A FOREST TALE 19:  Conclusions
By Bernard Doove © 2003

Two eyes watched intently from behind the concealment of their owner’s carefully constructed hunting blind as a party of three foxtaur hunter-vixens trotted down the forest trail on their way to their hunting grounds. ‘Perfect!’ the watcher thought to himself. The wind was in his face, so there wasn’t a chance of being smelled, and the vixens were chatting amongst themselves and not paying any real attention to what was happening around them. The watcher pulled on a pair of leather gloves, then took out a carefully bundled package from his backpack. It consisted of an old wolf’s pelt wrapped around several arrows of unique design. Picking up the bow that had been laid within easy reach but away from accidental contact, he selected an arrow and nocked it onto the string. Drawing back the arrow, making sure that at no time did it touch anything but the bow and the gloves, he moved to the gap in the blind that he’d left specifically for shooting, then aimed at the vixen at the rear. He loosed the arrow and immediately moved back completely behind cover again. A scream of pain brought a nasty smile of satisfaction to his thin lips. ‘That oughtta get ’em baying for blood! Once they start fighting each other, the World Government will have to step in and take back control from the foxtaurs.

*           *           *

      "You gotta go to the Common!" Miktar gasped out. "There’s some sort of commotion there. I think somebody else has been shot with a wolftaur arrow!" The teenaged foxtaur tod, unremarkable in appearance except for a slightly redder than normal hue to his fur, had burst into the living room, panting slightly.

      "Do you know who it was?" Malena, a vixen who was rather distinctive in the paleness of her own colouring, looked up in alarm at her brother.

      "No, I raced back here as soon as I heard."

      Malena gathered Blaze into her arms, not willing to waste time finding a minder for her young cub. She made her way at her best speed for the Common. It wasn’t hard to find the centre of action because she could hear the agitated voices long before she saw anyone. Very quickly, she was close enough to make out what they were saying.

      "When are you going after those savages?" demanded one vixen shrilly, tail lashing violently.

      "It hasn’t been confirmed that a wolftaur is the perpetrator," replied a calm voice that Malena recognised as Purteshka’s.

      "Then what the smegging hell do you think this is?" a huntress asked hotly, waving an arrow above her head.

      "I just see an arrow. It hasn’t been established that it was even made by wolftaur, let alone shot by one." Purteshka was imperturbable, speaking in her usual controlled manner, taking nothing as fact until proven beyond doubt. Malena realised that she was trying to keep the more volatile hunter vixens under control by remaining calm and logical. The Justice & Enforcement vixen was not in her robe of office, having probably been caught by surprise while plying her normal trade, but her demeanour had the unmistakable air of authority that she assumed when dealing with clan business.

      Unmollified, the same huntress kept arguing. She marked off her points on her fingers, her voice rising with each one: "It’s marked like a wolftaur arrow. It’s from an area where wolftaurs are known to hunt. It’s the fifth known incident of its kind so far. Heaven knows how many missed that we don’t know about." She threw up her hands into the air as if to wrest an answer from Purteshka. "Are you waiting for someone to die before you’ll do something about it?" she accused. Her fur was fairly bristling with anger.

      "You all know that I’ve already sent out scouts to try to find whoever shot that arrow. You will wait until they return with their report before doing anything." This time, Purteshka’s words held the unmistakable tone of finality. She had given an order and expected to be obeyed. The hunter vixens continued grumbling, but none challenged her authority… this time. The group started breaking apart, but Malena waited around for a chance to talk to the elder.

      Purteshka stepped down from the high point she was standing on and walked up to Malena, her aura of authority dissolving into friendly familiarity. "Hello, Malena. How are you and little Blaze today?"

      "We’re both doing well, thanks." She put the squirming cub down, though keeping a firm grasp on one hand. "Could you tell me what exactly happened today?" Malena asked anxiously.

      Purteshka sighed. "I wish I could tell you exactly what happened, but what I do know is that someone shot Patishu in the hind leg with that arrow you saw being waved around. Naturally all the hunters are worried that they’ll be the next target."

      "Three arrows missed their marks, and the ones that hit were both weren’t exactly good shots. Either the archer is a lousy shot or aiming to frighten," Malena observed.

      "Quite true, and neither fits well with what we know of wolftaurs. That’s why when I sent out the scouts, I told them to look out for anything that seemed out of place, rather than evidence of a wolftaur in the area."

      Malena nodded. "I’m just concerned about what some of the hunters will do when Goldfur arrives soon. Shi’s bringing Lupu along, and I’m worried that they might take it out on her."

      "Good point. I’ll try to have a discreet watch put on her while she’s here, but hopefully we’ll resolve this before things get out of hand."

      Malena agreed fervently. She not only wanted to see that her wolven friend came to no harm, but she wanted to avoid stressing her mate, Goldfur, who already had seen more than enough troubles in the past few years.

*           *           *

      "What do you think of Lupu’s old stamping grounds, Dale?" Forestwalker asked.

      Goldendale looked around and drew in a lungful of the fresh mountain air. The village was extraordinarily pretty to hir mind. The dens particularly appealed to hir, looking homey and comfortable. The village centre looked more like a park with the occasional discreet building spoiling that illusion. The whole place looked as if both natural growth and the products of artifice had grown together, complimenting each other. "It looks gorgeous, Forest," Goldendale replied. "I especially like the scents. That’s something this new body can do a lot better than my old. I can really appreciate the nuances a lot more."

      "You’ll also find it very useful if you do any hunting," Forest noted.

      "Well, it’s not as if I wasn’t already a good hunter as a human. I was a pretty good planetary scout and often lived off the land." It wasn’t so long since shi’d been an average male human, and occasionally shi still felt as if shi needed to defend hir previous incarnation.

      "I didn’t mean to denigrate your abilities, Dale. I merely meant that it would be helpful." Forest and hir family had been doing their best to make Dale’s transition as smooth as possible. Hir recent acceptance of hir new form had been a major step, but they all knew that it would take a lot longer before being a chakat would come as naturally to hir as those born that way.

      "It’s okay. I’m still getting used to being a chakat, so it’s likely that I’ll need to lean on my previous skills more until I learn new ones in this form. Anyway, there’s a question that I’ve been meaning to ask you. How come you came along with Goldfur, Lupu and me on this trip? It’s not one of those festival times that you’ve told me about, is it?

      Before Forest could answer, Garrek spoke up. "Shi’s here to see Malena, and heaven knows only how many others in the village," he said with a cheeky grin.

      Completely unfazed, Forest shot back, "This from the tod who has several vixens all happy to share their beds with him!"

      Garrek’s ears almost glowed from the blush that could be seen only through the thin fur inside of his ears. Chakats might be comfortable with having many partners, but he was still a fairly shy person, and just because what Forestwalker had said was completely true didn’t make it any less embarrassing. He hadn’t gone out of his way to achieve this, but his recent Obligation had greatly changed his relationships with many people. Goldfur put hir arm supportively around hir lifemate, although shi too was struggling to keep hir amusement in check.

      "Anyhow," Forest continued, "It’s true. I do want to see Malena and others, but I’m also a keen bushwalker, and I love this countryside, so I never miss an opportunity to come."

      "I’m glad you came along," Lupu said. "I’m going to need all the moral support that I can get when I confront the pack. I may be bringing a big, strong mate along, but every extra person can only help to impress the pack members."

      "We’ll all be doing our bit to help, never fear!" Garrek said, glad to have the subject off him.

*           *           *

      "They’re here!" Malena called out as she spotted the approaching chakats from the den window. She went to the door to meet the group and flew into Goldfur’s arms to give hir a huge hug and kiss. She then repeated her actions with Garrek."

      Goldfur said, "Dale, I’d like you to meet Malena, my lifemate and Garrek’s denmate."

      "Glad to meet you!" Malena said, automatically giving hir a chakat-style hug of greeting. Dale had gotten to be familiar with it during Forest’s birthing though, so shi only hesitated for a moment before returning the hug in full. Malena stepped back a pace to give Dale a good looking-over. "Aside from the hair and clothes, I couldn’t tell you apart from Goldie. Don’t be too surprised if I accidentally give you an unexpected snuggle!"

      "Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s okay, I’m used to it."

      "Auntie M’ena! Hug!!" Several cubs were waiting for their turn with their foxtaur relative, and Eudora had gotten impatient. Malena soon corrected the oversight with hir as well as all the others in the entourage. Only Tailstalker and Windrunner, the newest kittens asleep in their respective mother’s saddlebag carriers, escaped the welcome.

      Everyone piled inside the den, there to be greeted by Jaleth who’d just come out of the kitchen, and Rikandor who’d been in a back room when Malena’s call had reached him. He brought with him their daughter, Neesha, and Malena’s cub, Blaze, who pulled out of his hands the moment that they saw the cubs and raced over to them. The ensuing meleé that followed was inevitable as the children went into hyperactive fun mode. Jaleth firmly herded them out into the yard before returning to socialise with the others.

      The inevitable huge meal was well received, and they spent the time updating each other on what had been happening recently. Malena eventually broached the subject that most worried her.

      "Lupu, I advise you to be on alert when you’re moving through the village. There was another arrow shooting a few days ago, and there are a few hunters who are ready to blame any wolftaur that they see."

      "But I’ve been here many times before. Why would they pick on me?"

      "Logic has nothing to do with it. Those vixens are scared and angry. They might be the next victim, and eventually, one of them might be killed. Having no one definite to blame, they’re ready to lash out at any scapegoat. I don’t want you to be that person."

      "Don’t go anywhere without myself or Goldfur," Dale advised. "I couldn’t bear to see anything happen to you, love."

      Lupu stroked hir cheek. "Okay, hon. I promise."

*           *           *

      That night, Malena, Garrek and Goldfur excused themselves early. No one was in any doubt as to what would be happening behind the closed door of the sleeping den. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, and this threesome was a shining example. Lupu and Dale were given a room to themselves, leaving only Forest unpartnered. Shi chose to room with the cubs which, although not conducive to good sleep, however gave hir a pleasant feeling. Shi also got to breastfeed not only hir newborn, but Goldfur’s as well. "Next best thing to sex," shi thought contentedly as a cub suckled on each of hir teats. Goldfur’s milk would be claimed by others this evening!

      They all gathered early the next morning to make preparations for the field trip. Lupu and Dale had the most to take along as they would not be returning for a long time, and they had to take as many things as they thought they’d need for an extended stay. The extras were shared amongst the saddlepacks of the others. Only Garrek would not be going on this trip, although he helped with the packing. He had many other things to do while here at the village, and his presence wasn’t really needed anyway. They only had to acquire a few more things from the village market before they set off, so when they had done as much as they could, they all set off together to the village centre. They weren’t to get there without an unplanned delay though.

      They noted a knot of hunter vixens approaching from a side path. Abruptly, one yelled out, "Look there’s one of those murderous bitches now!" She pointed directly at Lupu who gasped in shock as all the vixens turned glares of hatred in her direction.

      Dale and Goldfur immediately stepped in front of Lupu, while the others covered the sides. "What’s going on here?" demanded Goldfur.

      "Halla was just wounded by yet another attack with a wolftaur arrow," said the lead vixen who seemed to be the ringleader, "And we’re not going to take this lying down any more! We’re going to deal with any wolftaurs we find on our territory, and that includes any spies!" She said the last with her gaze locked on Lupu.

      Goldfur’s tail slowly lashed the air, a warning sign to those who knew feline body language that they were treading dangerous ground. "Lupu has never done anything to harm you, nor is she a spy. I strongly advise you to leave her alone, or find out what it’s like when you threaten a chakat’s mate."

      This statement had quite a strong effect on most of the vixens. All of them had heard of the cubnapping episode and what had happened to Ketta. Few were willing to risk the wrath of an enraged chakat. The leader wasn’t to be so easily cowed though. She came up almost nose to nose and started poking Goldfur in the middle of the chest above hir breasts with her index finger. "Maybe you chakats are in league with the wolftaurs. I’ve never approved of your kind interbreeding with ours anyway. You’ve never done foxtaurs any favours as far as I’m concerned." A couple of other vixens nodded their heads in agreement. Goldfur glared at the offending finger, a low rumbling growl building deep in hir throat.

      ‘Oh, great!’ thought Forest. ‘We’ve encountered a clique of those anti-chakat vixens.’ Shi felt hir tail starting to fluff out in involuntary fear reaction.

      The group started advancing on the chakats, Goldfur and Dale now openly snarling in final warning. That was immediately brought to a stop though as a voice boomed out, "YOU WILL DESIST!"

      Everyone looked around in surprise. To the side of both groups stood one lone male foxtaur clad only in his robe of office. Everyone but Dale instantly recognised him as Ballarn, one half of the Justice & Enforcement team. He seldom spoke, but when he did it was with such authority that none hesitated to obey. Right now his eyes blazed with righteous anger. The vixens had not only been openly defying a J&E directive, but they had been about to direct violence against others within the village.

      "Why have you taken the law into your own hands?" he demanded.

      "Because you haven’t done what has needed to be done!" the lead vixen spat out defiantly.

      "And what convinces you that your course of action is the right one, Pollissu?" asked Ballarn scornfully.

      Pollissu stepped up to him and waved an arrow in his face. Her tail lashed violently both in anger and trepidation at her temerity. "Anyone can see that this was made by wolftaurs. All the arrows are wolftaur style. Who else would use those against us? None of us needs help putting two and two together!"

      "Obviously you do. That isn’t a wolftaur arrow." A new voice entered the argument, surprising all. They looked in the owner’s direction. Lupu gazed back nervously at them. "I admit that it looks a lot like one, but that arrow was never made by a wolftaur."

      "Huh! You’d say anything to protect yourself, bitch!" Pollissu sneered.

      "I’d like to hear why she has made that statement," yet another voice said quietly, but with much authority. Purteshka had just arrived to join her partner. By now, the balance of power had shifted so much that none of the other vixens were inclined to make trouble anymore. Pollissu, unable to back out gracefully, simmered in anger and resentment.

      Lupu, daring to leave the cover of her protectors, padded over to where the duo was confronting Pollissu and held out her hand. "May I have that arrow please?"

      Pollissu handed it over with ill grace. Holding it carefully only by the very ends, Lupu examined it closely, then sniffed it. She then held it up so all could see. "Do you see these markings? Although they look like decoration, there’s a very definite pattern behind these in genuine wolftaur arrows. I don’t know how you do things in the foxtaur clans, but in the pack, the hunters rarely have the time to be making the weapons. They need to be concentrating on getting enough food to feed the entire pack. Such things as arrow-making are left to those who are best at doing it. The typical pack has just one master arrowsmith, and perhaps an apprentice. All the arrows made for the hunters are thus not only of the highest quality, but also look almost identical. You can tell the craftperson by their product. Each pack marks all their arrows with a specific pattern that identifies it as theirs. The pattern of this is placed wrongly, but even ignoring that, these colours would identify them as belonging to a pack that has never been within a thousand kilometres of these lands."

      "We only have your say-so on this though," Purteshka stated.

      "Not so," Lupu demurred. "You should be able to find a record on what packs roam which areas and what their pack colours are. Anyway, there are further inconsistencies. The wolftaur hunters usually operate in groups of three or four. This results in more efficient hunting and more kills. However, there’s much prestige in being the actual hunter to bring the quarry down. Because many arrows may be loosed at the prey, it would be near impossible to determine whose arrow actually made the kill because they all look the same. Therefore, every hunter marks their arrows with their scent to identify them. This arrow not only doesn’t have that marker scent, it has almost no scent on it at all except those of the vixens who have handled it. This seems to indicate that someone went to a lot of effort not to leave a scent to identify them, and frankly I think that degree of non-contamination is beyond any pack-living wolftaur." She sniffed the arrow long and hard, seeking a clue. Her eyes widened. "Goldfur, could you take a good sniff at this and tell me if you scent anything out of place?"

      Goldfur came over while Purteshka looked on critically. Goldfur carefully examined the arrow for all possible scents until shi came across one that shi realised that shi knew Lupu must be referring to. "I smell human!" shi said with surprise.

      Lupu nodded in agreement. "I thought I did too. Yet so very faint. I think that’s our culprit though. Why else would it be so weak?"

      "Wait a minute!" Pollissu objected. "I smelled no such thing on that arrow. You’re just making that up!"

      Goldfur turned to Purteshka. "You already know that the chakat sense of smell is much more sensitive than that of foxtaurs. Wolftaur smelling ability is just as good, and I think we’ve already proved ourselves honourable. I state for the record that while there is a hint of timber wolf scent, there is no scent of wolftaur on this arrow, but there is a trace of human."

      "So noted," Purteshka acknowledged. "Porah, Jinith, Faalu, Benesh… you four will search in parties of two in the areas where assaults have occurred. You will be looking specifically for human traces. There are no humans currently in foxtaur territory with permission, so any you may find must be treated as being highly dangerous. Do not approach them. Just report anything you may discover. In any case, I want to hear your reports in my office by sundown."

      The named vixens nodded and hurried to comply. They were relieved to finally be looking for something specific and doing something about it. The remaining vixens started slinking away quietly. Deprived of her support, Pollissu knew she could not pursue her vendettas any more now, but as she too tried to leave, she was brought to a halt by Ballarn.

      "Pollissu! My office. Now!" A tod of few words, but who demanded instant obedience to his rightful commands, he didn’t even bother to look to see if the vixen was following him as he trotted back to the village civic centre. Pollissu meekly complied though. Purteshka remained with Lupu and the others, and when Pollissu was out of earshot, she began to speak.

      "I believe that you’re heading out to find Lupu’s pack today?" When she got acknowledgment, she continued. "Pollissu is hardly the only vixen who feels the way she does, so watch out for those, as well as this alleged human perpetrator. Tensions have been running high lately, and I would appreciate it if, for the good of the village, you didn’t spend more time than you absolutely must out in public. Until this is resolved, I don’t want any more of these incidents."

      "Understood," Goldfur said.

      "Excellent. Please give me the arrow for evidence." Goldfur handed it over. Purteshka took it carefully and placed it in a plastic bag pulled out of her hip pouch. "Good luck with your quest, Lupu." With that, Purteshka departed in the direction that Ballarn had taken.

      "She acts as if she doesn’t quite believe me," Lupu said.

      "No, Lupu," Garrek said. "It’s her job to deal strictly with facts and make judgements on those. She probably believes you, but won’t treat what you’ve told her as concrete fact until she’s had the chance to cross-check it. She might have to take your word about the scents though.

      "Enough! We’re wasting precious time here," Goldfur said shortly. "Let’s get those supplies and get this show on the road!"

*           *           *

      After everyone else had left, Garrek set about his own agenda. Unlike Goldfur and the others, Garrek carried nothing. What he intended to do was purely local. It had been a few months now since his Obligation, and there were a few people he needed to look up. There was nothing stopping him from taking his time now though, and he enjoyed a casual stroll through the village, stopping occasionally to chat with friends. However, he did have an ultimate goal, and eventually he stopped at a den in Sequoia Lane and knocked at the door. The door was very quickly opened by a foxtaur vixen whose ears were raggedly cropped, and sparse hair cut short. Her face may have been scarred by the forest fire that had so badly burned her all over, but the smile on her face when she saw Garrek was almost enough to make you overlook the rest. She dived into Garrek’s arms.

      "Oh, Garrek! You’re here at last!" She hugged him strongly.

      Garrek laughed and hugged her back. "Jeez, Shansu, I’m even a little bit early for our rendezvous. You didn’t think I’d back out now, did you?"

      "No, of course not. I’m just really pleased to see you again. I’ve been counting the days since you called to say that you were planning a trip to the village and wanted to confirm with me when my next heat was due."

      "I promised you another try at a kit, and this was the soonest I could arrange it. I’m glad that you still want it. Now stand back and let me have a look at you!"

      Shansu grinned and did so, posing a bit for him. She had gone to great lengths to dress for the occasion. Rather than her usual long-sleeved blouse and saddle-blanket arrangement that was meant to protect the furless patches on her hide, she was wearing a very elaborate outfit this day especially for Garrek’s visit. She had on a beautiful silk top with a floral design on it. The voluminous sleeves covered the disfiguring scars on her arms, and a pair of gloves concealed the total lack of fur on the left hand. She also wore a taur-style dress over her lower torso that hid other furless patches on her body, and sandals to complete the outfit. She even had a broad ribbon tied around her truncated tail to camouflage that limb’s injuries.

      "Good heavens! It looks like you’re going to be a festival queen!" Garrek exclaimed. "You look gorgeous! Did you do all this just for me?"

      Shansu blushed a little. Garrek could easily tell because her ears showed it readily. "I know, I went a bit overboard, but I wanted this to be something really special."

      "It’s okay, Shansu. I appreciate it, and I think a lot of other tods out there would do so too. I hope you take the time to find out."

      "Are you going to preach at me again, Garrek?" Shansu asked, raising an eyebrow.

      "Only if you force me to, hon. You know I only want the best for you."

      "Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten my promise. Now are you going to come in or not?"

      "At once!" Garrek laughed and Shansu joined in. The two went inside and she served him some morning tea that she’d had ready. They then chatted for a while, catching up on what had happened since they’d last seen each other. When the mood was right though, Shansu got up and took Garrek’s hand. Without a word, she led him to her sleeping den. Then she helped him remove her elaborate clothing and carefully set it aside. Garrek then kissed her gently and Shansu returned it with fervour.

      Before long, the two were entwined in a passionate embrace, and very soon after, Garrek mounted her. He brought her to orgasm several times before he let himself go and filled her with his seed. Yips of ecstasy died down into panting from their exertions, and they embraced as they enjoyed the afterglow. Eventually though, they knew that their time together was up.

      "Thank you for this, Garrek. I hope that this attempt to conceive a kit will be successful. I dearly want the child to have you as her sire. And thank your mate for letting me have this second opportunity."

      "You’re welcome, and I’ll pass that on to Goldfur. But I would have done it anyway even if Goldfur hadn’t urged me to."

      Shansu gave him a lick-kiss on the cheek. "I believe you, and thanks."

      They cleaned up and Shansu put on her usual protective clothing. She then walked with him to the door to farewell him. Garrek stepped outside, turned, and gave her one last lick-kiss. "Call me the moment that they let you know that you’ve conceived."

      "I’ll do that, Garrek. Thank you again. May the stream of your life flow smoothly."

      Garrek smiled and nodded, then turned down the path back to the village. Shansu watched him until he was out of sight, her eyes shining with affection for the tod who had turned her life around. She sighed. "If only he wasn’t mated already and lived away from the village," she murmured wistfully.

*           *           *

      The expedition commenced, Malena taking the lead because she was most familiar with the territory that they would have to be crossing. Years of field lessons had given her a thorough knowledge of the land, and she had also gone to the trouble of looking up the latest reports on the whereabouts of Lupu’s pack. Goldfur walked by her side when she could, pleased to be able to spend some time with her mate doing something other than village activities or even making love. Lupu and Dale followed behind. The wolftaur was happily showing things to her interested audience. While she wasn’t a hunter, she did have a good knowledge of many useful plants that the pack utilised for many applications ranging from glue to medicine. Forestwalker was close behind, listening in on the conversation with a professional interest. Each was laden with fully loaded saddlebags plus a small knapsack. Everyone was enjoying the walk, and the crisp, cold winter air kept them cool despite their exertions. Patches of snow that had gotten through the tree canopy occasionally made walking a little bit more difficult, but nothing that caused real hardship.

      "You sure you remembered everything that you need, Lupu?" Forestwalker asked at one point. "I’m sure we could have squeezed in a kitchen sink if we tried."

      "You’re welcome to go back and fetch me one if you like," retorted Lupu. "I tried hard to keep the load to a minimum, but if Dale and I are going to spend several weeks with the pack, I want to be fully prepared."

      Forestwalker grinned. "And I thought I lugged a lot of equipment on my field expeditions!"

      "I suppose I’m a bit spoiled by living in civilisation, but even if I could go back to the bare essentials, I don’t think it’s fair to thrust Dale into it cold. Besides, some of that stuff is for bribes. I’m going to need all the good will that I can gather."

      "Makes sense. It’s a good thing that we’re all trail-hardened though. It looks like we’re headed for the mountains. We’ll all feel it if we have to lug a lot over rugged territory and icy rocks rather than these sheltered forest trails."

      "Can’t help that, I’m sorry. Hopefully Malena knows an easy route."

      "Amen to that!" chimed in Dale.

      Despite the load and the increasingly difficult trail though, none of the trekkers had much trouble handling the load, not even Dale who was still learning the full capabilities of hir body. After a few hours, the conversation dried up as each concentrated their efforts into hiking. Around midday, Malena called a break as they reached a well-maintained hut.

      "This is one of the foxtaur clan’s emergency huts," she explained. "We keep supplies to deal with accidents or storms, etcetera. However, I just want to make use of the fireplace to make some hot drinks."

      There was a chorus of agreement to that, and soon everyone was drinking their favourite revitalising hot beverage. They didn’t spend too much time at the hut though; they didn’t want stiffness to set in. They were soon on their way again, following Malena along the path that had now levelled out after threatening to lift them further up into the less hospitable regions.

      After a couple of hours, Goldfur sidled up closer to Malena and murmured, "Are you aware that we’re being watched?"

      "I wasn’t sure, but I had been expecting some sort of contact about now. Can you confirm that they’re wolftaurs?" When Goldfur nodded in affirmation, Malena continued, "We’ll just keep going this way until they decide to confront us. I’m not expecting any difficulty because the clan regularly maintains contact with the packs anyway. In fact, the council elders asked me to do that task while I was going this way."

      "Okay. I suppose the scouts have sent word ahead to the pack and someone will soon meet us," Goldfur speculated.

      "That’s what I reckon also," Malena agreed.

      Goldfur hung back to tell the others to expect company soon, and shi was soon proved correct. Two impressively large male wolftaurs were waiting for them as they rounded a bend in the trail.

      "Halt!" one commanded. "Who are you and what are you doing in our pack’s territory?" he asked gruffly.

      Malena, who had been warned what to expect, calmly replied, "I am Malena Redfox, representative of the Mountain Glade foxtaur clan on whose grounds your pack hunts with our permission. We come with news and supplies."

      "Well come, Malena Redfox. Who are your travelling companions?" he asked suspiciously.

      Malena looked at Goldfur. "This is Chakat Goldfur, my lifemate. Shi travels with me to keep me company and help me with the load. The jaguar-patterned chakat is hir sister, Forestwalker, also helping us today. The other chakat is Goldendale, newly mated to Lupu, whom I believe you already know."

      Both wolftaurs were startled when Malena mentioned Dale’s mating to Lupu, but rapidly covered it up. The spokesman stepped forward to confront Lupu. "Why do you return once again, Lupukshawteanae?" he growled.

      Dale was a little startled to hear his mate’s full name for the first time, but didn’t miss Lupu staring back defiantly. "The same reason as I did before, Rannkaisharten; to regain my place in the pack!"

      The wolftaur glared back, but eventually grunted. "That is up to the Alpha to decide." He then turned and started up the trail. "Follow me," he commanded as his companion fell in behind the group.

*           *           *

      Garrek’s next destination was the home of Kassi and Zendak. His former girlfriend and best friend had both been nearly bursting with the need to tell him that she had at last conceived a cub and their joy had been unbounded. That Garrek was the sire of the child was utterly irrelevant. Kassi’s long-cherished goal was to have cubs, and Zendak’s greatest pleasure was the happiness of his mate. They’d asked him to stop by their place as soon as he could arrange a visit, and truthfully, Garrek very much wanted to see both again anyway.

      This time it was Kassi who met him at the door. "Garrek, hon! It’s so good to see you!" She demonstrated how good by giving him a huge hug and several lick-kisses right there in the front doorway where every passing foxtaur could get an eyeful. "How’s it feel to be the father of a foxtaur kit for a change?"

      Garrek walked inside with Kassi. "It’s great, but it’s not as if it’s the first time. After all, both Jinni and Merta got in ahead of you by a few days," he replied cheekily. "However, there’s one thing that makes this one special… it’s the fulfilment of our teenage desires." He gave her another hug. "I hope she brings just as much joy as the day you learned that you conceived her."

      "Him," replied Kassi.

      "Huh?" said Garrek, confused by the reply.

      "Conceived him. I had the kit sexed by the medtechs. They told me it’s male." Kassi had a huge grin on her face.

      Garrek was stunned, then elated. "Your first, and it’s a boy! Oh Kass, that’s great news!

      "You bet! It sort of makes up for all the times that I failed to conceive before." While female kits were always welcome, the low incidence of male births always made them special.

      "We’ve got to celebrate this," Garrek announced. Grab your stuff. We’re going out to Pawprints for a meal." He paused, suddenly realising that something was missing. "Um… where’s Zendak?"

      "Working, unfortunately. Would you prefer to put this off until this evening?"

      "No. I think that at least this time, it’s something that just we two can celebrate. After all, it’s our child. There will be plenty of other opportunities for the three of us though."

      "Fair enough," Kassi said, grabbing a hip pouch. "Let’s go!"

      Markot was there to welcome the two. "Welcome, parents-to-be!" he exclaimed jovially.

      "Word of that has already gotten around?" Garrek asked, eyeing Kassi.

      "Markot laughed. "She’s been telling anybody who’ll listen. So how many kits does that make from your Obligation? Three? I’m glad that you got the male in the bunch, Kassi. Considering how you two were sweethearts for so long, I’d have to say that it was only fair."

      Kassi said, "Having waited so long for any child at all, I think it’s more like due compensation!"

      Garrek added, "But any kit is a reason to celebrate, so if you would show us a table, we’d like to get started on it."

      "How about the booth where you were reunited then?" Markot suggested.

      Garrek looked at Kassi and saw her look of approval. "That’d be perfect!"

      Markot and his mate made the meal a memorable one, yet the two would later find it difficult to recall exactly what they had eaten, for they lost themselves in conversation. Each first updated the other in what had been happening in their lives, then the subjects turned to more and more intimate matters. By the time the meal was done, Markot had to shoo them home, much amusement in his voice. "Go! If you keep this up, instead of paying me for the meal, I’ll have to pay you for entertaining my other customers!

      Both then realised how absorbed they’d gotten and blushed with a touch of embarrassment. Garrek paid for the meal and they parted, arm in arm. Kassi burst into a fit of giggles. "Oh boy, we were like a couple of teenagers again! I don’t think I have felt quite like that since you, I and Zendak were always doing everything together."

      "You’re right. There’s only a couple of differences now, and the most important is that new life you’re bearing."

      Kassi leaned over and kissed him. "Let’s hope that I don’t spoil him rotten!"

      "With Zendak there to raise him, I think he’ll have a good upbringing."

      "Don’t forget that I want you to have a big part in his childhood too."

      "I’ve already promised to be there for both of you as much as I can.

      "I know. I just like to hear you saying that again."

      Garrek laughed. "Well, until Zendak gets home, you have me to yourself."

      "And believe me, I’m going to take advantage of it!" Kassi declared.

      The two strolled back to her place in companionable silence, holding each other closely and just enjoying being with the other. When they arrived, Kassi wordlessly steered Garrek to the sleeping den and took off his jacket. Garrek reciprocated by undoing the ties on Kassi’s top and letting in fall open so he could gaze upon her pretty breasts. He then slipped her top off her shoulders and threw it aside, then bent over to kiss her nipples.

      Kassi giggled. "You always did like those."

      "And they’re prettier than ever," Garrek declared, then parted his muzzle to kiss Kassi full on hers. A long moment later, the two parted, panting from the passion that had gone into the kiss, then they laid down upon the sleeping mats and started serious foreplay. Hours passed before the lovers were finally done with their efforts to make up for their time apart.

      Kassi sighed. "I’d like this to go on forever, but it’s time I started cooking dinner. Zendak will be wanting to chat with you when he gets home, so you won’t be bored while I’m busy."

      "I’ll help you until he arrives. It’s not as if sex is the only reason to be with you, you know!"

      "I know, and thanks."

      Although Garrek wasn’t a very competent cook, he at least made a decent helper. The preparations went quickly, helped by the interesting conversation. Garrek also told Kassi about the fulfilment of his promise to Shansu.

      "It seems to me that you’re making a lot of vixens happy lately. Have you followed up on that huntress yet? What was her name again?" asked Kassi.

      "Jinni. And no, not yet. I hope to see her tomorrow though. I had far more important things to do today."

      "Ha! Can’t handle three girls in one day, eh?" Kassi had a light-hearted dig at him.

      "It’s not my fault all you vixens are sex-mad!" Garrek retorted.

      "Only for the right tod," Kassi replied smugly. Just then, a series of yips came from the direction of the front door. "Zendak’s home!"

      "Careful, he might think we’re up to hanky-panky!" Garrek said conspiratorially.

      Kassi swatted him with an oven mitt. Get out there and greet him, you twit! I’ll be out there in a moment when the ruckus has died down."

      Garrek grinned. How well she knew them! He went out to the living room and there was the usual excited greeting between the old friends. Kassi soon joined them and it turned into a three-way hug. Then Kassi said, "Thanks to Garrek’s help, dinner will be ready very soon. You two get the table ready and then chat for a while."

      "Okay, Love," Zendak said as he kissed her and she trotted off to the kitchen.

      The tods did as they were instructed and were deep in conversation when Kassi plonked the baking dish down in front of their noses. Twin smiles grew as the aroma of roast venison, potatoes and spices wafted up their noses. Conversation slowed as the three started eating, but resumed full flow once they all had their fill. Then Zendak turned serious. He reached over and put his right hand on Garrek’s left arm, gripping it firmly.

      "My friend, it’s time to ask something of you, something that we both decided to ask you some time ago and have been impatiently waiting for you to return so that we could ask it in person and all together." He paused, took a deep breath, then said, "Garrek, we want you to be our co-mate. Now that you have a mate of your own, the law forbidding a vixen to have two males just to herself no longer applies. Kassi and I want you to have a bigger part in the raising of the kit, and frankly we’d both like to have you back in our lives a lot more. We realise though your commitment to your present mate and family and have no intention of disrupting it, but do you think that you could be a part of ours as well?"

      Garrek was stunned. He’d only just gotten used to having his two closest foxtaur friends back in his life again. His time of Obligation had thrown them together in a delightful manner, but he hadn’t even started thinking of any long term relationships due to his existing commitments. And yet, a part of him thrilled just to hear them ask. He realised that deep inside of him, he’d never stopped caring for Kassi and Zendak, and he’d had to bury his feelings to assuage his sense of loss when they were parted. Now that they’d come together again, everything was happening so fast! His first impulse was to say yes, but they were asking a deep commitment from him and he refused to be rushed. He made his decision. "Kassi… Zendak… I’m deeply honoured and moved that you want me to be your co-mate. It’s all I can do to stop myself from shouting – yes! But I would be a poor mate if I didn’t talk to Goldfur about this first. Shi’s my lifemate and I love hir deeply, and I won’t do anything without discussing it with hir before making a commitment. But I do know my lifemate well, and I would be extremely surprised if shi objected. Chakats love large families, and I know shi already likes you both. When shi gets back, I’ll confirm my feelings, but right now I’ll just say that I would be delighted to be formally mated with you." Garrek felt his eyes stinging, and he suddenly realised that he had started weeping with joy. His throat tightened up and no more words came. Instead, he got up and walked between Kassi and Zendak and put an arm around both and hugged them tightly.

      Zendak grinned and Kassi kissed him. She said, "We expected that you’d want to talk with Goldfur before committing yourself. Whatever the outcome though, you’ll always have a place in our hearts."

      "Believe me, that means a great deal to me," Garrek said fervently.

      "Silly tod!" Kassi said, "You know that we could never let you go again!"

      Garrek grinned. "Does that mean that I won’t have to sleep alone tonight?"

      "Aaargh!!" Zendak cried. "Are we going to have to club you into submission and drag you into our den?" He mock-glared at Garrek until both of them burst out laughing. "Damn! It’s good to have you back, Garrek!"

      "I missed you too, ‘Dak."

      "It’s been years since someone called me that. You bring back memories, my friend."

      "I’m looking forward to making new ones."

      "Then let’s get started!" Kassi exclaimed, hooking her arms around one each of theirs and leading them off in the direction of the sleeping den.

      "What about the dirty dishes?" Garrek asked.

      "They can wait, but I can’t!"

      "Wasn’t this afternoon enough for you?"

      "Never! I’m got a few years to make up for, and that’s going to need a lot of dedicated effort to catch up," Kassi insisted.

      "I can’t wait to start!" Garrek smiled.

*           *           *

      Dale and Lupu led the group into the wolftaurs’ campsite, putting up a bold front. Dale’s confidence was shaken though when confronted by the biggest wolftaur shi had ever seen. ‘Dire wolf’ was the first thing to float through hir mind. ‘This guy could eat a chakat for lunch!’ shi thought nervously. ‘He’s surely got to be the Alpha.

      The wolftaur calmly looked over the group before letting his gaze settle on Lupu. "Hello, daughter. I see that you have made good on your vow to return."

      ‘That’s Lupu’s father? Holy cow! I’m going to have to deal with him? Hooboy!" Dale thought with some trepidation.

      Lupu replied, "Yes, father. Did you ever doubt that I would?"

      "After bringing your chakat mate… Goldfur, wasn’t it?… last time, no, not really."

      "Things have changed a lot since then. While Goldfur remains my denmate, I have a new companion whom I have taken as a mate, hopefully for life. Father, this is Chakat Goldendale. Dale will be remaining with me this time, and we will argue my cause together."

      The pack leader’s expression remained stern, but there was still a hint of surprise in his eyes. There were several moments of silence as he digested this information, then he grunted in resignation. "You always did things differently from others of your own kind. I would be more surprised if you had suddenly changed. Very well, you and your mate may talk with the pack again." His eyes shifted to Forestwalker and Malena. "And what is your purpose here?"

      Malena spoke up first, introducing herself as she had to the two who had met them. Then she continued, "This is Chakat Forestwalker, sister to Goldfur and our friend who volunteered to help lug this load."

      Forestwalker added, "I’m also a biologist and interested in the local plants and animals. I hope you don’t mind if I look around a little."

      "Well met Malena Redfox and Chakat Forestwalker. I have no objections to your looking around, but check with the hunters first as to where you wish to look, or you might spoil their hunt. As for you, vixen, I believe our Crafters have many suitable goods for trade. I will talk to you later about clan business." He turned his attention to everyone in the party. "You all have permission to stay the night with the pack. Do not stray outside the camp after sundown. Lupukshawteanae, you and your mate… mates… come with me." Without looking to see if they obeyed, but nevertheless expecting compliance, he turned and padded off in the direction of a nearby cliff face. When he reached it, he made an abrupt turn and seemingly disappeared from sight. When the followers got there though, they saw the crevice hidden from view and entered it to find that it widened out into a small cave where apparently the pack leader had made into a den.

      Dale was surprised to see that the pack leader was smiling as his daughter walked up to him and into his arms. "I have missed you, my little Lupu."

      "And I, you, father." Lupu hugged him tightly.

      The atmosphere was so different from when they were standing amidst the pack that it left Dale a little dizzy. Goldfur noticed and murmured to hir, "It’s okay, Dale. Lupu’s father can’t be seen to be giving favour to his daughter while her status is still officially that of an exile, but he really loves her. He can only show it here in private though."

      "Quite correct, Goldfur," the wolftaur said, his keen ears not having missed the quiet comment. I’m even happy to see you too because it means that my little cub has been in good care with you. But who is this chakat that not only looks almost the same as you, but also smells identical to your scent?"

      "That, sir, is a very long story, but trust me, Goldendale is a worthy mate for your daughter."

      "I will decide that for myself, but nevertheless I will bear your recommendation in mind." He turned his gaze fully upon Dale who tried to control the impulse to squirm. "My name is Chrisen, and it seems that we are now related, whether I approve of my daughter’s second mating or not. I think that you and I have a lot to talk about, don’t we?"

      Dale tried to swallow with a suddenly-dry throat. "Yes sir!" shi managed to say.

*           *           *

      The next morning, it was as if the intervening years had never passed for Garrek, Zendak and Kassi. They all woke together, enjoyed a few moments of companionable cuddling, then made their morning ablutions and had breakfast. The three were so comfortable together that few words were needed between them, and parting for their respective duties was difficult. Garrek gave Zendak a parting hug as warm as the one he’d just given Kassi.

      "I’ll let you know what’s happening later as soon as I know myself," he promised them. "I hope today goes as well as yesterday, anyway."

      "Have a great day, Garrek," Zendak said. Kassi smiled and nodded in agreement with her mate.

      Garrek winked at them and turned down the path, his walk jaunty and full of joy of life. He headed off in the direction of Jinni’s den on the other side of the village. His inquiries the previous day led him to believe that this was her day to stay at home while the rest of her hunt team went out for the day, so hopefully she would be there. He soon had his answer. A yip into the open doorway of her den was quickly answered, and Jinni padded over with a look of surprise on her face.

      "Garrek! Karree told me to expect a visitor today, but refused to tell me who. I’m pleased to see that it’s you." She gave Garrek a light hug and nuzzle. "Come on in! Would you like something to eat or drink?"

      "No thanks, Jinni. I just had breakfast a short time ago."

      "Okay. So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"

      "Well, aside from just a social call, I was wondering how your pregnancy was progressing."

      Jinni smiled. "It’s nice to see a tod having such concern for the kits he’s sired. We’re both doing fine. The medtechs say that I’m having a normal pregnancy so far."

      "Have you sexed the kit?"

      "No. Any reason why you’re asking?"

      "I just found out yesterday that Kassi is bearing a male. We’re both very pleased about that."

      "I would be too! Congratulations Garrek!" Jinni gave him a lick-kiss on the cheek.

      "Thanks! Anyway, I was just curious. I already knew that the vulpamours are expecting a female, and the odds favour that you will too, but I can always hope."

      "That makes two of us. You’ve gotten me curious, so I might just ask about that at my next check-up."

      "Let me know if you do, okay?" Garrek requested.

      "Sure thing," replied Jinni, nodding.

      "I’ll drop in on you again occasionally to see how things are going, if you don’t mind that is?"

      "You’ll always be a welcome visitor, Garrek. What brought you back to the village this time?"

      "Goldfur was accompanying Lupu and her new mate, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to take care of a few outstanding tasks."

      Jinni’s happy mood evaporated. "That wolftaur bitch? What’s she doing here?" she demanded.

      Garrek was startled her sudden change of mood. "She’s still trying to rejoin her pack. Dale, her new chakat mate, is going to help her."

      "What remarkable timing," Jinni frowned. "She was here when Willa got shot by a wolftaur arrow. She arrives here and Halla gets shot too."

      "What are you saying?" Garrek asked in confusion tinged with the beginnings of anger. "Are you accusing Lupu of assaulting those vixens?"

      Jinni looked determined. "I suppose that wouldn’t explain the other attacks, but she could be in collusion with those sneaky curs."

      "Dammit Jinni, that’s ridiculous! I’ve heard about those attacks, and nobody has even proved who did any of them yet. Now you’re accusing someone you don’t even know in the slightest!"

      "Maybe not, Garrek, but you’re not the one who has to go into the forest most days to hunt, and having to worry if there’s an arrow aimed at your heart!" Jinni’s tail lashed in agitation.

      Garrek took Jinni’s arms in his hands and stared her in the eyes intently. "I understand your fear, but that doesn’t excuse your accusation of Lupu. She’s Goldfur’s mate, and that says more about her character than anything else in the world you could come up with. Leave her out of your vendetta!"

      Jinni was not quite ready to let it go though. "Just keep her kind out of foxtaur grounds. They are not welcome, understand?" Her lips were curled back in a snarl.

      Garrek scowled. "Even if you’re right about a wolftaur shooting foxtaurs, why blame all wolftaurs for the actions of what might be a rogue?"

      "Nothing started until that wolftaur pack first entered clan territory. And shootings aren’t the only things happening. Our traps have been broken, cached supplies have been stolen, hunts have been spoiled... the list goes on. It sounds like the act of a group rather than just one person."

      "You’re exaggerating things. We’ve always had some losses or bad luck. Now you’re attributing every little thing that goes wrong with this supposed wolftaur vendetta. By the Makers, Jinni, why would they do these things? We’ve been at peace with them for generations. It doesn’t make sense!"

      "When we catch that one shooting hunters, we’ll ask him that very question!" Jinni said defiantly.

      Garrek sighed and released her. "You’re in the wrong, Jinni. Perhaps Goldfur and Forest can help find the real troublemaker. They’re pretty good at tracking and might be able to prove that it’s not wolftaurs giving you trouble."

      "If it stops these attacks, we’ll gladly accept anything." The slight glimmer of hope deflated her ire and she tried to shake her mood off. "I’m sorry Garrek, but until this crisis is resolved, Lupu or any of her family are persona non grata here."

      "Jinni, I’m part of her family too," Garrek told her sternly.

      "Only if you wish it to be, Garrek," Jinni replied a little sadly.

      Garrek turned towards the door. "That decision was made long ago, and I’ll never go back on my commitment to my family."

      Jinni nodded, accepting that. Strength of character was one of the things she most liked about this tod. "Give my regards to Goldfur, okay?"

      "I’ll do that. Tail High, Jinni."

      "What’s that?" asked Jinni with a quizzical look on her face.

      "Oh! That’s a common chakat farewell. It basically means ‘Be Happy’."

      Jinni gave him a lopsided smile. "In that case, Tail High to you too, Garrek."

      Garrek left the hunter vixen’s den feeling a little frustrated. He’d found out what he wanted to know, but ended up stirring up a hornets’ nest in the process. He sighed. ‘Can’t make everybody happy all the time, I suppose. I hope we can sort this out long before Lupu returns, or there might be big trouble between her, Goldfur and the rest of the village hotheads. Anyway, one more stop, and I’ll be done with checking up. Maybe a discreet inquiry will let me know how Merta is doing. Not that I should be poking my nose into her business – she and her mate made it plain that the kit was purely their responsibility and they had no interest in involving me. Still, I can’t help being curious.

*           *           *

      "It’s time!" Chrisen said. "Lupu, you and your mates will join me at the pack council. Remember Goldendale, you will not speak of your previous incarnation. You are Goldfur’s identical twin sister."

      Dale nodded, recalling Chrisen’s warning about how some pack members felt about humans. Anyway, the bit about being Goldfur’s twin was completely true, although not in the way the others would think it would be. Chrisen and shi had spent a lot of time last night getting to know one another thoroughly, and Chrisen had grudgingly conceded that Goldendale seemed to be an adequate mate for his favourite daughter, no matter hir strange genesis.

      Chrisen turned to Malena and Forestwalker. "Vixen, your trade goods were most welcome at this time of season. Thank you also for your latest news on the herds. Our hunters will make good use of that knowledge today. Your warnings about this strange business with the arrow shootings will be heeded and our hunters will avoid foxtaur hunting parties until this is resolved. However, now that your business has been concluded, you and your chakat companion are required to leave pack territory.

      "Thank you for your hospitality, sir. I will pass on your compliments to the clan elders. Malena turned, touching Forestwalker on the arm to indicate to hir to follow. Forestwalker gave a respectful bow and said, "It’s been a pleasure meeting you, sir," then departed with Malena.

      "Lupu, follow me out a minute after I leave. You will be called to council." Chrisen then exited the cave.

      Dale’s nerves were getting to hir by now. Lupu put a comforting arm around hir and said to hir with a smile, "I thought you were here to give me support, love, not the other way around."

      Dale looked at her and replied, "I’m sorry, hon. Your father is a bit intimidating, and facing a whole bunch of your relatives isn’t going to be as easy as I thought. I promise that I won’t let you down though."

      "Don’t forget that I’m here to help too, Dale," Goldfur interjected. "I’ve been through some of this before and they won’t bite your head off for merely stating your cause. The wolftaurs may seem rough, but they respect people who have the strength of character to push their cause against strong opposition."

      Dale smiled wanly. "Knowing it and feeling it are two different things!" Shi took a couple of deep breaths, then firmed hir resolve. "Okay, let’s do it! C’mon love, let’s make your case so solid, it’ll make their heads spin!!"

      Lupu laughed, hooked her arm in Dale’s, then boldly headed off to confront the council.

*           *           *

      Garrek’s destination was the den of Thayla, the elder who had left an open invitation to Garrek. His encounter with her had been so pleasant, he’d been determined to accept that invitation. He wondered if she would be at home, but seeing as her den was almost on the same route back into the centre of the village, he felt he might as well try there first. Her door was open, and seeing as most foxtaurs only closed the door during the day if nobody was at home (barring bad weather), he found this to be an encouraging sign. He yipped the standard greeting, and heard an answering yip from inside. A few moments later, an elderly-looking vixen came to the door. Her fur colour was the common red fox variety, although the right front paw lacked the dark brown ‘sock’. Her coat was streaked with silver hairs, and her hair was mostly the same, showing only hints of its original red colouration. Her lower belly fur sagged both from age and several pregnancies, and her breasts showed the weight of many years, but didn’t sag nearly as much as might be expected. In fact, despite her age, the vixen looked to be in fine fitness, with a spring in her step and sparkle in her eyes that made her appear to be much younger than she actually was. Thayla’s eyes widened in surprise and delight when she recognised her visitor.

      "Garrek! Come in! I’m so pleased to see you again. I had heard that you were back and I confess that I was hoping that you’d pay me a visit."

      "I’ve had your invitation on my mind ever since we parted, Thayla. You opened my eyes in more ways than one, and I find myself wanting more."

      Thayla smiled slyly. "Everything has its price, Garrek. Are you willing to pay it?"

      "If the currency is what I think it is, I think I can arrange that," Garrek retorted.

      Thayla laughed. Enough bantering, dear. I’ve missed you, you know. For the first time in a long while, I’ve been wanting somebody else to share a bit of my life with, so I’ll come right out and say it. Would you dally with me for a while?" Thayla gently moved in close and laid her muzzle against Garrek’s.

      Garrek was electrified. He had come here knowing that Thayla would be very likely want to make love again, and thought that he would be prepared for it. Instead Thayla had surprised him again. Her feelings for him seemed to be stronger than he had anticipated. What surprised him even more though was that he was thrilled to find that out. He thought that his commitments to Goldfur, Malena and Kassi would preclude any desire to add to that number, but his reactions were proving him wrong. It wasn’t as if it was uncommon for a foxtaur tod to have three or four vixens as mates due to the numerical disparity, but he was already part of an extended chakat family, and that made his life a lot more complex than an ordinary foxtaur’s. Still, that didn’t seem to deter him from his desires. Garrek smiled back lovingly. "I would be more than happy to do so, Thayla."

      "Thank you, dear. Come! Let me show you something."

      Thayla led the willing tod to the sleeping den. The last time that he’d been there, Garrek had noted the many shelves laden with decades of memorabilia. Each piece was a significant moment in Thayla’s life, and she could tell a willing listener exactly how and why she had acquired it. She’d told Garrek that, in many ways, they summed up her life better than any diary could. As she led Garrek into the room, he noted that some rearranging had been done. One shelf now was almost completely bare. The sole item on it was a green feather mounted on a polished piece of wood. With a start, Garrek recognised it as being the feather that he had given Thayla at his Obligation.

      Thayla was watching his expression, and when she saw that he knew what it was, she said, "I needed to clear a shelf because I felt a new chapter in my life had started that day we made love. I was hoping that you would prove me right, and you have. Before we do anything else though, my young lover, I want you to know how happy you have made me by just turning up again at my doorstep. I want to be a part of your life, if you’ll let me, and in return I promise that you’ll never regret that decision. I’m not a young vixen any more, and I’ll be satisfied with just a bit of your time. I just don’t want to be lonely so often."

      Garrek felt his eyes misting with emotion, and he struggled to find the right words. "Thayla, I’ve spent the last couple of days checking up on vixens whom I’ve only met through Obligation because I don’t take any of my relationships lightly, despite being absolved of responsibility. I didn’t come back here today merely because you invited me to do so, but because I cared so much about you that I wanted to return. What I’m saying is that if I accept your offer, you would never be a minor part of my life. My time may be limited, but you would be entitled to your fair share, regardless of my prior commitments."

      Thayla smiled tenderly. "That’s more than I could have hoped for, Garrek, and I’m overjoyed that you feel this way. I know that you’ll want to talk this over with Goldfur and Malena, and perhaps Kassi and Zendak too?" she asked astutely.

      Garrek looked at her in only mild surprise. It didn’t take too much to figure out how Kassi and Zendak stood with him, although they’d only just formally asked him to be their co-mate. If anyone could figure it out though, it would be Thayla. "Yes, I’ll be talking to them all as soon as I can, but for now, this moment is yours. What would you like to do right now?"

      "Silly tod! Do I still need to give you lessons?

      "Yes, please!" Garrek said enthusiastically, letting his tongue loll out.

      Thayla laughed gaily. "You make me feel like a young vixen again. Come on, let’s do something about that!" And she did, proving at the same time that she hadn’t shown him all her tricks the previous time they’d made love.

*           *           *

      Forestwalker and Malena wasted no time in heading off back to the foxtaur village. Having been advised that there wouldn’t be any hunting packs along their path today, Forest felt free to stop occasionally to gather specimens, but shi still didn’t dawdle too long until they were well away from the pack’s camp. After that though, Malena often found it hard to get the engrossed chakat moving on. Not that she wasn’t guilty of a few delays herself. At one stage she showed Forest how she could entice some Blue Jays close with some stalks of wild grain that she had found along their path. In short, both were enjoying the walk and the landscape, but also the company of each other.

      "It’s not often that we get so much time together alone, is it?" Malena commented.

      "True," Forest agreed. "I could get to like this a lot."

      Malena looked thoughtful, then appeared to make up her mind. "Forest, why is it that you have never asked me to be your Companion?"

      Forestwalker looked very surprised, and was momentarily lost for words. Before shi could say anything, Malena continued. "I’m sorry. That was terribly selfish of me. It’s not as if you don’t have enough mates already to think about, let alone taking on another Companion. Forget I asked."

      Forest rolled hir eyes. "No I won’t forget. The reason that I have never asked is because you already are my Companion!"

      "Huh? How could I be? I don’t recall you ever asking me!" Malena was badly confused.

      Forest stopped to face Malena and took the vixen’s hands, gazing into her eyes. "Malena, ever since that day that you asked me to renew our love-making experience after the kidnapping incident, we have been Companions. I realise now that I should have made it clear, but amongst chakats, such things are usually understood without the need for putting it into words."

      "Oh! But you have the formal oath when you become Denmates. I thought you’d have one for becoming Companions too."

      Forest shook hir head. "That’s the difference. Denmateship is a formal relationship, but a Companionship is an informal relationship, so we don’t have a formal declaration. We’ve made love many times since then though, and I would have thought that you’d realise that chakats just don’t have such long-term relationships without becoming Companions at least."

      Malena took this information in, then said, "You mean that I could have called you my Companion all this time, and presumed your interest in more?"

      "Uh-huh!" Forest affirmed with a grin.

      "D’oh! What a twit I am sometimes!" Then she smiled mischievously. "In that case, show me how interested you are, and catch me if you can!" She bounded off down the trail.

      Forest looked outraged. "You big tease!!" shi called after her, then took off in hot pursuit, a predatory grin on hir face.

      Malena led Forestwalker a merry chase, but it was one that shi was destined to lose. Not that she really wanted to escape! When she reached a small clearing in the forest that was piled deeply with cushioning pine needles without snow getting in the way, she slowed enough to let Forestwalker catch her. Giggling, the two fell into each other’s arms and kissed deeply. Neither bothered to break the kiss for a long time, but finally a need for air ended it. Panting, Malena said between breaths, "Now that you’ve caught me, what are you going to do?"

      "No more games, cheeky vixen. I’m going to make love to you until you can’t orgasm any more!"

      "Promises, promises!" Malena laughed, but started pulling off Forest’s top. Forest returned the favour, then started stroking the vixen’s pert nipples. Malena responded by lowering her muzzle to one of Forest’s full breasts and licking the large nipple into full hardness. She knew that no matter which sexual mood Forest was in, starting lovemaking by suckling on hir teats was always a sure-fire means of arousing hir to hir fullest. After drinking her fill of Forest’s milk, she offered her own breasts to the chakat who accepted eagerly. Long before they were both done, Forestwalker’s penis had engorged to its fullest, aching to be used. Malena rolled over and lifted her tail, inviting her lover in, and Forest quickly accepted. The two joined with gasps of pleasure, then settled in for a lengthy period of pure joy in their love-making.

*           *           *

      Malena lay on her side next to Forest, both spent from their enthusiastic coupling. She idly traced a finger around one of Forest’s nipples. Forest just laid there, enjoying the sensation. Suddenly Malena blurted out, "I’m sorry."

      "Sorry? What have you got to be sorry for?" asked Forest in a puzzled tone.

      "I’m sorry that I can’t completely fulfil your needs like another chakat could."

      "Not that I feel unsatisfied, but what exactly do you mean?"

      "I mean that I can’t mount and pleasure you in the male manner."

      Forest was puzzled. Shi propped hirself up on one elbow to look Malena level in the face. "Has either Goldfur or myself ever complained about being dissatisfied with our love-making with you? Both of us have single-sex mates, but neither of us find that a problem."

      Malena was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Then perhaps it’s just me. I have never felt this way when making love with a foxtaur, but I often feel as if I’ve left something undone after sex with a chakat."

      "Have you ever mentioned this to Goldie?"

      "No, not yet. The feeling has been growing stronger though, and today I just had to say something."

      "Can you describe this feeling any better? Maybe we can figure out a way to deal with it."

      Malena gave Forest a lopsided smile. "Actually, if I have to be completely honest, if it isn’t merely a desire to please you, then it must be a desire to please myself, no? I want to know what it’s like to mount you and pleasure you like a male could."

      Forest’s eyebrows went up in surprise. "You want to be a herm like us!" shi declared. "How long have you had this feeling?"

      "What was the first thing that I did when we all first met?" Malena countered.

      Forest didn’t have to think long about that. "You wanted to see for yourself that we were male as well as female."

      "Right. And I’ve been wondering what it’s like to be a herm ever since."

      Forest mulled over that fact for a while, then said, "Well, there’s no easy way of doing that short of going Dale’s route or radical and expensive genetic resequencing. However, I believe I can give you a taste of what it’s like."

      "Huh?" Malena was genuinely surprised. "How?" she demanded.

      "By application of a chakat’s Talent," replied Forest.

      "Talent? For chakats, that’s your empathic senses. You and Goldfur already share your pleasure with me that way, and I believe you feel mine too. But it doesn’t give me any male sensations."

      "Correct, but that isn’t the end of that Talent’s capabilities. I don’t know if it’s ever been mentioned to you, but I have a higher E-rating than Goldfur. My mother wanted me to go into special training to take advantage of it, but my love was biology, so I never did. Still, I can do things that Goldie can’t, and I reckon I might be able to pull off something to help deal with your desire."

      Malena was really intrigued by now. "That sounds exciting. What would I have to do?"

      "Well, the simplest and easiest way would be to give me a blow-job," Forest smirked.

      Malena blinked in confusion. "Ummm, not that I’d mind, but how is that going to help me experience being male?"

      "Because I’m going to try to use my Talent to project the sensation into you so that you can feel what I’m feeling. I suggested a blow-job because I’d have the least amount to do physically, so I could concentrate on using my empathic talent to project the sensation to you."

      "I see," said Malena, intrigued. "What exactly do you want me to do?"

      "Take the usual 69 position and then do your best to pleasure my cock."

      "No sooner said than done!" she said excitedly, shifting around so that her muzzle was close to Forest’s sheath. Forest reached out to place hir hand on Malena’s belly where the male apparatus would be. "Why are you doing that?" asked Malena.

      "To help localise the sensation. While there’s going to be more than adequate physical contact for my Talent to work at its strongest, I need all the help that I can get to make this work right. But nothing’s going to happen if you don’t start doing something!"

      "Oh! Right!" Malena then caressed Forest’s sheath and got an immediate response. Forest was already excited by this experiment too, so hir penis very quickly slid free of its sheath and started firming. Malena took it in her hand and angled it to her muzzle. As she started to gently lick it, Forest began projecting the sensation into Malena who immediately got a startled look on her face.

      "Don’t stop, dear," Forest said.

      Malena realised that this would have to be like a regular 69 session where one would have to keep giving pleasure even while one’s partner was distracting her with his own efforts. Therefore she renewed her efforts with vigour. Forest was having a difficult time concentrating on projecting the sensation of male sexual arousal while being so pleasurably being serviced, but she managed barely to keep it up. Malena in turn was revelling in the totally new sensations. She could feel her tongue on the penis just as if the appendage was her own. When she surrounded it with her muzzle and started to suck, she started groaning with the new pleasures flooding her. The more excitement she got, the more effort she put into pleasuring Forest, and the stronger the sensations got. Then she started feeling a new sensation – a growing tension, a feeling of an imminent explosion. ‘Makers! I can feel hir ready to come to orgasm!’ She then proceeded to give it her all, and moments later she felt the eruption coming. Before the first spurt of Forest’s semen jetted into her maw, Malena felt it being pumped as if it were her own penis and not Forest’s. She revelled in the sensation of male orgasm for the first time, completely unable to do anything more. When the orgasm finished, she distantly realised that she had a mouthful of Forest’s seed and swallowed it distractedly. She was mostly basking in the afterglow of the orgasm, and she rested her head on the chakat’s belly while both enjoyed the results of their efforts.

      It was Malena who recovered her energy first, which was hardly surprising since she’d only received the sensations of the orgasm without actually providing any exertion. She shifted around so that she could kiss Forest, and then said, "Thank you, my Companion."

      "You’re welcome. I trust it went well?"

      "Without anything to compare it to, I’d still have to say that the experience seemed complete. Now I truly know what a male orgasm is like."

      "So, do you think your feeling of incompletion is fixed?"

      "Hell, no! I wanna screw the living daylights out of you now!" Malena laughed. "But now at least I know what the feeling is like, and something can be done about it. I look forward to doing this again."

      "Sure, just not today. I’m pretty much exhausted after that effort."

      Malena grinned. "I can appreciate that. Thanks again for going to the effort. Rest a while and I’ll break out energy bars for us. We’ve got to get going soon if we want to get back to the village by dinner."

      Forest nodded in agreement and welcomed the nutritious energy food. They both munched on the bars until Forest felt that her energy level start to rise again. "Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere, so let’s get moving, shall we?"

      "Okay. I’ll grab our tops and we can… aarggh!" Malena’s reply was interrupted by hir cry of pain. Forest’s head whipped up to see Malena stumbling to the ground with an arrow through her waist. Forest immediately leapt into action. They were too exposed here and shi grabbed Malena under the shoulders and half dragged and half assisted her to position behind a large tree. Judging from the way the arrow had struck Malena, Forest felt that that would bring them out of the line of fire. Malena slumped to the ground when Forest released her to peer around the tree. Shi knew that shi couldn’t do anything to help her while they were both still under threat.

      "Where are you, ya bugger?!" shi mumbled angrily. "Downwind of us, at least, or I’d smell ya." Shi concentrated all hir keen senses, focusing in the general direction shi thought the assailant was in. After a brief search, shi said, "Gotcha!" The tiniest of movements had locked hir senses on the culprit. "Looks like we’ve found our mysterious wolftaur imitator. I’ve spotted a male human."

      "Not quite how I wanted to find him," Malena choked out from behind teeth gritted in pain.

      "Stay here. I’m going to try to get that bloke."

      "But he might shoot you too!"

      "He might just do that anyway. Might as well take the initiative and not give him any more advantage over us. Besides, I want to put an end to these shootings"

      "Be careful, Forest! He’s been smart enough to not get caught this far."

      "I know. I have no intention of getting myself killed." Forest then bounded in the direction of nearby tree to start a zigzag course to take hir closer to the man. After hir fourth dash, an arrow thokked into the trunk of the tree that shi took refuge behind. ‘Too close,’ thought Forest. ‘I wonder just how good he is with that bow and arrow.’ Nevertheless, shi continued to close the gap between hir and hir assailant. When another arrow swished by, shi judged that shi was close enough to make a charge on the human before he could nock another arrow, aim and release. Shi dashed in his direction at top speed. ‘Damn! Too slow! I’m still too tired from our sex-play.’ Then shi had him clean in hir sights. ‘MISTAKE!’ screamed a voice in the back of hir mind. The glint of light from a steel barrel reminded hir that shi’d failed to consider that he might have another weapon beside the bow. Shi tried to twist aside, but a huge bang that hurt hir sensitive ears accompanied an impact on hir right upper foreleg, and shi crashed into a heap behind and to one side of the human. The pain hit hir, and it took hir some time to gather hir wits again. When shi got hirself reorientated, shi looked up, straight into the sights of a hunting rifle. A primitive yet still-effective weapon often favoured by hunters, it was quite capable of killing hir instantly. Shi stared at it in horrible fascination, while panting from both hir exertion and shock.

      Finally, Forest managed to tear hir eyes away from the rifle and looked at the human. ‘Redneck,’ was the first impression shi had of him, from the way he looked to the way he dressed. "Why are you doing this?" shi asked, hoping to stall him. It wasn’t the first time that shi’d been at the wrong end of a weapon, although shi had sincerely wished at the time that it would be hir last.

      At first Forest thought that he was going to shoot hir without bothering to answer, but eventually he lowered the gun, satisfied that shi wasn’t able to leap up and attack him. "To get you damned gene-jokes out of lands that belong to us humans. A man can’t even shoot a deer without you animals causing all sorts of troubles with your sympathisers."

      "But this land has been under the foxtaurs’ control for generations. No humans have been on this land in ages."

      "Wrong. My family has hunted on these lands for all that time." Pride and defiance mixed in his voice.

      "Then they’ve been there illegally. Before it was handed over to the control of the foxtaurs, these lands were a national park. The foxtaurs are the hereditary rangers and protectors of this entire area!" The man’s visage darkened. Forest felt hir hackles rising in increased fear. ‘Oh brilliant, Forest. Make him angrier,’ shi thought.

      "My family was here long before these national parks and the damned smart-ass animals who think they own this land. If I want to hunt here, I damn well will!"

      Forest winced beneath the onslaught of anger shi felt directed at hir and shrugged helplessly. "The government says that the foxtaurs have the right to control these lands as its official representatives."

      The human spat in hir face. "That for the bloody government! Full of gene-joke sympathisers! Fuck! They even put some of those animals into power. Why should I pay attention to anything that anyone in the government says if they can’t even put humans first like they should."

      ‘Damn! He’s an Earth For Humanity supporter.’ Forest was really concerned now. This man wasn’t going to stop at getting rid of a couple of witnesses. Shi had to buy more time. "So you came up with an idea to pit foxtaurs against wolftaurs to show the government that having morphs in control of the land was a bad idea?"

      "Figured it out, did you? No matter, you won’t live to tell anyone about it. If you hadn’t tried to play the hero, you might have survived this. Not that I mind much. Two less of you beasts is also a good outcome." His eyes skimmed over Forest’s pelt. "Might get me a real nice fur skin or two out of it too!"

      Forest shuddered at the thought. "You won’t get away with this, you know?" Forest’s tail lashed back and forth, agitation, fear and near helplessness rendering hir impotent to do anything more.

      "Ha! I am getting away with it. A couple more pushes, and those foxtaurs are going to attack the wolftaurs in vengeance." His amusement at how easily he had manipulated the foxtaurs was plain.

      "They’ve already figured out that the wolftaur arrows that you’ve been using are fakes."

      "I don’t believe you. They’ve got nothing to connect them with me anyway. Enough talk. Say your prayers, animal." He started raising the gun again.

      "But I know something that you don’t know," Forest said desperately.

      In spite of himself, the man was curious and paused. "Oh yeah? What?" Then he grunted and collapsed on the ground, unconscious.

      Malena stood behind him, leaning heavily on the branch that she’d just used to club him senseless. "Shi knew that I was sneaking up on you, you bastard!" she told his deaf ears, then slumped to the ground, exhausted.

      "I was worried that he was going to hear you any moment," Forest said with relief. "Are you alright?"

      Malena nodded. "I’m okay, relatively speaking that is. It wasn’t easy sneaking up that quietly and still quickly enough with this arrow in my side. If you hadn’t kept arguing with him so loudly, he would surely have heard me coming long ago."

      "It’s a good thing that he didn’t seem to realise that a taur’s waist is mostly muscle, and while painful, an arrow through there isn’t crippling."

      "Ha! Speak for yourself!" Malena grinned weakly. "What about that leg of yours? It looks pretty ugly."

      Forest looked at the congealing mess on hir leg. "I admit that it looks bad, and hurts like hell, but I don’t think any major damage has been done. Better attend to it though." Shi struggled to hir feet and swore, then added, "There might be more damage than I first thought." Shi hobbled over to Malena. "I’ll go grab the first aid kit."

      "Are you sure that you’ll be okay?" Malena asked worriedly.

      "Sure! I don’t think this will kill me. Let me borrow that branch of yours." Using the branch as a staff to support hirself, Forest limped over to where they had dropped their backpacks. Shi grabbed them and their tops, then limped back, collapsing beside Malena with a grateful sigh. Shi pulled out the first aid kit and was about to tend Malena when she took it out of Forest’s hands.

      "You contact the village. Your wound is worse than mine. I’ll fix it while you’re talking," Malena insisted.

      Forest couldn’t argue with that. Shi pulled out the uni-com that shi’d bought soon after the incident with the poachers. Shi could be sure now that no matter where on Terra shi was, shi would never be out of contact again. While Malena cleansed hir wound, treated it with antiseptic and then bandaged it, Forest contact the Mountain Glade community centre and reported the encounter, though not without a few hisses of pain during hir treatment.

      Forest shut off the comm, but activated the beacon function. "They’re on their way with the aerial rescue unit. They’ll home in on my comm signal. Now let me attend your wounds."

      "I’d prefer it if you’d tie up that human first. It’s making me nervous thinking that he might recover consciousness and either attack us or run away to cause more trouble."

      "Good point," said Forest. Shi pulled out hir climbing ropes which shi always carried with hir on hikes, and quickly rendered the man incapable of escaping. "Now will you let me help you?"

      "Gladly!" Malena complied. Forest didn’t remove the shaft as it was acting partly as a seal for the wound. It could be more safely removed back at the medical centre. Shi did clean up the entrance and exit wounds though, then spraying an antiseptic sealant on both. "Keep still until the rescue unit arrives. We don’t want you tearing open those seals."

      "Okay. Rather a bummer of a way to end the day, hey?"

      "I’ve had better," Forest admitted. "But look at the bright side: we’ve caught the troublemaker and life back at the village should return to a much more pleasant state. It was a bit disconcerting with all those vixens baying for blood."

      "Amen to that!" Malena agreed fervently.

*           *           *

      Having finally had enough of love-play, Garrek and Thayla retired to the kitchen for a very belated lunch. After that, they settled down in the living room to talk. The topics covered many things, but a lot of it focused on Garrek’s family. Thayla was very happy with Garrek’s evident pride in his mates and children, not to mention the rest of his extended family. He was evidently a responsible and good tod, which couldn’t always be said for many male foxtaurs. Too many vixens had to settle for much less. Thayla wondered if Garrek realised what a target he was making of himself. As for Garrek, he delighted in the warmth and knowledgability of Thayla and reckoned that her maturity would make a good addition to the family.

      Their conversation was interrupted by the ringing of Garrek’s comm. Taking it out of his belt pouch, he said, "Garrek here." His eyes opened in surprise as the speaker at the other end informed him of disturbing news. "I’ll be right there!" he declared, jumping to his feet and heading to the door.

      "Garrek, what’s wrong?" Thayla asked as she got to her own feet.

      ""Malena and Forest have both been injured by that archer. They’re bringing them into the medical centre. I’m headed there right now."

      Thayla grabbed her hip pouch. "Wait up! I’m coming with you!"

      They proceeded at a fast trot to the medical centre where they found Purteshka waiting. Having been apprised of the situation, she had realised that Garrek should be informed. "They haven’t arrived yet, but I wouldn’t worry too much. The latest reports suggest that they’ll both be fine."

      "Did they catch the culprit? Garrek asked.

      "If you hadn’t hung up so precipitously, I would have told you that they have indeed captured the person who has been shooting the hunters. It was a human as surmised, and they think he was acting alone, but we’ll determine that for ourselves when we get him back here for questioning."

      "That’s a relief," Garrek said just as the hum of the arriving aerial rescue unit caught his ears. He waited impatiently for it to land. The moment the doors opened, Garrek had his nose inside, only to be pushed aside by the emerging crew. Staff came out from the medical centre joined them with gurnies and they started unloading the patients onto them. As soon as he saw Malena, Garrek approached her. "Malena! Are you okay?!"

      "Hi Garrek," Malena replied with a smile. "I’ll be fine, dear, but I think you’d better let the medics take me into the surgery to get this thing out first." She indicated the shaft sticking out of her side.

      Garrek’s eyes goggled. "Oh! I’m sorry! Get her in there quick!" he demanded.

      "We will, if you just get out of the way!" one medic said sourly.

      Garrek jumped aside as if scalded and they pushed the gurney inside. Thayla smiled in amusement. Then Forest appeared and was put on the next gurney.

      "Hey Garrek, you can keep me company if you like. I don’t need to go into surgery. Just need a good patch job." Forest winked at him. Apparently shi had caught the exchange too.

      "Sure, Forest," Garrek replied. "Maybe you can tell me exactly what happened."

      "You might as well tell me the whole story while you’re at it," Purteshka added.

      "Do you think there might be room for me?" A tod wearing a white jacket and with a stethoscope around his neck asked dryly. Everyone looked a little chagrined.

*           *           *

      "So, Malena is staying overnight in the hospital?" Zendak asked.

      "Yep," Garrek replied. "And Forestwalker insisted on staying with her, so that left me by myself tonight. So I came over here. Mom said she was happy to look after the cubs for another night, and frankly I don’t want to be alone tonight."

      "Of course we’re delighted to have you here, even if the circumstances are rather bad," Kassi said. I gather that Goldfur won’t be back tonight either?"

      "Actually I didn’t really expect hir back until tomorrow. Shi said shi’d contact me if that changes."

      Kassi hugged him. "Then we’ll just have to take advantage of the situation while you wait to ask hir about our proposal."

      Garrek smiled at her. "Given the circumstances, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do right now."

*           *           *

      The next day dawned to find Lupu snuggled up to Goldfur on one side, and Dale on the other. The three had cause to celebrate the previous night because they had argued their cause successfully with the pack, and though there was still a lot of dissenters, Lupu would be allowed to stay with the pack, along with her new mate. Goldfur knew that this would be the last time that shi and Lupu would be together for a while, and Dale had insisted that they have some time alone together. They realised how much Dale was trying to be like a chakat in letting hir mate be with another, so although they accepted hir offer, they did not take too long to have their farewell fling. They then insisted on Dale joining them. Goldfur had been tempted to ask Dale if shi wanted to make love to hir, but figured that shi still wasn’t quite ready for that. Instead, all three snuggled and talked until sleep overtook them.

      Goldfur stayed long enough to partake of breakfast before starting hir hike back to the foxtaur village. Shi knew shi’d have no trouble finding hir way there because shi had good trail sense. Hir load would be much lighter because Lupu and Dale were keeping most of what everyone lugged up, so shi expected to have a pleasant easy journey back. Shi gave both a parting kiss, paid hir respects to Chrisen, then started on hir trip.

      Shi made good time, and shi wasn’t too far from the foxtaur village when shi was startled by an unexpected greeting.

      "Hello, gorgeous!" A grinning foxtaur lay on a bed of pine needles next to the trail, evidently waiting for hir.

      "Garrek! What are you doing out here? No, forget that question, I’m just glad to see you!"

      "Same here, Goldie." Garrek got up and met Goldfur with a huge hug. They kissed passionately, always glad to be together after being separated for any length of time.

      When they parted, Goldfur said, "I’m so glad you came out to meet me here. There hasn’t been any problems, has there?" shi asked, suddenly aware that something wasn’t quite right.

      Garrek smiled. He’d known that shi’d sense his moods despite his self-control. "Problems? Yeah, you could say that, but they’ve been pretty much resolved. I thought I’d come out to meet you so that we could talk about them on the way to the village." He then went on to explain the events that had befallen Malena and Forest. Goldfur was appropriately dismayed and enraged by what he had to say, but as Garrek planned, hir mood was much calmer before they reached the village. Then he told hir about Kassi and Zendak’s proposal, and Thayla’s too.

      Goldfur looked at hir mate, wondering how shi’d been so lucky to claim him first. It seemed that so many were seeing what a catch he was and wanted a part of him. The thing that impressed hir most was that through it all, he remained such a humble, shy person. Here he had so many people wanting him, and yet he remained so level-headed and concerned for hir and their family. Shi kissed him again for no other reason than shi loved him, then said, "Of course you have my blessing to take Kassi and Zendak as co-mates. But first we need to make them fully aware of what they’re getting into. After all, if you mate one member of a chakat family, you effectively acquire all the others too!"

      "Yeah, I realised that. I’ve invited them over for dinner for that reason. Thayla too."

      "She sounds like a lovely person from what you’ve told me about her. I’m especially looking forward to meeting her."

      "I think you’ll be impressed like I was, darling."

      "You do realise that things are going to get a lot more complicated now, and we won’t have Lupu around to help?" Goldfur asked.

      Garrek nodded. "I’m aware of that, but I reckon that it’ll be more than worth it. I love these people, hon, and I think that our family will be the better for having them."

      Goldfur smirked. "No need to convince me, dear. I’m a chakat, remember? Big families, lots of mates, even more cubs!"

      "Speaking of which, Kassi and I are expecting a son!"

      "I bet that made you both delirious with joy."

      "You better believe it! For her to get a son first off is so unlikely. I’m so happy for Kassi." Garrek looked so grateful.

      Goldfur shook hir head in wonder. Even with that really good news, his first thoughts were for others. Shi could hardly believe hir fortune to find such a perfect mate. "Garrek, you didn’t schedule that dinner too early, I hope?"

      "No, I couldn’t be sure when you’d be arriving after all."

      "Quite right, and we’re going to be late," shi stated.

      "We are?" he asked questioningly. "We’re not that far from the village though."

      "Yes, but you haven’t allowed for an unexpected delay," shi insisted.

      "What delay?" he asked, puzzled.

      Goldfur took Garrek’s arm and started guiding him off the trail. "The delay while I make love to the most wonderful mate in the world!"

      "Oh! That delay," smiled Garrek.

Lupu is used with the permission of her Player.
All other characters and this story are © 2003 Bernard Doove.

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To be continued in Forest Tales #20.

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