by Tony Greyfox
©2007 Tony Greyfox

Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2

Home -=- #12 -=- ANTHRO #12 Stories
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Chapter 3—Reunions

   A few last trickles of misty rain spattered across the thick pine forests of western Avendale; though autumn-tinted leaves surrounded the travelers, the chilled air reminded them of the inevitable encroachment of winter. In the midst of the dampened trees, a light breeze carried with it just a kiss of salt air from the west. Ashlin’s nose twitched at the tang: The young fox recognized that at least one goal was near.
   If I survive long enough to see it, of course, he reflected as he drifted warily through the woods like a ghost. He carried an armful of late summer wild greens back towards the spot where he and his suddenly grown company had set up camp for the evening.
   It had been a rather tense day for the black-furred tod after the confrontation with the trio of would-be kidnappers. The huge bear who had—in point of fact—saved his tail that morning, never allowed him to escape her gaze; he continually felt like a predator was sizing him up for its dinner.
   After getting over the initial shock that had arrived along with Tamiko’s mother—her mother! his mind repeated, unable to reconcile that massive figure and its huge sword with anything even vaguely resembling a maternal image —and allowing Tamiko to explain that he was no danger to them and should not be immediately chopped into stew-meat, Ashlin suggested that they get far away from the bloodied site of the short, vicious brawl, lest any other of Halftooth’s minions was nearby.
   “It’s best if we move now,” he advised—still at a safe distance from that huge bear—“and when we get clear of here, we can find a place to stop for the evening. Then we can clear everything up.”
   “Mother, trust him,” Tamiko pleaded. “He truly wants to help.” After a long, searching glare, the larger ursine nodded curtly.
   “You’ll lead,” she said in a basso rumble, wincing with pain from some unseen injury while raising her broadsword to point it forward. Those were the last words she said for the rest of the afternoon. Tension hung over the group much like the lingering mist that had settled over the forest as they trotted cautiously westward, Ashlin picking out the route, all the while feeling those angry eyes on the back of his neck.
   Finally, as the clouds lifted and the sun touched the horizon, the group reached a tightly wooded patch of trees near a stream that Ashlin thought would make a good campsite.
   As he set down his pack and helped Tamiko doff hers, the slim fox twitched in surprise when a large paw landed solidly on his shoulder and turned him inexorably around to face a mountain of green-cloaked black fur.
   “You said explanations would come when we stopped. We are stopped,” she rumbled deeply—and menacingly. “Now would be a good time.”
   His ears slicked back from the obvious threat in that voice, Ashlin stammered, “Erm… I’d be happy to, miss…”
   Tamiko came to his aid, touching her dam’s paw and nodding encouragingly to the bear as she stepped back from him. Then the cinnamon bear, rather smaller than her mother but showing many of the same tendencies, cleared her throat and declaimed in a courtly voice: “Lady Black, may I present Lord Ashlin, youngest son of Lord Silvertail, Baron of Wood Lake.”
   Ashlin winced at the titles; he composed a hasty prayer to the Hunt Spirits as he saw amber eyes widen at his family name.
   Sensing her mother’s surprise, Tamiko floundered slightly, then shook her head and continued, “Lord Ashlin, I have the honor of presenting Her Excellency, Lady Katryn Black, Baroness of Gateway Isle.”
   This time, the fox’s ears went straight up before they dropped straight back. He took an involuntary step back from the big bear. “Baroness of Gateway?” he squeaked—in time with the bear’s rumble of “Silvertail?”
   They stared for a moment, in shocked tableau. Then, to Ashlin’s surprise, the Baroness’ muzzle crinkled in a wry smile. “It would seem the Sun Herself has a sense of humor. Imagine: A scion of the family whose forebear met his doom fighting my own ancestor, offering unexpected aid to the heir to the Barony even today! This certainly is a story I wish to hear.”
   Gratefully recognizing that his new guest would not carve him into strips just yet, the fox relaxed (but only a hair) and took a deep breath. “Milady, despite the honors your daughter has given me, I must clarify that I have been disinherited. Thus, I bear no official relation to Silvertail save my name.”
   Her eyebrow lifted quizzically, but Ashlin suggested that the honor of explaining matters should go to Tamiko, not him. “That way,”, he noted, “I can survey the locality to ensure that there are no unwanted guests to spoil your well-deserved reunion. And perhaps I might light a cook fire for the evening, yes?”
   Lady Black sent a long, suspicious while looking alternately at the fox, then her daughter; in the end, persuaded by Tamiko’s obvious regard for him, the Baroness accepted his plan. While the bears exchanged their stories, the tod slipped away to scout the area and hunt for for their dinner.
   A curl of smoke drifting on the breeze suggested that the two bears had not waited for his return before lighting a fire, and the slight ruddy glow gave him a beacon to follow back to the clearing. Two faces turned to him as he emerged from the brush; damp trickles down both of the bears’ cheeks indicated they’d been crying. Tamiko immediately scrubbed at her face in chagrin as she caught his gaze. He turned away, his thick brush flicking in response to her embarrassment, while he set the greens into a pot that had been placed near the fire.
   “I’ll get some soup started, shall I?” he suggested. “For the rest, we have bread and your smoked fish with it.” So saying, he quickly threw some dried vegetables and water in with the fresh greens. Only after satisfying himself that the food was cooking properly, did he turn to face the mother and daughter.
   Katryn’s gaze had not left the young fox since he returned; she did not speak, instead stretching out her right arm and side with flinches of pain from her unhealed injuries. Ashlin pulled a log to the opposite side of the fire and sat on it, feeling very self-conscious as he and the large bear stared at each other for a long moment. Tamiko’s looked uncertainly between the two.
   “Tamiko, dear.” The sudden deep rumble made Ashlin suppress a severe twitch, which earned him another amused glance from the big bear. “Yes, mother?”
   “You reek of skunk. I want you to take this,”—her paw emerged from her own pack with a lump of soap that smelled strongly of lavender—“ go to the stream, and remove every trace of that stench.”
   Her ears flushed with embarrassment, the younger bruin sniffed, and her nose crinkled at the smell. “Yes, mother.”
   “If I smell anything but lavender when you get back, I’ll scrub you myself.”
   “Mother!” Tamiko growled angrily. “I am capable of cleaning myself, thank you! There’s no need to embarrass me in front—”
   A raised paw and a sharp look cut the young bear off, and she nodded hastily, flashing Ashlin a quick smile before slipping off towards the stream that burbled not far off.
   Silence returned to the clearing. Katryn’s gaze returned to the young fox across from her. She regarded him closely, her paws folded in her lap.
   “Lord Ashlin, my—”
   Ashlin held a paw up, to a slight growl at the interruption. “Your pardon, Lady Black, but that title is one to which I cannot lay claim any more, even did I wish to. ‘Ashlin’ is fine.”
   She glared a moment, then shook her head. “Ashlin, then. I owe you a debt of gratitude for assisting my daughter in escaping her recent… captivity. She has told me much about your selfless actions, and I thank you for your timely aid.” The bear sighed, and her courtly manner seemed to slip away with that soft whisper of breath. “I wish I could have protected her from this ordeal. She’s young and has led a sheltered life. I fear this will hurt her far more than she lets on.”
   “Perhaps, Lady Black, but I think your daughter is a very strong creature. I hope we can rescue your son as well—I know it is something that’s driving her very hard.” Stirring the soup pot with a wooden spoon, Ashlin shook his head. “I wasn’t sure she could keep going this way, but considering what she went through, her resilience and fortitude have been a very pleasant surprise.”
   Katryn growled —clearly, her daughter had not concealed any details of the recent trouble. Then the clearing was once again silent for a time.
   “Why are you doing this?”
   Ashlin locked eyes with the bear across from him. He held that gaze for a moment, then turned and pulled a pair of small wooden cups and a flask from his pack. A sharp tang tickled the air as he poured and offered one to the bear. “Apple brandy. Quite strong, but fortifying. I’ll compensate the Streamsides for their wine after they find this missing.”
   That cup disappeared into a huge paw. The fox sat back on his log and looked into the fire, his tail thumping a quiet rhythm against the wood, then turned his gaze back on Katryn. “My brother… believes that he, as a carnivore and as a noble… is entitled to take whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. Someone needs to convince him that he’s wrong before he becomes a true monster… and nobody else seems to wish to take on that job.”
   Katryn evaluated the young fox silently for a few moments. “I take it you don’t agree with him.”
   Ashlin took a sip of the sharp brandy. “Hardly.” He shook his head. “Baroness, I grew up in a home that was very much driven by the old ways. We ate and breathed the stories told by celebrants of the Hunt Spirits, and the belief that, as foxes and hunters, our lot was greater than that of other creatures. My father, like some others, believes that even after the herds returned to give an end to the Famine Wars, we hunters should have pressed our strength against the other creatures, as they said at the time was our right.”
   “The Famine Wars… were finished generations ago.” Swirling brandy in her cup—hardly more than a thimble in her large paw—Katryn cocked her head at the tod. “And your family continues to look that far into the past?”
   “Only parts of the family. My mother, for example, never approved of Father’s vagaries in those regards, and I never shared his beliefs myself.” He shrugged expressively. “But Father has also emphasized through the years that the male is the leader of the family. His decisions were law. And Hawthorne, as the eldest son—by about two hours—is the heir to the barony. So, he has learned his role well at Father’s side, even to the point of adopting his sense of rightful privilege”—the fox’s disdain was obvious—“over other species.”
   Ashlin shook his head and drained his cup, then refilled it. “So. Hawthorne has been taught to consider himself in a position of dominance over others, and he’s certainly taken those lessons to heart. All his life, he has known he would be a high noble in the Avendale hierarchy, and has always made use of that to his own gain. That, I suspect, is why he has no qualms about capturing creatures and selling them to the Islanders.”
   “It frightens me,” Katryn rumbled, “that any creature could think that way. And that he would consider murder a part of that right. I was very lucky that his minions did not kill me the day they stole Tamiko and Takuma from me. And to use his captives the way he does…” Her voice trailed off, and she growled ominously at the thought.
   “Again, part of his history, Lady Black. As we grew, Hawthorne— he started calling himself Halftooth, by the way, after I hit him in the face with a rock during a fight one day, which made me Father’s favorite for a few days—but I digress. In his younger days, Hawthorne used his dominant position as the heir to gather a group of friends as a kind of pack, for his own amusements.” The tod scratched under his chin, staring into the fire quietly. “One of their common games was to go into the fringes of the barony and ‘assist’ lost travelers… especially those with daughters of a size that he could… well…”
   He trailed off, flushing, and glanced across at the bear, who nodded her understanding.
   “Father usually found that amusing, especially as Hawthorne often made a gift of the other members of the family for the occasional banquet.” Ashlin shuddered at that, grimacing. “And, when Hawthorne felt like exercising his ‘rights’, but could not find a playmate in his usual ways…” He tossed back the second cup of brandy sharply, his ears slicking back as an unreadable expression crossed the young fox’s face. “On such occasions… he would use me.”
   Katryn growled deeply, and a soft gasp and a wisp of lavender on the breeze were followed by big fingers slipping around Ashlin’s. He turned to see Tamiko at his side. The younger bruin’s gaze was compassionate as she moved up to sit next to him; her mother drew breath and appeared ready to order her away again, but Ashlin lifted his free paw and motioned her to silence. “It’s all right,” he said to Tamiko. “I’d been meaning to tell you, but… it’s not the sort of thing there can ever be an appropriate moment to speak of, is it?”
   He squeezed Tamiko’s paw softly and shrugged again, resuming his story. “As you can tell, I’ve good reasons to have stepped away from my family’s philosophy. They tried, when my mother died, to bring me back into the fold. Father captured a family of rabbits, intending to mark Mother’s death with a banquet to the Hunt Spirits… and he asked me to do the honors of the slaughter.”
   A slight nod acknowledged Katryn’s shudder of disgust. “I refused, of course. I freed the captives, guided them to a safe distance, and went back to tell my father to his face what I thought of him. He sent me to my room, and said he would deal with me later. Having rather a suspicion of exactly what that would entail, I spent the time packing, intending to leave immediately… well, I certainly did that.”
   The fox shook his head and poured himself a third cup of brandy. “Father sent Hawthorne and my elder sister, Cara, to put me out of my misery. When my door burst open… I was surprised that Cara came in first. Hawthorne was behind her, but she yelled and jumped forward… with a sword in paw. I, of course, reacted.”
   His gaze went down. Tamiko put an arm about the smaller fur’s shoulders as he sighed. Ashlin wiped an eye and murmured, “I still wake up seeing the look on her face as she… died. And the damnable grin on my brother’s face as I realized he’d prodded her with his sword, to force her towards me.”
   Ashlin shot his brandy back, not meeting the eyes of either bear as his thick tail slipped forward to curl around his feet. “At any rate. I managed to wound Hawthorne and make my way out of the house. I’ve since spent my time in Southmoor. I was lucky enough to use my carving skills to find a place cutting gems for the Queen’s court, and it was just sheer luck that I was in the north, seeking out some new mineral sources, when I cut the trail of his charming little group.”
   Looking up at the Lady Black, whose gaze was inscrutable, Ashlin shrugged.
   “All of which is a long way to say that I’m doing this because I don’t want more creatures to experience what I have, what your daughter has, and what so many others have because of my brother’s desire for power.” He turned to glance at Tamiko, who managed a half-smile, then back to her mother. “Really, I’ve stumbled into helping you. I hope that doesn’t make you think less of me.”
   Katryn walked around the fire and lay a huge paw on the fox’s shoulder. “Hardly, young one. In fact, it makes me think very much of you. You’re a good creature.”
   The fox’s inner ears reddened in the firelight, and he smiled weakly, then nodded towards the fire. “Dinner should be ready.”
   The trio ate in silence, each one lost in their own thoughts.

   Elsewhere, nearer the coast, heavy rain slashed down from dark clouds, bringing a growl from Halftooth as he raised his hood against the weather. The unfortunates of the slave line grumbled as they shuffled closer to trees, trying to find shelter against the rain; he ignored the irrelevant noise and looked back to his retainers. “No sign of them yet?”
   “Nothing, Lord,” one of the coyotes said, shivering from the cold and wet. “We cut back a little ways this afternoon, but there was no sign of anyone other than the usual traffic.”
   The fox grunted, scratching at his muzzle. “Tomas probably got lost, the old fool… Well, they know the route, and we can’t wait for them. The Rock Islanders will be waiting at the coast. We’ll cut across the trail early tomorrow morning, and head for the cove. Then up to Mud Harbor, and wait there a few days in case they catch up.”
   He looked around in the dimming late day light, and, despite the rain lashing at his cloak, grinned at his chained ‘merchandise’. “Why so glum, my friends?” he called out to the captives, who turned dull eyes towards him. “Tomorrow, you head for your new homes. Don’t fret; the Islanders treat their ‘servants’ very well. You’ll be fed and watered regularly, for certain.” Silent looks of hatred fixed on him from several of the creatures, not least the young bear at the fore of the line.
   Noting that look, Halftooth walked over to the bruin, smiling brightly down at the soggy ball of black fur. “I’ll make certain your sister joins you, young fellow, as soon as I’ve taught her how to be grateful for her life.”
   “She’ll rip your head off!” the youngster growled in a high voice, surprising Halftooth—it was, as near as he knew, the cub’s first spoken words since his sister had been spirited away. “And I’ll help!”
   One of the guards growled and went to kick at the youth, but Halftooth held up a paw. “No, no. Let him think what he wants.” He leaned down, nose to nose with the young bear, and grinned unpleasantly. “He’ll find out how wrong he is when he sees his sister next.”
   A small paw lashed out— but the fox ducked back, just barely in time to avoid getting a dangerous gash below his jaw. He growled and cuffed the young bear in the side of the head, bowling him into the lap of the surprised raccoon next to him. She quickly enfolded the stunned youth in her arms and glared at Halftooth, who stood and snarled.
   “With an attitude like that, you’ll wind up as an anchor, you little beast!” The fox whirled, his best haughty expression on his muzzle, and stalked towards his tent, firing an order at his interim guard captain. “At first light, we leave for the coast. Be ready.”

   Meanwhile, Ashlin and his companions were in pleasanter surroundings. The heavy rains had merely passed near them, leaving the air sweet and warm as they moved southwest towards the main track into Mud Harbor. Their path took them through wide meadows showing the last flourishes of summer green, and stands of trees whose foliage faded into the riotous colors of late autumn as it prepared to fall into the grip of winter.
   Katryn Black strode behind the two younger creatures. She seemed relaxed enough, but kept her eyes, nose and ears sharp, watching for any other surprises their quarry might have left in case their first attempt at re-capture went astray. But none were apparent, a fact the Baroness pondered for some time. She finally decided that this ‘Halftooth’ creature was, quite simply, too arrogant even to consider (let alone act upon!) the possibility that any of his plans might actually fail.
   A few paces ahead on the widening trail, Tamiko and Ashlin walked side by side. The fox’s ears perked and his tail twitched under his cloak; his general demeanor spoke of fearful wariness and preparedness. Given the circumstances, the Baroness wholeheartedly approved. Her daughter, however, seemed to be more animated than the night before, cheerfully chattering about Gateway.
   “The manor and town stand up on the top of the cliffs. They look out over the open ocean, through a stand of trees that I think were planted to ease the wind,” she explained, her big paws moving as she tried to describe the layout of their home. “And the harbor is right on the water—”
   “Which I believe is the definition of a harbor,” Ashlin cut in with a slight grin to the bigger bear. “It would be hard to tie a ship to the top of the cliffs.”
   Tamiko snorted and cuffed him on the shoulder with a large brown paw, sending him reeling a few steps, though he laughed as he went. “Do you mind?” she asked acidly, frowning at the smaller fur.
   “Not in the least. It’s the role of us older creatures to educate the young, is it not?”
   “You’re all of two summers older than me, Ashlin!”
   “You take my point, then. Excellent! I seem to be doing my job well.”
   At those words, Tamiko chased the fox in a circle around a large tree before he leaped up and scrabbled into the lower branches to grin down from just out of reach. Lady Black just shook her head and laughed softly.
   The party’s mood had definitely lightened since last night’s revelations. For her part, the Baroness felt the fox’s desire to assist was sincere; otherwise, he would neither have rescued Tamiko nor joined their quest to find her son. Ashlin seemed truly ashamed of his family and their actions, and his admission that he and Tamiko shared more than merely a dislike of his brother just further confirmed his desire to help.
   Tamiko, too, seemed more lively. Her scars would fade in time, both the ones on her back, from the slave traders’ whips and blows, and the ones Halftooth’s abuse had gouged into her soul. And Katryn could see her daughter’s obvious affection for the fox, rather greater than one might expect simply from the fact that he’d rescued her. It seemed that his acknowledgement of their common experiences had grown into a bond between the pair.
   She scratched an ear absently and watched as Ashlin traded some filched honeyed nuts for safe passage out of the tree, then rumbled, “Remember we have someplace to be, children.”
Both younger creatures looked abashed at her comment, but Ashlin chuckled. “Quite true, milady. Your daughter seems to be easily distracted, however.” He deftly dodged another paw sweep, and grinned widely as they trudged on again. “Dangerous, too.”
   “I’ve trained her well.”
   Tamiko nodded, smiling, at this unusual praise, then resumed her description of Gateway Isle.
   “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, the harbor is at the bottom of a winding trail. However, the view as one climbs up that trail is remarkable,” she said. “The mouth of the Grass River is plainly visible to the east, and you can look across the moors and see the Dark Hills in the distance.”
   His gaze sweeping back and forth ahead of them, Ashlin smiled at her words. “It sounds lovely. I should like to see it some day.”
   “I hope you can, too.” Tamiko returned his smile. “Perhaps after we find—”
   “Wait!” Ashlin stopped suddenly, so abruptly that Katryn nearly ran into him, and raised a paw. He stretched his neck forward and sniffed the air intently, pacing a few steps to either side before stepping off the trail into a grove of tightly packed trees and brush, turning his eyes downward to scour the ground.
   Tamiko and the Lady Black both sampled the air themselves, and Katryn growled as she caught the scents of a large group of creatures. The fox demonstrated his sharp nose by cutting into the forest and dropping to his knees, his muzzle pressed tight to the ground as he crawled through the underbrush.
   He sprang up as the other two rushed to join him. “You’ve found something. What?” Katryn growled.
   The fox pointed to the ground, a bare patch disturbed by a large number of paws. “My brother has been here—his scent is quite clear. I think they’re traveling parallel to the main trail towards the coast.” He grinned, teeth flashing. “And they’re not far off. You two keep on this trail until you get to the main track, and head west. I’ll meet you there.”
   “I’ll go with—” The young bear’s plea was cut off by Ashlin’s raised paw.
   “No. Stay with your mother.” The fox darted off, his body low and nose raised, along the trail. “I’ll meet up with you soon. Travel quickly.”
   In just a few moments, he was invisible amid the underbrush. Tamiko turned to her mother, a chagrined frown on her face. “Now what?”
   Katryn dug a slab of dried venison from her pack, tore it in half, and handed one piece to her daughter. “We have a bite to eat; after that, we follow his instructions. If he says he’ll meet us soon, he’ll meet us soon. Come, let’s move.”
   Grumbling under her breath, Tamiko fell into step with her mother as the two bears trotted along the trail.
   The Mud Harbor track was a major trade route, but relatively quiet now, as many merchants had moved to Southmoor lands as the harvest continued on the that country’s grasslands. The pair of travelers met two groups on the path, one a collection of traders wheeling empty carts back up the route towards Oak Root and the mineral trade houses, and another a small family of squirrels who appeared to be carrying most of their possessions on their backs.
   “Lucky for them Halftooth never spotted them, hm?” Tamiko muttered darkly to her mother as the family disappeared over a hill behind them. “They’d have found a new home all right.”
   “Lucky indeed. Don’t worry, Tami,” Katryn said, rubbing her daughter’s shoulder affectionately. “We’ll make certain this group has taken their last slaves soon enough.”
   “I hope so, Mother. Nobody deserves…”
   She broke off as a figure appeared from the brush ahead of them. “Ashlin!”
   “The same!” The fox grinned as he pulled his hood back and jogged up to them. “I found a camp in the forest, not a day old. They’ve come this way, for certain.”
   “Are they still following the trail?”
   “No, my Lady,” Ashlin responded, pointing southwesterly. “I believe they’ve crossed it, heading for the coast. I suspect they may rendezvous with a ship outside of town, to avoid any difficult questions on the docks. But if we move quickly, we should be able to make it into Mud Harbor by tomorrow night—I don’t think they’re traveling fast enough to get to the coast before the next morning, so we should be able to get some assistance by then.”
   “‘Assistance’…” Katryn growled deep in her chest, and gripped the haft of the sword slung across her back. “If not for their numbers, I could destroy them myself! But you’re correct, young Ashlin. Let’s go, quickly.”
   “Fear not, Baroness and Tamiko!” the fox said with a grin . “We’ll have your son back to you very soon.”
   “Wonderful!” Tamiko threw her arms around Ashlin and hugged him fiercely. The tod whuffed a breath and staggered at her strength at first, then tentatively eased his arms around the bear’s bulk and relaxed into the embrace with a shy smile.
   The bigger bear broke off first, her ears flushing with embarrassment as they both flashed a gaze at Katryn, who shook her head and fought off an amused grin. “The coast, children. Ashlin, if you would be kind enough to take the point position again?”
   “But of course, my Lady.”
   The big bruin huffed in amusement. “My name is Katryn, dear.”
   Ashlin lifted an eyebrow at the noblewoman. “Katryn, then,” he said. “Thank you.”
   “Let’s go!”
   Tamiko pushed Ashlin lightly in the back; the fox laughed, then fell into a quick trot as the bears followed him, the scent of salt water drawing them onwards.

   Waves lapped lightly against the hull of a longboat, the remnants of a fairly steady blow on the wide ocean that stretched out from the mouth of the quiet inlet. Elsewhere, some distance from shore, a blunt-nosed craft lay at anchor; its single mast was bare, and its oars rose above the water like insect’s legs.
   A number of creatures in the well-worn clothes of seafarers chivvied still-chained captives aboard the longboat under the watchful gaze of Halftooth and a muscular coyote with greying fur. The pair stood side by side on the rocky shore, sharing a jar of ale. A whip hung from the aging creature’s belt, and notches in his ears indicated he’d lived through some rough times in the past, but his smile was friendly and open as he surveyed the goings-on.
   “Well met, cousin! ’Tis another fine group you’ve brought me,” the coyote said, raising the jar in salute to the younger tod. “They’ll bring a fine rate on the blocks in Rock Island.”
   “Indeed.” Halftooth smiled slightly, his broken canine glinting in the late afternoon sunshine. “However, I must apologize for their current condition, Radman. We pushed hard to get them here in time for you to make some way up the coastline. The smaller ones may be rather winded.”
   “No need to worry, young Hawthorne.” The coyote dusted some sea-spray from the fine green silk of his tunic and grinned. “A bit o’ sea air will do them good, hey? As well, I’ll put them to work rowin’ the ship, but only four or so. Speakin’ o’ which…”
   He turned to his crew members working with the slaves, and shouted: “Pick out the biggest four and ready ’em for the oar deck!” A pudgy grey fox waved acknowledgement; he followed orders as Radman drained the ale. “Well, lad, I’ve nineteen creatures to trade ye for. I see most of ’em are on the small side, though I’m thinkin’ that little bear should be a fine investment fer the future. What d’ye want for the lot?”
   Halftooth regarded the group of ragged creatures below him, and scratched his neck with his sharpened claws. “What say you make me an offer, my friend?”
   “Far too predictable, young one,” Radman laughed, beckoning two of his crew to join them, each with a hefty sack over a shoulder. “How does this lot look?”
   The sacks were bulging with rich silks in deep reds and greens, mixed with bolts of cloth so soft Halftooth could hardly believe it. Winking rare gems flashed amid the silks, in colors that had never been seen in an Avendale mine. The fox grinned widely. “One day, Radman, I should like to meet these fabled creatures from across the ocean with whom you trade for such things. They’re far too good to keep for yourselves over on your island.”
   “Now, young Lord Silvertail, you know our agreements,” the coyote said, a warning tone in his speech. “We have our trade; you have yours; and ne’er will they meet.”
   Halftooth raised a soothing paw as he nodded his acquiescence. “I know , Radman, I know. Nevertheless, surely you can understand my mild frustration that this is the closest I will ever get to those creatures.”
   “Hah! Of course, young fellow. But if we didn’t keep our secrets, well, how could I get rich off yer hobby here, eh?” The trader looked once again downwards as a second longboat joined the first, the slaves being loaded aboard. He raised a paw and waved for attention.
   “My new friends! I am Radman, and I promise ye that you’ll suffer no injury from me nor my crew. No, you lot are too valuable for me to do ye any harm!” He smiled in a fatherly manner down at the bemused captives, and climbed down to the ground level with them. “Ye may be worried now, but I can assure ye that once you’re in Rock Island, ye’ll be treated with the best manners. Regular meals, roofs over yer heads, and all ye have to do is do your best work for your new masters.”
   He stopped before the creatures and regarded them with a friendly gaze. “I know right now that’s furthest from yer mind,” Radman continued, “being hauled across the sea to an unfamiliar place and not really by yer own choice. But think on this! Ye’re guaranteed a fair day’s food and drink and a place to live, just fer a fair day’s work. Isn’t that a fine idea?”
   One of the captives, a raccoon, glared back up at the coyote. “Fine for those who are forcing us away from our families and lives! If it's such a great deal, why don’t you join us, you bast-”
   Radman didn’t even appear to move, but a crack sounded, echoing off the nearby trees, and the raccoon fell back with a scream of pain, clutching at his newly-ruined ear. As for the coyote, he reeled in his whip with efficient, practiced motions, not even deigning to notice the fresh blood that flecked its steel tip.
   “Any other questions?” he asked, still wearing that friendly smile as he looked at the suddenly fearful creatures. “No? Good. Let’s get ’em aboard, lads. Make sure they’re settled in the forward hold, with blankets and food.”
   The coyote turned back to Halftooth and slapped him on the shoulder as several of the fox’s retainers gathered up the trade goods. “Send a message when next you go hunting for this kind of game, young Hawthorne. Ye know I’m good for it.”
   “I certainly do, Radman. Next time, I’ll have that little bear’s big sister for you, and I’ll be sure she’s well trained.” He grinned. “She’ll be worth a bag of these goods all on her own.”
   Radman grinned back and stepped aboard a longboat, waving. “I’ll look forward to that! Push us off, lads, let’s get back. I want t’ make some time up the coast today.”
   While Halftooth and his group climbed back to the top of the steep slope down to the water, the longboats (and their cargo) were stowed aboard the bobbing larger vessel, and someone had run a sail up its single mast, allowing it to wallow slowly towards the open water. He turned and thumped one of the creatures with him on a shoulder with a wide grin. “So ends another profitable trip! Let’s head for Mud Harbor to celebrate; there’s a farm outside town that’s run by a young maid of my acquaintance. She’s sure to put us up for the night, and I need a drink; a good meal; and a warm, welcoming bed.”
   Amid raucous laughter and jokes, the group of creatures headed north.

   Mud Harbor had grown up around a small natural harbor, settled in the early days of coastal seafaring by those creatures whose craft could not brave the strong flow of the Aven River’s meeting with the sea not far to the north. Curiously, it was the Aven’s very strength that had helped create the long spit that provided a good breakwater and made for a comfortable berth.
   The terrain grew smoother as the main track wound down across wide swaths of fertile land. Harvest-time was a moonspan past, but it had left its mark on the land, which was now rutted and covered with scattered foliage. A sizeable dip in the land gave travelers a fine view of the clump of buildings that stretched up from the twin jetties jutting out into the harbor.
   “A comfortable hamlet,” Katryn commented as Ashlin led the way over the crest of the hill and down towards the colorfully painted structures below. “Though I suspect a good storm could send waves across that spit quite strongly.”
   Ashlin’s tail wagged lightly under his cloak as he pulled his hood up to mask his features. “As I understand it, this is quite a seafarer’s town—I’ve heard tell it has five shops, two inns and twenty or so taprooms. But ‘comfortable’? Only if one is comforted by excitement, methinks.”
   “I don’t see many ships here, though,” Tamiko pointed out, her gaze down at the docks. “Three, it looks like.”
   “I suspect most of the trade is being conducted across the river mouth, in Aven Bay.” Ashlin pointed into the distance, across the yawning expanse that was the river’s outflow to the ocean to a smudge on the shoreline. “It’s much larger, and most of the trade from Oak Hill follows along the river.”
   The Lady Black grunted, shifting her sword hilt and regarding the city before them. “As long as we can find assistance here. It’s getting late in the day. Ashlin, what do you know of the local officials?”
   “If memory serves, this place boasts a Lord Mayor, but that’s all I can offer. His office should be reasonably simple to find, though. Shall we?”
   Few creatures were out and about as they followed the trail into Mud Harbor itself, where the dirt track turned into a wooden boardwalk underfoot that served as the main street leading directly down to the docks. As Ashlin had described, it seemed every second building had a sign hanging over the door with a bottle, cup or keg on it; but most were relatively quiet, and some were boarded up.
   In front of an unmarked building, a single figure—a young female lynx—stood in the dimming sunlight, and stepped out onto the street towards them as they neared. “Welcome to Mud Harbor, milord,” the feline purred at Ashlin, who caught a paw against a loose board and stumbled as he was addressed. “I’d welcome your company if you have the time.”
   “Er… busy, thank you, nice to be here, must be going!” The tod picked up speed to open a distance between himself and the lynx in her gauzy dress. “Lord Mayor’s office must be down by the docks—we must hurry!” he called over his shoulder at the two bears.
   Katryn glowered at the disappointed-looking big cat, who retreated to her doorway. Tamiko gave the fox a bemused look: “Ashlin, I thought you said you didn’t know anyone here?”
   “I don’t,” he muttered, furtively scanning the buildings which lined the road on either side.
   “But she certainly seemed to-” She cut off as her mother leaned over to rumble something in her ear. Her eyes widened. “Males pay for—for that!?”
   Ashlin winced visibly, and managed to avoid Tamiko’s cool glare all the way to the waterfront.
   As the fox had guessed, Mud Harbor’s official business was indeed conducted near the docks, under a sign bearing the seal of Avendale and the mark of the town itself. Katryn took the lead as they entered; using her most imperious tone of voice, she accosted an obviously-flustered clerk, demanding an immediate audience with the master of the town.
   Within moments, they were ushered into the inner office, whose air was heavy with the fragrances of flowers, where they were received by the Lord Mayor of Mud Harbor. This worthy was (rather surprisingly, considering the masculine title) a female bobcat, her fur-rimmed eyes magnified even more by her oval spectacles.
   Clearly ill at ease in the big bruin’s presence, the feline murmured, “Well—ah—perhaps I could offer you so-”
   “No,” was the black bear’s emphatic reply. “We are not here for pleasure, but business. Very urgent business!” With no more preamble than that, Lady Black explained why she and her companions were here. “So, as you see, my Lord Mayor,” Katryn said, concluding her monologue, “it is imperative that you assist us in enforcing the laws of the land and apprehending these brutal miscreants.” Now the bear leaned across the table towards the feline. “I ask that you call out any forces you may have, and we will lead the way to recover these poor creatures from the clutches of their vile captors.”
   The Lord Mayor twitched her whiskers and smoothed beige fur behind one ear as she leaned back in her cushioned chair. “My dear Baroness, I certainly recognize the urgency of this matter, and I sympathize completely with your plight. However…”
   She stood, looking out the window into the approaching twilight. “Unfortunately, my militia is inland, a day’s march or more now, working to clear up a group of bandits that have been causing trouble along the north trade route. I have no aid to offer you.”
   Katryn growled softly, glaring at the feline, who offered a sickly smile and raised paws. “Please, my Lady, understand that I agree that your story is a terrible one. And I wish I could offer you aid in this… but I simply can not.”
   Standing unnoticed in the background, Ashlin’s nose twitched inside his hood as he caught the acrid scent of fear through the prevailing floral odors. He stepped forward and revealed his face. “If I may ask, Lord Mayor, what is it you are afraid of?”
   The bobcat’s eyes bulged in surprise as she regarded the young fox. “I—you—afraid?” she stammered. “You ask what I fear, when a heavily-armed creature thrice my size has invaded my office?”
   “Indeed, madam. Yet it would seem that there might have been something more to your concern,” he replied. “Although I cannot say I have ever held any such position of responsibility as yours, I would have thought that a Lord Mayor should regard a slave trader as a more-pressing concern than a band of brigands?”
   “Hardly,” the cat snorted, barely concealing her contempt for the question. “Commerce is the life’s blood of this city; if our trade is frightened away, we lose our livelihoods. Thus, I have my militia dealing with that situation first. While it sounds cruel, a few slaves are less important to the creatures under my purview.”
   Katryn growled deep in her chest at the official’s comment, but Ashlin laid a soothing paw on her arm. “Of course, of course. Let us take our leave, Baroness; I’m certain we can find some assistance in Aven Bay. The Baron there should be able to provide more troops, and ships.”
   Nodding in agreement, the Lord Mayor adjusted her spectacles. “Indeed, that might be your best opportunity. I truly apologize for being unable to help, but I do wish you the best of fortune in your endeavors.”
   “Thank you for your time, Lord Mayor.” Katryn fixed the bobcat with a long stare, showed teeth in what might have been a smile, and stalked out of the office, her smaller companions trailing behind her.
   After the outside door slammed, the Lord Mayor stepped into the anteroom and peered out the window, watching her angrily gesticulating ‘guests’ walk away. Then, taking off her spectacles and buffing them on her silk cloak, she looked to her clerk.
   “You must seek out Lord Hawthorne Silvertail immediately. One of his retainers was here a few days ago and said they expected to be in the area by today. Check every tavern and inn here, and then the private residences.”
   The diminutive raccoon clerk looked confused. “All that, my Lord Mayor?”
   Claws tore chunks out of the wood of the clerk’s table as the bobcat leaned over nose-to-nose with the creature. “Exactly so,” she growled. “If he’s not in town, try the farms next—but find him! And get him to me, no matter what time of day or night. And say nothing—nothing!—about this.”
   The clerk scurried out of the room. The Lord Mayor licked a paw, then brushed an unruly tuft of cheek fur back into place. Lord Silvertail will pay well for information about these hunters, she thought to herself as she smugly padded back into her office.

   “Something is very wrong there,” Ashlin mused, almost to himself, as Katryn swept along the boardwalk towards an inn, the dimming rays of sunset guiding the way. “Baroness, I believe we’ll want to find ourselves a ship first thing in the morning—if not earlier.”
   Tamiko flicked a rounded ear and regarded the fox beside her curiously. “How did you know she was frightened? I could smell nothing but those blasted flowers.”
   “Fearful creatures have a distinct smell, Tami,” said the big bear, in a voice tight with anger. “But as you say, she was quite well masked with her various concoctions. It seems a popular thing to do in the larger cities, to cover the natural scents of the body with those that the wearer finds more pleasant.”
   “You must have quite a nose, Ashlin,” Tamiko smiled to the tod, whose whiskers drew back in embarrassment at the praise.
   “Unfortunately, I just know what to look for.” He pointed to a building ahead. “That inn looks reasonable. Katryn?”
   The big black bear nodded and turned in the door, where they were met by a rotund coyote in an apron and a somewhat surprised smile as he showed them to two rooms in the nearly empty hostel. Ashlin paid with Southmoor copper tokens, which the innkeeper regarded warily for a few moments before several more were added to satisfy him of their worth.
   A mediocre meal on the table before them, the trio sat and looked out over the open ocean rolling down the slope.
   “What’s that?” Tamiko asked, pointing off into the distance. “More land?”
   Her mother tore a piece from a loaf of bread and sopped up the remnants of a mutton stew from her bowl, squinting out to the dimming horizon. “I suspect that’s Rock Island. Ashlin?”
   “If I remember my maps correctly, that’s exactly what it is. Many leagues offshore, and mountainous—those are probably mountaintops just showing over the horizon.” He speared a slice of cheese and took a bite, pondering the view. “It looks so close, but the currents make it nigh-impossible to get there from here. Strange, isn’t it?”
   “Indeed it is,” Katryn rumbled. “The ships that call at Gateway are certainly not equipped for such a passage without having to ride the current.”
   Tamiko sighed and swirled a splash of milk in her cup, leaning on the table with both elbows until a warning glance from her mother caused her to sit back up straight. “And now we need to find a ship, and hope that we can find help in Aven Bay. This is foolish.”
   A slim black paw patted hers softly, and Ashlin smiled. “We should still be ahead of them, Tamiko. We’ll find them.”
   “I hope so.” The young bruin turned her gaze to the docks, and she cocked an ear forward. “That ship looks different from the ones I’ve seen. Doesn’t it, Mother?”
   The sole craft at berth was a single-mast craft with oarports running along either side, broad in width and low to the water. The front section, though, was what caught Tamiko’s eye, and her mother nodded in agreement with a grunt of surprise.
   “I have only seen one ship with that design before, when I was a child and accompanied my father to the seaward point of Gateway Isle.” She closed her eyes, thinking back. “A storm had blown up, and a ship that had come into harbor brought news of a strange craft foundered in the gale. We had gone down to see if it was close to shore, and saw it off the point, caught on the rocks.”
   Tapping her claws on the table, Katryn smiled to herself. “It was a lovely ship, narrow across and with a sharp, high-sloped foresection rising above the waves. Father said he could tell she was incredibly fast, faster than the round-nosed ships that most of our sailors use. But we could see no crew aboard… perhaps they abandoned her before. Either way, the gale tore her apart, and she sank there.”
   She sighed. “A shame, really. But that ship’s builder”—and she nodded to the high raked bow of the ship below them—“has seen one like it, I suspect. We should speak to her master in the morning.”
   “I bow to your knowledge of the sea, my lady,” Ashlin grinned. “I know that wood will float most of the time if it’s hammered together well, but that is about the extent of my knowledge. I agree, though, it looks to be a good craft to investigate tomorrow.”
   “For tonight, I think I’m going to see if this inn has a bath house with warm water,” Tamiko said, standing up. “Mother?”
   “An excellent idea, dear,” Katryn smiled with approval.

   Morning had dawned clear and crisp, a breeze drifting off the open water ruffling fur as the sounds of commerce began to emerge around the docks of Mud Harbor.
   In fact, as Ashlin—muttering and chewing the last of the pawful of greens he’d cajoled out of the inn’s cook, a kindly grandmother fox who tried her best to convince him a bowl of her morning seafood chowder would do him a world of good—led the way down onto the broad jetty, the ship they’d been discussing the night before was the last left at the docks, its crew swarming over the deck and hoisting barrels from the planks below on thick ropes.
   Standing shirtless on the dock was a powerfully built otter, his dark brown fur mottled and crisscrossed with several scars indicating he had seen action of many kinds, was guiding the loading of supplies, shouting orders as his mixed-species group prepared the high-bowed craft for sail.
   “Come on, hoist harder, you bunch of kittens!” he roared at a group heaving a net full of water barrels upwards. “It’s your own fault yer heads are achin’ this morning! Get that lot aboard!”
   The Lady Black laid a paw on Ashlin’s shoulder as they neared, and stepped past the tod to sweep forward towards the otter. Ashlin frowned slightly, but subsided as he saw the big bear drawing her noble rank around her like a cloak, her poise changing visibly.
   “Excuse me, good sir.” The otter, quite a large specimen of his species, turned and blinked as he was met by an ursine hill. He looked up to meet the steady gaze of the Baroness, who smiled slightly, only showing a few teeth. “Are you the master of this vessel?”
   “That I am, madam.” He swept a rough bow and flashed a quick grin. “Such as she is, at any rate. My name’s Barrett, and the Moon Shadow here is my baby.”
   Katryn cocked an eyebrow curiously. “‘Moon Shadow’?”
   He patted the side of the ship. “Right here, madam. I know, namin’ a ship ain’t exactly the way most folks do things, but, well—I’m not most folks.” Turning, he waved a paw at the crew members on the dock who had stopped their work and were watching curiously; they got back to work, and he shook his head wearily. “Is there something I might do for you and yer associates?”
   “We require passage to Aven Bay, Captain, as part of a pursuit of slave traders who have my son in their filthy paws.” Her eyes flashed angrily. “I have a need to discuss their capture of my son and daughter with them. Vigorously.”
   Leaning his long body against the ship’s hull, Barrett looked her up and down, and shook his head. “My lady, any creature fool enough t’ get on yer bad side deserves what happens to ’em. Rock Islanders, ye’re lookin’ to find?”
   “Actually, most of the party we’re after are Avendale folk,” Ashlin said, stepping forward. “We suspect they’re coming this way to meet a ship, perhaps along the coast outside of town.”
   “Is that so, young sir?” The otter looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned and called over his shoulder. “Oi! Sanders! Come along here!”
   A burly raccoon with a missing ear handed off a brace of chickens to another creature and joined the group. “Yes, Barrett?”
   “You mentioned seein’ a ship last night, didn’t ye? One off along the coastline as we were coming north?”
   Sanders nodded. “Yep. Just pullin’ out o’ that long inlet south o’ town—turned north behind us, I think, with all sweeps out. With that followin’ wind, they might’ve crossed the river ’fore the dark fell and they needed t’ anchor.”
   “Mm… when we came by there, and with enough oar strength, they coulda made Aven Bay before dark, aye.” Barrett scratched at his beige-furred chest ruff and turned back to the others. “I’m betting your slavers made their meeting yesterday… damn Islanders an’ their slaving. I despise that bunch.”
   “Then can you…”
   A shake of his head cut Katryn off. “Ma’am, much as I wish I could help, I’m due back in Grass Bay for a special cargo to bring back north, and if I don’t get this tub pointed southward, my tail’s in a sling.”
   “But this is the only ship here! We can’t get to Aven Bay fast enough any other way!” Tamiko piped up, her deep voice anguished.
   Barrett turned a sympathetic eye to the younger bear. “Dear, if there were any way I could help, I would, but right now…” He stopped, and looked past them up the hill. “Well, now, that looks interestin’.”
   All five creatures peered up the jetty, and the object of Barrett’s attention was quickly evident—a group of a dozen or so creatures milling around outside the Lord Mayor’s office. Ashlin’s sharp eyes caught sight of the bobcat shouldering her way through the group and pointing down towards them, and all the eyes swiveled towards the docks.
   “Never been one for havin’ an audience,” Barrett remarked quietly. “You lot know anythin’ about what’s happening there?”
   “I have my suspicions, sir Barrett,” Katryn rumbled angrily, reaching back over her shoulder to loosen her sword in its scabbard. “I’m going to need to ask you once again for passage. Believe me, I will well compensate you for any cargo issues you may have.”
   The otter regarded the mob of creatures now moving down the dock, then the wary stances of his three visitors. “On second thought, there’s a lovely young otter up that way that makes the finest clam chowder,” he mused, scratching his chin. “I could…”
   “Halftooth!” Ashlin snarled as a dark figure took the lead of the group heading towards them, the young tod’s ears laying back and tail bottling as it twitched under the hem of his cloak. “It’s him!”
   Both bears growled angrily, and steel whistled as the Lady Black’s blade came free, shining in the morning sun.
   “Sanders? Start castin’ off the lines. Anyone still ashore?”
   “The usual, sir.”
   “Damn. Get the crew up and ready, and ring disembark on the ship’s bell. They’ll have to swim. Again.”
   The crowd stopped halfway along the dock, and Halftooth strode out to the fore with a grin. “Richard, my brother!” he shouted, a wide grin on his face. “It’s so good to see you again! And you’ve brought my little friend with you. What a lovely gift!”
   “Come and claim it, you slave-trading slime.” Katryn’s snarl echoed off the row of buildings along the waterfront, and caused a small commotion among the creatures blocking the jetty. “I would love to introduce myself to you in a proper manner. And then carve out your heart slowly.”
   “Tsk! Such aggression from such a lovely female.” The black fox leaned over his shoulder and muttered orders to his ruffians, several unshouldering bow staves and starting to string them. “I’ll make you an offer, madam. I have no complaint with you, but I have lost quite a nice piece of trade from my brother’s meddling in my affairs. Send Richard and that lovely cinnamon-furred beauty next to you over to me, and I will let you leave unharmed.”
   “I’d rather die than be hauled in chains into your bed again!” The young ursine’s teeth flashed and she held her claws ready, eyes fixed on Halftooth as her mother moved to stand by her side. “Last time, you beat me senseless and had me tied up… this time, I’m free. Let’s see who prevails this time!”
   From behind them, Barrett’s voice drifted up the dock just loud enough to reach their ears. “While I’m sure the three of you can handle yourselves well, that mob’s got several archers, and they have ye outnumbered by quite a bit. Climb aboard, and we’ll get out to sea. At least that’ll keep ye from turning into porcupines, hmm?”
   Ashlin’s growl continued unabated as he glared down the docks at his brother, who smirked. “You’ve lost, Richard, you know that. You could never, ever beat me in a fair fight—and I hate fair fights. Father wants to talk to you about Cara, by the way; such a shame, you killing her like that. He’s still broken up over it. Now, come along, little brother: Return your young friend to me, and things will be just like the good old days.”
   “You’ll never hurt anyone again.”
   With a snakelike motion, Ashlin’s right paw snatched a dagger from his belt and sent it speeding directly towards his hated brother’s head. Quick reactions and a flash of sun off metal were the only things that saved Halftooth’s life; he flinched away from the glare, spoiling Ashlin’s aim just enough that the knife did no more than carve a bloody furrow in his cheek before it came to rest in the throat of the cougar standing behind him.
   “Oh, that’s torn it,” Barrett growled, motioning his crew up the gangplank. “Cast off all lines and be ready for a quick run, lads!”
   Halftooth turned to watch as the cougar, a look of surprise on his face and a fan of red down his chest, collapsed to the dock. Then, wiping blood from his face, the fox snarled, “Shoot them all! Kill the big one first, then wound the others, and I’ll deal with them myself!”
   An arrow thudded into a piling next to Katryn, who roared defiance towards Halftooth and his crowd before grabbing Tamiko and hauling her along the dock. “Get aboard, now! Ashlin! Quickly!”
   Cursing his brother’s luck, Ashlin followed, scrambling up onto the deck and ducking behind the wooden sides as the Moon Shadow’s bell clanged out a rhythm and her crew pushed off hard from the docks.
   “Get the harbor oars out right now and push us clear, quick as ye can,” Barrett ordered, ducking as an arrow sailed over his head. “Hoist sail! We’ve a bit of a breeze that can help us out!”
   Paws thudded against wood as Halftooth led a charge to the end of the jetty, his archers still firing at any heads that appeared over the railings of the ship. “Get aboard that thing!” he roared at his underlings, who looked at him questioningly. One enterprising cougar lunged out and caught a dangling rope in his teeth, then hauled himself up—only to have a cinnamon paw smash him in the face just as his head popped over the railing. He made an impressive splash before he surfaced, yowling in fear, and quickly paddled back to the safety of the dock.
   “Damn cats,” Halftooth snarled as he watched the Moon Shadow’s oars push the craft out of easy range. “You’ll regret this the next time we meet, Richard!” he roared towards the receding ship.
   “I already do,” Ashlin muttered to a grinning deer taking shelter next to him. “That was my favorite knife.”

Chapter 4—Currents

   Pushing hard against a rising tide and turning into the current flowing out from the mighty Aven River, the Moon Shadow soon left Southshore in her wake. She was, as Katryn had surmised the night before, fast and smooth in the water, her raked bow slicing through the waves as she caught the breeze and ran before it.
   Standing at the wooden tiller above the squat cabin that enclosed much of the ship’s aft section, Barrett cast a wary glance back along their track to see if any ships had left behind them, then breathed a long, relieved sigh and motioned for one of his crew to take his place.
   “Keep ’er pointed into the river’s mouth and the oarbeats at a good pace—we’ll quarter across the current until we break out,” he advised. “Then…”
   A pair of splashes at the ship’s stern caught Barrett’s attention, and he turned just as two otters, sopping wet in dark grey ship tunics and loose pants, eeled over the railing. “Nice of you t’ join us, you two,” he growled at the two abashed creatures.
   “Sorry, Barrett—we were just looking to pick up a few last things…” the younger of the two started to explain, only to be cut off by a waved paw from the ship’s master.
   “A few last females, y’mean. Tell me later. Get yerself dried off and get to work—we’ve business to attend to.”
   Striding forward, the scarred otter found his trio of passengers amidships. The younger bear was trying to soothe the pains of an otter who had taken an arrow in the shoulder, carefully washing around the shaft where it stood out of the flesh as the wounded female winced. The big bear was stalking back and forth, her face a mask of anger and worry, while the slim creature—now, with his hood thrown back, revealed as a fox who nearly matched the one that had attacked on the docks—sat nearby, moodily staring forward, seeming to search the horizon for the ship they knew to be there somewhere.
   “I think it’s a simple wound—most of the arrows looked like they were just carved points—but I’m not sure it would be a good idea to pull…” The young female cut off and looked up as Barrett arrived, the others turning their heads towards him as well.
   “Well. First thing, if someone would introduce us, I’d appreciate it—that way I can be sure of who I’m yelling at. Can someone explain to me why I just had a bunch of arrows stuck in my ship and my crew?”
   “It’s a long story, Captain,” the young fox said. “My name is Ashlin, and these are…”
   Katryn cut him off brusquely, leaving Ashlin staring at her with an irritated frown. “I am Lady Katryn Black, Baroness of Gateway, this is my daughter Tamiko, and if you wish to yell at someone, I suggest you do so to some creature who will not be compensating you well for your time.”
   Barrett raised an eyebrow and scratched under his blunt muzzle as he regarded the big black bear. “That’s kind of you, Milady, but I think I’d like t’ know a bit more about what the situation is before I decide whether to put in at Aven Bay and toss you lot off my deck.”
   Stalking up next to her daughter, Katryn leaned over, grabbed the shaft of the arrow sticking from the crew beast’s shoulder, and yanked it out with a quick tug. The otter yowled and taught Tamiko several new words that left the younger bear flustered and her ears reddened. “Sit down, Master Barrett”—Katryn pointed towards a barrel with the bloody arrow—“and we will explain. It is a long story, and I hope you understand why we are doing what we are.”
   “I expect it’ll be a fine story, ma’am. Just put that sticker over the side afore ye start, all right?”

   The noonday sun had finally broken through the bank of light cloud that hung over the coast by the time Katryn and the others had finished their tale, taking the edge off the cool breeze that was helping push the Moon Shadow through the harsh currents of the Aven delta.
   Leaning against the mast of the vessel and watching his sailors making the minute adjustments that turned the sail to maximize the wind’s benefits, Barrett shook his head, his tail smacking the thick deck planks angrily.
   “I’ve heard a story or two in my time, but I’ll say this one’s about the nastiest, and that’s sayin’ a lot,” he growled, webbed paws clenching angrily. “If I’d have known that, my crew would’ve taken care of that slime back on the docks for ye.”
   “No fault of yours, sir—we had little time to explain what was happening.” Katryn nodded her thanks as the ship’s cook passed through and handed around thick slices of bread and cheese to each of them.
   “If my aim were better…” The young fox thumped an angry fist against the ship’s rail and sighed, his head hanging. Tamiko placed a comforting paw softly on his shoulder as he stared back along their track.
   “Young fella, there’s more important things t’ be thought of right now, like how fast we can catch up to that ship and get them creatures back to their own homes.”
   Tamiko blinked and turned to the otter. “You’re going to help us catch them? I thought you were just going to get us to Aven Bay and we would be on our own from there.”
   “I could hardly turn ye down after hearin’ that story. Mayhaps I’m a sailor, but I’m also a father, and I’d hate t’ know that me kittens were goin’ to be forced into working the rest of their lives as slaves.” Flexing his paws again, Barrett grinned slightly. “Besides, those Islanders have nicked one too many trade runs from me—about time I got one back off ’em.”
   “Private revenge is a fine cause, Master Barrett,” Katryn rumbled, “but my question would be: How to get the slaves off the ship without them being harmed? I know little of ships other than what I’ve been taught or told.”
   “Well now, my Lady, there’s a bit of a trick to that.” Tapping the side of his muzzle conspiratorially, Barrett grinned. “Give me a few minutes to think ’er over, and I’ll have a bit of a plan for ye. First thing we need to do, though, is catch that ship.”
   Turning, he hollered at the crew. “Alright, mates, new course! Turn ’er to run with the river current and make as much sail as ye can! North’s our course—push her hard! And someone bring me my long-glass!”
   The deck crew scurried to stations and hauled ropes as the Moon Shadow began to heel around, the oars on her starboard side lifted while the port blades cut hard to push the craft into its new course. In a moment, the ship had caught the hard river current that flowed northward, and her speed picked up dramatically.
   “We’ll be able to ride this right out t’ where it meets the ocean current,” Barrett said as he grinned into the breeze generated by the ship’s increased speed. “Then we’ll be pushin’ with the oars as hard as we can from there. No worries, though—my Moon Shadow’s the fastest ship on this coast.” He patted the railing fondly.
   A youthful otter with a black patch of fur along the side of his head and a harried expression hurried up towards the ship’s master clutching a long tube. “You wanted this, Barrett?”
   “Ah, I did indeed!” Barrett took the tube and grinned at his guests. “Not many of these around these parts… I traded for it with some folks down Island Keep way, and a better trade I’ve never made.”
   Katryn regarded the object. “A long-glass? I have heard of them. Very useful.”
   “Indeed it can be. Now let’s see if we can spot that Islander tub.” Barrett strode towards the bow of the ship, trailed by the curious Baroness. Tamiko started to follow, but she noted the other otter looking curiously at Ashlin, a sudden smile flashing across his features.
   “Richard! It’s you!”
   Ashlin had barely turned when he was bowled over onto the deck by the otter with a surprised “wuff!” The otter wound up sitting astride Ashlin’s middle, grinning down at him, then squeaked as he was lifted by the scruff of the neck and turned to face a glaring cinnamon bear.
   “What in the name of Sun are you…”
   “Griff?” Surprise was evident in Ashlin’s voice as he clambered back to his feet and looked at the otter, then grinned widely, one of the few truly happy smiles Tamiko had seen on the tod’s face. “What are you doing here?”
   “I’ll tell you if your bodyguard here will set me down…”
   “Um…” Tamiko, lost for words, placed the otter back on his feet. “My apologies.”
   “Tamiko, you remember the Streamsides telling you about their son? Well, this is him!” Ashlin beamed at his old friend, who grabbed the smaller fur in a rough embrace.
   “You’re stirrin’ up a lot of trouble… nothing new, though, right, Richard?”
   “I’m talented that way, Griff. And I go by Ashlin now—it’s a long story,” he said to the quizzical expression the otter gave him. “I’ll explain later. And this is Tamiko Black—that’s her mother, Lady Katryn Black, Baroness of Gateway, up with Barrett,” he said, pointing out the two bears.
   His tail twitching happily, the otter grinned. “You’re runnin’ in interesting company, Rich… Ashlin. I bet there’s a story here, and you’re going to share it, aren’t—”
   “Griff! Get your sorry tail to work!”
   The otter winced and dashed off. “Talk with you later!”
   Tamiko smiled at the warm expression on her friend’s face as Ashlin watched the otter walk off. “I take it you two hadn’t seen one another for quite some time.”
   “Not since I left,” Ashlin said, shaking his head. “To find him here… I’m a little shocked. Well! This trip just brings more and more surprises.”
   “Certainly does. Shall we go see if Barrett can see anything?”
   The two headed forward, where Barrett had the glass up to his eye, peering forward along the coast. “We’re just startin’ to come to where I’ll be able to see around the headland, it should be a clear shot from there… ah!” Turning over his shoulder, he shouted, “Sanders! Did that ship ye saw have a brown patch on her sail?”
   A voice echoed from belowdecks. “Looked more beige t’ me, but she had a big patch, any’ow!”
   “Then that’s her right there, makin’ way along the coast. If we push hard, we’ll…” The otter stopped as his ship shuddered and lurched to the side. “Damn, there’s the current break. Turn ’er north, lads, and all free hands to the oars! Haul sails to catch what breeze we can—she’s up there, and we need to catch ’er up!”
   Turning steadily starboard, the Moon Shadow slowed, but additional oars ran out and the sail bellied out as it was angled to make use of the breeze, pushing her against the noticeable resistance from the powerful ocean current that had helped shape the strait between the coast and Rock Island.
   Barrett slipped the long-glass into his belt and nodded in satisfaction. “With this pace and them havin’ to push that round bow of theirs against the current until they can turn and quarter it across to the island, we’ll catch ’em up, probably tomorrow night. Lots o’ time to get an idea together.”
   “Thank you, Barrett.” Katryn shared one of her rare smiles with the burly creature. “Until then, is there anything that we can do to help?”
   Looking up at the massive, muscular bear, Barrett grinned widely. “Ever pulled an oar before?”

   Adding the efforts of two large bears to the oar benches belowdecks proved to be necessary that afternoon, as the breeze shifted and slowly died, leaving the Moon Shadow powered by the arms of her crew. Pushing against the current, she made fair time, and the speck that marked the Islander ship grew slowly ahead of them.
   Ashlin had taken one turn on the oars, spelling off for one of the usual oarsmen, but the rocking of the ship had taken its toll, and after an unpleasant moment in the oar deck had been banished topside, where he spent much of the day with his head hanging over the railing. His old friend Griff had found the time to keep an eye on the green-tinged tod and share some seasickness remedies, and by the dawn of the next day the fox was still wan and unhappy looking, but had begun to get his sea legs.
   The Moon Shadow pushed hard all that day, passing thickly treed forests along the coast and seeing little life either on shore or around them. All the time, the ship ahead of them grew slowly closer, until, near dusk the second day, Barrett made his way aft to where the bears were resting their aching arms.
   “Why don’t you two find yer young friend and come into the cabin?” he suggested. “I think I’ve got an idea worked out on how to deal with our friends over there.”
   “Excellent,” Katryn rumbled, getting to her feet and flexing an aching shoulder. “We’ll be right there.”
   Tamiko rounded up Ashlin, and they made their way into the cabin, where Barrett and Katryn, as well as several crew members, were leaning over a scrap of canvas.
   “Right,” Barrett said, “here’s what I’m suggestin’. They’re gonna pull up for the night soon—there’s a protected bay not far from here, and I figure they’ll make use of that. There’s a little notch just south of that bay that I’m goin’ to make sail for, and we’ll pull up there.”
   He sketched the terrain on the canvas with a burnt stick, marking an X in the bay. “They’ll be in here, and we’ll be”—he marked a second X—“right here. They’re not makin’ hard time along here, so I figure that at dawn they’ll be nice and quiet. What we need t’ do is get some crew aboard before they wake up.”
   Tamiko looked up at the ship’s master, cocking her head. “Won’t they have someone on deck? They’ve got slaves and other goods on there, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want any of that to be taken by someone sneaking aboard.”
   “Ah, well, miss,” Barrett grinned, “there’s no reason for them t’ think anyone’s goin’ to do that. It’s been many summers since I’ve heard tell of any ships bein’ boarded in the night up in this part of the coast. It happens a bit down south, but up here, folks feel comfortable bunkin’ down for the night.”
   “You sound like you’ve got some experience with this,” Ashlin murmured, rubbing his temples and chewing another bundle of herbs for his seasickness. Katryn quirked an eyebrow at the otter, who put on an injured expression.
   “Perish the thought that I’d ever do anythin’ like that!” he said.
   The raccoon Sanders snickered. “Not when anyone can see ye, any’ow.”
   Katryn regarded the otter Master for a moment, then shook her head. “How do you propose we get aboard?”
   “Well, a group can take our ship’s boat, and I’ll have a couple of my otters push it around the headland and over t’ that one.” Barrett drew a line on the map. “Someone shins up the anchor rope and drops a rope ladder I’ve got stashed away, the rest of the bunch climb aboard, release the slaves—both the new ones and the ones workin’ the oars belowdecks—and they should well outnumber the crew. Take the ship, we’ll come in with the Shadow to help, give the Islanders a longboat and some supplies, and away we go.”
   “Wait. We’re going to steal the whole ship?” Tamiko’s voice was incredulous. “Isn’t that against the law?”
   “Only if ye get caught.”
   An ear flicking lightly, Katryn regarded the map, pondering the idea. “I like it.” The big bruin looked around. “Who will be going?”
   “I can handle the climbing and the ladder,” said Ashlin, standing up. “Besides, I started this, I’d like to finish it.”
   “Good,” the bear approved. “I will, of course, be along.”
   “And me.” Tamiko’s expression as she looked at her mother dared her to forbid the younger bear’s participation. “If the slaves are locked up, I should be able to break them free.”
   Barrett looked between the two ursines as their gazes met and held for a long moment. Finally, Katryn nodded. “Very well. You will find volunteers from your crew, Barrett?”
   “I’ve got them already. Griff and another of the lads will push, and I’ve a couple o’ good fighters who’ll join the boardin’ party.” The otter grinned. “I hate t’ miss the fun, but I’ll be navigatin’ me old girl in to join you all afterwards.”
   “Excellent.” The big bear smiled her approval. “When we arrive back home, Barrett, I think I have some offers for you. You have a very devious and useful mind.”
   Barrett hauled his thick tail around into his lap and looked down at it, brushing imaginary dust from the fur. “Aw, stop, you’re embarrasin’ me.”

   As Barrett had predicted, the Islander vessel had tacked out of the current and into the calm waters of the bay, and just after dark, he had carefully coasted the Moon Shadow in on the south side of the headland out of the sight of the other craft.
   Despite the tension of the creatures planning to make the raid at first light, the crew was boisterous, and gathered on the aft deck to play games of chance and enjoy a few mugs of thick ale. Tamiko, whose mother had retired to the cabin she had politely usurped from Barrett, had joined them at the urging of Bree, the female otter whose shoulder she had helped treat after the confrontation on the dock, but found she couldn’t relax, and eventually excused herself.
   She bumped into Griff at the bottom of the stairs to the deck. “Have you seen Ashlin?” she asked the young otter.
   “I thought he was up with you lot, actually.” He shrugged. “Must’ve bunked down already—he’s still a bit sickly.”
   Tamiko nodded. “I suppose so. See you in the morning, then.”
   She wandered forward on the deck as Griff disappeared up the steps, looking onto the silent shore, then stopped as she saw a dark shape settled amid a heap of sails in the forward locker. “Ashlin?”
   “Mm.” The fox’s eyes glinted as he turned to regard her from where he was stretched out amid the canvas. “A little too loud up there for me.”
   With a soft chuckle, Tamiko nodded. “Same here. They seem to be enjoying themselves, though.”
   He nodded, looking out across the sea. “I just needed some time to think before tomorrow, and I always find looking at the stars clears my mind.”
   The canvas rustled, and Tamiko sank into it next to him, reclining and resting her head back onto crossed paws. “That sounds like a good idea.”
   Ashlin smiled, his long tail twitching against the bear’s leg as she settled in. “Tamiko… Are you sure you want to come along tomorrow? It might be dangerous.”
   “My brother is on that ship, Ashlin.” Her voice was firm. “There is no way I will sit back and let others rescue my family members.”
   “I had to ask.” Then the fox sighed quietly.
   “What’s wrong?”
   “I’m just thinking about what happened back on the dock.” He shook his head. “I lost my head when Hawthorne started taunting us… and I wound up killing another creature. I’ve been kicking myself since.”
   “Ashlin… you couldn’t have known that would happen, and you know that if they’d captured us, they would have done far worse.” Tamiko turned to look at the fox. “And your brother deserved it, for what he’s done.”
   “I know.” The young tod sighed again. “But now we’re chasing someone entirely different, and he’s back there doing who knows what. I feel cheated, almost.”
   The bear rolled onto her side, propping her head up on one elbow and regarding her companion. “What we’re doing now, though, is correcting the harm that he’s done, at least in a small way. And when we’ve taken care of that, perhaps we can find some more support to help deal with him.”
   “We?” Ashlin lifted an eyebrow at her words.
   “We. I’m hardly going to let him get away with what he’s done, and I’m sure Mother won’t either.”
   “I’m glad to hear that, Tamiko.” He paused. “Are you as nervous about tomorrow as I am?”
   “To be honest,” she admitted, “I’m scared almost out of my fur. But I’m not about to miss it.”
   Sitting up, Ashlin fumbled at his neck for a moment. “Here, I want you to take this. Maybe you can take some extra luck from it tomorrow.”
   Tamiko blinked as he placed something in her paws, and lifted it by the cord into the dim light that flashed off the facets of the immaculately carved blossom pendant. “You… want me to have this? But... you made this for your mother, didn’t you?”
   “Yes, I did,” he nodded. “And now I want you to have it. I’ve worn it for the past three summers, and it’s reminded me every day of my mother. I think she would have liked you... she was a very strong creature in the face of some very hard situations. So, I think it’s a good fit for you, too. It’s brought me some luck… like being able to help you.”
   The bear started to say something, then stopped, smiled, and slipped the cord over her head before settling down into the canvas again, nestled against the fox’s side. Tentatively, her paw slipped around his, their fingers interweaving.
   He squeezed her paw softly. “Hmm?”
   “Have I said ‘thank you’ for everything that you’ve done for me yet?”
   Ashlin turned and smiled, starlight glinting in his eyes.
   “You just did.”
   Later, as he paced the deck trying to convince himself that sleep would be a good idea, Barrett found the two young furs still curled up in the sail locker, Tamiko’s head resting against Ashlin’s shoulders as they slept. The big otter smiled to himself at the sight, shaking his head at the abilities of the young to relax in the face of danger.
   “More power to ’em,” he murmured softly, padding quietly away to leave the two to their slumber.

   Flickers of red morning sunlight spilled through gaps on the rugged coastal mountainsides and shone on breakers as a small boat moved near silently around the headland and began to close with the Islander vessel where it bobbed gently on the surf. A single lantern burned on the deck, providing a good target for the boat to head towards.
   Tamiko sat at the stern of the vessel, whispering instructions down to Griff as the two otters pushed the craft powerfully along towards its target. Her mother, just forward, had given the blossom pendant at her neck a long look when they had boarded, but had remained silent and was now watching their target with a steely gaze, clutching the hilt of her broadsword. At the bow, Ashlin stared fixedly at the nearly dark vessel, the bundle that was his rope ladder strung over his shoulder, while other volunteers from the Moon Shadow’s crew, some carrying ropes and others with belaying pins and blunt objects, waited tensely.
   No life was visible on the decks as they closed the gap slowly, and the otters carefully guided their craft towards its stern. Ashlin pointed suddenly, motioning to Tamiko that he had spotted the anchor line, and the bear conveyed his directions to Griff, who made minute adjustments to its course until the nose slipped up right next to the line.
   With a wave to the rest of the group and a point up along the side of the ship, Ashlin grabbed the line and shinned his way up, his slim form just visible in the darkness as he clambered expertly up and over the railing.
   On the deck, the tod looked around warily in the light of the single guttering lantern, but saw nothing to indicate any creatures were astir among the vessel’s crew just yet. He made his way forward quickly, dropping down from the aft cabin to the main deck and waving to the boat below, which glided up beneath him as he fixed the rope ladder and lowered it quietly down to the water.
   Barrett’s five volunteers quickly swarmed up the ladder and spread out on the deck, keeping silent and looking around the unfamiliar ship. Ashlin gave Tamiko a paw over the railing as the hefty bear made her way up, puffing; Katryn made her way up and glared around almost as if expecting a defending force to be battled. Finally, Griff and Bree joined them, dripping on the deck.
   After a look around, Sanders, the most experienced of the group, pointed forward towards a pair of hatchways. “Hold and oar deck,” he whispered around. “Definitely slaves below—watch for guards.” Indicating Tamiko and two others, he pointed towards the oar deck hatch, then motioned to Katryn and another creature and started towards the forward hold. Ashlin and the others watched warily, eyes on the main cabin door.
   They all winced when one of the hatches creaked audibly, but there was no sign that it had been heard—scattered jars and the scent of strong liquor on the deck suggested a reason for the crew to be sleeping late.
   Tamiko slipped down onto the oar deck and shook her head at the motley collection of scents she picked up from the heaps of fur and ragged clothing that lay sleeping around the deck. Joined by a deer and another otter, she moved to the nearest group, and carefully clamped her paw over the muzzle of a squirrel while her associates did the same with two others. The squirrel’s eyes opened abruptly and he tried to struggle, but she held her finger in front of her paw and whispered “Shh! We’re here to help you!”
   Recognition dawned in the squirrel’s eyes and he relaxed just as Tamiko realized he’d been part of the string of captives Halftooth had turned over to the Islanders. She grinned and nodded. “Any guards here?” When he shook his head, she motioned to the rest of the dozen or so oar slaves. “Help us wake the others—quietly. We’ll need everyone’s help.”
   He nodded, motioning to the others who had been awoken to join them as the creatures spread out along the oar deck.
   Just ahead in the forward hold, Griff led the way down the steps and grunted as he found a barred gate in his way. Within, he could see sleeping forms in the steadily increasing light—but a locked chain held the door fast. He looked up and motioned Katryn over.
   “Any suggestions, ma’am?” the young otter asked, motioning to the lock.
   With a brittle grin that showed more teeth than really necessary, she took hold of the bars around the lock. Her shoulders strained under her cloak, and with a crunch, the bars came away in her paws. The door swung open as Griff stared at the shattered gate.
   “Good suggestion.”
   “Who’s there?” a voice came from inside the hold, surprisingly loud in the silence. The trio winced, and Katryn ducked in as the other captives started to awake with expressions of surprise at the huge form amid them despite her paws waving for silence.
The shriek came from nowhere, and Katryn was abruptly knocked backwards by a flying ball of fur that hit her in the chest, Takuma leaping into her arms crying happily.
   “Shush now, dear, we’re still in…”
   “What’s all the ruckus down…” The angry voice from above cut off abruptly with a shout of surprise. “All hands! We’ve been board—”
   A solid thud of wood on skull silenced the voice—which belonged to a coyote who had been sleeping in the bow, the blow delivered by an otter with a belaying pin—but the damage was done.
   Ashlin spun as the cabin door opened and the crew—coyotes, foxes and a few felines—swarmed out in various states of dress, clutching whatever they could bring to paw. Somewhere, a bell started to clang. “Up, lads, repel boarders!”

   Just rounding the headland, Barrett’s keen ears caught the ringing of the Islanders’ bell. “Damn,” he growled. “Sounds like trouble. All hands to oars—get us in there fast as ye can!”
   The Moon Shadow surged forward as the oars bit deep, drawn towards the sudden uproar of angry shouts and yelps from the other craft.

    Four creatures met the first wave of Islanders charging out of the cabin, Ashlin leading the way. Armed with a pair of belaying pins, he clubbed a coyote to his knees, then kicked the beast in the face and turned just in time to avoid a swing of a knife from a fox, whose swings drove him back and up the stairs to the topside deck. Shouts arose as a flood of creatures came up out of the oar deck and slammed into the back of the crowd of crew members, and the brawl spread.
   Griff scrambled out of the forward hold and charged into the fray, using his thick tail as a club and punching, clawing and biting as he battled. Behind him, Katryn looked at her sobbing son, then the others still gathered fearfully along the walls. “You stay here,” she advised, before clambering back towards the deck. There was a sudden thud from above, and the bear’s body slumped back down to the base of the ladder as the hatch was slammed down and latched.
   Radman grinned as he jammed the bolts home on the hatch. “That’ll teach ye,” the grizzled coyote growled, before shouting, “Capture ’em, lads, we’ll have a fine haul when we get back home!”
   Behind the crowd of creatures rising from the oar deck, Tamiko launched herself into the fight, her big paws slamming Islanders roughly to the deck as the brawl rolled back and forth across the cluttered deck, shouts and angry snarls echoing from the shores of the bay. The bear winced as a scream of pain came from her left, and turned to see one of the oar beasts writhing on the deck and clutching at a dagger protruding from his middle. Indeed, it seemed that the slaves, weakened by their captivity, were outmatched by the crew, and more and more of them were sprawled unconscious—or, in some cases, worse—on the deck.
   She drove forward, growling with anger and wondering where her mother was as she swatted a red fox who stumbled and collapsed from the blow. The brown bear was about to scoop up that creature and use him as a projectile when something looped around her neck from behind and tightened sharply.
   A paw planted itself in the small of her back as the noose was pulled hard. Bent backwards, Tamiko gagged and pulled at the cord around her neck, spots appearing before her eyes as her unseen assailant strangled her efficiently. “You must be the young lass Lord Silvertail was referrin’ to—the lovely sister!” a voice purred next to her ear as she crumpled to her knees. “Well, you’ll certainly bring a fine price at the market. I might keep ye myself—you and yer mama.”
   Tamiko tried to bring a paw around to hit the creature, but that paw was deftly caught in the cord and twisted behind her back. The grizzled coyote twisted around in front of her, tightening his whip around her neck and grinning widely. “Go t’ sleep now, dearie, and I’ll find ye something fine to do later…”
   The deck and the coyote were beginning to go dark before her eyes, and Tamiko knew she was about to fade out, the Islander crew’s shouts turning successful as creatures were subdued… and then a loud snarl of rage came from above, and a black blur appeared, knocking the coyote away from in front of her and bowling him across the deck.
   She clawed the whip away from her throat and gasped for breath, dropping to all fours and looking up through whirling colors and spots to see Ashlin and the coyote, dressed in fine silks and obviously a leader of the group, rolling around in a nest of ropes under the mast, paws thudding against one another as they battled in a biting, snarling mass.
   Shaking her head to try and get her senses back, the young bruin scooted back against the cabin just as the ship lurched, some of the battlers twisting the tiller and shoving the ship into a starboard list abruptly. The sail dropped, and the yard, which had been at rest amidships, suddenly heeled around as the breeze caught it, twisting to the side.
   Clawing angrily at the figure that he fought, Ashlin was surprised as the ropes around them suddenly twisted and tightened, pulling him and the coyote together facing one another. A flash of surprise appeared in the other canine’s face as they were abruptly dragged across the deck, then both yelped in pain as they hit the railing and were roughly pulled over. The ropes pulled taut and left them dangling from the end of the yard, several armlengths of rope hanging them not far over the rippling water and swinging them back and forth as the yard heeled in the breeze.
   “Ashlin!” Tamiko croaked through her battered throat as she saw the creatures disappear over the side, pulling herself painfully to her feet and stumbling to look over the railing and punching a snarling cougar into the water almost without thought.
   Radman grunted as he and this black fox were left dangling, caught tight against one another within several loops of the sail rope, then blinked as recognition dawned. “Lord Silvertail?” he asked incredulously as he looked the snarling fox in the face.
   “Hardly,” the tod growled back, before lunging forward to snap his jaws around the coyote’s muzzle and bite down hard.
   The Islander tried to yowl in pain as teeth dug deep, and flailed his free arm, slamming it into Ashlin’s side and scoring the fox’s cheek with a blow of his blunt claws. Blood streamed down both their fronts as the smaller fur, pushing the blood flowing from Radman’s muzzle out of his mouth as well as possible, held on tenaciously against the blows and the lurching of the yard above them that tugged first one direction, then the other.
   The Islander was starting to suffocate as Ashlin wriggled his right arm free and started scrabbling down his side, snarling as he reached for his knife—the knife that had been left sitting on the Southshore docks. Surprise showed in his eyes as he realized the sheath was empty—just as Radman’s flailing paw found the blade hanging from the other side of the fox’s belt.
   Tamiko, slumped against the rail, cried out a weak warning as she saw the flash of metal in the Islander’s paw, but could do nothing except watch in shock as the coyote drove the blade into Ashlin’s unprotected side.
   The black fox stiffened and yowled, breaking his grip on the coyote’s muzzle, trying to writhe away from the sudden searing pain in his side, but unable to escape as the coyote, snarling in anger, twisted the knife viciously. “I’ll teach ye to invade my ship!” he growled, pulling the knife back and slamming it home again and again into the young fox’s body.
   Crimson burst from Ashlin’s mouth as he tried to cry out again, but with a final blow of the knife, he stiffened again, then went limp, his chin drooping onto the coyote’s shoulder in a grotesque parody of an embrace.
   “No…” Tamiko whispered as she stared down from the deck, hardly noticing the shouts of surprise and the shattering wood that announced her mother’s abrupt return to the fray forward as she took in the scene before her.
   Radman spat a mouthful of blood into the slumped fox’s face, then twisted around to shout to his ship. “Someone haul the bloody yard in and get me back… Look out!”
   His shout was just a bit late, however, as the Moon Shadow’s raked bow suddenly loomed over the port rail of the Islander ship. Creatures shouted in surprise as the slave ship was rammed amidships, the railing and deck splintering as the sharp pointed bow drove into her, followed by the roar of the rest of the Moon Shadow’s crew swarming onto the stricken craft.
   Above Radman, the yard gave a sharp jerk as it was slammed hard to the side by the impact, the jolt snapping a line holding a heavy block in place. The block plummeted down and splashed into the water next to the suddenly freed coyote. He shoved Ashlin’s limp body away from him and turned to shout at the deck again, but as he started to swim, a black-furred paw rose from the water behind him, two loops of the quickly disappearing rope clutched tight in its grasp.
   The coyote gagged as the rope dropped around his neck and tightened, the weight of the heavy block tugging it down into the depths of the bay. Thrashing against the pressure, he tried to grab the rope before it ran out, but gave a choked scream that was cut off as he was abruptly yanked under. Bubbles rose from below for a time; many at first, then less, until they disappeared entirely.
   And then there was one figure floating in the water.
   Amid a spreading dark pool, the young fox managed to turn his face up towards the voice, where Tamiko leaned out over the railing with a stricken expression. His paw rose weakly towards her. Then the ship jolted again as the Moon Shadow twisted in her midsection, sending a series of waves rolling out into the bay.
   When the waves subsided, Ashlin was gone.
   Tamiko looked frantically around the ship as the sounds of combat arose once again behind her, the snarls of her mother answered by shouts of fear from Islanders.
   “No…” she growled, anguished. “No…”
   Paws thudding towards her caught her attention and she turned, anger tinging her vision red as she saw a group of Islanders fleeing from the resurgent battle amidships. They froze as she stood to her full height, her teeth bared. With a growl of loss and hate, the young bear launched herself at the shocked creatures—claws first.

   When Tamiko groggily opened her eyes next, the light was bright. Near midday, she judged from the sun’s angle and the shadows. Her head hurt, and there was a weight on her back.
   “Someone is sitting on me,” she said, matter-of-factly.
   The weight shifted. “She’s awake!” some creature called. “Should I hit ’er again?”
   A large pair of black paws appeared quickly before the bear’s face, and her mother said, “No, thank you. I think she’ll be fine.”
   “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want her t’ do what she did back there agai-”
   The weight suddenly disappeared from her back, and a pair of deer hooves were gently set on the deck before her.
   “Or I could just let you handle this, ma’am,” the deer said, before quickly scurrying away.
   Tamiko struggled to her haunches with Katryn’s help, and then settled against the cabin of what she realized was the Moon Shadow.
   “Are you all right, dear?” Her mother’s big paws brushed against the back of her head, getting a painful wince from the younger bear. “That’s quite a bump. I’ll speak to Davyd about his use of excessive force later.”
   “What… what happened?” Tamiko asked as a cup of water was pressed into her paw. “Why did he hit me?”
   “Because, young lady, you were on a rampage the likes of which I’ve never seen before.” Barrett appeared from topside and hunkered down next to her. “It was either knock ye senseless or have a lot o’ creatures laid up for moonspans while they healed. If they healed.”
   Her mother, who Tamiko saw had a rough bandage along one cheek and another around an arm, chuckled quietly. “She appears to have inherited her late father’s temperament. Whenever he was angry, woe betide anyone who got in his way.”
   “I don’t remember…” The young bear froze, and her eyes widened. “… Ashlin. Did anyone…”
   Barrett laid a paw on her shoulder gently. “One of my lads saw him go under, and my otters tried their best… but we didn’t have much time t’ do anything. That Islander ship started t’ sink when she shifted away from the Shadow, and she went down awful quick after we got everyone off. It’s too deep there t’ dive too far, an’ if he’s down there, he’s probably under th’ hull.” He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
   Tears welled up in Tamiko’s eyes as she clutched the pendant at her throat, and she sank into her mother’s embrace, weeping bitterly. Barrett cleared his throat, his own eyes glistening, and stepped away, draping a paw around Griff’s shoulders as the young otter stared disconsolately back into the bay that was drawing away behind them.
   A furry weight clambered in between the two bears, and Tamiko looked down at her brother, who wrapped his arms around her neck and hugged her tightly. “Don’t be sad, Tami, I’m okay,” the cub said, wiping her cheek with one paw, then brushing off the damp on her tunic.
   “And look at all this trouble you’ve caused,” her mother, voice choked, said quietly, ruffling Takuma’s ears. “Making us chase you all over the countryside.”
   “I didn’t do nothing!” he protested, his face a mask of indignation. “That mean fox did it!”
   “I know, Taku, I know,” Tamiko said, hugging him close. “That mean fox has a lot to answer for.”
   Her mother’s face hardened. “Indeed he does.” She brushed tears from Tamiko’s face and hugged both of her cubs close. “You two rest now. It’s been a hard day, and it’s going to be a long trip home.”
   Takuma looked up at his sister and cocked his head. “Mama and you are both sad about something, Tami… How did you all get here? With this boat and everything?”
   The cinnamon-furred bear wiped her cheek and managed a smile for her brother. “Well, that’s a pretty long story, Taku… but we owe it all to a fox named Ashlin….”
   Leaving her children together, Katryn walked over to Barrett, and put a comforting paw on Griff’s shoulder. “Do you have anywhere pressing to be in the next while, Barrett?”
   The otter’s eyebrow quirked upwards. “Lady Black, I am at your disposal, if ye have some place you need t’ go. Quite honestly, I managed t’ salvage enough trade goods off that Island tub before she went down to keep me afloat for a good few seasons.”
   She nodded her appreciation. “Well, I think our first goal should be to call in at Aven Bay and get these creatures we’ve rescued—” she swept a paw at the deck, where the captives were milling about nursing various injuries in the cheerful atmosphere of freedom, “—on their roads back to their homes.”
   “Aye,” Barrett nodded, “that’s an excellent idea. Griff here has asked fer some time to go back home and tell his parents about… well…” He looked back sadly at the bay, and the young otter lowered his gaze again before walking to the far rail, where his shoulders shook with quiet sobs. “So we’ll need t’ put in at Aven Bay nonetheless. But then…”
   The big bear’s eyes narrowed. “Then I have another stop to make before we can return to Gateway.”
   “Just say the word, my Lady.”

   The Aven River was well populated with flat-bottomed skiffs and other small boats. These craft hauled goods back and forth along its length, up to the waterfall that blocked travel just above the swelling known as Oak Lake and the bustling town of Oak Root. Thus, the creatures that worked along the docks were used to seeing boats along the river.
   They were not, however, used to the sight of a billowing white sail pushing a high-bowed coastal trader ghosting gracefully against the current, her oars moving smoothly as they pushed her into the lake.
   Furs stopped what they were doing and watched as the large craft made her way towards an open jetty and pulled alongside; a few creatures grabbed the lines tossed over her sides and made them fast as the sail was drawn up and lashed into place.
   Then they waited, realizing that something interesting was about to take place.
   The gangplank slid down and thumped onto the dock, and a burly otter strode to the top, wearing a green silk jerkin and black baggy trousers, a sword thrust through the wide white belt around his waist. “Her Honor, the Lady Katryn Black, Baroness of Gateway!” he declaimed in a loud voice that turned heads all along the waterfront.
   In a glittering green dress, gems sparkling at her neck and ears—and on the pommel of the massive blade strapped to her back—the big black bear appeared at the top of the gangplank, stopped for a moment with a stern expression, then strode down to the base of the plank, followed by the otter and a raccoon, also in the green and black. A second group—this one a smaller brown bear, accompanied by a pair of otters—came down to the dock as well, these in more modest traveling gear.
   Katryn turned to Tamiko as the younger bear joined her, her mood still subdued after Ashlin’s loss. “You know where to go?”
   “Yes, Mother. Are you sure they’ll accept your offer?”
   “I haven’t a clue, dear. Nevertheless, I must do something,” she replied, shaking her head. “No matter what, we will be here when you return.”
   Tamiko nodded with a wan smile. “Good luck, Mother.”
   “You too, dear.”
   The trio made their way along the dock, followed by curious gazes, but their interest was quickly drawn back as Katryn, Barrett and Sanders stalked to the head of the jetty, where a pair of city guards had been drawn by the commotion.
   “I desire an audience with the Prince of Avendale,” Katryn commanded. “You will take me to him immediately.”
   In the face of a huge, obviously irritated bear-noble and two armed sailors, the guards didn’t even think of saying no.

    A definite chill hung in the air of the audience room at Oak Hill that had nothing at all to do with the late autumn day outside.
   Prince Eric, after a hurried reception for his noble guest, had—at her suggestion—led the way to the private audience room, and chased out his retainers and his mate. Her gaze suggested he’d be hearing about his decision later. He’d offered a chair to the Baroness; she declined. Instead, she remained towering over the cougar as he sat in his throne—even with the dais it sat on, she loomed over him—and she had, likewise, turned down wine and food.
   Katryn related the entire story of their dealings with the young Lord Silvertail, obviously restraining her anger throughout.
   “…And I sincerely hope that you understand the need for some very strong sanctions against Lord Hawthorne, your Majesty,” she concluded, folding her arms and regarding the paunchy feline as he straightened on his throne.
   “I sincerely regret that you have faced such difficulties here in Avendale, my Lady.” Prince Eric poured himself a glass of wine and sipped thoughtfully. “I must say, I’ve never heard a story quite like that before, and especially one involving nobles on all sides.” Swirling his wine in its glass, he glanced up at the bear with a weak smile. “Regrettably, I must also say also that your story seems to be one that not many would truly believe.”
   “What?” Katryn’s hackles rose and she glared at the cougar. “Do you accuse me of lying to you about this?”
   The Prince held his paws up in a soothing gesture. “My Lady Black, I would never call you a liar”—he chuckled wryly—“at least not if I still valued my life and intact limbs. But you must admit that your testimony of the actions taken by Hawthorne Silvertail are only what you have been told at a distance..?”
   “My daughter and the youngest Silvertail scion told me exactly what happened—” Katryn growled angrily as the cougar raised a finger to cut her off.
   “Lord Hawthorne’s brother is hardly neutral in this matter, my Lady.” The cougar stood and stretched languidly, adjusting his crown and pacing along one wall of the room. “In fact, as I understand it from his father, a well-placed and well-considered member of the Avendale nobility, young Richard—”
   “—yes, my apologies, Ashlin. Young Ashlin—and I am terribly sorry to hear of his passing in such a way—left his home under poor conditions, and after claiming the life of his own sibling.” Eric shook his head sadly. “Thus, I would question any information he might provide about his family. And as for your daughter… Do you have proof that it was, in fact, Lord Hawthorne who captured her? Did you see him trade these ‘slaves’ to the Rock Island creatures? Did you see her in his company, or did you simply take at her word that she was captured by a noble creature whose official record is without blemish?”
   A massive paw slammed down on the table set in the middle of the room, which emitted a painful crunch, then slowly tottered and collapsed into two pieces. “He raped my daughter repeatedly, and I would never question her word on such a claim,” Katryn snarled. “How dare you suggest that she would lie about such a thing!”
   The cougar’s ears flicked back, and his whiskers twitched as he eased himself away from the bear. “My dear Baroness, I simply brought the question to the fore, as would happen in any court of law. The simple fact is, I have your side of this story. And, my Lady, certain questions of history would arise as well.”
   “Of course. Most know that the baronies of Wood Lake and Gateway were both earned on the same battlefield—when your ancestor, and that of the clan Silvertail, met and killed one another.” Scratching behind an ear, the Prince shook his head. “That, in itself, would cause many creatures to wonder if this were an attempt to cause the return of a long-standing grudge.”
   “Preposterous!” Katryn snorted. “You indulge in sophistry to protect Silvertail.”
   Eric cocked his head and put on an expression of insult. “Not at all. I simply raise issues that would come up, regardless, if I were to take any action against young Lord Hawthorne. I would also require the other side of the story before making any decisions.” He offered a simpering smile and tapped his claws against half of the broken table. “I will, of course, send for the fox in question immediately and take his comments under consideration as well.”
   Katryn fixed the cougar with an angry stare and held silent for a few moments. “You don’t care, do you? You, the leader of this country, share the belief that the strong have every right to use the weak—as servants and food.”
   Now Eric’s gaze turned angry. “My beliefs,” he purred, “are my own, my Lady. You may rest assured that I will never support such actions among my subjects. If I have evidence—firm evidence—of slaves being taken in Avendale, I will take the appropriate actions.”
   The bear shook her head and leaned her massive paws on the back of a chair. “It is sad,” she rumbled, her eyes fixed on the cougar’s, “that it is possible to buy the favor of the Princehood with a few pawfuls of sparkling trinkets.”
   Straightening, she snorted. “Prince Eric, be advised that I will take this report to Queen Sarena of Southmoor. As you will obviously not punish clan Silvertail, I will advise her to ensure that no fruits of Silvertail labor be accepted in trade across the border.”
   The Prince stiffened. “What? Those gems make up a large part of our barter for wheat and animals!”
   “Do they, now?” A brittle smile crossed the muzzle of the massive bear. “In that case, my good Prince, I should suggest that you either deal with this problem… or learn to eat trees.” She turned and stalked towards the door, then stopped. “May I ask, Your Majesty, that you send a message to the Baron of Wood Lake?”
   “You may ask.” His voice was sharp and cold.
   She turned. “Let the Baron know that, were I a less level-headed creature, I would not have come to you first. Rather, I would have returned to Gateway; impressed the island’s entire population into an army of conquest; marched on his barony; and reduced the entire place to smoldering wreckage in retribution for what was done to my daughter.”
   “That would have been an act of war!” the Prince gasped, staring in shock at the simmering anger in her eyes.
   “Perhaps. But if a weak fool of a leader will not deal with the vagaries of his nobility, it may be better left up to those who have the strength to do so.” The bear paused. “I may yet do so. But I will leave that as… a surprise. Much like young Lord Hawthorne’s attack on my family. Only this time… I will be prepared for it, and they will not. And my sword is much sharper than his knife.”
   She showed a mouthful of teeth to the surprised Prince, turned on her heel, and stalked out.

   As the Lady Black and her honor guard—supplemented by a group of palace guards who followed at a respectful distance, with the air of furs told to make certain that an unwanted guest leaves the manor—swept back down the road from the palace, they drew attention from the mid-afternoon market crowds and merchants, who stopped what they were doing and watched the odd parade pass by.
   Near the waterfront, one figure in a dark cloak, a hood pulled up over its head that didn’t quite hide a pointed black muzzle, white blotches on either side, watched the procession and growled softly to itself from the back of the crowd.
   “So the rumors are true,” the figure muttered as Katryn led the way back up the gangplank, which was unceremoniously drawn up behind them. “Something’s happened, and they’ve come all the way here to bring it all to the Prince…”
   This doesn’t bode well at all, the creature realized. It snarled silently, showing one sharp canine, the other broken off near the gum, then shook its head and pulled its heavy pack up over its shoulder more firmly.
   Turning away from the docks, Halftooth joined the tail of a merchant train that was trudging its way northward, towards the tiny settlements of the cold, forested north.
   Perhaps I should learn the mining trade, he mused glumly. It certainly looked like he might need to practice that profession for quite some time.


   High-pitched squeals and chirps echoed through the hull of the Moon Shadow as the sleek vessel carved her way through the waves and currents off the mouth of the Grass River, a pod of porpoises gamboling in her bow wave. A cheerful work song echoed up from the oar deck in reply, blown ahead of the craft by an ocean breeze that pushed her towards the cliffs of the island ahead.
   A pair of small, mottled brown paws grasped the railing of the ship, and a grunt of effort raised the tips of two long, slender ears just above the rail, followed by a grumble of irritation.
   The ears suddenly rose again—followed by the body of Darin the rabbit as he was hoisted above the rail on the shoulders of a young black bear. “Thanks, Taku!” he beamed down at his new friend, before turning his gaze forward. “Is that where we’re gonna live?”
   “Yeah! That’s my home,” Takuma replied, pointing towards the manor just visible on the top of the cliffs as the Moon Shadow bore steadily towards the small harbor town at the base of the hills.
   “And it will be your home too, young fellow,” Katryn rumbled as she and Tamiko joined the younger creatures, followed by Darin’s parents. “Your father will be in charge of all my gardens and our vineyards”—the buck grinned happily as he surveyed the island, already planning the crops he’d grow—“and your mother will help with teaching our young.”
   “Ew, school,” Takuma grumbled.
   Darin leaned over, his ears dangling comically as he peered upside-down at his friend’s face. “What’s school?”
   “It’s a place where older creatures bore you for hours with things they feel are important before you can go out and play.” Tamiko raised her paws to fend off her mother’s raised eyebrow, and grinned impishly. “Well, that’s what I remember of it.”
   “You, young lady, are going to be learning much more about the role of a noble in her barony. And just for that, I’ll be certain to bore you for hours on a regular basis.”
   The group shared a laugh as the harbor’s docks neared. Katryn put her arm around Tamiko’s shoulders. “Home.”
   “There were times I wondered if I’d ever see it again,” Tamiko said quietly, her paw raising to touch the pendant at her throat. “I just wish Ashlin were here to see it too.”
   “So do I, Tami… so do I.”
   Thumping down the deck, Barrett looked forward, scratching his chest ruff as he regarded the place. “Well, long as ye haven’t any large rocks sittin’ in the middle of yer fine harbor there, I’m thinkin’ we’ll be able to coast right in to that center dock,” the otter said, smiling as he surveyed the layout.
   “If there are any rocks, Barrett, they’ve grown since we left.” Katryn smiled fondly at the ship’s master. “I hope your trading hasn’t been too disrupted by this endeavor.”
   He shrugged. “’Tis nothin’ that can’t be solved by a couple of extra seasons of work, my Lady.”
   “Call me Katryn, my friend. And if it will help you, I will make a general proclamation that any time you call into Gateway, you will have prime choice of berth and goods available. Any goods you bring, I will buy at a fine value.” She smiled. “We must help our friends however possible.”
   Barrett beamed. “That’s lovely of ye, Katryn. I might just have to find myself a nice place t’ live here.” He paused. “Do ye have any fine young otter widows who make a good clam chowder?”
   “I’ll see what I can do.”
   The otter cast a gaze around as Sanders, on the tiller, carefully guided the Moon Shadow towards the pier. “So… if the barony is Gateway, and yer manor and the town up the top of the hill is Gateway, what do ye call the harbor?”
   Tamiko cocked her head. “We usually call it ‘the harbor,’ actually.”
   Barrett frowned. “A fine spot like this should have its own name. Like the Moon Shadow here… sometimes, things just need a good name.”
   “Perhaps you’re right,” Katryn rumbled, scratching her chin in thought and looking around. “‘The harbor’ does not have much of a ring to it.”
   She thought a moment, then smiled slightly and turned to her daughter. “I have an idea.”
   “What do you think of the name ‘Ash Harbor’?”
   Tamiko turned to her mother, her eyes suddenly sparkling with tears, stared for a moment, then returned the smile.
   “I think that would be a wonderful name.”

   Author’s Acknowledgements
    -- Thanks to my test readers—Wuffie for the in-progress shakedowns and Griffith for reading the final product and saying it didn’t suck
    -- To my inspirations, Raymond Chandler and John Varley, who reminded me that a good ending doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy ending
    -- Musical credits: thanks to Hemingway Corner for Tamiko and Stan Rogers for Barrett. This story was written to music from Anberlin, Great Big Sea, UnderOATH, BT, Steeleye Span, and much more.

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