A FOREST TALE 13:  Ketta's Fate
© 1998 Bernard Doove

Acknowledgment:  A special thankyou goes out to Roy Pounds who helped me with several details and who continues to inspire me with his art.

The comm signalled an incoming call as I waited for Goldfur to bring out the souvenirs from hir latest trip to the stars. "Get that for me please, Forest!" shi called from the storage room. I flicked the receive switch and was surprised to see a familiar foxtaur vixen's face.

"Purteshka! To what do we owe the pleasure?" I asked.

"Hello Forestwalker. Have I dialled the wrong number? I was after Goldfur."

"No you haven't," I reassured her. "I'm visiting my sister for a couple of reasons, one of which is to make final arrangements for our trip to your village. I'll tell hir that you're on the comm."

Goldfur hurried to the comm when shi was told who was calling. "Hello, Purteshka, is there a problem?"

Purteshka smiled. "No need to worry, Goldfur. I heard that you were coming over here so that Malena could have her cub at her parents' home. I want you to come over to the council offices to see me about something important when you get a free moment.

"That's won't be a problem," Goldfur agreed. "What's up?"

"I'd rather give you all the details when you get here. All I will say is that it's a village matter that affects you."

"I'll let you know when we get there and arrange a time to meet then."

"Thanks, Goldfur. I'll see you soon then. Tail high!"

"Tail high, Purteshka!" Goldfur and I both smiled at the vixen's usage of the chakat farewell. Goldfur turned off the comm with a thoughtful look on hir face.

"That's got you guessing," I said. "I wonder if it has anything to do with the coming birth?"

Shi shrugged. "Who knows? I don't think it's a major problem. Purteshka did not seem to be agitated and I feel she would have told me straight out if there was anything wrong. I'm not going to let it worry me."

Just then the front door opened to admit a foxtaur and wolftaur, Goldfur's two female mates. Malena was looking beautifully gravid, her time to give birth only days away. Lupu had taken her shopping for some items for the coming cub and had gotten a taste of the excitement of incipient motherhood which she would join in several months.

"Hi Forest!" Malena said when she saw me.

"How did the shopping trip go?" I asked.

"I had some good luck. I bought this wonderful backpack similar to the one that Goldfur carries Eudora about in." She got it out to show me, then the four of us made ourselves comfortable for a long conversation. The trip to America was of course the major topic.

Malena wanted her cub born at a chakat-style birthing party but had requested that it be held in her home village. She wanted her parents present and the comfort of familiar surroundings. This would limit the number of people from our side of the family who would be able to go, but it would be interesting to see how many foxtaurs attend. We still had quite a large number of us travelling overseas, but my newest mate had the solution. Boyce had his own private runabout and he put it at our disposal. When the day came for us to leave, we rendezvoused at the shuttleport. The trip over the ocean was achieved in a fraction of the time of a commercial flight. The only problem that we had was arranging a suitable place for the runabout to land that was sufficiently close to the village. A fallow field was made available to us and we found Malena's parents waiting for us with a ground shuttle to take us and our luggage to the house.

Jaleth hugged her daughter and exclaimed, "You've grown so much since you were last over! I think that you are going to have a fine, big kit."

Rikandor took his turn to greet his daughter and then we started introducing the new faces. My parents had come along, pleased to have an excuse to visit their daughter-in-law's family and hometown. Lupu was introduced and caused a stir of interest when she told them that she was also expecting. Brightsong, the midwife, had accompanied us as well, but it was the admiral who caused the most surprise when I introduced him as my mate. They had never heard of a human mating with any taur species before. This turned into outright disbelief when they were told that Midnight was pregnant to him. We spent a large portion of the drive into the village explaining how it was possible.

It was nice to see the Mountain Glade community again. It was even better when some familiar foxtaur faces called out greetings. One cheeky tod came over and said, "Aren't you about six weeks too early, Forest? Or do you think you are going to have to practice that extra time to beat us again in the cross-country?"

"No such thing as too much preparation, Reskar," I grinned back at him. He was an old friend of Malena and he and I had gotten to know each other quite well when he came visiting. He went over to Malena to stroke hir swollen belly.

"You look beautiful, Malena," he yipped. "You have my best wishes for the birth."

"Thanks, Reskar," Malena replied and gave him a lick-kiss on his cheek. I had found out that he had been the tod to whom Malena had given hir virginity. He was a nice person, but still young, though perhaps a bit more experienced nowadays. I wondered how Malena's life would be if he had been a bit more mature. He did not seem too overwrought and my sister was very happy, so I reckoned that it had worked out for the best.

It was a bit of a tight squeeze to get us all into the spare rooms. Fortunately, we liked to sleep in close proximity to each other, which only left us searching for space for the luggage. Having finally stowed all our gear, we started looking at what we could do with the rest of the day. Malena declared that she wasn't going anywhere and lowered herself onto a lounging mat, She and her family would catch up on events while she took it easy. Goldfur decided that it was time to call up Purteshka and arrange to meet her.

"Ah, Goldfur! I'd heard that you'd arrived," she said as soon as she answered the comm. "You'd like to meet me as I've asked?"

"Yes, the rest of this day is free from any particular appointments and Malena is catching up with the local news. Anytime today is fine for me." Goldfur said.

"Then feel free to come straight over, if you wish. You remember the office, don't you? Good. Oh, bring Garrek too if you can, and whomever else you'd like."

"I'm on my way!" Goldfur turned off the comm and asked me, "Did you want to get to the bottom of this mystery?"

"Try to keep me away!" I grinned.

We grabbed Garrek and trotted off to the council building. We found Purteshka waiting for us in the Justice & Enforcement office. She came from around hir desk to give us each a hug in greeting. "I'm very pleased to see you all again. I'm hoping that you will let me join you at Malena's birthing. I'd like to participate in a chakat style kit-bearing party. It seems so... natural.

"I'm sure that you would be welcome," Goldfur said, "But I don't think that you asked me to come here to request that."

"Quite right, Goldfur," Purteshka agreed in a more business-like tone. "So I won't waste any more time. It involves Ketta."

Goldfur was startled. Shi hadn't been expecting to hear anything again about the abductor of hir child. "Wasn't she banished from your clan? How can she be still causing problems?"

Purteshka corrected hir. "To be precise, she was expelled from our community and told she could not have any contact with any her family or friends. But it would not have been a just punishment if it did not also give a chance of redemption. She was told that she could return if she could make a true friend of a chakat and to be able to prove it our satisfaction. Ketta is not making problems, she is claiming that she has made such a friend."

That rocked us all. None of us could believe that such a person as Ketta could ever be friends with a chakat. She had openly declared that she detested us all. Her dislike had turned to complete enmity after she had realised how badly she had been defeated by Goldfur and later learned the sentence imposed by Purteshka and Ballarn. This was not bringing back very happy memories to Goldfur who asked, "So what did you want of me? Are you going to tell me that you have just taken her word?"

Purteshka frowned. "No, we take both the punishment and the request for parole equally seriously. The person that Ketta is going to have to convince is you, Goldfur. She may have dishonoured her clan by her actions, but it was you who was mostly harmed by them. If she can convince you, then we will accept her again on behalf of the clan."

Goldfur pondered this for a time, then asked, "When do you want to do this?"

"Ketta arrived on the morning that I called you at home. If you hadn't already been planning on coming over in a few days, I would have asked you to make a special visit. Ketta has been biding her time since then. We can listen to her plea any time that suits you."

"Then let's get it over and done with. We are getting too close to Malena's time and I don't want anything spoiling that. I'll ask if any others of my family want to be part of this." Shi then stalked out of the room. I looked at Purteshka and shrugged. She had hit Goldfur's one raw nerve.

Garrek spoke up, "I'll get hir to the hearing chamber in half an hour, if that's okay?"

Purteshka nodded. "We will be ready."

All the members of both the foxtaur and chakat sides of our family wanted to attend, plus a few others who had gotten wind of the hearing. We filled the chamber as we waited for Ketta's appearance. The room itself was fairly plain, although the foxtaurs' quality workmanship showed. However, in keeping with their lifestyle, it was bereft of the fripperies of the law courts that I had seen. There was a sturdy carved bench upon a foot-high dais that extended a couple of metres forward of it. The people attending the hearing all sat on the floorspace beyond it; this being a taur village, there was no seating provided at all. Just then, the chamber door opened and Purteshka entered with Ketta following and Ballarn taking up the rear. The Justice and Enforcement foxtaurs had donned their robes of office and had assumed that amazing air of authority that had impressed me the first time that I met them. Their garment was a hooded cloak in the black, red and white of red foxes. The clan's emblem was the only addition to it, matching the large version attached to the front of the bench. They sat behind the bench while Ketta took her place in front of it. I was already surprised by what I saw. Ketta was no longer carrying herself with her previous unconscious arrogance. In fact, she was positively subdued. Her eyes were downcast, her ears partly laid back, and her tail drooped. Ketta was wearing nothing but her fur. Lack of garments in itself was irrelevant as many in the village chose not to wear clothing, but Garrek explained to me that it was traditional for those before the court to appear naked to the sight of their peers to show that they had nothing to hide.

Ballarn called for silence and when the babble of speculation died down, Purteshka announced that the hearing for the request for parole was in session. "Ketta, to gain readmittance to the clan, it is up to you to convince Goldfur of the sincerity of your change of heart. Today, shi is your judge."

For the first time, Ketta raised her eyes to meet those of my sister. "Goldfur, I wronged you and your family in the worst possible way and I realise that now. I am here to ask you for your forgiveness so that I may rejoin my family."

"Is that it?" Goldfur interjected. "Do you have any idea the hell you put me through?"

Purteshka said, "Please, Goldfur, give Ketta her chance. Let her speak her piece."

Ketta continued, "Yes, Goldfur, I think I do know what pain I caused you and it shames me deeply now. But I understand that you cannot accept a simple statement of that fact, so I will tell you how this change of heart came about. It is a long story, but it's important for you to see my motivation."

Goldfur crossed hir arms and looked resolute. "Then speak your piece. Convince me!"

"Thank you. I will start from the day when I was expelled from the village..."

Ketta watched the bus that had brought her from her village disappear over a hill. In her saddlepacks, she carried all the worldly goods that she had been allowed to take with her. The entire trip she had spent fuming and cursing the chakats that had ruined her life. Now she had to try to find herself some lodgings and food, a difficult task for a foxtaur vixen who had never before been outside of her village.

After a few abortive tries, she found herself a cheap room, then she bought a meal at a hamburger restaurant. Whatever faults Ketta had, she wasn't stupid. She knew that her money would not last long and she needed to find some employment. Unfortunately for her, she had not yet completed her education and had no qualifications for any the jobs that were available. Truth to tell, she really hadn't planned on a career at all, instead intending to collect a number of foxtaur tods to attend to her wants. If she hadn't greedily tried to take Garrek also, it was likely she would have succeeded.

It wasn't many days before the money had run out and she was in danger of being evicted from her room. She had finally stopped thinking about how much she hated chakats and started worrying about how she was going to survive. It was a very hungry vixentaur that entered a diner located on the boundary of the local spaceport. Judging from the large number of heavy-haulers parked outside, it was a popular stop for the truckers who travelled between the spaceport and various far-flung destinations. A large sign proclaimed: "Welcome to Carol's Gulp N' Gallop" and Ketta wondered about the odd name until she saw the equitaur waitress busily taking orders and serving food to many other equitaur patrons. Later she was to learn that they were Quange, a race that had a large presence in the transport industry. About half the clientele were other species, but it was obvious to whom the diner specifically catered. It didn't matter to Ketta. She had next to no money and she needed something to eat, so she took a corner table. She took in some more of the surroundings as she waited. There were many rows of large mugs along the back walls. They all seemed to have names on them and a few of the customers had similar mugs. There were quite a few curios decorating the place, such as a model of a Cosmo-liner, some award ribbons and something indescribably alien. Perhaps they were brought in by the far-roaming truckers? It wasn't long before the waitress approached her.

"Ah haven't seen you here before, Hon. Y'all realise that we serve mostly vegetarian meals here? "

Ketta looked at the waitress carefully, noting the frilly pink uniform that the dapple-grey pony-sized Quange mare was wearing. Her nametag said "Hi! I'm CAROL" and Ketta wondered if she was looking at the proprietor of the Café. She looked at Carol's face and saw nothing but friendly interest. "That's okay, I'm just looking for a cheap meal," Ketta said as she dug the few remaining coins out of her waist pouch and put them on the table.

Carol looked at the vixen appraisingly, then swept the meagre funds off the table. "Sure thing Hon. Just y'all wait a bit and I'll have something tasty here soon." Ketta smiled in relief as Carol turned and headed for the kitchen. She really had expected to have the waitress laugh in her face before kicking her out.

Carol went behind the counter and called loudly to the cook, "Joe! One Wanderer's Special."

The Shetland Pony equitaur behind the stove grimaced and said, "Aww, Carol, you ain't feeding one of dem bums again, are ya?"

"Oh, calm down, Joe. She looks like a poor girl who's down on her luck. It don't hurt none to give the child a break."

Joe just growled, then he added, "Yeah, yeah... dat's what ya say 'bout all da joiks that hit ya up fer a meal."

"She's rather different from those people, Ah think. Ah reckon Ah'll find out some more about this vixen." Even as Joe had been complaining, his experienced hands had not been idle for a second. In moments, a highly nutritious vegeburger had been assembled and placed on a plate ready to serve. Carol picked it up and grabbed her coffee pot along the way. She smiled to herself when she saw the vixentaur's eyes bug out a bit at the size of the meal. Carol poured some coffee for her, then said, "Y'all enjoy yourself, Sweetie. I'll be back soon."

Ketta attacked the burger with gusto. Carol watched out of the corner of her eye as she attended to her other customers before making her way back to vixen. "That was put away fast." Carol poured another cup of coffee, then parked her pony-sized body in such a way as to subtly block the vixen's exit. "Now, would you like to tell Carol just why you're broke and starving, child?"

Ketta looked startled. She hadn't thought that it was so obvious. She just wanted to slink out of there and go back to her room for possibly the last night before being kicked out, but realised that she couldn't get out without jumping over the Quange mare. Ketta sighed in resignation. "Might as well tell her," she thought. "Things couldn't get any worse." She looked at Carol and still a little defiantly and said, "I've been expelled from my clan and I've used up all my money while trying to find a job. Now I'm about to be thrown out of my room at the Blue Star Boarding-house.

"So, you've no place to go back and y'all look too young to have learned a trade. Yo shor are in a mess o' trouble, Hon. Tell you what, I could do with an extra hand here. How would you like to be a waitress? The pay's not great, but the tips can be good."

To be honest, a job as a waitress wasn't exactly what Ketta wanted, but she also knew that it was very unlikely to find something better at this time. She thought that she could always find something better later on and this was too good an opportunity to miss. "Okay!" she said brightly, "When do I start?"

"When y'all tell me your name, Sweetie. Can't hire a waitress without at least knowing her name, can I?"

"It's Ketta, and thank you."

"Thank me by doing a good job, Ketta. Now, let's get y'all outfitted." She took the foxtaur's hand and led her behind the counter to a store room where she dug out a clean uniform. "This is one of my spares. I don't have another in your size, Hon, so it will have to do for now. Put it on while I do something."

Ketta looked aghast at the pink and white outfit. It was nothing like the flattering clothes she liked to wear. "Time to swallow your pride, vixen," she told herself and reluctantly started donning the uniform.

Carol had headed straight for the comm. A human female's image answered the call. "Why, hello Carol. You're not someone I expect to be calling here. What can I do for you?"

"I've got a favah to ask, Mabel. Y'all have a foxtaur vixen named Ketta staying at your rooms?"

The woman nodded assent. "She is behind on her payment and I'll have to evict her soon."

"I've just hired her as a waitress, so I'd appreciate it if you'd give the girl a few days grace. I'll cover her until then."

"No problem, Carol. I hadn't wanted to throw her out as she looked like someone down on her luck, but I can't afford to have non-paying customers. Your word is good enough for me though."

"Thanks, Sugah. I owe you one." Carol switched off just in time before Ketta come out wearing the uniform. It was so large it looked more like a gown on her and Carol had to suppress a grin.

Joe was more forthright. "Looking good there, Doll," he said with a smirk. Ketta stiffened slightly, but didn't say anything.

Carol saved her from responding by saying, "Right, let's get y'all started. We've got customers waiting!"

She handed her a notepad and pencil and led her in the direction of a group of Quange truckers who had just entered. "Howdy boys! We've got us a brand new waitress here at the Gulp N' Gallop. You treat her nice, y'hear?"

"Sure Carol!" "Of course!" "No worries!" A chorus of replies came back.

"They're all yours, Hon!" she said and walked off towards some other customers.

"Wait," protested Ketta, "Aren't you going to show me how to do this?"

"Learn by doing, dear!" Carol called over her shoulder. She knew that the truckers would understand. She also knew that they would give her a hard time, but only in the spirit of fun. These were regulars of the diner and they'd know how much that Carol would let them get away with.

It had been several weeks since Ketta had been thrown headlong into the job, but she had surprised herself with how quickly she adapted. She had had to work long and hard, but she found that the clientele was generally friendly and helpful, aside from the hazing that she had gotten the first night. Carol was a tough but fair boss and Joe had proved to be likeable once you got past his rough mannerisms. Better yet, the work had left her tired enough not to spend time fretting over her expulsion from the village and her resentment of chakats.

Carol had asked her to work the lunchtime shift this day and all had been proceeding normally until she noticed a customer walking in the door. It was a chakat! Shi wasn't one that she knew, being covered with a soft grey fur with white fur on hir paws and hands, plus a scatter of random white markings and a mane of white hair. Ketta turned to Carol and asked, "Who is that?"

Carol looked to where Ketta was pointing. "Oh, that's Stargrey. Shi comes here for lunch quite often. Works over at the spaceport's research facility."

"Umm, could you serve hir? I don't really want to have anything to do with a chakat."

"No Hon, Ah won't. You will have to deal with all customers, no matter who they are. Ah'm not comfortable with big cats of any kind, but Ah sometimes have to serve them too, and Stargrey is a very nice person."

Ketta sighed, then braced herself. "Okay, let's get it over with then." She walked over to the table behind which the chakat had squatted. "Can I take your order?"

Stargrey looked her over, taking in the neat and properly fitting uniform that seemed to be worn with dignity. Shi read the nametag. "Ketta. You're new here, aren't you?"

"I've been working a couple of months on the night shift."

"I see. Well, you make a nice addition to the staff."

Ketta bristled a bit at the comment, but strove to keep her feelings in check. "Thank you. Now did you want to order something?" Ketta hoped that her smile didn't appear too forced and was trying hard to keep an edge out of her voice. It wasn't professional to insult the customers with her attitude and she didn't intend to disappoint Carol.

Stargrey placed a large order, then watched the vixen walking away, admiring the sway of her hips and the curves of her upper torso. "Hmm, she's cute!" shi thought. "Wonder what it'll take to get past that chip on her shoulder?"

Ketta delivered the order. She thought she caught the chakat giving hir the eye, but didn't pay any attention to it, any more than she did the comments from some of the coarser customers that came through the diner.

Ketta continued to work several lunchtime shifts and Stargrey was there every time. Carol pulled her over to say, "Y'know, Stargrey has been coming over every day since shi met y'all. I think shi's got hir eye on a certain vixentaur."

Ketta was a little shocked. A chakat liking her? Then it occurred to her that she could use this. Her sentence was to remain banished until such time as she made a true friend of a chakat. If she played her hand right, she could pretend to be this chakat's friend and get hir to vouch for her, thus getting back into the clan.

From that day, whenever Ketta served Stargrey, she struck up a conversation. As the days went by, she found that she was actually enjoying those chats. "Oh well, it's not as if all chakats are my problem," she told herself, "Just that triple-damned tod-stealer, Goldfur." She didn't see the irony of a chakat being interested in a foxtaur vixen. One day, Stargrey raised the stakes.

"Would you like to go to a concert with me, Ketta?" shi asked as the vixen served hir order. "The Rambling Beasts are playing."

"Perfect!" Ketta thought to herself. She had already worked out for herself that Stargrey was a masculine type personality and had been likely to ask her out for a date eventually. Her plans were going well. "I'd love to, Star."

"Great! I've tickets for tomorrow night. You don't usually work those evenings, do you?"

"That's right. Can you pick me up from my boarding room?"

"Sure! I'll be there about 6:00pm. Er, exactly which is your room?

"Second floor of the Blue Star, room 208. I'll be waiting." Ketta left the chakat feeling excited. If she could get hir to take her out a few more times, that should be enough to convince the council that she had made a true friend.

Stargrey was also excited. Shi sensed that Ketta was still holding back something from hir, but at least shi was making progress. Stargrey had to admit to hirself that shi felt a genuine attraction for this foxtaur vixen and thought shi could get her to open up to hir. This concert was a wonderful opportunity for hir to approach Ketta without having the whole diner looking on.

The two went to the concert and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Stargrey took the opportunity to tell Ketta more about hirself while also seeking to learn more about this pretty vixen. Ketta fed Stargrey as much as she wanted hir to know, but found hirself liking the chakat much more than she had intended. Both thought they had made headway. They stopped to eat at a proper restaurant where they could both indulge in more carnivorous fare than Carol's usually served. When Stargrey dropped off Ketta, shi gave her a quick lick-kiss on the cheek before she could say no and departed with a smile. Ketta rubbed the fur on her cheek, wondering how she should react, then shrugged and went into her room, satisfied with the night's events.

Over the coming weeks, Stargrey continued to invite Ketta to go out with hir and she always accepted. Ketta rationalised that the more evidence that Stargrey was a true friend, the better her chances of being accepted back into the clan. Therefore, she chose to put off her request for a hearing for a while longer. She got to see where Stargrey worked as a research assistant at the spaceport's engineering facility and learned how the young chakat planned to be a top engineer one day. She had to admit that this chakat was both an attractive and intelligent friend.

Stargrey grew enamoured with the vixen. She seemed to be a bright and determined person, always interested in what Star had to say although still a little aloof. Still, ever since shi had first laid eyes on Ketta, Stargrey felt that this was someone well worth getting to know. Shi was happy whenever Ketta was with hir and lately shi had taken to putting hir arm about Ketta's waist while at the theatre or other event. Ketta had not objected and Star had enjoyed the proximity.

Carol had been watching the two closely for a couple of months. She casually said to Joe, "Do y'all reckon those two young'uns will tie the knot?"

Joe grumped, "Dose two are good for each udda, but that gal's gotta tell Star the trooth about her past. Like, wouldja wanna mate who didn't tell you why she ended up in dis joint?"

Carol nodded. "Perhaps I should have a word with the girl. I'm not sure just how much Star cares for her and shi might be hurt by Ketta hiding her past."

Carol never did get the chance though. That night, after a wonderful time at a theatre restaurant, Stargrey made hir decision. As they exited the restaurant into the gardens beyond, the full moon seemed to make it a magical moment to ask hir question. Shi stopped Ketta by a fountain, held her hands and looked into her eyes. "Ketta, I love you. I would be overjoyed if you would be my mate."

Ketta stared at Stargrey in shock, several emotions racing through her. She had only thought of their relationship as close friends and she had never let herself think it was more. She thought she couldn't feel anything more for a chakat but, to her dismay, she now realised that how deeply Stargrey had affected her. One side of her was pleased that shi had told her that shi loved her, but it was with growing horror that she knew how badly she had misled the chakat, telling half-truths and some outright lies to encourage hir feelings. Only now, she knew she didn't want this.

"NOOoooo!" she wailed, then raced off through the gardens. Stargrey was stunned, but surprise only delayed hir for a moment before shi was racing in pursuit of Ketta. The chase was long, both of them being fleet of foot, but it was the chakat who had the greater endurance. Shi caught up to Ketta, grabbing her by an arm and bringing them both to a stop. Ketta was gasping and sobbing. She put up a half-hearted struggle with Stargrey, then gave up.

"Ketta, tell me what's wrong. I want to help you," Stargrey pleaded.

Ketta sobbed and moaned as she said, "You can't love me! I can't fall in love with a chakat! It's all gone wrong. Oh, I'm so confused." She collapsed there and Stargrey laid down beside her, putting a comforting arm about her.

"I do love you, Ketta. Why do you think I can't? Why have you been holding back some part of you all this time?"

Ketta just cried for a while. Maybe she felt the genuine warmth that was in the chakat's touch, maybe she finally started coming to terms with what she had done, whichever it was, she started to feel a calmness come over her. "I have something to tell you that you aren't going to like, Star."

"We can work it out. Just tell me, my love," Stargrey insisted as shi brushed away Ketta's tears.

"I wish it was that simple." Ketta then began to tell the whole story of what had brought her to the diner. For once, she neither embellished nor omitted any facts. At times she felt the chakat stiffen at what she said, but the comforting touch never left her. She told hir how she planned to use Stargrey to get reinstated into the tribe and how her general dislike for chakats had changed to caring for one in particular. Finally she ran out of things to say and she waited for Stargrey's reaction.

There was a long interval before Stargrey finally spoke. "At last it makes sense. You had been hurt as a consequence of your own actions, but I think that you have changed. The Ketta that kidnapped and threatened a cub isn't there any more. The Ketta I know has a lot to offer. I can't say that I'm not disappointed that you didn't tell me all this sooner, but I suppose you still were underestimating how much I cared for you. I'm telling you now that I don't care what the old Ketta did. The new Ketta has been moulded by her new life, by Carol and Joe, by her new friends, and hopefully by me. I like the result and so I'm asking you again: Will you be my mate?"

Images of Garrek, Goldfur, the other chakats and her shocked clanspeople flitted through her mind. She finally realised that she had put them all behind her in favour of her new life. Here was someone who cared for her despite all she had done and it melted her heart. "Yes... Oh yes!" she softly replied, her joy almost overwhelming her.

They stayed there under the stars, arm in arm, not talking. They both knew that there would need to be more talks between them, but for now they were content just to be with each other. Half an hour later, a passing patrol car stopped and a foxmorph officer got out.

"Excuse me folks, but you can't be loitering around the gardens at this time. I've got to ask you to go on home."

Ketta looked up from Star's arms and said dreamily, "This is where I belong."

Stargrey smiled and stroked the vixen's auburn hair. "I'll make sure she gets home, officer."

"Thanks ma'am," the officer said with a smile of his own.

Stargrey helped Ketta to her feet and they slowly walked back through the gardens.

"Are you expecting me to believe that you have fallen in love with a chakat just on your word?" Goldfur asked.

"No I don't, but I can offer proof." Ketta looked towards the attendant at the chamber door who nodded and opened it to admit a chakat who fitted Ketta's description of Stargrey. Shi obviously had been listening and had been waiting for a cue. Shi walked up to my somewhat surprised sister, and said, "Hello, I am Chakat Stargrey, child of Redstripe and Blackmane. I'm here to speak for my mate, Ketta."

Goldfur replied formally. "I am Chakat Goldfur, child of Longstripe and Desertsand. You are welcome. So it's true, you did fall in love with Ketta?"

"Quite true. We have been mates now for nearly a month."

"Pardon my cynicism, but even now I can't visualise Ketta as being able to care for one of our kind that deeply," Goldfur said.

"I understand, but there is one thing that Ketta didn't tell you." Shi paused.

"Go on," insisted Goldfur. A quick look at Ketta revealed that the vixen was biting her lip and she had put an arm around Stargrey to hug hir closely.

"She... She's pregnant with our first child."

Goldfur blinked at the shock the statement caused hir, then shi began to softly chuckle. Shi then broke into the rumbling laugh characteristic to our species. "So!" shi declared as shi composed hirself momentarily, "You've decided to have a half-breed, dual-sexed monster of your own?" Shi continued to chuckle. "I guess we've started a trend!"

Even if the rest of the courtroom didn't understand, I knew what was happening. Although it seemed that shi had put the incident behind hir, Goldfur had never completely regained the easy trust of our kind. Always at the back of hir mind was the worry that somehow Ketta, or someone like her, would come back to hurt hir child. The sheer irony of this situation had finally brought it out in the catharsis of laughter. I let hir laugh for what I judged to be a sufficient time before I went to hir and cuddled hir.

"That's enough, sister. They're waiting for you," I told hir softly.

Goldfur stifled hir laughter and pulled hirself together. Shi padded over to Ketta and said, "For what you have done in the past, you and I will probably never be friends, Ketta. But for what you have done with your life and the happiness that you have brought Stargrey, I forgive you." Shi turned towards Purteshka and Ballarn and said, "If you wish to re-admit her to your clan, you have my blessing."

"Thank you, Goldfur," Ketta said, a slight wag now in her tail.

Goldfur nodded then came back over to sit with me while the proceedings were completed.

"We thank you too, Chakat Goldfur," Purteshka said. "It is our judgement that Ketta has proven that she has made a true friend of a chakat as stipulated by our sentence. The banishment is now lifted. Welcome back to the clan, Ketta."

There was a general cheer from everyone in the room. Stargrey hugged hir mate enthusiastically. It was quite obvious that they both did truly love each other. Purteshka took off her robe, walked over to the couple and asked, "Will you two join us for dinner?"

"We'd be delighted, Grandmother," Ketta replied.

I was startled, but soon realised that it filled in a couple of details. It explained some of Ketta's previous arrogance. She had been basking in the reflected glory of hir grandmother's position. Unfortunately for her, Purteshka had been completely unbiased and had upheld the appropriate punishment for Ketta's crimes which probably hadn't done much for Ketta's views on the chakats' influence on the foxtaur community.

People started drifting off, but I wandered over to Purteshka to ask a question. "What would you have done if Goldfur had denied Ketta's plea?"

Purteshka smiled. "It did not matter. The decision to end Ketta's banishment had already been made by Ballarn and myself."

"Oh? Then why this hearing?"

"Because both Ketta and Goldfur needed to get this out into the open. Ketta needed to bare her soul to the community and to those she wronged so that she may close those chapters on her life and start anew. Goldfur needed to know that shi no longer needed to fear for hir children. By making it seem to be hir decision, there can be no doubt that the decision was the right one and not because we had simply relented."

I nodded in understanding. "You're right, shi did need to make that decision. Now more than ever, I know that this clan has the right person for this job."

She smiled. "Thank you. I think we should do something about formally bonding our clan to yours one day. If all our clanspeople are going to start falling in love with chakats, we might as well."

I giggled and said, "You could be right!" I hugged her and bade farewell to her. It was time to get back to the family to complete preparations for the next foxtaur-chakat child.

The newborn cub drew hir first breath and started squalling. The assembled family and friends cheered the mother and child. Goldfur, who was in the usual position supporting the mother from behind, leaned over and lick-kissed Malena, and said, "You've given me a beautiful daughter, my love." Malena looked rather frazzled, but pleased. Her labour had gone on much longer than a chakat's normally would, but in the end she had had a perfect delivery.

Brightsong had handed the cub to Quickpaw who had been standing by to clean off the cub. The midwife then encouraged Malena to make her last effort in order to expel the afterbirth, then cleaned up the new mother. By this time, the kitten's coat had time to dry off and the true colours had started to show. As usual with mixed breed births, the cub's patterning mostly resembled that of the non-chakat parent but with a twist. The fur was a mixture of Malena's lighter orange fur, Goldfur's paler colour and the bright red of the typical foxtaur. The whole pelt gave a shimmering effect like flames. As the cub was handed over to Malena to give the cub hir first feed, Malena said to Goldfur, "I've already thought of a name for our child."

"Do you have a foxtaur style name for hir?" Goldfur asked.

"I'm satisfied with a chakat style name for hir. How does Blaze sound to you?"

"Very appropriate," Goldfur agreed. Shi raised hir voice to address everybody in the room. "Family and friends gathered here today, please welcome to our clan, Chakat Blaze, child of Malena and Goldfur."

A chorus of congratulations replied. The parents grinned happily. Malena watched her kit suckle on her breast, overjoyed to have borne this delightful child for her beloved. When the cub was full, she then offered her breast to Goldfur. Although my sister still produced mother's milk for Eudora and a foxtaur vixen's milk did not have the hormone needed to trigger milk production as it did in chakats, it was still an important ritual which she was very happy to continue. Goldfur took a few swallows, then kissed hir mate again. I explained all this to Purteshka who had been watching alongside of me. The birthing was officially over then.

Quickpaw bounded over to me, looking excited. "I've decided on what career I want to pursue. I'm going into nursing and specialising in midwifery. Brightsong has told me that shi is willing to take me on when I have my qualifications. Shi says I have the right feel for the vocation."

"I'm not surprised at your choice, although I admit a tiny bit of disappointment that you won't be following in my footsteps, especially after all the schooling I gave you." I winked at hir to show that I was only kidding.

Shi hugged me. "Thanks for your help, Forest. I know I couldn't have done as well without your and Goldfur's help."

"You're welcome, little sister," I said as I returned the hug. "And I agree with Brightsong; you are going to make a fine midwife and you will make a lot of cubs happy."

Quickpaw trotted off to tell our parents about hir decision. I turned back to Purteshka and indicated that we should move out of the room now to let Malena rest a bit. Conversationally, I asked her, "Do you think Ketta would want to have a birthing party like this when her time comes?"

Purteshka grinned. "I don't think my grand-daughter is quite that besotted with chakat customs yet. I suppose we'll both have to wait ten months to find out the answer to that question."

"Have Ketta and Stargrey said what they plan to do now?"

"Yes, actually. They told me about it at dinner. Ketta's going back to her job as a waitress at the diner. She says that she has learned to like the people and is happy there. Stargrey will continue hir job at the spaceport and has quite a bright future, so their family should do well in the coming years."

"Then Ketta's reason to end her banishment was not so she could move back to the village. She just wanted to be part of the clan again?"

"That's right. I was so pleased to see her return. Expelling her was one of the hardest acts that I have ever done. But even I could not have dreamed that such a remarkable change would occur." She stopped and looked at me. "I have much to be thankful for and it's your kind that have made this possible."

I gave her an I don't know shrug and said, "Perhaps we're just, if you'll pardon the expression, Cat-alysts. We tend to bring out the best of what is already in people."

"No argument from me there," she smiled. "Come on, let's join the celebrations. I've got a lot more of you feline catalysts to meet."

Arm in arm, we joined our family and friends to celebrate the miracle of new life and the closer union of our clans.


The Quange are the creations of Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission.

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To be continued in A Forest Tale 14: Midnight Incident.

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