by Tony Greyfox
Text ©2007 Tony Greyfox; illustration ©2007 Cubist

Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2

Home -=- #11 -=- ANTHRO #11 Stories
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Chapter 1—On the Trail

   Dust and din rose from the crowded paths of a shanty village, a tight collection of roughly built homes, taverns and market shops half-shadowed by the walls of the city looming atop the hills above. Shouts of hawkers working to attract passers-by to their rude stalls were joined by the barked orders of merchant guards and the crack of whips against flesh—and the occasional crack of wood on bone, when some entrepreneurial hawker got too close to one of the laden cart trains heading towards the city.
   Above the doorway to one of the numerous inns that crowded the main road near where it crossed the Oak River and started its winding journey up to the looming plateau, a weather-worn sign creaked in the wind, its painted depiction of an acorn on a shield still readable despite its numerous scabrous patches of bare wood. A stag, smudged apron surrounding his ample middle, stood next to the door watching carts pulled by merchants’ servants and guards trundle past, a frown spread across his weary visage. Most of the carts were heading away from the city, and leaving the city was no way to fill his coffers while autumn and the harvests slowly dwindled away.
   “Finest rooms in Oak Root, good prices!” came a voice from above; the innkeeper peered to the second floor window and his mate hanging out over the path.
   “Right here, the Oaken Guard! Fine amber ales and well-prepared foods for all!” she shouted to the indifferent passers-by, most of whom gave the inn less than a second glance. “Just pennies a night, or trade for food and goods!”
   “Don’t waste thy voice,” grunted the stag, watching the carts continue their progress towards the dales in the west and south, “or ye’ll have none left to scold me for our rooms bein’ empty. Ge’ thee back inside and fire the wood for evenin’ meal. A joint, remember, for our lordly guest.”
   A lump of mud from above caught him between the antlers as he turned back to watch the crowd again. Snorting with irritation, he brushed it away with thick, horny fingers and turned back into the inn to prepare for what would be yet another quiet night at the Oaken Guard.
   Along the street, the gossip flowed among shopkeepers and stall owners alike as they watched the carts and bearers creak out of town; stories of a new mineral found in the southeastern reaches of Avendale, or of rich crops taking workers and merchants across the Grass River into Southmoor for the rest of the year, leaving naught but the lumber merchants and hunters to the north through summer.
   The shopkeepers watched the carts creak away, shook their heads, and wondered once again why they had thought setting up shop in the shadows of the royal court would bring them prosperity year ’round.
   And in the midst of the crowd, a small figure in a dusty grey cloak, with hood pulled over its head, ducked out of the way of a rumbling cart hauled by four burly cougars to slide unnoticed into a gap between two shops, turning bright eyes out of the shadows towards the facade of the Oaken Guard.

   The inn’s taproom was nearly empty, save for the keeper and his mate. The pair bustled about while trying their best not to disturb the two creatures sitting at a round table near the fire, their heads bent close to one another as they spoke in quiet voices.
   The larger of the two, of vulpine mien, had one black paw wrapped around a wooden stein, even as the other held a roughly-cut chunk of bread topped with a slab of rare mutton. A napkin tucked in his shirt protected the finely-woven green cloth jerkin he wore, a mark of wealth and quality compared to the rough-spun wool worn by his companion, and a pair of hoop rings at the base of his pointed ears added to the noble quality of the fox. Black-furred except for the white skirting his muzzle and down his neck, he blended in well with the darkening taproom. His associate, a good-sized coyote, moved nervously, stuffing chunks of meat into his muzzle and muttering in response to the fox’s queries.
   “Ye had the grain an’ flour sacks prepared for us, aye?” the fox muttered around a mouthful of cheese, using a small, keen knife to slice another piece from the mutton roast at the middle of the table. “An’ they’re ready for transport?”
   The coyote nodded in response, glancing towards where the innkeeper was fussing with a stack of plates near the kitchen entrance. “Aye, they’re ready to go, Milord, paid for in Southmoor coin as you ordered. I’ve none of ye… the other marks to use at any rate.”
   “All the best, my friend. I want those goods back to the camp an’ make sure all our charges are fed tonight, but not too much—we’ll be away from shops and cities for the next few days at least.” With a grin that set firelight glinting from a broken fang, the black fox finished his glass and tapped it on the table. “More ale!” he shouted towards the stag, who nodded and hurriedly rushed over to top up his glass before retreating again with a short bow.
   “I’ll be off, then, Milord,” the coyote said, scrubbing his paws on his rough-spun smock and picking up a bundle from his feet. “When should we be expectin’ ye?”
   “I’ll catch up day after tomorrow—I’ve been delivered an invitation to call upon the Prince tomorrow. Certainly, he heard I was here and is looking for some fine Wood Lake rubies. Take the string to the second stream crossing and give them a rest there if I’ve not caught ye up by then. Be sure,” he said, holding up a finger, “that my little friend is well treated, though. Remind the others that I’d be put out fiercely, should she come to harm.”
   Bowing his way from the table, the coyote smirked slightly. “Aye, I’ll remind ’em, Milord. Have yerself a fine evening, an’ my respects to the Prince, if ye don’t mind.”
   Swirling his ale in its glass, the fox watched his retainer leave, then grinned to himself, picking up the joint and tearing into it with his remaining sharp-honed teeth and claws, a slight growl leaving his lips as he shredded the flesh. Across the room, the stag suppressed a shudder at the bestial display before returning to his cleaning, leaving the wealthy creature to his meal.
   Outside the inn, the coyote sauntered up the dimly lit street. He was followed by a gaze from the shadows that held until he was out of sight, then returned to the tavern door.

   Some distance up the Aven River, the lights flickered on at a small house near the edge of a vast forest. Vegetable-oil lamps sputtered to life as the skies darkened, casting a glimmer over the fast-flowing river—and a dull glow across a small kitchen garden laying next to the path that ushered occasional pilgrims and merchant carts eastward, and laden carts of iron and copper ore westward.
   “Fetch me in some carrots, Darin!” a voice called to a young rabbit who was busily carving a mug from a piece of hardwood at the edge of the garden. “Then fetch your father from the root house!”
   “Right away, mama,” the kit shouted, carefully setting his handiwork aside and dashing between the garden’s neat, green rows. Dropping to his knees, he snuffled in the dirt among the greenery, then quickly dug with blunt claws to uproot a selected few carrots, filling the gaps in as he went along. A good pawful of the orange roots picked out and dusted, he then dashed towards a small hut cut into a bank nearby and stuck his head in. “Father! Mama’s calling for you!”
   An older rabbit emerged from the hut a moment later, dusting off his work smock and carrying a jar of opaque ale. He ruffled his son’s long ears and smiled, leaning to inspect the carrots. “Excellent choices, boy,” he approved. “You’re doing well at selecting the roots.”
   “The scent is really easy to pick out, father, just like you said,” the youngster beamed. “And I didn’t even bite any off this time!”
   “Good, good, son,” his father chuckled. “Come; let’s go in and see what your mother’s making for dinner.”
   The two headed back to the log home, the larger lapine gathering an armful of wood along the way and wiping his large hindpaws carefully before entering the house.
   “Have ye carrots, Darin?”
   “He does indeed, my love.” Striding into the kitchen, the elder rabbit set his armload of wood next to the cooking fire and the jar on the counter. “And I bring some fine berry wine from last autumn’s crops—it’s turned out well.”
   The doe turned away from her pots and smiled, leaning up to give her mate a kiss. “Wonderful, Evan. Darin, clean those carrots for me, please?”
   “Yes, Mama,” the youngster replied, setting himself to clean the roots. “How is the big bear today?”
   Evan started, his long ears standing up in surprise. “Gone? You mean..?”
   She shook her head. “No, no. I mean gone, not dead. The room was empty when I peeked in earlier to check the wounds—came awake while I was gathering water and you were up gathering herbs, I’d guess. Must’ve gathered clothes and weapons, and left.”
   “With those wounds? Up and about in just four days?” Her mate shook his head and opened the jar of wine, careful to not break the precious glass as he cracked the wax seal. “If that kind of harm means naught more than a few days in bed… I envy not the beasts who carved that bear up like that, especially if those creatures aren’t far away by this time. That one’s a warrior, for certain.”
   “A warrior?” Darin’s eyes shone with the light of the young hearing a favorite story. “That was a huge sword!”
   “Finish your chores, Darin, so I can grill those carrots with some honey,” his mother admonished, shaking a ladle at the youngster. “Well… we did what we could for our guest, my love. We each choose our destiny.”
   Pouring a judicious amount of the wine into a small wooden cup, Evan swirled it under his twitching nose and took a sip, nodding his head approvingly. “Aye, that we do, dear. And the brutes who attacked that one, I think, have chosen poorly.”

   Lanterns sputtered and cast a fatty scent through the throne room of the Lord of Avendale. The builders of the magnificent room, core of the castle situated at the centre of Oak Hill, had been less concerned with ventilation than with general magnificence; thus, smoke from the fat-filled lamps swirled and gathered at the roof, leaving slight stains on the upper reaches of the massive wall hangings and dulling the light. Standing before the throne’s expansive dais, the black fox found himself, not for the first time, wishing for a hammer to knock a few air holes in the walls—or at least for someone to open a door.
   A cougar sprawled languidly on one of the thrones. Bright red gems spilled from a small canvas bad into his paw; dim light twinkled ruddily from their facets. The big cat, Prince Eric, smiled slightly at the sparkling from the rubies, poking at one or two with a slim finger to turn them better in the light, then turned his gaze to the fox.
   “Once again, young Lord Hawthorne, you bring your prince a fine gift. The Wood Lake veins continue to produce fine gems to help your country’s coffers,” the Prince purred, shifting in his throne. Lanky, but displaying signs of indolence and rich food, the middle-aged cougar had been on the throne for some fifteen summers, and the realm had prospered and grown under his reign. Especially those parts of the realm that could provide a few extra benefits with their usual contributions of food and goods, Hawthorne reflected as the cougar continued to inspect the pawful of fine rubies.
   “Your majesty is too kind,” the fox replied, bowing with a swirl of his cloak, “and I—and my father, Lord Silvertail, of course—wish you good health and long reign, you and your lady mate.” He swept another bow to the empty throne to the cougar’s right, following the protocols that he knew would be best accepted by this vain cat.
   The Prince smiled, showing yellowed fangs through white-rimmed lips, and returned a seated bow before returning the rubies into their pouch—all but one, which he held up to a flickering torch, turning it this way and that.
   “I do, however,” his silky voice purred, “note a small change in the fire of these jewels.” He turned amber eyes to the standing fox, whose face showed a slight flicker of puzzlement and, perhaps, chagrin. “The facets. The cuts in these rubies. They seem… less precise than past gifts you have brought.”
   Hawthorne grumbled inwardly, but gave the Prince a polite smile, just showing the broken fang that had given him his nickname, Halftooth. “My apologies, Your Highness. Our current cutters are still learning their duties, and their precision is slow in coming.”
   “No need to apologize, of course, young man. I understand the problems that come when families have upheavals—they cause problems through the whole realm.” The cougar waved a liveried rabbit towards the throne, and held out a beaten iron cup to be filled with what Halftooth scented out as being a fine red wine, probably from the dry hills of southern Southmoor and worth a substantial amount of trade in itself. Across the room, a trio of musicians plunked indifferently on stringed instruments, marking the start of the luncheon hour. “Have you heard from your brother since his… departure? His jewel cuts were truly fine indeed. A most talented young fox.”
   Keeping the smile fixed on his muzzle while digging his claws into his palms to avoid bunching his fists in anger, Halftooth shook his head. “I fear not, Prince Eric. He expressed rather emphatically his desire to remain apart from our lands and family upon his leaving. My father reported a trader of his acquaintance had perhaps seen him in Grass Crossing, destined for Southmoor.”
   “Such a pity,” the Prince sighed, swirling his mug and absently waving the rabbit towards Halftooth. “Join me for some wine, young Hawthorne, and we shall toast his fortunes on his own. I certainly hope we do not see any fine jewels appearing on the market from Southmoor. It would be a shame for our neighbors to benefit from your family arguments.”
   Accepting a more utilitarian vessel from the rabbit, the fox kept his tail from twitching irritably and raised his cup to the Prince. “To my brother’s fortunes.” May they be short and painful, he thought to himself as the two furs drank together.

   Outside, where a beaten path led to a small side gate in the massive castle wall, a cougar guard glared down at the small figure that had approached what was known as the Petitioner’s Door.
   On many days, there was a lineup of creatures wending along the castle wall from this door; by long-standing custom, those who required assistance and aid would receive it when they lined up here. Often enough, such needs could be satisfied by a bit of food for those families that suffered from a crop failure or the loss of a breadwinner. At other times, the trouble might be a territory dispute of some sort between residents within Oak Hill or Oak Root, and sometimes in the lands surrounding them, that wanted settling by a noble’s decree. On occasion, petitioners had arrived from farther afield to ask a boon of some sort from the highest court in Avendale. Usually, the response was positive—a solution was provided, be it a dole of food, an authoritative decree, or whatever else, generally by courtiers but occasionally by the Prince or Princess themselves.
   Today had been quiet, and the guard was in a poor mood. He had left his luncheon at home, and was now missing his daily pint of ale. Clawmarks on his spear indicated his irritation, and now this small creature—drawing back its hood to reveal itself as a young, somewhat undersized fox with dark fur and white splotches on either side of his muzzle—provided a potential target for that feline annoyance.
   “State thy business,” the guard growled gruffly, shifting his spear to a position of readiness, in case of potential danger. “This be the Petitioner’s Door, so speak yer petition or be on yer way.”
   The fox bowed, a white-speckled black tail sweeping from under his long cloak. “I must speak with your Lord, the Prince or Princess, immediately. I have information of great concern to them,” he said; his measured, educated tones set the guard’s ears upright and his instincts tingling.
   “The Prince or Princess, you say?” The cougar, despite a flash of wariness at the mendicant’s cultured speech, snorted a laugh and shook his head. “You look to speak well above yer station, youngster. The Prince and Princess hear no petitions, fox, so speak yer words to me, as custom calls for.”
   Frowning, the black-furred fox looked up at the burly guard with a mildly chagrined expression. “But this is a matter of grave import, with which I’m sure the Prince and Princess would wish to deal. A law has been broken, many times over, and must be—”
   “Silence!” Whipping his spearpoint down to a more menacing angle, the guard glowered at the smaller fur. “I care not what ye have t’ say about laws—the Regal family hears no petitions! I am the guard of the Petitioner’s Door. What ye have to say goes through me, or not at all!”
   “Take your ease, good fellow,” the fox said, bringing his paws up in a soothing gesture. “I mean no offense to you. I have word of a slave trader using the guise of a noble birth to take a train of kidnapped and captured creatures for sale in far-off lands. The slaver is here in Oak Hill even now, and—”
   He stopped as the guard started to chuckle, then laugh outright, ignoring the fox’s upraised eyebrows and flash of sharp teeth from irritation. “You find slaving funny? A Palace Guard, laughing at the plight of—”
   Abruptly, the cougar directed his weapon right at the young fox’s head. “Watch yer mouth, lad, lest I feed it wi’ this.” Stepping closer to the smaller fur, the guard growled and grounded his spearbutt, leaning over the petitioner, who stood his ground despite the approach. “I know what game ye’re playin’, youngster. Ye’ve a beef against some noble who ye feel has wronged ye, and ye’d slander his good name because of it. Well, we’ve heard that before, and ye’ll find no support here.” Raising his left paw, the cougar showed his own teeth, ears slicked back against his head as he loomed. “Now take yer lies and be off wi’ ye—or else feel the back of my paw!”
   A growl rose from deep in the fox’s chest; anger flashed in his eyes. But the cougar’s ready paw—claws shining in the sunlight—and bared teeth had their desired effect, and the fox turned and darted off, pulling his hood back up as he fled into the tangle of buildings that rose around the castle. The guard shook his head, and straightened again, laughing quietly to himself as he retook his post.
   “Slavers. Pah! What a fool’s joke,” he muttered, clawing another strip of wood from his spear shaft idly. “As if any slaves have been sold in Avendale for many summers! Such a child’s tale.”
   With the day’s amusement done with, the guard leaned back against the castle wall and waited for the afternoon to wear on, wishing all the while for a large mug of ale.

   “Well, we’re back home! Ain’t that lovely!”
   A young cinnamon-furred bear grunted as her arm was twisted. She was ungently forced to her knees on the ground, then shoved flat by a foot planted in the middle of her back. She’d been dragged along by a cougar, who now grinned as he attached the loose end of her waist-chain to a longer and heavier chain that was staked to a tree nearby. “Th’ Lord asked me t’ give you an extra bit o’ bread. Y’ must have been extra-friendly tonight,” he said, smirking as he wound thick ropes tightly around her forepaws.
   Finished with his chores, the weasel lifted his foot from her back and grinned, dropping several chunks of bread and a bowl of thin soup in front of her. “Eat up, now. Got t’ keep your strength up for th’ Lord. He likes his favorites bein’ well-treated, y’know.” Chuckling to himself, the guard walked on along the chain line, distributing more bread and soup to other similarly chained creatures.
   Tamiko drew her somewhat tattered tunic around herself as she curled up against a tree, numbly chewing on a piece of roughly baked bread. She ached all over—her broad back, battered from the beating that had left her unconscious, waking up only to find herself chained to this slave line; her legs and feet from the rushed marches, stumbling over roots and rocks over the past seven days; and various other places from… her mind flinched away from that. She shuddered, recalling the feel of the paws on her, the hot breath of the ‘Lord’ in her fur…
   She found herself growling once again, blunt claws on massive paws flexing… but her anger subsided as futility set in, and she slumped against her tree, mechanically drinking her lukewarm soup and chewing on the random bits of meat she found in the bowl. The ache in her chest and head were from the time she had tried to fight. She’d woken up several hours later after being dumped into a river by three guards, with a rope around her neck and pain in places that suggested her unconsciousness had been a blessing, at least that night. Since then, she’d discovered that the leader of this band was generally polite and as gentle as could be expected…if ‘gentle’ was the word for the treatment she’d received each evening since her capture, save two when he was strangely absent.
   Looking up along the chain line, Tamiko regarded the other slaves dully. Many of them were smaller species…rabbits, raccoons, a couple of deer, some squirrels, an otter or two…all wearing tattered clothing and bemused, beaten expressions. The guards moved among them, delivering the occasional kick seemingly at random, laughing at the flinches of the captured furs as they approached. And there, at the far end of the line, she could make out through the growing darkness the small and stocky figure of another bear.
   Her family had been traveling far from their home on Gateway Isle, at the mouth of the Grass River which formed the border between Southmoor and Avendale. It was no pleasure trip; moving along the great escarpment that marked the eastern border of Avendale, they toured mines and villages to arrange trade agreements And one night, walking through the frost-trimmed forests on a little-traveled path from the settlements back towards Oak Hill… a peppering of rocks caught them by surprise.
   Tamiko watched in horror as a group of roughly-dressed brigands charged from the forest towards the surprised bears. The largest of their party was taken down by a number of cruelly well-placed rocks, then swarmed over by a crowd of the attackers. She remembered screaming as knife blades flashed in the midst of the battle, and charging in to help when something caught her on the back and bowled her over, smashing her head against a rock and knocking her senseless. When she came to, she was trussed and chained, with two of their assailants hauling her roughly along by her arms.
   Her brother Takuma, seven summers her junior, had only marked his tenth Midsummer; he’d been treated more gently. Tamiko was the largest of their captives, and obviously the one the guards were most concerned about; equally obviously, they were using him to ensure that she did not misbehave. Being young, he did not let his confusion stop him from adapting quickly to the new situation. The guards were relatively gentle with him, Tamiko noted, and from the word traveling back along the line, two of the other captives had apparently helped him keep out of trouble. But she was certain he had no idea of what was happening as the twenty or so creatures were hauled along by the ‘Lord’ and his fifteen subordinates.
   A light in the camp caught the bear’s attention; she turned dull eyes towards it.
   Stepping out of the largest tent on the site, the big black fox known as Halftooth stretched. He smiled widely as he gathered a roasted leg of some fowl shot down by his guards from near the fire. He looked content with himself, laughing at some witticism offered by another fox nearby; Tamiko’s gaze followed him as he strolled around the encampment, reviewing the guards and their preparations for the evening. Satisfied, he looked over the slave line, and grinned as he caught Tamiko’s eye. He blew her a kiss, then winked as he gathered up a wooden cup of liquor before retiring to his tent once again and closing the flap.
   Tamiko sighed and wiped the dampness of a tear from her cheekfur as she tried to settle into a comfortable position against the tree, curling up and closing her eyes as the other evening ritual began. Loud guffaws emerged from the guards as they gathered near the fire; they were drawing straws to decide who would watch the captives through the first part of the night…a duty which carried certain privileges. Two cheers arose, joined by irritated mutters. She heard footsteps not long after the group broke up, and two uncouth voices.
   “Our luck’s in tonight, me boyo,” one of the guards commented, his voice rough and boisterous. “What’re you in th’ mood for tonight?”
   The footsteps moved nearer. Tamiko knew the two were walking along the slave line. “Well, I’m thinkin’ this little darlin’ looks pretty fine t’ me,” the other voice came, accompanied by a gasp of fear from further along the line. “Now, dearie, don’t be afeared; I won’t hurt ye. Much,” the guard smirked.
   Tamiko curled tighter around herself and tried to sleep, trying and not quite succeeding in blocking out the muffled cries and moans of the ‘lucky’ captives.

   Much later in the evening, the two guards Tamiko had noted—one a ragged-looking coyote wearing a half-unbuttoned roughspun jerkin, and the other a youngish rat—were loitering near a large tree. “Ah! This is th’ life, me boy!” he said, clutching a jar of ale (filched from the camp’s supplies) in one paw. “Decent pay, decent supplies, a fine evenin’s work and a sup of ale to make a shift on watch go by quick.”
   The rat smirked from his position, lying slouched over on a fallen log. “Aye, it’s a fine bit of employ fer a young feller startin’ out in life.” He swigged his own ale and belched quietly. “That little rabbit there, she feels just fine, she does. I’ll be rememberin’ that.”
   “Ahh, don’t be rememberin’ too hard—we’re out o’ the draw fer two nights now, an’ the pickin’s ain’t so great with this bunch.” The coyote smirked. “Ye got t’ make good on yer opportunities—an’ that’s just what ye did, hmm?”
   “Ye’re abs’lutely right, bucko! I’m a young feller, I’ve got me needs.” Motioning with his ale mug, the rat winked at his older counterpart and grinned. “Shame most o’ our ‘guests’ are just a bit too small for yer own entertainment, though. If only the Lord weren’t keepin’ that big bear for ’imself—”
   “Whoa, whoa now,” the other guard said, putting up a cautionary paw. “Don’t even start thinkin’ on that, boyo. Not unless ye’ve a hankerin’ to find yer way to the spirits real early in life.” Draining his ale, he looked towards the fire, then back to the younger guard. “The Lord, he picks ’imself a favorite every trip… always one o’ the bigger ones on the line, so’s he can make use o’ them an’ not hurt ’em too much. As fer us guards, we’re allowed t’ enjoy ourselves in our own way, long as the goods don’t come t’ harm. Our customers just care about their slaves bein’ healthy an’ able to pull an oar or tote a crate, y’see.”
   “Oh, I understand all that,” the rat replied, “but I can’t see what kind o’ harm sharin’ his favorites would do.”
   “The Lord’s very protective, laddie. Ye don’t want to get him angry.” Shuddering, the coyote stood up and stretched. “Why, I remember one o’ these trips a few moons ago, a new guard decided he’d give one o’ the Lord’s favorites a try, an’ got caught. What that fox did to ’im… I can’t even think about—” He stopped suddenly, his ears perking upwards. “Did ye just hear somethin’?”
   “Where?” Scrambling to his feet, the rat cast around warily. “I didn’t hear nothin’…”
   Snuffling at the air, the coyote swept his head back and forth sinuously and rapidly, tasting the breeze carefully. “Downwind, I think,” he snarled quietly. “C’mon, let’s see what it is. With luck, it’s a critter an’ we’ll catch oursel’ a bit o’ extra dinner.”
   The rat grinned. He fell into line behind his superior as they silently slipped into the trees; the canine’s lanky body twisted back and forth as he tried to catch the elusive scent. Waving a paw, he pointed towards a large tree and motioned for the younger fur to take up a position there, then slipped further into the forest.
   Grinning with anticipation, the young rat wiped sweating paws on his shabby tunic, beady eyes sweeping the night to catch any sight of whatever the prey might be this night. Suddenly, a nearby patch of rustled and a flash of moonlight sparked off a bright object speeding towards him! It was only then that he realized he, in fact, was the prey—and by the time he realized it, the burning pain in his neck announced that the hunt had been successful.
   Slumped in sudden death, his final gurgling scream was blocked by the blade through his neck. The hunter caught the rat’s body, dragging it out of sight with nary a sound… and then he returned to his work.
   Meanwhile, the coyote snuffled around ahead, his ragged tail whipping side to side as he tried to home in on the peculiar aroma that was teasing his nose. It flickered into his awareness here and there, naught but an occasional hint—but fragmentary or not, it was a trail nevertheless, and one he could follow. He did so, carefully gliding through the trees with sharp fangs glistening.
   Suddenly, two things occured at once: His brain identified the mysterious scent as fresh mint—and a bush just ahead erupted into a dark shape that launched itself at the surprised coyote. The canine opened his mouth to scream for help, but not quickly enough, for his voice, like the rat’s before him, was cut off by sharp steel in his throat. Amber eyes watched from under the assailant’s dark hood as the knife was twisted and the canine went limp, caught again and eased to the ground.
   The figure wiped its blade, then froze for a few moments to listen for activity nearby. Hearing none, he silently edged towards the campsite.

   Tamiko awoke abruptly as a paw clamped over her muzzle and a dark shape draped itself over her side. She struggled for a moment, then remembered where she was and went limp under the form pressed against her. It was probably Halftooth, she thought, woken out of some lustful dream and wanting to act it out—he’d done so once before, and then she was beaten for cuffing him out of instinct as she awoke.
   So she was surprised when a different male voice whispered in her ear: “Be still and silent—I’m going to cut you free, and get you away from here. Do you understand?”
   Tamiko wondered if she was having some cruel dream, but she nodded anyway. Seeing this, the figure examined the chains that linked her to the slave line. She could make out the creature’s paws in the filtered moonlight, paws which traced out the well-wound strands of cable that joined her chain to the main ones, then drew out what appeared to be a heavy set of shears from some hidden pocket in its cloak. Whatever the thing was, it made short work of that wire.
   “Who are you?” she started to whisper, only to have her rescuer clamp her muzzle shut again with a warning finger held up in front of his covered face. He held this pose for a moment; hearing no sounds of alarm, he carefully drew the chains apart, then quickly snipped the ropes free.
   “Come,” he whispered, catching her arm and urging her to her feet.
   Tamiko hesitated, looking down the line. “My brother—” she murmured, only to be silenced yet again.
   “Later,” he replied. “There’s more guards than I expected. Come on—now!” Without waiting for an answer, the creature grabbed at her arm again and drew her away from the slaves. With her senses still dulled from captivity and ill-treatment, she did not notice he’d picked a route wide enough, and free of loose objects, that even a befuddled bear could move along it without making any unwanted noise.
   The two eased their way clear of the camp. Once beyond the glow of the last remaining flame in the big central fire, the way became tougher. But Tamiko’s guide slowed their pace and whispered softly to the bear, advising her where to place her large feet and warning of potential hazards as they continued on. Once, she thought she saw the body of one of the guards laying nearby, but her cloaked rescuer kept moving and said nothing of the sight. As they moved, she heard a slight rustling sound—Tamiko, going just ahead of the other fur, realized in a flash of moonlight that there was a mixture of leaves dragging from beneath the bottom of his cloak, muddling their trail as they went on.
   Finally, after some time of cautious movement, he stopped, and looked around. Then he turned to the young bear, speaking quietly: “We need to go southeast. There’s a stream we can use to cut off any tracking, and I know of a hiding place that I’m certain they won’t find. Are you all right?”
   “I’m… I’m fine. Who… who are you?” In the night, the gloom of the forest was such that she couldn’t make out the creature’s face, and he turned away as she tried to lean closer.
   “For the moment, I am your rescuer—and with your help, perhaps I can be the same for the others in that slave party.” He shrugged and quickly unwrapped the chain from her middle, setting it carefully on the ground under a tangle of brambles. “I’d hoped I could do more tonight, but there were too many guards, and they’re all enough bigger than I that pressing my luck was not worth it. Waking up even one would have been a disaster, likely for everyone. Come, we have some way to go.”
   “My brother is still back there,” Tamiko said, belligerently, refusing to move. “We must rescue him.”
   “And so we shall. But if we act now, then you, and I, and probably your brother will die.” Turning to face her, the creature’s amber eyes glinted from inside his hood. “Given time, I can work out a way to rescue all of them. But we need to survive this night to find that time. Come. Quickly.”
   Tamiko deflated, her hackles lowering at her rescuer’s reasoned statement. Silently, she followed the creature away from the slave camp and back into freedom.

   Halftooth gave the rat’s bloodied body a harsh kick in the ribs that lifted it from the ground and threw it a pace or so. In a vicious rage, the fox berated his hirelings angrily.
   “How does a slave cut through her chains, kill two guards and run away without making a sound?” he roared, turning on the gathered guards who were checking the bonds of the other captives and doubling the strength of the ties. “By the spirits, I want her found and brought back today! Do you know what price she’d bring from the Islanders? Who was on the morning watch?”
   Stepping forward, a scarred bobcat raised one paw weakly. “Er, I was, Milord…”
   “Why didn’t you report this immediately when you found the others missing?”
   “Well, I, erm…” he stumbled, “I thought they’d jest slipped off f’r a quick sleep, so I figgered I’d give ’em a bit o’ time ’fore I called ’em out. Then when I saw that bear missin’, I really went lookin’…”
   He stopped as Halftooth stepped closer, holding the chain that had been found near the bodies of the guards. “And you decided you could find them by yourself?”
   Ears pinned back, the bobcat cringed back, his voice wavering. “Well, I didn’t want t’ bother yer Lor-”
   His words died as Halftooth’s paw swung around, the chain wrapped around his knuckles slamming into his throat with an audible crack. “Bother me? Perish the thought!” the fox declared. The guard slumped to his knees, gagging and clawing at his ruined throat, as the black fox drew his short sword with a ringing hiss.
   “Oh, I can assure you that you won’t bother me any more, my good fellow.” Halftooth almost purred, waving the point of the blade in front of the choking cat’s eyes as the other guards stood back, fear in their faces. “You’ve lost me time, and you’ve lost me a slave. And you’ve lost something else, too.” His blade flashed forward with a sickening crunch, splashing crimson onto the brush nearby.
   Kicking the body free, Halftooth wiped his sword clean on the dead feline’s tunic and growled at the other guards. “Bury this. Oh, and the other two as well.”
   His vassals jumped to obey Halftooth’s commands. Glaring at his collection of slaves, the fox flashed his teeth as he replaced his sword. “You lot don’t get your hopes up. When she’s back, you’ll see just how I deal with runaways. Especially runaways who are my chosen favorites.” Pausing next to the bewildered-looking young male bear at the head of the string, he smirked. “Your sister’s abandoned you. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
   Two raccoons put their arms around the youngster as he started to sob piteously. Ignoring this reaction, the fox stalked along the slave line, looking over the furs chained to it, until he came to a young male otter who quickly averted his gaze from the noble’s.
   “This one,” Halftooth snarled to a guard. “When we stop, clean him up and bring him to my tent. He’ll have to do for now.” He ignored the otter’s gasp of fear and a flash of disdain in the guard’s face, instead turning as two more of his armsmen returned to the clearing. The fox spun to look at them.
   “Milord, we found a track or two, but most of ’em ’ave been scrubbed. Can’t make nothin’ of it,” said Tomas, the elderly cougar who served as his guard overseer, bowing as he stopped. “An’ the scents were all muddled, too—smelled like a ton o’ mint, an’ that trail went straight into a big patch o’ wild mint next t’ a stream. They coulda gone downstream, upstream, anywhere.”
   “Of course.” He kicked at a slave nearby, the scream of pain making him feel just a bit better. “Show me these tracks.”
   A little distance from the track, the cougar stopped and pointed to the ground. “Here, milord. Looks like they stopped fer a few seconds, just ’nough to sink into th’ dirt.”
   Halftooth knelt and regarded the prints. One was definitely the wide, clawed pad of a bear, but the other… he blinked as he recognized it. “This is a fox print.”
   “Aye, milord, ’tis that.”
   Leaning right down to the ground, the fox peered closely at the prints, noting that the turf nearby was disturbed by something dragging across it. He sniffed, catching the scent of mint on the ground, pressing his nose to the leaves and scattered grass stems and inhaling deeply.
   His eyes snapped open abruptly, and the fox growled deeply. “Well, isn’t that interesting!”
   “Milord?” Tomas peered down at him, his slim tail whipping back and forth as his master got back to his feet and dusted his knees. Halftooth draped an arm around the captain’s shoulders.
   “Tomas, my friend. I’ll thank you to take your two best hunters and cut across to my father’s. Ask him to have some retainers meet the party on the usual trail with some supplies. We haven’t the time to stop.” His grip tightened on the old cougar’s bony shoulders, earning a wince.
   “Then,” he continued, “I want you to double back and sweep behind our group for a few days.” Picking up a sprig of mint that had fallen nearby, Halftooth sniffed it, then popped it into his muzzle with a slightly nasty grin. “I suspect we might have a tail. And when you find that tail, bring him and my bear back to me. Alive, preferably. I rather think I shall have quite a lot to discuss with him.”
   Bemused, the cougar simply saluted, and followed a chuckling Halftooth back to camp.

Chapter 2—Homecomings

   A riot of color stretched out along the softly burbling stream that wound its way through the vast forests of Avendale, eventually to join the Grass River on its endless journey to the sea. Pine needles, summer-brittle, rustled in the cool breezes of autumn, and early-turning leaves drifted down to the tributary that ran by just steps from the hollow where Tamiko struggled out of sleep.
   For a moment, the young bear lay still, her eyes heavily lidded, trying to figure out what was different… then recalled the previous night’s events and came fully awake. Scrabbling to all fours, she snapped up to her haunches—only to solidly thump her head against the low-hanging roof of the dim space she found herself in.
   The bear rubbed her head and growled quietly to herself, surveying her surroundings. She was in a low, close hollow whose ceiling was the roots of some massive, ancient tree, with light drifting in through the curtain of brush and vegetation that hung down from above. A dark figure sat next to this entrance, his cloak wrapped about him like a blanket.
   As full awareness returned to her, so, too, did the details of last night’s actions. Their late-night scramble away from the slave camp had been a long, cautious journey, but whatever this stranger had done before he cut Tamiko’s bonds and returned her freedom, it must have kept the slavers from discovering her disappearance until well into the night. Always keeping her before him, the fox hurried her through an incomprehensibly twisted and seemingly never-ending path until they reached the stream. Then they spent an uncomfortably long time wading upstream until they finally arrived in a dark, vaguely badger-scented den. Exhausted, she’d slumped into a deep sleep with little prompting.
   As she sat up, her rescuer turned, and gave her a quick bob of the head to acknowledge her gaze. “Keep your voice down,” he advised quietly, his voice pitched gently as he peered out through the dense vegetation that hid their space. “I don’t think we were followed—I didn’t see any signs of pursuit when I scouted the area—but it’s best to remain cautious.”
   Tamiko gasped softly to herself as she awoke fully. “My brother… they’ve…”
   Her companion raised a paw, finger lifted. “Shh. We are only two, while they have far more. We can move faster than they, and quieter.” The cloth he wore over his face crinkled, perhaps hiding a smile. “Well, at least I can. You may need some practice.”
   Grunting, the bear regarded the slim form in its cloak, trying but failing to divine his species from the shapeless folds, her sensitive nose only catching the smell of the den’s previous owner and the perplexing scent of mint. “I’ve training in battle skills and scouting. There’s a long line of warriors in my family.”
   “Well, then,” he responded, turning amber eyes to her, “You know that when you can spare the time during battle, sleep is the greatest weapon a warrior can make use of.” Letting the draped vines fall again, he set a waterskin next to her, then leaned against the side of the cave. “You’ve had a tough time of it, I’m sure, young warrior. Have a drink, get some sleep, and we’ll talk more later.”
   Indeed, Tamiko considered, her rescuer’s words were true. The ache of forced marches and other indignities was still fresh in her muscles. But for the first time in many days, she was not chained, nor dragged along at the end of a line of captives, and perhaps the most liberating thought was that there was no Lord Halftooth calling for her delivery to his tent. On the other paw, there was this stranger; something about him set her fur on edge.
   Slaking her thirst with a long draught of cool water from the skin, the bear settled with her back against the wall. She closed her eyes slowly, sinking back into a more restful sleep. Her last sight was that mysterious figure, his vigilant gaze peering out into the light.

   When Tamiko awoke next, she was still wedged against the end of the cavern. Her back ached madly as the various indignities of the past days caught up to her, and the burrow was empty.
   She sniffed a couple of times, but the only discernable scents were that of her ragged and dirty tunic—several days beyond needing laundering—and the incongruous smell of mint. With a shrug, the bear sat up—careful of the roof this time—and stretched as well as she could in the confined space, then looked up as brush rustled at the entrance.
   “Good news!” her rescuer announced brightly as he slipped in with a small bag. “I slipped out to see if your ‘friends’ were still around—no sign of them other than their trail. They’ve continued on. I suspect they’re on a schedule of some sort.”
   Still wearing his dark cloak and mask, the creature set his bag next to Tamiko. “I found some wild lettuce, late berries and some nuts. Not the finest of dinners, but about the best I can manage right now.”
   “Thank you… what is your name?” she asked, quizzically.
   “I’m sorry—what with all the fuss, I’ve been a bit too busy to introduce myself,” he said, a diffident tone in his voice. “My name is Ashlin. And you?”
   The young ursine straightened. “I am Tamiko Black, of Gateway Island.”
   His mask crinkled slightly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Tamiko. Would that it were under better circumstances.”
   The lettuce went down rather quickly, as did the rest of the food, before Tamiko stretched with a wince. “Ouch,” she muttered, rolling her shoulders.
   Ashlin’s eyes turned towards her at her grunt of pain. “I noticed your back looked cut up last night.” He rummaged in a pouch tied at his waist and came out with a small sealed jar. “I’ve some ointment that might help soothe your cuts. Let me take a look…”
   He moved closer and reached to draw the back of her tunic out. But as he neared, the feel of another male far too close to her—the slight hint of male scent drifting to her nostrils—the tug on her ragged clothing—it all sent evil memories flashing through Tamiko’s mind. She flinched away with a snarl, bringing one large paw up, claws ready to wreak havoc. Ashlin ducked back and danced out of harm’s way. “Or perhaps you’d prefer doing it yourself, then…” He set the ointment jar on the ground carefully.
   Tamiko sighed and looked at the ground as she calmed her breathing. “I’m sorry—I just—” She stopped and shook her head. “Is it safe for me to go outside? I’d like to get some air and wash.”
   Ashlin nodded. “Of course; there’s a pool just up the stream. Here—” he drew something else out of his pouch, “- I have some soap.” He set that next to the ointment. “Don’t go too far away, though. I think we’re well safe here, but it would be for the best for you to stay within earshot.”
   Crawling painfully out of the burrow, Tamiko blinked at the twinkling rays of sun off the water. The stream was small but swift, she saw, and thickly wooded all the way around—there weren’t even any animal trails to be seen. She stretched her legs and arms, grunting at the ache in her back, then walked slowly upstream, finding the promised pool just around a short bend. After a look around, the young bear shrugged out of her tattered tunic and crawled into the brook. Although the chill made her wince, nonetheless she savored the chance to truly scrub herself clean—without the questionable assistance of two leering guards always standing by.
   When she returned to the burrow, water dripping from her well-scrubbed tunic, Ashlin was sitting outside, adjusting something that hung from the back of his cloak. She cocked her head to get a better look; it was a tangle of brush and various herbs. “What’s that?”
   “Something that helps mask scents and tracks,” he replied, lifting his cloak just a bit. That gave her a clear view of the small bundles tied to his tail, but all she saw of him was a hash of dark fur. “It helps to blend in with local herbs, though we got lucky last night, when I found that patch of mint right next to the stream.”
   He turned and scratched the bottom of his muzzle through the mask as he looked around the small clearing. “We should—”
   “Why do you wear that?”
   “Beg pardon?” He turned his face towards her.
   “The mask,” she said, pointing to it. “Why are you wearing that?”
   He paused for just a moment too long. “There’s… some kind of miasma hereabouts which doesn’t agree with me,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I’ve found that I feel much healthier when I wear the mask.”
   She frowned, regarding him closely. “I see.”
   Ashlin stretched and looked at the sun. “I think we should get going this evening. Are you feeling up to a hike?”
   “I’d rather have a bit more to eat,” she said, looking at the stream. “If there are fish in there, perhaps I can catch one.”
   He grunted noncommittally. “Er… you can try if you’d like, but I don’t think a fire would be a good idea today. And I can’t eat fish.”
   A squirrel, Tamiko decided, finally putting a species to the creature who’d helped her. With his slim features and bushy tail, that statement made him a herbivore.
   “No fires? Do you have any other food?”
   With a sheepish shrug, he looked around. “Well… not at present, no. I had some supplies until a couple of days ago, when I fell in a river that was deeper than I expected. We’ll have to do some foraging—but I do know someplace we can get some supplies.”
   Tamiko scratched her cinnamon-furred chin as the dark-cloaked figure meticulously brushed twigs and bits of leaf from his clothing. “Where are we, anyhow?”
   “A couple of days’ walk from home.”

   Cool gusts rustled through the trees as the two furs trudged their way up along the stream. Ashlin followed the larger creature, giving her what few directions were needed other than “keep going upstream.”
   After marching until near midnight, then denning up warily until the early morning, the duo spent most of this day on the move. Tamiko snatching pawfuls of late berries from bushes as she padded along on the relatively level ground of this part of the forest. She assumed Ashlin was doing the same, sneaking pawfuls under his mask as he went along, but every time she peered over her shoulder, he was as dark and impassive as ever, the only sound being the raking of the brush tied to his tail, scrubbing their trail down.
   Finally, as the sun slipped beneath the trees, Ashlin whistled quietly. “I think we’re good here,” he murmured, drawing the bear to a relieved halt. “And my feet are killing me,” he added with a slight smile in his voice.
   “I have more feet than you,” Tamiko noted as she looked around the small clearing next to the stream before settling onto a fallen tree and rubbing her left foot. “The time without being forced to march all day, though, has certainly helped.”
   “Glad to hear it,” Ashlin said, kneeling next to the stream (with his face away from her) for a drink in the deepening darkness. “Another day’s walk and we’ll be someplace at least friendly. We should be able to rest there as well.”
   Tamiko grunted, drawing her tunic tighter around herself and stretching her legs out. “You still haven’t told me where we’re going.”
   “No,” he replied, stretching languidly and settling, seated, against a tree’s base, “I haven’t. It’s someplace where we can get some assistance and some supplies, though, I promise you that.”
   “At this point, I suppose I don’t have any choice but to trust you.” She looked across the clearing at the dark form just visible in the last lingering daylight. “I haven’t the slightest idea where we are.”
   He chuckled quietly. “Sleep. I’ll keep the watch for a time.”
   And she did, the day’s travels catching up to her and sending her into a deep slumber.
   When she awoke, stiff and sore from sleeping in a seated position, the sun was well up but just breaking into the brushy clearing. The bear stood and stretched, wincing as the motion stretched her still-healing back, then turned to see Ashlin resting under a tree, head down against his chest, snoring quietly.
   She hummed softly to herself, and stepped as silently as possible across the clearing, kneeling down next to the still creature and regarding him quietly. Even after nearly two days’ travel with the creature, Tamiko was still uncertain of his species, wrapped as he was in that dark cloak and mask. Noting the easy, steady rise and fall of his chest, she realized he was deep in slumber, and her curiosity flared.
   Reaching out with one cautious paw, she hooked a claw carefully under the top edge of that mask as it hung somewhat loose, draped as it was onto his chest, and drew it down off his muzzle. Her eyes widened as the pointed muzzle was exposed, covered in dark fur… then the white blotches along the end—the canine whiskers…
   Ashlin’s eyes snapped open abruptly as the mask fell onto his chest, and his head came up, spinning to look full into Tamiko’s face. Her eyes were wide and shocked—then flashed, and narrowed as a growl erupted deep in her chest.
   “Oh, dear,” he murmured.
   Tamiko’s gaze was locked on the fox’s face. She saw nothing but the markings, that dark fur and white pattern, the fox scent she caught this close to him, and wrath swept over her in a massive wave.
   “You!” she snarled, rearing back and swinging a powerful blow with her right paw. Ashlin ducked away from the attack by ingrained reflex; while he hadn’t been fully awake when his mask fell, fear for one’s life was a powerful stimulant. With a howl of heartfelt rage, the bear reared and dove after him, lashing out with another massive blow, putting her weight behind it and shattering a small tree as the fox once again nimbly dodged.
   “Tamiko, calm down!” Ashlin shouted as he ducked back out of the reach of her claws. “I’m not him! Listen to me!”
   But the bear was not listening to anything in the here-and-now; through the red haze of her fury, all she saw was the creature that had tormented her almost beyond endurance. The difference in size and markings did not register as she lunged forward once again, intent on destroying the hated fox.
   Ashlin ducked under the blow and used a foot braced on a tree to lunge behind the bigger fur, knocking her forward and capturing her arms from behind. Fighting her berserk strength, the fox laced his paws behind her neck. Her arms thus rendered harmless by his leverage, he brought his muzzle to her ear.
   “Tamiko, I’m not him!” he growled breathlessly, fighting the bruin’s thrashing movements. “Listen to me—I’m not him. Use your senses. Smell, think!”
   “No!” she screamed, trying to get free of his grip. “Don’t touch me again! Don’t… please…’
   But despite the all-too-familiar feel of his holding her down—despite her fighting—her senses did indeed start to work; her sensitive nose picked his scent out of the air, and she came to recognize that there were indeed differences. His markings were similar, but not quite the same. His size was far different. Her thrashing decreased as the truth dawned, but Ashlin held her tightly.
   “That’s right,” he murmured into her rounded ear. “It… that was my brother, not me. I won’t hurt you. I promise you.”
   The big bear stopped moving, and her head turned towards his voice. “Your… your brother?”
   He sighed and relaxed his grip, then sat up on his haunches. “Yes. I wore the mask because, well, looking like him as I do, I ,wasn’t sure how you’d react to seeing me. I didn’t want to upset you. I’m sorry.”
   Tamiko sat up and stared at Ashlin, her eyes wide. “I… he…” Now, all the horrors of the past few days caught up with her at once. Ashlin watched her eyes suddenly fill with tears, and she sobbed brokenly. “He… my family…”
   As she collapsed, Ashlin caught her and held her tightly, her face pressed against his chest, sobs racking her big body. The fox gazed into the morning-lit forest as he made a silent pact with the Hunt Spirits that his brother would finally pay for the pain he had caused so many.

   Crackling firelight flickered against the many jewel-encrusted weapons scattered around the musty study, casting a sullen light on two foxes sitting in comfortable furniture amid the trophies of generations past.
   Halftooth settled into a well-padded chair and examined the glass he held, nodding in satisfaction at the color of the wine. Then he turned an ingratiating grin to the elderly tod in the other chair as he took a long draught of the ruby liquid. “I hope it’s to your satisfaction, Father.”
   “Ahh! That’s an excellent wine, son,” said the silver-muzzled fox. “You always bring me such lovely gifts.” He swirled the glass in his dark paws before taking another sip and setting it down. “‘Tis nice of ye to come out of your way to visit your old father, what with all the travel ye’ve got to do. And I get the impression your latest journey was as rewarding as usual, eh?”
   “I’ve been moderately successful, Father. That wine was a gift from the Prince, in gratitude for our gems, though. The palace is always nice to us when we deliver those,” Halftooth snorted quietly.
   “You don’t want to disrespect the Prince, young Hawthorne! Those cougars hold that throne by good right,” Cedric, Baron Silvertail growled. “By the Spirits—if there were more of us up here that thought like we and they, we’d have a far better world to live in, we would.”
   The younger fox nodded in agreement, placing his glass on a side table. “I know, Father, I know. Alas, there are just far too many of our cousins who are more than happy to live side-by-side with the Southmoor folk.” He shook his head and shrugged, scratching under his chin. “‘Tis a shame, but there’s little we can do.”
   Cedric snorted in response. “Ah, let’s talk of happier things, son. Did ye see my new trophy?”
   Glancing around the room, Halftooth’s gaze evaluated the numerous mounted heads on the wall, stopping at one—a deer, with an impressive rack of late-season antlers—that made him flick an ear forward. “That one?”
   “Aye. Isn’t he a lovely one?” The elder canine stumped over to the head, grinning as he regarded it. An expression of surprise was permanently stuck on the cervine muzzle.
   Halftooth smiled and nodded in appreciation. “Where did you find him, Father?”
   “Lost his way on the trail out the east end of the barony. One of our foresters found him and brought him back. I had a bit of old-time sport with that one; tasted fine, too.” The old tod chuckled roughly as he settled back into his chair. “I think we’ve got some still on ice. Ye’ll have some sausage for your pack tomorrow. Speaking of which, how’s your trade with the Islanders coming along? I recall your last trade-mission, you brought back some of those fine silks and cloths.”
   “Oh, I suspect this should be a good trip once again, Father,” Halftooth replied, brushing a knot out of his brushy tail. “Twe- nineteen volunteers, some of them good-sized ones, too. The Islanders should be just as generous as last time.”
   “Hmm.” His father lifted an eyebrow and looked across the table to his son, lifting a biscuit to his muzzle and crunching into it. “Your two helpers said ye’d had a bit of trouble, but wouldn’t expand on it. And ye started to say twenty, then went to nineteen. Lost one, did ye?”
   Halftooth grunted at his father’s words. “A spot of trouble, “Yes, Father, we did have ‘a bit of trouble.’ I’d wanted to spare you the details until this evening.” He finished his glass of wine, and poured another. “It seems our darling Richard has returned to Avendale.”
   The chair squeaked as Cedric sat up, then winced and reached back to tug his tail free of where he’d pinched it. “Your brother? What has he to do with yer trading?”
   “I’m still trying to figure that out, Father. I haven’t the slightest notion how he found me—but I certainly caught his scent.” Halftooth quickly related the story of how he’d lost his captive, and the pawprint and trail he had caught. “I suppose it could be someone dragging his old clothes around for the smell, but why would anyone bother? And even without the scent, whoever it was used that trick you taught us, masking his trail with strong plants and brush. If it’s not Richard… well, I can’t imagine who else it might have been.”
   “Nor I, Hawthorne. Nor I.” Cedric sat back, musing. “T’ be honest, I’d never have figured the little beggar to live this long,” he rumbled. “Perhaps we taught him too well in his early years. And he got away with a bear, ye say?” The old fox spat into the fire and growled roughly. “Spirits damn those bears… Ye know it was those bears that killed my ancestor, the fox who earned this barony when he bloody near won the Famine War all on his own?”
   Indeed, Halftooth did know that tale, which he’d heard many times in many different ways. But he loved the stories of the old days, and nodded encouragingly at his sire, filling the elder’s glass with wine once again as he ranted.
   “Sneaky damn bears… the first Baron Silvertail, he was on the march with an army of our sharp-toothed relatives, foxes an’ cougars an’ coyotes, and he was headin’ across the Grass River right for Southmoor’s heart when those damn bears jumped in with the leaf-eaters,” Cedric snarled angrily, tearing at a chunk of dried meat with sharp claws and teeth. “Bastards wanted t’ have it both ways, and never a care they were giving up the Spirit-given rights of all us hunters. A few more days and the natural order would’ve been in place, but no—that bear caught ’em on the plain from two sides.”
   Scratching at one ear, ragged from cuts and nicks earned in his own conflicts, the elderly tod snorted. “Well, he paid for his choice. Lord Silvertail put that bear in the ground even as he was murdered. But… pah, Hawthorne, ye shouldn’t let me babble like this. ’Tis a fool’s rambling, living in the past when us canines and our brothers were able to live under the eyes of the Hunt Spirits and live the way nature intended us.”
   Halftooth smiled and reached over to pat his father’s paw lightly. “It’s quite all right, Father. Some of us recall that we hunters have that history of strength behind us; so long as we remember out heritage, it will continue to live.” He motioned towards the deer head. “And we can still celebrate the old ways now and again.”
   “True, true.” Cedric gripped his son’s paw tightly, then shook his head. “But then there’s Richard to deal with now. D’you think he’s still nearby?”
   “I still have the bear’s brother in chains, father. I wouldn’t expect little Richard to do anything foolish on his own, but by the time he can marshal any support—he’ll have to go all the way to Southmoor for that—I’ll be to the coast and that lot will have new jobs.” Stretching, the younger fox chuckled. “I’ve got some hunters out looking for them, just in case. If I know my darling brother, he won’t abandon a goal after he’s got one claw stuck in it. And I’d certainly like to speak with him again.”
   “If you turn that murdering monster up, I want you to bring him here, Hawthorne. Do what ye will to him on the way, but I want him back here alive. He’ll pay for what he did to your sister, he will. And the way he’s turned his back on his family and his heritage… hrmph! The runt’s got a bill to pay with me, as well,” Cedric growled.
   “Of course, Father.” Still seated, Halftooth bowed his head in acquiescence, then finished his wine. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my leave and get some sleep. I do have to travel quickly tomorrow to catch up to the crew.”
   “You go get your rest, my son.” Cedric stood and gave his son a rough embrace. “I’m going to stay here a while and talk with the Hunt Spirits. Perhaps one day they’ll bring things back to the way they should be.”
   Stepping quietly out of the room, Halftooth looked back to see his father standing before the new deer head, his lips moving quietly as he stood amid the slowly dying light of the fire and the memories of the past.

   Whispering breezes curled through the thick coniferous forest, bearing hints of other life. Tamiko hadn’t scented any such thing since she parted ways with the slave train. Lumbering along in the fox’s pawsteps, she snuffled at the air to determine what that scent was, and what might be awaiting her and her odd escort.
   After the morning’s confrontation, Ashlin doffed the mask and pulled his hood back; the flickering, wood-filtered light gave her a far better view of the young fox she had very nearly killed. He was indeed small, far slimmer and less muscular than his brother, but he moved with skillful sureness that testified to his athletic side. She regretted that, somewhat—her short legs were aching, and her back still reminded her of abuse previously taken. The vulpine had said little since their confrontation, and seemed embarrassed for his ruse when he did speak; while camping the previous night, he saw to Tamiko’s safety, then climbed a tree and slept in its branches. And yet, even now the wisps of his scent on the breeze made her ears twitch in wariness. She felt like a fool for her instinctual response.
   “Are we approaching a town?” she asked between breaths as Ashlin slowed to survey the area. He shook his head.
   “No—the manor and village are on the far end of the lake from where we are. I’ve been avoiding the main trails and woodcutters’ tracks.” He pointed towards where the woods brightened, and nodded. “That way.”
   Tamiko barely managed to ask, “Manor?” before he set out again, leaving her no choice but to save her breath and follow behind him.
   The forest floor was spongy with moss and needles; Ashlin no longer needed to obscure their tracks with his tail. His footfalls were far more confident here as well, the bear noted as she worked to keep up—then nearly ran into his back as he stopped in an opening of the trees. “What’s wrong?” she asked, peering over the shorter creature’s head.
   “Nothing.” Pointing ahead, the tod smiled. “We’re almost there. See?”
   Brilliant blue showed through the trees, and Tamiko could make out a slight ripple in that sheen. Ashlin set out again, the bear trailing behind, and as they neared, the lake opened up into a huge body of water that stretched between two ranges of hills. “It’s beautiful,” she said softly.
   The fox’s ears swiveled to catch her whisper. “It certainly is,” he agreed, leading them parallel to the water’s edge. “I spent a lot of time here over the years.”
   “You grew up here?”
   “Indeed I did.” He stopped and pointed through a break in the trees towards the far end of the lake, a good day’s march away. “See there? That’s the manor. This is all my father’s land, though. I haven’t spent a lot of time in his house, these past several years.”
   “Wait.” Tamiko blinked and peered at her escort. “Manor? Your father?”
   Ashlin grimaced ruefully. “I have the distinct displeasure to be youngest son to Lord Cedric Silvertail, sixth Baron of Wood Lake. My dear brother, Hawthorne, is the incipient seventh Baron.” He shrugged. “Fortunately, I’ve been disinherited, so that really doesn’t matter.”
   “I knew you were a noble!” she exclaimed, her stubby tail flicking. “The way you carry yourself—”
   “I’m not a noble anymore, Tamiko.” His tone was enough to cut off any further conversation, and he resumed hiking along the shoreline again. “Come on, we’re almost there.”
   “Almost where?” the baffled bear asked as she trotted behind the fox.
   Her question was answered as the woods opened into a small homestead, a small collection of vegetable gardens and an animal pen chipped out of the forest surrounding a cottage and its outbuildings. A swirl of breeze brought the fragrance of smoke and fish to the bear’s nose, immediately setting her mouth to watering. She followed Ashlin along a path between the garden and pen, whose occupants—several chickens, two goats and a lonely-looking pig—gazed up at them curiously.
   The smoke drifted up from one outbuilding, with a smaller plume from the stubby chimney of the house proper. Ashlin led the way to the main entrance; it faced out over a well-used path leading down to the water, and beyond that the beautiful blue of the lake. He smiled softly as he gazed at a carved wooden knocker on the door—the very likeness of a lake trout—then raised it and tapped three times.
   “Oh, Adam, my paws are just covered in flour, I’ll be spreading it all over the house, why can ye never get the door yer-” The tirade cut off as the door swung open, revealing a plump female otter whose paws were covered in powdery white up to her elbows. She wore a homespun-brown apron that nearly matched her fur—and she froze as she saw the fox standing on her doorstep. “By the spirits—Richard! Richard, ye’re back!”
   Tamiko’s head swiveled towards the slim fox in confusion as he bowed gallantly to the otter—and she was surprised to see a gleam in the corner of his eye as he came back up. “I’m back.”
   With a sob of happiness, the otter came out and swept Ashlin into a tight hug, kissing him on the cheek and leaving smears of flour all over his cloak. “Oh, my boy, it’s been so long! We’ve missed you so!”
   “I’ve missed you too, ma’am. I really have.” The two furs drew back and stared into one another’s eyes for a long moment, then hugged again, both of them teary-eyed. It was the first time Tamiko had seen Ashlin truly show emotion. She wasn’t sure how to react to it, so she stepped back a little, looking away as the two celebrated what would appear to be a long-awaited reunion.
   Finally, the otter drew back and wiped away her tears with the corners of her apron. “Oh, I’ve made a mess of your cloak. Let me…” She stopped abruptly as she registered the presence of the other creature. “Oh, dear. I’m sorry—who, pray tell, is this lovely young one?”
   Tamiko blinked at the word ‘lovely’, having never really thought of her stout ursine body in those terms. Nevertheless, she smiled and swept the best curtsy she could manage in her battered tunic. “Tamiko Black, milady. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
   “Tamiko, is it? What a beautiful name! I’m Caryl Streamside, my dear, and it’s lovely to meet you. Come in, come in, both of you! I’m sure there’s a reason ye’ve come to my door after so long away, young fox.” She smiled and ruffled the tod’s ears affectionately. “I’ve got a nice vegetable stew on, it just happens—ye were always good at showing up for feeding times.”
   Inside, the cottage was a cozy home centered around the kitchen area, which set Tamiko to drooling once again from the scents drifting out of a pot over an open fire, as well as from a stack of smoked fish nearby. “Would ye like a cup of tea? I’ve got some fine meadow tea just dried, with some strawberry that makes it a real treat,” Caryl said as she dusted the last flour from her paws.
   “I’m sure Tamiko would like some tea, and probably some of your wonderful smoked fish, ma’am,” Ashlin said with a grin. “She’s been eating mostly berries and shoots since we came together.”
   “I’d really not want to impose—” Tamiko started, only to be cut off by a swish of the otter’s paw.
   “Oh, stop, dear. Any friend of young Richard is a friend of ours, and you’re welcome to our table any time.” She cocked her head at Tamiko’s obvious confusion, then surveyed her clothes and condition. “Something tells me you’ve had a hard time of it, my dear. Richard?”
   Ashlin’s inner ears flushed red and slicked back slightly. “I, er, go by Ashlin now, ma’am,” he said quietly. “Less… bad memories. If you don’t mind.”
   Her thick tail tapping on the floor, Caryl surveyed the young fox, then his bear companion again, and smiled. “Ashlin… that’s a fine name for a fine young fox,” she said finally. “I tell you what, young Ashlin—why don’t ye go down and let Adam know you’re here? He’s down tending the fish traps. I think you know the way. In the meantime, I’ll feed this poor, starving bear.”
   “Thank you, ma’am,” Tamiko murmured as she watched Ashlin—or was it Richard?—head back out the door and follow the path towards the lake. “I truly appreciate your hospitality.”
   “Don’t you worry your head about it, my dear,” Caryl said, patting the larger fur on the shoulder. “Come. Sit down and I’ll start some tea.”
   Tamiko let herself be led to a big kitchen table, and settled there as the otter bustled around making tea in a carefully crafted clay pot, then setting a wooden mug before the bear with a platter of smoked fish. “Enjoy, my dear! Get yourself a nibble, and I’ll just see if I can find something in my stores. I’ll be right back. Pour that tea before it gets bitter, now!”
   The otter disappeared into what looked like a warren of rooms in the back of the cottage, and Tamiko managed to hold off for a good count of five after pouring her tea before snatching up a large slab of the immaculately smoked fish. She was absolutely ravenous; she emptied the entire platter, and was feeling rather better, by the time Caryl returned.
   “My, you’re a hungry one, dear! Well, hopefully that will keep you until dinnertime. I’ll make up some sausage for us. Rich- Ashlin, that is—well, he’ll want his vegetable soup.” The otter smiled and settled onto another chair, a large brown swath of cloth in one paw. “I think this dress might fit you, m’dear—it’s my old maternity clothes, you see. That thing you’re wearing has seen better days.”
   Tamiko smiled hesitantly. “Thank you, ma’am. I really do appreciate your hospitality.”
   “Dear, if you’re here with Ri- Ashlin—ah! I’ll get used t’ that name eventually, I truly will. But as I were sayin’, if ye’re with him, there’s a good reason for ye to be, and while I’ve got my suspicions, I’m going t’ do what I’d do for any young maid who was to appear out of these woods. I’m going to feed ye, make sure ye’ve got some clothes to wear, and be a friend.” The otter reached over and patted Tamiko’s large paw lightly, green-tinged eyes warm. “Because I think ye probably need friends right now. I can see it in your eyes.”
   “I… it’s been a long few days, Caryl, ma’am.” Tamiko took a deep breath. “You see, I was…” A raised paw from the otter stopped her.
   “Shh. Don’t, dear. There’s no need to explain. If Ashlin’s involved, then I suspect—” She stopped as a whoop of pleasure echoed in from near the lake. “Ah! I knew he’d remember the paths to the fish traps… Anyhow, I suspect there’s more of his family involved, and it’s best I don’t know what’s goin’ on.” The otter shook some dust off the dress and held it out. “Try this on, my dear, and we’ll see if it wants any adjustments.”
   Uncomfortably, waiting for comments on the still-healing scars on her back—but hearing nothing but a disgusted “tsk”—Tamiko shrugged out of her tunic and slipped into the dress. “Ma’am? Why did you call Ashlin ‘Richard’?” she asked as the otter tugged and pulled at the long dress, muttering to herself as she judged its hang.
   “Oh, well, that’s the name I knew him by, my dear,” Caryl replied as she dug a bone needle and thread out of a bowl near the table. “But if he wants to be called Ashlin, Ashlin it is. Nice name, really—his mother’s name was Linden, and he told me once they had a grove o’ ash trees the two of them would sit in when he was little. Makes sense, when y’ think about it.”
   Tamiko grunted as the otter expertly stitched her dress to fit her thick body. “I’m very confused now.”
   Caryl looked up, flashing a smile to the bear. “Aren’t we all, dear. Go ahead and ask me questions, I know ye want to.”
   Where to start, Tamiko thought. “Well… vegetable soup? Ashlin told me he can’t eat fish, and I’ve never seen him eat anything of meat—but he’s a fox! I don’t understand that, but you seemed to know…” She shrugged.
   “Yes, I do know, and it’s a bit of a story, my dear. The short of it’s that young Ashlin simply cannot eat meat. Something in it makes him horribly sick.” Tucking the needle between her lips, the otter motioned for Tamiko to turn around, which the bear did, earning a nod of approval. “Good! That’ll fit fine, and I’ve got two more just like it in blue. It’ll go a wonder with your eyes.”
   Scratching behind an ear, the bear shook her head. “A fox—who can’t eat meat!? But… how did he survive..?”
   “Aye, ’tis a good question,” Caryn agreed. “As I heard it, his parents couldn’t figure out why he was such a sickly thing—his mother had to defend the poor kit and eventually sent him off to Oak Hill for a healer to look him over.” Now the otter let out the hem of the dress, leaving it to slip down below the bear’s knees. “Took ’em three or four summers afore they really figured it out, and he's eaten vegetables and nuts ever since. That’s why he never grew as big as his brother. If ye see the two of them—”
   The instinctive growl that rose from Tamiko’s chest cut off the otter’s explanation, and she glanced up at the embarrassed bruin. “Ah. That, my dear, accounts for quite a lot.” She stood and set her needle aside. “Ye’ve come across Hawthorne at some time, an’ I don’t envy ye that. But that’s neither here nor there. Suffice to say that young Ashlin there didn’t grow like his brother because he just couldn’t eat the same food, and his father wasn’t too thrilled of that.”
   Tamiko sighed. “It sounds like he’s had a hard time.”
   “Well, his family…” She sighed, and went on: “We just pass along our tribute every couple of months, and we don’t deal with them often,” Caryl replied, motioning Tamiko back to the table and pouring herself a mug of tea. “Still, I hear things, and one thing I heard was that Hawthorne was a bit of a hellion when he was younger. Never saw him here, though—we’re good and isolated.”
   The otter’s tail thumped against the floor reflectively as she sipped her tea. “All I know is that young Ri- Ashlin spent most of his teen years here, rather than with his family. He and our son Griff, they’re just two summers’ age apart, Ashlin’s nineteen, I think, an’ Griff’s sixteen. They were fast friends. Our daughters, we’d already sent to live with some of our relatives down in Southmoor because of some of the things I’d heard about Ashlin’s brother—and he just seemed far happier here.”
   Holding up the mug she held, Caryl turned it to show the intricate carvings in the fire-cured hardwood. “Not that I complained,” she smiled, “considerin’ how every time he came, he left me with some of his fine carvings. That door knocker’s a fine work, and I’ve a cupboard full of these.”
   “I didn’t know he was that talented,” Tamiko said quietly, looking at the mug. “I’ve seen work much like this in the south, and it’s always very expensive in trade.”
   “He’s been carving for years. Ask him t’ show you that fine pendant he wears—it’s a lovely cloudy red stone he carved into a blossom. Told me it was for his mother, but since she passed, he’s worn it,” the otter said. “Many’s the ruby from the Wood Lake mines that were cut an’ polished by Ashlin.”
   Tamiko looked at the table for a long moment, and sighed. “I wish I had some skill like that.”
   “You’ll learn them as you go, Tamiko. Ashlin, well, he had t’ grow up a bit faster than most. I’m just glad it brought him to my door.” Caryl shrugged expressively. “It’s in my nature t’ take in young creatures and make sure they grow up right. I’m awfully proud of that young fox, no matter what his name is—and him showing up here with you in tow makes me even prouder.”
   “I don’t understand,” her guest said plaintively. “You have no idea what’s happened, but we show up out of nowhere and you accept everything without an explanation… and you’re proud of Ashlin because of all this?”
   Caryl smiled indulgently and swirled tea in the exquisitely carved mug. “Dear, it proves t’ me that he’s grown up well. Between us and his mother, spirits bless her, we’ve taught him how t’ help, to have a good heart. And whatever he’s done since his mother passed on, Rich- Ashlin’s provin’ to me that he’ll do what he can. You’re a good sign of that, young bear.”
   A laugh echoed up from the lakeshore through the open windows, and they both turned to see the slim fox and a tall, thick dog otter tromping up the path side by side from the lake, each holding a string of shining trout. “I’d best get these dumplings into the soup—Adam’s been workin’ all day, he’ll be hungry.” Sweeping up a few dishes from the table, the otter dusted her paws on her apron and headed into the kitchen area.
   “Um… can I help, ma’am? I don’t cook very much, but if I can help…” Tamiko’s ears flushed as she admitted her shortcoming in the kitchen, earning a smile from the motherly otter.
   “Don’t fret yourself, dear. I’ll show ye how to make these dumplings. You’ll learn somethin’ to take home with ye, eh?”
   “Yes, ma’am. If I ever get there again,” the bear muttered quietly to herself.
   Caryl patted her paw and smiled. “You will, dear. I’m sure Ashlin will make sure o’ that.”
   The door swung open and the two males stepped in, the big otter kicking off a pair of boots and stripping a few last beads of water off his legs before coming inside. “A fine haul t’day, my dear!” he announced, flashing a jaunty grin to Tamiko before bussing Caryl wetly on the cheek. “We’ll be smokin’ most of the winter at this rate. And this is the lovely Tamiko? Pleasure to meet you!”
   He bowed, and Tamiko instinctively returned the greeting with a courtly curtsy that made the otter raise an eyebrow and grin. “Graceful, too, she is!” The red flush in her ears was becoming permanent, she was sure, but she couldn’t help it.
   Ashlin shrugged out of his cloak, and looked even smaller than usual as he stepped up next to Tamiko while the two otters talked about the day’s catch. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly, looking up at her. “I realize that all this has probably been happening very fast. I should have told you more.”
   A big paw settled on the tod’s shoulder, leaving a dust of flour. “It’s okay, Ashlin. I’m fine… just very confused and tired. And absolutely useless at making dumplings,” she added ruefully as she tried to shape a dumpling that was just a bit too soggy and small for her large fingers.
   “Oh, spirits!” Caryl put a paw on her chest melodramatically. “What, I ask, are they teaching you young folk these days?”
   The shattered look on Tamiko’s face set all three of the other creatures to laughing, and after a few moments of sheepish indignation, the big bear joined in.

   Silence lay across the house, broken by the occasional snore, as Tamiko tossed and turned amid silvery moonlight spreading from the small window above the bed she occupied. After a fine dinner and the nicest companionship she had experienced for some time, she had been shown to a room that had obviously been used by one of the Streamside kits—with not a single question from either of the otters that might have forced her to speak of things that she was very deliberately not thinking about.
   First and foremost in her mind was saving her brother from whatever plans Halftooth and his band had for him. After that, she would have time to grieve.
   But at that moment, the bear found it difficult to sleep. The bed was the first one she’d slept in for nearly a moonspan, and the thick woolen blanket pulled up over her was warm and comfortable, but she was more used to sleeping on hard ground or hastily heaped pine boughs and just couldn’t get comfortable.
   Grumbling to herself, she finally gave up and slipped out of the bed, dragging the blanket around her shoulders. She stuck her nose around the door and sniffed inquisitively, catching the scent of fresh goat’s milk, brought in just before bed and still warm, and shuffled towards the kitchen as silently as she could.
   Light still flickered from the big stone hearth in the common room, and combined with the moonlight from outside to make it reasonably easy to get to her goal, a covered pitcher on the counter. A mug of milk poured, Tamiko turned and surveyed the quiet room, her gaze focusing in on the figure curled up next to the fire.
   Ashlin lay bare-chested on a heap of blankets, facing into the fireplace, his chest rising and falling in the even cadence of sleep. The dark fox had a splash of white in his ruff, she saw, and his white-speckled black tail shone in the flickering light. Tamiko leaned against the counter and regarded her savior silently, reflecting on the past few days and what she had learned.
   I’ve been sheltered in life, the cinnamon bear realized. Her tasks had always been to learn the workings of her family’s land and holdings, to be pleasant and friendly at the regular gatherings, and to prepare herself, as the oldest in the family, to take over the leadership of the family and their retainers when the time came. This trip north, to evaluate the potential of a trading agreement with miners in the eastern parts of Avendale, had been her first long tour away from home and, she sighed softly to herself, had proven to be far more exciting than she had expected.
   And this young fox, just two summers older than she, had been through far more. Yet, he had endangered himself, rescued her, protected her, and pledged to help bring her brother back. The question echoed through her mind: Why?
   Because he’d grown up right, as the caring, motherly otter had said before. His brother had done something that shamed him, and he wanted to try and make it up somehow—in this case, by helping her after his blood kin had wronged her so badly. It was a remarkable thing for a creature who had lived in virtual isolation for much of her life to recognize, and a surge of appreciation brought a flush of tears to her eyes.
   Before her, Ashlin rolled on his back, a paw coming up to close around the exquisitely carved stone hanging on its cord around his neck. He murmured softly, tossing on the blankets, and Tamiko made out the word ‘mother’ amid his mumblings.
   On soft paws, Tamiko walked over, reached down and pulled the tangled blanket up over the tod, who quieted and curled back into deeper sleep. Then, thoughtful, she took her milk and padded back into her room.

   A light drizzle started to fall, and the bite in the air was a reminder that winter was making its inevitable way closer. Ashlin and Tamiko tromped along a little-used trail that the fox assured her would lead them back to the main route towards the coast. As they packed that morning, Tamiko gladly accepted several dresses from Caryl; both of them received well-filled packs of durable food and other supplies, and he laid out his plan for catching up with the slave train.
   “If I know Halftooth,” he said, “he’s trading with the Rock Islanders out on the coast—they still use captured creatures as slaves. A merchant I spoke to in Grass Bay told me he’d once heard that the Islanders need to go well north along the coast, then use the southward-running currents to push them out to the islands safely. That means they’ll have to pick up cargo at Aven Bay or Mud Harbor.”
   “Probably Mud Harbor,” Adam suggested while wrapping a bundle of smoked fish for Tamiko—Ashlin had filled him in on their ordeals, the bear had learned. “Aven Bay’s a busy place, and ye’d think they wouldn’t want to encounter any pryin’ eyes.”
   Ashlin nodded his agreement. “Exactly what I was thinking. So, if we get back to the main trail, then cut north after the river ford, we should be able to get there fairly quickly. Then, we’ll go to the local authorities and see who might assist us with stopping them.”
   They had skirted Wood Lake itself and climbed through a low pass in the ridge of rocky hills that ran through the area, and turned to the west, and as they came down into the broad valley that surrounded the Aven River, the rain had started to fall.
   “Why aren’t you covering our tracks now, Ashlin?” she inquired as they splashed through a stream, the bear shaking her bare paws dry as the two furs continued on. “I noticed you haven’t got any brush on your tail.”
   Turning to look back at her, the tod flashed a smile from under the hood of his dark cloak. “For one, this area is reasonably well populated, so normally the scents aren’t too difficult to deal with. Second, look at what we’re walking through—these pine forests drop needles all through the summer. Between that and the moss that grows beneath, it’s almost impossible to leave a mark.”
   “I hadn’t even noticed,” Tamiko muttered. “We don’t have pine forests at home, and my tracking skills aren’t that well-honed.”
   “Don’t worry. That’s something that took me a long time to pick u-” The fox stopped abruptly, nearly getting run over by the larger fur behind him. “Do you hear something?”
   Tamiko’s head swiveled, her small rounded ears twitching as she surveyed their surroundings. “Rain falling on leaves, some birds—that’s about it.”
   Ashlin shook his head and shrugged. “I thought I heard something crack somewhere nearby.” He drew his hood down and perked sharp ears up, and started walking again, his head turning back and forth as Tamiko fell into step behind him again. “Keep an ear out, though, just in—”
   His warning was cut off abruptly as a figure launched itself from the downwind brush along the trail with a shout of triumph. Ashlin drew up short at the sight of black and white fur landing in the trail, and barely registered what he was seeing as the figure whirled and dropped into a crouch, facing away from him, a broad striped tail flashing upwards—
   “Look out!” he shouted, diving to one side and rolling into the brush.
   Her senses still focused outward, Tamiko was slow to react. “Huh?” she grunted, turning back just in time to take a blast of skunk musk full in the face.
   Still rolling, Ashlin heard her growl of surprise turn to a cry of pain and anger, shook his head to clear the vile stench that assaulted his nostrils and snarled to himself as he heard a voice from nearby.
   “Excellent shot, Shanna!” an old cougar called from the trees. The skunk he spoke to drew her skirt back down, even as Tamiko, lying on her side, clawed at her face in anguish. “Hit that one in th’ head a few times, then tie ’er up. Be careful, though, the Lord wants ’er in good condition.” Meanwhile, Ashlin found a large tree and peered cautiously around it in the direction of the sounds. The big cat’s voice rang out: “Lord Richard! I’ve a message from yer brother Lord Halftooth. He requests yer presence for a family… reunion, ye might call it. Don’t make this too hard on yerself—come out and we’ll give ye an escort back.”
   Moving silently, Ashlin made his way back towards the trail, trying to get a look at what they were up against. He suppressed a growl as the skunk casually kicked the writhing Tamiko in the side of the head, stunning the big bruin; then he caught a glimpse of two other figures—the elderly cougar and a younger feline, both carrying sharp blades.
   “Go out there, lad, an’ flush ’im back this way,” the older cat instructed. “Be careful, though, he’s a sneaky one.” Hearing this, the fox slipped further into the bush, his eyes and ears questing for a suitably favorable battleground. The two cougars split up and headed into the bush, disappearing from Ashlin’s view.
   Back on the trail, the skunk Shanna evaluated her work, pulling a length of rope from her pack and grinning at Tamiko. “Now, stay still, dear, I know the Lord’s wantin’ to have a long discussion with you. Imagine, runnin’ away after he’d been so nice to ye!” A flailing paw just missed the skunk’s leg, and she growled. “Still feisty, eh? Well, this’ll slow ye down.”
   But before Shanna could give Tamiko another kick in the face, something large blotted out the dim light shining through the light grey clouds above. The skunk turned at the sound of a deep growl, then screamed as a massive paw drove sharp claws deep into her chest. Her anguished yowl was short-lived, however, and cut off wetly as the powerful blow crushed her body against a tree—which shattered and slumped into the crowns of its neighbors.
   Some distance off, the sudden scream made both cougars perk up their ears and turn towards the noise. Ashlin, momentarily shocked by the sound himself, took advantage of the distraction: Gathering himself, the slim fox bunched his muscles and launched out of the brush, springing nearly straight up and plunging down at the younger cat. Astonished, the feline swung his sword around, but too late—Ashlin’s knives, one in each paw, found their mark. Blood spouted, and the cougar collapsed silently under his attacker’s weight.
   Tugging his blades free of the cat’s chest, Ashlin spun to try and track down the other cougar, but something caught him against the side of the head and bowled him back over the corpse. He rolled, but tangled in some brush as the older cat came at him, his eyes flat with rage.
   “That was my son ye killed, fox! I don’t care what your brother wants of ye—he’ll have to make do with yer head!” The cougar drew back his sword to make good on his angry snarl, when a black figure loomed up behind him.
   Ashlin watched, disbelieving, as the biggest sword he’d ever seen came around in a whistling arc. His opponent had no time to scream as the blade caught him in the middle, the force of the swing sending the new-made corpse flying off into the brush—in two different directions. Blood spattered the young fox as he scrambled back to his feet to try and figure out who this new creature was.
   The huge black bear, wearing a deep green cloak, locked eyes with him, and snarled angrily. Ashlin’s eyes widened and he dove just ahead of a sweep of one of those huge paws, the claws scoring his shoulder. Rolling back to his feet, the fox turned and saw the bear following him, and realized he’d never be able to stop the huge blade that was even now sweeping back up over the monster’s shoulder. It had both paws on the haft, and it was ready to swing—
   “Mother! No!”
A cinnamon-furred figure, tainted with the acrid scent of skunk, thudded between the two furs. Tamiko’s shoulder thumped into the other bear’s middle. The angry light in the huge bruin’s eyes flickered and died, and the sword fell from its paws, sinking deep into the yielding earth as it landed point-first.
   “Tamiko? Oh, sun’s rays… it is you!” Ashlin scampered back to a safe distance, watching in surprise as the huge figure wrapped her arms around the smaller bear, the two sobbing with happiness. As they held one another, he sat back against a tree, one thing going through his mind as he looked at the huge black figure:

Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2

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