The Warmer Realms
(A Furry-Story by Dario Abatianni (C)03.02.1999)
Translation into English by Dario Abatianni, August 20, 2001 to Spetember 18, 2001
Darkness had fallen over the early summer landscape. A soft breeze made the small fire at the edge of the path flicker slightly. Glowing sparks sporadically lifted out of the flames, swirled around in the warm air flow and finally extinguished silently. The slender shape of a fox sat at the edge of the fire. His tender, brown eyes reflected the light of the flames while he looked into their constantly changing pattern. Slowly he took a sip out of his mug and let the warm tea flow down his throat. The sparse remnants of the evening meal lay next to him: a small slice of bread, two or three rabbit bones, a leaf package still containing a little meat, and a half eaten apple.
Redfur had been in a thoughtful mood all day. Probably his inner restlessness was responsible for his lack of appetite, too. He didn't know why, but the thoughts and memories of his childhood kept coming back to him. During his long wanderings it only happened rarely that he thought about his former life, but on days like this, the old life seemed to be very close.
He took another sip from the mug that he held in his black paws. His gaze fell onto the fur that joined the dark patches; fox red, yes, damn, yes! How often did he curse that fur, because it was a constant risk for him and his family. To his twelfth sun he had lived in the ice desert far in the north, for he actually was an arctic fox. A freak of nature had clad him into a fox red fur, contrary to the white pelt the rest of his family possessed.
At the beginning he was happy about differing from the other foxes, but soon he realized that his siblings' bantering was only the smaller inconvenience. His noticeable pelt made him a visible target for bigger predators, even from great distances, and more than once he had to run for his life when a polar bear considered him lunch.
Eight suns ago he quit his old life eventually and wandered from the polar region to the south to reach the warmer realms. His fur wouldn't harm anybody there. But he still kept his nickname - Redfur. During the passing suns he repressed his real name, keeping it alive only in his heart.
The tea had become cold in the meantime, and Redfur poured the rest of the beverage into the fire. Small herb-scented clouds of steam rose hissing. The fox sniffed and enjoyed the distributing smell. Then he grabbed his backpack and took out a blanket to unroll it near the fire. He lay down on it, stretched comfortably and gazed up to the clear sky where the stars looked down on the world. Son, where ever you will go, the stars will be your company. Those had been his father's words, when he'd left his home. Many nights he had looked up to the sky, sometimes through tears. This night the view of the stars was comforting rather than deplorable. They followed him, where ever he went - mute witnesses of his journey.
Redfur tiredly opened one eye when one of the sun's rays tickled his nose. The leaves on the trees moved in the soft early morning wind and cast complicated patterns of shadows onto his fur and the grass of his resting place. He had slept very deeply, not even a single fragment of a dream had remained in his memory. He closed the eye again and enjoyed the fresh, cool air playing softly with the hairs of his pelt.
Finally he pushed himself to get up and stretched. Dew glittered on artfully woven spider webs in the shrubs like pearls on a string. It was a perfect start of a early summer's day.
In the meantime the fire in it's bowl of stone had wasted away to softly smoldering embers. Yet it didn't take him long to bring it back to life again. Humming merrily he filled his mug with water from his canteen and hung the clay pot into the wire noose reaching over the fire. While the water slowly heated up he fetched a brown tinted leaf from one of his small bags to grind it carefully between his paws. An aromatic fragrance filled his nose and he greedily sucked in the air. Patiently he waited for the liquid in the mug to boil. He let the grinded leaf trickle into the jar carefully, where the water became brown soon afterwards.
Meanwhile Redfur packed the rest of his stuff together and unwrapped the meat left over from the evening meal from it's leaf covers. A sufficient breakfast so far.
The fire was extinguished quickly. The fox swung his backpack and the short hunting bow over his shoulder and continued his way southward. He had no specific destination. Since he started his wandering to the warmer realms, he had always followed his nose. Only at the beginning of his journey he had settled down for a short time in a small village at the shore of the sea.
He used his stay there to learn about the ways and customs of the foreign land and to get accustomed to the unfamiliar temperatures that got to him by then. At that time he already thought he must have wandered through half of the world but the future proved him wrong. After he had left the village and continued his journey he discovered land by land, walked through forest by forest and crossed river by river. He realized that, what ever he took for the world was only a small part, and must be incredibly large in whole.
It happened about that time that he grew curious about the land behind the next hill. He barely settled in one village when his paws itched to find out how the path would look like a few miles further down. He had become an adventurer, a globetrotter who could never stay in one place for long. And he never grew tired of looking and marveling at his changing surroundings.
Of course this kind of lifestyle made him grow lonely. He never stayed long enough in one place to meet other people or to make friends. It wouldn't last long anyway, because he knew that he would have to move on at some time and leave them behind.
This time he picked his way through a fairly open landscape. Here and there some Trees had huddled together to form small woods. Between them stretched exuberantly growing fields full of herbs and weeds, their blossoms and seeds filled the air with spicy smells. Redfur frequently knelt down at the wayside and carefully tugged out one plant or the other, curiously looking, sniffing and touching it. Until noon he had collected a big bunch of different flowers and weeds that tried to beat each other with their blaze of colors.
When the sun reached its highest point he decided to take a rest. He chose a nice spot at the side of the path and made camp there. Gingerly he sketched the herbs he had collected into his small notebook he had purchased in one of the villages far in the north, and then he stowed them into one of the bags fastened with strong leather straps to his backpack. While he rested he became aware of the clouds that slowly approached from the west. There seemed to be rain this night, a not quite unwelcome change to the warmth of the day. Nonetheless he wanted to depart soon to reach one of the small forests that promised some shelter against the wetness. Quickly he packed his equipment together and set off again.
When the first raindrops fell Redfur was still on his way. As far as he could see in the growing darkness there was no shelter to be found in the near future. He stopped shortly to get his cloak out of the sack, slung it over his shoulders and wandered on. The clouds solidified visibly and he thought he had heard a deep growling in the distance. He sniffed intently and nodded silently: There was thunder in the air.
A few minutes later the first flash of lightning flared glaringly white through the sky. The thunder followed shortly afterwards. The raindrops were now falling more densely and were swirled around by an upcoming breeze. Redfur got a bit annoyed by the change of weather but trudged on steadily. It was not the first time that he got caught by rain on his journey, and he would be drying quickly tomorrow, anyway.
The bolts came now in a quick sequence. Only a few moments it kept dark until another flaring light cast the landscape in a ghostly white glow. All the time it rolled and thundered inside the clouds. When another flash illuminated the surroundings Redfur saw a bridge of stone crossing a small river. Behind it he could see a few buildings. Encouraged he quickened his pace.
It took him only a few minutes to reach the bridge. The rain came down steadily, flowed over the stony bridge and its balustrade. At this moment another bolt flared up, followed immediately by loud thunder. Redfur froze. There had been something else. He had heard another sound through the thunder that had been coming from under the bridge. Sniffing the air revealed nothing, the rain drowned every smell. Cautiously he made a few steps sideways from the bridge and climbed down the bank to the river. Then he slowly moved towards the stone formation that showed as a dark silhouette against the landscape behind it.
A flickering in the clouds, then another loud rumble. And again he heard the noise - like a soft, terrified whimpering. It seemed that somebody was hiding under the bridge.
»Hello?« Redfur asked when he reached the bridge and stared into the darkness below it. »Anybody there?«
The answer was a piercing shriek and the pawing of feet that quickly moved backwards. For one moment Redfur believed he saw the reflections of a pair of eyes. Whoever hid down there must be scared out of their mind.
»Don't be afraid,« he said softly and groped ahead with his powers. He sensed fear and uncertainty; fear for him, the thunderstorm and - for something else.
He embraced the emotions gently and started to dispel them. »I mean you no harm.« The fear grew weaker but didn't fade away completely. »The storm will last for quite a while. But I saw some buildings, not far from here. Maybe we should try to find shelter there.« While he spoke he made a few steps forward. He felt the movement of a body slowly backing away.
Redfur had been so tense that he flinched when another lightning bolt, accompanied by loud thunder, tore the silence apart. For a split second he could see who was hiding in the darkness before him.
»Believe me,« he said. »I won't hurt you.«
»Go away!« the cat female said softly. »Leave me alone!«
The fox felt the fear still originating from her. He summoned his power again and fought against it. »It will be more warm and dry there. Don't fear. It will be all right.« Carefully he stretched out a paw to where he had seen the figure the last time, and for a moment he touched damp fur.
The cat jumped backwards and let out a muffled scream. But Redfur felt that it was more in surprise than in fear, so he approached further. When he touched her the second time she merely flinched but stayed where she was. His eyes had adapted to the darkness far enough, so he could see her. She had huddled herself into the hindmost corner of the bridge's hang over and held her eyes tightly shut; she was shaking all over.
»Do you want to come with me or do you prefer to catch a cold out here?« Redfur asked gently. »Believe me, I want to help you.«
Finally her fear collapsed under his powers and the cat opened her eyes. »Where did they go?« she asked anxiously.
Redfur was a bit surprised but decided not to go into details by now. »They're gone,« he said instead. »Come with me. I will lead you to a dry place.« Slowly he moved his paw to hers and she took it, hesitantly at first, then determinedly. »This is better,« he said smiling. »Come on. We'll have to run through the rain a bit.«
He lead the female from under the bridge and crossed the stone path with her. Then he pointed with one paw to the nearby buildings and started running. The cat kept up at his side without a problem and within minutes they reached a wooden building, probably a barn. A few moments later they found the entrance. They went into the barn, closed the door and left the thunderstorm outside.
It smelled of straw, horses and damp wood. He led her to the middle of the room, where a big pile of straw was stacked up. She dropped herself onto the soft bedding and hugged her arms closely to her body. Redfur saw her shivering and took the blanket from his backpack. Gingerly he put it over her shoulders and she huddled herself thankfully into the warm cloth.
»We can warm ourselves up a bit here,« the fox said while he started to remove the straw from a spot on the floor nearby. The packed clay floor was becoming visible. »Sayh. They call me Redfur. What's your name?«
»I-Ichira,« she said softly while she watched the fox warily. »Sayh. What are you doing there?«
The fox rummaged through his pack and took out a shallow metal bowl. »I'm going to make it a little more comfortable for us. It will only take a moment.« He collected some scattered pieces of wood and put them into the bowl together with some straw. A few sparks of his flint stone were enough to create a cozy little fire. Then he fetched his mug, the canteen and one of the leaves and percolated some tea. While the beverage slowly warmed up he leaned back against a straw bale with a smile and enjoyed the feeling of the distributing warmth for a moment. He glanced over to Ichira who still regarded him suspiciously.
She was slender built, her fur was almost completely black, only a few white patches showed under her chin and at the tips of her ears. The rest of the pelt was still hidden under the blanket. The light of the fire let her eyes gleam in a deep gold. But something in her occurrence got his attention, and he nearly stopped smiling. A deep trench went through the hair on her right cheek where the fur had grown back irregularly, and on her forehead was a nearly pebble-sized, circular spot where only bare skin was left.
The tea was hot enough and he cautiously took the mug from the fire using the wire noose. Then he carried the jar over to Ichira, making sure not to spill some of the liquid. »Here, drink this. It will warm you. But be careful, it's still very hot.«
She took the mug and sniffed the steam. The misty clouds played around her muzzle while she took a small sip. »Why are you doing all this?« she finally asked. Her voice had regained some of its power. It sounded a little rough and throaty, as it was common with cats, but it had a peculiarly soft undertone.
»Because I want to help you,« he replied with a shrug. »I couldn't leave you cowering under that wet bridge, could I?« He glanced into her eyes and she looked away. »Do you want to tell me what happened?«
»Happened?« she asked and took a sip from her tea, without looking at him.
»Well. When I found you under the bridge you asked me, if they were gone. I'd like to know, who you meant by this.«
While he spoke he felt her fear returning. Her body tensed a little and the eyes started to look around uneasily. »They chased me two nights ago,« she eventually explained softly. »They were ugly lizard-like creatures. I ran away and lost them in the forest. I don't know what they wanted from me but this« - she cautiously traced over the barely healed scar on her cheek -»is due to them.«
»You seem to have covered your tracks quite well, however,« the fox said. »I didn't see a lizard anywhere. You are safe here.«
Ichira snorted and scattered the clouds of steam in front of her face. »Ay, I am safe. And a coward, nonetheless.«
»Don't be silly,« he said gently. »I take it that you simply saved your life. What good would it have done to fight and lose?«
She shook her head sadly, her voice wasn't more than a whisper. »You don't understand.« She put down the mug, pulled the blanket tighter around herself and closed her eyes. Redfur could see her trying to control her thoughts. For a while he sat facing her and watched, until he was sure, that she had fallen asleep. Then he silently unfolded his cloak over one of the bales to dry and lay down on a pile of scented straw to go to sleep as well.
When Redfur woke the next morning, there was chaos around him. The first thing he heard was a loud hiss, then a shrill shriek and the slamming of a door. Instantly he was awake and on his feet. Ichira had lain her ears flat and her fur stood on end while she stared at the door that was moving in the soft breeze of morning. Outside he could see a shadow approaching the door. Then a face looked slowly into the barn, and Ichira started to growl softly.
Redfur recognized the face of a dog, at about half the height of his own body. It was an adolescent, probably a child of the farmer who owned this barn. »It's all right, Ichira,« he said softly. »It's only a young.«
The cat remained uneasy. It seemed that she too had just woken up and got scared by the figure.
»Good morning, young lady,« he greeted the young dog. »Don't be afraid. We are just two wanderers who took shelter from the thunderstorm last night.«
The child regarded them suspiciously, then opened the door completely and came a step closer. Clear sunlight poured in through the entrance - the thick clouds from the day before seemed to have vanished. »I'm not scared,« she said eventually. »I'm just not supposed to talk to strangers. I'll go and get my father.« She spun around and ran out of the barn.
Redfur glanced over to Ichira who hat put on an amused face. A welcome change to the depressed look she had displayed yesterday. He bent over and poured out the charred contents of the tin bowl. Then he stretched extensively and sat down next to his companion. »How are you today?« he asked.
»Much better already, thank you. Dry fur is worth a lot.« She sat up and rolled up the blanket. »Thanks for this,« she said and gave the cloth bundle to Redfur.
»Ay. The least I could do,« he replied and accepted the blanket. Then he grinned. »You looked quite ragged last night.«
She made a face in mock anger. »Oh, thank you for the compliment.« She took a pawful of straw and threw it into his face.
»Hey, what ...« Redfur barely managed to say, then he had to comb the straws out of his fur. When he had finished he looked deeply into her eyes. The golden shimmer was still there, embedded into a sea of amber. The dark pupils had narrowed to a small slit, it seemed to be a crack on the surface of a gem, reaching deep inside. At this moment he heard somebody entering the barn. »I'll come back to you later,« he murmured grinning, then turned around.
»Good morning to you,« a tall male dog said, standing at the door. He leaned on a pitchfork he held in his big paw. His legs were clad in sturdy leather pants and a hat protected his head from the sun. All things considered he epitomized the typical plain farmer.
Redfur straightened his stance and saw that he just reached the other's shoulder, and bowed politely. »Sayh. Good morning to you, too,« he began. »I want to apologize that we entered your barn without asking, but the bad weather forced us to seek shelter. My name is Redfur, and this is Ichira.« He hoped that the big dog was in a good mood - he had put his powers to a hard test yesterday and he wasn't sure if he could use them again today.
Fortunately the farmer didn't seem to be angry. His flews drew back with a smile. »Don't worry. The barn is big enough by far. I was a bit surprised when my little one came running and told me about foreign people.« He made a thoughtful face. »I bet you're hungry. How about a good breakfast?«
»We'd love to. But we don't want to strain your hospitality too much.« The growling of his stomach belied him, though.
The big dog laughed. »Well, come on, then. Be our guests. I'll lead you to the kitchen.«
Redfur held out his paw for Ichira and helped her getting up. She looked at him in surprise but said nothing.
»Ah, well! My name is Altan,« the farmer said when he led them out of the barn and over the small yard. »You already met my little daughter Naki. My mate Thera and my son are already waiting in the kitchen.«
They entered the main building and crossed a narrow hallway that had several doors to both sides. One of them was open, and a seductive smell of fried food came out of the room behind it. Soon they stood in a simple but clean kitchen. In the middle of the room a heavy table had it's place and it was surrounded by several roughly timbered chairs. Two young had already taken their seats; the female that had woken them in the morning and a male, obviously just grown out of pups age. Thera stood at the cooking place and prepared breakfast for the family and their guests. Shallow wooden plates with matching cutlery and filled clay mugs were already standing on the table. Altan motioned them to sit down.
»I want to thank you for the friendly care,« Redfur said when he took his seat. »Of course we will show our gratitude.«
»Oh, it's not necessary,« Thera said when she put the heavy pan onto the table. A mixture of sliced earth tubers, onions and eggs that made the wanderers mouth water. »We rarely get visited by people from outside our lands. We hear only a few things of what's happening in the world.«
Thera had just served the meal when the two young were already filling their plates. Redfur waited politely for his turn and then he helped himself and his companion. »If you want I can tell you about what we have experienced,« he said with a quick sideways glance to Ichira.
And so he told them about his experiences on the journey and skillfully wove his companion into his tales. Ichira listened curiously, too, and he could tell by her look that he wouldn't come away without an explanation. The young took in the words of the fox intently as well, even though they probably only understood half of what he said.
»Where are you going, if I may ask?« Altan leaned over the table when they finished their meal.
»Well, as of me, I don't really have a-« Redfur started.
»The next town,« Ichira said nearly at the same time.
Altan looked at them over the rim of his mug, placed the beverage down and wiped his mouth with the back side of his paw. »The next town is quite a distance away,« he said eventually. »There's a small village, about ten miles down the street, but unfortunately there has been an incident.«
Redfur felt Ichira starting to shiver next to him. »What kind of incident was that?« he asked and inconspicuously put his companion a comforting paw onto her shoulder.
Altan shrugged. »I don't know exactly. It's mostly rumors, not more. A few days ago we saw the glow of fire at the horizon, and then we heard from scaly creatures that supposedly were prowling the forests. Until now we haven't seen any of those creatures ourselves, but they should better stay away from our farm, otherwise we'll show them!«
»I'm sure you would defend your farm worthily,« Redfur said. »But we have to go now. You've been very friendly.« He pushed back his chair and stood up. Ichira rose, too, still gripped by the strange restlessness he couldn't quite interpret.
»I wish you good luck for your further journey, my friends,« Altan replied. »If you ever come back into this part of the land, don't hesitate to visit us again. We would be glad to hear about your experiences.«
»Of course, we will. Mother Thera« - he bowed into the farmwife's direction - »it was a pleasure to meet you and your cooking. Good bye.«
Altan led them to the barn where they packed their belongings together and finally set off. Once they glanced back to the farm. The farmer still stood there for some time and watched their departure. Redfur shivered at the thought that the lizards might really raid the farm. Despite the courageous heart of the man they probably wouldn't have much of a chance when they got outnumbered.
When they had walked for about a mile, the fox decided to break the silence that had lasted between them, since their departure from the farm of the dogs. »Do you want to talk to me about it?«
»About what?« Her voice trembled slightly.
»I mean, why were you so upset during breakfast? I had the notion you were scared by something.«
She shook her head. »No, it's nothing. I'm just a little concerned about the lizards, that's all.«
»Really?« When she didn't answer he decided not to broach the subject again. Something was bothering her, that was obvious. But as long as she didn't want to talk about it he was bound to wait, until she was ready to.
While they followed the street further down south the mood of the journey darkened more and more. Redfur's heart broke to see the cat trapped in so gloomy thoughts. She needed a little distraction from whatever things were haunting her. He stopped. »How about a break?« he asked.
»Right now? We barely got started.«
He grinned embarrassedly. »Ay, you're right, of course. But you must know that I come far from the north, and the temperatures here are still giving me a hard time. Only a few minutes, do you agree? Or are you in a hurry?«
She hesitated a little before she answered. »No, I'm not. Well, then. Agreed. Let's rest a bit.«
They settled down on a big meadow and enjoyed the warmth of the rays of the sun. In the distance they could see a forest, stretching over the entire horizon. Towards it the landscape was mostly overgrown with weeds, dotted over and over with plentiful flowers and blooms of different colors and scents. Redfur felt inside himself and let his powers flow out. This time it was a soft groping, not the powerful, defending snare he had thrown out against her fear under the bridge.
Within a few minutes they were surrounded by a mass of butterflies and colorful moths that rested everywhere on his pelt and unfolded their wings in the summer sun. Ichira was being besieged soon afterwards, too, and she started to laugh when one of the animals landed on Redfur's snout and made him sneeze.
»How do you do that?« she asked laughing. »There must be hundreds of them!«
He smiled. »They are beautiful, aren't they? They seem to like us. Look, they aren't even shy.« He lay back in the grass, took one of the butterflies on his paw and watched the shiny, thin wings the animal stretched towards the sun.
Ichira was absorbed by the iridescent glory of the butterflies. Her laughter was addictive, now that she was not trapped by her dark thoughts anymore; if only it weren't for the scars that crossed her fur in some places. Her fur was black almost everywhere as he had suspected. In addition to her chin and ears, her belly and tips of her hind paws had white patches, too. In contrast, her tail and her front paws were perfectly black and shone like silk in the sunlight.
Everything about her fascinated the fox, who absent-minded watched each of her movements. Until now he never had had deeper feelings for a member of another species, but he suspected that this time, there was more.
Finally he let his powers drain away and the butterflies scattered over the meadow again. Ichira watched the animals for some time and then she dropped on the grass next to him. »Why did you tell the people at the farm that we had experienced all this together?« she asked directly. »You know me only since last night.«
Redfur thought about what to answer for a moment. »I wanted to tell them a nice story in return for their hospitality. And you must admit it would have sounded a bit monotonous if I would've spoken only about me.« He turned his head and looked into her eyes. »I hope you aren't angry with me.«
»No, I'm not. I was just a bit surprised. I didn't know exactly if I should correct you or not.« She smiled with mischief.
»And show them that I'm a liar, or what?« Redfur grinned, too.
She snorted with amusement. »Oh, well. Why should I do that? Those people were very nice to us and your story was - well, at least you didn't say something about me I would have needed to decline.« She turned her face to the sky and was silent for a moment. The thoughtful expression returned to her face and Redfur knew that the light-hearted moments had passed. »We should move on,« she said softly and rose. »Unless you want to stay here or take a different way.«
»Oh, as you know, I don't have a particular destination. And if you don't mind I would share some of the way with you. So we'll both have some company.« The fox stood up, too and looked around. »It's a pity to leave this peaceful spot so soon, though.«
She smiled. »I really don't want to drive you away from here, Redfur.«
»No problem,« he replied. He wouldn't let her go alone now for the world. »There surely are thousands of other places like this yet to be discovered.«
Together they returned to the path and continued their travel. Redfur realized sadly that Ichiras mood grew darker and more barred with every step. He remembered her vividly, laughing at the butterflies, remembered the nearly child-like expression in her eyes. Whatever it was that made her grief, he would do his best to take the burden off of her.
The path was snaking over the colorful meadow up to the edge of the forest that had constantly come nearer. The air was a bit cooler in the shadow of the dense growing trees and Redfur sighed with relief. A number of different fragrances entered his nose and he sniffed and examined them eagerly. It smelled of ferns, of mushrooms and of rotten leaves. But another scent mingled with the strong smells of nature; delicate and indifferent at first, then growing stronger as they moved on. Inconspicuously the fox glanced over to his companion and saw, that she had picked up the unusual scent, too. She had opened her mouth slightly and seemed to taste the reek - because reek it was, indeed. He had often seen this kind of perception with cats, but he never could reproduce it himself. »Do you smell it, too?« he finally asked.
»Ay,« she said, and her face grew even darker. »There's death in the air.« She started to quicken her pace and eventually started to run. Redfur kept up in surprise with her gracefully moving body. Even though she reached only up to his shoulder she could be surprisingly fast. Together they hurried on, ducked under overhanging branches and followed the winding curves of the path. Soon they had reached the edge of the forest and Ichira stopped dead in her tracks. Redfur went on a few steps more along the way before he stopped as well and saw, what had made her freeze.
The land before them descended softly and provided a good view of the surroundings. At the base of the hill, from which they were looking down now, they saw the ruins of a village. Black remnants of houses and other buildings made a sharp contrast to the opulent green of the meadow around it, like a rotting spot in the peel of an apple. Amongst it they could see something glitter here and there, probably shattered glass or tarnished metal. Although they could not see too much from this distance the level of destruction was more than obvious. Ichira had been right. There was nothing but death.
»Ichira? What do you think? Should we-«
»No. I ... We shouldn't go down there.« Deep consternation showed on her face.
»Probably we can find out what happened down there.« He looked down at the remnants of the village. »Maybe there's even someone who needs our help.«
»I don't know,« Ichira said. »I don't want to go down there. What good would it do?«
Redfur shrugged. »No idea. But it wouldn't do any harm either, would it? Who knows, maybe we discover-«
»Redfur, please,« she interrupted. »I don't want to go there.«
He looked at her in surprise, then he suddenly understood. »You come from here, don't you?« She nodded slowly. »I'm so sorry, Ichira. Not wonder you don't want to go there. Did you see, how ...« He pointed to the village.
»No,« she said weakly. »I was out hunting when the attack started. I heard the screams and the sound of fighting and ran back. From the edge of the wood, about where we are standing now, I watched them raid our village and drag away many of my tribe. Probably they killed some of them, too, at least those, who tried to defend themselves against them.« She lay back her ears and her fur started to bristle. »And I was hiding here and merely watched. Until one of their scouts finally spotted me. They attacked me; only barely I could get away.« Absent-minded she retraced the scar on her face with a claw. »I didn't see them burning the village down. Like a coward I had fled while many of my tribe have lost their lives down there! AY!« With a wild hiss she spun around and stroke a blow at a tree trunk with her paw, and the bark ripped into shreds where the needle sharp claws dug in.
»And what good would it have done if you had yourself get killed, too?« Redfur made a step towards her, but made sure to stay out of reach of the claws. »Believe me, you wouldn't have been able to prevent it. You wouldn't have had a chance against them, outnumbered like that.«
When she turned back to him her eyes showed so much grief that his heart started hurting. »Maybe I would've died, too,« she said bitterly. »But is it better to run away with the tail tucked in? Better than to fight for the life of my tribe?«
The initial rage about her weakness seemed to have passed, so he dared to move closer to her again and put one arm around her shoulder. »I understand your pain, even if I can't make it heal. But believe me: It is not a shame that you have saved your life. Now there's still a chance for you to do something for the survivors of your tribe.«
»I saw them, being driven forward by the lizards like cattle. It hurt so much, Redfur. It hurt so much.« Her last words were merely a whisper.
Carefully he pulled her close and she accepted the embrace, even responded to it. He felt her shaking all over while he held her in his arms. Her claws dug into his skin, pricking lightly, and he resisted the urge to wipe them away. While he spoke soft words of encouragement he held her slender body. Stroking her back, he felt her soft fur under his paws and wished there were better circumstances for the closeness they shared at the moment.
»I ... I'm sorry,« she murmured when she finally drew away from him.
He smiled. »Don't be. You encountered a very bad time and I'm happy when I can help you. What do you think? Maybe we should go to the village, nonetheless. Maybe we can find something that could be helpful to us and your tribe.«
She hesitated for a moment before she answered. »Ay. I think you're right. It's not good to run away from the truth. Let's go down there.«
They covered the distance down the hill much slower than they had gone the rest of the way before. Redfur walked next to Ichira, matching his pace with hers, stopped when she did and went on, when she was ready to. Obviously it cost her quite an effort to face the terrible view. But when they finally reached the edge of the expanse of ruins she woke from her lethargy and started to look around more carefully.
»This has been the hut of our healer. She was a very friendly female. I hope they didn't kill her. Or maybe I shouldn't - who knows what perils she would have to endure now.« She looked around with a gloomy face. »I still can't believe it. This had once been my home and all that's left now is a heap of debris.« She bent down, picked up one of the wreckage and threw it away angrily. »Why did those lizards do this? There was absolutely no reason for it! Our village has always been friendly.«
»Probably they weren't here because of a fight. Maybe they want the land or the possessions. What ever their motives may be, they obviously are ready to reach their goals by any means necessary.«
Ichira walked through the ruins and stopped in front of another charred heap. She crouched down and started to rummage through the remnants. »There's nothing left,« she said softly. »They took everything with them, just everything.«
»The house of your family?« Redfur asked and she nodded depressed. »Then it seems that your people are still alive. I don't think that the lizards would've stopped to ... Well, I'm sure you know, what I mean.« He scratched his neckfur in embarrassment.
»Yes, that's probably true,« she said. »But this doesn't make it easier, you know. I don't have any idea what might happen to them right now. That's nearly even harder than the thought that they could be dead.« She left the wreckage and went to the edge of the village. She discovered the tracks of many feet that had torn open the grass. The rain had washed away many of them but it was easy to see which way the lizards must have gone after the attack. »I won't leave my tribe alone a second time,« she said, and now her face grew hard with determination.
»But you can't just follow them right now,« Redfur spoke out his demurs. »They still outnumber us, and to chase after them would be plain suicidal.«
»I can't just stay here doing nothing!« she snarled at him. »My people need help and who knows how much more do, too. If I stayed here right now, I could just as well have died during their attack.«
Redfur knew he couldn't talk her out of her plan. The emotions living in her were too strong. »We could follow their tracks but an attack would be impossible. We need help.«
»Whatever. I won't let them go just like that.«
»I'd say we try to find out where they're hiding. As soon as we know that, we can still decide how we can get back at them.« Actually, Redfur didn't want to get involved with this too much, but this way he could at least make sure that she didn't run straight into her doom. But what would he do when she would still decide to attack the hiding place of the lizards?
»I know, you're right,« she finally said but her ears lay flat. »It just hurts so much, do you understand? It hurts to know that you can't do anything about it. It's just not right.«
Redfur carefully put an arm around her waist and she didn't resist his touch. »I understand your feelings. I believe, if I was in your place, I wouldn't wait to set off to give those dirty, hairless beasts a good kick into their scaly behind. But it's not the right time for that. Not before we've found some help.« Carefully he pulled her close and she lay her head against his breast. He felt her heartbeat and her warm breath on his fur. »Let's follow their tracks for now and find their hiding place, ay? Maybe something's coming up until then.«
She nodded down-hearted and looked up to him - deeply into his eyes. »Thank you, Redfur,« she said.
»For keeping me from doing something really foolish. Without you I certainly would already be-«
»You don't have to thank me,« he interrupted her with a soft voice. »Your life is worth too much to simply be discarded. I was only the one to tell you that.«
They stood at the edge of the destroyed village for some time. Then they turned to the tracks that went clearly visible through the grassy landscape. Sighing deeply Redfur adjusted his backpack on his shoulders and followed Ichira, who was already a few steps ahead. It was obvious that this cat would once lead him into serious trouble. He was just astonished about the fact that he would actually hazard the consequences without a doubt.
It took no special abilities to follow the track. It went as a clearly visible line over the grassy plain where a multitude of sharp claws had torn the soil apart. The lizards seemed to be certain about their supremacy, for they didn't take measures to keep themselves concealed. Their trail followed the edge of a forest in plain sight, crossed a narrow creek and continued in an almost straight line towards another forest. Some way behind it the first foothills of the mountains were visible. A bit on the side of their way they saw a farm and decided to ask the inhabitants about the lizards. But when they reached the main house they saw the door swinging loose in its hinges.
»Claws and teeth, they've been here already, too,« Ichira cursed and pointed at the tracks that covered the whole front yard of the farm. »Does anything make those bastards stop?«
»I wonder why they put up with so many captives.« Redfur cautiously looked around the destroyed door into the hallway behind it. Then he pulled at the brass handle and wedged himself in. A short search of the rooms revealed that the inhabitants had in fact been dragged away. They even took the supplies and probably some of the valuables.
»Maybe it's strange that they take so many with them,« Ichira said, when they left the farm to follow the track further. »But this way I can still hope to see my family again some day. And this is what really counts for me.«
»I know,« Redfur said. »But still, it's strange.«
They reached the edge of the wood in the late evening and entered the shadow of the trees. The lizards didn't take any measures to cover their tracks here, too, and so the two pursuers made good progress. Only when they grew slightly hungry they decided to find a suitable place to rest. Shortly afterwards they reached the shore of a lake that lay in the middle of the forest and stretched for about one or two miles. The setting sun cast its glowing-red rays onto the rippled surface of the water, spreading them into all directions. At this place they made camp and Redfur prepared his bow and a few arrows for hunting.
»I usually hunt without weapons,« Ichira said while she watched him working curiously.
»Did you ever shoot with a bow, anyway?« Redfur asked, busily equipping the arrows with feathers.
»No, not yet. But I'd like to try it.«
The fox smiled joyfully. »Ay, come with me, then. We will surely find one target or another, I'd bet.« He set up the bow string and went together with his companion into the dense forest. Silently they made their way through the undergrowth, always careful to avoid dry twigs and leaves. Lead by his distinct sense of smell and her hearing they soon spotted a hare digging around in the leaves with it's front paws. Without a sound Redfur reached the bow over to Ichira and guided her paws when she put an arrow on the string. She pulled back the arrow, drew the bow and aimed. Redfur watched the play of her muscles under her dark fur and the concentrated look in her eyes that only a cat was capable of showing so perfectly. Her whiskers vibrated with tension and then the arrow shot off. The hare only had time to startle and rise his ears when it was already hit by the deadly projectile. A short squeal, a last twitch of the hind legs, and then it lay still. Redfur was amazed: The arrow had penetrated the neck from one side to the other. Ichira seemed to wonder even more than himself. She kept looking back and forth between the bow and her victim while her tail was nervously twitching from side to side.
»Good shot,« the fox said eventually after he had regained his speech and took the bow out of her paw. »We should prepare the little fellow now or aren't you hungry anymore?«
»Yes, of course I am,« she finally said. »I'm just a bit surprised, that's all.« She went to the hare and pulled him up at the ears. »Ay! What a beauty! It'll be enough for us until tomorrow.«
Together they returned to their camp and prepared their evening meal. Redfur collected dry wood and started a bonfire while she was busy with her prey. Using her claws she smoothly cut the fur from the rest of the body and divided the meat into four pieces. She rolled two of them into the fur and put the other two on thin sticks. Redfur contributed some herbs from one of his bags; then they fried the meat over the fire.
Shortly afterwards they were satisfied, sat next to each other and looked at the clear water of the lake. The cool wind helped a little against the heat of the day before and Redfur was enjoying it visibly. Ichira on the other hand was shivering slightly and advanced a little to the fire. Meanwhile, the waves had calmed down a little, making the lake look like a giant, liquid mirror. The reflection of the moon and the stars on its surface gave the impression of a second sky at their feet.
Ichira had huddled herself into Redfur's blanket again and looked into the fire. Her thoughts had wandered back to her family again, the fox presumed. The dark face blurred in the flickering light of the flames into a black area, interrupted by dancing sparks where the whiskers and her fur reflected its light. Only her eyes were constantly visible and glowed like two embers in a cooling bowl. Above them sometimes an illuminated spot was visible, depending on how she turned her head. It was not until when she looked at him and drew her paw over it that he realized, that he had been staring. »Ay! I'm sorry,« he said. »I didn't want to offend you.«
»It's all right,« she said softly. »I don't mind.«
»What happened? I mean, the spot on your forehead. It looks like your fur had been shaved there.«
She put on a half-hearted smile. »Actually, that's not far from the truth,« she said. »Our tribe has a custom to wear a tribal token woven into the fur of your forehead, depending on status and family. To make it fit better some of the fur has to be cut away. Mine was a green stone, held by a wire frame made of brass. During my struggle against the lizards one of them ripped it off. Probably they thought it was valuable. But you can find these stones nearly everywhere in this area.« She spoke with a calm voice but Redfur sensed her tension. Probably she was more upset over the loss of this trinket than she wanted to admit. It would have been the last reminder of the village and her tribe.
»All of you have been wearing such a token?«
»Well, all who have passed the sixth sun, ay,« she explained. »I belonged to the hunters, so I got a green stone. And the token of my family was the circle. So the stone was ground into that shape. When you choose a mate or change your profession your token mostly will be changed, too, but this isn't really necessary. In a small village like ours everybody knows, who and what you are, anyway. However, it's still a special event when you receive your token.«
»A nice custom,« Redfur said. »I would have loved to see how the stone would match to your fur. It must've been beautiful.«
Ichira waved the remark aside with a smile. »A translucent, green pebble, nothing more,« she said. Redfur said nothing but just looked into her eyes, smiling. She returned his gaze and then slowly shook her head. Her voice grew gentle. »You really are a strange fox.«
»Oh? What makes you say that?« he asked in mock protest.
»I'm wondering why you're going with me, anyway. It was not your people who were captured by the lizards, and yet you help me.«
»How couldn't I? Those beasts committed a big mischief, and I just can't look away and continue my travel. As long as nobody stops them they'll keep on and put even more innocent people into slavery.«
She cocked her head a bit and smiled. »But this alone isn't the only reason, ay?«
Redfur turned away in embarrassment. »No,« he finally said. »I must admit that I have another reason to travel with you. I greatly appreciate your company and I don't want something happening to you.« His look went back to the shadow that actually was her face. »I hope this doesn't sound too silly.«
»No, it doesn't. I do like you myself, too, Redfur. I only hope our paths won't divide too soon.« She leaned back and closed her eyes. »Good night, friend fox.«
»Good night, Ichira.«
Silently he sat at the fire and looked into the small, dancing flames. His thoughts were tumbling over each other, while he pondered over her words. She had said, that she liked him. But why did she fear a separation? Would she want to leave him? But if she liked him - or wasn't this what she had meant? Maybe she just liked him for what he had done for her, nothing more. Or was she afraid to feel more? While he was asking this questions in his mind over and over again he watched her breathing softly and steadily. Well, at least he was sure, that he liked her more than every person he had met on his journeys before. But what would he do when she wasn't sharing his emotions? Could he take that? Could he live with that?
»Life is moody like the weather,« his father had told him once. »You never know what it would perpetrate next, whom to give sunshine and whom rain. Some only hear the distant thunder, others get struck by lightning.« Love - was it this what he was feeling for her? Ay, he guessed strongly, that it was.
Ichira stirred in her sleep and murmured something incomprehensible. Her flews drew back and revealed a row of strong teeth. A deep growl came out of her throat while her eyes shot to one side and another behind the shut lids. The tips of her paws twitched.
Darkness, screams and shouting. Fleeing from the evil creatures. Her legs carry her as fast as they can through the reluctant fern, rising at man's height before her. The thin rods pull at her fur, trying to hold her back. Determinedly she fights to move on but a shadow appears in front of her. She draws back with a scream when she looks into the cold, unmoving eyes. Only a heartbeat later she feels strong paws grabbing her from behind and holding her in place. Cold lizard scales push into her back, a clawed paw rises. She tries to break herself free but she is too weak. The claws come down, a ripping on her face - on her forehead. Howling with pain she kicks and strikes at her attackers, but they won't let her go. More blows and pain are raining down at her - the smell of warm blood fills her nostrils. Cold, penetrating stares seem to impale her right to the soul, and she screams - screams ...
Ichira sat up with a jerk and opened her eyes. Her claws were extended and a loud hissing came out of her mouth. Redfur tried to keep her claws away from his fur and get her back into reality at the same time. »Ay! Ichira! Wake up! It's only a dream!«
With a wild look she tossed her head to both sides, her fur bristled and her ears lay completely flat. But slowly she seemed to realize where she was. She recognized the fox and lay back again.
»Are you all right?« Redfur asked, gently stroking her forehead.
She nodded. »What a nightmare! I was back in the forest and the lizards were chasing me. This time there was no escape for me ...« She sighed deeply. »I'm sorry if I scared you.«
»Don't worry,« he said. »Do you think you can go back to sleep again?«
She nodded. »Ay. I think, I can.« She sat up halfway and quickly licked his cheek with her rough tongue. Then she let herself slide back again. »Good night.«
»Yes. Sleep well.« He bent down a bit towards her but then rose with a jerk and took his coat from his backpack. Then he spread the sturdy leather on the floor next to her blanket and lay down, too. He still felt the cool wetness on his cheek, contrary to the warmth that was spreading inside of him. But despite his troubled feelings he managed it to go to sleep soon.
Michiki opened his eyes. The air around him smelled stale and his muscles were still hurting from last day's exertions. His simple pallet on the hard stone floor wasn't doing anything to help his stiff limbs to recover. But he nearly had gotten used to that by now. The others were mostly still sleeping and he stayed quiet so he wouldn't disturb the rest they got only all too rarely. Silently he sat up and turned his head around on his neck to loosen the tenseness at least a bit. His stomach called him again, too, but that had to wait until they would get something to eat again the next time.
Without a sound the ferret stood up and went through the sleeping bodies to the big water trough. He filled a bowl with the cool, stale wetness and tasted it with swift movements of his tongue. With a shrug he decided that it was drinkable and took a deep swig. Then he put the bowl aside and went back to his pallet to rest for a few minutes more. The guards could come in any moment now and send them to work, so he wanted to make use of all time possible to give his body a rest.
A rattling cough came from a dark corner of the room. That probably was Verrin, one of the oldest captives in this group. When Michiki had been brought here the dog had already looked very weak and sick. He was surprised how much strength and will to survive was left in those old bones. But slowly the reserves seemed to run dry. Michiki had seen several dying down here and he was afraid that Verrin would be next.
The ferret looked around among the sleeping prisoners. All of them were underfed and their fur was dirty and dull. Some of them had grown strong and hard by the work, but others were haggard and just kept themselves up with much effort and fear for death. This group was only for those who had revolted or fought heavily against their captivity. Michiki had not, but he wasn't appointed for the hard work; even the lizards knew that a cub, barely counting twelve suns, couldn't do too much physical work, anyway. He belonged to the suppliers.
The rest went over far too quickly. Suddenly there was a rattling at the steel grid door at the other side of the room and one of the guards entered. »Get up to work!« the lizard shouted mercilessly loud. In the meantime he was knocking his spear against the shield at his side to wake up the workers. One after another the prisoners woke and rose unwillingly. The guard waited until all were up. »Stand in line and follow me. Supplier!« he called and Michiki went over to him to claim his place directly behind him. The others gathered up in an untidy queue and followed the guard who was leading them through the tunnels to their working place.
When they reached the big cave Michiki instantly went to the water kettle and started to fill the two buckets standing next to it. The giant room was lit by countless torches, casting ghostly shadows on the dark walls in their flickering light. Every worker of his group took a pickax or a shovel from the heap in the middle and went to the place where the ore was being extracted at the moment. Other groups were already here and operated the bellows of the melting furnaces or hauled the cast metal bars into lorries that were pulled away from yet others. Lizard guards were standing everywhere, armed with spear and shield while messengers and runners were waiting at the entrances for news or were ready to pass on alerts to the soldiers outside the labor camp.
Michiki had filled his buckets, hooked them to both sides of the yoke and lifted it up on his shoulders. He moaned a little for the weight and then straightened himself. His abused muscled protested but he clenched his teeth. Slowly he took the first steps and started to walk on. It only took a little time for him to get used to the weight of the buckets again. Carrying his load he went from one working place to another and handed out water to those who needed it and cleaned the occasional wound. Every now and then he talked a bit to the workers but he made sure not to stay too long in one place. He had run into problems with the guards too often for that reason and a blow with the blunt side of a spear was the least he could expect for this.
Sometimes one of the other suppliers crossed his path, carrying bread. He accepted a small slice and chewed long with every bite while he made his round. As he had expected his bowls were empty when he had visited the smelters. So he made a beeline back to the water tank and refilled the buckets. He had just finished when he heard heavy steps behind him. Startled he turned around.
»Take your buckets and follow me,« the lizard guard instructed him roughly. »There's work to do for you.« Without another word he turned around and trudged forward.
Michiki hurriedly lifted up the yoke again to follow the lizard, who was aiming directly at one of the cave's exits. They followed a tunnel and quickly reached another cave, that Michiki already had been in before. When they stopped he panted under the weight of the yoke and put down the buckets.
Before him in the cave he saw what he already had expected. A group of newcomers huddled themselves together, exhausted and frightened. They all were cats, probably a tribe whose village had fallen prey to the lizards. They seemed to have just arrived; most of them breathed heavily and they still wore the iron leg manacles binding them to a long chain. The guard made a gesture, so Michiki took one of the buckets and a scoop and went over to the captives. »Here is water,« he repeated, when he reached one of them. »Take a sip and stay calm, then it won't become worse than necessary.« He went from one to another until his bucket had become dry. Then he walked back to get the second one.
While he cared for the rest of the captives and constantly murmured his small speech his gaze fell on one of the males. He was unusually tall and his face was proud. To him, he repeated his well-meaning words, too, but all he got back was a disdainful snort. When he just started to go on the cat held him back at his wrist. »Ay! I can't stay,« Michiki said. »The guard'll get impatient.« He freed himself gently but firmly and went on. But he kept an eye on the tall cat, who was also watching him. He was certain that this one meant trouble - he knew the look on this face; many of those who now labored in his group had come here with this look before.
»You are finished,« the guard said and turned to Michiki. »Go back to your work.«
The ferret took his equipment and left the group of newcomers. Soon he was back in the labor cave where the first calls for water already came up again. So he refilled his buckets again to water the thirsty mouths and overheated bodies.
About one or two hours later - who could tell the flow of time exactly in this dullness - he saw the cat again the first time. He was accompanied by two guards and let to the lorries. There was a quick exchange between the escort and the supervisor, and finally they left him there. When Michiki looked over the next time he was already busy hauling the heavy metal bars into the trolley. The ferret could tell from the look on his face that he was steaming with rage but fortunately he held back his emotions.
Suddenly an explosion shocked the room. Calls for help were audible from the workers at the melt. The entire rear region of the cave was filled with thick clouds of steam and the guards were already running towards it. One of them grabbed Michiki's arm and dragged him along. The ferret was struggling not to drop his load, but kept up. Out of the corner of his eye he just saw some of the other captives running to the scene of the accident. The fume wrapped around them, made their eyes water and breathing became a tedious task. Michiki dipped one of his cloths into the water and bound it before his muzzle. Then he started to save the workers from the endangered zone, together with the others. It seemed that one of the melting pots had ripped from its hinges and fallen over. The content had poured into the furnace that had blown up on the impact. The reek of burned fur was everywhere and the wounded screamed for help.
When the ferret came out of the misty range again, supporting one of the injured people, he saw some workers from the hauling zone messing with the equipment for the miners. One of the guards was hit from behind while another was struck down with a blow from a pickax. The big cat was amongst the rebels, he bent over one of the helpless lizards and took his spear. The claws of the other paw were extended, his ears lay flat and the flews exposed a noble set of teeth. A few seconds later additional guards were arriving to oppose the insurrectionists. Petrified Michiki stared at the fighters. The cat took two guards down before he was grabbed and pinned to the floor. A powerful blow from a studded boot hit him in the face and he sagged down limply. The other rebels were disarmed and marched off quickly. Three of the guards remained and summoned around the cat who obviously had started the riot. One of them grabbed his fur at his forehead and yanked his head up - no reaction. Then they grabbed him and pulled him away.
Michiki still stood motionlessly at the place, where he had witnessed the struggle, when he was startled by a movement behind him. He turned around and looked into the angry face of one of the guards. His armor was covered with soot and had lost all its sheen.
»You!« the guard called up to him. »Don't stand and stare, go and get water and cloths, as much as you can carry.«
Without further hesitation the ferret turned around and ran with his bucket to the water reservoir. He couldn't do anything for the cat anyway at the moment; he only hoped he had survived the treatment. Right now the wounded were more important. So he got water and snatched a pile of dirty cloth rags. With this load he went back to the melt where the steam had drawn away a little through the high chimney.
The rest of this working day was all around tending the injuries. Many workers lost some fur, there were two broken bones and even one of the smelter had died during the accident. Michiki helped as good as he could - it happened quite often that someone hurt himself on the job, so he was quite skilled caring for wounds, but there had never been an incident like this. More than once he had to go back and get fresh water and more cloth. But finally he was done and the clean up could start. His day was over, though. He was led back to his quarter together with the rest of his group. Most of them didn't bother with other things but just fell onto their stained pallets in exhaustion to rest until the next morning. Another hard day had come to an end.
Michiki wasn't worn out as badly as usual. He did find enough time to rest and so he was wide awake, when the guards unexpectedly opened the grid door. In the weak glow of the torches he could see two lizards dragging a third figure with them. The motionless body was dropped onto an unused pallet and the guards retreated again - they murmured something in their own, hissing language, now and again interrupted by throaty laughter.
When the lizards were gone the ferret sat up and curiously glanced over to the slumped shape. Then he rose, went to the water trough and filled the bowl. Taking cautious steps he carried the water through the room and knelt down next to the body. Carefully he put down the bowl and touched the shoulder of the cat, he had just been able to recognize. The only sign of life was a small flinch running through the body. Warily Michiki led his paw along the fur on the shoulder to the head and pushed it under the chin.
Suddenly the cat spun around, grabbed the surprised ferret and threw him to the ground. Michiki squeaked panting and his eyes widened in panic when he saw the hatefully distorted grimace of the other. Sharp claws dug into his throat. »Please don't!« he brought out moaning. »I want to help you! Believe me!«
During the next seconds Michiki did even dare to breathe. When the cat let go of him eventually he stayed on the floor for a few heartbeats before sitting up slowly. Then he saw that the cat was looking at him in confusion. »I'm sorry,« he said with a deep, rough voice. »I didn't want to scare you.«
»Never mind,« the ferret said and wiped the worst of the dirt out of his fur. »I thought you might be thirsty.« He looked over to the tin bowl, it's contents spilled out on the floor during the attack of the cat. »Wait, I'll go and get you some water.« He rose and went back to the water trough while he unconsciously scratched his neck. With his refilled bowl he went back and gave the water to the big cat. He emptied the bowl with deep swigs. Michiki watched him. His body showed a number of fresh wounds, the lizards had punished him for his rebellion brutally. His face didn't look any better; he had lost much fur and in the middle of his forehead was a circular, hairless patch. But then he remembered that he had seen this mark before.
»Thank you, my friend,« he said and gave back the bowl.
»Ay.« Michiki put the bowl on the ground. »Don't mention it. They really battered you all right.« The cat only growled. »Sayh. I'm Michiki. What's your name?«
»Pcherro. Sayh.« He lay back and made a face in pain. »Claws and teeth! Those damned lizards broke every bone in my body.«
»It's a pity I don't have any cloths with me, otherwise I would put some nice bandages on you.« Michiki grinned. »Anyway, you look awful.«
»You really have a way to encourage people. Believe me: If I ever get one of them between my claws-«
»You'd better leave them alone then,« Michiki interrupted quickly. »You already know what they do to you, when they're upset. Unfortunately they have the whip hand here.« The ferret was silent for a moment and then decided to put the cat off of his suicidal plans. »Where do you come from?« he finally asked. »How did the lizards capture you?«
»I don't know if I want to talk about that,« Pcherro growled softly.
Michiki shrugged. »Maybe it does help you a little,« he suggested. »I always feel bad, too, when I think of home, but somehow it helps, nonetheless. Don't you want to try, anyway?«
»It doesn't matter where I come from, does it? I probably will rot in this hole anyway.«
Michiki didn't answer. There was no escape, he knew that just as well as the cat did. But to admit it would mean to give up his life. And he didn't want that. He still had the hope that some day something would change and they would be rescued. Until then he wanted to protect his fur as good as possible.
»I grew up in a small village near Shadowcreek town,« Pcherro suddenly started talking. »It wasn't more than a small group of huts, where our tribe had settled down. We made our living mostly by hunting and trading with the surrounding towns. My family belonged to the hunters; Father, mother and my sister, all of us wore the token of the hunters.« With this words he drew his paw over the bald spot on his forehead. »They took them away from us; probably they thought, they were worth something. But they are only made of some metal and colored pebbles.« He laughed softly, as if he was pleased with their mistake. »When the lizards finally came we were nearly helpless. Our tribe had always been peaceful and so we didn't have any real weapons. Of course we fought against them, and some of us nearly escaped. But finally they got all of us under control or killed them. Just like they killed my sister.«
»Were you with her, when they ...« Michiki paused, unsure how to ask the question.
»No,« Pcherro said. »But I'm sure she didn't survive. Otherwise she would be here with the others.« His face turned into mourn. »Who knows. Maybe it's better for her,« he whispered, nearly inaudible.
»What if she ran away? Maybe she did escape the lizards.«
The cat shook his head. »I nearly made it myself. Up to the edge of the wood I fled. I found her tribal token there, lying in the leaves. They must've gotten her there, because you can't just lose your token. It's woven tightly into the pelt of the forehead.« He pointed with his paw to the respective spot. The rims of the patch were ragged unevenly. »You probably can imagine how I felt when I held the token in my paw. That's why they managed it to overwhelm me up there. They drove us through the land for five days, up to here. You know the rest.«
Michiki nodded. »You shouldn't have attacked the guards,« he finally said. »You'd been better off at the lorries. All you get here is hard work.«
Pcherro shrugged. »What worse could be happening to me? My entire tribe is in the grasp of the lizards, my dear sister lost her life and I will probably go into the Eternal Forests myself soon.«
Michiki's heart broke at the sight of the shattered strong cat, bursting with power just a few minutes ago. »If you ask me, the Eternal Forests can wait just a bit longer. Some day we will find a way out of here. Even if it doesn't look like it at the moment.«
The cat slapped the ferret a playfully with his paw. »Ay! If you say so.« And then a small smile showed on his face. »But before that we should take a rest. I believe we will need it.«
Michiki nodded with a smile. »So, sleep well. And remember not to threaten the guards. They won't let you get away that easily the next time.« He returned the look of the cat that was now dark again and then went back to his pallet. Most of the other captives were already asleep as he presumed by their steady breathing. The ferret hoped that they wouldn't get them back to work too soon.
Of course, this hope was nothing more than a wish. It seemed as if he just had closed his eyes when they were roused again. The morning routine started and Michiki realized that the guards always kept an eye on Pcherro. Fortunately he stayed calm and didn't give the lizards a reason to get at him again. On his patrol with the water buckets he exchanged some words with the cat, who seemed to have overcome his melancholy for the moment.
Redfur sniffed the warm morning air. The only smells that reached his nose were the water of the lake, the dead fire and the scent of the plants of the nearby forest. Nothing alarming, he decided and turned around. Ichira was still asleep, her slender body lay sprawled under his blanket that rose and fell with the rhythm of her breathing. Every now and then she stirred in her sleep; her graceful movements fascinating him anew. Occasionally a deep growl came out of her throat but she didn't seem to be haunted by bad dreams this time. A leaf from a tree had settled on her shoulder and Redfur removed it gingerly. Absent-minded he plucked at the delicate shape while he watched his companion in the light of the new day.
His thoughts wandered back to the last evening. Involuntarily he let his paw slide over his cheek. It seemed like he was still feeling the soft contact of her tongue where it had touched him. She had said that she liked him. Well, he liked her, too, so to speak. He still wasn't exactly sure about his own feelings, but it was certain that he wouldn't leave her on his own free will too soon.
He looked at the ragged leaf in his paws. Its irregular shape reminded him of his own emotions. He threw the leaf into the ashes of the bonfire and rose silently. A soft breeze blew from the lake around his body while he was watching the smooth surface. The day promised to become hot again, for the air had already heated up noticeably. Redfur made a few steps top the lake and stopped at the waterside. The cool water played around his hind paws; the morning heat hadn't made it to heat up the water too much yet. Without hesitation he tensed his body and took a leap.
Ichira woke when a loud sound reached her ears. Startled she sat up, tossing the blanket aside. The water of the lake near their camp was rippling and Redfur was nowhere to be seen. But suddenly his head emerged sputtering, well ten steps from the shore. »Redfur!« she called anxiously and ran to the waterline. »What happened? Do you need help?« Her face showed apprehension.
»Good morning, Ichira! Sayh!« the fox called back while paddling towards the bank. »Not at all. It's fantastic in here. So? You want to come for a swim, too?«
»Come for what?« she asked in bewilderment. It was clearly visible how absurd this idea seemed to her.
»Don't you ever go into the water?« Redfur asked while he came out of the lake to his hips. »To swim, I mean.«
»Not if I can avoid it.« Ichira jumped back when one of the waves the fox had caused, touched her paws. »Just look at you! You are soaking wet.« With rapid motions she tossed the annoying drops from her fur.
Redfur grinned. »Ay! Of course I am. It's water, remember?« He waded to the shore and stopped in front of her, breathing heavily. »Now, come on. It's nicely cool.«
»So that I'd look like you afterwards? Forget it!« Ichira snorted in amusement when she looked at the fox in his drenched fur. »I'd better get the fire going again. You'll need it.«
»I'll be drying in the sun. But go ahead, we can warm up yesterday's roast hare.« He jumped and splashed into the water a few steps backwards.
»Yuck!« Ichira shook her head and made a face before she went to the bonfire. Soon she had rekindled the flames. She tried to ignore the frolicsome splashing of the fox in the lake while she unwrapped the two pieces of meat from the fur of the hare and put them on sticks. Then she looked for the leaves of tea in Redfur's bags and scooped some water from the lake. The fox had put himself on his back by then and floated as good as possible. Playfully he shot a handful of water into the air and let it patter down on him. When he finally came out of the lake the meat and the tea already were ready.
Dripping Redfur sat down at the fire and smiled at Ichira who still stared at him in disbelief. Then he reached for the mug and lifted it to his lips. The scent of the tea entered his nostrils and he inhaled deeply. »Thank you for the fire and the tea,« he said and took a sip. »Ay! That's nice!«
Ichira gave him one of the sticks bearing the sizzling meat of the hare. Redfur took it and brushed against the fur of her paw. A warm shiver ran down his back when he transformed the unintended touch into a quick movement of his paw to grip the stick. For a short time they both held on to the stick and Redfur thought she must have been able to hear his heartbeat, so loud did it pound beneath his still damp fur. Finally she let go and sat back gain. If she had felt something in this situation, too, she didn't let it show on her face.
The fox mumbled, »Thank you,« and nibbled absent-minded at his share of meat. All the time he looked for her eyes and tried to find out, what she was thinking. But the face of a cat was harder to read than that of every other species and Ichira seemed to me a true master in disguising her inner self. He wondered if she knew, what kind of feelings she was starting in him and just didn't show it, or if she just didn't realize, how confused he was. So Redfur had no choice but to continue his meal - he didn't taste anything, anyway - bite by bite and to try to control the shaking of his paws.
They barely had finished their breakfast when Ichira was already breaking down the camp. She poured the rest of the water over the bonfire and rolled up her blanket, before Redfur had the time to come to his feet. »Take it easy!,« he said when he packed together his belongings. »What's the hurry?«
»We shouldn't waste too much time. I'd never forgive me when I'd put the life of one of my tribe's people in danger because of that.«
»But my fur isn't dry yet,« the fox complained but got himself ready for the walk, nonetheless. »Besides, we couldn't possibly lose that trail.«
A few minutes later they were back on their way to the place where they had interrupted the pursuit. Redfur had been right, of course; the track was as clearly visible as it had been the day before. So they followed the fresh trail through the forest without exchanging another word. Ichira concentrated completely on finding the way forward while Redfur was absorbed in his troubled thoughts. For one, he enjoyed traveling through the forest with her, but on the other paw he constantly thought about her words; he still hadn't deciphered their meaning to his satisfaction. His gaze repeatedly fell onto her slender back while she walked ahead. The play of the muscles under her night-like black fur and the twitching of her tail fascinated him so much that he tripped more than once over protruding roots. Thus he only realized very late that they had reached the edge of the forest.
The track turned to the left here to lead on at the side of the trees. To their right they could overlook an open field, blending into an extensive hilly landscape at the horizon. They followed the trail, still silently. Redfur tried hard to think about something to talk about, but he couldn't find anything. Ay! He, the eloquent globetrotter, never at a loss for a chat before, was completely tongue-tied. If someone had told him so only a week before, he would have probably burst out with laughter. Ichira didn't seem to notice that. Her look was still glued to the track before her and her pace was hurried. But suddenly she stopped and reached with her arm for him. She grabbed his shoulder and held him back. Only a moment later several figures broke out from the shrubs to their left onto the path.
Redfur and Ichira retreated a step when the three persons lined up before them next to each other. In the middle stood a gray-furred wolf, carrying a cocked crossbow. At his side waited the slender form of a female lynx. She had a bow and had put an arrow loosely on the string. On the other side towered the tall shape of a brown bear, his sword was drawn and he stared at them out of his left eye. The right eye socket was empty; a deep scar ran from the temple over it across the entire face and down to the throat of the big figure. When Redfur saw the bear he started to shake all over and a cold shiver ran down his back. He remembered his time as a cub in the ice lands when creatures like this - although with white fur - had been after him and his family. At that time the bears had seemed to be huge but compared to this giant they were merely ridiculously small.
Ichira regained her voice quite quickly. She had extended her claws, folded back her ears and ducked to an attack but slowly she started to relax. »What do you want from us?« she hissed softly.
The wolf gestured to his fellows and they put down their weapons. »Sayh, strangers. My name is Hakir. These are my companions Velena« - he pointed to the lynx female - »and Zid. We didn't want to scare you.« He looked around briefly and waved at the torn soil at his feet. »Is this the trail the lizards left?«
Ichira didn't answer, so Redfur rose to speak. »What do you know about the lizards?«
»We followed them for some time,« the wolf answered. With a short sideways glance at Zid he continued, »Unfortunately we lost their track during the thunderstorm two nights ago.«
The bear growled something and Redfur flinched involuntarily. Obviously there was something between them both that had led to displeasure. »We are following their track only for a short time now,« the fox said. »The lizards have raided and burnt down the village of my companion. Now we are trying to find a way to fight back. But as you can see« - he pointed at himself and Ichira - »we are not strong enough to oppose them.« While he spoke he constantly watched Zid.
»So it seems we have the same goal,« Hakir said. »I presume, even ten times the amount of us wouldn't have a chance against the lizards. We will have to find another way to defeat those beasts. And I also believe that together we will have better hope for success than wandering on alone.«
»You mean we should join you?« Ichira asked. »Although we just barely have met?« Redfur nodded affirmatively, still keeping an eye on the bear.
»We are looking for a way to get rid of the danger for our land and bring the captives back, just like you.« Velena spoke for the first time. Her voice was gentle and low, pronouncing thoroughly and clearly articulating every single word. You could tell instantly that she was accustomed to use her voice. »It would be an advantage to all of us if we would help each other. We all have our merits and flaws, all the better when we become more. So we can add our strong points and even out our weaknesses better.« While she spoke she looked at Redfur and Ichira with her green, inscrutable eyes. They spoke of wisdom and a certain wariness, but that seemed appropriate in the current situation.
»I'd like to have a few words in private with my companion,« the fox said.
»But make it short.« The wolf looked at him with a warning. »We won't wait for too long. The lizards have too much of a head start anyway.«
Redfur nodded and hinted a bow. Then he took Ichira aside and made a few steps away from the group. When they were beyond earshot he stopped. »What do you think about it?«
Ichira looked back to the three figures that were now examining the tracks on the floor. »I'm not quite sure. Obviously they are after the same enemy as we are and every opponent of our enemy should be our ally. But this group seems to be very strange, though.«
»I agree with you,« Redfur replied thoughtfully. »This Velena is a curious person. I'm sure she does possess - you know - certain powers. You could see that clearly in her eyes.« Actually, the fox hat sensed a power that was very similar to his own. But he didn't want to show his abilities by now.
»How do you know that?« Ichira seemed to be surprised.
»I met a lot of persons like that on my journeys,« the fox sad quickly. »You develop a sense for this sometime, you know.« He was silent for a moment, pondering. »What should we do? Go on alone or join them?«
The cat turned her head to the three wanderers that were now looking back at them, too. They seemed to get impatient. »I think we should get together. We are going in the same direction, so we are bound to meet time and time again, anyway. So I'd rather know where they are. But somehow I don't think they would want to harm us. They did have enough possibilities to do that before.«
»That's right, of course.« Redfur looked over to the tall bear, whose shape still sent a shiver down his back. Then he sighed and nodded to Ichira. »So let us go, Milady,« he said politely, made an inviting movement and started walking.
Hakir waited for them to return. »So, how did you decide?« he asked. »Are you coming with us or not?«
»We think, Velena is right. Our groups should join their strengths. If you don't object, we will join you.« Redfur glanced warily to Zid, but the bear didn't seem to pay much attention to the talk.
»So be it, then.« The wolf slapped his paws together. »Welcome, travelers.« Velena bowed before the two.
»They call me Redfur,« the fox said, when they continued to follow the tracks. »And this is Ichira.«
The wolf nodded at them friendly and turned to the fox. »Redfur? How did you get this name? I thought, the red pelt was common with your race.«
Redfur sighed in amusement. How often had he been asked this question now? But because Ichira seemed to be interested, too, he hurried to answer. »Well, I'm not the kind of fox most people take me for. Originally I come from high in the north, far beyond the warm realms here. Many of my kind are living there, but they usually wear white fur to make them harder to see in the snow covered land. Only the short two moons of summer allows the dark fur beneath it to show through. Yet, nature provided me with red pelt that doesn't pale much even in the winter. For one it is quite amusing to be the only red snow fox, but on the other side it comes with a lot of problems. So I went away from there. I fit better here, although the temperatures still get to me sometimes.« To make his words clear he took some of is belly fur between two fingers and tugged at it gently. It was much more dense than that of the other group members. »My family finally gave me the name Redfur. It probably was meant as a jest but I got used to it somehow.«
»So you do have another name?« Hakir asked.
Redfur nodded. »But I didn't use it for a long time now.«
»A beautiful yet sad story, friend fox,« Velena said. »I am surprised that the nature acts so unconventionally. Maybe fate has something special in mind for you.«
»I'd be grateful if we could find a way to stop the lizards.«
»Then let's make sure that we find the source of these tracks soon,« Hakir said and pointed at the torn soil. »And keep watching for possible scouts or ambushes.«
So the five travelers kept following the track of the lizards. The landscape around them didn't change much. Open fields and meadows alternated with dense forests, every now and then interrupted by a small creek or pond. By noon they rested at a place where the trail met a narrow field path and crossed it. They ate a little from their supplies and rested in the warming sun. Redfur lay on his back and enjoyed the soft touch of the wind on his fur. Ichira had made herself comfortable near him and examined the bow and arrows she had gotten from Redfur. Ahead - about half a mile away - there was a dense forest, and the trail seemed to lead there. Hakir had suggested that they should prepare themselves for a possible confrontation, for it would have been easy to ambush them unseen.
Velena and Hakir checked their weapons, too, while Zid contented himself with oiling his sword a bit. Redfur had found a long staff that he had freed of its bark and protruding knots while they had wandered. He wasn't very good with blades anyway, and he had to admit that Ichira was a better archer than him. Whether or not she stayed as unerring when they were attacked for real still had to be proved.
While the fox enjoyed the rest he felt a movement at his side and opened his eyes. Hakir had sat down in the grass next to him. »Sayh, friend wolf,« he said friendly and propped up his head on his paw. »Did you decide yet when we should go on?«
»No, but we shouldn't wait too long, anymore. We all have rested and are in good condition.« There was a slight undertone in his voice that made Redfur think, Hakir wasn't really sure about this.
»You seem to have doubts,« the fox said softly. »What is bothering you?«
Hakir snorted softly. »Well, it is a risk to enter this forest. We are only five, after all, and we all know what superiority the lizards can bring up if they want to. If there only was another way to follow the tracks ...« He stared at his paws he had folded in his lap.
»You think they left sentries in case they were followed? It seems unlikely, considering how superior they felt to us before. They probably wouldn't believe that someone would dare to tail after them. And if we really meet them we'll have to fight.« Even though he stayed completely calm on the outside his last sentence sent a shiver down his back. »We should hope for the best.«
»I hear you.« The wolf sighed deeply. »Hope is what's driving us. I only have the fear that I can't live up to the trust Velena and Zid put in me. Do you understand? I was the one to make them start to fight the lizards.« He looked up to meet the fox's eyes. »They follow me, and I can't give them anything to hold on to.«
»I think, if it comes to the worst, they can care for themselves perfectly well, if you ask me.« He waved to Zid who had squatted down and was looking around warily. »Who would dare to oppose a giant like him?«
The wolf followed the gaze of the fox and laughed bitterly. »Don't let yourself be fooled by his size, Redfur. Zid in fact is not as courageous as he looks. I think he is only with us because there's nobody he can turn to, since his tribe does not longer exist. The other day he had ran away in the night during the thunderstorm and it took us half of the night to find him. When we finally could convince him to follow us to a dry shelter we were soaked to the skin. With every bolt of lightning he flinched as if he was a lost cub. Thanks to the Eternal Guardian we didn't wake up with a cold.«
Redfur's eyes grew wider while the wolf talked. A bear was afraid of thunderstorms? He was trying to visualize this thought, but he could not. »It's hard to believe that, Hakir.«
»But yet it's true,« the wolf replied. »Don't brng up the subject in front of him, though. He reacts very touchy when you remind him of his weaknesses.«
»Don't worry, I won't.«
Hakir smiled. »We should get going, then. The sooner we reach the forest, the longer we will still have daylight as an ally.« He got up and started to mobilize the rest of the group.
Soon they were on their way again, next to the broad track of the lizards and their captives. A short time later they entered the dense forest. The aisle that their predecessors had left made it fairly easy to follow their way. To both sides of the trail the forest floor was opulently covered with shrubs and ferns that would have slowed down their pace considerably. Redfur went next to Ichira who was holding her bow before her, ready to shoot. Hakir still led the group, while Velena stayed at his side and Zid brought up the rear. The fox felt very uncomfortable at the thought to have a bear with a sword directly behind him, but he couldn't possibly say that aloud. So he trudged on and tried not to think about it.
The setting didn't change until evening. Every now and then they found objects that were cast away or lost, all of them worthless baubles, probably sorted out and left by the lizards to lessen the load. Finally they agreed to make camp for the night. During the whole time they didn't find any sign of a possible ambush or prosecution, so they decided that a fire couldn't do any harm. While Ichira and Redfur cared for firewood Hakir and Zid started a mock battle with sticks instead of swords. When they came back to the camp with their arms full, the two of them were involved in a wrestling match, that Zid seemed to be winning. The two wood-collectors dropped their burden in the middle of the camp where Velena had already set up a circle of stones to contain the fire. They stacked the sticks and twigs to a proper heap and a few moments later they had started a cozy fire. Then they turned back to the fighters.
»I bet Zid could throw Hakir over with one hurl if he wanted to,« Redfur said. »He is much heavier than the wolf.«
»It's not only speed and strength,« Ichira replied. »It also depends heavily on mobility and speed.«
Redfur looked at her. »This sounds as if you've got experience with that. I thought you were more of a hunter than a wrestler.«
»Well, I never got very good at it but it would certainly be enough for a little pert fox.« She grinned when his face darkened.
»You think so?« he asked with a bold side glance. »Have a try, then.« With that he gave her a playful shove against her shoulder, that hit her so unexpectedly that it sent her tumbling to the floor.
Snarling she came to her feet again and brushed some leaves out of her fur at her side. Then she jumped at him with an unexpectedly swift motion that didn't even leave him the time to hold his breath to oppose the attack. They went down in a tangle of paws, tails and fur. But one moment later Redfur had recovered and rolled to the side, pushing Ichira off of him. Only a heartbeat later she had pounced him again with a scream; she pushed his shoulders to the ground using her paws. He took the opportunity to lift up her body with his hind paws and throw her over his head into the fallen leaves. Instantly he turned around.
For a moment the two stalked themselves, resting on their arms and breathing hard. Then Ichira jumped and tore the stunned fox down. Before he could react on this attack she was already above him. He started to realize why she had belonged to the hunters of her tribe. But he was stronger than her and this was his advantage when he grabbed her paws with his and slowly, but steadily forced her down from him. Finally he lay on top of her, his snout only a few whisker's breadth from hers. Both were panting with exertion and looked into each other's eyes. Slowly, nearly unnoticeable he lowered his head to hers. His gaze was tied to hers, he smelled the scent of her fur and felt her hot breath on his face. Suddenly he became aware of how silent it had become around him, and he turned his head to the side with a jerk. Zid and Hakir had obviously finished their battle and were now staring at him and Ichira. Quickly he drew back his head, released the cat and stood up, still gasping for air. Ichira still lay there for a moment and smiled at him. His heart jumped while his blood rushed in his ears. He plucked pine needles and leaves out of his fur and took his time with it to avoid the looks of the others.
Ichira had gotten to her feet by now, too, and also started to clean her fur. He felt her coming nearer and remove something out of the pelt on his back. At first he tensed a bit but then he let her continue and tried to look as unconcerned as he could. From the looks of the others he saw that he wasn't succeeding. »What is it?« he finally asked, after he had started at the fur on Ichiras back. »Is there something wrong?«
»Oh, no, absolutely not, friend fox. Everything looks perfectly all right, it seems.« Hakir grinned broadly and nudged Zid lightly. »Come on, let's go hunting. We need some meat for our evening meal.« The two of them rose and disappeared with Hakir's crossbow and Velena's bow into the woods.
Velena looked after the two for a moment herself and stood up, too. »I will go to a silent place to meditate for a while, if you don't mind. I will stay close by. If something happens, just call me.« She stretched her limbs and left the camp, leaving Redfur and Ichira alone.
»Well, I think, that's it,« the fox said when he just couldn't find anything more to pluck out of Ichira's fur. »I think a mug of tea would be a good idea now.«
She turned to him and smiled. »If you think so, I'm fine with it.«
Redfur tried hard to keep his motions under control while he took the tools for the tea out of his bag. Ichira had sat down beside him and watched him, making him even more nervous.
When finally the small pot stood over the fire and slowly heated up he felt something move next to him. He interrupted his work and squinted to the side. Ichira had advanced a little and looked at him with her big eyes. He turned towards her and again got trapped by her look. Slowly she lifted her arms and put her paws on his shoulders. At first he resisted the light pressure but then he let himself slide on his back, while the cat stayed above him. »Ichira-« he started.
»Hush,« she whispered softly and shook her head. Gently she drew one paw over the side of his snout and through the longer fur on his cheeks. Slowly she lowered her head and licked his forehead.
Redfur inhaled the pleasurable scent of her fur and closed his eyes. His arms embraced her body, and carefully he stroked her back with his paws. She enjoyed this noticeably and snuggled up to him. From where her fur touched his a shiver of delight spread through his body. He let his paws continue to slide over her back and ventured further and further down until he reached the base of her tail. Tenderly he stroke her fur and enjoyed her warmth on his body. This slender body in his arms was worth the whole world for him at this moment, engrossed his thinking and acting completely with its warmth and its swaying motions.
She huddled her head against his breast and licked through his pelt. A deep growl of passion came out of her throat and her breathing quickened. Softly she dug her teeth into his fur, snarling with lust. Her halfway extended claws penetrated the fur on his shoulders until they reached the skin beneath. Redfur's excitement rose, too. He felt his body reacting to Ichira's caresses. When he felt the slight pricks of her claws in his muscles he let out a moan and he pulled her even closer. Her warm breath stroked his chestfur and the grip on his shoulders grew stronger. The soft pain coming from the five small spots to the side of his head mixed with the wonderful feeling of her motions; bitter-sweet. He drew his tongue over her soft headfur, then over her breast, when she sat up. For a moment he opened his eyes and saw her eyes searching his gaze. Carefully he let his paws slide up her back again, caressed her sides shortly and then stroked over her chestfur.
Ichira felt the fox below her shiver with excitement while she encountered a similar feeling herself. When she became aware of something moving under her she drew her breath through her teeth with a hiss and lifted her bottom a bit to make the entrance easier for him. She guided him with a careful motion of one paw until he finally reached his destination. Again she breathed through her closed jaws, let herself slide back again gently and closed her eyes. A long sigh came out of her mouth when they started to rock in steady, rhythmic motions. Fur rubbed against fur, flesh against flesh, while they brought each other closer and closer to their common goal.
Ichira let a long scream out of her throat. At the same time Redfur howled with passion. Hot waves of impassioned blood rushed through their veins when the storm inside them slowly calmed down. Spent she let herself fall onto his body and he put his arms around her as if she were the biggest treasure in the world. Tenderly, almost carefully, he licked her headfur while she rubbed her cheek on his chest. Gingerly he drew back out of her and she changed her position a little to draw her tongue through his face. He enjoyed the rough, wet rasping and stroked her back, explored the muscles and bones that were concealed under the thick fur.
Velena was the first to return to the camp. Ichira and Redfur lay near the fire in a tight embrace and were sleeping like stones. The lynx smiled when she saw the now empty pot hanging over the flames and smelled the unmistakable scent in the air. She took out the tin jar, put it aside and sat down herself to wait for the rest of the group. She hoped the hunting had been prosperous, for the sleepers would be very hungry, when they would finally wake up.
Michiki sneezed again. The fine stone dust attached itself to his nostrils again and again and made breathing even harder than it was now. The worker next to him had just taken a big swig from the water scoop and licked his flews while the ferret went on to the next one. Since the accident at the melt a lot of the other work was put on hold, for the captives had been withdrawn from their places to get it going again as soon as possible. Only the retrieval of the ore continued undiminished.
Michiki looked over to the workers with their pickaxes and shovels. At this moment there was a call coming from there. One of the lizard guards stood there and kicked at a lump lying on the floor. Curiously, the ferret left his place and approached as if by chance. The lump was the body of one of the workers who lay motionless on the floor. The lizard bent down, holding the spear before him warily. Now Michiki could see, who was lying there.
Verrin's breathing came only short. His eyes were shut and saliva dripped from his muzzle, already forming a small puddle on the dirty floor. »Come on, stand up!« the lizard guard called and started to kick again when a big, furry body pushed him aside. Michiki shook his head in fear when he recognized Pcherro, who was standing between Verrin and the lizard, claws extended and ears lying flat.
»Leave him alone!« he growled. »Don't you see he can't get up alone?«
The guard hissed. »Looking for trouble again, it seems? This is not your business!« He put the tip of his spear to Pcherro's chest. »Move, furball, or I'll punch holes into your pelt!«
Michiki breathed again when the cat retreated snarling. The lizard watched him while he knelt down next to the motionless body. Meanwhile Verrin had stopped breathing. »Supplier!« the guard called and looked around. At first he seemed to be surprised that Michiki was already there but then he waved him over. »Give him water.«
The ferret got down at Verrin's side, too and moistened the dog's snout. Then he shook him softly and called his name, but that was in vain, too. Verrin was dead.
Meanwhile some of the other workers had gathered at the place where the dog had died and watched the tragedy with gloomy faces. Finally the guard rose with a jerk and scared them off to their working places. However, he ordered Pcherro and Michiki to pick up the corpse and follow him. The cat and the ferret left their working equipment there and lifted Verrin's dead body from the floor.
The lizard led them through the working cave to one of the exits they wouldn't have the permission to cross under ordinary circumstances. Two additional guards joined them there. They went through a small tunnel and turned into several side ways until they finally reached another cave. The smell of death and decomposition was omnipresent here. There were only a few torches burning but for Pcherro it was enough light to recognize what was inside the cave.
The floor was covered with dead corpses from the far wall to the middle of the room. Some of them were still well preserved, others had obviously been lying here for a longer time. Rats were romping about in masses between the bodies, the rustling of their bare paws was audible everywhere, and the gnawing, while they satisfied their hunger. The soft splashing of water reached them from somewhere.
The lizard guard motioned them to drop Verrin here. Reluctantly they obeyed the order. To Michiki it was undignified to leave the old dog here like that, where the rats would eat from his body. He would have deserved a better grave. Probably this was true for all the others that were lying here. Nobody deserved to be just thrown away.
After they had put down the corpse the guardian drove them back to work already. Michiki saw deep hate in Pcherro's eyes but the cat controlled himself, so no further incidents happened. The ferret picked up his buckets again and continued his round through the cave.
This evening - nobody really knew if it actually was evening, it rather was the end of a working day - the silence in the sleeping cave was even deeper than usual. The captives silently mourned for one of their comrades, who didn't survive the strains of the forced labor. This experience made them again aware of how pointless their situation was. And many felt the same rage about their helplessness inside, that boiled in Pcherro and Michiki, too. They knew exactly that to the lizards they were nothing but working slaves, who could be exploited as they pleased; they didn't care about the emotions or the pain they felt.
Michiki sat next to Pcherro on the old, ragged blanket and mulled over his dark thoughts. The cat had sprawled himself and seemed to rest, but the way he stared at the ceiling without moving told about the troubled feelings that ruled his mind at the moment. Since they had brought Verrin to the mortuary he didn't know of a single word that had come over Pcherro's lips. Michiki decided to distract the cat at least a bit.
»Your sister, what kind of person is she?«
Pcherro didn't answer. His gaze still remained locked on an undefined spot at the stone ceiling.
»I never had siblings,« Michiki continued, as if he didn't notice the silence of the cat. »Or at least I don't know of any. After all, I never got to know my parents, too. I grew up in West Haven. I don't know if you've heard about this city. It's further to the south, at the coast to the big sea. It's a big city with many houses and small alleys. I spent a lot of my childhood days there.« Michiki couldn't help but smile when he thought about, that he actually still was a cub. »An old trader woman rose me at that time and sent me to the streets to beg. She'd been a strict woman, only a few times I've seen the badger's face smile. One year ago I ran away from the city because I was fed up being treated like a piece of dirt. I believe if I'd had parents or at least a brother or a sister, I wouldn't have ended up here.«
It was silent for a moment after Michiki had finished his story. Then Pcherro started speaking, so softly at first, that the ferret nearly didn't understand his words. »What use is a family or a whole tribe to you when you aren't able to fight a superiority? I only keep thinking about those I can't help anymore. But you just have to worry about your own fur.« Pcherro closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he continued staring at the ceiling, as if he wanted to bring the pictures from his memory back to life there. »My sister was strong, lovely and skillful. As I already told you, we were hunters and she was the best of us. There never was a day when she came back without game. Most of the time she brought back enough to feed us and several other families. She was about two summers younger than I am, you know. I learned to hunt from our father together with her, but she always had been the better one of us. Sometimes this made me angry and I tried to become as good as she was, however, I never made it. But she never got arrogant to those who had less hunting skills and that made it easier for me to accept her superiority. When we went out for game together ...« The cat stopped and closed his eyes again. The pain about his loss showed clearly on his face.
Michiki put a paw on the cat's shoulder. He didn't miss the fact that he had spoken in past tense about his sister all the time. »I hope I'll get to know her sometime.«
»So you still believe that she's alive?« Pcherro looked at him for the first time for real this night. »Ay! I wish I had your confidence.«
»I'm not giving up hope so easily, friend Pcherro,« the ferret grinned. »But say, did they really bring all of your tribe here with them?«
The cat nodded. »Females, males, young ... all. Nobody was left behind. That reminds me, I never saw any young the whole time. What did they do to them?«
Michiki pondered. »Now that you mention it ... I don't know about any cubs in this section besides me and the other two suppliers. But don't worry, they surely just have brought them somewhere else.«
Pcherro suddenly sat up. »If they split them just a single whisker I'll-«
»Easy, my friend!« Michiki warned. »Think about the guards. I believe they'd be glad to teach you a lesson again for being short-tempered. I'm sure, they're fine. At least there weren't any cubs in the mortuary.«
»I swear, sometime those bastards will regret what they've done,« Pcherro growled.
»I hope so, too, but not now. We should rest now or the next day will become even harder for us.«
Pcherro nodded and lay back again. For a moment he thought about, why he let himself being reprimanded by an adolescent ferret, but then he decided that the little guy was right, indeed. »So, sleep well, Michiki. We'll show them that we won't give up so easily, ay?«
The rattling of the steel lock and the beating of spear on shield uncomfortably started the next morning for the workers. As on the days before they were led in a row through the tunnels to the working cave. Everybody knew his duty and so the routine took its course. Michiki and the other suppliers brought water, bread and cloth to the workers, the new melt started to gain shape and the guards watched the captives. The day went on without significant incidents until the worn out workers were led back to their quarters. Most of them would fall into a not very refreshing sleep of exhaustion to be roused again mercilessly the next morning.
During their working time Michiki watched his newfound friend. Obviously he had accepted his fate - at least he hadn't shown further aggressions towards the lizards since Verrin's death. The ferret really hoped that he didn't gather something inside that would break out at an inconvenient time. He exchanged some words with the cat whenever he could to find out about the mood he was in. But he didn't find any clue in those talks. Somehow it made him more nervous than if Pcherro had shown open hate.
Michiki got snapped out of his thoughts when he heard the call of a lizard guard. »Supplier!« The ferret looked around and saw the guard that was waving him over. He stood next to one of the workers that were building the scaffolding for the melt. The fox at his side kept upright only with an effort and it seemed as if he would fall down every moment. Michiki hurried through the cave and quickly reached the guard and the captive.
»Give him water and tend his wounds. One of the supporting beams came off and hit his leg.« The lizard waited for a moment until the ferret had put down the buckets and went back to his post at the edge of the construction lot.
Michiki gave the scoop to the fox and turned to his injuries. With skilled movements he cleaned the bleeding cut and finally bandaged it with one of his cloths. This wouldn't increase the healing process but it would keep the dirt out of the wound.
He was just picking up his yoke again when he heard a loud crack, followed by shouting. »Watch it!« Instantly he looked around and saw a part of the scaffolding fall apart, only a few steps away. Dust swirled up and covered the surroundings in a thick cloud for a short time.
When he could see again Michiki made his way through the debris to help the other workers hauling the heavy beams away. Two additional lizards had been attracted by the noise who were helping also. Michiki could not stifle a suppressed grin when he saw the lizard guard who had called him earlier, being buried under the debris. Obviously he had been hit by one of the beams and knocked unconscious, for his helmet had suffered a deep dent. Aside from that the lizard seemed to be all right, so the other two carried their comrade away from the expanse of debris.
While Michiki looked after the guards he saw something glittering in the corner of his eye. Inconspicuously he approached the spot and dropped one of his cloths, as if by accident. When he picked it up he felt something heavy in his paw, and he quickly stowed it into one of the buckets he had left at the edge of the construction site. His heart pounded wildly while he tried to keep unobtrusive on the outside. Fortunately the lizards had enough to do with watching the clean up work, so they didn't look at him very closely. He couldn't lose his nervousness, however, until they eventually were brought to their quarters. To his relief nobody seemed to find it unusual that he took one of the cloths with him into the sleeping chamber.
After the guard had left Michiki sat in the darkness and tried to control himself, he didn't want to spoil the newfound chance with any ill-considered action. He waited for about an hour before he silently crept to Pcherro's pallet. He crouched down next to the sleeping cat and shook him gently at his shoulder. »Wake up, Pcherro,« he whispered.
A few moments later the cat opened his eyes. »What is it? Why do you disturb me?« he rumbled disgruntled.
»I'm sorry,« Michiki replied softly. »But I believe you'll find this interesting.« He waited for Pcherro to become fully awake and get up. »I found this a little while ago at the melt when the supporting had crashed. The lizard must've dropped it.« With this words he put the cloth ball between himself and the cat on the blanket and began to unroll it ceremoniously.
»Claws and teeth!« Pcherro blurted when he saw the heavy key ring. »Indeed, this does interest me!« Slowly he picked up the ring that made a soft rattling noise. Four heavy iron keys hung from it, one of them probably matching the lock of the steel door of their quarter. »Do you know what this means, friend ferret?«
»Freedom?« the ferret suggested and grinned.
Pcherro nodded thoughtfully. »Kind of. I only wonder how we're going to get past the guards, once we're outside. The main exit will probably be guarded strictly.«
»We'll have to find another way then. A cave complex like this surely has to have more than one exit. We only have to find it.«
»Yes, but I'm afraid, there's not enough time for that.«
They lay facing each other silently for a few minutes and thought about their new situation. Pcherro watched mesmerized the key ring in his paw, as if it was a precious gem from the collection of a stone grinder. Then he put it back onto the blanket. »What about the chimney of the melt? Doesn't this lead outside?«
»It does, but it's too steep, we'd never make it without equipment.«
»Probably not, that's right.« The cat thought for another moment. »What about the water? Where do you get the water for your rounds?«
»From the reservoir back in the cave, next to the lorries,« Michiki answered. »There's a supply you can turn on and off as you want to.«
»And where does the water come from?«
The ferret shrugged. »I don't know. Somewhere from above, I think.«
»The mortuary!« Pcherro barely managed it to keep himself from shouting. »When we brought Verrin there, didn't you notice anything unusual?«
Michiki thought. »No, nothing. What do you mean?«
»I heard water. Running water. Do you understand? The supply for the reservoir has to be there. Maybe an underground river or a creek. If we can find the spot where the water comes from, maybe there's a possible exit!«
»And what if the water's just seeping through the rocks? We can't just trickle through cracks and crevasses.«
»And if not?« Pcherros eyes glittered, and Michiki saw again the expression on the face of the cat that he had shown on his arrival at the labor camp. »We'll surely find out. If we don't succeed we can always come back and try something else.«
The ferret presumed that there was no use for arguing anyway. Pcherro had a goal and this gave him back his strength. »All right. Let's have a try.« He motioned at the rest of the captives. »I think we shouldn't tell them about our expedition right now. The fewer know about it, the better. Besides, we couldn't take all of them with us, anyway.«
»I don't know ... It seems like betraying them and my tribe to me.« Pcherro looked at the ceiling and his tail started twitching restlessly to both sides.
Michiki sighed. »Once we're out of here we can get help. It would be pointless to try to leave the caves with a whole convoy.«
»Who'd want to help us anyway? Who'd care about the fortune of a small village and that of some unfortunate people?«
»Oh, I'd bet that the lizards have stepped on more than enough people's paws. And as long as we're sitting in here we won't be able to get anyone to help us.« Michiki rolled the key ring into the cloth again.
»Ay, I think, you're right. Even if I don't like it having to leave the others behind. Let's go, then.« He rose with a jerk and went straight to the exit, as if he wanted to keep himself from rethinking the issue.
Michiki shook his head and silently followed the cat. It probably would take him some more time to fully understand those mood changes.
Pcherro already stood at the steel door and waited for the ferret to join him impatiently. Michiki unwrapped the key ring again and put a paw through the grid. Then he cautiously put one of the keys into the lock and turned it carefully. But aside from a metallic cracking, nothing happened. Silently he pulled the key out again and tried the next one. He tried to keep silent but he found it very hard to stay calm. Every hair of his fur was standing upright with excitement, and his tongue nervously drew over his lips.
The third key matched, and the lock opened. With a stifled shout of joy the ferret pulled out the key again and started to open the door. At this moment he felt a paw on his shoulder, and he spun around startling. Pcherro had turned around, too, claws extended for defense.
»Where are you going?« Rhennik's rolling voice asked, he was one of the wolves of the working team. »It seems that you want to piss off silently, without bidding us farewell at least.«
»What do you mean?« Pcherro asked conspicuously. »You really don't believe, we'd ...«
Rhennik grinned and ripped the key ring from the paws of the surprised ferret. »I'm not blind, you know! Where did you get this?«
»Michiki found it in the working cave, when the lizard had been buried. We want to try to get help to finally end the slavery.«
»And why do you sneak away without a word? Not very comradely, I'd say.«
»The fewer know what happened, the better for us. Give us the key, Rhennik. We're coming back as soon as possible.«
The wolf was playing with the ring, just outside of Pcherro's reach. »I don't think I will. I'm coming with you.«
Michiki could tell from the look on Pcherro's face, that things were getting delicate. It would be difficult enough to escape from the cave in twos. And a companion who was as stubborn as Rhennik wouldn't be much of an advantage. The ferret inconspicuously moved away from the door while the wolf was focused on Pcherro.
»Believe me, this wouldn't be such a good idea,« the cat just said. »We have to find a safe way first. It's better to take only as few as possible out there.«
»Then we two will go. This little brat would've slowed us down, anyway.«
At this moment Michiki jumped forward and grabbed the key ring with both paws. Pcherro reacted instantly and attacked, the claws reaching for Rhennik's throat. The wolf let go of the ring to dodge the cat. Pcherro's claws sliced the air hissing, a growl came out of his throat. Rhennik meanwhile had found firm footing again and crouched down to jump. With loud growling and hissing the two bodies of the fighters wedged into one another. Both bit at the throat of the other and tried to wrestle the opponent down to the ground at the same time.
Roused by the commotion some of the other workers stirred and a murmur came up, drowned mostly by the sounds of fighting. Rhennik was quite a bit larger than Pcherro but the cat was incredibly agile. But still the ferret was struck by a slight panic while he watched the fight. When the time was right he collected all his courage and jumped onto the back of the big wolf dog while sinking his sharp teeth into his neck.
Rhennik howled and tried to grab the ferret with his paws, who was desperately clutching at him. Pcherro used this chance to strike a hard blow into the wolf's side. When he doubled over in pain the cat struck once again. He felt his claws digging into the facial flesh of the wolf, leaving deep scratches. He used the other paw to hit him under the chin, without using his claws. Rhennik stumbled back and staggered against the cave wall. Michiki cried out in pain when the heavy weight of the wolf crushed his body. He let go of him and lay at the wall, panting. But Rhennik was hurt seriously, too. He took some more steps toward Pcherro, broke down and didn't move anymore. The cat kept standing warily and breathing hard for a few moments before he relaxed and ran to his friend.
»It's all right ... not too bad,« Michiki moaned when the cat knelt beside him.
»What's going on?« one of the workers asked from the rear part of the cave.
»Nothing,« Pcherro answered. »Only a small quarrel.« He helped the ferret to come to his feet again and looked around in the cave. Some of the captives looked over to them for a moment, but they finally lay down to sleep again. »We should try to get the hell out of here, now,« he whispered.
Michiki nodded silently. He didn't have enough air to speak at the moment. They double checked that nobody was looking in their direction and then opened the grid. To their relief it didn't make any noise. When they reached the other side they left the door ajar but didn't stop to lock it again.
The tunnel before them was dark and silent. They knew the way good enough but in this situation it seemed to be endless. They feared to see one of the guards, attracted by the noise, behind every bend, but nothing happened. Ducked they sneaked on, every sound, even the soft scraping of Michikis claws on the stone floor seemed to get amplified by hundredfold. Every moment they expected to hear calls of pursuit. They knew exactly, when they were caught here, they could as well lay themselves to the other dead bodies in the mortuary.
When they finally reached the working cave their nerves were nearly shot. Everything was still wrapped in complete silence. Even the usually omnipresent rolling of the melting furnaces, getting fed even overnight, was muted since the explosion. Probably this was the reason why they hadn't met a guard yet - there was nobody who had to be watched.
Cautiously they crossed the big hall and followed the way they had went along already one day before. The smell of dead bodies filled the air while they approached the mortuary. When they entered the long chamber an eerie feeling came over them. Here they were two of the living, surrounded by death. Scavenging creatures darted around between the bodies, like ghosts from the realms of the shadows that came to take what was rightfully theirs. Involuntarily the two companions ducked as if the foul smelling air was weighing them down.
Like Pcherro had said, they heard a faint trickling of running water. Michiki tried not to think about the masses of dead corpses while he tried to find out, which direction the noise was coming from. The stone walls reflected the sound repeatedly and made it hard to locate the exact source, but slowly they came closer to the spot.
»Michiki! Come over here,« Pcherro whispered and waved over to the ferret. »It must be somewhere around here.«
As fast as he could Michiki hurried to him. The cat was standing at the other end of the cave and listened closely. The trickling was much louder here and it seemed to be very close. With a mixture of disgust and fear they pushed some of the halfway rotten bodies that lay there aside and revealed a crack that was obviously leading the noise into the cave. They clearly smelled fresh, clean water. »I can't get through there,« Pcherro said. »But I believe, you could make it.«
Michiki bent down to the gap and glanced into the darkness behind. Cautiously he firstly put his nose then his entire head past it, sniffed intensely and then wedged the rest of his body through. The crack was narrow, indeed, but he made it through with some effort. It was cool on the other side, moisture filled the air and had condensed at the walls and floor. The trickling was clearly audible now and Michiki followed the sounds until his hind paws were getting wet. When he groped forward carefully he saw that a small lake must have gathered here that got deeper, the further he went. Besides that he felt a little flow that let the water pass through his fur.
»What is it? What do you see?« Pcherro asked, impatiently waiting on the other side of the wall.
»Nothing, it's pitch black. But the water has built up here. And it must come in here from somewhere.«
»Wait a moment, I'll be right back.«
»Hey! What do you mean? Where're you going?« But there was no answer. »Oh, great!« he murmured while he stepped back a few paces to reach at least partly dry ground. While he waited he tried to find out how big the cave he was in was, to distract himself from his nervousness a bit. The way the reflections formed made him think about a small room - maybe fifteen or twenty steps in diameter. Carefully he touched the walls and the floor, each time finding damp stone. Cautiously he made several steps along the wall until he reached the edge of the water. There seemed to be nothing of interest to discover. Suddenly he heard noises from the other side of the wall. It sounded as if someone was beating a stone onto a piece of metal. He froze instantly and listened. Only a moment later he saw light pouring in through the gap.
»Michiki?« a well known voice asked.
The ferret took a deep breath of relief. For a moment he feared the lizards had found him. »I'm still here, friend cat.«
»I brought torches with me. Here, take that.«
Michiki bent down and took the wooden stick wrapped into an oily cloth, that Pcherro pushed in through the gap. Then he turned it around and lightened it with the flame Pcherro was holding to the hole now. The light blinded him at first but only a few heartbeats later he grew accustomed to it and he could look around. His estimation had been right, the room was indeed quite small and was divided into two areas of different levels. About to the middle the floor kept at one level. The part behind that rose to about half his height, and water was flowing down this step. If he kept close to the wall he could reach this place without getting himself too wet. Michiki told the cat what he saw, he was waiting outside and tried in vain to look through the gap.
»Is there a way out?« Pcherro asked.
»I don't know,« the ferret answered. »I'll take a closer look.« Michiki climbed onto the higher floor and looked into the clear water that had kind of formed a lake here as well. He couldn't see very much beneath the surface of the water but he thought he could see some kind of tube that led deeper into the rocks. Curiously he leaned his torch against the wall and took a step into the water. An icy shiver went through his body when the cold liquid penetrated his pelt. »There's a hole underwater,« he reported. »I'm gonna see where it's leading.«
»You're gonna what?« Pcherro asked in disbelief. »Michiki! Wait a moment!«
»I'll be right back,« the ferret replied with a grin and paid no attention to the nervous calls of his comrade anymore but took a deep breath. With a little yelp he dropped into the cold water that took him into it's icy embrace in an instant.
The dim light of the torch filtered down to him when he let himself sink to the dark spot in the wall. It was in fact some kind of tunnel and he felt the flow coming toward him from it. Obviously this was the supply of the water. Carefully he dragged himself along the rough wall a little further into the tube. After a short time the tunnel already made a sharp right turn and Michiki glanced around the corner. He believed that he saw a faint light in the distance. But now the lack of breathing air forced him to go back to the surface.
When he emerged spitting, he heard Pcherro's voice from outside, anxiously calling his name. Panting he dragged himself out of the water and picked up the torch from the floor. The small flame did not provide much heat but it was enough to drive away the cold at least a bit. »I'm all right. Don't worry.«
»What happened? You suddenly didn't answer anymore.« Pcherro's voice sounded insecure.
»I dove down the hole,« Michiki answered. »I told you, I would.« The ferret grinned when he imagined the horrified face of the cat.
»I thought you were pulling my leg,« Pcherro said, seemingly approaching the crack.
»Absolutely not. There's really some kind of tunnel here under water. And I even saw light at the other end.«
There was silence for a moment. »A way out?« Pcherro asked.
»I don't know exactly, but I think so. It's just too far to dive.«
»Wait a minute, I'll come in to you,« he said and retreated from the entrance.
»How are you going to do that?« Michiki asked but the answer didn't take long to come. He heard a muted punch and directly afterwards the pouring of stone shards. »Are you crazy?« the ferret shouted. »You're going to set the lizards upon us!«
Pcherro didn't seem to hear him. The punches continued, regularly and aimed. Obviously he had learned a lot in his short time in the quarry. It only took a few moments until the entrance had widened far enough to let the cat squeeze through. He ignored the disapproving look that the ferret gave him and grinned. »You look like you spent a night in the rain.«
»Very funny,« Michiki replied while he tried not to shiver too much from the cold.
»Where's that cave you were talking about?« Pcherro asked.
»Up there.« He pointed to the step. »I'll show you.« Being wet already he took the direct way through the water this time while Pcherro kept to the edge of the lake. The cat pulled a face when his paws touched the icy water. Michiki grinned but held back any comment. He waited until the cat had climbed the plateau and pointed into the water hole. »There's the tunnel, you see? The entrance isn't very wide but there's plenty of space on the other side.«
»And behind that it's going outside?« Pcherro asked, nearly hopefully.
»Sort of. However, there's quite a distance between the hole and the exit. I can't dive so far and it's not sure that this light in fact is daylight.«
»But we'll probably have no time to watch it long enough. We have to get out of here quickly, or the lizards will make short work of us. And if they don't, Rhennik would gladly step in as a substitute.«
Michiki shrugged. »I think we have to find another way. I don't have enough air to reach the exit.« With a mischievous face he continued, »You've got much bigger lungs than I have. Maybe you ...«
Pcherro looked at him in horror. »I - Oh, no! That's out of the question.«
»If we want to get out of here, you'll have to go through there, eventually,« the ferret kept on. »Why shouldn't you start with it now?«
The cat looked at first at him, then at the water at his feet. »I'll never make it,« he whispered. »I've never been a good swimmer. Very few of my race are, as you should know. And as long as I don't know how far it actually is I won't take a single step into this hole down there.«
»Ay! It's all right, I just wanted to tease you a bit,« Michiki grinned.
Pcherro looked at him darkly. Then his face lightened up again. »And if you were faster? You wouldn't need so much air for the same distance then.«
»Only that I can't swim faster,« Michiki replied.
»Not on the way there. But if you take a long rope with you, you could drag yourself back with it and save a little time.«
»And what good would that do?«
Pcherro put his torch down and explained his idea with gestures. »At first you can dive as far as usual. When you pull yourself back on the rope you can see how much air you've got left in the end. And so you could estimate how much further you could've come. Maybe you could even find a place to tie the rope to. Then you could be even faster.«
»That's not a bad idea,« Michiki contemplated. »I think we should give it a try. We lost too much time already anyway. It's a miracle that nobody did find out what had happened by now.«
They left the small cave to look for suitable equipment. A short time later they had found what they needed and were standing before the water hole again, that led into the rocks. Pcherro tied the rope around the ferret's hips and wrapped the other end tightly around one of the boulders. Michiki had brought a leather water bag with a mouthpiece he now emptied and inflated.
»What are you doing there?« the cat asked.
Michiki grinned. »I get myself a little more time. When I can't get any further I take the hose in my mouth and squeeze the air out of the bag. That should be an additional help for me.«
Pcherro shook his head laughing. »Well, I'd never have thought about that.«
Michiki pushed the cap to the mouthpiece, fastened the bag on the rope and gave the cat a last look. »I'll be on my way then. Wish me luck.«
Michiki dove down into the cold water with a soft splash. Quickly he crossed the hole and kept approaching the faraway light with powerful strokes. The passing water rushed in his ears and he could hear his heart beating. After some time, the exit seemed to have come a little nearer, he considered it appropriate to go back. He grabbed the rope and dragged himself back with it. When he finally came back to the surface again he recognized that he indeed had still a good amount of air left.
»So?« Pcherro asked.
Michiki waited for a moment to regain his breath. »It's very far, indeed,« he eventually said. »And there's no possibility to tie the rope to. But I believe I can make it, anyway. I'll try again soon.«
»Don't you want to take a rest first?«
»I think there's no time for that. And besides, I won't get cold so quickly when I keep on moving.«
This time he covered a greater distance. Since he knew how quickly he could get back, he dared to go a bit further. Shortly before his return he could have seen that he was indeed approaching daylight. Spitting loudly he emerged and clutched to the rim of the hole, while Pcherro worriedly looked at him and dropped the rope.
»I was afraid you'd not come back at all,« the cat said worriedly. »It took a load off my mind when I felt the rope getting taut.«
»Don't worry,« the ferret answered between two deep breaths. »There was ... no danger ... Made it much farther ... Did see the exit.« When he was able to talk again to some extent he looked up to Pcherro and continued, »It indeed leads outside. I don't know where I will come up, however, but I can make it. I didn't even need my air reservoir.« He patted at his still closed leather bag at his side.
»Then rest for a minute, so you won't drown underway,« Pcherro suggested.
But Michiki waved it aside. »I'll make it. I know now how far it is. You'll see.« And with that he took a deep breath again and let himself sink back into the water before the cat could even argue.
For a moment Pcherro felt the urge to draw back the rope. But then he discarded the thought. Michiki certainly knew what he was doing. At least, he hoped so. Worried he watched the rope, being dragged slowly but surely into the water. When he thought about the fact, that he would be down there sometime, surrounded to all sides by nothing but stone and water, he got outright nauseous. He admired the courage of the little fellow who didn't hesitate a second to take the risk.
The rope now had passed the point where Michiki had returned the last time. A few steps later it paused, and Pcherro expected it to tighten and the ferret to come back. But then it got dragged further in and the cat grew uneasy while he let out step by step of more rope.
At this moment he heard sounds nearing the crack. Startled he tensioned and spun around. One of the lizard guards just started to wedge through the entrance. »Damned!« Pcherro snarled, dropped the rope and went quickly down the platform. The lizard had stood up in the meantime and hissed at him with his spear ready. Pcherro ducked and growled. His ears lay flat to his skull and his tail doubled its diameter. Then he leapt.
Once again the cold water enveloped him when he let himself sink down. This time he would make it to reach the exit. He already felt the exertions weaken his muscles, but if he didn't make it now he would have to give up and rest. Yet every additional moment they stayed in the cave would add to the risk to be found and maybe killed. Michiki swiftly dived through the tunnel and quickly reached the bigger chamber that he tried to cross again now. Despite his rising exhaustion he forced himself to keep a steady speed and use his strength as good as possible. Every stroke of his arms brought him closer to his destination, but every beat of his heart was another small slice of his draining time. The pressure on his lungs increased and he exhaled a bit to cease the sensation of suffocating. Bubbling the air leaked out of his mouth and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel above him.
Michiki felt that he had passed the farthest point by now. He already had the feeling that he couldn't go on anymore but he fought his way on with clenched teeth. Shortly afterwards he stopped to loosen the leather bag from the rope around his hips. He forced himself to exhale, undid the cork and enveloped the mouthpiece with his lips as quickly as he could. Then he squeezed the air out of the reservoir and let it flow into his lungs. It wasn't as easy as he had imagined but finally he had a certain storage again that yet actually had to be sufficient now. He dropped the bag and started to swim again. Slowly, too slow for his own taste, the spot of light before him grew. Still there was quite a distance between him and what he hoped to be freedom. He still heard his heart in his ears, adding to the flowing of the water while he dragged himself forward. Colorful specks started to dance before his eyes and his muscles protested painfully. He saw the light expanding and suddenly disappear above him. Then it enveloped him, engulfed him from all sides. In panic he thrashed around, without knowing, where he was. Convulsively he closed his eyes and in a last reflex gasped for air.
It took him several seconds to realize that it wasn't water pouring down into his lungs. His head had broken the surface and he was able to breathe. Exhausted he opened his eyes and splashed with his arms to keep himself from going under. Water rushed nearby, light was around him and fresh air filled his nose. He could see a darker strip not far away, and he hoped that this was the bank. Weakly he paddled towards it and he was relieved when he felt firm ground. He dragged himself further a few steps before he sank down to the ground powerless.
Slowly he could make out his surroundings. He lay at the edge of a lake that was fed by a waterfall nearby. To all sides the rocks of the mountains, in the bowels of which he had been for so long, towered high, and the sun shone down on him from a clear blue sky. His heart cheered at this sight. The realization that he was free again flowed through his body and soul. »Claws and teeth!« he shouted as loud as he still could. »We made it!« Then he laughed and let himself fall on his back.
While he rested from the last exertion he dragged the remaining rope to the bank. As it turned out he had more than twenty steps left and he looked for a place where he could properly tie it to. With help of this handle it would take him only a fraction of the time to get back to Pcherro and bring him the good news. But at this moment Michiki recognized an old feeling coming back to him from the past. He was free and the cat was able to clear the coast himself, too. So why should he go back into the lion's - pardon, the lizard's - den?
Because he is my friend, he reprimanded himself in his thoughts. Sure, if he still were in the city he would have given in to the feeling and left. But now he knew that this was not the right way. The meaning of friendship had been unknown to him before, only now he realized what it was about.
He hesitated not more than a moment before he jumped into the water again. The warming rays of the sun were washed from his pelt and he clenched his teeth. Then he breathed deeply, grabbed the rope and drew himself forward until he entered again the darkness of the tunnel.
The impact was hard but didn't miss it's effect. The lizard was driven against the wall and let out a surprised wheeze. During his jump Pcherro had managed to grab the claw that was holding the spear. Now he pushed it against the rock as hard as he could to keep the lizard from using his weapon. But the guard had come to a firm stand again after he had recovered from this first attack. For a moment they held each other in check until the lizard suddenly let himself fall to the side and the unsuspected movement let Pcherro bump into the wall. Instantly the cat jumped a step back to dodge a well aimed blow of the spear, that would have penetrated his bowels without a problem. Growling, Pcherro ducked and started to circle around the guard with his tail twitching. He ignored the fact, that he had to wade through the shallow water at the edge of the pond now.
At this moment the lizard made a step forward and stroke with his spear at his head. Pcherro dodged at the last moment, bent over and jumped again. His arms surrounded the scaly belly of the lizard. With a hard jerk he wrestled the guard to the ground, where he landed in the water with a loud splash. However, this attack had led the cat into reach of the spear again, and Pcherro felt a prick in his leg. With a cry of pain he retreated - without looking he knew that he had suffered a deep wound. The leg throbbed horribly, it would probably not be able to bear his weight anymore.
Full of newly kindled rage he let himself fall onto the body of the lizard and pushed him back into the water. The pain in his leg made him frantic, he barely noticed the claws that dug into his back. Quickly he stroke out and ripped his own claws through the face of the guard. The other one howled and let go of his back to protect his head with his arms. Pcherro pried the spear out of his hand and threw it away over his back. The weapon hit the cave wall and fell to the floor with a soft rattling.
Spitting Michiki came to the surface and gasped for air. Using the rope it hadn't been too hard to cover the distance. He wiped the water from his face and leaned on the rim of the hole. Then he heard gurgling noises and looked around in fear. Below him two shapes were lying in the lake, involved in a fight. Pcherro knelt on the body of a lizard and pushed his head under water. The guard desperately tried to defend himself but the cat seemed not to give up. Blood was tinting the lake red around the opponents. Michiki hoped that this wasn't cat blood.
The struggling of the lizard grew weaker and finally ceased altogether. Pcherro held him for a few moments more, loosened his grip and stood up insecurely. When he realized that another person was in the room he tensed again instantly and turned his head into Michiki's direction.
The ferret stifled a cry of horror when he saw the expression on the face of the cat: lust for murder and pure hate were there. His whipping tail sprayed small water drops through the air and his extended claws reflected the dim light of the torches. Michiki retreated involuntarily; he could hardly believe that this creature was actually his friend. But then a bit of the old, a little thoughtful expression came back to the face of the cat when he realized that the danger was over.
Pcherro relaxed and put his claws down. His wet fur gave his shape an eerie look, but his face showed relief. »By the Eternals! Am I glad to see you!«
»What happened? Did they find us?« Michiki jumped down from the platform and joined his friend.
Pcherro shrugged. »Maybe. But until now only this one had come in here. I suspect he was on patrol. We should get our tails out of here before the rest of the lot realizes that he won't come back.«
»But at first I'll have to look at your leg,« Michiki said when he looked at the cat more closely. He had suffered several scratches, but his leg was hurt worst. »The wound looks very deep to me.«
»It's not so bad,« Pcherro claimed, although the wound burned like fire, now that his rage began to fade again. »I'll live.«
»But it would be better when I bandage it, however,« the ferret insisted. »We won't get much rest for the next time anyway, I'm afraid.« He bent down to the dead lizard guard and ripped off some strips of his coat.
While Michiki worked Pcherro tried not to think about the pain. »You took your time. Did you - ouch! - find anything?«
»Yes, I reached the exit,« the ferret reported. »A small waterfall has build up a small lake there that's draining through the hole below. From there we can get further through the mountains on foot.« With a final tug at the knot he fastened the makeshift bandage at Pcherro's leg.
»Then we shouldn't waste any more time. It won't be long until they send out a search party.« Pcherro limped a few steps until he reached the platform. Michiki stayed next to him all the time to make sure that he could support him if he lost his balance. But the cat held himself upright sternly. »I'm afraid we can't visit this place anymore for some time,« he said and pointed at the corpse in the water.
It took Michiki a moment to realize that Pcherro had joked. »Ay! You're right!« the ferret laughed. »What a shame. I just started to feel comfortable here.«
Finally they stood before the hole that led down into the water. Michiki jumped in instantly but Pcherro hesitated. »Come on,« Michiki urged him. »You're wet to the skin anyway. It hardly can get worse.«
»Do you think I can make it?« Pcherro asked insecurely.
Michiki grinned. »Sure. I made it, too, so you shouldn't have any problems. Just inhale deeply and hold your breath. Then you just drag yourself along the rope, paw over paw. You'll see, before you realize it you'll be on the other side.«
»Well, I'm gonna believe you then,« the cat replied, but his face spoke of horror and fear when he let himself slip slowly into the water.
»We'll see each other outside,« Michiki said. »Good luck! And remember to hold your breath!« With a last look at his friend he took a deep breath and let himself down into the water, where he grabbed the rope and pulled himself along with it.
Without great effort he reached the daylight. When he broke the surface of the water he enjoyed the fresh air again that was a strong contrast to the stale air of the cave. Quickly he paddled to the bank and dragged himself out of the lake to let his fur dry in the warm sun. Meanwhile he looked back to the water and hoped that Pcherro would emerge soon.
He waited so long that he started to worry. But then the lake suddenly became uneasy and a furry body came up, thrashing around wildly and halfway starting to sink again. »Pcherro!« Michiki shouted. »Pcherro! Calm down! You made it.«
The cat struggled on for a moment before he realized that he could breathe again. Exhausted he clutched to the rope and dragged himself to the bank slowly, where he collapsed, partly lying in the water and gasped for air loudly.
Michiki hurried over to him. »Are you all right? We made it, friend cat!« With that he reached under his shoulders, helped him to turn over on his back and to come a bit out of the water.
»Did I tell you before that I hate water?« Pcherro gasped and Michiki started laughing. »I really believed I must drown.«
»Now it's over,« the ferret said. »Can you get up? We shouldn't sit around here for long. Once the lizards have found out how we escaped they'll send their guards here for sure.«
»I only need a few minutes, that's all.« He retreated a little more from the lake and dragged his legs to his chest. This made his face turn into a grimace of pain. The bandage around the leg still held but there was a small trickle of blood already draining through the wet fur beneath.
Some time later they were on their way. Michiki supported his friend who was staggering next to him insecurely. Together they left the lake behind to find a way out of the mountains before they could be picked up by a patrol again. Michiki hoped they could find help quickly. For they wouldn't last long on their own.
For now they were safe. But both of them still didn't know how they should save the rest of the captives.
The white snow landscape stretched eternally around him. Chilly wind tried to penetrate his thick fur but he wasn't very cold. Tiredly he looked around. His father, his mother and the six siblings were standing there, their white pelt a perfect match to their surroundings. He waved at them, but they didn't move. While he looked over to his family the figures began to crumble into snow. Slowly but surely the faces lost their shapes, the bodies dissolved to melt together with the ice. At the same time he started to move off from them, slowly at first yet getting faster. The landscape flew by him. Faces formed from the falling snow that dissolved every time he tried to reach them. They were faces of those he had met and left behind on his journeys. Many of them were only rough and indifferent, yet others were sharp and clear. But he couldn't hold back one of them. Suddenly another face appeared in front of him, one he would never forget. It was pitch black and contrasted clearly with the white color of the landscape. The face widened to a head, a body. The arms reached for him and he felt them stop his swift movement, and he came to a stop. The figure held him tightly, warmed his body. With one hand it drew over the snow at its feet, and where it touched it, it melted. Green grass came out beneath it that started to smell nicely. The farther they went the bigger the circle became, where no snow was falling. He looked back one more time, but the ice lands had already faded in the distance.
Redfur opened his eyes. The embrace was still there, and so was the warmth it provided. Carefully he turned his head. Ichira lay next to him, her arms wrapped around his body and sleeping tightly. Her soft breathing tickled his right ear and he smiled. A feeling of joy spread throughout his body when he snuggled up to her and smelled her scent. He enjoyed the silence for a while before he withdrew his arms and sat up. Ichira stirred in her sleep and mumbled some indistinguishable words before she became still again. When he looked around he saw that Velena was watching him from the other side of the campfire. A little embarrassed he scratched his neck, rose, and went to the fire, where his small tin pot was hanging in the flames. A tasty smell came from it.
»Sayh, Velena,« he said. »Did you make tea?«
»Sayh, friend fox. It seemed as if you didn't get round to it last night, and so you should be able to make it up now at least.«
Redfur smiled. »Thank you very much, Velena. Although I wouldn't say that I regret not finding the time.« He looked over to his sleeping companion. As always when he watched her he lost himself in the beauty of her body. The silky shimmering, black fur reflected the glow of the flames and the rays that the light of the rising sun sent through the leaves, in a fascinating way. His paws itched to put this view to paper sometime.
»Redfur?« Velena had risen and come over to him. »Zid and Hakir found good game. You should wake her and have breakfast. As soon as the two of them return from their scouting we will set off.« She pointed at several leaf packages that probably contained meat.
The fox smiled and his stomach growled deeply at this moment. »Good heavens,« he laughed. »I didn't realize how hungry I am.«
»Then satisfy your appetite. I will go and look for some herbs in the meantime.« She gave him a thoughtful look before she left the camp.
Redfur went over to Ichira and crouched down beside her. Softly he licked over the fur at her snout. The cat stirred and opened her eyes tiredly. »Sayh, Ichira,« the fox greeted her. »It's time for breakfast.«
Instead of an answer the cat stretched and yawned widely. Then she sat up and looked around lazily. »Good morning, Redfur,« she finally said. »Where are the others?«
»Hakir and the bear are scouting the environment, and Velena is looking for herbs. When they come back we'll go on.« Ichira grew awake slowly and he took the pot from the fire. He unwrapped two of the meat packages and stuck them to long sticks to cook them in the flames. While the food sizzled away he filled two mugs with tea and carried them over to the cat who took one of them thankfully.
»Thank you,« she said and carefully she took a sip of the hot liquid with her tongue. She looked at him as if she wanted to say something more but then she took another sip from her mug. Sometimes the most meaningful words were those, that are not spoken. So Redfur decided to keep the silence for the moment.
The meat was done now and the two ate in silence, sitting next to each other. Redfur had put another two sticks into the fire already, because he knew that their hunger wouldn't be so easy to be satisfied. Every now and then their eyes met, as if by chance, but way too often for that. The fox wished not for the first time, they would have met in more peaceful times.
They just had finished breakfast and packed their things, when Hakir and Zid returned to the camp. Only a few moments later Velena came back to the clearing, too, holding a bunch of fresh herbs in one paw. »Sayh, friends,« she greeted the scouts. »What did you discover?«
»Nothing troublesome,« the wolf replied with a smile. »Our further way seems to be just as easy as it was before. The forest will accompany us for quite some time, it seems.« While he spoke he started to extinguish the fire with sand and stones.
»Then we should be going.« Velena looked over to Redfur and Ichira. »That is, if you are ready.«
»Oh, sure,« Redfur answered. »As of me, I'm ready. And you?«
The cat nodded. »We can go on, if you like.« A shadow seemed to fall over her face while she spoke, and Redfur sighed. The joyful time seemed to be over again soon. Much too soon for his taste.
The camp was broken down quickly and the five wanderers continued their way. The track led them in a clearly visible line through the forest. Both sides of the aisle the thick plant growth accompanied them, like the walls of an alley in a city. But the forest wasn't dark or threatening. Small animals rustled everywhere, birds chirped and it smelled of mushrooms and berries that grew in the shadowy places. They didn't change their wandering sequence. The wolf and Velena still led the way while Zid watched over things that could come too close from behind. In between Redfur and Ichira went paw in paw; their attention seemed not much focused on their way or their surroundings now, even if they looked around and peered into the forest every now and then. To feel the closeness of the other meant more for them at the moment than the journey.
But when they finally made rest for lunch the knowing of the destination of their journey came back to their minds. Ichira was absorbed in thoughts while she chewed absent-mindedly on a portion of cold rabbit meat.
Redfur sat next to her and thought about how he could lure her out of her dark mood. Then the evening at the lake came into his mind when he had shown her how to use bow and arrow. »Friend Velena, do we have a little time for hunting?« he asked the lynx who was just sorting her herbs.
»I think so,« she replied, »even if you should not take too long.«
He turned to Ichira. »What do you think? Maybe this'll distract us a little. You told me before, you're hunting without weapons. I'd like to see that once.«
The cat looked at him absently. »There really isn't that much to it,« she said then.
»Maybe you can teach me?« He stood up and held out his paw to her. Finally Ichira rose also and he turned to Velena again. »We won't stay for long.« With that he left the camp with his companion and disappeared in the deep forest.
For several minutes now he was hiding motionlessly behind a tree trunk. Since they had spotted the partridge he was waiting here as a silent observer. In the meantime Ichira had started to sneak up to the animal. Redfur watched her. He saw how she made sure to stay out of sight while still approaching her prey. With agile movements she darted from one cover to the next, all muscles tensioned for the final jump. Not for one moment she seemed to leave her victim out of her vision, while she came closer without any sound. Even her excitedly whipping tail made no noise. Only about ten more steps were between them. Then she crouched, gathered her strength and pounced the bird that tried to get away with rapid beating of its wings. In fact it managed to take off and get out of reach, but Ichira jumped at a tree trunk, climbed it in the blink of an eye and caught the animal out of the air. With a big crash they both came down to the ground, accompanied by a loud growl and cackle that ended abruptly. A few feathers lazily sank to the ground while Redfur raced over to Ichira.
When he reached the place where the cat had landed he saw her lying on the floor panting and holding the still weakly twitching partridge in her fangs. She dropped it and put it out of it's misery with a short movement of her claws.
»Well done!« Redfur said, while Ichira licked the blood from her flews. »I'm impressed.«
The cat grinned. »Do you want to try, too?«
»Oh, no!« he laughed and sat down beside her. »I don't think I'm made for this way of hunting. Besides, I can't climb.« To make his words clear he pointed to the tree trunk, the bark showing a few fresh holes. »I think I'll stick to bow and arrow.«
She nodded. »One can hunt quite good with it. Although I'd never want to do without my way of hunting. It - well, it's just different. The concentration, the tension, and then the final jump. All this has something special to it, I can't compare to a weapon.«
»I understand what you mean,« Redfur said softly and suddenly grinned. »But I hardly believe that you have as much fun hunting your way than I have watching you doing it. The jump in the end was first class.«
»Thank you for the compliment, friend fox,« she replied and licked him over his muzzle. »I hope you enjoyed the little performance.«
»Indeed, I did,« he said while he leaned over to her. Then he put his arm around her hips and licked her neckfur.
For some time they embraced each other and stroked their backfur, both engrossed in the closeness of the other. But then they heard Hakir calling out, demanding to know where they were. Laughing they separated, took the shot partridge with them and returned to the camp.
During the next two days their day to day routine didn't change much. They started walking in the mornings, took a rest by noon and finally went on until the evening. Sometimes they interrupted their travel for a short discussion of the situation, but all in all they made good progress. Ichira and Redfur provided them in their own ways with fresh meat, while Velena enriched their food with herbs and berries. Hakir led them on tirelessly while Zid as usual brought up the rear. Soon, they left the forest behind, that hat made room for a grassy plain. At the horizon they could clearly see the mountains that had steadily been coming nearer during their pursuit.
During one rest Redfur had talked to Hakir again and asked him why Velena was going with them. »You said, she's following you, but I got the notion that she doesn't need any guidance.«
»I don't think so either,« the wolf had answered. »To be honest I don't know, why she joined us. Zid and I were after the lizards for some time when we found her camp at the wayside by chance. She invited us to rest by her fire and strengthen ourselves.
We started talking and found that we had to fulfill a mutual mission. Just like with you and your - companion, we finally decided to go our way together.«
»You don't seem to be too careful picking your comrades,« Redfur had answered laughing. »At least you didn't take measures to watch us or something. Why have you been so certain that we weren't just two footpads that wanted to get at your belongings?«
»I'm wondering that you're asking this question at all, friend fox. Did you never see into Velena's eyes? She seems to look down into your soul with them. I know, if she'd found something threatening in you, she would've never agreed to you accompanying us.«
Redfur had thought back to their first meeting and remembered his first look of her inscrutable eyes. »Velena is a special person, indeed. I'm glad to have someone with her abilities with us.«
In the early afternoon another change of the landscape became noticeable. The air smelled damper and musty, the soil beneath their paws felt soft and soaked, and insects swarmed around them in great amounts. Further on the grass seemed to fade away and make way for small ponds with reed growing at their edges. A mile from there trees started to grow again, probably the swamp was continuing in the forest.
»What now, friend wolf?« Velena asked calmly when the group came to a stop. »The way seems to get harder.«
Hakir thought for a moment. »There are two possibilities we can take: We can follow the tracks and cross the swamp in a straight line, or we circle around the damp area to meet it again on the other side.«
»This'll take too long.« The first time since Redfur and Ichira had joined the group, Zid raised his voice. The fox was so surprised by the sudden low voice that he nearly had dropped his cane. Then the bear continued, »We could lose the track on the other side.«
»We could lose it in the swamp as well,« Velena gave to consider. »The floor is unstable and muddy. It is indeed possible that we soon can't tell where they went on.«
»I think Velena is right,« Ichira agreed. »The swamp has too many dangers and the difficult soil will probably slow us down unnecessarily. When we move on next to the edge we should find the track back, sooner or later.«
After a short discussion they came to the conclusion to go around the dangerous area and hope to find the track back where it left the swamp. The midges and stable flies still accompanied them anyway, and they had to stop more than once to clean their fur from the annoying insects. In the beginning Redfur had started to keep the trouble-makers from them with his powers but he realized that this kind of defense weakened him too much, and soon he gave up the attempt.
Within an hour they had reached the edge of the forest. The trees were growing densely here, too, at least on the opposite side of the swamp. This time they lacked the beaten path that they had been able to follow until now. So they had to push their way through reluctant undergrowth and ferns, or choose another direction, when the way got too difficult. However, the forest had one advantage to the open land they had wandered through before, there were not as much insects by far.
Redfur felt the weakness creeping into his limbs. They had been wandering until the early evening, had cleared their way through bushes and thorns and tried to keep up an appropriate speed. Therefore he wasn't sure if the movement, he just had caught in the corner of his eye, had actually been there or if his exhausted mind was playing tricks on him. While he trudged after the others he constantly looked over to the left. Suddenly he saw it again, a short flash of orange, partly concealed by leaves and twigs of the forest. At first he wanted to call out to his companions, but something kept him from doing so. While he watched he fell more and more behind and realized that he seemed to have taken another direction. In the beginning he wondered about that but then he again saw something: There was a figure moving before him between the trees. It was about his size and had reddish brown fur, similar to his own. In the next moment it was gone again and Redfur made another step towards it, not to lose it. But suddenly a hand laid itself on his shoulder and dragged him back. »Redfur, where're you going?« asked a voice, he was only barely aware of. »Friend fox! Answer me!« In the next moment he felt a dull pain that rushed through his head and made him fall in to eternal blackness.
Ichira spun around when the fox suddenly collapsed next to her. Two arrows stuck in his fur and something had hit him on the head and dazed him. When she had realized some moments ago that he hadn't been near her anymore she had started looking for him. Puzzled she had watched him starting to leave their way and heading right for the swamp. His face had shown some kind of absent-mindedness as if he didn't know where he was.
At this moment several figures broke out of the dense shrubs to the right of their way. Ichira froze for a moment when she saw the scaly creatures coming at her but then she grabbed Redfur under his shoulders and dragged him over to Hakir and the others that already made themselves ready to fight. She hoped that he wasn't hurt too badly.
When the combined attack of the lizards came over them she had to push away the thoughts about her friend for the time. She wished she had made her bow ready but there was no more time for that now. The first lizard had reached her already and threatened her with a saber. The others were involved in fights as well. In the corner of her eye she saw how Zid split the head of one lizard up to the middle with a wide swinging blow of his sword and the force of the impact threw the body against a second approaching creature. Velena and Hakir put up quite good as well, even if later they would get into greater trouble, considering the superiority. All in all there were about ten lizards that had been waylaying them.
Quickly Ichira dodged the blows of her attacker, but she knew that her speed would drain sometime. She had to find a way to keep out of the reach of the weapon, her claws were merely suitable for melee. With a considering glance she checked her immediate surroundings and then jumped up the trunk of a nearby standing tree. She pushed herself from it instantly again, collided with the surprised lizard and ripped him to the ground. With that she had blown her claws into the scales of his head. Blood was spattering.
The body under her twitched only weakly when she got up. The lizard had dropped his saber and Ichira picked up the weapon. It felt a little unfamiliar in her paw but at least now she had something to defend herself with. Ducked she awaited the attack of the next fighter who drew her into a fight again.
At the same time there was a short flash to her left, cries of pain came up, and two lizards, holding their paws in front of their eyes, fled from Velena, who had stretched out her paws before her. The smell of burned scales filled the air. Behind her Hakir was fighting with another creature. His left shoulder seemed to have taken a blow, the fur was bloodstained and ragged. But he kept his opponent at bay, even pushed him back further.
It seemed as if the tides had turned.
Soon the fight was over. Six lizards lay dead around them, the others fled through the forest. They didn't waste their time to chase after them - they were too exhausted themselves. Hakir was worst, but Velena already cared for him. Zid didn't seem to have gotten a single scratch and Ichira had gotten away without bigger bruises.
Now that the situation had calmed down again she turned back to Redfur. But the fox wasn't where she had left him anymore. Uneasily she looked around but she couldn't see him anywhere. Quickly she went over to Velena who was busily tending Hakirs wounded shoulder. »Did you see Redfur? I can't find him.«
The lynx looked up to her. »No, I don't know where he is. I didn't see him during the fight, anyway.«
»He was hit by a stone from a slingshot,« Ichira said. »I brought him over there but he isn't there anymore. They must've dragged him away!«
»Most certainly not,« Velena answered. »I watched them retreating. None of them had him with them. He either fled or went away.«
»I don't believe that. He wouldn't just disappear.« She went to the place where she had seen Redfur for the last time and started to look around more closely. Doing this she noticed the tracks that were visible a short distance away. It looked as if someone had been dragged along here. She followed the trail a little way and saw that it led into the swampy area. Instantly she turned around and ran back to the others. »I found a track! Someone must've been here while we were battling the lizards. We've got to look for him!«
»Where's this track?« Hakir asked, finally wearing a cleanly put on bandage around his shoulder.
Ichira led them on and pointed to the dense fern that had been trampled down in some placed. »Here it is.«
The wolf crouched down in front of the trail and looked at the small aisle warily. »We should hurry,« he said finally. »He can't be far. Who ever took our friend with them seemed to have some difficulties.«
So this time they followed a narrower track that led through the dense undergrowth. Ichira had put the string on the bow and put on an arrow. This time she wanted to be prepared. Warily they moved on while the ground gradually became softer. The low shrubs disappeared and made way for moss and weeds that could develop better on the soaked ground. But the lack of bigger plants made the tracking more difficult. Soon the trail was only hard to see and finally it was gone altogether.
Hakir stopped and peered through the trees that maintained themselves against the inhospitable conditions of the swamp. »I'm afraid we've lost the track. The soil's too soft and it seems to become even moister ahead.«
»But he must be somewhere there,« Ichira pleaded. »We mustn't give up so soon.«
»I don't think it's of much use to keep on looking,« Hakir said. »It's going to be impossible to find him in this swamp without any tracks. Apart from the dangers that we'd expose ourselves to there.«
»We just can't leave him behind like that!« Ichira screamed. »He needs our help!«
»Our people need our help, too,« Velena said. »What about your tribe? Don't you want them to be freed? We don't have much time left to find them.«
Ichira was drawn to and fro between her people and Redfur. On the one paw the rage about the lizard's raiding of her village was still inside her, but on the other paw she feared for the life of her newfound friend. Helplessly she looked from one face to the other, but none of them offered her an answer.
Velena broke the long silence. »Ichira. Please don't believe that the life of your companion does not mean anything to us. But our friends need us. And the time for our revenge grows nearer. We can't stay here any longer. Make your decision if you want to come with us or if we will follow our separate ways from now on.«
Thoughts and emotions tumbled over each other in her head while she let her gaze wander over the swamp. Her paws opened and clenched themselves to fists alternately while she tried to come to a decision. Velena and her companions were no support for her apart from the vague hope for helping her tribe. Redfur couldn't give her any guarantees either, but she was convinced, that he saw more in her than just a simple companion on a journey. When she turned to the others again she had made her decision. »I'm going to look for him. As soon as I've found him I'll come back and follow the trail of the lizards to you. I hope it won't take too long.«
»Are you sure you want to go into the swamp alone?« Hakir asked. »The area is treacherous and you could possibly get lost. The night won't be long now.«
Ichira snorted. »I'm able to look after myself, friend wolf. I'm going to find him and we'll catch up with you together.«
»Then it will be best when we separate right now before more time passes,« Velena said and sighed deeply. »I am sorry that we can't help you with your search. But I wish the best for you and your friend. I strongly hope to see the two of you again soon.«
»I hope so, too,« Ichira answered friendly, but she was disappointed inside. She could not understand why Velena suddenly was in such a hurry. »My best wishes for you.« With that she turned around and was on her way. She didn't look back anymore but she could clearly hear the sound of the departing paws. Now it was up to her.
Blackness. All around him. Dull pain throbbed in his head and sent pulsating flashes over his eyes. He lifted his eyelids but the darkness persisted. He tried to sit up, but his limbs felt like bricks. The pain grew stronger and he wheezed. Instantly he felt the touch of two paws that pushed him back onto his bed. »Ichira?« he asked, yet his voice was merely a whisper.
»Hush,« a voice muttered. The paws stroked over the fur on his cheeks and forehead.
He felt weak yet safe. Redfur sniffed and recognized the smell of wood, herbs and boiling broth. Somewhere nearby a pot must be hanging over the fire. He heard a vessel being filled and a moment later he felt a movement beside him. His paws were led to a wooden bowl that contained something warm and nicely smelling. He cautiously tried it with his tongue and realized that it was a tasty stew. Guided and supported by the tender paws he put the bowl to his mouth and drank with tiny sips. The warm brew spread out inside of his body comfortably. »Thank you,« he brought out when he was satisfied for the time being.
When he was alone again he lifted his paws to his eyes to find out, why he couldn't see and where the pain in his head was coming from. He felt a damp cloth that had been put over his eyes and he lifted it carefully. At first he couldn't see very much. A reddish, flickering light drew confused, constantly altering patterns on a wooden ceiling. Carefully he turned his head to the side. He seemed to be lying in a timber house. They must have found shelter. The window in the wall that he saw didn't have shutters but yet there was no light coming into the room; so the night must have fallen. Again he moved his head and he saw a figure standing at a cooking fire, stirring the contents of a kettle. Probably she was the one who had offered them hospitality.
While he looked around he saw that he was wearing bandages on several places of his body. So something worse must have happened. He wanted to ask something, but his voice failed on him. He cleared his throat and tried again. »What happened? Where am I?« he croaked.
The figure at the fire turned around when she heard him. Redfur was surprised when he saw her face. She was a vixen, her face showed worry but also kindness. She was beautiful and something strange was in her eyes. The fox felt a similar power to that Velena had possessed. And he felt there was more, but then the impression was gone. He presumed he was still too weak to think clearly.«
»You are safe,« she answered. Her voice was bewitching and entered his mind. Again he was reminded of Velena, when she had answered the first time to Ichiras question.
»Where are the others? Ichira? What happened to her?« Again he tried to sit up but his pain didn't permit this.
The vixen approached a few steps to kneel down at his bed. Softly she lay her paws on his shoulder and pushed him back.
»Don't worry about her. Everything is all right. Rest now, I'll watch over you.«
The power of her words encircled his worries and dispelled them. The thoughts about his companions faded and he relaxed again. He felt the closeness of the vixen that made him feel safe. Softly she murmured a few words, but he couldn't listen anymore. His mind wandered away and his consciousness drained.
When he woke again his pains were gone. He felt recovered and strong. The house was filled with warm light, coming in from the window. Morning had just broken. He couldn't remember how he had come to this place. When he tried to recall the events of the last days he only found a kind of mist that obscured his mind. Going still further back the mist constantly became denser until it was completely impenetrable. At first he worried a bit about that but then this feeling ceased. He knew he was safe, a new life lay before him.
The door opened and the vixen entered the room. Her unconcealed beauty was visible in the light of the morning. Her body was flawless, her stance was light and zestful, the way she moved her tail remembered of swaying grass and flowing water. When she spoke her voice was like music in his ears. »I see you're awake, my friend. I'm glad to meet you in the best of health again.« She closed the door again and came to his bed.
The fox had sat up in the meantime and watched the bewitching beauty in front of him with a transfigured look. He had the impression that he knew her face for an eternity already. While she came nearer he felt a power wrapping around him and engulfing his mind.
»I feel that you have the same powers as I have,« the vixen continued. »As a reward for your saved life I want you to make it mine.«
»Ay! Anything you want,« the fox mumbled. »Take what you desire.«
She dropped her head and licked over his muzzle. »So give yourself to me, become one with me, just like our powers will unite.« The vixen lay on top of him and softly stroked his face.
He closed his eyes and lost himself in the tender touch of the paws on his fur. Full of excitement he felt her weight on his body. He embraced her with his arms, let his paws slide over her back and stroked the soft pelt. Her scent was mesmerizing and heightened his lust even more. And the stronger his arousal became the deeper he felt bonded to her. He gave himself up, his strength got absorbed in hers, his powers melted with even stronger ones. His emotions wandered far away - he felt the sharp claws to both sides of his head, how they tenderly penetrated his fur. The deep growl out of Ichiras throat spoke of the deep sensation that was rushing through her.
Suddenly Redfur opened his eyes. This was not Ichira! What happened? The thought of the cat brought everything back into his mind. The body of the vixen still lay on top of him and he felt the power that tried to hold his mind captive. With all strength he could still muster he strained against the mental wall she had built around him and commanded his body to obey his will again. He felt a pain inside, as if something was ripping, and then he pushed her away from him, a loud scream came out of his throat.
In the blink of an eye the vixen was on her paws again. With her ears lying flat she stood before the fox who had risen in the meantime, too. »How dare you fighting me?« she growled. »It would be easier for you giving up your resistance.«
»Never!« he shouted and retreated staggering to the opposite wall of the house. »I don't know who or what you are, but you won't get me!«
»Foolish fox!« she taunted. »You're mine already! And the sooner you accept this, the better for you. Forget the others. Forget your cat friend.«
»No!« he screamed and jumped ahead. He threw himself at her with his full weight and slammed her against the opposite wooden wall. Once again he felt her powers reaching for his mind but his rage gave him the strength to fight her back. He let go of her and fled out of the door into the forest.
Fear and hate drove his weakened limbs on. He felt her chasing him, even though he didn't look back. She didn't set him free, her spirit was still stuck in his, trying to force him to surrender. Again and again his vision blurred and he had to pull himself together not to yield under the pressure. The thought about Ichira kept him upright. He had to reach her, had to find her. She was his only hope.
His run came to a sudden stop. One of his legs had sunk into the treacherously soft soil of the swamp. Due to his quick movement he lost his balance and pushed his other leg in front of him into the earth. Now he was stuck to his knees in the soft mud that was slowly giving way under his weight. Franticly he tried to escape from this deadly trap but the more he fought the grip of the mire the deeper he was pulled down. Within a few moments he was stuck to his hips and still kept sinking. Then he saw the vixen slowly, nearly teasingly stepping out of the forest before him. His flight had failed.
Wary eyes observed the surroundings before them. The track had long since disappeared but Ichira refused to give up. Intensely she looked for clues that could lead her way. Now she relied more on her feelings than actual tracks. She picked her way seemingly at random. Whenever she had the impression that something around her had changed she turned that way. She treated the search now like the hunt. All instincts and senses were now involved to find her prey. Only that she wasn't going for edible prey now. More than once she had to deviate from her chosen route because a pond or one of the numerous mud pits was blocking her way. The farther she went the more difficult her way became, but she did not stop. The evening light had turned into night and she didn't find any clues for her way on for a long time. But she trudged forward anyway for it was always possible - even if only remotely - that she would find Redfur or his abductor by chance.
During the night she made only slow progress. Insects swarmed around her and populated her fur and ears annoyingly. She shook herself constantly to get rid of them at least for a moment, but one minute later they came back. Apart from the shrill noise of their tiny wings she heard a sluggish bubbling here and there, when a bubble of murky smelling gas had worked its way to the surface of one of the mud pits and burst there. She clenched her teeth and went on, fighting the upcoming tiredness and exhaustion.
The morning came. Still there was no sign of Redfur. Her fur was wet and dirty, small twigs, leafs and burrs had become entangled in it everywhere; she had given up to pluck them out one by one eventually. Exhausted she finally stopped, pushed her arms in her back and stretched. Her surroundings still looked like in the evening before her separation from the party. At least she didn't have lost her bearings. She knew exactly which way the mountains lay but she didn't intend to go there, yet. As long as there was hope, she wanted to keep looking, even if Velena and the others didn't share this opinion. What would it have changed if she went with them? She was only a hunter, not a fighter. And at the moment there was another task she could better put up with.
At the base of a thick tree trunk she sat down for a short break to regain her strength. The air was hot and muggy and smelled of rot and decay. Everywhere around her was humming and chirping. Ichiras wheezing breath grew gradually slower and steady and finally her eyes closed.
She woke with a jerk when she heard an unfamiliar noise. Sleepy she looked around. She was still sitting with her back leaned on the trunk, but the sun had risen a bit more already. Cursing softly she pulled herself to her feet, grabbed her bow and put on an arrow. Warily she glanced around but she couldn't see anything. But then she heard something again; it sounded like the swift motion of a body moving through the forest. Ichira concentrated on the direction and started to run.
A few hundred steps further the forest suddenly opened into a small clearing, its center was covered by a wet glistening surface. She was just able to stop when she saw Redfur stuck to his belly in the mud before her.
»Ichira! Look out!« the fox called but the warning came too late. The cat only saw a blurred movement to her left, then she felt a hard blow that sent her flying a few steps through the air. She hit the ground hard and lay there stunned.
When she came to a moment later, a figure was standing before her that was remotely resembling a fox. However, its fur was missing in places and the head was deformed and misshapen. The cat looked at her opponent in bewilderment for several seconds before she realized, that her life was in jeopardy. Ichira looked around quickly but her bow and arrow lay out of her reach. Growling she crawled back a bit, ears lying flat completely and her tail whipping. Despite of her pain she came to her feet and held her paws with extruded claws protectively in front of her, while she tried to measure this creature.
The attack came quickly and unexpectedly. Without her seeing any sign of it the monster jumped ahead and stroke with a paw at her. Ichira was hit hard at her left shoulder and she stumbled sideways a few steps, until she could steady herself again. She felt her right leg sink a bit into the soil. As quickly as she could she retreated, away from the mud pit where Redfur still was caught in. But the creature came after her. She would never have thought that it could be capable of such an agility. Warily she kept ducked out of the reach of the mighty claws until she thought she found an opportunity for an attack. Quickly she lunged forward, swung around her claws and darted back again at once. She had felt resistance and blood covered her claws.
The creature howled with pain and rage, but it didn't seem to weaken very much. Ichira pranced around nervously, constantly looking for another possibility to place a blow. But in the next moment the monster jumped at her. Before she could get away she felt the heavy body coming down on her. She was pushed to the ground and sharp, ripping pain flashed over her belly. With a loud roar of agony and rage Ichira put all her strength into her legs, drove her claws into the creature's abdomen and threw it off of her. Hot blood sprayed around and sullied her fur. Panting she lay on her back while the monster stepped back roaring.
But still it kept on its legs. Ichira tried to get up desperately but the pain was too strong. Helplessly she watched the monster regaining its balance and coming towards her. The kick hit her like a falling rock. For a moment her breathing stopped and darkness spread before her eyes. Then she felt the claws of the monster, it lifted her from the floor and threw her through the air. Franticly Ichira protected her face with her arms when she heavily hit a tree trunk and came to a stop on the ground in front of it.
Redfur, sunk to his chest into the mire at this time, helplessly had to watch his companion - maybe mate - being maltreated by this monster that had once been a charmingly beautiful vixen. He had to find a way to keep her from facing certain death, even if he had to give up his own life for that. »Leave her alone!« he cried with the rest of his strength, the mud was pressing heavily against his lungs. »Let her live and I'll give you, what you desire!«
The creature snarled and turned to the fox. »It's too late for that, fox!« it growled with an unnaturally deep voice. »You shouldn't have opposed me! Now both of you will die!«
»You only want my power, so take it! But let her go!« Redfur panted heavily, the swamp had drawn him down to his shoulders and didn't seem to want to keep it that way; only with an effort he could keep his arms on the surface. »She doesn't mean anything to you, anyway.«
When Ichira heard the voice of his friend she laboriously opened her eyes. Her entire body screamed with pain but she seemed to be out of danger for now. She recognized the blurred shape of the monster, facing away from her and staring at something in the middle of the clearing. She couldn't understand the words, her head was droning too loud. Suddenly she knew, where she was. Whimpering with pain she turned around and saw something lying in front of her. With a mighty effort of her will power she banned her agony into the farthest corner of her consciousness and concentrated on every single movement. She made it to stretch out her arm and reach the bow that was lying in the leaves. She took one of the arrows out of her quiver, thanked the Eternals that it didn't break during her fall, and put it on the string. Tears blurred her vision when she turned around again and aimed at her target. Panting, and close to fainting she drew the bow string as far as she could and let it go.
Redfur sensed that there was no use to try to talk the creature into a bargain. He seemed to have lost his only chance when he had repelled the vixen at the house. Now there was only a slight hope left for him. With all his strength he concentrated at the mind of the monster, felt the limitless rage coming from it, and started to encircle it. But at nearly the same moment the creature lifted its head and stared at him, its face was distorted to a demonic grin. Redfur felt his powers being expelled with a casual blow, like he would have swatted a midge that had annoyed him.
»Your pathetic powers won't help you now at all. You should've given them to me right from the start. But now behold your friend dying before you'll go to the Eternal Forests yourself!« With that the monster turned back to Ichira.
At the same time Redfur heard a twang and an arrow shot at the creature, penetrated one eye and impaled its brain. A wild scream came out of it's throat while it kept on its feet for a few moments more. Then it slumped down and fell sideways into the mud while it was shaking and twitching violently. Finally it stopped moving, its body slowly began to sink into the mire.
The fox quickly recovered from his surprise and got hold of the mortal remains of the creature. He used its body to push himself out of the mud and laboriously made it to the edge of the muddy pit. With the last of his strength he crept over to Ichira who was lying unconsciously on the floor. Before her, in her outstretched paw, lay the bow that had saved both their lives.
While he cleaned his paws with the water from her leather bottle he inspected the wounds Ichira had suffered during her fight with the monster. She was hurt badly and there was no time to lose. His head droned with exhaustion but he mustn't rest at the moment. Longingly he thought about his belt with his herbs that probably still lay in the house of the cursed vixen. For the moment he had to manage without it.
Cautiously he rolled Ichira on her back to have a closer look at her injuries. The cuts in her fur were very deep in places, dark red blood seeped out of them through the pelt. Using some of the cloths out of his companion's backpack he first cleaned the cuts and stopped the worst bleedings. Then he turned to her right leg that was twisted in an unnatural way. His fear got confirmed: Her thigh was broken.
He quickly made a comfortable pallet out of soft leaves, twigs and weeds and carefully put Ichira on it. Then he went to look for suitable sticks to splint her leg. He kept within the range of vision, though; his worry for the cat didn't go away. It was hard to believe for him that she had risked her life for him and nearly lost it. But he knew, he would have done the same for her without thinking twice.
He collected all herbs and edible fruits he could find in the closer surroundings. It wasn't very much but every little bit was precious and could probably judge between life and death. She wasn't looking very good. The loss of blood had seriously weakened her and despite all his efforts he couldn't prevent drop by drop still falling into the leaves.
While he made a makeshift wound salve out of his collected herbs and weeds he never went from her side. He listened for every breath, anxiously waiting for her chest to lift once more, when it took too long. Constantly he bent over her to listen to her heartbeat. Every wheeze out of her mouth kept his hopes up for her. Finally he applied the medicine on the open cuts, bandaged them again and then started to splint her leg.
When he eventually had done everything he could there was nothing left for him but waiting. He lay down next to her and embraced her cautiously, tried to warm her body. Occasionally he licked her fur to clean it from dried blood and dirt. Every now and then he checked the bandages although he knew he had done his best. Oh, you Eternals! he prayed silently. Give her a little more time before you call her to you! This fox needs her!
Full of worry for his companion and doubt in his own abilities he finally collapsed next to her with exhaustion; his head rested on her chest that lifted and fell much too slowly. Redfur felt his eyes starting to burn. It only happened rarely that he - or another member of the High Races - cried for real, but the desperation took all his control away. Why did the Eternals bless him with this magic when he wasn't able to keep a friend from dying with them? Hot tears welled from his closed eyes, flowed over his facial fur and wetted Ichiras chest pelt. The fox let his grief take over while he slowly sank into a sleep of complete exhaustion.
Redfur weakly opened his eyes when he heard a noise. He twisted his ears to find the source of the sound and was surprised that it was Ichira he had heard. Instantly he was wide awake and sat up halfway. The fur on her chest was still damp, so he couldn't have slept too long. Ichira had opened her eyes to a slit also and wearily looked at him. A surge of joy spread inside of him when he saw a little glittering of her amber eyeballs. »Can you hear me?« he asked softly.
»You look terrible,« she said after a moment.
Redfur smiled when he looked down at himself. His fur and his face were dull and caked in mud, the eyes swollen from sleep and tears. Clearly visible trails wend from his eyes around his muzzle, where they had flown and taken a little of the dirt with them. But now that Ichira had regained consciousness his mood heightened again. »Ay! Unfortunately I didn't have the time to dress up for you properly,« he replied. Then his face became serious again. »Sayh! How are you?«
»I feel like as if this monster broke all of the bones in my body. What happened? Is it dead?«
Redfur nodded. »Your arrow brought it down and saved us both. I owe you my life.«
»And I owe you mine,« Ichira said. »What kind of creature was this, anyway? I never heard of something like that in all my life.«
The fox shrugged. »I have no idea. It must've been related to this vixen in some way.«
»When we were wandering through the swamp yesterday I saw a figure in the forest. I wanted - no, I had to follow her; somehow I didn't have control over that. Then suddenly you were beside me and I felt a short pain. When I came to, I was lying on a bed in a house. It was dark and my head felt terrible. In the next morning I saw her. She was beautiful and cared for me. I remember that I had lost the memory of my former life for a short time. She gave me food and made me feel secure. But the truth was, she only wanted my powers for herself. When my memory came back eventually, I fled and she chased me to this mud pit, where you finally found me. Then she suddenly had disappeared and this monster had taken her place. Maybe this was her real shape.«
»What kind of powers are you talking about?«
Redfur smiled weakly. »I have certain - abilities. Nothing special, just a freak of nature.«
»Just like your fur,« she said and stroked with a paw carefully over his belly. Doing this she twisted her body and inhaled with a hiss when her right leg moved. »What ...«
»Be careful,« Redfur warned. »Your leg's broken. I put on a makeshift splint but you shouldn't put too much pressure on it. On the other paw we shouldn't stay here too much longer. The midges will surely eat us alive otherwise.« He was silent for a moment. »Why are you here on your own, anyway? What happened to the others?«
»After the attack they went on to the mountains. Velena didn't want to wait and the others didn't want to break up their company.«
Ichira told him in short words about the ambush of the lizards and the subsequent search for him. »And because we couldn't find any sign of you until evening they finally set off. Velena said, they didn't have much time left.«
»Ay! Wonderful!« he mumbled. »And they let you stray alone through the swamp!«
Ichira smiled. »It was my own decision, friend fox. I could've been going with them. They didn't leave me behind - I left on my free will.«
Redfur still wasn't soothed, but he didn't want to question Ichira too much in her current condition. »Fine then. I think it would be best for you to rest now. I'm afraid that you'll need your strength once we've found the others.«
The cat nodded and took his paw. »Thank you, Redfur.«
He kept silent and licked briefly over her forehead. When she was asleep he rose from her bed and collected some long branches and sticks, building a rough barrow. Carefully he lifted her from the ground and lay her onto the wooden framework. Then he put the two handles on his shoulder and set off. His exhaustion still took it's toll on him but Ichira needed his help and he couldn't provide it to her in this surroundings. Besides there were still thousands of annoying insects swarming around them that didn't make the situation more comfortable.
It took him a moment to regain his bearings and he turned towards the mountains. Regularly he looked back over his shoulder to see how his companion was doing. To go easy on his strengths at least a bit he made frequent short rests to recover. So he made quite good progress and left the swampy area behind them soon. Now he had to find the track of the lizards and their former traveling comrades again.
If he had been in good shape the wandering wouldn't have been too much effort for him. Yet in his current situation the next hour demanded nearly all his strength from him. But finally the moist soil had made room for dry forest ground; they finally had left the swamp behind them. A short time later the number of trees thinned when the earth started ascending softly. Redfur stopped to catch his breath. The weight of the handles made his shoulders ache and he put down his burden for a moment. While he was stretching tiredly he let his gaze wander over the landscape. Then he noticed a dark spot in the distance to his right. With a quick glance back to Ichira he approached the place a bit until he recognized what he had found: It was the track of the lizards they were following. Shortly behind it he saw the bed of a river that was flowing from the mountains into the valley. He decided to stay here for a while and went back to carry the barrow to the river. There he first refilled the canteen and knelt down beside the cat. Carefully he licked over her muzzle and she opened her eyes. »Sayh, Ichira,« he greeted. »We'll rest here for a moment. I brought water for you.« He gave her the bottle. »And I'm going to take a bath now.«
Ichira nearly choked. »You're not serious, are you?«
»Yes, I am,« he replied with a grin. »Look at me. I can't show myself to people like that. You could use a bath, too, by the way.«
»Don't you dare!« her face darkened.
Redfur laughed. »Don't worry. I know that you're not really fond of water. I'll wash your wounds a bit later on.« He waded out into the calmly flowing water while Ichira watched him with a mixture of disbelief and worry. The welcome cool wetness soaked his fur, loosened the encrusted mud and took the dirt away with it. At the same time his cramped muscles relaxed. The relief was so great that he moaned loudly and let himself slide to over his shoulders in the river.
»Your magic, how does it work?« Ichira had sat up a little, so she could easier watch him bathing. Her eyes sparkled in the light of the sun.
»I don't know exactly myself,« the fox answered thoughtfully. »Sometime I learned that I could sense anger and rage within others. Somehow I can manipulate those emotions a little, too.« He pondered for a moment before he went on. »Do you remember the night when I found you under the bridge during the thunderstorm?« She nodded silently. »I sensed your fear and tried to dispel it. It wasn't easy, but it seems to have worked, eventually.«
»You're right, I was scared out of my mind. After I'd lost the lizards I constantly had the feeling that they'd reappear any moment and finally kill me. But when you were there those thoughts suddenly seemed to be - distant. Somehow unreal as if it never had happened.«
»That's the way my powers work. Unfortunately they're not strong enough to do really useful things.« His face became dark. »I nearly lost you in this swamp and my magic couldn't do anything about it.«
»You mustn't reproach yourself for this. I'm still alive and that's because of you alone. Take your powers for what they are and don't demand more than they can give you.«
Redfur sighed softly and kept silent while he cleaned the rest of his fur. Afterwards he cared for Ichiras injuries, cleaned them as good as he could and then bandaged them with the washed cloths. During the treatment he had to smile about the look on the face of the cat, who was touching his soaked fur in bewilderment. If it wouldn't have been necessary for the treatment she probably wouldn't have let him come so close in his condition.
His fur still wasn't completely dry again when they already were on their way again. The constantly ascending route meandered up the hill, surrounded by rocks, sparsely growing bushes and small trees that maintained themselves against the meager soil. Within a few minutes Redfur was already panting with the effort, but he wanted to cover as much distance as he could, before the darkness fell. His thoughts were only concentrated on setting one paw in front of the other and following the trail. He only remotely cared about his surroundings; like ghostly shadows the shapes passed him.
»Redfur! I think I heard something.«
Ichiras whisper penetrated his conscience and he stopped. They had come up the hill quite a bit, big rocks formed the view of the surroundings. The fox listened but apart from his rapid heartbeat and the rush of his blood he couldn't hear anything. He just wanted to go on when he saw a sudden movement to his left. A moment later he felt strong arms around his body; he was spun around and pushed face first against one of the rocks. Cold steel sank into his neck and he didn't dare to move.
»So we meet again,« the voice of a lizard hissed. »But this time the situation seems different. You've been a thorn in our king's side for quite a while now and he wants me to bring you to him.« He put a scaled paw onto the fox's shoulder and turned him around slowly. »They told me that you posses some kind of controlling powers. My comrade over there has the order to kill you instantly if he suspects, that something's wrong.« The guard pointed to a second lizard who currently aimed his crossbow at Ichira who was helplessly lying on the barrow on the ground. »And believe me, Ch'rast isn't known to hesitate very long.«
»Leave her alone,« Redfur growled.
»Oh, it's not her we're after. The king wants to see you, not her.«
The other lizard looked over to him. »What are we going to do with her? Shall we leave her behind?«
»No, that's too dangerous. And it seems that she can't follow us on her own. Kill her.«
»No!« Redfur cried and made a quick step forward. Instantly he felt the blade of the weapon at his throat again. »If you kill her, you've got to kill me, too! I won't come with you without her.« He could see that Ichira was staring spellbound at the crossbow.
»Gzecit!« Ch'rast started. »I don't think that the king-«
»Shut up!« the leader thundered. »Don't press your luck too much, fox,« he continued to Redfur; his saber went a little deeper into his skin. »Only a word from me and you're both dead.«
»Your lord won't be very pleased with you when you return with empty hands,« Redfur growled and asked himself at the same time, what madness was driving him. For a moment he considered actually using his powers but he feared that he wouldn't be able to control both lizards in his current condition.
»That's none of your business,« Gzecit hissed and pushed him back against the rock. The impact sent violent pain through his already bruised shoulders but he clenched his teeth. The two lizards exchanged a few words in their own language before the leader turned to Redfur again. »All right, fox. We'll take her with us. But you'll make sure that there'll be no problems, otherwise you'll enter the Eternal Forests more quickly than you'd like it.«
Following the waving of the lizard Redfur went over to Ichira who was still looking at the threatening crossbow. Slowly, considering every movement, he lifted up the handles again and put them onto his shoulders. He closed his eyes due to the reappearing pain and clenched his teeth. It took a few seconds until he regained enough control over himself that he could start walking. Gzecit and his subordinate set off again to lead their captives further up into the mountains.
The hot sun of noon had perished to the cool evening when Pcherro opened his eyes. Since their flight from the labor camp they had been wandering through the mountains without rest to leave the lizards behind as far as possible. Michiki had been a great help. The little guy was tough, to give him his due. Without a single complaint he had supported him and kept him up while they were walking. Pcherro felt a little uncomfortable that he needed to be helped like this, particularly, because the ferret wasn't doing much better than him. But this was the only way to make at least reasonable progress. Finally they had collapsed here and fallen asleep with exhaustion.
The pain in his leg had subsided to a dull throbbing, probably due to the loss of blood that even Michiki's bandage couldn't have stopped. Restlessly Pcherro tried to stand up but he was held back. Surprised he looked down at himself and saw that the ferret's head was resting on his good leg; he had tucked his paws under his chin. An unusual, yet not uncomfortable feeling spread inside of him. He owed his life to the ferret boy and the chance to free his tribeskin from the claws of the lizards. Quite a big achievement for such a little guy. Carefully Pcherro stuck out his paw and stroked him over the head. Michiki stirred and opened his eyes. »Sayh, friend ferret,« Pcherro greeted. »How are you?«
Michiki looked around sleepily and sat up quickly when he realized where he was. Then he rubbed his eyes and yawned with widely opened muzzle. »Sayh,« he brought out eventually murmuring. »My muscles are stiff like tree trunks. How long did we sleep?«
Pcherro looked at the position of the sun. »Four, maybe five hours. We should set off soon to reach the plain before nightfall.«
»Aren't you hungry at all?« Michiki asked. »I could wolf down a whole rabbit warren at the moment.« Instinctively her licked his lips at this thought.
»I'm afraid we've still got to wait with that. We don't have time for hunting as long as we're not safe. Besides, the rabbits would hardly let themselves be caught by a small, worn out ferret. We'll collect some berries on our way, that'll help us getting along at least for the start.«
»Vegetable food, yuck!« Michiki complained. »How should one regain his strength like that?«
Pcherro just grinned and rose completely. The ferret was beside him in an instant and supported him. Side by side they wandered on, always following the easiest way downhill. Where ever they could they plucked fruits and berries from the trees and shrubs, and shared them. All in all it was a sparse provision for their journey but it was better than nothing. In contrast, water was plenty. On their way into the valley they crossed several creeks and rivulets they could refresh themselves at. More than once Michiki used the opportunity to clean Pcherro's wound that was still bleeding and even had become inflamed. Obviously, the cat was suffering great pain but he didn't want to stop.
Despite that, owing to the circumstances they made good progress and it seemed that they would indeed leave the mountains before the darkness came. Gradually the vegetation became denser. The rocks became smaller and were soon nothing more than stones that lay at the sides of a small path. The return into the forest had a stimulating effect on Michiki and his strength seemed to double spontaneously. Only when he heard the elaborate panting of his companion, who was desperately clinging to him, he realized that he had become faster and faster.
»I'm sorry, Pcherro,« the ferret said and stopped. »Are we going too fast for you?« The cat didn't answer. His breath came in huffs and he kept his eyes closed. »I think we should rest a bit. There's a brook ahead, I think that's a good place for a rest.« Slowly he guided his friend to the bank of the narrow stretch of water and let him slide to the ground there. Pcherro sighed with relief and sprawled down while Michiki tended his wound. Filled with consternation he saw that the inflammation had become much worse. Now that he was paying more attention, he felt the heat radiating from the cat's body. Probably he had caught the fever.
Michiki decided to let Pcherro rest a bit more, even if it added to the risk of getting caught by the lizards. Every now and then he let some drops of water dribble on the cat's forehead and spread the liquid in his fur to cool down the temperature gently. His friend flinched during this treatment regularly but Michiki already knew how he reacted towards water and therefor he acted especially careful.
When the light finally faded he couldn't stand it any longer. Carefully he roused Pcherro who had sunk into an uneasy slumber again and helped him to his paws. The ferret picked the further way along the creek to make use of the cooling of the water. The cat did his best to keep up but he frequently asked for rests while Michiki damped his forehead and the rest of his body. Softly he murmured away words of encouragement while they dragged themselves on. But finally both of them were at the end of their strength. The ferret put Pcherro down into the grass near the creek and sat down beside him himself, panting heavily with exhaustion.
When Michiki woke it had become pitch black in the meantime. He felt the strong body of his friend beside him who was breathing weakly but steadily. He still radiated a feverish heat that worried him. But that wasn't what had roused him. A few ten steps away some figures were moving through the forest, obviously taking care to keep as silent as possible. The dim rays of the moon didn't provide enough light to uncover details. Michiki rose silently and took a big stick into his hand. If they actually were lizards he wouldn't let himself be brought back into captivity without a fight. Ducked he waited, tensely staring into the dark.
The shapes approached slowly and carefully, as if they were looking for something. Every now and then they stopped to pick something up from the ground or to examine a certain spot before they moved on again. Michiki held his breath when they passed them only a few steps away. His heart beat loudly in his ears; it seemed to him that they must have heard him up to them. Fortunately this wasn't true. They continued on their way without noticing him or the sleeping cat. But suddenly the ferret flinched when Pcherro woke from a feverish dream with a shriek.
Michiki's first reaction was to run. But however, he controlled himself, because he didn't want to leave the helpless cat behind. The figures had become aware of them due to the scream and stopped their search. The ferret shivered with fear and bared his teeth when he faced the silhouettes. They gathered, discussed with soft voices and suddenly a bright greenish light flared up, originating from the middle of the group. Michiki was blinded and held one paw before his eyes.
»Go away!« he screamed, when they approached slowly. Due to the bright light he couldn't make out who or how many they were. »Leave us alone! You nearly killed him, what more do you want?« Threatening he lifted the stick for defense but suddenly they reached him and one of them punched the weapon out of his paw. The light grew stronger, seemed to envelop him completely with its shine. Michiki desperately slashed around with his claws but without effect. Someone grabbed his shoulders and he heard a soft hissing when a paw laid itself on his forehead. A few moments later his senses faded and the light went out.
Michiki opened his eyes. Someone was near him. With a shrill scream he sat up and stared around, retreating to a trunk of a tree. Three strangers were crouching before him on the forest floor; a wolf, a bear and a female lynx who was just bending over a fourth figure he recognized as Pcherro. With his outburst he had drawn the attention of the three on him and they looked at him with friendly faces in the light of the early morning. Slowly he realized that those wanderers obviously weren't lizards. So there was no immediate danger. He flinched anyway, when the wolf started to speak.
»How are you, little fellow?« he asked in a soft voice.
Michiki still was too dazed to get angry about the form of address. »I think I'm slowly getting back on my paws again,« he answered. »Who are you? And how's Pcherro doing?«
»You mean the cat, don't you? Velena's caring for him. He's hurt badly but she's a good healer. He'll live. What happened to the two of you, anyway?«
»We escaped from a labor camp. Lizards held us captive there, and we had to retrieve ore for them. This morning we made it to escape. My friend was hurt during a fight against a lizard. Ay! But he won. We're on the run from them since then.«
»Are they still after you?«
»I don't know. We didn't see any of them. But they know that we've escaped, so we tried to get away as far as we could from the cave. You can't imagine how cruel the lizards can be.«
The wolf made a gloomy face. »Oh, yes, little fellow, we can. You're not the only ones who met them.« He held out his paw with the pads in front. »Sayh. My name's Hakir, this is Velena as you already know, and the big guy over there« - he pointed to the bear who had made himself comfortable at a tree trunk in a distance, peering around warily - »that's Zid.«
The ferret hesitated for a moment before he pushed his paw against that of the wolf. »Michiki, sayh.«
»Well, Michiki. I suppose you could use something to eat. We still have lots of reserves with us that we would gladly share with you and - what's his name again? Pcherro? Ay.«
»To be honest, I'm nearly starving,« Michiki answered.
»So come on, then, friend ferret. We'll see what we can do about that.« With a movement of his hand Hakir invited him to follow him. In the middle of the quickly set up camp the comrades had put down their packs and the wolf started to put together a sufficient meal for Michiki.
Meanwhile, the ferret constantly kept looking over to the sleeping Pcherro and Velena. She indeed seemed to know a lot about healing for the worst wounds had healed already and the inflammation had subsided by now. For the life of him Michiki couldn't imagine how she could have done this.
As if she had sensed his looks the lynx suddenly turned around to him. A friendly smile lay on her face but a shadow darkened it as if she just had made a big effort. »Of course, you are worried about your friend, aren't you?« she asked. Her voice was gentle yet insistent at the same time. She made him think of a cloth made of finest silk that was hugging his body comfortably. He got the notion that he would still be able to hear this voice even through a hurricane. »There is no reason to be worried,« she went on. »His life is out of danger and he will regain his old strength soon.«
Michikis face lightened up. »I've been fearing that he'd have to die. This lizard wounded him heavily and I couldn't do anything to stop the bleeding. I'd like to know how you could've healed him so quickly.«
Velena grinned. »It wasn't as bad as it had looked at first sight. Your friend is very strong, you know.«
The ferret nodded. While he was chewing on his meal he remembered what Hakir had said a few minutes ago. »You met the lizards, too?«
»Not only that,« the wolf answered. »We're following them for quite a time now. They're spreading chaos and trouble all over the land, wherever they show up. And each one of us has his own story to tell about the lizards. We came together to find a way to stop the lizards. This may sound daringly but we have abilities that indeed do give us hope.«
»You can't imagine how gladly I'll be coming with you and see the lizards being destroyed for real,« Michiki said full of hate. »For what they did to Pcherro alone they deserve to be thrown into banishment by the Eternals. They've-«
»We knew what they have done,« Velena interrupted him.
Hakir looked at her in bewilderment. »We do?«
She nodded. »They raided his village, set it on fire and razed it to the ground. Then they carried him and his tribe off to the caves. Friend wolf, do you remember Ichira?«
»Of course. I hope she and her companion are well.«
»Did you ever look at her closely?«
Hakir coughed embarrassed, but answered, »She's a beautiful creature. Of course I looked at her. I always pitied that such a nice face had to suffer such terrible wounds.« Velena nodded and silently lifted Pcherro's head so Hakir could see it clearly. »I see what you mean,« he said after that. »He's got the same round spot on his forehead as Ichira had, too. I wonder what that means.«
»It's some kind of tribe's token,« Michiki explained. »Depending on their family and profession they get a gem woven into the fur of the forehead. I never heard about such a custom before. This Ichira really seems to belong to his tribe.«
»Ichira?« Pcherro's voice was soft and weak when he started to stir in Velena's arms and opened his eyes to slits.
Michiki was at his side in an instant. »Pcherro! Bless the Eternals! I'm so glad to see you alive!«
The cat still seemed to be a little dazed but soon his look became clear and he recognized his surroundings. »Sayh, friend ferret. Where are we here?«
»Still in the forest at the foot of the mountains,« Michiki answered. »A group of wanderers found us here and they cared for our wounds. They're looking for the lizards. We had great luck that they've a healer with them. You'll recover very soon!«
»I already feel much better, indeed. Many thanks to you, whoever you might be.« Pcherro sat up cautiously and shook his head to clear his mind a little. After a brief introduction of the comrades they took him to the middle of the camp and gave him some of their provisions, too, to let him regain his strength. »I dreamed of strange things,« he said while he ate. »I thought, I heard Ichira's name.«
»Who's that Ichira?« Hakir asked.
»My sister. We got separated during the attack of the lizards. I'm afraid she didn't survive it.«
»Well, considering that, you might find it reassuring that we've seen your sister in good condition only half a day ago,« the wolf replied smiling. »She and her companion were part of our group for a short time.«
»Ichira? She's alive?« Pcherro forgot about the meal and stared at Hakir, stunned.
The wolf nodded. »She left us last afternoon to find her fox friend who had disappeared after an attack of the lizards.«
Michiki cheered and jumped at Pcherro's neck. »You see? I told you she wasn't dead!«
»Ay, take it easy, my friend,« the cat said laughing, and held him at arm's length from him. »This is really the best news since a long time. Where's she now?«
»We don't know,« Velena answered gently. »Her mate is missing and she went to find him. As soon as she has found him, she wanted to come back to us.«
»She knows where you're going?«
»We follow the trail of the lizards.« Velena pointed at the clearly visible tracks that went over the meadow some distance away. »I presume you have been guided this way, too.«
Pcherro nodded. »The lizards had driven us to their hideout in the mountains. I remember clearly how they'd treated us. To them we were nothing but a bunch of slaves, who had to be led to their working places.« His face grew darker for a moment. »I'm glad that Ichira didn't have to experience this. You said, she was looking for her mate. I didn't know she already chose one. Tell me about him.«
Velena looked at Hakir who nodded at her, and he started to speak. »Well, it seems that she had met him shortly after the attack on your village. He's a fox as I told you already. His name's Redfur, kind of a tramp, but a very nice chap. He was always very concerned about her well-being. It seems that he doesn't have anything to do with the lizards himself and went just with us because of her. The more I'm sad about that he's been hurt during the fight. I hope we'll see both of them them again safe and sound.«
»I hope so, too. Now that I know she's alive it'd hurt me even more than ever to lose her again.«
»I don't think that this'll happen. I saw her fighting, she isn't easy to defeat.«
Pcherro grinned and gave Michiki a meaningful sideways glance. »I know.«
»If you are feeling strengthened again, friend cat, we would like to continue our way into the mountains,« Velena said. »We mustn't hesitate too long if we don't want to lose our chance to stop the lizards. And our time has nearly run out.«
»What do you mean?« Pcherro asked.
Velena sighed deeply. »I can't explain the whole background of my mission to you, even if I wanted, there's no time for that. But I want to tell you this much: We will be able to defeat our enemies only today because the power of the Eternals will unite and we will make use of that. With their help we will give rise to the cold hand of darkness over the home of the lizards and extinguish them.« While she spoke her voice hat gotten more and more sharp and lost its usually soothing timbre completely. But a few moments later she had herself under control again. »I am sorry if I scared you. But a big event is approaching that we can't afford to miss, if we want to put the reign of the lizards to an end.«
»You're a magician?«
Velena smiled. »In fact, I am. But now don't let us lose any more time by talking about me. Do you think you are able to travel with us or do you prefer to go your own way?«
»You said, Ichira will come back to you. So we're going with you. I'm ready.«
»Me too, if that's of any importance,« Michiki said, his voice carried a slightly annoyed undertone.
Pcherro's eyes grew wide with consternation. »Friend ferret, I-«
Michiki grinned disarmingly. »Ay! I just made a joke. I'm coming along. If the lizards really get taught a lesson I'd be the last one to miss it.«
The five companions set off back into the mountains soon afterwards. As always Hakir went in front with Velena; the cat and Michiki followed closely while Zid was the rearguard. Pcherro remotely remembered one or the other place he had passed before under darker circumstances. With that the cruel things, the lizards did to him and the rest of his tribe, came back to his mind. Once the memory was so strong that he had to stop for a moment and hold on to Michiki's shoulder do keep himself from breaking down. But all in all the prospect of a good ending and a reunion with his sister kept him upright.
It took them to the early afternoon to reach the place where they could see the entrance to the lizard's cave. For the last part of the way Pcherro had taken the lead for the trail hadn't been visible clearly anymore on the stony ground. Now they stood a bowshot's distance away and Velena indicated them to find a place to hide. »I will leave you now to accomplish my mission. You should know that this won't be an easy task. Therefor I want to thank you already now for your help and support. It is possible that I won't be able to do this later on.«
»You can't be serious!« Hakir erupted and Zid growled deeply in disapproval, too. »You don't believe that I'll leave you to your fate alone, do you? Ay! I'll come with you and make sure that nothing happens to you.«
»Friend wolf, I really appreciate your offer. But please understand that this is not possible. I must leave you here, so the ritual can be performed correctly. If everything turns out all right we will see each other again, soon.«
Hakir's face showed worry and a certain mourning. »I don't want you to face such a danger.«
Velena kept silent. Obviously she had been serious about her words. With an impromptu movement she lay her arms around the body of the wolf and hugged him tightly. Hakir instantly returned the embrace. For some moments they stayed like this motionlessly before she finally stepped back a pace. »Sayh, my friends. I will come back as soon as I can. Please stay here and hide. So nothing will happen to you.« She sighed deeply, approached Hakir again and gave him a quick lick over the side of his muzzle. Then she turned away from them and started to climb down into the small valley that lay before the entrance of the cave. Soon she was out of sight.
The wolf stared after her for a long time. His worry for her was clearly visible on his face. Finally they retreated behind a rock and watched the entrance from there. Nothing moved while the minutes crawled by. Michiki had in the meantime fallen asleep leaning at a big stone and Pcherro was looking tired, too. A cool wind had come up and played with his whiskers. Again and again he looked back to the way they had come, partly expecting to see the well-known figure of his sister coming up the hill. But on both sides of their camp the surroundings presented itself completely deserted. Tensioned they waited for the event that Velena had announced.
Pcherro sat cross-legged at the edge of the valley and stared to the cave's entrance. Every now and then he yawned widely. The effort of the travel had taken its toll on him and despite of Velena's excellent treatment he wasn't back to his full health yet. He could hardly keep his eyes open. With all his strength he fought against going to sleep and tore his eyes open. Nearly at the same moment he flinched and quickly retreated behind a rock.
Four figures were coming into sight on the other side of the valley. Two of them obviously were lizards. The other two seemed to belong to the Higher Races. Pcherro strained his weary eyes and recognized the shape of a fox who was carrying something heavy on his shoulders. It looked like a rough barrow. His knees became weak when the fox turned right at the command of the lizard leader and provided the view to his burden. A cat lay on it. Her fur was nearly completely black, only on her ears, under the chin, on her belly and her hind paws small white patches were visible. And even over this distance Pcherro could see that she had a small shaved spot on her forehead. But what was worst was the condition she was in. One of her legs was splinted and she wore a number of rough bandages. »Ichira,« the cat whispered in disbelief. Then he became louder. »Ichira!«
»What's going on?« Hakir asked in surprise. »Be quiet or they'll find us!«
»They've got Ichira! Those damned scale-bearers have my sister!« Pcherro had put his ears flat and his claws scratched noisily over the hard rock.
The wolf ran to him and looked down into the valley, too. He also could clearly see the two lizards who led their captives to the direction of the entrance. »Redfur's with her. So she found him.«
»By the Eternals! They'll regret that!« The cat jumped onto the rock and prepared to rush at the two lizard guards. But a strong paw held him back. Zid had stepped behind him and easily lifted him from the rock. »Let me go, bear!« Pcherro hissed through clenched teeth. »I warn you!« Threatening he lifted his clawed paw.
With a speed no one would think the bulky body of the bear was capable of he had pushed the cat on his back to the floor and put his claws to his neck. »Shut up,« Zid growled. »They'll make short work of us when they find us here. We can't do anything for her now.«
Pcherro didn't dare to move. Only his eyes flared with hate for the lizards and for the one who was keeping him from doing something. But he was helpless against the strength of the bear.
Meanwhile the four figures down in the valley had continued their way and had disappeared in the cave. Zid kept holding the cat down for a while until he was sure that he wouldn't just jump up and run off blindly. Then he set him free. Pcherro retreated, stood up in a fluid motion and rubbed his throat instinctively. The bear looked at him with a blank face and then he turned away as if nothing had happened.
Michiki had woken again due to the commotion and was looking around with sleepy eyes now. He did realize that something had happened but he couldn't quite make head or tail of the situation. Silently he stood up to look over the rocks into the valley.
Just at this moment a group of mummed figures came out of the shelter of the rocks. They wore dark red, loose fitting cowls, their hoods hiding their faces and the paws hid in the sleeves. They gathered nearly without a sound in the middle of the valley and seemed to prepare for something. There was discussion before they separated from each other a little and formed a circle. Then - at first softly, then becoming more and more clearly - a monotonous chanting became audible that hovered ominously over the figures. Now Zid and Hakir started looking at the spectacle, too.
The lizards heard the chanting, too. Two guards came out of the cave and watched the mummed suspiciously. Another guard joined them and a few moments later they disappeared into the cave. A tensioned mood came over the place while the comrades waited for something to happen.
It didn't take long. Only a few moments later a big number of guards gathered at the entrance, led by a lizard whose clothing reminded of a shaman or priest. He carried a knotty staff, decorated with ribbons, feathers and other trinkets and a number of bags on his belt. At the edge of the valley he commanded the soldiers to stop while he approached the group that continued its chanting unconcernedly. About twenty steps from them he suddenly stopped, opened his arms with a quick motion and shouted some words in the language of the lizards. Without a hurry one of the figures stepped out of the circle of cowl-wearers and turned to the shaman. A casual looking flick of the hand produced a glaring flash of light that flung the lizard a few steps backwards. The shaman howled in pain, came back to his feet and raced back to the guards who were watching the scene with horrified looks. With hasty gestures he gave them an order and the soldiers picked up their spears.
At this moment the center of the circle started to glow brightly. A pillar of light slowly grew out of the middle; the higher the sorcerers lifted their arms, the higher the light grew. Trepidation spread in the line of the soldiers and they precariously looked at each other until the shaman yelled another order. Sixteen spears were thrown, two of them hit their target.
»Velena!« Hakir cried. »You Eternals! Protect her!«
The struck figures lay motionlessly while the ritual continued. The soldiers were brought new spears and aimed at the sorcerers again. But then a shrill scream broke the tension. Pcherro had snuck up to the guards from behind and now pounced at one of spear-bearers. Before he knew what was happening the cat had already ripped open his neck. The body of the lizard fell to the ground, twitching, while Pcherro got himself ready for the next jump.
»Damned fool!« Hakir cried. »Zid! Quick! We must help him.« The wolf grabbed his crossbow and the belt of bolts and charged the weapon as quickly as he could. Then he jumped over the sheltering rock with one leap and ran towards the lizards with loud cries of war.
Michiki couldn't believe what was happening around him. Only in a few moments complete chaos had taken over. Quickly he looked around and saw the bear who was motionlessly gazing at the scene in the valley. »What is it?« the ferret asked. »Help us! We must get Pcherro out of there!« But Zid didn't move. He held his sword so tightly in his paw as if he wanted to crush the hilt. »Why are you just standing there like that?« Michiki gave up and finally raced after the wolf. On his way he frequently collected larger stones that he threw well aimed at the guards. The three of them couldn't do much but maybe they could distract them enough to give the sorcerers sufficient time for whatever they were doing there.
Meanwhile, Pcherro had gotten himself into big trouble. Hissing wildly he slashed around with his claws, encircled by four lizards who tried to get him under control. Then one of Hakir's bolts hit its target and smashed the forehead of one of the attackers. The cat used the newly opened gap instantly to retreat quickly. He was panting heavily and Michiki could see that he had gotten fresh wounds.
He had to pay for this short lack of attention, though. Suddenly the ferret faced a lizard who was threatening him with a spear. Michiki gulped hard and retreated a pace but the guard kept at him. The tip of the spear lifted balefully when the lizard prepared to strike and Michiki ducked in desperation. But the expected pain didn't come, he heard the guard's cry instead. Stunned he recognized the bulky figure of the bear standing next to him, who had separated the lizard's head from its shoulders with one blow. He looked into Zid's eyes and smiled, he didn't have enough air for a thankful word. The bear only nodded at him and turned away to face the next run of the lizards.
Another stone lay in the ferret's paw. But somehow he found aiming much harder. It was as if the world around him darkened. He was surprised to see that it was exactly what was happening. The sun had disappeared and there was a glowing ring shining down at them instead. At the same time the air began too cool down. Michiki looked over to the circle of magicians and saw that the pillar of light by now reached into the sky and seemed to reach exactly for the place where the sun had been. Meanwhile four dead bodies were lying in their lines but there was no telling who they were, because their cowls hid their entire bodies. In only a few minutes the temperature fell so much that his breath started to form clouds and Michiki began to shiver. The longer it took the more sluggish and slow the movements of the lizards became until the motions finally stopped altogether. The biting chill penetrated his own fur, too, and he hugged his body with his arms. Now he knew that Velena's words hadn't been just a metaphor - he never had felt such a cold.
After his eyes had adjusted to the darkness his steps became more secure. The two lizard guards led him deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of caves. The scraping of the wooden barrow echoed weirdly in the narrow halls. Occasionally they met other guards that greeted them quickly and hurried past them. Gzecit seemed to have certain reputation, the looks and feelings of the other lizards showed that clearly.
At one of the many forks they had passed the leader eventually told them to stop. He called one of the guards over and ordered something in their own hissing language. »Give him the barrow,« he commanded the fox, Ch'rast's crossbow assisting him. Redfur didn't move even though the heavy bars nearly squashed his shoulders and the third guard was looking at him expectantly. »Don't you hear what I said?«
»I understand you perfectly well,« the fox replied. »But I told you that I won't go without her. And a dead captive won't be of much use to you.«
Gzecit hissed angrily. »You are playing a very dangerous game, furball!« he threatened.
»What do I have to lose? After you took me to your lord and he's done with me you'll kill me anyway. Why should I worry about myself anymore? My fate's sealed, this way or the other.«
»You're damned right, fox. It is.« With a quick movement Gzecit lunged out with his paw. Redfur staggered to the ground when the claws hit his face and darkened his senses for a moment. He heard Ichira crying loudly in pain when the barrow hit the floor. Full of rage he whirled around and just started to rise when he looked into Ch'rast's loaded crossbow. Growling he stopped and lay back his ears. »This was just a warning, fox. If you want to die you can have it that way.« He waved the guard to pick up Ichira's barrow. When he had disappeared through the tunnel he turned back to Redfur. »And you're going to come with us to our king. And if you ever want to see your cat friend again you're not going to cause us any more trouble.« He pointed at a broader corridor that was leading onward.
Under the watchful look of Ch'rast he slowly rose and started to walk. Inside he was steaming with anger for his helplessness against the situation. He had used strong words to keep Ichira alive at least until now, but it seemed that the patience of the lizards had worn off eventually. With blank looks they led him on, deeper and deeper into the widely branched tunnel system of their fortress.
His tired and abused body showed him unmistakeably that he wouldn't be able to keep going for much longer. Icy coldness started to spread inside of him and he stopped, panting heavily and supporting himself at the cave's wall. Only now he realized that he could see his breath before his snout. Stunned he turned to the two guards who were at least as puzzled as he was. But he noticed another thing: The lizards didn't seem to cope with the cold very good. While he was watching their condition got worse rapidly until finally both of them sank to the ground and lay there motionlessly.
The temperature in the cave had by now reached a level that reminded him of his old home. Purely by habit he fluffed up his fur to make sure that his body heat could not dissipate so fast. He couldn't make out where this sudden cold snap was coming from but he was glad for this chance to save the lives of Ichira and himself a second time. He tied the two lizards with the leather straps of their own armor. At first he hesitated to just let the guards lie there but then reason took control. He had no time to lose because Ichira needed his help. Her fur wouldn't protect her as good as his own did and she wasn't in the condition to help herself anyway. So he turned around and ran back the way as fast as he could.
It wasn't easy to keep one's bearings in this widely branched labyrinth. With all his senses he looked for his mate. During this he became aware of the sounds that came from one of the numerous corridors. Carefully he followed the noises until he stood before a barred door where a big number of figures was huddling together. When he cautiously approached he saw that this was some kind of mass prison. About two steps from the bars a lizard lay motionlessly on the ground. After a short search he found a heavy key ring that he instantly tried at the door. »Don't worry, friends!« he called out to the prisoners. »I'm going to get you out of here.« The lock snapped open and he opened the bars. »Follow me, I'm going to lead you to the surface.«
»Why is it so cold?« one of the captives asked.
Redfur couldn't see where the voice was coming from, but it definitely sounded cat-like. Lots of the captives seemed to be felines, anyway. »I don't know, but the lizards don't seem to get along with the temperature. Let's thank the Eternals for that. Now just follow me, I know the way.« This wasn't entirely true but he was sure that he could find the way to the entrance without a problem. But the fact that this would slow down saving Ichira made his conscience feeling bad, so he hurried to lead the prisoners to the exit.
When he saw daylight at the end of the corridor he stopped and told the leaders to bring the rest of the group outside. He turned around himself and continued his search for Ichira. Now that he was coming from the same direction he could find his way a bit easier. Soon he had reached the branch where they had separated him from his mate. He rested for a few moments there, the efforts already made dark speckles dance before his eyes. Then he went on.
The corridor stretched out before him in a wide-angled right bend. Redfur followed the way as fast as he could. Then he started to call Ichira's name. After each call he listened intently for an answer but there was none. So he went on, looked into every recess and stepped into every side corridor until he finally saw two bigger silhouettes in the dim light before him. The torches in this part of the cave had nearly burned down and the fox had to strain his eyes to see anything at all. But when he approached he could clearly see, that they were Ichira's barrow and the lizard. He found the cat a few steps farther down the tunnel. She probably had been trying to drag herself along on her own, after the lizard had collapsed.
Redfur worriedly knelt down next to Ichira and put his ear on her snout. He realized with relief that she was still breathing and he carefully helped her getting on her feet. Her fur felt chilly - he had to get her out of this cave as soon as possible, or it would be too late. Without thinking twice he lifted her from the floor and carried her back along the corridor. He held her tightly to himself to give a little of his body heat to her. It was tough going for him, especially in his current condition, but he clenched his teeth and went on to the exit.
Pcherro was caught by surprise by the sudden change of the surroundings, too. At first he had looked at the sorcerer's ritual unconcernedly but now a bad feeling spread inside of him. The power that radiated from the center of this circle triggered a certain fear inside of him, even though it was obviously helping to turn the fight against the lizards for their favor. And then this weird coldness; even the hardest winter he had ever experienced had never brought such temperatures. During the battle he had already put up with the thought that he would die for his people but when their opponents fell victim to the cold one by one new hope came up inside of him. His confidence rose even more when he saw the first captives leaving the complex of the caves. They looked terrible but they were free.
The cat hurried to get down into the valley to meet the stream of refugees. Joyfully he greeted his tribe's people, laughed with them and embraced them. But all the time he looked out especially for his family and Ichira. But he couldn't find them Meanwhile the last of the captives had left the cave and it was sure that no more would follow. Worried he turned to the entrance and once again entered the cursed cave that had meant so much suffering for him and all the other workers.
Finally he saw the exit before him. Ichira weighed heavy in his arms and he was glad that it would be over soon. Once again he gathered all his strength, closed his eyes in exhaustion and took the last staggering steps. Suddenly he felt movement before him and he dodged instinctively, but he couldn't prevent a collision.
»Oh, I'm sorry,« a cat-like voice said when someone pushed themselves past him.
The fox was too exhausted to answer. He only wanted to get out of the cave and bring his mate out of the range of the cold.
Redfur stopped in bewilderment. »Where do you know her from?« Then he saw the bald spot on the forehead of the cat and understood.
»Ichira!« The stranger rushed towards him and Redfur had to put her down to the ground carefully not to fall down. With tears in his eyes the cat knelt beside her and embraced her. He called her name over and over as if he couldn't comprehend that she actually was there. Gingerly he stroked her head and back; her snout was resting on his chest.
»Who are you, friend cat?« Redfur finally asked.
The other lifted his head, the fur soaked with tears. »My name's Pcherro, friend fox. I'm her brother.«
»I'm called Redfur. Sayh, Pcherro.« They exchanged a quick paw rub. »We should leave now and quickly bring her to a warmer place.«
»You're right. Let the sorcerers finish the lizards.«
Redfur helped Pcherro lifting up Ichira and went with him to the exit. »What sorcerers are you talking about?«
»On my way I met a group around a lynx named Velena. As of what I've heard you've met her, too. She joined a group of other magicians here and brought the cold on the lizards. I believe we owe them the good ending of this desaster.« He looked deeply into Redfur's eyes. »I hope you're worthy to be my sister's mate.«
»I'll leave this decision to Ichira herself.« The fox smiled. »We should hurry now, your fur won't protect you and her not very long from the cold.«
The clean up was in full activity. The cats had already searched through the debris for pieces that were still useful and some of them even made it to rebuild their houses. The shock of the raid was still deep in the heard of the tribe's people so they made more efforts to make their village easier to defend. Only a few of them actually understood what really had happened and who was responsible for their rescue. Most of them just were glad to be home again.
Velena, Hakir and Zid had returned to their home after the capturing of the lizards. The wolf had been incredibly relieved when he heard that she was in good health. He didn't try to cover up his affection towards the lynx now and she also answered his feelings openly. Together with the survivors of their people they finally had set off. The company of resistance had served its purpose.
Redfur and Ichira sat at the edge of the newly rising village and observed the work. The cat had recovered remarkably well, only a supporting splint told of the injuries she had suffered against the fight of the monster in the swamp. The mental wounds however were deep and kept surfacing occasionally. The fox stayed at her side, gave her support whenever she needed it. He also helped the family to build up a new home and this also helped to convince Pcherro that he would be a good mate for his sister.
»What are you going to do when everything's back to normal again here?« Ichira asked.
»What do you mean?«
Ichira looked into his eyes. The amber colored eyeballs sparkled like gems in the light of the sun. »I mean, are you going to move on to find other places and people? Because I don't think you could endure living in one place for long. You're a wanderer, friend fox; and I already see in your eyes that the distant lands are calling for you. You're not made for a life like that we're living here.«
Redfur sighed. »I'm afraid you're right. Ay! If it weren't for this raid I'd been leaving this land far behind me a long time ago. I know there's still a lot for me to discover: Lands, cities, people ... A whole world full of secrets and riddles to be explored.« He paused for a moment, inhaled deeply and continued in a soft voice. »Of course I'm curious what the land beyond this realms looks like. But as long as you're with me I can resist this urge. So, if you accept my company I'll stay with you and try to adapt to your way of life as good as I can.«
»This would be a big sacrifice for you to bring,« Ichira said. »I don't want you to resign from your travels because of me. This is why I decided to come with you.«
Redfur was so stunned that he couldn't say a word at first. »What do you mean?«
The cat laughed. »I mean that I want to come with you to see the new lands. As soon as my family and the village lead a reasonable life again I'll join you, provided that you can hang on so long and tolerate my company.«
»What would your brother say?«
»Probably he'd declare me mad and wish me a good journey. We're close to each other so he'll understand how I'm feeling. It's my decision how I'm going to live my life.«
»Then this probably won't be so valuable for you anymore,« the fox said softly and gave her a small chest he was toying with behind his back for quite a time now. »I thought this would be a nice present for the reunion of your tribe.«
Ichira took the small object into her paws and finally opened the lid. A small, circle-shaped stone lay in velvety cushions, framed in a netting of golden colored wires. The stone sparkled in the light of the day when the cat took the trinket out of the chest and looked at it. Now she saw that the framework was made in the shape of a fox's head.
»I could convince one of your goldsmiths to alter the token a little,« Redfur said softly. »I hope you don't mind.«
»Not at all, friend fox,« she replied. A joyful look was on her face she hadn't shown too often since their return. »Ay! It's beautiful. Do you help me putting it on?«
Led by her orders he fastened the tribal token on her forehead, now hiding the bare spot. Finally he could complete the picture in his head that had been stuck there since the evening at the lake. And he was proven right: The stone matched her so good that it nearly seemed to be a part of her.
»Thank you, Redfur,« she said after a long pause.
»Renech,« the fox said.
Redfur grinned. »That's my real name. Renech. I want you to know it, because you're the one that knows me best. When you call me by this name I know, it's about things that are concerning just you and me. Please keep this name to yourself, it shall belong to you alone.«
»As you wish ... Renech.« Ichira grinned. »Ay! Indeed, a fox full of secrets.«
»Redfur! Ichira!« Michiki came running from the village towards them. The ferret had decided to stay with the cats for the time being, until he had decided what he wanted to do with his new life in freedom. Besides, Ichira's brother had grown fond of the little guy and the two had in the meantime become as close as brothers. »Pcherro and the rest of the family asked me to call you for the meal. That is, if you're not too busy.« He blinked in wonder, then grinned. »Oh, a nice token you've got there, Ichira.«
»Well, Milady,« Redfur said politely. »Would you honor me with your company at the feast?«
Laughing they rose and followed the ferret who was already halfway back to the house.