Chapter Fourteen

Pallys' revelation had hit Khiray harder that Saljin. This was not her country, not her world. Her home lay beyond the mountains. The Foxtaur Territory was not in any danger, according to the Rabbit: the Archangels would defeat the Demons before they were able to carry the war over the world. For Saljin, the Armygan was a strange place, inhabited by strange people, and the terror she had already experienced here made it difficult for her to feel compassion for the future victims of a possible Demon war.

Her own situation was difficult enough. She had never told Khiray in detail what preoccupied her mind; she didn't want to cause him even more distress. Saljin doubted anyway that it was any of his business or that he would understand it; this was a question of Foxtaur honor, and what did Khiray know about her people? How familiar to her had he become? Could she explain it to him at all?

Sleeping with Khiray was one thing, trusting him was another. Not that she hadn't recognized his good intentions. The Fox was without doubt courageous and kind-hearted, maybe even selfless, and he had a strong sense of justice. He was intelligent and skilled in his craft, the river trade. Maybe he was a little blind for the danger at times, too daring and audacious, but she knew what he felt toward her, and a good part of that audaciousness was the fault of that ill-hidden, irritating love for a being of another race - another species. And he was a good lover, without doubt, with that combination of gentleness and spirit she liked so much, tender and skilful and apparently experienced. Not as well equipped as a male Foxtaur, but she didn't belong to those who put a higher esteem on mere size than on the person behind it, and besides, she knew very well the spots of her highest pleasure, and it definitely didn't require half a meter to reach them.

He was a good Fox. And maybe she could have returned his love, although she never plunged tail over head in a meaningful relationship. She was a warrior. She had her emotions under control. And she knew better than to use the expression "forever".

But he had saved her life. That created a debt between them which would always stand in the way of her own feelings or wishes. She was obliged to him in the traditional way of the Foxtaurs, and he didn't even know it. Her own plans, her former obligations, had to wait; she would remain at his side until she could save his life and thus pay back the debt - or until he would set her free or name a price for it.

Saljin wasn't his slave; even if Khiray had been aware of the situation, he wouldn't have been able to force her to do something that spoiled her honor. She wasn't forced to sleep with him - she did it because she liked him. She wouldn't kill, lie, steal or cheat for his sake. But in many ways she was responsible for his well-being.

And she wasn't even able to explain to him what stood between them. If she did, he would have released her immediately. But he wouldn't do it of his own volition but because he would've felt it his duty, and the true duty was not on his but on her side. And how would it sound for his ears if she explained her situation? "Set me free, I don't want this duty, I want to go home - free of this place, free of you!" He'd even assume in his ignorance that she had made love to him because of that obligation. Saljin couldn't have him hurt in such a cruel way. The tenderness she felt for him didn't allow it, as well as her duty.

For this reason she feared that Khiray would ask her to stay with him. Naturally, not even her duty could force such a thing - it didn't make the debtor an eternal slave of his savior. But a plea like this in a situation like hers would have given their relationship a wrong meaning. She couldn't say yes; not as long as the debt existed. A "yes" was only possible among equals. And of course she couldn't say no likewise. "No" was not what she wanted to express. She could very well imagine to stay at Khiray's side, for a while... some years... explore the world together with him instead of some clan mates.

Maybe a life long, although she didn't know the Fox long enough to make such a decision. And a mating across the races was infertile - bondings like that had happened, although not often, and she knew that not even the two-legged races could have cubs among each other, or with Oo'men. Foxtaurs and Oo'men weren't able to procreate, either; there was a story about an Oo'men merchant and a snow-white Foxtauress from the mountains, who... but she didn't want to remember the old stories right now. Anyway, she would never be able to bear Khiray's cubs, and sooner or later that desire would arise in her, at the latest when her years of travel came to an end. She then had to search for a suitable male Foxtaur who appeared fit as her cubs' sire and who would renounce all rights to the offspring. In every respect but one the cubs would be Khiray's. And then... What would Khiray say? She didn't know the partnership habits of the Armygan Furrys very well. Among Foxtaurs, loose relationships predominated; the clan and the tribe were more important than the family which seemed so dominant a concept in the Armygan and among Oo'men.

Foxtaurs committed themselves to a relationship and separated in good agreement when they sensed they had come to a dead end. Sometimes it were only short affairs, sometimes years of burning passion. Some couples agreed on a certain sexual fidelity, others preferred an open twosomeness. There were couples of three and four Foxtaurs as well, something Saljin had never seen among Oo'men and Armygan Furrys, some of which remained stable over the years, faithful among themselves.

And whenever a relationship ended, as passionate as it may have been, only a few Foxtaurs lamented the passing time. It was a pleasant memory, a good time, but nothing was forever, not even life itself. And a mate was not the clan. There was always another lover, but the clan stayed.

As for cubs, the opinions differed. Some Foxtaurs cherished a faithful relationship to sire cubs. Not that a father was as important as the clan, but he had some importance after all. Even male Foxtaurs liked to have their bloodline continued and to see their own children - even although they could never be completely sure. Other Foxtaurs - Foxtauresses - did without fathers altogether, took more or less quickly changing lovers and left conception to chance, or they chose a lover as sire, used him in the critical days and left him again. There were enough male Foxtaurs who never asked for their children. Cubs were important - but sires were not the clan.

Saljin even knew Foxtauresses who took several lovers during their fertile days. Twins or triplets weren't uncommon among Foxtaurs - and in such a mating they sometimes were sired by different fathers, making cubs from the same litter indeed half-brothers and -sisters.

It was impossible to speak about such a theme among Oo'men. When Saljin traveled the north where more Oo'men merchants offered their goods than elsewhere in Foxtaur Territory, she had tried once and was met by icy silence. Oo'men didn't have clans, their families consisted of one couple and their children. They "married" each other, promised lifelong fidelity, broken often enough but never openly discussed. For the public, Oo'men didn't like sex or talk about sex, but secretly they caught up galore. Male Oo'men often denied their females any interest or even lust for sex, but that was not exactly a surprise, given the less than appealing love plays of the two-leggers.

Without the support of a clan, the Oo'men females were forced to stay with one mate to provide for her and the children. That alone confused Saljin: why didn't the Oo'men form tribes? There seemed to prevail a secret hostility among the hairless ones, inciting neighbor against neighbor, always envious, always aggressive, caught in eternal competition and only seldomly ready for cooperation.

Oo'men were a riddle. The greatest taboo among them were sexual relationships with the Armygan Furrys or even with Foxtaurs. The story of the merchant and his snow-white lover was commonly known and well-liked among the Foxtaurs, telling a tale of love (as fleetingly as it might be) that conquered the boundaries of the mind and the alienness of the races. For Oo'men, the same story was the very image of despicableness and depravity. Officially, such contacts never existed. They had a forbidden aura, just as if it was equal somehow to the copulation of Oo'men with their pet animals (which seemed rather strange to Saljin, but as long as they didn't hurt or torture their animals, she discarded it with a shrug). Just as if wearing a fur disqualified her species and the Furrys of the Armygan as intelligent beings.

Nevertheless, Oo'men males and femals likewise knew the story. They wouldn't ever admit that knowledge to a member of the other sex, and neither the males were ready to confess that females might know it and vice versa. And of course males and females had their very own opinion of what the story meant - beyond the official denial and the indignation, for sure.

The sexes seemed to differ so vastly that Saljin found it difficult to imagine how they ever found together. No wonder that relationships among the same sex provided just another taboo. Male and male, female and female... unimaginable! Those "deviants" kindly had to stay hidden and undiscovered.

Among Foxtaurs, homosexual affairs were not too uncommon (rather frequent, if compared to animal relationships); almost everyone tried that variant once and again. For most of them it was just a phase; some stayed with it all their life, others indulged in male and female affairs likewise, especially in three- or foursomes. No one got upset about it. It was not the clan.

Saljin didn't know too much about the sexual habits and taboos of the Furrys in the Armygan; she could just establish that they were less inhibited by bans and secrets then the Oo'men, but not as free as the Foxtaurs. They had no clans.

Khiray surely would set great store on a faithful relationship. Families had a similar status in the Armygan as with the Oo'men, and many couples actually stayed together all their life. When the question would arise whether they would have cubs...

...and who was supposed to be the sire...

...could the Fox bear the thought? Would his love break under the strain, or was he strong enough to help her and take part in the selection of the male Foxtaur who would grant her wish?

Saljin shook her head. Too early to muse about it. Much too early even to consider the thought. They had to survive - to come out of the distress, escape the Demons. Khiray would do what his honor commanded him to do. Hadn't he tried, hadn't he shown such strength, Saljin would never have thought about being together with him. And she would support him with all her own strength, as her honor demanded.

But that wasn't the only aspect to be thought about. She and her companions had lost their merchandise - stolen by Galbren or trampled into the dust by the incited crowd - without getting the medicine they needed. Even if she had enough money to pay for it - and how should she get any now? - there was no possibility to barter somewhere. Until they reached Drun'kaal, the journey would be a hasty escape, and even beyond that harbor, if Pallys was right. Maybe there was an opportunity to buy the medicine in Drun'kaal. She had no choice in that matter. Her people needed it. Yes, there was enough stock of it at home, but if the war tore the Armygan apart, they would not be able to buy more. The current supply had to suffice for years to come - dozens, maybe a hundred years, until they could return to the Armygan.

It would have been useful if the medicine plants grew in Foxtaur Territory. But there had been such attempts, and every single one of them failed. The soil war wrong, the swamp not swampy enough, the weather killed the saplings, or a flood tore the plantation away. Only a wee bit had ever been harvested.

And it was not only her clan alone that needed the medicine, she suddenly perceived. All the clans, all the tribes needed some! And she was the only one who knew that their source would dry out soon for decades. No one would stock up a sufficient supply. If she managed to get enough medicine for her clan home, a reason for war would arise. The Foxtaurs lived in peace for a long time now, except when a powerful mage tried to subjugate the country again. But how could a clan, any clan, let its cubs die? How could her own clan keep the medicine for itself - or share it when there wasn't enough to share? So many years of affluence had prevented envy. But the medicine was something that was not available in abundance, something all Foxtaurs would fight for, and there was nobody even to blame for it.

Except the Demons - and governor Galbren who had called them.

That evil would spread into her land after all! Saljin made a fist. Was there no end to malice? The prospect of a war among her own people possibly strained her honor even more than her debt to Khiray. Pallys had said the Armygan was lost, Khiray's home. Now it looked as if the land of her own ancestors was endangered as well. But while Khiray couldn't do anything, she still had a chance. She had no money - but Khiray owned a small hoard of gold. He had told her himself. The medicine was not cheap, but wasn't weighted in silver, either. Khiray's gold would buy a shipload of the medicine in Drun'kaal, enough for many clans and a long time. Enough to make it possible for the tribes to gather and talk about the further actions, should war devour the Armygan. They could wait for the Archangels and trade with the surviving Furrys. Or they could occupy the Armygan themselves and harvest the plants on their own if there wouldn't be enough survivors. As long as they got the medicine, the fate of the Foxtaurs wouldn't depend on the Furrys any more.

Khiray would give her the gold. He knew the price. He wouldn't let the children of her people die. His gold couldn't purchase the safety of the Armygan, but do a lot of good for the Foxtaurs.

And if not?

The young Fox's life had just begun. He had lost his reputation, he would have to leave the ship - unless he sold it to some unsuspecting Furry -, and he would need all of the gold to build a new existence, to buy the passage to a foreign country. If he stayed with Pallys, the Rabbit could help him. But if both of them reached the faraway shores without a coin, all doors would close on them. They needed gold.

But the Foxtaurs could offer them asylum, a new home, from which they could easily return one day. It would look like a shady barter - give me your gold, and I'll give you a place to stay! That wasn't the case, the Foxtaurs would have taken Khiray and Pallys in anyway. It wasn't food or room that they found wanting, after all, and a busy helping hand was always appreciated among her people. Khiray would understand.

And if not?

What if he felt hurt and insulted? Saljin knew about the importance of pride. She was young herself. Gold for asylum. No, he wouldn't make such a deal. Maybe he wouldn't even see the truth if she explained it to him.

Nevertheless: He had cried when he learned what the Foxtaurs needed money for. Saljin couldn't imagine what the terror of their flight would do to him, but she was sure he would never leave cubs to die. He had a choice.

And if not?

Then she would lose her honor. The duty of protecting her people, the duty against the many, was far more grave than the obligation to a single one. She would steal the gold.

She would hurt Khiray this way - he trusted her. He would never forgive her. And she would have to work hard to regain her honor after such a treason, if possible at all within one life's duration. Without him and Pallys she had to find her own ship to return home. Maybe there were Foxtaurs in Drun'kaal.

What if Khiray caught her stealing? If she told him what she needed the gold for and he denied it to her, he would go down in her estimation, but the obligation would still continue to exist. They would fight, although she neither desired nor was allowed to.

Could she kill him? Could she, really, when it came to the last, when she had no choice any more? He had saved her life and risked his own for her. She was the better fighter; maybe she could defeat him without killing...

...and leave him a beggar without gold to toil in a strange land?

She laughed bitterly. Hadn't she just thought about how to have cubs together with him? And now she mused about his death? No, she could never do it. She had to trust him. She had to believe in him to do the right thing, to find the right words. She couldn't kill him.

Have faith.

It was so painfully difficult.

* * *

"Ship ahead!" Pakkaht's voice rang from above. "Otters!"

Saljin hurried to the bow. The river was a little wider and slower here, nevertheless the 'Silver Ansicc' hurried along. Khiray didn't want to stop. Some of the Otters already jumped overboard, the others scuttled about excitedly.

Khiray didn't want to endanger the Otters any more, should the Demons wait for them. Saljin knew that he had agreed with the Waterfurrys on letting them ashore at the first opportunity.

Four Otters carried the injured Kaslin-Ray on deck and brought him to the ship's boats. The 'Ansicc' carried four boats, two bigger and two smaller ones. Fryyk and Khiray supervised the disembarking. Saljin could do no more than watch; she didn't have any experience in river sailor things. Wooden swivel arms with strong ropes held the boats. Otters swarmed all over the framework and moved the mechanism. One of the smaller boats was let down, Kaslin-Ray was put in it, then the Otters swung it overboard and slowly lowered it to the water line.

Delley had stopped the engines, the paddle-wheels stood still. Carried by its own momentum and the current, the 'Ansicc' still sailed along at high speed, but the turbulences from the wheels that would have complicated the disembarking had ceased. To stop altogether, Delley would have to reverse: the strange Otter ship had moored at the bank. Saljin could see it clearly now.

The boat slid into the water, secured by Otters in and around it. They could keep up with the ship effortlessly.

"I wished there were some Otters in my crew", Khiray murmured. "They would make some things easier indeed."

Fryyk nodded. "Thy wish be granted. Ten of us will stay aboard."

Saljin saw Khiray jumping. "I didn't mean... I mean, I didn't want..."

Fryyk spat over the rail (with the wind). "We already decided on it. The ten best river sailors among us will accompany you across Dorn's Rapids. You'll stop in Bear Mountain, the others will leave us there. I'll stay even after that. I want to know how everything works out."

"That won't work, I mean, we cannot... It is dangerous! I don't have the right to endanger you too!"

"We are Otters. We know Dorn's Rapids. You need us to get the ship past the reefs, especially now that you lost a crew member. And should you really fail, well, where you will drown, we still can get out alive."

How cute. Saljin sighed.

"I meant the Demons!" Khiray shook his head. "Maybe they are in Bear Mountain already!"

"Our business. I don't think the Demons will chase us before they got you. Probably they can't even tell one Otter from another. And if they hunt us down, that just proves that they are more dangerous than we believe, and you'll need any help you can get then." He grinned mischievously. "And we need a little excitement. Otters are curious."

The Fox folded his arms. "What do they say? Curiosity kills the Otter."

"The Cat. Careless people, by the way. Now, do you want our help or not?"

Khiray lowered his head. "You are welcome. You're right, we need every hand, especially the hand of seasoned Riverfurrys like you."

Fryyk beamed. "Good!" He called out to the other Otters. The boat with Kaslin-Ray - who never once woke from his restless sleep - had already half the way to the other ship covered and was far behind now. The exodus of the other Otters began immediately: from every part of the ship, every deck, they jumped into the water, dove several dozen meters through the river and swam to the bank. Only a handful stayed behind. Even Saljin could see that they were able seamen: young, but not too inexperienced, strong, wiry, sinewy. They moved along with that certain kind of self-confidence that showed everyone that the ship was theirs.

Khiray hurried upwards to the wheel-cabin. Fryyk allocated the Otters to their place and stared sternward onto the ship that slowly disappeared far behind them. The whole operation had taken no more than a few minutes. Saljin came to Fryyk's side. "The other captain will be very surprised."

"I don't know..." The Otter pointed at the cargo boom. Saljin's gaze followed his finger. "We gave them some flag signals. They know that a few of us will come over and bring an injured Furry with them."

"A few of you!" Saljin giggled.

"Flag signals are not exactly well suited for transmitting greater numbers. But the other captain'll have watched us all the time. He'll help."

"What if he thinks of an attack?"

"Otter pirates? That'd be something new. No, our race is friendly. Especially to ourselves. True, there are probably less Otters over there than boarding now. But they'll manage. That's the least of my worries. And then they'll spread the word." Fryyk's muzzle took on a grim line. "The Demons will be sorry that they burnt down our village."

"No one of you got hurt."

"Not the Demons' merit. And the Rat got wounded while he was our guest. Down in the big cities hospitality may not be what it used to be, but here along the Otterpath it's still something important."

"What'll happen now?" Saljin asked thoughtfully.

Fryyk just grunted. "They will care for Kaslin-Ray, warn the crew and sail on downriver very carefully. Or did you mean here, with us?"

The Foxtauress shook her head. "I'm just worried." Naturally she couldn't tell Fryyk about the whole problem she faced. Maybe he hadn't even understood, he was an Otter. But the water-dwellers seemed to have something like clans at least - big families and a friendly people.

But she could never bring herself to confide in Fryyk. It seemed as if she was as caught in secrets as Pallys - unable to share her emotions and fears with somebody else. This was not her race or her land. She was a stranger. And while she desperately wished to be free at least of a part of her duty, her load, Khiray was the only one she trusted enough to speak to. But she couldn't tell him before he set her free... and that would never happen.

The truth... simply the truth... to do what had to be done... Khiray didn't understand what made Pallys to offer the truth in small chunks only. Saljin on the other paw did understand the Rabbit only too well.

There had to be a way to untie the knot. There had to.

She tried to think of something else. "Fryyk?"


"How do you know the other ship will go downriver? They moored at the bank!"

"Too big." The Otter looked at her for a moment, then he faced the river again. "Otter ships are smaller, mostly. The big ones seldomly come here. The smaller they are, the better they can pass over the rapids. Big ships only manage the downriver route across the rapids, not upriver against the current. The ship back there belongs to those that make the journey with the Otterpath, down, then return on the Long Run. Always the same direction. Only the small ships do the upriver route. Most of the big ones never come here; there aren't many of them anyway."

Saljin watched the river. Delley had the engines running again. The water foamed, but not alone because of the rotating wheels. "The Otterpath is fast enough here. It must be difficult to sail a ship against this current! What do you do when you pass the rapids?"

Fryyk smiled. "Here it's okay. We sail against this current when the wind's more or less good. Farther down, just before you reach the rapids, and behind them down to Bear Mountain, even Otters have to wait for a fair wind in the right direction. And even then it's slow. The route is tiresome. And the rapids? No, no one sails up the rapids. There is a system of chains, block and tackle, sunken into the cliff walls. The ships are tied to it far down and then pulled up. Needs some days, the pulling, the chaining, and when it's over, the whole system has to be realigned for the next ship. The rapids are subdivided into more than a hundred sections, each with its own chain system. The whole rapids have a length of about ten kilometers. Chains of that length would be much too heavy, so they subdivided it."

"The ships are pulled up?"

"Hm-hm! The lighter a ship is, the easier it works. But there are a lot of Otters on the route, anyway. So it pays."

"Khiray didn't tell me about it."

"He did the route together with us, didn't he? Yea, sure he knows the whole procedure. He probably didn't tell you because we'll go down instead of up."

"It would have been quite interesting." She was angry and scolded herself for it at the same time.

"The Fox has other things to think about. He's your leader, see, he's got the responsibility for you all. That's not easy. Look, that's the reason we Otters don't have true leaders very often. We don't like the feeling when everyone's staring at you, waiting for decisions. Sometimes Furrys lose their life, and we are bearing their faces with us." Fryyk turned away. "I'll go the rounds over the ship, look for trouble. You come along?"

Saljin nodded. The Otter could tell her something about sailing the river. Maybe she'd have the opportunity to use that knowledge some day. She couldn't help Khiray now, anyway. Fryyk was right: the Fox had other things to think about.

Saving his country, for example.

* * *

"We'll reach the rapids at dawn tomorrow", Khiray explained. He and Saljin stood in the steering cabin. The final hours of the day had passed quietly - neither Demons nor shipwreck had threatened them. It could have been a perfect, leisurely trip, if one was able to forget the events of the last days. Even the weather was fair, the few clouds had passed overhead and took their rain into higher terrain. "I told Delley to leave the engines to Kinnih for a while. We only make half speed, after all, we don't want to crash into the rapids in the dark. Tomorrow we'll have to be fresh." He shook. "It won't be easy. Ten kilometers through chaos... not a long way, but a hard one."

"Dorn surely would agree with you."

Khiray wrinkled his muzzle. "Don't remind me. We aren't done with it. - I'll hit the bunk. Pakkaht and Fryyk will take turns with the rudder. Saljin... I mean..." He smiled shyly. "Do you want..."

The Foxtauress smiled back. "I'll go with you. It does no good to be alone in a night like this."

"Delley always said, with a big event ahead one should practise chastity. To gather one's strength."

"Would you be surprised if I told you that my people never heard of such a rule?"

Khiray touched her shoulder and gently let his fingers glide downward. "No. No, it wouldn't." He called Pakkaht down from his lookout. One of the Otters took his place. Fryyk had introduced them all to Saljin, but she had difficulties to tell the Waterfurrys apart. They all were energetic, quick, ...hurried. She couldn't even discriminate between male and female Otters, although they wore no clothing. The Furrys of the Armygan had smaller breasts than Foxtaurs, she had gotten accustomed to that fact. But the Otters seemed to have been totally forgotten by the Gods in that respect. And apart from that, Saljin couldn't discern any visible sexual characteristics - the small hints remained hidden under the fur. That was probably very practical for a life in the water, but Saljin thought it somewhat lacking in charm. How did the Otters introduce themselves to each other? "Hello, I'm Fryyk, I'm a male!" Hardly. Either Otters were more receptive to the little differences, or the scent was of importance. Saljin couldn't make out anything - four of the ten Otters were female, but they smelled all the same in that respect.

She could tell Fryyk alone apart from his people. His posture was that of a leader. The Otters listened to him. He had the responsibility for them, and that load weighed heavily on his shoulders.

The olfactoric signals probably were stronger within one race. She could very easily tell by the scent whether she faced a male or female Foxtaur, and even with Khiray that form of identification wasn't difficult. Sarmeen still carried part of that special scent, but the others didn't.

It might have been a part of the sexual attraction that Furrys smelled "right". Oo'men definitely had the wrong scent; they appeared rather repulsive to Saljin with their mixture of sweat and iron and strange spices. One could get accustomed to it, possibly, the tales showed it - just the way one got accustomed to the smell of cities or mountains or forests. But she preferred Khiray's scent.

Warm fur, soft Fox.

They made love with the fierceness and energy brought by the possibility of near death alone. The last love play before the battle: during Saljin's lifetime, there hadn't been any great conflict, but the rough fighting games frequently held among the tribes gave a distinct notion. Blood pulsing in the veins, throbbing in the temples, roaring in the ears. Scents seemed sharper, colors more glaring. And the song of steel meeting steel - and it was an unmistakable sound, even when the weapons were blunt - resounded in the hearts of the warriors. The night before was always something special. This journey was nothing else but the waiting for the battle. The little fight against Hhrugha khi Dmurag had been but a foretaste.

Khiray tried hard to please her. He had gentle, but strong hands and a shining, thick fur. Saljin liked him, although he'd always be a little strange: he was two legs short. It seemed as if a section of his body was missing. In compensation, his hind legs - his only legs - were longer than usual, and his whole lower body was shaped in a way that the upper body stood upright despite the missing part. Thus, he resembled the Oo'men, even if he was quite different from them in other respect. When he embraced her body, he had hands where she expected paws, and there was no pair of arms left to touch her. When she tied her front paws around him, she felt a flat upper body instead of a curved trunk. Standing, Khiray towered above her by a fair bit, but when they lay together side by side, stretched out, her size easily topped his (and her weight did anyway).

She rolled on her back. "That's your tradition?" She only liked to incite him a bit, naturally. Furrys, like Foxtaurs, weren't committed to a single position in lovemaking. Variation added spice to the game.

The Fox threw himself upon her and growled playfully. She embraced him with all four paws and squeezed. The hind legs weren't really shaped for such an action, but she could exert quite some power with her front paws. Khiray yiffed and groaned as the air left his lungs. Saljin eased her grip and took his head in her hands. "My warrior isn't defeated already, is he?"

Khiray moved on her. She could feel his hard member against her soft lower body belly. "Defeated? Nay, never! That fortress will fall, even if I have to besiege her till dawn arrives!" He licked her flanks and grinned at her with white teeth.

"Maybe that warrior should perform his attack at a lower position", Saljin thought aloud. That warrior did as told, and the duel proceeded to another round.

Saljin felt the dark clouds in Khiray's mind receding. She almost envied him for the ability to think of something else. Herself, she wasn't able to do that. She couldn't suppress the conflict boiling within her, not even for that moment.

Gentleness and lust and ruggedness. Whether she relaxedly submitted herself to Khiray or worked on his body with claws and teeth, the final shadow on her soul was impossible to drive away. She had to live with it.

She felt Khiray entering her; the curious knot at the base of his maleness slid between her thighs and started to swell immediately. Another strangeness she wasn't accustomed to. If she stayed together with Khiray, it would take many more nights before she was really familiar with his body. She hoped they still had the time to come that close to another without fate stepping between them.

If they survived. If they found the answers.

She took his head between her front paws and stroke his hot, soft-furred ears gently with her hands.

"Gods, Saljin..."

"Sh!" She looked into his eyes and tried to read in them. He wouldn't leave her in the lurch. But she couldn't simply explain it all to him. "Just continue." So vulnerable. So young. As young as herself, and with the same kind of scars. Saljin could see her image mirrored in his eyes, in more than one respect.

They only had themselves. Even if the world would drown in flames. Only themselves and the honor still left. Gods. Dek. Mikhoi. Aryfaa. Halann. Dokmaris. They all had lost their lives already.

"Is everything okay?" Khiray's voice sounded concerned. "Am I too... do I hurt you?" She noticed that tears were running down her cheeks. Yes, yes, of course he hurt her... his softness and his dedication, his strength and his determination. His whole existence. The fact that he was there, that he cared for her. Of course he hurt her. But that was not what he meant.

"No", she said. "It's okay. Everything's well." He couldn't hurt her body. She was no frail virgin at her first time (Oo'men alledgedly held their virginity in high esteem, she had heard, but she never believed such an absurd notion). And while he was not exactly of tiny physique, he surely wasn't as gifted as an animal-horse stud. Although that knot had a considerable diameter, full-sized. She concentrated on feeling it. Yes. A wave of passion surged. "Don't think about it. Take me. Just do it."

Battle and love, lust and pain, grief and ecstasy. They were so closely related.

Their bodies and tails embraced. Let us dance, the blood plays the tune. We live now, and tomorrow is without meaning.

For a second she wished he'd really hurt her. That he won't meet her with love, but the violence of his desire: she wished to be tied to the cargo boom, hands chained, blindfolded, gagged - her hind legs spread apart, tied to a wooden log - helpless. She wished Khiray the Pirate - Khiray the Conqueror - Khiray the Cruel would gloat over her defencelessness and then mount her, rape her brutally with a tool like a giant horny animal. She wished for pain, burning fire in her body, searing agony. She could have hated him then, forget her duty, steal his gold - kill him, crush him, throw him down; split his skull apart and return home a warrior, a victor.

But that was not like him. He wouldn't ever hurt her this way, deride her, humiliate her. He'd rather died. And neither could she hurt him or hate him. "Oh, Khiray!" Would he ever understand it? Yes. Yes, he simply had to. She had seen his eyes.

The warrior within her reared up, but it wasn't his time. That dance didn't bring death, but kept it away. The only fire in her veins was the fire of lust. The shadows wouldn't dissipate, but they shrunk in those flames. Today. Here. Nothing else matters.

Her paws ran roughly across Khiray's back and held him tightly. The Fox groaned. "What...?" She closed his muzzle with one hand, hugged his head to her belly. Dance on. There is no time for words.

She bent her back to the waves. Her eyes saw without seeing. She heard Khiray's surprised whine, then she felt his hot stream deep within her. But it didn't stop, not that fast. She turned to a side, stood all of a sudden over Khiray who was completely caught unawares. Dance, dance on, through the fire. She pinned him with her paws to the bed, rose up straight and gave a long and loud howl.

Only slowly the powerful feeling left her limbs. The fast breath, the shallow pant she only now recognized as her own calmed down. She shook from head to tail - and Khiray, who naturally couldn't break away, with her - and slowly settled on her partner. Saljin felt an overpowering gentleness for Khiray. Tenderly she fingered the fur on his chest.

"Oh, wow!" the Fox uttered. "What kind of tradition is that, now?" He bore her weight without visible effort; she wasn't that heavy after all. He breathed Saljin's scent with distinct pleasure and put his arms around her.

She smiled. He would find a way, all of his own, if she just trusted him. And trusting had become easier. Only a bit. But it was a start.

* * *

She awoke just before dawn. The sleep suddenly fled and refused to grant her the peaceful rest. Something was near, something familiar and strange at the same time. Not the Demons, she'd known that.

Slowly she rose. Khiray moved in his sleep when he couldn't feel her warmth at his fur. She stroke his back gently, down to the tail which twitched in dreams. Then she draw the blanket over him and looked around.

Nothing uncommon. No monsters lurked here, not that she'd expected that. But the sensation of a presence remained. It was outside, not too far away, and it closed in upon her.

She hastily took the currycomb and ran it through her fur hurriedly, but thoroughly, to remove the traces of nightly passion. She didn't have a doubt that the whole crew had listened (maybe not Pallys, but the Otters for sure, and if Kinnih hadn't been at least a bit curious, she'd been worried about him), but that was no excuse to go on deck unkempt. The smell alone told the tale. It would have been time for a bath, but she couldn't afford that luxury right now.

On deck, everything was silent. The river was very fast; the rapids had to be nearby. To the right and to the left, steep stone walls towered and cut off the sight of moons and stars, but the rock was white limestone and allowed at least some light at the bottom of the gorge.

Saljin looked up the rocks. Nearby, very close...

Trolls. High on the cliffs irregular shapes showed, loose boulders, craggy chunks - if one doesn't know better.

The Foxtauress rose her voice. The words of the Troll language were difficult for her throat, but she had a lot of practice. The rough clicks, the coarse growl, the short, whispy vowels resounded from the rocks. The Trolls didn't answer. But they moved, almost imperceptibly. They wouldn't have done this if they'd expected animosity or felt caught.

Then they were gone, left back. Saljin shouted something after them, but she wasn't sure whether they would hear it.

There were even more of them. This time on the other side. Three, maybe four - no, the fourth was a rock indeed. What did the Trolls do here? Did they watch the ships that passed the rapids? Was that their private fun? Or did they have something in mind?

She continued her hasty speech. More of them, more... a couple of them farther downriver, then a single Troll hanging at half-height from the rocky cliff, nailed to the stone like an overhang. She had never seen that many Trolls at once! Was it... were they near one of the fabled Troll cities? Saljin wished she could stop and talk to them. Her voice grew hoarse from shouting. Was there a word for Demons in the Troll language?

"Sjrrr - sorrr - jrrraaaa!" The answer came unexpectedly, hardly to tell apart from grinding rock, and quiet over the powerful roar of the river. But it made Saljin stop. Her name. That was the name the mountain Trolls, far from here, had given her. Where did they know her from?

Did they come for her?

Then the last group of Trolls had passed by; the stones at the edge of the cliffs were nothing else but stones. Saljin shook her head. That was strange, very strange. Had her name been passed on to the Trolls here? But why, then, this gathering, like a parade, like...

Like a greeting.

They had known she would come - through messengers or scouts, or maybe by magic. They bid her welcome in this part of the Troll dominion.

Involuntarily, she had to smile. Rugged folks from their appearance, the Trolls were always friendly and respectful against the fragile flesh-life.

Pakkaht turned around the cabin corner. "Saljin! What happened?"

The Foxtauress recognized that the sounds of the Troll language probably sounded very strange for the rest of the crew. "Nothing, nothing. I just bent a paw."

Pakkaht nodded, obviously not convinced. "You've got strange curses in your language."

Saljin ignored his doubts. The Deer had his own secret he did not even share with Khiray - even if Khiray seemed to suspect something. Why should she trust him? The Trolls were not his business. "When do we arrive at the rapids?"

"Won't be long now. Kinnih wakes Khiray. Delley's up already and tightens some screws. Do you want to sail in the wheel-cabin?" Meaning: Would you please avoid standing around and getting in the way of experienced riverfolks? But he was right. She nodded obediently.

A silver shadow jumped up at the side of the ship. Saljin started, but Pakkaht showed no sign of fear. "What...?" The shadow jumped for a second time, and this time the Foxtauress got a better glimpse of what it was. A big fish - no, the tail fin stood horizontal instead of vertical, and the fins were more fleshy than those of a real fish. The slim body wasn't scaly but possessed a silvery smooth skin.

Then a second one jumped, and a third. Saljin hurried to the rail. Even in the dim star- and moonlight that reached the river down here, the bodies of the animals were clearly visible. A whole school of ten or twelve "fish" accompanied the ship. They were two to three meters long, and they moved so fast that they could have circled the ship if they wanted to. They were smart enough to keep off the paddle-wheels, and let themselves be carried by the bow wake.

"Ansiccs", Pakkaht said reverently. "River dolphins. They are rare. Their appearance is regarded as a good omen. All peoples of the Armygan respect them."

One of the ansiccs swam at the surface. He produced a silly cackle and sprayed water from a hole in its head.

"They are playing", Saljin said amazedly. "They play with the ship."

"It bears their name." The Deer nodded.

The Foxtauress doubted that the ansiccs knew that. She enjoyed the view of the shooting bodies until, as if a secret sign had been given, the whole school turned away and disappeared.

The cliffs moved apart, formed a lake where the torrent, despite still being noticeable, did no longer pull at the ship as fierce as before.

"Rapids ahead!" Khiray's voice sounded from the wheel-cabin. While she had watched the ansiccs, the Fox had taken his place. The crew was awake and scattered all over the ship. Pakkaht too hurried away.

Chains. There were chains and wheels, a mechanism sunken into the rock. The Otter mechanics! Here it ended, in this little lake the Otters set sail after vanquishing the rapids upstream.

And there were the rapids themselves. The massive rock walls joined again and became a gorge - a black hole from which the echoes of boiling water emanated. Vertical rock surrounded the rapids. The Otterpath seemed hardly broad enough for the ship, but that impression had to be a deception. Khiray had to be able to maneuver in there.

The entrance of the ravine came closer all too fast. Saljin wanted to hurry up the stairs, but the view of the black crevice banned her paws to the planks. A hellhole.

The thunder increased.

Dorn had drowned here. An experienced riverfurry.

Then they arrived at the gate of the rapids, and she had no more time to worry. The ship reared in the torrent, the planks groaned, and then the 'Silver Ansicc' plummeted into the white, churned-up water. The rapids roared a welcome for the vessel.

The ansiccs had been smart enough to turn.

End of Chapter Fourteen