She had underestimated the width of the rapids. The distance between the rock faces was more than three times the length of the 'Ansicc', if not more. But the mighty cliffs around them dwarfed the stream. Two hundred, maybe three hundred meters they towered, higher than the river's width. The Otterpath had eaten its way through the mountains during the course of hundreds of thousands of years, and it had left its watery marks all over the full height of the cliffs.
The river banks were lined with rocks, sharp-edged ledges and sills. A part of them seemed to be artificial, part of the mechanism the Otters used to pull their ships upriver. The others, however, were dangerous obstacles: big lumps carried here by the Otterpath, rock noses broken from the cliff during landslides, and mighty erratic blocks, stirred from their rest in the depths of the mountains, whose sharp ridges even the river had been unable to smooth yet.
It took only a very short time to make Saljin drip with wetness. The cold penetrated her fur and made her shiver. Spurting spray dampened the deck from bow to stern. She could hardly see in what direction the 'Ansicc' moved: all around her the former clear view was drowned in an inferno of raging water.
Carefully, both hands at the rail, she moved onward to the stairs. She didn't feel any fear; the danger remained invisible in the chaotic roar around. She could feel the ship bucking, but even the near paddle-wheel became a mere shadow in the spray.
She knew, of course, that a wave could carry her away. The wild river would have drowned her - swimming was of little use in that current - or shattered her on the rocks. Not even the Otters, no matter what they claimed, could survive in that water. But that prospect seemed to be far away, as if she knew already that this kind of death was not her fate.
Dorn had drowned here, his ship shattered. Even the Otters considered the rapids dangerous. But she was sure Khiray could master the river.
Why? She had never seen him before sailing the steamship in any critical situation. The river had been gentle and mild. Anyone could have steered under those circumstances.
But the certainty was there. She had seen it in his eyes. And she knew even more.
She knew Khiray's name now.
A mighty blow tore her hands off the rail. The 'Ansicc' had hit a rock. The splintering and crashing which would have announced the ship's demise failed though: the straw bales had cushioned the impact and helped the vessel to slide off.
The bow dove down, came up again like a bird starting its flight.
A roaring wave rolled across the deck, seized Saljin and tore her away. She tried to get hold of the rail again, but it was too late. She had nothing to oppose the raging water; even four paws could not provide support on the slippery deck. She felt being swept away, hitting the cabin wall, sliding across the raw wood. Spray bit in her eyes. She trashed frantically around with every limb to get hold of something before the water carried her over the stern into the river.
Amidships, the outer deck became narrower. Only a small, low passage under the axle-shafts of the paddle-wheels led to the stern. The wooden box containing the axle-shafts formed a bridge between the wall of the engine room and the casing of the paddle-wheel. Fryyk had explained to her that it was called "shaft bridge". Not every steamer possessed a shaft bridge, with some, the outer deck ended here instead of running all around the ship.
The shaft bridge stopped Saljin's ride. She was hurled roughly against the cracking wood. Some of the planks splintered. The wave ran out, and the water flowed away to all sides.
The Foxtauress slumped down to the deck and looked dazedly sternward. One meter below, and the suction would have pulled her below the shaft bridge, taking her with it to the stern. Hurriedly, she grasped the rail again, although she wasn't sure her arms' strength could withstand the powerful waters. She had to escape that dangerous place, into the ship's interior or at least onto a higher deck.
The paddle-wheel's bearings creaked. Here, that close to the wheel, she could follow its movements in detail. It turned a little, then stopped, changed its direction, started to dig into the water for all its worth, suddenly stopped again and changed direction for a second time.
That kind of movement was not what the steamer was constructed for, and she could hear the mechanics protest. But it was the only way to hold the 'Silver Ansicc' on any kind of course.
Saljin wondered how Khiray knew when to change the turn of which wheel, and how fast the wheels had to move to make the 'Ansicc' avoid a rock. The big wheels were inert, and the river carried the ship so fast towards the obstacles that it seemed impossible to react in time. The Foxtauress was almost thankful for being inable to see anything. This way, she couldn't worry about the Fox or his skills.
Right now, Delley and Kinnih had to toil in the engine room at her right to keep the boilers at a steady temperature and the engine running. The over-strained machinery could burst any second - how could the 'Ansicc's' designers have foreseen such a hellride?
Saljin groped her way along the deck. Her side hurt from the impact, and the right front paw was bruised, but not broken. Nothing a warrior couldn't handle. An Otter hurried along - he didn't seem to have any problem with the spray, the slippery deck or the waves.
The danger still didn't appear very acute to the Foxtauress. She knew that she escaped drowning only by a hair's breadth, but not even that knowledge heated her blood. The pain was real, but it seemed to be more annoying than spurring. Maybe the reason was that she was not a part of this enterprise: She just stood in everyone's way. She didn't belong to the crew that had to carry the 'Ansicc' along over the rapids. There was nothing she could do.
Except, of course - by no longer standing in the way.
She reached the stairs, let the rail go and hurried over before the bow could rise again to gush a new load of water over the deck. Fish seemed to wriggle in the wake of the waves, but disappeared immediately in the river again.
Saljin couldn't hear anything but the roar of the water on the rocks. She felt the vibration of the engines in her paws, but she couldn't perceive a sound. The river drowned any perception but feeling - she wasn't able even to smell anything but mineral water, and everything she saw was filtered by veils of spray. Water in her fur, water on her tongue.
With difficulties, she made her way up. The swaying of the 'Ansicc' increased the higher she came. The sight was better on the second deck, although even here shower-like downpour rained on her and made the planks slippery. But for the first time she could see where they were going.
Immediately she wished she hadn't looked. The rapids ahead had little similarity to any river she knew. White foam in a boiling witches' kettle, a hell of wild-mad floods where all the water's spirits had met to hold a merciless fight: the rocks were visible half as black shadows, half through breaking water only, teeth in an endless maw of the mountain.
The rocky walls seemed to narrow to crush the ship between them. Saljin tried to look in another direction, but the cliffs were everywhere, monstrous and threatening. She had to remind herself that Trolls lived here. Seen from above, the river possibly wasn't that bad.
But if one was completely at the mercy of that river...
She inhaled deeply. There was nothing to do for her, there was no going back, just a perpetual Onward!, until they escaped that hell. Otters ran through the spray below her, pulled ropes, pushed straw bales from one side of the ship to the other, inspected the moaning flanks of the ship. Saljin didn't know what exactly they were doing. Shipfolk, shipwork.
Far above, at the edge of the gorge, birds hurled themselves into the deep, circled, followed the ship for awhile and turned away again. In the air, the river couldn't hurt them.
But it tried. Waves whipped high up, formed silvery arms of furious water, grasped for the birds, only to fall back to the river's bed, powerless. Whirlpools goggled upward. Unable to hit the birds, the river worked out its fury on the 'Silver Ansicc'.
Nonsense! Dazedly, Saljin shook her head. The river was no living being, just a dumb thing! Allegedly there were spirits who lived in the water, but she had never seen such a thing.
A shadow slid to her side. The Foxtauress started - Spirits! Then she recognized Sarmeen and scolded herself for such foolishness. The Wolf had been educated for other tasks than river sailing, being the firstborn son of the governor of Sookandil. Like herself, he had no place aboard in such a moment.
The Wolf looked at her shortly and nodded. They had made each other's acquaintance in Galbren's dungeon, if acquaintance was the word for it. The Bear Demons had pushed Dek and Saljin into their cages that the treacherous governor had erected there for secret prisoners, and Galbren himself had introduced Sarmeen and the Foxtaurs. Galbren wanted them to know of Sarmeen's fate - maybe to brag about his mercilessness and unscrupulousness, maybe to induce fear in them, food for the Demons.
The dungeon was a place she had really felt fear in. The threat of torture hanging over their heads was by far worse than injury or death in battle, even if it was a battle against the elements. Torture meant hopelessness, no escape: the continuous listening for the steps outside that meant the start of new pain, the appearance of the torturers, the unpacking of the instruments. It meant the knowledge what would happen to their bodies: mutilation, discraceful chaining, rape. And the agony that became so much worse because no one cared, no one wanted to ease it; on the contrary, every torturer tried to reach new heights, right to the verge of death. And the knowledge that there would be no end, not in death - as long as they hadn't told Galbren everything he wanted to hear - nor in an end to the pain that would return again and again with the booming steps in the passage outside. No sleep, because in sleep the dreams came. No rest, because the knowledge of future agony would keep her awake as well as the results of previous torture.
It didn't matter that Galbren hadn't had the time to torture them in earnest. He and his Demons had shown them the instruments, and as long as Galbren lived, that threat would hover over them. It didn't matter that she had never been in a similar situation, since torture was nonexistant among Foxtaurs since hundreds of years. The expectation of pain, the helplessness, the humiliation, were half the torture, and that half she had experienced for real. She could remember... remember to awake screaming from blood-red, pain-filled dreams. Dek didn't comment. He never even told her what she might have cried during her restless hours. But she could read it, in his and Sarmeen's eyes.
The dungeons - no, that wasn't a place where the pride and honor of a warrior still counted. They were a place of darkness, fitting Galbren's spirit in full.
And Sarmeen had been much longer in his cage than the Foxtaurs. The Gods alone knew what else Galbren had done to him in all that time.
Sarmeen stared at the river and laughed a throaty, growling, barking, tongueless laugh. His eyes showed the challenge as in a mirror.
Saljin wasn't sure whether she could face the world again this way if she had experienced the same things as Sarmeen. If Galbren had done to her what he had promised. It was bad enough without.
But maybe the person she saw at her side was not the same Sarmeen whom Galbren had incarcerated. There was no merriness in his laugh. He challenged death, maybe his, maybe Galbren's. Saljin shivered. She knew she wouldn't rest in complete peace again when Galbren was dead - when all her problems had dissolved. No Demons, no lack of medicine... no obligations.
But Sarmeen drank the spray and the wind with a face that told her he didn't value his own life very much. He wouldn't mind dying if he could only take Galbren with him. That was something Saljin couldn't relate to - she wanted to live, to return home, once again to feel the innocent joy of a gallop across the vast steppes of her birthland. With Khiray, or without him (preferably with him - there was so much she wanted to show him!), but she didn't want to die in this swampy land for sure.
There was a proverb, shared by many a warrior's race: Who fears death has already lost the fight. Who considers defeat will end up defeated.
She didn't fear death, might it come in its time. She would have been sorry, but nobody chose by himself when it was time to go. But she wondered if the proverb was still valid if the thing one feared was imprisonment and torture. The return to Galbren's cage - the Demon's hunger for pain and desperation. That was beyond the things her people had proverbs for, beyond a warrior's experience.
Who doesn't know fear is just reckless. Who fears and overcomes the fear, only he is courageous.
Ah! She laughed bitterly. Easy to say! Proverbs didn't help her a bit. Old sayings didn't slay Demons.
She turned away from Sarmeen and climbed farther up, to the highest deck. The sway of the 'Ansicc' was perceivable in all four paws. She tried to spare the bruised leg, but the movement was too strong; again and again she had to support herself on the short way to the steering cabin, and every time a sharp pain raked up her leg to the shoulder. Perdition! Was the bone broken after all?
The door of the wheel cabin opened sternward, so she could step inside without allowing wind and spray to enter. Anyway, there was little spray wetting the glass windows so high up. The boiling river was far below her.
Khiray took no notice of her entry. He had one hand on the rudder and the other at the mechanic device that controlled the movement of the paddle-wheels directly. His eyes focussed the gorge with utmost concentration.
Saljin didn't say anything. She didn't come here to talk to Khiray. The Fox needed all his wit and his instincts to get the ship safely across the rapids.
It was beyond her grasp that he could envision a path for the ship at all amidst the madness of furious water - a path that didn't crush the steamer immediately.
One more hollow crash showed that even Khiray couldn't steer perfectly, if there was a perfect way across the rapids at all. The 'Ansicc' rolled viciously, started to turn. Khiray moved the rudder and let the wheels rotate in a new rhythm.
The ship got back straight. But the rocky cliffs had come threateningly close. Farther ahead several stone noses seemed to narrow the shipping channel; as the gods of bad luck wanted, on the side the ship was travelling on, of course. Saljin held her breath.
"Keshome! Nuka, nuka drak!" The Foxtauress hadn't heard Khiray speaking in the hard, fast Otter dialect yet, but she recognized the kind of language. Fryyk talked this way with "his" Otters. A system of metal tubes passed on his words down to the deck.
The Fox gritted his teeth. "Not enough time to move out of the way and turn back again! The critical spot's ahead! We'll have to stay on this side!" His tail twitched.
Saljin raised her ears. Critical spot? Weren't they already in the middle of a critical spot? And what did he mean, not enough time...
She couldn't finish the thought in time. The ship had come so close to the starboard cliffside that she could have laid her hand onto it. The protruding rock noses crashed into the ship's main body on height of the third deck. The splintering and cracking of the cabin walls rang out louder than the river for a few moments. The 'Ansicc' swayed right, then the planks screamed again. Khiray seemed to guess where the ship would rock to because while he stood upright and sure, Saljin reeled from one side to the other despite four paws until she grabbed the brass mounts of the wheelhouse.
The 'Ansicc' had slowed down, but only for a short time. Saljin dared to look sternward, where the ledge had torn open the hull. Luckily, the damage was restricted to the area above the starboard wheel, far away from the water line, or else the steamer had become a helpless plaything of the waves.
From the wheel cabin she couldn't see any details, but the skeletal rising beams and the sunken-in areas of the deck hinted at a total destruction of the affected cabins.
When she turned around again, she immediately understood what Khiray meant by 'critical spot'.
The river parted here. A giant rock in the river's center forced the mass of water to pass by right or left, and behind that obstacle...
Time had washed out a mighty slope, a tilted plain where the Otterpath tore down with unhampered force. It was not a waterfall - not like the falls Saljin knew from the mountains. The steamer would never have survived a real waterfall. But it was a slope of water, a slope made from titanic, almost living floods which no longer wasted their strength in whirlpools and waves, spray, splashes and undercurrents, but ran down into a single direction.
For a moment Saljin felt dizzy. Then the ship seemed to glide over an edge, and like a living Ansicc it plunged into the deep. Only that a living Ansicc who tried that stunt would have been deemed crazy by his peers.
There was no steering possible any more, no counteracting. Wheels and rudder were completely ineffective against the united torrent, as if the 'Silver Ansicc' was but a cub's toy, entrusted to the river to carry it to the ocean.
Khiray stood motionless, silent, the rudder in his hand that fought against his grip.
Saljin inhaled sharply. Her muzzle felt icy cold.
The 'Ansicc' turned. Slowly, inexorably, the ship abandoned its normal position, showed its side to the stream, then it slid down with the stern in front. The Fox frowned, but he didn't do anything: the captain's power ended here.
The Foxtauress felt the cold and the wetness all over her body. She couldn't sweat like the Oo'men, but the spray felt exactly like cold sweat. They were puppets in the hands of titans. The water beat up against the hulk like a giant gong. The ancient forces of the earth held them captive. Even the magic of the Demons had to pale here. Nothing could stop the river's flow.
From one moment to the next, the control over the ship returned. The stream released them from its grip. At once, Khiray forced the rudder around to stabilize the still-turned 'Ansicc'.
Rocks. There were rocks everywhere. Saljin was sure that the steamer would be smashed to pieces any moment, but somehow the ship wound its way around the reefs.
"The secret is not to fight the stream but to follow it", Khiray said. Saljin wasn't sure whether he talked to her or to himself or to invisible watchers. "One cannot resist the power of the water. Even the calm river is a mighty adversary. Many a river that appeared silent and tame to the outside, proved to be wicked and mean. You have to feel it. You have to know the river. You have to become the river."
Becoming the river. Exactly that was what the Fox was doing. Saljin could see him melting into the tremendous ancient waters outside. His eyes were the eyes of the stream. His body flowed, from the tips of his ears to the white tuft of his tail, in the rhythm of the Otterpath. He was the river, he was the ship. A new dance, older than that they had danced together. For the water ran down from the mountains before life came into this world.
The Foxtauress was tempted to sing to this tune, but she knew she would never know the river as intimately as Khiray. It was in his blood, this was the heritage of his forefathers. His father had held the rudder before him, as had his grandfather and his grandfather's father. His family had known the river since the Foxes came from the Homelands, more than a thousand years ago.
A great calm flowed slowly through Saljin. She felt what she had known before, what only the fierceness of the river had driven out of her mind: She would not die. Not here, not now. Not by the river.
For the river had a master.
Soon the rock walls parted again. The Otterpath was still far from slow, but the white, wild water was behind them. The 'Silver Ansicc' had made its way across the rapids.
Khiray stared into the distance without seeing.
"We made it", Saljin sighed. "We made it!"
With visible force the Fox stepped away from the wheel. Kinnih, his fur frizzed by hot steam, came to the wheelhouse and took the rudder. The young Badger was beside himself with joy. "The first! Captain, we are the first who made it!"
Khiray just nodded and allowed Saljin to lead him down. The Foxtauress could feel his hands tremble. Counted by the minutes, the journey had been a short one.
The Otters, Sarmeen and Pakkaht joined them on the bow deck. Delley stayed with his engines, and Shooshun took the look-out post, a task the elderly freight master felt very important at, although nobody expected problems from here to Bear Mountain.
Pallys tapped Khiray on the shoulder. "Congratulations. It was completely foolish, but congratulations anyway."
Finally, the Fox smiled. "You are right. Yes, it was completely foolish. But I welcome your congratulations none the less."
They stayed on the bow deck until noon, disturbed only by a relief or another - Delley already complained that he'd been forgotten - and a short meal that Kinnih prepared from the stock. Finally Bear Mountain crept into sight. Saljin wondered how the ship might look for the Bears: one side torn open, covered in ragged straw bales, flooded and battered.
When they came near the landing-stages, a crowd of Bears and Otters - including a few Furrys of other races - already had assembled at the quay. They had noticed that for the first time since the founding of Bear Mountain a steamer came down the river from the rapids, a big ship instead of the usual small Otter boats.
Saljin was a little nervous. Bears had defeated and killed the Foxtaurs. She doubted that she would feel at ease with this people ever. But the local Bears seemed totally different from the Demons: they were comparatively small, brown and plump, and they met the 'Silver Ansicc's' crew not with hostility but in utter astonishment and silence. The Otters moored the ship, and one after the other jumped ashore. Finally one of the Bears came to them. He wore a golden chain, probably some kind of insignia.
"Um", he cleared his throat. His dark eyes looked as if he still couldn't believe what was happening under his nose. "Are you the captain?"
Khiray nodded. "I am..."
"Khiray of the River", Saljin interrupted him.
The Fox slowly turned his head towards her. She smiled at him. That was his name. He didn't just earn it: it was a part of his self. He was Khiray of the River. Even here, in a land where Foxtaur naming meant nothing, he couldn't be anything else.
The captain of the 'Silver Ansicc' stepped forward and faced the Bear with head held high. "I am Khiray of the River. And I believe we have very important things to talk about, and very little time..."