Tales of the Foxtaur Clans Episodes #15 #17
By Bernard Doove © 2008
Part 1: A Bad Start
The thick bank of thunderclouds withdrew quickly to the east, pushed along by the gusty winds that had accompanied the persistent storms. Heavy rain was still sheeting down and darkening the rolling plains, occasionally lit up again by broad strokes of lightning. The last of several storm fronts that had passed through in the past six days left behind miraculously clear skies, and warm sunlight drenched the sodden encampment of the nomadic Veldt Foxtaurs. Tall grasses were whipped around by the wind that had been cracking the family banners like whips. Activity had already recommenced, and that was the scene that greeted Savannah as shi poked hir head out past the weather flap of hir home. Half tent and half hut, the Veldt Foxtaursí dwellings were easily dismantled to move to a new site, yet rugged enough to endure everything that the storms had thrown at them without a single tear or leak.
The atrocious weather had been a good excuse to spend more time with hir denmate, Willow, and their young kit, Grass-stalk. The life of a Stellar Foxtaur was always a busy one, equally mixing the daily tasks of making a living with their duties for the Star Corps which had established their colony on Arisia, and Savannah was grateful for any excuse that interrupted either task in a way that gave hir more time with hir family. However, this time the break had been too long, and hir itinerary was way behind schedule. Shi had to complete preparations for hir journey tomorrow.
Savannah stepped out of the hut and stretched luxuriously. The hut wasnít that small, but after being virtually confined to it for several days, the freedom of the outside was most welcome. Shi shook hirself, letting the fresh air fluff out hir dark red fur. Along with the dark brown Ďbootsí and Ďglovesí of fur on hir arms and hands, plus hir very long legs, shi strongly resembled a Terran maned wolf. Shi owed more of hir ancestry to foxes and humans though, and no maned wolf ever had an extra upright humanoid torso where the wolfís shoulders would normally be. Savannah was a Stellar Foxtaur of the Veldt Breed. Hir kind and the other breeds were the creation of Earthís genetic laboratories, but unlike the bad old days when anthropomorphs had been created as slaves and toys, hir kind had always known freedom and equality. Superior in many ways to their creators, they nevertheless worked together for the betterment of an entire civilisation, not just a species. Arisia was a bold experiment in readying a new world for colonisation, and the Stellars had been equal to the task; terraforming some areas, taming others, preserving even more places, and learning how to exploit resources with the minimum of environmental impact. Savannahís breed had been optimised for the huge rolling plains. Hir legs gave hir the height to see far over the tall grass-like plants and shrubs, and enabled hir to run tirelessly for many kilometres, hour after hour.
Usually though, those long legs were used to haul a cart, for Savannah was a trader for hir day-to-day living, as well as a biologist in the employ of the Star Corps. While the Corps would transport any necessary equipment meant for use on Corpsí projects, personal items were luxuries, and if the Corps would transport them at all, it was only at a hefty fee. Savannahís Corps work kept hir moving about to many distant places, and shi saw that it would also be a way to fill the need for a cheap alternative. Shi had started carting along trade goods between the foxtaur settlements and Arisia Freeport. Whatever area that shi needed to study, shi brought along goods to suit the needs of the clans in that area. Shi had rapidly built up a large clientele, and had become known as Savannah the Trader more than as a professional biologist.
An excited twittering announced the arrival of one of the local avians. The Arisian equivalent of birds had plumage similar to but not exactly like feathers which had given them similar characteristics for flight. Two of those pseudo-feathers grew exceptionally long in this species, earning them the name Pennantail. Savannah held out hir hand, and the avian landed on it, twittering happily.
"Youíre glad that the storms have ended too, arenít you, Tweet?" Savannah asked it.
Tweet chirped back in response. Savannah had gained the pet avian by accident when, on a field trip, shi had inadvertently disturbed a predator that had raided a nest, killing the parent birds and breaking open the eggs to eat the contents. All but the last egg was destroyed, saved by the predator being frightened off by the arrival of Savannah. Shi had come to check the progress of the new family of birds that shi had been monitoring for several weeks, and shi was disappointed to find that they had all been killed. Shi took the sole remaining intact egg, intending to study it in detail later. Imagine hir surprise when it hatched on the journey home, and hir consternation when the chick immediately bonded with hir. Fortunately the species was omnivorous, so Savannah was able to feed the chick from the many options shi had available. Apparently shi had done a good job as the pennantail grew up happy and healthy. It also refused to leave Savannah, and had become hir almost constant companion, so Savannah built it a bird home that allowed it to come and go whenever it pleased. Like the foxtaur though, it had been confined to the hut for the past several wet days.
Savannah gave the avian an affectionate stroke on the head as shi looked around. The gully with the placid brook that bisected their camp was still full to the brim. It had been threatening to break its banks the last couple of days as the run-off increased from the saturated soil of the plains, but that had not happened. Either the footbridge or a long jump was required to safely cross it, although shi could see one young foxtaur trying hir luck at fishing right at its edge. Other people were repairing storm damage, and groups of herders were heading off to find out where the herds of zikba grazers had sheltered or weathered the Spring storms. Shi would have to get hir cart loaded with trade goods quickly this afternoon before many others disappeared about their delayed business, and to get their orders in if they hadnít already done so. Shi eyed the flooded brook again, wondering what the river crossing would be like. Shi hoped that it would have dropped a bit before shi reached it tomorrow.
Savannah heard hir mate exiting the hut, and turned to see Willow emerging with Grass-stalk in tow. Careful not to let their child get too near the flooded stream, shi otherwise let the kit run about and enjoy the sunny afternoon after being cooped up for so long. Willow had virtually the same build and fur colour as hir denmate, but where Savannah only had a swatch of white fur on hir chin and throat, Willowís white fur spread out over hir chest, and then dived between hir breasts before petering out just above hir navel. Shi also had white headfur as opposed to Savannahís dark red. Shi was also a hermaphrodite like hir mate, but unlike hir, was conspicuously pregnant.
"So, you reckon this good weather will last for a while?" Savannah asked hir.
"Degrees in meteorology and climatology, and you still doubt me?" Willow queried.
Their hut was crowded with scientific equipment, both for Savannahís biological pursuits and Willowís meteorological ones. Above the huts, partially obscured by the house-colour flags, was a satellite dish that kept hir appraised of weather conditions both worldwide and, in a more concentrated fashion, locally. They had been on Arisia long enough to accurately predict the weather for several days ahead.
"Of course not, Love. Itís just that the delay has me worried about keeping my schedule. They wonít hold up the starship just for me, yíknow?"
"Yes, I know, but it wonít be the end of the world."
"Of course not, but we planned a large family around our ability to maintain a certain level of income over and above our Star Corps wages, I need the best trade goods and to make the best deals. If the ship is on schedule and I get there late, that might not happen."
"You worry too much, íVanna. Our income is more than sufficient to give Grass-stalk and the new kit a good future. But then thereís the third kit that we decided to have, the one that you are supposed to bear," Willow said as shi poked hir finger into Savannahís chest for emphasis.
Savannah sighed. This had been the one major point of contention in their otherwise harmonious lives. Willow had been happy to be the mother of two of their kits, but insisted that shi would be the sire to the third. Savannah agreed in principle, but shi had been procrastinating the actual event. Originally shi had been going to bear their second child, but shi had claimed that it would affect hir ability to travel and do trade. Willow had gotten tired of waiting for hir and had gotten pregnant again. Savannah had been given more breathing space, but shi was not off the hook as yet. Willow frequently commented that the amount of trading shi did was so that they could support three kits comfortably, and hir mate rarely let an opportunity to go by to remind hir of it.
"I know, I know!" Savannah replied. "A couple more trips and we should have enough stashed away that I can afford to slow down and be a mother."
"Isnít that exactly what you said last time?" countered Willow with a frown.
"Come on, Love. Ease up on me a bit, will you? After all, Iím doing this for all of us." Shi gave hir mate a lick-kiss as shi rubbed the fur between Willowís breasts, something that shi particularly liked.
Hir mate relented and returned the lick-kiss. Then shi swatted Savannah on the rump. "Get on with you!" shi said with mock severity. "You need to be ready to leave at the crack of dawn, and Iíll not have you blaming me for not being ready."
Savannah grinned, then said, "Címon, Tweet, letís get to work."
The avian chirped loudly and flew after Savannah as shi trotted off towards a neighbourís hut.
Hours later, shi secured the last of the trade goods in hir cart. Although overtly it was a simple hand-drawn cart, in fact it had been vastly improved with high-tech materials and equipment. This was something that was built to suit colonial conditions where breakdowns could be extremely hard to repair, or could even jeopardise lives. Although the primary motive power was Savannah hirself, the cart had a small anti-grav unit of the type used for moving luggage and goods at freight terminals. This enabled hir to easily pull the cart up hills, and regenerative brakes recharged the Superstor battery that powered it, with solar panels to supplement power input. Normal cable-operated brakes served for parking the cart, or for possible emergencies. Savannah was proud of the cart, built at a time when shi had had no mate or kit so shi could afford such extravagances. Shi looked after it very well, and its gaily painted walls were instantly recognisable whenever shi approached a village or encampment.
Next shi loaded hir scientific equipment, the ones that werenít permanently installed in the cart. Like every trip, shi was required to spend part of it doing biological surveys and follow-ups to hir field experiments. These shi was obliged to do as part of hir contract with the Star Corps irrespective of whether shi was behind schedule for hir trading business, so shi had to factor that into hir travel time.
It was almost dark before shi finished and shi secured all the doors and hatches. Willow had a meal ready for them when shi entered the hut. After helping to clean up after the meal, Savannah played with Grass-stalk for a while, then read hir a story until shi fell asleep. The denmates then made love long and luxuriously as both knew that it would be a long time before they would be able to do so again.
Savannah began hir journey in the false dawn. Shi had given hir mate and child parting hugs after an early breakfast, then attached the cartís harness to hir lower torso and began walking. There was barely enough light yet to see the track, but shi knew it well and proceeded with confidence. Tweet flew out from the hut at the last moment, scolding the foxtaur for getting up so early before settling on a perch on the cart. Savannah smiled at its antics. In the wild, the avianís cousins would have already started their foraging. Tweet was quite spoiled.
Savannah set a steady distance-eating pace, the gently sloping plains being conducive to fast travel. It was about an hour before noon when shi reached the rim of a river valley and started down into it. Halfway to the bottom, small trees started to take over from the grasses, and by the time that shi reached the valley floor, shi was in woodlands. Savannah pulled off the path and locked the brakes on the cart. Unbuckling hirself from the harness, shi went to one of the side panels in the cart, opened it and withdrew some prepared food. Shi then laid down on the soft leaf litter to eat hir meal and take a rest. Endurance was one of the hallmarks of the Veldt breed, but Savannah knew how best to pace hirself to get the most distance without over-exerting hirself. A fifteen minute power-nap saw hir refreshed and ready to recommence hir journey. But not quite yet.
Savannah had chosen this spot not merely because it was comfortable, but shi also had a field experiment running in the area. Shi spent some time visiting several sites, downloading data, resetting equipment and gathering specimens. When shi had finished, shi returned to hir cart, stowed everything away, then resumed hir journey. Even then shi was still doing hir job Ė or more precisely, Tweet was doing it for hir. The bird would fly off occasionally, and Savannah had trained it to bring back samples. The collection tray gained a steady stream of biological specimens such as leaves, berries, grasses, and even some insects. Savannah always enjoyed sorting through the assortment of specimens each day, and rewarded hir winged friend with its favourite foods. Although a bit haphazard, the method had proved to be very worthwhile, leading hir to more closely examine several areas due to a particularly intriguing sample.
Savannahís route eventually brought hir to the banks of a broad river. It was fed by a multitude of streams that drained the plains, such as the one that flowed past Savannahís hut. Normally it was shallow enough to ford easily at this broad point but, as Savannah had feared, the river was in full spate. The marker stones that were hir guide along the ford were all invisible, covered by the swiftly flowing water. If shi tried to cross now, hir cart would almost certainly be swept away. Although it was watertight and would float like a boat, it did not steer like one, and if it avoided being smashed into the rocks, it could take Savannah ages to get it to a place on the bank where shi could haul it out. There was no question as to whether shi would try hir luck.
"Well, Tweet, this is a fine mess. Which way do you think we should go now?"
Tweet chirped brightly and Savannah nodded. "Yeah, definitely somewhere else. Thereís another shallower ford an hour and a half upstream, but thereís a very good chance that it could be as bad as this, so I might lose three hours backtracking. However, if I keep going downstream, itíll only get bigger, but thereís a village about two and a half hours away and they can ferry us across. Itíll take us way off course though, and weíd lose more than half a day going that way."
Tweet responded with some more chirping and Savannah sighed. "Youíre right of course. We canít risk the upstream ford, so itís the long route for us." Savannah turned the cart around and backtracked a little to find the path that followed the river. Tweet flew ahead, pausing on a branch occasionally, waiting for the foxtaur to catch up. Savannah was glad to have hir winged companion. Although neither really knew what the other was saying, it was always easier to make a decision when shi Ďdiscussedí it with Tweet. Shi found the trail and turned onto it and stepped up the pace. It was a much less well-worn path than the main route however, so Savannah had to ease up a bit or risk tiring too soon.
It was getting close to sunset when the forest path opened up to reveal a clear area on the V-shaped land at the confluence of the river that shi was following, and another major river coming from another corner of the plains. In that area was built a village with structures of a far more permanent nature than the tent-huts of the nomadic Veldt Foxtaurs. This was a village built by Marine Stellars, foxtaurs adapted to being at home as much in the water as they were on land. In fact, despite the rivers being dangerously swollen, shi could see that they were full of the villagers revelling in the wild conditions. ĎMore like otters than foxes,í shi often mused.
Savannah was soon spotted by the children of the village, and they raced each other to meet up with hir first. Soon a dozen kits were racing around the cart, or asking Savannah if shi had any treats, or trying to get Tweet to perch on their arm. Tweet always seemed to get as excited as the kits, and it flew from one to the other and then back to Savannah. The little avian distracted many of them, and Savannah put the rest of them off with promises of treats soon. Before long, shi was approached by an adult.
"Ho! Savannah!" The caller had the typical brown and beige coloured fur of hir breed. The fur was very thick and waterproof, and hir head only had the normal fur and no long headfur or ruffs. Hir ears were short and thickly furred also, capable of being folded down to seal water out of the ear canal. Hir legs were much shorter than Savannahís and hir breasts less prominent Ė all features intended to help streamline hir body for swimming. Like Savannah, shi was a hermaphrodite, as were all Stellar Foxtaurs.
By now shi was close enough to see the variations in the beige patterning that let hir identify the caller. An unfavourable wind had given hir no scent clues up until now. "Swiftbrook! How are you faring?"
"Very well indeed," Swiftbrook replied. "What brings you here so early? We werenít expecting you for a few weeks."
"The ford is too dangerous, so I am looking for someone to ferry me across."
Swiftbrook looked at the river and nodded. "Yes, I can see how it would be too high. Ferrying you over is no problem, although I recommend that you leave it until tomorrow. Stay with us tonight and perhaps we can do a bit of dealing too."
Savannah eyed the lowering sun and sighed. "No point in crossing now. Iíd practically have to make camp straight away, so I might as well accept your offer."
"Great! Do you have any of those sugarstalks with you? Swiftbrook asked eagerly.
Savannah laughed. "Yes, if I have any left after this horde of kits finishes raiding me!"
"Youíd better!" Swiftbrook replied with mock severity. "Or else you might have to swim across tomorrow."
"Then you had better get this greedy lot under control!" Savannah glared at the kits who kept on grinning. They knew hir far too well.
Savannah parked hir cart in its usual place in the centre of the village. Shi locked the brakes and put down the stabilisers. Only then did shi open one of the compartment doors. There was a box that shi kept on top of everything else just for this reason. Inside it were the much-coveted sugarstalks. A kind of grain grew on the plains that the Veldt foxtaurs harvested. They toasted the grain while it was still on its stalk, then dipped it into the sap of the ginja tree, and then toasted them some more. This hardened the sap into a crisp, sweet glaze. The result was both nutritious and delicious. Savannah always brought plenty with hir Ė some for sale and some to give away to the kits. Naturally this always made hir very popular.
Savannah always gave away lots of the popular treats to the kits. It never hurt to have a good reputation when trading, and the kits quite often managed to bring out the adults. The sugarstalks were a cheap item to produce, so shi could afford to give them away. The adults bought boxes of them though, and usually some of the more expensive items from hir cart while they were at it.
While shi was doing brisk business, shi observed a riverboat draw up to the jetty. As soon as it was tied up, foxtaurs both on board and on the land swarmed over the cargo piled in it. Faster than you would have thought possible, the ship was unloaded, and then the flow was reversed as other goods were stowed for the return trip. Marine foxtaurs were renowned for their playfulness, but they also worked just as hard so that they had more time for play.
When the last of hir customers left, Savannah closed up hir cart and headed for the community eating hall. Unlike the Veldt Stellars, the Marine Stellars did virtually everything as a group. There werenít separate huts for mated couples or triads either. Everyone slept in a communal den which Savannah felt was going a tad far with the love of company, but they seemed to prefer it. There was no doubt that, although they were a cousin species, they thought very differently.
The way to the hall was well illuminated by torches that had been lit as the sunís glow faded behind the horizon. Savannahís cart had lamps also that ran off the same batteries as the rest of the electrically powered equipment, so shi preferred not to use them unless shi really needed to do so. Inside the food hall, it too was brightly lit by electric lights. The community had a power pack that produced enough electricity for their basic needs, and of course for their Star Corps equipment, as long as they werenít frivolous with its use.
Delicious smells assaulted Savannahís nose. Merely scenting what had wafted hir way outside had already whetted hir appetite, but now it went into overdrive. Calls came from various people for hir to join them at their table. Savannah did not have to worry about paying for hir meal because its price was hir companionship and the news and gossip that it brought, so having hir as a table-mate was highly sought after.
Savannah accepted one groupís invitation and was soon enjoying fresh bread with various spreads as an appetiser. Tweet sat on hir shoulder, accepting morsels from Savannah and anyone else who offered the bird something delectable. Then the main course arrived. As you might expect from a people whose lives revolved around water, their staple dish was fish, and there were plenty of varieties to choose from. There were small sweet fillets of pago and braised whole nekkan which had a stronger, meatier flavour. There were also the local equivalent of mud crabs that had been named mabs. Savannah often wondered who came up with those odd names. Besides the fish, there were boiled tubers and greens. For dessert, they had thick slices of watergourd, similar in principal to watermelon but hugely different in taste.
There was a good deal of conversation after the meal was done. Those whose turn it was for kitchen duty rapidly cleaned up while the others talked, then before Savannah realised how late it was getting, it was time to put the kits to bed. The adults would not be far behind though as they did not like to waste power, and they would be up again at the crack of dawn. Before that though, shi was approached by one of the foxtaurs whom shi had seen come off the riverboat.
"My name is Swiftriver," shi said without preamble. "I hear that you are trying to get to the port in a hurry and that youíre behind schedule."
"Thatís correct," replied Savannah.
"I have an alternative. Our load is destined for the port also. Weíll be taking the river all the way to the sea and then across the bay. Itís not as direct, but it should still be a bit faster than your land route."
"Do you have enough room for my cart?"
"Of course. I didnít expect you to leave it behind."
"And what would this cost me?" Savannah enquired.
"Well, seeing as weíre going there anyway, and we have the space to spare, Iíll settle for four boxes of sugarstalks."
Savannah gulped. That was a large chunk out of the remainder of hir stock. Of course the hyperactive Mariners burned through sugar at quite a rate and they were hir biggest customers, but stillÖ
"Two boxes! You canít even guarantee that youíll be able to get me there in time," Savannah counter-offered.
"Three and a half. The river is in flood and weíll make good time," Swiftriver rebutted.
"Two and a half. I can make almost as good time by the direct route if I hurry, and Iíll save some of my most popular trading goods for sale elsewhere."
"Almost isnít good enough if itís that important. Three boxes. Thatíll pay for your meals also while you sit on your haunches and we do all the work."
Savannah sighed. Swiftriver was right Ė shi had to take the gamble. "Okay, deal," shi said, holding out hir hand to exchange arm clasps.
"Great!" Swiftriver said. "We sail straight after breakfast. Get up promptly before daybreak if you wish to oversee our loading of your cart before we eat. We arenít going to wait for you."
"Gotcha. Iíll be up," Savannah acknowledged.
Swiftriver grinned and left.
Savannah hoped that shi had made the right choice. Shi then decided to go straight to bed to make sure that shi didnít oversleep. Shi headed for the communal sleeping den. Although shi had a sleeping arrangement with hir cart, like all foxtaurs, shi preferred sleeping in the company of others. A foxtaur who slept alone by choice was extremely unusual. Two of the Mariners had been trying to persuade hir to have a little recreational sex with them too, but although shi had sometimes accepted such invitations in the past, it was too soon after having to leave behind hir denmate for hir to be interested in such. It didnít seem to have stopped them from finding another willing partner though as shi spotted the trio enjoying themselves as shi entered the den. A few other couples and triads were similarly engaged, but over half the rest of the community were already asleep in furpiles of various sizes. A couple who were just settling down patted the bedding next to them as they saw hir enter, inviting hir to snuggle up with them. Savannah gladly accepted, and was soon curled up with, and pillowed by hir friends. After a hard dayís journey and with a full belly, sleep came swiftly.
Savannah was awakened by a gentle shake of hir shoulder. Shi opened one eye and recognised Swiftriver in the very dim light coming through the windows.
"Time to get up," Swiftriver said quietly.
Savannah quickly became alert and carefully disentangled hirself from hir sleeping companions. Following Swiftriver into the chill morning air, they made their way to where the cart was parked. Two of the riverboatís crew were already standing by it, apparently waiting for them. Savannah unlocked the brakes after stowing the stands, and they guided it onto the jetty. There shi was asked to stand back while the crew fastened slings to it, and they hoisted it easily onto the deck of the boat. Shi stepped aboard and helped secure it to tie-down points, then everybody headed for the food hall.
The shipís crew were hardly the only early risers. In fact, the food hall was more than half full by the time that they got there. The crewmembers ate a hearty breakfast, but Savannah settled for a more modest meal. Unlike the crew, shi didnít expect to be doing much for the rest of the day.
Despite the size of their meal, the crew didnít waste any time. Almost before shi knew it, they were all aboard the boat and casting off. Shi seemed to be consistently in everybodyís way until one of them firmly parked hir in a spot where shi would not be any trouble. Once everything was set though, things calmed down and Savannah was allowed to move about again. The conjoined river was deep and wide in most places, and the experienced crew knew where the safe channels were in the less benign spots. Swiftriver had been right though Ė the flooding rains had dramatically increased the flow of the river which meant greater speed, but also more alertness for navigating. Savannah wondered how difficult it would be going upstream against this strong flow.
Savannah had no concerns for hir safety however. Of all the Stellar Foxtaurs, the Marine Breed were by far the best sailors, as had been intended by their designers. They were also one of the most industrious species anywhere, and they were responsible for opening up trade routes and supply lines along the seas and waterways. It was left up to people like Savannah to service areas inaccessible by water though. Savannah usually worked in conjunction with them, but being reliant on the Mariners was an entirely different thing, and it irked hir.
Shi also chafed at the inactivity. There was nothing that shi could do to help out on the boat, and almost nothing that shi could do for hir own benefit. The sole thing that shi could do to stave off boredom, aside from watching the pleasant scenery, was through the help of Tweet. The little avian often flew off and returned with fruits, leaves and insects, apparently foraging but not really knowing what to get, and not really hungry either as it had been well fed along with Savannah at breakfast. Not ever having parents to teach it when it was a fledgling, Tweet instead imitated its foster parent who had always brought it a large variety of foods. Now it returned the favour, and Savannah had a growing collection of biological samples to examine and catalogue. In the past, Tweet had made some serendipitous discoveries that Savannah had followed up on later. In that manner, shi had added a large variety of nutritious plants to the foxtaursí kitchens, some with good potential export value if cultivated. Shi had also found some potential pharmaceutical products which shi had passed on to the experts for further investigation and development. It had proven to be a very profitable partnership between foxtaur and avian.
The river wound its way through low hills covered with dense forest. Wildlife could be frequently heard if not seen, and Savannah enjoyed its tranquil unspoiled beauty. Eventually it started skirting a mountain range on the left which Savannah would have had to surmount if shiíd had to take the direct land route. The river narrowed a bit then and the ride became a little rougher. Savannah found the heaving deck to be unkind to hir stomach, but the Mariners only seemed to be more excited at the added challenge. Thankfully they passed through that section in about an hour, and the river returned to a more placid disposition.
Eventually the sun started to set, and Swiftriver guided the boat to a suitable point on the river bank to tie up before it got too dark to navigate safely. Two Mariners dived into the water and were up onto the bank in a trice. Ropes were thrown to them and, as the boat gently touched the shore, they tied the lines to sturdy trees. Next, despite having a small galley on board, they cleared an area to build a fire pit and were soon cooking the nightís meal. Savannah had to admit that it was a lot more pleasant sitting around the fire than waiting on the boat for food from the galley. They cooked some fish that they had caught along the way, supplementing it with vegetables that they had stocked. Savannah recognised one of the local plants as an edible kind, and shi surprised the Mariners by adding it to hir meal. They all quickly tried it though and expressed pleasure in the taste.
Afterwards they talked for a while before one of them brought out a deck of cards and they organised a game of poker. They invited Savannah to play, but they were betting money and goods, and shi would have nothing to do with that.
"I am a business person," shi said. "I do not gamble with my stock, nor the profits meant for my family."
Swiftriver said, "Oh? What if I offer you the chance to win back those boxes of sugarstalks?"
In spite of hirself, Savannah was intrigued, but shi was still adamant. "I said that I wouldnít gamble my stock or money, so what could I offer instead?"
Swiftriver grinned widely. "If I win, you will be my bed-mate for the night."
Savannah gaped at hir in surprise, then laughed. "What have I got to lose then? You have a deal! I look forward to winning back those sugarstalks. Now deal those cards!"
The other Mariners yipped in excitement and glee as they positioned themselves to watch the game. They stood to lose their favourite treat, but the thrill of the bet overrode the potential loss even when Savannah easily won the first hand.
Savannah mused that hir luck had been particularly bad lately. However, Swiftriver had proven to be a pleasantly playful and considerate lover, so it wasnít a total loss. Savannah snuggled up closer to the thick fur of the Marine foxtaur, still enjoying the afterglow of their fling. "No, not completely bad after all," shi murmured as shi drifted off to sleep.
The next day, after a quick breakfast, they cast off and recommenced their journey downstream as soon as they had enough light to navigate. The journey proceeded much as it had the previous day; only the scenery changed. Now that they were on the other side of the ranges, the land was more densely forested with rainforest kinds of vegetation rather than the temperate forests they had passed through previously. Eventually it gave way to coastal scrub as the salt air affected the plant life at the mouth of the river. Abruptly they were into open water, and the sea swells made the boat move in a manner that nauseated Savannah.
"Are you sure this is safe?" shi nervously asked Swiftriver.
The Marine Stellar laughed. "Quite. While this isnít an ocean-going craft, itíll handle these placid conditions easily."
"You call this placid?" asked Savannah disbelievingly.
"Yes, this is almost nothing. The deep water and the sheltering mountains make this one of the safest bays to be in."
Savannahís stomach didnít quite agree though. Shi tried to put it out of hir mind, but with limited success. "How much further?" shi asked.
"About one and a half hours, and weíll have you safe and sound on dry land again," Swiftriver reassured hir.
"An hour and a half too long," Savannah thought miserably as hir stomachs lurched with the next swell. Shi tried to keep hir mind off the motion by observing the coast. Almost immediately, a temporary encampment hove into view. It was another Marine Foxtaur clan and, just like the one on the river, it was a hive of activity, from kits playing on the beach to fishers on the rocks and in sailboats. One boat though headed for a rendezvous with Swiftriverís. Without either vessel stopping, one of those on the smaller boat dived into the water and swam up to the bigger ship where a rope was lowered for hir. Shi climbed up it with great agility, and was standing on the deck only moments after departing hirs.
"Ho, Bayshore! What brings you here?" Swiftriver asked.
Bayshore grinned. "I have something that Iíd like you to take to my sister, Tempest," shi said as shi unsealed a waterproof pouch about hir waist. "Itís hir birthday today, but I canít get over there until after the fishing fleet comes back, so Iíd like you to pass on my gift to hir with my promise to visit hir tomorrow."
Swiftriver accepted the package that Bayshore handed to hir. "No problem. I take it that youíll have a catch of fish for me to take to market on my return?"
Bayshore nodded. "Donít we always? Anyway, lots to do, so Iíll be off." Shi clasped arms with Swiftriver, then dived over the rail and was off like a shot towards hir boat.
The whole incident was over in about two minutes, and Savannah mused over the frenetic pace of the lifestyle of hir Mariner cousins. Then it was back to watching the coastline accompanied by Tweet who apparently disliked flying over such a large stretch of water, and so wouldnít go on one of its fossicking flights.
About forty minutes later there came a sound that Savannah had been dreading to hear. From the direction of their destination, there came the peculiar hum of anti-grav units combined with the powerful thrusters that were still needed to overcome the inertia of a huge freighter starship. Then shi watched in dismay as an extremely bright light climbed into the sky and into space.
"Bugger!" shi swore. "Missed the bloody ship!"
Part 2: A Fair Trade
Half an hour after the starship had departed, Swiftriverís ship pulled into port and tied up at pier 23. With the usual burst of frantic energy, the Mariners soon had Savannahís cart unloaded and had made a start on the rest of the cargo. Savannah made hir farewells to the crew Ė it hadnít been their fault that shi had been late, and in fact they had made very good time. It just galled hir that shi had sacrificed some of hir best trade goods for a futile ride.
Savannah approached Swiftriver last. Shi said, "Iím going to visit Portmaster Tempest immediately to see if there is anything that I can salvage from this mess. If you wish, I could pass on that gift from Bayshore on your behalf."
"That would save me some time that Iíd rather spend on getting a return load organised," admitted Swiftriver.
"How well I understand that!" Savannah agreed fervently.
"Thanks," Swiftriver said as shi handed over the parcel. "If you ever need a ride again, Iíll give it to you at a discount to help make up for not getting here in time."
"How about returning some of the sugarstalks instead?" suggested Savannah.
"Not a chance!" Swiftriver replied with a laugh. "My crew would lynch me!"
"I believe you," Savannah said with a grin to show that there were no hard feelings. "Until we meet again, Captain Swiftriver!"
"Farewell, Trader Savannah!"
Savannah hitched hirself up to the cartís harness and then left the dock, carefully manoeuvring past the many objects that crowded the pier. Shi then made hir way down past the other piers and the brightly painted warehouses, so different from the dingy and worn buildings that shi had seen back on Earth. The road led through an arboretum, hardly a feature of Terran facilities, but typical of foxtaur design. Foot and pedal-powered traffic picked up a lot here, carefully separated from vehicular traffic. This was the main thoroughfare between the seaport and the spaceport, heavily used by all breeds of Stellar Foxtaur plus a few non-foxtaurs that worked in the port town, and it led inevitably to the main administration buildings where the Portmasterís office was located. From there, all goods into and out of Arisia were controlled, and there shi hoped that shi would be able to cut a deal for some of the newly arrived goods. Of course shi hoped that the Portmaster would see hir Ė shi was a very busy person after all.
Savannah pulled up in front of the main building in the first available place where shi could park hir cart. Modest by the standards of the developed worlds, the admin building was one of the biggest and busiest on the planet, and the recent shipment from Earth made it a less than perfect time to arrive. Nevertheless shi had to try.
As Savannah entered the main doors, Tweet took off from hir shoulder and flew ahead, twittering excitedly. It disappeared around a corner with Savannah in hot pursuit, but shi came to an abrupt halt when shi almost ran into the Portmaster hirself with Tweet perched on hir arm.
"Hello, Savannah," Tempest said. "I knew that you couldnít be far away when Tweet found me."
Tweet chirped happily as the Marine Foxtaur clasped arms with the Veldt Foxtaur in greeting.
"Tweet likes you a lot," Savannah remarked.
"And I like Tweet, donít I, dear?" Tempest said as shi stroked the avianís head. Tweet chirped in agreement. "So, Savannah, arenít you a tad late?" You must have noticed the freighter departing."
"I did. I had a good view of it too from the bay."
"The bay? What were you doing out there?"
Savannah explained the circumstances of hir trip, and Tempest nodded in sympathy. "That really was a bad bit of timing. Captain Franks was really put out by you not being there to pay for the goods that you had insisted that he bring this trip."
Savannah groaned. "It took me ages to get that deal together. Now my name will be mud with the freighter people."
Tempest grinned knowingly. "I think not. After all, your agent was there to close the deal instead."
"My agent?" Savannah repeated in puzzlement. "But I donít have one."
"Sure you do. Hir name is Tempest Marine."
"You? You bought the shipment?" Tempest nodded smugly. Savannah threw hir arms around the startled Portmaster and gave hir a huge hug. "Youíre a life-saver! Thank you!" Then shi calmed down a bit as shi thought of something. "I hope that you didnít pay too much. Franks drives a hard bargain."
Tempest scoffed, "Ha! You donít think that I worked up from selling fish to being Portmaster without being able to make a good deal, do you?"
"Sorry for doubting you, but what is it going to cost me?"
"I wonít be as tough on you. After all, I wouldnít want to annoy this worldís major chocolate importer."
Savannahís grin matched Tempestís. Like many foxtaurs, for some unknown reason, Tempest was a Ďchocoholicí, as was Savannah. The two got down to dickering the price on that and the other goods, and both were left satisfied with the final deal. Savannah was so glad to actually have goods to take back with hir that shi didnít mind having to pay a little more than shi had originally planned. It was only a minor setback.
"OK, Iíll come back and collect the goods as soon as Iím done selling some of my merchandise in town," Savannah concluded.
"Fine. Come back here and Iíll take you to the warehouse and check it over with you. Then after that, why donít you come over to my place for dinner? The denmates and I would love to have your company tonight. Itíll give us a chance to show off our latest kit too."
"Letís seeÖ if I recall correctly, it was Tidepool who was pregnant and you were the sire this time around."
"Thatís right," affirmed Tempest. "Tidepool is rather proud of hir. After siring three, it was about time shi bore one, but thatís hir male-dominant personality for you. You should see hir now though! Shi rarely lets anyone else breastfeed the kit, and little Starfish is being thoroughly spoiled."
"With you Mariners and your huge families, itís no wonder that shi gets too much attention," Savannah said.
"Still just one mate then? You donít know what youíre missing," Tempest said with a hint of pity.
"Seems to work for us!" Savannah objected.
Tempest just grinned knowingly. "Plenty of time yet to see how you fare in the future. Circumstances may change in the most unexpected of ways."
"I donít see them changing that drastically though." Savannah changed the subject by digging into hir backpack. "Speaking of family, hereís something that I almost forgot." Shi handed Tempest the box passed on to hir by Swiftriver. "A present from your sister, Bayshore. Shi sends hir apologies for not being able to be here to present it to you hirself."
Tempest accepted the box from Savannah and said, "That was very thoughtful of hir, and kind of you to bring it. Iíll have to thank Swiftriver too when I see hir next."
"Bayshore said shi would be here tomorrow after they deal with the catch."
"I thought as much. Now you had better get along. I need to get back to my other work. Iíll see you later this afternoon. Bye, Tweet!"
Savannah left the offices with a much lighter heart than when shi had entered them. Shi hitched up hir cart and headed off towards the township. There shi met up with hir usual customers and traders to haggle the price of the goods that shi had for sale. These included leathergoods and furs from various plains animals, the sugarstalks and other foods, jewellery and trinkets, and even some art. Shi delivered some personal parcels to the local branch of the interstellar postal service, and in return accepted a number of parcels to take with hir to deliver to the various clans that shi would visit along hir regular route. Shi enjoyed a light meal at one of the local restaurants, took orders to be filled from hir recent acquisitions and for future ones, dropped off a large number of biological specimens at the Star Corps field office, and picked up a couple of new pieces of equipment. After all that was completed, shi found that shi had a bit of time to spare before shi had to meet up with Tempest, so shi went to the beach and lazed on the warm sand for a while, watching various other foxtaurs at play.
Hir watch alarm woke hir with a start. It had been a little too restful, and shi had drifted off into sleep. However, experience had taught hir to set the alarm just in case, so shi was able to set off again without undue haste. This time when shi got to the Portmasterís office, Tweet didnít take off, and shi encountered Tempestís receptionist first. Shi waved Savannah straight into Tempestís office though; telling hir that shi was expected.
Tempest was on the videocom when Savannah entered. Shi raised a hand to acknowledge Savannah and carried on with hir conversation. Shi was done in only a minute though and then turned hir full attention to the trader.
"Good timing. Iíve cleared the last of the jobs for today, and I have all the paperwork for your goods here. Letís get you loaded."
Tempest said goodnight to hir receptionist and a few others in passing. They left the administration block and headed towards a group of warehouses. Inside Warehouse 23, they were met by the foreman, a Veldt breed like Savannah, who took them to the pick-up bay where Savannahís goods were stacked up and waiting for hir. The two of them loaded Savannahís cart quickly and efficiently, and they were done well before sunset. Savannah and Tempest then walked to the north exit where the Marine Foxtaur started heading for the nearest jetty.
"Park your cart in a secure bay and swim home with me," Tempest urged.
Savannah shook hir head. "You ask me that every time, and I keep telling you that Iím a runner, not a swimmer. Iíll trot around and meet you at your den as usual."
Tempest grinned. "One of these days Iíll get you in the water," shi said as shi stripped off hir uniform top. Opening a watertight seal on hir backpack, shi stuffed the top in and re-sealed it. The now-nude Mariner then took a running dive off the jetty and sped off across the bay towards hir home.
Savannah admired how graceful Tempest was in the water. The Portmaster had often told Savannah that the thing that shi regretted most about hir career was the limited amount of time that shi had left to pursue hir aquatic lifestyle. So every day shi swam to work, and then swam home again. It would be quite a feat for most people, but for a Marine Foxtaur, it was like an easy jog around the block.
Savannah set hirself a fast pace along the road that followed the curve of the bay. Shi had a longer route than Tempest, but shi could make better speed, although hir cart was nearly at full capacity. However, as shi had told Tempest, shi was a runner, and that was what Veldts did best.
As it turned out, they made their journeys in about the same time. Savannah started unharnessing hirself as Tempest strode out of the shallows and onto the beach that hir den backed onto. Far from being exhausted by the swim, shi was exhilarated. Shi shook hirself vigorously to rid hirself of excess water, then joined Savannah to walk into the den together. Tidepool, hir other co-mates, and all their kits gave Savannah a hearty welcome, and shi entertained them with news and anecdotes until dinner was served.
Tempest never brought hir work home with hir, and Savannah observed the same practice. These visits were always purely social Ė friends visiting friends. There never seemed to be a lack of excitement and joy in the household, but it did seem a bit chaotic to the more orderly Savannah. Shi ignored that though in favour of enjoying the precious time spent with good friends. When it came time for sleep, there was no question as to whether shiíd be staying for the night. Shi joined everyone in the communal sleeping den that evening. Savannah was glad that they all ended up going straight to sleep that night, although some previous visits had been anything but boring.
Savannah awoke at the crack of dawn, but shi was still beaten to the kitchen by a couple of others who also had early starts. Shi was served a hearty breakfast before some of them had to leave. There were hugs and farewells then, and more later as Savannah prepared to depart. Before shi did, shi handed Tempest a small box.
"From one chocoholic to another," Savannah said. "Just donít eat them all at once. You might sink out there in the bay!"
Tempest laughed as shi accepted the chocolates. "Iíll keep that in mind."
With that done, Savannah hitched hirself up to the cart and recommenced hir journey, waving goodbye to everyone gathered outside to see hir off. It was another beautifully clear day, and the crisp, cool morning air was ideal for setting a fast pace. Savannah continued along the main road following the bay. It wove in and out and around stands of trees and other vegetation that had been preserved by the foxtaurs. The low-density constructions were inconspicuously set back into the natural coastal scrub, sometimes only noticeable by a tasteful sign. The road at this point was used about equally by powered and non-powered traffic. No foxtaur used a PTV unless there was a genuine need, and Veldts especially loved to run, maybe even more than Mariners loved to swim. That had made the days stuck in hir hut especially frustrating to Savannah. Shi waved cheery greetings to those shi passed, receiving the same in return. Eventually the traffic thinned as shi left the Freeport area and the road veered off towards the foothills of the nearby mountains.
The site of Freeport had been chosen not merely because of the excellent sea access, but also because the area was practically unique among the favoured locations for the first colony. All the factors of geography, weather and ocean currents had created a small region in which nearly every type of environment could be found. The coastal regions could get almost tropical in summer, but the high ranges north of the port township towards which shi was now headed were always capped with snow. The mountains blocked most of the rain-bearing clouds coming in from the ocean, so the other side of the ranges was very arid, with only very hardy desert-type vegetation. Those same mountains pushed the rain southwards over dense forests before the smaller range of mountains robbed the clouds of much of their burden before reaching the plains beyond them. Savannahís regular route took hir through all those environments, and in doing so, shi would meet all the Stellar Foxtaur breeds in their ideal habitats.
Savannah reached the foothills where they abruptly ascended from the gently sloping coastlands. Shi turned on the anti-grav unit to low setting Ė just enough to cope with the hills and still conserve power Ė and hir pace continued unabated. Then shi came to the first truly steep gradient that started to drag hir back, and shi boosted the power until shi was comfortable with the load once again. The route that shi was following was well-paved, so shi had no difficulty other than the gradient. It was rapidly getting cooler though and, in spite of hir exertion, Savannah started to feel a bit chilly. Shi paused briefly on a flat area to pull out a warm jacket. Shi donned it but didnít button it up as yet. Shi knew from experience that it would get a lot colder yet, and shi would be glad to button it up later to keep hirself warm. Hir fur wasnít really thick enough to cope with those conditions. Shi soon came upon the first patches of snow, partly melted due to the Spring thaw. Those patches soon got thicker though, and then became a blanket. Only the road was clear, having been ploughed only just recently, and the weather forecast that shi had checked this morning indicated that no more snowfalls were expected for several days at least. Tweet had retreated long ago to its warm birdcage, occasionally scolding the foxtaur for taking it to this horrible, cold place. Savannah rarely heard though because shi was playing hir favourite travel music to help pass the time.
The road eventually crested the pass, revealing a high valley between two ranges. Tall evergreens dominated the area, contrasting with the snow. To the west shi could see a plume of smoke that marked hir destination, but it was still a long distance away. It would take hir a few hours to get there, and shi decided to stop for a rest and a meal. Shi securely parked the cart, then took out a package from one of the cartís hatches. In it was a pre-packed meal that had been thoughtfully provided by Tidepool. Energy-rich food and a flask of hot tea were just what Savannah needed at that point, and shi greatly enjoyed it. Shi didnít dawdle over the meal though because shi not only didnít want hir muscles to stiffen up, but shi would also cool down too much. Shi quickly resumed hir journey with the anti-grav turned off, and the regenerative brakes set to automatic to maintain hir downward speed at a constant rate. Hir Superstor battery started recharging, but shi would still need to top it up when shi arrived because shi was not descending even half the distance that shi had ascended.
Savannah pulled off the main road onto the track that led into the village that was todayís destination. Shi returned the greetings of the various foxtaurs as shi passed and soon pulled up into the centre of their settlement. Every foxtaur there had thick white fur with the occasional black markings on ears, paws, tail and back. Between the fur and an insulating layer of fat, the Polar Breed Stellar Foxtaurs had full-figured bodies. The adultsí breasts looked bigger than they actually were because of the thick fur, with the nipples completely hidden, something that Savannah was sure they appreciated in these cold climates. Also, every single one of them from adult to the youngest kit wore the distinctive fur cape of their kind. While Savannah had kept warm through a combination of hir thick jacket and exertion, these foxtaurs were perfectly comfortable in these frosty conditions even without their capes, but with them they could endure the coldest conditions that this world could produce. They did not really need them in these relatively mild conditions though, but it had become so traditional that they rarely left their dens without their cape. Although they had been named the Polar Breed, in fact they were intended to live in, and exploit, any cold territory without hardship.
Savannah had hir own impression of the Polari. Although totally at odds with their more tropical inspiration, shi always thought of them as Amazons. Not only did their full figures add a pleasant curvaceousness to their forms, but they also were mostly feminine biased psychologically. Although it had never been deliberately designed into their genetic make-up, some unknown quirk made them think, act, and be attracted to the feminine. One of the consequences of this was that they had little regard for the role of the sire in procreation. When a Polari was ready to have a child, shi generally asked one of hir Ďgirlfriendsí to do the deed. After that, shi took complete responsibility for the kit. However, with a village full of foxtaurs with the same viewpoint, in practice the kit had a few dozen mothers, because every adult looked after the welfare of every kit. Whenever Savannah came here, shi tried to emphasise hir feminine side in order for the Polari to feel more at ease with hir, thus improving the possibility of making good deals.
As usual, Savannah set hirself up in the midst of the settlement, and also as usual, the kits were there immediately. Shi always tried to remember their names, and handed them their free treats as shi named them. Needless to say that the kits loved their favourite Ďauntieí whenever shi came to visit. The adults soon followed though after tolerantly indulging their children. Savannah was kept very busy selling luxuries that werenít part of their normal resources, plus sweets and trinkets. The Polari were also mad about chocolate, which is why Savannah was so relieved that shi hadnít lost hir shipment. Shi also delivered the parcels that had been entrusted to hir as a sub-contractor for the postal service. Shi was pleased that all the parcels destined for the Polari were picked up within the hour and shi wouldnít need to track anyone down.
Then the voice that shi had been expecting spoke from behind hir.
"I offer you food, shelter, and sex."
Savannah had been startled to be given that blunt offer the very first time that shi had visited this Polari settlement. Now though shi just smiled and turned to face hir long-time acquaintance, Tundra. This Polari was distinctive in that shi had all-white fur without a trace of the black markings that others sported. Shi was accompanied by hir constant companion, a husky dog named Mishka, who sat beside hir, tongue lolling happily.
"I accept your offer, Tundra. How have you been?"
"Iíve been doing very well, Leggy," replied Tundra, using hir nickname for Savannah. "Iím very happy to see you again."
"Iím glad that I was able to make it. I had a bit of trouble earlier that I will tell you about later tonight."
"Iíll be looking forward to it. Donít forget my usual order."
"Itís already put aside. You didnít think that Iíd forget, did you?"
"Not really, but thanks anyway. See you later then," Tundra said and trotted away.
Savannah had met Tundra long before shi had formalised hir mating with Willow, so accepting Tundraís offer had not been a problem at all, especially since foxtaurs often indulged in recreational sex as a form of socialising. Although Savannah only accepted some of the offers of sex, shi had never knocked back Tundra even after getting mated. Shi rather liked the buxom and cuddly Polari, and found hir feminine personality a nice counterpoint to hir own more masculine bias. Shi had gotten to know the Polari very well that first night that they had spent together. Tundra had told hir that shi had been attracted to Savannahís sexy long legs, and had given hir the nickname ĎLeggy" that evening. Savannah had found hir to be a charming and pleasant host. Tundra always served hir an excellent meal, and hir bedding was delightfully warm and soft. All Tundra ever asked for in return was a night of love-making, and Savannah had to admit that it was an awfully good bargain.
When the last of the trading was done, Savannah packed up. Shi coaxed Tweet out from its warm bird cage and then headed to Tundraís den with the avian wrapped in hir hands to keep it warm. Shi stepped inside Tundraís den knowing that shi need not announce hirself, and released Tweet who flew to the top of a nearby cupboard, up where it was warmest, fluffed up its feathers, then seemed to settle down to sleep. Mishka looked up at the avian from under the table in a manner that suggested that the dog was amused at the bird before settling down to napping again.
"It looks like Tweet isnít interested in my cooking," Tundra said with a smile, indicating the pots and pans on the stove with the wooden spoon that shi was holding.
"From the aroma, Iíd say that itís Tweetís loss. Is that Marzuk steak cooking?"
"Yep. Just brought it in yesterday. I caught it early, so I was able to spend extra time doing my Corps chores."
Tundraís professional job was as a climatologist, much like Savannahís mate. Shi pursued the long-term trends though, frequently taking ice cores from ancient glaciers and other ice fields to study the secrets locked within. This took hir over a wide territory, but that suited hir as shi was also one of the clanís best hunter-rangers. The need to travel great distances for the Corps meant that shi had the use of a snow-mobile, but that was also extremely handy when it came to hauling back the large game. By spreading out the hunting over a much larger area, the foxtaurs were able to lessen their impact on the environment, and get a good supply of meat at the same time, which meant a win all around. There was one other thing that the Polari found time to do though.
"So, did you bring back any interesting specimens for me this time?" Savannah asked.
"Donít I always?" Tundra replied as shi hauled out a box. In it were hundreds of samples of leaves and twigs, plus some insects that fed upon them, and a few other assorted creatures. Although Savannahís field was primarily plant life, shi always made sure that shi had a good knowledge of the animal species that interacted with them to get a more complete picture of the plantís needs and defences. Pennanttails for example were the Fire Berry bushís chief means of propagation; the indigestible seed within being deposited far and wide by the avians who loved the juicy fruit. All the samples had meticulous notes on when and where they had been gathered. Tundra had been gathering these samples for Savannah ever since their first meeting, never asking for recompense, which was another reason why Savannah could never say no to Tundra. After a cursory inspection, Savannah put them aside to be stowed on hir cart in the morning. Shi barely had time to clean up before the Polari served dinner. Tundra had a special sauce that shi had created to bring out the full flavour of the marzuk steak, and it was absolutely delicious.
After the meal, Savannah helped Tundra clean up, and then they both settled down with a hot drink to have some conversation. When they were both done with updating each other on news and other mutual interests, Tundra led Savannah to the bedding where they made love for about an hour.
While they were resting after one energetic bout, Savannah asked, "Have you thought about starting a family yet? All your peers seem to have one or two kits already."
Tundra replied, "Not yet, but perhaps soon. Iíve been enjoying my current lifestyle too much to want to change, especially when you keep visiting on a regular basis."
"Well I did mean mating with a Polari; I wasnít offering myself," Savannah said with a grin.
Tundra returned the grin. "Why not? The kitís breed is always gene-locked to the mother, so if we had a child, shi would be a Polari also. No Veldt kit shivering in the snow!"
Suddenly Savannah realised that Tundra was quite serious about that possibility. "But Iím already mated, and I donít have the time to spare to be with the child."
"You know quite well that we Polari donít mate like you do. You could be my choice of sire, but after that the kit would get all the love and support that shi needs from the clan. Your job as sire would be done."
"Thatís not how I feel about it though. I want to be involved in the raising of any kits that I sire."
"Who says you would ever know? One of these visits I might be on heat and simply let you do the deed without ever telling you."
Savannah knew that it wasnít an empty threat. Normally one foxtaur could scent when another was on heat, but the Polari always smelled strongly feminine to hir and shi couldnít accurately judge their state of fertility. They could tell between themselves though. "Oh, come on! Surely you would tell me something that important?"
Tundra just gave Savannah a sly smile, then turned to present hir fem sex to the Veldt Foxtaur. "Maybe Iím on heat right now, or maybe Iím just horny. Either way, I want you in me right now, Leggy."
Savannah rolled hir eyes. Shi was sure that Tundra was just teasing hir now, but in future shi could never be certain. Shi took the pragmatic view though and went with the flow. That was the way the Polari did things, and nothing that shi did was likely to change anything.
In the morning, shi breakfasted with Tundra and made hir farewells. After dealing with a couple of last-moment customers, shi then continued on hir journey. Shi had to bundle up against the frosty morning air, with the addition of legwarmers to help hir get started. Soon though they came off and shi unbuttoned hir jacket as the exertion of towing the cart warmed hir up. Once back on the main road, shi continued in a westerly direction. This led to another mountain pass, a slightly higher one this time, and requiring a very winding route to get to it. In fact it was midday before shi started descending again into a very different landscape. The second range of mountains robbed the remainder of moisture in the air that the first had not claimed, so it was very dry on this side of the mountain. Also, as shi got lower, the temperature climbed rapidly. Long before the road started levelling out onto the steppe, Savannah had stripped off all hir clothing and put on hir hat, and shi panted rapidly to help cool hirself. Shi paused for a while under the shade of hir cartís awning to rest and rehydrate, then continued on to hir goal Ė a green patch that shi had glimpsed from a high vantage point on hir downward trek.
These steppe lands started off as treeless grasslands near the mountains where some snow-melt and a small fraction of rain still managed to provide enough moisture for plant-life, but soon segued into sandy desert, devoid of all but the most hardy life. Cactus-like plants dotted the otherwise unobstructed scenery as Savannah traversed the almost totally flat road. Fortunately the road was kept clear of sand drifts, so Savannah did not have to exert hirself needlessly to deal with them. Nevertheless shi was glad when, a couple of hours later, shi finally reached the oasis that was created by natural springs fed by water from the mountains. Around the large body of pure water were stands of palm-like trees, with the huts of hir next customers built in their shade. This was an encampment of a band of Desert Breed Stellar Foxtaurs. They were nomadic like the Veldts, but Savannah had checked to ensure that they would be there when shi had made hir itinerary. Most were sheltering from the afternoon heat, but one of them wearing their trademark Ďcoolieí hat came over to meet Savannah. The Desert Breed Stellars were based on the fennec fox, and their exceptionally large ears poked through holes in the hats, helping to cool the foxtaur. Shi had a plain sandy-coloured coat with only a couple of dark smudges that distinguished hir from others. In fact it was usually easier to tell the Deebees apart by scent rather than sight, but Savannah recognised this one before shi could smell hir.
"Ho! Well met, Zephyr!" Savannah called.
"Welcome, Savannah," Zephyr replied. "I hope that your journey was pleasant." Shi stepped up to the trader to exchange arm clasps, hir head craning up to meet Savannahís eyes. The Desert Breed were the smallest of the Stellars, and the Veldt Breed the tallest, so the two made a bizarre contrast.
"Once it finally got started, it was," Savannah told hir. "Iíll explain later. Right now I would like to park my cart and myself in a bit of shade."
"Of course, take your time. Not much will be happening until the worst of the heat has passed. We can talk while you rest."
Savannah found a suitable spot under the palm trees. Shi positioned the cart so that the solar panels got as much light as possible while shading the rest of the cart to keep the temperature down. Shi needed plenty of power to operate the cooler that was keeping the perishables from perishing, especially things like the chocolates. If the cooler failed, all shi would have left in this weather would be chocolate soup!
Savannah found Zephyr lounging in the shade of the awning in front of hir tent with hir two mates, Sirocco and Mirage. Like the other Stellar Breeds, the Deebees had their foibles, and with them it was their penchant for almost always forming triads. They felt that it was the ideal mating arrangement for herms, but while Savannah didnít disagree with them, shi was satisfied with a single mate. They offered hir chilled fruit juice and chatted for a while before they decided to get back to work. After all, it was only Spring and not that hot as yet. Of course a breed adapted to desert conditions would be a lot more comfortable in the heat than Savannah!
Zephyrís clan consisted mostly of geologists, mining engineers and related professions. These desert sands were particularly rich in minerals, and the foothills also had several mines in operation. Their group mostly did surveys and assessments though, and so kept on the move, hence their nomadic lifestyle. They might not be back here for another year. However, other Deebee tribes had more permanent settlements close to the mines. Zephyr always maintained that their lifestyle than that of those living in the settlements though, and Hotwind and Chillnight were ardent supporters of this viewpoint.
Savannah was just grateful they were here at this time. If they had been encamped elsewhere, shi would have had to camp here alone overnight. The next settlement was further away than shi could travel before sunset, and shi liked the hospitality of the Deebees, especially after the arduous trip over the mountains. The afternoon sun was also strength-sapping for foot-travel in the afternoon, but it wasnít a hindrance to doing some brisk trading. Shi had also brought along an order of art supplies. One of the Deebees was quite an accomplished artist, and shi often used local materials for pigments, but still required canvas and brushes besides other media. Savannah took a couple of hir paintings on consignment to sell for more art supplies on the next trip.
With hir business done, Savannah took the opportunity to take a siesta in the shade until the clan finished work for the day, and then shi joined them in a communal feast. As the evening brought the temperature down, the clan really burst into life, and there was much singing and dancing. Savannah was dragged into a dance too, and although shi felt a bit silly as a giant amongst pygmies, shi nevertheless had a lot of fun. Eventually Savannah had to beg off from sheer fatigue, and Zephyr and hir denmates invited the trader to join them, reassuring hir that they were only interested in sleep also. Savannah reckoned that they got a kick out of snuggling up to a foxtaur nearly twice their size, but shi had to admit to hirself that shi found them irresistibly cute too.
Another reason for getting to bed as soon as possible was so that Savannah could get an early start in the morning to beat the heat, a common practice amongst the Deebees also. Hotwind had beaten Savannah to rising and offered hir some breakfast which Savannah gladly accepted. The whole clan was up and about before shi was ready to leave, so shi made a lot of goodbyes before hitching up hir cart and departing in the dim false dawn light, with the excitable Deebees forming an impromptu farewell parade out of it.
The desert road remained flat, and Savannah set hirself a fast pace. The scenery was pretty dull though, so shi had hir music going full blast to keep hirself entertained. The road was also used by mining vehicles though, so shi was occasionally startled by them roaring past from behind, unheard until then due to being drowned out by the music. The ones coming towards hir were spotted long before they got to hir though, and shi exchanged cheery waves with the drivers. One even pulled over, wanting to buy some sugarstalks from the trader. Savannah was happy to oblige but worried about how low hir stocks were getting.
As cool as the night had been, it didnít take long for the desert to warm up, and before long Savannah was forced to slow down to cope with the heat. About an hour later, shi pulled into another oasis, this time presently uninhabited. However there was a large pool of cool water, and the run-off formed a long strip of healthy green vegetation until the last of it soaked into the ground some distance away. Because the water was constantly being replenished at a much more rapid rate than the other oasis, Savannah was able to do something here that shi had been unable to do back there. Liberating hirself from the cartís harness, shi took a running leap into the water. The shock of the cold water made hir gasp, but shi quickly adjusted and luxuriated in its refreshing embrace. When shi had cooled off enough, shi climbed out of the pool, water streaming from hir fur. Shi joined Tweet under the shade of a tree to dry off and take a nap.
Hir watch told hir that shi had been asleep for about half an hour, which meant that shi still had plenty of time left to use for travel. Shi considered hir options. Despite the good time that shi had made so far, shi had no chance of making hir next goal, but shi could make a detour to one of the nearer mining settlements. On the other hand, those large settlements were usually well serviced with their own general stores, and shi was unlikely to do much in the way of sales, but at least shi would have some company. Then there were the biological samples that shi had been accumulating. Shi made hir decision and spent the rest of the day examining, classifying and making records. Then, as the sun set, shi rigged hir cart with the curtains that made it into a makeshift tent and then cooked a meal. With only Tweet for company, shi dined in silence and watched the stars come out. The pristine skies were unaffected by any light pollution, and the heavens blazed in glory. Shi sought out the constellation that held a minor yellow dwarf star named Sol around which orbited a rocky and wet planet named Earth.
"Thatís where I come from, Tweet," shi said as shi pointed it out. The bird had fallen asleep though and didnít respond. It didnít matter to Savannah though because it was just a trivial fact to hir. Arisia was home now, and shi had no desire whatsoever to return to Earth. Shi cleared up hir dinner stuff and settled down to sleep. Tomorrow would be another early start and shi needed hir rest, but hir bedding felt just that little bit empty.
Part 3: Knowing Me, Knowing You
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.
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.
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.
"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.
Story copyright © 2008 Bernard Doove.
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