Tales of the Foxtaur Clans #11: Growing Pains
Excerpts from the journal of Pandora & Karl, part 6
By Bernard Doove © 2006
22 February 2336
[Karl] After the euphoria of the birth of our son, there comes the hard work, right? Well, not really. Naturally I had to go back to the workshop, but mid-winter is a good time to have a child when youíre a farmer and farm chores have slackened off. Pandora was able to devote a lot of her time to Jakkar for a few weeks. Inevitably though, Spring approached, and she needed to get back out into the fields. Now as much as I am careful about our cubís health, foxtaur kits are remarkably tough, and many spent time with their parents in the workshops or fields. Pandora did this a few times before a better solution came along.
My relationship with my mother-in-law, Kallista, had varied greatly over time. When I had first come to the village, she had been polite but very cool. She did not approve of her daughter associating with a human. When we declared ourselves as denmates, she thawed out a bit. After all, I had accomplished what no foxtaur tod had done Ė made her youngest daughter happy. Thereafter, while she still didnít go out of her way to see me, we were on reasonably friendly terms. When Pandora got pregnant though, the change in Kallista was amazing. It turned out that her final reservations concerning me were due to me not being able to give her grandchildren, and when I proved otherwise and that child turned out to be a male, her affection for me grew to be almost embarrassing. It gave us an opportunity though. Kallista was semi-retired (I donít think any foxtaur fully retires), and she declared herself available for kit-minding duty. Five days a week, she turned up at breakfast time and took charge of Jakkar. Pandora only had to interrupt her work then in order to breastfeed him. It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement. On market days, Pandora would take him with her while she sold her produce. On Sundays, we had him all to ourselves. Life was good.
So what could make it even better? About six weeks after Jakkarís birth, Pandora sprang a surprise on me....
"I want another kit," Pandora declared at dinnertime.
Karl didnít quite choke on the forkful of food that heíd just put in his mouth. "What?" he sputtered when he recovered. "Another so soon?"
"Itís common practice for foxtaur mates to have a second kit soon after the first so that they can grow up together," Pandora said defensively.
"Are you sure that you arenít just making up for lost time?" Karl asked.
The insides of Pandoraís ears pinked in the foxtaur equivalent of a blush. "There is a little of that, admittedly, but honestly Karl, I think Jakkar would be better off with a sibling to grow up alongside and play with. I was the youngest child, and my nearest sibling was more than three years older than me, and I missed out on a lot. We can afford to raise another child, and with mother here to do the babysitting, it would hardly be much more of a bother."
"Enough! I surrender!" Karl said with a laugh. "I was far more concerned about you. Iíd love to have another child also. What would you like Ė another tod, or a vixen this time?"
Pandora smiled. "It would be greedy of me to want another son after scoring one first try, but I bet Jakkar would love a younger brother. However, it would also be nice to have one of each gender. I think Iíll just wait and see, and not worry about it. After all, itís not as if we have much choice in the matter."
About two weeks later during Pandoraís next heat, she successfully conceived. This delighted Kallista who, unlike her daughter, was adamant that this one was going to be a girl. Karl hoped that, for the sake of family harmony, she was right.
Karl had found out that foxtaur kits slept with their parents. Rather than being disturbed by them, the kits were comforted by their parentsí presence and slept more soundly than if left alone in another room. Once he got used to the idea, Karl rather liked the idea of having his son there also, but wondered what it would be like if their family grew much bigger.
Life was pretty idyllic for a while. Karl continued producing his highly prized custom furniture, with a couple of vixens now on the payroll, foraging for appropriate timber. Karl sought, and was granted, permission to fell a few select trees which were cut up and set aside for seasoning in order to be ready for future business. The village grew in prosperity, due in no small part to Karlís exports. The population grew also, allowing Pandora to increase the size of her crops. Both worked hard by day, and then played and made love enthusiastically at night. Both were extremely happy and the time just flew by.
Then one day as Jakkar was playing with his wooden toys that Karl had made, his parents were cuddling on the couch while watching him proudly. Then Pandora gasped as the first contraction began. Like the first time, they called Mishi, Springstep and all the others, but unlike the first birthing, there was not even the slightest bit of panic and confusion. Karl even had food and drink ready for Pandora and their guests, and it was almost a party atmosphere until the contractions grew to a crescendo, and it was time for the new kit to make his or her entrance into the outside world. The birth was much easier the second time around, and the delivery was textbook. Mishi held up the sodden kit who squeaked in indignity at being forced into the cold, bright world.
"You have a daughter!" Mishi declared.
Karl hugged and kissed his mate. "Congratulations, darling, you now have a beautiful set."
Pandora replied, "We have a set. Are you disappointed not to get another son?"
"No, love, Iím ecstatic. It means that this time Iíll have a daughter whom I can raise and love, unlike a certain ungrateful whelp."
"Weíll do it right, Karl. I promise," Pandora said, hugging him tightly.
The cleaned-off kit was handed to Pandora, who put her to one breast for her first feed. The proud parents watched her suckle for a while. Then Pandora suddenly said, "Sylvia Ė do you like that name, Karl? It means 'Forest Maiden'."
Karl smiled, remembering all the permutations of possible names that Pandora had gone through for both males and females. "She looks like a Sylvia to me," he agreed.
"Welcome to our family, Sylvia Whitepaw!" Pandora declared.
10 June 2338
[Pandora] Our second child has been as wonderful, as naughty, as good, as vivacious, as dirty, and as beautiful as any other kit. We adore her. As Iíd hoped, Jakkar has taken a shine to her, and I think they will become playmates when she gets older. Sylvia has taken to sleeping in Karlís lap a lot. Perhaps she is forming a particularly strong bond with him. He dotes on her. After the crushing disappointment of his human daughter, I think that heís trying to give Sylvia all the love that he couldnít give to Kathleen. I hope he doesnít end up spoiling her.
This summerís weather has been exceptional so far. We have had the perfect amount of rain balanced with the perfect amount of sunlight and warmth. The crops this year will be amazing. The surrounding forest is bursting with life. Itís difficult to work when so much beauty is there to be admired and explored.
Pandora paused to rest briefly. Since the first harvest, she had been working hard to ready the ground for planting the second crop. With conditions the best that they had been in decades, she hoped to get a bountiful second harvest before the cold weather set in. Time was of the essence though. She smiled as she looked at Jakkar, whom she had brought out into the fields with her for a change. He had taken the little hand spade and dug a hole and filled it with water. He was now plastered in mud on all four legs, both arms, belly and chest. In short, he was having a ball!
ĎNothing that a good bath wonít fix,í she thought. ĎMaybe heíll be a farmer one day, the way he loves the earth.í
Just then, she caught a whiff of a disturbing smell. The wind had shifted, bringing with it scents from beyond the ridge that her fields backed onto. Smoke! "Thereís a fire ban in place. No one should be burning anything in that direction," she said to Jakkar, although he didnít understand what she was talking about. The great drought a few years back, combined with the bumper growth of the underbrush this year, had left the forest in a precarious position fire-wise. Back-burning had ceased when it became too dangerous to control, but the foxtaurs had concentrated then on making firebreaks in an attempt to reduce the danger. Lightning was a constant worry though. While they had been fortunate during the drought, some wondered if their luck was being stretched a bit thin. However, the skies were clear today, so that seemed unlikely.
A shout drew her attention. Two hunter vixens had burst out of the forest and were running full speed in the direction of the village. There wasnít a path there, so Pandora surmised that they had taken a shortcut in their haste. One said something to the other that Pandora didnít quite catch. The one who spoke detoured towards Pandora, while the other continued unabated towards the village. The huntress pulled up in front of Pandora, panting hard.
The vixen, whom Pandora recognised as Willow, gasped out, "Forest fire! Coming this wayÖ when wind shiftedÖ Get to shelterÖ quickly!"
"How did the fire start?" Pandora asked, even as she grabbed her sodden son.
Willow growled. "We think itísÖ idiot hikersÖ Iíll kill íemÖ if I catch íem! Gotta go!" With that, she was off again to spread the warning.
As Pandora bounded towards her den with the protesting Jakkar underneath her arm, she thought, ĎThis is one time that we should have a bit of technology. A Unicom would get the word out a lot faster!í
Kallista was startled by Pandora bursting into the den and thrusting a filthy kit into her arms. Before she could ask what was going on, Pandora said, "Put the kits in the bedroom, then help me put up the shutters. Thereís a fire coming this way!"
When you live in a forested area, you learn to react quickly when warned about a fire, and Kallista had the children safely locked in the bedroom and was outside in moments. Pandora was hauling out the shutters from the storage shed. Like the den, the shed was a small cave with a stone wall built to cover the entrance. However, while the den had similarly fireproof walls, the windows were a vulnerable point. The fireproof shutters sealed and protected them. The front door too had been treated with a fire retardant. That only left the wooden porch at risk, but the occupants of the den would be safe.
The job was quickly done. However, rather than following Pandora inside, Kallista started heading for the village.
"Where are you going, mom? The fire could go through very soon. Come back inside where itís safe!"
Kallista looked torn. "My den isnít as safe as yours. I need to make sure my denmates have gotten the warning and help them prepare for the fire. You stay there with the kits. Nothing is more important than their safety now." Not giving Pandora a chance to argue, Kallista left at top speed.
Pandora looked around and saw billowing clouds of smoke pouring over the ridge. Soon the flames would line it, then come roaring down into the valley. She shuddered and went inside, firmly fastening the door, putting a fireproof draught-stopper along the bottom. She then had time to start worrying about Karl, and went over to the comm that she seldom used, and called his workshop.
"Canít talk now, love. Weíre rushing around like maniacs trying to batten down the hatches. Donít worry about me; I have a fireproof place to retreat to. Gotta go!" Karl replaced the phone, annoyed at having to give Pandora such a curt dismissal, but there was a lot to do in a very short time. The workshop was built of native stone, but a carpentry shop is always surrounded by much flammable material. He and Tobar were desperately trying to get as much as possible crammed inside in time. The fire shutters had been the first things to go up, and Karl could see neighbouring shops and dens being prepared similarly. He worried about those that were constructed partially of wood. Although the foxtaurs kept the grounds clear of underbrush and fallen branches, the surrounding trees could go up in flames and ignite the nearby buildings. It was a risk that foxtaurs took in order to be close to nature. Karl glanced up at the ridge and saw the first of the flames. ĎSometimes nature comes too close,í he thought.
When they had crammed as much as they could into the workshop, they closed and sealed the main doors, presenting an unbroken fireproof barrier to the oncoming inferno. Karl wondered if he should do something to help the others preparing to fight the blaze. He approached one foxtaur who was unrecognisable in a bulky fire-fighting coverall. Only a glimpse of head-hair enabled him to realise that it was a vixen inside. She was unrolling a long, thick hose that led to one of the elevated water storage tanks that were filled from the lake. Others were organising backpacks and other fire-fighting equipment.
Karl asked the vixen, "Is there any way that I can help out?"
"Yeah," she said. "Connect all those hoses to the pump at the tanks, then get the hell back inside where itís safe. We donít have any protective clothing for humans, so youíd only be a liability. Move it!"
Karl moved with alacrity. He quickly attached all the hoses, and then he retreated to the workshop. Closing and sealing the door behind him, he sighed in frustration at not being able to do more. It was going to be a long nerve-wracking wait.
Although she had faith in her denís ability to withstand a conflagration, Pandora nevertheless felt nervous as she heard the roar of the flames muted by the walls. To help keep her mind off what was happening outside, she bathed Jakkar. By the time he was dried off, she judged that it would be safe to venture outside.
The heat and smoke struck Pandora the moment that she opened the door despite the fire-front being well past. Their shady porch was a smouldering ruin, a few flames still trying to burn through the thick posts. She extinguished the embers with a few buckets of water that she had filled earlier. Only then did she take a really good look around. Her first impression of the devastation was nothing compared to the full impact as the smoke cleared to give the complete picture, and she gasped in horror. Normally the forest blocked any direct view of the village from the den, but the denuded trees and incinerated shrubs could no longer do so. Between the smoking trunks, she could see foxtaurs in their fire gear trying to extinguish flames. Everywhere it was black or grey except for a green patch in the open commons area, and the lush greenery along the banks of Crystal Creek. Beyond the village, she saw the fire-front as it crested the ridge on the other side of the valley. She barely noticed it.
"Mother!" she cried as she recognised the site of Kallistaís den. Pandora dashed back inside and hastily put on her saddle-pack. She put Sylvia into one of the pouches, grabbed Jakkar and put him under her arm, then raced towards the village. Dodging around fallen trees and spot fires, she headed straight for her motherís den, only to be brought up short by a vixen who blocked her way.
"Pandora, stop! Itís unsafe in there," the vixen warned her. The tree that had fallen on it had breached its fireproofing, and wisps of smoke still curled up out of the hole.
It took Pandora a moment to identify Capella, her motherís co-mate, covered in so much ash and soot as to be nearly unrecognisable. "Whereís my mother?" she demanded.
"She was hurt when she risked herself by trying to put out the fire when that burning tree crashed through the roof. The den is damaged but salvageable, and she saved a lot of our possessions because of her actions, but she got burnt doing so. Theyíve taken her to Mishiís infirmary."
"Thanks, Capella. Iíve got to go!" Pandora set off at speed.
Karlís workshop lay roughly between there and the infirmary. Pandora was glad of the excuse to make a diversion. Although the stone workshop was one of the oldest and sturdiest structures in the village, she still had to see for herself that Karl was safe before she went on. He met her outside as he and Tobar started opening up the place again to inspect the damage.
"Pandora! Why didnít you wait until theyíd put out all the fires before bringing yourself and the children down here?" Karl asked, concern making him a bit abrupt.
Pandora gave him a reassuring hug, then handed Jakkar over to him. "Itís mother Ė sheís been hurt. Look after Jakkar while I go check out how she is."
"Weíll all go. There isnít much that I can do until the firefighters make sure all the fires are completely extinguished."
Pandora didnít argue, and they hastened to Mishiís infirmary. They had a hard time getting in though because she and her helpers had their hands full trying to deal with several patients, most of them fire-fighters overcome by heat or smoke. Eventually Pandora was allowed in, and she rushed to her motherís side.
Kallista winced a little as Pandora hugged her in relief. Then Pandora looked over her motherís injuries. Kallista grinned in chagrin.
"I broke my arm when I tried to stop a burning tree from falling on the den," explained Kallista. "I got the burns while trapped. Donít worry, Mishi tells me that I was very lucky and theyíre only light. Iíd soaked myself before going out, so that protected me. They should heal properly in time."
"Thank heavens for that!" exclaimed Pandora, "but why were you crazy enough to go out in that?"
Kallistaís expression was slightly sad. "Since your sire died an early death, all that there is left to pass onto his children and grandchildren is kept in that den. I couldnít let that heritage be lost."
"But what of the heritage of Kallista Whitepaw?" Pandora asked. "How could we have replaced you?"
Kallista reached up with her good arm to pat Pandora on the cheek. "Iím sorry that Iíve caused you concern, dear. I promise not to do it again."
"Good! Now what are you and your co-mates going to do for a home until your den is repaired?"
Kallista looked uncertain. "IÖ donít know."
"You will stay with us," Pandora stated decisively. "Iím sure that the others can find lodgings with one of their children also."
"Wonít I be in your and Karlís way?"
"Donít be silly. You spend half the day there anyway. Besides, the den used to be yours before you gave it to me. You belong there."
"You were the only one of my children who wanted to continue farming. You deserved the den. My only mistake was letting you live there by yourself. You might not have been so lonely otherwise."
"And I might not have met Karl. And you probably would not have two gorgeous grandkits either," Pandora added.
Kallista smiled. "Quite right, and itís time that you got back to them. Iíll be fine. You two will have a lot of work to do."
Pandora gave her mother another hug. "Iíll check back later," she promised.
Karl met Pandora at the infirmary door. "How is she?" he asked.
"Sheíll be around a long time yet. In fact, sheíll be staying with us until her den is repaired."
"She will?" Karl was a bit dismayed at the thought of having his mother-in-law around all night.
Pandora laughed at the look on his face. "Iím sorry, love, but I promise that it wonít be too bad."
They started walking back to Karlís workshop. Now that she wasnít so frantic about the condition of her mother, Pandora took the time to look closely at the effects of the fire. Dens like their own had withstood the flames unharmed. Only any additions outside the walls had suffered. However, there were only so many caves in the area, and many of the newer dens were built with materials that were available locally. Nevertheless, foxtaurs built well with forest conditions in mind. Quarried stone was not only sturdy, but more resistant to extremes of temperature, and well-maintained slate roofs were also fireproof. Only the wooden frameworks were vulnerable, and they was cleverly sealed away from the elements. But fire is an unforgiving beast, and any chink in the armour was ruthlessly exploited, and sometimes the fire made itís own gap by dropping burning limbs on the roof and making a hole in its defences, such as had happened to Kallista. Pandora counted three smoking dens, including her motherís, that had failed to meet the fireís challenge.
Then, for the first time, Pandora really took in the entire scene and saw how the village had fared as a whole. Their picturesque community was now a study in greys, including a large portion of the population. Old shade trees had been reduced to smouldering stumps, carefully tended gardens were either burnt or crushed. Wind-blown ash was piling up in every nook and cranny. The wooden market stalls were now all piles of charcoal, as was every other wooden structure. Steam rose from some of the piles adjacent to the dens Ė fires that had been extinguished with water by the fire-fighters to prevent the more important dwellings from also catching alight. It looked and smelled a bit like she imagined hell to be.
Young kits were crying, their parents attempting to comfort them, while looking like they were about to burst into tears themselves. A few of the clanís elders were beginning to organise a clean-up.
A noise overhead caused Pandora to glance upwards. She tracked the hum until she spotted the aircraft making it, and witnessed it pouring water on the fire.
"Too late for us," she said a little bitterly. "At least maybe Jakeís trading post will be spared a disaster."
"Not to mention the rest of the township," Karl added, spotting what Pandora was looking at.
"Iíd better go check our property for damage," Pandora said, "and prepare for momís arrival too."
"Will you be putting the extra mattress back into the spare room?" Karl asked.
"Thatís the best solution for now," Pandora agreed. Privately though, she wondered how long that arrangement would work. Her mate didnít know everything about foxtaur families yet. Rather than beg trouble, she decided to keep that to herself for the moment.
"Iíd better get back and help Tobar before he comes and hauls me back by my ear. Weíve lost some stuff for sure. How much is yet to be determined."
"Iíll have dinner ready at the usual time. Donít let him monopolise you for the rest of the day."
"Yes, dear," Karl said with mock meekness.
Pandora walked back, with Jakkar setting the pace. The kit was very curious about the burnt landscape, stopping to look and sniff at things and frequently sneezing from the ash. Pandora just found it very saddening despite the fact that she knew that it would regenerate.
Pandora found that the empty fields had acted as a partial firebreak, but even so she had lost a few fruit trees, including her favourite pecan tree and a blood plum. Others had been damaged but could be pruned back and recover. Some plants too close to the intense heat had wilted or been scorched beyond recovery, but Pandora reckoned that she had gotten off easily. She wondered how the other farmers and herders had fared, and if any people had lost their lives. Preparation had mostly spared the foxtaurs in the village, but what of those out in the forest, both foxtaurs and others?
[Karl] And that is how Crystal Creekís best summer became instead a major setback, and Kallista came to stay with us. Tobar and I lost some of our timber stockpiles that we werenít able to fit inside. The growth in the business had long since caused us to exceed the workshopís ability to store material. At least weíd managed to save some of the more precious timbers which we had put inside first. In hindsight, we should have constructed a proper storage building rather than the makeshift racks that weíd hastily erected. We planned to rectify that as soon as possible, but the village had higher priorities first. Some foxtaurs had their dens damaged or destroyed, but while there were a number of injuries, there were no deathsÖ at least not in the community. About two weeks after the fire, a hunter vixen came across the charred corpses of two people. At first the only thing that could be determined was that they were morphs. A subsequent forensic investigation finally concluded that they were a wolf couple who had been vacationing in the area, and that they had died trying to escape the fire. The time and place of their death made them the most likely cause of the source of the disaster Ė a poorly constructed cooking fire that had not been properly extinguished. It seems that nature had beaten Willow to the punishment of the fools.
While there was a lot of readjustment needed to cope with the fireís consequences, none were more personal than having Kallista staying with us. I erred with an earlier journal entry. It isnít just the children who sleep with the parents. The whole family sleeps together.
Karl liked his mother-in-law. He really did. Having her eat meals in his home and sleeping in their spare room felt a bit weird but tolerable. It would only be for a few weeks, after all. However, this was too much.
"You want her to do what?" Karl asked his mate.
Pandora had expected some resistance to the idea, so she replied patiently, "Love, itís a perfectly normal thing. Family always sleeps together. Mom put up with being alone for a few nights so that you could get used to having her around as a long-term house guest, but now sheís finding it hard to sleep at night.
"And sheís going to sleep with us every night?"
"Karl, look at our den. This used to be the home for my entire family, yet it has only one large bedroom plus a guest room. Why do you think it is so?"
"Are we supposed to make love in front of her too?" he asked irritably.
"Only if you want to," was Pandoraís startling reply. Before Karl could recover from that surprising remark, she continued. "Sometimes lovers prefer privacy, but the bedroom is the one place where that activity is always expected and allowed. Of course the adults always wait for the children to go to sleep, but most adolescents get a lot of their sexual education from watching their elders. Anyway, my mother says sheís quite prepared to wait until weíve finished making love before joining us to sleep."
Karl was silent for a few moments, and Pandora wondered if they were going to have their first fight in years. Eventually though, Karl sighed in resignation.
"Iíve tried my best to fit into this foxtaur society, but some things strain my sensibilities. Iíll try this out because you have asked me to do so, Pandora, but I canít guarantee that it will work out."
Pandora kissed him. "I canít ask for more than that, love. Iíll go tell mom."
She left to tell Kallista that she could join them. Karl briefly considered putting on a pair of shorts, but decided against it. It wouldnít make him feel more comfortable, and if Kallista found it awkward, it was best to find it out immediately. When Kallista entered the room, she walked over to Karl.
"Thank you, Karl," she said, giving him a motherly lick-kiss on the cheek before settling down on the bedding on the other side of Pandora, with Sylvia nestled between them.
A rather bemused Karl cuddled up to Pandora. He hadnít expected the kiss. It reminded him of his own mother, making Kallista seem more familiar. Of course he hadnít slept in the same bed with her since he was an infant, so it was still a bit weird. Nonetheless he went to sleep as easily as normal.
[Karl] I must admit that other than waking up sandwiched between two vixens occasionally, the nights in the bedroom were much as they had been before Kallista had joined us. She never interfered with our private lives, and always waited patiently for Pandora and I to finish making love at our leisure before joining us for sleep. However, despite the fact that Kallista is an attractive vixen in her right, I was never tempted to have her present while Pandora and I were being intimate. Iím not quite ready for that yet! When Kallistaís den was finally repaired though, she moved out immediately. Damned if I donít miss her!
[Pandora] Like Karl, I had gotten used to having my mother in the bedroom with us. With my mate and two kits, it finally felt like a full family again. I have missed that feeling more than I thought. I intend to ask mom to stay overnight with us occasionally. Somehow I donít think that Karl will mind.
6 November 2338
[Pandora] A second good crop helped ameliorate the losses due to the fire. Others didnít fare so well. Herders had lost some of their stock, hunters had to travel further to find prey, and Karlís wood foragers had to do likewise. A lot of time was lost replacing burnt structures, but more time was spent cleaning up the mess and dead trees, and then working to re-beautify the village. By the time of the harvest festival, our community had done a creditable job of re-greening the area. Crystal Creek Clan may not have come through unscathed, but we were undaunted.
21 June 2341
[Karl] Not all crises are so terrible as fires and droughts. The little ones can be important too!
Karl arrived home, looking forward to going to the swimming hole with Pandora. He was surprised to find Jakkar there instead of playing with the other kits in the water already. The boy had a distinctly troubled expression. Karl immediately squatted down in front of his son so that he could look at him on the same level.
"Whatís bothering you, Jakkar?"
The young tod seemed to be thinking of how to ask a difficult question. At last he said, "Dad, youíre my real sire, arenít you?"
Karl had expected this question sooner or later. He wondered what had brought this on though. "Yes, Jakkar, I am your real sire, and youíre really my son. I know that foxtaurs and humans canít have kits usually, but your Auntie Springstep made it so that we could have you, and your sister Sylvia, and hopefully some more sisters or brothers for you."
"Whenís my fur going to fall out?"
Karl nearly fell over in surprise. "What? Who told you that?"
"Kellen said that because my sire is a human, then all my fur will fall out like yours did," he replied worriedly.
Karl threw back his head and laughed, then hugged Jakkar. "My dear boy, Kellen is wrong in so many ways. First, humans never have fur, even when weíre just born. In fact we grow more hair on our heads afterwards, but thatís about it. We donít have any fur to lose. Second, while only a little bit of me is foxtaur, youíre completely one. Your fur is never going to fall out."
Jakkar looked relieved, then disgusted. "Iím gonna pull Kellenís tail for lying to me," he vowed.
Normally Karl wouldnít condone such behaviour, but Kellen was an older kit with a reputation for pulling practical jokes. Perhaps a little turnabout was called for. "I have a better idea, Jak. When we go down to the swimming hole, Kellen is likely to be there. You go to him and pretend to be very worried. Tell him that he was right, but itís even worse. Itís contagious! You can catch it like a cold from someone with it. Just touching him could make him catch it too, and because heís older, it could happen to him sooner!"
Jakkar started giggling. "That sounds like fun!"
"Letís grab your mother and drag her to the swimming hole to watch the fun, hey?"
"Okay! Mom!" he started yelling as he dashed out the door.
[Karl] We got a visit from Kellenís mother a couple of days later, demanding to know what weíd done to her son. I explained to the irate vixen just exactly what Kellen had done, and what we had done in return. By the time weíd told her everything, she was still angry, but this time it was at her foolish offspring. She said to me, "I told him that his stupid jokes were going to backfire on him. Serves him right. Iíll let him stew for a bit longer as punishment." Iíve known many people who think their children can do no wrong. Thankfully, although they have their faults, that is one thing that foxtaurs donít normally do, and they try to make sure their kits treat others with respect, or at least behave themselves. She bid us goodnight, and we heard no more about it. Jakkar and I still have a good chuckle over it however.
7 November 2343
[Pandora] This yearís Harvest Festival was especially enjoyable. Regrowth had virtually covered up all the signs of the forest fire by now, and the community had outdone itself in decorating the commons. This year, a roving troupe of foxtaur musicians had graced our festival and provided us with entertainment, in return for which we stuffed them with the best we had to offer from our bountiful harvest. Jake and Lavender had brought their daughter, Lilac, who often played with Sylvia. Springstep had brought hir mate, Silverbrook, and their cubs, Dappleback and Fastpounce, who had worn themselves out playing with the village kits. They found the playful felines new and fascinating! And then there was Jakkar who had just joined the foxtaur baseball junior league. When Karl had learned that he was interested in the game, he had immediately started helping him practice after dinner. Iíve been sitting on the grass with Sylvia who made daisy chains while I watched my mate and firstborn play and bond even more closely. Karl was always patient and encouraging with Jakkar, and he responded by listening attentively and improving quite quickly. I am so proud of them, I could burst!
We had invited Springstepís family to stay overnight with us for the second day of the festival. Chakats have similar ideas of family sleeping together as foxtaurs do, and seeing as Springstep was more like family than friend, I wanted to have them join us instead of using the guest room, but I made sure that Karl was okay with the idea first. A few years of mother staying overnight with us every few weeks had gotten him used to the idea though, and he agreed pretty much straight away. The night went well, and the children certainly made the most of the occasion, staying up much later than normal. Eventually though, they all crashed and were put to bed. The sight of foxtaur kits, a coyote pup and chakat cubs all piled together was adorable! We adults chatted over coffee late into the evening before Jake and Lavender excused themselves to head off home after fetching Lilac from the fur-pile. After doing a quick tidy-up, the rest of us headed for bed also. Springstep quickly diffused any remaining uncertainty on Karlís part by jokingly telling him, "No funny business. Iím not wanting a half-foxtaur child just yet!" I enjoyed having them there with us that night, and dreamed very pleasant dreams.
Springstep showed that shi could cook on a stove just as well as shi could in a laboratory, and made everyone breakfast. It was a pity that such a fine meal was wolfed down so fast by people who wanted to get the dayís activities off to an early start. We were all eager to enjoy the festival though. Of course, thereís always one sour note in every song of joy.
"Dad! Dad! Guess what?" Jakkar bounded up to Karl excitedly.
Karl grinned up at his son from his position reclined against a tree. "Guess? Youíve got ants in your ear and you canít stop hopping about?"
"No!" Jakkar said scornfully. "Be serious!"
"Okay, letís seeÖ you just finished a game of baseballÖ did you hit a home run?"
"Yeah, but that isnít it. Theyíve asked me to join the team thatís going to play against the Black Ridge Clanís team next week. Can you take me there?"
Pandora watched Karl closely, and saw how he determinedly he kept his smile of happiness for his sonís achievement, despite knowing that he couldnít make that commitment. Leaving clan territory was still very unsafe. His ex-wife still waited for him to make a slip. Only a couple of years back, the village elders had informed them that Isabel had petitioned the inter-clan council to extradite Karl from Crystal Creek. The council members had investigated and, after learning the true situation, had told Isabel that she take her petition and shove it up her tail hole. Those were the councilís exact words, Elder Yuni had informed them with a grin. Foxtaurs frequently had an earthy sense of humour.
"Weíll make sure you get there, son," Karl replied, carefully sidestepping the issue for the moment.
"Thanks, dad!," Jakkar said as he threw his arms around his father and gave him a quick hug before bounding off happily to tell his friends.
Pandora waited until Jakkar was definitely out of earshot before asking Karl, "How are you going to keep that promise?"
Karl sighed. "Iím not sure. Heís too young yet to properly understand why I canít be caught outside of clan territory, but his feelings will be hurt if Iím not there."
Pandora said, "Maybe I can take him? The treatment that Iíve been getting for the homesickness has been good enough to let me last at least a few days now."
"Weíll probably have to do that, but Jakkar will still feel rejected. After all, Iíve been the one who has been practicing with him, not you. He will expect me to be there when he starts his first formal game after all these informal ones here to build his experience."
Pandora was struck by a thought. "This game will be played on Black Ridge Clanís territory, right?"
Karl nodded. "That sounds right."
"Couldnít we ask our clan elders to petition theirs to extend clan protection to you while youíre there?"
Karl brightened. "Yeah, thatís worth a shot. Of course Iíd still have to sneak unseen between the territories, but I think that can be worked out." He got up and held out a hand to Pandora. "Come on! Letís go see Yuni right away!"
Pandora giggled. "Last I saw her, she was dallying with one of the visiting tods. I donít think that sheíd appreciate an interruption like this right now. I think that it can wait until tomorrow."
Karl gave her a lopsided grin. "Yeah, I see your point."
The couple did go see Yuni first thing the next day though, and she was in a very receptive mood.
"Iíve invited Steffenís troupe back again next year. It was good to have a tod of his accomplishments gracing our festival."
Privately, both Karl and Pandora thought that it wasnít just Steffenís musical accomplishments that Yuni was talking about, but they both knew when to mind their own business. Instead they just wholeheartedly agreed, then changed the subject. They explained their situation with Jakkar and Karl, and their idea of how to deal with it.
Yuni replied, "That seems like a reasonable solution. Iíll contact the Black Ridge elders today to negotiate an agreement. I donít foresee any problems, so just leave it in my hands and Iíll get back to you when itís resolved."
Three days later, she called in on them to relieve the suspense.
"Black Ridge Clan has formally extended its protection to you, Karl. Thatís not all though," she hastened to add. "I felt it necessary to take this up to a higher level, and because the inter-clan council was meeting yesterday, I submitted a request for a ruling on the matter. The council has ratified your status as an honorary foxtaur, and they will be informing all the clans of your status. You will be able to go to any clanís territory and remain in complete security. Head of Council, Ashlee Honeytail, says to remind you though that this is the equivalent of granting citizenship, and therefore you have all the responsibilities of a clan foxtaur also, and are subject to clan laws. Lastly, she wishes you and your family good luck, and hopes to meet you in person some day."
Karl was surprised. "All this in just three days? Thatís not what Iím used to with a bureaucracy."
Yuni smiled. "Well, you were fortunate with the timing, but I donít think that you realise just how much interest that you and Pandora have aroused. While not everyone is happy about it, your mating and children have piqued the curiosity of all. Most are eager to see your partnership be successful, so you did get some priority."
Karl grinned at Pandora. "Hear that? Weíre notorious!"
Pandora laughed. "I suppose so. It certainly helps anyway."
They thanked Yuni profusely, then headed out, debating what to do next.
"I think that weíre going to have to leave Jake out of it altogether. Theyíll still be monitoring his travels even if itís unlikely that heíd fall for the same trap," Pandora said. "We canít risk him drawing attention to your presence at the other clans."
"Heíll be disappointed not to be able to watch Jakkar play," Karl replied, "but heíll understand. Looks like that thereís only one reasonable way, and thatís to hide on the bus thatíll be taking the players to Black Ridge. It shouldnít be too bad. I canít see them guessing that Iíll be aboard."
And thatís exactly what Karl did. Jakkar thought that his father was being silly, but he and the other kits cooperated in hiding him. Forewarned of his coming, a couple of the clanís elders, one of the Justice & Enforcement, met the bus as it arrived. As Karl stepped off the bus with Jakkar, one stepped up with a smile.
"Welcome Karl Whitepaw. I am Tessu Silvermane. This is your son, I take it?"
Karl clasped forearms with the elder in the foxtaur-style greeting. "Pleased to meet you, Tessu. Yes, this is my son, Jakkar. Heís playing his first inter-clan game today, and Iím very happy to be here to watch him."
Tessu nodded. "We understand the situation, and Karnak here," she indicated the stoic J&E foxtaur tod, "has the responsibility of ensuring that your sonís performance will be the only thing that you will have to worry about while youíre here."
Karl stepped up to Karnak. "Thank you, I appreciate this."
Karnak nodded gravely. "Itís my privilege," he responded.
"Good luck to your son and his team," Tessu said. "Youíre going to need it!" she added with a twinkle in her eye.
Karl grinned back at her. "Weíve got a good bunch of kits here, so weíre going to give you a good run for your money."
It certainly was a good game, and when Jakkar hit a home run, Karl proudly hugged and congratulated his son. Jakkar was so happy, he felt he would explode. Crystal Creek lost that day, but only by one run. They hadnít done so well in a long time though, so the near-miss left them feeling optimistic. The kits were singing in the bus all the way home.
"Race you home!" Jakkar yelled as they got off the bus.
Although he tried manfully, Karl hadnít the slightest chance of keeping up with his four-footed offspring, let alone beat him. He grinned as he ate Jakkarís dust. "At least he might burn off some of the remaining excess energy of his," he thought.
As the baseball season continued, Karl continued to accompany Jakkar to various clans. At each, he was generally greeted with courtesy and curiosity, and provided almost as much entertainment to the adults as the game. One village though, a rather stiff-necked bunch of traditionalists, gave him the cold shoulder, but otherwise let him be, honouring the inter-clan directive. Much to his relief, they did not single out Jakkar for any taunts, so Karl was willing to tolerate his own treatment. As the season went on though, he started to worry about how smotthly things were going, especially after a visit from Jake.
"Sheís up to something," the coyote told him with a puzzled frown. Ever since the last encounter with Isabel, Jake had made it his personal project to know about her activities as possible. "That new warrant for your arrest is still good, even if the foxtaurs have rejected it. Youíre risking too much."
"I canít let Jakkar down. You should see his eyes light up when he sees me there cheering him on."
"Every cub has disappointments occasionally. Think how much worse it would be if you canít be with him at all. I think that Isabel has found out that you have been visiting other clans. Someone has blabbed, and one of her informants has heard. I canít believe how much all this surveillance must be costing her. Itís got to be costing more than she can ever hope to get from you. If she wasnít leeching money from some other poor victim, sheíd probably would have been forced to give up by now."
Karl shook his head. "You still donít understand. Itís not about the money anymore. Yes, sheíll try to drain every last cred from me if she ever manages to catch me, but thatís not her motivation. Iíve won the last two bouts with her. Iíve cheated her of what she seeks to take from me. Iíve defied her. Thatís a totally intolerable situation to her warped mind. She will do everything in her power until the day she dies to squash me like a bug and achieve that final victory."
"And thatís why you have to stop sneaking around the clans," Jake added emphatically. "She will get you if you keep this up. Iíll take Jakkar on the next trip."
Karl sighed. He knew Jake was right, but he just couldnít face Jakkar and tell him that his father couldnít go with him anymore. He would understand once, but not the rest of the season, or ever again. Glumly he told Jake, "Iíll think about it."
Jake realised that further argument was useless at this time. "My offer to take Jakkar will always be open, you know that. Iíll let Pandora nag you for a while until you come to your senses. Iíd better get home before I cop it from Lavender for letting the dinner get ruined."
"Thanks, Jake. I always appreciate everything that you do for me, my friend," Karl said as he laid his hand on Jakeís shoulder.
"Itís never too much trouble, Karl." The coyote then took his leave.
Pandora didnít have to say a word. Her looks said that she agreed with Jake, but let Karl stew on his thoughts until after the children had gone to bed and they cuddled on the couch for a few moments of quiet intimacy. Eventually she said, "Well?"
"Well what?" Karl replied, deliberately not understanding.
"Are you going to keep sticking your head in the noose?"
"Thereís got to be a way around this."
"That didnít answer the question."
"I canít let Isabel control my life, even if itís just in this one thing. It would be a win for her, even if all she accomplished was spoiling things between Jakkar and me."
"The alternative is worse. What chance do you think youíll have of being there for him if youíre caught? Whoís going to take care of him and Sylvia, not to mention myself?"
"Now youíre being melodramatic. Besides, at worst you have your mother, Jake and Lavender, and even SpringstepÖ." His voice trailed off.
Pandora looked at him curiously. He just chuckled and gave her a wry grin.
"What?!" she demanded.
"Only that your lifemate is a big stupid idiot who has been hanging out with foxtaurs for too long."
"Iíll forgive you for being an idiot, but whatís that crack about foxtaurs mean?"
"It means that Iíve gotten so used to doing everything in the simplest and least technological way, that I fail to think of more sophisticated alternatives. Excuse me, dear. I need to make a comm call."
Listening to Karlís conversation on the comm, Pandora had to admit that he had a point.
A week and a half later, Karl was standing in Blackpaw Peak foxtaur village, conversing with the head elder, when Jakkar bounded up to him excitedly.
"Dad! Dad! Guess what happened on the way?"
Karl said to the elder, "Excuse me. As you can guess, this is my son, Jakkar. What happened, son?"
"There was a tree across the road, and there were workers cutting it up and clearing it away."
Karl nodded. "That happens occasionally."
Jakkar smiled because he knew that wasnít the interesting bit. "As soon as we stopped to wait, some of the men came over to the bus. One pounded on the door of the bus and said he wanted to be let in. He said that he had a warrant to search for a fugitive from justice. Kleo looked at it and his ID card carefully before she would let him in. He had a picture of me too! He said, ĎThat one is Karl Whitepawís soní, and asked me where you were. I told him that you were back home as you told me to do. He didnít believe me, and they searched the bus, including the luggage compartment. They were real mad when they didnít find you."
"I bet they were!" Karl said. "Did they give you any more trouble?"
"Kleo told them to get off the bus and bared her fangs at them. They didnít want to argue with her then. As soon as they were off and the tree moved, we drove on, but nothing else happened until we got here."
Karl turned to Springstep and said, Looks like Jake was right on the money. He was only off by one weekend. Your air shuttle spoiled their nasty surprise."
The chakat grinned. "As I said, you should have called me sooner. They canít pull an aircar over except in a real emergency, and if they tried anyway, theyíd violate the terms of the warrant, so they wouldnít be able to hold you after that. Anyway, these trips give me a good excuse to see my godchildren. Speaking of which," shi said, putting a hand on Jakkarís shoulder, "letís go size up the competition, Jak."
"Sure, Aunt Springstep! Seeya later, dad!" Jakkar responded enthusiastically, and the two trotted off to rejoin the rest of the team.
"Thatís a fine son that you have there," the elder commented.
"Iím extremely proud of him, and Iím relieved that I wonít have to miss any of his games."
"Youíre a very dedicated sire. I admire that. I hope that your son grows up to be as good a tod as you. Youíll always be welcome back here again. Thatís assuming, of course, that youíll want to come back after our team thrashes yours," she added with a grin.
Karl returned the grin. "Weíll just see about that, wonít we?"
[Karl] Jakeís spies reported later that Isabel was in an exceptionally foul mood for a week. It added spice to the win that our team had that day. Jake certainly made up for past mistakes with that warning, thatís for sure. Of course, if I hadnít been so dense as to not think of using an air shuttle before, it might not have come to this. I had definitely gotten used to the foxtaur philosophy of minimal technology though, and I have to not let that trip me up again. Still, I had a chance to stick one to Isabel, and I enjoyed it. Petty of me, but Iíll do it again if I get the chance. I owe her more than a little payback.
To be continued.
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