind of talk at the regulars' table that led inevitably to the fearfully asked question what would become of the Oo'men males should their women ever discover the advantages of Furrys. Khiray knew - a secret well kept from most Oo'men - that this kind of liaison had been tried as well as the association of Oo'men men with Furry women. That kind of love act, however, conflicted in most cases with conventions as well as with the missing mutual attraction - for Furryfolk, the flat, muzzle-less faces of Oo'men were rather ugly, the naked, furless, sweating bodies unattractive at best, while Oo'men perceived the Furrys to be little more than dumb animals.
The latter had already led to an unpleasant incident in Hanmur while the 'Silver Ansicc' lied at anchor there. A fanatic priest of some obscure Oo'men sect had preached that an intimate relationship between an immaculate, undefiled Oo'men (whatever he imagined by that) and a loathsome, dirty, hairy Furry was no better than a young, budding, beautiful shepherdess who allowed her shepherd dog to perform unspeakable sexual acts on her. (He used that very metaphor, including the unchanging rows of descriptive adjectives, with such vigor and vividness that Khiray suspected him to actually like the thought.) The direct comparison of a Furry and a pet was insulting enough, but the situation grew really unpleasant when the priest demanded to drive all Furrys out of town or to castrate the males on the spot. Typically, he didn't mention female Furryfolk even once.
Fortunately, the priest had an accident and drowned. Khiray never found out whether he should attribute the accident to Delley or rather to the local shepherd guild, and dropped the matter.
Besides stamina, size and skill, the exact anatomy of Furryfolk was another popular subject, with the same results. Fiction predominated facts, and anytime an Oo'men presented a lewd story, there was another in the round to outdo him. Mostly the elements of those tall tales varied between laughable and grotesque. Although the Furrys never made a secret of their physique, and although there had to be detailed, illustrated and especially anatomically correct books, intimate details seemed to gain value among Oo'men when they were ridiculously overdone. No wonder Oo'men preferred to cover their bodies; in truth their proportions couldn't halfway keep up with their tales.
The only detail Khiray remembered that actually was in accordance with the truth, linked Foxes and Wolves with their animal anchestors. They had a knot at the base of their maleness that swelled during sexual intercourse. Quite often, the partners were unable to separate then for a while if the male lover penetrated too deeply. (That "tie" represented in practice all but a disadvantage, in fact for obvious reasons an often-desired effect which was not even limited to Vixens or female Wolves but possible with all races.) Ironically, that was the one story Oo'men met with disbelief, and Khiray never cared for proving the fact - some things simply went too far.
Even Khiray's special customer, the collector of Furry erotica, wasn't as well informed as he claimed to be. He knew his anatomy for sure - everything else would have been a surprise -, but even he hadn't enough imagination to slip into a Furry's skin. One time he mentioned to Khiray, a mating of Furrys probably felt as if two Oo'men wearing fur coats copulated.
What a silly idea! A pelt was a dead thing which did not even approximately felt like living fur. Dry, dead pelt, treated with every method imaginable, might seem like fur to an Oo'men, hairless as the poor creatures were - but in fact it was enough to let a hand wander through pelt and fur to feel the difference in one's bones. What remained of the smoothness, the shine, the softness of the wooly underhair, the loose appearance of the longer hair, if the fur wasn't changed, summer fur replacing winter fur, winter fur relieving summer fur, and if the natural skin oils didn't coat the single hairs with protecting substances day after day?
Not to mention the effect for the wearer. A fur transmitted a touch hair by hair. Every root of the hair was a part of the skin and sensitive to the caressing of the fur. The hair could prevent thorn scratches and keep stinging nettle poison off the skin, it could even cushion blows if dense enough, but a lover's hand always found the right way to run through your underwool that made your back shiver. And even if the fur might be too dense in some patches to allow a gentle yet lustful stroking, there always were other spots where the coat was delicate and tender: at the belly, the loins, the inside of the thighs. Fingers or claws could part it and touch the skin: that wasn't ever possible with a fur costume. A coat from a dead animal's pelt isolated against touch as well as against heat or cold. Touch was, after all, the purpose of the Nashi'tarr: to stimulate the skin as well as the fur.
Love in a fur coat? Khiray could only laugh about that notion. But how could Oo'men ever understand?
Slowly, he ran the Nashi'tarr across Saljin's back. There was a ritual sequence of body parts to touch with the round comb, starting with the less sensitive regions up to the most intimate parts. Depending on personal preferences, that sequence was quite adaptable, after all, everyone had his or her own private spots to offer to the Nashi'tarr. In this case, the Fox had to improvise a little more: Saljin simply had more body than he was accustomed to. For Foxtaurs, was the back of the lower body more intimate than the one belonging to the upper body? Or the other way round? What about the belly? Saljin's upper body belly was almost as densely furred as her back, which was not the case with Vixens. And the base of the tail! That most erogenous region was found twice on the Foxtauress since the back of the upper body merged with the foxy lower body at exactly the point where the pelvis should have been. He could not even feel a bone there!
Finally, he recognized that he was almost making a fool of himself by hesitation and clumsiness. He hadn't been that inept with his first girl! Rituals and customs might be all right to fight off nervousness, but in confrontation with the alien they weren't applicable. He had to trust his feelings and explore his lover without fear; he was as alien for her after all.
He put his hand on the point where the front legs merged with the trunk and gently stroked the soft fur while still running the Nashi'tarr over her spine. She had something like shoulder blades there, and an elastic joint between the vertebrae where upper and lower body fused. With his left hand wandering upwards, he dragged the round comb with increasing strength across the powerful muscles of the back that surrounded her spine, until the Foxtauress raised the arms to the ceiling and stretched out her whole body comfortably.
Somewhat relieved that he wasn't doing something completely wrong, Khiray followed his path. Saljin allowed him to continue and enjoyed his mastery of the Nashi'tarr until he arrived at the flanks and the muscular thighs of her buttocks. then she showed him how to comb her breast fur, and put the arms around him to return his ministrations (and to free him of the rather awkward loincloth).
Not that he needed additional encouraging. He buried his muzzle in her fur, breathed the sweet scent of her skin, ran his hands through the strangely Oo'men-like head hair and the bushy, well-developed tail, let his lips glide across her breasts and stroke her belly with his own tail. She was so Fox-like in some respect, but again and again her strange anatomy took him by surprise: she didn't even come up to his neck when standing upright, but she was a good deal heavier than he was, and when she straightened up on her hind legs to embrace him with the front paws, she squeezed his muzzle right between her breasts - and almost hit her head on the ceiling.
Saljin jumped onto the bed and turned on her back to allow him to comb her belly fur. She had no nipples alongside the belly, not even remnants of them, and the belly fur of her lower body was so soft and delicate that Khiray could see the pink skin shimmering through it. He couldn't resist the temptation and licked it. She giggled and dragged him down on the bed which fortunately had been equipped by the ship's constructor with a heavy frame (with great foresight or some experience regarding the matter). Other ships possessed only narrow bunks or even hammocks, but the 'Silver Ansicc' provided luxurious comfort even for the crew.
It simply was a good feeling to lie next to Saljin, touch her warm body, enjoy her company, fur to fur, and to whisper sweet little obscenities into each other's ear. So strange - so familiar. It seemed to him he had known her for a long time. He knew she would tickle his flanks when he saw her mischievous grin. He could guess that her hands would wander down his belly and across his loins. He was able to predict that she would playfully roll over him and pin him down with her paws. Just as if she had always been on intimate terms with him, as if he could read her body and face. As if she was a forgotten part of him, returning now to merge with him again and to fill a painful hole the existence of which he just had discovered.
He wished she wouldn't be here on this dangerous journey, but home instead with her clan. She'd be safe there. No Demon would ever lay its hands on her. No evil could befall her. And at the same time he couldn't imagine anymore to be far from her, never again to lose himself in her softness, never again to feel her hands, her paws, her muzzle, her tail on his body.
When she bowed down and he felt for the first time the electrifying sensation of her tongue on his member, he saw the nicks in her right ear. When he kneeled over her to explore her most intimate secrets, he could feel the scar at her left flank. Her muscles were strong, yet flexible like steel - Troll steel. She was a warrior for certain. And it made him immensely proud that she had chosen him.
"Do you love her?" Pallys had asked. He had known no answer then, and he still wasn't sure. What was he supposed to compare that emotion with? Of course it was not the same as with Lysh. Saljin was, in some respect, of his own kind, and in another way she was far more alien than the Otter girl could ever be. He had never believed he'd share his bed with a stranger some day, with someone not of the ten Furry races of the Armygan. (The only candidates would have been Oo'men, anyway, who didn't exactly look attractive to Khiray.)
Was "love" the correct word for that feeling? He couldn't tell. Words were for poets. He only knew she had changed him - he grew more and more apart from the person he had been only some days ago - a bored, dreamy youth -, and the man he was becoming needed Saljin.
The Foxtauress seemed to sense that his self control was at an end. "Your tradition or ours?" she murmured in his ear.
"Uh - yours?" he answered, not really sure what she meant. For a second he feared that the Foxtaur tradition held an unpleasant surprise for him - scars as a remembrance, applied on sensitive regions, or some kind of blood brotherhood -, but she didn't grab a knife. Instead, she jumped off the bed and posed for him, the legs slightly apart, holding the tail on the side in an inviting arch.
Foxtaur tradition? Well, that answered one question at least that passed through his mind one or two days ago, although the amazing agility of her upper body suggested that the Foxtaurs knew other postures than the "traditional" as well.
But an ugly voice rose in his mind.
"Look, she's an animal after all!"
He started. The voice was so clear as if the speaker stood directly at his side. And the strangest thing was: it seemed as if there were two voices actually: the voice of the antisensuous priest in Hanmur - and the sound of the Demon Khezzarrik khi Valangassis.
But he knew that the voice, however it might disguise itself, was his alone. It was a thought he had spoken aloud in his anger: Foxtaurs are animals, less worthy than Furrys, barbarians, savages, alien, alien, alien...
Damn her, she was an animal! A savage from some gods-forsaken country without decent civilization! Probably they still lived in caves... That had been his words.
"And it's true, isn't it? Look at her! What would Lysh say? Just like a bitch in heat! What would your mother say?"
A wave of anger overran Khiray. The voice dared to speak of his mother? What part of himself could question his actions anyway? How was it possible to argue against himself? What kind of black magic splitted him in two?
Then, he recognized what was happening to him. It wasn't any black magic that overwhelmed him.
The same kind of fear Galbren stirred up: the fear of the alien, the fear that gave birth to hate. He had given in to it once, feeling the rage - that rage that seemed so right and righteous and justified, but was in fact nothing else but the cry of a little child left alone in the darkness of uncertainty.
And at the same moment he acknowledged this, the voice disappeared, fell down wailingly into a dark deep, leaving him alone in the end. He had done the final step Galbren had warned him about: there was nothing truly alien any more, just an infinity of possibilities, some more pleasant than others, some more probable, some evil or almost impossible, but all part of a vast universe: the future.
Khiray smiled. Only a heartbeat had passed. If Saljin was a bitch in heat, so be it. Then he would try to be her dog.
And he did. It was not easy: he was no Foxtaur; their physique was too different, her legs had the wrong length, and neither standing nor kneeling the angle seemed to fit. There are situations where the virtue of patience seems to be the hardest of precepts, but just before frustration could overwhelm Saljin and Khiray, the culmination succeeded, and suddenly everything seemed so natural that they asked themselves why they ever had difficulties to achieve their union. Khiray embraced Saljin's flanks and lost himself within her. They moved in a steady rhythm, the pulse of blood, listened to their own deep, rapid breathing. The universe beyond the cabin - beyond themselves - had disappeared. Saljin turned around - the vertebra joint of her upper body and the amazingly flexible spine almost allowed her to turn 180 degrees -, took his head in her hands and led his muzzle to her breasts.
The fire of her delight was almost as intensely perceptible for Khiray as it was for his lover. And audible, too: She raised the muzzle to the ceiling and started to howl in a moaning yet lustful voice, as Wolves sometimes did.
Only a few heartbeats passed before the door opened and Delley stormed into the room, ready to fight with a spanner in his hand. Nonplussed, he stopped in his tracks, followed some moments later by Pallys who was less baffled but seemed to know precisely what was going on - he had lived some years in Foxtaur Territory, the Fox remembered vaguely. Khiray cursed himself helplessly for not locking the door.
"Well, at least you take my advice", Delley eventually growled, somewhat pleased. Then, Pallys dragged him out of the cabin and slammed the door behind him. All right, the crew would talk; but better that than having them worried about Demons or rapids all the time.
Finally, Khiray gave in to the tension. The red fire in his veins was reduced to a dull pounding and a sensation of blissful happiness. It had never been that way with Lysh. Saljin was so perfectly suited to him that the thought of losing her became unbearable.
"What are you doing?" The Foxtauress had tried a step forward and detected that she was unable to get away from Khiray. "Didn't you just..."
The Fox explained to Saljin what the knot was about and why they couldn't end their mating tie before his erection eased. That detail was new to her - Foxtaurs weren't built that way, so actually they were farther apart from animal foxes than the Foxes of the Armygan, in that respect. "That is... unusual", she proclaimed and licked her muzzle. "But I'd lie if I said it's unpleasant."
Khiray had expected nothing else. So they used their time.
He could have spent all day that way - lying side by side with Saljin on the bed, her scent in his nose, her fur next to his. Thinking nothing, doing nothing, just rest safely and securely in perfect relaxation.
But he couldn't stop himself from thinking.
He understood now why Galbren stirred up the fear and why his plans came to bear fruit that fast. The fear kept Furrys - and possibly every other intelligent creatur - small, made subjects of them, servants, obedient slaves. What did power mean without fear: fear of punishment, of death, of war and invasion? Fear of pain, of loss, poverty and rejection, sickness and age? Fear prevented them from ever looking beyond themselves, left them rotting in a cage confining their selves, unable to ever look up and see the possibilities they really had.
Fear served the ruling class alone. To gain power, Galbren had to destroy the Furryfolk's courage, their hope and their trust in the future, to erect a new dominion in his image on the ruins of uncertainty. And for the hate, the odd brother of fear that fought off the sensation of impotence and filled the timid with the illusion of strength, he needed a victim.
Khiray had never thought much about politics. He had been satisfied to moan about taxes and interest, just like his father, and to do business as usual.
The fish must swim, Lysh had said. And in fact, not even the wisest insights about the structures of power could change the Armygan in the least. There were no elections - offices were hereditary. Wherever an office became vacant, a new one had to be created, or a really corrupt and incompetent civil servant had to be removed from his position - which was an occurrence rather uncommon, although corrupt and incompetent officials were not -, the Drunlord or some noblefurry appointed the new holder. The rest of politics, an unfathomable web of intrigues, personal interest, nepotism and revenge Khiray knew only vaguely, was staged in the big cities, at the nobles' courts. Simple Furrys had nothing to do with it.
And he was really on the way to warn the Drunlord of Galbren? Did it really matter who ruled Drun'kaal? What kind of merits had Kooradah over Galbren, except that he was the son of another Drunlord?
No, that was not the reason why he did it.
It was the war Galbren wanted to unleash. Demons that were let loose on the world. Hatred and fear that might ring in a new age of barbarism. Tens of thousands of innocent Furrys would suffer - had to suffer to satisfy the Demons -, before Galbren's rise to power was finished. And who would stop the Demons afterwards?
He undertook this journey, risked his life, to prevent those cruelties. No innocent should have to die, like the Foxtaurs who already became victims of Galbren's madness.
Khiray buried his nose in Saljin's fur and pulled her somewhat closer to himself.
"What are you thinking of?" the Foxtauress demanded to know.
"Politics", Khiray murmured.
Saljin made a face. "What a moment to think of politics." She tried to take his mind off the subject, and the thought of Galbren faded away as well as the pleasant sleepiness.
"Our tradition or yours?" she whispered.
"Ours", he stated decidedly. Then he murmured in her ear: "We could find our own tradition, of course."
Saljin blinked and stretched her body to full length. "That'll need a lot of time."
"Doubtlessly", the Fox agreed. "Maybe a whole life."
The Foxtauress sat up, surprised. "What do you mean?"
"Oh..." Khiray shook his head. Saljin didn't seem too thrilled by his suggestion. Didn't she feel the same for him? She had given him the Nashi'tarr, invited him, took the initiative. Had this love play been nothing else but a pastime for her? Was she just drawn to him because of the shared experience, nothing more? "I just wanted to say... we'll arrive soon... we shouldn't think about it too long."
Saljin avoided his glance. She knew what he really wanted to say, and she couldn't give him the answer he desired.
But she was the stranger here. The river wasn't her life, as with Khiray, and her clan was far away. That really wasn't the moment to plan a future that might never happen. Maybe he could ask her later.
He tried to seize the moment and enjoy Saljin's closeness as long as he could. But there was something in her eyes, a gentle sadness, that made fear creep up to his heart again - as if she knew about things that had not happened yet, as if she could see a future for him where she was no longer at his side.