Chapter Five


Govenor Galbren inspected the weapons with a face of faked boredom which Khiray knew to interpret as a sign of most intense interest. The Fox had been a merchant for too long a time to misread the faces of potential customers.

"That all's very well, but..." Galbren turned a hunting knife in his hand. "But you have only a limited offer to make. I have to train my guards with weapons easy to replace."

"Of course." Khiray suppressed a smile. Galbren just tried to push down the price. The governor collected weapons, as the interior of his office clearly demonstrated. His pride would never allow him not to possess those Troll steel items. The weapons were too good by far to leave them to his guards; Galbren wanted them for himself.

"What's more, we don't know anything about the qualities of this, hum, Troll steel. Maybe it will become brittle fast. Maybe it will get rusty. We cannot rely on weapons if we have no experience with the material."

"That's true." The Fox raised his shoulders. "It would be inconvenient if the weapons would fail you during a campaign." He used the martial and -- outside of business matters -- unusual word 'campaign' to check on Galbren's reaction. But the mighty Wolf passed over it without even blinking. Khiray couldn't elicit his plans from him that easy.

"You do not know, by accident, where the material is from?" Galbren started to pace the room. "The Foxtaurs purchased it from -- Trolls?"

"That's what I've been told", Khiray nodded. "I have never heard of Trolls before, myself. Not even in the Oo'men cities. If the Oo'men know about Trolls, it has to be a cursory acquaintance."

"If we know how to contact the Trolls, where we could find them, what kind of commodities they like -- then we could shut out the middlemen." Galbren stroked his chin fur. "Those Foxtaurs don't seem to be reliable suppliers -- they are not even Furrys, just half animals."

"They are not!" Khiray said in a sharper tone than he intended. The fierceness of his reaction was a surprise even for himself. Hadn't he had the very same thought the evening before?

But he had been upset, frightened, angry, confused. He didn't really believe what he had tried to talk himself into believing. The thought shamed him.

"They are Furryfolk like us", he concluded lamely and tried to smooth over his burning ears. Galbren looked at him sharply, then an evil grin distorted the governor's lips. He had found a weakness to exploit without mercy in the upcoming barter.

"You should consider your loyalties very carefully", Galbren said, evidently trying to make it sound less a threat. "First the family, then the hometown, then the Armygan. You cross borders very easily if you associate too closely with another species. And suddenly you find yourself on the other side, and there is no turning back any more. Foxtaurs, Oo'men, Trolls... they are strangers. I am a Wolf. You are a Fox. But we are both Furryfolk, and we share this country. The others..."

The governor sat down again in his office chair, leaned on the desk and played uninterestedly with papers. Khiray didn't say anything before Galbren resumed the talk himself.

"And finally those lance staffs...", the governor pointed at the Dekka'shin Khiray had brought as specimen, "...are a very unusual weapon, probably requiring special training. Nothing for the common soldier, I'd say."

Soldier? Was this just a slip of the tongue, or did Galbren really admit that his guards were supposed to be soldiers -- in whatever war?

Khiray sighed heavily. "Yes. You are probably right." Teasingly slow he pulled the sheath over the Dekka'shin blade and attached the knife to his belt again. "Those exotic things are not the right merchandise for a governor. I should better not waste your valuable time any more." He turned to go.

Galbren shook his head. "Well, well! I never said I had no use for these weapons at all! Surely one could conduct some informative experiments with this new material. And I have to admit that my collection would benefit from these items. It's just that the price is a wee bit high."

"They are individual pieces." Khiray let his eyes wander over the weapons mounted on the walls. "Probably the only ones made of Troll steel in the whole Armygan. And they would remain the only ones for years to come. As you said, the offer is limited, and nofurry could get more pieces anywhere."

Galbren frowned. Doubtlessly he was annoyed, speaking too carelessly before. Maybe he mused that he hadn't judged Khiray correctly.

On the other hand, maybe he set up a verbal trap in his mind for the Fox. He, too, was a merchant. Khiray stayed vigilant.

"Did you seek offers from the weapon smiths already?" the governor asked after a short while.

"From Hammyl down at the harbor. But he said he doesn't want to sell his smithy, and he had to if he wanted to pay for the weapons what they are worth."

"Hammyl likes to exaggerate."

"Deso the Badger said I should better sell every weapon for itself to rich merchants or bankers. But I believe that items that rare should rather remain together."

Galbren nodded. "Right. The collector's value would drop if everyfurry owned Troll steel. I'll make you an offer." The sum he gave was half Khiray's original claim. Khiray hadn't started the negotiations with the final price he wanted to make, of course, and Galbren's offer was far below what he intended to pay in the end.

Khiray pulled a face, almost unnoticeable, but visible for Galbren as a sign the Fox had much time at hand for the trade. Then the haggle began in earnest.

* * *

The young Fox felt tired but satisfied when he finally left Galbren's office. The governor was a difficult opposite in negotiations. But selling the weapons to him meant prestige and a greater advantage by status as if Khiray had sold the items to other merchants with a higher profit at short notice. Sometimes it paid off to invest a little in advertising.

And what he would get from Galbren when the transfer of the weapons took place was more than enough to pay the Foxtaurs a share. With this he could correct his thoughtless deal. Nevertheless he had made a considerable profit and consolidated further his reputation as merchant in this town. Saswin would be proud.

On his way out he noticed a figure in a niche. It was clad in a black robe which hid effectively every contour. Khiray could not even determine the race: it could be a small Leopard or an average Wolf or a big Fox. The hood fell across the face and kept it in deep shadow.

The figure sat on a ledge in the niche and didn't seem to notice Khiray. Did it meditate? Did it watch? It might as well have been a stone statue if not for the slight movement of the folds in the robe which demonstrated that the being beneath it breathed.

Khiray passed by, trying to behave inconspicuous. This had to be Galbren's mysterious advisor.

It was an Oo'men. If the figure had had a muzzle it would have been visible beneath the hood for sure. And a tail wasn't there either, even if Khiray couldn't see into the niche too well.

From the depth of the hood a foul stench wafted in Khiray's direction, and he stepped a little faster. The advisor didn't say anything, didn't even turn his head. When Khiray finally stepped out into broad daylight, he breathed deeply. Why did so many Oo'men neglect their personal hygiene? They had soap after all, and means to brush their teeth. But some people behaved as if they never heard of it.

Among sailors this might have been understandable. There wasn't enough fresh water on a ship months off the next harbor to bathe regularly, and salt water had the same destructive effects on Oo'men skin as it had on Furryfolk fur. But ashore? Didn't those people notice that they unnerved others with their penetrating stench? Even the weak Oo'men noses wrinkled at that stink. No Furry would ever shame himself like this.

And the governor's advisor as well! The smell indicated a mouth full of rotten teeth. Khiray shook his fur. Impossible!

Then he dismissed the thought. He had better things to do than to brood over the governor's company. He should visit the Foxtaurs and tell them he would share the profit with them. This should placate even Dek.

Maybe they could tell him a little more about the Trolls... or about their homelands... or about the mountains they had conquered on the way to Sookandil...

He went round the small palace and walked purposefully to the booth of the Foxtaurs. There were no other stands on the square; although one market or another was held on any day of the week, some even daily, the regular market-places were scattered all over the city. The meeting-place at the back of the palace was reserved for special purposes.

Khiray noticed that someone had taken away the corpses of the five hanged Furrys. The gallows was empty -- waiting for its next victim.

The wall segment the unlucky former governor had wanted to make into a protective shield for the city towered behind the humble booth of the Foxtaurs and hid the afternoon sun. Few Furrys were passing by, and none seemed inclined to buy something from the Foxtaurs.

Most of the six Foxtaurs had made themselves comfortable on blankets. One of them, whose name Khiray didn't know, slept. Another was carving something out of a piece of wood. Dek polished his Dekka'shin with a wooden block wrapped in cloth.

Saljin seemed to be the only one who looked out for customers at all. She stood -- no, she sat like a dog on her hindquarters -- behind the piled-up goods and watched Khiray coming.

"You have come", she said, somewhat surprised.

"I said I would."

Dek rose. "We made a bet."

Khiray allowed himself a grin. "You lost."

"Won", Dek corrected. He nodded at the Fox. "I knew you would come again. Not that I would welcome you."

"No one asked you to." Khiray stared directly inte the Foxtaur's face. Dek didn't frighten him any longer. He might have been half again Khiray's weight and a good deal stronger than he had shown already... but the young Fox believed he could judge him now.

"Dek, you are being impolite", the second Foxtauress said who sat bent over a piece of leather until then. "He's a customer, isn't he? What can we do for you?"

"Well", Khiray began, "first I would like to have some more of these carvings."

"The prices have increased during the last days", Saljin hummed in a low tone.

"Hush, Saljin!" the other Foxtauress said sternly. "What may we offer you?"

Khiray started to make a choice. The purchase might have been a pretext for starting the business with the Foxtaurs anew, but that was surely no reason to take the first pieces at hand. Carefully he inspected a wooden flower. "You haven't told me your names yet."

Dek played with a knife. "You know my name. Isn't that enough for you?"

"Your impoliteness is no longer tolerable, Dek", the Foxtaur with the headband growled. It was another headband this day, but the same muscular Foxtaur who had been in the bar that evening. "You haven't earned a name for yourself yet."

A shadow of anger flew across Dek's face. "That's the reason I came with you, or not?"

"Yes", the other replied. "But your behaviour does neither the tribe nor yourself any honor. One does not earn a name by rude words or a quick sword." He turned to face Khiray. "I am Mikhoi of the Steep Path. This is Aryfaa of the Yellow Herb. My cousin over there with the carvings is Halann of the Deep Caves. Saljin of the Stones you know already. The sleeping one is Dokmaris of the Dead Desert. And Dek, well."

"Dek of what?" The names of the Foxtaurs seemed to follow the same pattern. Khiray could guess the answer before Mikhoi gave an explanation.

"Dek has no name yet. He is still searching for the deed which will earn him the name. Although..." The muzzle of the Foxtaur wrinkled. "He'll probably have to search for quite a while."

Khiray nodded slowly. Of course, in the illustrious company of comrades who all had a name already Dek felt neglected and humiliated. There was the reason for his aggressiveness. The Foxtaur was young and passionate, and a name seemed to be an important sign of prestige and glory.

"What kind of deed do you have to accomplish to get a name?" Khiray turned a vessel made of hardwood in his fingers which was covered with cryptic patterns.

"That depends." Mikhoi scratched his ear. "A task which calls for great patience and labor... Aryfaa here has explored all the healing properties of the yellow herb during many winter nights. A won fight against a truly overpowering adversary. A courageous act which endangers your own life. An important discovery. Or the proof of mastership in a difficult field. I won my name when I found a shorter way through the mountains."

"And Saljin?"

The Foxtauress pricked up her ears. "I found the Trolls."

"Really?" Khiray was surprised. He had assumed that the acquaintance of Foxtaurs and Trolls was of a rather recent nature, but for Saljin to initiate this contact... that made him wonder. She was quite young -- not much older than himself, if at all -- and not exactly the brand of rough adventurer he imagined.

Saljin laid her ears back. "Do you have any difficulties with that?"

"It is... impressive. Shouldn't your name be 'Saljin of the Trolls' then?"

"Uh." Mikhoi cleared his throat. "She is no Troll, you see..."

"Trolls bear a certain resemblance to moss-covered stones", Saljin explained, far less amused than Khiray. "Especially when they rest. I made camp directly in their midst without recognizing them. During the night they moved. I awoke, and all those living rocks stood around me... They had never seen Foxtaurs before. I learned their language. The language of the Stones. Hence the name."

"You'll have to improve your storytelling", the other Foxtauress admonished. "It's part of a good name to know how to tell a good story."

"Yes, Aunt Aryfaa. But he is only a townsfurry. He doesn't know to appreciate it anyway."

Khiray wrinkled his muzzle at that. "Why not? We have our own stories as well."

Saljin shrugged. "Townsfurry stories. I'm sorry, I didn't want to be rude."

"You don't like us 'townsfurrys' too much? Or is it just me you don't like?"

Saljin made a throwaway gesture and pranced impatiently on her hind legs. "Cities are so... full of walls. There is no place to run. Who'd want to live in such a place?"

Khiray smiled a little. "This is your first time in a town?" If she didn't like Sookandil, what would she say about the Oo'men cities?

"No! -- Yes..." Saljin folded her arms. "Okay, I came for the first time to the Armygan. We don't come here too often."

"Why at all? If you don't like the cities..."

Aryfaa interrupted him. "We need certain medicine, herbs, oils we cannot produce ourselves. We have to buy them here. That's the only reason we trade with the Armygan."

"But the Armygan hasn't been here since the beginning of time... What did you do before Furryfolk came here?"

Aryfaa went around the booth and planted herself in front of Khiray. Although she was smaller than the Fox by a head's height her presence was far more intimidating than Dek's.

"Watching our children die."

Khiray swallowed. "I'm sorry... I didn't want to..."

"The same we'll do again because certain merchants in the cities cheat us out of our goods!" The Foxtauress seemed to glow with anger. Khiray didn't know how to justify himself. He had tried to do the right thing, after all... Aryfaa stabbed his chest with a finger. "We did not come here to visit the beauty of the towns. We did not come here because we like to dare the frozen passes and stony paths of the mountains. We did not come here due to the love lost between your folks and mine. No, we are here for a single reason: We have no choice. Only you know the plants and herbs growing in the swamps, and only here we can get our medicine."

"I didn't want..." Khiray began.

Aryfaa did not let him deter her. "Some people, though, do not ask for the necessities if they smell an advantage. They don't trouble themselves by talking to us when it is so much easier to take our goods for cheap and get rich on them."

"I thought..." Khiray felt terrible. Children? Children who died because the Foxtaurs couldn't raise enough money for the medicine? Little four-legged Foxes whose bodies ended on a pyre just because he hadn't kept his greedy paws off a shady deal? "It wasn't my intention..."

"Aunt Aryfaa!" Saljin called out.

"Well, does he deserve it or not?" the older Foxtauress grumbled.

Saljin looked up to Khiray. Finally she raised her hand and caught an involuntary tear from the corner of the young Fox's eye. "No, I don't think so." She shook her head. "He isn't any of those bad merchants you told us of."

"Ah bah!" Aryfaa waved her objection aside. "A lesson can't hurt." She returned to her place.

Khiray was near desperation. "I didn't want anyone to die. I don't want your children... I..."

Dek laughed and bellowed an insult in his language.

Saljin took Khiray's hand. "No one will die. Aunt Aryfaa just likes dramatic appearances."

"But..."

"The medicine is essential for us. Do you really believe we entrust the well-being of our children to a single group of traders which may die in a snow storm, or could be lost in a glacier crevasse, or is possibly robbed? We have enough stocks of the medicine to send another expedition here. If we cannot get enough medicine, we'll return as soon as the passes are free again. Or other Foxtaurs will come. It does not matter."

Khiray calmed a little. Of course. The Foxtaurs never behaved as if the well-being of their people depended on the success of their trade. They even drank in a bar, spending money.

But for a second he had believed every word.

"Listen..." he began again. "I have spoken with governor Galbren today, and with teacher Pallys yesterday. I'll make a respectable profit with those Troll steel weapons, and it is the custom... I mean, I should share a part of the winnings with you. It's only fair after all..."

Dek jumped up. "What are you saying?"

"Governor Galbren bought the weapons and will have them picked up tomorrow..."

"Are you talking alms? Generous gifts to the poor, begging Foxtaurs?" Dek's hands rested on his weapons. His body trembled with barely restrained fury. The fur on his back was bristled from his neck down to the tail which twitched restlessly. "Charitable donations for the four-legged half-animals who could not fulfill their task without the mercy of the great trader?" He made a step into Khiray's direction.

"I just said that a share of the profit would be..." Khiray stepped back. This was no fake attack any more. Dek's eyes betrayed his deadly anger.

What did I do now again? Khiray asked himself.

"I'll kill him!" Dek shouted. Knife and sword flew from their sheaths. Dek galloped and jumped Khiray before the Fox could turn to flee.

Mikhoi and Halann intervened and caught Dek's arms in time before the Foxtaur could hurt Khiray. "He will pay with his life for that insult!" Some passer-bys turned to the source of the agitation. A young Rabbit couple escaped into the next alley.

Dek still waved his weapons, though he could not break free from the grip of the other two Foxtaurs.

"You'd better run", Aryfaa told Khiray.

The Fox didn't wait for her to say it twice. He made a dash for it, ran down the main street and left the booth of the Foxtaurs behind. Dek's roars followed him nevertheless. Curses in the foreign tongue of the Foxtaurs hit his back like daggers.

Khiray's feet hurt, and his breath was too fast. He turned off into a side street and slowed down. Why had Dek been that excited? He did not want to insult him, yet somehow he did.

He shook his head. There was no pleasing this Foxtaur. First it had been too little money, and Dek felt cheated. Now it was too much gold, and he felt insulted. People with pride were a terrible lot.

Khiray had reached the city limits before he realized that he was no longer going into the direction of the harbor. Oh well! This hadn't been his lucky day anyways... The business with Galbren suddenly had a stale taste on it.

He sat down on a wall. What had happened to him? First he fell for the tall story of the elder Foxtauress. Then he took to his heels frightened by a Furry who was smaller than him by almost a head's height. Ridiculous! And to think of: he had carried weapons along all the time.

The young Fox took the Dekka'shin off his shoulder where he had attached it. The knife still hang at his belt; both the items he had brought for Galbren to examine. And he still had the dream knife, too. Why for the Armygan's sake hadn't he stood up to Dek, faced his fury like a man with a weapon in his hand? The Foxtaur would not have dared to kill him!

Was he... a coward?

No! He had had his share of the street brawls. Together with Delley he had defeated five Badgers in Drun'kaal at that time who wanted to put their hands in his money bag after a night spent drinking. And he had been fourteen then!

But they had been young Badgers, and dead drunk too.

And the fights? The dark bars? The low dives, visited only by smugglers and scoundrels? The backyards where they negotiated on dubious freight? The alleys of the Oo'men cities with their strange smells?

Didn't he learn fighting from Delley?

Or rather running, hiding, drawing in the tail?

Slowly he wandered on, the Dekka'shin in his hand. Maybe he wasn't made of the wood great adventurers were carved from. But hadn't he succeeded as a merchant? The deal was done, the profit rang silvery in his purse! Almost.

And if Aryfaa had pushed him just a little farther, he would have given back the weapons, apologizing a thousand times and sneaking home. Perdition! That way, every hard-boiled trader -- really every single one -- would skin him alive. Why did he fell for the sympathy trick?

But the picture in his imagination was still vivid: young Foxtaurs, one moment ago at play, carried off by a mysterious plague, turned into lifeless, limp bundles. Flames devouring fur and flesh. And this was no invention by Aryfaa, it had happened before the Armygan came into being and probably even afterwards... many times...

No! Tomorrow he would collect gold. Pure, shining, perfect gold! That was the only truth that counted. The Foxtaurs could fend for themselves. If they felt insulted that much by a share of the profit, well, then they would not get any. No tricks anymore, no dumb chatter appealing to his soft heart. No ploys, no persuasion, no flattery or threat. Gold for goods and goods for gold, like his father did before him, and his father's father, and his father again...

The sun sank to the horizon. In the newfound certainty of his decision Khiray tramped across a meadow. Wasn't this place near the spot where the Foxtaurs had trained for battle? He loosened the leather sheaths which protected the blades of the Dekka'shin and cut the air probingly with the weapon. That was the way his path would look like from now on. Intransigent like steel. As sharp as this blade. Every trader would be his enemy, but his own wit and cunning would outdo them all.

He whirled the weapon around in an arc, as he had watched the Foxtaurs doing it, and almost cut off his tail. Well, the practice lacked a little... Carefully he made some more training moves with the Dekka'shin, tried to remember how to hold it, how to wield it and how to protect against enemy moves.

No one came along the way to ask what he was doing, and he was quite thankful for it. Khiray was well aware how ridiculously amateurish he looked. On the other hand, no one could really judge him except the Foxtaurs. The Dekka'shin was a completely unknown weapon in Sookandil, after all.

He posed heroically and tried to imagine an army of bandits and robbers charging at him. Slowly he raised the weapon.

Now let them come!

* * *

Stars were sparkling in the skies. Khiray couldn't see a single cloud. Thin ground mist hovered over the hollows of the hilly landscape. The next morning would be rich of thaw.

The young Fox lay on his back in the grass on top of a hill where it was still dry. Midnight was closing in. All evening he had played the hero and pondered a little and finally found this secluded place no one could see into from the street. Sounds had been carried over from the city, dying away with the hours, and even the far lights had gone out.

Had anyfurry told Saswin that his son had fled like some Rabbit? Would he be disappointed? Or rather reassured that Khiray won't run away on a carrier as adventurer? Being a merchant required courage as well in this wild country, but even more caution. In Delley's opinion flight was the better way to end a conflict in most cases. But it was not that simple, no...

The smell hitting his nose was quite familiar. A foul stench, rotten, like a not-too-fresh pile of garbage. Dead rats. Slowly decaying meat.

He sat up. It hadn't been that intense before... In front of him a black robed figure hovered.

"Advisor?"

"Little Fox", the hooded figure said.

Why did Galbren's Oo'men ally come here? What did he want? Something about the deal?

How could the advisor know he was here?

The robe of the Oo'men flowed over his form like living blackness. The starlight seemed to avoid him; even the silvery mist made way.

"What do you wish?" Khiray tried to keep the appearance of politeness, but he was irritated. The advisor himself was a creepy character. The stench which seemed to get worse every second as if it crawled into Khiray's nose was an insult for the senses. And his voice...

"I have come to watch you." The voice was slimy, bubbling, nauseating. It fit the stench emanating from the figure in every aspect.

"What?" Khiray stood up. The advisor was taller than he was, but if he actually was Oo'men, then he needn't wonder. By their scale Khiray was small. Even a Wolf was only of average size for Oo'men.

That robe... It didn't move. Either it consisted of a very heavy cloth, or it clung to the Oo'men. Well, if the advisor didn't wash regularly, maybe the robe stuck to his body...

Somehow the thought wasn't funny. Khiray felt it was rather eerie. Every aspect of the advisor, from his manners to his voice, was unreal, spooky, and of frightening clarity nevertheless. A vague aura of fear came from the blackness the figure was bathing in.

"Little furry being. Pawn in a game you don't understand, you don't suspect." Galbren's ally didn't seem to speak to Khiray, he was just mumbling about.

"Really!" Every fibre of his body screamed Run! But he had fled with tucked tail once this day already. The advisor didn't threaten him. He was just, well...

Eerie. Khiray didn't find a better expression. Maybe it was the smell. Maybe the voice. But it was just an Oo'men, slow in a fight, without claws or canines...

His neck fur was bristled. He felt with one hand for his head, trying to smooth it, but in vain.

"Do not try to understand." There were eyes beneath the hood, black, shining eyes. No Oo'men eyes. "Do not try to resist or to struggle. Stay a small ugly stupid furrybeing, and all is well." The robe of the advisor heaved as if he laughed, but instead of a laugh only a bubbling rose from the cowl, the sound of gas rising in a swamp.

Small ugly stupid furrybeing? Who was this advisor, to think he could insult Khiray like this? Should he get away with rudeness? Just because he was a hairless bald mangy Oo'men, he needn't think that he was the crown of the earth.

Khiray reached for the hood. Let the advisor show his face! Then it would be obvious who was ugly!

There was no face.

The cowl shrinked at his touch, retreated into the darkness like a shred of living black, less a piece of clothing than a part of the body.

There was no face.

Khiray stood frozen, his fingers only centimeters away from the head of the advisor. He wished he had given in to the urge to flee. Rather be a coward a hundred times over...

There was no face.

No head, either.

The body of the advisor, as far as Khiray could see, was covered by a swarming, crawling tangle of maggots and worms. What was supposed to be a head was just a bulge in the slimy mass, without contour, endlessly moving. There were no eyes, no mouth, no nose. Khiray could not recognize a neck. Perpetual movement made the greyish white ball of worms look as if it had no solid core. The Fox needed a moment to understand. The maggots did not crawl across the body of the advisor. There was no body but the maggots. The maggots were the advisor.

The blackness of the remaining robe covered the rest of the terrifying figure from the shoulders down. But Khiray had no doubt that the invisible part consisted of the same creeping, amorphous, living stuff.

There were sounds... a sliding of bodies, a cracking of chitinous shells, the millionfold ticking of tiny larvae mandibles. Khiray had never imagined worms made audible sounds -- but those worms produced neverending, quiet, revolting noises.

The stench clogged Khiray's nose. Foul decay. Slowly he let his hand drop.

What was the advisor? How was a being like that possible?

He reached for the Dekka'shin which still lay in the grass, without turning an eye off the creature. Impossible. It was impossible. Worms.

Worms.

A cold shiver ran down his spine from his neck to the tip of his tail. He barely noticed that his fur was standing on end, that his jacket seemed to be filled by twice as much Fox.

Beetles crawled across the surface of the wormy mass, tiny black animals, carrion-beetles. They reached the front of the head lump and sat down tightly in two groups.

Eyes, faceted eyes made of beetle bodies.

From the depth of the body a tapeworm wound up, curled beneath the eyes and formed lips.

"Little stupid furrybeing", the advisor said. The tapeworm moved in time with his words, opened the view on a maggoty cavern, the parody of a mouth. There were no teeth, but a tongue: a flat leech, red and bloated. "You should not play games with me. Go home. Save your life, at least."

Then the being laughed again. The grey mass of worms was shaken like in a quake.

Khiray struck out. His fingers had found the Dekka'shin and swung it around in the same movement he had practised all evening. The leather sheath which was not tied flew from the blade with the momentum of the sweep, and the cold Troll steel cut horizontally through the blackness of the robe.

The advisor fell apart. Instead of being cut in two halves, the robe dissolved into misty scraps and revealed the rest of the worm body. The Dekka'shin bit right through the advisor, but the laughter didn't die. The worms and maggots lost their cohesion. A great heap of crawling animals, now without shape or contour, fell to the ground. The worms started to escape in all directions.

Khiray struck out at the remains of the worm body several times, but he just achieved to spoil the blade with worm pieces. The advisor himself, the essence of his life, seemed to have gone. Only worms and maggots which frantically dug into the earth stayed behind. A late bird spotted the animals, landed next to Khiray (with a watchful eye on the Fox) and started to peck.

Only now Khiray noticed how much he trembled. This hadn't been a normal, physical, mortal creature. A -- ghost, spook, spiritual monster? There was no place for things like this in Khiray's conception of the world. He had never been in touch with magic of that kind. Every magic item he'd seen had been of rather technical nature, like the heat coil in the belly of the 'Silver Ansicc'.

He watched the worm pile continue shrinking. The worms alone did not frighten him. Whatever had possessed them was gone.

Why did the advisor come to him, of all Furrys?

Save your life, at least... Your life... The words of the un-being resounded in his mind. It had not attacked him, it hadn't even taken Khiray's attack seriously. The advisor wasn't the threat.

Suddenly overcome by a dark presentiment, Khiray started to run. Away from the meadow. Back to the street. Down the city. The Dekka'shin firmly in his hand he headed for the harbor. His heart hammered not only because of the effort but rather from cold fear.

Your life.

He knew he would come too late. He had wasted the evening, and whatever might have happened...

The ship was dark except the necessary position lamps at the rail. Silence bid him welcome.

He found Uncle Farlin on the stairway to the cabins. Someone had knocked him down, and he had fallen a few steps. Khiray didn't notice any broken bones. He thought of getting a bucket of water to revive Farlin, but there were more important things to do.

The weapons were gone. His cabin had been rummaged through, and the unknown intruder had stolen every single Troll steel weapon. Nothing else was missing. Even the statue of Saljin was still in its place.

Khiray stepped out on the corridor again. What if the thief was still here? No. The old planks creaked quite a lot; he would have heard him by now.

Who else was aboard, except Farlin? Delley? No, Delley supervised the work on a pressure pipe in the workshop of the tinkers. The work had taken all day and would take all night as well; once heated, the metal mustn't cool off until it was finished, allowing no break. The tinkers took turns, but Delley would want to watch every step from the beginning to the end. All the rest of the crew was on shore leave; the ship was completely unloaded, and the new freight wasn't due yet. No one aboard, except...

"Father?" Khiray felt as if he was running still -- breathless, hunted. "Father? Saswin?"

No one answered his call. A suppressed moan down below showed that Farlin regained consciousness.

Where was Saswin?

Khiray stormed through the ship. No one in the navigator's cabin. No one in the dining-room. "Father!"

He climbed the ladder upwards to the rudder cabin.

Saswin stood bent over the wheel, leaning with all his weight on the heavy wood. A dagger stuck in his back, driven with such force that his spine had been completely severed. The point of the long dagger came out at the chest, nailing the captain to the wheel.

A Troll steel dagger.

A Foxtaur weapon.

"Father?" Khiray touched the shoulder of the dead Fox. "I didn't want to..."

Slowly he sank down beside his father and silently began to cry.


End of Chapter Five, go to Chapter 6, back to Chapter 4.