Breakfast was a lively affair. After the previous day's activities, everyone was in a boisterous mood. The second day of the festival would feature the local athletic competitions, foxtaur style of course. Everyone had a healthy appetite and discussions of yesterday's events and the plans for today kept conversation up to a constant babble.
Once again, Garrek's parents kicked us out promptly to tidy up before attending the festival. The day looked very promising; the skies were almost clear of clouds, although it was evident that there had been some rain overnight. I noted that Malena had her arm around Goldfur's waist as we strolled to the fairgrounds. She seemed to have gotten quite a crush on hir. I hoped that this wouldn't cause more complications. Garrek had only just gotten hit over the head with the fact that she was an adult now. I didn't think that he was ready to accept her as a co-lover. I decided not to worry about it as yet. She was still young and this might prove to be a passing fancy. However, I did go with the idea and put my arm around Midnight. Shi smiled at me and put hirs around me and we continued like that until we got to the grounds.
When we arrived, we found a number of people setting up for the various events. These were far less formal than official athletics. They were more an extension of the skills used by the foxtaurs in their hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Before the events began though, various special interest groups were coming together to exchange goods and ideas, or just to have a good yarn with each other. Our group decided to split up for a while to take in some of what most interested us. Trina got involved with a group discussing the merits and shortcomings of housing designs embraced by this agrarian community. As an architect, she took a professional interest in this and some interesting designs might eventuate from this debate. Malena's brother, Miktar, took off with a bunch of his mates when we ran across them. Goldfur and Red got interested in some new tech stuff that the community was considering integrating into the community. My sister was fascinated by the way they made useful things disappear unobtrusively into the background without diminishing their function. Malena seemed to be content just to be with Goldfur for the moment.
Midnight and I were left and we decided to check out the preparations for the games. Some areas had been roped off for this purpose. One vixetaur was setting up archery targets and we strolled over to have a chat with her. She paused her work and greeted us.
"Hi there! I saw you at the dance yesterday. Are you going to compete in the games too?" she asked.
"We certainly want to try out for a few events," Midnight replied. "I'm interested in the archery contest, but as I did not realise that there would be one, I didn't pack my bow."
"That's not a problem. I'll lend you a spare. You aren't the only one who has wanted to have a go at this, but I'm guessing that you would be the first who actually knows how to use it properly."
My lover grinned at her and said, "Now that would be telling, but I suppose I can say that I know which way to point it."
"Well, I'm glad to know my opposition," she smiled in return. "Let me introduce myself. I'm Dilenna. I've been archery champ for the past 5 years, and I'm intending to make it 6."
We introduced ourselves, then I asked, "Do they always get the champions to do the work of setting up?"
"These aren't formal events, so there's not any organized club with helpers," Dilenna explained. "If I want to defend my title, I have to arrange everything myself, although there isn't too much to do for this event. Other people do similar things for their events, and they drag their friends in to help if necessary. We try to keep things simple. For example, the foot races aren't timed. It's just a simple process of elimination."
Midnight queried her, "So how is the archery contest run?"
Dilenna replied, "It's the best of 3 shots in each round. You play until you are eliminated."
"Fine. I'll drop by a little early to get in a few practice shots if that's okay?"
"Sure. I'll look forward to seeing you at the competition."
We spent the rest of the time before the first events, chatting with the other people setting up their events. We got to meet many of the local champions that way. The exception was the cross-country race. That task was undertaken by the youths of the village who seemed to take great delight in setting out a tortuous course each year. It was never the same, so no one could practice the course. I didn't get to see it, but the culprits were happy to boast about the indignities that they were going to inflict on the contestants. It sounded like fun!
One of the first games to start was a soccer match: the locals versus an outside team. The rules were modified for taurforms, of course. The teams had been arranged long ago, but I was informed by an enthusiastic supporter that our handpaws would technically rule us ineligible anyway. I didn't feel the need to point out that chakats had soccer teams too. I wasn't really that interested in the sport.
Soon there was an announcement that the foot-races were about to start. I decided to give it a go, and Midnight said that shi would join me. The race was called "The Dash". It was about 100 meters. No lines were marked, but a row of cones marked the course, ending at a tape strung between two trees. We were picked at random from the contestants, 10 at a time. I got to run first. To my chagrin, I came in ninth place. These foxtaurs were fast! Midnight fared little better, coming in eighth.
The other race was called "The Mile". It involved one complete lap of the ring road surrounding the common. It wasn't exactly an old-fashioned mile but it was close enough and didn't really matter. We decided to give this a miss. I wanted to save myself for the cross-country while Midnight's archery contest started soon. We wandered back to the archery range. Dilenna saw us coming and ducked inside a supplies tent. She came out quickly, holding a bow. She handed it over to Midnight who looked it over thoroughly .
"This is very well made," shi commented.
"Thanks," Dilenna said, "I make all my own bows. That's one of my good spares."
"It's good of you to lend me this. You could have easily given me an ordinary bow."
"I'm rather proud of my skill. I'd much prefer that we competed on equal terms."
"In that case, I'll do my best to stretch your talent," Midnight grinned.
I stayed to watch them practice and then saw the initial round. Both Dilenna and Midnight scored bullseyes. I already knew that Midnight was familiar with weapons, but I hadn't thought about bows and arrows. Shi was showing quite a proficiency and I was impressed. When the announcement for the field events came, I gave hir a kiss and wished hir luck and scampered over to have a go at the rock toss. This was basically a shot-put event, but utilising an unevenly rounded-off rock. The awkwardness of holding it was part of the challenge. The foxtaurs were no slouches with their efforts, but where they were faster than the average chakat, we had the edge in sheer strength. One burly male came within a few centimetres of my first throw with the second of his two allotted shots. My second throw easily outdid that though, and I won that event.
One interesting point about their games: males and females competed evenly with no division between them in any event. It didn't matter to them whether the strongest thrower or the fastest runner or the best archer was a tod or a vixen. It was a good thing that this was so or else there might have been some sticking point due to our bisexual nature.
I left the spear throw alone. I knew that more than mere strength was involved there. I gave the long jump a try and did creditably, but finished out of the placings. I headed back to the archery event to check out the progress. It had been a well-attended event due to the fact that many families hunted wild game and were skilled with the bow. The finals had only just started. I caught Midnight's eye and shi winked back. Shi was still in contention. In fact it turned out to be a showdown between hir and Dilenna. The final round of three shots came out dead even and I was astounded by the skill of both of them. To break the tie, it was decided to move the target back and do a sudden death play-off. Each of their first two arrows thudded home within millimetres of the centre of the target. Midnight was the first to let fly with hir third arrow. It hit right on the edge of the bullseye. Dilenna stepped up and carefully took aim and loosed the arrow. A cry came up from the spectators - a bullseye! Dilenna had retained the championship.
Midnight bounded up to her and gave her a delighted hug of congratulations. "Well done," shi said, "You really deserve your win. You really forced me to do my very best to keep level with you. I truly enjoyed our competition."
"Thank you, Midnight. My instincts told me that you might be a real challenge to me. I don't think I've ever done so well either. I hope you can come back and try again next year."
"If I can, I will," promised my mate. Shi went to hand back the borrowed bow. Dilenna shook her head and said, "Keep it. You certainly earned it. I expect that you can put it to good use." She gave us a parting hug and went to meet with her other friends. I put my arm about Midnight's waist and we started to walk over to the other events.
"I never knew you were such a good archer. Don't tell me that's another thing that they teach scouts?" I queried.
"Yes and no. We are required to learn many weapons and primitive tools. However, I took a liking to the bow and practiced it a lot. I was class champion and I've competed regularly since. Dilenna's the best I've ever had to go up against in a tournament. I'll just have to practice some more and try again next year."
I smiled to myself. Somehow I didn't think that shi would be the only one practicing.
Some more events were just starting. A team of visiting foxtaurs were playing basketball against the village team. Now that was a game I enjoyed, but unfortunately, like the soccer games, the team members were all pre-selected. We settled on our haunches to watch the game. The local team had a hard time of it, but eventually came up from behind to win. I reckoned that I learned some good plays that I would have to try next time I got the chance.
The event that I had been waiting for was finally announced. Competitors in the cross-country event were told to be at the starting line in 10 minutes or miss out. I managed to get Midnight interested too, so we both lined up with a bunch of keen foxtaurs, young and old.
The starter's gun fired and off we dashed. The course plunged directly into the nearby forest. The route was marked with ribbons dyed with fluorescent colours. There was no path and no obvious easy way around. The rules were simple: while you could choose your own route, you had to pass through a number of checkpoints. Of course, these had been placed at the most difficult points along the way, so there was no getting around climbing over fallen trees and negotiating gullies.
There were little traps along the way. I noted that the marked path led through poison ivy. My biology studies enabled me to recognize the plant even though it wasn't one I was familiar with due to it being an American plant not found in Australia. There were a few sorry youngsters who had to learn the hard way.
At one point, the way led through a bog. The leaders had already floundered to a near stop trying to force their way through. I saw the ribbon markers in the midst of the swamp and I knew that the scamps that had set this up almost certainly hadn't waded into that. I looked upwards to large branches that were overhanging the markers. If they could use them, so could I! Leaping up the bole of the nearest tree, I rapidly climbed to the large branches that hung over the bog. By leaping from branch to branch, I made my way over 80% of the muck. The last stretch was too far to jump and the best branch nearby was a bit small to bear my weight and other foliage blocked my ability to jump on top it properly. It was too late to turn back, so it was time to take a chance. I leapt in the direction of the branch. My trajectory took me just under it, and as I passed, I snagged it with my tail. The branch broke, but not before swinging me up and extending my leap towards the edge of the swamp. My forepaws thudded down on dry ground, but my hind legs sank into the bog. I dragged myself out, fairly pleased with the results. I had gained the lead .... well, almost. I spotted Midnight slightly ahead of me. Apparently shi had picked a better route than I had. No time for a rest, I set off after hir.
The next challenge came quickly. It was a steep slope covered with scree. I got there just in time to see Midnight helplessly sliding back down. There was no quick way going the direct route, so I turned my attention to the surrounding cliffs. My experienced eye picked out a way up, so I commenced climbing as Midnight started up the slope again. I silently thanked Trina for her expert rock-climbing lessons which made this ascent relatively easy. I heard Midnight curse as shi started to slide down once more. Shi then noticed what I was doing and decided that perhaps I had the right idea. By this time though, I had given myself a good lead. When I pulled myself over the edge, I indulged myself in a moment's rest. From that vantage point, I could see a number of foxtaurs approaching. They were very muddy and sorry-looking, but they were still making a race of it.
I took off again. Heaven knew whether there would be another obstacle to slow me down and let them catch up. The path seemed to be innocuous enough for a while until it led between two boulders and past a bush. Suddenly I was sprawling in mid-air, only to land with a mighty splash. When I came to the surface, I heard the sound of laughter coming from what I realised must be half the village's cubs sitting around waiting for their victims. I had to grin. There was never a dull moment in this race. I started paddling for the marker on the opposite shore. To my right, the natural swimming pool ended in a small cascade where the river narrowed and took on a rougher aspect. I quickly reached the other side and hauled myself onto the bank. I paused long enough to shake my waterlogged fur free from the worst of its burden, and incidentally spraying a few of the jokers who were too close. As I was about to take off, I heard another great splash. Looking back, I saw what I anticipated: Midnight had discovered the river the same way that I had. This time I got to join in with the laughter.
No more time to dally, I continued on the trail. Despite being unfamiliar with the territory, my sense of direction told me that I was getting close to the point where we started. I thought that would be the last of the obstacles, but I was wrong. I came to a large gully, its steep muddy sides looking difficult to negotiate. There was a bridge for the path of course, but there was also a sign saying that the cross-country contestants were banned from using it. There was a cub standing guard to make sure that no one ignored the sign. There were, however, some ropes suspended from several tall trees. Obviously we were meant to swing over, but I got suspicious. I looked closely at the rope and tested it. They were greased! Not wanting a mud bath, I quickly figured a way around this. I tied a loop at the bottom of the rope and put a knot up higher. I firmly gripped the loop in one foot-hand and grasped the knot in both true hands and swung over the gully without incident. Midnight arrived as I was preparing and immediately did the same., but I still retained a small lead.
I dashed off up the trail and very shortly burst out into the open area. I could see the finish point. With an easy trot, I finished the race, with Midnight only seconds behind. The first foxtaurs came about two minutes later; some slightly muddier ones a few minutes after that. The race had been greatly enjoyable. It hadn't stretched our chakat abilities to the limit, but we clearly had the advantage over the foxtaurs in this environment.
We went over to the refreshment stand and toasted our successes with glasses of chilled fruit juice. We were relaxing in the shade of a big pine tree when Jaleth trotted up to us with a concerned look on her face and inquired whether either of us had spotted her younger son.
"No one has seen Miktar since the cross-country race," she informed us. "He was with his friends down at the swimming pool, but the only sign of him now is this vest that he left hanging on a branch." She held up the vest that he had been wearing when we all left the house that morning.
I looked at Midnight who shook hir head slightly. Turning back to Jaleth, I said, "I'm sorry, but we haven't spotted him. We can have a look around if you like."
"That would be appreciated," she accepted.
"Give us the vest for a moment please," I requested, holding out my hand. She handed it to me and I held it to my nose and breathed in, noting carefully the smells adhering to it. I isolated the scent that was uniquely Miktar's and memorised it. I gave it to Midnight who did the same, then handed it back to Jaleth.
"You are going to track him? I hadn't realised that your sense of smell was that good. Our hunters use scents to help them, but it isn't good enough for this purpose."
"The chakat sense of smell is almost unsurpassed. We'll find him," I said confidently.
We trotted off down the trail leading to the river pool, this time able to utilise the bridge. Down by the shore, finding his scent wasn't difficult, but it was widespread. It took us a bit of time to narrow it down. His path led down the track past the cascade to the lower level. Another foxtaur scent accompanied him.
"What's down there?" I asked Jaleth.
"There's a diving pool, but the cubs are banned from there," she replied. "The current is too strong and there are bad rapids nearby."
"I suggest you get some people to look further down the river while we investigate this diving pool."
Jaleth grabbed a couple of the older cubs still playing around the swimming hole and sent them running off downstream. She also instructed a young vixen to take a message back to the village. We then hurried off downstream. At the diving pool, I sniffed around and found both scents at the edge of one of the rock ledges used for diving. I voiced my fears to the others.
"It looks like they ignored the ban. The scent trail ends here.
Jaleth was distraught. "Why has he done this? Where is he?"
"Come on," I said, "There's no time to lose. The people you sent downstream are covering one bank. We'll cross over and look down the other."
We rock-hopped to cross the river and then made our way down as quickly as the terrain would permit. I could see how limited the access to the shore was from the diving pool. If they had jumped in and had been unable to beat the current, they would have been unable to leave before encountering the rapids that I could hear nearby. We hurried downstream, scanning the river and shore. Then I heard a shout from the other side. One of the youths we had sent ahead was waving his arms, trying to attract our attention. When he saw that he had been noticed, he pointed towards the river amidst the rapids. We rushed over to where he was indicating. We spotted two foxtaur cubs clinging to a boulder with the torrent pulling at them. They weren't far from the shore, but it might as well have been midstream because it was impossible for a swimmer to get out at that point.
"Hang on, kids, we're coming!" I yelled. The nearest anchor point was a young tree clinging precariously to the rocky shore. I wrapped my tail about it and leaned out over the river. My hind paws were right on the edge and I stretched out almost to my limit. Miktar was the closer, so I grabbed him by the arms. "Brace yourself," I warned. I heaved his leaden form up and out of the river and swung him to the bank where Midnight was able to grab him before I lost momentum. That had stretched my strength to the limit. A foxtaur would not have been able to pull that one off. The remaining cub was younger and smaller, but slightly further away.
"Hurry, I'm slipping!" wailed his small voice. I made a lunge for him, only to see him lose his grip a fraction of a second before I got to him.
"NO!" I screamed, desperately trying to grab his flailing arms. Too late; the current had instantly swept him from my reach. Without thinking, I released my tail grip to go after him, but my dive was immediately halted by someone grabbing my tail.
"Forest, you can't go in there. It's far too dangerous," Midnight yelled.
"But the cub ...." I moaned.
"And what of your life, and that of our newly conceived child? I cannot let you go," shi insisted.
I ached to jump in after the cub, but Midnight was right of course. I pulled myself fully back on shore with Midnight's help. We then gave chase downstream, leaving Jaleth to tend to her son. The watchers on the other shore had taken off as soon as they had seen the cub slip. The going was rugged and slowed us terribly. The rapids seemed to go on forever and we searched every bit of it. Then we saw the youths on the other side, standing on boulders in the torrent. They were attempting to get at something between the rocks.
"Oh God, no. Please don't let it be," I whispered, but my worst fears were confirmed when the limp form of the cub was pulled into view. We managed to find a way to cross and were soon with the foxtaurs. Midnight examined the child, but shi pronounced that the child was dead and beyond resuscitation. He had apparently been wedged between the rocks by the current. If the journey downstream hadn't killed him, he would have drowned long before we could rescue him.
I put my hand on the cub's head and said with tears in my eyes, "I'm so sorry. If only I had been a bit sooner, you would still be alive." I choked on anything further to say, overcome by the loss of such a young life.
It's not your fault," Midnight reassured me, but I would not be consoled. I could hear more foxtaurs approaching. Perhaps the cub's parents would be among them. How did one explain the death of a child?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I was back at Garrek's house and lying down in the bedroom, brooding over the events of the afternoon. Again and again, the sight of the cub eluding my grasp replayed itself in my mind. If only I had been just a little faster, he might still be alive. The story about how this had come about was drawn out of Miktar on the journey back to the village. The cub belonged to one of the visiting foxtaur families. He had been playing with Miktar whom he had met the previous year. Miktar had told him about the diving pool and the cub had dared him to do a dive. Miktar had double-dared him to jump with him, and after that, both had been too chicken to back out. After spending some time at the edge of the diving platform, working up the courage, they had finally jumped. They had thought that the grow-ups were exaggerating the danger, but unfortunately that wasn't so. They were pulled past the only available point where they could emerge safely. They had tried to get up on top of some rocks, but had been knocked off two attempts before we had reached them. They had screamed for help, but no one could have heard them over the roar of the rapids. How terrible was the harshness of the lesson. Too high was the price of not learning soon enough. That poor tod. Once again I recalled the last glimpse of a desperate child frantically reaching for me as he was pulled to his doom. I couldn't stand it any more and broke down in tears.
My anguish was interrupted by a knock on the door. Midnight stepped in without waiting for me to invite hir in.
"Forest, you have to pull yourself together," shi started. "You did everything possible to save that cub's life. You aren't responsible for his loss."
"How can I not feel responsible," I replied. "All I had to do was get there a couple of seconds sooner and he would still be alive. I was so proud of winning that cross-country race, yet I couldn't move fast enough to save that boy."
"Don't you see that that is the point? No one could have gotten there sooner. If you hadn't gotten there when you did, Miktar would probably be dead too."
"All I can see is the life I didn't save," I whispered.
"Then perhaps you need to be reminded." Midnight opened the door and beckoned someone in. My sister entered with Miktar in tow.
"Look here," Goldfur demanded. "See this young lad? He is alive and has his whole future ahead of him because of you. You cannot dwell on what might have happened. To be a chakat is to celebrate life, not to mire yourself in sorrow."
Goldfur's words were true, but I still could not shake the depression. Just then, Miktar pushed forward and spoke up.
"Forest, I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused. It's all my fault, don't blame yourself. I've never been so scared in all my life, but you were there when I needed help. I can't ever make that up to you. I ..." His voice broke with emotion. Then instead, he threw his arms around me in a fierce hug. An occasional sob could be heard from his muzzle buried in my fur. Finally it got through to me that here was a member of our newly extended family whom I had had the chance to help, a life potential that could be realised. This dear child was more important than my feelings of failure; he represented my contribution to the future. I hugged him tightly in return, feeling the release of the awful tension within me. Again I cried, but this time with happiness for life renewed.
Midnight and Goldfur smiled at each other. The crisis had been resolved and the family strengthened. They left us to finish our catharsis. When we could let each other go, we dried the tears off our cheeks and groomed each other's fur and went out to rejoin our family. Trina was helping Jaleth serve the evening meal in anticipation of our re-emergence. Tonight, this meal would be of greater significance than usual. We would celebrate the bonding of our two families into one in a manner that knew no difference between species. This day our families were united in love and the joy of life.
Next story in chronological order: The Admiral & The Chakat #1: Closer Relationships.
Forest Tales continued in FT #6: Goldfur's Story.
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