Tales of the Foxtaur Clans #17: Savannah's Journey
Part Three: Knowing Me, Knowing You
By Bernard Doove © 2008



 

Savannah got off to another pre-dawn start. As cold as the desert night was, shi knew that shi would not have much time before the temperature climbed back to the uncomfortable side of warm. Four hours travel saw the road turn southwards and head into the hills. This spur of the large ranges that shi had crossed two days previously was not as high as they had been, but certainly high enough to bring the temperature down considerably, so Savannah managed to escape the worst of that dayís desert heat. Shi was leaving Deebee territory now and entering the realm of the Mountain Breed Stellars. The road led to a major mine that was being developed, ready to be ramped up to full production when the first wave of colonists were allowed to settle. Although the road was well made, it wasnít very wide due to the steepness of the slopes. On two occasions, shi was nearly run off the road by trucks being driven a bit too fast for the winding route, and shi yelled obscenities after the offending drivers. However in the end shi knew that it was pointless because the Mountaineer foxtaurs were notorious for their macho personalities, and their driving tended to reflect that.

It was late afternoon when shi finally reached the Mountain clanís community, although it wasnít exactly obvious because the mountaineers utilised caves or mines for their dens. Despite their major occupation, they were still foxtaurs with their innate love of nature, and the environment was kept as clean and natural as possible. The thing that gave it away the most was the sheer number of Mountaineers going about their business. Even their vehicles were parked in caverns carved out specifically for that reason.

Savannah trotted into the centre of their community, waving to a few familiar faces, responding to the occasional good-natured jibe, and generally making as much fuss as shi could to advertise hir presence. As always, the kits were the first to mob hir. They tended to be more rambunctious than the other breeds, and a couple of adults had to rein them in a bit while shi doled out the treats. After the kits were dealt with, the usual trading began. Hir approach to sales was slightly different due to the differing psychology of the mountaineers. Their temperament tended to match their environment Ė rough and hard. Their sense of humour tended to be a little crude, and a few got a little over-familiar with their touches, but overall they were straightforward and honest to the point of bluntness. They also loved chocolate, and a large portion of Savannahís stocks disappeared in just that one trading session. However, shi had been counting on that when shi had ordered hir stock.

Strata and other Mountaineers

Business had been excellent, and Savannah was packing up when shi was approached by one of the mountaineers whom shi only knew in passing.

"Is there anything that I can do for you, Strata?" Savannah asked.

"I have a business proposition for you, Trader. Would you care to discuss it with me over dinner at my den?"

A rumble in hir stomachs reminded Savannah that shi hadnít had a chance to eat since shiíd arrived. "Sounds like a good idea to me. If youíll just give me a minute to finish packing up, we can go straight to your den after that."

"No problem," Strata replied. "Iím in no hurry."

Much practice enabled Savannah to finish up quickly, then shi pulled the cart over near Strataís den and parked it securely. Shi followed Strata up a flagstone pathway to the artificial cave that was hir home. Carved deep into solid rock, it was secure and naturally temperature-controlled. It was sparsely furnished, which is probably as well because it seemed to also double as hir workplace, and large areas were taken up by equipment and rock samples. Hir living area showed a casual clutter of items, but hir workbench was scrupulously clean and organised. At a guess, Savannah reckoned that it showed an excessive attention to hir work over hir personal life. The Veldter also noticed one other oddity.

"Isnít there anyone else living here?" Savannah asked.

"Not for a while, no. Itíll be just us for dinner," Strata replied.

That was highly unusual. Foxtaurs were highly gregarious, the Marine Breed especially so, but the Mountain Breed wasnít an exception. Why was this one seemingly living alone? Savannah didnít want to seem nosy though, so shi didnít query hir host directly.

Strata took a couple of steaks from the refrigerator and some fresh vegetables from the pantry. As shi prepared the food, the pair chatted.

"Iím a mining engineer," Strata began. "My main task has been to identify ore deposits within these ranges along with the geologists, then work out the best and the safest way to extract them. While making a test bore one day, I made the discovery of a lifetime."

"And that is what involves me?" guessed Savannah.

"Exactly. Look in that wooden jewel box to your left," instructed Strata as shi started the steamer to cook the vegetables.

The box was only about fifteen by ten by six centimetres, but it had intricately carved panels. "This is very pretty. Who made it?" Savannah enquired.

"A former companion of mine. Shi gave it to me when shi left."

Savannah sensed a lot of sadness in hir answer, so shi didnít press the point. Shi lifted the lid and looked inside, and was startled to realise that there was light coming from within. It wasnít much, but against the black velvet lining, it made the stones inside stand out. Savannah looked more closely and determined that the light was indeed coming from within the stones, and wasnít in fact just a trick of reflection. Shi took out one of the pea-sized stones and examined it. It was crystalline with a faint rose tint, rather pretty by itself, but it was the glow from within that made it unique and exceptionally beautiful. "What are these?" shi asked Strata.

"I call them starstones. The basic crystal would be very similar to a ruby, but they contain impurities that cause the glow. We still havenít figured out exactly what and how though because it would involve destruction of the gem."

"I predict that theyíll be the next big thing in jewellery," Savannah said as shi tried to appraise their value.

Strata nodded. "I do too, and Iím trying to sell as many of these as soon as possible."

"Before they start replicating them and kill their value?" Savannah guessed.

Strata grinned. "No. Thereís some unstable element in them, and replicators wonít work on unstable elements. The result is either a dead stone or a failure to replicate."

Savannah immediately doubled hir estimate of their value, and even then reckoned that shi was being conservative. "Wow! These could make you rich if you have a good supply of them. Or are these all that there are?"

"Iím still mining the vein that they came from," Strata explained. "It looks as if there are still a lot more to be found, and the vein is pretty long. However that vein might well be unique on this planet, and once it runs out, thatís all that there ever will be."

"It will be interesting to see how that works out. So what did you have in mind for me?"

Strata finished hir food preparations and left the steaks cooking as shi brought over a couple of mugs of hot tea. Handing one to Savannah, shi said, "As I mentioned, I want to sell them fast, and I would like you to see if there is any interest among the other clans with whom you deal on your itinerary. I already have an agent for my off-world sales, but those will take time."

"Whatís the big rush? This is going to set you up for life. A few more months wonít matter."

"Because I want to buy out my contract and go back to Earth as soon as possible," Strata answered.

Savannah was surprised. Those Stellars who werenít interested in pioneering a new world had long left the Star Corps program. "Why now, may I ask?"

"You noticed that I live alone," Strata answered obtusely.

"Yes, and I donít understand why you are doing so."

"I donít want to, but I have worn out the tolerance of all those with whom Iíve had a relationship, and I am sick of being alone," Strata said sadly.

Savannah felt that shi was treading on a sensitive issue. "You donít have to tell me if you donít want to."

Strata shook hir head. "No, itís not as if itís a big secret. This whole clan knows at least. You see, on a world full of bisexual herms, Iím straight."

"Straight? Howís that?" asked Savannah in puzzlement.

"Iím only sexually interested in my male side. Even the most female-biased Stellar is still interested in hir male side, but I found that I couldnít respond to that, so eventually all my partners left me."

"What about when you go on heat? Surely you must feel the urge then?" Savannah asked incredulously.

"I must admit that at its peak, the hormones get me in the mood in spite of everything, but two days every three months is not enough to save a relationship, believe me," Strata said fervently.

"Oh, yeah. Iím a little male-biased, but my mate would kill me if I tried to stick to male sex only. Not that Iíd want to! Anyway, Iím guessing that you donít expect to find your opposite on this world, hence your need to go back to Earth in the hope of finding a suitable mate there."

"You got it," admitted Strata. "I really like it here on Arisia, but I canít make a life here. The starstones are my ticket to happiness, and the sooner the better. Iím going crazy being by myself all the time."

The Mountaineer got up to attend to the food. Savannahís eyes followed hir as shi walked over to the cooker. Savannah had to admit that Strata was a handsome foxtaur and, being well into hir female phase, also sexually attractive, but shi couldnít even imagine wanting to only ever be on the receiving end of sexual intercourse with hir. Strata was certainly in an invidious position.

"OK, so did you want to sell me some starstones which I will try to sell to the other clans, or did you want me to get orders for them as your agent?" Savannah asked.

"Take orders," answered Strata as shi served the food onto plates. "I will be shipping this lot out, but I will soon have some more extracted and polished. All you would have to do for me is to take a sample with you, and the customers can contact me directly if theyíre interested. For that, I will pay you a commission for every sale." Shi brought the plates and utensils over to the table.

"Sounds good to me, and that food smells really good too. Iíve got quite an appetite!" Savannah said enthusiastically.

"Eat hearty!" Strata urged with a grin.

Both foxtaurs ate heartily, and they negotiated the amount of the commission and the terms of the deal between mouthfuls of steak and vegetables. After the meal, they wrote the details of the deal into a PADD and digitally signed it. Then they relaxed over coffee and light conversation.

Finally it was time to retire. Savannah was always prepared to sleep in hir cart tent, but rarely needed to as shi was usually invited to join with others in a communal sleep. Shi strongly suspected that Strata would not only do so, but ask for a little more. Shi was going to be shocked at how badly shi underestimated the situation.

Strata blurted out, "If I give you a starstone, would you let me have sex with you tonight without swapping roles?"

"What?!" Savannah wasnít shocked to be asked for sex. Casual intercourse was hardly uncommon amongst all the breeds of foxtaurs, and heaven knew shiíd had plenty of lovers on hir travels. No, it was being offered a bribe for it that badly upset hir. "Who do you think I am? A travelling prostitute? I donít want your damn starstone!"

Strata looked distraught and buried hir face in hir hands in humiliation. "Oh God! What have I done? That was so stupid of me! Iíve been slowly going nuts over this and Iíve finally cracked." Shi looked up and there were tears freely flowing. "Please forgive me. I must have been crazy to think that I could ever buy sex. Iím so sorry!"

Savannah wanted to maintain hir outrage, but seeing Strata so utterly stricken made hir wonder how shi would deal with the loneliness and isolation that Strataís condition created for hir. Also it would be hypocritical of Savannah to deny that shiíd had some sexual attraction and the expectation of being asked. And, damn it, shi was feeling horny! Hir heat was getting close and shi was more than in the mood. If only Strata hadnít tried to bribe hir!

"Gah! I gotta get some fresh air!" Savannah declared and stalked out of the den. The chill of the night air was like a slap in the face after the warmth of the den though, and shi rapidly calmed down. Shi took deep breaths and tried to think clearly. Only then did shi realise something that shi had been unconsciously ignoring up until then Ė Strata was in rut. No wonder the pressure had gotten so much more than shi could bear and clouded hir thinking. Between Strataís extreme male swing and Savannahís strongly female one, it must have been pounding hir relentlessly. That made Savannah the trigger for this unfortunate event, but even so Strata should have just asked first instead of trying to bribe the Veldter. That still rankled hir in spite of the extenuating circumstances. Shi was a trader in goods, not sex!

Shi walked around the village until shi had completely calmed down, the cold night air cooling the fire of hir anger. Shi realised that shi had two choices Ė reject Strata and spend the night in hir tent, or do Strata a favour and enjoy the comfort of a warm den. The prospect of staying alone in a cold tent wasnít attractive though, and in the end shi couldnít think of punishing Strata further by denying hir something that shi so obviously needed.

When Savannah re-entered the den, shi found Strata exactly where shi had left hir, looking totally woebegone. Shi looked up at Savannah and the tear-soaked fur was obvious. There was no hope in those sorrowful eyes, and Savannah wondered if shi had totally succumbed to despair yet.

"Strata, I canít easily forgive you for the insult, but I think that I understand the desperation, therefore I am consenting to having sex with you as you prefer. But damn it, this had better be the best sex that Iíve had all year!"

Strata looked incredulous. "Really? You will? After what I did, I thought that you would leave for certain. I canít tell you how pleased I am that youíre doing this for me. Thank you! Thank you!"

"No more talk, Strata. Letís do the deed and maybe get you back to being more level-headed instead of being strung out on hormones."

Strata didnít argue, and Savannah didnít fool about. Strataís first mounting had an edge of desperation about it, and was hardly the best that Savannah ever had, but then again shi hardly expected it to be at first. After Strataís initial climax though, Savannah controlled the encounter for the greater pleasure of both. By the end, Strata was doing a very creditable job of pleasuring Savannah, and the last of hir bad mood had evaporated.

After hir final climax, Strata rolled off Savannah and sprawled on hir back, tongue lolling, utterly spent.

"You look worn out," Savannah commented.

"I had a lot of energy to burn off, and I used it all tonight. Thank you again."

"Youíre welcome, but what are you going to do next time?"

Strata grinned. "I hope that I will have bought out my contract before my next rut. I have enough self-control at other times. Itís at times like these though that I wonder why the genetic engineers gave us these strong male and female sexual cycles. Sometimes I feel like little more than an animal at the mercy of my hormones."

"I know the major reason for that," Savannah said.

Strata raised an eyebrow. "Do tell," shi urged.

"It goes back to the 21st Century and the increasing affluence of the humans. Where once upon a time it was normal for a couple to have two, three, or even more children, it became more prevalent for them to only have one or even none. The social and economic pressures had changed so that as affluence increased, the birth-rate decreased. It was the declining human population versus the increasing anthro population that was one of the major factors in the Gene Wars. Then after the war, they started producing new anthros to help rebuild the world, and they needed them to want to produce more children quickly to help with that task. Nowadays, itís a combination of those factors Ė they want us to build up our numbers, and they donít want us to go the way that humans did when they got too affluent. Iím not saying that itís a perfect solution, and the gender imbalance amongst non-Stellar foxtaurs is an example of things not going quite right, but overall it does achieve its goal. The chakats have made social sex virtually an art form. Iíve never heard of one having your problem though. Iím guessing that their empathic sharing might make a big difference in their case."

"So basically Iím a glitch in the system," Strata concluded. Shi sighed. "I suppose that I canít blame them for not being perfect. If theyíd waited for that, we might never have existed, and I am quite fond of being alive despite my problems. Iíll find my solution, but Iím betting that it wonít be on this world."

"Cheer up, Strata. They say that variety is the spice of life, and Iím sure that there must be someone out there who will like you exactly as you are. Just wait and see."

"Thatís what I am counting on, Savannah," Strata said fervently.

They went to bed straight after that. Savannah was happy to be able to snuggle up to Strata instead of being alone in hir tent. Strata was ecstatic to have company again, even if it was just for one night, and found it a bit hard to get to sleep in spite of hir tiredness. In the morning, Savannah indulged in a late start, and even encouraged Strata to have one last fling while shi had the chance. The Mountaineer eagerly accepted the offer as hir rut was still pressuring hir, and shi didnít know if shiíd get another opportunity to work it off. Then shi made breakfast for them both, humming happily to hirself. Savannah was quite pleased with the final outcome, and regretted that this could be the last time that shi might see the odd Mountaineer.

As Savannah took hir leave, Strata handed hir a small box. "Hereís the sample starstone. Let me know what interest there is amongst the other clans as soon as possible, please."

"Iíll do that. Farewell, Strata," Savannah said, clasping forearms with hir.

Savannah didnít quite leave immediately. A few Mountaineers who hadnít been around last evening stopped hir to buy some goods, especially the chocolate. Savannah was happy that hir investment was paying off so soon. It was late morning before shi got under way, but hir next stop was a day and a half away. So shi would have to camp overnight in any case.

Savannahís route wound through a long valley before it climbed over a saddle in the ranges. Thereafter it was mostly downhill which was a good thing because this road was not sealed, and it was harder to pull the cart over it. All the mining vehicles used the main route in the opposite direction, back to the port city. This road was primarily just used to access the forests to the south, and it was little used. However, it was also the quickest way to get to hir next destination Ė a village of the Forest Breed clan.

Another reason for delays was that shi was now coming back into territory for which shi was partly responsible in hir job as a biologist, and that meant frequent stops at various test sites along the way. It would have been even longer except that shi coordinated hir efforts with one of the Forester biologists.

Soon after hir descent of the ranges had started, shi had encountered evergreen trees, similar to Terran redwoods. The further down that shi went, the taller that they grew. Shi was now back on the side of the mountains that got regular rainfall, and the area teemed with life, both vegetable and animal, and shi loved the sights and smells. When it came time to camp for the night, even though shi only had Tweet for company, shi did not feel alone because shi had the sense of all the native life about hir. Sometimes though, some of those natives were a little too inquisitive, so shi made sure that hir tent was properly sealed before shi went to sleep.

Savannah woke to the sound of gentle rain on hir tent. Rather than try to prepare a meal on a fire, shi opted for one of hir pre-prepared food packs which shi ate in the tent. After donning rain gear, shi then packed up and went on hir way. Waiting out the rain was not an option this time. Shi wanted to reach the Foresterís village before sunset, and besides this rain was nothing compared to the downpours that had delayed hir departure from home. The rain stopped about mid-morning and left the forest smelling fresh and vital. Savannah loved this smell, and had at one time considered settling there. The lack of enough space to have a good run had been the deciding factor though. Only the road gave hir that sense of freedom that the forest could not.

The path wound around forest giants and dense stands of other smaller trees, doing as little harm to the environment as possible. Occasionally it crossed a stream, but all but the smallest were bridged, so Savannah did not have to worry about fording them. Shi was enjoying hir travel so much that shi almost forgot to stop and have lunch. Tweet kept disappearing into the forest for long periods, then came back with something in its beak which it dropped on the collection tray. Savannah had long since stopped worrying that the little avian would lose hir. Many journeys had proven that Tweet always seemed to know how to find hir sooner or later.

It was nearly an hour before sunset when a voice hidden in the trees called out to hir.

"Halt! Who goes there? Be ye friend or foe?"

Savannah brought hir cart to a halt. "Maybe a bit of both," shi replied.

"Ooh! Kinky! I like that," said a Forest Breed Stellar as shi leapt down out of the branches, bounded up to Savannah, grabbed hir around the waist, and then pulled hir head down to plant a big kiss on hir muzzle.

Savannah responded to the kiss in kind, then said, "Youíve been watching too many classic vids, Umbra."

Umbra grinned. "Theyíre a lot of fun, íVanna. Besides, now that youíre here, Iíve got something to do besides watching the classics.

Savannah glared down at Umbra good-naturedly. The Forester was typical of hir kind which were the second-smallest of the Stellar Breeds, so Savannah was about forty centimetres taller than hir. Shi had dark grey fur on hir back and flanks, and light warm grey fur on hir belly, breasts, neck, throat, inner legs, paws and hands. They were demarked by a line of bright red fur that also covered hir ears. Hir headfur was the same colour and was practically long enough to qualify as hair. Shi was perhaps one of the prettiest foxtaurs on the planet, but shi also had the distinction of being Savannahís long-time Companion.

"You still havenít gotten yourself another permanent Companion, have you?" Savannah asked.

Umbra shrugged. "If youíve found the best, why look for another?"

Savannah sighed as shi started up hir cart again with Umbra trotting along by hir side. "You know that I need to spend as much time as I can with Willow and Grass-stalk. I canít be there for you."

"You can give me a kit to fill in the time between visits," Umbra replied.

"Umbra, weíve gone over this a dozen times Ė I had to make a choice between you and Willow, and I chose to denmate with hir."

"And Iíve always disagreed with you. You could have had us both. Still can. Makers know that Willow has never objected. How is shi anyway?"

"Shiís doing fine, and shi sent you a gift which Iíll dig out for you later, but donít change the subject. You know that we Veldts tend to go for single matings."

"Only most of the time, and we Foresters do whatever suits us. Nobody would think twice about you taking me for a part-time denmate. Youíre already my regular Companion."

"Thereís a big difference, and you know it."

"Of course I do, which is why I want to formally mate with you and have your child."

"And what about the kit?" demanded Savannah. "Shiíd not have hir sire around for most of the time. And how would shi feel about having a Veldt Breed for a sire?"

"Same as I would feel about me having one for a denmate Ė shiíd love it! Of course, being gene-locked to the motherís breed means that shi would be a Forester also, so shiíd fit right in, and the clan crèche would give hir all the love and attention shi would need, just like any other kit. It seems to me that every objection that you have is irrelevant."

"Is my relationship with Willow irrelevant also?" Savannah asked with a frown.

"Damn it! Iíd mate with hir too in a triad if shi was interested, but even so it would make little difference. You both already spend lots of time apart, and the time that you spend here with me changes nothing. Mating with me would take nothing from hir, but would give me so much more. Iíve loved you for as long or longer than Willow. I just donít understand why you canít see that."

Savannah remained silent for a while. Every visit it became harder for hir to refute Umbraís statements, especially the last. Shi had known Umbra since their days together at the academy back on Terra, and shi had very seriously been considering formally mating with hir before accepting Willowís proposal instead. Finally shi said, "Iím just not sure whether I can commit to more."

"Is that why you havenít borne a kit yet too?" Umbra asked pointedly.

That stung Savannah, more so because shi suspected it might be true. Nevertheless shi replied, "I told Willow that I would do so, and I really want to. I just would prefer to do it at the most convenient time."

"There isnít a convenient time when it comes to kits, but thereís a right time. Even though I havenít had one of my own yet, even I know that. Kits are a lot of work as well as a source of joy, which I know full well from my times spent in the crèche, and that sort of thing isnít going to be nicely timetabled. Youíre still using your work as an excuse. Well Iím busy too, but Iím ready to be a mother. If you arenít, you should never have made that promise to Willow."

"Thatís enough, Umbra!" Savannah said crossly.

"No itís not, íVanna. Your lack of commitment to me may be frustrating, but to Willow itís a slap in the face."

Savannah trotted on in sullen silence, with Umbra working hard to match the long-legged foxtaurís pace. Eventually Savannah said, "How long were you waiting for me back there?"

Umbra realised that Savannah had firmly closed the previous subject, and shi sighed. ĎAt least I got much further with hir this time,í shi thought to hirself. "Not long," shi answered. "I checked with the Portmaster to confirm that youíd departed and figured that youíd be here about now. I just occupied myself with a few small jobs until I heard you coming and scooted up a tree. Darn Tweet almost gave me away and spoiled the surprise."

"Heh! Tweet knows you too well."

"Yeah, otherwise your winged watchdog might not have hung around long enough to talk to me," agreed Umbra.

Umbra and other Foresters

The two continued to talk about inanities until they reached the Foresterís village. The woods opened up on a stand of exceptionally tall trees that had to be centuries old. Built far up the trunks were platforms upon which were built the dome-like huts that served as dens, storage huts and workshops. The platforms had rope-rails around them, which Savannah had always considered terribly inadequate. The platforms were interconnected with bridges that usually consisted of little more than planks attached to two sturdy ropes. Only some of them had the rope-rails though, and nothing had ever persuaded Savannah to go out on one without them. Shi barely had the nerve to cross the biggest bridge complete with rope-rails, yet even the youngest Forester trotted across the swaying structures without a qualm. Of course their breed had been adapted to a forest environment, and climbing came easily to them, a fact immediately demonstrated by the kits as they spotted the trader approaching. Disdaining the ramps and ladders to the ground, they mostly skittered down the tree trunks, their modified paws and claws giving them a secure purchase on the rough bark. An additional set of limbs was also helpful for maintaining a grip, and Foresters had the strongest hands of any foxtaur, including the rugged Mountaineers.

As always, Savannah was soon surrounded by kits eagerly awaiting the freebies that the tall trader would always give out. Fortunately shi also had chocolate to hand out to save hir limited remaining sugarstalks.

"You know where to find me when youíre finished," Umbra told Savannah, then headed for a ladder. Savannah soon gave out the last of the treats, and then shooed the kits off, telling them to let their parents know that shi was here Ė their payment for the otherwise free gifts. There was a larger than average number of personal items also, so shi wanted to ensure that their recipients would collect them soon. Shi was about to set up hir main displays when two kits approached hir, one a couple of years older than the other.

Savannah was about to hand out a couple of sugarstalks when shi paused and frowned. "Didnít I already give you two your treats?"

"Yeah," admitted the older kit, "but weíd like to buy more."

"Well, thatís different. Have you got payment for them though?" Savannah asked.

Umbra and other Foresters

"We donít have any money butÖ" The kit held up the odd bundle shi had in hir hands. It uncurled and two big eyes looked at the trader with a goofy grin on its face. "Öwe have this baby grawg weíd like to trade with you."

Savannahís smile froze on hir face. Baby grawgs were indeed cute, but they rapidly grew up into big lumbering beasts that the Foresters sometimes used as pack animals. However, the worst aspect was that they had a terrible odour as adults, and they were penned well away from the village for that reason.

"UmmÖ Iím afraid that I donít need a grawg at this time. I tell you what Ė Iíll give you the sugarstalks in exchange for something else that you can bring to me next time that I come around. Deal?"

"OK!" the kit readily agreed.

Savannah handed the sugarstalks to the kit who passed one on to hir younger companion. They trotted away, happily waving to the generous trader. Savannah had to admire the youngsterís budding trading instincts, and was glad that shi hadnít had to resort to an outright rejection. Maybe theyíd bring hir something useful next time; maybe they wouldnít. At least shi wasnít going to be stuck with a grawg!

Trade was brisk, and those little luxuries that the foxtaurs couldnít provide for themselves were in great demand. Savannah ran out of the sugarstalks, but not as quickly as shi had feared because the plentiful supply of a variety of chocolates drew away a lot of demand for the local treats. Shi also made sure to show the starstone sample. As hoped, there was a lot of interest, even more than shi had estimated. Shi handed out Strataís contact details to perhaps a third of the villagers. Shiíd gotten one more surprise though when shiís gotten out the starstone. Inside with it was a folded note which read Ė ĎThis sample starstone is yours to keep, not as a bribe, but as a gift from an extremely grateful friend. Thank you again for everything. Strata.í

Savannah still felt that it was excessively generous, but shi was nevertheless pleased to get it. It was a gorgeous gem, and shi planned to get it set in a pendant so shi could not only wear it, but be able to show it off at the same time.

Sunset came and Savannah decided to close up for the night. Despite how busy it had been, from previous experience shi knew that there would be plenty more in the morning before a lot of the Foresters went about their normal business, so shi might as well rest up early. Besides, despite the lamps that were being lit, visibility down on the forest floor would soon be rather poor.

After securing the cart came the part that shi dreaded Ė getting up to Umbraís den. Like all the dwellings, it was perched on one of the high platforms away from almost any ground-based intruder, and the only access that a non-Forester could take was a ramp that wound around the largest tree that was roughly in the centre of the village. The good thing about it was that it was securely fastened to the tree trunk and did not sway like the rope bridges. The bad was that the Foresters saw no need for a handrail for such a strong construction. That was fine for them Ė they had excellent balance, no fear of heights, and were built for climbing, none of which were true for Savannah. Shi preferred all four paws on the solid ground. Shi mounted the ramp carefully, hugging the trunk for security. A Forester passed hir with a cheery greeting and a tinge of amusement at Savannah. Shi acknowledged it but kept hir eyes on the ramp until shi got to the platform. Then came the very worst part Ė crossing a bridge over to the platform on which Umbraís den was located. Fortunately it was one of the biggest with rope rails, otherwise shi might never have gotten the nerve to cross it. Shi took a couple of deep breaths, summoned hir courage, took hold of the rope rail, and marched across, hir eyes firmly fixed on hir destination and never ever looking down. Intellectually shi knew it was perfectly safe, but hir instincts told hir that shi was out of hir element.

Savannah made hir way over to the particular den that was Umbraís, pushing aside the weather curtain to enter the small hutís cosy quarters. Once shi was inside and couldnít see that shi was way up a tree, shi felt secure again.

Umbra smiled in greeting and said, "Braved the terrible heights once again, I see."

"Donít mock me, Umbra, or one of these days I will find out what makes you nervous and tease you until you beg for mercy!" Savannah threatened.

Umbra laughed. "OK, no more teasing. Dinner is almost ready. Iíve made the grilled chulat with morningay sauce that you liked so much the last time, but I have a side vegetable that I donít think that youíve tried before called a flant. The wit who discovered it said that it was such a fabulous plant, shi had to contract it to flant to make people remember it, so weíre stuck with the name. It does taste fabulous though."

"Sounds great," Savannah said as shi poured some hot water onto nerba leaves and let it brew. The drink had a taste that was best described as black tea crossed with cinnamon, and it was growing in popularity as more foxtaurs learned of it and tried it for themselves. When shi judged that the leaves had steeped long enough, Savannah poured the greeny-brown liquid into two mugs and passed one on to Umbra.

"Thanks, love," Umbra said, taking a sip of the hot brew. "If you can get the plates and cutlery out, this food will be ready to serve when youíre done."

Savannah did as shi was asked. This den was home away from home for hir, so shi knew where everything was kept. Umbra served up the food and they chatted about various things that had happened in the arboreal village since the trader had last visited.

Savannah pushed back hir plate with a sigh of repletion. "That was excellent, Umbra. The flant certainly isnít overrated. Have you got any more that I can take with me?"

"I expected that you would want to, so I do have some packaged for you. Itís just come into season, so supplies should be plentiful reasonably soon. I just hope that it doesnít get too popular too quickly though because weíll need to cultivate it."

Savannah nodded. "I understand." The Foresters had a unique way of cultivating plants that didnít involve clearing any trees, but it did require more time to establish the aerial gardens.

The two cleaned up the cooking utensils and dinnerware, and then they had the rest of the evening free. Savannah suddenly remembered the package that hir mate had asked hir to give to Umbra, and shi rummaged in the saddle-pack that shi had left by the door. Shi found it and held it up for Umbra to see. "This is what Willow sent you. I have no idea whatís in it though."

"Thanks!" Umbra took the package and slit open the paper covering with a claw. Inside was a box with a hinged lid, similar to the one that Strata had given Savannah, but a bit larger and painted instead of carved. Savannah still couldnít see what was in it from where shi was standing, but Umbra pulled out a note that was sitting on top of the contents. Looking inside, Umbraís eyes widened a bit in surprise. Shi then unfolded the note and silently read it. A smile grew on hir muzzle, then shi refolded the note and put it back in the box and closed the lid.

"Arenít you going to tell me whatís in the box?" Savannah asked.

"Soon," replied Umbra. "Right now though, I want to spend some serious cuddling time with you."

Savannah was quite agreeable to that, and the two were soon cuddling and kissing, and generally enjoying each other. Savannah said, "Youíre on heat. So thatís why you were so keen to broach the subject of kits again."

"Yes I am, and there will never be a better time to do the deed, love," Umbra confirmed.

"Are we going to argue about this again?" Savannah asked resignedly.

"No, but I am going to persuade you eventually," Umbra replied confidently.

"Not tonight, youíre not," Savannah said firmly.

"Oh? Well if youíre not going to mount me, I sure am going to mount you!" Umbra said with a mischievous grin.

Savannah smiled back. "Iím getting close to my own heat, so that idea is quite attractive to me right now."

"Say no more. Iím going to fuck you silly!" Umbra declared.

"Iím ready, hon," Savannah said. After all the foreplay that they had done, that was a severe understatement.

Umbra wasted no more time on talk, and shi let hir hands, paw and tail do the talking instead. Then shi slid hir rigid cock into Savannahís vaginal embrace, and the two gasped in pleasure at their joining. Umbra did hir skilful best to raise Savannah close to peak, only to leave hir dangling at the precipice. After the third time that Umbra did this, Savannah cried out for release. Only then did Umbra bring hir to full orgasm, and hirself at the same time. Then shi did it again. And after that they were all over each other, kissing, stroking, petting, licking, hugging, sucking and thrusting. Savannah became so engrossed in their pleasuring that shi lost track of what exactly was happening, but shi eventually found another release, the throb of hir penis leaving hir panting in ecstasy. As shi came down from the heights though, shi suddenly realised hir situation Ė shi was mounted on Umbra and shi had just filled the Forester with hir semen.

"What theÖ? Umbra, what have you done?" Savannah demanded.

Umbra smiled back at Savannah contentedly. "Exactly what I told you that I would do."

Savannah was stunned. "You tricked me!"

Umbra shook hir head. "No trick could have made you do what you just did. We just made sure that your subconscious would do the job that your conscious mind was refusing."

Savannah was brought up short by one word. "We? What do you mean by that?" Savannah asked in puzzlement.

"We, as in Willow and I. Shi has been worried about your inability to commit and your consideration for others who have close relationships with you."

Savannah had been prepared to fly into righteous anger, but this news took the wind out of hir sails. "Willow said that?" shi asked disbelievingly.

"More than that, dear," Umbra said, reaching out for the box that Willow had sent to hir. Opening it, shi took out the contents and showed them to Savannah. They were a pair of mating bands, the kind that two foxtaurs exchanged when making vows of commitment to be denmates. "Willow said in hir note that maybe now youíd take hir seriously when shi tells you that you should have formalised our relationship long ago. Shi reiterated that shi had always expected us to be co-mates, but you seemed more focused on your trading and work than our needs. Maybe now youíll believe us," Umbra said as shi handed one of the bands to Savannah.

Turning the mating band around in hir hand, Savannah saw how hir and Willowís house colours had been interwoven with Umbraís. There was absolutely no doubt as to what they were. Could shi have really been so blind? Was shi really that obsessed with hir work that shi had to be tricked into seeing the truth? Shi thought about the others that shi had met on this trip alone Ė Tundra, who planned to have a child without a mating commitment, was quite capable of doing so with the support of the clan, just as Umbra intended to do, but Savannah hadnít given Umbra the credit that shi had granted the Polari. Then there was Tempest Ė the busy Portmaster had found the time to be a mother twice and yet seemed to be thriving. Why couldnít shi do the same?

Looking up at Umbra, Savannah said, "It seems like Iíve been an utter idiot, and Iím sorry. Why would you want a fool like me?"

"Because we love you, you idiot! Neither of us want more from you than we know that you can give. Just listen to us for a change."

Savannah nodded. "Then letís do this properly. Umbra, will you be my denmate, to love and cherish, to grow and prosper together, to live our lives as one family with co-mates and children, til death do us part?"

"I will, Savannah. Will you put your mates and children before all else for the greater good of the family, to grow rich with the blessings of our relationship, til death do us part?"

"I will," Savannah affirmed.

"Then let us be joined as denmates from this point on," Umbra declared, and they put the mating bands on each otherís arms. Then Umbra threw hir arms about Savannah and gave hir a passionate kiss.

Eventually the two parted and Savannah said, "Iím still mad at you for tricking me though."

"Iíll live with the guilt," Umbra declared unrepentantly.

"That may be, but I want to do this properly, so letís consummate our bond and make sure the job is done right."

"Sounds perfect to me!" Umbra said joyously.

And thatís exactly what they did, and it was glorious.


The newly-mated couple made love again in the morning before breakfasting. Savannah was feeling so good that shi managed the trip back down to the forest floor with only a few qualms. As expected, there were quite a large number of customers that morning, and business didnít taper off until an hour before noon. When shi decided that shi was unlikely to get any more business, Savannah packed up quickly. Umbra came down to see hir off, but they spent several minutes kissing passionately before they finally reluctantly parted.

"Come back soon" Umbra said.

"You know that I always come back as soon as I can. Even with the added incentive, it will be hard to come much sooner."

"I know, but I will miss you even more now, my beloved denmate."

"Iíll call you on the comm more often. Itís not much, but itís better than nothing," Savannah promised.

"Iíll look forward to that. Safe journey, dear."

"Be well, love." With that, Savannah hitched hirself to the cart and commenced hir journey home. A short whistle brought Tweet down from the tree canopy. The avian landed on the foxtaurís shoulder, nuzzled hir cheek for a moment, and then flew off to its usual perch on the cart.

Umbraís eyes were moist with emotion as shi waved the farewell as they turned a bend in the trail and disappeared from sight.


Savannahís route took hir a lot further west before finally turning south. The forest started thinning until it opened out on the northern plains. Here shi camped, indulging in a large fire to cook a meal and to stave off the winter chill. Shi had trotted at hir best speed for as long as possible before the lack of natural light made seeing the road too difficult, so shi had made the most of the half day that shi had for travel. The next day shi breakfasted on food that shi had prepared the previous evening, so shi wasted little time and was able to leave as soon as it was light enough. Three hours later, shi encountered a clan of Veldt foxtaurs on the move further northwest. It wasnít hir clan, but shi was happy enough to stop and do some more trading with them and chatting with a few friends. Again the chocolate was a big seller, and the starstones attracted a lot of interest, although not quite as much as they had with the Foresters. Savannah was happy that it looked like shi would more than make up for the loss of the three boxes of sugarstalks.

Because the clan was moving as a group, Savannah was able to deal with everyone at once, and thus shi was back on the road again quickly. The open plains meant that shi could make top speed, but it also meant greater distances between stops. Having travelled so far west, shi actually needed to loop back east a bit also, but that couldnít be helped as there werenít any roads suitable for the cart going that way yet. Night fell again before reaching hir departure point. Another night camping alone under the stars served to remind Savannah how much shi was missing Willow and their kit. It was the one aspect of hir trade that shi didnít like, but the rewards were great, so shi kept doing it.

Three and a half hours of travelling the next day brought hir to the encampment that shi had left eleven days ago, only there wasnít anyone there. Only a few semi-permanent huts were left with stored goods. This hadnít been unexpected though. The Veldts were nomadic, following the herds of zikba and other plains-beasts. Savannah had gotten a message to tell hir that the clan was headed further south to one of their other regular encampments. It was a pretty spot nestled by a lake, but it was also about as far as you could go and still be in the clanís territory. After a brief pause for a rest and a drink, shi was on hir way again. Tweet kept flying off and returning to perch on Savannahís back, only to fly off again moments later. The little avian was excited to be back in home territory again, and Savannah had to agree with hir pet.


Willow was about to settle down to sleep with Grass-stalk when shi heard a familiar noise in the distance. Parting the weather flap, shi stepped out into darkness only lit by a few lanterns scattered amongst the huts, and the crescent moon. Hir ears swivelled to track the sound, and then shi spotted two lamps far away but growing closer. Shi smiled and waited for the light and sound to coalesce into what shi expected Ė Savannah and hir cart.

Savannah spotted Willow in the beams of the cartís lights. Shi didnít usually like to travel in the dark, but shi was prepared for the possibility. Seeing hir denmate saved Savannah the problem of finding their hut in the darkness, and shi pulled up close by it.

"You silly fox," Willow said. "Why on Arisia were you travelling on a rough dirt road in the dark? You hardly even had any moonlight to help you."

Savannah grinned back at hir. "It wasnít so bad, and I couldnít bear the thought of spending one more night without you. Besides," shi said as shi unhitched hirself, grabbed hir mate, and pulled hir into a deep kiss. When shi finally broke, shi finished hir sentence. "I have a promise to keep. I went into heat last night, and Iím not waiting another three months to get pregnant!"

Willow was astounded. "Such a change! What brought this all on at once?"

Savannah held up the arm with the mating band on it. "Your little ploy amongst other things. You now have a co-mate who is almost certainly pregnant. But I did learn a few other things on this trip, and you were right. I was being selfish even though I thought that I was doing what was best for us.

"You can tell me all about it later, love," Willow said. "Iíve missed you hugely, and I want to make love to you right now! I can hardly imagine how this night could be better."

"I brought chocolate," Savannah said with a grin.

"Oh! Now itís perfect!" Willow pronounced.

And indeed it was.

 



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