Chapter Seven


"Why do you do that?"

Khiray looked across at Saljin. He had difficulties to keep up with her easy trot. The Foxtaurs were born for running while he wasn't accustomed to long distances. Life on a ship had its disadvantages.

"What?"

Saljin spread her arms. While the Furrys moved their arms in opposition to the legs when walking, and mostly used their tail as counterpoint for a smoother pace and better balance too, the Foxtaurs seemed to be able to use their arms at will for any gesturing. Of course, they were four-leggers; their front legs balanced the moving rhythm already. Did they use tails and arms in full gallop?

Strange, Khiray thought. Why did these simple details occur to him just now?

"Everything", Saljin said. "Help us. Save Dek. You are speaking against your own folk. Despite the fact that you must believe -- that Dek killed your father."

"I don't believe it", Khiray growled. "And if he isn't guilty, then the true murderer still runs free. It's him I want."

"You wouldn't speak for us otherwise?"

"I would do what's right!" Khiray slowed down the pace, and Saljin adapted her own step. He couldn't talk and run like this at the same time. There still was time. Galbren wouldn't hang Dek without a proper trial, that much was for sure. "It was not right to drive you out of the city. And it is not right what Uncle Farlin does... He incites people against you. He wants to become a guard. He is almost transformed."

"Maybe he is really transformed?" Saljin's face took on a questioning expression.

"What do you mean?"

"There are Foxtaurs in our race who possess certain special talents -- magicians. They have great powers, they can heal injured or sick persons and clear poisoned wells. Some, although, use their power to influence others, make them their personal servants -- slaves. Every now and then one of those magicians arises and strives for hold over the lands of the Foxtaurs. Then the other magicians have to gather in order to conquer him. Just a hundred years ago there was... but that is a long story. Anyway, it may be the case that someone plants thoughts in your uncle's mind that are not his own."

Khiray thought for a moment. Magic was not a part of his personal experience. All kinds of technical magic he had seen, in the Armygan as well as in the Oo'men cities, were unsuitable for something as subtle as mental control. But the worm-advisor... he didn't belong to the known aspects of magic. He was weird, unspeakably eerie...

But maybe there wasn't any kind of connection like the one Khiray imagined. "Possible", he said. "But he and my father were always very close. Maybe it was just the loss which changed him."

Saljin looked thoughtfully. "Even if there is just the possibility of magic, we have to be very careful. Magicians are dangerous."

Khiray shook his head. "We don't have any choice, have we? We have to go back to Sookandil and defend your brother." But his stomach felt very sick.

"Little furry being. Pawn in a game you don't understand, you don't suspect." He still didn't know enough to fit the parts of the puzzle together. And the game could turn out deadly. Fast.

* * *

To Khiray's surprise Pallys waited for them at the city limits. He was the only Furry in sight. All others who weren't occupied with important tasks had gone to the city hall to attend the trial.

"You should consider well what you do", the Rabbit said.

"How did you know where I have gone?" Khiray asked.

"Delley told me. I wanted to talk to you, but you were already gone." He looked Saljin up and down. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

Saljin crossed her arms. "What do you mean by that?"

The Rabbit frowned and laid his ears back. "It was never very wise to quarrel with the mighty. To oppose the guards is rather dumb, I'd say."

"My brother's life's at stake." Saljin looked grimly at Pallys.

"If Galbren wants to sentence your brother, he will do it, whether you are present or not. You cannot say anything that would refute the evidence, you could just make an enemy."

"Are you proposing we should hide, watch him hang Dek and silently sneak away, the tail tucked between the legs?" Khiray flared up. "I'd never thought of you this way!"

Pallys waved the objection aside. "You don't have much experience with the arbitrariness of the powerful, I do. I have lived for quite a long time, and I've seen the same thing over and over in many times and places. Might makes right."

"There is a law in the Armygan. There is justice!" Khiray didn't know what to think of Pallys' observations. Did the Rabbit think Galbren had any personal interest in hanging Dek? What could Galbren gain by that?

Pallys smiled weakly. It was a grim smile, and resigned at the same time. "If you had seen what I did, you wouldn't believe in justice too. Those who rule the land don't only make the laws. They are the law."

"Even if so." Khiray breathed deeply. "Galbren has no reason to act other than impartial in this matter. The weapons have been found, and he hadn't paid for them anyway. It's not his loss. And he has no relations to the Foxtaurs beyond that."

"Troll steel", Pallys said.

"What?"

"He wants the Troll steel for himself. The Foxtaurs could spread knowledge of this steel. If he eliminates them and establishes contact with the Trolls himself, he could equip his guards with unique weapons. Weapons no one else in the Armygan owns. Weapons even the Oo'men don't have."

Khiray walked past Pallys and took the way to the city hall. "Nonsense. I know about the Troll steel. Hammyl knows. Deso the Badger. Farlin. You. Everyone I have talked to, everyone you have talked to."

Pallys hurried to his side. "Only a few Furrys. And for them it is just a curiosity. There has been peace in the Armygan for a long time, time enough to forget about the power of new, improved weapons. Galbren can fit out his troops bit by bit with Troll steel and get the most powerful forces the Armygan has ever seen."

The young Fox shook his head. "That makes no sense, too. If he had those forces, what would he do with them? The guards are not trained for war..." He remembered the things he and Delley had heard. The training of the guards indeed resembled the preparations for a war. Uneasily, he spoke on. "They have no experience in battle, there are no veterans among them. And there are too few of them to attack another city. Or the Oo'men."

"Even with the advantage of Troll steel?"

"Steel is just as good as the hand that wields it", Saljin interfered. "I don't know what is going on in this city. But I know one thing: to wage war you need more than just weapons."

But Khiray had the feeling they were on the trail of a horrible truth. The numerous guards had to serve a purpose. "But Galbren doesn't have to execute Dek to get hold of the Troll steel. The Foxtaurs are only coming to the city every ten years or so, and Galbren is free to start his own trade with the Trolls. No, I just don't believe he is biased."

Pallys shrugged and bent his ears. "You'll see. But even if Galbren doesn't play his own game and appears as an honest judge, he will sentence Dek. The evidence is overwhelming."

"Then you believe in Dek's guilt?" Saljin asked.

Pallys stopped and looked at the Foxtauress for a long time. "No", he finally said. "I have traveled much some time ago. I have been a guest of your folk then and studied your customs. You'd have to change a lot to produce a cowardly murderer among your tribe."

"I never heard of a Rabbit travelling the plains", Saljin answered. "Not within my tribe, not from others. Not even at the Tribe's Gathering. Fifty years ago some Bears visited us. But the last Rabbit... that's been four hundred years ago. My grandmother told me what has been passed down generation by generation. That Rabbit was a healer, and he possessed some magic. He brought a lot of knowledge of herbs and medicine with him."

Pallys didn't say anything, but caught up with Khiray again. The Fox asked: "If you believe Dek is innocent, you have to help us."

"I just told you a feud with the powerful is not wise", Pallys replied violently. "It's not my game, it's not yours. Load your ship and make a graceful exit while you can."

Khiray turned to Pallys with a jerk and grabbed the Rabbit at the vest. It had never occured to him before to treat the teacher as disrespectful as this, but with all the cowardly talk Pallys went down in his estimation. "That's the Rabbit way, isn't it? Drop everything on the spot and flee! But it's not the Fox way! Somewhere out there my father's murderer waits, and the moment Galbren hangs Dek he will laugh up his sleeve! But I swear you: he will not laugh for long!" He bared his teeth and growled menacingly, as if Pallys were the unknown killer.

The Rabbit escaped his grasp. "No reason to become abusive! Okay, I try to talk to Galbren. But I can tell you beforehand: that's a really bad strategy!"

Khiray thought of the Foxtaurs in the woods who were preparing for battle. Talking didn't seem the worst way to help Dek. There were alternatives bound to end in disaster.

* * *

The great city hall was among the oldest and hugest buildings of Sookandil. However, a part of the hall was laid out as subterranean structure, revealing the true measure of the building only when one entered the inside. From the outside only the dome was visible, as well as the six gates forming a circle around it, each equipped with a small bell tower. Stairways and ramps led downward inside the gates.

The bottom of the circular hall lay fifteen meters below the ground level. The hall had to be situated on a great hill, otherwise the floor would have been below the river's water-level, with moisture spoiling the inside. Even this way there seemed to be three main problems with underground buildings: ground water, air, light. But the city hall had been erected and furnished by Badger magicians who were on intimate terms with those questions. Although the magic wasn't visible in the building, manyfold spells protected the room.

The hall itself had a diameter three times as big as the dome visible outside. The tower-gates which provided access from the street level formed a circle of hollow pillars which held the stairs and supported the vault. The center of the circle was a raised rostrum. Outside the circle, in the outer ring beyond the pillars, seats for the audience rose like the walls of a crater.

The public could ascend the rows from the pillar-stairs -- there were broad stairways behind the pillars instead of seats, since it was not possible to look into the center from those positions anyway -- and finally reach the galleries mounted on the walls. Here the rich merchants and the nobles of the city took their seats.

The center was lighted by the dome, which was made from clear crystal, or by circles of lamps winding around the pillars. The banisters of the galleries bore more magical lamps. Torches were unsuitable for the hall, of course, sooting the crystal dome and spoiling the air.

The rostrum of the center was simple and spacious. Three doors, sunk in the base of the rostrum, led into a room even below the hall. That room was connected by more stairs with a house on the street level, providing an access for artists or performers apart from the pillars. The rostrum could be fitted as a stage or a court or a speaker's corner, whatever was needed. Citizen's assemblies, trials, public law readings, festivities, plays and sermons were held here.

The city hall provided space for two thousand Furrys, not including the galleries where again one hundred and fifty persons found seat. That was only part of the city's population, but normally it was enough to enable any interested Furry to attend a certain event. In this very case, however, Khiray saw that the hall's capacity was not even nearly sufficient. Hundreds of Furrys had gathered around the dome who hadn't found a place inside. Some had climbed onto the dome itself to watch the trial through the crystal. Murmuring, discussing groups crowded the streets. Some guards were standing around, trying to keep order. Half the populace of Sookandil seemed to be here, from the poorest day-workers to the richest traders. The fact that even the wealthy citizens had to wait at the tower-gates instead of taking their seats on the gallery proved that the hall was overcrowded by far.

When the first people saw Khiray, Saljin and Pallys, the unrest grew quickly. No one raised a hand against the Foxtauress, but the first insults sounded from the crowd. A path opened for the three although the guards didn't move; whether the Furrys made way because of fear or disgust, Khiray didn't know.

They entered a tower-gate and forced their way down to the hall. Furrys even sat on the stairs inside the pillars although they couldn't see a thing from there.

As Khiray had expected, the hall was crammed full. The swishing of the ventilators at the air ducts was drowned out by murmur and whisper, talk and rustle of the crowd. The constant feed of fresh air couldn't drive out the scents of the Furrys; without looking Khiray knew that all races, ages, sexes and social levels were present. He could smell anger, outrage, unrest and turmoil, but fear as well.

The rostrum had been fitted as court. The chair of the highest judge -- in this case Galbren, since Sookandil was not big enough to afford a dedicated judge -- stood highest, surrounded by more seats for prosecutor, defender and witnesses. The trial had not begun yet, and all the chairs were empty.

"Khiray! Hey, over here!" Khiray heard Delleys voice. The Rat sat in the first row of the audience -- on the floor, since all the seats were crowded; the stairs upward to the galleries were used by some to sit on, and every regular seat was shared by at least two Furrys.

When the mob saw Saljin, the hall became a madhouse. What was murmur before changed to an unarticulated cry of rage. Fists flew up into the air. Khiray couldn't understand what the crowd was chanting, but he needn't to.

No one however left his place. The crowd parted in front of Saljin, despite the confinement, and nofurry tried to attack her.

Near Delley, the complete crew of the 'Silver Ansicc' had gathered. Khiray noticed sadly that even they retreated with the crowd, until he, Delley, Saljin and Pallys occupied an open aisle amidst the hall, stared upon by a thousand eyes. Farlin was nowhere to be seen.

"I don't know whether this was a good idea." Delley watched the mob with concern, as if he expected to be attacked and torn into pieces at any moment.

"I know it wasn't a good idea", Pallys replied. His ears twitched nervously from one side to the other.

Before Khiray could reprimand either, the lowered doors in the base of the rostrum opened and a troop of guards marched out. They led Dek between them, caught in heavy chains. They stepped up the stairs to the rostrum and froze in attention.

Behind those guards a second troop of twenty men followed. Those, however, weren't clad in the standard uniform, but dressed in red doublets, red breeches, red capes and helmets with crimson braiding. They were heavily armed: swords, knives, lances.

"Elite troops", Khiray heard someone whisper. The murmur died and made way for an expectant silence.

Elite troops? In a small city at the edge of civilisation? Khiray was tempted to burst out laughing.

During theater performances the room beneath the rostrum was used by the actors to keep requisites in and to change their costumes. Nothing else he could see here: a theater performance. Maybe the spectacle of the 'elite troops' marching round the rostrum and lining up round the center would have been more impressive if the leader of that troop hadn't been someone Khiray knew very well.

Farlin.

His uncle in the crimson of the troops, festooned with weapons he probably couldn't even wield -- he was a merchant, no soldier!

Then Galbren appeared, clad in a dignified judge's robe, the colorful embroidered coat draped across the golden sash. He wore high boots as a sign of power as well as the feathered cap, the symbol of justice. Khiray wondered if justice indeed was about to be exercised.

With very slow and measured steps Galbren walked upward to the rostrum and gave everyone a look upon the embroideries on his coat. No one was to doubt the dignity of his office. When he reached the platform, he took seat in the judge's chair and clapped his hands.

Where was the prosecutor? When was the defender supposed to enter?

"Today we assembled here to administer the law", Galbren said. The city hall had superb acoustics; his words were audible even in the farthest round of the hall. "The accused is Dek the Foxtaur, the charge is murder. The victim is Saswin the Fox, merchant on the ship 'Silver Ansicc'. Let the trial begin."

"Where is the prosecutor?" Khiray asked in a low voice and jumped. His voice was audible everywhere -- especially on the rostrum.

Galbren raised an eyebrow and pricked up his ears. "I am the prosecutor. After studying the evidence, I am convinced that no formal prosecution is necessary. This trial will not take much time. Besides, no one has been willing to speak for Dek the Foxtaur, so no defender is present either."

"How can there be a trial if neither prosecutor nor defender are present?" Khiray rose. "How can you serve justice if no one is there to speak for the accused?"

Galbren leaned on his hands. "Merchant Khiray, according to the laws of the Armygan, only two people are necessary to administer justice. One accused -- which we have, here." He pointed at Dek. "One judge, which is me. This is a small city; we don't have specialised prosecutors nor defenders. If there had been any doubt about what will be the sentence, I'd request them and wait a few weeks until they arrive to hold this trial. But that is not the case. The guilt of the accused cannot be questioned."

"I don't see what a trial is for if the judge -- who accidentally is the governor and a powerful merchant, too -- knows the sentence beforehand." Khiray stepped forward to the rostrum.

"The trial is supposed to reveal the evidence for the guilt of the delinquent for everyfurry, nothing more." Galbren smiled. A little. Khiray could see his teeth. "I am the ruler of this city, like my father was before me. I am serving Sookandil and the Armygan loyally and without doubting. I am the governor and the high judge here, and I administer the law as it has been the custom for a thousand years. It has been this way since the beginning of history, and it is good that way.

"To judge someone is a question of experience. I make a great effort when I pronounce judgement on somebody -- no one should suffer unduly, everybody has to recognize the justice in the sentence, every repetition of the felony has to be avoided. Moreover, I try to mediate every dispute before a crime occurs.

"Normally, the Law does not need a prosecutor or a defender. Only in a few cases when the guilty party is not evident at once, or when the accused acted from other motives than rage, greed, or lust, we need the dialog of prosecution and defense to evaluate and examine every motive, every hint and evidence in all their aspects.

"If we needed a defender in every case, there would never be a sentence for many felons because their deed is so despicable no one would be willing to defend that criminal.

"There are no open questions in this case. I will explain during this trial why Dek is guilty, and pronounce the sentence. That is all."

Khiray shook his head. "No. That is not enough. If the accused is innocent, but the judge is convinced of his guilt, how could justice be served then?"

Galbren bent forward. "It happened that someone tried to deceive a judge, and here where we don't have magicians to determine truth and lie this may be the case more often than in the capital. But a perfect deception is hard to achieve, and the hammer of the law does hit everyone who is caught in the act.

"The only reason I know the sentence already is that I have seen the evidence, too. I am neither friend nor foe to the Foxtaurs. I have no interest in this case but to determine the truth. And the truth is visible for everyfurry who knows every detail. Merchant Khiray, I am somewhat surprised that you try to disturb the trial. After all, we are judging your father's murderer."

Khiray stared at Galbren for a while. The silence in the audience surrounded him like a solid wall, separated him from everything: his friends, his city, his past. He felt like his thoughts were oxes wading through syrup. He wanted to speak up, sound the voice of reason. But the silence suffocated him.

"If no one wants to speak for Dek the Foxtaur", he finally said, "I will do it. I am the defender."

Galbren made a face. For a moment he showed his full set of teeth and laid the ears back. "You mean, you want to take the place of the prosecutor."

"The defender", Khiray repeated.

The governor sighed, audible for everyone. "Merchant Khiray, I did already warn you not to associate too closely with strangers -- strangers from an unknown race, stranges with unknown intentions. I can only repeat my warning. You will go too far one day. For you it may be everyday's business to handle strangers, even Oo'men. But the good citizens here may not share your views. And with your permission, the fact that you are willing to defend the murderer of your father makes me doubt your loyality to the Armygan. Maybe you don't see it that way, but in my view you went a step too far already."

Khiray couldn't believe what Galbren paraphrased. Did the governor actually accuse him of treason in measured words?

"I am the defender", he just murmured while he ascended the rostrum. "You may doubt my motives, but I am trying to serve justice, as you do." Like Galbren? Did Galbren really serve justice by deciding the fate of the accused beforehand? It might be in agreement with the law, but maybe the law was not in accord with justice?

For the first time in his life Khiray noticed what power the judges possessed. They could read and interpret the words of the law at their discretion. They were not sworn to anyone but to the Drunlord in far-off Drun'kaal who couldn't care for every sentence in the Armygan, and they were not obliged to answer to anyone but him. If the judge was the governor as well as a merchant with his own interests in mind which may not be too concerned with justice...

Many things in the Armygan seemed to be in dire need for improvement. But this was neither the place nor the time to mention those thoughts. The crowd murmured angrily. Khiray recognized he was showing himself up in front of the whole city. No matter how this day would end, he'd never again make good business in Sookandil.

"So be it", Galbren said. "You may speak for the Foxtaur." Slowly he shook his head. "I don't know what induces you to do this, but your wish is my command." He made a sign in the direction of one of the guards who hurried into the chamber below the rostrum again. "If there is a defender, a prosecutor should be there as well. I hope your idea of a fair trial is satisfied then. Or am I supposed to call up a dozen Furrys to decide the guilt or innocence of the accused?"

Galbren's sarcasm bounced off Khiray. The young Fox knew he was doing the right thing. It might cost him his business... his reputation... maybe his heritage. But it was the only way. He had to solve the riddle, put the pieces of the puzzle into their places, or he'd never live with himself in peace again.

A hooded figure appeared at the edge of the rostrum.

It was the governor's advisor, the worm-being. Khiray struggled for breath. How could the magical creature dare to appear here, amidst thousands of Furrys? He just needed to take a step, pull off the hood, and it would be obvious for everyone what Galbren had become involved with.

But he didn't even had time to stretch out his hand. The advisor pulled back the hood of his own accord and revealed the white, hairless face of an Oo'men. There were no worms, maggots or leeches. The advisor smiled kindly at Khiray.

A murmur went through the ranks. Oo'men never showed their faces in Sookandil. Drun'kaal and the other coastal cities were occasionally visited by Oo'men ships which needed to refill their water supplies, bought food or stayed for repairs, but they never came much farther inland. The trade with the mountain cities was the business of Furrys; Oo'men merchants never bothered with the routes down the Armygan. Most of the people in the city hall had probably never seen an Oo'men before.

Khiray frowned and ignored the unrest. Was this Oo'men really the same being he had met that night outside the city? Was the worm-creature indeed Galbren's advisor, conversely? He had no evidence of this, it had been his own supposition. The wormthing had never said he'd be Galbren's advisor. Suspiciously the Fox watched the Oo'men.

Had he been fooled by the worm-being from the beginning?

Galbren clapped his hands again. "My advisor, Alfon Sanass. Most of you probably heard of him, but only a few have actually met him." Alfon bowed courteously. He was a hand's width taller than Galbren and seemed to be rather thin -- the robe hid his actual stature.

"Some of you may wonder why I took an Oo'men as advisor, especially since I spoke time and again against the increasing number of strangers in our country", Galbren continued. "Well, Alfon Sanass came to me half a year ago and requested a discussion. He held the position of chancellor in his hometown, Hanmur, and knew many secrets of his government."

The Oo'men nodded and indicated a bow. "I had access to all plans, all projects of the Council of Hanmur. I don't want to worry someone -- but there are groups of humans who are not too glad about the presence of Furrys in the Armygan." Immediately, agitated murmuring spread through the audience. "The Armygan is a rich country, its nature full of treasures. And the common opinion is: the land belongs to the humans, not the Furrys." The murmuring grew until it almost drowned out the advisor's words. "Not that there would be any plans indicating a war, there is virtually no contact between the two races after all. But the Council of Hanmur passed settling plans which include almost the whole land between Sookandil and the human territories."

Khiray was speechless. Were those plans inventions of the advisor, lies to confuse the Furrys? Or were they in accordance with the truth?

A game he didn't understand... The remarks of the worm-being seemed to fit into this context. A game of politics, of secrets, treason and espionage. A game that indicated a direct confrontation between Oo'men and Furrys sooner or later.

The very thought ot it was threatening. The Oo'men had a thousand years experience in warfare and an almost unlimited potential in supplies. The Furrys were scattered all over the Armygan which was only thinly populated, individualists who didn't care much for armys and generals. The Armygan had no regular standing army, and there was no connection to the ancient homeland where the Furrys once had come from, more than thousand years ago.

War itself was bad enough. But if there wasn't even the slightest chance to win... What should become of the Furrys when the Oo'men indeed reclaimed the Armygan as their property? Today, tomorrow, in a hundred or a thousand years?

Galbren started to knock on the table until the noise faded. "Please, let Alfon continue."

The advisor faced the crowd again. "I have been a man of peace all my life. I think the demands of the Council are far too high and completely unjustified. The settled borders should never be shifted, even if the Furrys don't use the land between here and human territory right now. Sooner or later plans like these will lead into direct conflict, and there's no need for that. Therefore I have come to Sookandil, the first city this side of the border, to warn the Furrys of this project."

"We are extremely thankful for that", Galbren replied. "Personally, I expected similar plans for a long time. The Armygan has gotten weak. It has shown no strength, no determination, no ability to assert itself. Down in the capital bureaucrats are squatting who just take our taxes and do nothing in return. An aristocratic elite rules our land, fat and complacent, greedy for more, more, more. How many months are passing until one of our requests is answered by the capital? How long does it take today until a street is built, a settlement is founded, until someone takes action against impertinent strangers who worm themselves into our confidence and murder honest citizens afterwards?" Galbren looked at Dek.

But Dek didn't react. He kept his eyes half-closed and his head lowered as if he didn't care what happened to him.

"Drun'kaal has become soft and lethargic!" Galbren shouted into the audience. "The Drunlord has forfeited his right to rule centuries ago! We, all those who are living at the very border of the wildlands, have to prove ourselves day after day, show our strength, our courage, our abilities! We have to meet the challenge of the country. Down in the capital fools and blind Furrys decide the fate of the Armygan! One day someone will come to put the Drunlord in his place, and it should better be soon, because the Oo'men don't sleep! Only when we oppose them with our strongest determination they will refrain from their plans!"

One day? Someone? Khiray felt that Galbren spoke of himself.

But that could not -- must not be! Galbren indicated nothing else but treason, an insidious betrayal of the Drunlord. The moment Galbren segregated from Drun'kaal and stopped paying taxes, the Drunlord would send out his own guard against him. Kooradah might not own an army like the Oo'men, but his guards were numerous and effective.

Or did Galbren think of more than just a segregation from the Armygan? Did he have a revolution, a coup, a seizure of power in mind? Impossible. Khiray was sure Galbren could not raise enough troops for such a plan.

However, treason was treason, even if it came hidden behind a mask of possibilities, ifs and subjunctives. The governor was an able rhetorician.

"We did not assemble here to mourn the future of the Armygan", Galbren continued, "but to administer justice and pronounce judgement. The judgement of that Foxtaur called Dek." He pointed at the accused. The crowd growled. "Since citizen and merchant Khiray kindly declared himself willing to defend the Foxtaur" -- his tone left no doubt about how he meant it -- "Alfon Sanass will take the place of the prosecutor. He knows every detail of the case thanks to his position as my right hand. This way, the trial will obey every word and thought of the law in the most fitting way." He nodded at his advisor.

Alfon Sanass took a seat at Khiray's side. He smiled. It had never occurred to Khiray that an Oo'men smile -- devoid of any canines -- could look menacingly, but that certainly was the case this time.

The young Fox wondered if he had any chance against the advisor -- no matter if he was a genuine Oo'men or just a new mask of the worm-being.

* * *

The claim that the evidence would be overwhelming was an understatement. Alfon Sanass knew how to elicit statements against Dek from the witnesses, and there were a lot of them.

The first witnesses were visitors of the bar where Dek almost instigated a brawl. A Hart, a Wolf, and a Rat agreed in stating that Dek threatened Khiray although the latter volunteered to pay the bill for the Foxtaurs. The barkeeper indulged in a long litany about the manners of strangers.

"He threatened me", Khiray tried to correct, "not my father. Even if that unlucky event should indicate anything, I should be the victim, shouldn't I?"

Alfon crossed his arms. "Maybe. But it has been made clear for everyone present that the accused is not able to control himself when drunk. And that he is able to commit murder, judging from his character."

Khiray couldn't say anything against that. It had been an unpleasant situation. And if Dek really had hit him with that chair leg...

The next witnesses appealed for were a young Rabbit couple and some Furrys Khiray couldn't remember. They had seen Dek at the booth of the Foxtaurs when he wanted to attack Khiray.

"He shouted: 'I'll kill him', for sure", the male Rabbit said. "We ran away at once. He had a weapon."

Alfon looked searchingly at the witness. "Could he have meant it as a joke, among friends?"

The Rabbit gave Dek a frightened glance. The Foxtaur hadn't moved since the beginning of the trial. "No. He wanted to murder the Fox, I'm sure. The other strangers had to hold him to keep him from splitting the Fox's head." He wrinkled his nose. "I just wonder... why is the Fox his defender?"

The Oo'men shook his head. "Just answer my questions."

Khiray groaned inwardly. This episode too was true, no doubt, and it showed Dek in the worst possible light. The witnesses agreed on that too, of course.

"One moment", he said. "I want to contribute one special scene."

"Please", Alfon said reservedly.

Khiray told what happened the night when he had watched Dek and Saljin at their training with the Dekka'shin. When he arrived at the point where Dek attacked him with the weapon, he noticed that more and more Furrys in the audience raised their eyebrows.

"But that's not the point", he said hastily. "I mean, he could have killed me then, without witnesses. If he had wanted to. But he didn't. He didn't want to harm me, he is just a little hot-headed."

"So", Alfon said, and Khiray knew that his description had backfired. The Furrys and the Oo'men didn't see Dek's behaviour as a proof that the Foxtaur just pretended his aggressiveness but as evidence for a special hatred towards Khiray.

The next witness was an elderly Rat. She had a cheap shop for beer, wine, and schnapps, and a little distillery.

"Yeh, the Foxtaur bought something from me." She sniffled a little. "Made a fuss about the prices every time. Why, but my stuff's a real bargain." She began listing her prices in a marketender's tone.

"Yuh, that's all your rotgut's worth!" someone in the audience shouted even before Alfon could open his mouth, and the Rat fell silent, offended.

"Did the accused buy alcohol in the night of the murder?" the prosecutor demanded to know.

The Rat laid back her ears. "Yeh. He had one too many already, I must say." That was the first thing Khiray heard of that night. Until then he had only known that Dek had disappeared. "Took a grand bottle with him."

"He was drunk, then."

"That's what I said, mate."

"And he didn't intend to stop drinking?"

The Rat squinted at Alfon. "Now lissen, hairless! If you go downtown in the evening and buy bottle, you don't want not to exercise teetotalism all night long, nay." She used the word 'teetotalism' like an insult. Khiray wondered where she got it from.

Alfon took his seat again. "Well, we know by now that the accused had been drunk in the night of the murder and most likely drank even more. Moreover, we know that he gets violent when under the influence of alcohol. And that he nourished a deep hatred for merchant Khiray because of a mysterious weapons deal." He let his words sink in. "Merchant Khiray -- or should I say, defender Khiray --, would you please portray what that deal was about?"

Reluctantly, Khiray started to describe the sour business. He didn't even leave out the episodes when he offered the Foxtaurs a share of the profit and when he sold Galbren the weapons. Alfon would conjure up some witnesses for sure to complete the picture if he kept quiet about them. But he was well aware that he made Dek look worse and worse.

Alfon questioned guards, passer-bys, merchants, in short everyone who had something to say about Dek. A guard explained where he found the stolen weapons, sloppily hidden in the forest. Khiray listened with one ear only. Yes, it was true: Dek was quick-tempered and stubborn, yes, he had threatened him, but why murder Saswin, then?

On the other hand -- was it really unthinkable that Dek was the felon? Khiray shuddered. Could his feelings deceive him that much?

Alfon's last witness was the doctor who had confirmed Saswin's death, an old Badger with glasses and ice-grey fur. The typical pattern of his coat had almost completely faded, and the voice of the doctor trembled a little. Khiray remembered: Doctor Pargenn. The Badger had treated him too, some time ago. He might be old, but his integrity and ability was beyond question.

"I don't know if there's any doubt about the murder weapon", the Badger said. "After all, it still stuck in Saswin's back. But if you really have to ask, yes, it's been this very knife."

Alfon put aside the Troll steel dagger which he had shown to Pargenn. "Is there anything special about the case?"

Pargenn rubbed his chin. "Oh, no... Then again... Well, it's unusual, but..."

"What's unusual, doctor?"

"The weapon has been thrusted into Saswin's back. From behind. It severed the spine. Normally people are murdered from the front, if the few cases of murder in Sookandil over the years I've been doctor here are any indication. A murder is mostly the result of an out-of-control quarrel, a violent dispute. To stab someone from behind suggests deliberation, which is rather uncommon. Even the robbers who roamed the woods for some years have murdered their victims only seldomly from behind, from a hiding-place. A caught thief would rather flee than confront somebody.

"I seem to remember that there were only two cases of... but I don't want to digress, and every single case of murder is special, after all. But all in all the murderer seemed to have acted insidiously and in cold blood.

"On the other hand, the thrust has been executed with great force, indicating a deed in the heat of the moment, strong hatred or a bolting temper." The doctor shook his head. "You really need power to sever a spine."

"Is a powerful thrust all you need? I mean, could a weaker person murder someone this way?"

The doctor blinked. "The blade would slide off the bone. That material..."

The Oo'men interrupted him. "You mean, a weaker Furry could not commit a murder like this at all? Let's say, a Rat like this one...?" He pointed at Delley.

"Hey!" the Rat protested. "Leave me out of this!"

"Impossible", Pargenn reassured him. "Not even another Fox could muster that strength. Well, a woodcutter maybe, but what Fox becomes woodcutter these days...? A Wolf, a strong Wolf. Or a Bear, for sure. A Hart, maybe, but the Deer folk seldomly tends towards violence. A Leopard, of course, but I have seen only one or two of them here at all."

"A Foxtaur?"

Pargenn raised his shoulders. "I heard they are quite strong."

"They are." Alfon threw a chair leg onto the table. It was the same Dek had used to threaten Khiray that night at the bar.

The gesture didn't miss its intended effect. The crowd breathed audibly.

The doctor left the rostrum, limping slightly, and sat down between two Cats in the first row of chairs, who crowded together a little bit more. Alfon stared across the heads of the assembled Furrys for several minutes. Then he said: "I think we heard enough."

"No, we haven't", Khiray said determinedly. "We have just heard things which incriminate Dek. We haven't heard any witnesses who observed the felony itself, we have not heard of those who know Dek and are able to judge him."

"I don't think we have to", Galbren interfered. "I don't doubt the guilt of the accused."

"Foxtaurs are not... evil!" Khiray insisted. "They have a code of honor. Dek wanted to earn a name for himself. A murder would have loaded shame on his tribe forever. No one forgets the basic rules of his society, not even drunk!"

"Now that's interesting", Alfon interjected. "How long do you know the Foxtaurs?"

Khiray raised his hands, desperately. "I know them well enough..."

"How long?" the Oo'men thundered.

"A few days", Khiray whispered -- and knew he signed Dek's death sentence.

Astonished silence followed. Then someone startet to laugh, and more and more Furrys joined in. The laughter filled the hall. It was no merry laugh, but bitter and cynical, scornful, degrading. A few days! The cub thinks he can judge a whole race after a few days!

Khiray turned to Dek. "Why don't you say anything? Explain it to them! You know best! Say something! Say you didn't do it!"

The Foxtaur raised his head and stared into the roaring audience. "I didn't do it", he said.

The laughter became a howling storm. It drowned out Galbren's ask for silence, Alfon's knocking, every single voice. The assembled crowd had become a laughing, thousand-headed monster.

Khiray stared at Dek, then at Saljin, then at Dek again. He hardly noticed the tears running down his cheeks. He had lost. Nothing he could say now could change anybody's mind.

It took an eternity before the laughter died and became an expectant silence.

"He is right", a voice broke the quiet. Pallys stood up. "The codex of the Foxtaurs is very strict. Dek would not have broken it."

Alfon mustered the elderly Rabbit. "And how long do you know the Foxtaurs? Two weeks?"

"Many years", Pallys mumbled before the crowd could burst out in laughter again. "I lived with them."

"Interesting", Galbren remarked. "I know you have taught my father already. You haven't left the city since a generation. Either you are older than you seem to be, or you have gotten around a lot in your youth."

"Both", Pallys stated. "Galbren, you have been impertinent as a cub, and recalcitrant too. You don't really want to claim that I'm lying?"

A murmur went through the ranks. Pallys was a well-known and respected citizen.

Alfon clapped his hands. "No, he surely doesn't want that. I might object, however: even a perfectly good knowledge of a people's customs does not prevent one to misjudge a single black sheep among those folks. I believe the Foxtaurs as a race are a honorable people. But we don't judge a whole people here, just a single person, one member of this community, this Dek. It is him we pass a sentence over, and I haven't heard one humble voice yet to exonerate him."

"Wait a moment", Khiray exclaimed. "Uncle Farlin, would you come here?"

Farlin climbed upon the rostrum. The scarlet robes hung loosely around his body; Farlin was big for a Fox, and the clothing had apparently been made for a Wolf.

"Uncle Farlin, you have been near Saswin in the night of the murder." It made him nauseous to think of his father this way. But it was the only, tiny wee bit of evidence he could produce in Dek's favour. "Did you see Dek?"

"No. I've seen nofurry."

"You were knocked down, probably by the murderer."

Farlin nodded. "But he came from behind."

"He came from behind. But you didn't hear him?"

"No."

"The planks on our ship creak easily. A Foxtaur is not only strong, he is heavy too. You should have heard him pretty well, if he really was there!"

Alfon shook his head. "Not necessarily."

Khiray turned to him. "Why not?"

"Foxtaurs are four-legged. With four legs the weight distributes far better. Moreover, four-leggers have a different mode of walking. You can feel the ground with one paw and remain in perfect balance since you still stand on three legs. You cannot do this as a two-legger. The Foxtaur can watch out for creaking planks much better than we can, and go round them."

Horrified, Khiray stared at Dek's paws. Alfon was right. Four legs...

Why did every argument he could think of turn against him?

What if he was wrong? Was Dek guilty? The nagging doubt couldn't be ignored. Did he stand here, ruining his career as merchant by trying to protect his father's murderer from his just fate? Did he allow himself to be dazzled by his feelings for Saljin?

"I think all the cards are on the table now." Galbren folded his fingers. "Every Furry present knows all the objective facts now. The only event we have no eyewitnesses for is the murder itself. We don't have a magician here to bring us the valuable gift of certainty, but do we need him? I will tell you what happened at that night.

"Dek picked a quarrel with merchant Khiray. Merchant Khiray wanted to grant the Foxtaurs a share of the profit because he thought he had gotten the better of them in that deal. Dek felt insulted. He nourished his hatred of Khiray since the deal itself already. He tried to kill him, but was held back. While merchant Khiray was away, Dek got at least one bottle of cheap alcohol.

"Once drunken, he sneaked onto the ship of the victim. He killed it -- in his current state he couldn't tell Khiray and Saswin apart, or Saswin was murdered in Khiray's place when Dek found out that the younger Fox wasn't there --, took the weapons and hid those and himself in the forest. The day after that he returned and got arrested.

That's all. The case is not nearly as complicated as merchant Khiray seems to think."

Galbren rose. "Does anyone else still wonders what the voice of justice has to say?"

Silence was the answer at first. Then somefurry shouted: "Guilty!" A second voice joined, then a third, until the whole hall repeated again and again: "Guilty! Guilty!"

Alfon nodded approvingly. Khiray let his head drop. Dek was the only one not to care. He folded his arms as well as the chains allowed him to, and looked straight over the crowd.

Galbren clapped his hands. "The trial is finished. The sentence is death."

* * *

Was Dek guilty? Khiray couldn't look into Saljin's eyes while they followed the guards into the light of day. Not only because he had disappointed her -- what could he have done? -- but because he didn't believe in Dek's innocence any longer. Alfon and Galbren had put together most of the puzzle. What was left?

There was the worm-being. It didn't fit into the picture, but it didn't seem to have anything to do with Saswin's death either. It might have been coincidence that it had appeared in the night of the murder. Khiray hadn't mentioned it during the trial, and even his friends didn't know about it -- but on the other hand, what would he have to gain by telling? Since then Khiray had the impression he had dreamt.

Then there was the codex of the Foxtaurs. Dek's honor. Desperately Khiray shook his head. That was not enough. That couldn't convince anyone. Not even himself.

Of course, maybe Dek had gotten drunk and hid in the forest so no one would see him staggering along. Mikhoi had left no doubt about what he thought about drinking. Dek didn't want to lower himself in front of him. Then, when Dek had drunk himself unconscious with schnapps, someone stole his dagger, sneaked onto the ship, murdered Saswin, stole the weapons and hid them in the forest.

But who should have done that? And why? Saswin had no mortal enemies, so revenge wasn't the motive. A quarrel? No, the culprit had stabbed Saswin in the back, maliciously. Greed for the weapons? Not likely, the Troll steel was too conspicious to use or sell in Sookandil. What's more, the weapons were sloppily hidden, as if the guards were supposed to find them... or as if the person who hid them had been drunk.

If Dek wasn't the murderer, it could only be someone who wanted to pin the deed to the Foxtaur.

It was hopeless. He was wrong. Dek was guilty. There was no mystery Furry. There was...

...only the worm-being.

The crowd pushed to the exits. No one wanted to miss the execution of the sentence. Voices murmured all over the hall.

"Little furry being..."

Khiray heard the voice in his memory.

"Little furry being..."

It was no memory. Khiray looked up and stared into the face of the advisor.

"You spoke well", Alfon Sanass said. "Not good enough, I fear, but given the circumstances..." He smiled. Slowly his mouth opened.

There was no tongue...

For a moment Khiray caught the indistinct, winding form of a leech writhing behind the teeth. But before the Fox could draw somebody's attention to this, the advisor had turned around and pushed through the ranks of the guards.

It was indeed the worm-being. However it got its new shape, hull, form -- whatever --, it was here. And it was a part of the puzzle, a part that belonged nowhere.

"Calm down", Saljin said. The pushing Furrys still kept a respectful distance from her. "What has happened?"

Khiray noticed that the horror was written plainly on his face. "I... I saw something... it is probably important, but I'm not sure..."

"Tell me later." Worriedly the Foxtauress looked around.

They got into the open through a tower-gate. But the crowd didn't thin out. All those hundreds, if not thousands, who had waited outside, surrounded the guards, joined the audience of the trial, unitl they had become a powerful torrent who was screaming the word "Guilty!" to the skies.

Khiray had lost Delley and Pallys. Most likely they made themself scarce by now.

Maybe they did the right thing. There was nothing left to do. Dek was lost -- Galbren would show no mercy. Saljin should have known that, but she didn't behave like someone whose brother would hang from the gallows in a few minutes.

Then Khiray saw why.

The procession of the guards with the prisoner in their midst came to a halt without reaching the gathering place and the gallows. The Foxtaurs blocked the way.

Mikhoi, Halann, Aryfaa, Dokmaris, every one of them clad in full armor and equipped with weapons. They formed a line across the street, ready for anything.

Khiray slipped through the ranks of the unsure guards. Saljin followed him close behind.

"Give us Dek", Mikhoi demanded. "Guilty or not, we are the ones to judge him."

"I fear that option is not available", Galbren replied. "The felony was committed in our city and has to be punished according to our laws."

"We cannot allow that", Dokmaris stated. He whirled the Dekka'shin around. "Avoid bloodshed. You have no well-prepared troops and bad weapons."

"I have my guards. Courageous men. Elite troops." Galbren indicated a bow. "And many of them. You are only four."

"Five", Saljin said and joined her comrades. Aryfaa threw a Dekka'shin to her.

No! Khiray wanted to exclaim, but he couldn't utter a sound. Saljin had no armor! She would be the first victim in a fight!

"Six", Dek said calmly, as if he bore no chains.

But there were thirty, fourty guards, not counting those who upheld order in the crowd behind. And more troops distributed over the city. Khiray had counted seventy or eighty men when the guards searched for Dek in the night of the murder. Six Foxtaurs didn't count compared with those.

Galbren made a sign to the guards. Swords were drawn. Capes fell down into the dust.

"So be it", Mikhoi sighed and attacked.

* * *

The first sweep of the attack carried the Foxtaurs into the midst of the guards before they could react accordingly. Experienced soldiers might have stopped the Foxtaurs, but those men were poor peasants, unemployed craftsmen, vagrants and riverfurrys without a job. Some weeks in a training camp couldn't replace true battle experience. The Foxtaurs on the other hand acted methodically and deadly.

Once again Khiray noticed that he knew next to nothing about the Foxtaurs. Did they wage wars? Did the tribes battle each other perpetually? Did they have powerful enemies among other races? Or did they live in peace and trained only some of them as warriors?

Dokmaris and Halann attacked with undiminished fury, even when the first row of guards went down under the sweeping strokes of the Dekka'shin. Khiray saw that Mikhoi severed Dek's chains with his blade. He couldn't open the cuffs on his arms and legs, but the prisoner regained his ability to move.

The guards reacted, but too late. Farlin shouted some commands, but he had as little experience and even less training than his men. He probably caused more trouble than benefit. Khiray didn't have the impression, though, as if someone was listening to him.

The Foxtaurs moved with the confidence and determination of born warriors. Their interplay was perfect: Mikhoi had reached Dek before any resistance had formed. The guards seemed to get into each other's way and didn't work together at all.

Back in the crowd a panic formed. The first rows of hopeful Furrys who wanted to see the execution came to a sudden stop when violence exploded in front of them. The stragglers pushed forward in happy ignorance. Calls sounded. "They are fighting!" "Let's get away!" "Make room! Make room!"

But the huge crowd in the narrow street couldn't dissolve that easily. The screams grew louder. The guards who had to sort things out at the hall couldn't get onwards while the fighting troops had to face the Foxtaurs alone.

Time seemed to creep in an indefinitely slow pace. Khiray saw the next guard fall. The Foxtaurs showed no mercy; facing the superior numbers of their enemies they dealt killing blows instead of just putting the guards out of action. The young Fox pressed his back against a wall. The fight happened right before his muzzle, and the probability to be pushed among the fighters by the crowd and become the unfortunate victim of a random stroke grew steadily.

Surprised Khiray noticed the blood sticking on his vest. He could not remember it getting there. But at his feet a dead guard lay, his arm half severed, with an astonished expression on his face, as if he wanted to say "That's not what I had in mind..."

"Back!" Mikhoi shouted, and the Foxtaurs organized their ranks anew. Dek was free, the guards unable to stop them. For the first time since the beginning of the fight Khiray recognized that the Foxtaurs would win, despite the sheer number of guards.

But then the Fox noticed more troops coming from the opposite direction. They aimed at the Foxtaur's back -- and contrary to the red-clad elite troops those guards seemed to know their craft. They marched in step, the weapons drawn, each row was staggered behind the former one, a wall of sharp steel.

Khiray's glance wandered over to Galbren and Alfon who stood in the shadow of the house wall on the other side of the street. Galbren smiled.

The Fox understood. The so-called elite troops had been nothing more than a diversion for Galbren. He sacrificed them mercilessly while the true soldiers surrounded the Foxtaurs. The governor didn't even need the elite troops because the thousands of Furrys who came to the execution blocked that direction of the city much more effective. Even if the Foxtaurs had been willing to sacrifice the innocent and slaughter unarmed Furrys: the sheer number of curious furs would have stopped them.

Only those of the scarlet guards stood upright who had avoided the fight. The courageous ones who tried to duel a Foxtaur lay dead or severely injured on the street. Blood was covering everything -- more blood than Khiray had seen throughout his life. The street seemed to be soaked in it.

The Foxtaurs looked unharmed, but their true fight was just about to begin. Khiray tried to avert his gaze from Saljin and searched for his uncle Farlin among the fallen.

Farlin stood in Galbren's proximity, eyes wide open. He bled from a wound in the arm but seemed unhurt elsewhere.

"Farlin!" Khiray called out. "Uncle Farlin!" But the noise rising all around him drowned out his words. The panicking crowd still tried to flee and trampled down each other in the process. Glass clinked and wood splintered; apparently some tried to escape the chaos by forcing their way into the buildings.

Every sense in Khiray called for flight, but he knew there was no escape. The street was inundated in a wave of brute violence, and he couldn't do anything but watch.

He didn't even know whose victory he should hope for. If there was a winner among all those dead.

The developing fight drew his eyes magically. The Foxtaurs had started to break the phalanx of the troops. Their weapons were far superior to those of the guards, but that alone wasn't enough. Thirty or fourty guards stood against six Foxtaurs, two of them even unarmored.

Dek had been hurt already. He fought with a fierceness as if he alone had to bring the guards down. One of the other Foxtaurs had given him a sword, but its reach was smaller than that of a Dekka'shin, and Dek came too close to the guards' weapons.

If he gets himself killed, Khiray thought, everything will be in vain.

But it wasn't Dek who fell but his adversaries. Even those guards couldn't stand up to the Foxtaurs. Step by step they had to back away. Of course, they didn't fight for their lives -- Khiray guessed that Galbren didn't want even one of the Foxtaurs to get away.

Did he plan all this? Did he knew that the Foxtaurs would come to rescue Dek, and had he put up the trap for them?

But why? Only to keep the secret of the Troll steel for himself? Or to test his troops in a real battle? That sounded absurd, but Galbren wasn't to judge by normal Furry standards. His inflammatory speech against the Drunlord had proven what kind of plans he had in mind.

Khiray noticed surprisedly that his paws carried him closer and closer to the battle without his volition. Frightened, he stopped. That was a fight he didn't want to be drawn into -- he had no weapons apart from his normal knife and the dream knife, if he wanted to count it as weapon, and no armor at all.

And it wasn't his fight...

...or was it?

Aryfaa thrust her Dekka'shin into the chest of a guard. A Wolf dealt a mighty blow against Halann, but his armor made the sword of the wolf bounce off. Saljin seemed to be hurt, she fell back and spared a front paw. A Badger stabbed Mikhoi repeatedly who tried to avert the strokes with a dagger.

"We have to get away from here!" Khiray heard. He looked around searchingly. It was Delley who had resurfaced from the crowd to look for the Fox.

"We can't", Khiray reminded him. A dagger whirled through the air and collided with the wall some meters away.

Delley pointed upward. "Can you climb?"

Khiray's look wandered back to Galbren. The governor stared fascinatedly at the battle. Only Alfon...

Alfon looked at Khiray. Their glances met. The worm-being smiled and seemed to say something.

Then far behind them, in the midst of the crowd and the panic, a roar sounded which made the walls around them tremble. Two dark shadows who towered above the mob by far, pushed their way through the frightened Furrys.

Khiray felt the cold wall in his back unusually clearly.

Bears.

They waded through the fleeing people as if they were crossing water. The crowd slowed them down only insignificantly. They wore red vests and loincloths -- and besides that only belts with weapons slung around their hips and shoulders. Guards? Bears as guards? Khiray had never heard anything about the lone and rare Bears committing themselves to such an occupation. As big and powerful as they were, they were harmless -- unless provoked.

The two Bears were big even among their race. They towered over the Wolves present by a Rabbit's height. Their fur hung down in dirty shaggy locks, and their bared teeth were yellow and covered with dark spots. Outcasts maybe, no longer welcome to their own folk. They resembled each other strongly, maybe brothers.

"Come on", Delley urged and pulled at Khiray's vest. "That's a massacre!"

The Bears marched past Khiray, Delley, Galbren and Alfon, went down to all fours and started to run. Even on four paws they were higher than Khiray. With wide-open eyes the Fox watched the new attack.

Each Bear weighed at least as much as three Foxtaurs, probably more. They didn't even bother to draw their weapons, instead they ran down their opponents. The guards withdrew and left the battlefield to the Bears.

"We have to do something!" Khiray shouted.

"We have to get away, that's the only thing we have to do", Delley protested. "Right now!"

Khiray broke free from the Rat and ran into the direction of the Bears. "Stop it! Stop the fighting!" He didn't know what came over him. The Bears could kill him with a single blow. But somehow that possibility didn't bother him right now.

The first Bear stroke Halann down. Against the pure force of the blows even the Troll steel armor didn't help. The Foxtaur sank to the ground and ceased moving.

The second Bear turned to Khiray, shrugged and seized Aryfaa. He lifted her effortlessly from the ground, whirled her around and threw her into Khiray's direction. The Fox could avoid the living projectile but tripped over a moaning wounded guard and fell into the dirt.

"Khiray!" The voice belonged to Aryfaa, not to Delley. "You mustn't interfere!" Painfully slowly the Foxtauress struggled to get on her paws again. "That's not your fight!"

Khiray sat up. No, not his fight.

One of the Bears hit Saljin.

On the other hand... didn't he run away often enough?

The other Bear was injured. Mikhoi inflicted a deep wound in his side with his Dekka'shin. The Bears were unarmored and a little ponderous.

But their size deceived the eye; their movements were quicker than Khiray had thought. The Bear tore the weapon from Mikhoi and broke the shaft like a twig.

The Fox staggered to his paws. Saljin -- where was Saljin? The Foxtauress lay as a struck-down limp bundle at a wall. Khiray hurried in her direction, not noticing the Bears and the other guards.

From the corners of his eyes he saw Dek ramming a sword into one of the Bears. Maybe the fight was not altogether hopeless...

But the Bear refused to die. He pulled the sword from the wound and hurled it away.

"Saljin?" The Foxtauress still breathed. "Saljin!"

She opened her eyes. "Khiray? You... you must not stay!"

"Perdition!" the Fox snarled. "I'm tired of everyfurry telling me what to do or not to do!" But he knew it would be the wisest course of action. Go away. Disappear. Leave the city. He had no future in Sookandil anymore, and if he didn't get away soon, he had no future period.

But he couldn't. He couldn't go.

"I...", he said.

Then something hard hit the back of his head, and he sank down into a bottomless pit.


End of Chapter Seven, go to Chapter 8, back to Chapter 6.