The Loner, part 2
By Bernard Doove © 2004

Based on The Colony by V. Ducain

For about two weeks, life acquired a nearly comfortable normality for Walker. Each morning shi rendezvoused with Amber and they set out on a hunting foray. Their luck remained good and they began to acquire a reputation for reliably supplying meat for the hungry tribe. This suited Walker well because shi could spend most of hir time away from the crowds, yet still perform a useful service for the colonists. Thankfully, although Amber still persisted in making suggestive overtures, none had been so blatant as the swimming pool incident, so the time spent with hir had been quite pleasant.

Except today.

“How could you miss such a clear shot?” Amber asked querulously as they hastened in pursuit of their fleeing prey.

I’ve always said that I’m only an average archer,” Walker shot back. “And the range was too great. We should’ve tried to get closer first!”

You know there wasn’t enough cover,” Amber retorted.

“We still should’ve tried. What’s got your tail in a twist today?”

Amber got tight-lipped then and Walker let the subject drop for the moment to save their breath for the pursuit. They followed the kennek, an animal similar to a boar, at a distance that allowed them to track it, yet keep out of sight so that their prey would hopefully think that it had left danger behind. Eventually they caught up with it and killed it, but the stony silence remained. When it continued on into the trek home though, even the private Walker had had enough.

“Okay, spit it out! What’s gotten into you today?” shi demanded.

For a moment, Walker thought that Amber wasn’t going to reply, but eventually shi said, “Nothing. Or at least nothing that you would be prepared to do anything about.”

“Well, that sure explains everything,” Walker replied sarcastically. How am I supposed to do anything if you don’t tell me things?”

“Ha! That’s funny coming from you Mr I-don’t-need-anyone. You’d know if you were paying attention.”

“Just like a woman – expecting you to read their minds!” Walker responded in annoyance.

Amber laughed harshly again. “How ironic then that the real situation is the other way around.”

That comment puzzled Walker so much that shi wasn’t as annoyed with it as with the previous one. Shi pondered it in private until they got back and delivered their load. When they had completed their task, in an effort to alleviate the uncomfortable silence, Walker offered, “Do you want to go down to the pool and clean off the dust?”

“No,” Amber replied, surprising Walker greatly. Then Amber added, “I’m going to see how my girlfriend, Rosie, is doing.” Shi then walked off, leaving Walker puzzling anew. Shi turned over what Amber had said in hir mind as shi headed to the pool. Amber may not have wanted a bath, but Walker felt too grimy to put it off.

As shi bathed, shi murmured to hirself, trying to get events into perspective. “Shi’s been coming on to me at every opportunity for a couple of weeks. Hell, shi was almost totally blatant about it the first time! Of course, then shi was at pretty much at hir female peak, judging by hir scent. It took long enough to get through my thick skull that hir pheromones were what were causing me to get so turned on so easily. Still, shi hasn’t been on heat for a while now and that hasn’t stopped hir from teasing me until now. Jeez, I might be getting close to being in heat myself, yet shi’s still treating me like I was a boyfriend or something.”

Walker dunked hir head under water to wash the trail dust from hir hair. Perhaps it was the sudden shock of the cool water that brought a new thought into shocking clarity. “Amber said: ‘the real situation is the other way around’. Shi’s in rut! And I’m the only person shi’s been associating with except hir girlfriend. That’s why shi’s gone to see Rosie. ‘Nothing I’d be prepared to do anything about’, shi also said. Oh God, shi meant having sex with me, with hir as the male and me as the female! Shi knew that I wouldn’t want to do it and shi’s feeling sexually frustrated.” Then Walker had to smile as another thought occurred to hir. “It seems shi copes almost as badly with being in rut as I do being in heat. Nice to know that there’s a flaw in hir own character.” This knowledge oddly comforted Walker. Up until now, Amber had seemed too good to be true. The fact that Amber was imperfect made hir more approachable; more... desirable. Perhaps not while shi was in rut though! As Walker shook hirself dry and headed off to hir den, shi hoped that Amber would work out hir needs with Rosie and get things back to normal. Perhaps it was time for other changes though.

*               *               *

Amber was indeed much more cheerful the next day.

“Good morning, Grumpy!” Walker said in a reversal of the normal situation.

“I suppose I deserve that,” Amber admitted. “Sorry, I wasn’t feeling quite myself yesterday.”

“I gather Rosie was able to help you with your problem?” Walker asked slyly.

Amber looked at Walker sharply, then sighed. “You figured out that I was in rut?”

Walker nodded. “Still are, judging by your scent. One of these days I’ll remember to use that tool consistently and perhaps avoid some of these problems.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” shi begrudgingly admitted. “However, I got the worst of it out of my system last night. Fortunately Rosie was feeling a bit horny and in the mood to be mounted. Otherwise I might have been a real bitch this morning. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Good enough. Shall we go?” Amber nodded and they departed in comfortable familiarity. Walker felt though that something else needed to be said, and after several minutes, plucked up enough nerve and got it off hir chest. “Amber, I feel that this is partially my fault. I think I know why you were feeling as bad as you did.

Amber looked at Walker keenly, but let hir continue speaking uninterrupted.

“I might be slow sometimes, but I’m not completely stupid. For some unknown reason, you’ve taken a shine to a grumpy old bastard, but I’ve been pretty poor in responding in kind.” Walker’s pace slowed, then shi came to a complete halt. Amber pulled up and padded back to Walker, a bit puzzled. Walker looked a bit shaky as shi held out a hand to Amber who took it in hirs. Walker took a deep breath and continued before shi chickened out. “I haven’t talked about this in a very long time, but if you’re willing to listen, perhaps I can explain a little about why I am like I am.”

Amber nodded and said, “I’m listening, Jay.”

Hir use of Walker’s nickname made hir smile. Encouraged, shi continued. “About thirty four years ago, I met the girl of my dreams. Her name was Margaret, and until I found her, I truly hadn’t begun to live. I’d been a moderately happy bachelor up until then, doing the typical things that single men do. At age thirty-eight, I had begun to believe that I’d be a bachelor for the rest of my life. Margaret turned that all around though. She was only thirty, years younger than me but not too much. Old enough to have experience and wisdom, but young enough to still be a raving beauty. We clicked immediately. We liked the same movies and books, we had the same tastes in music and clothes, and we even both loved going hiking. I fell deeply and madly in love with her, and she with me. We were soon married, and life was even better. Pretty soon I could no longer even picture living without her with me. She was my world, my universe, my reason for existing. And just when things seemed they couldn’t get better, they did. Margaret proudly told me that I was going to be a father. We were ecstatic. We had such great plans for our first child, already wondering if we could avoid spoiling him or her.”

Walker took a shuddering breath as the memories started to get to hir. “Seven months later, we were involved in a car accident. I escaped with little more than a broken leg. Margaret was not so fortunate as the other car had hit her side of the car. It took the rescue unit nearly an hour to cut hir out of the wreckage. On the way to hospital, she went into early labour. The doctors fought hard, but Margaret died giving birth. Minutes later, our son died too. In one blow, my whole world was in ruins. The pillar of my life was gone, and our future was stillborn. My life had suddenly become meaningless.”

Amber was shocked and saddened by this tale, but still tried to be supportive. “That has got to be one of the worst things that could happen to anybody, but it’s been three decades now. Surely you had friends and relatives to help you get your life back together?

“Some did, of course, but many shunned me.”

“Huh? Why?” Amber asked incredulously.

Walker looked straight at Amber who could see that hir eyes were brimming with tears. “Because I was the one who killed them. It was all my fault. I murdered the one that I loved above all else because I was trying to beat a red light! A lousy fucking red light. It hadn’t been the first time that I’d raced to beat changing traffic lights though, and Margaret had asked me on a couple of occasions to have more patience, but I chose to ignore her, and she… and our son… were the ones who p-paid… the price.”

At this point, Walker’s voice broke and shi broke down into anguished tears and heart-rending sobs. Amber felt helpless to do anything more than hug the heartbroken chakat to hir. Hir empathic senses were being assaulted by the mighty flood of anguish and grief that were pouring out of hir. Over thirty years worth of bottled up emotion had finally burst the dam and its waters would not be stopped. Amber had no idea how long shi ended up cradling Walker to hir chest, desperately trying to project consolation, understanding and calm, but it was a long time before the last sobs ceased and Walker made any attempt to disengage hirself from the comfort of Amber’s arms. Shi tried to wipe the tears from hir eyes and the sodden fur around them, but shi still looked a bit like a bedraggled cat.

Amber tentatively tried to resume the conversation. Shi wasn’t sure what the best thing to do was though, so shi hoped shi wasn’t about to make things worse. “It seems to me that you have been holding that in forever. Didn’t you cry before? Was there no catharsis at your wife’s funeral?”

Walker shook hir head. “I was the one who should have died, and I did inside. I no longer cared about anything. When the doctor told me that Margaret and our child had both died, I went numb inside. I no longer felt anything for anybody, including myself. From that day forth, I was emotionally crippled. They had to get people to take me home from the hospital because I just didn’t care what happened to me anymore. My family dragged me off to the funeral, but I couldn’t even eulogise my wife. If I had opened my mouth and tried to say anything, it probably would have been to say that it was all my fault. Nothing about how wonderful those couple of years of marriage were. Nothing about what an incredible person Margaret had been. Just me and my guilt. I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried even once since that day. I’m not even sure why I finally did today except to speculate that it’s a consequence of my new form and its tendencies.”

“That would be one theory, or part of one perhaps,” agreed Amber. “So I would guess that your emotional distance was translated into a physical one. That’s why you’ve been avoiding everyone?”

“Partly. The other part is that I wanted to die.”

“You were suicidal?”

“Not exactly. I had been raised to believe that suicide is a sin, and that turned my thoughts away from considering it much, although my total apathy to life did keep bringing me back to the option. Maybe I was just a coward, unable to do to myself what I had done to my wife. However, if I could not kill myself directly, I could at least leave the door open. By this time, I had lost my job, lost all my friends, and my family had for the most part given up on me. I sold everything I had and just left without telling anyone where I was going or what I planned to do. I took off for the wilds, to one of those rugged areas Margaret and I had once hiked. There I became a hermit and fended almost completely for myself. I built a rough shelter, learned to hunt for food and occasionally went into the nearest town to do odd jobs for some money to buy odd things I needed. Life was very harsh, and I nearly starved at the beginning. In fact, that’s one of the things that I was hoping would happen. I hoped that by making life as hard and dangerous as possible for myself, death would find me in one way or another. Instead, fate seemed to have other plans for me. I thrived. Despite all the risks that I took, I never came close to dying. But at least I didn’t have to deal with other people anymore.”

Amber was surprised to learn the lengths Walker had gone to, but there was something that bothered hir about the explanation. “Then how on Earth did you end up on that plane with us?”

Walker gave hir a sardonic grin that was totally devoid of humour. “I may have never had any life-threatening diseases, but I once got this rash that was driving me insane from itching, so I finally succumbed and visited the doctor. He insisted on doing a full check-up on me, and I agreed because I hoped to find out that I had some cancer or anything that could hasten my departure from this life. Instead he told me that he wished that he was as healthy as I was and I’d live to be a hundred. It was then that I realised that if I wanted a shorter life, my current one was not the way to achieve it. So once again I packed up a few things and left my life behind. I’ve spent the past few years travelling to the worst places on Earth – the war-torn countries, disease-ridden ones, scenes of natural disasters, military overthrows, murderous professional poachers... I’ve seen it all. I’ve gone to these places on the face of it to help aid or relief organisations, volunteering for the dirtiest and most dangerous situations, even earning citations for my efforts. But it was all a lie. All I wanted was to get myself into some fatal situation and finally leave this life. Fate laughed at me though and I always came through completely unscathed. On the last trip, I ended up being safely evacuated with all the others that got herded onto the plane, then I woke up as a chakat and subsequently learned that I was likely to live for over another hundred years! At this point I knew that I was cursed to live a long and miserable life to make up for the ones that I had cut short. I have a lot to suffer yet to make up for my sins...” Walker’s voice trailed off into a resigned silence.

Amber didn’t think shi could get any more shocked, and Walker’s tale had deeply affected hir. However, shi didn’t think Walker was a hopeless cause. “No, I think you’re wrong. I reckon that if there’s any truth in fate, yours is to rebuild your future and make a new life. Fate won’t let you go until you learn to live again instead of yearning for death.”

“How could you say that after what I did?”

“I say that because I believe that life is supposed to be lived to its fullest. The point of life is to learn and grow, not curl up and die. I don’t believe you survived all those dangerous situations and your hermit life because you’re fated to suffer, but because you were determined to live, even if it was just in your subconscious. And now, your confession – why do you think you finally did so after all these years? I think it’s because you are realising this, and more importantly...” Amber drew the other chakat into a hug. “...I think you know that I have feelings for you, and something in you is responding.”

Walker wanted to deny it. Shi had no interest in starting a new relationship. And yet once again hir body was mutinying against hir and shi felt it respond to Amber’s proximity. Shi pushed hirself out of hir armhold as shi protested, “Why in heaven’s name would you want a head-case like me? I’m a disaster zone. While I survive, people die all around me!”

“You put yourself into the world’s worst situations and then blame yourself when other people die? When are you going to stop taking responsibility for other people’s deaths and start taking responsibility for your own life?”

“Don’t push me, Amber. I just told you all this to let you know why there can’t be anything between us.”

Bullshit!” roared Amber in Walker’s face. “Don’t give me that crap. You can’t keep lying to yourself, and you can’t expect me to stop my feelings for you. I never expected to fall for a curmudgeon like you, but at least I’m prepared to make a go of it. Yes, you lost something truly beautiful, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing else left out there in the world for you.”

Walker was cowed by Amber’s outburst. Shi wasn’t yet convinced, but shi was strangely comforted by Amber’s refusal to leave. In the absence of anything better to do, shi said, “I don’t know if I can be what you want me to be, but in the meantime why don’t we get on with what we’re supposed to be doing?” With that, Walker picked up hir bow and started walking determinedly in the direction of the hunting grounds. Amber sighed and followed, feeling frustrated.

*               *               *

The next several days were spent much as the previous ones had been before Walker’s revelations. Amber bided hir time while both of them shifted phase to something that suited them both better. Walker spent the time trying to work out hir new feelings, but decades of self-pity were hard to overcome. In the meantime though, events caught up to them. Both were surprised when they were told to attend a meeting after their day’s hunt.

They met at the site of the usual nightly council meetings, and they were surprised to recognise many of the other hunting teams. Amber noted that there were only two-person teams there and no single hunters at all. Hir curiosity was piqued and shi fidgeted until White Tip arrived and called for attention.

“Thank you for coming,” White Tip began. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve called all you hunters together, yet have omitted several others, so I’ll get to the point as quickly as possible. You should all be aware of the recon teams that were sent out, but they only went in a few directions. It’s obvious that if we are to find sufficient resources to re-establish a high level of technology, we are going to have to explore in several other directions. Unfortunately we cannot spare the manpower and supplies needed for several exploration teams, so we’ve decided instead to conserve our efforts until we have greater knowledge of what lies around us. To this end, we intend to send out two-person scouting teams. Unlike the exploration parties, these are expected to travel light and fast, taking notes of promising areas and making simple maps for the benefit of proper exploration teams later if the results justify it. Of course, the current hunting teams are already used to going out and fending for themselves away from the security of the village, so the logical choice would be to send some of you people out. That’s why we don’t have any of the single hunters. We want each of the scouts to travel with another as a back-up. I’m calling for volunteers for the scouting teams. We only plan to send out four teams for now as we don’t wish to severely impact our food procuring abilities. Nobody will be forced to go on one of these scouting trips however, because they are potentially hard and dangerous.”

Amber was surprised by getting a poke in the side from Walker. “Volunteer!” shi said in a nearly inaudible whisper. Amber frowned, not so eager to jump into a possibly risky venture. When shi continued to hesitate, Walker whispered again, “I want to do this. If we’re really going to be partners, you’re going to have to put up with some of my wishes too.” Amber realised that in a way this was a test of hir commitment to their relationship, so although shi still had hir misgivings, shi allowed hirself to be persuaded.

“Walker and I will volunteer,” Amber announced, the first pair to do so. There was a bit more discussion between the other pairs before a second team volunteered, with nearly a dead heat for the third and fourth teams following.

“Thank you,” White Tip acknowledged the volunteers. “Any others who decide later that they might be interested in doing future scouting trips can let me know at a later date. For now I ask that the volunteer teams remain for further briefing while the rest of you may leave.”

Amber sensed a tinge of regret from a few as they departed, but relief was more prevalent. Personally shi wondered what shi had let hirself in for.

*               *               *

The scouting teams had been allowed a day to make preparations for their journeys and to get a good rest. Amber and Walker had started promptly at dawn, heading due west, the direction assigned to them. They started with an easy ground-covering lope until they felt too tired to sustain it, then relaxed into a comfortable fast walking pace. It didn’t take them too long to pass the boundaries of their furthest hunting expedition, and both keenly observed the territory for hunting prospects for the future. Neither said much more than a few comments while they concentrated on travelling until they finally stopped for lunch. Amber finally decided to break the quiet.

“Okay, I’ve waited long enough for you to explain. What are we doing volunteering for this?”

Walker smiled. “I’ve told you what I’ve been doing for the last few years. Believe me, I’m in my element here. I figure that if there’s anything that can be achieved by this scouting trip, we’re the ones to do it. And before you start getting suspicious of my motives, yes, there’s more to it than that. You want to start a relationship between us, but I’ve been uncomfortable about it back with all the others. These open spaces...” Shi waved hir arms demonstrably about hir. “They’re like a second home to me. Here I’m at my most comfortable. Here I don’t have to deal with my problems with hundreds looking on. Here maybe I can finally respond in kind to you.”

Amber looked hopeful. “You mean that you finally have acknowledged that you have feelings for me too?”

“Amber, I’ve had feelings from the very first day, but I just didn’t know how to deal with them. In fact I still barely have a handle on them. However, since that day I cried in your arms, I knew I wanted to be in them again. I just need to learn to love again, I suppose. I just didn’t know where to start, and I can’t even be sure that I won’t end up hurting you, but if you’re willing to give it a try, then I will too. Just don’t expect too much of me too soon, okay?”

Amber took Walker in hir arms and hugged hir tightly. “Of course. I believe I understand. Just as long as you realise that I’m not going to give up on you easily.”

“I’m counting on it,” Walker replied with a small smile.

Nothing more happened that night, but Amber felt a sense of excitement that had initially touched hir when shi had first met Walker. Shi knew that it wasn't logical, but shi believed in destiny, and with Walker shi felt it keenly. A thought occurred to hir: ‘Maybe it's my empathic senses telling me that Walker is compatible with me? *sigh* There's no one that I can ask though, and like everyone else on this world, I suppose I have to learn what it is to be a chakat.’

*               *               *

“So, do you reckon we should try crossing them?” Walker looked upwards to the peaks of the snow-covered mountains, the foothills of which they were now standing in. Several days of relatively uneventful travel through the arid badlands had brought them to a mountain range that stretched roughly north-northeast to south-southwest. The rolling hills before them were covered with trees and shrubs that resembled a European hardwood forest, and the stretched up the mountainside until the tree-line hundreds of metres up.

Amber contemplated the task ahead of them. “We’ve still got many days before we’re due to turn back and report. I don’t want to return early just because there was mountain in the way.”

“Hardly ‘just’ a mountain, but I agree. I suggest we aim for that gap.” Shi pointed to the one shi meant. “It looks as if it might be a bit easier than any other way.”

“In the absence of a tourist map, I’ll have to agree.” Shi peered at the woods that started so abruptly on the banks of a small river that flowed off the slopes and disappeared in the direction of the badlands. “However, where’s there’s plenty of water and vegetation, there’s usually a lot of animals, and many of them are predators. I suggest we be extra alert as we pass through that forest.”

“No arguments from me there,” agreed Walker and shi proceeded to trot in the direction of the woods which looked invitingly cool after the heat of the badlands. When they reached the bank of the river though, both decided it was time for a long overdue bath. As they had done when they had first met, they scrubbed each other’s back. Again Walker felt aroused by the treatment, but this time shi allowed hirself to enjoy the sensation. Each day they had been travelling, the pair had tried to find something to do together that was done merely for their own pleasure, yet did not push Walker’s boundaries too hard. One day it had been a thorough grooming of each other’s fur, something that Walker had not realised could be so erotic until it was being done. Slowly shi was letting down the barriers between them and finding to hir surprise that the pain that shi had been expecting had not eventuated. It filled hir with a sense of excitement and a willingness to meet all challenges.

Amber was keenly aware of Walker’s changes of moods. Shi had concluded that hir empathic senses must be stronger than most, and not much escaped hir attention. When shi felt Walker get sexually excited when they bathed, it was all shi could do to control hirself too. Apparently Walker didn’t sense hir response as keenly as shi felt Walker’s but shi left little doubt about how shi felt in other ways. They napped on a flat rock afterwards as much to calm down their urges as to dry their fur.

The first hour after their entry into the woods rapidly put thoughts of sex out of their minds. The trees teemed with life, and it seemed much of it was curious about them. Amber’s senses were feeling overloaded, but fortunately the lesser talented Walker was coping better. “Too much of a good thing,” Amber thought to hirself. Nevertheless, shi strove to get control of the flood of input. The talent was far too useful to be merely suppressed.

An obviously terrified animal resembling a cross between a chimpanzee and a small bear was the first prey that the two caught for a meal in the forest. “Do you suppose we should name this beastie?” Walker asked.

“What? And have the wrath of the cubs descend upon us?” Amber replied with a grin. “That’s their privilege, and they guard it jealously.”

Walker shrugged. “If they want to spend their time trying to think of names for all the hundreds of animals that live in this forest, they’re welcome to it. I just want a handle on the thing. I wonder what frightened it so badly? I know that prey species are normally afraid of many things, but this creature seemed terrified out of its mind when it saw us. If it hadn’t been so frozen with fear, I don’t think we could have caught it half so easily.”

“Perhaps we resemble a predator that hunts here?” Amber suggested.

“If you’re right, I think we’re going to have to be extra careful. We could be considered a competitor at best, or potential prey at worst.”

“Consider me warned,” Amber said fervently.

The duo continued cautiously westwards into the thickening woods after they’d eaten. The land was gradually rising to meet the mountains, and they encountered several small streams running off the slopes. It was such a huge difference from the landscape that they’d gotten used to since being placed on this planet. Amber was getting a bit tired from the high level of alertness when shi was unexpectedly brought to a halt by Walker grabbing hir tail and pulling back.

“What’s the big idea?” shi said crossly as shi turned to face Walker.

Walker didn’t reply, but shi did make urgent shushing motions before pointing upwards and in the direction they’d been heading. Amber looked keenly in that direction, yet still almost overlooked what Walker had been pointing at. Almost lost in the mottled shadows, a large form lay on a large branch that was in the perfect position for ambushing unwary travellers. Hir eyes widened in surprise, then shi tried extending hir empathic talent in its direction. Hunger. Anticipation. Prey!

“Whatever it is, it’s got its eye on us as food,” Amber said nervously. Shi’d estimated its size to be a serious threat to them. “Good thing you spotted it. How did you manage that?”

“I’ve survived the worst a world could throw at me, remember? I’ve learned to deal with dangers in many places. I’ve almost got a ‘radar’ for it.”

“Let’s try to give it a wide berth.”

“Too late. It has seen us now, and it’s not about to let us run off. While we’re standing still, it’s going to keep trying to ambush us. The moment we try to move away, it’s going to be after us. Get out your weapons. We’re going to have to turn the tables on it.”

Amber got hir bolas ready, willing to let Walker have first crack at it with hir arrows though. Hopefully it wouldn’t come down to close-up fighting with their spears. They cautiously moved forward, deviating from their original path sufficiently to prevent walking within pouncing range from that tree-branch perch. The predator was not so easily put off though, as Walker had suspected. Realising that its prey was avoiding it, the animal suddenly leaped off the branch and made its charge for the duo, incidentally narrowly avoiding the arrow that Walker had loosed at it. Amber was caught a bit surprised by the speed and suddenness of the charge, but still released hir bolas in time. However, the outcome was not as satisfactory as hoped because of an unexpected factor. The bolas wrapped themselves about the forelegs of the creature, but this only slowed it down because, as they belatedly realised, it was hexapedal, and the remaining four legs carried it on with little hindrance. It crashed into Amber, knocking hir to the ground.

Amber shrieked in fear. “Get it off me!” All six of hir arms and legs were busily trying to fend off hir attacker. The animal’s jaws snapped at hir neck, narrowly missing the target as Amber heaved desperately. Then it screamed in pain and Amber saw the shaft of a spear protrude from its neck. The predator had expected the second potential prey to run off, never realising or comprehending that it would stay around and not only defend the other, but actively attack in return. Too late it learned, and very quickly it succumbed to its mortal wound. It collapsed upon Amber who frantically started pushing it off hirself. Walker helped haul the carcass off Amber then gathered the terrified chakat in hir arms. Amber sobbed in relief and reaction to hir close call, while Walker stroked hir and tried to soothe and calm hir. Eventually Amber regained hir composure, and shi began to thank Walker but stopped as shi saw the look in hir eyes.

Walker was feeling something that shi hadn’t felt in decades. A sense of protectiveness and caring that shi had only experienced once before. Hir relief that Amber had survived was so intense that hir eyes filled with tears from the flood of emotion. The two gazed at each other for several long seconds before Walker leaned forward and passionately kissed hir. It was clumsy at first, neither having learned to kiss with a muzzle, but they quickly got the feel for it and the kiss was long and intense. When they broke, panting a little, they smiled a little bit of embarrassment from their mutual lack of restraint, but without regret.

Amber started to get back onto hir feet, then grunted with pain as some previously ignored injuries made themselves known. Walker was immediately worriedly checking hir over for injuries, noting some gouges along hir flanks which were oozing blood, but none too seriously. Shi didn’t see anything else obviously wrong though. “How are you feeling? Any sprains or dizziness?”

“Bruised and battered, but I’ll live,” Amber replied. “The only dizziness I have comes from that kiss!”

Walker gave hir a lopsided grin. “I can’t say I’m sorry about that. You gave me quite a scare, Amber.”

“Nice to know that my feelings are returned though, Jay.” Shi stroked Walker’s face. “We have much more to talk about, love.”

Walker nodded. “I know. However, I think that we have other priorities right at this moment. First we need to clean up those wounds of yours. Then…” shi kicked the predator’s body, “We have to figure out if we can make use of this thing.”

Amber examined the creature. It was a feline-looking animal and, as shi had barely time to notice before, six-legged. It was not taur-configured though. All six feet were placed on the ground, which was why binding one pair had merely hindered its progress. It massed maybe two thirds of a chakat, but all of it was geared towards being a predator, and such creatures regularly took on prey much larger than themselves. It had medium-dark brown fur all over with heavy black spots – perfect camouflage for a forest dwelling hunter. “I’m thinking that this resembles the treekat that the early scouting parties have mentioned. You know, with only a few changes, you could imagine these evolving into chakats, like apes evolved into humans.”

“Except that they are clearly single-gendered,” Walker pointed out.

“True, but you still have to wonder.”

“That can wait. Let’s get you over to that nearby stream and wash your wounds. I hear that our saliva is a good antiseptic too, so I’ll give those cuts a good licking too, if you don’t mind.”

Amber smiled and allowed hirself to be led away. It was pleasant to have someone so solicitous over hir welfare. Shi let Walker attend to hir wounds, and later they groomed each other. Eventually they got back to what they decided to call a treekat and decided to skin it. They also claimed some of its carcass for meat, but didn’t take too much as they needed to travel light. Deciding that they needed to rest after the day’s activities, they made camp and cooked some of the treekat meat that they hadn’t packed for the journey. They found that it was bit gamy, but not too bad tasting. It certainly filled the belly though and they both slept soundly after their big meals.

The fast-healing nature of the chakat body meant that Amber was ready to resume their journey the next morning, and they proceeded up the slopes of the mountains. Along the way, they observed many more new and exciting lifeforms, and not a few disturbing ones. A flightless bird that resembled a cross between an emu and a velociraptor looked particularly dangerous. A mouthful of vicious teeth told the pair that they were carnivores, and worse yet, they seemed to hunt in groups. The pair made sure to fix the scent of the creatures well into their memories and were grateful that they passed downwind from the pack.

Eventually the duo reached the treeline where the thinning forest ceased to grow and only the hardiest plants still survived. Soon they were trekking into snow, their wide paws finding reasonable support. However, they did have one other problem.

“I’m freezing my nipples off!” Amber complained, crossing hir arms over the abused extremities.

“Me too,” agreed Walker. “I thought chakats were supposed to be adapted to cold climates?”

“As I hear it, chakat fur grows longer and thicker in cold climates, covering and protecting the nipples,” Amber explained. “However, we’re acclimated to the hotter conditions back at the colony and we only have summer coats, and it takes time for the winter coat to grow in.”

“In that case, I suggest we do something about it.” Walker took the treekat skin from hir pack and put it down on the snow. Shi looked at it judiciously, then took hir knife and started cutting it into pieces. Holding it up to Amber, shi judged where to cut some holes, then got hir to put it on like a vest. “Fur inside, of course,” shi commented in amusement as Amber wrinkled hir nose at the raw uncured hides. Shi then made some smaller holes down the front and cut some strips of hide to lace up the edges. Amber sighed in relief as the warm fur had its intended effect. Walker then repeated the job to make a vest for hirself using Amber as a template.

They set off again feeling far more comfortable. Their exertions were enough to keep the rest of their bodies warm, but they hastened to make it over the ridge and down the other side before sunset in order to get out of the snowfields before they made camp. They had been disappointed to see that there was another line of mountains paralleling the one that they’d just crossed, but were determined to continue as they hadn’t found the first crossing too difficult.

The second range was harder than the first and they decided that they would try to find a better crossing point on their way back. Additionally, yet another series of peaks confronted them as they crested the second. The one bright point was that they seemed a lot lower than the first two. Unfortunately a cloud bank beyond the ranges prevented them from seeing what was to come after that. Worse yet, those clouds were dark and threatening and headed their way. Amber and Walker made their best speed down into the valley, but they were still caught by a torrential downpour before they could find shelter. It was two bedraggled chakats who eventually found cover in a rocky outcrop in the lee of the rain that provided them with enough shelter to dry out. Building a fire for warmth was difficult under those conditions, but necessity drove them to succeed. They ate a filling meal then huddled together to share warmth during their sleep.

The next day dawned clear and bright, and the pair set out again with renewed spirits.

“This is the one,” said Amber.

“The one what?” asked Walker curiously.

“The last one before we reach our destination,” shi replied confidently.

“How could you know that?”

Amber shrugged. “I just have this feeling.”

“Are you sensing anything from that direction perhaps?” asked Walker, aware of Amber’s sensitivity.

Amber looked thoughtful. “Maybe. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I dunno, but I feel pretty good about today.”

Walker was willing to let it go at that. Travelling was hard enough without making it harder with a poor attitude, and when Amber felt good, shi felt good too. They continued on with the excitement of potential discovery over the next ridge.

Even so, the vista that was spread before them when they crossed over was truly astounding. Most obvious was the expanse of water stretching to the horizon. The smell of salt was wafted up to them by breezes blowing off the sea and pushing up the verdant slopes. The mountains gave way to rolling hills that reached to the shores, glittering rivers winding their way through them. A rich variety of plant-life added their perfumes to the air. The chakats breathed deeply of the scents and feasted their eyes on the view before moving off down to the beckoning shores. Nearly to their destination, Amber paused to look over a placid river that flowed into a calm ocean.

“Isn’t this just so beautiful?” Amber asked.

“Indeed. This place has so much to offer,” Walker said.

“I agree,” Amber answered. “Fishing, water transport, potentially useful plants, etcetera.”

“Yes, it has all that, but I meant more than that. This is the place for our home.”

Amber looked at Walker in surprise. “You mean to start a new colony here?”

Walker smiled. “Yes, but more importantly, I want to begin our new life here.” Shi took a deep breath, the asked, “Amber, will you be my lifemate?”

Amber was startled and filled with joy at the same time. “Yes! Yes I will! But you aren’t supposed to be able to become lifemates until you’ve been denmates for a year.”

“I don’t give a damn about what a bunch of fantasy creatures do. I want you a part of my life forever, and call it marriage or lifemating or whatever, I will do my best to make you happy for the rest of your life.”

Amber threw hirself into Walker’s arms and smothered hir with kisses. “You’re off to a wonderful start,” shi finally said.

Hand in hand, the two walked down to the mouth of the river. Having reached their goal, they laid down in the thick grass and started kissing and petting. There, the two future founders of the great port city of Amber Harbour made love for the first time.

*               *               *

The records of the Amber Harbour city council show that Orchid, child of Amber & Walker, was born on the 193rd day of founding. Shi was soon joined by hir sister – Lily, child of Walker & Amber, sixteen days later.

Looking Towards A Bright Future

White Tip is the creation of V. Ducain.
All other characters and this story are © 2004 Bernard Doove.

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